Learning

A Surprising Tranquility – My Day at PreKindergarten

One of the best ways for adults to really understand how a student experiences life and learning in school is by spending a full day shadowing a student. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about my experience of shadowing grade 4 student, Maria: A day in the life – Shadow a Student Challenge. This year many of our leaders at ISP are shadowing students, including Tony McLaughlin, ISP Communications Manager. He tells his story called “A Surprising Tranquility” below:

This week I took on the International Shadow a Student Challenge at ISP. It certainly proved an interesting and enlightening experience, and I think and certainly hope my ‘classmates’ enjoyed me being around too!

Some of my “classmates”

I have worked at ISP for almost a year now and it has in some respects been quite a steep learning curve, not least in terms of getting to grips with some of the educational terminology used around the school. I have, however, greatly enjoyed familiarising myself during my time at ISP with the day-to-day workings of the school and how teachers go about the business of educating students in such a diverse environment. Spending the day shadowing in PKK (PreKindergarten) came about rather organically through a conversation with Jimena Zalba, Elementary School Associate Principal, about the possibility of shadowing in the ES. This led to a subsequent chat with PKK teacher (and my fellow Scot!) Ms Kerry about the possibility of joining her class and she responded very positively.

My ‘official’ shadow buddy Amalia

While I was looking forward to the shadowing day, I must admit to having a very slight feeling of trepidation. I wondered for, example, if the children might react with shyness? Maybe they would behave differently due to my presence? I needn’t have worried, as the initial reactions of the students ranged from apparent apathy to amusement, with quite a few thoughts in between that I couldn’t quite detect.

During the initial 15-minute session of the PKK day I attempted to integrate myself with my classmates after Ms Kerry had introduced me as being a “big kid” for the day. The day, from my perspective at least, didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts. My initial attempt to enquire whether the large box they were playing in was a house or a den was met with an almost deadpan, “This isn’t a house – it’s just a box”. In a way though this put me at ease as it reminded me of something my own children might say.

The first part of the day – the short free choice section was when I was introduced to the girl I would shadow, Amalia. Amalia informed me right away how to say “hello” in Hebrew. It quickly became clear that shadowing a day in the life of a single student was in fact a whole class affair, as I was fortunate to have the opportunity to observe and speak to all children in the class over the course of the day.

Ms Kerry reads The Terrible Plop

For me it was an eye-opener to see the day unfold as it offered something of a paradox. The day seemed unstructured, although there was a clear structure in place which the children almost seemed subconsciously aware of. This was particularly the case at snack time, when different children had their snacks at different times without even a murmur. Looking back to my own childhood, this could have kicked off a near riot in the McLaughlin household, so it was very interesting to see the comfort that the children felt in their learning environment. Despite Ms Kerry having said that it was a “crazy busy” day, nothing seemed hurried or frantic.

Taking photographs around the school is part of my job as Communications Manager so I was familiar with the next part of the PKK Day, Music Presentation, as I’d been asked to photograph it on two occasions. It was very nice (as ever!) to see the irrepressible Ms. Jarka in full flow, happily exhorting the children to “sing their name” and lead the song about the naughty pussy cat who “has butter on his whiskers” which is not a phrase I hear too often on a regular Tuesday morning working in the Advancement Office. It was a pleasant change to personally take part properly in the singalong as part of the class and see such a great turnout of parents (and grandparents!) fully engaged in the school day of the students.

The next part of the day was probably the part that took me most by surprise, not in that students were focused as such, I had expected that. What surprised me was that there was a quiet, almost tranquil atmosphere in the room. I had, maybe from my own experiences at home with my own kids, expected a room full of four year olds to be slightly more boisterous. Instead, there was a surprising tranquility – this was evident in the attitude of the students and was encouraged by the classical music softly playing in the background.

Children again were not pointed in any direction during this session but instead followed their natural curiosity to the activities which interested them under the supervision of Ms. Kerry and Miss Elsy. These included continuing on the woodwork projects the students had been recently working on with visiting artist Jan Nováček and working with new and improved red modelling clay. This certainly brought my ‘original’ shadow partner, Amalia’s creativity to the fore. She confidently employed me as a holder of her woodwork creation until the glue set while she went about her business.

Lunch

After lunch the pace really dropped with rest time. To my surprise most of the students actually did rest! For the more energetic children I read a few books which was a warming experience for me as I actually revisited for the first time in a while the Julia Donaldson books that my own children and I took great pleasure in reading previously.

Another storytime followed – there was evidently a lot of time spent in Pre Kindergarten on cultivating a love of reading, and of storytelling and listening. The book of choice this time was The Terrible Plop by Ursula Dubosarsky. After the story it was time for the final outdoor play of the day and it was time for me to get back to my day job. I felt a glow of pride when Ms. Elsy told me at the end of the day that while I was by no means the first person to observe the class, I was nonetheless the first to be around for the entire day.

The Gruffalo with MJ and George

Ultimately, I found spending the day at pre-kindergarten very fulfilling, it was inspiring to see the dedication, patience, kindness and professionalism of teaching staff at close quarters. I learned a lot from the energy of the students and was interested at first hand to see what really switches them on in what is a nurturing, creative environment. It was important for me, who spends quite a lot of time on words and explaining our mission to see it being lived by staff and our younger students. Its an experience I’d like to repeat in other parts of the school in the near future.

Activities with Ms Elsy

A day in the life – Shadow a Student Challenge

As part of the international Shadow a Student Challenge, last year I blogged about my experience of shadowing a grade 9 student, Grace, throughout her day at the International School of Prague. In a very positive sense, I got much more than I bargained for.

This time it was Maria in grade 4 whom I had the pleasure of shadowing throughout her day of learning at ISP. I can truly say that while I was exhausted at the end of our day, I was also energized by what I observed and learned with Maria and all of her grade 4 classmates.

Maria – Grade 4

From the moment I entered Mr. Ryan Malone’s classroom, I was struck by how students were engaged and had considerable choice in how they were learning. At the same time it was clear that the structure and purpose of what students were learning was clear and well structured. What follows is a short version of my day of shadowing Maria primarily told through pictures and video:

The morning began with students rotating through the classroom reading through poems they may wish to learn and present. There was a palpable sense of focus as the students absorbed different styles of poetry.

Picking a poem

After that it was off to music class with Mr. Allen. The class was filled with a variety of engaging musical activities from vocal warm ups, to singing Solfègeto composing our own rhythms, to performing on Orff instruments. Mr. Allen’s music class was active, fun and focused.

Visiting Mr. Allens music class

After returning to class we were off to PE with Mr. Choudhury. First we warmed up with some dodge ball. Here I must mention that the students were intent on hitting me with a ball but then politely handed me another ball so I could join in again, only to be “attacked” once again. It was fun! Then we got into an introduction to badminton by watching some footage of professional players. After some conversation about our observations, it was time to try it out for ourselves.

Once back in Mr. Malone’s class, students led by fellow student David, took turns nominating people, parents or friends, who had something positive and special. For example:

Sam said. “I nominate my dad for playing the Math game with me yesterday.” and then David asked the class to give “3 snaps for Sam’s dad.” What a great way for these young students to think about and recognize how others help or support them.

Next the class smoothly segued into math learning, beginning with some sequential math problems.

Then the class tackled a conceptual problem, The Box Factory.

After working individually, students took turns describing how they would represent a crate of oranges with numbers.

Later the class continued its study of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To introduce this part of the unit Mr. Malone had announced to the students that they were going to watch a video about “Fuzzy Bunny’s Magical Trip to the Human Rights Forrest,” but they were in for a surprise. As the class gathered around the screen, they were startled to see an ominous “hack” of the internet by an interplanetary alien, STHGIR (“rights” spelled backward) who posed a challenge to the students. After the startling appearance of STHGIR, Mr. Malone explained that there wasn’t a real alien but that his challenge was for students to see if they could come to agreement on what they believed were the five most important human rights.

Students first reviewed and rated the rights individually and then worked in pairs and then groups to see if they could reach consensus on five rights. This was an excellent way to get the students to better understand all the rights in the declaration through considered debate and discussion.

STHGIR’s ATTACK

 

Working to reach consensus

Even though it was a bit cold outside, it was now time to go outside in search of “metaphors.” Once outside we were asked to find an object which students could describe from a variety of perspectives and to write descriptions of each in the appropriate “room,” such as the Sound Room or the Feelings Room. This was a wonderful way to allow students to discover the concept of metaphor without simply telling them what it was.

Looking for Metaphors

I am a rock?

Learning about metaphors

Once back in class, students excitedly presented their own creations as part of the Class Economy unit. Here they had a chance to “sell” and “buy” items they created to one another. The activity required creativity, thinking about marketing and entrepreneurship, and through the process the students learned about commerce.

So that was our day in a nutshell. What is hard to convey is how much fun it was to learn in this dynamic and focused environment, where the learning of each student was nurtured and supported and where the students could safely take risks and learn from their trials and errors.

Agenda for our day with Mr. Malone

Oh, I forgot to mention, recess and lunch. They were fun too!

Thanks to Mr. Malone, Maria and grade 4 for an amazing day! I learned a lot!

With Mr. Malone and Grade 4

Thanks Maria!

Maria and me

How do you learn to cook?

curiosity_bigg

I recently attended the ECIS (Educational Collaborative for International Schools) Educators Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the theme, Cultivating Curiosity.

ecis_confwebsite10-6-16

The theme of cultivating curiosity reminded me of one of ISP‘s (International School of Prague) strategic goals,

Curiosity drives what and how we learn.” 

It is through curiosity and personal relevance (another ISP strategy!), that all students, young and old, will be deeply engaged in the learning process. For students to take their own personal paths to learning in school, teachers must create rich environments and multiple learning paths to encourage and nurture curiosity.

The first keynote speaker at the ECIS conference, Dr. William Rankin, highlighted the paradigm shift schools need to make: From teaching and learning as a linear activity, to contextualizing learning within an ecosystem.

Bill Rankin

“Dr William Rankin is a speaker and independent consultant focusing on the impact of emerging educational technologies.”

In his talk, Rankin pointed out that the more educators and schools try to reduce information into easily “manageable” and discrete chunks, the more we actually reduce engagement, because this “goes against the way our brains were formed to work.” Rankin argues that learning requires an ecosystem, which similar to the world of nature, is Diverse, Relational, Balanced, Torsional, Dynamic and Substantial. Such a learning ecosystem is where relevance serves as a catalyst to stimulate curiosity and engagement.

Learning Ecosystems - Rankin

Learning Ecosystems – Rankin

To illustrate how the lack of relevance can be a mind-numbing experience, Rankin demonstrates how not to teach cooking. Each week the class is informed that they will learn about a different cooking tool: Week one is spoons; week two is knives; week three is pots and pans etc. By the end of the semester students don’t have the time to actually cook. Rankin asks his audience, “How many of you have been in that course?” Sadly, many hands are raised.

So “How do you learn to cook?” Rankin asks, “By cooking! You learn all that information, not first but while you are doing it.”

In the school of the future?

“Always cook from day 1!”

 

You can’t teach people everything they need to know.

convinced

As the school year begins, it is fitting and timely to call attention to an educational visionary and provocative thinker who recently passed away. For over a half century Seymour Papert led the call for schools to empower students to have greater control over their learning.

Seymour Aubrey Papert (February 29, 1928 – July 31, 2016) was a South African-born American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator, who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT.[1] He was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, and of the constructionist movement in education. He was co-inventor, with Wally Feurzeig, of the Logo programming language. (Wikipedia)

In the early 70s, long before laptops or even desktop computers,  Papert saw the enormous potential and power of young people freely exploring and learning from and with this powerful new technology.

Beyond his advocacy for the integration of technology in schools, Papert vehemently believed that in any context, learning must firmly be in the hands of the learner.

The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a  student of the pleasure and benefit of discovery.

Papert was a visionary who had and continues to have a profound influence on the progressive direction schools have taken. The more we understand the workings of the brain and how learners learn best, the more Papert’s ideas about learning by doing and student empowerment take hold.

In the tradition of the great educational minds like John Dewey, Seymour Papert challenged educators to rethink the traditional school model, to “break away from the old patterns, where children were born as learners, they learned from their own energy until they went to school,  and when they went to school, the first thing they had to learn was to stop learning and begin being taught.”

You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.

seymour-papert

 

Where is my home?

gradZofin Palace

As is the tradition in countless schools and universities around the world, ISP recently convened its graduation ceremony for the class of 2016. We are fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to honor and celebrate with our graduates and their families in one of the most beautiful cities in the world Prague, in one its splendid landmark buildings, Zofin Palace.

Each year students, teachers and administrators have an opportunity to share our thoughts about the graduates and their futures. While there were many eloquent speeches to choose from, below I reprint Isabella Wilkinson’s address, which I will call, “Where is my home?”

Bella, speaks to the anticipation of our graduate’s bright futures and to the questions many are asking. Enjoy!

Kde domuv muj? Where is my home? – Isabella Wilkinson

Isabella Wilkinson speaking for her fellow graduates

Isabella Wilkinson speaking for her fellow graduates

Question everything. Remain curious. Strive to understand what you know, and what you don’t, and why. Perhaps these are the greatest and most profound lessons ISP has taught us over the past few years, as its students: to keep our eyes wide open to the changing world around us; to always have the curiosity to ask questions and to retain the energy to pursue their answers no matter what.

Today, the Class of 2016 stands on the edge of the rest of their lives, ready to go off into the world to find answers to the unanswered, to question the unquestionable. Seated before you today are the world’s future leaders, engineers, writers, doctors, artists, politicians, all of whom will strive to have unprecedented and unimaginable impact on the world around them. Each of us is prepared to go off into the world with open and questioning minds, prepared to ask our own questions and prepared to seek our own answers.

However, amidst the uniqueness of our graduating class as individuals, there is a single unanswered question that I believe truly defines us as a group and brings us all together: a question that should be recognized today as we are poised to step bravely into the future. To be honest, it’s one of the hardest questions we’ve faced yet…and this is said after taking this year’s IB exams! Whether it appears on a university application form, in an interview or even just in casual conversation, this is a question many of us will never be able to answer in just one word:

“So, where is home?” Or: “So, where are you from?”

ISP has given us the confidence to question everything. That’s how we know our identity can’t be defined just by the nationality and birthplace on our passports, or by the places our family lives, or by the languages we speak. Knowing who we are can be so much more complicated than that. Or, it was, until very recently.

As said earlier, the class seated before you today is standing before the rest of their lives. It’s inevitable: within the next few months, the Class of 2016 will have dispersed themselves all over the globe, to study, to work, to pursue new adventures, to meet new people, to grow and to learn, to ask questions and seek answers. Change is on the horizon. But before you take a leap of faith, you look down to see where your feet are. And on the edge of this great unknown, we can’t help but look down to see where we’re standing. It’s really true that you only know and appreciate what you have and what you’re a part of when it’s time to let it go, and move on.

So, today, as we graduate, we can ask the previously unanswerable question once again, a final time for now. “So. Where is home?” Now, when asked “where’s home?” we can think of days spent. We remember the morning breaks spent laughing about the weekend’s events in the cafeteria with our best friends, the lunchtimes spent cramming for tests together on the floor of the senior lounge, the evenings spent endlessly exploring the beautiful city we’re so lucky to be a part of with people we’re so lucky to have in our lives.

Now, when asked “where’s home?” we can think of people. We remember the ISP family; the teachers that have helped us become the people we are today with patience and encouragement, who have believed in us and inspired us beyond words; the families that have given us the love, support and motivation we’ve needed to achieve our goals; the friends that have made us cry with laughter along the way, with whom we’ve made unforgettable memories with. We remember the post-graduates who sat where we are seated today and the way they’ve become part of an enduring and special network that neither time nor distance will end.

Now, when asked “where’s home?” we can think of feelings. We remember the nervous excitement as we walked up the back stairs to the freshmen hallway for the first time; the exhilaration of moving up a grade; the growing unease about our final exams; and now, the nervous excitement as we move upwards once again.

Now, when asked “where’s home?” we can think of moments. We remember the moments of discovery, of realisation, of learning and of growth; we remember the moment we realised a long-awaited answer to a long-term question. We remember the moments that have made us who we are as people.

This is one of them. Over the past few months, as we have been prepared to let go of ISP, a lot of things have been labeled as their ‘last’: the last IB class, the last IB exam, the last cafeteria lunch with friends, the last goodbye to the senior lounge, and the last time walking through the halls of ISP as a student.

Well, as for last words, there isn’t much left to say but this: In the words of the Czech national anthem – words that have no doubt grown close to our hearts in the past few years:

Kde domuv muj? Translation: where is my home?

Now, all there is left to say is thank you. Thank you, ISP, for helping us answer that question. Thank you, ISP, for being a home.

 

 

“The Shadow Knows”… a day in the life of a student

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 11.24.13

As Director of the International School of Prague (ISP), I like to believe that I work hard every day, but yesterday I gained a new perspective on hard work, having “shadowed” Grace, a grade 9 student at ISP, for a day.

While I often visit classrooms and observe kids learning and teachers teaching, spending a full day shadowing one student, from class to class, as well as lunch, is a very different experience and one I highly recommend, especially to other school decision makers.

I decided to shadow Grace as part of an initiative called Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by SchoolRetool. Here’s how they describe what shadowing is: “Just like it sounds, shadowing a student is the process of following a student to gain empathy and insight into their experience. ” And that’s just what the day of shadowing gave me, some unique insights into the life of one of our students, as well as some real empathy for their experience.

Our day started at 8 am for an 80 minute block of Mathematics. The focus of this class was on factoring and I was impressed with the focused yet caring tone set by their teacher, Mr. Rops, and how physically active the class was. For the first 20 minutes, enthusiastic students worked on a variety of warm-ups and problems, standing throughout the room and writing on the various white walls, desks and even windows. There was a lot of cross discussion and kids checking and helping each other out throughout the class.

Maths in action!

Maths in action

Grace and friends problem solving

Grace and friends problem solving

After Math, things really got physical, as I participated in a PE class in the school fitness center. While I didn’t come dressed or prepared for a work-out, I decided to join in at the invitation of PE teacher, Ms. Shaw. I think I got more than I bargained for! After some strenuous warm-ups, the students were given the task of creating their own workout regimen based on exercises they have been using over the past few weeks. I buddied up with another student,  Alisa, who really took us through our paces with a regimen of plank walks, crunches, side squats, bicep curls and something I think was called the Bulgarian squat! Suffice it to say, I learned a lot through the pain, but felt kind of virtuous, if exhausted by the end of class. Again I was struck by hands on learning taking place and the willingness of our students to help each other throughout our time together.

PE Fitness class

PE Fitness class

Feeling tired and virtuous with Ms. Shaw

After fitness workout with Ms. Shaw’s PE class

After PE it was off to lunch with Grace and her friends. This was a chance to unwind, chat and laugh while enjoying some great food. I appreciated how Grace and her peers included me in the lunchtime conversation and banter.

After lunch and some welcome down time, it was back to it with social studies. This is a class in which lots of different things were happening at the same time. Students were working on their presentations, others went off to prepare for a theater production while others were involved in leading an activity with grade 3 students. Grace worked on her presentation whose topic focused on the impact of  oil on WWII.  During the class, students conferred with each other and social studies teacher, Ms. Fleming, about their individual presentations.

Grace working on her presentation

Grace working on her presentation in Social Studies

The final class of the day was grade 9 science with Mr. Morrison. We started off with an active warm-up, followed by a short lab experiment in which we explored the “specific heat capacity” of various metals. “The specific heat is the amount of heat per unit mass required to raise the temperature by one degree Celsius.” By placing a metal in boiling water, measuring the temperature with a probe and then placing the hot metal in room temperature water and recording the water temperature increase we used the data to apply the appropriate formula and compare our results for various metals.

Understanding heat capacity

Understanding heat capacity

As you can imagine, my retelling of my day of shadowing and the classes I attended only skim the surface, but I truly did come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation of what a school day is like for a grade 9 student. The life of a high school student is chock full every day and the range of learning activities required from students as they move from class to class is considerable. It’s also important to bear in mind, that while the school day schedule goes from 8 am to 3 pm, most students have after school activities and homework to contend with before their day is truly over.

What impressed me the most about our school was the overall welcoming and nurturing learning environment, how supportive our students are of each other and the way our teachers are able to develop an ethos, where students feel highly supported and safe to take risks, can work independently or collaboratively and truly have the opportunity to learn by doing.

I want to thank Grace for her willingness to share her day of learning with me, and I certainly plan on making shadowing a regular feature of my work in the future. I may have ended the school day a bit sore, but I learned a lot, and it was fun too!

Thanks Grace!

Thanks Grace!

Knowledge isn’t Power

“Knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is something you Google” – Danny Gregory

In order to include parents in crucial conversations about how schools are changing to meet the needs of today’s student, the International School of Prague engages parents in a regular series of thought-provoking workshops called, The Edge in Education. The Edge is an opportunity to discuss current and future trends in education and to engage parents in dialogue  about how to best support their children. Previous topics addressed in Edge workshops include:

Creative thinking with Danny Gregory

Artist, author, creative director, blogger, teacher and speaker, Danny Gregory, was our guest speaker for the latest edition of Edge in Education series.

Danny also spent a week at ISP as an “artist in residence”, working with students and teachers alike, helping them  sharpen their creativity skills and teaching them how to better understand the world around them through the lens of keen observation and sketching.

Danny at ISP

Danny Gregory at ISP

As an introduction to the topic of creativity before Danny’s presentation to parents, two quotes were highlighted:

“The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”                                                     Dan Pink

Creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy, and I actually think people understand that creativity is important – they just don’t understand what it is.”                   Sir Ken Robinson

Through the lens of his own fascinating and, at times, tragic personal journey, Danny Gregory eloquently presented his strong point of view about how creativity is not a frill, but an essential part of our lives. Through it all Danny revealed to us the power of creativity; how it enabled him to bring greater clarity to his own life and reconnect to the world around him.

Danny’s message is that everyone can make art; that we can all be artists with “a small ‘a’.” Like cooking, art should not be reserved only for those with a professional skill.

“Imagine if we thought that to be able to cook you have to have a four-star restaurant, to be able to cook you have to go to a culinary institute and spend years as an apprentice working for a master chef and eventually you would be able to cook and open a restaurant. We don’t though; we think of cooking as I can make a grilled cheese sandwich, I can make an omelette, I can make a burger. Why can’t we think of art… being the equivalent of heating up a can of soup?”

So Danny challenges us to think of art as  an essentially innate human trait that we all have and can bring into our lives. It’s a skill like driving or cooking which we learn and do regularly until it becomes second nature. But more than that, as Danny points out, creativity is really an essential twenty first century skill.

“We think it’s really nice to have art. It’s so great when we have art in schools or we have music in school. That’s so nice because then we’re cultured. We don’t want our kids growing up and not being cultured and just thinking about work, but the fact is creative skills, and it’s fantastic that it’s a key part of your mission here, because creative skills are what you need to proceed in life.”
If you’d like to learn more about Danny Gregory’s compelling story and artistic journey, you can view the full Edge in Education video here: