Service in action: ESRC

Action

Action is the one component of the IB Primary Years Program that is expressly difficult to implement and document. When I started at KIST, there was an opening as the Elementary Student Representative Council facilitator. Although I was reluctant to take on extra roles in my first year at a new school, my background in service learning motivated me to volunteer.

Since then, I have slowly transformed the culture of the ESRC into an authentic service learning experience.

Service design

One of the initial changes was to change members every quarter. This was done in order to provide opportunities for four times as many students per year to participate. I view each quarter as an iteration of the design thinking process, or more specifically, service design.

Service design process

1 Communicate with peers
2 Seek & identify service goal
3 Make action plan
4 Assign duties
5 Implement plan
6 Reflect on outcomes

The process begins by raising questions and surveying the elementary student population about their views on how the school might be improved. ESRC members speak with their own classes, and older representatives visit younger classes. Their suggestions and concerns are discussed in a subsequent meeting to identify a service goal.

In addition to speaking with their classes, each iteration of the ESRC conducts at least one meeting with the Elementary School Principal. The format and purpose of these meetings will continue to evolve, but their efficacy in promoting confidence and sense of purpose is invaluable.

Details of all meeting notes are kept in an Excel workbook with a new sheet added every quarter.

Responsible Communicators

In the article Community Service Ideas for Youth: Why Giving Back Matters by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, the focus for elementary students is on learning to be responsible. However, the ESRC at KIST is voluntary and the expectation of responsibility is made clear to prospective members before they join. Our focus is on growing as Communicators.

Members use a private email group to communicate with each other and a public (within the school) group to stay in touch online. I found that the emphasis on communication whether through meetings, speaking to large groups, and creating posters and other visual media, shifts the students’ attention from ‘learning to be responsible’ to needing to be responsible to take and illicit Action.

Our successes have included helping a Grade 2 student to persuade the school administration to install a Friendship Bench and sponsoring a Pink Shirt Day.

Future plans

Perhaps as our routines become established, I would consider developing a portfolio and badging system like the one described in Adam Hill’s post, Action and Service Volunteers.

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Division models

One of the best ways I’ve found for infusing inquiry into my approach to teaching mathematics is to introduce new topics and concepts with a challenge. Recently, we explored Division by asking volunteers to share on the whiteboard techniques for visually modelling the division expression 21÷3.

Taking the time to do this has many benefits, including:

  • providing an opportunity to build confidence through peer to peer teaching
  • introducing, highlighting, and discussing a variety of accessible strategies
  • developing mental models which can be referred to as learning continues
  • initially assess general understanding of the concept in a zero pressure setting
  • review learning that may need to be refreshed before engaging more deeply.

Student Survey analysis 2016

This year, my Student Survey results held few surprises (link to view last year’s Student survey analysis). Items directly related to me, such as ‘My teacher cares about me’, were positive. Generally, 70-80% of students answered ‘usually’ with very few, most often only one student, answering ‘no’.

Listening to students

One surprise was the response to the statement, ‘My teacher listens to me.’, to which 48% of my students think I only ‘sometimes’ listen to them. Slightly baffled, I reflected on my practice and identified a few of my behaviors that could lead to this result.

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First, as a rule, I ignore students when they suddenly shout across the classroom, begin asking a question without saying ‘excuse me’ or otherwise catching my attention, and especially interrupt other students. I can easily understand how a child could perceive that I am not listening to them because in some cases, I intentionally don’t listen in order to cultivate a culture in the classroom of politeness.

Of students who responded ‘sometimes’ or ‘no’, their overall average response was only 69% positive, meaning that those who responded negatively to this item were also negative to most of the other items. Of those who don’t feel that I ‘usually’ listen to them, 69% also don’t feel free to ask and answer questions, a tenuous correlation.

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As a simple action plan, I would follow the steps below.

1 Observe if and when I don’t listen to students.
2 Make more explicit that I sometimes ignore students speaking to me if they are acting disrespectfully or impolitely.
3 Reinforce our classroom essential agreement – which was composed, synthesized, and signed by all of the students – about being Open-minded Communicators.

We are Open-Minded Communicators.

We have a right to share our opinions and feelings.

We have a responsibility to show respect by listening and practicing empathy.

I would also note that of all of the classes I have taught in nine years, this is by far the most needy. During any written assessment, there is a constant queue at my desk and barrages of hands in the air asking for help. My email box is also consistently populated by emails from students asking to send PDFs of lost homework and other requests for favors which I politely decline. It is possible that their concept of the role of a teacher is significantly different than mine.

Choice and agency

A difference in expectations might illuminate another perplexing survey item result to the statement, ‘My teacher allows me to demonstrate my understanding in various ways.’

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For their first unit Summative Assessment Task, students had the instruction to ‘Present your research findings in an appropriate medium of your choice (written report, video, poster, dance, cooking, etc).’

Almost everyone in the class chose to do an oral presentation with a poster or PowerPoint for visual support. The remaining two students submitted written reports. Although this may only be a case of carefully reading and following instructions, I feel justified in being somewhat annoyed.

Respect and classroom behavior

I was shocked to discover their responses to the statement, ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’

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Only two students think that their peers ‘usually’ treat each other with respect, and almost a quarter feel that their class is always disrespectful. The same holds true for their perceptions of classroom behavior.

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When I asked if anyone wanted to learn in a class like the one shown above, no one responded.

I have discussed these results with my grade level team, administration, and the precious grade teachers. All assured me that the students’ feelings about their community are absolutely about complex social dynamics. In brief, this class has too many ‘alphas’ and not enough empathy. This is a case study to test my ability to cultivate social and emotional intelligence. And a fair and timely challenge it is.

A future post will detail the reflection and data informed action plan I have set into motion to help this learning community to become more Caring.

I would certainly appreciate anecdotes and suggestions that might more brightly illuminate a path forward.

Independent Inquiry: Book Tower

In its fifth year of iteration, Independent Inquiry continues to be a project that defies traditional logic and rewards all involved with inspiration and enjoyment of learning.

This afternoon, three students had arranged to stay after school with a simple inquiry goal: To build a tower out of books in our classroom library.

This was a follow up to a previous project of using books to make a giant domino chain.

Today was special because they utterly failed. Eventually, they did manage to build something, but not without overcoming a dozen obstacles along the way.

They were frustrated by the different sizes and stiffness of the books as building materials.

Working on different sides of the tower, after it collapsed, they lamented that they hadn’t been communicating or comparing each others’ techniques to ensure stability. The constant flow of analysis and synthesis that followed astounded me and distracted me from the after school program recommendations I was trying to complete before leaving for the evening.

When all of the classroom books were used, and the tower was significantly smaller than they had expected, an ethical debate ensued in which they determined that other students wouldn’t mind borrowing their books as long as they were properly returned.

I chuckled silently throughout the project and marveled at the vast breadth and depth of learning they achieved with only an idea, a pile of books, and each other.

Engagement for organization in writing


The challenge of teaching young writers without limiting or stifling their Voice and creative enthusiasm is a monumental task. Designing engaging writing activities which integrate multiple modes of learning is another. Fortunately, the two tasks are complementary and any effort spent solving one problem helps with the other.


As my fourth graders spent the first six weeks of the school year exploring the 6+1 Traits of Writing, one engagement worked particularly well for the students learning about Organization.

In collaboration with my grade 4 teaching partner, we selected a few texts organized in well structured paragraphs. Then, each text was separated so that the paragraphs could be rearranged. Students worked in small groups to organize the texts in the way the made sense to them. Then, groups were reorganized so that each could discuss their reasons for organizing the texts in the ways that they had.
The result was an authentic yet structured opportunity to practice text organization without criticizing student writing, which I am extremely reluctant to do with such young writers. Social and kinesthetic learning modalities made the experience engaging and fun. It was also an efficient use of time as the design of the activity itself was quite self explanatory.


Kidblog v Moodle blog

Years of experience teaching blogging in elementary school has demonstrated to me that the benefits of an online platform with an authentic audience and rich peer review opportunities is an indispensable element in contemporary writing education.


I have always been partial to Kidblog, but upon beginning teaching at KIST last fall, I was invited to utilize the blogging features included in Moodle, the school’s platform of choice.

As my students and I used the Moodle Blog, I kept a Kidblog v Moodle blog comparison table embedded below to note features of each platform to compare and contrast them.



Design

Although it is not necessarily essential for learning writing and blogging, the design of a digital tool greatly affects the levels of engagement and enthusiasm with which students use it.

Kidblog has a far more aesthetically pleasing layout, allows students to customize the design of their blogs, and includes features that resemble social media like highlighting unread posts and notifications for comments.

Class connections

Teachers can connect classes in Kidblog to expand the available audience for students’ posts. I have witnessed students develop personal networks of peers internationally with similar interests and writing styles.

Kidblog makes peers’ blogs easy to locate and interact with.

The only available audience in Moodle is the school community and posts are difficult, if not impossible to find.

Privacy

The most critical difference, and the one that establishes Kidblog as a superior learning tool, is the brilliantly designed privacy and moderation features.

Students can choose the audience of each post as only their teacher, students in their class, community members (students in connected classes and parents), or public. This is a tremendous value as it empowers students to publish and grow their audience at their own comfortable pace.




Moodle blog privacy is not adjustable.

In Kidblog, teachers can control privacy globally, restricting audience levels available to students and which comments are published. This ensures that the citizenship lessons inherent in blogging occur at the discretion of the teacher.

Another awesome privacy feature is for teachers to post private comments which only the post author can read and reply to.

Conclusion

If simply having a digital publishing experience is enough, then the Moodle blog function would suffice.

If blogging is to be a writing and publishing tool to learn to engage with an authentic audience and global blogging community, Kidblog is the only choice and is well worth the reasonable additional investment.

Further reading

Impact on learning: Language and engagement

One admirable feature of professional development at KIST is the annual Impact on Learning study. Teachers design a data driven experiment based on a pedagogical approach or strategy and then analyze the data to reflect on the efficacy of that aspect of their teaching.

To start, I formulated a question and answer dialogue:

On which group of students do I want to have the greatest impact?

All of them. Inclusive practices and thoughtfully designed learning experiences which emphasize student choice and voice should provide opportunities for all students to excel.

Which group of students are most difficult to reach with inclusive practices and learning experiences that emphasize student choice and voice?

Students who are reluctant to share their ideas in class or participate actively in learning engagements are the most difficult to reach. 

Why don’t those students participate?

The reasons they don’t participate are as diverse as the people themselves. However, if they don’t participate now, they likely didn’t before either. If not, then their opportunities for practice have been limited, possibly severely.

Often, students (and people in general) with little experience speaking in a group feel shamed by their lack of fluency. Lack of confidence leads them to withdraw more, causing them to practice even less.

I have been tempted in the past to ‘call out’ reluctant students, but Alfie Kohn’s article, ‘Your Hand’s Not Raised? Too Bad: I’m Calling on You Anyway, provides needed perspective into this issue. When done improperly or insensitively, calling on these students might do more harm than good.

Being fairly introverted myself, I sympathize with many people’s preference to remain in the shadows of a crowd, but nine year old introverts, preferences aside, need to practice public speaking in a safe environment.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsArticles like Chapter 1. Why Talk Is Important in Classrooms from Content-Area Conversations by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Carol Rothenberg, and Talking to Learn by Elizabeth City reinforce the position that Listening and Speaking form the foundation of Reading and Writing.


What I needed was a strategy to encourage the students to grow as courageous Communicators by sharing their ideas with the whole class.

Gathering data

My methodology for gathering data is simple. At various times in class, I propose an open ended question. For example, I might ask for interpretations of an idiom, impressions of an image, or opinions about a famous quote. That there are no correct or incorrect answers is made clear to students, as is the fact that ‘I don’t know’ is an acceptable response. Students may also ‘pass’. Sometimes the provocations are directly connected to our unit of inquiry, sometimes not.

Using a deck of laminated cards with the students’ names written on them, I ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to speak. My response to every contribution is ‘thank you’, and I very rarely paraphrase or ask clarifying questions in this context. To students who ‘pass’, I simply respond with ‘OK’.


Cards are separated into two categories and then data entered into a spreadsheet about who contributed an answer and who did not.

Visualizing data

The raw data is relatively easy to process to produce interesting graphs.

Some students always talk and some never talk by default. Filtering out those students makes the graph more readable, but still not very revealing.


Referring to diagnostic assessment data in Reading from the beginning of the school year, I included only students who score ‘just below expectations’ or ‘below expectations’.




Next, filtered for students who scored ‘Just below expectations’ or ‘Below expectations’ on Aug diagnostic assessment in Writing.


  
Again, this graph doesn’t instantly reveal anything other than a general upward trend in participation.

Next, I wanted to explore a possible correlation between this exercise and improvement. The next graph is students with more than 10% improvement on ongoing informal and formal assessments in Reading from Q1 to Q3.



Next, students with more than 10% improvement on ongoing assessments in Writing from Q1 to Q3.





Interpreting data

This is the first graph which indicates a clear correlation. With only two exceptions, students whose writing has improved are also increasing their participation.

Since the objective is to improve language skills, I tried including only students who consistently achieve below 80% on ongoing assessment in English language.




Compare to consistently strong achievers in language.



Interesting that consistently higher performers seem to have random participation while consistently lower performers are participating progressively more and more.

If only for the purpose of having more data visualization, members of most advanced guided reading group.



And the least advanced guided reading group.




It’s exciting to see that this activity is impacting the exact group of students it was designed to benefit.

When the class completes its end of year diagnostic assessment in Language, I expect to see similar improvements among students who have gained confidence as communicators through this simple activity.

Finally, here is the whole class average.



Unexpected outcome

Rather than analyzing individual students, this graph reveals something I hadn’t expected. If I compare the number of opportunities to speak with the average rate of participation, there is stark correlation.

Number of data points (% participation):

October 4 in one week (61%)
November 16 (61%)
December 3 (41%)
January 7 (60%)
February 7 (74%)
March 7 (71%)

It would seem that the more we do this activity, the more participation there is. Thinking of the student trying to build confidence, it makes perfect sense. If one hesitates, one loses an opportunity. However, missing a chance might be just the motivation one needs to seize the next one. If that next opportunity comes sooner than later, one is more likely to take it.

And so, the data comes full circle from thinking of individual students, back to individual students. 

Peter Gow’s post, The Data Challenge for Schools – What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?, reminds me that the importance of data is not about averages, it’s about outliers. The greatest impact can often be made where there are cracks or gaps in the data. What is important is being intentional when gathering data so that when it is organized and interpreted, it answers the initial question.

It’s also important to remember that while ‘data’ and ‘gut’ are not the same, as Doug Johnson notes in his post, Data or gut?, through investment in time and training, it is possible to align the gut more precisely through data.