Category Archives: RTC 7 – Learning Environment
It was one of those weeks where I felt the burn. Despite spending a weekend at school I didn’t felt like I had accomplished much and sure enough this week passed in haze. Every day this week I had something on after school except for Friday where I planned with my team until 5.
Thursday was one of those days where an avalanche of activity descended from the heavens. I didn’t stop from the time I got to school at 7.20 until I left after at 6pm. Interruptions, school photos, visitors, an overseas Skype call to the director of a documentary we watched the week previously as well as functions before and after school. I would like to say there was quality teaching going on but in reality this week was one where I was just trying to keep the ship afloat. There were no reading or maths groups this week as assessments and interruptions took their toll on my classroom programme.
Yet despite feeling anything but a super-teacher this week there was a ray of sunshine in my week. Just before morning tea on Friday I looked at my class working on their assembly and was amazed to see how engaged and focused the students were. The energy in the room was amazing. Students where organising shoots, admiring new tools and giving feedback to each other. Nobody was off task. It’s one of those moments where you grab your phone to video that magic. I quickly realised that it didn’t matter that my literacy groups hadn’t gone as planned this week. Reading and writing scripts, directing movies, our preparations for assembly would be my literacy programme for the week.
Purpose + authenticity = awesome learning
At the beginning of the year, I introduced my class to the concept of lollypop moments. The concept comes from an 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 bought a huge bag of lollypops from Moore Wilsons and over the course of the term, the kids have taken it upon themselves to nominate each other for acts of random kindness. The challenge has been to get the kids to move away from nominating their immediate circle of friends and to seeing the good in everyone.
Sharing has been a common theme this week. Before easter a group of my students approached my team leader about the possibility of our syndicate (that’s a group of 3 classes) running a talent show. And this week it was the big event. We hadn’t given over much class time in the preparation for this event. Nevertheless it was to see most of the kids step up.
Were all the acts a polished performance?
But a huge amount of kids got up and gave it their best shot. In an era where we many expect to be passively entertained it was fantastic to see kids willing to create and share with their peers. The event was such a success that we will be doing another one later in the term.
This week was a bit bittersweet as we farewelled our principal to a new position. I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to my outgoing principal as she was the one who gave me the nod 18 or so months ago and has had to put up with having me on staff ever since.
I’m not sure many principals would be happy to let a first year teacher oversee a group of 11 and 12 year olds making a submission to parliament, not bat an eyelid when finding out I placed half my classroom furniture in storage via twitter, or take the time to facebook you two days before Christmas to let you know you’d gotten into the Apple Distinguished Educator programme.
As I was sitting at my principal’s farewell, it struck me that we often wait until people are leaving to say nice things about people. What has been nice about this term is that through lollypop moments we are taking more time to notice the every the little actions that make life more interesting.
Just before the class headed out for their final PE slot, there was a plea for a few last-moment lollypop moments. What started off as a quick thank you for helping move furniture quickly began to snowball and before we knew it everyone in the class had something nice said about them by another member of the class.
It was a nice moment and a good way to end the term.
My moment of notoriety at the Apple Institute so it seemed fitting that the first new thing I would implement in the classroom was improv. I had fun during the sessions and decided that most of my kids would enjoy it too so decided to give it a go.
We started in pairs with the 1,2,3 game followed by the actions. Because there was an odd number of kids in the class, I ended up buddying up with a student which made it hard to record moments but was great to use bonding with the class.
Next up we tried the yes, and game. I put myself right into the firing line by modelling this improv line with one of my students dying a gruesome death over the course of the story.
We had a go at yes, but as a try at shutting down conversations before finally hitting the story time.
The students were thrilled and even my shy kids were having fun taking risks and playing the games. What impressed me most was how quickly the students wanted to adapt the number of players and even the spine of the story to make up a new game.
As part of the reflection on the activity I had the kids think about how improv could be used to help with their learning. Immediately could link it through to literacy and that they could tell better stories. It was disappointing how many of the students didn’t recognise that we were in the Arts and that creative expression was a valid learning area in and of itself moreover the activity helped develop their team skills through working with different members of the class.
It’s amazing how trying something new can shine a light on the shortcomings of previous practices.
As the term wears on I’ve been moving my class on from culture-building through to getting learning programmes started. Our unit of inquiry for the first half of the year is on globalization
Globalization there’s so many ways the class could go with this concept. At the start of the term I had lots of mad ideas and in the process of trying to get some sort of unit plan together I kept back to this idea of being less helpful.
Was it up to me to tell the kids what roads to go down? Were the roads I was missing?
So I started loosely.
A simple provocation, the overview effect.
What 10 things would you send out into space to represent ‘spaceship earth.’
It’s a question the class will return to at the end of this unit.
As I looked around the class some groups took to the open question with relish, others needed support and a few were floundering. They were waiting for some to tell them what to do and what to think. As a teacher I wanted to make it easier, but I kept back wanting to embrace the mess.
The class will probably spend a few weeks floating above our planet before delving down into different layers.
It wil be hard work both mentally and physically. Perhaps a worksheet or the typical route of finding out about country or designing their own flag might have been easier but not nearly so rewarding both for me but more importantly for my students.
A new year, a new group of kids but still the same goal, getting kids into reading.
Even amongst the Year 8s there were a few kids that needed to get back into the reading.
The kids have started bringing in books to read to themselves and I’ve started reading Whale Rider to the class. Not a typical back to school, however the themes of being true to yourself is something I wanted to instil in my class from the start of the year. In fact when I look at the books I select as class read alouds, The Alchemist, The Wave they are a bit more mature then my students would normally pick. Yet the books are so rich in culture and themes, they are ideas I want the kids to hear.
But what about the kids themselves. One of my students came for a visit last week and I asked her what book she was reading. Without missing a beat she pulled a book out of her bag and told me more about it. This time last year the student was a non-reader. I wish I could say I was the one who gave her the reading bug but it was another of the students who helped turn a non-reader into a reader.
At the start of the year students volunteered to read passages from their favourite books. As it happened one of my Year 7s read a book that peaked the interest of the non-reader and as it turned out the book was part of a series. The older student found her niche and this habit will hopefully stay with her for the rest of her life.
The crazy thing is that I abandoned the read alouds by the kids after the first term because the kids didn’t seem that enthusiastic about either reading to others nor listening to books. The crazy thing was that it wasn’t until the end of the year that I found out what a powerful effect students reading to other students. So this year I am going to persevere. I will provide scaffolds to the students who will need support but the goal is simple, by the end of the term all the students in my class will have read to the class for five minutes.
Reading is often viewed both inside and outside the classroom as an individual activity. A set of strategies to be learned, something you do to pass time on the train. Yet the more I think about it, reading is primarily a social activity. Readers are forever swapping recommendations from others, reading humorous passages out loud.
As I looked out over my class on Thursday afternoon slurping iceblocks and enjoying their books I think we might be well on the way to establishing our class as a community of readers.
On a sunny afternoon this week I ventured out with the rest of the teachers in my school to take part in a cricket skills workshop. I wasn’t particularly enthused by the prospect of spending time learning about cricket. I’m an avid gym goer and for the life of me can’t understand the reason why people would want to spend hours running around after a ball. Nevertheless, PE is an important part of the curriculum so off I trudged in the summer heat to learn more about cricket.
The workshop itself taught us just a few basic skills to get us started but there was something about learning how to throw, bat, catch and run between the wickets that seem to re-energize even the most adverse of ball sport participants. Which was the primary purpose of the workshop. If I’m not enthused about the prospect of ball sports, that attitude is going to show in my teaching. I can still cover the material but there’s no way I can fake passion.
One cricketing skills workshop hasn’t changed my outlook on ball sports nevertheless I did throughly enjoy myself. It wasn’t the game itself, but being outside with teachers learning a new skill, laughing at my own and others follies and getting some exercise that I really enjoyed. Cricket in this case just happened to be the medium but it could easily have been bullrush, flying kites or even catching bubbles.
As I was leaving the field I quietly mused how much we underestimate the importance of play in school. We know that play helps foster creativity, perseverance and team work in both adults in child. Yet is play something we value in schools?
To be sure most schools have play time. But isn’t the very fact that we need schedule time for the kids to play outside the classroom show how we little value play in learning?
Do we play with ideas or concepts or in the rush to make sure we cover all the necessary parts of the curriculum do we miss out time for ‘unproductive’ play?
Does teachers professional learning reflect the importance of play? How often do you play games or hear laughter during your professional learning? How much of your professional learning happens outside?
Because really shouldn’t learning be an excuse to eat an ice block for dinner?
This week has been dominated by assessment. If I haven’t been giving assessments, I have marking assessments and then spending time moderating assessment. What I am not looking forward to is the ranking that students inevitably do to each other once the assessment is returned.
Half way through last year, I got so fed up with the kids ranking each other after every test that I grouped my students by height for the first two weeks of the third term. I was so brazen that I even called the groups giants, tallies, shorties and dwarves. During that time the most amazing thing happened. Kids who often pulled back from class conversations were suddenly talking. Kid who usually dominated pulled back. ‘Ohh I never get anything right’ a tall child who was always in the ‘bottom’ literacy groups muttered incredulously.
I started playing games. I let the shortest child in the class choose a game to play against the giants and vice versa. The students quickly developed a group identity based on their height. They liked the feelings of power that came when their team got to decide on the system which tended to favour their own physical characteristics.
It took a few days for the kids to twig to my system. Some were outraged at the suggestion that I was grouping kids by physical features. After all, kids can’t control their height but they can control their learning through hard work. An excellent point. They also pointed out that some kids might find the work too hard or too easy. Another excellent point. However I asked my class this, why is me grouping kids by height any different from what students do to each other when tests come back?
This provocation led to an interesting discussion about learning. Why it was that knowing someone else scored lower on a test make you feel better? What does it feel like to be at the bottom of the group? What about the top? How come the middle felt left out? Most importantly why we feel the need to rank ourselves at all?
Do levels actually matter?
As my students found out letters and numbers don’t really mean anything at all until there are privileges associated with them. Scoring Stage 6 on NuMPA doesn’t really mean anything (and is certainly gibberish to many educators outside New Zealand) until a Stage 7 comes along and passes judgement on your inferior number. If you are lucky you won’t be the one with the lowest number in the class in which case you get a boost from knowing you’ve done better than someone else.
How often does this academic ranking by students go unchallenged by teachers?
Is this helping students succeed?
My problem isn’t so much with the labels themselves, but when the labels become the defacto feedback. I have deliberately not written the levels, nor have I fixed errors on the students writing samples I am about to return. I want the students to do the heavy lifting on their work before we sit down and talk about what level I think they are and where they need to go next.
In fact as I was sitting in a moderation meeting I silently wondered if the people that needed to learn how to moderate writing are the kids themselves.
What is it about this piece of work that makes it outstanding?
What does the writer of this story need to do go to the next level?
Those questions lead to more interesting outcomes than the more popular refrain heard in classes, ‘is it good?’
On the last days of my summer vacation I had the pleasure to visit @samsherratt class in Bangkok. His class blog (and an older version) is source of inspiration for me so to see the class in action was surreally wonderful.
Among the dozens of ideas I saw during my time in class was the idea of a simple notebook being made into something awesome, a bubble catcher. In short a bubble catcher is a place to record ideas and thoughts. The story of the name behind the book is that a visiting writer had likened ideas to bubbles, they float away easily so we need to write them down before they disappear.
I immediately seized on this idea, after all I use my iphone in the same manner; snapping pictures, making reminders, recording video to capture moments I want to remember later.
But how was I going to get my students enthused?
Intermediate is funny age. They are not kids any more but they are also not adults. In the back of my mind I wondered if the kids might screw their noses up at being asked to do an activity popular with pre-schoolers.
As it turned out, the antidote to sitting a lengthy test was to run around in the summer sun blowing bubbles.
There was no learning intention, no success criteria.
I wanted to sell the kids on an idea, the importance of capturing our ideas.
The students then decorated one of their exercise books and that will become their bubble catcher for the year. Our shared experience, the feelings of joy, the heat of the sun, the coolness of the shade and the sounds of laughter will hopefully stay with the students long after they leave class.
To be sure, this could have been done digitally. However I want to get the students into the simple action of recording quickly recording ideas and then going back to whatever it is they are doing. By the time the kids got out the computers, logged in, waited their turn, the moment would be gone.
In the words of one of my students, the bubble would have popped.
The technology in the classroom, such as it is, just isn’t fit for the purpose.
Over the course of the year I hope that the book gets filled with writing, post its and the odd printed out pictures. It will be messy and apart from a date and some tags I hope every book looks different and, dare I say it, messy.
Because real learning is always messy.
With the start of the year winding down I thought I would share with you some icebreaker activities I’ve done with my class to help build a sense of team this year.
Like bingo but instead alongside content questions e.g knows their 8 times tables backwards you can add in things like ‘went to the beach in summer holidays.
The human knot
I find having a length of ribbon stops the ‘eww I don’t want hold this person’s hand.’ Students stand in a circle shoulder to shoulder. Have them put their right hand into the middle holding a ribbon. The kids then find another person’s ribbon across the circle to hold on to. You need to make sure that the kids are holding the hands of different people. Then the kids have to make a circle without releasing the ribbons. This activity works best with about 10-12 maximum and I start with small size groups to get the kids used to it. You could add challenges like no talking or having some of the group blind
The goal of this activity is to get the students to work together to try and fit into a set number of hula hoops. Start out with a large number of hula hoops and then gradually bring down the number. The class will eventually find they need to life some people up to get down to four or even three hula hoops. A great team building and spatial awareness challenge.
This can be an inter-class team. Class gets two gym mats and have to work their way from one end of the gym to other without any team members touching the ground. If someone puts a body part on the mat, then they must go back to the start. Winning team is the first to get their people to safety.
My students loved this challenge. Each team gets 6-8 skewers (or spaghetti pieces) and four marshmallows. They are then challenged with making the tallest structure possible in teams of 2-3. Hard part: kids wanting to eat marshmallows.
My class went digital with this. Each child is charged with interviewing another student about their first few days at school. We’ll take some photos of our visual mihis and ‘bury’ the time capsule until the last day of school.
What activities did you do with your class to build a sense of team?
One of my co-workers last year remarked that the second year of teaching is so much easier than the first. Not only do you have a new workplace, but also learning the ins and outs of teaching without having a supervising teacher in the room. There’s nothing more isolating than those few weeks in your classroom when you suddenly realise it’s just you and your students.
This year I know where everything is, I’m back in the same classroom and half of the students in my class are joining me again for 2013. The goodie buckets and video went down well and I think I’ll keep those traditions in mind for next year with my students.
Random thoughts for the week.
Why do teachers not stay with classes for multiple years? Even for the ‘older’ kids consistency is a good thing. I feel that the class will be able to get down to learning a lot quicker as half the kids in the class know how things run and more importantly I know half the kids really well and they know me. Yes that means I can’t recycle resources from last year, but really should teachers be teaching the same thing year after year?
Why do teachers start each year with a huge batch of new students? The highlight of my week was watching my year 8s go off and teach the new students in the class how to comment on the blog. It’s a lot easier doing ICT related stuff when half the class know how to do things like sign into google accounts and comment on a blog vastly increasing the number of trouble shooters in the class.
Daily 5 rocks the house. Even on the first day of school my students were asking when we were going to restart the Daily 5. For me that makes this classroom management system a winner, the kids are asking about it.
The answer being soon.
Lets get to know each other better first…