People have unique to express their feelings
This was the central idea for my first unit of inquiry as a Primary Years Programme (PYP) teacher.
As part of the unit’s provocation my class and I watched Kindness Boomerang and I challenged the kids to come up with ways to apply the big idea of the clip to our class and school to re-create the movie. This was an activity I had done at my previous school. I want to avoid repeating activities as I don’t want to fall into the habit of doing things because that is what I’ve always done.
As ideas such as ‘show respect’ and ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ emerged as ways people could take action to apply those feelings of gratitude and kindness in the clip to their school life I realised that my students could talk on a theoretical level about how their feelings affect other people. The gap in their learning was that they didn’t know how to apply those phrases into concrete action in their everyday life.
One of the concepts in the PYP is the action model. The curriculum encourages students to reflect, to make informed choices and to take action that will help their peers, school staff and the wider community.
We often think of taking action as tackling big revolutionary ideas that will have a major impact on the community or even the world. In schools this often takes the form of raising money for a big issue that the students have been studying. A letter writing campaign to politicians, creating art, volunteering for a community projects are also forms of action that can come out of a unit of inquiry.
However just as important are those little actions – helping clean up without being asked, saying thank you to a family member for making dinner, comforting a friend who looks they are having a bad day or asking before taking someone’s picture can be overlooked as an opportunity to put into action all the qualities from the IB learner profile.
We assume that those moments are almost insignificant in comparison to a big issue like global warming. Yet noticing and acting upon problems in our immediate environment is something the youngest learner can do and the actions often have an immediate impact.
Why do teachers let those moments for learning slip away?
I still think big projects have a place in the classroom. However in planning this unit I was mindful that big classroom projects can shift the focus from the understandings to the task itself.
My class did create their own version of the Kindness Boomerang. As I scaffolded the students to identify small actions they can take to in school make someone else feel good I worried that learning the process of movie making might overshadow the understanding of one of the lines of inquiry – how our feelings can impact on other people.
I introduced the class to teaspoon moments. This classroom tradition, which last year took the form of lollypops, is named for an inspiring quote by the recently departed Pete Seeger. Each day I try make time for members of the class to acknowledge a person who has done something small to make someone else’s day a little more awesome.
It’s a way for the class to tell each other that they matter.
But what about outside of the classroom?
As part of their homework the students were then to spend time noticing how a member of their family helps them and taking the time to express gratitude to them noting the effects on both them and the people around them. The students started noticing that by expressing thanks to other people not only did they feel better those around them did too. It was amazing to go into a parent-teacher conferences a few hours after reading the outpouring of love and gratitude by the students about their parents in their homework. However some parents had no idea what their children had written.
As if by design the picture on the right showed up in my Facebook feed, another provocation to push our learning forward.
Teaspoon moments moved from the afternoon to the morning and a homework task for the students was to think of a small action to make a family member have a positive thought in the morning. They had to notice the impact on themselves and their family member.
It was time to move on.
At the end of the unit I asked the kids to reflect on their experiences in class and presenting their learning at assembly on our class blog.
I left things there.
No poster or a lengthy write up. Just a few sentences from the kids about their key take aways and a reminder that the learning keeps on going even though the unit was officially ‘over.’
Now it was my time to be the learner.
Just before school started on Friday I was outside of the classroom talking to the parent of one of my students. Out of the corner of the eye I could see that my classroom had the look of a group students possibly up to no good. The kids were huddled in a large group and were talking excitedly. What were they up to? I was faced with one of those moments as a teacher where you either step in and redirect the kids away from potential trouble or just let them carry on and trust that they’ll do the right thing.
As I sat down to take the roll the students excitedly handed me a Valentines Day card that they had made and was signed by every member of the class. The words in the middle bought tears to my eyes.
I was stunned not only by the words but by the authentic student-initiated action.
The enduring understanding that I wanted my students to carry with them from the unit was to notice the actions of the people that make their lives and express their feelings towards them. I had forgotten that as a teacher I am person in my students’ lives. While I am mindful that the children in my class notice every one of my actions I didn’t think what I do in the classroom was worthy of a special acknowledgement.
I was just doing my job.
My students taught me that what I do in the classroom matters to them.
That Friday would be 12 hour day with a difficult meeting and a complete re-design of my literacy programme after school. I wasn’t on the bus home until nearly 7pm.
That day those things didn’t matter.
One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day.
As I looked at the sea of proud faces I responded with a call for a group hug.
Now that’s one heck of a way to end a unit of inquiry.