The META Unit (pt 1)

This is part 1 of a series of blog posts tracking a change in practice we are trying this year.

This idea came from our frustration with a very busy schedule where sequential Units of Inquiry left little breathing room on the calendar. In order to give ourselves a bit more room on the schedule, we have decided that each Primary class will designate one of their units of Inquiry as a META unit.
After our initial planning session, two different types of Meta units emerged:
1) The Long Term Project Based Learning

Grade 5/6 will take a unit and do a year long project. On Friday afternoons every week, as a school we have a period dedicated to Community Time/Passion Projects. This class will take that time and apply it to a UOI once a week. The students will negotiate and decide what that will look like.

2) The Central Core
Grade 1 & 2 and Grade 3/4 are going with a different approach. They choose one unit that will act as a philosophical core for the year. It will be weaved in and out of everything. The unit on NEEDS is all about our basic needs as humans (who we are). This will include our needs as learners and as a member of a community. This will be used as a vehicle for reflection and character development.

The other unit is on EVIDENCE, which is all about defending your claim with some kind of support. The class will use CLAIM–SUPPORT–QUESTION as a central philosophy. They will use the other 5 units to inquire into different types of evidence, and different ways of presenting it and analyzing it. There will also be an ancient civilizations aspect to this, but we are still working out what that looks like.

Of course this is just the initial thoughts! We have no idea where it will go, but that unknown quality is very exciting….

To be continued @ The Lead Learner

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A School’s Guiding Statements – who and what are they for?

One thing that we want to focus on this year at Bandung Independent School is our new Guiding Statements, approved by the School Board in May 2016 after a lengthy process of review involving all community members, including a Vision Mission Values review committee made up of teachers, administrators and parents.  Throughout the process we were mindful of IB Programme Standard A: ‘The school’s published statements of mission and philosophy align with those of the IB.’

The process of determining our new guiding statements involved several meetings and a lot of heated debate.  It was certainly not an easy process, and not one without controversy and heated debate.  Deciding what type of school we were and wanted to be evoked emotional responses, and even some criticism.  A few people who had been at the school for a long time almost resented being told by relatively new community members what type of school was desirable; and some of those who were new to the school felt that we needed a different approach.

After the summer break we returned to school and realised that many staff could not even remember the new vision.  Why had we spent so long reviewing and revising our Guiding Statements?  Was it simply because we’re coming up to accreditation and therefore needed revised guiding statements for our self study?  Did they really matter, and how were they going to guide our decisions and actions over the coming years?

On 19 August we held the first PYP assembly of the year.  After welcoming new students and staff we focused on the new vision –‘At BIS, it is our vision to nurture individual potential and be an internationally-minded school of excellence.’  In mixed level groups, students decided how we meet our vision through the PYP attitudes.  Each group was given one attitude and prepared a short skit to demonstrate how we work towards our vision through their particular attitude.  What does it mean to nurture individual potential?  How can we be internationally-minded?  What exactly is a school of excellence?  We felt that connecting the vision to something that the students were already familiar with, the PYP attitudes, worked well.  In the PYP we decided that we wanted to focus first on the students and help them to understand and show commitment to the vision, mission and values of their school.  We were also keen to do this within our inquiry-based curriculum framework in a way which fostered children’s curiosity.

In the following week’s assembly we focused on our new school values.  We deleted the headings of the three columns and the students worked out which values are connected to ‘Academic’; which to ‘Community’ and which to ‘Self’.  In mixed level groups, students next decided how to demonstrate our 10 values through skits.  The groups then presented their skits and the audience used their thinking skills to decide which value each group was showing.  It was certainly encouraging to see that younger students were just as enthusiastic and seemed to understand the values just as easily as older students.

It is very important to us that students as well as staff and parents understand the new Guiding Statements and can connect them to their own role in our school.  How can we make sure that they are not forgotten soon after they were established and announced to the school community?  How can we ensure that they remain ‘alive and kicking’ and play a crucial role in decision making and in the life of the school?

We will be thinking of ways of creating a sense of ownership of and commitment to our new Vision, Mission and Values.  We would like to have images on display around the school of community members demonstrating our different values, or of learning engagements that refer to them.  Perhaps we can request that our parent association use them to evaluate the after school social activities that they plan for this school year.  We would be interested in hearing ways in which other schools have ensured that community members understand their vision, mission and values and use them to ensure ongoing reflection and school improvement.

Bandung Independent School Guiding Statements:

On 23 May 2016 the Board approved the following Vision, Mission and Values:


To nurture individual potential and be an internationally-minded school of excellence


Through relevant, challenging and engaging programmes, we inspire every learner to become skillful and courageous, empowered to participate responsibly, successfully and with integrity in a global community.


Bandung Independent School values:



·     learning as a lifelong process

·     academic rigour and excellence

·     creative and critical thinking


·     respect and empathy toward others

·     building character through a strong ethos towards service and action within the local community

·     creating a safe, caring and open-minded environment

·     being an internationally-minded community


·     integrity and taking responsibility for actions

·     resilience through courage and willingness to lead and take risks

·     balance and wellbeing for ourselves and others.

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Before we close the door…

This blog came to life, six years ago, with an invitation to inquiry teachers to ‘inquire within’ if they were interested in sharing their reflections on inquiry learning in this collaborative space.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 8.27.31 am

At first there was interest and growth, but then it began to slow down, as the contributors were busy with other blogs, with teaching and learning, with their families and with their lives.

A few years later, a new invitation was issued: I’d like to revive this blog before its complete demise. ‘Is it possible? If not, it’s time to close the door…’

Inquire Within took another breath and burst back to life with contributions from educators in more than a dozen countries on 6 continents, over a period of several years… and then began to languish…

Without the time to nudge, cajole and bully people into sharing their writing here, it seemed to be time to let the door slide quietly closed on its own.

But Dale has opened it again today with an exciting example of a writing inquiry! Before we give up and close the door completely on the life of Inquire Within, I am issuing a challenge to every single contributor (and any other inquirers!) to share another post at Inquire Within.

The usual terms apply.

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Because a School Said Yes to Writing

At 8 AM June 2, 2016, at Mott Hall Science and Technology Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, the students have gathered for their daily assembly to hear Dr. Patrick Awosogba, the principal and founder of this International Baccalaureate World School, conduct his usual morning address. When he announces it’s Writer’s Odyssey Day, a wild cheer erupts.

Within minutes students who have signed up to write mysteries are plunging their hands into black boxes to guess their gooey contents; those who have selected math how-to guides are combing their notebooks for topics to explain to next year’s students; those who have opted for advice columns are watching hilarious videos as models. They are in the flow and will continue so for hours as they pre-write, draft, exchange feedback, revise, edit, present, and celebrate their work.

I see no student disengaged as I visit workshops throughout the day. Students I know to be troubled– and in turn to cause their share of trouble – concentrate intensely. One has been allowed to listen to music on his ear buds as he writes his handbook on solving for X.

In my peregrinations I see science fiction writers hard at work on their stories under Mr. Davenport’s tutelage. Elizabeth and Jenefa share theirs with me and I notice elaborate plots, tense suspense, dramatic titles (My Parents are Aliens!) Their use of detailed and accurate science terminology is a pedagogical miracle, a meaningful resuscitation of content that would otherwise have been lost to time. I can easily see these young ladies’ names on the covers of best sellers in the not too distant future.

Students in Ms. Christian’s class have adopted the points of view of individuals from different castes and religions in India, to write richly evocative list poems. The atmosphere is monastic with concentration. During share time, Kareem reads the thoughts of his Dalit persona and it is emotionally forceful with the stems, “I will…I love…” A student offers a critique, “I think you should show, not tell…” and provides concrete examples. Kareem goes right back to work using the new ideas.

In another class, Genesia is working on a billboard to counter the racism that oppresses her generation. She is using an image from a recent news reports, found on the internet. Nearby, their teacher, Ms. Guido, is conferring with a student to make his political billboard more credible by finding a quote. “What words will grab people as they drive by? I think you need to do a little bit more research.”

Apprentice writers in Mr. Kantor’s info-graphics workshop are making graphs of the data from their student surveys of features of teen life: “How many sneakers do you own? How many animes have you seen?” A boy says, “This is actually interesting.” Mr. Kantor points to instructions and exemplars on a carefully prepared power point when the students hit roadblocks in their work.

Teacher preparation is evident everywhere: well-chosen exemplars, step-by-step instructions, stimulating resources. Each teacher has laid out a purposeful agenda for the day. For their breaks, other teachers have been not only been scheduled to cover them, but have been given plans to carry projects forward. It’s clear that the teachers are as enthusiastic as the students.

This is one well-oiled voice-producing, meaning-making, community-enriching machine, with a hefty byproduct of teacher satisfaction. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the best that public schools have to offer is being realized here.

How did it come to be? I give credit to the word yes.

In the fall of 2014, Principal Awosogba identified writing as a high-impact skill in need of development. In response I proposed a creative writing initiative that would involve every teacher as a master writer. After an assessment of the interest of the staff, Dr. A. (as he is known) said yes and the project was initiated.

I proposed that we develop capacity through a series of rigorous workshops that would take up hours of professional development time. Dr. A. said yes.
During the workshops, when teachers were asked to reflect on their experiences as writers and build new experiences, they embraced the challenge with an unhesitating yes.

When the teachers recommended that a design team for the initiative be assembled, Dr. A. said, once again, yes, even though this would pull teachers away from other “core teams” at the school.

When the design team, under stalwart guidance from the beginning by IB Coordinator Yoshie Otomo with Special Advisor Miriam Ruiz, proposed that teachers experiment with using genres as performance tasks to assess content learning and provide feedback for future PD sessions, the teachers, as was becoming their habit, said yes.

And so it went: Use genres twice a year in every classroom as a summative task? Yes. Have each teacher become master of a genre? Yes. Dedicate two entire days per year to the initiative, with all the planning entailed? Yes. Use valuable time at school retreats to learn new genres, share inspiring student work, and plan in teams? Yes. Create an anthology of teacher-written exemplars? Yes. Set aside days from Language and Literature units to polish writing? Yes. Devote energy to a continuous cycle of data collection, feedback and adjustment? Yes. Dedicate summer days and per session funds for the design team to create a handbook? Yes. Create a contest for the students to name the project? Yes. (And what a perfect name they crafted: “The Writers’ Odyssey!”) Set aside PD time for teachers to plan their Writers’ Odyssey workshops? No problem. Request that Writers’ Odyssey Day be extended by a half day to allow more time for revision and presentation? Go for it!

Educators from schools in other cities and even from abroad have come to witness The Writers’ Odyssey in action, and have begun to say yes as well. I am still working on the word why, as in, “Why does everyone, including the students, embrace this project, given the time and effort required?” But yes is a gratifying word to live with until I figure why out.

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My 5 classroom goals for next year


I plan to try and improve communication between our classroom, parents, and students. I’m not sure whether students or parents read my emails or get our classroom news. At times, they do not respond to the posts on Google Classroom. The silence from that side of the wall has been baffling, frustrating and a big challenge for me.
I just may have found the solution.
The App Remind is an excellent way to overcome this problem. It is a great tool which ensures everyone receives the message instantly on their phones, and it need not be an iPhone or an android!


Last year, being new to Japan, I was unable to take advantage of the resources around me.This country’s unique culture and history have much to offer. After reading Ron Berger’s “An Ethic of Excellence“, and seeing the powerful learning that can take place with the help of the community, I plan to actively learn more about and reach out in order to seek expert help from the community. For example,  the students do not have to just learn about famous people and write their biographies . They can seek out local citizens in their community, who have contributed to the society and make them the focus of their studies. Creating information booklets about these unsung heroes and inviting them to school in order to formally recognize them, is a far more powerful way of tackling the unit on role models.

Culture of Critique 

…Or assessment for learning. Of course, as a PYP educator, this is our primary focus; yet I realize the enormous scope for improvement. Setting high standards, and encouraging students to persevere and come up with multiple* drafts will require that I give them more time than I normally do. I will NOT rush to cover the curriculum. Being a teacher for prospective MYP students does put a bit of pressure on us.

* Berger refers to one of his students creating over 10 drafts to achieve the set standards. What I liked about his attitude towards  formative assessment  was the fact that student either achieved the standard or the work was considered NOT DONE.


My students have been keeping a record of their learning journey in portfolios. Next year, our school will encourage students to create E-portfolios; however, I still intend to keep a binder and will encourage the students to use it more often than once a week. Just like college graduates who create job portfolios, I am excited at the prospect of  reinventing, re-energizing this area of assessment. Our portfolios next year will be a living, breathing testimony to the hard work we put in as a community of learners.


Based on  how much my students relished and enjoyed meditating every morning, (even the reluctant, fidgety ones sought it out in the end), I intend to start our day by switching on the diffuser (I have a choice of bergamot, rosemary, and lemongrass and cinnamon aroma oils), draw the blinds, bathe the classroom in the mellow light of a few lampshades and meditate for 10 minutes… every single day for the rest of the year. If nothing achieved by this, we will have at least set a routine and created a signature classroom culture. Unless , of course ,anyone else wants to emulate!

These are my goals for next year.

What are yours?


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Curiosity and Teamwork

The following article was posted on the TeachOntario website, on April 4th, 2016. It shares the experience of two teachers collaborating and shows the steps they took toward implementing the inquiry approach to teaching. To view the full article of their inquiry journey, click here!

Teacher-with-students.pngIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas from Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board’s Monsignor Castex School in Midland and their work on inquiry learning.

What is the recipe for an effective and vibrant student-led inquiry classroom?

That’s what teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas aimed to find out when they embarked on their Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project entitled Uncovering Content: Integrating Critical Thinking into Social Studies for the 21st Century Learners in 2013.

The full article can be viewed here!

Note: We’ve transformed the classroom from a traditional approach to teaching; to a workshop, hands-on, student-centred way of teaching and learning. And, we love it!

Thanks for reading!


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Do My Students Really Suck at Inquiry?

“My Kids Suck at Inquiry.” Someone mentioned this and the other day, and I laughed, along with others, because it feels true so much of the time.

However, on reflection, is it the kids that suck at inquiry or should we be turning the lens back on ourselves?

We know that kids are natural born inquirers. Proven fact. They eat dirt. They ask a million questions. They stick their hands in light sockets. They take apart things. They make up imaginary trips to fairy land (all experienced first hand from my child and others).

However, as they get older and more “schooled,” they lose some of this curiosity.  I love the essence of the PYP where inquiry should be at the heart of the program. In practice, it’s often a different story.

If we think our students “suck” at inquiry, it’s because we, as teachers and as admin, are doing something wrong. Here are what I see as some of the driving forces that kill inquiry:

  • Same learning for everyone. That even means everyone doing the same math problem in exactly the same way. Everyone writing out a reading log. Everyone doing times tables fast facts. Worksheets.
  • “Unit” on inquiry. We have inquiry slotted into one part of our day as a “unit.” I know the PYP devised this term, but it allows us to separate out “inquiry” from the rest of the day. How can we truly make learning transdisciplinary and inquiry-based? Having a “unit” of inquiry allows us to be lazy.
  • Strict timetabling. Hard to get away with in most schools, but it stops flow and learning and …inquiry.
  • 6 units per year. In upper grades, we have to “cover” 6 units a year, which always feels rushed, and being rushed has not helped allow for inquiry.
  • Planners with a forced summative task assigned at the beginning. I know that backward’s planning makes sense. However, on the rigid PYP planner, and Managebac, which forces you through the steps of the planner, you need to come up with a summative assessment before you’ve even started the unit. This ends up often as a task, which the unit focuses on and doesn’t allow for more open inquiry.
  • Silence. My students are loud, and I get it. However, forced silence, hand raising and traditional classroom management practices leave the teacher front and center and not the students.
  • Planning done by the teachers and admin. Lack of student voice. When students aren’t driving curriculum, planning, school expectations, outside activities, etc…they don’t care as much. They aren’t as engaged, and they’re not going to be inquiring.

What else do you think? What kills inquiry? How can we improve ourselves and our schools so that students can continue with their natural born curiosity?

Originally published on Solid Ground:

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