The best PD is embedded in the classroom, not on a stage. The excitement of professional teachers engaging with each other is profound when it occurs in the real world. People need to see models to feel comfortable with new practices. To this end, it was so great to hear fellow teachers say they loved visiting our classroom and having the time to study inquiry-based methods IN THE REAL WORLD!
Louise and I have been very busy in the past few weeks as we roll out the demonstration classroom, thanks to our TLLP project. Teachers from around our board were invited to come spend the morning with us and experience our class in action. Our project budget allowed for supply teachers to free up our guests and it was therefore a relaxed and fun morning of joining the kids and later talking about the experience. Our colleagues arrived in groups of two to four over a number of days and the format was simple: Introduction to Inquiry-based learning, join the students in the classroom in action and ask questions of the kids while circulating, return to have a small group discussion, a presentation of work from the students, followed by a question and answer period (with the students), and finally an open-ended exchange of ideas.
I was very impressed with the level of enthusiasm the guest teachers exhibited. It was exciting to see the students engage so maturely with the adults as they shared their honest feelings about the inquiry process. Because we are so completely sold on this learning method, it was not difficult to talk about our successes and challenges. Alleviating the concerns about inquiry-based teaching was helped along by all of the good work the students presented and the caring concern they showed each other. After that, it was more a matter of helping the teachers see how they could implement the techniques in their classroom rather than convincing them it was a solid system.
Many teachers are hesitant to adopt a new format without seeing it in action. It was suggested that we 'take the show on the road' and offer to visit fellow teachers at their schools and help them get started. We are pursuing this goal with our board administrators for next year.
Teachers found it fascinating to see how well the students effectively used technology. Whether it was the comfort level of the students using modern tools or the creativity of the presentations that resulted, the feeling amongst the guests was that a skillful use of modern learning tools created a basis for dynamic learning. I felt it important to point out that any inquiry-based classroom is surely to benefit from good use of tech but that it wasn't a requirement. Asking great questions and working in a group do not rely on technical aids. What does help is the creative use of visually rich presentations. This can occur with or without tech.
We don't want our students to ever become cynical or jaded. We began this exploration with a fascinating look at the story of Shannen Koostachin, who at a very young age took on the Federal government of Canada to help bring educational equality to the Cree of Attawapiskat. Shannen's story of the difficulties of having to go to high school in a completely foreign town, the moldy portables in which she and her friends learned, and the staggering drop out rate of the youth in her community all touched a cord in our students. We tried to emphasize that Shannen didn't just complain and throw her hands up in frustration, but worked to get her message out in positive ways by speaking to many groups whenever she could. Being young had a benefit in that it caught the politicians' ears and and sparked the imagination of those willing to help. We want our kids to see that her success is not impossible to achieve. Speaking out in an intelligent way works. People will listen, no matter how young you are, if you are committed to making change.
This exploration of native cultures proceeded in the now-familiar rotation style in which the students were responsible for creating a presentation each day for the class. Imovies, podcasts, Keynote presentations, book creation, and Comic Life graphic stories provided the kids with many ways to express and promote their work. After two very exciting weeks, a grand total of 32 projects had been created and presented and the students really expanded their knowledge of and appreciation for First Nations people. One of the interesting side pieces was a series of discussions about giving positive feedback. We practiced giving a comment that supported the presentation, followed by a respectful, clear comment that suggested areas for improvement. The students did a great job presenting their work and truly appreciated the fair-minded comments.
Peter Douglas is a Grade 4/5 classroom teacher.