Thursday, December 11, 2014

Where are we now?

So we've nearly reached the end of the year and things have continued to develop since my last entry. The physical changes in our classroom have continued to work successfully and the two classes have merged to the point where I almost can't remember which kids were originally in my class! We do most things together now and the integrating of the two classes for numeracy, literacy, inquiry and other classroom happenings has led to some really effective teaching and learning.

So 'what's the point?' I hear you cry. Here are some of the positive aspects of the systems we've introduced:

- Sharing of planning, resources, energy and teacher expertise has gone a long way to reduce teacher burnout. We've been able to support and learn from each other throughout the year, and having another skilled adult in the room to share the load has been invaluable. Relaxed, happy teachers means relaxed, happy kids who are able to think, learn and co-operate. Even at this late stage in the year, we are all feeling less stressed and there is a lovely, consistently calm and happy vibe in our classroom.

- Regular collaboration and discussion has improved teacher growth. We are learning from each other all the time and our professional knowledge has grown at a rate that otherwise wouldn't happen in a 'single cell' environment.

- The children's learning has benefited from various styles of delivery. We have seen positive results in national standards data (although it's difficult to prove that this is a result of our new systems) but, more importantly, the children have increased hugely in their ability to cope with change and take risks in their learning. Adaptability, flexibility and risk taking are lifelong skills and are far more important than this year's numbers.

- Through strategic grouping of children, we have been able to address a greater number of learning needs. We have been able to devote more focused teaching time to the areas of greatest need.

- The children have access to each other. A wider range of skills and personalities has given children access to a wealth of learning discussions and situations.

As far as the areas for improvement go, there are 2 aspects that stand out for me. 1: Break-out areas are a must. In this age of national standards, testing is a necessary evil and spaces need to be provided to cater for this. 2: Loss of desks meant loss of surfaces to create art on. I'll need to come up with a plan for an art area next year.

Of course, we've asked the kids for their thoughts too and it's been unanimous: We love it!
When surveyed, some of their comments were:

"I've enjoyed having 2 teachers to help me. If one is busy, the other one can help when I need it."
"I love that we designed our own spaces and can work in a space that suits us."
"I like that I can work with different people from another class."
"I like that I can go way down the other end of the room if I need a change from our end."
"It's cool that we have games, iPads and laptops from 2 classrooms. There's heaps more to choose from!"
"I like how the teachers are good at different things they can teach us. Like Kurt is good at art and Kirsty is good at sport."

Very satisfying!

I guess the biggest buzz for me (although, there were a few) has been the improvement in their ability to direct their own learning.
At the beginning of the year, I told my class: "I'll know if I've done a good job of teaching you because you will be a community of independent learners. There should be no use for me. I should be able to sit on the couch in class all day and read the paper while you manage your own learning."
Sure enough, yesterday I strolled into class in the morning with my newspaper and plonked myself down on the couch. The class had prepared the day. They did the roll, the planning, the photocopying, the groupings, the management, the teaching and the problem solving all day. No fights, no gripes, no off-task behaviour at all, all day.

Here's what it looked like:

Happy, self-managing kids. Very happy teacher!

Hope you've got something out of this and that it goes some way towards helping you develop your own thoughts around modern learning pedagogy and environments.

Have a great Christmas and Summer holidays. Maybe you'll hear from me again next year :)


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Team teaching

Today Kirsty and I had our first crack at a new team teaching approach. Our classes already interchange daily for maths and, although the two classes exchange students to cater for different abilities, they are planned and taught quite separately. Today we took it a step further. In order to maximise our shared spaces, equipment and teaching strengths, we combined our classes and took a more collaborative approach to planning and teaching our measurement lesson.

Together, Kirsty and I decided on our goals, the timeframe and our roles for the lesson. We devised some independent measurement investigations for the kids and collected the equipment we needed - rulers, scales, ipads, Numicon equipment, text books, worksheets, whiteboards and maths books. We also planned our own group lessons. At the beginning of the session we explained the format of the lesson, their instructions for the set investigations, expectations for self-management, work standards, and the equipment available to them.

The children were invited to work wherever and with whomever they liked. They were able to work at either end of our double classroom, at desks and low tables, on cushions or the couch, on the floor or outside. So they gathered up their equipment and off they went to measure their little hearts out.
We had 100% of both classes on-task and engaged for the whole hour and a half. They loved it!

Learning about perimeter and area using Numicon

They had to take a selfie with their creation

Kirsty and I took turns at teaching specific skills to focus groups. While she worked with a group of students with particular needs, I roamed around the rest of them guiding and teaching wherever it was required. Then we swapped - I worked with a group while she took on the roaming teacher role.

At the end of the session, we regrouped, shared our learning and evaluated the lesson as a class. The kids enjoyed it. They loved the freedom, the challenge and the ability to work with whoever they liked. They also enjoyed having a teacher free to help them when needed. Around 70% of them said they worked with a teacher at some point, so we'll be aiming for a better hit rate next time. It was a complete success, however. The kids got some real quality learning time with easier access to a teacher at all times, and each teacher's strengths were more fully utilised than they might otherwise be.

Probably a bit much for daily use until we streamline a few things but definitely a great option for future Wednesdays! :)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Action time!

After 2 weeks holiday, and with the previous terms planning phase complete, we were all ready to start taking some action. A lot of anticipation had built up and the class were bursting at the seams to get started.
The first port of call was the parents. We had a Dad kindly come in and saw the metal legs off 2 of our tables, as per the kids' requirements.

The goal was to create some lower learning areas so the kids could kneel around them or sit on cushions while they work. Here's what they looked like when they were done:

We had some parents doing refurbishments at home, who kindly donated a big square of carpet (to cover our tired old mat space) and some large pieces of plywood which we used to create some quiet, distraction-free individual spaces. And (ironically) we found a reason to dig out a couple of old-school desks. Turns out there was still a use for them!

We took every item of furniture out of the room and our school caretaker kindly disappeared all of the unwanted stuff for us (like 75% of our desks). Then we put it all back in again according to our plan. It took some reshuffling as our design wasn't quite to scale, but this all went fairly smoothly.

(At this point I'm kicking myself for not taking any 'before' photos. Grrr!)

Anyway, here are the 'after' photos:

No desks!
The kids loved it! Not only were they enthusiastic about coming to school and learning in their brand new environment, but their behaviour immediately changed. They remember to pick up their rubbish, move safely inside, put away their books and games.... They are proud of their classroom and don't want to mess it up!

Happy kids. Happy teacher. :)

Next steps: Using the environment, reviewing and adapting it as we go, and working on the finishing touches - Painting, art work, finer details.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Buy in!

Today we started the overall design for our new classroom. Referring to our previous brainstorms and lists about what we want to keep/change/develop in our environment, the class gathered around in a circle as I led the discussion. I drew the floor plan while I talked, gesticulating enthusiastically, getting up to pace out measurements, asking questions and generating discussion like a good teacher should, vaguely aware, and (shamefully) not really caring, that I was completely dominating the whole thing.

When one, particularly confident, child got up to demonstrate his opinion on my plan, the class shuffled in a little to see. He enthusiastically showed us his way of shifting our mat space so that the sun wouldn't shine in their eyes in the mornings. The class shuffled in a little more as he got more excited and started to share more ideas, this time about independent learning areas, asking questions of the class and pacing around, gesticulating as I had been. The rest of the class responded and, somewhat bemused, I was gradually squeezed out of the group to become a happy observer. It was great to watch!

After a few minutes the class noticed someone was missing and all just stopped. They looked at me for a moment while I just smiled back. My replacement said: "Oh my god, I totally just took over what you were doing. Sorry!" The class giggled as he threw my pen back to me. I wouldn't hear of it, of course, and passed it straight back.

Kids taking charge of their own learning.

I knew I already had the buy in. Today was the evidence.

Here's our final plan:

Getting started...

Now that the kids have had some exposure to the whole MLE scene, it's time to get them involved in planning and discussing their own learning environment. So we started today.

It all stems from our school vision: "To be a quality learning environment, nurturing the values of C.A.R.E. (Citizenship, Achievement, Responsibility, Effort)" We talked a lot about what that meant and why it's important that we keep this as our focal point. It immediately filtered out some of their more radical ideas. Spa pool seats and trampoline floors were happily kicked to the kerb.
Pity. I was pretty much sold on the spa seating idea.

Then I showed them some images from classrooms of the 70s and 80s and they were horrified at the dullness and uniformity of it all. We discussed what we liked (not much) and what we didn't like about these classrooms. On top of that, I threw in a few juicy anecdotes from my own schooling - Things like rote learning, conformity, sexism, racism and the dreaded strap for minor misdemeanors. Again, they were shocked and beginning to recognise that education changes and evolves with time, knowledge and technology. Hopefully this will spark up some dinner table conversations at home about what quality learning may or may not look like.

At this point, while conducting my own meandering research, I came across this article and shared it with the class: It raised a few eyebrows.

With the focus firmly on quality learning, they arranged themselves into groups of three. I posed the question: 'What kinds of spaces do we learn best in?' Not really ideal grammar, but it got them started. Here's what they came up with...

From here, we discussed the kinds of furniture and classroom features we would need to create these spaces. Keeping the third, a third, a third rule in mind, the children redesigned their classroom individually. They took some time to consider the spaces needed and came up with much more realistic ideas than previously.
We were already catering for some of these in our present classroom, so next we identified what we wanted to keep and what needed to change....

To support the class through this process, we discussed our hopes and fears surrounding the changes. We attached our key values to each hope or fear. The goal of this was to remove any fear and ensure we didn't lose sight of what we valued as a class. Here's what it looked like:

Then it was the holidays so we all went home for 2 weeks. :)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Here we go...

Yesterday we had a teacher only day. Our whole staff took a day to tour some established and some nearly established Modern Learning Environments around Christchurch. It was basically more of what we saw in Melbourne but very interesting and valuable to see things in a local context. These schools, like us, were affected by the earthquakes and are developing spaces around buildings that are damaged, under repair or purpose-built, depending on each school's individual situation. I picked up some great ideas for our own developing MLE.
At one point I was filmed explaining the process I underwent with my class last year. I hate being on camera! I was all red and stuttery, but think managed to communicate some sort of message, however garbled. Will post a link to this for you when it's been edited (ruthlessly, I hope!) and made public.

So today, after sharing my photos and observations from our tour with my class, it was time to get the kids' thinking in line with mine. Two weeks ago I set them a task to design their dream classroom. I put no restrictions, parameters or expectations on them. I felt like I needed to motivate and inspire them without putting barriers in the way of their creativity. It was all about generating ideas and enthusiasm and setting us up to talk about safety, sustainability and quality learning.
What they came up with surprised me. They came to school with models, artworks, floor plans... one child brought his X-Box and another brought her own ipad, both of which had used Minecraft to design their classrooms in 3D.

 Listening to a whole class speak 'Minecraft' is an interesting experience.

The traditional methods of presentation had some clever creative thought put into them, too. 
(More design photos coming)

And, as you might expect, they shared amazing things like trampoline floors, spa pool seating, indoor farmyards and bouncy castle reading areas. Perfect! They lined me up beautifully for questions like: Is it sustainable? What are the financial/environmental costs? Will it improve learning? Is it safe? Is it useful to all learners? Can children with special needs move around?
However, surprisingly, most of their ideas and concepts were actually geared to be realistic and to improve learning. I was pretty impressed.

After sharing of presentations, we watched this news article about the opening of Pegasus Bay School, a brand new MLE, which opened yesterday:

The kids loved it! They had ideas firing all over the show and I suspect the boss is about to be inundated with requests for exciting new furniture, dazzling new colour schemes and removal of walls, windows and possibly even the roof. Suddenly their wonderful homework designs seemed like a fantasy compared to the exciting possibilities of reality!

So that's it. 'Motivate and inspire' phase complete.

Next step: bring them crashing back down to a world of consultation, compromise, planning and budgets. :)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Next steps

So now it's a new year. I've since been promoted to team leader of the year 3/4 team at my school.
I've changed levels, moved classrooms, inherited a whole lot of new responsibilities... and still I need to make this MLE thing a success.
Where to go next?

Luckily, with a supportive principal and Board of Trustees, I've got the freedom to play with some new ideas and develop things further. The first thing we did after I moved classrooms was remove a wall between my room and the room next door to create one big space opening the two classes up to each other. Scary stuff! What about the noise? What about another class moving around our room? How will we cope? Here's what happened:

I started off the year with a normal classroom layout and a desk for every child. I could have started off with the radical classroom environment we'd progressed to last year, but I want the kids to be involved in the process of developing it. Also, It would have been quite a shock to many of the parents. After all, I'm new to this part of the school and they're still getting to know me and the first thing I've done is knock down a wall to the adjoining room. Baby steps!
The goal this year is to move towards team teaching with Amy, the teacher next door (or, rather, down the other end of our huge room!) The purpose of this is to make the most of our strengths - between the two of us we have a much larger range of skills and experience, strengths and weaknesses, and the potential to share and half our workload in certain areas. In such a busy, demanding profession it just makes sense to devote our time and energy to the right places.

We've started this year by each running our own, individual programmes in our own way. We've kept the two classes almost completely separate, apart from meeting together as a large group twice a day. We start each day with 15 minutes of karakia, singing and sign language, which Amy leads us through down her end of the classroom. After lunch, we all meet at my end for a shared story and related discussion. We've kept it like this throughout term one while things settle and this has allowed the children to develop good routines and get to know both teachers as well as students from both classes.
Even though we've kept things fairly separate, there have been times when team teaching has just occurred naturally as we bounce ideas and discussion off each other and the children. So nice to have another adult in the room! It kind of magnifies the teaching, with the two of us enhancing each other's lessons with our comments and input.

This term, we've introduced a maths interchange into the programme. We planned the unit together, mixing all 50 children together according to needs and ability. Amy, with her recent junior school experience, teaches the children working at the lower stages of the curriculum while I, with my senior school experience, work with the higher level students. We set up a task board, which the kids refer to at the beginning of maths time and the routines have fallen into place quite smoothly. It was surprising how readily our wonderful (yet slightly traitorous) students adapted to heading off to work with a different teacher each day.
This is the point where we've had to start compromising! It's not as bad as it sounds. During the planning stage, we've both been able to hang on to the key parts of our maths programmes that are important to us and to pick out the parts of each other's programmes we like to incorporate into our own teaching. Communication and compromise are important.
Luckily we seem to be good at these because we still like each other. So far, so good!

So we're prepared to keep going and looking forward to taking it further...