Can we still do Project Based Learning at home? Yes we can!

Just like most schools these days, we have a number of students who are not coming into school. There are lots of reasons for this, but I’m happy if the main reason is parents making the rational decision to keep their children home so they can effectively enact social distancing. They are taking very seriously the threat of COVID-19 further spreading into our community.

Reduced numbers of students may disrupt learning that requires students to work in teams, but this disruption only needs to be temporary. In fact, I’m confident that collaborative learning will be able to continue effectively even if all students are isolated at home due to school closures. Why? Well, if schools are serious about project work, they will have created a culture in our schools where students and teachers value the work as reflecting that which is done in the non-school world (in industry projects, and in our personal lives like planning birthday parties). Despite many businesses already moving to working from home, many projects continue to move forward. I have no doubt that the project work already started at my school will continue when schools are finally closed. Let’s have a look at how and why project work will continue when students are learning from home, with examples from a couple of the projects I’m running with students to see how.

  1. We have established and will maintain a structured approach to all projects. My school uses the inquiry learning model designed by me and Lee. This is a highly structured model which clearly indicated teacher and student roles at the three different stages of a project – discover, create, share. Having this structure means that when lessons move online, teachers can use the language of this model to remind students of the type of work to be completed. Currently my Praxis iii students have moved from the discover stage into the create stage. We have spent the last couple of periods whittling away at our mass of ideas for our fantasy world generated through research in the discover stage, drawing down to the final outline of the world – physical layout, people (culture), magic system, nations (places), history. Each student has taken responsibility for fleshing out a nation, before seeking group feedback.                    Anatomy of a Project - Hewes
  2. Online resources are organised according to our discover, create, share model. Projects begin with the handing out of a project outline, and this guides the students through the learning experience. Working from home, students will continue to be guided by this outline. We have a blended learning environment at our school, which means we have established online spaces for collaboration and organisation of resources. For our year 10 ILP students (www.ilpmanly.weebly.com), I created a website to help them direct their own learning process – students work at different stages during ILP and the website has been invaluable for them and their teachers. In Praxis and Praxis iii, we use Google Drive with a series of class folders created to reflect each stage of the project and team folders for their individual work.  Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 6.59.54 am
  3. Our students care about the work they are doing, so they’ll keep doing it. Yesterday I received an email from one of my year 9 students asking if he can Skype into our Praxis iii lesson. I replied and said I would see what we could do, and by the time I arrived to period 4, the student’s face was up on a peer’s laptop – how keen is that? This student demonstrated to me that if you design engaging projects that meet the interests and needs of your learners, that they’ll be eager to keep learning, even when they’re at home. In this instance we were fortunate to have Skype available, and we continued our lesson with our virtual student participating.
  4. Allocation of individual responsibilities within teams. This is something that is typical and expected of effective teamwork. At each stage of a project, students negotiate and allocate roles for different tasks to be completed. These tasks can often be completed individually, and submitted to the team for feedback via an online platform – asynchronous or synchronous, it would be up to the teacher. Currently our year 7 Praxis students are working on a game design project. We are still in the discover stage of the project, just heading into researching the needs and interests of their users. At school this would be done individually based on negotiated inquiry research questions. This process would be repeated with their choice of game type (video game, card game, board game) with teams generating questions and individual students researching the answers. As we move into the create stage of this project, students would likely brainstorm their ideas collaboratively within a Google Doc which the teacher could access – this could also be done in Google Classroom or Edmodo. From this they would decide on their idea, and allocate responsibilities for students to create different aspects of the game.
  5. Following the learning calendar already established at the beginning of the project. Another feature of this type of learning is using a calendar to plan out how long the different stages of learning will take, what specific tasks to do within those stages, and indicating when work needs to be submitted for feedback from the teacher. At the beginning of this term I gave out project calendars to my ILP and Praxis classes, so students know exactly what they need to be working on each week, and what progress I expect to see when. Obviously there is flexibility within this, dependent on how quickly students and teams work, but I keep the check-ins consistent. For us, students will share the work to be checked via Google Drive – using the ‘share’ feature so the teacher gets an email, or adding the file to be checked into a folder indicated by the teacher (I do this with year 12). With my Praxis iii class, we have a very loose calendar – just the weeks allocated to discover, create, share – and we’ve been creating our work focus as we go. That will change if we are working from home, where I will write up a more specific learning calendar to guide them through the project stages. I’ll probably do this in negotiation with them either in person before school is closed, or online via Skype. I am actually looking forward to that Skype or Zoom session, my kids are hilarious. Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 7.01.54 am

I guess I should just say here, even though I think it is obvious, that projects don’t need to continue if it’s not feasible. Like, if your students are meant to be building some huge physical thing and they don’t have resources at home to continue to do that. Or, if your students don’t have access to a computer or the internet a couple of times a week (that’s all they’d need for most project stages if the project doesn’t involve heaps of online research). I fully understand equity issues, and appreciate that what I’ve written above may not work for some.

Anyway, let’s hope the schools in Australia close soon and we can see if I’m right, haha! I’m looking forward to getting to know my students in a different context, but more importantly I am hopeful that we can keep them all safe and healthy. Having a project to work on that you’re really passionate about can make being socially isolated less overwhelming. I hope that will be the case for me and my students.

 

Could compassion and compliance prove our undoing?

I remember a decade ago asking teachers on Twitter, ‘Where is the riot?’. It wasn’t in a situation anywhere near as dire as ours is today, it was a concern regarding our education system’s continued failure to innovate and change to meet the needs of our students given the (ironic now) unpredictable future world. After the decision yesterday to keep schools open, I feel my question is even more pertinent. Back then we were worried about desks in rows and textbooks, today we worry about the health and future of our society. I can’t help but think what little the education system has learnt over the last decade – it continues to be a poorly structured, badly managed vehicle fuelled almost entirely by the compliance and compassion of its teachers. I wonder when those two qualities will peter out, and the system grinds to a halt. Today my husband and I will go into school as compliant and compassionate teachers – primary for him, high school for me. We will be calm. We will be caring. We will do our best to keep the young people in our care happy and well. We won’t be sending our youngest son to school, or our eldest son to university. They will be staying at home until the authorities finally make the call that education is not an essential service right now – or until the riot begins when teachers refuse the call to be the nation’s frontline babysitters. One or the other will happen, but for now, we teachers go to school.

‘It would be weird to take your stocktaking work home with you.’

At parent teacher interviews last week, I was asked what would happen if the school had to close or students had to self-quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19. It was a reasonable question given people that night had already been forgoing the usual friendly teacher-parent handshake greeting. This thing is a reality, and it’ll probably end up at our school at some point. My response was that for English the students can self-direct their learning via our Google Drive resources. The suggestion that I make videos was floated, and I laughed (probably thinking of the infamous WooTube). It turns out I wasn’t the only teacher asked about it that night. Chatting to my son the next day about the suggestion that I continue teaching even when the school is closed (or for example I am in self-quarantine), and he said ‘That’s stupid. It’d be weird if you took your stocktaking work home with you if you weren’t allowed in.’ For some reason this just struck me as profound. Many people would laugh at taking home work if they were quarantined for two weeks, or if their workplace was forced to close. I know that some would take work home, but there are heaps of jobs where that would be completely weird, especially if you’re not being paid or if you’re being paid sick pay. It just seems to me that we are in a special case profession (maybe along with small business, writers, solicitors etc) where we are constantly expected to do things that seem unrealistic and absurd if we were in a different profession.

This isn’t me making a point about a specific parent – parents at my school are awesome and really supportive of the teachers – it’s more of an instance of a common assumption about teacher expectations. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of looking to individual teachers to take on the unreasonable additional workload (which parents don’t actually want, they just want their kids to be educated), that maybe our education system created a platform for students to continue their learning uninterrupted? The syllabus is the same across schools. Why don’t they make an online learning system students can all tap into when needed? If quality and consistent education is the concern of the DoE (and the federal government), why not fund something that can serve all students equally in their time of need? I hear that there are some super teachers out there being championed, maybe they can help build it? Honestly though, it’s bullshit that the lowest rung on the education system ladder (teachers) is continually trodden upon. Clearly our commitment to our students is taken advantage of by those above, meaning we give and give and give until we can’t give anymore. Luckily for the system there are always many more willing to slot into the place of the broken and the fallen. What an awful way to treat the kindest of people.

If your school is closed because of COVID-19, or you are sent home to self-quarantine for 14 days, look after yourself. Yes, education is important, but a healthy and functioning society is everyone’s priority now, not the HSC.

‘How do I write a conceptual statement?’

This is a question that I get asked quite a bit as an English teacher. When I was a high school student myself, I don’t remember ever hearing the term ‘conceptual statement’. I know that I wrote essays on texts, and I’m pretty confident that they were quite good (I got an A in HSC English), so was I missing something, or have the names just changed? I’m thinking it is actually a combination of both. HSC English is, in my opinion, more difficult in 2020 than it was way back in 1997 when I sat my exams. The texts are pretty much the same, but what we expect students to do with them is more complex. To be honest, I didn’t do the equivalent of Advanced English (it was called Related English back then). I did General English, which is equivalent to Standard English. At my school we only offer Advanced English (I work at a school for gifted learners), so maybe that explains my feeling that things have become more difficult for students? I don’t recall using the term ‘conceptual statements’ at my previous school, but we did talk about theses and lines of argument. Different name, same thing? Sort of. Perhaps it’s just a term we use at my current school? I don’t think so.

My year 12 class are starting to write their drafts for Module A – Textual Conversations. As I’ve said before on here, we study the poetry of John Donne, and the play W;t by Margaret Edson. The text choice is hard, and suitable for our cohort. With this new HSC (introduced last year), my big focus is on stressing the importance of students developing their own personal conceptual interpretation of the text. The phrase ‘personal conceptual interpretation’ is something I sort of came up when teaching my 2019 class. It sounds fancy, but it just means identifying what one abstract noun sums up the main concerns of the text(s) they’re studying. So with Nineteen Eighty-Four I asked them to finish this sentence ‘I firmly believe that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is about…’ and they are encouraged to select just one abstract noun (sometimes they pick two – the first word usually is an adjective). So for Nineteen Eighty-Four I had students choosing: language, power, love, authenticity, identity, etc. When confronted with an exam question that asks about another abstract (e.g. loneliness), they develop an argument linking their conceptual interpretation to that posed in the question. It seemed to work last year, haha.

So what are conceptual statements then? Well, these can be interpreted in two ways – 1. the overarching conceptual argument for the essay, and 2. the specific conceptual argument for each body paragraph. I’ve found that students think that they can’t reference the text or composer in their conceptual statement, which is wrong. It’s probably something they are taught in junior school to encourage them to move away from the specific narrative detail to instead focus on the larger thematic (gasp, I said theme – haha – which refers to the message of the text, of course) concern of the text. With HSC English, students might refer to their composer, their text’s title, or the module elements, in their conceptual statement along with their specific conceptual argument for that paragraph. Just how you get to that conceptual statement is a process that can stump some students, but is in fact one of my favourite things to do, so I love offering students help.

Over the last few days at work, I have sat with six students from my class to help them refine their personal conceptual interpretation of the textual conversation between Donne and Edson. This is my basic process: identify the one abstract noun that summates your interpretation of the texts’ essential message (e.g. humility, conscience, mortality), and then talk about what specific insights into that conceptual idea the composers explore (this is usually three points), write these up succinctly, and then decide their logical order (this can sometimes follow the narrative/character arc of the texts, but sometimes it’s just the order that makes sense for the ideas – you know, ‘if this, then that’ sorta thing). So that’s the process. It typically takes about 30 minutes to go through this process. I love it, we get to chat 1-1 about the texts we’ve studied, but more importantly we get to have a conversation about the big questions in life… and I get to bring in my philosophy knowledge too! So fun.

I took photos of the planning I did with a few students over the last few days, just to give a visual of the process outlined above. They probably won’t make much sense as they are. The students go away and flesh out their ideas into one overarching conceptual statement that summates their interpretation and the three lines of argument that structures their essay. Last year this process worked so well for some students that they used the same main concept across their essays for the three different modules. For example, a student interpreted all of our texts as being primarily concerned with love, and another saw them as being all about authenticity. Cool, huh?

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Analysing, presenting, marking, organising, meeting… that was Monday

After a very relaxed weekend of consciously refusing to do school work (I work to live, not live to work), Monday morning rolled around with a film of anxiety that only a teacher who has refused to do school work on the weekend can fully appreciate. First period was year 12 Advanced English and my determination to finish reading and analysing W;t before the end of the period. Of course I failed! One can’t simply read a play in English without stopping every ten lines to point out something cool with the language and ideas. I’m an English teacher! We did get very close though, even without making them write for ten minutes at the end.

Period 2 was awesome – Praxis iii. I think I might have a habit of saying that every Praxis iii lesson is awesome, but I can’t help being honest. It’s true. Every Praxis iii lesson is awesome. I spent the weekend reading Good Omens, which is bloody brilliant, and finished it Sunday night. I was so excited to tell my students that I loved it – the told me to read it – yet when I got into class with them I completely forgot as we started presenting our discover stage research. I was flexible with how they chose to present their findings, and as a class consensus we went for each student having five minutes to talk through their three topics (fantasy text plus two of these – event/problem/place) and then we would each share one thing that we found fascinating from what they shared. The goal of this activity is for us to select what would inspire our fantasy world. By the end of the lesson we had some pretty cool ideas – some sort of desired commodity that causes tension between empires, of which we will have between 3 and 5 (Dune), a giant sacred cherry blossom tree (Japan), three rivers dividing our world (China), geography that included highlands and lowlands (Miso America), a complex mythology (Mayans), unique flora and fauna (Australia), sacred texts being hidden from the general population (Data Suppression)… and possibly some baby dragons doing forced labour (China and Industrial Revolution). We’re only half way through the presentations, but we can see already that our fantasy world is going to be pretty cool.

I spent all of period 3 organising year 12 resources for the next stage of our module – essay writing, which reminds me that I didn’t finalise anything and we have our first essay-writing lesson today. Oops. The next lesson was spent giving feedback on a Donne essay – which I call ‘marking’ because everyone does – and it took me the whole 55 mins to do one digital essay. I decided to then print out the rest, because marking on paper is much quicker. I think it’s because you have less room and therefore can put in less stuff. I find I’m more likely to use questions as feedback prompts rather than big comments, or revising a word or two. Lunch as a mentor meeting – chocolate biscuits and tea in my classroom, accompanied by much laughter and silliness. Honestly, I never give any good advice or anything, we just eat and laugh. Period 5 I printed off all of the year 12 essays, ready to mark the next day. Period 6 I spent organising resources for philosophy because we are starting our next topic – epistemology. My organising systems for this subject over the last couple of years has been crap, and the programs need revising. That’s what I started doing. After school we had an English faculty meeting – I have to attend them even though I only teach one English period this year. Sort of annoying because I sit around with nothing to contribute for 90% of the time. I also added three more things to my to-do list before the end of the meeting. Fun.

What day is it again?

Since my intention had been to write a summary of my work day every day for at least Term 1, I feel somewhat of a failure knowing that it is now Tuesday and I haven’t written anything for Thursday, Friday or Monday. Oops. Either I’m losing my passion for this little project (was there passion in the first place? Nah, I don’t think so.) or I’m just a lazy arse. Probably definitely the latter. In order to record somewhat accurately what happened on those days, I have to rely on my teacher diary where I hastily write up what I do each day. A detailed day book it is not. But first, I’ve gotta make myself a cup of tea. BRB.

Tea is ready – not my favourite because the almond milk is sort of splitting which I don’t like much, but I’ll soldier on since it’s 6.07am and dark like a winter’s morning out there. The girl needs tea. Last Thursday, I remember know, was a funny day. Not funny haha, funny odd. One Thursday every fortnight I start with an 8am philosophy class, and then have no more teaching periods. It’s because I teach two courses offline and because I’m on HT load. It makes me feel guilty that I have it easy, but as I told my best friend, Bimma, it’s actually always a fully bust day. You can read my blog for the last month and see that. The morning started with philosophy (like I just said) and we did the fallacy quiz and a COI on the question from the day before, plus another one (this class is the bigger of the two, with 15 students) on ‘What is knowledge?’. It went really well.

On Wednesday evening, Bimma and I had gone to the gym for our first ever personal trainer session. It was ridiculous. I am an actual embarrassment of a human being with no capacity to be an adult, as revealed by my constant asking of questions and my inability to not comment on the exercises we were made to do. We giggled and moaned in equal measures, and walked out of the gym feeling sore and sorry for ourselves. Some point between the gym and the car I had told Bimma about my classless Thursday, and so we agreed to have tea at 9am the next morning to discuss an idea we have for getting me out of education. I’m entitled to two flexi periods, and even though I haven’t chosen them yet, I took this one on Thursday for a break. It was weird walking out of school to get a tea – teachers really don’t leave the school during the day that frequently. I felt like I was doing something naughty. When I finally got back (the tea wasn’t great – the ‘barista’ brewed my chai tea with almond milk only – I realised it was school photos and I was wearing my brand new Chuck Taylors. Haha. I’m always in the front row of the staff photo, and this time not only did I have my tattoos on display, but also crazy bright new runners. Pretty funny.

I spent the rest of the day doing this: marking year 12 paragraphs on W;t, organising year 8 Praxis books, emailing staff about our upcoming gifted education PL, and visiting every classroom with year 7 in it to encourage them to apply for the cross-campus project for gifted learners. That night Bimma and I stupidly decided to go to yoga, and found ourselves walking out of the gym with bowed legs as if we’d been riding a horse for three days.

Friday was our school swimming carnival. Our students are incredible. I spent most of the day reading Good Omens on my iPad, interrupted only briefly for a stint as judge. It was a lovely day, ended with celebratory drinks for Lee’s birthday – they were so good in fact that I spent all of Saturday regretting them, haha.

 

Where I grumble about food…

Food. I’ve been told I’m obsessed with it, and that’s not far from the truth. I spend too many hours in my day thinking about food. These last couple of weeks I’ve had the extra food-focused thoughts regarding what I should and shouldn’t eat because I’m 40 now and my body requires me to be more conscious of what goes into it. But what I want to just write about for a bit is the relentless question, ‘What are we having for dinner tonight?’ No one in my family actually asks me that question much, it’s a question for my internal monologue. I ask myself this most days, unless of course I have been organised and written up a meal list. Lists are something I quite adore, and often I’m diligent in making meal lists for the week, but the truth is that I despise the task. As each week starts anew (usually on a Saturday which is wrong but right, right?) I have to sit and think about dinners. What will I make this week? What did the family enjoy last week? Can I get away with the same meals I made last week? And yes, I cook pretty much every meal. It’s true that in 2020 that shouldn’t be the case, but the hubby does the clothes washing and all that task entails, and I’ve completely failed as a parent when it comes to teaching my sons how to be self-sufficient in the kitchen. Like, my 18 year old can make a very basic pasta and sauce from packets as well as two-minute noodles (that’s ramen to my US friends, pot-noodles for my UK ones), and my 15 year old knows how to fry an egg. That’s the extent of their culinary expertise.

My own cooking prowess is embarrassingly limited also. These are my standard meals: packet tacos, spaghetti bolognese, lasagne, (faux) meat and three veg, stir-fry, fried rice, and lentil soup. My poor family! Currently my 15 year old is struggling with low iron (we are all vegetarian, but he seems to prioritise socialising it gaming to eating three meals a day) and I’m struggling to feed him nutritious regular meals to help keep him full of energy. Last week I was out every night except Monday… I think. I don’t remember making a decent meal any of those nights, well not one that I actually ate myself. I’ve been trying to get to the gym every night, but try to do that as well as balance the meetings and events and cooking nutritious meals people actually want to eat and, well, I fail.

It’s not just dinner, either. It’s lunch, right? Like breakfast is fine cos you can get away with cereal and toast and a tea and the kid is happy (I’ve been skipping breakfast in a sort of weak attempt at that 16-8 thingy where you try to clean your blood, intermittent fasting?) but lunch sucks. I’ve tried making extra dinner to have as left-overs, I’ve tried the meal-planning in small boxes that some seem to have success with. To be honest preparing five meals on a Sunday just makes me worry for the Friday when I’m left with almost off food for lunch. Gross. I start off OK on a Monday and Tuesday – making a sandwich with the bread that’s still fresh and ingredients that have been bought on the Sunday (via the shopping I have to think about each week – don’t get me started on that annoyance!). By Wednesday I’m getting the youngest a lunch order and I’m taking whatever I can scrounge from the cupboard. Nutrition has disappeared, and for dinner I’m trying to convince myself that the mushrooms from Sunday don’t smell like unwashed feet and can definitely still be used for dinner (which I won’t eat because mushrooms that are over a day old gross me out).

So now it’s Saturday and I’m starting to think about the meals for the week and hating, actually hating, the fact that I have to give my thoughts to this inane activity. Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful that I am privileged enough to eat, to have money to buy food, that my kids don’t go to sleep hungry. I’m not taking my privilege for granted. That awareness, however, doesn’t inoculate me against the weekly dinner planning and making disorder that’s crippling my wellbeing. I’m not alone in this, right? I know this is a shared experience, and to be honest, it’s usually with my female friends. Sorry guys, but this heavy and exhausting responsibility (fuck your judgement cos it really is those adjectives) is typically the burden of women. Also, I know there are food boxes you can buy but I’ve tried them and they aren’t great. Maybe I should just go for the daily decision and buy stuff that a need there and then. I hate how much food I waste when I plan ahead and then something comes up and we don’t eat what I’d thought we would. Lucky we have chickens and dogs.

And thus endeth my rant about food, which basically just allowed me to procrastinate for 20 mins so I didn’t have to think about ‘What are we going to have for dinner?’.