Growing teachers

I have been fortunate this year to mentor a variety of pre-service teachers in my classroom. Yes, I genuinely mean ‘fortunate’ because the experience is one I’m grateful for, despite the undisputable extra work that it adds. As well as being an opportunity to support and influence the next generation of teachers, it also allows me to see my own teaching through their eyes. It has equally made me reflect on the experiences I had as a pre-service teacher and how they helped me grow into the teacher I am.

One of the most powerful things we can do for our pre-service teachers is give them room – to try things, to flounder a bit, to explore their interests and skills (as well as the things that make them uncomfortable), to make mistakes, to figure out how to fix them. I always hope my pre-service teachers will arrive full of ideas, enthusiasm and an eagerness to jump in and try things. If they don’t, I encourage them with gentle-ish nudges and reminders that this is a safe space with my support for them to work on honing their teaching craft. I reassure them that I don’t expect perfect lessons (not from them or myself) but I expect lessons where they try things and then reflect on their successes and next areas of learning. As much as I want to, I try not to help them out too soon when things go wrong, just give them space and ask the questions that might help them dig their way out of the hole themselves.

We also owe it to our pre-service teachers to give them useful, honest feedback that helps them recognise their strengths and be realistic about the areas they need to develop. Whenever I’m having conversations that involve feedback for my pre-service teachers, I think of how I’ll feel if they end up being a colleague in a couple of years and what support and guidance I’ll wish they’d been given at this crucial point in their career. Telling a pre-service teacher that their tone when speaking to a child contributed to the child’s reaction is the perfect teaching moment, especially when thinking how this may help them in the future and what strategies they can use to change their thinking and behaviours before they become entrenched.

I’m also a firm believer that we need to help our pre-service teachers see how their learning at university provides a solid foundation on which to build their teaching, rather than teaching rounds and university being two separate and distinct sets of learning. I get frustrated when I hear teachers comment that university wasn’t helpful and that they learnt everything they needed once they started teaching. Obviously I’ve only been through one teaching degree so I can’t comment on the preparation from every university but I can say I felt as prepared as I could be. Of course there were things that I didn’t know and my first few years of teaching were the most intense period of induction but I felt like the learning I’d done at university gave me a solid foundation and an understanding of the bigger picture of education into which my day to day teaching fitted. My teaching rounds had helped bridge the gap for me while also giving me access to some outstanding mentors from whom I soaked up every bit of knowledge, experience and guidance I could.

I can only hope that I am providing as successful and useful an experience for my pre-service teachers as I was lucky enough to receive on my teaching rounds and I look forward to continuing to strive to be an effective mentor to our growing teachers.

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I’m back…and still a macgirl

This blog has been around for rather a long time. I believe I started it nearly 8 years ago which, in internet years, makes it at least 25. However it hasn’t held the allure in recent years and I have been pondering why. I still love writing and am a lot more prolific on my running blog. I still love teaching and learning, both within and beyond my classroom walls. For some reason, the spark doesn’t seem to carry through to writing about it once I’m at home. And there are lots of reasons for that – some simple and some a lot more complex. Perhaps they should become blog posts of their own. But I digress.

Aspects of my teaching have been revitalised recently by my new purchase – an iPad pro. While I might (thanks to Department policy) be limited to using a PC during school hours, I really am still drawn to Apple and am a macgirl at heart. My new toy is proving this, especially with the addition of an apple pencil which has been a complete game changer. Despite only having had it for a short time, I’m lost without it. Whether I’m at PD, in a meeting, in front of the class or sitting next to a student having a conference, it’s given me a huge range of options I didn’t have before. I promise to elaborate soon – I’m brewing a blog post about how I’m using my iPad to turbo boost assessment and record keeping in my classroom and will publish soon. For tonight, I just wanted to put it out there that, while I didn’t go away, I’m well and truly back. And absolutely still a macgirl 🍎.

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.