What do I hope for my students this year?


It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, you can’t help but feel a frisson of nerves, or tension, or anticipation at the start of each year.

Maybe you’re in a new role, or teaching some new content, but more likely, and most often, it’s the thinking about meeting your new class and planning to get that beginning going well and those interactions commencing on the right foot.

The advice I got in my first year of teaching, from a grizzled old salt from the History Department? ‘Don’t smile until Easter’. Talk tough. Start firm and relax later if you can.

But I’m not talking to discipline and behaviour. I’m talking about the anticipation around this particular group of students and how you’re going to create that learning culture that works. The students: Who are they? What do they hope for? How are you going to get to know them at the same time as you know you’ve got some key content and skills that they need to develop. I sometimes wonder if we over-estimate out importance; that maybe we think too much about it, or try too hard, plan too much for what will come. But, I don’t like to think like that. And I’m not getting all blasé about ‘just another year’ and all that. This year matters, for them, and me.

And I plan to smile before Easter.

Above: Flowering gum (symbol of hope!)  Photo: Warrick

Thinking about community

The last staff day for the year. Farewell. Speeches. Long standing staff members with nearly one hundred and fifty years of teaching between them, leaving and taking all that experience with them, before we all went out to lunch together.

They all gave funny or moving retirement speeches, talked about teachers they’d worked with and the students they’d taught, often about getting the job and always about the teams they’d been involved in and the people that had made a difference. The retiring swimming teacher gave a dignified speech, the EAL teacher talked about what she’d learned from her students and the time-tabler read out her old reports from Year 9, to everyone’s amusement.

The Head of Music, who gets everyone to sing every year, introduced us to a new carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a bleak and beautiful song that his father used to sing for him and we all sang it as well as we could, then “Joy to the World”, which we all knew better. There was a tangible sense of community.

I thought of my wife, who works in business, mostly by herself or at bi-annual conferences where they all get together and where the bottom line is everything and where respect and loyalty don’t count for much, and was sorry that she didn’t share in this.

Not all business is like that I know, but there’s something in good schools that is inherently different from that; that creates an sustains community and that makes a big difference for the students and teachers who work there.

Best wishes to everyone for the holiday season.

Below: the carol we tried to learn; sounding a bit better than we managed!

Celebrating our Learning

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Today teachers at our school spent the first student-free day presenting to each other on their College Project. That’s all teachers, in teams, presenting to their peers. Very exciting.

The College Project this year asked teachers to work in teams to answer questions about their own teaching, based on general themes of ‘taking notice’ or ‘inter-cultural understanding’. It’s the key staff learning event of the year, beyond the individual goals teachers set with their Head of Department.
The day was organised like a conference: with a great opening keynote by Barbara Watterston on some of the key principles of staff learning, most of which were clearly evident in the underpinnings of this day.

There were five sessions in the day, with five strands operating all day, and three presentation in each session. So, about twenty minutes for each group, followed by a plenary session at the end of the day and drinks and nibbles. A fully fledged in-house conference.

I saw some really interesting things like:

A group of maths teachers using mini whiteboards to check for understanding and get students to understand mistakes don’t matter in the process. This included quite a lot of student voice in the presentation, including some nice use of video.

[On a side-note, video is still hard. I saw four groups that tried to include video in their presentations, and this was the only one where it worked flawlessly.]

I then saw an inspiring presentation on differentiation and personal stories from the primary classroom where they showcased some individual case-studies where they’d personalised learning. For me, it highlighted the importance of choice for students, knowing your student and taking notice of them.

Then a group of English teachers talked about purposeful play and Elearning and the English classroom. They talked about FLOW and showed a video that argued people are happiest in ‘flow’ and that we lose flow as we get older (and our neurones get cemented) They quoted from Ken Robinson and Emerson and argued for changing practice, not the technology and showed iPads apps: poetry magnets, as well as google docs and the wiki as tools that work.

In the next session after morning tea I heard history teachers talking about ‘taking notice’ of feedback in their subjects and trying to figure out why, that despite the extensive use of rubrics, students seemed to be making the same mistakes again and again. They then tried some ‘error clusters’ to see if that made a difference and some use of checklists.

Then, a session on ‘raising the tail’  to raise the achievement level of the weaker students in senior classes. They took a technology approach, doing an initial Google survey on the ‘March mindset’ and embedded that survey on our wikis. They also used Testmoz as a quick quiz tool, and tracked the student quiz results along the way. Another teacher used SAC feedback as the starting point for some learning goals for each student, which was a great example of using summative data as a formative learning tool.

Another group looked at formative assessment techniques, not ‘gimmicks’. It was interesting to hear the language that teachers used all day to talk about practice they liked, and didn’t. They talked about ‘exit cards’, a ‘flipped quiz’, sticky note peer-assessment, using ‘traffic lights’ in Year 11 Psychology, giving personalised feedback with Excel mail merge in Year 11 Chemistry and inviting students to make contact for more feedback. Interestingly, the level of student requests for feedback increased a lot in this process. They also talked about ‘star charts’ (which they called ‘Token Economies’) This could be done in Class Dojo I thought. Maybe I should try that for homework.

In this session a young first year teacher showed complete mastery of the presentation tools and engaged everyone with his energy.

After lunch, my team co-presented on developing our Literature students as literature writers; giving us and them the language we needed. I’ll blog abut that separately later but I was pleased with how it went.

There was another session at that time too, about using Socratic Circles to facilitate engagement in RE classes.

This was followed by a session on using a variety of new (and old) tools including: using Google Forms, Flubaroo and Excel to test students, analyse the results and share the feedback with students, using eduKate (one of our online tools) for much the same purpose, using TestMoz (yes, second time this has been mentioned today, and yes, it was new to me) and a site called Socrative, which didn’t work disappointingly.

I’m serious that I got more learning out of this day than I have had at many major conferences. I really enjoyed the celebration of learning. Some teachers found it quite daunting to present to their peers but there was a great spirit of professional collaboration and sense of shared purpose. It was evidence of a great learning culture, and as Barbara Watterston said at the start of the day, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ But if you’ve got both, you can really celebrate. It was a great way to finish the year.

Networks of Practice

Last week I attended the fourth day of a year long network meeting called ‘Networks of Practice’. Apart from the growth coaching learning I did earlier (also four days interestingly) and blogged about HERE, this network has been my most powerful learning for the year.  So, what might made it so? I was thinking about the learning conditions that made this network work for me, and how I might replicate them for learners I’m taking on a journey too. Some of the qualities that made it work for me:

  • Extended, but not all at once. Four days is a significant time investment for anyone, but that investment was repaid. I liked the fact that it wasn’t jut four days in a row, that ideas were seeded, allowed to germinate and we’d come back and discuss them later. It felt more authentic to me and we looked forward to getting back to the network to test ideas.
  • Relevant to my needs. Linked to school needs. The network was spot-on one the big-ticket items we’ve been working on at school: staff learning and how to build self-generating learning cultures.
  • Great leadership. The sessions were run by Rob Stones, who was obviously an expert in change and staff development, but there was plenty of room in the conversations for ‘us’ too.
  • ‘Us’ matters. There was the ‘us’ from our school, two of us working closely together all year, and the ‘us’ of the broader group. Not too big either, less than twenty people. Good sharing, collaboration, but also
  • Time to talk among ourselves. Having shaped, expert-facilitated time to develop plans and strategies was so valuable.

And, on the more practical side too, it made me think about how I might best take the notes, ideas, picture and concepts from the program and capture them, using the iPad I bought to each session. In the end it was a mixture of apps and processes that worked for me, and might for you:

  • I used OneNote as the receptacle for all wisdom, the ‘one note to rule them all’, but I might as easily have used Evernote. Text formatting in OneNote on the iPad is currently better than in Evernote and it plays well with Office documents, which we still live on at work.
  • I took photographs using the iPhone or iPad especially snap-shots of the concepts and diagrams that were used extensively. If I had one criticism of the network it was the un-digital approach to the resources. You just had to snap them when you could. I could then drop them into the OneNote page.
  • I used the app Paper and a stylus to draw some of the diagrams.  I find drawing soothing, and it helps me to understand it to draw it sometimes. I’d then export the page as an image and stick it in OneNote.
  • I used the app SimpleMind to create mind maps (see below) I keep going back and forth between SimpleMind and Popplet for this purpose, but SimpleMind has a few more options.

Using these apps and this approach, I could arrive back at the end of the day with my notes fully formed, and just move the OneNote page from the mobile (smaller, streamlined) version into the full desktop equivalent.  Ten hours battery life, and who said that the iPad wasn’t a content-creation machine?

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Learning about growth coaching

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I just completed the second stage, day three and four of Growth Coaching training, and left with a greater appreciation of how coaching might be an effective way to build teacher capacity and to support teachers in working towards their goals.

I was initially sceptical about a model that was built around the assumption that specific content knowledge in the chosen area was not necessary. That you could coach somebody in something without knowing how to do it yourself. But the growth coaching model we were working in isn’t about ‘coaching’ in that sense, not the football coach metaphor, but more a peer-to-peer approach that helps the coachee get clear about their goals, and how they might proceeds to action: what will you do next?

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. They spoke a lot about the need for emotional intelligence and empathy especially and that was obvious in the demonstrations we saw, and tried ourselves. But, for me the unspoken (and very differentiated) skillset is listening and speaking. You need a good repertoire of questions and approaches (which they can help you with) but you need to be able to put that all together.

So, I used to think you couldn’t coach somebody unless you had content knowledge. Now I think you can. But, it’s challenging and relies a lot on empathy, verbal and linguistic skills and believing in the GROWTH process, and sticking to it.

It was a really interesting few days and spent with some enthusiastic and talented educators.  Do I want to be an executive coach? Not really. Do I think that this learning will have application in my daily work with teacher and teacher-leaders, and even students? Absolutely.

Use it or lose it


That’s what they say about new learning don’t they? Put it into place straight away or it will never happen? It’s the old adage about those PD sessions you attend. You want to come home with at least one good idea  you can try tomorrow. That doesn’t test your very notion of being a teacher. And moves the students learning forward.

So, I was pleased to come home from a Critical Agenda day with Glen Pearsall, from Critical Agendas on Year 12 Literature with a swag of ideas and I’ve been trying them for the last two weeks. Some you know, of course, and just need reminding. Some were brand new. I liked Glen’s approach, which was focused on very practical strategies tied up with good research backing, and I liked his naming of these strategies as a kind of identifying common language.

Since the day I’ve talked more about ‘bundling’ evidence with the students, talked explicitly about ‘woven quotes’, have deconstructed and reconstructed the examiner’s report (as we did), have used Wordle (see above) to help unpack some key passages from Antony and Cleopatra, have used Wordle to compare student essays, have done the ‘May Essay, August Essay’ comparison, have done some peer to peer swapping and have completely rewritten my feedack sheet.

I was also reminded that the most important thing is that the students are doing the thinking and the work, and that despite the pressures of year 12 and getting ‘through’ the content, the richest, deepest learning is likely to come when students themselves are wrestling with the concepts, not being lead through them by the teacher.

On The Facebook

It’s the last lesson of the term, period 1, and some wag of an occulist student* has suggested we do breakfast to celebrate, before the oral presentations on Peter Carey stories continue. Good idea, I think, and I grab the Maths Department toaster on the way to class, with my loaf of raisin toast, wondering just who’ll remember and whether there’ll be enough to go around.

But there was food a’plenty. Blueberry muffins, fresh slice, croissants, more toast as well as two kinds of juice, tea (English Breakfast) and hot chocolate. Someone had bought plates, someone else had bought plastic knives and forks. When I asked them how they’d organised it all? On the Facebook, of course.

Which reminded me that, as with my class last year, they all are in a Literature study group where they (presumably) discuss things in class beyond the food requirements or ‘cake day’. I say presumably, because I’m not on Facebook, and even if I was, there are school rules against ‘friending’ students on social media.

It annoyed me a lot last year. I was busy trying to create these vibrant online spaces for class collaboration, and they were all across ‘there’, already doing it. I blogged about it a while ago here: https://learningau.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/should-i-be-on-the-facebook/ and got a really good comment from Ann Evans who wrote:

“On the other hand, why not leave them a space where they can help each other. They can bring the questions and conclusions they devise to class and discuss them there. The challenge of helping each other will be lessened if the professor is looking on.”
Which is probably right. I actually asked my students what they thought; would it make any difference to the freedom of their interactions if their teachers were in those groups. One said that they’d have to change their language a bit. No-one looked super-keen on the idea of me looking over their shoulders online.

Maybe I should be learning to let go. Let go of some of that sense of control, and that it’s got to be me who sets the learning agenda. It’s their final year. Next year most of them will be at university, doing their own thing. And they got breakfast organised!

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*Okay, gratuitous Gatsby reference.

Want data? We got it.

I sometimes get questions from other more sceptical teachers asking things ‘where’s the data? for the kinds of technology related concerns that I’m always talking about as being more and central to learning. I remember nodding vigorously when one speaker at one conference said something like ‘If you looking for proof that technology should be in contemporary learning, you’re asking the wrong questions’. Something like that. Precise quote hey!

Or, I remember several occasions when someone (usually the someone with the financial clout) will say something in a meeting like, ‘Yes, but where’s your evidence that this ipad thing is ever going to take off?’ or ‘What other schools are using wikis?’

So, I was interested in this ‘Internet Trends’ slideshow a colleague alerted me to today. Over a hundred slides. Scroll it through. Put the pieces together. What does this have to do with learning? If you’re asking that, you’re asking the wrong questions!

Indigenous knowing and understanding

This term started with Ways of Knowing – a staff leaning day focused on indigenous understanding. John Bradley from Monash University delivered the keynote focusing on ‘How do we know?’

He reminded us of the diversity of indigenous Australians and showed us a map of ‘Aboriginal Australia’.  There were at least 275 different languages : ‘if we accept Europe, we have to accept this … The distinctiveness must be acknowledged … ‘
He talked about the important relationship with ecosystems and language; their impact on each other. He showed us a map of the area he knows best, south of Arnhem Land and talked about the various overlays we could apply to our vision of that space. He showed us his mapping project that was intended to pass on indigenous knowledge from one generation to the next and a drawing project which he could not even get accepted into the local school curriculum.
Some of the key questions he raised were:
  • ‘How in the world of western knowledge do we place this?’
  • ‘Why does the west think its best?’
  • ‘How do we undo our educational reliance on Descartes and the French Enlightenment?’
  • ‘Diversity (of what we know, and now we know) is the key’.
It was a provocative presentation, particularly for me his defence of cultural norms that eclude women, but a very important discussion to have and a great start to the term.

So, what have I learned?

I’ve certainly been in a number of sessions over the last three days, many of which I’ve blogged about here, but what have I learned?

It’s been refreshing to immerse myself again in the IB world and its vast labyrinthe infrastructure which only becomes (frighteningly) apparent at times like these. It’s been good to catch up with some familiar colleagues, spend some intensive time with a colleague from my own school and meet some interesting new people. I’ve had an invitation to a primary school in Bangalore, seen a new and interesting looking anti-LMS called ‘teamie’ and have had the new iPad Shakespeare app demo’d for me by a super-keen Cambridge University Press man. I’ve taken the subway to Chinatown (*like every other system in the world the ticketing system is better than Melbournes) gone to the top of the tallest (twin) towers in the world and enjoyed performances from a range of talented students who’ve been featured every morning.
And that’s without mentioning any of the sessions at all, including some great keynotes and a session on leadership lessons from Shakespeare’s Henry V that was entertaining and moving and had some good lessons from the leader’s experience of the ‘dark night’. (Interestingly, the sessions I took notes with the stylus using Penultimate haven’t really featured in the blog; I have to type them up again afresh and that seems an effort at the moment.)
I’ve been to some great workshops and some infuriating ones, have put my hand up to contribute only to be ignored for the keener student with the straighter hand at the front (oh yeah, that’s how that feels), have listened to some teachers and leaders who talk about themselves and their school but never their students and seen others who have made it their life work to change the world one conversation at a time.
Taking up my pet topic of technology I’ve been heartened to see more conversations that ‘get it’, and less that talk about how kids ‘only play games and muck-around with computers’ and only a few outright annoying ‘Google is making us all stupid (except me)’ presentations, warm, nostalgic and comforting to much of the audience as they are, like a nice cup of Ovaltime in your pyjamas in front of the fire.
There are problems with the IB; it’s huge Gormenghastian indifference, the transitional moments, the elitism, the dotpointing and the bureaucracy it serves, creates and fosters.  But, at the heart of it, there’s also some compelling learning that’s possible within the structure, and some passionate people working in it.
I fly home tomorrow, with only four days of the term left until Easter, and then back up this way to Vietnam for a holiday. I’ve been there before and was entranced. I hope to have some new learning there too.
Above and below: some images from a short time in Kuala Lumpur. Photos: Warrick. Below: Green view from the 22nd Floor
Below: Dr Paula Barrett talking about the importance of preventative work in mental health.
Below: Cooling down in Chinatown.
Below: View from the Two Towers
Below: Conference essentials.