If you’ve already read the title of this post, I retrospectively apologise. If you haven’t already read the title, I firstly question why you are reading this post without having previously read the title and apologise in advance for use of the ‘edu‘ prefix on what was already a perfectly legitimate word with independent meaning to begin with. The reason I make these apologies is due to the fact that it’s become a bit of a laugh in our household that some in education (or at least in the Twittersphere) seem to chuck the edu prefix onto pre-established words in the hope that this somehow makes the use of these words more relevant and meaningful when it comes to education. Beyond that, I make no further apology, and if you’re still interested in reading, this post is a personal reflection on what, for me, has been an awesome year of learning.
Oh, wait – one more apology – this is a completely self-indulgent reflection on my own personal experiences in education and as such there will be minimal backslaps or appeals to a wider audience, etc. So if you’re still down for it, please feel free to read on.
Completing the MTeach
So last year, frustrated with how things were going (or not really going) with a research degree in psychology, and following a longstanding passion for and interest in both education and psychology, I decided to apply for a place in the Master of Teaching (Primary) degree at the University of Sydney. It’s had its ups and downs, like anything in life, but I can honestly say that embarking on the journey to becoming a teacher – a journey which I consider to be perpetual – has been one of my best life decisions. There are somewhat obvious reasons for this, such as my aforementioned passions for psychology and, in particular, developmental psychology; but those are of a lifelong nature and not specific to 2013 so I’m gonna leave those alone and proceed to bang on about my MTeach experiences in 2013.
In May I travelled up to North Star, NSW to complete a month-long practicum at North Star Public School with Michael Sky and The Phenomenal 15 – a class of 15 students in years 3, 4, 5 & 6. This was a fantastic experience for so many reasons. Firstly, I was away from my family for the whole month. Now this was not good in and of itself as, of course, I love my family deeply and being away from my wife and kids for a month was obviously difficult for all of us. However, being away from home for this period meant that I was able to focus my efforts more-or-less entirely on becoming a better teacher, in the absence of all of the constant business that being a family man entails. I’m very grateful to Bianca for taking on sole responsibility for the children whilst I was away and I’m sure I’ll make it up to her at some point, if I haven’t already. A pair of Doc Martens, perhaps? Tickets to see something cool at the theatre? I’m open to suggestions.
Another thing that was cool about going to North Star was the necessity whilst I was there to try to cater daily as best I could for the needs and abilities of learners in all of the year groups across stages 2 & 3. North Star Public School is a small school with only around 30 enrolled students, and as a result there are only 2 classes at the school; a K-2 class and a class for students in years 3, 4, 5 & 6 – The Phenomenal 15. Now Michael does a fantastic job in my personal opinion and for the most part I took on his advice and more or less followed his routines whilst planning and implementing lessons as best I could, trying to make them as interesting and engaging as possible. Where I think this really went well was with the life stories PBL project we undertook with The Phenomenal 15 while I was there. I documented as much of Project Awesome as I could while I was up at North Star and wrote some reflections when I returned to Sydney, so I think it’s documented well enough, and I won’t go over it all again here. I will say, however, that I’m massively grateful to Michael for allowing me the opportunity to give PBL a go whilst I was at North Star, it gave me an invaluable chance to gain some experience with this pedagogy and some insight into planning and implementing sequenced, connected and sustained learning experiences for students – as opposed to disconnected lessons. It also helped with the projects which were to follow at Merrylands East Public School – another highlight for 2013!
Briefly, another thing I will say about Project Awesome is that I found that PBL allowed for differentiation to occur quite naturally, particularly by allowing students voice and choice in the products they were creating. Some students created games, others artworks, whilst others created videos using moviemaker and screencasts of Minecraft builds using QuickTime. I feel that this range of products catered for students’ interests and abilities whilst allowing Michael and I to adequately support them as they completed the challenge of creating their products.
So for terms 3 & 4 of this school year I spent much of my time at Merrylands East Public School. I didn’t wind up here by accident and, as with my prac at North Star, I became interested in working at MEPS through connecting with some of the people who work there via social media. So earlier in the year I asked John Goh if he’d be willing to let me complete my MTeach internship at MEPS and he said yes – and what an epic experience it was.
I knew that MEPS was going to be a cool school, that’s why I worked hard to get the chance to go there. There were a few issues with the administration team at USyd that had to be sorted out, and some red tape and miscommunication from the uni nearly stopped me from being able to get to either North Star or MEPS, but anyway that’s a long and boring story.
MEPS is quite a distance from my home and as the school has changed its teaching hours to 8:00 – 1:15, it meant that I had to get up quite early to make it to school on time. These factors (cool school, long way from home, early start to the day) made it a logistically and logically wise decision for me to temporarily enrol my two boys at the school for the time that I was there. We only had 1 family car at the time and it didn’t make sense to send the kids to school with Bianca to sit in her staff room from 6 – 9am doing nothing, and as I said, I knew MEPS would be cool so they came with me. And they loved it.
So anyway, here’s what happened.
For term 3 I was working Ashleigh Catanzariti and a lovely class of year 2 students. Whilst with the class we undertook what turned out to be a really exciting project all based around the school garden. Again, I documented this as best I could while I was there so I won’t go into it in too much detail here. I’ll try to pinpoint some of my key lessons from this below:
Getting an expert in is a good idea
We bagged Brenden from Community Greening. Brenden is a horticulturalist who does a lot of work with schools around Sydney helping design, revamp and develop their gardens. The kids from 2C really enjoyed Brenden’s involvement in the project and it drove their motivation to continue to maintain and care for the garden whilst I was there. If you’re ever involved with any kind of authentic project at school, I’d highly recommend getting an expert involved to give students advice, an audience and community connectedness to their work.
Weebly, Edmodo, etc. are fantastic formative assessment tools
For the farmers’ market project I designed a website using Weebly which we used for a whole bunch of stuff throughout the project. Much of this was based around class activities where students would draft comments to later post via iPads, laptops or PCs in class. However, I did encourage students to go on and comment whenever they wanted to from home. I moderated these comments and would get a notification on my phone whenever a student’s one popped up, asking for me to approve the comment. I found that through moderating these comments I was able to not only assess how students were going in relation to literacy and give feedback and help accordingly, but I was also able to see through their conversations when we might need to have a class conversation on digital citizenship and internet privacy. For instance, I noticed at one point that one of the students had posted a reply to one of the other students and had perhaps not considered what impact this comment might have on the other student, so I told her that I couldn’t approve the comment and we then had a class discussion on appropriate Internet etiquette.
Rubric self-assessment can help foster collaboration
As part of the MTeach students have to undertake an action research project during their internship. As part of the research we had to collect and analyse both quantitative and qualitative data on our topic of interest. Given the importance of the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, in particular personal and social capability and the fact that 21st century skills (such as communication and collaboration) are fundamental to PBL (one of the eight essential elements), I decided to focus my action research on getting students to self-assess how they were going with their teamwork. We had students in 2C regularly complete the teamwork rubric from BIE and this constituted the quantitaive (percentage of certain responses) and much of the qualitative data (depth of reflection on rubric comments) of the action research project. I collected additional qualitative data via comments on the project Weebly and analysed how much of a collaborative focus these comments took over time.
The write-up of the action research ended up being some 50+ pages long (with an additional 40 pages of collected data), so obviously there was a great deal to consider. My main findings were this:
Self assessments became more ‘honest’ over the course of the project
At the beginning of the project students predominately reported via rubric (52% 0f responses) that they ‘almost always’ helped their teammates, or almost always listened to their teammates. In contrast, very little student responses declared that they were ‘still learning’ (4% of responses) any of these behaviours. Over the course of the project the percentage of ‘almost always’ responses dropped to around 34% whilst the ‘still learning’ responses increased to around 16% of responses. I took this as evidence that kids in 2C were starting to think more honestly about their collaboration and were becoming less likely to respond by completing the rubric in order to show what might be considered an ‘ideal’ response and beginning to show how they actually thought they were going.
The qualitative data showed a similar pattern whereby students’ rubric reflections became more detailed and elaborate, explaining more about how they were thought they were going, giving specific details about what they were doing in class at certain times as examples of how they were getting better at collaborating. The Weebly comments also showed that students were increasingly beginning to use more collaborative language in their comments, sometimes even mentioning the rubric specifically. I’ll chuck my final report up on my files page later so you can flick through it if interested.
Teamwork was a strong focus for me this year and ties in well with my later experiences working with year 6 at Merrylands East.
The Triple Trouble Express, AKA Year 6 @ MEPS
So after finishing my internship with year 2 I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to work with year 6 for five weeks on a temporary block whilst one of year 6 teachers was away on long-service leave. Now this was a completely new experience for me as the year 6 cohort at MEPS is taught together in a massive, open learning space by a team of three awesome teachers. Whilst there I was asked to cover the history and science content that would usually be covered by @holidaydereamer_, the teacher whom I was relieving. I can’t say that I did so well on the science side of things, although we did have a few interesting lessons, but I am pretty chuffed with how the history went down.
Whilst working with year 6 at MEPS I was asked to have students learn about the Federation of Australia. We did this by creating an episode of Horrible Histories based on the events, people and places involved in this historical event. I had so much fun with this project and I’m pretty sure that most of the students did too! Some of the scenes that students created for the final episode were so creative, showing how well they understood what they’d been learning and how they were able to adapt it to create skits which I think are hilarious. My main lessons from my experiences with year 6 and Horrible Histories again quite fittingly are focussed on teamwork and collaboration.
3 – 5 students is a good group-size
I’ve said this in a previous post but I’ll say it again anyway. The groups that were set up for this project had about 6 -7 students; I think this is too many. I think this allows for some students to take on most of the work whilst others may tend to drift away a bit and disengage from the project. I think having smaller groups would provide opportunity to establish roles, contracts, etc., giving each student in the group responsibility and accountability. With a large class like the cohort at MEPS this would mean that there are more groups to manage but I think that each group would create a better final product in the end. Also, I think part of my problem was that I used the pre-established class groups from the beginning of the project as I didn’t know the students and anything about the group dynamics. It makes sense as I figured the groups had worked together before so they should work together well again – I guess this is really a matter of knowing the students and how they learn. In all I think the project went well, I guess what I’m saying is that in future I’d get to know the students as best as possible to begin with before assigning groups, whilst at the same time ensuring groups consisted of around 3 -5 students.
Team teaching can be awesome
As I mentioned before, this year’s cohort at MEPS was taught by a team of 3 teachers. I’m not sure that team teaching is everyone’s cup of tea but I actually really enjoyed it. Whilst I was with year 6, Solange and Lisa, we also had Jo working with us on her final prac at UWS. This meant that there were actually 4 teachers working together and collaborating to help the students learn!
I found it worked really well.
The general routine was that Lisa would take the kids for the morning session and we’d be doing something mathematically related, either Jo or I would run something for some time after this, up until recess or a little while after, then Solange would return and we’d do something literacy related and towards the end of the day we’d work at getting students to tie up the loose ends on any other project stuff they were doing or something similar. Of course, it wasn’t always as routined as that and things happened all over the place to throw us off kilt – mostly John walking through with a whole bunch of random teachers and principals from all over the shop, lol.
What I learned from all of this team teaching stuff was the importance of being flexible and adaptable. When there are many teachers working together, with students working on multiple projects – I had Horrible Histories, Jo was organising a poetry slam, students were working on blogs, we had individual interest projects happening on Friday and elsewhere (Adventure Time [Genius Hour]), as well as all of the regular mayhem of school – you need to be able to work around what everybody else is doing with the time you have available. This is a bit of a challenge, but a challenge that I found enjoyable and rewarding. I’m not sure exactly why that is; it’s no doubt due to the awesome team at MEPS but also, I think, in some degree down to the fact that I’m pretty easy going most of the time and have no massive drive for control. Whatever it is, I’m definitely open to giving collaborative teaching a go in future.
So there you have it. Those were some of my highlights of what I consider to be a fantastic year of learning. I haven’t even mentioned #PLSM13 and the massive journey involved with that in 2013, perhaps I’ll reflect on that later. I also didn’t get into my experiences as a ‘freelance’ (casual, #lulz) teacher. It feels good to be going into 2014 with my teaching qualifications and I look forward to whatever happens next. It’s difficult to find full time work out there, and whilst I’m happy to work casually for the time being, I’m really looking forward to getting my own class and doing epic things.
Thanks for reading.