Teachers as stepping stones

As teachers within the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate we are given the challenge to strive to be the attributes of the IB Learner Profile alongside our students. We are encouraged to model these characteristics in our classrooms. This year I set a challenge for myself to take greater risks as I continue to develop as a reflective inquiry-based teacher, who increasingly allows student voice to guide much of the classroom learning. This definitely has had its challenges, however, the positive outcomes of this goal was worth the challenges.

Our Year 8 team have just wrapped up our last MYP inquiry unit of the year – a genre study with a focus on the horror genre. We have walked alongside our students through an inquiry into how creators of the horror genre employ specific features in order to cause their audience to experience fear. Our statement of inquiry has been: Writers of the horror genre position their audience to respond in a particular way, they basically just want to freak us out.

The MYP objective we were focusing on was Objective C: Text Production. We inquired into how authors and filmmakers produced text with purpose and in turn the students task was to produce a text. Traditionally I would allocate the type of text production that I want my students to produce, however, I decided to let my class create their own assessment task and produce a horror genre text of their choice that is in direct relationship with our statement of inquiry. This took a couple of lessons for students to unpack the criteria, write their own task sheet and then create their own task specific clarifications. The learning here was valuable. Students had to grapple with criteria for success, expand their ideas, negotiate timelines and make adjustments to increase the rigour of their task. They were challenged and enlarged as learners.

I learned a few very valuable lessons from watching my students complete their independently created text productions. These are just a few of my reflections on the process:

  • Students engagement with the process of assessment was greatly enhanced. Students were engaged, not only in the classroom, but also at home. As their sense of autonomy as a creator of the horror genre increased, their ability to problem solve and creatively negotiate the challenges of producing a text were increased. When they presented me with issues they were facing as they progressed students were highly motivated to ensure these issues were effectively solved. A definite win for a Year 8 class at that point in their middle schooling where apathy tends to set in as their bodies go through those often tumultuous hormonal changes.
  • Students increasingly learnt the value of humble collaboration. I watched as three separate groups of horror film makers had falling outs over their ideas and plans for their film. However, because they had a sense of ownership over the direction of the task, they were able to resolve these issues and come to points of compromise and new ideas in order to move forward. I had the task of mediating two of these groups and discussing their issues ensuring they removed the words ‘I’ and ‘my’. It was truly a privilege to listen to students come around to each others ideas to realise that others ideas and ways of thinking were just as beneficial as their own, if not more so. Through this they learnt to look beyond themselves and take others ideas on board in a humble and collaborative manner.
  • Students language development was enhanced. As IB teachers we are committed to enhancing students language learning and understand that no matter what subject we teach within, we are responsible for language learning and supporting students mother tongue(s) and cultural backgrounds. One of my students is from Vietnam and was so appreciative when I suggested that she can write her short story in Vietnamese and then simply translate this for me once she is finished. This student is always so studious and dedicated in her learning, but I had not seen an excitement in her learning yet. Having the opportunity to write in her own language and express herself in Vietnamese, she became excited about her assessment task and gained a sense of pride in her cultural heritage as her classmates were awestruck at her ability to communicate in a different language and a character language as well.
  • Student-led learning doesn’t stop in the classroom, it provides a platform for future inquiry and learning. One of my students chose to write a novel for her task, however, due to time restraints she was aware she would only be able to begin her novel. I had the pleasure of watching her independently work on her novel, as a developing inquiry-based teacher this was really a treat. Using WattPad she simply started writing, then when she had to make connections she would open her Language and literature exercise book and mind map her ideas and then add this to her novel road map. She would draft syntax and paragraphs, and when stuck for inspiration she would begin to draw the settings in her exercise book as well. Although she was working independently I watched as she would regularly ask her classmates for feedback and ideas. The feedback she would then note down and look for ways to integrate this in her novel. In the morning she would inform me of how outside of school hours over Facebook she and her peers were discussing her novel via Messenger. The fluid nature of her learning and engagement in an assessment task reminded me of just how important student voice and choice is in their learning journey. When students are actively engaged and find their learning relevant and meaningful, learning goes beyond the classroom walls and the College grounds – it permeates their lives.

When students have a sense of autonomy and their voice is heard and catered for within the classroom, wonderful learning experiences can occur. These experiences can inspire our students to produce excellent work and engage in their learning outside of the classroom. I can’t help but think just how many more inventors, designers, authors, filmmakers, artists, developers, problem solvers, etc., the world would now possess if our education systems were set up to teach students, not curriculum. Would we have progressed further as a more understanding and accepting society? Would we have greater advancements in medicine and healthcare? Could our global issues be closer to solving if we saw education as student-centred not just objective-driven? What ideas for change and growth would come from our schools if the voices of our students were listened to?

From this learning experience with my Year 8 class, who I will dearly miss as they progress into Year 9, I am even more convinced of my role as not just a teacher of Language and literature, but a facilitator who has the responsibility to provide a platform for student learning beyond the classroom. My job is not to cram concepts, content and skills into the minds of my students, but rather create relevant and engaging learning experiences that serve as a stepping stone for students independent inquiry and learning. After all, isn’t that what we as teachers really are? Stepping stones who help our students find their voice and wings so they can make our world a better and more peaceful place.

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