Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Changes, Challenges & reCharging

"The challenge in my life really is keeping the balance between feeling creatively energized and fulfilled without feeling overwhelmed and like I'm in the middle of a battlefield."  
~Amanda Palmer
Not writing a post on my blog has been haunting me for months. The longer I waited, the more daunting the task became. I had many legitimate reasons for not writing: looking for a new job, finding one and then preparing a family for a move to a new country, moving, settling into a new role, new school, new home, new country. But it's been 8 months! I'm officially settled (and so is my family). No more excuses or long winded explanations ~ I'm going to eat my biggest frog.

Since moving into my new role as a Technology for Learning Coordinator at an international school in Switzerland, I've been feeling too overwhelmed to contribute my thoughts about anything. A 'virtual colleague' in my PLN, @DwyerTeacher wrote the blog post, A Sea of Ideas and it seemed to echo my thoughts. Having to define and explain what is important to me as I build new relationships with new colleagues - well it has simply been exhausting. Where do you start?

Then a couple of things happened this week to bring me back - the Hour of Code and a global classroom project. While these are two very different ways to integrate technology into primary education, both are at the heart of what I think is important to learning - they allow for student driven inquiry, they are flexible in order to meet students' individual needs and both endeavours are highly engaging.

And so I must thank my students for their enthusiasm during our first Hour of Code session. They were an inspiration and I had just as much fun as they did trying to solve the problems. This type of student engagement and the possibilities provided by technology to transform of education are the reason I keep learning and pushing my own little envelopes.

Finally I must thank a person I've only just met through our new collaborative global project. After reading her blog I have been inspired to get back on track and start reflecting on my own learning. Blog posts do not have to be essays or position papers. It's okay to be brief and write what you are thinking.

I am leaving the 'battlefield' of not being good enough and beginning to feel creatively energised once again. It feels good to be back.

photo credit: Lawrence Whittemore via photopin cc

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Student Driven Inquiry

"The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.  ~ Sir Ken Robinson in The Element, 2009
We were most fortunate to have educational consultant, Kath Murdoch visit our school recently to explore inquiry and literacy.  Teaching in a big and busy PYP school, collaboration and inquiry is an integral part of our practice, but we do tend to have a lot going on and as a result reflecting on our own practice is at times pushed to the side. I am not referring to the reflection we do as a team on our planners, looking for evidence of student learning and thinking about the extent to which we achieved our purpose. I am referring to personal reflection, asking about the practices in our own teaching and what is happening in our own classes. Having the opportunity to talk with Kath about how children best learn was a wonderful invitation to take a closer look at the inquiries taking place in my classroom.

One of the aspects of the PYP that I have always loved is the belief in a constructivist approach to learning and the importance of student-driven inquiry. The tension I find is in the planning - if the teachers are deciding upon the central ideas for the planned units, how do we allow for student voice? Yes, we strive to create provocations that invite students to engage in open-ended inquiries, but in the end, we have a 'programme of inquiry' and this has been created well before we have even met our students. I shared this tension with Kath and my teaching team and I was introduced to the idea of Genius Hour.

Genius Hour is a time set aside each week for students to pursue personal inquiries. I loved the idea of this for it would allow for authentic student-driven inquiry, something that I feel passionate about. It would also be a vehicle to help students to uncover their own passions ~ what interests them? So much of our time in class is spent engaged in activities created by teachers, Genius Hour would empower students to create their own investigations, formulate questions to which they were truly interested in finding answers. 

It did not take long to find a host of resources to support the introduction of Genius Hour to my students. I discussed it with my Grade 4 class and they were keen to give it a go. After some initial set up and determining our essential agreements for this time, our Genius Hour was born. 

It has been amazing watching the students during this block of time each Thursday. They are so engaged in their own learning that you would never know there are 25 students working on different projects at the same time. Their choices are also varied ~ from learning more about quasars and atoms to investigating art forms and ancient history. While I expected the engagement to be high, I was not prepared for the how interested the students would be in each others' learning. Listening to classmates ask questions of each other and the proud way in which they share what they have discovered ~ this was nothing like the way my students have typically shared findings during our unit investigations. 

I have no regrets about implementing this change to my classroom practice. Yes, it does take a considerable amount of our time, but it is worth every minute of it. The students are still developing the transdisciplinary skills and attitudes that are a part of our PYP programme and more importantly, they are acquiring a love of learning. They are becoming more curious and confident in their own abilities, willing to take risks and try something new. They are becoming inquirers.

We may not yet have created the school environment envisioned by Sir Ken Robinson, but I believe this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Many Paths to Making Meaning

"You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way."~Marvin Minsky

I distinctly remember my frustration in math class as a child when my teacher would impatiently say, 'Just do this,' and then proceed to show me some algorithm that I was expected to memorize and use on the test. I had no idea what I was doing and it was always a mystery to me why sometimes it worked and my answers were correct and other times it didn't. I couldn't tell if my answers were close, because I had no idea what I was doing. And yet, I passed the tests. I will never forget my great, 'Ah, ha' moment when in high school a teacher actually took the time to show me what was happening when we applied these mysterious steps to arrive at a solution. By constructing models and visualizing the numbers, I finally understood what was going on. Finally, it made sense ~ it was such a relief.

I keep this experience close as a teacher as I never want to put my students through such an ordeal. I believe educators are much more aware today of the importance of students constructing their own meaning and that there are many ways to arrive at a mathematical solution. 

The following is a brief account of my Grade 4 class investigation into multiplication as it appeared on our class blog.

One of the key ideas I hope students develop as a result of a mathematical investigation is that there is more than one way to approach any problem. This is true as well for number operations. During our exploration of multiplication, students have been encouraged to try new methods to build a deeper understanding of this concept.

We began our investigation by giving students multiple opportunities to build on what they already know. We shared the different ways in which we can represent multiplication with simple expressions, such as 3 x 4. Our class collaboratively built a chart with the following models:
We then explored how we might apply this knowledge to multiply larger numbers. Students worked in small groups and constructed models using two digit numbers in their expressions. Some representations worked well, others we discovered were not practical for larger numbers. Many students used this opportunity to share algorithms they were already familiar with. As a challenge, the students were asked to use base ten blocks to show what was happening in the steps of their method. This resulted in our first class method of multiplication, Multiplying in Expanded Form.

We then took a closer look at how arrays might be helpful when multiplying larger numbers. While it provided a good visual representation of an expanded form of the larger number as we decided it was not really practical to make arrays for very large numbers. This was our second class method, Multiplying with Arrays.
After constructing an understanding of multiplication with large numbers, students were keen to find methods that would not take as much time to calculate. We went back to the algorithms shared earlier by the students. Now, the students had a much better understanding of what was happening when we used this method, that we have name, Regroup and Carry.
For students who wanted to a a clearer picture of the regrouping that took place, we devised two other methods that illustrate what is happening during the process. We called these Place Value Multiplication and Vertical Multiplication.
Place Value Multiplication
Vertical Multiplication
Today I introduced two other methods for the students to try. The first is very similar to our expanded form method. The second one is commonly called the Lattice Method and many of the students have decided this is a favourite way to multiply.

I encourage you to talk to your child about the different methods and discuss which way they prefer to multiply. Do you have a favourite method?