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.

[Note: I’m saying smartphones. Not Androids, not iPhones, not Windows phones. They all do the same stuff, with a few little differences here and there. Lets not narrow the focus to one particular brand. Although I kinda did that in my last post…]

As promised a few weeks ago, I’ve cobbled together a couple of ways in which smartphones are impacting assessment, sharing and communication around our neck of the woods (a primary school).

Check out my last post for the first half of the story – smartphone apps that can help keep teachers organised, connected, up-to-date, and sane.

But now, here are some of the ways smartphones are changing up the game.

Assessment

We all have to do standardised tests and OTJs, and I think by now we all realise that this just isn’t enough. It’s a narrow view of learning in a mucky system fraught with inconsistencies. I’m not saying they are useless – they have their place – I’m just saying traditional tests and government mandated judgments should not be the be-all-and-end-all.

Assessment needs to be holistic. We need to value competency based achievement and personal growth right alongside traditional academic achievement, on an equal footing.

Smartphones can facilitate the collection of both! Hoorah!

We can snap a picture of a piece of writing, or take a video of a child reading a story fluently, or explaining how they worked out a maths problem and use that as evidence that a child has met certain learning indicators. Use this evidence (along with other evidence – observations, traditional assessment etc.) to triangulate learning goals and next steps.

We can also collect evidence of participation and contribution in a game of tag at lunchtime, relating to others on the soccer pitch on a Sunday morning, collaboration skills during an inquiry, or responsibility and self-direction when working on personal goals.

Capturing team-work and participation                                              Capturing evidence of maths learning

Having a smartphone in your pocket and a quick trigger finger can validate and celebrate a wide range of learning.

It lets you record the hundreds of tiny snapshots, the highs and lows, the triumphs and tribulations of regular school life that whizz past a teacher every day.

Sharing

But then you need to do something with the collected evidence of learning right?

Photos, videos, and audio can be put into an e-Portfolio: a living scrapbook of a child’s development across a wide range of learning areas. Media can also be put onto blogs and shared with parents, often minutes after it was captured. We have a weekly ‘Top Shots’ slideshow we put on our school blog every week filled with the week’s highlights, for example.

                       Capturing collaboration and tenacity                                   Capturing ability to sort and report information

This has been a big hit with whanau. It’s a window into school life, and can pull parents into the fabric of life at school, creating a closer home/school link – a central determiner of a child’s success and happiness.

This has been especially powerful on camp recently too, with teachers reporting live from the field and posting to the blog. Parents have commented that these posts have been reassuring and entertaining, and many have been checking multiple times throughout the day.

                   Capturing responsibility and trust                                     Capturing self-direction and basic facts recall

Communication / Translation

I talked a little bit about this in a previous post, but having quick access to a translation app has been so beneficial to the ESOL learners in our hub. Harder technical words can be translated into the native tongue, so kids can really get a grip on what and why they are learning.

So, there are a couple of ways smartphones can be utilised inside and outside of classrooms. They help you to:

  • stay organised, connected, and enjoy PD in your pajamas 
  • collect, asses, and share a wide range of rich learning evidence. 

tl;dr

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

I can’t remember who said it, possibly Dan Meyer (edit: Ewan McIntosh), but it made a lot of sense.

Why is the central task in a lot of mathematical activities the computation of numbers? It’s important to get the basics, for sure, but are we spending too much time in the later years of primary school (and up) on computation? Is the computation of numbers by hand really a skill integral to living well in the 21st century?

A fascinating part of maths, an exploratory, playful, more authentic part of maths is when we don’t have the full story or all the data at hand – when we need to delve into the problem deeper, and ask the right questions to extract the right information. Then compute.

Problem Posing, THEN Problem Solving. Take one step back from the problem. Remove the numbers, the key data in a rich word problem, and leave the bones. The kids’ task is to read the supplied question, formulate their own questions they think will get them the information they need to solve the problem, get the data they require, then go and solve it.

Instead of:

“Martha’s Bakery makes three types of bread each day – 120 white, 80 multigrain and 90 Vienna.  How many loaves of bread are made each day?”

Why not:

“Martha’s Bakery makes three types of bread – white, multigrain and Vienna.  How many loaves of bread are made each day?”

It’s an interesting, engaging aspect of maths. It’s inquiry based, contextual, social and fun. In all my numerous three terms as a teacher, I’ve never seen such engagement – and to have that in maths! Awesome.

Problem Posing:

  • Encourages mathematical curiosity and investigation
  • Is highly engaging and fun
  • Is authentic – when are you given all the information you need to solve a problem from the get-go in real life?
  • Is collaborative and social – kids work with each other, discussing, building upon each others ideas
  • Is challenging at different levels
  • Can be reactive to student needs – if you notice kids have gaps in place value knowledge or strategies for example, make your session based on place value
  • Provides a forum to practice key mathematical skills, and develop number knowledge.

We’ve been doing this for a few terms now at Amesbury School, and have refined the process somewhat.

Planning and Implementing a Problem Posing Session

At our planning meetings, a mathematical focus is decided upon for next week’s Problem Posing (for example, place value). These typically change week-by-week depending on where we feel the kids’ needs are at.

The teacher tasked with planning Problem Posing (we rotate) decides upon a context – one which could be the “flavour of the week”, or related to our inquiry, a current event, or one which is just plain fun. Some which have cropped up are: One Direction, the Olympics, camp, Minecraft, medieval warfare etc.

The teacher plans four or five questions over the weekend. The complexity of the questions increase. The teacher also plans a hook – a photo or video or song which we quickly show and discuss at the start of a Problem Posing session to get things cranking. The teacher also plans the groups (usually of three or four kids each, multi-leveled Year 4 – 6) or plans a cool way in which to put the kids into groups randomly.

The teacher writes two documents: one for the students, containing the core questions (which we cut up into strips), and the other for the teachers containing the core questions, the particular questions the kids should be asking you, and the right information – the answers, which we supply them with if they have asked the right question.

On the day (excitement is building!), the teacher prints out copies of the core questions, cuts them up, and puts them in four or five numbered envelopes. The teacher copies are handed out to teachers so they know what questions they will expect and the answers they should be giving.

We hook them in with some exciting or thought provoking media, they get into groups, we hand them the first question, then step back and watch the magic happen. Kids are constantly mobbing teachers with questions, discussing between themselves, scratching down numbers and strategies furiously, all coming at it from different angles.

Expect frustration, persistence, thinking deeply and widely, Aha! moments, excitement. It’ll get louder and more chaotic in the room.

Once a group has come to a final answer to their core question, they proceed to the next question up. I like to announce the step up as a loud “LEVEL THREE, UNLOCKED” or another kind of ridiculous announcement. The kids utter whoops of joy and satisfaction, then speed off to open the next envelope and reveal their next problem.

Problem Posing Plans

I’m going to post all of our Problem Posing lesson plans eventually, but for now, here are a few links to some of our more successful sessions over the last couple of terms.

Farmerama PP (Mult, with a little Div) by Matt (me! @hunch_box)
Olympic PP (measurement) by Urs (@urscunningham)
Minecraft PP (subtraction) by Tara (@taratj)
Feel free to use these, or adapt them to your own needs / contexts. They could also give you ideas to come up with your own.
Go forth and Problem Pose!
tl:dr Take the data out of rich mathematical tasks. As Dan Meyer says: “Be less helpful”. Have the kids pose questions to ask you – if they are right, they reveal the data needed to solve the problem. Give them a hook and an interesting context to spice things up.