Applied Learning … Just do it!

If you have read many of my other posts you will be aware of my passion for games in the classroom. I am on a mission to put the fun back into learning. This year I am involved in teaching the VCAL Literacy strand and it seemed a perfect opportunity to use game based learning.

Reading and writing for practical purposes? Games are a no-brainer. We started each lesson by playing a game for 10-15 minutes. Quite often the board games we played were not familiar to the students and so they needed to read and interpret the instructions in order to play (i.e. reading). After each game we wrote about the experience. In their own words students recorded the rules, the aim of the game, suggestions for improvement (i.e. writing).  We didn’t just explore board games: we played card games and computer games, classics like pacman and social justice games like 3rd world farmer.

Lots of discussion later, combined with some grids and graphic organisers (comparing and contrasting) and a little bit of research (i.e. reading for knowledge) and we were in a position to write an article for the newsletter about why people play games (i.e. writing for knowledge). I think my students surprised themselves with how easily they were able to reach the recommended word limits. 300-500 words sounds like an epic novel to students who have come to believe they are ‘dumb’ or ‘can’t write’ … but actually wasn’t that hard when we started to put together the bits and pieces from our grids and graphic organisers.

Then I set them the challenge to create their own game and write the instructions. Some took to this eagerly … a pair worked together to make a variation of Monopoly called ‘Chopperly” … yes, you guessed it, based on the life and times of Chopper Read (but I didn’t have to nag them to do the research). Another student used their work placement experiences in a pre-school to create an educational game to teach basic spelling words. All seemed to be going well. Lots of fun, laughter and challenge as we trialled aspects of the games and tested the instructions they were writing.

However, two students seemed a little overwhelmed with the ‘choose anything option’. I had to rethink … this is applied learning … how can I get them to DO something that will help them to see how it works?

Light bulb moment!


line_o_1In one of my op-shop ferreting moments I had found a game that I had never heard of and never played. I was sure the students would never have seen it either. So I removed the instructions and handed them the box. They had to figure out how to set up the board and how to play the game. In essence, they had to create their own game.

We have even turned spelling tests in to a game. We choose 9 letters from the Scrabble bag and write them on the board. Students then have 10 minutes to make as many 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 letter words as they can. Points are awarded for the different word lengths.

The aim is two-fold: (1) beat your own personal best for a pick of the lolly tub (2) beat the teacher to win a chocolate frog. (I should point out here that I have been given the handicap of only having 2 minutes to make my words!). We can explore spelling strategies and patterns depending on the letter combinations each week.

My next challenge is to find a ‘hands on’ approach to reading, writing and oracy for public debate … I have an idea based on socratic seminars and a tug-of-war game I saw on pinterest!


Difficult students … difficult teachers!?!

a great teacherThis post has been brewing for a while, mainly because I don’t like to play the ‘blame the teacher’ game … but sometimes I look at my colleagues and wonder why they choose to be teachers!

Two comments I heard recently prompted me to think again about writing this post.

The first came as a student returned to school following an extended absence. The student had missed the whole school testing we had agreed to do and the teachers were asked if they could make it a priority to give the student a chance to take the tests. One teacher immediately began a rampage about how this would mean another session of the curriculum the student would miss. I sat there listening and seriously had to bite my tongue. I’m not a fan of standardised testing but in this case the testing we were doing is useful to me as a classroom teacher. It would help me to determine where the gaps are for my students and let us all set learning goals. What I really wanted to say,though, was that as teachers our core business is students.

Let me say that again: As teachers our core business is STUDENTS … not curriculum.

If a student has already missed 10 sessions of the planned curriculum, is one more session really going to matter? If a student has already missed 10 sessions of the planned curriculum isn’t it more important to worry about how the student is going to feel trying to fit back in? Instead of worrying about the lessons missed, I would want to focus on making sure my student felt welcomed back to the classroom … I don’t always know why students have time off school … but I need to remind myself that children (even teenagers) are not always in control of that situation and I don’t want my classroom to be another place that just adds to their anxiety.

The second comment came out as part of a reported behaviour incident. The teacher admitted that they had been unable to see what had happened but ‘it was the sort of thing that student would do”. In reality it turned out to be an accident (witnessed by other students) but the student in question didn’t know how to report the damage without getting into trouble. I found myself thinking again about the levels of anxiety students feel in the classroom.

As a Sub-School Coordinator I once had a first year teacher come storming into my office, adamant that he was ‘not having that student back’ in his classroom. Her language and behaviour was inappropriate. She had consequences every time it happened … but progress was slow. When he finally calmed down he looked at me and said, “How many more chances should she get?” My answer, “As many as it takes!”

All of these comments typify the hole we can fall into as teachers … the one where we forget we are dealing with children. We can get so bogged down with administration, curriculum documentation, standardised testing, pressure for improved school performance, etc., that we really do forget the two essential truths of our profession.

We are dealing with children. They don’t think the same way we do, yet! They don’t control their emotions and behaviour like we do, yet!

We are the adults in the room. I am just as human as every other teacher and, yes, I can get really frustrated when I’m talking to the same student about the same inappropriate behaviour for the fifth time in one day … but I need to remember that I am the adult. I can think more broadly and problem solve, I can take into consideration that this kid has a lot to deal with, I can control my emotions.

The ultimate goal is to see our students become confident, competent, successful adults. Sometimes this means deviating from the lesson plan: In the big picture it doesn’t really matter if they don’t complete chapter 3 of the workbook, I’m sure they’ll survive adulthood with 20 fewer examples of homonyms! Sometimes this means giving them another chance, knowing they will fall off the wagon (use that inappropriate word again, throw something, …) but hopefully they will exercise just a little more control and last just that bit longer than last time.

We need to remember as we walk through our classroom door each day that we are the adults: We are the role models. Our words and our actions matter. We set the tone for the classroom environment and we play a big part in making school a place students want to be or want run from!

Tedtalks … ideas worth using in your classroom!

knowledgeMy year 11 VCE English class have been exploring the context of identity and belonging this year.

It frustrates me immensely that students expect every thing to be delivered to them in easy to digest chunks – they hate being asked to (and frequently complain they can’t) think for themselves. I have told them that I can’t follow them around for the rest of their lives doing their thinking for them … the law regards this as stalking!!!

So, my challenge has been how to develop thinking skills in a generation that don’t like to read anything longer than 140 characters or watch anything long enough to have ads in it.

Tedtalks have been my saviour. I like the wide variety of topics, the ease with which you can search for appropriate time length (I look for about 5 min) and that you can download so you do not have to rely on streaming in the classroom (we’ve all had those pesky buffering issues in the middle of what we thought was a well planned lesson).

Sometimes I just show one talk as a start or end of a lesson: at other times I build an entire lesson around a number of talks. I even had the students assess three talks using our rubric for oral presentations in the lead up to their own oral presentations (they were extremely hard markers!!). I don’t make the links for them. They assume I have selected the clip with a particular idea in mind (and, of course, I have) and I ask them to tell me how it relates to our context. If they can’t see how it relates I tell them, “we’ll come back to it” – sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. I provided links on our class resource blog so they could watch them again at their leisure.

Short and sharp has worked! Over the last two weeks we have completed two essays for assessment and we are now in the throes of exam revision. I am pleasantly surprised at how many of the students have used Tedtalks as evidence in their essays. It has been interesting to be reminded of the clips we saw early in the year and listen to/read the ways the students mould them to fit the prompts in their essays.

If you are interested, here is a selection we have viewed this year:

Is there a real you?   /   Who am I?   /   How movies teach manhood

 Why thinking you’re ugly is bad for you

A broken body is not a broken person   /   Where is home?


What do you do to promote thinking in your classroom?

Re-igniting MY Curiosity … Day 3

start writingThe final day has arrived … I’m tired but still looking forward to the thought-provoking day ahead.

Unfortunately I was running just a bit too late to make it in time for the key note being presented by “The Sisters” (Joan Moser and Gail Boushey): “Daily 5: Establish Active, Curious behaviours as the Foundation for Your Classroom Structure to Improve Student Learning.”

I have been reading about Daily 5 through the US section of my PLN on twitter. I knew it is essentially aimed at early years/primary but was interested to see what I could take away and adapt for my junior secondary students.

But you know what …

… sometimes it’s nice to just stop and smell the roses!

I took the half hour I found myself with and sat quietly contemplating what I had seen and heard over the past two days. I started to plan these last two blog posts, I checked out some websites I’d saved for later, and I continued to follow the #EngLit2015 twitter feed.

I made sure I was early to the first workshop of the day: “Internationalising the English Curriculum” by Geoff Piggott.

As I walked in he was handing out playing cards (I do things like that … no explanation … just leave the student guessing) … curiosity aroused … tick!

He talked about the way English as a language has expanded across the globe: About how meaning is different in each kind of English that is spoken. We watched part of a TedTalk about ‘The Danger of the Single Story‘ … about looking at the surface and relying on stereotypes. I say part … nothing like waiting till the audience is engaged and then stopping the video … (have to look that up later!!!) … curiosity aroused … tick?

Then we got to the playing cards: Time for a bit of audience participation. Geoff called it Fishbowl but it was a form of socratic circles. (google will turn up lots but the link will get you started.)

I left wondering about my year 11 English class and how I could get them to see past the single story.

The next keynote by Steve Shann was “Secondary English and our Students’ Lifeworlds: Stories from the Mythpoetic Margins.”

Awesome. Amazing. Enthralling. Like nothing I have seen before.

Steve and his two associates used a performance mode, reading a specifically written story to highlight the issues we face in teaching English in high school. The juxtaposition of the two teachers (Sylvia and Minn) highlighted teaching styles, teaching philosophy, gender/cultural stereotypes, etc. I wondered:

  • What verbs dominate and drive your/my unit/term planners?
  • How does our own experience of school shape the teacher we become?
  • How can we change the pervading notions that unless it’s marked a learning task is not worthwhile; that learning is only for assessment? 

After lunch I tried to get into “The Power of an Inquiry Based Approach to Teaching and Learning in the English Classroom” … however the room was already over-crowded when I got there. I attempted to find another session but by this stage most had already started so again I found myself with another half hour of contemplation.

The last session was a workshop: “Programming Creatively for Disengaged Youth: Are You Game?” presented by Ruth Doyle and Damon Eaton.

They presented their unit of work for yr 11 English completely based on and around the concept of games and game development. They clearly linked to every assessment task and learning activity you would expect senior students to complete. They covered everything from the history of games, how games differ across cultures, to the development and promotion of a game by the students. All of this in 18 weeks of teaching!!!

They courageously shared the things that didn’t work well and the things they would change, and generously shared their unit plan. I wondered how might I be able to work in a task or two to interest my disengaged ‘footy’ boys? (The ones who always come late because they would rather continue playing footy!)

… then, it was all over!

We were sitting in the plenary session, watching the hand over from Canberra to Adelaide.

Re-igniting MY Curiosity … Day 2

The opening keynote today: “Ignorance Killed the Cat: What’s Left Out of Literacy Research and Policy, and the Implications for Teachers’ Knowledge and Practice” was presented by Peter Freebody.

It puts things in perspective to realise that “780 million adults worldwide can’t read or write” and that “2/3 of them are women.” Seeing a 4000 year old cuneiform tablet artefact with a note from a parent:

My little son opened his hand and you allowed wisdom to come into it – you showed him the art of writing.

I sit in the privileged space of being able to read and write, AND have the skills to pass this ability on to others.

This left me wondering how do you/I “allow wisdom”in the classroom. How do you/I “attempt to create the conditions in which they can learn?” (Albert Einstein).

We should also be more critical about how much trust we place in the research we are presented with. How do we apply our practical wisdom to the theoretical wisdom we are presented with?

I stayed on in the Royal Theatre for the workshop presentation: “Reading Australia for Secondary Schools”

This was part of the launch strategy for this website which will make it much easier for teachers to choose Australian stories for the classroom. I am a Literature teacher, as well as an English teacher, and I am as guilty as the next person of literary snobbery. I have my favourite classics – written by ‘dead white people’. However, I do believe we have some fantastic Australian literature we should be championing. This website, funded by the copyright agency, has support for teachers across a wide range of text types.

The next keynote: “Responding Creatively: Considerations for Supporting Children as Authors of Digital Multimodal Literary Texts” by Jessica Mantei.

We looked at what students need to do to be able to read literary and non-literary texts. If non-literary print texts are confusing how can readers even begin to navigate online/multimodal texts?

We then looked at some interesting films made by students in response to “The Lost Thing” – a short film and PSB by Shaun Tan. Students used elements such as characters and themes to create their own stories using puppetpals (iPad app). It was good to see some not quite so successful pieces.

I left wondering how I can encourage my students to include more visuals in their work. I would love to do more multimodal work but at the moment resources are a challenge. May be next year, when we go BYOD, I could explore how to over come this challenge.

Dr Noella Mackenzie’s workshop “Nurturing future wordsmiths: A focus on Vocabulary” was a full house. She gave practical activities that could be used across the full spectrum of education to promote passion for wordsmithing (not sure if that is a real word!!!)

word_clineStudents need access to the meaning of words used by teachers. We should use ‘big’ words, we should be exposing them to a wider vocabulary but it is no good if they can’t make sense of what we are saying. We don’t need to dumb it down but do need to be aware of how we introduce new words. Telling students to ‘look it up in a dictionary’ is not really a helpful solution. Dictionaries vary in quality and words can have more than one meaning depending on context.

Word clines promote higher order thinking and call on a wide vocabulary to create. Our attempt was brief and possibly inaccurate but promoted lots of discussion about words.

Students can understand spoken language at a higher level than they can write (this is exactly the problem I was having with that senior EAL student I mentioned in yesterday’s post!). We should be reading to them, out loud, every day. This poses a problem for a secondary environment – I began to wonder if instead of the ideal of reading a class novel over time, maybe a complete package each lesson would still achieve the goals of stimulating vocabulary. How could I encourage other staff across subjects to do the same? 10 minutes read aloud in each lesson of the day at my school would give students 40 mins of exposure.

After lunch the keynote I chose was presented by Dr Anita Heiss : “Nurturing creativity while embedding Indigenous Studies into the National Curriculum”

Every time I have heard Anita speak I walk away thinking I’ve learnt so much but actually know so little about Indigenous culture. Today was no different.

We started with an Indigenous IQ Test (a pop quiz of Indigenous culture). I failed dismally, but it proved the point nicely about how easy it is to overlook and build in recognition of successful Indigenous Australians in to the curriculum (let alone the point how ridiculously culturally biased IQ tests really are). I began to wonder about creating a few slides for my games day quizzes to rectify the obvious imbalance and ignorance I was showing.

I have used Austlit and the specialist subset resource BlackWords on and off. It is a resource I am still exploring but has certainly increased my knowledge and confidence in teaching Indigenous Lit (such as “Swallow the Air” by Tara June Winch).

The biggest message I took away is that we need to stop the segregation between Aboriginal History and Australian History …. IT’S ALL AUSTRALIAN HISTORY!! Indigenous studies may well look at the invasion of Australia in 1788 differently to a European perspective but the history of our country started well before the Europeans arrived.

My final session was a workshop I chose as it was specifically aimed at senior students. “The Creative Mind: A Writing Workshop on Responding to Literary Texts in the Senior Secondary Classroom” run by Madeleine Coulombe. It was another packed room (which felt claustrophobic) but we were soon dispossessed of those senses as Madeleine got us do some of the writing tasks she does with students. Using texts as springboards for creative writing forces the students to get to know the texts very well. I particularly liked the activity where students create book covers for imaginary books written on the context (in the Victorian Certificate of Education students connect two specific texts and other text connections to a theme. eg Encountering Conflict.)

I walked away wondering how I can create more time for my students to write? and, more importantly with my particular rabble, how I can get them to realise the value of silent writing?

The day ended with what seriously felt like an intimate fireside chat with Gary Crew and Graeme Base. Lots of anecdotes and some sage advice. I was impressed with Graeme’s passion for championing the importance of his chosen punctuation in his work and will use this as evidence in my own crusade with my students … and, Gary, your secret is safe with us 😉

… and that was just day two!

Re-igniting MY Curiosity

canberraTomorrow I will attend the final day of the three day ALEA Conference, Capitalising on Curiosity, in Canberra. I almost didn’t attend this conference. I had started to spiral down into the vortex of negativity that lurks in schools waiting to trap those who are losing focus, energy and inspiration. However, my stars aligned and following a quick conversation with a colleague (who is also my sister), reminiscing about how inspiring and just generally good fun it had been to attend a national conference in Melbourne a few years ago (that time it was ACEC2010) I decided to take the plunge. I am glad I did!

There is no way to quantify the value of spending time with like-minded, passionate people in pursuit of knowledge on a single topic – in this case literacy education.

Sitting down to morning tea with a complete stranger on day one, just because we had a spare chair, resulted in an interesting conversation. Between the three of us we covered the range from primary through secondary to tertiary (tafe) but shared a common thread of EAL teaching experiences. Thus morning tea was also a learning opportunity, I walked away with a bit of renewed confidence about how I am attempting to help one of my senior EAL students when I have no formal training in this field.

My first session was a keynote: “Asking Better Questions: the Power of Wondering” with Peter O’Connor. How teachers use questions is a key concern in my school at the moment.

Peter began by talking about how we have such a strong sense of wonder as children which we seem to lose over time. Watching children create and explore imaginary worlds you notice they use all of their senses to unpack questions like ‘What is like to be grown up?’

By creating other worlds we better understand our own”.

However, we seem to lose the sense of wonder, and also the ability to use our senses as we move through school. Here is the first challenge – How do you set up learning environments to promote wonder? Added challenge – in a secondary school? Peter went on to talk about process drama and how he had used it to create a framed story that allowed students the safety to question characters about their behaviour. This got me thinking about a guest speaker from years ago (Stephen Gasperino) who talked about “living the text”. My mind began to fire up about my upcoming novel studies in year 8 and 11 …

  • How can I set up some situations where we question the key characters?
  • Could I get students to imagine themselves as / take on the persona of the characters?
  • Could we set up a QandA or 60 Minutes style interview panel?

The next session was a workshop: “Guiding and Scaffolding Reluctant and/or Struggling MS readers” with Dr. Alison Davis.

This was a bit of low for me. The presentation was good but clearly aimed at upper primary school. However, it did confirm that the strategies my school is currently implementing (John Munro) were heading in the right direction. I walked away from this session wondering about how well note taking is explicitly taught (something my school has only just started to do) and how I can challenge my students to create more visuals as part of their writing.

Next was the keynote given by Gary Crew: “The Teenage Castaway: Nurturing Contemporary Teenage Curiosity into the Anxieties of an Extraordinary 19th Century Literary Fascination”.

A thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of the tradition of the Robinson Crusoe / castaway story and how it has evolved over time. One of the things I like about Gary Crew is the challenge he makes in his writing and in his critiques about how much is based on reality and how much is made up. We also explored historical and social context in terms of a critical reading of classics like Robinson Crusoe or The Blue Lagoon. I wondered if Robinson Crusoe reflects the values of 19th Century European culture, what does Twilight say about 21st century societal values?

My final workshop for the day was: “Our patchwork history: Exploring the language of research through literature” presented by Claire Saxby.

This was a great follow up to Gary Crew. Claire is the author of the PSB “My Name is Lizzie Flynn”, a fiction based on a lot of fact and a little known chapter of Australian history. The story of female convicts (in this case a child) and how they developed the skills deemed necessary for survival in the new colony of Australia. An enthralling presentation on the lengths Claire went to in verifying details for the story so that it has historic merit as well as being just a darn good read. The gold at the end of the session was hearing her read the book to us. I have blogged before about the importance of using picture story books in secondary classrooms. I have added Lizzie Flynn to my collection and already began to wonder about how I will introduce this text to my students. We have a knitting club, which the students are keen to expand to include more crafts, this seems like a great opportunity to link past and present via young Lizzie!

… and that was just day one!

Homework: is it really worth the effort?

Dad_Doing_My_Homework_ComicAs Year 12 Coordinator a lot of my time lately has been taken up ‘dealing’ with students who have not completed their homework. According to our school policies and procedures this officially means detention, although in the senior sub-school we are trying to have less of a punishment and more of a making-a-better-choice approach – so I negotiate with the students about how many nights they need to stay back in the senior study room to complete the tasks that have been set.

Really, I just want to shake the teachers and say “Why is this my problem?”

There is tonnes of evidence, let alone my own experience, that suggests most homework is a waste of time. Issuing a punishment for not doing homework is an even bigger waste of time. A better use of time (for both teachers and students) is to find out why students are not doing the homework … what is wrong with the task being set??

I do, occasionally, set homework. My students know if I set a task:

  1. It is always for a reason (usually skill practice and I explain why);
  2. It is always time limited (usually to be completed in no more than an hour block because that is an exam unit of time).

It is rare that students do not hand in homework for me (although we are often very flexible on time frames!!).

I also provide extra activities via a website and as an extension of class activities that students can choose to complete. These activities will extend students’ knowledge and skills but I am not going to check on them. I don’t have time to check and give useful feedback on every piece of work students do … not if I want to have a life outside of teaching. If they complete these tasks they get the benefit from being able to contribute more to class discussions and including more detail in written responses. If they specifically request that I read and give feedback on a task then I take the time to do that for them. I don’t need to punish them for not doing these tasks because they reap what they sow in terms of their grades on actual assessment tasks.

I also encourage students to make the choice to finish assignments at home. Recently my Year 8 English class have been working on an advertising assignment. We had 6 sessions in class, which was sufficient to complete the task at least to a satisfactory standard. I had lots of students ask if they could do some at home and my answer to this question is always “I’m not setting this for homework but if you want to do some at home that is OK by me.”

I do believe there are activities students can do at home that influence how well they do in school: Having conversations with adults in their lives about current affairs, reading, playing games (especially word or thinking games), and getting enough sleep all impact on how they contribute in my classroom learning environment.

I think a lot of the time teachers set homework because there is an out-dated idea of what learning looks like still being harboured by schools and parents! Students do spend a lot of time outside of regular school hours learning stuff, it often isn’t valued as ‘homework’.


What are your expectations about homework?

What consequences do your students have for not / completing homework?

The Games People Play … part II …

DSC_0025So … the 2015 school year is upon us. Like most teachers I have spent part of the Summer “Holidays” reflecting on last year and planning for this year. I have blogged about games in the classroom many times and last year I was reminded on an almost weekly basis about why we should be using games more often.

Initially I used games as a reward in my classroom … part of my behaviour management plan. However, as I observed my students last year I became aware that the types of games (mostly old-fashioned card and board games) were not familiar to most of my high school students. They do play games … on computers and electronic devices … usually against the computer or unseen opponents … it is a solitary rather than social experience. The experience of playing in real-time, in real life, with your opponent across the table from you, was not a common experience.

My Professional Goals last year focussed on the Personal and Social Capabilities of the National Curriculum. My weekly games sessions ticked the boxes particularly in terms of self management and social awareness. I watched as students learnt how to negotiate teams, rules and even which games to play. They managed their emotions (to varying degrees) as they won, lost, cheated / bent rules. As they played different games (and even invented their own) they learnt to play / interact with all class members. They set goals about improvement – for example, achieving new high scores each week. Playing games was a real life experiment in how your decisions influence the reactions of others and potentially change relationships.

Some students even wanted to know where I bought the games so they could play them with their family at home!

This is the most valuable homework I could ever hope that my students do. Parents have told me they often feel unable to help their high school-ers with homework … so don’t, play a game with them instead! Challenge their thinking, help with decision-making, show them how to manage emotions. You might even find that some of the relationships (or at least the tolerance) between siblings improves.

As an English teacher, I tended to restrict the games to language based games (scrabble, boggle slam, up words, scattergories, pictionary, charades) or strategy/thinking games (logic puzzles, chess, guess who), however, on reflection, I am going to increase the choices this year. All games require the same personal and social capabilities: negotiation; communication; self-control of behaviour and emotions; social awareness about the skills, abilities, values, opinions and attitudes of classmates.

The unwritten side effect is, of course, the fun the students have! One of my Year 11s told me she ‘lived for Thursday, games day!” She accepted that she had to get through the rest of the week and do all the reading/research/essay writing/etc, but it was bearable because she looked forward to Thursday.


What games will you play in your classroom this year?

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!!