About biancah80

Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning at a public high school on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Happily married & mum of 2 boys. My blog: www.biancahewes.wordpress.com

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.

Eight contemporary young adult fiction novels you should read with your students

Seven weeks ago I started a new Instagram account, dedicated entirely to short reviews of young adult fiction novels. You can follow me if you want: jimmy_reads_books There were quite a few years where I really didn’t read as much as I should, convincing myself that reading the novels set for my classes was enough – it’s not. Being an English teacher who works with words and young people every day, I have discovered that reading YA has made me feel more connected to my students, appreciate how complex their lives are, and also helped me find amazing contemporary books that I know students will love to read – and that are actually totally teachable! (OK, yeah, so I also legitimately love YA – the heart, the drama, the honesty, the guts, the humanness!)

Below are some of the books that I have read and reviewed in the last 7 weeks that I think would make powerful inclusions in all English classrooms. I’ve listed them under sort of conceptual headings, as I know a lot of units of work are concept based these days. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these are all beautiful stories that delve into a wide range of themes, and being YA typically touch on issues relating to identity, love, friendship, family, and acceptance. Finally, a lot of these books are by Australia YA authors, which is so awesome – we have heaps of super talented young authors being published in this genre and you can find them using the hashtag #loveozya.


Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson.

🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱 I give this book 5 green shoots of awesome! Why? 1. Great narrative voice (the naivety, courage, passion, honesty of Astrid is hard not to love). 2. Clever integration of gardening techniques (no joke!) and facts about the environment and living sustainably (I learnt a lot!). 3. The secondary characters are believable and really engaging (loved Hiro from the minute he was introduced as Shopping Trolley Guy). 4. Nerdy references to comics and superheroes the whole way through (if a book mentions Thor, you know I’m loving it!). 5. Wilkinson’s easy to read yet beautiful prose style which means you’ve finished the novel well before you wished you had because it’s too fun to read. Teachery point for my teacher mates: this book is PERFECT for a unit/project on sustainability – if your students read this and aren’t inspired to become guerrilla gardeners, well, there’s something seriously wrong with the world! Now to go find Wilkinson’s other books – can’t get enough, total fangrrrl!

Suitable for: Year 7 and above  (some references to drinking, sex, and breaking the law) 


Nona & Me by Clare Atkins.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Oh this book!! Five stars of awesome! Such an important read for all Australians – young and old. This is the book we NEED our teens to be reading in high school. All the usual themes of YA – growing up, identity, young love, family relationships, friendship – are explored, but so too is the complex relationship between coloniser and the colonised, problematic (and dangerous) attitudes towards race and culture, and the stunning capacity of human kindness, and love, to bridge the divide between cultures. I desperately want to teach this novel. I love Atkins’ ability to craft beautiful sentences, and imagery, whilst also capturing the voice and experiences of young people in an authentic way. This has everything you want in a YA novel, and more. Thank you Clare Atkins for the novel, and for continuing this important conversation.

Suitable for: Year 9 and above (scenes involving drinking, and sex, thematically quite mature)

Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison.

🍌🍌🍌🍌 This book is essential reading for all Australians – it gives honest, at times confronting, insight into the daily racism and prejudice experienced by Indigenous Australians, and the shocking consequences of this on individual identity, families and relationships. Really, Australian history is fucked, but that’s not the sole message of the novel – of course! I really enjoyed the structure – giving us access to two different narrators, and two different times. I also think the voice of Kirrali is really well developed – she’s your average angsting teen who is trying to find herself, and her place. The themes of identity, reconciliation, colonisation, family are well explored. I’ll be suggesting this as a possible core text for a postcolonialism project. 👎 I feel bad giving a thumbs down to this important novel, but at times it did feel a little too didactic, and it may turn off some younger readers, sadly those who should read it the most.

Suitable for:  Year 9 and above (some violence, and references to drinking and sex – thematically quite mature)

Laurinda by Alice Pung.

🌟🌟🌟 Strong characterisation of protagonist Lucy, and a nice twist revealed in the last third of the novel. The novel is strangely set in the mid 90s – when I was a teenage girl just like Lucy – so it was fun to see references to silverchair (except she capitalised it! 😁), PushPops, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The novel has a powerful message about the complexity of adolescent identity which can be compounded by issues relating to race and class. 👎👎 At times I felt like I was reading a novel that I had to teach, or write about for others to teach – some descriptions felt a bit laboured – and I wasn’t as compelled to finish it as I have been with other YA books I’ve read recently. Also, as much as I enjoyed the 90s references, I felt it odd to tell this story set in that context, like Pung missed an opportunity to shed light on the adolescent experience today, which very much still reflects the story she has told. I hope that makes sense – I just think that by setting it in her/our era, it might lose its currency with today’s teen readers.

Suitable for: Year 7 and above (a little bit of swearing)

The First Third by Will Kostakis.

I read this novel much earlier this year, but remember it fondly as being genuinely warm and funny, honest and perfectly Aussie in a not tacky oi oi oi kinda way. It’s a gentle coming of age story about Billy, a funny but sort of awkward guy with Greek heritage, whose somewhat dysfunctional family is held together by his grandmother (yiayia). This book is a really quick read, but it’s got some good themes – relationships, loss, sprinkling of teen love, and of course growing up. I enjoyed it, and you should go and buy it to support young Australian writer @willkostakis!

Suitable for: Year 7 and above (very accessible narrative, and themes)


Pink by Lili Wilkinson.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Pink is the story of Ava, a super clever, super confused girl who is struggling to find her place in a new school. She meets new people who challenge her values, and her sense of self. I loved this story! Ava is a believable, likable protagonist, and it’s a genuine joy to see her grow as the narrative progresses. Wilkinson has a natural way with words, an ease of expression that’s very authentic and human. I particularly enjoyed the diversity of characters – so important for YA fiction. I read this book in less than a day – it’s that engaging. It’s also clever – lots of funnies for us nerdy literary types… so many witty references to theory! Highly recommended for resistant readers too!

Suitable for: Year 9 and above (some swearing, and references to sex and drinking)

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson.

The story of fraternal twins torn apart by tragedy. That’s the tag line of this book, but it really doesn’t warn you that your heart will be ripped from your chest and smashed by word hammers. Seriously. I find it hard to think back to this book without feeling a bit sappy, and it’s not just the real as real gets characters – Noah and Jude are so alive, I know them like I know Holden Caulfield – it’s the writing. My cousin recommended this book – he jumped right in on a FB thread he wasn’t part of just to tell us to read this book – and I’m sure I’ve annoyed him with my gushing thanks for his suggestion. Every. Single. Page. Is. Beautiful. I love the inclusion of the handwritten pages too. Have I said love too much? Argh!! Go read it!

Suitable for: Year 10 and above (some swearing, sex scenes, violence and drinking)


7 by Eve Ainsworth.

Jess struggles to fit in at school, and it doesn’t help that her home life is hard also. Things get worse when she starts to get bullied by Kez. Little does anyone know, Kez is dealing with her own traumatic home life too. 🍌🍌🍌 The themes in this novel, make it very suitable for year 7 or 8 students. The dual protagonists gives readers insight into the thoughts and experiences of both the bully, and the victim. The writing style is very accessible. 👎👎Whilst the writing is accessible, at times it’s a little pedestrian, a few forced metaphors here and there, but mostly it’s quite literal in the telling of the girls’ stories. I found myself skim-reading through the second half, not really feeling any great connection to either character. Its simple narrative style means it’s more suited to use as a ‘thematic’ novel in the classroom.

Suitable for: Year 8 and above (references to domestic violence, suicide, and drinking)

Hanging out with the big kids at Microsoft, and learning about the Surface 3.

Two days ago Lee and I headed off to the Microsoft office in Ryde. To be honest, we were pretty darn excited to be at Microsoft, I mean, we’ve grown up with MS products being there for most of our lives, certainly all of our adult lives, but more importantly Microsoft means Xbox and Minecraft! These two things are rather precious to our family (even though we’re an Apple device crew), much like they are to many young families these days. Getting invited to a Microsoft gig meant we could park in a spot that said ‘Microsoft Visitor’ and that we got to play on the Xbox in the lobby… well, Lee started to before we got whisked away upstairs with the rest of the invitees.

So, what the heck were two classroom teachers doing being invited to Microsoft? To try out new gadgets, of course! First we did a tour of the office – which of course isn’t like the offices you see on The Office, but much more contemporary – open spaces, lots of colour (OK, mostly white, yellow, red and orange – not a colour scheme that I’d pick, lol), big bold furniture pieces (designed to facilitate collaboration or give privacy, rooms named after Australian musicians (yes, I found the silverchair room), and cool lockers with chalkboard fronts. Next, we sat at a long desk in the Australian Crawl room (erm, what songs are theirs?!) and introduced ourselves – there were five Microsoft peeps (a super friendly and laid back) and 8 edu-type peeps (all but one I followed on Twitter – wonder how they found us? lol!) and we all explained our relationship with Microsoft (like Lee said he was device/platform agnostic, which sounded really cool and means he’s legit flexible with whatever he’s given, and open to learning new stuff, whereas I said I was 100% a Google/Apple girl and a bit scared of MS devices, but use MS Office all the time).

Anyway, the next thing we know, we’re being given a Surface 3 each (yes, I quickly put away my MacBook Pro – a little sadly, to be honest) and one of the MS dudes (Damian? I’m awful with names!!) began his cool presentation on ‘an awesome day in a life of a teacher using Microsoft stuffz’ (not his actual preso title). Whilst he talked, Lee and I played – there was no way we were going to sit and listen and take notes when we had just been given a new device… erm, playing is learning, right? So we did listen to the presentation – we’re not rude – we just played and tweeted at the same time, like every time Damian spoke about a different app or feature, we just started messing about with it – and sent each other hilarious tweets about it. It was pretty funny at one point when we discovered that 14 people on a room had managed to get the day’s hashtag trending – haha!

At the end of the session (we hung out for 3 hours) we all had to share our thoughts about what we’d seen and heard and discovered. Lee was articulate and insightful (as always!) and explained how he sees the Surface (with its multiple desktop capability) as being really powerful for his students with additional learning needs – he can easily personalize the device for each child, pretty neat. Me, I just kinda went, ‘Um, I’m having a platform/device existential crisis because I never thought a Microsoft product would appeal to me.’ Blunt? Well, it wasn’t meant to be, just honest. And, it’s true, I’ve always tried to get more Apple products into the school I’m at – iPads, Macs – but the Surface is a device I’d actually like to see my students have access to. Why? Well here’s five things I liked about it:

1. It’s lightweight but powerful. It’s a tablet, but also a laptop. It comes with a keyboard, which essentially turns the tablet into a laptop – no, it literally does. Your screen becomes a desktop, your apps aren’t apps anymore. It has all the software and capabilities you’d want in a laptop, including a USB port (which I know people say you don’t need with cloud storage etc, but I think we still do need them). I’ve often recommended high school students don’t bring iPads to school for BYOD because they don’t have the functionality we often need in school – I guess the keyboard is a big thing here – but this tablet is totes like a laptop. I was happy using it instead of my MacBook Pro whereas I’ve never been comfortable using my iPad in the same way.

2. The PEN!!! OK, I’ve seen and used a stylus before and this pen is not a stylus! It’s magical! It’s the ONLY pen that I’ve used on a device that has felt natural – like you could use it to write notes and think you’re using a pen and paper. I don’t know how it works but you can put your hand on the screen at the same time as the pen, so you’re not holding your hand weirdly like you do when writing on an IWB (which I never bothered to do when I had one cos it was so awkward and clunky). Of course, it’s not just for writing notes, you can use it to annotate webpages, student work, pictures etc. I’ve been playing with my Surface over the last couple of days, and I’ve used the pen every time. It’s a winner – teachers will love it, especially Maths teachers!!

3. OneNote. I remember this being a BIG deal in 2009 when the DER Lenovos were rolled out. We all pretty much got students to use it to replace their workbooks, with varying degrees of success. I always liked aspects of it, but mostly just found it ugly. Whilst it still is ugly (sorry, it really is), it has great capacity for real-time collaboration which is great. MS 365 really has made OneNote the collaboration tool, and the digital workbook, that teachers have been looking for. The usual features – embedding videos, documents, automatic referencing for screen clippings, video and audio recordings – are now easily shared with others, even those who aren’t using MS Office. Whilst I haven’t been convinced that 365 is superior to Google Apps, I do think OneNote will become a 365 feature I introduce my staff and students to.

4. Edge. this browser is unique to Surface (or maybe all MS devices, I don’t know) and has two cool features for schools. The first one is the little book icon at the top right of the address bar that literally de-clutters  website by removing all ads, and extra crap, leaving behind ONLY the central text. This means students aren’t distracted by a whole bunch of random crap when they’re doing research. Secondly, it has a small pen icon next to the book icon that lets you annotate/highlight the page. I know we’ve all used a range of web-based apps to do this before, but it’s pretty epic to have if built in to your browser! Oh, it also lets you add notes like sticky notes, and clip the screen and share it with others! Brilliant! I really love Edge, even if it looks like it’s a pimped Explorer – I mean, if anything needs pimping, it was Explorer!

5. MS MIX. This isn’t probably new to a lot of you, but it’s new to me because I’ve always treated MS products like some kind of disease (truth!). So, if Edge is Explorer pimped, well Mix is PPT pimped! It’s basically you’re go-to tool for flipped classroom videos – it does what we’ve always wanted PPT to do, become a video! So you make your slides, you add voice-over and/or video (if you want your students to see your face, which we learnt research has shown actually increases student engagement), and annotation (yes, think annotating a poem whilst talking about it, or a Maths teacher explaining how they’re solving a problem Khan Academy style) and then it all gets made into a video that you can share with your class, and really anyone else in the world. The cool thing is that you can do all of this easily in one place, and the Surface pen makes it easy to annotate – I don’t know if an iPad could go all of this as effortlessly as the Surface does. Anyway, you can download Mix free now from the web.

So, yeah, whilst I was super skeptical when I received the invitation to attend the Microsoft Interactive Education Experience (I think that’s what it was called, I was actually pleasantly surprised. It may have been a sales pitch for the Surface 3, but it was super educational too – I learnt heaps, most of all to follow Lee’s lead and be more open-minded when it comes to different devices. I’m handing over my new Surface to Mr 14, to see how he uses it at school – he’s in year 8 at my BYOD school – and will report back in a few weeks to see how he’s finding it, because he’s even worse than me when it comes to Google/Apple bias. 😝

Establishing Australia’s first Creative Collective for education 

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the Düsseldorp Forum and the Mitchell Institute’s  Creative Collective, a new initiative designed to bring together a range of people from different backgrounds, who are interested in nourishing a creative society. To be honest, I was surprised to get an invitation, since I didn’t know any of the people from either of the two main organisations. It was nice to be included, however, and nicer to know a couple of the attendees.

The day started with introductions – lots of great people, all with varying ideas about the current standing of creativity in society, attitudes towards creativity, and the importance of living in a creative society – and we learnt more about the research of Prof Bill Lucas who facilitated the day. (OK, let’s take it back a step, the day started with me freaking out about the fact that the event was on the 45th floor, and that I had to go up a lift 45 floors! I sat with my back to the window most of the morning, until I adjusted and could breathe normally again.) Bill Lucas has written a number of books on creativity, and done numerous studies on schools implementing programs to develop creative students. He’s been working closely with Chris Cawsey and her staff at Rooty Hill to develop their approach to creativity, and that was showcased on the day.

The morning session made me very anxious, and a bit intimidated. Lots of people had big things to say about education, and their strong opinions made me shut right up. Even though I probably looked like a complete freak, listening actually helped me find my place in the room, and gave me an opportunity to take notes. I had plans to Tweet the whole day (they had set up a hashtag #CoCreate) but I ended up creating a Google Drive folder, and sharing the link on Twitter, so people could access my notes throughout the day. This actually worked really well, as I shared photos of handwritten notes, PDF copies of relevant research and policies, and also links people mentioned throughout the day. People were pretty stoked with that idea, and even gave the process a cool name – I was ‘live curating’. Nice. You can access the folder here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B-IPb2v6d9Dgb3dwRFlaRTBpZHc

The second session had us split into small groups to brainstorm everything awesome about creativity we could think of – we put each idea on a Post-It note, then as a group we sorted/grouped them into themes. I felt like a researcher coding all my data! I loved this part of the day, as I really like being positive about education, young people, and the creativity of the two. It was cool to see the convergence of ideas between the people on our table, and the activity made me feel comfortable to speak up for the first time. I argued passionately for the power of online communities – fandoms, fanfiction sites, gaming forums, YouTubers etc – to facilitate and support creativity. Young people are already doing amazingly creative things in spaces often unseen, and unacknoeledged by adults. The fact that there were no young people in the room, and that the adults kept referring to the ‘real world’ after school and the ‘future’ got me a bit frustrated, because I KNOW young people are creative NOW – and need to be even more so now, not in some unknown, ambiguous future time. Our world is shit now, right, we need creative young people to be empowered to sort that shit out now, not in ten years time when their formal schooling is completed! So yeah, that contribution was really embraced at my table – and later by the room – and that was cool. We also spoke about the role played by organisations outside of schools, and how they can help students and teachers achieve their creative potential. Oh, and the guerrilla teachers- the ones being creative already, but doing it in a sort of sly, under the radar way.

I think the biggest focus for the day was getting to the guts of what we mean by creativity – and the consensus ended up being that we didn’t yet have consensus. I know we all felt that creativity is not confined to the arts, so it’s not about using poetry, painting, dance or sculpture to teach maths or science, rather it is about a way of thinking. It’s a sort of flexibility or fluidity of thinking, taking risks, and chances, trying things out, testing new ideas, being playful, failing forwards, challenging ideas and attitudes, breaking rules and conventions, being free, mashing things together, seeing things from a different angle… and the best thinkers in all disciplines approach their work/learning/life/world this way. For me, the biggest hurdle to embracing creativity in this way is ‘rules’ , and often the rules teachers see as their biggest obstacles are NOT actually rules at all (cos all disciplines have rules, and rules are not all bad – disciplined creativity is important too), rather they are traditions and expectations, they are the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ and the dreaded ‘accountability’ – both of these are like some insidious game of Chinese whispers that pervades the whole education system, passed on from teacher to teacher, stunting creativity. This year I’ve been surprised by how scared teachers are to try new things, and often this fear stems from a lack of engagement with policy – sounds weird but it’s true! I put my hand up at the Creative Collective and made the point that many of our policies champion creativity, and all the other cool stuff we espouse as being ’21st century learning’ – it’s just that often people don’t know what’s in the policies, so they fall back on the known, which is tradition (what we’ve always done), and expectations (what the parents want) and fear (I’m accountable, I don’t want to lose my job). I think it takes courageous leadership to change these traditions – within school, and outside of it. Before the Labour Govt gave out all of those laptops through DER, would most teachers or parents think computers and the Internet would be good for learning? Probably not. Now ICT in schools has become an expectation – tradition has changed. I think the MEDIA plays a key role in changing expectations about education – the image we see of teachers on the news, in film and TV, is very traditional… what if the stereotype was challenged/changed? What if society was exposed to images of creative teaching and learning, what if we DID have bumper stickers that said, ‘I’m a creative teacher!’ as suggested by an attendee at the Creative Collective? We’re all inspired by those images of the rebel teacher (um, who wouldn’t want to learn with Jack Black in School of Rock?) so how can we ensure that these types of teachers are not only championed and supported, but seen as role models for newer teachers too? The antithesis of creativity is fear, and I hate to admit it, but we have a shitload of scared teachers (and maybe they don’t show it, with their confident collection of data, or setting of assessments, but if they spend every lesson ‘in control’ then, damn it, they’re scared!).

So, I got off track, huh? But that’s how the day felt by the end – full of passion and promise, but a little directionless and a little outta control. I like that. It’s a start. A beginning of something… hopefully something untidy, messy, confronting, confusing, liberating and rebellious – yes, something creative. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Creative Collective, and I thank the Dusseldorp Forum and the Mitchell Institute for organising the event! Bring on the next one!

What does professional learning look like at your school? 

At my school, we’re moving towards creating a dedicated in-school hours time for professional learning. We know how essential ongoing teacher learning is, but we also know how valuable teacher time is, with a multitude of different tasks teachers are required to do each school day. Creating a dedicated PL time will allow opportunities for PLC team meetings, faculty-based PL, and whole-school PL on our school plan priorities of formative assessment, Project Based Learning and Differentiation. 

I never knew it before, but I’m a systems person. I’ve worked hard this year to develop an over-arching PL system based on the PLC model. (You can read about that in earlier blog posts.) I’ve spent a lot of time revising the school assessment and reporting policy, and I’ve created separate assessment booklets for years 7, 8 and 9. I’ve always been very aware of the powerful relationship between assessment and learning. After almost a year at an academic selective school, I’ve become even more conscious of the relationship between assessment and wellbeing – something particularly close to my heart, because of my own son’s difficult adjustment from primary school (with its deemphasis on grading) and high school (with its constant emphasis on grading). Finally, I worked with the HT English to write part of the school plan – Our Learning Culture – and develop a series of detailed milestones for the next three years. For each of these there’s an underlying structure which allows me to set goals for myself and others – super important when you’re trying to manage change in learning culture! 

Two big PL successes at my school this term have been PLC team learning, and Tech & Teas. This term each PLC team worked on their action research project based on their chosen quality teaching practice. After setting teams up with action research plans on SDD at the beginning of the term, each team went off to work together to research, implement, observe and reflect on the use of a specific teaching strategy. I’ve been really pleased with the way in which teachers have embraced this model and throughout the term had a lot of discussions with teachers about their learning. Next time we do this, I’ll make a time to meet with every PLC team to see how they’re going, and offer ongoing PL support. This round of PLC team action research projects I simply didn’t have enough time, with so many other priorities taking my time I was frustrated that I didn’t get to support teachers as much as they needed. Teams have their presentations to the whole staff next term in week 3, so I’m hoping they go well, but I understand if some don’t because they didn’t get the ongoing support they needed. Next time they will! 

Tech & Tea has been another success this term. Initially I ran Tech & Teas in term one at lunch times, and literally had zero attendees for many sessions. At the end of term two I asked teachers to identify their preferred time and ICT they’d like to focus on, and then made regular times each week to meet these needs. The most popular time was after sport on a Wednesday, with most teachers keen to learn about Google Apps, Edmodo, and online quizzes. To track teacher attendance, and to help teachers identify teaching standards met, I have created two Google Forms – one for teachers to RSVP, and one to reflect on their learning and select standards met. They keep a copy of both forms, which they use as their PDP evidence for their goals. Cool, huh? I’ve had about 20 different teachers attend over the term, with many of those attending two or more sessions. Casual teachers have been attending too – coming in even when they’re not teaching that day! It’s been nice to have teachers asking about Tech & Teas next term, how cool is that? 

Anyway, I think last term was a pretty epic term for teacher learning – oh yeah, I ran four sessions on faculty-based PBL last term, and one session on assessment as learning for another faculty, so MUCH learning! Next term will see me engaging with data collected during our Tell Them From Me survey, and student focus groups – students and parents need to be part of PL dialogue too. 

So, what does professional learning look like at your school? 

Introducing the PLC model and Action Research to our staff

If you’ve been following my endeavour with the implementation of the Performance and Development Framework at my school, you’ll know that staff development day at the beginning of this term was massive. I spent four full days preparing for the day, because I wanted it to be perfect – well, as close to perfect as possible when you’re working with 60 humans. I also wanted it to be fun, and I wanted the teachers at my school to know that their learning is important to me.

I decided right at the beginning of the year that I would introduce and nurture the Professional Learning Community framework for whole-school professional learning, and within that Action Research as the primary model of teacher learning. Introducing these two ideas to staff required them to develop an understanding and appreciation of the philosophy behind each one, as well as seeing each as having potential to improve student learning at our school. I wanted buy in, not compliance. It doesn’t make sense to have teachers seeing a PLC as another ‘thing’ they’re expected to do, although I know that’s probably how it might be seen for a while. I also had to help the majority of teachers engage with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers for the first time, and help them feel confident writing their first ever Performance and Development Plan! Massive!  OK, so below is a quick overview of how it all worked.

Before staff development day:

During term 2, I presented briefly on the PDPs and PLC to each faculty, and asked each teacher to use a scaling tool to self-assess themselves in relation to a range of GATS quality teaching practices. You can see the document here. Using this information, staff self-identified three GATS quality teaching practices they were interested in learning more about, and these three were sent to me. I created a Google Sheets document with all teachers’ names, and listed their three goals. Using this information, I created PLC teams. Each team has 2-4 members. The ideal size is 4 – most teams had 4 – however some only had two because only two people picked that GATS quality teaching practice! In the end we had teams focusing on: mentoring, assessment as learning, organisation skills, research skills, wellbeing, literacy, ICT integration, differentiation, critical thinking, connectedness and explicit quality criteria.

The next thing I did was find key articles and resources for each of the teams – this is part of the ‘discover’ stage of the Action Research cycle we’re using as the basis for our PDPs. Once I had all of the teams sorted, and knew which GATS quality teaching practices would be the focus for teachers this year, I bought a whole bunch of books from Hawker Brownlow related to them. I spent about half a day going through them and identifying a chapter or two of each book that gave teachers a theoretical understanding of their chosen GATS quality teaching practice – to be copied and given to each team on staff development day. Next, I found some great articles on PLCs and action research, to be shared with the staff also. Then I gathered together all of the essential documents teachers would need to help them feel confident with writing their PDP – this actually took me ages. It constantly surprises me how hard important policy documents are to find online – it’s almost like they don’t want us to find them! Some of these resources were photocopied and added to team folders for teachers to access on SDD, but most were put online on a Weebly, so they can access the stuff anywhere, anytime – you can use it for your staff too if you like: www.mscplc.weebly.com

To help teachers find their way to the website on SDD, I created little laminated QR code swing tags to hang on their water bottles – these were a hit with everyone, and it was cool to see them stoked with a new tech tool! I prepared a bunch of stuff using Canva before the day – team posters, a project outline for the day, and a project outline for the action research project, activity sheets, and team role name tags. I also spent about half a day creating my PPT presentation.

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On the day – morning session:

When staff came into the room on SDD, they had to find their team by looking at the names on the folders – this was such a bad idea, you can just imagine the confusion! Anyway, once they found their spot they sat with their team, and I marked the roll using ClassDojo, and showed them how I would be using it throughout the day to reward positive learning behaviours – they thought it was pretty awesome. The session began with a driving question (How can action research support the growth of our school’s PLC and consequently improve learning experiences and outcomes for students at MSC?) and a project outline:

SDD project outline 

I asked staff to quietly read through the project outline, and then identify what skills and knowledge they already had that they were bringing to the project, and what skills and knowledge they felt the still needed to know (in the form of questions). They then shared these with their team members, and went and posted their ideas to a big KWL table I had made out of butcher’s paper on the wall. I told them that the questions would be our learning goals for the day. I then spent some time very quickly going through my PPT slides about the following: School Excellent Framework, Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Performance and Development Framework and Plans (with a focus on quality professional learning, evidence collection and observations as well as showing my own PDP as a model). At the end of this I did a quick quiz using Plickers – before I could do it I gave everyone a couple of minutes to construct their Plicker sticks using the printed off plicker, a paddlepop stick and bluetak. Well, the first couple of questions worked with Plickers and everyone was impressed, but sadly the old skool Internet Explorer didn’t want to play the game, so I had to abandon the quiz idea, lol.

We then watched this awesome video of Dylan Wiliam about professional learning https://vimeo.com/130817032 and had a chat about what he had to say using the surprised/confirmed/challenged protocol. It was a very robust discussion! This led into me speaking briefly about PLCs, and getting everyone to pair up for an active reading activity. I used the ‘say something’ protocol I learnt at PBL World – everyone took out the PLC article, and at key points I had written the words ‘stop and say something’ which indicates that they must briefly discuss what they’ve read with their partner. This process repeats until the article is finished. We then came back together and discussed what surprised/confirmed/challenged their ideas about professional learning. It was cool. Next we did essentially the same thing, but with a focus on Action Research… once again everyone was really cool about it, and could see the benefits. What I like about both PLCs and Action Research is that it’s pretty much common sense, and often it is formalising things that happen on the fly at times, and acknowledges the need for time for us to spend time together as learners. You can see my PPT here: http://mscplc.weebly.com/sdd-ppt.html

On the day – middle session:

This session was spent working in PLC teams to complete the final dot point in the ‘discover’ stage of their SDD project – research strategies related to their chosen GATS quality teaching practice. (Remember, that this is their first PDP goal – the one aligned to our school’s ‘Our Learning Culture’ strategic direction from our school plan.) They also were to work as a team to complete the tasks outlined in the ‘create’ stage of the SDD project outline. To support them with this, I created a series of activity sheets (yes, I am a teacher, lol). Having teachers chose ‘roles’ in their teams really helped ensure everyone contributed meaningfully, I even made badges for them because, you know, I’m a geek. You can see the badges here:

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I spent this session running between classrooms, supporting the PLC teams – manic but awesome. You can see the activities the PLC teams did in this time below:

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On the day – afternoon session:

I think this was my most fun session, because it was where I got to stand back and marvel at the awesome of my colleagues! If you’ve looked at the SDD project outline, you’ll see at the ‘share’ stage that each team had to share their team action research project plan with the rest of the staff. They were given a template for this (see below), and butchers paper and textas. I didn’t want to have them present as PPTs, because no one wants to sit through 12-14 PPTs after lunch – kill me now! Instead, I stole another PBL World idea – the gallery walk! We used a hallway between classrooms as our ‘gallery’ and our ‘artworks’ were each team’s action research project plan on butcher’s paper – the presenter from each team stood in front of their butcher’s paper (which was blutacked) to the wall behind them. The rest of the teachers then had 20 minutes to walk through the gallery, and hear what the presenters had to say – they could go to whichever ones interested them, and some presenters repeated the presentation 4-5 times. There was such a buzz during this activity, I was almost in tears (because, yes, I’m a geek!).

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The very final activity of the day was a noisy one – the ever popular speed dating! Teachers were sat in two long rows, facing each other. One row went and took a Post-It from the ‘W’ column of the giant KWL table, and they had 30 seconds to answer it, or ask for an answer to it, from the person across from them – this process continued until we were back to the original partner. SO NOISY! SO FUN! My final question of the day was, ‘Does anyone have anything they still need to know?’ and there wasn’t anyone who did (or, at least who was bothered to ask with 10 minutes of the day to go, lol). So that’s it, really. That was our staff development day!

After SDD: 

Of course, the learning didn’t end there… they had all made awesome action research projects to do! During this term, PLC teams have been meeting, sharing their strategies they’ll be trying out with students, and making plans to observe their critical friends try out these new strategies. I’ve been receiving emails from teachers asking to attend courses with their PLC critical friends to help them with their PLC goals, and I’ve had teachers sharing their progress with me – so cool! By the end of this term, they will have completed their action research project, and they’ll be preparing to present their findings/learning to the whole staff in Week 3 of term 4. Phew! It’s a big change, but not. I know it’s not perfect, and I never expected it to be. I do know, that my colleagues have been awesome in embracing this new way of doing PL, and I have genuine optimism that our PLC will continue to grow and flourish in the coming months and years.


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.