Author Archives: Russel Tarr

“Mission Statement Morning”: Organising a whole-school, off-timetable event.

Developing a true sense of community is a crucial yet challenging task for an international school. The wide mix of cultures, nationalities and religions, combined with a relatively swift turnover of students, makes it difficult yet essential to find a unifying set of values and objectives which helps students feel secure and respected.

Here at the International School of Toulouse, we gave serious thought about the best way to produce a school Mission Statement that the whole community – students, staff and parents alike – could formulate and therefore support. We were also keen to integrate this as far as possible with the IB Learner Profile to ensure that this too became an inspiring driver for school development rather than just a document in a handbook.

Our decision was to take the entire school off-timetable for half a day. During this time we engaged in a series of stimulating activities to get everyone thinking about the sort of school we are and want to be. We also used our Live Twitter Image Feed to share photographs of the work as it evolved. The result was a wealth of ideas and an initial mission statement that has given us an exciting sense of focus and direction for the new school year. The structure of the event is easily adaptable for other schools and we would strongly recommend that other schools try it out for themselves.

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We began the day with a short school assembly that outlined the importance of framing a mission statement and provided an overview of the main steps to be taken. The first of these steps involved tutor groups meeting in their form classrooms for forty minutes with a teacher acting as the chairperson. For fifteen minutes, students brainstormed the question “What are the essential features of an excellent school?”. They did this silently as individuals, and then discussed ideas in small groups, before the teacher started listing ideas on the board. We found it particularly useful to encourage older students especially to think in terms of both objectives and methods by phrasing these ideas in the form “A good school aims to [do X] by [doing Y]”. For a further ten minutes, the class was given the challenging of reducing these ideas down to a ‘wish list’ of just nine points. We helped students do this by asking questions like “Are some of these ideas repeated on the board?” (in which case, we wiped one of them off and rephrased the remaining one as needed) and “can some of these ideas be categorised under a bigger heading?”. Finally, each student was given a copy of a “Diamond 9” template on A4 paper and arranged the nine ideas now agreed upon from the most important (at the top) to the least important (at the bottom).

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The second stage of the event, lasting for one hour, involved turning these ideas into an actual mission statement. Students moved to different classrooms, taking their completed sheet of prioritised ideas with them. Rather than form groups, these new classes consisted of students of different ages that had been decided in advance and announced during the morning assembly. At this stage too, the teachers sat to one side of the rooms and a prefect chaired the discussion. In small groups, students started by comparing their diamond 9 diagrams to identify the most popular ideas that were starting to appear across the school. The prefect then asked each group in turn to contribute what appeared to be a popular idea until a list was built up on the board. This process lasted about fifteen minutes, after which the prefect provided each group with some examples of mission statements from other schools and the IBO Learner Profile. This led to a fresh round of discussion as we considered whether these materials anticipated our own ideas, or whether there were fresh ideas in these that we wanted to include. At this stage too, prefects invited ideas about what fresh elements we should add to the IBO Learner Profile, since this is something encouraged by the IBO itself. Finally, in the remaining twenty minutes each group in the room framed their own mission statement on a piece of A3 paper in jumbo pen based on their ideas, and then stuck these up on the outside of their classroom door to share with the rest of the school.

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The final stage of the event, which took place after break time, enabled the whole school to share their ideas and vote on the most popular mission statement that had been produced. For twenty minutes, each group of students was guided around the school by their prefect and teacher to read the different mission statements and decide upon their favourite. At the end of this allocated time, students worked individually to choose their favourite mission statement and stand next to it. Prefects added up the votes for each statement and handed these to the teachers in charge. We then ended, as we started, with a short school assembly in which the prefects shared some of the suggested additions to our own version of the IB Learner Profile (ideas such as ‘hard-working’ and ‘creative’ were particularly popular). The mission statement from the group that gained the most votes was announced and then read out by one of its younger authors. This was also a chance for the school to give a round of applause to the prefects and teachers for their help in co-ordinating the event.

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The end result of this highly structured but stimulating event was that the first draft of our new mission statement has quite rightly been formulated not by senior managers working in committees, but rather by the students themselves. The next phase of the process, which will provide the focal point for the next 12 months of school development, will see the student council working alongside parents and teachers to develop a final draft of the mission statement and consider how it should be expressed in the everyday life of our school community.

Overall, the “Mission Statement Morning” was straightforward to organize, provided a refreshing change to the normal structure of the school day and produced some excellent ideas and insights. I’d strongly recommend other schools to give it a try and to contact us here at the International School of Toulouse (ist@intst.net) if you need any further guidance.

Links

A picture gallery of the Mission Statement Morning at the IST, June 2014

Handout: Instructions for teachers

Using Hexagon Learning for categorisation, linkage and prioritisation

Hexagon Learning Case Study: The Rise of Stalin

The ability to select, prioritise, categorise and link evidence is a valuable skill that students learn in History. It is also highly transferable to other subjects.

Using hexagons is a particularly simple and effective way of developing these skills, as the following case study seeks to demonstrate.

Historical Context

How Stalin was able to emerge as leader of the USSR against apparently overwhelming odds is one of the most intriguing questions which we study at IB Level. In the years that following the Bolshevik Revolution, due to a series of blunders and miscalculations, Stalin had lost the support of the party leadership: so much so that on his deathbed, Lenin dictated a formal ‘Testament’ describing Stalin as a liability who needed to be removed from his post. He was also hated by Lenin’s closest ally, Leon Trotsky, who was widely expected to step into the leadership position after Lenin’s death. Yet just five years later Stalin was undisputed leader of the USSR and Trotsky was in exile.

The story of how Stalin transformed his fortunes so dramatically is a great story revolving around Stalin’s treachery, cunning and downright charm. But the danger of this is that the essays that are then written become mere narrative, storybook accounts which do little more than provide a step-by-step account of the main events between 1924-1929.

The Hexagon Approach

After a study of the events culminating in Stalin emerging as leader of the party, I made a list of factors which could be used to explain why Stalin became dictator of the USSR. I then put these into my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator to create two single-page documents containing a total of 40 hexagons.

Stage 1: Selection and Categorisation

The class was divided into pairs for the activity. Each pair of students was given a copy of the first sheet of hexagons, which they cut up and started to organise on their desks into categories of their choice. This process, involving the categorisation of 25 hexagons, took about 20 minutes. Students were encouraged to come up with no more than five categories overall. They could also choose to leave some of the hexagons to one side if they were considered less important than the others.

We then spent five minutes comparing the different categories that students had identified. Each pair of students took turns to suggest one idea for a category heading until all the ideas had been shared.

Following this, I gave each students a blank sheet of hexagons. The challenge was to identify other factors which could help to explain Stalin’s rise to power and write these directly into the hexagons. After five minutes, each pair of students took it in turns to suggest an idea. If this was a valid (and fresh) idea, then the other students copied it into their pair’s version of the sheet, and the students who shared the idea were each given a sweet (we had a bag of these left over as a result of our ‘Rise of Stalin through sweet-eating’ lesson which had preceded this lesson!). This process was repeated until the students had run out of ideas.

Each pair of students then cut up this new sheet of factors and used them to develop their existing diagrams. In some instances this involved merely adding fresh evidence into existing categories. Sometimes though it involved adding new categories, or amending earlier categories.

Finally, each pair of students was given the second sheet of hexagons and the process of categorisation continued.

Stage 2: Linkage and Prioritisation

By this stage, the students had decided upon the main factors to explain Stalin’s rise to power, organised into key categories. Each of these categories could form the basis of a paragraph in an essay. However, it was still necessary to decide two things.

Firstly, students would need to decide in which order to deal with the points in each paragraph. It would not be enough to simply introduce the category title, then randomly write about each piece of evidence from the hexagons in that group. This is where the hexagons are particularly useful. The six sides mean that factors can be placed alongside each other in various combinations to highlight connections between batches of factors within categories. After students rearranged their factors in this way, they stuck them down onto sugar paper with a glue stick. They could then write the title of each category over each batch of hexagons, and annotate around each group of hexagons to explain why they were arranged in that particulary way.

Secondly, students had to decide how to connect their main categories together to create an overall thread of argument. They did this by drawing arrows between the factors and explaining their connections over them. For example:

“Economic problems in the country > created > Divisions in the party > exploited by > Stalin’s Cunning”

Stage 3: Essay preparation

The final part of the process was to use the completed diagrams as an essay plan. I photographed each of the diagrams and shared them with the students. Their task was to use the diagrams as the basis of their essay on “Why did Stalin become leader of the USSR?”. Each paragraph was to focus on separate categories of hexagons, and the points made in each paragraph should have some logical order and ‘flow’. Moreover, the order of the paragraphs should be dictated by the arrows linking the categories, with the opening sentence of each paragraph after the first one being based on the explanation over each arrow.

Reflections and Conclusions

The ‘Hexagon Approach’ worked very well. It steered students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helped them frame categories of analyis, build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provided them with the opporunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors – contributed either by the teacher or the students – which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick. And, ideally, a bag of sweets!