Let Students Teach

I laced up my shoes, grabbed my water bottle and took off running. I needed to get in some fast kilometers so I set my mind on that.  I took off on my usual route but needed more kilometers so I turned a corner, then another and another, my heart was racing, my legs were beginning to get tired. It was a good hard run. But at one point in the middle of my run I stopped. I turned around and realized I was lost. I was so busy concentrating on running hard that I had lost track of where I was going.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 8.12.26 PMThis year for me was like that run. I started out the year wanting to better meet the needs of each of my students. So I set off on the hard run of carefully tracking each students progress in reading, writing and math.  I wanted them to own that data so I created goal setting books for each student with rubrics, checklists and weekly goal setting sheets. I would regularly assess students  conference with them and give them feedback  They would then use this information to set weekly Math, Reading and Writing goals.   Then I would have workshops and activities available to them to teach them whatever it was they were focusing on.  I created detailed updates for parents so they could further support their child at home. It seemed great at first.  Everything was very personalized. It was hard work. I was running hard.  But I was lost.

When I stopped to take a drink of water and reflect. I realized what this whole system was like for my students. No matter how hard they worked, there was always some new problem I could find for them. There was always something else they didn’t understand that I needed them to learn.  I owned the learning.

I was teaching in the old school hospital model.  I was treating my students like patients. “Here is your diagnosis. I have identified all of your problems. Here is your prescription.

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I realized I needed to make some major changes to how I was teaching.  I will get in to more of the changes in other posts but one of my most important changes was pretty simple in practice but profound in mindsets. It involved shifting the focus from all of the things students couldn’t do to what they could.   I needed to build on their strengths. So I started asking students to teach.

At that time my students were beginning a unit inquiring into Heritage. They had each chosen a site that they thought should be preserved and were making scale models of those sites. Students could choose to make models in any form they liked. Some students were interested in using Tinkercad and Sketchup to create a scale model on the computer and then 3D print it.  A few of my students had been working with these programs at home and during I-time (Genius Hour) so they volunteered to lead a workshop to teach interested students.  It went brilliantly. The very next week 4th graders from other classes requested the same workshop, so my students taught it to them.  A week after that my 4th graders were leading the workshops to interested teachers. The surprising thing about it, was it wasn’t just my typically outgoing students leading the workshop.  One of my most shy, quiet students was leading the workshop as well. You could literally witness his self confidence grow before your eyes.  After his workshop he reflected on his experience, -4th grade student I wanted all of my students to have that sort of opportunity so I opened up workshops to all subjects. First I started with Math topics and this was  an easy starting point. It was simple to have students sign up to lead workshops in concepts that were a review but students wanted more support in. They were also very interested in workshops in areas they needed help with in order to complete a project they were working on. Some examples of workshops my students have led are:

    • How to calculate ratio
  • How to find the least common multiple
  • How to model multiplication with arrays
  • How to use estimation to solve division problems
  • How to sew
  • How to create a website using Wix
  • How to write music
  • How to draw action figures
  • How to write a great introduction to your story
  • How to write good transitions for your narrative.
  • What happens to your muscles when you exercise?
  • Why do we sometimes double a consonant in the base word when we add a suffix?

There are many things I have loved about having students lead workshops but one of my favorites is the role reversal.  The students get to experience being both the teacher and student with their classmates and that builds a beautiful classroom culture of shared ownership of our learning.  One example of that happened last week when one of my students patiently taught another student a Math concept she was stuck on.  The very next day that same student became the teacher and she patiently explained a Science concept to her teacher from the day before.  These types of experiences completely shatter any notion students had that only some students were “smart.” Everyone in the class is seen as capable. Students are often seen high fiving each other as they learn a new concept or sitting side by side helping each other work through something they are stuck on. One student explained,

I have seen many benefits to having students lead workshops. Attributes and Attitudes students have developed from this process:

  • Empathy for other students and the teacher.
  • Risk Taking
  • Growth Mindset
  • Shared Responsibility of learning
  • Motivation
  • Metacognition

This is still very much a work in progress. I have been learning from my mistakes as I go.  Some of the questions I have fumbled through have been:

How do I schedule this?

  • At first I just wrote workshop topics on the white board and had students sign up.
  • Then I moved to nicer looking erasable sheets that students would sign up for on a Monday but this presented a logistical nightmare as I would try to quickly schedule the workshops on Monday morning for workshops occurring that same day.
  • I have moved to a digital system where I list some possible workshop options for Math  and Literacy  on a Google Doc and share that doc with students on a Friday. Students can sign up for workshops they are interested in attending or leading and or they can add a new topic they would like to attend or lead. Over the weekend I assign times for each of those workshops and share it with the students on Monday so that they can set  goals and create their weekly schedule.

How do I manage student behavior?

  • There is some sad part of me that giggles when my students are leading a workshop and turn to me in exasperation “Ms. Mindy, they signed up for the workshop but they aren’t listening. Teaching is hard.”  Generally the more opportunities students have had to lead workshops the better they behave when they attend workshops.

One of my students explained the experience well when they said,

How do I know if they have learned the concept if it wasn’t me leading the workshop?

  • I check in with participants after the workshop to quickly see if they understand. I also require them to show evidence that they have achieved their learning goal by documenting it on their blog.  The blogging part is a work in progress. Some students forget to take a picture of their work or don’t have much to show.

    Student’s blog reflection on his Math goal for last week.

How do I ensure quality teaching?

  • I touch base with the leaders ahead of time. Sometimes they are leading a lesson I taught them the week before in a teacher led workshops. Other times it is a brand new workshop. In that case we discuss  how they will teach it and what materials they will need.

One participant reflected on what it is like to attend a student led workshop.

How do I get all students involved?

  • Some students won’t volunteer to lead workshops unless you ask them. I look for any opportunity to ask them. For example I might lead a workshop one week then tell my participants “I notice you really understand the concept.   Would you be willing to lead a workshop next week on it?”  Or I might notice a kid writes excellent introductions so during a writing conference I ask if they would lead a workshop on that.  In some cases I just say, “Hey you have so much to offer the class, I would love for you to lead a workshop.  Do you have any that you would be interested in leading?”

How do I manage the time this takes?

  • To be honest it doesn’t take much time to set the workshops up. But I needed to find a system that would work within the framework of my classroom. Start small. I started with the one workshop. Then open it up as you are ready.

It is still a hard run and I don’t always know my way but at least now I know I am on the right path because my students are running hard with me.

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Studio 3

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful. I believe that explicitly teaching and assessing these skills should be the focus of what we do in school.

I teach grade 3 at ISHCMC and just as our colleagues in Studio 5 have been experimenting with different ways to give students agency in their learning, we have been doing the same thing. How do we prepare students for the Studio 5 model? How do we teach them the skills they need in order for them to be successful?

We have been experimenting with focusing a unit on a particular set of skills, explicitly teaching and assessing them. Then for the final part of the unit, opening it up for the students to put their new skills to the test. An example of this was our WWAITAP unit where we explicitly taught research skills through the content of explorers and then students used their research skills to find out about various topics that interested them. Always coming back to the skills, not the content.

Most recently, students practiced their self-management skills by planning and organizing their week. We had a list of “must-dos” that students needed to accomplish. How they organized their time, where they worked, and how they decided to complete their tasks were up to them. No matter how they decided to work, everyone agreed that by Friday afternoon, all the tasks would be completed.

Students reflected every morning about the specific things they wanted to complete for the day and if they were on track for getting everything done for Friday. Then every afternoon, they reflected on their accomplishments, frustrations, and changes, if any, they would make the next day.

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This sparked some amazing discussions about how people work in different ways. Some liked to get everything done in the beginning and have free time at the end of the week. Others liked to mix in playing with work and still, others preferred to play earlier in the week, needing the pressure of the deadline to work at the end.

We had many discussions about the fact that there is no correct way to work. What is important is discovering which way works for you and knowing yourself as a learner. In the end, I asked them to reflect on their experience and here are some of their reflections:






I thought it was a really successful week and most students found the time quite motivating and fun. Interestingly, some actually preferred the more standard approach. Those students tended to be the ones who do not have as much self-control and need to develop their self-management skills, as opposed to being told what to do. It is those students who would benefit the most from this approach.

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

Exciting, Authentic, Connected…Transdisciplinary Learning!

As part of my professional inquiry for this year I decided to focus on student directed learning and student agency. The explanation of this is an entire blog post of its own (next one on my list) but in short I was looking at how I could play with my classroom logistics in order to stay true to what the school were requiring but still allowing the students to have agency.

Part of my process was to keep the parents of my class informed and aware of these changes. We are a team and it is important that there is complete transparency between us in order for the students to truly succeed.

Below is an edited blog post that I wrote to parents in December of this school year. The purpose of the post was to explain the changes that had started to happen in their child’s classroom. The response was extremely supportive and positive and resulted in many parents coming to visit and have a look.

PLEASE NOTE: the ideas that I have been implementing in my classroom are by no means my creation! I have adapted ideas received through observations of other amazing teachers and readings. The ideas are constantly changing as the students and I work together to make them the most successful for our class of learners! It is often messy and not always successful but there has been one constant result…learning!

Teacher to Parent Blog Post; December, 2017

At the moment in the education world, and specifically in the PYP, there is a big push for student agency and for educators to encourage students to be more in control of their own learning. The IB PYP is focusing on introducing student agency in a more focused way. They highlight the following advantages about increasing student agency as…

“Students with agency:

  • have voice, choice and ownership; and a propensity to take action
  • influence and direct learning
  • contribute to and participate in the learning community.”

As part of my own professional learning, I have been researching and looking for ways to create a learning environment that allows for greater student agency. For the last 4 weeks I have been introducing the class to new structures and concepts and giving them time (and a lot of guidance) as they learn what it all involves. This week was the first week where the students really saw it all come together, and I am so happy to witness the enthusiastic way that they have tackled the new approach!

Every morning the students come in to read an overview of what the day has to offer. Below is an example.

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IMG_2670An example of a completed weekly goals sheet that highlights not only the goal but also what success will look like and strategies to use to get there.

During the “Where We Are In Place and Time” unit of inquiry, the students did a range of tasks that were related to the unit but targeted specific math and literacy skills. They started to talk about their learning in terms of “I learned about… through the lens of math/reading/writing”. The content was focused on the unit of inquiry however the “skills” that they were learning were specific from the English and Math curriculum. At the end of the unit the students expressed that they felt they had a better understanding of the unit as they were looking at it from many different perspectives. They also highlighted that it allowed them to strengthen skills such as time management, reflection, cooperation and commitment.

IMG_7876An example of the Transdisciplinary Inquiry Journals that all students use to document their learning process.

img_0638.jpgThe list of Transdisciplinary Tasks students were required to do over the course of the unit, including a time management plan.
This week we have focused on developing our understanding of child rights, what they are and what they mean. Students have selected a range of tasks to undertake (each through the lens of either data handling, writing or reading) and began to work towards finding ways that they can take action towards to enable more children access to their rights.

At the beginning of each week they will reflect on their past week’s goals and look at how they are achieving them. They need to provide evidence of their learning and create their next plan of action, do they continue with the same goals or do they create new ones?

Snip20180331_2.pngCreating her weekly goals on Monday morning using her reflections to help her.

They then create a schedule for their learning. The class schedule is now broken into three sections;

  • student directed / transdisciplinary inquiry
  • whole class lessons
  • specialist classes
  • teacher and student led workshops on specific learning objectives

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. They decide what they are doing when (with teacher guidance!) and sign up for teacher OR student led workshops or independent inquiry tasks. Their key focus is on what they need to do to deepen their understanding and to have a balance of reading, writing and math. I help them with gaining this self-awareness and guide them to understanding what their needs are, if I recognise that they have not signed up for a workshop that I believe they would benefit from.

IMG_0848.jpg Signing up for teacher led workshops and recording these sessions on his personal schedule.

                    IMG_0583.JPGAn example of the workshop sign up sheet. Students have this information when developing their schedules and goals.

IMG_8552.JPGStudents deciding on the tasks they will undertake for the week ahead.

Overall, the classroom has become invigorated by the thinking that has been involved. The students are excited by the chance to shape the way they inquire into our classroom focus.

Snip20180413_43  An example of a planning document for individual workshop focus. Homeroom teacher (Mel), Teacher Assistant (Huong), EAL teacher (Nicole) and Learning Support teacher (Sara).

 

SCHEDULING a path to empowerment

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

How can the classroom, schedule and planning documents, reflect a true transdisciplinary approach to student directed learning?

This is the question that led my own personal inquiry journey over the last 9 months. I started this school year facing a challenging class. Add to this that I have found myself at a point in my career where I was questioning who I was as a teacher…when had I become so controlled by schedules…by standards…by the stress of the need to be seen as doing it all correctly? As we have all experienced at one stage or another, the lessons that we love and enjoy teaching are often the ones that the students pick up on and thrive in. What was I going to do with this class that really didn’t seem like they would cope well with a teacher with an identity crisis!

Over the past 2 years I have become more and more of a Twitter reader…there are so many ideas, articles, blogs…posted that I was loving how it allowed me to find inspiration from others in such an accessible way. This is where I heard about Student Agency, Student Directed Learning and Project Based Learning on repeat. Of course I had heard all these buzz terms at school and in PD’s but all of a sudden I was beginning to see it all in a practical sense. Maybe this is what I needed to truly access and differentiate for my class of learners this year…

Reasons for my TIA:

  • PYP junkie
  • Miss leading a classroom through inquiry
  • Time to stop stressing and start doing
  • Looking for an authentic way to help my very diverse group of learners
  • Looking for ways to have my students make deeper connections

What Am I Wanting to Achieve?

  • Students gaining a deeper understanding of Units of Inquiries
  • Students being more aware of their strengths and weaknesses
  • Students taking responsibility for their learning journey
  • Students maximising their learning style
  • Students interact with learning objectives authentically
  • Opportunities for action are genuinely available

But how do I do all of this while covering the learning objectives and ensuring the students were staying on task? How do I make sure I am meeting the needs of everyone if I am not controlling everything? How do I fight my fear of failure?

Baby steps…that is what I decided was needed. First things first…this timetable!

Trans-cending the Timetable:

From this…

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To this…

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And finally, now, to this…

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The original timetable for the class was very clinical and predetermined. It said what subject would be posted when. It did not leave a lot of room for student agency and did not require the students use self awareness of their own abilities to take responsibility for what they should focus on. UOI was listed as a subject and there was a lack of transdisciplinary vision. The first revised timetable split the time spent in the classroom in half showing a balance of teacher led time and student determined transdisciplinary inquiry.

By the time I revised it again “Inquiry Work” became “Student Directed Learning” (SDL) as I quickly realised that not all tasks they were scheduling for themselves were inquiry focused…some were skill focused, where they realised they just needed to practice. I had been able to collaborate with the learning support and EAL teachers about pushing in their time in an inclusive manner where we would collaborate on workshops we would all lead that ALL students would be able to access, not just the students on their “books”. iTime was absorbed into the SDL time at the request of the students…”You know Ms Mel, I would really prefer to use Friday afternoon for Writers Workshop. Is it ok for me to do iTime at another time during the week?” All of a sudden this schedule really was “OUR” schedule, the students were a part of the logistics of it all. It was also one of those moments where I could see the shift in the students having ownership over their own learning and the confidence to express their ideas!

Since I wrote the above another edit has occurred…during the SDL times there are now Student Led Workshops. Students have started offering their own workshops to their classmates as a way of becoming more confident and skilled in communication as well as solidifying their understandings. My favourite quote was when Cody said, “Ms Mel, I would really like to offer a workshop on using different strategies to solve 2 by 2 digit multiplication. I am not 100% sure I am totally good at it but I think this would help me to see what I still need to work on. Is this ok?” YES it is ok you risk-taker you!

 

 

 

 

Timetables – The Enemy of Creativity

I’m writing this while sitting next to two students who are editing a short film. One just turned to the other, and in an expression of pure joy, exclaimed, “OMG! I literally have goosebumps right now!”, in reference to her creation. More on this later…

Currently, the vast majority of my students are engaged in creative endeavours. My MYP Media students are finalizing short films to share with their peers, enter in film festivals and use as provocations for filmmaking workshops. My MYP Language and Literature students are crafting short stories – many of which students hope they can submit for publication. Even my DP Language and Literature students are engaging in a written task assessment – which, if you know DP Lang and Lit, is about as creative they are “allowed” to be over the duration of the two year course (kidding…sort of).

Perhaps the convergence of all of this creative energy is making this issue more apparent, but right now, my students are definitely victims of a timetabling system that is an antiquated practice and certainly an enemy of creativity and deep learning.

Would a real filmmaker, preparing her work for submission to her production company say to herself, “Ok…today I will work on my film from 9:00-10:30, but then at 10:30 I have to stop because then it’s time to do some math”? For that matter, would a real mathematician say, “I’m going to gather insights into this data, but only for ninety minutes because then I have to go edit a film”?

Of course not.

This  is the inauthentic world of timetabled learning that we have created in schools. A world where creativity – a slow process in any discipline – is cut short because…because a piece of paper you got on the first day of school says it has to.

So when children are trying to write a story that they have invested themselves in emotionally, or are completing a film that they are planning to show to a wide audience of peers and community members, they are forced to do so in these arbitrary, predetermined chunks of time – whether they want to or not, whether they feel like it or not. Have a great idea during a time not designated for that type of thinking? Too bad, you have a schedule to keep.

This type of traditional school-driven timetabling is as old as schools itself and is designed for logistical ease – not for student learning.

Quick - be creative! But only for the next 90 minutes... 

Quick! Be creative! But only for the next 90 minutes…

What are the side effects of school-driven timetabling when students are involved in deep learning? On one hand, it forces children into the ridiculous need to shift their ability to be analytical, be creative, be physically active, at the snap of a finger. It perpetuates a, “good enough” attitude from students who end up creating not what they really wanted to, but a reasonable facsimile that satisfies the requirements of the time constraints that have been determined for them. It doesn’t allow for slow thinking of any kind – reflection, adjustment, seeking feedback and fine tuning – that all creators would say are integral aspects of high-quality products.

The good news about timetables? We’ve created them, so we can destroy them. We can leverage technology to offload the need for a lot of traditional “lessons”, which would free up time for teachers to move more towards the role of consultant, mentor and coach. We can create environments like this one, or this one where students create their own timetables based on need and interest, not based on arbitrary decisions from the timetabling robot that spits out a schedule for them.

What would the side effects of a student-driven timetable be? First of all, learning how to manage time. We often lament that time-management is a skill that is lacking in many students – of course it is, we manage the majority of their time on their behalf. Turning the timetable over to the students would allow them to take ownership over this process and free up teachers to support students with strategies on how to manage their short and long-term goals.

Secondly, a student-driven timetable would support students in learning the key skill of prioritization. There are literally endless books and blogs dedicated to the art of prioritizing and managing one’s daily list of “to-do’s”; perhaps this wouldn’t be such a common stressor if we learned and used these skills as we were growing up. A student-driven timetable would give children the space and freedom to go deep, to truly sink their teeth into their learning, to “get it”, to have those moments of wonder and accomplishment and to learn that, often, the things we are the most proud of are the things that we really put our heart and soul into – often for more than 60-90 minutes two to three times a week.

Finally and most importantly, a student-driven timetable says to children, “you matter”. It says, “you are able to be the driver of your own learning”. It says “your time belongs to you”. Empowering students to manage their time and projects is a kinder, more humane, more authentic approach to learning and creating – one that we should be advocating for on behalf of our learners.

If they had the choice, they'd be at this all day. Shouldn't they have that choice?

If it were up to them, they’d do this all day – shouldn’t they have that choice? 

This brings me back to where I started…the two students I mentioned at the beginning of this post? They are still sitting beside me, completely in flow and completely content. One  just said to another, “Wow, we’ve been here for hours…it’s nearly six o’clock”. They want to keep going, but they have to go home to eat dinner. I’m sure if they had the choice, they would have spent their entire school day perfecting their creation, so they didn’t have to spend their after school time doing so. If they were only given the time.