Category Archives: Student Ownership/Choice

Show a Pro

 

Do you get annoyed when your students come to you for every little thing? Or conversely, maybe you sometimes feel yourself getting frustrated when one of your students speaks up about something they know lots about, rudely interrupting you when you are trying to teach that very same thing to the class.

Schools and teachers need to re-frame the classroom so that the teacher is no longer the knowledge-holder. If we continue with the perception that teachers have All The Knowledge and just need to dispense it at the correct time for students, we may as well stop now. When students leave school, where do they go for information if they no longer have a classroom teacher?

Young people are now digitally connected to overwhelming amounts of information and ideas. Amid this, students greet teachers’ attempts to deliver content knowledge using traditional didactic approaches with scepticism (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014). Students need to learn how to become well connected with the world around them and know where to go and who to go to when they need information. They need to know that there are millions of people within their reach who are all experts in something. We need to get kids connected. 

I am a big believer in the idea of “Show a Pro“. That is, rather than teaching everything about a concept or skills yourself, find an expert in that field to connect with your students, speak to them or coach them as they work in that same area. Even better, have your students discover ways to reach out to experts.

Some simple and powerful ways to Show a Pro are:

  • Draw on your students’ parent expertise. If you have a parent that works in a bank, get them in for your unit on finance. If you have a parent who is a works in a trade, get them in to talk about how to manage projects with lots of tasks. If you have a parent that is a programmer, have them come in and give tips to your students on their own coding projects. The possibilities are endless. Do a quick survey at the beginning of the year, asking parents about their occupations and special interests or skills, and whether they would be interested in speaking to students about an aspect of their job.
  • The internet has it all. When my students were making short films, we listened to filmmakers from the Pixar team explain how to create and pitch a storyboard via a video on their website. There’s nothing I could have taught about films that the Pixar team couldn’t have said better. While videos can’t always replace a teacher, listening to videos of legitimate experts on how do do things best is a powerful way for students to learn new skills and concepts.
  • Skype or Google Hangouts. Almost anyone can connect this way, and it can be easier and less time consuming for your guest to be able to connect via internet rather than to travel to the school. Once (through the Tech Girls are Superheroes Competition) I had a newspaper editor connect with a group of students via Google hangouts to coach them on a business they were designing, and the impact of having a mentor for their project was profound for this group.
  • Check out Skype in Education There are guest speakers, other schools and teachers and even virtual field trips.
  • Look for people and organisations that are willing to come into schools. For example, my team booked a poet to coach classes and run workshops for 4 weeks during a poetry unit. This poet offered a program for working in schools, and was able to adapt his workshops to what we needed from him. Even if the person or organisation you are interested in doesn’t usually offer a program, it is worth getting in touch to see if they are willing to put something together.
  • See what your council offers. Your local council can be a goldmine of opportunity for students to meet someone who makes real change in a particular area. You could be looking at experts on sports, community groups, local parks and rec spaces, recycling and sustainability, transport. For example, I had a local MP meet a group of students who wanted to know about the problems the local council experiences with bike safety in the area, and he was able to give them data the council had collected on this problem. Plus, did you ever hear of a politician giving up the opportunity for a photo of themselves speaking to a class full of students?
  • Draw on the local community. People who are part of the school’s local community are often very keen to be able to contribute to schools as a way of ‘giving back’.
  • Get in touch with universities. They are full of experts, a lot of whom are looking for ways they can share their knowledge or build their skills. Faculties will often have students who are looking to work with schools on different projects.

 

Tips

  • Ask your students who they think they should talk to to learn more about their topic. Have them make suggestions about WHO might have the knowledge they need, and HOW they might get in touch with them.
  • Some people you ask (especially parents) might feel that they don’t have enough to share. It’s important to be clear on what information you would like them to talk about, what you want them to demonstrate, and what level of understanding the students will come with. This can make it easier for your guest to understand how their expertise can help your class.
  • In most cases, experts are experts in their field, not in teaching or public speaking. It can be very helpful to provide some information on how to run the session, or for you to run it and allow time for your guest to share, and manage question time for them.
  • If your expert is willing, get their contact details so that if students have a follow up question, you can get in touch to find out their answers.
  • Excursions and incursions can be very expensive. Finding experts in other ways is often extremely inexpensive and is most likely more tailored to what the learning needs of your students are.

 

References

Fullan, M. and Langworthy, M. (2014). A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning. [online] Available at: http://www.michaelfullan.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/3897.Rich_Seam_web.pdf [Accessed 6 Sep. 2017].

How to Let Your Students Set Up Their Own Classroom

You know that feeling you get? That one where you finally have had enough of your summer break, take yourself into school, and look at the blank walls of your new year’s classroom, just itching to fill it with colour and decorations and a reading corner and intriguing objects and all sorts of learning? Isn’t there the slightest chance that your students might walk in on day one and feel the same way?

I wrote a blog post about the need for students to be given the opportunity to set up their own learning space, not to walk in on the first day and see that their new classroom belongs to someone else. It is imperative that students know that you, their teacher, view the room as ‘our space’, not ‘my space’.

At the beginning of this school year, I left my Grade 5’s classroom alone. This was a challenge for me because usually I enjoy preparing the space and setting it up ready for learning, but it turns out that my students can do that better than me. Here are my tips for enabling students to be part of setting up their learning space at the beginning of the year.

Leave it alone.

Leave the room as bare are you can possibly manage before students arrive. Make it neat and clean but not set up. Have resources such as books and furniture organised but not placed. You might have welcoming items such as rugs or canopies available to be set up.

Sort out your own important things, like your assessment folders or filing system. I challenge you to take up half as much room as last year with your own ‘area’. (Next year halve it again. Keep going every year until you don’t have an area).

The ‘before’ shot.

Engage in deep discussion on what a learning space needs.

In the initial days of school, discuss together with your class what both the teacher and the individual students think a learning environment needs. Have students consider all the things they think they might do in the room, all the things they need out of the room and the ways it might be used. You’ll notice not many kids say “amazing wall display with the theme of *insert recent Disney movie here*”. Have students record the look, sound and feel of this room, using a simple Y-chart.

We used a Y-chart to organise thinking.

If you frame this conversation and your questions carefully, you will steer the conversation to a deep level. “What do you think helps you learn best in a classroom?” rather than “What do you want in your classroom?” will avoid the popular yet unrealistic dream of classroom rollercoaster or jumping castle.

Having this discussion will be essential in setting the tone for what the class believes is important in a space for learning – owned by the students, not the teacher. This is where the quiet kid gets to say “I need a space to be on my own sometimes” and the kid with difficulty hearing gets to say “I like when we sit in a circle because I can see people when they talk”. It’s when a group of students articulate for themselves that “We write better when it’s quiet” and “Table groups of six are too distracting”. It’s when the teacher explains “We need some space and materials to build and create and get messy” so that students know that this is part of learning, too.

Have students consider the spaces or zones that might be needed for various tasks or behaviours.

As students discuss and explain these ideas, list the physical materials and objects, the spaces or zones, and the arrangements mentioned.

Breaking it down into the important stuff.

When I did this with my class both they and I were surprised to find that lots of them had very similar ideas of what they wanted out of the ‘vibe’ of the space… there was lots of discussion about sound and atmosphere that continues to drive the way they interact in the room now.

Design the room.

Have your students work in small groups to consider all the ideas that have been presented, then draw what they think would be the optimal way to arrange the physical space. If you have engaged students in effective and realistic discussion, this should be the easy part. They simply transfer what they (and others) consider to be the important elements of a learning environment

You might like to put some parameters on this depending on your students (or your own confidence). You might start next term by just having your students decide how they could rearrange their tables or floor space.

Have each group share and justify their ideas. Allow time for questions and discussion.

An example of a group’s classroom design. Their book cave idea made it into the design created later that day.

Make a collective, and not final, decision.

Find a way of having students vote on the options. I find that hot-dotting works perfectly for this. Each student takes 2 or 3 dot stickers and sticks them on the options they like best. The one with the most dots becomes… NOT the winner. It becomes the first arrangement, the trial, the practise.

Hot-dotting to find a favourite layout.

Make sure students understand that this is not the last way the room will look, nor will it be perfect in every way. Explain that the class will review it and make changes often, according to how the space is working for current needs and how people are working within in.

Look over the plan, make any little tweaks needed and make sure everyone can see it.

Then let them set it up. Yes, it will be loud. Yes, it will get worse before it gets better. But they will get there. I promise they will. There’s nothing like 25 kids moving furniture on the first day of school for a teamwork exercise.

 

Make it beautiful, inspiring and inviting.

Last year I had my students decorate their book corner. Somehow, some flying hotdogs were suggested and the idea was greeted with a cheer. They were made and even though it is honestly the strangest decoration I’ve ever seen, the kids would always have a giggle looking up at those hotdogs as they sat in the book corner. If one little decoration brings a few extra laughs a day, perfect. They probably wouldn’t have been giggling at my perfectly laminated cartoon books and Dr Seuss quote.

Last year’s hotdogs.

This year’s reading cave is very popular. It drives me crazy because it’s not how I would have made it, but the grade loves it and they use the space really well, so it stays! The shelves now display the books we are focusing on currently, and one of the kids brought in a succulent to put on top to make the book area ‘feel more relaxing’. 

When I met my class this year for the first time (on day 2 of school as I unfortunately was not there on their first day in the classroom) they talked about how they felt when they walked in to their classroom the previous day (day 1 of school)  for the first time. Remember, I had left it as bare as I possible could. They described it as dull, boring, plain. When I asked them how they felt about the room after they had spent time setting it up, they used words like exciting, helpful, fun.  I asked whether they were happy or not that I had left it to them, and the consensus was that “every teacher should let their kids set up the room so they can get it how they like it”.  So there you have it.

The ‘after’ shot.

The Things that Counted: Reflecting on 2016

When I moved up to grade 4/5 last year after teaching only the early years in my career so far, one of the things I both looked forward to and most feared was how to engage students in their learning by making it real.

At the end of that year, I chatted with my kids about what experiences they got the most out of, what they enjoyed about the year. There were two consistent responses: the Poetry Slam and the Kids Conference.

Interestingly, a lot of the parents I talked to also had those two experiences as a stand out from their child’s year. This is important to me; if parents see enjoyment, value and focus in their children’s learning, it makes it much easier for them to support and extend the work of the teacher.

Poetry Slam

The poetry slam came about when my team was planning a poetry unit. We thought that ending the unit with a poetry slam would be a great way to share. When I explained this to my grade, I happened to mention that often poetry slams are held in public places, like an auditorium. One student asked if we could do ours in the local cafe and I said “Why not?”. My initial reaction was to say no because the teachers had discussed having all our grades share together, but when the students come up with a way better and completely reasonable idea, you have to drop your plans and go with it.

Throughout a really successful unit, the kids worked with a mentor poet, Cam Semmens, who coached them over four sessions. They wrote many poems, scrapped some and reworked others. They tossed and turned over their final performance poem. They practised the way their poem would be spoken and watched other poets slam (including this hilarious one by Nick Offerman entitled ‘A Slam Poem to Bacon‘).
They picked the date, called the cafe and booked their space (and submitted their milkshake orders too). They called up the local newspaper, were interviewed and organised a photographer to come down during the performance.

A self-organised story in the paper!

They invited their parents to come and watch, and nervously walked down to the cafe that morning to deliver weeks’ worth of writing. They beautifully performed their pieces and supported the students who had stage fright.

Read their blog post on the Poetry Slam here.

Often as teachers we talk about a genuine purpose for writing being important, but often forget to include this in our planning, and even more often forget to ask the students what would be the best way to share.

The Poetry Slam was one of the most powerful learning experiences I’ve seen in my class. Students were driven, they were excited, they were analysing their writing and helping each other do the same. They were desperate for conferences to get feedback, and soaked up every second of the mentor poet’s expertise that they could get.

Having purpose turns ‘work’ into ‘learning’.

 

Kids Conference

After speaking at #DigiCon16, I was invited by Jo Clyne, a brilliant historian and educator, to have students present learning at the HTAV Kids Conference. This conference showcases ways that teachers and students are doing using technology innovatively to learn about history and geography.

In the midst of a history and civics unit, together Jo and I came up with a plan which resulted in a launch lesson with Jo, followed by a longer-term project where students worked in groups to tell the story of an individual or group’s experience of Australia’s Federation. Some of these groups were selected to present at the conference.

My students were both excited and terrified at the size of the lecture theatre!

The whole class took the tram to ACU for the day and attended their first conference. They took notes and met students from different schools (including secondary students) who were all using technology in new and powerful ways to learn.

This conference was exceptionally powerful for my students; not just watching others, but seeing their own learning shared in a public forum was genuine, challenging and exciting. What they presented was something they were confident in and had worked hard on, and they got feedback from students, teachers and a university lecturer on how great their end products were.

As the dad of one of my student presenters excitedly mentioned to me on the day, “10 year olds did not present at conferences back in the day. That was for university professors.” This is not the case anymore. 10 year olds are more than capable.

 

The lesson I have learnt is that:

  1. It is possible to provide (and be open to) genuine ways for students to engage in and share their learning with a wide audience and in meaningful ways. 
  2. Not only is it possible, it is vital. 

Why I Hate Classroom Themes

At the beginning of each school year, my Pinterest feed fills up with tons of pictures that fall under the heading of “Classroom Inspiration”. Teacher friends will send pictures of their freshly decorated rooms to each other with questions about where to put the book corner. Ikea experiences a massive spike in sales of those giant canopy leaves and Officeworks sell out of laminating pockets.

Thousands of teachers begin creating themes for their rooms. Jungle theme. Space theme. Harry Potter theme. Garden theme. The list goes on. Sometimes I wonder if some teachers might have been better suited to being window dressers.

This website lists hundreds of classroom theme examples!

Similar to classroom themes, many teachers will spend days and days before the students arrive setting up every aspect of the classroom, plastering their walls, floors and ceiling with posters and decorations. I’ve been there, and I’ve dragged my mum with me.

There was a time when I thought this was a cute idea, a nice thing to do for students by teachers who were willing to spend their time, money and energy creating an amazing-looking space ready for day one. I myself must have spent hundreds of dollars and hours on my classroom in my first year, spending my nights laminating and my weekends at Ikea or scouring Pinterest for ways to make it look more “enchanting” (I remember this being the word I wanted to describe my first ever classroom for my preps).

But every year I chuck out a bit more stuff. Every year I find more things I made or bought that were never looked at or used. Every year I notice the way the kids don’t notice it all.  Every year I’ve learned more about how kids learn best, and surprise, surprise, hand-painted Hogwarts Express mural across an entire wall, little owls hanging from the ceiling above every table, with pencils carved into wand shapes aren’t on the list, no matter how magical or enchanting they may be.

THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER

A list of teacher-reported conditions that promote learning, provided by Will Richardson.

So what does the classroom need in it? After listening to Will Richardson’s presentation ‘Old School to Bold School’, I was challenged to list the things I believe contribute most powerfully to student learning. He shared a list of responses he’d heard over and over again from teachers. You can read this below. Most likely if you were asked to write a list yours would look similar to this because we know these are the things that matter.

As I started to consider how I might set up my new room this year, I was reminded of this presentation and the things that matter most in learning environment.

Einstein famously said “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Obviously, this is not only about the physical environment, but we cannot deny that the physical environment has a huge impact on the way students act and interact in their school day. So, if we believe the role of the teacher to be to create the conditions for learning, or to model how to learn best, we must ask ourselves…

How do classroom themes or decorations contribute to learning?

How can I ensure that all aspects of the classroom contribute to learning?

What are our classrooms if not spaces for learning?

Teachers should curate their space and resources extremely carefully so that the room works in harmony with how we know students learn best. This should be our only focus.

Would you decorate your kitchen with mermaids, shells, blue crepe paper hanging from the ceiling and deck chairs and expect to cook better? No? Then it is unlikely that decorating your classroom with an ‘Under the Sea’ theme will make your students learn better.

Take steps in setting up your room that will directly facilitate student learning, for example:

  • ensure there is a mix of individual reflection areas and table banks for group work
  • ensure an attractive, easy-to-access, visible display of a variety of texts for students to browse and choose from
  • put resources and equipment (like stationery or games) within reach of the students that use it, rather than locking it away in a cupboard (to only be bestowed with the teacher’s permission).

STUDENT OWNERSHIP

Some teachers will argue that decorating the space makes it more fun or inviting. That might be so, but is there the risk that the purpose of the classroom space is lost in amongst all the shells and vines? When a student walks into a room that is themed or extremely decorated for the first time, they might be wowed and feel like they are in a fun classroom, and that’s great. But what happens when the fun wears off and there’s just a lot of clutter, a lot of teacher-owned items and not a lot of items or space where students feel true connection and control? How can they take ownership in a space so clearly owned by another?

Kath Murdoch, in The Power of Inquiry (2015), say that ‘setting the room up before the students arrive actually deprives them of an important opportunity to develop a sense of shared ownership of, and commitment to, their environment’.

I remember how one of my university tutors, Narelle Lemon, was talking to my uni class about setting up classroom communities. As we listened, horrified, she explained how at the start of each year, she would welcome her new class into an empty classroom with bare walls, the chairs stacked in the corner and the tables all pushed up against the wall.

At the time I was speechless with disbelief. Now I’m completely on board.

I really believe that an important part of classrooms is student ownership in the space and culture. This requires the (oftentimes challenging) feat of teachers loosening their grip and giving some measure of control to students over the space they work in. So another question comes to mind…

What is the balance between creating an inviting space and letting students have ownership?

This question has been on my mind for a few years now and I’ve been dipping my toes in, slowly relinquishing more and more control to my students over their learning space. Unsurprisingly, the ground hasn’t yet fallen out from under me.

At the beginning of the 2017 school year, I will be diving in and experimenting with setting up (almost) nothing at all in my classroom and working with the grade to collectively and carefully make decisions about our space. Watch this space for a follow-up post to see how this goes, both pedagogically and logistically.

‘Creating an inviting classroom means reflecting comfort and productivity throughout the daily routine’ (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001. p89). Considering that, I think some of the keys to creating an inviting and practical space will be:

  • Guiding students to create areas that are important to how the class will work, e.g. a classroom library or meeting space on the floor.
  • Having good quality furnishings and items (throw away the dirty old floor rugs and the sad looking cushions) that students can choose from to set up and furbish.
  • Making sure that students have the resources and freedom to own the space aesthetically, to add their personal touch (for example, last year one of my students brought in some little cupcake cushions that adorned our book corner and made it cheery, another time a lamp was brought in for a dark corner).
  • Creating zones or different areas for different purposes. Read more about ways you can do this here.

This post is not to discourage teachers from the effort they put in or discredit that work. I think most people agree that teachers give their heart and souls to their job, and sometimes this looks like dreaming up and creating a beautiful classroom space for their students to walk into on the first day. But is this the best way to expend our effort? Think back to that earlier list. These are the things that truly make a difference to student learning, so it’s time to re-direct that effort towards the things that make the most difference, the things that really matter.

 


References

Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2001). Guiding readers and writers (1st ed., p. 89). Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Murdoch, K. (2015). The Power of Inquiry (1st ed., p. 33). Northcote: Seastar Education.

Richardson, W. (2016). Old School to Bold School. Presentation, Bastow Institute.