Many of you know that I homeschool my son. There are several reasons why Mr. Right and I decided on that path for the time being. Not liking or respecting teachers is NOT one of them. I would actually say that I have really liked and highly regarded most of the ones I’ve known.
Some of the things I don’t like about the school system are completely beyond teacher control, and I believe that they would choose differently were it up to them. For instance, I have never met a teacher who would choose to have 35 kids in his/her class instead of, say, 10. I am quite certain that if they were not tied by the constraints of a mandatory curriculum, among other things, and had the freedom to teach what they wanted and how they wanted, far more individualized and holistic education would occur.
Whenever I think of the possibilities in mainstream, traditional education, my good friend Erin Esposito (5th grade teacher), comes to mind. She is a revolutionary in today’s broken (and hopefully changing) system. She is the teacher I would want my kids to have should they ever return to public school. She does it all with the support of the board, her principal, the students in her class, and their parents. I wanted to know how she came to the place she is at now. How do 5th grade students direct their own learning and plan out their own days? What does a day in her classroom really look like? What is she doing to create this classroom environment that is full of children who love to learn and can’t wait to go to school every day? Let’s find out.
Q: What inspired you to change the way that you teach?
A: It was a slow process that began with my Child and Youth studies and learning about the Montessori model and constructivist theory, which is about students constructing and building on their own knowledge based on their interests. I watched the Sir Ken Robinson TED talk which had me question why we put kids in packages and act like it’s still the industrial revolution. I furthered it with my own son going into Montessori and seeing the benefits of that and then it furthered even more after I actually had a ministry worker come into my classroom and look at student learning. All she did was observe and write notes on exactly what the kids were doing during my lesson time. Some examples would be; hand on head, looking off to the side. After collaborating and working with her, the number one concern was student engagement. Students were not achieving because they weren’t engaged. That experience linked me back to my education and had me question myself on how I could get students engaged. Student engagement is one of the huge contributing factors to their success, so I needed to figure out how to make that happen to facilitate true learning. They call part of what I am doing inquiry-based learning, but I’m finding that that term is kind of getting a bad rap. Some think that inquiry is research, but there is so much more to it. It’s about students driving their education and back-mapping the curriculum based on their interests and questioning. So that is the short of my journey. Through it, my staff has come on board and we are learning as a professional learning community, reading lots of research and talking about things that have worked and not worked in our classrooms.
Q: Would you call that a “teaching philosophy” that you adhere to?
A: I would say it’s a mind-set. It’s a shift in the way you think about teaching, not necessarily a technique or a way of doing things. I am not the sole bringer of knowledge to the table any more. I am no longer giving my students information and expecting them to regurgitate it back to me. It’s a change in that we co-construct our learning together, meeting kids where they are at, allowing them to go off into their own little adventures and guiding them in what they want to learn about. For me, knowing your students is the number one thing. Knowing your learner. Instead of having the teacher instructing, the kids have a big idea and then they do what they can with that big idea or task and you teach based on where they’ve shown you they are at in that task.
What I do is incorporate several different philosophies, like Reggio, Montessori, and constructivist. I am melding a whole bunch of beliefs into a few core ideas such as knowing your students, putting the students in the driver’s seat, responding to their needs, meeting them where they are at, and individualizing feedback. I don’t base everything on a test or a product.
Q: So are you still giving tests?
A: Not in the traditional sense. I triangulate data based on student product, student voice and observation. All of those things should be the assessment, not just a test or a project. It isn’t all about the product. It is about their learning. For the most part parents are supportive, but there are still a few that see tests as an important skill that their kids will need in the future. I address that by saying that instead of covering content, I want them to learn the content, and a test doesn’t tell me if they’ve learned it or just remembered it for that test. A lot of kids, including myself, forget it after so it isn’t really learned. It is not about content. It is more about skills because if they need to know something they can look it up on Google. They need to learn what to do with that information and how to think critically, how to make meaning out of it, how to apply it to their own lives and how to reflect on it. I think that a lot of the things that I am doing you can’t test, like character building, collaborating, analyzing. Those are not things that can be assessed in a test.
I also give them multiple opportunities. They don’t do one project and get a mark and then it’s done – the learning is over. No. The learning goes on the whole year, so I give them feedback, they take the feedback and they do something with it. They show me that they have understood what I’ve said. In previous years, I found that I would give all this feedback and then nothing would get done with it because once I put a mark on it they felt like it was over and there was no point. Now I give them the opportunity to use that feedback and come back again. It has gotten to the point where now students in the class are giving each other feedback because they now know what the expectations are.
Q: Can you give us a precise example of how that works?
A: Sure. Right now they have built their dream homes. First they did it on a computer, actually using a program that they found. I was going to have them use another program and they said it was too confusing and they didn’t like it so they found their own program that turned out to be way better. They took those computer plans and turned them into a model using a scale to show true size. I embedded my geometry expectations with questioning about shapes and symmetry. I also have to do a science unit on structure so we started talking about what the external and internal forces are. I had an architect come in and talk about all of the forces and structural things that he has to think about, and he looked at their structures and gave them feedback. I pushed it even further into a measurement unit where we were doing area and perimeter with our homes. Then I pushed it even further for another science unit on conservation of energy. They researched how to make their home energy efficient and what products they would use and then presented it. As they are doing all of this, I am questioning them and pushing their thinking. To make sure to consolidate it all and hold them accountable for their time, we are doing a home show. They have to display their answers of all the learning that we’ve done, and we are going to do invitations for the other grades and our parent community to come in and look at our homes and talk to us about our plans, process and conserving energy. At that time, I will listen to the conversations they are having and what they are teaching the other kids. That will show me what they have learned that they can speak of from their head. I also take pictures and videos throughout the year to prompt my memory.
Q: You still have to teach the curriculum set out by the Ministry of Education. How do you do that now that your perspective has changed?
A: The Ministry of Education sets out curriculum documents that have expectations in them. Those are the things that you are responsible for having your students learn. I still adhere to that. It’s just the way I’m going about it is different. Just in that dream home example I had four different strands of the curriculum that I’m responsible for, but they naturally came up and then I took it in that direction. Instead of standing up and giving a lesson and having them fill out a worksheet, I let it come up naturally with whatever we are working on and then steer it in the direction I need. You really have to know your curriculum to be able to do it. You need to know what it is that they need to know in order to be able to make use of those teachable moments. The kids are teaching each other as well. It’s not just me. I am co-learning with them. Sometimes I don’t know the answers to things and we use that as a learning opportunity.
Q: I imagine this way of teaching has required a lot more from you.
A: Absolutely. I am totally spent at the end of the day. It requires a lot more thinking on the student’s part too. I’ve noticed that the kids that excelled in the past, the ones who learned to play the game of school, think this is crazy in the beginning. On the other hand, the kids who have struggled with school, the ones who were considered low learners have the most amazing ideas and just think about things in the most amazing ways, but we never gave them those opportunities before. So for a while my classroom was basically turned upside down. Now the high-achieving students have come around. It just took them a bit longer because the game that they had played for so long had changed. It all just shows me that I am giving them all what they need. They are thinking now instead of memorizing.
Q: Are you worried that they will continue on after this year into someone else’s classroom that may not have the same mind-set?
A: It is slowly changing. The most recent curriculum document put out by the Ministry is inquiry-based learning. They stress that we don’t teach the curriculum, we teach kids. It is shifting to skills as opposed to content. They are turning the expectation towards this way of teaching. It is even trickling into high schools. I have actually gone into in-services with high school teachers about project-based learning and how to do it. It is changing. It is just taking some people longer. With my background, experiences and research, it was something that I was very passionate about so I jumped into it a bit more quickly than other people.
Q: How do you feel about technology in the classroom?
A: Love it. It is the way that the world is now and it can bring the world right into your classroom. The kids are engaged using it.
Q: What does an average day in your classroom look like, and how does that differ from the norm?
A: I begin every day with a morning meeting to share ideas. We talk about anything mission related (having to do with Grade 5 Can, a foundation the class started), anything personal they want to share, and they tell me what they are going to do in the next block of time for their learning. They do a centre or inquiry-type time. Then we work on our big idea, such as the dream home project. At the end of the day, they present what they’ve done to the class. So they are responsible at the morning meeting to tell me what their day plan is and they are accountable at the end of the day for what they have done. I also have a daily leader, secretary and safety monitor. The students drive it all.
Q: They decide what they are doing throughout their day?
A: Yes. They deemed it as centre time because they are all doing something different. It’s led us into lessons about prioritizing and time management and not always doing what you want but doing what you have to do first. There was a bit of floundering too where kids were just playing games, but then kids started to call each other out on it. It wasn’t just me. I was stepping back and afterwards asking them if they had made the most of their time and they would have to self-evaluate and say yes or no and tell me why. We would then figure out how to get them interested in something. The morning meetings and personal sharing have really built community in the classroom and they now feel accountable to each other, not just to the teacher.
Q: How do you base your report card grades?
A: I still have to use A, B, C, D and I do the observations. I basically take qualitative data and turn it into a quantitative mark using my professional judgment. I meet them where they are at and base it on the growth that I have seen. There haven’t been many bad marks. They are all achieving and they are all moving, which is the goal. And, they are all loving learning.
Q: What is the greatest benefit that you have witnessed in the children you have used these new methods with?
A: Student engagement and student achievement. Totally.
Wow. In the homeschooling world we call this unschooling or interest-led learning. I am so happy that traditional schools and some of today’s educators are finally wrapping their minds around the fact that kids only learn what they are interested in learning, when they are interested in learning it. I feel proud that these methods are being implemented in my community, and I feel so hopeful about the future of mainstream education. Cheers to you, innovative teachers everywhere.