Freedom Time – Genius!

failureSince my last post much of my thinking time has been absorbed by those frustrating year 8s!

I am determined to shift their thinking and get them excited about learning if it kills me. The time has come (and gone) for establishing my annual professional goals and so focussing on this group I pondered what social and thinking skills I might be able to make a difference with.

I had read, or heard, something somewhere about the Google 80-20 approach to work. Apparently Google employees are paid full time and expected to complete their assigned tasks but are given freedom for 20% of their work time to work on any project they like. This stimulates creativity, encourages collaboration and creates a positive working environment. This idea connected in my brain with another idea I have been playing with for a few years now – Genius Hour.

So I pitched a proposal to my Year 8s. I would give them Freedom Time for 20% of our English Allocation (1 period a week) and they could work on any project of their choosing. They would have 5 weeks to produce something and then share what they produced with the group. I set the challenge of a Tedtalk style but I knew this was setting the bar a little too high for our first run through. The other 80% was my time and we would work (without complaining) on the curriculum designed by the teachers.

Last week we completed our first cycle and had our first round of presentations. I am lucky enough to be in a team-teaching situation in this session so I was able to have a professional conversation with my colleague to reflect on the experience and plan how we might move forward.

Over the first cycle of Freedom Time:

  • all students had thought of a topic to research or task to complete (some were writing stories, some learning new languages, some researching famous people);
  • most students learnt to write specific, achievable goals for each session;
  • many students were able to identify factors that affected learning;
  • about half the students made a presentation, some were as simple as just telling the group what they had done.
  • However, the presentation day crumbled into semi-disaster … some students became disengaged and could not sit still and listen. They talked and giggled despite the teachers making it clear this was not appropriate behaviour. This annoyed some of the other students and one in particular gave voice to their frustration and told the group how disrespectful it was;
  • only 2 students attempted to make presentation using visual materials;
  • few students had actually ‘produced’ anything.

Interestingly when we had a debrief afterwards students told me how important Freedom Time was and how much they could learn from it. “we learn to manage our time”, “we are interested in the tasks”. The outspoken student from earlier played Devil’s Advocate and said that it was a waste of time because some people just used it as an opportunity to laugh at people or to show disrespect.

I do believe that we need to repeat tasks in order to gain mastery. We do learn from our experiences. So, my colleague and I have started round two today!

  • We have divided the class into three groups based on their ability to work independently. Students initially used words like “good” or “smart” group but we quickly dispelled this with some honest discussion about how well they had used their time, how well they solved problems, what tools they had used to plan their projects. If we are not going to be honest and own our behaviour then we are missing the point about Freedom Time and learning about learning.
  • Groups will only present to the members of their group not the whole class … this will mean the most independent group will peer assess, they seemed genuinely excited by this prospect.
  • At the end of session one all students have a project and many students have planned out what they need to do over the next 4 weeks.
  • By grouping the students the way we have, my colleague and I can provide much more support to those students who need it.

This is still a work in progress but I sensed the atmosphere in the room was more positive today. Most of the talk was to do with the various projects and some of our almost independent group really surprised us with their focus.

I’m looking forward to presentation day in five weeks … stay tuned!



Building Relationships

david-sipress-well-i-think-the-ideal-student-teacher-relationship-is-when-the-kid-total…-cartoon_i-G-65-6599-LQS2100ZIf you have been teaching for longer than 5 minutes then you already know that the single most important aspect in the classroom is the relationships within the classroom: The way the students interact with each other and, perhaps more importantly, the relationship between the student and the teacher.

This was the overwhelming truth my colleague and I uncovered in our investigations into student engagement last year during our professional leave … and it has been the wet fish that has been hitting me in the face since changing schools at the start of the year!

I have a theory that the first three weeks in any new school/classroom are the hardest. As a CRT or new teacher I found that once you have survived three weeks the students perceive you as permanent, you seem to embed into their memory, and they generally stop fighting you and start to accept you.

The first three weeks are about testing your consistency. What boundaries do you have? Which ones wiggle a bit and which ones do you hold firm on? They want to see how you react or not, as the case may be.

Once the students accept that you are there to stay they seem to stop fighting so hard and start to let you in so you can build relationships. It’s at this point that I can start to build the trust … get them to ‘buy in’ and believe that I have a plan for the class as a whole but also for them individually. With trust comes the ability to take some risks and have some fun in the classroom. To ignite and flame their passion for learning … we have some great heated discussions in my senior classes, not always on topic but always challenging us to think and communicate more precisely!

I have been at my ‘new’ school for a semester. I have had the same classes for 6 months. So I feel that should have moved past this invisible barrier and with most of the classes I have!

But I found myself taking 20 steps back with my yr 8 class and it feels like I’m starting all over again.

So, here in week 2 of term 3, I find myself reflecting on what makes this group the tough nut to crack?

  • They are a very mixed bag of personalities, but that in itself is not unusual.
  • They don’t gel well as a group even though they have been a ‘class’ with a few changes for 18 months … that is also not unusual, these are the emotional roller-coaster years.
  • I’m struggling to find  a hook to get their interest (you know, that buzz word “engage” them) … just when I think I’ve found something and I try a repeat performance it goes pear-shaped. I seem to manage to appeal to a different sub-group within the class with each activity but haven’t managed to quite get the formula right for the whole class.

My challenge is to find the spark to ignite their interest … one activity, one idea, one moment … that we can get momentum from. When it happens … I’ll let you know!!

Think about it

In my Year 12 English class we have been studying the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. original computer

In VCE English they need to see the connections between the poems, to be able to talk about the big ideas. The students struggled with the concentrated language of poetry and  I think I confused them a little by introducing Literature language to describe poetry structure.

We used basic reading strategies like looking for words we don’t know and then attempting to find images and emotions, but I was really struggling to get them to see the connections and identify themes. The other issue with English is ultimately in the exam students need to remember quotes to back up their ideas (unlike Literature where they are given passages to respond to).

It’s an oldie but a goodie to use the butcher’s paper brainstorm task but it got them working together in small groups and slowly, slowly their confidence at unpacking the poetry began to grow.

The next problem I faced was actually getting them to then translate this into a cohesive and sustained piece of writing in response to a prompt. This group seem extremely reluctant to write!

Talking to a colleague we nutted out the problems I was facing and tried to come up with solutions. I am at a new school and still coming to terms with the differences in resourcing. I have been used to 1:1 programs with students having anywhere anytime access to technology but that is not the case in this school. Due to the difficulty with access I tend to forget about the activities I may have used in the past. This professional conversation reminded me that a brainstorming program (like inspiration or might offer a solution.

If you consider SAMR   models all I was doing was essentially using technology to replace the same activity we did on butcher’s paper but by asking the students to look at the group brainstorm and then produce their own (we ended up using Inspiration) it has re-engaged them with the thinking I need them to do.

owen brainstormThey can make their diagrams look pretty by colour coding ideas, poems and quotes … They can move and delete ideas rather than crossing out … They can print or convert the diagram to word … They can easily check spelling or synonyms.

Just these few manipulations, that aren’t as easily done with textas on butcher’s paper, have allowed students to organise their thinking to the point that most of them have been able to make the jump to writing. I was able to get them to see that once they had followed an idea along a number of branches and added some quotes they were ready to move to writing … you kind of reach a critical mass where suddenly enough ideas add up to a paragraph.

In this case the difference the use of technology made was simply doing the same task a little more easily and, I suspect, using a computer rather than a pen just feels more natural to this generation.

Of course, it fell apart today when we couldn’t access the laptops … but that is another story!!!


How do you get your students to show their thinking?


A colleague asked me recently if I have any tasks or games that I use when I am starting a new school or with a class I don’t know. As it happens, I do!

strandedIn 2002 I went the UK to teach and travel for a year. My first contract was a 10 week stint at a school in Leeds that was already on special measures. So I was facing a school that was considered disadvantaged with plenty of disengaged students, in a country with a curriculum I was not yet familiar with.

Day 1 lesson 1 I faced a group of 30 year 10 students who completely ignored everything I had to say and simply continued with their own activities. (Although at least they hadn’t started throwing things at me … yet!)

I was teaching English and I needed to get them writing and, more importantly, to begin to establish a relationship with them so they cared enough to listen to me. Thinking on my feet I began simply to write activities on the board … students would either join in or not … that was their choice … I responded to those who chose to join me.

From that moment of panic this activity was born. I have refined it over time and have used it many times. I reveal tasks one at a time so as not to scare the students … as the teacher you can add or delete tasks as you want to.

Over the course of the tasks (about a week of lessons) I can begin to see how students react to a variety of different tasks, to see where their strengths and weaknesses are in terms of English skills / thinking skills / communication skills, how well they work as individuals and in pairs … and …  begin to have conversations about TV shows, films, books, real-life experiences that build foundations for that important student-teacher relationship.

By the end of the exercise students have usually surprised themselves with the amount they have written and I give them a chance to redraft and craft a cohesive story to submit as their first assessment task.



What activities do you use to get to know your students?

Everything old is new again!

At the very end, and I mean literally the last week, of the 2013 school year I took hold of an opportunity for another amazing adventure … and changed schools!

So now I find myself almost at the end of the first term in my suburban secondary college. Apparently this is only a medium-sized school, having an enrolment of just under 1000 students … twice as big as my last school and almost 10 times as big as the rural school I spent my first 20 years teaching in!

roseThings are starting to come into focus again. As our friend Shakespeare mused about roses, a school is a school is a school! We’re all in the same business of managing children, we work to the same curriculum outcomes and are guided by the same rough guidelines from the Department of Education … but every school has little quirks, little things they do differently … I describe it like looking at a familiar photograph that is slightly out of focus. Little things like roll marking, how to book equipment and library resources and even the particular model of lesson planning they use, take time to adjust to. Trying to fit what I know from past situations to suit this situation takes time and effort.

It’s been interesting, frustrating, stressful and, at times even, fun … but also exhausting.


How do you help new staff to settle in to your work place?

Running Dictation

A core group of my colleagues and I have been on a mission to find as many uses for sticky notes in teaching as we can. This link came up on my twitter feed last night courtesy of retweets but ultimately from @TeachingEnglish. I have waxed lyrical about the power of twitter before and last night did not let me down.

My year 7 English class are in a writing kind of mood at the moment. They even redraft their work … YES!! I said … redraft.

I get comments like “Miss, can you just check this to see if it makes sense but remember it’s only my first draft”. One of my students even got her Mum and older sister to help her with her first draft so that I only had to read the second draft (she showed me the first draft).

When I followed the link and read 15 ways to use ‘post-it notes’ to teach English  I knew I had found the physical activity I needed to break up our double lesson … #4) running dictation.

Image0505Image0506I asked the students to pair up (12 pairs and a trio today). I had prepared the sticky notes with text from the first chapter of the first book of Harry Potter, with 20-ish words on each sticky note.

Then the race was on!

I gave them 15 minutes to collect (read, remember, retell and write) as many of the quotes as possible. They took turns to be the writer and reader.

A group of year 11s were quite bemused watching the year 7s run happily back and forth across the learning space trying to remember as much of each quote as possible and writing like their lives depended on it.

It was fun, frenetic and something all of them could do regardless of ability. Even my Aspergers’ got into this, despite the chaos in the room … and were the first to recognise the source of the text :)

At the end of the session we talked about the skills we had used … reading, memory, grammar, punctuation, spelling, speaking clearly, team work. I told them that normally I do this as straight dictation as a listening skill … we decided that we like Running Dictation much better.


Any other great ideas for sticky note activities????

Rewards to shout about?

My year 7 English class are a unique mix of personalities and, like most stand alone secondary schools, it takes a while for those personalities to learn to work together. This group are particularly LOUD! Their homeroom teacher (also the year 7 coordinator) and I were reaching serious frustration point in trying to encourage an appropriate level of noise for inside work. Then, while randomly surfing the net and the app store, I found an ipad app called Too Noisy.

too noisytoo noisy 2We experimented with the free version and eventually the yr 7 teachers have bought the app to get all the features. Essentially it is a noise meter with graphics that allow students to see when they are getting too loud. The teacher can set the levels for different activities. It is most effective when shown on the whiteboard so all students can see it but if I am using the whiteboard then I just set my ipad on the front of my desk.

The most recent updates have included a star system … if students can keep the noise level below the yellow (halfway mark) for a set number of minutes they earn a star. If they get too noisy and ‘crack the screen’ setting off the alarm they lose a star.

This has really appealed to the students and we now have a new challenge in our classroom. I have set the star level to 4 minutes. The challenge is to earn 10 stars in a double lesson (90 minutes).

This then prompted the question “What will we earn?”

Seemed like a fair question and when I threw it back to the students they could only come up with “fish & chips” or “chocolate frogs”.

I’m not against extrinsic rewards, especially at junior levels to work towards self management … I offer a chocolate frog each week as part of our spelling games …  but it did strike me that the only rewards they could think of were food rewards and not really ‘healthy’ options. I joked that I would be happy to bring a bag of apples or carrots as a reward but that didn’t go down too well. After some thought they decided that the reward could be a games session … I have a game we play in teams that promotes vocabulary, grammar and thinking skills (students especially like the ‘hot seat’ rounds where they are under pressure to come up with words).

So this is now our goal … 10 stars = 1 games session!

What I like about it is:

  • A) the students chose it;
  • B) it is something that is fun, not expensive and everyone can be involved in;
  • C) it doesn’t link goal achievement with food.

Not everything we do needs an extrinsic award, ultimately we move towards intrinsic satisfaction with a job well done … hence not every goal in our class has a reward but it doesn’t hurt to have a little fun every now and again.


What is your attitude to rewards?

Play to Learn

Yesterday was Day 1 Term 3 … the day TPL met TLAP!

Term 3 is action term for my Teacher Professional Leave (TPL) journey. I have designed a Literature unit for my Year 10s around the specific study of the novel “The Hobbit” but with the driving question How would our lives be different if we didn’t tell stories? My focus is on project based learning and I am looking for ways to increase student voice and choice in their learning activities. My driving question is How can I encourage my students to take more responsibility for their own learning?

In the past few weeks my twitter feed has been speckled with talk about a book, Teach like a Pirate (TLAP) by Dave Burgess, and the holidays seemed like an opportunity for some wider reading. I devoured this book in a few hours and it joined sooooo many dots for me as a teacher.

My traditional introductory lesson for “The Hobbit” is to read the opening descriptions and have students draw what they imagine. After reading TLAP I redesigned this lesson and, WOW, am I glad I did.

First, room layout.


Traditionally the room tends to be a horseshoe layout, great for whole class discussion but not for group work. So I spent 10 mins at recess moving furniture.

The single table to the side of the room was filled with resources: textas, pencils,  paper, play dough containers. I had also placed play dough in the centre of each table group … I wanted the students to notice this as part of their entry experience.

From the moment the students came into the room they had a different expectation about the lesson just because it looked different.

We started by getting comfortable (they could sit on the floor if they chose) and then I asked them to close their eyes. I walked them through some relaxation techniques to clear their minds and then asked them to imagine a light and walk towards it … as they did this I began to play The Morning Song from Peer Gynt (music only) …

As you step out into the light you see a world you have never been to. Look around; what can you see, smell, hear, touch?

You notice a group of creatures. Remain hidden, so you don’t scare them, and observe them.

Then they had to create one or more of the creatures they saw. They could draw them or make them … or use a combination. It was interesting to observe which students chose which medium. However, almost all of them began to tell stories to each other about their creatures and the worlds they came from

… without being prompted to

… without moaning “Do we have to?”



After about 2o mins I asked them to write about their creatures. To begin to write down the stories they were starting to tell to each other.

We concluded the lesson by reading the first three pages of The Hobbit.

My TPL colleague came in a couple of times to observe. She was amazed on one of the visits … “They are all writing!”

Almost all of the 25 students spent 30 minutes just writing about their creations … I had two who would rather use ‘oral traditions’ and took a little more encouragement ;)

For two hours, 25 year 10s (15 year olds) were completely engaged in learning about the art of storytelling!

Free Time!


These words strike fear into my heart!

In fact when a colleague told me recently that they had booked the computer room and left instructions in an extra for “free time” I actually screwed my face up and said, “OOhhhhh, you didn’t?” in a pained voice.

I first came across this concept when I was supply teaching in the UK at a school I now affectionately refer to as the ‘school from hell’. It was a tough, inner city school already on special measures. I walked in to my first class, Year 10 English, and was greeted with, “We always get free time on Fridays, Miss”. Sceptical but open to new ideas I enquired what that meant. Apparently it was ethically, educationally and socially acceptable to sit around for an hour and do nothing! (I thought we called that lunchtime?!?) Even more incredulous to me was that the students apparently just got “free time” without having to do anything to earn it. I let them get away with it … once!

The second week, I introduced the concept of earning privileges. On Monday I posted the goals for the week (tasks to complete, including attendance) and any student who had completed them by Thursday would get to participate in “Games Day Friday”. Games day was actually a trivia quiz competition and was surprisingly successful.

More recently, I had a difficult Year 7 English/Humanities class … to be fair, they had had an incredibly disrupted start to High School with a large number of staff changes in their first six months. So we needed a reward system as part our behaviour management plan and “Games Day Friday” appeared again. This time I brought in games (Scrabble, Pictionary, Charades, Boggle, etc.) and students had a choice.

I have no issue with students having choices in activities. I am quite happy to have a classroom where students do different things in the lesson. In fact, I welcome it. One of my professional passions is to help students develop their independence. But even when taking “Free Play” with preps, it was not a free-for-all.

The trouble with “free time” in the class room is it serves no purpose. It doesn’t help students to make choices. It doesn’t help them to improve any skills they aren’t already good at. It doesn’t help the teacher because bored students (especially teenagers) tend to make bad behaviour choices. It isn’t fair to anyone!

“Free time” is a cop-out. It is a frustrated teacher looking for a quick lesson plan. It is students taking an easy, lazy option … and more often, taking advantage of a situation.

To be fair to my colleague the specific situation I spoke of at the start of this post arose because the class was decimated due to a sports day and the teacher didn’t want to ‘punish’ the remaining students by giving them extra work. However, even this situation can be planned for. My suitcase of selected, appropriate games (determined by me, for the classes I teach) usually lives next to my desk. I also have weblinks to selected, appropriate activity sites on my virtual classroom page. Students still have choices and are not doing ‘extra work’. The teacher doesn’t need any particular knowledge or expertise to take the class. But … the session is not just an extension of lunchtime conservations.

I don’t call it “Free Time” but I am happy to call it “Free Choice”. There are still clear educational outcomes associated with any session resulting in “Free Choice”.


What is your “free time” plan?

Tell me a story …

We started a new semester this week. For me it was also a new subject … we have decided to run a Year 10 Literature unit! I joked with my students last term that I was on a mission to take over the world. I would know I had achieved my goal when we had more classes of Lit at Year 12 than English! I love teaching Literature because essentially it is teaching thinking. I was lucky enough to have a Year 12 Lit teacher who continually challenged us to think for ourselves and justify our thoughts. We didn’t have to agree with her or with each other but we had to use the evidence in the texts. This is the approach I take with my students … I ask questions and highlight alternative theories of interpretation.

I faced a couple of big dilemmas in planning this unit. This is my first opportunity to convince the students to join my crusade. If they don’t enjoy Year 10 Lit then they won’t choose it again in the following years. So two things are really important: text choice and introductory hook.

For text choice I’ve gone with “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien. After some discussion with the other Lit teacher at school I decided to build the course around one text which we will look at closely. We can link with poetry (world war I and classic epic tales) and the movie adaptation. So lots of Literature skills being ticked off there.

But the hook, the hook!

In Year 11 the first activity I do is to read a poem and work through how our understanding changes as we learn new information. The hook here is I perform “Dear Mr President” by Pink as a poem. It takes the students a little while to work out why this ‘poem’ sounds familiar, and prompts a lot of discussion about the nature of poems vs songs.

In Year 12, as mentioned before, I start by reading “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. This text covers so many elements of critical theory and I love performing the “roll their terrible eyes, gnash their terrible teeth” parts.

Year 10 caught me a bit by surprise. I had planned, and prepared, an activity using an art work created with dots. The metaphor would be that looking at the details shows us different things to looking at the big picture. The activity was designed to position the students as participants not audience (I am keen to avoid lecturing) … however ... I thought I had another week and left all the resources at home!


So, I raced to the library and yet again my love for picture story books got me out of a hole.

“DragonQuest” by Allan Baillie is my second favourite PSB. It resonated really well with the metaphor I had planned to start with, it linked very well with the iconology of The Hobbit in terms of medieval imagery, reading it demonstrated the importance of oral story telling  … and it surprised the Year 10s! We read it, or should I say I performed it, twice in the first lesson. It reminded me, again, that PSB have soooooo much to offer in a secondary classroom … and of course not all PSB are actually aimed at young children anyway!

This wasn’t the hook I had planned, but it will be next time this unit runs! It worked really well for something with very minimal planning … following the lesson, I had a conversation with the other Lit teacher and reflected on the ups & downs. Since then I have annotated my lesson notes so I can improve the delivery next time round.

In our last session before the holidays I read them “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and we had a discussion about why grammar, punctuation and spelling are important. The lesson with the art work will be the first session after the holidays and will refresh our thinking ready for term three.


What has been your best “hook” for a lesson / unit?


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