Thursday, April 28, 2016

PYP - Our first unit

Since September there has been significant change at my school. Change seems to be a feature of our school and, while it's healthy and engaging, it can be challenging. 

I've been meaning to write about my perspective on our recent change to PYP since we had some thought-shifting PD in January. I could tell that this change would be pivotal in my teaching career and thought 'I should document this'. Somehow, despite the reflection and analysis that has been natural and necessary, there's been little time or energy for writing or blogging about it. 

Hopefully the experiences are still fresh enough for me to capture them. This is a nice stage to be at - two units of experience under my belt and enjoying the last of the holidays before embarking on the final unit for this school year.

So, how did the change come about? Well, our school runs the IBO Diploma Programme for our 16-18 year olds. It made sense for us to look at their Primary Years Programme when we were considering an alternative to the IPC and UK NC influenced curriculum that we were running. Even at the early stages of discussion, I was excited by the prospect of moving towards a more international model. It seemed increasingly strange that, as an international school based in France, we were swayed by largely political changes to UK policy on education. It seemed that the PYP would provide the freedom to adapt our curriculum to more closely align with the strengths, interests and previous experiences of our students.  

We planned our first unit between September and December while continuing to teach following our existing curriculum. Working in year group teams (generally 2 teachers and one TA) we were supported by our PYP Coordinator with whom we had a weekly planning meeting. The first job was to decide on our central idea - all learning together, as our coordinator was relatively new to the PYP too. Fixing the central ideas is quite a daunting task when you have never taught a unit. Our thought process included brainstorming topics that we had successfully taught before, considering the previous experience of our students and examining example units of inquiry (UOIs) from existing PYP schools. I'll mention here how great the PYP community is at sharing. There are Facebook groups, Twitter accounts, Twitter hashtags and  the OCC (members website). These resources all helped as we decided on the central idea while struggling to get to grips with the specific PYP terminology. 

The central idea we agreed upon was 'We understand and value our culture and celebrations and those from around the world'. The structure of the PYP planner helped us but sometimes it felt like being in a tangled web - double checking that the lines of inquiry referred directly to the central idea, that our key questions/provocations linked back to the key concepts and that our suggested learning experiences weren't too prescriptive. If you know the PYP then you'll understand what I'm on about and if you don't then it's normal that you're temporarily lost. 

Then came planning the summative assessment and I have to admit we got it wrong and changed our minds in the middle of the inquiry (not normally done, I understand). The thing is our original idea, when we really thought about it, assessed the children's knowledge and research skills. We had thought of asking them to make a poster of one of the celebrations that the inquiry had included. It wasn't an awful idea but we wanted something more creative, personal and applied. This is what we did instead:

And we have Ms. Waldman and Mr. Heere and their blog to thank for the inspiration. 

By December our UOI was planned and ready. Before term started we has the training I mentioned earlier - two full days of 'Making the PYP happen'. I had expected the training would help me 'picture' in a practical sense a PYP classroom so I knew what to do on the first day with the pupils. But no. During the two days we were engaged, provoked, challenged and entertained. I did come away more knowledgable but also with more questions than answers and with a desire find out for myself. I also felt huge confidence in my colleagues and excitement that I had such a hard-working, thoughtful and inspiring team around me. I would be happy if my pupils felt like this at the beginning of a UOI. 

Our first UOI felt like an overall success but at times left us baffled. So many good ideas but which one to explore and how? Sometimes we would sit down to plan and spend an hour reflecting on one lesson or a question that was particularly relevant but unexpected. At the beginning of the UOI we found that our PYP lessons didn't seem to have the right pace. We have long afternoons (13:00 -16:00). The afternoon lessons were often too heavy on talking, listening and group work. We found ways to address this but sometimes our solutions felt a bit 'old-school' - a task to get the pupils all active. Such as one crafty lesson, where all the children followed instructions to make a Chinese lantern. Was it helping them understand the central idea? I don't know. Probably not. But when we invited the Early Childhood classes to celebrate Chinese Spring Festival and each Y2 pupil taught a younger child to make a lantern we were confident they were demonstrating learner profile attributes and attitudes e.g. cooperation.  Not only that but they were having such fun!

That's a good word to finish with - FUN. In September, when I thought of the PYP the key words were inquiry, problem-solving, international, group, independence, engagement... it's been all of those (oh, and hard work) but there has also been a huge amount of FUN!