My twitter feed has been quiet of late and there is one simple reason for it.
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.
Last week I passed a significant milestone in my teaching career, I became a fully registered teacher. In New Zealand Newly Qualified Teachers go through a two year-induction and mentoring process. At the start of the process I decided that I wasn’t going to keep a PRT folder in the traditional sense.
Out went the dull meeting minutes and dry forms, in came blog posts, twitter chats, youtube and flickr. I’ve wandered through classrooms in different cities and countries and had some incredible experiences with my learners along the way.
None of this would be possible without the amazing support of the online teaching community only a fraction of whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting offline. I started to write a post wanting to thank you all but quickly realised that it would be inevitable that I would forget someone important. So instead if at some point you’ve dropped me a blog comment, responded to one of my tweets, had a chat at a conference, put me up for the night, then you are part of the awesome tribe of virtual mentor teachers.
At the start of this process my goals were to share, learn, show an alternative and inform.
1. To share – I haven’t shared as much as I had hoped to at the start of this process because I simply didn’t have the energy. I often have posts rolling around in my head but getting them into some sort of coherent and publishable form at the end of a long day of teaching is difficult. Nevertheless there are some posts I’m proud of and I’ve enjoyed documenting this journey. The bonus is of all this sharing has been tapping into expertise of some amazing educators.
2. To learn – To say the last two years have been a steep learning curve would be an understatement. When I look around the classroom, the space is markedly different both from a physical and pedagogical from the start of last year despite half the students being the same kids. This change has been result of reading about other more awesome teachers ideas and repurposing them for my context. The biggest learning moment for me has been the realisation that the induction process for new teachers is too important to be left to one person. I’ve had two incredible mentor teachers to learn from but having a world of educators expertise to tap into has made me smarter. I’m a proud member of the ‘mentor whore’ club.
3. To provide an ‘adjacent possible‘ Over the last two years the online community of teachers has grown considerably and it’s been fantastic to see more PRTs active on twitter. Hopefully others might start thinking that traditional PRT folder has long had its day and it’s time to start something more awesome.
4. To inform. I said at the start I wanted to show that teachers aren’t finished products immediate post graduation. 2 school years on, I feel like even less of finished product. Teachers need to be learning and growing because our kids and communities are ever changing.
Have there been any downsides?
Aside from the cringe that comes when someone says ‘hey aren’t you traintheteacher’ the only downside is the pressure to keep up with everyone else. It can be easy in a world of awesome teachers doing amazing things to think what you are doing sucks in comparison. There are frequent offers to join collaborative projects or new initiatives and sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to say yes to everything.
I’m often asked if I’m worried about breaching privacy of my students and colleagues by reflecting on public platform. If by keeping 99 percent of what I do at school off limits in terms of what I write online, then yes, I am totally invading other people’s privacy. Learning how, what and who to share with are important skills not just for our students but for teachers as well.
So thanks again to the dozens of mentor teachers out there helping make my classroom more awesome!
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
A paper-based e-portfolio.
Sounds like a contradiction in terms.
I’m not a huge fan of paper portfolios.
In fact it is fair to say that I loathe filing bits of paper into folders with the fire of a thousand suns. Supervising a class full of kids updating portfolios feels like a form of medieval torture. Bits of paper are almost always missing or in the wrong place and my patience is in short supply.
Moreover I can’t help but wonder if all those countless hours spent updating, checking, re-checking all those bits of paper are actually worth it. Real learning is messy and doesn’t always lend itself to being filed away in clear files.
Enter digital portfolios.
In theory digital portfolios should be easier to create and curate content for the purposes of showcasing student learning. However in practice clunky content management systems and limited time on computers often add work to teachers workload particularly if you don’t have 1:1 access.
I do not teach in a 1:1 environment. Computers are a resource that I constantly have to ration in class and negotiate with other teachers to get to 1:1. Given the shortage, I’d rather have the kids spend their time creating content or connecting with others. Kids doing the same stuff on computer that has always been done on paper seems downright wasteful in this context.
My school is experimenting with different ways of reporting to parents. I decided my goals were to make my reports multi-media, child-centric and, dare I say it, less labour-intensive on me. More importantly I didn’t want to waste too much class time curating learning at the expense of actual learning.
So I came up with a plan. The kids got a Google form where the reflected on the key competencies, successes, challenges and surprises on the year so far. Those responses are automatically logged by Google and were then merged into a separate document for each kid. No faffing around with codes and an no worrying about kids accidentally deleting parts of their portfolio.
The kids also found a photo of themselves from the class Flickr site which they emailed through and I copy and pasted into the merged document. No faffing around with layout and the entire class was able to get through a session. After a quick proofread the reports were ready to go.
The students reflections were for the most part amazing. What was particularly gratifying was seeing kids who don’t normally shine in the 3Rs able to talk about successes at school. Monday tech challenges, documentary making, quadblogging and passion projects all featured in my students’ reflections.
At this point I had saved myself a whole heap of time and if I was a smart teacher, I would have called it a day and pressed print. But oh no I just had to create more work for myself.
The kids in my class have been interviewing each other once a term so I chucked the footage so far on YouTube and then created an individual QR code for the student, which I copied and pasted into the document for each kid.
And thus with a major FAIL on the creating less work for myself goal the students and I created a multi-media paper-based e-portfolio.
There’s something about the middle of term which seems to send me into depths of despair. I think it’s that point where I look down at my massive to-do-list and wonder how on earth I am going to muster the energy to check those items off. The beginning of term energy has evaporated and a rejuvenating holiday seems a long way off in the horizon.
It’s weird that almost 365 days to the day I’m back in the same slump: tired, grumpy although not as cold this year owing to an abnormally warm Wellington winter.
I have a terrible habit of over-committing myself and then paying the price for that later. With reports looming, a school disco and talent contest to organize, moving house, my first ever conference speaking engagement in the next four weeks.
Possum meet headlights.
Then there’s the niggle of novopay.
My salary increment, due at the end of the January, still hasn’t come in. On one hand I know I shouldn’t be complaining. After all, everyone knows you don’t get into teaching for the money. I can still pay my bills and will get a nice backpay when the increment finally arrives. Nevertheless, when you’re having a crappy week small things like this start to become a big deal. Particularly as like other teachers I’m powerless in this situation. Aside from having a grizzle to my lovely office manager and a surly social media update, there’s not much I can do apart from wait.
Despite my despondency there have been some positives.
Quadblogging has been going well.
After a few weeks hiatus, I made sure that passion projects aka 20% time weren’t something that just got pushed to the side during a busy week. A lot of teachers might baulk at the idea, letting kids go off and do their own thing is surely a recipe for classroom chaos? But I’ve never had any problems with classroom management during passion projects as the kids are so engaged in their learning.
As with anything in teaching how you set up a task will dictate its success. My students write their learning intentions at the start before they head. This sets up the sessions to be purposeful for the kids as they are the ones setting the goals.At the end of the session the kids are asked to reflect on the session and decide which of the learning areas and key competencies they used during their project.
What has been gratifying has been watching kids from different social groups come together in order to collaborate on a shared passion. What has also been amazing is when given the choice about what they want to do, how many of students have chosen to write. Movie scripts, creative writing, managa cartoons.
At the end of the term the kids are going to put on an expo of their learning so they can share their passions with others. While the students were adamant in not inviting their parents, they did let me invite the school leaders to come in. We are already marking days until the expo down and I’m looking forward to the kids showing their peers and the senior leaders their passions.
The students have also been putting together documentary films after seeing the film I am 11. I was amazed when I looked out at my classroom during morning tea to see students who boldly declare they hate writing staying in of their own volition at morning tea time to write a script. Kids who don’t edit their writing carefully editing films to get their message across.
So much peripheral stuff can easily obscure us from the things that matter.
Be brillant where it counts, in the classroom.