#ade2014 – getting my geek on

If ever there was an event to take a sledgehammer to my end of year funk , the Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) global institute in San Diego was it.

After the phenomenal Asia/Pacific institute in Bali last year, my expectations were high. Apple didn’t disappoint.

The institute was not a conference where participants spent much time in ‘sit and get’ mode. Instead we found ourselves recording water samples on an app, looking at plankton through a live view in our iPad, adopting trees, sketch noting, hunting for iBeacons and sharing stories about what is going on in our classrooms to make learning more awesome for our students.

The San Diego event also coincided with the 20th anniversary of the ADE programme. Over the course of the event How frequently teachers elevate their ADE selection as a life changing event. While a cynic might suggest that the fantastic hospitality provided by Apple encourages devotion by ADEs to both the programme and the brand, I think the connection runs deeper.

I suspect that many ADEs are the oddball on their teaching staff. They challenge the status quo, ask difficult questions and are highly passionate about using technology to transmogrify learning in their classes.

In short, we’re geeks.

The ADE programme is our tribe. We arrive as strangers and leave with a group of life-long friends. While a shared love of Apple technology is what brings us together, it is the connections ADEs make with each other that motivates us to travel great distances year after year. The institute was a chance to make new friends, reconnect with old ones and more importantly reconnect with my old teaching self.

The challenge from this institute is to bridge the gap from conference to the classroom. At times I remember sitting at the in the institute feeling overwhelmed at the creativity and innovation from the ADE tribe. But then I remembered we all started out the same way, with some technology and an idea to do something differently. For me that starts with a welcome to a new school year idea fermenting in my head.

The purpose of this post has not just been to recount my experience but encourage to other teachers to apply.

Applications are open for the new intake of teachers for the programme will happen later this year. I encourage women teachers in particular to put their name forward.

Too often awesome teachers think there are people far cooler and more knowledgeable out there. But chances are if you are reading this post, you’re already a bit of geek so why not share that with others?

You don’t need to be part of a 1:1 Mac programme, just have a passion for using Apple products and willingness to connect with the world beyond the walls of your classroom.

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Weekly Reflection: Culture shock

It has been awhile between posts.

I would like to say that I was busy having a fabulous time living the exotic life of an international teacher. In reality, I found myself with a bad case of culture shock.

As a veteran of 4 years teaching English in Korea, I am no stranger to culture shock. The difference this time was how gradually it all snuck up on me.

From day one Korea put up a fight. My first trip to a Korean supermarket I ended buying what I thought was water which instead was the local paint thinner liquor soju.

Ten years later, I arrived in Singapore confident in my abilities to adapt. Yes the weather would be hotter, but teaching in a western school in a country where English is widely spoken didn’t seem like such a huge transition.

I could buy weetbix at my local supermarket.

This transition was going to be easy.

And it was until the last few weeks of term.

I hadn’t realized how to finish a school year, move countries then restart teaching several weeks later. My batteries weren’t fully recharged and teaching is a punishing profession at the best of times.

The fourth term included camp, production, writing reports and preparing my class for something my school does called a mini exhibition. I also found and moved into a new apartment.

I was busy but forever felt like the various balls I had up in the air were crashing down around me.

Small things, like not being able to find an ATM to get cash out (unlike New Zealand Singaporean banks don’t talk to each other) resulted into public meltdowns into misery.

It felt so wrong saying goodbye to my class in June. The weather hadn’t changed temperature, there were no Christmas decorations up. It didn’t feel like the end if the year. My class worked hard right up until their end of year party where in the past I might have slowed down.

Despite my best efforts to keep a healthy lifestyle, learn a new hobby, make friends outside of school, I was stuck firmly in the negotiation phase.

As a result, I stopped blogging.

This post is an attempt to at least get back into the habit of writing regularly again.

Hopefully it is like riding a bike.

Weekly Reflection: play to your strengths

Image by CS_McMahon used under creative commons

“I suppose I make funny jokes,” the child mumbles.

Instead of ticking off boxes that the mini-exhibition include art and ICT, I’m challenging the kids to think about ways that they can best express their learning. While some of the children know exactly what it is that gets them in a state of flow, many of them do not. They find themselves embarrassed and conscious of picking strengths.

“I’m not really good at anything.”

Before me sits a highly creative and passionate child, yet he doesn’t know what it is that makes him feel alive as a learner or at least isn’t comfortable sharing it. The kids don’t miss a beat.

“You can make cool things in lego,” one of his friends remarks.

“Your writing is really interesting” another pipes up.

“You know how to use iMovie” a third child offers.

A big grin comes up and the child is relieved but that moment has me wondering. This child is not alone. Many adults, myself included, will quickly point out their flaws or areas they need to work on but become coy when it comes to sharing their talents. We don’t want to appear boastful.

Why do we that?

Perhaps this comes back to what we do in schools.

A lot of our assessment time is spent identifying children at risk of ‘falling behind’ in the 3Rs and then remedying those by having the kids spend more time on those areas of weakness. While I don’t think we can ignore areas of weaknesses, I can’t help wonder if schools and teachers are forgetting something really important.

Nurturing strengths.

How much time do we spend helping kids discover what it is that makes them feel that buzz and develop that buzz into a strength?

If a school happens to have a gifted and talented programme, then a few children might find themselves lucky enough to spend time developing areas of strength. But really isn’t the whole point of education to help all children find that sense of joy that comes from doing something they really enjoy? To draw out that inner awesome that makes them a person.

Shouldn’t every learner in a school – adult or child - be able to identify their areas of strength and use them every day in their learning.

Weekly Reflection: killing the love of learning

Image by Mark Brannan

During the last week I had the privilege of accompanying my class to view the exhibition of the nursery and kindergarten learners.

I’ve always been in awe of the teachers working with the little ones. Their classrooms are engine rooms of learning and creativity yet their expertise is often devalued.

There’s a general snark, sometimes sadly heard from those working within the education system, that the lower the age group of students the less important the work of the teacher and the kids. It is underpinned the idea that content knowledge educators at the upper ranges of the education sector  possesses is more important than the pedagogical knowledge and fundamental learning skills those teachers working with young children possess. 

It was interesting to watch my ‘big’ Year 5 learners go into the kinder area of the school thinking they were there to offer general support to the preschoolers. When the older kids left, they were impressed by the standard of the content on display and the variety of ways the juniors were willing to express their learning.

This experience led me to wonder what is it that we do in schools that kills the natural curiosity, creativity and innate drive to learn that kids bring to the table when they first arrive in schools? I’ve noticed as I’ve made the move from teaching Year 7/8 to Year 5 that the younger kids are a lot more curious about the world around them and more willing to take risks.

Why is that?

Over the weekend I attending a workshop run by the legendary inquiry consultant Kath Murdoch. What was interesting was that Kath didn’t tell things about pedagogy I didn’t already know to the point I found myself finishing some of her sentences under my breath. Don’t get me wrong I’d gladly spend another Saturday listening to Kath, she’s a treasure trove of hands on tips as well as provocations to get the neurones firing.

 

She made a point  towards the end of the presentation that really struck a chord with me.

It is so easy to sit in a workshop nodding our heads that our classrooms should be inquiry-focused, child-centred learning. It is another to actually take the plunge when you go back to your context and have what seems like a 1,000 obstacles are standing in your way.

If only my curriculum wasn’t so structured.

If only my school wasn’t so busy right now I’d find the time.

 

If only I didn’t have to prepare kids for middle school, high school, their exams.

If only the previous teacher had done a better job so I didn’t have to spend time getting the kids up to speed.

If only school leadership would let me get away with it.

If only I had the resources.

If only the government wouldn’t enact awful educational policies.

I have heard, said or thought all of these things at some point and if you are a teacher reading this, chances are so have you.

I will freely admit I’m the type of teacher who finds something inherently exhilarating about breaking out of moulds and pushing boundaries. However there are also times when I do things in my classroom because that’s what is expected. And that is how education ideas and practices get the life sucked out of them by 1000s of laminating machines to the point where the original intention has long been lost.

The purpose of the practice becomes divorced from the actual use.

When I stop and think teaching as inquiry is not about big revolutionary ideas it is simply a mindset to always ask ‘why I am doing this?’

What purpose does this serve?

Is it helping my students learning?

As an inquiry teacher I am comfortable to say that I am part of the problem of why schools turn kids off learning but I am also part of the solution.

Weekly Reflection: taking time, making space

Leaves image by author

In the next few weeks the Year 5 classes have to do a mini exhibition. For those not familiar with the Primary Years Programme  (PYP), the exhibition is the culmination of the PYP where kids get a chance to showcase their learning to the broader community. 

My school has mini-exhibitions for younger children. Year 5′s turn is at the beginning of June. If done right, the mini exhibition will be an excellent jumping off point for the big event next year. The Year 6 kids, who had just been through the process, were keen to share their experience and act as mentors to my students.

Learning, connection and collaboration – really the stuff I love doing in my classroom.

However on Monday afternoon my Year 5 class wasn’t seeing the mini exhibition as an opportunity to learn and share. It was just a big school project. Wednesday the kids had their first meeting scheduled with the Year 6 students.

Time was ticking and the kids were nowhere near ready. The foundation of curiosity wasn’t there and without it the students wouldn’t be able to really use this experience to drive their learning.

I’ll admit I was to blame.

I had let the task get ahead of the process. Dire warnings of the shortage of time, that their parents would be watching and how the kids needed to be prepared to meet with their mentors or they’ll be wasting their time. Fear of failure does little to encourage deep learning however it is a useful tool to encourage student compliance in the game of school. But that wasn’t the aim of the mini-exhibition.

I knew had to do something different.

What would  happen if I turned the planning process over to the kids?

I told the kids how I plan provocations – I use pinterest to curate pictures and quotes to provoke thinking and share those inspirations with the kids.

The children loved the idea and worked in groups using a KWL chart they had previously created. They turned the chart into  inspiration boards full quotes and pictures  of their own choosing.

Within 30 minutes the class was a mess of limbs, MacBooks and paper yet the buzz in the classroom was calm and purposeful. A sure sign of how absorbed the kids were in their tasks there were howls of ”I want to finish this” went up as I had to disturb the class for a specialist subject. After morning tea, I let the activity run so the kids had to time to finish the board and share it with the class.

Each child sat with a sheet of guiding questions around interest and looked over other people’s inspirations. This quiet time was an essential part of the process.

Some children changed their interests, others felt more secure in their initial feelings but nevertheless had their curiosity provoked by seeing the images that other people had chosen. One of the students reflected that it would be useful for teachers as well as students:

I really liked this task and I think it would good for teachers. My interest didn’t change much because I had my heart set on science in the rainforest.  I found inspiration boards useful because it meant that I could see other peoples work and what they are interested in. It made me think as if I was the person who made it and it made me feel like was them so I could understand their point of view and what they wanted to learn about. “

While this task could have been completed electronically, the kids felt the process of  doing something with their hands really helped them to really go inside themselves and figure what was important to them.

The art of creating and sharing had given the students the mental space they needed to focus. The images and quotes provoked curiosity and shared interest. Debates about what images to place and how to place them crystallised the students thinking and by sharing quietly they could make those ideas visible to others.

Through stepping out of the way I had enabled the kids to lay the foundation of their inquiry, understanding what is interesting to them. They were able to meet with the older students secure in their interests and still very much driving their learning.

What I was unprepared for on Friday was a group of kids who asked if they could share something with their class. Thursday had been a public holiday in Singapore however this group of children had decided to ask people living in their apartment complex why the rainforest was something worth sharing and recorded the answers.

“We want people to start noticing how important the rainforest is,” they said as they put their findings up on the wall.

Wow.

An independent inquiry, taking action and connecting with the community by themselves and some of them weren’t even 10 years old. That IB learner profile suddenly wasn’t just a laminated display on the wall.

What a lesson I learned in the importance of taking time and making space for the kids to focus on what really matters.

 

10 things I learned from 10 years of blogging

Keys at the ready (Photo by author

Keys at the ready (Photo by author

Today marks 10 years since I published my first blogpost. I would link to it but reading through some of my old posts all I can think was wow was I obnoxious 10 years ago. I suppose that’s the case when you are fresh out of university and haven’t really experienced life but like to think you have.

I also used to swear a lot.

I’ve learned not to do that these days.

What else I have learned in the last decade of sharing parts of my life online?

1. Blogging is about connection

The reason I started blogging was to share my life in Korea with friends and family back in New Zealand. I initially published my letters home on geocities (RIP) before I found blogger did the job better. Since then I’ve published 4 separate blogs over the last decade each documenting a specific period in my life and also maintained two classroom blogs. Each of these blogs bought with it a community of support and advice for both myself and my students. Over the years I’ve met some incredible people through blogging yet only a handful I’ve ever met face to face.

2. Blogging isn’t dead – but it has changed since the good old days

Over the last 10 years I’ve written about the ups and downs of living in a foreign country, then trying to make sense of being ‘back home’ after a few years away. I’ve blogged about falling in love, break ups, death, politics, feminism, travel, being a stepparent and dessert . This particular blog has been by far the most successful in terms of readership but it is also the most specific in terms of content.  Since twitter started to take off in 2010 I’ve found there’s considerably less interaction in the comments section and I’m less likely to react to posts from other bloggers these days. I’m amazed how much traffic my old posts generate. My old RSS brain still thinks new content = most important. That simply isn’t the case anymore.

3. Blogging is rewarding

Every time someone comments, shares a post or takes the time to contact me via email I get a warm fuzzy from knowing that what I write does make a difference. I certainly don’t suffer from any delusions that anything I’ve written has changed the world in any significant way. Nevertheless it’s pretty cool knowing that people have used something I’ve created as a resource to inform their own learning.

4. Blogging is learning

So much of what I do in the classroom has the been the result of reading about what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. But it is the process of sharing with others which really helps me learn. When I write a ranty post I will often spend several hours reading conflicting opinions, checking facts and finding research to back up my arguments before I hit publish. I find the process of writing a post helps me formulate my thoughts beyond an initial emotional reaction into something more cohesive. More importantly because I’ve taken the time to write down my ideas, I can refer back to them  and use them a springboard to further develop my thinking.

5. Blogging brings support

Over the last 10 years I’ve had my shares of highs and lows both professionally and personally. When I’ve experienced  success there’s been a squad of people cheering me on. When I’ve been in the depths of despair I’ve found some amazing words of wisdom from my wise readers reminding me that this too shall pass. Blogging both from a professional and personal perspective has been a way for me to manage my emotions. Though I share far less of myself online than I have in the past, it’s good to know there’s a cheer squad around when I need it.

6. Being open to sharing can make you incredibly vulnerable

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that for all the incredible support I’ve found online in the last 10 years, there were small group of people who sneered at my audacity to put my thoughts out into the world. Brutal name calling and outright intimidation have in the past caused me to stop posting. While the edusphere is largely free of bullying, I’ve learned  that if you are willing to take a stand on an issue online you have to be willing to have others disagree you and they won’t always play nice.

7.  Being controversial is easy, being thoughtful is harder

Ranty posts are fun to write and can quickly generate page views. However the attention you gain from those posts is often fleeting and can damage existing relationships. Building up a community through thoughtful and intelligent writing is a lot harder than ranting however connections made through quality and authentic writing will last longer and compound over time. 

8. The internet works in mysterious ways

After 10 years of blogging I can’t reliably predict what other people will find interesting. Posts I’ve spent hours researching and thinking about can go unnoticed yet my post on being someone’s worst teacher, which I didn’t think was amazing, ended up with 1,100 page views in 24 hours. Where in the past I might have written about what I think other people might find interesting, these days I tend to write primarily about what I care about and hope others come along for the ride. 

9. Blogging can lead to incredible opportunities

An effective personal learning network and a willingness to share has enabled me to enjoy some incredible learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom in the last few years. When I look back, even getting that first job offer in a market saturated with teaching graduates was directly attributable to an online professional presence.

10. Bloggers are amazingly generous

I owe such a huge debt of gratitude to the millions of people who share their stories online. No matter the subject: teaching, travelling, step parenting and baking, the blogging community has been a source of inspiration, advice and friendship these last 10 years. I know my life has been forever changed for the better by those who share their expertise online.

Let us celebrate 10 years of my online ranting with a slice of virtual cake.

mmmm cake

mmmm cake

 

Weekly Reflection: Who exactly needs to be tuning in?

Tropical fish are found in my school- image by author

We are inquiring into sharing the planet, rain forests.

It’s ‘time’ to tune in.

But who exactly is tuning in?

Often we think it is the teachers job to set out photos and displays, find videos to watch to lure students into finding out more about the central idea. We have to preload them so that they can find out the content we’ve decided they need to know.  It’s the start of the unit and I’m already feeling frustrated that the content is obscuring concepts and context.

We live in Singapore – the rainforest is right there. We shouldn’t be watching videos inside the bubble of our classroom! Lets step outside.

I tell the kids to leave with a simple instruction – take notice of the living things in our school environment and record any questions or wonderings.

The students quickly find the plants and our pond teeming with tropical fish.

But then a dropped fork quickly leads us to a trail of ants.

As we walk through the grounds,  the students tell me that construction from neighbouring property resulted in monkeys in the school grounds last year. Already the students are demonstrating that they understand that human actions have an impact on other living things in our environment.

An exposed concrete drain pipe is walked past until someone drops their pencil and the students quickly discover that it is a host to moss and algae.

Is water a living thing?

It’s got molecules and I have molecules.

A dead branch is ignored I pick it up and the kids notice that it has mushrooms growing out of it. The large tree growing out of the kindergarten playground plays host to different plants.

What is a living thing?

What ingredients sustain life?

We think our students come into our units as blank slates yet if we stop to really listen, even the youngest learners bring with them their own life experiences and knowledge that can add depth to an inquiry.

Perhaps instead of planning elaborate activities to tune the students into our central idea teachers should take a walk and quietly tuning in to conversations that happen along the way.

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.

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