a visit to Opal – January 2015: reflections

Posted on: February 2nd, 2015 by jnovakowski 3 Comments

As I reflect on my three days visiting the Opal School in Portland, I go back to one of my tweets that kind of sums things up for me - “values, humanity, joy” and of course #playfulinquiry. The focus of the visitation days was looking at questions and playful inquiry. As a team we wondered about how we might make sense of Opal’s interpretation of playful inquiry for our context.

We knew we were going to see beautiful environments. We are fairly well versed in Story Workshop and the use of loose parts. As fellow pacific northwesterners, we too embrace our outdoor learning opportunities year-round. We also knew we were going to powerful teaching and learning. And we did.

I think the most powerful practice I observed was a pedagogy of listening enacted by both teachers and students in every classroom we visited. I have never seen such patience and kindness and strong trusting relationships between teacher and child but also between the children. During class meetings, the students often sat in circles so that they could all see other. They each had a turn to speak and respond as needed. The teachers genuinely listened to the children and responded with a prompt or question to continue the thinking and discussion. When there was a conflict, and of course there were conflicts as these are real children we are talking about, the teacher kindly coached the children through the conflict. In a classroom of 9-11 year olds, we witnessed the children doing this for each other, with no need for adult intervention. The students have experienced this way of being in a community, many since they were three years old or in kindergarten and the teachers commented that the students often take the language of listening home to their own families. I never heard a raised or cross voice the whole time we were there and I never observed a sense of being rushed, or needing to wrap things up to move on to the next thing, whether during solving a conflict or during a class meeting. There seemed to always be time to listen to each other. What a gift. What an important priority.

At the core of what we saw was shared values amongst all community members – teachers and students, the sense of humanity in all that was done and a sense of joy that filled the classrooms and spirits of those who lived in those spaces.

Outside of each classroom, there was an introduction to that classroom community and a sharing of the values and principles. Within classrooms, there were often prompts posted such as “What does it mean to be together in this community?” that focus on the sense of community that was so evident in every classroom we visited.

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We wondered what it would be like to teach in a school community where everyone shared the same principles and values about children, learning and teaching? We have experienced pockets of that in our schools but along with the right of autonomy in our system, sometimes comes quite disparate views on what it means to be a teacher and how children are viewed.

Throughout our visit, the power of story kept resonating and reminding us that we all have a story to tell. The Opal teachers and students look for the stories that live within materials, ideas and concepts. They create stories to think, to learn, to understand and make sense of the world. They share their stories. It was not surprising that one of our last acts on the last afternoon of our visit was to engage with studio materials and create a story of our experience at Opal. All four of us created very different stories, but with similar themes.

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During our visit, we were also struck by the way teachers position themselves as teacher-researchers. Now being a perpetual student myself, this has probably always been how I see myself although I have not articulated it that way. I think positioning yourself as a learner and with a stance of inquiry yourself is a very powerful model for your students. The Opal teachers carefully jotted down students’ comments, diagrammed their creations and transcribed discussions on both clipboards and using iPads.

The documentation that teachers engaged in was visible in all of the classrooms and hallways. We found out that the staff has a professional learning meeting every Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 and also meets with their grade group teams twice a week after school for planning, collaborating and reflection. We learned that the staff all uses Evernote to share their transcriptions and documentation, with teachers all having a different colour to comment and reflect within their shared learning documents. Whereas some of our teachers might spend time photocopying or “unit planning”, the Opal teachers seem to invest their time in discussing their students together, thinking about what is at the essence of the stories that are emerging in the classroom and how to negotiate an inquiry-based curriculum that connects to their state standards but builds on the students’ interests, stories and questions. Documentation that makes both thinking and learning visible is an essential part of their process and reveals what has happened so far in the students’ stories and what might come next.

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I truly felt I was in the presence of brilliance.

In terms of a negotiated and inquiry-based curriculum, the teachers referenced Loris Malaguzzi and the notion of the “ball toss” where teachers may toss a ball out to the child/class and in a way provoke or invite engagement but then the child/class tosses the ball back with their own meaning, ideas and questions and so it goes, back and forth. For this game to be successful, so many things need to be in place and we talked a lot about this in our team. Relationships, trust, care, community. And for many teachers, an uncomfortableness may be caused by a letting go that is needed to negotiate and plan alongside and in response to students.

Many of our schools have seen evidence of the power of a common vision when they choose a school goal and all focus on that, using consistent language and working towards a common goal. Examples are many of our schools who use the language of Adrienne Gear’s Reading Power or our schools that our focusing  on mental mathematics strategies. There is power for all involved, teachers and students, to have some consistency and community around the way we talk about thinking and learning together in a school.

How might we choose to live with our required curriculum? The Opal teachers have state standards, Common Core and testing. Here in BC, we have mandated curriculum and learning outcomes but have much autonomy as to how that curriculum is enacted in our classrooms…we can choose to live with our curriculum in a manner that is less restrictive for our students and ourselves and is more connected, purposeful and meaningful.

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As we move towards our redesigned curriculum here in BC, I see this as an opportunity for shared understandings and working together towards some common goals. The competencies, inquiry-based approaches, focus on personalized learning and teaching and learning through big curricular ideas will all need to be a common focus of all our K-12 staffs as we move forward together to support student learning.

In Richmond, our core belief statement is “the focus in on the learner” and I felt many connections to this at Opal School and felt that focus enacted and lived by both teachers and students. The child as learner, the teacher as learner. A focus on learning and making that learning visible. It was a rich professional learning experience to reflect on our own beliefs and principles of teaching and learning. By living in a different context, even for a short time, you are able to hold up a mirror to yourself and reflect on where we are in our own story.

~Janice

*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

3 Responses

  1. Kris Hodgins says:

    I was at Opal School this past week as welland you have done an excellent job of capturing the essence of the powerful learning experience we all held. I am so grateful to the Opal staff and families for opening the door to us to share in their outstanding educational philosophy. I will be sharing this experience with my staff and colleagues for years to come.
    Kris Hodgins
    Edmonton Catholic Schools

    • jnovakowski says:

      Yes Kris, it was a transformative experience for sure! It was so amazing that about half the participants were from Canada!

  2. Matt Karlsen says:

    What a rich learning story you’ve provided, Janice! It’s rewarding to see so many of the core elements we value and work toward reflected in your post. I feel like your last sentence aptly captures what we’re hoping for from Visitation Days: A thoughtful examination of Opal School culture that allows you insight into your school or district.
    It’s exciting to see you on the precipice of some major decisions that will direct the course for learning for so many children and adults in the years to come. We know that we end up valuing what we evaluate. Here’s hoping that you find ways to systematize these elements that we value in ways that serve the Richmond School District and provide a model for others.
    Also hoping that you’ll be back for our April workshop with Matt Glover and our June symposium with Ann Pelo, Steve Davee, and others!
    Warm regards,
    Matt