Re-discovering online ‘gems’ …

Tonight I am feeling excited about putting the finishing touches on a PBL-style activities matrix for Year 9 novel study. (Haha, mouthful – gotta love edu double-talk) I’ll try to continue this blog post using Orwell’s ‘clear prose style’ and avoid turning into a machine or a dummy!

This task is something that has been gestating in my heat-oppressed brain for many, many months … since I had the pleasure of visiting SCIL at the invitation of Shani Hartley. My job this year is to ensure that we have up-to-date programs for Year 9 English. Because these students are netbook kids I’m having a bit of fun with the task. Problem is that the programs must be accessible for teachers who are not familiar with technology in the classroom or who may resist using it. At SCIL they use a form of learning matrix (based on Blooms Taxonomy and Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences) that gives students the freedom to direct their own learning. It was great watching Year 5/6 students confidently directing their own learning based on their perceived ‘learning styles’ (something that has not surprisingly come under fire by a team of academics led by Hal Pashler, see here). My prac student last year used a form of this matrix with mixed success.

My matrix blends the 5 elements of fiction (plot, setting, characterisation, themes and writing style) and gaming elements (I think, I dunno cos I’m not a gamer so don’t feel confident with gamification … maybe soon) and ICT-based individual and small group tasks. The whole thing is to be completed by a small group of five students within a given period of time (no duh, huh? lol). There are 25 different tasks to complete – each task ranging earning the students between 2 and 10 points. (Aside – many of the tasks have been adapted from a great teacher book, Ignite Student Intellect and Imagination in English by Sandar L. Schurr and Kathy L. LaMorte  (2009) ) Students get ‘completion’ points and ‘success’ points as well as possible ‘bonus’ points for presentation.

Here’s a look at the matrix:

My biggest challenge was creating rubrics for EACH one of the 25 tasks. That’s a LOT of effort – no one really wants to do that, huh? But I remembered a web tool I had been shown years ago – rubistar. It’s such a great tool, literally saving HOURS of time for teachers! And even better – it’s PERFECT for Project Based Learning where students often complete smaller investigations and products on their way to meeting a bigger challenge/answering an over-arching question. I am SO glad I typed rubistar into google tonight on a whim. Already I have created five really effective student and teacher friendly marking rubrics that will ensure my students know what is expected of them for each task to achieve maximum points.

Hoping that the teachers in my faculty like it and don’t think it’s just another example of ‘mental Bianca’! Oh, and even more importantly, I hope our students enjoy the tasks that have been created for them.

PBL – reality check

I know you’re probably thinking ‘oh no, not PBL from her again’ – and in fact I’m stoked you’ve made it so far as to read this – but thinking about my big plans for next term forces me to also reflect on the plans I had for last term.

If you check out my post that lists all of my PBL projects ‘A Year of Experiential Learning’ you’ll see that I had big plans for last term. Now time for the reality check – and something every teacher must do before embarking on another project.

Year 9 did protest poetry – they were my big success and I’ve outlined in a previous post how I struggled to get to the ‘success’ point. The students managed to write some wonderful poetry and presented these to their families at a Performance Poetry Evening at school. You can read their poems here.

Year 10 worked on poetry as well, trying to answer the question ‘Can Cyborgs Write Poetry’. Once again, the students wrote some wonderful poems. I’ll post them on their blog soon here, so check it out in a day or two.  However despite my attempts to organise a presentation (I contacted our local newspaper to try to track down a poet to be in the audience and I also contacted an expert in artificial intelligence) we just didn’t manage to get to the point where the poems were celebrated  with an audience. There are a number of reasons for this, but the big two that I know will be hurdles for other teachers were the reality of formal ‘summative assessment’ (for my class this was an essay on three poems by John Foulcher) and a very crowded school calendar – injections, photos, excursions, test weeks, sporting matches. The dream was for them to transform their poems into digi-narratives. Only two were completed before we had to ‘move on’ to essay-writing. My second project for the term was designing the School Certificate – see the outline on their blog here – but whilst we got through a couple of the investigations and one  product, we swiftly hit the end of term and the reality of their half-yearly examination which is week two of next term. Another incomplete project.

Year 11 were my final project kids. They spent the first seven weeks doing pretty much traditional style lessons – responding to texts relating to a central concept and then writing an essay. Then the fun began (once their formal assessment task – an essay – was over) when I set them a project to create a visual text to help primary aged students learn about conflict (the concept they’d been studying all term). This would be shared with the local primary school (right next door to our school) early next term. They started to make some really great texts – digi-narratives, board games, comics – but now the reality of their half-yearly examination dawns. We need to move on to their next text because this is what they will be assessed on in their exam. It’ll be work at home to finish the project – but of course then there will be the inevitable complaints regarding the difficulty of group-work outside of school hours.

Well, going through this list of projects I realise that the biggest barrier I am facing is time and planning on my part. I need to have a better knowledge of what’s coming up in the school calendar and in what ways this can impact on the viability of the projects being set. I also have to accept that PBL is hard to fit within an assessment schedule that is summative and prescriptive. I need to ensure that each project fits within an appropriate timeline and that each project ensures students will succeed in the formal assessment schedule already in place.

Concluding word: last term was awesome fun – manic at times – and I know my students got a lot out of our projects. In my heart I know PBL is making a difference for me and my students. However, assessments are SUCH powerful determiners of how we teach. My next challenge is to take on the traditional view of  assessment as solely ‘summative’ – this will prohibit ‘teaching to the test’ approaches to T&L. I’ve already had a bit of success with transforming assessment – with a Year 12 Advanced English assessment!

What are some challenges you’ve encountered when trying out a new approach to teaching and learning?

Authentic assessment: sharing what we know

This year I am teaching Year 11 Standard English. As mentioned in a previous post (somewhere, who knows where?) I find teaching these guys both fun and challenging. They know that their preliminary courses don’t really ‘count’ towards their HSC. Most of these kids don’t want to go to uni and as such are not ‘getting an ATAR’. Of course they could be doing English Studies – the new non-ATAR, no HSC-exam Engish course – but they’ve elected to do Standard English anyway. This brings the fun and the challenge. They love to talk about their world and their lives. They like to be shown new texts and to talk about why they like them or don’t like them. What they don’t really like to do is write essays. It’s a shame then that about 75% of the Standard English course is writing essays or at least ‘analytical’ texts.

This year we’re looking at ‘Conflict’ as our Area of Study. We’ve had some great class discussions about conflict and my students have written some very moving, personal pieces about conflicts they have encountered in their lives. Fun. Writing essays based on ‘texts’ we have studied in class = not fun. So we got through the assessment task – an essay plan and an essay. And now we’ve got two weeks to kill before we move on to our next module. So we’re going to create visual texts based on what they know about conflict and how they can share this with a specific audience.

This is their task:

You are to create a visual text that helps young people (between the ages of 6-12 years) better understand conflicts – how they arise, how they may be resolved, what consequences may occur. Your purpose is to entertain and educate.
You could create:
– a digi narrative
– an interactive narrative
– a short film
– a website
– a comic
– photo collage

Pretty cool, huh? We have a public school right next door to us. In fact, my two children attend the school, so I’m going to see if my class can present their visual texts to an authentic audience – children between the ages of 6-12. Working individually or in small groups the students have to select an age group (we put them in K-2, 3-4 and 5-6 year groupings) and then decide on a conflict that this age-group would encounter (we wrote a list of these on the board – it was really fun chatting about what it was like being that young and the things that mattered to you!). Once the audience and purpose have been decided, students need to select their medium of communication. I’ve given them the freedom to choose, as you can see above. Student choice is a key element of Project Based Learning.

Tomorrow we have our first double period for the project. I’m going to get the students to complete some of these project planning forms from BIE to help get them organised for the project. I want them to see that there is a concrete deadline for these texts. I wonder if two weeks is too short a time frame, but then my experience is that the longer you give students to complete a task, the longer they procrastinate. (Aren’t we all the same?) To help them with this planning I might model an example on the board for them – a cartoon about a bunny that doesn’t like eating broccoli. I want them to see that this task requires them to ‘apply’ what they have learnt about conflict to a new situation. A bit of butcher’s paper might come in handy for the next step – the early planning of the narrative for the text. This will involve them returning to the aspects of conflict that we covered in class and that were evidenced in the texts we studied. They also need to revisit what they know about how meaning is made within visual texts. The cool thing is that we studied an interactive, multimodal text as our prescribe text – Inanimate Alice – so they have a good idea of how conflict can develop within a narrative.

I know this task seems massive, but working together with a concrete deadline and clear directions for each lesson (thanks to the BIE planning forms) I think they can do it – let’s see, hey?

Are teachers content management systems?

On Friday I tweeted this:

It has since been retweeted by a couple of my PLN. So why did I tweet it and why might it resonate with other tweachers?

When the thought came to me I was hastily preparing for the first meeting of my school’s new PBL Research Team (more on this to come) and in doing so I was looking at the data from a DER in Stage 6 survey I collected last year. The survey was completed twice – once by teachers and once by Year 10 students. Essentially I asked both teachers and students what their expectations were for DER in Stage 6. (For my international readers, DER is the 1-1 initiative of our current federal government that aims to give a laptop to every student in Years 9-10, and Stage 6 refers to the highest level of secondary schooling in NSW – culminating in the external Higher School Certificate examinations.)

Here are some of the questions I included in the survey:

Responses from both surveys were very similar – students and teachers did not expect to use the netbooks often in class. The only technology that both groups wished to see being used was IWBs – and this would be as little as once a fortnight. If netbooks were used they would be used for accessing information on the internet. The responses weren’t unexpected – these students have been conditioned by a lifetime of school-setting education exposure to see education as ‘the filling of a pail’ – they are the empty vessels waiting to be filled by teacher. And teachers have been conditioned to see themselves in the same way. Stage 6 means big pressure for teachers and students – no one wants to fail, therefore no one wants to risk being set on fire. My analogy for teachers is the content management system – but the irony of course is that we are not robots, we have not been programmed to work in the seamless, repetitive and reliable way that a CMS can. So the acceptance of teachers as CMS actually necessitates failure.

Here is a definition of a CMS I found which relates nicely to how teachers are viewed by governments, parents and media and therefore shapes how teachers see themselves:

‘A CMS or Content Management System is used for the control and editing of content. Content includes electronic files, images and video based media, audio files, electronic documents and web text.’ (Source:

I like this definition because it engages with digital media – something many teachers are beginning to do more regularly since the introduction of DER. But the ‘control and editing’ of this digital content still stays firmly in the hands of the teacher.

I came across another type of CMS – the ‘Learning Content Management System’ when I was googling CMS (Yes, I had a normal person look and went to wikipedia)

‘LCMS is software for managing learning content across an organization’s various training development areas. It provides developers, authors, instructional designers, and subject matter experts the means to create and re-use e-learning content …’ (Source:

The same essence is repeated even though this is specifically for ‘learning’ – the underlying assumption is that there is ‘content’ that must be ‘delivered’ to students after having been ‘created’ by ‘developers, authors, instructional designers, and subject matter experts’. Replace ‘delivered’ with ‘taught’ and ‘developers’ with ‘teacher’ and you get something like the Victorian ideal which is ‘teachers teach content’ … lol.

There is hope for teachers though! I discovered that you can buy a digital teacher online – see:

‘Ecampus LMS is a learning management system that gives organisations the tools and support they need to create and manage elearning content, manage student data and asses students.’ (Source:

OK – I’m being silly, but the three things that the LMS does, according to the blurb, is what teachers are given responsibility for: create and manage content, manage student data and assess students. There just isn’t room for lighting fires – so don’t bother, OK? I mean – education is important, right? *insert sarcastic tone*.

Where am I going with this? Well, I too am a teacher and I too feel the awful mounting pressures of the need to fill students with content necessary to excel in the end of year examination. My Stage 6 class badly want the content – I can see it in their eyes, ‘Please Miss, please just write on the board what we need to know and let us put it in our essays!’ And I know what needs to go in there. But so far I have been resistant to ‘give’ it to them that easily – I have refused to ‘reduce’ the world of literature and ideas  (which in my current case is the man himself, Mr W. Shakespeare) to an essay scaffold and dot points. Does that make me a bad teacher? Well it makes me feel like one. So my solution is to write a blog for them where I put up (in my own words) what they need to know to ace the test. And then I rethink this decision – because isn’t doing that just moving me one step closer to being a CMS/LCMS/LMS?

I know I’m going to do it anyway. I know I should get them to make the blog and write the posts. BUT I also know that they have pressures from other subjects and tell me repeatedly there is no time to do extra work like writing blog posts and making prezis. So, I’ll do it for them. I will. And one day the work I’m initiating with PBL in the more junior years will pay off because these future (and ideal) students will laugh at my vain attempts to maintain power by controlling the information. They will tell me I am a broken-down filing cabinet that needs to move into the 21st century.

And I will laugh with them as we all dance in the fire.

Teacher Professional Development – an inquiry approach

This is a hasty post to document an idea that developed in my head as I peeled boiled eggs for my son’s breakfast. It is an idea that has got me thinking about the nature of the professional development that I offered last year as a means to get teachers up-skilled for DER. The approach was – ironically – teacher-centred. A flaw in design learned through exposure to many teacher professional development experiences over six years of being a teacher. (Aside – I did alter this design in the second half of the year, to minimal success – for another post maybe.)

Project Based Learning has taught me that students perform well under pressure – if the pressure is to produce a product that has a very definite authentic audience and the project itself is real-world relevant.

If it works for students then it will work for teachers. How do I know? Because I have seen and been the teacher who is prompted to present at a conference in two weeks time and manages to create something wonderful that makes ripples. (I didn’t mean for the wonderful to be applied to me just there – ah false modesty, Orwell has taught me well. But truly, it is a thought experiment for you to indulge.).

Teachers are under pressure from all angles – but this pressure is often of the uninspired kind: ‘Must learn the new Syllabus for my subject’, ‘Must learn to perfect teaching essays’, ‘Must mark these 150 creative pieces by Wednesday’, ‘Must complete the Risk assessment for the excursion by Friday’. You know what I mean, right?! Where’s the glory in those things? Where’s the celebration of teacher achievement, or creative teacher practice, of successes in the classroom? Basically we have to wait until the end of the year until the NAPLAN, SC and HSC results come out. Maybe if you’re lucky your kids will have been able to produce in the exam and you get what a friend of mine coined as ‘the golden orb’ – the student gets the top ‘band’ and this golden hue reflects back on you as the ‘quality’ teacher that ‘produced’ this result. But, let’s remember that often individual teachers aren’t ‘acknowledged’ by the executive for these results in fear of alienating other teachers whose students didn’t ‘achieve’. Celebration of teachers here is not guaranteed – but interestingly it is one of the only opportunities given to individual teachers to get that ‘wow, you did something amazing’ moment. So, let’s calculate this – you get to possibly experience the celebration of your profession, your craft, your science maybe three times a year. And only if your craft garners results that are deemed ‘top quality’. (Aside – I am not discounting those moments where we take kids to competitions and they do well, or the school production/band etc performs well and we’re congratulated as individuals at staff meetings – oh, and the fact that our principals, head teachers, deputies say we’re working hard and thank us – these are brilliant and mean a great deal to us all.)

SO – let’s make an authentic audience for our teachers. Let’s force them to inquire into their practice. Not because an external body said teachers have to in order to receive that shiny tick which means they are a ‘quality teacher’ who can stay in the profession. Let’s get MORE of our colleagues EXCITED about what technology can bring to their craft, art, science (teaching) in order to enhance the student and teacher experience of education.

I have a small group of teachers who have offered to be DAGs (DER Action Group) at my school. I haven’t been a good leader when it comes to this group. I haven’t encouraged them to inquire into DER. I must make this up to them.

So here’s the vision:

Each teacher will be asked to create a driving question that relates directly to his/her specific KLA and technology. For example, ‘How can bringing technology into the classroom help my students to be better writers?’ (ENGLISH) or ‘How can having access to the internet in the classroom help my students become better researchers?’ (HISTORY) or ‘How can having access to a laptop help my students to understand the role of languages in the 21st century?’ (LOTE)
The teachers will be given approximately 5 weeks to inquire into this problem, complete at least 5 blog posts on their findings (including posing questions relating to the driving question on social networking sites like edmodo, yammer, twitter, facebook), implement some of the new strategies developed in his/her classroom and then present on these findings to the whole teacher-body at a specified staff meeting. (Yes, the product is hypocritical – it is teacher-centred, but let’s face it this is getting the ball-rolling, they are modelling inquiry-learning to other teachers, who hopefully will be inspired to take up their own projects!) Once the school presentation is done, each teacher will present at a Regional conference. How do I know this? Because if someone is doing something cool, has found out answers to an essential and difficult question relevant to teaching, then other people want to hear about that. Besides, this project necessitates the establishing of a Personal Learning Network powered by social networking (insert evil laugh here) and thus these teachers will have already connected to interested teachers – an authentic audience!

So that’s my plan. Teachers do crazily creative, awesome, beautiful, amazing things – we should celebrate these by sharing them with an authentic audience.

OK, I probably should go and insert some hyper-links and pretty pictures into this post. But my kids are asking for more food.

A year of experiential learning …

Previously I have written a list of edu-dreams for 2011. One of the most prominent features of this list was the desire to give my students what I’m calling ‘learning experiences’. I am entering my seventh year of teaching English and feel that I can not face another year of worksheets. I spent a week of my school holidays writing out a summary of my teaching plans for 2011, ensuring each unit I teach has an accompanying ‘real-world’ driving question. Why? Because I hope to infuse all of my students’ learning this year with the essence of Project Based Learning. Why just the essence, you ask? Well I’m not ready just yet to take the plunge fully into a year-long program of PBL, so I’m taking what I can to enhance my teaching and the learning of my students.

So what do I mean by ‘experiential learning’? For me, I simply mean learning that encourages students to interact with the world outside of school, typically in the form of engaging with a real-world question/problem (How can citizen journalism shed new light on world events?) and sharing learning discoveries with people from the real world who are invested in this issue (i.e journalists, writers, bloggers)  Well – I’m no education philosopher and thought I’d just ‘made up’ this term – haha – but it turns out it’s something real and a lot has been thought and written about it! So if you’re interested, check out this site – it looks pretty cool: Experiential Learning
& Experiential Education

Because I’m honest, I’ll tell you now that I clicked on the first search result for ‘experiential learning’ – wikipedia. It was a nice short entry with a couple of great quotes from a couple of greats:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle

“”tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” Confucius (supposedly)

Hopefully you haven’t left me yet for the shallows of wikipedia or the depths of the other link, because I thought I’d share with you some of the driving questions for my classes this year as well as excerpts from a wonderful article by Edutopia blogger Susie Boss that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.


Year 9:

Persuasion: How can people use their voices to bring about positive change?

Choices: How do our choices impact our lives and the lives of others?

Communication: How can citizen journalism shed new light on world events?

Why is Shakespeare still so popular?

What is the appeal of the horror genre?

Can we see the world through someone else’s eyes?

Year 10:

Human Nature or Nurture –Are we inherently good or bad?

Resilience – How do we survive?

Power – What makes an individual powerful?

Does the individual have the right to challenge authority?

Is it dangerous to pursue freedom?

Year 11:

What are the consequences of encountering conflict in our lives?

Should art imitate life?

Can the voices in a text shape our perception of Australia?

Susie Boss of Eduptioa touched on some of my ideas in her article. She writes:

In the K-12 classroom, a variety of practices can help to build digital and media literacy. Socratic questioning, for example, promotes critical thinking about the choices people make when consuming, creating, and sharing messages. In particular, Hobbs encourages teachers to help students assess the credibility of information. She offers three “simple but powerful” questions to encourage deeper thinking: Who’s the author? What’s the purpose of this message? How was this message constructed?

I’m particularly pleased to see this:

Hobbs suggests having students design their own games instead of being immersed in games as consumers. “By becoming authors, game programmers, and designers, students deepen their awareness of the choices involved in the structure and function of technology tools themselves.”

I also think it’s great that Hobbs has identified the reality of teaching in public schools, something I had considered in my edu-dreaming and that (thankfully) has been solved via social-networking: (see the comments on my blog post here)

Although finding funding for new programs is likely to be challenging, partnerships between schools and the entertainment industry or technology companies could offer a way to leverage available resources, Hobbs suggests.

I’m interested in this idea for a PBL and wonder where I can fit in into my already bulging teaching program:

Her suggestion to map local technology resources, for example, seems like an ideal project for engaging students in a community research project and using digital tools for authentic purposes.

And this concluding comment from Hobbs is exactly why I have found technology-enhanced Project-Based-Learning so appealing:

“When people have digital and media literacy competencies,” Hobbs concludes, “they recognize personal, corporate and political agendas and are empowered to speak out on behalf of the missing voices and omitted perspectives in our communities. By identifying and attempting to solve problems, people use their powerful voices and their rights under the law to improve the world around them.”

I have to say that this year my planning has been highly unusual for me. But maybe it’s something you’ve been doing for years?

Edmodo – my free mobile virtual classroom.

As you all know by now, I am an edmodo evangelist and proud of it. As part of my preaching, I often come across people asking me how I use edmodo and why. Below is a response to one such series of questions. I hope it helps you to see why I find edmodo such an important element of my 21st century teaching toolbox. If you already use edmodo, perhaps some of my ideas for using edmodo might inspire you to use it in a new way, or maybe you have some even more creative ways of using it that you’d like to suggest.

How do I use edmodo with my students?

1. My students use edmodo to:

  • communicate with me and with each other via messages directly to me or to our class group (there is no direct student-student messaging in edmodo to avoid cyber-bullying etc)
  • post up work – many web 2.0 tools embed easily into edmodo
  • respond to polls
  • access assignments and submit them for marking (I return them and edmodo creates an automatic gradebook for my class)
  • work together on group tasks (there is a small group feature – a group w/in a group),
  • give feedback on each other’s work
  • comment on resources that I add (links to sites, embeds, youtube clips, google docs)
  • argue for or against a provocative statement I have posted about a topic/text being discussed
  • connect with students in other schools/countries in a group created by teachers
  • keep up to date with important events using the calendar and alerts.

2. I use edmodo to:

  • keep up to date with my favourite blogs and websites by using edmodo as my rss reader (it’s heaps easier than google reader)
  • to share links with teachers at different schools not on edmodo (they have a ‘public page’ feature)
  • I have a number of teacher PD groups that connect me to teachers in my faculty, my school, my region, I’m a member of the Language Arts community that helps me connect with teachers from around the world!
  • and of course I do all of the things mentioned above for my students too!

How hard is edmodo to use?

I know I’ve made it sound like there are too many features to get your head around – but as I have said many times, it is so intuitive – basic! Besides, edmodo has a teacher page that shows you how to do everything: AND their FAQ page is good too: AND they now run weekly webinars that we can join for free!

Edmodo is awesome because it is my free mobile virtual classroom.

The End

I've loved edmodo for almost 2 years and all I got was this T-shirt #lol