I’ve spent a lot of time this year experimenting with data collection and monitoring student satisfaction and achievement using traditional and digital technologies. After a recent professional development where the staff at my school discussed the qualities we would want in a leader/teacher, I started thinking about asking my students what they wanted in their own teachers, and what qualities stood out as being the most valuable.
This came together in an activity that I did during Genius Hour yesterday and I wanted to share it because it was fun, eye-opening and a good way to start the school year. Unfortunately we’re right at the end of the school year in Australia, but that just means that reports are done and it’s a perfect time to experiment with ideas for the future.
First, I handed out strips of colourful paper and asked the students to complete this sentence: ‘A good teacher …’. I gave one example of my own but then encouraged them to write anything they could think of. They had five silent minutes and weren’t allowed to talk about their ideas (except for the EAL students) and the strips were anonymous. I went into the activity with no preconceptions about what they might write, just a hope that they would take it seriously.
After five minutes most of the class were still thinking and writing so I gave them a couple more minutes, then they gave their strips to me and went on with Genius Hour. A couple of students asked if they could help Lynda (an aide in my room) and I sort the strips, so we tried to make categories and removed any answers that were identical.
I was blown away by some of the answers, such as ‘enjoys their job’, ‘wants to share knowledge’, ‘lets us be creative’, and ‘doesn’t make useless tasks’. All the things I want to do as a teacher! And my favourites – ‘is funny’ and ‘tells good stories’. Maybe not quintessential parts of teaching, but certainly qualities of my most memorable teachers at school.
Then we stuck the strips on a big piece of paper and taped it to the board. After Genius Hour the students were given three star stickers and asked to star the ideas they thought were most important.
So what was most important? By far ‘being fair’ and ‘making learning fun’ were the top hits. If I’d been asked beforehand what I’d thought the students would say I’d probably have picked these two as well, because it’s what is important to me too. It was a great discussion to have and I could tell the students were pleased to be asked for their feedback. I spend all day telling them what I think of their work and behaviour, why not give them a chance to give me some feedback?
The highlight of the day came when we had our ‘School Value Superstars’ session (students nominate each other for stickers in the six categories of the school values) and one of the boys nominated me for a sticker because he said I did all the things on the list. Well, my heart nearly exploded. Then one of the other boys started to say ‘Well, actually Miss Lenon doesn’t… ‘ but I told him to be quiet and let me enjoy the moment ;-).
I’ve stuck this sheet on a noticeboard in the school because I love, love, love it. I highly recommend the process to other teachers. I’m looking forward to seeing whether next year’s class makes a similar list or comes up with very different things – and I look forward to using it as my own guiding principles throughout the year and doing an accompanying poster about what makes a good student and then the class and I can work together to become better.
Recently I have read many articles and attended professional developments about giving students more autonomy and independence in the classroom. My school has adopted the Kathy Walker inquiry approach in the lower years, and I really like the idea of more choice and differentiation, but I didn’t want to become overwhelmed. I decided to start small, with just one hour a week of completely student-directed learning.
My starting point was talking to students and parents. It seemed that all students felt they’d like to do better on their reports, and some were disappointed with their grades (we give a C as a standard mark, B represents six months ahead of expected achievement, and A equates to 12 months or more ahead). Most students said they’d really like to get at least one or two A’s on their reports. I asked the students to write down their areas of interest in the curriculum. Most chose ICT, History, Design, Geography, and Economics.
During the mid-year holidays I wrote up an open-ended project for each of these areas that covered all the expectations but allowed a range of options, then presented the projects to the class at the beginning of term. I explained, in our first session, that if students completed one of the projects successfully they would be guaranteed an A in that area. However, they could work on any other project of personal interest and that was fine too. They would have one hour, each Friday, to do what they liked. They each took a sheet from their area of interest and I waited to see what would happen.
As it turned out, pretty much nothing at all happened with the projects I’d designed. They were too complex, too detailed and not open-ended enough and, to be honest, they were dry and boring. But, thankfully, the students had ideas of their own.
I decided to spend half the term letting the students experiment and I would just observe. No pressure to finish anything, no rules, no structure for that one hour – except my mantra: ‘teach, learn, create’. As long as the students were doing one of these things then that was fine.
Unsurprisingly, Genius Hour was a hit. Even if the students did insist on calling it ‘Happy Hour’ for the first term. They leaped into projects without hesitation, immediately asking for cardboard, glue guns, iPads, paint, stanley knives (gulp!) and much more. Every time I thought ‘hrm… it looks like A and B are just messing around’, I’d be proven wrong when their ‘messing around’ resulted in something astonishing.
Here’s a few things produced in that first month:
a pair of cardboard shoes that were sturdy enough to be worn around the classroom (and proved useful on hot days).
a hat with a working catapult on top (only used to fire paper balls).
a research project on the history of cameras.
a series of lessons introducing students to the basic elements of karate.
a maze game programmed in Scratch.
My immediate impression was that this freedom allowed all students to do something amazing and gain recognition. One example was a student who taught a series of lessons in Minecraft. He spent thirty minutes each week with a small group of devotees, explaining carefully and demonstrating, answering questions and taking his role as seriously as an university lecturer. Respect from his peers soared, and he was labeled the expert in this area, frequently sought after for help and advice.
A secondary benefit was that each student’s project presented new ideas to the rest of the class. They shared techniques, opinions and skills. It was fantastic to watch them get interested in what else was going on in the room and lend a hand or offer advice to people whom with they did not normally socialise.
At the beginning of term four I decided to incorporate more reflection and planning into the sessions and made up an initial planning sheet, on which students had to be explicit about their goals and break them down into steps, with the understanding that they had to reflect on their progress after a month. They were welcome to change their goal but they had to explain why they had switched and what they had accomplished. Students could have projects that were one lesson long, or plan to take the whole term. Anything was ok, as long as they were learning, creating or teaching.
The lower cricket bat is the first prototype, made from cardboard and tape, the upper one is the last design. The boys asked a classmate who was an expert with wood to make their design at home. Unforced, natural collaboration with a purposeful result.
As I write this, we’ve just completed our second assessment form, which entailed reflecting on their achievements and use of time during the first four weeks of term, then planning the next four weeks, which will take us up to Christmas.
So where to next?
I’ve just begun working on my own Genius Hour project alongside the students. I need to spend time in each session helping students with resources, but I think there would be a great benefit in them seeing me go through the same process as them and then model reflective and critical thinking. My first project? A short movie about Genius Hour, of course. I’m teaching myself to put a movie together using just my phone. We’ll see if it works!
Next year I’d like to use a diary to get more concrete reflection done, and more often. I don’t want to cut into the full hour of project work though, so I’d like to extend the hour to 90 minutes. I’d also like to keep a large-format class diary to reflect on our progress as a group.
I’d also like to steal an idea from the Kathy Walker program, and have a reporter and photographer each week and focus on a couple of students and get them to share at the end of the session. I’d use Seesaw (a fantastic digital portfolio app) to record snippets of students mid-project. It would also be a good way to teach students how to produce good quality video and audio.
An attempt at a mirrorball, following on from our Science unit on ‘Light’.
Experimenting with this idea, and seeing how well the students respond to having more control over their own learning, has changed my teaching in other areas. This term our concept has been ‘The Future’ – a new unit of work that has been, without question, one of the most fun and engaging units I’ve ever taught. Although ‘taught’ feels like the wrong word. Facilitated? I was inspired by another teacher’s post on student-directed learning and so I consulted with my class about what aspects of technology and the future they were interested in. We made a list, voted on which we liked most and then broke it down week by week. So far we’ve learned about; 3D printing, drones and transport, artificial intelligence and now we’re up to cloning.
The students wanted to celebrate Back To The Future Day (fortuitously, it occurred during this term) and we’ve watched plenty of YouTube videos on new technologies, discussed Isaac Asimov’s Law of Robotics, learned about the power of crowd funding, watched (online) the first road test of an autonomous vehicle in the southern hemisphere… the list goes on. For homework, the student chose their own topic to research and had to present a timeline that covered the history of their area but also projected into the future, then make a model or diagram showing their predictions. I’ve never had such a high standard of homework returned.
Putting power back into the hands of students has led to some of the most memorable teaching moments I’ve had in a long time. The benefits for students are many, but in concrete terms it has allowed them more opportunity to demonstrate to me a range of skills that will translate to higher report scores, particularly in the areas of personal learning, creativity and design, thinking processes and ICT. I’m really looking forward to applying what I’ve learned here across the curriculum next year and learning even more from my students. I’m also very interested in hearing about others experiences with any similar styles of learning and would love advice or ideas. Feel free to leave a comment!
I’ll finish with an excerpt from a piece of writing from one of my students. I asked them to write a letter to the Grade 4’s and tell them about what they’d enjoyed most about Grade 5. While over half the class put Genius Hour in their letters (they only had space to write about their top 4 experiences), I felt this child really encapsulated the heart of the experience… while at the same time expressing this student’s fabulous sense of humour.
For approximately 14.5 of the 15 years I’ve been teaching, I thought that networking was a fairly pointless activity for teachers. Isn’t networking all about getting another job? I’m perfectly happy where I am, thank you. And that was the end of that.
It was like a lightbulb went on when I attended a network PD meeting a short while back. Oh yeah – I could learn from teachers at other schools and find out more about the things that interest me! And this meshes so perfectly with my current interest in Minecraft and other aspects of ICT. I made a connection with a teacher at Greythorn Primary that is leading up to a visit next week to talk about MinecraftEdu, and last week I spent two hours at Auburn Primary. I was there to check out their PBL (Project Based Learning) program in the 1/2 level, thanks to an invite from my former student teacher, Max, who is doing his internship there.
My current student teacher/sidekick, Ellena, and I arrived a tad early and met outside the rather imposing Auburn Primary building. From the cafe across the road (where we adjourned for a sneaky coffee before returning to school) the dark clouds that loomed above gave the old building a bit of an Aadam’s Family feel.
We were led over to Max’s room by the jocular deputy principal, Martin. It’s always lovely to enter a school where every staff member seems to be having a great day and every teacher we were introduced to was welcoming and happy to answer questions, talk about their work and let us take photos.
We found Max working in his nook – the 1/2 area is an enormous open plan space with little alcoves for each class. I find this kind of arrangement somewhat daunting as I’ve never experienced a really successful example of it, but I was keen to see how the Auburn staff managed. There were 7 classes of 22 students (I think… I might have the numbers wrong) in the space every day and I just couldn’t imagine how the noise didn’t become overwhelming.
It was very pleasant at 8:30am though, and Max took us on a tour to meet other teachers, look at displays and admire all the inquiry spaces. The students were currently working towards the culmination of a unit on the Great Barrier Reef. Their final project was in several parts. They had to write a play script, design and build a minature theatre, advertise their play and buy the materials they wanted from a shop manned by parent helpers (pictured above with all the supplies laid out).
Max told us that the approach they were working with was similar to the Kathy Walker program in that it was an inquiry approach, but students were directed using task cards. They were also encouraged to visit a variety of different coloured stations over a set period. Colours identified which curriculum area each station was aligned.
A great deal of work had obviously gone into making each station unique and attractive. Elements of student ownership and input were everywhere. In many ways it was like the inquiry stations in my own school’s Prep and Grade One areas – but with a great deal more space to work with.
We watched the students file in at 8:45 then headed to assembly at 9am. I won’t lie. Assembly is not my favourite part of the week, but it was quite interesting to watch another school go through their routine. Unlike Chatham, Auburn sings Happy Birthday to the students who’ve had birthdays that week, and they only sing one verse of the national anthem. In fact, I think Chatham is the only school I’ve ever been to that sings two verses. They had a class performance – each class has a turn, I assume. This is something we don’t do but I really like the idea, and I remember doing when I was in primary school.
After assembly we headed back to the classroom. Each group sat with their teacher for a fruit snack and roll marking then they disbanded to work on their puppet shows. There was quite a bit of noise but it certainly wasn’t overwhelming, and the teachers played fun music sporadically while the kids worked. We noticed a few students getting up to do a bit of spontaneous dancing in between tasks.
There were parents manning the materials store, students working all over the place, and everyone seemed on task and extremely engaged. There appeared to be a great balance of freedom and structure.
Perhaps the best moment of the visit came when Ellena and I spotted a student vigorously hacking into a cardboard box with what looked like a serrated knife blade. Concerned, we walked over to investigate. The student showed us his tools and they were amazing. The knife was made of plastic and unable to cut skin but perfect for boxes. There was a large bag of other bits – plastic hinges, screws (technically called ‘scrus’) and ‘scrudrivers’. All invented and sold by the student’s dad. The boy kindly gave me one of each and instructed me on their use. He also gave me the website address. I strongly encourage you to go look at this simple but elegant solution to construction for kids – I’ve done a poor job of describing how versatile and empowering it can be. Here’s a photo of the tools.
I took them back to my class and the students immediately wanted to use them, so I’m hoping several sets can be bought for a few grade levels at my school – if for no other reason than I hate covering boxes with miles of sticky tape that then makes them difficult to take apart and recycle.
After about an hour in the room, Ellena and I said our goodbyes and headed back to Chatham, heads full of ideas and thoughts on the future. I felt grateful for the opportunity to visit and wished for more time to see other grade levels in action and also for opportunities to see how edtech is used at a school that is further along that road. Currently Auburn have a 1:2 tablet program in the junior years and I’m interested to see how they manage devices, how they monitor students who are using technology and what apps they find useful. I had a quick chat about data storage with one teacher and thought afterwards that I should’ve mentioned Showbie as an option – although I’m hardly an expert. Where and how student work is stored when there are so many devices to use is something my school will probably be considering shortly. I imagine that making sure each student has the same tablet each time is slightly challenging, whereas having an account in the cloud would make more sense – and make work more accessible to teachers too. If anyone from Auburn is reading this I’d love to read your thoughts on the subject so please do leave a comment :-).
Visiting another school was incredibly valuable. Not only did I get to ask questions, I was able to see things happening that I wouldn’t have even thought to ask about. I’d definitely encourage anyone reading this (particularly those in Melbourne’s Eastern Region!) to consider begging, borrowing or stealing a few hours and spend a session or two visiting another school. I’d be particularly happy to set up some reciprocal visits with my school – if you’re interested leave a comment or join the new ‘Boroondara Teachers’ group on Facebook.
I’d also be interested to know if any teachers reading this do regularly or sporadically visit other schools and what you’ve gained from the experience. Do leave a comment and let me know :-).
The mini stage in the classroom area. I LOVE this! If any Auburn teachers are reading, I’d love to know where you got it.
It’s a program designed to allow quick and easy publishing of online books. The session was just under an hour long, which isn’t very much time to get an overview of a new program, especially one with lots of functions and possibilities. If I’d done this session a few years ago I would probably have been quite overwhelmed and ditched the whole thing as soon as I’d left, but this time I didn’t.
You see, the thing that’s really come to me lately is how technology is a giant ocean of skills and knowledge and it seems so vast and diverse that getting to know every creature living in it, to learn all their languages, is a herculean task. But it only *seems* that way when you’re yet to dive in.
One of my co-workers made an excellent point that has stuck with me for months. Technology and learning new apps and programs can be daunting at first, but there’s a certain pattern to the way things are put together. Once you’ve opened and played with five or ten apps or programs, you realise that, just like all fish have fins and scales, apps and programs have lots of similar attributes. This isn’t accidental, either. There are thousands of people at work all over the globe trying to make sure their app is the easiest, most intuitive to use because they know they have about one minute before customers decide that another app would be quicker and easier.
We live in an age where you don’t need to be a computer scientist anymore to program and create. I used to avoid programming my bedside alarm clock because it involved pushing so many buttons and scrolling through options. Now my iPad contains almost everything I need to support my entire daily schedule and it is so easy to use that it doesn’t come with any instructions.
The session I did was a bit daunting but now I have so much more confidence in myself to solve these problems because I’ve learned this:
This comic, by XKCD (possibly the most famous, most beautiful, and most clever comic to only exist online) is the truth.
So I came home and had a go at making my first iBook. It was fun! I worked out the basics, inserted a video, pictures, pop-overs and text and completed it within a couple of hours. The theme was a series of lessons based on a current exhibition of Australian Illustrators at a local gallery. Our teacher in the PD had encouraged us not to do more than 3 pages but I made mine 6, mostly because I’m pretty comfortable with rambling on for pages and pages – as anyone who has read my travel blog will attest.
So, having sailed through the actual book, I hit my stumbling block when trying to upload it onto the iTunes Producer site. I actually made my boyfriend (who is far more IT savvy than me – he’s a video editor) try to solve the problem but he couldn’t help (mostly because I asked him at 10pm on a weeknight), so I came back again and again and read the error messages, resubmitted the document half a dozen times and tonight, while I wrote this….
Success! Although there’s still two warning messages at the bottom of the page, so we’ll see tomorrow (apparently it takes 24 hours for books to appear) but still… my first published book!
So extremely cool, even if it’s only six pages and aimed at an audience of maybe three people ;-).
As our teacher said, it means having books out there that you can refer back to, pass on, and share easily. I really like that iBooks can have a video introduction , so if I create an information product for students I can talk about it at the start and this will be useful for flipped learning. I can also now show students how to use this and they can create iBooks about their own interests. I’m thinking that I’d like to use the iBook format to get students to teach teachers about Minecraft – how it works and what the educational benefits could be. So many of my students are nuts about the game, I think it would make for a really rich task.
As always, learning about one new technology opens up ideas for so many more possibilities in the classroom. I’ll post a link to the book – if that’s even a thing I can do… something else on the ‘to learn’ list.
I don’t think anyone would argue that if you want to improve your performance at anything you need to reflect on what you’re doing. Blogs are a perfect vehicle for that. Teachers also know that the best way to consolidate knowledge is to try to teach it to someone else. Blogs are perfect for that too. And how many times have you heard that having a meaningful audience means that learners set the bar much higher for themselves and care more about their products? Every time, that’s when.
Which is why I love blogging.
Of course, it helps to love writing, communicating, feel comfortable with technology, and be at peace with one’s flaws. The last one most of all, since blogging is putting your thoughts out into the world in non-erasable format, for anyone to criticise. It’s *scary*. Super scary sometimes, to think that peers could read your words and judge you harshly. But look at it the other way – they might read your words and think you’re amazing – or at least daring enough to have a go… *smiles winningly*.
Either way they’ll know what you’re doing, and that’s a bonus when we’re all too busy to get into each others classrooms during working hours. But don’t you find that it’s those times when you talk to coworkers and see what they’re doing, that you get most inspired to try new things?
Blogging is a great way to get your ideas out into the world and get ideas in return.
If you’re reading this and want to shout at the screen ‘I don’t have TIME for this nonsense, you idiot!’ I want you to think about this graphic, which shows the attitudes of teenagers in the UK to various media.
So what it’s saying is twofold.
1. That teens today (and I doubt teens in the UK would be much different to Australia) feel that tv is far less important to them than television was to us when you and I were kids. And I don’t care when you were a kid – even if it was ten years ago – or thirty years ago, like me. For both boys and girls interactive devices are far, far more valuable than passive television. Which means that:
2. Teens and kids today have a completely different mindset to older generations and we need to see their view of the world if education is going to stay relevant. Apart from the fact that less than a quarter of passive media is viewed on televisions anyway, young people today usually don’t look at a screen and think ‘I’ll watch that’.
They think ‘I’ll use that’.
To communicate, to share, to ask, to learn. So if you want to relate to the world students are living in (that we are living in), then it’s time to get with the C in ICT. Throw out that passive television and start engaging with the inspiring, challenging and interesting information that people who share your interests are talking about online.
If you use Facebook then that’s something. Facebook lets us communicate and share (and watch videos of sloths and kittens and animals wearing clothes). But I kind of hate it as much as I love it because it caused my blogosphere to slip into a coma.
I started my first blog in the year 2000. I wrote in it every day and I still write in it about once a week. Nearly everyone I knew between 2000-2010 had a blog that was linked to mine. People used their blogs to think out loud, to celebrate and mourn, to record and review. We’d write about parties, movies, break ups, anything. Then Facebook happened. It was so easy to use, so many non-bloggers were there. So people moved across and stopped posting in detail and instead posted sound bites. I lost depth in exchange for breadth in my online communications and it was a poor deal. Since then I’ve started a travel blog and vlog (at ‘Here Comes The Planet‘) with my partner, Luke. We use it to communicate with family and friends while we travel, as well as share our stories with a surprisingly large audience of like-minded people.
Starting an education blog is my way of trying to regain the deeper communication but with a different sphere. Hopefully I can create a network, ideally with a substantial local component, who can help me learn and inspire me.
The final reason for this project is to have a record of my professional progress, my trials and errors, and to look back on where I’ve come from. Hopefully it’ll even assist when I’m thinking about ‘where to now?’. Right now my next personal challenge is to utilise the power of my DSLR for self-improvement. I want to video my teaching and analyse it in order to improve my practice and share the results. It was inspired by this TED talk by Bill Gates.
Hopefully I’ll be blogging about my trial soon. Thanks for reading, and if you have something to say do leave a comment. Bloggers *always* love polite feedback, even if people disagree with them ;-).
I asked to attend this ICT education conference after the advertising material landed in my inbox a while back. The promotional material made it sound like a big deal, but my natural skepticism ensured that my expectations remained low. I mean, for goodness’ sake, they had a magician on the program and were offering cash prizes on the day. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the whole event.
Very seriously, it turned out.
The event was held at Kingswood Primary School in the south east of Melbourne. As soon as I arrived I found my coworker, Tim, and picked up my lanyard. The day was organised into a keynote speech, two workshops that we chose from a selection on offer, and then three more speakers, one of whom was ‘COSENTINO! WORLD FAMOUS MAGICIAN!’, of whom I knew nothing.
We all filed into the well-appointed school hall and the first of the cash prizes was given to a random attendee. Most of the prizes were linked to giving feedback immediately after sessions via QR codes and it only occurred to me halfway through that trying to bribe people in giving feedback was probably a good idea. Teachers, after all, are busy people who rarely do anything they don’t have a very good reason to do, and filling out feedback after a long day’s PD is just not going to happen without a carrot on offer. Some of the prizes were up to $250 – pretty impressive.
The first speaker of the day was a man named Will Richardson, whose very readable blog can be found here. He is an American writer who is a proponent of education change to cater to the needs of modern learners. His speech was outstanding. This video covers some of the key points:
From my own notes, for those who can’t be bothered watching the video (although it’s only 14 minutes and you’ll love it, I promise!), here’s my key impressions from his talk.
Students have access to the sum of human knowledge on their phones and people who want to learn can do so anywhere, anytime, therefore this is the best time, in the history of the world, to be a learner. It’s also a very complex time to be an educator.
Schools’ responses to the wealth of technology and information have not been relevant. We limit and schedule student access to the global pool of knowledge. This does not reflect how their lives will be beyond school – and how their lives are currently outside of school.
teaching children information ‘just in case’ they might need it one day is a mistake because students (and adults) today learn information ‘just in time’ – right when they need it and for a purpose. I know that I do this in my own life. I want to change a fuse? YouTube. I wanted to learn how to crochet so I went straight to YouTube. We need to let students access the knowledge they seek.
the internet allows students access to millions of potential teachers and we all need a network of people who share our passions. How do we help students moderate those who will influence them, and connect with people who can help them?
what is an education? What will be most useful to students in the future, when it is predicted that a large proportion of jobs our students will have, haven’t been invented yet?
we have access to such a vast resource and wealth of knowledge, how do we decide what to spend our time on? Allowing students to studying a few things of personal interest deeply is more valuable than skimming many things because it allows students to experience what it is to become an expert, and they can apply that level of persistence to any new area that they wish to master.
Every keynote speaker on the day referenced Seymour Papert whom, after 5 minutes research, I cannot believe I had not heard of already.
I enjoyed both the workshops I attended. The first was on the subject of iBook Author, an app that allows easy creation of iBooks. The teacher was quite dry in his humour and raced through his presentation but it was a good overview of the program. The second was on robotic Lego. It was fun and I could see lots of great educational applications but the cost of Lego is just crazy. Perhaps a task for the Parent Committee, who do amazing fundraising at my school.
The next speaker was the AMAZING MAGICIAN COSENTINO! who, it turned out, was the son of the principal and was also actually pretty famous, having won Dancing With The Stars and quite a huge range of awards across the globe. Plus he actually was really good. Most of his speech was about how he educated himself to become a magician and how school didn’t work for him or help him in his life goals. He told us about his journey and it was really interesting, as were the magic tricks he did throughout.
The next two speakers, Chris Betcher from NSW and Lee Watanabe Crockett from Canada, were as informative and inspiring as Will Richardson. They followed the same themes of reinventing education to suit the digital age, and encouraged the audience to consider the purpose of education and their use of technology.
I took more notes throughout the day than I’ve ever taken at a PD previously and it’s very difficult to condense three hours of wisdom into one digestible blog entry. Alongside the points I mentioned under Will Richardson’s talk, Chris Betcher made a number of excellent points and I particularly liked his quote from Douglas Adams. While I don’t think it necessarily applies to everyone, it certainly does help explain why teachers can lack an understanding of the way students view and use technology.
He also made the excellent point that yes, there’s so much stuff out there that learning about new technology can seem like the labour of Sisyphus, but it’s not like that at all, because teachers don’t need to know how to use all the apps in existence, because students teach themselves – and they’ll teach you too, if you let them. Really, the role of teachers is to help students discern what is good quality, how to extend themselves, how to communicate clearly through whatever platform they choose, how to present information effectively, how to do all those things that are the reasons why we use technology. He said to think about the verbs in the curriculum – create, consider, describe, explain, elaborate. We still need to teach students how to do this. He made an excellent point with an example about making movies. He asked a group of adults, after a quick introduction to iMovie, how difficult they’d rate the process. They said that it was easy – maybe a 3 out of 10. But then he asked how difficult it was to make a good movie? Well, that would be more like a 9 or of 10. Teachers are needed to help students understand and create quality work and make good decisions based on common sense.
Lee Watanabe Crocket was the final speaker. I had not heard of him, but a small amount of googling revealed his great devotion to creating digitally literate students. He has a foundation that promotes what he calls ‘digital fluencies’ that he believes should be at the core of all curricula.
I won’t try to elaborate on the diagram above, but I encourage you to watch this video in which he talks about his ideas on the future of education.
He generously offered his book, Digital Literacy Is Not Enough for free from iBooks for a short time for conference attendees and I look forward to reading it.
The entire content of the day was valuable and the overall message was ‘change or fail’, when it comes to traditional education. I do think that Australia is generally on a more dynamic path than the US. All the speakers I’ve heard from the US give the impression that classrooms there still operate on an extremely rigid model – and in the forums I read that have US teachers in them (Class Dojo, primarily), those teachers are only just starting to move away from individual desks in rows to groups of tables – quite mindboggling to me, when I haven’t seen a classroom like that in Australia for decades. But different table arrangements is only one tiny indicator of vast systemic problems. One of the speakers said something along the lines of ‘students today are the best prepared students for the industrial revolution’. We need to think about, and discuss, what we can do for students that will best prepare them for the unknowns of tomorrow.
We were left with the question – what should education actually look like?
Ok, I’m being a tad hyperbolic (and btw, ‘PD’ stands for ‘Professional Development’ and not, as one of my friends suggested on Facebook, ‘Panda Disco’… although that would definitely change your life) but I’ve been to a bunch of great PDs this year and they are changing my professional and personal perspective. Being reminded repeatedly that it’s not just the students who are learners in the classroom – I need to get with the technology program in order to do my job effectively and relate to this generation.
I’ve always enjoyed learning new things, but I’m coming to see that being a teacher in the modern age is about learning with or from the students as much as teaching them. Perhaps more than teaching them, particularly when it comes to technology. My students this year are thrilled to be teaching me how to play Minecraft. We have skyped from home while playing in the evening so that they can give me instructions. Well, I say ‘give’ – really they shout each other down to have the honour of teaching me how to do something new. I have never seen some of my students so excited, so thoughtful, as when they are trying to explain a Minecraft skill or concept to me and I pretend I don’t get it. Well… sometimes I’m pretending.
In this post I’d like to try to cover some of the key concepts of one of the PDs I’ve been to recently, so I’ll start small with the one hour session some coworkers and I attended at Canterbury Primary.
The focus of this PD was to make connections and expand our PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) and look at what Canterbury were doing with ICT in their classrooms. The presenter, Matt Forrest, made an excellent point about the great value of social media connections, but the far greater value of face to face connections, and encouraged everyone there to get into a conversation with another teacher, swap details and talk about common interests. I struck up a conversation with a teacher from Greythorn who happened to be part of a team who had instituted MinecraftEdu at their school. Score! It felt good to have a contact at another school and someone to ask about my new interest – even though I feel as though I only know one percent of one percent of what the game has to offer. I don’t even feel ready to describe Minecraft in a post yet, let alone try to go into the educational advantages. However, if you’re interested this isn’t a bad gateway to some useful sites.
Along with the chance to talk (you don’t need to tell teachers twice) there were also stands set up so we could see what students at Canterbury had been doing with all their ICT equipment and skills. It was pretty impressive, to say the least. They have a radio station, for one thing, and they were using QR codes like they were going out of fashion. I particularly liked the ‘Genius Hour/Passion Projects’ that were on display, as I’ve just started a small scale of this concept in my classroom.
Matt had started a hashtag for the event (#BoroondaraNetworkPD) and it got me thinking about ways to make stronger connections with teachers in my area who would be an invaluable source of ideas. Not just that, but if I knew someone local was doing something I wanted to learn about, I could actually go see their room, their work, and have a much deeper conversation than would be possible online.
After coming home from the PD I decided to create a ‘Boroondara Teachers’ Facebook group. I immediately signed up everyone I could from my school, hoping that would make it look like the group was already popular and cool 😉 and then asked Matt to promote it on Twitter. It’s only been going for two days and I’ve had a couple of requests from new people. Hopefully it grows and can become a useful resource for local teachers – so if you’re reading this and you’re involved in education in Melbourne’s East please join – even if you’re not actually in Boroondara. The more the merrier!
If you’ve come across this entry without reading the others on explicit vocabulary instruction, please start here for the first entry on this subject.
It’s week 5 and my class and I are now in a routine with our explicit vocabulary instruction.
Monday: word introduction with a ‘guess the missing word’ cloze on the board, followed by a reveal of the 5 words of the week and a discussion of which goes where. This takes about 20 minutes.
Tuesday: filling in the week’s entries in our vocabulary books and discussing synonyms and examples, and antonyms and non examples. Students write a 7+ word sentence and I mark their vocabulary books overnight so that alterations can be made promptly. This activity takes about 30 minutes and includes discussions of parts of speech, prefixes, suffixes, plurals, etc.
Wednesday: group cloze activity that includes words from previous weeks. Students work in pairs to discuss their answers while they work. This takes about 20 minutes.
Thursday and Friday: word games whenever we can fit them in.
In Word Nerds the authors finish each week with a ‘party’ that has a theme (pirate, Hawaiian, etc that relate to given activities) and involves students walking around and talking to other students or doing particular activities as a given word. They also have students wear lanyards in class with a focus word on each so that the teacher can use the words throughout the day – for example, they might ask for the person with a synonym for ‘flood’ to do a particular task. I don’t feel quite ready for parties and lanyards yet, but I thought I would devote this week’s entry to games we’ve played so far and ideas I’ve had for activities.
Articulate: a game where students are divided into two teams and have to explain a word without using any of the synonyms or antonyms on the word’s anchor chart. Their team have a limited amount of time to guess the word then the listening team also gets a guess.
Pac Man: as discussed in the last entry, a game where everyone spreads out around the room and if students answer a question correctly they get to take a step. If they can touch another student, that student is out, unless they can answer a question that has stumped all the standing players. Questions can be anything to do with vocabulary – giving synonyms, antonyms, spelling, cloze questions, etc.
Memory: I make up pairs of cards using words from our lists and their synonyms then the class play. Sometimes I include synonyms that are new and this raises discussion.
I’ve been very much enjoying the routine of this program and the students seem to be genuinely excited about learning new words. No part of the instruction is laborious – once the students had a little practice drawing up the frames for their vocabulary books it all flowed very smoothly. Last week I chose words from the comprehension text we’d be using in our literacy groups and the students couldn’t wait to tell me when they found some of the words from the current list – they were excited about it!
Aside from Word Nerds I’ve also been studying Bringing Words To Life, by Beck, McKeown and Kucan, which gives a more academic insight into explicit vocabulary instruction.
In their book, Beck, McKeown and Kucan write:
Less than interesting instruction is not a concern of merely wanting students to enjoy classroom activities. Rather, students need to develop an interest in and awareness of words in order to adequately build their vocabulary repertoires. Among what needs to occur is that students keep using new words so that they come to ‘own’ the words. Students need to notice words in their environment whose meanings they do not know. They need to become aware of and explore relationships among words in order to refine and fully develop word meanings. Indeed, being curious about the meaning of an unknown word that one encounters and intrigued by how it relates to other words is a hallmark of those who develop large vocabularies.
I’ve ordered a couple of books that I’ve found on websites about vocabulary instruction and asked for my school’s Literacy Leader to order a number of books that were recommended in Word Nerds (thanks Glenda!). I’m very much looking forward to reading these and I hope they instigate more of the fantastic discussion my class has enjoyed so far this term.
Next week I am going to do a ‘quick write’ with the class using a photo of submerged cars in a flooded street as the stimulus and hopefully the work we’ve done so far will be reflected in the students’ writing. The other Grade 5 classes, who have not been doing the same activities, will be doing the quick write also. Hopefully there’ll be a noticeable difference in the quality of vocabulary. Fingers crossed!
edit: here’s a link to a short and interesting article by Robert Marzano, one of the leading researchers in the field of explicit (sometimes ‘enriched’) vocabulary instruction. Worth a read if you’re thinking of following this process.
If you’re reading this and have not read my first Word Nerds post please do go back and read it because I’m going to refer to things here that are explained there.
So, with week 1 of our explicit vocabulary instruction under our belts, my grade 5 class were hopefully ready for me to introduce five new words: satellite, inundate, hypothesis, distraught, and impact. Two of which are from our Science topic list, not just from the resilience list. I left last week’s word cards on the board and hung up some anchor charts for those (more about that later) as reminders then began as I’d begun the previous week, with a cloze activity.
Lesson 1, week 2.
We discussed possible answers and what type of words we were looking for. Sometimes it wasn’t clear in the sentence what word type was required. For example, one of the sentences I’d written in week 1 was:
The firefighters moved ……………….. to get to the trapped people.
In my mind the answer was clearly debris, but most of the student’s suggestions were adverbs, such as quickly and carefully.
The students did exceptionally well with guessing the words this time, listing three target words in their guesses and they were all rather chuffed when I revealed the list words. This meant the session went very quickly and finished on a very positive note.
We managed to get all five words into their vocabulary books in half the time it took last week, although some students forgot to write their sentences. Doing this on Tuesday meant plenty of time on Wednesday to go over misconceptions, correct spelling, and add missed sentences. When students looked for dictionary definitions to support their guesses at word meaning it made it really clear that often dictionaries are obfuscatory. I don’t really like child-level dictionaries for upper primary because they never have difficult words in them, but adult dictionaries are impossible to interpret – sometimes even for adults. However we shared ideas, read what we could and came up with sensible definitions. Using google also provided plain-word definitions that were much easier to understand. Thank goodness for the convenience of iPads!
I particularly like the drawing for ‘impact’.
We played Pac Man, which is a very simple game that can be used in any subject area. Students spread out around the room so they can’t touch anyone and they stand still. I ask questions, if they get them right they get to take a step, if they can reach another student they tap them and the student sits down. I asked questions like:
what is an antonym for ………..?
what is a synonym for ………….?
Which word would fit in this sentence: ‘I was …………………… when my house was destroyed.’
Students love this game, and having the words on the board was good for reference. I used words from both the first and second week and plan to add on as we go through the term. The more students hear, say and write new words, the more comfortable they are with using them independently. In the Word Nerds book the authors recommend getting students physcially moving through a range of activities as this helps students retain the words. We’ll see!
The game was fitted into a spare 15 minutes before recess – these vocabulary sessions might sound long in my descriptions but they’re quite quick in reality.
Lesson 4: quick revision
I typed up a cloze passage and asked the students to work in pairs to list the words in order of use.
There was lots of really good discussion. Although I made this activity up on the spur of the moment, I think it worked really well because it was short and the students really talked about their choices with their partner and had to go back over the sentences several times because a few of the words were quite similar. We marked as a group, shared ideas then chucked the scraps of paper in the bin. So easy! I was particularly excited to see students getting out their vocabulary books for reference and drew attention to this by rewarding students who took the initiative with Class Dojo points.
So that’s most of what we’ve done so far, the only thing to add is the anchor charts.
These are an idea from the book but I changed it slightly. They recommend putting lots of words on a poster to keep the vocab within view. I thought I’d make one small poster for each word and show the synonyms and antonyms but I’m starting to think I’ll end up without enough room on the walls. We’ll see I guess.
On a personal note, this focus on vocabulary has made me more aware when I’m reading. On the weekend I started reading The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams. It’s a fantasy novel and I wouldn’t have said it had particularly challenging language in it, but when I paid attention I found seven words I didn’t know in the space of perhaps 10 pages. Coincidentally, one word, Cibola, was also part of the title of my current audio book (Cibola Burn by James SA Corey) and I’d assumed it was a made-up word. Turns out it’s the name of one of the seven legendary cities of gold in South America, which include El Dorado. Seriously – wow! By looking up just one word I’ve discovered meaning in two places at once, that there were seven cities and I’d assumed there was only one, that it’s really worth finding out the meaning of new words and also I’m a doofus. Clearly I’d been skimming over these sorts of words most of my reading life – or hoping the meaning would become obvious at a later date – which admittedly it sometimes does. There was another word (noun phrase?) Tir na nOg, I’d seen quite a few times but never looked up. Turns out it’s a fabled faerie land of eternal life. And Broceliande? A gorgeous-sounding forest of French legend, possibly where Merlin was buried. Such richness! Such depth! As a word nerd myself, I really welcome the reminder that words are beautiful and clever and that choosing not to expand one’s vocabulary is like choosing to paint with only half a palette.
I came across the ‘Word Nerds’ book on Pinterest. Immediately caught by the unashamedly dorky title and the joyous cover photo, I did a little research, liked what I read, and ordered the book.
I’d always had a niggling thought that what I was doing with words wasn’t helping to building vocabulary. I do spelling, I encourage kids to look up words in the dictionary and online, but my vocabulary instruction was lacking. My main activity revolved around one session: letter writing to our ‘Student of the Week’. The students enjoy the task and are really comfortable with the letter genre, which then means they can use some mental energy to include some more interesting vocabulary in their writing. I’ll pull 10 words out of the dictionary, talk about their meanings and then the students choose which to use in their letter, getting a Class Dojo point for each one.
But even though there was clear enjoyment in the use of new and fancy words, they rarely showed up again in student writing, and certainly never in their dialogue. Disappointing.
So Word Nerds arrived in the mail. It was easy to read and clearly laid out a plan for a deep and cohesive way to build vocabulary. Research, experts and results were quoted so I spent my holidays taking notes and then, first week back in term three, I started implementing the scheme. So far I’ve finished the first two weeks of the program but I’ll cover just the first week in this post. I haven’t had a chance to get to all the activities, but I thought I’d explain what I’ve done so far and how it’s going.
Before I do, let me lay out some information from the book.
1. Students from underprivileged backgrounds can enter school with half the vocabulary of students with middle class backgrounds.
2. Vocabulary knowledge is a reliable indicator of future academic success.
3. Children need to learn between 4 and 8,000 words a year to build a vocabulary necessary for tertiary and white-collar pursuits.
4. Most teachers (surveyed by the authors) report that they do little, if any, vocabulary building, or that they felt that what they did was ineffective (that made me feel a bit better).
Now, clearly teaching even 2,000 words (let alone 4,000) a year seems like a hill too large to climb, even with my middle/upper-socioeconomic group. Fortunately, Isabel Beck, in her book ‘Bringing Words To Life‘ (which I am in the middle of reading now), divides words into 3 tiers and explains the best group to focus on.
Tier 1: words that are ‘everyday’ – children come to school knowing many of these. Words such as look, party, sometimes, blonde.
Tier 2: words that are less frequently used but add colour, detail and nuances to communication across the board – words such as resonate, impartial, despondent.
Tier 3: topic specific words, such as carbine, isotope, stamen, camber.
Here’s Isabel Beck talking about the first two tiers.
The aim is to focus on tier 2 words and to use tier 1 words and the experiences students already have to create strong and numerous connections to new words. To build their vocabulary schemata so they have a stack of words to draw on in any situation, so they can understand authors’ intent and increase their reading fluency so that decoding creates fewer speed bumps on the road to enjoying reading, creating powerful writing and learning from texts.
So, where to start?
This term our Grade 5 concept is ‘Resilience’. We’re exploring this through drawing on our prior studies of migrant experiences (term two) and life on the Australia gold fields (term one). We’re also studying bush fires and floods to cover our geography component and talking about personal resilience – how to develop it, what it looks like, why it matters.
Before the holidays we (there are three Grade 5 teachers at my school) sent home a list of topic words for students to discuss with their families. When we came back from holidays I gave pairs of students a fresh copy of the vocab sheet and told them that Carlos (the class teddy bear – often used as a thinking tool for identifying problem areas) and I had been discussing the word list over the holidays and he thought there were between 10 and 15 words on the list that were very difficult. I asked the students to highlight those words in orange. Then, in yellow, the students had to guess and highlight Carlos’ 15 – 20 moderately tricky words. Words that maybe Carlos knew but couldn’t explain. The rest of the words were highlighted green. We then discussed our choices as a group and came to a consensus on which were the most challenging words. Voila! There was the list we’d be using to start our Word Nerds lessons.
One pair’s sheet.
I chose 5 words from the list:
unprecedented, debris, deluge, embankment, and havoc.
I wrote the words on cards and put them to the side, then wrote some cloze sentences on the board.
The students discussed the sentences and which words they knew that might fit. Then we talked about what those words had in common.
Then I revealed the words and we talked about the meanings – did we get any clues? Then we tried to fit each word into a space.
If I’d known I was going to use this for the blog I’d have written a lot neater. Like I *normally* do. Ahem.
The last step was to get a few students to do dictionary research and we wrote the definition on the board. Unprecedented raised interesting discussion about prefixes and suffixes. We removed ‘un’ and ‘ed’, but one child said ‘pre’ was also a prefix so we looked up ‘precedent’ and also ‘cedent’.
I took a photo of our thinking then put the word cards at the top of the board, ready for the next session.
In this lesson I introduced the vocabulary books. I’d taken the time to pre-draw the frames for the children with speed/fine motor issues so that they didn’t spend all lesson ruling, plus they then had a neat version to refer back to in future. I don’t have a photo of the empty frames but on the board it looked like this:
Next time I’ll use a ruler, I promise.
I have six EAL (English as Another Language) students, so I thought the definition would be best in their own language.
In Word Nerds they give their students photocopied sheets. I’ve always disliked the idea of sticking things over blank, perfectly useable pages. Plus I think it takes no time to teach students to rule neatly and is good fine-motor practice. They also used a projector to create far neater frames on their board, which I’ll get around to. One day.
For the second lesson we focused on just two words, unprecedented and debris. We talked about the meaning from the dictionary and students could either copy what I wrote or put it into their own words. Then we listed synonyms and examples, and then antonyms and non examples. The students were really creative and I was impressed with their thinking. This part is where the explicit nature of the instruction really come into its own, because obviously some students have broader vocabularies than others. So when someone says rubble as a synonym for debris we get to discuss the nuances in language and so, with at least 3 synonyms and 3 antonyms copied down, we now have 7 words instead of 1 and 14 instead of 2, and when we’re done we have 35 instead of 7. Of course not all are new words but to some (and especially my EAL students) quite a few are.
In the margin column, after they have filled in the boxes, each student writes their own 7+ sentence using the focus word. This lets me check their understanding. I encourage them to say their sentence to the person next to them and see if it sounds right before writing it down. Making the students use seven or more words mean they hopefully create more detailed and expressive sentences. Not just I saw some debris, but I saw some debris after the flood.
I looked through their books that afternoon and gave stamps to students who had used the words correctly and whose sentences were seven or more words and left a little sticky note in the books of other students. Being vocabulary books, it’s pretty important to correct all spelling errors since the whole idea is that these books are used for reference throughout the year. Knowing that there might be a stamp next to their work also encouraged students to really look at the feedback and read it. I also think that writing comments on sticky notes is easier to read, plus then students can pull them out after they have made the correction, leaving their book clean and tidy. We completed the remaining words in the next lesson.
This is what it looks like in a student’s book. This photo was taken in week 2 so the words aren’t from the first list.
Probably the worst example I could’ve chosen to photograph but just look at the surface details, not the actual content of this one.
I didn’t get to any of the games in the first week as it was only a 4 day week and we’d taken a long time to write everything down. But the good news was that on Monday in week 2 students told me they’d already started noticing the vocabulary words in their personal reading. A good start!