My “Fuzzy Vision” – here we go!

Well, tomorrow is officially the start of the 2013 school year. I am nervous about getting back in the classroom after two years in a non-teaching/mentoring role. I’m still in the same role this year, but put my hand up to team teach – not because I think I Iack credibility, but because I do believe in walking the walk, not just talking the talk. I’m a little bit nervous that I won’t be able to “get back on my bike”. My love of teaching, my passion for this profession is derived from wanting the best for my kids at all times. When I didn’t have my own “kids”, I felt that passion wane a bit, and I felt like I was having to manufacture enthusiasm for my job.

This year, I will be teaching Year 8 English – (in a team of three, two teachers and a teacher’s aide-special), with 56 boys in an open learning space. I will also have a Year 7 Learning Skills class of my own. I have some pretty strong beliefs about the way I like to work with my own students, so the challenge for me this year will be to team effectively with someone else – all lesson, every lesson – and relax enough to allow myself to enjoy another’s perspective and approaches.

That said, I am keen to put a few things into practice this year.

Firstly, some background info so you get where I’m headed. The Year 8 cohort is comprised of 108 students of varying abilities (and interests..!) spread evenly across four mixed ability classes. One in four students in that cohort has an identified, funded special need, and we have, from memory, eight boys in the group on the autism spectrum. The boys come from about twenty different language backgrounds and the group is 90% NESB. Literacy skill development and consistency of expectations, a safe and supportive, yet challenging learning environment are all high on the agenda.

Just because the boys are relatively needy, however, doesn’t mean they can’t achieve or innovate or be creative. If I didn’t truly believe in the immense potential of all kids, that all kids can learn and improve and grow, I couldn’t do what I do. I want every boy to feel proud of what he can do and to see tangibly the progress he makes this year.

So where am I headed? Writing this post is a way for me to try to bring my hopes and desires and theory and beliefs together. With school starting tomorrow, better late than never!

I won’t teach to the middle. I will differentiate and personalise wherever possible. I will listen and delve more deeply. I know there are bits of literacy instruction that will need to be explicit and direct, but I want this instruction to fit within an overall approach to literacy learning that is as authentic as possible. I have never been a big fan of worksheets, but feel better equipped to approach literacy in a more authentic manner after listening to Sara Hallermann’s webinar on PBL and authentic literacy. Another source of ideas and inspiration, referenced in the webinar, came from this research paper “Authentic Literacy Activities for Developing Comprehension and Writing”. In response to NAPLAN however, I know I need to tailor some of these real-world literacy activities to incorporate opportunities for the writing of better sentences, the use of persuasive language and to develop students’ skills in inferential reading.

I love project-based learning and have dabbled with units previously and am really looking forward to having a go with Year 8 English. Thanks to Bianca and Lee Hewes and Peter Mahoney, I was privileged to attend the Project-Learning Swap Meet (#plsm13) at the Powerhouse Museum a couple weeks ago. I learned more about PBL and was even more inspired after Skype visits from Suzie Boss and Tait Coles. I’m even more convinced about the benefits of PBL after listening to Suzie. Check out her blog posts via @Edutopia. A real find for me was Tait’s Punk Learning blog. I feel a bit more realistic and yet also more optimistic about how to and what I can achieve with my Year 8 boys after listening to Tait. I’ve spent a bit of time exploring his blog posts on “launching” projects and on his use of the SOLO taxonomy and hexagonal learning. (His Prezi on SOLO is a great way to introduce this approach to colleagues).

Over the summer break, I’ve also been working my way through “Making Thinking Visible” by Ritchhart, Church and Morrison (thanks to Cameron Paterson’s recommendation). I love the potential for using their thinking routines (“Introducing and Exploring”, “Synthesising and Organising” and “Digging Deeper”). For me, these routines provide a fantastic way to blend the development of students’ metacognition, with the need to provide explicit and scaffolded ways into learning, as well as frequent opportunities for formative assessment and feedback.

So much spinning in my head – and how will it all fit together? PBL, Thinking Routines, SOLO, hexagonal learning, explicit teaching, authentic literacy… I’ve got to slow myself down enough to not burn out or risk total failure by throwing too much at the boys all at once. And I want to get to know the kids, too, and how they learn without going in with everything planned to the tiniest detail – I want to be responsive to their needs and interests, and to honour their current abilities, their curiosity, their questions.

The Term 1 unit is “Life Writing” (biographies), so am hoping to use this unit to introduce some of the thinking routines as we explore the topic and texts. I’ll explore with the boys (and my partner teachers) what they see as some potential real world audiences for their non-fiction writing, and as we write, we can run workshops or mini-lessons for those in need regarding sentence and persuasive writing.But I also want to extend the boys who are ready by perhaps exposing them to more sophisticated real-world life-writing.

I am sure there will be ways to introduce hexagonal thinking and the SOLO taxonomy in this first unit as well. The boys can be given content to explore and generate deeper questions. Key words and concepts will be explored, perhaps even as mini-PBL projects, and as they explain their learning, they can assess themselves against the SOLO framework. I’d love to start the boys blogging; I’ve set up Edmodo for Year 8 and can’t wait to start using it with them.

And finally, hopefully!!! – a PBL unit of work in Term 2 built around the topic of “Growing Up”… (The units have already been written, but I love annotating adjustments!)

I certainly don’t know exactly where I’m headed – I guess I have a “fuzzy goal” or vision, together with some concrete ideas and I’ve got a willingness to try new things and to learn from set-backs, from my students, and from my partner teachers. (Check out this great video on goal setting by Dr Jason Fox – thanks Jeannette!)

Anyone want to be a real audience for some Year 8 boys????

Have a great year everyone – all the best, and thanks again for the amazing support of my PLN.

Duke, Nell K., Victoria Purcell-Gates, Leigh A. Hall, and Cathy Tower. “Authentic literacy activities for developing comprehension and writing.” Reading Teacher 60.4 (2007): 344-355. EBSCOHost. Web. 21 Jan. 2013.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 20112011. Print.

My Own PBL Journey (for #plsm13 )

Really looking forward to #plsm13 tomorrow and pulling my thoughts – and resources – together in preparation. I first looked into PBL (Project-Based Learning) seriously after visiting Parramatta Marist when they were in their second year of PBL. Our leadership team was looking for something that would engage our students, develop creativity, resilience and independence and promote collaboration. PBL seemed to tick all the boxes. Along the way, we were also introduced to Marco Torres and CBL (Challenge-Based Learning) – similar, but slightly different in focus. I became a big believer in relevance, questioning, delving deeper, and using a unit of work as a whole to develop skills and metacognition as part of the learning experience, and not just focussing on the end point. I’ve never been a fan of regurgitation as a desired learning outcome, and using PBL as a framework in my own teaching helped provide some energy, creativity and relevance for me in my teaching, not just for my students. My early efforts were certainly a mash-up of PBL/CBL et al as I was fishing for what fit me and my kids.

My first real unit of work was with Year 7 English term 4 2010. As my English coordinator @LaurenDrego had said, we seemed to underestimate what our year 7s were capable of, and we basically had three years of Year 7 units, then expected kids to make the jump in Year 10 and be ready for School Certificate-level work/through/skills. She had blazed a trail with CBL and Year 10 Shakespeare, so I thought I’d have a go with Year 7.

The unit I developed was “Journeys” and focussed on the plight of refugees. Working in Granville, most of my students were either immigrants themselves or their parents were, and we had had so many Sudanese and Iraqi refugees join the school over several years. The students could definitely relate and a quick show of hands meant that everyone knew someone closely who had immigrated to Australia – their teacher included!.

The driving question was “What would cause someone to leave their home and risk their life to seek refuge in Australia?” Core texts were John Marsden’s picture book “Home and Away” and a podcast of an ABC interview with Anh Do about his life and the book “The Happiest Refugee”.

The podcast generated empathy and a range of great subquestions to explore. We then read the book as a class, exploring visuals and text and emphasis and message and author’s intent. early on, the kids were told that their “project” would be the writing and production of an empathy narrative about a child refugee/asylum seeker from a developing nation. So as we explored the core texts, we also took note of themes, messages, ideas and structural elements that would be of use to kids as they composed their own texts.

We used Wikispaces as an online platform for course info and links, and for group collaboration and uploading of work. Two things which worked well in establishing groups were the following:

1) Students completed a multiple intelligences inventory and took note of their dominant and next preferences in a spectrum. NB the intelligences were not explored in the sense that “You are this way and only learn this way” but in the sense that “We all have strengths, and these strengths vary and when we combine our strengths in a team, the team is stronger.” I allocated students to groups of three, with each member coming from a different dominant intelligence.

2) Students surveyed staff members about their jobs and what made for successful teamwork in their roles within the school. Students went out in pairs to different areas of the school – classroom teachers, aides, ancillary staff, principal/deputy, groundsman, etc. We collated their list on the whiteboard and the top five characteristics/guidelines became our working rules for good groupwork.

Once in groups, students had to choose a developing nation, research living and working conditions in that country, and research why people would seek to risk their lives via boat or other illegal means to access Australia. They then developed a main character, drafted a short first person narrative from that character’s perspective, then created a PowerPoint or movie as a digital story.

Students recorded research, uploaded links and wrote reflections on their team pages. One girl went to India on holidays midway through the unit but continued to correspond with her team and add to their project via the wikispace. Another girl reflected that she never would have chosen the people she did for her group, but she was glad she ended up with them because she had learnt that it was good to draw on each other’s strengths.

As with anything at the end of the year, class time was lost with many events, I was away a week preparing for my new job, etc… So not everyone completed their films or stories. But everyone reflected, everyone researched, everyone panned and revised and developed. It wasn’t the endpoint or summative assessment that was the important thing – it was the learning and the engagement and collaboration and real world issues that were explored along the way.

It certainly wasn’t perfect, and wasn’t at the school the next year and moved into a mentoring role at my next school so never got the chance to tweak the unit – but I got enough of a taste that I know it totally energised me as a teacher, and my students learned so much more than course content as a result. So I was hooked.

I’ve used a similar PBL approach to cover All My Own Work with three successive cohorts of Year 10s (students worked in teams to create a film against a theme, but learned and applied elements of AMOW and good scholarship along the way), and used a PBL framework for Year 9 RE (Ten Commandments/Beatitudes – how does our understanding of these core teachings help us to live out the school motto “To Be the Best Man I Can Be?”) and Year 10 RE (Social Justice – “What is required of ME to ensure that the rights of others are met?”)

The AMOW units varied in success, depending on cohort, preparation and the team working with me. The Year 9 unit went well and the kids and teachers got into it, but the Year 10 unit I felt was a bit of a flop as I planned it on behalf of the other teachers, so they didn’t own it and never really got it – and Term 4 Year 10 was not the time to introduce independent or collaborative inquiry when this group had just switched off. (Although I must say, using the FreeBIES team resources from BIE  – Team Contract, Project Management Log, Self-Reflection and Presentation Plan – made a huge difference and I should have done this much earlier on! – Thanks to Bianca for the recommendation!)

It is definitely a learning journey for me, but one I am keen to continue. I can see (when well planned and appropriately timed) that PBL is engaging, authentic, relevant and develops skills in my students that go well and truly beyond syllabus outcomes and content and reach the “whole child”, providing them with learning experiences that can impact on their lives beyond the classroom.

Links to wikispaces for various units below (please use whatever you like, but please respect these are sites set up by me for real kids and schools – ta!):

And links to other articles and resources that have helped me on my journey so far:

I know I have so much to learn still, but that’s what I love about PBL – that I truly feel like I am learning alongside my students. What have been your successes? And challenges?

Putting a face on Data (aka ‘How NAPLAN can be your friend…’)

“The single most important factor common to successful change is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, schools get better.”(Michael Fullan)

“…in order to build success in schools, we need to see the data not as numbers but as the names and faces of every single student” (Sharratt and Fullan in G Whitby, Bluyonder, 30/4/12)

Over the past few months, I’ve presented the following information to a few different groups. In preparation for a small group workshop this week, I thought I’d finally follow through and write up the process…

Part of my current role as a LOP is to ensure that a number of students have a functioning Individual Education Plan – IEP – (students who are at or below benchmarks for Literacy and/or Numeracy (NAPLAN), new arrivals to Australia from a non-English speaking country, deemed at risk by the school, and/or from an ATSI background). Last year, this meant 1:1 meetings with 47 students and their parents, and subsequent feedback to teachers regarding student learning needs and implications for classroom teaching. I don’t like doing anything for the sake of ticking a box, so whilst last year’s process was good in terms of the value of the parent/student dialogue, this didn’t necessarily translate into changed classroom practice.

I was also struggling to get any traction around what the data was telling us in terms of student literacy needs. I could put up the numbers, jump up and down, even plead, but they were just numbers…

This year, I wanted to explore something that would be manageable for me (given there would be 137 IEPs required), but primarily more meaningful for the kids and the teachers. I had also read Greg Whitby’s post about “Putting a face to data” and that resonated with me. I crowd-sourced (thru emailing LOPS) who was doing what for IEPs. My lovely friend Jenny (@jcsymington) offered a process she had started involving Learning Surveys with all students. With permission, I pinched her survey and got started. Here’s what we did:

All students were asked to complete the Learning Survey. (Not perfect, but gave us a good overview of students needs, wishes, successes, etc.) We used google forms because this meant we could translate the data into graphics, but also convert the data into an Excel spreadsheet so it could be sorted. One of the survey questions explained that some students would have a follow-up survey and asked students to nominate a particular teacher for this process, should they be chosen.

The results of the Learning Survey itself were shared in list and graphical form with middle leaders – both Pastoral (Year Coordinators) and KLA (Subject) coordinators. Text-based responses were collected in a word document and captured in a Wordle to emphasise more common responses. The conversation at that level around what students reported was quite healthy – what they did to achieve their “proud moments” (most common answer, ‘work hard’) and what they struggled with (literacy, answering questions).

The next step was to involve ALL teachers in one-to-one “Individual Learning Conversations” with the students identified as needing IEPs. I set up a secondary survey, also on Google forms, which would give us more specific information about how these students in need were learning, and what they self-identified as helpful for them. Teachers were introduced to the process at a staff meeting where we talked through possible scenarios and talked about setting the scene, warming into the survey (small talk, etc.)

Using the data from the first survey, exported to Excel (“File/Download as/Microsoft Excel”), I was able to create a mail-merge document to provide each teacher with some background information on their allocated students. (Before this process, I had NEVER mastered mail-merge, but googling “how to’ made it doable for a tech flunky!) Teachers were given approximately four weeks to conduct the 10-20 minute survey with their allocated students. Teachers could do the learning survey on paper, and upload results at a later time, or they could complete the survey online using their laptops whilst talking to the students. Teachers were cautioned about merely administering a survey – the point was to engage in dialogue and make a connection with their students.

During the Individual Learning Conversations, students were asked to identify what aspect of school or study they found most difficult, what strategies or approaches teachers used that were helpful, and they were also asked to nominate things they could do to help themselves.

The students reported in general that time management, reading comprehension, grammar usage, career assistance, and use of academic English were areas of primary difficulty. What they appreciated most in a teacher were clear feedback, demonstrations, checking for understanding, modelling of writing, and “having fun with us”.

Using the data from this second survey, graphics and text summaries of student responses were collated (“Form/Show summary of responses”). This collated data formed the basis for a subsequent staff meeting where teachers not only examined the data, but asked questions of it: Questions to ask of data from Student Learning Conversations. The teacher feedback was also collated and shared and used to inform planning and dialogue at faculty and middle leader levels.

Sorry this is getting a bit long here, but it WAS a valuable process! The data and feedback informed subsequent professional development around meeting student learning needs. It was also used to inform pastoral programs for the coming year. The teachers’ exposure to individual students and their learning needs paved the way for a deeper reflection on the 2012 NAPLAN results and subsequent planning/programming/professional learning. It was  a long process, but putting a face to data in this manner helped make the connection between the numbers and the kids behind them. Teachers want their kids to learn. This process made that connection more real, and added to the quality of many student-teacher relationships as well.

But wait! There’s more! The second survey data was ALSO exported into Excel. The data this time was used in the following ways, depending on the audience for the information:

  • merged to create profiles on individual students who received specialist support
  • merged to provide information about Year 7 learning needs and approaches for a consultant working with the school
  • merged to provide ALL teachers with Individual Learning Profiles on the students in their own classes
  • merged into letter to the parents to inform them that their child had had a Learning Conversation, results/goals/what helps them – and suggestions for what the parents might do at home to assist their child.

It was a less than perfect process. Teacher feedback indicated it would be valuable for ALL students to have the second survey and conversation, but time constraints were an issue. Teachers generally preferred completing the survey on paper and later entering results online as the laptop served a physical barrier between student and teacher. The process needs to be started earlier in the year so the data can be used in more meaningful ways. Information sharing with parents would be better face to face at parent-teacher interviews, for instance. But on the whole, it was a successful approach. It was a way that we used the NAPLAN data NOT as a means to condemn or label, but as a means to leverage real conversations, leading to real adjustments and real awareness of the needs of individual students in our care. NAPLAN can be your friend when it is used to look at the individual faces behind the numbers…

To finish – quotes from two of the teachers involved:

“I like having that rapport, that one on one, they can see that someone else cares about their learning.  The care is really important. But we can’t just do this one off. We need to check in; it will be really important to keep that connection in the long run.”DT

“It was such a powerful experience, having that sort of a conversation with students about their learning. And when they would say, ‘Mrs So and So really helps me when she does this or that,’ I could then go back to that teacher and pass on the positive feedback. This really helps create a community of learners and contributes to great conversations about students and their learning.”JD

What are your thoughts? Would love to hear from you!

Questioning Makes a Difference for English Language Learners

There are days when you hope you do your best, but don’t necessarily walk away feeling like you’ve accomplished anything. And then there are days like yesterday, when you get an #eduwin! My role as Leader of Pedagogy is loosely defined as ‘change agent’ and ‘capacity builder’, and for a large part of my time I am lucky to be available to work with individual staff members on areas of need. What I love is when I can see how a tiny seed I’ve planted blossoms when a teacher takes something on board, runs with it and owns it.

Our ESL teacher had discussed her concerns about her Stage 6 ESL class with me on several occasions, but she was really tearing her hair out a few weeks ago. Her class is comprised of 9 boys, all who have been in Australia fewer than five years. One student is Sudanese, two Filipino, the rest Chinese or Korean. She was concerned that factions, built around language, had developed in the class and she was really struggling to get the boys engaged and speaking English. Two of the more confident speakers seemed to monopolise the conversations and the rest said, and did, very little.

Scratching my head, I suggested a few tactics.

  • Playing cards: giving the boys three cards each and require each student to play a card and contribute to the conversation before anyone was allowed to play a second card.
  • Putting desks in a circle, or “conference” table set-up, as per a Harkness Table, which I learnt about at the recent StudentMeet.
  • Using Dylan Williams’ “basketball questioning” instead of the standard “ping pong” or call and response methods we teachers usually use.

I’ve long been fascinated by questioning methods, and was exposed the notion of “wait time” (or “latency”) in the early days of my teaching in LA as part of the TESA program. But this year, through blog posts and Twitter bits and pieces, I’ve picked up some really good links and have been exploring how we can use more effective questioning to deepen student learning. (Apologies if you were someone who sent me a link, I can’t remember where I picked up what!)

Some of the links I passed along to Robyn (literally just sent via email) included the following:


But aside from that, she just went away and worked her own magic.


Robyn had been working with the boys on viewing, discussing and analysing “Rabbit Proof Fence”. Yesterday, she asked could I come to her class and observe as a “critical friend” to see how the boys were using questioning and conversation as a result of her recent efforts. What a privilege!


Students had previously been asked to choose an image from the film that they felt represented “belonging”. With their own image, they had to record why they chose it, how it related to belonging, what film technique was used and what effect that might have on the audience. Their work was uploaded to Edmodo and Robyn printed a selection of images and information for all the boys.


At the start of the lesson, Robyn reminded the boys that the focus was on “belonging” and the language related to “how”. The boys moved their tables quickly into a conference set up (4 x 2 desks, facing each other – Exeter on a budget!) And one by one, they talked about their chosen image, techniques, effects, etc.


Some of the dialogue?


S1: My chosen image is a long shot from a low angle. It shows Molly, but the angle is coming from the ground. It shows how, despite the hot weather, she shows responsibility to her sister. The low angle communicates her strength and her power.


S2: I think it also emphasises loneliness and separation because… no, not separation, isolation is a better word, because…


S1: Does anyone else have any other comments to add to my description?


S3: Yes, in my opinion, it is not a long shot. Your image shows the whole body, but it doesn’t show any of the rest of the environment. It emphasises her feelings but not her journey.


S4: No, I think it is a long shot because it emphasises how far they still have to walk.


When they had finished discussing a student’s image and information, one student would prompt the discussion to move to the next student. Robyn only stepped in to help the students stay on track, or in one case to remind a quiet student that he needed to use language to describe his image, not merely point to it.


And on they went. About 40 minutes of discussion, questioning, answering, justifying, challenging each other. This, from a group of boys who up until about 4 weeks ago wouldn’t speak in English, let alone speak to each other.


Robyn’s gentle manner, the change in classroom set-up, some instruction and practice in questioning – they were transformed. I congratulated the boys on their use of specific language, their willingness to challenge and clarify, their great questions, and most of all their manner. Robyn and the boys had created an environment which allowed all students to be heard and created a safe space for these English language learners to feel safe and take risks, not only in their use of language, but in using the academic language of English.


Next step? Moving from oral to written. But they’ve had a great start and a good grounding. And Robyn got a shout out at today’s staff meeting. #eduwin!!!



Instructional Rounds – of sorts!

Too much time has passed and too many thoughts tumble around in my head – as Tanja Galetti and Megan Graff commented on Edna Sackson‘s blog on reticent bloggers, “I blog in my head all the time.”

The past week has seen a few things I could write about – and hopefully will! The Student Meet at Shore School on the 19th (was a fantastic first of many to come, I’m sure), working my way through a PBL social justice unit (love the topic, struggling to find traction on behalf of other teachers…), and the first classroom observation/Instructional Rounds with a group who have been working towards this throughout the year.

Instructional Rounds is a means of opening classrooms up for observation – with an emphasis on objective description of what is being said and done. It is not an appraisal, or peer coaching as such. There is a great deal of theory, and some pretty important protocols to follow. As detailed in Elmore and City’s text, Instructional Rounds is designed for team members from participating schools to observe and feedback on what they see happening in each others’ schools, thereby supporting professional dialogue and system growth.

I first experienced Instructional Rounds, however, through the generosity of Cameron Paterson who kindly opened the doors of Shore School to allow visiting teachers to participate in the process. At Shore, it is not so much a system support as yet, but certainly a means to take ‘snapshots’ of classroom practice and use these as stimulus for lively dialogue about what we see and hear taking place, and from there to make predictions about what students would be learning as a result. The idea is that a “problem of practice”, something to focus on, is established, with the aim of working out how this is accomplished in the classroom, and then planning the “next work” to meet this aim so that the teacher grows as a professional, and the students benefit.

At my own school, we had been discussing the need to open our classrooms up and watch each other at work. Using a jigsaw reading, the middle leaders explored Instructional Rounds as a means to observe without judgement. The term “problem of practice” was a sticking point as it carried the connotation of working from a ‘deficit’ model. (The term doesn’t worry me, as I have seen Rounds in practice and it certainly is not about deficits, but I was happy to lose the battle to win the war…).We discussed the fluid nature of professional learning, trying, reflecting, evaluating, improving – and agreed to use a “focus area” for observations, but not call it a “problem of practice”.

So how did we get here and what made this week so special? I had used a modified version of IR with a Year 7 team earlier in the year – I was perplexed when it wasn’t as “successful” as those I’d observed at Shore. On reflection, having two experienced teachers observe two new teachers and vice versa meant that suggestions and analysis were hard to avoid – but the debrief was mainly about what we saw, and what the kids would be learning. The beauty was that even though it wasn’t a textbook experience, the teachers continued their dialogue and collegial support of each other.

The Mathematics Coordinator had expressed earlier in the year that one of her professional goals for 2012 was to grow the capacity of her staff to teach effectively at the junior level. The coordinator and one of our young but experienced teachers had attended a workshop in 2011 with Charles Lovitt, focussing on experiential learning and open-ended investigations in Maths. Because our current Year 7 cohort has 105 students, with about 33 having identified special needs, (including quite a few on the autism spectrum), the Year 7 team would need to be able to reach and teach students with a broad range of abilities in mixed ability classes. Whilst all Year 7 teachers have been teaching between 3 and 10 years, one had focussed primarily on seniors and advanced/extension subjects.

N and KG were given some release earlier in the year to plan some concrete learning activities and develop resources to include all students in a range of problem solving activities designed to both remediate and extend number skills, particularly around order of operations. KA and M then had the opportunity to observe the others teaching, but in an informal capacity. The feedback from the observation process was really positive.

We next organised for all four teachers to have a planning day together. The current unit on 2D and 3D shapes had presented stumbling blocks for some students in the past. The teachers worked together to develop a series of lessons that involved constructing, experiencing, observing, and playing with shapes both inside and outside the classroom. Each teacher took responsibility for designing and resourcing a set lesson, and the other three would then observe that lesson.

My role was to organise the time, and to liaise with people to make it happen. I typed up some brief notes on Instructional Rounds, especially regarding protocols and some tips for recording observations (descriptive and objective, not analytical or judgmental; look for “fine grained evidence” as opposed to making general statements). I then briefed the team, they chose roles for the observation, and away we went. KG would focus her observations on what N said and did, M would concentrate on what the students said and did. KA’s role was to wander around and ask the students about their learning.

There are things that look great in theory, but lose something in the execution. And then there are other things that you hope follow the theory, but take on a life of their own and exceed all expectations. And this was what happened here.

Fishbowl demonstration on 3D shapes

Teacher gathers boys around to demonstrate the first of several activities designed to provide the boys with hands on experience in working with 3D shapes.

N’s lesson was brilliant. Her manner with the kids was inviting, she was organised, clear with instructions. The lesson started with fishbowl “meetings” and the kids were told there would be three more during the lesson. When she spoke to the boys, she kneeled down, and made eye contact. The boys were invited to share and give suggestions. After each meeting, teams of four-five boys returned to table groups to manipulate blocks. They co-constructed “houses” made to specifications set by “council”. They later made isometric drawings, colour coded rooms and stories, used terminology such as vertices and faces quite comfortably. They then tabulated the ‘cost’ of their various buildings, and made a quick “brochure” with a cul-de sac, house sketches pasted on, annotated with description and cost. Their housing estates were “named” and brochures submitted (a lot for one lesson, but we have 80 minute lessons, so just squeaked in there…)

Small group interaction

Students collaborate to create and compare their 3D shapes, designed to “council” specifications, whilst in the background, a teacher observes the learning.

And the other teachers? We had a quick debrief whilst the kids were in their second round of activities. The kids were focussed and asked questions of each other. It was clear that the lesson was timed, well-planned, the parameters were communicated clearly to the boys and they were reminded throughout and knew what to expect. The teachers were great about recording “fine-grained” and objective evidence (p 93), and they were all actively engaged in carrying out their roles.

Said K of the experience (not of the lesson): “We can learn so much by observing each other. This was just so valuable. I’m a bit nervous about getting feedback when they come to observe me, but it is just so important to see how different people teach and how different people deal with difficult situations.”

At staff briefing, the whole team got a mention and N some well-deserved praise for her work. The rest of the staff have had a peek at IR (albeit in modified form), it got good press, positive word of mouth from all participants… and the coordinator is meeting her goal of growing capacity in her team. We have three more lots of observations to come – each of the four teachers modelling a lesson each week – and we have yet to do a proper debrief. But as far as opening up classrooms and learning from each other, and fostering professional dialogue? A great start and all credit to the four teachers who made it work. Yeah!


Up front, this post is a response to Ewan McIntosh’s recent post “What’s the Difference Between PBL and Design Thinking?”. It’s taken me a few days to sort myself on this one because I wanted to clarify some similarities and differences in my own head – albeit, from a decidedly non-expert, grass-roots practitioner.

Over the 18 months in my current role, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a day with Marco Torres learning about Apple’s “Challenge Based Learning”, a day with Jay McTighe on “Schooling By Design”, three days with Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett exploring “Design Thinking”. All of that on top of tinkering with Project-Based Learning approaches to a handful of units over several years.

I’m in no way an expert on any of this, but I am excited by any approach to learning that puts the learner at the centre, that allows teachers as co-learners in the classroom to see the bigger picture, to make authentic connections between what the world needs, and what we are doing in our classrooms, to ask meaningful questions and explore possibilities and solutions. And I continually grapple with finding the right balance between what Ewan and Tom refer to as the “rocks”, or accountabilities of our curriculum system, and the “whirlpool” ideas of creativity and student-driven choice and questioning.

So over time, I’ve used UBD and its backwards design principles to loosely develop units of work in Religion. Topics such as “How does an understanding of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes help me to Be the Best Person I Can Be?” (Esto Vir = our school motto), allowed students to explore foundational principles of faith in life, in movies, in news, (all of their own choice) and develop their own responses. Currently, our seniors are exploring world religions through the essential question, “How do major religious traditions provide their adherents with the means to engage in interfaith dialogue, and promote unity and peace?” I don’t have an answer, and they are searching for one.

I’ve also worked with Year 7 English students on a PBL unit where we explored the issue of refugees, and we came up with the question of “What would cause someone to risk their lives to seek refuge in Australia?” – and then students investigated living conditions in a developing nation of their choice and eventually wrote an empathy narrative around the issue. And with several cohorts of Year 10 students, made to complete the Board of Studies “All My Own Work” modules? We’ve done so in context, in teams, investigating personal responses to questions like “What is success?” or “How can we make a difference in our world?”

I am guilty of being one of those educators who has “just” used Design Thinking for a school improvement project – but it was an authentic project, meaningful for the students and me, has led to changes (slowly) and has taught the students involved about “problem finding”, asking real questions, patience, collaboration, resilience, and working towards real solutions within real limitations.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to take a student project into the wider community but would love the chance. And in many cases, my attempts at DT, PBL or UBD are most likely a mash-up of more than one approach. Research would say that critical mass in achieving school change is necessary, and having a particular platform might make it easier to get teachers speaking the same language, but we do live in a re-mix culture!

My point? I am only one of many thousands of teachers who believe in shifting the paradigms of education – in a classroom, in a school, in a system, in a country… away from textbook, rote learning, away from test preparation for the sake of it – and towards authentic, meaningful, lifelong learning. And most of these teachers are on full teaching loads, balancing playground duty, full classes, pastoral needs of students, and their own professional learning… Pushing the boundaries of what they do and how they do it is not always part of a whole school or system change, but part of their own exploration into making learning more meaningful for their students. There are amazing teachers like Bianca Hewes who so generously and honestly shares her teaching journey, including her use of PBL, or my good friend Joyce who blazes the trail for PBL and is mobilizing teachers and students at my old school, or my friends Jorga and Jenny (@jcsymington) working through UBD frameworks with staff at their respective schools – or any of the thousands of inspiring teachers, tweeters and bloggers out there who keep pushing our own boundaries, reflecting on our practice, educating ourselves so we can provide the best possible learning experiences for our students.

As educators, we are moving from one size fits all, straight rows and multiple choice, through to cooperative learning and role sharing, and now towards models such as CBL, PBL and DT that embrace collaborative inquiry. Those changes are certainly needed, and slow to happen in some areas – but the conversations, and the practices, are moving in the right direction. And they have to start somewhere.

UBD may “start with the end in mind”, but DT has the notion of “tilting towards completion” – which from what I understand is akin to the subtle nudging a teacher can give towards a design thinking project to help it align with curriculum goals. Just as there might be overly narrow projects in UBD or PBL, the same could be true for a teacher starting out with Design Thinking. But in the hands of a confident teacher, a UBD or PBL or DT approach could – and should – also result in deep thinking and problem solving and collaborative inquiry on the part of the learner. But teachers and schools are like any learners – they learn at different paces, in different ways, and come in contact with new ideas at different stages of readiness.

So if a teacher, or a school, embraces a new paradigm by looking for enduring understandings from a unit of work; if a teacher works her way from carefully designing a PBL unit, towards developing the confidence and comfort to hand this design over to her students; if a teacher uses a DT framework to involve students in a school-wide problem-finding and solution experience…they are all grappling with moving away from how they themselves were most likely taught and towards what they know has lasting relevance for their students. And people who tend to be reflective practitioners are seldom content with “enough”, and constantly looking to better themselves for the sake of their students.

Absolutely, our goal must “not be the mastery of subject matter, but of one’s person.” (David Orr, in “What is Education For?” via George Couros) But as passionate educators who are currently caught between “rocks” and “whirlpools”, the reality is that we need to continually explore ways to provide deep, authentic, meaningful learning for our students within the systems we have, whilst advocating for better ones for our children’s future.

Understanding and learning from different traditions adds depth to our own practice, skills, and knowledge – whether that be drawing from both “whole language” and “phonics” approaches to reading, or appreciating the message of love and compassion inherent in all religions, or blending the best of different learning frameworks. Whatever name we call the framework, we probably are as Ewan says “splitting hairs” – but I think it is unfair to say the differences are minimal on the one hand, yet through language choice like “narrowly designed”, or “relatively lower order”, or “just school/community improvement” imply that one approach is inherently superior to another.

 As Pi says, in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, “If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” Teachers face enough opposition from some sectors of the world – we’d do better to focus on supporting each other in our journey. I’m not mad… just taking part in the discussion 🙂… nuff said!

From Virtual to Reality

Earlier this week, I attended, and presented at, TeachMeet HIlls out at Gilroy. LOVED IT! This was my fourth TeachMeet, and the second at which I’d presented, but my first since having become more active on Twitter.

I’d attended Domremy College and All Saints Liverpool, Girls TMs last year, and pushed myself way out of my comfort zone to present at Eveleigh in March… but I didn’t know anyone then, and therefore couldn’t embarrass myself too much, could I? At each TM, I loved the energy, the synergy, the dialogue and laughter with people committed to sharing their practice. And mind you, this is always after hours, after some in the general public think we’ve clocked out at 3pm to go home after working half a day.

As some of you may know, I’m in a position where I love the work I do, but am sometimes discouraged by the challenges of doing it… One of my bosses has cheerfully said, “Keep looking for ways to turn those challenges into opportunities!” I am a glass half full kinda girl, so I do keep pushing through, but often after scraping myself off the floor and looking for a new way to approach something – or someone.

Enter Twitter in March… Since the BIG TeachMeet, and then using Twitter for backchannels at a couple of conferences, I was hooked. Vivian Matiello had introduced #ozengchat in the same room where I presented at the big TM, and that became a great way to dip a toe in and meet like-minded educators. Not everyone who participates there is an English teacher, but certainly they are all passionate and dedicated educators who set time aside from their families and leisure to connect, share and support – (every Tuesday night from 8:30 – 9:30).

Over time, I re-tweeted, offered links and support, and entered into a few conversations, I followed more people, and my little network grew. (Not extensively, but comfortably :-)). If you are reading this, you likely already know what I’m about to say, and I found Jeannette James and her brilliant, heartfelt post “With My PLN, I Am” really resonated with me. Same with Daniel Edwards’ post about “The Ten Stages of Twitter”. Out there in the big, wide, virtual Twitterverse are all these dedicated educators who don’t whinge, who don’t complain, who just support, encourage, pass on resources, send a kind word, sympathise, encourage, reflect, and challenge my thinking.

Over the course of the last five months, I’ve found I have more energy, more enthusiasm, can contribute in a more positive manner. I think more broadly, read more professional blogs and literature, and am constantly inspired by the amazing work of others. I don’t feel like I am alone in wanting to improve my own practice, or to see the best opportunities realised for our students…I feel connected, supported, and proud to be part of such a brilliant profession.

Now back to Tuesday night, and the title of this post. When I was young, if the teacher called on me in class, I’d slide under the desk I’d be so embarrassed. But I value pushing myself out of my comfort zone, so plowed ahead.  I had great support from Monique Dalli. I prepared my PK – obsessed over getting it right – tossed and turned, felt sick all day, arrived at Gilroy late, didn’t see signs, wandered around the grounds – and eventually saw the signs at reception. After making my way through the corridors, I snuck into the back of the room where Polly Dunning was presenting (her great post on her experience is here). I tried to sit alone, but was quietly called forward… and here’s where virtual became reality. I felt like I had walked OUT of a cartoon or video game, through some magic bubble, and entered a new space and time… I was sitting next to @karlao_dtn, who was really sweet and humble Karla, and she wasn’t her Simpsonised dp! And next to her, @MalynMawby, and next to her, @Townesy77 for REAL! To my right @ellyconnolly (and a nice guy who seemed quite close to her, who turned out to be her husband Andrew @akwc). And at the front of the room, after months of tweets and support, was @1Moniqued. At the break, I chatted to Malyn (who’s as wise in person as she is online), hugged a bubbling Monique, and introduced myself to, then hugged Matt (@mesterman). Andrew Wharton (@whartonag) even approached ME and was so excited to meet ME in person – who would have thought? I was more nervous than ever going up to present… but shouldn’t have been.  Because everyone there was just there to share practice, and learn from each other; some were Twitter “celebs” (in my newbie experience..), but mainly people were just there to support each other, listen, share and learn. (I’m seriously a bit too old to get so star struck, but then again my experience of an online PLN over the past few months has been an educational lifeline…)

At the TeachEat, I got to talk to Jeannette James (@7MrsJames) who has been a tremendous virtual support in ways she probably doesn’t realise, and Karla, and Simon Harper (@s_harper3 – what a brilliant presentation, Simon – so much time and energy!), Matt, John Goh (@jonqgoh) and Monique. There were others I would have liked to chat to, but there will be other events, I’m sure. I don’t even remember much of what I ate because the conversation was just so good!

I returned to school the next day, floating a bit, and full of optimism and renewed energy to face my challenges, and turn them into opportunities. So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, get along to one soon … and if you haven’t experience the great PLN that is Twitter, what are you waiting for? Thanks to everyone who has shared my journey so far – there is truly strength in numbers.

Two Weeks with the Team

It’s been just on two weeks since my first post ever. When I last wrote, I’d been working with a Year 11 group, using a Design Thinking process to re-envisage the Leadership Structure at our school. They’d had a couple of set-backs, and for reasons including time constraints, weren’t able to go ahead with all they had planned.

We re-grouped a week and a bit ago. Chatted about real life, and how things don’t always go as planned, but that the mark of a leader is how they respond under those circumstances. Leadership speeches and voting will take place in Week 5, so mid-Week 3 they didn’t have a whole lot of time to plead their case or make major adjustments. They broke into pairs – two drafting a letter to the principal, two researching other schools, a few brainstorming ideas on the whiteboard. They left our meeting with a draft proposal, combining their ideas about leadership selection and portfolios, but crafted to fit within existing structures and titles.

“Bob”, as I’ll call him, was one of the boys leading the charge – the one who came with the original shortlist of changes they wanted. And it is in Bob I’ve seen the greatest growth and learning. He was the one who was a bit nervous when the process was opened up to all of Year 11, as he had a firm idea of what he thought should happen. He wasn’t so sure that those boys “just getting out of class” to share in initial meetings was fair. But he relaxed with the process, and could see over time the value in consulting, discussing, being inclusive and listening.

Bob has been a driving force in moving the process forward. And he was probably the most upset when it was cut short. He organized the group to meet again, had charge of the laptop and led the letter-drafting process. He forwarded the draft to a couple of key teachers for feedback. But he bounced back.

So you can imagine how shocked I was when he told me on Wednesday that he’d had second thoughts about leadership and wasn’t going to put in for captain. I wanted to shake him and say, “Wake up! We need leaders like you who care and who have initiative!”  I was upset that maybe the set-backs had proven too much.

But it wasn’t that… he told me he had just been reflecting on what it meant to be a leader. And he was concerned that maybe he didn’t have what it took to take his form forward. That he had a really firm idea of where things should go, but that it wasn’t representative of the form in general. He was concerned that whilst the teachers were encouraging and saw him as leadership material, he wouldn’t really represent his classmates. And if he was worried about relationships, that would detract from a focus on his studies. So he had strong doubts about his own motives for seeking leadership.

I was sad… but felt privileged at the same time, to see that level of self-awareness in a young man of 16. Would that I had been capable of such reflection at that age! I didn’t want to push him into putting forward for captaincy, because that might only reinforce his thinking that he was the teachers’ choice… but at the same time, thought anyone capable of such reflection would be such an asset to a leadership team. So I just told him it had to be his choice, reiterated what I saw as his strengths, and reminded him that whatever the leadership team accomplished, the hope would be to leave a legacy not just for the class of 2013, but for the juniors to follow as well. And that being a leader doesn’t mean you have to be THE captain, that sharing ideas and contributing to a vision is also being a leader.

In the end, Bob and the team submitted a proposal to the principal on Thursday, with a header “From The Design Thinkers”… I didn’t ask him if he wants to be captain or not, but so admire his willingness to learn from the process and be guided by what is right for him, not by what others in positions of authority want him to do.

And again, on reflection – probably a lot of parallels in this story for us teachers – do we see ourselves as leaders, regardless of title? Do we go for a title because it seems the right thing to do? Are we guided by our core beliefs in choosing an authentic pathway for ourselves? Do we maintain the courage of our convictions and bounce back in the face of defeat? I do know Bob has given me a lot to think about in my own role…

When Design Thinking ‘Fails’: Sometimes Life Gives You Lemons…

For many months now, I’ve been wanting to start blogging. I’ve really enjoyed reading posts from so many incredible educators… Australian educators like @7MrsJames, @BiancaH80, @abiwoldhuis, @whatedsaid, @malynmawby, @adlacoure, @simoncrook, @cpaterso, @gregwhitby, @heyjudeonline and further afield, @engaginged and almost everyone through @edutopia. The volume of thoughts, opinions, reflection, the honesty and the challenges, the real conversations… I’m loving it, but sometimes I can’t even sleep! Like an over-tired infant given too much stimulation.

Why start blogging now? I’ve been toying with two things… One, finding my ‘voice’. Who am I and what have I got that’s worth saying? And secondly, what am I passionate enough about to actually take the time to reflect on and write about? (See my “About” page for more, if interested…)

Well, at the moment, my students, or more specifically, our future leaders and their voices.

Back in March, teams of middle leaders from schools participating in the Smarter Schools National Partnership project had the opportunity to work with @ewanmcintosh and @tombarrett, exploring the potential of ‘Design Thinking’ in schools. Not having a classroom of my own this year, my project focus developed as a Year 11 investigation into Student Leadership. I was hoping to work with the boys, but they actually sought me out first with the desire to explore how they could be more effective leaders in 2013. This made it even easier to begin a design thinking project with a real world context.

Any Year 11 student interested was welcome to join the conversation, and after a few meetings brainstorming issues, concerns and ideas, we had developed three key questions, with teams attached to each question. Each team had one or more teacher mentors as well, to act as facilitators. We set up a wiki as a base for sharing ideas, collecting tools, documenting progress and reflections. The kids were excited, the teachers were excited and there was a real energy around seeing this group of boys drive a school initiative that they were so passionate about.

Early on, I did caution the boys that change is slow, and that perhaps any changes they initiated for their Year 12 mightn’t be fully realised for several years. We talked through the design process, the need for empathy, questions, ideas, iteration, prototyping and reflection. I was overwhelmed by how thoughtful the boys were, their main concern being a desire to leave a legacy for the younger boys, to find ways to develop leadership skills in the juniors. (Mind you, it’s not that we don’t have a leadership structure here, it’s just that the boys wanted to make it more effective).

One group in particular had really taken the process on… They developed a survey to send to students at a few other high schools to see what those students liked about their own leadership structures. The hope was then to glean some good ideas from other schools and propose some meaningful changes here. To ensure the survey was okay, they sent it to our teachers to have a look, before going ‘live’.

Just before the holidays, I had to present in front of Tom and Ewan from NoTosh and my colleagues about our project to date. What was the project? What had students learned? (patience, communication, collaboration) What would the next step be? (surveys, proposals for changes) Did I foresee any challenges? (status quo). And at the end, playing devil’s advocate, Ewan asked if I thought this would just be a paper exercise. I replied that if it was, I’d be gutted as I would hate to think I was bringing these students along on a journey to nowhere.

Now the lemon bit… I had leave for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends in hometown LA. Whilst away, the boys were told they didn’t need to do a design thinking process. No survey. As the general structure for leadership was already set, they could propose portfolios, but there was no time for anything else.

The rebel in me wanted to cry out on behalf of these great kids, “How could you NOT give them the chance to carry out this brilliant process? How could you NOT give them a voice in their own leadership?” Everything I know, have read, have researched, that I feel intuitively says that listening to kids and giving them a say makes a WORLD of difference in their engagement and their learning. So how could anyone NOT want them to have this opportunity? I didn’t like the status quo. They felt defeated, and so did I (but I couldn’t let them see that, could I?)

And the lemonade bit? With a few days to think and reflect, I think I know how… we all have our own back-stories, our own experiences, our own mind-sets. And just because I feel something to be right and worthy does not make it so in someone else’s reality. If that was the case, great research and great educators would change schools in no time at all. Change is hard precisely BECAUSE we are individuals, and each of us needs time, and motivation, and purpose to work towards what is different, and new, and perhaps scary because it is not what we have always known…

And there are great lessons for the boys to learn, too, in terms of their own development as leaders… and as human beings. Patience. Listening. Knowing that someone else’s reality may not match their own, and reflecting on how to still get on within those constraints. So the boys and I have had a quick chat, with a strategy session soon to follow. They can still talk to mates from other schools, still bring ideas to the table in terms of portfolios or other structures… and as for all the other things they want to introduce? Slowly, slowly, through conversation, inclusion, patience, ideation, prototyping, reflection. And hopefully, their legacy will not only be some great new ideas for leadership in the school, but some lessons learned that they can pass on to future leaders here about how to be a real leader, how to bounce back, how to work with others, how to keep going when the going gets tough. And on reflection, perhaps for me that is the real value of design thinking or other real-world learning experiences… it’s not that every learning experience will change the world, but that every learning experience can potentially change the individual and how they see the world.

Would love to have your thoughts, comments, feedback and similar experiences…!