I heard Eric Sheninger speak yesterday via a virtual keynote as part of BASTOW Leading Schools in the Digital Age program. 

Eric is the highly regarded principal of New Milford High School in the US. He shared a personal story about reprimanding a child for being in the school hall during classtime and the student responding to this by saying “Thankyou for creating a jail out of what should be a school!” Sheninger then explained how this throwaway student comment shook him to his philosophical foundations and provoked a shift in his leadership style and overall philosophy about learning in schools. It made me reflect back on the significant moments in my practice that led to a change in mindset?

Back in 2001, I attended an Apple conference in Wollongong and got to participate in a 5 day workshop with Marco Torres and Don Henderson on the software Final Cut Pro. I thought I was learning about a software tool but it was much more than that. I learnt about collaborating, editing, storyboarding, the power of visual literacy to convey a message, engagement and risk taking. I had a go at something that I initially thought was too complex for me to learn. At the start I felt rather overwhelmed and out of my depth by these two Americans who were doing amazing things in education. They showed examples that their students had created which were inspirational, moving and powerful. One high school student had made a heartbreaking movie about sweatshops as his mother and relatives spent many hours working in them. It made me cry. Several students from Marco Torres’ San Fernando High School left high school and went to work directly for Dreamworks because their skills and creativity was so impressive! WOW! Talk about making a difference in kids lives!

For the duration of the workshop I was fully immersed in learning. I experimented, took risks, had fun, sought feedback from peers and got completely hooked on the power of multimedia collaborative projects to bring about powerful learning. I worked through breaks, stayed late and arrived early to sessions. I didn’t wait for the “workshop” to start each day – I just got in there and picked up where I left off. I learnt skills far beyond what I thought I was capable of. I was unbelivably proud of what I accomplished as it was hard work. I had many frustrations but I persevered and problem solved through them.

When I returned to my school, I immediately fed my experience into my planning for my upcoming unit with my 3/4 class. We were learning about the water and the drought and I had kids design 30 sec advertisements to save water. The kids collaborated in groups, “had a go” at film-making, took risks, problem solved, used sound and vision to send a powerful message. They were completely engaged. They didn’t want to go home or stop for recess or lunch. What they came up with BLEW ME AWAY! We invited parents and other classes in to see what they had created and they proudly shared their work. The kids and I invited our audience to take a pledge to turn the water off when they brushed their teeth. All kids promised, hand over heart. I had parents telling me two years later that their kids told them off if they wasted water at home. For me that was it!

What did I learn? The power of risk taking. Experimenting. Working with others. The importance of relevance and personal resonance. The feeling of empowerment. That strong pedagogy is the foundation of good teaching and learning – the technology is just the tool. Have I grown and evolved since then? Of course but I think that week in November 2001 has shaped me enormously as an educator. I experienced real learning and had a powerful “aha” moment about teaching and learning. The challenge is trying to create opportunities for all teachers to have an “aha” moment. One that inspires a transformative change and elicits a commitment to a newfound moral purpose.

I’ve just returned from a week at #ICOT2013 – the International Conference on Thinking  in Wellington, NZ. It was an invigorating and provocative conference that has given me a much needed energy and intellectual boost before starting a new job and role at Debney Meadows Primary school this year.
 
I came away from the conference with my head full of great new ideas and a renewed commitment to old favourites that I had put on the backburner.
 
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One of the speakers that made the biggest impact on me was Ewan McIntosh who reinforced to me the importance of kids truly having ownership of their learning. He raised the idea of “Googleable and Non Googleable” questions, which struck a real chord. If the answer already exists online, why are kids spending time and energy on an investigation? My kids did passion projects of their own choice last year and when I look back, they were all “googleable” topics. The kids chose their own topics and went through the researching process with my support but it was essentially regurgitating information they found, not creating or making any new meaning of their own. Ewan reminded me of the importance of developing Fertile Questions (Harpaz and Lefstein) that undermine existing ideas and thinking and celebrate the steps of the process more. I know I sometimes fall into the trap of only displaying the finished products, not the messy drafts, prototypes, modelling and thinking that goes on. Learning is messy and hands on – i know this intellectually but in reality do I allow it to be or do I present it as this tidy, neat process, sending to kids the message that if their learning is not tidy and neat, they aren’t smart or worse are doing it wrong. Most of the stuff that end up in my student portfolios are the finished copies. I need the learning, models , diagrams, scribble on the wall to label the skills and subjects so kids make the link and know what they are learning. Why do us teachers keep this stuff behind the scenes? It sends the message that inquiry is easy and pretty and neat and we all know learning is not. It’s challenging, confusing and hard work. We need to make kids realise this and start by modelling the confusion, anxiety other emotions associated with learning. We need to show kids that learners, even teachers fail sometimes. I need to do this more. I also need to ensue that the Learning Intentions stay true to the task and are clear for the kids so they aware of the skills being learned.
 
These ideas also relate to the planning that teachers do for learning and made me question whether I contrive student inquiry and if kids have real ownership and direct it with their questions? Having control issues, I suspect that I direct it way too much still. I’m going to try and step back and plan more as we go to be true to the kids questions and ideas. This will be super hard for me but I think the payoff will be worth the confusion and frustration I will undoubtedly go through. This is what James Nottingham calls getting into the “learning pit.” His colleague Martin Renton ran a great session on essentially philosophical questioning with kids. These are questions/strategies to undermine and challenge mind sets, assumptions and stereotypes and really linked well with Ewan McIntosh and his presentation. It’s important that I get kids questioning and doing the bulk of the thinking in my classes. They should be the ones engaged in the learning and thinking. I shouldn’t be the one working the hardest!
 
Finally a couple of presenters reminded me to get back to a few favourites that I have essentially shelved during the last few years due to the relentless WMR focus on literacy and numeracy – Habits of Mind and the 6 Hats. DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats are a much more holistic way of thinking than just a PMI, which only focuses on pros, cons and ideas. I liked the idea of saying “take off the black hat and put on the yellow” as it depersonalises the conversation and makes it less of a confrontation and can sway thinking in a different direction. I will get back to using this. 
 
DeBono’s talk also spoke about breaking the brain’s thinking pattern to be more flexible by introducing a random word or problem. This also ties in with the philosophical questioning strategy showed by Martin Renton. It is basically an undermining question to challenge thinking and assumptions. Something to try. 
 
I was also reminded to teach and build student capacity in the Habits of the Mind and to use these to build on students strengths and build up weaknesses. These dispositions also help learners to know themselves. The better you know yourself, the more you control your destiny. Why have I stopped using the habits?
 
Sorry for the lengthy reflection – so many ideas and thoughts to process. 
 
I am now trying to both talk myself into and out of attending the next #ICOT to be held in Balibo, Spain in late June 2015. Would be fab but obviously expensive. An internal war that will undoubtedly rage in my head until June 2015…

 I’ve been doing some professional reading lately. Finnish Lessons from Pasi Sahlberg and Towards a Global Fourth Way by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley. I’m finding more and more that my philosophy and the agenda pushed by the system are in complete contradiction. 

Today my frustration has been with the new National Curriculum. A curriculum that appears to be incredibly prescriptive and limiting for teachers who value skill development and deep learning. Instead, teachers are directed to teach (aka cover) a huge content. The history and science sections are incredibly detailed and content heavy. As a teacher who values breadth and depth to lead to deep learning, I am concerned that this new curriculum is taking us a big step backward. Schools are adjusting their curriculum to tick off a swag of content rather than personalising learner for the needs and interests of their student. Missing is any degree of trust in teacher’s professional judgement and skill – a key ingredient in most high performing education systems. Instead, Australia is borrowing the corporate, standardized model of education from the US and UK, who have consistently fallen behind in student performance. It makes e despair for the kids in out classes and the teachers leading them. We have to step away from this micromanagement and control. Our students need us to stand up for them. 

This afternoon I finished reading ‘The Global Fourth Way” by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley. I heard Hargreaves speak for the second time at a recent leadership conference.

The book examines the characteristics of a range high performing school systems around the world and tries to identify the reasons for their success. I found myself continually nodding, punching the air and being inspired by the paths many of these countries or municipalities had taken.

One of my biggest frustrations with teaching at present is the endless demand for data on student literacy and numeracy capability. I liked a quote from another educational leadership guru Yong Zhou who eloquently pointed out that “reading and writing are the floor, not the ceiling.” It is important to remember that being literate and numerate are foundation skills that underpin other learning but that learning needs to be more than this. Schools should be providing a rich, broad education with depth and opportunity for deep and relevant learning. My bug bear is that that we test and test, which ends up monopolising learning and limiting the curriculum. To make matters worse, I find that often teachers are then not given chance to fully interpret, use or act on the data they collect, rendering the whole process more about ticking administrative boxes, rather than truly informing teaching and learning. We must remember the purpose of education is student learning and ensure that everything we do keeps this in mind.

The book “The Global Fourth Way” argued that teachers need to be encouraged to innovate and inquire into effective learning for improvement. This builds the capacity of teachers, provides trust and values their professionalism. I totally concur and this is how I attempt to run my Professional Learning Team. As a team, we chose an instructional focus on improving student writing and have spent months researching, doing professional reading, attending relevant PD, sharing ideas, planning lessons and yes, looking at and acting in response to relevant student data to help kids improve. This has been our sustained focus for most of this year. Having made significant gains, we are now shifting focus to improve another aspect of our practise around using technolgy.

Some of the key characteristics of the success of my PLT have been echoed by the text :

* Give teachers opportunity to respond to the needs and interests of their students. We are dealing with people, not an assembly line!

* Give teachers input and responsibility for undertaking their inquiry. People are much more motivated when they have a purpose for their learning.

* Setting clear achievable goals and actions. As Hagreaves/Shirley state, without action, a vision is just a “fantasy.”

* Trust teachers to act professionally

* Listening to and valuing the input and ideas of all

* Providing time for sustained learning and for practises to become embedded.

* Collecting meaningful data that informs teaching and learning. Not data for the sake of it or because some administrator wants it.

* Meeting regularly and maintaining a sense of purpose and urgency about our work. Erratic opportunities to meet erodes urgency and momentum.

This book reaffirmed the path that I am on but also inspired me to speak up and protest against retrogressive second and third way principles. I am newly energised to stay true to my beliefs and fight because the learning of my students is at stake. This is what Hargreaves and Shirley call a moral imperative. And it doesn’t get more imperative than that.

Today was the first day of term 3 and we held a curriculum day. One session was devoted to our Guest Speaker, Chris Daicos, who spoke about optimism and pessimism. This resonated with me. I have slipped into pessimistic thinking in the past and know many kids and adults who do too. I realised how defeatist, depressing and what a waste of energy it is to catastrophise all the time. I loved the quote :
 
“Engaging in negative self talk is one of the most expensive hobbies you can have.” – R Crawford
 
Pessimistic thinking affects your health, outlook on life, happiness, career and relationships. We need to choose to manage our mind and develop a positive response to events by using strategies such as self talk. Blaming other people and acting helpless is not productive and does not help you solve the problem. A more productive use of time is to catch and stop your thinking , generate positive alternatives and solutions and then actively  decatastrophise your thoughts. Easier said than done but makes a massive difference to your wellbeing and stress.
 
I also liked the acronym GOMO – Get over it and move on!
 
Far more healthy than living in the past and dwelling on things. Also, ask yourself “does it matter?” In the grand scheme of things, is the event really the end of the world and should you give it the power it has over you? Another question to ask yourself – is the situation permanent or will it end? This can help you see your way through to a more positive time, rather than being overwhelmed by endless negative emotions.
 
The other key point was that pessimists don’t OWN any positives or negatives. It’s always SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT things went wrong or a temporary fluke/someone else’s doing if things go well.
 
We need to learn that is is OUR response to an event that determines our wellbeing and future happiness. We are in charge of our own response to events.
 
As a teacher and leader, I need to influence kids and colleagues to positively manage their response to events and learn to stop and shift my own pessimistic thinking to better manage my own stress and wellbeing.

Today I’ve been touring schools across Melbourne looking at ICT and how it’s embedded in a rich environment of teaching and learning. What fabulous professional learning and inspiration! First I went to Silverton P.S in Noble Park, which was just amazing. They just get it! It’s a while since I went on a tour of a school and drove away feeling so overwhelmed (those that know me will know this is code for teary!) What got to me? Everything. Where do I start?

 
Fully engaged, calm, motivated kids who were able to drive their own learning. And this wasn’t tokenistic. Kids at Silverton have real input -they design the classroom, timetable and projects they work on. For example kids have started initiatives like a kitchen garden, chicken coop, TV studio, weighing  collected rubbish for Clean Up Australia day and reorganized the timetable so that they have more sustained time for art and environmental science. These kids show and develop initiative and work towards making a difference with their learning. In P-2, students do Discovery Learning, rather than an inquiry unit so the kids can follow their own passions and interests. In years 3-6 classes do inquiry units for three terms, which address concepts in VELS and then have one term for Discovery Learning, following kids own passions. The kids requested this and their wish has been accommodated!
 
 
The learning  is vibrant, colorful, and celebrates learning. From cafe style tables and chairs at the canteen to the inviting library, to the nooks and crannies used for all different purposes. I saw cooking areas, art areas, comfy reading areas, TV’s displaying kids work everywhere and their TV broadcasts, artwork and murals on walls. Technology truly integrated into spaces and in continual use. 
 
Kids were trusted with technology – they could access resources like YouTube, use digital cameras. I spied teams of kids roaming the school with video cameras and working in side rooms and spaces with teacher supervision from afar. Surely if we want to teach responsibility, we have to mores trust in our kids. 
 
I saw teachers collaborating and being innovative with the timetable. Some teachers were in open spaces working with 20 students, others with 5 kids. I loved hearing about the reality learning program where students choose which activity they want to work on eg. Community garden, film making,Silverton TV and the provision that as many staff as are available can take a group to work on a sustained project for a 2hr block with varying group sizes. This recognizes both students and teachers special talents and interests and is truly personalized learning! Another strategy that promotes collaboration is to remove teacher work spaces from the classrooms so no one, including the teacher owns an area.  Keeping staff work spaces together also promotes collaboration and sharing.
 
I left Silverton wishing I worked there and wishing all schools could be like this. All kids should get to go to a school like this. I will be telling everyone I know that works in education to visit and get ideas and inspiration.

I’m still enormously flat about the passing of Steve Jobs. He is a man I never met but who has had enormous impact on my work and the way that I spend my time.

I spent the first 48 hours after the news of his death, reading blogs, quotes, tributes and watching media clips online about his innovations and effect on others. Much of this was done in tears, which made me feel quite ridiculous for being so upset about the death of a stranger. Some people laughed at me for being so devastated and I’ve tried to work out why his passing has saddened me so.

Although he was a stranger to me as a man, Steve Jobs’ ideas and inventions became trusted friends and essential to my day to day existence, particularly as an educator. I’ve been a mac user for over twenty years and I still remember seeing the first Macintosh in action in an ICT Workshop as a training teacher and being excited by its possibilities to draw and construct things in a non linear sense. This series of workshops made such an impression on me that when I bought my first computer three years later to do additional study, only a mac would do.

Later, working at Melbourne Uni, I was surround by Mac-o-philes and started to understand more about its intuitive operating system, the ease of trouble shooting and the downright sexiness of its design. I remember a close colleague beckoning me to follow her upstairs and opening an office door that revealed a blood red iMac on a desk. I recall actually gasping at the bright see through plastic and curved shape. We touched it like it was a priceless work of art. I wanted one straight away…

With a mac, I learned to play with icons and fonts, experiment with layout and create digital materials on that caught the eye and appealed to the senses. None of these scientific, unappealing boring beige lumps of metal like those other computers.

A few years after that, I returned to the classroom and my brain exploded with the potential of ICT to engage kids in learning. I lapped it all up – slideshows, researching on the web, brainstorming with technology. My colleagues and I routinely communicated by email and shared documents and ideas. I attended conferences and saw inspiring and passionate educators in action using apple software to make a difference to kids learning. I threw myself into learning about iMovie and Final Cut Pro – they made such an impact on me. Soon, my students and I were eagerly storyboarding and creating short films, then we added our own music compositions using Garageband and ventured into Claymation. Firstly, with image streams of digital photos and later with iStopMotion. I was fortunate to have a brilliant technician and sounding-board work at my school – Steven Palmer. Discussions with him and other passionate educators sparked new ideas and applications and my brain was in overdrive with new ideas. Quality Digital Portfolios of student learning that embraced and integrated fantastic teaching and learning in a digital domain was possible. I couldn’t get enough and people flocked to our school to see what we were doing.  Seeing my first iPod led to practically jumping out of my seat at a New Zealand conference and racing back to school to beg the boss for extra money to buy some. My close colleague, Helen Otway and I nodding urgently at each other upon seeing the potential of a portable iSight camera and whispering excitedly about how we could capture student learning and reflection with this tool. Then the integration of iTunes, iPhoto, iWeb, iDVD. Pretty soon, the whole staff at my school were adding i as a prefix to anything we valued at work. iLunch, iPD, ihometime.

Then we made the big move from desktop machines to laptops – this was huge. Suddenly we could share technology between classrooms and be mobile. Kids loved working on the floor and the freedom of being free of cables. We got laptops in the upper school and within a year, had them in every classroom. The school purchased a bank of additional machines we could loan and suddenly we had 1:1 capability. The kids saw technology as essential to learning as breathing and were adept and highly proficient users. They taught themselves skills – presenting projects in Flash, Photoshop and animation form. My own laptop became my most prized possession. My life was on there! I went overseas and blogged about my experiences from Italy and Morocco. I shared digital photos of my travels with my students and I remember showing people in Morocco inside my classroom through the iPhoto library on my iPod. I came home and my students explored mosaics and tessellations through the photos I took and were stunned to see inside a classroom in Morocco. They realized how fortunate they were to have access to technology that lets them connect to the global community. I the lines blurred – technology had become an integral part of my life and work.

The iphone then brought about a new revelation. My smart phone was not only beautiful but enabled me to carry about my entire music and photo library, check email on the go, make calls and have information at my fingertips via the web. Access to Twitter meant that I could see what other people thought about a topic or event instantaneously. No matter where I was. I remember the excitement of attending my first conference were Twitter and smart phones added to the conversation. It was unbelievable to listen to a keynote lecture and converse/reflect electronically on the discussion with hundreds of other people at the same time. It just blew me away. At home, if I am watching a program that makes me think, I reach for my iphone and read/engage in a twitter discussion about it in real life. How our lives have changed. I can follow the footy score, get directions, check the rain radar and read the newspaper no matter where I am. And this is just the start. I get excited just writing about it.

I haven’t even mentioned the iPad, iCloud or a stack of other inventions. What Steve Jobs did was help make non-tecchies excited about technology. He made it beautiful and easy to use. He saw what was possible and allowed other people with ideas to use his tools to create and make fantastic things. He made the world a more connected place and he did it with style.

Like many, I found out about Steve’s death on an apple creation. I was doing some work on my laptop and stopped for a second to check The Age website for news. I was at first bewildered by the large photo of Steve Jobs and then devastated when I realized what the story was. My eyes welled up. I was so sad.

Reading online tributes, blogsm Twiitter comments and reading/seeing actual footage of Steve Jobs presentations just added to the sense of loss. He just got it.

Steve – I hope you know what a difference you made in this world. My life and work is all the richer for your contribution and vision. You will be greatly missed but your legacy will live on in all the creative and exciting things that will be possible with technology because of you. Thank-you and rest in peace.

This year I am coaching new graduate colleagues and helping them to improve their professional practice. I am finding it rewarding and challenging as I try to steer the coaching conversation so that the coachee can critically look back and reflect on their own teaching practise. It strikes me that the coaching relationship is very much about trust. The coachees are being brave and enthusiastic in their quest to learn and become better practitioners and we all know how tough it is to feel like you are being judged by someone you look up to. I have worked hard to be positive, non judgemental and supportive of my coachees. So far, we are all enjoying the experience.

I am working primarily off a coaching model I learnt at uLearn09 in Christchurch, NZ with three levels of coaching questions. I’m finding that its a different mentaility having to suspend judgement and subtly steer the pathway forward, instead helping the coachee to see it for themselves. Sometimes, I have found that I have had to question qround and around the issue until they dig deeply enough to see the crux of the problem for themselves.  I have also found that different interpretations or understanding of concepts or terminology can hinder improvement and create confusion. My solution for my most recent coaching dilemma is model a lesson for the coachee myself and strategically demonstrate the behaviours I feel need addressing. This way, the subsequent coaching conversation can be steered to focus on the differences between the two lessons and hopefully will highlight reasons for my “effective practise.” Now I just need to deliver a fabulous example. 🙂

I just returned from a lunch with a group of friends that raised an interesting issue for me. My friends work in ICT in the commercial and tertiary sectors and were commenting on the plethora of bad project managers out there working at the moment on complex projects in ICT. They were particularly frustrated by the way that the project manager acts as a “go-between” the client and the workers doing the actual grunt work. They cited problems akin to “chinese whispers” in disseminating information and communicating effectively.

It struck me as we were conversing that this is the role that many middle leaders in a school essentially find themselves taking on. They are the ones relaying feedback from teachers, parents and students to principals and upper leadership and vice versa. Instead of communicating directly with the people doing the work; teaching classes, implementing reform and improvements; middle leaders such as leading teachers end up in the role of relaying information up and down the chain.

This system falls down for several reasons:

  • It requires interpretation to pass a message on, meaning that important details and information can be overlooked, underplayed or missed in the process.
  • It isn’t time effective to have middle leadership effectively regurgitating information and passing it up and down the chain. In effect, this takes time and energy away from other worthwhile tasks, such as curriculum reform.
  • Often, people at the top are so far removed from the reality of everyday teacher that they have unrealistic ideas or have “forgotten” the complexities and day to day issues faced by active classroom teachers. Likewise, classroom teachers are not privy to the pressures and demands on upper leadership from the department and leadership, which causes a standoff as they have no clear means of communicating their frustrations and causes of stress to each other.
As a Leading Teacher, I grapple with these issues daily. In some ways, I find that being a middle leader teaches you as much about effective leadership as it does about ineffective practices. It helps you to clarify and identify practices that don’t work and to consider the ways that you would choose to lead differently. For me, this would mean streamlining the communication process and breaking down the hierarchical structures that most schools still operate within. Surely by enabling all levels of educators to talk more freely would aid in a common understanding, be more time efficient and allow for much greater focus on teaching and learning. And of course, that is really why we teach.

In two weeks my students sit the NAPLAN tests for the first time. NAPLAN Tests have been referred to as NAPALM by several other educators I know, which in some ways is quite apt. They do tend to “blow up” any focus on other aspects of the curriculum in the lead up period and leave you feeling devastated and rather flat as a teacher.

This year, I am teaching grade 3 and have to shepherd a class through the tests for the first time in about four years. It’s not a nostalgic concept to return to… Pressure and anxiety gets passed down the chain from DEECT -> Region -> PCO -> Leading teachers -> Classroom teachers – > students, with a concurrent stream bearing down from the media and parent community. It’s not a fun time. I hate the way that some educators espouse all these grandioise ideas of teaching the “whole child” and offering a “value added” curriculum but when it counts, its only successful literacy and numeracy data that effective teaching is judged upon. The hysteria is hard to avoid in the 6-8 weeks leading up to NAPLAN and I too, currently find myself getting worked up and anxious about the performance of my eight year old students. “Oh no, those weak struggling students are going to drag the whole cohort down!” “We haven’t got time for other special events and engaging activities because we need to prepare kids properly.” Then we get this flood of data coming in – your students are weak in space; spelling; inferential reading. They need to write persuasive text. Panic stations!!!

I wish that our politicians looked to Finland and the Netherlands and other high performing education systems that don’t administer this constant barrage of tests to raise standards. I wish I worked in a system that doesn’t seek uniformity and consistency and in doing so drive passion and creativity from the job. A system that sees more value in breadth and depth in learning than “right” and “wrong” answers to simplistic questions. One that acknowledges and respects individuality – in leaders, learners AND teachers. A schooling system that places a high value on applying and transferring knowledge to new contexts and respects teacher professionalism and judgement so much that they let us teach our students the best way that KNOW. Sometimes, I feel that we try to “hold people” back in this drive for consistency and high achievement on tests. I know I have seen passionate and individualistic educators “discouraged” for trying new things or straying from the chosen pathway in the relentless drive for high performance. Sigh…

Sorry for ranting and rambling.

There is an advertisement on TV for a PC at the moment, which asks viewers to “Imagine a education system that was different.”  The sad thing is that good teachers can imagine it – that’s not the crux of the problem. Unfortunately, they are mostly powerless to do much about it.

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