Jumping into the Deep End

About a year and a half ago I came across an idea that caught my eye and was catching the eye and minds of many educators around the globe – Genius Hour. I was instantly Unknownintrigued by the idea of having students follow their passions within the classroom setting. The research behind this new idea made sense. Of course we are inspired to learn more when we choose what we want to learn about and are following our questions. We also tend to be much more engaged in the learning process.

Sometime in 2012 I was introduced to Gallit Zvi who was working in the same school district as myself. With similar teaching philosophies and personalities we hit it off immediately. As Gallit has been instrumental in orchestrating the sharing of passion based learning I asked her out for coffee where we spent 3 hours talking, sharing, and inspiring each other as educators.

The theory behind Genius Hour made sense, the research behind passion based learningpassion fit nicely into my constructivist views of learning and I set out to learn more and develop a plan for implementation in my classroom. Well, as life happens I just did not get to it. As important as it was to introduce this in my teaching other inquiries kept pulling me away.

But in the spring of 2013 I finally introduced the idea behind Genius Hour with my class. They were extremely excited to give it a go and wondered when we would begin. Normally I am a teacher who does not dip a toe in when trying new things but jumps into the deep end, hoping to stay afloat. For some reason I was hesitant to do this with Genius Hour. I kept wondering how I would start, what would work best for my students, what would it look like in my room? So once again I pushed it off as my uncertainties kept me from diving in (gulp – should I say – the worry about failing!). I had promised my grade 6s, though, that we would start Genius Hour in the fall when they came back to me as grade 7s.

So September arrived, 15 familiar faces walked through our door along with 12 new grade 6s. Getting to know this group, establishing community, working through the bumps of Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 7.55.05 PMSeptember gave me more excuses to push it off. Thankfully I had one student who had been over the moon excited in the spring time about doing Genius Hour. He asked me on numerous occasions when we would get started. Without this young man’s prompting  I may still be pushing it off. Finally, finally, I decided to dig in, give it a go, and take the risk of implementing something new even though I had no idea of the shape it would take. Over the past couple of years I have started to take more risks with so much of my teaching but I still have a ways to go!

One of my teaching partners, Linda Wilson, had tried Genius Hour in her room last spring. She was impressed with the student learning and the creative, engaged process of students following their passions. Linda and I decided to do Genius Hour at the same time, that way I could use some of what she had already learned and we could share in the process. As we both have grade 6/7 combined classes we were planning to have the students work together on future GH projects so it made sense to do the first at the same time.

With two weeks left before the Christmas break I introduced Genius Hour to my class. I will leave the details of the actual process that took place  to another blog post but suffice toScreen shot 2014-01-13 at 7.58.21 PM say I could never have imagined what I witnessed from each and every student. The excitement towards learning, the engagement with every child, the creativity of their questions, the critical thinking of digging deeper, the problem solving, the sharing of specialties, this list could go on. I gave the students 4 in-class work sessions prior to share day and each of those days I would stop, look around and be thoroughly and completed in awe of what I saw.

Once again I have shown myself that I need to take risks more often in my teaching and worry less about it not coming out right because the right is what we make of the process. I need to set aside the day to day “stuff” and do what I know is right for for student learning and I need to follow that inner voice that says, “go for it, what do you have to lose.”

I could not have ended 2013 in a better way. A huge thank you to Gallit Zvi who started me 1aafd74e7a0100c095527ad156262eebon this journey, and to Denise Krebs, Joy Kirr and Hugh McDonald for publishing their own journeys; without knowing it, you helped to guide me to where I needed to go. And to all those educators who shared their Genius Hour journeys on the Wiki and Livebinder GH sites – thank you. I have a feeling that 2014 will be a year of even more changes inside Middleton’s class – I am so looking forward to jumping in to more deep ends.

If you would like to see the first Genius Hour projects please click the link to the class website Mrs. Middleton’s Class Genius Hour Page 1, Genius Hour Page 2, Genius Hour Page 3.

Who Grew More, the Student or Teacher?

Two years ago the grade 6 and 7 teachers at my school, along with our principal, made an important decision. Little did I know that this agreement would change my beliefs about what is best for student learning  nor did I realize this was the nudge I needed to take  risks and make changes in my teaching.

Men in black

Then there were 4.

Men in black with star

Now we are 5!

In June of 2011, after much consideration, the upper intermediate teachers decided to move from 3 straight grade 7 classes and one split to 4 combined 6/7s. Notice I used the term combined, not split. There is a very significant difference in how you teach a combined class versus a split class.

This was not an easy decision for me as I had been teaching grade 7 for many years. I was in a comfortable spot where I knew the curriculum  well enough  to be able to develop new approaches to what I did each year without having to learn a new curriculum. I had so many questions of what this combined class would look like and how the parents and kids would react after the years of tradition that had taken place at our school.

DSCF2049As a collaborative group we decided to take the leap,  to start a new journey. As we took this turn, we also were starting an inquiry on the use of technology and student engagement in the classroom. We also made a decision to run a two year program – the grade 6s would stay with their same teacher for two years. Thirdly, we made a conscientious decision to change the language in our classes to ‘learning’ language.

Our first two year cycle has come to an end; the grade 6s we started with are now off to 100_4596high school and ready to fly. As I reflect on this journey I am amazed, thrilled and a little dumbfounded at all that has transpired. What is even more powerful is that the students have recognized how far they have come in the two years and articulate it clearly to anyone who might ask.

What made the most impact on the change in student learning? I don’t know if I can prioritize this. I doIMG_0951 know that having the students for two years allowed growth for all. If you were to tell me that Mary (made up name) would grow from a timid, sometimes socially inappropriate, and disinterested child to a leader in the class as well as the school and a deep, reflective thinker I would have scoffed. If you would have told me that Johnny (again made up) would go from the highly disorganized, lose everything, one line writer to the focused (not all the time but most of the time), love to help others learn, and writer of thoughtful, detailed pieces I would laugh. But these as well as 11 other powerful stories did take place. The 13 grade 7 students who walked out my door on June 28th, 2013 are not the same students who walked in September 5, 2011. Some may say, “Maybe this growth would have happened anyway even without the same teacher for two years.” Who knows. What I do know, from my perspective, is that I am incredibly thankful to be the teacher who did have them for two years to witness their growth and did have the chance to push them to find their own potential. I am lucky to have been part of their world for the past two years.

Creating a combined class rather than a split class was also instrumental for the students.IMG_1031 We did all of our learning together (except Math); there was no split curriculum or sitting in separate parts of the class. Each student had an opportunity to work with everyone in the class, sit beside everyone, build relationships with everyone. The students did not see themselves as separate but as a family. As we reflected on this at the end of the year the students very clearly stated that it was the creation of the family unit that was incredibly important to them. They felt that we all built trust together and that we learned together.

Finally, the change of language. This is harder to describe. I made it intentional to promote the concept “we are all learners.” I was not the keeper of the knowledge. In December of 2012 one of my grade 6 students wrote on my blog,

IMG_0997Mrs. Middleton

It’s Slapshot one of your students and I’d just like to say that I think your an amazing learner and critical thinker. By the way you take time to write out these posts and are not afraid to share your learning with the world is just amazing! You are one of the only teachers I’ve ever had that has made learning fun, and it’s an honor to have you as my teacher but most of all a fellow learner. It’s not just us that learns but you can learn from us. Like just today you said to Skywalker in class that you could never come up with “International classmates” by yourself. That just shows how much you have pushed our thinking in the past 3 months.

Thank you for making this the best year of school yet and more to come.

Slapshot

This was so powerful, a wow moment – my students saw themselves, as well as the teacher, as a learner.

I also tried to instil in each of my students that it was the journey that was important, the journey is the learning, not some end grade. Students came to embrace this and stopped asking, “Is this for marks?” or “What is my mark?” They came to own their learning. Two years ago I was wondering how I could move my students from being observes of their learning to owners of their learning. Well they have done it and I cannot believe how  powerful this piece is and how proud they each are of their growth.

Haley and IIt was a very difficult good bye this past June for me. It is hard to say farewell to those who have been such a part of my life for so long. I can feel a sense of satisfaction and a lot of pride that these  students will succeed in their lives because they have taken on the ownership of their learning, they are wanting to succeed for themselves. I also am thrilled to know that 15 of my students will be walking back through my door in September ready to take the lead in our class, to build new relationships and to continue their growth where they left off. How exciting for us all.

I cannot imagine going back to the way it was in June 2011; too much of who I have become happened because of the changes my colleagues and I made over the past 2 years. I am extremely excited to continue this journey and see what else transpires for me in this wonderful profession I am a part of.

To end this year each student created a reflective animoto of their growth – where they have come from and where they are now. I have shared three with you here but all of the reflections can be found on my website at Student Reflections. These are  powerful examples of how far each has come in their own growth as well as the growth of the learner.

Student Reflection

Student Reflection 2

Student Reflection 3

I would like to hear of changes others have made this past year or two that have made a difference in your teaching and student learning. Please share a story or two of what has made an impact in  your teaching.