I just spent a week learning with 11 year 7 students… and it was brilliant!

Last week I facilitated a week-long project with a small group of year 7 students, and it was an experience that really reaffirmed my commitment to a project-based learning environment for all students. After having watching the documentary Most Likely to Succeed in the lead-up to the Future Schools conference a couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to get despondent about my current attempts to introduce PBL into my new school. I worked really hard last year to try to give my students authentic learning experiences using PBL as my methodology, but despite my best efforts I found myself dealing with frustrated students who did not enjoy these experiences, complained about the lack of teacher direction, the amount of work, the accountability, and the fact that they felt they weren’t spending enough time focused on high-stakes assessments. There were, of course, some wins in there – some great moments where students really did inquire, create and present their learning in ways that challenged their own expectations of what it is to be a learner… but mostly I felt that they didn’t really ‘get it’, and by the end of the year I had many students telling me they preferred not to do PBL next year. Bummer, huh?

However, I’m a determined kid, and sometimes you’ve got to trust the education literature, your years of teaching experience (and that of others), and the vision you have for your own children’s education… so I have persevered, because I know that the first step to change is resistance, and I am committed to ensuring the young people at my school get the learning experiences they need to thrive in our crazy, crazy world. Seeing what Larry Rosenstock has achieved at High Tech High, I am completely inspired, and also quite intimidated. I WANT that learning environment for my kids (not just my two sons, but all of the kids I teach), and I know it can be created, if only in small amounts to start.

So, about a month ago our school was invited to participate in the cross-campus GATS project for year 7 students. All of our students are GATS, right? It makes it hard to choose who can be involved – we just didn’t have the time or resources to have it a whole year-group project, and to be honest that approach would not have been ideal… we need to start small with these things, and nurture a mood/culture of awesome that others are desperate to be a part of in the future. In the end we decided that we could have up to 5 students per core class (we have four classes) and that students would need to ‘apply’ to participate. We ended up with 13 applications, which is pretty good considering they had 3 day’s notice to get their application in. When the first day of the project rocked up, we were down to 11 – one decided to opt out (oh peer pressure, we’ll never erase you), and another was unwell. I decided that I would run the project in my free periods, plus during my year 10 periods which were covered by my DP; I chose to teach my senior classes and during those periods my DP supervised the year 7 students.

The night before the project as due to begin, I created a project outline to help guide my students’ inquiry, and provide a lose structure for their week of learning. I didn’t decide on the concept (this was determined by our college’s HTs T&L) which was equality (which should have been equity, as pointed out by my friend Tomaz, and my 14 year old son), and from that I developed an overarching driving question.

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Below is a super quick overview the project…

Day One: The very first step in all projects is the hook lesson/entry event – my favourite part of every project. For this one I used a modified version of the famous ‘blue eyes, brown eyes‘ experiment by Jane Elliot. I got the students together and randomly handed out 6 orange badges, and made the students put them on. These students were invited to help me set up a small ‘party’ with lollies, chocolate biscuits and cans of softdrink. They were told repeatedly not to eat anything. I then invited the students without badges to come and eat/drink, and asked the orange badge students to sit down on some nearby chairs. After this, I had the orange students set up a 5 chairs in a circle, and then 6 on the outer of the circle. I had one students set up some music and they began to play pass the parcel – however when the music stopped on an orange person they had to hand the parcel over to a non-orange person who got to open it and keep the gifts inside. The orange students had to pick up the rubbish (just newspaper) created by the non-orange students. Once the game was finished, I invited all of the students to sit down in a semi-circle, and we discussed what it felt like the be told you couldn’t participate in something fun, and had to do chores instead. The kids immediately picked up on what the project was about – well, they said discrimination, but we quickly got to the word ‘equality’, and we had a great discussion about why the non-orange people behaved the way they did (none of them stood up to defend the orange people, or offered them food or drink, or a prize) and what the orange people behaved the way they did (they were all compliant, even if they were visibly unhappy). The whole ‘party’ only lasted 20 minutes, but I could tell it was an experience that got them thinking.

The next session was all about introducing the project outline, and establishing what they needed to know to be successful with the project. To do this I gave them each a copy of the project outline, and a bunch of blue and pink post-it notes – on the blue they had to identify what they already knew (skills, content, project stuff) and on the pink they had to identify what they needed to know in the form of questions (skills, content, project stuff). They then took these and stuck them to butcher’s paper divided into K and W columns. I selected the most outgoing (read ‘potentially off-task/distracted) student to be in control of reading out each post-it, and deciding whether the know/need to know what a skill, content knowledge, or general project stuff – he also noted any repeats, and just kept one of them. This left us with a complete set of need to know questions – content to discover, skills to master, and practical questions about the project. As the students were working on their first stage of inquiry, I wrote up all of their need to know questions on butchers paper, and put them up on the wall as their learning goals for the week. Oh, and we also created a project calendar for the week, to help keep everyone focused! IMG_2885


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The following session saw students brainstorming all of the different factors contributing to inequality in our world, things such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, appearance, etc. You can see the results of the brainstorm below. From this, each team had to identify four contributing factors they were most interested in, then conduct some online research about each one, to be presented to the whole group the next day. The purpose of this was to help the students make an informed decision on the type of inequality/inequity that they would like to focus on for their team’s project. They were given time the following day to complete their research and create their presentations. This session ended with a big ask for these kids – reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then discussing the gaps we see in our world between declared rights, and the received rights. The students were pretty shocked that this document was from 1948, and still many of the rights are not fulfilled. We also discussed the fact that sexual orientation is not explicitly stated, even if it might be implied, and we considered the consequence of this for many people.


We spent the final session watching some YouTube videos to help them better appreciate the origins of the concept of ‘equality’, and some of the key thinkers that shaped how we see equality in our world today. The videos are below.

Day Two:

We met in the morning in our ‘arc’ which was basically 11 chairs arranged in an arc, facing the corner where all of our project stuff was on the walls. During this teacher-led session, we read through two of the BIE rubrics – collaboration and critical thinking. We needed to focus on both of these skills today, as they would be spending the whole morning session researching their team’s choice of four types of inequality. All teams chose to present their information using Google Slides, as this allowed them to collaborate as they worked. We spoke about the importance of verifying the sources, using a range of sources (not just the first three sites that come up on a Google search) and triangulating information. Both rubrics really helped students to focus their learning, which is great. (Oh, as an aside, whilst I was on class, my DP had the students peer-assess their team-members using the BIE rubric, and identify who they believed was the best collaborator in their team and write it on a post-it note which was given secretly to the DP. It was interesting to see the variety of responses!)

After recess, each team presented their preliminary research to the group. I encouraged the audience to give feedback using medals (things you did really well) and missions (things you need to improve) and this proved very effective – students noted that consistency in presentation slides was important, that information needed to be accurate, that too much written text was distracting, and that bright colours and images were appealing.



The afternoon session was focused on each team selecting their focus area (they ended up with choosing inequality relating to gender identity and sexual orientation; religion; and appearance) and developing an inquiry question. I talked to them about the features of a great inquiry question by using the analogy of the houses – one storey, two storey, three storey with a sunlight – which I discovered when teaching ILP last year. The actual writing of the question was tough, and what they ended up with were pretty incredible for 11 and 12 year olds!

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Day Three:

Wow, it feels like this blog post will go on forever, and I guess that gives you an insight into the intensity of this learning experience for my students, haha – we were powering through! The third day was a shorter day (as students went off to sport after lunch), and saw the teams really begin to start some serious project work such as asking more questions about their chosen focus area, researching, making phone calls (to libraries, the council, the local mosque), visiting the principal, writing surveys and interview questions, emailing authors, storyboarding, etc. A huge day, with only one teacher-led activity: reading and discussing the creativity and innovation rubric to make sure they understood what it means to produce truly beautiful work.



Day Four:

This day saw students continue with their work from yesterday, but also consider how their initial plans may need to be modified/adapted based on their research findings, and the work they did (or didn’t) complete the day before. This day was awesome because I did not need to run any teacher-led lesson, rather I just got to sit and chat excitedly with my students about their learning, and the work they were doing. It was a super fun day – a bit chaotic with students creating stop-motion films, taking photos of us all holding whiteboard messages, creating websites, cutting out paper people, and a whole lot more. By this stage the students had made the common room their home – and they chose not to leave it during recess or lunch, preferring to stay in and keep working than go out into the playground. Total. Win.


Day Five:

Presentation Day! Students spent the morning working in their teams on their final products, and their presentation slides. I had organised for each student to bring in some food or drinks, and so we spent a little bit of time setting that up, as well as setting up the room. Each team also did a very quick run-through of their presentations, however we did find that we got stuck for time, and spent most of the time checking that the tech was working well. In hindsight I would have liked to have dedicated much more time for this rehearsal – probably a couple of hours. I spoke with the students about the importance of setting up the space to show the audience that this was an important event – we had a table set up for the judging panel (year advisor, HT welfare, both DPs, the principal and one of our PE teachers, who also brought along his year 10 class to watch as they are studying ‘difference and diversity’) with rubrics for creativity, and critical thinking, some whiteboards with question ideas, glasses of water, and the audience feedback sheets. We also put a copy of the audience feedback sheet on every chair, so the audience knew they were participants too. We made sure there were comfy lounge chairs at the front for the parents who were attending – parents are special people!

Each team got up to present for about 10-15 minutes, and at the end of their presentations they had to respond to questions from the panel, and the audience (including parents!). It was really great to see these 11 year 7 students step up and defend/justify/explain their ideas about equality to a whole room of adults, and peers. In fact, I got a bit teary listening to them, and watching the videos they had made. They impressed me so much – and it was lovely to be able to celebrate their learning with so many people. I gave them each a little certificate to say how awesome they were, and we got a team photo… I just don’t have a copy of it, sadly! Anyway, I hope you can tell that this was an awesome project, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them all present at our combined college presentation evening on the 6th April!

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Future Schools conference and all the thinking that it invited…

Last Thursday and Friday were big days on the edu conference calendar – Future Schools 2016 took over Australian Technology Park, and in the process took over the minds of a few hundred educators. I was lucky enough to be a part of the conference this year, after being invited to share Jane Hunter’s Friday morning keynote, along with Debbie Evans. 

I elected to teach on Thursday instead of attend the day’s sessions – a true shame as I missed the keynote of Larry Rosenstock, principal of High Tech High (only the most amazing Project Based Learning school in the world!). I managed to make it out to ATP for the last two sessions – an energetic presentation by Claire Amos about her school’s unique learning environment, and the stunning closing keynote by Ayesha Khanna on why partnerships between corporations and schools is the best way to teach STEM. My intention for attending the final part of the day was to ‘bump into’ Larry Rosenstock at the networking drinks, and beg him to give me a one year contract to work at High Tech High. Unfortunately he’d already left the building, but I did manage to catch up with my great mate and English teacher hero, Paula Madigan, as well as Jane Hunter (who is brilliant but I’ll go into that in the next paragraph) and even got to say a quick hello to the ever awesome Peggy Sheehy. 

Attending Thursday, even if briefly, really got me thinking more broadly about education – not confined simply to the institution of school – thanks to the keynote of Ayesha Khanna. Her presentation really captured the changing world of ‘work’ with a specific emphasis on the role that automation (especially robots) are having on jobs and the economy. She spoke passionately about the need to foster creative confidence in our young people, to ensure that they are prepared for the dynamism of the new workforce they will be entering. Her company’s mission to support young people (specifically university aged) to get a sense of the workforce/vocations in an authentic way – through what she calls ‘externships’ – is pure genius. It really got me thinking about the role of employers as educators, and the need for them to develop the skills needed to mentor and support a generation of new employees very different to those they’ve worked with before. I couldn’t stop thinking about how outdated our current model of ‘work experience’ is that we offer to students in year 10. I also imagined Ayesha’s company as essentially running work-based PBL – they really focused on problem-solving at the contextual level, and it was cool to hear that they’re now expanding into high school and primary school too. Let’s hope her company starts working here in Australia soon! You can read more about them here: http://www.thekeys.global

Friday brought with it a 4am wake-up, a stomach full of desperate butterflies, and a big first for me – keynoting in a team at Future Schools! I made it to ATP at 7am, and that just compounded my nerves – luckily I got to hang out with Jane and Debbie which made me relax (a bit!) before we hit the stage. It was quite intimidating seeing the lights dim, and the crowd filing into the big room. I took the time to read back through my notes, write out some hasty palm cards, and try to tweet like a normal person. I was particularly nervous for this talk because it was about someone else’ work – not only that, but it was work that I greatly admire and value, so I wanted to do it justice. Jane’s opening was fantastic – she’s a wonderful speaker, with such wealth of knowledge into current research that it was hard not to turn every sentence into tweet. You can read a summary of her talk on Claire Amos’ blog: http://www.teachingandelearning.com/2016/03/dr-jane-hunter-turning-high-possibility.html?m=1 

Debbie Evans did a wonderful job discussing the huge impact that Jane’s HPC framework had on the staff at her school – it’s really quite amazing how many teachers she supported during the project. She’s showed the most adorable videos of student work – one of a kindy student proudly showing of his triangle literally brought a tear to my eye! And then I was up… I had my palm cards in my hand, but found that all my diligent preparation paid off, and after a shaky start (my voice was actually shaking), I got into the rhythm thanks to a sly dig at Debbie for being my ICT pusher way back in 2006 at MacICT, lol. Once I had sat back down it was so lovely to scroll through my tweets and see people sharing kind words about what I had to say – I even got my first ever LOTR GIF tweet, pretty rad! 

Almost straight after our keynote we began a pretty gruelling hour and a half round table session – three cycles of groups coming to chat to Debbie and mr about ICT integration. It was hot, and loud, and I almost lost my voice… but it was completely awesome! I met so many engaged, interesting and thoughtful educators, and hope that we will somehow keep in contact. It was great to be able to share my own journey as a new HT of T&L with others in a similar role, and I was reminded again of how powerful it is to record that journey via this blog to help me share my experiences and resources with them. 

After such an early start, I decided to leave Future Schools early… I was exhausted mentally and physically, and felt that staying any longer would have hindered rather than helped my immersion in the ideas shared throughout my time at the conference. I know that next year I’ll be keen to return – as a presenter or just as a participant, I don’t mind. I’m also keen to bring along other teachers from my school as well, and I think that’s the mark of a great conference. 


Re-designing the end in mind: why you can’t get there without getting all “mushy.” (Guest post by Tim Kubik, Ph.D. – Project ARC)

I was thrilled to see Bianca Hewes (@BiancaH80 on Twitter) rated among the top eight PBL blogs in the world by Global Digital Citizen! It’s not surprising to me, because Bianca has been so open, so transparent about her own learning arc when it comes to optimizing PBL. I wish more teachers could let go and accept that we don’t have perfect plans in order for students to learn from our projects!

One of my favorite blogs is one in which Bianca coined the phrase “managing the mushy middle.” It’s a question teachers ask – and honestly fear – when it comes to trying a more authentic, student-driven version of project-based learning. Teachers new to PBL may master planning for what Yong Zhao calls “academic PBL,” or what I like to call “project-based assignments.” As they move toward something more creative, something in which students have a chance to be more creative, teachers often find that their plans fall apart.

Now, it’s an axiom of planning that “no plan survives first contact,” but that doesn’t make the experience fun. Bianca’s blog did just that.

Take a look at the initial question – How can we make the PBL process killer for our kids? See what I mean? Sure, she credits her husband, Lee, but after spending a day touring Sydney with both of them back in 2013 I can tell you that together they are a killer teacher improv group. “Yes, and” thinking is what you – and your students—need to survive the “mushy middle,” and this is what Bianca was trying to tell us when she wrote: “PBL is essentially a messy process where the best thing a teacher can do is step out of the way and let kids work things out for themselves.”

To that, I just have to say, “Amen, sister!”

In the last two years, many of the suggestions from this post have become the “assets” we look for at Project ARC when visiting a school, whether they want to try PBL for the first time, or they want to “level-jump” their PBL experiences. Are the spaces, the resources, the materials, and the assessments out there in a way that the students can get to them when they need them, or is the teacher in the way? Do the students have a voice? I don’t mean whether they get to choose what they can make for a project-based assignment. I mean do they have voice in what they want to do with a project in a way that will further their own learning? Finally, do they have a voice in assessing that learning? Teachers are often doing these things, and we’ve found that if you alert teachers to that fact, they’re much more likely to approach the “mushy middle” with confidence rather than fear.

Bianca’s post also got me thinking about our own “end in mind” as teachers. For those outside the States, that phrase in quotes may not weight as heavily as it does here America’s public schools. Aussies and others feel weights of their own, however, weights that tell teachers we must have a model, must implement that model with fidelity, and then must judge our efforts a success or failure based on the data that model yields. That wasn’t the authors’–Wiggins and McTyghe—intent when they asked educators to design with the “end in mind,” but that’s been the outcome, for better or worse as educators are expected to standardize their teaching. Standardization makes the “mushy middle” frightening. It forces educators to ask themselves: What if my PBL doesn’t produce the outcomes imagined as the “end in mind?” The success of our young learners, and our own careers, is on the line, right?

What I hope you’ll notice, and what I know Bianca appreciates, is that the preceding two paragraphs are quite different. The first one is all about learning – how I learned from Bianca, how teachers have learned from what we’ve shared, and how our learners grow when we focus on teacher assets rather than teacher error. The same is true for our learners! The paragraph after it all about teaching. It’s about what we’re supposed to do, how well we’re supposed to do it, and the fear of failure that comes because we want to be fully prepared before we allow our students to participate in PBL.

Those are two very different ends to hold in mind, and it’s time we seriously consider taking up the challenge of re-designing our practice around learning rather than teaching. There are lots of reasons to do this, but I’ll leave you with one, and a call to join me as I begin to participate in this challenge.

If you haven’t watched it, check out Sugata Mitra’s TED talk about the ways in which students are quite capable of teaching themselves. People are focused on the fact that this happened through interaction with computers, but Mitra’s research stresses that it is the student-driven participation that matters as much or more than the object around which that participation is organized. A challenging PBL experience, organized around a relevant problem, can have much the same effect. That will only happen if we let the middle get mushy enough that students have the opportunity to participate in the Self Organized Learning Environment that results when things get “mushy.”

Finally, if you’d like to think deeply about how our end in mind might be better served by designing PBL experiences where the middle is “mushy” by design, I’d like to invite you to join me as I launch a new book project, “Participation is Preparation,” on Publishizer this month. That’s right, I’m inviting you to join me in the mushy process of writing a book, rather than expecting you to just buy something I already have planned out. There are lots of different ways to participate. Pick the one that feels right to you, and join me in the “mushy middle.” Once we start participating, I’m sure we’ll learn a lot, together.



My Classroom Experiment: Part 2

Last week I continued to use the PaddlePop sticks and ‘no hands up’ strategy with my classes… and so too did lots of other teachers it seems! It’s been really nice keeping track of other people’s use of the same strategy via Twitter, and it seems it’s been just as successful for them as it has been for me. I quite like how something small like this reveals the creativity of teachers – some are letting students decorate the sticks themselves, and one person used pegs because she couldn’t find sticks!

So, how did it go in week 2? 

Year 10: 

I used the sticks in a range of new ways last week. Early in the week I asked students to keep them in front of them to help me learn their names during group work, this was fun but I did end up down a couple of sticks – one student ended up becoming ‘Jerry the pencil’, lol. I also used the sticks to select teams for our micro-project. I usually create teams more thoughtfully than this, however as I don’t know the students yet, I can’t really make any judgement about the team they should be in, can I? It was fun pulling the sticks out one by one and arranging them on the table in a quietly theatrical way whilst students completed a quiet task… I knew they were all super curious about the purpose of the groups, so it got them engaged with the task straight away. The class have spent the last few lessons working on a small video project where they are making a clip for YouTube answering a question they have posed about authority and the individual. I used the sticks occasionally to call on students randomly to share with the class what their team was up to, and where they were going next. Not a bad strategy for PBL. So far there hasn’t been any frustration towards the sticks – and none have been stolen (well, intentionally at least anyway!).

Year 11: 

I’ve started to use the sticks in two ways with this class, determined by the type of questioning I am employing. I’ve noticed (thanks to commentary by Kelli McGraw) that I ask two broad types of questions – open, and closed. Open questioning happens a lot in English, because often our lessons are discussion-based since literature is mostly about interpretation. This means that the questions are I ask students to respond to are more subjective, and thus students are less concerned with there being a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response, meaning they are more confident to contribute when their name is selected. There are times, however, when I want a more developed response from students, and that’s when I use a second stick to get someone else’s input – sometimes the first student is a little miffed that ‘back up’ is required. I will note that this type of response is dependent on the student – some are stoked to have extra support. Closed questioning happens less in my English class (although I know that some teachers use it a lot more than I do), but last week I did use it recap/quiz students after their reading a summary of Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ the lesson before. Students seemed to struggle with being put on the spot in this way (there was a clear right/wrong answer), but all had a go and gave some type of answer. What I found interesting was that some students who knew the answers started putting their hands up, calling out, or whispering the answer loudly (accompanied with rolling eyes) to their neighbours. Very interesting indeed, as it reflected what Dylan Wiliam experienced in his classroom experiment! I wonder if this sort of thing will continue as we head towards more closed questions when recapping/quizzing based on our upcoming text study?

Year 12: 

As with year 11, I’ve started using more closed questioning because we’re covering concrete stuff – contextual detail relating to our study of Ondaatje’s ‘In the Skin of a Lion’, and therefore answers aren’t really open to discussion as much. Students have mostly been responding positively to this when called upon (they know I’ll pick a back-up stick if they can’t get an answer themselves), but there is also the stirrings of frustrated frequent-contributers who wish to share their correct answer. As with year 11 we are starting to move into the analysis of our novel, and I feel that the sticks may become less warmly received when the questions are content-driven (where is this scene set? who does such and such action? what’s this device used called?). Luckily I have a plan – whiteboards! I’m purchasing two class sets of whiteboards, markers and erasers today, so hopefully by next week they will arrive, providing all students with the opportunity to respond to questions.

One thing overall that I’ve found really interesting regarding my own practice is that I didn’t realise how many questions I ask in a lesson! It’s kind of mental! I also am more conscious of the need to give students more control with regards to questioning, and then using the sticks to select students to respond. How have the sticks been working for you?

My Classroom Experiment: Part 1

If you follow me on Twitter, you will have seen that I recently encouraged people to (re)watch The Classroom Experiment by Dylan Wiliam – it’s a two-part documentary that follows renowned education researcher Wiliam as he guides a group of teachers in implementing a number of his formative assessment strategies. It’s a really engaging documentary, providing much needed insight into what happens in the classroom, and how these simple strategies can improve student engagement and learning outcomes. I don’t go into much more detail about Dylan’s experienced, I’ll trust you’ll go and watch it if you haven’t already. The purpose of this post is to document my own classroom experiment – implementing a numbe of Wiliam’s strategies with my three English classes, to see how they work with students in an academic selective school.

Yesterday was the first day back with students after our 6 week summer break. I have three English classes – year 12 Advanced English, year 11 Advanced English and year 10 English. I have taught my year 12 class for the last 12 months, but my year 11 and 10 classes are new to me. Yesterday I had both year 11 and year 12 – year 10 only return today. I’m really keen to try out some of Wiliam’s strategy’s for a few key reasons:

1. I’ve discovered that the students at my school are very dependent on their teacher, and can often be quite passive in class. I want to challenge students to contribute more thoughtfully, and frequently, to classroom discussions.

2. Both of my senior classes are lower stream classes, that basically means I’ve got the Maths/Science geniuses who haven’t yet discovered their passion for English… and this is reflected in their results. According to Wiliam, these strategies will improve learning because they improve engagement – that’s the outcome I’m after!

3. One of our focuses for professional learning in 2016 is formative assessment, and we’ll be using Wiliam’s work as our main source. I want to be able to model the use of formative assessment for my peers, and be able to reflect on actual classroom experiences at our school, rather than just saying ‘do this’.

So, the first strategy I’m trying out? NO HANDS UP! OK, I’ll be honest, for me this strategy should be called NO CALLING OUT because I’ve never bothered with requesting silence and hands up, so my class is usually pretty noisy with kids shouting out answers to questions. To replace hands up/calling out, I’m using students’ names on PaddlePop sticks (these are called craft sticks or lolly sticks in other countries) – basically I have a stick for every student, and I hold them in my hand when I’m talking to the class as a whole. If I want to ask a question to clarify understanding, then I pull out a stick at random and ask that student the question. Easy.

So how did it go? Surprisingly well! For starters it was fun writing names on coloured sticks, haha, and then it was fun telling the kids about it and seeing their curiosity. I found that holding all of the sticks in my hand was a bit annoying, so I’ll probably put them in some sort of container today. Below is a super quick overview of my observations for each class.

Year 11: My first lesson with this class was all about getting to know each other. One activity I used for this was a PMI about students’ thoughts on subject English. Each student had a piece of A3 paper, and divided it into a three columns – positive, minus, interesting. They then spent 10 minutes quietly adding their honest thoughts about English. Once this was done, I used the sticks to call on students to share one thing on their list, and briefly explain why they put it in the column they did. Next I called on a second student to say which column they would put that thing and why. We did this for about 15 minutes, and students responded well. There wasn’t a single student who refused to participate, and all students were paying attention to what their peers had to say and were able to add to it when called upon. Students did find it funny when the sand person’s name came up a few times – that’s probability for you! Obviously this wasn’t necessarily an example of formative assessment, really, more like using them for managing discussion BUT it did improve engagement.

Year 12: This lesson I introduced our new module – Critical Study of Text. We were doing a pretty mundane task, reading through the syllabus rubric for the course. To introduce the activity I made sure all students had highlighters and a pen, and spoke about the importance of annotating what they highlight. Then I introduced the sticks – once again students were curious, and a little amused (pretty sure they’ve not seen anything like that done in a senior class before!). As I read through the rubric, I stopped frequently and selected students (using the sticks) to give their personal definition of key words, or phrases, or to get them to explain why they thought a particular aspect of the rubric was important. Once again I dropped sticks on the floor, which the students found amusing, and some students names came up a few times which they also found amusing. I noticed that some students who normally would never contribute to class discussions were made to participate and this was noted by other students. The sticks meant that students who might often be distracted by their laptops etc, were paying more attention. I also noticed that the students who always contributed became frustrated when others who were called on didn’t know an answer… and they found it hard to keep quiet! It was fun watching students shush each other, and refer to the sticks and no ‘hands up’ (which students started to do even though they never used to, lol!). If a students couldn’t give an answer, or I felt the answer needed more development, I would call on a second student to help – often I would pull out two sticks in anticipation of this. I found this to be a really effective way to introduce a new module, as students were instructed to take notes from what their peers say, on their printed rubric. This certainly was not me working hard, the kids were – winning!

So that’s it! It’s now Friday, and I’m going to use the sticks again today… hope they’re awesome today too!

Cronulla Riots: The Event That Stopped My Lesson Plans

This Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most shameful days in Australian history – the Cronulla Riots. I still vividly remember the weekend that the riot and the retaliation attacks took place, but even more than those days, I remember the lessons I had with my classes in the school week that followed. All lessons plans were immediately discarded (yes, back then I actually wrote lesson plans!) and each lesson was devoted to discussions about the actions, and thoughts of those people involved in the riots and retaliations. Those were some of the most frank, confronting and passionate conversations I’ve had with teenagers. We argued about who was responsible (our culture? our history? the people? the police? the media?) and what the cost would be to social cohesion… we shared our sadness, our frustration, our confusion. We shared our fears that the same thing might happen on our beaches, and confessed our relief that the train-lines didn’t come out to the Northern Beaches. We shared our shock that people from Long Reef Surf Club wrote horrible, racist, divisive statements on the carpark. It was a bizarre period of shared emotion, and I’ll never forget how worried I personally felt for my sons’ futures in Australia.

A month ago I was asked by the SBS Learn team to create some resources to support an interactive documentary made a couple of years ago for SBS called Cronulla Riots: The Day That Shocked The Nation. The resources launch was to coincide with the 1oth anniversary of the riots. I’d not seen the documentary, but once I spent some time interacting with it, I knew straight away that I would take the writing job. It’s a powerful text, that I truly believe is essential viewing for all young people. It is not just emotionally compelling, but also full of information about the role that the media played in inciting the event, the history of Cronulla and the Shire, the evolving multicultural landscape (specifically with a focus on the migration of people from Lebanon, and the influence of their culture and faith on areas such as Lakemba, and Punchbowl) and the rise of nationalism in Australia. It is so beautifully constructed, and gives voice to the key individuals and groups involved in the riots, and the proceeding retaliation attacks, painting a portrait of the complex factors that culminated in such a shocking, and shameful chapter in Australian history.

Please do take the time to interact with the documentary here.

Also, consider using the accompanying teaching resources with your classes. There are three main parts to the resource: Exploring Perspectives; Exploring Representations of Culture and Exploring the Documentary Form. The resources are free, and aligned to the English, Media and Geography syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum.

Ultimately, I hope that having our young people engage with this text and the supporting resources will mean that something like this will never happen again in Australia. We teachers have a powerful role to play in that hope.


Keeping positive and healthy as the school year ends

I don’t know about you, but I always find term 4 really hard – I’ve always got so much I want to achieve before the end of the school year, and so much to plan for the following year, but I never seem to have enough time… or energy! At the beginning of last week I was feeling particularly low, and really was losing my drive to keep at it for the remaining weeks of the term. One week on, however, and I’m feeling much more positive. Why the turn around? No, it’s not mindful colouring-in, lol, but rather some old and new tonics for a tired mind. Below is a list of things that have helped me to view the coming weeks with optimism, rather than apprehension.

  1. Spending time with friends. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent time with people who I have know for a long time, and those who I have known for a short time (or even just met!). My boys and I were invited to Megan Townes’ amazing Harry Potter party for her son’s 12th birthday, I had sushi and sweet wine with one of my best teacher friends and we planned amazing things, and I attended the edu launch of the new Microsoft store where we hung out with some of the best edu peeps around whilst drinking champagne and playing Xbox.
  2. My morning walk. This morning was Day 6 of my #morningwalk routine. Basically I’ve been waking up with Lee, helping him get ready, and then heading out for a walk by the lake – we are lucky to live between the lake and the ocean. It’s actually been brilliant. Being up in the morning means people say hello, they nod and smile at each other – we are a community of strangers loving life and wanting to keep it that way. I’ve come to know when I’ll see familiar faces – the older man who hunches a bit, and looks at the ground until just as he gets to you, and then he says hello; the younger women walking together in fluro activewear smiling through their pain. I love catching people’s eyes and smiling. I spend my morning smiling at strangers! How cool is that? I’m actually still aglow from this morning’s walk as I type this!
  3. Quitting chocolate. I know this seems like madness, but chocolate and I can’t be proper friends. It makes my blood run cold and then hot, and then I feel sick in the stomach and try to fix it by eating more chocolate. It’s an addiction that I just had to break. I still give in a little bit, but I have a rule of not buying any chocolate from the supermarket – that means I won’t ‘graze’ on it when I’m stressed.
  4. Avoiding the news as much as possible. Really, this is hard (thanks Facebook and Twitter), but it’s essential. After the recent Paris attacks, I wanted to know everything, but Lee just kept maintaining his disinterest (not his lack of care) and I realised that I didn’t need to know everything, the horror stories, or see the photos. Being informed about world events does not mean being glued to 24/7 news. It’ll only make me sad, mad, or anxious. News from one quality source, once a day.
  5. Celebrating others’ successes. A number of my friends have been doing super amazing stuff recently, or they’ve got new jobs or promotions. There was a time when I would focus more on what those successes meant for me (why aren’t I achieving that same level of success too?), but recently it’s just clicked that being happy for others just adds to the world’s happiness (corny, but true), and we all need more happy, right? Plus, I love my friends and their successes make the world a better place.
  6. Reading. 2015 has been the year of the book for me – inspired by my nerdy reader friends Tamara Rodgers and Megan Townes, I have been reading at least one new book every week, and writing reviews of them on my Instagram account jimmy_reads_books. The Instagram book-reading community it beautiful – just crazily supportive, kind, generous. Reading is my relaxation time and my escape. It reminds me that there is more to life than work, and has helped my connect with a whole new nerdy network.
  7. Planning our holiday. This is more about me watching Lee plan our insanely huge road trip to Western Australia, but it’s awesome. Having something specific to focus our attention on to help us get through the tough days is essential. I can’t wait to blog the trip!
  8. Thinking big for 2016. I can’t even begin to list the exciting things I have planned for 2016, but let me tell you that they’re all edu-based, involve a new creative venture with a friend, publishing some amazing PBL books, and doing cool stuff at my school.
  9. Using social media positively. I’ve found that Instagram is easily the most positive social media community, and I love going on there to fill up on the good stuff. Facebook is lovely, but with the huge world events happening, my timeline is being flooded with sad posts, political posts, angry posts… I don’t want to ignore this, but being a person who suffers from anxiety, I find it all a bit much. I’m thankful for my friends who post cat videos and real-life status updates because they remind me that life is beautiful.
  10. Spending time with my pets. We currently have: 4 fish, 7 chickens, 2 cats, and 2 dogs. It’s mental, but I love them all. The chickens occupy a lot of my time because they are hilarious, but also always needing new feed/water etc and I find myself the one doing that… plus collecting eggs just makes me feel like a farmer. There’s something magical about animals – they calm you down, and put your feet back on the ground.