Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Embarking on a learning journey with my students

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. 
~Alvin Toffler
Being an educator, I often hear people describe themselves as learners as well as teachers. I've said it myself (usually during one of those workshops where you have to write something that describes who you are or explain what kind of food you would be). Though, when I sit down and really think about myself as a learner, the picture I have is one of an adult, involved in 'adult type' learning activities ~ taking a course, reading professional literature, learning new skills, discussing educational issues with colleagues, or attending workshops and conferences. While my students are aware of these activities, I don't know that they would necessarily make the connection that this is their teacher as a learner. How can I really show my students that I value learning? 

I work with Grade Six students who are in the last year of the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) at our school. As a culminating activity, the students engage in a collaborative inquiry and present their findings to the wider community during our PYP Exhibition. This is a BIG event ~ for students, teachers, parents and the school. While I have worked in PYP schools before and had experience with the Exhibition, this is my first year at CDNIS and my first experience as a homeroom teacher in the final year of the PYP. A wonderful opportunity to join my students as a co-learner!

During this final investigation, the students will keep a journal to record and reflect upon their learning throughout the inquiry process. I too am going to keep a journal that I will share with my students. It is my hope that sharing in this common activity will provide a basis for authentic conversations about our learning. 

Writing a journal (as I am discovering) is a time consuming process and so I have decided to share excerpts here for the next six weeks as I will not have time to write additional posts in this blog.

PYP Exhibition Journal: Tuning-in

While this first week of May has been our official start to Sharing the Planet, the tuning-in phase has, in reality, been an ongoing process throughout the year. Beginning in September, students were encouraged to become more aware of events that were related to this theme. Each student has found articles and shared them with the class, prompting discussion of a variety of issues, from marine conservation, to wheelchair access in parks, and waste management in Hong Kong. We developed a Newsflash format that encouraged students to analyze perspectives, make connections to their own lives and communities, and consider possible action. 

As students have been considering issues and problems related to Sharing the Planet for such a long time, it was inevitable that many of them had already decided upon topics to investigate. While I was pleased that so many of my students had become more aware and concerned about a number of important issues, I didn’t want them to close doors to potentially rich fields of investigation. But how could we encourage them to consider alternatives?

At a recent educators’ institute, I participated in a quick activity that was devised to form small working groups based on common interests. It involved each person writing their own idea on an index card and then walking about the room and exchanging these cards with each other (without reading them). After a minute we would stop, find a partner, and discuss the ideas on the two cards we held (neither of which were our own). We were asked to consider the merit of the ideas and if they would be good topics of investigation. We then had to give each card a score, with the total of both cards being 7. We repeated the swapping and meeting with a new partner five times, in the end arriving at a score out of 35 for each topic. 

Why not try this with out students? Well we did and it was a wonderful vehicle for discussion, generating a list of varied issues or problems to investigate.

Developing central ideas a good idea
Watching my students struggle to write a central idea for our unit was a revelation. I have great students who work hard and have fun at school, but I had never seen them so engaged and with such obvious higher level thinking demonstrated in their discussions. The criteria they used to guide their writing and also to critique the other groups’ ideas kept them focused on the task and provided a basis for authentic and meaningful discussion. What is challenging? Why is this relevant? Is this value free? Globally transferable? Is this worth knowing? Having the students discuss these open ended, yet vitally important ideas, not only gave them ownership over the process, it encouraged them to articulate and extend their current understanding of the concepts embedded in the transdisciplinary theme, listen to different perspectives and come to an agreed upon statement. Higher level thinking - you bet! 

Why haven’t I done this with students before? It is an oversight I will not make again. If we are truly looking for ways to promote student led inquiry, why not give them a voice in this most important step of the process?


Jabiz said...

Hi Jennifer.

I agree that many times teachers claim o be learners, but are not putting themselves through the rigors we expect from students to document, evaluate and assess learning.

I love the idea of teachers setting goals and really thinking about their learning through journals, blogs, projects etc..I would love to see a professional development model which accepts teachers to set goals, learn, document and then be assessment based on self written criterion.

I am still working on what this will look like, but will share it with you once it has a shape.

In the meantime, great job taking on the challenge and putting yourself in learning shoes. Looking forward to reading more of your journal.

Naini said...

HI Jenny,

Two comments :)
I loved the idea of kids walking around trying to find like minded peers.
2) regarding the kids coming up with the central idea: we do that in our school too as you are aware. But somehow it bothers me that they have to come up with the wordings of the CI...
Because that is the enduring understanding that will build up during the course of the unit. So how can they word something they are not completely clear sbout?
My ramblings :)