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 😉

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Student Led Conferences…are they?

Originally posted in my blog https://empower2b.wordpress.com

Wow…so last week I was in a spin! Student led conferences are NEXT WEEK! As usual (as I am sure many of you can relate to) this made me shudder a little. You see student led conferences have always been a fine tuned production. The full week leading up to them is filled with whole class discussions in which I LEAD the students to remembering all the different tasks they have done, places they have seen and units they have studied. Once we have remembered everything it is time to make sure we have reflected…portfolios…are they done? Have the students been using their time wisely when they have had time to work on them? Then we finish the week with rehearsing. What are the students going to do and when are they going to do it? How will they explain it all to their parents? Will they show growth?  Will the parents be happy?

When I stopped and thought about all this I realised one very important point…none of this is about the students! None of it allows for me to find out what they think…what they are proud of….what they want to reflect on…what they want their parents to know. Isn’t the purpose of Student Led Conferences to allow the students to take their parents on a journey that helps them understand just a little of what their school year has been? How does this happen if I am the one telling them what the journey needs to be?

How can I possibly guide the students through a process that will do justice to what they have been working on this year? Phrases and words like “student agency”, “student directed learning”, “reflection”, “self-awareness”, “goals”, “scheduling”, “ownership”, “responsibility”, “accountability” and “growth mindset” are not just words anymore! They are part of the classroom vocabulary. The students use them to describe their school day and what they are doing well and what is a challenge for them. So if we have worked so hard on these things all year how can I change how I have approached “student led conferences” in recent years to reflect who we are as a class now?

IMG_3705Helping each other come up with ideas on what to share and how to share it? These two boys ended up coming up with a task that they would do together for their parents as they are scheduled at the same time.

Then a blog post is published about exactly this! On the Making Good Humans blog I read a post about “Upping the Agency is SLC’s”!!!  Woo hoo!!!!  Just what I needed! Once again Taryn is guiding me to the light that will allow my students to be in the drivers seat. I loved when she said “Instead of giving students our why for SLCs we supported them to come up with their own personalized why.” And she shared a template that they used. I had a starting point!

To cut the process down so I am blog friendly….The students have spent time discussing what Student Led Conferences are and why we have them. Why do they need to be the ones to take their parents? Why are they important? Then I asked them….if you could do them anyway you liked how would you do them?

Once again it surprised me how hard some students found this question to answer…what did I mean, how would they like them to be? Didn’t they have to do them all the same? In the end the students each wrote their program for their 40 minutes in the classroom. They had work out from the start of the year and were comparing it to now, they were preparing reading workshops that they had led their peers through so they could repeat it with their parents as the students, they were writing equations so they could do a number talk with their adults…the ideas they were coming up with were endless! And the buzz in the air was exciting! And one thing was clear…they were nothing alike! Every students plan was different to the others, both in what they were sharing and reason why they were sharing it. 

IMG_0152We are ready to go Ms Mel!

One student said he wanted to share a mistake he made…what this ok? The other students were surprised! Why would he want to? Isn’t he embarrassed? You see, we tell our students all the time that it is good to make mistakes but when do we give them the chance to celebrate them? Now was their chance! It became a challenge for some of them and pushed many of them out of their comfort zone but all of a sudden mistakes were being written into the program!

Snip20180417_7 An example of the Student Led Conference program for my beginner EAL student.

As they finished they started talking amongst themselves about the differences between this years Student Led Conferences and those they had done in the past. Observations about the lack of “sameness” and the fact that there weren’t any “stations” set up were made. When we discussed this as a class my resident wise reflector said “You know Ms Mel I just feel like this is my conference, not just me doing what you want me to do. It is like our year has been!” Some asked if they could blog what we had done…all of a sudden they all were!  So, I asked them…convince me! “Convince me on the way that I should do Student Led Conferences next year with my class.” It was when I read these that I noticed how powerful the changes had been…

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It is currently Tuesday afternoon and Student Led conferences are tomorrow. I am not worried about my students. I am not scared they won’t impress their parents or that their parents will be concerned about what they have learned. But more importantly I am not worried for individual students who are nervous and scared to show their parents. You see at the end of the school day today my students have left feeling PUMPED! They have smiles from ear to ear. When we had our closing circle time this afternoon we talked of being proud of our work, of what we have learned about ourselves as learners. Students who were a little concerned were convinced by their peers that they are good and ready…that they have got this! Will there be blunders and mishaps tomorrow? Most probably but I am confident the students will roll with it.

 

Student Led Conferences should NOT panic the teacher! They should EMPOWER the student! They should be a time the classroom teacher is in awe of their incredible class of students. A time where classroom teachers are amazed at the learning that has happened…and some that hasn’t but that has led to a self awareness of what needs to come next! Student Led Conferences should be a HIGHLIGHT for the school year where teachers and students are so proud of the year that has been so far and students are celebrated and praised for their ENTIRE journey! Fingers crossed that tomorrow is the day of celebrations that my inspiring group of learners deserve!

IMG_3710 The class telling me how stressed they feel about the impending Student Led Conferences – 1 = NO stress just excitement –> 5 = huge stress won’t sleep tonight

SLCs and parent communication

My inquiry into student agency began about a year ago, after coming back from my first international conference, where I was inspired by some workshops run by experienced educators who had been experimenting with these ideas.  I have learnt so much about teaching and learning this past year, I barely recognise the teacher I was 3 years ago, when I first began my PYP teaching journey.  I have also never felt more challenged, conflicted or confused.

For our latest student-led conference, I abandoned my usual ‘I choose the activities and students lead them’ in favour of asking my students to plan their own conferences. We had experimented for the past few months with planning our own days, so it couldn’t be too much harder, right? I was wrong…

I used a similar set up to our daily planning, with  ‘must do’, ‘should do’ and ‘want to do’ sections.  I tried my best to step back during the process and have students make the decision of how they would structure their conference time (unfortunately, our SLC timetable meant that there were time constraints). After a lot longer than I had anticipated, discussions, questioning and justifying the ‘why’, each student ended up with their own little piece of organised chaos.

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After practising and preparing their things, an email to the parents explaining our different approach, both the students and I left feeling pretty good about the day ahead.

Then came the reality.

Now, some parents are completely on board with innovative educational practises, or are at least coming around. I even did a bit of team teaching with a father of a student who works at a local university, as part of our unit on Innovation. But then there are the ‘more traditional’ parents, the ones who are still asking their children questions like, “..but where is your maths textbook?” The ones who believe memorising spelling words and timetable facts is the best way to learn. The ones who are more focused on the product or answer, rather than the process.

I thought I was being transparent about what and how we were learning in class; using Seesaw as a platform to share photos and videos with student reflections, sending emails about our experiments with student agency, choice and voice. However, observing some conversations between students and parents that day, I couldn’t help but feel that parents were expecting something a little more ‘academic’, for lack of a better word.

And that’s when the self-doubt started to set in….

This student didn’t choose to show any math, I should have advised them better on this.

The parents were expecting more ‘products’ of learning…

The parents aren’t getting a true picture of what students know and understand.

Oh no, I didn’t give the students enough scaffolding for this.

Did I do the right thing by students or did I throw them in the deep end too early?

Am I even going about this ‘agency thing’ the right way?

Then came my last student of the day. I watched him confidently lead his parents through a short meditation, a thinking routine based on an image he selected and an explanation of a math concept he had recently mastered. He had total conviction in the choices HE had made to show HIS learning. His conference went way over time and at the end, both the student and his parents were exhausted but beaming with pride. Observing all this brought me to the realisation that, while I may not be there… yet with student agency, we are at least taking steps in the right direction.

Student agency = empowered learners.

I wouldn’t call these conferences a glowing success. I definitely need to provide more scaffolding for students and improve my questioning techniques to guide them through the conference planning process, like this great example: https://makinggoodhumans.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/upping-the-agency-in-slcs/

This experience also made me reflect upon some important questions related to my communication with parents about our steps towards more student agency:

  • How to approach student agency, voice and choice with parents, when I’m still working it out for myself?
  • How to show parents the true value of this approach and the benefits for their children?
  • How to involve parents more in this journey?

Perhaps this requires a more individualised approach, reaching out to parents separately to have discussions in person. After all, we strive to individualise learning for students, why not do the same for their parents?

Would be great to hear your feedback or experiences of agency in student-led conferences and how you got parents on board.