Monthly Archives: March 2016

When you plan your next unit, how often does the writing of the central idea and the lines of inquiry actually involve your students?


In my case, not yet, until now.

Normally, I work collaboratively with a group of teachers, we redefine or write entirely new units.  It takes a long time. We ponder over the units and we deliberate over the development of the central idea “Is this wording overly subjective or does it implement judgement?”  “Does it invite student inquiry?” “Are a range of responses possible?”.  We, as teachers, do all the thinking. Then we deliver the unit to the students and we expect them to be curious, to take action and to make independent inquiries.  My PYP planners too often include comments such as “Next unit needs to provide more opportunities for independent inquiry” and too often my student reports include comments such as “Needs to develop his natural curiosity and to explore concepts independently.”

Clearly I’m doing something wrong.

Every time that I come back and read ‘Making the PYP Happen’ I find something new.  This time, I didn’t get past page 14.  It states that PYP units “should be based on each student’s needs, interests and competencies” (Making the PYP happen, Page 10).  That “Each unit should be engaging of interest to the students and actively involving them in their own learning; relevant linked to the students’ prior knowledge, experience, and current circumstances.” (Making the PYP happen, page 14).

This got me thinking, that to create an authentic student-driven unit, it needs to be created by the students.

Our next unit transdisciplinary theme is Sharing The Planet and the topic is natural disasters.  We wanted this unit to be a research-based unit where our students are independently inquiring, right from the start of the unit.  But in order to make this unit truly engaging and of interest to our students we have written it WITH them.

We started our unit with a provocation and used the Philosophy4Children framework to frame the student’s thinking and to get their input.

  1. Our stimulus was a guest speaker, someone who had been in a natural disaster. We had four guest speakers for all four classes to ensure breadth of responses from the students.
  2. The students identified the main concepts and the big ideas.  These included: Preparation , Protection,  Safety, Damages and Rebuilding, Disaster, Working together,  Cooperation, Danger, Fear, Loss , Risk of death, Friendship and communities, Bravery, Communication, Warnings.
  3.  The students generated one deep, conceptual question which they were interested in discussing further, based on one of the concepts identified.  Here are some examples of their questions:How do people keep safe in natural disasters? How and why do disasters happen?  Why do people need to be careful about preparing for natural disasters? How can communities reduce the risk of death? Why are there risks in life? Can you be fearless and brave at the same time?
  4. Through a series of steps, the class voted on one question and we discussed it for 15 minutes.


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Do we give our students enough opportunity to learn in their mother tongue?

During student led-conferences at ISHCMC we all give our students the opportunity to share their learning with their parents either in English or in their mother tongue.  Not surprisingly, many of our ESL learners choose to present in their mother tongue as their parents may not have a high level of English, or because the student and parent are more comfortable speaking together in their familiar home language.

However, this got me thinking…

Do we give our students enough opportunity to learn, to speak and to share their understandings in their mother tongue in class?

And if not, then why not?

During our student led conferences, I saw my students explain the phenomenon of day and night through the rotation of the Earth on it’s axis, the concept of months through the Moon’s revolution around the Earth (naming the moons at each stage of the cycle) and the concept of years measured by the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

Some students chose to share in English and some in Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish or French.  Whilst I could only understand my student speaking in French, it was clear to me how much more confident, at ease and fluent some of these students were in their mother tongue.

Whilst of course we need to encourage our students to express themselves in English, we also need to allow them time to learn in their mother tongue and to tell them explicitly that this is OK.

My French student was struggling in Maths with counting concepts, such as skip counting or counting on.  When I asked her what she was doing in her head, she told me she was counting in English.  By asking her to count in French and by frequently reminding her that this was OK in our lessons, she made fewer errors.

I also have a Spanish student who is a beginner learner in English.  His parents wanting to immerse him in English and to give him the best opportunity to learn this new language, withdrew all opportunities to read in Spanish at home.  As a result, he felt frustrated by the reading process.

Learning a new language requires balance.

As teachers, we cannot ignore how important it is to allow our bilingual or multilingual students to think, read, speak and write in their home language.  We should help our parents and students to see the value and importance of fostering both languages.  We must also see the importance of balancing both of these in our classroom too.