My use of the knowledge building circle is becoming more deliberate and refined. This year I’ve introduced it earlier and we go to it more frequently. Part of this is due to class size – numerical and physical. I have one class of 23 students and another of 24. My room is large. This means I have room on one side for 6 groups of 4 desks and on the other side, open space for a circle. This can’t happen in the grades 7 and 8 classes which are overcrowded. I find the tipping point for productive learning to be 25 students. After that learning becomes compromised. A minimum number also matters. I wouldn’t want to go below 16 students as idea diversity would suffer.
In a knowledge building classroom, all students have access to the knowledge. We work as a community to build central ideas. It is why we sit in a circle. Students like it because they can make eye contact with everyone, they hear everyone, they have to be more focused and they gather many more ideas – ideas that stand in contrast to their own. The essential question that has driven our learning for September is, “What does it mean to have courage?” As part of this exploration, students have been asked to go home and ask their parents to tell them about a time when they had to show courage and to share what they learned from that experience. The stories are starting to come in. I have told the children that if a parent tells a very personal story that is meant only for them, they should respect that and not share it with the class. The stories have allowed us to expand our mental models of courage as we try to improve our ideas. We’ve had a wide range of stories so far-ranging from a father having to be brave as he went downstairs to investigate a noise which turned out to be bats, to a parent having to trust a UN expert to lead him across a minefield in Cambodia. Stories of learning to cope with the death of family members have also been shared.
Research on the home-school connection and its impact on student learning is strong. Ontario as part of its world-renowned school improvement effort has begun to pay more attention to creating meaningful bonds between home and school. After last year’s experiences during our Grit, Tenacity, Perseverance and Resilience inquiry where students interviewed parents, I came to realize that my ability to prompt meaningful conversations between parent and child that might not otherwise happen could be more useful than typical homework activities. Parents need to know that their responses, particularly with respect to what was learned from having to be courageous are having a strong impact on students. So please, keep sharing. Thank you to the parent who sent us this on twitter.
We’ve also been discussing whether or not the main character in our story could be described as courageous. And then, because it’s school, we’ve talked about how to answer that question in writing. I showed one class how I went through the text and looked for all the examples I could find where Jason showed courage. This allowed students to consider less obvious ideas. In this very informal conversation, I was able to share how to build complexity into their thinking and consequently their writing. It was a surprise to some that they could discuss opposing ideas in one response. What’s interesting is the quality of the written work this early in the year. I attribute this to the teaching that has happened in the lower grades and to all students having had access to community ideas in the KBC. When it came time to write, they had much to talk about.
One final point. Elaine Hines, from the LNS who has been in to observe and film in our classroom, made this suggestion which I’ve begun to incorporate. At the end of the circle ask, “Whose ideas have influenced you today?” It is a way for students to acknowledge that their ideas exist because of the contributions of others. It’s also a way for students to realize that their contributions have impact. Seeing the looks of pleasure on faces when a peer says, “so and so’s comments changed my thinking”, is rewarding.