Category: Change

Being a PYP Teacher Part 2: Talk less, ask (and scribble) more

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I’ve borrowed the inspiration for this one from two important sources, Kath Murdoch and Inquiry Partners.

PYP Teachers need to be determined to allow their students’ voices to dominate discussions in the classroom, and to use strategies that promote the thinking that is necessary for that to happen. They use open-ended questions or problems that invite debate, differing perspectives, controversy, elaboration and uncertainty… and then they listen, they probe and they invite others to add their thoughts. Most of all, they are curious about what students may be revealing through their words and how they might be able to use that information to guide what happens next.

The traditional “whole class conversation” tends to be between the teacher, who controls the conversation, and the one student doing the thinking at the time. There may a few others listening and waiting to contribute, but there will also be some who have drifted off, who have stopped listening and who may just be waiting for it to be over.

Simple strategies like “turn and talk” or “chalk talk” set things up so everyone is doing the thinking at the same time, not just one person at a time. Asking students to record their thoughts in writing also ensures they’re all doing the thinking, and sets them all up to be able to contribute to discussions afterwards.

More complex approaches, like Philosophy for Children and Harkness, model and teach the art of conversation and invite students to participate in deep conversations in which all are equal members.

The most simple strategy though is simply to remember to talk less. Say less at the beginning of lessons. Only repeat instructions to those who need the instructions to be repeated. Even better, display instructions or processes visually so that those who are ready and able or get on with it can do just that. You’ll be amazed how much time – a precious commodity in schools – can be saved.

Some of that time, of course, is yours… and it can be used to redefine your role as a teacher. Rather than doing so much talking, you can be observing students, listening to them, taking notes, writing down quotes that come from their mouths… all of that scribbling is formative assessment, planning, affirmation and honouring the importance of things your students say. It is inevitable that the teaching that follows will be different as a result.

 

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Assessment. Tests. Exams. Assignments.

Simon Birmingham is the Education Minister for Australia. He has recently announced plans to introduce “light-touch assessments’ for Grade 1 students.

Click HERE for the article in the Sydney Morning Herald (18 September 2017) for more on this, to bring you into the picture.

What are we doing to our kids?

More assessments. More data. Something has to give. What about giving our kids a chance to come into their own, in their own time. Teachers already collect copious amounts of data every moment of every day.

When are we going to stand up and say enough is enough? Schools are feeling more like laboratories in the way of factory farming, mass producing 1 dimensional teaching  – what about learning?

Our students have just been through a week of testing. One of the external assessments used here is…. Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). We are constantly testing our kids. Analyzing the data and then trying to figure out a way to make sense of it. If a student is a good test-taker, they will make it just fine.

The truth is….. in my opinion at least, where is there room for meaningful planning, best practice and valuing real learning beyond a test or book. We have more data than we know what to do with. Teachers are already on the edge, just keeping up.

I believe there is a place for this….. a very small place. We need to slow down a little, back off, and allow our teachers to be creative so they are designing the most powerful learning experiences. Not churning through pages and pages of graphs and numbers and percentages.

I’m I the only one that is feeling this frustration? What is your stance on this matter?

Let’s not allow a raw number shape and define our kids’ self-esteem and confidence at such an influential age.

We need to be pulling good people into the profession. Teaching is such a thrilling and invigorating career path. We have a privileged role in society that is incredibly fulfilling. We need to let good teachers get on with it, and trust that good learning is happening. Invest in that, not more assessments. We are heading down a road of burnt-out and stressed-out teachers. This makes me want to remain in international schools – we are very fortunate to be in our unique situation, where we carefully think about what is important and have a voice in determining our path.

I don’t actually think people know when or how we will ever usher in an ‘educational revolution.’ I’ve just felt ripples of good educators, trying to challenge the status quo, in their own way, within their control. Where to from here?

 

Tapping into Talents

Traditionally our school had Grade-level Leaders with varying degrees of success. Basically, it wasn’t working. The role was more clerical and ticking boxes as opposed to empowering teachers and challenging them to work within to inspire others. Last year we moved away from this model and introduced a Primary Leadership Team with 4 key areas that were seen as timely priorities in the school. This model liberated our teachers and gave them permission to collaborate together….. yet there was still something quite tangible missing from both models.

Enter the HelixLeaders of Learning. The words ‘innovative,’ culture,’ and leadership kept emerging in our professional conversations. How are we going to align ourselves so what we say, do and value has meaning? It was time to think creatively of an approach that transcended all roles, positions and personalities. A new beginning was needed to build true unity and a positive and professional learning community that inspired us to offer our students something unique with a focus on ‘experiencing learning.’ People are people through other people – African ideology.

Helix Model – Leaders of Learning

The Helix is represented by 3 strands to help us determine the essence of what we wanted to emphasize and value in our school.

Strand 1: Leadership – Moving the school forward and impacting Teaching and Learning.

Strand 2: Innovation – Valuing creativity, inquiry and ideas that lead to meaningful action.

Strand 3: Who we are shared inquiry – Developing a positive and professional culture that provides opportunities to empower.

Everyone in the Primary school was invited to ‘pitch’ their ideas, showcasing their talents and building a strong connection within and beyond our community. What was the outcome? A deep sense of excitement, innovative thinking and a sense of identity where Teachers and Instructional Assistants felt like they all had a voice. Together we had an opportunity to take authentic action in ways that spoke to our interests and strengths….. as teachers and as people. Our diverse and dynamic  skills, talents and knowledge led us to rethinking some old habits.

Our VIS Leaders of Learning – Helix Model

Makerspace – Allan is a boat builder and carpenter by trade. This allowed him to bring in his talents and create a makerspace culture beyond the classroom. Allan is working with our Lao sister-school in building a treehouse. He is also offering boys and dads workshops on the weekend.

Lao Home-School Partnerships and Learning – Linda has shown real interest in trying to understand why our Lao students underperform. She is conducting an inquiry into this through action research as a way to collect data and plan strategically on how we can better support our Lao students.

Peer to Peer Professional Learning and Collaboration – David has been plagued working in dysfunctional teams. His pitch was centered around on bringing people together and exploring ways to offer people time to observe others, plan goals and inquire into their own collaborative practice. This has been widely accepted and everyone is respecting the process of working and learning together. The Primary Team has embraced the importance of working beyond our immediate teams.

Challenge and Extend – Virginia is passionate about all learners. As a learning support specialist she wanted to explore the other end of the learning spectrum – the high flyers. She is inquiring into how to best challenge and extend students who demand to be taught differently. Virginia will be running workshops for our school community and is looking to connect with other teachers and experts worldwide.

Digital Citizenship – Missy and Graham are always on their devices. Made perfect sense to them to lead and inquire into Common Sense Media and how best to integrate this with daily use for our students and educating parents on how to find a healthy balance and be responsible users as ranging from digital natives to novice users.

EAL – Olivia is an advocate for EAL students. As our demographics change and with an ever increasing enrollment of Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Lao students as a school we need to prepare ourselves to adapt. Olivia is leading the way for our ‘Sheltered Instruction’ model to support our learners.

Mathematics – Jill and Olwen are numbers people. They are invested in the inquiry process of running a year-long maths inquiry throughout the school. Our shared central idea: “Exploring patterns and solving problems empower us to think mathematically” is bringing everyone together. Our conversations a centered and teachers are engaged by this initiative.

Language – Ian and Angie wanted to reveal their talents by developing and strengthening our approach to Language. They lead workshops for teachers and parents and have been pivotal in leading planning sessions with teachers. They have developed the ‘trident model’ of language.

Lao Culture Connection and Professional Learning – Mai, Noi and Lae are from our host-country, Lao. Having Instructional Assistants rise to this challenge proved to us as a school that we value our Lao host-country connection. Mai, Noi and Lae will be leading professional learning and goal setting sessions, connecting with a local teaching college where training teachers can experience practical training and they are planning Lao cultural experiences with teachers as part of our Who we are unit of inquiry. All Who we are units have a 4th line of inquiry which is connected to our host-country. This is an opportunity for us to take actions and service in our community which is lead by and through our Instructional Assistants. We are so proud of our Primary community. We have amplified ‘teacher voice’ and they are leading our school forward.

We believe we’ve have found the right ingredients when it comes to developing trust and deepening relationships because we have revealed and embraced talents (both unknown and known) to us. The power is giving people time and space to lead others. This has revolutionized and unlocked the power in ‘saying what we mean, and meaning what we say.’

This is just the beginning for us as a school. This is our inquiry to learn from. The mood is positive and people feel valued. It is an exciting time for us to develop a culture that cares, energizes and recognizes talents that goes beyond our school walls.

How to plan thoughtfully

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As a PYP Coordinator, I look for teachers who are naturally thoughtful when they are planning units. But, what exactly does that mean? I have identified seven key ingredients:

Students before convenience – putting student needs and student learning before adult needs and the prospect of additional work or effort.

Understanding the why of learning – being clear about why a unit exists and why it matters to a particular group of students at a particular time.

Being willing to look at things differently – open to conversations and decisions going in new, different and surprising directions.

Removing barriers and blockages – identifying factors that may prevent or diminish powerful learning experiences and seeking solutions.

Enjoying difficult thinking – relishing intellectual stimulation and seeing how difficult thinking always leads – eventually – to better ideas.

Making the most of different perspectives – knowing that having a variety of personalities involved provides richness and diversity to conversations and that disagreement is healthy and professional.

Being prepared not to be finished – being aware that it is unnatural, possibly even ridiculous, to put a time constraint on genuine thinking, creativity and decision-making.

You know, I have experienced planning sessions in which the resulting plans were actually not that different to the original plans, where conversations have gone full circle. But, the fact that the thinking happened, that it was done by the people who will guide students through those plans, means that there was no better use of their time.

Rubrics and continuums – don’t berate, innovate.

Yes, we all know that we should be moving rapidly towards models of education that can be described as self-directed, self-regulated, student-driven, learner agency etc… and many of us are genuinely trying to do so. Many more have been trying to do so for many years… bit-by-bit, step-by-step. If you’ve been part of this for a while, “hello again”. If you’re just joining us, “welcome to our struggle”.

Creating the conditions for these types of learning to occur is not simple. It just isn’t as simple as handing control over to students and saying “go for it”. Like all people, our students need to know what “successful” looks like and how they can be it. At some point, someone has to articulate what we are looking for from our students. In collaborative teams, this means argument, compromise, semantics and considering what the different stages of learning might be as students work towards success. Assessment should be formative, purposeful and provide students with the guidance they need… it should illustrate their next steps. The language this is articulated in should be instructive, easy to understand and present in the daily vocabulary of your learning culture. Creating the tools and strategies for this to happen effectively is a very hard task, but it is hard because it is worth doing.

This notion of “successful” cannot remain a nebulous, abstract notion in the mind of an individual teacher. There can be no “hit and miss” about whether or not this notion of “successful” is communicated clearly to students, or even communicated to them at all. There can be no half-hearted attempts or abandoned thinking just because it’s difficult or “uncool”. Teachers and groups of teachers must deliberate about:

  • where the learning is going
  • what they’re looking for from the students
  • how they might reach – or get close to that
  • how they will guide students in that direction

Guess what… that’s going to end up being a rubric or a continuum or some other form or model of criteria – because that’s the point we’ve reached so far in the evolution of education. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to move beyond tests, multiple choice, right and wrong, yes and no, good or bad. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to turn the abstract into the tangible, to convert randomness to clarity and to extract what has been hidden in the minds of teachers and make them visible to students. They symbolize the attempt to allow for more freedom of pedagogy, more room for manoeuvre, more real, on-going differentiation and the recognition that our students learn and do at different rates.

Like everything in life, there’s some amazingly good examples out there, and there’s some incredibly bad ones, and a whole lot in-between. What makes them amazingly good is thought. What makes them incredibly bad is lack of thought (I feel a rubric coming…). If you’re not a fan of rubrics or continuums, or don’t think they’re fashionable… come up with another way of doing what’s in the bullet points above and share it with everyone. Fashion designers don’t ditch the previous season’s designs and tell everyone to go around naked until someone randomly suggests an article of clothing! They come up with new designs, they innovate. I’m sure everyone in education would be very interested to see what you come up with, although I can’t promise a “Paris Rubric Week” any time in the near future!

Let’s face it, without guidance, most students would be completely lost… largely because their teachers would be equally lost because they never really bothered to discuss what the learning was really about. The “blind leading the blind” is never used as a positive example, unless as a joke.

Our job is not a joke.

Now, of course, the ideal situation is for students to be defining “successful” in their own terms, in the contexts that they design instead of those designed by teachers, setting their own goals, and to be articulating:

  • where they think the learning is going
  • what they’re looking for from themselves
  • what they’re looking for from their peers
  • how they might reach – or get close to that
  • who might guide them in that direction

But… guess what… they’re going to need their teachers to work with them on those things. They’re going to need to get good at doing those things… they are skills that are developed in steps (sound familiar?). Teachers will be need to be observing, noticing, assessing and giving useful feedback/feedforward about how the students are learning, the levels of autonomy or independence they are demonstrating, their ability to reflect on themselves and use those reflections to move forwards. But how will they make sure they’re using a common language? How will they make sure they have a shared vision of what “good looks like”? How will they ensure they’re consistent in their support and guidance for students? How will they make sure they appreciate the steps students take as they make progress? How will they help their students appreciate their own development?

Errr… umm…

Right now, I don’t see a better way to frame those conversations and decisions than in the collaborative creation of rubrics or continuums. Do you?

So, make your rubrics or continuums about that. And if you don’t like rubrics or continuums, come up with another way of communicating with students about their learning, share it and be a person who is part of the evolution of education, not a person who gets in our way while we try to do so.

I often hear people who are reluctant to talk about assessment tools use the very clever line about “thinking outside the box”… probably because (yes, its subtle) many of them look like boxes. It’s scary that creative people use this sort of reasoning as they seem to forget – almost instantly – how useful boxes are, how beautiful they can be, how many sizes, colours and shapes they come in and how they can be transformed into other things.

Purpose Statement

When there is confusion, a lack of vision or an absent identity we have found writing a purpose statement is a powerful way to seek clarity and simplicity.

Constructing a purpose statement empowers people to make a strong,  unwavering and resolute conviction about who we are. It makes things crystal clear about what we stand for and what we offer – in the way of teaching and learning. It gives definition and guides decisions. It communicate to the community what our values are.

In short, it unites people and brings them together when things become murky.

This is our purpose statement for the PYP Exhibition. Our teachers, parents and students know why this is important. It is written together to help us be the best we can be – our effort and action coming together.

Imagine if schools adopted this same approach for their own Mission Statements and lived up to it.

It’s time to redefine this process as we owe it to our students.

We have just developed one of these for our Early Years Centre and about to go through this process with our EAL teachers. This is how you build a community and develop a positive culture to know what we do and why we do it.

Planning Retreats

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As a previous Grade 5 Coordinator, I know that one of the biggest responsibilities is leading planning meetings. So much pre-planning goes into this process. Having to think about the best way to approach, angle and guide this process  is challenging, yet also exciting! While I have a clear plan on how the learning could go, it is my role to provoke the thinking so we can shape our understanding together.

The most successful way to bring great thinking to the table is to create the opportunity for it. This happens in the way of running a retreat – a retreat for planning, a retreat for ideas to emerge. We have always done this as part of the PYP Exhibition unit. The team has always walked away from these retreats making concrete and meaningful connections and a shared vision on how to drive the Exhibition unit together. We get so much from running this and the protocols of thinking that come with it, to drill down to the core of our ideas and understanding.

But, why only for the Exhibition unit?

In my new role, I have a much wider responsibility to ensure that 7 teams are planning relevant, significant, meaningful and challenging units. At our school, we write ‘reports’ at the end of each unit. The trap that we were falling into each and every time was that when we arrived at the beginning of a new unit, teachers were ill-prepared and making things up on the fly. This is called reality – our reality. Having our 40 minute planning meetings were simply not cutting it. This is because teachers had finishing up on writing reports, following through with assessments to gauge student’s understanding of the unit along with all the other practicalities and formalities of day to day teaching. This simply was causing teachers more stress and angst and ultimately, students were suffering as a result.

To this end, we have now introduced 1/2 day planning retreats for each team. These retreats happen 2 weeks before the next unit commences. This gives teachers time to think about the learning, engage in conversations early and get energized about possibilities and ideas.

What does this look like?

It really is pretty simple. For one whole week and 2 days for the following week, each grade level will have planning time. Cover is arranged for their classes and we are able to dive into those deep conversations that simply can’t happen in a 40 minute time frame.  By the time teachers settled into the 40 minute planning meeting, teachers knew that students were about to walk through those doors again and any momentum worth running with is lost. It is this piecemeal approach that was getting in the way of designing the best provocations and ideas around the central idea.

The impact – what are are teachers saying?

Teachers now seek me out when the next planning retreat is and get in early to pick an ideal day for them. They feel more confident about that first week as things have been thought through. They can focus on writing their reports (well and thoughtfully and honestly) knowing that there is clarity, vision and understanding on how to move the learning forward for the up and coming unit.

Students are the clear benefactors in this process. Teachers are more focused. And as for me, I get to spend more time in classes, to see the planning transfer and transpire into the taught curriculum. Nothing better when a plan comes together!

The small cost in organizing ‘cover’ for teachers is well worth the investment. Give it a go!