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.’