A book of short stories for students, by students – wanna contribute?

So, I just a had an awesome idea! I am ALWAYS looking for examples of excellent short stories written by students to show as models to my students, but sometimes these are hard to come across. They’re hard to find primarily because teachers are busy people, and so we often don’t keep our stuff very well organised, or we simply forget to keep copies of stories that we have loved, and found really powerful pieces of writing. Kinda recently I had a big chat with some English teachers about short stories, and the beauty of the form, and something I noticed was that we all found it hard to find quality models – not just student work, but actually published short stories that are things of beauty, worth sharing and studying. I think it’s because the form that we expect students to write is actually the short-short story form, not the short story… if that makes sense? Basically our students are expected to write compelling narratives, with complex characters, powerful themes, in the context of effective settings, all within a space of 800-1000 words. At my current school it is 800 words. That’s not very many words with which to paint something cool, is it? Not considering that the modern short story is ‘no shorter than 1,000 and no longer than 20,000 words‘ according to Wikipedia. However, I really like the definition of a short story attributed to Poe by Wikipedia: one should be able to read it in one sitting. 

So, what’s my cool idea? Well, I imagine that every teacher has come across ‘that’ story at least once in their careers (and hopefully multiple times) – you know, the one where we read it without thinking about the student who wrote it, without stopping to query a phrase, or the tense, or a character’s decisions… where you just read, and feel, and imagine, and love, love, love. The one where at the end you go, ‘Holy crap, I couldn’t write anything that good. How can I be responsible for teaching this kid?’ You know the one, right? Well, what if we collected a bunch of those stories, and put them together in a book, published via Blurb, that could be downloaded for free as a eBook, or bought as a hard copy, depending on the teacher’s preference. It wouldn’t be a book written to make money (cos who wants to deal with the drama of divvying royalties, not me!) but rather would just be there as an epic resource for our students. (The way Blurb works is that you can create a ‘bookshelf’ of books, and when you buy one, you’re just giving money to Blurb for the cost of the printing – if we make it available as an eBook then it can be used digitally, and there’s also a PDF option, so you could print it at school if you wanted to for free.)


Source: https://kenelkes.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/short-story2.jpg 

I’m totally happy to be responsible for putting the stories together, if people email me the stories they think would be worth including. All students names will be included (school name too if you want), unless they want to use a pseudonym which is totally cool also. I would LOVE a resource like this, because I think it will give insight into a range of story-writing styles that are celebrated and valued at different schools. These would NOT have to be purpose written for this book, although your could use this book as an incentive for kids to write something new. I don’t suppose we need a criteria for something like this, however, I guess there is the possibility that some stories might be ‘sent in’ that (possibly) might not be as good as others, and therefore don’t ‘make the cut’… urgh, am I just over-thinking this now? Yes, probably. But maybe a starting criteria could be:

  • story must be original to the writer
  • story must be between 700-1000 words
  • there must be no spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors
  • submissions must be size 12 Times New Roman, double-spaced, justified alignment

Well, that became boring very quickly, haha, maybe you have some suggestions? I focused on boring stuff cos I’ll have to edit them all to add into the Blurb format, so it’s better and easier if they’re consistent.

OK, so maybe no one will reply to this, and it will just be an idea put out into cyberspace, but still worth trying. What do you think, do you wanna contribute?



Week One #CF2US2016

Day One – the big trip to NYC!

Our first day was pretty much non-stop travelling. I love flying Air New Zealand, because they’re pretty much the best airline, and every time we’ve flown with them they’ve been awesome. Our 3.5 hour flight from Sydney to Auckland was great, as always, except for the fact that they messed up our meals, so only Baz got vegetarian. The attendants were super nice though, and offered us fruit, yoghurt, cheese and crackers. After waiting for a couple of hours in Auckland airport (the boys slept, I write a couple of blog posts, and Lee wrote report comments), we got our 12 hour flight to L.A. This is easily my favourite flight – I love that I get waited on, and can just sit and watch as many movies as I want. I chose Deadpool, and then 5 episodes of Gotham. Arriving in L.A., we had to get through customs (a strange process that is both automated and not) and then to the domestic terminal to catch out 6 hour flight to NYC. By the time we made it to JFK airport we were exhausted – we’d been travelling for approximately 27 hours. We spent the night at a Super 8 in Jamaica, Queens – a few miles from the airport. This hotel wasn’t the most amazing place, but the people were nice (the fixed our broken toilet at 2am!), and it served out purposes – we spent most of the night awake, thanks jetlag!

Day Two – Brooklyn and Hell’s Kitchen

The morning began with our first American breakfast of waffles, reconstituted orange juice and strong coffee. Actually, Lee and I had Vegemite on toast – I brought a tube of it with us! We then caught a cab to NYC, which despite initially being quoted $50, actually cost us $87. The driver was from Ghana, and kept telling us how much he liked Julia Gillard (‘that woman prime minister’) and tried to talk to Lee about cricket, which was really amusing. When we got to our hotel – the Skyline in Hell’s Kitchen – it was too early to check-in, so we dropped off our bags and hit the streets. We walked the five blocks to Times Square, and Lee got a T-Mobile SIM card ($70 for unlimited data for 4 weeks, plus 14GB of data for devices hotspotted). I already had in mind a few things that I wanted to do, so we started on the list – first up, Brooklyn! We initially thought about getting the Subway, but after nearly being scammed by a guy who tried to ‘help’ us purchase our tickets via the machine (and thus attempt to get $20), we opted for a cab. The cab took us straight down Broadway, and cost us just shy of $20 – the cabbie wasn’t impressed that Lee didn’t give him a tip, who knew cabbies needed tips?! The Brooklyn Flea is just under the Manhattan Bridge, and is this super cute market full of stalls selling arts and crafts and antiques – unfortunately for us it started raining about 5 minutes after we arrived, forcing the stalls to cover up in plastic. We found shelter in a pizza shop, and had our first American pizza for the trip – vegetarian with beetroot (which they call ‘beets’), and it was actually really tasty. When the weather cleared, we brushed the markets (they were jinxed now, and we were started to get tired already) and headed to the foreshore walk along the East River. It is such a pretty walk, they’ve made a cute path and some art installations, plus the view across to Lower Manhattan is awesome.

Next was the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – it’s iconic for a reason. I couldn’t believe the walkway was all wood, it made me initially nervous, but then I got into the rhythm of checking out the skyline, and the people, and it was all good. It really is beautiful, and I highly recommend walking over it if you’re ever in NYC. Once we got to Lower Manhattan, we decided to walk and check out the World Trade Centre memorial – last time we were in Lower Manhattan, it was still being built. First we stopped off at St Peter’s church, which acted as a temporary meeting place/shrine in the days following the 9/11 attacks, and they have a rather moving exhibit inside. It was good for the boys to see the exhibit, especially Balin who is only 11 and didn’t have a strong understanding of the event. I actually found the church just as powerful a memorial as the actual ground zero memorial which is so stark, just a huge hole in the ground, with the names of the victims engraved around it.   We didn’t go into the exhibition – there was a huge line, and it just felt sort of morbid going in there.

Balin had started to complain a lot about his feet – mine were hurting too – so we decided to get a cab back up to Hell’s Kitchen, which was a big mistake because the driver tried to scam us by taking us way around Manhattan, and we had to ask to get out on 42nd street, about 5 blocks and 7 streets from our hotel. Once we checked in, the boys decided to just chill, and Lee and I headed out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant, El Centro. We both ordered a drink (delicious) and fish tacos (which were insanely good) and as always we were floored by how great American service is – yes, you pay tips, but it’s worth it! After walking about 4 blocks to Wholefoods Central Park to buy beer and snacks, we made it back to our hotel completely shattered – what a huge day! Of course, we only managed to sleep until midnight, and then we were up for three hours – thanks again, jetlag!

Day Three – Midtown Comics, Central Park and Tiffany & Co

Breakfast wasn’t included in at our hotel, so we made up for that by visiting Sullivan’s Street Bakery which was just a couple of streets away. The boys and I had the most amazing doughnuts, full of yummy vanilla bean cream! Our first destination for the day was Midtown Comic in Times Square – a place we’d found on a previous trip to NYC. We spent about 40 minutes in there, immersed in the range of Marvel and DC stuff – I ended up getting an awesome Spider-Man lunchbox that I’ll keep my pens in at school, a Nosferatu Pop Vinyl, and a Marvel Universe trivia game. We walked to Bryant Park, and enjoyed sitting in the sun as we checked out our haul of goodies… and we rested our weary feet! We all decided we were hungry again, so we stopped in at a deli, grabbed some tasty stuff from the salad bar (which are freaking amazing, BTW – I wish we had them in Australia, so much variety!) and walked up 5th Avenue to Central Park. I love Central Park. Everyone I know knows that, because I tell them whenever I get a chance. We found a lovely patch of grass, and stretched out for our picnic. Perfect.

I must confess, that I have always wanted to buy a piece of jewellery from Tiffany’s & Co NYC – because like so many others, I love the Audrey Hepburn movie, and just wanted to be able to say that I had a token of being there, like she had been. Now, I’m no Holly Golightly, but I certainly can’t afford about 98% of the jewellery for sale at Tiffany’s. I did, however, find a sweet necklace with a pendant with a B engraved on it that I bought – and thanks to Lynne, the event was really special. I still haven’t opened up that little blue package, with its blue bow, and silver lettering. I’m waiting until I get home. Silly, huh?

On our walk back to the hotel we went via Trump Tower, and found a guy standing outside it (amidst the media, and cops) dressed in a penis suit, holding a sign saying ‘Photos with Trump’ – it was so awesome, that Lee and I had to get a photo. I wonder what that photo will mean in the future, after the presidential elections… I hope we can still laugh about the fact that someone like Trump was running, and be relieved that he didn’t get voted president.

That night we took the boys to El Centro (that’s how good it was the night before), and the boys enjoyed the fish tacos as much as we did! Back at the hotel the boys went for a night swim in the indoor pool on the top floor, and the lifeguard (a teenager with a whistle) turned the lights off so we could see the Manhattan skyline all bright and colourful… it was awesome. We went to bed exhausted, and a little sad that we were leaving NYC the next morning.

Day Four – Philly, Baltimore and Betsy

Our day started far too early for a bunch of very weary travellers, but we had to collect out hire car from 1st Ave at 7am, and we were staying on 10th Avenue. How did we get to Hertz? Walked, of course! Luckily there’s really nothing like walking through NYC, even early in the morning – oh, and we got to stop at Dunkin Donuts, which is always awesome. Getting the car was super easy, the lady on the desk was sweet, and despite the challenge of driving through increasingly congested NYC streets, we managed to get on our way south.

The first stop on this road trip to Washington DC was Philadelphia because Lee really loves it (we were there in 2011) and was keen to take me up the City Hall Tower. Sadly, we discovered when we got there that it was closed for maintenance. To make up for this disappointment we decided to find a vegan Philadelphia Cheesesteak which we did at this very cool little bar called The Royal Tavern. A lot of the food on the menu was either vegan or vegetarian, which isn’t very common in the States, and the atmosphere of the place was made even cooler by the addition of some punk music and a super attentive waitress. It was thanks to our waitress that we decided to stop in Fells Point, Baltimore. Despite the rain, Fells Point was really lovely – a sweet semi-colonial style harbour side town that has heaps of brew pubs, and nick knack shops. We found an awesome comic shop called Gorilla Comics, and Keenan stoked up again on Batman comics, and I got a Deadpool bobblehead Pop Vinyl.

Our final stop was easily the best of the day – Washington DC to spend the night with our awesome mate Betsy Whalen! There’s nothing better than catching up with someone in person who you speak with almost daily online – we love Betsy, and spending time with her, even for such a short time, was brilliant.

Day Five – Kingsport (haha!)

We gave Betsy an Aussie breakfast – Vegemite on toast, of which she bravely ate a small piece! In return, Betsy gave our boys a bag of presents from which they could open one per day, only if they weren’t annoying in the car. This was something her mother did when she was a child, and it’s still proving very effective with Balin. Thanks, Betsy!

This day was so uneventful, that all I can remember is eating Subway in a random small town and the woman serving me being annoyed by us asking for capsicum, not green peppers, and the fact that we stopped and bought a decent amount of fireworks. We stayed at the Super 8 in Kingsport, which was relatively clean (the room had a faint odour of cigarettes, and the bed covers were not the most attractive) and the staff were very friendly.

Day Six – Asheville, Smokey Mountain National Park, and Pigeon Forge

After a light breakfast of Vegemite on toast, and juice, we headed off towards Asheville, a small town that was recommended to us by the guy at the front desk of the Super 8. I’m really pleased we followed his advice, because Asheville is a super cute, artsy town that we all loved even though we only spent an hour checking it out. We had coffee and tea at the Double D Bus café which is an old double decker bus converted into a café – driven by a skeleton! We also loved the Before I Die I want to… chalkboard wall, where people added the one thing they wanted to do before they died – there were heaps of funny additions such as ‘take the ring to Mordor’. I feel like one day we’ll go back to Asheville.

We then drove through the Smokey Mountain National Park which is just gorgeous. The meadow outside of the visitor centre is so pretty, and the air smelt so clean and floral… it reminded us of the Yosemite meadow. The drive itself was nice, not too windy for me (I always feel carsick, plus I hate heights so some of the driving at Yosemite, and Kings Canyon I’m not found of). We saw a turkey run across the road, and a baby deer peeping out from the trees. Whilst we didn’t have time to do any of the hikes, I still really enjoyed the drive.

On the other side of Smokey Mountain National Park was the unforgettable Pigeon Forge. There’s not really any way of accurately capturing the weirdness of this place – it’s like Vegas for families. Some things we saw that amused us: giant King Kong, upside down mansion, replica Titanic, and Mount Rushmore of Hollywood icons. We all definitely wanted to stay the night in Pigeon Forge, but we simply didn’t have time this trip – if you’re ever down this way with your kids, you should definitely head there!

We spent the night in the worst motel of the trip so far – a $70 per night place in Cookeville called the Key West Inn that smelt like a thousand ashtrays had been stomped into the carpet. There bed covers had cigarette burn holes in it, and there was a huge hole in the bathroom wall. The breakfast included was stale bread, and lumpy milk. Yucky.

Day Seven – the big hike, and the brewery

The best thing to come from Cookeville was a recommendation by our cashier at the supermarket to visit Cummins Falls. The walk to the falls was pretty hectic – we not only had to walk down a fairly steep path to get to the river, we then had to walk about a kilometre up the river to reach the waterfall, including walking across a fallen tree trunk ‘bridge’ that scared the heck out of me. Yes, I’m a wuss. The waterfall was really lovely, and it was fun watching Lee swim in the freezing cold pool at the foot of it.

Our next stop was Nashville. I’m pretty sure all Australians have heard of Nashville, whether they like country music or not, and I’m not different. I just knew that it was somewhere I should stop and see if we were going past. To be honest, it wasn’t at all what I expected – it was just a town. Nothing more exciting than that. The Belmont Mansion, which was listed on Google as worth seeing, turned out to be a bit if a failure. Perhaps it was the stormy weather that made us disinterested, but the thought of the hour-long tour was too much for us, so we opted out and drove through town until we found somewhere for lunch. What we found made us all happy – the Flying Saucer Brewery. Craft beer for Lee, tasty food for me, and free wifi for the boys. If you’re ever in Nashville, you’d be mad to miss it!

The hotel room at the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriot we booked for the night (via our trusty Hotels.com app) was awesome – just $100 for the night, and it was so clean, with super friendly staff, and breakfast. We slept happy that night!

Day Eight – Graceland, and MLK

We woke up fairly early, and headed down to breakfast – a tasty hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, tortillas, and biscuits (which are basically Southern scones eaten with grits – like savoury oatmeal – but I ate mine with butter and jam, haha), as usual this hotel breakfast had zero vegetables. I miss mushrooms, spinach, beans, and tomatoes. Our first stop after our 30 minute drive into Memphis was super touristy – Elvis’s Graceland. I’m not an Elvis fan, and our boys don’t even really know who he is, but I figured it would be interesting to see where he lived, and, you know, it’s pop culture history, right? As it turned out, you have to pay $10 just to park in the Graceland parking lot, and if you want to just get a photo of Graceland, you have to pay a minimum of $38 per adult to get on a bus with a bunch of other tourists to do it. We chose not to. As we left the car park, Keenan suggested we follow the buses and see if we could get a shot of Graceland, and I’m glad we did because we just needed to cross the road! There’s a place to pull up and park for a few minutes, and then get a photo of Elvis’s mansion from the street – easy!

Next stop was one that I was particularly looking forward to – the National Civil Rights Museum. I wasn’t disappointed. The museum is excellent – the exhibits are engaging, moving, and informative. Our boys really got a fantastic insight into the struggles of African American people, from the origins of slavery, through to the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. The museum itself is situated within the Lorraine Motel, where Dr King was assassinated, with visitors able to see the exact spot where he was killed, and the place from which his killer took that fateful shot. If you’re ever in Memphis, or going through, please do stop at the museum.

We had lunch at the Memphis Flying Saucer Brewery, which was cool but not as awesome as the one in Nashville – they didn’t have the tasty pineapple cider, but they did have a delicious cider and raspberry syrup combination called Hummingbird Water. Our last stop in Memphis was a quick walk down Beale Street, which reminded us all of the French Quarter in New Orleans but with a little bit of Hollywood and Vegas added in, haha.

Providing quality feedback in order to move students forward in their learning

One of my most popular blog posts (and one of my favourites that I share relentlessly like a git) is this one: Feedback, Feedforward and peer assessment and Project Based Learning. The reason I value that post so much is because through the years, after many, many applications of the ideas within it, I can still say with 100% confidence that the theory of ‘medals and missions’ and withholding grades for at least 24 hours genuinely works. Since staring at my new school, I have been really impressed with how enthusiastically the staff have adopted a range of strategies to ensure that students are being given quality feedback in order to move them forward in their learning.

This year I am running (with the help of one of my awesome colleagues) a series if four workshops on Dylan Wiliam’s Embedding Formative Assessment (using his two year PL program as a basis). Each term we run a one-hour workshop, providing teachers with information on a range of formative assessment strategies. The most recent session was on feedback – and one of the key ideas that really resonated with teachers was the need for feedback to be more work for the students than for the teacher (or the peers) who are giving it. The English faculty have become committed Dylan Wiliam fans since I first ran a workshop on assessment for learning using some of his strategies in Term 4 last year. Since then they have adopted the feedback before marks strategy for years 7-10, whereby students are given their written feedback on an assessment task, and asked to reflect on it BEFORE they receive their mark – with a mandatory 24 hour reflection period. To add to this, all teachers are using the Medals and Missions method of written feedback as outlined in my blog post linked above, and initially inspired by Geoff Petty. To complement this for extended responses (such as essays and narratives) teachers are using a ‘code’ system that I developed at the end of last year when marking year 11 journeys essays.

Essentially, I kept seeing students making the same mistakes (not engaging with the essay question, not providing relevant evidence, poor sentence structure, failing to include a linking sentence at the end of body paragraphs etc), so I made a list of these things, then gave each a code (e.g. SS = sentence structure Q = question). Students were then given a series of codes as their Medals or Missions – I tried not to give any more than 3 for each, and never more Missions than Medals. I added the codes throughout the students’ essays when I thought they needed to fix something up – e.g. LS (linking sentence) at the end of a body paragraph if one was missing. This made it much quicker for me to mark, and meant that the students had to do a bit of work by engaging with the document I created outlining all of the codes. Oh, and in the document I didn’t just say ‘LS = linking sentence’ I actually outlined what a linking sentence is, and gave an example of a really good linking sentence. This step is important because (as Dylan Wiliam tells us) kids get a lot of feedback ‘this is what you did wrong’ and often not much feedforward ‘this is what you need to do to improve, and this is how you can do it’. It’s been great to see the English teacher taking up this approach to feedback, and the students have responded really well – we’re at a school of very high achievers, so students are always keen to identify how they can improve. Journey Essay – Marker’s Feedback codes’ for a journeys essay, if you want to used them… just please acknowledge your source!

Being at a BYOD school, and being a recent devotee of Google Apps for Education, I have found that there are lots of ways to use technology to make students’ engagement with their Medals and Missions feedback even more effective. Firstly, I have created tables in a shared Google Document and asked students to add their name and two medals and two missions they received for an assessment. They then are partnered up with a ‘critical friend’ who had one of their missions as a medal, so they can work together to turn a mission into a medal – this is especially effective for essay-writing as we do a lot of this in English! You can see an image of what I mean below…

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 6.47.26 pm

Secondly, I have created a big table with students’ names down the left column, and then across the top added all of the essay codes (SS, LS, RT, PT, C, Q etc), and students then added a smile emoji for a medal, and an Xbox controller emoji for a mission. This super visual representation of students’ strengths and weaknesses on an essay task allows me to identify themes in their learning, and then fill any identified gaps – like in a recent essay task my year 12 students mostly had medals for their conceptual understanding, but missions for their related text paragraphs. Without me actually doing any work, I could see that there was a gap in my students’ learning – they didn’t know how to effectively connect their related texts to their prescribed text. See the image below for an example of what I mean:

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 6.23.55 pm

Anyway, I’m currently in Auckland Airport waiting for my plane to LA, so I’m going to cut this short. I hope these ideas and resources are helpful for someone!

#SDDT3: Exploring the Relationship Between Wellbeing and Teaching and Learning


The focus for our Term 2 School Development Day was to explore the question: What should children know and be able to do as a result of schooling? This question necessarily required a consideration of students’ academic and wellbeing needs, the relationship between them, and how the learning experiences of students at Manly Selective Campus can meet these needs. The professional learning activities on the day were organised and facilitated by our deputy principal, Cath Whalan, with her passion for Choice Theory and Reality Therapy, and myself, with my passion for Project Based Learning. At the end of last term, year 7 and 8 students completed a questionnaire designed to identify their individual needs based on Glasser’s theory of the five basic needs: love and belonging, power and mastery, survival and security, fun and learning, and freedom and choice. The data from this questionnaire revealed a strong need for fun and learning, and love and belonging, amongst our year 7 and 8 students. The data from the Tell Them From Me survey further supported these needs in relation to learning experiences at school.

At the very beginning of the morning session, staff completed a similar questionnaire that year 7 and 8 had completed – the staff focus was on their own needs as teachers – and Cath and I used this data to create groups for the first activity of the second session. For the rest of the first session of the day we watched the award-winning documentary Most Likely To Succeed, which explores the changing nature of our economy, how this is influencing the types of skills young people need when entering the 21st century workforce, and what this means for the type of education students are receiving at school. The film specifically focuses on the Project Based Learning model of education developed by Larry Rosenstock at High Tech High in San Diego. You can watch a trailer for the film here. I was very keen to show staff this film, as I think it authentically captures the reasons for changing the way we teach, and the way students learn.

At the beginning of the second session, Cath delivered a presentation providing an overview of our year 7 & 8 students’ needs as identified through the questionnaire data, with a comparison of girls to boys and contrasted this to that of our teachers. It was interesting to see that a large proportion of teachers had love and belonging as their number one need, with only a few identifying freedom and choice as needs. Cath spoke about the need for us as teachers to ensure that we are utilising strategies that ensure our students’ needs are met, and that in doing so we are likely to meet our own needs. Staff then worked in small groups (based on their identified ‘needs’) to discuss the ways in which the learning environment and experiences presented in the film met the needs of students (and teachers) with a specific focus on physical space, timetabling, relationships, and teaching and learning strategies. You can see the task explained a bit better on the document below – this was the activity sheet given to teachers. This activity resulted in some excellent presentations from staff of how we can adapt some of the elements of the High Tech High model to meet the academic and wellbeing needs of the gifted and talented learners at our school. I was really impressed with our staff’s super positive response to the film, and their enthusiasm for integrating elements of the HTH model at MSC.

The final session consisted of a brief presentation from me on the ways in which Project Based Learning, especially cross-curricula projects, acts as an effective framework to facilitate the application of a range of research-based gifted and talented teaching strategies and models. Most specifically Project Based Learning, with its emphasis on in-depth inquiry into real world problems, the design and creation of innovative products, and the presentation of learning for a public audience, meets all of the principles of effective differentiated instruction for gifted learners outlined by June Maker, and Sandra Kaplan. Through engaging with the scope and sequence of learning for year 7 students across all subjects, it was identified that a reduction in assessment tasks was necessary to ensure students were not being overwhelmed an excessive workload, and to also allow for a deeper appreciation of the conceptual connections between different disciplines. Teachers were then given the task of working in cross-faculty teams ‘find the connections that cut across single content areas’ (Lispon, 1993), then ideate possible cross-curricula projects that will see year 7 students working in small teams, in two or more subjects, to answer an over-arching driving question. Students will then use this knowledge and skills to create a single product and presentation for an authentic audience. Below are some of the resources that I provided staff to help them plan, as well as a copy of my PowerPoint presentation – the slides look pretty thanks to Canva.

HTs from each faculty have been set the task of developing one proposal for a cross-curricula project that connects their faculty with at least one other faculty. These proposals will be considered by myself and the PBL team, with the view to refining them to ensure that are rigorous PBL, and then to create facilitate professional learning for the teachers who will deliver the project. This is not a task we are taking lightly, and there are no plans to have teachers run projects before they can metaphorically walk. Introducing cross-curricula assessment and PBL is not a fad, it is essential for our gifted and talented learners, and as such we are committed to quality. Our School Development Day was a very big day of learning, and a testament to the commitment of our teachers to continuing to offer the very best learning experiences for our students. I am a passionate believer all students need to be engaged, challenged, feel a sense of belonging, have fun, and be given the freedom to try and fail in a positive environment – when students come each day into a learning environment like this, then they are far less likely to be at risk of mental health issues such as anxiety, or depression. In fact, this same environment is fantastic for teachers’ wellbeing too – and I’m really excited to be working with my amazing colleagues to further ensure our school is just such an environment.



I just spent a week learning with 11 year 7 students… and it was brilliant!

Last week I facilitated a week-long project with a small group of year 7 students, and it was an experience that really reaffirmed my commitment to a project-based learning environment for all students. After having watching the documentary Most Likely to Succeed in the lead-up to the Future Schools conference a couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to get despondent about my current attempts to introduce PBL into my new school. I worked really hard last year to try to give my students authentic learning experiences using PBL as my methodology, but despite my best efforts I found myself dealing with frustrated students who did not enjoy these experiences, complained about the lack of teacher direction, the amount of work, the accountability, and the fact that they felt they weren’t spending enough time focused on high-stakes assessments. There were, of course, some wins in there – some great moments where students really did inquire, create and present their learning in ways that challenged their own expectations of what it is to be a learner… but mostly I felt that they didn’t really ‘get it’, and by the end of the year I had many students telling me they preferred not to do PBL next year. Bummer, huh?

However, I’m a determined kid, and sometimes you’ve got to trust the education literature, your years of teaching experience (and that of others), and the vision you have for your own children’s education… so I have persevered, because I know that the first step to change is resistance, and I am committed to ensuring the young people at my school get the learning experiences they need to thrive in our crazy, crazy world. Seeing what Larry Rosenstock has achieved at High Tech High, I am completely inspired, and also quite intimidated. I WANT that learning environment for my kids (not just my two sons, but all of the kids I teach), and I know it can be created, if only in small amounts to start.

So, about a month ago our school was invited to participate in the cross-campus GATS project for year 7 students. All of our students are GATS, right? It makes it hard to choose who can be involved – we just didn’t have the time or resources to have it a whole year-group project, and to be honest that approach would not have been ideal… we need to start small with these things, and nurture a mood/culture of awesome that others are desperate to be a part of in the future. In the end we decided that we could have up to 5 students per core class (we have four classes) and that students would need to ‘apply’ to participate. We ended up with 13 applications, which is pretty good considering they had 3 day’s notice to get their application in. When the first day of the project rocked up, we were down to 11 – one decided to opt out (oh peer pressure, we’ll never erase you), and another was unwell. I decided that I would run the project in my free periods, plus during my year 10 periods which were covered by my DP; I chose to teach my senior classes and during those periods my DP supervised the year 7 students.

The night before the project as due to begin, I created a project outline to help guide my students’ inquiry, and provide a lose structure for their week of learning. I didn’t decide on the concept (this was determined by our college’s HTs T&L) which was equality (which should have been equity, as pointed out by my friend Tomaz, and my 14 year old son), and from that I developed an overarching driving question.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 7.00.30 am

Below is a super quick overview the project…

Day One: The very first step in all projects is the hook lesson/entry event – my favourite part of every project. For this one I used a modified version of the famous ‘blue eyes, brown eyes‘ experiment by Jane Elliot. I got the students together and randomly handed out 6 orange badges, and made the students put them on. These students were invited to help me set up a small ‘party’ with lollies, chocolate biscuits and cans of softdrink. They were told repeatedly not to eat anything. I then invited the students without badges to come and eat/drink, and asked the orange badge students to sit down on some nearby chairs. After this, I had the orange students set up a 5 chairs in a circle, and then 6 on the outer of the circle. I had one students set up some music and they began to play pass the parcel – however when the music stopped on an orange person they had to hand the parcel over to a non-orange person who got to open it and keep the gifts inside. The orange students had to pick up the rubbish (just newspaper) created by the non-orange students. Once the game was finished, I invited all of the students to sit down in a semi-circle, and we discussed what it felt like the be told you couldn’t participate in something fun, and had to do chores instead. The kids immediately picked up on what the project was about – well, they said discrimination, but we quickly got to the word ‘equality’, and we had a great discussion about why the non-orange people behaved the way they did (none of them stood up to defend the orange people, or offered them food or drink, or a prize) and what the orange people behaved the way they did (they were all compliant, even if they were visibly unhappy). The whole ‘party’ only lasted 20 minutes, but I could tell it was an experience that got them thinking.

The next session was all about introducing the project outline, and establishing what they needed to know to be successful with the project. To do this I gave them each a copy of the project outline, and a bunch of blue and pink post-it notes – on the blue they had to identify what they already knew (skills, content, project stuff) and on the pink they had to identify what they needed to know in the form of questions (skills, content, project stuff). They then took these and stuck them to butcher’s paper divided into K and W columns. I selected the most outgoing (read ‘potentially off-task/distracted) student to be in control of reading out each post-it, and deciding whether the know/need to know what a skill, content knowledge, or general project stuff – he also noted any repeats, and just kept one of them. This left us with a complete set of need to know questions – content to discover, skills to master, and practical questions about the project. As the students were working on their first stage of inquiry, I wrote up all of their need to know questions on butchers paper, and put them up on the wall as their learning goals for the week. Oh, and we also created a project calendar for the week, to help keep everyone focused! IMG_2885


IMG_2892 IMG_2893

IMG_2890 IMG_288665BEF50A-0B08-4B65-90B3-56B841988E4A 9A68535F-BB42-4D42-A708-3971974D8EE6


The following session saw students brainstorming all of the different factors contributing to inequality in our world, things such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, appearance, etc. You can see the results of the brainstorm below. From this, each team had to identify four contributing factors they were most interested in, then conduct some online research about each one, to be presented to the whole group the next day. The purpose of this was to help the students make an informed decision on the type of inequality/inequity that they would like to focus on for their team’s project. They were given time the following day to complete their research and create their presentations. This session ended with a big ask for these kids – reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then discussing the gaps we see in our world between declared rights, and the received rights. The students were pretty shocked that this document was from 1948, and still many of the rights are not fulfilled. We also discussed the fact that sexual orientation is not explicitly stated, even if it might be implied, and we considered the consequence of this for many people.


We spent the final session watching some YouTube videos to help them better appreciate the origins of the concept of ‘equality’, and some of the key thinkers that shaped how we see equality in our world today. The videos are below.

Day Two:

We met in the morning in our ‘arc’ which was basically 11 chairs arranged in an arc, facing the corner where all of our project stuff was on the walls. During this teacher-led session, we read through two of the BIE rubrics – collaboration and critical thinking. We needed to focus on both of these skills today, as they would be spending the whole morning session researching their team’s choice of four types of inequality. All teams chose to present their information using Google Slides, as this allowed them to collaborate as they worked. We spoke about the importance of verifying the sources, using a range of sources (not just the first three sites that come up on a Google search) and triangulating information. Both rubrics really helped students to focus their learning, which is great. (Oh, as an aside, whilst I was on class, my DP had the students peer-assess their team-members using the BIE rubric, and identify who they believed was the best collaborator in their team and write it on a post-it note which was given secretly to the DP. It was interesting to see the variety of responses!)

After recess, each team presented their preliminary research to the group. I encouraged the audience to give feedback using medals (things you did really well) and missions (things you need to improve) and this proved very effective – students noted that consistency in presentation slides was important, that information needed to be accurate, that too much written text was distracting, and that bright colours and images were appealing.



The afternoon session was focused on each team selecting their focus area (they ended up with choosing inequality relating to gender identity and sexual orientation; religion; and appearance) and developing an inquiry question. I talked to them about the features of a great inquiry question by using the analogy of the houses – one storey, two storey, three storey with a sunlight – which I discovered when teaching ILP last year. The actual writing of the question was tough, and what they ended up with were pretty incredible for 11 and 12 year olds!

IMG_3125 IMG_3115 IMG_3137

Day Three:

Wow, it feels like this blog post will go on forever, and I guess that gives you an insight into the intensity of this learning experience for my students, haha – we were powering through! The third day was a shorter day (as students went off to sport after lunch), and saw the teams really begin to start some serious project work such as asking more questions about their chosen focus area, researching, making phone calls (to libraries, the council, the local mosque), visiting the principal, writing surveys and interview questions, emailing authors, storyboarding, etc. A huge day, with only one teacher-led activity: reading and discussing the creativity and innovation rubric to make sure they understood what it means to produce truly beautiful work.



Day Four:

This day saw students continue with their work from yesterday, but also consider how their initial plans may need to be modified/adapted based on their research findings, and the work they did (or didn’t) complete the day before. This day was awesome because I did not need to run any teacher-led lesson, rather I just got to sit and chat excitedly with my students about their learning, and the work they were doing. It was a super fun day – a bit chaotic with students creating stop-motion films, taking photos of us all holding whiteboard messages, creating websites, cutting out paper people, and a whole lot more. By this stage the students had made the common room their home – and they chose not to leave it during recess or lunch, preferring to stay in and keep working than go out into the playground. Total. Win.


Day Five:

Presentation Day! Students spent the morning working in their teams on their final products, and their presentation slides. I had organised for each student to bring in some food or drinks, and so we spent a little bit of time setting that up, as well as setting up the room. Each team also did a very quick run-through of their presentations, however we did find that we got stuck for time, and spent most of the time checking that the tech was working well. In hindsight I would have liked to have dedicated much more time for this rehearsal – probably a couple of hours. I spoke with the students about the importance of setting up the space to show the audience that this was an important event – we had a table set up for the judging panel (year advisor, HT welfare, both DPs, the principal and one of our PE teachers, who also brought along his year 10 class to watch as they are studying ‘difference and diversity’) with rubrics for creativity, and critical thinking, some whiteboards with question ideas, glasses of water, and the audience feedback sheets. We also put a copy of the audience feedback sheet on every chair, so the audience knew they were participants too. We made sure there were comfy lounge chairs at the front for the parents who were attending – parents are special people!

Each team got up to present for about 10-15 minutes, and at the end of their presentations they had to respond to questions from the panel, and the audience (including parents!). It was really great to see these 11 year 7 students step up and defend/justify/explain their ideas about equality to a whole room of adults, and peers. In fact, I got a bit teary listening to them, and watching the videos they had made. They impressed me so much – and it was lovely to be able to celebrate their learning with so many people. I gave them each a little certificate to say how awesome they were, and we got a team photo… I just don’t have a copy of it, sadly! Anyway, I hope you can tell that this was an awesome project, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them all present at our combined college presentation evening on the 6th April!

IMG_3129 IMG_3125 IMG_3117

Future Schools conference and all the thinking that it invited…

Last Thursday and Friday were big days on the edu conference calendar – Future Schools 2016 took over Australian Technology Park, and in the process took over the minds of a few hundred educators. I was lucky enough to be a part of the conference this year, after being invited to share Jane Hunter’s Friday morning keynote, along with Debbie Evans. 

I elected to teach on Thursday instead of attend the day’s sessions – a true shame as I missed the keynote of Larry Rosenstock, principal of High Tech High (only the most amazing Project Based Learning school in the world!). I managed to make it out to ATP for the last two sessions – an energetic presentation by Claire Amos about her school’s unique learning environment, and the stunning closing keynote by Ayesha Khanna on why partnerships between corporations and schools is the best way to teach STEM. My intention for attending the final part of the day was to ‘bump into’ Larry Rosenstock at the networking drinks, and beg him to give me a one year contract to work at High Tech High. Unfortunately he’d already left the building, but I did manage to catch up with my great mate and English teacher hero, Paula Madigan, as well as Jane Hunter (who is brilliant but I’ll go into that in the next paragraph) and even got to say a quick hello to the ever awesome Peggy Sheehy. 

Attending Thursday, even if briefly, really got me thinking more broadly about education – not confined simply to the institution of school – thanks to the keynote of Ayesha Khanna. Her presentation really captured the changing world of ‘work’ with a specific emphasis on the role that automation (especially robots) are having on jobs and the economy. She spoke passionately about the need to foster creative confidence in our young people, to ensure that they are prepared for the dynamism of the new workforce they will be entering. Her company’s mission to support young people (specifically university aged) to get a sense of the workforce/vocations in an authentic way – through what she calls ‘externships’ – is pure genius. It really got me thinking about the role of employers as educators, and the need for them to develop the skills needed to mentor and support a generation of new employees very different to those they’ve worked with before. I couldn’t stop thinking about how outdated our current model of ‘work experience’ is that we offer to students in year 10. I also imagined Ayesha’s company as essentially running work-based PBL – they really focused on problem-solving at the contextual level, and it was cool to hear that they’re now expanding into high school and primary school too. Let’s hope her company starts working here in Australia soon! You can read more about them here: http://www.thekeys.global

Friday brought with it a 4am wake-up, a stomach full of desperate butterflies, and a big first for me – keynoting in a team at Future Schools! I made it to ATP at 7am, and that just compounded my nerves – luckily I got to hang out with Jane and Debbie which made me relax (a bit!) before we hit the stage. It was quite intimidating seeing the lights dim, and the crowd filing into the big room. I took the time to read back through my notes, write out some hasty palm cards, and try to tweet like a normal person. I was particularly nervous for this talk because it was about someone else’ work – not only that, but it was work that I greatly admire and value, so I wanted to do it justice. Jane’s opening was fantastic – she’s a wonderful speaker, with such wealth of knowledge into current research that it was hard not to turn every sentence into tweet. You can read a summary of her talk on Claire Amos’ blog: http://www.teachingandelearning.com/2016/03/dr-jane-hunter-turning-high-possibility.html?m=1 

Debbie Evans did a wonderful job discussing the huge impact that Jane’s HPC framework had on the staff at her school – it’s really quite amazing how many teachers she supported during the project. She’s showed the most adorable videos of student work – one of a kindy student proudly showing of his triangle literally brought a tear to my eye! And then I was up… I had my palm cards in my hand, but found that all my diligent preparation paid off, and after a shaky start (my voice was actually shaking), I got into the rhythm thanks to a sly dig at Debbie for being my ICT pusher way back in 2006 at MacICT, lol. Once I had sat back down it was so lovely to scroll through my tweets and see people sharing kind words about what I had to say – I even got my first ever LOTR GIF tweet, pretty rad! 

Almost straight after our keynote we began a pretty gruelling hour and a half round table session – three cycles of groups coming to chat to Debbie and mr about ICT integration. It was hot, and loud, and I almost lost my voice… but it was completely awesome! I met so many engaged, interesting and thoughtful educators, and hope that we will somehow keep in contact. It was great to be able to share my own journey as a new HT of T&L with others in a similar role, and I was reminded again of how powerful it is to record that journey via this blog to help me share my experiences and resources with them. 

After such an early start, I decided to leave Future Schools early… I was exhausted mentally and physically, and felt that staying any longer would have hindered rather than helped my immersion in the ideas shared throughout my time at the conference. I know that next year I’ll be keen to return – as a presenter or just as a participant, I don’t mind. I’m also keen to bring along other teachers from my school as well, and I think that’s the mark of a great conference. 


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.