My knowledge of physics ends at barely scraping through a pass in high school. However over the last week I’ve been thinking a lot about inertia, the principle that every object has to preserve its present state whether in movement or not. The bigger object, the more energy there is needed to get moving.
What on earth does that have to do with schools?
Schools are large, organisations they go from being at rest to a hive of activity very quickly. Getting that moving requires huge amounts of energy usually powered on adrenaline and large amounts of caffeine.
As the school year moves on from being ‘new’ to established classroom there’s new sort of pressure. To get all those reading and maths programmes up and running, at a time when the body hasn’t quite gotten over the shock of coming from vacation back into the frenetic world of school.
There are assessments to be done, groups to be formed, interim reports to be written, meet the parents evenings. Meetings seem to crop up.
Once the programmes get going, and the routines have been established things seem to even out, your body gets used to the pace. Coming to a halt at the end of the year? The same problem but in reverse.
As we start the year, I’m already behind. I have tendency to linger on building classroom culture which comes into conflict with the cold hard reality that I’m only six weeks from the end of term. Have we done enough writing? Those spelling groups need to be formed.
However the most important job for a teacher at this point is getting to know the kids and their families , the kids getting to know you, which sets the scene for learning.
Yet perhaps part of the problem is that our traditions in schools take us away from those goals not further to them.
Why do schools keep passing students on from one teacher to another year after year?. I’ve looped students before and see so many benefits. You know the kids. The kids know you. Classroom routines can be built on and relationships enhanced. Teaching siblings already puts me at ease with some of my parent community.
Keeping meetings and administrative tasks to an absolute minimum to focus on building relationships. Our team has items we talk about if there are questions, rather than talking over every single point. I’ve also had a few meetings cancelled at the start of the year and oh what a difference that extra hour makes. Which leads to wonder, how many meetings do we call just for the sake of calling them? Instead of coming together information shouldn’t it be for collaboration?
Maybe we could do more with less and that object wouldn’t be so heavy and so hard to get moving?
Where are you from?
It’s the question often most asked when you live abroad and often the one that is most difficult to answer.
International school students have connections to several continents before they’ve hit double digits in age. Their parents might be from different countries, they might be born in a third and now the family lives in yet another land. Teachers also have personal histories stretching over multiple countries and languages.
Where are you from?
It depends on who is asking the question.
Where my bills get sent, my accent and my country of birth straddle 3 continents.
I generally say New Zealand – that’s where my family lives. Except I was born in Canada, spent vast tracts of my childhood moving around New Zealand domestically, lived in Korea for four years in my early 20s and now find myself in Singapore. So when pressed to find a home town that becomes difficult.
Is it where I spent the most time? Is it the place I last lived before moving to abroad? Is it the place my parents live?
Again 3 different towns.
Where others have strong roots to a place that have accumulated over time I often feel most disconnected when I’m not moving. The longest I’ve managed to live in one place ever has been 5 years and that was when I was a teenager.
There are benefits and drawbacks to this lifestyle.
You get happy birthday updates across multiple time zones on Facebook but you might spend your real time celebrating the occasion with complete strangers.
Friendships are both intense and superficial at the same time – I’ve met some incredible people living abroad but at the same I’ve lost contact with so many friends the minute they cleared customs. In big cities there’s an odd feeling of being constantly surrounded by people and still feel lonely especially in the first few weeks.
The process of constant moving means that you don’t tend to acquire vast amounts of possessions. Every move I end up throwing or giving away a lot of stuff that I no longer need.
The bonus to teaching in this context is that long-held assumptions about learning and life are constantly getting challenged. This process can be both professionally invigorating and threatening at the same time.
You constantly do a double take.
Do I teach the way I do because that’s how we do things in the place I trained or is it because it is good for learning?
My first class of students all had rich personal histories. Singapore for many children is their first trip sojourn into the unknown while others might be seasoned veterans in the art of the big move.
Nevertheless that question, where are you from, is one we must frequently answer.
A new school year starts.
If finishing a school year in June was weird, beginning one in August is even weirder.
A new year brings with it new challenges and opportunities, some expected others not. There is no such thing as the perfect class, just a group of kids you hope leave wiser and happier after spending time in their classroom.
I’m moving down another year level to Year 4 with a bit of Year 3 and Year 2 thrown in for good measure.
There are new names to remember, routines to establish.
It’s also been the first time in a number of years where I’ve been forming a class from scratch. Previous years I’ve had students I’ve worked together with previously or come into an already established classroom. This time around it’s a fresh class though having taught in the school I’m now teaching siblings of previous students.
Looking back on my previous attempts to make the start of year more awesome some things still remain the same.
Welcome to a new school year video. I find video a fantastic way to set the scene for the year ahead kids. It is a way to show your personality and in this case introduce the PYP learner profile to the class. It was also a fantastic way to reach out to parents and really shouldn’t every year start with the opening crawl from Star Wars?
Lollypop moments – In 2012 I stumbled onto this awesome TED Talk by a guy called Drew Dudley, who argued that true leadership was in the little every day things that we do to make each others lives better which he called lollypop moments. I used this metaphor throughout the year and I think it really added something special to our classroom culture. While I won’t be divving out lollypops with as much frequency as I did in the past, the moments will continue to be there. I’m also recording who nominates and who gets nominated as a way to start looking for patterns in the class. Who needs help, who is not being recognised?
Whimsical and fun challenges The BP tech challenges have some fantastic challenges for kids to solve challenges based on supplies commonly found around the school. Building a tower out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti is my personal favourite mainly because the kids usually end up eating the marshmallows at the end of it.
Augmented reality tour Forget the usual school tour. Let the kids loose with an iPad and a list of places to go visit to find the secret clues. Great way to ‘meet’ specialist teachers without having to bother the specialist teachers.
Essential agreement/class treaty Whatever language having a common understanding of how we all should be treated in the classroom. Show the process of getting there rather than just a nice picture otherwise the words are just classroom wallpaper.
My handwriting is so messy I can barely write my name legibly.
Actually messy is an understatement.
A drunken chicken making its way across the page is a more accurate description of my penmanship.
It’s not for want if trying, more a lack of fine motor control and spatial awareness.
Unlike many primary teachers, I find creating visual arts a form of torture. My classroom wall displays have tended to be more about function than form. Pretty is for Pinterest. While I can appreciate art, creating it was for those fortunate souls who had the ability to see objects in parts that could be put together.
Thus I approached the idea of sketchnoting with trepidation.
For those who have not come across the term before, sketchnoting is creating a visual story in reaction to a speaker or reading a text. The art uses a form of visuals and words to convey key ideas and concepts.
Surely sketchnoting is just a twist on the time-honored tradition of doodling?
As a non-doodler I tend to think of sketchnoting as doodling with a purpose. Much how twitter forces the verbose amongst us to condense ideas down into 140 characters, sketchnoting forces the creator to be succinct in words and images to convey complex concepts. The creative constraints this time are time, space and, for people like me, artistic ability.
I had a play with using paper, a free app for the iPad during the Apple Distinguished Educator institute and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.
For the first time in my life I enjoyed drawing.
In the past my mistakes would have resulted in having to redo a work or messing up a page by using an eraser. With Paper I can use the erase tool without damaging my work or better yet rotate my two fingers and use it to rewind my actions.
However the biggest revelation has been the zoom tool. My sloppy hand movements are no longer a problem as I can simply zoom into an area I want to write or paint and continue to use larger strokes.
As a final bonus your creations no longer languish in a journal. They can be easily shared and imported into other apps.
While paper not turn me into Picasso anytime soon, I’ve enjoyed the process of sketchnoting and may yet become a doodler.
Like many small set backs in life the attitude you take determines your experience.
In attempt to make hay while the sun shines, I sent out this light-hearted tweet.
As this conversation was taking place, Tripit was quickly sending push out notifications of gate changes and delays to the flight to my iPhone.
At no point did I ever feel lost. In fact I was spending time dropping in on #satchatoc and #educampakl while waiting for my flight.
Aside from extra professional learning time, my biggest takeaway from being delayed in Dallas is that in an era of instant, personalized communication the traditional models schools use to communicate with students and their families – newsletters and reports – are relics from another age.
In pre-email days school communication was mass produced, one size fits all, periodic and lengthy. All parents received the notice containing details of the Year 4 cross country date in the weekly school newsletter whether they had a child in Year 4 or not. The piece of paper containing the newsletter might make it home in time or languish in the bottom of the school bag until the day before, or after, the Year 4 cross country.
In the era of email we’ve gone to newsletters on a slightly smaller scale, year group or syndicate. Delivery has become more accurate and content more relevant. Yet this system has added to teacher workload without really giving parents what they want; timely, relevant and personalized updates about their child’s learning.
Unfortunately I’ve yet to find a way to balance the need for report comments to be timely and relevant for each child in the class while at the same time teaching a full course load and attempting to have a life.
Non-teachers can find it hard how time consuming writing reports are. To put things in perspective, my last batch of report comments was just shy of 12,000 words – the same length as my Honours dissertation. Despite my effort my comments were inherently flawed.
As I was giving my end of year reports a final proofread, I remember thinking how out of date many of the comments seemed. Goals reached, extra effort by the kids in the last few weeks of school went unacknowledged in their report. It was too late to change each child’s report then have the updated comments proofed and checked.
Information cycles in the real world have sped up considerably in the last few years. Guidebooks are out of date the moment they go to the printer, newspapers update their websites after the morning edition. Yet in schools our information cycles stare from another time.
Which is where the problem lies.
Like many teachers I operate in two eras of communication. I’m still creating the mass produced, lengthy, periodic, just in case communication from the industrial age while at the same time attempting to create responsive, timely, brief and personalized communications that are characteristic of the digital era.
I’m sure there will come a day when the time consuming process of creating industrial communication in schools will come to an end. However despite the technology already being here, communication systems for educators still aren’t up to scratch. I’ve yet to find a learning management system that does exactly what I need it to do.
The closest I’ve come is doctopus with the goobric extension which enables me to quickly push out content to kids using google apps for education. The students can share their content with others, I can give personalized feedback to each child yet still maintain an overview of where the class is at. It’s personalized to me as a teacher and to each of the kids.
However parents are the missing component from this ecosystem unless the child or I share with mum and dad. In the past I’ve subscribed parents to their child’s blog as a way for home to get automatic updates without adding to my workload.
And that’s the key, automation and mobility. Technology should make communication for teachers more timely and effective. It should not add to our workload through needless logins, cutting and pasting information between windows and terrible user interfaces.
However most learning management tools require teachers to do just that.
I often joke that any learning management system without an iOS app is dead to me.
Instead of turning somersaults to make bad information systems work we need to be more demanding in our technological needs. Not just for own sanity but for the experience of our students and their families.
In an era where an app on my phone can push out personalized, relevant announcements faster than the airport departure board, we need to rethink what effective communication looks like in schools.
And it shouldn’t involve anyone needing to login into a browser to look for their communication.
It should just be there just when we need it.
PostScript. The flight to Chicago was accompanied with a midair proposal that even had the cynic in 18F smiling. Despite all the advances in technology there is some communication best done in person.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.