Celebrating the journey

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Photo credit: Pexels.com

I work in Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). It’s a personalized learning environment that puts learner agency at the core of our belief system. As an advisor, I’m often asked questions like…

  • How do you track growth?
  • How do you know where your learners are at and their next steps?
  • How do you communicate this to your learners? Their parent(s)/guardian(s)?
  • What do you assess? How is it tracked?


In this post, I hope to elucidate what I do, which looks fairly similar amongst my colleagues, yet with some nuanced perspectives and ideas to make it their own. In other words, it is “a way”, not “the way”.


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Image adapted from Pexels.com

Assessment Philosophy

We, in Studio 5, don’t believe in assigning numbers or grades to students; there’s a significant amount of evidenceabout their lack of efficacy towards motivating students to learn. Thus, we believe in advising learners towards becoming intrinsically motivated in what they want to learn about (i.e. placing importance on learning how to learn). We value developing lifelong authentic skills over anything else.

Since our studio model operates within the context of the IB’s PYP, the Enhanced Approaches to Learning (AtLs) make a lot of sense to use as our assessment vehicle. First, they were just redeveloped and introduced this year in the enhancements to the PYP; this translates to longer-term stability. In addition, the AtLs are present (with growing complexity) throughout the MYP and DP frameworks of the IB, therefore adding carry-over in the continuum of a learner’s journey. 

These ideals in what we value stem from the Learning and teaching section of the enhanced PYP documentation.


The IB posits that, the AtLs “are grounded in the belief that learning how to learn is fundamental to a student’s education.”  These “skills also help to support students’ sense of agency, encouraging them to see their learning as an active and dynamic process“. (Learning and teaching, IBO, p 26)


Any educator that currently works with these AtLs knows that they are not easy to synthesize and interpret from the PYP documentation alone. To simplify these AtLs for all stakeholders in our community, we use a modified interpretation of the skills in infographic form developed by a former advisor, Suzanne Kitto (@OrenjiButa). 

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Tracking Growth

Instead of grades, we use a Studio 5 designed continuum called the Gradual Increase in Independence (GII). Ultimately, our goal is for the kids to lead, or at least be independent in relation to their approaches to learning (AtLs). More metaphorically speaking, we want them to be in the driver’s seat of their learning journey. 

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Another @OrenjiButa creation


A PYP Philosopy

To help guide what our studio model planning, learning and assessment looks like in depth, it’s important to note that we are not just pulling stars out of the sky in our ideals. All of our philosophies are deeply rooted within the philosophy of the enhanced PYP framework. The bullets below are particularly salient to our everyday practice:

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(in Learning and teaching, IBO, p 28)


Long term planning

Over the course of the year, we, as an entire school, have a year long inquiry into “Who we are” as learners, individuals and as a community. Our exhibition (PYPx) lends itself nicely to “Where we are in place and time” for our children to reflect on their culmination of learning within the PYP before embarking into the MYP. This leaves the rest of the year open in terms of our Programme of Inquiry (PoI) to allow the children to set sail in three different Self Directed Units of Inquiry (SDUoIs). I know you may think that my math is wrong here, but SDUoIs tend to be trans-transdisciplinary (yes, we made that one up), leaving lots of room for balanced, horizontal articulation in our grade level.

​As advisors, we assist our learners in backwards planning their SDUoIs on six week timelines. During week seven, we host mini-exhibitions (or as we like to call, a “Take it Public” – otherwise known as TIP) in between SDUoI cycles. We give our children the agency in how they choose to TIP, which I have blogged about here, and so has my colleague, Taryn, here.

These TIP events also are wonderful low entry, high ceiling, and, what Mitch Resnick, at MIT’s Media Lab, likes to call, “wide wall“, celebrations that showcase learning journeys. They also help spark ideas, innovation, iterations and motivation for the next round of SDUoIs, which students spend the rest of week seven planning for. In general, to overly simplify our long term plan, it would look something along the lines of this:

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Note that WWA lasts year long, but we spend a very concentrated focus in the first term.



As mentioned above, many of the SDUoIs that the children plan, tend to hit several transdisciplinary themes. We get our students to track this in hyper-doc assessment folders that are shared with their parents and advisors. The aim of this is keeping the transparency window of communication and support open.

By planning for the whole year Who we are unit and having our PYPx as Where we are in place and time, this offers the learners flexibility to either “Pivot or Persevere” in their self-directed inquiries in terms of the time allotted for each inquiry. We keep the traditional six week plan as it gives our learners an adequate amount of time to inquire deeply into something they are passionate about. In addition, from a time management perspective, it gives an authentic deadline to prepare for in regards to taking their learning public. Some inquiries do need longer than six weeks and/or continue to motivate children to persevere. When that happens, we, as advisors, help our learners to continue to step further out of their comfort zone.

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Students, with the help of advisors, track their themes. This is visible to all stakeholders in their shared assessment folders.


Pre-planning – Setting a purpose

To help our inspire our learners, we help them in finding their autonomy, mastery and purpose (ultimately their motivation), stemming from Daniel Pink’s work in his book Drive. This, less than two minute, video sums up Pink’s work on motivation nicely.

At the beginning and throughout the year, we, as advisors, offer a variety of workshops ranging from writing stories, cooking, photography, dance and more. We encourage our kids to do the same; some run workshops on slime making, Scratch tutorials and more. All of this aids our learners in finding their intrinsic motivation for what they are passionate to learn more about.

For those that need a little further inspiration as to what to inquire into, we use this question grid as a diving board:

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After a purpose is set, the final piece of the puzzle is a Simon Sinek fueled “Why, How and What” purpose planner. These planners help with initial conferencing to push our learners out of their comfort zones and also help connect them with the wider community (my colleague Taryn has documented this in great detail here).

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SDUoI Purpose Planner



Inquiring and reflecting on achievement

After all the pre-planning and reorganization of learning spaces to reflect the context of the inquiries, the wheels are in motion! Children have their specific weekly goals for their SDUoIs from their six week backwards planners, of which they expand upon in greater detail in their weekly goals.

In my advisory, learners set four SMART weekly goals on Monday morning. The first is a personal goal which can be anything in their life. Children tend to balance out their screen-time, get better at their mindfulness practice, or aim to be better humans in their connections with others. The second goal is a communication goal, related to any AtL within that skill family. Third is a math goal and the last is their weekly SDUoI goal.

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A personal goal of being more balanced with screen time. Documented in the learner’s digital portfolio.

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By the end of the week, the expectation of my learners is that they have a face-to-face conference showing the documentation of their SDUoI, math and communications skills goals. To help with the transparency piece with parents, children post their set goals on Monday to their portfolios, then also reflect mid-week on the progress of their achievement.

In terms of the weekly timetable, we keep things open, save single subject pullouts. Each day revolves around the PYP’s action cycle of “Choose-Act-Reflect” (commonly known as CAR time). The first and last block of each day, I have my specific learners that are under my pastoral care. However, during the middle blocks, these are the “ACT” blocks where our learners connect with peer and experts all around our community. Advisors are all diversified in their expertise and are working with a wide range of children, Studio wide, throughout these act times, not just the ones in their advisory. The only expectation is that their homeroom, or CAR time, advisor knows where they are and that an adult is in the area to supervise them wherever they are. Morning CAR blocks allow for check-in, choosing and planning their day and setting goals for the week (i.e. “CHOOSE” blocks). The last period of the day involves reflection, documentation and thinking about next steps (i.e. “REFLECT” blocks). 

Here is an example of a day planner that our learners complete and conference with an advisor on before they “ACT”:

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Each learner “chooses” how they will “act” out their day in the morning. Then “reflects” at the day’s end and thinks about next steps for the following day.


Where do the math and communication skill goals come from?

Probably the question that we’re asked most often.

Unlike any other school, we spend time to get to know our learners. We use diagnostic tools in order to garner that information through interviews like Probe, Gloss and looking at writing samples. That data gets analyzed, broken down into communicable and actionable next steps, then verbally communicated to the learner. This information also gets shared and put into their assessment folder, which is their “one-stop shop” hyperdoc platform that is shared with parents with commenting rights. 

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Aside from these diagnostics, we also get our students to notice, name and document next steps when they arise. This could be when they notice a pattern when reading through research and/or pleasure. Or it could be when they are writing their daily reflections, their own end of term evaluations for reporting, or in their documentation. Sometimes it may be through the feedback they get after taking it public, or something they noticed themselves. As an advisor, I’m always looking to assist my learners with the notice and naming of this real-time, authentic feedback in the context of whatever they may be doing. Through open-ended questions, it further develops my learner’s metacognition to achieve that end goal — to be the driver’s of their own learning journey.

More specifically for maths, we also triangulate the data for next steps through the diagnostic grade-level assessments on Khan academy and get learners to save the results by concept area for actionable next steps. Another data point is through the notice and naming within the context of their self-directed units. It may be looking at symmetry through a photographic lens, measurement when building things up in our FabLab, and/or determining  profits from entrepreneurial sales during market days and determining the percentage necessary to donate to a pre-determined charitable organization.

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Khan Academy diagnostic assessment

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Neural bridges are richly built when constructed in authentic contexts.


The documentation of goals

Mentioned above, learners set four goals weekly, three of which are documented and accessible via their assessment folder (their personal goal is reflected upon in their digital portfolio). All three goals (SDUoI, Communications Skill and Math) all follow a similar process: Stated goal, successes, challenges and next steps. The expectation is to be media rich in the documentation and the students are generally their best judges as to when they’ve achieved mastery, or persevered long enough, on a particular goal. 

​Below are examples of each of these three documentation goal areas.



A communications goal example: 



A documented weekly math goal…



A documented SDUoI goal…



What about summative assessment?

As for whole Studio summatives, all advisors do some variety of one at the end of each SDUoI cycle, but I’d argue that it’s more formative if anything as it is used to inform the next self-directed unit. The kiddos self reflect on their motivation, use of experts, get feedback from advisors and parents, then use all of this to inform how they should continue to push themselves further on their next endeavor. 

Because of the very nature of the personalized learning within the studio, children tend to summatively assess themselves actively and often, with advisor conferencing, when they feel they have persevered long enough on a goal. They have the documentation of their journey to prove it. Thus, there are summative assessments taking place, just on different timelines and in smaller doses.

Click on the link below the following image to see an example of a self-directed unit summative assessment…


Click here to see the full assessment folder



How does all of the assessment mentioned above get communicated?

As mentioned above, the “one-stop-shop” hyperdoc assessment folder is shared with the parents at the beginning of the year. This keeps the transparency and communication window with parents entirely open from week one.

In addition, children reflect daily in their learning portfolio, which for most tends to be Seesaw.

Furthermore, several three-way conferences are held throughout the year. At each of these times, we tend to focus on different aspects of the AtLs. In our first conference, after term one, we looked solely at the self-management AtL family as it linked in nicely to our Who we are inquiry, specifically, who the children are as a learner (note that the enhanced AtLs were not yet released).

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Our first 3-way conference springboard to conversation and future goal setting. Note: These were the old AtLs.


For our most recent three-way conference, we used the enhanced AtLs to reflect on our growth up until that point. Each stakeholder chose two sub-skill strengths and growth areas, respectively. Then we discussed actionable steps together that our learners can use when setting goals within the Studio as well as support on how these goals can be achieved at home.

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Our mid-way 3-way conference springboard for looking at growth from the beginning of the year, as well as setting goals for the remainder. Enhanced AtLs incorporated.


Finally, Studio 5 learners write their own evaluation of learning (EoL). Advisors support them through the writing process, and each term, they report on a different aspect of their growth as a learner. Sometimes it’s math, other times it is their self-directed inquiries. All use the AtLs as a vehicle in which to benchmark their growth. Afterwards, advisors add a comment on the bottom, often just needing to show support for their honest, humble and very transparent reflections. 

The students writing their own EoLs was and still is one of the many things that I love about my current place of employment under my current role. It’s such a powerful and purposeful form of authentic writing.

On that note, I would love to encourage everyone reading this to do the same. Even just once. See what the parents think! Why not have a go?!

The letting go is never easy when you are trying to establish a culture of learner agency. However, remember that with the right scaffolding and support, any human can be an empowered and capable agent of their own learning! It’s extremely energizing!

​Here is an example of a more recent student written EoL …

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To wrap up …

If you’re new to agency and/or personalized learning, I’m sure there are still many questions that I have left unanswered. In addition, this is “our way”, and much of the above is even more adapted to make work for my specific advisory. I’m not suggesting that it is “the” way. Always start, collaboratively, with your “why”. Then determine what the “how” and “what” will look like in your context. 

Agency, in an educational setting, after all is about valuing voice, choice and ownership in one’s learning. A good start would be linking to the concept of this blog post — that of celebrating process, rather than product.

Growth does not have to be measured in grades or letters. Things are changing (albeit at a snail-like pace). Heck, even Harvard is pondering the very notion.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this rather lengthy post!

I’ll also leave you with John Spencer’s, less than two minute, amazing video about what happens when students own their own learning (this message and more is also evident in his and Julianni’s astounding book, Empower).


In what ways do you celebrate the journey over the destination?

What other ways that you track the growth of your learners beyond grades and numbers?

What are some of the ways you’ve “let go” and have introduced learner agency this year?
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Please add the answers to these, your feedback, comments, and/or suggestions below!

I do share ideas on this topic and more on Twitter (
@juouelle)!

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Constantly Provoking Our Own Thinking

There is no doubt that the concept of student agency is out there in the education community. However, it seems that many of the conversations seem to be mainly floating around the pedagogical level, with the main focus being “How do we do it?”

I think if we, as an education community, remain only on the pedagogical level, then we’re missing the point.

Conversations about student agency need to dive down below the pedagogical to the philosophical and also political level. As educators we must be critically thinking about and engaging in conversations centering around: power, compliance, control, democracy, freedom and children’s rights. Specifically what those concepts look like… or don’t look like… or should look like… in schools and classrooms.

Yet, this is quite hard hard to do because many of us are products of the education system ourselves. Which means we have 20, 30, 40+ years in the current paradigm – both as students and then as educators. This can make it very difficult for us to stand outside the system in order to objectively and critically analyze it.

So I think it’s crucial that we continue to provoke our own thinking, and each other’s thinking, about these concepts. And one of the best ways we can do that is by choosing to expose ourselves and each other to provocations. Different stimuli that make us confront our own thoughts and feelings and presumptions and biases. Things that make us not only think, but also feel. Things that provoke our emotions, as a way to notice, explore and understand our own thinking.

Over the past year I’ve been slowly collecting an array of provocative quotes, tweets, images, cartoons and sketchnotes that I’ve come across that have provoked my own thinking and emotions. I’ve begun to share them in the workshops I lead about student agency to help other educators confront their thinking and feelings too. So I thought, why not share them here as well!?

So here is my personal collection of student agency provocations to get us, as a larger education community, feeling… thinking… discussing… not just about the “how” of student agency, but more importantly about the “why”.

(Links to more provocations)

Agency and the rise of “new power” (article)

Sir Ken Robinson – Bring on the learning revolution (Ted Talk)

Sir Ken Robinson – Do schools kill creativity? (Ted Talk)

7 Sins of our Forced Education System (article)

What works can hurt – side effects in education (academic journal) (and keynote speech)

The Future of Human Work is Imagination, Creativity and Strategy (article)

The role agency plays in happy children (article)

What kids need from grown-ups, but aren’t getting (article)

10 provocative quotes from “Deschooling Society” (article)

The case for the self-driven child (book review/interview with author)

Why school is not ready for us (Tedx Talk)

What skills will employers value in 2020? (article)

Kids don’t fail school… school fails kids (article)

Are we ready for exponential change (video)

What works may hurt – side effects in education (video)

What student agency provocations would you add to the collection?

What has helped provoke your thinking about power, compliance, control, freedom and children’s rights?

Agency in assemblies

Have you ever been an audience member at a school assembly/performance and either struggled to be entirely attentive or even worse, awake? I don’t know about you, but I have struggled with both for the majority of school assemblies that I have attended both as a student and educator.

For me, this leads to an interesting inquiry…

Are whole school assemblies still needed in 21st century learning models?

Some things that come to mind to advocate for their relevance may be:

  • Whole school celebrations/announcements/messages/initiatives
  • Giving students opportunities to display skills to mixed aged groups and the wider community
  • Giving the wider community an opportunity to join in on events at the school​

Image credit: Jaime Fernández | Pexels.com

What can assemblies still offer students in the 21st century?

I think for the people performing, it is a worthwhile experience. Particularly for students developing their communication skills and other skills the performance may require. Stepping out of your comfort zone, after all, is where the magic happens! Moreover, if the performers have voice, choice and ownership in what they are presenting, assembly performances would help strengthen neural pathways in their development of these skills, since they are likely intrinsically motivated to be there.

However, as an audience member, how much agency is really offered in a typical school assembly?

Here’s the gut check. It is highly likely that your school’s assemblies consist of a regimen that is far from agentic. Masses march on down to a central meeting space and are forced into some presenter centered environment. The audience norms are to be still, quiet, and attentive (i.e. compliant) for often too lengthy a period of time, dealing with the uncomfortable seating arrangement that the setting has to offer. As a result of this, behavior outcomes aren’t always ideal and some students and teachers leave frustrated or more. 

Disclosure: I am not sitting on a pious perch. I, too, am guilty of engaging in this routine. Organizational compliance is a tough animal to beat sometimes. However, if we advocate for working alternatives, then why not be the voice of change?

Are all assemblies robbers of joy?

No. I’ll argue that assemblies, in moderation, offer nice opportunities to show support for your fellow community members and the learning that is taking place. In addition, sometimes a whole school celebration (or unfortunate mourning) is necessary.

However, I’ve yet to encounter a school where a schedule of multiple grade level assemblies hasn’t been the expected norm in the yearly planning.

So how could we move toward offering more agency in assemblies? 

Instead of droning on with the same old, same old “compliance festival”, how can we “flip” the model to offer more agency for both presenters and audience? How can we still honor opportunities for learners to display their skills to a wider audience, allow for the greater community to celebrate this learning as an audience, and try to resolve the boredom crisis of the assembly model?


Photo credit: Guilherme Almeida | Pexels.com

One solution: The workshop approach

​By no means am I proclaiming that this is the best, nor the only way to offer more agency in assemblies. However, I will describe what my team and I do, and the perceived benefits. 

The context (i.e. Where the magic happens)

First, I’d like to mention how fortunate I am to work in an environment where “I wonder if…” or “What if…” ideas and innovations are celebrated. Generally speaking, if it’s going to be good for the kids, then my organization encourages us to try it. In addition, this idea is not my innovation or brainchild; it is the result of collective values and ideas of my awesome team, which includes the administration staff that supports us. In fact, this idea doesn’t rest solely within our grade level, as I’ve seen the grade threes run workshops for kids older and younger than them, too!

What is this place you speak of?

I work in an awesome environment called Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, or ISHCMC for short. Studio 5 is built upon personalized learning and putting the learner at the center. It is an environment that highly values student agency.


The Studio 5 logo at ISHCMC

The workshop approach explained

Like all other schools I have worked for, the yearly calendar at ISHCMC includes multiple grade level assemblies. A  select few of these assemblies still remain the same, however, the rest tend to lend themselves toward more innovative interpretation.

A non-negotiable is that we, as a grade level, are expected to offer several assemblies for grades 2-4. This translates to about 16 classrooms. Traditionally, that would mean all 16 classrooms would gather en masse in one location. Our grade level would have to collectively decide on a performance theme, then, possibly, the learners may have some voice, choice and ownership of what the presenting could look like within the context of that theme. At least in my 15 years of teaching at quite a few schools, that’s the way that it has gone. It’s also how I remember it as a learner myself.

Our alternative approach is that we gather as a studio (grade-level), and have a transparent discussion. We, both advisors and learners, discuss the non-negotiable timetable aspect of offering something to grades 2-4 and giving parents a chance to celebrate some of the amazing learning happening at ISHCMC. Then, like the majority of things that happen within Studio 5, we equally include the learners in planning of what it could look like. More often than not, students tend to gravitate to wanting to offer workshops over anything else.

What does it typically look like?

Students in Studio 5 are owners of their own learning and engage in self-directed units of inquiry, or as we call SDUoIs (think PYPx, but more frequently). They’re all, to some degree, “experts”, in a wide variety of topics that they’re intrinsically motivated about. This “expertise” covers a diverse range from computational thinking, design, “Chefsperts”, “Sportspertise”, “Craftsperts” and more.

Given this experience, workshops tend to make sense. We give the kids opportunities to lead in mixed age groups, which, as Dr. Peter Gray posits, allows children to learn more efficiently within their Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development (i.e. ZPD). For example, an 8 year old child has a much better chance of understanding how to dribble in basketball from a 10 year old, rather than an adult who may have had years of experience playing the sport.

In Studio 5, the expectation is that we have a shared common agreement and responsibility in taking our learning public beyond the PYPx at least once throughout the year. So, come assembly time, getting volunteers for workshops tends to be quite simple.

From there, we, as advisors, provide scaffolding and support in order for the children to be successful in their workshops. We hold workshop meetings, mini inquiries into what makes a good workshop, help them with choosing the right year level for them, contacting the right people, booking resources, providing opportunities for feedback and more. Come workshop day, they’re more than prepared to lead. 


How Studio 5 advisors help track and support workshop leaders.
Data organization credit: Jenny Morley

Come worshop day, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the pictures…

Photo credit: Ha Thien, Kim Han, Thuy Pham and Stephen Flett

What’s the big why for the students to run workshops over assemblies? 

To them, it makes a lot of sense:

  • Engagement: Hands on for the audience; less watching, more doing.
  • Smaller audience = less intimidation
  • Empowering and energizing: It’s fun and exciting to run a workshop on things you love and sharing that passion with others.
  • Agency: They get choice on who they want to present with, the topic, the class, and the audience size

What are some of the advantages for the audience?

  • Experiential learning rather than merely observing an experience
  • More comfortable environment: Often their classroom, but sometimes in outdoor spaces or in the kitchen.

What could we do better?

  • Having workshop leaders send formal emails to their parents to come in, attend and participate in their workshop. Parents do know informally through the children and wider school communication letters.


A call to action!
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If you resonated with any of the above, why not give the workshop approach a go? Start with a design thinker’s approach – empathize with your stakeholders and come up with your collective why.


Photo credit: MrJanzen 1984 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
Wikimedia Commons

What are your thoughts?

Do you have any creative alternatives to adding more agency in assemblies? What are your thoughts as to whether or not assemblies still fit within 21st century learning? 

Connect with this author on Twitter – @juouelle

Studio 3 & Skillz Studio

I am fortunate to be working at a school that understands education needs to change in order for students to be prepared for their very different future that lies ahead of them. ISHCMC encourages us to experiment with new ideas in the classroom and push traditional boundaries.

The whole school has been moving towards something I strongly believe in and have been pushing for since I arrived; shifting the focus from knowledge-based curriculums to skills-based teaching and learning.

Last year, my colleagues and I in Grade 3 started experimenting with ways to change our units to be more skills focused and allow students more agency. I wrote about our experience last year. We keep moving forward, learning from our mistakes, and trying out new ideas.

This year we decided to do something a little different, and so far it has been working quite successfully.

We are an IB school and instead of doing 6 consecutive Units of Inquiry, we decided to make 2 of them yearlong. We did a yearlong focus on Who We Are (where students explored all the skill families) and How We Organize Ourselves (focused on digital tools and self-management skills). This took some organization ourselves, as we needed to make sure we planned in advance for students to check back into these units, reflect on their learning, and record their reflections for reporting.

We decided to focus all of our units around “skill families.” We started with Who We Are, which exposed students to all the skill families and they reflected on their areas of strength and growth. We then planned to explicitly teach and assess skills through each the units. In addition, we ordered and structured units so that the skills built on each other. Skills that were explicitly taught during one unit were then used in the following unit, but not explicitly focused on.

  • Who We Are – All skill families
  • How We Organize Ourselves – Self-Management Skills
  • How the World Works – Social Skills
  • How We Express Ourselves – Communication Skills
  • Where We Are in Place and Time – Research Skills
  • Sharing the Planet – Thinking Skills (although this skill overlaps with others)

Finally, we also added what we call “Skillz Studio” to the end of each unit. These are 1 to 2 week slots where students take over their schedule, have significant agency and focus further on the on the particular set of skills they just learned in addition to using and reflecting on their self-management skills.

We just completed our second Skillz Studio after our How We Express Ourselves unit. This unit focused on communication skills and students inquired into the central idea: “Skills and Techniques influence how performers tell a story.” Through the unit, students developed their speaking, non-verbal and presentation skills through reader’s theater performances. At the end of the unit, during Skillz Studio, students had the opportunity to use the communication skills they developed by creating their own presentations. Some chose to work independently, while others chose to work collaboratively. They chose stories to tell, either writing their own or adapting stories already written. They then spent almost 2 weeks managing their own time (self-management skills) to prepare and present their story in their choice and style (communication skills).

There were a wonderful variety of stories and presentation methods, such as stop animation, puppet shows, live movies, dances, mini-musicals, podcasts, etc…

How do you assess this type of learning? Each student chose 3 specific sub-skills, or techniques, that they wanted to develop over studio time. For example, a student who wanted to develop speaking skills might choose to specifically focus on “speaking loudly and clearly” or “using expression, emotion, and exaggeration when performing.” Of course, all of the different techniques were developed with the students. We kept a record of their skills on the wall too, so that we could see who else was working on the same techniques and check back in and make sure they were focused on their goals. We also had daily reflections on Seesaw and on the board to make sure they were on track to complete their projects.

In the end, students presented their work to the community in an exhibition. They received feedback from their parents, other parents, teachers, and their peers. Students talked about the skills they learned and used to create their presentations and the growth they made over the studio time.

Most were incredibly successful in their projects, but others struggled, especially with their self-management skills, needing support to complete their projects. This is all part of the learning though, as often failure and struggle is the best form of learning.

For their final report, students, parents, and teachers created it jointly.

Before Skillz Studio, students reflected on what they were going to do, which skills they were going to focus on and why. After studio time, their parents reflected on the skills their child improved the most in, need to continue developing, and how they have grown. Then, students reflected again after their parents about the skill they improved the most in, the skill they are the best at, and the skill they still need to develop. They also reflected on how they have grown and changed as a performer.

This narrative constituted the written portion of their report. There were also tick boxes for each of the communication and self-management skills. As their teacher, I marked where I thought each student was, based on the Gradual Increase of Independence (developed by @OrenjiButa). I then had meetings with each student to discuss where they thought they were in each skill. Using evidence that I had, and evidence from the students, we negotiated their final marks together.

I absolutely love this style of assessment as it gets to the truth. Instead of just having the teacher be the judge and jury, the assessment comes from students, parents, peers, and teachers.

So far, this style of teaching and assessing skills has been quite successful. The units give students a chance to learn about the specific skills and develop them. Then the studio time at the end gives them a chance to really use the skills and be independent. Our next unit is focused on research skills, and I’m looking forward to it!

Of course, this is still a work in progress and we are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills and prepare students for Studio 5 and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts are much appreciated!

“Trans-Articulation”: What if our POI can create a future world that works for everyone?

I woke up feeling electric. My body simply can’t take any coffee, so I made a cup of Good Earth herbal tea. Its tea tag contained the message:

Tag Your It Winner:

Good ideas are laughed at in the beginning. 

-Katrucha Huork

I’m not sure if this is an omen.

As a disclaimer, I’m not in the habit of reposting from my personal blog on this website, but I’d like to share some musings that are slightly edited from my personal blog post, Future Thinking: Evolving as a Part of Enhancing A #PYP Programme Of Inquiry  in an effort to open a larger dialogue around what it means to be a PYP school. Thanks for indulging my ideas and responding to how we might “evolve” the PYP curriculum.


Not everyone wakes up on a Sunday morning and sketches out ideas for a Programme of Inquiry (POI), but I’ve been reflecting for a while on my experience from last spring when I went to the IB’s headquarters in the Hague to help design sample POIs for the Enhanced PYP initiative (see the Teacher Support Materials that can be accessed in the MyIB section of the main page for those samples in PYP resources). During that time, our teams sat down and began to create POIs that were structurally synergistic, organized so that there was more conceptual coherence and personalized to the uniqueness of that school reality and age group. In the blog post, #PYP: What is a Successful Programme of Inquiry?, I articulated the intention that was foundational in creating those sample POIs, but I’m starting to consider this definition of “success” as my “first thinking” when I consider what it might mean to “enhance” something.

Probably all you English scholars know that the word “enhance” is a transitive verb, meaning that this verb is relational and influential. enhanced pyp I find it an interesting word choice by the IB in its re-branding effort. So their call to “enhance” our Primary Years Programme has got me lingering on what it is that we want to elevate in the learning experience.  Visually, “Agency” has now become the symbolic heart of the PYP’s graphic. I think many educators are painting a picture of what that can look like on this blog, with a multitude of examples of how teachers are pivoting towards an agentic pedagogical approach. Currently, I am enamored with Rick Hanson’s definition of agency from his book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness , which I’d like to share with you:

Agency is the ability to look for ways to cause an effect. It’s a sense of internal freedom when you make something happen.

Hmm…..when I consider that interpretation, my eyes begin to widen its focus upon the outer ring’s message of this enhanced PYP graphic: “Building For the Future”.  Should we not, as PYP educators, be contemplating what sort of future we wish to build? We often undermine our influence of the big picture of how society and culture are developed over time through our educational paradigms. Educators have played a big role in creating the Millennial-generation, and we are helping to create the next generation of global citizens. We shouldn’t take these things lightly, and in fact, I think we should be much more intentional with our power and ability to transform our human experience and life on Earth. We should look for ways to cause an effect….because we have the freedom to make something happen. For example, it seems obvious to me that the intelligent and thoughtful people at the United Nation’s know this, which is why they have created a call to action with the #TeachSDGsmovement. Our schools should be seriously considering how we might achieve those 17 goals by 2030, because this is certainly one way to shape our schools’ POIs which is in alignment with the PYP curricular framework and values of the IB.

A Second Thought

As I reflect back to that Hague experience, I feel that this initial approach to considering what it means to “enhance” the design of the POI is still ongoing. If you look carefully at those Sample POIs, you would notice that they don’t really deviate much from each other. Because at the end of the day, whether we were using national curricular standards or the IB’s Scope and Sequence, the challenges with using either the standards-based vs. concept-based curriculum results in more similarities than exceptions when creating the units of inquiries. I think this a testimony to the strength of the PYP framework and transdisciplinary learning with how translatable it is to a variety of educational settings.  However, when I read books like Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly and  How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweil, I begin to wonder if our current POIs are teaching towards the past or preparing for the imminent reality of our students. Are we, as schools, engaged in future-building, with meaningful and forward-thinking POIs, or clinging onto industrial-age ideas.

I’m not sure how familiar you are with those books, so I’d like to share a quote that persistently plagues me from Homo Deus:

As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubject reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the 21st century, fiction might thereby become the most potent force on Earth…hence, if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that make meaning in our world……Fiction isn’t bad. It’s vital. Without commonly accepted stories about money, states or coorporations, no complex human society can function. We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of the markets and courts without simliar make-believe stories. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality.

Yuval Noah Harari, from Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

I’ve been marinating in those words for over a year. Curious about what could be the “story” we are telling ourselves now about our future and how we can use it as a “tool”. I know that some feel that the book Future Shock is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what if we could choose another direction, one in which we meet the disruption that advancing technology will bring with creativity, grace, and intention. I believe wholeheartedly in that possibility, which is why I’ve been working on developing online courses for well-being in the digital age. I feel strongly that we should not resist technology but instead embrace it and use it to promote greater health and improve our relationships. That is the empowering “story” I wish to tell.

And today, I woke up, feeling alive, wanting to create a POI that was bathed in an over-reaching goal of developing well-being because I think that is the “fiction” I’d like to cultivate in the intersubjective (socially agreed upon) future reality of students. Here are the main 6 concepts that I feel need to be unpacked and gone into depth over the course of a student’s PYP experience within our 6 transdisciplinary themes.

  1. Sustainability (Production and Consumption):  because we need to shift from scarcity to ingenuity.
  2. Entrepreneurship: because we need to shift from profit-orientated goals to positive contributions in society.
  3. Computational Thinking: because we have to understand the algorithms of life and how we can co-evolve with exponential machine learning.
  4. Digital Citizenship: because online relationships and media are influencing us and our society. We need to navigate this reality skillfully.
  5. Social Emotional Learning: because attention and emotional awareness is vital to our health and is the new currency in our economy.
  6. Imagination (and Poetry): because creativity is the by-product of imagination, and we need to find more beautiful ways to express it.

I’ve started to create potential POIs that take these main concepts and build them out so that the overall force of the programme is one that develops well-bing: resilience, awareness, positive outlook and generosity. It’s really hard to translate these ideas into words without a fully fleshed out sample POI to show as a model but hopefully, the spirit of this quest has been communicated and I will have something completed soon that I can show as an example.

An Invitation

Now, whether you agree with me or not about what concepts need to be on a future-orientated whole-school POI isn’t the point but I do hope to open up a debate. I know in schools that are moving towards personalized learning culture, very broad and general central ideas are highly valued so that there is a lot of flexibility in the direction of a student’s inquiry. In my own experience, I am grappling with casting such a wide net with central ideas in the curriculum, uncertain if the overall outcome behooves the students and is manageable for teachers. But the purpose of this post is not to incite discussion around central ideas, but instead to provoke a re-examination of “the big picture” of your current school’s POI and reflect upon the future that you want to create through the curriculum.  Especially in schools that have authorized programmes, we need to be really challenging ourselves, moving beyond horizontal and vertical alignment and articulation. I’m beginning to have a new working definition of the Enhanced PYP: “trans-articulation”, which is less about ticking boxes and more about growing the future today, evolving consciously and actively within our curriculum approach.

As always, I hope you share your reflections, wonderings and concerns in the comments below.

The Power of the SDG’s

This was originally posted in authors personal blog Empower 2 Be…

Now, let me start by highlighting a few embarrassing admissions…1. I am not a vegan or vegetarian but fully believe we all should be, 2. while I believe in the fair treatment for all living things I do NOT do enough to make this happen! 3. I know I should recycle and do everything I can to protect our environment but I am often LAZY and don’t make it a high enough priority! I don’t mind people being on their “soapboxes” about the above issues because we need more of the world to be sharing those boxes if we want to improve the mess that we have made!

In short, I am the biggest factor as to why the world is in the physical state it is in. Now I am not saying that I am the singular cause for all the devastation but I am part of the problem…the reason being that I am not an anomaly…in fact, I will put it out there and say I think I may be a sad example of the norm. I WANT to do more, I KNOW I should do more, BUT I DON’T!

As an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IBPYP) teacher for the last 15 years, action has always been part of the plan. Getting our students to take action and DO SOMETHING from what they have learned in class. My big issue with this has always been that this action has normally been teacher initiated OR forced OR superficial OR a one-off event OR inauthentic OR ABSENT altogether! It has always been a challenge for me…how do I bring this great learning that is happening and enable the students to recognize the action they can take that is both authentic and sustainable?

In 2015 the United Nations did educators all around the world a HUGE favour! They released the Sustainable Development Goals…the SDG’s! At first, I wasn’t aware of the power that these 17 ambitious goals had but 3 years later (has it only been 3 years?) classroom teaching has changed forever!

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What started off 3 years ago as forcing connections between what we are doing in the classroom to the SDG’s is now a case of units changing and evolving as we see ways that we can make more authentic opportunities for our students to see the power that they have as leaders in helping the world achieve these goals! What started off being a blanket decision of “all grade levels will connect at least two units to an SDG throughout the year” has now resulted in many grade levels connected all of their units and representing ALL of the 17 SDG’s throughout the school year.

I am lucky to work in a school that has adopted the SDG’s as a leading force to all that we do. The SDG’s are up around the school, EVERYWHERE! We hosted the first IB Regional Conference that was themed around the SDG’s and ALL students, from the 3-year-olds in Discovery to the 18-year-olds doing the diploma, are exposed to them. The result is that 3 years in I am no longer having to “introduce” my 4th graders to the SDG’s as they already know them! We are now able to take our knowledge and build on it and use our voices to work towards them.

Here are some ideas that my students wanted me to share:

  • start up a group of “SDG Guardians” in your school! Warriors, who come together every week and discuss and implement ways to spread the word of the SDG’s throughout the school and local community #SDGguardians
  • challenge your students to implement Teaspoons of Change
  • facilitate the inquiry of your students learning about the SDG’s! What can they find? What do they connect with?
  • have your older students make SDG board games to play with your younger grade levels that will teach them about the goals and what they can be doing
  • connect with Teach SDG’s to find more ways to embed the SDG’s into your classrooms #teachSDGs
  • have your PYPx students work towards an SDG for their exhibition! Challenge them…can their work lead to a sustainable change?
  • empower your students to look around the school and find changes that can be made towards different SDG’s (for example…is your school still laminating? What is all this plastic doing to the ocean?)
  • connect with NGO’s and organizations in your community who are working towards one or more of the SDG’s…how can you work together to make a bigger impact?
  • incorporate the design cycle and inquiry cycle into their learning process…can the design cycle be part of the “taking it further” with the inquiry cycle?

What I have noticed in the last three years is that the more student agency I enable the more sustainable and meaningful the connections the students are making! Last year our 4th graders were able to choose the SDG they felt the most passionate about. They created a social enterprise and used their profits from their market day to work toward making their action proposal a reality! (see my previous blog post for more information!) This year it has been incredible to hear that some of these students have continued on with what they started, in grade 5 and are running bake sales and lemonade stands at school and in the local dog park, to continue working with the NGO they connected with in grade 4.

 

I have noticed that each year the students come in with a greater understanding of the SDG’s and a more heightened motivation to take action! We have students advocating for equal rights for girls and boys on the soccer pitch and meeting with the athletics department, students convincing peers to purchase bamboo straws as prizes for their SDG game rather than candy because the candy is wrapped in plastic, making recycling boxes for the classrooms, marching in the local LGBT parade to support equality for all…the list grows every year! To me, this is the power of a “whole school approach”! If the message is the same every year and the approach is through empowering self-initiated action NOT forced teacher-driven tasks, our learners will learn what power they actually possess to make a change!

As an educator and a facilitator of learning for my class of little humans, it is MY responsibility to ignite in them a passion to take action and make changes so that they don’t become another me! They need to DO more, ACT better and INSPIRE the older, and younger, generations to make a change!

Parents + Student-Directed Learning = ?

Originally posted on my personal blog empower2b.

So this week I was faced with the challenge of introducing the unfamiliar approach of student-directed learning to the families in my class. I knew many had heard about it through their children and was already getting many questions about it. I assured them that all would be answered and addressed at my Back To School Night presentation before the students were too far into the process of establishing their routines.

I know my class this year and their excited little selves were going home exclaiming things such as:

  • I don’t have to do any math if I don’t want to!
  • I get to do what I want, ALL of the time!
  • Ms. Mel TRUSTS ME to take responsibility for my learning, I am in charge!

Now I am not a parent but I KNOW that if I was and I was being told these things by my 4th grader I would be wondering what the hell was going on up there at the school! So I had to make a plan and address a few key points at Back To School Night that would reassure them that I have not devised a plan that would allow me to sit on Facebook (NB.I don’t even have an account) while the kids had free reign over their day!

STEP 1: What are the key takeaways that I wanted all parents to leave understanding at the end of my 30-minute presentation? This is what I decided were the priority…

  1. The purpose of student-directed learning.
  2. What SDL looks like in the classroom.
  3. How the curriculum requirements are met.
  4. SDL allows me to meet the individual needs of ALL of my students.
  5. SDL enables the students to gain a deep meaning of concepts.
  6. SDL is an authentic way for students to develop skills such as time management.

This is a lot of information to cover in a 30-minute presentation which also requires me to ensure that the parents “get to know me” and the different aspects of the school day. It was time to get creative!

STEP 2: Putting together the presentation.
Over the previous two years, I have presented on how I am creating a student-directed learning environment. These were my starting points of what I was going to put into the presentation. I included many photos of the students during the different stages of the week as well as some clips of the students explaining what their week looks like (last year this was a “Could” do activity for them to include in their portfolios and have come in useful for me as well!).

STEP 3: Creating a hook.

So we always teach the students to “hook their audience”, wouldn’t it be better if I tried to do the same thing? When thinking about explaining the purpose of SDL I took to Twitter to see what I could find that other people were doing and I saw that a teacher had asked their parents to fill out a graph where she was tracking the age the students in her class first started walking. What a fantastic idea (I wish I knew who it came from so I could site this great idea!)! I HAD FOUND MY HOOK!

STEP 4: Presenting to the parents

On the night of Back to School Night, I asked the parents when they arrived to put their child’s name on the graph. It was a great way of explaining to the parents about the value of differentiation. Why is it that we are ok with the students gaining skills as babies at different stages yet we want them to all be learning at the same pace and time when they get to school? The graph enabled them to see that their children all learned to walk, talk, and crawl at different stages.

I highlighted that by allowing the students to be directors of their learning in the classroom they will be able to schedule their tasks when it suits THEIR learning styles. If they find a task challenging they can schedule this at their prime learning time of the day (we have spent a lot of time discussing whether they are morning or afternoon people and how this affects their focus at these times). I also was able to show the parents the different structures in place that the students will be using to help them with the process.

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I then showed them some of the reflections from the students from last year, including a video of them that a group of students put together for their portfolios at the end of the year. The parents were able to see the ability I will have to offer a more individualized program for their students.

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Step 5: Parent Feedback

Following back to school night it has been exciting to hear from some parents who came along. Here is what two of them had to say…

“Thank you also for introducing your way of teaching and your ideas about it. I was really impressed and love the idea of being responsible for the students own learning. As a trainer for life balance and relaxation I  – of course – appreciate the idea to somehow adapt the schedule to one’s own biorhythm! It is a quite progressive idea and I LOVE IT and support it!!”

“Thank you for the great presentation you gave on Back to School night. I really appreciated hearing more about your approach and I am excited to follow … development of his schedule and learning this year.”

The most exciting part for me though was the feedback from my students the following day. They were so excited to have been talking with their parents about the different things that they have been doing in the classroom and the new understanding that they have of themselves as learners. This is the best result for me, to have the students connecting with their parents and sharing the learning journey with them.

Step 6: The future

I have invited parents to come in and be involved in the classroom and see how it all works. I believe that an “open door policy” is the best way for the parents to feel included and informed about how their students are learning. I look forward to seeing how the year progresses and am hopeful the parents will be with us for the journey…and now understand that their students are still doing math every day 😉