Savor reflection and let it flavor your new experiences


When discussing projects and how we must never underestimate the efforts we make while completing them, I always remember what my biology teacher told me in Middle School: a boat builder does not make a boat solely to drag it to the sea and figure out how well it floats; he builds it so that it takes him to different places. Ms. Laura Barrón claimed that students should regard projects as vessels that will transport them to different plateaus of learning, where new projects will be generated, and where they had the opportunities to marvel at the opportunities new knowledge and information allows them to have.

Not only has this mantra helped me embrace the challenges in every new project I participate in, but also has encouraged me to find ways to help students enjoy a meaningful process in the projects they are to fulfill. In an inquiry-based learning environment some of the most meaningful habits that need to be experienced are awareness of the skills we are employing while working; reflection on the strategies we employ and the results we obtain; and evaluation of the decisions we make when we devise instruments or processes for learning. For this reason, in order to help students realize the importance of turning their project into vessels of learning, I enjoy engaging in their wonderings and wanderings, for this also helps me get to know them better as well.

Incorporating ‘ATL’ as adjectives, nouns and verbs in the conversations I have with students has become a common element in our interactions. In previous posts I have already spoken the importance of helping students see that the ideas they share contribute to the co-construction of information (another brick on the bridge); I have shared my views on the importance of explicitly teaching essential skills in each of the projects we carry out in our subjects (Hands of the doer); I have reflected on the importance of observing and acknowledging how new learning transforms students and teachers alike (Cycles); and I have also inquired into the unit to measure the joy of learning. This time, as I revisit the interviews on ATL in the Personal project that I had during the Personal Project presentation, I have realized that students are able to identify those significant ATL skills that will help them achieve their goals, and to devise different ways of learning to make that happen. Nonetheless, what strikes me the most is the passion with which they claim ownership of their learning.

As I look back at the ATL in the Personal Project that we underwent at EMWS this year, I can’t help but wonder:

  • Are we interested in welcoming learners’ reflections so that we can design learning experiences to engage them as the individuals they have become?
  • Are we interested in observing how they talk about the skills they have attained, so that we can capitalize on that and help them explore new sets of abilities?
  • Does engaging with learners’ reflections awaken the desire of getting to know more about them, about the big ideas that are shaping their convictions, and about the possible ways in which their expertise can be useful in our learning experience?
  • Are we able to see how acknowledging and making room for students’ legacy can help develop richer and more engaging experiences in the future?
  • Do we take ownership of the contributions we have made to students’ development while valuing the way their learning styles and approaches to learning enriched our praxis?
  • Do we generate opportunities for other peers of theirs to learn from the collective experience that is generated within the community?
  • Do we know how to store the knowledge that our community generates?

This is just another day in the life of an ATL lover.

Below are some of the reflections students shared on their Personal Projects in which elements of the essence of ATL are captured.


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Engagement, they wrote

One of the most rewarding experiences for a teacher is to witness how students take responsibilities for answering the questions that emerge in class and then redefine the course of the inquiry that was originally planned. When this happens in my class, I see it as a sign of providence; and while a few times this web of questions and answers does not take place in the target language (Spanish), I find that this is a sacrifice I am willing to make for it is the substance of their debate what will allow me to maximize the meaningfulness of the unit.

As we were unwrapping our statement of inquiry for our unit entitled ‘Manners’, someone asked: “so how can we use international mindedness as a tool and not as an idea in this unit?” And then the best part came when I asked if anyone could answer that. Volunteers in this kind of requests are never rare in my class, and since their interventions were flavored with humor, wits, dense ideas and personal opinions, I could not possibly ask for more.

Not only did students’ exchange of ideas launched the unit in a powerful way, but also generated a great context for us to start locating and mapping the explorations that could be made. Thus, from manners at the table, to the difference between manners, rules and prohibitions, how manners depend on place, culture and time, every idea that arose automatically became an item in our project.

IMG_3531As a result of this standup internationalmindedness-omedy, students agreed on researching the spectrum of manners in a variety of countries and to write a brief manual with key information on how the country each of them chooses regards ideas such as punctuality, stress tolerance, the idea of ‘good behavior’ and the flexibility of rules.  We are now hoping to find schools in the countries that were chosen in order for students to receive feedback on how thorough and accurate their research was, and after that they are hoping to write a few pointers for people traveling to those countries so that they live the culture in that particular country whenever they are there.

… And then there is that lucky moment when a DP business management student enters the classroom and adds: “that information can actually be helpful when we discuss case studies from those countries.” Again, I just enjoyed when students asked, “do you think we can also talk about that?”

Introduction to the project: Sensitization task

Introduction to the project: Sensitization task

Unwrapping the unit: looking at situations

Unwrapping the unit: looking at situations

Summarizing research

Summarizing research

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Reflections that Inspire Action


For the 3rd time, we have worked on a unit on Sustainability at Ecole Mondiale World School in the MYP Grade 10 Language Acquisition Department; this is also the 3rd time we conduct a Skype conference to accompany and enrich the experience, and having witnessed how students engaged with the experience, we can fully celebrate by saying what we say in Mexico: la tercera es la vencida (the third time around is the winning one). The first time we used the Skype Classroom experience to wrap up our unit; last year we used it as a key component in the learning experiences of the unit; and this year, not only did we want it to help students add perspective to the initiative they were about to launch, but also to generate an opportunity for them to discuss what they have been studying in their respective language class (French, Hindi and Spanish), and to have the opportunity to demonstrate their communication and critical thinking skills. This third time, students have fully demonstrated that, if given the chance, they are able to elevate the significance of learning to plateaus that cannot be constructed in learning scenarios where there is limited scope to visualize how their convictions and beliefs would take shape in the real world.

Snapshots from the blog

Snapshots from the blog

Prior to this conference, students had taken part in blog collaborations with people from different latitudes of the world, from India itself to Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Spain, Malawi, USA and Panama; they had also held a meeting where they started to map the timeline they were to follow for the initiative they were targeting as a result of their involvement in the unit; they had divided their duties and commenced to explore the scenario to gain awareness of the current situation of our learning community, as the school will be the receptacle of this experience. For this reason, beyond providing them with the opportunity to learn how Emmanuel López Neri and his students at UVM started a movement towards developing an App for environmental sustainability and sustainable civility, this experience allowed them to evaluate the first steps of their initiative, to learn from the difficulties López Neri and his team have experienced, and to develop a new perspective that can help them prevent problems and devise possible solutions as they launch their initiative. Students demonstrated that they are able to comprehend complex processes involved in planning, and designing innovations; that they are capable of understanding how data collection processes work; and that they can identify the gaps where problems may occur. Clearly, those teachers that witnessed how students engaged in the reflection process have witnessed yet another example of the power of inquiry and engagement. I, an individual that has ben lucky to witness this happenstance quite often, cannot help but feel lucky of seeing students shaping understandings and inspiring me to continue looking for new scenarios for all of us to learn. On a personal level, what this experience has allowed me to see is the power of reflection when done at the right moment and at the right time; when we address it with an affective approach and link its substance to personal experience, to our local context; and when we use the energy it provides us to shape our learning journeys. Most importantly, this experience has confirmed my belief that reflection is meaningful and effective when teachers and students are part of the course, when this stage is not an isolated part of the inquiry process, and when we, the participants, acknowledge that the moment at which we reflect becomes a plateau that allows us to look learning before our reflection and after it. What best system to document reflection than this: an occasion where everyone involved can savor the spices in the ideas we share; an instance where everyone is given to opportunity to create new affective and intellectual links with one another; an event where the knowledge being generated belongs to everyone present; and an experience that allows us to bathe our interactions in the science of thinking, as we navigate the waves of togetherness and truly feel part of the learning community we belong to. Below is a video that captures some of the key moments in our reflection. López Neri said that we all make science when develop interest in transforming our reality; when we break our ideas and curiosities and put them together to discover that we are capable of creating impact. I also believe that we make science when we generate spaces to discuss how we are experiencing our learning, for this is one of the most transparent ways in which we can continue designing the pathway that will take us to our idea of learning and happiness.

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ATL as the GPS of understandings


Unedited image taken from:

Culminating projects are a big deal, and since big deals are meant to be treasured and remembered, this year we want our PYP students to have even greater reasons to be proud of their achievements. In this particular occasion we want them to be fully aware of both the skills required for a successful completion of the PYP exhibition and the skills they already possess in their ‘toolbox’, so that they have more toys to play with as they make their own decisions and design their inquiries.

Source of image:

As a result of the explicit introduction of Approaches to Learning (ATL) in the Diploma Program, at Ecole Mondiale we want to start the journey in PYP so that the MYP serves as pathways for enhancement and consolidation of this series of skills that allow us to strategize what we can do with what we know, and that can enable us to devise opportunities for action in our surroundings by observing what skills are needed to solving problems. Clearly, the curiosity and thirst for knowledge that exist in students’ biological age as they move from primary to secondary serves as our best friend in this journey.

The awareness that will be reaffirmed through this initiative will hopefully help MYP teachers to engage students in a special kind of dialogue that will allow students to explicitly refer to the skills needed in each learning experience of core task, so that they can manage their own learning and aim for self-regulation. Likewise, this explicitness will hopefully assist the teachers in figuring out how best to design learning scenarios that welcome and promote the employment of these approaches to learning.

The aims of the session were:

  • Develop awareness of the clusters and skills that each ATL category includes.
  • Involve students in categorising and mapping the essential ATL skills in the exhibition.
  • ‘Cube’ (represent in a conceptual model) the significance of the exhibitions through 6 specific lenses:
    1. Description
    2. Comparison
    3. Association
    4. Analysis
    5. Application
    6. Reflection.
  • Synthesize the essence of their personal contribution / project in the exhibition.

The following video documents our session on ATL & the PYP exhibition.

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The ATL hunter

Source of the image:

If we, teachers, want students to demonstrate the skills they have acquired in our subjects; if we want to find out which they are developing; if we need to figure out which they are mastering; and if we want them to exemplify the extent to which they can employ competencies developed in other subjects, it is clear that we need to generate the environment where these experiences can happen. We are all Approaches to Learning (ATL) teachers, and it is important that when learning involvements are presented, students are informed of the strategies they will experience, of the skills that will be required and the goal that is to be attained.

Explicitly addressing ATL will help us develop a learning/teaching environment in which we welcome a variety of approaches to learning; in which, by default and by design, we are required to choose from our skill / strengths repertoire and design the best way to fulfill a task. Painters know which brush allows them to produce a certain kind of stroke and effect; mechanics know the use of each tool; and those of use who utilize Apps to support our work are fully aware of the right App for the right task. Thus, making sure students know they are being provided with tools for future use, and creating opportunities for them to use them should be a natural practice in our praxis.

What would happen if we asked students to identify significant ATL that they have mastered and to mention in which subject(s) they have had the opportunity to meaningfully put them into practice? Would there be an inclination towards specific subject or would there be a balance among all subject groups? Would students know what they are to find? Would they know what each ATL skill look like? Clearly, if students have been involved and informed about the situations in which critical thinking, creative thinking and design thinking have been required, explored and experienced, they will remember. If students have been given standards on what is considered effective oral and written communication in each subject, they will know what is needed to make that happen. If they have been a part of self-management practices that allows them to build their way towards self-regulation, they will have evidence to assess their own performance and experience.

This year we decided to run a series of ATL workshops for students, in which we would refer to an ATL website that was generated for students to know what each ATL category meant, implied, and why it was relevant for their learning. Having this tool available for students would allow them to stay informed and to have the opportunity to look at how their own learning is being shaped thanks to the diverse approaches to learning that they were exposed to. On the other hand, as teachers would know about the sensitization process students underwent, they could approach ATL exploration in their subject groups in a more natural way for they would focus on actual properly contextualized engagements, and allow for the learning ground to get ready for harvesting.

atl gallery              communication skills

The goal of this process was to add a new nuance to our Student-Led Conferences (SLC), whose focus would be on the skills students were acquiring, developing and consolidating in every subject group. Students were asked to identify salient skills, the task/learning scenario where they felt they mastered them, as well as other contexts in which they have been able to utilize such tool/skill. Not only did we want students to claim ownership of the skills that they have personalized and internalized, but also to become aware of the array of tools they possessed and, after observing how they described their learning experience it was clear that this first step had been a good one.

Below is the tool that students were given to identify salient ATL.

We became aware of how important it is to state the targets and standards that are to fulfill in each learning experience, for this how students activate their ‘tool choosing devise’ and can strategize on their learning. It was observed that if teachers continued presenting learning scenarios without helping students see the components of its architecture, students were not fully able to look at it as an opportunity to choose the right skill to fulfill the task, and they only regarded it as ‘another task’.

Clearly, this is the target for us to fulfill in our next attempt.

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Cycles and Opportunities

A few months ago, in my entry called Transformation witness, I mentioned that effective teaching inspires real learning, and that stimulating and meaningful teaching-learning environments/processes must equally yield effective reflection. Thus, every time culminating projects come to life, another opportunity to observe, understand, visualize possibilities, and reflect emerges.

The reflection teachers and students should undergo in the light of the Personal Project is a critical one, for this is the last brick on the bridge that connects the land where concepts, contexts and skills were scaffolded and sequenced in spirals (MYP), and the land where prescribed content and standards might not encourage them to explore their creativity, and design thinking skills as much – although they should.

For those teachers that accompanied students in their journey, experiences like this represent the moment where they become aware of how the environment that their interaction generated and embraced, favored the development of critical thinking and real learning. For those that will soon welcome and guide these students who are unwrapping ideas they have devised and engineered, this is the chance to become aware of the baggage of skills, idea cocoons, dreams they are bringing along with them, so that proper follow up to their development is given, for there is nothing more disappointing that not having or being able to generate a scenario where creative and stimulating learning can occur.

Transition moments (PYP exhibition, MYP Personal Project Presentation, Extended Essay in DP) are instrumental when a school wants to visualize how the curriculum flows and expands. Thus, recognizing the value of these turns in the cycles, and using them as an opportunity for reflection and strategy-development is how learning in a community becomes sustainable: when every stake holder becomes aware of how the environment and understandings are causing them to evolve, when every new skill acquired is given an instrumental role in the community, when we are all opportunity detectives: always trying to find out the key element that will allow us to continue using our school, our habitat, our lab, as a space for experimentation and discovery. Since nothing is better than living the ideas we age co-generating, and the ideals we are co-constructing, we must appreciate, and learn from what is happening around us, because our story, our efforts, and our ideas are a big deal, as I also shared in Another Brick on the Bridge.

Curious, creative minds are able to give so much time and thoughts to a subject, so let’s continue embracing opportunities like this to witness how small ideas can give change to our community. We never know, some of these seeds might become trees or even forests.

Here, a quick glimpse of the Personal Project Presentations 2015 at Ecole Mondiale:

“That world was an endless expanse that began at the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house, whereas everything on the kitchen side of that door, on through the door leading to the patio and the kitchen and herb gardens was completely hers-it was Tita’s realm.”
— Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate.

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How do young foreign language learners inquire?

(This post was originally posted on Inquire Within)

The foreign language-learning environment will always be a formidable space for provocations and explorations. Acquiring a language is not solely limited to learning a new set of vocabulary and grammatical structures, but a great opportunity to incorporate a new value system and a new conception of what is true or false into our lives.

A new language, as its finding a way to belong in a learner’s mind, will collide and have frictions with ideas and ways of thinking that already exist. It will also shake hands with similarities and commonalities that will make it feel like it’s at home; and it will also contribute to the architecture of ideas- just because it’s a good friend. In the words of a fourth grader: ‘ [Spanish] is making my brain grow more tentacles’.

Some teachers might experience frustration when they do not get the questions or responses they expected from students, but whose questions are these, the teacher’s or students’? Students will most definitely have a response for all stimuli they are presented with, except that we will need to look close and learn to ‘read’ their kind of reactions. While teenagers could take the inquiry to a different level by asking profound and thoughtful questions, by contributing sharp points to the discussion or by challenging the ideas being debated, young learners will do their job as well, but in their own way, in their own language, in a manner that corresponds to their biological age. We might hear sounds like ‘mmmm’; tiny (yet gigantic) expressions like ‘aaaah’; we might witness how a smile is drawn on their face; we might notice how they start scratching their head; or a set of hands might invade the air asking for a chance to give sound to a few thoughts.

Thus, I wonder what are some essential features of inquiry detectives? What are the signals that will activate our inquiry-opportunity radar? How to recognize those instants that will trigger attention to a good inquiry? Undoubtedly, being an active listener and observer and embracing such attitude ‘a flor de piel’ (passionately – literally on the flower of your skin) is important, but a willingness to take that journey with students and to welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it is equally important. It might be difficult to see, at first, but students’ wonderings and wanderings might just be able to take us to the destination we wanted to arrive at through different paths.

A pleasant dialogue with 4th graders this week made my day. We were discussing gender in Spanish, and how the ‘a’ at the end of most words is the sign that a vocabulary item is feminine. Right after a few examples were presented, along came the sounds, and the sights, and the hands in the air: “So, do Spanish speaking people feel confused when they see male names like Abdullah or Aditya, which are male but look female?” “So what do people understand when we cannot ‘boy things’ (meaning vocabulary items of masculine gender) with girl words (meaning vocabulary items of feminine gender)?” And this is where I sat and let them discuss. My task while I served as a moderator of the inquiry was to take notes, for some of them could be turned into meaningful and powerful examples that will help them see beyond vocabulary and embrace the universe that inhabits in every word.

This experience felt like a déjà vu for I had already experienced how PYP / primary students are also able to philosophize. Here is an excerpt of that experience on September 21, 2006

It is quite interesting to see how they understand the process of ‘making meaning’, and how quickly they associate sounds to representations in order to understand the difference between 西 and 四 (west and 4) in terms of meaning, sounds and stroke order. As the teacher mentioned that by combining characters we got new meanings as, for example we can use XI (西) to write Mexico. The A ha! moment came when a student asked: “when we want to write ‘Mexico‘  [墨西哥] in Mandarin, does it matter which character we write first?” and another student replied: “Well, when you write Mexico in English you do not start from right to left with O, C, I, X, E, M, do you? So the order does matter.” While for us, adults, this can be a very obvious conclusions, what would we think if I said that the student making this point was in grade 3?

While this observation and realization could have only stayed within my department, I felt it was important to share with my colleagues, for the WOW! Moments in a learning experience can certainly help teachers of other subjects to see how ready students are, how they see things, and how they are able to relate new understanding to new ones. Thus, as I said at the beginning, we are truly lucky at our school, for this kind of moments when we see how one child’s idea have an impact on the whole class (teacher included) is quite unique, and they must definitely be taken into account when designing learning experiences for which we might think students are not ready when they actually are!

We nurture stage artists with applause; and teachers and learners at heart are nurtured with moments like this.

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