Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Week two - building belief and introducing the commission

Andy and the children made quite a bit of progress in the week leading up to our second visit. Not able to work on the mantle full time (Andy says this is a stage of the year where he has lots of "loose ends") they had nonetheless managed to develop some important aspects to help build belief.

One of the first things Andy did was ask the students to write letters in role as the company. The letters followed on from the drama work done in the first session, and were written to the hospital in an attempt to persuade the staff to accept the simulation room. Opportunities here for the persuasive argument writing that Andy had identified as one of his literacy goals for the term.

Following on from the letters, the class quickly settled on a name for the company - Augmented Reality Simulations or A.R.S. for short. Apparently there was some discussion about those initials and whether they might look 'rude' but the consensus was that it would be ok, as long as the all-important dots were used! The children also spent time mapping different parts of the company offices on paper - this was done in small groups, with each group taking responsibility for one area. A timeline was produced, showing the history of the company, with each member adding a sticky note to show when they joined... All these aspects are very important for establishing the sense of history and prestige that underlies the expert framing.

Also important to mention is the preliminary work done on the company's mission statement / vision. Over the course of the week, the company received letters from grateful clients (provided by the student teachers - thanks guys!). These included a memo from the hospital acknowledging the positive results from the simulation and a thank you from the airport for the work carried out there. The letters were revealed in a company "meeting" and Andy invited students to comb the wording for evidence of what the letters reveal about the reputation of this company. As key words were identified, one of the children recorded these on an ipad for display on the smart board.... A long list of attributes was produced, including 'efficient', 'hard working', 'good communication'. Some students also wanted to add other things not implied by the letters. In particular, there was a concern for 'sustainable practices' to be included in the company identity.

And so to our second Tuesday and the visit of the student teachers and myself to the class. Andy had a quiet word before the class and warned me that a couple of the students may be slightly disengaged - he felt that they hadn't been fully captivated by the mantle experience to date. In addition, it had been a challenging morning for one child in particular, who had been absent for most of the week and was only in school for this one day. With this in mind, I wanted to ensure that we included some physical activity and didn't spend too much time sitting about in whole class discussion.

The original intention for this session was to work on the mission statement and then lead into the commission letter. In the event, however, I made the call to start the session more actively. After a brief chat out of role in which we agreed to frame the student teachers as 'trainees' we made the shift into company mode (signalled by the fetching of name tags and my 'calling the meeting to order'). The meeting began with apologies, a report on correspondence sent and received, and a project update (groups of children talking with student teachers /trainees about what they'd done during the week). I felt that students still needed to build belief in the company and decided to do this through drama.

The maps produced by the children provided a useful way in to this activity. Conveniently, it turned out there were five maps and the same number of student teachers! Holding each map up in turn, I asked its authors to stand and then allocated them a trainee to take on a tour of that part of the building. They were asked to think which part of the room might represent the area on the map. I deliberately matched our male student teacher with the boys who had mapped the security area. After four or five minutes of open ended exploration, I asked each group to freeze and show a moment in time of the work going on in their area of the office. We spotlighted each group in turn and "tapped in" to the thoughts and actions of each person.

A security guard on duty at the staff entrance to the company offices speaks his thoughts...

Still fairly low key drama here - some of the more self conscious students are still getting used to expressing themselves in role. But gradually we built up to groups speaking in their own time, creating some quite successful little scenes.
A scene from 'the lounging room'.
We are the kind of company that allows space in the day for watching TV and making coffee.
D (boy in the background) is reading the paper.

B (left) teaches a trainee designer to use the new swipe card system 

Then it was back to the "meeting room" to reveal the commission letter. A great deal of care had been taken over the crafting of this letter. During the week I'd attended a teacher's cluster meeting and got some input and ideas from teachers on what the letter might look like. There are so many ways to present the commission to the children.... 

In this case, I opted to produce a letter with a very formal tone. It was long and complex - particularly tricky words at the start but with key information in more accessible form below. Copies had been made for everyone in the room. Students were asked to arm themselves with a pen and highlight any words they didn't understand. Volunteers read the letter paragraph by paragraph and slowly we figured out what it meant.

The process of decoding the letter was done through some fairly 'traditional' teaching strategies such as asking, "where do we look to find out who the letter is from?" and "Where is the sender's address found?"  However, instead of asking these questions from the stance of teacher-expert, I
adopted the stance of "one who does not know" - repeatedly asking for the students' help to understand the letter and saying things like why do they have to use all these long words? Can anyone help me? I don't understand how they think WE can help? I wanted to slow things right down and ensure that everyone understood the basis of the commission.

Here's the opening of the letter - and a view of one copy  after it had been examined by one of the children (Highlights indicates important information about who wrote the letter,  parts of the text where we learn what they want and words and concepts that are unfamiliar and need looking up).

I was impressed by the level of focus at this stage of the lesson. Looking around, I could see almost all children poring over the letter and grappling with the language. Even the boys identified as being less engaged were having a go and circling some key words.

It was also interesting to observe how the process of decoding the letter evolved fairly spontaneously into inquiry. Several of the boys jumped up and grabbed the class ipads to look up the details of the shark. Others began brainstorming ideas for the simulated environment that our company might build for it. Whole class became small group work as I tried to encourage children to formulate inquiry questions and think about next steps. There was plenty of evidence of engagement - lots of children rushing about eager to tell me, the student teachers and each others things they were finding out. Those with important information were asked to add it to the handwritten "fact sheet" on the whiteboard.
Later the teachers reflected on this - even in this digital age it seems there is still a value in the ritual of being invited to handwrite something on paper in front of the class...

The self-directed inquiry took us right up to the end of our session. Some children were began to formulate questions based on things we will need to know, or problems we might face. Some of these are shown below.

Next steps for Andy and the class will be to finalise the mission statement - this is quite important so we have a visible, written expression of who we are and what we are about - ready for later in the mantle when this will be challenged. The children will also continue the self-directed inquiry. The beauty of a Mantle approach to inquiry is that the exploration is given purpose and focus... children are not just "doing sharks" in a general way - they are asking specific questions related to a fictional but VERY AUTHENTIC context in which the knowledge they are learning needs to be APPLIED. For example, D was enormously excited about information he found on the distances these sharks can see. He was able to infer that we would need to factor this in to our decisions about the environment we might build for the tank. At the end of the lesson he was mulling over the question of whether we needed to actually MAKE the tank big, or just CONVINCE the shark somehow that it was big.... Higher order stuff.

By the end of the session I felt the engagement levels were high. Several children were talking about carrying out research later on when they got home. One student - searching for information on the Dumb Gulper found this blog.... that's an interesting and unexpected occurrence! I guess I just need to write with an awareness that the children might be part of the audience. If so - hello - feel free to comment guys!

The boys who had previously been disengaged were, I think more involved by the end of the lesson. In fact, when the bell went for lunch they were amongst those who kept their hands up and wanted to raise questions or share information they had found. I was conscious of the Taiwanese students who coped very well today. L spent some time out of the class with his ESOL group but when he got back, his mate R was able to explain what we were doing. Towards the end of the lesson I called over to check how they were going and was pleased when L used his gestures to show me a large tank and said "we put shark in here"...

So, all in all a very promising start!


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  2. So I am one-fifth of the student teachers currently working alongside Andy and Viv. I thought I might expand a little from the perspective of a 'trainee' in the Augmented Reality company.

    This day, I was led about by a small group of very enthusiastic, yet watchful, company members, eager to show me about their office space, yet cautious that I avoid knocking over some expensive equipment or leaning on a button which launches a nuclear warhead (a drastic yet, I am told, necessary security measure at A.R.S).

    I found going in as a 'trainee' came with multiple benefits, including an access point into the company, a justification for always jotting notes during the session, and the opportunity for the kids to revisit and solidify their belief in the company. However, most of all I found it fascinating how the kids so quickly accepted and adapted to the sudden shift from my adult / teacherly status - who would otherwise hold higher status in a classroom - to someone with much less knowledge, power and status than they.

    I've found that kids who are denied the right to power and responsibility will often seek to take it - any way they can find. Sure, in this exercise there were some instances of attention seeking (kids will be kids), however I witnessed no overt struggles for more power, and slightly more impressively no attempts to abuse their power once it was handed over to them. In fact quite the opposite. We began to see just how capable and self-managing the kids really are as they moved so seamlessly into research and inquiry following the commission letter on their own terms. The inquiry branched off in many different directions, and yet it was focussed and self-driven. I can only conclude at this point that an internal purpose and drive was present, and the traditional external authoritative 'powers that be' were not. I also think there is definitely something to be said about the power of a group with a collective purpose.