Inquiry into Collaboration

Whether you are beginning the PYP Exhibition or otherwise would like to recharge your students’ teamwork skills, this week’s provocation centers on collaboration.

One word of caution however: spend more time “coaching from the side” than you do lecturing from the start. Chances are, they’ve heard it all before, and they need hands-on, timely feedback more than anything! (I’ve definitely gotten this all backward in the past, giving far too much time and energy to the initial instruction and then expecting them to put it into practice effectively).

Resource #1: “They All Saw A Cat” by Brendan Wenzel

via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon

Both the advantage and disadvantage of collaboration lies in the fact that we all have different perspectives. Enter “They All Saw A Cat” to get kids thinking about what this means.

Resource #2: 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) by Daily tous les jours

Every time I watch this, I keep forgetting that the background music was not, in fact, a professional soundtrack, but was created by these people simply cooperating with one another on the swings. Sure to evoke serious thought from your students!

Provocation Questions:

  • Why does perspective matter when it comes to collaboration?
  • What makes collaboration work?
  • How has the need for collaboration changed over history?

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The Price of Putting What’s Best for Teachers over What’s Best for Students

Heart thumping. Throat catching. I want to sink into the floor. I want to dissolve. One by one, students call out their math quiz scores as my teacher records them in her gradebook. My last name is toward the beginning of the alphabet; my abysmal score will stand out in burning contrast to all the other acceptable scores that come after me.

Mine is never acceptable.

I feel the shame of my teacher’s disapproval.

I feel the humiliation of my classmates’ incredulity.

I feel the weight of the growing belief that I. don’t. belong. 

Day after day, I spent that entire year of elementary school in a sickened panic. I doubt my teacher possessed malicious intent toward me. Perhaps she even hoped that this strategy would help free up her time to better reach her students in other ways.

But put into practice, it served her convenience as a teacher more than my needs as a student.

And as a result, I spent every day, and many years thereafter, believing that she simply despised me. So all-encompassing was that fear and shame, I honestly doubt I was able to absorb much in the way of learning that year.

Now, at first glance, this may seem an extreme example. But here’s the thing: we never know how our kids are internalizing their surroundings; they might be unable as of yet to articulate their feelings even for themselves. With all their personal experiences and circumstances, students often respond differently to identical strategies (for me personally, it didn’t help that that year was also the single most tumultuous period of my childhood).

It is crucial, therefore, that we scrutinize every one of our practices with this question: Is this best for my students? None of us are perfect, and we certainly will make mistakes where this question is concerned, but as long as we keep reflecting, apologizing, and trying again, we can be assured that we are doing all in our power to provide a safe and positive learning environment for our students.

When the answer to that question is anything but a resounding yes, we never know what the price may be.

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Citizenship: A Sharing the Planet Provocation

This is part of a series of of IB PYP units of inquiry provocations. For more, click here.

The notion of what it means to be a citizen has a longstanding role in schools everywhere. For this reason, we must recognize it in all its modern variations. In addition to traditional community/national citizenship, digital and global citizenship have also taken on crucial significance in the 21st century.  

In all its forms, citizenship comes down to helping everyone find a sense of belonging and contribution to the world. If we are to truly share the planet, we must do all we can to help our rising generation see themselves as local, national, global, and yes, even digital citizens.

Resource #1: “Lead India, The Tree” by Times of India

Resource #2: “I am Malala – UN Speech – Video Animation” by Juley Anthony

Resource #3: “The Power of One Young Digital Citizen

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to be a citizen?
  • What are our rights as citizens?
  • What are our responsibilities as citizens?
  • How are education and citizenship connected?
  • Why are there different perspectives on what it means to be a citizen?
  • How is the concept of citizenship changing?

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3 Lessons from Blogging for More Authentic Literacy Teaching

I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.

But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.

1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.

When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.

2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience? 

I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.

Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).

The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.

I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.

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5 Signs of 21st Century Teaching to Watch For During Conferences #TeacherMom

Those who have followed this blog for some time know how much I support the student-led parent teacher conference. And while it can be an indicator of student ownership and a 21st century teaching mindset, its absence does not necessarily rule those things out, either.

Last week, my 1st grader’s parent teacher conference with her wonderful teacher proved the latter. Here are 5 signs I observed that showed me that essential 21st century teaching elements, such as student ownership, voice, and choice, are thriving in her classroom:

1. A commitment to learning over “doing school” or compliance. I loved listening to the discussion about how my daughter could work on “sitting still at the carpet.” Her teacher clarified, “I don’t think we should call it ‘sitting still’ because I’m not really worried about that. It’s more when it really disrupts classmates with the laying down and sticking legs straight up in the air — that sort of thing.” I loved that she was making it clear that this was not an issue of control/compliance, but of trying to create an environment where everyone could learn and thrive (and I couldn’t help giggling internally at the tone that this was an easy mistake to make for a person to not realize that sticking one’s legs in the air might be problematic. Ah, first grade…)

2. Creative resources/differentiation are sought out. Instead of leaving the above issue with an “ok, well, please work on that,” we all brainstormed ways we could help. That’s when the teacher pulled out a sensory seat cushion and asked my daughter if she’d like to try it out, which she did right then and there.

3. Student voice is valued. After my daughter decided the cushion would be useful, she was encouraged to identify and articulate its purpose and expectations; there was no lecture on responsibility because it was clear that her teacher trusted her to establish that for herself.

4. Process is celebrated. When they explained a new math problem-of-the-day, the teacher wrote up an example and gave my daughter time to work on it. When she had finished and answered correctly, her teacher didn’t just move on from there. Instead, she asked my daughter to explain to us her thinking. We were able to learn so much about how my daughter is currently thinking about ten frames and other math processes.

5. Students are seen as individuals first. Data was present. Valuable assessment was present. Accountability was present. But none of those things took precedent over my daughter’s value as a person. Her teacher recognized her strengths and her opportunities for growth, and it was clear she had invested in building a positive, trusting relationship.

I am so grateful for teachers like this. Who refuse to let the time-crunch stand in the way of developing meaningful relationships. Who seek the balance of a smoothly-running classroom without feeling like they must have rigid control. Who trust their students to do more than just follow instructions at all times. To this teacher and teachers everywhere like this, thank you!

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10 Ways For Practice & Student Ownership to Co-Exist

In a recent reflection, educator Faige Meller recently posed some excellent questions:

“As I reflect on what I call the “transference of learning to application,” I wonder how this works for our diverse learners? Is drill and practice an option? How do the programs you have, work with your students? How do we adapt our lessons to meet their needs? We know one size doesn’t fit all, but where is the “give” that’s okay?”

Readers of this blog know I am a huge advocate for student ownership over learning. To me, Faige’s questions come down to the balance of asserting our timetable over our students’ progress vs honoring their individual pace, development, and interests.

There is no quick, easy answer to this. But I strongly believe that every measure we take to be aware of this balance and to prioritize our students’ needs over external agendas/pressures is worthwhile. Here are 10 strategies I have found to be helpful in this pursuit.

1. Focus on big concepts first. I like Kath Murdoch’s description of this approach of setting up “rich, transferable concepts” in her article Inquiry learning – journeys through the thinking processes:

“For example, the inquiry into invertebrates has potential for students to develop a greater understanding of interdependence, cycles, growth and adaptation. Once we are aware of this, we can stretch students thinking beyond the ‘topic’ itself and compare and contrast the learning we are doing in this instance with conceptually similar contexts in the past.”

This helps place skills and abilities from standards into better context as students make connections within broader, more meaningful/relevant scale.

2. Encourage autonomy & metacognition in skills practice. I am a big fan of the Daily 5 routine for literacy skills (& Daily 3 for math) for this very reason–it’s one framework that not only allows students to choose how to spend their learning time, but helps them learn how to discern how to spend their time. In other words, help students stop waiting for you to tell them what skills they need to work on, & start teaching them how to identify that themselves.

3. Use Visible Thinking Routines. This practice helps strengthen metacognition and allows you a way to document thinking in a setting that provides much more student ownership and expression than perhaps a worksheet might.

4. Model reflecting on progress frequently. In the above article by Kath Murdoch, she lists possible questions that might help students to better understand the learning process, such as “What have we been doing to find out about this? What have been some of the most effective resources? How might we go about organizing this information?” This allows students to take greater ownership over the learning process, better understanding when and why practice might be necessary.

5. Make assessments as metacognitive & student-centered as possible. 5th grade teacher Jess Lifshitz shared a phenomenal example of this in the revision process with her students. Their “Revision Checklist” for their fiction writing unit prompted students to examine not just what their writing was like, but the specific reasons their writing improved.

6. Use standards-based grading over traditional grading. Younger grades are generally already good at focusing on the standards instead of grades and averages. But for older students in particular, it’s crucial for them to break away from the mode of doing “enough” for the grade, and that starts with a shift in mindset to the actual progress. An ASCD article entitled “7 Reasons for Standards-Based Grading” gives a great example of what this kind of grading might look like:

screenshot from ASCD.org, credit Patricia L. Scriffiny

7. Keep whole-class instruction to a minimum. Rely more heavily on student conferencing, small group sessions, and, when needed, whole group mini-lessons. You’ll be better equipped both to differentiate and to keep up individual conversations on students’ progress and what practice is needed.

8. Use creative problem-solving to promote student voice & to assess. We have countless digital tools at our fingertips today to help us solve old problems in new ways. A recent example of this was when Taryn BondClegg introduced back-channeling to her 4th graders so they could share and discuss ideas during their read aloud–without actually interrupting the read aloud.  She even uses the transcript as a formative assessment of their reading comprehension. An ingeniously authentic way to both ascertain and develop their abilities.

9. Allow students time for personal inquiry. This goes by many names– Genius Hour, 80/20 time, Passion Time. Allowing our students time to pursue their questions gives them the opportunity to practice & build upon many of the skills they are learning in a way that’s meaningful and directly relevant for them.

10. No “Secret Teacher Business.” This is one of my favorite phrases learned from Edna Sackson, and it makes complete sense. We are all be on the same team, and students should be familiar with all the vocabulary, longterm goals, standards, etc. that are in place for their progress and benefit.

Student ownership is key for taking practice from a place of “doing school” to a place of purpose and context in our individual learning journeys.

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A Little Less Filtered #TeacherMom

As our family settled in a few weeks ago to watch a show together, my toddler’s attention was captured by an icon for an National Geographic animal documentary. And that’s how we found ourselves learning about baboons’ alpha hierarchy and frogs’ defense mechanisms that night.

What surprised me most was how the show’s benefits for my son went well beyond simply learning about animal facts. It was the engagement. It was the conversation. It was the connection. As he soaked up every word and every shot, he asked questions, he placed vocabulary in context, and he play-acted out his observations.

This experience had me reflecting about two ideas.

The first is that we can more frequently go to the source for learning. With all the guidelines and curriculum and expert recommendations, we as adults often feel the need to contrive and filter to maximize our kids’ learning. It’s like we think that if we can pack in enough ABC’s and numbers and cooperation messages in one show (or workbook, etc), it’s like a multivitamin we can feed our kids to fill in the gaps of their education (and no, this is not to bash those shows–we love Sesame Street around here, remember?).

Yet the reality is, we don’t have to rely on such concoctions for learning. True, when it comes to science and history, we’re usually already many steps removed from the source–after all, it’s not like we can take a field trip to the Serengeti or World War II or the Moon. But, often thanks to modern technology and social networking, we can get ourselves and our children closer than ever (like leveraging Google Street View for virtual exploration, or following this Twitter account that narrates WWII in real time, or exploring this Interactive Lunar Guide by ESA).

The second thought: when we more directly allow our children’s interests to take the lead, richer learning follows. Learning is to be had wherever our students’ interests lead us. Like I said above, my son wasn’t just learning about animal facts. He was learning vocabulary, speaking and listening skills, and even pre-reading skills through his imaginative play.

More importantly, when we try to turn this on its head–that is, force student interest on our agenda for “learning”–the results are poorer anyway. As Marcia L. Tate writes in Reading & Language Arts Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites:

“…there is actually a physiological reason for whether students choose to comprehend instruction. The basal ganglia acts like a policeman that protects the brain from distracting input. Information that has been selected as worthy of being learned flows through fibers back to the thalamus and on to areas of the brain where information can be interpreted (Nevills & Wolfe, 2009).”

Of course, with a class of 30+ students, it is certainly a challenge to meet our students where they are in their interests, which is why boxed programs with promises for perfect differentiation and solutions to all our students’ reading comprehension needs are tempting.

While we’re going to keep on watching intermittent episodes of Sesame Street around here, in the future, it will be less about meeting some kind of learning quota and more about family entertainment. And I look forward to getting better at recognizing learning opportunites as they come through my children’s interests.

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