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A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself) 

Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt proud of my self”

Apart from making my day/week, this little snippet has been playing on my mind. 

The 9th grade student who shared this reflection has been working with his class and the 2nd graders to design and build a picket fence. It is going to run along the perimeter of the Grade 2 kitchen garden. The 9th graders are working on Geometry, design, cost analysis and construction. The 2nd graders are working on perimeter and area, volume (of water when watering the plants), measurement (as the plants grow) and graphing (all the data they gather during the growing). The Art teacher will use the fence as a canvas for the Grade 2 students to decorate, illuminate, illustrate. I’m taking part as the Woodworking teacher, utilising the skills I learned in high school (and have refined ever since) to help build the fence.

That this 9th grader should highlight the building of a fence as a source of pride is funny on one level, and deeply significant on another.

“Why?” Is the question I am asking myself! What is it about this activity that has resonated for this student in a way that (seemingly) nothing else has?

Is it the fact that he/she is building something? Is it the sense of accomplishment having designed the fence, cut up the timber to create the pieces, drilled the holes and assembled it all? Is it that he/she is working with the 2nd graders and contributing to their learning? Is it that he/she is not sitting at a desk staring at a whiteboard of death by Google Slides? Is it that he/she is getting dirty, getting splinters, risking the amputation of fingers in the power tools, wearing safety goggles and generally making a lot of noise and banging things with big hammers? Is it none of this? Or is it all of this?

Or is it because this is different to what he/she has sat through every day, in every class since August 15 last year?

I intend to find out.

Because once I know, I will let his/her teachers know. And then, they can try to use that piece of information to change the way they teach him/her so that every day, he/she can reflect that his/her learning felt great and that he/she felt proud.

If our students cannot honestly share a reflection like this every day then we need to be doing a better job! Our students should not be coming to school to be bored!

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How would you change?

I am reading an interesting book right now – Ron Ritchhart’s “Creating a Culture of Thinking: The 8 Forces we must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools” and a paragraph or two have really stimulated my thinking.

Image Credit: http://static.messynessychic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/outdoor-school-2013-11-05-Buitenschool-1930-04.jpg

This one has got the wheels turning with some gusto: “does the space facilitate learners’ needs to communicate, discuss, share, debate, and engage with other learners—or is it meeting only the students’ need to see the board?” It is referring to the physical layout of a classroom, and as I did a mental walk through of the school I work in I am concluding that the vast majority of the rooms are set up for the students to see the board, not talk to one another.

Which led me to wonder what would happen if teachers came to school one day to find the board had been removed, the projector taken down and student desks facing each other.

What would happen?

How many would rearrange the desks, tape some chart paper up onto the wall and continue on as normal? How many would turn up in my office, unable to teach? How many would think for a minute and change what they had planned and begin a different approach?

Image Credit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4bR9llHHJ0k/T3S4w3oVyqI/AAAAAAAACSE/Duk6yhDAZ_c/w1200-h630-p-nu/classroom+without+walls.jpg-large

It was a stark reminder of the very strong connection between our physical space and the way we teach. It was a stark reminder that often times, if we are to change the way we teach, sometimes changing the space we teach in is the first step.

So if you came to school tomorrow and discovered that your whiteboard/blackboard/projector had been removed, how would you change?

 

 

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How are you asking for student voice?

When we are asked about “student voice”, and if it is able to be heard in our classrooms, it is easy to answer yes. “Students in my class talk.” “Students in my class respond to questions.”
 
But this is not what the question is really asking about!
 
Student voice is less about students making a noise and more about WHAT they are saying.
  • Do you know if your students find your classes challenging and engaging?
  • Do your students have a say in determining what they are learning?
  • Do your students have a choice in HOW they demonstrate their understandings to you and others?
  • Do you make all the decisions for your students?
These are the questions you should be asking in relation to student voice. 
 
Best practice tells us learning is improved when students have a “voice” determining the what, understanding the why, negotiating the when and deciding the how.
 
How are you asking for student voice? To read more and for some fantastic ideas, click on the image below!
 
http://www.edutopia.org/topic/student-voice

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Lego, IKEA and problem finding!

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Einstein-formal_portrait-35.jpg

“The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”
― Albert Einstein

It would be fair to suggest that we have all heard of problem solving! It is lauded as an essential 21st century skill. We ask each other if we are asking our students to “problem solve”. While this is not unimportant, Einstein’s 20th century quote above might be putting a new spin on this 21st century skill that we have not considered – that finding the problem might be more important that solving it!

Somewhere in my past I remember listening to a speaker (maybe it was a TED Talk) whose main idea was that we should be spending a LOT more time working with students on FINDING the problems, and then solving them. If I remember rightly, he was suggesting that handing a student a page full of “problems” and asking them to “solve” them was missing the point somewhat.

Maybe it is like an IKEA dining table you bring home.

Here are all the parts you need, and the tools you will need to use with the parts, and a book that gives you the step by step instructions for putting the table together, and a picture of what each step should look like, and a picture of the finished product, and a helpline number to call if you mess things up. Or, if that’s too hard, here is the number for a couple of guys who can come to your house and solve your building problem for you (for a small fee of course!).

Imagine what would happen if the IKEA table came with five extra pieces, no tools, no picture and no helpline! (Oops, someone just fainted!)

If you have ever watched a child receive a Lego set as a present, there is that short period of “building the IKEA table” where the booklet is opened, the steps are followed and the “thing” is built. It is played with for a short period. The car zooms. But then… the car crashes and the pieces come apart and the car merges with the house and the boat to become become a hovercraft with a time travelling switch and a laser cannon and next thing the room, and everyone in it, is being blasted by lasers and transported into the future.

I wonder what would happen if you started playing lego with all your different pieces of IKEA furniture???

I digress!

As you continually challenge your students to solve problems, how can you challenge them to FIND the problems and then solve them? How can you make those problems you are posing embedded in the REAL world, rather than the SCHOOL world?

How can the problems you challenge your students to find and solve REALLY help them with the problems they are going to encounter and attempt to solve this afternoon as they walk/cycle/bus/train home from school?

And apologies if you are still having shivers from the “five extra pieces” IKEA thought!

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Student Choice

As I work through the “8 things to look for in Today’s Classroom” from George Couros, “Choice” is one of those that we might immediately consider more difficult than some of the others – especially if we are teaching a prescribed curriculum, or an prescribed course, with a text book, a time schedule and an external exam on a given date in May! I’m not going to say it’s easy, or that I know how to suddenly infuse your course with CHOICEs – that’s for you to consider. What I do understand however is the fact that when students have choices they are more engaged, and when they are engaged, learning becomes more effective. I did originally write “learning becomes easier” here, but many times it doesn’t.

Engagement doesn’t make learning EASIER! From a personal perspective, when I am engaged I’m prepared to struggle with my learning for a lot longer than when I’m not. I tend to persevere more. Through this willingness to persevere I learn more. The learning isn’t any easier. In fact, because I am prepared to persevere more it would be fair to say that in some respects the learning is harder, or at least there’s more struggle.

So coming back to Choice…

From an institutional perspective, some schools do a better job of allowing Student Choice to permeate their school culture than others. Some schools allow students to choose their high school courses, to fit into a set schedule. Others have flexibility in scheduling and can allow some degree of student choice in timing of when they take those classes throughout the day. Some schools opt for a “no uniform” policy and allow students to choose what they wear to school. Others don’t. Some larger schools allow students to choose which teacher they want when there are multiple sections of a course. And then there are graduation requirements that guide student choices for extra-curricular, sporting, cultural, service and other activities. While these institutional level choices are important, the more critical arena for student choice is the classroom.

If you work in a classroom (note I didn’t say “Are in charge of a classroom”), here are some questions to ponder:

  • If you drew up a pie chart titled “Teacher Choice – Student Choice”, how would the two sections of the pie compare in size? Have you thought about how you might be able to make the Student Choice slice bigger?
  • When you are designing an assessment task, how do students get to choose?
  • When you are planning a unit of instruction and are considering learning activities, how is student choice built into the planning?
  • When students take notes in your class, do they get to choose how they take their notes?
  • When an assessment task is finally assessed/marked/graded, do your students get to choose their result/grade/mark (self assess)?

Alfie Kohn, in his September 1993 article, “Choices for Children – Why and How to let Students Decide” put it pretty bluntly when he wrote,

“Much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behaviour may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.”

If you have some time to read through the whole Alfie Kohn article it is well worth the time! If not, at least begin to consider how you might be able to introduce more student choice into your classroom. Alfie Kohn suggests possible starting places when he writes, “The four key realms in which students can make academic decisions are what, how, how well, and why they learn” and goes on to expand upon these ideas.

The FacultyFocus.com article titled, “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment” takes the idea of “how” and “how well” and challenges the idea of prescribed assessment tasks, suggesting,

“rather than a teacher mandated sequence of assignments, students are presented with assignment options and they decide which ones they will complete. Or, students do all the teacher selected assignments but determined what percentage of the grade each assignment is worth. Lots of variations are possible. In my graduate course on college teaching, students completed all five assignments, with each being worth 10 percent of their grade. I gave students the other 50% of their grade and let them divvy up that amount between the assignments.”

While I am not advocating every teacher suddenly creates an assessment buffet for students to help themselves from, it does help us to rethink something that possibly has been considered un-rethink-able. Again, the whole article is well worth a read (and is a bit shorter than the Alfie Kohn article).

In summary, engagement is critical for deep learning, and giving students choices in the what, the how, the how well and the why of learning can only serve to increase engagement.

References:

George Couros. “8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom.The Principal of Change. 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Alfie Kohn. “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide (*) – Alfie Kohn.Alfie Kohn. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, Sept. 1993. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD. “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment? – Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus. 2011. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

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Want to improve your grades? Sleep more!

With Semester 1 just ended and students now focussing on working through a successful second semester, I (and many of you) have been talking to students and parents about changes they can make to see greater improvement in their learning. Usually that conversation starts with studying more, but recent research suggests that sleeping more is just as important.

The study titled “Sacrificing sleep to study can lead to academic problems”, showed that “across the years of high school, the trade-off between daily study time and sleep becomes increasingly associated with academic problems” (pp. 139). The study also found “that the reduced sleep that tends to occur on nights of extra studying is what accounts for the increase in academic problems that occurs the next day.”

This is not to say that students should not study! The research also acknowledges that there is a link between high achievement and more study, but caution that the extra study should not be at the expense of sleep.

9 hours of sleep per night is the recommendation for adolescents. In an ongoing survey I have been conducting, after 75 responses, 5.7 hours per night is the average for high school students at the school I lead.

So, if students want to improve their learning, and then as a consequence, their grades, help them to consider the following… develop a routine that allows you to sleep 9 hours each night. Spread your study out across all nights of the week, and if you need to put in some extra hours of study, don’t sacrifice your sleep – instead, give up something else that is not as important.

As this study suggests (and other studies confirm), “sleep is a key restorative process during which consolidation of learning takes place.”

Reference:

Society for Research in Child Development. “Sacrificing sleep to study can lead to academic problems.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 August 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120821094350.htm>.

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“Copy this down…” or don’t. It’s up to you!

From an interesting article about the Primary Years Program… Click here for the full blog post.

If we truly value thinking and creativity, then why would there be a need for students to copy something down. Whether it’s a definition, a list of attributes, or instructions for how to do something, doesn’t the act of expecting students to copy down whatever it is we are looking for steal their thinking? If learning is all about making meaning, aren’t we missing an opportunity to have students construct their own meaning if we are expecting them to copy down someone else’s meaning?

Out of the whole post, this short paragraph has been clunking around in my head more loudly than the other ideas shared within. I’ve been asking myself, “Should teachers be telling students to copy this down?”

When I taught for a year at TongJi Medical University in Wuhan, China (after having taught elementary for four and a half years in Australia) I was introduced to a “copying” culture in my students. Whatever I wrote on the blackboard (with chalk!) was diligently copied into all 45 journals in the room. I didn’t need to say, “Copy this down.” The presumption was that whatever I wrote on the board was important, without necessarily understanding what it was important for. That year made me rethink what I used the blackboard for!

Fast forward twenty years and now we have LCD projectors and interactive whiteboards (not a stick of chalk anywhere!) and the ability to bombard our students with a “blackboard” full of Google or Powerpoint slide after slide after slide after slide of “important” information. My Chinese university students would be most dismayed because they would not possibly be able to copy it all down. And maybe because of that they would begin to ask which information was important to copy, which makes me wonder about why students should take notes at all. Why anyone takes notes at all!

Well, from my personal perspective, I take notes every day. Notes of every meeting I attend. I write down who is there, the date on which it takes place, the time of day and the main things we speak about. If I need to complete a task as a follow-up to the meeting I note that down. But in all of that, the most important element is why. Why I note those things down!

I note those things because I know that in the future I will need those pieces of information for something else I will need to do. Those are the things that are important to remember in order for me to do a good job of being the Principal.

From a student perspective, the WHY should be similarly important. WHY a student is taking notes should drive what notes they are taking. This demands that students actually KNOW what they need their notes for, be it an exam at the end of the week or semester, for a project they are developing or for an essay they might be writing. They must KNOW the criteria around which that task will be assessed. Only then can they determine if what is being presented to them on the “blackboard” is worth copying down.

So when we say, “Copy this down” we are missing the most important part of the whole note-taking process – the CRITICAL THINKING that demands the worth of the information be COMPARED to the demands of the task, to result in a CONSCIOUS DECISION to copy or not to copy.

So when the inevitable student question “Do we need to copy this?” comes up (as we all know it will), try answering with a question instead… “Why might you need to remember this information?”

If the student can’t answer that question then you (or the student) might have bigger problems, but it WILL prompt critical thinking.

Note-taking, as the original blog post mentioned, should be about students making their own meaning from information presented to them. Don’t ask students to “Copy this down”, ask students to be critical about what they think is important* and let them choose!

 

*But make sure you are VERY clear with course goals, expected learning outcomes, assessment criteria and assessment details!

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Be surprised!

Over the Thanksgiving break my family and I visited Jeju Island, South Korea and explored its coastline, its many museums and its other unexpected treats. And of the unexpected variety, there were many!

Hallasan SnowThe tomato wine from the World Liquor Museum, while unexpected, couldn’t really be considered a treat (imagine watered down tomato paste), but finding ourselves in 30cm of snow atop Hallasan on our way across the island to the airport definately was! It was completely unexpected, and my absolute highlight (being the deepest snow I have EVER encountered!) of the long weekend. It changed my perception of Jeju completely!

Admittedly, I really didn’t do much research before we travelled. I had heard a lot about the island from others and thought I had a fairly good impression of what to expect. It was a smallish island, had a couple of international schools, apparently not much to do there, but would be warmer than Seoul so a good place to spend a couple of days. I was largely ignorant.

And it occurred to me my trip to Jeju was similar to how we treat our students.

We think we know who they are based on the conversations we have with other teachers, the lunchroom table chatter and the letters in their gradebook. We don’t take the time to learn about who our students are – what they love to do, what they dislike, what makes them smile, where they have lived, what their parents do, if they have a pet, how long they have lived in this country, what other countries they have lived in, how long they spend on a bus each day just to get to school, etc, etc, etc!

I discovered the snow on Jeju half an hour before I left. Spend some time today finding out about who your students really are – maybe there are some undiscovered highlights that will change your perception of who your students really are!

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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!

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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!
Thanks for stopping by to check out the blog! If you would like to receive an update each time there is a new post, just add your email in below. Thanks, Bruce.

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