Executive Committee
The Advocate
Meeting Minutes

Primary Years Programme

Mary Kay Howard, PYP Coordinator at TJ, and Carol Monsess, PYP Coordinator at Mount Daniel, have offered to answer questions each month in the Advocate about PYP, the programme of learning that has been adopted by Mount Daniel and TJ. Below are those questions and answers.

What is the Primary Years Programme (PYP)?

The PYP is one of three programs offered by the International Baccalaureate, a nonprofit foundation committed to high-quality international education. Designed for students aged three to twelve, the PYP program seeks to develop internationally-minded learners who help to build a better world. It is an inclusive program that creates a profile for learning by outlining a series of desired traits. Emphasis is placed on development of the whole child, using best research and practice from a range of national school systems. Six transdiciplinary themes provide the framework for explorations and study. Teachers are guided by these themes as they work collaboratively to design curriculum that is engaging and relevant. Within the program, teachers enable students to make connections and use an inquiry approach to structure learning experiences. With responsible action being an expectation of the program, this process results in student-initiated efforts to extend learning or to help others. More information about the Primary Years Programme can be found at: http://www.ibo.org/pyp/

Why did Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson Elementary Schools decide to adopt the PYP?

Three years ago, Principals Kathy Halayko and Trudy Taylor attended an introductory workshop sponsored by the IB Primary Years Programme. Initially attracted by the inquiry approach to learning, they went on to provide leadership in further exploring the program. Since then, administrators and staff have visited PYP schools, attended information and training sessions, formed a PYP Committee, and shared thoughts and experiences with their colleagues. In exploring the feasibility of adopting the program, many factors were considered. It was discovered that both schools have much in common with the PYP mission and philosophy. They value inquiry-based instruction, collaboration, and the traits outlined in the IB Learner Profile. They have a solid curriculum and outstanding teachers. Last, but not least, members of both schools strive to constantly improve and remain life-long learners. Consequently, the consensus was reached that adopting the PYP would be a worthwhile endeavor, serving to enhance the strong programs that are already in place at Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson Elementary.

What is the time frame and process for the Primary Years Programme? What will happen this year?

Both Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson have sent in the initial application that informs IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) that we intend to become PYP (Primary Years Programme) schools. During this initial year, we are all continuing to learn about PYP.

Teachers have been learning by reading Making the PYP Happen, a publication from IBO. One area of focus is learning more about the Learner Profile traits: Open-minded, Thinker, Communicator, Inquirer, Caring, Reflective, Risk-Taker, Balanced, Knowledgeable, and Principled. At Mount Daniel, teachers are working collaboratively with the coordinator to choose books for each of these traits on the learner profile. Mount Daniel will be using these books to introduce the learner profile traits to each new group of students entering school. At Thomas Jefferson, the traits were exemplified in an assembly using children's literature and book characters. Their staff is considering a Thomas Jefferson Award for students seen portraying these characteristics in their day-to-day learning.

Inquiry is also essential to the Primary Years Programme. Another area of focus will be "inquiry based learning." The staff at Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson will begin to read and discuss John Barell's book, Why Are School Buses Always Yellow? This book will help us understand more about how to develop inquiry based learning.

We are also in the process of looking at our current curriculum and finding the essential ideas that tie the concepts together. We have been looking at POI (Program of Inquiry) documents from other schools and examining the central ideas. We will be developing six central ideas -- one for each of our six transdisciplinary themes: Who We Are, Where We Are in Time and Place, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves, Sharing the Planet. These themes will later translate into six units that will last 4 to 6 weeks each. This process takes time, effort, and collaboration. The discussions and reflection about curriculum are enriching in many ways. Teachers taking additional time to discuss curriculum, share ideas, and reflect on what they are teaching is enhancing what we are already doing.

When all of the teams at both schools have their central ideas for the six transdisciplinary themes, we will look at them to make sure that there is no overlap and that we have covered all of the SOLs (Standards of Learning) for Virginia schools.

By the end of the school year, we anticipate that we will be beginning to work on the PYP planners for the six transdisciplinary themes.

What is inquiry-based instruction and how is it related to the Primary Years Programme?

Inquiry-based instruction is a teaching technique that challenges students to observe, think, and question. This instructional approach advocates the development of a carefully structured classroom environment where students are taught how to pose their own thoughtful and significant questions about content they are working on. These questions are then used to generate learning within the school's curriculum. This teacher-guided and student-centered approach is based on research that directly links student learning to the quality and quantity of student involvement in the educational program.

Using this method, teachers draw on the previous knowledge and experiences of their students to design lessons that invite wonder and inquiry. They provide background information and actively teach students to formulate meaningful inquiries. Teachers hold their students accountable by defining outcomes and expectations for these inquiries. They model and provide a framework as they guide students to conduct authentic investigations.

As a result of developing their own questions, learning becomes more meaningful and interesting for students. They develop a sense of ownership and control. Investigating the answers to their questions, students learn problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as content. They build self-directed learning skills and gradually develop the ability to transfer concepts to new questions.

Inquiry-based instruction can be viewed as complimenting traditional instruction in the sense that it extends and applies student learning. While not all schools that emphasize inquiry-based instruction are members of the International Baccalaureate Organization, this approach to learning is at the heart of the Primary Years Programme. Seeking to develop internationally minded thinkers for the twenty-first century, the PYP views inquiry-based instruction as an essential tool in teaching students how to learn.

How is inquiry-based instruction being implemented at Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson Elementary?

To further understanding and increased practice of inquiry-based instruction, both schools are currently engaged in professional development activities. Staff members are reading and discussing Why Are School Buses Always Yellow? (2007), written by inquiry expert John Barell. This collaborative experience is providing our teachers with a framework for introducing inquiry into their classrooms in an incremental and systematic manner. Teachers are also addressing ways of using the inquiry process to teach mandated content, while making learning a meaningful and lasting experience for students. Working together to apply the techniques suggested by Barell, teachers are further developing their own sense of inquiry. Parents will have the opportunity to share in this WONDERful learning experience when John Barell comes to Falls Church City Schools on the evening of January 29th. Be sure to save the date!

Visiting Author, John Barell, presents to the Elementary Staff and Parents

The Falls Church teachers and parents had an amazing opportunity to hear John Barell, the author of many books on inquiry-based learning, including Why Are School Buses Always Yellow? All the elementary teachers have been reading and discussing this book while the administrators are reading another of his books, Developing More Curious Minds, which they will discuss in February.

On Thursday evening Jan. 29th, Dr. Barell spoke to a group of parents, teachers and administrators. He talked about inquiry and its importance in our children's education. Inquiry involves teaching children to ask good questions. Developing children's desires to find the why in information and how to find answers are important learning tools.

Early Friday morning, John Barell met with a large group of teachers at TJ. During the group presentation he spoke about how we get children to be inquirers. Later in the morning he met with each team helping them with ideas for the first unit planner they will be writing this winter. What a wonderful opportunity it was getting ideas from such an expert as we begin writing our planners. Each school had sent questions about inquiry to John Barell along with the essential concepts and details of the unit planners that he would be helping to write. Dr. Barell helped us process ways of getting started with inquiry.

After a quick lunch, he came to Mount Daniel. Just as at TJ, he met with the whole group and then with each team to help them plan the first unit they will be writing during February and March. Coincidentally all of the teams at Mount Daniel are writing on the planner, Sharing the Planet. After finishing the planners, the teams will be teaching their unit, reflecting on it and suggesting improvements.

It was an amazing opportunity to hear discussions of how students develop 21st century skills, and that their curiosity leads them to problem solving and higher order thinking skills.

What elements are emphasized in the written curriculum of a PYP school and how do these elements relate to Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson?

In identifying a framework of what's worth knowing for international primary education, the written curriculum of a PYP school has a common structure that serves to unify students in all cultures. It represents a balance between acquiring knowledge and skills, developing concepts, demonstrating positive attitudes, and taking responsible action. The five essential elements found throughout the entire PYP curriculum model include: knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes, and action.

Knowledge is the significant content that we wish the students to explore and know about, taking into account their prior experience and understanding. In the written curriculum of PYP schools, knowledge is organized around six different themes that extend across the boundaries of traditional subjects. Since students at Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson have specific Standards of Learning that must be addressed, our teachers have been collaborating to integrate the Standards with the PYP themes. In doing so, teachers have been finding ways to extend knowledge so that it represents shared human experiences for our students.

Concepts are powerful ideas that relate to subject areas, but also transcend them. Students explore and re-explore concepts in order to develop an in-depth understanding. In the PYP, there is a commitment to a concept-driven curriculum as a means of supporting inquiry. This school year, professional development in the area of inquiry-based instruction is supporting our teachers with this element.

Skills are those abilities that our students need to succeed in a changing, challenging world. Skills emphasized in the PYP written curriculum reflect the importance placed on developing the whole child. They include: social skills, communication skills, thinking skills, research skills and self-management skills. The school culture of both Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson has been one that traditionally fosters these skills and will continue to do so.

Attitudes are expressions of fundamental values, beliefs, and feelings about learning, the environment and people. Because they impact on the learning environment, the development of positive attitudes is considered to be an essential element of the PYP written curriculum. Our schools recognize the importance of these attitudes and have consistently promoted them.

Action is considered to be the practice of knowledge, concepts, skills, and attitudes. It includes demonstrations of deeper learning in responsible behavior. Action can involve service in the widest sense of the word. It begins at the most immediate and basic level: with the self; within the family; within the classroom, the hallways, and the playground. Evidence of action throughout Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson abounds. Further linking action and the curriculum is a benefit that comes from implementation of the PYP written curriculum.

Specialists' Contributions

Classroom teachers have been meeting weekly, looking at their curriculum and planning for the new transdisciplinary units they will be teaching. They are in the process of adding to and enhancing the curriculum. They have been enjoying this collaborative experience. While this has been happening, we have also met with specialists. They too have been reading and learning about the Primary Years Programme.

The question has come up: What contributions to PYP will the specialists be making?

At Mount Daniel the classroom teachers and specialists are introducing the learner profile to the students. The learner profile includes these traits:

Balanced Open-minded
Caring Principled
Communicator Reflective
Inquirer Risk-Taker
Knowledgeable Thinker

The classroom teachers are reading a book that relates to each learner profile as well as doing activities and having discussions. The specialist teachers are reinforcing each learner profile in their lessons. Students are seeing the Learner Profile signs in all parts of the building and often comment on them. One kindergartner went to a specials teacher and noticed the sign that said Communicator and said, "That says communicator. I know what that means. I am a communicator when I share my ideas." Needless to say the teacher was impressed that the student recognized the word and knew what it meant.

This common language has been very positive. Students realize that being Balanced or Open-minded is important in PE, Music, Art, Library, Reading, Math Recovery, Speech, Recess, OT and the Outdoor Classroom. It is a total school effort. Specialists are letting the teachers know when they "catch" the students exhibiting one of the learner profiles traits.

In meeting with Specialists, we talked about their contribution to each team's planners (units). Specialists will be informed about the current unit of study (a 4-6 week period). They will each be asked how they might contribute to this unit. For example, let's consider a unit under the heading, Sharing the Planet. One team's concept is: Our choices about natural resources affect the environment. In P.E. the teacher might lead a recycling game; in Art the children may make a work of art using recycled materials; in Music the children could be taught a song about recycling or reuse items to construct their own instruments; the Library may contribute a display of books on recycling; in the outdoor classroom the children may be composting and checking on decomposition over time. All these activities would be recorded and added to the planners as extension activities. This makes the unit even richer and more transdisciplinary (across the many different subjects).

The specialists have been eager to help each team and are coming up with ideas to support the curriculum. In addition to this they too are using more inquiry in their lessons, asking the students questions to encourage thinking and wondering, as well as reinforcing the traits of the learner profile. Mr. Garrison shared a game he plays with the Mount Daniel students. In the game the students try to move a scooter with a bowling pin on top of it across the gym floor without knocking the bowling pin down. They may not touch the bowling pin. If the bowling pin falls over they go to the starting line again. The students are encouraged to keep trying to solve the problem in different ways. During the game they stop and have students share what is working for them. Inquiry is everywhere and we are all learning from each other.

As the end of the school year approaches, do teachers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary have tales of the PYP that they'd like to share?

When asked to share tales of their classroom experiences with the PYP this school year, TJ teachers stepped right up to the plate. They eagerly told stories that reflected the view that both students and teachers "are looking at things differently." This article will provide a brief review of their narratives.

First and foremost, teachers recount tales of students' looking within themselves as they strive to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective. Students can be heard using the language of the IB Learner Profile and demonstrating these traits as they progress throughout the day. Integrating the Learner Profile into their program, specialists consistently note actions in students that serve to make TJ a better place. Staff members have been known to acknowledge these traits in each other as well.

Motivated by inquiry-based instruction expert John Barell, some teachers have added a new look to the learning environments they create. Wonder walls, where students post questions, can be found in various classrooms. Tables that display artifacts invite students to explore American Indians, adaptations, and energy use. Teachers report that students have generally become more inquisitive and engaged in exploration, both inside the walls of the classrooms and outside on our campus.

Tales of the PYP include the way teachers and students are looking differently at learning. After covering ancient Greece and Rome, third grade teachers introduced the ancient civilization of Mali with an inquiry-based approach that proved to be an exciting learning experience for those involved. As students explored answers to their own questions, they expressed pride in their accomplishments and felt responsible for their learning. Students also enjoyed the experience of gaining new information from each other as a result of listening and sharing. The final assessment of a particular teacher included a very creative differentiated assignment. The poems, music, stories, and plays generated by her students clearly reflect a deep understanding of the material presented.

Teachers and students are also looking differently at questions. They are asking more open-ended questions and allowing time for thoughtful responses. Fourth grade students will be exploring the topic of energy use in this way, along with hands-on experiences that all fourth grade teachers have planned collaboratively. A third grade teacher has her students write in wonder journals to promote curiosity and thoughtful reflection. As a response to "What do you think?" second grade students in one particular class have been comparing and contrasting different characters in literature, analyzing and making connections. Teachers feel that students are developing higher level thinking skills that will serve them well in grades to come.

So ends Tales of the PYP at TJ for now. However, the narrative will be continued in the future, as we all look at learning in a new light.

Primary Years Programme: The Mount Daniel Tale

Children exhibit curiosity everywhere at Mount Daniel. Here are some questions that were heard in the classrooms. ... Where does the salt in the ocean come from? Where did those tadpoles come from? What will they become? When will the chicks hatch? How do chicks hatch? Where does the farmer get the food to feed the animals? What happened to the chicks that did not hatch? Why can't we take them home? These may be questions you too have wondered about. They are wonderful questions for our youngest learners. As Ellen Parr once said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."

Teachers are asking questions too. Often the questions are designed to help students become inquirers and begin to discover how to find answers to their questions. When students are curious and are empowered to answer their own questions, learning never stops.

One teacher gave the students strips of paper and told them they were going to make something, but they were not going to put it together with glue or staples. She asked them how they might put it together. The students thought about what might hold the paper together. They had many guesses until one child suggested weaving, which was exactly the project.

Students are writing in journals, reflecting on the learner profile words, recording data they have collected, and recording observations of chicks, tadpoles and butterflies.

Learning another language is important to the Primary Years Programme. This year we have noticed some amazing progress among the students. It is our third year of Spanish instruction and we are finding that some of the first graders are attempting to write both Spanish words and sentences! This is quite a huge step in language development as well as a demonstration that our students are risk-takers. Señora Triana is so pleased with their progress.

What Walt Disney said of Disneyland (the most imaginative place in the world) could also be said of Mount Daniel school: "Around here ... we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we're curious ... and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."


Falls Church, Virginia

Last updated:
June 19, 2009