Independent Inquiry: Fashion Design

This was one of the first independent inquiry successes. With minimal guidance, no assistance, materials from school, and time at home, a student created this little model outfit!

I especially like how there are slight changes from the paper to fabric versions! Many teachers are rethinking homework; many teachers are experimenting with ‘genius hour’. I’m trying to combine the two ideas, blurring the boundaries between learning at school and learning at home and harnessing the students’ interests to construct their own learning.

Water Resources Inquiry

To inquire into the effects of access to water around the world, we gained perspective by graphically representing water resources per capita in various countries. The bars at the bottom represent the data.

The lowest bar for Iceland stretched over three meters!

It was supposed to integrate mathematics (division & ratio) into a mainly ‘social studies’ unit, and worked brilliantly except for the fact that the numbers we used were extremely large and not exactly appropriate for early in fourth grade.

Is my classroom mastery-oriented?

Having spent the past year trying to understand and utilize the International Baccalaureate Organization Primary-Years-Program for the first time, I’ve applied a great deal of planning and instructional time to inquiry. I strongly believe in the model and its apparent intention to emphasize much more than academic performance in the education of children. It compliments my previous experiences perfectly and my students and I have enjoyed our journey thus far.

Last week, however, I received my class’ results from the International Schools Assessment. Results in Mathematics were impressive, Reading were acceptable, but the Writing results were disappointing, especially non-fiction.

What happened?

This guy is clearly master-oriented.

I have already identified one problem: When our Language Arts curriculum was correlated with the PYP sample Program-of-Inquiry, the units on persuasive and informational writing were pushed to the end of the school year, after the testing in February, although we did practice essay writing as part of every History unit and the entire class made documented progress in every domain on our own formal summative assessments.

There were also several school events in the same month as the tests, which may have contributed to fatigue or a lack of focus, and certainly interfered with opportunities for explicit test-preparation.

Certainly this will be an area of focus for me in the near future. Perhaps it’s time to pull up on the inquiry reins just enough to allow for more formal writing development and mastery of grammar techniques which seem to be the focus of that assessment, but have not been our focus this year.

Should they have been?

Being mastery-oriented means a great deal more than simply meeting learning objectives. At least that’s my new understanding after beginning to read Carol Dweck’s Self-Theories.

It’s a state-of-mind, intellectual and emotional. The PYP is clearly oriented toward developing mastery-oriented people willing to pursue goals and take risks. While I believe that is much more important than marching through a mastery-oriented curriculum, perhaps my emphasis has been askew.

I would like to explore the possibility of a writing program which not only motivates and inspires children to write, but also ensures that they master the grammar and vocabulary they need to be truly confident and fluent communicators.

Student-created rubrics

I’m fanatical about rubrics. Bridging the divide between specific learning outcomes (standards) and constructionist inquiry would be difficult for me without them.

In the photo, students work in pairs to develop a rubric for assessing an acting performance. They already participated in our school musical in December, so this is a chance for them to develop their understandings of the vocabulary of the theater. We’ve used rubrics for dozens of assessments throughout the year, so this is a chance to authentically apply what they have learned.

After the pairs completed their rubrics, they switched partners a few times to compare and contrast. Finally, we projected the empty chart on the wall and filled it in based on what they created while collaborating.

Mystery class in any time zone?

Skype, Google+ Hangout, and other live connections are an excellent way to motivate and personalize collaboration across town or across oceans. The mystery class game is an awesome way to authentically practice geography inquiry, develop communication and research skills, and cultivate international friendships! However, they are limited by time zone. For example, I would like to connect with schools in the Americas, but when it’s 9am here in Japan, it’s 5pm in California and 8pm in New York!

photo via gfpeck

My solution was to create this Google Document and share it with the other class’ teacher. Feel free to make a copy and use it. We’re just trying it out, but the plan is to add questions and answers each day until both classes solve the mystery. It’s also a good way to introduce collaborative document editing to your class.

There is also the appealing notion of having an all-night, sleepover at school, worldwide Skype-a-thon… just sayin’…

The real problem with Common Core

I like content standards and Common Core in particular.

Now, after dodging hurled tomatoes and enduring understandable jeers and hisses from a very vocal majority of people who work with children, I’ll explain why.

Content standards like Common Core are written curriculum. Written curriculum is always a work in progress and always up for debate and revision. Any written curriculum has flaws, because what is important to ‘know’ is always subjective and constantly changing. Most importantly, content standards don’t prescribe how to teach and learn, only what should be learned.

In my ideal teaching dream world, the written curriculum is agreed upon, discussed, debated, and revised; the taught and assessed curricula are entirely up to the communities engaged in learning to construct. Typically, that would be students, parents, and teachers. Simple, relevant. ‘How we learn’ and ‘how we show what we have learned’ should be the province of the learners, after all.
Unfortunately, bureaucracies never seem to leave anything simple. Their first victim is the assessed curriculum and their weapon-of-choice is standardized tests. It wouldn’t be appropriate at this point to mention the standardized testing companies who relentlessly lobby governments to spend more tax revenue on their often tedious and arbitrary products, so I’ll just focus on the fact that I don’t really mind those tests.

They’re not as challenging as the authentic assessment tasks my students regularly complete, and consistent test-taking practice develops important research and thinking skills. Similar quizzes also provide learners with critical formative and summative feedback on their learning throughout the year. Taking a few hours out of a school year in exchange for scientifically-collected data about the learning in my classroom is fine with me, assuming the tests are accurate and fair.

If that were the end of the intervention into children’s learning, I really wouldn’t mind. It turns out, however, that the companies which make tests also publish textbooks! Surprise, surprise. These text books “teach” the standards on which the tests are based. Even that isn’t so bad; it’s great for a classroom to be thoroughly resourced, after all, and it should provide excellent connections to the written curriculum. Until it becomes mandated. That’s when this situation becomes ugly. When a school board, district bureaucracy, or central government mandates the use of particular materials, it’s like when the school bully “gives” you a present and then tells you how to play with it.

It gets worse. In order to ensure that the kids “learn” everything in the books, the publishers make available a generous variety of materials. In fact, they are proud to sell ‘everything you need’ to “teach” those kids the standards. Including teacher scripts.

If you are a teacher who is forced to follow a script, I feel deep and bitter empathy for you. In my opinion, it can’t get worse than scripted curriculum. It’s a short step away from replacing teachers with videos.

There is one glaring problem with any standards as they relate to learners with special needs. Naturally, we are all individuals and not always able to meet identical standards. However, Common Core doesn’t specify how most standards must be assessed, allowing teachers the freedom to scaffold and accommodate as needed. A healthy sense of equity is all we need to realize in which cases standards are inappropriate.

In conclusion, the content standards, a good idea per se, are always too easily blown out of proportion. The problem is how stakeholders react to them. On one side, reactionaries decry them for their impersonality and rigidity. On the other, standards and their associated products are championed blindly by politicians and ‘reformers’. Students, parents, and teachers may feel confused, intimidated, and discouraged.

What a shame.

Use standards as a menu to help plan lessons and activities and structure inquiries to be engaging and relevant to ensure breadth of instruction. Knowing that we will ‘cover everything’ in the standards, we are at liberty to pursue our inquiries with vigor and enjoyment.

Los Perros Magicos de los Volcanes

Back in the Fall, we read one of my favorite books.
Our PYP Unit of Inquiry was entitled “We are what we believe”. We surveyed folk stories from around the world to draw inferences about various cultures’ beliefs and values from their literature. We read Aladdin from Syria, Momotaro from Japan, and Magic Dogs of the Volcanoes from El Salvador. It was a great chance to practice using Venn diagrams to compare and contrast.
The artwork is beautiful and the story is charming and unique. It also has English and Spanish on every page, which everyone always seems to enjoy. I highly recommend the book as well as the International Children’s Digital Library.