Category Archives: Middle School

What Do You Do When You Have Nothing?

Part of being a teacher in international schools is starting every school year with next to zero information, even in well-established schools. This happens for a lot of reasons, but the most common are either you’re entering a school that has no handover protocols between the previous and new teachers or the students are just as new as you are because student turnover usually rivals teacher turnover.

This latter point isn’t because international schools are inherently awful, though there are a lot of bad ones. It’s largely because international schools often work with families who move every few years because of work placements. It’s not uncommon to walk into a school where the students are as new as you, and you have little practical information other than numbers administered on school reports from somewhere else. These numbers are largely already meaningless; they’re something that, based on some other person’s understanding of a topic, these kids have been given. They almost never come with an explanation (except for how the grading system works), so you become well-versed in the ways that people grade in Italy (usually a 1-10 scale, 10 being the best) and Slovakia (1-5 scale, 1 being the best). Other times, these reports are in entirely different languages, so you find yourself translating them in order to better understand and hoping that the comments are at least helpful (though experience says otherwise).

It’s actually the former point that’s the most frustrating. You enter a school with precisely zero hand-off, and you have no clue what kids have already done with the previous teacher. No teacher really wants to enter a school and end up teaching kids something they’ve already learned or using content they’ve already gone through (unless you’re in the secondary schools that I went to as a child, where you get to read To Kill a Mockingbird at least once a year for six years). It’s boring for them, and it’s boring for us.

So what do you do when you’re in a situation where you have no clue about your students and what they’ve done before?

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As a literature teacher, this scenario is actually less stressful for me than it is for others (but it’s entirely possible to do in every class). I have the space to work with students during the first few weeks and get to know them while working on a variety of projects that let me figure out who they are, what they know, and what they enjoy.

These things, for me, are the most important elements of my planning. It also gives me a few weeks to introduce ideas like student autonomy and agency into my classes, which they’re usually not familiar with after having spent years in any school. It lets me work with my students to create the democratic classroom environment that is characteristic of how I teach, including what they expect that to look like and what they expect to get out of it.

It lets me teach them that, even if my name is on the door, the classroom is theirs. It lets them get to know me and my strengths; it lets them get used to who I am in the same way that I need to learn about them. In effect, I always take the first few weeks to start developing relationships with my students instead of hammering them with work because I know the rest of the year will go much easier if we’re able to have mutual respect for each other. Learning, after all, is about community.

This also helps kids who aren’t used to that style of teaching to get acquainted with it, to recognise what it can look like and to tell me what about it makes them uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean I’m strict with those kids, but it lets me know how to work with them to create strategies that work for both of us and lead them to taking more responsibility for their learning.

That sounds great and all, but what do those weeks actually look like?

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Developing IB Units with the Class
Most international schools tend to use the IB (International Baccalaureate) as their curriculum. This is largely because the IB is currently one of the easiest to transfer between schools with, but it also allows for a lot of flexibility in curriculum used. You can pair it with national curriculum and still follow the guidelines with minimal changes (I actually hate when schools do this); some schools choose to be IB-only, which grants a lot more flexibility in what kids can do (until they get to the final two years of school, and then everything they need is dictated by a DP — Diploma Program — completion exam at the end of the second year).

This simple fact is why I can spend the first three weeks working with my students on developing their own units. Effectively, it’s easy to make the first ‘unit’ the planning of later units. I often do exactly that so that the work the kids do doesn’t get overlooked by the school and their families because it is a lot of work that fits the IB criteria they’re being graded on. They’re doing a lot of planning, research, and writing; it would be unfair of me to not at least keep track of that.

For language and literature, the only real requirement of the content in your units is to make sure you have at least one that focuses on world literature. For the record, the definition of ‘world’ literature is so incredibly vague that it effectively means “anything written by someone from a country other than the one you’re located in” or “something originally written in a language that is different from the national language of where you’re located.”

(This is one of many places where you can critique a huge part of the IB’s colonialist and imperialist mindset, as Indigenous and minority languages can often be used to fulfil this requirement.)

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Week 1: Understanding How Units Work and Building Outlines
The first part of the week is dedicated to research. This includes brainstorming books that the students are interested in, topics they want to learn more about, and their favourite subjects. It involves a lot of research, with students finding books that could fit what they want to learn about.

For example, one of the topics that kids came up with a year or so ago was sports. They wanted to read sports fiction, but they weren’t sure how they wanted to implement it into a class or even if it could be done because they’d never read books or stories about sports in school. Here were my initial notes that I took during the conversation.

Notes: Concept Map structure that starts with 'sports' as the center. Follows out to Kwame Alexander (The Crossover and Booked) to Poetry; also includes Girl Against the Universe and Here to Stay. There's a list of other sports books.

As you can see, one of my first thoughts for some of the books they found and wanted to read were poetry (using Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover or Booked); this would’ve lent well to talking about presenting and writing for an audience, discovering and using different literary devices, and recognising that poetry isn’t just the five boring poems everyone puts in textbooks all the time.

I didn’t tell them this. We just kept looking for books and different texts. While the students determined what they wanted to do, I started thinking about how they could fit into a unit and what we could study (in case they needed more guidance). We continued doing this for a range of topics: science, “time-confused stories” (non-linear narratives), history, horror, and then a list of “I don’t know how this fits in anywhere, but it seems cool.” Some students had created their own lists for other topics (one kid made one entirely of autobiographies and biographies), but there were a lot of overlapping spaces.

This worked out really well and started giving us a space to work through everything. Which topics did everyone have? Which topics did most people have? Which topics did someone not have but would still be interested in working on? That was how we spent our final class of the first week, and it helped to determine what we would be looking at in the following week.

It’s also around this time that I give my students the opportunity to figure out which units they’ll read the same book for, which units they want to do as reading groups, and which ones they want to do self-selected texts. These decisions also impact how I teach that unit and in what direction we’ll go, and it also means that sometimes the students will have to share much more explicit examples so their peers understand.

For the record, there have been years where none of my students read the same books at all. This is entirely fine, and some of those units have been my absolute favourite; it also leads to kids sometimes wanting to read the books later, which I think is a success for just getting people interested in something. And no, I never really worry about whether or not I’ve read any of the books they’ve read. I usually end up reading 1-3 books per unit that I haven’t read before, and my students are usually pointing things out that even I missed. (A lot of my students like this, by the way. The recognition that I’m not a super-computer and can make mistakes also lets them know that making mistakes is fine.)

This does also mean that I’m doing a bit of light research on the weekends and preparing a few ideas in the event the kids get stuck somewhere and don’t know what to do. (I don’t advocate external planning unless you want to. My external planning is mostly a result of my being ADHD or getting sucked into a novel.)

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Weeks 2: Building the Units
Every single IB MYP (Middle Years Program) unit across every single subject has the exact same components. This (currently) includes a statement of inquiry, a key concept, related concepts, global contexts, objectives, and three different kinds of questions (factual, conceptual, and debatable).

From the first class of the week, we’re building units. The only handouts I give this week are small print-outs that include a blank unit template and a list of key concepts, related concepts, and global contexts; this last bit is because those can’t just be created out of thin air for the purpose of documentation, since the IB already has them implemented within the curriculum. They look like this:

Template of a unit plan, list of key concepts, list of related concepts, list of global contexts

First things first, I always skip over the ‘objectives’ and wait until we’re discussing projects they have decided to do because I want the students to have time to think about how to use them and what they are. Including them early in the unit development actually tends to ruin the purpose of creating units that students enjoy. Because of the obnoxious competitive nature of schooling and the importance we place on grades, they often want to create overly simple things that they feel can give them better marks. My experiences in including them early on is that this usually leaves me creating all of the units using their ideas so that they’re somewhat interesting. (Objectives are what they’re being graded on and come from the four criteria per subject.)

Students spend a few minutes looking over everything, and they have the time to ask questions before we get into what each part means. The two most common questions I’ve ever received, amusingly, have been the two things I’ve developed school-wide professional development courses for because they were things that also stumped my colleagues: What is this ‘statement of inquiry’ thing and how do you make it? What is the purpose of the global contexts?

I often explain it in the same way for both groups: The statement of inquiry is the topic of the unit combined with the concepts and global contexts. I always tell them that it’s a statement that, should their families ask what they’re learning, they can regurgitate it verbatim and their families will more or less understand what they’re doing. I also tell them that it’s easier to do last once you have a good idea of what you’re doing (even though most MYP training courses tell teachers to do it first and then build from there).

For concepts, I explain that the key concept is the primary concept that we’ll be using and that they should figure out which one best fits the direction they want to take the unit. During the creation of the unit, students often realise they don’t really understand what the four concepts mean in the context of a unit plan and ask for examples of using it. This is good because it helps them develop an understanding of what they’ll be doing in the upcoming units, so they know what they’ll be responsible for doing.

(Also, if you teach language and literature, be prepared for the handful of kids who will point out the absurdity of having a key concept of “perspectives” with a related concept of “point of view.” It’ll be a good time to explain the difference.)

Global contexts often seem like the most confusing element because they just seem like something someone tacked on, and that is often how a lot of teachers think about them. That’s not a sleight to teachers, but it is something I noticed in the courses I held for my colleagues; they’re usually the last thing someone thinks about (as MYP training courses teach you to do), when they should be somewhere towards the beginning. They’re easiest explained in the following question: “How do you plan to explore this topic?”

Because of this, I often combine it with the ‘questions’ section. After finding out what kinds of questions your students have about that topic, you’re better able to figure out a global context. Do they want to look at how we treat people in a specific system? Fairness and development. Are they focusing a lot on writing for an audience? You can choose personal and cultural expression as your global context. Do most of their questions focus on what it means to be part of a social group? Identity and relationships.

Once you’ve got all that down, it’s pretty easy to put together a unit. Here’s an example of one of my favourites that I did with Year 9 (MYP 4); though the students initially wanted to do two reading groups, they changed their mind and chose to read Far From You by Tess Sharpe as a class, which was such an amazing choice.

Unit for Grade 9: Nonlinear Narratives and Social Issues

And, for the record, I barely make a distinction between ‘conceptual’ and ‘debatable’ questions because they can often overlap. Most of the time, my classes have made a deal: questions starting with ‘how’ go in ‘conceptual’, and all the others that aren’t factual go in ‘debatable’.

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Week 3: Putting Together the Final Pieces and Gathering Project Ideas
Not only do I try to let students develop their own units, I also like giving them the freedom to decide what kinds of projects they’re going to do. This often results in a huge range of projects for the same unit, and it means you have to work together to organise how that’ll be done.

This gives you a range of ideas of things you can work on as a class, who might want to work together in groups, and what skills you might need to brush up on (or learn). When I found that loads of my students wanted to record podcasts, I had to teach myself to do the same. If they wanted to work on something I didn’t have the skills for or couldn’t learn on my own, I tried to find someone who did and either beg them to visit my class or teach me to do it. (While this is work, I mind this a lot less because it also prompts me to either find things that I enjoy doing that I didn’t think I would or meet new people who I can continue to collaborate with.)

Another part of this week includes building the rubric together. Even though the IB gives you a rubric, the words they use are mostly meaningless (and actually pretty ableist). When I first started teaching IB, I spent a lot of classes dealing with questions from students and parents trying to understand what these markers mean. For example, here’s the Year 5 explanation of each band for Criterion A: Analysing:

IB MYP Year 5, Criterion A: Analysing (from Language & Literature 2014/2015 guide book, page 40-41)

Personally, I don’t feel comfortable determining what words like “limited” or “competent” mean (both of which stem from the eugenics-based history of schooling). What is a “sufficient” justification of an opinion? What does it mean to be “perceptive” and what are you supposed to be perceiving? What does it mean to make a “substantial connection?” Not only are these ableist structures, it’s also building in structures that enable people to perpetuate bigoted learning systems. (I mean, what happens if a student makes an ‘extensive’ connection in the features of texts that highlights their understanding of queer stories, and the teacher is queerphobic? Do they still get that 7-8?)

So I find that it’s better to scrap most of those and just give kids the topics involved in each of the four criteria, allowing them to build a rubric for their class together. (This also helps me scrap the nonsensical divisions between Year 1, Year 3, and Year 5 for each criteria in the IB.) Not only are the kids better at determining what they can do for their own age level, they are often putting more expectations on themselves than the curriculum does. Also, students who recognise that they may have skills that others haven’t yet learned recognise that this doesn’t inherently make them better. (Usually, they become one of many ‘teaching assistants’ in the class, eager to help their peers.)

After we do this, we start putting the objectives into the units we’ve built and start organising lists of what we’ll need to achieve the outcomes of each unit. (But we also leave space to ensure that things can change.)

Also, I make a deal with my students: 8 descriptors are too many and there aren’t enough significant differences between the two numbers associated with each band to warrant using them both. I only use even numbers (8, 6, 4, 2, 0), and the only person who gets a 0 is a person who does nothing.

If I have any time left over from all of this, the students and I compile a list of books that we want in the school library. Doing this has often led to an increase in usage of the school library and a sense of ownership over that space, which is wonderful because students will use and maintain it. (It’s also led to a few students wanting to work in the library to help build and curate collections, allowing them to share books they enjoy with their peers.)

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The amount of time this takes depends on your school and timetable, and it depends especially on the students you have. But this is the best use of time you can have in a year because you learn a lot, and it fills that gap where you’re trying to figure out what to do when you have no information. 

Using time to build relationships with and between students, to learn about them while giving them space to have agency over their learning, has always led to positive outcomes for me. But the best part is that it builds a community of people who feel somewhat more responsible to each other.