The boards are down

 

This is a follow on from my previous post titled ‘Student Agency in Grade 2’ where I tried to establish what agency was and what it looked like in a grade 2 classroom. I have really noticed this year just how much my students value responsibility. They thrive when given the chance to be in control of what they are doing and having their opinions and ideas help guide the learning. I’m still working at developing this but I feel very happy when seeing the difference it has made to the students.

Since the previous post our classroom changed. My approach to working with the students changed. And as I suggested in my last post, I did literally bring down the boards. Because, why not? (the maintenance team at school may have some strong answers to this question. But I’d like use this opportunity to pass on my thanks to Micha, Tony and Rocco for all their help.) The children also have a little step ladder which we use when adding their connections to our connection board. A contentious piece of equipment in a place very much concerned with health and safety, but we trust each other in grade 2 so all is well.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes you need reminding of best practice. We read, talk with colleagues and share ideas, but sometimes the key ingredients of teaching can become routines. It isn’t that we don’t include them in our teaching, but we can very easily fall into the trap of routines and not do it justice. Recent PD from Kath Murdoch @kjinquiry broke my routine and this was when I decided to create ‘The Wonderwall’. Simple self-adhesive whiteboard rolls quickly turned the blank wall in to another part of the room strictly owned, managed, and controlled by the students. And the results have been fantastic.

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The ‘planned’ unit from previous years didn’t include many of these questions, which left me thinking what a tragedy it would have been if we’d stuck to the ‘plan’ instead of leaving it all behind and re-doing the unit, a truly student led unit. We are only in week 2 but the students are already taking over the room with plants, and inquiry time is in full flow. Just goes to show what some simple design changes that support agency can do.

As well as the design changes, I also amended my teaching to involve more choice in what we were learning. Not my end goal but my first step. And the feedback from the students has been great. One thing I have realised though is that grade 2 students can be beautifully honest without even trying. And if you ask the questions, then be prepared for the answers because they don’t hold back. So asking the class how they think the new choice structure was going resulted in the following responses:

Child A: It’s great, much much better than before Mr Jeffrey.

Child B: Why didn’t you always do this though? Were you not a good teacher?

Child C: It is better than before. Now you can choose what things to do and before it was boring.

Child D: When we get to choose, I like it more. Because before if I wanted to do the drawing first and you made me do it last, then I did bad in the other things on purpose because I just wanted to do the drawing.

As well as making me laugh, it showed me that giving over a little bit of choice can make all the difference. I work with Grade 2 and so agency will look different than it does in Grade 5, and I’m not there just yet with implementing some more drastic timetable changes. But preparing them for this eventuality and making sure they are ready for this environment are things that I can do right now.

So, I’m trying to provide more opportunities for students to have ownership, choice, agency in their learning. If I was to give advice to anyone starting on this journey then just look at what you have planned for tomorrow and ask yourself the question “How much choice, input, agency do the students have in this?” And if you don’t like the answer, then tweak it. Nothing massive, no big bold statements, just small changes and then see what happens. That’s what I did and I like what I’m seeing.

Finally, give over the room. You can still manage it, but listen to them. If there is anything you can provide that gives them responsibility, then do it. For me this is the first step to agency in the lower grade levels. It’s about fostering the necessary ingredients needed to make agency work later on: responsibility, trust, reflection, curiosity, connections, questions.

 

Student Agency in Grade 2

At the start of this year I took on a Grade 2 class for the first time, having only ever taught Grade 4 and 5. The experience I have from teaching in upper primary has been useful in many ways, but one area that I have grappled with has been student agency. I’d tried hard over the years to embed this within my practice, but was this transferable to Grade 2? What would it look like? How much autonomy do we give to Grade 2 students? Can they make learning decisions for themselves? As ever, I just went for it and did what I thought would work. I quickly found that life in Grade 2 was different. Very different. Just having the mere choice of a few extra seating options at certain points in the day proved to be a strain on students well being. And mine. And this was when I realised I needed to think more deeply about agency and what it means.

Sometimes I get easily carried away with new ideas and it was no different once all the hype surrounding student agency started. It made sense, it does make sense, and it is something I have always tried to achieve in my classroom prior to it being brought to front. But what makes this different now and what is happening around it? Over the summer I read about what was happening at the International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC), who are currently leading the way with Studio 5 and this really hit home. A set up in Grade 5 that involves students planning and making informed choices about their day and what it is they want to learn. Students form small teams that are lead by an advisor (teacher) and work independently and collaboratively in these small groups.  I am not an expert on the school nor the idea and I have only read about it with posts from those involved; Tania Mansfield (@hktans) Taryn Bond-Clegg (@makingoodhumans). Sam Sherratt, a consultant from time space education, is due to release a podcast very soon, talking with one of the studio 5 advisors about this initiative. I’m sure this will provide more information about what is happening and I am looking forward to hearing about it. The main idea is that students within studio 5 have a voice, a choice in what they learn, and that student agency is truly at the centre of their learning. This was my starting point, and could I adopt a model like this to suit Grade 2.

As mentioned, life in Grade 2 is very different. And although an idea like studio 5 is manageable with Grade 5 students, is it really possible with Grade 2? If so, where do we start?  What are we trying to achieve in Grade 2 in terms of agency and what is needed to ensure that student agency is evident at this age? Cindy Kaardal (@innovative_inq) recently wrote about her experience here in setting up a student agency model in a Grade 3 PYP classroom in Switzerland. I had thought about doing something similar, and after a few months of finding my feet I started mapping out ideas of what this would look like. I came back to it again and again, and then very recently I stopped. Because I’ve realised that I can’t do this on my own. This is not something contained to one classroom, or one grade level.

As with inquiry, student agency is not a thing. It’s not just a buzzword. It isn’t something you just do and nor is it some new way of thinking that we’ve only just discovered. And it isn’t something that can be achieved just by giving students a choice and a voice. It’s a culture and a way of being that should form part of every teachers day-to-day being. It should form part of every schools mission, and this is what has happened by bringing it into the spotlight and giving it centre stage. Student agency is a mindset and a way to consistently bring the focus and attention back on the learner. The big question is, how does this look school wide. How are ISHCMC preparing their grade 2 students? Have they mapped backwards from Studio 5 and is there progression leading towards this new model?

I’m now going to skip to a mistake I’ve made this year; The Connection Wall. My idea of a connection wall at the start of the year was that I wanted to make connections visible to students. To see that we don’t just finish a unit and leave it, or find something out and then store it away never to be used again. I wanted students to see their connections for real, make connections with new learning, new learned knowledge, our key and related concepts. We watch BBC Newsround on a daily basis and scan current event stories through Newsela each week. This formed a big part of our connection wall, and the students loved it. They really enjoyed sharing their idea and with me putting the string up and connecting it to their given point.

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But then it started going downhill. I made a bigger deal of it, and connections from the students picked back up again. But before long, although some connections were still being made, I was finding it difficult to manage. It was becoming time consuming, making sure it was all written down and then stuck up in the moment when six or seven connections are made. Then the string went missing, then it ran out, and then I ran out of sentence strips and missed a connection, but the post it note fell down with the connection on. Again, interest started to fade and I was losing. I stood there recently just looking at it, wondering where I went wrong. Then it clicked. Why was it me putting the connections up? A time when students could own the wall, could practice their writing, could physically move the string themselves, practice fine motor skills, maybe make connections they hadn’t seen before, work on their their speaking and listening skills by talking about the new connection with other students who were stood by the board. The simple answer was that the board was too high, as you can see. That’s when I knew that I all I needed to do was bring the board down to them. And this is where I am at with Agency.

Student agency in Grade 2 is not about letting them go, being free to make big choices about what they should learn. I don’t believe they are there yet and this needs a big run up. Maybe that will change in time when my understanding develops and student agency becomes more ingrained within the culture of the school. But for now, it’s about bringing the board down to them. Involving them in decisions, having the the opportunity to decide things for themselves within a controlled environment, showing trust of your students and giving them responsibility in all parts of school life. This is not about handing over power to students, it’s about sitting alongside them. Creating a culture where the students lead, ask questions, make suggestions, become responsible, and you then provide the support and provocation when and where needed. Essentially, this connects deeply with inquiry. There are so many more questions to come from this, and it’s only the start of my own journey in understanding how this all fits together and what it looks like. But for now, I do know that I can’t do it on my own and that it’s up to everyone involved to embrace student agency.

But there is one thing that keeps coming back into my thoughts. Studio 5 as a whole school approach; Reggio Emilia?

 

The Facebook Feeling

An Introduction

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I’ve thought for a long time about starting a (new) blog. I started one a few years back, documenting my experience as a grade 5 teacher. It went quite well and I managed a good year of it. But the problem was I had little no audience, and with everything else on my to do list I gave it up. It was a big fat failure, but not to say this experience wasn’t helpful. I took the failure back to my grade 5 class at the time and shared it as one of ‘Mr Jeffrey’s failures of the week.’ This had organically developed into a therapy session for the class who loved hearing about the wide ranging mishaps happening to me on a weekly basis. It seemed to provide transparency for my students, with them seeing the human side of me and witnessing first hand that we aren’t all perfect. Furthermore, I was able to connect with my class in a different way, understanding that when asking them to write (non-fiction, fiction, documenting thinking when reflecting) they needed an authentic audience. Otherwise, what’s the point? I could say that I knew this before my first blog attempt, but experiencing it was a different matter. We also had a good laugh reading some of my posts and using them as examples of ‘what-not-to-do’. Amazing how they can find all the grammatical errors in my writing yet never in their own.

Following this I’m asking myself the question what could I do differently this time? What is my purpose for writing? Do I continue blogging about my professional development? How I’ve made my classroom more effective; Documenting Learning using technology; Grade 5 Exhibition up’s and down’s; First time teaching Grade 2. My anecdotes could end up being broadcasted to the wider world, supporting current and future educators on their quest to become ‘better’ teachers. Inevitably, through the medium of social media I would be sharing/tweeting my blog because this is what we all do, right? I could even end up becoming Twitter famous! As I trawl through twitter most days, reading articles, blog posts from educators, I find so many of them that are fantastic. Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid), Tarynn Bond-Clegg (@makinggoodhumans), and  Adam Hill (@AhillAdam) to name just a few. I read some, save many for reading later of which I read half but wish I had more time to read them all. However, there are so many ideas and so many posts about amazing things happening in schools around the world that I often think what could I add to this repertoire of knowledge that isn’t already out there? At this point, I need to be honest and say that as much as I enjoy Twitter, it also frustrates me to the point of not bothering.

It goes without saying that Twitter is full of amazing ideas, and the power of social media is without boundaries. I borrow from others on a regular basis and many great things have come from what I’ve seen on twitter so I am not knocking it for that. But, at what point does this amazingness, this platform of perfection, start to manifest itself within a teacher’s psyche and have the opposite feeling. The Facebook Feeling: Everyone’s life is one merry-go-round of fun and excitement, but i’m not doing anything and mine just isn’t. Or in the case of Twitter: teachers around the world are doing so many amazing things, I’m not doing any of them and I’m not as good as them. A negative opinion of one’s true ability and self talk about not being as good as others, leads to Teacher X wanting to throw in the towel. A slight exaggeration maybe, but I feel it does have the potential to cause a negative effect.

I feel it important to look at the impact of social media from a different perspective. We talk often with our students about how mistakes lead to success, helping them to embrace their errors and develop a growth mindset in order to be prepared for later learning. But do we preach what we say out in the public domain? Of course not. An absurd idea when we think about how that looks to our colleagues, other professionals in our network, and even future employers. Well, I feel like we need a break from everything being so perfect because behind the scenes it isn’t. It’s messy, proper messy. Inquiry is messy, maths is messy. It’s not about being perfect, it’s a messy process full of small victories and big mistakes. And what we see out in the world of social media is purely a snippet of what goes on, a snapshot of the polished product and not the messy process.

I believe we need to become more transparent and not just in our own classrooms and so to answer my earlier question, I’d like to write about my experiences of being a teacher with an emphasis on the messiness, not just the perfect moments. I’d like to share the not so glossy side of teaching as well as all the positive and inspirational moments. Luckily my wife is in her first year of teaching and so I am sure to have some gems coming from her. Sorry Katrina, I mean it with the best of intentions. But this also made me think, every year of teaching is like that first year of teaching. You think you have a good idea of what you’re doing at the start of the year, organised and with everything in place. But by the end of the year it has all changed..again.

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