Monthly Archives: January 2015

What Might a Learning Community School Look Like?

As the principal of a senior public school, it is good to really look at what is happening.  As the staff have worked together to develop an inquiry-based model, certain student behaviours become apparent.  This week I am sharing what I see on a regular basis as I walkabout our school.

  • In every classroom students are sitting and working in groups. The desks are in groups but what is more interesting is that the students are working together not just sitting together.
  • Students love reading. Really love reading.  In every core class students are spending long periods of time reading, talking about books and writing about books.  In one classroom the students wanted to know if the next group of books they read would be as good as this group.  In another class the students welcomed a new student by trying to convince her which book club was the best to join.
  • Students are confident solving problems and recognize that solving them together is better. I almost never walk into a science or math class that is quiet.  But when I listen the talk is all about the math and science.
  • I rarely walk by and see teachers lecturing in front of the whole class. But when I do, the students are totally engaged.  That tells me that they haven’t been sitting for two long and that the teachers all tell interesting stories.
  • When I come upon students creating dramatic presentations or practicing musical instruments in the hall, they are actually working on those things, not fooling around (mostly). That tells me that they value the work.
  • Kids in French class are speaking in French—and their teachers are speaking in French to them about 80% of the time. For our students French is a real language not a series of grammatical rules.
  • When I pop into classrooms it is often difficult to find the teacher. This is because the teacher is usually sitting with a group of students, not at their desk or standing at the front of the room.
  • Teachers are excited about what their students are learning. The casual conversations in the hall and in the staffroom are often about student work.  Teachers are proud of our students.
  • The Special Education room and the ESL room are hubs of activity with a variety of students working in different groupings. Extra support is welcomed by our students not avoided.
  • Teachers like to work together. Not only are our collaborative learning days well-used, teachers ask for more learning, plan together at other times, and collaborate continually.  When the grade 7 teachers used maps as an anchor for teaching history, the grade 8 core teachers were eager to see what they were doing.
  • Technology is not a big deal. Teachers have integrated it so seamlessly into their programs that it has become just another tool.  I see it being used so often in classrooms that I don’t really even pay attention to it.
  • In most years of my career I have had a group of students who “hate” music or art or physical education. These are subjects that often create anxiety because they are “performance” based.  Not one student has expressed a dislike for these subjects this year.  Teachers have created environments where everyone can find a place to participate.
  • To date we have only spent 25% of our photocopying budget. That suggests that we are having students do more authentic tasks and less photocopied worksheets.  We are spending a lot on dry erase markers but little white board work is an engaging and interactive way to have students practice and check in on their learning.

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Is there a “right” way to teach?

There is no right way to teach.  If there were someone would have written the definitive book and anyone could do this job.  There are, however, ineffective ways of teaching and that happens when we teach in isolation of thinking about our students.  It happens when we value a plan over what our students are doing.  It happens when we are not watching and noticing if our students are engaged and learning.  So long as we keep our students’ needs front and center, and we know what those needs are, there are lots of different ways to teach.

A teacher was explaining how she had asked her students to participate in literature circles and then said, “Is that the right way?”  My questions back were:

  • Did the students talk in meaningful ways about their books?
  • Did the students deepen their understanding of their books?
  • Did you learn more about your students’ understanding of their books?
  • Were your students engaged?
  • Was the level of chaos acceptable to you?

She answered yes to all the questions.  So, it was the “right” way.  If the answers were negative then I would, as a teacher, rethink my method not blame the students.  I would have chosen an ineffective way to organize the activity and would have to try something different.

The “right” way of teaching is the way that gets you what you want. In order to do that you need to know what you want.  In order to know what you want you have to know the curriculum, the subject matter and your students.  Steven Katz (educational guru) says that there isn’t a “best” practice; there is only the “next” practice.

Effective teaching is about being planned and purposeful.  It is about knowing what students need to be able to know and do and figuring out a way to get them there.  The art of teaching is finding the path that gets you there and there are many.  And, different paths work for different students and different teachers.  What is “right” in my classroom this year might not work next year, or in the next classroom over, or in Australia.  Or it might.

The “right” way of teaching is professional reflection.  It is that simple and that hard.  So, when you want to try a new idea, don’t worry so much about whether you are doing it “right” or not.  Look at what you want to do, look at where your students are at, and see what works. If it works, and you know that your students are engaged and learning, then it is probably the “right” way, for now.

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