Posts tagged Viola Desmond Public School
Knowledge Building

Bijan Nagji is an elementary teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. He has 19 years experience as an educator in the Halton District School Board. His favourite thing to hear in a school is ”sure let’s give it a try!”.  His least favourite thing to hear is “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” and “This is just a new education fad”. He is passionate about student voice, empowering students and building a strong classroom and school community.  This is his first contribution to the Shift Blog.

The idea of Knowledge Building came across my radar in the middle of the 2017 school year. Ms. Hanmer, one of the Vice Principals at our school, dropped by my classroom to introduce me to a document.  Being open minded, I glanced at it and said “Sure, I’ll take a look”. I put it on my teacher's desk (I still had one then). Life got busy, you know how THAT goes!  And so, despite best intentions, it stayed there. As I reflect on this, I can still hear that voice inside my head saying “knowledge?” and thinking “why, isn’t that a low level thinking skill?”

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Later in the school year, I heard that the Halton District School Board announced that there were some grants available from the Ministry of Education to innovate (what a different time that was!) and try new ways of learning in the classroom. The idea of trying something new, something different sounded good to me! They were looking for proposals around how to teach the New Global Competencies. Knowing that there had been discussion that the Global Competencies were planned to replace our Learning Skills in our Provincial Report Cards, I figured, hey, why not apply? So, a group of us got together and wrote up what sounded pretty impressive (to me, anyway) proposal. Thanks Ms. Horner!

We decided to use the funding to see if we can teach junior students skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.  Little did I know that it would take me into perhaps one of the best and most gratifying professional endeavours to this day. Using The Knowledge Building pedagogy was a part of that proposal and our proposal was successful! That’s when I started to look into that document, dig a little deeper and get some sense of what knowledge building really was! I learned then that it was about students “identifying problems of understanding”, creating theories about those problems, acknowledging and respecting idea diversity and then collaborating together and focussing on idea improvement! Curious yet? Check it out here!

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Sometimes as educators it’s easy to stay the course and do what we already do. Risk taking and stepping outside our own comfort zone is not natural at times. It can be challenging and even difficult. It is great to find a like-minded team, willing to play and experiment with new ideas.   We took some of its theories, principles and ideologies and attempted to apply them into our classroom. We started slowly and looked at big ideas and concepts across all curricular areas and incorporated Knowledge Building within them. Some basic KB scaffolds such as “My Theory is”, “I wonder…”, “I still need to understand…” “Building onto this idea…”, “This theory does not explain…”, “Putting our knowledge together…” were introduced to students and we jumped right into using KB circles. When students seemed to have mastered some of these, we increased the scaffolds we were using, changed a few and even created some of our own. One of the topics we explored in our circles was the teenager girl Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun from Saudi Arabia and how she had been welcomed into Canada as a refugee, after fleeing from her family and country.

It soon occurred to me that our grade 5 students were engaged, respectful and actually sounded like empowered students and learners having a respectful conversation.  In short, they sounded like adults! Reflecting on this, I think that may have been my aha moment!

As part of the grant process, we brought in some experts to our school to dig deeper into how we could use Knowledge Building to teach some of the Global competencies.

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That’s when we were introduced to the Knowledge Forum! The Knowledge Forum is an online software tool used to help support Knowledge Building communities. Students have the opportunity to collaborate online with one another in this platform and build on the ideas of one another in order to focus on idea improvement

It seemed so complex at first, and a bit intimidating too! But, we gave it a go. What an exciting tool!

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We continued to take risks, play, fail and eventually learn! Oh yes, there were lots of failures along the way. Really, the kids figured out things quicker than me! They were quick to figure out how to post their comments, how to reply and add to a post and even how to attach relevant documents that supported their ideas and theories.  Even at age 10, they are so tech savvy and intuitive!

I was particularly fascinated by the analytics tool in the Knowledge Forum platform. We continued playing and exploring with the students and realized that there was invaluable data that it gave us! I liked that it allowed the silent, more reserved students to have a voice! Not only that, but students and teachers had data about peer to peer collaboration.

Students were looking at their collaboration as a class community and came to the realization that many of them were only collaborating with their friends, as this was the most comfortable for them. This opened the door for great discussion and discourse in our room about what collaboration looked like in the real world. Slowly, we started noticing a change and more authentic interactions with others. But wait, if the goal is idea improvement, we still had a long way to go! Another emerging trend came to the forefront. Students seemed to be really good at creating and stating their own theories, but not as good at building on the ideas of others or putting ideas together.

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Knowledge Building is now a way of life in our classroom. If you are an educator, administrator, a policy maker, I have this to say, give this a go. Try, Fail, Learn, Try Again! The way I see it, whether you are an expert or just beginning to dabble with teaching pedagogies such as project based learning, the maker movement, Inquiry based learning, integrative thinking, design thinking or any other classroom practice, they really all fall under this one umbrella of Knowledge Building! So, no, it’s not an add on! Give it a go! I have no doubt that in the end the winners will be our students and our future generation!

Listening to Students' Stories

Christine Vanderwal is a grade 7 teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. She is passionate about equity, Indigenous perspectives, building relationships, listening to students' stories, meeting the needs of her learners, and building safe school cultures. This is her first contribution to the Shift Blog.

Then he said, ‘That’s my favourite part about this class.’

One day, my students were deep into their inquiry work.  One boy wandered over to me. He told me that he was sorry to have gotten off track, but that he was looking into wood extraction and the search somehow took him to a page about his ancestral country of Pakistan.  He wanted to show me some beautiful landscape images of the country. We chatted about it for a few minutes.

Then he said, "That's my favourite part about this class."  

Unclear about what he meant, I replied, "What's your favourite part about this class?"

"That I can talk so much about where my family originates, Pakistan."  He answered.

This coming from a kid who had learned how to code on scratch, created videos, engaged in drama activities, design challenges, built a game for Genius Hour, started a blog, and played with circuits.

I would have guessed that one of those things might be his highlight about our classroom.

I was wrong.  His favourite part about our class was that we talked about our stories, we celebrated our identities, and took time to do that.

I believe in empowering students.

I want to learn about new technologies, new ways for students to express themselves.  I want to take my learning about how to integrate arts education deeper. I want to inspire kids to tell stories in different ways, to dive into Project Based Learning, Thinking classroom, outdoor education, Integrative and Design Thinking, Knowledge Building, and make everything we do in our classroom authentic.

The more I learn about innovative teaching practices though, the more I want to dive into the work of equity.

I see the two as going hand in hand.  Students will never feel empowered unless they feel heard, unless they feel valued, unless they feel welcomed into a safe space everyday.  A space where they can truly be themselves, take creative risks, speak their opinions without judgement. If we as teachers are going to empower our learners, it is AS much about the culture that we create in our classrooms, as it is about innovative teaching practices.

The work of equity, exploring Indigenous Perspectives, building relationships, listening to our students' stories, meeting the needs of our learners, and building safe school cultures needs to lay the foundation for innovation and student empowerment.

My students taught me this.

One day in my grade seven class last year something happened in the room.

I went in that day thinking it was not going to be a good one. Rainy days, double indoor recesses can be rough in Elementary school!

After the break, students were yawning, and itching to get outside.  I wasn’t sure if it was a good move or not, but I pushed ahead and had them set up the space to continue on the inquiry we’d been working through, which was part of a larger Project Based Learning experience.  I didn’t think it would go well. I couldn’t feel the energy in the room, and today, I didn’t have the energy either. It took quite awhile for students to start their investigations, I had to give some reminders to a few to make good choices, people were asking to take walking breaks early into the period, it didn’t feel great.  

Then, something shifted.  

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Two boys ran up to me, computer in hand, wanting to show a video they were watching on the impact of seismic blasting on marine animals.  They were excited that the video featured an Inuit perspective.

As they were telling me about it, another student overheard our conversation and said, “Can you throw that link on google classroom, it sounds interesting.”

It was like their energy, their passion was contagious, it began to spread around the room.

A few minutes later someone else called me over to watch an animated video she had found showing the impact of extracting resources on animals.  Before I knew it, half the class were up and gathered around her computer. We all shared a bit of an emotional moment, and it sparked ideas about how we might use art to make an impact on an audience.  Off another student went to the idea board.

I suggested that a group tweet out some of what they had found using the hashtag we had developed to try to make some connections online.  They sat huddled around a chromebook in the hallway, composing a tweet.

Someone else came up, asking if we could have a chart paper up somewhere so that he could put up new learning and thinking that wasn’t necessarily connected to any of our questions, but that shouldn’t be forgotten.

I was about to redirect a couple boys who just seemed to be wandering and chatting, I assumed they needed some help to focus or figure out where to go next.  As I approached, they turned to me and said,

“So, we were just talking about how money, the government, business, all this stuff we have, it’s just one big endless cycle that we can’t seem to stop.”

It was so neat, because they were investigating two completely different questions, but were sharing theories and ideas, finding connections. This is the power of fostering a knowledge building community in the classroom.

By the end of the period, every single student had something to add to our knowledge building board. Arrows were being drawn, connecting ideas.  I stood back and watched, listened. Even if they weren’t all talking at that point about their inquiry, I was witnessing something special, a little bit of magic. They were connecting intellectually through the inquiry, by sharing ideas, critical thinking and questions. Perhaps more importantly though, they were connecting as individuals, relationships that we had built over the year were strengthening.  I realized that all of the work we had done at the beginning of the year and throughout building relationships, getting to know our each other’s stories, talking about issues of injustice and equity in our world, exploring Indigenous perspectives in connection to the land, had laid the foundation for this deep inquiry work and knowledge building to happen, so organically.

Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall

Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall

Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.

Teaching this way is not easy, it is so messy, so unpredictable.  It does not work beautifully every day. Kids are resistant sometimes, they aren’t always engaged, not every one of them, not all the time. Sometimes I wonder if they are learning enough. Do I give them too much freedom?  Do things need to be more structured or less structured? Am I giving everyone what they need? Are my expectations high enough? These questions are important for me to keep asking. We need to be reflective about our practice and what is happening in our classrooms.

Final Knowledge Building Wall

Final Knowledge Building Wall

Even though it is messy, I believe in it. I’ve seen the impact that teaching and learning like this can have on kids.  The power of Knowledge Building and PBL was so clear to me that day. Teaching this way empowers students, gives everyone a voice, deepens the learning and creates communities of creative and critical thinkers, global citizens who are starting to realize they can be a contributing part of our society now. It helps students develop confidence by discovering their strengths and realizing their passions.  Isn’t that what school should be about?

My students make me want to do better.  

My students inspire me to learn and to grow.  

Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.

History in the Making

This week, Halton opened the doors on its newest elementary school, named after a Canadian civil rights leader, Viola Desmond.  Up until the Christmas Break, students who were to attend Viola Desmond Public School had been split between several other area schools while construction on their building was finished.  This splitting of the new school community made building relationships between the new staff and students challenging.  However, with the unveiling of the new Canadian Ten Dollar Bill, featuring a portrait of Viola Desmond, staff and students were given an opportunity to gather in November to celebrate.

Bijan Nagji and Sarah Patterson, two teachers at Viola Desmond, spoke to their students about the importance of this event and how they felt having their school named after such a leader.

“When I first heard about the event, I felt like a leader, like I’m representing our class and school and representing Viola Desmond in a way that everyone can remember her action and her name”  ~Navnoor, Grade 7

“The speech from the Bank of Canada really stood out for me, because the passion of Viola Desmond came across.  It was really inspiring from the words that were said, from the artwork on the 10 bill. I like the design. I also love the poem that Nadine (Williams) made.  She inspired me to create my own piece”  ~Yusur, Grade 6

“I was very excited to be one of the very first people to get the new $10” ~Jyoshika, Grade 5

Students feel a sense of pride by attending a school named after someone who stood up for their own rights and the rights of others.  They recognize that she was different and that there are many visible and invisible differences among the students at Viola Desmond Public School.  Students are excited to be learning in a community that embraces these differences, where students are comfortable talking openly about these difference and respecting everyone's diverse backgrounds.  Students realize the legacy of Viola Desmond and are happy to represent her in their own community.