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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



My Classroom Experiment: Part 2

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

So, how did it go in week 2? 

Year 10: 

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

Year 11: 

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

Year 12: 

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

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

My Classroom Experiment: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cronulla Riots: The Event That Stopped My Lesson Plans

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

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

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

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

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


Keeping positive and healthy as the school year ends

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

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

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. 😝