‘Leading Learning & Teaching’ by Stephen Dinham – a review by me ;)

I am a big reader. I was a big reader as a child, and despite a hiatus of about 10 years where I only read children’s picture books, or books I needed to teach, I am back on track with my read, read, read approach to books. I’m pretty committed these days to what my 15 year old calls ‘teenage books where people fall in and about of love and moan about stuff’, which others refer to a ‘young adult literature’, haha. I have, however, sacrificed a few days in my busy YA-reading schedule for an adulting edu book. Why? Well, I blame Darcy Moore because he recommended Dinham’s book to DPs via email, and my DP then decided to read it, and suggested I do too. I readily agreed, because I love talking edu, as much as I love talking books, so why not talk edu books? Winning!

Dinham’s book is surprisingly easy to read (believe me, I’ve tried to read A LOT of edu books, and most bore me silly because they don’t know how to develop a narrative voice, and completely neglect plot all together!) and it took me less than a week to finish. I promised a number of edu mates that I would write a review of the book, to help them decide if they too should fork out the cash (it’s not cheap – expect to pay over $50 for it) for the book. I was interested in reading the book because it’s about teaching and learning, and leadership – basically my job, even though Dinham never ONCE refers to people in my specific position. I guess I could claim the ‘teacher leader’ title, but that doesn’t really fit since my role is an official role, I’m a Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning – not a principal, not a DP, not a faculty HT, not a teacher… I wonder why he left us out? Maybe my position isn’t common in other states? I know it’s common in NSW, even though it’s sometimes called HT Secondary Studies or the like. Anyway, below is my review of the book, albeit an entirely unplanned review, based purely on what I am taking away from it… all views are my own, and all that.

Firstly, Dinham is mates with Hattie. I mean, they’re colleagues, but from the first chapter it is really evident that they are mates. Why does this matter? Well, Hattie is, how do I put this… contentious? His meta-analysis of edu research, and resultant ‘league table of all things edu amazing’ published in Visible Learning, is quite polarising – some people believe it’s the most important contribution to education research in the last decade, whilst others have shown concern regarding his methodology, and the consequences for his findings. It seems pretty clear that Dinham is in the former camp, as he continually refers to the effect sizes for different teaching strategies throughout the book, be it to celebrate a particular strategy, or pan another. For me, I wasn’t so stoked on this focus on Hattie, which is understandable given my experiences with Project Based Learning (never once referred to explicitly by Dinham, who does refer scathingly to problem-based learning, discovery learning, and enquiry based learning as being ‘fads’, but more to that in a moment). The tone of the first few chapters, with its focus on what works to improve student learning outcomes, and then in the final chapters, is at times quite harsh, and even touching on arrogant, in regards to contemporary approaches to teaching and learning – he clearly wants to encourage what he called ‘forwards to fundamentals’ approach, and a movement away from anything that might be labelled ‘progressive’. He goes to great length to claim he isn’t advocating ‘back to basics’ or a ‘traditionalist’ approach, but the line is fine, and personally there are times when I’m uncomfortable with his tone. Probably one of the most obvious indicators that Dinham is more traditional than not (yes, yes, I know he says we need to move away from false dichotomies, and I agree, but let’s just use it for ease of understanding) is his almost complete neglect of any discussion of digital technologies/ICT… but more to that later too.

OK, to make this quicker (I literally have to get my 15 year old from work in 20 minutes), I’m just going to list the things I’m taking away, one by one, with a very brief comment about each.

Bringing together a range of research on leadership, teaching, and learning – I really liked how Dinham brought together his research, and embedded relevant quotes into his discussion to support/enhance his arguments. The research kind of ‘came alive’ through his contextualising it within the bigger picture of his thesis. I liked that.

Leadership vs. Management – I found his discussion on leadership really interesting, as he included research into leadership as a wider field (not just edu), and then applied it to the context of edu really nicely. I appreciated the differentiating of leadership and management, and could see how understanding this difference will change the behaviour of leaders – especially when applied to the concept of instructional leadership, which I personally found relevant to my position. Oh, and how this was related to mastery was really clever – I loved the definition of ‘adaptive experts’ and truly hope that I can one day be one!

AESOP findings – I have only been teaching for 11 years, so perhaps I missed this report when it was first published. I very much enjoyed reading the chapter based on this report, especially the focus on ‘middle leadership’ which refers to head teachers (heads of department) and the powerful role they play in impacting student learning outcomes. The discussion of the pressures on HTs was honest, and I shared it with my Facebook friends where we discussed the mounting pressures, and stresses on these leaders. It was surprising that many of them had read the findings from AESOP re: what makes a great HT, and made me wonder how much of this book is new material, or old material put under a new banner. Either way, I found the chapter excellent reading.

What does quality teaching look like? – this chapter was excellent, but once again, based on a previously published paper by Dinham, Sawyer and Ayers on exceptional HSC teachers. I got a lot out of this chapter – some affirmation that what I have been doing for years is heading in the right direction, plus some goals to set myself to be an even better teacher.

Dealing with change and difficult teachers – so many lists of ways of managing change, planning carefully for it, and dealing with ‘blockers’. One thing I find interesting is that despite all of this talk about change, there was limited focus on ‘innovation’ or ‘ICT’ – it’s like everything we’re talking about and doing in relation to developing learners for the contemporary context isn’t that important to Dinham. I might be being a bit harsh, but he was quite vague about *what* types of changes were being introduced by leaders – apart from policy changes, or increased expectations of teacher quality (which in itself is also a little non-specific, but perhaps intentional?). Anyway, I know the types of changes that are being introduced at my school (Dinham might not like them though cos they’re on the Hattie ‘bad list’), so perhaps his intention is that we contextualise these strategies to our own schools… which makes sense.

Dinham likes the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers – I guess he would, given his role in developing them. I too think they have the potential to be good for education, but unfortunately the reality of how they are actually used/viewed within schools isn’t amazing, as identified by Dinham himself – likely because they are not associated with improved teacher pay. I agree with him that a lot more work in this area needs to occur to ensure the Standards have the impact they aim to have.

Action learning is good for teachers, but enquiry learning/problem-based learning is bad for students – I just can’t seem to reconcile this contradiction in the book. There’s a scathing few paragraphs (and later snide sentences) about discovery learning/enquiry learning/problem-based learning/constructivism as teaching methodologies in the book in relation to student learning, but then there’s a chapter celebrating action learning/research and professional learning communities for teachers. Dinham says that teachers should spend time working in teams to identify problems, problem-solve, experiment, collect data, and reflect on their findings (basically the structure of PBL) as a means of effective professional learning. Is it just me, or is this odd? I am all for action research and PLCs – I’ve written about it heaps, and am implementing it at my school, it just rubbed me the wrong way re: it being OK (even encouraged) for teachers, but not OK for students.

No ICT – as in, the one time he refer to ICT as being a possible tool for teacher professional learning, he links to a dead blog – well, one that hasn’t been updated since 2011… pretty much dead in the blogging sense. It’s a real shame because SOOO much learning is happening via ICT – for teachers, and for students. I mean, when it comes to education disruption, and therefore the necessity for leadership in learning and teaching, the introduction of ICT into school has to be consider THE biggest in the last 10 years… and yet it doesn’t rate a mention. There’s lots of discussion about learning relating to behaviour management, and literacy, yet ICT is pretty much invisible. It’s a huge factor – especially in regards to equity, because access to the Internet really opens up students’ opportunities, and has the potential to break down barriers. One of the first things I focused on when I started my job as HT was the use of technology by teachers, as it gave me an ‘in’ into discussion about pedagogy more widely. I’m not sure why it’s missing from this book, but I know I’m not the only one to notice.

Instructional leadership – the biggest take-away from this book for me is that leaders should prioritise teaching and learning above everything else, and when that is the focus, there will be significant improvement for teachers and students – academically, and in terms of wellbeing. I love that sentiment. It’s not easy, but it’s essential. Oh, and I also loved that Dinham said the best leaders ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. So, go to – do great things, take risks, make school awesome. (That last bit is mine, haha, not Dinham’s.)

Overall, I’m glad I read this book, even if just to remind myself that people continue to misunderstand Project Based Learning, and dismiss it as a ‘fad’. I hope my DP managed to read the book also, and I look forward to our conversations about it together next week.



Starting to feel at home in my (not so) new school…

I started at my current school at the beginning of 2015 – so that means I’ve been there for 7 terms now. I feel like that time has gone by super fast, as it has been pretty much non-stop for the whole time. Having been at my previous school for 10 years, the change to a new education space – with new colleagues, new students, new expectations, a new culture – was really confronting, and , if I’m honest, really hard, but it’s also taught me a lot about myself, and my education philosophy.

Yesterday was my last ever lesson with my year 12 class, and whilst I didn’t think to tell them this when we were together for our last hour, these kids have been there with me for the whole ‘new school’ ride… and I feel that my experience with them is a nice metaphor for my transition into a new role, a new school, a new me. I remember being terrified for our first lesson, because I knew that their class was the ‘second bottom’ (we scale English classes at my school) and that they probably already had a bad taste in their mouth discovering this for themselves. I did my best to be a combination of funny, and knowledgeable, but mostly they just thought I was weird. Their expressions told me, ‘Oh man, we got the new teacher, we’re screwed.’ and because my main focus when beginning with a class is to build a culture of awesome, I had them write me letters of introduction, as well as letters to their future self, to be opened when they completed year 12 (which they did this week, and loved!). Both of these tasks were met with stupefied looks – some were amused, some eager, some far from impressed.

I distinctly remember their response to our journey analogy task, where I took photos of them holding up a picture symbolising their analogy for a journey, which I turned into a YouTube video – once again, they were gently amused by my weirdness, but always compliant. It was around this time I started hearing rumblings of things like, ‘They didn’t do this in the other classes’, ‘We haven’t got the same resources as the other classes’, ‘I wonder if she’s going to give us that draft task the other teachers handed out’… to which my response was often something akin to a stunned mullet – mouth gaping, eyes wide, thinking, ‘I didn’t know about that task/resource etc… oops’. I mean, maybe I had been told, but my mind was up in ‘teacher PL land’, and I frequently forgot things, swept up in my own ways of approaching lessons.

I remember our study of The Kite Runner, where I used my Frames approach to Critical Study (‘but Miss, the other classes aren’t using them’), and we held a Socratic seminar based on critical readings students were expected to have completed (‘but Miss, I thought you’d go through them with us’ or ‘where is the PPT summary?’)… some kids rose to the challenge, and others sat their squirming in their seats, unable to contribute to the dialogue. However, I also remember their speeches, and how their personal voices came through strong and clear, critiquing Hosseini’s ‘happy ever after’ ending to what is essentially a brutally confronting narrative.

I laugh as I remember our study of Othello and O – as I sniggered through the film, adding critically snide remarks about the film’s poor direction, and misunderstanding of the play’s characters. My students weren’t impressed by my satirical narration (‘you’re ruining it for us’) but many came to appreciate the film’s lack of integrity when compared to Shakespeare’s ‘timeless’ play. Another frustration for them was my critical narration of PPTs that I had found online… where I would correct or challenge the information being presented, which left them unsure what to write down in their workbooks. In the end I told them to look through the slides themselves if they were keen, and I instead handed out critical responses to the play and the film… no summarised dot points = irritated students.

I remember, sadly, when over half of my class left me to join the ‘top stream’ because they had performed so well in the prelim course (I discovered yesterday that one of these students ended up coming 3rd in the year for the HSC course). I’ll never forget that first lesson with my new year 12 class – 13 new sets of eyes, all critical and wary, having heard (I assume) of my unconventional methods… and annoyed at themselves for having underperformed in year 11. I was scared too, as I was about to teach a text I’d never taught before, under the umbrella of a concept I’d never taught before, at a school I knew got exceptional HSC English results every year. Terrified. This didn’t stop me from using slabs of coloured paper and textas for our first task  (a colourful timeline of the Motorcycle Diaries), or forcing them to work in teams to collaborate on YouTube videos deconstructing sections of the memoir. Yes, the new kids’ eyes rolled so much they nearly fell out of their heads (OK, not all, some of the girls were visibly stoked to be doing hands-on stuff), but I persisted with my method… I had to trust it, and try my best to help them trust me.

Whilst there were definitely times during our time together that I flipped between ‘I will teach via PPT’, ‘I’m bored of teaching like this’ and ‘Let’s get crazy with this’, I can say that in the end we found a rhythm… I think for them they got used to everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) being on Google Drive, to working collaboratively with their peers, to hearing my silly anecdotes interspersed with serious discussions of complex texts, with my mood swings, and with my literal obsession with Medals and Missions. The latter was most apparent when yesterday they surprised me with the most gorgeous thank you present – two 5 week old chicks who they named ‘Medal’ and ‘Mission’, haha! I cried… the thought was so genuine, and it was affirming to know that after our time together they got me. I had written them all goodbye cards, with personal medals and missions based on their characters, lol… it was a sweet shared moment. We got each other. Late last night my head teacher emailed me to see how I liked my present (the English faculty had hidden the chicks away from me all day, helping keep my students’ surprise a secret), and she told me that the present was evidence that my class had always valued me, but that at our school kids just have a different way of showing it. This was an important message for me, a reminder that this is a new culture, with new social norms, and ways of doing things (like showing thanks)… and that right now I’m totally feeling at home, because I think it’s not my ‘new school’ anymore, it’s simply my school… my edu home.

Thank you, year 12 2016… you helped me find my place! xx



The Little English Teacher that could… (try)

Last Friday night I did my first ever ‘after dinner talk’ to a room full of teachers from Granville Boys High School. Below is a copy of the speech I wrote for the night… something I have only ever done once before, but which felt necessary given my nerves! After the ‘speech’ part, I had the staff play a game – Advanced Patty-Cakes, which is something I found online via TEDx by a pretty hilarious guy called Bernard de Koven. Let’s just say, that game got the room screaming, hollering, whooping, and moving (but I can probably attribute some of that to the wine they were drinking also)! The final part of my talk involved me going through a slideshow of some of my favourite projects that I have run since 2010 – plus some epic failures – and the final cherry on the top was watching my year 12 2014 class reflect on PBL. (Note: I’m writing this post, as I want to remember this night… because it reminded me of the good in the edu world, after a couple of very difficult weeks.)

The title for this talk comes from one of my edu mates, Megan Townes. It was one of many suggested titles she had for possible themes for this talk. Others included
‘What happens when you don’t teach to the test’ ‘If I ruled the Department of Education’ ‘I have a dream…what I wish for edu in the next ten years.’ So why does she care about this talk? Well, when I was first asked to do this gig I realised that I’ve never delivered an after-dinner talk before – lots of workshops, teach meet pecha kuchas, keynotes, and conference presentations, but not this. So what do you do in 2016 when you need advice? You turn to Facebook, of course. I am very fortunate that I have many wonderful edu friends (just how I got them will be explained later… if you’re all still awake) – so my friends had a range of suggestions for how to approach this talk. Many said ‘tell stories’ – and make sure you focus on failing (cos teachers LOVE to hear about that, right?), or ‘play games’ (they’ll be either exhausted or drunk by the time they get to your talk), or ‘dress up as your favourite Marvel characters’ (not sure how good I’d look in Deadpool’s onesie, but I probably could have pulled off Loki’s sweet green jacket and horned helmet) and then there’s my Mum’s suggestion that I should tell you about my life story – about how she decided to leave us when I was eight, and how my siblings helped my dad raise me, how having an absentee mother didn’t stop me from becoming captain of primary and high school, or being the first person in my family to go attend university, or becoming a published author… just like having an emotionally absent mother didn’t stop Katniss Everdeen from winning the Hunger Games. My great friend Dr Kelli McGraw shared with me a TED talk where the speaker shared her secret formula for a great speech, based on her analysis of talks by people like Martin Luther King Jnr, and Steve Jobs – the trick, it seems, is to present the vision from the outset, and then traverse your way between it and images of reality. Indeed, the speaker also argues that a good talk takes the audience on a journey, much like Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey – beginning with a call to adventure, and culminating with the hero returning home with the elixir that will save us all. Well, tonight I can’t promise to provide you with the elixir that will solve all education woes, as I am definitely not a hero, and I am certainly not your hero, I am simply an English teacher. What I can share with you tonight is my story, a story that may, or may not, reflect parts of your own education journey, but one that can be accurately summated with the analogous title, The Little English Teacher that Could… try.

I am one of those rare people in the 21st century who married when they were 20, and had their first child by 21. It may seem odd to mention this to a room full of strangers, but I firmly believe that being a mother at a young age – my sons are 15 and 12 now – has shaped my education philosophy. When I had my first son, I was in the middle of my Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University – he was conveniently born during mid-semester break, and I was fortunate enough to return to uni with him, to complete my BA, majoring in Philosophy and Performance Studies. Yes, you heard right, Philosophy. Immediately I discovered that there is no job for someone with that major, and was quickly pointed in the direction of a Diploma of Education, which I completed in 2004 via distance education at UNE. Late in that same year I gave birth to my second son, and within 5 months of his birth, I was teaching full time in my first ever teaching position at Davidson High School. Yes, that’s right, I was teaching full time when I had a 5 month old child… still being breastfed. In hindsight, I can’t even consider how I managed that, but honestly a lot of what I remember of that year was loving the challenge of inspiring, and engaging teenagers – I felt like I was making a difference, and giving back to my community. I guess that sense of elation lasted almost 5 years… until I came to a point in my teaching career that I hear is very common for new teachers – the love it or loath it moment. I was starting to get bored with teaching the same things, frustrated with systems that limited my creativity, and angry that students who I knew were amazing humans, simply weren’t being given the opportunity to be the best humans they could be. My boys were getting big by this time, and I could see how excited they were about learning, their love of asking questions, their desire to try out new things, to fail with a giggle… and I wanted that type of learning for my students. (Hint, that was me presenting to you my vision of ‘what could be’!)

Luckily for me in 2009 a pretty amazing initiative was being introduced to schools – the Digital Education Revolution, or as it affectionately, and not a little bit ironically came to be known as, DER. For many DER was a threat to their way of being, their known world was being pushed askew, and they were scared… or worse, angry, that the Department of Education was forcing them to use technology when they felt they did not need it. For me, it was a life-line – it literally saved my career. I still clearly remember my Head Teacher telling me to put my name down to be on the school’s DER policy team, as it would mean much less work than if I put my name down for the Teaching and Learning team. Of course, you know what I did, right? I happily took on the challenge of the bigger job, and pretty much haven’t looked back since. If DER taught me one thing, it’s that it’s not the tool you use, but what you do with it. Within a couple of weeks of students receiving their laptops, it was clear that they would be useless unless teachers chose to change the way they were teaching. Looking back, 2009 was a transformative year for me – thanks to the kindness of Darcy Moore (who spoke with me, then a complete stranger, for over an hour on the phone, encouraging me to set up a Twitter account), and a fateful MacICT webinar that introduced me to Edmodo. In that year, I began to establish my Twitter PLN, many of whom today I count amongst my closest friends, and all of whom added to the educator I am today. In that year I was experimenting with learning space design, effective online tools to support learning, and with the practice of being a reflective teacher. However, it was in 2010, that I was introduced to the methodology that would make the biggest difference to my life (and not just my edu life) – can you guess what it was? Project Based Learning! Thanks to an impromptu conversation with Dean Groom (a teacher who had worked at Parramatta Marist when they transitioned to PBL) I had found the secret that would keep me in education for good… well, at least for the foreseeable future anyway. So, after this long-winded introduction, I would like to turn your attention to the screen, so I can share with you some of my PBL journey. Oh, but before we do that, let’s play a game… (We then played Advanced PattyCake – from Bernard de Koven).


Video of my year 12 students reflecting on PBL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=V11Vxv7_Xsg


I have gone from being a frustrated and bored classroom teacher, tinkering with her practice in an attempt to engage herself and her students, to dig deeper, and have an impact on our world, and do more, and be more, to being Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning at my son’s selective high school, trying to re-engage teachers with their practice… to get them to create super cool, memorable learning experiences for their students. It’s true that Project Based Learning is exhausting, but it’s also true that it’s awesome. When all else fails, I’d like you to remind yourself of these inspiring words, spoken by one of the most enigmatic literary characters, the little blue engine… say to yourself ‘I think I can, I think I can’, because before too long you’ll find yourself out of the pit, congratulating yourself by saying, ‘I thought I could, I thought I could.’

Praxis: Putting Theory Into Practice

OK, so I’m taking a deep breath before I write this post because I know it is going to be a long one… apologies in advance if I’ve ‘suggested’ that you read it, cos I don’t think it’s going to be a quick read, well, it will be if you skim it, and by all means, skim it! This post should have been written a week ago, when the project it is about was still fresh in my mind, but, alas, life is life and I am only getting to it now, prompted by a colleague’s request to see my program for the project… which, of course, I did not have to share.

Praxis – what is it? Well, apart from being one of my favourite words in the world (I have a Major in Philosophy, which surprises most people since I am, um, me… and I discovered the word at uni thanks to that legend, Plato) it is the name I have given to a series of week-long immersive enrichment projects that I’m running with year 7 students at my school. Basically, I love PBL, and I want an excuse to do it deeply with a bunch of super motivated kids once every term – we all have our ways to manipulate the system to get what we want, and this is mine. This post is about the first official Praxis Project that I ran in week 3 of this term. This post is (hopefully) going to outline the planning I did before the project, as well as the different stages of the project itself. For each key stage (divided by the days of the week as this was a full week project) I will identify how it meets specific PBL elements, our school’s reporting proficiencies that are essential contemporary learning skills, our school values, Quality Teaching Framework elements, Kaplan and Maker Models of curriculum development for gifted and talented learners, and which disciplines are being touched on (this project was for Maths and Science, but also touches on Geography, PDHPE, TAS, and English). Now that I’ve written all of those down, I’m realising just what a huge task I have set myself. I think I might go make myself a cup of chai before I begin…

Before project preparations…

  • Project Outline: The idea for this project came from my husband’s obsession with rope-swings. When I asked him what the project should be about, he joked that it should be about rope-swings, and then together we came up with the idea of rope-swinging into Curl Curl Lagoon. The real-world context of a project is super important, as is the authenticity of the problem that students are confronted with as this gives their learning a purpose, and thus significance. I created the project outline below (keep scrolling!) using Canva which always makes things look pretty. Note that the project outline is quite loose, and not too detailed, as it is essentially a prompt for students, providing them with the overall structure of the project, but allowing scope for their own inquiry, and creativity. I printed a colour copy of the project outline for each student, plus an A3 colour copy that I laminated for our project wall. I also added a digital copy of the project outline to our Edmodo group.
  • Experts: All projects definitely need the support of experts from outside of the school environment, but Praxis Projects especially need it as these are curriculum enrichment projects run by a single teacher (a PBL expert – me, haha) and not a ‘content’ expert. Students are thinking above and beyond any content prescribed by a syllabus for their specific age or stage. The intent is for students to engage with adults throughout the project in a way quite different to the traditional teacher-student relationship. I knew I needed an expert on the local lagoon, so I contacted the local council and was super lucky to get some great resources emailed to me AND to organise for the council’s environmental officer to speak with the students down at the lagoon (Jason Ruszczyk – such a legend). I also organised for two of my friends to be available via Edmodo to chat with students – Joseph Stephens (a science teacher and former environment officer), and Simon Borgert (HT Maths). Finally, I needed experts for the final presentation – as a panel is essential to have students respond to questions from experts – and was lucky enough to find a number who were keen to participate: Tom Davidson, a geology enthusiast, and Silvvy Choi, a STEM educator working at Sydney Uni, plus two representatives from the Curl Curl Lagoon Friends group. Finding experts is really hard, probably one of the hardest parts of PBL, but it is also one of the most important – so stick at it!
  • Participants: the Praxis Project is open to 20 year 7 students – five from each of the four core classes. I visited each class and spoke with them about the project, and handed out application forms. Students had to be passionate about and/or gifted in Maths and Science in order to apply. I also spoke at a year meeting about the project, and asked all year 7 Maths and Science teachers to identify their top five students and from this list I tapped a few kids on the shoulder and suggested they participate. In the end we have 16 students in total – many students showed interest, but did not want to miss a week worth of school, and others are keen to participate in the next Praxis Project instead.
  • Learning Space: For PBL to be effective, it really is best done in an open learning space. Our last project was run in the staff common room which is about the size of two regular classrooms, and has no furniture set up – it was awesome. This project ran during HSC Trials, so the only space I could book was a computer room. I did my best to make the room spacious by removing a couple of the big tables (there are 8 big tables in the room), and moving the remaining tables towards the back of the room, freeing up space at the front for our ‘arc’ which is essentially our meeting space (think the waterhole). Whilst the students found a way to make the space their own – one student finding it comfortable lying under the computer table – we all thought a bigger space would have been better.
  • Resources: Ensuring you have quality resources organised before the project is essential. Ensure you have a lot of stationery on hand, but these are must-haves: Post-Its, coloured markers, Sharpies, blank paper (like a paper roll from Ikea, or butchers paper), BluTak, and scissors. Project packets are folders or containers that each team can keep all of the key resources/paperwork in – yes, I am referring to paper stuff, not digital stuff cos kids do mindmaps, plans, sketches etc – I bought some cool mini cases that cost $2 each from Kmart and in them I put their project outlines, some blank paper, and handouts about the lagoon that were emailed to me by the council. I also printed off in A3 and laminated a copy of the years 3-5 BIE rubrics for collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and innovation, and presentation, one for each team. I organised with my husband’s principal to borrow 16 lab coats – one per student – and made name badges for each student e.g. ‘Dr Max, Dr Levi, Dr Xander’ etc. These small touches really transform a project into a memorable learning experience – they are the things that make a difference for me when I’m at a conference, and I know my students appreciate them too.
  • Organisation: I used Edmodo as the place for online communication, creating small groups for each team, and adding Joe and Simon in as co-teachers. I created folders with key resources and digital copies of the BIE rubrics. Students also elected to use Google Slides and Google Docs to collaborate on their presentations and planning, and I put these into a Google Drive folder that we could all access. I also discovered how easy it is to use the Google Drive app to upload photos and video from my phone to share with the kids – amazing!


Hook Lesson (also know to some as the ‘project launch’):

The first thing students did as they entered the room was put on their lab coats, and their badges. They were VERY excited about this! I love creating a super psyched environment right from the beginning – the students are basically engaged from the start, and it challenges me to keep this type of mood for the duration of the project. Once all students were in, I asked them to sit in the ‘arc’ and then I showed them a couple of videos – the first one was of epic rope-swing fails (I edited a YouTube video for this, cutting out those that were incredibly dodgy, or that had swearing, and adding a soundtrack), and a Science of Stupid video looking at the physics of tree-climbing. The students loved watching these, and made lots of remarks about the people in the videos. After the videos I generated some discussion with the group about their experiences with rope-swinging, focusing on the locations at which they did it, what the location (including the water) looked like, how successful they were at rope-swinging and why. We had six other teachers in the room during this activity – the year 7 advisor was filming us, one DP and my principal were there, plus three teachers from Wallsend HS who were visiting to check out PBL in action.IMG_6852IMG_6854

QTF: Connectedness. Narrative. PBL essentials: Challenging Problem or Question Kaplan: Present content that is related to broad-based issues, themes, or problems. Focus on open-ended tasks. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.

Project Introduction:

After we watched the videos and had a chat about rope-swinging, I handed out a copy of the project outline and read it out loud to the students. This generated further discussion, but I resisted answering any questions students had, even basic ones about the project, answering them with ‘That is an excellent question, I wonder what the answer might be’. This is an essential step, because PBL is all about students asking questions, and then using resources at their disposal to answer them. Following this initial introduction to the project, I had students go off to the tables (prepped with required resources), to write things they already KNOW that will help them with the project (content knowledge, skills, and basic information about the project) on blue Post-Its, and things they WANT or NEED to know about the project in order to be successful – and these were expected to be in the form of questions – (content knowledge, skills, and basic information about the project) on pink Post-Its. They were challenged to write as many as they could in 15 minutes, and then add their Post-Its to a poster on the wall that had the headings ‘Want to Know’ and ‘What I Know’, with columns for skills, content, and project information. This process is required for all projects, as it forces students to think critically about their prior knowledge and skills, as well as generating a whole range of questions to help them launch their inquiry. Once the students had written as much as they could, they were invited back to the ‘arc’ to discuss what they came up with. I had immediately identified two very outgoing students in the group of 16, and selected them as the two ‘presenters’ who would read through all of the know and need to know Post-Its to the group – this activity allowed them to identify where students were thinking similarly and differently, and to critically evaluate the quality of their questions. During this process, I typed up (on a Word doc projected to the group) all of the ‘need to know’ questions that the group agreed on as being serious and necessary to the project’s success. By the end of this process we had well over 20 different questions that the students felt they needed answers to – pretty neat! We chatted in an informal way about how they could find out the answers, but I wished that I had done this in a more formal way, as I think it would have helped scaffold/structure their inquiry a bit better – this would be the H (how) in the KWHL table. With a focus on this very long list of questions, I asked the group to identify which questions they felt might be answered by a site assessment of Curl Curl Lagoon, and I highlighted in green all of the questions they selected – these would guide them when we visited the lagoon later in the day.



Following this I had students select the teams they would like to work in, with the suggestion that 4 would be the perfect number. We ended up with two groups of 4, one of 5 and one of 2. Maybe we only had 15 kids participate? I don’t know, haha. Anyway, typically with curriculum-aligned PBL (that is projects run with your actual classes) I suggest that the teacher always picks the groups, but as this is a one week only intensive project with a group of young people I do not know, I allowed the students to select amongst themselves.

Finally, we spent about 10 minutes as a group creating a project calendar that was an overview of the week, identifying what needed to be done each day in order to successfully complete the project – this was just written in text on a piece of paper, and it was noted that each team may end up at different stages depending on where their ideas take them.


QTF: Connectedness, Engagement, Narrative. PBL essentials: Challenging Problem or Question Kaplan: Present content that is related to broad-based issues, themes, or problems. Focus on open-ended tasks. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned. Proficiencies: Demonstrates strong organisational and time-management skills.


The group was now ready to really get into the ‘discover’ stage of the project – which meant our site assessment of Curl Curl Lagoon. The first thing I had them do was identify what roles each team-member would be responsible for when down at the lagoon, as I didn’t want them just rambling around directionless. We identified four key roles and responsibilities: water-testing, catching specimens of marine life, taking photos/mapping the lagoon, and identifying suitable trees or locations for the rope-swing. Each team decided on who would be responsible for each role, and then I created a list so I could hand out resources (water testing kit, nets, camera, etc) to the appropriate students.

We walked down to the lagoon, which is only about 5 minutes from school, and met Jason Ruszczyk and one of his colleagues, who then took us down to the lagoon (well, a part of Greendale Creek actually) to discuss its current health, and some of the factors contributing to it. The lagoon is VERY unclean – and this was immediately noted by the students when they saw it. Jason was exceptionally knowledgeable, and shared his expertise with this group, allowing them to see how he uses technical equipment to assess the water quality. I was super impressed by his vocabulary – so many scientific words I didn’t know the meaning of but was very keen to learn. I think he was quite amused by the students’ driving question, and felt pretty confident that rope-swinging into the lagoon isn’t something anyone would want to do any time soon. The students asked thoughtful questions, and discovered that the health of a catchment is very complex in an urbanised and industrialised area. After Jason left, we continued to walk around the lagoon, testing the water quality ourselves at a range of places and recording the data, as well as taking a lot of photographs, and considering the suitability of the trees for rope-swings. Students also tried to catch specimens of marine life, but failed as the water is so deoxygenated that virtually nothing can live there. This was a really fun part of our project, and many of the students commented that they would have liked to return to the lagoon later in the week to think more critically about it – I know one team actually did meet there in the morning before school!

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On return to school we looked through a resource on the science of catchments (I learnt the words eutrophication and benthos) and the history of Curl Curl Lagoon that Jason shared with me via email, as well as excerpts of a long document on site inspections relating to water quality for recreational swimming. These resources were shared via Edmodo, and supplemented by students’ own research into catchments, and water quality. As students did their independent research, I added all the new words we learnt to our ‘word wall’ – this is a way of helping students track what they know, or should know, to be successful with the project. That ended the first day of Praxis! Phew! (Only four more to write about, haha – I can DO this!)


QTF: Deep knowledge, Deep understanding, Higher-order thinking, Metalanguage, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Students’ self-regulation, Background knowledge, Knowledge Integration, Connectedness Proficiencies: Demonstrates critical thinking about information, ideas and problems PBL Essentials: Authenticity, Sustained Inquiry, Key Knowledge and Understanding Kaplan: Integrate multiple disciplines into the area of study. Develop productive, complex, abstract, and/or higher level thinking skills. Develop research skills and methods. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It must include input from scholars and researchers in academic areas regarding the importance of principles, concepts, skills, and values.



Students began the day in the ‘arc’ where I introduced them to the BIE rubric on ‘critical thinking’. The BIE have a range of rubrics that are free to download, and I have used all of them – from the K-2 rubrics, right up to the 6-12 rubrics. For year 7 I quite like the grades 3-5 rubrics, as they are thoughtfully categorised but not too dense on detail that they lose meaning. The 6-12 rubrics can be very difficult for students to use effectively for the first time. I spoke with students about the different categories (which nicely reflect the discover, create and share stages of a project), and the different aspects of each level – below standard, approaching standard, and at standard. I used examples from what I saw students do the day before, and pointed out aspects I would like to see them address that day. Given more time, I would have made students use the rubric to self or peer assess their current critical thinking, but as it was we just used it as a tool to focus their understanding of what it means to think critically during PBL.

Students were then directed to work in their teams to brainstorm everything they learnt the day before, using textas on a blank piece of paper. Teams then selected a person to share  with the group the five most important things from their brainstorming – this led to a great discussion/reflection on the previous day, and helped clarify some ideas for different students.


The focus for Tuesday was to apply their new understanding of the science of catchments to the project, developing a proposed solution for the water quality issues at Curl Curl Lagoon. To help with this, I had them return to the document on assessing a site for recreational swimming, drawing their attention to a table that identified all of the aspects to be considered (PH levels, aesthetic quality, physical hazards, bacteria levels etc), and set the challenge for them to identify the ideal conditions for recreational swimming, the real current conditions at Curl Curl Lagoon, and their suggested solutions. This information was to be presented that afternoon to a panel consisting of myself, the principal, a PE teacher, and a prac teacher. This was essentially a formative assessment – it allowed me to see what students knew about the science of catchments, and their presentations skills. In the three hours leading up to the presentations, I saw students being very creative in their approach to research, with one team approaching a visiting rep from the CSIRO for his ideas, and seeking assistance from a science teacher. The presentations were held near the end of the day, and as I watched them I wrote down ‘medals’ and ‘missions’ for each team, which I then spoke with them about afterwards to help refine their presentation style, and the content of their presentations.

QTF: Deep knowledge, Deep understanding, Higher-order thinking, Metalanguage, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Students’ self-regulation, Background knowledge, Knowledge Integration, Connectedness Proficiencies: Demonstrates critical thinking about information, ideas and problems PBL Essentials: Authenticity, Sustained Inquiry, Key Knowledge and Understanding Kaplan: Integrate multiple disciplines into the area of study. Develop productive, complex, abstract, and/or higher level thinking skills. Develop research skills and methods. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It must include input from scholars and researchers in academic areas regarding the importance of principles, concepts, skills, and values.



Once again the day began in the ‘arc’ – this time we rewatched the Science of Stupid video on tree climbing, as well as three other videos – one on the physics of swings, and two on the physics of rope swings. I had found these videos the day before, as well as a range of other resources that I shared with the group via Edmodo. I’ll just remind you all that I am an English teacher, not a Physics teacher, and at no point did the students see me as an expert in Maths or Science. My job was to create the context for which they would need to discover and apply a range of scientific and mathematical skills and content. Many of these kids genuinely understood the ideas explored in these videos, but some needed it explained to them by their peers. The focus for this day of the project was to get students thinking about the maths and science of rope-swinging, and I knew that some would take this further than others, just like some had immersed themselves in the science of catchments more than others – that’s the whole purpose of a curriculum enrichment project, to allow students to push in the direction that most fascinates them. In saying that, I do think that this part of the project would have been enhanced had I organised for a physics teacher/expert to come and speak to the students in person about the problems relating to rope-swinging – and the students themselves identified this as a small weakness in the project also. I blame my disorganisation, plus also my genuine fear that if I invited in a teacher they might think that they needed to run a two hour teacher-centred lecture (so lots of prep), or that they might have talked down to the students, or argued that year 7 students aren’t able to deal with this level of maths/physics… so yeah, teacher fail from me.

QTF: Deep knowledge, Deep understanding, Higher-order thinking, Metalanguage, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Students’ self-regulation, Background knowledge, Knowledge Integration, Connectedness Proficiencies: Demonstrates critical thinking about information, ideas and problems PBL Essentials: Authenticity, Sustained Inquiry, Key Knowledge and Understanding Kaplan: Integrate multiple disciplines into the area of study. Develop productive, complex, abstract, and/or higher level thinking skills. Develop research skills and methods. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It must include input from scholars and researchers in academic areas regarding the importance of principles, concepts, skills, and values. It must not restrict the students’ opportunities to purse accelerated content, processes, or products.


Hmmm… at some stage we identified all of the problems associated with the rope-swing that needed solving (weight of swinger, height of swing, length of rope, depth of water etc), and then they got to work in their groups on their preliminary rope-swing designs, calculating the maths of their designs, and researching the physics they needed to know.  We had one team outside throwing ropes out of a second story window and measuring the angle at which is would swing, with the assistance of a PE teacher, another group was creating a prototype out of clay, whilst another was coding the rope-swing physics in Python (no kidding, this kid is amazing), and another drawing, and then designing in Sketch-up. This was all a bit messy, but I think that’s OK cos students need time to just try to work things out themselves. During the last period of the day they spent time with one of our DPs, who is a Maths teacher, whilst I was on class, and I am assuming that during this time some of their calculations were checked etc.


QTF: Problematic knowledge, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Student direction, Knowledge Integration Proficiencies: Applies creative and innovative thinking to learning. Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best. PBL Essentials: Public Product, Critique & Revision, Student Voice & Choice Kaplan: Encourages the development of products that challenge existing ideas and produce ‘new’ ideas. Encourage the development of products that use new techniques, materials, and forms. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It should include an emphasis on development of types of sophisticated products integrated with the content and process.

(Preliminary) Share:

Wednesday is sport day at our school, but it was cancelled due to wet weather, so students chose to stay in Praxis and keep working on their project – I thought that was pretty cool! During this time they continued with their research, and preliminary designs, and I created a list of all the things they needed to include in their final presentations on Friday (I posted this to our project wall), and informally pointed these out to different students, who shared this with their peers.

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QTF: Narrative, Student direction, Social support, High expectations, Explicit quality criteria, Substantive communication Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Public Product, Reflection, Authenticity Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others. Evaluate student outcomes by using appropriate and specific criteria through self-appraisal, criterion references and/or standardised instruments. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.



Beginning in the ‘arc’ again, the day’s focus was on ‘creativity and innovation’ and ‘presentation’ skills – as with Tuesday’s morning session, we read through the BIE rubric, and discussed the different aspects, and informally assessing each team’s progress through this discussion. I spoke specifically about the different types of presentations – informative, imaginative, and persuasive, and gave examples from the Jason’s presentation at the previous night’s Curl Curl Lagoon Friends meeting that I attended, along with a couple of the Praxis students. Students appreciated that a great presentations is informative, imaginative, AND persuasive, and this was reflected in their final presentations the next day.

I then had each team brainstorm the ‘maths and science of rope-swinging’, and once again had them share the top five things they need to know. This was really helpful for a couple of the groups who needed some extra information about this, as they could identify the teams from whom they could learn the most, and planned to spend time with them later in the day. I created a big list of all of the key terms students might need to know, and put this list on the project wall for students to see. I was VERY impressed with what they discovered, and really enjoyed being taught about it from a few very enthusiastic students!


QTF: Problematic knowledge, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Student direction, Knowledge Integration Proficiencies: Applies creative and innovative thinking to learning. Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best. PBL Essentials: Public Product, Critique & Revision, Student Voice & Choice Kaplan: Encourages the development of products that challenge existing ideas and produce ‘new’ ideas. Encourage the development of products that use new techniques, materials, and forms. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It should include an emphasis on development of types of sophisticated products integrated with the content and process.


Students spent the rest of the day working on their rope-swing models and presentations. All teams chose to use Google Slides for their presentations as they could easily collaborate on the slideshow in real time. One team had taken it upon themselves to get help from the TAS faculty, with the HT of TAS generously giving up his time to help them build a scale model of their design – this was a group of four girls, and seeing their beaming smiles as they returned with their finished product made me hopeful that they will pursue TAS subjects when they get to choose electives in the later years of schooling.


One student helped me to design invitations for parents, teachers, and selected year 7 students to attend the Praxis presentations the next day, and he also created a thank-you card to be given to teachers who helped them during the week, and the panelists attending the presentations.

QTF: Narrative, Student direction, Social support, High expectations, Explicit quality criteria, Substantive communication Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Public Product, Reflection, Authenticity Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others. Evaluate student outcomes by using appropriate and specific criteria through self-appraisal, criterion references and/or standardised instruments. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.



Students spent the morning session putting the final touches on their presentations, and their visual representations of their rope-swing. We then headed off to the presentation space (our school library) to get it set up – furniture was arranged including seating for guests, and a table for the panelists. The panelists each got four copies of the audience feedback sheet provided online for free by the BIE, and I made sure that there were stickers and some small toys for one panelist’s young daughter who would be attending also. I ensured the students negotiated resources with the librarian, and that they were responsible for the setting up, not me. Students set up their food on a table for refreshments, which was a nice touch also. Each student also signed the thank-you cards, to be given with a box of chocolates to the people who supported them in their learning during the week.


Ideally each team would have run through their presentation, but there simply wasn’t time so all I could do was cross my fingers and hope for awesome… and boy were they awesome! It was so inspiring to see these young learners stand up there in front of a pretty tough panel, and pitch their designs and solutions as a team. Each presentation went for approximately 10 minutes, and all teams had to respond to questions from the panel at the end – and let me tell you, this panel wasn’t asking easy questions, especially relating to the practicalities of their proposed solutions, and the science/maths of their designs. I was scared for them, but they all responded confidently, and with good humour! I loved that their presentations were all original, and that they had considered how to be informative, and persuasive, as well as engaging. At the end, students joined their invited guests for light refreshments… a super successful event!

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QTF: Narrative, Student direction, Social support, High expectations, Explicit quality criteria, Substantive communication Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Public Product, Reflection, Authenticity Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others. Evaluate student outcomes by using appropriate and specific criteria through self-appraisal, criterion references and/or standardised instruments. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.


Whilst it’s easy to think that once the presentations are done, that a project is over – but it’s not. It is SO important that you give students time to reflect on their learning, and on the project itself. After lunch, we re-grouped in Room 127 – a space that had become a second home for us all – and I had them complete the BIE project reflection sheet. This helped them think about their learning, what they enjoyed, what they found hard, what they would have liked to have done differently, as well as make critical comments about how they would have liked the project itself to be different. This can be hard for some teachers to read, but it is what we need to know in order to refine our practice. Students were also given an opportunity to read through the comments from the panelists regarding their presentations, and this produced some lively conversations within each team as they argued out whether they were correct or incorrect points being made, haha.


The last thing we did as a team, not sitting in the arc, but sitting haphazardly around the room, was to go back through the 20 or so ‘need to know’ questions that they had generated during our first morning together… it was fun to hear them shouting out their answers, and knowing that they HAD actually found out the answers to the questions. As we packed up the room, a couple of students tried their best to keep their lab coats on forever, and many asked to take home small mementoes of Praxis – their name badges, posters from the wall, etc… that was pretty cool. Oh, and somewhere in there they wrote and sang me a thank you song… yeah, that was pretty cool too.

Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Reflection Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others.

A book of short stories for students, by students – wanna contribute?

So, I just a had an awesome idea! I am ALWAYS looking for examples of excellent short stories written by students to show as models to my students, but sometimes these are hard to come across. They’re hard to find primarily because teachers are busy people, and so we often don’t keep our stuff very well organised, or we simply forget to keep copies of stories that we have loved, and found really powerful pieces of writing. Kinda recently I had a big chat with some English teachers about short stories, and the beauty of the form, and something I noticed was that we all found it hard to find quality models – not just student work, but actually published short stories that are things of beauty, worth sharing and studying. I think it’s because the form that we expect students to write is actually the short-short story form, not the short story… if that makes sense? Basically our students are expected to write compelling narratives, with complex characters, powerful themes, in the context of effective settings, all within a space of 800-1000 words. At my current school it is 800 words. That’s not very many words with which to paint something cool, is it? Not considering that the modern short story is ‘no shorter than 1,000 and no longer than 20,000 words‘ according to Wikipedia. However, I really like the definition of a short story attributed to Poe by Wikipedia: one should be able to read it in one sitting. 

So, what’s my cool idea? Well, I imagine that every teacher has come across ‘that’ story at least once in their careers (and hopefully multiple times) – you know, the one where we read it without thinking about the student who wrote it, without stopping to query a phrase, or the tense, or a character’s decisions… where you just read, and feel, and imagine, and love, love, love. The one where at the end you go, ‘Holy crap, I couldn’t write anything that good. How can I be responsible for teaching this kid?’ You know the one, right? Well, what if we collected a bunch of those stories, and put them together in a book, published via Blurb, that could be downloaded for free as a eBook, or bought as a hard copy, depending on the teacher’s preference. It wouldn’t be a book written to make money (cos who wants to deal with the drama of divvying royalties, not me!) but rather would just be there as an epic resource for our students. (The way Blurb works is that you can create a ‘bookshelf’ of books, and when you buy one, you’re just giving money to Blurb for the cost of the printing – if we make it available as an eBook then it can be used digitally, and there’s also a PDF option, so you could print it at school if you wanted to for free.)


Source: https://kenelkes.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/short-story2.jpg 

I’m totally happy to be responsible for putting the stories together, if people email me the stories they think would be worth including. All students names will be included (school name too if you want), unless they want to use a pseudonym which is totally cool also. I would LOVE a resource like this, because I think it will give insight into a range of story-writing styles that are celebrated and valued at different schools. These would NOT have to be purpose written for this book, although your could use this book as an incentive for kids to write something new. I don’t suppose we need a criteria for something like this, however, I guess there is the possibility that some stories might be ‘sent in’ that (possibly) might not be as good as others, and therefore don’t ‘make the cut’… urgh, am I just over-thinking this now? Yes, probably. But maybe a starting criteria could be:

  • story must be original to the writer
  • story must be between 700-1000 words
  • there must be no spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors
  • submissions must be size 12 Times New Roman, double-spaced, justified alignment

Well, that became boring very quickly, haha, maybe you have some suggestions? I focused on boring stuff cos I’ll have to edit them all to add into the Blurb format, so it’s better and easier if they’re consistent.

OK, so maybe no one will reply to this, and it will just be an idea put out into cyberspace, but still worth trying. What do you think, do you wanna contribute?



Week One #CF2US2016

Day One – the big trip to NYC!

Our first day was pretty much non-stop travelling. I love flying Air New Zealand, because they’re pretty much the best airline, and every time we’ve flown with them they’ve been awesome. Our 3.5 hour flight from Sydney to Auckland was great, as always, except for the fact that they messed up our meals, so only Baz got vegetarian. The attendants were super nice though, and offered us fruit, yoghurt, cheese and crackers. After waiting for a couple of hours in Auckland airport (the boys slept, I write a couple of blog posts, and Lee wrote report comments), we got our 12 hour flight to L.A. This is easily my favourite flight – I love that I get waited on, and can just sit and watch as many movies as I want. I chose Deadpool, and then 5 episodes of Gotham. Arriving in L.A., we had to get through customs (a strange process that is both automated and not) and then to the domestic terminal to catch out 6 hour flight to NYC. By the time we made it to JFK airport we were exhausted – we’d been travelling for approximately 27 hours. We spent the night at a Super 8 in Jamaica, Queens – a few miles from the airport. This hotel wasn’t the most amazing place, but the people were nice (the fixed our broken toilet at 2am!), and it served out purposes – we spent most of the night awake, thanks jetlag!

Day Two – Brooklyn and Hell’s Kitchen

The morning began with our first American breakfast of waffles, reconstituted orange juice and strong coffee. Actually, Lee and I had Vegemite on toast – I brought a tube of it with us! We then caught a cab to NYC, which despite initially being quoted $50, actually cost us $87. The driver was from Ghana, and kept telling us how much he liked Julia Gillard (‘that woman prime minister’) and tried to talk to Lee about cricket, which was really amusing. When we got to our hotel – the Skyline in Hell’s Kitchen – it was too early to check-in, so we dropped off our bags and hit the streets. We walked the five blocks to Times Square, and Lee got a T-Mobile SIM card ($70 for unlimited data for 4 weeks, plus 14GB of data for devices hotspotted). I already had in mind a few things that I wanted to do, so we started on the list – first up, Brooklyn! We initially thought about getting the Subway, but after nearly being scammed by a guy who tried to ‘help’ us purchase our tickets via the machine (and thus attempt to get $20), we opted for a cab. The cab took us straight down Broadway, and cost us just shy of $20 – the cabbie wasn’t impressed that Lee didn’t give him a tip, who knew cabbies needed tips?! The Brooklyn Flea is just under the Manhattan Bridge, and is this super cute market full of stalls selling arts and crafts and antiques – unfortunately for us it started raining about 5 minutes after we arrived, forcing the stalls to cover up in plastic. We found shelter in a pizza shop, and had our first American pizza for the trip – vegetarian with beetroot (which they call ‘beets’), and it was actually really tasty. When the weather cleared, we brushed the markets (they were jinxed now, and we were started to get tired already) and headed to the foreshore walk along the East River. It is such a pretty walk, they’ve made a cute path and some art installations, plus the view across to Lower Manhattan is awesome.

Next was the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – it’s iconic for a reason. I couldn’t believe the walkway was all wood, it made me initially nervous, but then I got into the rhythm of checking out the skyline, and the people, and it was all good. It really is beautiful, and I highly recommend walking over it if you’re ever in NYC. Once we got to Lower Manhattan, we decided to walk and check out the World Trade Centre memorial – last time we were in Lower Manhattan, it was still being built. First we stopped off at St Peter’s church, which acted as a temporary meeting place/shrine in the days following the 9/11 attacks, and they have a rather moving exhibit inside. It was good for the boys to see the exhibit, especially Balin who is only 11 and didn’t have a strong understanding of the event. I actually found the church just as powerful a memorial as the actual ground zero memorial which is so stark, just a huge hole in the ground, with the names of the victims engraved around it.   We didn’t go into the exhibition – there was a huge line, and it just felt sort of morbid going in there.

Balin had started to complain a lot about his feet – mine were hurting too – so we decided to get a cab back up to Hell’s Kitchen, which was a big mistake because the driver tried to scam us by taking us way around Manhattan, and we had to ask to get out on 42nd street, about 5 blocks and 7 streets from our hotel. Once we checked in, the boys decided to just chill, and Lee and I headed out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant, El Centro. We both ordered a drink (delicious) and fish tacos (which were insanely good) and as always we were floored by how great American service is – yes, you pay tips, but it’s worth it! After walking about 4 blocks to Wholefoods Central Park to buy beer and snacks, we made it back to our hotel completely shattered – what a huge day! Of course, we only managed to sleep until midnight, and then we were up for three hours – thanks again, jetlag!

Day Three – Midtown Comics, Central Park and Tiffany & Co

Breakfast wasn’t included in at our hotel, so we made up for that by visiting Sullivan’s Street Bakery which was just a couple of streets away. The boys and I had the most amazing doughnuts, full of yummy vanilla bean cream! Our first destination for the day was Midtown Comic in Times Square – a place we’d found on a previous trip to NYC. We spent about 40 minutes in there, immersed in the range of Marvel and DC stuff – I ended up getting an awesome Spider-Man lunchbox that I’ll keep my pens in at school, a Nosferatu Pop Vinyl, and a Marvel Universe trivia game. We walked to Bryant Park, and enjoyed sitting in the sun as we checked out our haul of goodies… and we rested our weary feet! We all decided we were hungry again, so we stopped in at a deli, grabbed some tasty stuff from the salad bar (which are freaking amazing, BTW – I wish we had them in Australia, so much variety!) and walked up 5th Avenue to Central Park. I love Central Park. Everyone I know knows that, because I tell them whenever I get a chance. We found a lovely patch of grass, and stretched out for our picnic. Perfect.

I must confess, that I have always wanted to buy a piece of jewellery from Tiffany’s & Co NYC – because like so many others, I love the Audrey Hepburn movie, and just wanted to be able to say that I had a token of being there, like she had been. Now, I’m no Holly Golightly, but I certainly can’t afford about 98% of the jewellery for sale at Tiffany’s. I did, however, find a sweet necklace with a pendant with a B engraved on it that I bought – and thanks to Lynne, the event was really special. I still haven’t opened up that little blue package, with its blue bow, and silver lettering. I’m waiting until I get home. Silly, huh?

On our walk back to the hotel we went via Trump Tower, and found a guy standing outside it (amidst the media, and cops) dressed in a penis suit, holding a sign saying ‘Photos with Trump’ – it was so awesome, that Lee and I had to get a photo. I wonder what that photo will mean in the future, after the presidential elections… I hope we can still laugh about the fact that someone like Trump was running, and be relieved that he didn’t get voted president.

That night we took the boys to El Centro (that’s how good it was the night before), and the boys enjoyed the fish tacos as much as we did! Back at the hotel the boys went for a night swim in the indoor pool on the top floor, and the lifeguard (a teenager with a whistle) turned the lights off so we could see the Manhattan skyline all bright and colourful… it was awesome. We went to bed exhausted, and a little sad that we were leaving NYC the next morning.

Day Four – Philly, Baltimore and Betsy

Our day started far too early for a bunch of very weary travellers, but we had to collect out hire car from 1st Ave at 7am, and we were staying on 10th Avenue. How did we get to Hertz? Walked, of course! Luckily there’s really nothing like walking through NYC, even early in the morning – oh, and we got to stop at Dunkin Donuts, which is always awesome. Getting the car was super easy, the lady on the desk was sweet, and despite the challenge of driving through increasingly congested NYC streets, we managed to get on our way south.

The first stop on this road trip to Washington DC was Philadelphia because Lee really loves it (we were there in 2011) and was keen to take me up the City Hall Tower. Sadly, we discovered when we got there that it was closed for maintenance. To make up for this disappointment we decided to find a vegan Philadelphia Cheesesteak which we did at this very cool little bar called The Royal Tavern. A lot of the food on the menu was either vegan or vegetarian, which isn’t very common in the States, and the atmosphere of the place was made even cooler by the addition of some punk music and a super attentive waitress. It was thanks to our waitress that we decided to stop in Fells Point, Baltimore. Despite the rain, Fells Point was really lovely – a sweet semi-colonial style harbour side town that has heaps of brew pubs, and nick knack shops. We found an awesome comic shop called Gorilla Comics, and Keenan stoked up again on Batman comics, and I got a Deadpool bobblehead Pop Vinyl.

Our final stop was easily the best of the day – Washington DC to spend the night with our awesome mate Betsy Whalen! There’s nothing better than catching up with someone in person who you speak with almost daily online – we love Betsy, and spending time with her, even for such a short time, was brilliant.

Day Five – Kingsport (haha!)

We gave Betsy an Aussie breakfast – Vegemite on toast, of which she bravely ate a small piece! In return, Betsy gave our boys a bag of presents from which they could open one per day, only if they weren’t annoying in the car. This was something her mother did when she was a child, and it’s still proving very effective with Balin. Thanks, Betsy!

This day was so uneventful, that all I can remember is eating Subway in a random small town and the woman serving me being annoyed by us asking for capsicum, not green peppers, and the fact that we stopped and bought a decent amount of fireworks. We stayed at the Super 8 in Kingsport, which was relatively clean (the room had a faint odour of cigarettes, and the bed covers were not the most attractive) and the staff were very friendly.

Day Six – Asheville, Smokey Mountain National Park, and Pigeon Forge

After a light breakfast of Vegemite on toast, and juice, we headed off towards Asheville, a small town that was recommended to us by the guy at the front desk of the Super 8. I’m really pleased we followed his advice, because Asheville is a super cute, artsy town that we all loved even though we only spent an hour checking it out. We had coffee and tea at the Double D Bus café which is an old double decker bus converted into a café – driven by a skeleton! We also loved the Before I Die I want to… chalkboard wall, where people added the one thing they wanted to do before they died – there were heaps of funny additions such as ‘take the ring to Mordor’. I feel like one day we’ll go back to Asheville.

We then drove through the Smokey Mountain National Park which is just gorgeous. The meadow outside of the visitor centre is so pretty, and the air smelt so clean and floral… it reminded us of the Yosemite meadow. The drive itself was nice, not too windy for me (I always feel carsick, plus I hate heights so some of the driving at Yosemite, and Kings Canyon I’m not found of). We saw a turkey run across the road, and a baby deer peeping out from the trees. Whilst we didn’t have time to do any of the hikes, I still really enjoyed the drive.

On the other side of Smokey Mountain National Park was the unforgettable Pigeon Forge. There’s not really any way of accurately capturing the weirdness of this place – it’s like Vegas for families. Some things we saw that amused us: giant King Kong, upside down mansion, replica Titanic, and Mount Rushmore of Hollywood icons. We all definitely wanted to stay the night in Pigeon Forge, but we simply didn’t have time this trip – if you’re ever down this way with your kids, you should definitely head there!

We spent the night in the worst motel of the trip so far – a $70 per night place in Cookeville called the Key West Inn that smelt like a thousand ashtrays had been stomped into the carpet. There bed covers had cigarette burn holes in it, and there was a huge hole in the bathroom wall. The breakfast included was stale bread, and lumpy milk. Yucky.

Day Seven – the big hike, and the brewery

The best thing to come from Cookeville was a recommendation by our cashier at the supermarket to visit Cummins Falls. The walk to the falls was pretty hectic – we not only had to walk down a fairly steep path to get to the river, we then had to walk about a kilometre up the river to reach the waterfall, including walking across a fallen tree trunk ‘bridge’ that scared the heck out of me. Yes, I’m a wuss. The waterfall was really lovely, and it was fun watching Lee swim in the freezing cold pool at the foot of it.

Our next stop was Nashville. I’m pretty sure all Australians have heard of Nashville, whether they like country music or not, and I’m not different. I just knew that it was somewhere I should stop and see if we were going past. To be honest, it wasn’t at all what I expected – it was just a town. Nothing more exciting than that. The Belmont Mansion, which was listed on Google as worth seeing, turned out to be a bit if a failure. Perhaps it was the stormy weather that made us disinterested, but the thought of the hour-long tour was too much for us, so we opted out and drove through town until we found somewhere for lunch. What we found made us all happy – the Flying Saucer Brewery. Craft beer for Lee, tasty food for me, and free wifi for the boys. If you’re ever in Nashville, you’d be mad to miss it!

The hotel room at the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriot we booked for the night (via our trusty Hotels.com app) was awesome – just $100 for the night, and it was so clean, with super friendly staff, and breakfast. We slept happy that night!

Day Eight – Graceland, and MLK

We woke up fairly early, and headed down to breakfast – a tasty hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, tortillas, and biscuits (which are basically Southern scones eaten with grits – like savoury oatmeal – but I ate mine with butter and jam, haha), as usual this hotel breakfast had zero vegetables. I miss mushrooms, spinach, beans, and tomatoes. Our first stop after our 30 minute drive into Memphis was super touristy – Elvis’s Graceland. I’m not an Elvis fan, and our boys don’t even really know who he is, but I figured it would be interesting to see where he lived, and, you know, it’s pop culture history, right? As it turned out, you have to pay $10 just to park in the Graceland parking lot, and if you want to just get a photo of Graceland, you have to pay a minimum of $38 per adult to get on a bus with a bunch of other tourists to do it. We chose not to. As we left the car park, Keenan suggested we follow the buses and see if we could get a shot of Graceland, and I’m glad we did because we just needed to cross the road! There’s a place to pull up and park for a few minutes, and then get a photo of Elvis’s mansion from the street – easy!

Next stop was one that I was particularly looking forward to – the National Civil Rights Museum. I wasn’t disappointed. The museum is excellent – the exhibits are engaging, moving, and informative. Our boys really got a fantastic insight into the struggles of African American people, from the origins of slavery, through to the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. The museum itself is situated within the Lorraine Motel, where Dr King was assassinated, with visitors able to see the exact spot where he was killed, and the place from which his killer took that fateful shot. If you’re ever in Memphis, or going through, please do stop at the museum.

We had lunch at the Memphis Flying Saucer Brewery, which was cool but not as awesome as the one in Nashville – they didn’t have the tasty pineapple cider, but they did have a delicious cider and raspberry syrup combination called Hummingbird Water. Our last stop in Memphis was a quick walk down Beale Street, which reminded us all of the French Quarter in New Orleans but with a little bit of Hollywood and Vegas added in, haha.

Providing quality feedback in order to move students forward in their learning

One of my most popular blog posts (and one of my favourites that I share relentlessly like a git) is this one: Feedback, Feedforward and peer assessment and Project Based Learning. The reason I value that post so much is because through the years, after many, many applications of the ideas within it, I can still say with 100% confidence that the theory of ‘medals and missions’ and withholding grades for at least 24 hours genuinely works. Since staring at my new school, I have been really impressed with how enthusiastically the staff have adopted a range of strategies to ensure that students are being given quality feedback in order to move them forward in their learning.

This year I am running (with the help of one of my awesome colleagues) a series if four workshops on Dylan Wiliam’s Embedding Formative Assessment (using his two year PL program as a basis). Each term we run a one-hour workshop, providing teachers with information on a range of formative assessment strategies. The most recent session was on feedback – and one of the key ideas that really resonated with teachers was the need for feedback to be more work for the students than for the teacher (or the peers) who are giving it. The English faculty have become committed Dylan Wiliam fans since I first ran a workshop on assessment for learning using some of his strategies in Term 4 last year. Since then they have adopted the feedback before marks strategy for years 7-10, whereby students are given their written feedback on an assessment task, and asked to reflect on it BEFORE they receive their mark – with a mandatory 24 hour reflection period. To add to this, all teachers are using the Medals and Missions method of written feedback as outlined in my blog post linked above, and initially inspired by Geoff Petty. To complement this for extended responses (such as essays and narratives) teachers are using a ‘code’ system that I developed at the end of last year when marking year 11 journeys essays.

Essentially, I kept seeing students making the same mistakes (not engaging with the essay question, not providing relevant evidence, poor sentence structure, failing to include a linking sentence at the end of body paragraphs etc), so I made a list of these things, then gave each a code (e.g. SS = sentence structure Q = question). Students were then given a series of codes as their Medals or Missions – I tried not to give any more than 3 for each, and never more Missions than Medals. I added the codes throughout the students’ essays when I thought they needed to fix something up – e.g. LS (linking sentence) at the end of a body paragraph if one was missing. This made it much quicker for me to mark, and meant that the students had to do a bit of work by engaging with the document I created outlining all of the codes. Oh, and in the document I didn’t just say ‘LS = linking sentence’ I actually outlined what a linking sentence is, and gave an example of a really good linking sentence. This step is important because (as Dylan Wiliam tells us) kids get a lot of feedback ‘this is what you did wrong’ and often not much feedforward ‘this is what you need to do to improve, and this is how you can do it’. It’s been great to see the English teacher taking up this approach to feedback, and the students have responded really well – we’re at a school of very high achievers, so students are always keen to identify how they can improve. Journey Essay – Marker’s Feedback codes’ for a journeys essay, if you want to used them… just please acknowledge your source!

Being at a BYOD school, and being a recent devotee of Google Apps for Education, I have found that there are lots of ways to use technology to make students’ engagement with their Medals and Missions feedback even more effective. Firstly, I have created tables in a shared Google Document and asked students to add their name and two medals and two missions they received for an assessment. They then are partnered up with a ‘critical friend’ who had one of their missions as a medal, so they can work together to turn a mission into a medal – this is especially effective for essay-writing as we do a lot of this in English! You can see an image of what I mean below…

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 6.47.26 pm

Secondly, I have created a big table with students’ names down the left column, and then across the top added all of the essay codes (SS, LS, RT, PT, C, Q etc), and students then added a smile emoji for a medal, and an Xbox controller emoji for a mission. This super visual representation of students’ strengths and weaknesses on an essay task allows me to identify themes in their learning, and then fill any identified gaps – like in a recent essay task my year 12 students mostly had medals for their conceptual understanding, but missions for their related text paragraphs. Without me actually doing any work, I could see that there was a gap in my students’ learning – they didn’t know how to effectively connect their related texts to their prescribed text. See the image below for an example of what I mean:

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Anyway, I’m currently in Auckland Airport waiting for my plane to LA, so I’m going to cut this short. I hope these ideas and resources are helpful for someone!