New issue of Weve available!

Weve is one of the publications I mentioned in my recent post about professional reading, so I’m thrilled to have been invited to contribute to the latest edition!
This challenged, stretched, excited and frightened me, all at the same time! I’m so proud of stepping outside of my comfort zone and creating something new. I’ve always been a words girl, so parsing my words right back and selecting just the right ones with the right images to express my thoughts was definitely moving beyond comfort. I enjoyed the brainstorming that went along with this immensely! Thank you, Sally and Megan for inviting me to do this, and then actually using my little movie!

Heroes Mingle

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Learning Inquiry Part 6 – What does it all mean??

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Image used with CC license

This is the culmination of a truly amazing journey of learning for those of us involved! Today I conclude the series Leon and I first discussed writing at the beginning of this term.  I have loved working with him, wrestling with the questions the process threw up and celebrating the exciting outcomes for both us and the students. What follows is Leon’s reflection of his year with his 9 Homeroom boys and then a piece by Robyn Laidlaw, Head of the Alternative Pathways who describes her insight into this whole process.


 

I have had some interesting conversations over the course of my inquiry this year. I have more questions than I have found answers to and the waters are still very murky for me around guided inquiry.

One of those recent thought-provoking conversations was with a colleague around the inquiry approach which led to the question, “Do I think that children should be able to choose their own topic for inquiry?” My initial answer was yes, as this is one way you know you will have engagement from students as the topic is of interest to them. The challenge to my thinking came with a further question, “Well what if a student was to go through school only ever wanting to learn about motorbikes?”

This got me thinking.  How do we as educators introduce them to important topics in a way that sparks interest and potentially passion, which could then lead to them becoming invested in their learning? I have never met a student who has come to me wanting to know about the Treaty of Waitangi but is that because I haven’t introduced it in a way that is fresh and relevant for them?

I thought the process of inquiry, learning how to be a good researcher, was the really important stuff. For me, it became about the skill-set developed along the way far out weighing the knowledge gained. But then how does a young person aged 11 0r 12 truly know what their real passion is if they have only been exposed to a limited amount of life skills and subject matter? How does a student know whether they’re passionate about say, art, if they’ve never been exposed to it? Creating the right balance of knowledge versus skills is crucial in reaching this important equation.

As teachers we need to ensure our students are exposed to a range of experiences in the hope we can create an environment in which they can truly find their life’s calling. This is a different journey for each of us and it doesn’t happen always happen during the short years at secondary school. I know I didn’t find mine till I was 30. I’m reminded of something I heard someone say once, “some of the most interesting people I’ve met had no idea what they really wanted to do by the age of 30, 40 or even 50!”, so why would all our students experience that epiphany while they’re with us?? …… IT’S OKAY IF THEY DON’T!

On the positive side of the equation, using our library’s learning space and collaborating with our learning resource staff has been an integral part of us being able to successfully carry out our inquiry. Firstly, the physical space and the resources that were readily available to us made it easy for the students to work however it suited them for the task. They could find space to work independently or in groups. They had access to computers as well as the wide range of reference material to aid them on their journey. And they had access to a knowledgeable and approachable librarian. It was a perfect working environment to meet the needs of the learner.

Collaborating with Senga and her staff was also critical to our inquiry. The combination of the right environment, the right resources and the right people in a library is absolutely crucial to success.  As I have mentioned previously, the library had never been a positive experience for me due to my own arrogance! Senga was able to show us how our library space could be used to enrich what we were doing in the classroom. I had a number of conversations with her around the guided inquiry process and she was able to steer me in the right direction to find answers on the many occasions where I felt completely lost!

Working with our library staff enabled students to access a wide range of information in our library that I never even new existed. Not only resources and texts we had on site but also external, digital sources of information. If you are thinking of heading down the inquiry road I would definitely recommend your first stop to be your school’s library!

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Jigsaw CC License

Some things I know for sure

  • Guided inquiry is the way forward to encourage life-long learners who have the skills to be whatever they want to be 
  • Levels of engagement noticeably improved in my classroom as students felt like they had more control over their learning
  • Students were happy to be assessed for their work as they got to show their learning in ways that were fun for them
  • Students had a real sense of direction due to the co-construction of a timeline and criteria. This meant that everyone knew what the targets were and how they could achieve excellence marks (although this did not happen for all!)
  • Students loved the freedom of learning in their own time, at their own pace and being trusted to carry out tasks along the way. This is how I operate best. I have spent many hours pouring over planning and reports in the same manner. I know when things are due, but I usually procrastinate till the last minute, or I will take regular breaks to listen to music, go outside, chat to others or find any excuse to avoid what needs done. But in the end my tasks are completed on time and if not I only have myself to blame! Surely this should apply to our students to some degree…… after all, it’s how the world works! However, I also believe that putting small goals and checkpoints along the way is essential so that students learn those time management skills that are necessary in today’s workforce

Things I still need to know

  • Far too many to list!
  • What does a real Guided Inquiry look like in practise?
  • How do you deal with those students that just seem to be reluctant towards learning?
  • What else can I do to meet the needs of individual learners?
  • How do I make this approach fit within our school’s assessment system?
  • How do I bring in a Bi/Multicultural approach to Inquiry?
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Wooden Jigsaw CC License

Our research & learning co-ordinator put it in words that made sense. It’s like I have started a puzzle and have filled in the border. That was the easy part. Now I have to fill in the pieces in the middle, which is where the real challenge begins.

It would be very easy to go back to the safety of what I know and muddle through as I have done since the beginning of my career. However, having seen that glimmer of light though, I don’t think I would be doing myself or the profession any justice. I know there is massive hard work to come. I only hope that others take the challenge and also have courage to begin looking at teaching in this way. As we all know, it is much easier to paddle the waka when you are not the only one on the oar!

Thanks for those that have taken the time to read my reflections and rants, and I welcome any ideas or feedback moving forward. Finally, I leave you with a couple of quotes:

“Our whole reason for showing up for school has changed, but infrastructure has stayed behind”

“The less educators try to control what kids learn, the more students’ voices will be heard and, eventually, their ability to drive their own learning.”

Source Unknown

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Punctuation Jigsaw CC License

It is a privilege to sit and write this reflection. I am the current Head of the Alternative Pathways Department at Southland Boys’ High School. As the name suggests, our department runs a little differently from a traditional mainstream system in that our teachers are with their classes 80% of the school day. We have found at our school there is around 10% of our students who require more time with one teacher rather than the traditional 5-6 teachers in one day.

Our boys are likely to have lower literacy and numeracy levels, they could have home-life issues and some have multiple agency involvement in their out-of-school life, so these boys need a different approach to teaching.

The teachers in our department are a very special breed. They are the kind of teachers you would hope all students could have access to. Earlier in the year Leon assessed his group and decided to run with an inquiry approach in his classroom.

For me, as the head of this department, this has been an excellent step for Alt. Pathways. We know traditional teaching doesn’t work of our boys. We know they need to move more, they need to access all their senses to learn and using an inquiry approach allows this to happen.

I observed the class while Leon led the boys through their first inquiry. They have been engaged, they have been problem-solving, they have been taking their own learning to places that may not have been thought of in a traditional unit plan.  The boys have been given the right to develop their own questions and to find the answers. They have discovered there are often no single answers only more questions. In my opinion it has been a very successful journey.

So what does it mean for me?

  • It means we have boys wanting to be in class – less attendance issues
  • It means we have engaged learners – little to no behaviour management required
  • It means our assessment data is authentic – no prescribed ‘tests’ to show progress

Setting out on an inquiry is not for those faint of heart. I would only suggest this to other heads of departments if you have faith in your teachers. They need to be very good classroom managers, they need to have great organisational skills and they need to have a well developed system for tracking students progress throughout this process. They also need to be able to ‘let go’ of what has been seen traditionally as ‘good practice’. Students engaged in work can be noisy and messy and it doesn’t always mean sitting at a desk writing stuff down.

Having a supportive and informed librarian has helped in this process immensely. For my staff to be able to go to one person and one place to receive positive and timely support is so very important. In Leon’s journey he had that support from Senga and they in turn encouraged other like-minded teachers to also become involved. This gave Leon a base of teaching staff across departments that both he and the boys could go to throughout the inquiry.  A team approach is vital and our library staff are part of the teaching and learning team.

For our boys this has been an effective way to work through a term’s work. I congratulate Leon for his foresight and thank Senga for her support.

 

Inquiry Learning Part 4: The Gold Nugget in the Tricky Stuff

Inquiry

Here comes part four in our inquiry series.  Leon shares his concerns about the process, how students reacted to the new learning structure and what he learned because of it.  If you’d like to you can catch up here, here and here.

As I’ve already alluded to, there were definitely some stumbling blocks along the way with our guided inquiry. There were many times when I felt like I needed to intervene as I became concerned about the amount of work the boys were producing. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them take ownership of their learning process, which was the hardest thing for me to do as it goes against every fibre of my being!

There were two students who constantly missed deadlines and never seemed to be on task. I had conversations with them around the importance of meeting deadlines, self management strategies and how this work would make up a large part of their final assessment for the year.  Following each conversation they would “pick up their game” for a short period of time but seemed unable to sustain it.

I asked myself why. What was I missing? They told me they were enjoying the topic and found it interesting but I was worried they were they just telling me what I wanted to hear. Was it because this new way of learning was taking more time to settle into it? Were my expectations of them too high? Was it the lack of perceived structure to the lessons and my approach to teaching?  Was the work beyond them?  I spent considerable time locked with my thoughts, trying to make sense of my questions, while wrestling with whether I should punish them for failing to meet deadlines and failure to submit work.

In the midst of grappling with this I finally snapped! I took them both aside and gave them a right grilling about their work ethic and how little they had achieved in two terms. I continued by pointing out they appeared to have learned nothing and wasted almost half a year.

Hold on to your hats, this is the awesome part!  Their response to this was that they had learned something and they then proceeded to tell me about what happens when you ingest unhealthy amounts of sugar and the effects this has on the body.

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Flickr CC 

The light went on for me and I started probing them further for more information. They could describe what happens when sugar enters the blood stream, how it affects our organs, and the difference between eating whole fruit and just drinking juice and that we need the fibre from the fruit to help get rid of the glucose. Both talked about having sugar highs and lows and how it impacts your thinking. The discussion was awesome!

This led me to an epiphany of sorts around my pedagogy. These boys may not have followed  “the rules” we had set out as a class at the beginning of the process but they had definitely absorbed the information, synthesised it and had even formed more questions to continue the investigation. Was this not the point of what we were doing? Not all students research and process information the same way and here was the evidence.

Yes there were a lot of times along the way where I felt like I wasn’t really ‘teaching’, rather standing back and letting them go. To begin with this felt lazy to me.  I worried every time someone walked into my room they would be judging me for what looked like lack of control and sometimes utter chaos. 

However, this job of teaching isn’t about me and how I look.  It isn’t about having total control over students.  To a certain degree, it isn’t even about the content of what they learn. To me, teaching is about the HOW they learn. Sure, I can impart knowledge and go over and over facts, figures and strategies, hoping that it sticks, but I have done this to death. The big thing I have come to realise is that it’s all about the skills they learn to become self-regulated learners. How I can motivate and give them the tools to become life-long learners.

The other great thing I realised is the importance of collaboration.  I’m very lucky to be working in a big school where so many were willing to help us on our journey. This would never have been possible without the input of other staff. I have to say a massive thank you to Senga, our Research & Learning Coordinator who showed us how to research, record and present our findings and thinking along the way.  I’m that guy who never really spent much time in a library because for me, it was never cool to be there when I was at school.  So it’s only now I fully appreciate the massive resource it has become for me. 

 As teachers it is easy to get so wrapped up in our own classroom with our own students and exist in our bubble, doing what we do and protecting our realm, hidden away from others. 

I am still learning
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 Through this I have learned that opening up and asking for help is not a bad thing.  In fact it’s actually a wonderful thing! I have learned more in the past two terms about how learners learn than I have in the previous eight years. Now I welcome anyone into my classroom to help, share or critique my professional practise. I do not view this as criticism.  I see it as a chance for me to grow as a teacher and provide extra opportunities for my students as they benefit from the perspective of others. 

 I am still only in the beginnings of my inquiry journey but see the massive benefits this approach has on learning. I am determined to continue on this path. I will allow myself to feel okay about the mistakes I have made along the way as we have all learned because of them and they’ve allowed me to move forward. 

Next week   Leon will share some of the students reflections about their inquiry journey this year.

Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize 2015

CC Flickr Image

I am super excited for and very proud of my good friend Tania Lineham, Head of Science at James Hargest College, who has just been awarded the very prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize for 2015.  Tania is one of the most innovative, passionate and hard working teachers I’ve had the privilege of working with. (Huge emphasis on passionate!)

That in itself is more than enough reason for me to give her public accolade, however having just listened to Tania’s interview on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon Show on RNZ National aired this morning, I felt compelled to share it with my librarian and teacher friends.

During this short 7 minute interview Tania talks about:

  • separating science fact from science fiction
  • fostering critical analysis and scientific literacy
  • developing critical thinking tools
  • evaluating information, including the sources information comes from
  • identifying reliable websites
  • embedding digital citizenship

Any of this sound familiar? Are these the topics of conversations we have in our libraries? Or if not, are they the types of conversations we’d like to have with our teaching colleagues or should be having with our librarian colleagues?  These skills, among others are opening topics of conversations in which both teachers and librarians have things to share with each other

Tania has been and will always remain one of my flock-mates. She is a strong collaborator and we had many professional discussions when we worked together which really inspired me in my role as a co-educator.  Well done my friend.  It is richly deserved. (and the piccy at the top is just for you)

Inquiry Learning Part 2: The Approach

Here is instalment two of our inquiry journey where Leon describes the approaches taken. If you want to know why we began this journey, you can read about it here.

Before throwing myself into the unknown, I had to learn about the process of inquiry. I had previously had many conversations with our librarian, Senga about Inquiry Learning but had always made excuses that I was too busy to make this happen in my room.  Looking back, I now realise I was scared to give away power and too proud to acknowledge that I didn’t have all the answers. (Told you I was a control freak!)

I knew that if this was to work I would have to acquire help from others. This would also mean opening up my classroom and putting my practise under scrutiny.

Two books I read which were to become my bibles were:
Creating Learner Centred Primary Classroom Guided Inquiry DesignCreating a Learner-centred Primary Classroom by Kath Murdoch & Jeni Wilson and Guided Inquiry Design: a Framework for Inquiry in Your School by Carol Kahlyhau, Leslie Maniotes & Ann Caspari. 

These gave me some foundation and ideas to move forward.

 I realised that I really did not understand what good research looked like, nor did I have the skills to teach them to my students. This is where our school Research & Learning Coordinator Senga became the first big piece of putting this puzzle together. My students and I met with her for several sessions where we learned how to research in books and online, how to synthesise important information and take notes, and reference our sources of information.

Dot Jot LDN ExampleLDN 9Home NotetakingMy students had never gone through the Inquiry process before so we decided to all explore the same topic. We had  already worked on a unit around healthy eating and so decided to look at sugar in foods and whether all the hype in the media had any substance.

Our literacy sessions involved in-depth analysis of research we had found and we also watched movies such as Supersize Me, The 200kg Kid, That Sugar Film, and Fed Up. Inquiry 2 Fed Up

I quickly realised this was becoming massive! There were millions of questions that we were losing track of and we would need help from experts to find answers.  

We decided we would brainstorm a list of people we may need to call on for help and the “Wonderwall” was born!

Wonderwall

The Wonderwall is our dumping ground for questions that that arise during research.  We had sticky notes available at all times to write questions. Everyone answered each other’s questions as they came across relevant information.

9Home working

We approached staff members as experts to work with us and a great group of people got on board, prepared to help at any time. We already had access to a great research person from our library, who was also very good giving us ideas and resources for documenting our journey.  She was joined by a scientist, a P.E. specialist, a leader of learning, an English major with exceptional skill in photography and video, an Alternative Pathways teacher who the students have great respect for and a Mathematician & Physics teacher with a passion for teaching. This would become a great starting group to get things rolling.

Formative Assessments: Our Compass for Understanding Affective, Cognitive, and Physical Aspects of Information Search Processes

I have been a huge admirer of Buffy Hamilton’s work for a number of years, and as I venture further into collaborative planning and teaching with my staff it makes more and more sense.

I love her concept of Birds of a Feather searching groups. I also like her concept for pre-research/search mapping. In my experience this is an area in the research process that doesn’t have enough time allocated to it. Having visual maps and scaffolds helps to give it due credence. I also love the “ticket out the door” method of getting students to reflect on the period of work they’ve just completed. It also gives opportunities for more targeted interventions as required.

I encourage you to read this meaty post if you are:
1. following my posts about teacher librarian collaboration
2. interested in the Guided Inquiry process by Carol Kulhthau
3. considering ways to work more closely with teachers or librarians

The Unquiet Librarian

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

I’m currently working with a section of American Literature/Composition students who have been asked to look at a historical or current event that embodies a degree of hysteria or abuse of power and compare that to the hysteria or abuse of power in the play The Crucible.   This research task is a fairly typical high school assignment for this text and course.  Initially, the teacher wanted me to cover five major areas of research in one class period in lecture format with no hands-on learning activities because she initially thought they had a greater degree of prior knowledge.   However, after a series of email conversations, we worked out a series of learning experiences to implement this week to address student learning needs in a richer and more meaningful way for students.   As many of you know, these collaborative conversations are sometimes really

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Inquiry Learning: One Teacher’s Journey – Part 1

Inquiry

I had some comments at the SLANZA Conference last month that my blog has been a bit quiet.  This is true. But it hasn’t been due to lack of material.  It has more to do with timing and the size of the undertakings. Good things take time!

For example, it has taken me the better part of 10 months to be in a position to share about the new and improved Tertiary Prep Programme.

Another significant piece of work I’ve been involved in this year has been supporting and working alongside of one of my teachers as he embarked on a huge mind shift towards guided inquiry learning in his classroom.

It has been a roller-coaster year for both of us so I’ve asked Leon to share, in his own words, how this journey has been.

This will be the first in a series of blogs over the next few weeks outlining:

  • why undertake this journey
  • what approaches were taken
  • the outcomes for the students
  • reflection of the process from the teacher’s perspective
  • the benefits of collaboration

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I am absolutely thrilled to be introducing you to Mr Leon Dunn. Not only is he a pleasure to work with, he has shown himself to be brave in launching into a new direction in his classroom practice, generous in sharing and discussing ideas with myself and others, and genuine in his caring connection with every student who enters his sphere.  Here, Leon shares about why he began this journey:

This year I decided to step out of my comfort zone and look at teaching through inquiry in my class. This was a relatively new concept to me and I had only touched on inquiry in a school I had previously worked at.

WHY?

For the past three years I felt I have been just going through the motions in terms of my classroom teaching. There are some great systems put in place in our school for curriculum delivery, but I felt like neither I nor my class had any control over what happened in our room.

An example of this is our school reading programme. A folder was given to me on arrival at the school and we were instructed to only use the resources that were in it! The same applied to writing, where the unit and resources would be given to us and we taught from that. No collaboration with other staff or students about what and how curriculum would be delivered in the classroom. I felt restricted in terms of planning and resourcing and after gathering student voice data I knew it was time for things to change. I was tired of filling my students heads with “just in case” knowledge with a didactic teaching approach that was boring for all of us.

I teach a Year 9 Homeroom / Alternative Pathways class in an all boys school. There is a roll of 15 students in my class, with numbers this low because our homerooms are made up of very low academic and high pastoral needs students. For some of my students it is a win just getting to school on time!

Teaching through inquiry was a scary thought because I would be “flying blind” having no idea how it would work or how the boys would respond. This is my first year trialling this so am by no means an expert on the subject. I am also a self-confessed control freak so letting go and stepping into the unknown is very stressful. But over the course of the next few weeks I would like to share my journey warts and all! 

Leon is a primary, bilingual trained teacher in his ninth year of teaching.  After completing his degree he spent almost five years in London teaching all ages groups from Nursery to Year 6.  Upon returning to New Zealand he worked for a year in Alternative Education before  teaching a Year 6-8 class in a small primary school.  He has been teaching at Southland Boys’ High School for the past three years with Year 7 and Year 9 classes.