Learning Communities

Achieving Commitent

We have Trust, we enjoy Conflict - next step: Commitment. Today the team worked through an exercise to move our mission statement into action points. We each brainstormed 5 things "that need to happen" in order to achieve our mission. When we discussed them together we found three key common themes and some excellent discussion starters that will lead us to solid tasks. 

The discussion was rich - it helped us confirm our shared philosophy, and it helped us clarify our differences and grow through them. This is thanks to the trust we have already established as a team. We respect each other and feel safe enough to engage in healthy debate. We can challenge each other, correct each other (and ourselves) and still walk away laughing together. 

This exercise really helped us commit to the mission, as a team working in unison. However next, we need more clarity. We need to further analyse each action point and make solid plans to achieve them.  And after that - the big challenge: ACCOUNTABILITY

Creating harmony from dissonance: Collaborative Discomfort 

For the past three months, I have been privileged to be part of the innovative team at the International School of Düsseldorf, creating a collaborative learning community in a newly formed Grade 4 open learning space.  We have moved so far in our few months together, yet have so much more to achieve. Many times I have looked around me, delighted in the buzz of questioning, engagement, excitement and animation. Other times I am reminded of that now cliched advertisement for digital technicians EDS: building aeroplanes in the sky. 

We serve one master, Student Agency, and work to place her above all others. She is not yet on her throne. Today she won over reporting, last week she outranked curriculum, and (hallelujah) 'how we did it last year' has been languishing in the dust since day one. But she's still a servant to schedules. Baby steps. 

I have two favourite parts of every day: our morning team meeting and our afternoon student conferencing time. During the first, I am challenged, extended, supported and celebrated by my colleagues, as we dig deep into the issues still confounding us and search for better and better ways to enhance learning opportunities.  In the second I challenge, extend, support and celebrate my students, working one-to-one on their personal goals as they better themselves so that they might one day better the world around them. Both these times require my finest performances, and such accountability, to colleague and student alike, is inspiring. 

Take, for example, the process of planning our current Unit of Enquiry - an iterative work in progress, parts of which are show below:

Step 1. Use a student quote (from their provocation field trip) as the central discussion point in a Visible Thinking Routine.  Steps 2 -3: Facilitate students to generate further questions and have them map them to the Lines of Inquiry.

Step 4: Work individually with students to break down their 'big question' into smaller questions, action points and research plans. 

Step 5: Question your whole approach, express concern over those students who still "don't get it", brainstorm ways to address this, rework week's schedule, repeat Steps 4&5 as often as necessary.

Step 6: Group students with teacher mentors 

Step 7: Schedule workshops/mini lessons to match the skills/knowledge and attitudes students will need to answer their questions.

Step 8: Work one-to-one with your inquirers and watch this space.....

“This is the greatest mystery of the human mind--the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.”
― John Steinbeck , Sweet Thursday

Formal education teaches how to stand, but to see the rainbow

you must come out and walk many steps on your own.

―Amit Ray, Nonviolence: The Transforming Power


I am grateful to have a school community that supported my proposal to walk with my colleagues in the annual Tokyo Pride Parade. On April 28, students, teachers, and parents joined thousands of fellow Tokyoites on the streets of Shibuya to march in the annual Tokyo Pride Parade. Determined to show our respect and care for Japan’s LBGTQ community, we draped ourselves in rainbows, patiently battled through the crowds, and wore out our wrists waving and shouting “Happy Pride Day!” to well-wishers along the city streets. It was a fantastic day, as the words of the participants give testament to:


"I was so glad to participate in the Pride Parade. It was inspiring to see so many people gathering together to celebrate their identities and to stand up for what they believe in. I also loved all the bright colors and the positive and happy vibe of the event. It was great to be part of!" , Grade 6 student


"I found the diversity at the parade really inspiring. There were so many different kinds of people, companies, and organizations all taking part to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community. It was really enjoyable. I got to understand more about the community, and I met new people with new insights into different topics."., Grade 8 student


"I had a wonderful experience at the Pride Parade. I really enjoyed representing Nishimachi and marching around Shibuya. I feel the Pride Parade was an opportunity for everyone to feel open and accept each other with open arms. Something that was particularly memorable for me were the connections I was able to make with people watching the parade. Although we didn’t know each other, we all shared smiles and high fives. I loved how people who weren’t part of the parade were able to enjoy the experience. I think this parade spread a lot of awareness and also made the LGBTQ+ community feel welcome". Grade 8 student

Many thanks to everyone who was able to join us and share our message of “strength in diversity.” We look forward to joining other international schools to make an even bigger, brighter splash at next year’s Pride Parade.

The colours

of pride

Wellbeing for all

In the classroom
It's the end of a long winter and my Grade 3's are struggling with a bit of cabin fever. Temperatures have been rising inside the classroom as well as out. We decided to be proactive - to learn about how our emotions work and how we can be empowered by them, rather than enslaved by them. 
I put together a quick unit combining some brain theory and some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and for a whole week we engaged in daily Circle Time.  We learnt about Amygdala Moments, and what strategies we can use when our emotions hijack our brains. We practised strategies for calming down when we are too emotional, and we refreshed our understanding of Kelso's Choices and made our own Choice Circle. 
On the last day I set them a challenge. As a group, with no intervention from me, I asked them to organise a whole-class game where everyone is included and enjoying themselves and there is no negativity. The result?  They started off well, but within twenty minutes some students had started to opt out and others were arguing. It seemed many students simply didn't know how to disagree empathetically or how to support and encourage each other. They could see this themselves, and this discovery became an empowering learning moment. 
Upon reflection, they decided they just weren't quite ready yet. They showed true growth mindset and said they would like time to learn and practice more skills so they could try again in another week. So they helped me put together next week's plan.  We are going to learn positive ways to talk to each other while still maintaining our own ideas and individual opinions.  Spring is on it's way!
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At the first staff meeting I led at NIS I heard these words: "Creativity is just something you are born with."  "Isn’t creativity what the Fine Arts people are supposed to work on?"  Instantly I knew I had taken on a role (Teacher Leader: Thinking and Innovation) that was going be both challenging and exciting.  A year later, and a culture of creativity is spreading quickly, with teachers sharing student work and supporting each other to find ways to push further and wider.  Our approach is both adaptive and systemic. By breaking down ‘creativity’ into four essential components, teaching each explicitly and then infusing these components into daily teaching, we now have shared language that promotes metacognition.  This approach has led to the ‘inquiritisation’ of our common core curriculum - allowing us to flip and strip objectives down to raw, powerful questions.  
Last weekend I had the honor of presenting our work at the Atlas Rubicon Curriculum Summit in Seoul, Korea. My workshop participants loved trying out questions from the Torrance Test of Creativity and enjoyed exploring the Curiosity Path as applied to an Engage New York math lesson.  It was fabulous to get feedback and input from professionals across Asia, and I can't wait to hear the results of action plans they developed for their own classrooms. 

Any questions?

Thought Club
In this week's Thought Club In Focus meeting this afternoon we were lucky to have input from some of the Blue Skies members. We had a great conversation and are moving forward awesomely (as we do) in our exploration of quality questioning.  We discussed the four readings on questioning and then took out scissors and paste, applying our creative minds to a critical thinking task. There were a lot of similarities in our thinking, and most people were happy with the structure that Bloom's taxonomy gives us. But we also wanted to recognise the role of the student (their "response-ability"), in particular we wanted to make sure that our implementation of curriculum and our classroom environment wasn't limiting student's ability (and opportunity) to raise their own higher order questions.
Working in mixed grade groups, we came up with two similar rubrics, both of which used Bloom as a reference and acknowledged the need to promote student questions. One structure added the framework of the purpose of the question in regards to a culture of thinking. Next I attempted to reconstruct these beautiful 'rapid prototypes' in a user friendly way, and have shared with both Thought Club groups so they can review and begin to test out. At our next In Focus meeting we will try the PZ Visible Thinking Routine 'Does it Fit?' to evaluate each option and decide how we want to start implementation.
It is so invigorating to end the day with such a burst of positive energy - focused on all the things we hold dear (learning, growth and good old fashioned camaraderie and fun).
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To see more or discuss possible work let's talk >>

When "every answer is right", is wrong

In the classroom
All ideas are good ideas - until they are not...  Over the past few weeks my Grade 3s have been exploring the balance between creative and critical thinking, as they started to put together each aspect of creativity to come up with a unique idea that meets a specific purpose and audience. In our first session we discussed what elaboration meant and looked at an example from the Torrance Test of Creativity. We tracked the process of turning to straight lines into a dinosaur by thinking flexibly and adding details. Then we played "The House the Jack Built", collaborating to build an oral story that developed characters and moved through a story arc.  The challenge here was in accepting contributions from previous speakers, building on them creatively whilst still staying within the confines of plot and structure.
In our second session we recapped everything we knew about creativity so far and then created a Class Creature together. The students were presented with a blank circle, and in teams which incrementally grew in size, had to contribute different physical and character/personality aspects to build our creature.  I noticed they still struggle to think flexibly and originally - they mostly stayed within the confines of a flat 2D circle and their ideas were predictable - however, once they began to elaborate and hitchhike off each other ideas, things really got interesting.  They showed their originality in their compromise. The need to bring together one track of thinking that favored a `demon` character, and another stream who wanted an `angelic` character, sparked an original creation that everyone loved: the dual-gender Grusome Kipling, who gathers nightmares at night and spreads good luck during the day.  

In both activities the students were really challenged by the need to collaborate during the a creative process.  When we had learned about fluency and flexibility in thinking, our mantra had been `every idea is a great idea`, but once you introduce a need to collaborate, or be original and to elaborate upon an idea suddenly not all ideas are good ones.  Students found that many of their ideas were not original and also discovered that once you begin to elaborate you bring in boundaries.  This has provided a great segue into our upcoming work on critical thinking.   It is a good time to start talking with the students about how we can distinguish between ideas that are going to work and those that won't.  We'll begin by looking at evaluating ideas against set criteria, and then perhaps we move on to evaluating those criteria and the impact they have on the creative process itself. 

Can 'creativity' be taught?

Thought Club
We had a fantastic Thought Club meeting yesterday, where we looked at student work and talked about how to move children's thinking further.  In Grade 3, 4 and 5 classes we have been engaged in a range of activities to promote “Flexibility” in creative thinking.  Teachers shared samples of student work and used the Visible Thinking Routine “What Makes You Say That” to analyze responses to the “Ormie the Pig” and “Forced Associations” activities. Some of the thoughts and questions we had were:
  • Our 3rd-4th graders (on the whole) are not good at moving outside a single perspective, and usually see things from a “close-up” ego-centric perspective. While some were able to think abstractly during the teacher-scaffolded or group discussions, this didn’t transfer into individual responses. We wondered whether this might be a result of environment, expectations or developmental stages? 
  • Documentation of student responses is very important to help teachers analyze data for trends and gaps, however the form of documentation restricts and taints student responses. For example, in the Forced Associations activity students were given a Venn diagram - did this structure limit the responses they gave us? Would it look different if we had given them a blank piece of paper and let them choose how to respond? How much does language impede responses? How can we truly know the level of each child’s thinking when their response will be shaped by a) the form of documentation required, b) the language used, c) how safe they feel in the environment and d) the time given?
  • Our students are constantly negotiating the social expectations of two different cultures.  When it comes to creativity, are they struggling to balance a need to obey rules with a desire to go `colour outside the lines`. How can we help them make connections between the positive points of each of these, so that their multiculturalism is always a source of strength, rather than confusion?
  • While it is beneficial to teach and practice each of the components of creativity in isolation, we need to be explicit in making transference to all curriculum areas. For example: the Forced Associations activity could be used to help students see connections between conceptual ideas they are studying in seemingly unrelated topics (ie: how is erosion like multiplication?). This would require students to think more deeply about concepts and be able to articulate abstract ideas.

So as you can see, another afternoon of productive conversation that has deepened our understanding of thinking in the classroom, but also leads us to more and more areas to explore. 



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