Thursday, 8 May 2014

Connected Learners Visit to PSII

Connected Learning in School District #74 is always a rich, full learning experience for all those involved. The last month or so has been extraordinary for both children and adult learners. Following on from the most recent post in this space (Nicky's first foray into the world of blogging - yay Nicky!!), I'd like to continue the theme of professional learning and write about a recent experience that will not leave me.

As many of you know, one exciting piece to the Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) is the year long inquiry project. I've written about the inquiry project already in this space here and here. While this marks the fourth year that students are experiencing this amazing way to learn in the ECC, it's interesting that in the last two years, inquiry-based learning as a methodology is at the forefront of education in BC and around the world. Inquiry as a way for students to learn is everywhere.

Inquiry-based learning is an ongoing topic of professional development for the Connected Learning team. Imagine my excitement when I was recently invited by the English Connected 8/9 team to travel with them to Victoria to visit the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII). I'd watched the tweets and blog posts online last year as Jeff Hopkins left his position as the Superintendent of Gulf Islands last year to open this school. I couldn't wait to meet Jeff and observe in his school.

Before you read the next few sentences, you need to know that I love my job, I love being a part of the ECC team and I love working in School District #74. I really do. I will say, however, that if there was some way that I could transport myself and my two sons to Victoria and beg Jeff to let me teach in his school, I would. What an amazing place of learning that has been created.

There are many, many things I have to say about this school that make it such a phenomenal place to teach and learn. Jeff's passion and brilliance. The amazing energy in the other two teachers I had a chance to talk with and learn from - Jake and Sophia. The physical space set up to facilitate everything from choreography practise to 3D printers to large, whole-school activities to small spaces meant for quiet contemplation or high-energy discussion. The respectful tone and polite way in which everyone interacted with others.

And the students. I spent as much time as I could talking with the kids about their learning. The relaxed, student-directed pace and tone in the building was exactly how I wish my classroom to always be. The students were so passionate and excited about what they were doing. They were extremely well-spoken. These students talked differently from any other students I've ever had the chance to speak with in that you could tell what they were doing was interdisciplinary; they made connections with their learning between disciplines. They were also profoundly respectful of the learning activities; that was clearly evident as they spoke about their inquiries. It was wonderful to see the excitement of a group of students creating a production schedule for the filming of their short film, the seriousness of a student conversing in French with her teacher during a French lesson, and the quiet passion with which one student spoke of the novel she is writing.

I learned a great deal that day, but I'd like to end by focusing on what I learned about inquiry-based learning methods. At PSII, the year started off much the same as our inquiry project does - what are you interested in and what questions do you have about that topic? The teachers then helped students to formulate better questions. The next steps involved turning those questions into learning activities. And off the kids go, leading their learning, happy to learn and engaged in learning that really matters to them.

That is a huge simplification of the process, but essentially, that was the essence of how to get the kids going on their inquiry projects. Students can have as many inquiry projects as they like. Some they will finish, some they will continue with the next year. It falls to the teachers to take a good look at the what the students are learning and determine how it fits with the learning outcomes. Some outcomes are very specific and must be covered in isolation but many curricular areas seemed to overlap in a natural, almost intuitive way. One example of this was that the student writing the novel created a large map of landforms, ocean currents, weather patterns, etc. for the setting she created for her novel. The map project work went towards Social Studies in one term, but more importantly, it will continue to inform her writing for months to come. Meaningful learning. Student-driven. Exciting.

One structure put in place to support and enhance student learning is the competency session schedule. Basically, if a student wants more formal guidance learning something for their inquiry, they can talk with a teacher about doing a competency session. The schedule of competency schedules can be found on the PSII website here. Teachers create sessions based on interest. If needed, a student might have to or want to have some more formal learning in some areas. If students want to attend the sessions just because, they can. If they want to attend the session as part of one of their inquiries, they can and then they need to create/produce evidence of learning connected to the competency sessions attended.

There are many other structures at PSII that seem to me more like the enabling constraints. Math is taught in context, with some tutorials when needed and many opportunities for practice and guidance. There are internships set up with many outside companies. Physical education requirements are met by students stepping out to the YMCA two blocks away from the school. It must be both exhausting and exhilarating to have one's mind open to a constant cross-curricular experience. I loved it.

After spending the day watching and talking and questioning, I asked Jeff my most burning question. When you have 30 students completing 30 separate inquiries in 30 separate ways, how do you manage the messiness as the educator guiding the learning? I asked this because that's where we are at in the year, and while the energy and excitement coming from the kids in my classroom is incredible, it's challenging for me to process how to most effectively manage that learning chaos.

Jeff's advice was simple and perfect:  give them what they need right now. Don't try to think about where they're going because they can each go in a hundred different directions with their learning everyday so give them what they need right now.

I could write much more about this: the profound dream I had about learning and teaching the night after the visit, the amazing short film crew kids I had a chance to learn from and more on assessment and evaluation. I'll finish up by saying it was a fantastic experience and made me even more excited to continue to improve upon the inquiry project we have in the ECC. While I still feel that I have a lot to learn, I think we're doing a great job so far.

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