Starting with a blank slate

– bloated planners

– too much content/ too many ‘activities’

– forced fit

– little reflection

– little authenticity

These are all phrases that I’ve been hearing in the past couple of months from our teachers. Too much content means that we cannot allow for any opportunities to get to any depth in one idea or understanding, because we’re too busy with, “I don’t have time. I need to move on to the next activity in the planner, or else we’ll get behind and have to make our unit longer” Why?? This is what I call the TSN turning point at our school. Our teachers have been immersed in the PYP long enough now, that they are beginning to see that changes to their practice need to be made. Not based on the fact that what they are currently doing is ‘wrong’, but that they can see that they are ready to improve. When we first started on this journey, there was so much information, and so many elements for our staff to consider in terms of PYP. This, of course, is natural. Anything that’s worth doing well, takes time to develop and refine. We are now entering the refinement stage.

Our curriculum naturally sets us up to think of topics (Think of science – wheels, pulleys and levers, rocks and minerals, crawling and flying animals, electricity) – so what? What are the broader concepts that encompass those topics? I hear it all the time, “there’s no time!!”, “How do we get through all this stuff??” Simple solution…look…and I mean REALLY look at what we’re doing in our units – are the activities we’re trying to get through REALLY getting at the CONCEPTS? The essence of the unit? This might mean that we have to let go of some of those fun activities that we’ve become married to – those ones that take up some of our valuable time, but don’t really get at the root of the conceptual focus.

Last Friday, we had a school-based PL day where we focused on developing our understanding of concept based learning and teaching. In preparation for that day, I read a couple of blogs that I wanted to share with our staff to get their wheels turning. I also participated in the week’s #pypchat where we discussed aspects of the PYP that we like and aspects that we would change, if we could. It was an eye opening, and refreshing chat – knowing that there are other PYP educators out there that I could relate to in terms of the elements that I know are meaningful and critical to student-centred learning, as well as the elements that I’m a little bit on the fence with. Knowing that you’re not alone, on a larger scale, beyond your school walls is a powerful thing!

One of the blogs that I read, was Edna Sackson’s post on Letting Learning Happen. I’ve been hearing from staff that the planners are becoming too confusing, because there’s content in them from previous years that has never been removed, even if they don’t do it anymore. They continue to grow in length, but it’s beginning to feel like they’ve lost the authenticity in their learning engagements. They’re not letting the learning happen, because there’s too much stuff to get through in the planner. This was music to my ears! Here’s the opportunity to begin with a blank slate! I proposed (cautiously) that for coming planners, they start completely with a blank planner. I need to re-iterate here, that because we are essentially a brand new PYP school, our staff for the first couple of years felt that they needed to have a copy of the previous years’ planners to work with when developing this years work. They didn’t want to lose sight of some of the elements that they hadn’t quite gotten a grasp on. However, they began to rely on previous years’ activities to drive this years inquiry. Which, wasn’t allowing for authentic, student-driven inquiry to happen. The fact that staff were now coming to this realization on their own made me feel like such a proud momma-bird! I knew we’d get here.

The idea of starting fresh was met with a resounding enthusiasm. Yes, it will require work to re-think some of the engagements we provide to our students, and placing more emphasis on directly addressing the concepts with our students. But teachers are recognizing that it is necessary. So then, I threw out another suggestion that I believe lifted a lot of weight off of the teachers’ shoulders. It came from a few different conversations I’ve had over the past few months, but mostly from @ChezVivian’s blog about Ditching the Central Idea. I have a huge respect for Lynn Erikson’s work around concept based learning, and I’m so envious that Vivian was able to participate in a workshop with her. I’m so thankful that she shared her thoughts and revelations from that workshop in her blog. Again, it allowed me to feel that I wasn’t alone in my thinking in terms of some of the elements of PYP. If you haven’t read Vivian’s post, I’d advise you to stop reading mine for a moment, and read what she has to share.

Back to the suggestion I threw out to my colleagues – Don’t fill in the entire planner before the unit even starts. How does that allow for authentic, student driven learning to happen? When you have every stone of the path paved and set, that seems pretty counter-intuitive to the whole idea of letting the learning happen. Yes, it’s important to know the concepts and generalizations that we desire our students to get to, but how we get there shouldn’t be pre-planned every step of the way, before it has even occurred by the teacher. There is no possible way that we can take into account what our students will glean from every lesson that we plan. So why plan everything right from the start? If we thoughtfully and purposefully plan out a few rich, engaging, authentic learning experiences that are concept-based, we can let the learning happen from there. And allow the planner to be where we document that learning journey, rather than be the prescription for it.

The other question I posed to staff was, “What if we didn’t share the central idea with our students on day 1 of the unit?” What if we kept it within the confines of the planner – so we know as educators what the big idea of the unit is, but allow students to generate the understanding naturally, through the rich learning engagements that we plan, and the discussions that we have along the way. Wouldn’t that be a powerful summative assessment at the end of a unit, to allow the students to generate their own central idea, for us to see how deep their understanding become through the learning experiences? And what a powerful tool for reflection on our part, as educators. If they weren’t able to generate a central idea that was similar or related to the teacher planned one, why was that? Was it that we didn’t address the concepts clearly enough? What can we do in the next unit to try to improve?

These conversations opened the flood-gates for possibilities for our grade teams to start being more creative in their delivery of their units. There was excitement buzzing around the room. Teachers are beginning to feel more comfortable and confident in allowing their students to drive the learning. They were really tuned in to generating related concepts for the different subject areas, and then using the Key Concepts to generate questions that stimulate more higher order thinking in our classrooms. Those higher order thinking opportunities will drive our inquiries and ensure that students develop a deeper understanding within the Units of Inquiry, as well as allow them to drive where the learning goes beyond what we have planned.

So now we enter a new chapter on our PYP journey. Relflection, refinement and moving forward. It is so refreshing to be involved in this process every step of the way for our teachers.

Sometimes the best thing to make, is a mistake

My husband, Kolin, our good friend, Melinda and I went out snowshoeing on Sunday. We had planned to hike the Black Prince Cirque/Warspite Lake loop out in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on the Spray Lakes Trail. We had the route mapped and were on our way. However, the trail was completely unmarked and when we came to the first fork in the trail, we went right, thinking that we were beginning the loop towards the lake. Now, we knew ahead of time that this was supposed to be a fairly flat trail, with only about a 200 meter elevation gain. So when the trail started heading upwards, we didn’t think anything of it, because we knew there would be a bit of an incline. And, to be honest, we were so immersed in the beautiful scenery around us, we didn’t really care.

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Up, up, up we went, with no levelling out to be seen. Eventually we made the comment that we weren’t expecting there to be so many steep parts, but we were sure it would be worth it once we got to the lake. After about an hour and a half, we made it to a clearing. Now the trail split off into about 3 different directions. None of them marked. Unable to see the lake, and unsure which direction to go to get there, we continued heading right. Eventually, we crossed paths with a back-country skier and his dog. We asked him if we were headed in the right direction to get to the lake and he replied, “Uh, no. The lake was way back at the beginning of the trail. No incline to get to it. This is a trail used a lot by skiers to get up into these glades to do some powder skiing through the trees.” We thanked him and he continued on his way. Ok – we took a wrong turn. But, here we stood – amongst powder covered tress, with the most incredible view before us.

After we spent some time admiring the view, we started making our descent. I was reflecting on the wrong turn that we had made, and it got me thinking that this is the exact same thing that we can sometimes do to our students. We have the path perfectly laid out for them, we’ve given them explicit directions to follow, and yet, somehow, along the way a mistake can be made that will take them completely off course. Most of the time, those mistakes are not valued. “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to” “You need to do this, instead”. But this experience made me think; sometimes, the BEST thing we (and our students) can make, is a mistake! If we wouldn’t have gotten off course of the path that we were supposed to follow, we would have never come across the stunning views that we did that day. The lake was at a lower elevation, below the tree line and buried at the base of a mountain. And even though it was still a beautiful sight (we did eventually make it to the lake!), the view could not be compared to what we saw when we went the wrong way.

Sometimes, a mistake can lead us to much better things – our students need to understand this. It’s not always about following perfectly laid out directions to come to a perfectly laid out conclusion. If our snowshoe path had been marked with directions, we never would have gone to the top. But it was because there was no clearly marked path, that we found our own. Our students should be allowed the same. Don’t clearly mark the path, let them find their own direction – and even if they make a mistake, they may discover that the result is better than what they were expecting in the first place. And that makes the view so much sweeter.

Using Forms as an assessment tool

I recently attended a professional learning workshop with Brenda Dyck and she showed us a great use of the ‘Form’ feature in Google Docs. By creating a form for your students to fill out, you can then use the information that you collect as an assessment piece; as all of the information that you collect from your students gets spat out into a handy-dandy spreadsheet for you to view all in one place. So, I’ve created one of my own Forms as a piece to include in our Summative Assessment of our current Unit of Inquiry, Where We Are In Place And Time.

My students are learning about the the form and function of structures and how  are all built on similar foundations and principles of design. This is what my form looks like to the students:

And this is the Spreadsheet that will be populated once they start to fill it in:

Such a brilliant, simple to create, easy to read assessment piece to utilize in the classroom! There are so many applications for this feature. Play around with it and see what you can come up with!