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Saturday, 31 January 2015

Time to be ...

It never ceases to amaze the amount of quality professionals we have in education. I was speaking with a few friends of mine recently, in this group there was one who was previously a life-coach, another a former GM of a tech company, a qualified real-estate agent and a medical scientist. As the night went on we all began to talk about our journeys into education.  Through listening to their stories I discovered that many of us shared a similar burden, the desire to make a difference in the lives of children.

Discussions continued about how this desire often got lost due to the overcrowding of curriculum, external expectations and eventually we got to ourselves. When I say ourselves I mean we as teachers began to become less self disciplined in our personal routine, our attention was spread to wide and our ability to truthfully reflect was distorted.

This reality hit most of us from left field. We thought that we were doing okay but then we had realized that we were part of our own problem.

In this moment we were faced with a complex issue, the question of how do we get back to that point of focus and passion?

About a week later when we next spoke there was a suggestion made that we all begin to journal or blog. Most of us coming from previous professions had done similar in the past and had found benefit in it then so we took on the challenge to answer the two driving questions behind our issue:

  1. Who do we want to become in this season of teaching?
  2. What habits do we need to form to make this a reality?

When faced with deep questions it is essential not to get down on yourself but to look for the opportunities.

The following are some routines that I have now implemented with the guidance of my fellow educators and so far we are all sharing some wonderful clarity in focus.

Build downtime into your schedule.
When you plan your week, make it a point to schedule time with your family, friends and activities that help you recharge.

If a date night or event is in your calendar, you'll have something to look forward to and an extra incentive to manage your time well so you don't have to cancel.

Drop activities that sap your time or energy.
Take stock of activities that don't enhance your classroom practice or personal life and minimize the time you spend on them.

Rethink your responsibilities.
Consider whether you can outsource any of your time-consuming responsibilities that don't add value to your classroom practice or lifestyle.

Get moving.
It's hard to make time for exercise when you have a jam-packed schedule, but it may ultimately help you get more done by boosting your energy level and ability to concentrate.

Relaxation goes a long way.
Don't assume that you need to make big changes to bring about focus. It is more about giving yourself the time to reflect and plan.

As teachers we know the power of reflection for a student, just watch Austin’s Butterfly by Ron Berger if you want any inspiration, but the power and impact for a teacher is even vaster. It has the ability to change a teacher, student, classroom and a school.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Being a Globally Connected Educator with a Globally Connected Classroom

As educators we live is such an exciting time to teach. With the onset of the Internet we have had the ability to embed and curate videosgamifyblog, have Minecraft in the classroomflip the learning, use QR Codes, access social media and potentially video conferencing some educators could see that it is too much; however, I see its potential to benefit students and enhance professional development for educators. 

There has been no time in history where access to information has been so immediate and available. The potential for teachers to connect and be supported in collaboration, not bound by schools, districts, states and even nations inspires me. I am acutely aware that being globally connected presents the ability to bring expertise, skill and knowledge into my classroom beyond my capabilities. 

The networks that I have help me to design activities that measure students’ higher-order thinking skills, problem-solving ability, capacity to locate, evaluate, and use information. They have also assisted me to differentiated and individualize the learning to cater for the needs of my students. One idea that came from my global connection was creating short tutorial video’s to support students with additional needs and another to enhance my extension students. 

Within my networks are many of the professionals that I call mentors. In a recent post on my blog I wrote about a technique of video analysis that I do to professionally reflect and gain feedback from my teaching mentors, many of who are not teachers at my school.

Exposing students to technology such as those mentioned above have shown to increase student motivation and engagement, prepare students for jobs, and enhance students’ ability to work collaboratively (Jackson & McNamara 2013). I have found that they can assist in creating a “fun” and exciting learning environment. Where students are challenged to discover answers to real world problems.

As I write this post I read from one of my network that they have just video conferenced with astronauts, another is looking to conference with the Prime Minister and another an environmentalist. Personally I have connected with International Athletes, student’s grandparents based in other countries and virtual excursion to the Daintree Rainforest without leaving the comfort of my classroom. 

The use of both blogs and twitter as a point where students can post, reflect and publish is a key strategy in my classroom. As my students write they understand that they will be working towards an authentic audience. We had Jacqueline Harvey @jacquelineharve visit our school to shed light on an author’s mindset. As she spoke, she promoted idea that an author always has an audience in mind. 

I like the idea that student’s work is not just for my eyes, it is for their parents, grandparents, friends and for the world beyond. Since implementing this publishing initiative the quality usage of language conventions, sentence structure and self-editing has dramatically improved. Duke, Purcell-Gates, Hall and Tower (2006) agree with this when they state that the “Audience is integral to authentic writing” (p9).

Nicholas Provenzano in closing his article for edutopia on August 13 2012, put it this way (slight rephrase) As you look to use your newly made teacher connections to enhance the learning experience for your students you create more engaged learners along the way.

Duke, N .K.;Purcell-Gates, V.; Hall, L. A and Tower, C. (2006) Authentic literacy activities for developing comprehension and writing; The Reading Teacher Volume 60, Issue 4, pages 344–355, December-January 2006
Jackson, G. Tanner; McNamara, Danielle S. (2013, September 9). Motivation and Performance in a Game-Based Intelligent Tutoring System. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

Provenzano, P. (2012) Connecting Educators Benefits Students – Edutopia

(This article origionally appeared on on the 16/1/2015)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

How to Create a Culture of Learning and Success?

This post has been inspired by a discussion that took place on 18/1/2015 on #Aussieed. The chat looked at the concept of the #notperfecthat Club with @jenanamorane @martysnowpaw and that each student is perfectly imperfect and that is okay.

As I was reflecting on my own education and experience as a student I realized that it wasn't until I reached university that I experienced a culture of learning and success in formal education.

Even though teaching has been something that I had wanted to do from some of my earliest years, schooling was not something that I enjoyed. I recently had coffee with one of my teachers and her comment was “… school didn’t serve you well as a learner, did it Brian! In those days we taught everyone the same and expected everyone to meet the standard within a given timeframe. Time for support was a luxury we didn't have.” As a student, I didn’t perform well. I was a learner who learnt outside of the norm and if I wasn't able to get things as quickly as others I would get down on myself. I know this is posture that I have also seen in some of my students in the past.

Going through high-school things began to improve, as I was able to start choosing the areas in which I studied. After graduating from high school and a bit disgruntled with education I moved into the fields of Outdoor Education, Youth Work and high level Gymnastics Coaching. I found within these fields Masters of Experiential Learning. They taught me people learn by doing, feeling, touching and failing. They also taught me that for people to fully grow they need to feel safe in a place where it is okay not to be perfect but as they practice they become better at mastering a skill.

This gave me the confidence to once again work towards “formal education”. During this university time I was privileged to study within a knowledge building community (KBC 2007) led by Dr. Julie Kiggins @jkiggins. She personally mentored a small group of students, teaching us that education can happen anywhere. Teacher-centered learning was only just one-way of delivery and often was the least beneficial. Much of the content was delivered as Problem Based Learning and action research working in collaboration in teams with experts in the field that we had access to. The four ‘pillars’ of the KBC were; taking responsibility for own learning, learning through collaboration, identifying and resolving problems, and becoming reflective.

As I think back on my university days I relies much of the principles that were imparted to me I endeavor to impart to my students. Learning can happen anywhere as long as they feel safe to try and fail. Students are interested in solving real world problems. They want to know how and why things do what they do if they have a need to know. They love working in collaboration and as they become more reflective as a learner they take greater responsibility for their learning.

The question still remains how do you create this culture of learning and success?

As classroom teacher I set the tone where emotion intelligence and literacy can flourish. I let the students know that I am a teacher and teachers make mistakes all the time, as we are not perfect, we are humans! I then encourage a have a go mentality using analogies like riding a bike and learning how to walk. After this I create a safe activity to fail e.g. a group collaboration task like mute line-up. These tasks are often just outside of the student or groups zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) and this all happens in Week 1!

Throughout the year I use PBL tasks, which have an entry event that stimulates students, need to know then followed up by a series of activities or takes that cause students produce a deeper understanding. These tasks are based on problems in their world e.g. creating a sustainable transport system for an island that has none using minecraft or creating a narrative to be published as an electronic book using book creator. Students instantly become engaged, as they want to create something that makes a difference in the real world and be shows their success as a learner. Posting or publishing student work is essential in this process as they see that pride can be taken in overcoming problems and learning new skills. It all comes down to the language used and the support I give, once my students know they are safe to try they begin to achieve. My student’s know that "failure is not fatal but is the First Attempt In Learning".

Rebecca Alber has written a magnificent list of twenty ways to create a safe learning environment for Edutopia. Her advice includes building community, setting clear boundaries, smiling and laughing a lot, and getting to know each individual student, as well as allowing them to get to know something personal about you.

I agree with Alber’s top twenty. I find it pleasing that she has a balance between creating a space that is fun and welcoming and full of laughter, but also one where expectations are set and failures become learning opportunities.

In the end, the responsibility for implementing this kind of environment that eliminates hurtles that spoil learning falls on us as educators. Creating that safe learning environment when done well, allows students to flourish and teaches them that “being Not Perfect is perfectly fine! In fact, the world is full of talented and wonderful people who are ALL perfectly Not Perfect” (

Kiggins, J. & Cambourne, B. L. (2007). The knowledge building community program: a partnership for progress. In T. Townsend & R. Bates (Eds.), Handbook of Teacher Education: Globalization, Standards and Professionalism in Times of Change (pp. 365-380). The Netherlands: Springer.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Innovation Through Reflection

Last week whilst catching up with a close friend of mine the question was posed “How have you become such an innovative educator?” This question took me by surprise, he is a well-known lawyer known for his ability in court to be incredibly pioneering and he was asking me for advice!

After taking the time to think about this I believe I found my answer. For me I feel that the key driver behind the innovative practices in my classroom was reflection. Looking at what I had previously done, analyzing this, making some minor adjustments and then trying it again.

This is something that in my previous career as a Gymnastic Coach I would always do with my athletes but until that moment I hadn’t made the connection to innovation.

An example form of my reflective processes was in the past I would write down how I felt a lesson went, what went well, areas that needed to change and how students interacted. For many years this worked; however, it didn’t give me much traction. So at the beginning of 2014 in one of our staff PD sessions I was introduced by Bill Gates to the concept of “Video Analysis in Education”. Again this was something that as a coach I would use almost every training session; however, I had never considered bringing it into the classroom.

Now once a month I place a small camera at the back of my room and record about 30 minutes of a lesson. Each time I do this I choose a different KLA and focus area e.g. student behavior and engagement, lesson introduction, lesson conclusion, lesson individualization and differentiation and group work. I then upload a small snapshot of this to youtube so both my teaching mentors and I can give me feedback. Making that small minor adjustment to improve my teaching practice. It is simple, easy and effective as you can see you as a practitioner and you students interact with the content you are delivering.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

So what's so good about Minecraft?

As a primary teacher I was asked this question early in 2013. My response ashamedly was very naive and ill informed. At that time I had only seen it through the eyes of pop culture. Many of my students had been using it to the point of addiction and frustrating me with conversations about creepers, modes and worlds. 

Thankfully after much research and experimentation my reaction to this same question is vastly different.

A bit of history on Minecraft – it is one of the original block building games created by Markus Persson @notch in 2010 then further developed by Jens Bergensten @jeb_ and the Mojang team. In 2014 Mojang was acquired by Microsoft.

A proven way I have been able to describe Minecraft is it is like a digital lego. Students are able to do many things, they are in control of the learning, they experiment, take risks and learn from their mistakes. The by product of this is their engagement and motivation level is high so disciple problems rarely surface. The basic edu version contains two modes: Survival and Creative. Survival is more like a traditional video game and Creative mode, there are no bad guys; the fun is just in building things using various forms.

It has the ability to engage all form of learners, the problem solvers, the tinkerers and the storytellers have as much fun as those who want to create and foster communities. The possibilities for collaboration are endless and are only limited to the teachers willingness to experiment with the tool and the problem the student is presented with.

My Example Unit
This year I successfully implemented a unit of work on transport using Minecraft. It provided a real world 3D environment where students created, designed and collaborated together on the systems needed to provide a make believe island with a fully functioning transport network.

I set this project up based on a structure presented by the Buck PBL Institute. We had an initial two week period of creating a need to know. As part of this process I invited an industrial engineer in to speak with my students about the buildings he designs demonstrating drawings, 3D CAD programing and 3D printing. This provided a real world career that used skills that were going to be developed using the tool.

I had one of our high school students create some short basic tutorials and then we played using survival mode. Students were given a limited supply of resources to create a shelter or house with in a given time. This gave me an insight into the skills students already came with and possible groupings.

Students were then given one hour in teams of four over a seven week period to create a working transport system linking two or more forms of transport. We had trains, boats, planes (including an A380) built. Students needed to research environmentally sustainable forms of powering these forms of transport and look at supporting infrastructure e.g. airports & train terminals.

At the end of the seven weeks we had a gallery walk event where we invited parents, teachers, engineers, the principal and others we knew who worked in the transport industry. Students needed to talk about how and why they had created their teams forms of transport. They needed to show designs and explain how it met the needs of the community and demonstrate what they had created had a sustainable footprint.

This was a challenge but look at the following videos to be inspire about what can be created by an infants class. Videos 1 - 8 are our tutorials and videos 10 - 20 are the students work. If you are interested in how to get started click here!

A list of great of Minecraft projects has been provided by Coffs Harbour Pubic School

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