When Demonstrating Skills Becomes a Habit: The Snowball Effect

What happens when schools create a forum to talk about the *invisible curriculum?What happens when schools stimulate students to consider learning that happens in scenarios other than the classroom?
What happens when schools devise time for students to speak about how they are learning?
What happens when schools create opportunities for students to contribute to the most significant learning experiences that could be lived at school?
What happens when students, slowly but steadily, commence to use their voice to share their learning, to make proposals, to contribute to others’ plans, and to lead?

I believe that witnessing these behaviors is an indication of students being the center of the learning process, and evidence recognizing their strengths and how they enjoy learning.

As I described in my previous post about our ATL-based advisory program, at my current school we wanted our mornings to be opportunities for students to begin to design their learning plans and, therefore, we created a space in which we could address as many aspects of holistic learning as possible. The planning that advisors/mentors took part in had one goal in mind: design scenarios that can serve as activators for students’ strengths and passions; devise opportunities for students to employ their skill toolbox; consider situations in which students will use their voice to contribute to the co-construction of experiences. And I am happy to observe that I feel we have done an excellent job.

The reason why I state that we have done a great job is because while students initially had the role of participants, gradually, as the year progressed, they were showing initiative to take responsibilities in the process: they started proposing ideas; they followed up by volunteering to lead an activity (individually or in groups); they began to encourage others to join their efforts; and so on. In a few words, their desire for being in charge had become contagious.

MYP and DP start each day with in ATL-based advisory program in groups. As a whole (secondary) school, we culminate each week with an assembly, in which we bring to life the IB LP attributes by acknowledging fellow teachers or students for their work; in which we engage in brief discussions about the key values in our mission statement; in which we look at outstanding examples of learning; in which the student council share initiatives; and in which we collectively reflect on how our learning process is changing us. The power of forums like this should not be underestimated, because this is a space where every voice counts.

The day that I received a message from a student asking for a time slot to share an initiative with the whole school I knew she was about to start a revolution. Confirming my guess, the following week a couple more students requested an opportunity to share the work they had done in a unit, which they were proud of; and after that, students asked me if they could use a few minutes to invite people to a club they had started. Now, most of the time is occupied by students, and there is very little that I have to plan. I do not doubt that eventually I will be sharing the organization process with students, and eventually letting go of it completely.

The journey that I am describing in this reflection is a demonstration of the way Approaches to Learning breathe and come to life in a school. More than ever before, I am fully convinced that mapping ATL skills in a document is solely a piece of paper with words in a specific format if there is no attempt to live the experiences in that plan; if there is no desire to engage in dialogue about how those experiences shape us; if there is no evidence of how we are allowing ourselves to be changed by these experiences, these discussions, and everybody’s contribution.

So far these are a few of the student-initiated activities, which found their birth in the secondary advisory/assembly forum that we created:

  • QAIS Ambassadors– A group of students that represent and lead activities based on personal passions. The following can be mention; Animal Rights Ambassadors; Well-being Ambassadors; Intercity Sports; Les Artistes.
  • QAIS student’s passion club: An after school activity organised and run by students
  • The Mix: a student founded story that operates during lunch time
  • The ATL Museum: MYP Student-led introduction to ATL skills in the PYP exhibition.
  • Beyond the walls and fences: A student-led club that focuses on outdoors life.
  • QAIS Community & Service Group: A student-led initiative to use existing skills in specific scenarios
  • Learning Buddies– MYP students supporting literacy and numeracy in PYP.

Below are a few images of the activities mentioned:

Approaches to Learning experiences should enable us all to reflect on the kind of intellectual and socio-emotional software that governs our schools; they should be a dynamic framework that invites us to revisit how we, as a community, are growing and evolving because of the learning that is happening in our environment. Most importantly, they should be a testament of how we have decided to make the most of the learning opportunities our school allows us to have… We must recognize that and own its impact.

Once upon a time, when it was an Area of Interaction, ATL were the ugly duckling. Luckily, it has become a swan; the backbone of the MYP; and the beating heart of our lives as learners.

The screenshots below show excerpts of the planning advisors/mentor collaborate in.

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 11.31.40 PMScreen Shot 2017-05-04 at 11.32.05 PMScreen Shot 2017-05-04 at 11.32.42 PM

*Invisible curriculum= that powerful collection of learning experiences that emerges from the unique scenario that is created in a school due to the learning and community spirit: the evidence of learning that was neither included in the written curriculum nor considered as the curriculum was taught.

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Gamified Reading: A transdisciplinary strategy

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Image taken from: tle1lost.wordpress.com

I was excited to when Cecilia Flores, our PYP3 teacher, invited me to collaborate with her in the transdisciplinary unit “Sharing the Planet”. I never turn down an invitation if it means using my imagination; if it includes envisioning creative scenarios; and above all, if it involves opportunities to listen to students making meaning and taking charge of their own learning.

Cecilia revealed the following to me:

  • The key concepts considered for this unit were responsibility & reflection.
  • The PYP Attitudes she wanted students to demonstrate were independence, appreciation , and commitment.
  • The central idea was “People make choices to support the sustainability of Earth’s resources”.

The invitation was formulated as follows: “can you help me write a story that integrates mathematics, science, geography, and a variety of ATL skills other than literacy skills? I looked at her and said, “ Don’t you know, I always look forward to challenges like this?” [Fill this space with a series of lines describing an exchange of looks that try to suit the feeling of looking what to say next] We proceeded discussing different scenarios that students would enjoy, and as I was about to leave her classroom, she said: “Oh, and I want students to think they are in a video game”.

More than two years ago, when I was still working in India, I wrote about the gamified readings I was creating for my MYP Spanish students. Those readings focused on developing language skills, and to create an unusual scenario in which students had to use a variety of strategies to accomplish the mission in the story. This time, the challenge was that there were specific concepts to address, specific mathematics and science concepts to practice, and, most importantly, it had to fundamentally have a strong relationship with the central idea.

For challenges like this, having navigated the worlds created by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Andrzej Sapkowski, Michael Ende, and Amish Tripathi helped considerably.

Connecting children’s reading experience to play is not a new concept, and there are many examples of game elements in print books, such as in Edward Packard’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” series published in the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, movable books, including pop-ups, are hybrid formats that elegantly fuse educational elements with play.

I am aware of the fact that technology enables the use of gamification to motivate people in different manners. It is argued that new ideologies on digital reading are the best way to motivate readers—especially reluctant readers— because they blur lines between books and games (Martens, 2014). However, Cecilia and I wanted more than blurring the lines. We wanted students to be able to make this story theirs and eventually tell it as if they had lived it. We wanted them to feel the journey as they travel back and forth in the story. Also, we wanted them to feel the tension of discoveries and use all of their senses to express how that made them feel. In other words, we wanted the story to awaken the need of dialogue with others.

One negative aspect of gamified reading is that it can easily lead to commodification of readers and the reading experience, turning an imaginative experience into an endless quest for rewards. For this reason, as I was writing the story I placed paid special attention to the socio-emotional aspect of the plot, making sure there were sufficient situations that invited students to act empathetically.  Besides the images that accompanied the text, I also prepared a collection of sounds to accompany students’ reading of certain chapters; videos that represented a series of “mirages” that appeared in the story; as well as a series of puzzles.

In this collaboration, we wanted students to have an experience that meant more than simply completing a task. We wanted them to touch, to feel, to hear, and to scratch their heads when situations became difficult. We wanted them to understand how even though the journey was individual, everyone was in the same situation and, conversely, was automatically a resource.

The video at the end of this post provides a quick look at the journey. Yet, what is impossibly to capture in a video or in a photo is the excitement in children’s journeys and in their eyes; the way in which they use the power of their imagination to solve overcome difficult situations; the profound connections they make with characters; and the way they transfer experiences to their lives.

Every time I went into the PYP3 classroom, I came into a room that hosted 13 universes, each of these universes being a child. Witnessing how they were truly living their story allowed me to see how any possible struggle (either reading or writing) simply became a challenge they were ready to embrace because the journey was theirs. And to be honest, I feel lucky to know they let me in their world every time I asked them a question about where they were. Isn’t this the best gift a teacher can have?

When young children are given a world, they populate it with stories, with dreams, and with possibilities. We should never let our adult hopes and views of the world to terminate the amazing potential they have to bring to life learning journeys, and experiences that, possibly, we, adults, have lost sight of.

Martens, Marianne (2014). Reading and “Gamification”. Children & Libraries: e Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 12(4), 19-25.

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A forum to design and experience learning

Last year, as we reflected on our teaching and learning practices, we identified that it was important for our community to articulate the dialogue teachers and students had about the way they learn best. We also identified that we needed to find different means to support students in developing the confidence to speak about what works for them. Instantly, we turned our attention to ATL skills. We began to reflect on what we were doing to make them an active part of our learning experience, and to move away from only using the jargon to convince ourselves that effective learning was happening.

This reflection triggered the revamping process for our advisory program in secondary. Therefore, with the help of group of dedicated colleagues, we designed a set of goals that would enable us to transform the beginning of our days into positive forums to start the learning journey; to turn our mornings into opportunities to support students’ skill development to talk about their own learning. Essentially, we wanted these mornings to be opportunities for students to begin to design their learning plans.

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 11.16.32 PM

As a result of evaluating the structure of our learning community, the way we explicitly taught ATL skills and the extent to which we were complementing the sense of individuality and uniqueness in each student, our ATL-based advisory program was born. In order to make the program work we identified roles that would enable us to move forward. Therefore, advisors became the agents that would lead our advisory program. Mentors, on the other hand, would be in charge of providing personalized guidance to individual students, in order to support their personal growth.

To make this program happen, advisors/mentors meet periodically to strategize and plan our learning mornings one week in advance. Some of the insights advisors bring to the planning forum are:

  • Observations of the learning climate in the school. This helps us identify what kind of support is needed.
  • Students’ proposals and opinions. This is a reminder to keep students at the center of the process.
  • Ideas and strategies to implement.
  • Suggestions about literature that is worth reading as a group in order to create learning experiences that reflect innovative practices.
  • Samples of student work. This is a task to identify possible trends and collect data on how we can engage the whole staff in enriching our approaches to teaching.

In other words, this planning process is what allows us to create our learning strategy toolbox.

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A school’s Mission Statement is a declaration of the principles that exist in the school’s learning culture, and should serve as a guide to inform the community about the skills, attitudes, and values the institution is equipped to instill in each learner. Therefore, the ATL-advisory program we designed is both a reflection of our school’s Mission Statement, and a forum in which we bring the mission to fruition.

Another important feature and target of our ATL-based advisory program is that we wanted to have another way to collect data about the learning explorations that were taking place in the school. We wanted to have an additional record of the initiatives we were promoting and putting in place to support students’ holistic development, besides the explicit teaching of ATL that occurred in each unit, in all subjects.

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Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 1.37.22 PMIn a future new post I will share some examples of how this model of ATL-based advisory gave way to promoting student agency and leadership.

You may be interested in reading about what has been going on in my current school as a response to our ATL-based advisory program.

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The ATL Skills Museum

Every morning, throughout this academic year, our advisory program has engaged students in talking about learning.

MYP students have watched inspirational videos and expressed their opinion about them; they have also looked at a variety of Global Issues and have commented upon them; they have engaged in the study of specific skills they have to develop; they have collaborated in summarizing their learning in a variety of ways; and, most importantly, they have become aware of how the learning tools they have around them.

For the last weeks, MYP2 (grade 7 students) have been collaborating in the design of posters through which they presented the most salient aspects of:

  • Collaboration skills
  • Organisation skills
  • Communication skills
  • Reflection skills
  • Information literacy skills
  • Media literacy skills

There was no better way to put their discussions and social skills in place than by preparing a museum of their ATL journey for PYP students who are about to embark on their exhibition journey. Thus, grade 7 students curated an ATL gallery for PYP students, and they were some very committed ATL museum guides.

Our grade 7 students know what it takes to be successful in the PYP Exhibition, so they customised the presentation with a focus on the exhibition. Thus, recognising the role research has in the exhibition, we went back to basics and decided to take a close look at the way we can interact and learn from different printed sources.

Having a book in their hands, exploring their sections, understanding how each section in the book is a learning tool, students added a new element to their presentation: guidelines on how to look at different types of publications.

Therefore, when the presentation date arrived they “gave PYP6 students a tour” of their ATL Skills museum.

Grade 7 students had clearly developed confidence in their presentation skills, and they also demonstrated how they had mastered the ‘learning’ they were passing on to their PYP peers. Nonetheless, the highlight of this collaboration is the extent to which they related to which PYP6 students needed, hence making this experience a very relevant one.

We cannot be prouder of our grade 7 students for demonstrating that when Approaches to Learning are part of daily dialogue one can truly augment the meaning and value of learning; opposite to  just having a dead document with a set of skills hat nobody bothers to look at at.

ATL Skills are flavours that one needs to savour, not jargon that one should regurgitate.

The journey does not end there- this was just a rehearsal!

Their job now is to refine their communication skills and the quality of their presentation in order to educate parents into the art of ATL skills.

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The journey towards the MYP ePortfolio

The MYP eAssessment acts as a summative task, but it is a holistic formative assessment in nature. For those subjects whose eAssessment components comprise the ePortfolio, the assessment is a journey, an exploration, and an opportunity for students to claim ownership of what they are able to do with the language they are learning.

A portfolio is a learning instrument that demonstrates how learning experiences and engagements were documented. It is not just a selection of papers that were put together to tick a series of of tick boxes. For this reason, the design of the learning process that will be documented needs to be thought meticulously. This blog post shares an experience planning the language acquisition ePortfolio.

As highlighted in the eAssessment guide 2017, a language acquisition portfolio needs to include the following items:


IB MYP eAssessment Guide 2017 pag 34

Thus, as it can be seen, the outcome and expected products are clear. Moreover, if consider the conceptual framework (Key Concept, Related Concept, Global Context, Statement of Inquiry, inquiry questions) that is provided in the partially competed planners, the key elements to design the path for the learning process are also present.

The following illustration shows a general view of how learning was spread along the journey.


The table below indicates the roles teacher and students had at each stage of the process.

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-8-27-37-pmThe ePorfolio will be externally moderated, and examiners will award the final level; however, teachers and students must not miss the opportunity to compare students’ production at the beginning of this unit, and at the end. Portfolios are a valuable tool because they allow us to see how one’s skills evolve; how new learning complements past learning; how encountering new ideas enables us to develop deeper and richer understandings; and how sustainable our progress and achievements are. For this reason, it is my sincere hope that this learning opportunity is not seen as an imposition, but that it is experienced as a process that will contribute to our growth mindset as lifelong language learners.

Below are other ideas/resources that may be useful.

[1] The impact of the Global Context on the Statement of Inquiry

[2] Linguistic aspects in KC, RC, GC.

[3] Exploiting the Statement of Inquiry.

[4] The Unit Planning Compass.

Below is a student’s portfolio created in MYP2. I found that it’s a great idea to introduce the value of keeping a portfolio as a reflection tool, in order to build capacity for the ePortfolio. Note that this portfolio IS NOT an ePortfolio sample, but a demonstration of the power of portfolios as learning tools.

Student’s Work Portfolio


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10 strategies to support EAL learners in IB DP TOK

After the holidays my TOK class will have come to and end, and the time it was devoted to it will be used as study hall for students to received support in areas they want to improve as they prepare for their May exams. They have come up with a series of requests such as: (long) exam-taking strategies; building stamina during exam periods, etc. I, along with other DP teachers, will be happy to support them in a personalized manner, however we can.

As the end approaches, I cannot help but look back at how different and transformational teaching TOK to EAL learners has been. I am an obsessive planner and note keeper. I have a respectable array of resources from past experiences, and a growing digital resource repository that I constantly enrich thanks to the TOK educators group on Facebook. Yet, none of the resources I had collected were specifically designed or targeted EAL learners.

Moreover, while I could always find ideas to enrich the course, on very few occasions did I come across teachers asking about how differentiation and language accommodation was done in TOK classes. At some point I even thought this was never addressed.

Thus, as I reflect on what worked and what did not work these last two years, I thought it’d be a good idea to share a few strategies that have worked for my EAL learners.

 10 strategies to support EAL learners in IB DP TOK

 1. Shelter learning in your classes. If you teach EAL students who join your DP program from traditional local schools, be aware that they may have the knowledge to discuss resources, but they may not know terminology in English. So why not helping them to enrich their jargon by encouraging to keep a practical dictionary.


Screenshot from a student’s digital notes.

2. Devise systems to support students to take notes or analyze resources. This normally works best when one really knows how students learn. A brief discussion with students about the way they learn can give us hints on the tools we can design or help them generate to support their learning.


A tool students called “the TOK mat”

3. Make your walls teach. If you are a lucky teacher who teaches TOK in his/her own classroom, make sure you use your walls to capture ideas for everyone to see how meaning is being co-constructed.

Students making their thinking visible.

 4. Curate your resources. Choose resources that encourage students to access what they have learned in IB DP and in their life as students in and outside the classroom. Many resources can certainly be provocative and insightful, but they may also represent an added challenge to EAL learners.

5. Design resources that teach learners about language. Signal constructions whose word order students need to pay attention to; highlight ideas that include tense or sentence structure that has a special sense and may be challenging to understand. Draw students’ attention to words worth incorporating into their active language.

How to read and interact resources- task sheet.

6. Be aware of your approaches to teaching. Train learners to work with the resources you use in class. Never assume that all learners can access them because you can. Predict language aspects in your tasks and support students with information about the language of instruction. Here is an example about stating facts in past, in English.


7. Use the language you want EAL to master. Use all relevant vocabulary items in relevant exchanges in order for EAL students to be able to see how they are effectively and accurately used. Present them with patterns (sentence stems) they can use to construct their ideas.

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Examples from a history class.

8. Train learners to answer questions depending on the questions’ intention and goal. Look at the following example with ‘inference and prediction’ as a goal.
Here is an example with ‘inference and prediction’ as a goal.

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-12-44-51-pmTaken from Linguistic Processing Skills ELPS Instructional Tools (2012)

9. Gamify your lessons. Use games that allow them to manipulate vocabulary and structures while still carrying out relevant TOK tasks.

TOK Race download.                                       TOK Questions Snakes & Ladders..

10. Provide them with patterns and guided help. Engaging students in understanding text structures, cohesion, how ideas connect and support one another is best done with a text that is not intimidating and allows them to focus on learning and understanding the how (how ideas are written and linked) rather than on the what (comprehending difficult language.)

Writers Workshop Intermedia Level Learners.

Many teachers may claim that this work is part of the EAL / language support teachers; but I (a language teacher) would claim that by including this learning layers in TOK classes, teachers would really be using language a way of knowing and doing. Moreover, what a best way to demonstrate the attributes of the IB LP by being caring and acknowledge and support EAL efforts to access a subject as complex and abstract as TOK. Besides, and to conclude, this is how we demonstrate with action that we are all language teachers.

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The Statement of Inquiry: A recipe we have to cook in a Global Context

In preparation for launching the unit for eAssessment 2017, a few colleagues and I engaged in dialogue on why the Global Context (GC) is provided. A few wondered, why not the Key Concept (KC) if we are working in a conceptual framework.

I like an analogy that I share in workshops or when discussing the structure of the conceptual framework in language acquisition: if the KC are soccer teams, and the Related Concepts (RC) are the skills each team possesses; the GC is the stadium in which they’d be playing. Altogether, they make a match; they are they generate sources of excitement; and they cause people to undergo a series of processes and emotions before, during, and after the match.

The powerful part of the Global Context is the fact that it defines the conditions in which the game will be played: maybe it’s in a cold city, or in a place with monsoonal weather; hence the player will need to adapt to it. The choice of RC, hence, will depend on what the coach want his team to accomplish.

This means that the Statement of Inquiry (SoI) will be the idea that people will remember from this game: one single idea that captures who played in the game; against whom the team played; the emotions generated, the exceptional use of skills; the learning from mistakes; and the resilience experimented. The SoI, therefore, is not just a headline; it is a ‘living and thinking’ body.

In a previous post that I called The Nutritional Value of the SoI, I shared a couple of tools that have helped me exploit the SoI in a unit. Thus, in this occasion, I would like to share a few thoughts on the impact a GC can have on the way one decides to explore a SoI. Hence, I will describe the role of inquiry questions to generate tasks and to help unpack the SoI, while directly addressing aspects of the GC.

Unit title: Appearances
GC: Identities and relationships.
SoI: Appearances communicate aspects of the way we express our identity, and their impact vary in different contexts.

Inquiry Questions

Inquiry questions are contained in the essence of the statement of inquiry. Inquiry questions are tools that will help us map the pathways of the learning experience and, if devised effectively, one should be able to see the elements of the statement of inquiry in them.

Identifying which elements of the statement of inquiry are included in the inquiry questions will allow us to see the extent to which we are unpacking its meaning and the degree to which we will be ready to discuss, debate, evaluate and transform the ideas in the SoI.


Below is an example 3-tier approach in which inquiry questions are used to map the learning pathways, by dividing a unit in 3 sections.


Approaches to teaching and Learning

The table below shows tasks that are relevant to generate learning scenarios that address each question of inquiry. Once the pathways is mapped, resources and learning experiences can be curated in a way that they allow learners to access past information and use it along with any new understandings that are developed. Likewise, since sessions are framed in a question format, this could provide students with a hint to personalize information and use all ideas shared in any product/outcome that they are required to produce.



Last but not least, the table below is the unit’s understanding checker that students are given in order to see the extent to which they can identify the key elements of the SoI. By doing this, we are enabling students to appreciate how learning occurred in the GC chosen. This simple exercise can serve as a tool for them to employ when they have to choose the GC for their personal project.



Posted in Curriculum, IB MYP, Inquiry, Personal Project, Planning, Spanish By Concept | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment