Standing at the crossroads of everything

There may not be many issues on which every rational person can agree, but one of those is certainly the importance of children and their learning.

Consequently, everyone seems to have an opinion about elementary education.


Bloggers agree that kids should blog. Nature lovers insist they should spend more time outside. Musicians are convinced every kid should play an instrument. Inquiry advocates want to see them wondering and wandering, while politicians seem to want to see them at rows of desks with their heads buried in a test. ‘Makers’ think children should tinker. Counselors think emotional and social health is paramount. Children should think globally, be involved in their communities, pursue their interests, try new things, etc, ad nauseum. They voice those opinions because they are speaking from their passions.


And they’re all right. Children should do all those things, and more, and great teachers know it.


Elementary educators stand at the crossroads of everything charged with the responsibility to nurture and protect the future’s most important asset.

In order to function as a curator of everything, I think the key is to balance breadth and depth of learning in my classroom.


Breadth

By maintaining rigorous routines and keeping inquiries as well-organized and progressive as possible, I ensure that my students travel many paths, including teacher-, peer-, and self-initiated, and have a wide variety of opportunities to explore and discover. I find the IB Learner Profile to be quite useful as a reference. Utilizing a range of media is important to keep in mind, including technology from the stone age to the information age. It’s very easy for teachers to find “what works” and spend a career sticking to it. That’s bad for students, in my opinion. I challenge myself to expand my approaches to teaching constantly and enjoy it.


Depth

In every school year, at any grade level, my class will have a unit on jazz music. It’s what I know and love and can teach more fluently and passionately than anything else, and that’s what my students deserve. In the legendary photo below, many of New York City’s most revered jazz musicians gathered (with a dozen or so neighborhood kids) for a group photo. If a typical picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth at least one-hundred thousand. It’s important to empower children to follow their inquiries as deeply as they wish and to provide excellent examples of how it can be done.

A Great Day in Harlem 1958 photo by Art Kane

In his 2013 TED Prize winning talk, Sugata Mitra posits that in the future, knowing will be obsolete. I don’t agree, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not my future he’s predicting, it’s that of the children in my class. It’s not for me to decide what their future should be, but to provide them with opportunities to prepare for and participate in it.

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Inquiry should be action-oriented.

I’m new to the PYP, but not inquiry-based learning. I have always shepherded my students along winding paths of inquiry, in and out of concepts, practicing skills and picking up facts and information along the way. However, my approach to action and attitudes is rather different than what I’ve seen and heard from PYP teachers thus far.

Many of my inquiry plans begin with action. Provocation is done in the form of a challenge to help solve a problem of global and social significance. To do this, we firstly analyze the problem and the attitudes which can be used to set and achieve a service action goal. From there, an inquiry cycle like any other develops naturally and organically while the action plan is being constantly reiterated.

Rather than being “what we want the children to do”, action is a clear goal.

Rather than being “how we want the children to behave”, attitudes are interwoven into the inquiry.

The general inquiry goal is to integrate and utilize knowledge, skills, concepts, attitudes, and action to contribute to a better world. Rich, discipline-specific content is always critical to our service goals as well as a host of authentic skills and a genuine sense of participation and unity.

Here’s an example from my Grade 2 class at Full-Circle Learning Academy: We were assigned a global learning partner school in Lesotho, Africa. We learned that the parents of our learning partners were very upset that their children didn’t seem to care about school or helping with chores around the home. My class hypothesized that the children were deficient in the attitude of appreciation and devised a plan to help. They made “Appreciation Bracelets”, loads of them, and sent them to Lesotho with instructions. My students sent them because they appreciated having learning partners in another country. It was the recipients’ challenge to give them away to show their appreciation to their parents, teachers, and each other. Did they do it? I have no idea. Did my students become masters of appreciation and feel empowered to solve problems? You bet, unbelievably so. Those kids made me well up with tears of joy on a regular basis. Along the way, they practiced writing friendly letters, inquired into geographic themes, practiced some mathematical calculations, and even sprouted a healthy curiosity for African history.

The photo we received back from the class in Lesotho:

Seeing my class react with unbridled enthusiasm to this photo was all the convincing I needed to pursue this model further.

I don’t always organize inquiries in this way, but I try to inject it whenever it fits. I think this is an unmatchable way to help young learners prepare for their PYP Exhibition and, more importantly, a life of conscientious service.

Blogging with elementary students – a formative reflection

What’s working:
+Child-specific platform
+Specific assignments to learn and explore features of blogging, all documented within the blog.
+Utilizing blog for a variety of tasks, assessments, inquiry organization, interest-based explorations.
+Dedicated class time for blogging.
+Students writing with purpose.
+Seamless integration of technology, skills, and fun.

This year, I started my fourth grade class using Kidblog. What I liked about it when compared with the other very excellent platforms was the simplicity and control, which became an essential aspect of using it to teach and learn. As the students become familiar with the concepts and functionality, I slowly released the reins so that everyone was aware of, comfortable with, and hopefully confident about the experience as it expanded.

We began with a private blog and provided a password for parents to view and comment. The students each made an alias in order to reinforce the importance of privacy online. They created their own passwords which I organized in a simple spreadsheet for easy retrieval. Naturally, I had to approve all content before it was published. Every few weeks, I sent the parents a detailed email of changes and future plans. We had a small amount of parent participation in the form of comments!

Step by step, we explored the features of the blog. We started with posts, then comments. At each step, I made an effort to link our blog activities to content from our lessons and inquiries. I posted a chart in the classroom with each student’s name and tasks to complete on the blog such as read a post to click a link to an interesting website and then leaving a comment about it. I think they liked being able to leave comments like ‘it was boring’ and ‘yay’. Eloquence was not the objective of those lessons.

Soon, I encouraged them to start posting whatever they wanted. They posted videos. Countless videos. Silly videos. I endured because this was their opportunity to experience the intrinsic value of the blog and also get the initial novelty out of their systems. Their writing also started to expand as they saw the need to express themselves clearly, if not briefly.

Early on and very often, they had technical problems. Those problems became perfect teachable moments. Rather than following a unit plan like Blogging is Elementary from Kim Cofino, our inquiry into blogging developed organically. For example, when a youtube video wouldn’t embed into a post, we learned that some youtubers don’t allow it, and we must respect their right to control their content. By treating digital citizenship as an inquiry and using a child-oriented platform with absolute teacher control, I think we’re achieving a balance between skills-development and interest-based motivation.

Once we had established basic skills and our code of ethics, as it were, we started reaching out to other blogs. This was one element of Kidblog I enjoyed. I could contact other classes and share our posts and allow them to leave comments without making the blog public. At that point, we had talked enough about privacy and Digital Citizenship to start using our first names.

Admittedly, my students are still very shy about interacting with other classes, but they are opening up slowly. I assume that other classes are the same. I thought that if our blog received attention in the form of visits and comments from other classes or (gasp) strangers, they would be encouraged. For this to happen, we have to go public, although I still maintain totalitarian control.

At this time, anyone can view our posts and try to leave comments. I am the gatekeeper, and have to approve all content before it is published. This is still an experiment, of course, and one that I am genuinely enjoying. Click here to pay us a visit!