Category: Life

Being a PYP Teacher Part 3: Know your students

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Bill and Ochan Powell (rest in peace, Bill) always say, above all else, “know your students”.

The written curriculum in your school is the students’ curriculum.

Your curriculum is the students.

They are learning about all the things expressed in their curriculum (and hopefully much more!).

You are learning about them.

Understanding this will help you make the shift from “deliverer of content” to a facilitator of learning, a designer of learning experiences and a partner for each of your students as they learn and as they navigate their curriculum. Each day, you will arrive at work full of curiosity, poised and ready to:

  • get to know your students better
  • inquire about them
  • research into them
  • get a sense of who each of them is in the context of learning taking place at the time
  • discover what motivates them
  • find out what interests and inspires them
  • help them develop their own plans for learning
  • get a sense of what they can do and what skills they may develop next
  • learn about how they think
  • try a wide variety of strategies to do all of the above
  • never give up…

It is a very exciting moment when PYP Teachers realise they are inquirers who are constantly seeking, gathering and using data (in it’s most sophisticated and powerful forms) about their students.

It is this realisation that sets apart genuine PYP Teachers from those who simply work in a PYP school, for the two are vastly different.

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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?

 

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.

Time for a media detox?

Sometimes I watch toxic forms of entertainment media by mistake. I may make this mistake by being fooled into thinking I’m enjoying it… Game of Thrones fell into that category until I became aware of how disgusting it was to watch an endless stream of people have their throats slit, and how it was preparing us all for the current political climate of not knowing who to trust (i.e. nobody).

Today, I allowed myself to watch Triple 9 as a form of masochistic entertainment and to educate myself about what mainstream crap people are flocking in their millions to watch. Like most shows and movies at the moment, it’s mainly about the fact that you never know who is good or bad. Dirty cops, bent politicians, self-serving narcissists with blood on their hands, decent people forced into crime by their circumstances, repulsive gangsters with  a vocabulary of 7 words. This is the portrayal of cool, this is what is being transmitted to us all as “normal”, as “how it is”.

Sure, kids shouldn’t be watching this toxic stuff… but they do. Here in Vietnam, I have seen babies glued to iPad screens watching cool American people shoot each other. I know of 8-year-olds who’ve seen every episode of Game of Thrones. I know many kids who’ve seen Breaking Bad. They’re not only being fed toxic food, but their minds are being poisoned too. The message? Shooting people is not only the norm, it’s also kind of cool.

And then, there’s the adults. The countless bored adults sitting at home getting a thrill every time some mediaeval prince’s throat gapes open, getting an adrenaline rush watching heavily armed robo-soldiers massacre villagers, gripping the seat as yet another car chase scene takes the lives of innocent faceless families on their way home from the supermarket, thinking their intellect is being stimulated as they try and figure out what side – if any – Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne is on, momentarily feeling an emotion before forgetting the image of another hooker all cut up and mutilated in a dumpster to focus on the latest supercool, unshaven renegade detective light up a smoke and sip a glass of bourbon in a dimly lit bar.

You see… I get the distinct feeling that the education we provide counts for nothing as long as the media continues to toxify, misdirect, confuse, anesthetize and desensitize us. As long as the people behind the media control what we watch, they control how we think, feel and behave. The vast majority of us who consistently absorb all of this are educated… well, we went to school and university at least. Genuinely educated? Perhaps not. If we can’t see we’re being manipulated then we’re just not that smart, are we? If we are willing to tolerate glitzy, high-budget forms of entertainment portraying everything that is wrong with the world while ignoring the fact that there are real things that need to be done… well… we’re not moving on that quickly, are we?

If I had the time, I would love to do a full inquiry into the income generated by bloodgutsmurderlyingwarviolence movies compared with movies that make you feel good, or tell a story of ethics. First off, the hunt for examples of the latter would be over very fast. Secondly, the data – I am sure – would be so grossly unbalanced as to make it appear completely ridiculous.

I’d like to see Hollywood and its equivalent in whatever countries are making this stuff start to take some responsibility for the effect they have on people, which probably won’t happen. So, we have a few choices:

  • Detox – don’t watch any of it, and try and help other people do the same thing
  • Prepare – teach people to understand media, the real reasons its produced and what effect it might be having on them and others

The first option is not a reality… you only have to think about how traffic slows down so everyone can take a good look at the grisly remains of a car crash (or the disappointment when there’s nothing to see) to understand the animalistic desire to torment ourselves with disturbing or distressing imagery and emotions.

So, perhaps the only answer is a hard-hitting approach towards teaching critical media consumption, from an early age. Stop blocking stuff and denying the existence of anything mildly controversial in schools and get real. Get it out in the open and have some discourse with students about it. We need to be helping them learn how to think… but I feel like we’re still only generating an endless stream of thoughtless consumers. Mainly because most of us are thoughtless consumers too!

When kids are doing, modern teaching kicks in

being-and-doing

We have a Grade 5 teacher who is very new to the PYP. He joined us after witnessing Grade 5 students last year in the middle of the PYP Exhibition. When he saw all those students heavily involved in a wide variety of unique projects, all operating at their own pace, making their own decisions, creating products, figuring out budgets and so on… he became very excited about the opportunities the PYP provides for students as well as for teachers with a modern mindset.

During the first half of the year, however, he has been quite frustrated. There was something about the units of inquiry that made them heavily teacher-directed and leaned back towards more traditional day-to-day teaching. He was waiting for those times when students would walk into school each day knowing what they were working on, how they were going to go about doing it and why it mattered. I could see he was questioning whether or not the PYP really is what it pretends to be!

Now, however, he is clearly feeling as though both his students and he are in that place, that sweet spot in which students are doing and in which his role as their teacher has shifted to being a “consultant”, a person who assists them with their plan rather than trying to get them on board with his.

This is a bit of an allegory of the struggle many teachers, and teaching teams, have to create the conditions for students to be working in this way: to have figured out a focus, to have developed a plan, to be sourcing their own information, resources and mentors, to be making their own decisions and to be coming in to school each day motivated and ready just to get on with it. All too often we hold them back, or we confuse or demotivate them by over-teaching, or we don’t let them go because we don’t really understand what it is we’re trying to get them to do, or because we fear being out of control or… worst of all, because we don’t trust them or believe they are capable.

For modern, student-centred, inquiry-based pedagogy to even begin to dominate our weekly schedules, we need to help our students go through the following process quickly enough to allow them the time to start doing and to be able to go into enough depth with that for genuine and powerful learning to come out of it:

  • help them understand the context of the learning
  • help them think about the context in diverse, rich and deep ways
  • help them filter all of that thinking in order to develop their own interest area and focus
  • help them figure out what they want to achieve within that focus
  • help them get started in order to achieve it

Why teachers are Salmon swimming upstream

Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.

These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.

In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.

In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.

In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.

In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!

The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!

Early Years – The “Frontline” of Education

Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.

This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:

  • they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
  • they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
  • they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
  • they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
  • they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
  • they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
  • they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
  • they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form

So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.

They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.