Friday, December 23, 2011

The Graduate

Two years of hard slog came to fruition last week when I graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Masters of School Leadership.

A lot of time has passed between my first spate of tertiary education and this one and the graduation caused me to reflect on the differences between those two experiences.

When I finished at the same uni over 30 years ago, I didn't attend my graduation. I was very young and had lots of things to do that at the time seemed far more important to me. This time I have a far greater appreciation of the value of further education and while the lure of the floppy Ph D hat is something I may consider after I retire, I know I may not get the opportunity to stretch my thinking in this way again for a long time.

First time around I chose teaching because the government of the day offered me free tuition, a generous weekly allowance and a guaranteed job on the completion of my diploma. I had no idea whether teaching was the career for me at that stage, it was simply a means to an end. This time, still armed with a scholarship, albeit a half fee one, I have had to make huge sacrifices of my time, my money and my energy to get through the course. With a husband studying his Masters at the same time, family life has been limited and our little boy has had to make some sacrifices too. This time though, I know that I love teaching and so the decision to improve my own qualifications is more relevant and connected to my everyday life.

Throughout my first stint at uni I was a firm believer that 'Ps got degrees' and I fulfilled that requirement in a spectacularly insignificant way. This time I got an HD for each and every assignment and subject. Since I set really high expectations for the kids I teach, there was no way I was going to lower them for myself! Continuing to achieving those marks added pressure to what I was doing but it also gave me a goal and provided the motivation to balance my procrastitory nature.

Back in the 70s I met some nice people on my course and we spent a fair bit of time at PAs (the pub across the road). Occasionally we would work on an assignment together but mostly we just drank a lot!
This time we occasionally called in to PAs after lectures but the drink vs collaboration ratio was reversed. Now I have a much greater appreciation of networking and the opportunity to get together with other like minded, progressive, positive thinking educators was one of the best outcomes of the whole experience. The support of my cohort of fellow students has been amazing. I have made new friends of all ages and I'm looking forward to an ongoing sharing of ideas with them.

The return to academia, especially the demands of academic reading and writing, was difficult. I remember reading the prescribed chapter for our first assignment. By nature an avid and voracious reader, I got to the end of that chapter and realised I hadn't understood a single word of it. It took me three readings to feel like I actually had a handle on the philosophical work of Jane Roland Martin. Now I skim read similar texts and assimilate the understandings as I go. I find my conversation pretentiously littered with words like pedagogy and paradox and empirical. I have learnt to accurately and precisely reference my work in APA style ( although I have not gotten over my hatred of this time consuming convention). I struggled through the 1000 words of our first written reflection. Last month when I went to submit my final action research report, it took three weeks of editing to prune it to 7500 words!

Educational researchers who were previously just names to me were bought to life during our intensives as we were presented with a veritable smorgasbord of educational crusaders like Alma Harris, Patrick Duignan and John Hattie. I was inspired and entertained and awed by them. There were so many 'ah ha' moments that I filled four Smiggle notebooks.

What now that the Masters has been mastered? Well, we've bought a caravan to fill in the weekends that have been soaked up with study for the past two years. It's time to devote some time to the education of our son and there's no place better to do that the on the road exploring the countryside. I hope that what I've learnt about myself and about leadership has equipped me to achieve better outcomes for the students and teachers in my school. I know that I've learnt personal lessons about perseverance and positive thinking that will stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.

Somewhere down the track I think there's a doctorate in me but I think I'll encourage to Geoff struggle through his first. I quite fancy the vision of myself as an eccentric and studious old lady. For now, I intend to continue my research into social media in education because it's a fascinating and ever evolving topic. Sooner rather than later I hope to have the confidence to share it with a broader audience.

After that, who knows? What I do know is that I will always be seeking new ways to stretch and challenge my mind. Once ignited, the thirst for knowledge is unquenchable!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The List

I've been working on a fairly big list lately and today I ticked off the last of it.

My young friend Olivia says August is the evil month but this year it was a week in October that nearly caused my downfall. I had taken a study day to work on my final Masters presentation and so I was at home when the phone rang at 9.15 on Monday morning. It was my dermatologist ringing to say that a routine biopsy I'd had during the holidays had come back positive and I had a melanoma on my leg that would need to be removed as soon as possible.Given that my mother was diagnosed with melanoma at exactly the same (to the day) age as I am now and had subsequently died a very painful and undignified death from the disease, this was pretty traumatic news for me.

The following day, Tuesday, I was due at a job interview for the Acting Principal position at school. The surgery was set for Thursday in Melbourne. I had to come home for the school fete on Saturday and then back to Melbourne on Sunday to give a presentation for the final subject of my Masters degree. The week after that I had a school camp and at the start of the next week, which is today, my final 7000 word Action Research Report was due.

I hadn't started the presentation and the report was no more than draft notes.
I allowed myself the luxury of an hour of wild, morbid thoughts and solitary sobbing. Then my wonderful husband came home from work to assure me I'd be OK and my good friend Lyle arrived with chocolate and coffee and the benefit of her own experience with overwhelming situations. She told me to make a list and tick off one thing at a time.

My training in positive psychology kicked in and told me I couldn't change the prognosis of the disease by worrying about it and I refused to let my amygdala be highjacked. So I wrote the list and only allowed myself to worry about one item at a time. I chose to think positively about each obstacle and to remain calm.

And so, one hurdle at a time was crossed. I did the interview and got the job. I had the surgery. I did the presentation (and got a perfect score for it).I went to the fete and wrote the report. I had a great time on camp and today I had my stitches out in the morning and hit the submit button on the Uni assignment this afternoon. In between I caught a cold and lost my voice for a week, but the list is done!

Starting tomorrow there is a whole new list of things waiting to be done and I know I will be watching for new melanomas for the rest of my life. But this list, that felt so seemingly impossible a couple of  weeks ago, is done. My pathology is clear, I've completed two years of fairly gruelling study, I have tenure in my job (and an upcoming pay rise!) and more importantly, I've felt the warmth of kindness from friends and relative strangers who have gone out of their way to help me get through the list in one piece.

So what's this got to do with education and hindsight?

Easy; it's a lesson in stereotypical positivity and it's added to my lessons to live by.
  • Have faith in your own ability.
  • Depend on good friends and family.
  • Ask for help.You'll be surprised where that help will come from.
  • Don't farseek, take one step at a time.
  • Be positive. Visualise the best possible outcome and even if it doesn't work out that way , you'll sleep better in the meantime.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


"How sad, how sad, how unspeakably dreary..."

Twelve months of planning, six months of rehearsals and two weeks of performance came to an end last week with our final 'Seussical the Musical' theatre restaurant show. By the last performance it had actually become an exercise in survival, as one by one the cast succumbed to a particularly nasty virus with rapid onset fever and terrible headaches. Kids who had been as healthy as mules in make up were dropping like flies between scenes. Some of the Whos fell victim down under the stage in Whoville and had to be rescued and sent home! The flock of 12 bird girls was a reduced to a pair of barely fluttering pigeons by the time we got to 'All for You'. The Mayor's Wife lost her voice but soldiered on in mime while Cindy Lou Who sang her lines. The Mayor, shivering and shaking , sweated his way to the finale before collapsing in a heap on the stage. Yertle never even made it to the hall and the Sour Kangaroo was reduced to a squeak for the court scene.

Thankfully, The Cat, Horton, Jojo, Maysie and Gertrude held their health together through a strict regime of echinacea, pineapple juice, olive leaf extract, wishful thinking and just plain refusal to give in to the bug.

It's true that with over 70 kids on the stage, we do have room for some attrition but after working so hard for so long, it's really disappointing for the kids if they get so sick that they can't perform. Luckily we did 8 shows altogether so even the sickies had time to star for at least one show. And star they did. As always I was overwhelmed by the professionalism and enthusiasm of our cast. To see (extra)ordinary, untrained kids producing such high level entertainment is thrilling. To be part of a community team of staff, students and parents who help them achieve this standard is very satisfying.

Every year success comes in different forms. This year there were a couple of stand outs. Last year several of our long standing stars graduated from school and so it was really gratifying to see the next 'layer' of performers emerging to become leaders on stage and off. Especially, it was great to see them taking feedback after each show and creating something even better the next day. It is truly the mark of a mature performer when feedback is sought as a way to improve rather than being perceived as  criticism. More importantly, a couple of them even stayed to help pack up at the end of each performance and took the time to thank their teachers for all the work they'd done. A thank you to the directing team is a rare gift and one that is gratefully received :-)

As usual, from the chorus arose new stars. Down in Whoville there were a couple of eager young thespians whose characterisation endeared them to every audience and who will definitely be making the move to the top stage next year!

Another bonus was the great support we got from parents this year. We had mums who sewed and made soup and created magnificent makeup, grandfathers who helped make the sets, dads who built things and photographed things and a couple of rare gems who were at almost every show just taking care of whatever needed to be done. As always, when teachers and parents work that closely together, it's the kids who benefit.

There has been some speculation at school that while the benefits from being involved in this performance are great, the impact on school life may be too much. I totally disagree.The benefits are greater than anything we can do inside a classroom. It is unfortunate that the benefit to each individual involved can't be measured. If it could then there would be unanimous agreement that two weeks of disruption to the regular school program is a very small price to pay.

Here are just a few of the benefits that I see. Please feel free to add more in the comment box.
  • Connectedness to school: Everyone wants to be there and as a result we all feel part of a team and the pride in our school is overwhelming. Some kids who don't necessarily 'fit' in other areas of school are VIPs in the production.
  • Relationships: Teachers, students and parents working together toward a common goal creates strong, lasting relationships. You get to know each other very well through 6 months of rehearsals. These relationships spill over into the normal school routine. I've NEVER had a behaviour problem with a student whose been part of the production.
  • Happiness: By and large, during the show, the entire company is happy. People smile a lot.
  • Real life, rich task learning: We have had kids who've learnt to read so they could read the script to get into the show. We have kids on the sound desk running mics and lights and giving stage direction, selling tickets and programs and making props. There's an abundance of literacy and numeracy involved and these skills are valued because they are vital to the show's success.
  • Leadership: There's a hierachy involved in the cast and everyone knows it. The experienced students are expected to mentor and lead the younger students and they do so with care and respect.
  • Self Confidence: Being on the stage is scary. In fact, when the big spotlight goes on, it's terrifying. Over the course of their years with the company, timid little year 5s become Cats and Hortons and absolutely Amayzing Maysies. You can bet this confidence will come in handy at their first job interview.
  • Sense of pride: It's hard to find an experience anywhere else in the school program that will instil this sort of personal and team pride in 10-18 yr olds.
  • Perseverance: Putting on a show of this calibre is very hard work. There are moments during long, dark Wednesdays nights when everyone feels like giving up. Those who don't learn that it's worth sticking with things and that perseverance pays.
  • All Roundedness: In a small , country town like ours, there's a real danger of  kids becoming very one dimensional. Because we have such a high participant rate, it's possible for our students to be footy stars and academics and performers.
  • Public speaking: Obviously.
And so, The Jungle of Nool and Whoville are gone, but the lessons of Solla Sollew remain. We'll be back again next year, striving once more for excellence and knowing, as always, that the show we put on will be the 'best ever'!

".....Remember that life's A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) Kid, you'll move mountains."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lessons from Teapots

On Monday morning two of our teaching staff were discussing the media beat up of the phenomena known as ‘planking’. The two psychology teachers were musing that planking in itself wasn’t a problem, rather the unsafe behaviour of the unfortunate young man who tragically died while performing the stunt on his balcony, was. They decided in fact that planking itself was no more or less dangerous or interesting than ‘teapotting’, the act of standing with one hand on your hip and one extended as a spout.

During the luncheon after our special Education Week assembly that morning, they mentioned the teapotting idea to our student leadership team and for a bit of a laugh, took a photo of the group ‘teapotting’ and created a facebook group.

So begin a very interesting ‘living’ social experiment conducted by the teachers with their students on a social network. How many people would be happy to ‘like’ and repost teapotting? The goal was 100 in a night. By midnight the tally had reached 200. The next day it topped the 1000 mark. One of the national TV networks heard about it, lifted some of the photos from the site and claimed the idea as their own. Likewise the Herald Sun newspaper. Suddenly there were over 2000 followers on facebook and the thread had picked up it’s own hash tag on Twitter.

For awhile, the thread looked like it might be sabotaged by a few naysayers who used the urban dictionary to portray a nasty side to teapotting or who encouraged or predicted gloomily that teapotters would become planking risk takers. But the group was undeterred. The teachers monitored the site continuously and reminded visitors to the page that it was a digitally ‘safe’ space where profanity and disagreeability would be swiftly removed. Teapotting, by it’s definition on their page, is only authentic if conducted in a safe and sensible manner.

Today the media coverage intensified and then an awesome iteration occurred. Someone on Twitter suggested the connection between teapotting and the Cancer Council’s Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea fundraising event on May 26th. Now the idea had wings and a cause. An idea born in jest and then nurtured in educational philosophy had suddenly become a random act of kindness!

Next Thursday our school will host Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea and the media are coming to cover it. We will have our 15 minutes of fame and more importantly, the Cancer Council will get a boost for their research.

Since my current Master’s research is based on the positive influence of adults on social networks this incident is like a data gift for my project. As a school leader however, my glee is tinged with terror that someone will railroad the group and turn it into a negative for our kids and the ‘social media in education’ cause.

Most of all though I am excited by Liv & Alison's 'big think' and overwhelmed by the rich learning opportunities offered by such a simple idea. Thanks to everyone who has come on board to support the concept and helped point out the teaching points along the way.
So what have we and might we learn from teapotting?

• Social networking is a powerful medium for spreading information. If you post a photograph online it can end up on national TV without your permission in less than 24 hrs. The need to examine privacy settings and check our digital footprints is suddenly very real.

• Teachers & students can have fun learning together through social media

• The world is a closely connected place. From our tiny town, teapotters around the world have appeared and to some extent we can trace and draw their connections to the source. Great for studying the transmission of epidemics!

• Social Identity theory is alive and well. It’s important to be part of a group. It feels good to have a common purpose. People who don’t feel part of the community will try to devalue it.

• Generally, people are good and they respond appropriately. They like to make connections with people they don’t know, in a positive way.

• Role modelling on facebook works. Generally speaking, kids don’t like swearing on social networks. Everytime one of the teachers removes a post or reminds posters of the need to be digitally responsible, they get lots of ‘likes’.

• We do care about copyright and we don’t like it when other people fail to acknowledge our ideas. Our classrooms will be much more careful with creative commons and source acknowledgement now that we feel something of ours has been ‘stolen’.

• However, we’ve also learnt that it doesn’t really matter whose idea it was in the first place if it achieves something worthwhile and for the common good. Social networking groups can collaborate to modify and expand small ideas into giant ones.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Education Week

I knew I'd be a hopelessly intermittent blogger :-(  
The only time I actually manage to get words on the page is when I should be writing something else (in this case a 6000 word literature review). It seems Blogging has become my preferred method of procrastination!

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Education Week. We'll be celebrating the occasion by opening our new BER building. The building isn't what we wanted. We have an excellent performing arts program that desperately needs a home and the 2 million dollars allocated for our building would have created a beautiful space for that. No longer would we have had to traipse our cast of 70 plus up the road to our local hall where we pay exorbitant fees to rent the space for our non profit making performances. No longer would we have had to squeeze our huge cast onto a tiny stage or let them freeze backstage in the unheated and unlined bluestone side room. If we were an independent or catholic school we would have been handed the 2 million to spend as we saw fit. Unfortunately, we are but a humble government organisation, not to be trusted with such autonomous suggestions!

However, that is a political argument that's now in the past and not worth revisiting. We have a beautiful building and it's going to very useful for many things. It's clean, it's shiny and it's full of state of the art gadgets including an awesome sound system that even I can manage.

It's a multi purpose building and when I was having one of my 'thinks' this morning, (as I do now that we are in the Seussical swing), it occurred to me that that's a perfect analogy for our school. We are, in many respects, a multi purpose school. We take all comers, we offer all subjects. We allow and encourage our kids to be the best they can be in a huge variety of areas.We teach about the real world in a school of 'real' people.All cross sections of society are represented in our school. Just as in life after school, our students learn to deal with difficult people and to monitor their own behaviour and develop sound relationships with people who come from different backgrounds to themselves. At our school, kids can be athletes, performers, academics, musicians, equestrians, leaders and world travelers. They can do all of these things at the same time and they don't have to leave their home town to do them (with the exception of the traveling part!). They're taught by people who know them well and who have a vested community interest in seeing them succeed. We teach our kids within their own community, for their community. In doing so, we build efficacy in the community itself.

This weekend I read the local regional paper and noticed a lot of very large, expensive advertisements from other district schools, public and private, all vying for the educational rights to the children of the area and beyond. Some of them were making some big claims and the colourful pictures painted a very rosy picture.We've been suffering lately from a spate of private school transfers and looking at those ads I can see how parents might be persuaded to believe that the grass is greener where the pastures look more lush.

We haven't put any ads in the paper or on TV. Quite frankly, I think there are hundreds of better uses in our school for the sort of money those advertisements must cost. In fact, if I were a fee paying parent at one of the schools who pay for the ads I'd be asking questions about how my money was being spent.I think the calibre of the students who graduate from our school is all the testament we need. I just wish more people would draw the logical conclusion that such success doesn't happen by chance. Amongst all the strengths we encourage at our school, maybe we should ease up on the modesty thing!

I think there's a blog post waiting to happen about local vs regional or private schooling, but this government school teacher has way too much on her plate at the moment to write it.
Suffice to say, I'm very proud of my school and all who learn in it. I couldn't wish for a better place for me to teach or my children to learn.

Happy Education Week everyone.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Please don't tell me my friends aren't real.

Blogging was not on my list of things to do today but, as noted in my previous post, I'm easily distracted and I have difficulty sticking to my 'get it done' priorities.

Today's distraction is due the large number of references I've come across in my Twitter feed and Google Reader this week referring to'real life' as opposed to 'online' with the assertion being that the people you meet and communicate with online are somehow different, or the relationships with them are less valid or less important than the relationships you have with people in your pysical space. I'm used to that sort of misunderstanding and assumption from folks who aren't internet connected but it comes as a bit of a shock to me when I read it in my social media pages.

I firmly believe that this discrimination between on and offline worlds is one of the greatest barriers we face in promoting global unity and providing 21st century communication in schools.

Frankly, I'm tired of being told I should spend less time on the computer and more time talking to 'real' people. I'm over making excuses for providing my students with the opportunity to broaden their outlook by communicating with kids in other parts of the world. Here's the thing. Online is real. The people you meet there are real. The friendships you make there are real. The learning that takes place there is real.

I have friends I made in high school. I have friends at work, friends I met at parties, at mother's groups, while playing sport or because we've worked on committees together.I also have friends I've made online.The only difference between each group is their context. The commonality is that they are all my friends.

I love the fact that I live in a time when I can connect with people all over the world at anytime of the day. Given the relative isolation of my small country town, if I were to confine myself to only meeting and befriending the people I can see face to face, then my choices would be pretty limited and so would the opportunities of my students.

I've only been part of the Twittersphere for a short time but I've been collaborating with other teachers via the internet for almost fifteen years. I started my collaborative journey at TeachersNet where I met an amazing group of people with whom I became firm friends. Subsequently, I met some of them in a physical space, many I have spoken to on the phone and some have remained 'text' based. They are all real. The conversations we have are real. The support and advice we offer each other is real.

At Christmas, one of my old Tnet friends sent me two tins of canned pumpkin so I can make that wonderful American delicacy with  ingredients that aren't available here. That pie (despite my poor culinary skills), will taste every bit as good as if it were hand delivered in a checkered tea towel because the sentiment behind the sending of it is just the same as the jar of home made cookies from my neighbour next door.They are both symbols of friendship.

I know there are cases where people have masqueraded as someone they are not on the internet. They are frauds but it's not the internet who makes them so. I've had physical meetings with quite a few frauds in my lifetime and while it was easier to discern their age and gender because I could 'see' them, their motives were just as well hidden as an online fraudster.We need to teach our kids how to identify genuine friendships and genuine people, in ALL their spaces.

It's time we stopped referring to online friendships as something different , strange or less important than the friendships we form in physical space.The world needs to be more connected; we need to feel more like the citizens of the world that we are, rather than barricading and segregating ourselves into minority (or majority) groups based on race or location or social strata or age. Online friendships promote empathy and cultural understanding. They provide opportunities for collaboration and consultation with other like minded individuals and they overcome the isolation of geography or circumstance.Online communities are just like any other community. They provide friendship and support and a sense of belonging.

I guess the most compelling proof of the reality of my online friends is that I married one of them. Back in the day when my online presence was just a nickname with no photo or profile, we formed a friendship based on humour and shared interests and common beliefs about teaching and the world in general. Given that we came from different decades and different countries, it's doubtful our paths would have crossed in any other space. And yet, here we are, twelve years on, still sharing common beliefs about teaching and the world and bringing up our 7 yr old who is absolute living proof that our 'virtual' relationship is pretty damned real!

Are online friendships part of your real world?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Think Big

I've struggled to add to my blog over the holidays. I think my brain has enforced an imposed vacation to give itself time to recover from 2010.
I have been working on a few things for the new year though, and one of them is this year's production of 'Seussical'. The production isn't actually part of my assigned workload and so I guess I should be prioritising it below the staff rosters, the timetable and organising the start of year PD days but as I've mentioned previously, it's one of my favourite things to do and so I'm indulging myself by listening to the score over and over until it's inculcated and I've become a part time resident of Solla Sollew.

Each time we do a new play I try to connect to the story and characters in some way, to immerse myself in the story so that the kid's will 'feel' and believe the storyline when I help tell it to them.This time I've found an immediate affinity with two of the characters because I discovered that Horton and Jojo are thinkers! And so am I. Indeed the amount of thinks I have is astounding and like Jojo, they often get me into trouble.

Recently I did this quiz and it told me I was a visionary 'crazy maker' and that my inability to manage so many different projects may be adding to the workload of those around me.I think it was suggesting that I should shed some activities, lose some thinks in order to see more of them through without creating chaos for those I work with. I also read this post by Will Richardson about rethinking our online time and that created more thinking and more worrying. I agree with so much of what he's saying but I can't quite reconcile that with the burning desire to read everything, to follow every link, to try every new program. We live in a wonderful age, it's an exciting time to be an educator and I want to soak up and share every bit of it! It's a conundrum, but it's a problem I've decided to ignore for the time being.

Instead, one of my new year resolutions is to encourage more thinks. I am going to stand up for my right to think.I am going to stand up for my right to encourage kids to think. I will not sacrifice thinks for test scores (although I promise I will pay due attention to teaching persuasive text and I'll do my best to improve their spelling, provided great word choice remains their priority!). I will not be bound by or bow down to the staus quo or the 'historical' routines or a limiting curriculum that focuses on content rather than context. I will encourage and support staff at my school to try new ideas and dip their toes in the amazing networking possibilities of social media. I will no longer accept the 'I'm no good with technology' statement from teachers and I will be resilient in the face of criticism from luddites and digital dinosaurs.
'People are people, no matter how small' and our students deserve to be given access to the sort of
technology and the ways of thinking they'll need in their adult lives.If they are going to save the world instead of destroying it, then they need to collaborate with their peers all over the world. They need to develop skills to solve problems rather than create them. So, as Jojo says, 'I will think and think until I drop', and if that makes hard work for myself and others, so be it, because in the immortal words of Dr Seuss,
 "Anything is Possible'.
If anyone out there has some ideas on how to manage my thinks, I'd love to hear from you.