I’ve been dabbling with digital badges in my literacy sessions for the last two weeks. I made up a bunch of interesting badges on Credly such as ‘Feedbacker’ for asking others for feedback, ‘Thesaurus Rex’ for upgrading words with a thesaurus, ‘Curious George’ for asking a great question or wondering about something, ‘Plan(et)’ for having a full and well thought out plan, as well as one week only badges related to the writing of the week. Students then insert the badges they earn into their ePortfolios.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • They are motivating for almost all of my (most especially my) reluctant writers. I’ve gotten writing this week which was more carefully edited, more thoughtfully constructed, and in which more time was spent on, than what I was getting previously.
  • They provide a checklist of things to remember in the writing process. Planning – editing – feedback (both giving and receiving) + holding your ideas lightly and being curious. In the hubub of getting a draft out and delivered, these things can be put to the side. Badges provide a visual prompt and motivation to make sure to do these things independently.
  • They provide a talking point and buzz. They are conversation starters with parents and friends and prompts into talking about the writing process.
  • They can be reflective prompts. “So you got the planning badge – what happened with the editing? What can we do differently next time to meet the requirements of the badge?”
  • They appeal to the hoarders and collectors. Students are watching their badge page fill with badges as they achieve them each week – it’s a visual sign they are achieving those particular elements of writing.

But where does the line end? How long should I keep this up? I’m painfully aware that extrinsic motivation / external awards (as Mr Dan Pink explains) are not particularly helpful in the long run. Am I building a reliance on these badges? Am I only able to get decent writing if there is a reward at the end?

On the other hand – these students are now more regularly displaying characteristics of good writers.

Perhaps these badges are the ‘training wheels’ needed to build up the routines and habits around the writing process – much like this #28daysofwriting gig. At some stage the training wheels go, but only when they are ready and have built the confidence and expertise needed. Perhaps it is a just a Term 1 thing? At the moment, I’m happy with how things are going, but keeping an eye to the future when we move past badges into more intrinsic motivations for writing.

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There are a few traditional staples which spring to mind when you think of Author’s Purpose – to persuade, to inform, to describe, to entertain. They do indeed intermingle and intertwine almost always, but they are there, and they are handy when breaking down a text or writing your own. They’re more than handy, actually. Figuring out the purpose of a communication can reveal it’s intended audience, explain language and structure, and empowers an author to make their own informed, purposeful choices from these elements.

A completely valid purpose which you don’t see very often, though, is … to think.

You can conceive of this in a few different ways. The first of which is in the more poetic, expressive sense of the word. Many people author something to make sense of how they are feeling – to think through their emotions. Some people write to get all their thoughts out of their head, and to be able to think more clearly. For some, grappling with this process of scribing your thoughts and bringing them into reality can enable you to stumble upon meaning, to come to terms, and to get closer to truths. Your purpose for writing is to provide the conditions for which this kind of thinking provides fertile ground to emerge from.

The other side of the “To Think” purpose for writing is related, but slightly different. You can write to make sense of complex ideas and to find connections, new avenues of thought and inspirations where there were previously none. Many writers would do this at the start of the writing process – scribbling down their half-brewed thoughts, potential plot lines and themes.

An example from myself – I spent the summer holidays immersed in a some key educational books, blog posts, and research papers. To make sense of all this input, I needed to output. So I wrote down all the little chunks of knowledge and thoughts which resonated with me on Post-It notes and stuck them to a wall in my house. I was writing to enable thinking. I could then see the big picture of all the bits I was learning and from there, start to find patterns and goals and clusters of similar and dissimilar pieces of the puzzle. I arranged and rearranged my Post-It notes as I synthesised my thoughts, combining ideas and extending others. Eventually it lead me to some professional goals and areas of focus for me as I entered Term 1, 2015.

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This kind of writing is done best in a form which is easy to move around or change – hence the use of Post-It notes but also whiteboards, blackboards etc. It speaks to the fact that thinking is not set, it’s in the process of being discovered, so you will need to erase and go over and scribble and change. It’s tentative writing. Writing straight into a document on a screen makes you write a certain way, confined by the boundaries of the screen, the linear lines, and the quirks of the particular programme. It doesn’t particularly lend itself to highly-flexible, visible, moveable, collaborative types of thinking and writing.

A few other examples of writing “To Think”:

  • Planning of any kind (like planning an assignment)
  • Annotating and marking up some text
  • Writing a To Do list or reminders
  • Brainstorming
  • Collating information when the links are yet unclear
  • An ideas wallet and bug list
  • Our weekly timetable at school, before it is finalised

Empowering students with the language and ways of doing that this term suggests, opens up a range of interesting avenues. Is writing to think something you can get better at? Does it happen at certain stages of the writing / creative process? How might it be woven into other parts of school / home life? How can this kind of writing and thinking boost serendipitous and innovative outcomes?

Whiplash is a newly released, critically acclaimed (8.6/10 IMDB, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 88% Metacritic) movie doing the rounds. It’s about a young drummer named Andrew attending the cut-throat Chaffer School of Music – the top music school in the US – and being absolutely hammered by his teacher, Fletcher. I mean outright, no-holds-barred, verbal (sometimes leading to self-inflicted physical) abuse. He’s a tough, tough teacher. This is Fletcher to Andrew in one of his tamer moments, after a practice set in which Andrew is out of time by milliseconds:

“Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl!”

Fletcher constantly pushes Andrew to (and over) breaking point in his pursuit of the tightest, most perfect band. He shouts and yells and tricks and schemes to put Andrew in the most challenging of places to see if he survives. It’s a trial-by-fire for Andrew, whose hands bleed with effort and brow beads with sweat.

As I watched the movie I was torn: Fletcher was a horrible, horrible person – abusing and stressing and shouting, but at the same time, he was pushing Andrew to heights he could have never reached otherwise. Andrew was working so hard, practising so much and had so much expectation heaped on him that his potential was unleashed – he became a drummer only one could dream of being. Andrew made it – but only because of the savage approach that Fletcher took.

Fletcher wasn’t his friend.

He wasn’t there to molly-coddle.

He was there “to push people beyond what’s expected of them”

Here is Fletcher explaining his approach, later in the movie:

“I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Chaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”

This raises the question – was Fletcher an effective teacher?

Effective? Definitely. Good? Probably not.

Where is that fine line between pushing a student to their potential and being a utter tyrant lie?

In my experience there is a sweet spot that Fletcher goes too far over, a “Goldilocks” spot where the learning, feedback, and relationship is “not too hot and not too cold” – where high expectations are balanced with care and respect.

It’s an interesting thought though – if it took you, as a teacher, to be a utter tyrant, to push a student to their true potential, would you do it?

Me and Mike - a fellow BT enjoying the camaraderie.

2015 is my fourth year as a proper, qualified teacher and it’s been one heck of a journey. Compounding this is the fact that I was lucky enough to be a foundation staff member at a brand new school, so right from the very start I was born and raised in a fundamentally open and collaborative environment. I’ve never taught in a single-cell classroom. I’ve never not had visitors walk through constantly. I’ve never not had massive collaborative meetings. I’ve never not had other teachers swirling and bubbling and teaching around me, day in and day out.

We team teach at our place. To explain this a bit more, we have large, open plan teaching and learning spaces. Our “hub” (combined learning space) is ratio’d for 100 students and four teachers. As a four person teaching team we work very closely to squeeze every last benefit out of the fact we team teach – increased flexibility, efficiencies in planning, sociability, role modelling effective (mostly!) relationships, a wider range of personalities and skills students can latch on to, diversity of opinion and ideas, teachers “on roam” supervising self-directed learning while some are in workshops… the list goes on.

As a beginning teacher, team teaching was a phenomenally supportive, safe entry into the world of education. From Day One, I was surrounded by experienced, amazing teachers and because of the open plan learning environment, I was able to observe them working their magic seamlessly and naturally. I learned by osmosis. I learned alongside, much like a apprenticeship.

So I was in a constant state of observing other teachers but also being observed myself. This enabled me to get feedback on every aspect of my teaching – sometimes formally but mostly in the chats and questions and comments which happen all the time when team teaching. I was able to get comments on my planning, able to discuss students at a fine grained detail, able to be supported in tricky meetings. We even found that the traditional PRT mentor role was not really needed – it all just happened as a natural part of the team.

Any downsides? Perhaps. I guess when you are in your own classroom you need to do all the jobs a teacher normally does. In a team teaching environment, it’s easy to share out jobs. What I mean by this is that in some cases, I was “late to the party” learning how to do certain types of assessment, or the planning of events, or the coordination of groups. I’ve never had to deal with a reliever because we just cover ourselves. We’re getting better at this though – about making sure BTs get the same amount of responsibility and chance at a range of jobs. It just takes an awareness of this aspect of team teaching and you can sort it out.

So I can honestly say team teaching as a beginning teacher was a fabulous, rich experience. It nullified a lot of the pain points of just starting in your own single cell classroom and amplified many of the positive benefits of an apprenticeship-type model of learning.

For any schools thinking about embarking on a team teaching adventure – hire a BT! It’s the best start they could possibly get.

***A big shoutout to Urs, Tara TJ, Lisa, Andrea, Ang, Amaria, Demelza, Mike and all the other amazing teachers I’ve had the benefit of learning from. You guys rock!

Friday Takeaways – Kiwi’s love ’em. In this post, I look back at my week and reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly and see which learnings I can take from this week into the next.

As the first week back at school this week, I was excited to introduce a few new experiments I’d be scheming up over the holidays. One such scheme was the introduction of ePortfolios and digital badges into our inquiry / reading / writing mix. This was based upon a professional goal I have currently – “How might we authentically value a broader range of outcomes on a day-to-day basis”. Digital badges offer a compelling way to do this as you can create badges for a wide range of outcomes such as curiosity, challenge, collaboration, feedback… as well as the more academic, content focused outcomes (grammar, punctuation, spelling etc). It enables you to place value on the range of dispositions, knowledge and skills which comprise a holistic, future-ready education.

I also figured that unless there is somewhere to show these badges off (to family and friends) then they would not be as motivating. Enter the ePortfolio, where they can pop their badges and their learning into for the term, as well as customise a fun home page with a selfie, bio, and anything else they wanted.

At the start of the week I introduced which badges were up for grabs – some were one-offs (like a badge called “The Chef” – we were writing “learning recipes“) others will be available each week (feedback, editing, curiosity badges etc). The students didn’t seem too fussed on the whole idea on Monday, but by yesterday as the deadline for the writing (and hence, badge acquisition) approached, the whole badge thing really ramped up. The students did want to earn them – there was a buzz in the air as they finished their drafts and moved onto the badge earning. From my anecdotal observations, there was indeed a higher rater of work completion, more effort put towards giving each other feedback, and more careful editing. What was especially great to see was my more reluctant writers talking about their writing together and really putting in a fantastic effort to get through the tasks.

What also worked particularly well was that we were learning about good learning this week – what were the qualities and dispositions of good learners. I printed out the badges and stuck them on the wall and we were able to make direct links between what we were learning about and the badges, for example, we learned that good learners are open to feedback – look, we have a feedback badge! Good learners are reflective – look, the Mirror Mirror badge!

My workflow with the badges is that this weekend as I’m going through their writing and providing feedback (in Google Classroom) I’ll leave comments saying which badges they have earned. On Monday, they’ll go into their writing and look at the feedback and make changes, see which badges they’ve earned, then go to our shared Google Drive folder where the badge .jpg files are, copy them into their own Drive, then insert them into their Google Site ePortfolio I pushed out to them all using siteMaestro. Phew!

As a note – I designed the badges in Credly then just took a screenshot of them. It seemed the easiest way to get them into the hands of the kids the quickest.

 

So, my Friday Takeaways:

– Continue with digital badges as they seem to be quite motivating

– Develop more badges for Thinking Skills and award these during the week

– Think about badges in other contexts

– Read more about gamification – I don’t want to develop a reliance on extrinsic motivations such as these