Blog Archives

Weekly Reflection – reporting doesn’t have to suck

Fort Awesome, Harvard Yard

Image by drgandy from Flickr

My twitter feed has been quiet of late and there is one simple reason for it.

Reports.

At best most teachers tolerate writing reports as a bureaucratic necessity and at worst they see it at a medieval torture device due to rigid formatting requirements and the lack of sleep that go hand in hand with report writing season.

If I spend an hour analysing data, thinking, writing, drafting and proofreading for each child adds up to 30 hours on top of normal teaching duties as well as the multitude of other tasks bureaucratic that pop up at the end of the school year. If you happen to teach students who are at an age where they transitioning to another part of the education system, there will be reports to fill out to add to the paperwork.

Aside from the legally mandated statements about a child’s progress against National Standards, my school has been experimenting with reporting to parents. This experimentation has left us with a lot of wriggle room to try out  Instead of ticking boxes my syndicate has put a greater emphasis on qualitative feedback. Sure this has has been more time consuming for me as a teacher however the process has been less painful because I have more ownership in the product.

Alongside my comments the students have written their own comments about the year on a google form, selected a picture from the class flickr account and next week will film the final part of their video time capsules which will be included as a QR code on the paper report. Sure it’s a mishmash of old and new technology and the report is not standardised to the whole school.

We don’t all learn the same and we don’t teach the same.

So why should school reports the same?

I’m sure that there are a lot of educators that view reports as a relic of bygone era where communication between parents and teachers was largely limited to official bits of paper going home at mandated times of the years. These days I will phone, email and text parents about concerns and also victories in class.

Nevertheless the end of the year marks a milestone. Reporting for me is part of the process of taking leave of the time I spent with my students. I found it rewarding thinking about how my students have grown in this last year. This is particularly the case for my Year 8s who I have taught for two years.

Like many things in life reporting is what you make of it.

Our jobs as educators is try to find the awesomeness in every kid and nurture it.

Reports are time to see how we’ve both done in progressing towards that goal.

Weekly Reflection: Minecraft, MLEs and Quadblogging! Oh my!

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.

Nevertheless my other quadblogging buddies have been fantastic.

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.

Very 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.

Weekly Reflection: Shall we dance?

Shanghai

Image by author

Phew.

Just under 4 weeks until production and the scene I’m in charge of is… 1950s rock and roll dancing.

I’m one of those clumsy sorts who is forever falling over and dropping things. For that reason my dancing strictly to the gym to limit the chances of doing damage to myself and others.

Yet here I am in charge of scene of teaching 20+ kids how to dance.

A nightmare?

I think so.

Fortunately one of the kids in the group happens to enjoy rock and roll dancing as a hobby. I am also lucky that one of the teachers at school is an accomplished rock and roll dancer so between the dancer and the other students I’ve managed to pick up enough steps to choreograph 90 seconds worth of dance.

When you can’t dance 90 seconds seems like an eternity when faced with helping 20+ kids on stage. While I have been firmly outside my comfort zone some kids have been in their element. One of the joys of production is seeing the kids who might not be sporty, good at maths or literacy shine. One of my students remarked ‘they were born for this.’

Sir Ken Robinson often talks about how every education system on the system has the same hierarchy of subjects: numeracy and literacy at the top of the pecking order, followed by science and humanities with art and in particular dance firmly at the bottom of the pecking order. The current obsession with childhood obesity has given PE/fitness a bit of a boost however dance is often forgotten about.

In fact as children migrate through school, dance is something that we tick off once every year or so through production barely even touching even one of the four arts strands in the New Zealand curriculum: Understanding the Arts in Context, Developing Practical Knowledge in the Arts, Developing Ideas in the Arts, and Communicating and Interpreting in the Arts.

A few moths ago I stumbled upon a Ted Talk premised on the idea of replacing powerpoint with dance. The idea behind the talk was that not only can dance help explain scientific concepts it can actually help scientists with their work.

Yet I can’t help wonder why we can’t value dance for its own sake. Our preschoolers and junior primary children know that it’s lots of fun to dance but gradually that joy it is educated out of them. We tell them to sit down and stop moving and get on with the serious business of learning.

A few years ago I remember walking down Nanjing Road in Shanghai and stopped to see a huge open air class of ballroom dancers out in the morning. I couldn’t help but wonder would New Zealand be a more happy and healthy if there was dancing in the streets?

Actually there’s not an app for that: when technology gets in the way

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Image by flickingerbrad

As iPads and tablets are gaining popularity in schools, I often hear questions from teachers like ‘I’m getting some iPads for my Year 3/4 class what apps do you recommend?’ That question is often loaded with the expectation that somewhere out there is an app which will drag an existing classroom programme into the 21st century with just a few downloads from the app store.

Anyone know of a good reading app?

Yes I know of an outstanding reading app, it’s called a book. There are thousands of them at your local library.  But surely we’ve all worked out that plonking students in a library and leaving them to it will not on its own ensure kids learn to read?

Which is why I feel so uneasy about app farming.

There are plenty of apps out there that seem educational and undoubtedly find their way onto classroom iPads without much thought. However once you take the bells and whistles away  many apps don’t  do much to enhance student engagement. Lots of skill and drill but is that what really engages learning? If the app keeps the kids quiet while you get on with group work, then it must be good right?

What happens when the kids tire of the gimmick?

That’s an expensive piece of hardware on the table.

For me it always comes back to purpose.

What is it your kids need to learn?

It’s such a simple question that gets lost in the quest to get technology into classrooms or the latest and greatest app on your device.  In fact without knowing your kids or your classroom it’s probably impossible for me to recommend effective apps for your students.

Do your kids to show in words and writing a maths strategy? Explain everything is pretty cool.

Collaborate with others? Skype, blogger, twitter, gmail.

Create a rap to explain key ideas from a novel. Garageband is awesome.

Show fermentation at work. iTimelapse is fabulous.

I often wish there was label on each new classroom iPad warning the teacher in charge of the device that just like the book or a pencil, there are millions of ways that the tablet could be used in your classroom and it’s your job to figure out how to make it work best for your learners.

If you don’t know what the specific app does and why you need it what is the point in having it in your classroom?

Lets take the focus off the technology and bring it back onto the learning. Figure out what your classroom needs are then start looking for tools to do the job.

Weekly Reflection: Creating classroom calm – meditation in classroom

Classroom Break.

Image by Rares Dutu used under creative commons licence

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?

Weekly Reflection: A new principal

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Changing of the guard (image by author)

I never sleep well the night before the start of a new term. There’s lots ticking over in my mind. how will the new classroom set up go (answer, a few remarks about more space and then business as usual) suddenly remembering a job on your to do list, a wake up jolt from an earthquake.

And this term a new principal.

Out of all the jobs in a school, the hardest definitely has to be the principal. Classroom teachers have the LOLz that go with spending time with the kids and not having to worry about setting budgets, buildings and managing the toughest group of learners in the school, teachers.

I joked on twitter that getting a new professional leader for a teacher feels very much like a student getting a new teacher. Students don’t get a choice of who their teacher will be and that new person in the swivel chair is now in charge of professional learning.

Which leads to an important question.

Who is this person who suddenly has the power to make your working day very different?

In this age of google you can quickly find out about a person from their digital footprint and New Zealand is so small that there’s almost always a mutual acquaintance.

A new principal brings change and with change comes uncertainty.

There’s a chance that this new person coming in is going to give up your patch of school culture, change your practice, or challenge a deeply held belief.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.

As I often tell my students if we were all the same, the world would be a very boring place.

A fresh pair of eyes can sometimes do the world of good. Staying the same, doing things the same is ultimately leaving your students behind.

So this term I shall let myself be open to change and also remember being the new kid really sucked for the first few months.

Weekly Reflection: Creating space

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Vision out of the classroom.

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.

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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.

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Teaching station

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Weekly Reflection – on your way to Disco

This year I volunteered to be the teacher in charge of Student Council which also means I’m the teacher in charge of organising the school discos. Officially the student council run disco but there are limitations to 11 and 12 year olds organisational skills.

Organising permission slips, tickets, posters, food sales, lighting, music, prizes, decorations not to mention cleaning up afterwards is a big job. I must admit that I was expecting the weeks leading up to disco to be frantic.

It wasn’t.

The reason?

Google docs.

Ticketing has always been a logistical nightmare. 18 classes to keep tabs on and each kid needs to be issued with an individual ticket so we know how many kids we’ve got inside in case of an emergency.

So I set up a google spreadsheet. Each classroom teacher filled out their student names on separate tab. I filled in the ticket number and then mail merged the information into a ticket. The result was that each child was issued a ticket with their name on it.

When the night came, the teachers in charge of ticketing could easily cross off kids on the master list so we knew how many kids were at the event very quickly.

I also had a google doc going for the student councillors. Music is the most important thing for disco so each student had to go back to their class and get the top five songs. From there I could share that doc with the teacher coordinating the playlist. The kids designed posters which they then shared across the network.

The week of the disco I circulated a google doc with some of the jobs I needed teachers for. The teacher put their names next to the duties and added other jobs I had forgotten about to the doc. In short I was able to tap into the collective knowledge of the teachers in the school without having a giant meeting.

While having nice weather and some awesome staff does help to keep events running smoothly, I’ve found technology helps so much in helping to keep big school events manageable.

10 Tips for student teachers on placement

I was recently asked by a reader if I could give my tips for surviving teaching placement, practicum, teaching experience. Having gone through the experience myself and having watched two sets of student teachers come into our school, I’m not too far removed but I also get the benefit of seeing part of the other side of the fence. However I’m not at the point where I have enough experience to mentor a student teacher so I can’t give the Associate Teacher’s point of view.

1. You are there to learn
Going into placement you have two what might seem like mutually exclusive goals. On one hand, you want to show what an awesome teacher you are to your Associate Teacher/School and get that elusive permanent teaching job post-graduation. But on the other, you are there to learn. Here’s my advice, stick with the former and the latter will take care of itself. Soak in as much as you can, ask questions, make mistakes. Lots of them. The most important quality student teachers need on placement is teachabilty. Nobody expects you to be perfect when you arrive. Being able to show improvement and take on advice is what will impress your associate teacher.

2. No staying out late on a school night
A student teacher from another institution once showed up to my placement school very hungover. While it’s not against the rules to have late nights on the town, it really isn’t a good look on placement and you will be judged negatively on it.

3. Building relationships with your students
There’s a fine line to be trod between being liked and being respected. Often student teachers try to be buddies with the kids and then find classroom management is a challenge once they take full control. By all means be friendly with your students but remember that this different from being their friend. The kids will test the boundaries just by your mere presence. They’ll want to know if the no-nos with their own teacher are a yes with you. Make sure you find out from your associate how behaviour is managed in your school and if you are unsure in any situation, ask your associate teacher.

4. Observe other teachers doing their thing. Ask them lots of questions.
While the bulk of your time will be spent in your Associate Teacher’s placement, do make sure you that you arrange time to see other teachers doing their thing. If you are teaching juniors, ask to see a Year 5/6 class. If you are at an intermediate, be sure to spend some time in the specialist classes. Ask lots of questions. Teachers by their very nature are usually keen to share their knowledge with others.

5. Keep up with your paperwork
Universities love paper. Every week you’ll likely have some sort of form to fill in to keep your university happy. It’s really important that you familiarise yourself with the paperwork requirements of your placement and make sure that you keep yourself up to date.

6. Never say ‘no’ to an opportunity to teach
If a teacher is handing over control of the classroom to you, it means that they trust you. Yes things might go horribly and you will have your share of bad days. Even taking the roll will help you learn and grown into a better teacher. It’s not unheard of for student teachers to be called on to cover a class but strictly speaking you should have a registered teacher in the room with you.

7. Planning
A source of grizzling about student teachers from associates often comes from planning. No teacher will let you in charge of your class without lesson plans. I think some teacher education providers could do a better job of teaching student teachers how to plan a lesson effectively. However to head off uncertainties in planning ask to see your associate teacher’s template early on and adapt that (with permission) for your planning.

8. Be Professional
In essence your placement is an extended job interview. Dress professionally, be on time, attend all staff meetings. Try and schedule a meeting with the principal of your school during placement. Make sure you have questions prepared in advance to make the most of the meeting.

9. You’re going to get sick
There’s no nice way of saying this schools are vectors of disease. At some point you will get heinously ill and most likely at the most inopportune time.

10. Thank you
It goes without saying that you need to thank your school and associate teacher for the placement. A small gift and a heart-felt card for your associate is probably a good idea. Some sort of morning tea or some offering of food wouldn’t go amiss either.

Anymore tips for would-be teachers?

To walk in another teachers shoes

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Cupcake designed by student (image by author)

One of the joys of teaching primary school is that, in theory, you get to teach a bit of everything.

In practice the bulk of my time is still reading, writing, maths with some PE thrown in for good measure. Most schools also have an inquiry/topic which covers everything else.

Intermediate kids go off for specialist teaching in some subjects those opportunities to teach the ‘fun’ stuff is even further stretched for generalist teachers.

Simply put there are not enough hours in the day to get to get through all the other must dos let alone those practical hands-on type activities.

Our school is very fortunate to have a kitchen where all kids get a chance to learn more about cooking. On Wednesdays an advanced class runs for some students.

Knowing about my love of cake decorating the foods teacher graciously let me have a go at teaching the kids some basic cake decorating skills.

As an added bonus, my class went up in the morning to bake bread. We had a look at yeast yesterday, what it looked like, what it smelled like. Then left our bread to rise overnight.

We came back in the morning, happens to the mixture over time.

I even found a nifty timelapse on youtube for the kids to look out the changes in the dough.

Take aways from today.

Food = Smiles

There’s something about sharing food that always gets the same sheepish grin from kids.

Hands-on learning = exhaustion

Even by my standards, today was manic. On top of PD before school, colouring fondant during morning tea as well as having a late finish on cupcakes, I also had student council plus saw a couple of maths groups before assembly. I was on feet rushing around. But I know when all is said and done my kids might not remember the lesson I gave on fractions but they will remember eating hot bread on a cold winters day.

School maths does not equal real world maths

A student who has never answered a test question about fractions correctly on a test was able to tell me lightening fast how many 1/4 teaspoons I would need to make 1 + 1/2 teaspoons of salt.  Context is everything.

Never stereotype any activity as ‘girly’

A lot of guys would probably roll their eyes at cake decorating and wonder why bother teaching boys about cupcake decorating. But here’s the thing. 12 year old boys haven’t figured out cake decorating is a ‘girly’ pursuit. They like eating and they get to play with fondant which is basically edible playdough. To a 12 year old, boy or girl, this is awesome.

Teaching out of my comfort zone makes me a better teacher

I have my room and my way of doing things. While there might be some cross-class collaboration in my syndicate, I can see how easy it is to fall into a teaching rut. Today gave me a good shake up and I learned tons. Moreover actually teaching rather than just popping in for a quick nosey gave me a huge appreciation for the incredible work that goes on up in technology classes.

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