Searching for the magic.

I was one of those annoying teachers who thought that remote learning could be kind of magical. Naivety aside, I saw remote learning as a chance to do things differently, to approach learning without the constraints of a regular school day. Whilst I wasn’t hoping for a global pandemic to hit us and for schools to close, I saw it as a chance to innovate and be creative. When we were caught in limbo between planning for a school closure, and also trying to maintain normality at school, the prospect of only having one thing to think about was a welcome relief.

Less than 2 weeks into remote learning, the sheer challenge of the situation is not lost on me. It’s a giant balancing act for all of us. The amount of factors to consider is, at times, paralysing. As a friend put it, it’s like trying to stand upright on a beam that’s balancing on a ball in the middle of an earthquake. I have no doubt this is also how it feels for parents, many of whom are in the incredibly challenging situation of working from home while also supporting their children. Considering the wellbeing of all members of our school community has, and will continue to be, a priority.

Purely from a teaching and learning perspective, there are many reasons why remote learning is a challenge. It’s much easier to manage tasks and students than it is to create an environment where students are learning. What works for one child, doesn’t work for another. What one child needs may be completely different to what the rest of the class needs. How I think a learning task might go is just that, how I think a learning task may go. The majority of the cues that we normally take from the students through conversations, or their body language, are simply not there. Video conferencing is no substitute for being physically present in a room with a bunch of kids. On the flip side, the majority of cues that students take from us or from their peers are also not there. Just as we’re in a situation that we’ve never been in before, they too are in a foreign situation. It can be overwhelming for all of us.

Yet what I know to be true about learning is still true about learning. Wellbeing is at the core of learning. Learning looks different for different people. Learning is flexible and responsive; it’s a ping pong game between us. Learning that actually matters is often not found in the curriculum. 

More than ever, I want to be back with my Year 6 class in our classroom. I miss their energy, our conversations, the laughter, and the natural ebb and flow of learning which had become our normal. While I wait for that to happen, I’m holding onto the belief that there can be magic found within these challenges, and that innovation and creativity can grow in spite of (or perhaps, because of?) these limitations. I’m choosing to look for possibilities, and ask questions.

  • How might we provide opportunities for students to connect, and stay connected, with each other?
  • How might remote learning help us better understand ourselves and each other?
  • What if we ask students what really matters to them right now and let the learning grow from there?
  • What if the timetable is flexible and responds to the needs of the students? What if we plan the timetable with the students?
  • How might we move beyond managing tasks and students, back to focusing on the learning and moving learners forward?
  • How might we experiment with ways to balance individual conferences, small group conferences and workshops?
  • What if we ask students what they need, and then respond to those needs? What if we ask parents what they need, and then respond to those needs?
  • What if we provide optional workshops for the students based on their current needs?
  • What if we allow ourselves time to experiment with structures and systems to see what works?
  • How might this experience change our view of learning once we’re back at school?

What’s the difference with this PYPx?

This is my 8th PYPx. Every one has been a success in its own way and has provided opportunities for students to grow, learn and celebrate their years in the PYP. But this one feels different to me. It feels as if this PYPx is actually transforming us as individuals and as a community. We’re not ‘doing’ PYPx. Instead, we’re in the middle of a genuine collaborative endeavour to better understand ourselves and to positively impact our community. Over the years, we’ve learned to let go of our preconceived notions about PYPx and the rules and structures we used to think guided it, in order to fully embrace the possibilities and ask ourselves some what if questions. Some 2019 questions: What if there are different ways that people (students and adults) can participate in PYPx? What if PYPx looked different for every student? What if the product isn’t the point at all? What might it look like if PYPx was truly meaningful for everyone? What if PYPx was transformative for individuals and the year level?

To us it doesn’t feel as though PYPx just started this term, it feels as though we have been building to it all year, and this is just a continuation of the learning and thinking that was already happening. When students are talking about getting into flow, the dispositions they’re drawing upon, or the action they could take, these conversations and experiences are not new. Instead, we’re building upon what’s already there and continuing to add depth and layers to their thinking. Our Central Idea (Thinking beyond ourselves empowers us to act) has been part of our learning across the whole year. 

The collaboration that is taking place is authentic. Students are moving in and out of individual inquiries, one on one and group discussions with their peers and teachers, optional additional provocations, tea circles, whole year level provocations and discussions with all of Year 6. There are several layers to our PYPx: what we are inquiring into as a community and what individual students are investigating and exploring. Students will independently step out of their inquiry to join a group discussion about an entirely different thing. Earlier this week I shared a personal dilemma I was facing where I knew there was something I needed to do, but didn’t quite have the courage to do it. From this, it has grown into my own PYPx inquiry around courage and now there are students who will sit down next to me during PYPx not to ask for a conference about their inquiry, but to conference with me about my inquiry. They’re invested in each other and in us. There is heart in what we are doing.

We’re all about the process. We’re still, 6 weeks in, having daily provocations to shift thinking and introduce new perspectives. There are students who have explored 3 or 4 different avenues by now as they better understand their own thoughts and ideas. Not only is that permissible, it is a valued part of the process for us. They’re learning to be flexible and adaptable, to respond to their changing ideas and perspectives. We’re encouraging them to consider looking both inwards and outwards to find their PYPx inquiry. We’re asking them to consider how they could take action to improve our Year 6 community instead of just looking outward.

As I sit and have conversations with students about their inquiries, I’m blown away by their insights into themselves and others, and the questions they have about themselves and others. From the student who has realised that she’s spent this year in her comfort zone socially and is seeking to better understand those around her, to the student who noticed that the gender divide starts in kindergarten and is seeking to change the way that adults and kids think about these issues, to the student who is redesigning our primary school and creating a proposal for how our space could inspire more creativity and curiosity, their inquiries have personal significance and relevance. There are stories behind their inquiries.

To be honest, this PYPx probably feels even sweeter because it hasn’t always been this way. The struggle was real in the first three terms as we challenged thinking, pushed for change within the culture of the year level and promoted a different narrative about learning. Here is what we have learned to do this year: always prioritise our core values. Community, belonging, courage and cohesion are what we value; Ubuntu is our goal. It’s a daily choice to stick to our values. We will stop lessons to address dispositional issues that arise. We will intentionally set aside time for experiences that help our year level build stronger connections and help students and teachers feel as though they belong. We have spent all year noticing and naming dispositions and building student capacity to understand themselves and others. We prioritise community. We purposely share our own stories to break down barriers. We bring up the ‘undiscussables’, and make time for conversations around these. We are intentionally vulnerable and honest, and we’re real about the struggles we are facing. Because at the end of the day, we are all humans.

Our students may not be able to tell you reams and reams of information. They most certainly won’t tell you about a linear process. They haven’t formally written lines of inquiry or selected three key concepts to drive their inquiry. They won’t be standing up with boards at the end. They may not even end up with a product. But what are their days filled with? Taking action in a myriad of ways, thinking and puzzling, considering others and how to positively impact the world, seeking new perspectives on complex ideas, being open to their worldview shifting and moving, investing in each other, inspiring each other, building community, drawing on dispositions and skills, learning about themselves and others, and reflecting on how they have grown and changed this year. And for us, that’s what it’s all about. 


Recently I have been exposed to two ideas that are shifting and shaping how I view and understand myself and others: contextual wellbeing and ubuntu. By extension, these ideas are also very much changing how I view, understand and interact with the students in my class. As I consider both the African philosophy of Ubuntu, and the idea of contextual wellbeing, I see the many connections between them. And I also see the many, many reasons why in the past my unintentional focus on individualistic wellbeing hasn’t produced the long term results I hoped it might. 

Dr Helen Street discusses the idea that “wellbeing is about the space between us as much as it is about us” within her book, Contextual Wellbeing: Creating Positive Schools from the Inside Out. Now that she mentions it: OF COURSE. Every time I have felt truly well as a person has occurred within a social context that supported my wellbeing. Yet our society regularly champions individual heroes, breeds unhealthy competition, often promotes external motivation and advocates for compliance over agency. We live and learn in an imperfect system. OF COURSE it’s not as easy as looking solely at an individual. Wellness is not an individual pursuit.

In grappling with these ideas and the implications for the classroom, a colleague introduced me to the idea of Ubuntu. In investigating Ubuntu, I’ve discovered various different explanations but many of them come back to one of these two definitions: “I am because you are,” and “people are not people without other people.” I don’t, in any way, claim to be an expert on either of these two ideas, but I have become particularly intrigued with how embracing Ubuntu may have the power to shape our view of humanity, our community and our wellbeing.

A small seed began our class inquiry: What is Ubuntu? We’ve watched videos, read definitions, analysed examples and discussed our own explanations. We’ve used thinking routines to go below the surface and explore more of the nuances. The concepts of connection, wellbeing and community have been thoughtfully unpacked through the process. Debates have taken place as we’ve grappled with the tensions we see between our current reality, our context and Ubuntu. It’s brought to the surface previously ‘undiscussable’ topics as we honestly engage in dialogue about the challenges that we face, and the frustrations that we feel as humans. It’s tricky and messy to own your hurts and your vulnerabilities and your mistakes. And, quite honestly, we’re not there yet. We’re still figuring out just what Ubuntu is within 6B. We’re in the midst of reevaluating who we are as a community and who we want to be. I wish we’d had this seed months ago. But would we have been ready for it? I don’t know. We’re ready now. There’s enough trust in the spaces between us.

We also think we finally have an Essential Agreement: Ubuntu.