Monthly Archives: November, 2012

Reimagining Education – the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning

During a lengthy discussion yesterday about technology in the classroom and my work through my blog and Twitter, our Principal suggested that I do some Research into the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. Directed and founded by the Principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, Stephen Harris (@Stephen_H), the SCIL “promotes excellence in education by providing new learning opportunities for students and future-focused Professional Development for teachers.” It has a strong and strategic technological focus and aims to transform education for learners through innovative learning spaces, both online and in terms of physical space.

So I jumped onto the centre’s website and was amazed by what I saw. Check out one of the site’s video tours below:

Wow! The possibilities blow my mind. I need time to think. Watch this space…

The Flipped Classroom – the future of my teaching and my students’ learning

As one year draws to a close, I am already beginning to contemplate what my classroom will look like and how it will run next year. I have mentioned before that our school is completing its transition to being a 1:1 laptop school next year. This will change things tremendously for us as teachers of students who have a wealth of information at their fingertips. One of our roles will be to educate them about digital citizenship and how to most effectively use these resources.

The move will also affect how we present content. I want my students to use their laptops to their best possible advantage – connecting with and learning from their peers both locally and globally. I do not want them simply using their computers to do the same things they could do with a paper and pencil. What a waste of the powerful technology being made available to us.

A solution to this is the idea of the ‘Flipped Classroom’, where students learn concepts and content at home through notes and video tutorials, and do activities that are traditionally set for homework in class with the opportunity for greater face-to-face time with their teacher. I have already started to create video tutorials that I will be able to use next year (Screencast-o-matic is great for capturing your screen activity and recording your voice as you explain concepts and content. It is also free!). This is an exciting step for me as I consider the opportunities it presents, both for me as a teacher and for my students as learners. It really does allow for a whole new level of differentiation within a class!

I recently came across a fantastic infographic that explains the flipped classroom, and is giving me a lot of food for thought as I consider the future of teaching and learning in (and outside) of my classroom. Hopefully it can be of use to you too!

Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Those who can…teach!

A couple of days ago a respected colleague approached me.

“Melissa, I hear you went to the school where you are now teaching as a student.”

“Yes,” I responded, wondering where this was going.

“And I hear you did really well in Year 12.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling a little bashful. But there was no point in being too ¬†shy about it, she obviously already knew. “I was Dux.”

My colleague looked at me, puzzled. “Then why did you choose teaching?”

There it was. A question that I find troubling to hear from anyone, but particularly from educators. And it’s not the first time I have heard it, either. I know the question was not intended to be negative, but at the core of it lies an mindset that says: “You could have done anything, but you chose teaching? WHY??”

This upsets me greatly. It begs the question, do we as a profession really have such a low opinion of ourselves that we don’t understand why someone who is academically inclined would want to be an educator rather than work in a more highly esteemed, higher paid profession such as medicine or law? Teachers hold lives in their hands as well. Of course, in a different way from doctors, but lives all the same. Whilst academics do not make up 100% of schooling – there are many other factors – there remains a very sad irony to that question. There still seems to be this misconception that the tertiary entrance ranking required to enter a course is indicative of the level of intelligence needed to do that job. If I’m not mistaken in that perception, that mindset seriously needs to change!

It is my experience that teaching is a career – more than that – a vocation that draws to it a wide range of highly intelligent and compassionate people who care deeply about students both as learners and as human beings. Teaching is a huge responsibility that we need many types of people and their diverse talents and experiences to carry out.

The question reminds me of this great clip from Taylor Mali, an American teacher and slam poet:

Mali reminds us that our profession is something to take pride in and to value.

So, why did I choose teaching and why do I choose to stay in teaching? There are a number of reasons:

  1. I LOVED school. Loved it. And whilst I understand that not everybody enjoys it as much as I did, I want to help students learn to value learning and enjoy the experience.
  2. I am passionate about languages, literature and writing and being an English and LOTE teacher allows me to work within my interests every day.
  3. I was inspired by some fabulous teachers as a student, and continue to be inspired by great colleagues and mentors. I could only hope to repay that through my own teaching.
  4. Being in the classroom is rarely boring. Students can be so entertaining and every day is different In response to the question, “How was your day?” my accountant partner always offers, “It was okay. Same old, same old. Did one tax return, then another.” I, on the other hand, always seem to have a story to tell at the end of the working day.
  5. I’m not going to lie – the holidays are appealing. I do quite a bit of work during my holidays, but after a term’s worth of planning, teaching, marking, meetings, and all the highs and lows working with teenagers brings, two weeks to work to my own schedule is a very welcome break.
  6. Teaching is challenging but rewarding. Whilst it doesn’t always feel like it, teachers touch the hearts and make a difference in the lives of so many students, and their actions or words can resonate and have influence for years to come. Is there anything more powerful than that?

If you’re a teacher, what drew you to this amazing career? I’d love to hear from you! ūüôā

Shaking off the end of year ‘funk’

It’s that time of term/year again. The end of year funk: the last two or three weeks of a busy term when energy levels are bottoming out but your list of things that must be achieved before the kids leave at 12.30 on that last day is growing exponentially by the minute. There are camps, swimming carnivals, socials, end of year masses, Year 7 transition days, alternative programs to keep students engaged in the last week of term, and don’t forget marking, marking, MORE marking and reports, reports, reports.

Schools are always busy, no matter the term, but maybe Term 4 feels different because we are exhausted from the three-term marathon we have already run. And what a marathon! We journey with our students through so many highs and lows, as well as our own highs and lows, that it’s no wonder we might start to feel like we’re fading.

But something always gets us through – maybe it’s our family, our colleagues, students or sheer commitment and determination. I think for me it’s a combination of all of the above. I am supported by a wonderful partner and family who allow me to talk things through but do not allow me to wallow in self-pity, colleagues who I can bounce ideas off of, discuss concerns and have a laugh or a cry with (I share an office with a wonderfully eclectic bunch of ladies who are like family. In fact they’ve probably seen me laugh and cry more in the last three years than my immediate family have!). Then there are my students – the ones I ultimately work for. I received a beautiful letter from one of those students whilst on camp last week and it reminded me that as much as my class is the source of many concerns and frustrations for me, they are also the cause of much joy and pride. And it is they who know teacher-me better than anyone else. They know how to make me laugh, how to press my buttons, and some of them (only some!) have seen me cry (human emotions from a teacher? Shock horror!)

And so I realise that, as much as it is my role to help get those kids over the line and send them off on Christmas holidays brimming with well-deserved pride in their achievements, they also journey with me (although they probably don’t know that) and get me across the line.

So for my Australian readers. whatever it is that helps you keep what’s left of your sanity and reach the light at the end of the tunnel, may your last 3 weeks of the school be the most successful and rewarding for you!

Bullies and bystanders

Sometimes I wish my mind would stop ticking over. Just. Stop. For an evening. Please!

That was my plan for tonight. A mindless evening on the couch. Having just returned from 3 fantastic days of Year 8 Camp with my gorgeous homeroom (who, as much I love them, I am now exceedingly glad to send home to their parents and have a reprieve from) I decided to indulge in a bath, a couple of glasses of the FABULOUS Wirra Wirra Church Block and some magazines. I went for Women’s Fitness and Marie Claire. Maybe, considering my goal, I should have chosen something trashier. Open the latest issue of Marie Claire to be drawn into a great feature called “A letter to my bully…” . The article included poignant letters from a number of medium to high profile Australian women (including Ruby Rose, Sarah Lloyde and Jesinta Campbell) to the bullies who had tormented them through their teenage years. Goodbye mindless evening – hello constant stream of thoughts.

Bullying is not a new issue. Not at all. But with the proliferation of technology and social media, perhaps it has become more noticeable and unrelenting because of the potential 24 hour access bullies now have to their victims.

On a personal note, I distinctly remember the bullying I, myself, endured during primary and high school. I remember the friend in Year 5 who all of a sudden turned against me and said nasty things to the other kids in my class behind my back and then to my face. As a kid who loved school, Mum knew something was wrong when I started getting upset about having to go. I was fortunate enough at that time to have a close group of friends from other classes that I coped after that friendship disintegrated. But things were different when I went to high school. Only one of my close friends went to the same school as me and she was in a different class and joined a different circle of friends. I still maintain some contact with her and another close primary school friend via Facebook – our friendship wasn’t broken but it is safe to say that our lives have taken different directions which has made it difficult to catch up regularly.

Beginning at a new school with a new class proved a huge challenge for me. I was one of those students who kept a very close circle of friends and did not venture far from them, and who immersed myself in my school work (as I said, I LOVED school, and still do!!). All of a sudden I had to find acceptance with a new group of people. I certainly developed friendships at the school but they were not close. And looking back at it now, I realise that the bullying started early on although I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge it. The ‘alpha male’ of my class intimidated me into showing him my test answers. I was a very capable student and had quite a reasonable vocabulary for my age so snide comments were consistently directed my way about using ‘big words’ or being the teacher’s pet. And they were not said in a nice – ¬†or friendly joke – kind of a way. Don’t get me wrong – I worked HARD for my grades – they were not achieved through any particular talent. When my parents wanted to transfer me to a different school half way through the year, I threw a tantrum because ‘all my friends’ were at the school. By the end of the year, when I had had my shoe laces tied together for one of those ‘friends” entertainment and had pencil sharpenings tipped through my hair, coupled with the humiliation of my music teacher attempting to pick them out for me (I seriously would have preferred he had left them there, just to spite the cruel boy who did it) I asked my parents to take me out. I know many kids endured and endure far worse things than I did, but I still distinctly remember the sick feeling in my stomach every time some of those classmates spoke to me or came near me, because instinct told me what was coming. I hate to imagine how other students feel. Every. Single. Day. I even remember the Deputy of the Middle School telling my parents that I, like most of the other students who transferred to the local Catholic school, would probably be back within six weeks. He didn’t know me at all and missed the mark. Completely. My parents withdrawing me and sending me elsewhere was the best decision they could have made for me.

Fortunately, mine is a good news story, and my new school, my new friends and the friends I did choose to keep from my old school (and who I still consider friends despite our very occasional contact) restored my faith in schools and people. Without doubt, bullying still occurred at the new school – I still have clear memories of my younger sister facing some pretty nasty bullies – but the way it was reported and dealt with was completely different and, most importantly, gave the victims voice. The pastoral care system ensured that teachers knew us as people first and students second, and it explicitly recognised (and enacted in its processes) that our emotional well-being and sense of personal safety was central to our learning. We were empowered to take a stand against bullying- something I did not feel I had as a student at my old school. The thing about the bullying we faced, however, was that it was mostly done face-to-face. Whilst we only graduated from high school in the mid-2000’s, social media had not yet taken off. Home was still a refuge from our bullies. Not so much anymore.

Now, as an educator it still absolutely baffles me how some students can treat each other the way that they do. Behaviours are learnt, or developed from somewhere. But where some of them come from I don’t think I will ever know. I find the negative way in which some girls treat their ‘friends’ incredibly confusing and difficult to deal with. For some reason females seem to have buried deep within ourselves ¬†this frightening ability to destroy the souls of others through psychological abuse. I struggle to understand why girls and women (and I certainly do reprimand myself for this at times) can become so focused on pointing out the flaws and vulnerabilities of other females, rather than celebrating each others’ beauty and talents. Why do we, as a general group, sometimes develop this urge to ‘bring her down’?? And usually for a petty reason or no reason at all.

And girls are so underhanded in the way that they bully. Yes, studies say girls are becoming more physically aggressive, but I still find my girls, when they do bully, can be sneakier, crueler, and inflict more emotional scars than the boys. I would rather deal with two boys having it out with each other than two girls. I find boys are just so much more open about why they are doing what they are doing.

My last post was about empathy -about understanding others’ emotions and reacting in a way that helps them to develop a more positive outlook or take a more helpful course of action. I have been talking with my Year 8 key class about empathy and kindness and how we might demonstrate that in our day-to-day interactions. This was one focus of our camp over the last few days. This has strong connections to our discussions throughout the year about not being a bystander when bullying occurs. Someone who has empathy will take an active stand against bullying and defend the rights of the victims without forgetting (but not excusing!) what might cause the bullies to act the way they do. There are many campaigns empowering people to cease being a bystander, including a fantastic advertisement by the Catholic Education Office of Wollongong (click here to view on YouTube). Our students need to learn that it takes strength, courage and a sense of justice to combat the negativity of bullying, and that ultimately, it comes down to them working with teachers, parents and other adults in the community to ensure everybody’s well-being.

But even adults don’t seem to do this very well sometimes. Recently, ex-model and Australian television personality Charlotte Dawson admitted herself to hospital following abuse from Twitter trolls. Some adults callously commented that she should ‘suck it up’ because abuse comes with being a media personality. But does it? I don’t think ¬†being the victim of school or workplace bullying comes in any contract that adults or youth might sign. So why should people, celebrity or not, have to just ‘put up with it’.

Like so many people, I still remember the faces of the students who bullied me. I now teach in the local area that I went to school in and, every now and then, I pass the people who tormented me in that first year at high school. We are all now in our mid-twenties and most of them don’t remember me. But I recognise them. And I will not forget how they made me feel. But they also serve as a reminder for me about how far I have come. I only hope that many others come out the other side of that darkness and feel the same way.

“The Contagion of Emotions” – Empathy

Empathy: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and¬†vicariously¬†experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively¬†explicit¬†manner;¬†also¬†:¬†the capacity for this ” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

On Sunday night I was drawn into a Twitter discussion facilitated by Louiza Hebhardt (@equilibriumctc), a teacher and counsellor with a focus on teacher well-being. Her regular discussion #teacherwellbeingchat provides a great opportunity for educators of all levels and from all location to connect and discuss the importance of maintaining emotional, spiritual, physical and mental well-being. After all, how can we adequately look after our students’ well-being without first looking after our own?

Sunday’s discussion focused on ‘The contagion of emotions.’ In places like schools, where large numbers of people gather and bring with them all the thoughts, feelings and experiences that form their lives, emotions are bound to run high. Sometimes these emotions are positive, other times they are incredibly negative. Louiza posed three questions to participants:

1. Emotions are contagious. Discuss.

2. How do you think empathy plays into the contagion of emotions?

3.¬†Instead of a Q3 next is T3 (T for Task). Watch this –tinyurl.com/bhmkeqv¬†and then let us know what happened. (<—Take a look at the video…great clip)

The discussion about empathy was particularly interesting and relevant to me. I believe anybody who chooses a career/profession/vocation that deals with people and everything that makes them who they are (strengths, difficulties, life experience, etc.) must have an innate ability to empathise with others, particularly when those people are at their most vulnerable. As educators we teach human beings, not just sponges whose sole purpose and motivation for being is to soak up content knowledge. For so many students at risk, learning about English, Maths, Science, etc. does not rate highly on their list of needs. External factors influence their behaviours, attitudes and ability to cope at school. This is where, as teachers, we are called to empathise – not necessarily to lower our expectations of the student, but to understand why they might be struggling to meet those expectations at a particular point in time and consider how we can help them to proactively change that.

It also became clear during the #teacherwellbeingchat that it is crucial not to mistake sympathy for empathy. They are two different reactions. Sympathy implies ‘feeling sorry for’ and taking that person’s problems and emotions as your ownl. Empathy, on the other hand, suggests understanding, consideration, and a willingness to help where possible without projecting somebody else’s negative emotions onto oneself. This is something that I find a challenge in my pastoral care role. When I work with students whose lives are in turmoil (and this sadly happens more often than I had ever expected), I find it difficult, not so much to detach, but to avoid being drawn into ‘feeling sorry for,’ ¬†which I know is not as helpful as empathy. I am getting better at it, but it is still something I have to consciously think about.

Hence it was incredibly worthwhile for me to follow and participate in Louiza’s discussion. Engaging with others from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences allowed me to reflect on how I respond to my students and their troubles, and perhaps how I might be more mindful of this. Another resource focused on staff well-being that I find particularly useful is a newsletter called Vital Staff, sent out by one of our wonderful school counsellors. Jarrod Lamshed (@jlamshed) , author of the blog Connected Learning, also made a very pertinent post recently focusing on the need for balance in our lives. Such discussions and publications emphasise the need for us to look after ourselves, in order to avoid ‘the contagion of (negative) emotions.’

But let’s keep the positive emotions contagious, shall we? ūüėÄ

Thanks to @MarkeetaRP for suggesting the above video during #teacherwellbeingchat!

Why teachers have taken to Twitter

I will be honest, I was late to jump on board with Twitter. I’ve had am account for some time, but had no idea how to use it and had about 3 followers: my partner and two of his mates. I watched them post Tweets about sport and funny comments about their days, but couldn’t work out how this was different from what I could do with my Facebook account and reach a much wider audience of my friends. Twitter held no appeal and so my account lay dormant.

Two weeks ago, George Couros’s workshop Leading Learning in a Digital Age converted me. I realised that I was actually a little behind because there was a huge and growing network of educators on Twitter, sharing ideas and connecting with Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) across the world. I was missing out!!

An article today’s Age explains more about why teachers and principals are tweeting and learning professionally no matter their location.

As for me, whilst I’m still new to the Twittersphere, I find it amazing and exciting to be connecting globally, sharing with and learning from educators from all walks of life. Twitter gives educators’ voices another medium, and the instant feedback from others is motivating. Now I wonder how my students can learn from this. The possibilities are endless!

The Importance of Observation and Reflective Practice

Over the past couple of years there has been increased discussion between our staff and leadership about reflective practice – reflecting on our teaching with the purpose of continual improvement and professional learning. One particular strategy that has been mentioned repeatedly is that of peer observation – inviting a colleague or member of leadership into the classroom to observe your lesson and then engage in a professional dialogue about what is happening in your classes.

Considering that as teachers we are constantly observing and assessing our students and their progress, you would think we would be comfortable with this idea. But to me it seems that the evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers often talk about working in a profession that is extremely collaborative, and yet at the same time we spend a lot of time working in isolation. Sure, we meet with our colleagues and discuss curriculum, pedagogy, methodology, behaviour management strategies, etc. Yet once we step into the classroom, it is one of us with up to 30 kids. The thought of another teacher or member of leadership coming into the classroom to watch what we are doing can be a very scary one!

But when you think about it, we’ve all been there before! We were all pre-service teachers once, with a mentor and/or university supervisor giving us constant feedback and expecting improvement. Assessment and constructive (and I stress the importance of constructive) feedback was expected! On the other hand, I have learnt a lot about my students and myself as a teacher from observing pre-service teachers who I have mentored – a fact that surprised them when I told them, and that would not have occurred to me either if the situation was reversed.

Last week a colleague and I were fortunate enough to have four visitors from Sweden and two consultants from Catholic Education SA come into our respective classrooms and observe Reading to Learn lessons that we had prepared and were implementing – my colleague with a Year 8 English class, myself with a Year 8 Italian class. Whilst these people were not there to ‘assess’ us, but were there for their own professional learning experience, the discussion that followed between my colleague, our guests and myself revealed that having them observe our lesson was an equally important to our professional development as it was to them. Through answering their questions, we were able to reflect on our teaching and came up with a number of ideas about how we could improve or adapt the strategies we were using to suit different purposes.

So, I think as a profession there needs to be a psychological shift away from seeing observation as an assessment that we will lose our job over if things don’t go to plan. Instead, there needs to be a culture of trust in schools that ensures educators feel comfortable inviting other educators into their classrooms, with the knowledge that it will provide an opportunity to have a productive dialogue afterwards in which both participants can reflect on what they saw or what they did and learn from each other.

Food for thought

Food has its own language, I’m sure. Whilst never having been a particularly great cook, some of the most amazingly special moments I have shared with family and friends have been over food.

I also get a little bit excited every time Term 4 comes around because we finally cover the ‘Il Cibo’ (‘The Food’) unit in Year 9 Italian. I am a big believer in students understanding that there is more to culture and language than food. Going in to the kitchen also acts as somewhat of a reward for the hard work the students have put into the last couple of years. So, I wait equally as patiently as my students to get them cooking, and as a result, eating.

This week I took both of my Year 9 Italian classes into the kitchen and showed them how to make pasta from scratch. It never ceases to amaze me how this lesson always turns out to be a bonding session of sorts. Students who only ever seem to want to play games on their laptops during classes, would prefer not to participate in class discussion, and complain about how ‘old-school’ paper and pen are get so excited and engaged when faced with the simplest of ingredients and an ‘old-school’ recipe that people have followed for centuries!

I also learn so many things about the students from these activities. The nature of our LOTE timetabling means that I have a very limited amount of time with my Italian students, making the development of relationships quite challenging. But step into the kitchen and I find out about the challenging boy who works as a kitchen hand in a local winery and has an incredible passion for food and another boy who avoids any form of classwork and talks incessantly while I’m trying to teach, yet in the kitchen is the one telling everybody else to be quiet so he can concentrate on my demonstration.

Then there are the girls who work so quietly and gently in their groups, as concerned about getting their dough perfect as they are about their test scores. And then there’s the gratitude from the students who don’t often show gratitude for a carefully planned and strategically implemented lesson but who are the first to say thank you for such a task.

Given the busy nature of society these days, I do wonder how many of the students I teach actually sit down to a regular meal with their family. And how many spend time helping out in the kitchen learning how to make fresh, healthy food? Surely this is an equally important part of a child’s education, helping them to develop healthy habits, healthy relationships and a healthy sense of self? But in a time poor society, how much of a reality is this for many kids?

I am still in the very early years of my career as an educator, but already I know that I learn more from sharing these moments with my students than I ever do when we are in our normal classroom. And I can only hope that they learn more from me this way too.

Welcome!

I recently attended a workshop by one very talented and inspiring Canadian educator George Couros¬†. After a long but incredibly stimulating day of professional learning about making the best use of technology in the classroom (including Twitter, Blogging, online apps, and ways to inspire our students’ creativity) I walked away buzzing with ideas about how different my classroom is going to look next year!

The school I work at has begun the process of converting to a 1:1 laptop school. A daunting prospect but one that opens the door to so many opportunities. Next year 100% of our students will have their own device so we really do need to look at how we put them to use, avoiding the computers becoming what George called “a thousand dollar pencil.” Whilst certainly not a technophobe, I was a little nervous about what that meant for the classroom. It is all well and good for students to access technology, but I need the PD to keep up with what they’re doing too!

George’s workshop “Leading Learning in a Digital Age” put my mind at rest and it hit me that as a relatively tech-savvy 24 year old, I don’t need to change that much to see incredible results! By the end of the day I was tweeting with (relative) fluency, and was already forming the ideas for what my own personal, professional blog would look like. Next year I will be insisting that my students have blogs to demonstrate their learning, and in an educational environment that is becoming increasingly collaborative, it was only natural that I should be doing the same thing. So… voila!

The title ‘Teaching as Learning’ reflects my belief (and I’m sure that of many others) that as teachers we are also inherently learners. And I find that my most meaningful learning is most often collaborative: a result of working together with colleagues, and – of equal importance – with my students. So the aim of my blog is to document the learning I am involved in, both through formal projects and through the gems of lessons that my students teach me, in the hope that it will enrich my learning, my teaching, the learning of my students, and hopefully that of anybody who reads its content.

So here goes. Time to jump on in to an amazing world of education.

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