John and Greg: we need more leaders like you!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a bit about leadership and what it takes to lead genuine change in education. This isn’t an uncommon thing for a teacher to be thinking about these days, especially with so many examples of schools challenging the status quo for the singular purpose of providing better learning experiences and life opportunities for the young people in their care. My current rumination on leadership was prompted by my colleague who asked me if I read a certain edu blog. I said I didn’t, because I don’t read any blogs. She was genuinely shocked (bordering on dismayed) by my admission. It took me a little bit of self-reflection (like, 30 seconds, because otherwise I would have looked kinda odd to my friend who was waiting for my response) to work out what my reasoning is. For the first ten seconds I was certain it was egotism – not wanting to read anyone else’s blog because I have my own – and then I thought it was just because I’m busy – this can’t be true as I manage to tweet and fb and instagram and blog far too much for that to hold up – finally, in the five seconds before she would tell me I’m weird, I worked it out. I’m scared to read about the cool things others are doing because it makes me lament my own inability to do those things. I despair when I read about other teachers doing things that I know are impossible for me as a teacher to do – because of a range of restraints that my current edu context presents. Things like using iPads, BYOD, dynamic and flexible learning spaces, whole-school PBL and maker spaces… sigh, just writing about them makes me sad.

The reason that I’m writing this post is because I think it takes a certain type of gutsy, risk-taking, fuck you attitude as a leader to create an environment where whole swathes of educators are rethinking their role in the classroom. I think it takes real leadership to make a large group of adult professionals scared as hell. Yeah, that’s what a visionary leader does. They are immersed in contemporary ideas about learning, design, business and culture and they are enviably connected – both in digital spaces and in the ‘real world’. Frequently they are confronted by a new endeavour, idea or tool and they challenge their colleagues to grab it with both hands and adapt it to their specific educational context. I mean, they hound you, as a teacher, with the new, until you almost weep and beg for mercy. They throw out a vision with the hope that others can see it, envision it, embrace it and morph into something practical and real. This is the type of leader with whom you could happily read all the books and blogs in the world and never despair at a cool idea because you know that you could try it and if it failed, your failure would be held up as an example of awesome learning. Sigh… I’ll stop describing fantasies now, and get to reality. Really, I will.

For the few years I have seen two people become these leaders. They have different paths but I see that they have the same destination. John Goh is known, not only for his bright suits, but for his radical approach to leadership and his desire to change the very notion of ‘school’. I have watched him grow as a leader, from someone working insanely hard behind the scenes to change the very structure of his school, to someone who is actively advocating for other principals to follow his lead – not to copy his decisions – and to put the needs of students above all else. Greg Miller is perhaps less well known in edu circles, but charging forward on his own transformative journey in quite a visible and public way. Like John, Greg shares his ideas and experiences as a principal on his blog. His posts reveal a work in progress, an individual eager to change and challenge the current paradigm of education and to surrender biases and traditions to a new vision of education today. Every time he tweets me his latest blog post, I think, ‘Another one? He’s still at it? He hasn’t given up yet?’ I’m impressed. These days it’s SO easy to make small changes – surface changes – that make a school look as though it is forward thinking. Just like John, Greg has focused on the pedagogical as much as the physical and structural. Like John, he is treating his school like an experiment… that sounds awful, but it isn’t. What would be awful would be a leader who assumes that change is simply a new coat of paint and some new chairs, or a leader who assumes that once change has happened it has happened. No, having a leader who sees experimenting and movement and fluidity as integral aspects of a learning environment – for the students, teachers, parents, admin etc – is essential. Essential. Education is not immutable. No, no, no. We need leaders like John and Greg in education if we are going to have schools that we want our own children to attend. There are too many people playing it nice and safe out there and the only losers are the students. They learn from a safe model of teaching and learning that the best approach in life is one that is nice and safe. This is NOT the type of citizen we should be shaping. No, no, no. Daring and bold edu leaders birth daring and bold lifelong learners!

To learn more about these guys:

- follow John Goh on twitter or read his blog.

- follow Greg Miller on twitter or read his blog.

NB: I know that I’ve chosen two men as my examples of transformative, inspirational edu leaders. I know that there are likely just as many, if not more, female leaders out there who are on the level of these guys. This post isn’t about gender, but then again, everything is often about gender when there is such an imbalance in most parts of society. So, if you know of female leaders kicking ass as much as these two guys – public, catholic, private school, I don’t care – let me know so I can follow their journeys as well. Perhaps they aren’t sharing as publicly, or they’re not as well connected? A cynical slice of me imagines that perhaps female leaders are more reticent to challenge the established culture of a school and make the needed changes… I hope you prove me wrong.


PBL and the HSC? Yes, it can be done.

My year 12 students have been PBL kids since they were in year 10. Their first project was the ever popular ‘Can cyborgs write poetry?’ then they moved on to ‘Why do emos write poetry?’ and became obsessed with the immersive Hunger Games project. These kids know the process of learning through a project and have wonderful team-working skills. However, when they hit the beginning of year 12, project learning kinda stopped. I panicked and thought that it was better if I took full control of their learning, directing what happened every lesson. It worked to an extent – they all achieved well in their end of unit assessment – but it certainly wasn’t independent and original ideas that they wrote. They were my ideas with a tiny sprinkling of individual thought. OK, some of that sprinkling was more like a sneeze… not much at all and quickly over with!

As I prepared for the next module for the HSC course, I decided that PBL was definitely going to be my model again. For true success in the HSC students need to be independent, critical thinkers who can access a breadth and depth of content knowledge and apply it to unseen questions in a short space of time. For success in HSC English, you need to write with flair and a personal, engaged voice. (Of course, it’s also possible for students to get great marks by memorising an essay written by someone else and adapting it to fit the question, but I imagine if that was your attitude towards learning you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog post right now.) I’ve spoken with my students many times about the skills that matter – not being able to memorise huge chunks of information, but rather being able to see the connections between divergent ideas and texts; being able to discuss confidently and critically the ideas of others and to ask challenging and probing questions about people’s attitudes and interpretations of their world; being able to share a laugh with someone who has different values and ambitions; desiring to share your knowledge with others; having the confidence to work in a team with strangers and being able to justify your ideas in front of an audience. For me, the HSC does reward students who master these skills. But more importantly, life rewards human beings who have these skills. I believe, naively most likely, that learning through projects in small teams equips my students with these skills.

So this was the driving question for our Module A project: How can we use video and audio to explore the connections between Richard III and Looking for Richard? Not an overly exciting question, but one that hints at the final product and connects with our set texts. I’ll admit right now, that this elective is tough to get through in the time frame allocated (7 weeks) because we have to study Shakespeare and a documentary and have students be able to write a quality essay about the connections between the two. Adding the project layer is adding more stress. Whilst we didn’t get to the final product that we dreamed of (a YouTube video exploring the connections between the two texts) we did get the first part finished (the videos exploring Richard III). I’m happy with that, because honestly it was the Shakespeare play that they found the hardest. During Trials prep time I hope to get them to work in teams to used audio and video to create learning resources for their peers – that will see at least one team dipping back into Mod A and finally making the video. I want to also add, that the final assessment for this module was an essay under exam conditions during the half-yearly exams. I spent minimal time in class focused on this and only received and read through two draft essays and three draft introductions. I was panicked before the exam thinking my students would do badly because I hadn’t helped them prep – i.e. heavily edited their essays so as that their writing reflected my ideal and my ideas. However, when I finally got to read through their essays, I was SO surprised – they knew so much and their writing was amazing! A testament to an approach that is scary and involves throwing out a challenge, providing access to rich resources and then (mostly) standing back. Below are their videos. The quality isn’t the best sometimes, but keep in mind that these were made by teams of four HSC students during (limited) class time with access to limited technology. I’m very proud.

King Richard III: Plot and Purpose on PowToon.


Using Skyrim as a creative writing stimulus

Year 7 are currently working on a creative writing project. Essentially they are composing short stories for a readership on Wattpad. You can see the project outline below. imaginative-writing-project-outline

In order to prepare them for the process of writing, I decided to focus on descriptive writing. As you can see on the project outline above, I asked my students to write a 200 word description of a person, place or thing, before they began writing their stories. This enables me to see their strengths and weaknesses as writers, and to support their  creative development. In order to engage my students in their first descriptive writing task, I decided to use video games. I am lucky enough to have an Xbox in my classroom, connected to my IWB, which allows me to use video games easily with my classes. Initially we used Minecraft as a creative writing stimulus. I chose a student to play and the class described what they saw – we focused on trying to use adjectives and figurative language to capture the five senses of our readers. This was fun, but I knew that Minecraft wasn’t the best choice – really, it’s kinda ugly.

The next lesson I used Skyrim. Unfortunately my copy of Skyrim: The Legendary Edition was at home, so I resorted to YouTube. I found the awesome video below – the top 10 landscapes in Skyrim – and showed this to my class. We paused the video on each landscape and in a whole class discussion, as well as writing individually, we described what we saw. I must say, this was a super successful lesson! The boys especially were keen to experiment with words and images, as they knew the locations well and could add an understanding of location and character and mood to the setting. I want to include some of their writing here, but I forgot to get their workbooks from them. I’ll try to remember to do that tomorrow, as I was super impressed with their ideas. One cool strategy that I used was covering my eyes so I couldn’t see the next landscape and having a students describe for me what he could see. It was really fun and also really engaging. His description was powerful and purposeful. I loved this lesson, I hope you try it out and you and your students love it too!

Should video games be used to help us learn in high school?

This is the driving question that my two year 7 classes have been (quite happily) answering in small teams over the last two weeks. Yup, that’s right – 8 lessons! This micro-project has been high-energy and high-engagement. Obviously the topic is very interesting for 12 year olds and it has resulted in lots of great discussion and ultimately some really cool arguments for an against. If you are not from Australia, you won’t know that every May we have our country’s major numeracy and literacy examination (read, standardised test) and that around about this time of year most teachers are spending time in class checking that their students have the basics to get them through these nasty tests. For the writing component, students are asked to write either a persuasive or an imaginative response. This year 7 project is a sneaky way of getting my students to engage in thinking, writing and speaking persuasively. I didn’t spend much time on any explicit inquiry/research stuff for this project because, let’s face it, these kids have been tortured with persuasive text writing for years. I went with the assumption that an exciting, challenging and engaging task over a very short period of time would refresh and develop their understanding and use if the language and structure of persuasive texts. I think you can tell from the videos below that it has been a great success! Please like, comment and subscribe after you watch the video – thanks!



What fascinates you the most about video games?

Finally the first project for Game On is done! It’s been a bit of a massive project – and admittedly too massive as an introductory project for a very new course – but I must say, it has been a massive learning curve for me. I have rambled on about how hard the project has been from a teacher’s perspective here, so now I’d just like to showcase the work my students did. They taught me so much about video games! I literally came into the course as a complete video games n00b… but am proud to say that I am far less of one now thanks to the expertise and enthusiasm of the 27 young people who chose to enroll in Game On!

You can read about our first project here. The driving question for the project was: What fascinates you the most about video games? I think the videos below really showcase the diverse range of interests that these young people have when it comes to video games. The final product was to create a YouTube video about their research topic – not all students managed to complete their videos. There are a range of different reasons from apathy (yeah, that’s right, some kids just couldn’t be bothered making a YouTube video about their favourite video game, weird, huh?) and technical issues (as in, they don’t know how to use editing software or their computers spazzed on them). I will upload the rest as they come in. As it stands, there are 12 videos of varying quality and length that would absolutely LOVE you to watch and share with your students. My students would LOVE to see the views go up and to get likes, comments and subscribers – more videos will be uploaded over the coming term!






Getting our game on at the Powerhouse Museum

Last Tuesday I took 21 excited year 9 students on an excursion to the Game Masters exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Darling Harbour. I had heard about the exhibition from my mate Peter Mahony, who works at the Powerhouse Museum. It coincided beautifully with the end of my students’ video games research project and the beginning of their social good video game design project. I think taking students outside of the school environment to learn, at least once a term, is super important. It is really hard work organising excursions, but always worth it!

Since there was only 21 students and myself, we couldn’t hire a bus, so we all got on a public bus – this made me a tiny bit anxious (what if I lost a student? What if we couldn’t all fit on the one bus?), it turned out to be awesome. It was so cool to see my students out in the public space being great humans… sometimes we forget that side of them when we only ever see them in the semi-artificial environment of the classroom. Once we got off the bus at the QVB (about a 40 minute bus trip), we had to walk about 20 minutes to the Powerhouse museum. This was enjoyable for my students as we had to go through the Tumbalong Park – they all ended up climbing through the kids’ play equipment and jumping around the many water fountains. So much fun!

We arrived at the PHM about half an hour early – woohoo, I was early! – and this gave everyone a chance to eat something and relax before the excitement of the exhibition. I’m very fortunate to know Peter Mahony who works at the museum and he and his colleague Isabella came to greet me and my students. We even got to enter the special side gates, which my students thought was awesome! Peter spoke with them about how to engage with an exhibition and encouraged them to use the ‘look, wonder, think’ approach to what they see. Pretty neat idea… I do think that once we got in to the exhibition they all lost their heads and any logical approach to what they were seeing went WAY out the window. I mean, come on, it’s a darkened space with over 100 playable games in it – my kids went mental!

The best parts of the exhibition were definitely the stunning art work (like, wow, there is some serious talent that goes into making video games – if your kids can draw and love video games, their future is bright!) as well as the videos of the designers talking about their experiences in the gaming industry. I watched the video about the origins of Blizzard – it was great, I wish I didn’t have my teacher hat on (you know, supervising the students and all) and will likely return to the exhibition with my two sons and husband. I also really enjoyed the arcade games (showing my age) because I was better at them than my students and maintained the high score on PacMan and Space Invaders for the entire time we were there. They loved challenging me to play different games and see if they could beat me – it was one of the most relaxing and fun times we’ve spent as a class. It reminds me (especially after a particularly trying day with that class today, lol) that we need to spend more time playing together and less time working to deadlines. Is this possible in school? I don’t know. I am beginning to start questioning whether my students’ engagement with video games and gaming culture is too passive… it’s something that I will continue to think about and will return to in another blog post.

Truly this day was special for me and my students. I just hope that we can all remember it as we get bogged down in the complexities and challenges of designing social impact games in teams. I really want to create more of a playful environment for this project, one in which a healthy spirit of competition and freedom is meshed with the focus and drive needed to create something truly original and awesome. So far I’ve hear whispers of a platformer based on the TV show ’16 and pregnant’… I’m getting worried ;)

PS: The Game Masters exhibition is on until mid-May and is only $15 for kids – so cheap!

arcade game-ver gameboys lady-gamers letsdance

VoicEd2014: A day of inspiration and learning

So yesterday was amazing… I know I overuse that word and Orwell would lament my failure to create a unique and interesting image to describe something, however, it truly was AMAZING! Why? Because my colleagues and my PLN continue to surprise me and astonish me – that’s how google defines amazing, lol.

If you’re not sure what VoicEd2014 is (was?) you can read my blog post about it here. Essentially it was an elaborate ploy to bring the best of Twitter (and public education) to my school. No, for real, it was. The day brought together twelve inspiring educators to share their ideas about critical and creative thinking with a collection of educators from all levels – primary, secondary and tertiary – at my school, Davidson High School. I can’t actually express how much gratitude I have for my principal, Jann Pattinson, and my colleague, Claudia Pantschenko, for working tirelessly to make the day as wonderful as it was. They made sure that it was truly an ‘event’ and not just some motley get together (certainly what it would have been were I in charge). The trust they had in me choosing the speakers and sharing the word to encourage people to attend is precious, just humbling. If you were there, you know what I mean when I say that it was fun, relaxed, smooth and focused. Looking out at my school’s MPC, full of engaged and interested learners, I was so proud to be a public school teacher.

OK, so enough blabbering on about the radness. You wanna know what you missed, right? Well below is a quick summary of what I took away from the day. You can read the tweets from the backchannel via the Storify, here.

Bruce Dennett: Bruce was the only speaker who I didn’t organise. He is a well-known speaker at History-related study days etc and is quite engaging… I guess that makes sense, since his focus is on learning through engagement. Bruce spoke passionately about his 30 years as a high school teacher and his research into what makes an effective learning experience. His presentation included a lot of quotes from well known researchers into education and engagement as well as clips from The Life of Brian – haha. Some of my favourite statements from his talk included these two:

“If you’re pandering to the needs of passive learners, you’re not doing your job properly.” “Being positive and engaged with your subject is your greatest tool.”

Ultimately, his point was that students have to want to be in your classroom in the first place and it is our job to make that happen through finding what makes our own subjects engaging and relevant for our students. Teachers are creative, passionate people, and we should use these qualities to think critically about what would be appealing to our students in our content. He argues for the use of interesting and provocative questions to drive student inquiry and learning… sounds familiar ;)

Pip Cleaves: Pip’s talk was such a great precursor for the teacher stories to follow. She talked about the six dimensions of 21st century learning and you can see the slides from her talk here. Her argument that we should focus on learning and not technology is brave and wise. Too often schools are pouring money into new technologies without first thinking about how, when and why the technology will be used for learning. I think a lot of the dimensions are reflected in PBL, so of course I thought her talk was rad.

Simon Borgert: Simon was a bit of a target during the morning sessions – being one of only two Maths teachers in the room – however his talk quickly dispelled the myth that Maths is boring and dry. I loved Simon’s focus on problem-solving and discussion. Problem Based Learning is very similar to Project Based Learning, however it is driven more in a lesson-by-lesson inquiry that has discussion and shared problem-solving at its heart. You can see the slides from Simon’s talk here.

Bianca Hewes: (that’s totes me!) I didn’t do that much talking for this presentation, instead I let my students do the talking. I filmed my year 12 students chatting about their thoughts and experiences with PBL because I’ve been teaching them that way for over three years. They said some super sweet things about it developing their resilience, independence and ability to think in new and different ways. I really wanted to hammer home the idea that PBL is a process that at its heart has critical and creative thinking, but I think I just blabbed for a couple of minutes about crap. Oops.

Polly Dunning: Polly talked about her experiences with the Flipped Classroom and how it has helped her to work more collaboratively with her students. Just like Simon, she expressed her belief that discussion is a powerful learning tool. Thanks to her recorded lessons (only in ten minute chunks) she has more time in class to discuss the ideas of texts with her students as well as helping them overcome any challenges they’re finding with set tasks. I really enjoyed Polly’s presenting style – a mixture of humour and practical advice.

Clarinda Brown: I loved this talk! Clarinda is the queen of timing – she had her slides timed beautifully (pecha kucha style) and spoke confidently and passionately about how she used Twitter to develop her PLN (professional learning network). I think her talk had one of the best impact factors – a number of new people have signed up to Twitter within 24 hours of the conference. Oh, and did I mention that she did a backflip in the middle of her talk? So awesome!

Tony Loughland: Tony was our second keynote address and I enjoyed his mini quizzes about the Professional Standards – we certainly weren’t prepared to answer them, well, maybe Pip was! I loved how Tony interacted with the audience and challenged us to think in new ways about the role that the Standards play in the lives of teachers. Tony stressed that if we want to be recognised as professionals, the we should understand and adhere to a set of professional standards. He has lots of interesting things to say about why standards matter, but at the guts of it was that understanding the standards can and will empower teachers. My take on the standards is that we should all strive to be better teachers, so why not use these Standards as a personal challenge to get even better? I’ll be trying for the HA level some time soon in my career, even though I know the paper-work will be a drag ;)

Jess Melkman: Jess spoke about her love of collaboration in the classroom with her fun talk ‘Stop: Collaborate and Listen’. The take aways from her talk were: spend quality time in class discussing the positives and negatives of group work with your students; use online spaces like edmodo to encourage collaborative behaviours and ensure that collaboration is assessable in assignments.

Eric McMarron: Eric is a primary school teacher who encourages his students to learn through play. I loved his positive, enthusiastic approach to teaching and his eagerness to share his ideas with others. You can see what he does in class on his blog, here. Eric had us all up playing the 1-2-3 theatre sports game to get us experiencing the joys of failure that happen during play. His main thesis was that play is the most authentic and engaging way to learn because it has an inherent feedback loop where failure is celebrated as a means to learning. He showed us the enthusiasm of his students for game-based learning activities and the power of these to create empathy and understanding in students.

Monique Dalli: Moni shared with us her experience of being the iPad coordinator at her school in its first year of being 1-1. This challenging position resulted in some of the most creative and effective problem-solving I have seen from a teacher. Moni realised that she could not be tech support for every student in the school, and decided to ‘hire’ students for the role as ‘Techie’. Students had to formally apply for the positions which only went for two terms. Now she has a crew of ‘geeky’ year 8 students who run tech support for students in year 7 – every home room and 24/7 via edmodo. Moni revealed how successful the initiative was for the individual students and the wider school. Many people in the audience will be stealing this idea, I think!

Cathie Cashmere: Cathie is an un-bloddy-believable multimedia teacher. She spoke about the amazing things that her students have created as part of their study of ICT/multimedia. What I loved the most about Cathie’s talk was the genuine sense of awe that she has for the work her students produce. It is clear that she sets very high expectations for her students and encourages them to challenge themselves in their work. My take away was that students truly do have the potential to do real work for the real world right now – some of her students have done paid jobs as part of their school work. So cool!

John Goh: John spoke passionately about the need for leaders to be disruptive and transformative forces within their school environments. John is the perfect spokesperson for such a movement, considering he has brought about radical changes at his school from changed school hours (8am-1.15pm) to new, open learning spaces and a whole-school shift towards a PBL and collaborative teaching approach. I loved that John spoke about his decision to get rid of his office and spend more time in classrooms and chatting with students. My tweet during his session pretty much sums up his ideas about leadership: “Disruptive leaders challenge assumptions and values, they question the known and head into the new.”

Roger Pryor: Roger has inspired me and supported me since I first found Twitter way back in 2009. It was such a pleasure to have him speak in front of my friends and colleagues in my school. I loved the provocative title of his talk, Creeping Lateralism, which really had us stumped for a while, lol. Roger’s talk was the perfect close to the day as he really honed in on the need to challenge the assumptions made in the wider society about school, teachers and education. He encouraged us to look at the imagery/symbols typically associated with schools and teachers – very traditional icons that we often try to avoid in the 21st century classroom (go on, do it!). He referenced the way contemporary start-ups talk about their businesses (and goals) and compared this to how we speak about school. He quoted John Goh’s observation, ‘What happens when we win the education race? Do we get a lolly/chocolate/donut (not sure what the thing was, lol)?’ and I loved this idea – so provocative and so true. What do we win? Why are we so concerned with winning this mythical race? Roger’s talk was one of my favourites of the day, I wish you were there to hear him. He’s an impressive speaker.

So that was VoicEd… we ended the day with a couple of ‘Birds of a Feather’ sessions where attendees could get up close and personal with the speakers. I was pretty impressed that so many people stayed around right until the end… like, for real! We were thinking people would leave at lunch time, but they stayed and listened and then asked lots of great questions. That, for me, showed that the day was a success. Now, as Pip tweeted earlier, “Imagine if everyone who went to #VoicEd2014 tried something they learnt back in their school on Monday. That’s where the impact will be.” That, indeed, would be awesome.