Helping students understand the refugee experience using Go Back To Where You Came From

Over the last three nights Australia has been confronted with the heartbreaking reality of the world’s 15 million + refugees thanks to the powerful documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From. This is the third series of the show which tracks the journey of five everyday Australians as they discover the impact of Australia’s current refugee policy.

I was privileged to be invited to work in conjunction with the Australian Red Cross and SBS to develop teacher resources to support the use of the series in the classroom. The purpose of the teacher resources is the help students better understand the facts about the refugees experience, specifically focusing on these areas:

  • Current world conflicts
  • Identity and belonging
  • Human rights and vulnerabilities
  • Statelessness
  • Religious diversity in Asia
  • Preconceptions about refugees
  • Australia’s migration history
  • The role of international and aid organisations
  • Global patterns of people movement

As noted by Australian Red Cross ambassador Dr Munjed Al Muderis, the only way to improve the lives of refugees is to educate people about the reality of their experience, our legal and moral responsibilities as global citizens, and the ways that every individual can help refugees overseas and in our own countries. The teacher resources created for the series does just that, and is not just useful for Australian teachers, but for teachers in all countries, specifically those more privileged countries that can do more to help.

I designed the resources using a structure loosely based on my Project Based Learning model – discover, create, share. Below is a description of these types of activities, drawn from the Teacher Resource Pack:

Discover: these activities enhance students’ understanding of key concepts and develop their critical thinking, research and comprehension skills.

Create: these activities provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of key concepts by applying their new knowledge in the creation of a range of types of texts, and develop their creative thinking, ethical understanding and use of ICT.

Share: these activities encourage students to share their learning with an audience beyond the classroom, and develop their communication and presentation skills.

There is a wide range of activities, which can be used as part of a longer unit of work or project, but can also be used as single lessons or even for extra-curricula activities like school camps or Student Representative Council days. Check out the website to see all of the great resources. You can access the full Teacher Resource Pack PDF here.

I also wrote activities to support the teaching of the interactive graphic novel The Boat which is based on the powerful story by Nam Le. These resources take two forms – the first is a PDF with comprehension activities based on the Super Six Comprehension strategies, and the second is a series of creative activities based on videos of The Boat’s illustrator Vietnamese-Australian artist Matt Huynh. I’m particularly proud of these creative activities and hope LOTS of teachers use them with their students, and share their work using the Twitter hashtag #SBSlearn! Check out the website to see all of The Boat resources. You can access all of the resources for The Boat here.

Please share this post with you colleagues, especially those who are English, History or Geography teachers. I hope they make a difference in the lives of young people, as well as the future attitudes towards refugees and governmental policies that affect the lives of our world’s most vulnerable people.

Why do Australians need satire more than ever? Year 10 project

In the last three weeks of term 2, two year 10 classes worked on a PBL project focusing on satire. This was the first PBL project designed by one of my new English colleagues, Kate Munro, and I was so pleased with how enthusiastically she took to the challenge of rethinking her practice. I think everyone remembers their first PBL project, and I know Kate will too.

Here is the project outline that Kate created for the project:


We both used Google Drive to organise students’ resources, and as a space to facilitate their collaboration. This worked well because it was Kate’s first time using Google Drive with students, another responsible risk that pushed her comfort levels but ultimately allowed her to discover the effectiveness of Google Drive for PBL. She also trialled using ClassDojo to track students’ collaborative behaviours – what a champion!

As you can see, for this project students were to work in teams to create their own satirical text. Students were given the freedom to choose what topic they would focus their satire on, and what type of text they would make. I spent a bit of time contacting a range of people to be involved as out guest experts at the final presentation of learning, and was very happy to get three people to get involved –  two guys from The Sauce an Australian satirical website plus a young film maker Todd McHenry who is passionate about the changing nature of satire in the 21st century! All three came to our school and spoke with our students about satire, and why they are all committed to this genre of comedy, and then they provided feedback to students on their satirical texts. It was great to have the boys from The Sauce offer to publish some of our students work, and for Todd to offer to come back again next year in the early stages of the project to help students with the creation of their satirical videos. We are very lucky!

Here are some of the texts created by my students, I hope you find them as funny and powerful as we do!


why australia needs tony

A Man Of Action





The struggle to juggle multiple roles

This year I’m no longer ‘just a teacher’. I took pride for many years telling people that I was ‘just a teacher’ when asked what my role was at school – it was a role I was proud of, and one I was happy to claim. By the word ‘just’ I simply meant ‘not a head teacher etc’, knowing that the role of teacher is huge and super important. This year, I’m no longer ‘just a teacher’, I’m still a teacher of course (just ask my two year 10 classes, and my year 11 and year 12 Advanced English classes) but I’m also a lot of other things. My role as HT Teaching and Learning means I have many, many more responsibilities. Last week I used Canva to make myself a pretty poster of all my responsibilities which I have put on my office wall to remind me of the balls I must keep up in the air at any one time, and believe me it’s more than three! 

I’ve found my new role incredibly rewarding, and also really liberating. I know that probably seems an odd choice of words, but this job truly has given my a creative outlet like no other by giving me the scope to share ideas, and help build new ways of thinking about education with others. I’ve come to my school at a very opportune time of change, driven mostly by new reforms from ‘up top’ but also from a shared awareness of the necessary changes confronting the education sector. It’s certainly exciting, and I find myself getting carried away by the dream of innovations, revisions, creative adaptations and big, big edu ideas. This is my problem: I don’t just think, I desire ardently to do, and will dash around enthusiastically to ensure that doing is done. Unfortunately this evil demon propelling me forward in this endeavour, must be reigned in by the reality of my other responsibility: my students’ learning. 

Some days I find myself struggling to separate my dual role as teacher teacher and classroom teacher. My refusal to be mediocre (even though at times I truly do mess up, forgetting essential things, dropping balls all over the place) means that I’m flipping almost manically between two selves. Last Thursday is the perfect example: during my free periods, recess and lunch I had a steady stream of people coming into my office – teachers and students. Year 12 students were coming from my class to seek help with their pre-Trials preparation, students from other teachers’ year 12 classes were seeking additional feedback on their Module B essays I had marked, and teachers were popping in to get advice on their Performance and Development Plans. Add to this emails from other teachers asking for help with PBL project planning, and it made for a very busy day. The thing is, I loved it. All teachers will admit that the reason they chose our profession is because they love to help others. Being able to support so many people in one day was incredibly fulfilling professionally, and a reminder of why I sought out the role of HT T&L. I love my job. 

The struggle, however, to juggle all of the balls without letting one slip is starting to weigh on me. I’m not so much exhausted, as I am frustrated by my lack of time to be the best I can be, and do the best I can do. I’m time poor, and the only way out of it I see is less face to face teaching time. I would never want to be off class entirely, my very being thrives on those classroom experiences, conversations and encounters. My year 10 make me laugh, they test my patience, and my good humour, but they also challenge me to try new things, be me in a different way and embrace new ways of looking at texts and the world. My year 11 and 12 students challenge me to see texts through the eyes of those who can’t see their value, or simply can’t see them properly, and I learn to play the HSC game with them whilst simultaneously subverting it to help see the worth of learning for the sake of learning. I don’t ever see myself not teaching students, but I do see the need for a reduced teaching load. 

My responsibility as leader of professional learning is profoundly important, and one I cherish and at times put above my role as classroom teacher. My role, I hope, will see me contribute to the learning experiences of many, many students. In order to do that, however, I must have the time to dedicate myself to the learning goals and needs of my colleagues, to spend 1-1 time with them, to help them see their own strengths, and to see themselves in a new way as learners. I need to be able to learn with them, spend time co-teaching with them, co-designing with them, getting excited about crazy possibilities with them. I just can’t do that with my current teaching load, and try as I might the restrictions of timetables just means I simply can’t get around to every teacher. My over-achieving inner 13 year old who has her heart set on changing the world simply can’t accept that. I’m afraid I’ll either keep going at it until something breaks, or until something fails badly. I can accept failure, I think, but it isn’t on my to-do list for this term, lol. 

Before you comment and tell me to drop the martyr/hero complex and delegate some responsibilities, believe me those things are on my list. My colleagues are not dependent on me, we are a learning community, I have created teams who are happy to share in the responsibility. (Oh, and my work is just one small piece of a giant, complex school puzzle, so don’t imagine I think I’m the only one working on these reforms, that’s crazy.) I’m no one lady show, and never would I want to be. My frustration is with time, and my lack of it, because to be the best I can be in my role as leader of professional learning I must be available, and my demanding teaching schedule (no, I won’t go the easy way with my classes – firstly it would go against all of my principles to do so, secondly I would not be modeling best practice which would defeat my whole HT T&L enterprise!) just really inhibits that. So what do I want? I want what we all want, and can’t have, I want more time. My goal is currently to get better at time management, I’m getting there but I know there’s still so much to learn. 

I wonder how others juggle their executive responsibilities with being the best possible classroom teacher? 

Using ClassDojo to reinforce 21st century skills in PBL

I haven’t used ClassDojo since the beginning of last year. I didn’t think that I would need to use it again, since I’m working at a selective school, and I naively believed that these young people would be 100% engaged 100% of the time. Oops. I was wrong. No one is going to be engaged all of the time, and that’s the same with kids at selective schools, Well, if I’m entirely honest they are super on task when doing something independent – but collaborative tasks seem to bring out the chatty in my year 10. For the first three projects this year I tried to encourage them along with shushing, and then a bit of serious bitch face mode, but mostly it had little effect. To give a bit of context, I don’t have my own classroom anymore, so I can’t really move the furniture around to suit our project work – no more matching the physical space to the learning for me. This means that group work is more side-by-side work, with students being very close to others not in their teams, and you know what that means – off task chatter. After a bit of a think, I decided to go back to ClassDojo.

Year 10 parent-teacher interviews are coming up at the beginning of next term, so it seemed the perfect opportunity to test out the report feature in ClassDojo too. I’ve promised my students that I will be printing out individual reports to show their parents their behaviour in class – both the good, and the bad. This certainly got their attention! If parents are happy with what they see, I can organise for them to set up their own ClassDojo account, so they can track their child’s performance – nice, huh?

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There are a few cool new features in ClassDojo that make it perfect for Project Based Learning. Here they are:

Flexible points for behaviours:

I can now change the point value for different behaviours – previously it was just one point per behaviour. Now I can make the 21st century skills we’re focused on worth more – for example, this project we’re assessing collaboration and creative and critical thinking, and these three skills I’ve made worth 5 points. Students have been given a BIE rubric for each skill, so they know what I am looking for. Other behaviours like being on task, or participating are worth 1 or 2 points.

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I use a timer a lot in my class, so having it built into ClassDojo is super convenient. I use the timer for things like changing the furniture (thanks Cameron Paterson), speed dating style activities and timed writing activities.

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This doesn’t replace my formal attendance check using Sentral, but it does mean that when I allocate points to the whole class, it doesn’t go to absent students. Winning!

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Random student selector:

This is my favourite new feature. Basically you click ‘random’ and it just brings up a randomly selected student’s name ready to receive, or lose points. So cool because it reminds me to look at those students who I might miss, plus also helps me ‘catch’ kids doing the right thing. Finally, it is a cool formative assessment tool like Dylan Wiliam uses his paddlepop sticks – if the student whose name got picked randomly is doing the right thing, the whole class gets a point, if not, no one gets one. The trick is to keep the student’s name anonymous, so there’s no finger-pointing if points aren’t awarded.

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The app:

OK, so this has been around for ages, but now it is seamless. Today I was outside of the class working with team representatives, and I could give points and the students in the classroom could see the points going up (or down) on the IWB. I even went to see a colleague in the staff room and was awarding points from there – needless to say, my students were pretty impressed. Haha. Having the app on my phone frees me up to walk around the room and work with students, and also to see what they’re up to, and award points accordingly. So cool.

I’m super happy with how ClassDojo has been helping year 10 stay focused, and feel that their 21st century skills are being developed and rewarded each lesson. Tech win!

Using Google Forms for formative assessment #GAFE

The other day I tweeted asking for suggestions for the best student response apps to use for formative assessment, assuming that Socrative would be the best. Aaron Davis asked why I wasn’t thinking about using Google Forms, given that DEC schools now have access to GAFE. Initially I was skeptical, thinking it wouldn’t give me immediate access to responses, but after a quick play I discovered that I was wrong.

I trialled my new toy today with year 12. I wanted to test they understood the requirements of our latest module which I had presented to them the day before through a PPT. I create a ten question quiz, created a short link and then posted it to Edmodo. It took students about 5 minutes to complete, and then I posted up the collective results from the class, and went through what were the right answers. They best thing is that it is totally anonymous (one of my students shouted out, ‘I hope it’s anonymous!’ just before I revealed the results, lol), so students didn’t need to feel embarrassed if they got a question wrong, however they knew themselves when they got one wrong, and why, through my discussion of the answers with the whole class.

Below is a super quick tutorial for how to make your own formative assessment quiz using Google Forms. 

1. Open Google Drive and select ‘new’.

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2. Move your cursor to the bottom to where it says ‘more’ and then click on ‘Google Forms’.

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3. Add a title to your form – this will be the name of the quiz your students see.

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4. Type in your first question – it automatically defaults to multiple-choice, you need it to be multiple-choice for this formative assessment style quiz.

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5. Add in possible answers then click ‘required question’ and then click ‘done’.

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6. Repeat until you’ve added all of your questions.

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7. Scroll back to the top and unselect ‘Require NSW Dept of Education and Communities login to view this form’ – this will take too long, and slow down your students’ responses. Check ‘Show progress bar at the bottom of form pages’ and check ‘shuffle question order’.

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If you want to check their your quiz looks awesome, you can do that by clicking ‘view’ in the toolbar, and then click on ‘live form’.

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It will open a new tab, and look pretty neat, like my one:

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8. Back on your original Google Form, scroll back to the bottom and click ‘send form’.

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9. Click ‘short url’ and copy the URL. Share this with your class via your preferred method – I use Edmodo because it’s super quick and easy.

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10. Once your students all tell you they are all done, go to the back to the top of the Google Forms doc and click ‘responses’ on the top tool bar.

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11. Click ‘summary of responses’ and you a new document will open pie chart responses for all questions, and a little summary of how many people picked each response. Now you can go through the correct answers and discuss why they were right, as a class.

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That’s it – so easy, huh? I’m making one now for my year 12 class to test their understanding of the plot of Henry IV, because we went through it in class today (we read a Shmoop summary that I ‘enhanced’ by using cut-outs of characters blutacked to the whiteboard, moving them around to follow the action of the play). I can’t wait to see if they remember the plot as well as I hoped they did, but if they didn’t that’s OK, because I’ll make sure I plug the gaps in their learning – that’s my job after all, right? :)

Evidenced Based Teaching Practices Self-Assessment – Standards Aligned

This is a document that can be used by teachers or leaders to assess teaching practice. It’s designed using a Solutions Focused Approach technique called scaling, which allows you to identify where you’re at with your current teaching practice, and where you’d like to be. I’ve added the relevant proficient professional standards to help those of you who are working towards your accreditation. Of course, you could easily just jump up to the next level of the same number if you’re working towards HAT or Lead. I hope it comes in useful for some of you! :)

Moving forward with our professional learning community :)

My last blog post was kinda ages ago, and I feel guilty not devoting more time to reflecting on my practice, but the reality is that I’ve been so busy that there’s not been much time. When I’m not focused on professional learning, or preparing learning resources for my classes, I’m trying to get a mental break by watching One Born Every Minute – there’s something disturbingly addictive about that show, lol. Anyway, back to my last blog post: I wrote about the framework for professional learning that is being introduced at my school to support the range of policy reforms being introduced by the DEC. Since that post, I have developed the Collective Commitments scaling document, and completed a list of teaching strategies and tools aligned to each Collective Commitment. (If you’ll remember, Collective Commitment is term we are using for the evidenced based quality teaching and learning practices that the teachers have identified as essential for the success of learners at our school.) Since the post, I have also presented on the Collective Commitments, and related PLC action research to each faculty in the school – I’ve been completely stoked with how the staff have responded to the plan, considering this was the first time that had heard about it. All of the new reforms can be quite overwhelming, but hopefully our whole school PL plan will make it less confronting for everyone.

Below is the PPT that I used to introduce my colleagues to the PLC whole school PL plan. In it I focus on the interconnections between the new reforms, as well as how these will impact teachers through the Performance and Development Framework. I tried really hard to clearly outline the relationship between the school plan, the PDF and our professional learning community (PLC) action research approach to PL. It was quite nice reading through the DEC PL policy and seeing that a lot of what we are trying to achieve at MSC reflects the expectations of the policy – you can see that in the latter slides in the PPT. It felt great seeing that action research, teachers as co-researchers and professional learning communities were explicitly identified as ideal PL strategies. Yay us!

After the PPT, all teachers were given a copy of the Collective Commitments Scaling document, which they were asked to complete confidentially, and then use their results to identify three Collective Commitments that would like to further develop. Why three? Well, whilst teachers only need one Collective Commitment PDP goal, I needed them to pick their top three just in case I couldn’t form a complete PLC team around their first choice of CC goal. I aim to get goals from all teachers by the end of this week – I already have quite a few (Science got ALL their goals in first – yay Science!!). I’m collating all of these goals in a Google Sheet, with all three goals listed, and then their team (once I create them – that’s next week’s job!). Below is the Collective Commitments Scaling document – you might want to use it just for your own self-assessment. Remember that 1 = not so awesome, and 10 = super awesome.

So where to from here? Well, this afternoon I had a meeting with Tony Loughland who is my go-to guy for all things action research. He is helping me create some proformas to support our PLC teams as they design their own action research projects, and he is also coming to our Term 3 staff development day to give a presentation on action research, and then support PLC teams as they create their action research project plans – big stuff, and very exciting! I loved what Tony said today about team work – that you commit to the team only by taking individual responsibility. I think he said it’s a Dylan Wiliam quote. I love it. Each teacher will have their own personal action research project (because they will be introducing an intervention in their own classes), however they will be working towards the same overarching Collective Commitment goal as their PLC team members. I’ll be providing each team with a range of resources to support the planning stage of their action research – which I learnt today has three cycles, all with an associated epic verb (God, I love action verbs!) plan, act, reflect. Tony and I are well chuffed that these align beautifully with my PBL cycles – discover, create, share – and it was rad to have him reassure me throughout our meeting that I already do action research informally (hello, I’m writing this blog, erm ‘reflect’, lol) and that everything I know about running great PBL projects is applicable to supporting teachers implementing action research, so yeah – rad. The first resource I’ve designed to help teachers is the document which lists teaching strategies and tools that align to each Collective Commitment goal. Phew, that’s a mouthful! Here it is for you…

Anyway, I’m off now to create an Edmodo group for the power team of two – Tony and I – so he can share a bunch of resources with me about action research. I’m such a nerd that I’m actually excited, and Tony thinks I’m a little bit mad, lol. I hope these three resources help you, or your school, to reflect on their teaching practice… and maybe even inspire you to think about introducing a similar style of whole school PL plan. Let me know if you do, I’d love to share ideas!