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


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: 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!



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.


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’.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Improving student composition via formative assessment in the PBL classroom

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 ran a 75 minute workshop on PBL and formative assessment – the title of this blog post was the title of my talk. Below is the blurb for my talk, and a link to a PDF copy of my slides.

Project Based Learning is emerging as a popular and powerful disruptive force in Australian classrooms. Through this student-centred methodology, our students are being given permission to experiment, play, and fail-forward as they compose a range of texts for public audiences. However, the need for rigorous, proven formative assessment strategies to help teachers support the creation of quality work cannot be underestimated. This session will provide participants with hands-on experience with a range of effective formative assessment strategies, specifically Geoff Petty’s Goals, Medals, Missions, designed to support successful teacher, peer, and self-assessment.

Slides from my presentation can be downloaded from here: eta-formative-assessment-1

‘Leading Learning & Teaching’ by Stephen Dinham – a review by me ;)

I am a big reader. I was a big reader as a child, and despite a hiatus of about 10 years where I only read children’s picture books, or books I needed to teach, I am back on track with my read, read, read approach to books. I’m pretty committed these days to what my 15 year old calls ‘teenage books where people fall in and about of love and moan about stuff’, which others refer to a ‘young adult literature’, haha. I have, however, sacrificed a few days in my busy YA-reading schedule for an adulting edu book. Why? Well, I blame Darcy Moore because he recommended Dinham’s book to DPs via email, and my DP then decided to read it, and suggested I do too. I readily agreed, because I love talking edu, as much as I love talking books, so why not talk edu books? Winning!

Dinham’s book is surprisingly easy to read (believe me, I’ve tried to read A LOT of edu books, and most bore me silly because they don’t know how to develop a narrative voice, and completely neglect plot all together!) and it took me less than a week to finish. I promised a number of edu mates that I would write a review of the book, to help them decide if they too should fork out the cash (it’s not cheap – expect to pay over $50 for it) for the book. I was interested in reading the book because it’s about teaching and learning, and leadership – basically my job, even though Dinham never ONCE refers to people in my specific position. I guess I could claim the ‘teacher leader’ title, but that doesn’t really fit since my role is an official role, I’m a Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning – not a principal, not a DP, not a faculty HT, not a teacher… I wonder why he left us out? Maybe my position isn’t common in other states? I know it’s common in NSW, even though it’s sometimes called HT Secondary Studies or the like. Anyway, below is my review of the book, albeit an entirely unplanned review, based purely on what I am taking away from it… all views are my own, and all that.

Firstly, Dinham is mates with Hattie. I mean, they’re colleagues, but from the first chapter it is really evident that they are mates. Why does this matter? Well, Hattie is, how do I put this… contentious? His meta-analysis of edu research, and resultant ‘league table of all things edu amazing’ published in Visible Learning, is quite polarising – some people believe it’s the most important contribution to education research in the last decade, whilst others have shown concern regarding his methodology, and the consequences for his findings. It seems pretty clear that Dinham is in the former camp, as he continually refers to the effect sizes for different teaching strategies throughout the book, be it to celebrate a particular strategy, or pan another. For me, I wasn’t so stoked on this focus on Hattie, which is understandable given my experiences with Project Based Learning (never once referred to explicitly by Dinham, who does refer scathingly to problem-based learning, discovery learning, and enquiry based learning as being ‘fads’, but more to that in a moment). The tone of the first few chapters, with its focus on what works to improve student learning outcomes, and then in the final chapters, is at times quite harsh, and even touching on arrogant, in regards to contemporary approaches to teaching and learning – he clearly wants to encourage what he called ‘forwards to fundamentals’ approach, and a movement away from anything that might be labelled ‘progressive’. He goes to great length to claim he isn’t advocating ‘back to basics’ or a ‘traditionalist’ approach, but the line is fine, and personally there are times when I’m uncomfortable with his tone. Probably one of the most obvious indicators that Dinham is more traditional than not (yes, yes, I know he says we need to move away from false dichotomies, and I agree, but let’s just use it for ease of understanding) is his almost complete neglect of any discussion of digital technologies/ICT… but more to that later too.

OK, to make this quicker (I literally have to get my 15 year old from work in 20 minutes), I’m just going to list the things I’m taking away, one by one, with a very brief comment about each.

Bringing together a range of research on leadership, teaching, and learning – I really liked how Dinham brought together his research, and embedded relevant quotes into his discussion to support/enhance his arguments. The research kind of ‘came alive’ through his contextualising it within the bigger picture of his thesis. I liked that.

Leadership vs. Management – I found his discussion on leadership really interesting, as he included research into leadership as a wider field (not just edu), and then applied it to the context of edu really nicely. I appreciated the differentiating of leadership and management, and could see how understanding this difference will change the behaviour of leaders – especially when applied to the concept of instructional leadership, which I personally found relevant to my position. Oh, and how this was related to mastery was really clever – I loved the definition of ‘adaptive experts’ and truly hope that I can one day be one!

AESOP findings – I have only been teaching for 11 years, so perhaps I missed this report when it was first published. I very much enjoyed reading the chapter based on this report, especially the focus on ‘middle leadership’ which refers to head teachers (heads of department) and the powerful role they play in impacting student learning outcomes. The discussion of the pressures on HTs was honest, and I shared it with my Facebook friends where we discussed the mounting pressures, and stresses on these leaders. It was surprising that many of them had read the findings from AESOP re: what makes a great HT, and made me wonder how much of this book is new material, or old material put under a new banner. Either way, I found the chapter excellent reading.

What does quality teaching look like? – this chapter was excellent, but once again, based on a previously published paper by Dinham, Sawyer and Ayers on exceptional HSC teachers. I got a lot out of this chapter – some affirmation that what I have been doing for years is heading in the right direction, plus some goals to set myself to be an even better teacher.

Dealing with change and difficult teachers – so many lists of ways of managing change, planning carefully for it, and dealing with ‘blockers’. One thing I find interesting is that despite all of this talk about change, there was limited focus on ‘innovation’ or ‘ICT’ – it’s like everything we’re talking about and doing in relation to developing learners for the contemporary context isn’t that important to Dinham. I might be being a bit harsh, but he was quite vague about *what* types of changes were being introduced by leaders – apart from policy changes, or increased expectations of teacher quality (which in itself is also a little non-specific, but perhaps intentional?). Anyway, I know the types of changes that are being introduced at my school (Dinham might not like them though cos they’re on the Hattie ‘bad list’), so perhaps his intention is that we contextualise these strategies to our own schools… which makes sense.

Dinham likes the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers – I guess he would, given his role in developing them. I too think they have the potential to be good for education, but unfortunately the reality of how they are actually used/viewed within schools isn’t amazing, as identified by Dinham himself – likely because they are not associated with improved teacher pay. I agree with him that a lot more work in this area needs to occur to ensure the Standards have the impact they aim to have.

Action learning is good for teachers, but enquiry learning/problem-based learning is bad for students – I just can’t seem to reconcile this contradiction in the book. There’s a scathing few paragraphs (and later snide sentences) about discovery learning/enquiry learning/problem-based learning/constructivism as teaching methodologies in the book in relation to student learning, but then there’s a chapter celebrating action learning/research and professional learning communities for teachers. Dinham says that teachers should spend time working in teams to identify problems, problem-solve, experiment, collect data, and reflect on their findings (basically the structure of PBL) as a means of effective professional learning. Is it just me, or is this odd? I am all for action research and PLCs – I’ve written about it heaps, and am implementing it at my school, it just rubbed me the wrong way re: it being OK (even encouraged) for teachers, but not OK for students.

No ICT – as in, the one time he refer to ICT as being a possible tool for teacher professional learning, he links to a dead blog – well, one that hasn’t been updated since 2011… pretty much dead in the blogging sense. It’s a real shame because SOOO much learning is happening via ICT – for teachers, and for students. I mean, when it comes to education disruption, and therefore the necessity for leadership in learning and teaching, the introduction of ICT into school has to be consider THE biggest in the last 10 years… and yet it doesn’t rate a mention. There’s lots of discussion about learning relating to behaviour management, and literacy, yet ICT is pretty much invisible. It’s a huge factor – especially in regards to equity, because access to the Internet really opens up students’ opportunities, and has the potential to break down barriers. One of the first things I focused on when I started my job as HT was the use of technology by teachers, as it gave me an ‘in’ into discussion about pedagogy more widely. I’m not sure why it’s missing from this book, but I know I’m not the only one to notice.

Instructional leadership – the biggest take-away from this book for me is that leaders should prioritise teaching and learning above everything else, and when that is the focus, there will be significant improvement for teachers and students – academically, and in terms of wellbeing. I love that sentiment. It’s not easy, but it’s essential. Oh, and I also loved that Dinham said the best leaders ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. So, go to – do great things, take risks, make school awesome. (That last bit is mine, haha, not Dinham’s.)

Overall, I’m glad I read this book, even if just to remind myself that people continue to misunderstand Project Based Learning, and dismiss it as a ‘fad’. I hope my DP managed to read the book also, and I look forward to our conversations about it together next week.



Starting to feel at home in my (not so) new school…

I started at my current school at the beginning of 2015 – so that means I’ve been there for 7 terms now. I feel like that time has gone by super fast, as it has been pretty much non-stop for the whole time. Having been at my previous school for 10 years, the change to a new education space – with new colleagues, new students, new expectations, a new culture – was really confronting, and , if I’m honest, really hard, but it’s also taught me a lot about myself, and my education philosophy.

Yesterday was my last ever lesson with my year 12 class, and whilst I didn’t think to tell them this when we were together for our last hour, these kids have been there with me for the whole ‘new school’ ride… and I feel that my experience with them is a nice metaphor for my transition into a new role, a new school, a new me. I remember being terrified for our first lesson, because I knew that their class was the ‘second bottom’ (we scale English classes at my school) and that they probably already had a bad taste in their mouth discovering this for themselves. I did my best to be a combination of funny, and knowledgeable, but mostly they just thought I was weird. Their expressions told me, ‘Oh man, we got the new teacher, we’re screwed.’ and because my main focus when beginning with a class is to build a culture of awesome, I had them write me letters of introduction, as well as letters to their future self, to be opened when they completed year 12 (which they did this week, and loved!). Both of these tasks were met with stupefied looks – some were amused, some eager, some far from impressed.

I distinctly remember their response to our journey analogy task, where I took photos of them holding up a picture symbolising their analogy for a journey, which I turned into a YouTube video – once again, they were gently amused by my weirdness, but always compliant. It was around this time I started hearing rumblings of things like, ‘They didn’t do this in the other classes’, ‘We haven’t got the same resources as the other classes’, ‘I wonder if she’s going to give us that draft task the other teachers handed out’… to which my response was often something akin to a stunned mullet – mouth gaping, eyes wide, thinking, ‘I didn’t know about that task/resource etc… oops’. I mean, maybe I had been told, but my mind was up in ‘teacher PL land’, and I frequently forgot things, swept up in my own ways of approaching lessons.

I remember our study of The Kite Runner, where I used my Frames approach to Critical Study (‘but Miss, the other classes aren’t using them’), and we held a Socratic seminar based on critical readings students were expected to have completed (‘but Miss, I thought you’d go through them with us’ or ‘where is the PPT summary?’)… some kids rose to the challenge, and others sat their squirming in their seats, unable to contribute to the dialogue. However, I also remember their speeches, and how their personal voices came through strong and clear, critiquing Hosseini’s ‘happy ever after’ ending to what is essentially a brutally confronting narrative.

I laugh as I remember our study of Othello and O – as I sniggered through the film, adding critically snide remarks about the film’s poor direction, and misunderstanding of the play’s characters. My students weren’t impressed by my satirical narration (‘you’re ruining it for us’) but many came to appreciate the film’s lack of integrity when compared to Shakespeare’s ‘timeless’ play. Another frustration for them was my critical narration of PPTs that I had found online… where I would correct or challenge the information being presented, which left them unsure what to write down in their workbooks. In the end I told them to look through the slides themselves if they were keen, and I instead handed out critical responses to the play and the film… no summarised dot points = irritated students.

I remember, sadly, when over half of my class left me to join the ‘top stream’ because they had performed so well in the prelim course (I discovered yesterday that one of these students ended up coming 3rd in the year for the HSC course). I’ll never forget that first lesson with my new year 12 class – 13 new sets of eyes, all critical and wary, having heard (I assume) of my unconventional methods… and annoyed at themselves for having underperformed in year 11. I was scared too, as I was about to teach a text I’d never taught before, under the umbrella of a concept I’d never taught before, at a school I knew got exceptional HSC English results every year. Terrified. This didn’t stop me from using slabs of coloured paper and textas for our first task  (a colourful timeline of the Motorcycle Diaries), or forcing them to work in teams to collaborate on YouTube videos deconstructing sections of the memoir. Yes, the new kids’ eyes rolled so much they nearly fell out of their heads (OK, not all, some of the girls were visibly stoked to be doing hands-on stuff), but I persisted with my method… I had to trust it, and try my best to help them trust me.

Whilst there were definitely times during our time together that I flipped between ‘I will teach via PPT’, ‘I’m bored of teaching like this’ and ‘Let’s get crazy with this’, I can say that in the end we found a rhythm… I think for them they got used to everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) being on Google Drive, to working collaboratively with their peers, to hearing my silly anecdotes interspersed with serious discussions of complex texts, with my mood swings, and with my literal obsession with Medals and Missions. The latter was most apparent when yesterday they surprised me with the most gorgeous thank you present – two 5 week old chicks who they named ‘Medal’ and ‘Mission’, haha! I cried… the thought was so genuine, and it was affirming to know that after our time together they got me. I had written them all goodbye cards, with personal medals and missions based on their characters, lol… it was a sweet shared moment. We got each other. Late last night my head teacher emailed me to see how I liked my present (the English faculty had hidden the chicks away from me all day, helping keep my students’ surprise a secret), and she told me that the present was evidence that my class had always valued me, but that at our school kids just have a different way of showing it. This was an important message for me, a reminder that this is a new culture, with new social norms, and ways of doing things (like showing thanks)… and that right now I’m totally feeling at home, because I think it’s not my ‘new school’ anymore, it’s simply my school… my edu home.

Thank you, year 12 2016… you helped me find my place! xx



The Little English Teacher that could… (try)

Last Friday night I did my first ever ‘after dinner talk’ to a room full of teachers from Granville Boys High School. Below is a copy of the speech I wrote for the night… something I have only ever done once before, but which felt necessary given my nerves! After the ‘speech’ part, I had the staff play a game – Advanced Patty-Cakes, which is something I found online via TEDx by a pretty hilarious guy called Bernard de Koven. Let’s just say, that game got the room screaming, hollering, whooping, and moving (but I can probably attribute some of that to the wine they were drinking also)! The final part of my talk involved me going through a slideshow of some of my favourite projects that I have run since 2010 – plus some epic failures – and the final cherry on the top was watching my year 12 2014 class reflect on PBL. (Note: I’m writing this post, as I want to remember this night… because it reminded me of the good in the edu world, after a couple of very difficult weeks.)

The title for this talk comes from one of my edu mates, Megan Townes. It was one of many suggested titles she had for possible themes for this talk. Others included
‘What happens when you don’t teach to the test’ ‘If I ruled the Department of Education’ ‘I have a dream…what I wish for edu in the next ten years.’ So why does she care about this talk? Well, when I was first asked to do this gig I realised that I’ve never delivered an after-dinner talk before – lots of workshops, teach meet pecha kuchas, keynotes, and conference presentations, but not this. So what do you do in 2016 when you need advice? You turn to Facebook, of course. I am very fortunate that I have many wonderful edu friends (just how I got them will be explained later… if you’re all still awake) – so my friends had a range of suggestions for how to approach this talk. Many said ‘tell stories’ – and make sure you focus on failing (cos teachers LOVE to hear about that, right?), or ‘play games’ (they’ll be either exhausted or drunk by the time they get to your talk), or ‘dress up as your favourite Marvel characters’ (not sure how good I’d look in Deadpool’s onesie, but I probably could have pulled off Loki’s sweet green jacket and horned helmet) and then there’s my Mum’s suggestion that I should tell you about my life story – about how she decided to leave us when I was eight, and how my siblings helped my dad raise me, how having an absentee mother didn’t stop me from becoming captain of primary and high school, or being the first person in my family to go attend university, or becoming a published author… just like having an emotionally absent mother didn’t stop Katniss Everdeen from winning the Hunger Games. My great friend Dr Kelli McGraw shared with me a TED talk where the speaker shared her secret formula for a great speech, based on her analysis of talks by people like Martin Luther King Jnr, and Steve Jobs – the trick, it seems, is to present the vision from the outset, and then traverse your way between it and images of reality. Indeed, the speaker also argues that a good talk takes the audience on a journey, much like Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey – beginning with a call to adventure, and culminating with the hero returning home with the elixir that will save us all. Well, tonight I can’t promise to provide you with the elixir that will solve all education woes, as I am definitely not a hero, and I am certainly not your hero, I am simply an English teacher. What I can share with you tonight is my story, a story that may, or may not, reflect parts of your own education journey, but one that can be accurately summated with the analogous title, The Little English Teacher that Could… try.

I am one of those rare people in the 21st century who married when they were 20, and had their first child by 21. It may seem odd to mention this to a room full of strangers, but I firmly believe that being a mother at a young age – my sons are 15 and 12 now – has shaped my education philosophy. When I had my first son, I was in the middle of my Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University – he was conveniently born during mid-semester break, and I was fortunate enough to return to uni with him, to complete my BA, majoring in Philosophy and Performance Studies. Yes, you heard right, Philosophy. Immediately I discovered that there is no job for someone with that major, and was quickly pointed in the direction of a Diploma of Education, which I completed in 2004 via distance education at UNE. Late in that same year I gave birth to my second son, and within 5 months of his birth, I was teaching full time in my first ever teaching position at Davidson High School. Yes, that’s right, I was teaching full time when I had a 5 month old child… still being breastfed. In hindsight, I can’t even consider how I managed that, but honestly a lot of what I remember of that year was loving the challenge of inspiring, and engaging teenagers – I felt like I was making a difference, and giving back to my community. I guess that sense of elation lasted almost 5 years… until I came to a point in my teaching career that I hear is very common for new teachers – the love it or loath it moment. I was starting to get bored with teaching the same things, frustrated with systems that limited my creativity, and angry that students who I knew were amazing humans, simply weren’t being given the opportunity to be the best humans they could be. My boys were getting big by this time, and I could see how excited they were about learning, their love of asking questions, their desire to try out new things, to fail with a giggle… and I wanted that type of learning for my students. (Hint, that was me presenting to you my vision of ‘what could be’!)

Luckily for me in 2009 a pretty amazing initiative was being introduced to schools – the Digital Education Revolution, or as it affectionately, and not a little bit ironically came to be known as, DER. For many DER was a threat to their way of being, their known world was being pushed askew, and they were scared… or worse, angry, that the Department of Education was forcing them to use technology when they felt they did not need it. For me, it was a life-line – it literally saved my career. I still clearly remember my Head Teacher telling me to put my name down to be on the school’s DER policy team, as it would mean much less work than if I put my name down for the Teaching and Learning team. Of course, you know what I did, right? I happily took on the challenge of the bigger job, and pretty much haven’t looked back since. If DER taught me one thing, it’s that it’s not the tool you use, but what you do with it. Within a couple of weeks of students receiving their laptops, it was clear that they would be useless unless teachers chose to change the way they were teaching. Looking back, 2009 was a transformative year for me – thanks to the kindness of Darcy Moore (who spoke with me, then a complete stranger, for over an hour on the phone, encouraging me to set up a Twitter account), and a fateful MacICT webinar that introduced me to Edmodo. In that year, I began to establish my Twitter PLN, many of whom today I count amongst my closest friends, and all of whom added to the educator I am today. In that year I was experimenting with learning space design, effective online tools to support learning, and with the practice of being a reflective teacher. However, it was in 2010, that I was introduced to the methodology that would make the biggest difference to my life (and not just my edu life) – can you guess what it was? Project Based Learning! Thanks to an impromptu conversation with Dean Groom (a teacher who had worked at Parramatta Marist when they transitioned to PBL) I had found the secret that would keep me in education for good… well, at least for the foreseeable future anyway. So, after this long-winded introduction, I would like to turn your attention to the screen, so I can share with you some of my PBL journey. Oh, but before we do that, let’s play a game… (We then played Advanced PattyCake – from Bernard de Koven).


Video of my year 12 students reflecting on PBL:


I have gone from being a frustrated and bored classroom teacher, tinkering with her practice in an attempt to engage herself and her students, to dig deeper, and have an impact on our world, and do more, and be more, to being Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning at my son’s selective high school, trying to re-engage teachers with their practice… to get them to create super cool, memorable learning experiences for their students. It’s true that Project Based Learning is exhausting, but it’s also true that it’s awesome. When all else fails, I’d like you to remind yourself of these inspiring words, spoken by one of the most enigmatic literary characters, the little blue engine… say to yourself ‘I think I can, I think I can’, because before too long you’ll find yourself out of the pit, congratulating yourself by saying, ‘I thought I could, I thought I could.’