Thursday, February 19, 2015

Grade 7/8 History Inquiry - Nailed It!

Trying to move toward inquiry is something that my students and I have all been struggling with. It is new to half of them (the students that were not with me last year), and something that I am still learning myself. There have definitely been some  many bumps along the way. So much so that I was considering moving away from open inquiry to very structured, guided inquiry with me providing the questions, resources and walking them through every step.

However, I have had a success. I gave it one last-ditch effort with my History curriculum, and somehow, made History matter.

I posed the following question to both grades:

What are the 10 most significant events in Canada's history during your time period?

That was it.

As a class, we created criteria for what made a historical event significant.

Then, I turned them loose.

Each group had to create a timeline of their ten events, and be able to back up their choices. They had to know the 5 w's and be prepared to answer questions from their classmates.

The day before they presented I was worried.  What if they didn't learn anything? What if they just regurgitated dates and places from Wikipedia? I knew that this wasn't entirely the case, as I had pages of anecdotals from listening in as they researched and debated within their groups, but had they retained anything?

Presentation day arrived. As each group got up to present, I became more and more blown away and amazed by what I was hearing.

Most groups prepared timelines using a variety of software - the favourite and most user-friendly was voted to be the ReadWriteThink Timeline generator. As each group presented, students added stickies to a paper timeline to compare and contrast the events each group chose.


They debated the merits of the choices of other groups. "Was the first gold rush or the biggest gold rush more significant?" They asked deep questions. "What would Canada be like today if the Metis had won the rebellion?" They challenged each other. "Are you sure that is the correct date?" They synthesized their learning. "I noticed that during the Grade 7 timeline (1713-1800) there were many wars and rebellions, then during the Grade 8 timeline (1850-1890) the key events were about Canada becoming a country."  They uncovered harsh realities that they knew nothing about. "Why did they have residential schools?" "I can't believe they lasted until 1996!" "This affected people living here? In our community?"

Historical thinking and inquiry. They nailed it!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Class Meets: Student voice

Giving my students a voice has been one of my goals this year. Talking circles (such as Brags and Drags) have always been a part of my classroom since I began my career many a few years ago. This year, I decided to add another element to my classroom, and we use "campfire" time to have class meetings. class meets

This is the cover that a student designed for our meeting binder. The quote says "Sometimes you have to see people as a crayon. They might not be your favourite colour, buy you need them to complete the picture."

How awesome.

In the binder, students record any issues that have come up in the classroom and school. When we get together as a class, we then bring up any of the issues that have been recorded, plus others that have arisen.

Two or three mornings a week, I call for a campfire. Students circle up their chairs, making sure everyone is a part of the circle. They are so efficient at this now that it takes under a minute. We begin by passing a speaking object (a feather or a talking stick - which recognizes our Ojibway talking circle roots). The meeting begins with students sharing compliments about others. The only rule for compliments is that it isn't to be something superficial (e.g. "I like Mary's shirt"). Athletic accomplishments, acts of kindness, perseverance... all get recognized here by their peers.

After we do a round of compliments, then we bring up issues. At the beginning of the year, it was like pulling teeth to get people to speak up about problems. They often just simmered in the background. Now, it is much easier to get them to talk. Whoever has an issue shares the problem with the group. If the issue is with a specific student or group of students, then those individuals are required to speak next, and give "their side".  After that, others in the class get to speak up and share their perspective on the conflict, and we get to the next steps.

More often than not, the issue is quickly resolved, there is an apology, and we move on. Sometimes, however, there is a class-wide debate on resolution. Only once or twice this year have I had to step in and give a consequence - and it was only when the issue was big enough to require a referral to the Principal.

Has the class meet solved everything? Of course not - when you have 26 adolescents sharing a small space, there will always be conflict. However, it has greatly diminished the "bystander" effect in class, and given students a forum to speak up and have a voice. They are learning to manage themselves as group much better.

Now, when our Principal needs to address something with my class, she checks to see when our next "class meet" is taking place and she comes and joins our circle. It's amazing to see the dialogue taking place and eliminates the talking-at-students, which adolescents all seem to tune out anyway. I must admit, though, each class meeting I am on tenter-hooks to see if I am going to have to speak to the issue of my workspace. Somehow, my never-used desk has become a storage facility for piles of papers...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Student learning spaces...from cave to mountaintop


Overhead in my class: "Let's find a watering hole and get to work on this."

Introducing learning spaces to my class was far simpler than I could have ever imagined. In the past, I have always had many conversations and created anchor charts with my class about rules for meeting in small groups, large groups, presentations and assessments.

This year, I introduced these terms, and had a student create artwork to depict them, along with the norms for each. I framed the posters, to show that they are important (and beautiful!). Framing lends credibility and importance to items posted in the classroom. I don't know why, exactly, but it just makes everything more special.

Now, since the posting of our norms, it is as simple as saying the word, and it happens. Furniture gets moved, bodies get organized, learning begins.

IMG_0363The Cave (independent work, assessment, reflection)

  • not disturbing others

  • being on task

  • working quietly

*Currently, this looks like students in our reading nook, corners of the room on the floor, at computer workstations and desks


IMG_0362The Watering Hole (collaborative group work)

  • working as a team

  • listening to others

  • everyone contributes

*Currently, this looks like groups of desks shoved together and bodies crowded around. We have 2 standing desks that groups will crowd around as well

IMG_0361The Campfire (whole class in a circle, talking circles, Brags and Drags, Class Meets)

  • respecting classmates

  • responding to questions

  • active listening

  • don't speak when someone else is speaking

*Currently, this is a circle of chairs with desks shoved aside to make space


IMG_0360The Mountain Top (presentations)

  • respectful audience

  • asking questions

  • giving feedback

*Currently, this involves students moving chairs and facing either the smart board on one wall or the long chalkboard on another wall (BANSHO math)

Currently, I am still dreaming of creating a proper 21st century learning space. When we work in our school library, which has lots of space, carpet, two projector areas, group tables and individual work stations, it is so easy to implement each of the above formations. It looks like a Ministry of Education video with the students at work, engaged and learning.

In the classroom, with our 20th century desks, chairs and cold, tiled floors, it isn't as smooth for transitions, nor as comfortable. Also, I have noticed that it isn't as quiet. There is something about trying to have large adolescent bodies meet around groups of desks that seems to make the noise level sky-rocket.

But when our 20th century-designed classroom catches up with us, we will be ready!