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?


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!