Students as Teachers: a Culture of Inquiry and Learning

“I am just going to check in on everyone and see how they’re doing” – one of my Kindergarten students said as she led her peers through a step-by-step challenge where they created a DIY ‘marble run’ out of paper tubes and tape. 

My DECE partner and I were blown away by her kindness, patience and commitment to the success of her classmates during this process. 

We have been trying to keep an open invite for all students in our class to have the opportunity to be the “teacher” or the expert on a topic of their choice. Through online learning, fewer natural moments of teaching happen from student to student like they would in a physical classroom. Hands on collaboration between students virtually can be tricky, as they lack the opportunity to share space and materials. We decided it would be more equitable to schedule these student-led activities ahead of time, in order to allow all students time to prepare the proper materials. As I move to in person learning in the fall, it is my goal to continue this practice as a means of supporting students belonging and contributing in respect to the Kindergarten program. It is my hope to further explore the benefits of fostering students confidence as teachers in the classroom as I continue to learn from my competent and capable young learners. Here are my initial thoughts:

The classroom community

  • Inviting students as teachers creates a culture of learning, respect and curiosity
  • Students teaching their peers builds community and invites students to be vulnerable and make mistakes

Through the lens of a child

  • When our students stepped into the role of educators, it provided my DECE partner and I a unique opportunity: to see the world through their eyes. Through their ideas, descriptions and step-by-step processes we were able to develop a deep understanding of the way they view the world, the way they solve problems and the way they persevere through challenges. 
  • Many children enrolled in Kindergarten programs are immersed in their first experiences of formal schooling. For some of my students, my DECE partner and I are their very first examples of educators. The way that children go about giving instructions, gaining the attention of others and providing words of encouragement can be reflective of what they see. It can be very powerful to listen to a student recite an encouraging phrase verbatim, such as “You are a problem solver!”.

Benefits for students

  • Teaching their peers provides students with the space to take risks while gaining confidence in their own ideas and abilities 
  • For the students involved in this practice as the learner, it allows them to explore new ideas or approach learned concepts from a different perspective than my own or that of my DECE partner. 

Inviting students to perform a new role as a teacher is inclusionary, culturally responsive, relevant and meaningful – which is the basis of everything I hope to cultivate in Kindergarten. 

Everything I need to know, I learn in Kindergarten

In our virtual Kindergarten class, my DECE partner and I value each teachable moment. We recognize that our students are constantly making meaningful observations and connections to the world around them. Something I always expected to gain from these 4 and 5 year olds was knowledge. One thing I did not expect was how profound this knowledge would be, or that it could so deeply resonate with me and my pedagogy. 

Here is what my students teach me every day in Kindergarten:

Unconditional Acceptance

One of our students showed up to class one day and announced to the large group that from now on he would like to be called by his new nick name. “What’s your name now?” one of the other students asked. “Willy” he replied, “W-I-L-L-Y” *. 

From that moment on his classmates called him nothing but Willy. 

He requested to be called something different from what we’d all been calling him since the moment we met him in September and they immediately took action. They listened to him, understood him and respected his wishes. They didn’t ask questions, raise concerns or challenge him.

They just did it.

All of them.

The more I think about this, the more amazing it feels. I imagine a world where everyone can be respected like Willy and is addressed by their preferred names and pronouns. This demonstration of kindness and acceptance from children is exemplary.

Patience

It is not me that has learned patience from being their teacher, but me that has learned how to practice patience from them. My students are incredibly patient and kind to each other, to me, my teaching partner and all visitors that enter our class.

I have had entire conversations with my virtual class while my microphone is, in fact, off (cue face palm). They continue to smile at me and remind me to turn it on before I try again. 

They remind me to approach each day with a smile and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Finding the “Why” 

“Why?”

A question our students ask often as they continue throughout their day as investigators, explorers and engineers. Each time they ask this simple but important question, it challenges me to think about my “why”. 

Why have I chosen to teach a lesson in this way? Why have I chosen to implement specific rules, boundaries or routines?

My students’ innocent question of “why” drives me to critically reflect on my practice. This ongoing reflection forces me to live outside of my comfort zone, try new things and make mistakes. Responding to the unique needs of of my students, allows me to demolish the ‘this is the way I’ve always done it’ mindset in order to celebrate individuality and strengthen inclusion in a world that is ever-changing. 

I’m lucky to be a small part of their journey, as my students continue through this school year and beyond. But, I don’t know if they’ll ever truly understand how much I learn from them.

 

* Students name was changed to protect confidentiality

Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Selecting Culturally Relevant and Responsive Resources

Culturally relevant and responsive resources come from a pedagogy that empowers the educator to think differently by addressing dominant ideologies as well as existing and historical oppressions in actionable ways that engages our learners in critical consciousness thinking that inspire change. Gone (or should be gone) are the days when we, as teachers, solely rely on teacher’s guides to develop our lesson plans and units. Don’t get me wrong, teacher’s guides can be very beneficial when planning out a unit, but we must embed the identities and learning needs of all our students ahead of printed resources. Taking time to get to know your students and embedding their lived experiences, using culturally relevant and responsive resources, will create a much more engaging learning environment and thereby improve student success. 

 

Culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy also looks at how race, gender, class, sexual orientation and ability intersect to create lived experiences for our students and how those experiences play out in the classroom and in society. The concept of intersectionality is part of an inclusive approach to teaching and can be incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum. Regardless of the subject, the identities and needs of students must drive the teaching practices and strategies in the learning environment. Students get to see their whole self being represented in their learning and are thereby empowered to challenge inequities and demand change. 

 

In order for this kind of change to be imagined, educators must first create brave spaces, rather than safe spaces, for learners to openly and freely speak their truth and pose critical questions. One that doesn’t create judgments based on identity or experience, but rather one that builds courage, individually and collectively, to address challenging and controversial issues. Brave spaces take time, collaboration, commitment and willingness to be open and vulnerable in front of others, something that is hard for most people to do, teachers and students alike.

 

Another important factor to consider is the idea of intent vs impact. As we plan our lessons/activities, lead discussions and interact with others, we need to be conscious and mindful of the impact of our actions on others. Sometimes, perhaps without knowing,  the intention of our actions have a negative impact on the person(s) receiving/absorbing the information or actions. Why does this keep happening in our society? Why are individuals not mindful or aware of the impact of their actions? In my opinion, embedded in the intent is the oppression and isms that are systemic in nature and play out in our society’s norms and practices. Therefore, we often see our actions as “normal” instead of something that can be hurtful, uncomfortable or oppressive to someone else. I am reminded of one of my favourite words of wisdom (not sure of the original author):

“Be mindful of your thoughts, as they become your words;

Be mindful of your words, as they become your actions;

Be mindful of your actions, as they become your habits;

Be mindful of your habits, as they become your character;

Be mindful of your character, as it becomes your destiny.”  

 

Some things to consider when choosing culturally relevant and responsive resources:

– who are the students in your classroom and how are their identities and lived experiences reflected in the learning environment and in your teaching practices?

– students can be co-collaborator (part of the decision-making process) of the resources selected for the classroom

– choose books/resources that best represent the different aspects of student identity and lived experiences

– encourage students to challenge stereotypes, prejudices, biases, barriers and oppression

– provide opportunities for students to take action to address critical issues that impact their daily lives

As you learn about your students’ identities, intersectionality, goals and real-time experiences, consider how all that information can be used to inform your curriculum planning, your teaching practices and the resources/topics you share/address with students.

 

When selecting books and other resources, consider asking yourself the following questions:

–  Whose perspective is this text written from?

– Whose ideologies are at the center of discussion in this resource?

– Are the perspectives, beliefs and identities of the author or developer aligned with the big ideas shared in the resource?

– Does the resource actually reflect student’s abilities, social identities and lived experiences?

– Does the resource reinforce, perpetuate or highlight stereotypes or misrepresentations of specific groups and identities?

– If so, in what ways might you address these inequities? 

 

Once you have chosen your books/resources, create rich, culturally relevant and intentional questions that invoke critical thinking in students and empowers them to take action to command change. 

There are many resources you can access to support your planning. Most Boards have (or should have) a list of culturally relevant and responsive teaching resources. Your local newspapers (you might be able to subscribe to get electronic copies) often write articles on relevant issues and current events. You can subscribe to magazines, such as What In The World, that focus on current events and global issues. And of course, ETFO has a list of culturally relevant and responsive resources at your fingertip. There is a Social Justice page with resources that address Anti-Oppression, Anti-Racism, Anti-Asian Racism, Anti-Black Racism, Antisemitism, Islamophobia, Women’s issues, 2SLGBTQ+, First Nation, Metis and Inuit, Climate Change and Disability Programs. I also have a small list of digital books and resources that might be of interest to you. Just a few things to get you started. Remember, your planning pedagogy begins and ends with the hearts and minds of the students in your classroom.

Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.

 

The Importance of Trust

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to uncertainty and change in education.  Just when I think I have a handle on the way things are going to go for the week there is a Government announcement that changes the plan.  I am “pivoting” so much I have motion sickness. When decisions that affect a work environment seem to be constantly changing, trust becomes more important than ever.  In a recent video “How Leaders Build Trust,” author and leadership thought leader Simon Sinek, describes trust:  “Trust is a feeling. It is earned and evolves based on a series of actions that prove that you are worthy of trust.  It creates a sense of belonging.  When you don’t feel trust or without a circle of safety, we inherently concern ourselves with our own survival and become cynical, selfish and paranoid.  You become convinced that everything is trying to hurt you.  We do things to protect ourselves.”  In her book “Braving the Wilderness”, author Berne Brown says that “in the absence of communication we make up stories and the majority of what we tell ourselves isn’t true.  In fact, our brain goes into self-protection mode and those stories that we make up are often exaggerate our worst fears and insecurities.” It is hard to learn or work when you are in self protection mode.

In learning more about culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, I have noticed that a common keystone element in what I’ve been reading is that trust is crucial to creating a truly inclusive classroom.  In the famous YouTube video “Every Kid Needs a Champion” educator and speaker Rita Pierson stated, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  I would go one step further to say that even more so, kids aren’t likely to learn from people they don’t trust.

So how do we create an environment of trust in which students can be their absolute best? More specifically how do we do this at a time when we are teaching students over Google Meet, through a PPE shield and mask or even through video that students watch asynchronously? I think that we do it the same way we would in a pre-COVID classroom.  One small interaction at a time.  I recently experienced an a-ha moment while engaging in a webinar called “The Neuroscience of Trust” presented by Dr. Rumeet Billan.  According to Dr. Billan; “Trust is something that has to be given to you and needs to be earned.”  Trust is something that comes from repeated behaviours that demonstrate that we are worthy of trust.  When we repeatedly demonstrate that we listen actively, show authentic care and empathy, we generate trust.  When we provide opportunities that deliberately and intentionally extend trust, such as giving students voice and choice in their learning, we generate trust.  When we provide actionable and meaningful feedback to students and celebrate their learning goals with them, we generate trust.  When we provide learning opportunities for students to make mistakes, when we celebrate the learning from mistakes and provide an opportunity to try again, we generate trust.  When we genuinely demonstrate transparency with students such as admitting to not knowing all of the answers about a concept or sharing times where we have failed and persevered, we generate trust.

Creating an environment of trust with our students and with our colleagues is something that we have to work on daily. It is currency that we build up with one another to draw on in a time of need.  I think of creating an environment of trust like learning how to play a musical instrument.  You cannot learn to play an instrument by practicing for seven hours straight.  You need to practice daily in order to become truly proficient.  When you don’t practice, you get rusty.  When things in my classroom feel as if they are particularly stressful or students are exhibiting behaviours that are uncharacteristic, I usually come to the realization that it is because  trust has eroded between us.  It might be that I haven’t been recognizing their accomplishments as readily.  It might be that I haven’t been giving them challenging opportunities to learn that extends trust to them to persevere and practice resilience. It may be that I haven’t followed through on something that I said was going to happen.  When I come to those realizations I have to go back to the student and repair that trust. Ignoring the event will only widen the gap. If we want kids to be innovative, creative and take risks a psychologically safe space with mutual trust is essential.  It doesn’t happen overnight but by making it a priority, amazing learning will happen.

Attitude of Gratitude

Many years ago I remember watching a gratitude themed Oprah episode.  There was a gratitude journal that the guest had developed and was relaying all of the benefits of writing down things that you were grateful for each day.  The power of suggestion (I’m a sucker for an impulse buy for self-improvement) lead me to the nearest Chapters to purchase one of those journals that weekend.  I certainly didn’t fill that journal. I think I lost interest in a couple of months because it felt as though I was writing the same thing over and over again.  I realize now that gratitude, like mindfulness and meditation, is a “practice.”

Gratitude practice is most effective when life is rough.  It sounds counterintuitive.  It is much easier to be grateful when things are going well right?  Easy to “count your blessings” when you are sitting on a beach in a resort in the Dominican Republic.  I personally feel the power of the gratitude practice when life isn’t going according to plan.  Though, I want to be clear here, there is a fine line between true gratitude practice and “looking on the bright side” or “finding the silver lining.”  That bright-side-silver-lining thinking can border on toxic positivity which isn’t helpful.

Gratitude practice means different things to different people.  For me, it is connected to daily journaling.  Each night since the fall I have been writing about my day in terms of gratitude before going to bed. Some nights I might write for 5 minutes.  Some nights I write for a half hour.  It might read something like, “I’m grateful that we got outside for a walk, that my son felt good about his essay after all of the struggles and tears, that we were able to eat a healthy meal, for Hello Fresh being delivered to my door and for the opportunity to reach out and connect to some new teachers through professional learning today.”  I try to reflect on the events of my day in terms of gratitude.  I could write in my journal that the technology in my professional learning session that day was glitchy, we got off to a rocky start trying to get everyone into the WebEx room, and there were links that didn’t work even though I had tested them twice. Instead, I choose to be grateful for the connection and discussion that I had with the teachers that day.  It isn’t that I ignore that bad things happen or think about how things can be improved, but ruminating on the bad things that happened during the day right before going to bed isn’t going to ensure much of a restful sleep.

In some of the professional learning opportunities that I have recently hosted with new teachers we have discussed the struggles of the current climate in the classroom.  It is important to have a safe place for teachers to voice those concerns and have someone listen with compassion and empathy and ask curious questions.  I will often say that there are many things that I can’t help them with, but that I am there to “embrace the suck” with them.   At the conclusion of those discussions my final question is always, “What is a recent personal or professional success that you’ve experienced that you would like to share with the group?”  This ends the discussion on a note of gratitude. It is SO easy to get caught up in venting and complaining about the situation in education right now. Teaching it is NOT an easy job on any given day but the difficulties have grown exponentially with the pressures that COVID has added.  So when we can take a moment to remember why we continue to go to work each day, why we got into the job in the first place and what our recent wins have been, I think it brings a feeling of hope.

Sometimes I practice gratitude in a less formal way that is more like mindfulness.  Recently while walking on a treed trail on a bright, sunny, winter day with my best friend, I stopped mid sentence and just looked around at the beauty.  I said to my friend, “I just had to take a minute to take this in.  We are so fortunate to be able to walk here.”  It only took a moment.  I don’t do that all of the time, we’d never get anywhere on our walks! However, remembering to do it every so often helps me to deal with stress and the bad things when they do happen.  If in the moment of a stressful situation I can take a moment to breathe and practice gratitude it sometimes keeps the emotions from escalating.  When conversing with someone who is frustrated and perhaps complaining or lashing out I try to remember that this person is doing the best they can at that moment and that each opportunity to interact with someone who is suffering is a chance to learn and I try to be grateful for that.  Author Andrea Owen in her book, “How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t” would call it an AFOG-another flipping opportunity for growth.  When I remember to think about gratitude in a not so great moment, I might do it raised shoulders and through gritted teeth, but I keep trying.  It is, after all a practice.

“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.” -Brene Brown

At a loss for words

Did anyone else have a very hard time before class Thursday, January 7th?

Thinking about how to start discussing the terrorist attacks in the United States on Wednesday, January 6th? I spent the entire evening feeling sick about the whole situation. Then, an entirely new wave of anxiety came over me knowing that I would need to address it with my grade seven students.

At first I reached out to fellow intermediate educators, asking them how they were going to start this challenging discussion. They mentioned breakout groups, article readings and then discussions. Then I spoke to some friends about it who helped me come up with careful and sensitive things to say. In this profession, it is hard to speak about these topics (without being political) and to do so in a calm and professional manner. This attack was something that was devastating towards many people, especially BLM activists who were attacked with tear gas, etc. when they peacefully protesting in 2020.

The morning of January 7th arrived and class had begun. I always start the day with morning music and I found it appropriate to play the song “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas. I found some of my students did not know what had happened the night before. A student in my class asked to speak on the mic and inform them about the terrorist attacks on the US Capitol. That student spoke very well and did a good job informing anyone who did not see the news, instagram, twitter or other social media platforms. I spoke about it for a while and explained the importance of positive role models/leaders in societies. Followers will always act on behalf of their leaders and this led to a discussion about positive leaders and how they have positively inspired change (Greta Thunberg, David Suzuki, etc.) Our conversation lasted about thirty minutes and was mostly student-led. Many grade sevens came on the mic to share their thoughts and they all did so in a respectful and calm way. Many students expressed their sadness for families that had children going through many things in the past year: forest fires, a pandemic, the death of Georg Floyd, the violent police response to BLM protestors, remote learning, election issues and then, this. We talked about how we are merely watching from Canada but imagine being in that city during this event, worrying about what may happen to you and your family. My favourite part of the discussion was when one of my students expressed her gratitude for talking about the situation rather than pretending it never happened and going about our day. This made me feel that the discussion had gone well and reaffirmed my thoughts about why current events cannot be swept under the rug (especially with intermediate students). We eventually went on with our day after first checking with all students, making sure that they were okay to move on from the challenging topic.

This week, we received an Emergency Alert on Thursday that informed us we are in a State of Emergency and a stay-at-home order is now in effect. This came during class time and many of my students own phones. We discussed what this means and I made sure to answer any questions students may have had. I discussed how the return to school date had been pushed back (that does not matter to us as we are always a remote class), plus the outdoor gathering size had changed to five and also, just to try their best to only leave home for important reasons. We had a great conversation about how the word “exercise” was now added as a reason to leave home. We continued a discussion about how mental health relates to exercise. This had tied in nicely to our healthy living presentations which had been going on during the week. We talked about how important it was that the government acknowledged that leaving your home for a walk or a run was an important thing to do.

After all the discussions were said and done, we did get back to our usual topics but as we know, the mental health of our students is the most important topic and we should always do our best to check in. This is especially important as we continue to learn online, with little to no face- to-face interactions with our students.

I am hoping everyone had a great start to 2021 so far and all that challenging conversations went as smoothly as they could go. I know I was extremely anxious about the conversations but I shouldn’t have been because my students prove to me time and time again their maturity and positive attitude towards their learning and overall outlook on our world.

From zero to one hundred, real quick!

As my online teaching journey continues, I find myself always thinking about the importance of reaching all students.

Last week, I noticed I only had about 13 out of 31 students participating daily. I wouldn’t see the other students writing in the chat, posting in the discussion section or raising their hand to speak on the mic. I started to worry if they were even in front of the screen during our calls. I started to think about solutions to this problem. I contacted every family in the class to touch base about their child’s online participation. Not even one hour later, I noticed a huge change in my entire class. I know this motivation came from a parent this time, but in the future I believe it could turn into self motivation. I received 25 out of 31 responses in math, 18 readers for our online novel, nine more short story submissions and six students speaking on the microphone for the very first time. To top it all off, this was happening on a Friday afternoon!I wondered if Friday was just going to be a one off and students would go back to their bystander ways in the future, but participation during these past two days have been better than ever. Not only that, my original 13 that participate so much (since the first day) are always encouraging everyone that is just starting to participate. The environment could not get any better!

We started off this week talking about goal setting and the importance of student participation in the classroom. Every Monday, students would set a goal that they hope to achieve by Friday. On Friday, I will ask students to type in the chat or use the microphone to share if they met that goal. If they did not, their classmates will help them brainstorm ideas for them to reach it the next time.

I know teaching new concepts is something that I can do during math, language, etc. but I love when the students get to hear from each other on that microphone or in the chat. In math, I find students teaching each other concepts before I am even quick enough to reply. In language, students are congratulating each other about their reading abilities before I even think to do so. My favourite moment of last week was in drama when a student gave away his turn because he wanted someone else to have a turn who had not participated yet. I constantly feel like crying tears of joy because of the supportive environment my class has created.

I look forward to continuing this online journey as I know I have a group of hardworking, goal oriented, passionate and kind students.  I am so fortunate to be on this learning journey and I am learning that the online environment really is turning out to be an incredible place for student growth. I cannot wait to share another great success story!

 

Say Less, Ask More

Sometimes the smallest change can make a huge difference, especially in education. Things such as greeting students individually upon arrival at school can set the tone for the entire day.  Small changes in habitual behaviours can improve communication and relationships with students.

Over the last few months I’ve been reading the work of Michael Bungay Stanier.  Most recently I’ve been reading “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever”.  I admit, that at first blush, it doesn’t sound as though this book has much relevance to elementary education.  However, as I was reading I kept making connections to communicating with students more effectively to encourage independence.  As learning becomes more inquiry based in many classrooms, teachers are having to move into more of a coaching role.  I think that the education sector as a whole has made some assumptions that teachers know how to be effective coaches and facilitators.  In my own teaching practice, there has been a huge learning curve.  Teaching through inquiry isn’t about leaving students to their own devices.  Students generally aren’t familiar with the curriculum and other than being children, they aren’t experts on child development.  Educators have to be guides for student learning.  But what exactly does that mean and how do we transition to this type of teaching?

For me the biggest change and challenge in becoming more of a guide in my classroom was talking less and letting the students do the learning. I am a problem solver, helper and rescuer and I’m sure many teachers can relate, which is why it is so hard to be quiet and back off.  I’ve also learned that asking questions might be easy, but asking effective questions is a skill for teachers and students alike.

So what did I learn from a “coaching” book that might help a classroom teacher? Keep in mind, these examples might be better suited for the older grades.  You might need to keep it a bit more simple for Kindergarten.  However, in most cases, better questions get better answers.  Here are some examples:

A student comes in from recess and is visibly upset.  Instead of asking, “What’s wrong? Did something happen at recess?  Can I help?”  Try asking just one question, “What’s on your mind?” and then be quiet and listen. The question “What’s on your mind?” is a focused question and invites someone to get into the heart of the matter. Sometimes all that is needed is a venting session and the child feels better.  You don’t always have to be a rescuer or problem solver. Most of the time, kids just want to be heard.

Normally in a situation like this I’ll ask, “Can I help?’ or “Would you like some help?”  However, the small change to “HOW can I help?” helps the student to articulate their request.  In addition, it gives them the opportunity to identify the solution and not have the adult jump in to solve things for them.

Tweaking the questions that we ask could improve communication and lead to more effective answers.  In addition, asking focused questions could empower students and lead to more independence. Michael’s work and questioning techniques are helpful for dealing with the people in your workplace.  You can sign up for Michael Bungay Stanier’s “The Coaching Habit” Podcast online and find other great coaching resources at Box of Crayons .

 

What is the purpose of a bulletin board?

When you walk into a classroom what is the first thing you see? Decorated bulletin boards?

Looking at bulletin boards often reflect what is happening in a classroom. Bulletin boards often show teachers’ focus on particular curriculum and what students are doing in the classroom. But what do bulletin boards say about teachers’ practices or schools’ efficacy?

Bulletin boards as a reflection of a school or classroom

A New York Times article by Abby Goodnough, Judging a School by Its Posters; Bulletin Boards Are Scrutinized, and Fretted Over, discusses how schools’ and/or teachers’ are judged through how hallways and classrooms are decorated instead of actually examining the pedagogy that is in place.
The article goes on to state bulletin boards “have a far weightier role … as the educational standards movement has required students to master ever-longer lists of skills — and required teachers to explain exactly how they are teaching them — bulletin boards have become an intensely monitored showplace for progress. They are especially important in low-performing schools, which are constantly scrutinized by city and state education officials and under heavy pressure to show improvement.”
Teachers … “complain that administrators dwell too much on how the boards look.” “Sometimes, teachers say, principals make them redo boards that are judged too quirky or dull. Some principals also demand new displays if ” they are damaged.

Bulletin Boards to Make Learning Visible

In a Making Learning Visible Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it states that bulletin boards make learning visible by communicating and creating “values about teaching and learning” by making “individual thinking available to the group and support collective knowledge-building” and helping “learners to make connections across units and subject matter.” Further, bulletin boards “provide opportunities to connect learning experiences across classrooms or time.” Here, the role of bulletin boards is to make students’ learning visible.

Teacher Based vs Students’ Work

Another issue with bulletin boards is not just about the audience but about the content. Some teachers put up inspirational posters and/or curriculum content which is teacher based. Other teachers put up only student work. And some teachers have a combination of both.

Student Driven Bulletin Boards

When I first started teaching, my bulletin boards centered on what we were studying in the classroom with some space dedicated to students’ work. But I have developed an approach of only student centred bulletin boards where students create them with the teacher using students’ work. This means that the space becomes the students, not driven by the teacher. I even have my students decide on the bulletin board boarders.

The Learning Environment as The Third Teacher

An important issue to consider when putting anything up in a classroom is students’ over-stimulation. Given that students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can experience over stimulation due to “too much stuff on the classroom walls”, teachers should take this into account when they choose what should go on bulletin boards and how it impacts students’ concentration and focus. Sometimes the classroom environment can just be too stimulating!

The Ontario Capacity Building Series notes how the learning environment, The Third Teacher, “can either enhance the kind of learning that optimizes our students’ potential to respond creatively and meaningfully to future challenges or detract from it.”

Finally, when considering classroom decorating, please be mindful of Health and Safety regulations about too much paper on the walls (i.e. usually less than 20%).

Here are some ideas to promote student focused, learner centred bulletin boards:

  • The Fridge – a bulletin board where each student has their own space to display their work
  • To Do List s– where students list work that needs to be done for the day/week (my students love this as they create it themselves)
  • Student developed Word Walls for curriculum topics
  • Student developed Math Walls – listing vocabulary, formulas, graphics that students find important
  • Height Wall – showing how much students have grown in the year (it’s fun to track how fast students are growing and it’s also a great visual to understand linear metric measurement)
  • Data Wall – graphs displaying classroom surveys such as “What is your favourite pizza topping?”
  • Student made calendar – tracking upcoming events for the week and month
  • Class goals for the week or month

For me, in the end what matters is that the students feel like the classroom belongs to them as they have designed it – like an extension of their home space.

I dedicate this blog to my son’s (favourite ever) grade 5 teacher, Ms. G, who recently shared with me the following:

“I can vividly remember TS –  he was such a nice boy, full of life, and so smart. It was also at the beginning of my teaching career, and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Being a new teacher, I wanted my boards to look beautiful for my students. I went and bought all the boarders and colourful art work to decorate them. One day, TS told me he couldn’t concentrate – that the bulletin boards were too distracting. I had never even thought about how the beautifully decorated boards could have been a distraction.

From then on, I thought about my classroom set up, and how I could make it a calming place.  I stripped the boards, made them one colour and became much more thoughtful on trying to create a calming place for my students. I also  created different spaces to cater to my students’ needs. Thank you to TS who opened my eyes. The student teaches the teacher.”

Even after 20 years, I too get “taught” by my students every day. My son, TS, turns 26 years old this month!

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston