What catches students’ attention?

If I knew the universal answer to this question, I would surely post it here, but alas, there are many things to catch students’ attention …. and many ways not to.

However, yesterday I covered in grade 3.a all day long and as their science/social studies teacher, I took the opportunity to start on our unit on experiments and the scientific method.

A simple provocation: A question!

What is an experiment?

I didn’t even expect the class to be as engaged as they were… they shared ideas, thoughts and wonderings. They talked about experiments they had seen, heard of or even tried themselves.

After the first session, I expected them to be eager to continue today but I was amazed by the enthusiasm displayed: Some students talked to adults and consulted books about experiments, took notes and collected questions at home.

I’m thrilled and I hope that many of my approaches will keep them engaged! I will keep you posted!

A quick note: I work at a special needs school for speech disabilities. The students are often delayed in their linguistic development, and display a lot of problems with reading, writing and often speaking as such. 


Relevance dilemma – what will become of it

The suggestions to my previous posts were great. I was able to take the half term break and take a step back. Now I feel slightly different and ready to start the new week tomorrow. With grade 10. With the boys.

What bugs me still is the fact that I have no lessons planned. I have an idea. I have objectives, but I haven’t (as I often don’t) go a mapped out plan. I will have to see where it goes and… go from there. Planning like this still makes me uneasy at times, esp. now that I’m working in a less “progressive” school.

Tomorrow we will embark on the so-called pre-assessment stage then. I already know my students’ level of English, but I don’t know there knowledge and interests about traveling. I have a PYP Unit Planner open to help me focus my planning, but I also know that it is not quite the right thing to use for my 10th grade, 2 lessons per week English planning.

Seeing as we are back from the first break of the year, I will use the opportunity to:

– see if students traveled anywhere and where
– use a map (online and offline) to map where we have all been in our lives
– introduce some relevant vocabulary
– find out where students would like to travel
– find out what students think is important about the places where they travel
– find out their travel “experience” level

I am so thankful that Maggie mentioned this idea. I have already looked into booking the computer room and using a whole range of sources there. I am curious to see if my students are willing to build their own repertoire of vocabulary by using websites, etc.

I aim to make them use their own “vocab log” where they will mark down important words to them. I aim to make them use travel blogs, experience websites, hotel and airline websites, maps, streetview to see places in detail and so on.

I’m excited about this. And hopefully this is the first step in a better direction!

Relevance of what we teach

I find myself in a dilemma. I firmly believe that teaching what is relevant to our students is important. Sometimes the relevance might be abstract and “far away”, like when we learn to problem-solve. But I have always tried to make everything as relevant to the group and individual I teach, as possible.

In an inquiry-based approach, students will lead inquiry if you let them, and they by taking control, it will be relevant to them. Basing the teaching/content/theme on a concept that has “global relevance”, it becomes meaningful to them, and to the overall aim of, well, probably international education. But then, all education is somehow international.

Let me get back to the point. My own class is not the problem here. With them, I still stay very close to my believes and my approach matches my educational philosophy. What I really struggle with is teaching English (EAL) in grades 8 and 10. I teach them for 90 (and some for 180) min a week.
I want to focus on grade 10. Their level of English is beginners, absolute beginners. In special schools, teaching English has only just become important and my school has not followed any curriculum, order or guidelines. While these would have to be individualized anyway, a general “overview” would be great.
Every week I am faced with a group that:

  • is partly working hard on being accepted in society (as a special school student) and on finding a job for less than a year from now
  • is partly not interested in anything, and only comes to school because it is a legal requirement
  • is partly planning on going on unemployment benefits as soon as they leave school (and most likely will stay there)
  • probably won’t require the use of English at one part in their life
  • has no interest in the typical beginners materials, which is either made for adults, or for children
  • has no basis of English to work with
  • are at the height of puberty (15/16)

I find this an incredibly hard list to work with. I have no idea where to start (though I started weeks ago, but reflecting on that, I feel I haven’t made a start). Where do I begin, where do I want to go with them? What can I do to make English slightly relevant to my students? Where do I start to find the relevance for them?


Helping other students… far away.

Yesterday my class received an email from Grade 1 at ISZL. When I told them that there was an email from them, they were eager to reply right away. But time has been taken over by other things: Our winter spettacolo (Pinocchio, the Musical).

I had to promise them that they can reply today. The fact that they were so keen to answer questions from someone else, to help their inquiry. Two girls stated that “first we asked Megan and Adrienne questions, now someone can ask us”.

Connecting classes is so important, yet I feel we are so unconnected.
So, here are some goals for the new term:

– Start blogging (I am not keen on using Studywiz for that, so will see if I can get permission to blog on a more open platform)

– Connect classes via email and Skype

So, if you are up for this, and want to connect, let me know!


Inquiry is big, and it is one of my goals… appraisal goals or PD goals. It is something I’m curious about, and something I want to… inquire into.

So, with an inquiry into inquiry in mind, I left my appraisal goal-setting meeting last week some weeks ago. Since then, I have been reading some interesting articles, and sought out a few texts I really want to read on top of this. But what I find is that… it takes time.
First I thought it was due to the lack of initiative or structure, but I’m wondering if there is also time needed to take it all on.

Inspired (yet again) by Maggie, who posted about Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke’s Curriculum as Inquiry in 4 parts here, let me start with a reflection on previous learning and practice.

As a student at traditional university, most of my work was fact-finding and essay writing. I didn’t do too well with the “traditional” professors, and I loved learning, but not that much.
When I started my degree in Learning, Technology and Research, things were different. A work-based, online degree, with people from so many different backgrounds and in so many different occupations with so many different goals. All enrolled in the same degree. You would think it is difficult, but really, it was not. There were elements that were similar. Readings, for example, on reflection, learning and research. There were skills that we all had to develop, just like those enrolled in English and Science degrees. There was little “knowledge” that was part of it, but a lot of understanding of concepts, such as reflection! And as we moved through this degree, we all inquired into our own practice. 77 different action inquiries running at the same time, and yet we were able to support each other, give peer feedback and discuss the underlying concepts that were still there.

My first action inquiry was “an action inquiry into improving my facilitation of the reflection time through the use of a reflection model”. It came about in a difficult, but natural way. Deep and honest reflection on my work practices revealed areas of improvement, and through identification of tensions, I was able to identify a focus for this module. The literature needed for this, was identified by myself. The data was collected at school. My professors, or learning facilitators, supported me, but didn’t interfere.

Just writing this makes me aware of how I want my classroom to be. And this is where my current tension lies… how can I make my classroom and student learning this way? What is already there and what is missing? Questions upon questions.

I will come back to this another day, in another hopefully as honest reflection. Thinking about my practices with the help of a model maybe?

From reflection to professional inquiry

Sticking to the theme of reflection and professional learning, I thought I would dedicate this post to professional inquiry or action inquiry or action research. Action inquiry is the term I used during my studies, the IB uses the term professional inquiry (and offer a workshop in it too), and some others say action research. The exact definitions may differ a little, but all of them should include vital steps.

Kurt Lewin designed the following action research model:

Picture taken from Fern Uni Hagen

What I find is important to any professional/action inquiry/research approach is that the general or initial idea, as shown above, is clear to the practitioner. We might want to inquire into something new to us, or something that we found was not working the way we want it to in our practice. It can be anything, as long as you are enthusiastic about it. The process requires some work, and without some determination, it might easily fail or be forgotten.
Lewin allows for a nice fact finding stage. I think this is where you get immersed in literature. If you are working on university credits or similar, you will probably have to to a proper literature review at this stage. It might take some time. Do not rush through this, because if a lot has been said about your idea before, then you might get some answers during this stage already.

At this point I should say that even if you are not doing this for anyone other than yourself, make sure you document the process. This does not have to be a proper research report, but a well-organized learning journal or blog might be a good way forward, to keep track of your reflections, thinking, findings and new ideas.

As you enter the planning stage, you are deciding on making ONE change to your practice. This is where the ACTION comes in, where we take the theory into the classroom. At this stage you should know how you want to collect data!
This is research, or an inquiry, and what you do need is evidence! To some extend this is where the difference between inquiry and research might be the most obvious, but I think that in both cases proper data collection and analysis is important. Get yourself acquainted with qualitative and quantitative data collection methods. Be aware of ethics. You might only be doing this for yourself, but do it properly anyway!

After taking the first step and collecting your data, you need to analyze and evaluate, you draw conclusions on the change you made and you will probably change your original change, or add to it. This is a cyclical approach, we never stop learning! If you are happy with the achieved result, then well done, if not, then continue to inquire until you are!

I think this is such a fantastic way to learn! In July 2009, when I attended the Pedagogical Leadership in the PYP workshop in Zürich, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Professional Inquiry in the PYP workshop. The participants had been working on establishing their research plans, or plans for action, and were eager to share them and get feedback (another crucial part!!!). It was a fantastic experience, and I somehow ended up talking a lot to Kathy Short, who was running this workshop, without knowing who she was! An amazing woman!

Before I conclude here, let me say something else about feedback. Collaboration makes this process easier. If the inquiry is about your practice only, make sure you have some critical friends to provide you with another perspective! But action inquiry can also be a collaborative effort!

Update on planning Math with the PYP Unit Planner

The update is not just on actually planning with it, but it is also on a much more focused inquiry-based teaching and learning approach in stand-alone Maths teaching.

Our focus for this planner are decimals/fractional numbers and place value. I used the Sample planner from the new Math Scope and Sequence  documents (IB PYP, on the OCC) to help me with mine. I used some of their suggested activities, but the main focus here was really the backwards planning process. Knowing the objective, acceptable evidence of understanding and all of a sudden, the “activities” lose their focus. You become more flexible, and in my opinion, much more tuned in to the needs of the children in your class.

The difficult thing I find is the mixed age group I have. I teach a combined Grade 3/4 class, so at the moment the children are between 8 and 10 years old. Not only that, but developmentally, they are quite spread out too. Which, in my opinion, will also happen in a single-grade classroom. The point here is, that for teaching about place value, fractional numbers and in particular decimals, you really have to become creative. For example: One student in my class who joined this year has just started with the concept of place value and fractional numbers. She knows simple fractions, and decimals she only knows from money. For someone like this, my planner is not suitable. Given she is the only one, I find that I can cater to her needs, but to document this in the planner is quite difficult (esp. since this really is about the introduction and exploration of decimals). And what about those children whose parents taught them even percentages at home? They seem to be quite happy to be learning about decimals despite “having done them before”. This I put down to the fact that a lot of very ambitious home teaching is missing out on looking at real understanding and developing key strategies.

Back to the point of the planner. It helped me to become much more flexible. I planned a few key learning experiences for the first week, which just ended, and the reflection on it is quite positive. We achieved much more than originally planned. We still all work at different levels, but there is definitely a good development of the central idea going on. And that is important to me. What I do now is looking at the developmental Math scope and sequence, to find the levels or phases that the different students work on. That way I use the document for assessment (for learning), as it will then inform further planning. (My class is now out for 10 days, that is why I can plan this in peace and quiet next week).

Strategies and activities that were really successful last week were:

– Human number line: Students all got a number (whole number, decimals smaller and greater than one) and had to organize themselves into a human number line. Definitely good development of social skills and thinking skills here.

– Place Value dice game: Making the smallest and the largest numbers out of the digits that were rolled with the dice. They had to explain their strategies for success to younger children.

I also found that the students are much more receptive to difficult concepts when taken out of the more traditional classroom teaching. Just changing the scene, like going outside, will make a huge difference. Standing, instead of sitting, interacting in a “fun” way. Glad the weather is good for us to be out (getting too hot inside at times now).

What I still find hard is getting students to ask their own questions. Teacher questions in Maths, as well as the central idea and lines of inquiry, do not spark the same student questions as our units of inquiry. I wonder why that is?