What is Learning?

I asked my class this question this week and had them work in pairs to write down some thoughts on what they thought ‘learning’ was.  The reasons behind my questioning were mostly coming from frustrations – with trying to get my class to add things in their portfolio that showed their learning (rather than just ‘best work’) as well as frustrations with our current classroom environment which resembled a lot of non-thoughtful chaos rather than a culture of thinking.  I was trying to reflect on how I could help them to understand portfolios and how I could get our classroom culture back on track….when it occurred to me that we use the word ‘learning’ with kids all of the time, but do they really know what that means?

I have become a big fan lately of asking my students to define words – partly because I love how they amaze me with their thoughts when they do and partly because I am understanding the important words we use is a key part of the process and helps make sure we know what direction we are heading in.  The pairs of students came up with so many ideas of what they thought learning was, that I realized there were too many things to immediately put up, so I had them look over their list and each pair added two they thought were new but important things to add.

According to our class, learning is….

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We took a break to think and later on in the day, we looked at our ideas and applied them to our learning environment (which the kids said was an area where something, human or animal, spends time learning). I gave the students this question to think about in pairs:

IF learning is…….(one of our thoughts), then what do we need in our environment to make it one where we learn?

They had so many ideas that they then got in groups of four and had a discussion in order to choose the three things (from all of their ideas) that they thought were the MOST important things to have in a good learning environment.

A good learning environment needs…

– inquiring minds (yes, their words…surprised me too)

–  willing to talk and discuss things

– supporting others, helping not laughing at them

– respectful listeners

– cooperating and risk-taking (they felt like those when together, not separate)

– creative ideas

– push ourselves (I taught them about the word perseverance to go with that idea)

– new information (access to it)

– teachers (they pointed out that it could be an adult or another student – they teach each other things)

– books

– technology – computers

– calm

– time to be independent

–  communicating

– honesty

What do you add to the learning environment?

At that point, with all of those things in mind, we did an individual reflection (because I wanted to try and get our environment back into these things…it currently wasn’t many of them).  Who makes the learning environment?  All of us, not just me but every person who is in it.  If that is so, what do you add/do in the learning environment right now?  What things would you like to start adding or doing more often?

As always, this class continues to surprise me with their honesty and openness in reflecting and desire to be learners….

Here are just a few examples (though their reflections were all as different and unique as they tend to be)

I am good at having creative ideas, sharing my ideas, using my brain, my listening brain, discussing things and doing poems.  I would like to do better at my inquiring mind, being independent in getting new information, my reading brain, not fiddling around and writing stories.

I am good at working with others and remembering what I am supposed to do.  I want to improve at working on my own, looking at what is going on and sharing my ideas.

Right now I am sometimes not a risk-taker because I do not try new things.  I want to be a risk-taker.

I am good at supporting others and risk-taking.  I want to be a more respectful listener and add creative ideas.

I am good at being confident, listening to instructions, taking my time, thinking, pushing my limits and inspiring. I am not always respectful, sometimes noisy and waste my time.

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I valued this time a lot and though we were supposed to be learning about a few types of poetry during that time in my planning, I feel like this was more valuable in helping re-direct the culture of our classroom and learning, as well as giving them a better idea of what learning is.  Later on in the week one of my students took a picture of a book and told me she wanted to add it to her Evernote portfolio.  I was a bit frustrated at first that she missed the point of learning portfolios and asked her, “How does a picture of a book show learning?” She responded, “I have learned how to understand stories better and that’s why I got to choose a new level of readers.  This is my new reader – it shows that before I didn’t know what was happening in the stories and I couldn’t have understood this book, but now I do.”  We added it in, with those thoughts included 🙂

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Creating a Culture of Thinking

I spent the morning in a PD about Creating a Culture of Thinking…which included a focus on making thinking visible and reflecting in order to connect, extend and challenge…in order to make meaningful learning.  I should have written down our exact central idea, but it was something like “Creating a culture of thinking leads to deep inquiry and meaningful learning.”. Which made me think that maybe in order to truly make my learning from this morning meaningful, I should perhaps try again at blogging as an educator.  To make my own thinking visible and meaningful rather than just a day where I got some temporary inspiration that will quickly become lost amidst the paperwork and everyday demands that surround us all.

I chose a culture of thinking because I’ve realized that this is the core of my values and beliefs about learning and something that I feel I have a lot of room to grow in.  I am challenged that somewhere over these past eleven years since university, I have lost a some of the big ideas in my excitement over great activities.  I love great activities and there are so many of them out there, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I don’t think about their value and purpose.  It pains me a bit to realize that I need to let go of some of them.  But letting go is a theme that I keep coming across – that to truly create a culture of thinking I need to let go of some good things in order to make room for great thinking.

I connected with …

– when we make our thinking visible, it becomes more meaningful.

– sharing in small groups is much more engaging than waiting for individuals to answer in a large group (whether you are adult or child)

– teachers need to model, structure and take time for thinking in order to create a culture of thinkers.

I extended my learning through…

– thinking through what core words mean as an important start to learning – what is ‘culture’, ‘thinking’, ‘deep inquiry’ and ‘meaningful learning’?

– the idea that we can and should take time to reflect throughout learning – its not just an end thing.   Taking some tme to pause throughout the process.

– making sure questions are meaningful to students (rather than just another to-do from the teacher). Having students share their inquiry questions in groups and getting questions/feedback/refinement from their classmates before continuing them.

Things that still challenge me…

– learning more about the thinking routines and how to use them in my classroom – which ones are appropriate for which situations and age (making them meaningful rather than just another activity)

– helping students who love fast, quick, easy problems and the ‘right answer’ transition to and enjoy a culture of thinking that can take time and thought (and doesn’t always leave you with a clear right answer)

I would love to say that I am going to walk in the classroom tomorrow and have an incredible culture of thinking and the perfect classroom now that I am enlightened.  But I know better.  Perhaps one of the most meaningful things I have been learning is that I will never do things perfectly (which frustrates me -I like being right and quick, easy answers) and there will always be something to improve, but that doesn’t mean it’s too hard or too difficult or not worth pursuing because little by little through trial and error I’ll end up closer to my goal than when I started…and become a better thinker and learner myself.  If I’m not willing to try, how can I ask anything of my students?

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Setting Up Shop…designing (or not designing) a PYP open-plan classroom

It’s that time of year again…time to leave holiday travels/memories behind and start getting ready for school to begin again.  Over these past couple of days I’ve met my students (who seem pretty great) and their parents and been busy in the times between talking amongst our team about how we want to begin our year.  I have just begun to work in a school with an open-space/flexible/open plan (whatever you would like to call it) design and as a team we’ve been trying to figure out how to use it to its full advantages.  Great ideas/thoughts/experiences/advice welcome!

The first thing I did, being a lover of Google search and looking things up, was head straight for the search engines to try and find out what other people had done, thinking that there would be plenty of amazing and wonderful ideas to borrow…but I couldn’t find that many things about classroom design ideas (open space or otherwise).  I tried a few different terms and just couldn’t seem to find the plethora of ideas I was looking for.  I did manage to stumble across information about how these designs were popular in the 70’s and then been turned back into traditional classrooms because of disturbing noise levels.  Obviously there are some disadvantages.  Which started me on a whole different search about the research supporting them (since many schools including mine have brought them back) which was a bit sparse.  The main reason – their success depended on how the teachers used the space.  Many teachers kept trying to use it in the same way as separate traditional classrooms while others changed the design of their teaching to better match the physical design.  We’re working on being the latter this year.

The golden nugget?  Looking through a plan for the first week by a fellow PYP educator http://scr.bi/zAycdQ made me realize that in order to really set up a successful PYP classroom in a flexible/open space classroom it really needed the kids’ input.  Not rocket science, I know, but sometimes the traditional teacher in still likes to have everything in a neat little ordered box so it was a good reminder.  I ran across an article where teachers actually put all furniture and equipment aside and had an empty room in order for the students to study space and how it is used.  While I enjoyed that idea and am sure the students learned so much, I didn’t quite feel comfortable with answering to the parents about that one…so we’ve set up a temporary plan at the moment (with areas for large group, small group and individual places and a variety of activities) but will be discussing with the students what types of areas they need in order to learn well and where those best fit/what they look like….I’m looking forward to hearing/seeing their ideas about how to use our spaces and the changes they make!

Interesting website and further reading I stumbled across along the way below from….

Six Essential Elements that Define Educational Facility Design at http://www.designshare.com/index.php/articles/six-essential-elements/

Six aspects of best practice offer essential elements that support the requirements of any contemporary educational framework:

1. Supporting teaching and learning
2. Maximizing physical comfort and well being
3. Demonstrating environmental responsibility
4. Serving the community

5. Establishing design principles that make buildings work better, last longer, cost less to renovate and maintain, and inspire and adapt to changing needs
6. Applying open, transparent and collaborative processes that allows the school and community assume ownership of planning and design

Image: From ‘1 teacher to 25 students’ to ‘4 teachers to 100 students’ — Design Patterns for 21st Century School

 

Another interesting site with some things to think about…

25 Secrets to Design Every Teacher Should Know

http://edudemic.com/2012/08/the-25-secrets-to-design-every-teacher-should-know/

 

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Passion

Passion:  an intense emotion compelling feeling, enthusiasm, or desire for something.

It seems that lately the word ‘passion’ keeps coming up, especially in the world of education.  I look all around me and see teachers who clearly have no passion for what they are doing – whether they had it at one point or another I am not sure, but definitely not at the moment.  I also find teachers who are filled with passion for a number of different areas.  I’ve recently entered the world of Twitter, and on it are so many educators who are passionate about using technology in education, who are passionate about making global connections, who are passionate about literacy and so on.  It’s overwhelming how they pour their time and energy into developing and sharing these passions with others.  While I enjoy these things and find them quite interesting, I know in the back of my head that these are some of my tools, but they are not my ‘passion’.  It’s caused me to begin to reflect and question, “What am I passionate about?”

I love teaching.  It’s always been important to me to love what I do, and since I am still teaching after ten years I think it’s a good indicator that I must love it.  But I’ve begun to reflect back on why I began teaching – what started my journey in the first place – in order to find my ‘passion’ in education.  And in my reflections I’ve rediscovered what it is I love….developing character/values in children.  To see them become human beings who care about and help others, who think about their actions and consequences, who can problem solve and resolve conflicts, maintain integrity, persevere through hardships and challenges, set goals and find satisfaction in achieving them and to use their own passions to impact the world in a positive way.

In rediscovering my passion, it’s made me reflect on the purpose with which I am living it out.  I love the global perspective that the children in the international schools I have been in are able to gain.  Learning about World War 2 with fourth graders from all major countries involved – so powerful.  Children building relationships with children from other (very different) cultures – forever impacting.  Discussing what the word ‘thankful’ means and what that looks like with a group of six year olds – priceless.  I am excited about working within the PYP progam next year mostly because it incorporates many of these values within it.  At times, I do find I get so caught up in my ‘tools’ that I lose track of my passion and purpose, but every time I rediscover it, I am filled with energy and enthusiasm to continue to purposefully live out my passion in the everyday moments in and out of the classroom.

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Stumbling across a love for Independent Reading

Moving around here and there between grade levels and schools in different countries means I’m often a bit new to one thing or the other and figuring things out along the way.  These past nine weeks have been no exception and I thought I’d share the good things I’ve stumbled across while taking on an end-of-year maternity cover with a fun and rather angelic Grade 1/2 class.

When I came to the school I was told on day one that the Grade 1/2 level was trialing Independent Reading with the students and the next year the whole school would be implementing it.  By the way… the kids have never done it yet this year and you’ll have other teachers coming through to see an example of what it looks like in about four weeks.  Here’s some reading, have fun and do your best.  If you have any questions, feel free to pop in to other classrooms and ask.  It hasn’t been perfect, far from it (I keep finding out things I have missed doing) but by the fact that my rather angelic students almost mutinied on me the other day when we had to cut reading time short and the thinking they are coming up with, I’d say we’ve all learned a lot.  It began by reading a few chapters a week of The CAFE Book by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser and trying some of their ideas out along the way (along with Reading for Meaning by Debbie Miller).

Here’s the short version:

I love that….

– you use real reading language and strategies with the students (and they do too – it is great to hear students talking about what they inferred, etc)

– they get to self-select books and learn how to choose books that are right for them – such an important skill

– you get tons of one-on-one time with the students, but also get to meet with them in small strategy groups

– they get to reflect on what they do as readers and share that with others – they’re amazing at it!

– it meets the needs of the individual student where they are at, whether that be struggling or advanced

– you get to teach little things here and there ‘in the moment’ and adapt it to your class needs instead of being the star of the show

– the kids absolutely love it

My basic program

(I may or may not be doing it right – I’m a work in progress and have only started it this term)

– Mini-lesson – 15-20 min

– Independent Reading (individually conferencing with students) – 20 min

– Tracking Time (students write down their thinking, I usually meet and work with one of the strategy groups) – 15ish min

Here’s some tracking from our work with visual images today and a few other things from this term thrown in…

Question on my mind….I try to have a variety of handwritten and typed text up around the room, but when I go into my colleagues’ classrooms they have almost all handwritten.  Our class tracking I usually type on the Smartboard as they’re telling me so I can capture it correctly.  I’ve been working with older ones for a while now, but it made me wonder what balance is best in the classroom for different ages?  Does it make a difference?  Something to ponder/look into when there’s more time…

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