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A year of change ahead

Shiny shoes, Crisp new uniforms, Bulging backpacks, Brand new lunch boxes, Untouched exercise books

Yes Australia Day is over and it’s back to school time here in Australia. Week one has come and gone and the term feels like it is up and running at full steam. My Labradoodle Monte may not agree but I love the start of a new school year. After a relaxing and much needed break I am ready to come back to work.

The playground was a palpable mix of excitement and nerves as the students gathered to find out their classes this week. A fresh start for some, a new classroom for most, smiling faces, young eager learners. As we made our way into our classroom life felt good.

Yet for me this year will be one of changes as well as similarities. For this year I am sharing my class. As the new PYP coordinator my year will be full of changes, a different workload, new expectations, new challenges and new relationships. Mrs W and I will both be teaching a half load. So we must learn to share, to negotiate and above all to communicate. We will need to build secure relationships not just with our students but with each other.

For the year 6 students their lives too will be full of changes and similarities for they too must continue on their journeys in learning to share, to negotiate and to communicate. They too will need to build relationships with not one but two teachers, so that they can effectively communicate their needs with us both.

Challenges lie ahead I know but bring it on, I say. Bring on the school year of 2014. I am looking forward to the challenges, the ups and downs, the pluses and minuses and everything that will go to make it a great year of learning both for me and my students.


A new beginning

My summer is over. I am in Adelaide on a PYP course and slowly my school brain cells are coming to life. As usual part of my awakening is a few moments of panic as I reflect on all the school tasks I did not complete over the holidays and the knowledge of what lies ahead.

So it has been interesting for me to find these articles and posts in my in-box yesterday, just as the panic threatened to overwhelm me, reminding me to take my time, to breathe and smile.

What Ed Said’s excellent post 10 ways to create a learning culture ends with a great reminder to laugh.

Then this article popped once again into my Facebook feed. Can teachers ever have a work life balance? This article resonated in several ways but particular in its reminder that an exhausted teacher is an ineffectual teacher. And ‘why should you be the one up all night working when it’s pupils who actually need to do the learning? By throwing the onus onto pupils, you actually increase their learning.’

And finally the photograph I screen shot from Twitter last night, thanks to Jason, a reminder not to spend excessive time planning content and to let the students drive their learning.

Three small reminders that are helping me to avoid some of the usually stresses, at the start of what I am sure will be an amazing year of laughter and learning.


Switching Off

It is the holidays here in Australia. Six glorious weeks of sun, summer and Christmas makes for a very relaxing time. As the term wound down last week I went to meet several of the teachers who have this year, been involved in the Sydney TeachMeet movement, for two TeachMeetEatUps! A chance to unwind, chat, plan and muse about teaching, life, TeachMeets and more.

One particular question was asked on one of the evenings, that gave me much food for thought.

If teachers did not have the holidays that we do, would you still teach?

For me the answer probably has to be not would I still teach but could I still teach? As I know that I need these weeks to read, rest and restore myself ready for 2014. I have learned from past experience that if I do not then my year will not start well.

So this summer you will find me sewing rather than tweeting.
Reading books rather than blogs
Planning coffee dates rather than lessons
Making cookies rather than marking.
Cleaning my house instead of my classroom
Bike riding while listening to audio books rather than educational podcasts

Will I return to this blog in 2014. Well I certainly intend too, as I have a new challenge ahead. One which is sure to provide me with moments of wonder as well as moment of panic. I will need to reflect and learn. As I am no longer a full time teacher. I am now able to say that in 2014 I will be the PYP Coordinator at my school. A role I am looking forward to immensely but one for which I definitely need to relax and recharge myself for.


Becoming ‘smart’ in Primary school

As our term and year comes to an end here in Australia, my co-teacher and I have once again surveyed both the Year 6 students and parents about the year. We are interested in if we met their expectations and about their learning experiences. We take our survey seriously and so we allow both the students and parents to given anonymous answers. This response came in last week in answer to the question ‘did year 6 meet your expectations?’ It breaks my heart.

I expected to become a bit smarter because I feel if I am smart then people might like me more. I can’t concentrate that well in class so I can’t gain as much smart’s as everyone else

So this post is my response to all those students who worry about being smart.

This year I hope I challenged you to think, to try, to give everything a go. I hope that I helped you to feel empowered and able to give of your best. I know I wrote extensive comments on your work and never any grades, so that no matter how well you had done you would always see there was room for improvement. I know I encouraged you in everything you attempted.

But you are a Year 6 student and this year academic success has come easier to some and not to others. For primary school students, academic success is built upon success in literacy and numeracy. Especially for those who learned to read quickly and for whom the essential literacy and numeracy concepts were easy to absorb. If you are still finding some aspects of reading hard, If you struggle to decode word, to spell difficult words and to find the inferential meaning in text, then obviously you will find writing hard too.

I know that many struggling primary students will go on to find their place at high school. They might be late literary bloomers. Or they find their place in the sport, drama or art departments. But I want to tell you, that success in school does not equal success in life. That one day no one will care if you were a prize winner or not. One day even your HSC grades will be a distant memory. And that especially no one will even know if you had the ‘smarts’ in Year 6.

Until then please do not despair, please do not give up. Any Year 6 student who needs their friends to have ‘smarts’ is not a genuine friend. As you grow older you will find that your friends will will love you for who you are. They will be the ones who will stick by you. I also know that you will find your place and your success in life.


A new way of testing

I was lucky enough to take part in a workshop run by Alan November this week. As always his ideas were useful and thought provoking. One of the most interesting ones was about testing in the classroom. Or more specifically about taking tests in three rounds, so that the assessment task becomes a springboard into learning. With the third round being a thought provoking creative task. As soon as I heard him put forward this idea I knew it was something I could apply in my maths lessons.

Round One: Everyone individually takes a test that is required to assess learning.

Round Two: Immediately students are placed into groups of four of five and in these small groups they take the same test again. While they work together on the test, they will be discussing, collaborating and arguing over the correct answers. And the teacher can walk around the classroom listening to who is most involved and who’s reasoning makes the most sense. It is important for the team to do well in this round because their final test scores become the average of round one and round two.

Round Three: In the same teams the students must now design a new problem that will apply the learning they were assessed on. By applying their learning they will be extending it even further, allowing them to really own their own learning and to be creative as well.

I had the chance to talk with Alan further on these ideas and I asked what he would recommend one did with students who were reluctant to participate. He stated that obviously the groups makeup was paramount to success. That he recommended that these groups were often changed and that if a student still refused to contribute then their results would need to be defined by their scores in the first test only.

I can’t wait to try this idea out in my classroom. What do you think?

We think this is a great idea. What do you think? Do you think that we could improve the learning in Year 6 if we collaborated in this way to assist and learn from each other and then were creative in our new question design?


The International Conference on Creativity and Academic Excellence

I along with two Year 6 students Charlotte and Michelle, presented this week during the first day of The International Conference on Creativity and Academic Excellence which is being held over two days at Knox Grammar. We all enjoyed listening to interesting keynotes and attending break out sessions. Our presentation was titled ‘Connecting classrooms around the globe’. We spoke about how in Year 6 we use Edmodo to connect and collaborate with students around the globe. And how the skills the students gain in edmodo transfer to our class and student blogging. I also mentioned some of the other global projects we have been involved in this year. Michelle then told of the connections she has made this year with students in the USA, South Africa and Canada in Edmodo and Charlotte spoke on the international connections she has made through her own personal blogging.

Here is our Prezi


Classroom pain points

This term’s inquiry unit is essentially a classroom redesign. The inspiration for this came this blog post and video. We knew that it was in the pipeline to review and to update (for real) our current learning spaces. Although only built twelve years ago there is so much about them that feels outdated, with the computer pod and uniform desks and chairs. We also knew that Year 6 needed to meet some design and make Science indicators as well as 2D and 3D space, scale and position in maths, so it was a no brainer really.

The unit started with the classroom being turned upside down, you can read more about this provocation here. Our inquiry unit has progressed really well with our students working hard to try and answer the essential question of ‘how can we meet the needs of the learners with the space we have available?‘ Currently they are completing to scale drawings of our current learning space, one of which you can see here. And they are working in groups to design a new layout with special consideration of sustainability, function, form, safety and aesthetics. Again in order to meet desired HSIE indicators.

Yet it is hard for students who have spent the last seven years in a traditional classroom setting to visualise just what a future space could look like. So we have also interviewed our IT Manager and our Principal. As well as started a Pinterest board of inspirational pictures and studied the website of Stephen Heppell and others closely. To help them one of our first moves was to identify classroom pain points and it was during this we identified that our teacher desks took up way too much space, were covered in clutter and were surrounded by piles of books, which had not been opened for a while. I also knew that I was guilty of sitting behind it far too much.

So taking a deep breath and a leap of faith last week I ditched my desk. I have read before of other teachers doing this but until now I had never actually considered doing this myself. I moved my essential tools into a far corner, set my filing cabinet up as a standing desk and cleared out some of the treasures I have been storing. The effect has been to open up a corner of the classroom which has now been turned into a reading nock with direct access to our verandah. My desk has been moved and is being used as a student storage space. I expect to get rid of it altogether next year. I can do my marking in the far corner, previously a sports bag dumping ground and stand to read emails. The benefits of standing over sitting are well documented, so it is a win win situation for my health too.

De-cluttering has been cathartic for both my teaching corner and my head. Dumping ancient photocopied worksheets in the recycling bin felt good. After all I have not used them in years, so I know I will never do so again. The books too have been moved into storage ready to donate somewhere else. As I have no actual desk I am standing more. I can do my marking in the far corner and the classroom is looking cleaner and less cluttered.

As for the students, I hope that seeing the classroom actually change in front of their eyes will help some of them realise that this inquiry is for real and that together we can make a change, so that ‘we can meet the needs of (all) the learners with the space we have available.


Backwards by design program planning

Before you read any further ask yourself the following questions, as I have been thinking about these for a while now.

  • Just because an activity or task is engaging does it mean your students are learning?
  • Is your program filled with hands on or minds on activities?

I have been reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Kay McTighe recently and I cannot recommend it enough to all teachers who plan and implement programs, as so much of it makes sense and resonates with me. In case you are unaware, the book promotes a design model for a program or unit of work that is essentially backwards from the way so many teachers have been used to planning. Instead of choosing themes or activities first, the teacher starts with desired learning outcomes and works back from those outcomes through assessment and finally to actual lessons. As they plan they ask themselves

How do I make it more likely  – by my design – that more students really understand what they are asked to learn?’

I know I have been guilty in the past of reading about an amazing activity, one which is engaging and hands on. One which i know would be fun for my students and which I could manage. And then thinking of how I could incorporate it into my program. For a while now though, my school has been using a backwards by design framework in all our planning. It is amazing how starting at the end, with the actual indicators or learning outcomes I need my students to reach, has helped me to crystallize my planning.

These days it is not enough for an activity or task to be engaging to make it into my program. Instead I am constantly asking myself: ‘if I use this activity’…

  • What understandings will emerge and endure from this?
  • What are the big ideas and important skills I want to develop here?
  • Do my students understand what they need to understand and learn?
  • What is point of this activity?
  • Is this particular activity minds on or just hands on?
  • How will I know if they are understanding what I want them to learn?
  • What will serve as evidence of the enduring understandings I am after?

If you have never used this approach I recommend you try the following steps when next planning a unit of work.

Ask yourself: What are the desired learning results of this unit? Then consider, what are the essential questions that will link the students to learning? As well as, what skills will they need to achieve your desired results? Now comes the formative and summative assessment ideas, what evidence do you need to show your desired results? And finally, what is the sequence of activities or learning experiences you can use that will lead to the reaching of your learning outcomes?

Backwards by design my essential tool when programming.

Image c/o


A week of Awards

Okay I admit it this week has been my week. You see on Tuesday there I was sitting in assembly. When suddenly my name was called and I was up on the stage being awarded the NGS Super Scholarship for 2013 and having my photograph taken. And all I could think about was how I was wearing an old skirt and had no lipstick on!

Returning to normality I returned home to check my emails to find I had I am also one of the 2013 Outstanding Professional Service Award recipients, as awarded by the Professional Teachers Council of NSW. Wow what a week.

But I am not writing this to gloat or brag or anything else. Of course I am thrilled and honoured to be recognised in these ways but so could you be. The NGS Scholarship is open to all non government teachers and support staff. If you are reading this and think but I work in the public sector, then scholarships are available for you too. In the form of the Premiers Scholarships. All I did was develop an idea and write an application in which I described my plan. You could do this too.

For the PTC service award. I am just one of many teachers who work behind the scenes trying to do our bit, to share, to assist and to help others learn and grow as teachers. You could do this too. This list contains teachers from many different organisations from history teachers to music educators who give up small amounts of their time to further the profession of teaching as a whole.

As for me, next month I will be off for a special dinner with the wonderful Matt Esterman representing ICTENSW and next October I will be off to ULearn14 and to visit New Zealand schools to continue my research into digital literacy.

You could do this too.


Snippets for Adobe

I am presenting in an online webinar this Wednesday morning. Tilted Adobe Snippets you can find put more about it here. Running from 8:00 am till 8:30 am these short micro presentations are an easy way to up-skill yourself in Adobe products and learn more about the Adobe Education Exchange from your desk.

The presentation I am assisting in is called Creative Classroom Activities – Visual Literacy

In it you will be able to explore how digital media can engage students of all ages and ability levels in this guided tour of some of the best visual literacy projects from the Adobe Education Exchange. More specifically I will spend ten minutes sharing how my students use Premiere Elements to present their learning in my classroom.

About the Series:

Creative Classroom Activities: Highlights from the Adobe Education Exchange

Adobe Education is pleased to announce a new e-seminar series for teachers who want to re-create their classrooms. Join us weekly for a guided tour of some of the very best activities, lesson plans and resources on the Adobe Education Exchange. Each week, you’ll meet two of the world’s most creative educators and learn how they use Adobe tools to unleash student creativity. Each thirty-minute session will equip you with new ideas you can use immediately in your teaching practice.

These webinars are running every Wednesday morning this term. Hope to see you there.