Learning, Mindset, Teaching

All The Single Subjects

IMG_3651
The lone single subject teacher…

The majority of my teaching career, I have been an upper primary classroom teacher. I am always interested in new things so I have also spent time as an Elementary Art teacher, a technology integrator, and now, a Design teacher. I have mad respect for the homeroom teacher in a PYP school – or any school for that matter. Our job is demanding, hectic, consuming, and typically incredibly rewarding to see growth in our students “up close”. I also have the same respect for single subject teachers. In many cases, teaching upwards of 15 different classes across all grade levels is “typical”. Hundreds of kids coming to you for short bursts, with masses of energy.

My last class of the day, today, they were big. They were energetic (loud!). They were that special kind of giddy that kids get at the end of a long day at the beginning of the year in their first class with a new teacher. They didn’t know me. They are trying to impress each other. They are without their homeroom teacher for an hour.  It’s the potential perfect storm.

The class was chatty. The class was jovial. No one was misbehaving but they were definitely searching this new learning space for boundaries. I know how important those first impressions are and I wanted to keep them enthused but also respectful. The class was successful in the Lego Challenge, Round One, and moved into Round Two (groups). This was more challenging. And then time was up. Almost. And things started getting “excitable”. Almost.

So I had the kids return to their spot, and this is what I told them:

I started teaching when I was 21. I taught sixth graders who were closer in age to me than their parents were and I loved it. Most of my time teaching has been as a homeroom teacher and of that time, I have loved grade five the most (true story). I love your independence, I love your excitement, I love your frustrations. I love that it is hard, but funny, exhausting and exciting. I know what it is like to be a fifth grade teacher.

BUT.

I don’t know what it is like to be your fifth grade teacher, yet and I don’t know what you are like as fifth graders, yet. What I do know is that you get a say in that. You, by the way you speak and work and interact with each other and with me, you get to have a say in who you are as a group. When I look at you, I look at each person but you are also a group of people. Your actions help me to form an opinion. I get to see the respect you have for yourselves, your learning space, your classmates.

I look forward to our next lesson and learning more about who you are.

The kids were quiet. I think they were listening.

Single Subjects are an amazing place for students to grow and learn. We often provide an authentic opportunity for ATLs (Approaches to Learning) to be developed and we get to see the kids in, potentially, a whole new light to their homeroom. But how do we really harness the power of specialist teachers? How do we ensure everyone is included?

Classroom Teachers: How do you work with your single subject teachers?

Specialist Teachers: How to you build relationships as a single subject teacher?

 

Today left me wondering…

How might we all move toward a more open system of schooling in which the boundaries and delineations that divide us, did not exist?

Leadership, Teaching

The Parent Trap

Any excuse to get in another photo of my cute little girl.
Any excuse to get in another photo of my cute little girl.

I have always said that the beginning of a new school year is one of my favorite times as a teacher.  Aside from the school supplies (come on – who doesn’t love new school supplies!) there is that option for things to be different – better, stronger, more thoughtful, more personalized….better. I think the day I start a school year without wondering how it can be better is the day I need to stop teaching.

Last year I began my year with massive intentions. I penned a letter to my incoming students and their families and I was so ready for an awesome year. While the year did not pan out as I had anticipated, it was a learning experience nonetheless and as I begin this year, here are five things I have learned with particular regard to parents:

  1. Be straight up with parents from the beginning. This can be hard but it is worth it. If you notice something in their child, see if they notice it too.  Don’t be quick to ‘fix’ the child, but let the parents know that you know.
  2. Stop unproductive parent interactions immediately.  I had the unfortunate experience of a couple of sets of very negative parents who would randomly bombard me with emails that didn’t move conversations forward or seek to solve problems. I am sure this will happen again at some point. When it does, I will ask to meet with these people so that we can solve the issue in a timely manner. I know this sounds logical but you know the type of parents I am talking about and for me anyway, it can be tough to initiate such a conversation.
  3. Tap into your parent body and share your why with them. In as much as I was more challenged in a negative way by parents last year than ever before, I was also more challenged in a positive way by parents too. Our parents are smart, educated, thoughtful, caring people. In the past three years, they have provided me with some of the best PD I have had through the sharing of resources, books, websites, and the conversations we have had back and forth. Thankfully technology means these conversations will continue, and I hope will be enhanced by interactions with my new parent body too.
  4. Be clear in your expectations. I find when parents know what you expect, they are more comfortable with what you ask of their children. Again, I think this goes back to explaining why you are doing what you are doing, not just outlining the nuts and bolts of a task.
  5. Thank your parents. A lot. For everything. Always.

I was reading an article titled 19 Meaningful Questions You Should Ask Your Child’s Teacher. The list is thorough, challenging, and as the title states, meaningful.  It would also be quite overwhelming as a teacher to be asked all 19 in one session – the author suggests parents opt for one or two to start and work their way through them as the year progresses.

Here is the list:

19 Questions Your Child’s Teacher Would (Probably) Love to Answer

  1. What academic standards do you use, and what do I need to know about them?
  2. How will you respond if or when my child struggles in class?
  3. What are the most important and complex (content-related) ideas my child needs to understand by the end of the year?
  4. Do you focus on strengths or weaknesses?
  5. How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
  6. How is critical thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
  7. How are assessments designed to promote learning rather than simple measurement?
  8. What can I do to support literacy in my home?
  9. What kinds of questions do you suggest that I ask my children on a daily basis about your class?
  10. How exactly is learning personalized in your classroom? In the school?
  11. How do you measure academic progress?
  12. What are the most common instructional or literacy strategies you will use this year?
  13. What learning models do you use (e.g., project-based learning, mobile learning, game-based learning, etc.), and what do you see as the primary benefits of that approach?
  14. What are the best school or district resources for students and/or families that no one uses?
  15. Is there technology you’d recommend that can help support my child in self-directed learning?
  16. What are the most common barriers you see to academic progress in your classroom?
  17. How is education changing?
  18. How do you see the role of the teacher in the learning process?
  19. What am I not asking but should be?

 

As teachers, we often lament the lack of interest or involvement of our parents.  I wonder what we would do if these questions were asked of us?  Would we be able to answer them in a smart, eloquent way?

As a new parent, I am a long way off from my first parent-teacher conference in the role of the parent. My husband has already vetoed my right to speak with my child’s teacher as he thinks I will be too scary. I think hearing the answers to some of these questions would be really interesting and offer insight into the type of person my child will be spending so much time with.

Questions 4,7 and 11 are grounded in the idea of assessment and progress and would be ones I would both want to know about as a parent, but also ones I want to be able to give really clear, honest answers about as a teacher.  Anyone who answers question 17 by referencing Seth Godin would rocket straight to the top of my ‘best teacher ever’ list 🙂

How do you initiate or encourage these types of questions from your parents?

How do you ensure there really is a partnership between parents and teachers at your school?

PYP, Teaching

Questioning Conceptually

We are two weeks into our Passion Project and my kids have pretty much narrowed down their area of focus for their passion: travel, gardening, healthy living, animals, music….the list goes on.  These are all big, broad areas of interest, so how do we begin on our passion journey?

Our ‘way in’ was through the PYP concepts. We thought about these in two ways: as lenses and as keys. Some kids really bought into the idea that they were picking up and putting on different glasses with different colored lenses through which they would look at their topic.  Some kids bought into the idea that they were standing in a room with eight colored doors and each key in their hand unlocked a different door to step through to their passion. I was pretty impressed with the speed at which they figured this out, actually!

concept cards 2 concept cards 1

Each child made a set of concept cards using the following information.  A descriptor of the concept on one side, and curriculum area sample questions on the reverse. These were mounted on different colored cards and bound together with a ring. We were ready to begin!

picture-15 picture-16

I started with the whole class and a topic close to my own heart and one they could relate to: dogs. We started going through the concepts and thinking of questions that would fit that lens:

FORM: What are the distintive characteristics of a dog?

FUNCTION: How do the lungs of a dog work?

CHANGE: What are the newest medical advances that are now in place to help injured dogs?  

Each child was given a large concept question planner and, armed with their passion topic and their concept-question cards, were asked to think of questions for each concept.  PDF Concept Question Planner

Concept Question Planner

We discussed that some concepts may lend themselves to more questions and some to fewer questions. As we continue with this on Monday, my hope is that we can help each other focus our inquiries through the use of concepts. I also want to make sure that their time is spent on relevant, engaging and worthwhile questions.  I want their questions to be deep and open. But how?

I came across the idea of a Question Quadrant to help see if where your questions ‘fit’: The Quadrant can be used to distinguish closed and open questions that relate specifically to a text; or closed and open questions that stimulate intellectual curiosity.

Question Quadrant

I also really like the Visible Thinking routine Question Starts.

Question Starts

Once they have generated questions, I am thinking of using the Visible Thinking Routine, “Question Sorts” to help my students ensure they are really focusing on questions they care about:

Question Sorts

A question sort, would be similar looking to the question quadrant:

Question Sort

I am still thinking about how best to help them make the most of their inquiries.  I think we are off to a good start! I know a lot of the focus still remains on ‘producing a product’ which is not the goal of this project but is something that I think people are more comfortable with given that is how we were educated: to produce ‘something’.  My goal is to keep putting the tools out there and hoping that the more product oriented ideas arise from the deeper inquiry, rather than become the sole purpose of the project.

PYP, Teaching

Rising Above

On Friday morning, I met with about half of my class parents to share with them about the upcoming PYP exhibition, to answer their questions, and to get a feel for where they were at in their understanding of the work ahead. I shared the following slideshow with them:

For detailed notes about each slide, take a look at the post on my class blog.

In addition, I shared a number of documents with my parents: an eight week tentative plan, single subject integration, language arts integration, exhibition rubric, weekly reflection criteria, and student contract. I also gave everyone a copy of the 16 Rules that I posted about earlier in the week.

After the meeting, I went back to my classroom and when my kids came in from recess, I told them that they would be working on the tasks we had discussed the previous afternoon, focused on our exhibition.  This is what “work” looks like in my classroom:

I was asked a lot of questions from my parents about final products, accountability, level of involvement, and how to “know” if kids are working and/or learning anything.  Here is what I know to be true:

  • if you set high expectations, kids will rise to meet them (and then exceed them)
  • kids are inspired by kids and will feed off each other (in a good way!)
  • kids know when they are working hard and when they are hardly working
  • kids don’t want to waste their time any more than we want them wasting their time
  • what looks like “wasting time” to us, is often a valuable learning experience for kids
  • kids have a way of viewing the world that often exceeds our world view

I think we all have kids in our class who struggle.  Their struggles may be with confidence, time-management, organization, academic skills, social interactions….the list goes on. Undertaking a unit of inquiry of the magnitude of the exhibition is a real challenge – for any 10 or 11 year old. But does that mean that because it is hard, we shouldn’t do it?  No.  Because:

Source: seesawdesigns.blogspot.com via Sonya on Pinterest

When I asked my kids “Who is ultimately responsible for your Exhibition journey?” I got a resounding and unanimous “We are!!” from my kids.  And I trust them, so I trust that this is true.  They know they have the support of their teachers, mentors, parents and myself, and now they just have to trust in their own abilities.  It is really hard to let go of some of that control.  To sit back and to watch where the journey takes each child without constantly wanting to move the rudder and steer them where we think they should go.  

I am learning that the Exhibition is a great learning ground for students: it is a chance for them to shine, to showcase their skills, to develop new skills, to become independent, and to experience hard work, failure, success and learning. As adults, it is also a great learning ground for us: a chance for us to trust we have prepared them well, to take a bigger step back, to guide without overshadowing, and to trust in the process and the journey.

What I know to be true is that I am seeing, already, kids rising. Rising to the challenge.  Rising above my expectations.

More than ever, I believe that children learn best when personally invested in what they are learning about.  And it is a pretty awesome thing to watch.  

Reflection, Teaching

The Awesomeness of Vi Hart

I love Vi Hart.  There is something about her crazy videos that I just adore.  I almost feel like I hold my breath when I watch her work in case the sound of my breathing causes me to miss out on something she has to say! Today I learned that she doesn’t care if I like her or not – she is still going to make her videos the way she wants to make her videos. Which kind of makes me love her even more.

Her latest creation is on how to deal with negative comments in a digital world – although a lot of what she says could easily apply to the real world too. I love that she says that “I didn’t make this for your approval”. She creates because she loves it – mirroring the other person in my hall of fame, Neil Gaiman, with his charge to “make good art”.

As a teacher, I often let the comments of a few drown out my own inner voice and then my art becomes less “good” and more “doubted”, “mediocre”, or just plain watered down.  I am a good teacher – I honestly don’t think I would still be doing this job 16 years if I didn’t truly love it.  And yet, unlike Vi Hart, I am sometimes scared, I do seek approval, and I dither over comments people make like nobodies business.  I think this is where the drop-off in my blogging comes into play. In addition to life throwing me a lot to deal with, I also began wondering if I had any good art left to share – or even any art worth sharing.

Today we had Kathy LeMay come to our school. This woman is fearless. As I sat in my classroom listening to her answer the questions my kids had for her on pursuing passion, I realized that we are always going to have nay-sayers in our world.  People who will tell us it won’t work, can’t happen, isn’t right.  We can choose to listen to those people and put our art in a deep, dark cupboard. Or, we can choose to move around these people and continue to do our thing.

It isn’t going to be easy.  But I can almost certainly guarantee it will be worth it.

What are you waiting for? 

 

PYP, Teaching

Getting Deeper

One of the things I keep pressing my kids to do, is to go deeper in their thinking and in their responses to questions.  Rewardingly, my persistence appears to be paying off as I am increasingly getting work of an incredibly high caliber from many of my students.

As we prepare for the Exhibition, I am wanting to drill this home even more. Which led me to digging around and finding a couple of resources to help me out:

Blooms Taxonomy Question Stems

These look great to me. Just by looking at them from Remember to Create you can see the level of thought required to “list four….” and “compose a…”. I am learning that making this information explicit to kids isn’t going to ensure success (you can lead a horse to water…). I am also learning that just because they all aren’t going to buy in, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t share in the first place.

Source: helloliteracy.blogspot.com via Sonya on Pinterest

Being An Explorer Of The World

This is another piece of awesome that I will be sharing with my class before we head out on our Passion Tour next week to kick off our Exhibition.  The tour consists of us visiting with six passionate people in our home town: a vet, the CEO of the YMCA, a doctor, an athlete mechanic, a financier, and a restaurant head. We have an agenda but there also the importance of an unwritten agenda – or at least, an unassigned agenda. In addition to their notes I also want to make sure they remember to be an explorer of their world:

EVERYBODY!

“Going Deeper” is sometimes hard work!  Everybody needs a little reset switch pushed once in a while. This is a 60 second brain break for you and your students. I used to have a ‘reading gong’ in my class that kids would take turns (one kid per day) ringing to signify 10 minutes of reading.  During Exhibition, I can see the need for the odd ‘brain break’ and this could be a fun addition to the program:

 

What do you do to “go deeper”?

How do you provide opportunities for your kids to take a break?

PYP, Teaching

Research Hub

Research Hub

 

I recently came across a fantastic website for research skills.  It has everything you would want in one spot.  Almost everything.  As I read through each section of UWCSEA Junior Research Hub, I did consider two things I would add:

EASY BIB

Last week I shared a new site with my class: EasyBib  It is accessible through the students’  Riverstone gMail accounts which allows their work to be synced through Google Docs. In our current project, students have been asked to compare the fictional creature  they are creating with creatures that already exist.  They are to be specific in their comparisons.  This requires them to research information about animal adaptations and use this information in their project.

For example:

They might say: The kangaroo is known as the largest marsupial, measuring over 6 feet tall. My creature mimics the height of the kangaroo and in fact, has been recorded at heights of up to 7 feet tall, thus propelling it to the top of the record books for largest known marsupial. This piece of information about the height of the kangaroo, clearly came from some kind of information source: website, book, journal, magazine or paper.  EasyBib provides a simple to use, online way of keeping a bibliography of all sites sourced.

We were really impressed by the way in which we could:

  • just paste in a web address and it would reference it for you
  • type in the title of a magazine and the name of the article and it would find all the information about the issue number, year and author
  • punch in the ISBN number of a book and all the title, author, illustrator and publisher information would pop up.

Here is what an example of a finished bibliography looks like.

 

READ WRITE THINK – INQUIRY

When gathering information from a collection of sources, I like the idea of this chart from READ-WRITE-THINK:

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 5.43.25 PM

 

From the RWT website:

The Inquiry Chart (I-Chart) strategy is one that allows students to examine a topic through integrating prior knowledge on the topic with additional information found from a variety of sources.  The I-Chart strategy is organized into three steps, each of which consists of activities meant to engage and aid students in evaluating a given topic: 1) Planning, 2) Interacting, and 3) Integrating/Evaluating.

I-Charts can be used with individuals, small groups, or the entire class, and are meant to strengthen reading skills and foster critical thinking.  This strategy can be used to differentiate instruction for each student’s needs, and can also be used as an assessment tool to measure student understanding of a given topic.

 

If the Junior Research Hub is more than perhaps your students need, consider using the simplified Infant Research Hub with it’s three step guide to researching:

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 5.48.15 PM

Reflection, Teaching

Nothing Like a Little Anarchy

 

 

What is the purpose of what we have learned today?  This is a question I have been asked by my students and a question I often ask myself when thinking about the types of things I am going to ask my students to do.  What I notice a lot of the time is that by fifth grade, many kids have figured out that there is a ‘right answer’ and that if they are not 100% sure what that answer is, they are not going to say anything.  In my book, Imagine A School, I imagine the following:

 

Imagine A School

 

 

Often I wonder if I am providing this for my kids or channeling them all down a one way street to sixth grade.  I want to be the kind of teacher that hands out the following oath and dares my kids to sign it like they mean it – and then teaches them like I mean it.

 

 

 

I just finished reading Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks.  The book is told by 8 year old Max’s 6 year old imaginary friend, Budo.  Even imaginary kids can tell the difference between those teachers who “play school and those who teach school”:

“It’s strange how teachers can go off to college for all those years to learn to become teachers, but some of them never learn the easy stuff. Like making kids laugh. And making sure they know that you love them.”
― Matthew DicksMemoirs of an Imaginary Friend

 

What is most important to you as a teacher?

Reflection, Teaching

N is for “No”

N is for No

 

 

“No feels safe, while yes is dangerous indeed.  Yes to possibility and yes to risk and yes to looking someone in the eye and telling her the truth. “

-Seth Godin “V is for Vulnerable”

I recently supported a Kickstarter project by Seth Godin.  As part of my reward for backing his initiative, I got a couple of copies of his collaborative project with Hugh MacLeod, “V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone – An ABC for Grown-ups”.  As I was re-reading it again today, I stopped when I got to the letter N.  N is for No.  This made me think of my kids and the project they have proposed as part of our How We Express Ourselves unit on persuasion.  It started with this, and then this and ultimately ended with this.  A no.

So, what do we do with the “No”. This has been something I have been thinking about since the last day of school before the break.  On one hand, I think the no is valuable. I think it is good for my kids to learn that just because they are adorable and have a fun idea, people are not automatically going to jump on board and give their blessing.  On the other hand, I still find the no valuable – but for a different reason.  For the reason that a ‘no’ doesn’t have to mean the end.  Just because someone says no, doesn’t mean you have to stop and give up.  The whole point of the unit is to develop our powers of persuasion. How are we doing this if after our first no to our first proposal, we roll over and say “OK”?

What do we do with the no? 

This will be the question that awaits my kids when they come back from our break in January.  I will be guided by them as to how they wish to proceed – that is, after all, what an inquiry based classroom looks like.  I will be looking to them to guide me as we try and figure out where too from here. As I continued to flip through the book, I was inspired again by “Y”.  Y is for Youth.

Y is for Youth

“Youth isn’t a number, it’s an attitude. So many disruptive artists have been youngsters, even the old ones.  Art isn’t a genetic or chronological destiny, it’s a choice, open to anyone willing to trade pain in exchange for magic. “

-Seth Godin “V is for Vulnerable”

I think my kids have attitude and I think they are capable of magic.  I can’t wait to see what they do with the no.

To learn more about Seth Godin’s Kickstarter project, go here.

To learn more about Hugh MacLeod, go here.

PYP, Teaching

Teaching Without A Plan….What??

Earlier this week, I read an article by Eric Barker: 6 Rules That Should Be Guiding Your Career. Barker shares “the rules” as developed by Daniel Pink.

The Rules:

  1. There is no plan
  2. Think strengths, not weaknesses
  3. It’s not about you
  4. Persistance trumps talent
  5. Make excellent mistakes
  6. Leave an imprint

I know it says rules for career development, but what about classroom development? The first ‘rule’ might have some teachers breaking out in a sweat.  No plan?  What about the Planner for each unit of inquiry?

Rule One: There is no plan

Pink shares the number one thing people regretted on their death bed:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

It is true that as teachers we need to have a plan. But there is nothing in the PYP that says that plan has to be a rigid one or doesn’t have to take into account all those “x-factors” that come into play when you are dealing with the human dynamic of inquisitve little people each day. When I first began teaching in a PYP school I quickly became confused by the use of a Planner. How could it be child-centered inquiry if teachers were planning out every minute of the six week unit? We began to use Design Thinking to plan ‘backwards’ – starting with the end in the mind.  As a group, we would think about the unit’s central idea – the big idea that was globally transferable, timeless, interesting, challenging and engaging.  With this idea in mind, we would then think conceptually about the lines of inquiry which we would use to begin to open this idea up to our children.  We would pick three concepts and create lines of inquiry based on a different concept. We would then move on to create an assessment task that would help students showcase their understanding of the central idea.

But what happened in between beginning the unit and the assessment?

We had an Inquiry Workshop at our school.  During that time we examined loads of inquiry cycles and ways of ‘doing’ inquiry.  We then created our own.  My cycle has since been modified to include reference to ACTION – a part of the PYP that sometimes gets a little left out. I use this cycle with my class as a group, to show them collectively where we are in the life of the unit.  I have also used it individually and allowed students to guide themselves back and forth through the cycle over the course of the unit.

Inquiry Cycle (PDF= Click to download)

This is different to teaching without a plan, but it is a way to free the children up to inquire where they are drawn to.  It also frees the teacher up to observe, to help when needed, to question in order to move the inquiry forward. Tasha Cowdy, kindergarten teacher at Yokohama International School has a way of doing just this with her students.  Whilst some (myself) would consider her an expert, she would most likely disagree.  Her recent post on the shared inquiry blog, Inquire Within, paints a detailed story on what it can look like to create a classroom where student-led inquiry really does reign supreme and the challenges associated with balancing open, guided, or structured inquiry.

A more simple plan might be to tell students that based on the central idea, you are interested in learning more from each of them about:

  • What do you Know?
  • What do you Understand?
  • What can you Do?
  • What will you Say?

And then supporting them on their journey of learning.  The more we expose children to this line of thinking, rather than pushing them through the cookie cutter shapes of lessons we have planned for them, the more they will be able to really feel that school is a place for inquiry, not compliance.

How can you be more relaxed in your approach to following your plans?

How can you move your role as teacher from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’?