Posts tagged student voice
“We really don’t have a plan”
"We really don't have a plan". That is the spirit of risk taking and experimentation that Sylvonna Brennan and Andrea De Mendonca took when launching into the unknown and piloting “Engology”, an integrated Grade 11 English and Biology course this past fall. You may have seen their article in the Toronto Star. We were interested in digging a little deeper to get an understanding into the conditions that allowed this great combined credit course launch and where it will go from here. 

The basics of their integrated course are easy to understand. Students were offered an English/Biology package of courses in the afternoon. Topics from both sets of curriculum were woven together and both teachers worked closely on creating a coherent experience for students.

Both Sylvonna and Andrea were open to admitting that they were working alongside their students in this new adventure. Many times during the semester they empowered their students to advocate for how they wanted the courses to progress. There were times when the students would push back on topics or evaluations that they did not like and the teachers valued that student voice. 
Rethinking Reading Lists in Engology
Both teachers expected to attract the high achievers in their building to the integrated program. However, in practice this isn’t what happened. Their program attracted the dreamers at their school. It attracted students who wanted to take a risk and try something new and because of that, the cohort of students who joined them were the right kids for the course.

The community in the room grew organically over the semester as students had their beliefs about the Engology credit tested. Many thought it was going to be a bird course and they were soon proved wrong. The course was different, but not easier. Students and teachers noticed a strengthening of their “soft skills” as they were asked to think critically and communicate often about what they were learning.

Communicating understanding in new ways
This lead to a culture of risk taking in the Engology classroom. It’s easy to write a test and put down what you know and then forget about it. It’s a lot hard to communicate your understanding in different ways, to apply it, to write stories that weave the science curriculum into english. Students got comfortable with failure because they had embraced a spirit of iteration. They tried, failed and then learned.

For their parts, Sylvonna and Andrea are learning from their successes and failures too. Both are excited to teach the course again in the next school year. They are hopeful that student interest will allow the program to be run in both semesters. Sylvonna dreams about outfitting her classroom with furniture that will help promote discussion in a more relaxed atmosphere. Andrea is looking forward to finding ways to highlight how biology and science are represented in the media. She is dreaming about an assignment where students critique a film or tv show and talk about how science is glorified or misrepresented.
The creation of the Engology course was a project eight years in the making. Much of the day to day planning was done informally, in the hallways between periods. Sylvonna and Andrea exemplify why, when embarking on a creative or innovative act like this pairing of courses, you need to just launch into it, without a complete plan. It is through the lived experience of creating every day that that the magic happens.

What have you dreamed big about? What’s your eight year project that you wish you could try? We’d love to know!
Challenging our Current Learning Environments
Amanda Williams-Yeagers wrote a guest blog for us early this month.  She is also leading the HDSB Empower Book Talk.  We’ve enjoy learning with her every Thursday night so much, we asked her to share her thoughts on learning environments and why the classroom landscape needs to change.

I recently held a community circle with a grade seven science class. The students were feeling stressed about looming deadlines and tests, and I wanted to give them a forum to get things off their chest and discuss strategies for coping with management of the feelings they were having.  After a few referenced that this was “Good preparation for high school,” I decided to change the dialogue. I asked them,

“If they could change anything about their current school system and the way that they learned, what would they change?”

Some students talked about wanting more opportunities for hands on experiences and less tests, some talked about wanting more opportunities for creativity and less memorization, and one in particular, directed me to Prince Ea’s video, "I Just Sued the School System."  Curious to learn more, we watched this video as class.  The video references the fact that modern technologies such as the telephone and the car have changed drastically over the last one hundred and fifty years, and yet, the school system remains the same.  After watching  together, I asked them what spoke to them the most about the video. Their feelings and responses were explicitly clear.

Students want to learn in an environment that feels like “home.”  When students feel like they begin with trust rather than having to earn it, they feel more like their teacher believes in them.  The students I spoke to told me that when they enter a classroom that has uncomfortable and “sterile” seating, they feel like they are part of “factory” referenced in the video. They are shipped in, and shipped out, which is why they prefer to work in the library learning commons.  Creating spaces where students feel comfortable, where they feel like they can branch out, productively communicate and collaborate with their peers, and feel “cozy” sets the stage for a community of learners who want to be at  school.

                        A grade five portable that feels like “home” to students.

Clearly,  these aren’t the only learners who feel this way.  I surveyed students from kindergarten to grade eight, asking them about their ideal learning environment.  While some of them had idealistic dreams (“A Starbucks would be great!”), the consensus was clear:  when an environment feels safe, with comfortable seating, lower tables and collaborative seating arrangements- the environment is more conducive to productive learning and a student’s desire to be present.  
One of my favourite books for examining the learning environment in our education system is The Third Teacher.  Created by architects and designers, this books takes a critical look at the connection between the environment and how children learn.  Not only is this book an incredible resource, it comes with a community of support in the form of resources, blog, social media and more through The Third Teacher PLUS.  According to The Third Teacher, you don’t need to have a major budget to “hack” your learning space, you just need an open mind and willingness to let the students be a part of the process.  Oh, and also be open to letting the sun come in. But who could argue with that?
As I reflect more and more on my own practice as an educator, I realize that my favourite place to start when learning new things is to talk to the students.  I thought I did that, but I’m pretty sure I really only wanted them to tell me what I wanted to hear.  I’m realizing that I want my students to take feedback all of the time, but am I willing to listen to feedback myself? If we are open to critical feedback about our practice and our learning environments with students- can it make us even better?  If we begin by asking them what they think, then learning about the pedagogy, perhaps we are improving learning in two different ways at the same time:  Students feel valued because they feel as thought their voice has been heard, and we learn more than we realized we could, because we started with our students in mind.  I think that’s why we are all here in the first place.

~ Amanda Williams-Yeagers