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…

leading schools in a digital age

I’m sitting on the train on my way home from the final session in this Bastow course which has taken me on a journey over the last 15 weeks, so this seems a fitting time to sum up what I’ve got out of it.

It’s quite simple and quite profound – I’ve gained a renewed passion for teaching. That sounds like a big statement but it’s definitely true. Prior to this course, I was certainly doing my job, and doing it as well as I could, but I felt like I was missing something. I thought it was student contact – I’ve been out of the classroom for over 2 years and thought that could be the missing piece. I love what I do and get a buzz from helping and learning with my colleagues, just like I did with my students so I didn’t think that was it. However re-exploring lots of the ideas about learning and what it should look like have made realise what was missing – I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong not with my setting or even my system but with education itself and didn’t feel like I had much power to do anything about it.

So, most of all, I’m finishing the course feeling empowered. And I am very much looking forward to seeing where that feeling takes me.

leading. digitally.

I was fortunate enough today to hear Eric Sheninger, author of Digital Leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. While I think I would have enjoyed hearing Eric at any stage in my career, coming towards the end of my Bastow ‘Leading schools in the digital age’ course, the timing is perfect. As I listened to his journey in leadership at New Milford High School, pieces I had been pondering over for a long time fell into place and questions that had been simmering were answered.

So what were my key take away messages?

If you want others to live it, live it yourself.
This seems pretty obvious but it’s something that I’ve been reminded of and how powerful and motivating it is. Particularly in leadership, what you do is so much more powerful than what you say, especially if the two don’t match. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the last few months of this course – I always try to be a positive role model to other staff (and students) but can I do more? Think differently? Am I modelling taking risks? Being innovative? My own personal and professional life is embedded in the richness that the digital world has to offer but do I model this enough for staff and students, letting them in to see the view from my window?

No excuse or barrier is insurmountable.
I’m not someone who easily gives up but the combination of Eric’s talk and the Bastow interactions have made me think differently and push the bar higher. There were things that I wasn’t thinking as barriers, just as ‘givens’ – timetables, subject boundaries – that I had to work with. I’m starting to see that, as long as your purpose is clear, the path can be creatively managed around an array of obstacles, regardless of who put them there or how long they’ve been in residence.

We have to blur the lines.
This definitely isn’t new – I’ve felt for a long time that the lines between ‘school’ and ‘other life’ were far too straight and solid. That many students, who have spent their weekends teaching themselves to weave loombands or play Minecraft via YouTube experts, turn their brains off at 9am on a Monday when school starts. If I’ve known that for a long time, what’s new? I feel like the momentum is there for change, from all directions and it’s time that we all agree that the lines have to blur. Or, preferably, disappear completely. School doesn’t have to involve students sitting in straight lines listening to an all-knowing teacher. Because learning certainly doesn’t involve that.

What is my moral purpose?

As part of the Bastow course that I’m currently doing, we were asked today to articulate our moral purpose. The reason we get out of bed and go to work each day. And, surprisingly, I actually found this really hard to do.

I say often enough that I have 3 passions in life – teaching, travelling and running – and am lucky enough that the first pays for the other two. Why do I teach? I’ve certainly done lots of other jobs and know that there are easier ways to make a living so why do I stick with this one? Having come to teaching later in life, it was definitely a conscious choice so I would have thought I would clearly know why I do it.

imageThis was my first attempt today and it’s definitely a work in progress. The word ‘connect’ is very important to me as it speaks volumes about the relationships which I believe are so crucial to learning. ‘Making a difference’ sounds so cliched and it’s not exactly what I want to say – it’s more about wanting to help learners achieve their dreams and encourage them to dream bigger. The last part – ‘all learners’ – was trying to encapsulate the fact that, while I don’t have a class of my own, I interact with a wide group of learners each day. My purpose is to build relationships with and help all of those learners develop, regardless of whether they are staff or student.

So, as I said, it’s a work in progress. However I think this is something I really need to be able to articulate and have as my mantra so it is worth the work. Any thoughts to help me on my way?

Just right texts…..digitally

There’ll be a different tone to this blog this year as I’ve taken on a new role which comes with a whole new set of hats to wear, metaphorically speaking. As of 2 weeks ago, I am a Leading Teacher – 21st Century Learning/Literacy. To say I’m excited would be a huge understatement – what an amazing opportunity to combine my two absolute teaching passions in a school that I love and with a leadership team I respect. There are certainly some nerves in there as well at the steep learning curve I face but I’m really grateful to have the opportunity.

One of my first roles has been supporting teachers in setting up their Literacy rich classrooms and planning for their Literacy time. Within that, there is a very big focus at our school (and throughout our Region) on ‘just right’ texts. Even though our school has intentionally chosen to call these ‘texts’ and not ‘books’, there is still the inevitable lean towards printed material and a small part of my job is to make sure teachers and students consider other options.

On Friday, I had the chance to do a lesson on ‘just right’ texts in a digital sense after being asked by one of our fantastic graduates how to introduce this. I started with an online text from British Council which we used for Shared Reading. At the end of the first page, we talked about whether this was ‘just right’ and one of the students said of course it was because it was read to us so we didn’t have to figure out any of the words. That lead to a great discussion about not only being able to read the words but also to understand what they meant and what was happening in this text – a quick check revealed that not all students understood what was happening in the first page so some other students jumped in to retell it in their own words. By the end of the story, students were very much attuned to what was happening, predicting future events and making inferences about how the characters might have been feeling. In the discussion that followed, one student offered that he sometimes knew all the words on the page but didn’t understand the story so perhaps that meant that his book wasn’t ‘just right’ for him after all. Breakthrough!

Students then worked in pairs to read/view/interact with texts on the iPads, focusing on whether they were ‘just right’ and ensuring this by asking each other questions and retelling what was happening. We explored The Numberlys, The fantastic flying books of Morris Lessmore, Barefoot Atlas and Dandelion and the classroom was abuzz with really rich discussions of stories, characters, motivations and predictions.

To conclude, we talked about how the digital texts were different or the same as the ‘just right’ texts in their book boxes and whether there were features that had helped or hindered their understanding. I had originally thought some of the features in the interactive books might be distracting but one student said he used them to act out what had happened up to that point and get it clear in his mind before moving forward. Another student said she did find the features distracting and couldn’t remember the story – she’d decided in the end it was because that text was too hard for her so had closed it and tried something else.

I’m certainly not suggesting that students constantly be fed a digital diet but this lesson opened these students and their teacher up to the rich possibilities for comprehension in digital texts and, I hope, added it as an important ‘food group’ when considering their reading and viewing needs in the future.