One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
About a year ago, after watching the movie Most Likely to Succeed, I became super interested in Project-Based Learning (PBL). I saw what High Tech High's students were capable of, and I knew I wanted my students to experience the same level of growth, confidence, and passion. This led me to applying for (and receiving!) a grant to visit that school, along with a few others, who specialize in PBL. At the same time, I got the news that I would be teaching grade 6 this year- the year our students carry out the PYP exhibition.
It's like it was all meant to be.
Here's a trailer of one of the most inspiring edudocumentary I've ever seen - Most Likely to Succeed. If you haven't seen it yet, I suggest you organize a viewing with your staff. Inspiration is all but guaranteed.
Teaching in an IB World School, I feel skilled and knowledgeable about the inquiry-based learning approach. Our staff collaborates to set the scene for inquiry, to facilitate our students' research and then push them further. Through inquiry, we've seen our students become confident, empathetic and knowledgeable world citizens.
However, when we review our planners at the end of the unit of inquiry, I've noticed that I only sometimes have students who took action inspired by our unit. Some students will make the first step on their own, but not the majority. Often, I found the potential for action was largely untapped.
After watching Most Likely to Succeed, I saw that PBL would help me reinforce real-world connections, and make learning meaningful and relevant to our students. PBL is founded on the premise of presenting real-world context to our students. The project, or action, is naturally embedded in the design of PBL. In addition, these real-world projects are cross-curricular by nature, reinforcing all our PYP transdisciplinary skills (communication, research, self-management, thinking and social skills).
These projects are also open-ended, which means they are also easy to differentiate. And if action, and choice, are so naturally embedded in the project, then there's your student engagement!
On a larger-scale, I believe PBL will help our students gain experience as agents of change in their school, community, and world. Those experiences can fuel them to be engaged citizens of the world, and really, that hits the core of why I became a teacher!
A few years ago, I joined an IB World School as a grade 1 and 2 homeroom French teacher. Since then, I've learned a lot about inquiry-based, student-led learning through the lens of this program. One big change that took place in my teaching career, and in my life, is action.
In the IB program, students are encouraged to take action in their classrooms, their homes and their communities. This was one of the biggest differences I noticed when I arrived at my current school- students were always asking me: "can I go see the principal with this project proposal?" or "I saw x on the news so I want to do y as a fundraiser in the school. When can we make it happen?". At first, I didn't know how to handle these requests, but I soon learned to empower and assist my students in their projects. I even began to encourage them to take action.
What I noticed was that soon, my own actions were changing. When a group of grade 6 students presented their exhibition project, I joined them in boycotting Nestle chocolate because of their mistreatment of child workers. Many of the teachers at school still choose to eat only fair-trade chocolate (yes, even on Halloween!).
Even though I knew about Rana Plaza, and fast fashion destroying human lives and our environment, it was my constant preaching about the integrity attitude that made me change my shopping habits. I figured if I'm always telling my students that they should do the right thing even when no one is watching, then I should do the same.
When I encouraged my students to take action in their community (and then they did, time and time again), I knew I had to do the same. I found a local organization that helps adults develop their literacy skills, and once a week I volunteer there.
As you can see, teaching in an IB school was the wake up call I needed to align my values with my actions. These changes were so powerful for me that I wanted to share a few reasons I think action is important in any school setting.
Action as the Goal
I've talked about the IB attitudes and attributes before, and here's why they keep coming up. To me, teaching a set (whatever the set!) of attitudes or personality traits that we want our students to develop is an essential part of teaching the whole child. Teaching these traits, defining them with my students, is only half the story. The meaningful part comes when these traits are linked to action; encouraging my students to embody these attitudes, and then 'catching' them displaying these traits, that's what really made me pay more attention to my own behaviours and actions. It was my continual preaching about displaying these attitudes, integrating them into actions, that pushed me to evaluate and improve my own actions!
Real World Benefits
When my students take action, they get to apply what they've learnt to the real world, and sometimes see immediate results for their hard work.
For example, last year I had a student very upset about the news footage of Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas last year. Images of destroyed schools particularly bothered him. He went to see our principal and said: "do you know what's been going on in Texas? We need to do something!" He decided to host a Mr. Freezie fundraiser during recess, with all proceeds going to a school that had been hit by the hurricane. He spoke on the intercom to tell students about what had been going on, and his plans for the fundraiser. The whole school participated in helping him raise funds, and thanks to his initiative, he raised hundreds of dollars, and showed our chosen school that the world cares. He had empathy, and a strong sense of responsibility towards fellow students (even though he had no personal connection to Texas!). He saw a problem, and took action. Isn't this what we want from all our students? From each other?
Leading by Example
Like in everything that we teach our students, it's important to model desired outcomes for our students. We model how to solve math equations, how to correct our writing, how to use the Internet as a tool...of course we need to model how to be good citizens .
A part of that means showing respect to one another, working hard on tasks, and having manners. I don't know a single teacher who doesn't teach all these things in addition to the regular curriculum. However, if we want our students to do more....we need to show them how. We need to show them that we value action too, enough so that we take our own initiatives.
now, just start
It may seem overwhelming to organize whole-school social change projects, fundraisers and campaigns- it would be! Our students didn't get into these habits overnight. I didn't make overnight. I didn't start volunteering full-time. I didn't join every protest I could find, the day I decided I needed to do more. In fact, all these changes are taking time and evolving.
The point is not to be perfect- the point is to improve the world we live in. I encourage you (and your students!) to take action and effect change, even on a small scale. If you're not sure where to start, choose a topic that you're passionate or knowledgeable about. It's better to start small than to not start at all.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of provocations. Provocation, sometimes called hook, is a thought-provoking experience that engages students in thinking about a particular subject. It is not a lesson on a topic, information is not given or fed to the students- think of it more as a beginning exploration or discovery in a certain topic.
My History with Provocations
While I was studying for my B.Ed., we would have to integrate them into fictional lesson plans... but when we would be in field experiences, it was not something many of us saw or did in practice. For the early years in my career, provocations weren’t something I spent a lot of time thinking about, because I felt it was an energy-consuming task that didn’t make much of a difference. Maybe you have felt the same way.
However, since I’ve been teaching at an IB school, I am proud to say that provocations are an integral part of my pedagogy. We discuss provocations before starting any new unit of inquiry, and then we reflect, as a team, on how to improve them in the future.
Examples in Practice
Here, an example to work with: our latest unit was centered around the central idea that athletes are driven by their personal histories. Our grade-level team brainstormed fun ways to open this unit, and here’s what we settled on:
Benefits for Students and Teachers
Provocations do not need to be huge, complicated, intricate activities. In fact, this puzzle activity is one of the trickier ones I've prepared for my students. The idea is to get students thinking and and raise interest in a particular subject. There have been many benefits I've noticed for both myself and my students.
My students always love starting a new unit, because they know our provocation activities will get them thinking. They benefit from being engaged in an interesting way with a new topic. The collaborative nature that so many provocation activities embody also allows peers to mix in new and interesting ways- maybe two students were very interested in sports, and would not have necessarily connected with each other because they enjoyed different sports, but now under the umbrella of sportsmanship, the Olympics, and passion, those students discover that they have a lot in common!
For myself, provocations can be a chance to assess students' prior knowledge, and see who takes to a particular topic. For the example I gave above, I got to see which students were really passionate about sports and the Olympics, and already knew a lot- and then see which area of the topic interested them, and how I could support them. I also learned which students had limited knowledge about the topic, what they were interested in learning about, and what gaps needed to be addressed first.
Just Google ''provocation + your selected topic'' and you are bound to find a plethora of interesting provocations for your new unit. Here are a few tried and true methods that I've had success with in the past, and that can easily be recreated with different topics. You'll notice that they are mostly juxtapositions of two activities- that's just the style I like, but you can personalize your activities for you and your students.
The Lasting Impression of Provocations
I hope that after some exploration of provocations, you'll take a chance on starting your next unit or lesson or project with a provocation. The benefits of a carefully planned out teaching moment can create a lasting impression on your students. I know that I've had students talk about the provocation during a whole unit of inquiry, referring back to it to note how their thoughts and understanding have changed since they first began learning about a particular topic. Their excitement and high engagement can set the tone for a rich, fulfilling and fun learning experience!
About ten days before school ended, I remember announcing to my class that this was our last Monday together before summer break. To my surprise, I heard a few groans and more than a few: "I don't want school to end!". I had been used to this when I taught in a low-SES neighbourhood, where summers off often meant a complete break from a steady and predictably-safe environment. But hearing this from my mostly well-off kids, who had plans of world travelling, specialized summer camps and endless play dates? I didn't expect it!
So I took the time to explain that we had all worked hard this year, and that we all deserved a break to relax now! To enjoy the hot weather, the long sunny days, eat tons of ice cream and play with our friends outside! And of course, we will all see each other again before we know it.
This class discussion made me think about the importance of closure. After spending all our days together for the better part of a year, even I'm sad to leave my crew. We have all those inside jokes! We have shared so many good and bad times together! Saying goodbye can be hard, specially for those not returning to us next school year, so it's important we do it right. Here are a few traditions I have in place to ease the transition, and to give everyone a peace of closure for the end of the school year!
The Most Detailed Attendance
It's almost comical how anal I become about the June calendar. "Will anyone NOT be here tomorrow, or for the rest of the year? X, will you be here? Y, when are you guys heading down to the States? Z, last year you had to finish early last year- what about this year?" In spite of my daily inquisitions, one or two students always end up leaving without coming back, sans warnings to themselves, to me or to their friends. And every year, this simultaneously bugs me and saddens me.
I think it is SO important for students to know when they are leaving school, and for their friends (and teachers!) to get a chance to say goodbye! Kids need the closure of goodbye hugs. It's essential that the adults in charge (a collaboration between teachers and parents) respect our shared children, and respect the relationships they've cultivated over the year.
Celebrating Summer Birthdays
I've written about the importance of celebrating birthdays before, but here I go again! It's so important to celebrate student birthdays, even if they occur on weekends or during the summer. This shows students that are thought-of and cared for all the time, not just when it conveniently fits our calendar. Also, I've had students not want to make birthday drawings for other kids because they thought their July birthdays wouldn't get celebrated. That bad attitude turns around quickly when they hear that I do ALL birthdays!
I typically schedule summer birthdays throughout the month of June, ensuring everyone gets their own day. Their birthdays are written on our calendar, and a little note is sent home explaining to parents why their child will be talking about their birthday a month early!
End of Year Awards
For the last two years, I've started the tradition of End of Year Awards with my students. Each award is personalized for the student and everyone gets one!
We roll out a red carpet (red paper if we have it...this year, I painted a red carpet on craft paper), put on award music and a video of a disco ball on a loop and we begin our ceremony! We go over the rules first: everyone claps for everyone, and everyone has the right to go to the end of the carpet to do their dramatic catwalk! My teaching partner and I put on our TV show host voices, and dramatically call out the awards like this: "for doing the right thing even when no one is looking, Mr. Integrity goes to... *kids do a drumroll* Johnny!" and then we do a round of applause, and pause for pictures.
End of Year Breakfast
If we don't have too many classroom allergies, I love to host a good classroom breakfast as an end of year activity. Each student is assigned a piece of food or cutlery to bring in. I set up our class tables as one mega table, so that we can eat family style. I even like to do place settings, and I have the kids help me in setting the table.
When it comes time to eating, I tell the kids a story from my past. When I was the army, the higher-ups always served the troops first, and they ate last. This is because leaders show the example, and put others first, and (I always liked to imagine) as a sign of respect for the troops. I always add that it's a little thing I can do to show them some love for a great year together!
The Importance of Traditions
These are a few of our little classroom end of year traditions. They change over the years depending on the kids. They help in the planning of it all, and they are the reason any and all these events are successes- it's thanks to their enthusiasm and participation that anything we do goes well. These traditions are a way of showing one another how much we mean to each other, and, for the end of the year, it's a celebration of all we've accomplished. What are some of your must-dos for class celebrations?
Over the last few years, I've developed a habit of downloading specialized fonts (usually from dafont) to jazz up my worksheets, templates or planners. While doing so, I'd wonder how complicated making a font would be, or how much I needed to know to get started. I got a false start when I first Googled it and landed on a tedious lesson about serifs. Fast forward a few months as I discovered the amazing app called iFontMaker.
Added bonus? For anyone who's a sharer, like me, you can share your work and know you have full ownership over your creations. Personally, I make my fonts Public Domain, because I had fun doing them, and I want to share my creations. You can find my fonts on another section of my blog, or on the iFontMaker site. I hope you enjoy using new fonts, and using this great app!
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