Monthly Archives: March, 2013

Technology is changing the way adults learn too!

Over the past few months I have been doing some serious reflection on how the ways in which students learn and the strategies I use to teach have been changed and shaped by increasing access to technology. But something that hadn’t crossed my mind until very recently (although now it seems blatantly obvious) is that technology is also significantly changing the ways that adults learn!

I am an advocate for continued and life-long learning. I have always enjoyed learning and I know that I do my best work with my students at school when I am also actively engaged in some form of study that is relevant to my job.

It was whilst sitting in a Professional Development course recently that I caught my mind wandering. Chastising myself, I drew my attention back to the presenter. But I just. Couldn’t. Keep. It. There.

This particular course was packed with information that I believe is crucial for all educators to be aware of. The presenter was lovely and generous with her explanations and advice. But it was the delivery – which consisted of an out-of-date powerpoint and three hours of talking, with a couple of activities or videos filmed in the 1990s thrown in every now and then – that I struggled with.

Now, as an adult learner I do not expect a course presenter to entertain me with an interpretive dance reflecting the content that they need to get across. I understand that there are some topics that will interest me less than others. But as I sat in this course, which was packed with information that I would usually be engrossed in, I did start to question how I could be so incredibly engaged in some courses that run for a whole day, but struggle to keep my mind focused on others for just a couple of hours.

That’s when I realised that the courses that I engage with the most as an adult learner are those that allow me to explore concepts, question them, play around with them, discuss them with colleagues, apply them in authentic contexts, and come to my own conclusions (or if not conclusions, questions that I would like to explore further on my own). Could it just be a coincidence that these are also the learning opportunities that I notice my students engage with and learn the most from? I think not.These are the courses that truly inspire me and improve my teaching practice.

Reading straight from a powerpoint doesn’t cut it for me as a learner anymore. Providing opportunities to connect with other people and information both in the room and in the outside community does. Let me engage with the course both in person (I still believe that the importance of face-to-face interaction is not to be devalued) and online. Let me tweet, blog, search for information, ask you and my colleagues questions about things I haven’t fully understood. But please, do not just tell me what is on the powerpoint. I can read that myself.

Everyone learns differently, but let’s face it, it’s not only our students who are increasingly connected with each other and with information via technology. Adults are too. And it is changing the way we do things and process information. It is crucial that educational training providers recognise this and change their practices accordingly because the effect of technology on the learning of all generations is probably only going to increase.

Tech Comic

Reflections on the Effective School Improvement Project so far

Recently, I have blogged about the Curtin University Effective School Improvement Project.  Surveys were completed by students a couple of weeks ago and I am now at the stage where I have reviewed my data and identified areas that I would like to specifically target for improvement. Generally I was very happy with the results – my students were quite positive about our classroom environment.However, the particular areas I decided to focus on for improvement are students’ understanding of what they are assessed on in my classes and collaboration and involvement.

I certainly empathise with my Year 8 students when they say it is difficult to understand precisely what their grades mean. Our assignment coversheets are really designed for teachers and are covered in Australian Curriculum jargon and teacher-speak. So I began my project by creating a short document titled “Your Grade in Plain English.” The information outlined the questions that I ask myself when I assess their English work, but it used a terminology more appropriate to twelve and thirteen year olds. We spent some time going through this together in class before they received their first assessment tasks back. Anonymous feedback collected from the students via an Edmodo poll suggested that the exercise helped them to better understand what their grade meant. Each student now has a copy to refer to whenever they are producing a piece of work in our English class. Now that they understand what the assessment criteria mean and what I am looking for evidence of in their work, they can use it as a checklist when completing tasks.

Another step I have put in place to assist me in my learning is to film or otherwise document some of my lessons. The decision to do this was instigated by a project that a colleague and I are doing on Functional Grammar, but I realised that the exercise also provides a great opportunity to reflect on my teaching for the Curtin Project. One of my very generous colleagues agreed to come into a Year 8 English lesson last week and help me to film. Tonight I finally got time to sit down and view the video. The lesson was one in a series where we look at simple, compound and complex sentences. We then look at these sentence types in the context of a children’s book. This particular lesson began with a Preparation for Reading (from the Reading to Learn pedagogy), before reading Jackie French’s 2011 book Flood. We will follow this with explicit teaching of other elements of Functional Grammar as students simultaneously draft their narrative assessment tasks.

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It was quite confronting to see myself on video at first. However, as I became more comfortable with it, it was incredibly interesting. Watching myself teach gave me a very different perspective on the structure of my lessons, the activities I run with students, and what it might be like to be a student in my class. I performed a short Strengths, Weaknesses and Opportunities analysis. Such reflection assisted me in identifying what I feel I do well in my classes, areas I might address in the future, and future planning decisions based on the review of student engagement and feedback. It also allowed me to see particular things going on in the classroom that may need addressing but are much harder to notice when you are busy teaching the lesson.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the lesson. I had been very nervous about having the camera in the room (even though I had asked for it) and I know the students modified their behaviour knowing that the camera was rolling. However, rather than highlighting deficiencies, it was actually very reaffirming. The insights it has provided – both for my professional learning through the Curtin Project and for our Functional Grammar work – are invaluable.

I look forward to implementing further strategies to improve my focus areas and will continue to document my observations and reflections on this blog.

Helping students to re-engage with their creative sides

It has been some time since my last post. The past couple of weeks have been full of marking, report writing, TESMC, Language and Literacy Levels and Youth Mental Health First Aid courses. Needless to say, I’m glad to finally have a little time to breathe and get some thoughts up on my blog!

Today I was fortunate enough to attend the launch of a very talented colleague’s second novel. You can find his Facebook page here and follow him on Twitter (@rjbrownauthor). R.J. Brown has an incredible ability to draw even the most reluctant readers and writers into the world of literature and creativity. There were actually two launches of his book – one public and the other one at the school. I was unable to attend the one at school, but from what those who did go have recounted, the event drew together students, parents and staff in a shared celebration of the achievements of someone who is an integral part of our school community.

These events got me thinking. As English teachers, part of our role is to help students develop and apply their creativity through language. Yet one of the biggest obstacles I come across in my English classes is how to inspire students to play with language and engage with their creative sides. So often, when doing a unit on narrative, have I heard students try to use the excuse “But I’m not creative.” I don’t think this is true at all. I think humans are innately creative. Watch children play with their toys. Whether it’s girls playing with dolls, or boys playing with cars or action figures (or vice versa), kids make up story lines. They act out these narratives through their toys, or through the performances that they put on for adults. They are being creative without even having to think about it.

So what happens to make so many students seem to lose confidence in their creative side? It is still there, but it can be a challenge to help them find it.

Perhaps it is the absence of ‘play’?

Or the imposition of rules and limitations on what they should be writing about?

Or a belief that they need to write simply to please the teacher, rather than for their own pleasure?

Or a culture that doesn’t encourage spontaneous reading and writing?

I’m not a hundred percent sure if it is any of these, but I know that one thing I would like to do this year is to help my more reluctant readers and writers to find their creative sides and to use them whether they are writing a narrative or an essay. Another colleague and I are working on a project which aims, in part, to do just this. More information to follow on that at a later date as it is still in its early stages.

In the meantime, I’d love to get your thoughts – how do you help your students engage with their creative sides? What do you do to counter the attitude that writing is “just something they have to do” to get a grade?

A response to the Gillard government’s plan for education reform

As I was browsing my Twitter feed this morning I came across a news.com.au article that gave me cause to reflect and be a little concerned. The article (which can be found here) outlines plans by the Gillard government to increase teacher quality through the introduction of NAPLAN-style exams and emotional intelligence and aptitude tests. There are a lot of teachers who are very unhappy about this proposal, not because they don’t support school improvement, but because this is not the answer to issues in education. What follows in this post are a series of quotes from the article and my own responses to what the government is suggesting.

1. “From 2016, anyone wishing to enter a teaching degree would be asked to provide a written statement outlining their suitability for a place, as well as undergoing a series of interviews to test whether they have the resilience and emotional intelligence or EQ for the role.”

This statement led me to ask myself, ‘If I were ten years younger and hoping to become a teacher, would I pass these tests?’ The Literacy and Numeracy tests wouldn’t have been an issue, but the resilience and emotional intelligence tests I’m not so sure of. To be completely candid with my reader, I am not even sure that I would have passed it upon the completion of my tertiary studies, let alone when I started university fresh out of high school. I strengthened my emotional intelligence and learnt my resilience partly through my practicums, but mostly in the classroom as a fully qualified, full-time teacher. Positive psychology suggests that resilience is innate in some people, but can be learnt by others. I fit into the second group. Until my first year as a graduate teacher, my life experiences to that point had not required great resilience. Sure, I had learnt to cope with minor obstacles like a lower than hoped for grade – but I had never been exposed to situations that required the level of emotional resilience for what I faced in my first year as an educator. And while this did bring me to breaking point early on in my career, I learnt that resilience quickly and I’ve become stronger personally and professionally every year because of it. But does this mean that the government should have been able to preclude me from my desired career as soon as I applied for tertiary studies?

2. “They would also have to demonstrate suitable values and aptitude by providing a portfolio of activities such as coaching a sports team, volunteer work or community involvement.”

While this seems like a reasonable idea at first glance, basically what it is assessing is whether somebody wants to commit themselves to helping others. In reality, very few people in their right minds would go into teaching unless they had a genuine interest in and commitment to helping young people develop into well-rounded and successful individuals. As incredibly rewarding as teaching is, it is not all sunshine and roses. Someone who goes into teaching and sticks with it WANTS to be there and the government ought to give them some credit for that.

3. “In order to graduate as teachers they would need to perform in the top 30 per cent of the population in numeracy and literacy tests, which would be part of their course. “

Teachers need to be literate and numerate. Agreed. But I would question why ANYBODY is graduating from tertiary studies with a less than adequate level of literacy and numeracy.

4. “Teaching students who failed to meet the benchmark would be offered classes to meet the requirements.”

That’s great. But I would be interested to know the statistics surrounding how many Education students are actually illiterate or innumerate. As far as I am aware this has not been released -so is it actually an issue or is the government clutching at straws?

 

Having read the article and reflected on my own immediate reactions, I decided to refer to AITSL’s National Professional Standards for Teachers. Ability in literacy and numeracy can be connected in various ways to the domains of Professional Knowledge, Professional Practice and Professional Engagement. Of course it is implied that a level of emotional intelligence is needed in order to know learners and to work successfully with groups of people (part of Professional Knowledge), but this comes down partly to theory and partly to practice. However, factors surrounding resilience do not appear anywhere in the standards for graduate teachers. This is something that is not learnt through theory and that many people need the opportunity to develop through real-life experience.  So why would we test high school graduates on it and make a decision there and then about whether they are cut out for teaching?

I am supportive of a plan that positively promotes quality teaching. But I am deeply concerned that this plan would deter or preclude potentially incredible teachers from the profession. We hear on one hand that ‘there are not enough teachers’ yet on the other hand, with the implementation of such a plan, early decisions will be made about people’s careers that will prevent them from teaching. The government cannot have its cake and eat it too. Quality teaching is crucial, but I think they are missing the mark on the indicators of what will make a trainee teacher successful in the workforce.

Beginnings of the Effective School Improvement Project

Over the past two years our school has been involved with an action research project run by Curtin University in Western Australia. The project examines classroom climate by surveying students about their actual perceptions of the classroom environment and how they would prefer the environment to be. Individual teachers receive the results and have a set period of time to reflect on them and plan and implement changes in their classroom. The survey is then readministered and the final results compared to the initial ones.

Last year the project was voluntary and around 30 teaching staff opted to participate. This year all teachers are required to participate and the Curtin University staff are currently in Adelaide to administer the initial surveys. We will then gather in our Curriculum Teams (groups formed around shared learning groups, not necessarily faculties), and engage in a process of active collaborative reflective practice as we plan for how we will improve our own classroom environments.

Today in Lesson 6 was my turn for my Year 8 key class to complete the survey about my classes. I will be honest, I was a tad nervous. Part of me wanted to peek over their shoulders and sneak a look at their responses – but I didn’t. When they asked me questions to clarify meanings (some of the language is a little difficult for Year 8s) I kept my eyes glued solely on the question they were referring to. I won’t lie – that wasn’t easy.

This taught me something about my relationship with them that perhaps until now had been recognised mostly subconsciously. I WANT them to like me. It sounds like such an adolescent thing to express, but I do. And I doubt any teacher would disagree. We don’t want to feel that a group of kids dislikes us – either personally or as a professional. Of course I recognise that some people will not be my biggest fans and that’s okay. But I hope they make a balanced judgment on that and that we can still have a mutual respect for each other.

But let’s face it, education is mostly about relationships and this goes as much for teachers as it does for students. And as nervous as I was about them completing this survey about my classes, I realise that this gives my students more of a voice in an English classroom that is largely dictated by what the current curriculum tells us we need to cram into the school year. One of my goals this year is to help my students take ownership of their learning, and this survey is one avenue to help them do so.

As for the slight sense of judgement I was feeling as they filled in their online tick boxes – well, to be fair, don’t I make judgments about them every day regarding their attitude, progress and abilities? It’s only fair that they get to respectfully tell me how they perceive my classes. Yes, they’re only twelve or thirteen and have no formal training in ‘quality teaching’ – but they are the ones currently experiencing what it means to ‘get an education” and whilst I will take their feedback with a grain of salt, they deserve to be listened to.

I will continue to post my reflections as the project progresses.

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