Learning from “The Dot”

I love this story. I hadn’t seen it before and it immediately struck me as a great encouragement to teachers. How do we manage the “little” moments that present themselves. It struck me that;

  • The teacher has this conversation “after class”.
  • The teacher asks Vashti to “own” her work by signing it.
  • The work is privileged for what the student is able to achieve “at the moment”.
  • Vashti mis-reads the teacher’s cues … is this from her experience with other teachers (e.g. Vashti’s reaction to “Polar bear in snow storm).
  • Vashti’s teacher invested in her “after class” – by framing the first picture.
  • Vashti had resources at her disposal to “explore” (her “never before opened paint box”)
  • Reflection is CRUCIAL to the next step of learning … AND teaching.
  • Most of Vashti’s learning happens without the teacher; her teacher is merely the CATALYST.
  • This teacher only has Vashti once a week. ūüôā
  • The school “Art Show” … an opportunity for an authentic AUDIENCE.
  • Vashti honours her experience (and her teacher) by mentoring another.


Professional Learning Communities, STAR Teachers and the Road Ahead – Part 1

‚ÄúWhat initiatives in our professional learning will bring about positive change in student learning?‚ÄĚ

The idea of developing collaborative structures amongst teachers within learning communities is a key concept that is echoed throughout a lot of my current reading and experiences in education. Whilst the attributes of a learning community are widely explored and indicators defined; achievement of these ideals is by no means an easy feat.

Hurdles to change in school culture and the development of successful learning communities are plentiful, especially in the mid to long-term. For leaders who desire to move student performance forward either on a school, district, state or federal level; these barriers can be multi-faceted and are frequently well ingrained into the teaching fraternity psyche.

Macro-political influences from both state and federal levels often set the short to mid-term educational agendas for schools. The impacts of these multiple and consistent waves of change are felt for many years by educational professionals. Any fresh initiatives at the school leadership level to bolster performance may be met with some degree of scepticism.

There is a tendency for teachers to demonstrate a lack of faith in educational reform. For many, corporate memory of historical changes that were perceived to have little return for huge personal or departmental investment are coupled with disillusionment, that commitment to these initiatives are not sustained by governments (or school leadership) over the longer-term. The evolution of the Australian Curriculum saw a marginalisation of the work, by many, in the implementation of the Western Australian Curriculum Framework and some teachers are saddened by its impending demise (despite the benefits of the changes). In this climate, learning communities can be more resistant to embrace initiatives for mandated change, or worse, approach changes with a cynical caution.

After reading the work of Haberman in ‚ÄėStar Teachers‚Äô, I felt empowered to sell my long-standing opposition to the belief that it is the responsibility of ‚Äėlearners to learn‚Äô, not ‚Äėteachers to teach‚Äô. Unfortunately, I believe that this mentality, (i.e. the ‚Äúyou can lead a horse to water‚ÄĚ mentality) is rife amongst many educators and is a real barrier to teachers seeking opportunities to improve in some areas of their practice. Whilst teachers show a commitment to growing in the functional aspects of their profession (e.g. development of content, processes and procedures, marking etc.) they are less inclined to take responsibility for student learning.

According to the Haberman‚Äôs view of STAR TEACHERS, ‚ÄúStars view themselves as successful professionals rescuing students ‚Ķ see themselves as teachers of children as well as of content‚Ķ they accepted accountability for student achievement ‚Ķ did not blame students for not learning ‚Ķ and defined their roles in terms of ‚Äúwhatever it takes‚Ä̂Ķ‚ÄĚ

If ever the question of, ‚ÄėWho is responsible for student learning?‚Äô was more important, it is most certainly now. In Melbourne, a 15-year-old male student ‚Äú‚Ķ is suing the Victorian Education Department and the State Government for failing to teach him literacy and numeracy‚ÄĚ

I was recently honoured to have an ECU practice student join me for a week‚Äôs observation and she will join me for another four weeks in June. It soon became clear that this young lady had a great deal of natural panache and I asked her to take a class on her final day. She did a wonderful job and I was pleased to sit down with her for 20 minutes afterwards to highlight her outstanding points and deal reflectively with a couple of the ‚Äėbumpy moments‚Äô in her lesson. I provided four pages of hand-written notes as a form of affirmation and evaluation.

I doubt there would be many teachers who did not commence their teaching in a similar manner. The role of mentorship has to be a natural, less formalised form of professional appraisal and an ongoing habit of departmental (and inter-departmental) discourse. Lack of robust discussion and inter-teacher feedback (i.e. for the years BEYOND our practicum or first year of teaching) can lead to a culture of isolationism in teacher practice.

In high school settings, there is prized value in developing the departmental learning community and the powerful effect this can have in dispersing isolationist practices.¬†Some argue that departments methodologies should¬†promote, shared values,¬†de-privatised practices and reflective dialogue –¬† others see these tools as a ‚Äúsofter approach‚ÄĚ; instead, preferring to ramp up departmental function and policy into a system of rules, agreements and goals regarding teaching and instruction – obtaining data on student performance, which in turn serves as a feedback mechanism for improving teaching and learning.

I am genuinely delighted to see a call for this kind of rigour. Working with co-professionals from an agreed platform which clearly stipulates the process for improvement in teaching and learning objectives. Policy that ‚Äėbuilds in‚Äô teacher accountability, (e.g. turn around on marking, holistic student review, consensus process and delivery strategies, co-observational expectations) and are not driven by a ‚Äėback-scratching‚Äô mentality of endorsing one another‚Äôs mediocre practice.

The Gratton Institute (see my earlier post – http://wateacherslounge.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/the-report-every-politician-and-principal-should-read/)¬†¬†endeavours to remind educational leaders and decision-makers ‚Äúthat teacher effectiveness is the most significant influence on student outcomes‚ÄĚ. Jenson investigates the factors that influence student performance and writes; ‚ÄúAn increase in teacher effectiveness of 10% would lift Australia‚Äôs education systems into the highest performing group of countries in the world‚Ķ Each grade needs to incorporate 5% of a year‚Äôs worth of learning for our students to be amongst the best in the world.‚ÄĚ The report campaigns for more government investment in teacher training and utilises internationally recognised testing such as PISA, PIRLS¬†and TIMMS to lament Australia‚Äôs eighth placing in international rankings. It determines that ‚Äú‚Ķ moderate changes to teacher effectiveness have a significant long-term effect.‚ÄĚ

It is hard not to see the logic of his (Jenson‚Äôs) argument and his passionate representation for teachers to be provided with constructive criticism on their ongoing teaching practice as a means of gauging progress and effectiveness over time. ‚ÄúAll teachers need to have effective evaluation that identifies their strengths and weaknesses and feeds into individualised development plans.‚ÄĚ

Investment in the professional development of staff is an imperative that can’t be ignored in the evolution of learning communities. With an expected surge in school-age children in WA next decade of more than 140,000 students … and an estimated 312 new schools, coupled with a predicted 30% exodus of teachers and administrators in both Primary and Secondary due to retirement over the next five years; initiatives to invest in teachers and leadership has never been more at a premium.

Development of well-supported, training-rich, cohesive teachers who are valued for their ability to ‚Äėdeliver the goods‚Äô as a growing team within their learning communities is an objective we all want to see. It is a worthy goal and one, we hope we can say, we got ‚Äėright‚Äô.

Poetry Slams It!

slam poetry

I have a confession. Even though I am an English teacher; I have struggled to teach and celebrate some poetic forms. (I will spare you my list of 1,000 exceptions which spring to mind as I am typing). I do; however, love teaching the DEVICES of the poet! We were very blessed recently to have access to the wonderful “Spoken Word Poet”, Kate Wilson (you can see her blog here: http://www.kwpoet.blogspot.com.au/).

Kate’s quiet demeanor coupled with her passionate and genuine enthusiasm was impossible to avoid. Far from being the Drama Queen; Kate delivered with the right balance of humility and substance. As a group of teachers (we really are the toughest of classes) we were inspired by our visitor’s ability to scaffold the delivery of poetic devices within our workshop and season with a wide range of her self-composed morsels (and examples from the best in the field of modern “Slam Poets”).

More importantly, Kate got us WRITING.¬†Individual, small group, large group … WRITING. The groups were “popping” with puns, lyrics, stretched metaphors and beat-box-beats – WRITING but from the platform of speaking and listening (nice).

Since this is MY blog, I will share a couple of our “small group’s efforts”, based on the tasks we were assigned ūüôā

TASK / INSPIRATION: An Apple and a Shakespearian Parody?

When I shall die,

Take me out and pluck my seed from my rosy flesh of little stars,

And I will grow to see the face of heaven.

The world will make love beneath my canopy,

And carve their names in my flesh.

Pay no worship for the garnish of my sister fruit,

For when my children fall to the earth .

I will rise again!


We also enjoyed Kate’s “pun” activity. We were assigned the word “Bread” and had to make as many puns in a short-story as possible… can you count them?


My uncle, Brian Free, was an in-bred Tasmanian farmer. What a delight! Tip-Top Baker but he didn’t always make the crust, many said he was half-baked; going against the grain and rubbing people the wrong way.

He fell in love with an organic, wholemeal hippie-girl from Rye. It wasn’t long before she had a bun in the oven and she agreed to marry him because she loved the way he rolled. In all, they had five flour-children … Yeast-Free, Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, Nut-Free, and a son blessed from another relationship.

We don’t want to put a damper on our story but Brian became a dough-bludger; taking Abbott’s bread. It’s a sad slice of life.


Ultimately, there is a lot to take back to the classroom!

What Makes a GREAT Teacher?

aYou're the bestI like Todd Whittaker’s book What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most. It asks, “What makes a great teacher?” and seeks to identify the operational features of “great” teachers and how they may differ from less effective teachers.

There has always been great debate about the secrets of teacher effectiveness; some focus on behaviour management, student expectation, hands-on engagement,¬†environmental factors … the list goes on.

According to Whittaker; these are the “fourteen things” that “great” teachers DO that other teachers DON’T! (a paraphrased approach – forgive me Mr Whittaker!);

1. They keep PEOPLE first and PROGRAMS second.

2. They determine strong and clear expectation from the very start of the academic year; with a focus on consistency.

3. They determine to minimise the LIKELIHOOD of student misbehavior.

4. They take responsibility for student learning and maintain high expectation of student performance and engagement.

5. They take ownership of their role as the “variable” in classroom which matters the MOST.

6. They are great ambassadors for their classroom and their school. They create and promote safe, happy communities.

7. They look for the positive… always!

8. Relationship, relationship, relationship – they can rebuke caringly and can say sorry liberally.

9. Keep small “inconveniences” and “disruptions” SMALL.

10. No matter what Рthere is a reason they are doing what they are doing. They have a focus with purpose.

11. Their decision making is filtered by the outcomes for the students, not the outcomes for themselves.

12. They always believe the best of their students – every child is “good”.

13. They keep standardised testing/s in perspective.

14. They care, they care, they care.

I would like to add a few other observations, some from my own experience and some from others who have sought to investigate this question. What qualities would you add to the list?

15  They establish learning environments that are student-focused; not control focused (https://theteacherlounge.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/building-learning-environments/)

16  They build parental bridges EARLY.

17  They promote meta-cognition.

18. They complete the tasks they ask their students to complete Рthey DEMONSTRATE the literacy process (e.g. they write a paragraph with the class, they show HOW they construct sentences Рnot just the finished/polished version/s).

19. They link learning with student interests and abilities.

20. They embrace new technology.

21. They stay positively connected with other educators BOTH within and OUTSIDE of their discipline.

22.¬† They embrace a range of strategies for different learning styles, genders and the labyrinth of ‘special needs’. They allow multiple forms¬†of “assessment”.

23. They build knowledge and understanding from what is ALREADY known.

24. They have an attitude of life-long learning; they know that THEY have not arrived. I would add “self reflection” as an integral part of this.

25. They look for mentors and are prepared TO BE mentors to others.

26. They understand that they can’t always do all 25 of these things … and they can NEARLY live with that!

Cultural Capital or Culture Clash?

Whether it is wise to write a blog immediately after attending a fantastic Professional Development session; I don’t know. BUT… I am throwing caution to the wind (BEFORE I return to the classroom) to jot a few thoughts down about today’s (grossly under-populated) experience with Mark Church on MAKING THINKING VISIBLE. Mark is the co-author (with Ron Ritchhart & Karin Morrison) of a newly released book by the same name (some core resources from the research/book are available at www.pz.harvard.edu/vt)

I was particularly engaged with the challenge to investigate the “culture” of our classrooms. Mark drew the analogy that walking into a classroom (or indeed any SCHOOL)¬†is like walking into a new country; we are immediately bombarded with new sensory experiences, we quickly ascertain¬†what kind of learning and teaching is privileged, what activities and actions are rewarded or rebuked, how ‘mistakes’ are managed/dealt with. Like the sights and sounds of a new country – we quickly draw conclusions; many of which are long-standing and most acutely accurate!

  • Do we develop group culture?
  • How do we make THINKING (intrinsically “invisible”)… VISIBLE?
  • What do we want the children we teach to be like when they are adults?
  • Does our classroom culture reflect healthy social, emotional, cognitive, spiritual and functional dispositions?
  • What is the “story” of our classrooms?¬†Does it reflect the learning we enjoyed (or despised)¬†in our OWN educational journey?

I’m sure that Mark would be horrified by my butchering of his content into a bite-sized, take home pack!¬†Sorry Mark!¬†The truth is after immersion in self-reflection on the values that we see¬†communicated through our classrooms/schools – we were better positioned to answer the two cornerstone questions;

  • What is learned here? AND
  • What is learned ABOUT LEARNING here?

With the political mandates dictating the direction of our curriculum it is easy to see how many classrooms¬†are a story of WORK rather than a story of LEARNING… as Mark put it;¬†“Curriculum has become a mile wide and an inch deep”. I didn’t find the session a “preach” against these curriculum initiatives; in fact the focus was more directed to the fact that Testing, Curriculum and Syllabus are all delivered WITHIN the context of the CULTURES we DO control (e.g. modelling, environment, expectations, behaviour, interactions, relationships, structures, opportunities, language and allocation of time).

The methods and routines suggested to make thinking visible are best packaged by the team themselves but I can highly recommend the book (complete with DVD) and the website (noted in my first paragraph) as a source for unpacking these strategies.

Primary Software Developments

This has been reproduced from my personal blog Рapologies to those who have already read it! As an aside РI am happy to report that our school have gone ahead with this program in Primary Рnow how do I get my refund since my children can access via school for free? LOL.

Although this software is aimed at the K-5 market, I am not endorsing the use of these platforms to the youngest end of the intended market. This is a slippery slope and research would suggest careful consideration of too-early an implementation of “screens” – there are some great readings in this arena but this is just to identify some of the popular platforms emerging in our market.

I have a stack of 14 different PC Educational Games on my desk right now that we have purchased this year¬†for Chayse¬†and Kaiden‚Äôs¬†‚ÄĚat home‚ÄĚ learning. We haven‚Äôt been impressed with ANY of them, including some of the expensive top name brands. The fourteen titles (not including the many in the kid‚Äôs cupboard) have simply not been anything more than a passing fancy ‚Äď offering a small range of ‚Äėliteracy/numeracy games‚Äô most of which are freely available via the internet.

My earlier post has made reference to a subscription service that we were referred to by a family friend (Thanks G); ABC Reading Eggs. After a two-week trial run I have¬†been impressed by the level of engagement, reporting to parents (vocabulary lists, blend lists, letter recognition results, etc) and the phonics based approach to¬†child learning. We are still actively involved in an integrated approach with our kids, daily reading, story making, flash cards, rewards, etc‚Ķ but the computer is able to deliver an independence to learning, motivation and sustained engagement¬†that we have not been able to duplicate easily! Both kids ASK to go ‚Äúon the eggs‚ÄĚ.

Australia is clearly ‚Äėstreaks ahead‚Äô in educational software development aimed at K-5 and my limited research has uncovered a myriad of¬†similar literacy learning sites. Most are available for individual subscription or a bulk school order ‚Äď with most in the ‚Äėunder $1,000 per year‚Äô for the whole school to have access and access at home. In my humble opinion, numeracy¬†is very well covered by the (then 2011) freely available MATHLETICS program.

I¬†have noticed a significant change in both of my children‚Äôs reading engagement¬†over the past 2-3 weeks. Please consider trailing one of the following¬†services if you have young children ‚Äď all offer a¬†free trial.

I should add that I have nothing to gain from this promotion and there is no ‚Äėkick back‚Äô to me or my family. In addition to the subscribed services, I¬†have listed a couple of¬†FANTASTIC FREE resources I have found¬†but they do not ‚Äėsave student progress‚Äô or offer a reporting statement to parents. I will be using these sites to add some variety outside of¬†our existing home based computer offerings. Hope there is something of use here. Also, if you have been using a site that works for you ‚Äď let me know!

Learning BUY the Book?

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

As I have already established in earlier posts, we are testing a ‘trial’ year of laptop use for one year group¬†at our school. The parent information evening is this coming week. It has been an exciting time. One of the issues we will be working through will be related to textbook resourcing. Do we encourage outright textbook purchases, e-textbooks, subscription, book hire or etc?

I know that many colleges and schools have already gone through this minefield and I am very interested in the range of responses that are available in e-land. A few years ago we initiated a book hire program to attempt to cut down the cost of text books for parents – in some cases a single textbook choice (especially in our Upper School year groups) could be in the $120 – $150 range. For a low-fee paying school, these are exorbitant text purchases (especially if the student chose to drop the course and move to another mid year!)

If you have seen any of the IPad book applications or really interacted with an e-textbook, they are truly amazing. Double-click a word to access a dictionary/thesaurus on the spot, bookmark, highlight and add a comprehensive note in the margin (some allow colour coding and themed tabs, etc).  There is a WOW factor for the desk bound user (though IPads open a few more learning environments).

This having been said, I suspect that there¬†is still some¬†anxiety about¬†any ‘e-moves’ in this arena. People may be willing to experiment with a book that is chosen for ‘interest’ but there is a sense of ‘risk’ in utilising these¬†alternative text types if a child’s education is standing in the balance.¬†

Price is a factor too. In general an ‘e-textbook’ will cost about 25-50% of the original price; some are available at a cheaper rate¬†if you agree to a subscription cost, e.g.¬†180 day subscription. Pearson have launched a comprehensive site at¬†¬†http://www.coursesmart.com/¬†. It is well ‘hidden’, perhaps there is some concern about taking business from Pearson book sellers? E-text availability¬†also has a political element with many texts not available in electronic form through the main sellers unless their printing-house has secured an agreement with the ‘reseller’.

Attitudinally, purchasers are sometimes less willing to part with good money for¬†a ‘virtual’¬†commodity, I know I still struggle with wanting a tangible ‘something’ for my money – I suppose that is why software is sold in BOXES.¬†Perhaps¬†it is just my age but I like the ‘feel’ of a good book, it is more transportable, I can read it¬†places¬†where I may not take a computer, I can read it lying down, the ownership quotient is higher. I have a ‘feel’ for ‘where I read that bit’.¬†¬†

I will be interested to see how this experiment unfolds at our school and how well some of these changes are received.

You can trial an E-Textbook ¬†of your choice for FREE¬†by visiting¬†¬†¬†http://www.coursesmart.com/¬†– you will need to register with a CC. I’m having fun with a free English textbook from the US.

Who IS Responsible for Student Learning?

Of course, I laughed and thought that this video (which has now received over 1 million hits worldwide) ‘had a great message’ and that all parents should listen to it and reflect on their school communication BUT…. it is really only a half truth if considered as anything other than a clever (and funny) SATIRE.¬†As a disclaimer to¬†my following comments; only read on if you¬†are able to consider these comments but STILL ENJOY THE VIDEO. This is not meant as a vigilante on humour.¬†If you haven’t seen it, here is the video…. followed by my ramblings.

Am I being a spoil sport by writing about this in a serious way and objecting to some of its content? (Especially the final comment which shoots inclusivity as an unfriendly footnote!).¬†Well, the fact that the video is now packaged as ‘an actual recording that is used in a Queensland school’ is both dubious and (I would suspect) an attempt to give a tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at parent/school communication a far too considered hearing. I sincerely hope that no one REALLY used this for an actual answering service (as stressed in this posted version).

I was part of a staff discussion once (no school / staff disclosed) in which we discussed the role of the teacher. I asked staff to move to different corners of the room according to their response to certain statements. The room corners to which staff moved were labelled “AGREE”, “DISAGREE” and “UNDECIDED” – we covered a lot of issues over this time but the core intent was to get to the following decision statements:

Teachers are responsible for student learning” – AGREE / DISAGREE or UNDECIDED


Students are¬†responsible for their own learning.” – AGREE / DISAGREE or UNDECIDED

I admit the questions could be interpreted as divisive¬†yet I realistically thought that there would be a 50/50 split between the AGREE and DISAGREE categories on this issue.¬†That wasn’t the case. Only¬†4 of over 50 agreed with statement one and only 5 disagreed with statement two. There were a handful in¬†UNDECIDED.¬†Each group was asked to defend their position, ‘Why” did they believe this was the case?

The¬†discussion was robust, challenging and¬†decisive.¬†Being one of the five, I reflected¬†long and hard about the beliefs of my peers. I knew that they were committed, focused individuals who¬†gave beyond the ‘requirement of the job’ on an ongoing basis; yet¬†I¬†found it difficult to understand¬†what I perceived to be a lack of personal ownership of our¬†responsibility in teaching.

  • Was there any incentive to ‘get better’, as a teacher, if one fundamentally believed that learning was the sole responsibility of the child?
  • Did this belief make staff more resistant to ‘changes’ that created ‘inconvenience’ on the journey to a ‘greater good’?
  • Were staff of the opinion that educators who delivered Professional Learning to THEM were more or less effective in achieving¬†learning outcomes based on an adjustment of teaching style/energy/activity choice, etc?
  • Did this belief impact a teacher’s willingness to support ‘special needs’ in the classroom?
  • Did this belief foster an attitude of ‘giving up’ on students too early?
  • Did this attitude¬†result in a tendency to¬†‘quickly flick poorly behaved students¬†to someone else’?
  • Did this belief¬†impact the volume of teacher/parent/student communication?
  • Was it WRONG to THINK this way?

I have a simple illustration that I use most frequently with students to help them understand effort and reward. “If I promised to give you $1,000,000 if you got a “B” in English, what would you DO to ensure it happened?” Clearly, they know I will not be delivering on this but the point is clear – behaviour WOULD change. Can’t I ask the same question of our teachers? Our parents?

The truth is, that we are responsible to partner together regardless of how right or wrong any of us are. I will try to the best of my ability to persuade staff that whilst students must contribute a willingness to be present; that we do bear a responsibility¬†to be ‘learning bridges’, to take students as far as humanly possible.

If the point¬†of this video is to remind parents that¬†they can’t flick all¬†responsibility to schools, point well made – but I just don’t want to hear others cheering¬†TOO¬†loudly about it.