If you read my last post, you know that I tried out provocations last week with great success. With a gentle nudge from a colleague, I realized that this was actually not the first time I had tried out provocations (is a provocation by any other name still a provocation?) so, with a little reflection, I've come up with a few tips and tricks to make provocations go well in your classroom.
Provocations do not need to be complicated or grand. They are not "the big show". They are the nudge that sets your students on the path to wondering, thinking, learning. They are as simple as a great book, an interesting picture, an object out of place, a piece of art, a stick brought in from outside. Anything that sparks your students in to wondering, discussing or acting is a provocation.
Keep it simple.
If you've been cruising Pinterest or Instagram you've seen provocations that are, well, Pinterest-worthy. If you're in to spending several weekends sourcing items and creating elaborate scenes, by all means, be my guest. Want to know a secret though? The prettiest table was the last one my students were drawn to and they actually spent very little time there. I think they instinctively shied away from it because they didn't want to wreck it; they wanted to get messy and creative and that wasn't the place to do it. Keep your tables accessible and kid-friendly and save yourself some time in the process.
One of the greatest things about provocations are what you hear from the kids. The wonder, the awe, the questions, the aha moments - those are what you really want to capture. On your own, this is incredibly difficult. Even with an iPad or phone to record the action, you will have trouble getting to everyone. So enlist some help. Another teacher, your principal, support staff, parents; whomever you can find to help you record what the students are thinking as they experience the provocations. Not only is it fascinating to see what they think, these thoughts will guide your planning for the rest of the unit or allow you to see what your students have learned.
Be open to the experience.
I am pretty open to mess, noise and chaos in my classroom. Many teachers are not. During the provocations I sometimes found it difficult to check my instincts and allow things to continue despite the mess and chaos. Shaving cream and food colouring on the couch? Sure. In your hair? Why not? Dripping across the floor from one end of the classroom to the other? Ummmm....Often it didn't feel like my students were headed in the learning direction I had intended (or any learning direction at all for that matter) but their direction is the the direction that really matters when it comes to provocations. You plan the provocation but you don't get to decide where they take it. If you feel like kiboshing something, step back, wait for a moment and decide if you really need to step in or if you're just trying to control the situation.
Resist the urge to control.
Directly related to the last tip, resist the urge to control. As teachers we spend a lot of time controlling people and situations; this is not the place for that. Let things flow the way that they flow. It might not go the way that you think it will go but you can still learn a lot from it. Appreciate the learning for what it is, not what you wanted it to be.
Check your language.
Language is so very powerful; unintentionally, we can use it to control and guide a situation. A great idea is to ask questions instead of commenting on what is going on; "Tell me about what you're doing/what you see here", "What are you wondering about that?", "Are you curious about anything at this table?", "What made you try that?", "What are you going to do next?"
Start small, grow big.
I was lucky; I had lots of support in the form of people and already created provocation tables. If you don't find yourself in this auspicious situation, consider introducing provocations a little at a time. Start with a book, add in a picture (consider trying this technique from Making Thinking Visible), then move to one table in the back of your room. Allow kids to explore and move through each experience, loop back to one that worked well, then try the next one on for size. When you`re ready, go big (with help, see above).
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that provocations are designed to elicit a response from your students; you can structure the provocation to guide their thinking but you cannot control where they take it. There is beauty in that. There is freedom in that. There is so much to be learned and explored by following your students where they lead. Provocations are a reciprocal learning opportunity between teacher and student; be open to the opportunities and you and your students will reap the rewards.
If you are trying to figure out where to go after introducing a provocation to your classroom, consider having your students record their wonders. This will make their thinking visible to you and allow you to figure out which way to go next. To help you out, I created this simple freebie for them to record their learning on. Click on the picture to download (also available in French - click on the pic and then follow the link in the description).
Good luck, be patient, have fun and enjoy! Let me know how it goes...
It is no secret that I love collaborative teaching and learning (it's in my bio, over there ---->) and this week was one of so much fantastic collaboration with some pretty incredible people. I am incredibly lucky to have such amazing people around me.
What, you ask, was all of this fantastic collaboration about? Provocations. Water provocations, specifically. And man oh man were they amazing! Seeing my class exploring, experimenting, wondering and learning in a self-directed way was inspiring, to say the least.
This all started because I wanted to break out of the literacy centres, math centres mold and really try teaching in a much more holistic way. It's something I have been struggling with in Grade 2 and Grade 2 French Immersion specifically and will continue to struggle with for awhile, I'm sure - how to teach fundamental concepts like learning to read, write and do basic math without relegating social studies and science to cute little experiments and projects that are completely out of context. And before you give the standard "well, you just weave reading and writing and math in to your social studies unit" - which seems to be the pat answer from people who are either a) not primary teachers or b) not in the classroom day-to-day (and I freely admit that this has been me so no offense intended) - please take a moment to consider the resources necessary to do this effectively (lots of leveled readers on topic, in French, in my case; thoughtful, well-planned math assignments that are more than just decorated with pictures that fit the theme; mentor texts that lead to fantastic writing that fits the theme, and so on and so forth. And time. So much time.). Doable? Absolutely. Alone? Not without losing your mind. The amount of time, brain power and resources it takes to create a unit of study that effectively melds curriculum with student-interest and dynamic teaching is crazy high. Definitely worth the effort in the end, though.
Anyways. As they sometimes do, the stars aligned to allow me to bring together a group of incredibly knowledgeable educators who were willing to help me plan a unit that aligns with multiple areas of the curriculum, is responsive to my students' needs and interests and allows multiple subjects to be woven together in to some really rich learning opportunities.
Provocations are a Reggio-Emilia approach that are most easily conceptualized as anything that stimulates a child to wonder about, act upon or otherwise engage with a topic. While these often take the form of provocation tables, they can be as simple as books, photos, items from nature, a single object or an event that grabs a child's interest. So, in all likelihood, you are probably already using provocations in your day-to-day teaching practice and you just don't know it. Go you!
By the definition above, my unit is filled with provocations (go me!) but we specifically brought in some provocation tables to stimulate wonders (aka questions) that would guide the direction of the rest of the unit. Lucky for me, water provocations are apparently a hot topic this year (who knew I was so on trend?) so our district Instructional Leadership Team had a number of provocation tables prepared; I added a couple of my own that I thought would respond to the needs of my class and we were off.
So much excitement. So much curiousity. So much wonder. Although we cut them off after 45mins to allow another class to check the provocations out I think my kiddos could have kept going for at least an hour. They thrive on this stuff. I'm stoked to see where this takes us!
Teachers who teach from the heart make a bigger impact.
The best teachers I have ever met are amazing not because they have mastered the curriculum or the latest teaching techniques but because they understand children. They accept every child as they come, not as they "should" be, and they guide them gently along their own individual learning path. They are sensitive to the needs of individuals in their classroom and naturalize the idea that everyone needs something a little bit different to learn...and that's ok. They trust their heart and their gut and do what's right for kids, whether it fits within "the rules" or not. They are driven to learn because they want to meet the needs of the littles that they work with every day but at the same time they never want to be out of the classroom because they know that daily connection is so important. They connect, connect, connect and in doing so they make a big difference on kids' lives.
Starting with love, compassion, gratitude and kindness makes for a better community.
Too often in teaching we launch in to curriculum before teaching our kids that they are part of a bigger community - their classroom community, their school community, their hometown community, the world at large - that they need to look after. The blame doesn't entirely lie with us; there are so many outside influences trying to convince us that our kids need reading instruction, writing instruction, math instruction, academic hammering that will purportedly give them a leg up in the wide, wild world. But what world are we preparing them for? If we teach our children that the only things that matter are being better - smarter, faster, stronger - than those around them then we are actively destroying the only support system they will ever have - the village. Friends, if you can think of a moment where the village hasn't reached out to you, hasn't buoyed you up, looked after your children, made you laugh, made you cry, then you can think of a reason why we need to be teaching our kids to love and look out for others. Teach their hearts and souls first, their minds will follow, probably stronger than they would have otherwise.
Students come to us with a lot on their plates. They aren't really ready to learn until they feel safe & loved.
No matter how much we know about a student's background and home life, we can never completely understand what they bring to school everyday in their hearts & minds. All we can do is connect, listen and meet them where they're at, every day of the year. When we make our classrooms safe spaces for students to be their genuine selves - whether that means incorporating time & space for them to move freely, opportunities for connection, work that is engaging and individualized or simply an honouring and celebrating of differences - we allow them to feel safe and secure. This, in turn, calms their sympathetic nervous system and allows them to move forward with their learning. As anyone who has ever worked under stress can attest, it's almost impossible to be at your best when your head & heart are in another place. The best thing we can do for students is make them feel safe & secure in our rooms and in our presence.
We have to show ourselves love, compassion, respect and forgiveness and we have to teach our students to do the same.
Teaching is an exhausting, all day job (bonus points for knowing, instantly, where I stole that line from*). Even in the moments where we are supposed to be taking a break we are often working, often meeting a need other than our own. And then so many of us go home to our families to meet so many more needs. The potential for exhaustion, burn-out, mistakes, is huge. and don't we know it? We hold ourselves to the highest possible standard and often forget to give ourselves grace when we don't meet those standards. By learning to love ourselves, to recognize that we deserve as much compassion and kindness as we offer everyone else in our lives, we begin to learn how to teach our students to do the same. I am quickly coming to believe that instilling a growth mindset in children might just be the best way to teach resilience, self-respect and self-esteem all in one fell swoop.
Learning and development is a continuum and our students are at all different places on it. We need to meet them where they're at without judgment.
I have been in Pro-D workshops for the last couple of days and have been acutely aware of the recognition (or lack thereof) of the continuum of learning and development. Our school system is designed to fit children in to little boxes, boxes labeled "meeting", "approaching" and "not yet meeting". But, when push comes to shove, does it really matter if they're meeting, exceeding or not yet meeting our expectations? They will still be in our classrooms, they will still be who they are, where they're at. If we start acknowledging that all students fall somewhere on a continuum of development and learning, we start to see that we can move them along that continuum, regardless of where they started. Once we understand that teaching is actually about meeting students where they're at and moving them forward, not about students meeting prescribed learning outcomes, we free ourselves to teach kids, not outcomes.
Social-emotional learning is more important than curriculum. Dysregulated students can't learn effectively.
Teaching our students to recognize and regulate their emotions and arousal levels is fundamental to their learning. Some children are able to do this naturally and others need help. The fact of the matter remains that if students are dysregulated they cannot learn; if their bodies are constantly seeking or avoiding some kind of stimulation there is no way that their minds are ready to learn. With all of the pressure to teach curriculum, meet benchmarks and demonstrate student learning, it's easy to forget that we are teaching little humans; that is, until Johnny won't stop moving and Sarah won't stop crying every time you ask her to do anything resembling school work. Then it is blatantly, unavoidably obvious. And instead of blaming the kid, or the home or the learning challenges, we need to start looking how we can teach the child to self-regulate, to meet their needs in any given moment. Secondary to this, we need to accept that even we, as adults, are not perfect at self-regulation and that there are always going to be times (more for the kiddos that struggle in this department) where the wheels fall off the wagon. The trick is accepting this as normal, however disruptive it may be, and finding solutions with humor and grace, acknowledging all the while that it can be incredibly frustrating and finding a support system that helps you deal with this frustration. Just as dysregulated students can't learn effectively, dysregulated teachers can't teach effectively.
Awhile ago, I wrote about some books I have been reading that have really got me thinking about the language we use with kids (see that post here - you'll learn about one of the most influential professional books I have ever read. Seriously.). In addition to these books, a couple of other opportunities have continued to drive my learning in this area. The first was a professional development workshop I attended (about spelling, of all things. Structured spelling, which is phenomenal btw. But that's another post) where the presenter was a master at using great language. I couldn't stop noticing how empowering it was and how naturally it seemed to come to him. The second is an ongoing conversation with a good friend (and kindie teacher) about ways to talk to my daughter when she's upset because I sometimes just feel so inept in this area. She always knows just what to say, which never ceases to amaze me.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that a) words matter. A lot. and b) we are not all extremely skilled at using the right words. I am one of these not so skilled people. Sure, I know how to talk to kids, I know how to make sure that they understand me, absolutely. But what doesn't come naturally to me are the simple changes in phrasing that empower kids, that allow them to feel like they can do just about anything, that what they are doing is meaningful and important. Thankfully, although this skill doesn't come naturally to me, I believe that it can be learned (and I have that good friend who is wonderfully skilled in this area and willing to answer all my crazy questions). So, on that note, I thought I would share a few common phrases that we all use with kids and some powerful alternatives.
Instead of "What a lovely picture. What is it?" try "Tell me about your picture". This slight change removes the sense that the child's picture is unclear (which, if it's anything like my 3 year old's artwork, it likely is, but they don't know that) and puts the child in the driver's seat when it comes to their own art, giving them a sense of agency and accomplishment.
Instead of "Who can tell me the answer?" try "Can anyone offer a hypothesis?" followed by "Interesting hypothesis. Does anyone have another one?" Although you may have to explain the word hypothesis a few times at first, this simple change in phrase makes it easier for students to take a risk and offer an answer because you are implying that you are not expecting the correct answer, simply their best guess. Note that you have to be willing to accept multiple hypotheses and be open to the idea that an unexpected one may, in fact, turn out to be correct.
Instead of "Not quite. Does anyone else know the correct answer?" try "Oh wow! Great mistake! Here's why..." As with the word hypothesis, you are making space here for students to be willing to take risks and potentially be wrong. If mistakes are treated as positive things, students will be more willing to make them, knowing they lead to growth & learning, rather than to just plain being wrong. You will be creating a culture of inquiry in your classroom.
Instead of "This is how you will do ______." try "As scientists/readers/writers/historians, how should we approach this?" Aside from simply moving from a telling to an asking stance, this rephrasing allows students to see themselves as scientists/readers/writers/historians and encourages them to use the mindset of that particular role to solve a problem. Can you guide them along the way? Absolutely! Try saying "As a scientist, I think I would..."
Instead of "I'm proud of you." try "I bet you're proud of yourself" or "How did accomplishing that make you feel?" The purpose of this rephrasing is two-fold; 1) it removes the idea that the child is subordinate to the teacher and 2) encourages the student to seek an internal motivation for completing something. The more kids rehearse this, the more natural it becomes.
Instead of "Good try but..." try "Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?" or "I see that you got the first part right. How else could you spell that second part?" I love these two because they put so much emphasis on having the student use their knowledge to figure out the correct answer. They will also give you, the teacher, a ton of insight in to what the student knows and doesn't know and where you should take them next in their learning. Asking students how they went about figuring something out is incredibly powerful as it develops their sense of themselves as a capable problem-solver.
Finally, instead of "I see that you're feeling frustrated/overwhelmed/angry." try "How does your body feel right now?" followed by "Sometimes when our bodies feel like that, it means we are feeling ________________. Do you think this is how you're feeling?" This allows students to begin to internalize the process of recognizing how their body feels when they are experiencing a certain emotion, allowing them to learn to self-regulate over time. Of course, follow this conversation up with some things the child can do when they feel that way - breathing, visualization, reading, etc.
Hopefully you find these helpful. I know that I will be slowly working on using these phrases more and more in my teaching; I would love to hear how your attempts go!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!