Friday, August 31, 2012

Innovative Classrooms

We have spent the past 2 days at the Microsoft Innovative Classrooms conference. It has been a great opportunity to make connections with secondary school teachers and leaders, a chance to listen to what is going on in education through technological advances, the ability to look forward and see what potential there is in innovations of the future.

Several of the comments throughout the 2 days really resonated with me.

"The easiest skills to teach and master are the easiest ones to automate and digitise."

For our pupils, this means that the more complex the skills, the more transferable they are in the future. So how do we make sure we are equipping them with these challenging skills? They have moved from looking at lifetime employment to lifetime employability, meaning that they will need to have mastered a broad set of transferable, flexible skills that can be applied in a range of contexts. What are these skills and how do we measure them or teach them?

And what will the world look like for them? We know that there will be a massive weighting on technology in everyday life but what does that mean for our students today? What has changed the most is the fact that we always considered school to be the hallowed places of learning. Somehow, learning had a home, a location, whereas now we recognise asynchronous learning, which takes place anyplace, anytime in any way. Our learning is not a pathway, nor is it even a destination. Learning is a journey from which we can only say that from life's first cry to final breath, we are always travelling on that learning journey. We, as educators, need to align ourselves with this fact. We cannot simply continue to add to what we are already doing, we must change and revolutionise our teaching and learning programmes. We must transform our practice rather than trying to build on the old model. I believe that primary schools, in large, are already enabling this change and have recognised the paradigm shift which has then directly affected our pedagogical changes.

However, the constraints of exams and results tend to tie the hands of the secondary schools in a rather different way. Primary schools have no set destination - we are able to travel along however we like, with a set of broad key competencies to underpin the curriculum which is open, flexible and designed to be student driven and rich in student engagement. For secondary schools, they can attempt to be 'innovative' but they know perfectly well that they have a set destination. Exams mean that they must get students to a certain place to be considered able to achieve a predestined level which enables them to be university goers and so on.

“Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies- it creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are created through transformation.”- Stephanie Pace Marshall (Founding President and President Emerita of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.)

 We now must look at transforming our secondary schools, so that they are part of the transformation of our students into critical thinkers, problem-solvers and creators, self-reflective, self-managing, collaborative lifelong learners. We need to get rid of the text books and bring back 'real life' authentic learning contexts for our secondary students so that the grounding they have had in primary school is not seen as a totally separated experience from that of high school. What a huge challenge that is for the whole secondary sector! But what I saw over the past two days is hope. There are some awesome, innovative, creative, passionate, fun and life-experience rich teachers who are holding the baton. And they are sharing their knowledge and passion. They are inspiring others to be like them and that gives me great hope for the future that my own children are passing into right now - life at secondary school.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Life WIthout A Student Teacher

So today was the first day in the past 7 weeks that I didn't have my fab student teacher. It seemed weird to have had to do all of the planning for the felt odd to be putting up the timetable myself, loading the tumbles for the week, keeping up with what was happening for the makes you realise how much student teachers can contribute when they are really good!

My class were hilarious. After fielding the 15th question of, "Where is Mrs C?" I wrote on the whiteboard "Mrs C won't be in this week :(" and left it there, thinking that it would appease the class. Not quite. Thereafter followed a full day of being harangued by the class, from each minute to the next. I kept wondering, "Why on earth are they interrupting me while I am group teaching when they have never done that?" What had gone wrong with my training of the class? All of the routines were out of the window and I knew we had reached crisis point when 25 of them were walking in circles, unable, it would seem, to get themselves organised for writing!

What had gone so horribly wrong?

Well, it's probably SOOOO obvious to all of those who read this, but to me, it was a baffling enigma. I was sure that if I simply reminded them (for the 50th time that day) that they needed to C3B4ME or solve it themselves etc. that they would sort it out!

And then came my A-HA moment!

For 7 weeks, the class have had me available to them for 6 hours a day. Even though my awesome student teacher has been doing almost all of the teaching, I have been a permanent presence in the classroom, answering all of their questions, sorting all of their problems, prompting them, supporting those who needed it and more. They have become USED to having 2 teachers and they see me as their 'go to' person since I have been exactly that for the whole term.

So. What a challenge! Now I have to go back to just being their teacher again, unavailable when working with groups. They need to solve things themselves. They need to go back to their independence and their self-management. I have probably done some of them a terrible disservice by being so available for so long because they have come to depend on me! Hopefully it will only take a bit of 'tweaking' to remind them of the expectations and we will be back on track again!

Blame the student teacher I say - she shouldn't have been so darned good!

Friday, August 24, 2012

More Activ-IT on the ActivTable!

Yesterday we fed through as many classes and visits as we could muster so that everyone will hopefully get their hands on the ActivTable at least once while it's here! So there were visits from a year 5 class, a year 6 class, a year 2 class, our year 1 buddy reading class, a year 3 class, our maths class, 2 deputy principals, 3 teachers and plenty of parents!

It's hilarious to watch the differences between uninhibited children and more cautious adults. For adults, there is the risk of appearing foolish, not knowing what to do. We have a culture of success embedded in our brains and we fear new things - we wonder if others will know more than us. We prefer instructions and we also prefer to watch from the perimeter, choosing when we are ready engage.

But kids? Kids just charge at the table. Their hands touch it before their brains have even woken up to a thought such as not knowing what to do or how to do it. They know well how to explore and test, touch and wonder, and they are not inhibited by any types of preconceived expectation. They talk and conspire, collaborate and discuss, clearly able to chuck ideas and thoughts around without any guidance from us! My favourite part of watching everyone on the ActivTable is watching the differences between the adults and the children! In fact, several teachers wanted to explore the table WITHOUT their classes - they wanted to know how to answer questions of 'how do I do...?' rather than say: "I don't know..."

There has been plenty of activity on the table so far but the best thing, for me, has been the watching. I look forward to week two of seeing and hearing what goes on as the table becomes a bit more 'part of the furniture' and wonder what the class will feel like when it goes back to its home again and leaves us!

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Was working in another classroom in the middle block of the day and look what I arrived back to my classroom to find? It looked like an iPad had taken steroids and grown VERY large indeed! After setting 4 children the task of solving how to do ANYTHING on it, I watched from a safe distance and was amazed at how quickly they found how to control things, change activities, sign on, move between places, collaborate and problem-solve. Tomorrow is a new day and there will be more discoveries... Oh, and once the class had left there were a LOT of adults playing music on it, shopping, creating CVC words and much, much more! Plenty of learning there!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Educating Yourself

We often say to our classes that the key to learning lies with self, but do we really take this on board in our own personal learning culture?

I believe that the key to learning lies in how adaptable we are and in our ability to constantly seek new learning - FOR OURSELVES. In reality, our teachers and schools have a complex task of planting the seeds for us, but we have (in the average lifespan) at least another 50+ years of managing our own learning far and away from a classroom or lecture hall.

So how do we do this?

That's the key.

As humans, we already have the ability to continue learning through our jobs and general experiences in life. Travel, problem-solving our way through financial challenges, volunteer work, coaching and so on, are all tools to expand our thinking and all support the expansion of our knowledge.

As teachers and educators, we can do this in a wider range of ways. Attending Educamps and unconferences, or PD through conferences both nationally and internationally are ways to keep our knowledge base growing. Presenting at conferences and sharing our knowledge is another way to sharpen our minds and get us thinking outside the box. Sharing and collaborating through techie brekkies and supporting other staff in modelling lessons or working in team teaching situations are all ways to expand our minds.

As teachers and educators, our learning journey is lived out in front of a fairly captive audience. The best way to model something is to be doing it ourselves, authentically, so let's give it our all!


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

eLearning Together

We had a great morning this morning as I took my class and another class of the same age for an eLearning session. We talked about the purposes for blogging and then brainstormed what we could blog about. Since we had hosted the most fantastic mini-Olympics in the Middle School the day before, the children all agreed that they wanted to write a recount of their experiences.

We looked at the 3 T's of blogging and talked about the 3 T's of collaborating. The three T's of blogging are:

  1. Title - create a name for your writing
  2. Text - add the body of writing
  3. Take a photo - it's a vital skill to teach our students and ensures ownership of the images used
The three T's of collaboration in our class are:
Taking turns

After a short knee-to-knee session to think about answering the 5W's and H of a recount, we set off. The students all logged into and started work. I have to say that with almost 60 children in the classroom, there certainly only looked and sounded like half as many! The students worked diligently, solving problems on the run and talking on-task brilliantly.

The result, other than a great piece of recount writing from each child, is a wonderful example of learning together and how collaboration and teamwork can work in a classroom well. 

This afternoon, as an extension to the theme of learning together, we did a QR code hunt and they had to locate and scan the code, read the question and then locate the answer on the internet. There are some great 'teachable' moments that always come up from this type of activity and there is certainly plenty to learn about how to find the information that you need and how to tailor the searches to find what you specifically want. 

All in all there was plenty of T's going on today and probably the biggest ones war THINKING and TEAMWORK. A TERRIFIC combination!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Boys Learning - Going That Extra Mile

I have a real passion for boys' learning. I think that for me, as a tomboy and not exactly the easiest student at primary school, that perhaps my own learning style matched the way of many boys' learning. Noisy. Always moving. Constantly physical. Typically messy. Yup - that was my school life from 5-18 years old. And yup - that's how I see so many boys as they learn. They are like a volcano, constantly boiling beneath the surface, desperate to explode into action, but often smothered by the constraints of the class programme.

I have group of awesome boys in my class, but I also have a small group who would have been called 'underachievers' at the beginning of the year. Boys that you know have the knowledge, but they really struggle to still their bodies and minds for long enough to let it out! They are the sort of lads who really live for their 3 favorite times of the day - morning tea, lunchtime and any opportunity for sport, P.E, cross country practice or Jump Jam! They have a ball at their feet from the moment they arrive at school and use every opportunity to be moving.

Three of them became my target group for writing early in the year, and a friend who is a teacher came in 1-2 times a week for about 6 weeks to give them all a boost in their writing. She worked on brainstorming and then organising their ideas. This was a great programme, tailored directly to each of their needs and giving them 1:1 support - unusual when they are not children with specific learning needs but needing, rather, a boost. It worked a treat and by the end of the time, they had all made tremendous gains and were suddenly among the most confident writers in the class. A far cry from the reluctant writers that they started off as.

You may ask what made the difference? I think it was more the fact that they didn't believe in the themselves. Oh, they have egos on the sports field, but each of them seemed to think that being great readers or writers was just for other students and not them. Their attitudes have changed and their faith and confidence in what they know and what they can do.

Today, they wrote a factual report about our gold medal rowers. They planned and brainstormed. They co-constructed the success criteria with me and set off to create a catchy opening paragraph which they all achieved. They then organised each new idea into a paragraph, adding lots of important details and completed the writing with a closing statement that encapsulated what their report was saying. Impressive. Then they shared their work enthusiastically with our deputy head when she visited the room and they proudly read their work to her, explaining in details what they had done and why. They self assessed and reflected on what they had done. Who could ask for more?

They are know affectionately by me as the Fab 4. And that's truly what they are. Long may their love and passion for learning last!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

More Olympic Life Lessons

Poor Australia. They seem to be having a small national meltdown over the medal tally at the moment. There is so much talk among the media about their athletes "underachieving" and a lot of the athletes have had absolute meltdowns over silver or bronze medals. Contrast this to small countries like New Zealand or Grenada, who celebrate wildly when their athletes make it to the finals let alone a medal! 

I think it's a wonderful thing to strive for excellence and to aim for gold, but the lovely parts of the Olympics are seeing the joy on the faces of those who achieve a personal best or break a national record, yet don't make the medal table. Or seeing genuine happiness for ANOTHER competitor who wins gold and the sportsmanship and camaraderie that is obvious among competitors. Our New Zealand swimmer who wept uncontrollably when she came fourth - tears of sheer joy that she had beaten her best time! 

The Olympics are meant to encapsulate the values of our countries such as those that underpin the Olympic values. But they are also meant to be about national pride and achievement - with a bit of perspective and balance thrown in for good measure! 

Perhaps Australia needs to re-examine what healthy competition looks like in schools rather than teaching that "nothing less than gold is good enough" (which it sounds like John Coates - the Australian Olympic  boss wants.) He decided that the blame for the low-medal tally rests solely on schools for not providing enough sport for students. It reminds me of when Carl Lewis fired his coach, who dared to congratulate him for winning silver. His quote has bounced around for years, "Why would I want a SILVER medal? It just means that I am the fastest loser."

Our kids need to learn to be gracious in victory OR defeat. Perhaps that's the bigger lesson.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Teaching Kids How To Blog

There are some simple tips to making blogging an integral part of the classroom programme. Start off by practicing yourself - make sure that you know exactly how to login and post blogs yourself before trying to get your students to attempt it! Here are a few ideas for getting started:

  1. Choose the platform you are using carefully - make sure that the platform for your blog is (a) simple enough for the students; (b) interesting enough to keep them interested and (c) easy for you to manage as the administrator
  2. Explicitly teach HOW to blog - this is pretty simple: we call it the 3 T's in my class. Title, text and take a photo. The reason we have the third T is that with the whole  creative commons issues, it's vital that our students know how to take a quality photo of their own and upload it to their posts. This means that they will never have any comeback with the images that they use.
  3. Explicitly teach HOW to comment - just as we as educators have learned the value of feedback and HOW to give rich, reflective commentary to learning in our classrooms, so we need to teach our students the value of their voice. Look at 2 positives and one question: I tell my students to make a comment about something they read that they find interesting or can connect to, and one comment about something else, then they ask a question. This automatically invites a rapport between reader and writer, something that creates a connection, which is a powerful vehicle for learning.
  4. Give the blogs an authentic purpose - a blog is not just there to be a blog. The blog needs a purpose, one which is real and rich in its content. Do you want the students to blog as part of their personal reflections? Do you want the blog to be a forum for writing? Do you want the blog to be a class record of their learning over each week? Is the blog for a short time, such as a blog used during the Olympics? Decide the purpose together, collaboratively, and then decide on how it will be organised, managed and who is responsible for what.
  5. Create a blog agreement - just like a class treaty, we have a class blogging agreement which we brainstormed together at the start of the year. When we are blogging, there are occasions when we have to come back to it and look at the agreements we made about being responsible bloggers. When kids sign their names to something like this, it means that accountability is pretty simple!
  6. Make it a part of your plan - when you start blogging, make it a part of the fabric of your class programme. Wrap it into everything that you do. Use the language of blogging as often as you can. Find your tech-sperts as soon as you can and hand the power to them. The students will learn more from each other and from just doing it than they will from a series of lessons.
  7. Give them a voice - get your blog out there on twitter or Facebook and get people commenting! Join a quadblog and get traffic through on the blog so that the students get the feeling of an authentic audience.
Once you start, you will never look back. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Classroom Posters?

A colleague and I were discussing the value in having printed off poster prompts around the classroom. We were both baffled as to how some classrooms are absolutely dripping in children's language and others are covered in immaculately produced and laminated posters.

What is the value in putting up laminated prompt posters?

There are a few things to consider - is the poster NEW information or prompts that acts as visual reminders for recent learning, in other words, maintenance charts? For example, if your class have been learning about blogging and you have a chart/poster up about what to remember when writing a blogpost or a list of ideas for blogposts, then this is directly related to their learning.

However, I would suggest that there is an even better way. What about using anchor charts instead?

An anchor chart is a poster/chart of information which has been co-constructed with students and contain information directly related to their learning, in other words, something that is PART of the authentic learning journey rather than something copied from the internet or downloaded from someone else.

I know we are always looking for the most bright, vibrant, well-created resources to put on our walls but perhaps we need to consider MORE than just the aesthetics of our classroom - if it's about CONTRIBUTING and PARTICIPATING then we really have to make sure that this is what's happening. Perhaps we should start by creating with our students first and foremost and THEN look for resources to display information which backs that up last.

Student voice is strong in a classroom where contribution and participation are rich and authentic. Perhaps this, then, is one way that we can be sure that voice is heard.