Planning single subject and integrated units
Martin Scherbeijn
5 min read

Cracking the nut for specialist teachers in the PYP

I’ve worked as a French language teacher in inquiry-based progressive schools for over 10 years, but last year I started working within a PYP context for the first time. I quickly noticed that I often felt “trapped” between the units of inquiry and my own specialist units. Ideally, classroom teachers would develop their units of inquiry together with specialists, but in reality, specialist teachers often adapt to the existing units of inquiry. The tension that exists between specialist classes and PYP units of inquiry is not new, so when I got the opportunity to work on this project with Cindy Blackburn, an experienced PYP teacher and coordinator, I couldn’t possibly say no. We were going to crack the nut.

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Integrating into units

A factor that initially caused some tension for me, was the fact that learning an additional language did not feel like it fully fit within the PYP framework. To me, learning a language is mostly a competency. You will improve your fluency if you have the knowledge (vocabulary, grammatical structures…) and you practice in order for that skill to become automatic. I saw the role for developing knowledge and skills, but what might I teach my students in regard to conceptual understandings – a major focus of the framework? 

In our first discussion, we talked about the Grade 3 units. What were the big understandings they hoped to explore in the unit, and how might French be used as a tool for uncovering these meanings? I naturally found myself drawn to more social studies or social emotional units- usually under the themes How We Express Ourselves, How We Organize Ourselves, and Who We Are. I found that the big ideas in these units often aligned with the mindset we are developing in the French classroom and addressed cultural competencies that are part of the curriculum. For these units, I usually selected one or two lines of inquiry that best highlighted the connection I saw to the unit… and that’s where the fun began!

After recognizing potential connections, I immediately revisited the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). These are the standards I most prefer when teaching a second language. The assessment grid that goes with the framework is my anchor whenever I need to plan a unit or whenever I have a doubt about language learning, teaching, or assessment. I also explored the learning continuums from the PYP language scope and sequence, but didn’t feel they were written with an additional language learner in mind. The learning outcomes seemed very ambitious and, at the same time, they were not specific enough to help me with my planning.

https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=090000168045bb52

The CEFR has an action-oriented approach and the descriptors (divided in listening, reading, spoken interaction, spoken production, and writing) indicate communicative tasks like “I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.” This is very useful, because I can use these descriptors for backwards planning and think about what my students need in order to be able to do that. These “I can” statements make it also more likely that communication skills are part of the classroom and the objective of a lesson, and that we’re not just teaching grammar points and vocabulary without taking the next step to actually communicate. You need knowledge and skills.

For each unit, I went through the same process of backwards planning. I chose a few key standards from the CEFR framework and formed a performance task that would be relevant to our school context. Working backwards from these success criteria, I identified the vocabulary and grammar points students would need to be successful.

Stand alone

So, I connected my transdisciplinary units, but what about my stand-alone units?  After looking thoroughly at the existing POI for grade 3 and several conversations with Cindy, we realized it was not realistic to connect every single additional language unit. It was especially tricky to connect to the science units (like “heat and light”), because, as a foreign language teacher, I want to equip my students with language skills they can immediately use in the real world. This means I prefer to teach them useful SOS phrases or how to introduce themselves, for example, instead of technical vocabulary to talk about tornados. For units where connection did not feel authentic, we opted for stand alones. 

After thinking it through, we realized that there were a few key “understandings” that repeat as students acquire a new language. Rather than writing a new central idea and lines of inquiry for each unit, what if we modeled our backwards planning in the understanding expectations we set for students? It is key for students to understand how to learn an additional language and these stand alone units would help them to become lifelong language learners. The central idea and lines of inquiry we identified were:

Developing confidence and fluency with language enables people to meet their needs in different situations

  • Identifying needs and wants in different settings (perspective): What do we want to be able to do in a certain context?
  • Grammar and language needed to communicate effectively (function): What is the vocabulary we need and which grammatical structures enable us to reach our communicative goal?
  • Applying our knowledge and skills in a real world context (connection): How are we going to automate our knowledge and skills so we can use it in a real-world context?

So will we be doing the same thing all year? No!

The second nut we cracked was using GRASPS tasks. Developed by Jay McTighe GRASPS tasks challenges learners to apply their knowledge and skills towards solving real world problems. For each unit, we identified a GRASPS task that would be likely to address language and skills outlined in the CEFR. We thought that organizing units based around problems would maintain the authenticity of the subject while embracing the spirit of the PYP. Why do we learn languages after all? I believe the primary function of learning a language is to connect with people and solve problems in different settings. By grounding students and ourselves in an authentic setting, we would ensure that teaching the knowledge and skills of the French language would remain connected, contextualized, and transferable.

So did we crack the nut? We created a nice flow for the grade 3 POI, so I think we did (or at the very least caused the nut to open up). Specialist teachers will always have to demonstrate some flexibility working in a PYP context, and this may create some tension, but I think you can make meaningful connections and create an effective transdisciplinary POI if you have a creative and collaborative approach. Good luck cracking your nut!

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Martin Scherbeijn
Martin Scherbeijn
Martin Scherbeijn works at the American School of Antananarivo where he teaches French, Social Studies and TOK. He previously taught in the Netherlands, Vietnam, China, and on the Peace Boat in Japan. Before coming to Madagascar, he worked at the International School of Brussels where he was Head of the MS Language Department. Martin is experienced in coaching and mentoring teachers and is dedicated to student learning, inclusion and well-being.
Disclaimer - The ideas and resources presented in this blog have been developed independently from and are not endorsed by the International Baccalaureate (IB).