Monday, 29 April 2013

Quilting and happy places

2 years ago, I taught myself to make a quilt.

I was so excited about choosing fabric, learning everything there was to learn (what would we do without youtube clips?!), picked out matching thread and then finally had everything together.

I had very limited and basic sewing skills going into it, and a sewing machine I had barely used, and my knowledge from the internet was rather sketchy...... so why was my first attempt reasonably successful, and why have I gone on to make more of these (sometimes very large) quilts?

The interest and pride I had in taking on this new project was so intense that no matter how many mistakes I made, I had the self-perseverance and motivation to keep going and see what the final product was. I often ended up wasting fabric, and having to re-cut when I didn't follow the instructions properly, and when I sewed things in the wrong place, I chose to partake in what I not-so-fondly call 'backwards' sewing and did it all over again, in the correct place.

Sewing, in particular quilting, is one of my happy places, and even when I'm amazingly frustrated when I stuff up, it doesn't take my enjoyment away because I know how happy and proud I will be with the final product.

Next question: How do I take this engagement and resilience and firstly, apply it to my teaching practice, so that I don't slip back into old habits..... and secondly, how do I culture some of this attitude in my students? What is their happy place, and is it realistic to ponder whether they can take some of that engagement and enthusiasm and apply it to their learning? Or am I crazy? ;)

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Plan to action - a work in progress: Part 3

Summary of strategies for transformation:

  • Stay connected on twitter and through as many face-to-face activities as I can with positive, self-motivated, progressive, forward-thinking teachers. I need to keep my levels of inspiration up!
  • Ensure that during my planning, I make the utmost effort to incorporate some of the previous ideas and strategies into my classes; in particular I want to change my comfort zone/fall-back from ‘chalk and talk’ to students having more voice and taking control of their learning through differentiated activities/instruction and project-based learning and through challenging their thinking.
  • Allow more time for students to reflect on their learning, including the emphasis and use of SOLO taxonomy for student’s own use.
  • Encourage students to take own notes and make own summaries, and work collaboratively with other students to extend knowledge rather than a more one-way transmission.
  • Start each lesson or concept with why the students should learn about it, rather than the what or how.
  • Continue to support my department and school in their approach, while still trialling my strategies on a smaller scale. Share my ideas and changes with any positive outcomes with staff, as a way of encouraging and ‘disseminating’ ;)
  • Use my teaching as inquiry PD project for some of the above ideas, rather than the simpler strategy I had intended to study. (Current thinking – use the multiple choices/differentiation model with genetics topic (Y12 bio) over a week or so, then revert to ‘old’ style of teaching, and have students give feedback. Could also assess NCEA questions they answer/submit based on both styles of learning to give data on any differences.)
  • Be aware and purposeful in the strategies I choose and approaches I use, and reflect critically on their success.
  • Big picture/blue skies ideals – keep these as my goals and continue to reflect on any progress I make towards them. Blogging my trials and tribulations will help me keep track.

Plan to action - a work in progress: Part 2

My current contexts and ways over the barriers:

Current contexts
Ways over the barriers 
(some of these I am already doing)
Time given to each unit/standard is restricted. My personal preference would be to do fewer units/standards over the year, giving more time for each unit/standard, but this is not something that is negotiable. The department (or NCEA) – wide learning objectives still need to be covered within each unit, for an end-point of tests and exams which must be sat by all students.
  • Increase the use of project-based learning within units/standards.
  • Give a choice within units for the junior science classes, to increase student voice. i.e. for mini-projects, let them decide own topic within a range.
  • Increase opportunities for self-directed learning where appropriate. i.e. students can spend more time on the areas they need to rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. This also ties into increasing vertical differentiation within class.
  • Decrease number of worksheets I give to students, and instead give them a context and some scaffolding to apply their knowledge to. However, there is still a place for starting with shorter answer-type questions before building up to the large open-ended essays expected in biology NCEA.
  • Give students more chances to be creative (after all, science and creativity go hand-in-hand!).
The number of standards and units within each year is fixed – this links into the time constraints also.
Emphasis in the school is on high achievement, and traditionally quite prescriptive learning has taken place, with a tendency to ‘spoon-feed’ students the ‘correct’ answers, rather   than giving them a chance to figure it out for themselves.
  • Aiming high is great, I don’t want to change that. It is so important for students to set goals, and for them to believe that they are achievable. It is also vital that they know their teachers believe in them too.
  • I want to breed resilience and resourcefulness in my students, and giving them all the answers all the time isn’t going to aid that. I need to increase opportunities for students to discover the information for themselves (and I will act as back-up, making sure they have the information they need, and they can apply it to the right contexts.
  • Give the students some opportunities to fail. i.e. set up experiments that can’t work. Then talk about how that is ‘real’ science, not pretend ‘science-land’ that I often refer to in class – i.e. everything is concrete and we know all the answers-type idea some students believe that science is.
  • Continue to incorporate real science – allow students (especially in NCEA classes, particular L2 and going forward L3 biology) to understand that some of what they learn is on the cutting edge of science and research; many of the questions that arise from some of these topics such as epigenetics are unanswered.
  • Continue to exude enthusiasm and passion for science and biology. Why should they care if I don’t? Give them some insights and hook them into having their own driving force behind really caring about their education and futures (and science of course!)
  • Incorporate use of SOLO taxonomy so that students can reflect on their own learning, and determine where and when they need to put more effort into their learning.
  • Continue to be transparent in my teaching, modeling thinking strategies and also making any mistakes I make obvious and an important part of learning.
All classes teaching the same course tend to follow the same pathway, and have the same learning objectives, same tests and exams. This is something expected by both teachers and students alike, so discussions about deviating from the ‘norm’ could come from both directions (and from parents!)
  • Being a co-operative and productive member of the team is important to me, and I don’t want to rock the boat so much that it creates problems for other teachers.
  • I want my students to have the same opportunities and experiences as other classes, and to reassure their parents that I am doing a good job of teaching their children.
  • Q: How far can I deviate from the other classes without being seen as disruptive and not providing equity for my students compared with other classes (even if the outcome might justify the means?)
  • There may not be as much room for incorporating student voice as to what they learn, but there is some for how they learn.
  • I could tweak notes/handouts that I give to students so they are not as prescriptive. (This may be harder to implement as notes are given on a departmental basis).
  • There is more flexibility in certain classes – i.e. years 11 and 12, and also 8 (although year 8 students may not have the right background just yet to be able to effectively drive their own learning? For science in particular they may need close guidance as to the vocabulary and content, as at this age it is very easy to develop misconceptions in science if these are not made explicitly clear).
  • Explore the flexibility in the classes that I can – I can see space to do this already within year 12 biology, and year 11 science. Give these students more options as to how they learn, and expand the aspect of vertical (and also horizontal) differentiation within this.

Plan to action - a work in progress: Part 1

My overall goals and ideals:

To incorporate more student voice into their learning:
  • More say in how they learn
    • Type and form of projects (videos, electronic presentations etc)
    • Type of work submitted (posters and presentations rather than just written questions etc)
    • Type of work they do in class (variety of things – vocab, workbooks, own internet research, watching videos, making summary cards/posters/charts, experiments, exam questions, mini-lectures) depending on own understanding of topic and how much extra help they need
    • Incorporation of vertical differentiation and personalised learning into these ideas/goals will be easy, in particular the last point.

  • More say in what they learn
    • Harder to implement in NCEA classes, as the content is mostly from an external source, but I could still ask students for guidance as to what they would like to spend more or less time on, and whether they have interests in expanding their knowledge beyond the standards in certain areas. Ideally, they should be co-constructing their personal course with input from me, to maximize their potential in terms of how many internals and externals they should be sitting, and as to where their interests lie.
    • Junior science classes – ideally they should be designing the units with me, giving a large amount of input as to where their interests are, and letting me weave those interests and passions into the context of the curriculum.

To incorporate more useful IT/technology into the classroom 
  • In a way that it complements what they are already doing, rather than being something that replaces it.
  • Edmodo?
  • Pearl tree?
  • Socrative?
  • Using mobile learning (expanding use of videos and photos to interactive feedback?)
    • Expand how students are already using their phones – recording experiments for example, and getting them to present their own findings back to class via class wiki or presentation?
  • Utilise MPower more and simplify it, to make it easier for students to access (and choose to access) materials on a per lesson/per content basis.
    • Is there a way of extending MPower so I am using it as the full potential to allow bi-directional (or multi-directional!) info transmission?
  • Expand use of class wiki’s already set up, as a way for students to help each other out, rather than a one-way transmission of info.

More time to really explore their learning. 
  • This would mean flexibility in the planning of units, and the ability to expand or contract aspects of the content where the students desired it. Obviously for NCEA classes, the content needs to be covered for both internal and external standards, but ideally in a flexible programme, students could choose which AS they would sit (within the parameters of sitting adequate credits for the course), and therefore perhaps have more time to give to deepening and extending their understanding, thereby increasing their achievement in the standards they do choose to enter.
More to come no doubt as I further explore my teaching practice!

Timing is everything

For the first time in a long time this past weekend, I got a book out of the library for me, not just the kids. It helped that the kids weren’t with me, so I wasn’t playing the please-be-quiet-and-stop-running-around game. However, I didn’t start reading the book until the night following the last day of the ignition 13 unconference (in an effort to stop my mind from running a million miles an hour – something it’s still doing nearly a week later!), and what should fall out of the book but a small bookmark a past reader had left in it, with the quote: 

‘Lord, strengthen my faith to depend on Your perfect timing for my life’. 

Now, as previously mentioned, I am not a religious person at all, but I strongly believe in karma, signs and making meaning out of things (to a degree, given my training as a sceptical scientist!)… this was followed up a day later with a very inspiring conversation with fellow TCol-now-teacher buddies, and also that I followed the advice offered at ignition to finally join up with twitter (something I had been avoiding due to already stretched-thin ‘free’ moments – really no such thing as free moments when working fulltime with 2 preschoolers!).
This combination of factors, in particular being exposed to the progressive education world within twitter that I had no idea whatsoever about – oh what I have been missing out on; the passionate and inspiring teachers from all around the world, and the daily motivation and evidence-based practice that so many NZ teachers are sharing – I could kick myself for missing 2 years of it! Anyway, these things made me realise that the timing of these things was important. I had a chance to go to ignition 12, but the timing ;) had not worked out, but also prior to this year, I was pretty satisfied treading water and problem-solving, and just managing and coping with the demands of 2 young kids and family and commuting and working (close to) full-time. I was not in the right headspace to start stargazing and thinking about my teaching practice on a much larger scale. As was said at ignition 13: 

improving/tweaking your practice is not enough; you need to transform your classrooms.

From a professional point of view, I am ready for that, but now I am wondering how do I sustain that goal, when next term resumes, and life gets back to normal, and I don’t have the blue-skies inspirational people to listen to every day? I’ve broken it down into what my overall goals and ideals are, what my current contexts are, and what strategies and goal-setting I can use to help me stay on track, and have a ‘bias towards action’ as was suggested at ignition 13.

A rose by any other name....

In this last week, I attended the ignition 2013 unconference, which has been an eye-opener in so many ways. I went into it knowing I would feel humbled by the awesome educators there, and possibly slightly disappointed with my own teaching practice. Some of that was true – the people there were amazing in their thinking and approaches and fearlessness, but what did become apparent was that while my teaching practice is not yet a transformed one, there are many approaches and ideas that were discussed during the two days that I currently use because that’s what makes me happy. I have been out of touch with the progressive education world (partly my fault, partly my surroundings) and therefore out of touch with much of the language that comes with pedagogical approaches, and so didn’t think of my strategies as co-construction, project-based learning, electronic learning and so on under these labels, but more as something that I feel comfortable with, that I know increases my and my students enjoyment and therefore engagement with the content and context of the material.

So this was an unforeseen positive outcome – the awareness that I am doing some good ‘stuff’ in my teaching, and more than that, that I choose to do it because it feels right and natural and good, not because I’m fulfilling some kind of label.

The language used in educational psychology and philosophy always annoyed me while at TCol – it seemed to me these academics who made their profession out of using big words to describe common sense things in the classroom were condescending in their approach to us fledgling trainee teachers, and made us feel like progressive education was their home turf and only obtainable in the insular world of University; not something that could be seen in most classrooms in some way, shape or form. Instead of making us realise the excitement and potential of the concepts we discussed, the use of high-brow language was exceedingly off-putting (and this to me, with a doctorate in a specialized field of medicine! I don’t say this in a hubristic way, but more that I was used to that kind of language in appropriate circumstances, and I feel that a more approachable vocabulary could have been used to hook us in).

Even now, during PD events where a specialist visits the school, the language they often use or the concepts they talk about seem removed from our reality. I came away with so much more than I could have imagined attending ignition13, and it was so refreshing to listen to people using these aforementioned approaches and pedagogies in their classrooms, but discussing it in a down-to-earth manner that was so inclusive to everyone present. The generosity of everyone there to give advice, ideas and resources was incredibly welcome, and I could see how easily I will be able to incorporate them into my classrooms.

Removing the blinkers

The end of my first two years as a teacher in a school (as opposed to University) is approaching, and with it my PRT/BT status. While I know I have grown professionally and personally; developing learning relationships with my students, trying out pedagogical approaches and reflecting on my practice; I realise that I have been running a horse race with blinkers on, with a main focus on one thing that is important to me - academic achievement, in particular academic excellence. This is a good thing, but it means that I have been less focussed on how I get to the finish line, and all the exciting things that the run has to offer.

This is not an undesirable thing in itself – it is of course one of the main reasons that young people stay at school, to get qualifications, to show to the world they are capable of learning and assimilating content and context. My students have done well, and I have put many hours beyond the school day into helping them do their best and achieve at a high level.

But I now ask myself – have I been challenging them to think for themselves? Have I helped them develop into resilient and resourceful young adults that can make educated judgments for themselves; young people that will go on to do well at University or wherever they choose, even when they are not being spoon-fed with the hows and whys and whats, and even when they fail and life is not easy?

Have I been challenging my own thinking and the thinking of the colleagues around me, and asking why do we do things a certain way, other than it’s the way things have always been done, the way that such high academic achievements are produced year after year.

Which brings me to the teaching ‘crisis’ I’ve been having this last term. Part of it was the increased workload (incredible the difference between 0.8, 0.9 and 1.0 FT teaching load!), the 4 out of 6 early starts with 2 young kids including a temperamental 2 year old (chaos at best!), the spectre of 4-nearly-5 year old starting school this year, and the nightmare that is the motorway in the mornings. The rest of it was about feeling like I was being somewhat limited in terms of my teaching approaches – the don’t rock the boat mentality, that all teachers teaching the same course must generally do the same things to provide students with a similar experience and exposure to content, regardless of who was teaching them. There is of course still scope for slight variations and different activites and experiments, and at certain year levels there is much more freedom, but overall the teaching approach is encouraged to be the same. There is good reason for this – with multiple classes at each level and parents taking a proactive stance in their children’s education (which is of course fantastic), there has historically been issues when one class does something radically different from the others.

So, how do I meld the reality of incorporating what can feel like token efforts at changing my teaching practice with what I really want to do, which is completely transform it? How do I give my students more voice in the what and how of their learning?