Warning, what follows is a self-indulgent reflective blog post. Reader beware!

2012: My first year of teaching.

2012: Amesbury School’s first year open.

Obligatory Amesbury School / community panorama
Having these two run concurrently has been a winding road of a journey; sudden swerves, long straights, gradual curves, ups and downs, speed bumps (wow I got more mileage out of that metaphor than I thought…).

These two “firsts” have also shared a symbiotic relationship. Each has strengthened the other.

  • As I was finding my feet as a teacher, Amesbury was finding it’s feet as a school.
  • I wasn’t slotting into a team, I was a founding member of the team.
  • I didn’t just have new kids, everyone had new kids.
  • I didn’t just not know the expectations and norms in the beginning, everyone didn’t.
  • I was learning how to teach and learn in an environment where experienced teachers were rethinking what teaching and learning means to them.
  • I didn’t just not know where the tea towels were kept, everyone didn’t.

It has been an incredibly full year. Here are some highlights!

Team Teaching
During my first few months (and throughout the year), Tara, Urs and Carolyn were my safety net. They were incredibly supportive, inclusive and actually listened to my hair-ball, mostly lame ideas. Team teaching for a BT is awesome – you are in a constant state of observing, while also being observed by others. You learn from osmosis. You are an edu-magpie and gather the best, shiny bits of teaching from all around you and bundle them up and mould them with your own way to create something even better. A+++++++ Highly Recommended for BTs.

PBL / Ignite Projects / Impact Projects
I wrote about these in a previous post, but they are indeed a highlight. We had our Year 6 leaver’s dinner last night and most of them spoke about how much they enjoyed them. Passion based, collaborative, exploratory, real-world, community-focused. Hard work for teachers, but amazing, wide, authentic learning.

Increasing Nerdyness
I was always a bit of a nerd-burglar, but this year has really given me the opportunity to embrace my nerdist tendencies. I discovered Twitter as a rich, endlessly informative tool for communication, collaboration and PD. RSS readers, movie making, blogging, Apple, PC, Android, tablets, embedding, sharing, Google, tech problem solving. I’ve grown a passion for using technology smartly in the classroom; to enhance real learning, not as a token gesture, mindless brand devotion, or as a slave to the next new thing. Being a nerd is not a negative thing these days – get amongst!

Finding out we need to talk less
It kind of clicked about halfway through the year. Kids can zone out pretty quickly. We absolutely need to keep things short and snappy. Mix things up, keep it diverse, keep it interesting, keep it fun. The last thing they need or want is for a teacher to warble on in front of them for anything longer than ten minutes. A highlight of this year was discovering my new mantra: “keep it snappy”.

Expectations
Another discovery (which should have been obvious to me, but nope, I’m slow) was “getting” that kids need constant reminders there are expectations for their behaviour. How should they know what is expected of them if we don’t let them know? I’ve found a wee reminder here and there, especially before times we know will become looser, does wonders. At the start, these were longer, but as they have sunk in we need to have these little chats less and less.

Developing Relationships
With teachers, parents, kids. I’ve met some wonderful people, both young and old. I’ve laughed every single day with them, which to me, makes Amesbury School a pretty great place to spend my days. The Amesbury community is supportive, friendly, and forward-thinking. Good bunch of peeps.

These are a few of the many highlights of the year, and just quickly, here are a few more:
Friday morning tea, Ignition 2012, @taratj teaching me iMovie / twitter / tizmos / Google sites and blogger / minimally invasive education / Sugata Mitra / how to relax and not take things too seriously, sunny days on the staff-room balcony, our official opening, camps, Christmas cards, quiet kids finding their voice, PRT days spent on beanbags in the library (right now as I’m typing!)…

The 2012 Harakeke Hub crew

Contributions

Lisa (my mentor teacher) wanted me to write a little on what I think my contributions to school life has been this year.

In no particular order:
IT skills and using cool new web-based thingys, contributing to positive and friendly relationships, the ability to deal with left-over food, putting smartphones in teacher’s hands, enthusiasm, sharing our learning with others – especially on blogs, organisation, contribution to an epic and innovative learning programme for our kids, laughs, supporting others, contribution to the growth of a strong guitar / music culture.

2013

A PRT day only every two weeks? How will I ever cope! When can I write my long-winded reflections?

I’ve got a couple of possible goals and areas of focus for next year:

WRITING:
Do kids love writing? Do they see themselves as writers? How can we make writing cooler?

E-PORTFOLIOS:
Set-up of individual student e-portfolios. Have students (and parents and teachers) collect evidence of their learning goals and more holistic learning (key competencies).

BLOGS:
Set-up of individual student blogs. Quad-blogging. Networking. Worldwide focus.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION:
I want to work on my ability to sort out arguments. I tend to be quite blunt and just tell kids to get over it. I need to learn more tact, and how to get to the core of the problem through effective questioning.

IGNITE PROJECTS:
Our PBL. This won’t be happening all year, but when it does, I want to refine the system, keep moving it forward, and encourage greater positive impact on the community.

TE REO:
I want to keep working on my Te Reo, learn my mihi off by heart, and make Te Reo a more natural part of everyday school life.

Here’s to more messy, student-centered, creative learning in 2013

_________________________________________________________________________________

So there we have it.

It’s been a fun-filled, mind-blowing, weekend-chomping, thought-provoking year. I can barely remember what I was like last year, but am pretty sure the guy sifting around Palmy doing his Grad Dip Teaching degree would not recognise the fellow in front of him today.

Here’s to another year of pushing the boundaries, personal growth, new friendships, and new learning.
tl;dr Had an epic year. Ready for more of the same next year.

Late last term we decided to embark upon a bit of a pilot programme. Our goal was for the children to have a snippet of regular time each week to explore their passions and interests in a purposeful, autonomous way. We started with the idea of “Explore Time” but it soon became clear that we were so enamoured with the Impact Project model we saw at Albany Senior High School earlier in the year at Ignition, we just had to give it a crack.

PBL: Problem Based Learning. I like to think of it as Passion Based Learning.

“your chance to follow and explore your passions in an authentic project that makes a positive contribution to our community.” – ASHS/curriculum/ImpactProjects

Luckily, ASHS has a fair bit of documentation online which I perused during the holidays. I also checked out a few other PBL resources, read ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink, and managed to pull together a framework for what it might look like for us at Amesbury School. We ended up calling them Ignite Projects. What follows is a look at what we did, what lessons we learned, the challenges and successes, as well as next steps for the future.

What Went Down

Our first few sessions were dedicated to explaining the process as best we could (having not done it before). Here is what I came up with as a road-map for the process: Ignite Project Sequence.

I printed all these steps, shuffled them up, handed them out and then had the children put them on a continuum of where along the line they thought they may need to “do” these things. It churned out some good discussion and as an introduction, I think it gave the children a fair idea of what they were about to get amongst.
Albany Senior High School Impact Project Cycle
The next step was brainstorming interests. We encouraged the children to think widely and deeply about their interests. More often than not though, it was the first idea they hit on which was selected. Some of the topics included: Minecraft video walkthroughs, netball and rugby skills videos and blogs, designing a multi-cultural fashion line, volcano warning information, conservation of endangered animals, a Rome: Total War club, robot making, designing and creating reusable supermarket bags, creating a healthy cookbook, starting a dance tutorial blog, and holding an “Amesbury’s Got Talent” show.

They then got into self-selected groups based on similar interests (some went alone, others between two or three), and began to plan a road-map. This came in the form of a written proposal which they had to submit to teachers for approval. Here is a link to the doc. Within this, they had to propose an intended outcome – a real thing; a website, event, video, book, or presentation they thought might be the end-point of their project. They also had to justify their choice via explaining how their project will have a positive impact on the community (local, national, international). This was a bit of a stretch for some, and in the end, we were happy with outcomes which indicated they had increased their own knowledge of a subject (with a view to sharing it with their peers in the concluding workshops).

Writing their proposal took a few sessions – we plugged editing and re-crafting as the piece was for an authentic audience, and needed to be perfect. We publicised that if their proposal was not well thought out, didn’t make sense or had errors, it was likely to be denied – just like in the real world. This actually ratcheted up the tension quite a lot, and the announcement of successful proposals was quite an event.

We allocated the groups with advisers, and then let them loose.

What followed was (to date) six weeks (of an hour, three times a week) of messy, engaging, loud, authentic, autonomous-ish, epically awesome learning. The children were so engaged they often worked through lunch time, and at home in the evenings and weekends. For a bunch of Year 4 to 6 children, this was a sight to behold.

I can’t say it was always easy though. It was often teaching in the moment (the best kind!), juggling multiple groups and personalities, guiding and suggesting, being pulled in a hundred different directions at once. It took a lot of energy, and often left us feeling drained and wondering if it was worth it after each session.

Other times though, we could stand in the middle of our hub and have no one hit us up for the bulk of the session. And this was when the magic happened. This was when the children entered a “flow” state – where the task was on that razors edge between challenging and interesting. Where motivation and engagement was king and children were in the zone.

We’re now drawing to the end of this period – the kids are starting to wind up; hold talent shows, sew bags and clothing, post videos, make visits, cook food, and blog. It’s also a time for children whose goals were achievable-but-not-achieved to reflect on time management, collaborative skills, and their ability to show initiative and be self-directed.

Design, create, impact.

What we learned

  • Groupings: we divided the groups evenly between three of us, but in hindsight, we could have used what we are now calling Trust Groups. Children who have proven themselves able to sustain and self-direct their learning are given more autonomy. High trust groups need less supervision, low trust groups need more targeted support. Give advisers allocated with low trust groups less groups, and advisers allocated with high trust groups more groups. **Note, this notion of “Trust” is simply trust in terms of ability to have a high level of self-direction and initiative in autonomous work – it’s a bit emotive, so may not be the best language to use.
  • Planning: we were quite loose with encouraging planning, which could have been tighter. Next time we could use a calendar or diary, or a to-do list chart with columns for to-do, doing, and done (with post-it notes) to help structure time-management a little more.
  • Evidence of learning: next time, we will encourage mini-reflections, perhaps on a weekly basis as well as have children collect their own evidence of learning (literacy, numeracy etc. as well as key competency based development). This will sit hand in hand with recording the development of their project, and would be perfectly suited for an ePortfolio.
  • Preparation: children need to select interesting AND sustainable topics – topics which are broad enough to keep them going and which won’t putter out due to lack of steam. This needs to be clearly communicated to children in the first few sessions.
  • Sharing: Spending five minutes at the start of each session as a whole group sharing some of the ups and downs, challenges and success of what has been happening during the sessions could be extremely beneficial. Children are often curious about what others are doing, and discussions about each others’ projects can often spark ideas or motivate others.
  • End-game: our Term 4 is shaping up to get incredibly busy very soon, so it’s not looking like we are going to be able to get to the workshop phase of the process. I had envisioned a barcamp style day of workshops and sharing which would mark the end-point of projects. Prep and organisation of this takes time, so we need to be more aware of our own time-management for next year.

PBL takes time to really get cranking though. According to this post, it takes three years for things to “click”. We made a start though, and learned a swag-load about the process along the way. It’s all about iteration, reflecting and learning and understanding things may not be perfect the first time, and to not give up and keep moving forward.

I know there are probably lots of ya’ll out there doing PBLish stuff – what has your experience been? How can we make the process more functional and meaningful for children in the earlier years? Let’s start a dialogue and share our experiences!

TL;DR We tackled passion based interest projects with the aim of positive outcomes for the community. It was tough at times, but awesome. We (children, teachers, whanau, stakeholders) learned so much, and are excited for the next iteration.

More information via ASHS: Impact Projects: Igniting Passions