May 13, 2013

Differentiation: How do we inspire life-long learners and give them hope for the future?

I am a life-long learner. So what does that mean exactly to you? For me, it brings recognition to the fact that I need to continue to learn new things and I am still in the process of figuring "stuff" out. When I am perplexed by a situation, I find it helpful to talk to colleagues and read some educational philosophy, which tends to ground me. Paulo Freire famously wrote in: Pedagogy of the Oppressed how, 

"The word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible... within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action... there is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world." 

I am definitely about transformation and connecting with the people I work with - staff and students. The words we speak to each other hold power and meaning. Likewise Vygotsky, in his book: Language and Thought says, 

"It is not a word, that is difficult to comprehend, but the concept denoted by this word, which the child does not understand." 

Therefore when I use a word such as differentiation in my post title, it is important to communicate what I believe the word means as I apply it in my classroom. Differentiation for example can be seen as the building of concepts so that this is the centre of learning (see my previous post I don't believe in student-centered learning ), which allows for multiple processes and products. 

I hope you will see evidence of this as I describe the context I work within, the philosophy I believe in, and as I provide examples of what has been taken place in my classroom recently. 

The context

Not knowing everything - this should be a liberating thought for all educators, not one that creates fear or anxiety; however many teachers feel the need to have all the answers and to say, "I've been there, done that!" This response often comes when they are asked about how to reach difficult students, deal with particular educational dilemmas, or when faced with hard questions from parents about how their child is doing well or not so well in school. I take that earlier statement as if to say, "I know everything there is to know about what I am doing, and I don't want your help." Well, I don't and I do (respectively)! 

The best thing about this for me is that I don't have to know all the answers or have a complete, pre-conceived plan of what I should be doing. Moreover, what we have learned through one situation might be applicable to a new problem; but we might also have to come up with a new solution and one we have not personally tried before. So, this creates and requires an openess - which I believe is a necessary and fundamental condition to achieve joy, fulfillment, and success in the work we do. 

A particular focus I have had recently is how I can reach all my students needs and collaborate effectively with my colleagues. Working closely with teachers and administrators, and following some educational leaders on Twitter has given me some great perspective on the complexities, and also the possible solutions in handling complication learning needs...we are after all taking about children here! At our school this has been a hot topic of conversation and part of our professional development as a school. It has been birthed out of necessity. We are a vulnerable school, we have tremendously high and overwhelming student needs without the adequate support to meet all those needs. So what do we do? What can we do?

The Theory: Philosophical reasoning

I believe that we need to change and challenge our thinking and find ways to help our students overcome their own obstacles and become successful. This means possibly changing how lessons are delivered, changing how students work alone and together, changing the "shapes of our days", changing the physical spaces we work in, and changing the amount of time and energy we put into our work. This actually is more about the values and beliefs we hold philosophically about learning, rather than the curriculum work itself; however there are some very practical implications of all this for sure! 

If we say we are flexible, are we willing to abandon the way we have always done it??? Or are we still trying to force our students down a narrow path for to line up with the expected norms? Flexibility then might be moving away from known activities to a new, unknown way - which will help us to combat the problems of the students' abilities and limitations, or the constraints of the context itself. Each child that is struggling to self-regulate, cooperate, and understand their actions in the classroom will need individual, unique strategies to support them. I will offer a few examples of how I have attempted this in a moment. 

I am challenged by what Di Fleming wrote in an article, An Educational Leadership Perspective: managing and revealing the DNA of wonder in teaching and learning (see also her powerpoint address: Imagination, Design and Innovation: the drivers of 21st century learning! ), 

"So often school practice comes from 'safe places'.... Dealing with uncertainty and insecurity, in and out of the classroom demands that educators, 'dance with the unexpected', anticipate and predict possible futures, providing learning spaces that excite and create discomfort. Wonder can be evoked and explored by providing students with abnormal, unexpected and surprising contexts. Such contexts can prepare students with the wisdom to face the unknown. That wisdom must have roots. Those roots have a metamorphosis through the creation of and belief in wonder-full education where there is a willingness to use a range of cognitive tools such as exploring the extremes and limits of reality through role play, wonder and building new realities."

What then does it mean to create a wonderful environment? If I am finally realizing what a life-long learner is after all this time, then I really want my students to understand what that means. This can only happen within a supportive context that I provide for them, but also one that is challenging to them so they can go beyond where I have been! All of this thinking precipitated a discussion at the beginning of the day recently with my students about their LiD projects (see my previous post about LiD: ) 

I asked them a few questions about "the best thing" about their LiD projects. But I turned from the usual questions of "What have you learned so far?" to, "What suggestions do you have to make this project better?" and also, "What will keep you going with this project beyond this class?" I told them that some people (other adults) have the thought that a project that goes on for such a long period of time beyond a single year might lack a sustained interest and focus - it will become boring. Not to mention a project that is not being marked. So where is the value in it? 

I explained to the students that I have been on my own learning in depth study over the past 4 years about imagination through my Master's study in Imaginative Education. I told them that I have this desire, a passion to find out what it is, what it looks like, what it feels like, how it changes in various settings and amongst different groups of students. This is what keeps me engaged in my work, and I haven't been bored yet! I challenged my students, by first encouraging them in how they have been doing great work on their projects within the framework I had set up for them; but then I pointed out how no one had come to yet to ask, "Can I do something else?" Their eyes were fixed on me. Yes I was throwing out a challenge to them
Since I had their attention, I also told them an important life-lesson that I have come to believe: 

Life is not about thinking about what you want to do when you grow up, it is about finding out what you are good at and passionate about, if you do that, then you will be happy in whatever it is you end up doing. This takes some risk. 

I asked them what they thought about this. I didn't get too many responses at that time, however they began to respond to the call in unexpected and pleasant ways. I will now offer some practical examples now of how I am trying to support my students to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way, and how they responded to my call to excellence.

The Solution: Practical Examples

Girl with the broken arm

One of my high-achieving students came to school with her arm in a sling. Turns out, she fractured it in cheerleading injury to her "writing" arm. Consequently she was unable to do her work in the same way she has been accustomed to. She needed to show her understanding on a math test, in the way she had learned it; unfortunately now she couldn't because she had to rely on someone else to show the work for her, which in this case was through drawing fraction circles to compare fractions of different denominators. It just wasn't going to work. So I had to sit with her and show her a new (more advanced) way to complete her work using multiplication - a strategy she had avoided at first. Because she was independently "unable" to do her work I had to provide her a mini lesson and help her through the first steps (scaffolding). 

Vygotsky wrote in his book: Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes

"...if we offer leading questions or show how the problem is to be solved and the child then solves it, or if the teacher initiates the solution and the child completes it or solves it in collaboration with other children... the solution is not regarded as indicative of his (her) mental development... even the profoundest thinkers never questioned the assumption; they never entertained the notion that what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone."

She was immediately able to use that and apply it to her work. She learned something new and well beyond what she would have done if her arm had not been injured. It wasn't a simpler, easier method, it ended up being a more advanced form. Vygotsky would be proud to know that his ZPD is alive and well and making a difference. I believe we need to see "disabilities" as opportunities to do something different.

Boy who thought outside the box

I have a boy with undiagnosed special needs, who has had quite some difficulty fitting in this year. I had a math activity planned using some geometric shapes (polyhedrons) to construct 3-D prisms and pyramids that I thought he would find interesting (see below). 

pyramids and prisms created by the students
And then he did something unexpected. Here is his shape (see below).

his shape that doesn't quite fit in either category

A shape that doesn't quite fit...fitting actually! Is it a pyramid or is it a prism? The other students weren't quite sure. Pyramids typically end in a single point, and prisms often have parallel ends, according to our definitions. What this boy's object demonstrates to me is a divergence in thinking that can be celebrated and elevated to a place of honour. So I brought him before the class and applauded what he had done. He didn't do what he was supposed to do according to the criteria I gave to the class; he did what came naturally to him, he did something unusual and "out of the box". You see, he doesn't necessarily follow routines very well, he doesn't always know where he fits, and so his work can be seen as a reflection of him - the way in which is thinks is different...and it is beautiful! I had asked the students earlier to surprise me and bring a new idea to their work, he had fulfilled this idea quite well.

Groups "acting up" together

I have a Literature Circle Reading program that I have developed over many years that I typically implement in the 3rd term after Spring Break. This consists of groups of anywhere from 3-6 students reading out loud together and responding to their novels that they have chosen together. For the first book I have the students do some simple summary, connection, and prediction work. When they return for the next class they share and listen to each others' responses. My students know that they can spend a good chunk of their reading time talking about their books, and there are often a few groups of students who spend more than half the reading time doing this.  

For their next books, the students take on roles for each chapter or set of chapters. The roles are: Discussion Director (who summarizes the main facts and helps to faciliate the discussion; Connector (who makes personal connections, or brings in the emotional connection of how it might feel to be in that situation); Word Hunter (who gathers unknown or important words fromt the reading to give definitions or recognition to word choice by the author); Friend of the Character (who relates to someone in the book and shows an awareness of perspectives in the book); and the Artist (who sketches a scene, character's expression, or captures the mood of the chapter(s) aesthetically. 

For their 3rd book students will engage in acting out roles to share their thinking about what has happened in their stories in a game I created called "Roll for your Role".

At the end of each book they can choose from a list of projects I had created for them such as a "wanted poster", writing an additional chapter, making a comic, or a diorama model, etc... This is a simple way to celebrate and show their understanding of the book. What is most interesting this time around is that I had some groups come to me and ask if they could present their book in a role-play, something not on the "list". So I said - yes. But they went even further. I observed many students, who didn't normally work together, coming together to present theatrical productions of books they have been reading, setting their own criteria, and showing such an interest and investment in what they were doing. I had students asking what could be possible, almost to try and shock me. "Can we put our 2 different books together into one play?" My answer again was - yes.

FYI, The plays have blown me away, the first one was 9 minutes long. But it is not just the length; it has been the kind of effort I have seen. Students have been practicing at lunch time, taking their scripts outside to rehearse. They have been laughing so hard! I usually come back after lunch and they work for a full half an hour every day, in a time dedicated to student choice. I wonder if they even need me or notice I am there because I rarely give them a single instruction? It has been so amazing, the joy and wonder I am seeing in them! Amazing!!

And these are just a few examples of the richness and quality of work and positive interactions that I have seen in my students lately:)

The Conclusion & Future Hope

Throughout this post I have put words in bold that mean something significant in the work I do, because I believe they are significant in the work we do. Although there is not room to define them all here, I think you will appreciate that the words have been about thinking positively about the students we work with. I have tried to show praxis - a relation between what I believe and what I do. 

I have begun to realize that teaching is about having the right priorities. I align myself with what Andy Hargreaves writes about having the right kind of focus, in his book: The Fourth Way: The inspiring future of educational change

"The vital 21st-century skills that will drive new knowledge economies are integral to the agenda of personalized learning. Creativity, innovation, intellectual agility, teamwork, problem solving, flexibility, and adaptability to change are essential to the new economy. But if these skills are all theres is to 21st-century schools, they will never convert personalization into mere customization in a fast-forward world of swift solutions and temporary teamwork. Twenty-first-century schools must also embrace deeper virtues and values such as courage, compassion, service, sacrifice, long-term commitment, and perseverance."

Additionally I was inspired by a talk Tim Waddington, a Ph.D. student at SFU, gave during my graduate program, and has written about, giving students choice, freedom and responsibility. He highlights the importance of using: 

1. differentiation - building concepts so that this is the center of learning; 
2. relation - which is at the center of students, text and the world; and 
3. disruption - offering alternatives, bringing in questions, and adding new concepts. 

  It would seem that words and labels are significant and we should be careful how we use them. Although I used some labels above to identify students or situations, I must make it clear that labels cannot and should not lead us in our efforts in determining how best to support students' needs. We tend to use labels to identify people by their deficiencies rather than by their potential and this limits us. Helping students effectively can be encouraged by a classroom that offers many pathways to understanding, time to work together, student choice, and the provocation of thought and action. It is worth stating that we do not truly always know what a child's potential is on the inside, so we cannot and should not be bound or limited by outward appearances. Be open to change, choose to be an overcomer, aim higher, and be an encourager

My students have finally taken me up on the challenge, this has taken time and trust, and the classroom is a beautiful place to be again, and a little noisier too!...just the way I like it! I hope you will take up the challenge too:)

May 11, 2013

Letters, Castles and an Epic battle?

Feeling puzzled? Letters being uncoded by my students
My students received some letters recently. How often does that happen anymore? The letters were from an unknown destination from an unknown people; but we had been expecting them. Let me explain. My students sent out initial letters in the style and around the era of King Charlemagne, all upper case, no spaces, no punctuation (pre-modern English). It was its own kind of code to uncover for the other students who would received them. These letters were sent out to determine "what is out there", "who is out there", the kinds of resources and land that exist beyond our borders, and how we might expand our kingdom (following the kind of conquer and conquest type of thinking we might have if we lived in such a time). 

my design for our classroom door papered and painted 
You see, we have been on a quest this year in "the Kingdom of Imagination", our classroom. A major topic of study to "cover" in the curriculum in my combined grade 4 & 5 classroom this year is the early European Exploration of North America. Often this unit is a study of textbook facts, which starts from the perspective of the Explorers leaving Europe and arriving here to discover parts of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, and the rest of Canada. There are of course lots of juicy details in this historical account as the European Explorers made contact with the original inhabitants of the land, the First Nations Peoples - I will leave all that for another post sometime. But in my teaching in the past many years, I have felt that the bigger context and back story has been missing from this study of Exploration and First Contact . 

So I decided to build my own narrative of life in a Medieval Kingdom, one that precedes this whole history of exploration and contact; which helps to set up the proper context to appreciate where these people came from and what was life like "before". What was society like? What systems existed? (they know a little already about the Feudal System, because they are under my rule as High King). Who came over? Why did they go? To understand and be able to find answers to some of these questions (and others) it is important to first understand our own thoughts and feelings about what happened. And to do this, I believe that students must be engaged with their own emotions and have some authentic experiences from which to base their thoughts and opinions.

student designed stained glass covering our classroom window

student designed Medieval images to decorate our classroom walls

We have been on this Medieval adventure together since the beginning of the school year, waiting to hear a response to our letters. I had talked with another like-minded teacher colleague of mine (@dariodemetlika) from a neighbouring school about doing something like we did last year (see previous post islanders-and-explorers-encounter). We planned a kind of "contact" again, since there are some simple and easy connections that we can make in these types of activities; however we didn't want to trivialize what really happened historically in our pursuit to make a fun "activity". 

On a bigger scale both of us have been playing around over the past few years with the more meaningful, deeper concepts that underlie our curriculum. This is particularly true when studying what happens when two groups of people from different cultures make contact - where much confusion and conflict comes from today in the world. Thus this study is not ancient, rather it is relevant for today and the future for our students. 

As usual there are two timelines I am playing with. Firstly, the actual historical study of the Explorers and First Nations peoples, and secondly for this contact "we" are from a Medieval Age and "they" (the other class) are from a Modern 21st Century Age. Through this we begin to understand and confront the issue of "other" and explore the differences & similarities, misunderstandings, and mistakes that are made along the way. What happens along the way in fact is often the most intriguing aspect of these types of adventures. Only the brave take on these kinds of lessons (Medieval pun intended).

As the letters from the other students were delivered and received, there was a buzz in the room, an anticipation of what was coded on those letters; but first my students had to assemble them because they were sent as puzzle pieces to be put together. Following quite some time of figuring out how the puzzles fit together and then what the letters were saying individually, I brought all the students together and asked them, "Can we collectively figure out who they are? What are the clues that help us to form a sense of their identity?"

A few ideas that came from the letters that gave us a beginning concept:
We are from a bigger Kingdom than you
21st century
We have a system to make you cry
We have an education
We have some stuff in common
You need to learn proper grammar
What's the difference between a kingdom and a school?

My colleague and I put our two groups of students as opposites in many ways; as a result the list above was interpreted somewhat offensively by my class - which was kind of the point, especially the "education" part. My colleague and I wanted to instigate and elicit an emotional response within the students themselves. The study of history becomes more alive when students have a personal, emotional response tied to it.

We are now re-engaged in our Medieval life with purpose. We will continue to build the drama between these two groups, and they will come together in a battle of sorts. It is time for a design challenge, which will breathe life into my Science units on Structures and Forces & Motion. My students are grouped to construct "strong and fortified" castles that will help to defend and protect us from any enemy attack. The other students are working on modern school designs (as part of their curriculum). Following this we will be building trebuchets / catapults to go on the attack, and they will be using modern innovation and technology to try to knock our castles down.

This has taken only a few conversations via e-mail and a few face-to-face meetings to plan this out together. The input has been minimal; but the output is unlimited in potential, and the results are already electric! When we present the world as already discovered, all the facts already tallied, and all our discussions predetermined from a textbook; then students are limited in their own thinking and what they are able to contribute. However when learning is seen as a mystery, full of wonder, yet to be understood; students are engaged emotionally and become an active part of the conversation. 

So I have taken the big topic of the European Exploration of North America from a new perspective through my Medieval life study. This has made it more authentic, real, and exciting to my students. Through this new lens, there is something new to learn, a thought, a feeling that has never been experienced before, it belongs to them, they have become connected to it in a new way, and have been truly, actively a part of it. 

When we engage in these types of adventures, the classroom is re-oriented to become a place where anything is possible and it comes alive, learning becomes an authentic experience and alive, the students come alive...and I come alive too:) 

There is certainly more to follow, in some ways our journey has only started as we embark on our building stage of our castles and then actual contact with the other group to follow. The stage is set, we are at odds to them, the outcomes are unknown, but the lessons will indeed be meaningful regardless of successes or failures!