Monday, May 28, 2012

The Intermediate Years

The New Zealand government are suggesting some changes to funding and allocation of funds for New Zealand intermediate schools. Having taught in an intermediate for a couple of years, and having 3 children in intermediate as I write, I feel slightly qualified to offer an opinion on the whole picture.

More than 300 technology teachers are under threat of losing their jobs through the proposed restructuring. It seems to be all about funding and distribution of funds, but the reality is, that for our kids who are at intermediate, it is all about wider learning.

I have met many parents and teachers who have never been a big fan of the intermediate years being served out in separate schools. The students seem to be in this frozen state of 'in between' for 2 years - not a primary school student, yet still under that curriculum and wider umbrella, yet also not yet a secondary student and somehow not quite ready for that leap. Yet the alternatives have really seemed a solution either - middle schools for 4 years, full primary school for the whole first 8 years or secondary school for 7 years. Hmmm, what is the other option then?

2 years of intense preparation for the transition from primary into secondary.
2 years of the focus shifting from being driven by the 3 R's and moving the students' thinking into the broader aspects of life.
Tech and spec they call it - and these are exactly the jobs under threat.

Ask any person of any age what they remember about intermediate and their immediate response is: "" and so on. They will recall, without exception, that for many of them/us it was our first (and sometimes most inspiring) experience of something quite new. We were introduced to skills that girls and boys at that age and stage may never have dreamed of undertaking, but undertake it they did, and the enjoyment was real and unforgettable, often channelling students into directions that defined their future in study and employment.

If we lose our tech specialist teachers, then we wipe out much of the reason for intermediate schools. Those years will look and feel no different and no more special than the primary years, and although the primary years are incredibly special, there is something unique and rather wonderful about the intermediate experience. I, for one, will greet those changes with genuine sadness and regret for something that is lost. Why fix what isn't broken?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Skype Sharing

We had a great time chatting and sharing on Skype with our buddy class in Pennsylvania yesterday. My class had prepared something personal to share with their buddies and our buddies had prepared some information about where they live and what it is like being in America. They informed us about their president and their state, giving great detail about famous people from Pennsylvania and what the climate is like. Here are some of the comments quoted from my students about what they learnt:

Pennsylvania has really hot summers and really cold winters - Lucy

They look the same as us but they sound like the TV - Sam

Our buddies like exactly the same things as us! - Kate and Amie (we compared TV programmes and music and they all liked the same!)

I thought they might not know what soccer was, but they do and lots of them play it! - Josh and Moh

They have mountains like us, but they have Mount Rushmore with heads on it from their presidents - Ethan L

I wonder what they eat the same as us - Jason and Terry

They told us about their president and we told them about our prime minister. I think their one is a bit more important and famous than ours - Dylan

We are making movies and slideshows sharing our new learning and also sharing some of the comparisons to life in New Zealand. They were certainly surprised about how many volcanoes we have in Auckland as well as how many beaches. We really enjoyed learning through listening to our buddies and can't wait to find out more!

Teaching the Teacher

As part of my role as one of the eLearning facilitators in our school, I get the privilege of going into colleagues' classrooms and working with them to support their learning. This is not a given as I have to be invited to come into other rooms, yet we never have a shortage of takers! It still amazes me how awesome our staff are at embracing the new and just giving everything a try!

So last week I worked in a Year 3 classroom on blogging and then a Year 4 classroom looking at how to create with iMovie. Two very different skill sets but fantastic learning. This week I spent the day divided across 3 rooms working to create a blogging user agreement in a Year 3 class, learning to write comments and how we do that responsibly, and then in a Year 4 class, where we looked at the basics of iMovie.

We had a wee hiccup when Blogger was down (the server was being worked on clearly!) and we couldn't comment on the blogs live, so with a little improvising we managed to record the comments on a doc instead to save for later use. To make it even more interesting, we managed to have a fire alarm and evacuation in the middle of it all but we came back and finished off our work! It was a shorter session and one that we need to repeat with Blogger online next time I hope!

In the next session, we had the same problem so we changed from blogging skills to using QR codes. The children created a message using up to 250 characters - we used the experience of having the Westpac helicopter come and land in the middle of the field as the basis for the message. Then they embedded the code onto their own student page on the class wiki. It was excellent and they really enjoyed testing their codes using our phones to read each others' messages!

In the afternoon it was iMovie and there were simple instructions and clear steps which the students followed really well. I took one of my own students with with as my texpert (like tech-expert) as she has been a bit sensitive lately and it was a great way to support her while I am away from the class. She was a fabulous helper and gave me another pair of hands and another thinker/problem-solver to share her expertise. It was also great for her self-esteem! The class managed to complete their movies almost to the publishing stage (we kept them very simple) and have saved them for the class to work on again next week. I will give them the challenge of sharing them with my class when they finish them!

What I have discovered about working with other teachers at our school is this: they are so receptive! They love stretching their thinking, challenging their knowledge, building their skills and trying new things. But what I have also discovered is that this is what healthy learning looks like! Lifelong learners SEEK challenges, they DESIRE change and they YEARN for new skills, new thinking, new knowledge. Our staff are a rather fantastic bunch, but I have a feeling that I would find this same kind of attitude in most schools with most teachers. And I think that I would find it in most classrooms with most children.

Learning is a gift. It is one that just keeps on giving and giving if we are prepared to keep unwrapping it!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Authentic Learning Journeys

Today the Westpac Helicopter came to visit our school. There was a lovely moment when I got to watch 800+ jaws dropping as the beautiful sight of the chopper arriving caused true awe to register on every face.

Most of them have seen a helicopter in real life. Most of them have seen this one on TV. But NONE of them have ever stood 20m away from the Westpac as it hovers above their school field and then 'drops in' for a visit!

Our senior school are looking at how we can make a difference in the lives of other New Zealanders in a real, measurable way. One of our staff members was rushed to hospital 2 years ago by this very helicopter and a great team of medical experts who assessed him, kept him calm and delivered him safely to hospital quickly. He, fortunately, made a full recovery and his suspected broken spine turned out to be a major concussion with no further side-effects.

So the senior children have context. Real life in their backyard. They are learning about the costs and complications associated with running a rescue helicopter team. They are learning about the different times that the team have saved lives, when the simple act of waiting an extra half an hour for the ambulance could mean the difference between life and death - and often it has. They are learning about what the word 'charity' LOOKS like - not just what it means by definition, but how it really looks in a real-life context.

They are also working all year to raise funds which can go towards a new winch for the helicopter. They decided that they wanted their fundraising to go towards an object that was essential to the chopper and also something that they could look at and say, "Hey, we raised money to buy that winch!" every time they saw the chopper.

Skype Buddies

Tomorrow we will be hooking up via Skype with our buddies in Pennsylvania, U.S.A to compare and contrast our lives, likes and school-life. From the comparisons of our classrooms through to the sports we play and the interests that we have, we will be interviewing one another to find out what we have in common and what differences there are.

For my class, hearing American accents will probably roll over their heads without them even realising there is anything different. My students spend their lives watching American TV programmes so there is nothing strange about hearing that accent at all. But for the students from Pennsylvania, our cute wee Kiwi accents may prove rather interesting!

The class have prepared some cool questions for their buddies and have included a wee quiz about New Zealand to see if they know of the things about our country that we find important. This is all part of putting learning into real life contexts as well as expanding our world knowledge, pushing out the classroom walls and becoming global citizens.

Some of the questions that they have written are:

  1. What is a Kiwi?
  2. Which country governs New Zealand and who is their royal leader?
  3. How many main islands are there in New Zealand?
  4. What is the population of New Zealand?
  5. Which country is our closest neighbour?

There are some New Zealand flags as well as some mascots to show so I expect there will be a lot of fun and a lot of learning too.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Teaching Evaluation

My GATE group (gifted and talented education) have been working on gaming and coding for the past 4 sessions. Today was our big 'testing' day - the day when they set about to evaluate each others' work and how well they have created.

First, we looked at what evaluation means. They decided that it is best described as looking at something, criticising it - saying what is wrong - saying good things about it - what we like - and then looking at how to improve it.

The group took to the wiki with gusto. There were all sorts of approving (and disapproving) noises as they tested, retested, discussed with their partners, debated with nearby students and so on. There was a lot of talking, a lot of groaning (as the games baffled them here and there!) a bit of laughter, a lot of commenting to neighbours and then eventually, we came back together to discuss our findings.

Overall the feedback and feedforward was outstanding. They were critical without being personal which was something that we had talked about when we first began designing. They had taken into account WHO the games were designed for, so that the girls looked at the boys' games as a game FOR boys to play i.e. it may not appeal to them. Equally, some of the boys needed to consider whether girls would want to play their game, so target audience was a huge factor in design. When evaluating, they were all asked to consider whether the game suited the age/stage of the target audience.

The students were able to consider what could improve each game yet there were clear favourites based on personal likes/dislikes, which provided us with a great discussion about whether we should always try to design for one target group or attempt to cover everyone. It was a highly charged discussion but the consencus seemed to be that we can really only ever aim for ONE large, generic group with game design.

At the end of the session, they decided that next week they would like to do a full online (recorded) evaluation of 3 games each and then compare their opinions for common threads and trends. Then, they are going to vote on favourites!  Watch this space!

Friday, May 11, 2012

New Learning?

You're not going to believe it, but there has been a revelation in teaching. Suddenly, innovators have decided that dancing in the rain with umbrellas is the future of learning. The teachers who started this movement have been researching future learning trends and have discovered that the way of future jobs is with umbrellas. We will all need to get really proficient at dancing, then we will need the best umbrella receptacles possible. Our schools will need to accommodate this new style of learning and it must be integrated into everything that we do. We will need to make sure that every teacher becomes safe when using an umbrella and that they are competent dancers. All of the teachers who are not willing to learn the dance moves or how to safely operate an umbrella will be given training but they will ultimately be responsible for trialling and then using these new learning styles. Schools will have to consider the storage issues and whether BYOU (bring your own umbrella) is going to work for them. They will need to ensure that they can store safely all of the umbrellas, while considering all of the different dancing styles that the children will have.

Ok, so I'm being a bit silly here, but can you imagine? Imagine what it is like to be told that there is a new way, another way, a better way to teach and learn. You learnt to dance with Saturday Night Fever and the BeeGees, while the kids you are teaching are creating their own dances. You HAVE to learn. You suddenly have no choice. You are informed that all of the jobs in the future depend on students being proficient in these dance moves and umbrella twirling, yet you have never done this. This is not your strength, not your skill. And this is not even something that you are interested in. How do you adapt when your old teaching methods have worked just fine before all of these spangly umbrellas arrived in your classroom? And who says that this method works best anyway? You have been churning out perfectly well-rounded students for years without umbrellas.

You know what I am talking about.

Technology, eLearning, BYOD, iPads, laptops, Tablets, phones, digital cameras, interactive whiteboards.

We just get used to one tool and along rolls another. We think we have learnt more than enough, in fact, some is starting to fall out again, when another innovation arrives. It makes some teachers feel old and others feel inept. It makes some feel threatened and others just plain frustrated. Bored because it doesn't interest them. Fed up, because they thought they were doing just fine. Stunned and downright uncomfortable. Agitated, stressed and anxious. And that's just to name a few of the emotions that rip through classrooms and staffrooms when new innovations hit the ground running.

However, I have to admit that I have always considered embracing change and innovation as a part of the personal and professional develop that I thrive and grow with. Years ago, when computers were still a novelty, I was the first one to try things and fail horribly. I am still the one who does this. But I am also the one who can problem-solve their way through most issues online or offline! I do meet plenty of overwhelmed and stressed-out teachers though, for whom eLearning is just another fad and just another stress, or just another way for them to feel inadequate.

So I guess, in summary, what I am trying to say is to tread lightly, go gently. The disco-dancing raincoat-wearers are not keen on twirling umbrellas and dancing in the rain. They need to get used to the change in weather. And they need time to learn to dance again. Because they will...with a bit of drizzle and a few friends to dance with, they really will.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gaming Fun!

Today was part 3 of our GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) coding/gaming session and it was the day of design and test. We started off by discussing what an objective is and the students came up with a great set of ideas -
  1. an aim
  2. a goal
  3. an outcome
  4. a mission
We then talked about what would make someone want to play a game that we created - we discussed audience and purpose, reasons why different people play games and what they expect from a game. The students shared some amazing ideas!

Why do people play games online? (responses from students)
  • entertainment
  • fun
  • the challenge
  • to try something different
  • to get away from 'real life'
The next part of the challenge was to come up with an objective for a game and then get creating! They worked in pairs so that there was collaboration on the game. The students negotiated their ideas and made decisions together. A huge part of the process was to test and then re-plan if their game had issues. They had to test, re-think, re-design, re-test and follow this process over and over again until the game was at a level where someone could achieve their objective but still be challenged.

The students then took a photo of themselves and put it onto our wiki. They added a link to their own page where their ideas were then typed. Then it was time to save and embed their game onto the page. Fortunately I have 3 tech-sperts from my own class who are with me, so they shared the teaching load! 

All in all, a really successful session and plenty for them to work on next time!

Oh, and a HUGE plus was the fact that 8 of the 13 students had been back on in between sessions and have been creating their own games independent of me - yay!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Auckland Art Gallery

It's probably been 8-10 years since I last visited the Auckland Art Gallery. I was vaguely interested a few years ago when there were some painting donated that had recognisable artists attached to them, but then it just slipped my mind.

Today we took 2 classes of 7-9 year olds to explore the gallery. Our focus was on light and colour which is our broad theme for the term. We have our school-wide art exhibition in Term 4 also, so it was a great opportunity to get inspired. The theme for the exhibition is 'Inspiring Artists' so this was the perfect place to go to be inspired!

Boy, have they done a great - no - AWESOME job of revamping the gallery. WOW is the understatement of the decade. From the entrance through to the new sections and off to the old, original and refurbished sections of the gallery, everything has been designed, decorated and deliberately creating to draw your eyes to the glorious assortment of artworks. Our guides were, to be totally honest, outstanding. They were absolutely on the button with their interactions with the kids - sometimes, we know that the education officers can be a little challenged by managing the classes and also gearing their teaching to the right levels. But these educators were fantastic, giving plenty of positive reinforcement along with being firm and strategic with their expectations. They certainly gave a lot of attention to highlighting correct behaviour in the galleries and supporting the children with special learning needs.

The learning centre has been cleverly designed with families and children of all ages in mind. The theme and artist Gazillion Swirl! Te Mahi Toi o Reuben Paterson. The actual session in the learning centre was a fantastic way to start our time in the galleries as it really set the scene for our focus. Everything in the room is geared towards using our sight to explore colour and patterns and the children were totally rapt. The funniest part was when the educator asked if anyone had found anything interactive and one of the boys replied, "Yes, there's a cool X-Box Connect." My boys all nodded enthusiastically, having found and used this already, while the girls looked about in surprise. All of them had failed to see it!

We spent some time looking through the New Zealand section which was outstanding and really captivated the students. There is such a huge range of styles and media so the children had no time to be bored or feel as if they had 'seen it all before'. All in all, it was a trip I would highly recommend to anyone - I can't wait for the weekend to be able to take my own kids!!!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Real Reading?

I was vaguely disturbed when I read this article about 'real reading' and 'real books'. During the 90's in the UK, there was a huge push towards children reading 'real books', to the exclusion of all other ideas behind teaching reading. There was a very 'hit-and-miss' approach to teaching reading - somehow, by osmosis or dumb luck alone, the trolling through of lots of books would create a reader. What followed was, of course, an enormous collapse in the quality of reading teaching, which eventually led to the nationwide need for a scheme of work now known as the Literacy Hour.

Now this whole concept of 'real books' as the only way, was replete with problems. With no system for the intentional teaching of reading strategies, there was a huge group of children who fell through the cracks, never actually becoming competent or confident in reading strategies and skills. There was no teaching of higher order reading skills so the transition of 'learning to read' into 'reading to learn' was one that never happened for many children.

I am the first person to cry out that books must ooze out of every pore of every classroom, REAL books if that is what we must call them. My own class library is filled to bursting point with almost every REAL book I have ever owned, close to 400 of them. (The rest are in my home, on the shelves for my own children.) But, having taught Reading Recovery for several years, I can honestly say that graded texts are the best method for systematically building skills for decoding, self-monitoring, self-correcting etc. independently. Shared texts and REAL books are a great way to access more challenging texts for emerging and early readers. This is why, as parents, we should read to our children every day from the earliest possible age - to nurture a passion for stories and an understanding of language through text.

But I draw the line in the sand when people cry out against graded texts. They have a definite place in the systematic teaching of reading - but they are only PART of a whole language approach to the teaching of reading. The graded texts must be a PART of but not ALL of the teaching, and this is something that the writer of the article fails to acknowledge. The overuse of the Oxford Reading Tree books, who featured Biff and Kipper and terribly repetitive storylines that were droll and fabricated, (books that don't exactly scream "Read me!" to discerning youngsters) has led to this reaction to graded texts.

So I will put it more simply. Graded texts have a definite place. ONE type of reading scheme, standing alone as the ONLY way to teach/learn to read does not have a place in ANY reading programme. So, in this respect, I do agree with the author of this article. However, I stand by my strong opinion that a WHOLE language approach must be the method that is employed. Over the decades, the UK have moved towards phonics-only programmes and then the 'real books' programmes which left behind ill-equipped, frustrated teachers and learners. I would be happy to see them biff out Biff but not the concept behind graded readers. Perhaps I can summarise it by saying that a bit of everything is the best way to taste anything.

Our emerging, early, developing and advanced readers deserve to experience books and texts as the magical and wonderful, inspiring and theatrical, whimsical and realistic, fantastic and comical, mysterious and delightful language conveyors that they are.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Hundred Languages

Do we really tell them (the children) that these things are not connected?

Not in my classroom. We know how to dream, we know that inspiration comes from within, we know that learners are teachers and the best teachers are lifelong learners.

Not in my world. Could I ever disconnect the passion from the learning?

Do we really tell them that they should separate reality from fantasy? How can we kill the love of learning in that way?

Flipped Classroom

I find that in my flipped classroom one of the most powerful tools is the humble iPod. Vastly underestimated and grossly underused by many, this tool has become a true trademark for classroom. My students are now BYOD in about 1/3 of the class, with several iPads brought in daily (up to 3) and around 5-10 iPods regularly.

Now a lot of other teachers seem ecstatic when they hear of the iPads showing up but for me, I love having the iPods! My students thoroughly enjoy creating with photo and video and the iPods allow this to be a simple reality. Yes, I know that the iPad can perform this function too, but the iPod is so simple to use, easy to carry, point and click and then the kids can manipulate their images/film on the computer and turn it into a lesson of its own!

Take maths for example...getting the students to explain their strategy to me is one thing but I can do better than that. Using the iPods, the students film each other explaining and demonstrating their own strategies then share those on the wiki or class youtube account and we have a TEACHING TOOL. One that isn't ME teaching but one where the students teach each other. I believe that this is what a flipped classroom is meant to look like - power to the children! My class just love having control of the learning and are always keen to access each others' videos and watch what they are explaining. They are very positive with one another and the feedback is always awesome.

The iPods also allow them to create images of their day at school and contribute to the class flickr account. They are almost a 'freedom-to-create' tool - one where the kids are able to show life through their own (real) lens! My class really enjoy taking pix of each other in all aspects of their day, making videos and voice recordings regularly to share with global pals too, including guided tours of the classroom and school.

I really do love the humble wee iPod, for all of the magic that it allows my students to create and share!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gaming - too much fun to be educational?

Today was my GATE (gifted and talented) group for gaming and coding. We continued our work on Scratch, writing simple codes to make the sprite move in different ways. The children discussed their learning and their challenges - there was some great feedback about the learning and they decided that their biggest challenges were in following steps rather than trying to solve things without help! Not a bad thing to have as a problem, since these children are exceptional problem-solvers and now it seems they are great at creating their own problems too!

So we moved onto Sploder which is a gaming site where the students create their own simple games, (developing a series of obstacles and rewards) for someone else to play. This was a great session! They collaborated brilliantly, especially considering how tricky it can be to share a computer when there is so much fun to be had! Their challenge was to create and test a simple game which could be played successfully by someone else. We spent 30 minutes creating, 30 minutes testing and evaluating and then set about testing one another's games. Next week it is the challenge of creating a game at different levels and then evaluate and critique someone else's game and give them feedback for improvement/change. 

Thinking skills, collaboration, self-management, problem-solving, communication, evaluation, self-assessment, planning, and more! 

Really, gaming and coding in education? It's just TOO much fun to be educational...yet it is!