Category Archives: RTC 7 – Learning Environment
A few weeks ago there were old tape decks were about to be thrown out.
So I left them on a bench and in my classroom. Sure enough the students spotted them.
They started pushing buttons.
This was old technology to them.
Curiosity is the most important ingredient in learning but is also the one quickly forgotten when teachers plan units.
We rush to check boxes and create work for the students to do.
How much time do you leave your students to play?
To make silly noises?
By leaving some trash about the classroom my students could play with the past.
Just the word is enough to send shivers down the backs of some students and their teachers too.
The primary school speech format has changed so little from the time I went to school. Most schools have each child get up in front of their class for 3-4 minutes. The best speakers then are selected to stand in front of the school.
There are boxes to be checked. Has the student used repetition, rhetorical questions, quotes and statistics? Check, cross, check, check. There are strict rules about time. Don’t look down. Hand gestures and the odd dramatic pause thrown in for good measure. No images because that isn’t a speech, that’s a presentation.
The end results can be sometimes be decidedly underwhelming. Speeches that tick all those nice boxes on the rubric but say nothing at all.
What makes a good speech?
Instead of having of going the usual route of having students sit through Martin Luther King Jr talking about having a dream, Kennedy going to the moon and Churchill fighting on the beaches then analyse each one for rhetorical devices I was determined to do something different.
Don’t get me wrong as a student of political studies I have an appreciation of oratory and these speeches are quite rightly iconic. However these men were leaders of nations and movements over 50 years ago their lives and thier language is far removed from the pubescent students sitting in Wellington today.
So we listened to Richard Turere talk about scaring away lions, Thomas Suarez wax lyrical about app development, Adora Svitak persuade a group of adults that they could learn from kids. If you haven’t heard of these names before there is a reason for this. These speakers are not much older than my students.
Instead of looking at the rubric I simply asked my students a question.
What made these speeches good?
My students decided that speeches were good because the speaker was sharing a passion, an interest or telling a story. As a teacher the most memorable speeches were the ones when students shared something about themselves that we might not hear.
I then challenged the class. They had 3-4 minutes to share something with the class and they needed to make those moments count. Everyone had a story to share and it was their job to find their one.
Over the next few weeks I spent more time coaching kids then explicit teaching. Alongside offering advice about language features, and giving feed back about structure I often scratched my head wondering why a student had chosen topics they didn’t seem interested in or passionate about.
Despite being officially not the done thing I let students use as many images as they saw fit to help communicate their ideas and some tried out an ignite format.
This year I was amazed to see a number of my kids that don’t necessarily shine when in standardised testing coming out of their shell to boldly declare ‘this is who I am.’ We learned about being the new kid in school, fears, learning disabilities, personal heroes, hobbies, family culture and immigrating to New Zealand.
One child talked about losing a parent.
The speech itself might not have ticked all those nice boxes on the rubric. There weren’t the dramatic pauses or hand gestures. In fact the student could not finish the speech so I read from the cue cards beside them. By the end of the speech, half the class, including myself, were in tears.
This was a speech that everyone in the classroom that afternoon will remember.
My students might not have been good enough to make the finals but there were so many kids who bought their best selves to speeches this year.
And that’s what any teacher should be aiming for.
Twice a year my school requires that I send a survey out to my students. On one level it’s fantastic to get feedback from your learners about what is going well in class and what needs tweaking but on the other there’s the ZOMG my students are grading me feeling. Was I too grumpy yesterday when student A hadn’t finished work? Could I have done a better job of talking to Student B about their improper PE uniform?
The survey is done via google forms and the results then get shared with my principal. There’s a few must dos but there is also an opportunity to add other questions. Most of the questions are agree/disagree questions like ‘my teacher treats students and their ideas with respect.
I tend to prefer qualitative feedback that quantitative. I asked my kids what their wins for the year are and something they want to improve before the end of the year. It was rewarding to see kids valuing learning activities and opportunities through the year.
However there are areas to work on. A number of my students have talked about wanting more challenging work so I will work with them to look for projects that they can sink their teeth into for the rest of the year.
Another thing want to get better at before the end of the year is maths. I’ll freely admit that maths is a subject that I struggle to get excited about the way I do about other areas of the curriculum. Perhaps I’ve watched too much Conrad Wolfram. Nevertheless, it’s my job to get excited about teaching maths and then get the kids enthused about maths.
It’s been almost a month between posts.
Over the last few weeks of term school production gradually took over my life. By the end of term I could barely think much less write something resembling a coherent blog post.
This is not to say that production was all bad. I enjoyed teaching dance, finally got my head around final cut pro and created some awesome effects for the show. The kids relished the chance to perform and I had that proud teacher moment of seeing my students up on stage being awesome.
However being the resident AV geek has its drawbacks. Putting together music, movies and images for 110 minute show while also trying to teach full-time was not a good combination. Instead of feeling exuberant, as I normally do at the end of a creative project, I wanted to curl up in bed for a week.
And that’s pretty much what I did during school holidays.
For the first time in two years I haven’t travelled away from Wellington for a conference. It would be an understatement to say I’ve had a pretty good run of PD this year. On one level I was glad for the break, but on the other, the frenzy of tweets from ulearn made me a little envious of all the marvellous connections and MAGIC that comes from being in the same room with your virtual staffroom.
So I find this a very slow start into the final term of 2013. I’m hoping this post will re-ignite blogging as I’ve got a number of posts running around in my head.
This term I’m looking forward to
Makey Makey magic (hopefully with other classes)
Organising Market Day
Walking with my students to squash
Finishing up a special year-long project
I’m not looking forward to
Saying goodbye to my Year 8s and their families. I’ve taught these students for 2 years and have witnessed some amazing growth in these kids. While I appreciate it’s time for the students to move on the urge to blubber will be there at that final assembly.
I’ve become a huge quadblogging fan.
For those not in the know quadblogging is when a group of four classes take turns to read and comment on individual blogs. The quad can be international or national.
After a few false starts, the quad I’ve been involved in this year has been nothing short of awesome. I feel bad that the class hasn’t been able to give as much attention as I would like owing to production practices, swimming and learning conferences playing havoc with the classroom schedule.
A few weeks ago a challenge went out. The students of one of the quads wanted to map our classroom in minecraft.
To say my students are obsessed with minecraft would be an understatement. There’s something about building virtual worlds which is almost as addictive as refined sugar to my learners.
One of my students took over the project and spent the next few weeks measuring up a storm. I wasn’t allowed to touch my whiteboard as measurements went up and were then put into written form. The initial write up conveyed an insane amount of detail and involved discussions about the Pythagorus theorem.
The excitement of seeing the build grew but there was one small problem – the set up of my classroom is very different to a typical classroom. My students don’t really notice the difference as that’s our normal. We are only reminded that our classroom isn’t typical when the odd student from outside of our syndicate walks in and goes ‘woah it looks different in here.’ As a result our quadblogging buddies were having trouble getting their heads around our classroom layout.
The initial result was wrong.
And from that wrong I ventured into the promised land as far literacy goes: boys talking to each other about their writing. Not just the surface ‘I think you did a good job’ or ‘how do you spell this word’ but those in-depth conversations, the ‘if you write this, the reader might think that’ talks which really develop kids as writers.
My students had a go at giving the blogging buddies feedback. Helping their peers put things right turned out to be a fantastic way for the kids to really stretch their explaining skills. As I sat working with a child on their reading, I found myself distracted wanting to the capture the learning conversation happening just a few meters a way.
One of my students suggested a fix was for our blogging buddies to make an initial build and then our class could rebuild. While I was impressed by the lateral thinking a quick reminder about the ‘task with the task’ writing and measuring had the kids back thinking.
As always there was extra learning for me.
How could we have explained our set up a bit better?
When did we need to get our rulers and when was time to make sure our explanations used words to helped create an accurate picture in the readers mind?
I’ve been hugely impressed how this connection has lead to so much unintended and unscripted learning. It’s pushed me to think more about how we can redefine our learning tasks.
I’ll freely admit that when using google docs for the formal writing assessment my primary purpose was actually to make my job a teacher a whole lot easier.
I loathe marking paper tests with the fire of a thousand suns. No matter how hard I try, I end up swimming in a sea of paper and I am overly paranoid about losing the tests. Then there’s the wasted time spent entering data into some of the world’s most user-unfriendly computer systems which I then enter into a spreadsheet so I have the information I want organised in the way I need (which is really another rant for another day).
There were some benefits for the kids from moving away from the traditional paper and pencil tests. Handwriting legibility isn’t an issue which means kids can read their work. When the students make mistakes, there is no messy crossing out and the writing still flows when they go back and correct their errors. Some kids like that they can move ideas around or go back and write an idea later.
What I was unprepared for is by using google docs for a simple writing assessment was that my students would use technology to start redefining assessment.
Even at a rudimentary level a word processor comes with a spell-check. Kids won’t be able to control themselves and will use the spell check to cheat. But here’s the thing, I used a spell check a few seconds ago because I didn’t know how to spell rudimentary. I had a guess that got me close (rudametary) but that red dotted line turned up to let me know I needed to go back and check my work.
Am I cheating or using the tools available to me?
e-asttle, New Zealand’s standardised writing assessment tool, forbids the use of dictionary and word cards on account that spelling and vocabulary are two elements of the assessment. While I agree that accurate spelling is important so that others can understand what we write, if we want to assess unassisted spelling then why not have a separate spelling test?
Moreover after two writing class-wide writing assessments, my observation is that kids with low levels of spelling are the same ones who have frequent spelling errors even when they have the option of using a spell-check. My opinion is that students with low spelling levels often don’t know have enough spelling strategies to get them ‘near enough’ for the spell check to work effectively or they select the wrong word when prompted. I’d argue that learning how to effectively use a spell-check is more important than memorising the i before e except after c rule because those spelling rules we teach have a whole raft of exceptions.
As I marked the students writing, I was surprised to see pictures and links to videos appearing in the students writing samples without any prompting from me. I worry that many teachers would see using a finding images and videos as off-task behaviour. I was concerned too but more because one of the students had used a copyrighted image in the work without any accreditation. In fact I was impressed that students had taken onboard the idea that we should use images and videos to enhance the power of their words. In every case the image or video used added another layer of communication to the students words. Yet there is no element for using visual images appropriately in the writing rubric as it currently stands.
The more conversations I have with my students, the more I’m aware that our assessment practices aren’t in line with our reality in the classroom much less the real world. I’m sure there are those that would argue that all this stuff just shows the need to go back to pencil and paper assessment in order to standardise our writing assessment. But maybe the writing assessments aren’t capturing what it means to communicate effectively through text in the 21st century.
I also learned that when you set tasks over the cloud, a whole new world opens up. While I have argued in the past that teachers shouldn’t assume that students are going to be the ones leading the way there’s something awesome when kids start using the tools available to start repurposing assessment. It’s going to make assessment more authentic but far more complicated.
Over the last three weeks my class has been participating in learn to swim lessons put on by our local swimming pool.
As with many things like this. It is easy to gripe about disruptions to the classroom programmes in the middle of a busy term. However after the first session realised these three weeks of learning to swim is the classroom programme.
Overseas readers might not appreciate how much of an influence the water has on New Zealand life. We are an island nation and most of the population lives on the coast. Our summers are spent floating in pools, rivers and oceans.
Despite being surrounded by water, New Zealanders as a group don’t know how to swim. Our drowning rates are one of the worst in the developed world and twice that of Australia.
At the start of our lessons I was concerned by the significant number of students in the class could not swim a lap of the 25 meter pool. Over the last few weeks there has been some amazing progress made by the kids.
As the lessons progressed, what I found myself really looking forward to was the walk to the pools. The walk down is just under 10 minutes. After the swim lessons we often walk to the adjacent park for a run around as the lesson time often cut into morning teas and lunches.
Those walks were a time often to have a catch up with students. The kids that might not talk so much in class, the ones whose behaviour might challenge you. The walk gave time to reconnect with learners. Our routine got a shake up and there was time to have those chats.
Time is arguably the most precious commodity in schools. Demands of curriculum must-dos, special events, those activities that foster relationships often get quickly get pushed aside as the school year gets gets in the way.
Yet kids change so much in just a few short months.
By taking a walk, time and space was recreated to reconnect with the learners in the class.
I had goofy discussions.
I learned about Pou.
I answered some tough questions about life and death.
All in the quick walk to the pool.
During the summer holidays I had the pleasure of visiting the amazing learning space of @sherratsam and his colleague Chad.
If you ever get the chance to visit either of these educators, please do. However for those whose PD budget doesn’t quite stretch to a visit to international classroom visits, you can visit their blog Time Space education.
For me this day gave me a chance to see theories and hunches about student learning in action. Their classrooms were calm, purposeful and creative hives of learning.
One idea that really intrigued me was the use of yoga and meditation in class.
I’m a regular at my body balance class at my local gym and enjoy the calm and contented feeling I have at the end of class.
Yet as an adult I often struggle with the meditation session at the end of class. Sometimes I am able to relax entirely but I often have trouble clearing my mind. There’s just too much buzzing around in my head.
If I was having trouble how would my highly active class respond to meditation?
Was it going to end in giggles, eyeball rolling and pre-teen goofiness?
To be honest I was highly sceptical that meditation would easily translate from the worldly and sophisticated kids in an international school to a public classroom in suburban Wellington.
But I have been proved wrong.
For the most part my class has responded really well to purposeful downtime and have been requesting it before I even get a chance to unlock the door from lunch.
Our curtains are drawn and I put on some relaxing music. At the moment the students are learning to focus on their breathing and posture.
What was really surprising for me was that the children whose home lives are complex and sometimes chaotic have responded so positively to this idea of purposeful downtime. On further reflection, this makes a lot of sense for some kids school represents a safe, calm and caring space.
For this reason alone I will persevere with meditation once the novelty wears off.
As teachers we expect concentration in our classrooms but assume kids have the tools to focus.
We want our classrooms to be calm but school schedules sometimes run at break-neck speed.
We want our kids to be mindful of the effect of their actions on others. Yet time out for reflection often comes after the negative behaviour occurs.
What if in sacrificing 5-10 minutes of class time to calming students bodies and minds we gain more engagement?
Is that 10 minutes really a waste of time?
For someone who loathes interior design with the fire of 1,000 suns I spend way too much time thinking about classroom layout. After my initial move away from student desks, I had another classroom re-configuration at the start of the year when I was the lucky recipient of new classroom furniture.
Yet here I am back in the holidays surreptitiously stashing desks around the school. My initial classroom layout had for the most part worked well. The kids made great use of the space and the classroom could be configured and reconfigured based on our needs. Yet there were some niggles.
Some furniture wasn’t being used at all by the students, there were areas where the kids were bunching up and others they weren’t using at all. A further catalyst for change was the school library re-opening and taking with it an entire shelf load of resources. So I took this midyear break as an opportunity to do yet another classroom redesign and most importantly de-clutter the classroom.
I amazed at how much clutter I have been able to amass in my 18 months in this classroom. I didn’t even think I had packrat tendencies (when you move every 18 months or so you don’t tend to hang on to junk) but nevertheless old notices, a few resources and whole lot of empty boxes were still in my class. It must be a teacher thing as my mother (who is a teacher) has boxes and boxes of resources that she has stored away in a shipping container (not all of it is teaching resources).
How much do we hold onto in schools just in case it might be useful?
Does it serve a purpose?
Does it make your classroom environment flow better or does it add obstacles and create visual noise?
At the beginning of the year I was very fortunate to spend the day with @sherrattsam at NIST in Bangkok. His blog is a must read but this post on time and space. So I made it my goal over the holiday to create more space.
I’ve pushed most of the tables in my class against walls to create as much floor space as possible. Floor space creates a physical flow through the room. There’s no reason that the kids can’t move the tables (and I’m expecting they will) however by placing furniture on the perimeter of the room there tends to be more flexibility in space.
I’ve deliberately moved the teaching station to the back of the room away from the board. Stephen Heppell (one of my learning space gurus) talks about creating multiple points of interest around the room. By having a teaching station right by the board I was still owning the front of the room. I’ve also added in a coffee table and sofa to make the area more interesting. Hopefully this will spread out the points of interest more in the room and also give kids a positive experience in groups.
Music and smell are important and again I’ve borrowed from Time/Space.There’s an electric aromatherapy burner in the background and the dock where I put my iPhone for some relaxing music (much to the chagrin of my 1Direction fans). The aromatherapy has had mixed reviews by the students. Some love it, others roll their eyeballs but the idea of creating a calm environment appeals. The science is very much out on the efficacy of aromatherapy and I’ve been mindful to use scents that won’t upset the asthmatics. However even if the claims about the efficacy of essential oils is mixed it can take the edge of the odour of class full of adolescents post PE. The stools enable the students to use the sink as a work area if they wish.
Daily 5 board. I totally stole this idea from @heymilly. My classroom has this wonderfully velcro type material along one wall which when you add some some velcro to the backs of laminated bits of card make for an interactive display. The kids names are laminated on the right with different colours. The students park their name next to the choice with each colour representing a different session.The rest of my walls are pretty much bare for good reason.
The students aren’t here yet.
Each new term brings a chance for new beginnings and new adventures.
By creating more physical space I hope to create a learning environment that has purpose. Nothing gets added to our environment unless it adds to the room.
My mantra during this busy term will be to go slow.
To spend more time getting the why right.
@matt_odowda recently put out the idea on twitter – What are 11 experiences kids should have in school before they reach the age of 11 that will never forget.
While my students have turned 11, I still have 11 magic experiences that I hope the kids won’t forget during their time with me at intermediate.
1. Make your own bread and eat it
Fermentation has been around for thousands of years but kids still get a kick out of it. Any science that you can eat is always going to be a winner but the warm bread on a cold winter day = winning combination.
4. Make an igloo out of milk bottles
Bonus points if the igloo collapses during class time.
5. Abseil down a 25 meter cliff
6. Give a speech that matters
Instead of going on a tour rock up to parliament to give a speech infront of a dozen MPs, media and members of the public.
What 11 moments would you like your kids to take away from school?