A faux pas that didn’t hit a nerve

Last week I was very concerned that I had upset some of my Year 10 students by putting them into ‘streamed’ PBL teams and letting the class know about it. See my post here.

Well I felt so bad that I wrote a few tweets belittling myself only to be sent a tweet by my long time twitter friend Darcy Moore. Here is the tweet:

Because I admire, respect and trust Darcy, I clicked on the link he sent me. This is where it led me:

School colour-codes pupils by ability

This article didn’t exactly make me feel any better, but it did prompt some deeper reflection on how to address my mistake – and whether I even needed to apologise or explain my reasons behind the streaming. After all, hasn’t a whole school been designed on the very approach I was criticising myself for using?

Here are some of the comments from my PLN about how I should/could address the faux pas with my class:

So armed with 20 copies of the article Darcy sent me, I headed into my Year 10 class to explain away my actions. It was interesting that my prac student Lauren Forner was watching this lesson – she had followed my twitter regret and read my blog post. Her jokes about me justifying my faux pas as though it was part of some experiment on the students were funny, but not true in the least – I made it very clear to the students that I felt I had made a bad decision. Funny thing was, the kids didn’t seem to mind. Well, they didn’t openly admit to the group that they minded anyway.

Our camp-fire discussion about the school in England generated some interesting and suprisingly level-headed yet varied responses. Some of my students felt that they would like to be in a school system that divided students on ability level – they felt that they would be advantaged significantly because they would get better opportunities in the top level. This makes sense. Some students said they would like a streamed system because the education they got would be more tailored to their individual needs – the work would be at their level and they could feel successful. But I think the majority of the class were concerned about what this streaming would do to your psychological and social development. Many felt that being streamed from age 11 was simply unfair. What if you were a late-bloomer? What if you were very capable at 11 but lost focus as you matured? What if you were gifted in one area (like Maths or Science) but struggled in another (like English)?

The biggest reason against streaming was social – surely it isn’t good for students to be looked down upon as ‘less capable’? Surely fights would occur between the houses? Wouldn’t this type of streaming encourage students to behave in ways stereotypical of a certain ‘class’ or ‘intelligence level’? Would it ever be possible to break the mould that the school had forced you into?

I loved this discussion with my students. They were so very mature about schooling. It makes me want to teach ‘The Wave’ when we study ‘Individual and Authority’ later this term. I think they’ll find some interesting parallels between ‘The Wave’ and their own world.



Stop teaching!

Did I get your attention?


I know this is nothing new to those of you who read my blog, but I just wanna say it anyway.

Teachers too often think about themselves.

Well I know I’m a grand-old hypocrite because after all this blog is named after me and is pretty much all about me. Feel free to add your thoughts about my ever-expanding ego as a comment below.

Right now, I’m concerned with the fact that teachers are doing all of the learning and leaving students to be passive receivers. We here all of this talk about passive and active learners. We are told that active learning = doubleplus good and passive learning = doubleplus ungood.

And then we see all of the beautiful resources teachers make for their students.

We see videos.

We see powerpoints.

We see websites.

We see blogs.

We see podcasts.

We see apps for iPhones and iPads.

We see games.

We see worksheets.

Teachers are talented, creative, knowledgeable … they show their students this all of the time.

Students are talented, creative, knowledgeable … we don’t let students show this to us all of the time.

When the new curriculum hits our shores teachers will run to create new programs and resources or they will run to access new programs and resources created by other educators.

Why don’t we just let the students be the creators?

Student as teacher.


ISTE11: Breaking down the preconceived ideas

As an Australian in a foreign land, I must confess that I packed quite a few preconceived ideas about America in my luggage. I didn’t even know they were travelling with me but once I got here they just sort of appeared.

Whilst I write this my husband is speaking to my mum on the phone about beer. Why am I telling you this? Well to be honest, he was freaking out about the beer situation in the US. From what we knew, all Americans drink light beer. We Aussies do not. Full strength or it’s cat’s piss, right? Lee loves craft beer made by small breweries. He really likes a good beer and was scared he’d have a choice between Bud Light or no beer. Neither choice was appealing! But as soon as we arrived in the US he’s been amazed by the amount, quality and price of the beer that’s available. There’s heaps more options here than at home in Australia.

Moral to that story? Lee had a preconceived idea about beer in the US and it was shattered pleasantly by reality. I too have had a series of preconceived ideas that have been bash, bash, bashed whilst here in the US. For simplicity I’ll list them:

1. At ISTE11 everyone will think radically about education.

A friend posted a question on my fb wall: ‘Are you no longer a lone wolf? Have you found your pack at ISTE?’
I thought the pack would be 18,000 strong. Naive, I know. Details will follow in a later post not typed w/ one finger on my iPhone. I will say, however, that I did spy my pack in person and face to face. It’s a small but growing and intensely passionate group of educators. ISTE taught me that I am not a lone wolf, but I am not part of an 18,000 strong pack.

2. I will be able to navigate ISTE11 solo.

If you ever get the chance to come to this insanely big conference, don’t try to go it alone. For one thing, it’s not in the spirit of the conference – in the words of Chris Lehman, ISTE is about community, family, your teacher brothers, sisters, mums and dads. I was so fortunate to have my fellow edmodo blogger with me, Andy McKeil. In the words of @thenerdyteacher – he’s my edubro. Together we navigated the three buildings that ISTE11 sprawled over, we ate almonds and chocolate for protein and energy, we got excited about the future and we gave each other the confidence to say hello to our edu idols. Thanks Andy!

3. Self-help gurus are out for the cash.

If you know me well, you know I can be a little cynical. Me and sarcasm have been roomies for most of my life. I’m also a working class kid eternally frustrated by artifice. When I read that the keynote speaker on Tuesday was a guy who wrote self help books I was pretty disappointed. Yeah, I know you’re all thinking I must live under a rock or something cos I don’t know who Covey is, but I really didn’t. I’d heard of his famous book (not the one on leadership and schooling) and it just never appealed to me. I don’t like to prescribe to rules. I don’t like being told how to live my life. But hearing 78 year old Covey speak with concern, guts, honesty, passion, commitment, damn edupunk balls in some parts – well, he surprised me. I thought he would wanna sell a book. But he just wanted to sell change. To be honest, maybe I just liked him cos what he said reflected my own thoughts about the state of play regarding education and change. Change how you think. It’s a mindset thing, not a skill set or a tool kit.

Well my iPhone battery life is leeching into the ether and I’m still suffering the ISTE11 hangover so I’m going to cut this post off now.

I’m going to ISTE12. I dunno how but I won’t be missing Kevin Honeycutt again.

The data projector debate …

Every Thursday morning we have a faculty meeting where our Head Teacher reports on the minutes from the executive meeting held the previous day. To be completely honest with you, I only ever half-listen to the minutes being read out with my attention being grabbed only by that which is made salient by my personal interest – technology.  Today I was in luck – as technology made a brief personal appearance on the minutes.

A HT from another department was concerned that too many different types of data projectors (IWBs, portable projectors, some kind of cheaper, pseudo IWB) were being bought … he suggested we have some consistency. My HT reminded us that he had budgeted for one of the cheaper, pseudo IWBs to be fitted into a colleague’s room (she already has a ceiling mounted projector – supposedly this ‘extension’ makes it interactive?) and had a little bit of money left over to buy another type of data projector. He indicated that there is something available that has a tablet with it and is meant to be quite good.

So … my contribution to the discussion? Can’t you get a tablet for around $70 that hooks up to your netbook? You could use it with the portable projector from the library. Yeah – thrilling contribution. My whole way of thinking about IWBs et al has altered dramatically since the beginning of the year. I don’t think we need to be investing so much money in them. I really don’t. (Insert Holden voice here).

I can see the benefit of them for watching movies … for student presentations at the end of projects and the occasional teacher presentation but really, do you need to ‘present’ every lesson? Do you need to have your students strapped to their chairs and facing the front like prisoners in Guantanamo Bay whilst you ‘perform’ in front of them? I just haven’t felt the need for that in 4/5 of my classes. (The fifth is the ‘HSC class’ … no avoiding content swallowing there … OK, there is, but I’m still finding my feet in that area.)

IWBs just reinforce the traditional teacher-centric model of education that so many educators now realise is ineffective for the 21st century. Money is being thrown willingly to satiate the voracious appetites of supposed ‘educational technology’ suppliers in order to tick the trendy ‘technology school’ box.

If I was in charge, I’d look at how money could be used to transform our school space from 19th century school house to 21st century learning environment. Oh well … lucky I’m not in charge anyway – you should see the state of my desktop!

A reponse to Darcy Moore’s post ‘Learning: A Digital Renaissance’

The following post was written as a reply to Darcy Moore’s post Learning: A Digital Renaissance (A Draft). Please check out his wonderful post and add your own reply to keep this valuable conversation flowing.

This is a timely post – as always. I am feeling a little like a middle manager at Kodak or Angus and Robertson who has started to think digitally, but the force of the existing power-structures and philosophies regarding education are so strong and well-established that I must ‘jump ship’ or sink with the ship into oblivion. I know that sounds melodramatic – and it probably is – but all I’ve been thinking for the last 18 months is ‘No one is listening. Change is too slow. Where should I go to?’. It is very difficult to stay and bail water from a sinking ship when so many of the other sailors – and most importantly the captain – have their back turned and don’t see the rising waters.

OK, I’ll quit with my lame analogy, but you get my point. I believe that thanks to your inspiration and guidance I have learned to ‘think digitally’ and really once you do, you can’t stop – can you? I cannot go into a class and stand up the front and teach to a test with a worksheet anymore. (My poor Year 12 students, haha!) My vision of education in the 21st century is such that students MUST be given the chance to work as teams. These social skills (as you rightly point out) are an essential part of creating a civil society. Our classrooms are no longer bound by the students and teacher within them.  We must give our students the skills to effectively reach out and encounter the people, experiences and ideas out in the world.

When the NSWDEC unblocked twitter I was skeptical. I thought it might be simply a grab at seeming progressive, to look as though they are ‘thinking digitally’ just like some of us teachers, even though the power-structures of large organisations like the DEC often seem to inhibit this type of thinking. But yesterday, I finally realised how momentous this decision to unblock social networking for teachers really will be.  Yesterday I created a twitter account (@younginquirers) for my Year 10 class – they’re going to follow writers and ask them questions about writing a quality narrative. Already we are following five wonderful writers, two of whom have tweeted the class with writing tips! So, it’s nice to see that my cynicism was unwarranted – DEC have done a great thing and I hope that this move towards ‘thinking digitally’ will extend further into our classrooms!

My biggest frustration with the current ‘state of play’ within the education system is the perception of teachers as being ‘in control’. I imagine that you can still buy books pretty similar to the one you mention in your post. They’d target the pre-service teacher. I bet there are lectures and courses devoted to ‘teaching and control’ at unis in Australia right now. I bet students have to read articles on the best ‘behaviour strategies’ to ensure you maintain control in your classroom. Well I have a prac student right now and she just taught her first lesson and it was wonderful! A Yr 11 Standard English class (13 boys, 4 girls) studying a play and she had them for the very first time last period on a Thursday – and she took them to the computer lab! This would be a nightmare to many experienced teachers let alone a young woman who has very limited teaching experience. The lesson was a wonderful success and there was no ‘behaviour’ issues. Was she standing there threatening the kids with a stick/letters or calls to parents/clean-up slips/detention? Did she yell and scream? Is she an intimidating individual? No! She just planned a damn-good lesson that was student-centred, encouraged team work, rewarded positive behaviours and completed work as well as speaking openly about positive learning behaviors in different learning spaces.  The very next day (whilst I was ‘teaching’ the same class) I checked twitter and discovered that she had tweeted me (she joined twitter and started a blog the first week we met – thinking digitally!) to remind me how many points each ‘team’ earned the previous lesson. I read her tweet aloud to my students who then helped me tweet her back with their comments – we now have a hashtag for my class’ communication with their prac teacher! The point I want to make is that my focus when ‘prepping’ my prac teacher for her first lesson was not about ‘how to manage behaviour’ it was ‘how to engage learners’. She didn’t ask me who the naughty kids were and how she should punish misbehaviour during a lesson because I didn’t bring those things up. The success of her first lesson proves that she didn’t need to know about ‘control’ – she needed to know about how these particular young people learn and why the content and skills being taught are relevant and can be made appealing to them.

So why am I telling you about my prac student? Because seeing her enthusiasm for education, her creativity, her willingness to take responsible risks, her flexible-thinking and her passion for our subject (English) I know that she will make a wonderful teacher who will make an impressive contribution to the lives of many, many young people. And hearing her say ‘my whole uni cohort is jealous of all the cool things I’m doing on my prac’ makes me sad. I mean, what are other master teachers offering their students? Are these young pre-service teachers not being given the opportunity to ‘think digitally’ because practicing teachers aren’t thinking digitally? It’s an opportunity lost. And then I get all self-critical and emo – am I being irresponsible by helping my prac student learn to teach ‘hands-free’? What will happen when she gets her first teaching placement and the HT hands her a bunch of worksheets, a textbook and a novel? Will she agitate for change? Or will her lowly position in the school hierarchy mean that it will take her (like it took me) six years to get the courage to make a stand, and by that time potentially have lost the flame of passion and creativity?

Sorry for the excessive reply, Darcy, but your post really hit a nerve for me. It’s really not just about the technology anymore … it started off that way for me with DER. Thanks again for inspiring me to think more deeply about what I do as an educator. It’s SUCH a hard job – imagine deciding that you’d stand on the front line and advocate for change! You’re amazing! I’ll add this reply as a post on my blog too and hopefully encourage more to share in your conversation.

Reflection on collaborative work prompted by cleaning the toilet bowl …

Yup, I do my best thinking whilst I’m doing a mundane job – not that I want to in any way detract from people who take pride in their work as toilet cleaners, it does indeed take talent to master the perfect shine – and tonight is no exception. Hubby and I are doing a clean of the house before we head off to New Zealand with the boys for a couple of weeks. I’m assuming this is a pretty normal practice, cleaning the house you’re not going to live in for two weeks, or are we just batty? Either way, cleaning the toilet whilst Lee did the vacuuming prompted a reflection on team work.

Do you regularly incorporate team-work or collaborative learning into your teaching program? How often would students be expected to work cooperatively with one or more of their peers in your class? Do you actively encourage students to work with peers who are not considered ‘friends’ or with people who have a vastly different skill set?

The truth is that group work is often resisted by students when it is first introduced for a number of reasons. The main one would be the fear that their own success may be adversely impacted upon by members of their group. Students often don’t trust themselves to be able to stay on task when working with friends. They worry that not everyone will contribute equally to the project or task. Underlying these concerns is the awareness that success in school is a number. Success is measured by that number or percentage doled out by the teacher. Success is not marked by personal growth. It’s a shame that this is the case and that our students understand perfectly well how the ‘system’ of achievement in school works.

Working with my husband to clean the house tonight made me realise that working together to achieve a common goal forced us to unconsciously plan (he had to vacuum the spare room whilst I cleaned the ensuite, then he’d vacuum our bedroom and I’d move to the main bathroom), negotiate (vacuuming is less gross than toilets, but you have to do more rooms) and to chunk a large project (a clean house) into smaller, manageable tasks divided between the group members.

I hope my analogy hasn’t put you off your dinner – but I hope is HAS helped you to see how group work/collaborative learning enables our students to develop so many more real-world skills than independent work ever can.

So – how often do you include group work in your teaching program and is it there just for the sake of it, or do you include it in a meaningful way that ensures students are being assessed on their growth as young thinking citizens, and not just a finished product?

These guys worked together to create a human pyramid - awesome 😉

PBL – reality check

I know you’re probably thinking ‘oh no, not PBL from her again’ – and in fact I’m stoked you’ve made it so far as to read this – but thinking about my big plans for next term forces me to also reflect on the plans I had for last term.

If you check out my post that lists all of my PBL projects ‘A Year of Experiential Learning’ you’ll see that I had big plans for last term. Now time for the reality check – and something every teacher must do before embarking on another project.

Year 9 did protest poetry – they were my big success and I’ve outlined in a previous post how I struggled to get to the ‘success’ point. The students managed to write some wonderful poetry and presented these to their families at a Performance Poetry Evening at school. You can read their poems here.

Year 10 worked on poetry as well, trying to answer the question ‘Can Cyborgs Write Poetry’. Once again, the students wrote some wonderful poems. I’ll post them on their blog soon here, so check it out in a day or two.  However despite my attempts to organise a presentation (I contacted our local newspaper to try to track down a poet to be in the audience and I also contacted an expert in artificial intelligence) we just didn’t manage to get to the point where the poems were celebrated  with an audience. There are a number of reasons for this, but the big two that I know will be hurdles for other teachers were the reality of formal ‘summative assessment’ (for my class this was an essay on three poems by John Foulcher) and a very crowded school calendar – injections, photos, excursions, test weeks, sporting matches. The dream was for them to transform their poems into digi-narratives. Only two were completed before we had to ‘move on’ to essay-writing. My second project for the term was designing the School Certificate – see the outline on their blog here – but whilst we got through a couple of the investigations and one  product, we swiftly hit the end of term and the reality of their half-yearly examination which is week two of next term. Another incomplete project.

Year 11 were my final project kids. They spent the first seven weeks doing pretty much traditional style lessons – responding to texts relating to a central concept and then writing an essay. Then the fun began (once their formal assessment task – an essay – was over) when I set them a project to create a visual text to help primary aged students learn about conflict (the concept they’d been studying all term). This would be shared with the local primary school (right next door to our school) early next term. They started to make some really great texts – digi-narratives, board games, comics – but now the reality of their half-yearly examination dawns. We need to move on to their next text because this is what they will be assessed on in their exam. It’ll be work at home to finish the project – but of course then there will be the inevitable complaints regarding the difficulty of group-work outside of school hours.

Well, going through this list of projects I realise that the biggest barrier I am facing is time and planning on my part. I need to have a better knowledge of what’s coming up in the school calendar and in what ways this can impact on the viability of the projects being set. I also have to accept that PBL is hard to fit within an assessment schedule that is summative and prescriptive. I need to ensure that each project fits within an appropriate timeline and that each project ensures students will succeed in the formal assessment schedule already in place.

Concluding word: last term was awesome fun – manic at times – and I know my students got a lot out of our projects. In my heart I know PBL is making a difference for me and my students. However, assessments are SUCH powerful determiners of how we teach. My next challenge is to take on the traditional view of  assessment as solely ‘summative’ – this will prohibit ‘teaching to the test’ approaches to T&L. I’ve already had a bit of success with transforming assessment – with a Year 12 Advanced English assessment!

What are some challenges you’ve encountered when trying out a new approach to teaching and learning?