April 08, 2013

Learning in Depth - a journey into the unknown

What happens when we take on and attempt to implement a new project or idea? Well, there is the initial excitement, interest and many intended goals and hopes; however this can soon give way to confusion, regret and even despair. So what do we do when we face challenges, obstacles and/or resistance? Do we push through and reach out for help, or do we throw our hands in the air and walk away? Sometimes the latter might be required to maintain our sanity, and certainly we need to evaluate along the way what our own priorities are; nevertheless, this is not what happened for myself and a small group of colleagues who persevered through the fog of uncertainty towards a new enlightement on our parallel educational paths with Learning in Depth. 

This year I have been part of a Learning Team, a Professional Learning Network (PLN) with a focus on Learning in Depth (LiD) www.ierg.net/LiDLiD is an innovative program created by Dr. Kieran Egan and the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) at Simon Fraser University. LiD fits under the umbrella of the Imaginative Education theory (IE) www.ierg.net. which maintains a core belief that imagination is a foundational key to unlocking student potential for learning. (Okay those are my own words, but the essence is there if you browse their website.) P.S. - Now that many of the acronyms are out of the way we can move forward. 

In short, LiD is a way to transform student engagement with learning by allowing students to focus on a particular topic in greater depth over their school lifetime without requiring much change in teaching style, delivery, or philosophy as it does not replace the curriculum being taught. One of the only requirements is that students are given some time to "work" on their topic during the week, but what this looks like can vary from classroom to classroom. Students are often given a topic through a celebratory ceremony; or older students, like mine, can have some choice from a list of selected topics. 

My students receiving their topics

Regardless, the idea remains the same - that anything can be wonderful, and secondly that when we study something in great depth we become "experts" on a topic. This translates to a deeper understanding and interest not only in that particular area, but for all learning in general. Furthermore, unlike traditional learning that typically takes place within a limited time frame of a single school year, LiD allows students to study a topic over their entire school lives, a continuum often untouched in typical public education.

Di Fleming, director of Accelerated Knowledge Technologies Pty Ltd., has written for a new book, Wonder-full Education http://www.ierg.net/news-items/wonder-full-education/?searchterm=Di%20Fleming. She promotes LiD as an innovative program for 21st century learning which improves student engagement in learning. She speaks about the need to connect Imagination (creativity and ideas), Design (giving shape to ideas) and Innovation (putting the design into context) to create a successful school culture. She says, 

"So often, the place called school does not provide a place to think, explore and incubate ideas. It should."  

Moreover, she adds that schools often operate from a place of "safety", but establishing spaces of wonder may require some risk. She lists some binary examples as we move from the comfortable to the uncomfortable, the known to the unknown, the predictable to the unpredictable, the expected to the unexpected...this is where amazing learning can happen. This is exactly what happens when LiD is brought into the classroom. So why wouldn't teachers implement something so simple yet so transformative? I suspect that it is because we have some fears around change or we do not feel experienced enough to take that leap...when that may be just what is needed.

Something that became quite evident at our last LiD network meeting was the "wall" that we all hit this year in implementing this new program. What did we expect though, that it would be easy? Honestly, I must admit that I guess I did. I have place such emphasis on the importance of my role as teacher to bring concepts to life for my students in the way that I structure my lessons and units, and in the way that I set up my classroom. And I have done so much work with the IE theory over the past few years, including through my Master's of Education graduate degree, that I thought this would be smooth sailing. I realized that we have a choice when faced with such a problem: abandon ship, or re-orient ourselves and take stock of our situation. Well it hasn't been easy, but I am so thankful that I have continued on this journey and have been supported through my PLN.

There have been so many unintended examples of learning that I have observed that I can take away and build upon. I have learned the importance of paying attention to students' voices and choices more than ever before - this has been critically important for this project. I have found myself listening more and being beside students as opposed to talking to them and standing in front of them. Students have risen to the "task" and have quite naturally started to share ideas with each other and ask each other questions. I have stepped in at times with individual students when they have needed a simple prompt with a book, website, comment or question. At times I have opened up a discussion to the whole group to allow them to share their thoughts and feelings and suggestions of what they want to do next. 

I set up some initial structures for them all to follow, LiD boxes, Wiki web pages, and journals; but they have shown me what it is that they want to do. I have intended that we would work once a week on some "writing" and once a week on some "project stuff". Well, a number of students work almost daily on their LiD boxes, which is simply a hands-on approach to allow them to collect artifacts and "store" information (in my mind initially at least). Another group of students spends much of their computer time three times a week researching and adding to their on-line wiki web pages. The library has new purpose for a number of students who continually take out books on their topic and want to share something they are currently reading about it. A few students have already begun planning their final presentations. More than any other year in my teaching, every block after lunch is full of laughter, sharing, intense focus and work. It was supposed to be my "Drop Everything And Read" (DEAR) time. My vision - a quiet time to settle down after lunch so I could get some marking down. Their vision - the students have taken this time over mainly as their LiD project work time, it is noisy, it is collaborative, it is fun! What it has become is a valuable and rich unplanned learning time!

Through my work with LiD this year, I have come to understand something very important about learning...the students don't always need me! Believe me, this hasn't been an easy realization - you know I'm a teacher right?! I have this need to instruct, inspire, and ignite! Otherwise, what's my purpose? Actually it has taken some time for me to get used to the idea that students can be learning something valuable when I am not leading them all the way through it, crazy I know! This doesn't mean by any stretch of the imagination that I am doing nothing, it's just a shift in attitude and approach. I love what Linda Young writes in a 2009 English journal article 99.2, Imagine Creating Rubrics that Develop Creativity

"It is beautiful to dream of imagination taking wing, unfettered by the constraints of grades or rubrics. Classroom learning should always include time for students to brainstorm, envision, dream, and think impossible thoughts." 

I leave you with a recent observation from my classroom:

I was feeling just so drained at the end of the week and so I just let the students extend their after lunch time, and they have just continued on their own initiative for more than 45 minutes (sustained work), without a single announcement from me, to continue working on their LiD boxes. I had one student come up to me asking about Antarctica again. I pulled two books off my reading corner shelf about Penguins and Antarctica that I remembered were there, and he was immediately back on track (and excited). I observed something else quite special that could only come from providing them with this freedom of time and constraints. Students were going over to each others' boxes and having amazing conversations. I heard "wow" and "that's amazing" more than once. And then there are the groups of kids playing with items from each others' boxes (with permission). Up until now they have been respectfully quiet about what is in their boxes and no one has violated the boundaries by taking things out. I noticed a group of girls were playing with the "scene start" from one of the girl's box on Theatre. 

Theatre LiD box

As they snapped the cover they were calling out "action" and then they would strike a pose or say something in a dramatic fashion. It is quite fascinating and refreshing to see what is going on, particularly when I have such limited energy to "teach" right now, so instead there is "learning" going on with a variety of groups working together without any interruptions from me:)

And here are a few comments from my students when asked what they have learned so far through their LiD topic:

"There are endless possibilities of research you can find. It brings back memories from when you were a little kid."

"I like my topic because it is related to another topic I wanted, Wolves. I could write about the food chain and how Wolves live in the Tundra (her topic). You can learn new things about it." 

"Ideas just pop into my head." 

"It's fun because you learn things you never knew before."

I started out with my own purposes and intentions with this LiD project. I had chosen the LiD boxes as a collection point for information, but they have become a source of joy and collaboration far beyond my expectations for my students. All that is needed at times is a little plasticine, popsicle sticks and glue to fuel the fire. Students have also brought in some incredible, valuable, and sentimental items to add to their boxes; which demonstrates to me the importance they have "placed" in this project. 

Oceans LiD box

There have been times where I have had to find ways to stay engaged myself, and I have had to resist the temptation to control the outcome of this project. I realize that there is always so much going on in schools and classrooms, and as teachers we have such high expectations at all times. When do students just have time to research, reflect and enjoy their learning experience? I recognize that this project will be unlike any other that I have taken on before, because there will be a sense of accomplishment, yet ongoing and "unfinished". How do we feel about that?  

The results to date, have been wonderful and deep indeed.

April 03, 2013

Just a day's reflection is all

It's amazing how tired I am after just a couple of days "back at work". I'm not asking for any sympathy, after all, two weeks of Spring Break was such a refresher and I so enjoyed the leisurely days with my kids walking to the park or skiing the local mountains, doing a little spring cleaning around the house, or going out for ice cream together...and a little sleeping in didn't hurt either. It does point to, however, the intensity and daily demands that teachers face that we become accustomed to in our bodies, minds and spirits; and only with a brief retrieve is it so noticeable. 

My first day back was filled with some usual routines. "How was your Spring Break?" was a hot topic of course. So I had my students write a journal entry "2 truths and a lie" which they really enjoyed. They shared these out loud and their classmates voted on which one did not really happen over the holiday. There was laughter, which is always a good start. At Recess I was on supervision duty, and then right back to teaching. At lunch I put together information for the school Run Club that I coach, and I managed to shove a sandwich down before the afternoon bell. In the afternoon I had my students continue with their banner projects, which we have undertaken with a local community member and are sending down to Brooklyn for students and families affected by Hurricane Sandy. There was paint everywhere of course - so fun! After school I had a Department Head meeting to review special events and pro-d planning for the upcoming month. We had a good discussion about what teachers need to be properly equipped to deal with the overwhelming needs of the students. This is particularly true at a "vulnerable" school such as ours, compounded with the fact that we face such "underfunding" in education these days.

Second day back I welcomed my new student who recently immigrated from Germany with very little English language. This happened before the morning bell of course, and I was busy greeting the family and finding a desk on the other end of the building. I set him up as best I could with a few activities such as making a name tag and trying to help him understand what was going on in class through gestures and visual prompts. I chatted with my regular "late" students and brought them up to speed on what they should be doing, and I made sure to give a few minutes of attention to a special needs student who is on a gradual re-entry schedule to the classroom due to physical aggression and ongoing undiagnosed social-emotional issues. He does have a temporary school district youth worker who supports him; nevertheless, he required a lot of my attention and "checking in" to stay on task and follow my simple, basic instructions. 

While I was attending to these students, I also had 3 differentiated spelling programs running for all the various student levels in my room. Next came Math, and I introduced a new concept of "equivalent fractions". This required a simultaneous lesson to both grade groups with variations of the same concept and differentiation for my students with Learning Disabilities, all with distinct work outcomes...and questions (from the students). 

Finally Recess came, but my time was filled with making trips down to the Library to gather book packs for my Literature Circle groups that I was going to implement after Recess. Why didn't I organize this before-hand? Perhaps you missed the timeline of events that preceded this. I also tweaked a handout and printed it off for my students to explain a little about what they would be doing in these Lit. Circles. (By the way, with groups of 3 or 4 students they aren't really "circles", so maybe I need to rename it?) 

Anyways, prior to implementing this new routine, I had to conference with a student to check how she felt about being placed with some peers, as there have been a number of ongoing social conflicts. All went well and the students were very excited about these groups. I allowed them time to "voice" their past experiences with reading groups and how they felt about this. I organized the groups and then gave them control over book choices and assignment expectations. I think they were a bit shocked and excited by this. Actually they were so into the task that they didn't even want to break for Lunch. I had to shoo them out the door and told them we would continue after Lunch. 

Speaking of lunch, I didn't eat until 15 minutes before the afternoon bell because I was so busy organizing information for the next day, catching up on some marking, and responding to the variety of e-mails from the morning from parents, other teachers in my school, and other educators that I network with in the district and university. After lunch we finished off our book choices and then it was back onto banners (and the clean up of brushes, paint containers, and the sink again!) 

Following that I introduced yet another new group project, this time in Social Studies. I introduced this as a "tribe" project to learn about First Nations culture in Canada. I organized the groups and played a dice game to determine which "tribe" would research about which First Nations group. The students thought this was fun and there was a good energy and buzz in the room. 

After school I went directly into my coaching for our school Run Club. We took the students over to the neighbouring middle school (which I had been e-mailing details about over the past 2 days) to run the 400m track, which we don't have. When I finally said good-bye to the last student, I had an impromptu meeting with my principal about the aforementioned student with special needs. 

Now at home, I have finally just finished my marking and helping my son with his middle school math work.

As I reflect on my first couple of days back I realize that this - is teaching. In thinking back to the discussion (question) from the previous day, "What do teachers need to be properly equipped to deal with the overwhelming needs of the students?"; I see that keeping the students engaged in a variety of ways and groupings definitely helps. This obviously takes time and energy - two things that are a premium, especially when coming fresh off a long break and the body is adjusting back to the "routine"; but this is why I put so much effort into how I set up my teaching. There is no real additional support in the classroom, so I have to organize activities in such a way that will engage all my learners of various needs. I have not had to deal with any behaviour issues in these past few days because the students have been actively involved in thinking, working, and communicating with each other. These are the typical kinds of days we have and will continue to have, and it requires everything we have because the students deserve no less of us (teachers). 

Soon enough we will settle in to the regular routine; tomorrow will be no different though. As I start the day, before school I have a meeting with a parent (who believes that I am not challenging her child enough), and after school I go immediately to a learning team meeting (network meeting) about the Learning in Depth project in conjunction with Simon Fraser University...and then there are all the lessons and learning that happen in-between. 

Every day holds promise, potential, and unknown challenges. This - is teaching. This - is why I love teaching. This - is why...I am tired now as I have given all that I have. Good night:)