Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…


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Project Pokémon! Year 1 #PBL inquiry into Australian insects and Japanese pocket monsters.

This week I’m launching my first whole class project with my year 1 class, the @Lionfish1L for 2015. The idea came from a recent trip to the Daintree Rainforest over the summer holidays. Whilst there, I was lucky enough to see my first ever Rhinoceros Beetle, cruising around the rainforest retreat where we were staying. Being a lover of insects and social media, I naturally picked the fine specimen up to take photos for my friends on Instagram.

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The photos sparked a Twitter conversation between myself, @pipcleaves and @debimoa, both of whom are experienced Japanese teachers. They informed me that Rhino Beetles, known as kabutomushi or helmet-bugs, are popular childhood pets in Japan. Pip said that at one point she and her children had three of them living in their house! We got to talking about how cool it would be to have one as a class pet and pretty soon we had formed the basis of a class project all around Rhino beetles, Australian insects and Pokémon.

I started looking into where you could buy rhinoceros beetles in Australia and found that they can be quite tricky to source. During my research I found a company in North Queensland that sells Rainbow Stag Beetles, a tropical rainforest beetle that’s similar to rhino beetles, only much more spectacular in colour. I’ve set up a terrarium and currently have a lovely specimen living in my home. They really are marvellous creatures, albeit nocturnal and somewhat shy. It’s been a bit of a learning curve trying to keep the terrarium at the right temperature and humidity and figuring out how to get it to eat.

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The project outline is below. The basic premise is that students learn as much as they can about Australian insects and Pokémon, as well as how to draw cool cartoons. They will then create their own Pokémon based on an Australian insect of their choice, draw some awesome cartoons and put them on a blog to share with a class from Tokyo – I’ve managed to connect with year 4 class, @TISGrade4 on Twitter and they have already studied the project outline with interest!

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I’m going to launch the project tomorrow by showing my class their new beetle, letting those who are keen to check it out, and getting them to play a flash game on ABC Splash in which you explore an Australian garden searching for insects. Needless to say I’m excited about this project and can’t wait to see what fabulous creations my class come up with over the following weeks!


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Planning for project-based learning in primary school

Below I am going to post a .pdf of one of my typical programs for a primary school #PBL project. I’ve been asked to share this before and have previously given this link to Drew Perkins from the BIE, but I thought I’d also post it up here so that I can more readily look back on my awesome in years to come – lulz.

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You should be able to download the .pdf from the link above the photo, but failing that, you can get it via the link to the google doc here.

You will see that up the top, along with the project outline showing the DQ, need to knows, product and audience are a bunch of syllabus outcomes. These are here because, as a responsible teacher, I like to plan with the curriculum in mind. In actuality, not all of this content was explored as well as I would perhaps have liked, but it’s good to aim high! Also, as is always the case with #PBL, there is content that unexpectedly sneaks its way into the project, leaving you surprised and stoked with what has naturally and authentically been ‘covered’, with purpose.

I also like to plan for proper project-based learning, so you will see that I have outlined how the 8 essentials will be given the respect and consideration they deserve. As Bianca and I have said on numerous occasions, if you’re not including ALL of the 8 essentials, you’re not doing PBL. You might be doing elements of, but not the actual ‘thing’, ugh.

You will see that I have also attempted to give a weekly run down of what the class is expected to be doing. This is, of course, fairly vague and open ended because project-based learning is considerably less teacher driven and students are expected to have greater ownership over the learning process. If the program had a massive chart of explicit lessons, it would look like a traditional unit of work, not PBL.

To give an example of what I’m on about, I’ll briefly explain what’s happening with my current K/1 project which has unexpectedly become bigger than Ben Hur.

Last term we were working on some imaginative stories for a class of students in Wagga Wagga, NSW. I went overseas, the class over in Wagga were very slow in communications, and the project kinda went downhill. When I returned I started thinking about how I could ‘rescue’ the project and still keep it PBL. I decided to share the stories with Bianca’s year 7 class and we are going to publish them as a compilation of short stories with illustrations made by her class. We’ll be sharing them with our local libraries.

As we’ve an assembly item approaching, I thought it would be nice to perform one of the stories for the school. We have chosen our story and started practising and making costumes and props. I have had close to zero creative control over the process of costume and prop creation, aside from making a couple of templates for dragon wings and some of the complex Sellotape engineering required in order to keep them intact. You can see some of the works in progress below. What my little 5 and 6 year old students have done has truly astounded me. Powerful, student-driven #PBL #FTW.

No amount of lessons plans could have predicted that this!

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The best kinda structure’s no structure at all.

I’ve probably said this before but I reckon I’m pretty lucky to be working at Merrylands East Public School. It’s an innovative school in many ways; we have the change in opening hours (based on research) to support student learning, the absence of school bells, but perhaps the innovations that I find most valuable are the focus on student-centered  pedagogies.  At MEPS we have been allowed the freedom to experiment with alternative approaches to curriculum delivery, with the support and encouragement of the executive. My students have been relatively successful with project-based learning and I’ve now run cross-KLA projects with students in kindergarten, year 1, year 2, and year 6 on a range of focus subjects such as science, history and English.

As this year I’m on infants with a K/1 class, one of the things I’ve been encouraged to introduce is play-based learning. I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the topic and from what I’ve read, play-based learning involves providing students a range of opportunities for play, observing as they gravitate toward the activities which interest them, and building the curriculum around these natural interests by introducing inquiry questions based on what the kids are doing. I like how this article describes it as the emergent curriculum.

I thought awhile about the best way to implement play-based learning in my classroom. Some had suggested different ‘learning stations’ – tables with a range of different activities to which students rotate on some kind of timed system, with a chance to explore each activity. I thought this sounded OK and started thinking of ways the @K/1MEPS kidz could start getting bizzie wid play.

I found this cool thing posted on fb and these cool things at a local department store:

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I also like the idea of adding some dress ups and having a science style station where kids can plant their own seeds into some little clay pots that they can decorate and watch as the seeds sprout and grow into awesome little seedlings for them to care for. I’d like them to eventually plant them in the school garden so we can continue to care for them at school but if they want to take them home, I’d be down with that, too. 🙂

Anyway, not having everything that I wanted for them to get stuck into and not exactly sure how I wanted to introduce play-based learning into my class, here’s what I did.

We’ve been ordering heaps of organic veges and getting them delivered to our house and as a result have been accumulating a heap of cardboard boxes. I decided Friday was going to be the day so I brought them to school in Kombi Wheezer along with my newfound love – the Stickle Puffs! How did I structure the process?

I put the Stickle Puffs on a table with a cloth so kids could start to stick them together and create stuff and I put the boxes on the classroom floor. I chose some kids to go over to the Stickle Puffs and some to play with the boxes. Then I sat back and watched for a bit  before eventually helping them with their creations.

The kids were really into what they were doing. I didn’t get a single student ask me to leave the classroom to go to the toilet or get up to get their drink bottle from the back of the room. They were too interested and engaged with what they were doing. In addition to this there was natural problem solving going on.

Some kids had decided to make cardboard cars and others had decided to make stages for puppet shows. Both of these activities necessitated that students find the best way to keep their creations stable enough for proper use. Kids were experimenting with which materials and designs worked best for this. They were down on the floor, cutting away at the boxes, sharing sticky tape, staplers and opening up PVA glue; changing designs and materials as they saw appropriate.

Students were moving in between groups deciding who best to collaborate with and how they could help achieve the best design. They were naturally grouping themselves in pairs, triplets or quadruplets – based on their interests and approach to learning. I saw kids who wouldn’t normally choose to work with each other happily working away together trying to get their creations off the ground.

When it came time to go home, they didn’t want to pack up!

So with little to no structure at all my students have shown me in which way to direct their learning. The best kinda structure’s no structure at all. Of course, I’ll be facilitating and supporting their learning along the way, but I’m looking to continue taking a back seat. I plan to support them through channeling their inquiry – see questions below.

It says in this epic article, “Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment.”

I agree with this statement. Not only have I seen this in action in the play of my two sons, I could already see it in action in my classroom during our brief foray into play-based learning yesterday.

I also agree with the sentiment in this article that all too often educators expect children to behave like miniature adults when they think fundamentally differently to adults and their brains simply aren’t wired to think in this way. Kids need play.

Here are some of the questions I plan to introduce as we continue our classroom play in future. I’m sure that many more will arise.

Why is that box leaning in that way/collapsing?

How can we make it more stable?

What are the best materials to use/why?

Have you ever been to the theatre?

Shall we look at some stages?

Why do we need more than one wheel?

Why did you choose to put that there?

What will your puppet show be about?

What other materials do we need?

What can we do with the cars once they’re built?

Anyway, that’s enough rabbiting on from me. Check out some photos of my wonderful students as they were hard at play yesterday afternoon! 🙂

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And here’s a photo of something I made with Stickle Puffs with my nine year old last night – just for fun. I’m hoping my students will make something like this for their future puppet shows. Play-based learning #ftw!

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Project-based learning, group work and natural differentiation.

If you’ve ever heard it said that PBL ‘naturally differentiates’ and wondered how, I can give you an example of how this has worked for me with my class of kindergarten and year one students and the project we’re currently winding up. It’s a collaborative research project about Australian animals, with the final ‘product’ to be a bunch of paper slide videos to share with another kindergarten class from Promise Road Elementary over in Indiana, America. We’ve just finished the first of five videos, with the rest to be filmed at different points throughout the upcoming week.  So anyway, what of all this group work stuff?

I can’t remember where I read it, pretty sure it was in a research article in some educational research journal a while back, but it went a little something like this – for any task to truly be defined as group work, it must involve the completion of something to which all group members must contribute, and something that without any one individual’s contribution, all members of the group will fail to complete the task.

Paper slide videos are a fine example of such a task. They typically involve a number of slides in excess of around five, so that each member of the group must create at least one slide. These tasks also require students to decide to commit to one of a number of roles such as paper slider, narrator or camera person. So paper slide videos necessitate collaboration. Without a meaningful contribution from each individual the fate of the whole group is doomed to failure. This necessity for each member to contribute, coupled with the varied nature and number of roles is what lends this task so well to differentiation. Let me explain.

To successfully complete a paper slide video, students need to plan ahead of time what is going to go on each slide so that they know which art to contribute and which lines to write. They also need to decide who is going to narrate each slide, writing out lines based on whatever the topic is that they have been researching. We’ve been using the proforma you can see below, completed by one of my students. Now with students of the age group in my class, not all will be capable of the writing necessary to complete the proforma below, some may not be capable of planning ahead in such a way, either. So it is naturally the case that the more capable students in this area either step up for, or are assigned this role, as was the case on our current project. Have a look at all the planning that was done by the leader of The Platypuses.

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Now whilst not all students are going to be capable of this amount of writing, all students should be able to contribute some artwork for at least one of the slides, some more so than others. Below you can see that one of the students in this group, whilst being unlikely to do much of the talking in the final video, nor much of the writing in the planning or scripting, was able to contribute a whopping four out of seven slides worth of artwork!

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The two kindy kids in the group contributed one slide each, you can see them below.

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With all of the planning done by the student who completed the proforma, he didn’t get around to creating a slide, so he’ll be completing the opening slide at some point before his group can go on to film their video. When it does come time to film, students will need to commit to roles that provide them a suitable challenge and that contributes adequately to the overall group task. Not all students will be comfortable or capable of speaking for an extended period of time on film, so they may be given only one slide to speak over. Others will be quite comfortable speaking, so may be given a number of slides to speak over. Someone will also need to be the camera person whilst another will need to be the paper slider.

All of these different roles provide a range of differentiated opportunities for students to contribute in a meaningful way to the project and feel successful and comfortable with what they are doing at school. Plus it’s fun.

Whilst a paper slide video can be made by students outside of a PBL classroom, the fact that I’ve designed this project around a Driving Question and have been lucky enough to find a public audience has really driven the relevance and motivation for students to complete this task. I also believe that it has added to the quality of the end result. I can’t wait to get the rest of the videos filmed and uploaded so that we can share them with Promise Road Kinder Panthers. I know also that my students are gonna be proud of all their hard work, learning and collaboration. PBL win!

 

 

 

 

 


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Kindy PBL: paper slide videos.

This year I have been fortunate enough to be given a temporary block with my very own class of kindergarten and year one students. For this term I have designed a project around the weird and wonderful creatures that are native to Australia. It’s been a joy to implement and watch as my students have been engaged and learning about some of the creatures we have here in our country. They have been researching with stage 3 students, using a range of paper and web-based texts, compiling their information and are now at the stage where they can put all of their learning together to make an informative video for some kindergarten students in the US who know very little about Australia in general, but much less about the creatures we have over here. If you look at the video below, you’ll see what I mean. Polar bears! #Lulz, #adorable.

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Anyway, we’ve been working really hard to get all of the videos planned, designed and created so that we can upload them all before the end of term so that the Promise Road Kinder Panthers can view them when they get back from spring break. We’ve used this rubric, and whilst the language of the instructions is probably not suitable for children as my students, I didn’t bother changing it as the basic concept is all they need to understand. Put down your plans for each slide in the boxes provided, write down what is going to be said and who is going to say it. In future, I’d probably simplify the language but I don’t think it’s a massive issue as all of my groups have managed to plan their videos. You can see some examples of the planning below. It’s actually been quite good as a formative assessment tool to see how much students have learned about the content, as well as for basic reading, writing and spelling skills.

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As is always the case with project-based learning, I’ve found that some groups are progressing through the project more quickly than others. So as it stands at the moment, I have some groups who have yet to finish their slides, some who are practising for their video, and one group who has managed to finish their video. You can see it below, I think they did really well!

I love how you can hear them collaborating and whispering to each other as they remind each other of who is the next narrator! To make things fair and to ensure that everybody gets a role, I’ve made sure that the kindy kiddies in each group have been assigned at least one slide to illustrate and narrate. In this video there are two kindy kids in the group. One kindergarten kid narrates the opening slide and the slide with the information about what bilbies eat, whilst the other (quietly) narrates the final slide, followed by a repeat farewell from the whole class! The rest of the slides are narrated by year ones.

So anyway, there you have it, children can engage in project based learning as early as kindergarten. And they can enjoy it!

Thanks for watching!


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So we’re all eggs? Collaborative levelling up, @K1MEPS stylez.

Last year I had a go at using the K-2 teamwork rubric, generously provided by BIE, with the class I was working with at the time. I wrote about it, you can read it here.
Anyway, after my experiences working with the rubric there were a few things that I thought I might like to change a little to make it more effective for my class.

Some of these were:

Changing some of the icons to make them a bit more visually appealing, relevant and perhaps more personalised for any of my future classes. Don’t get me wrong, the icons on the BIE rubric are fine, but as with anything, it can always be better adapted to better suit individual contexts. If you read the post I linked to earlier, you would have learned that one of students had asked, “Why is the man shouting at the lady?” when we were discussing the ‘share my ideas’ icon, bless!

So with what I’ve just created, I decided to go with pictures of the Australian echidna at a few key stages in its life cycle. I did this for a few reasons:

1. We’ve been working for a little while on a project about Australian animals so I knew these images would be relevant to my students.

2. We recently learned that a baby echidna is called a ‘puggle’ and I couldn’t resist incorporating that word into our regular classroom discourse into whatever way possible. For those of you who don’t know (as I didn’t until a week or so ago) ‘puggle’ is the name given to a baby monotreme (echidna or platypus).

3. The different stages in the life cycles of monotremes show quite visually the levelling up process that I’m hoping to occur as students get better at collaborating with their peers. It goes: egg < puggle < echidna. My students are very young and respond well to visual cues, so I thought this would work quite well.

From experience, last time I also thought it would be helpful to add a space to put some comments and suggestions on how to get better. Last time we ended up flipping over to the back of the rubric and using that space for comments. However this time I added some space under each of the criteria to put some goals for the next time students work in teams. It’s not much but I think it will help.

One of the other changes I decided to make was adjusting the criteria for what constitutes a good team member. Again, it’s not that any of the criteria on BIE’s rubric are in any way deficient. it’s just that I think that any specified criteria would be more powerful, effective and relevant to students if they came up with the criteria themselves. My theory is that students are more likely to take ownership over any criteria and be more committed to working toward it if they themselves had come up with it, rather than having simply been given it at the beginning of a task or project and expected to live up to it. So that’s what we did.

We had a class discussion about what it means to be a good team member. I reminded K/1L that we’d be beginning to work increasingly in teams as we draw nearer to the end of our project, and that success with their paper slide videos would be dependent upon everyone in the team working together to complete the video. I reminded them that if any individual failed to complete their part of the video, they would be unlikely to get it finished, so we needed to consider how best to work in a team. This is the criteria we came up with:

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So at the end of today we went over the criteria again. I explained that we’ll be referring back to it regularly and that as we all get better at teamwork we’ll get greater team privileges and responsibilities. We discussed the progress from egg through to echidna. I think it was received pretty well.

One of my students asked, “So we’re all eggs?” and I said “Yes. Even I’m an egg. We’re all on the same team here and we all need to get better. I need to listen to you, you need to listen to me and we all need to work together.”

You can see the current version of the rubric below. I’m looking forward to us all becoming collaboration echidnas, with our epic spikes of teamworky goodness!

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Lessons from the bowl: bringing skate culture to the classroom.

Positive peer assessment and feedback is something that I really want to nail in my classroom. Well, perhaps more correctly, this is something that I want my students to be really good at. Whilst I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to achieve this, or what it’s going to look like, one thing I do know is that I would like it to look very similar to the kind of interactions seen at your typical local skate park.

Now if I ask you to conjure up images of skate culture in your mind, you could be forgiven for thinking of long-haired, scruffy looking dudes with tattoos and extremely casual clothing and for perhaps even wondering why I would want to bring anything like that into the classroom. Sure, you do see scruffy looking dudes down at the skate park, but if you’ve ever noticed the consistent positivity and supportiveness of the interactions between skaters, you’d probably understand why I think skate culture is perfect for the classroom. I’ll explain what I mean.

Both of my sons have been learning to skate for several months now. They started by going to some lessons at a skateboarding school called Gromtown, not far from where we live. My boys are now confident enough with their craft that we pretty much have our boards in the back of the car full-time and are making regular trips to Kierle Skate Park down in Manly. We even took the boards with us in a packed car on a recent camping trip, knowing that at some point we’d stop for a skate along the way! Here’s a short Instavid of my 9 year old son having a bit of fun at a sweet little park up in Queensland.

Anyway, whilst hanging at various skate parks with the kids, I’ve noticed a lot about the learning culture in what might be described as an outdoor, teacher-less, peer-guided classroom.

Embracement of failure, support through error while learning:

Making mistakes is a massive part of learning pretty much anything, but this is especially true while learning how to skate. It’s not like anyone gets on a board and can straight away drop in on a half pipe, quarter pipe or bowl. On the contrary, it’s fucking scary, and fraught with danger! Skaters are aware of this, and typically support each other through the process of whatever it is their peers are trying to learn. No one laughs or jeers when somebody repeatedly fails to lay down a new trick, no one taunts another skater for failing to complete a personally created track around the bowl.

In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I’ve seen it repeatedly now and I’m consistently impressed by the positive discourse of the bowl. When a skater fails at whatever they’re trying to do, the standard response is something like, “Aw, so close!” or, “You almost made it!” This is often followed with a discussion about how they might be able to improve what they’re doing and a repeated attempt at achieving their goal. And this goes on, and on, and on throughout the day!

There’s a lot of empathy in this, too. I watched recently as a couple of older, quite adept skaters worked for quite some time on some tricks that they were each independently trying to achieve. As one of the pair repeatedly failed to complete a particular thing, his learning partner said in an understanding tone (albeit in a funny fake voice), “frustrrrrrrrating.” He knew his friend’s pain.

Collective commitment to improvement and the challenge of getting better:

No one’s at the skate park to become worse at what they’re doing. They’re there because they want to be a better skater. I think this explains a lot about the aforementioned empathy and supportiveness. Skater kids know that learning to skate is hard, they know that mistakes are potentially painful; the experienced remember what it was like when they were less experienced, they remember what it took to get better. They empathise with their fellow learners and they try to help each other along the way. There’s a collective commitment to improvement; skater kids get it.

Along with this commitment comes a recognition and acceptance of personal and peer challenge. I watched recently as one skater said to another, “I’ll give you 5 bucks if you can get it in the next 5 goes.” Now, of course, I don’t condone financial incentives in the classroom, and I’m not particularly a fan of contingency-based classroom behaviour systems, but I saw this as an awesome moment of formative assessment. This stranger knew where the skater was at, where they wanted to go, and provided some incentive for getting there – he set the challenge. If this skater fell short from a teaching perspective, it was perhaps from providing some instruction, but the way I see it, all involved knew the goal (learn move), there were at least a couple of potential medals (peer commendation, $5) and with each attempt, those in the surrounding section of the park provided feedback and missions. Positive, supportive learning environment #ftw

Purpose and investment:

Skating means something to the learners at the bowl. They’ll typically go down there with particular goals or foci, and they’ll keep going back until they achieve what it is they’re focussing on. My kids have been trying tying to learn how to perform a 50/50 for a few sessions now, they keep asking to go back and will continue to ask to go back until they nail it – there is real personal investment in what they’re trying to achieve.

I think this is possible with classwork too, in particular PBL projects. I believe that if you make the project interesting enough, provide an audience or expert whom students respect and whose feedback they value – if you have students work toward making a product that they consider worth sharing, that they will invest in learning what it is they need to know to get it off the ground.

Peer feedback:

I briefly touched on this above, but at the risk of reiterating I think it’s worth emphasising that skaters are absolute guns at peer feedback. They go to the bowl with cameras to photograph each other and check visually on how they’re going. They’re constantly giving each other tips, challenges and extra motivation to get better.

I’ve tried to give advice to my kids on how to get better at certain things with their skating, and as is natural with children, sometimes they might not take on as much of the advice from their parents as their parents would like them too. The saving grace of the skate park, however, is that the parent can simply advise their child to ask for advice from their peer skaters. As my kids have been trying new things and getting frustrated at times with their skateboard-based learning, I’ve often suggested they ask one of the kids that is pretty good how to approach what they’re trying to do. I’ve then watched as some older stranger happily shares with my kids whatever advice they can offer, gives a few demonstrations, watches my kids attempt to replicate and then offers some extra advice.

So anyway; as I’ve said, I’m not exactly sure how I’ll get there, but I know for sure that the approach to learning inherent in skate culture resembles in many ways the learning culture I’m gonna work damn hard at developing in my classroom.


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My year of edu-awesome.

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.

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Rural Prac

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.

MEPS

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.

2C

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.


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Farmers Tonight: what makes a good interview?

Today marked the beginning of the second week of my internship at Merrylands East Public School. We’re continuing the farming project, and as I’ve previously mentioned, we’ve been hoping to get some expert gardeners involved to share some of their knowledge and expertise as students begin to work in the garden.

Over the weekend I was able to contact one of the people from Youth Community Greening and it just so happened that he will be free this Friday to come to the school and run a workshop on urban gardening with the students. This is a great opportunity for the class to learn about caring for a garden, with links directly to the focus science and HSIE outcomes for the project and term 3.

The class has been spending quite a bit of time in the garden, using a health checklist to assess the health and condition of various garden items, learning about adjectives that can be used to describe them, and taking photos of their items to support their conclusions. In the lead-up to the arrival of the gardening expert we thought it might be a good idea for students to share what they’ve been doing through a series of short video interviews to be shown to the expert. That way, when the expert arrives, he can watch the interviews to get an idea of where the students are in terms of horticultural expertise.

In the interest of making these interviews as structured and effective as possible, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss some of the features of an interview with the students. To make this process a little more interesting and entertaining for the students, I decided to have my son interview me so that I could share this with the class for the purpose of critique. The video is below:

As we watched the video with the class, Ashleigh and I would periodically pause it to discuss some of the good and bad aspects of the interviewer’s (my 8 year old son) and the interviewee’s technique. The main things we focused on were clarity of expression, eye contact with the camera, the use of descriptive language, adequate rehearsal/practise, and turn-taking when talking. I annotated the video on the IWB as we went along. A screenshot of my annotations is below (please forgive my handwriting):

Farmer Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.38.04 AM

The plan was to then have students break into pairs and begin to plan their own scripts, and I modelled this process using the script that we had used for the Farmers Tonight video. I also had students focus on asking and answering the following four questions in their interview:

What is the item?
What condition is the item in?
Why is it in this condition?
How can we sustain or improve its condition?

The class had already answered these questions and contributed them to a poster for the (rather large) project wall in their room, (I didn’t manage to blog about this, perhaps I will later) so I thought that they’d be able to plan their scripts without too much trouble. That’s where I had a bit of a fail and the process began to come a little unravelled. This is where I think it went wrong:

1) Firstly, and (I think) most importantly, although I went through my previous script with the class, and revised the questions they had answered last week with their poster, I failed to give them any proforma to structure and organise their interviews. This resulted in many of them becoming quite confused by the whole process, with only a few of the pairs able to work independently to put pen to paper. My failure to produce a proforma was mainly due to a lack of time, with pressure from the university and family commitments, however I was also wary of the interviews becoming too formulaic and contrived. In light of the fact that the students are very young and only in year 2, and given today’s experience, I think that the students are going to need a proforma to provide scaffolding for them as they develop their scripts and conduct their interviews.

2) Secondly, I think that the students might have been better able to complete their scripts if I’d organised the grouping more appropriately. I had the whole class out in the garden, in pairs, all working on the same thing and I think this lead to a bit of a free-for-all. I’m not sure how best to group them, but when I get the class to again attempt to complete this activity on Wednesday, I think I’ll have half the class in the garden working on their section of the interview (with a proforma) whilst the other half works on their section of the interview (with a proforma) on the class balcony. I think that the best way to do this would be to have the interviewees in the garden where they can see and describe their item, whilst their partner works on their introduction, questions and conclusion. The pairs could then reunite in the garden to record their interview.

3) Lastly, I misplaced the garden checklists from the previous activity! Many students couldn’t remember which garden item they were assessing, LOL! I’m going to fix this up by giving each group a project ‘packet’ to organise all of their things. I’ll also try to be more vigilant in allowing enough time at the end of each session for the students to gather their things and put them in some designated space.

So, today was fun, there are things I’d do differently if I were to live it again, but as Ashleigh said: “You live and learn”!