Posted in Why Unlearn?

What do we need to let go of?

letting go

With a new school year comes another year of professional learning.  I am super lucky to be a part of a group of teachers at my school who are embarking on a second year of unlearning together.  Last year my Principal, myself and four other teachers met almost every three weeks to talk about school and the need for change.  We had some really great discussion, some disagreements and some aha moments. It was amazing to have a safe place to share ideas and not feel judged.  Amazing things happened in classrooms as a result of our time together. If you are interested in seeing / reading about some of the other teachers experiences / unlearning journeys you can check out The Stoppels Show blog or Jess Packer-Quinnel on Twitter and Liz Coolen on Instagram.  

This year I am privileged to continue working with the group above, but am also lucky to get to work with a new group of teachers who are interested in learning more about community based learning.  There has been a huge push in our board to make learning more experiential so this year our professional learning teams are called the XLPLT (experiential professional learning team).  

We had our first meeting a week ago to talk about what the XLPLT was all about.  My Principal went over what we did last year and what we hope to do this year. He asked me and the others from last year’s team to talk a little bit about what we are doing in my classes.  We also spoke about the journey that the teachers in our PLT took to get to where they are today. It really made me reflect on my past PD experiences and what is necessary to let go of in order to completely change up your practice.

I have done a lot of PD over the past 17 years.  I worked on a PLT that focused on critical thinking, I worked on a PLT that looked at engagement of at risk students, I participated in lesson studies and I attended numerous workshops on how to make my lessons better.  All of these have been very important in my growth as a teacher. I learned a lot by working with my colleagues and found great ways to change up lessons and to embed critical thinking and engagement into my practice. However, what they didn’t really look at was the structure of the traditional education system and how it is outdated, systemically racist, focused on preparing students for a work world that doesn’t exist anymore and not preparing our students for their future.  

In this years XLPLT we are obviously interested in finding ways to have our students become critical thinkers and engaged, but more importantly we are more excited about how to change up our classrooms so that they reflect the modern world.  So, what are the things that a teacher needs to do in order to make this happen? Below is what I have come up with.

  1. Understand why this change needs to happen – more specifically understanding your WHY for doing it.
  2. Let go of control.  
  3. See students as partners.  Give them a say in what and how they learn.
  4. Realize that learning can happen differently than what we know school to be – and value that learning just as much.
  5. Let go of hierarchy and grades – see the brilliance in everyone.
  6. Embrace failures, reflect and learn from them.
  7. Connect learning to community.
  8. Focus on teaching / using 21st century technology.
  9. Have students become creators rather than consumers.

This is not an easy task, but by looking at the work that they are doing at Beaver County Day School in Massachusetts, it is possible.  Check it out here Why ‘Unlearning’ Old Habits Is An Essential Step For Innovation  However, closer to home it is evident that it is possible too.  After about 8 months of working together on our Unlearning PLT I interviewed the team on what unlearning meant to them.  Here are their answers.  

So, what will it take for you to make the change, what is your WHY?

Thanks for unlearning with us 🙂

R

Posted in Classroom Examples, Why Unlearn?

Are exams relevant anymore?

Today’s classroom        vs    Today’s workplace

If 21st Century Competency Skills are leaning towards the 4Cs should we get rid of exams?

At the end of each course in Ontario high schools students have to complete a summative task that is worth approximately 30% of their final mark.  Traditionally this included a culminating task for the course and a final exam. Up until about four years ago I abided by this summative task and had my students complete a traditional summative and exam.  However, unknowingly to me, my unlearning journey had begun and we made a shift from traditional tasks to more reflective tasks in the traditional model. My students still did their summative and exam but it became a time for reflection that was assessed on their ability to do just that – not what they knew about the course material. Fortunately for me a few years ago teachers were given the greenlight to use their professional judgement and decide what we saw fit for a summative task for our courses. As I continued to unlearn I didn’t think that testing my students on the course content really worked well with what academics were suggesting were 21st century competency skills The 4Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.  Many will argue that if we don’t test and give students exams they will not be prepared for University – I call BS on that.  I argue that if we teach the students skills and to be lifelong learners they will be able to do anything, including taking tests if they have to.  So last year we scrapped the exam completely and moved onto what we call Exit Outcome reflections and the Social Science Fair instead of a traditional exam. For those interested I will explain what we do below :).  

21st-Century-Skills-4-Cs-graphic

Summative Task Part I – Course Reflection

In the first part of the summative task students reflect on their experience in the course (what they are proud of, what they learned, favourite experience, challenges and failures) and the OCDSB Exit Outcomes.  The Exit Outcomes are five characteristics (Collaborative, Globally Aware, Goal-oriented, Innovative/Creative, Resilient) and five skills (Academically Diverse, Critical Thinkers, Digitally Fluent, Effective Communicators, Ethical Decision-makers) that our board is trying to develop in every student. They are expected to provide examples from course material, experiences and from their personal research to showcase all of the above.  They are assessed on their ability to truly reflect and provide examples. I love reading their reflections, to me this is way more valuable than having them write an exam on only course material. It gives them an opportunity to understand the process and really look at the importance of these skills. I know that ever since we have started to define and understand these characteristics and skills in our classroom it has made me think about how I am working on them as well.  It really gives the students an understanding of WHY we are doing what we are doing and hopefully trickles out of our classroom into their daily lives as well. Students can reflect any way that they want. This past semester I had written responses, mind maps, vlogs and podcasts – I am open to any way they see fit. Below are some examples of the amazing and honest answers from the reflections.
First year unlearners

I failed big time in this course, but I failed forward and I learned a lot more than I thought I would. I learned that it’s ok to fail and its ok to not succeed in everything as long as you learn from it and fix it for next time. I learned that it’s ok to put yourself out there even if people don’t answer which is something that I had a lot of trouble with. I was very scared to reach out and ask for help because there is always the risk of failure and the fact that they might not answer but that is ok.   (KO)

My biggest takeaway from the inquiries was that everyone needs help, the level of help will differ from person to person but so will the ability to ask. People all over the world need help, whether that be because they are hungry, homeless or just need to start a conversation. I also learned that even as grade 10 students we can still make a difference. Obviously we won’t be able to end homelessness overnight but just becoming educated on the subject is a start too changing the issue. (EA)

Through the semester I also learned a lot about who I am as a learner and how hard it is for me to learn independently. I’ve had to learn how to unlearn and while trying to do that I learned a lot about myself and how difficult I found it to focus and stay on task. I’ve learned how talkative I can be and how mark oriented I am and that affected my overall performance but it did help me self reflect in learn new things about myself. (MSS)

Second year unlearners

I will continue to be a moonshot thinker by continuing to believe that nothing is out of reach, to think outside of the box, and to not be afraid to try out new things, because doing all of these things will result in growth. I will choose to be bothered by problems so that I can one day find a solution to the problem. By doing this, I might one day be able to accomplish something that will change the world, because if I believe that I can make it happen, then it will happen. (KV)

 
Third year unlearners

It has been a challenge to unlearn, we are used to learning in one way but now we are asked to do it differently.  I am a bookworm and I like to follow rules and in here we are breaking them and bending them. (ME)
To say it’s been a wild ride would be an understatement, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to take over six of Mrs. Chambers classes. My first class was grade 10 history when I started out I was just your average student, I knew how to work the system; you give me the work, tell me how you want it done and I’ll get it done just as you asked. The school system had killed any and all creativity inside of me. One day, Mrs. Chambers posed the question “What do you want to learn?” I had no idea how to respond to a question as absurd as that. Impressed at her perseverance and determination; she had finally cracked me. It was a long process filled with more failures than success. I needed to learn how to unlearn. The student I was in that grade 10 history is a completely different student you see today. I don’t need to be told what and how to learn, I have my own ideas, passions and goals for my education. Since beginning this process I have had the opportunity to be able to share my story of how I learned to unlearn with other educators. While speaking to them more often than not I am asked “What about the days you don’t do any work?” I respond with not everyday can be a great day, there are days I am motivated and others where I can’t bring myself to do any work, but it is the exact same if I were to be in a regular classroom. You could give a worksheet and if it’s a day where I’m unmotivated odds are that worksheet is going in my bag and won’t see the light of day until the end of year when I clean out my bag. There have been so many ups and downs and I’m grateful for every up and every down as it has allowed me to grow as a person and only better myself. I think one of the biggest challenges for everyone is not giving up. It’s so easy to quit when things don’t go your way, to give in to the people who want to see you fail. Fail 8 times, get up 9. We are a great group of individuals; each motivated to accomplish a variety of different goals and Mrs. Chambers has been there the entire time, guiding us and shaping us to be successful.  (RM)

 
Summative Task Part II – Social Science Fair

In the second part of the summative task students are asked to come up with a conversation piece that represents their journey throughout the semester that they will present at a drop in style Social Science Fair.  The class invited prominent people from the community, our board, parents and pretty much anyone who would listen to them. The guidelines are fairly open but it is suggested that they incorporate the Exit Outcomes, their inquiries / research, course content, genius hour and class activities – ultimately anything they would like to showcase and explain to anyone who comes to see them.  The only mandatory rule is that they are NOT allowed to do anything traditional like a poster or a powerpoint. We have done this for the last year and half and it has been amazing.

While an exam is a good way to see what students know about a course, I truly believe that giving the students a place to reflect and showcase their learning is of equal importance if not more than an exam.   It allows them to connect with the community, it is a place for students to have a voice and be heard, to share their passions, to share their failures and successes, to get a chance to explain something more than once so that get it right, to engage in meaningful conversations and finally to network.  At our first Social Science Fair one of my students was offered a summer position with the local councilor and another was approached to do some work in social media.

Here are few things that the students had to say about it:

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I think it was really cool to be able to show adults that teenagers are more than just lazy and that when we’re actually interested in something we will come up with amazing ideas.

The fair was awesome! I talked to a lot of people and informed a lot of people about what we learned and how we incorporated the exit outcomes. My favourite part was seeing everybody else’s summative and seeing my peers interacts with others. I learned that there are a lot of people who care about what high school children have to say.

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I really enjoyed it, it was an eye-opening experience none like anything I’ve ever been to before. My favourite part was seeing how interested some guests were in what I had to say. I learnt a lot, it made me better at communicated my ideas since I received feedback and gots lot of practice.

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I really enjoyed the Inquiry fair. I thought that everyone did a good job, lots of cool projects. My favourite part was when I got to meet the mayor and talked to him about my school. But I’d say my favourite part was when I got a job offer with Jan Harder. I was talking to her about my plans next year going into urban planning and she told me that she was the chair of the planning committee for the city of Ottawa. She gave me her contact information and told me that she could probably get me a job next summer in the planning department at the city of Ottawa.

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I think that it went really well, at first it was a little difficult to really communicate what I wanted to say but then after a few attempts and practice rounds it went well. Something that I found was that people were actually interested in what I had to say which really surprised me a lot! Once I started talking, people were getting really excited and engaged about what I had to say and they were really interested in what I learned. I think that my favorite part of the social science fair is the fact that I was able to showcase all that I have learned and the things that I have gotten out of this course into one big project and the fact that I could share it with the community instead of just our classroom and some random people on social media. I thought it was a good way to learn how to communicate your ideas and thoughts out in an interesting and innovative way that will engage people in the community.

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I was super nervous about having to talk to people, and show my summative to all these adults (especially Jim Watson). I think it was because I think of ALL adults as my superiors and they’re smarter, and what if I mess up, and look stupid. (STRESS) But once I started talking it got a lot easier and It just flowed . But overall I actually enjoyed myself more than I thought I would. I think I could say that I learned that putting yourself out there a little bit is always hard, but it’s gratifying as well, because people were very impressed with my work and gave me a lot of compliments (which was nice). I also learned not to stress out as much because even if you make mistakes people are understanding and it’s not the end of the world (even when you mess up your words in front of the mayor). The people that came and listened really seemed genuinely interested in my summative and asked some really good questions, and I enjoyed looking at other peoples projects.
Thanks for unlearning with us 🙂

 

R

Posted in Classroom Examples

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Unlearning.

learning from failure
At the end of last semester, we tried something new out in our classroom. I wanted to give the students the opportunity to really own their learning.  I asked them, what do you want to learn, how do you want to learn it and once you have acquired the knowledge what will you do with it?  We sat down, created action plans and wrote them up on the wall. They were given two weeks to work on it and I checked in with them every few days to see where they were at and helped coach them if they needed it.  During the process, I was convinced that they were doing absolutely NOTHING and I was very uncomfortable. BUT to my surprise on the show and tell day they amazed me with what they had done. We had a workshop on the stock market, a TED Talk comedy routine and some really great discussions.  As a result, I was super excited for what this meant for my next semester class. I decided that my new class would look like this…

Grade 12 University World Issues

GOALS – Over the semester I hope that they will learn – self regulation, self-motivation, time management, empathy, resilience, perseverance, communication skills, self-advocacy, project management, social media skills, exposure to Sustainable Development Goal’s, doing things with purpose, passion.

Over the entire semester, they are to work on six things in total.  Some of them were non-negotiable but 4 / 6 of them were up to them.  The goal would be that we would have one – two days a week for students who wanted to lead discussions or debates.  The other days would be work periods or field trips and/or activities. The expectation was that they would work on all of their chosen individual/group projects over the semester.  They were expected to tweet about what they were doing on a regular basis so that I can see what they were working on and reflect on their connections to the SDG’s via a google form. Below was the initial layout for the course.

  1. Bring in as many guests as possible to expose students to issues related to the SDG’s
  2. Watch documentaries to fill in the gaps
  3. Create Action plans that would evolve over the semester
  4. Create a project list that included 6 projects:
    1. Action Plan
    2. Twitter
    3. Genius Hour
    4. Social Science Fair
    5. Other
    6. Other

At the beginning of the semester, I was super pumped and ready to try this out.  I was feeling confident and was ready. We started out by bringing all sorts of guests in, watching documentaries and learning all about World Issues…# 1 on my list was checked off = success.  Then it was time to get going on the next part of my plan. I sat with each student and we created an action plan for them using the same questions as above: What do you want to learn, how are you going to learn it and once you have learned it what will you do with the information.  Once again success and check……So then it was time to let go and let them learn…..this is when it got really uncomfortable for me as a teacher. Here are some of the issues and concerns that we are working on as we make our way through the semester

1. Students are lacking in their ability to self-regulate, can be unmotivated and are doing nothing.

This one is the toughest one yet.  There are days where students are doing nothing because they have so much freedom or are not quite sure what their next steps are.  There are very few students that have the confidence or ability to do stuff on their own. I have an amazing class and have got to know my students really well – each one of them is capable of amazing things, but why can’t they do it without the constant support of the teacher?  Even though I am always on edge and struggle with the fact they are not doing anything, I think they need to be given the opportunity to fail and recognize what and how they can do better. In my opinion, once they achieve success on their own this will build their confidence and hopefully inspire them to take more initiative the next time.

2. There is only one of me and 24  of them – how do I support each of them?

In my student’s defence, I totally get that sometimes they do need me.  This is also another huge struggle that I have. If we are to allow for personalized learning, it is so important that we have enough coaches and mentors in the room for students to bounce their ideas off of and give them the permission that they need to move forward.  My goal for next year is to open up my classroom to as many student teachers as possible and volunteers and assign mentors and coaches to each student.

3. How am I going to keep track of all of them?

This is by far the area that  I have failed the most at.  This continues to be a work in progress.  First and foremost I use Twitter, it has been a great way for me to see what they are doing as well as engage them in discussion related to the curriculum.  This has been my most successful way of tracking each of them but still has its limits. I have also tried putting them into groups so that we can chat about all of their projects and work on giving each other advice, this worked well for many of them.  For some reason, I have stopped doing this and am realizing that I should continue this. I have had students fill out reflections twice in the first half of the semester and have realized that they need to be doing this more often so that they can really look at what they have or haven’t done. And finally, I try to have meetings with students as much as I can to help keep them on track and give suggestions on what they are doing. This part of the unlearning process is very messy and I am often extremely frustrated. Today we started a new form of tracking in journals, they are going to answer weekly questions that look at what they did the past week and what they are going to do the next week…fingers crossed this one works out!! 

4. How am I going to mark this?

As mentioned the most successful thing that I use for tracking is Twitter.  At the beginning of the course, I showed them the Twitter expectations (rubric) and we created a Twitter checklist for them.  I try to give them feedback on their Twitter feed weekly – biweekly and give them a mark according to the rubric. I have also started assessing their reflections.  The most important part of all of this for me is the process. I want to see that they are setting goals, following through and reflecting on the successes and failures.  We have a reflection rubric that I used for the first part of the semester and I will continue to use it more frequently for the second half of the semester when looking through their journals.

On the flip side here are the amazing things that are happening as a result of letting them do what they want to do.  

Two students are arranging to get people to the blood bank to donate blood.

One student visited and participated in a community cooking session.  Inspired by this he raised over $200 for the Parkdale Food Centre and we are headed there next week to cook together and package the food to stock their freezers.

Five students have paired up with Blue Sky School to work with students who are middle school age on their projects.

Two students are leading monthly debates about different world issues.

About half the class has signed up to lead discussions related to the SDG’s.

Two students are figuring out how to start a podcast and have recorded their first episode on gender inequality in sport.

We have a yoga instructor coming in to lead our class as a result of one the students looking at Mental Health.

We have started a weekly podcast which has really made them step up and has given me another place to hear about what they are working on.

So there are nights that I question what I am doing, there are days where I lose my cool in class and there are many times I want to give up.  But I am dedicated and passionate about making this change so I will do as I preach, I will fail, learn and get better.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Cheers, R