Come join us for a chat … an #OZPBLCHAT!

I’ve been tinkering away at project-learning in my classroom since October, 2010. A month or so before that my friend Dean Groom introduced me to this new way of doing things … I imagine he could sense how frustrated I was with trying to integrate technology into my classroom with little purpose or direction. Anyway, if you’ve ever read another post on this blog you’ll know that the rest is history. I’ve stuck with PBL through the failures and the successes, the tantrums and the celebrations. Why? Either I’m just a stubborn git or this project-learning thing has some merit. I’m happy to argue that both are true.

Mid-way through last year I decided to undertake a Master of Education because I felt so passionately about PBL – I wanted to get the data to back up my belief that technology is integrated meaningfully into the classroom only when we use an appropriate pedagogy such as PBL. I wanted to get the data so I could SPREAD THE WORD about the awesomeness of PBL. I wanted all teachers in Australia to give PBL a go and see the impact it will have on them and their students. But guess what? I didn’t need the MEd to do it – people didn’t want ‘research’ data … they wanted to see how it works from a teacher’s perspective, they wanted to see the pit-falls and the joys, they wanted to see that it’s worth doing again and again. And now … there’s HEAPS of interest in PBL!! Yay Australia!!

OK … to get to the point of this post. Due to the massive surge in interest in PBL (and not only tentative interest but people and faculties and even whole schools committing to doing PBL now and very soon!) I have decided that there’s a need for a weekly (or fortnightly depending on the time of term, lol) PBL chat. There’s already #pblchat which is moderated by the beautiful Theresa Shafer of the New Tech Network, but it’s mostly for the US and thus focuses on their standards and Common Core etc. We need an AUSTRALIAN PBL chat! Why? Because we have a new Australian Curriculum that’s being implemented soon and it is SCREAMING for project-learning … so we’re going to have a chat. When? Mondays from 9pm until you all get bored or leave to watch #qanda.

Typically twitter chats are democratic … in that the participants get to select the topic. I’m going to change that. I’m going to go all authoritarian and determine the topics for the rest of the term. How come? Because there isn’t that long to go until the end of the year and I figure there are some key elements of PBL that just need to be covered … namely, BIE’s 8 elements of PBL. So below is a suggested outline of weekly topics for the next 5 weeks. I would, however, love your suggestions for focus questions for each topic – post ‘em as a comment if you’ve got ‘em. These 5 topics take us until the end of term (public school term, that is, haha) and after that we can become democratic e.g. let’s have a holiday and resume the chat when we’re all rested and eager to start a new school year.

Oh, and if you’re not on twitter and don’t want to be, don’t worry! I’ll be collecting all of the best tweets using storify and adding them to a weekly wrap-up blog post 🙂

Monday 19th November: The what and the why.

–       What is this PBL thing?

–       Why should I care?

Monday 26th November: Significant Content & Student Voice and Choice

Monday 3rd December: Driving Question & Need to know

Monday 10th December: In-depth Inquiry & 21st century skills

Monday 17th December: Revision and Reflection & Presentation

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.


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.

Teacher Professional Development – an inquiry approach

This is a hasty post to document an idea that developed in my head as I peeled boiled eggs for my son’s breakfast. It is an idea that has got me thinking about the nature of the professional development that I offered last year as a means to get teachers up-skilled for DER. The approach was – ironically – teacher-centred. A flaw in design learned through exposure to many teacher professional development experiences over six years of being a teacher. (Aside – I did alter this design in the second half of the year, to minimal success – for another post maybe.)

Project Based Learning has taught me that students perform well under pressure – if the pressure is to produce a product that has a very definite authentic audience and the project itself is real-world relevant.

If it works for students then it will work for teachers. How do I know? Because I have seen and been the teacher who is prompted to present at a conference in two weeks time and manages to create something wonderful that makes ripples. (I didn’t mean for the wonderful to be applied to me just there – ah false modesty, Orwell has taught me well. But truly, it is a thought experiment for you to indulge.).

Teachers are under pressure from all angles – but this pressure is often of the uninspired kind: ‘Must learn the new Syllabus for my subject’, ‘Must learn to perfect teaching essays’, ‘Must mark these 150 creative pieces by Wednesday’, ‘Must complete the Risk assessment for the excursion by Friday’. You know what I mean, right?! Where’s the glory in those things? Where’s the celebration of teacher achievement, or creative teacher practice, of successes in the classroom? Basically we have to wait until the end of the year until the NAPLAN, SC and HSC results come out. Maybe if you’re lucky your kids will have been able to produce in the exam and you get what a friend of mine coined as ‘the golden orb’ – the student gets the top ‘band’ and this golden hue reflects back on you as the ‘quality’ teacher that ‘produced’ this result. But, let’s remember that often individual teachers aren’t ‘acknowledged’ by the executive for these results in fear of alienating other teachers whose students didn’t ‘achieve’. Celebration of teachers here is not guaranteed – but interestingly it is one of the only opportunities given to individual teachers to get that ‘wow, you did something amazing’ moment. So, let’s calculate this – you get to possibly experience the celebration of your profession, your craft, your science maybe three times a year. And only if your craft garners results that are deemed ‘top quality’. (Aside – I am not discounting those moments where we take kids to competitions and they do well, or the school production/band etc performs well and we’re congratulated as individuals at staff meetings – oh, and the fact that our principals, head teachers, deputies say we’re working hard and thank us – these are brilliant and mean a great deal to us all.)

SO – let’s make an authentic audience for our teachers. Let’s force them to inquire into their practice. Not because an external body said teachers have to in order to receive that shiny tick which means they are a ‘quality teacher’ who can stay in the profession. Let’s get MORE of our colleagues EXCITED about what technology can bring to their craft, art, science (teaching) in order to enhance the student and teacher experience of education.

I have a small group of teachers who have offered to be DAGs (DER Action Group) at my school. I haven’t been a good leader when it comes to this group. I haven’t encouraged them to inquire into DER. I must make this up to them.

So here’s the vision:

Each teacher will be asked to create a driving question that relates directly to his/her specific KLA and technology. For example, ‘How can bringing technology into the classroom help my students to be better writers?’ (ENGLISH) or ‘How can having access to the internet in the classroom help my students become better researchers?’ (HISTORY) or ‘How can having access to a laptop help my students to understand the role of languages in the 21st century?’ (LOTE)
The teachers will be given approximately 5 weeks to inquire into this problem, complete at least 5 blog posts on their findings (including posing questions relating to the driving question on social networking sites like edmodo, yammer, twitter, facebook), implement some of the new strategies developed in his/her classroom and then present on these findings to the whole teacher-body at a specified staff meeting. (Yes, the product is hypocritical – it is teacher-centred, but let’s face it this is getting the ball-rolling, they are modelling inquiry-learning to other teachers, who hopefully will be inspired to take up their own projects!) Once the school presentation is done, each teacher will present at a Regional conference. How do I know this? Because if someone is doing something cool, has found out answers to an essential and difficult question relevant to teaching, then other people want to hear about that. Besides, this project necessitates the establishing of a Personal Learning Network powered by social networking (insert evil laugh here) and thus these teachers will have already connected to interested teachers – an authentic audience!

So that’s my plan. Teachers do crazily creative, awesome, beautiful, amazing things – we should celebrate these by sharing them with an authentic audience.

OK, I probably should go and insert some hyper-links and pretty pictures into this post. But my kids are asking for more food.

The Teacher-leader Conundrum

If you have read my previous post, you will know that in two days I will be presenting at the Office of School’s Conference – Engaging Learners Through Innovative Practice. I was encouraged to submit and EOI for this conference by a twitter colleague, Ben Jones. Having spent a lot of time communicating with a fellow English teacher and twitter colleague, Troy Martin, I asked Troy to co-present with me on leading the implementation of the Digital Education Revolution at our schools. I found writing the EOI difficult, but was pleased (and nervous) that it was ultimately accepted.

(NOTE: If you want to ignore my ramblings, and help out a teacher-leader in need, scroll to my last paragraph! 😉 )

My vision for the conference was simple – share our experiences, our strategies and our visions for the future. Simple, right? Well, no. I created a PowerPoint (I personally loathe watching PPs but felt it was the best mode of delivery for me, using it as mostly timed slides, like a ‘movie’ with lots of images and short prompts for us to talk to) and shared it on twitter and this blog via SlideShare. I got feedback. It was positive. I felt content. Then I started to think, really think.

And then I read a series of twitter posts by my PLN nobility, Kelli McGraw, Jan Green, Tony Searl, Darcy Moore and Jacqueline Woodley. The focus was on leading change – just how can leaders encourage teachers to change from 20th century education model, to a 21st century education model?

Reading kelli’s blog post really cemented a position I had been edging towards in the last few weeks – at what point to I ‘let go’ and allow teachers to learn independently. How much professional development should I ‘deliver’ to teachers? Is being an enthusiastic and energetic promoter of blended learning enough? What level of change/adaption can I expect from my colleagues?

Kelli and Jan lead me to Roger Pryor’s blog post on leading from behind. It is odd how things come together at pivotal moments. Roger’s quotes from Mandella had a powerful effect on me. It reminded me of a video that Troy showed me via a skype chat one night many months ago – it’s in our presentation – Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy. I am lucky. I was a lone nut that was nourished by her environment, given time and resources to explore the changes in education that technology is facilitating. And then, through a combination of hard work, passion and sheer luck I attracted a handful of first followers. BUT I have let them down – I have failed to nourish them in return, failed to guide them, to grow them, to support them.

I’d like some help from my PLN and my new readers – how can I become a better leader now that I have surpassed the lone nut phase. I have shown them what is possible and why. Where to now? I feel change is important, but perhaps I have neglected focusing on why it is important. I need to refocus on outcomes – what is it that teachers desire from their learners. How do they do this now and how can technology be used to enhance this? Each teacher needs to be asked ‘why change what I’m doing’? How can I encourage MY learners (the teachers) to engage with this question honestly? How can I make it fun and meaningful when teacher time is so precious?

Thanks in advance. I present this Thursday.


And so it begins …

Beginning something new is never easy and quite often it is daunting – enough to induce heart palpitations and sweaty palms. Beginning something that involves baring yourself to a world of people (no, not in a creepy and illegal way) without knowing how they will respond, or of they will respond, is further confronting. Beginning something that involves writing about your profession? Well, I don’t think a description of that anxiety is needed!

This blog has blossomed from online discussions via twitter and email with fellow teachers who are passionate about their profession – teaching. Many of these wonderfully dedicated, creative and inspiring people keep blogs in order to reflect upon their day-to-day adventures in the education sector. It is with their many informative blog posts in mind, that I have made the decision to establish my own blog.

This will be a place where I reflect on the successes, the failures, the joys and the disappointments of teaching English to years 7-12. Currently heading into my sixth year of teaching at the one school, I feel that I can learn from such reflections and that any feedback I receive will improve my teaching. The true nature of education is beginning to unravel itself in front of me via the tweets of other educators, conversations with equally enthused colleagues, attendance at conferences and reading widely in my field. The true nature of education has also begun to unravel itself in my classroom – a place I cherish, where learning is not only essential but exciting, challenging and fun. And the true nature of education is spiraling out with the relationships that have formed with the young people I havethe pleasure to guide through the journey of growing up and learning to love learning. Yep, teaching is awesome.

A secondary factor has also contributed to my decision to create this blog (despite my fears that I am writing simply for myself) – the Digital Education Revolution. Since the promise of a 1-1 learning environment for all students from years 9-12, I have found myself in a confusing wonderland of new ideas about teaching, about learning and about the progress of society and the individual within it. I often feel frightened by the challenge and threatened by what I do not know. I suppose it is this that I wish to explore on this blog as well – just what is a revolution that is forced upon an individual  by a government? Can we teachers encourage others to see it not as a revolution, but as a vision of our time and not the distant future?

I am so excited about my profession right now, but I am also overwhelmed. This will be what I blog about. I hope you are kind to my words, for my words are my thoughts and my thoughts are me.