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.

A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor

SmoothSea

accessed from etsy.com

In my role this year at my school, I’ve seen staff navigating through some pretty big initiatives and changes to their mindset on teaching and learning. The year thus far, has been…intense…to say the least.

Our PYP verification visit has just concluded, and we’ve been provided with extremely beneficial feedback on where we need to go next in terms of inquiry based, conceptual, transdisciplinary learning – but I can understand the perspective of staff who say, “But, I feel like I’m JUST starting to get how to do this Inquiry thing, and now we need to do more?” The beauty of this programme is that it will continue to push us to improve. To make us think more critically about our practice. We’ve been used to the status-quo for so long that this is a difficult paradigm shift for many.

We are implementing a new division-based report card that will take some time for staff to learn. The focus is more on student’s development as a 21st Century learner, using the general outcomes of the curriculum as our guide to developing skills and processes to explore concepts (as opposed to content) more deeply. Again, something that is quite different for many educators who are used to just “covering” the curriculum.

We rolled out 2 more ways that we will communicate to parents on their child’s learning; a school-wide teacher blog and student digital portfolio initiative. For staff that are new or unfamiliar with digital documentation tools, this is a huge learning curve that they are working through.

Did we bite off more than we could chew for one year?

This leads me to the title of this blog – a quote that really resonates with me. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. I find it quite fitting for the shift that education (and our school) is going through. Sometimes, the boat needs to rock in order to learn how to sail it better. Sure, it’s simple enough to coast along over a smooth sea, but when times of challenge or unfamiliar situations present themselves, you sure aren’t going to have the knowledge or the skills to get through it, if you’ve never experienced a rough patch or a time of transition. This is a time of opportunity to hone our skills as educators. To support each other on our journey. The waves and bumps and motion will enable us to become more skilled in our roles. Yes, it’s daunting. Yes, it’s different. Yes, it’s fast paced, but think of the difference we will be making for our students!  We are well into the 21st Century – it’s no longer 21st Century education – it’s just education. That’s it. And we’re learning how to sail through it, together. The rocky seas will ultimately make us more skilled sailors. We may not get there this year, but at least we’ll be well on our way. The level of support that I’ve seen the staff at our school provide one another has been phenomenal. We are all in this together.

The desire to feel successful as a teacher is intense and innate. We want to be the best that we can be for our students – so they can be the best that they can be. Our success as teachers is in direct correlation with our students success in our classroom. Right? I’m not so sure! Maybe it’s not so cut and dried. We now know that learning should be challenging, should take time, should be reflective, should be collaborative, should require students to think deeper about how they will find the solutions to their questions or problems – the rough sea. We know that this will ultimately make our students more skilled learners who will be able to apply what we’ve provided them with to new situations when they arise. Why is it any different for teachers? What matters is that we know that we are there for each other, that our relationships matter, and that we will all work together to make sure we navigate the rough seas and enter into smooth sailing – and be all the more skilled because of it.

So did we bite off more than we could chew for one year? Nah – we just rocked our boat. Let the adventure begin!

Excited for the year ahead (and the progress of the perfect portfolio)!

My last post in (GASP!) May was all about our school’s journey to finding the perfect blog platform to host our student blog portfolios. After encountering some hiccups and roadblocks along they way, we’ve finally nailed down a student portfolio platform that I have really high hopes for.

I am fortunate to work for a school division that is so progressive in terms of encouraging the integration of tech tools in the classroom, as well as providing the support to back their encouragement of using the tools. The 21st Century Learning Specialists in our division are truly gifted at what they do and we are very lucky to have them. A hardworking team has created a fully customizable blog platform called School Blogs for all of the schools in our division to use. While it is still in its infancy, the potential for greatness has already begun to shine through.

Today at our PL Day, I was joined by one of the Learning Specialists from our division to introduce this blogging platform to our staff. The room was abuzz with excitement, interest to learn more, questions in order to solve glitches and problems, and a little bit of confusion mixed in for good measure – but the super huge important touchstone that I took away was that everybody TRIED! They all wanted to give it a go. Even if it was foreign to them, even if they didn’t consider themselves ‘tech-savvy’, they all tried. I was like a proud momma hen watching the eggs that have been incubating for the last few months finally begin to hatch open.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that in order to learn a tech tool (or most things in our life, actually), you just have to PLAY. You don’t need someone to teach you most things. Just by playing around and figuring things out on your own, the results become that much more rewarding. And the playtime that I witnessed today during our PL Day was so exciting! We’ve created a staff blog page where people can post questions and answers to problems that they encounter, test different features of the blog out and share Ah-Ha! moments. We’ve also created individual teacher blogs that each teacher can use as their sandbox to play in or use in their class with their students. Once teachers are comfortable and familiar with the platform, we will add on the next layer and get each student in our school up and running with their own portfolio.

I feel like we’ve hit the ground running, but we’re off to a good start!

At the beginning of the school year, my kindergarteners wrote a letter to our school principal asking if we could start a plastic recycling program at our school. Along with our letter, we attached a picture of all of the plastic from one day’s worth of snack that we would be needlessly be throwing into the garbage. Our principal was very enthusiastic about our idea, and posted our letter and photo on the window into his office, for others to read as well. Eventually, one of the grade 2 classes – Mrs. Anderson’s class – saw our letter and agreed that they wanted to take action and start recycling in their own room as well. This led to a grade 5 class – Ms. Carter’s class – to take up the initiative as well.

So, with 3 classes now taking action, we brainstormed how we could bring all of our classes together and somehow make a visual impact to share with the rest of the school reflecting the amount of plastic we consume in our school. We decided to provoke our students through our Units of Inquiry – posing the question to our students, “Now What? What should we do with all of this plastic to help educate the rest of the school on the importance of recycling plastic, rather than throwing it away?” In all of our classes, we showed our students some images of recycling art – artists who use trash to create sculptures and pieces of art. In Kindergarten, our Unit of Inquiry is How We Express Ourselves. Students are exploring all of the various ways that humans express their emotions and feelings, so this project fit perfectly! We are using our art to communicate with our peers that it is important to take action and do something about the huge amount of plastic that we are throwing into the landfills.

Today was the big day! We gathered all of our classes into the common area of our school, put out our 3, overflowing containers of plastic and let the cross-graded groups collaborate, cooperate and communicate together to create their visual representation. The process was phenomenal! Listening to the conversations all around the space, and watching the cooperative working teams was just as enlightening for us teachers as it was for the students.

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In the end, the students had come up with some AMAZING pieces of plastic art to display for the school. What was most incredible was the variety of ideas that were represented! From animals (a jellyfish and a dog) to structures (the Calgary Tower) and everything in between, these students produced some amazing art together – and sent a strong message at the same time (they didn’t even use all of the plastic from the 3 classes, we still have some left over).

After we came back together as a whole group to reflect on the process and hear some of their thoughts and ideas, the whole group came to the realization that this was only THREE classes worth of plastic – that means that there are about 20 other classes that do not yet recycle the plastic that they consume in their classroom. For many of the students, this was a real eye-opener to them that this is an issue that we need to address. All of our classes were buzzing afterwards, and they are very excited for other students to see their pieces of art. And they are hoping that they inspire others to take action with us!

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Birdhouse                              Teacher                                  Castle

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The Calgary Tower               The Eiffel Tower                          UFO

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Robot                                    Train                                 Helicopter

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Rocket                                       Dog                                    Truck

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Jellyfish                                Tower                          Space Shuttle

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Plastic Art Gallery