Sunday, 30 October 2016

Excellent questions

My students always astonish me.

When asked at the start of my latest term course "What is the one most important or interesting thing you want to learn?" my year 9 and 10 students came back to me with ideas like:
  • I would like to learn more about extremists who perform terrorism, what psychologically makes them think that is okay.
  • How did communism lose popularity among countries?
  • I would like to learn a bit more about what makes a healthy and well-structured economy, also maybe the business aspect of that too.
  • Which is more effective are economic isms or political isms in terms of benefit of the country?
  • I want to look at terrorism, and what views they have on political, social and economics - why they feel they have to use extreme measures for patriotism.
They also want to know about fascism, capitalism, communism, racism, sexism, and feminism.  All this in 80 minutes a week for effectively six weeks!

A little context - the course is called 'All the isms', and as part of our school focus on How Things Work I was planning to how some political and economic systems work. What I found after this first set of questions was that I had to add in a whole other focus, and now we are looking at ideologies as well.

We started yesterday with some of the political stuff; after an introduction from John Green with Crash Course World History - Capitalism and Socialism and Nikkim with Adam Smith vs. Karl Marx we had a discussion about how all of those things work, the political spectrum, and the realities of politics as compared to the ideologies. Then I asked if there were any questions.

And then one student blew me away by asking "Where do authoritarianism and liberalism fit into all of that?"

What an excellent question! Not only is it asking something really thoughtful, it is also showing how that student had processed all of the information beforehand, and become so engaged that he was looking for deeper meaning.

I LIKE this kind of teaching; where we are talking about stuff which is real and meaningful to students; where the naughty boy is so engaged that he is leading the discussion; where the learning is driven by the questions students ask, we all explore them together, and then we realise that there are no right answers.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Notes for a new term

The end of the first semester has meant a bit of reflection about the successes and failures of the courses that have just finished, so that particularly the failures can make my this semester's courses better. In the spirit of so many blog posts and suchlike, I am going to do a top-5 list of things I can do better this time around.

1. Don't overcomplicate things. It is good to offer options to students and to give them freedom to choose or take their inquiries in the direction that appeals to them, however, in one of my modules I ended up assessing two different standards at two different levels, which meant four sets of marking and moderating. Not to mention the sheer logistics of differentiating my instructions to students! Madness. It is much better to do one thing really well, and have choice within that as necessary.

2. Keep the learning objectives in mind. No matter what you are teaching, you will have to report on it at some point. If you use your learning objectives to keep your teaching on track, it also will make the reporting both relevant and easier. (This doesn't mean 'teach to the test', that is something else again, because what a test is, is and should be completely different from learning objectives.) Learning objectives are what your students are supposed to be learning, so shouldn't that be what you (I) are teaching?

3. Mark as you go. I am a shocker for leaving everything till the big main assessment, and then having all of my classes with marking due in the same week. And marking is not my favourite part of this job.  Even though all of the work that students are doing throughout the course is relevant, and there are some good, assessable activities amongst them, which won't even take that long, I just somehow always seem to forget that, and end up at a point where if I were to mark everything that I originally intended, it would take me three weeks longer than I actually have. So, do lots of small bits of marking, and don't procrastinate, and even, plan small bits that you will mark within a larger class or activity and then, do just that bit. (I'm being aspirational here, I know, but it's a plan...)

4. It's okay to do teaching. A lot of what we do is inquiry based, and student choice and voice are really important. But to begin a new course or class, actually students do need some context, so that they can find out what they don't know, in order to find out 'the answer', or an answer. And sometimes, some information, via some sort of text, and then some questions about it, equals scaffolding! Seriously, this definition only just occurred to me right now. I am so pleased with myself. Because I like teaching, and making students think about stuff they never would have themselves, and I like to take their brains and make them hurt, just a bit, and this is because one of the things that is most important to me is doing the action of thinking. Students are not always going to know what questions to ask, but you can lead them towards those questions.

5. Do what you love. The best classes are the ones you are really involved in because it's what you are really passionate about or interested in. Students know that too. The teachers I remember are the ones who really loved their content, so that even if I hated it (Animal Farm and allegory in 7th form English, anyone?), I still responded to it. That's as true now the classes are called year whatever as it was when they were primers, standards and forms. So the stuff you geek out on as a person - and we all do - should be the stuff you teach, simple as that.

I have a plan now, and at nearly the end of week one, I am achieving it so far. We'll see how the rest of the term and semester go.

Just as an aside, isn't it funny how so many years of experience make you think there is nothing left to learn, but then you start to do things differently, and the learning starts all over? I much prefer the continually learning version, it's a lot more fun.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Something (else) completely new - the follow-up.

Last Tuesday, for the first time ever, I presented a professional learning workshop to a group of teachers. Not from my school, but from 3 other local high schools in a combined schools professional learning day, so to an unknown audience. As I described last week, beforehand, I was feeling quite daunted by the whole thing, because it is quite different presenting to your peers from a position of equality than it is teaching a class of students.

In the end, as everyone told me it would, it went really well. I tried not to include too much (and skipped the part where I had written in orange to skip if I was running short of time) and had a mix of theory/information and practical activities. I followed my plan, and the timings I included seemed to be pretty realistic ...

Until it got to the bit where I was demonstrating how we do things here. In the best possible way, the workshop got hijacked at that point, because there were so many interesting and interested questions. The last half hour completely disappeared. 

In the same way that a sidetrack in class can be the best teaching you do, because of the engagement and questioning involved, that last half hour was probably the most productive in making my 'students' think about their own practice and how it might be modified. They were really interested in the practicalities; having accepted that change needs to happen in their own contexts, they really wanted to know how. I feel that I was helpful, both in initiating some of the thinking, and with providing the beginnings of answers. I know that I gave them plenty to take back to their own schools.

I also got lots of requests for access to the information sources I shared and the ideas, so I put together a slideshow which included everything. In hindsight, I should have done it beforehand, and used that to run the workshop, but that is definitely part of the learning curve. Having done this once, I definitely want to do it again.

Here is the slideshow I put together:

I think the main thing that I was trying to convey, and the most important idea for me anyway, is that modern learning doesn't necessarily need beautiful high-tech surroundings to happen in. In many ways, having this available to new schools is a deterrent to schools and teachers who are in traditional surroundings, as they feel the practice is tied to the environment. Modern learning practice is simply another way of thinking about the role of education and teachers, in that the focus is on the learning of the students, not the teaching of the teachers. Looking at the NZ curriculum and understanding what it really wants us as practitioners to do, and then looking for ways to do that, can take anyone in any environment forward; all it needs is the will to make that cognitive change.

My Hero!

My hub's task this morning is to write about someone who is a hero to them, and explain why.

One of my heroes is my mum. Generally because she is such an awesome mum, and still the kind of person I want to be when I grow up, but particularly at the moment because she is dealing in an incredible way with cancer. 

Since February, Mum has been going through the cancer journey. Throughout the process - discovery, surgery, recovery, chemo - she has been amazingly positive and resilient. She has taken everything in her stride and seen all of the process as a way of becoming healthy again, rather than as being sick. Her physical and mental well-being has been something that she has always maintained, and this attitude has carried her through.

I think the way Mum lives her life, with positivity and proactiveness, has carried through into this episode of it, and it is this character which I admire in her. She is always looking to the future and making her present meaningful in building towards that future. At the same time she is very matter-of-fact in her way of dealing with stuff, there is no drama or self-pity, and I really admire this too.

She always has been my role model, and my hero. I don't think that will ever change.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Something (else) completely new.

Tomorrow I will be doing something completely new. It will be a steep learning curve for me, and I am feeling quite nervous right at the moment.

Last term, Claire floated the idea to us as a staff of being involved with a cross-school teacher only day, and that some of us might like to present a workshop. I am still not entirely sure how I put myself forward for this, it was one of those things that sounded like a good idea at the time...

So tomorrow I will be presenting a workshop on Modern Learning. I would like to quite clearly state that I am NOT an authority on this, but I think that is the point. The amount of learning that I have done in the last year and a half at HPSS, and that I am still doing, is huge. I came in as a complete novice with no background in anything except the traditional, but I was/am enthusiastic and excited by the idea of doing things differently. I guess I am now a not-quite-novice, but the feeling of being back in my first year teaching hasn't quite gone yet.

How I have learned to do things differently is basically what this workshop will be about, and how others can learn to do things differently too - kindof setting myself up as the test case or guinea-pig, and then showing others that it's not overwhelmingly difficult.

As you can see:

I have a plan. It is pretty detailed. All those tabs are parts of it. Everything is timed. And that's the second page, the first page has a section that says skip this section if running out of time. In orange. I am pretty confident I will.

For me, this is part of me being a teacher and a learner. This is part of my own Professional Learning. It is me being Adventurous and Resourceful.

What I think I will also need to do, somehow, is actually write the whole thing up and put that in here. We'll see how it goes first.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Being Reflective

I have been discussing with my hublings, as part of our focus on the Hobsonville Habit of being Reflective, the value of journalling. Each of them is starting up a journal, either online or in an old-school diary. We have looked at the reasons for keeping a completely private journal and what it means "looking back to look forward". We have also investigated apps and talked about our online presence, so that we are aware of the ramifications of putting our stuff online, and so looking for encryption and password protection as must-haves.

I already have a journal. I use it a lot. I have always done a certain amount of journalling, particularly as a teenager when I went on exchange, but a few years ago, after the Toads appeared, I got post-natal depression. One of the symptoms for me was the waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to sleep again because my mind was dealing with so many things all at the same time. This is when I started serious journalling.

Journalling is helpful for so many reasons. Simply the act of physically writing stuff down slows down your thinking, because your brain can only go as fast as your hand can write. In the middle of the night, thoughts chase themselves through your head so fast you hardly have time to catch onto them before they are gone again, which means they still aren't actually dealt with. Slowing down your thinking means that each thing that pops into your brain gets examined and dealt with before it is allowed to go away again. And the action of examining the thought will often, usually, either make it seem a lot less important or give you avenues of dealing with it.

Journalling also really helps with mindfulness. Mindfulness is, for me at least, being thoughtful and aware of what I am doing. Journalling helps with this because if I have written about something, I am more likely to keep it in mind over a period of time. Following the post-natal, one of the things that I need to be mindful of is my response to provocation. If I am stressed or tired, I am very likely to reflect behaviours of others in their interactions with me. And particularly if I am placed in what may be a very minor conflict situation, I am likely to get angry and aggressive far more quickly than the situation warrants. Journalling keeps me mindful of my state of mind, and allows me to plan my responses, which means I am not living in a constant fight or flight mentality.

The most important thing about journalling is that is a means to learn from mistakes. If you think about why whatever happened actually happened, it is less likely that the same thing will happen in the same way again. For me, this is still something that I need to deal with every now and then, because life is learning; but I think this is really valuable especially for my students. They are in the part of life where, as I explained to them, hormones are going to make them do dumb stuff. If they want to come out the other end of adolescence relatively unscathed, they need to think about the dumb stuff so that it doesn't go catastrophic. Journalling is a way of looking at that dumb stuff and processing it so that next time (and there will be a next time) it isn't so bad. Explaining this, especially to my year 10 boys, suddenly showed them the value of writing stuff down.

Being Reflective is a habit that has a lot of resonance for me. Hopefully, by sharing my own experiences, I can help others to see the value that Reflective practice can have in life. How are you Reflective? Why are you Reflective?

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Goals Reflection

At this point of the term I am getting my students to review their goals, both academic and personal/dispositional, that they set at the start of the year. Given that one of my goals is to blog every time they do, it seems like a good time to look back on what I have achieved so far this year.

One of my goals, although I didn't get to the point of actually writing about this one, was to have a good work/life balance. I can quite categorically state that I haven't come anywhere near achieving this, but not in the way that you might think.  Life has crash tackled me this term, and I have had a lot of 'stuff' to deal with. I think that I am doing that quite well, but I am really hanging out for the end of this term when I know that several of those life things will either be sorted, or will come together after a long process. School/work has been my sanity place, but I don't feel that it has had its fair share of the balance.

Another of my goals (also not stated) was to be a good hub coach. This is something where I actually have no idea how I'm going, but I do have in my plan to do a google form* survey to see how I'm going, so at least I can say that I am being aspirational. I feel that I am building a good relationship with each of my students and we can talk about their academic and personal stuff openly and purposefully. 

One of my stated goals was to have a clear learning objective for every lesson and to have it shared with the class in some medium. If I am honestly reporting on myself, I would have to say that I have a solid 'Not Yet' for this one, or maybe using our new curriculum levels reporting scale, 'Developing'. The idea of getting this into my planbook hasn't happened and so it has been completely random as to whether something has reminded me that I actually need to do it for a particular class. I will have to do some proper retraining of myself in planbook use for next term, and I think I need some sort of visual reminder on my pin-board too.

My other stated goal is, I think, going well. That is, I feel I am making personal progress in developing a more compassionate attitude to students whom I find challenging. I haven't got anywhere with my teaching inquiry, or the formal aspects of this, but on the ground, in my classes, I am a lot more willing to listen, and to discuss non-productive behaviours or attitudes than I might have been previously. I know that this has made my classes more accessible and enjoyable for certain students, and it has for me too, as I don't have to pull out the grumpy teacher, get back on task thing, which both they and I hate.  Now I just have to work out how to frame my enquiry so that it encompasses the progress I am already making... And it occurs to me that my next inquiry might have to be into how I can make those more accessible, enjoyable classes also be more productive.

Reflecting generally, I think it is really positive to be getting my students to be blogging their goals and reflections, and it is for me also. If we do this, we keep thinking about it, and that means a much better chance that we will actually do what we say we are going to.

Please let me know what you think, and please look in the sidebar at my students' blogs and give them some feedback on their goals and reflections too.

* woohoo, I actually managed this! When I figure out how to set up Practicing Teacher Criteria sub-pages, and how to export results from google forms, I will put the results into the right place. Generally though, I am very happy with what my hublings have said.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Blog without deletions

Hub Task: Write a blog about a quote that you find relevant to you, without deleting AT ALL.

This is a reminder for me; today is not a day I feel like dancing, but I don't need to share that tiredness with everybody else. I can feel that I can still be an inspiration or a joy, or at least a small happy emoji for others.

Thursday, 17 March 2016


It's hard, when I love what I get to do here at HPSS, to hear of negative attitudes in other contexts.

The other weekend I caught up with some people from the university course I did a couple of years ago. One of them has in the interim trained as a teacher and did his first year teaching at a school which is trying to bring MLP into a traditional context. I was really excited at the thought that 'traditional' style schools are trying to bring MLP into their own contexts, so I asked him more about it.

What followed was so disappointing.

This second-year teacher had moved on from that school. He felt that although the SLT were really focussed on making the move to MLP work, the staff had not bought into it, and many of the staff who had been there a while were vociferous in their negative opinions. He seemed to have taken on those staff opinions rather than been inspired by what the SLT were trying to do.

In addition, he trotted out what I felt were excuses, rather than reasons, for the difficulties the school was having in moving forward, and for his having left. He said that the school clientele, being predominantly PI, didn't understand the new way of doing things, and their parents had cultural expectations that the mode of schooling would be traditional; that the parents, who were often working two or three jobs, would not have the time or inclination to come and learn more about what was happening in the school; that many of the teachers were 'burned out' by the amount of work that was expected of them anyway and so it would be impossible to ask them to do more with a new system; that staff turnover was too high to really train people into doing MLP well. What I saw was someone who had, in less than two years, gone from a trainee teacher with ideals to the old hand who has seen it all and doesn't like it.

I wish I were better at off the cuff replies. I couldn't say much at the time, because I always need to process stuff before I can answer to it. What I wish I had been able to convey ran along these lines: It is exactly those schools who are catering for students with low expectations, with parents working too many jobs just to get by, that need to be introducing MLP, and sticking with it when it doesn't work like a magic bullet in it's first outing. It is precisely because 'If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you've always got'. 

Those students need someone to have faith that things can change for them, that they won't also end up working those same three jobs as their parents, that they can do things and be things that they can't even imagine yet.  And yes, maybe it easier to be cutting edge where HPSS is (as he informed me) and because it is new, but change is even more vital in those schools where student need for change is higher.  Grant Lichtman tells us that change is not difficult, it is simply uncomfortable.  It horrifies me to think that some teachers have become so comfortable that they don't see the needs of their students as their highest priority. 

When I left teaching, it was because I was becoming the kind of teacher that I had always said shouldn't be there any more, and I recognised that. I returned because I found somewhere where I could be passionate and feel empowered about changing things for my students, for the better.  My biggest regret at the moment is that I wasn't able to explain that to that second-year teacher.  My sadness is that I wish that school success, but if he is a reflection of the wider staff, I am not hopeful.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Being a Life-long Learner, this year.

A bit of context to start: having committed to writing a post every time I ask my hub students to, this morning we looked at SMART goals and set at least one academic and one dispositional or habits goal. My students then had to commit to their goals by enshrining them in their blogs. I showed them my list of possible blog topics, and let them choose what I should write about next; they decided that my own goals for the year, in my learning, would be best.

So, in short form, these are they:
- LOs on display
- empathy for difficult students
- being a full-time working mum
- being a social scientist and historian
- project learning

In a slightly longer form...

Part of being a good teacher is making sure that each lesson I teach is purposeful. I know that if I have a clear Learning Objective for each lesson, that is a pretty clear check that what I am doing is meeting a need or has a purpose in my students' learning. Last year, I was pretty bad at doing this, and especially in making it clear to students. I like to think what I did was purposeful anyway, but there is no way to tell really. 

My aim this year then, is to make sure I write an LO into my planbook for each lesson I plan, and that way I will be sure that not only do I know what I am meant to be doing, but I can tell my students too.

My next goal comes from the fact that one of my greatest difficulties is being tolerant or empathetic of difficult behaviour from students, and looking for understanding of its causes rather than simply reacting to the behaviour itself. I think I tend to judge people generally quite quickly, and I know I am quite black and white in my worldview - this is not necessarily a very productive way into student relationships.  (A caveat - I don't always do this, and have developed some excellent relationships with students which have been helpful for both of us. Just so I don't sound totally hard-hearted or down on myself...)  

I have decided that I need to aim for greater compassion with my students, by listening harder to those who don't necessarily want to talk to me. I feel this quite strongly as a weakness on my part, and so I have decided to make this the focus for my teaching inquiry. I will be relying on my colleagues Sally and Cindy a lot in this, both in helping me frame my inquiry, and because they are both really excellent role models in this area. (Actually, there are a lot of staff at HPSS who I think I will be calling on the expertise of.)  

It's funny, sortof, that empathy is something that actually is vital in a teacher of teenagers, but is not something that previously in my career has been shown to be necessary or valued. It's something that - like the dispositional curriculum that is taught at HPSS and not many other schools - is valued in staff here but not given any professional learning time anywhere else. I like also that what we teach the students is also valued and thus role-modelled by teachers; as in, I need to learn to do these things just as much as they do, and I am encouraged in my learning, not viewed as having a weakness.

Right, I will come back to my other goals next time, as this has already been in draft for a week, waiting for time to be finished. 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Walking the walk

Or: Doing what I tell my students to do.

On Friday Claire, one of our DPs and an awesome example of making blogging work for oneself, spoke to our community students about the purpose and scope of blogging. Not only did she inspire a lot of them, but she also inspired me - to the extent that I now have a list 12 items long** of things I really need to say. This is one of them...

After Claire's presentation, while Sally showed those students who didn't have a blog yet how to set one up, I went back to our hub with my students. Even after what Claire had said, there were a couple of them who still didn't get it, or were resistant to the idea of blogging about what they are learning. I was trying to encourage them, by explaining how writing about stuff is such a good way of thinking things through and coming to conclusions you might not otherwise get to, when I realised that I was talking the talk, but I hadn't actually done any of this myself, in my blog which was also already set up, for even longer than they had.  

So I resolved that for every blog I make them write, I will write one too. I will try and be an example of how useful blogging is, as a record of my thinking and my learning, and of how it doesn't have to be this earth-shattering momentous piece of writing every time, but can be just a note.

For me this serves as a reminder too, that I am a learner; that this forum is an excellent place to gather records of my learning*; and that I can't expect my students to do something that I am not prepared to do myself.  

All of which are very important things.

By the way, you might note that I have added my students' blogs to mine, so please read them too and comment:

*Seeing as I am in the process of renewing my practicing certificate, and the docs I did submit for this were pretty boring, this seems particularly apt.

**And dammit, while I was just now out running, I thought of two more, but one of them requires a playlist, so may be a while...