This holiday I was annoyed that the PYP workshop I had to attend was at the same time as learning2 conference where one of my favourite thinkers on learning, @sherrattsam was speaking. However this setback turned into a huge learning opportunity by visiting the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) where Sam teaches for a week.
My head came away buzzing.
Power of visiting schools – What’s obvious to you is amazing to someone else. I’ve had people remark how unusual it is for teachers to spend time learning in other schools. Why is that? Leaving the bubble of our own classroom is the first step to broadening our understanding of instructional practice. Going on a school visit takes it a step further. Teachers are able to see what types of learning activities and experiences are valued in other schools to feedback into their own practice. Classroom blogs are a small window into new worlds but face to face is so much richer.
Power of provocation – My visit coincided with a Grade 5 provocation. Laptops were stolen from class and it was up to the kids to use scientific process to get them back. The provocation was an intricate web of academic disciplines, approaches to learning and PYP concepts. The language the teachers used was purposeful and deliberate which elevated the student’s thinking. It took what my phase did with the cardboard challenge to whole new level. Children from the year level were mixed into different classes further shaking up the experience for the children. At the end of the provocation the children didn’t just know the language they felt what it was like it was to be scientists. I’m wondering where the teachers and students will go next with their inquiries.
Power of setting the scene – The children spent 2 hours in the morning watching cultural performances outside in the tropical heat. It was the last day of term. A recipe for trouble? Nope the kids were still engaged in their learning such was the strength of the provocation but also the ability of the teachers to set the scene for learning. The children at ISHCMC spend 10 minutes after morning tea and lunch in mindfulness sessions, cooling down their bodies and focusing their minds. The result? Calm and purposeful classrooms. Having a tray of fruit for the kids to nibble further helped focus the mind.
Power of free range PD – I had forgotten how nice it is to be in a school just learning. I was on holiday so there were no emails to worry about, no paperwork to file and no meetings. Just time to breathe and learn. Because I had decided to make visit, it was up to me make the most of the opportunity. Why it is that we insist on filling up professional learning time? Why do we insist teachers all learn at the same time at the same place? The answer is that some teachers wouldn’t do any professional learning. Yet schools have levers through registration and re-contracting process to address this problem. Why do we plan professional learning around the worst case? Why do we give so little control to teachers of their PD? What might free range PD look like?
Power of approachable admin – I’ve always been pretty lucky that administrators I’ve worked with make a point of getting into class. I love seeing how much children lift their learning and self-esteem when leadership are in their classroom taking a genuine interest in their learning. ISHCMC took it to a whole new level as hordes of kids piled into the deputy principal’s office during the provocation. How often do you see kids in your principal’s office as part of their learning?
Power of teachers talking to teachers – Think of the last conference you attended or the last expert bought into your school. Was the person leading it a current classroom teacher? Most of the keynoters at conferences and consultants bought into schools have long since left the classroom. While the experts may know their area well, their advice is essentially out of date. Why do schools undervalue the expertise of current practitioners by giving so little time to teacher-led professional development? By luck, I happened to arrive at ISHCMC at the same time as @, an amazing maths teacher from Melbourne, was there to offer PD. From an outsider’s perspective I can’t overstate the value in having someone inside the school giving advice during planning, modelling lessons as well as offering workshops after school. Despite being tired at the end of the term, the teachers were clearly invigorated by her visit and I could see shifts in practice emerging. Such is the power of a deep learning connection over a series of days rather than a 45 minute keynote.
Power of team teaching – Within an hour of arriving Chad, the teacher whose class I ended up spending time in, remarked how much easier teaching becomes when there is another adult in the room. While I was officially at the school as an observer, I got my hands dirty either quietly with one or two kids on the side, with small groups or even sharing with the whole class together with Chad. Because I’m a tech geek, I ended up making a video of the provocation bringing another dimension to the learning for the Grade 5s. Team teaching enabled us to play to our strengths. The presence of a trusted teacher in the room helped us identify and develop areas where we need to improve. It is impossible for teachers to be all things to all kids. Why should any kid have a crappy year or need to move classes because their personality doesn’t mix with their teacher’s? Why do we insist on siloing teachers and children away in individual cells?
Power of recruitment – Who do you work well with enough to share a classroom with? Team teaching would be hell for all involved if the wrong teachers were placed together. Aside from giving personal recommendations staffing is generally an admin responsibility. How often do teachers get a say in who their colleagues are? How about the kids? Why is it that the people in schools teaching candidates will spend the most of the time working with are the ones generally left out of the recruitment process? Recruitment in international schools is an expensive and risky business for teachers and schools alike. It leaves so much to chance for all involved. The school doesn’t get a real picture of a candidate’s strengths and weakness while candidates don’t get a sense of what they are signing up for during skype sessions or expensive job fairs.
Power of connection – I made my initial connection to @sherrattsam through @whatedsaid who suggested him as a person to see teach a couple of years ago when I was on holiday in Bangkok. @, the expert teacher visiting ISHCMC teaches at Edna’s school in Melbourne. What strikes me is how easily conversation flows when our bodies are in the same space as our minds. We need to start trading breadth of connection for depth of experience. Developing a few good friends who really challenge us is worth more than thousands of superficial connections.
As I reflected on my week on the plane ride home, I realised that I’ve gained more by spending time in the school where Sam teaches watching and learning than any conference. Like all good provocations, my visit has left me with more questions than answers. When I was gathering my things on Friday evening, I bumped into one of the students from Chad’s class.
“Hey Ms Stephanie when are you coming back?”