Weekly Reflection: a camping we will go

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A view of our camp.

Camp.

The very word sends shivers down my spine.

I am very much a city mouse. New Zealand’s geographic diversity and remoteness meant that international trips were for all but a lucky few – I never went on as a student or a teacher.

That’s not to say I was at all disadvantaged. My father thought, quite rightly in my humble opinion, that you should know your own country first before you go wandering the planet. I still had varied experiences. My friends and I still talk about the year we ended up wandering through a flooded valley with our packs up over heads 20 years after the event!

I also had the pleasure of watching my students forming those same memories 2 years ago.

In terms of growth and pushing boundaries camp really does stretch teachers and students to the limit both physically and mentally.

Yet being in an international school changes your context. Singapore’s small size meant that my pod of classes would be travelling internationally for their camp in our case to Palau Bintan. Which throughs up an initial set of obstacles for camp: – ensuring kids had valid passports and visas if required!

The kids are a few years younger. The children I teach are 2-3 years younger than my previous students. Many of them have never spent the night away from their family. A lot of them had never been to a developing country before.

I had certainly never accompanied a group of kids travelling internationally much less to a developing country.

We were in for an interesting 3 days.

Which might not seem like much to those in the outside world. But those of you have been to camp will know that 3 days at camp is like a week and a half. Time seems to slow down when you are on camp.

The actual process of getting kids through passport control and to the venue turned out to be the easy part.

It’s the stuff in between.

The Stress that you are on duty 24 hours a day. If there is a problem at 2 in the morning, you will be dealing with it. Making sure the kids are at the right place at the right time with the right gear. Dealing with motion sickness, heat and humidity takes on your own body and then worrying about the kids around you.

Or course the downsides are outweighed by the benefits.

The new friendships formed.

The quiet and reserved student scrambling up the high wires like spiderman.

The students who self-managed putting on sunscreen, bringing their hats and water bottles.

The tired kids pushing each other to get to the end of a demanding trek.

Watching the kids enjoying exploring rock pools for new life.

The often disengaged student at school proclaiming he loved the hard work of the community project.

The child scared of missing home before we went gleefully telling me he was having THE BEST TIME EVER.

The quick thinking guide telling us the snake on the side of our path was dead and waiting until we got on the bus back before telling me it was actually alive (I’m terrified of snakes!)

And the best part?

How happy the parents and kids were to see each other again at the end of the journey.

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Weekly Reflection: Connections

Image by building 1000 families

Learning knows no borders.

One of the joys of living in Singapore is that people come to visit. In space of 3 months I have enjoyed more visits here than I did in my entire 4 years in Korea.I would be vain to say that they were coming to visit me. Along with being a major hub for Asia a number of large conferences occur in Singapore.

This week I had the pleasure of finally meeting @NZWaikato in person.

We’ve been interacting online together for a number of years through blogging (including the epic minecraft maths project last year) and twitter but had never been in the same room together until this week.

My students already knew NZWaikato through blogging and were excited that someone was coming to visit them because of our blog.

I suggested to the kids that we follow with maori tradition and sing a song to welcome our visitors to our school.

Many of the children already speak two languages in addition to learning either Chinese or French at school so had no qualms about learning a song in a different language. So I stuck to an easy waiata, te aroha.

What was really special was to see the looks on my students faces as the visitors and I responded to their waiata with our own song.

The next day I could still hear te aroha being hummed through the classroom.

Making time to share

I often wonder why it is that the most important things we do in a classroom are often the things we quickly push aside.

How often do we give our kids a real opportunity to share their learning?

Too often the conversations are between teacher and student rather than between the students themselves.

Sharing puts yourself out there for everyone to see. In the right environment sharing gives kids a chance to shine, gives others something to strive for and it supports those in need.

Image by cogdogblog

On the last Friday before holidays when normally I’d be expecting the class to be winding down the kids had learning conversations going right up to the bell.

As the kids got up to share up their work questions emerged.

What does that mean?

How do you know that?

It’s a time as a teacher where you want to grab your popcorn and watch the discussion unfold. The kids were respectful yet demanding. They wanted their peers to do better. What was amazing were the kids who after sharing their efforts, accepted helpful criticism with good grace.

The last child to share was a child with a physical and developmental disability. While my class is generally fantastic at supporting this child I always worry that we could be doing more. I fret when I see him sitting alone at lunch and redirect kids to sit with him. I’ve taken to letting him go first with a friend to specialists rather than being dismissed at the same time so he is not always the last to arrive as the kids have a habit of rushing off.

As the child started to read his story suddenly the rest of the class quickly rushed around without any prompting from me to support him. When he finished the whole room erupted in applause. The only thing I could really do in that situation is quickly grab my phone for a picture for the child’s family and therapist to capture that magical moment they would not otherwise see.

What magic comes from shared stories.

Weekly Reflection: From NZC to PYP

Making the jump (photo by author)

Educators sure do love their acronyms.

Over the new year I made from the transition from the New Zealand curriculum (NZC) in the southern hemisphere to the Primary Years Programme (PYP) the northern hemisphere school. Within a few short weeks I went from ending one year straight into the middle of the next one.

Making the jump to a new country with a new curriculum has its challenges especially as I have also taken over another teacher’s class halfway through the year.

Which is why I’m glad I found the jump into the PYP not the huge a leap. At its heart both curriculums are driven by inquiry learning. There are some some little differences. Where I might in the past have talked about key competencies I now talk about the IB learner profile. Trans-disciplinary themes are new facet to get my head around and I often find myself using some of the language of the NZC. The PYP codifies a lot more of the concepts present in the NZC for instance the think, reflect, act cycle give a conceptual framework for the key competencies in the NZC. I also have enjoyed watching the process of the PYP exhibition which the Year 6 classes have been engaged in from a distance..

The PYP exhibition is the culmination of the PYP where kids get a chance to showcase their learning to the broader community. As a bystander, it has been fantastic to watch the growth that has occurred in the Year 6 students. The exhibition is in this regard a coming of age ritual. I enjoyed seeing the interactions that the students had not just with kids in other parts of the school but different schools in Singapore and even some from abroad. The possibility of  learner-initiated action is something that I find fascinating and will enjoy developing more in the future.

So one term in and I’m finding my feet slowly. As I look back, I feel that moving away from my country of training has given me an opportunity to really think about what’s important to me an as an educator.

Relationships –  Starting a class halfway through the year there was a strong temptation to get down to the business of learning and forgo all the class culture building that occurs at the beginning of the year. However kids don’t learn effectively from people they don’t like and more importantly they don’t learn from people they don’t trust.  As the term came to an end, I’m glad I spent the time getting to know my kids. My relationship with my students’ families are a lot closer now through virtue of the kids being a bit younger and also many of the families have a parent not working outside the home.

Restorative  - Out of all the PD I’ve done in my teaching career, the one that sticks with me is the restorative practices workshop. I’ve come from a school where restorative practices are the norm and it’s something I will carry with me throughout my career.  I like the warm yet demanding approach and find the quiet no-nonsense problem solving with kids far more effective than punishments and rewards. Often a few quiet questions is what is needed rather than a punishment. What’s the impact of your actions on others? How can you put things right?

Authenticity – Getting kids to walk their own path and do their own thinking. During an end of term inquiry one of my students remarked that it would be a whole lot easier if I just told the kids what to do rather than asking them to think of ways to show evidence of learning.  Too often we confuse schooling with education. Some of our students can become quite adept at gaming the school system often at the expense of deeper learning. We need to be mindful that if our kids walk out of school successful in assessment but hating learning we’ve all done something wrong.

What’s been interesting is that technology has fallen off the list. That isn’t to say that I’m not loving having access to devices. However now the more access my learners have to technology, the less important it becomes to me and I can get on with focusing on learning.

So a busy term and as you can see from the lack of weekly reflections, a busy one.

Weekly Reflection: Being someone’s worst teacher

A few weeks ago the New Zealand government launched an online campaign called inspiredbyu. The idea is that New Zealanders would write a virtual postcard to teachers that helped shaped them into the person they are today.

On the surface the initiative seems great. Genuine words of thanks are the most powerful bonus any teacher can receive. Yet I find myself wondering if in celebrating the best means we don’t take time to learn from our failures.

I’ve been critical of the superhero narrative creeping into our national conversation of education that there’s a special breed of teachers out there that will be all things to all kids all the time.

However the reality is that no one teacher is a perfect fit for every student.

Education is such a personalised process. Each learner brings with them their own personality and so do our teachers. The things that make a teacher great in the eyes of one student are often part of their personality.

My propensity towards messy projects,  quirkiness and obsession with technology  is so much of who I am as a person that it extends right down to my choice of footwear.

What is awesome to me might be awful to someone else.

What is fantabulous to me is awful to someone else.

However just like shoes what might make someone an awesome teacher for one student might be down right awful for another.

At the end of last year I received some lovely cards and some words of thanks from both students and parents. I also received a phone call from one parent that will stick with me for a very long time.

A child in my class had hated being in my class so much that they were refusing to come to school.

While feeling the sting of criticism can be tough, mostly I felt bad for the kid that they felt so poor in my class for the entire year. The words still hang in the air.

I was this child’s worst teacher.

There wasn’t any malicious intent from either me or the child – just a break down in communication. I knew something was up but I wasn’t able to put together the missing pieces. In that respect I was a failure.

Did I learn from the experience?

Yes?

Have I changed my classroom management as a result of the experience?

Absolutely.

While classroom success should be celebrated failure isn’t something that should be stuffed away. In fact the first thing I did after the phone call was let my principal at the time know about the situation. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do but it was the right one.

At some point in their career every teacher is going to have a moment when they are someone’s worst teacher.

Having this title doesn’t make a teacher bad it’s what we do with it afterwards that counts.

At a time when teaching in the media is increasingly being polarised between the incompetent and brilliant it’s worth reminding that all teachers have bad days and also kids in their classes that they weren’t able to develop that learning relationship.

Most days I’m good for most kids, great for some and working really hard to make adequate with a few.

Weekly Reflection: From Knowledge to Action #pypchat

People have unique to express their feelings

This was the central idea for my first unit of inquiry as a Primary Years Programme (PYP) teacher.

As part of the unit’s provocation my class and I watched Kindness Boomerang and I challenged the kids to come up with ways to apply the big idea of the clip to our class and school to re-create the movie. This was an activity I had done at my previous school. I want to avoid repeating activities as I don’t want to fall into the habit of doing things because that is what I’ve always done.

As ideas such as ‘show respect’ and ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ emerged as ways people could take action to apply those feelings of gratitude and kindness in the clip to their school life I realised that my students could talk on a theoretical level about how their feelings affect other people. The gap in their learning was that they didn’t know how to apply those phrases into concrete action in their everyday life.

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PYP action model

One of the concepts in the PYP is the action model. The curriculum encourages students to reflect, to make informed choices and to take action that will help their peers, school staff and the wider community.

We often think of taking action as tackling big revolutionary ideas that will have a major impact on the community or even the world. In schools this often takes the form of raising money for a big issue that the students have been studying. A letter writing campaign to politicians, creating art, volunteering for a community projects are also forms of action that can come out of a unit of inquiry.

However just as important are those little actions – helping clean up without being asked, saying thank you to a family member for making dinner, comforting a friend who looks they are having a bad day or asking before taking someone’s picture can be overlooked as an opportunity to put into action all the qualities from the IB learner profile.

We assume that those moments are almost insignificant in comparison to a big issue like global warming. Yet noticing and acting upon problems in our immediate environment is something the youngest learner can do and the actions often have an immediate impact.

Why do teachers let those moments for learning slip away?

I still think big projects have a place in the classroom. However in planning this unit I was mindful that big classroom projects can shift the focus from the understandings to the task itself.

My class did create their own version of the Kindness Boomerang. As I scaffolded the students to identify small actions they can take to in school make someone else feel good  I worried that learning the process of movie making might overshadow the understanding of one of the lines of inquiry – how our feelings can impact on other people.

introduced the class to teaspoon moments. This classroom tradition, which last year took the form of lollypops, is named for an inspiring quote by the recently departed Pete Seeger.  Each day I try make time for members of the class to acknowledge a person who has done something small to make someone else’s day a little more awesome.

It’s a way for the class to tell each other that they matter.

But what about outside of the classroom?

As part of their homework the students were then to spend time noticing how a member of their family helps them and taking the time to express gratitude to them noting the effects on both them and the people around them. The students started noticing that by expressing thanks to other people not only did they feel better those around them did too. It was amazing to go into a parent-teacher conferences a few hours after reading the outpouring of love and gratitude by the students about their parents in their homework. However some parents had no idea what their children had written.

A visual provocation

As if by design the picture on the right showed up in my Facebook feed, another provocation to push our learning forward.

Teaspoon moments moved from the afternoon to the morning and a homework task for the students was to think of a small action to make a family member have a positive thought in the morning. They had to notice the impact on themselves and their family member.

It was time to move on.

At the end of the unit I asked the kids to reflect on their experiences in class and presenting their learning at assembly on our class blog.

I left things there.

No poster or a lengthy write up. Just a few sentences from the kids about their key take aways  and a reminder that the learning keeps on going even though the unit was officially ‘over.’

Now it was my time to be the learner.

Just before school started on Friday I was outside of the classroom talking to the parent of one of my students. Out of the corner of the eye I could see that my classroom had the look of a group students possibly up to no good. The kids were huddled in a large group and were talking excitedly. What were they up to? I was faced with one of those moments as a teacher where you either step in and redirect the kids away from potential trouble or just let them carry on and trust that they’ll do the right thing.

As I sat down to take the roll the students excitedly handed me a Valentines Day card that they had made and was signed by every member of the class. The words in the middle bought tears to my eyes.

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A card I will always treasure

I was stunned not only by the words but by the authentic student-initiated action.

The enduring understanding that I wanted my students to carry with them from the unit was to notice the actions of the people that make their lives and express their feelings towards them. I had forgotten that as a teacher I am person in my students’ lives. While I am mindful that the children in my class notice every one of my actions I didn’t think what I do in the classroom was worthy of a special acknowledgement.

I was just doing my job.

My students taught me that what I do in the classroom matters to them.

That Friday would be 12 hour day with a difficult meeting and a complete re-design of my literacy programme after school. I wasn’t on the bus home until nearly 7pm.

That day those things didn’t matter.

One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day.

As I looked at the sea of proud faces I responded with a call for a group hug.

Now that’s one heck of a way to end a unit of inquiry.

Weekly Reflection: Using Authenticity to Power learning

Kids Learn to Fish

Image by tuchodi used under creative commons licence

Daniel Pink’s book Drive and nifty little RSA lecture have been talked about and watched in schools for a number of years now. This along with Carol Dweck’s Mindset are the two books that I feel should be required reading for any teacher and more importantly any making educational policy.

Pink’s central thesis is that traditional notions of motivating people through financial reward doesn’t actually work. Instead he points to three factors that lead to better happier and more productive people. Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; Mastery, or the itch to keep improving at something that’s important to us; and Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something meaningful.

If there were a fourth factor I would add to apply for schools it is authenticity. I see authenticity as putting the purpose motive into action.

Time and time again I’ve seen learners up their game when they know what they are doing has consequences beyond the classroom.

Writing becomes more effective when the kids know there is an audience beyond the teacher are reading or seeing their ideas. Kids who hate maths with a passion are suddenly be able to calculate how much money they made at the bake sale with alarming speed and accuracy. A social studies unit on citizenship comes a live when kids actually get to participate in the process rather than watch from the sidelines.

Too often in schools learners are faced with dumbed down problems that have little or no meaning outside of the classroom.

So why do we place them inside the classroom?

To keep to a nice neat timetable?

Because it is easy?

Because those problems will be on the exam?

And soon teachers forget why it is that we learning all this stuff in the first place.

We bemoan the assembly that takes time away from our classroom programme or cultural and sporting events that disrupt the school day without realising those events are just as much part of our students learning as the reading groups.

But how do we capitalise on those projects?

Authenticity doesn’t take much.

It just takes time.

Time to notice.

Time to appreciate.

Time to act.

Weekly Reflection – new traditions

Chinese New Year lanterns

Lanterns in school canteen – photo by author

One of the joys of working in an international school is that you get to celebrate occasions that aren’t as widely celebrated in your home country.

Lunar new year – otherwise known as Chinese New Year – is becoming a larger celebration every year in New Zealand due to an increase in immigration from Asia in the last two decades.

However the occasion is not widely marked in schools in New Zealand if there is a small Chinese community. The timing of the festival is either in the middle of the school holidays or just as school year is starting which also makes things more difficult.

As you can see from this post on my class blog Chinese New Year is a huge occasion at my school. Many of the kids were dressed up in traditional costumes and performed in mandarin. I spent most of the day thinking how lucky my learners are to experience this aspect of life in Asia and learning a different language.

I couldn’t help but wonder if New Zealand learners are short-changed in this aspect of their learning. Speaking the global lingua franca enables english native speakers to get by in the world. Moreover  geographical distance makes chances for authentic opportunities to use and language except Te Reo Maori expensive.

In this context language learning often gets pushed into the too hard basket or once a week if we have time.  Having dedicated and creative teachers of mandarin on staff helps immeasurably as does opportunities to practice outside of the classroom.

Part of the job description  is that you routinely end up doing something well outside of your comfort zone. In this case I ended performing a Chinese dance with the rest of the teachers. Graceful is definitely not an adjective I would use to describe myself.

10 tips for First Year Teachers

An empty classroom (photo by author)

An empty classroom (photo by author)

1. Don’t talk over the kids
If there is one piece of advice I could give you, it is  this. Never talk over the kids.  You might have to wait a long time for their attention and on occasion you might have to stop and wait. Be patient. Allowing the kids to talk over you is telling your students that you do not expect them to listen to you.

2. Your students’ mistakes are not a reflection on you as a teacher
It can be easy to internalise every bad action your students make as a reflection on your teaching. Especially if you have another adult tut-tutting your students misdemeanours. While modelling and guiding behaviour is important, it is not  your job to prevent every bad decision from happening. It is far important to make sure the kids put things right after they muck up.

3. Never be afraid to admit your mistakes.
Don’t be afraid to let your students know that you are a human being too. You will make mistakes. If the stuff up effects someone – a student, a colleague or parent -acknowledge the mistake and move on wiser. Accept any apologies that come your way with with grace and kindness.

4. Learn from your colleagues
Make the most of your PRT time, you’ll miss it when it is gone. Visit other classrooms. Ask lots of questions. It can be easy to get into a habit of eating your lunch in your classroom and go through a day without talking to another adult.  Stop into the staffroom from time to time. So much incidental PD happens when you are unloading the dishwasher.

5. Have a life.
Teaching can consume your every waking moment. Start new hobbies and interests outside of school. Maintain friendships with non-teachers. Keep learning. It’s like they teach us on airplanes. Adults need to put their own oxygen masks on before helping any kids travelling with them. A tired and burned out teacher is not effective in the classroom. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.

6. Be bold
Don’t be afraid to do something different but don’t expect everyone – other teachers, parents, the kids – to be enthusiastic about your zany ideas. Remember road blocks are not put in place to stop you from doing new things. They are there to stop bad ideas from being implemented. Back yourself you know more than you think. Find mentors who will guide you into making your classroom vision a reality. Be prepared to have your ideas fail and move on the wiser.

7. Keep in contact with the parents
Take time to contact parents about the good stuff their child does. Flick an email to parent with a photo of their child in class or telling them a time when their child went above and beyond. If you have concerns, pick up the phone and call.  Texting can be a fantastic way to reach some of those hard to reach parents.

8. Blog
I’ve written at length about the importance of edublogging. Blogging has helped forge friendships and some incredible learning opportunities for both myself and my students. Use the expertise of the global network of teachers to make your classroom more awesome. 

9. Look after your support staff
Support staff are the unsung heroes in our schools. Make sure you always acknowledge the work that they do. Buy some bevvies for your caretaker. Take the time to say thank you to the teacher aides and librarians. Bring in something nice for the office staff.

10. Focus on what really counts
When all is said and done your students aren’t going to remember how to draw a factor tree or that they achieved their national standards.  They will remember how they felt being in your class. Build a classroom culture that supports mistake-making and kindness.  Schools can be highly political workplaces at time. Don’t waste your time and energy on things that don’t matter. Always remember you are paid to be brilliant in the classroom.

Weekly Reflection: Paying for the best teachers?

Teachers often bemoan a lack of funding for education. Yet I suspect I’m not the only teacher feeling deeply uneasy about this week’s announcement of an extra $359 million being pumped into the education on the next four years on school leadership.

For teachers to complain of such an huge investment particularly in the form of substantial pay rises seems at best ungrateful and at worst a confirmation of every stereotype of the unionised teacher out there: unwilling to compromise, stubborn and arrogant.

After all, why are we paying our worst teachers the same as our very best?

And there in lies the deep ideological divide between many in the teaching profession and the government. Underpinning the initiative of lead teachers, change principals is a philosophy that talent is something innate which needs to be recognised and rewarded rather than something that is constantly being developed and nurtured.

It strikes me as odd that when it comes to our kids the government has embraced the vision that all children can learn. That it’s s  a matter of good teaching that will, to borrow a talking point, ensure five out of five kids are achieving.

Yet when it comes to managing those entrusted with educating our kids, talent is in short supply. There’s an assumption underpinning this announcement that good teachers need titles to make change and in the words of the Prime Minster “we are going to pay them more to get it.”

Pay a reward, get results.

It’s behaviourism. A philosophy from the 1950s which is seen as outdated by modern educators who favour meaningful learning experiences rather than rewards and punishments to motivate students.

Current educational practice requires excellence to be an ongoing journey rather than destination.

Most teachers expert or otherwise will quite happily admit that they themselves are still learning. More importantly, teachers will learn from anyone be it a 1st year teacher, an  internationally renowned expert and most importantly their students.

Teachers know that what works for one group of kids will not automatically transfer to another. Just as each kid has their own personality so too each class and school.

The danger in paying to get results from super teachers is that it assumes the process of teaching and learning can be standardised – follow what the expert teacher to get results – when it needs to be personalised.

I know I’m not the only teacher who has taken an idea from an expert at a conference or a classroom observation and tried to implement it in class only to have it fail miserably. I will then adjust a few things and sometimes make the idea work for my learners otherwise I  will try a new approach.

Yes expertise and school leadership  is important but  just as important is that teachers know how to tweak best practice to fit the needs of the kids in their class.

It’s what the New Zealand curriculum calls teaching as inquiry and what high achieving systems  strive for – all teachers need to be experts in how their students learn.

On a more structural level teachers as a professional acutely feel the effects of income inequality in New Zealand.

Even at the high decile school I worked at there were teachers dipping into their own funds for food, school trips and shoes.

Throwing millions into establishing an executive level of educators won’t help the 11 year old in tears because there’s holes in their shoes and no money in the house until payday.

Yes teaching quality is the biggest in-school factor in lifting student achievement. However it is those out of school factors, having enough food to eat, secure housing to avoid transience as well as sickness and above all a feeling of love and belonging which  have a far greater impact on our kids’ learning.

I’m sure my rant might just seem like sour grapes from a card-carrying member of the teachers union determined to bring down those high achieving teachers down to my own level.

However I don’t actually have any skin in the game. I no longer teach in New Zealand.

Would this announcement be enough to lure me home in the next few years?

No.

While my prime motive for moving overseas is for travel, the support and resources I have enjoy are well beyond what the education system in New Zealand is resourced to provide.

There is more admin support, specialist help, a smaller class and more release time. I am still as busy as I ever was back home however I am now far more focused on teaching and learning.

Because while money is important, the most important resource for teachers is their time.

Rather than injecting a few thousand super teachers into our education system how about focusing on ensuring that every teacher and more importantly every child is supported to be brilliant in the classroom?

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