Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…


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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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Horrible Histories at MEPS.

So I’ve just finished working at the wonderful Merrylands East Public School. My last several weeks saw me working on a history project with year 6. In my last post I explained what the project was about – basically we all had to learn about the Federation of Australia, and I tried to put an interesting spin on it by getting students to work towards creating an episode of Horrible Histories based on the content. As is always the case with PBL, the project was naturally cross KLA (cross-curricular). You have the obvious links between subjects which shouldn’t be put in separate baskets anyways, like history and literacy, but there were some interesting links that came out of this project, too. Mainly to do with the creative/performing arts.

For example, I wrote a theme song for the project, uploaded it to YouTube and included it as the introduction to the final product. If I’d had more time with the class, I probably would’ve got the students who were able to play the guitar to record the song, others to write the lyrics, and some others to sing it. However, I was pressed for time, so it ended being me who did all of those things. You can watch it below, but be warned, you’ll wanna turn your volume down a bit and if you’re not into bad singing, it’s not for you!

The other, more obvious link given the nature of the project was between history/historical inquiry and drama/performance. Students really had to think about their intended audience, for example, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to parody a predominately Australian show given our original intended audience was a year 5 class from the US. Students also had to get creative with how they were going to make the content funny! So part of the research process involved not only the research focus on content but also which shows would be likely to be popular both here and in the US.

A great application of this came from one of the groups in their skit entitled, ‘The Colonies of the Smurfs’. This group were aware that The Smurfs weren’t specific to Australia and were likely to be well known internationally. The group rolled with the idea of conceptualising the different pre-federation colonies, with their independent taxation and defense systems as separate smurf villages. The push for a federalised taxation system comes into the plot when Vanity Smurf has to travel between villages to get a new mirror from Grouchy Smurf, who then demands a high tariff for trade. The various smurfs then discuss how the system isn’t working for them and how a nationally organised tax system would be better. The concerns around defense are heightened when Gargamel attacks the colonies and they have trouble getting together to defend themselves. Papa Smurf and Brainy Smurf then decide that it’s a good idea to establish a national defense force. All of the skits in the episode are fantastic, and I’m stoked with what the students managed to do!

I wanted students to be as self directed as possible with the whole thing, so in terms of explicit teaching of the events leading up to and surrounding the Federation, there really wasn’t much. Of course, I pushed the content where I saw the need but let’s face it, the last time I had to learn stuff was about 20 years ago, so I’m hardly an expert. I wanted it all to be student work and, for the most part it was. I mainly stepped in for editing, song writing, green screening and set control! The final episode is online at the weebly, this too was designed and created by one of the students who put in a very professional application to me via edmodo to put herself forward for the role. Go year 6! Please have a look at the final product and leave a comment, it’s so important for students to have an audience for their work, thanks! 🙂

 


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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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Entry event (hook lesson) for #MEPSMarkets

So on Monday I arrived for the first day of my nine-week internship at MEPS (Merrylands East Public School). As mentioned in my previous post, I’ll be working through some more PBL with an awesome class of year 2 students. The project poster below was also included in that previous post, but I thought I’d include it here again because it’s so EPIC (lulz).

FarmersMarkets

More details about the project plan can be found in my previous post but the main ideas behind the project, which should be evident in the poster above, are to get the students into the garden to learn about how to maintain and/or improve its condition, to learn about sustainability and eco-friendly living and to plan, advertise, organise and host a farmers’ market at their school, involving members of their community. The focus HSIE and science outcomes are displayed down in the chicken’s thought bubble. Of course, it’s a cross-KLA project but not all of the outcomes are listed on the poster for obvious reasons.

Before the project gets into full swing and the kids are busy getting their hands dirty and tending to the garden I wanted to take some time to reflect on how it’s been going so far, specifically Monday’s entry event (or hook lesson) which I think went pretty well.

Monday

So in the lead up to entering the class on Monday, Bianca and I discussed what might be the best way to get the students interested in the project. As the need to knows for the first stage of the project are all about sustaining a healthy garden, we both thought that the best way to get students interested in this was to get them all into the garden to check it out.

To add structure to this experience, the class was organised into gardening groups, given a clipboard, and the following proforma. Their task was to walk explore the garden in their gardening groups and to each take turns choosing a garden item before assessing its health/condition, adding some adjectives to support their assessment of the item:

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I think this worked well in generating interest in the project for the following reasons:

a) It was a hands on/outdoor activity

b) Students were allowed to choose which item they were interested in based on whatever made it salient to them

and

c) Rather than have a whole project dumped on them, students were given something that wasn’t too daunting – the project outline was shared with them in the following lesson.

I will take photos of some work samples from this lesson to share here, but I’ll need to remind myself to do that when I’m in the classroom and have access to their checklists. Below are a couple of photos I took as the students were engaged in the activity.

Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 9.02.14 PM                    Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 9.02.45 PM


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Beginning my internship at MEPS.

It’s been a very busy couple of days for the Hewes family as I have recently begun my nine week internship at the awesome Merrylands East Public School. I’ve enrolled the boys while I’m over there, which is a bit exciting and also means that, as it’s a bit of a commute, and the school has an early starting time of 8am, we’ve all been getting up early to make sure we all get to school on time. Below is a photo of the boys in their new MEPS uniforms.

The boys seem to be settling in very well and enjoying themselves. We were pleased to see Mr. 12 return yesterday afternoon and get straight into his homework, which was set via edmodo, and Mr. 8 very much enjoys getting to spend time with the rabbits and chickens over at the vegetable garden at recess. 🙂

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While I’m over at MEPS, I’m working with Ashleigh Cantanzariti and @2CMEPS, a class of wonderful year 2 kids. Last week we had a class conversation on Twitter so the kids could ask some questions and we could get to know each other before I came to the school to begin my first day. I did this before my last practicum with Michael Sky and both times have been great fun and an excellent way to generate anticipation and excitement before the first day.

One of the major undertakings whilst on my internship, and one that I’m massively excited about, is the #MEPSMarket project. It’s a PBL project that I’ve planned to run over nine weeks, separated into 3 smaller, but intrinsically linked projects (each running for 3 weeks) whereby the students establish a section of the garden, design a #MEPSMarket logo, visit a farmers’ market and plan and run their own farmers’ market at the end of term. The project poster for their project wall to be introduced tomorrow is below:

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I’ve started the process of establishing connections with some expert gardeners to provide some feedback and guidance for @2CMEPS as they begin to make their way through the first stage of the project. One of the more promising avenues has so far proven to be a NSW government initiative, Community Greening, who are directly involved with establishing community gardens throughout NSW.

Another, more spectacular connection we’ve made, which may or not eventuate, due to an obvious and understandably busy schedule is through Costa Georgiadis, who has also worked closely with Community Greening in the past.  Costa is passionate about the positive changes that can come through community and school gardening, so it would be excellent if he were able able to get involved. Here is a snippet of our very brief conversation on Twitter. Fingers crossed 🙂

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I am also lucky enough to know a few people who have been involved in community gardening and have some expertise in this area that they are willing to share by connectig with @2CMEPS, so things are looking good at this stage for an authentic connection for their project.

I still need to blog my first and second day reflections, but so far it’s been a fantastic start to the journey at MEPS.