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!

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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 😉

Agency…Empowering students to direct their own learning

Originally posted on my personal blog empower2b.

In a world that is constantly changing, how is the education system going to evolve? Senge et al. (2012) suggest it is time to move away from the traditional schooling system that originated from the industrial era. This is an opinion is evident in the movement seen in education recently. According to Holland (2015), “…2016 may be the year of student agency — the ability to act independently within a given environment and assume an amount of control and empowerment” (Holland, 2015, para. 1). In the second half of 2018, this self-directed learning movement is gaining momentum as schools and organisations, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), make student agency the main focus. Pushing outside comfort zones as educators and looking at how to elevate the learning environment for each individual learner is the first step to innovative teaching. (Couros, 2015)

In order to enhance opportunities for students to develop a skill set to enable them to be successful in employment that may not currently exist, educators need to be risk-takers and push past boundaries of the familiar. It is no longer possible to offer the “same” experience that has always been provided and be satisfied and successful professionally. Classroom diversity is also a realistic norm in today’s schools with class populations offering a range in academic level, cultures, beliefs and the life experiences children have had. This is particularly the case in the international school setting and educators need to cater to class populations that do not fit the one-size-fits-all mould. So how? How do schools encourage their educators to create a learning environment that provides individualised programs to ALL students, no matter their needs? When preparing for lessons, how can students be guided to take more responsibility for their learning journey? The answer is agency!

“Students have a sense of “agency” when they feel in control of things that happen around them; when they feel that they can influence events. This an important sense for learners to develop. They need to be active participants in their learning.” (NZ Ministry of Education, 2016)
Couros (2015) states that students “…must learn to collaborate with others from around the world to develop solutions for problems. Even more importantly, our students must learn how to ask the right questions – questions that will challenge old systems and inspire growth.” (Couros, 2015.) The concept of ‘agency’ is not a new educational term; many may argue that teachers have always been looking for ways to individualise learning for their students. John Dewey talked about the importance of student-directed learning in 1938 when he highlighted “that students should assume an active role in their learning process so as to develop the skills for becoming successful members of their communities.” (Holland, 2016, para. 6)  Agency enables all of this to happen!

The IB is currently releasing a series of enhancements to their Primary Years Programme (PYP), and one of the major changes for the programme is the inclusion, and indeed focus, on student agency. The PYP defines agency as being  “… the power to take meaningful and intentional action, and acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of the individual, supporting voice, choice and ownership for everyone in the learning community.” (IBO, 2017) Stevens (2016) believes that creating opportunities for students to have a voice and choice towards their own learning journey enables them to “…feel that that their opinions and ideas are heard and valued by their peers and teachers, they’re much more likely to be engaged with their education.” (Stevens, 2016, para. 1)

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Figure 1. IB PYP enhanced organizing structure. This figure illustrates the structure the PYP will take beginning in 2019.

Through voice and choice students are empowered to have a say in what their learning journey should look like, resulting in them believing that they are in control of their growth. It is difficult to see how you can have agency without empowering the students; in fact, Kearns (2017) suggests that “empowerment is synonymous with agency.” (Kearns, 2017, para. 9)

Levinson (2016) suggests the students of today are using the knowledge and skills that they are developing outside of the classroom to move them forward and often beyond what their teachers are aware of. Enabling a self-directed approach in the classroom allows students to have the agency to use skills to further develop inside the classroom and possibly assisting those they are with.  One goal of agency is student action. Action is an essential element of all IB programmes and can take various forms, such as: social justice lifestyle choices, participation, social entrepreneurship, and advocacy. (IBO, 2017)
Agency can take many different forms and like its purpose with students, enables educators to create an individualised environment in their classrooms. However, in ALL cases where agency is the goal, student-directed learning should always remain the focus. Students will have increased choice and voice throughout their day or in the way they organize their learning. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Personalising learning through individual schedules
  • Teacher- and student-led workshops that students can sign up for
  • Creating physical learning environments to support the social, physical and emotional well-being
  • Creating a culture of respect in the classrooms in which students feel supported to take risks and be accountable, even when they make mistakes.
  • Collaborating and co-constructing learning and learning goals.
  • Genius Hour / iTime / 20% Time / Passion Projects

Opportunities to create agency in the classroom

When changing the climate of the classroom into one that is focused on being student directed, a fun and empowering place to start is the physical environment. Merrill (2018) states, “Flexible spaces, educators agree, alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and undermining the typical face-forward orientation of the traditional learning environment.” (para.15) When establishing a class climate at the beginning of the year, task the students in the class to “create” their classroom environment (Refer to figure 4 for an example of the classroom environment one class created during a mathematics geometry unit.).

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Figure 2. Taylor (2017) Flexible learning space.  This figure illustrates the results of a student-designed classroom during a transdisciplinary mathematics unit.

 

When teachers create a flexible learning environment the students will be empowered with the agency to develop their weekly goals and to sign up for focused teaching groups with the teachers or with students who believe their enhanced level of understanding will enable them to teach their peers. This will assist them in gaining a greater awareness of their strengths and weaknesses academically and also encourage them to be proactive in deepening their understanding. To assist students in gaining a more accurate self-awareness, they reflect on their learning of the literacy and numeracy achievement standards. They explain their decisions of where to place each standard by providing of their evidence of learning.

 

In his presentation at the Learning 2 conference Sam Sherratt (2018) discussed the importance of moving students away from being compliant and, instead, empowering them to take the lead. Stephen Downes (2010) states, “We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.” (Couros, 2015, p. 31) In an upper elementary school classroom, students are taught how to create their own weekly schedule.  Using their weekly goals the students decide upon the focused workshops and tasks that they will undertake throughout the week. With guidance from their teacher students focus on ensuring they have a balance of curriculum areas, a range of independent versus group work opportunities, and also meeting their individual needs with focused instruction.

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Figure 3. Empowered to create. This figure illustrates the student’s taking responsibility to schedule their weekly lessons and sign up for workshops.
Senge (2012) highlights the importance of students learning by being “alive”, and not compartmentalized into subjects that are looked at in isolation. In the IB PYP the focus is on providing the students with a transdisciplinary curriculum where different subjects are taught and connected simultaneously.  “Understanding a world of interdependency and change rather than memorizing facts and striving for right answers” (Senge et al., 2012, p. 65) is the goal. Through the units of inquiry undertaken throughout the year, the focus on content is overtaken by the importance of teaching concepts and skills. It is through the transdisciplinary inquiry that students get to take true control over their learning and achieve a level of learning that is authentic and connected to the wider world. Through asking questions and making connections between the key concepts and the different curriculum areas, the students can gain a realistic understanding of the unit. Assessments are no longer based purely on the content being addressed but instead a reflection of the learning they had made. This learning could be in literacy or maths but also the skills they developed and the connections they had made.

A real example of how agency can lead to authentic action

As students of the United Nations International School (UNIS), there is a level of responsibility to take action and help make improvements in the wider community.  A culture of student-directed learning and agency helps make this process of taking action a more authentic one. As students set their learning goals for the week, throughout the units of inquiry they set action goals that refer to how they can apply their new understandings practically. With teacher guidance, they are encouraged to look to the broader community, outside of the school, and gain different perspectives on the topics they are looking at.

It is through the transdisciplinary inquiry that students get to take true control over their learning and achieve a level of learning that is authentic and connected to the wider world. Let’s consider a real example. Fourth-grade students are looking at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The teacher introduces the unit and the students ask questions that highlight their wonderings about the topic. Through these discussions and inquiry, the students begin to make connections to the rights of the Vietnamese children that they see outside the school every day. What rights are the local children accessing? What are the different circumstances that affect the rights they have compared to the students at UNIS? Soon the students are exploring a range of different avenues, all connected to the UN convention. They are working individually, in pairs or in small groups. They are emailing the local embassies and UN headquarters asking for information and interviews. They are working with a member of the Vietnamese staff in the school, to organise and attend field trips to the Hanoi Old Quarter to talk with local kids and find out more about them.

All of a sudden their “learning” is real and connected to where they live. They have popped their international school bubble and are seeing the world through a more realistic perspective. Then one day the teacher asks them: “what are you going to do now you have learned all of this?” Brainstorming begins, ideas flow and the excitement levels rise. All of a sudden the question, “As students of the UN, what is my responsibility?” makes sense, and an answer is achievable!

By the end of this unit of inquiry, the students in grade four were taking authentic action! They created social enterprises with a goal of achieving their desired actions towards giving Vietnamese children less fortunate than themselves, access to their rights. The following six weeks, as they worked on their new unit of inquiry, focused on building a small business (in their case, a social enterprise), and keeping in mind their end goal.

Following a successful Grade 4 Market Day, the students jumped straight into planning for their actions. They organised pencil drives for a local charity, went shopping with the school gardener, made gardening kits, and then delivered them to families living on the banks of the Red River; they purchased a Lifestraw water filter and gave it to a small rural community school, and they purchased teddy bears for each of the children in an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. The classroom was buzzing and the students were driven!

Upon reflection, students stated that they felt that they had gained more than just an understanding of the content about children’s rights. They stated that their time management skills, communication skills, and collaborative skills developed significantly and allowed them to take more risks. When reflecting on staying with the transdisciplinary, student-directed approach, they unanimously requested to stay with the new classroom approach. The students want to be held accountable for their learning; they want to be in control of their education journey!

For many educators change inevitably brings a sense of loss to those involved and evokes a number of different positive and negative emotions (Fullan, 2001). For innovation to be successful there needs to be collaboration and buy-in from the entire school community. (C. DeLuca, personal communication 2018) By empowering teachers and other members of the school community to have input and a certain degree of voice and choice, more support for the change will be achieved. (A. Richardson, C.Stander, and M.Taylor, personal communication 2018) Transparency and clarity are necessary in order to ensure that students are meeting the requirements that the school asks for. Inviting teachers into those classrooms where the innovation is in operation is a way for them to visualise the reality, see for themselves what it “can look like”, and to give them the opportunity to ask questions and inquire into the possible concerns they may have.

When communicating with parents, an open-door policy is also a strategy that Taylor (2017) suggests is successful. Provide the background and research for the change with an open invitation for them to come and witness the changes for themselves. Ask for feedback prior to the parents coming into the classroom so that you are able to address these areas during the open house. The key is to remember that parents want what is best for their child and their child’s future. Show them the big picture and the evidence of results.

“If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.” (Couros, 2015, p. 69) and to do this, educators need to be comfortable playing with the unknown and be ready to make mistakes. As a school community, it is important to value a shared vision that is centered around student learning being current and according to the latest research. The priority should always be on preparing the students for their future, not for a future that is now in the past.

References

Couros, G. (2015). The innovators mindset empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Holland, B. (2015, December 9). The Year of Agency. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/the-year-of-agency-beth-holland

International Baccalaureate. (2017, November). The Learner in the enhanced PYP. Retrieved from http://blogs.ibo.org/sharingpyp/files/2017/12/2017-December-The-Learner.pdf.

Kearns, G. (2017, December 11). Why student agency already exists. Retrieved from https://www.renaissance.com/2017/06/01/blog-why-student-agency-already-exists/

Levinson, M. (2016, April 11). Next Generation Learning: Bringing Student Agency Back to Schooling. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/next-generation-learning-student-agency-matt-levinson

Merrill, S. (2018, June 14). Flexible Classrooms: Research Is Scarce, But Promising. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/flexible-classrooms-research-scarce-promising

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2016, November 15). Learner agency. Retrieved from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Curriculum-resources/NZC-Online-blog/Learner-agency

Senge, P. M., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Kleiner, A., Smith, B., & Dutton, J. (2012). Schools that learn.: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Sherratt, S. (2018, April 09). Already breaking moulds: Studio 5. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcM2Sos091Y&list=PLOkeXFURWAFpzz-uzQ-nG-HTv0kq-iy_x&index=7 L2 Talks Europe

Stevens, K. (2016, April 22). 5-Minute Film Festival: Student Voice and Choice. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/film-fest-student-voice-agency

Taylor, M. (2017, December 15). Exciting, authentic, connected…transdisciplinary learning! Retrieved from http://blogs.unishanoi.org/mtaylor/

Where Do I Start????

Changing the way I approached the classroom environment last year completely changed the way I approached my teaching. Letting go of the control I had over where the students sat and how they worked was the first step to me recognizing the power in giving over some control to the students and allowing them to take responsibility for their own learning. By December 2017 I was teaching in an entirely new way that saw less structured scheduling and more voice and choice for my students. I became OBSESSED with reading other peoples ideas and trying them out in my room and I was a skipping record that only talked about the one topic with anyone who would listen to me.

Fast forward to August 2018 and I am STUCK! I have NO IDEA where to begin! I continue to read and see other peoples ideas and love all of them…but where do I start with this new class of students? How do I start the year in the way I closed the previous one? I have to admit I am struggling not to go back to my old ways. I am seeing blogs and tweets about amazing experiences teachers are having in their classrooms as they have their students start on their next learning journey. Disheveled classrooms being created and designed by the learners, tasks being written and undertaken, workshops being offered…the inspiration is endless and I find I have replaced my Facebook (I deactivated my Facebook account over the summer and haven’t looked back!) time suckage with Twitter and blogs…but instead of inspiring me on what I can be doing in my own classroom it is often causing PANIC! Why does it look and seem so easy for these incredible educators and why do I seem to be blocked in finding a way for it to work with my class? I would literally be failing at that point…myself and my new, enthusiastic class of students.

This blog post is not going to be a great one, in fact, I may not even post it…it is me trying to sort out where I am at and where I want to get to, and most importantly, HOW do I get there? On moving up day last school year I sold a great sell to my new class and they have come back raring to go on the student-directed learning journey! My struggle has been how to incorporate the student-directed approach into the community building sessions. How do I introduce the students to the different routines that we will be following and building our new class community while preparing them for a successful transition into a classroom structure that is entirely new to them?

I decided to place a greater focus on the students looking at themselves as learners and who they are as learners. Instead of talking about general aspects of their lives with each other they had a great focus on who they are in their role as a student. The students completed a MICUP (Multiple Intelligence Checklist for Upper Primary) and identified the different categories of intelligence that are their strengths and those that are more challenging. They interviewed each other about their learning preferences when working in the classroom (asking questions such as what time of the day do you feel more focused?). They then used the answers to create “Learner Profiles” of themselves.

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As a class, we brainstormed what we believe our roles are in creating a successful learning environment. We looked at the UN values and the school values and used our understandings in conjunction with what we brainstormed about the ideal classroom and we wrote our own list of values that we will strive to achieve (the students decided to use values rather than work agreements, rules or essential agreements).

 

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As we worked through all of these tasks and activities we continued to reflect on our key learning objective of “I can explain who I am as a learner and how I will work in my class community to achieve success in grade 4.” At the end of the second week of school, we did a class health check where we reflected on how we were feeling as a class. It was a great math lesson where we created criteria and then followed the data handling process of collecting data, recording data, analyzing data and drawing conclusions. The class thought we are doing a great job as 90% rated themselves as feeling between a 7 and 10 out of 10, however, we quickly agreed that it is not a success until everyone in the class are feeling this way. By looking at our class values they quickly came up with an area of focus for next week and possible ways we can help everyone feel emotionally safe in the classroom.

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As I sit here and procrastinate planning for the week ahead I am thinking of where to next…pre-assessments are 90% done, the classroom community is established and now just needs time…but what is the regular school week going to look like? What I am realizing is that I am needing to practice what I preach in my class…I need to be the open-minded one and I need to be balanced when I am preparing for the week ahead. Most importantly though I need to be the risk taker!

How are you going with your start to the year? What has worked and what have you learned to do differently next time?

An ode to my rebel mentors

Ever since I heard Taryn’s story at the #IBSG2018, I have been reflecting deeply on my teaching and learning journey over the last two decades and more. Her talk was inspiring and it was almost like a coming out story that resonated with many of us who have earlier struggled to come out of the classroom closet! She had the courage to come out and share her humble yet powerful story… a simple act of human revolution I’d say, for lack of a better word (I find ‘rebel’ to have this popularly clichéd negative label and now through this blog, over-used). She had the courage to come out and confront constraints and challenges and turn them into opportunities… there was no more room for fear or worry. She had the courage to come out and review and reflect on her teaching practices, so that they ultimately contributed to making learning real and meaningful.

Over the last couple of months, each blog on this alliance has been such a lovely revelation into our own interpretations of Agency in the classroom. Whether through the glimpses into a learning journey, or through some personal reflections, each post has been like a jigsaw piece helping in co-constructing the IB rebels’ understanding of Agency. Interestingly, when I reflected back, I realised that my journey into teaching from Day 1 had been filled with Agency… just that it was not very explicitly talked about or consciously acknowledged by me. Agency had been like the oxygen I was breathing in and out in my classroom, but I had not been mindful of the same.

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With the original mentor… my mom

I take this opportunity to share some of those experiences, simultaneously acknowledging the contribution of some great educational visionaries and leaders, and in many ways educational rebels of their times, who have directly or indirectly mentored me on my own journey.

Where it all began…

I got into teaching by chance at the young age of 21, after a disillusioned year of work in the corporate world, which I was officially trained for. With a historian and author father and a mom who was a college professor, I had teaching in my genes, so to say… and hence, took to the world of education much like fish is in water.

One of my earliest mentors in education, apart from my parents, was Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore needs no introduction. He was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for his famous work ‘Gitanjali’. Being Bengali, I was also steeped in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, as a cultural mandate.

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Don’t miss the rebellious look in Tagore’s eyes

Tagore advised, much before the IB era, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” His educational models of schooling and higher education at Shantiniketan are still matters of research interest, as people from across the world travel to study and learn from one of the earliest global universities of modern times. Reading, singing, acting and dancing to Tagore’s stories, poetry and plays, all through my childhood, I realised early on, that there are many artistic languages that can be used to express our thoughts and emotions and that aesthetics in whatever we do is something worth striving for.

His famous poem reads:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

This was my first immersion into real Learner Agency.

When students make you a teacher

My first teaching experience was in the most amazing Sahyadri School, founded on the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti. He was a noted philosopher and educator who talked greatly about the inquiry model and learning through observation. The Krishnamurti Foundation of India runs some of the oldest and most reputed schools in India and I was fortunate to join one of their newer establishments.

The environment was free, students did not have a uniform, the classes were structured flexibly through the day, and the learning spaces were accessible (especially the Art Room and the fields) through the day. Students were exposed to a wide range of arts and they organized an annual Art fair selling the products they designed and created through the year. The first two batches of students I taught there, walked me on the path of becoming a teacher. And Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education, helped me understand what it meant to be an educator.

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True inquirer

In his 1st talk to students at Rajghat School Banaras, on 4th January 1954, he posed the question “Don’t you ask yourself why you are being educated? Do you know why you are being educated, and what does that education mean?” and after discussions, summarized it as “Proper education is to help the student to meet this life, so that he understands it, he won’t succumb, he won’t be crushed under it as most of us are…. Your education must enable you to understand this pressure, not to yield to it but to understand it and to break through it, so that you, as an individual, as a human being are capable of a great deal of initiative, and not merely traditional thinking. That is real education.”*1

The air was filled with students and teachers having voice, choice and ownership in what they learnt and how they learnt… agency infused the learning environment and culture, so to say. This, being my first experience in teaching, became an anchor in forming my own educational beliefs.

A simple school with a visionary leader

 I was fortunate to thereafter work in a school, where the philosophy was simple… a school is a place for children, and hence, must be run by what children need and want. The students designed the uniform of the school (which included denim bottoms for comfort), the classes were broken down into large group and small group instructions, where students could go for specific lessons of their choice in the smaller groups. Jenny Mosley’s Golden Time and Circle Time were fundamentals of students’ behaviour management, as again the choice to behave in a certain way was placed in the hands of the students themselves. Classes could be held under the shade of a tree, on the field or in the computer lab. Learning could be expressed through the arts.

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With Madhavi Kapur and the core team at Aman Setu

It was a happy place where students and teachers felt empowered, important and inspired! A simple school that was led by a visionary leader, Ms. Madhavi Kapur… became the training grounds for me to not only acquire technical skills, but also to understand the emotional and psychological dynamics of learning. A balance of the head and the heart was guided by Ms. Kapur, and implemented by a great team of teachers and leaders. Today, the foundation in her memory continues to do active work in the field of making learning and education agentic and empowering through its own school called Aman Setu and its own curriculum and training centres!

When paths cross and merge

I had the good fortune of encountering a spiritual and humanistic life philosophy around this time in my journey, based on Nichiren’s Buddhism. As a member of Soka Gakkai International, I began exploring the principles of Soka Education founded by the founding President of the organisation, Mr. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who himself was a reformist educator by profession in Japan in the early 1900s. The current honorary President Dr. Daisaku Ikeda writes, “Education must inspire the faith that each of us has both the power and the responsibility to effect positive change on a global scale.”

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The Soka schools and the Soka Universities (see full list here), follow this basic principle in teaching and learning through their efforts to spread peace, culture and education. Though, I have neither studied nor taught at any Soka institution, practicing this philosophy helped me absorb the tenets of Soka education.

Reminiscing on a teacher’s reflection, “The smallest failure can destroy a child’s confidence, and the smallest catalyst can trigger explosive growth. The challenge for the teacher is to believe in each child’s potential.”*2, I realised that truly believing in students is the best way to empower and inspire them. When we truly believe with our heart that children can become successful in what they wish to pursue on their own interest, we are already opening up the path towards their success! In a way, I realised that if I believed in my potential as an educator, my faith would manifest in my students in the same manner… what could be a more powerful expression of agency than this?

Encountering the IB way

 As my educational beliefs continued to strengthen and get rooted by my personal and professional experiences in life, I was headhunted to work in an IB school near Mumbai. The initial year at the start up got me some IB training and soon I landed myself into a new school, Pathways World School, where I spent close to a decade (Jan 2005 to June 2014). I grew from being a specialist teacher, to being a home room teacher, to becoming a Grade Level Coordinator, followed by leading as a PYP Coordinator and finally doubling the role of a Primary School Coordinator. More recently, I have been heading the Primary Division at my current school, which is Singapore International School, Mumbai. I was also lucky to make it to IBEN in 2011 and also was selected to lead workshops online. Before this begins to sound like my resume, let me explain why I am sharing all this. The IB allowed me to explore so many avenues as an educator thereby giving me so much ‘Agency’. I could play different roles, don different hats and yet at the end of the day, call myself a teacher first.

The IB Mission Statement itself talks about developing ‘inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’ and creating programmes that ‘encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.’. From its inception, Agency has been latently embedded in the IB ethos. Whether it was working as an educator, or as a student, it allows every one to enjoy the process of learning. Everybody becomes a life-long learner.

If we are to promote true international mindedness, we will need to develop the attributes of the Learner Profile and the knowledge, the conceptual understanding, the skills and attitudes and eventually lead students to taking meaningful action. None of this is authentically possible without agency. The process, which reflects in the curriculum as well as the pedagogy, has to be an experiential one, wherein students and teachers together work together to construct meaning and reconstruct new ideas and innovations. Students, teachers and parents need to explore choices and share their voice on issues they feel close to, thereby, taking ownership of that learning.

Student action, as originally conceptualised, could not have happened without Agency. Agency too, has all the attributes of the Learner Profile embedded in itself and here is a correlation I did for the same, which is of course not the only way to represent it.

Slide1At the end of the day, agency as a concept is not new at all. We are becoming more conscious of education being a process of developing independent, life-long learners capable of taking meaningful action. Agency is thus, a journey of inspiring our learners in every possible way to take steps towards good. The culture of a school’s leaders, teachers and parents ultimately determine how authentic agency is at a school.

I end with a quote that seems to summarise it all:

“A school’s CULTURE resides in the hearts and souls of its leadership, teachers, staff and students. A true Culture of Learning will tend to transcend the physical walls of the school and flow out into the community.” Robert John Meehan, Educator, Author, Poet

 

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Sources (except for the ones which are hyperlinked):

*1: http://jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/1954/1954-01-04-jiddu-krishnamurti-1st-talk-to-students

*2: http://www.daisakuikeda.org/main/educator/essays-on-education/treasuring-every-child.html

Image of Rabindranath Tagore: Wikimedia Commons

Image of J Krishnamurti: http://domainededieu.over-blog.com/article-krishnamurti-se-liberer-du-connu-74291562.html

Image of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda: http://www.sgipanama.com