Thursday, 22 May 2014

Student Voice

My school is part of a pilot project aligned with the South Australian Teaching for Effective Learning  (TfEL) Framework. We're looking at ways we can (do and should) use student voice and engagement to design learning programmes, and ultimately education systems, that intellectually stretch students and create powerful expert learners.

One part of the project involves seeking direct feedback from the kids about their learning. How do they feel about the learning activities they're doing? How do they learn best? What would they like to change about the way we 'do' learning in our class? Doesn't sound overly challenging or out of the norm except that we have to do it explicitly everyday and keep a record of it.  Other than an end of week written reflection (that is in students' diaries and goes home to show parents) most of these conversations are usually quite spontaneous and informal in my classroom. Whilst I act on what I learn from the conversations I don't keep particular records of them. Well, I didn't. I do now of course!

One way that I've found to keep a good record of the kids' feedback is through Socrative.  Socrative is a 'student response system' that is available on whatever device you want to use, either through the website or apps. I set a 'quiz', open it to the kids, they submit their responses, and Socrative emails me a report of their responses. I set questions like "I am still wondering about..." and "I learnt best when I..." and "The lesson would have been better if...". I have also started to include a silly multiple choice question that relates to something we're doing the next day. The kids LOVE it.  It's quick, simple and instant.  I put the teacher screen up on the board while they're doing it; it shows how many kids have logged into the 'quiz' and how many have submitted. It can also show the names of kids and a live coverage of how many questions they've finished.  

The report is a simple table that lists all the answers. (If you've set multiple choice questions (and listed a correct answer) the table marks those questions for you.) In terms of the way I'm using it: I have a daily record of this feedback. I'm able to scan all the answers to a question to spot trends and anomalies. I can quickly see what needs to happen more or less. Patterns emerge easily.

This isn't the only way I collect feedback and data but wow! It's certainly one way I'm particularly enjoying.

How do you collect this sort of feedback? How do you respond?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know students and how they learn.
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning.
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments.
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning.
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Way Back Wednesday

Every Wednesday afternoon my class gathers for a chat.  We spend a whole lesson talking.  If I'm being totally honest: we often spend lessons talking but that's quite a different blog post. Today I want to share one of the best parts of our week: Way Back Wednesday.

The basic idea is that I present the class with a small group of artefacts - often a photo, sometimes a song or video, even a concrete object - that somehow all relate to an overriding historical event, concept or time period.  What happens after that is the part I love.  The children start talking.  Really talking. After some coaching in the early weeks of the school year they have started to ask questions and make statements like:

"Who took that photo?  And why?" 
"What does that mean for the Aboriginal people who are alive today? How do they feel about it?" 

Daily Telegraph

"Ned Kelly wasn't a hero. He was a criminal! Just because he was doing it for his family doesn't make it right."

Powerhouse Museum

"The way we treat asylum seekers before they are given the ok to be refugees is just the same way that the government treated people with the White Australia Policy."

Pretty amazing huh?

I've kept the topics loosely related to our integrated topic for the term (or to a particularly timely issue like ANZAC Day).   Our WBW topics so far have been:
  • The Eureka Flag
  • The 1967 Referendum
  • Women's Suffrage
  • The White Australia Policy
  • Vietnamese Boatpeople
  • Ned Kelly
  • Paper Money
  • Holden
  • Sydney Olympics
  • ANZAC spirit
  • Uluru
  • The rock art of Koonalda Cave
You may have picked a theme there! Our year 6/7 unit's overriding theme was  Australian identity! As a unit we've moved now into a unit of learning that encompasses various ancient Mediterranean civilisations AND historical inquiry.  We've been unpacking the thinking and work of various professionals (archaeologist, historian, anthropologist etc.) which enhances my class' WBW discussions beautifully.

WBW has been a powerful tool for me to engage the children with the ACARA History strand of Historical Skills in a meaningful way.  We've looked at different perspectives; compared primary vs secondary sources of information; drawn conclusions about the usefulness of various sources; sequenced important events leading up to and following our particular topic of discussion; unpacked historical concepts; posed questions that have been discussed later (either at school or at home). I've noticed that these discussions have built my students' capacity for debate and reasoning in ways I never imagined; and that they are making links between these discussions and other parts of our learning program.

During our discussion I play the role of facilitator. I occasionally ask a clarifying question or encourage a response to be expanded. I will, if I notice a particular area of quiet, ask specific children for their contribution. If there's a point of debate or need for further information I will sometimes step in to resolve the issue but more regularly support the class in their own resolution. I have, on occasion, followed their request for more information by 'googling' it for them while they continue talking. (Hip hip hooray for the Apple TV!) More recently I've been encouraging the children to jot down notes on tiny postit notes to jog their memory later.  This has certainly improved since we've been focussing on summarising in our writing block.

The children's home learning task (I don't like the word homework) each Wednesday is to write a response to a reflective question that I've posed about our topic.  I usually set two questions and let them choose.  (I sometimes provide these questions before the discussion, and sometimes after. It really depends on how I'm introducing the topic and whether the questions, in themselves, include a lot of prior knowledge.) It is the only home learning task they ALL complete every week.  Their responses have improved from "I think we should have the same flag we have now because I like it" to well considered responses with references to the discussion or other sources to support their statements. Some of the responses are bordering on taking the form of a formal exposition! Can't complain about that!!

The worst part? Finding time to read their responses. These children are putting such thought and energy into their responses that reading them all is not something I can - or want to - do quickly. I try to engage with each response individually and provide specific feedback either on the development of their argument or the actual argument itself.

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know students and how they learn.
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it.
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning.
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments.
Standard 5 Assess,  provide feedback and report on student learning.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Girls? Boys? Mixed? All of the above!

I teach one of four year 6/7 classes at Hackham East Primary School. It's a pretty awesome gig: amazing kids; part of a great team; small class; staff focus on student support; good ICT set up; and strong focus on professional development. Yep, I love my job.

Anyway, I digress. I teach one of four 6/7 classes. None of the classes has more than 24 students, in fact I have only 20. Why so many classes with so few students? Aha! Here's the particularly interesting thing about HEPS: we run a parallel (and opt-in) single gender program. In our unit of four classes there are two mixed, one boys and one girls class. (I have one of the mixed classes.) The year 4/5 unit is run on similar lines also. In the past the junior years also had single gender classes but there wasn't a huge demand for it this year. (Hopefully next year!)

Based on the work of Michael Gurian, a gender based education expert from the USA,  and Ian Lillico, a boys' education expert from Western Australia, HEPS developed a boys programme back in 2008 and it has grown from there. (To get a bigger picture of how it all started and developed, check out the blog of Jarrod Lamshed. He's the single gender legend of HEPS. He's sadly missed though: this year he moved to another school.) The whole school operates on the understanding that the philosophies around single gender education can, and should, be implemented in both single and mixed gender classrooms to better meet the needs of everyone. And it's not just lip service: our unit splits into gender (and year level) groups for maths lessons; all planning actively considers gender learning differences; at each staff meeting we discuss how to better implement one or another of Lillico's 52 Recommendations (for school reform) etc. (We're all constantly working toward AITSL standards 1, 4 and 6!)

Mohammed Al-Khwarizmi
The 'father of algebra'
I'm currently learning with the year 7 girls. The year 7 boys are right next door, and we usually have the dividing wall open so that we're effectively occupying opposite ends of the same space. We're all aware that we're learning the same topic but we're not doing it the same way. The boys jumped in and got into 'doing' immediately. At the other end of the space we started by talking about what we already knew. From then on the boys had short snippets of instruction followed often by concrete materials and big picture problems. We looked at a short video about the history of algebra which gave the topic a personal hook for most of the girls. (It's a great little video: check it out here.) Since then we've broken it down into discrete building blocks that we're in the process of putting together. Some girls have raced ahead and are blowing me away with the way they're putting it all together, while others are still building their basic understandings. That happens in all classes though right? What's different about this is that the girls who can race ahead are racing ahead and doing so loudly and proudly while the girls who need more time are equally loud in their requests. They are taking risks and making mistakes. They're playing and having fun with maths ideas. I've never seen this sort of behaviour in girls before. Well, OK, that's not completely true: I have seen it but not to this extent. I also invite my year 7 girls and boys to share their learning as an added dimension to this process. The confidence my girls show in maths class spills into this interaction. My girls (and boys) are getting the best of both worlds. 

I'm still learning about single gender education; still working out how to implement the 52 recommendations in my own classroom. I doubt it's the kind of thing I'll ever stop learning.

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know students and how they learn.
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments.
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning.

What Would an Alien Visitor Think?

Aliens visiting my classroom last week would have been treated to a particularly poor viewing of how we 'do' education in this country.  It was NAPLAN week.

By way of explanation...
The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is an annual assessment for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. It has been an everyday part of the school calendar since 2008.
NAPLAN tests the sorts of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy. The assessments are undertaken nationwide, every year, in the second full week in May.  (National Assessment Program 2011)
(On paper it's a three day event with up to 5 tests (depending on the year level) administered under strict control.   In reality it's a week long interruption; causing stress and anxiety for almost everyone involved, returning largely redundant data too late in the school year to be meaningful to anyone. The tests ignore current pedagogy in favour of a colour the bubble format that, in itself, excludes the type of answers we usually seek from our students.)

So what would the aliens have seen?

Children neatly sitting at rows of desks, all silently facing the front and following specific, set instructions before answering mostly multiple choice questions on paper, with a pencil. Children anxious because we don't 'do' assessment this way because we know it doesn't tell us what we want or need to know. Children panicking as they come across *yet* another question that they have little chance of fully understanding because the test covers the full breadth of the year's curriculum and it's only week 14 out of a 40 week year. Teachers patrolling the aisles and making lists of absent students ready to pounce on their parents for keeping them home for the week.

And if aliens come this week, what will they see?

Children learning in whatever space best suits their needs at any point in time, whether at a group table, on a couch/bean bag/the floor, outside, in another teacher's space, in the canteen!  Children using whatever tool best suits their individual learning goal, whether pencil, paint, play dough, laptop, iPad, smart phone or hula hoops! Children democratically negotiating their learning processes and outcomes as a group and individually. Children learning about the world around them. Children connecting to the world around them. Children making a difference to the world around them. Children making noise.  I'm largely invisible as I play the part of lead learner alongside of the children.

I've read the rationale for NAPLAN and am willing to, for the sake of my job, administer it BUT I could not justify it to visiting aliens.

I just hope that any visiting aliens would have stayed long enough to see my students' end of week reflections. Many commented on the challenges of NAPLAN. One, in particular,  stood out...
"Mrs RP taught us that it doesn't test the important things about me. I'm more than what those tests can show. I make strong choices all the time. I'm polite and am trying to get better in my learning all the time. That's more important than the NAPLAN I reckon."  
I reckon so too.  What about you? What do you think of NAPLAN?