ALEA conference 2016 – day 2

I’m a little delayed on this blog post due to the enormity of thoughts floating around in my head after 3 days of intense learning. Forgive me. Here is as coherent a summary as I can manage.

The power of the word – Jenni Connor

This was my first keynote of the day and Jenni grabbed me early as she spoke of the importance of a childhood rich in books and literacy experiences, something I’ve blogged about before and which I am particularly passionate about. She talked of how, to truly grow a lifelong reader, we need to let them read rich and inviting texts, not necessarily those which are age appropriate or at the right level for them. She provided us with some rich examples of quality literature, in picture books I’d forgotten about, such as The Coat by Julie Hunt and Ron Brooks, but also in places you wouldn’t imagine, such as the powerful writing of Stan Grant in his speech for The Ethics Centre on racism and the Australian dream.

Jenni also ranged into novels and spoke of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once‘ with its honest, raw and child centred portrayal of a horrific time in the world. This novel and all that it embodies sums up for me another of her key messages – the power of fiction really is in its lessons of empathy beyond our own lived experiences. As a young child, I was fortunate enough to experience actual life in both the UK and Australia but the diversity of experience I was exposed to was much broader thanks to the range of texts I read or had read to me.

Narrative and creativity: Where do they fit in today’s schools? – Misty Adoniou

I love hearing Misty speak and still count the keynote I attended at last year’s conference as amongst the most powerful professional development I have been part of.

To begin with, Misty spoke about the messy, competing demands and critical thinking required by engaging with multimodal texts in the real world then considered whether this was the case with those neatly packaged, single genre texts encountered by students in the classroom. In fact, it was a speech of considering contrasts – literacy as skill acquisition vs literacy as meaning making being the next. As a primary teacher, this is one I often grapple with, particularly in writing. While students obviously need to develop a whole range of skills and will need varying amounts of time and practise to build them, there is no point in developing such skills in the absence of meaning and purpose. Grammatically correct sentences with sturdy punctuation make no difference if there is no one to read them.

Misty finished with an idea that resonated that helped bring the contrasts to a point – perhaps part of our role in school is providing students with additional skills, opportunities and beliefs that, in conjunction with those from their home environments, allow them to exist in and create in a third space, separate from but informed by (and enriched by) both. I like that concept a lot and I think it helps me reconcile my role as an educator – not there to be the only element in a child’s education, just part of the complex mix that will support and extend their life choices.

Using picture books to explicitly teach about language – Robyn English

A thread that was very common throughout the conference was the power of narrative, particularly picture books, for learners of all ages. This session was no exception and provided both multiple great picture books as well as novel and interesting ways to use them with students.

One of the games I liked was a ‘grammar by dice roll’ game where students were given sentences from favourite picture books and, based on the roll of a dice, were encouraged to…

1 – change the verb

2 – add an adjective to the second noun

3 – add an adverb

4 – add a circumstance

5 – add detail to the subject noun

6 – add a circumstance that includes a conjunction and a pronoun

I could see this being a lot of fun, especially playing with language from texts that my student already loved and were familiar with.

Another activity involved using vocabulary from familiar books and asking students to discuss and justify which was the odd one out of each line. This takes the skills beyond just knowing what the word means and requires students to think more broadly and argue for their point of view.Cm5tHk-WIAA03wc

Overall, another great day of ideas and wonderings.

Day 3 post to follow soon…

ALEA conference 2016 – day 1 reflections

Well timed to end the school holidays on an inspirational note, this weekend is the ALEA conference being held in Adelaide.

Literacy & imagination: schools as wondering places and spaces?

The conference started with a keynote from Barbara Comer  encouraging us to consider teachers as ‘imaginative designers, weavers and researchers’ rather than bound by templates and programs which restrict us and limit opportunities for our students. It set the scene for the rest of the weekend well – these conferences are always an energetic mix of new ideas and revisiting more familiar but forgotten ones and I always leave feeling full of possibility. So being reminded that, as teachers, we are responsible for researching, interpreting and implementing ideas, woven as an intricate and specifically crafted tapestry was exactly what I needed to hear.

Students with literacy difficulties: Same and different

Anne Bayetto presented about the needs of students who experience difficulties with literacy and the message was both clear and reassuring – on the whole, all students, whether experiencing difficulties or not, have similar needs, including requiring cognitive level tasks and dignified access to a range of aural, visual, print and digital texts.

Most importantly, students who are experiencing difficulty need to speak, listen and read more. Activities involving cutting and pasting, colouring, drawing and, generally, doing ‘busy work’ are not likely to have any impact and will further disadvantage students.

Anne spoke of some great resources to encourage speaking and listening:

Embedding oral language across the curriculum

This presentation was full of both new material and reminders of things I used to do but which need to be revived in my classroom. The concept of ‘hands down’ to ensure all children have an opportunity and an expectation to speak and participate is an important one which needs to be developed as the culture of the classroom and school. Too often, quiet or less confident students are able to fly under the radar during sessions involving oral language, deferring to those who more confidently raise their hands. Sheena Cameron and Louise Dempsey suggested a number of different strategies to encourage greater participation during speaking activities, such as:

  • allowing adequate thinking time for students when using ‘think, pair, share’;
  • turning it into ‘think, pair, square’ with student pairs becoming a group of 4 to provide more opportunity for student talk;
  • compass partners (one name at north, one at south, one at east and one at west) so that students are quickly able to find a partner during oral language activities;
  • a listening triad where one student is speaking, one is purely listening/responding and the other is recording.

Another great reminder from this presentation is that, as teachers, we ask a lot of questions throughout our day and this isn’t the only way to prompt and provoke student discussion. Comments and statements can be just as effectively used to get students talking – the important part is that we provide quality and meaningful reasons for them to speak that are relevant to them. It would be frustrating for our students to be asked to talk about thing that aren’t worth talking about from their perspective.

This presentation in particular has given me food for thought – so much so that I went and bought their new book, The Oral Language Book. Looking forward to diving into that one and exploring more possibilities for student talk in my classroom.

decisions, decisions…

I’ve spent the day in Melbourne learning about Office 365 and doing a lot of thinking. That, to me, is what is the most valuable thing about professional learning days away from school – the chance to think and wonder without the pressures of ringing bells, pending yard duty and the ever present little people.

My hopes for today were to find out more about the online, collaborative version of Office which I have had very little experience of. Obviously, like most citizens of Earth, I have more than a passing familiarity with the Microsoft suite of products but had opted for Google Apps at my previous school for our online solution. Despite a few little quirks, I’m a big fan of Google and all it spits out but wanted to keep an open mind and scope out any potentially useful tool.

So, how did my pondering go? Good and not so good. Office 365 does everything it says on the (virtual) box. And, like Google Apps, there are quirks and ‘we’re going to build that functionality’ moments. OneNote looks particularly interesting although, knowing my generally questionable organisational skills, I could see my notebooks turning into repositories for all flavours of junk. Forms doesn’t impress me as much as Google forms did.

The problem with all of this is that a phrase about swings and roundabouts comes to mind. Which one to choose? My current school uses neither so I have to think about their needs in introducing a new tool, not just my own personal preference. Very hard to do when both tools really have the same offerings, are just as pretty as each other and have (some) support and backing from our Education Department. Both are able to achieve the goals we need – a collaborative tool for staff and students, an online repository and easy, cheap access to up to date and useful software available across multiple platforms.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, arguments for one or the other and things I might not have considered so that I don’t resort to flipping a coin. In a perfect world, I’d sign up for both and use the best bits they each had to offer but our ICT journey needs to take baby steps at this point so we’re starting with one. Over to you…

building our learning environment, one brick at a time

Six months into the academic year and I’m still on the journey to create the right learning space. Actually, 11 years into this teaching lark and I’m still on the journey however I’ve figured out a lot in that time as I move toward that perfect learning space (that I know I’ll never reach!). I’m definitely not a ‘sit in rows’ kind of teacher – completely pointless as I rarely have students do any task that requires them to look at the whiteboard or screen from their seats. I tried clusters of tables but found noise levels a little high as students called out across the space to those on the opposite side.

Here is my current layout which has served us well over the last term. The pods of tables are nested around central storage areas which also give a bit of flexibility for students to move chairs to the middle if they need to work collaboratively (but quietly!). It has also, somehow, given us the illusion of more space. We still have a carpet area which allows the class to sit in a circle when needed and a few hiding spots for those in need of quiet working nooks.


However we still have further to go. The space we have is quite small and very boxy which is a bit of a challenge, albeit a common one faced in schools. We have a lovely outdoor area beyond our door with tables and seats which we have started to refer to as ‘our outdoor classroom’ which is in operation whenever the door is open. We’ve also adopted a shoes optional policy when inside the classroom which is making our carpet more sitting/lying friendly as well as having a positive ‘grounding’ effect on many of the students (and myself!)

Next, I’m on the lookout for a wider range of seating options – tall tables for those who prefer to stand as they work, a round coffee table for those casual meeting times, some blankets for cozy reading time. As a class, we’re getting better at noticing the way we like to work and making suggestions to change what we do or what we have to suit that. In the back of my mind, I’ve always got the amazing work of Stephen Heppell and others floating around, making me question, probe and push the boundaries of my current learning space and wonder what is possible. And I’m loving this journey🙂

do you have anything for the agenda?

I’ve had rather a long blog pause and, while this is fairly normal for me, the reason this time wasn’t just the general busy school timetable or a lack of topics – I’ve had a change of school. As well as physically changing locations, this also involved changing roles, changing school profiles and changing the way the curriculum is delivered. Most importantly, it’s taken me a while to get my head around all these changes and change my expectations for the year.

One of the things I’m proud of in my new Grade 4 classroom is how well class meetings work and how effective they’ve been in providing a voice for students. We began them at the start of Term 1 as a chance to celebrate our successes in the early days and attempt to get on top of any issues. Frustratingly, the early meetings weren’t particularly useful and left me feeling a bit flat. There were certainly students who had useful things to say but there were also students who weren’t really invested in the process and seemed to view it as a non-learning, time wasting opportunity.

So I reflected….

  • How had I originally presented/explained it?
  • How had this been interpreted by the students – why did they think we had classroom meetings?
  • Did my intentions match how the meetings were run?
  • How could I encourage debate and discussion but moderate the tempers that seemed to fly up as soon as issues were raised?

The other big problem was that, while I was encouraging students to bring their own topics, I was still running the meeting and controlling most of the talk.

We started again. I clarified why we held class meetings and had students share their thoughts on this. We agreed there were 3 main reasons:

  • to talk about and organise upcoming events in our classroom;
  • to talk about and solve problems;
  • to celebrate our successes and recognise growth in learning.

Next item on the agenda….was the agenda. We had a place on our whiteboard where students could add items but what had been happening was that students were filling it just before our meeting time with things they were still very clearly upset about, leading to very heated and not particularly rational discussions. They needed to have a bit more thinking time on topics and we all needed advance notice. So we agreed that agenda items could only be added as you left the room for recess/lunch/end of the day. This immediately stopped items about flare ups at recess as they were usually resolved before it was time to leave the room for lunch. It also gave me and the students chance to look at the agenda and have a think about the topics coming up.

Probably the hardest but most beneficial change was that I shut up. As a teacher, I obviously find this incredibly challenging. I constantly want to butt in, comment, add something, take over and scaffold. I’m not perfect but I’m learning not to. I still manage the flow of the meeting (although am intending on stepping back from that too) but, once the person who wrote the agenda item is speaking, I leave them to it and let them manage the comments, suggestions and discussion from there. If they need help, clarification or a mediator, they throw the ball back to me to let me back into the conversation.

Our class meeting on Friday showed me how far we’ve come and I was incredibly proud to be part of such a mature, thoughtful discussion. There were 4 items on the agenda which we worked through in 20 minutes to the satisfaction of the group. No one person dominated conversation and many students contributed. Those that didn’t still voted on resolutions and looked like they were interested in and part of the process. On the 3 agenda items which weren’t mine, I said about 5 sentences and wasn’t invited back into the conversation because they didn’t need me. And nothing could have made me happier.

Do you hold class meetings? How do you decide on an agenda and how are they run? What have been your biggest successes and biggest areas of learning?

From the campfire to the holodeck: Creating engaging and powerful 21st Century learning environments

As usual, I’m using my holidays to plough through my pile of books which I collected throughout 2015 and didn’t get time to read. This one – From the campfire to the holodeck – has been shouting at me to read it for a while and, having just finished it, I can officially say my mind is expanded.

In this book, David Thornburg takes us through some different ideas about spaces (both real and metaphorical) for learning – campfires, waterholes, caves and life.

Campfires are where learners gather around a more experienced person and learn from their stories. Sound familiar? It should – this has been the dominant educational paradigm forever. Or at least a really, really long time. In most classrooms you walk into around the world, this is how most students will be learning, for most of the time. And there are far too many ‘mosts’ in those sentences.

Waterholes are where peers gather and learn from each other through conversations, working together and general social interaction. The latest buzzword for this is ‘collaboration’ but how many times are we truly allowing our students to learn with and from each other? And how often is this valuable time cut short so we can move on to the next thing?

Caves are spaces for quiet reflection and contemplation – time to be alone and think. I think this is an area that needs to be worked on – how much time and space do we give to students to do this?

And life is the practical space where all of the skills and knowledge acquired in the other settings come together to be put to work. Taking the abstract and making it real, giving it purpose. Transfer the knowledge gained across disciplines and see how it all fits together.

Before you start imagining students running off to build caves under tables and setting fire to your carpet, these aren’t necessarily actual spaces, more ways of thinking about learning and the different ways it happens. However some people involved in classroom design have certainly gone down a more literal path and I can see how this could be quite successful.

Further chapters in the text talk about how these spaces can be seen and utilised in the virtual world and how technology can support such a framework.

Most mind-blowing of all is the section of Thornburg’s book about holodecks. These very game-like spaces allow learners to be immersed in real, captivating scenarios where learning is critical to the success of the mission (not just required to get a good score on NAPLAN). At first, I will confess to being a little sceptical but, by the end of the chapter, I was completely won over. I’ve now started reading a little more on the work of Woorana Park Primary in Melbourne – looks to be an amazing school doing truly groundbreaking things.

My mind is well and truly buzzing right now, full of possibilities and ideas. As well as a few potential walls (and people to convince). So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my cave for a while to contemplate. Catch up with you around the waterhole about it later…

105521304_e0f096f2a3_zimage ‘By the campfire‘ by Cape Cod Cyclist at

Contemporary education – what it is and what it should be

I’ve been going through some boxes which have been gathering dust in my garage (as I’m prone to do over Summer holidays) and have stumbled upon something which has me a little sad, a little perplexed and, if truth be told, a little angry.

It’s an essay I wrote in the early stages of my Masters of Education (Educational Technology) which I started in my 2nd year of teaching, 8 years ago. The topic? What role should technology play in contemporary education. However, more than just a discussion of technology, it was a lot more a discussion about contemporary education itself – the role of education in the present day, how it manifested itself in classrooms around the world, what role teachers played in all of that and what educational researchers, commentators and futurists thought of it all.

My initial smiles as I reminisced turned into a haunting realisation that this essay contained all the ingredients of what education could and should be vs what it was. And that none of this has changed since 2007. Or, really, any time in the 1800s.

Now I feel a little disheartened as well as being a bit angry. At myself mostly. I remember the person who wrote this essay – full of idealism, enthusiasm and a solid and unshakeable belief that we could change the path of education in general. I remember being so excited at all the different ideas and possibilities I was exposed to during my Masters study and where such knowledge and innovation could take education into the future. So when exactly did I sell out and go along the with the flow?

This takes me back to a life-changing presentation from Misty Adoniou earlier this year encouraging us to stage a revolution (albeit without a t-shirt and untelevised) where teachers stand up for what we know is right in education and push back against trends that aren’t in the best interests of the students we have in front of us. Particularly trends which are started by politicians and those who have a vested commercial interest. And, for me, this does include researchers who are in the pockets of big education businesses. I understand that research needs an outlet for dissemination and financial backing but wonder about those who choose to go down strictly commercial pathways rather than allowing their research to reach the most students possible, without the massive price tags of the educational publishing marketplace.

Next year begins a new chapter for me – I’m returning to the classroom after 3 years of visiting them as a literacy coach. I think I owe it to myself, my students, my colleagues and the profession in general to spend the rest of my holidays stoking the fire of the teacher ‘I used to be’ and start the year full of idealism, enthusiasm and that solid and unshakeable belief that we can (and should) change the path of education. My apologies if I come across as a little bolshy – Misty started it🙂