Category Archives: musings

Who are your “Smileys”?

Miley and Dad

Today is Miley Cyrus’ birthday. She turns 23 today. Interestingly, her birth certificate reads Destiny Hope Cyrus, with “Miley” coming from her dad calling her “Smiley” because she smiled a lot as a little ‘un. Dolly Parton is her Godmother! As she grew up, she attended Heritage Elementary School, in Williamson County, Tennessee, USA. I took a moment to look up their website and find out a little more about the Heritage Elementary School.

As a third grader at Heritage Elementary School, Miley had a music teacher who had a variety of standards he/she was compelled to lead her through. They included the following two…

3.MU.1.1.3 Sing a melody with accurate rhythm, pitch (solfege and/or lyrics), dynamics and tempo. 
3.MU.7.2.3 Demonstrate appropriate audience behaviour in a formal performance setting (live or recorded)

If you were up late for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (or awake for the following week or two), then you would appreciate that maybe there should have been a standard in the third grade curriculum relating to appropriate behaviour of performers! Regardless, like we all have/had, there is a “Miley Cyrus’ Dad” (that’s him in the photo above, playing guitar for Miley). He just happens to be another somewhat familiar name – Billy Ray Cyrus – famous for his 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart”, for his mullet hairstyle and for the worldwide uptake of line dancing. Yes even Australia noticed, and in 1994 I taught my class of third graders to line dance – an episode of my teaching career I would rather forget!

But as a dad, he probably received a report card for his daughter, from the teachers of 3rd grade at Heritage Elementary School, about his daughter. I wonder what the music teacher wrote? How was that PTC? I wonder what the music teacher shares about that time now? And, who will we be telling stories about in 15 years time? And for what? Will they be singers lighting up the stage, or doctors discovering a cure for something, or business men or women successfully businessing? Will they win a golfing major or conduct a philharmonic orchestra or write a Nobel prize for literature winning novel or take a Pulitzer prize winning photograph?

We don’t know, just like the third grade teacher of Heritage Elementary School didn’t know when he/she pondered the report card of MS Cyrus, wavering between a “Meeting” or “Exceeding” when grading singing with accurate pitch!

We do know however, that today we have an opportunity to inspire our students to become any of those things I have listed above. So take a moment to day to do that! The encouragement we give students, the compliments, the high expectations, our belief in them, our support of them, our smiles, our laughter, our trust in their efforts – it all adds up!

Bluster, the currency of credibility!

So I sat and listened to his whole speech, being aware of the “taken out of context” escape clause. He opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks, mentioned one of the terrorists was from Syria and then mentioned Obama is considering bringing 250,000 refugees from Syria. Something about we all want to help, but… And then the piece that has been sitting in my head for the past couple of days. “If the people in that concert hall had been allowed to carry… it would have been a much, much different situation.”

A number of things about that comment have been bothering me, and I’m not sure which is bothering me more. The fact that a man who is putting his hand up to lead the most powerful country on the planet is saying this, or the cheering from the crowd of people who are lapping it up! Is the ignorance of the leader greater than the mass ignorance of the followers? Or does one prompt the other?

And then after talking about the beautiful “Trump Wall” he plans to build along the Mexican border, he brought onto the stage a group of people whose loved ones lives’ had been taken by “illegals”. These people stood and shared, in graphic detail, the details of how their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters were killed by “illegals”, most of them… by GUN violence! They all left the podium to cheers from the crowd as they thanked Mr Trump for being the only one who cares.

What the heck!

Things would have been “different” in Paris if they “had been allowed to carry” and THEN a stage full of American citizens sharing how their families had been destroyed by gun violence.

In a Facebook post responding to this same Trump rally I wrote:

Dear Mr Trump, in our school we teach our students to think before they speak. We have some spare seats in our AP Stats classes where you can come and practice. Oh, and while you are at it, we could help you understand some statistics – here they are! (…/United-St…/Crime/Violent-crime). Whatever you do, don’t cut funding to education – because if you are any example, we need all the money we can get!

I missed the point!

Only by watching the whole speech did I see where the real horror lies. Trump is not ignorant. He is extremely astute!

What I see is a man extremely adept at manipulating the emotions of his listeners. At this Texas rally he spoke about guns, illegal immigrants, oil, refugees, winning wars, war veterans, friends of his in the area, beards, Eisenhower, border walls, immigration, let’s make America great again, courts, lawyers, sarcasm, everyone’s gonna be happy, jobs, beating Japan, terminating ObamaCare, not caring about insurance companies, winning… and the list goes on.

He doesn’t care if what he says makes sense, is based on fact, is practical, can be substantiated, is possible or is financially viable – and he doesn’t need to! He tells people what they want to hear. He uses sarcastic humor. He is at the same time self-depreciating and self-agrandising. He is self-funded. And he is supremely confident! He is all bluster and no substance – and that is what is supremely concerning.

“Bluster” has become the currency of credibility. How are the presidential candidate debates judged? On who presents best. On who exudes the most confidence. On who has the best “bluster”.

There was a very big room full of people listening to this speech, hootin’ and hollerin’ as Trump delivered this “Trump is what you need” speech.

Trump is the King of Bluster, and Kings have been built on less!




If you want to check it out yourself, here it is…


Facebook posts for Summative Assessment tasks?

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 6.56.48 AMAs a result of the sad events in Paris over the weekend, Facebook is on fire with people from all over the world responding in various ways. Many have begun posting images of themselves enjoying Paris in happier times. Many have decided to paint their profile picture the colors of the French flag. And many are writing. Writing their thoughts and responding to the thoughts of others. There is considerable emotion involved in this writing, and it is clear that some write with emotion much better than others.
Some posts get the emotion through very clearly with some very strong language, but struggle to hold their argument together under the weight of that emotion. One ends up with the sense that the writer is upset/angry/etc but is not really sure what about.
Occasionally there is a writer who gets the combination right. Strong language, strong ideas, well put together. When I read those posts, I find myself considering an opinion that might be different to my own, considering a change to my own opinion on the matter. These are the posts that I click “Like” for. I like being brought to that point where someone has forced me to consider a new perspective through the clarity of their emotion and ideas in their writing.
So how are we engaging our students today to this level? What would they choose to write passionately about? What is it that would cause a collision of strong language and strong ideas, and how would we teach them to get the balance right?
I wonder if there are any teachers out there who have used a Facebook post as a summative assessment piece? If we are serious about asking our students to compose real writing for a real audience, then we SHOULD be using Facebook!

Committed to Teaching or Committed to Students?

I am committed to teaching:

This is what I do as a teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. Student learning as defined by grades. THEREFORE. I am a good teacher.

I am committed to students:

I aim to be a good teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. This is what I do for my students. THEREFORE. Student grades as defined by learning.

I composed this dichotomy some time last year, left it in my drafts and found myself thinking about it again this week. The catalyst for bringing it back into my consciousness was two days of training with Dr Virginia Rojas, a leader in inclusive teaching and English language acquisition strategies for English language learners.

Over the course of those two days I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and observing a significant amount of teacher discussion around those topics and could see that significant growth was occurring in the room! And yet… there were pockets where these seeds of new ideas fell on rocky ground and did not take root. In fact, there was resistance and in some cases, outright disbelief that the strategies presented by Dr Rojas, and the need for those strategies, actually existed.

As I pondered this wide spectrum of readiness to accept these practices (shown through research to be effective) I wondered what was going on. And then this little piece I had penned popped back into my thoughts. Maybe it goes some distance towards explaining what is going on.

Those resistors I could loosely categorise as teachers “committed to teaching”. It is teaching that shapes their identity. Observing them at work you would see a classroom where order rules, the teacher talks and the students follow. The systems are running, the routines are set and observed and the teacher has a good sense they are doing a good job. When ideas are presented that will upset the system or routines, those ideas are explained away or minimised in their usefulness. Subtle (or not so subtle) challenges, often wrapped in the “in my experience” bludgeon, place the value and observations of personal experience over the educational research spanning thousands and thousands of different sample sets, and experts are gently asked to sit on the bench and watch the “real” game go on. No need to let any “new” ideas upset the systems or routines that are producing good results with my students! “My students already get good grades in my class, why should I change what I do?”

And then there are the teachers who are “committed to students” – the fertile ground! When an expert walks into the room they lean in, listening. And when those ideas start flying you hear these teachers say things like, “that might work with some boys in my class”, “Kelly would really respond to that sort of approach”, “I wonder if that would work with Suzy?”. There is no thought of routines, or systems or interruptions to “what I’ve already planned!”, there is just a mind clicking through all the students, working out what will help who. This teacher is thinking about what he or she can do for his or her students – to enhance the learning. Grades are a byproduct of the enhanced learning!

I’m not sure I’m at the point where I am ready to begin talking about how to make stony ground fertile, or even the best approach to trying to plant in the rocky places, but I acknowledge that these challenges present themselves. Maybe the starting point is for each and every teacher to recognise the readiness of their own soil. Maybe I can help with that! So…

I am committed to teaching, or I am committed to students… which one are you?

Because it is 2015!

Have you ever had that moment where you suddenly realised that a significant chunk of time has passed, leaving you with the feeling that you missed it all, that the months decided to click by without letting you join in?
A few days ago a stray comment from a colleague left me in the midst of that moment, fumbling with the fact that week two of November was upon us, leaving less than eight of 2015 to be enjoyed.
Like many of us, I have a vivid memory of counting down the last seconds of 1999, surrounded by good friends and empty bottles, hoping the lights would stay on and wondering what a new century would bring. That was fifteen years ago! Fifteen!!! The new century brought with it more than I personally could have imagined. So many changes. So many advances I would now be lost (quite literally) without – the GPS, the camera phone, text messaging, smartphones, Kindle, YouTube, Facebook, iTunes – all things I now DEPEND on for learning, listening, reading, communicating, connecting, and not getting lost. So many ways to do old things in new ways.
For my daughter, born in 2007, YouTube and Siri and GPS are the way she has always done things – they are not “the new way” of doing things, they are “the way”. In fact, for every student in my school, those things are “the way” they have done things as they have grown up.

Over the past two weeks I have had the good fortune of sitting through days of instruction with some world experts on assessment and English language aquisition, whose underlying message is that in 2015 we know an awful lot about how learners learn because there has been a lot of research going on all over the world. The research has shown us better, more effective ways to help learners learn, and as such we should be changing what we do in our classrooms to ensure we are using those new approaches. Why? As Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian Prime Minister recently responded when asked a similarly important “Why?” question, the answer is because it is 2015!

When there is so much information available to guide best practice in your classroom, don’t be the one where others wonder if they have missed 15 years when they step in to visit.

The Principal as Co-driver

I love the use of analogy. It causes the reader/listener to think and put the two pieces together, comparing and contrasting at the same time. So, at the risk of asking you to put a couple of things together, here we go.

A good principal is like (or should be like) the co-driver in a rally car.

Rally Driving is my favourite motor sport to watch. Not that I’m a big motor sports fan at all, but if I’m flicking through the TV and land on some rally driving, I’ll stop for a bit and watch. It’s fast, its dangerous, it’s exciting and there are two people in the car. The on-board-camera is the most interesting for me. You get to see the driver and the co-driver interacting. The driver has feet and hands going everywhere – brake pedals, accelerator, hand brake, gears, clutch, steering wheel. He’s flicking that car around like a rag doll, sliding in and out or corners, taking off over crests, hitting blind corners at amazing speeds. And the co-driver? He’s reading. Out loud!

If you have never watched a rally, then at this point you might be a little intrigued. Is he sitting there reciting Dan Brown, trying to untangle the DaVinci Code? Is it a map? Is he making sure they stay on the right track? Take a few minutes to watch this video.

He is reading race-notes. Race notes that he and the driver have written themselves a couple of days earlier. These notes are extremely precise. Distances. Turns. Speeds of turns. Road conditions. Inclines. Declines. Etc. These race-notes describe to the driver exactly what he will be facing next as he races along the track. The driver’s job is to listen to the co-driver and adjust accordingly. If “100 L2” is the call, the driver has to slow down to 2nd gear for the left turn coming in 100 metres. Very precise, timely, informative information.

And now the Principal…

Schools are full of very smart people. Students, teachers, administrators. As the Principal, it is your job to presume this, to expect this, to create this. Of course there are some who are not. Presume anyway. And to this end, be precise with your race-notes.

Your race-notes are how you talk to people. Be precise with the language you use. Give your teachers, students, colleagues the information they need to be the best they can be. The precision of the language you use is extremely important, as it can influence the way things get done, now and in the future. Your choice of words can have a direct impact on how a teacher continues to grow and develop their teaching practices, and your choice of where you give those words can have just as much impact.

Consider this scenario…

The Principal is sitting in her office talking to the HS Social Studies teacher about a lesson she observed. The summative assessment was not good! She hands him an article to read saying, “Here’s some information on summative assessments I think would be helpful for you to read.” The teacher, listening, hears her say, “I think your summative assessments are poor and I need you to read this.”

Now, with a rally driving co-driver twist.

The Principal has entered the HS Social Studies teacher’s classroom and has asked where they should sit. They sit. The Principal passes over the article on summative assessment and says, “I saw the effort you had put into your summative assessment and it reminded me of one of the articles I have on summative assessment best practice. I thought you might like to add it to your assessment resources. It’s great to get new ideas to add to your own practice.” The teacher, listening, hears her say, “I saw your effort. I read a lot of articles. I presume you do to. Here’s how this one will be helpful.”

With this twist, the teacher is in the drivers seat (his classroom), the principal has shared that she does a lot of reading, the principal has shared she expects him to be building similar resources, and the principal has told the teacher how she expects him to use the information from the reading.

So, the analogy…

The principal should be the co-driver when working with teachers, just as teachers should be co-drivers when working with students. Both the principal and the teacher should be strapped in for the ride, committed to reaching the end and working together to get there. The principal should be very precise with his/her race-notes, which should give the teacher everything they need, and more, to make their own decisions about how to turn the corner. And if they crash, the co-driver should be there to help the driver get out of the car.

Perhaps, being a principal should be like being a rally co-driver.

Teaching is like cabinet-making!

This tweet (see right) was waiting for me on Monday morning when I switched the computer on. Tom is a teacher and administrator in Ontario, Canada and is a regular contributor to Twitter. His tweet leads to a research paper focussing on (obviously!) 21st Century Teaching and Learning. I have not read the entire paper (in fact, only skimmed the Executive Summary) and probably won’t, but it started me thinking. It brought into mind a number of observations I made last week as I was visiting classrooms and wandering the halls and helped me tie them together.

Teaching, like cabinet-making, is a lot about tools and how well they are used.
As I have shared with some of you, when given the chance, I love building furniture. The smell of fresh wood shavings, the satisfaction of taking a number of flat bits of timber and turning them into something useful, the challenge of creating something aesthetically beautiful, the joy of getting lost in the creative process.
As you begin to get lost in this process you soon come to realise the importance of good tools. A sharp saw. Fresh sandpaper. A straight rule. A solid workbench. A good broom. And sometimes, there are times when the design of the furniture has to be adjusted, simply because the right tool is not available.
Teaching is very similar. As teachers we have all sorts of tools available to us as we consider the creative process of leading students through their learning.
Sometimes we don’t recognise some of the most impactful tools we have at our disposal. For example, the humble classroom desk. It is so much more than something just to sit at. Used effectively, the humble classroom desk can be used for behaviour management, social dynamics modification, assisting student focus, keeping students on task, etc. And when we consider that many of our students are using laptops, classroom desks and how they are arranged, become an even more powerful teaching/learning tool.
Laptops, textbooks, classroom desks, tone of voice, where we stand in the room when we speak, wall charts, music playing, images shown on the Smartboard, room temperature, what we wear, classroom routines, expectations we have of students, online classroom spaces – these are all TOOLS that we have at our disposal to influence the learning environment of our students.

One of the biggest challenges as a teacher is to know what tool to use, when to use it and then finally, how to use it most effectively. Not an easy task by any means! Professional Development for teachers, at it’s heart, should be about expanding a teacher’s repertoire of tools and then about refining that teacher’s ability to use the right tool, in the right way, at the right time.

The research paper on 21st Century Teaching and Learning (which prompted this short article) highlights the use of digital tools in teaching, and the importance of learning digital skills (which I wholeheartedly agree with). At the same time, if I want to help a child learn how to add three and five, or the effect of static electricity, or how to throw a pot… a digital tool is not what I will be reaching for.
Famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow had a couple of words to say about tools. “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

Building a bridge with care

Over the past few months I have had a real opportunity to learn about the culture of my new school. I have shared with a number of people that learning ones way through a culture is somewhat akin to tip-toeing through a field of land mines. It is not until you step on one that you find out it is there. Within the cultural context, it is not until you disturb a cultural norm that you being to understand how deeply that norm is felt.

What is obvious at my new school, is that everyone cares! Teachers care. Students care. Parents care. Finding out what each of these groups care about, and how deeply they care about it has been, and continues to be, the walk through the minefield, as these are the two variables so intimately connected to culture.

What we care about and the depth to which we care about it are extremely culturally connected, so much so that it is often difficult to articulate. It is not until those things we care about are brought under the microscope and become focussed topics of conversation that we begin to sense and understand the depth to which those things are cared about. Often it is a surprise. Sometimes it cannot be explained. We are all cultural beings.

A recent parent discussion I was a part of helped me understand in a very real sense the fact that sometimes we can care deeply about things that in the end are not helpful to solving problems or reaching resolution. When these pieces are deeply ingrained through our culture, the challenge to move beyond them is significant, and in all honesty, may seem to be impossible. Deep seated cultural “values” do not move easily, and sometimes, do not move at all.

The mission statement of my new school drives us to bridge the East and the West, which, from a cultural perspective is a significant challenge. While there are elements of East and West that are complimentary and even sometimes symbiotic, there are also elements that are oppositional, contradictory, and at times, adversarial. I deal on a daily basis with students and families for whom the world is framed through the cultural lens of the East. My school is bringing an educational philosophy and practice being framed through a Western lens, with Western voices. Moments of contradiction cannot be avoided.

It is these contradictory moments that should inform us most deliberately about how to build our bridge, because in it’s most real sense, a bridge links two different places. A bridge is a solution. A bridge allows movement from one point to another, most often over something that would normally prevent that movement. A river, a chasm, an ideal, a danger.
Bridging the differences between two cultures requires us to focus not on the differences, but the commonalities. By focussing on what is common to both cultures, a conversation can begin and work can start on building the bridge.

What is obvious at my new school is that everyone cares! It is obvious in the extra lengths that teachers take to know and support their students. It is obvious in the hours that teachers spend outside of their classrooms providing opportunities for students to be challenged in non-academic pursuits. It is obvious in the care and attention teachers give to providing feedback to students on their learning. It is obvious in the emails that teachers send to parents, eliciting support, sharing successes, requesting dialogue. It is obvious in the passionate advocacy parents show for their children. It is obvious in the conversations students have with their teachers about their learning. It is obvious in all that we do at this school.

And it strikes me, that as we go about building our bridge, we could not hope for a better foundation than “care”.

A teacher’s most important job is to learn

It is not often I start a post with the title. Usually, I have an idea, spend a good amount of time thinking about it, sit down and let those rambling thoughts crystallise on the page, and then determine what the title of the post should be. This time, the idea and thinking have led me to a title first. So here come the rambling thoughts.

The best teachers start by learning.

And not their subject!

When meeting someone for the first time who is a teacher, I have begun the habit of asking them this question. “Who do you teach?” It is very interesting to see the responses. Some teachers come back straight away with, “I teach Social Studies and English”. I smile. I ask a clarifying question. “WHO do you teach?”. Often the response is a description including the name of the school or the grade level or a school division.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 6.22.27 AMSome teachers, on facing my initial question, get this somewhat puzzled look on their face. Usually THEY ask the clarifying question. “WHO do I teach?” “Yes,” I reply. “Who?” They take a moment. Think. And then tell me school names, grade levels, school division descriptions.

I can only think of one or two teachers to whom I have put that question who have paused for a moment, smiled, and launched into a description of individual students. Students who frustrate them. Students who are amazing. Students who are taking 5 advanced level courses, running the school whatever-club, volunteering for the whatever-group. Students who came into their classroom not knowing how to do whatever and are now teaching other kids in the class the whatever. Students who have persisted with something they find really difficult. Students who stand at their desk every single morning and tell them about something they find totally amazing. Students who know when the teacher needs a handmade card to let them know they are appreciated.

When I listen to these teachers respond to my question, I wish I could contact their Principal and tell him/her how lucky they are to have this person working in their school (but then they probably already know that!). I also hand them my business card. These are the teachers I want working for me!

Because the most important job a teacher has is to LEARN. About the students they are going to attempt to teach.

Some famous gentlemen wrote about blank slates and empty jugs and urged teachers to fill them up, saying that is what teaching is. At the risk of being precocious I’m going to suggest they missed a really important part of the whole process. Close examination of the slate, the chalk, the jug, the liquid, etc, etc. You are not going to get much into the jug if the neck is an inch wide and you pour from a bucket! If that slate is wet, then your chalk is going to disappear real quick. If your chalk is too hard, you are just going to leave scratch marks on the slate that are no good to nobody! (I’m dating myself with this intimate knowledge of chalk!)

Know your students first. Learn everything you can about them. And then teach. And don’t stop learning.

Did that work? Did he respond to that? Did she understand that approach? Did they collaborate well in that setting? Was that assessment task interesting to those over there? Do they understand me when I speak? Do they think deeply when I pose questions in this manner? How can I reach that one kid over there who is dealing with some really heavy stuff?

Know. Your. Students!

Only when you REALLY know your students can you really begin to teach them.

Don’t be the teacher complaining that most of what you are pouring from the bucket isn’t going in. Learn all you can about the jug!