There are usually two camps of students when it comes to social studies class: those who loath and those who love. But the great equalizer of both groups is the age old teenage desire to argue. Students (for the most part) LOVE a good debate. Any chance to argue is an automatic in with almost every class I've ever taught. For this last foray into my inquiry workshop, we did something a little different and we tried out a u-shaped debate. I also had a colleague visiting my class this day and she was able to participate and made this debate extra lively and impassionaied.
If you have not attempted this style of debate - it is so easy (and fun)! You will need:
- 4 signs labelled: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree
- Your desks/tables arranged in an upside down U shape.
- A polarizing (but appropriate) topic or statement.
We began with a warm up question to get the juices flowing. This was not for the u-shaped debate but to get our brains in the right place before entering into debate mode. Our first round was "Is humankind essentially good or essentially evil?" As per our usual style, I gave two minutes of discussion with peers then two minutes of large group discussion on the topic. I jumped for joy when a students responded with a question "Well...what is the definition of good?" and better yet "Who decides what is good an evil?". Inquiry nirvana!
For the U-shaped debate I gave students instructions on how to move around and how our debate would work. Here are a few pointers:
- Move around the U and place yourself where you agree with the statement (SA, A, D, SD). It is a continuum with varying degrees of agreement and disagreement.
- When you would like to speak you may only respond to one previous point (not multiples) and you must attack or respond to the point not the person who spoke it. Respectful discourse must be upheld at all times.
- If you hear something that you agree with, move yourself towards that speaker. Same thing goes if you disagree with something said and you would move away from the speaker.
- Note where you start and where you end up.
- Listen and 'collect' one point that was stated that made you move towards/away from the speaker. You will be reflecting on this in a small writing piece at the end of the debate.
Here was our topic: "In order to graduate from high school in Alberta, students must complete a set amount of volunteer hours."
This debate was AWESOME - students were moving and shifting as their peers spoke. I also had students request MORE time during the writing portion. Yes. You read that right. Students wanted more time to complete their reflections on this debate. The kicker for me, and something I will never forget, was when a student came up to me after the class was ended and said "That was the best debate I've ever had in class". NO WAY! The craziest part was, this student did not even provide a point during the debate, but upon reading their reflection stated things like "I was so torn by various speakers ideas. On one hand I agreed with their idea of giving back to the community and benefiting me in the long run, but on on the other hand I also agree that students are really busy and overloaded already and that we need to have the choice to do it or not. Is it even volunteer work when it's mandatory?" Yup. That was pretty much the icing on our inquiry cake that day. Critical thinking, engaged, and deep questions. We are well on our way in this inquiry journey!
To start off building inquiry into my social studies class, I decided to approach it as a skill based 'workshop' once a week where we just mingle, ask big questions, and maybe try and tie it into our materials. Ultimately, I just want my students to be comfortable with BIG questions, so that when we start out first inquiry project in a month or so, they aren't blindsided by the magnitude of the question I propose to them.
Today, we used a set of 3 inquiry questions.
1) Should teens rebel?
2) Is conflict necessary for change?
3) Is freedom ever free?
The first two that we approached, I let students chat with a group they were comfortable with for approximately 5 minutes. I also inserted myself into certain student groups to get a bit of the conversation fired up or if it was going well I just listened to the conversation. Then we did a 5 minute group chat about the question as a class where I asked more questions or probed for deeper meaning (this was me modelling that next level of inquiry for them). This was the FIRST WEEK I have known my students (I just returned from maternity leave) and the first time I have ever asked them to try inquiry questions with me. The students were focused, interested and liked the openness of the questions. There were engaged and eager to get into the nitty gritty subject matter. I felt this exercise was even more successful that I thought it would be the first time around. For the third question asked to the students, I had students do a free-write (writing as much as they could possible get down in 5 minutes --- they could also mind map, type, record or draw) for their response in silence, and then we did the 5 minute group exercise. When they were writing, it was completely silent. Every. Single. Student. was writing furiously or typing or drawing. Completely engaged. The responses were, for the most part, meaningful and in depth. I also let students know ahead of time that this was a formative exercise, and I would be giving them feedback on their writing for next week. Here are a few excerpts from the student exercise:
"Freedom is a double sided coin. If someone tells me I am free, is the very act of them telling me a restriction on my true freedom?"
"Freedom has to be limited. Limits create boundaries that keep us safe. Is there were no boundaries wouldn't we all just live in chaos?"
"Freedom is always at a price. Wars were fought so freedoms could remain. Freedom is a not in and of itself free, but always comes with loss of something like human life."
"Freedom is something I decide I have."
Pretty cool hey? I thought so too and this is only week 1! My favourite part about the responses is that the students started asking MORE questions. They nailed it. So grateful to my students for their trust in me to guide them on this inquiry journey and honesty of their responses. Way to go! Here we come week 2.
For this year, my professional growth plans are looking a little different. This is in part due to my new position in high-school redesign pod project, but also because I'm feeling that there is something greater going on behind project-based learning that keeps popping up around every corner. Our BIG question for this year in St. Mark's College (our pod) is....
"How can an inquiry-based approach to teaching promote student passion and authenticity in learning?"
In the past, I've used a project-based approach to build engagement and authenticity, but more and more I am convinced that it is PASSION that drives every little thing we do on this planet (and conversely, a lack of passion too). If I want to effect change in my classroom, and hopefully the communities/world we are apart of, we have to tap into the deep-rooted interests students have and allow those to find our authentic, real-world problems for student to work on. I think using an inquiry-based approach to teaching will naturally lead into project-based learning (which I love. There are some SERIOUSLY awesome things coming this year!).
In my experience, there are so many approaches to project-based learning it is hard for one to know exactly 'what' it is. But isn't that the cool thing? It can be SO many different things! One piece that is vital, however, is that the problem students are working to solve is REAL and/or has real world applications. Inquiry-based learning also uses this rich, messy, grey area of real world problems to drive students to be curious about a topic. But in inquiry based learning the focus is not completely on the 'product' or 'project' students are working on, but the questions they are finding/asking/seeking as they work through something. DEEP and MEANINGFUL learning happens here. At the question a student asks when they reach a new conclusion or learn something new. I guess this naturally happens as a by-product of project-based learning, but because I keep finding myself at inquiry's doorstep, I'm going to focus on that as my professional project this year.
What I will be focusing on in the next month (October) for an inquiry-based approach:
- QUESTIONS: not just yes/no, but those firecrackers that get your class buzzing. Also, a good question beckons for more questions to be asked. ex. "What is the best type of power?"
- CURIOSITY: what don't we know? what else is there to this story? Who's perspective is missing?
- ASSESSMENT: varied, student driven, and real world. Using self feedback and reflection as well as conversations with students.
One of my favourite blogs is todaysletters.com. The author writes her blog in letters to her husband, daughter, family, friends and even to herself. Her letters are often humorous but always from the heart. She thanks those around her, reflects on what has gone on in her world, asks meaningful questions and offers up gratitude for everyday things. I appreciate her format mostly because it is laid back and to the point. Letters are special and as the header on her blog states "There are many things that can change a life...a letter is one of them."
Letter writing is something that in school has been relegated to English classes and mostly for a business purpose. I think a lot of the romanticism of letters has been lost when we restrict them soley for business purposes. Writing letters used to be the one and only way to communicate with those at a distance - in a pre-social media world - and the only way we could express our wants, needs and desires to those around us other than face to face conversations. I believe we should use letters in a BIG, MEANINGFUL, AWESOME way in our classrooms from day 1.
I have used letter writing as an intro tool during the first days/weeks of September as a way to get to know my students in a more meaningful way. My Pod Team used this exercise when meeting our "Pod" for the first time this week, and I know another new teacher who employed it in his jr. high classroom too. It is an effective way to let students know you are there for them, want to get to know them and care about their needs. Below is my outline and a few tips for a successful letter writing activity:
1. Begin by outlining what you want your students to write:
- I post this somewhere for students to refer to. I usually have them include the following: Introduce yourself, passion areas, strengths/areas of success (academic or otherwise), weaknesses/areas to work on (academic or otherwise), what I need from my teachers this year, other information your teachers could need in order to best SERVE YOU (I strongly recommend using this language. I remind students constantly that that is what I am really here to do: SERVE them the best way I can.)
2. Remind students this is completely individual and confidential:
- These will not be shared with anyone but the instructors
- These letters are meant to be individual...you don't need to talk to a friend about it beside you.
3. Give TIME to write:
- Great letters won't come out of a rushed writing session. Students need a good chunk of time. Also, if students don't complete them, have them hand in what they did complete, and they can finish writing to you at home if they think of more things later on.
4. THESE ARE NOT SUMMATIVE. I REPEAT. THESE ARE NOT SUMMATIVE.
- Make sure to reiterate to students, that these are not for assessment. Remind students that this is an opportunity to ask your teachers for what you need to be successful. They should be legible, but spelling and structure are not as important as content.
5. Keep it light!
- Some students will shoot back an eye-rolling-groan-slump-in-chair attitude, but tell them if they wish to add in a drawing, diagram, song lyrics, anthem, or ANYTHING that will help their teachers understand what makes them tick...then put it down!
6. It's a two way street:
- It is usually best practice to begin with an example or do this exercise yourself. I usually narrate my introduction and what I need from my students to be the best teacher I can be before beginning the letter writing activity.
7. Keep the letters:
- Do not read and toss these. There is some SERIOUSLY valuable information you may need from them at a later date. I usually keep these until the end of the year and then return them to the students. It is a great measure of growth and sometimes great for a laugh or two.
This is a great intro activity to get to know your students and truly find out what the needs are of your students. I look forward to reading the letters from my new pod students and know they will serve to make me a better educator for my students this year. Happy September and may your year be fulfilling and full of growth.
Let me start at the beginning. My first year of teaching was a dream come true. I was at this amazing little school, with so much heart it oozed out of the building. The kids, the staff, the community - everyone worked hard to pour their efforts into that building. It was pretty magical. Granted, I don't remember a lot of that year because I was so tired and drowning in work that I think all the 'not-so-great' parts have been wiped from my memory. I had a six-month contract that eventually got extended to the end of June. It looked like I was going to be able to keep my assignment at this school too....but as we know, life sometimes has different plans.
I was devestated to learn I was not staying on at this school. I actually had no idea where I was going - I was in limbo. Eventually, I got wind of a position at a rural school. I interviewed and was offered a position. I was excited to have a job, but not so excited to be leaving MY school. Isn't it funny that after one year, I felt that my first school was MY school? Teachers are habitual, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. I ended up starting at this brand new rural school the following September, but it wouldn't be until January/February of that school year that I finally stopped mourning the loss of my last assignment and began really owning my new one. This is where things really took off for me.
I realized the endless potential of my students and myself when I stopped aching for the past and began to dream big. I owe a lot to the students I taught at my rural school. Specifically, my first homeroom class. They were so eager to hop on the Weber train that we accomplished so much together. Small schools really are amazing. Want to start a social justice club? Sure Mrs. Weber! Want to start a flipped learning project? Sure Mrs. Weber. Want to go camping/hiking in Grand Cache? Sure Mrs. Weber. Want to plant a field of donated wheat to build a school in Africa? Sure Mrs. Weber. The students allowed me to be the teacher I had always wanted to be. On top of that, the administration challenged and supported me in a way that only new teachers could hope for. I know with 100% confidence that I am the teacher I am because of WHERE I was for the last four years. I am grateful.
So you might be wondering why I started with a long drawn out story of my illustrious and long (haha!) teaching career thus far? Well, I just so happened to receive a new teaching assignment for next year at a new school. Initially, my inner teacher-ness screamed out in agony at the idea of starting at the beginning again with new curriculums, staff, and students. I think as teachers, we have this change-phobia because hey, teaching is A LOT of work! However, as I've had some time to mull this new project over in my mind, I find myself day dreaming about how fun this change could be. I'm starting to see my new curriculum everywhere I look. I get butterflies when I think about walking into my new school. Change is exciting. Scary. But exciting.
Teachers, in my experience, are not fond of change. Resisting it at pretty much every turn and in every form - technology, pedagogy, curriculum. Change is always something to be weary of. I know that time and time again at staff meetings or PD days we would be faced with a 'new' idea. Cue the grumbling, eye rolls, and the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' mentality. Teachers are amazing. At so many things. But adapting is not one of our professional strong suits. Despite change being loathed in schools and classrooms, we need it. Students need it.
Change is the only way we can attempt to stay relevant to our students. They are different learners so we much be different teachers. If they can find all of the answers on Google, why should they show up and listen to what I have to say? How can schools stay relevant in a world that is rapidly adapting and changing every single day? I don't just mean technological changes either. I think sometimes change is automatically linked with the addition of technology and I am increasingly convinced that that equation is actually a false promise of change in the classroom. Technological advancements in your classroom are great, but true change should be able to happen without an iPad in the hands of kids. Change forces us to be be better educators because we have to begin again and become learners alongside our students. Alberta Educations model for 21st century learning is a great basis from which to begin this metamorphosis as an educator or to carry with you for reassurance when change feels chaotic. You may not have all the answers, but that is okay. You may not feel totally in control, but that is okay. Change is good for us and good for our students.
As I begin diving into new curriculum and starting my new journey this fall, I want to remember how change MADE me who I am. Once I stopped aching for the past, I was able to grow exponentially and see the potential of what was in front of me. I appreciate change in a way that I used to fear it. Education requires us (educators) to change so that our students can ultimately change the world by creating and seeing potential of what is in front of them. Isn't that what we are hoping we can accomplish? For our students to BE the change?
"You say I dream too big. I say you think too small."
Whoa. It's been a while. Time flies when you're raising a tiny human. I apologize in advance for the dusty writing. Here we go...
Today, I was fortunate enough to be able to join in a committee that I was part of last year for a meeting. Baby was napping. Husband taking the helm. I ran out of the house exhilarated by the idea of being in a room with all adults. I was pumped! You may be thinking I must have lost my marbles if I'm pumped to go sit in a board room at the end of a long day....but you don't understand how AWESOME these meetings are. Firstly, there is great food (very important for hungry educators). Secondly, the company is outstanding. The group of educators and administrators that gather for this committee are exceptional individuals. Articulate, thoughtful and humorous - the group that gathers for these meetings truly make it what it is. These meetings are real brain busters too - forcing us as teachers and administrators to ditch our excuses for 'what can't be' for what COULD be. I often leave these gatherings with my brain buzzing and feeling like I totally drank the kool-aid. It's intoxicating to be in a room filled with big dreamers and like-minded souls who dare to push on the archaic restraints that are holding us back in education. I love to put aside all of the excuses and just dream. What could it be like? Once you do that, the possibilities are truly endless. Tonight, we were asked to design our ideal school. I am still full on fantasizing about this question hours later so I figured I might as well share my dreams....
Dirt and Tech (my school vision) - They seem like opposing ideas but the BIG idea for my school is balance. I love the idea of student-directed education. If you think about it, that is who we ultimately work for: STUDENTS! Here is the reasoning behind my school design:
Outdoor Focused Education:
- There are so many reasons to get kids outside. Lower anxiety, better quality of life, lower rates of illness, etc. I really like this article to back outside schooling. When we get back to nature and feel part of a natural world, we become stewards of our environment as well. Nothing wrong with a little environmental activism training is there? David S. would not disagree.
- Taking the time to deeply comprehend a topic versus glossing over it and amping up quantity of information taught will help students develop a curious mind and autonomy over their own learning path. Bloom wrote about mastery learning and I think the most prevalent theme throughout his writing that spoke to me was that "mastery learning requires TIME". We need to give students time to truly grasp what it is we are trying to teach them. True, deep-rooted learning. It will be different for every student too and the environment in which students learn needs to accommodate this, as well as the educators guiding students.
- From a personal standpoint, I can say with 100% conviction that Project-Based learning radically altered the way I teach and the success my students felt in my classroom. Finding real-world, authentic problems or having students generate their own essential questions to find answers to was one of the BEST challenges I ever gave myself professionally. To see my journey with PBL check out my blog from last year (2014 and 2015 posts).
- This is my current research obsession. I work in jr. high mostly and often wonder why it seems my students lack emotional coping and resiliency skills necessary to navigate the emotional mine-field of puberty and secondary school. This article gives some insight into why we need to back away and let kids be kids. Play is important and we should not overlook the necessity of time set aside for unstructured play in junior/senior high school settings.
- Getting students into the community to serve, learn and observe will only pique their curiosity about the wider world and connect them to those around them. Also, volunteer opportunities should not be seen as a way to 'boost' resumes but as valuable learning opportunities for students to give back and develop the social-emotional skill set necessary for the 21st century. Job shadowing, visiting the elderly, and having community members as an integral part of a school will all help to personalize and build a village around students.
- Balance is key. Access should not be hindered, but boundaries and expectations for use should be modelled at all times. There are times to use the gift of technology, but there are also times we all need to disconnect and have down time. Taking technology to the next level such as video creation, photography, digital design, coding, gaming and game creation will all set a technology tone in the school.
It turns out that I have a condition. I, Kate Weber, am a PBL junkie. I am finding it impossible to stop seeing and thinking about authentic, real-world and engaging tasks everywhere I go. Here is the story of why I started a PBL project at the end of May.....
There were hints. Everywhere. A small light bulb idea here and there. A comment from a student - "Mrs. Weber, I really wish we could do another project like that BUX market one...". An interaction with a local artist. Another conversation with a colleague about science and biodiversity. It was all piecing itself together and I couldn't ignore it any longer. Whilst sitting beside one of my BUX market collaborators at lunch time, I spilled my thoughts on the rough idea about a project I had mulling in my brain. It went something like this "So, I have this project idea. Environmental action on issues facing Canadians today? What do you think? Got anything that could pair with that?". She looked at me, wide eyed (and I think it was in slow motion, just like in the movies...) and said "ART. IS. THE. ANSWER". I had no idea what she was talking about, but I nodded anyways. We dove headfirst into the nitty-gritty of what her project in art class was and what my topic in Social 9 was. The pieces began to fit snuggly together. After making a project map for the BUX market, I felt way more confident to create one for this project. I could see the project better this time. That seems strange to say, but I could truly envision what it could look like from start to finish. I can remember going home that night and gushing to anyone who would listen (mostly, my husband) about how AWESOME this project was going to be. I love that these projects get my creative juices flowing and embarking on an art focused project was intimidating for me (as I do not consider myself particularly gifted in the art department), but it inspired me to think differently about my own abilities and take some risks with the students doing the project as well. Within a few days, we had the project ready to roll out. I am thankful I have such great colleagues to work with and that I was not turned away because it was 'too much' to take on at the end of May. Silent shout out to all my collaborators!
Here are some of the details of the project:
Cross-curricular - Social 9, Art CTS jr. high, ELA 9 & Science 9 elements.
Time: Approximately 4.5 weeks (60 minute blocks X ~ 2 blocks a day = 120 minutes/day)
Final Presentation: Pop Up Art Show
Expert Involvement: Fine Arts instructor(s) from the community as well as many patrons of the arts
Main Idea: If art is the answer, what is the question?
Other ideas: What environmental issues facing Canadians do you have questions about? How do you research valid and reliable information? What is visual art? How does visual art engage the public in issues and topics (past and present - Berlin Wall, Banksy street art, etc.) What role/responsability do we as citizens have to become involved with these environmental issues? What role/responsability does government have in solving these issues to help maintain quality of life for Canadians?
Final Projects: Pop Up Art Show
Inspiring. Innovative. Dynamic. That is why I started a project-based learning project at the end of May.
I came across an example of how a student demonstrated their learning to me for an authentic project in the PBL Health-Religion 7/8 class I instructed this year and I just had to share it! I received GREAT feedback from students on this project as well as many, MANY emails from parents about how happy this project made them! Students had to choose an organization project or new study skill/strategy to implement for a month and then document their 'experiment' some way (blog, vlog, journal, photos, etc.) Examples of student selected projects included: Mind mapping, flash card making for core subjects, room organization, organizing closets, etc. Below is the project a student completed to clean their room every week. They time lapsed the cleaning of their room every week and then would submit these on google drive (with a blog post on their portfolios). Enjoy!
I chose these two feedback results to evaluate closer. I am very pleased that those projects that were more 'rigorous' seemed to be more enjoyable to the students. Why should we be concerned with rigor in education? Well, let's look at the definition first:
"The termis widely used by educators to describe instruction, schoolwork, learning experiences and educational expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. Rigorous learning experiences, for example, help students understand knowledge and concepts that are complex, ambiguous, or contentious, and they help students acquire skills that can be applied in a variety of educational, career, and civic contexts throughout their lives."
Rigor is that work that really makes them well...work! The projects that I believe had the MOST rigor involved were projects #1 (e-portfolios), #4 (positive life role model) and #2 (volunteerism). While students may have struggled to create and build the finishing products in these projects, what they did come out with was truly original and creative answers to our big driving questions. This is important to note: STRUGGLE does not mean FAILURE, but it can actually mean quite the opposite in Project-Based Learning. Struggle in project-based learning should really be considered part of the rigor of the project itself and important to the process of growth in project-based learning classes. As an educator, I would not say I feel particularly successful when I see my students struggling. My automatic response is to want to help them along - to solve the problem for them. As I learned early on in this year of PBL, I can not do this for them as it will totally defeat the whole purpose of the process. That is the thing - Project-Based Learning is not so much about the driving question, the formative assessments and authentic tasks, but I think it has to do more with students learning a NEW process of learning. Learning how to learn in a new way.
The students know it is beneficial to work in a pod. They get that, but they are also in junior high and sometimes self-control and focus are lacking. I was SO impressed with the mature choices they made in regards to their pod selection. Interestingly, it was almost identical to how I would have grouped them too. So what was the difference then? CHOICE is VOICE. When students were allowed to have control of their learning environment, they felt more responsible and almost protective of their pods. Family-type bonds formed among these groups faster and more authentically than if I had chosen the pods for them. Also, just to note, I reserved all right to question pod selection and all pods had to be approved through me prior to commencing a project. Questions I began asking sounded like this - "Do you think this is the best option for you? Why do you think this? What will you do if someone is off task in your group? How will you benefit from this group?". It was more of an interview than anything. Overall, student selected pod choices seemed to increase efficacy and energy with regards to our PBL classroom.
Mrs. Katherine (Kate) Weber