From the category archives:

Teaching

This is not some technical detail. It’s the basis of the entire mass education system, the social contract of teaching. In the past, wealthy people hired a tutor or governor, someone they could oversee and be sure exactly what their children were being taught. Poor people were grateful for whatever they got.

With mass education, parents no longer have direct control over what their children are taught, so there is an unspoken but very real agreement – teachers will teach what society has agreed upon, and not go off on their own tangent. That’s the entire point of the curricula, frameworks and testing that underpins education systems.

Choosing what teachers are allowed to teach is the reason for private schools – so parents have the option of particular pedagogies or religions. Parents don’t enrol their children in a Montessori school to have a teacher say ‘Sorry, I don’t like that philosophy, I prefer this one.’ Bad luck teacher – you don’t have that option.

And that is true for every single philosophy or opinion that teachers offer in the classroom. As a science teacher I’m sensitive to it, it’s the basis of the creation wars and the reason that science outcomes are very, very carefully written. There are certain things that you may not teach in a science class, except to demonstrate how they are not scientific. As a teacher you can believe anything you want, but the Big Bang, unchanging speed of light, and evolution are not options. If you can’t do that, then you cannot teach science. At all. Ever.

But what about the softer subjects? It’s incredibly easy, even there. You see there are three wonderful little words that need to be an integral part of every teacher’s vocabulary:

“Some people believe … “

Even better if they are followed with options, like

“Others believe …”

Because then we might actually get into comparisons and discussions of why and then even talk about tolerance! What an exciting, and empowering, thing for kids to learn.

This is an absolute pass/fail for any teacher, but it’s especially important in the Territory. You might get away with it when your students believe the same things you do, but the vast majority of students out here don’t share your cultural baggage. Blithely spouting your own beliefs might go against and devalue important beliefs of your students, which is not going to make school an engaging place or you an effective teacher.

It’s a slap in the face for your students and their parents every time you open your mouth – I wouldn’t willingly send my kid to a classroom with such a blinkered teacher, who blatantly fails the very basics of their job. How can I trust them to actually teach anything of worth when they show contempt for their own students and the agreement that is the basis of their employment? How can I trust a school leadership which not only allows, but as far as I can see as a parent, supports and encourages biased treatment and incompetent teaching?

Now the argument could be made that there are some things at such a deep level, such a basic part of your world view, that you don’t realise it’s an opinion and that others view things differently.

No.

While we all stand up at PD days and mouth that we want our students to be life long learners, to be curious and self motivating, that excuse doesn’t cut it.

Teachers are both the obvious result of our education system and its avatars, responsible for perpetuating it. If teachers are so unreflective that they haven’t thought about the differences between the culture they grew up in and the culture of their students, they are failing. If they are so lacking in curiosity that they are unable to use Wikipedia, they are failing. If they are so unmotivated that they can’t even make three little words a habit, they are failing.

Pathetic.

It doesn’t matter whether it is religion, or the value of having a job, or the relative abilities of boys and girls. The only word for a teacher who is failing so miserably and a school that allows them to is pathetic.

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Planning heirarchy

I‘ve been in a few conversations lately that have made me think about my way of viewing classroom problems. Top down and bottom up aren’t quite right, but I suppose it’s such a common metaphor that I’m finding it difficult to break free of it. The top and bottom in this case are not people but the different levels of action and planning that go into teaching.

Have a look at the heirarchy at the top. The base level is the classroom, the things you do in the moment. Above that is your lesson planning, the detailed short term planning. Then there is programming, where you ensure that your activities are leading to your outcomes and you have the assessments to prove it. At the top is your class philosophy – your vision, your goals and your behaviour management policy. The size of the step indicates the time spent in each level, and each step does some of the work for the step below it.

All levels are influenced by outside things like school policies and procedures. But they cannot be replaced. It may sound as if it’s just extra work, but spending a bit of time clarifying and writing down how you want your classroom to run and why supports everything else you do. It keeps you on track because you know where you are trying to go. It gives you a range of options for managing behaviour that you’ve already thought about.

Examples

By classroom problems I mean things like engagement, assessments that aren’t working or behaviour – the day to day ‘this isn’t going how I want it to.’

Focusing on fixing the problems individually is bottom up thinking. Looking at your whole program or delivery is top down thinking. Say you have a group who are coming late, opting out and mucking around.

Bottom up –

  • You could have a consequence of making up the time they’ve missed, either through lateness or not working.
  • Set a minimum amount of work that has to be done and chase them in their own time for it.
  • Have a system of escalating consequences that are followed through including involving parents, contracts and other supports.
  • Use routines, agendas and break lessons down so that there is a sense of moving forward, not getting bogged down.

Top down –

You might analyse the pattern in the classroom and decide it is based around non-engagement, they are deciding not to be involved in the work and finding ways to avoid it.

  • Look at your program and try to increase buy-in so they want to do it. eg negotiated curriculum or directly relevant work.
  • Increase learning activities that play to their strengths and interests, eg art or presentations rather than essays.
  • Have lots of active lessons such as visitors, experiments or going places around the school so they aren’t spending a lot of time sitting at their desks.

Conclusion

I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing wrong about either of these ways of dealing with classroom problems. Both are valuable strategies and should be used in their place. However teachers have a tendency to get stuck in bottom up reactions rather than pro-actively looking for top-down preventions. It’s top-down that is going to give you long term momentum, and ultimately it becomes less work.

Yes it’s a little more at the beginning of term. It does give you less control if you are negotiating (although I question how much control you actually have). It can be hard to think of inventive ways of teaching some topics. But it soon becomes a habit and a style you don’t have to think about. I haven’t done more than re-read and tweak my behaviour management philosophy in years because it’s at a point where it’s working for me. And that is far easier, and much less depressing, than writing out incident reports after every lesson or giving up my breaks chasing students.

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Literacy

It’s holidays, and the girls (almost 4 and 6) are miserable with a cold. So they asked if they could work on their book. They are snuggled together in my bed:

  • Using a book (Animalia) to get ideas for each letter.
  • 6 yr old is telling 4 yr old how to type the words into Neon Image Search on the iPad,
    • Making reasonable guesses on spelling with phonetics and environmental clues, then self-checking if they don’t get the expected pictures coming up.
    •  Choose one together and save it. duckling
  • Last time I used Fancy Pages to put the letters in, I’ll see if they want to have a go this time. Lion
  • Then they use WordFoto to choose a picture,
    • Come up with a sight word list for that letter and take turns typing them in
    • Take turns setting the style. horse

And there is their very own set of letter posters to put up around the place. It didn’t last that long, but they work on it a little at a time and move on while they are still happy.

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Standing Desk

My desk is currently covered in boxes, and I’m loving it.

I work at a little table that fits in the space between the window and the bookcase, opposite the lovely large table with the sewing machines on it. I use a laptop that sits directly on the desk and a cheap office chair. It’s crowded with paperwork, rubbish, cords and electronic equipment, things I looked up a while ago and random offerings from my children. I’m a fidgeter and I swing, wrap my legs around the chair base, lean sideways and twist.

None of this is ergonomic, and I’m used to waking up in the morning almost unable to walk because my back has set solidly. Sometimes I’m tempted to get a sling to support my right arm after a night of heavy mousing.

I knew I had to rearrange and get at least the basics right, when I was prompted by a blog post on standing desks. I’ve seen them talked about before in an educational setting, and as a science teacher I love the fact that I get high benches and stools. So I thought I’d try it out.

Two of the boxes I’ve been meaning to unpack from under the sewing table put my screen at exactly eye level. Some paper trays with a shelf on top and more with a favourite hard-cover picture book now hold my keyboard and mouse so my elbows are almost at 90 degrees – it’s not quite perfect. A cleared shelf of the book case holds boxes with all the sorted crap.

And I stand in front of them, rocking from foot to foot while I think, stepping back and considering, even a little pacing and handwaving while I work out the next paragraph. I swing, move, stretch and stand on one foot, then come back and stand in an ergonomic position while I type.

My shoulders are back and my back is straight – I don’t know if it’s even possible to slouch and type when you’re standing. And it’s definitely cut down on my procrastination – standing and flicking through Facebook just doesn’t have the same effect.

I do have sore feet and knees, about equivalent to when I started teaching and was standing all day. And just like teaching, decent shoes make a difference. It makes me appreciate sitting down to relax, but then I find myself fidgetting and want to spring to my feet again. (I don’t work full time, just at night or when my daughter is at preschool.)

The absence of stiffness in my neck is a revelation. I find myself stretching my neck and turning my head several times a day just to feel how freely it moves. I know this probably has more to do with the screen height than the standing but for God’s sake people, MOVE YOUR SCREEN UP TO EYE LEVEL NOW.

I am filled with an evangelical zeal and want to tell the sitting world to cast off their chairs and stand. And can you imagine how cool this would be in a classroom? Difficult to see, sure, most teenagers are taller than me. But look at all the energy they would use productively and possibly even healthily. The difference in perspective and focus I’ve discovered is huge, and I’m someone who loves my work. I could be really annoying for my next line manager.

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WordFoto

Another app I love. It’s designed for iPhone but works on iPad and I think some iPods too. It’s very simple, but beautiful things can be done.

All you do is open a picture in the app and choose or add a set of words. Then you get the fun bit, changing fonts, styles and colours. This is the bit where kids could waste a whole lot of time playing, but no more than they do with other visual media like paint or posters.

I made these examples using a combination of apps on my iPad:

Above, I used Image Search to find the apple and Fancy Pages to put it together with the text before putting it into WordFoto with simple sight words – A, and, an, apple.

five
Used Image Search to find the 5 picture then text, numeral, arithmetic and counters representing 5.

animal cell
A more complicated attempt, I used MediaSlate to draw the cell and Fancy Pages to label it before using the parts as my word set. I don’t actually think this would be a good classroom use – the text doesn’t really add anything to the diagram.

Mining ConsMining Pros
Again, used Image Search then straight into WordFoto.

So I have a series of pretty pictures and had a fun time. Is it useful or a time waster? I think useful – primates are, after all, visual creatures and the picture being a thousand words. I think it can let kids who can’t write well-reasoned essays explore emotional and analytical ideas. It can be a stimulus, a mnemonic or a fun way to begin and end a unit. A way of getting kids to use and practice words and tie them to something concrete rather than a list in a book.

Quick ideas for uses (and this is after a couple of days playing, I’m sure there are so many more):

  • Early readers building a word bank.
  • Encouraging use of adjectives and rich description eg developing characters or settings.
  • Vocab posters for a unit.
  • Understanding numbers – this does not not not not mean counting!
  • Remembering formulae and units in different forms.
  • Looking at pros and cons for things like Science in Society or SOSE.
  • Emotional response or exploration.
  • Summary of a business or enterprise – taglines or mottos.
  • Taking a position in an argument with brief reasons.
Can you think of more?

 

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Spelling

Yes, spelling or at least vocabulary is important. But spelling tests are deadly dull and have no educational value – all they do is tell you which kids got the letters in the right order in that particular contrived circumstance. They don’t teach anything themselves except panic.

I do think there are circumstances where rote learning is valuable, my daughter is currently learning sight words. But you need to balance the usefulness of the activity against the time it is taking and make a decision on what is the best way for a particular class.

And never forgetting that outcomes need to be demonstrated in a variety of ways in a variety of contexts. Have you checked that the student who got 100% on the test is actually using the words correctly in everyday writing?

Assessment is not a mystery story – we are not trying to trick kids but allowing them to show off what they have learnt. So here are a few quick alternatives for assessing both spelling and the related knowledge. Every single one of them is open-ended, which means they will work for every kid in the class to have success at their own level.

  • Hangman
  • Each student spells a word of their choice and tells you what it means before they leave the classroom.
  • Use the words you’ve been learning to create a mind-map summary of your topic.
  • Have students find ‘families’ of words. This could be rhyming or blends families for younger kids or related words such as pentagon, hexagon, octagon.
  • Create their own crossword then exchange them.
  • Create acrostic poems using words you have been using in class.
  • Use Wordle to analyse your text or a student’s own work and use that to generate their own spelling list.
  • Either individually or in teams have students write as many words as possible they’ve learnt in the class and turn them into posters that can be displayed or added to.
  • Use the posters to divide the words into nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. Colour code them or create new posters.
  • Interactive posters, for example a poster with a large diagram and the labels are laminated, students put them on with string and bluetac.
  • Students complete a table with words in one column and the definitions in the second column then cut them out. Swap them with another student and unjumble them.
  • Have a round robin game where a pair of students give each other a word to spell then move to a new partner.
  • Give students the correct letters in scrabble pieces/magnets/blocks/cards to spell a list of words given orally, automatic self-checking if they have ones left over or run out of something.

How many more can you think of? Rather than a book full of spelling tests, why not a portfolio of individualised vocabulary activities?

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Teacher

I know some states have already started, but the NT goes back on Monday. I thought I’d put together a little checklist of things that will help in the first few weeks, especially if you are new to teaching or in a new school.

School things

Most schools have a handbook which is not something to toss on your desk to read later, it is your Bible. It will have the answers to the questions you don’t know you should be asking yet, such as:

  • Who is your line manager? Arguably the most important question, they are your contact for any questions or problems you have. They may direct you to someone else, but they are your first port of call and the person you need to keep informed.
  • What are the communication protocols? Are there daily meetings or newsletters?
  • What are your non-teaching responsibilities? Things such as handing in programs, class lists or other paperwork, yard duties, home rooms.
  • Do you have your own class or move around? If you are sharing with other teachers you will need to negotiate the things you can put up and the layout.
  • What is the school policy on hats/mobile phones/toilet breaks/buddy classes? The practical details that will come up in your class.
  • How are support staff managed – do you need to request them? Are they attached to students/classes or teachers? Do you get planning time with them?
  • Ditto for resources such as computers, laptops, iPads, cameras and specialist rooms such as the Library.

Class things

  • Are your personal systems ready? Diary or workpad, rolls, stationery, keys, water bottle?
  • How are you going to arrange the workspace?
  • What is your behaviour management policy or classroom philosophy? I strongly recommend you write it out to have it clear even if your school doesn’t require it.
  • How are you going to organise your resources such as books and stationery?
  • How are you going to incorporate activities for different learning styles? How are you using technology – this isn’t an option in the twenty-first century.
  • Names, names, names repeat them as often as you can.

School culture

This might be the tricky bit because it is unwritten. It includes things like

  • Are you expected to stay after school?
  • How are you expected to dress and behave?
  • How do you address students and how do they address you?
  • How does the staff room operate with things like tea/coffee and dishes?

as well as so many more. Often no-one can tell you these things because they have grown with the school and are just the way it operates. Many you can ask, but mostly you have to listen and watch.

If you are new to a school, spend the time listening and watching everything around you, the people there are the experts and your greatest help and support. And if you are an experienced staff, maybe there are some newbies you can keep an eye on. They don’t know what they don’t know.

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Because right now, we don’t. In fact most of us are still trying to work out what literacy in the information age actually is, let alone practice it or especially teach it.

The first step is to accept that this is truly a different world to the one you grew up in. It’s not just like it was but with better phones. We have the collective brain, early tricorders and skycars are under development. We have the ADHD attention span. Most important, for this discussion, we have independent mass publishing.

When you were a kid and wanted to know something you read it in a book or asked someone. There were occasional oddball books like Von Daniken, but generally they were pretty safe, in fact conservative. This is because books are a big investment for publishers so they are screened and vetted carefully. Then they have to be marketed, and the extreme fringe is, by definition, tiny. So it’s not worthwhile targetting them as your audience. As a further filter, you either had to shell out money for a book or get it from the library. Money is a great way of ensuring people think carefully about what they are reading, and public libraries have guidelines. That adds up to a lot of editorial layers making sure the book is reliable.

Asking someone could be more unreliable, especially because we are inherently more likely to trust people we know well enough to ask. But while in the past that could lead to pockets or lineages of ‘weird beliefs,’ it couldn’t usually spread far or fast, because you simply can’t reach that many people.

For me, the biggest effect of the Internet is the democratisation of information. I get my news through Twitter and learn from blogs. And I don’t mean the big commercial ones, why not keep an eye on my old field by following John Hawks? For educators, think of Teacher Tom or Dy/Dan out of hundreds of useful edublogs. And there’s the rub. How do you know which ones are useful?

Anyone can set up a blog. Design is getting easier, especially with so many themes already out there you don’t need to go for a premium or custom job to get something that looks professional. Hosting is everywhere and domains are incredibly cheap. For a hundred dollars, maybe two, you can look like a trustworthy professional organisation rather than a crackpot working alone in a grungy flat. And as yet there is no way for readers to check up on you, except by looking at the quality of your information and making their minds up for themselves. Which is easy if you already know something about the field, very hard if you don’t.

Which brings us back to those poor people looking for information.

Cue critical literacy

There are all sorts of skills that go into it to do with comprehension and spotting logical errors or inconsistencies. But one of the first things to ask yourself is

“Why should I trust this person?”

What clues are there, before you even listen or read, that tell you this person has good information –

  • Are they publicly backed by an organisation such as a university or government department that would have checked it for you?
  • Do they have relevant qualifications openly displayed?
  • Is there an easy way to contact them and ask questions and do you get answers?
  • Do they link or direct you to other reputable sites that have that information?
  • Do they back up their statements with evidence or is it all their opinion (rather like this post)? And what is the quality of their evidence?
  • Can you find out how they have dealt with or answered people who disagree with them?
  • Are they urging you to do something, and who will directly benefit from that?

Try it –

I’ll do this blog for you, shall I?

  • No, it’s a private blog.
  • Yes, see that ‘About‘ tab up the top?
  • Yes, contact tab off to the left and open comments. You can see answers on some of the comments.
  • Yes, lots of links off to the right and within posts. However you would have to check if they are reputable, there are no universities or education departments.
  • Mostly opinion, it’s a reflective blog after all!
  • It’s a fairly limited blog. You could follow the links to Science@home, which I’ve mentioned in the About page has been going much longer. It has some controversial posts, but you would have to look around a bit to find them. So while it’s not impossible, it would require some digging.
  • Not really. Be what I consider a better teacher? Your students would be the ones to benefit, and they’re almost certainly not my kids!
So it’s relatively reliable with some caveats – it’s designed to clarify and record my thinking and make you think, not give you facts.
Try it on another site the next time you are looking things up, it can be a very interesting exercise.

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Chick shoes

No, that’s not a euphemism. I have an actual chick, hatched from an actual egg, that has a few ‘issues.’

He (I have no idea, we just call it he) has one enormous eye – it appears the eye has either popped out of the socket or the socket never formed properly. I assumed he was blind in this eye or soon would be, I was just worried about how delicate it would be – would it get pecked or knocked? He also has extremely curled toes so that he couldn’t walk but was shuffling around on the sides of his feet.

After a couple of days I worked out how to make little ‘chick shoes’ that straightened his toes out and he started standing up and eating. That was very exciting because we lost some chicks in an earlier hatch, so if he’s eating and drinking on his own that’s a big step to making it.

But it soon became clear he wasn’t doing well. He spent most of his time sitting against a fence or the edge of the box, and he sits with his blind eye out. It must be blind now, most of the time it’s covered in dried tears although there doesn’t seem to have been any infections and it’s cloudy. I probably made it worse by putting some betadine on it – there was some blood and I didn’t want to risk infection, in hindsight I probably should have just left it alone.

We kept him inside for a bit when the other chicks went out, just to make sure he was walking ok and could get to the food without competition – not only is he unsteady and half blind, he’s half the size of the other chicks. There was another chick with a cut on its back we were keeping an eye on and had the two of them together for company. But after the second chick was ready to go back, there wasn’t any real point keeping Bung inside.

Through it all he’s been an amazing little fighter – he obviously has huge problems, but he can move around, he’s trying to scratch in the dirt, he finds the food and water and even though he’s tiny he’s developing little feathers. We keep preparing the girls that he’ll probably die, but every morning he’s still there. It might sound a bit cruel to put him out, but what else are we supposed to do – this is a chicken we’re talking about. If he can’t walk, scratch and find food and water he’s going to have a pretty miserable and short life, so better to find that out now and deal with it if we have to. Starvation and bullying is a nasty way to go. We’ve only given him minimal help – some splinting on his feet, keeping him warm and a bit sheltered. At some point we need to see if he can live as a chicken, so out he went.

The chicks have a separate enclosure in one corner of the chicken run. It has their own food and water in it but no lid. It’s a bit protected for the little ones and under the cover so no predators can get to them, but everyone is getting to know each other and getting introduced. Bung has been doing fine, he’s happier with the other chicks but he still seems to spend all his time curled up against the fence. At least they aren’t bullying him and he’s obviously eating and drinking because he’s still with us.

Seeing there’s no lid on the chick cage, as the little ones try out their wings they go up and over. There’s generally one or two racing up and down the outside trying to work out what happened and where everyone went. And this morning it was Bung. Something pried my special needs chick away from his secure fence and tempted him to fly.

I wouldn’t want to push it too far – these are chickens we’re talking about. But I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.

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Australian National Curriculum

It turns out I was wrong with my guess of how it would all work out. I’ve deleted the incorrect parts of this post and suggest you look at the updated series I’m slowly trying to put together.

Australia finally has a national curriculum after about fifteen years of trying. It’s still being phased in but I’ve been playing around with the science curriculum since last year, mainly for writing teacher’s guides and personal development. I’ve programmed using it with one group of teachers but not taught using it.

So far, I love it. This is not to say it’s perfect – I love my husband too but there are times he annoys the heck out of me. But I think it’s going to give teachers some much needed direction and get us all moving together. It’s nicely balanced compared with the wild pendulum swings education has been going through.

(As a side note, I adore the fact it isn’t a book. Finally, something that takes advantage of the way the web works and let’s you organise the information the way you want to access it.)

The Pendulum

When I began teaching in WA I caught the tail end of the unit curriculum. This was an extremely prescriptive curriculum with around 40 objectives for each unit that had to be covered in your 30 lessons. It had fantastic resources attached with phone directory sized books full of suggested lesson plans and worksheets. You could literally follow the book from beginning to end and know you had it covered, even if learning about beach erosion was completely inappropriate in the desert and your students only remembered half of it.

Then came the massive shift to outcomes based education, when the focus swung a full 180 degrees from what you had taught to what they had learnt. Rather than prescriptive topics it was completely open and teachers were encouraged to go with local and specific topics and even, gasp, student negotiated curriculum.

Just to make sure there was even less direction, the outcomes were enormous. The Levels in WA were designed for students to work through in 18 months to 2 years, and Bands in the NT were even broader. In fact when they had been in a few years they were revised, and it’s quite possible for students to complete year 6 and leave primary school still in Band 1. Now that’s an E, not a good score, but the Australian NAPLAN mean for the end of primary school still only lines up with the beginning of Band 3, which means students are expected to spend 6 years getting through two Bands.

Teachers aren’t entirely on their own in this vast ocean of possibilities, there are lots of suggestions and indicators and resources to help, but classroom teachers had a huge responsibility in choosing what is taught and particularly at what level.

This is where the new national curriculum slots in.

There are two major differences that jump out at you when you first look at the new curriculum:

  • It is based on year levels.
  • The achievement standards include specific content.

Year Levels

Finally! Some guidance on what to do with your year 8 student who is still in Band 1. Rather than trying to thread your way between something that was written for early childhood and students with early childhood school abilities but teenage social abilities and interests there is finally an answer – THIS is what a year 8 student should be learning. You can take the context from the National Curriculum but teach it at the level your students are capable of. Yes, there may be a lot of Es. But at least all Australian students will be familiar with the important concepts.

It’s an objective way of working things out – rather than relying on other teachers’ interpretations of where the students are up to that may or may not match your own, you can at least be sure of what topics the students have covered. They may have covered it in a simpler or more complicated way, but at least you know what they did before they landed in your class.

I know this is truncated, it will be expanded over the next few posts. I’m just resurrecting this one because it’s coming up in searches and I feel bad if people are getting 404’d.

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