Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Community Building to Boost Learning

We keep hearing how the first week or so of school is important to develop positive attitudes in our students, to create a positive classroom climate and to build community. We know that it is important for us to show kids that we care and that they matter to us. We have read and studied how a learner will only learn if he or she feels and safe and welcome. Most of all, we know that students are not "empty vessels to be filled", or "blank slates" to be filled out. This may sound cliché, overrated, repeated, or maybe even lame...but it is so very true!

Not only is it true, but even though we all seem to know this, how often do we put it into practice? Many times I've seen teachers, who I am sure know all about constructivism and have heard that quote a million times, come into their classrooms without saying hello to the students, and start their class bu asking students to open a text book to a particular page. They begin their lesson, deliver it, and by the time the hour is over, ask students to organise their things and leave.

So it's not enough to know that students are people and should be respected, and to know that the more comfortable students are the more likely they are to learn... it's about actually doing things in the classroom and with the kids to make sure they FEEL respected and comfortable, to make sure that they are emotionally ready for meaningful learning.

Before the school year started I logged onto the Teaching Channel and found an amazing set of Vlogs (video blogs) by Sarah Brown Wessling (@sarawessling) which were super helpful for me to start thinking about the first week of school.

These vlogs were all about creating a real community of learners with the groups of students, as the most important way to set the scene for meaningful learning throughout the year.

I found that creating a community and a positive classroom culture was the most important thing I had to do at the beginning of the year, before even thinking about what I was going to start teaching my students.

I also investigated Sarah's blog post on how to cultivate classroom "chemistry" and found really interesting things there.

The following are, for me, the most important TO DO's at the beginning of a school year with any group of students at any grade level, and they are, in fact, the things that I have concentrated in doing throughout these first two weeks of school.

*Note: I know that "first two weeks of school" sounds like a looooong time to invest in only cultivating classroom community and culture, but I think that it is SO IMPORTANT that the time invested is absolutely worth it. Besides, it's not like ALL I did these first two weeks was JUST about building community.... the kids and I did, in fact, get other things done as well...

  1. Make students feel welcome, from the first instant they step a foot inside your classroom.
  2. Get to know them, for real: who they are, what thy like and dislike, who their friends are...
  3. Have them reflect on their expectations, and share your expectations with them: what are they expecting from you as a teacher? What are they expecting from their peers? What are they expecting from themselves? What are you expecting from them?
  4. Come to agreements about how we will all act and behave, create Essential Agreements.
  5. Have them reflect on who they are as learners, and how they embody the IB Profile.
  6. Make the fact that we are all different explicit: we all need to learn different things, and we all learn in different ways!
  7. Prepare students for making mistakes: it is from mistakes that we learn. 
  8. Check to see if students have a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, help them see intelligence and success as something that depends on them, and that is not fixed.
  9. Teach students how to collaborate and work together, make it explicit that learning has a social factor.
  10. Help students set goals for themselves.

Even though the first two weeks of school are fundamental to develop these attitudes in ourselves and in students, and even though they set the scene for the rest of the year, it is important to remember that creating a positive classroom culture is an ongoing and never ending process. 

Super simple things such as just making sure you greet each and every student every morning can actually make a difference. However, we can also do this by making sure we respect the culture we have in our classrooms and that everything we do, we do remembering that the students we are working with are people, that they have feelings and thoughts of their own, and that they are not just "empty vessels that need to be filled". 

Monday, September 15, 2014

How structured should inquiry be in the PYP?

In one of our collaborative planning and reflection meetings, the teachers asked about the personal inquiries that students sometimes begin having spontaneously: within a math disciplinary unit of inquiry, students are developing their understanding of different number systems and how we use them today.

One of the students posed the following question: Why don't we use roman numbers all the time, the way people used to in history?

The teacher that shared this question was wondering how she could foster this student's personal interest, while at the same time make sure that this students is exploring the lines of inquiry and knowledge that she needs to acquire. 

So the first aspect that we discussed was: Is this student's inquiry really outside the unit's scope? Is this student not developing her own personal understanding of the central idea through this wondering? 

These questions led the discussion to the fact that despite that the student's question was somewhat "outside" the lines of inquiry, it was, in fact, a great way for the student to explore her understandings and develop her comprehension of the central idea.

But then the obvious question came up: should this particular student continue inquiring into this personal interest, or should this student participate in the class inquiry?

The discussion then went in various directions: this student needs to continue participating in the class inquiry, instead of using class time to inquire into her question; each student should be able to inquire into whatever they want, we should provide the resources and time for this to happen; what if the student were interested in inquiring into something totally different? Should we also let them inquire into this during class time? If so, how and when will this student develop his/her understandings of the topics and generalisations we need to teach them?

We discussed it for a while, went through the "Making the PYP Happen" (or "Happy"!) and other IB docs such as "The PYP: a Basis for Practice", and concluded that inquiry in the PYP is structured inquiry.

Structured inquiry means that students are conducting an inquiry, following different inquiry cycles, where they are:

  • activating prior knowledge
  • testing their hypothesis
  • searching for new information
  • experimenting
  • exploring
  • classifying their new understandings
  • synthesising their new understandings
  • reaching generalisations
  • making conclusions
  • reflecting on how their understandings have changed
  • sharing their findings and conclusions with others
  • changing the way they act or accomplish things in light of their new learning. 
However, as the inquiry is structured, students do all of this, inside a given structure: the lines of inquiry, the key concepts and the related concepts.  

So yes, students should be able to inquire into their own interests and wonderings, but inside the structure of the lines of inquiry and concepts. 

Does this mean that we should not provide time and resources for students to develop their natural curiosity and interests? Of coarse not!

What we concluded in this meeting is that within the structure of our unit of inquiry, students should and must ask, inquire and answer questions about their own interests, inside the scope of the lines of inquiry and conceptual understandings. However, we should also provide students with time and resources for them to ask, inquire and answer questions about whatever topics interest them, wether they are related to or absolutely different from, the curriculum that we are required to teach them. 

So why not have a half hour a week where we let students explore topics of their own interest? Cars, soccer, cooking, knitting, ...? Why not help them develop their inquiry skills, research skills and attitudes while they do this? Why not use these personal interests as an opportunity to develop transdisciplinary skills, attitudes and profile attributes?