Friday, August 27, 2010

Bon Voyage Mitchell

In a land where all students are equal but some are more equal than others, one of our favourite sons sets off an adventure tomorrow as an exchange student to France for the next 5 months.

When I wrote my first post on this blog about things I'd do differently in another lifetime, student exchange is one of the things I should have listed. Unfortunately I didn't have the confidence or the bravery to do it and here I am many years later, still only dreaming about visiting places like France, so I am looking forward to sharing a vicarious journey with Mitch.

I like to think that as a school we have contributed something to Mitchell's decision to make this trip. He is a remarkable boy by nature, a caring and inquisitive soul with an empathy for others and a strong sense of justice but he hasn't always been as outgoing and confident as he is now. Since year 5 however, he has taken every opportunity offered to him and it has been very rewarding to watch his personal growth. As one of our Performing Artists he has been shot on the battlements as 'Gavroche', cavorted around the stage in a lycra body suit as 'Mungojerry' and perfected a magnificent hair flick and sung an (almost) high C as 'Sir Galahad'. As a member of the Kapahaka group, he has stripped to the waist and performed countless haka with such mana and conviction that he has been left bleeding. Once you've shown the confidence to do that, a few months in a foreign country is a trifling matter!

Mitch has been on our NZ camp twice and didn't waste a second of the time that he was there.

Last year Mitchell had the opportunity to attend the Alpine School program at Glenormiston. For 9 weeks, he and three other students developed their leadership skills in a technology, junk food free environment. They came home changed, invigorated, motivated and ready to take on the world as valuable contributors to their society. From that experience, Mitchell's desire to go on exchange was born. It is testament to his strength of mind and the support of his family that having decided this was a good thing to do, he went about doing it!

Last year, another of our stunningly successful students Emily, spent 5 months in Italy and hopefully these two have set a precedent for many more of our kids to follow. There's nothing wrong with growing up in a tiny town like Mortlake when the world is just outside your doorstep.

And so, armed with 12 months of French by correspondence and a 'take it as it comes and expect the best 'attitude, Mitchell will board a plane tomorrow , followed by a train on Sunday, to Marseilles, where he will sacrifice his Summer holidays to spend the next 5 months at school.

We know that he will charm his new friends and family and have a magnificent adventure.

Ayez un temps magnifique. Coffre-fort de voyage. Voir-vous en Janvier :-)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Action Research

This year I returned to study at the University of Melbourne in the Master of School Leadership program run through the Bastow Institute. It's a two year course delivered by intensive, on campus study in three, two day blocks each semester. The reading and the assessment schedule are fairly intense on top of a pretty crowded full time work schedule but I'm really enjoying the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to learn from amazing educators and fellow student colleagues.

One of the major requirements of the course is an Action Research Project designed to effect change in our school and improve student learning. Last year I was involved in the Leaders in the Making program and together with other participants from the Warrnambool network we identified online behaviour as one of the leading problems in all our schools. We put together a proposal for the network principals to initiate a student led action group to educate parents as a way of improving the digital footprints of our students. Due to almost all our group members falling pregnant during the course (luckily my advanced age provided me with immunity from that!) our plans for this project have gone on hold. So, given that the problem with online behaviour has worsened rather than improved since then, it seemed a logical idea for me to pick up and continue in the MSL project.

My ruminations about the content of the project can be found on the collaborative wiki set up for my school team participants and I would appreciate it if anyone who has taken enough interest to read my blog could also take the time to read my project outline. My biggest problem is narrowing down the information I want to find out and deciding what exact course of action I might take once I've found the information. I would sincerely like to solve all the problems of the world in one go and I hate being restricted to achievable chunks! Unfortunately this attitude frequently leads to a revolving crisis of brilliant ideas and no action.

On Friday we had a visit from Michael Phillips, an educational researcher from Monash University. Michael is conducting research into students' online behaviour with a view to compiling a guide book for them explaining the legal ramifications of some of the stuff they do online. We had previously completed some of his online surveys and I was really interested to meet him as a lot of the questions in his survey related directly to the ideas I'm keen to pursue in my study. One of his sessions involved interviews with several of our middle school teachers. During that interview it became evident to me that I was not alone in thinking of the internet as just another place where kids hang out and that our reaction to this space needs to be the same as any other space our students use. Much of our discussion revolved around the tendency of school administration to use the 'block, ban, ignore' method of dealing with issues that occur online with the excuse that it 'didn't happen in school time'. Unfortunately a lot of it is now happening in school time. Free facebook access on most smart phones means that status updates are happening from inside classrooms and during breaks and when those updates are negative toward someone in the school then I'm pretty sure it's a school issue.Online incidents that happen after school almost invariably end up on the welfare officer's doorstep at the start of each school day. We also talked about the idea that, in a lot of education circles, social media is almost always referred to in a negative context with the emphasis on the perceived dangers, rather than as the incredibly useful communication tool that we see it to be.

One of the reasons I've chosen this area to study is that I feel so strongly that social media can provide another avenue for building the kind of strong relationships that are the heart and soul of every good school. This blog post by Ric Murry tells it like it is. I certainly think that part of the reason my students do so well is that they want me to be proud of them. We have the kind of mutually respectful relationship that engenders best effort and it's simply not possible to get the same results unless you care about the kids and they care about you. Today is my birthday and it is interesting to note the different ways the kids at school helped me to celebrate. I had a birthday wish from the entire school at assembly this morning, the 5-7s sang a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday and the Yr 12s shared some of their mad Monday cake with me during Drama. the time I checked my facebook as I was finishing this post, more than a dozen current and ex students had taken the time to post a personal birthday message to my wall. That's a lovely, real way of communicating and connecting and it's worth fighting for.

Anyway, as usual I digress. As you can see I've done a lot of talking with like minds and I've become an avid reader of other bloggers and almost without exception the same themes keep recurring, all reiterating my own thoughts about online spaces and behaviours but also confusing me by adding even more thoughts and ideas to the maelstrom spinning around in my head. I need help with the focus of my project.
I'm off to eat more cake. Please check out my wiki and give me some guidance!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ageism Rules

Why is it that schools and school systems designate their students to age based grades and expect them all to achieve standardised, age based outcomes?

I'm really frustrated by this. Maybe part of my frustration is because it's a 'rule' thing ( see my previous post for my feelings on rules!), but mostly I'm frustrated because my teaching experience tells me that age expectations are so restrictive for some and downright depressing and unachievable for others. Just as kids differ so remarkably in physical development, cognitively and socially they are all over the shop as well and deserve to be taught where they are at, not where some arbitrary, chronological line assigns them.

In my own teaching unit I am lucky enough to work with two colleagues who share my opinion of the negative effects of pigeon holing by grade. We teach 64 kids from year 5 to year 7 and within our core classes we group them by learning style, not by age. The work we plan for them and the expectations we have of them are based on their individual needs, not on the grade list they belong to. We don't even think of them as being in particular grade levels and when asked by someone from outside our unit, we often have to stop and think very hard to say whether they are in year 5, 6 or 7.

The academic data from our unit is exceptional, especially at year 7 level and the break down of academic achievement is also interesting. In mathematics, for example, the range of achievement goes from a VELS level of 1.9 to 5.2. In reading, from 2.3 to above 5.8. Interestingly, the lowest scoring reader is a year 7 student and, you guessed it, the highest scores in both areas come from year 5 students. And yet, I read just as recently as this week, that it is very nearly impossible for a student to be graded at a higher level than grade level in mathematics because the subject is of a lock step nature and the child could not possibly have learnt the material necessary to score so highly! I just really don't believe that and our data refutes it. If my students' achievement was restricted to only what I, personally had taught them, then it would be a shame. Even I'm not egotistical enough to think all their knowledge comes from me. Heck, I have kids who know how to use semi colons properly; and they certainly didn't get that from my classroom ;-0. I have also heard it suggested that year 8 students shouldn't work in vertical groups with year 10s because they will hold the older students back. I would have a few year 8 students who would suggest it might be the other way around because chronological age is a pretty poor indicator of maturity in adolescents!

I've done a fair bit of surfing through Google Scholar while I've been thinking about this and while there isn't a plethora of research available, the work that has been published quite overwhelmingly comes down in favour of multi age grouping that involves individual and differentiated learning tasks. The interaction between the different ages not only enables individual progression, it allows for mentoring, role modelling and nurturing and creates opportunities for a team or family like environment in the classroom.

I'm not sure if it is a status quo thing, as in that's the way it's always been done, because age segregation is actually a relatively recent phenomenon and I found an old but easy to understand article that explains the evolution of this type of education in a far more articulate fashion than I can manage.
On the merits of Multi Age Classrooms.

My gut feeling about the continuance of age/ grade grouping is that it's done that way because it's 'easier'. Easier for teachers, easier for text book writers and test makers, easier for planning the furniture allocations, easier to explain to parents who were themselves taught that way and so think it must be the best way for their own children.

My hope is that this is one of the factors of education that will change dramatically through online learning. I certainly know from my own experience that one of the great benefits of online communication is that you meet the mind first. Your interaction and opinion of another person's intellect and personality is not prejudiced by what they look like, how old they are, or what their social or economic position is.
Imagine if this was the case with our students.If we took away the expectations we have of our students due to their age or grade level, how would that change the way we teach them and the ideas to which we expose them?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rule 33.a

This week, George Couros posted a blog inspired by a TED talk by Barry Schwartz. I really enjoy reading George's stuff so I took the time to watch the video. It got me thinking about a lot of things and my brain overloaded so far that I actually took some notes while I was watching it.

I have a bit of an issue with 'rules'. In fact everytime someone asks at staff briefing "What's the rule on that?", the hairs on the back of my neck start to bristle. I know rules are necessary for many things, however I believe most of them could be left unwritten if everyone followed my favourite rule, Rule 33.a, the Rule of Commonsense. My dad coined that rule when he was the president of the local football league. He said that meetings often got bogged down with trivial discussion and when that happened he would just tell everyone that it was covered by Rule 33.a and move on. So when I was watching this video of Barry Schwartz, it occurred to me that this was exactly what he was talking about. If we teach our kids to be wise moral citizens, who act in a particular way because it's the right thing to do rather than the mandated thing to do, they will understand Rule 33.a and the need for a lot of our rule making will be over. If kids learn character and to respect themselves and others, then the rules will be redundant.

A few years ago we instigated a one rule fits all approach. The rule is ' In this school, every student has a right to learn and every teacher has the right to teach. Anything that interferes with that is against the rule." Backed up by Rule 33.a, and in an atmosphere of shared respect and accountability, this stands us in good stead in our Yrs 5-7 unit. Pretty much all behaviour can be bought back to that one rule and Restorative Practice helps to point any wrong doers back in the right direction. Unfortunately, outside the immediate classroom, we still have a fair few rules. Take the hat rule for instance. The Rule says you have to wear your hat when you are outside during terms 1 and 4. All very well unless you get an extreme UV day in term 2. And what happens when kids don't have a hat? Can they sit under the shade sails? Can they just take the hat off while they play sport? What if their little sister stole their hat and sold it on the black market? Here's the thing. When the UV is over 3, you're going to get skin damage from sun exposure. Respect yourself and wear your hat when the UV monitor tells you it's 3 or more, or stay inside.

How about the uniform policy? Boys must wear grey school socks. You know what? I don't care if they wear pink socks (actually I'd prefer it) but the policy says grey, so just get your kid grey socks! And if on rare occasions they have to wear white ones (which are generally grey by recess anyway), should I rant and rave and demand detention from them? Rule 33.a. Don't sweat the small stuff.
Anyway, I digress. What really struck me about this video was the notion of how 'wiseness' relates to use of social media. I'm a great fan of social media. I was an early adopter way back in 1997 when ICQ was the way to chat online and the Teachers Net lounge was 'the' collaborative space for teachers. These days I'm an avid facebooker and I'll write another day about all the useful ways that I use the application. But what I'm thinking about today are the rules that the digital dinosaurs keep inventing to cope with new technology like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc? The front line defence rules are the 'block' and the 'ban'.This might work except the kids are a lot smarter than the grown ups when it comes to social media and they can get around every techno wall I've ever seen. The other problem is, these applications are full of learning opportunities. How can we teach our kids to be moral and ethical digital citizens if we don't model and scaffold the correct behaviour in our schools and in our own lives?

Many schools (thankfully not mine) have a rule that says teachers may not friend students on facebook. I just really don't understand this. I live in a very small town. I'm friendly to the kids in the supermarket. I'm friendly to them at the football. In fact I get along pretty well with most of them at school! I don't request access to their pages but if they invite me into their space and they are of legal age to have a facebook account then I am more than happy to be friendly to them in an online environment. I don't stalk their pages looking for private information about them. If I were the type to conduct inappropriate relationships with my students then I certainly wouldn't do so on a public forum like facebook! Just like when I see them out at any public event I interact with them in a friendly and professional manner. I take notice of the things they choose to show me and I comment positively on items they present to me. As teachers, within our community we are always teaching and someone is always watching. Therefore, rule 33.a would tell you that as a teacher I need to have the same awareness of my digital profile as I do my public profile in the community. As Schwartz says in this video, " As teachers we should be ordinary heroes - we should strive to be moral exemplars to the people we mentor", and if ever there was a place that needed moral exemplars, it's social networking.

So, I think we should worry more about how we teach our kids to become great citizens and less about how many rules we can put in place to tempt them to become bad citizens. Rules get in the road of respectful relationships. As Schwartz quotes Scott Simon from NPR, "Rules and procedures may be dumb but they save you from thinking."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


There are times in your career when you know absolutely for sure and certain , without a shadow of doubt, that teaching is the best profession in the world. Last Friday night was one of those occasions. It was the final performance of our school production of 'Spamalot', the culmination of 12 months planning, 6 months of rehearsals and 2 weeks of performances. As they made their final bows, the faces of 82 wonderful kids beamed at us from the stage. The show was a huge success despite many of them battling through bouts of gastro and bronchitis. They were proud of themselves, their parents were proud of them, their teachers and community were proud of them and we, ( the staff in charge of the show), were filled with the sort of overwhelming satisfaction ( not to mention exhaustion), that comes from a job well done and a plan coming to fruition.

Our school musical is an annual event and open to all the students from years 5 - 12. This year we had 72 in the cast and a further 10 working behind the scenes. It's a massive undertaking that starts in the planning stages for the following year about two days after the last show of this year ends. There are four teachers involved with directing and producing the performance from the beginning and another couple majorly involved with the production season and the theatre restaurant catering, but the maestro of the entire thing is our Producer & Director, Lyle Russell. Where she gets her energy from I do not know but this amazing woman designs and makes most of the costumes and props, casts and directs the actors, manages the music, the sets, the lighting, the sound and a million and one other things in order for almost half our senior school population to get up on the stage and star. Amidst all this she continues to teach a full load and fulfil her role as a middle school co ordinator. Even after working alongside her for the last 8 years, I am still in awe of her ability not only to multi task but to remain calm and in control.

On our opening night this year, the sound boys thought they would get a jump on the workload by hacking Lyle's computer to get the sound track going. After three unsuccessful attempts the computer locked down and no one could access the music. While the rest of us ran around like headless chooks, Lyle quietly consulted the computer tech on the phone, tried every solution suggested, still couldn't access her files and so improvised with a compilation of un named tracks on a cd !

Our company is unique among Australian schools in that our cast is made up of almost 50% boys. While most schools struggle to find males to fill the main roles, we have a magnificent plethora of them. The boys who play this year's knights of the round table have been performing for a number of years and have set a precedent of inclusion in the performing arts. At our school, the 'cool kids' are performers, or if they choose not to perform, they are at the very least supportive of those who do and often take on a job in the support crew. Our school works very hard to make sure our students are encouraged to choose from a wide range of extra curricula pursuits so that their success is never one dimensional. This year's 'King Arthur' is also our school sports captain and a likely candidate to take out the Yr 12 dux award (for academic achievement).Our performing artists all have impressive student curriculum vitaes that include success in academia, sport, leadership and community. We do our part to enable this 'all roundedness' by staging our rehearsals to fit in with football and netball training and making sure there is never an 'either or' choice between performing arts and sport.

To me, the Production is the epitome of what makes a great school because the company and the performance is based on great relationships and mutual respect between teachers and students and students and other students. It is filled with real, rich learning tasks. Kids who have never read well suddenly find a purpose for their learning when a script is the text. Performing Arts provides scope for different learning styles. The kinaesthetic learner thrives, interpersonal and personal skills come to the fore as cast members learn to cope with their own time management and the dependence on team work required to get the show up to speed. As an English teacher I am astounded every year to find a new 'star' who may not speak up in class but given the opportunity to speak in costume or character, suddenly loses their shyness. Leadership skills blossom among the ranks and cross age mentoring and friendships are common place. Most of all though, I think our performing artists learn that it's OK to have a go, it's OK to hear constructive feedback and to work hard to show improvement and achieve excellence.They learn that in real life sometimes things are hard, we get really tired and have to dig deep to keep going and in doing so they know that they are important cogs in the big picture.

Not only does the Production foster relationships between teachers and students, it also provides an avenue for parents to become involved in the school community. At Mortlake College we are blessed to have so many parents helping with sets, costumes, catering and clean ups. For this year's show, one parent sewed us a full sized cow! Another bought hot soup to rehearsals for the entire cast.

This year's final performance was tinged with sadness for us. Our graduating year 12s were the babies of our original company 8 years ago and we have watched them blossom from walk ons as 'lamingtons' and wolves in 'Beauty & the Beast', through chorus roles in 'Oklahoma' and 'Grease' to significant cameos in 'Les Miserables" and 'Cats' to lead roles last year in 'Pirates of Penzance' and now 'Spamalot'. They have grown from pesky 10 yr old chorus fodder to spectacular 17 and 18 yr old leading men, leading ladies and backstage managers. Their confidence and leadership is a wonderful testament to our program and to their persistence and loyalty and we value them not only as past students but now as friends and colleagues.

May they always look on the bright side of life!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Place to Start

I hate growing older because it means I'm running out of time to learn and see and do things.

I don't like the physical effects of ageing either, but mostly that's just vanity and since I've been a bit dismissive of older people all my young life then I deserve some payback now. I must admit though that the shock of seeing some old lady looking back at me in the mirror is continually disturbing! She certainly doesn't reflect the way I feel like I look.

Not being able to get my body to physically behave the way I expect it to is also frustrating. I watch my daughters play netball and while I can't quite pinpoint the moment I realised I could no longer do that myself, I do know that I would break if I tried. I want my own Avatar. My 50yr old brain in my 20 yr old body and I would be a super star!

Most of all however, I despise the inevitability that time will rob me of the chance to keep teaching and learning and travelling. I think about how quickly the last 20 years have passed and what huge shifts in technology have occurred in that time and I lust to know what life will be like in 40 yrs or 100 yrs.

To compensate and to keep my mind off my mortality, I try to fit far more into every day than I previously thought possible in an attempt to feed my thirst for knowledge and new experiences. Blogging is one of the things on my bucket list and I've put off the first post for a long time because I couldn't decide what to blog about (and because of point 9 below). Today it's cold and raining outside so I'm just going to begin....

I've called my blog 'In Hindsight' because I believe reflection is the key to future learning. Making mistakes is how we learn but making the same mistake twice indicates a poor attention span or a flawed attitude.

So for my first ever blog post; in hindsight, what are the top 10 things I have changed or would have changed about my life if I could?

1. I would never, ever have smoked a cigarette. It took me 30 years to stop the filthy habit and it has most likely robbed me of quite a few of the years I am so worried about keeping at this end of my life.
Don't think you will be the one who can just give it away whenever you want to. Addiction doesn't work that way.

2. I would never have left the house without sunscreen. That tan I thought looked so healthy at 16 certainly doesn't look so flash now.
Skin cancer kills people.

3. I would be more grateful for what I have and less envious of what I have not. Envy is a wasted emotion. You make your own luck. I wish I had spent more time chasing my own goals rather than thinking how lucky other people were.

4. I'd have more kids. The three I have (aged 26, 19 & 7) are truly wonderful, amazing creatures and I love them to bits.They are my greatest achievement and my greatest joy. I never cease to be amazed by the miracle of childbirth. If I'd been a better family planner I would have one more in each of the gaps to keep each other company when they were little!

5. I would be nicer to people. Forgiveness is so much healthier than bearing a grudge. Anger is a very negative emotion and causes you to act in an irrational way that generally embarrasses you and your family.Sweating the little stuff sucks up the energy you need in case major stuff happens.
Choose to be happy.

6. I'd worry less. You can waste a lot of time making contingency plans for things that never happen. I tell my kids, 'drive carefully, wear your glasses and watch out for bees'. That covers most circumstances but it doesn't stop me from jumping every time the phone rings.

7. I would have travelled further, sooner. Thank goodness for books and the internet which have allowed me to 'virtual travel' to every corner of the Earth and beyond.

8. I would be more assertive. Stand up for what you believe in and don't be a bystander to bullying. I've learnt to do this more often recently and I like the way it feels.

9. Stop procrastinating and just get on with it. This is a work in progress.

10. I wouldn't have cut my hair the first time when my dad paid me to do it, the second time when I decided I was too old for long hair, or the third time or the time after that for the same reason. Don't feel the need to conform for other people.

What would you put in your top ten?