City of Glacier Park Project – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Early in the year, I asked our class a simple question – “If you were given the choice, would you come to school or not?” 

Answers varied. Some said they would in order to see friends, play sport etc. Others said yes because they needed a good education to get into a career they wanted. But overwhelmingly, the answer was “sometimes“. After digging into why this was the case, a new question was born – “Is it possible for us to create a classroom where everyone WANTS to come to school every day?”

And so we started on a journey of discovery to see whether we could, in fact, create a classroom based on student directed learning with a focus on collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and community.

John Spencer & AJ Juliani are the authors of the LAUNCH Cycle which is a design thinking framework that we have been using in the City of Glacier Park (CGP) to provide structure to our creative projects. They advocate classroom inquiry and innovation through student voice to engage and empower students. I have found myself referring back to their books, blog posts and videos regularly over the past couple of months.

Now that we are half way through our term long CGP project I wanted to take time out of report writing and planning to reflect on how we have been going. The image above outlines some concerns that I shared when planning this grand (or crazy) adventure. So I am using John’s blog post The Five Biggest Fears that Kept Me from Empowering Students to help organise my thoughts.

Fear #1: Classroom Management Might Suffer

One thing I’ve always encouraged is student self-regulation of behaviour. I hate “command and control” and students definitely do too. We spend significant time exploring behaviour education at the beginning of each year which I find far more powerful than running an ongoing behaviour management plan. Play is the Way  is a fantastic program by Wilson McCaskill that we have adopted school wide. We use 6 agreements to guide our behaviour and students have the opportunity to be responsible for themselves until they make an adult “be the boss”.

Management of learning has been trickier. Very rarely this term have we all been working on the same task at the same time. Some students have flourished by having the opportunity to follow their own learning interests and paths, others have found “not being told what to do” very challenging. I have to admit I don’t always love having so many students working on different tasks, but I’m learning to “let go” and trust that students have enough structure to accomplish their learning goals.

Students designed our classroom setup and initially chose where and with whom they sat. We tried this for a couple of weeks but it became clear that this wasn’t working for everyone, so students gave control of seating back to me. What was supposed to be collaboration became a distraction, and many lacked the discipline to manage this. We will try again later in the term and see if we can find strategies to improve.

Fear #2: Students Wouldn’t Pass the Test If They Are Choosing the Topics in Projects

We are fortunate that we have very little standardised testing that we are required to cover outside of NAPLAN national testing in year 3,5,7,9 and some state diagnostic testing in Reading, Maths, etc. Both of these are good tools to measure growth in individual students. Both are terrible tools to measure “success” of individual schools, classes and teachers. Some teachers spend weeks “teaching to the test” before NAPLAN, I figure we spend the entire year preparing for this. Problem is, most of the skills that our class are learning at the moment cannot and will not ever appear on a standardised test…

I am trying to incorporate far more formative assessment as we work through tasks. Question is, what is the right balance between formative and summative assessment? I need to find better systems for students to self-assess and peer-assess work. This is probably my biggest challenge at the moment.

That said, a recent self-assessment task for poetry writing was a great success. No grades were given, and every student succeeded in reviewing and creating literature based on their own work. My time was spent helping students sift through their writing to find examples of alliteration, rhyming schemes and mood rather than marking and grading their work at the end. Every poem was published on individual student blogs, favourites shared via video on FlipGrid and some bravely performed in assembly.

Fear #3: We won’t cover everything on the curriculum map

This one is up in the air. Staying true to the spirit of the Australian Curriculum and covering enough content in a composite year 6/7 classroom is tough enough when I am directing the learning, let alone when students are making choices about what and how they learn. We are trying a “gradual release” of content where I have chosen many of the learning outcomes for this term, and students have scheduled the learning calendar. As we progress, we are co-designing some tasks (see our Sphero Chariot Racing Collaborative Project) with the intent of students taking greater ownership of learning next semester.

We have planned to cover too much content this term. Learning doesn’t happen in straight lines and the creative tasks we have been tackling certainly don’t care for timelines!

Fear #4: Students won’t know what to do if they own their learning

Many teachers and schools have made students passengers in their own learning. I have contributed to this as much as anyone in the past.

To paraphrase John Spencer’s article:

I chose the resources; content; questions; wrote the instructions; managed the project progress; chose the tasks; wrote the objectives; picked the standards; decided on the format; and determined whether or not the work was any good. Students were working for me.

After six or seven years of constantly being told what to do every step of the way, students have become very passive in the learning process. According to AJ Juliani:

Students have been taught since a very young age that school is a game…and if you follow the rules, it is easy to win. Teaching our kids to play the “game of school” will not help them later in life.

We have had some good days where everything seems to click, followed by some days where I’ve questioned what we are actually achieving… But they are making progress. Students have completely planned their learning for the Arts this term and will collect evidence of their learning across the year before conferencing with relevant teachers to decide on a grade for reports based on curriculum outcomes. Students have collaborated based on interest rather than friendship groups. They are peer teaching each other and younger students. I’m no advocate for homework programs in Primary school, but I’ve had kids emailing and Edmodo messaging me at night and on weekends with questions and ideas. I’ve had students constantly pestering me to stay inside during recess and lunch breaks so they could keep working. If that isn’t some kind of progress, then I don’t know what is!

Fear #5: I was worried that my leaders would view student ownership as teacher laziness

Our school leaders certainly won’t find me sitting at my desk marking work at any stage during the day, for two reasons:

  1. Students decided in our planning phase to get rid of my desk and storage space and turn it into a “Maker Space”. I have been unceremoniously dumped into an adjoining office. And I don’t miss my desk one bit. It forces me to work amongst our class and I’m certainly increasing my daily step count!
  2. We are experimenting with “going gradeless”. This, of course, doesn’t mean we have stopped grading work, we are mandated to provide a letter grade with supporting evidence twice a year. But as I mentioned earlier, I am spending the vast majority of my time giving feedback to students about their learning, preparing self and peer-assessment systems, and strangely enough, learning too.

However, I am mindful of “how it looks” when we have visitors to our room. Colleagues have visited to get a sense of what we are doing and I want the scene to be authentic. I don’t want everyone “on their best behaviour” so it just appears we are being successful. I want our success or failure to be measured on merits, warts and all. I have only taught a handful of explicit lessons so far this term so it would be easy to see me not doing too much teaching and assume I’m cruising. But truth be told, I’ve never worked as hard as I am right now.

My leader has been supportive of this experiment. I can always go back to doing what I’ve always done if it was a miserable failure. But while we have a long way to go and still so much to learn (especially me!) I don’t think I would be willing to go back. Onwards and upwards from here.

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