Kids Together At Home

Now that my Grade 4 class and I have over a month of distance learning due to COVID-19 school closure under our belts, we’ve settled into a routine. What’s obviously missing is the socialization we normally enjoy.

At this moment, millions of students are at home. The youngest miss their friends and classrooms yet are comforted by the security of being at home. Teens are highly aware of the dire situation, but are likely already deeply connected through all kinds of social media.

The nine- and ten-year-olds in my class understand what’s happening, but don’t have a forum to share their experiences and hear from others. I am starting an initiative for them by setting up a Flipgrid and inviting teachers of similar age students to join.

In this space, they are free to record videos of their thoughts and feelings, view others’ videos, and reply to each other (all posts will be moderated by a teacher for appropriate content). Teachers of similar age students with Flipgrid experience are invited and encouraged to join.

To participate, follow the instructions below:

  • Contact me (@BarMillEDU) on Twitter.
  • Obtain parental consent for your students to participate.
  • I will send the ‘Grid’ information to you.
  • Invite participating students to join.
  • Moderate Grid and respond to videos.

Recruiting four or five other classes around the world would be fantastic. Early collaborating teachers would be great to help plan the prompt for students. If there’s enough interest, we could even have Grids for other different age groups. I hope you’ll join or share this post with teachers who may be interested!

Agency and Independent inquiry

When reports of the Enhanced PYP began surfacing on the International Baccalaureate Twitter feed, I was elated to see that Agency has been placed boldly at the center of the new model:
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To me, the philosophical implication for this change is that the primary function and goal of education is to build capacity for action. Within the context of the IB, the Learner Profile describes the attributes within which that capacity can increase. For example, a learner may increase agency in the context of historical understanding by becoming more Knowledgeable about history, or increase agency for conflict resolution by taking Principled and Courageous action.
This is more than transformational: It’s revolutionary.

Past & present

Anyone familiar with the industrial model of education (pretty much everyone) should be skeptical about our capacity for this reform. This 180° turn way from standards- and competency-based pedagogy has a few precedents, and I am curious to learn more about classrooms and schools where independence and agency have been assigned top priority.

One school system who fits this paradigm and whose progress I have enjoyed following is High Tech High. Most of what they have shared is related to older students, so I’m curious to see more about their elementary programs.

Agency as the aim of teaching has been gaining momentum since John Dewey at the latest, and can arguably be traced back at least as far as Socrates. Luckily, my teaching experiences have tended to be less traditional and more progressively minded, and the article, How a Focus on Independent Learning Transformed My Most At-Risk Students, certainly reflects my ideas about the importance of independence in learning.

Independent inquiry

One of my approaches to cultivating agency is Independent Inquiry. Since I started the project six years ago, the mission of this project has been to:

Unify learning at school, learning at home, and learning anywhere, anytime.
Empower learners to engage in and reflect on their own inquiry processes.
Encourage interest- and passion-driven learning.
Integrate peers, parents, communities, and global networks into the inquiry process.

While success has varied from year to year, cohort to cohort, I can comfortably claim that the process we use – an online reflection form and weekly meeting in class – helps agency to flourish.

Call to action

Once again, another gem appeared on the IB PYP Twitter feed. The quote below is a perfect call to action for teachers who are serious about promoting Agency – voice, choice, and ownership.

Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

Creative negotiated rubrics

The role of rubrics in teaching is not up for debate. Complex tasks need to be analyzed by categories and clear criteria. However, I have found that they sometimes become little more than checklist of instructions on how to complete a task rather than tools for understanding, reflection, and assessment.

My solution is to use blank rubrics. You might think that a blank rubric isn’t a rubric at all, and you would be correct if the purpose of the rubric were only to evaluate a learning artifact. If the rubric itself is a learning tool, then a blank rubric is a rich opportunity for discussion and critical evaluation.

Peer assessment with negotiated rubric criteria

Summative assessment tasks, in particular, benefit from this type of rubric. The categories have been in focus throughout the unit, and have usually been assessed in a more prescribed manner in a previous task. As a summative assessment task should be an opportunity for students to exercise choice and creativity in how they present their understanding, it would be impractical to create specific criteria that could apply to any artifact.

Assessment as learning

Students work in groups to experience a peer’s presentation of their learning and discuss the success of the artifact according to each category. They agree on a score and write in the appropriate boxes the specific elements that support their evaluation.
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The assessments are completed in groups of three or four, so every presenter receives at least six separate rubrics which have been completed in this manner. The results are always honest and accurate, especially when averaged and analyzed in detail.
When assessments seem mistaken or vary notably from the norm, a problem that often occurs when a group hasn’t focused or applied enough thought to their findings, a teachable moment to review the categories and criteria arises.
I have observed that students enhance their conceptual understandings of a unit immensely through this process of peer assessment with creative negotiated rubrics.

Expert in the classroom, virtually

By definition, a generalist teacher is not an expert in any particular discipline. Fortunately, most of us are, and enrich our classrooms with our interests and passions. Unfortunately, the scope of a school year of inquiry stretches far beyond any one teacher’s expertise.

Excursions and guest speakers can make up the difference, and video communications technology makes it possible to bring experts into the classroom from anywhere.

Near the conclusion of a recent unit which focused significantly on advertising, it occurred to me that one of my friends, Adam Lisagor, is the founder and owner of Sandwich Video, one of today’s premier creative advertising organizations. It only took a few text messages and time zone conversions to have him on the big screen in the classroom.

 

To prepare students for the interview, we first viewed several of Adam’s videos, then set a home learning task to explore more. Then, I asked them to submit questions via an online form so that I could sort and select in a way that promoted a conversational mood. As questions were chosen, students approached the camera one at a time to speak with Adam. Not surprisingly, their questions were insightful and elicited excellent comments on persuasion, honesty, and creativity.

In addition to an excursion, I would attempt to schedule a guest speaker, either in person or more likely via video, for every unit of inquiry.

Making the arts make a difference

In lieu of a faculty meeting today, my Principal has blessed us with a learning opportunity to read and reflect on The Arts Make A Difference by Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond.

Being significantly behind on my professional blogging, this is also an ideal opportunity to reestablish that invaluable habit.

One observation that I have made about my students is that, like the students in Nick Jaffe’s music engineering classes, ‘“They have a shocking ability to work effectively and listen well amid the cacophony in this open room,”’. Perhaps one consideration we should have is that deep learning is messy and noisy. If we insist on neat, orderly, quiet classrooms, we will have neat, orderly, quiet learning.

I want learning to be loud.

The most important theme of this article is that arts integration shouldn’t necessarily mean the integration of Arts content into or connected to Language and Mathematics. They should be equally balanced, with emphasis being placed on the authentic arts processes and products, supported by language and math skills.

What is needed is for teachers to collaborate to understand the ‘parallel processes in an art form or arts-related activity and a more traditionally academic activity’.

In a truly Constructivist environment, the content is created by the learners with the teachers serving as facilitators, organizers, documentarians, and coaches. Learning expressed through art values the learners’ experiences, values, and emotions. But for curriculum to be arts driven, we must find ways to use content and skills instruction to support learning in a coherent manner. This provokes me to revisit my introduction to the IB Primary Years Program and the document, Toward a Coherent Curriculum by James Beane.

The transdisciplinary nature of the PYP and the ‘socially constructed and largely artificial’ boundaries of school are incompatible.

If we instead think of the learner at the center (rather than content), it is intuitive to imagine that each teacher can have a role, based on their expertise, to uniquely support and inform learning.

Coherence will come from those teachers acting as a collaborative team rather than a group of cooperating individuals isolated within their own disciplines. They should understand how each others’ approaches complement each other from the learners’ perspective and how they can improve their coordination through communication.

To quickly begin to address this need in our school, I recommend that each integrated unit of inquiry be planned on one document and that specialist teachers be responsible for ‘leading’ the planning to identify and define the language and mathematics content and skills that would best support the students’ learning processes and products.

Wonderful example of action: Band promotion

Returning from a staff meeting which included discussion of our upcoming Year End Show, I found this charming handmade envelope on my desk.


Who is ‘lucky 5’? My first guess was that it was a group of second graders who had invited me to listen to their band in the Performing Arts studio. I enjoyed their music and suggested that they might perform a number on stage at the show. As the school’s Performing Arts Coordinator and producer of shows, it would be easy for me to find a place for them in the program. All they needed was a name…


I’m looking!



And there it is: The power of asking. The power of action. On my class action board, this belong in the category of ‘Conversing’.

However, it got better. They also included a beautiful promotional poster! Well that sealed the deal.


One can only imagine the inspired and authentic collaboration that went into this. It is packed with language, visual arts, and design applications. It is also an ideal artifact of social and emotional learning.

Needless to say, Lucky 5 will perform their single, Bye Bye, at our Year End Show.