Saturday, 29 November 2014

I'm Convinced: Student Voice and Choice is the Key!!

This year our school district is in the first year of a 3 year strategic plan. One of the three goals of the plan is to improve core literacy skills through the implementation of a Kindergarten to Grade 6 Literacy Plan and Assessment Framework. Utilizing new student resources and integration of 21st Century tools and competencies for learning and instruction are just two identified ways to accomplish this goal. I am excited to be a part of this vision and already see a committed effort to making this plan succeed. 

This year,  I also had a plan to improve the core literacy skills of my students, particularly in the area of writing. Not having the same level of resources and expertise as the district, I decided to utilize the research I have been doing on Inquiry based teaching and learning to tweak my current writing program. Research has proven that the principles of IBL motivate students and engage them in ways where traditional teaching methods fail. Which of these principles could I use as a classroom teacher to improve the learning of my students? How could I effectively implement these with a group of Grade Two children? Quite simply by giving students voice and choice in their writing, I have seen dramatic improvements in both the quality of writing and the engagement in written tasks. 

In September, I established a KidBlog account for each of my students with the intention that it would be used to share work samples, written ideas, and to teach about personally and critically responding to others ideas and works. It has indeed been used for this purpose, however, it has also become much more than just a digital portfolio. For many children in my classroom, KidBlog has become their voice. It is their safe connection to an appreciative audience where their thoughts and ideas are validated in the form of positive comments from peers. KidBlog has become my student's stage upon which they can be free to share and express without fear of ridicule. Every time they login and read comments from their parents or friends, their confidence and willingness to take a risk improves tremendously. KidBlog has also been an avenue through which students maintain contact with me long after school has ended....just writing to say hello or to tell me about the fun time they just had or even to tell me how much they love school and can't wait to return. KidBlog has made writing fun: it is social and 21st century! It has turned my students into writers by giving them a purpose for writing.

In addition to teaching from the prescribed Language Arts resources, I engage my students in daily opportunities to independently read as well as opportunities to construct written responses to books they've read, topics we've discussed and journals about weekend-filled birthday parties and family outings.  Utilizing the principles of inquiry teaching and learning, this year I wanted to give my students the freedom to choose what and how they wanted to write by engaging in daily free writing time. So, in October,  we brainstormed a huge list of topics that students could choose from and then in November we reflected back on all the different kinds of writing we have read or already used in the classroom. What has been the result of adding this opportunity for choice? Each and every day my students are excited to take out their writing books. They have transformed from writers to authors; authors of stories about princesses and snakes; authors of Halloween poems; composers of lists; and writers of letters to friends (and even a letter to God!) They have become proud presenters of their works, eagerly wanting to read their masterpieces with friends and family. They have grown into creative beings whose imaginations had once been stripped away from repeated requirements to complete constructed responses. Their childhood innocence has returned and the joy of the written word has been reclaimed because they are not caught up in the complexities of story elements or rhyming scheme. They are writing to express, communicate, and share with passion and with rigor.

Giving students the freedom to exercise voice and choice in just this small area of the curriculum has now led my students wanting to pursue learning about topics of personal interest. Just yesterday, during our reading and writing block,
one of my students implored, "Mrs Collins, I want to learn about bats." After hearing this plea, how could I tell him to go sit down and read books from his book box?  Yes, I am now convinced; providing students opportunities to have voice and choice in their learning is when real learning takes place !

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Unexpected Responses and New Learning

As previously posted, I have set up a Curiosity Table in my classroom to cultivate a culture of inquiry with my young, grade two students.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive and the children are demonstrating genuine interest and passion for "finding out more" about these little creatures whom they co-exist with.

As part of my teaching yesterday, I opened the discussion with a question; Where do people find the answers to questions? How do people find information?  Immediately the hands shot up!
"Google!", one student responded.
"You could Bing it", replied another.
"Use the internet!"
"Go to the computer lab!"
Of course, each of these answers was correct and I acknowledged the children for their correct responses, however, not one student responded with the answer that I was thinking of when I began the lesson. Finally, after further prompting, one little girl responded sheepishly with, "You could go to the library, Mrs. Collins!"  I have to admit, I was somewhat relieved to hear at least one student reply with, what I thought, was an excellent answer.

Having had a night to sleep on it and share my story with colleagues, I have had two realizations. First, there still exists a mismatch between teacher thinking and teaching practice and the interests and capabilities of our students. The children who inhabit my classroom are children of the 21st century.  They and their parents utilize technology for entertainment, communication, and to seek information.  To expect my students to utilize a book for finding information represents an inefficient and outdated format that they simply are not accustomed to. Yes, we must continue to encourage reading and fact finding through text format, but as teachers it is important to expand our own conceptions of what text can be. It is unfair and impractical to place limits on our students because it's the way we have always done things. Our teaching needs to evolve and better represent how things are done in the real world.

My second realization is that our school system is still very much consumed with teaching content and knowledge as opposed to skills and attitudes. My preoccupation with using a book to find the answer is a result of my own experiences as a student where knowledge acquisition was the be all, end all.  However, times have changed! Yes, it is important that our students have adequate knowledge, however, we live in an information-rich world where knowledge can be easily obtained and learned if students possess the necessary skills and attitudes to acquire it. It is far more important for our school systems to ignite passion for learning, curiosity to find out more, and skills of collaboration than to know useless facts and tidbits of information that are not really connected to their own understanding. My student's responses to the question, "How do people find information?" tells me that their real interest lies in discovering the knowledge on their own through observation and questioning, making use of efficient means of getting to the heart of the question and not being bogged down with a barrage of useless facts acquired through endless hours of teacher talk.

I have already learned a lot after my first full week of school. I'm sure the rest of the year will be just as eventful!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Teaching Inquiry Through Provocation

       The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has it's own reason for existing.
                                                                                                    - Albert Einstein

Inquiry based teaching and learning is a relatively new concept for me.  Having researched this methodology last school year and having witnessed the impact of such facilitation on student motivation and engagement, it is safe to say that I am converted. This year, I am attempting to implement IBL in more of my teaching and so, it should not surprise you, that I began this week with setting up a Curiosity Table in my classroom.

The Curiosity Table is something new for me.  Having discussed how I engage Grade Two students in thinking about new topics for learning through the use of an artefact bag, an Australian educator I met at the STEM Conference in British Columbia suggested I try a Curiosity Table.  And so on Monday, to the delight of 19 sets of little eyes, I very gingerly lifted a snail habitat from a reusable shopping bag.  The excitement and delight at the sight of these little critters who would be housed in our classroom and cared for by us was almost unbearable. Immediately, without encouragement from me, the wondering started; How are snails different from slugs? What will we feed the snails? Why do we need to spray mist in the tank? and so the questions have continued now for 3 days. Each time a child makes a wondering about something they observe in the tank, I encourage them to record their wondering in our I Wonder Journal.  Then, during our morning opening we discuss the questions the children have posed and try to find plausible answers.

This morning we used Wonderopolis to answer one of our questions.  During this time, the children  thoroughly enjoyed watching the video about snails and slugs, while making accurate observations of the similarities and differences between the two gastropods. They delighted in having their own answers confirmed as accurate after reading and discussing the Wonderopolis information. It was truly a moment of authentic learning where every student was engaged in the activity.  It did not utilize a textbook, it did not require students to copy notes from a board. It was self-directed, relevant, and real.  How real, you may ask? This afternoon two of my students returned to school with their own containers.  They were going to collect grasshoppers during lunchtime play!!!!

I guess I don't have to wonder what will be at the Curiosity Table next week.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Confessions of a Grade Two Teacher

                          "The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening
                            the natural curiosity of young minds."
                                                                                      - Anatole France

This week I had the great fortune to once again participate in a two day institute on Teacher Inquiry in STEM education with the Teachers In Action team from Memorial University of Newfoundland.  Approximately 50 educators from across the province gathered to learn about the teacher inquiry process and to begin the task of formulating teacher and student research questions, explore types of data collection and analysis, as well as examine methods of presenting research findings.

Over the course of the two days, a number of people presented some very worthwhile information to our group.  One presenter, Mr. Todd Woodland from the provincial Department of Education,  delivered a very passionate and thought-provoking presentation on teaching K-6 Science utilizing inquiry methodologies. He discussed the need for educators to begin shifting their focus from  content delivery to a curriculum approach that fosters the development of science attitudes and skills within our students. In closing his presentation, Todd's parting comments particularly resonated with me. As educators of Science, we must "maintain a sense of wonder" within our young children so that they  continue growing to be curious about the world around them. Hmmmm.....maintain a sense of wonder!

This phrase stuck in my head! As I drove home from the days events, I reflected back and tried to conceptualize this simple phrase....maintain a sense of wonder! Suddenly, I was struck with the enormity of what this person was asking me to do. I know, that as a teacher, I have a huge responsibility to the young children that pass through my doors each and everyday, year after year. I know that the decisions I make and the lessons I teach can forever impact a child. But to be charged with the task of "maintaining" the inherent trait of curiosity, which all individuals are born with, is a daunting task! I confess... I don't know if I am able to do this!

I thought about my own children, now teenagers, and began to reminisce about all the activities I engaged them in as youngsters to enrich their lives and develop this sense of intrigue. And then I realized that the task of maintaining attitudes of wonder is really not that difficult after all! As parents, and as teachers, we need to connect and engage our children.

Unplug. Observe. Ask and Answer. Listen. Discuss the things that happen in our world, not with an aim to providing answers but to get them thinking.

Play. Get dirty. Question. Take a risk. Fail and try again. Expose children to the changing nature of the world that is theirs to discover.

Get up close and personal with nature. Develop skills of empathy and stewardship. Volunteer. Start a club. Help them to experience the positive effect their actions have on the world around them!

Build. Tear down. Rebuild. Encourage creativity. Pursue innovative ideas. Let go.

As I prepare to head back to school next week to greet a new group of Grade Two students, I realize that this is not a new concept for me. It may mean a slightly new approach or a different spin on an old idea. In preparing for my lessons and activities, the words "maintain a sense of wonder" are etched in the recesses of my brain as I begin the year long work of facilitating student learning through inquiry, exploration, and collaboration. I am excited about the possibilities! Thanks, Todd, for my awakening!

                                           "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."
                                                                                                                                  - Plutarch

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Becoming an Agent of Change

Over the last number of days my uncle from Alberta has been visiting my home in Newfoundland.  Having left this province 7 years ago to teach there, he secured a storage locker in which he placed many boxes and prized possessions left to him by my grandparents and great-grandparents, now deceased.  Our project this summer was to go through the locker and make decisions about it's contents.  For the past number of days we have engaged in a rather difficult task of sorting through old letters, cards, and photographs, discarding many and keeping only those that have real personal significance.  We have thrown out boxes upon boxes of old books, once current and enjoyed by their owner but now dusty with little value. We have re-homed old musical scores and have sent many old newspapers and other valuable World War I and II documents to museums and centres for higher learning. We are now left with just a few items; a 100 year pump organ and an antique dining room set.  Very beautiful pieces of great sentiment but seemingly worthless to everyone else.  Needless to say, it has been a very therapeutic time for my aging Uncle and one of great interest for myself, as I gained a glimpse into the history of  generations who have long passed.

As we have worked through this process of trying to decide if something has significance or not, garbage or keep, it has reminded me that this is very much the process we must go through as educators. Every year, and constantly throughout the school year, we must engage in this de-cluttering process of abandoning thoughts and ideas once considered new and late-breaking. In order to engage our children in the best teaching and learning opportunities, opening our minds to new possibilities and ways of doing things is important. This year, expanding my PLN through Twitter has allowed me to do just that.  Embracing technology like that of Kristen Wideen, reading about and utilizing teacher Erin Klein's work on designing brain-friendly classrooms, trying out inquiry based practices like that of the Stem Sisters or educator Louise Robitaille are just a sampling of the most current education trends that have great merit.  It is important to unpack previously held beliefs, abandon misconceptions and open a "new" storage locker that will not sit locked for 7 years but will have an open door and direct access to the dumpster. Sometimes this process is unsettling as it can challenge some of our most dearly held and entrenched beliefs about how children are educated but it is an important process if we truly want to be effective teachers.  As George Couros wrote in his latest blog post,

     Schools and classrooms will never look different, if our own actions and beliefs look the same. 

Do yourself a favour and become the agent of change! Cull and purge old ideas, make way for newness! The dumpster is always open!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Dear Robyn....A Letter to a Beginning Teacher

                                                                                    August 9, 2014

Dear Robyn,

        I am writing you this letter to officially welcome you to the teaching career and to remind you that YOU matter!  Yes, YOU! Everyone talks about how important the children are, and they are!!! but YOU are important as well, in fact, YOU are probably the most important person.

   YOU are the one who determines the climate of trust and caring that must be present for learning to occur. Spend time building relationships with your students, parents and the other teachers you work with. Yes, the curriculum is important but there will be many days when the academics will have to take a backseat to other, more pressing, issues. Strong relationships will carry you through difficult days. It takes a village to raise a child.

   YOU are the person who must decide to make a personal investment in the lives of others. Education is more than just teaching Math or Language.  Say "yes" to new opportunities to improve school and student life by becoming involved in extracurricular activities and committee work. Remember, too,  that it is important to also say "no" when you feel overburdened.  Because YOU matter, it is important to stay healthy and know when you have reached your limit.

   YOU are the person who chooses to engage your students in thought-provoking, stimulating lessons that foster curiosity, motivation and engagement. This can only come from your own continued learning.  When opportunities arise to further develop your professional knowledge, jump at the chance to become involved.  This will help you to stay current, fresh and passionate about your life's work. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" or to ask for help.

   YOU are the one who decides what kind of attitude to bring to the classroom and the staffroom. A pleasant, flexible and professional mindset will foster the same thinking in the people you interact with.  Yes, there will be some naysayers and people who will try to engage you in negative thinking. They will invite you to be part of their clique but be true to yourself! Stay positive, exude enthusiasm,  and you will continue to see all the positive things in your own world. This attitude will sustain you through difficult times.

   Teaching is a wonderful career!  We are so glad that you are a part of this noble profession. Safe travels as you leave your home today in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland to assume your first teaching position in Alberta! As Dr. Seuss said, "Kid, you'll move mountains!"  Just remember, YOU matter!

                                                                                     All the best!
                                                                                     Mrs. Collins, your colleague



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Times, they are a changin'.....

When I was a little girl, summer meant being outside every single day! Back in those days, it was something all children did and we did it without any adult supervision or parent hovering around us. We were free to explore, and only went home when called for lunch and supper or if it was time to come in for the night.

For me, I loved this time because I was able to let my imagination run wild.  I would often visit the huge forested lot next door and spend hours crawling through the woods and under the brush.  I had scoped out trees that had the biggest undercarriages and would crawl under and hide away, investigating the different kinds of insects and bugs that lived in that space.  Sometimes I would ask my grandmother for a jar or an old butter container, and I would spend hours making a home for all the grasshoppers I would catch.  When I grew tired of that, I remember lying in the grass searching for the infamous 4 leaf clover. Sometimes I would pretend that the pine cones were dolls and I would make mud pies from the soil I dug with my mother's good cutlery and water from the nearest puddle.   Other days I would travel down the road to a marshy area.  There I would catch the tadpoles and bring them home to live on the front step in a plastic ice cream bucket.  Somehow, every morning when I went to check on them, they were gone.  That was okay though because then I had another mission to complete. Other days, my friend and I would walk to our school, closed for summer vacation,  and play on the huge rocks scattered about in an unused lot behind the school building.  There we took turns being princesses, rescuing each other from the evil dragons. Yes, those were the good ole days!

But there are two more distinct childhood memories I have of summer that are still etched in my brain today. One is the smell of summer, that hugged my sun-kissed face and hands when I nestled down into my comfy bed at night. The other memory is the feeling of complete and utter exhaustion, a sense of peace and contentment, after having had a wonderful day of play. Every single day of summer vacation was like that!

This morning, as my husband and I went for our daily walk, I could hear a group of children playing in the woods, across the brook. They were laughing as they navigated the tree stumps, giggling and shouting to one another, obviously engaged in some sort of imaginative activity. As I smiled at the thought of my own wonderful summer memories, I peered through the trees to try and catch a closer glimpse of what was going on. When I looked I saw a woman, perhaps the mother of one of the children, sitting on a tree stump in the middle of all this "pretending". She wasn't part of the play but appeared to be texting or probably checking her email.  I suddenly felt a surge of sadness as I realized, boy, times have changed.....the innocence of childhood has been lost.  What has happened to our society that children can't just engage in free play without the presence of an adult watching, reprimanding, instructing, interrupting, or constructing?  Have we become so fearful of the unknown that we are robbing our children of the opportunity to be children? What can we do to bring back those wonderful summer days when kids could just be kids?