Friday, May 22, 2009

Teaching with Emotional Intelligence

Bill and Ochan Powell came to the presentation that Chad and I did at EARCOS 2009. Bill was the principal of the International School of Tanganyika when I was a student there back in the 80s! It was great to meet up with them again and I was really flattered that they came to see what we were talking about. I have used a lot of the strategies that the Powells have outlined in their publications on differentiation and collaboration.

A segment of our presentation resonated with Bill and Ochan, and they spoke to us afterwards about making a small contribution to the book they're working on. They were interested in the positive dynamic that we had and how that dynamic set the scene for collaboration and excellent teaching.

Here's what I've written so far:

"Because of our successful teaching partnership, we have been able to push the boundaries of our own teaching, and push the boundaries of teaching in our school. Chad and I are extremely different people. We could easily have come to blows on many occasions, but we haven’t once. This is because we are very honest with each other, and also very realistic and aware of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Chad is a real action person – when he gets an idea, he does it. He likes to make things happen, and doesn’t have a huge amount of patience for theorizing, semantics and planning. He likes to get on with it! I am almost completely the opposite, I’m an ideas person, and that sounds great, but without a partnership with someone like Chad I would end up doing only a small fraction of those ideas. I’d forget most of them, or not have the drive to put them into action.

Sometimes I am sure Chad gets exasperated with me, and sometimes I get exasperated with him. But, we just laugh about it and move forward. We’ve done a lot of work on multiple intelligences and personality types with our students and, through developing our students’ awareness of themselves, we have unconsciously increased our awareness of who we are too. That awareness allows us the freedom to take risks in our teaching, to bounce off each other, to take a lead and to step forward when teaching together and to play on our strengths and cater for our weaknesses. The awareness of each other also acts as a reminder about why we act the way we act and why we make the decisions we make. When you understand your colleagues’ personalities and can see clearly how their personalities have a direct effect on their behaviour, you can work with them. Most of the problems I have seen between teaching partners are based on a lack of awareness of each other, and a failure to allow each other to use their strengths or back up each other’s weaknesses. Teachers differentiate for our students, but often forget to differentiate for themselves!"

Keep your eyes open for the release of their book, I have a feeling that emotional intelligences are going to be a crucial area of education in the near future. Being more aware of who our students are as people, as well as who we are, will become fundamental as we move rapidly away from teaching that is just about the delivery and retention of content.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Worth a Read

Another Twitter connection, this time from Brandon Hoover, led me to a site run by a guy called Henrik Edberg called "Positivity Blog". We've been looking at social skills a lot recently with our Grade 4 students, and there's a posting about Dale Carnegie's top ten tips for improving your social skills that is worth reading, both personally and for use in teaching!

Stop! Look! Listen!

Grade 4 has just come off an energetic, powerful and honest day. Students were given the opportunity to stop, look and listen. We all took a day out of the classroom and organized a retreat. The purpose of the retreat was to elevate students' energy levels and create a unique and different opportunity and experience. The power of removing ourselves from the sometimes stagnant classroom environment was abundantly clear. It gave off a strong sense of seriousness and automatically increased our motivation. Today was a very special experience for the students. They had to think about the personal growth they have gone through over the course of a year. So often we all board the "teaching train". It full steam ahead till the close of the school year, without acknowledging the changes that have occurred which have shaped who they now as people and as learners. Where we are going is important, but we need a barometer that measures the distance traveled by looking back to where we once were.

Over the next few days Sam and I will be talking about skills, knowledge and understanding. Our goal is to have students stop, look and listen to the choices they have made that have impacted them in both negative and positive ways. I am going to detour for a bit... Someone asked me today what the difference was between knowledge and understanding. Allow me to explain a little more on this subject. To know something is factual. This explains the "what". To understand is being aware of all the intricate details of "how" and "why" things are the way they are. Knowledge is surface learning. Understanding is much deeper than that. Example: two people from different races are in a conflict situation. I may know what they are fighting about. But, if I have not traveled to their country or lived through their experiences somehow then I will never understand their perspective and situation. Sam and I will be explaining to the students that knowledge comes first, understanding comes second. Very much like a 2 step process. An aware student knows about the skills, knowledge and understanding that they have developed. The difference here is for them to make connections between the 3 elements and compound and construct a world of meaning.

I think the word "reflection" is mis-used and often abused. Be careful when you use this word as students soon realize that reflection means writing - a lot! I want to introduce the term "looking back" as a disguise. Use graphic organizers to build awareness about their learning journey and use it as a scaffold for writing later. It alleviates a lot of pressure and gives a real focus, especially when students are interested in writing about relevant and meaningful things about themselves.

Take the time to get on and off the "teaching train" and blow off some steam. It is extremely powerful and above all rewarding.

Strategy: Have students share their ideas in an open discussion. Avoid having students read off their work word for word. Invite a conversation to happen as this will trigger other ideas where students can make connections and increase participation. Ensure that students interact with different people each time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Howard Gardner Talking Sense

Here's Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame, saying some sensible stuff. This clip is really relevant to the way that Chad and I are teaching right now. Because we've left ourselves so little time for the unit we're teaching at the moment, we've really stripped it down and brought it back to basics. It's a science unit and the potential is there for overloading the kids with vast amounts of information and facts about solids, liquids and gases. Instead, we've made it much more about getting the students to pose genuine, simple questions about the matter and materials that surrounds them in their every day lives. It's great to hear someone like Gardner urging teachers to take that sort of approach more, rather than trying to deliver excessive amounts of information:

"I think that we teach way too many subjects and we cover way too much material and the end result is that students have a very superficial knowledge, as we often say, a mile wide and an inch deep. Then once they leave school, almost everything's been forgotten. And I think that school needs to change to have a few priorities and to really go into those priorities very deeply.

Let's take the area of science. I actually don't care if a child studies physics or biology or geology or astronomy before he goes to college. There's plenty of time to do that kind of detailed work. I think what's really important is to begin to learn to think scientifically. To understand what a hypothesis is. How to test it out and see whether it's working or not. If it's not working, how to revise your theory about things. That takes time. There's no way you can present that in a week or indeed even in a month. You have to learn about it from doing many different kinds of experiments, seeing when the results are like what you predicted, seeing when they're different, and so on.

But if you really focus on science in that kind of way by the time you go to college -- or, if you don't go to college, by the time you go to the workplace -- you'll know the difference between a statement that is simply a matter of opinion or prejudice and one for which there's solid evidence."

Great - we've been doing the right thing!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Here is an interesting blog post called "The Power of Student Action", written by Mark Marshall. It's always interesting to read or talk about action as it is such an enigma. We're all still trying to work out exactly what it is, how we can recognise it and how we can make it a meaningful part of teaching and learning.

I think this posting is a good follow-up to Teresa's posting just below in which she describes how opportunities for student action can be provided through school-wide events (if they're planned properly). Mark is a also calling for a simpler type of action to be considered, the actions that happen every day if students are empowered and entrusted to take things on.

ESD at IST - Author: Teresa Tung

Earth Day and the 4 Core Elements
Below is a post written for the 4 Core Elements, a blog written by two teachers at IST, Sam Sherratt and Chad Walsh. Is it possible to have a special event at school that is engaging, empowering, provides and experience, and demonstrates evidence of learning?

"Earth Day's Es."

Extra. Exclude. Irrelevant.

The three Es that nobody wants to hear about when involved in education . Unfortunately, also often the three Es come up when planning school-wide events. (OK, so irrelevant starts with an “I” but it sounds almost like an “e”). Be it UN Day, Earth Day, Winter Concert, or some other event that your school places enough importance upon to mandate that the whole school celebrate it; a special event often becomes a task or a burden that nobody wants to do.

Special events mean extra work for teachers. We must take time and energy away from our busy day-to-day programs in order to plan for a one-time “thing” after which we do not think about it again until it comes up the next year, when again we will groan, “oh crap, we have to do something.”

In nursery-grade 12 schools, methods of including everybody in a school-wide celebration actually end up excluding a majority of the students. By casting our net wide to try and catch the very young and the almost graduating, we broaden our scope to the point where the whole thing is meaningless for everyone. Younger students sit dazed in too-long assemblies unable to comprehend the content while older students laze in the back, disengaged by what they deem to be young content.

Crunched for time and lacking in interest, special events committees often find it easier to simply put together a program that is easy to run rather than interesting to attend. Classes go from activity to activity or try to fit into some committee-determined mode of participation. UN Day becomes dress-up-in-your-national-costume-and-walk-around Day and Earth Day becomes oh-remember-that-Jack-Johnson-song-and-sing-it-together day. It’s irrelevant. Once it’s done we tick it off our list and don’t look back.

Perhaps this is a harsh indictment of a very tough job that many of us must take on, willingly or not. I will admit that in planning last year’s Earth Day celebrations I probably created a monster that was a great example of those three horrid Es. Each grade level had to present something that they were “already doing in class” related to Earth Day in an elementary-wide assembly. I believe the majority of classes did extra work to prepare for this, didn’t really care during the assembly, and found the whole thing rather irrelevant.

This year the Earth Day committee tried a different approach. What could we do to give students and teachers choice? How could we present Earth Day in a way so that students and teachers were empowered to do what they wanted, engaged in what they did, and walked away with a memorable experience?

To begin with, we empowered the students and teachers who were passionate about Earth Day to take a lead. We requested that interested students and teachers lead activities related to their personal passions. We took a risk by trusting our community to care enough to come forth with their interests and take a lead. It took some prodding and poking, but people did come forward.

Two grade 9 students planned to work with Nursery students on planting in their classrooms. A grade 6 student who did proposed a garden as part of his grade 5 PYP Exhibition work finally got the chance to fulfill his previous year’s aspirations by leading the tree planting. Several secondary Roots and Shoots members planned a recycling fashion show and a recycling Battle of the Bands.

Reflecting on two students’ leadership in a “Paint your Eco-Footprint” activity, a teacher described, “When students are given some control, they can gain much personal satisfaction . . . I had little confidence in these three girls when they joined R&S late in the second semester . . . However, despite their reluctance to speak out, they had a good idea and followed through on it.”

Though many of the student-led activities were bumpy in their execution and required a great deal of teacher assistance to plan, it was a rare opportunity for them to take a leadership role and execute something that they could take credit for. Perhaps these opportunities should not be so rare in our schools.

Students were not the only ones who were empowered. Teachers and staff regarded Earth Day, as well, as a chance to share their passions. Two teachers who were avid divers offered a session regarding the alarming decline of shark populations. A math teacher set up a “population guess” activity with his math class in the days leading up to Earth Day.

Perhaps even more exciting than the empowerment of the teaching staff was the empowerment of the “support” staff at school. Several teaching assistants stepped forward to contribute in their own ways. Some led a kindergarten – grade 2 activity and another contributed PowerPoints and movies highlighting China’s environment to be displayed in the build up to Earth Day. Sometimes in teaching we get so caught up in our own world that we forget our greatest allies may be working right next to us. All we have to do is empower them in the same way that we empower our students.

The empowerment of students and staff made it possible for all to be engaged throughout the course of the day. The key to engagement was age-appropriate activities and experiences, a sentiment that was repeated over-and-over in a post-Earth Day survey.

Students in kindergarten – grade 2 were placed in small groups and rotated through three different activities. Students in grades 3 – 10 were given the choice to sign up for their three activities a week prior to Earth Day. This allowed them to choose the activities that most interested them, a key to engaging them from the start. Also key to making this possible was the diversity of the activity choices. Students were able to engage with environmental issues in variety of ways, appealing to their multiple intelligences.

The most exciting were the activities that were linked in to curriculum. A grade 11 teacher volunteered to run a Theory of Knowledge workshop, “Greed and the Planet” and another secondary teacher volunteered to continue the workshop by presenting an alternative viewpoint, “Is Global Warming Bad?” Grade 11 students were able to participate in Earth Day in a way that was truly relevant and meaningful. They were engaged in new learning rather than being used as obligatory “leaders” of younger students or slotted into activities that were too young for their abilities.

By empowering students with the choice of what to do during Earth Day, they became engaged in meaningful experiences. As one student explained, “I loved the reycycled fassion show. it was exciting and we did something insted of lisnting/waching someone/something.” The key word in that sentence is did. The students were able to take action on the day. They actually planted trees. They actually made useful things out of trash. They actually did.

So where is the evidence of all this empowerment, engagement, and all these experiences? A group of students worked with the librarian as the “Voice of Earth Day” to gather the evidence of what happened on Earth Day. They took photos, videos, and interviewed students regarding what they were learning. At the assembly at the end of the day, they presented this video as an instant-recap of the experiences of the day. In addition to the plethora of photos taken by teachers (two were specifically assigned as teacher photographers) this provided meaningful evidence of learning while it was happening. While reflecting on Earth Day, though, it has become evident to me that more evidence of learning needs to be gathered. Perhaps next year we will trial some sort of learning reflection to be gathered at the end of every session. Or perhaps the evidence will (or won't) be found via our students' actions (or inaction).

The week following Earth Day, I sent out a survey via surveymonkey to students and staff. It has become clear that dividing students into age groups was key to Earth Day’s success. It has also become clear that the assembly at the end of the day to recap our experiences ran long and was all-too-rife with technical difficulties. These are powerful reflections that will help guide us to create an even better Earth Day next year.

This year’s Earth Day was far from perfect but throughout its planning, execution, and reflection, the four Es were omnipresent. Next year will build upon this year’s successes and reinvigorate based upon this year’s failures. Just today a parent came up to me and said, “I wanted to do a bike riding activity for Earth Day but I was too shy. Maybe next year?” Perfect. The community is growing.

Visual Imagery and Learning

Photo by Jason Hawkes

It IST, we're bringing the viewing and presenting dimension into our teaching and learning as a result of implementing the new IBO PYP Language Arts Scope and Sequence Documents. We're going to need to be aware of a wealth of tools to help us teach kids about recieving information visually, as well as sharing information visually. Websites like "The Big Picture" at will come in very handy. Thanks Tod Baker for the link.

The Arrival of Twitter in the Classroom

I have been wondering if Twitter can be used meaningfully in the classroom, but haven't come up with any ideas myself. Fortunately I was checking Twitter this morning and was directed to this posting by a guy called Mark Marshall. Written by David Parry, it has some nice ideas that I'd like to try.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What makes a perfect PYP unit of inquiry?

This is a discussion I started on the PYP Threads Ning, click here to see it and join in the conversation, or comment here... whatever is easiest!

I was talking to Tod Baker this morning about the exhibition unit. We were both of the opinion that there is too much pressure on Grade 5 teachers to put together the perfect unit, and under the scrutiny of the whole school community too. We felt that it needs to be viewed as "just another unit" and that the teachers of other grades need to shoulder the responsibility for making their units a bit more like the exhibition. It seems like Grade 5 teachers are often having to teach a lot of the skills necessary for a successful exhibition to the students for the first time. Does that mean they're not arriving in Grade 5 fully prepared? In the end we agreed that there needs to be a middle ground: that the exhibition needs to be like just another unit, and that the units in other grades need to be more like the exhibition.

So, what are the ingredients of a "perfect" unit of inquiry? Let's talk about it... I'll get us started with a thought I had shortly after my conversation with Tod. We're just about to start writing our reports and I was reminded of that fact as I visited the bathroom today and my mind was immediately filled with doom and dread. But, then I remembered the How we express ourselves unit that we taught in the first few months of 2009. I was suddenly really looking forward to writing the comments for that unit as I had so much to say about every student in Grade 4. I know the learning journey of each and every kid, I know the processes they went through, I know their successes and failures and I know their feelings and emotions from the beginning of the unit to the end.

So, is that the true test of an excellent unit of inquiry? If so, how did we put a unit like that together. I'll try and sum it up in some bullet points:

- We made the unit totally personal, valuing student reactions to and perspectives about art. - We empowered the students and made things possible for them, rather than telling them what was not possible.
- We created totally authentic experiences for them, including taking them to the art supply shop to purchase their art materials and turning our classrooms into art studios for three weeks.
- We used visible thinking strategies to capture their thoughts and ideas and display them publicly, showing that we value their thinking and "casting our net" to bring other people into our learning community.
- We involved parents, students, experts and other members of the school community at various points in the unit as active participants, not just passive observers.
- We
guided the students through the creative process and worked alongside them, modeling our enjoyment of creativity and willingness to take risks.
- We celebrated their final pieces of art with a big gallery opening that made them feel like real artists.
- We used assessment techniques that offered them the chance to genuinely reflect on their learning journey.

This is just one of the Grade 4 units this academic year, and it was certainly one of the best. Not perfect, but the closest we've come. Please share your thoughts on one or more of your best units and what made it work so well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What is inquiry? What isn't inquiry?

We have been doing a unit of inquiry about science for the last four weeks. The focus of the unit is on designing experiments to answer questions about materials and matter, but it has evolved also into an intense learning experience about questions. The students have really struggled with questions because they have been struggling to ask questions that are worth answering or can actually be answered. So many times I have found myself almost saying "Oh, good question" when faced with a student question that is way beyond their means, totally illogical or simply not worth knowing.

Hang on! I hear the rallying cry... not worth knowing? How can a student's question not be worth knowing? This is inquiry learning!

Is it though? It would be interesting to travel back in time through a child's education and add up the number of times they have posed a question and got the reply "good question", had their question posted on the "question board" and then never looked at it again. My estimate would be - a lot of times. I've done it myself. There's a tendency in us all, I'm sure, to give the standard answer of "good question" when we're faced with a kid who's asking a ridiculous question. It makes life so much easier, doesn't it? I mean, the kid must be learning if they're asking questions, right? That's inquiry learning isn't it?

Not really. In my opinion, it's inquiry learning if students are asking effective questions that provide them with a vehicle for inquiry. It's inquiry learning if students are finding answers to their questions, and using those answers to pose new questions. In genuine inquiry learning, teachers know where their students are heading. Their pathways there may be entirely different, but they know where they're heading to. We need to teach them how to pose the questions that will get them there.

I attended a PYP workshop a while ago where the workshop leader put four words up in the four corners of the room. The words were:


She then gave us this sentence starter, "Inquiry learning is...", and asked us to finish the sentence by standing with the word we believed finished the sentence off. Nearly everybody stood under "discovery". We were naive and inexperienced in thinking that inquiry learning is discovery. Inquiry learning is guided, teachers know the knowledge, skills and understandings they want their students to gain. We must, therefore, give them the ability to pose and use effective, realistic, answerable and meaningful questions on which to base those inquiries.

Until we stop accepting poor quality questions from kids, and teach them to pose effective questions, will we ever be making inquiry learning happen?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Decline of Creativity

Every day I think about Sir Ken Robinson's damning prognosis of the majority of education systems. "I'm alright" I say to myself, "I work in a PYP school where creativity is a valued part of the curriculum." But today I've had an experience that tells me perhaps this is not strictly true.

My class photos were scheduled to be taken during today's Art lesson. This was the result of much to-ing and fro-ing of what my class and another class "could afford to miss". Naturally Art was the loser.

So, off I went to speak to the Art teacher to tell her that I would be taking the kids out of her class for a while. I went to the Art room but, lo and behold, she was not there. She has had to shift all of her lessons, resources and materials to a temporary classroom outside in order to make way for IB Diploma Examinations for the next two weeks.

Sir Ken said that Art, Drama and Dance should be valued equally with Reading, Writing and Maths. Evidence suggests we have a long way to go. I'm sure that my school is not unique. Many of these decisions are made in the context of a highly complex day-to-day existence and in a constant state of flux - a state nearly all schools are in. Yet, it does seem strange, and that's how I felt today, that Art was taking the fall in both cases.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Online Communities

I got a message in my Flickr account this evening from a guy called Dave. He was letting me know that he used one of my photos on his Blog. I've never heard of the guy before, and he's probably never heard of me. However, the Creative Commons image search function means that guys like Dave can find photos by guys like me and use them. When I opened his blog up I was so please to see the line of text directly above my photograph (which is a stunner by the way!). What Dave is saying in that line is so true, and so often forgotten - particularly in schools.

Schools spend thousands and thousand of dollars sending their teachers away on professional development courses. Those teachers come back and - possibly - put a small fragment of what they learned into practice. A lot of schools exepect that teachers will share their knowledge, but this rarely happens. The most powerful professional development I have ever experienced was in-house PYP training. The power came from the fact that we were all together, learning together, talking about teaching together, identifying like-minds and challenging other viewpoints. We really grew together. I hope I can experience that again, both as a participant and as a workshop leader.

Welcome + E to the familE

Through a conversation Sam and I were having a little while ago we came across something that struck us like lightening. It was about the importance of having motivation, intensity, commitment, traction, acceleration and excitement as absolute fundamentals in teaching. Well, not just teaching but everything we do in life. If we are not inspired and have a burning desire to ignite students about what we are teaching then how can we expect students to get involved and be excited over their learning? I have always believed that we get what we give. As teachers it begins with us, modeling to students the value and power about connecting learning to the real world and how this is relevant and meaningful in their lives too. Showing that we are excited gives an effervescences to what we demand from those we teach.

So what E word can bring all of this into one compact punch?


Energy is how we can inject life into the classroom. Invite students to be a part of the excitement and create a positive presence in the classroom that sends a buzz down the school hallway. I believe that energy is like the sun. A ball of flames that lights the way. The sun is something that we know is there but can not directly look at. The sun makes our eyes squint and impedes our vision. But when we put our sunglasses on we have a clear vision of what is before us. The sunglasses I talk of are the 4 Core Elements. It is looking through this lens that everything around us becomes aligned. It is through this lens that our eyes can make contact with the sun. Energy is all around us. It gives life to everything we know and without it everything dies. First it is teaching that dies and then consequently learning dies with it as do dreams, hopes and aspirations to be and do and give more. Maybe my analogy can be put more eloquently, (over to you Sam) but I think you get my meaning here.

It is important to note that Sam and I are always developing our beliefs. The art of teaching is never conquered. We are always looking for ways to improve and grow everyday from our new findings and then learn from those findings. I guess it is the energy we have that carries us through wanting to learn more and give more in what we do. When that energy fades like a sunset on the horizon we will both know when to leave the profession for a boring desk job that requires zero thinking or excitement.

Meetings, meetings, meetings

Meetings for meetings sake? Meetings about meetings? In a meeting when you're supposed to be in another meeting? In a meeting that doesn't really concern you when you should be planning or setting your classroom up? In a meeting that nobody has come prepared for? Planning a meeting and don't want people to feel any of the above?

Applying the 4 Core Elements to meetings is a terrifying thing as nearly all of them fail the test of containing engagement, experience, empowerment or evidence that shows that something of significance took place!

I opened up a link from a guy called Brian Lockwood on Twitter recently, and I'm so glad that I did. The webpage that you land on is a gift from the powers that reside somewhere up there in the sky! If everyone who is planning a meeting of any kind follows the guidance that is provided on this webpage, the number of meetings we attend will drop, and the ones we do attend will be worthwhile.

I urge you to check it out and then make as many other people as possible aware of it as soon as possible!!!