Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words!

I was playing with wordle recently.  For anyone who hasn’t come across this yet, it is an online word cloud generator.

I was using it to make some posters of our school values for display in our ‘calm’ space (the table we use to give students time out). Mostly this involves me manipulating how many times I input words with the deliberate intention of having those words stand out. My aim is to give the students something to look at that will make them think about their behaviour and connectedness to our school.

My PLN have often shared their ideas of how they use wordle (and other word cloud generators) in their classrooms. Another idea is use it to analyse text … by inputting a URL or extended text you can see what words appear most often and from that maybe have a class discussion about why those words jump out. I use it in my VCE English class in this way as part of our text studies.

I have only been blogging for a short time but I thought it might be interesting to wordle my blog . . .

I was surprised, but pleased, that ‘students’ and ‘learning’ were my stand out words. It was interesting to then look at the next level and think about what that is telling me about my focus. I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about the physical environment I teach in, and my students learn in, how much control we have over this and how it impacts on our learning.

I continued to play with this and “wordle-d” some of my favourite teaching blogs (interestingly but not surprisingly), ‘students’ was the common stand out word.  I am particularly interested to compare the word cloud I created of my blog now to future word clouds of my blog . . . what will that show me about my reflective journey and teaching practice?


Twitter … Why Not?

A couple of posts ago I shared a footnote about the power of Twitter in my professional world. I admit it took me a while to see the value of Twitter but now I can’t champion the cause enough.

I ‘follow’ 140 tweeters, mostly educators.   We share our thoughts on teaching, world events and, yes even life! We share resources and strategies that can be used in our classrooms. We help each other to solve problems. We challenge each other to  become better teachers.  They are my PLN (personal or professional learning network).

Last night while checking my twitterstream I noticed a common hashtag #edcamphilly appearing so I clicked on it. I discovered the back channel at a conference and before long I was following and participating in Edcampphilly and Edcampchicago.

At 1:00 am in Australia, from the comfort of my own lounge room, I was inspired by teachers from the other side of the world while they shared their experiences at this conference.  This morning I have a number of new people to follow and websites to investigate.

So, again, I say to you … As a professional educator, if you aren’t on Twitter it’s time you asked yourself why!

What Shape Are You?

Classrooms come in all shapes and sizes and in most cases we have no control over the shape of the classroom. Occasionally, if we are lucky enough to be there, we might be involved in the design of a new school – although most of the ‘Education Building Revolution’ are not negotiable!  There is certainly evidence to suggest that classroom design is significant in its impact on student learning.

However, we do usually have some degree of control over the placement of the furniture in our classroom.  Like many teachers I have a preferred layout.

I tend to prefer the classic horseshoe layout. I like the idea that everyone can see everyone else. As the teacher I like to be part of the group. I think the horseshoe promotes a sense of equality and sharing. Hence I started my year by arranging the classroom in this shape.  In my small rural school my average class size was somewhere around 15. This year I have 24 students.  While this set up definitely worked for class discussion it didn’t work so well for most other activities.

The school promotes the idea of small table groups in years 7 and 8. My group is a year 8 class so I decided to play along and arranged my tables into groups of four.  I carefully placed the chairs so that they all faced the whiteboard as well as facing their table group.  I moved my teacher desk to the side of the room so that I had a massive space immediately in front of the whiteboard. My plan here was to use this space for circle work, we could move our chairs or sit on the floor.  The students took quite happily to this layout. They accepted the limitation of four to a table (a management strategy to deliberately split some of my students up). They also started to use the floor space (I brought in some cushions and throw rugs – although we have some trust issues about leaving them in the room when we aren’t there!). Interestingly I regularly came into the room to find the teacher table moved back to the middle of the whiteboard – clearly other teachers feel more comfortable in that spot!

A few weeks ago I came into the room to find the tables rearranged into two long formations – large groups of 12ish leading down the room towards the whiteboard. It immediately felt wrong but I thought I’d give it a go. It might be the intermediate step between small table groups and my beloved horseshoe. It took me less than a week to decide I didn’t like the dynamic it created. Even when I changed students around (the good old seating plan strategy) students were less focussed on tasks and engaged in more ‘silly’ behaviour. My feelings were confirmed when the maths teacher asked if I minded if she put the furniture back into small groups as it wasn’t working for her either.

The next week we shared our space with NAPLAN – so the tried and true exam formation appeared … one desk with two students sitting opposite each other. Great when the only task is a test paper not so great for spreading out texts, workbooks, pencil cases, netbooks, etc.

In 2002 I spent a year traveling and teaching in the UK. I taught at one of the more ‘difficult’ schools according to OFSTED and while I implemented a wide range of strategies to get my students ‘onside’ for learning, one of the most effective was the arrangement of furniture.  I had 30 students in most of those classes and a huge double classroom. I divided the space into two areas:

  • the forward area was the ‘learning zone’ – arranged in two rows arching around the blackboard and flip chart with my desk off to the side of the classroom. This made the space more intimate and focused on learning tasks. We didn’t have to shout to talk to each other and we weren’t distracted by people walking past the door (at the back of the room).
  • the back area was the ‘do not disturb zone’ – arranged in a large group table and a reading corner with the bookshelves. If you chose not to ‘learn’ you could sit in this area and not disturb the others in the room.  This involved not hurling abuse or actual objects at me or anyone else and was rewarded with being marked present on the roll!

As I reflect on classroom layout, my focus goes to the position of the teacher’s table. I still like the idea of removing this to the side of the room. I like roving around the room and sitting with students at their tables. If I want to have a class discussion I sometimes sit on a chair in the middle of the room. I like the idea of not being tied to or hiding behind my desk. I like the idea that the teacher isn’t the focus point.

There is no doubt that how we use the physical space in our classrooms influences the dynamics of our students and their focus on learning.

Babies and Bathwater . . .

I was scanning through Twitter posts, something I do at least two or three times a day, when a thread caught my eye. A parent was commenting on the homework task her primary school aged daughter was working on. From what I can gather this task was the creation of a poster of some kind and involved printing out and sticking information on the poster. The mother was complaining about this task being boring and pointless in comparison the last project which used a variety of technology and (I am guessing) presented on computer.

I can’t comment on the value of this particular project and the mother may well be correct in her assessment of its educational validity … however, it made me pause and think about my teaching practice. I recently had three projects active in my year 8 classroom:

  • a photostory about a person, place or thing which is important to you;
  • a news report (presented on video) of a natural disaster of your choice;
  • and a multiple intelligences grid based on the novel Skellig where students were asked to complete 18 points worth of activities.

Some of these tasks involved the creation of posters or booklets.  A seemingly  boring and pointless task in light of modern technology however . . .

. . . not all of my students are tech savvy and while we are all developing new skills we still need to show our learning and understanding, sometimes ‘paper’ products allow that to happen.

. . . I can’t staple computers to my display boards and I don’t have access to a system that allows me to constantly play videos / blogs / animations / etc that students might create.

. . . students / PCOs / parents (in that order)  like to see student work displayed.

. . . teaching literacy still involves teaching print literacy so learning to read and then produce posters / booklets / etc is still a valuable learning experience.

. . . typing (and printing) text allows the use of spell check and levels the playing field in terms of handwriting (another old world skill we are not ready to throw out just yet).

. . . we need to provide variety for our students.

Students and teachers do have an ever-increasing variety of tools to demonstrate learning and understanding but that doesn’t mean we should drop the old every time something new and shiny comes along.  When I set a project I need to consider not just the learning and understanding that I am expecting my students to show but also the function of the product I am asking for.



That is value of Twitter … the people I follow (my PLN) challenge me to think about my teaching practice and that helps me to become a better teacher!  As a professional educator, if you aren’t on twitter it’s time you asked yourself why!

Authentic Learning??

I have just spent two days at a SparkL PD.  Project Based Learning isn’t new, but I am enjoying this journey finding the new ideas and rediscovering some of those that got lost along the way.  However I continue to struggle with rhetoric (if I never hear the word “engage” it will be too soon!).  In particular the notion of “authentic” learning … the idea of learning tasks with real world applications is also not new!  I know the phrasing is designed to  challenge us to think about the learning tasks we use in our classroom but I can’t help thinking it implies that tasks that are not “authentic” are just fillers.

Today I took a year 8 textiles class so that the students could start practical work.  The regular teacher was away but we had discussed the processes and projects she wanted to introduce.  We have real world reasons for teaching things like textiles and even though I was trying to explain these I could tell the students didn’t really care.  They have a choice of projects: a pencil-case (made on the machine), a phone cover (stitched by hand) and a beanie (knitted either on a loom or needles).  All three projects have real world applications and all three attracted interest to varying levels amongst the students. However my initial problem was how to teach the basic stitches required … the best I could do was an old-fashioned sampler.  Each student was required to complete a set number of rows of hand sewn running stitch and blanket stitch.  I know this is a frustrating task!  I know it is boring to repeat the same thing over and over again!  I know that a sampler has no use other than as a learning tool and to some extent it is just filling in time but until the basic skill is achieved it is a waste of resources to begin to make the phone cover.  I tried to draw the analogy between learning to write, kick the footy or ride a bike … tried to make a real world connection.

With the knitting I tried a slightly different approach … it worked with my Info Tech students so surely it would work here!  I gathered a couple of boys interested in making the beanie and showed them how to use the looms.  The idea being that they would then ‘teach’ another person each and spread the skill.  One of them lasted three rows before he got “bored” (his words). This prompted a discussion about persistence and work ethic (one of our school values).

All the tasks I planned today had real purpose … they had “authentic” applications … they weren’t just ‘busy work’. I accept that they weren’t all whiz-bang entertainment but there was a well thought out reason for completing each task.  Sometimes it is hard work getting students to see that they need to learn to walk before they can run.  But I still think there is a place for tasks that just practice a skill set.

I don’t think good teachers simply fill in time … and I think any task that is well thought out and planned as part of a learning sequence to get a student real world ready is an “authentic” task.  Ultimately that is our goal, to move our students through their school lives to a point where they are ready to take on the real world beyond the safety of our classrooms.