The skill, will, and thrill of Project Based Learning

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that last Thursday and Friday I attended the Visible Learning Symposium in Darling Harbour. You’ll also know that I found the event surprising, and not in a good way. After the Thursday session, in which we heard from John Hattie himself, I was distressed to the point of angry blogging. Thankfully I decided not to publish that blog post – it was only half completed anyway because I ended up having to give in to my rage-induced migraine and go to sleep early that night. So, instead of sharing with you a rambling critique of a professional learning event that I (and many others) felt was anything but professional, I have decided to reflect on the take-aways from the two days and apply them to my ongoing commitment to quality, engaging, enriching, and authentic learning experiences for my students using the Project Based Learning methodology. Because, despite what Hattie and his many enthusiastic disciples believe, Project Based Learning is NOT the same as Problem Based Learning or Inquiry Based Teaching, and therefore their attempts to denigrate it based on the purported (although problematic) effect sizes of the latter, are simply false.

On Thursday of last week, I tweeted out this:

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It’s true – a lot of what Hattie, and presenter Kristin Anderson, said about effective teaching practice is what all great PBL teachers already do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Hattie’s learning model – Visible Learning Plus – is actually just quality teaching, and thus practices all great teachers do. There wasn’t anything at all surprising about the fact that teacher rapport with students, teacher efficacy, feedback, establishing clear learning intentions and sharing exemplars, empowering students to be self-directed learners through self-assessment and setting learning goals, and constant reflection on and evaluation of student learning achievement are essentials for improved student learning outcomes. If anyone was surprised by that, I question their role as educators.

The catch-phrase for Visible Learning Plus is ‘skill, will, thrill’ – these terms are viewed as both ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’, and frame the learning process from surface learning (acquiring and consolidating), deep learning (acquiring and consolidating), and transference of learning into new contexts. The ‘skill’ is what students bring to learning – their prior achievements, the ‘will’ refers to the disposition of the student to learn – their resilience, resourcefulness, ability to reflect and to relate, and the ‘thrill’ is being motivated, and understanding standards and what success looks. For Hattie, learning is ‘The process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations’. Unfortunately, Hattie believes that the ‘transfer’ stage is incredibly difficult for most students to get to – and this is where I believe PBL is its most effective, in that students become quite adept at transferring skills and content knowledge between projects – obviously when the PBL they are doing is well-structured.

OK, so let’s look at how Project Based Learning actually authentically reflects Hattie’s mantra of ‘surface to deep to transfer’ and a movement away from ‘an over-emphasis on surface learning’. Below is a visual representation of Hattie’s model of learning (taken from this slide show from Hattie), and it is to this (and his league table of Effect Sizes – the methodology of which I acknowledge is highly problematic and has been critiqued in numerous posts such as herehere, here, here, here, and here) that I will refer to in this post. To be entirely honest (even though it hurts to admit, since I have many philosophical concerns/reservations about Hattie himself) I think this diagram is quite effective in representing the learning process – yet, in saying that, this image is nothing new or ground-breaking, and reflects many other effective representations of the learning process. A coincidence? Probably not. At this stage, if you haven’t read this BIE article on  the Discover, Create, Share model of Project Based Learning, you probably should as I will be using it in my discussion.

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In the above image, Hattie places ‘Problem Based Learning’ at the deep – transfer stage of learning, arguing that this is a higher order process that will only have an impact on students’ learning once they have mastered the surface learning, and a range of metacognitive skills. I have no problem with this, and would argue that no effective teacher would throw students into Problem Based Learning, without prior supporting the development of essential content knowledge and skills. In regards to Project Based Learning (which is an entirely different methodology to Problem Based Learning), teachers carefully design and structure projects so as that students develop essential skills and content in the initial ‘discover’ stage before they move on to the ‘create’ stage in which students are challenged to deepen their understanding through the application of content and skills in the creation of artefacts to share with real-world audiences. It is this mid-stage of a project in which students encounter problems – and when some teachers provide students with Problem Based Learning challenges – yet by this stage they are actively involved in self-talk, self and peer assessment, and self-regulation (all VL elements). Thus, Project Based Learning – by its very design – reinforces what Hattie is presenting as an effective model for learning, rather than challenges or contradicts it as is often purported due to a misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) of what PBL is.

OK, so let’s look at another version of Hattie’s model of learning, this time with some specific teaching strategies overlaid on top – all of which are shown to have a profound effect size, according to Hattie’s own meta-analysis (and the top 10 are, let’s face it, pretty common sense stuff in terms of quality teaching practices).

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Discover – All projects begin with a KWL table – this strategy allows the teacher to identify students’ prior knowledge (what do I know?), and their confidence and mindset as they approach the project. At this stage of the project students are immediately told what they are working towards through the use of a project outline and driving question – establishing a project long ‘learning intention‘, and then the teacher shares with them examples of what the final product they are creating looks like, to help excite and motivate them, but also to set explicit success criteria. These criteria nearly always take the form of a rubric – and not just for the product, but also for the soft skills they need to develop such as critical thinking and collaboration. This stage of the project learning cycle sees students being exposed to new ideas and perspectives, being challenged by a range of learning experiences that include direct instruction, listening to guest lectures, watching videos, reading reference books, completing worksheets, engaging in Socratic seminars, guided  independent research, conducting experiments, writing essays, etc. Formative assessment strategies (feedback) used to determine students’ understanding and mastery of essential content and skills required for project success can range from the traditional (tests, essays, research reports, speeches) to the innovative (team problem solving challenges, elevator pitches, teacher-student interview, interactive data walls). SOLO taxonomy and rubrics are used to help students develop self-efficacy in regards to setting learning goals. I use the Goals, Medals and Missions formative assessment strategy, and whilst kids find it confronting and difficult at first, they learn more about themselves as learners, as a result.

Create – The products that students create vary depending on the project, and the discipline or disciplines the project involves. For English projects I have had students create short films, websites, newspapers, plays, picture books, personal essays, persuasive speeches, stories, etc. These all require students to master very specific skills, and develop a deep understand of complex content, which occurs at the discover stage, and is then applied at the create stage. At the create stage students are planning and drafting (rehearsing and practising) their final product, using a range of peer and self-assessment strategies to evaluate their product in order to refine it so it is of a quality worth of a public audience. Students are guided through this process by constant reference to success criteria, often in the form of a rubric or checklist – I love to have students co-construct this criteria with me at the end of the ‘discover’ stage, as it reveals to me their understanding of the project’s learning intentions in the context of what they are producing. Students become very capable of giving and receiving feedback (a skill which is explicitly taught to students in PBL) at this stage of a project, a skill which strengthens as they work through a range of projects in a school year.

Share – This is the scary stage but also the thrilling stage, where students must be held accountable for their learning through the public presentation of their products. In preparation for this event, students undergo a process of reflection, where they must consider what they have learned during the project, how effectively their final product solves the given problem, or meets the needs of the given audience or fulfils the requirement of the given brief. Teachers often provide them with a range of reflection questions to stimulate this self-questioning. High Tech High have an awesome set of 50 questions, that I have used successfully with students. Self-talk plays an essential role in individual preparation for the presentation of learning, as a means of motivation and encouragement before the big event. This stage of a project is where students are required to transfer their learning into new contexts – to share with an audience what they know, and respond to unexpected questions about their learning. Of course, transferring of skills and knowledge occurs between projects also.  Students know they are successful before they receive the feedback from the public audience, because they know what success looks like, and this event simply reinforces that understanding.

Finally, I thought it amusing that Hattie championed SOLO taxonomy, a self-assessment and metacognitive tool that is used by ALL great PBL (and non-PBL) teachers, and has been for years. I found it funny that I had recently presented to a room of educators the relationship between the five learning domains in SOLO (pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural, relational, and extended abstract) and the three key stages of PBL – Discover (pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural), Create (relational, and extended abstract) and Share  (extended abstract). Of course, I also added what Hattie called the ‘biggest hoax of the 21st century’ Bloom’s Taxonomy on the slide, because the point I was making (reflecting Hattie’s ‘surface to deep to transfer’ mantra) was that great projects ensure students can identify, understand, analyse and evaluate essential content and skills BEFORE they move to the create level. At no point does, or should, a teacher assume that PBL involves handing students a project challenge, and then stepping out of the way for a few weeks. Well-designed projects ensure students acquire new (surface then deep) knowledge, that they then consolidate through collaboration with peers, deep discussions with teachers, mentors and experts, and then transfer this knowledge into the solving of a specific problem through the creation of a new artefact for an authentic audience. This cycle continues for each project (usually at least three or four per year in PBL schools), and as such students become even more adept at the metacognitive skills required for successful and engaging – thrilling even – learning!

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I know this post will open me up to criticism from the Hattie/VL disciples, and that’s OK (well, really, it SO isn’t OK, but I have resigned myself to the reality of it) but I just wanted to say also, that I am a full time classroom teacher, executive member, mum, and wife, so I know that I didn’t put everything I could into this post – I simply don’t have time to read a thousand journal articles and blog posts so I can footnote them and pretend my argument is bulletproof. Furthermore, I left my VL ‘training manuals’ at school, so I couldn’t refer back to it to quote Hattie’s key terms (or effect sizes) as much as I would have liked. Ultimately, this isn’t a research article (I’m a teacher, not an academic), it’s a reflective post where I’ve tried to put down the thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain for the last week. I just think that in education we shouldn’t be making enemies, we shouldn’t need to take sides… we’re all in this field because we love young people, we care about their future success, and we are passionate about teaching and learning. It would be so super awesome to work together, and be positive, for better outcomes for the people that matter – the kids – and not for our own personal agendas of gains. Anyway, if you don’t like PBL, that’s cool (well, no, not really, you’re missing out, haha), but make sure you know what it is you’re critiquing before you start to bag it – cos it might just be that we’re arguing for the same thing.

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5-step Creative Writing Activity for Easter 

I share a year 10 class – I see them twice a fortnight. Having them such a limited number of times makes it hard to follow the usual program, so it’s become a time for me and the students to engage in some fun literacy activities. This week I decided to do some Easter based creative writing with the class… but seriously it could just be called ‘chocolate based’ if your kids aren’t into Easter. Below is a super quick overview of the lesson, as I know I will want to return to it again in the future. 
1. I filled an empty photocopy paper box with a bag of small solid chocolate Easter eggs. I put the lid on, and went into class shaking the box singing ‘What’s in the box? What’s in the box?’ (Aussie teachers will know the tune, hehe) and gave students a slip of paper on which they had to write their guess. I told them that I wanted them to impress me with their creativity and curiosity. I told them this was the opposite of Maths – they’d get more points for being wrong than right! 

2. Students then read out their one or two sentence descriptions of what was in the box – every student – and it was fun celebrating the weirdness of their guesses! We had frozen fingers, severed fingers, a collection of frozen tears, a small city under siege, the rumbling ocean, and a thunderstorm. Of course, we also had kids who said ‘chocolate Easter eggs’, haha! 

3. I then gave each student a chocolate egg – with the instruction that they could touch it, listen to it, smell it, look closely at it, and take a teeny tiny lick of it, BUT they couldn’t eat it! I then gave them the task: write a 100 word (exactly) description of the egg using sensory imagery, figurative language, and strong active verbs – it had to be present tense. This 100 word description activity I stole from Prue Green from literally years ago! 

4. I gave them each a new piece of paper for their writing – and a new challenge! They had to write from the character perspective I gave them – and I wanted to hear that character through strong narrative voice. Coming up with 25 different perspectives I realised was hard – so enlisted some enthusiastic kids to write some for me. You can see some of them in the photo below. 

5. Students then handed their 100 word descriptions to me, and I handed them out randomly to other students, who then read them, tried to identify the character perspective, wrote it on the paper, and returned it to the original writer. Kids loved this!! Lots of laughter was in the room. 

So that’s it… I was going to add a photo of an example response, but I left them st work – sorry! Give this activity a go… so much fun! 

Being DP was actually super great

The last post I wrote was about me being given the opportunity to relieve as deputy principal at my school. That was a month an a half ago. Admittedly I haven’t been as regular with my blogging ever since I took on an executive role at my current school – a symptom I attribute to teaching less, and in a less innovative way than I did at my previous school – but this big gap between two posts reflects the crazy of my last 6 weeks. Wow, 6 weeks! That seems ages, but actually feels like a tiny fraction of time.

So, here’s my reflection on being DP… for me to remind myself that it was a position I never considered as part of my career prospects, which now, in the right context, I think I’d quite enjoy. I’ll write this as dot-points, because it’s Saturday morning, and I have at least two other posts I want to smash out today also.

  1. DPs are always on display, and always available

My HT T&L office is upstairs at school, and has a solid door that I close every day. It’s not because I want to shut out the world (although often I do), it’s just that it feels natural to have it closed and work, work, work. I like having space to do what needs to be done – I sit on the floor, on the lounge, on the ottomans… work whilst I’m standing, go on my phone and tweet/message people about school stuff, and when I need a mental break I play Atari, or read a book. When you’re DP, these things don’t an can’t happen. You sit at a desk, your door is always open, and if it isn’t it is made of glass, so people can see you in there, and know exactly what you’re doing. You’re on display. For me, that was pretty intimidating, and probably the biggest thing I had to adjust to. Oh, and the fact that you can hear everything, so you can’t really ever switch off to issues unfolding, even if they’re not related to the year groups for which you are responsible. The good thing about this system, is that you are available, and you are always in the know – essential features of a great DP. After a few days I got used to sitting behind a desk, and looking out into the hallway at people who looked back at me as they walked past. I got used to colleagues and students and parents and community members popping in to talk or ask a question, and I really (re)discovered the ‘social’ aspect of myself.

2. The unexpected becomes the expected

I was actually surprised by the fact that it seemed I had few defined responsibilities – as HT T&L I always have a to-do list a mile long, but this helps me focus and feel accomplished when I have completed things. The role of DP is incredibly fluid – the responsibilities are three year groups full of students, plus a range of administrative tasks related to those year groups, and then whole school responsibilities such as running assemblies, writing articles for the weekly newsletter, and preparing for executive meetings. Each day I would come to work at least an hour before school started, and some days I would sit there with my desk incredibly tidy, just waiting for what was to befall on me. There’s no telling what will happen each day in relation to the students for whom you have responsibility as DP – you can’t timetable a broken heart, a broken shoulder, a anxious parent, a change of mind regarding subjects, or the need for advice. You also can’t schedule a broken toilet, haha. I learnt to have incredible patience, and to be ready for anything – I actually really loved that part, because the adrenaline associated with the unexpected is something that I enjoy. Maybe that’s why I enjoy teaching in the first place?

3. Working with incredible female leaders is incredible 

During my time as relieving DP, I was fortunate enough to work with two amazing women – my fellow DP (who is actually HT Welfare, and relieving as DP for a term) and my boss (who was relieving principal and whose job I was filling in). They were both working in relieving positions, and you wouldn’t know it – they did a seamless job. It’s funny, but I think my fellow DP decided that me being in the role as well gave her an opportunity to really push me as a leader, and as an individual. I remember on my first day in the gig, I told her the one thing I did not want to do was talk in front of the whole school on assembly. It terrifies me. Sure enough, in the first week I was wearing a fluro yellow vest and running the evacuation drill, which required me to speak on a microphone in front of the whole school. I was so scared, and she knew it, but she didn’t let me get out of the role, and I really appreciate that decision – I discovered that I could be responsible for 800 students and 60 staff getting organised in an unconventional situation. The following week she was at it again, when she had me run the whole school assembly – which involved speaking on the microphone (which for some reason freaks me out), and ensuring the assembly ran smoothly. It seems so small in hindsight, and I think that’s why it was so big – she made me overcome a fear, and allowed me to find a new strength. My relieving principal was beyond inspiring – her calm demeanour, her sense of humour and fun, her intelligence, her energy, and her warmth ensured that I loved every minute of being DP. Her open door approach meant that I felt comfortable asking questions, and her humble nature and eagerness to learn and try new things meant that my offered ideas were always taken on board, resulting in lots of cool new things starting up in our short three weeks together as senior executive. She is a brilliant leader, the staff and students love her, she is incredibly organised (something I continue to strive for), and she is committed to improving school for all involved. I was so lucky to work closely for three weeks in a small team with two strong, intelligent, caring women for three weeks.

4. I love teaching

I honestly didn’t expect to miss my classes, or my classroom, as much as I did. This is my first year of having my own room at my current school, and that space had quickly become essential to me – being without it for three weeks felt weird. I love going into the classroom and being silly, and free, with students. I missed my year 11 class – I didn’t teach them for the three weeks – and felt rushed with my classes I did keep (year 12 and Praxis), because I wasn’t always in the headspace for them. Whilst I did find as DP I had more time to be organised (being physically at school for two more hours helps with that), I felt that I missed the craziness of being on so many classes (yes, this week I regret this sentiment because it has been beyond manic). I have loved being back with them all – one of my favourite things is being in that room with 20-30 kids, and just letting go. I want to get better at it always, but I know that means it’s my passion, and it’s still where I want to be. So whilst being DP is now something I can see myself pursuing – at least in my current school – I know it won’t be for a while. I still have so much to learn about being a great classroom teacher.

 

Someone let me be Deputy Principal? Indeed, the world has gone mad.

Much like the preferred style of the man (partially) responsible for the current madness of our world – Trump – the title to this blog post is intentionally misleading. I have not received a promotion, well, not a permanent one – I’ll be DP at my school for three weeks starting next Monday. It’s still kinda scary to think that anyone would consider me fit for this position, even temporarily, haha. I did put in an EOI application at the end of last year for this (very) temp gig, two days after finding out that my super crazy awesome principal would be leaving my school to head to one closer to his home. I blame my emotions for my decision to apply, and the encouragement of my principal and my great friend John Goh.

So, having lost a leader who I respect greatly, and who supported me unwaveringly in my position as Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning, I feel overwhelmed by the reality of continuing my mission to improve teaching and learning without him, and even more so overwhelmed by the reality of being DP next week. This post is not to gloat that I will be DP (in fact, I told both of my senior classes yesterday that I will be DP and both erupted in spontaneous laughter), but to ask for advice. I have been joking over the last two weeks that when I take over as DP (yes, for three whole weeks) I will go Trump-style and start signing executive orders to change systems in the school… like, ‘Every teacher must use video games as a stimulus for their next unit of work.’ or ‘School uniform is now non-compulsory.’ But seriously, I have been making a mental list of issues I would like to raise at the senior executive and executive level – just small things – and I think that’s OK. What I really need advice about is how to ‘act’… do I stay my same silly self, or am I required to subdue that a little? Tone down the purple hair, so to speak… I have laughed with colleagues about my need to wear a power suit, red lipstick and killer heels, plus put my hair in a severe bun – things which none of the three women who are our current senior executive do. But truly, what makes a good DP?

Tony Rudd, my now ex-principal, was excellent at interpersonal relations – he talked amiably to students, staff, and parents. He loved to walk through the school grounds and be involved with what was happening. He would drop into my office at all times of the day just for a chat… he was always interested in my ideas, and supported me when others didn’t. I could ask him questions whenever I needed answers – late at night tweets, early morning emails, middle of the day phone calls. He paid attention to the latest trends in education, was wary of following the pack just for the sake of it, and devoted more than the necessary or expected hours to thinking about school – thinking about our school, but just the concept of school more broadly. I miss him too much, and sometimes catch myself walking down the stairs at school expecting to bump into him on the way up, or to hear him talking cheerfully to the cleaners. I’m not sure how to be a DP, but thanks to Tony, I think I know what it takes to be a leader.

Introducing Praxis 2017

Below is a copy of an article that I wrote for our school newsletter, introducing year 7 parents to our new course for 2017 – Praxis. You might remember that in 2016 I was running enrichment projects with a select group of year 7 students, and I called this program Praxis. This year it becomes a mandatory course for all year 7 students – it was a huge job designing the course from scratch, but it was incredibly rewarding. I am very lucky to get to work with two very talented young teachers who challenge me to work better and harder – they make collaborating a dream.

Introducing Praxis 2017

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Praxis (Ancient Greek: πρᾶξις) is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realised.

What is Praxis?

Praxis is a series of Project Based Learning (PBL) experiences which allow for the facilitation of authentic learning experiences for all year 7 students. The projects will complement the content and skills developed in core classes, and provide students with the opportunity to apply their learning from these subjects in real-world contexts.

In term 4 of 2017, the three Praxis teachers – Ms Hewes, Mr Blanch, and Ms Munro – worked together to engage with current research into gifted education, and best practice with emerging pedagogies for successful learners in the 21st century. As a result of this planning, we have developed four enriching, challenging, and most of all fun projects for year 7, 2017. Our goal with Praxis is to put theory into practice as a means to developing successful learners who are confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens – reflecting the overarching goal of the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians (2008).

Each of these projects has been designed to helps students master and demonstrate what we have deemed ‘Praxis Targets’ – a range of skills and mindsets essential for the success of young people in today’s rapidly changing global community. Furthermore, each individual project has been planned based on the widely regarded and evidenced-based Project Based Learning model, whereby students progress through a three-phase project – discover, create, share. The image below provides insight into the learning experiences and quality teaching strategies that underpin and guide each project.

 

How will Praxis run?

Students do Praxis for 3 hours on a Friday morning, once per fortnight. Each Praxis session there are three classes being run concurrently, providing opportunities for team-teaching and collaboration between classes. Each Praxis class has 20 students, and during projects this class will be divided into 5 project teams. Every term sees students engaging in a new Praxis project – a simulation project, a building and making project, a student-directed project, and an outdoors project. More information about each project can be found on our website: http://www.praxispbl.weebly.com Two of the four projects will be formally aligned to units of work and assessment from core classes – the final product and presentation for these two projects will be assessed by their Praxis teacher, and their core class teacher, with outcomes being reflected on that specific subject’s report.

In Weeks 2 and 3 we launched the Praxis program with our year 7 classes – and it was awesome. Students spent the first 20 minutes together as a large group of 60 and were introduced to Praxis, followed by a ‘hook’ into our first project where we played the game ‘Would I Lie To You?’. Next, students moved to their class groups, and completed a learning style preference survey using the 4MAT model – the data from this will be used to help teachers identify students’ specific learning capacities, and then implement strategies to improve under-developed capacities.  Students were then given a copy of the project outline for their first project, and encouraged to identify what they need to know – skills and content knowledge – in order to be successful with the project. Finally, students worked together in their new project teams on a collaboration activity, which entailed a lot of noise, movement, critical thinking, and creativity. Praxis Week A had to design and build a strong and attractive 1m bridge with minimal resources, and Praxis Week B completed the famous Marshmallow Challenge where they had to build a tall but strong spaghetti tower that could hold up a marshmallow at the top. Students really enjoyed their first Praxis session, and so too did the teachers!

We firmly believe that gifted learners require learning experiences that are differentiated to meet their individual needs. As such, the 2017 Praxis program has been carefully designed to harness, support and nurture the specific intellectual and personality traits of gifted learners, as outlined by Silverman in the table above. We are very much looking forward to an exciting year of Praxis!

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Praxis: Designing Games for Good

This last week has been another really big one for me – I think it was for a lot of people! (Aside: Does it seem like there’s not a single term that isn’t intense these days? I feel like I haven’t stopped this term, but it’s all been pretty great, so I can’t really complain.) So, why was it big? I ran the third and final year 7 Praxis project with 19 students throughout the week. You can find about how I have been running Praxis this year by reading my blog post here.

This term’s project was focusing on the disciplines of English, TAS, and Art. You can see the project outline below.

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Monday: Discover

The hook lesson for this project was meant to get students thinking critical about game design. I bought four travel games from Big W (they were $5 each – Twister, My Little Pony, The Game of Life, and Monopoly) and had students play each game in teams of 4 or 5. They had to work out the rules, and objectives of each game and record them in their own words on a piece of paper for the next term to play the game. I gave them about 40 minutes for this task, and then we got back together as a group in our ‘arc’ (just what we called the space we had set up where we would come together to talk during the week) to reflect on the games, and rank them from ‘easiest’ to ‘hardest’ and ‘most fun’ to ‘least fun’.

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After the hook lesson, I gave each team (they had established their teams the week before – in hindsight I should have be more firm with team sizes, as we ended up with one team of two which didn’t end up being the best decision for that pair) a project packet with copies of the project outline for each student. I read through the project with them, briefly discussed it, and then it was time to identify what student knew and needed to know!

Students were given two different coloured post-its (green and blue) and were asked on one colour (blue) to identify everything they knew that would help them with the project (skills, content knowledge, project stuff) and all the questions they needed answers so they could be successful with the project (skills, content knowledge, project stuff). When they had written up at least 5 post-its for each, they stuck them to our big ‘KWHL’ table on the wall. I had two students read through the ‘knows’ and ‘need to knows’ whilst I wrote them up in a Google Doc. With the ‘knows’ if they were very specific skills that could benefit the others in the group, we added their name beside the skill (e.g. Duncan was proficient in four coding languages). With the ‘need to knows’ I gave students 10 minutes to identify HOW they might find the answer to the question – at this stage we spoke briefly about the need to triangulate their information, and to use a range of unusual and unique sources on top of the typical ones (this comes from the BIE creative thinking rubric). By the end of this session students had really great inquiry questions, and had identified some good potential sources. Winning.

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On the weekend before the project I went to Big W and bought 19 cheap plain coloured t-shirts (from $3-6 each) ensuring each team had the same colour. Students were shown a YouTube video on ‘branding’ and then were given the task of designing a team logo, and transferring this logo onto their shirts. They wore these shirts all week (on top of other shirts, and they were only worn during Praxis and left in the room at the end of the day – they didn’t want to be stinky!) and this helped to create that team identity essential for indie game developers, right? This was probably one of my favourite aspects of this project – the kids just loved having their team name, logo, brand etc.

The final session of the day (we were all pretty tired by now, as I’m sure you can imagine) was to watch a few YouTube clips to get them thinking BIG about their games. The first one was looking at the difference between Aesthetics and Graphics – aesthetics became a big focus for the week, because I’m an English teacher and it really interested me, plus it enhanced the Art focus. Interestingly feedback from one of our judges (an indie game developer) was that the kids had maybe focused on aesthetics too much, at the expense of game play – my bad! The second video we watched was Dr Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on games – truly inspiring (don’t we all wanna be Jane when we grow up?), and really helped the students develop their gaming metalanguage, plus their appreciation for how games can contribute to a better society.  We then shifted out focus to narrative, and watched a short clip on the Hero’s Journey– I wanted the students to consider how narrative elements (especially characterisation) could help them develop empathy in their players.

Tuesday: Discover/Create

For the first two periods half of the group went to Unity training, which just happened to be on at the same time as Praxis and it worked really well (yay for happy accidents) as they came back to the group with some great technical knowledge regarding game building. The remaining students continued to focus on the inquiry stage of their project, attempting to get answers to a number of their ‘need to know’ questions. Together we re-watched the Aesthetics vs Graphics video, and came up with a list of features that contribute to a game’s aesthetic. We then watched a video of some Skyrim settings that was accompanied by the in-game music and we discussed how they worked together to establish the world/mood of the game. We did a quick brainstorm of the five elements of narrative (plot, characterisation, settings, theme, and style) and then brainstormed all of the game elements used to communicate these, on top of brainstorming game mechanics they could use.

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Next we put all of our ideas from the morning into practice by playing the online game ‘Scary Girl’. I had one student come up and play the game (which was projected for the others to see) and as he navigated through the game I asked questions like ‘What do you notice about the music?’, ‘How would you describe the protagonist?’, ‘What is the objective of this level?’, ‘How would you describe this game’s aesthetic?’ to get them thinking critically about the game’s design elements. Playing to learn is always fun – and by the end of this period all of the kids were playing Scary Girl on their computers.

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When the other students returned from Praxis we spent some time brainstorming possible ‘problems’ on to which to base their game. Each team had to generate as many problems as they could, thinking of problems at all levels of human experience – local, national, global. We then went around the ‘arc’ getting a representative of each team to share one idea each (no repeats), and continued going around until all ideas were exhausted. This is an effective strategy for getting kids to push for original ideas, as there’s a slight competitive element as each team wants to have the most ideas. You can see the result of their brainstorming below.

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Next up was ‘ideating’ time – one group (our pair) decided to opt out of this activity, as they felt they already had determined their game design and were unwilling to budge from it. I could have argued the point, but I like to support creative vision, so I let them get on with their idea. I felt that they would be missing out on valuable feedback, and thus the opportunity to collaborate with more peers, and ultimately refine their product, but I didn’t want to stifle them too much. The others were asked to come up with five distinct game ideas (they could be all on the one topic, or on a range) in 30 minutes, and then from those five select the three best. Two students from each team then had the job of ‘pitching’ these three ideas to two students from the three other teams (we did this like a jigsaw, where two pairs stayed still, and two revolved around the groups in a clockwise direction) and received ‘warm’ (things we like) and ‘cool’ (suggestions for improvement) feedback which they recorded for their other team members. This activity has potential to be great, but as suggested by one of the students in our post-activity reflection, the students needed a criteria to help shape their feedback and their pitch. What she means is like a checklist, with things like ‘Do you think the game would be fun to play?’ and ‘Would this game make you feel empathy for the protagonist?’ Some students took this activity more seriously than others, so having the extra guidelines would probably help focus them better.

After this activity (and our reflection on it), each team spent some time together selecting their best idea. I’d really like to try out forced ranking for a project like this, but I was too scared this time as it is really new to me and I didn’t feel confident. This is a strategy that would definite end up with better products at the end, I think.

The day ended with me showing the students a game design document template as an example of how they could lay out their websites – each team had to make a website promoting their brand, and showcasing their game design. They busied themselves working on their websites and game design until the end of the day.

Wednesday: Create

(Aside: I’m tired just writing this up, so I’m guessing no-one has read this far, haha – I could probably just start rambling about my favourite Thor movie and you would never know…) Wednesday was a big day for me – I had to teach my year 12 class period 1 (I continued to teach them during the week, running Praxis in all of my free periods), and then I had to leave school at 11.15am to drive to Campbelltown to do some PBL professional learning (um, 1.5hr drive there and back, mental). This meant that I was leaving the Praxis kids in the hands of my colleagues, which is great because I love sharing the experience with other teachers. In the morning the students were given information about what they were required to deliver on Friday – a 5 minute pitch to a panel of expert judges, their website with their game design, and an exhibition of their game including visuals and (where possible) a demo of their game. The rest of the day they divided between working on these three things.

Thursday: Create/Share

With only one day to go, the teams were starting to get a bit nervous about completing all of their work – I had noticed that they were all spending a lot of time at home on the project (thanks Google Drive activity panel for showing me their late, late nights, and early morning work!). I spent about half an hour speaking with them in the arc about game design (again, I was a bit nervous myself that some teams weren’t focusing on all aspects well, especially the game play – something that some never quite perfected) and shared this awesome 7 step guide to game design. Then we looked at some tips on game pitches, with a particular focus on writing an elevator pitch as their opening, because these are super catchy and immediately engage the listener. I found some great online sources for this, but feel it could have been enhanced by an activity where students had to create elevator pitches for silly things and share them with the group, just to really ensure they understood. (Once again, time was my enemy – I just didn’t have enough to ensure everything they did was ‘spit-shined perfect’.) I told the teams they needed to have a practice pitch, including sounds, visual etc, ready by period 4 and I organised one of my Praxis co-teachers to provide them with feedback.

Running a practice pitch was super effective – each team was given 5 minutes (which I displayed via a countdown timer on my laptop for them), and James (my Praxis co-teacher) and I used a criteria/grid sheet to record out notes for each team. At the end we spent about 3 minutes per team going over their strengths and weaknesses, and the teams also asked to have our written notes too. We pointed out aspects of their delivery that needed work (some were more informative than persuasive, some teams laughed throughout their presentation, some relied to heavily on notes, all needed more detail and more energy) and I think this really helped them improve the quality of their pitches significantly.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent setting up the space for the next day’s presentations – it’s important that the students take responsibility/ownership of this task. I also reminded them to bring in food and drinks for refreshments for their guests the next day.

Friday: Share

The morning started with each team working on setting up their exhibition displays – there was lots of running around, printing stuff out, finding scissors and velcro tape etc. Heaps of energy, but focused energy, which is great. They had about an hour to do their displays, which seemed to be enough time as they had (mostly) created all of their resources the day before. After this, I encouraged them all to run through their pitch at least once, but since I was busy running around getting certificates for them and the judging panel, plus printing out the resources that needed colour, I didn’t make this a formal practice, and I should have… it would have improved their overall presentations, and saved me a bit of grief I copped as a result. Anyway, we are only human, and I am endlessly learning from my endless mistakes. Pro tip: get kids to rehearse a lot! One thing we did get right with the presentations was the technology – all kids made sure their tech worked, and was ready to go before their pitches.

So, I had a bit of a competition element for the final event that I stole from a uni lecturer’s blog post about teaching his students elevator pitches. Basically the teams are competing for ‘funding’ for their game from the judges (who were given two yellow business cards with the words ‘Congrats – You’ve been funded!’ on them) and the audience (who were given two blue business cards with the words ‘Congrats – You’ve been funded!’ on them). The judge cards were worth five times the money of the audience cards. The teams knew their objective was to get the most money overall.

One all of our guests had arrived (judges sitting at the judging panel, with their note taking sheets, and glasses of water, parents and grandparents, plus invited year 7 students all sitting in the audience) it was time for the show. I was pretty nervous just introducing the project because there were a lot of people in the room, including my principal, teachers from Maitland HS and Narrabeen Sports HS, the five invited guest judges (Dr Jane Hunter, Pete Mahony, Brett Rolfe and Paul Sztajer) and all those parents and grandparents! Imagine how those year 7 students felt! I was super impressed with how well they all delivered their pitches – yes, always room for refinement, but boy were their ideas amazing. You can see some of their ideas in the images below, plus you can check out their websites. Disclaimer: I didn’t get to check out their websites, so they might have horrible grammatical errors – forgive us.

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Following their 5 minute pitches, everyone was invited to visit the teams’ exhibitions and ask as many questions as they have about their game designs. This was a new addition for the Praxis model I’ve been running this year because I felt that some students’ knowledge and ideas wasn’t being showcased 100% through the presentations only. It was great to have so many people from the audience – including the judges – tell me personally how impressed they were with the depth of the students’ knowledge about their games, as well as their passion for their chosen ‘problem’. Stoked.

The final stage for the ‘sharing’ was the feedback from the judges. I made one student from each team stand out the front, with their team’s ‘box’ in front of them, and then the judges each gave general feedback to the whole group, and then revealed which team they were ‘funding’ and put their business cards in the corresponding box. I know this seems like it’s weirdly competitive, but it’s all part of the industry, it’s cut-throat, the kids know it, and were prepared for the reality. It was also heaps of fun – the kids were SO engaged, and worked hard to get the cash. After all of the feedback, we thanked our guests with cards and chocolate, and then I congratulated the Praxis kids for being awesome by giving them certificates. It was cool.

After everyone had left, we sat down as a group and added up their ‘cash’ – it was nice to there were separate teams that won the judge vote and the popular vote, and that the votes were pretty close for all of the teams. Everyone was happy – and (despite being massively exhausted from a huge week) we all cleaned up the space, and then played some games together, not video games, party games like Mafia, If you love me, and Murder Winks, haha. So.. yeah, Praxis was awesome, I learnt a lot, and I’m really looking forward to the new iteration of Praxis being implemented for all year 7 students in 2017.

Getting geeky: a lively review of contemporary young adult fiction

Yesterday I presented at the 2016 English Teachers Association conference at University of New South Wales. It was a beautifully organised event, that brought together English teachers from all over the state, with a focus on exploring ‘the possibilities of emerging currents that bring with them profound changes to the ways we teach our students.’

I delivered a 75 minute presentation with my mate Tanya White on young adult fiction – the title of our talk is the title of this blog post. It was so much fun presenting with Tanya, and even more awesome learning from her wealth of knowledge about literature. Below is the blurb from our presentation, plus a copy of our slides.

What do you get when you pair up a head teacher of English who studies the narrative theory of young adult fiction for fun (literally geeking out over dialogue, gaps and silences) and a classroom English teacher who reads YA every spare moment she has (in the bath, over breakfast, in the car, during important school meetings) and dreams of become a world famous bookstagrammer? An hour-long dialogue about the YA books we’ve read over the last 12 months, focusing on those suitable for use as whole class set texts, and those spunkier books better suited to being thrust into the hands of unsuspecting teens.

You can access our slides here: getting-geeky-a-lively-review-of-contemporary-young-adult-fiction-2