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...

The follow up

Of course, after exploring MLEs in Australia, I came back very enthused, fizzing with ideas, and ready to bowl our school and rebuild a brand new one. I was all set to reinvent my own classroom as a cutting edge, top-of-the-line, A-grade super-MLE!

But I didn't. Knocking down a school is not really my call.

So I did what I could to introduce some of the concepts I'd seen into my existing classroom. My enthusiasm was infectious. By the time I'd shared my experiences and photos with my year 6 class, they were as keen as I was to make some changes to our learning environment.
So here's the process we followed:

1. It was important to keep ourselves focused on improving learning and not get too carried away with our new found passion for interior design. So first we looked at our school vision and talked about what it meant and what quality learning looks like.

2. To get the ball rolling and generate ideas, I set the kids a homework task to design their dream classroom. We talked about meeting learning needs, considering safety and thinking about things like lighting, heating, environmental impact, use of space, special needs access and sustainability. These came back in a variety of forms.
They designed floor plans, built models, wrote descriptions... some even took us on a tour of a virtual classroom using their beloved Minecraft! Who would've thought it had a practical use? Fantastic!

We looked at designs by other schools, too.

 3. After that, we brainstormed: "How do we learn best?"
They came up with things like by myself, in a group, as a class, 1:1 with a teacher, curled up in a beanbag, outside, up high, kneeling at low tables, leaning at high desks... When we discussed it in depth, a surprising range of suggestions came to the surface.

(At this point I introduced a concept we'd seen in Melbourne known as the 'a third, a third, a third' rule: A third of our learning spaces should be designed to cater for whole class discussion and instructional teaching, ie mat space. A third should allow for small group collaboration, and the remaining third should be set aside as individual spaces for children to work in by themselves and away from distractions. The kids adapted their MLE designs to allow for this.)

4. Next, we brainstormed "What spaces do we need to help us learn best?" and "What skills will we need to manage this?" From this discussion, we came up with skills like self-management, motivation, active listening, collaborative group skills and managing noise level.

5. It was important to remove any fears they had surrounding potential changes, so at this point we discussed our hopes and fears in relation to our new classroom. We listed what they hoped to get out of the new learning spaces and also listed any fears they had about the change. We attached a value to each of these, so that if changes were made that affected what was important to them, we were able to address these values in other ways.

6. Then it was time for action. We boldly got rid of most of our desks, leaving only two group tables in the classroom. Then we screened off some areas using existing furniture (display boards, tote trays etc) and opened other areas up  to create larger spaces. We introduced piles of cushions, beanbags and tables of differing height, all the time focusing on the purpose of each space and keeping quality learning firmly in mind.

7. After that, we got on with our year. We reviewed our new classroom and learning spaces as we went, often discussing what worked and what needed changing. But, apart from some minor jiggling, nothing really needed changing. We felt like we'd got it pretty much right first time. Our classroom felt beautifully open without desks cluttering up the place and the children easily adapted to their new environment.
If anything, it was probably harder for me as the teacher to get used to than them. Rather than strolling around the room looking over their shoulders at their work, I now had to wriggle into corners, plonk myself onto beanbags (which were hard to get out of for comfort reasons!) and squeeze myself under tables to conference with them or look at their work! I discovered, as a teacher, I needed to change a few of my systems and values to make it work for me.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The back story....

I first heard the term 'MLE' last year, in 2013. After expressing an interest, I was lucky enough to be invited to Melbourne to explore some established Modern Learning Environments. I went with a team of leaders from my school on a tour of 19 Melbourne schools over the course of a week. Being the only scale A teacher among a group of school leaders and principals was quite daunting! It was also completely exhausting but quite an eye-opener, and very rewarding. Guided by Dr Julia Atkin, Derek Wenmoth and Greg Carroll (among others), my thinking about what makes a quality learning environment was turned upside down!
I won't go into too much detail, but here are a few photos that kind of summarise what we experienced:

Notice the open doors linking classrooms to the shared space in the middle? 
This school had a policy - No closing the doors!
This group are collaborating on their writing in their own little space. Love the tent idea!
Not a teacher in sight but they were on task and happy to share their learning with me:

Different spaces for different purposes.

Meeting one of the classroom inhabitants!

You'll notice the range of layouts, furniture and learning spaces available to the children. Our current schools were designed 100 years ago to cater for the technologies and teaching/learning styles from 100 years ago. Time has moved on, apparently! Now, with cellphones, laptops, ipods, tablets and ipads, kids don't necessarily need a desk each. Spaces have been designed for kids to curl up with their ipads, to gather around computer stations, to collaborate in groups, or to meet together for whole class discussion.
These were often schools with plenty of money to throw around and many of the buildings were purpose-built. Rather than being composed of closed, individual classrooms, these buildings were completely open, with classes linked by large, shared spaces and free-ranging kids working in spaces that best suited their purpose. Systems were designed to encourage and foster self-directed learning and kids who seemed to be drifting and unsupervised, when questioned, were actually surprisingly driven and quietly working towards achieving their own personalised goals.