It’s Their Education. Not Mine.

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 Zippo photo credit: liber via photopin cc

As the months have ticked by and my students have slowly grown into the big shoes that Grade 4 holds I have noticed something interesting happening in my classroom. My students absolutely love teaching each other. Now I know this is nothing new but we are currently experiencing a major shift in my room.

It all started earlier this year when one of my students came to me asking when we would be studying the Canadian government. You see, he had heard via the grapevine that it was something that Grade four’s always learned and he couldn’t wait to get started. I let him know that we would be exploring the government in January – February and thought that’s where the matter would end. Well, I was wrong. Almost on a weekly basis after that I was asked when we would be starting and why we couldn’t start sooner. Clearly I had a Canadian government aficionado on my hands.

One day as I was peppered with more questions about what we would be studying I had an idea: would he want to kick off our unit with a presentation? I posed the suggestion to him and he jumped on board but before he started he had two questions for me: 1) What should he do his presentation on? 2) What were we ‘supposed’ to  cover? I pulled out my curriculum document and said: “You have free rein on what you want to present on and here are the topics we are ‘supposed’ to cover. He asked if he could add in extra topics: the privy council, how supreme court judges are nominated and the history of the various positions within parliament. Sure, why not? If it interested him I said and it is within the big topic he could go for it! With a route to follow and a spark of inspiration off he went ready to do his research!

The weeks ticked by and I watched him diligently research and tinker with his presentation. Every now and then I was asked if I could look over his work and perhaps give him another look at the curriculum document. As things starting winding down to winter break I let him know it would be time to present in January once we got back from our break. I could see the excitement and nervousness building. I too was excited to see how this would all pan out.

When the day arrived and as he walked up to the front of the room we both took a deep breath. As he worked through is presentation, I was blown away. The depth and level of research was incredible. Best of all, he spoke at the level of his peers and in terms they would understand. (He even had a full bibliography. Something I had worked hard on with them earlier this year. Yay!) As he wrapped up his peers cheered and clapped. They asked insightful and thoughtful questions. This was the best kick off I could have asked for.

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Fast forward a few weeks and another member of my class approached me. He was wondering when we would be studying rocks and minerals and, if he could do the same as his classmate and kick off our unit for us. Cue a repeat of the same process: careful preparation, curriculum consultation and another presentation that blew me us of the water.

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These two presentations have sparked something in my students. They now know that if they would like to teach each other something they are most welcome to. Since then we have had more presentations on rocks and minerals, birthstones,  star formation, sea life and one of the most in-depth video game analysis I’ve seen. And, just because they can and know how, a group of boys are building a website all about rocks and minerals.

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Now as I sit thinking about the events of the first few months I have begun to realize something. Yes, I have incredible students. And yes they love learning. But like every single student in our classrooms it is their education and not ours. This is their schooling experience and the learning journey of their lives. They deserve to explore their curiosity and follow their interests. With the right tools, freedoms, guidance and empowerment they are the most incredible resource in our room. They can teach each other anything and with me as their guide, I can help make it happen.

 

It need not be perfect..

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 Public Order photo credit: Tal Bright via photopin cc

As a teacher it is quite easy to become sucked into the  vortex creative teacher sites that show endless pictures of cutesy bulletin boards and other classroom decorating ideas. You know what I am talking about, images that make you think over spring break you really can and should, collect and convert milk crates into reading chairs. Or a beautiful set of book marks you can create with your kids in a snap. One of the things you will often see online is beautiful bulletin boards that have amazing borders, colour coordinated backgrounds and fancy fonts. Things that seem like they could go up in any store for display. These beautiful exhibitions as lovely as they look, always seem a bit too perfect, too pretty, and dare I say are often lacking something quite important: that touch that lets you know that it really was made by a child in the process of learning.

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As a result, the combination of my strong feelings and only so many hours in a day, my bulletin boards often look,  how do I say this nicely, a little rough around the edges. (Who has time to put up borders and create these elaborate displays?!) They look like kids created them, because well they did. They look like we are using them to learn, because we are, we leave notes on our boards to help connect our learning. Yes we still use store-bought posters but these are used in connection to what we are currently working on. They are works in progress. The work isn’t perfect, it isn’t a competition to see who can produce the most beautiful stuff, it’s our learning and we are proud of it. So next time you ask a child to redo a piece of work for display ask yourself: ‘Does it really need to be perfect?’

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P.S. I should probably add that we do create beautiful pieces that we proudly display. But they all have those distinct marks that a child has made them.

Learning Spaces and Places: How Do You Build for Community?

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Untitled photo credit: jotaemephoto via photopin cc

It seems I am inspired on my two-year blogaversary (?) to finally hammer out a post I have pondering for a while. That is the thing about blogging. Sometimes I will go weeks and in this case two months without posting anything to doing a number of posts in the same evening. Since mid-July when I was preparing to set up my new classroom home I started thinking about learning spaces and how they foster a sense of community.

One thing I immediately noticed when I entered my new school is the thoughtful design that has been given to all the spaces in the school. There are ample amounts of windows allowing natural light to stream in at all times of the day. Although this is a simple thing it is something that was missing in my last school. The effect that light has on our moods and learning is truly amazing. Another thing that I noticed was that throughout the school there are gathering spaces. These spaces are comfortable places that invite people to take a seat and relax. Gathering spaces naturally help build community. When we gather, we can’t help but talk and connect with others. Something as simple as the assembly room strikes me as a place that builds school community. It is a beautiful room filled with windows that is designed that when the school gathered it really helps everyone feel proud of the place they are in.

When I think about my classroom ( and in fact what I hope that you see when you walk in my room) is a space that promotes learning and community. Although my students each have an old school desk (an honoured and important rite of passage for everyone) their desks are arranged in groups of four. These little groups as all teachers know grow and form a little community as time passes. In a group formation of desks the students can chat and share but still have their own personal space that is solely their own to inhabit. About once a month I change things up and we move our desks into new groups. At the beginning of the year I choose the formation of the groups. As the year progresses the students begin to decide how they want their seating arrangement to look. This often yields interesting formations. Yes, some students really want to be an island for a  short while and others simply love sitting with others.

Our room also has 2 large tables where students can move if they find their group is being too chatty or they simply want another space to work in. The option is there and as long as they are on task, they are welcome to use it. When I set up my room, I made sure to leave some open spaces on the floor (I could have easily filled them up with our desks). These open floor spaces serve as a place for us to gather as a group and as spots for students to work if they so choose. I had to chuckle during our first silent reading time when all my students sat down at their desks to read. At first I was a bit puzzled but then I said “This is your room. You can read anywhere you like.” Something so simple seemed to make them very happy which in turn has makes me happy. There is nothing better than seeing two students stretched out reading side by side with blissful smiles on their faces.

Our classroom walls were quite bare at the start of the year. I see our walls as a space for us to fill with our learning and the work created during our adventures. It has been marvellous to see bits and pieces go up the past few days. I hope in the next while to had the bulletin boards over to the students, for them to choose what we should put up there.

I understand much of school design comes down to economics but I was truly surprised when I immigrated to Canada and saw some of the schools were designed. Many seemed to lack imagination or seemed to be places where optimal learning environments didn’t seem to have entered the school design process. I will say I was blessed to have gone to a beautiful school growing up where it seemed every space had a thoughtful purpose to help students learn. (I will blog about it soon but if you want to see a preview here’s a link to their website: www.Epworth.co.za)

How has your school been built for community?

How do you build for community in your classroom?

Learn Camp ending the year off right.

On Tuesday to kick off our last week together my coworker and I decided to run an EdCamp style day for our grade 3’s and 4’s.  We helped organize Edcamp Winnipeg in June and were interested to see how our students would respond to our very own Edcamp. When our students walked in to the school they saw signs for  RVS Learn Camp. We started just before recess explained the purpose of the day: Teach, Learn and Play. They were asked to think about what they could teach their peers about. Something they were had knowledge of and wanted to share with others. They were also asked to think about things they wanted to learn more about. We left the day wide open, just like normal Edcamp. We were simply there to help facilitate and learn with them.

Oh the twinkle in our students eyes when they realized we meant what we said… wide open floor!

Once they had filled out their Q cards with ideas they came and shared with their peers what they wanted to teach or learn about. Some of the ideas that were brought forward were: teaching people how to create minecraft people, how to write a play, how to create a tessellation picture to learning more about famous artists and how to draw animals.

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Topic Suggestions

During recess Jenn and I put together a schedule for our Learn Camp and organized it into 6 time slots of 30 minute intervals. Each time slot had 2 sessions running at the same time. As luck would have it we had exactly the right number of topics to fit our schedule! We booked a computer lab for the day and had our classrooms open for sessions.  When the students came back from recess we gave them a quick rundown of the ‘rules’  and the students launched into their first session!

Rules for the day:

– Today is about learning. If a session isn’t meeting your learning needs go try the other session.

– If someone comes to a session they must be included.

– Have fun!

Session Pictures:

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Tesselation Art Station

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Build a Minecraft Model Station

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Learn how to draw station

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Learn how to draw station

It was so cool to see what they came up with! The students totally embraced the concept bringing their knowledge from their own lives and even from what they learned in school to share with others. It was quite amazing to see our two classes move from session to session totally engaged in what they were doing every step of the way. When we asked them at the end of the day if they enjoyed it the kids said they loved it! The liked being able to pursue what interested them and to teach each other about what they were experts in.

Jenn and I both agree that this is something we would try again with our students as we think now that they know what a Learn Camp is all about, next time they will push themselves even further.