Month: November 2017

Post Mortem Reflection: Autopsy of a Failed PYP Unit (Sharing the Planet)

Post Mortem Reflection: Autopsy of a Failed PYP Unit (Sharing the Planet)

It doesn’t matter if you have been teaching for 8 months or 18 years, you will experience a bombed lesson from time to time. But a bombed unit-well, that I have yet to experience until now. And it has been the most frustrating 6 weeks of my life, as I have worked relentlessly to cultivate their conceptual understanding. Most teachers don’t share their failures, they only blog or tweet about all the “cool learning” that’s going on but I think it’s equally important to reveal and reflect on our failings. So in an effort to be vulnerable, I humbly submit that this unit has yet to meet its central idea and only narrowly developed its lines of inquiry. And I can’t stop asking why.

Our actions can make a difference to the environment we share.

  • how we use resources (function)
  • the impact of people’s actions on the environment (causation)
  • choices we make to care for our environment (responsibility)

I hold some very strong beliefs when it comes to creating curriculum in the PYP, one of which is having a solid central idea that a teacher can anchor the learning in.  If you pulled out the keywords–what would they be? I chose to focus on “actions”, “environment” and “share”. Other key ideas were from the lines of inquiry: resources, impact, and choices. The assessment is really quite simple–we document student action that has occurred over the unit. And herein lies the problem: student action. Students are not taking action because they don’t have enough conceptual understanding to appreciate a need to act. They literally do not see pollution-even if a coke bottle flew out of the sky and bonked them on the head, they wouldn’t notice. Oh, and if that same coke bottle then got buried in the ground, one of the students said it would sprout a Coke Tree. No, I’m not lying–this was an actual prediction during one of our engagements.

At first, this put me in a panic and I went in the wrong direction. I thought, oh my gosh, this future generation, they are either absolutely oblivious or litter and pollution (particularly in Asia) are so endemic that it’s like wallpaper and thus hardly take notice. So we began inquiring into endangered animals and the impact on habitats. We worked through key vocabulary and food chains. The kids put together wonderful ChatterPix presentations which summarized their library research on the animals. But during another provocation when I showed a picture of a turtle that had been deformed due to garbage in the water, I had 3 kids tell me that it looked like that because it was farting, clearly articulating (with a straight face) that gas can make you bloated and you feel bubbles are in your belly. I could see his thinking but I felt deeply concerned and it was at this point that our unit started to take a turn for the worse.

One of the Segel pictures that the students examined. They thought they were just “having a picnic at the beach.”

So then, to make a stronger link about humans and how we use resources, we explored the work of Gregg Segal,  which started as a provocation but since the students made no connection between the garbage and the people who were lying in it, we examined our “home” garbage and collected our classroom garbage, including snacks, for a week to analyze. I had also gotten one of our Secondary Art and Design teachers who is an avid photographer on board to help us orchestrate an attempt to do a photoshoot with our students in this garbage. It was going to be awesome, right?! –They were finally going to “get it” so we can move into learning about the 3 R’s–Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Nope–the day before the photoshoot, our cleaners emptied our bins. Deflated, we decided that we would “follow the garbage”, trying to pull together this idea of how individual and collective choices can add up to make a difference in the burden that ecosystems might have to shoulder. So we went down to our school’s dump area and examined our rubbish. Next, we made a day of it and went down to the Vientiane Landfill.  Although they were absolutely disgusted by it, they had seemed unchanged.  This week we are going to meet people whose “choices” to care for our environment are having a  positive impact on our Vientiane community. We are still hopeful that a handful of them will be moved into action but I know now that it’s a foolhardy job to try to assess them on this central idea. We will have to create unit grades based on their academic skills in language and math that have been developed alongside these conceptual understandings.  

The moral of the learning debacle boils down to these things:

  • Doing a bunch of “cool stuff” is not as important to properly pre-assessing basic knowledge and skills. Sometimes we get so preoccupied with launching a unit with instant student engagement, that we forgo necessary assessment which can be documented and examined. I think in heavy science-based units, it’s important to probe into common misconceptions and vocabulary that may be misunderstood. I did some of it, but I missed some big ideas–simple stuff like living vs. non-living because I had assumed it had been “covered” in previous years.
  • Furthermore, provocations that reveal severe inadequacies in student knowledge means that the unit probably needed to be scrubbed and rewritten immediately instead of trudging through the painful experience of trying to get students to arrive at mastery and develop knowledge that is beyond their experience or developmental appropriateness is asinine.
  • And the third thing is that the sequence of units matters A LOT. In our case, we were asking that students take their knowledge and apply it by taking action. We should have had a How The World Works Unit beforehand that developed the key information and scientific principles to really appreciate the need to act. Our unit implied that kids should “reduce, reuse, recycle” without understanding why it’s important to do so.
  • Also, a unit whose central idea demands that students assimilate knowledge and then adapt it to behaviors needs to reconcile with the developmental stage that they are at. Most of the students are at the cognitive stage in which they are transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking and operational thought. This unit would have been better served when most, if not all the kids, were 7 years old because cognitively they would have understood the concept of conservation. This was a second term unit. It was too early in the school year to introduce these ideas.
  • And of course, the old PYP coordinator in me wondered why I didn’t go back into last year’s POI to see what scientific ideas that they had been exploring when I first saw warning signs. Although I had interviewed past teachers who did the unit, I should have dug deeper into the curriculum that my current classes had been working on in the past years. I needed to research my learners more. I would have seen the gaps and been able to re-route the unit sooner instead of “following the garbage”.

So, I would suggest that educators ask themselves a couple of important questions before embarking on units of inquiry in which student action should be the hallmark of successful learning outcomes:

  1. What previous knowledge and skills should we look for? What was their most recent learning (last grade level’s POI)? What conceptual understandings will students need to understand in order to really apply knowledge? (Go deep on Box #3 on the PYP planner)
  2. What misconceptions do you predict students may come with? How will we know if they have them?
  3. What is the age of the majority of the students? Will they have access cognitively to the concepts and related concepts in the units?
  4. What action is already taking place? What can we expect young children to be doing, feeling and thinking?

 

I can see now that words like “action” and “choices” are too subjective to be put into a central idea for this Sharing the Planet Theme. They are great in the lines of inquiry, but if you take the stance that you assess the central idea in your summative and formative assessments, then you are setting students up for failure. Although student action is the proof that real learning has occurred, this unit would have been better served with related concepts in the central idea. (Here is a great blog that demonstrates how units can be analyzed in this way.) With that in mind, I would suggest rewriting the unit to look like this, with the related concepts in bold:

Human interaction with living things can have consequences on the environment.

 

Although this unit is going to be seared into my mind and will haunt me all year, I will remember the lessons learned here when it comes to analyzing my grade level’s units of inquiry. Perhaps this will also help you to reflect and consider how your units are structured and be more critical in your understanding of your learners.

So I ask you, dear reader, what other suggestions would you make regarding this failure? What takeaways did you get from this? Please comment below.

#IMMOOC Wondering about “Shock vs. Awe”

#IMMOOC Wondering about “Shock vs. Awe”

In our last planning retreat, we spent a lot of time discussing provocations so that students would develop a genuine appreciation and care for the blessed planet we live on instead of retreating indoors to their “screens” and engaging in a “virtual reality” that our digital lives seem to provide.  We pondered what was more important–to begin our Sharing the Planet unit enveloped in “shock” or in “awe” of different environments found on Earth. For example, do we show them all the ways in which human progress is devastating our ecosystems, destroying animal habitats and polluting our drinking water supplies-the shock? Or do we go out into nature, listen to birds and find “the cheap showiness of nature” that surrounds us every day?  Of course, it is debatable if just taking kids into nature will cultivate “awe”; is it a natural instinct or are this attitudes of wonderment and pleasant surprise something that we learn socially and is imbued by our cultures?  (Perhaps right now, you might be deliberating this idea as well. I know this idea will be a subtext in our reflections of this unit.)

Recently, in our Innovator’s Mindset’s Flipgrid, Becky McDowell related her experience with creating a culture of problem finders and problem solvers. A little light bulb went off in my head and made me consider this unit whose central idea is:

Our actions can make a difference to the environment we share.

Thinking about what Becky said, I felt it was important to evaluate whether or not students actually saw the problems with our actions and choices as humans. Through our pre-assessment and initial tuning in provocations, it became clear that students had a lot of “book knowledge” of the relationships that animals and plants have in the environment, but made little to no connection to how we contribute to the pollution that spoils life on earth. They literally did NOT see it. You can’t imagine the pangs in our chests when the students were indifferent. If they cannot FIND the problem, they cannot SOLVE the problem. This has become so problematic and disheartening, to say the least.

I always say that “if I do all the work, I do all the learning”. This is actually a reminder for me to stay aware that I need to make sure I don’t steal the children’s learning just by telling them information or how to do something. But there is something about the word “teacher” that implies a transfer of knowledge and skill, and the lack of student action has really made me question the very foundation of my “best practice”–how am I missing the mark with this unit,  a unit that seems more and more critical for our future generation to understand and act upon if there is to be any quality of life on our planet? We have applied every principle of SUCCESs to create “stickiness” of our central idea and yet, as we go into our final week, I keep wondering what we could have done differently.  We’ve done a wonderful job, I feel, of finding a balance between “shock” and “awe” in our unit, but the fruits of our effort have yet to be revealed. The jury is still out on this case.

As we go into the final week of our unit, I look forward to seeing how this unit might still come together. Children are always full of surprises, so I can’t do anything beyond anticipate that they will make connections, even if those connections might be different than I expected. I hope that, although I have been going through a bit of “shock” when it comes to their conceptual understandings, perhaps this unit will reveal the “awe” in how their thinking has changed and been developed.

 

Creating A Community of Mindful Learners

Creating A Community of Mindful Learners

Sometimes you teach what you know well, and sometimes you teach what you want to know better. Mindfulness is definitely a skill that is under development and I am learning right along with the students.  As a digital immigrant, my life has transitioned from simple face-to-face interactions and long conversations on the telephone to pop-up notifications and the buzzing dings that demand my attention. For me, mindfulness is not about meditation, it is about awareness; of inhabiting my body and my mind in a healthy and mature way.  As I think about the precious learners in our class, I think about their futures and how they might handle stress and relationships in this digital age that is ever evolving at such a rapid pace, a pace that makes it difficult to manage at times. That is why I wholeheartedly agree that mindfulness is not something you teach kids to “calm them down” but to teach them how to do as part of their daily habits, which I think of as mental hygiene.

Because I feel so strongly that this is a life skill, I have been more consistent in cultivating a practice in our classroom. It all started as experimentation and a curiosity into a line of inquiry (how we learn best) when we began our Who We Are unit, but then, due to the illness and fluctuation in our teaching team, the routine seemed important and necessary to send “well wishes” to people struggling with health issues. I feel quite fortunate because, at my school, I am not seen as the “kooky hippie”, but a fellow practitioner of mindfulness and receive support in teaching lessons. Members of our counseling team come to class 2 times a week to provide support lessons based on the work of the Mindful Schools program.And what I find most interesting was, in our recent student surveys, students put learning about their brain (which is something that I do as a component of the practice) as one of their favorite activities. So clearly, they are curious about how the mind works and want to develop this awareness of themselves and others. In our recent One World Day assembly, classes were invited to present ideas related to the United Nations’ Global Goals. We reflected on the goal of health and well-being and I interviewed a few of our students about mindfulness and who are the people they have compassion for, which I refer to as “well wishes”.  It was a supremely sweet and telling moment when I did this, as I learned a lot about what my students value and care about. You can see the video here in this post.

We also demonstrated a bit of our practice with the audience, as the ringing of the brass bell signaled a moment to breathe and reflect on who or what we want to send well-wishes to. Then we took turns sharing our well-wishes.

One thing that is both wonderful and terrible about mindfulness is that it is never “learned”. You can’t have book knowledge about this topic. It is a practice, a skill, a habit which is ongoing and evolving. I do believe that the residual effects of this practice may not be seen immediately, but I feel hopeful that this intention to have a culture of mindfulness will have a lasting impact. Becoming more mindful, creating space between thoughts, developing focus and awareness, and cultivating compassion for others and oneself is, I believe, something that all our students, young or old, can benefit from and need in order to cope with the transitions and challenges that their future holds.

Perhaps you too have been curious about implementing this sort of habit into your classroom. I strongly encourage you! And if others would like to share their experience in the comments below, I welcome your ideas and suggestions.

May you be happy.
May you be peaceful.
May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you be love.
And my students love to throw in…
May you be smart.
#IMMOOC: Manna From Heaven

#IMMOOC: Manna From Heaven

It’s hard to imagine that the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC is coming to a close.   I’m ever so grateful for this IMMOOC community as this came at just the right time when I was going through a rough patch in my teaching career when our 1st-grade team was falling apart due to illness and these blog posts have sustained me, keeping me focused on the students and moving me forward in my practice–even if it felt like running through peanut butter. There are people who I’ve never met before that have touched my heart or provoked my thinking in a such a way that made me shift a bit in my approaches to teaching and learning. I’d like to share a sample of some of the great educator’s out there who have come along on this journey and supported me (even though they didn’t quite know it).

 

When all is said and done, innovation is not only crucial to education…it is essential. Our students need us to stay- up on our game.  It is our responsibility to build learning experiences that they will enjoy, and will benefit them in the months and years to come.  Heidi Solway

Yep, that comment from Solway’s Class 11 reminded me of not wasting time to feel disappointed or upset by the disruption. “It is our responsibility” kicked me right out of sour attitude;  even though I may not have the collaboration I wish I had to get the Grade 1 combined classes going, I felt an urgency to move forward and figure things out.  She talks in another blog post that innovation is a cure for perfectionism,  that she thinks of teaching like a sport, That idea, was a game-changer for me. No pun intended. Sports are fun and, even if my team players were “on the bench”, it was my duty to “win the game for them” by blocking out all the “noise” and keep focused on the kids. Thank you, Heidi!

 

Stay determined when things don’t look like they are working out. But also be open to changing how you approach your goal. In order to reach your goals, you need to be flexible. Opportunities may not always come in the way we expect them. 

Well, this Teacher in Motion blog post was another inspirational one that got me thinking about how I could think about this situation as an opportunity, I dare say, a gift. I started to think about the different ways I could approach some of the challenges that I was facing. I dug in and started doing some research into New Zealand’s initiative into Modern Learning Environments (MLEs) and started to think about how I can frame this challenge, which I blogged about A Journey into Design Thinking to Tackle Classroom Challenges. But it is amazing how a few sentences can get your mind reeling and off in a new direction. Thank you, Kate!

 

My worst nightmare was realized when I heard a student say, “I don’t want to work in groups, I just want to work alone”.  I didn’t know what to do. I knew that my classroom culture was set up so that students could learn from each other, build positive relationships, and work cooperatively and collaboratively. So what do you do with the student that wants to work in isolation? Michelle Schade

This blog post made a different sort of impact on me.  It reminded me that the challenges I face are not unique–even if we didn’t have open-concept type learning environments, in a “normal” learning environment, some students work best alone. Michelle describes how she uses technology to help solve this challenge. I haven’t gone the technology route yet like Michelle, but the desire to meet the needs of our learners is a struggle that we can face together.  The blog post did get me thinking how I might designate one of our classrooms as the “independent” room (aka “quiet room”) and one room the “collaborative” (aka “noisy room”) so that the students who wanted to work alone had the opportunity to go into that space and escape from conversation to focus.  Now that I have a new full-time teaching partner, I’m thinking about how we can create some  “quiet” spaces and some “huddle rooms” within the two classrooms so we can balance out the noise distribution.

Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for Michelle’s post, I wouldn’t have reflected and started to develop an iteration of our learning environment. Thank you, Michelle!

Even though this is my 2nd time engaging in this MOOC, I’ve gleaned more insights and felt challenged. It has been a time of personal reflection, evaluation of mindset and school culture and a time of developing connections with other like-minded individuals. Probably this latter part has been my favorite and what makes this so impactful and why I keep coming back to the IMMOOC. Thank you, George Curous, for writing the book and for cultivating such a great community. This has felt like manna from heaven–the ideas and virtual connections have been powerful and life-giving!

 

 

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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