Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…


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Equality City – Year 7 Enrichment Program, Northern Beaches Secondary College, Manly Campus

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be asked to run an enrichment program for year 7 students at NBSC, Manly Campus. The program involved leading students through a week of inquiry based learning regarding the theme of ‘Equality in Contemporary Australian Society’. In order to attend the program, students had to send in an application addressing their ability to work independently, in a self-directed and regulated manner, to think critically and creatively, and to collaborate effectively as part of a team. 18 students were chosen to take place and the program was run in the school library’s Learning Centre – a modern double room which consisted of a collaborative, flexible learning space which adjoined a computer lab with access to 40 desktop computers. It was an awesome week, so I thought I’d take the time to write a wee post about it.

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After brief introductions, the week started with a hook designed to get the students thinking about equality (or lackthereof) in an engaging and experiential manner, through play and discussion. This was achieved having them join a Minecraaft server in order to complete the challenge of building a cobblestone building with an internal volume of 160 blocks. Students were each given a number, and depending on which number they were given, some had access to necessary building resources and some did not. This quickly led to discussion of fairness and questioning as to why some students were given resources over others.  After closing the server, we got together as a group to discuss the experience and how it may relate to any themes we would be focussing on throughout the week. Once the students identified the concept of equality as being particularly relevant, we gave them the briefing for the week and organised the students into teams.

Each team negotiated a focus area of inquiry for the week, centred around aspects of contemporary Australian society to which the concept of equality/inequality is particularly relevant. These areas included employment opportunities, equality for those living with a disability, equality for those living in rural as opposed to urban environments and gender equality. The task for each group for the remainder of the week was to collaboratively research their focus area in order to collaboratively produce a 1000 word reseacrh report as well as a multimodal text exploring and explaining their research findings. We also jointly constructed a KHWL table and calendar to keep learning on track throughout the week (sorry, no photos).

The second day began with another Minecraft hook in which students were required to create a simple construction which encapsulated what equality looked, or didn’t look like for their particular focus area, and also led to the idea for the final products to be submitted by the end of the week – to be explained shortly. One of the contructions which I found particularly creative during this task was the ‘Inequality ATM’, in which the amount of money dispensed was related to your ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender; highlighting disparities in employment opportunity in contemporary Australian society.

This led us to the idea of creating a Minecraft world in which two symmetrically oppposed cities existed – ‘Equality City’ and ‘Inequality City’. As the names imply, the society was either relatively equal or unequal on either side of the fence, depending on your gender, ethnicity, or the area in which you lived. The idea for each group’s final product was a video tour of the cities, exploring the life experiences of residents according to each of their focus areas. We also gave each group a particular text type and genre through which to explore their ideas. Of course, no building or multimodal text creation occurred until each group had submitted their research reports to a shared Google drive for the purpose of iterative feedback and modification. Once the research reports were up to scratch, which as always, took a varying amount of time for each group, construction of the cities commenced.

The week culminated in a presentation of each group’s research findings and video tours to an audience of year 10 students, parents and the principals and executives of the secondary college, which is a joint collection of five campuses across the Northern Beaches.

The best of the videos were chosen to take part in a cross-campus showcase, which sadly has been postponed due the current COVID-19 health crisis. However, the videos can be viewed below.

The Chunky Tomatoes produced a comedic take on investigative journalism, following a journalist ‘Steve McSteve’ as he visits ‘Inequality City’ and interviews one of its residents to learn more about the experiences of those living in Inequality Town with a disability.

The Fire Breathing Rubber Ducky Dinosaurs produced a day in the life style narrative of a girl who lives in ‘Equality City’ but experiences a nightmare in which the city is renamed ‘Inequality City’ and society favours males over females.

Well done to all students who attended the program and congratulations to the two groups who will be attending the cross campus showcase, date TBC.
We hope you enjoy the videos!


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Crowded Class – Four Stages in One Week

Regarding the title, that wasn’t the plan, but became the plan, then as tends to happen, things didn’t go according to plan.

I’ve spent the last seven years commuting fifty kilometres each way to work ‘out west’, and this year I’ve taken LWOP (leave without pay) to gain experience working at schools closer to home. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching in southwestern Sydney, however the commute and long working hours due to regular after school meetings and PSSA (Primary Schools Sports Association) training provided less than adequate or ideal time for me to spend with my family and enjoy a reasonable work/life balance. The decision to take leave wasn’t easy; it’s difficult to remove yourself from a context in which you’ve invested so much of your time, effort and passion, but I really just needed a break.

Initially I was quite concerned about how things might pan out. A permanent teaching position provides security and regularity, leave entitlements, holiday pay, and various other benefits whereas teaching ‘casually’ provides none of those – you don’t know where you might be from one day to the next, there is no leave or holiday loading. There’s also the fact that I’d never before worked at schools locally and no one even knew who I was, at least on a personal basis anyway.

With these considerations in mind I cut off my NZ trip early, put together my CV and relevant paperwork and did the rounds, submitting it all and talking to APs and principals wherever I could.

I’ve been lucky and have quickly picked up work at a few local schools.

Last Friday I taught year 6 at a school around the corner from home.
On Monday I taught year 3 at a school a few suburbs away.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I went back to the school around the corner to cover their ‘STEM room’, teaching years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 in that space over those three days.
Today I taught year 6 again at another school quite close to home.

One of the things I have noticed over the past week is that my initial concerns about returning to ‘casual’ teaching were actually some of the things that are most exciting. I’ve managed to teach across multiple grades and classes and really test my repertoire of teaching skills, whether that be teaching the content K-6, classroom management in new contexts, or gaining a working rapport with new faces. I’ve actually found it quite invigorating and affirming!

Returning to the title of this post, whilst working in the STEM room across almost all of the classes at the school around the corner, I came up with the mini-goal of teaching all years K-6 (all four NSW primary school stages – ES1, S1, S2, S3) within the space of a week. I almost got there, too, however the regular STEM teacher returned on Friday, which stopped me short of taking kindy for STEM. Alas.

I’ve been lucky enough to land a short block with year 2 at the end of term, and I’ve been using the hashtag #waginskiGapYear on Twitter so that I can keep track of all my adventures – feel free to follow if interested.

Thanks for reading!


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Te Araroa Adventures – Days 8 – 9

After the forest shenanigans of the 42 Traverse we booked ourselves a couple of unpowered sites at Tongariro Holiday Park. A nice little spot with all you’d expect from a holiday park – powered/unpowered sites, a well-equipped camp kitchen, cabins and laundry; plus a few extras such as a TV/games room, drying room and a hot tub/spa.

The night had us sleeping through another alpine thunderstorm and drying out our tents the following day. We took some time to recover somewhat by attending to our blisters and resting the legs, eating through a bunch of our heavier foods such as lentils and rice and generally getting ready for the upcoming Tongariro Crossing. I paid for the luxury of a spa to massage my ageing, sore legs which are still becoming accustomed to this thru-hiking business.

We heard mixed reports about the crossing from others staying at the campground who had done the day visit. Some said it was quite windy and misty at times, with poor visibility, whilst others said they were blessed to have clear skies and wonderful views of the Blue and Emerald Lakes and surrounding volcanoes, with relatively few tourists – one of the benefits of doing the crossing on Boxing Day. Whatever the case, all reports were that the crossing was spectacular and unlike anything the majority of them had ever seen. We were itching to go and see it for ourselves.

Night time brought much clearer skies, with incredible views of the Milky Way, accompanied by the repetitive howls of Morepork owls. Reports in the morning were of clear skies, relatively low winds and a near perfect hiking high temperature of 15°C. Without further delay, we made our way to the trail.

We made relatively short work of the 9 kilometre hike from the holiday park to the crossing. It was mostly flat road walking with a more or less steady flow of traffic heading in and out of the park. It probably took us about an hour and forty five minutes.

Similarly, we wasted no time in making our way up to the crossing. The trail had us undertaking a steady climb up to the crossing, negotiating a mix of fairly degraded tramping tracks, well defined boardwalks, and mountain trails; as well as stairs – lots of stairs. It was evident at the lowest sections of the track that the steadily flowing stream, which stems from the volcanic craters above, at times becomes a torrent and takes its toll on the stairs and trail, forging trails of its own. As we made our way further up we were greeted with ever expanding views of the Rotopounamu and Otamangakau Lakes gradually appearing behind us.

As the TA (Te Araroa) Trail would have it, we actually traversed the hike from north to south, which is the opposite to which most people approach it. This had us negotiating the trail with a steady flow of traffic coming in the opposite direction, which made ‘sharing’ the trail a bit frustrating at times. I know that if I was making my way down a trail and I saw someone carrying a substantial rucksack up in the opposite direction, I’d try to ensure to give them the right of way or at least adequate room; it appears not everyone thinks this way.

Anyway, these crowded mountain trails soon gave way to a desolate, volcanic landscape, more akin to how I’d imagine the surface of Mars than anything here at home, except for the snow. We took some snaps of the Blue and Emerald Lakes, noting how lucky we were to have such marvellous clear skies and low winds, checked out the trail of people negotiating their way down the daunting scree slope that we were about to tackle (it must be close to a 75° gradient of loose sand and gravel, and we were yet to make our way up it), and took a quick selfie for family back home. The standard cliche is true that none of the photos could possibly do justice to the views IRL.

We then made our way up the Dune of Doom!

Whilst very challenging, the fact that the scree slope was relatively short in length in comparison to its sharp incline meant that the task was over within a short time when compared to the rest of the hike. It was tough, though, and I did have a slip along the way, falling into the scree with the weight of my pack. We shuffled our way down the other side, with me managing a few more minor tumbles along the way, and gradually made our way through the varying alpine terrain to follow. We ended up making our way 600 or so metres from the side of the track and setting up camp among the birch forest, not far from a stream so we could gather water for dinner and breakfast.

One of the things I’ve learned from my distance running days (which I plan to take up again when I return to Sydney) is that if it’s been some time between runs, it’s always a good idea to let your legs some time to recover after the first initial run back. I’ve backed up long runs after a hiatus previously and it has lead to injury and further time out. After five to six days of continuous hiking under heavy weight, I’ve decided to stay in town for a few days while Jayke takes on the Round the Mountain Trail. From experience, and knowing the way my body recovers, allocating this recovery time will reap dividends down the track. We’ll meet up again around New Years and make our way down to the Whanganui River access point in Whakahoro. It’s also good to have access to a servo/grocery store with some fresh fruit and veges, in fact, that’s where I’m heading right now!


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Te Araroa Adventures – Days 5 – 7

After spending a few days in Taumarunui stocking and psyching ourselves up, it was time to leave and head off along the trail. Firstly we had to take some supplies to the canoe centre, ready for our paddle down the Whanganui some 11 days after our departure from Taumarunui.

We carried our packs to Whanganui Canoe Centre, took part in a safety briefing, signed a few documents and paid our fares before backtracking into town to check out of our motel and send some things to ourselves in Wellington before backtracking again to the canoe centre. Unfortunately these backtracks were necessary due to the strange opening times and signage of some of the shops in Taumarunui, with some saying they would be closed when they were actually open, and a few other weird nuances which messed around our timing somewhat.

The track from the canoe centre started off fairly mildly, with country road walking alongside cattle and sheep farms, some nice views of snow covered mountains, as well as a random ostrich that shared its yard with a few cows. My nephew had fun ‘dancing’ with it as it threatened us away from the other side of the fence.

From there we hiked along some gravel roads, through rainforests and over hills before making it to the tiny town of Owhango at about 5:30pm. Although this hike wasn’t demanding or arduous by TA Trail standards, it was my first day, and the hike, as well as the 20 kilograms I had strapped to my back were beginning to take their toll.

I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed to learn that we’d have another 5 kilometres or so to go before we would reach our campsite in the Whakapapa River, taking the day’s hiking distance to 35 kilometres (+ 9 kilometres if you include the pack-less backtracking to and from town).

We arrived and set up camp, and I learned how to use my new cooking gear and water filter. It was a nice campsite, with access to the river to collect water and go for a quick dip. We met a father who had taken his kids for a Christmas camping and quad biking journey, he offered us some eggs and gave us a little bit of information about the track to come.

In the morning we set off to begin the 42 Traverse, and this was going to be the day that punished me.

The traverse itself crosses semi-alpine forests, ranging in elevation from 520m – 910m, with many climbs, bends and dips in between. After about two hours of hiking, I began to feel the strain of the 18 or so kilos strapped to my back, and to curse myself to a certain degree for not looking more into ultralight hiking and camping gear before leaving Sydney.

My nephew, being 28 and having about 1000 kilometres of Te Araroa hiking experience over me, lost me quite quickly, only to wait at ‘you are here’ spot on the first of the signs in the images below. We carried on together for some time before he hiked ahead again. However, this time the outcome wasn’t as positive.

I missed one of the trail signs on one of the final creek crossings and veered to the right instead of taking the trail to the left. This caused me to deviate from the trail for a couple of kilometres or so before realising, and by that time I had no safe option but to set up camp beside the track I was on and make my way to the state highway the following morning.

My nephew had been waiting for me by the river we were supposed to camp at and had become quite anxious when I hadn’t arrived by dark. In this time I had found some mobile reception near to where I had set up camp, had contacted my wife to let her know where I was and had sent some messages to my nephew, which I could see had not been received.

The following morning (Christmas Day) I walked ahead a little to find a sign and to ensure that my track would take me to the highway, backtracked to get water from a nearby stream, packed up my gear and set off for the highway.

Some two or three hours of hiking later, I received more mobile reception, contacted Bianca, and finally heard from my nephew. I reached the highway a short time later and hitched a ride up to where Jayke (my nephew) had just made his way out of the forest. From there we hiked to Tongariro Holiday Park. Quite a Christmas adventure!

After setting our tents and weathering an alpine thunderstorm overnight, we’ve spent today resting at the holiday park, to allow one of my legs to recover from the last few days. The spa has worked wonders. Tomorrow we will hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and make our way slowly toward Whakahoro to canoe our way to Whanganui.


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Te Araroa Adventures – Days 1 – 3

So the time has finally arrived for me to start my hiking journey in New Zealand.

After flying out from Sydney, my plans are to make my way by bus or train to meet my nephew in the small town of Taumarunui.

As with all road trips/journeys, the first major hurdle is making one’s way out of the major centres. All of the people and traffic cause congestion and slow things down. I have to say, though, that the InterCity bus network here in New Zealand has so far been amazing in terms of running to schedule and getting everyone where they need to be on time.

They’ve also been very accommodating and have ensures that people are able to take all of their belongings with them, even when some of these belongings have erred on the side of ridiculousness. For example, on the first leg of my journey to Taumarunui (from Auckland to Hamilton), whilst waiting for the bus, I noticed a man applying electrical tape on one of the edges of a massively oversized box. When the time came for him to board, there was a fair amount of confusion evident in the reaction of the bus driver when he requested that the box be stowed underneath.

She agreed that she would attempt to fit it in, but said that she would need to charge an additional $10 fee for oversized luggage. Oversized is really a bit of an understatement as the box was actually longer in length than the bus was in width.

After some rearranging of luggage, shifting of the box, and even some closing of the passenger within the underfloor cabin in order to test it would fit, the box was finally stowed away. I asked the man what was inside and he informed me that it was a ‘radio controlled glider’ – quite a strange thing to take with you on a bus journey in my humble opinion.

Anyway, the bus ride was pleasant and we arrived in Hamilton on time despite initially being somewhat delayed. I hopped off and walked the short 1 kilometre straight stretch of road to my hotel, just as it started to rain. I did contemplate hiring a Hamilton city , scooter but decided against attempting it with 15 kilograms of hiking and camping equipment strapped to my back.

I picked up some supplies whilst in Hamilton, and after a good night’s sleep and a simple breakfast, I made my way to Taumarunui. This bus journey was more interesting, travelling along winding roads through mountainous, rural terrain covered in wildflowers, ferns, grass; conifers, poplars, sheep and cows, and segmented in parts by small creeks and rivers. It had me beginning to become increasingly excited (if not slightly daunted) by the hiking adventures to follow.

I met my nephew in Taumarunui to find him in good spirits and full of stories. We went across the road for a pub feed and to discuss the plan over the next few days.

Tongariro is not too far, only a few days hike from here, but unfortunately the weather forecast up there isn’t the best right now, with cold nights and potentially snowy days predicted. We’ll be OK to do the crossing, but not the additional 2 – 3 day side adventures as planned.

From there we’ll hike fore a few more days down to the Whanganui, which we’ll head down in a canoe trip which should last several days.

We also conducted a ‘shake up’ of our packs, getting rid of any extra/unnecessary gear and packing it to post to ourselves in Wellington to use later. We’ll need to wait until Monday to do that, however, which means one more night here in Taumarunui before making our way towards Tongariro.


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My Barren Blog

I haven’t been active in this space for a long time now. The main reason for this is because I haven’t been in the position to do some of the more exciting educational things I once was in a position to do.

I did also briefly move over to Steemit, where I did write a few posts about some of my educational adventures, you can read them here, if interested:

https://steemit.com/@waginski

Perhaps I’ll repost some of the above on this site.

The truth is, however, that whilst I have done some interesting stuff in the past couple of years (including an awesome stage 3 Horrible Histories project, a carnival games science project, and making it through to the finals in this year’s Western Sydney Airport Minecraft Competition), I haven’t really been in the space where any of this has inspired me enough to actively blog about it.

This general lack of inspiration has in part lead to me taking a year’s leave in 2020 to pursue other interests. These include working at a couple of universities in their education faculties, some casual teaching closer to home, and perhaps some further postgraduate research studies in environmental science.

I’m also currently in New Zealand where I’m about to meet my nephew and hike/kayak some of of this beautiful country’s infamous Te Araroa Trail. I’ll be posting about those adventures here on this blog in the very near future.

Hopefully my hiatus in 2020 will lead to a renewed passion for education, and perhaps some doors may open up elsewhere. Who knows.

In any case, I thought I may as well post an update, for whatever it’s worth.

Do feel free to follow my adventures, and thanks for reading.


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5L Ocelots and the 5 As

Back in 2013 Bianca and I ran Project Learning Swap Meet (PLSM) at the Powerhouse Museum, or as one of my students says, “AKA The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).” This was a whole day of professional learning for primary and secondary teachers from all sectors, as well as academics, on Project Based Learning and how to design and implement authentic projects for students to engage in. Basically the ins and outs, the dos and don’ts of PBL.

As part of PLSM we were lucky enough to have a couple of Skype conversations with Tait Coles from the UK and Suzie Boss from Portland. Tait told us about some of the awesome concepts and philosophy behind Punk Learning, and Suzie shared her ideas about authentic Project Based Learning and some of her experiences of seeing it in action. During our conversation with Suzie, she spoke about service learning (an educational approach which combines student learning experiences with public service) and the 3 As of Project Based Learning. These are:

Awareness – through engaging in Project Based Learning, students raise public awareness about some local or global issue or problem that needs addressing.

Action – through engaging in Project Based Learning, students take action in order to solve or help to solve a local or global issue that needs addressing.

Advocate – through engaging Project Based Learning, students advocate for a particular cause.

After discussing the 3 As with Suzie, I was massively inspired, but still couldn’t really see how they could be achieved effectively within a classroom setting.

Enter the 5L Ocelots.

Over the last few years my class Minecraft projects (that’s Minecraft the actual game, not the super lame ‘Education Edition’ offering from Microsoft) have kind of been building (pardon the pun) on from one project to the next. Our Minecraft world has kept expanding as we keep adding more and more interesting builds along with each project. This is all pretty well documented so I won’t go into any great detail, if you want to know more about our Minecraft work, just scroll through some of my earlier posts.

I will however quickly mention #Project360.

Last year my class researched some of Taronga Zoo’s ‘legacy species’ of endangered animal from around Australia and south-east Asia. After researching the animals, their threats, and some of the things that we may be able to do to help the animals, my students built an endangered animal conservation park in Minecraft and made video tours of each enclosure which were recorded using the Replay mod and rendered in 4k 360º, uploaded to YouTube and can be viewed in 360º using Google Cardboard or some similar headset. We also put on a cinema day at the school and raised $150 for the World Wildlife Fund.

Now this was great, and you might already say that the 3 As of Project Based Learning were already enacted as part of this project – students raised awareness of the plight of the animals by making interesting videos and sharing them on social media, they took action by putting on a cinema day and raising funds to help save the animals, they advocated for sustainable living practices and other ways that we can each do our bit to help keep these creatures alive. However, things get even better.

Our work as part of this project saw us get an invite to the Young Creators Conference at the MAAS to showcase this work and some of our more recent VR work with the HTC Vive. We set up our Minecraft server at the museum along with a Vive, and we also brought along some Google Cardboard headsets so visitors could view our videos and explore our Minecraft world by playing the game and also experiencing it in VR. It was a great day.

During the event we were lucky enough to meet one of the national managers of the Stockland shopping centres who invited us to run a similar showcase at their Merrylands centre. We agreed and just this Thursday my students and I set everything up at their local shopping centre and ran a similar showcase for the public. It was really awesome.

Between 5 – 7pm, as customers went about their Thursday night shopping, my students invited them in to a little enclosed area just outside Woolworths to check out our work, to watch our videos and experience our work in virtual reality. We had interest from people as young as 5 and as old as 50. My students raised awareness of the plight of our local endangered animals and told customers the different ways in which we could help. They took action by conversing with parents and students from nearby local schools and other members of the general public, explaining what we were doing. They became advocates for the animals, for sustainability and sustainable living practices. They were amazing.

The event ran really smoothly and I was so impressed with how well my 10 and 11 year old students communicated with everyone and conducted themselves in such a public space. The 5L Ocelots truly rule.

I feel like I’ve finally managed to achieve the 3 As with my students, and it’s a bit of a milestone which felt somewhat vague and unachievable back in 2013 after that Skype conversation with Suzie Boss. It’s also opened up a meaningful connection with Stockland and the possibility for running further events in the future, perhaps even a holiday showcase when their centre is even busier.

 

After this experience, I feel that I would like to add a couple of As to the 3 As of Project Based Learning:

Authenticity – students engage authentically with community members outside of the classroom. Whilst this is a necessary component for any class project to truly live up to the ‘gold standard’ of PBL, it can’t hurt to add ‘authenticity’ to a list while we’re in the business of listing As.

Awesomeness – the learning should be awesome. You’re just going to have to take my word for it when I say it’s been awesome working on this stuff with my class and seeing how great they are at communicating their learning to the public.

I’ll put some photos below so you can have an idea of how the event looked. It’s really about getting students outside of the classroom and to realise that they do have the capacity to do things with their learning that extend beyond school. If they want to, they can change the world.

 


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Virtual Reality Showcase at the Young Creators Conference

Last week I was interviewed by some film students from Macquarie University for an upcoming conference on technology and education soon to be held at their institution. Among the many questions they asked me was, “What’s one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in technology and its use in education in recent years?” My answer was the swift advances in Virtual Reality technologies and how they can be implemented effectively within a classroom setting. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but it’s certainly been noticeable from where I’m sitting in my little blip on the edusphere.

Last year this video of Mark Zuckerberg speaking about the potential of Virtual Reality technology to impact our daily lives was released, and back then, it still seemed like this impact was some way off. I now, however, don’t think it’s that far away.

We have, for instance, Google’s endeavours into the Virtual Reality in education realm with Google Expeditions. The idea is that students get to go on virtual field trips to far away and difficult to reach places while remaining in the relative comfort and safety of their classrooms by strapping on a Google Cardboard headset and going on a VR mission.

Aside from consuming VR content, my class has recently created a series of 360º VR videos and uploaded them to our class’ YouTube account. This project saw us put on a 360º VR Cinema Day to raise awareness and a small amount of charity funds for WWF Australia to help the plight of the endangered species they were researching. This brings us to the Young Creators Conference at the MAAS.

On Friday some of my students and I visited the MAAS to share our project with a large crowd of other students and teachers who are also making some interesting moves forward in STEM/STEAM education. We brought along a handful of computers and cardboard headsets so that visitors to our area could explore our server and view our videos in VR. Interestingly, the headsets we used were donated to our school by the Commonwealth Bank, who also have taken to VR to educate children about financial literacy in new and interesting ways.

What was new here for us was the use of the Vive. We’ve recently figured out that our MinecraftEdu world can be ported over to regular Minecraft and that through the installation of the ViveCraft mod, we’re able to share our world by strapping an HTC Vive headset on those interested and walking them through it as they experience it in VR! This adds a whole new level to how students engage with and articulate their learning. Below I’ll share some photos from the day.

 

It really was a great opportunity for students from all sectors to share their learning experiences and some of the great things happening in NSW schools. Particularly great for my students as some of them may not get out to places like the MAAS very often, and wonderful to see them as facilitators and exhibitors.

Here’s a video of one of my students experiencing our class work in VR for the first time. So cool!

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Exploring our Minecraft world in VR! #MAASYCC

A post shared by 5A Llamas (@5allamas) on

 

We’ve been extremely lucky to have been loaned a Vive setup from the awesome peeps over at Coder Academy and can’t wait to start pushing things further.

We do quite a lot of our work in Minecraft and we’re currently looking to move away from the ‘edu’ versions so that we can do some more with VR. The original MinecraftEdu is still cool, but it’s stuck back in 1.7.10 and it won’t be too long until it starts looking a bit outdated. Also, it’s not compatible with Vivecraft. Furthermore, Minecraft ‘Education Edition’ doesn’t support any mods whatsoever, so trying anything like this won’t happen for quite some time on that platform. We need mods. For example, how cool would it be to walk through a tiger enclosure in VR with mods like Mo’ Creatures, Animals Plus or Lots of Mobs installed? Not gonna happen with MEE. We need to keep moving forward, but the removal of the ability to mod is a serious step back.

We’re currently running the necessary tests to get regular Minecraft running at school and all is looking quite well. Pretty soon we plan to be collaborating in VR with our friends down in Wooranna Park and pushing things forward on their vanilla server. The idea is that school visitors can experience virtual reality tours of our builds while our students explain what they’ve been learning and making.

Anyway, the conference was great, and I’m looking forward to our further forays into VR. 🙂


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#ProjectDreamtime: connecting with Arnhem Land and learning about culture.

On a recent summer road trip, up through Uluru, Darwin, over to Cairns and back down to Sydney, I became inspired. Inspired by the landscape, inspired by the epic wet season weather, inspired by the stories and culture of the Indigenous people of northern Australia. I got to see Uluru in a once in 50 year downpour, with waterfalls streaming down its ancient surface, after sheltering with my family and some local children from the rain in a cave covered in 30,000 years worth of rock paintings. I was lucky enough to see the Todd River in Alice Springs flowing with recent wet season runoff, an event which is apparently also a once in a lifetime opportunity. I learned about Lightning Man in Kakadu National Park, and how his children, ‘Alyurr‘ bring the wet season when they arrive to the desert. I learned of the evil spirit, Narbulwinjbulwinj, and many other dreamtime stories. I was interviewed on SBS and became famous, lol. True story.

All of these experiences got me thinking about the ways I could use them to teach my students about Indigenous culture and the dreamtime stories. I think it’s important that when our students learn about Australian history, they start with a solid foundation of and respect for the first Australians and the culture which was established tens of thousands of years before any Europeans had ever laid eyes on the beautiful country we now know as Australia. After learning about the awesome ‘Momotaro the Peach Boy’ project by John Miller’s students, where they worked as a build team to recreate the story in Minecraft, I thought that it’d be an awesome idea for my class to do the same with some Aboriginal dreamtime stories.

So over the last couple of weeks of the summer holidays, I designed the project outline, which is guided by the driving question, ‘How could new technologies be used to tell traditional stories?’, and set about trying to connect my class with some schools from remote Indigenous communities. In fact, I emailed probably around 50 schools from remote NSW, QLD, WA and the NT, trying to establish connections. I finally managed to secure a connection with an awesome school from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, which I’ll write a little more about later. I also contacted the AECG and organised for a visitor to come to our school with some Aboriginal artefacts and to introduce the students to Indigenous culture.

His name is Des, and he came and spoke to the students, showing them his boomerangs, which were handed to him by his father and grandfather, a kangaroo skin and some other artefacts. He played the didjeridoo, and explained how it was only the boys and men who were allowed to play. The boys had a go at playing and we all laughed along as they made ridiculous noises. Des explained the concept of totem animals and performed the creation dance taught to him by his father and grandfather, which explains how Baiame came down and created all of the geographical features and the creatures of the land.  It was a great visit and we hope to be getting him back at the end of the project to show him what we have learned and made. Photos below.

We have also been speaking with some students in Arnhem Land via Skype. The students in 5L and 4/5H came up with some questions to ask the students from Arnhem Land. Things like, “What is your favourite sport?”, “Have you ever been out of Arnhem Land?”, “What do you like to do for fun?”, and all the other sorts of things that kids are interested in learning about from other kids. They also asked if the Arnhem Land students had ever seen a crocodile, to which we got the awesome answer, “We HUNT and EAT crocodile!” It was a real eye opener for the Merrylands East students to hear and learn about a traditional way of life that is still being lived today. They told us that crocodile tastes “sweet” and “a bit like chicken.” They also told us of the other animals they hunt, such as the long-neck turtle and sting ray. They told us of their totem animals and which belonged to their families.

Interestingly, one of the Merrylands East students asked if the Arnhem Land school was K-6 or K-12, and they told us that the school is more like ‘birth to adulthood’, with the mothers bringing their children to the school a few weeks after birth and continuing to visit and attend right through until they’ve finished high school and moved on to employment. They explained how children are taught their home language in conjunction with English, with two teachers working alongside each other, and that the elders also take the students to teach them their stories. A really interesting place, and a cool school setup with wonderful people. They have sent us some questions for our students and we will be contacting them again via Skype this coming Thursday to answer them. Such a cool connection to have.

As well as this, students in 5L and 4/5H have been using the class website PBL page to research dreamtime stories from around Australia. Working in groups of 3-4, they have now chosen a dreamtime story to build using Minecraft for the purpose of making a screencast retelling of the story. Their builds will be confined to a Minecraft ‘shoebox’ with dimensions ‘100*80*60’. These are the same dimensions of the shoeboxes used by John Miller in the Momotaro video linked to above, and I thank John for his friendly correspondence in passing on this information. The shoeboxes have been aligned in an 8*8 array, on a specially dedicated and purpose built superflat area on the MEPS-Wooranna Minecraft server. Some photos below, I can’t wait to see the wonderful creations that are soon to fill these boxes.

8 of the groups had all decided that they wanted to build the same story. It’s a story called ‘The Curse’, which they found on the Dust Echoes website, via the class weebly. It tells the story of a jealous witch doctor who sings a song around the a campfire in order to make another man sick. He summons the Namorrodor, and evil, dragon-like creature that eats the hearts of babies and preys on the sick and the elderly. The namorrodor possesses a baby in the sick man’s family and it attempts to kill the sick man before being sent off by the man’s wife, who is a also capable of magic. The lady becomes furious, turns into a crow and flies to the witchdoctor’s cave to kill him.

I’ve set a requirement that each group must explain the moral of their stories in their screencasts. We discussed that the main moral from The Curse is to ensure that we care for our young, sick and elderly, as we have been looked after when we were young, cared for when we were sick, and that when we become old, we will also need to be cared for. So 8 groups will be working as a build team to build that story. We have separated it into 8 different scenes, and each group is now responsible for a different scene.

Other groups in 5L have chosen to build Tiddalick the Frog as well as Mirram The Kangaroo and Warreen The Wombat. There are also 10 groups in 4/5H working on other stories. It’ll be great to see them all finished and for students to share their stories with each other and learn from the videos made. We will also be sharing the videos on our class YouTube channel so the students in Arnhem Land can view them, as well as some of our friends in America, New Zealand and Canada.

I mentioned earlier how I was interviewed in Alice Springs about my lucky monsoonal encounter at Uluru, instantly becoming a worldwide media sensation. The journalist from SBS World News who interviewed me came to the school to run a feature story on the project. It really is a positive story about public education in NSW, the power of connected Project Based Learning and some of the awesome things happening at Merrylands East Public School. I’ve embedded the YouTube link below for you to view, it’s good to see something positive being said about teaching and learning, and not just coverage of NAPLAN, etc. I’ll post the videos once they’re finished, and perhaps get the kids to do a video tour of all the builds in 360º VR, just for something epic and different. Thanks for reading. =]


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Creating Virtual Reality Content in Minecraft with Year 4.

I started using Minecraft within a Project Based Learning pedagogical approach whilst on my second practicum up at North Star Public school back in 2013. A group of year 3 kids used it to build various life events in order to tell the viewers their life stories via screencasts. Since then, I’ve used it in various projects, spanning across the K-6 curriculum, ranging from maths games and life cycle screencasts, to building a city with year 1, some extreme environment bases with year 4, and sharing a class server with kids from Wooranna Park Primary School, Newlands Intermediate School in Wellington, New Zealand, as well Lake Shore Tundra up in New York and Marco in Rome. I have also used the game as part of an after school Coder Dojo to help teach kids from year 2 and year 4 the basics of coding. My latest class project, which we have just finished and I am about to describe, is perhaps the project that has challenged me the most, both as a player of Minecraft, and from a classroom perspective. It was also, however, way cool!

The project, which was guided by the driving question, “How can we use Minecraft to help endangered animals?” was focussed on having kids learn about human impact on the environment, sustainable living practices and animal conservation. It started with a hook lesson which took the format of an excursion to Taronga Zoo, where kids learned about the legacy species of endangered animals that this organisation is hoping to raise money for as part of their centenary year celebrations and beyond. We didn’t go into great detail here, because hook lessons are meant to be fun. We simply noted the fact that the zoo was 100, and there were animals that needed our help.

We then arranged a video conference with an expert from the zoo, who told my class all about the animals, showed us some cute little critters and fielded some questions from the kids. The class were then given one of the legacy species to collaborate together and research in groups of 3 to learn about the following in order to present to the class:

Their animal’s habitat.
Their animal’s diet.
The threats to their animal.
Ways in which we can help.

We also did quite a lot of explicit teaching around global warming, deforestation, ocean pollution, and other threats to these animals (such as chytrid fungus and how humans might spread it), sustainable living practices and other environmental stuffs.

Students were also given a plot of land on our shared Minecraft server, on one of two islands which were directly adjacent to the MEPS Book Review Zone on the server where my class has recently written in-game book reviews and character descriptions as part of a global book review project they were working on just prior to this one.

Anyway, on these plots of land, students built enclosures for their endangered animals and used the above-mentioned research as the basis of scripts which they later narrated over some screencasts. Pretty much business as usual, right?

Yes, except that their screencasts were recorded in 360º, so that when they were uploaded to YouTube they’d be viewable from all angles with virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard. This is where things got a bit complicated.

To make our Minecraft worlds compatible with vanilla Minecraft, we had to use version 1.8. We also had to run with Forge Mod Loader 1450 so that we could run the Replay Mod in order to record the 360º VR content. The editing of the videos, which is the relatively simple part was done in Adobe Premiere Pro, which I had pushed through on several of my class PCs during the holidays. To learn how all of this stuff worked, I was guided by the awesome Nick Patsianas, who basically sat with me in Google Hangouts and TeamViewer for about four hours for a holiday PD session and made sure we had everything installed and running properly and that I knew how it all worked, lol.

Let me just say that the process of recording is quite tricky. The kids took a while to master it, but they totally got it and the videos look and sound completely awesome. I’ll post them below, but I’ll just explain the recording process as quickly as I can.

You basically record the screencasts using the Replay mod in first person and then record a recording of your recording in third person by hovering within the recording on an invisible Minecraft camera dolly. I’ll add a photo below, in the hope of making this easier to understand.

You also have two timelines for recording; the first person timeline and the third person timeline. You play the first person timeline ahead of the third person timeline to some degree before adding a ‘time zero’ position and time keyframe and then catching up to the other timeline and adding new position and time key frames at different points in time along the third person timeline which creates camera pathways between different times and positions. This is all recorded in 360º via a setting on the Replay mod.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is a bit at first, but with a bit of practise, it all becomes a lot clearer and easier. I must admit, I think my class got it more quickly than I did.

The mod is also quite CPU intensive and only three of the computers I put the software on ended up being up to the task. This made the recording sessions quite hectic as we all had to negotiate sharing the limited computers within a short period of time (we had a deadline to share the videos with Taronga Zoo by Week 5, which I had miscalculated as week 6, whoops!). Technology fails are great. Check the photo of the recording process below. The top timeline is the first person timeline and the bottom is the third person timeline.

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OK, so we made our videos and we have shared them with the zoo. We were hoping on getting to and end of year event at the zoo called ‘Kids Teaching Kids’, where kids show other school kids at the zoo some of the stuff they’ve made after learning about these animals. I’d be tipping that none of them have made 360º VR content, lol, I am pretty crazy.

We didn’t make it to ‘Kids Teaching Kids’, but to finish off the year, we’re going to hold a 360º VR Cinema Day where all of the classes get to come to the library and watch our videos. The Commonwealth Bank recently visited our school and left a bunch of Google Cardboard style headsets, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I have 7 cardboard headsets set up like the one pictured below, so kids will get a chance to strap them on and view our videos in VR. I can’t wait to see their reactions!

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We’re going to sell a little bit of popcorn, fruit skewers and stuff and have the option for kids to leave a single/silver coin donation which we will fling to the zoo as part of their legacy campaign. The class is heaps excited about putting on the event and recently taught them how to use Canva to make posters advertising the event and invitations for the other classes. You can see some of them below. They are screenshots of .pdfs, so they may look a bit pooey.

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If you would like to view our videos, they are embedded below. If you have headsets like the ones above, you can totally experience them in VR. Thanks for watching!