Nurture what matters: Get outside and play!

Every weekend I go to my favourite place to play. A two hour drive south of Luanda is a great beach with consistently fun surf. On this morning, I stand on the beach crunching on my apple – sweet and salty, the fruit mingling with the salt water still dripping in my mouth; a salt crust forming on my skin where the water is already evaporating in the 9 am sun. The water’s starting to get busier as it does on Sundays and a family from my school has already arrived with their two kids out in the water for their surf lessons.

I spot the older one in the water and notice an approaching wave. Under my breath, I cheer him on. “Paddle, paddle! Up! Nice!” He surfs a great wave, cruising along the face. I can see his face from where I am and it’s a picture of intense concentration mingled with joy, excitement, and maybe some disbelief. He surfs the wave for a long time adjusting his speed by shifting his weight on the board and making small changes in his position on the wave, anticipating the cresting water. As he’s falling off the wave, he throws his hands in the air with excitement, celebrating his wave. I smile to myself and give a nod of approval.

As I write this, my mind is going through all the learning that happened in that moment and how it translates to the classroom and life. In surfing, we talk about “reading a wave.” That means that you can determine where a wave will break, the force it will exert on you, how to use the force to generate speed as you surf it, when to avoid a wave, and more. In a broad sense, this might be considered water literacy with reading waves, a small piece of a much bigger puzzle. Much like literacy in other areas, it requires a lot of practice. Along with reading waves, this student is learning about ocean currents and water safety. These are skills that might help him or others stay safe around water in the future. As his mom pointed out to me, the lessons are also helping him learn Portuguese as his instructor is a Portuguese speaker and local Angolan. Finally, he is developing certain attributes that will contribute to his growth as a person and lifelong learner. From surfing, he’s learning resilience, commitment, respect for the ocean, appreciation for nature and his host country, and the joy of learning something new.

I finish my apple, take a drink of water, and pick up my board to head back out. As I’m walking out, my student walks out of the water with his board and begins walking back up the beach toward the point, joining my path. “Nice wave!” I say to him.

“Oh, hi Mr. Brodie. You saw it? That was my best wave ever! I rode it for a long time!!” He goes on to explain to me what he’s learned about the waves at this beach, how they break, and how best to surf them.

And then he says something that is music to my ears.

“You know, Mr. Brodie, we have a good surfing community now. A bunch of the other Year 7s come a lot and I come every weekend. It’s really fun! Thanks for the field trip.”

You see, for Year 7 outdoor education, I planned an overnight trip to this beach and coordinated lessons with the local surf school. The trip was a resounding success and the students had a part in organizing it. Through trips like this, students are given opportunities to step out of their comfort zone and engage in new experiences. Sometimes these are as simple as leaving the compound (here anyway) and experiencing part of your host country.

I’ve also recently started a course with about 20 of my colleagues called “Exploring What Matters: The Action for Happiness Course.” Last week we learned about the 10 keys to happier living. Reflecting on my experience with this trip and the subsequent discussions I’ve had with students and teachers involved, I’ve realized that at least five of these keys were part of the learning experience.

This helps explain why on each of the three excursions we have taken the year group on, I’ve been struck by their growth as a community and the depth of learning that happens. These hands on, real world experiences are so impactful for our students. Especially in the middle years as their world view broadens and navigating situations with their peers takes on the utmost importance. I can’t help but wonder why we don’t do this more.

How often do you take your students out? Do you play too? How would your ideal program incorporate experiential learning, excursions, and play at different ages? What examples do you have of students developing sustained passions? And, finally, where does student agency fit into this?

Would love to hear thoughts on this. Comment or tweet at me – @ChrisRBrodie


The Shift: A Journey in Mindset and Discomfort with the Comfortable

Shifts have been a big part of my career as an educator. International educators, and many of our students, experience this much more than our national counterparts: shifts in school culture, shifts in curriculum, shifts in colleagues, and shifts in education trends. One shift I’ve wanted to make completely but have really just been dipping my toes in is student agency.

You see, while I wouldn’t call myself an early adopter, I’m enthusiastic to break the traditional mold and try things that might reach more of my students. As someone who loves to learn but struggled with my traditional education, I’m eager to find as many ways as I can to coax the love of learning out of my students. When I first experimented with student agency, Gary Stager, author of Invent to Learn, paid our school a visit and encouraged coding in the classroom. But it wasn’t the coding or use of Microworlds that stood out to me, it was one thing he said, almost off-the-cuff, “Why not let kids make their own schedules?” This got me thinking, ya why not? I was teaching Grade 2 at the time and was quite new to the PYP and international education but was being encouraged by my leadership to take risks like this. So, I experimented, saw the merits and challenges and put it in my toolbox. I then continued on with my learning of the PYP, getting ready for accreditation, and giving students ownership where I felt I could – working within the system.

At the time, I was not aware of the term “student agency,” yet, the concept always seemed to come up during professional discussions. Especially for teachers new to the PYP, letting go of control was scary and the concept of student agency was being grappled with in questions like,

“What about the curriculum?”

“How do I meet the standards and have student-driven inquiry?”

“But those concepts are so broad, what do I teach?

“How do I know what to teach?”

“How should I schedule inquiry time?”

“How do I plan for that?”

You get the picture.

Shifting to MYP was a considerable change; more so than I expected or realized at the time. Unfortunately, it meant that in the first year, I wasn’t dipping my toe into the pool of student agency as much or taking it out of my toolbox very often. Sure, I was still having my students set their own learning goals and encouraging student inquiries. However, it seemed to fall flat as I was doing what I was told was the way to deliver English Language Acquisition units and assessments. But the curriculum and assessments seemed to be getting in the way of learning instead of enhancing or encouraging. When I found myself feeling kind of bored, I got concerned. If I was bored, my students definitely were too. This can’t be right! Then the work began: rewrite units, have students write units, change assessment practices, and put the learning in the students’ hands more often. Thanks to Taryn Bond-Clegg’s posts, I was reminded of my toolbox and a colleague and I instituted a workshop structure during a unit in which students were exploring creativity through poetry, spoken word, and songs. It was a real success and gave the students and teachers many great learning experiences.

During this shift back toward the students and away from the institution, I have been reminded of a blog post by Jonathan Field about school leadership and I think it applies just as well to teaching. He says, “start with a YES and see where it takes you.” Recently I’ve found the word “Yes” becoming a bigger part of my daily vocabulary and it feels great. How often do you say “yes” to your students?