What just happened?

I published this over on LinkdIn, and thought I’d archive it here too:

What just happened?

As we all prepare for the for the transition back to face-to-face it’s hard not to look back at what just happened, from an education perspective, with a mixture of astonishment and pride.

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In the space of a matter of weeks, educators across the country have made a radical change to one of the cornerstone foundations of education; what a classroom looks like. We’ve all been subjected to PD sessions where the presenter has put up a picture of a Dickensian classroom and then a ‘modern’ classroom and provoked, ‘So, what’s changed?’ Maybe we even squirmed in our seats a little. But something just changed in a way that few workplaces have changed so quickly.

I don’t buy too much into the ‘hero’ memes for teachers that have been circulating online, but there’s no doubt that teachers, so often criticised for their students’ failings in this international science competition or that, have demonstrated extraordinary capacity and resilience as they have kept playing the game while the goalposts were not only moved, but were in two different places depending on which but disappeared entirely.

While every school and system have their stories, I couldn’t be prouder of the way Balcombe Grammar teachers have responded during this time. We put in place new structures and frameworks (‘This Week’s Learning’ communicated out to students and parents’, two-part lessons structures and live lessons using Microsoft Teams, OneNote and our Intranet all in a week, with no lead time. We’ve seen teachers building and sharing in Microsoft Streams and students taking up the opportunity to replay lessons and concepts as they wished; who would have thought that ‘CAS Linear and Quadratic Graphs’ would be trending in our own little YouTube? We asked teachers to keep learning going and they did that, and more.

The students I’ve spoken with over the last few weeks have appreciated the effort teachers have made in transforming practice; some have even enjoyed the change. Others can’t wait to get back to see their friends, but all of them acknowledge that the teaching and learning has gone on.

We surveyed parents twice during this process, at the start as we ran an ‘asynchronous’ week, and again only a week ago. The results were encouraging: parents felt that students were engaged and productive, that learning was progressing and that teachers were modifying courses appropriately. Parents saw the greatest challenges for students as the lack of social connections for students, and the amount of screen time. For parents themselves, the challenges were mainly around trying to balance their own work requirements with supporting their children’s progress.

After postponing the original planned Parent-Teacher interviews, we also took these conferences online for the first time, using Microsoft Teams, with parents logging in and being admitted from the ‘Lobby’, in order to facilitate feedback for parents of our VCE students, with very positive feedback from parents and teachers. It’s something we’ll do again.

The biggest challenge might still be ahead; a staged return to school involving some face-to-face and some online teaching is not going to be straightforward. However, there are some practices we’ve introduced in the last six weeks that we’ll want to continue on with, even in a post-pandemic world, and I couldn’t be prouder of the way our teachers (and students) have adapted and evolved their practice so successfully.

 

It’s all about next year

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One of the strange things about teaching in a school, and maybe especially about being involved in some leadership, is just how much of your time is spent planning for next year, even from halfway through the current year.

I’d say that about a third of my time in the last term has been about 2018: the information evenings, the student choices, the staffing, the timetable construction, the technology planning and the move into transition, which means for us that 2018 classes actually begin in the last fortnight of 2017.

While it’s all important, most of this kind of planning is pretty dry, and pretty uninspiring.

Not today though, when I started looking a bit more closely at teaching texts for 2018 in Literature. Getting those books together on the table was exciting. There, in Shakespeare, Conrad, Winterson and others, is the basis for a year of teaching ahead. Just add students!

Teaching 21C, and no teachers in sight

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Is it okay to attend an all day conference called Teaching 21C: the big issues facing the profession today and not, in the whole day, hear from a practising teacher?

I understand that you don’t come to a conference to hear only from teachers . You can get that around the photocopier or at the water cooler and there has been the growth of more hand-on options like TeachMeets where practitioners can share practice, not to mention the networks you can develop in platforms like Twitter. You go to hear from experts, and learn.

But I did feel, at the end of a long day that felt at times a brow-beating (if not belittling) of the teachers who constituted most of the audience, that it wouldn’t have been hard to include some teachers who might be able to contribute to the discussion, if only to respond to some of the provocations.

Don’t get me wrong; there were some good moments, particularly the session on evidence-based practice that seemed firmly grounded in, and linked to, how real schools work. Suzie Riddell (SVA) took us through a toolkit for schools called Evidence of Learning, which seeks to help schools make good choices about what kinds of change you might choose to implement in terms of $$ costs, evidence for a positive effect on learning, including links to more reading and the scale of that effect; a bit like Hattie’s work put to good use.

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Earlier, Jan Owen took us through the FYA report on ‘The New Work Order’, emphasising the forces of automation, globalisation and flexibility that are disrupting work opportunities, especially for young people. You can download the whole report HERE (PDF)

But they were the highlights.

It wasn’t great to hear Teach for Australia rep. Melodie Potts Rosevear telling us how she was looking forward to the present generation of teachers to retire. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a fan of Teach for Australia before and I’ve blogged about that HERE and HERE; I just don’t think parachuting fast-tracked graduates into teaching and leadership, no matter how smart, does anything more than diminish the profession. Lawyers for Australia? I’d like to see that.)

Geoff Masters (ACER) was one of the keynotes and one of the most disappointing. He showed a series of un-labelled slides, designed to highlight falling standards in Australian learning outcomes (PISA, naturally). In some of the slides (shown below) high results were good, others when they were bad. It was hard to follow; they had no titles, there were no scales.

Masters talked about ‘Five Challenges’ facing Australian education: declining standards, growing disparities between schools, students falling year level expectations, students starting school at risk of being locked into long-term low achievement and (irony alert) teaching is becoming less attractive as a career option for able school leavers. Masters didn’t take questions.

And not a teacher got to speak.

It was all summed up in final plenary panel of grey-haired white men, a dynamic that even they felt a little embarrassed by.

First term in a new school

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Above: Buddy Day at ACMI. Photo: Warrick

It’s hard to believe that I’m about to finish term 1 in my new school, and I haven’t blogged about it yet.

Perhaps it’s still too new, and certainly too busy, to reflect properly on the excitement, the challenges and the possibilities of a new place.

In terms of teaching; I’m teaching Year 9 for the first time in a long time, and no Year 12. The conversations are very different but I’ve enjoyed the shift in lots of ways, and have always thought that you can make a big difference in a Middle School classroom.

In terms of technology, it’s a mixed place. There are IWBs that no-one uses much, Windows laptops for staff, a BYOD program 10-12 and an iPad program 7-9.

So, I’m teaching with iPads for the first time, supplemented by Jacaranda+ texts and some good old paper. I’ve been using OneNote in my own teaching (of course) but am itching to get Office 365 going in the school, and to get OneNote notebooks up and running.

I’ll reserve the iPads for a separate post sometime. They work well: reliable, great battery, portable, app-friendly. The students like them, and don’t mind typing on them (I bought a Brydge keyboard for mine as I don’t like typing on the screen) Of course, the problem remains switching between writing and reading so the need for paper as well, which I don’t like. I bring my heavy Windows HP notebook to most classes, mainly because I can’t plug an iPad into the IWB and the Apple TV solution hasn’t worked well. There’s room for some improvement there.

Otherwise, everything is new. It’s a smaller school so you’re across multiple roles more, some of which are pretty new to me. Being in a new school reminds you how students must feel going into new classrooms with new teachers every year. It’s been refreshing, but I hope to be able to blog more regularly from now on.

Below: Getting started, note Brydge iPad keyboard. Photo: Warrick

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New morning, new directions

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I’m excited to be moving into a new school, and new areas of responsibility this year. After eleven very fulfilling and rewarding years at my previous school as Director of Learning and Curriculum my new role is Deputy Principal (Secondary) in a very different school and context. There’ll be lots to learn, and and lots of changes.

One constant I’m grateful for, is that I’ll continue to be teaching a class. I’ll have a Year 9 English class this year and am looking forward to working with Middle School students again. I’m sure I’m going to miss some of the interactions and conversations I’ve had with my Literature students in recent times. Working with able, motivated, articulate students on texts I’ve loved like Mrs Dalloway, Antony and Cleopatra, and Adrienne Rich last year, has been a real privilege I’ll cherish forever.

But, having the opportunity to work with students who are at that critical time in their lives, grappling with who they are, who they want to be, and what their place is to be in the world, is exciting. And, having the opportunity to try to ‘light that fire’ in students about English is something I’ve always liked about working with students in Years 9 and 10.

Another thing that wont change is that I’ll be intensely interested in the education technology, and how that supports the learning journey. My new school is a mixed environment, an Outlook teaching platform, with OneDrive for students and iPads as well. In the senior years there’s a BYOD program. It’s a hybrid kind of approach that I think will be interesting to work in, after a long time working with the (increasingly improving) MS Office, Exchange, and Windows notebook approach. I’ve really liked the change in direction Microsoft has taken in recent years, opening up the tools in multiple platforms and, of course, the continuing development of OneNote with the shared notebooks for teachers and students: still be the best learning tool I’ve seen. One tool I’ve never really worked with is the Chromebooks, even though I’ve been a gmail user, and Google Drive user personally for a long time. I also like their new approach to Photos. I want to keep my eye on how that educational technology is developing as I take on the new role and new tools for 2016.

I’m certainly looking forward to it, and will continue to post here periodically about the successes, failures, challenges and achievements of it all. For all those teachers starting to set up for the year ahead, I hope it’s a great one for you and your students.

Goodbye to all that …

IMG_9966I’ve probably written somewhere else in this blog about how I find the gradual spiralling at the end of the school year from busy purpose to a kind of dissolving nothingness, a bit dis-spiriting. I often find it feels bitter-sweet to farewell a class you’ve taught with purpose and energy as they (naturally) go their own ways, especially maybe with Year 12s as they leave the school as well.

So, this article by Secret Teacher in The Guardian, struck a chord with me. It was interesting that a young primary teacher feels a bit the same. I don’t think it’s ‘love’ exactly, but it is something felt; partly at the work and energy and effort you’ve got into getting something running well, to see it wound up and undone. But, also of course, the individuals you’ve worked with, discussed with, wrangled with, who’ve become part of your life. Until next year.

[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!

Last days

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That time of year thou mayst in me behold …

Hard to believe it is that time of year as my senior class is coming up to their final few lessons, the last week of timetabled classes before the ‘swot-vac’ and (varying) degrees of intensive study.

Every year I try to improve what I do as a teacher with these students, each year I probably get more critical of myself about what I should have done, said, intervened or fed back at stages during the year, and what difference that might or might not have made.

I’m not doing a post-mortem yet. I’ve put in place a series of consultation times, some intensive sessions on key texts, some lunchtime ‘lit talks’ combined with the other class and some online revision sessions using Adobe Connect. There’s plenty of learning yet, but when you do complete that last timetabled class, which happens this week, no matter how much revision you’ve got organised, you do feel a door closes. You work hard as a teacher to establish a positive learning culture, to work with the personalties of the students to get something bigger and more powerful than themselves. And then, it’s done. Happens every year, about this time.

Photo: Blossom, by Warrick

Planbook as a lesson planning tool

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Last year I got pretty interested in the application of what Vic Zbar called ‘highly effective micro-teaching strategies’, particularly in the area of feedback and formative assessment and particularly related to the Hattie research and applications emerging from all that. Things like: ‘wait time’, ‘no hands up’, the icy pole stick questioning and the ‘pounce and bounce’ strategies, some of which I blogged about last year, and most of which are firmly analog. It’s hard to imagine something more low-tech than an icy-pole stick, even one decorated lovingly with texta and fineliner pen.

I enjoyed that thinking and aim to continue lots of those approaches this year.

One new thing I’ve want to explore is some of the work around ‘explicit teaching’ and particularly the lesson stages approaches that move from things like a ‘hook’ or intention to instruction, guided practice, group work and individual practice, concluded by revision, review and next steps. These are largely American ideas, but have been interested in how they’ve developed from there. Every lesson must have impact, every lesson should have a coherent learner-centric structure.

Sort of makes sense, but it also seems daunting to do that for every class every time.

So, I was interested to see whether there are lesson planning apps that might help, and came across Planbook. Planbook has been a Mac app for a while and I know nothing about that except that it’s about $36 and I’m not sure how well it syncs with the iPad version, which I bought for $9.99. Don’t be confused; there’s several Planbooks out there. I’m talking about the one from Hellmansoft.

What I like about Planbook is its ability to cope with a variety of timetables including our ten day rotation but the ability to customise the fields are the big winners for me.

The fields I included were based on Hattie’s extensions to work around the explicit teaching model.  There’s six customisable fields, so here’s what I chose for each field:

1. Topic/Content/Part of course

– What’s this topic
– Standards
– Stage in the learning

2. Beginning of lesson

– Learning Intention
– Activate
– Review
– The HOOK

3. Presentation

– Teach the concept
– Teach the skill
– Check for understanding

4. Guided Practice

– Development and engagement
– Feedback and individual support

5. Independent Practice

– Applying the concept or skill

6. Review

– Clarify, conclude
Homework/Assignments
– What should be done between lessons

Below, you can see the editing view of Planbook on the iPad. It’s not the prettiest setup in the world, and it would be easier on the Mac I’m sure, but it works well, syncs with Dropbox and is pretty user friendly. On the left hand side you can see the fields I’ve set up for each component of the lesson.

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Below, you can see the weekly view. I’ve got three lessons this week (in green) and you can see the subject name, times and the lesson plan there.

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Below, you can see the single lesson view (not in edit mode) I’ve been using this as my lesson planner, having the iPad on my desk as the planner, and the computer plugged into the data projector showing the students the lesson content or activities.

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It is a bit daunting to plan every lesson in this detail, and to be honest some of the year 12 lessons don’t go exactly this way. But, it has really sharpened my planning and I’m going to persist with this and give it a decent trial. I was considering using Evernote as the lesson planning tool (setting up a blank note with the six fields and simply copying that to a new lesson), but this more purpose-built app has some advantages over that approach, particularly its integration with your timetable schedule. If it really did sync well with the Mac version, it would be even more powerful.

Watch a screencast of the basics of Planbook below; it’s the Mac version, but the basics are the same.

Getting ready for the teaching year

 

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As the summer holidays draw to their inevitable end (the last swim, the last barbeque) a teacher’s thoughts (should) return to how this year is going to work and the kind of technology approaches you’re going to take this year. I’ve had a great break (note the pictures at the top of this post) but it’s time to think ahead.

So, I thought I’d share my thinking about how to approach the year with my Literature students this year. I should say, at the outset, that my thinking here is predicated on the knowledge that all the students will have a notebook computer in every class and that the infrastructure (wireless connectivity, computer repair facilities etc) just work. Now read on.

So, what are the technology essentials and frameworks that you might consider in that context?

First, I believe that every course should have an ‘online presence’. For me, that most often means a web page (usually a blog structure) that contains all the essential course information and news. I’ve used our own internal blog engine to create a central ‘Lit News’ site where all the class news, due dates, even homework, is posted. I usually include links to other sites, embed relevant Youtube videos and post pictures of critical class activities (like ‘Cake Day’!) This page is updated by me at least once a week, is available to all students, is on my email signature to them, and is the ‘go to’ place for information about SACS (school assessed coursework) and exams.

I also usually have a separate ‘reference’ site, a web page of the course details, and the assessment as a reference. This is really important if there is more than one class and one teacher (as is the case next year). It’s really important for all classes to have access to the same material, and the same information. This could be part of the blog I suppose, but in the past I’ve set up a wiki for this information, as it’s not ‘news-y’ like the blog.

I’ve often set up a separate wiki for each of the set texts. These wikis are usually read-write, with each student having full access (other than admin rights). These become collaborative spaces for students to co-create in. Teaching ‘Hamlet’, for example, I assigned groups to explore key scenes and key characters and got them to share their findings on the appropriate page in the wiki. The other teacher did the same and the cross-fertilisation, sense of authentic audience and purpose, and shared understanding, was impressive. It’s worth saying at this point that, in any team-teaching environment you’ve got to get a shared intention between the teachers. My problem is that I tend to jump ahead too much; I’ve learned to involve the other teachers more in the decision making around the course delivery and every time I do that I’m thankful for the great people I work with.

An important decision: how am I going to ask the students to take their class notes? For the last few years my choice for them has been OneNote and, when you take some time to explain the structure of the tool, students generally really like the way it helps organise notes and is able to accommodate almost any format with the ‘print to OneNote’ functionality. I use OneNote, projected on a screen via the data projector, as my class notes tool too, rather than the whiteboard. I then have a record of all the notes for every lesson, and can email the notes around to students too if someone’s been away. This year I’m also considering Evernote as the note-taking tool. Since Evernote’s got it’s ‘notebooks’ it’s become a real possibility for note-taking. I’ll probably stick to OneNote because it’s so tightly integrated with the Microsoft tools that the students all have but it’s a close call. And, both are a long way from the bazillions of Word docs that characterised student note-taking when the computers first got into the classroom.

I’ll probably use Class Dojo again this year, even though it’s got some bad press from US educators who question its reward and punishment premise. (badges and all that) I probably wouldn’t use it with junior students who might take it too seriously. I use it ironically, as a fun way to focus the class and for the great conversation we might have about what positive and negative learning behaviours should we look for? I’ll use some audio again this year; not quite ‘podcasts’ but short audio lecturettes on key poems or key ideas. Some students have told me they got a lot out of those, and came back to them again and again. I’ll also keep using Adobe Connect for online collaboration and revision, in and out of hours. For the first time last year, students were generally happy to participate via webcam, rather than just type and chat, and I’d like to build on that interaction this year too.

My new things this year might be around more iPad and iPhone integration. I’m going to try to use PlanBook as my lesson planning tool and Flashcards+ as a revision tool for students to use on their phones. Planbook is a bit labor intensive but with its six customisable fields I figure I can get better at integrating some of the recent thinking about explicit instruction that I’ve seen from Hattie and others in the USA. Each lesson plan will be organised under these headings:

Topic/Content
Beginning of lesson (learning intention, activate, review, the HOOK)
Presentation (teach the concept, teach the skill, check for understanding)
Guided practice (development and engagement, feedback and individual support)
Independent practice (applying the concept or skill)
Review, clarify, conclude
Homework, assignments, next actions.

I’m going to try to organise each lesson that way; should be interesting! And, at the same time, keep my head around the best ideas coming out of the ‘flipped classroom’ movement.

Should be a fun year! I’ll keep you informed about how it goes.

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