Most days I come to work with a plan of what’s to come. Yet somehow it never happens - in the best way possible. So many days my students railroad my plans with THEIRS - and it is quite frankly what I love most.
Take today for example. I sat down in my classroom around 11am with my students all ready to share our summative assessment task for our How We Organise Ourselves unit about Food Systems. Simply put, the task was to create a recipe using procedural writing for a cookbook and provide a detailed rationale for the meal and choices of ingredients based on what they know. They were to demonstrate their knowledge as a consumer and document the reasoning behind their choices. We had thought they could then make and share their recipes one day in class. A good idea that has simply inspired the 'want to get started NOW', when I hadn’t planned on it until early-mid next week.
I had only got out that we were going to create recipes when the ideas came spewing from their mouths. Of cours,e they wanted to invite their parents first and foremost. Ever since we first invited our parents to our end of unit celebration for our first unit, my students have found sharing their work with their parents to be one of their top priorities forthe following units. Many teachers struggle to build that connection to home but when students are proud of their hard work they want to share it with an audience that is meaningful - who better than their parents.
My class also likes to create an atmosphere and experience for their parents when they share their work. Then they decided they wanted to make food stalls where they would offer samples to their guests. The idea of a market was a highly popular idea. Each booth could have a name and a display of some sort about their meal. They want to create a class menu for their parents with a map of the food market so parents could easily decide what they wanted to try and where they could find it. At the booths, the displays could display videos of how to cooking shows or commercials, animations or other ways of demonstrating their understanding.
One of my favourite ideas was the idea of connecting it to our new math unit about data handling. We had ONLY started the unit the period before and already they were thinking that they could have parents complete a survey to show their rating of the dish on a 1-5 scale for overall appeal, I had a student even asking me how we could use technology to create graphs so when the survey was being done it could be updated in real time.Once they gathered their data, after the market they could graph their individual data and then compare their findings with the other dishes in the class to see how their dishes rated compared to others. There was also talk about using a survey to help them decide which dish they wanted to create to begin with. If they surveyed the type of dish people liked or the flavours that were most popular or the cuisine people liked most first, then they could use that data in deciding which meal they wanted to prepare for the market. I was surprised and amazed to hear these students creating their own transdisciplinary experiences and wanting to use math in a meaningful real life context.
One thing I have learned is to let them go with it because as a class, they just build upon each others’ ideas ata rapid pace. It’s definitely part of their learning during our design thinking studies in our inventions unit and they’ve just taken off with it. It was hard to not adding my own ideas, but making it all about them is what it NEEDS to be.
I can’t even count the number of times this happens any more whether it’s redesigning our class website, creating and leading their own lessons, planning an assembly and parent classroom experience, taking a small homework assignment and turning it into a full exhibition or changing any other lesson, assignment or summative task on the fly. They make it their own and they make it better than anything I would have planned on my own. They take their learning into their own hands and they make me a better teacher. But at the end of the day, they teach me more than I teach them and that, I can’t be more thankful for.
Sometimes when you start out a project, you're not sure of where it will end up. For our personal projects for our inventions unit, this was very much the case. I had an idea of how to go about it. But how it would actually unfold, that was a big question mark.
On Friday, I was a very proud teacher of my students. They showcased their personal projects including their process journals and a variety of ways to present their findings as products to parents, students and administrators.
Before we shared our work with the wider school community, each student had the opportunity to share to their classmates. Was I ever blown away by the level of thought and effort my students had put into their projects. As each student stood up to share their work, there was a very evident sense of pride in their work. They each shared their work with confidence in a way they hadn't done before. They spoke about their research, their findings, their passion for learning.
No two projects were alike, no two students had shared the same learning journey but yet the amount of knowledge and understanding was phenomenal.
I loved seeing the students so excited to share their work with their parents and the parents were just as proud of them as I was. One of my favourite moments of the day was when a mother approached me with teary eyes to tell me how incredible it was to see how much work her daughter had done on the project and how much she had grown through the process. It made my heart warm.
My students are so proud of it that they don't want to stop sharing and we are going to continue to share with our buddy class on Monday.
This project has made me come away with some important lessons:
1. Student choice is a way to get students to buy-in to learning.
When students choose what they learn, how they will learn it and how they will present their findings, they often do more and to a higher quality. When they feel the internal want to learn, it doesn't even feel like work. Sometimes simply giving students a framework is all they need. I told them they had to pick a topic, show their learning process and create a product in the end but beyond that, their learning choices were completely in their hands.
2. Focus on skills leads to better results.
This unit of inquiry, I spent less time focused on content and more time on skills. My students learned about different ways to gather research and the importance of process vs. product. They explored different technology tools and ways of presenting their work. We discussed time management, organization and how others can be critical friends for each others. We looked at making small manageable goals each day and each week rather than taking on the project as a whole. We focused on gathering research questions that drive your learning, rather than just looking at everything. Through all of these conversations and discussions, not once did I say you have to tell me the past, present and future of your invention or why we need that invention or who invented it or when was it invented. While a lot of those things were discovered through the project, so was a lot of other information.
3. An unknown direction can work.
I've always been taught plan with the end in mind. However, this time, I wasn't sure what the end would look like or even what the project would be like week by week or even if it would be a multiple week project. This project became larger than expected and better than expected. It never meant to be an exhibition or a project the students spent hours on. Sometimes its okay to go with the flow and have something evolve as you go. Sometimes I don't have to plan everything (which I feel more comfortable doing) and still know that the final result will work out in the end.
After 5 weeks of learning, it all came together on one day in one room. Everyone left that Friday beaming with pride and excitement. Not every day does what you are doing make sense, but on that day, the final piece of the puzzle as we ended our unit fit perfectly.
There's something to be said about students doing what they want to do. When students are engaged their learning is far superior. My Tuesday was all planned out as usual but I wasn't sure if we were going to be able to Skype another class or not so I simply left a question mark on the schedule for the day. Of course when the kids came in that morning, they asked what the question mark was and I said I wasn't sure yet and we could decide later. What I didn't expect was to be greeted with pleas of doing their 'home learning' work for a period. Of course sticking with the attitude I've taken on this year (Go With What The Students Want), I said sure. Little did I know what would transpire.
Let's take it back 3 weeks ago though before I get there. I had gotten back from my trip to Vietnam and inspired to change up my homework from my visit to a friend's classroom at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to try this 'home learning' approach but wanted to take it a little slower the first time round to see what would happen.
The first week I gave my students the question "How have inventions changed to impact our lives?". From there, I asked them what they thought about that question and what they already knew. We decided to focus our question a little bit more individually and each of them came up with an overarching question they wanted to explore. Topics included how makeup changed to impact our lives, food colouring and even refrigerators. Then we explored where we could gather our information from using our new MISO Charts. Media - videos, websites, pictures, books, magazines, etc., Interviews - family, friends, teachers, experts. Survey - what survey questions would gather good data. Observations - what could we see and learn about. It was amazing that the students weren't familiar with resources outside of the internet really. So one of the first things we did was take a trip to the library and learn how to find books using the online catalogue and the dewy decimal system. This week we also brainstormed a list of other questions that would help them answer their larger question.
As we began week 2, we had some serious discussions about our mountain analogy of needing to help everyone get to the top of the mountain but more importantly, the process of getting to the top was more important than actually being at the top. As we explored the topic of process journals, my students explored our DP students Art Books and added postits in it of ideas and strategies of how we could present the information we found in our process journals. This included things like various charts, labels of pictures, timelines, more than one draft, building lists of ideas etc. Then it was time for them to be like the DP students and begin their own journey through the process. We had some time in class but primarily it was something they could work on at home. To be honest, by the end of the 2nd week when we checked in as a class and reflected on our work, I was a little disappointed my students hadn't gotten into more. I thought for sure if they had chosen their topic they would want to learn more about it. Puzzled by it, I decided to forge on and give them another week of exploring their topic with research. I was curious to understand if it was just because this was the first time we were doing it or if I just wasn't putting the right spin on in.
The third week I tried something a little different. I had more checkins daily. Each day we would check in to see what they had accomplished the night/day before in class. I started sharing more of what some students had produced with the class and sharing more about different strategies they could use. Instantly, I had students coming into school each morning wanting to show me what they had done in school so I could show the class their work. I also had students begging me to give them more time in class to work on it. By the end of the week, I was flipped in my thinking and completely amazed by the depth some students had gone into. The students were learning with their parents too asking them question about the project but more importantly sharing what they were learning and developing that home school connection.
So now we are into our fourth week where students have now turned their process into a product and what an array of assignments that have started to take form! We have PowToons, bulletin boards, books, models, presentations, documents, Wordles, diagrams, iMovie, pictures and so much more. The quality of their work has gone up and the students are really excited to share what they've learnt. It also gave me a lot of opportunity to have discussions with students about the presentation of their work. How does the sizes of their titles impact its effect? What about colour and organization? How fast should the speed of text on a slide be in order for the reader to view the presentation/video?
That question mark on Tuesday that barely found it's way into the schedule that day for a period turned into an entire afternoon. When it was time for break, my students just wanted to keep going. When break ended and I said it was time for our Math Battle, they begged to keep going... and going... and going... right until the end of the day. Who am I to get in the way of their learning? Every child was engaged in 2.5 hours of work that they wanted to do. They are learning more than I could have planned for and will ultimately teach each other more than I could cover. They are inspired to research, take notes and then share their knowledge.
Next week we plan on presenting our findings to the class with our final products. My class would like to hold an exhibition and invite other classes in. Again, not something I had thought of at all but will go with what they want and see where it goes. I am excited to see what the final products turn out to be after 4 weeks of hard work from them.
At the end of the day, cancelling a few lessons for the sake of student choice and voice was just what my kids needed. Perhaps what I need more of is just a few more afternoons of those amazing little question marks.
A couple of weeks ago a group of 5 girls in my class were outside drawing at lunch. I wandered over to them to see what they were up to. "Ms. Mac, we are drawing unipigs and we want to have a unipig day!" Puzzled on what a unipig was, I inquired further - a pig and a unicorn all in one. I asked the girls if this 'day' was going to happen at home or at school.
"Can it happen at school?" was what I heard in response with the 5 innocent faces looking back at me. For a moment I paused and pondered before replying with, "Sure...But there has to be an educational component to it." From there it just took off!
That night the girls went home and by 5pm, they were on a Google presentation collaborating, commenting and coming up with how they were going to make this day happen. Within 30 minutes, they had already planned 2 lessons and created a Google presentation to use for their lesson. The document was shared with me by the time I got home from work and I sat there amazed at what had just happened.
The next day the first question I got from them was when was this going to happen. Putting the breaks on for just a second, I suggested that we meet to go over what they had planned and then we could discuss a date. At the break, we gathered in the conference room the 5 of them on one side me the other and they began talking me through their plans.
First up was a math lesson. They were going to create a menu of all the different cupcakes, cakes and beverages offered at the Decimal Dessert. Students would solve problems based on the open and closed word problem questions the girls had come up with. For the second lesson, the girls were going to have everyone design a cupcake in their writing books. Then, everyone would have to write a story incorporating the cupcake with the focus on developing their senses with taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. It sounded reasonable to me and we planned for the following Wednesday to be the day.
The excitement continued to build as the girls created more drawing for the day and modified their menu up until the last moment.
On the day, it was a very different experience for me as I stepped into the student role and actually did their lessons. I was incredibly proud of the girls and the way they conducted the lesson from start to finish. When students' hands went up, they were right there for support and even marked as they went. I loved that one when one student raised his hand and said excuse me and our PYP coordinator went to see if he could help, the student said he was actually wanting to ask the 'teachers' a question which gave me a good chuckle.
The biggest challenge for the girls was their excitement. They were all so excited by the event that they sometimes would talk over each other when giving the lesson. But how can you fault enthusiasm really?
It was a very reflective experience for me as well. As I did the lessons as a student, it reminded me of the little things that are helpful for the student to understand the instructions and tasks better. It was also interesting to see the girls modelling what I would normally do as well - the way they got the classes' attention, how they addressed students, approaches to questions. I saw the classroom truly through the eyes of my students.
Beyond this afternoon, I have had more students wanting to take risks and share. Two days after, I had a boy come in with a presentation about some action outside of the classroom that he created and wanted to share and I received an email from another student asking if she could present something she designed on the weekend. Perhaps sometimes it just takes one small step sideways to begin leaping forward.
I am glad I let go of the class for the afternoon and handed it over to the girls. It meant so much to them and they were so proud of what they accomplished individually and together. They developed their presentation skills, reflected on their work, communicated their ideas to others and challenged their peers academically. And the fact the girls also organised to each bring a few cupcakes in for the celebration to end the lesson was just the icing on the cake.