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.

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