Chapter 8: Empowerment
# One of the ways Solarz turns this talk into action is by providing time for students to work on their own passion projects. Similar to 20% time projects, this is a window of time saved for students to work on an individual interest that might not be explored in school. While teachers obviously still keep their students accountable, and some form of final creation is expected, students get to follow their bliss and research a topic they are curious about. This has the benefits of increasing student interest in school, giving real-life situations and applications to research skills, all while empowering students to take charge of their own education.
It sounds amazing, yet Passion Projects are also a tall-order. I have difficulty seeing how this project could fit into my teaching task. As many English schools in Montreal are bilingual, elementary teachers here often have an English or French counterpart. I teach in French to my grade 1 while my partner has the grade 2's in English. We alternate every day, and split our Fridays. Which brings me to my next obstacle- my students are young. and I wonder how worthwhile tackling this big project is. By that, I mean that I wonder if it's worth the effort, when many of students are still learning some of the basics (writing sentences from left to right, for example). They are also learning a second-language (sometimes this is a third or fourth language for some kids).
All this to say, I think I better head back to Chapter 1 and give myself a pep-talk. I am starting to sound like a naysayer, and that's not me! That is not what I want to put out to the world, and I don't want to be that type of teacher!
While jumping into passion projects at the return of winter break would be too demanding and stressful, I've committed to another project that will allow me to get my feet wet. As I have the pleasure of working at an IB school, I will have the joy of witnessing the grade 6 exhibition this year. Exhibition is the presentation part of what is essentially a Passion Project. Small groups of students work on an area of interest for a few weeks, connecting their research to cross-curricular themes. Like in Solarz's examples, students begin with a central idea that they have generated.
So where's my commitment?
Every group is assigned a (volunteer) mentor to meet with once a week. Some are teachers, others are members of the community that have a link to the group's central idea. I've signed up as a mentor to a wonderful group of smart girls, and I'll get to assist and guide them in their passion project (if you're curious, the central idea is humans worldwide are connected through sport and athletics).
I am looking forward to seeing what Passion Projects look like in my teaching environment, and transferring my learning to my own classroom. Paul Solarz, I think your book found me at the right time in my career, and I am so thankful for this exciting adventure I've embarked on. A student-led classroom has the benefit of both making students feel like they matter and empowering them in their own education, all while freeing me up from the shackles of traditional teaching. No, my practice hasn't changed overnight, and as with any learner, I am sure it will continue to change (dare I say, improve) over time. This book gave me solid prompts to try in my teaching and made for great discussions in my emerging tech class. I encourage both new and not-so-new teachers to give it a look, and start your pirate journey.
To buy the book for yourself, click here.
Chapter 7: Twenty-first Century Skills
Second, I am an IB teacher in an IB school- and as members of the International Baccalaureate Organization, we benefit from a similar parallel curriculum to pair with our teaching. If you scroll down, you'll see an overview of the terms included in the IB program. I quickly made a lot of connections between the IB program and the list of skills suggested by Paul Solarz- no need to add on another project, since I already work with such a similar framework (sorry Paul!).
Yes, it's also a long list.
Yes, it can get way more detailed than what you see below.
And yes, it takes time to learn it all.
The IBO has the benefit of being an established organization, with standard operating procedures- read: tricks and tips that can make a parallel curriculum accessible to all teachers. With ease-of-use and simplicity in mind, here are a few ways to make this parallel curriculum more user-friendly.
Teach through units
A novice teacher may think teaching individual stand-alone units is easier than planning a 4-6 week unit, but they would be wrong! While it takes some getting used to, planning and teaching in unit formats will save you time, effort, energy, and frustration in the long run. Here are a few reasons why I love units:
Divide & Regroup
Now that you are teaching in units (that was fast!), you can divide up your parallel curriculum, whether it be Solarz's 21st century skills, or the IBO program, or anything else and sprinkle the skills in your units throughout the year. What I mean by this is that you will not be able to hit all the skills and concepts you want to in one unit. That's okay. By focusing on 2 or 3 per unit, you can give each skill the time it deserves, and touch on most if not all of them throughout the year. Some skills also naturally lend themselves to certain units, so why not embrace that connection?
Keep it Documented
Through the IB program, teachers plan 6 units a year (6-8 weeks each). Each unit must touch on a few attitudes, attributes, and concepts. Since our units are so well documented, we teachers can ensure that all the outlined skills are taught during the year. When units are updated or retired, we can also make sure new units touch on the necessary skills.
Another benefit of the IB program, which I am not trying to sell, I'm just a big fan of such of this comprehensive and well-rounded program, is that the whole school has agreed to teach with this framework. This ensures all these skills are taught and reinforced every year, with every teacher! With teachers and students using the same vocabulary to highlight these skills, students are aware and reflective of this parallel curriculum.
In the end, whatever you choose to do, it doesn't have to be the IB program. Find a way to make it work for you. While I have no doubt that teachers are teaching a secondary curriculum, having a list, or program to refer to can help make sure you touch on all the skills you judge important. What system works best for you? for your school?
To buy the book for yourself, click here.
Chapter 6: Active Learning
Well what do you know, the most significant learning experiences I've had in my life have been from actually doing what I was learning. Yes, the textbooks, and websites, and lectures, helped set up learning, but what really cemented knowledge acquisition was doing them.
You'll remember Edgar Dale's Cone of Learning from your university days. It makes sense that the highest retention rate happens when students do what they are supposed to be learning. Giving your students the opportunity to practice what they are learning and talk about it will make your class one of the most successful!
Solarz offers up 6 great ways to integrate active learning in your practice. but I will focus on simulation, because it's the one that transfers easiest to my job now as a grade 1 & 2 French Immersion teacher! (also, simulations are the best and tons of fun!)
What is simulation?
A friend of mine once called what we do "edu-tainment".
I think that great word is a start to describing all the crazy things teachers do! I love all the fun, imaginative things I get to witness and take part in as a teacher, and simulations allow me to do even more of that, with pedagogical goals in mind! As a teacher, you have the power to completely overhaul your students' classroom experience. Since you want learning to stick, and be as memorable as possible, why not have your students experience the concept you're teaching? At first, this requires a lot of creativity, and planning, but after a while, it becomes second nature!
Here is a most recent classroom example. A few weeks ago, I began a unit on transportation with my grade 2 class. The central idea is transportation systems are created to meet the needs of people. Throughout this unit, students will learn about different modes of transportation, how they evolved as responses to different people's needs, and their effects on the environment. The stage was set for The Amazing (grade 2) Race!
Our first simulation was driving to New York City! Students created their driver's licenses (probationary, of course!) and their passports (great way to integrate some math -measurement- in there!). We made steering wheels out of straws and connectors, and each got in our own "cars" (chairs moved to the front of the class). Excitement levels were high, and that's something that happens with simulations- student engagement! We buckled our seat belts, and drove off to The Big Apple, watching a driving simulation from YouTube. I joked with a few my students that their inattention to the road or speeding might cost them their license, and this prompted a great discussion- shouldn't some of us be getting in the same car as our friends? It's not very good for our planet to take 19 separate cars to the same place, we should share! One student said we should have taken a bus. Another student said his dad's car is electric, so that's good for the environment.
That discussion maybe could have taken place without the simulation. But my students were engaged, had fun, and will remember the loud afternoon we drove down to NYC! Since we need to cross a border to get the city, they even got to experience a border agent verifying their passport (your truly) and get a new stamp in their passport. Who said learning can't be fun?
I hope this book, or this blog, prompts you to try one of the 6 suggested forms of active learning in your classroom! There is so much fun to be had by experiencing learning first-hand, no student should miss out!
Click here to purchase the book for yourself!
Chapter 4: Improvement Focus vs. Grade Focus
Let's talk about feedback, folks.
This chapter prompted a lot of self-reflection. How do I give feedback to my kids? What verb tense do I use when I give feedback? Who can provide my students with feedback? What do I hope to achieve when teaching a lesson? Most importantly: what is my goal for my students?
That last one, I can answer easily: my goal is to guide my students to become lifelong, self-propelled learners. Feedback is such an important part of this objective- this is how we can help our students learn from their mistakes, and learn how to learn. With that in mind, let's dive into it: how can an improvement-focused classroom help your students become self-propelled learners.
. If your schooling experience is anything like mine, you may remember studying (cramming) for an exam, memorizing key terms and dates only to regurgitate them on the test- and a week later, you would have forgotten everything. From a teacher's perspective, that's a nightmare. From a student's perspective, that's a pain in the butt. It's useless for both teacher and students.
Now, let's learn about the remedy for that nonsense. An improvement-focused classroom is one that focus on growth, and progress. There is no "end" to learning, and there is no limit on learning. There is always room to improve.
Here are some characteristics of the improvement-focused classroom:
When a class's focus shifts from results to process, feedback becomes increasingly important. If you seek to help your students grow at every opportunity, you need to be providing them with frequent feedback. If you really want to step up your game, teaching your students how to give feedback will be a game-changer. It will both free you up to work with other students (finally, you won't be the only person your students can turn to) and your students will get used to receiving feedback form different voices.
By focusing on the process of learning, you can help your students make connections that may have otherwise been overlooked. As we know, the more connections your students can make, the more relevant learning will be to them, and the more it will stick.
some final thoughts...
I am sure the classroom environment described above is what every teacher dreams of. In the real world however, we have deadlines, report cards, government testing and all the rest of that kerfuffle. It's important to acknowledge that the road to an improvement-focused classroom may not be easy. But just because something is difficult, it doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
I also think that changing your focus from grades to improvement is an investment. It may be difficult at first to convert your students (and parents, and colleagues, ...) but let's imagine a world where teachers changed their focus. Let's imagine what type of students that would produce. Isn't that worth it?
I'll end with this important saying, from one of my favourite professors.
As always, to buy the book for yourself, click here!
Chapter 3: Peer Collaboration
This chapter, we finally get into it!
To present you with the knowledge I gained while reading this chapter, I decided to mix it up a bit! I created a fun infographic to explain what peer collaboration in the classroom looks like, and present some strategies to make it happen!
As classroom teachers, we have an enormous amount of power and influence over our students, and our classroom environment. And as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. We have to ensure we use our power for good, not evil! With that in mind, if you want to create a successful collaborative classroom, here are some ideas you may want to keep in mind.
As always, to purchase this book for yourself, click here.
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