Nurturing a Sustainable Culture of Active Thinking

As the school year launches, teachers prepare for their new and returning students, school leaders to welcome new and returning staff and the focus turns to designing ways in which learning communities can come together, develop and thrive. In my experience this often means that team building activities are dusted off and there is a flurry of discussion about how to communicate expectations and set the tone for the year ahead. Brief side-note, I still struggle with the term ‘expectations’ and gravitate much more towards ‘beliefs’ as a stance that asserts a more outward-facing and growth-orientated mindset, see my earlier blog post ‘No Expectations’ for more.

As someone who loves the back-to-school buzz of bringing everyone together, I wondered about shifting focus; from team-building and expectation-setting to co-creation towards a culture of active thinking. What I mean by this is to treat the bringing of groups together as an opportunity to nurture leadership, to invite decision-making and facilitate co creation as opposed to team-building being ‘done’ to the group. The process itself of bringing the group together being the ‘team-building’ experience rather than a fixed outcome from an activity. Sometimes, we, (read ‘I’) tend to get so immersed in the scheduling and ‘doing’ to structure collaborative time perhaps we miss the most crucial piece, letting go a little, carving out space and enabling opportunities for others to lead.

So, what if we let go and shift focus to invite our learners, our colleagues, our community members as decision-makers, as leaders, as creators and we truly fully embraced this? What an impact there could be. This could be a powerful mechanism to elevate towards process driven community building where a culture of active thinking is celebrated and reinforced. Moving from passive activity to activation of a mindset where all members see themselves as creators, contributors and leaders.

What might it look like in practice?

Some experiences, ideas and wonderings:

  • setting up learning spaces together – this being a collaborative process and part of the back to school experience. Community members organise and design spaces together.
  • setting intentions/outcomes of what is to be achieved and then teams designing how they will get there as part of their collaboration or meeting time.
  • posing the questions that we might use to provoke our planning to the students or our colleagues to gather their input on how we could respond to these. For example, in a Grade 1 classroom – How can we get to know about each other? or with a Grade Level Team – What structures can we put in place in our collaborative meetings to ensure balance and equity? or with a Grade 5 class – How will we demonstrate our learning around our classroom?
  • inviting community members to co-create a rubric to guide self and peer assessment of a task.
  • what if… student guides were invited to design and lead the back to school parent information sessions?
  • what if… students were asked to design their morning circle routine or gathering place rituals?

This requires a shift in approach and thinking, and ultimately ownership. It calls on us as leaders of classrooms, spaces, teams or communities to step back, listen, observe and find the balance to sustain this active thinking culture. I would be interested to hear from others’ experiences as they shift their focus to one of nurturing active thinking in an ongoing sustainable way.

What’s in a name?

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I miss the puzzle of learning names.

As a School Principal I used to love greeting families, learning student names and being part of the early morning routine welcoming everyone into school. I struggled, I got names wrong, I mixed up pronunciation, put the accent in the wrong place and from time to time muddled up siblings names… not to mention colleagues! I used rhymes in my head to try to remember and put effort in to do better the next time.

So as I sit and write this, my first year ever of not having a ‘Back to School’ experience – I can honestly say I miss the puzzle so much!

What I did not realise at the beginning of my career was the power of knowing and connecting with our name and of others honouring it. The story that can unfold, the space our names hold for us, and the power they possess to nurture connection and belonging. As I greeted students with their name, even better if I could pronounce it well, and perhaps even said ‘hello’ in one of their languages – their smile would broaden, their step lighten. The shift in how they presented themselves and responded was the affirmation that this mattered. It meant something to them, it empowered them, they were seen. As I struggled and stumbled and practiced I knew that this is a learning that has an impact; that nurtures connection and builds community.

Inviting our colleagues and students to ‘teach’ us their name is so valuable and I absolutely love the book ‘Tell Teach us Your Name’ by Huda Essa. This uncovered this concept so strongly for me. Since encountering this book, I have shared it with so many colleagues, read it with students and adapted how I approach meeting, greeting and connecting with others. You can find this, along with a few other books below that send a message of affirmation of our names.

Made with Padlet

So to all the teachers, school leaders, indeed anyone, anywhere who meets someone new – be sure to ask them their name. Listen to how it is pronounced and invite them to teach you how to say it. If you make a mistake, ask again, practice and demonstrate how important it is for you to be able to say their name just right. Enter into an introduction with curiosity and wonder. From there, the magic of discovery, connection, and belonging can unfold.

Goals, Habits & Growth

Pick a goal, write it down and commit to it.

Having a goal is part of the learning process, right? It is embedded in our idea of supporting growth, evaluating achievement and encouraging reflection. We need to articulate where we are headed, develop SMART goals and then work towards these with criteria to assess how, and determine when, we achieve our goals. These are all common practices in classrooms to support learners in their growth and development.

The practice of setting goals actively involves learners in connecting their own personal vision to their learning and makes reflection practices purposeful and meaningful to feed forward into their future growth. It helps build connections and encourages ownership and active engagement. Goal-setting also supports identity building and can help build confidence as well as provide learners with opportunities to actively apply and authentically reflect on their self-management skills.

I have recently been working with 5th graders on this process of goal-setting, defining simple goals and figuring out how to work towards achieving them as part of the Second Step social emotional learning curriculum. It has been an interesting process to hear their perspectives on setting goals and how they feel about these. Some learners are inherently driven to work towards their chosen goal, others recognise they might need to embed in some motivators and rewards to help them along the way. Some aim big, others go for small steps and then realise that perhaps they could stretch themselves further than they think.

In parallel to these sessions, I started listening to the book, Atomic Habits by James Clear and it sparked me into thinking how to go about infusing our learning about goal setting in Grade 5 with actually exploring our habits to help us get there; step by step.

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

It has made me really think about the impact habits have on our lives. Given this, I have been wondering how to shift the conversation with Grade 5 learners to explore our habits. How can we initiate some opportunities for learners to reflect upon their habits and explore how these can propel or hinder us into reaching our goals. There are many resources and ideas out there connected to goal setting with students, here are some I have created and collated specifically to connect goal-setting to habits.

Exploring Goals, Habits, and Growth – This resource invites students to tune into what these different terms mean and look like and investigate their own habits!

Capturing Thinking

Capturing thinking about being a mathematician.

How can we best capture and build a picture of where learners are in their knowledge, skills and conceptual understandings? How do we capture thinking? At a time where learning experiences have been so diverse, I have been wondering how to best capture our student’s thinking and develop an understanding of where students are in their individual understanding of a concept. There are a host of tools that help us be able to document and capture thinking moments from our students such as using Visible Thinking Routines, Seesaw and learning portfolios, students recording whiteboard explanations or teaching a strategy. Recording audio responses provide a wonderful way to engage and enable all students to share their ideas. These are all methods through which we can capture the student thinking process.

This podcast below was shared with me recently and so much of it resonated in thinking about student ‘thinking’ in mathematics and literacy.

The importance of listening, really listening, to be able to understand where students are in their thinking and therefore be able to guide them in their next steps. At my current school we have a process of conferring with students individually about their learning in different domains. This enables us to form a picture of where students are as learners, as thinkers – not just what can be checked off as ‘can do’ and ‘can’t do’ but understanding how students come to form their responses creates the opportunity to meaningfully inform next steps in their learning.

“…correct answers can mask confusion, just like incorrect answers can hide understanding. The answer is just the starting place. It’s really how you got to the answer and how you reason that is just as important.”

Marilyn Burns

The question of how time consuming this process is often comes up. Listening to the podcast above just reinforced for me that really being able to support learners to grow must be all about taking the time to get to know them as thinkers, to understand how they are constructing their responses, their thought process. Of course conferring is a process that requires focus, time and space but what could be more important than listening with focus and purpose to understand our students better? Surely this is what impacts learning growth – even better, building strong relationships along the way!

A ‘learning buzz’ in the virtual learning world

I recently wrote about missing the sense of, ‘a learning buzz‘, during these times where many of us have moved to virtual learning spaces. It made me wonder, how can you generate a ‘learning buzz’ in this virtual space? It of course would be fruitless and frustrating to try to copy and paste the same approaches into an online space – context matters and what works in one will not necessarily work in the other. However, whilst the ‘learning buzz’ may not look and feel the same, how would we define this in an online space I wondered? What opportunities might there be? How do we adapt our learning environments?

Learning, teaching and leading in an inquiry based, PYP School, one of our challenges has most definitely been honouring the values of our learning and teaching principles. Despite pressures faced, focusing on our beliefs and values to foster curiosity and inquiry at the heart of our daily approach to learning.

This prompted me to refer to the PYP guidance on creating learning environments and think about the different elements that are defined as going into cultivating these and intentionally exploring how these evolve.

‘PYP learning spaces affect and reflect values and beliefs about learning. They play a role in shaping the culture of the learning community by facilitating certain ways of acting and interacting. They support a constructivist and social-constructivist (Vygotsky 1978) approach to learning and teaching. They are multifunctional, emphasizing personalization of learning, promoting independence and engagement.’

My IB – Connecting pedagogy and design

So how do we nurture that magical ‘learning buzz’ in whatever context we are in?

This diagram shows the elements I believe contribute to enabling a ‘learning buzz’ to flourish and as a way to illustrate what this could look like in a classroom or school community. I use the word ‘enable’ intentionally as this learning buzz is not something any one person can create but from my perspective is about letting this have space to flourish and blossom. Below are some examples I made connections to from experiences during Distance Learning at my School. I would love to know of others that you may have to get further inspiration!

Sense of being ‘me’

Finding space for individuality to be celebrated and to bring community together in an inclusive way is so important. During lockdown we could not run our Home Language Program as usual so we made this into a community event. We created an interactive map of where we feel at home for everyone to anonymously share, shared our languages through poems and sayings and students (and adults if they wanted!) created Language Portraits. This was all done virtually through a live stream assembly and recorded activities and video calls.

Shared Values & Understandings

Making sure to share beliefs and values with community ensures learning is effective, and it can be done in a fun, informative way! We made a series of video clips to remind everyone about online meeting etiquette and created Community fact sheets with our rules and essential agreements reflecting our Community Values in the virtual learning space.

Rituals & Routines

Rituals and routines are part of every learning environment, of every school community; whether it be a morning greeting, check in circle, or roles and responsibilities that are assigned to the class each week. These all form part of a shared classroom culture. In the online space, we saw morning check in circles often replaced with a morning prompt in the chat in MS Teams, a way for everyone to say hello and connect before starting their learning day. Or for the younger grades, a morning video message. I also observed the beauty of new rituals or routines forming – a favourite way to end a call in one of 6th grade classes for example, has now become an embedded ritual for the class to say goodbye!

Teachers found ways to adapt roles of responsibility also in the virtual space, assigning chat moderators in video calls for examples or continuing to use hand signals in video calls to show agreement/disagreement/ connection/questions and so forth. We also tried to keep to our regular school assembly schedule and routines to bring everyone together as part of our regular routine.

Learning Purpose and relevance

Ensuring learning is purposeful, challenging and relevant for all students became ever more complex in a distance learning world where differentiation strategies and the ease of interaction between teachers, students and peers is more challenging. Finding ways to engage in learning with materials and experiences at home, ensuring learning engagements are open ended and encourage further student led inquiry all can help ensure that learning remains purposeful and relevant for the individual. We had great examples with students carrying out science experiments, building machines, testing theories and recording their experiments as learning evidence.

Interaction – Dialogue

Here are some examples of teachers finding ways to promote interaction and dialogue using tools such as Padlet to share in online lessons. We also used Padlet to encourage interaction within our community too, with the song sharing and virtual arts day as some examples!

Fun & Connection

Bringing community together through shared events and having fun together! We celebrated Earth Day, Sports day and other events together and brought a bit of fun to lockdown life. I feel fortunate to work with such a dedicated, fun team!

Love for the Learning Buzz!

What have I missed most over the past months of school life? We have been roller-coasting through school closure – distance learning – hybrid learning – back to school – quarantining – distance learning.

There are many things – but my first reaction was ‘There’s a learning buzz’. 

If I asked you to describe what an optimum learning space looked like when students are engaged in learning, what would you envisage? Would it be students sitting diligently at their desks writing in their notebooks? Would it be quiet? Would it have an atmosphere of excitement? Of calm? Of fun? Of concentration? Of questions? Of noise? Perhaps a whole melange of the above and more!

If I had had to answer this question 20 years ago, I would probably have included adjectives such as calm, hard-working, learning-focused, and organized.  Now, I feel as though I have a completely different answer. In my experience, the classroom that may appear at times bustling, busy, noisy and ‘out of control’, may indeed be the complete opposite.  If you scratch beneath the surface the classroom in which the teacher has most ‘control’ and in which students are the most engaged learners tends to be one where activity is busy, can be chaotic and conversations are fast-paced with questions and ideas flowing.

To clarify – I am not talking about a scene where students are running all over the classroom and the teacher is straining to be heard. No, I am talking about that type of learning buzz that gets noisy, where there is laughter and chatting and everyone is working their own way at their own pace. ‘Classroom management’ and ‘control’ of the classroom are terms that I am not fond of. A classroom space, a learning environment, is not in my opinion one that is best forcibly controlled, but one that is nurtured – a space that allows everyone to stretch their minds, feel safe, and find freedom. This allows students to engage and truly deepen their learning through activity choice, discussion, debate, and reflection of well constructed questions.

Often, when I have visited a physical classroom space just for fifteen minutes, and especially during a time of transition, this provided a wonderful opportunity in just a short space of time to develop an understanding of the particular culture and personality in this classroom. I really do believe that classes form their own distinct personality and develop their unique culture.

In the best cases I observed a hive of activity. So much so that the teacher did not even notice I had joined the classroom. Students were navigating the room focused on routines whilst still chatting about the learning they had just completed. The teacher used a multitude of ways to incorporate reflection, incorporate choice, refocus the students, and all whilst giving students an opportunity to also ‘take a break’. On occasions, when you have the pleasure of visiting a classroom like this, you can feel the cohesiveness of a group and how there truly is a ‘learning buzz’ in the room. 

This is what I have missed the most. It leads me to the question – how do we find ways to develop a community culture and ‘learning buzz’ in online virtual classroom communities?

‘Small Moments’

As we approach the beginning of the new school year it got me thinking about ‘small moments’. Our Writer’s Workshop training has focused us all at BMS on how a story can be created from just a simple ‘small moment’. So much of preparing for the welcoming back to school of our students, teachers and parent community is about communicating ‘the big picture’ and ‘big events’, making a good impression and getting everything ‘right’ (whatever that is!) but it is all the ‘small moments’ which truly matter.

The ‘small moment’ taken to have time for a colleague to chat about organising their new classroom or offering to take a new member of the team for coffee. The ‘small moment’ to listen to a new student and hear their story, to show them their way around the school. The ‘small moment’ of sitting down to lunch together with a colleague we don’t yet know. These are the moments that matter when we are all settling in and finding our way. These are the ‘small moments’ taken to learn about each other which woven together begin to tell the story of a community. This is what creates a climate for exponential learning. These are the small moments that I want to participate in as we start our school year, and I trust that our students, teachers and parent community will write many ‘small moment’ stories together.

Literature Circles: A Powerful Practice to Support Differentiation

Literature Circles. Of all of the practices I introduced as a teacher in the Primary Classroom, I believe this to have been the most powerful. For me, literature has the power to connect us all beyond age, nationality, language, culture, religion or gender and also has the power to provoke thoughts and opinions that lay the foundations for a much deeper understanding. Stories are the way in which we begin to make sense of the world, and literature circles provide a framework through which we can support our students in discussing and sharing their opinions in order to be able to develop deeper understandings.

So, given my enthusiasm for Literature Circles I was delighted to have an opportunity to share this practice with teachers during our recent professional development days at Berlin Metropolitan School. We ran 17 teacher-led workshops in total, that teachers from ElC, Primary and Secondary could sign up to attend, and also our CCEP ( Co Curricula Education Program) educators joined in to both offer and attend workshops.

The theme for our professional Development Days was ´An Inclusive Culture of Learning´ and focused upon differentiation in the classroom. This was the perfect forum for discussing Literature Circles, as indeed, one of the elements as an international educator in a multilingual classroom that I found most appealing when I was first introduced to the practice of Literature Circles, was that they allowed for natural and authentic differentiation for all learners.

The presentation for this session outlining how Literature Circles can support differentiation can be found  by clicking on the link below. by emaze

Sharing Literature Circles with such a diverse group of teachers generated a great deal of interesting discussion and suggestions about how we can implement these at our school.  Teachers came with a variety of experiences of Literature Circles and from working with students from a range of ages. What struck me most was how this framework can function for our youngest students right the way through to our oldest learners. I love the flexibility they allow, and left the session posing questions about how we could transfer this structure to other disciplines or subject areas perhaps, or even work in a bilingual framework. I am looking forward to seeing what interesting ideas our innovative teaching team develop to support deep learning for our students of all ages and abilities through use of Literature Circles as a framework.

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The True Value of Student-led Portfolio Conferencing

2014-04-16 11.23.52I was first introduced to the concept of a student-led portfolio conference many years ago, and quickly became a strong advocate for their use as part of any effective reporting and assessment practice within a school. For further information about student-led portfolio conferences please have a look at the links below:

Student-led Portfolio Conference prezi

Blendspace lesson link: Student-led Portfolio Conferences

The whole process of student-led portfolio conferencing just made complete sense to me from the very beginning, and so I am always taken aback when educators around me require a great deal of convincing into their value and effectiveness as part of the learning process. In the world we live in today, in order to be successful, we must become extremely self-reflective and able to self-regulate and evaluate.

Now, I could list the many valid reasons as to why this type of conferencing has a positive educational impact upon learners, however, following our recent ‘Portfolio Conference Day’ at ISM I was reminded as to the fact there is one over-arching reason to value these:

learner pride = sense of fulfilment

For anyone, at any age, I would argue that pride and feeling valued are crucial in gaining a sense of fulfilment as a learner. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want all learners to feel and achieve? No matter what ‘level’ or ‘grade’ or ‘score’, learning to learn, motivation to learn and gaining fulfilment or feeling proud, is essentially what we should aspire to enable all our students to gain.

Student-led portfolio conferences facilitate young learners in developing crucial life long skills of self-reflecting and communicating effectively. The conference does so in a way in which the learner is encouraged to:

  • feel valued to have those most important to them take time to sit down and listen
  • meet in a space where they can be the ‘leader’ and feel confident
  • exhibit pride in their learning progress
  • find value in, and be encouraged to learn from their mistakes
  • share personal goals in their learning.

Some of the comments by students following our conferences, reinforced for me just how valuable these conference are.

“I felt proud of myself and I also felt quite confident.”

“I’m happy looking back at all my old work and seeing how have improved since then.”

“I felt smart, important and proud.”

“I think my parents enjoyed listening to me show them my work.”

(Year 6 student reflections on their conferences.)

For me, learner pride & fulfilment are the true value of student-led portfolio conferences.