Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

I was originally going to title this post "A Case Against 'I can' Statements," but as you'll soon find out, I'm advocating for starting inquiries with provocative questions, so why should this post be any exception? 

So here it is, the fascinating question that we're exploring today: Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

Some history: For the last several years, teachers in our district have been busy converting rigorous academic standards into student-friendly language in the form of "I can" statements. Here are some examples from various grade levels and subject areas.

I can identify cause and effect in a nonfiction passage (based on ELA benchmark

I can sort objects by shape, size, color, and thickness (based on Math benchmark K.3.1.2)

I can describe societies that existed in Mesoamerica and North America before 1500 (based on History benchmark

I can recognize that plants need space, water, nutrients, and air and I can explain that plants fulfill these needs in different ways (based on Life Science benchmark

Clearly communicating to students the intent of the lesson is of utmost importance. Hattie writes it is important "to communicate the intentions of the lessons and the notions of what success means for these intentions," (p. 126 of Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.)

Hattie found that teacher clarity - which Fendick (1990) defined as organization, explanation, examples and guided practice, and assessment of student learning - has an effect size of .75 and ranked it 8th on his list of most effective influences on student achievement. Read more about Hattie's list on his website.

We all can agree that when students clearly understand where the lesson is heading and what they need to do to be successful, they'll achieve at higher rates. But is an "I can" statement the only way to clearly communicate the intention of a lesson?

In the fall, our school's teaching staff read an article by Brookhart and Moss about learning targets. The authors echo Hattie when they write that "when students understand exactly what they're supposed to learn and what their work will look like when they learn it, they're better able to monitor and adjust their work, select effective strategies, and connect current work to prior learning," (p. 29). They continue by saying that a learning target can take on several different forms. They suggest that the learning target can be words, pictures, demonstrations, or other experiences. They warn that a learning target does not have to be an "I can" statement.

I wonder, can a learning target be in the form of a question?

In a Primary Years Programme teachers should consider communicating the intentions of the lesson and what success means for these intentions in the form of a thought-provoking question. This will provide our students with opportunities to build understanding through structured inquiryBut how is this done?

Once teachers identify what they want students to understand (concepts), know (knowledge), and be able to do (skills), they should craft questions that will drive student inquiries. These questions should serve to motivate students to construct their own understanding of concepts and engage them in acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Yes, teachers should clearly communicate the intentions of the lesson but I would warn against "giving away the answer" in the form of an "I can" statement. Instead, teachers should ask questions that engage learners and motivates them to seek out the answer.

Communicating the intention of the lesson in the form of a question allows teachers to "model explicitly [for their students] the asking of open-ended, driving questions that will promote conceptual development," (p. 37 of Making the PYP Happen). Fun Fact: the word 'question' appears in Making the PYP Happen 140 times.

McTighe and Wiggins advocate in multiple ways for the use of questions in their book Essential Questions, but they really ramp up the rhetoric when they purport that "once we have learned to question - really question - then we are immunized from falling victim to people who want us not to think too hard about what they say, be it politicians, advertisers, or bullying associates," (p. 18).

So, can teachers tweak "I can" statements to make them into questions that clearly communicate the intention of the unit/lesson and what success means while not "giving away the answer"? My answer is a resounding, YES! WHY NOT? LET'S GIVE IT A TRY!

Here is my attempt at it, converting the "I can" statements previously shared above into questions.

What are cause-effect relationships? Where are the cause-effect relationships described in the nonfiction text we're reading? How does discovering cause-effect relationships help us understand what we read?

What are the different ways we can sort things? How does putting things into groups help us understand them better? How does putting things into groups hurt our understanding of them?

What were societies like in Mesoamerica and North America before 1500? What caused them to change?

What do plants need to survive? Do all plants fulfill their needs in the same way?

So, let's revisit the question again: Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

I certainly am not making a case for throwing "I can" statements completely out the window. There is certainly an appropriate time and place for explicitly telling students the intent of the lesson and what they'll need to do to have success. 

However, I am suggesting that teachers consider clearly communicating the learning target by asking challenging questions at the onset of a unit or a lesson that engage learners and draws them into the inquiry. These questions should capture their head and tug at their heart. As the lesson or unit continues, students' responses should be revisited; misconceptions should be corrected; new learning should be added.

Recently, a first grade teacher asked her students at the onset of a unit of inquiry, "Why is it important to make careful and close observations?" She recorded her students' initial answers, leaving out any repeats. Throughout the entire unit, as the students explored, discovered, and investigated making observations, classifying, and drawing conclusions, they continually revisited their original ideas, editing and revising as necessary. The poster below is their "finished" product.

As a thoughtful colleague recently reflected, the questions we ask - both by teachers and students - must really kindle a strong desire, passion, or need to follow through. If through asking thoughtful, relevant, and provocative questions, we can successfully light a fire within our students, imagine the learning and achievement that is possible!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Taking ACTION in 3 easy steps!

Choose. Act. Reflect.

In the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP), it is expected that students construct understanding of life's timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable ideas. Developing an understanding of these big ideas must lead students to thoughtful, appropriate, and responsible action.

This action must be initiated by the student and needn't be grandiose. As teachers, we have the responsibility to enable students to choose their action carefully, to facilitate this action, and to encourage them to reflect on the action they undertake, (Making the PYP Happen, p. 26). These three steps - Choose-Act-Reflect - make up the PYP Action Cycle.

Recently in kindergarten, students were constructing understanding of the idea that some choices are based on understanding weather. To better understand observing, recording, and predicting weather, the kindergartners watched a video called Weather Starts: The Sun, Heat, Air, Wind on Discovery Education. The class also read The Windy Day by Melvin and Gilda Berger.

Then, students wrote down what they learned in a vocabulary booklet called "My Weather Words".

Here's one student's thinking:

"Wind can blow trash in water and an animal will pick it up."

Upon seeing this student's thinking, the teacher thought this would be a good time to discuss the PYP Action Cycle. She used the Hover Cam to project the student's thinking and also displayed the 3-step Action Cycle (Reflect-Choose-Act) so that they could discuss the cycle together.

The teacher said that the student was very excited to see her writing up on the SMARTboard. They talked about how the student reflected or thought about what happens to the animals with trash flying around. They even said the trash didn’t need to just go in the water, it could be in the woods or a park, to negatively impact the animals.

After reflecting, the students brainstormed what they could choose to do to help fix the problem upon which they were reflecting:
  • Throw paper (trash) in the garbage.
  • If you find trash on the ground, pick it up, and find a trash can to put it in.
  • Go to the woods or a park to pick up trash.
To help the animals, students brainstormed the following list:
  • If you see an animal eat a pencil and choke (or eat trash in general), call a vet.
  • Pick up the trash. We talked about if trash is in the parking lot that the students need to ask permission from parents to pick it up.
  • Get bags, pick up trash, and put it in the bags.
  • They thought we could pick up trash around the school and playground.
  • They could pick up trash in the lunchroom and the classroom.
  • They want to go outside and pick up trash.The teacher the students that next week they could go outside and pick up the trash around the school
After this discussion on Friday about doing something with what they had learned in school, one student did this over the weekend and brought it in to show her class.

In the PYP, this is also considered action because it was student-initiated, thoughtful, and is in reaction to learning that was done in school.

After reading about how one kindergarten teacher used the Action Cycle with her students, how could you or have you enabled students to choose action, facilitated this action, and encouraged students to reflect on the action they undertake?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Documenting Thinking

Spring has sprung and many classes in our school have begun to dig into different scientific inquiries.

In second grade, students are busy constructing an understanding of the big idea that survival depends on the relationship between living things and their environment. To begin, students formulate questions on the inside of their plant journals that guide their inquiry. These questions are the starting point for their own inquiries and research.

Students are required to write at least one question, but they can write more if they have more questions. They share their questions out loud to generate more questions and ideas. Then they write the questions on cards and post them on the wall. Students can continue to keep adding questions to the wall and to their lists throughout the unit.

After formulating and recording their questions, students are ready to research. Specifically, students are learning about how plants survive, the life cycle of plants, the relationship between plants and their environment and about how human actions/choices/decisions can impact the environment.

Students are encouraged to title the pages of their journals with the questions they've previously formulated and then write what they've learned with words, illustrations, diagrams, labels, and captions. Here are some examples of G2 plant journals.



To be able to give students feedback on their progress, some teachers have used this rubric. The descriptors were whited out for copyright purposes. You can fill them in with your students or buy the text the rubric came from: Differentiating Instruction with Menus, Language Arts (K-2) from Prufrock Press Inc.

Meanwhile, in first grade, students are constructing an understanding of the idea that making observations leads to discoveries. To document their thinking, G1 students are also using science notebooks.


After seeing how these G1 and G2 students use journals to document thinking as they construct understanding of timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable concepts, how could you or have you use inquiry journals/notebooks with your students?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Teaching Math in Authentic Contexts

Our staff recently has been examining the question: "What does math teaching and learning look like in a Primary Years Program (PYP)?"

To answer this question, we explored the text "Mathematics in the Primary Years Programme," one of the subject annexes from Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education. In that document, teachers were able to see the clear vision of how math teaching and learning should look like in our PYP.

To document their thinking, teachers created a Practice Profile (a rubric of teacher behavior) based on what they were reading in the text. As primary and intermediate teachers were working in separate sessions, there were two separate practice profiles created and can be found here: KEC PYP Math Practice Profile - Primary and Intermediate.

An important idea that came up during that professional learning engagement was that in a PYP classroom, teachers should provide students with multiple opportunities to explore relevant problems both inside and out of the units of inquiry. The math annex provides some guidance on concepts that might be best suited for learning in context when they say, "data handling, measurement, and shape and space are best studied in authentic contexts provided by the transdisciplinary units of inquiry," because they represent the "areas of mathematics that other disciplines use to research, describe, represent, and understand aspects of their domain," (p. 85 of Making the PYP Happen).

Reflecting on this new understanding of math instruction in the PYP, one G2 teacher planned for her students to create a timeline, an authentic opportunity to explore the abstract mathematical concepts of measurement, subtraction, space, and time. She knew that the timeline would give her students a better understanding of the heroes they were studying in their unit of inquiry, as they were trying to make sense of the big idea that people influence the world in different ways.

First, the students created the timeline using the scale 1 cm = 1 year. The students worked together to create century strips, each measuring a meter (and alternating in color).

Then, the students needed to figure out how long each of the heroes' strips should be. The teacher modeled how to use a number line to figure out the age of the hero they'd be researching. Using the birth date and death date (or the current date for living heroes), the students figured the difference between the two. It is important to mention that the students did pretty well with this since they have been using number lines and open number lines all year for almost every math topic. This shows how effective it is to give students the opportunity to use the same thinking tools and structures over and over again until they become routine.

Next, students used that information to create strips for each of their heroes, again with the scale 1 cm = 1 year.

Finally, the teacher gave students the opportunity to look at the timeline and document their observations, thoughts, and questions using the thinking routine See-Think-Wonder (from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Morrison, & Church).

This G2 teacher continues to see other ways that math can be learned in meaningful ways during her unit of inquiry. Recently, she used the data they had collected on heroes' ages to introduce median, mode and range. Using the data the students had already collected made it more authentic and engaging.

The students found that their heroes ranged in age from 37 to 95, a range of 58 years. Kids were surprised and impressed because that seemed like a lot. There were two medians and two modes, so that was confusing for their introduction to the idea of analyzing a data set using those tools, but it was engaging nonetheless.

After reading about how this G2 teacher taught the mathematical concepts of measurement, difference, and data in the authentic context of her unit of inquiry, how could you or have you taught math in meaningful, engaging and authentic ways?

"Did You Know?": An Engagement Strategy

In a Primary Years Programme (PYP), teachers are committed to structured, purposeful inquiry (construction of understanding) that engages students actively in their own learning (Making the PYP Happen, p. 29). Sometimes though, particularly at the onset of a unit of inquiry, we need to help learners build a lot of background knowledge on an unfamiliar topic in a little amount of time. In cases such as these, how do teachers disseminate a lot of facts in an engaging way?

Recently, at an IB PYP workshop, I learned an engaging way to do this, that gets all learners cognitively engaged by getting them to talk, think, and interact with materials. The strategy that Mary Kay Deese and Janet Stading taught me is called "Did You Know?" and I recently used it with our G5 students as a way to introduce them to the PYP Exhibition.

Start with a concept

I wanted students to understand that the PYP Exhibition represents a significant event in the life of a PYP school and student.

I wanted them to further understand that during Exhibition, students are required to engage in a collaborative, transdisciplinary inquiry process that involves them in identifying, investigating and offering solutions to real-life issues or problems," (p. 1, Exhibition Guidelines).

Create an opportunity for students to explore that big idea

To inform families about Exhibition, we use this G5 Intro to Exhibition packet. To help students explore what happens during Exhibition in class, I took all the facts from page 5 (Introduction to Exhibition) and made them into separate cards. Find the cards here: Did You Know? An Exhibition Kick Off
Some samples of the Did you know? cards

To begin the learning engagement, I told the students that by the end of the lesson, they would be able to answer the question, "What Happens During Exhibition?" I let them know that they needed to participate, be engaged, and think if they were going to be able to successfully answer that question.

Every student received a card and milled around the room, asking each other if they knew the particular fact that was on their card. For this first part of the engagement, they ignored the bolded question at the bottom of each card.

Once students had a chance to hear lots of different facts about what happens during Exhibition, they sat in teams and asked and answered the bolded questions on the bottom of each card. This Q&A session gave them the opportunity to hear more about Exhibition and to ask follow-up questions. It also gave us teachers a chance to clarify any confusion that students might have been experiencing.

Check for understanding

To see what the students understood about Exhibition at the end of the learning experience, I passed out a blank sheet of paper and had the students respond to the prompt, "What happens during Exhibition?" Below are some sample responses.



Reflect on their thinking and decide next steps

When students made their thinking visible, it was very easy to see what they understood correctly about Exhibition and the common misconceptions they had.

During the next class session, it will be important for the teacher to reinforce the following ideas that really hit the mark:

During Exhibition:
  • Kids get to learn about a problem and how to fix it!
  • You and your group will cooperate and do research together
  • Be successful!
  • You have to follow the learner profile.
  • You have to be principled and use technology respectively.
  • You will use many different resources.
There were some misconceptions. It will be important to address these with the students and explain how they missed the mark. If one learner mentioned it, I bet others are thinking it and I want to make sure that we're being clear about our expectations right from the onset. Their response is in italics and my response follows.
  • When you are doing exhibition you are supposed to research things on the internet. Not just the internet. You can use print resources (books, magazines, newspapers), interview people or even go visit a place that might help you better understand the issue or problem that you're researching.
  • You have to make a poster. You could do that, but there are a lot of other ways to communicate your research findings or take action. Most kids will make a Google Slides presentation to share their info with the rest of the school, but there are A LOT of ways to take action ... not just make a poster.
  • Everyone is researching their topic. Not a topic. You're going to learn more about an issue or a problem. The issue or problem should have a connection to your life (your school, your community), but should also be an issue or problem for children around the world too.
  • We will have to use the learner profile all the time in order to get a good grade. Nope. We live the learner profile not because we'll get a good grade, but because we intrinsically want to be that kind of global citizen.
After reading about how I used the engagement strategy "Did You Know?" to build background knowledge on the onset of this unit, how could you use it with your students?