Packing experiences in a unit

Man covered in cardboard boxes - moving concept

How do we pack what is worth keeping in life?

How do we prepare for a wedding?
We don’t want to be under or over dressed. We don’t want to outshine the bride or the groom, but if happens, I guess we just couldn’t help it: our taste and choices are just delightfully accurate!

How do we plan our units so that they are not under or overloaded?
We certainly should not want to be the center of attention and generate monotonous learning experience for learners. Likewise, we should not want to let the waves of learning without having a goal in mind for all learners- teachers included. In other words, when crafting units, we must make sure our taste, choices, stimulus, and provocations are delightfully accurate, relevant, enjoyable, impactful, and learning-centered. And since we, teachers are learners as well, the experience must be equally powerful for all participants. Teachers just happen to be the planners, but the journey is decided along with students.

This year, at my current school, we, language teachers, have immersed ourselves in an odyssey to define what we consider a well-packed unit; a well-designed collection of learning experiences; and, above all, quality learning. We have co-taught throughout the year, serving as lead teachers, observers and sharing the platform. We have devised an attitude through which the design of our curriculum responds to students’ needs, to a most desired challenge we want as educators, and to the idea of sustainable learning full of transfer and opportunities for learners to experience, taste and execute a varied set of skills.

As a result, we have been fortunate to craft a curriculum map that emulates the 8 key elements of the school’s mission statement and that resonates with a learning experience in which students are given the chance to use the skills and information they possess in a variety of ways. We have agreed that we are not just language teachers; our subject is a forum where learning through and about the language is our daily bread.

In this post, I would like to share our journey through an MYP unit, the 4th of a set of 5 in this academic year; a segue to a service-led unit which I described in my post titled ‘The Power of Local Context’; and one in which we wanted students to dwell in the realm creativity and problem solving with fairness and development in mind. While through this unit we were to consolidate our approach to designing inquiry-based units, we also wanted students to be more aware of the stages they must go through as they plan their explorations. Thus, the use of various inquiry cycle models was paramount.

As this unit was designed, not only was our intention to fulfill our subject objectives, but also to explicitly proclaim that Global and Local Contexts make it possible to include elements of service-learning, to utilize the intellectual resources in our community, to offer students opportunities for real world interactions, and engage learners in a variety of thinking experiences (creative, design, divergent, etc). Above all, we wanted to make sure that all outcomes of the work conducted in this unit could help pupils be proud of and own their achievements.

Emulating the farming and harvesting process, the following Thinglink will help you visualize our journey in this unit: an exploration into the way creative solutions for problems give way to cultural and linguistic adjustments related to social demands, processes, novel ways of doing things, and the purpose of knowledge. (Hover over the image to see links)

Posted in ATL, Collaboration, Curriculum, Differentiation, IB MYP, Inquiry, Learner Profile, Service Learning, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Wedding Dress Syndrome

There are some people like me who do not like to solely demonstrate affection on birthdays, because if we truly love somebody we show our love as often as possible, not only on one day. For this, I am happy to have Facebook to remind me about my friends’ birthday, because I never make it a point to remember dates.

I had no idea my reflection in my post ‘Don’t waste thinking, don’t waster skills’ would sensitize me so deeply about apprenticeship and understanding local contexts.


It’s a bridesmaid’s dress. Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then bam, it’s on the side of the road.

Opportunities for action and service as action in schools are now stirred by very specific
days like Earth Day, International Book Day, Peace Day and many other commemorations that inspire teachers to organize activities in which students do good deeds for one day. Is this the message we are sending as educators? That caring for others and the planet is something that can only last a day? This is what I have begun to call the wedding dress syndrome: things that are used one, and remembered through pictures taken, but never truly wondering whether its purchase has had an impact on us and the way we see life.


If service as action, community service or engagement in the community is not an inherent part our planning and does not add another layer of depth to the quality teaching and learning we should promote, then it is just decoration, a tick box, as event that is part of a cool global trend. Hence, with this reflection, my invitation is not to let what looks globally cool to blind us for what is locally right.

Why waiting until Earth Day to be good to earth? I am sure that if we looked around in our contexts, we would find problems that Mother Earth would be very happy if we attempted to solve them. Some common ones that I have observed in my journey as a teacher include and are not limited to: food waste; paper waste (how many times dozens of papers are printed without caution and then just stranded); energy use (some teacher leave their classroom’s lights or projectors on, etc); paper cups use for water fountains (something that can easily be solved by bringing a bottle!), among others.

The point is that while it is a fantastic idea to engage in global issues, it is not a good idea to oversee and ignore the opportunity take action and make a difference in a context that influences students’ everyday life; the extent to which they can collaborate and learn from one another. When students’ local context should is recognized as a significant part of their educational space, the connections they make with their local environment will last a lifetime and inform their outlook on many other areas of their lives.

Contextualized learning is effective because a context informs where is the place of the information we are handling is. Likewise, contextualized action enables us to employ the skills we posses in the improvements of the social, material, and cultural dimensions of daily life in the learning process in the place we call ‘our community.’

Then again, as I wondered in my post about the power of local contexts, ‘how blind can many International schools be?

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The Power of our Local Context

We might be part of learning communities that strive to develop innovative curriculum in which technology plays a central role; we might be part of learning communities in which teachers and students strive for excellence, but what is the point of all this if we, as a school, never inculcate the need of contributing to the community; if we never foster a proactive attitude to give back; and if, despite the 21st centrury attitude in our institution, we keep students from being an instrumental part in the understanding and improvement of their/our local context.

Walking the streets of Qingdao as I follow the colors of the cherry blossoms, I have recently been wondering about how blind many International schools can be: blind about the learning opportunities in their surroundings; bling about the possibilities for engaging students in their local context, and truly encourage them to become change making agents. I wonder how many time schools miss opportunities to take advantage of the play and learning opportunities their neighborhoods allow them to have. Clearly, a school address is more than a street with a zip code- it’s a playground and a laboratory.

The long cold nights of the winter invited me to explore and navigate the layer of my school’s curriculum as a voyager who explores unknown geographies. While we can claim ownership and be proud about the somewhat rich inquiry we can observe, I could also observe how the lack of connections with the local context made it look dry, illusionary, and beautified as if it were a damsel going to the opera. Thus, with the help of my local colleagues, we have gone scouting for venues where our students could put their skills to practice.

Every person has a role to play in the process of transforming the curriculum into a livable experience; a process in which learning experiences connect understandings from all subjects, and also make use of the city spaces for our students see that their skills are needed. Teachers, parents, administrators, policy makers, and practically everyone who comes into contact with the real lives of students are potential instruments to lead, accompany and provoke action in the learning that occurs in our community- we only need to understand that we acquire skills to understand and improve the community we live in, not to become isolated.

For a context like the one Mainland China provides us, every opportunity we have to foster emotional and social literacy in students must be taken in order to get learners to practice their critical and human skills. The size of the unknown and unexplored is so vast that there is room for testing how much we can do with what we know in various corners of a neighborhood, a city, and a province.

Yes, there is rigor in life; yes, it is important to learn as much as one can, but it is important to develop a sense of belonging in our context; and this is only done when we see ourselves as functional, and vital parts of it.

In our exploration we have walked streets that not even the locals born and brought up in Qingdao had walked; entered buildings with deceiving appearances that were actually ‘connections waiting to happen’; and it is like this how we have started to become aware the many experiences our context can provide us: it’s a learning matryoshka, an experience within an experience within an experience.

At school, as we openned the repertoir of possibilities and had students look at what the city allows us to do, the most fascinating thing was to see students’ interest focusing on home for the elderly as they wanted to explore what stories older people had to tell. They wondered whether there were unspoken heroes who contributed to what China is like now; and as they wondered about what these people thought of the youth of modern China. Clearly, witnessing this outlined our inquiry for the unit we were about to commence.

Thus, for over a month students went to a home for the elderly in order to hunt for stories worth telling and also to support the work the institution has been doing. This experience enriched the Language Acquisition class with dialogue; with opportunities for students to use language to communicate ideas that mattered to them; with scenarios that allowed us to engage in deep reflection and to witness how each other’s thoughts can change transform us.

I am happy to share a summary of students’ reflections, which they consistently did for the duration of the experience in a video journal, which is only one of the strategies used to support students’ language development. As I post this, students are getting ready to present a story in a school assembly.

As for me, my learning is clear: One of the worst enemies of effective and meaningful learning/curriculum is indifference.

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Language, ATL and Mathematics

Language and mathematics. For many, this would appear to be synonymous with corn tortillas and flour tortillas; both of them useful to put food in them, but only one makes a genuine taco. Two areas of knowledge; two languages: one is the domain of emotional expression, passion and opinions; and the other is world of steely logic, precision and truth. Nonetheless, if we were to scratch the surface we’d see that these two languages have much more in common than one might expect.

When Murat Gökalp, one of my colleagues and friends, a Math and Economics teacher, asked me if I would like to join him in his planning process to look at how we could make ATL visible in mathematics lessons, not only did I appreciate the opportunity to look at how there is always a possibility for all mathematics teachers to be language teachers, but also explore the role of language in mathematical inquiry.

Silent at first, I listened to Murat explain the concept and goal of the learning experience to me, cautiously waiting for the time when I could actually contribute something meaningful. Thus, it was when he fragmented the big understanding he wanted to achieve and spoke about the possible components of the journey where I could see how language and mathematics could work with the same amount of authority with the a common goal in mind.

As I started visualizing how letters and symbols danced in front of me, I decided to record our conversation, knowing that I would be unable to recall everything we would say, and acknowledging that a lot of interesting ideas might go unnoticed. So, with Murat’s permission, I would like to share the 20-minute conversation we held as we discussed chance in mathematics.

Pictures of the notes that helped Murat and I shape our thoughts.

The tasks given to students, as designed by Murat.

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When Students’ involvement engages me

I was coaching a group of students in our writer’s workshop recently. I wanted to get them excited about writing about a place, considering the relationships we might have established with it. Clearly, I did not think I’d be getting equally excited as well.

Since many students sometimes claim that they find it difficult to write add details, and to make their writing ‘feel alive’, in this session I wanted students to see how images can help us explore our imagination, and how all images include a vast amount of information for us to utilize.

So, besides sharing the steps that I followed, I also want to share the piece of writing that I wrote as students were writing theirs. I must say that engaging with students throughout the process and participating in, or rather witnessing the development of their ideas made me think of a place that was special to me. As I started looking at the ideas students were generating about the places they had chosen, I realized that they were writing really personal things, allowing themselves to be vulnerable, and realizing the power of language.

I started thinking about how many times we, teachers, take the time to experience the tasks we prepare for our students. I am thinking that maybe if we live the experiences we plan for them, it may be easy to identify how engaging our activities will be, and whether they will be able to fully involve learners.

Part of the learning process for us teachers also includes staying stimulated and remaining learners, as there is nothing more motivational for students that to see their teachers being positively affected by the development of understandings and life behind the inquiry.

These are the steps I followed in the session.

  1. Make a photo splash: find pictures of the place you want to write about.
  2. Look at pictures
  3. A-Z: Get vocabulary
  4. Write sense impressions
  5. Write some ideas using as many words as possible
  6. Map the way in which you’d like your ideas to flow: an outline.
  7. Research information that you’d like to add, in order to make your text more relevant: what is it worth mentioning: names of streets, historical figures?
  8. Define audience and purpose- what kind of text am I writing and for whom?
  9. Consider time: for how long will you write
  10. Check whether you’re organizing your ideas as you indicated in your outline.
  11. Publish

My photo Splash:Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.29.49 AM

My A-Z
Arrive, above, ask, afternoon
Backpack, bubble, blue, blindness
Ceiling, cloud, curiosity
Dark, drops, day (succumb to night), dance, daily, diary,
Esfahan, East (found me)
Find, fortune, fire, form, feet, and figures
Goosebumps, gallant,
Horses, humble,
Imagination, interest, ignite
Jump, joy, journal,
Laugh, lines, listens,
Mountains, moments,
Night, numb, noise,
People, portrait, photo, phase
Rise remember
Slow, silence, solace, sit down, sunset, shapes
Thunder, triangle
Wander, walked

My sense Impressions

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.36.45 AMIf you want to read the piece of writing I wrote on Esfahan,click on the link below:
I will always have my Esfahan.

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An Appreciation of Language Acquisition in PYP

How many different dishes can you make with tomatoes, basil, cheese, onion, celery and grapefruit? This is my metaphor for the many things one can do in a foreign language when we understand what lies inside attitudes, concepts and transdisciplinary themes.

The days when grammar was the only thing language teachers thought about is long over. These are the days when language teachers explore the power of meaning implicit in the structure of language and how it empowers us to express and design new ideas and information.


Hockett’s language design features

Undeniably, language is one of the tools that connect all areas of knowledge. It is the one tool that we use to record, and communicate learning, and the vessel we use to navigate the waves of learning. Equally powerful, and adding nuance to the competencies mentioned above, is the empowerment one obtains from learning a foreign language. Learning a foreign language confronts us, learners, with the essence of difference, similarities, patterns, discovery, creativity and access to ideas that we may not be able to express in our mother tongue. Nonetheless, possibly because those that have not lived this experience ignore the wonders of its gifts, these skills are seldom discussed as the main dish in collaborative meetings.
This has always surprised me in international education. What is a more evident sign of internationalism understanding of cultures than being able to live and being an active part of several communities, through their languages?

A question on twitter about the role of foreign languages in the IB PYP exhibition made me look into my very ancient files and look at meeting minutes and photos of moments where I was lucky to discuss the gifts of foreign language skills. Thus, this text is both a reflection and an act to rescue memories that was not documented properly.

The PYP attitudes

Regardless of whether we call them attitudes or dispositions, the term is not as important as exploring the meaning and impact they have in the language teaching and learning process and in the process of building new understandings. In PYP schools, students should demonstrate these virtues yet, it is interesting how these terms are seldom discussed as key elements . In foreign language environments, these attitudes or dispositions occur in interesting manners: as we become acquainted with different ways of looking at things; as we learn a different way to express ideas and look at the world; as we realize how the acquisition of new structures, different degrees of truth, and a different value system is affecting us; and most importantly, as we, learners, become aware of the niche that we create when there is a channel of communication with our peers, which sounds, feels, tastes and moves differently in comparison to our mother tongue.

So how do the PYP attitudes reflect language acquisition processes? Let’s be mindful that they are what we want our learners to feel, value and demonstrate.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.20.58 AM* Languages have different grammar tenses and structures; thus, functions have been used to exemplify. Teachers should look at the developmental level for each function and determine for which phase they are more appropriate.
** While there are, clearly, topics for daily conversation and survival, simple language can be used to speak about things that matter, and to learn from different perspectives; we solely need to curate the context we choose so that learners can explore engaging, relevant, challenging and significant experiences.

Now, allow me to speak about the field where attitudes, key concepts and related concepts play: the transdisciplinary themes.

Since the transdisciplinary themes are part of the common ground that promotes transfer and provide the opportunity to incorporate both local and global issues in the curriculum, I thought it’d be interesting to explore the meaning of the subject within each theme. Here are some reflections.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.21.28 AMAfter sharing my appreciation of how foreign language systems are present in the PYP attitudes, and the foreign language explorations that can be found in the transdisciplinary themes, all we need to do is pick the combo that best fits in the design of the collective inquiry.

How many recipes can you think of?

A memory.

Back in 2011, at Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai, India, for the PYP Exhibition, I was lucky to be part of a theme with who wanted Language Acquisition (and other specialist subjects for that matter) to add nuance to the exhibition by injecting their essence in the whole experience. In preparation for the exhibition, each member of the team was asked to prepare a presentation on how the PYP attitudes and Transdiciplinary themes were seen through the lenses of their subjects.

Not only were we to ‘plan a component’ to show, but to include something whose construction is a reflection of how understanding of the central idea is being experienced, and something that, because of the nature of the subject and the fact that it originated in ‘the foreign language universe’, would create that layer of thought that would serve as a provocation or opportunity for reflection for the audience. So what did we, in language acquisition, do? Above you have read a glimpse of our presentation and below are four memorable points of our experience.

  1. In collaboration with my French language students, we identified a series of activities in which we could find ideas or elements to address the central idea we were working on.
  2. We thought of a way in which we could tweak them and make them relevant to the big idea of the PYP Ex.
  3. We decided to produce capitalize on the value of our choices and turn them into an except of a TV show which was prerecorded, and which gave students the opportunity to use it as a stimulus to further interact with during the presentation stage.
  4. Part of the exhibition that the audience witnessed, hence, was student dialogue that reflected how everything they had done in their French class paved the way towards an understanding they were now consolidating in their culminating project. And the best part is that the product chosen was in the target language (French), but it was through their interaction how they engaged the audience in visualizing how their thinking had evolved.

I have always been against translating foreign language productions to the audience, because then translation becomes the focus, and not the construction of understandings, which is the real goal. Yet, as students discussed their ideas and exchanged their perspectives about what they were watching, they offered the audience two channels of appreciation whereby they became aware of how studying a foreign language truly means looking at the world in a different way.

A big thank you to Kirsten Loza, for her  pair of eyes, brilliant reflections and insights.

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Nutritional Value of the Statement of Inquiry


This is the 4th and last entry about the architecture of the conceptual framework in IB Spanish By Concept. My first entry focused on my the features that define the Spanish By Concept experience; the second entry focused on defining the relationship between grammar and the Key Concept (KC), Related Concepts (RC) and Global Contexts (GC); and, finally, the third entry described the path I followed during each chapter’s design and planning process. Thus, this last entry focused on unpacking the Statement of Inquiry (SoI), and the role of inquiry questions as one moves towards the summative tasks for each criterion.

For the purpose of this entry, I will focus on a phase 5 example, and will use the following conceptual elements to construct a SoI (not included in the book):

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 8.29.43 AMThe statement of inquiry is the big idea that emerges from combining the essence of the KC, RC and GC. Thus, it is important to note that statements of inquiry become the driving force of the unit, the ground where ideas are rooted; the soil where understandings grow and are harvested; and the source of all adventured in the learning journey. Likewise, it is important for us, language teachers, to linguistically squeeze the statement’s spirit in order to generate a learning journey in which both teachers and students are stimulated to think, feel, explore, discover, connect, co-construct, and create. Not only are we interested in looking at all linguistic items and concepts associated with this big idea, but also of the opportunities it offers to test our convictions.

This is a tool I have found useful to look at the ‘living organs’ of a SoI.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.26.34 PM



The outcomes of brainstorming as the SoI is dismantled can lead to analyze the inquiry questions and use them to pave the way towards the goal of the unit. First, I find it important to think:

  1. What do I want students to understand at the end of this unit?
  2. How do I want students to talk about the ideas in this unit at the end?

Once we’re happy with the answer to these questions, it is important to look at the inquiry questions planned and align them in a way that they serve as a sequence that helps me integrate vocabulary, structures and ideas; and as a system that offers opportunities to explore a variety of approaches to learning. In the book, the inquiry questions served to generate umbrella topics for the 3 themes in each chapter. Each of these umbrella themes, hence, welcomes a series of ‘Inquiry points’ in which the inquiry questions either serve as a lead in for a series of activities, or in which they help us wrap up a didactic sequence.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.30.13 PM

Thus, if you want to be creative, look at how a potential alignment of inquiry questions can help you map the chapter/unit’s inquiry, move form easy to difficult, recycle past ideas and merge them with new ones in order to elevate the depth and complexity of work from the beginning to the end of the unit. Have you ever looked at the inquiry questions and wondered:

  1. To what extent does each inquiry question represent a task?
  2. What grammatical structures and/or vocabulary do question allow me to explore (explicitly or implicitly)?
  3. How do inquiry questions help to scaffold learning?
  4. How do inquiry questions help to design the path of summative assessments?
  5. How can working with inquiry questions help us visualize and address all components of summative tasks? And
  6. How do inquiry questions and the work we d through them help us to establish the relationship between summative tasks and statement of inquiry?

Reflecting on these 6 questions has helped me to evaluate the quality of your inquiry in the unit/chapter, as well as the richness and force of the relationship between the SoI and summative assessments.

Faran 3faran 4

The design process of a unit always gets me excited; always makes me become aware of the vast amount of possibilities for teaching and learning, but most importantly, always helps me find the identify those grains of stardust that have been missing in the understanding of certain ideas. At the end of the process, I normally feel that my understanding of the big idea I want to share with students is thicker, more solid, and ready to challenge other ‘young conceptions’ I might still have to rework.

Understanding the power of inquiry also includes embracing the need to constantly be in the search for learning and self-improvement. Inquiry can be messy, can take us on a winding-road journey, and will always make us want to look around, reach out to everything we can learn, sense and savour with our senses, and then create something new that wasn’t there before. Inquiry is our ticket to being part of these ever-changing times, and to see the extent to which we have taken advantage of the learning opportunities our present has given us.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 8.45.23 AM

Presentation of the conceptual framework in Spanish by Concept Chapter 4.

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