Montana… so pretty!

Our train rattled in to Shelby, Montana at 8.30am. It had been a very easy trip from Seattle, with the four of us sleeping comfortably in the family room on neat little beds. If you ever decide to Amtrak it from one side of America to the other with your family, I recommend you spend the extra money and get a family sleeper room. It gives you a private space to hang out as well as full dining service included. Our boys really love it.
Shelby. How to describe Shelby, Montana? Small, quiet, bordering on desolate. We got in early so had time to sit in the bright warm sun for a while before our ride came – Jeff Agamenoni and his kids plus their French home stay student. Jeff and his family offered to look after us whilst we were in Montana – we’ve known Jeff for ages through Twitter and later Facebook. We had a crazy fun time at Disneyland in 2012 with him and his family plus Dean Groom and his family. It was really sweet of Jeff to invite us to stay with him at his home in Great Falls, Montana. I’m just going to say right now that it was an unforgettable 5 days and 5 nights.

As soon as Jeff picked us up we headed towards Glacier National Park. It was quite a long drive from Shelby and this gave us plenty of time to catch up and admire the green, green expanses of Montana – oh how the Australian farmers would weep to witness it! Coming into Glacier NP we were greeted by the park ranger with his cool ranger hat – just like the ranger in Yogi Bear! Not long after driving into the park we ran into a line of still cars – it was what we quickly learned was a ‘bear jam’, a traffic jam caused by a bear sighting! Guess what type if bear it was? A grizzly bear! Guess where it was? Right beside our car in the shrubs! Pretty neat! It was a yearling – about the size of a small car and only a year old! We were very, very lucky to have seen such a rare, wonderful creature in its own habitat just foraging without a concern about us. Of course, having sighted a bear so soon made me very nervous on our hike to the waterfall!
The hike to the falls took about 45 minutes and it was such warm weather that my boys were quickly regretting wearing their new snow gloves. Luckily as we approached the falls they saw a patch of snow about two metres wide – it only took them a couple of seconds to race to it and begin launching snow balls at one another.
On the walk back from the falls – which were beautiful, tumbling into a pea green lake – Lee decided that he wanted to take a dip in the lake. Jeff and the others were shocked but I wasn’t. Lee loves to swim in strange places, especially very cold ones where not many people would go. I think he keeps a mental list. He didn’t have any board shirts – sorry, swimming trunks for the Americans reading – so he stripped off and jumped in in his undies. Crazy!
As we drove out of the park we were treated to another spectacular and rate site – a mother moose and her baby walking through the trees. Adorable! The mother moose was huge and had this gracious, slow gait whilst the little baby scurried behind her trying to keep up. When we thought we couldn’t get more lucky with our wildlife spotting, we saw something even more special – another grizzly bear! This one was climbing up the mountainside just alongside of the road. It was scuttling across rocks with ease. We watched it for ages until it disappeared into the maze of rocks and trees. We quickly learned that seeing one grizzly in the wild is rare, but seeing two is just crazy lucky. Yay!
The next trip saw us drive up a steep, slightly unnerving road in another part of Glacier. There we saw a big glacier covered in ice and a cool sort of canyon carved through the rocky mountainside by a rushing river. I can’t remember the name of this place, so if Jeff is reading he might be able to add those details as a comment below. We saw more wildlife, this time less rare – deer! So cute!
On the way back to Jeff’s house we stopped for burgers in a tiny little village and I fell in love – with huckleberry! This little tart berry the size of a blueberry is divine. We ate huckleberry pie with icecream and so began an obsession. Back at Jeff’s we met his funny dog Buster. He was so excited to meet us that he nearly knocked me over. Awww, we love Buster and as I type this I miss him. Jeff is a great host and made sure we were comfortable. The next day was, we happily discovered, a ‘rest day’ – just what we needed because our trip had been insane up until that point. We spent the day charging our devices, washing clothes and then we headed to the local swimming pool for some fun before the lightning storm hit. That night Lee and I made vegetarian lasagne and salad for everyone – a surprising hit with all the boys and so nice to have a taste of home cooked veggie food!

On Wednesday we were up super early to hit the highway – we were on our way to Yellowstone National Park! Hey, hey, Boo-Boo!! The trip there was awesome – we went along Beartooth HWY. I was forewarned by Jeff that I might not enjoy the drive so much, given my fear of heights and the fact that we were driving mountains up to 10,000ft! Despite the heights, I loved it. Seriously one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever been on – it puts the Great Ocean Road and King’s Canyon to shame. The mountains were so green I can’t think of an adequate simile or metaphor to describe them. Even our photographs couldn’t capture the depth and range of that green – you just have to experience it through your own eyes. As the road climbed higher the valley floor spread open below us and we could see the slithering river far below, winding through rocks and trees. Looking up we could indulge in the white, white snow capping the mountain peaks. Looming over that vibrant white in the far distance were angry grey clouds and the spears of rain. It was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the boys were hoping for a further drop in temperature so the incoming rain would become fluffy white snow. Well, young boys will dream! Our first stop was ‘half way up’, according to Jeff, but it was so high up I felt giddy looking over the lookout. I was pretty glad to be distracted by the lively little chipmunks who were so tame they ate peanuts from our open hands. This provided the boys and I with so much laughter – there wasn’t time for me to sob about the height, no opportunity to embarrass myself in front of Jeff! Dragging ourselves from the tiny bundles of cuteness – the chipmunks, not Jeff, lol – we got back in the car and headed even higher up the mountains.
I was getting sort of nervous as I looked down over the edge of the narrow road, but suddenly it opened up into a winter wonderland of snow and sunshine! Our boys were nearly wetting themselves with excitement and before too long Jeff pulled up the car and we all rushed out onto the snow. There was more snow than our boys have ever seen and they were delighted. It was rather cold though and my decision to wear a dress without tights was quickly regretted. After about twenty minutes of mucking around in the snow, we once again headed back onto the highway. We were outrunning the rain now, making our way to Yellowstone NP.

Jeff had earlier organised a cabin for us to stay in, Sunrise Cabins, which he had stayed in with his family the week before. It’s just three easy miles from Yellowstone. The cabins were so cool – rustic with antlers tacked above the door, classic mountain-style accommodation. Jeff built a campfire for roasting hotdogs and s’mores whilst the boys played in the patches of snow around the cabins. The owner has a beautiful little puppy called Agnes who just loved the boys – well, the love was reciprocated once she showed them she was happy to play with them in the snow, digging holes and rolling about! After dinner the rain finally arrived, so we headed inside for an early night, knowing the next day would be big!

Waking at 5.30am, we were in the dining room for 6.15am for a delightfully healthy breakfast of fried eggs, homemade potato hash and slices of tomato. I even had a cup of chai tea. Before we knew it we were on the road, into Yellowstone and caught up in traffic. But this was good traffic – it was a bear jam! We climbed out of the car and joined the growing group of tourists standing on the road, staring into the green ahead of us. Quickly we saw her – a black bear no more than 20 metres away, foraging for flowers and other natural delicacies. To our surprise, we saw she had three adorable little cubs. They were initially happy to chase each other through the grass, but something spooked one of them, causing it to climb up a pine tree with the others hastily following it. You haven’t seen cute until you’ve seen three black bear cubs chasing each other up the narrow top of a pine tree. We could have watched them all day, but the rest of the park was waiting, so we got as many photos of the bears as we could and left.

The next stop was lower Yellowstone falls. Here I nearly lost my composure – the walk down to the top of the falls was steep and slippery. It had been raining in the morning. It was, however, worth the anxiety as I’ve never seen such a sight! The Yellowstone river is a powerful beast, fed by the melting snow from the mountains. It roared over the narrow rocky edge, careless of who or what lay in its way. We stood on the small ledge over the falls and looked down into the gurgling waters as they pounded into the river so, so far below. Wow. Another short drive took us to a second vantage point for the same waterfall, allowing us to fully appreciate its size and power! We took so many photos but I doubt any captured that beautiful sight.

As we threaded our way through the park we saw plenty more wildlife – mostly bison. I must confess, I loved them. Something about them is graceful yet grand. They seem almost wise. I know that’s weird, they are probably quite stupid animals. I just loved it when we came across one close to the road and we could look into its dark brown eyes as it looked back unconcerned by our presence. Awesome. Yellowstone is also know for its geothermal activity – it is the super volcano that could one day bring about the end of mankind after all! We stopped and checked out a lot of sulfur smelling pools of bubbling mud and boiling waters. The range of colours in these places impressed me most – from dull brown to emerald and turquoise water and rocks that came in all shades of orange, red and brown. There’s these little micro-organisms living in the hot waters of Yellowstone, blanketing the rock with colour. Of course we took the time to sit and wait for the famous geyser, Old Faithful, to put on its show. Boy was it busy! It amused me greatly that people waited over 30 minutes for it to erupt, only to leave within 5 minutes, not waiting to see its end. After all, it’s just water spouting out of the ground. I did think it was impressive, reminding us that there are much, much bigger forces at play in our world than those we humans can control. As we left the park we saw an elk and her three calves, totally cute! The long drive home to Great Falls was long and I can’t thank Jeff enough for being such a great guy and driving my family the whole way. You rock.

Friday was a day for the boys – trout fishing on the Missouri River. It was cool to finally get to hang out with Joanie, Jeff’s wife, cos she’d been working all week. She’s the first woman I’ve spent time with since my brief time with Suzie Boss in Portland! Joanie is so cool and funny – she taught me to make a great salsa and we joked about our men and boys. Moments I’ll treasure. The boys headed to the river – and Uncle Tom’s cabin – earlier. They took a row boat and some inflated inner tubes, cruising down that ice cold river – brrr! When we got to the cabin the rain had followed us – oops – so we all gathered in the cabin to eat salsa, guacamole and pickle dip with loads of chips, washed down by soda. So cool. The cabin was full of curiosities and I wish I’d taken more photos – the heads of a range of animals lined the walls, Uncle Tom is a hunter, and a basket of BB guns sat in the corner, much to the excitement of our 12 year old. After the rains quit it, we headed out to fish for trout. Despite a long time with no success, by the time the boys headed home they had caught three trout. One they brought home to cook.
That night we ate yummy home made tacos – soft shells, oh Australia you have a lot to learn! Then Joanie made her famous gooey butter cake, served with whipped cream and I thought I would have a heart attack! Probably the most decadent, rich and delicious cake I’ve ever eaten. It will be worth the heart palpitations!

Sadly, that ended our time in gorgeous Montana and as we said goodbye to Joanie at Shelby train station I actually felt like I could cry. We are insanely lucky to know such beautifully generous, funny, clever people. No words are good enough to describe or thank them. I hope this post will serve as a symbol of how much fun we had and how awesome we think the Agamenoni family is.

Summer solstice snow #CF2US14

Our last full day in Seattle certainly was full! We woke up late (again) and headed down to 3rd Ave to pick up a hire car for the day. Lee had booked it over the phone the night before – a standard 4 door car for $67, not bad. Sadly, as always happens, the person behind the desk at the pick up place added extra for insurance – $40 extra! This was annoying because we had specifically asked on the phone if the quote given included insurance and we were assured it did. This has happened to us before and, as with this time, we weren’t bold enough to argue. The people behind the desks at car hire places are rogues, rascals. They do anything they can to get extra money from you. My suggestion is to ALWAYS get the quote emailed to you and specifically ask the salesperson to indicate in capital letters that the quote includes insurance. Another thing to consider if whether your travel insurance covers you for car accidents. It often does. Anyway, lesson learned on our part – we just have to be less meek (a trait that we’ve passed on to our boys for better or for worse – they are forever being pushed in front of in lines!).

Ultimately our day was worth the extra $40 anyway. We hired the car specifically to drive to Mt Rainier, something Lee has been wanting to do since our last visit to Seattle in 2012. It’s such an impressive mountain, snow capped and looming over the city of Seattle. The drive was pretty easy and the closer we got, the landscape became more and more natural and pretty. A spread of wild flowers bloomed on the side of the highway and Mt Rainier grew and grew. The boys were so engrossed with its growing size, filling the car with ooohhhs and aaaaaahhs! We paid the $15 to get into the park and began the steady assent up the mountain – my palms got sweaty cos I’m not so good with heights. We stopped off a few times to get photographs of the views – all lush green and cloud white. The last stop was the best according to the boys – we finally got high enough up to get out and play in the snow! Reflection Lakes were partially frozen and just gorgeous. It was like being in a Christmas card! We are so lucky! After a hilarious scramble down a snowy embankment – picture me falling on my butt three times – we made it to the lake. Of course the first thing the boys did was make snowballs and their favourite target was their slow moving mother. We made a snow man and a snow dog and laughed that it was summer solstice and giggled at the authenticity of our realised dreams. Seriously.

Before our fingers fell off from frost-bite, we got back in the car and made our way back down the mountain. Our next destination was the music store where Kurt Cobain bought his first guitar. Unfortunately after a quick phone call to the store we discovered we wouldn’t make it to Aberdeen before they closed. We decided to try anyway – as you do. It took us over and hour to get to Aberdeen – making it there 15 minutes after the store closed. Lame! Our disappointment hung heavy in the Aberdeen air – oh, wait, that IS the air at Aberdeen! Seriously, that place is depressing. It gives an accurate sense of why Nirvana’s music has that moody, broken quality to it. The town is eerily quiet. Cliche? Yes? An accurate description? Well, I guess you’ll have to trust the veracity of my description because I strongly doubt you’ll ever visit there yourself; it’s just not somewhere I’d recommend. We did revisit Kurt Cobain Riverside Park – a kind of shrine to Kurt that was established by a caring Aberdeen local. The park is adjacent to the bridge that Kurt frequented often in his youth. He slept under it after he was kicked out of home for whatever reason teens and people in their early 20s get kicked out. It’s a special place for Nirvana fans – a pilgrimage point for the diehards – but it is sad too, just like the rest of the town. It gives a sense of the despondency that pervades many of Kurt’s art. I try to get a sense of him there, but all the scrawlings on the bridge beams just talk to me of those who love him, for their own reasons, and the sounds of lawn mowers, cars and scrawny dogs barking just takes away any pseudo spiritual experience I could get. That doesn’t mean it’s not a cool space, it totally is. The recent addition of Kurt’s air guitar was pretty cute.

We returned the car at 8pm and walked the long walk back to the hotel. The boys were washed out so we left them to play their games and headed down to the brewery next to the hotel – The Six Arms. The food was meh and Lee said the beer was watery. Worst of all was the music – Coldplay, Muse and The Killers! Not cool. The night did end well though, as we got a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, haha.

Sunday was a sort of nothing day… the boys went swimming, despite it not being swimming weather, and we took our final walk down to the Pike Street Markets. We bought fruit for the train and chocolate pasta to make for dessert with Jeff and Joanie, which we are told tastes great with icecream! Oh, and we ate breakfast at The Crumpet Shop. Yup, you read that right, crumpets in America! I got one with honey, the boys had jam and Lee had eggs and smoked salmon. Whilst they weren’t the best crumpets I’ve had, they were tasty and the homemade chai was delicious. It surprises me how popular this shop is! Crumpets are SOO hipsters ;)

We boarded our AMTRAK train at 1.40pm and are currently headed to Montana. The family room is great – so roomy, the boys are stoked and the novelty of being on a train hasn’t worn off, which is great. Tomorrow we’ll be meeting up with Jeff and Joanie in Shelby and heading to Glacier National Park!!

Oh, Seattle, how we love you!

The train to Seattle from Portland was cruisy – four hours of alternating napping and reading, perfect. The best part, of course, was that we ended up in Seattle!
We arrived at Union Station, which happily is in the city centre, and tried our best to haul all of our bags up the hill to our hotel. We made it to an ATM and grabbed some cash and then a cab. The cab driver was pretty hilarious – a socialist who cared for the environment but resented people walking slowly across the road or who took all his change. We potentially were guilty of the latter, oops!
We got to our hotel way before check-in, so dropped off our bags and headed down Pike Street to check out the town.
Our first stop was Pike Street Farmers’ Markets. Love it here! Our last visit to Seattle was so rushed that we didn’t get to appreciate this community space enough. We bought yummy dried fruit, admired the crowds buying seafood and tasted chocolate pasta – yum! We also got cold pressed apple and lavender cider – yum! We navigated our way through the rush of locals and tourists and headed down to the pier for clam chowder and tomato soup – the boys had theirs in sourdough bread bowls which the couldn’t finish.
We hiked it back up Pike Street and finally checked in to our hotel. It’s a beautiful hotel – big apartment, great games room, excellent service. The boys went for a swim and played electronic darts – happy boys! We then headed north on Pike to experience the colour of the gay community and the awesome that is Elysian Brewery. Love that place.
The next day we slept in – yay! Every other day has been hectic with very early starts. It was nice to rest. We got up in time for the hotel breakfast and regretted it as soon as we saw the powdered eggs, weird ham circles and other foods of dubious origins. It was a quick decision to head back to Pike St Markets for doughnuts. OK, only I ate them… tiny doughy balls of yumminess. Once again we headed to the pier with the plan to ride the huge Ferris wheel but it was packed at 10 in the morning, on a week day, so we gave it a miss. Phew! I wasn’t keen at all.
Another ten minute walk and we found ourselves in the oldest part of the city – so pretty – for the Underground Tour. Loved it! We had the best guide of the lot, she was hilarious, passionate and knowledgable. We learned so much about the origins of Seattle – and a lot about their obsession with toilets! Thanks Mr Crapper! The resilience and determination of the founding fathers of Seattle was inspiring. It was also cool to discover that a woman was integral to the rebuilding of Seattle after it burnt down.
After spending far too long in the toy store opposite the tour, we headed to Pike Brewery for refreshments and food, but mostly refreshments, lol. Lee said the beer was awesome but not as good as Elysian Brewery. The food was yummy too – I recommended the vegetarian nachos!
The evening involved catching the monorail to the Space Needle and me defeating my fear of heights! The Space Needle is great – worth the long lines! The views of Puget Sound and Seattle city – oh those shadows! – are stunning. Truly. We ended the night with pizza and ice cream. What a great day!

20140621-093634-34594085.jpg

20140621-093633-34593405.jpg

20140621-093633-34593066.jpg

20140621-093633-34593749.jpg

20140621-093632-34592692.jpg

20140621-093634-34594639.jpg

20140621-093635-34595190.jpg

20140621-093635-34595077.jpg

20140621-093634-34594968.jpg

The long flight, the short flight and the train trip #CF2US14

If you don’t know by now, my family and I have once again flown East for summer… very East. This is our fourth trip to the USA and the first one that won’t feature attendance at an edu event. We will be spending time with some of our favourite edu peeps though, as we traverse the continent from LA to NY.
The first leg of the trip is always tiring but rarely unpleasant. We fly Air New Zealand because I’m an uneasy flier. AirNZ have a great safety record, but more importantly they’re really friendly and look after us. Unfortunately flying to the US with them inevitably means a stop over in Auckland. This time our stop over was for 5 hours! There’s not a great deal to do in Auckland airport for that long, however they do provide super comfortable chairs and lounges in an open, flexible space which is pleasant. Lee and I managed to organise the chapters of our PBL books, grab some ZZZZs and then indulge in edamame and Japanese beer. Can’t complain, really.
The flight from Auckland to LA was good too. Great big plane, awesome service – food was tasty for vegetarian plane food – and I managed to half watch a couple of films. I also read half of The Fault in Our Stars, a super easy read thanks to Green’s powerful characterisation. Actually, that reminds me that I listened to four chapters of A Users Guide to the News by Alain deBotton on the other flight. Such an awesome book. I will be buying it as soon as I find a hard copy!

Arriving in LA, we discovered that an armed gunman had been ‘sighted’ in the army barracks two blocks away from our hotel. Welcome to LA, huh? Despite that we still headed down the road and found the most amazing food at Roobios – the original fish taco restaurant! Amazing! If you’re ever in the US, look up Roobios. Their food puts Baja Fresh to shame, and that’s saying something cos we really love Baja Fresh fish tacos! We also found a Five Guys Burgers and Fries – Lee nearly died of excitement because he loves the YouTube vid where the guy reviews their double cheeseburgers – DAYUM! After stuffing ourselves with tacos, we managed to buy and eat some fries from Five Guys Burgers and Fries, just so we could get a ‘ghetto grocery bag’, lol!

Early the next morning we were back on a plane, this time a Delta flight from LAX to Portland. I love Delta – they are really friendly and the service is great! They give you a drink and a snack and you don’t have to pay for a blanket – a lot better service than Virgin America where everything costs something, even the headphones! The flight was rad – tiny plane but that didn’t bother me for two reasons:
1. The view is awesome. We saw snow capped mountains!
2. I was reading the second half of The Fault in Our Stars. I confess, there were tears!

Portland is awesome. Seriously. We’re pretty confident that this is THE city we could easy live in. Our first meal was at the Elephant Delicatessen – the most amazing world of food you can imagine and so cheap! I was actually overwhelmed by the selections and all the different counters, lol. We settled on soup and pizza. It was great to have a range of vegetarian options to choose from! We then walked down Burnside Rd to Powell’s City of Books and ended up lost in there for two hours. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know how easy that is to do! The map of the store helped a lot – we spent $171 and have much heavier luggage thanks to the many books we purchased. Well worth it! Next stop was the Doc Martens store where Keenan got his first ever pair – a big deal for our family, a milestone really! Did I mention how cheap Docs are here? Finally we headed to Deschutes Brewery for some delicious craft beer and cider. So Portland!

That night we were treated to dinner with the lovely Suzie Boss and her husband. She made us delicious vegetarian lasagne and a stunning three tiered strawberry and cream sponge cake – our boys were stoked! She also took us to see the beautiful roses at Washington Park. I wish we’d had more time to discover all of Portland’s secret spots!

Right now we are sitting on the Cascades train heading to Seattle. Well, we’re not heading anywhere right now because the train is stopped due to track work – fun times! Still, it won’t be long and our journey will be back on track, so to speak, haha!

A fortnight of visual learning

The last couple of weeks have been a bit manic. Lots of teaching highs that have been obscures by lots of administrative (and personal) lows. My year 12 students continue to push their thinking about Orwell’s significance, my year 7s have loved every minute of Winton’s ‘Lockie Leonard’ and my year 10 students have shown a growing appreciation for poetry. On the flip side I’ve been dealing with the death of a colleague, the grinding reality of traditional assessment and reporting as well as completing far too many forms about photocopying and printing. It’s just been a weird ride and as a result, I haven’t felt compelled to write anything meaningful. I have, however, been collecting visuals from Twitter and Facebook – these images, I think, track my thinking and learning over the last ten days or so. I only just realised that I’ve been an unconscious bowerbird; stealing the gems of wisdom others have captured through well-selected images and groovy fonts. Can I just say this, THANK YOU. They helped. They inspired me, challenged me, made me laugh. I, sadly, haven’t been considerate enough to record who each image belongs to. Do me a favour? Claim ownership by commenting below?

20140612-064751-24471051.jpg

20140612-064750-24470813.jpg

20140612-064750-24470759.jpg

20140612-064751-24471000.jpg

20140612-064751-24471076.jpg

20140612-064750-24470673.jpg

20140612-064751-24471526.jpg

20140612-064751-24471564.jpg

20140612-064750-24470898.jpg

20140612-064751-24471780.jpg

20140612-064751-24471154.jpg

20140612-064751-24471471.jpg

20140612-064751-24471843.jpg

20140612-064751-24471275.jpg

20140612-064751-24471902.jpg

20140612-064752-24472211.jpg

20140612-064752-24472005.jpg

20140612-064751-24471638.jpg

20140612-064752-24472160.jpg

20140612-064751-24471720.jpg

20140612-064752-24472285.jpg

20140612-064752-24472427.jpg

20140612-064752-24472081.jpg

20140612-064752-24472746.jpg

20140612-064752-24472547.jpg

20140612-064752-24472798.jpg

20140612-064752-24472959.jpg

20140612-064752-24472890.jpg

20140612-064752-24472597.jpg

20140612-064752-24472846.jpg

20140612-064752-24472671.jpg

20140612-064753-24473078.jpg

20140612-064752-24472491.jpg

20140612-064753-24473118.jpg

20140612-064753-24473033.jpg

Using design to hook my students into their project

One of the best parts of PBL is the hook lesson (or the project launch, whatever you wanna call it). I know it’s dumb to think that the very first lesson is the best part, but seriously they are as memorable as the concluding celebration of learning but with WAY less anxiety, and therefore honestly more fun.

Year 7 are currently working on a project that engages them with the highs and lows of transitioning from childhood to being a teenager. They’re reading the Tim Winton novel Lockie Leonard: Human Torpedo and will be creating a website to help year 6 students in NZ and Perth to support them in their impending transition. Designing a hook lesson for this project was tricky; I wanted them to be engaged in the ideas of the project, but I also wanted them to have fun and think critically. I still can’t remember how I came up with the idea I ended up going with, so if you suggested it to me, you should totally claim it by adding a comment below.

Students came into class and were put into teams of four – two boys and two girls. On the board I wrote the following:

photo(36)Each team was given a variety of building materials (just a bunch of random things that I could find in the staffroom), making sure each team has the same amount of each material.

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.48.17 PMI set the online countdown timer to 20 minutes and left them to it. The class was loud with designing – loud! There was also quiet focus and excited sharing of ideas. I loved watching the different ways in which my students approached this task. I walked around the room and gave encouragement to teams, but mostly I stepped back. They certainly didn’t need my ideas – it was an ideas factory in there! When you think about it, this is a really, really hard task. It requires students to think critically about what they know about the experiences of teenagers – the good and the bad – and then think creatively about how these experiences can be represented metaphorically through the elements of a theme park. Oh, and add to that the need to actually create these elements from very basic materials, under the pressure of a ticking clock and negotiating the ideas of peers. Tough!

After 20 minutes, this is what students presented:

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.48.36 PMSome of my favourite elements of the designs were these:

- a rollercoaster that represents the emotional ups and downs of teenagers

- the mega-drop that represented being dumped by your boyfriend/girlfriend

- dodgem cars that represent fights with parents and teachers

- a ferris wheel that symbolised school achievement: sometimes you’re on the top and sometimes you’re on the bottom

- maps discarded on the group symbolised the refusal of teenagers to follow an established path

- a kiosk where you can buy stupid things because that’s what teenagers often spend their money on

- the giant swing which represents the mood swings of teens

- a haunted house that symbolised the anxiety and fears experienced by teens regarding school achievement

- a tug of war between teenager children and their parents

The day after this lesson, one of my students if we could build something else cool. He’d obviously enjoyed this creative design activity! I was really impressed with not only the designs if my students, but the ideas that they presented. This will definitely put them in good stead for the rest of this project!

Involve me and I learn…

Last Thursday was, officially, one of my most memorable days as a teacher. Ever. It was terrifying but awesome. After five weeks of studying the essays of the marvelous George Orwell, my year 12 students were ready (sort of) to complete the first part of their Module B project – participating in a debate about Orwell as an essayist in front of Australia’s top Orwell scholar, Dr Peter Marks, author of George Orwell The Essayist. Pretty intimidating, right? I confessed to my students (after their debates were over) that I could never do what they had done. They were truly, truly amazing.

The project’s driving question is ‘What would Orwell have to say about our world today?’ and students were required to participate in a debate and write a personal essay answering the above driving question. I know it seems weird doing PBL with year 12, but for me and my students it is natural. They are used to the pressure of sharing their learning with an audience beyond the classroom. Obviously they were still freaked out before the debate last week – they were well aware of who Dr Marks is and what he has contributed to the study of Orwell’s essays in particular. So, how did I manage to get Dr Marks at my school? Did I pay him? Nope. I just emailed him and asked. We had been in contact way back in 2009 when I discovered that he had written his PhD on Orwell’s essays and organised to meet him at Sydney Uni so I could photocopy his (entire) thesis. Asking Peter to come to my school was risky, I figured he’d be too busy… but he happily fit us into his busy schedule! How cool is that?

On the day, my students spoke passionately and confidently for their team’s position – arguing whether Orwell was a rebel, saint, prophet or common man. Peter was so generous in his praise for my students, letting them know their speaking skills were superior to those of many university students and encouraging them to enroll to study at Sydney Uni. You can imagine the delight of my students! The value of his visit went beyond praise of my students, as he shared so much of his knowledge about Orwell as a writer, person and thinker that will certainly help my students not only in their HSC but in life – seriously, Orwell was one amazing human being. I will always be grateful to Peter for giving up his time to support my students’ learning. His visit allowed me to see my students in a new light, as young learners distinct from HSC students. This is a powerful thing.

Finally, it was super, super, super cool to have one of my students tweet me to share with me her thoughts about PBL and learning after the debate:

georgie-2