Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…


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Minecraft across the curriculum: K-6.

A few weeks ago I presented at a teachmeet at the the Sydney Powerhouse Museum, AKA the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. The topic was STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) + X (STEM+X). The idea was to share some of the things you have done and/or are doing in your classroom or workplace around integrating STEM with other KLAs, for example, a STEM and PE project would be STEM + PE.

When I was asked to present, I thought it would be a great opportunity to share how I’ve been using Minecraft in my classroom over the last few years and how it really can be used across all subject areas. Just like the ‘play’ within the game itself, what you do with it in the classroom is only limited by your own creativity and that of your students. Below I will share some of the cool things that my students and i have done and how they link to KLAs across the curriculum.

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Science

Above are some screenshots of some science projects that I have run with my students. Last year, my students completed a project with the driving question, “How can K/1L show their learning in Minecraft?” One of the groups made a representation of a silkworm life cycle by building the different stages and then sharing a screencast and overlaid audio to demonstrate what they’d learned.

Now, not only does this video demonstrate sound knowledge of stage 1 science outcomes, it also demonstrates how my students have achieved outcomes in the English syllabus by creating multimodal texts and reflecting on their own and others’ learning.

The other screenshots are of the seven buildings my year 1 class made during a science project in which they had to build a city in Minecraft. The driving question was, “Can mini MEPS people design a dream city?” Again, this crosses outcomes across both the science and English syllabuses. There was even a bit of stage 1 mathematics in there as we discussed the different areas and volumes of the buildings and had to count and measure distances between windows and doors with pinpoint accuracy. Plus it was loads of fun. My class still love visiting Lionfish City!

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Technology and Engineering

Above are some screenshots of some work done in a Minecraft mod called Computer Craft. With this mod you program a little computerised turtle to build and dig for you. I made mine build a house for me and at the moment I have students from year 1 through to year 4 working regularly on Thursday mornings and within my year 1 class on a Friday to challenge themselves to do the same. Some of them are up to the point where they can get it to build four walls, and I will be teaching them how to write a ‘for’ loop in Lua so they can get the turtle to change inventory slots when it runs out of blocks.

It’s a really cool mod, because unlike more basic programming tools like Scratch, you can actually switch between  a visual, block style editor and a programming editor which allows the keener kids to get a sense of what’s going on with the actual language itself. If kids can understand that, then they are taken a decent step towards a proper understanding of programming.

Now, computer programming isn’t in the NSW primary curriculum yet but there is strong talk to suggest that it soon will be, and kids who are doing this kind of stuff in Minecraft are already ahead of the curve.

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Mathematics

I have been using Minecraft a lot this year for extension in mathematics. For example, if a kid in my class totally nails what we are working on during our first lesson, there is no need for them to be sitting with the rest of the class who need further practise or additional (pardon the pun) help from me. In many cases I set them a Minecraft challenge, such as building a clock to show me a certain time to the half hour (as above) or showing me the difference between two numbers by building a series of towers and writing the number sentence on a sign (as above).

As with the videos shown above in the science section, last year my K/1 class made some maths themed Minecraft videos in order to demonstrate their learning. One group made houses out of 3D objects such as rectangular and triangular prisms, another shared knowledge of equal groups (multiplication), while another made a truly impressive and remarkable maths game in which are presented with a series of addition problems which increase in difficulty as the game progresses. Watch the video to see how it works. Again, these videos cross outcomes across several KLAs.

So, that’s the STEM stuff covered with Minecraft, how about the + ‘X’? Well, my friends, read on to find out!

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English

I’ve already mentioned how making videos in Minecraft is great way to work with the English syllabus. There’s a lot of teaching and planning that goes into each video as kids storyboard and write scripts to plan for what they will be saying over each video. Of course, as they speak over each video, they have to make sure what tey are saying is clear and audible – hence, talking and listening!

Above are some screenshots of videos about Minecraft castles and dragons made by the K/1 Koalas last year. We read a bunch of stuff about castles and dragons and watched a whole bunch of videos to make sure we knew enough about each topic to speak over our videos. Again, it was loads of fun. Who wouldn’t want to learn about castles and dragons!?

My students also do a lot of writing about what they do in Minecraft. You see screenshots of a Minecraft story written by one of my students very early in the year using Storybird, as well as some great writing by another of my students using Kidblog. It’s a cute little Minecraft love story which she wrote at home and then brought in to school so she could type it up on her blog and search for digital images to add to it.

I also teach my kids to search for images that are ‘labelled for reuse’ so that they are aware that it’s inappropriate and illegal behaviour to go around breaking copyright laws. All this at age 6!

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Visual arts

Now, there are any number of ways you can link art with Minecraft. You could get kids to do cool Minecraft paintings and artworks, or you could get them to make some interesting visual art themed builds based on their favourite artists. The limit is only placed by how creative you are in your thinking.

With my class, I decided to make an epically large, life sized gigantic creeper out of cardboard boxes and papier mâché. It took weeks and we had heaps of fun and made A LOT of mess. I still need to finish off the ‘pixels’ on top of his head and make it waterproof with some outdoor acrylic varnish. The kindy kids at school want to use it to post sight words on and do a weekly creeper hunt to find him located in random spots around the school. See, there’s that cross-curricular Minecraft stuff in action again – sight words!

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PDHPE

Above you can see screenshots of a video I made for a year 3 class a few years ago, all about sun safety. It’s all about a zombie who sets off to go fishing with his friend, Ralph. He is a very sun smart zombie and before he leaves the house he makes sure to put on his sunscreen and a hat. When he meets Ralph, he discovers that he is not so sun smart and has forgotten to protect himself. He subsequently bursts into flames!

I made this as a lesson intro but you could quite easily get students to make similar videos about a range of health related issues, such as healthy eating and hygiene. Again, the only limit is your creativity.

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Music

More videos made by me. One is of a cute little Japanese song called ‘The Frog Song‘ which I learned with the same year 3 class for whom I made the sun smart zombie video. I made the song by tuning note blocks in Minecraft and linking them to pressure plates to walk across. I then took a screencast of me walking across them to play the song. The other video is one I made of note blocks being linked to red stone circuits in order to play the intro Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’, I got the timing a bit wrong, but hey, it was my first attempt and red stone circuitry is tricky!

I am yet to do this with a class, but when I do, I would love to teach them the frog song and get them to go and build it Minecraft using red stone circuitry, maybe when I get a stage 2 class. It will be loads of fun.

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21st Century Skills

By now you would have heard a lot of talking about the need for kids to be equipped ’21st Century Skills’ such as communication, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, digital citizenship and ICT capability. How do we teach these skills? The ICT capability component is quite obvious with Minecraft, kids need to be able to navigate their way around a 3 dimensional computer world, using computer controls, while learning basic coding skills and knowledge of things like ip addresses in order to log on to your class server. However, what about some of those other skills?

There is a lot of ‘incidental learning’ which takes place on a Minecraft server. For example, in the screenshots above you can see a wither (a three headed Minecraft monster which flies around shooting flaming skulls at anything that moves). Now, obviously you don’t really want one of these flying around your server shooting at everyone and destroying all of your builds. Last year, however, one of my students purposely spawned one of these creatures in our class world, and it set about causing destruction. This prompted a server shut down and a lengthy class discussion around what it means to be a good digital citizen. How your online actions affect the online experience of those who share the same space. My students agreed that the wither spawning had not been a good idea and the student involved went on to write an apologetic blog post about what he had done and why it had been a bad idea. A blog post by a year one student regarding digital citizenship!

I also run a school Minecraft club on Wednesdays and Fridays in which I set club challenges using a Minecraft challenge generator. The amount of collaboration, communication and problem solving which goes on in these short meetings as students work together to meet these set challenges is amazing. Sometimes I jump in the world to help them solve these problems, but mostly I’m just there in the background watching as they work through the challenges together, all the while creatively mining and building away.

So there you have it, these are just some of the ways I have used Minecraft ‘gaming’ in my classroom and I’m sure I’ll find more awesome ways in future. You can see my presentation below if you’re interested, but I’ve basically just written you through it. Thanks for reading!

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1tFqVc9A-ezVC73hkkkFA8rInyMLQTAi0_gcmbaMvVIU/edit?usp=sharing

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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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Observation at another PBL school: a kinda ‘out-of-body experience’.

Today was a great day. Bianca and I were lucky enough to be asked to visit the International Football School on the Central Coast. The IFS is a recently established independent school with a focus on project-based learning and, as the name suggests, football – and when I say football, I mean the type of football which many of us call soccer.

Basically, kids who attend IFS are kids who have demonstrated a strong interest in and talent for soccer and are committed to training every day in the interest of pursuing a career in soccer. They train for two hours every morning, under the tuition of professional soccer coaches before going to class to learn the NSW syllabuses under a project-based learning pedagogy.

Bianca and I were asked to visit the school for the day to share our own approaches to and experiences of project-based learning, before observing classroom practice to give general feedback and suggestions.  I enjoyed the informal, casual approach to the day, the learning that I witnessed occurring and, perhaps most selfishly, the opportunity to be in a PBL classroom other than my own and see first-hand how this works.

Below is the brief and informal presentation I gave to Shane, Karen and Todd in the morning to introduce myself. Basically we just spoke about of some of the reasons for doing PBL, things that should be included when planning a great project, and some outlines of projects I’ve either done or am doing, before jumping straight into teaching and learning.

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XRtcey-8xTZhuVm-sfjYcOmksLRuiMiEztvdqK7rkXU/edit?usp=sharing

The project that Shane, Karen and their students are working on atm is based around getting kids to design and develop their own ‘Sideshow Alley’ – the kind of thing you see at places like the circus or Luna Park where you get to place ping pong balls into clowns’ mouths and throw darts at balloons. The students, all in stage 3, have to research and design their own versions of these games, build them, before advertising, promoting and hosting their own sideshow alley for the younger kids at the school.

I was honestly impressed with what I saw. The enthusiasm, engagement and self-direction of the students was fantastic. If I were to offer any word of constructive criticism for Karen and Shane, it would be to consider how they could make the audience for their project more public. Perhaps by approaching a local operator of a business similar to a sideshow alley, Timezone or something.

Anyway, I should probably address my somewhat hyperbolic ‘out-of-body experience’ reference.

For me, visiting Shane and Karen’s classroom felt very much akin to that. It seems that there are increasingly more educators leaning toward PBL here in Australia, all at different levels of knowledge, expertise and experience. There’s no official ‘training agency’ for PBL and I think that’s the way it should always be.

PBL is about inquiry, and the very nature of inquiry is that you don’t have any or many of the answers. So you can never be an expert at inquiry unless you are willing to admit that you know very little. To be an ‘expert’ at PBL, you have to be an expert of the, “I know very little” mindset.

Another thing about PBL is that as a teacher you are constantly moving around. There is constant discussion, chatter, collaboration and noise. You’re involved and invested in all of this and, at times, not entirely sure of where all of it is heading. It can sometimes feel quite chaotic and it’s not until the project is finally over that you have some time to thoroughly reflect on how it all went.

Today, observing was a release from that. I was able to watch other PBLers in action, to speak to the kids and teachers, to learn with them and from them; to watch, listen, engage with and feel what it’s like to be in a PBL classroom. It was like having a bird’s eye view of my own class – an ‘out-of-body-experience’.

Coming from MEPS, I was also interested in how students were engaging with the open and flexible learning spaces. You can see some photos below. I particularly liked the spaceship table that the students had set up for collaborative learning.

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Later,  I visited the stage 2 classroom. I’d introduced Todd to genius hour earlier in the morning and he was enthusiastic about the concept. So much so that he decided to launch it with his class straight away.

After lunch at IFS, students have a bit of  ‘quiet time’. Today, this took place in terms of independent, personal interest research – AKA #geniushour, #AdventureTime, or whatever else you want to call it. I walked into a class of learners researching their genius hour projects and this is some of what I saw.

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I also saw students independently researching spiders, football players, basketball, NRL, Minecraft, fortune-tellers and dinosaurs.

Next,  students showed me some shelter designs for their ‘Survivors’ project. You can see them below.

 

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Take from this what you will. I took a further enthusiasm for learning.

 


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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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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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How can we use Horrible Histories to teach others about the Federation of Australia?

Tomorrow marks the beginning of my final week at Merrylands East Public School. It has been a fantastic school to work at for so many reasons. Amazing staff, great kids, a real sense of communion between classes, with students across stages and projects contributing to each others’ learning. What has been particularly awesome for me is the strong focus on project-based learning. It should come as no surprise for me say that I think PBL is awesome. I live with Bianca,  who’s been living and breathing the stuff for a few years now. We always talk about it, try to share our experiences with PBL with others wherever possible, for instance via #PLSM13 or Teachmeet. If you want to know a little of the reasoning behind why we thinks it’s awesome, you might be interested in reading a recent interview I was asked to do for Educational Experience here.

But anyway my last few weeks at MEPS have seen me working with students from TheWaterhole6, with the awesome Lisa Sov and Solange Cruz. Before going into the class I was asked by the teacher who I was relieving, @Holidaydreamer_ to get the kids to learn some Australian history, focusing on the Federation of Australia. Having discussed some ideas for a history project at PLSM13 earlier in the year, I though that this would be the perfect opportunity to see how the kids would go making a federation themed episode of Horrible Histories. The project outline is below.

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On the first day that I walked into this class of year 6 students I really had to think on my feet. Lisa was away sick and Solange had to take the morning off for reading recovery. So armed with the above outline, some links posted to edmodo during the holidays by Holidaydreamer_, and supported by a casual teacher I set to work introducing students to the concept and getting them to begin their inquiry. I was immediately impressed with how independent the students were and how quickly they took to the task of learning what they needed to know to begin the process of producing some hilarious skits. Sure, you had some groups working more productively than others, and some kids walking around trying to do less than what they perhaps ought to have been doing; however, at least they weren’t sitting there idle, becoming brain-dead listening to me speak boringly about events that happened years ago, and about which I know very little!

Having said that, I have done some learning about the federation myself, and to help students think about what they might like to produce, I made the below video giving a rough timeline of the events leading to the Federation. It has some errors, which I pointed out to the class – nobody’s perfect, especially not me!

The kids are now at the stage where they are either editing, filming, or just about to film. I’m getting excited about the final product and I look forward to sharing it soon. We are going to have a screening in the school library (or hall) this coming Thursday, it’s going to be well smashing.

Here are some things that I would change if I had my time running this project again.

1. Set deadlines for each stage of the project from the outset so that the students know where they should be heading to, and by when.

I didn’t know this class at all before beginning this project, so I was unsure how they’d go with the whole thing, and how much time they would need to do what was needed. In retrospect I probably allowed too much time for researching/inquiry and not enough time for students to create awesome. I still think, however that the final episode is going to shred and I can’t wait to see it. Also, when I did see that too much time had elapsed between inquiry and production, I set an assignment on edmodo for groups to come to class and present their work – they came through in an impressively reliable fashion. Having students present their learning before moving on to making stuff is a great avenue for formative assessment, I’ve now discovered.

2. Make smaller groups

The Waterhole, whilst it at times seems like one class, is actually two. There are around 52 students all learning together, in an open learning space, created through the removal of a dividing wall between two classrooms. This means that there must always be at least two teachers on class and also makes group work potentially more difficult to organise.
When I came into the Waterhole, they already had pre-established PBL groups, so I had students work in those. There are seven PBL groups, meaning there are around 7-8 students in each group. They’ve been doing really well, however, if I were to begin the project again, I’d probably make more groups, perhaps ten, with five or six students in each group. I think that this would allow each group member to have a legitimate and purposeful role, and minimise the likelihood of students losing focus, thereby passing more work on to their teammates.

3. Choose a connecting class in a more convenient timezone!

I managed to speak with Stephen, who is awesome, about connecting with the Waterhole so that we could share our learning about the Federation. However, as they are in New Hampshire in the States, the time difference makes it impossible to talk or connect during school hours. Things like this can be worked around by creating introductory videos, etc., which I’ve done in the past, but this is extra work that we just didn’t have time for – a Skype connection would be more convenient. We will be posting the final video to the project website and I’m sure that Stephen’s class will watch it, enjoy and comment so the integrity of the public audience will be maintained.

Anyway, I think it’s going well. As I’ve mentioned, the final presentation takes place this Thursday. Students have been given a deadline of this Tuesday to submit their video files to me so that I can edit them and put them all together to make the final episode. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’ll post more here after everything’s done! In the meantime, here is a photo I took of one of the groups as they worked on filming their skit. Fun times.

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