Saturday, 28 February 2015

Writer's Notebook

Do you use a writer's notebook?  I'll be honest, I don't.  Yet.   Today, a colleague (Melissa Thiele) and I were lucky enough to attend a workshop entitled The Writer as Collector - Using a Writer's Notebook presented by Alan J Wright in collaboration with the Australian Literacy Educator's Association, and this is about to change.

I've been reading about, and wanting to use, writer's notebooks for quite some time now. Intrigued and inspired by the concept since first hearing of them, I've never taken the plunge because I've also been a bit confused.  How do they fit? I mean, REALLY fit without 'taking away' from all the other cogs in the wheel of our literacy block? 

This morning I found the answer: they don't take away from the other cogs. They have the power to replace many of them. Yes please, sign me up.

Alan's presentation was a well structured collection of stories, which was fitting considering the title of the workshop, and the intended learning.  Through his own memoir like tales and anecdotes from students and teachers with whom he's worked, Alan was able to share his passion for living the writer's life and carefully placed his writer's notebooks at the very heart of it. As participants we lapped it up, following him from spiders under corrugated iron to the aisles of K-Mart all while he demonstrated the value of writer's notebooks. All while he demonstrated how he lives the writer's life. And for me that was the central message: as a teacher of writing I need to be a writer.  

And so, I stopped at Officeworks on the way home. I have two potential books. My mind is already 'rehearsing' the first marks I'll make in my notebook. I'm excited!
Is it silly that I so love the look of the top
book that I don't want to cover it?
 It reminds me of my childhood pen pal.
Not just for myself though. As much as I love writing and look forward to growing as a writer personally, I am excited to share this tool with my class.  Not yet though.  As new (or potential) notebook users we discussed the 'how' of bringing notebooks into our learning spaces. There seem to be two main streams of thought: teacher as 'expert': developing a degree of comfort and familiarity with the process first and then using the teacher's notebook as a tool before students begin OR teacher as 'co-learner' alongside the students. Knowing myself and my students, I want to spend some time living with my own notebook before taking it into our learning space. 

Even before I introduce the notebooks to the kiddos there are so many simple and practical ideas I took from today that I can start using straight away.  Here are a couple:
  • Presenting a beautiful/powerful sentence and asking how the author has used punctuation (or sentence structure etc.) to create that beauty/power. Can we use punctuation (or sentence structure etc.) the same way? What can we learn from the way the author has used punctuation (or sentence structure etc.)?
  • Taking a piece of writing and replacing the 50c verbs with $5 verbs. E.g. Replace fall with plummet.
  • Presenting a short passage of quality writing as a model and having a go at writing a piece in that shape/style/voice.
I have LOTS more to say about this workshop but not today; need to let it percolate a little first. I will share my progress with my notebook and, when it happens, my kiddos' notebooks. Who knows, they may even let me share some of their writing?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teacher it
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning 

Friday, 27 February 2015

How Do You Use Twitter?

In the words of a dear friend:
"I do, very much, love my job. You are challenged, inspired, frustrated, intrigued, entertained, flustered, provoked, humbled and more….and that’s all within an hour!"
(Thank you Katie Havelberg.)

So, I'm really frustrated to been put back on the bench by my doctor. I want to be at school. I miss my kiddos and my colleagues. 

One colleague I particularly miss, because she moved school this year, is Aimee Lipczyk. Yesterday she tweeted that she was talking to her class about the benefits of Twitter and called for people to chime in.  I don't know how her lesson went, but with the plethora of ways to use Twitter in the classroom I can imagine.  

Twitter, like most social media platforms, seems to polarise people.  Love or hate, there is no middle ground.  There are no prizes for guessing on which side of the fence I fall.  So following the mini twitter discussion prompted by Aimee, I did a bit of digging to find what other people are using Twitter for in their classrooms.

Here are 28 of  some of my favourite uses - some of which I use, others new to me (but will probably show up in our learning space in the near future):

  1. Networking with other classes.
  2. Sharing on the spot learning with parents (and the world).
  3. Live tweeting excursions or incursions. 
  4. Connecting with authors.
  5. Microblogging 'aha' moments.
  6. Using hashtags to take learning deeper.
  7. Summarising a lesson's main point in 140 characters or less.
  8. Becoming politically active.
  9. Using hashtags to facilitate research.
  10. Sharing student/class blog updates.
  11. Comparing global differences.
  12. Finding a class for Mystery Skype.
  13. Following the news.
  14. Twitterchats
  15. Creating a class Twitter newspaper with interesting retweets/#hashtags
  16. Building a sense of community.
  17. Running social action projects like #Socktober
  18. Asking for expert opinions.
  19. Connecting with professionals.
  20. Writing serialised stories or poems.
  21. Using a hashtag to compile resources.
  22. Sending out inspiration into the world.
  23. Hooking up with other classes around the world and using Google Earth. 
  24. Shout out to the teacher's network for authentic data to share with students about current topic of learning.
  25. Twitterpolls.
  26. Keeping a research diary.
  27. Making friends! 
  28. Being involved in challenges like #Mathsphotoaday
A word cloud of these 28 ideas. Fascinating to see where the emphasis lies isn't it? 

How do YOU use Twitter with your class?

Note: @the67VRPs is our class twitter account.  (Please feel free to follow us.) I run it through tweet deck on MY laptop and always check it carefully before mirroring it to our TV so that I can be sure of the content/contacts etc.   The kiddos devise their own tweets from the account and name them so that if it's a direct conversation with a student from another class it can be tracked.   

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 4 Create and maintain safe and supportive learning environments
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning 
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Joining the Dots

Today I had the privilege of accompanying 18 of our senior students to a GRIP Leadership Conference.  These 18 students represent our three year 6/7 classes and were chosen following collaborative processes that involved identifying the characteristics and qualities we would like to see in our leaders.  I can't speak for the other two classes but in my class all (self-nominated) candidates gave short presentation to the other students about how they demonstrate the identified characteristics and qualities. Our choices were based on these along with our prior knowledge of the candidates.

Back to today...

Amongst the other things covered today was the notion that leaders stand up.  They stand up when there's an opportunity, for the right thing, others and themselves. Of course we unpacked what that all meant and then the presenters mentioned a few people who exemplify these things.   Imagine my absolute delight when one of the students from my class leant over and whispered to me:

"All I can think of is Charlie Perkins. He was a real leader who really stood up."

I still grin like an idiot when I think about it.

The first time she'd heard of Charlie Perkins was yesterday during our Way Back Wednesday discussion about the Freedom Ride of 1965.  It was the first time that nearly any of my class had heard of him or the Freedom Ride which surprised me considering the media coverage the 50th anniversary has received this week. His life story and the '65 Freedom Ride really captured everyone's imagination.  I think our discussion left most students with more questions than answers, and eager to keep talking to learn more.

And that is why we never miss WBW.

I'm always very careful in my choice of WBW topic, and some weeks I struggle to come up with something that ties in with our other learning areas. (This is one of my non-negotiables: it must integrate across our programme so that it isn't a stand alone lesson.) The 50th anniversary of this incredibly important event in Australian history was one reason I chose it this week. I also needed to start talking explicitly about the concepts of primary and secondary sources, perspective and contestability - and what better way than with an event that has primary sources from various perspectives and secondary sources that raise questions about the primary sources. The icing on the cake for me was Charles Perkins' brilliant example of leadership.

As teachers we all get a thrill from those moments when students join the dots and create a masterpiece. Today. Today that happened for one of my students. Even the memory of it thrills me.

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.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

It Shouldn't Be This Complicated

A few days ago I wrote about labels and the inevitable 'othering' that comes with the act of labelling people.  Now I want to talk specifically about one particular label: giftedness.

I mentioned in that earlier blog post that I have two children who've been labelled as gifted and that we've used the label to 'other' them into a specialised programme.  Hypocritical? I can see how it might look that way. It's a bit more complicated than that though. When we're dealing with kids, it always is right?

Giftedness is an umbrella label applied to different groups of individuals depending on the organisation or educational body doing the applying.  Here in South Australia the Department of Education and Child Development uses Gagne's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent to identify that "gifted individuals as those who possess a natural (innate) ability or aptitude in at least one field or domain of ability, such as intellectual, creative, socio affective or sensorimotor, which is manifested to an outstanding degree, positioning them amongst the top 10% of their age peers" (DECD, 2012).  

Other definitions focus on behavioural characteristics such as asynchronous development (Columbus Group, 1991) or a greater awareness (Annemarie Roeper, 2000).  The problem with all of these definitions, as with any umbrella label definition, is that they paint only part of the picture.

A very cursory search of the world of mummy blogs will show that living with 'gifted' kids is often described as a minefield of much, much more than asynchronous development. Talk to any mainstream teacher and they will tell you that the rare truly gifted student they come across are usually the toughest kid in their class to reach.  My 13 and 15 year old sons both have a greater awareness of some things and practically none of others that don't rate as worthy of their attention.  I've been told that to think my children need different educational accommodations is pure elitism.

The thing with giftedness is that it's rarely simple, and never easy.  So that's why it's a bit more complicated. 

Educational outcomes for gifted children are often very low because due to disengagement with school. Many do not 'survive' our traditional methods of schooling well at all. Those who do get through secondary school with the grades to enter tertiary education often drop out.  

Giftedness is a loaded label that 'others' both the kids and their parents, and carries a social stigma of elitism. I'm NOT comparing the challenges associated with parenting or teaching gifted children with the challenges associated with other special needs. The challenges are different. Qualitatively and quantitatively  What I AM saying is that this label is complicated and these children deserve consideration of their special needs. Most do not get this. My two are lucky: they've got pushy parents who know their way around the education field.  It shouldn't come down to luck though. It shouldn't be this complicated.

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 4 Create and maintain safe and supportive learning environments
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Practise DOES NOT Make Perfect

I don't know about you but if I hear practise makes perfect one more time I may just scream.  Let's be clear about this: practice makes PERMANENT, not perfect.  Perfection - whatever that is - is harder to achieve.  There are so many reasons for this.

The one that I'm focussing on with my class at the moment is that doing something the wrong (or unhelpful) way  REPEATEDLY will embed that practice in the brain and make it habit. Everyone can think of examples of this: whether spelling a word incorrectly or leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor.  The more we do it, the more it becomes a habit.   Practise in this case does NOT make perfect but permanent.

So what are we learning does 'make perfect'? Practise WITH feedback and coaching.

If we think about the example of spelling a word incorrectly: in our room I don't correct spelling in student work but I do highlight incorrect spelling; so the student will notice the highlighted word and  add it to their spelling error analysis bank (SEAB) along with the correct spelling. Students independently and collaboratively look for patterns in their SEAB and choose their focus rules/patterns/words for their spelling capacity matrix. They work through this capacity matrix with constant feedback from each other, me and in many cases their parents. And the result? An individualised spelling program that has high engagement, regular feedback and improved spelling across all writing.

It works. Sure, there's practise in there, but each time we identify something we need to improve there's feedback and coaching. So why does society persist with the notion that practise makes perfect?  Is it common sense - it just makes sense that the more we do something the better we'll get? I'd counter that in most cases where this does work we are receiving subconscious or indirect feedback.

When I reflect on how this applies in my own life, I don't have to look very far.  This month I've been participating in #28daysofwriting which has seen me writing (nearly) every day.  Has practising (blogging) more  made me better at it? No.  You know what I have improved though? Coming up with blog ideas BECAUSE of my stats.  I've been tracking my stats and can see which topics attract more readers. (Not that I write solely to attract readers.) I'm also better at labelling my posts, following direct feedback about how I was doing it.

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 4 Create and maintain safe and supportive learning environments
Standard 5 Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Monday, 23 February 2015

Two Days Off? What?

I spent the weekend in bed. Not in the lovely "laze around in my PJs because it's the weekend and I can" kind of way, but in the "if I move I might puke or pass out" kind of way. Blurgh.  It ended with a    trip to the local emergency room last night for some emergency rehydration.  According to the kids I was having trouble fathoming why there were eyes on the rubbish bin (there aren't), and why they wanted me to blow out the birthday candle (they didn't). Apparently dehydration can lead to confusion. Who knew?  Long story short: I've spent today working hard to keep down steamed rice with the goal of stretching to dry toast later tonight. Party animal right?

Actually, the hysteria I experienced on being 'allowed' to come home from the hospital bordered on a party:
"You want me to take how many days off work?  I can't do that! Are you mad?" I could feel my head starting to spin again at the ridiculous notion that the doctor was suggesting I stay home for TWO days.  I turned to my husband with a 'who does she think she is?' look.  He merely nodded.
"Not you too! I can't stay home for TWO days! That's insane. Do you know what's going to happen in my classroom in two days? Do you know how much work I'll have to catch up on? I have meetings! I have assessments! I have... Oh! Oh!" And I sat down at that point. The stress what just too much.
Of course, the fact that at that point I still couldn't keep down water wasn't playing into my thinking. Why would it? Minor point right?  The fact that whilst I've been persistent in pursuing my lofty goal of digesting steamed rice today I wasn't ever likely to be overly successful wasn't even a consideration. Again... Minor point!

I know I'm not alone in resisting taking a sick day.  It's just one of those things that we, as teachers, do. Sometimes it seems like the act of planning the day and writing up the notes for the relief teacher  makes it all too hard. Sometimes the idea of what you'll 'come back to' is too much. Sometimes there's just too much to do. None of these are good reasons to not take a sick day. And yet I've heard them all already this year.

I can't think of another group of professionals that does this to themselves.  So why do we?  I don't think there are any easy answers. For me, it's partly a control thing, partly a workaholic thing, partly a  desire to fit in as much as I can into my time with my class, partly a need to feel needed and a whole bunch of other things.

This week resistance was futile. The doctor handed the medical certificate straight to my husband and they shared one of those knowing looks.  And so I'm at home. I couldn't have gone to work today and unless a miracle happens overnight I doubt tomorrow would have been an option either. I WILL be going back the following day though. I will. Probably. I hope.

Margaret Wild

One of my favourite children's authors is Margaret Wild.  I'm sure I've mentioned her before. In fact, I know I have at least once just recently: here. Last year my class indulged my passion by agreeing to go along with an author study focussing on her. Our school's literacy scope and sequence suggests that year 6/7s undertake an author study during term 4 so it all worked out quite nicely. 

Studying an author of picture fiction enabled all of my students to access multiple texts.  Last year's cohort had a reading age spread well over 10 years from well below year level. Assigning a shared text was NOT an easy option: welcome the picture fiction books of Margaret Wild!

With over 30 of Margaret Wild's book in our class library we were able to compare, contrast, respond, identify patterns, find common themes, and much much more.  Different people found interviews with her (our favourite can be read here), and it was fascinating to see the different ways she is profiled on different publishers' websites.

Some of our favourites that I'm sure the VRPs would be happy for me to recommend to you:

What is treasure to you? This tale of a refugee
 child's life journey examines this beautifully.
A beautiful story of family and friendship.
A story about friendship, trust and betrayal
told with strong imagery and descriptive writing.
Guaranteed to make ME cry.
Poignant story of love and death.
Do you have a favourite picture fiction author? Or other children's author? Or even an illustrator? (I LOVE Julie Vivas!)  I'd love to hear about them.  (I'm not so sure my husband would love it... I have a problem restraining myself when it comes to buying picture books!)

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the 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

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Chatting Over the Smorgasbord

I've been following Pernille Ripp on Twitter (@pernilleripp) for a while now and her blog is one of my must reads. Her Global Read Aloud community on Facebook is also pretty inspiring.  So, last night, when one of my colleagues tweeted me a link to one of Pernille's posts I enjoyed the prompt to revisit it.

The post in question talked about giving one minute 'book chats' (you can read it for yourself here). The premise behind a book chat is to spend a minute talking up a book you love with the intention of exciting someone else (in our case: students) to read it, love it and go on to spread the love.

I remember thinking, the first time I read the post, that I loved the idea and should definitely start. Yep. Well. I didn't. You know how it goes: beginning of the year madness. And then I read it again last night and realised that I don't need to start.

I already do it.

I share my passion for books with my class all day.  I regularly pull out individual books and 'sell' them. Non fiction texts about our current topic, picture books I love, novels I've enjoyed or think someone in the class will, poetry books with a hook, biographies of inspiring people... I talk about them all, and more.

Image from
The New York Times
The purpose for me, aside from enticing my kiddos to expand their reading diet, is to model being a broad reader. We all have our favourite genres, authors and topics but good readers feast from a smorgasbord of grand variety. A diet of plain fruit and vegetables may be healthy but it's also boring and uninspiring. We all need a balanced diet, in reading, just as in eating.  We may fill up on our favourites but it's important to throw in a spicy travel tale, or sweet picture book once in a while. My book talks demonstrate being a reader who balances my book choices between all the academic books I read, the picture books I pour over, and the novels I read for book club (or just fun), and... All the others.

If I carry this metaphor through... A book chat is like a taster, so over the course of the day, my class usually receives a tasting plate!

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Family BBQ

One of my professional development goals this year is to establish and maintain better communication and relationships between school and home.  Don't get me wrong, we developed great home/school relationships last year. It happened organically though. I'm confident that it would probably happen again this year but I want to be more proactive.

I've planned to hold one social event and one learning event for our extended VRP family each term. Last night my family and I hosted the first ever VRP Family BBQ. For anyone new to the blog: VRP is the name my class goes by.
The story goes a little like this: our school has a  single gender program alongside the mixed gender classes. In our year 6/7 unit last year there was a boys class, a girls class and then two mixed classes. I taught one of the mixed classes.  Very quickly the children noticed that two of the classes had strong identities simply based on their single gender nature but the two mixed classes?  Well not so much.  Someone noticed that RP (I'm Mrs RP) sounds a lot like IP which through a bit of mental gymnastics lead to us becoming the VRPs.
Yesterday was - in the words of most of the VRPs - stinking hot.  Even with the air conditioner on, our learning space was 27C after lunch.  I was a bit nervous about the number of people who might pull out because of the heat but, having bought several kilos of sausages and pre-cooked several kilos of onions (by which I mean my husband did them), I wasn't about to cancel.

I'm so pleased I didn't. Families of about a quarter of the class came. Nearly 40 people in the extended VRP family came together in our learning space to share a meal. My husband cooked the bbq, and everyone else brought salads to share. The adults enjoyed getting to know each other, and the young people relaxed and had a few laughs.

Before everyone arrived I pinned up the 'working papers' of a maths activity that the VRPs have been working on this week.
Using at least one of (+, -, x, /) and "5" exactly 4 times make 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10.
Each of 0, 1, 2 etc. have their own sheet of butchers' paper on which we've been recording number sentences as we discover them. I thought it would prompt some interesting discussions between the students and their parents.  It sure did.  Discussions, a wee bit of confusion, and competition! It also prompted some rich conversations about how the VRPs learn: the different entry points for learners at different points on their journey; the places of mental discomfort for all; the open ended nature of the problem; the ambiguous nature of the problem; the obvious collaboration and discussion.  Parents asked questions and our young people proudly demonstrated 'wisdom' as they explained their thinking and the benefits of our learning program.

It was a fantastic experience. The feedback on our Facebook group has been wonderful:
"Thank you so much for your efforts, time and food prep tonight. I really enjoyed being able to chat with some other parents, being a working Mum I haven't had much of an opportunity to do that."
"Thankyou for a lovely evening. Really nice to meet other parents, children and you (not as a teacher) and your family. Thankyou for your time and organizing this event." 
"Thanks for a great BBQ Markeeta and your assistant Geoff. Good night now to go geocaching."  (We had a long discussion about geocaching, and how we might get involved as a class, and possibly hold a geocaching event as our next social gathering.)
"Thank you Markeeta for a wonderful evening. We thoroughly enjoyed talking, & laughing, with other parents & students as well as you, your husband and your children. I was sooooo glad all the cakes were eaten (as our household is on a "health-kick" & dont need the temptation in the house hehe). The kids had a ball! Jackson & Amber had so much fun playing chasey with a heap of kids whilst Max liked 'chillin' with the older tweens/teens in the "Oasis". Thank you again. " (I wrote about our oasis here.)

There was actually very little planning involved, and the benefits far outweigh the costs. I can't wait for next term's event. (Did I mention that I love my class? And that their parents are a pretty awesome  bunch?  Well, if I didn't... I do. And they are.)

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 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Narrative of a Small Group

Once upon a time (today), in a classroom far far away (at my school), there was a teacher (me) who one stinking hot afternoon (today still) was left with no more than seven of her students in the classroom while the others were all busy at choir, underwater basket weaving or some such.

It had been a challenging week for the teacher with a range of things  pulling her out of the classroom more than she would like and she was disappointed to be missing more time with her students. It also skuttled her carefully designed lesson plans for the afternoon.  With a huge sigh and a quick eye roll, she shook it off and re-assessed the situation.  She noticed that the seven smiling faces in front of her were all on either one of two lists of children needing mini-lessons or small group learning in particular areas.

Pulling them all together on the floor, she started by finishing the picture book she had started that morning during a think-aloud mini-lesson about inferring. The intimacy of the small group gave confidence to one of the children who started a discussion that lead to an observably deeper understanding of inferring in most of the children. Two of the children drew inferences that even the teacher hadn't made. She felt the sense of peace that the change plans had unsettled starting to return.

Taking advantage of the engagement in inferring the teacher modelled a reading journal entry based on inferring. The children followed with scaffolded entries of their own.  She had one-on-one conversations with most of them about how to explain their thinking. They talked about recording their metacognition.

And then another couple of children turned up. The returning peace was, well, not quite shattered, but certainly cracked.  Fortunately, as fate would have it, the reading journals were nearly all complete by this stage and everyone was ready to move on to something new.  Those who weren't, continued at their own pace.

"Miss, can you please help me with my narrative plan? I really need some help" came the call from the corner of the room.

And so once again, gathered in a small group the children entered into personal conversations about narrative features. They co-constructed a narrative plan and compared it to their own earlier plans. They offered feedback to each other and sought the teacher's input.  They made changes and then realised that what they were really discussing was the narrative structure mountain the class had created earlier in the week.  The teacher pulled over the anchor chart and everyone checked their plans were complete.   Knowing that the following day they were doing a narrative assessment they asked the teacher if they could write another practise plan.  She smiled and nodded in encouragement.

As most of the children worked independently on their plans, with occasional clarifying questions the teacher looked across the learning space. The sense of calm and productivity she felt was a reflection of the room.

She'd been frustrated and unsettled by the change in her plans but the change had presented an opportunity to work with small groups of children on focussed tasks.  As she sat down with a child who had asked to have his times tables automaticity assessed she realised what a gift she'd been given.

And they all lived happily ever after. (Until tomorrow when who knows what will happen?)

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Book Club

I have precisely 28 minutes until my ride to book club will be here. I love my book club. Admittedly it's all about the books but that's OK right? My book club girls are awesome, and the bookshop where we meet is fantastic. (Seriously, if you live in Adelaide you really should check out this shop: Mockingbird Lounge on Broadway in Glenelg.) A night out in the middle of the week away from kids, partners, work and life isn't too hard to handle either!

I haven't started book clubs with my class yet this year, although I have plans to do so in the next couple of weeks. Last year I ran a couple. Every student in the school will ideally get the opportunity to have at least one book club experience each year. Ideally. Until we 'up skill' all of them that's not overly realistic.  I'm hoping to run more this year, but we're a little way from that yet.

My first group this year will probably comprise girls who were all successful (and enthusiastic) "book clubbers" last year. I discovered last year that an enthusiastic first group meant that the second group were excited before they even began. These girls are all skilled in articulating their metacognition around reading strategies and synthesis well.  Listening to their discussions was inspiring.

I wonder how I can create this experience sooner for my lower level students?  I wouldn't give up my book club for all the tea in China, and my "book clubbers" last year gained so much from their experiences... I feel like I'm cheating some of my kiddos.   Can I run a book club with a picture book? Or a range of picture books? Focussing on an author - almost as an author study?  What would that look like?  What about an early chapter book like Boy Vs Beast?

My ride's here... I'm off to book club. Have a great night!

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

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Quick Writes

Today I heard something that made my heart sing. I had asked the kiddos to get out their writing books because we were going to do a quick write. One of my very reluctant writers responded with
"Oh yeah, I love quick writes!"
Without a drop of sarcasm.  Oh yeah indeed!  He went on to write nearly half a page in ten minutes. That might not seem like a lot, but for him it's a massive improvement. And the pride on his face was spine tingling.

Our quick writes play an important part in our writing block. I provide a prompt (such as 'the door slammed...'), and occasionally some sort of parameter (such narrative), set the timer and say GO. Ten minutes later I say STOP and depending on whatever else we've got going on during our writing block we may swap with a critical friend or just move on.

There are multiple purposes and benefits of quick writes. For the kiddos:  improving stamina and creative fluency; regular chances to practise being a critical friend; playing with different styles without committing to a lengthy piece; and as it turns out a great sense of success because ten minutes is long enough for confident writers to get stuck into it and short enough for less confident writers to get something on the page without being overwhelmed.

For me: during the ten minutes I roam the room and observe physical writing practices (I'm amazed at the range of pen grips of my kiddos!); reading the responses allows me to see 'raw' writing giving me a wealth of information on which to based specific feedback and give NSLs; and lots of giggles.

The topics are sometimes serious and sometimes silly. The results are always interesting.  Check out  these gems:
"I sit in a lonely room with only a vase on a table." 
"Some creepy sicko had created a vase of death."  
"The vase's pattern was quite intricate, made up of runes and symbols and drawings depicting a beautiful planet." 
"What took so long?" [the character had claimed he needed to go to the toilet but was gone for 30 minutes] "Because I drank lots of water I needed a really long wee." 
"My heart was beating out of my chest." 
"Roses - red as blood." 
"He was very picky - he wanted the taste of human flesh in his teeth."
I'm always happy to take suggestions for future topics.  (It's a bit like #28daysofwriting really... In MANY ways.)

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 5 Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning

Monday, 16 February 2015

Ticking Words in My Sleep

I spent less than 5 minutes in my classroom today. For most of the day I was within ten metres of our main door but I didn't go in.  No fancy new 'hands off' teaching technique: just an assessment day. Today I ran Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessments on my kiddos.  Most of them anyway.

Prior to today I had run precisely two F&M assessments on my own, and observed two others. Today I did seventeen - many of which included two or three levelled texts. To say that my head is spinning right now is an understatement.  I think I'll be ticking words and writing SC in my sleep...  As I dream of, tomorrow, assessing the four kiddos who weren't at school today. 

These are the last assessments I have to do to complete the battery our staff agreed to perform as our baseline data for the year. As with most schools, we benchmark our reading levels a couple of times a year. Our school will, over the course of this year, be moving from using PM Benchmarking to F&P. Our literacy committee and leadership team decided that F&P was a more appropriate assessment tool for our school as it assesses right through to a reading age beyond primary school age.  (Check out the correlation between colour banded levels and F&P here.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the comprehension section of F&P.  There are no question, just a range of prompts and some some suggested key understandings.  Beyond the broader age range, this is, in my opinion, the key advantage of F&P.  Through these 'comprehension' discussions I was able to hear the reading strategies my kiddos are using - or not. One student told me that he'd made a text-to-self connection with one part of the story which helped him clarify an unfamiliar word. I nearly wept at hearing this: we've been focussing on clarifying in our reading block for the last week and a half. Another student told me that she'd used her prior knowledge to infer the feelings of a character. Still another predicted that cacophony had something to do with sounds because she knows the morpheme phone.  

Then there were the kiddos who came across an unfamiliar word and just skipped it.  And the ones who couldn't explain how the author had achieved a particular effect.  And those who couldn't retell the story. As each kiddo left me, I placed their name into the boxes on the small strategy group sheet my deputy principal had suggested I used.  It's an A4 page with 20 squares. Each has a strategy or small group focus at the top. It sounds like such a simple idea but it works brilliantly! (I'd previously used something much less formalised so I felt like a bit of dill for not thinking of it myself. (I'd scribbled areas of growth as I discovered them and added names as I went.) I've come away today with a plan.  Hooray!

I don't love spending time away from my classroom, but today the benefits far outweighed any other problems that arose. (And arose they did...  The kiddos were mostly self-regulated but not in the same way they usually are.  They were pretty engaged but not like normal.) I did love being able to spend some one-on-one time with each kiddo talking about their reading; and I loved learning about them. I can't quite say I love having a range of data on which to base my planning but I do appreciate it.

I feel the need to link this to my recent post about assessment. My take home message from that post was that my kiddos don't mind assessment if they understand its purpose. Today I made sure to explain to each of my kiddos that this assessment was for ME to learn about their reading strategies so that I could better meet THEIR needs. A couple really took this to heart and pointed out things that they don't feel confident doing: "I need help with inferring, make sure you write that down".  Now that's what I call students taking advantage of an opportunity!

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the 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 5 Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning

Sunday, 15 February 2015


We hired a pile of DVDs this weekend - with the intention of kicking back and relaxing in quasi-Valentines Day style. One of the picks was Detachment starring Adrien Brody. Have you seen this movie? Here's the preview:

I'll freely admit I'm the kind of tragic who usually enjoys 'teacher' movies. Not this one. Detachment is overwhelmingly confronting. It focuses attention on, funnily enough, detachment in our schools and society in general. It is in your face, brutal, honest and powerful. We sat in stunned silence for several minutes after the credits finished.

The problem with detachment, as a concept, for me is not that I'm detached. It's that I teach in and through relationships. I don't detach. (And I worry about that too, but I'll come to that later.) I watched this movie feeling like parts of it were in a foreign language. Then teachers would talk about community and I would understand again.  The notion of detachment in schools puzzles me. And yet, there are huge segments of our industry that advocate, even require, detachment.

We've known for a long time that learning is a social activity (think about Bandura for example); and we know that learning only happens when children feel safe (think about the neuroscience of trauma) and supported.  So why is there a growth in detached teachers and communities, and in advocacy for it?

Is it too dangerous? Detachment certainly reduces the likelihood of vicarious trauma, and of being accused of being attached. Is it too hard to manage? Detached relationships are more likely to follow straight paths and flow charts. Is it too personal? Detached relationships don't blur the line between school and community. Is it too scary? Detachment removes the risk of being hurt.  You know what?  I don't buy it.

Detachment is hurting our children. It's hurting our community, and it's hurting us as individuals. I can't do what I do and be detached from my kiddos. They're a huge part of my life: I spent HOURS with them most days of the week. I don't want to spend that sort of  time with people from whom I'm detached.

This movie disturbed me because I see detachment happening around me. Not in my school. Not at all. But around me. In other schools and in our communities. I see children slipping through the cracks because the adults with agency are so detached from the realities of these kids' lives that they don't see what's happening. I see families disintegrating because every member is detached from the others that no one notices. I see schools taking such a hands off approach that kids are going hungry. I  don't want to see it anymore.   If everyone, and I mean everyone from the youngest of children to the oldest of grannies, could just reach out and 're-attach' think of the change we'd see.

We all know that I'm an early career teacher, and an overly-principled one at that. I realise that what I've written today is highly idealistic and naive. That doesn't leave it without merit though.  Think about what you can do to reach out this week.

On a totally side note: I do sometimes worry that I haven't learnt the art of professional detachment. You know the one they tell us about while we're training?  I don't worry a lot, because I have strategies in place to deal with vicarious trauma, exhaustion etc., but I do worry.  I guess the point of my post is that I don't see huge value in detaching more than I do now, but... Self-care is important. Ideas?

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

Just like Dobbie!

Our library borrowing time is Friday right after lunch. I'm pretty transparent in my reasons: we're all tired by the end of the week and most of the kiddos are hot and bothered after running around like mad-men during their lunch break.  We all benefit from sitting down and relaxing over a shared picture book. My love of picture books is well known (here and at school) and so it makes sense to harness that obsession passion to help us through an otherwise challenging afternoon.

Sometimes we pick something topical and chat over the connections we can make between it and our other learning.  Other times a student will slip a book into my hand and give me a quick nod or a shy smile that makes it all but impossible to say no to them. If there's something on the 'new books' shelf that catches my eye I throw caution in the wind and read a book to the class before previewing it. (I figure that if our teacher librarian has chosen it for the school it can't be horrendous!) My favourite is  when we read old favourites and share text-to-text connections we've made over our time together.

It's a bit early in the year for any 'old' favourites with this class but my loopers (a term my husband coined this morning because he's tired of hearing me distinguish between my old kids - the ones who've come with me this year, and my new kids) have been pretty vocal in reminding me of some of last year's favourites.  I read one on Friday because it happened to also be one of my all time favourites, and we studied it during our  'author study' so I wanted to see what my loopers came up with during the discussion.

And boy was I amazed. They lead the discussion. They discussed Margaret Wild's craft in this book and linked it to others; they talked about the relationship between the text and the illustrations; they helped the younger students draw inferences and find evidence in the text or their own schema to support them. I sat in shock delight.

In case that wasn't brilliant enough?  Toward the end of the discussion, one of my loopers who struggled a little last year piped up with,
"And right at the end, I think Little Humpty talks about himself in the third person doesn't he? Just like Dobbie does in Harry Potter?"  Words failed me. Well, that's a lie. Words never fail me. I grinned. Like a cheshire cat. And asked her to explain why the author may have done that.
"Well, my little brother talks like that sometimes, so maybe Margaret [yes, they referred to the author by first name!] to remind us that Little Humpty is a kid?"
Yes. Yes indeed.

I sometimes worry that in a year 6/7 class I rely on picture books too much, but then consider all the novels, poems, graphic novels and non-fiction books we also use.  And I think of examples like the one I've just described. We read this book, in part, probably half a dozen times last year. Individual students poured over it many more times. It is familiar to my loopers in a way that a novel couldn't be, and that allowed for my student to make her connections.

Picture books. Gotta love 'em right?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the 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


For a whole slew of reasons, the word neuroplasticity has been part of everyday conversations in my family for a long time. I don't hear it many other places though. And I'll be honest, I don't use it at school very often.  Which raises an uncomfortable question for me: why not?

Simple answer: I don't know

I read an article a couple of days ago titled The Neuroscience Of Learning: 41 Terms Every Teacher Should Know  which lead me to another article The Simple Things I Do To Promote Brain-Based Learning In My Classroom.  This second one really made me stop and think. I already use many of the strategies Judy Willis mentions in her article but I rarely explain (to my students) the reason I use them. It's time for me to harness MY neuroplasticity to change my thinking and incorporate more explicit neuroscience teaching and learning into our programme. 

So here's what I'm going to do: starting next week I'm making time to teach my students about their brains.  We know, from research done by people like Judy Willis,  Peter Marshall, Christina Comalli and Carol Dweck, that teaching children about their brains improves - in my words - their ability to use them.  Three short sessions each week for a few weeks seems to be the optimum for a jumpstart into these understandings, which is easy to manage.  I'll keep you updated on how we go.

I'm still not entirely sure how I'm going to start this off, but I've been having a look at a few youtube clips (my kiddos respond well to a tuning in activity like videos).  I found a channel that has some short sharp videos that might work.  Here's their take on neuroplasticity.

What do you think?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the students and how they learn
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning

Thursday, 12 February 2015

On point, what is it?

I was about to launch into a geography lesson today when one of my students asked me,
"Mrs RP, can you tell me what geography actually is? I mean, "on point", what is it?"
And sirens went off in my head. So many questions and comments ran across the ticker at the bottom of my mental news feed:

  • What on earth do you mean?
  • Gosh, I'm glad you felt safe to ask that!
  • How did we get to a point where a year 7 student doesn't know this?
  • How did I not know that she didn't know this?
  • How many other students don't know this?
  • What do I do now?
  • Where is my butchers' paper?
  • This fluid change of direction is going to stress my kids with ASD and anxiety. Gotta keep an eye on them.
I asked the rest of the class if anyone could answer her. Dead silence. I mean... Crickets.

So I threw out my lesson plan.  I had a chuckle because all I could think of was @Venspired's poster:

We pulled out the butchers' paper and broke down the word into morphemes.  Many of my kiddos are taking a purely morphemic approach to their spelling capacity matrices and so they lead this part of the lesson. We started with geo in the middle of the page and brainstormed as many words we knew with this in it. We tried to find a link, but got stuck on geothermal so we did the same for therm. It grew from there. There were pages all over the place as we built our understanding of various morphemes. Eventually our task minder reminded us what our original question had been and we were able to return to geo and come up with an early understanding. 

Not satisfied with this, we wanted to check.  Individually we used carefully chosen search terms to find online definitions. We combined these with what we'd already discovered and then shared our findings with a partner.  Each partnership then shared with the class and we developed a working definition: 
"Geography is the learning and knowledge about the world around us and people's relationship with it."
This isn't too different from ACARA's definition:
"Geography is a structured way of exploring, analysing and understanding the characteristics of the places that make up our world, using the concepts of place, space, environment, interconnection, sustainability, scale and change. It addresses scales from the personal to the global and time periods from a few years to thousands of years."
It wasn't what I'd planned but you know what? It felt great to throw out my plans and follow their lead. Our next lesson will be much more successful as a result anyway. (And how stupid do I feel for not checking that they knew this basic concept?)

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the 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


My husband is a social worker.  Or rather, he was. Now he does counselling and massage. All three come in handy!  More times than I can count he has listened to me as I've enthused, vented, chaffed at restrictions, showed off, planned and debriefed. He's been incredibly patient and I'm more grateful that he realises.

Tonight, over shredded duck and snow pea stir fry,  he helped me unpack some ideas I have around the way we label children. I'll be honest: I have issues with it. I think we 'other' children with labels, whether that is the intention or not.  There is more than one way to view this. Of course there is. This is just MY thinking, right now.

As a parent, I have seen first hand how this works. Our two oldest children are gifted. They are both enrolled in a gifted programme that runs parallel to the mainstream programme at their high school.  They are segregated classes, have different subjects, and go on alternate camps.  The staff of this programme are largely, but not wholly, specialists in gifted education. The school recognises the need for specialist services for these kids. They are quite clearly 'other'. (Don't get me wrong: we advocated for the boys to be included in this programme; we used the label to get the support they need.)

As a teacher, I see a different side of it.  Children come to me with labels. Sometimes I seek a label for them. Sometimes, I'm chastened to admit, I give them one. And these labels change the way the children engage with school. Sometimes the label means that the children have different expected outcomes. Sometimes they are taken out of the classroom for extra support. Sometimes they have extra support in the classroom. Sometimes they have specialised equipment. Sometimes they have behaviour plans that keep them in particular parts of the playground. Always they end up making it clear to the rest of the class that this child is 'other'. 

My issue is that there is an assumption that there's a problem that needs to be fixed. The deficit model which has us approaching students based on our perception of their weaknesses is pervasive.  And insidious. 

By the end of our stir fry, I was quite worked up. My husband reminded me that whatever else I may or may not do, I do see the child in front of me, rather than the label. I can quote their labels, and learn everything I can about the labels but by the time the child is standing in front of me I'm done with that. I see the child in front of me. He or she is welcomed into our class family and celebrated. Nobody is singled out as special. There are no 'others' in our class. There are just people.

And so is my husband, but right now I might just ask him if I can take advantage of his masseuse label. :)