So, last night I tried to document my preparation for my two First Lego League teams. As I wrote in the previous post, I was a rookie coach with two rookie teams so I had spent a lot of time checking through documents from the First website but still really felt like the teams weren't really getting the guidance they needed. Part of it was that I was also very busy with other responsibilities both at work and at home. Anyway, I had registered both teams for the Novar Gardens Regional, which was to be held a week after the PAC Regional as a result of more teams entering FLL for the first time. There were about 40 teams lined up for the PAC event, and there were 18 teams in the Novar Gardens one. I recall thinking that this was good as that meant my kids wouldn't be overwhelmed and overrun by experienced teams who really knew their robotics. Even so, I told both teams that our main goal was to have fun and enjoy the experience - by now, everyone was pretty confident that their Robot Game score wouldn't be zero!

The Novar Gardens event was held at Immanuel College where a long, long time ago I was a student. In FLL, each team gets allocated an area to call their home for the day, commonly known as "the pits". These were all in the Margaret Ames Centre, on the site of the old boys boarding house. An interesting sidenote is that Margaret Ames was my Year 12 English teacher - I have said in the past that no teacher in my education inspired me to become a teacher but in her case, she was definitely one of the better ones. It helped that I liked English.

We put all of our gear in the pits area and I went over to the Coaches Meeting to get the lowdown on latest rulings in the Robot Game, how the practice table areas could be booked and where to find every part of the day's schedule. We were reminded to remind our students that judges were always on the lookout for examples of Gracious Professionalism ™ so teamwork, helping out others and being thoughtful were aspects outside of the actual robotics that would determine how teams fared on the day. Marg, my principal, came along for the day and luckily so as I soon found that trying to juggle two teams was an extreme challenge for one coach as two different schedules meant some clashes where I could not be in two places at once. After an opening ceremony, both teams got to have a practice Robot Game on the competition tables in the Century Theatre. Then the day was up and running.

I attended with both teams at various times to go to their three judging sessions. These sessions are held with the team and coach only in the room - no external spectators. Even though both teams had these in differing orders, I will recount them as if it was sequential. Both teams had to present their Research Project to a couple of judges. Splice Cubes tackled their human based water problem on the issue of the lack of fresh water in the world. Their research told them that about 3% of the world's water is fresh and two thirds of that is frozen. Their proposal was to mine icebergs and melt that water and transport it to countries where water is in short supply. The judges asked some probing questions about their concept - what would be the effect on the world's climate if this were to happen? H2Flo tackled water contamination as their issue and had created a 3D printed filter prototype. Again, some probing questions from the judges kept them wondering if they needed more depth in their research as their presentation was quite entertaining. From my perspective, both teams did a reasonable job but I felt that their research needed more depth and their solution needed further development.

Another session was the Robot Design Judging session. Both teams had developed relatively simple robots that were devoid of sensors. H2Flo went with the mantra that their design embraced the "simple is better" philosophy with less to go wrong. Our coding experts were able to talk to the judges about their strategy for tackling the various missions. Splice Cubes had build a squared off structure using Lego beams on the back on the robot to assist with more accurate mission launches. For this session, I felt that Splice Cubes had the edge. After all, in the week leading up to the Regional, their robot was regularly scoring between 50 and 90 points in practice sessions. They also had more mission runs up their sleeve; the result of the time that the girls in their team had invested during their break times. However, at one lunch time the H2Flo robot went on a spree where everything clicked and the robot scored a hypothetical 95 points. I still thought that the Splice Cubes robot and coding was superior and that would show out in the Robot Games still to come.

The final judges session was the Core Values session. The task was for the team to build a tower as tall as possible from Lego in two minutes, have it measured by a judge and then break up it all up and return it to the box in pieces ready for the next team. The judges also asked questions of the team - how did you come up with your name? What is the best part of FLL? What is the most important thing that you have learnt? It was in this session that H2Flo really clicked especially when Jimmy (remember him from the past post?) responded to the last question by saying that he felt that the most important thing he had learned was teamwork as prior to this, he didn't really know any of his team mates all that well and they were all very different people but through teamwork they had come together to share the common goal of being committed to the team and doing their collective best. This was really cool and when I look back at their team, of the nine kids who came on that day, there were four different religious backgrounds represented and five different cultural backgrounds as well as being balanced gender wise.

Then there were the three Robot Game matches. This is the spectator friendly component of FLL and is probably the hook that gets kids interested in the first place. Marg streamed all of the matches to our school FaceBook page which was great as I missed three of the matches due to the judging sessions. This was pretty close - in these matches only the best of the three scores counts towards the final outcome. Splice Cubes managed a credible 55 points as their best and H2Flo slid just past them with a 60 point best effort. This had the two teams at fifth and sixth place at the end of the matches - which we thought was pretty good for first timers. The best score posted was 130 by a team of high school students but the smaller field at this Regional meant that the big scores we had seen on YouTube weren't happening here. Once again, the teamwork of H2Flo showed through after a disastrous second robot game where nearly every mission failed. The student who had designed most of the coding was beside himself and was very upset, feeling that he had completely let the team down. Sitting down in misery, he was quickly surrounded by his teammates who all did their best to assure him that he had done his best, they were all right behind him, these things happen so don't worry and maybe the robot just needed a fresh battery. I don't know if any judges saw this but the team surrounding and supporting their colleague was super genuine and could well have been the biggest learning moment of the day for these guys.

Mid-afternoon was the time for the closing ceremony. After a demonstration from a FRC robot, and some obligatory YMCA dancing, the hosts and judges had results ready to announce. My two teams were sitting back, relaxed as they had met their goal of enjoying the day. Sitting next to Marg, I said to her, "You know, even though it doesn't matter, it would be pretty cool if one of the teams won a trophy. It would really raise the profile of Lego League in the school and help with STEM hype."

The next thing I know, they were announcing that H2Flo had won the Judges Trophy as the most consistent performers throughout the day. The kids were so excited as it was so unexpected! I felt for their Splice Cube colleagues as they too had given the day their best shot but they were sporting in congratulations for their jubilant team. I was very pleased - the rookie team had worked like a team all day and had been recognised and the Lego trophy was very cool.

A bigger surprise was still to come as the announcements wound to a conclusion. "Before we announce the day's Champion who will be invited to compete at the National Championship in Sydney, we will announce the second place getter who will also be invited to go to Sydney. That team is .... H2Flo!"

As the kids screamed and leapt to head to the front of the theatre, Marg and I looked at each other and thought, how are we going to pull this off? The rookies from the disadvantaged state school had exceeded all expectations and now an enormous opportunity sat in front of us. Could we get organised in time? Would parents support it? So, as we headed back to the pits to pack up for the day, my head was swirling with what might be possible. I had seen the email reminder a few weeks earlier that alerted all teams to the National Championship but I had binned it, never thinking that either team were going to gain anything but experience from their first FLL foray. Once the excitement subsided on Monday, we had some serious decisions to make before any promises could be made.

 

 

In the past I think I have mentioned that I haven't always been that interested in robots, or even coding for that matter. On a personal level I just struggled to be interested in learning about then, even though on a professional level I knew it was important. In the previous few years at Woodville Gardens I was spoiled to have a talented teacher, Mel, on board who was super keen in this area and single-handedly got the school's Lego Robotics program off the ground. My contribution was limited to signing off on the purchases from the budget and coming along to a RoboCup event in 2015. I checked in from time to time to see how she was going with the students and thought that entering teams in the First Lego League was a great idea but I didn't really step up and really find out exactly what was involved. Which was to my detriment - one of my few professional regrets of the last few years. But it was a testament to Mel's talent and drive that she didn't come looking for my support or help. Her efforts were rewarded at the 2016 Regional day where her team won the Research Project trophy.

Fast forward to this year and I stepped into a new role as Assistant Principal - STEM at Prospect North Primary. My principal, Marg (who in her own words is a "fellow techhead") described my role as getting a lot of technology programs up and running to really widen opportunities for the students, and hinted that I might want to get a First Lego League program up and running. And so away I went on a whirlwind journey that would progress way beyond my own expectations.

Not content with just learning how to be a rookie coach in a new-for-me venture, my fellow AP Nicola and I also decided to get involved in First Lego League Junior, a first for the school and indeed as it turned out a first for any school in this state. But that's another story for another post because as successful as FLL Jr was for our first go, it was still contained within our own expectations. And unlike how I left Mel by herself at WGS, Nicola was an equal driver of this program.

But on the FLL front, it was just me to get it all up and running. I called a meeting of interested students from Year 5 to 7, and had just over twenty keen potential participants come along. Trying to be inclusive and democratic, we decided to form two teams of ten with a couple of reserves should anyone find it wasn't for them. At that stage, I wasn't even sure it was for me either! I gave them the option of forming their own teams and one group quickly formed around two friendship groups and a connection between twins. This team became Splice Cubes. The other team was a mixed bag of students who didn't really know each other that well - the only common factor was that they were interested in pursuing this whole venture further. And interestingly, when teams meant that one person had to be a reserve, a Year 7 boy called Jimmy volunteered to be that person because he "didn't want anyone else to miss out." This is retrospectively interesting so remember the name as this post rambles along. This team decided to name themselves H2Flo.

I had ran lessons with the upper primary classes using our newly purchased Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot kits but felt like I was only just a step or two ahead of the students. A quite a few of the talented and keen kids who had signed up for FLL grasped the concepts of Mindstorms coding quickly and moved quickly past my expertise to figure a lot of stuff for themselves. Again, it is important for teachers to realise that they don't have to expert in everything but affording the students the opportunity to learn for themselves and not be constrained by their teacher's limitations. I tried to operate with that mindset throughout this whole journey, trying to relay information as required for them to get to their goals efficiently.

For any readers not familiar with Lego League, the deal is something like this. You can have a team of up to ten students aged 9-16 and they have several tasks that they must prepare for in order to compete at a Regional Championship. Every year, Lego have a new theme based around a social human issue - previous years have looked at rubbish, senior citizens and human interaction with animals. This year's theme was HydroDynamics and was focussed on human use of water and associated problems. The Robot Game is a large mat with Lego constructed missions that an EV3 based robot must undertake in order to score points within a two and half minute Game. The team must also prepare a Research Project presentation that must take no more than five minutes in front of judges, and it must offer a unique solution to a problem identified that ties in with the season's theme. At the Championships, there is also a Robot Design section and a Core Values activity that the team does not get to see until the day.

The August launch date for the new season loomed quickly and we ordered a custom built practice table from the carpenter partner of Jasmin, one of our Reception teachers who had worked with Mel in 2016 with the Woodville Gardens team in their successful Animal Allies foray. This table is a thing of beauty - so nice we have resisted the urge to paint it and left in its natural unvarnished state. After a quick online application I registered both teams and scored some sponsorship from Google who paid for our registration, the cost of the game kit and a new EV3 kit. This is part of Google and Lego's commitment to try and encourage schools from a disadvantaged background to get involved - for us, it was much appreciated.

It didn't take long for the game kit to arrive and I got both team to unpack and build the Lego models for the game mat that fitted into our practice table. There was a model toilet that triggered a water treatment plant when flushed, there were water pipes that needed replacing, a well to push into place, a fountain and flower that needed "big waters" and other models that required the robot to lift, push, move or carry to complete successfully. These models were placed or locked into place with velcro like tabs and the students could start planning for their robot games. Both teams decided to build robots based on the EV3 booklets and decided not to include infrared or colour sensors as our fast tracked learning curve had not allowed time to get particularly competent in their use. Each team met and allocated roles so that the Research Project would not get neglected but as they had not participated before or seen this before, they were unsure of how the whole thing should look and be structured. And because I had neglected to take a close look at Mel had done it with her teams, I was only guessing with my own advice.

After a while, a small group of girls from the Splice Cubes team started asking me if I could supervise them during their breaks as they felt they were getting somewhere with their coding. They designed attachments and modified their robot in an effort to get consistency when they "launched" it out to tackle a mission. They analysed the game mat and planned which missions were within their reach as rookies, and worked towards those goals. The other team were more sporadic in their break time visits and seemed to have a rotating roster of students who were looking at their coding. Their robot was less sophisticated and they were in awe of how far in front the Splice Cube students were in comparison. Once the whole gamut of expectations were unveiled and regular meetings at break times, we had a couple of kids decide that it wasn't for them and this opened up the opportunity for a reserve to join in. This was fortunate for H2Flo as Jimmy was able to participate fully and share his coding and strategic skills with the team.

It was about that time that I went to FLL training run by Concept2Creation who run the FLL events here in Adelaide. They had referees and volunteers from the community team RoboRoos there and I learned a lot of key information that was invaluable. One comment that stuck in my mind was that is not unusual for a rookie team to have a Robot Game where nothing goes right and scores a 0. So, don't be concerned - if your team can get your robot to score anything then that counts as a success! That was a great message to take back to the students.

At the end of Term 3, I realised that there were only 4 weeks to go before our Regional at Novar Gardens in mid November. We met with the teams and checked on their projects and Game progress. Splice Cubes were looking promising with their robots but had still to get going on their Research Project and were still even to identify a problem to solve. Meanwhile to my surprise, H2Flo were quietly well advanced in their research showing me a draft script and a prototype 3D design, but their robot game efforts were a batch of individually developed mission coding strings sitting on four to five different laptops. We resolved to have every break time available to either team to work on their priorities, and I negotiated an extended release time from regular lessons for the students. One of the guidelines of FLL is that teachers/coaches are there to help but the students do all of the work - I made sure that was the case resisting the adult urge to meddle and give them "better ideas". We had team t-shirts designed and ordered so that we would look just like those teams we could see on YouTube videos of American FLL events. At $20 a student, they were a great investment in team spirit.

The November 19 Regional was rushing up at us. There was panic, apprehension and excitement in equal measures. Media release forms were signed and returned and the two teams were as ready as any team who doesn't really know what they have signed up for looks like. Would the whole experience live up the expectations we had in our own minds? We were about to find out.

 

 

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Over the past year, my 2009 model 15 inch Macbook Pro had been gradually getting slower and slower. I had upgraded it to El Capitan which is the most modern OS that a laptop of this vintage can successfully run. But it was struggling to load things, the coloured spinning wheel of death was becoming a more frequent occurence. Then it got really serious.

A restart would take ten minutes, and the display would just hang until one night it just refused to start up. I had been thinking that maybe this year I would have to bite the bullet and buy a new laptop but the prices were looking very pricy to replace this one with something of similar ilk - something like A$3500 unless I was prepared to look at a Macbook Air or a 13 inch model to drop a $1000 off the RRP. But I really like this laptop - I have looked after it and the big beautiful screen and the clean minimally scratched aluminum body was still in good shape. If it could be rescued in some way....

The other thing was that I hadn't done a backup since February. I am not a technical person at all and hadn't actually used Time Machine for over 12 months when I decided to do a backup onto an external drive because well, it was overdue, and just like servicing a car, it is what a sensible computer user should do ... just in case.

I sought out the technician at school for some advice - someone who knows the inside of computers really well and he said he'd have a look during his lunch break. He confirmed what I was suspecting - the hard drive was dead. But he suggested that I could give my MacBook new life because as I mentioned earlier, the whole laptop was still in good physical condition and apart from an ailing battery and a noisy fan (cured by blowing out 8 years of accumulated lint and dust), everything else still looked in good shape. He recommended that I buy a larger capacity SSD hard drive which he would help me to swap over. I went to a computer parts retailer MSY and got a Crucial 525G SSD for A$195 which doubled my storage and would be superior to old drive by being better than new. The technician got it swapped over and described the process I would need to do to recover and restore the laptop.

I used my old DVD of Snow Leopard to install a fresh OS and then tried to download a fresh install of El Capitan from the Mac App Store. For some reason, I could not get this to work, as the Download button was greyed out but a search through some Mac forums uncovered the issue (which I can't recall right now!) and got me back on the right track. I learned how to boot the Mac into Safe mode, how to format the new SSD drive ready for the new OS, and then finally I managed to bring back all of my files and content from my February Time Machine backup. Any files or changes I had made between February and June were lost but 95% of what I had feared gone (including things as trivial as auto-fill passwords for e-banking) were back! Even my son's YouTube video originals which were dumped when the old 250G hard drive was nearly capacity were there although Josh had no desire to see embarrassing creations from 18 months ago when he thought being a YouTuber was the coolest thing on earth.

The tech at school also suggested that a new battery would be a relatively simple upgrade for me to have a go at. He pointed me to eBay and advised me not to go too high in costs as there might not be much difference in quality when getting a non-genuine but compatible replacement. So for $40, I had a replacement battery sent to me from Sydney (via China probably) and I checked out a couple of how-to YouTube videos before unscrewing the base and disconnecting the old battery and putting the new one. I got a bit confused about how to successfully calibrate the battery - the YouTube videos had one method geared towards the battery they were promoting and the one I had bought had its slightly different process. I was meant to let the battery drain down initially to 2% before charging it back to full as letting it completely drain first up would cause battery life damage according to the enclosed pamphlet. I was watching it carefully but it discharged a bit more rapidly than I anticipated and basically went from 7% to flat without warning! Anyway, I am now just using it as normal now and the battery does not seem to have a particularly long life - maybe around 90 minutes but considering the old battery would barely last 20 minutes off the charger, it is a marginal improvement and certainly I am no worse off for a laptop that I mostly use when kicking back on the couch with easy access to the power cord as required.

I am pretty pleased - for an outlay of less than $240 I have given my MBP a new lease of life and hopefully helped to dodge planned obsolescence for a few more years. I am a bit more confident about backups and re-installs and know that for anything device based there is a solution on the web somewhere that will most probably solve the problem. If I could do this, then it means that almost anyone else could.

In my new role here at Prospect North I have to provide some non-contact lessons for the classes here but the good thing is that it can be delivered flexibly and all teachers want it to be of a STEM or Digital Technologies flavour. This is good because it is an area I am pretty comfortable in and quite frankly, an expected part of my role. The school is still building up its STEM resources (another reason my role exists) and is a focus school in a partnership with Social Ventures Australia.

So, I have spent today planning for the upper primary classes as I will deliver 4 x 90 minute sessions spread over the next six weeks and I thought I would start with using Sphero as an introduction to coding. I have used Spheros quite a bit over the past two years and so thought I was working in familiar territory. The school had bought 24 new Sphero SPRK+ robots prior to my arrival and so on Friday I thought I had better charge them up ready for the coming week and check the iPads in the area to ensure that the apps I wanted to use were all there.

Looking at the new SPRK+ my initial thought was that they were very attractive with the clear exterior of the standard SPRK model with a blue equatorial stripe. They also appeared to be the same size as the standard white Sphero as the SPRK models I had bought at WGS were slightly smaller, meaning that covers were a little loose and it spun inside the plastic chariots without moving. I hooked everything up and left them all to charge in the library for a few hours.

After lunch, I checked by with my iPad to start the labelling process that I had established before and picked up the first fully charged robot I could see and went tap tap on the bench to wake it up. But ..... nothing happened. I tapped a bit harder but still no response. I assumed that maybe it hadn't charged properly so I dropped it back on the charger and tried the next one. Same result even when I dropped it directly onto the carpet. I thought that maybe the Spheros were in deep sleep mode and went through the process I thought would bring them out of that mode. No deal and nothing was being detected when I looked at Bluetooth on my iPad - something was not right here so I headed for the internet.

On the Sphero FAQ page I found the following:

Does SPRK+ work with other Sphero apps?

Modified on: Fri, Nov 18, 2016 at 3:12 PM


Currently, SPRK+ is only compatible with SPRK Lightning Lab application which you can download at https://sprk.sphero.com/d, and the main Sphero app.

I could feel my plans and accumulated knowledge of relevant apps crumbling into dust in my mind. I couldn't use Drive, or Draw'n'Drive, or even Tickle if I was to believe this post. I quickly rushed over to see the school technician before he wasted his time trying to find the now-outdated apps for the iPads!

So I went over to my previously ignored Lightning Lab app to see how it would all work. Straight away I could see a new feature for connection that was a big improvement from the past. Simply you open up Lightning Lab and choose SPRK+ from the Tap a Robot to connect menu and I was away. No more opening up Bluetooth and looking for the three letter colour code to connect. No more accidentally bumping a Sphero and waking it up in transit and wasting valuable battery. Even better, there is now a battery life indicator on the main page.

Through this app, the user can progress through a Learning to Code series of mini-lessons and activities although you need an account to access this feature. This worked fine at home but there were some issues on Friday on the school network. A workaround might be to get the kids to sign up on their own laptops and follow the lessons in a self paced self managed style that would suit quite a number of learners, as long as the website isn't filtered on there as well. Something to negotiate with the IT department but unlikely to be resolved in the short amount of time before I want to use these with my first class.

Within Lightning Lab you can use joystick style controls which essentially makes the old Drive app redundant. That was good and even better was the option to code by Draw which meant I still have access to the same capability that the Draw'n'Drive app provided. I then went onto the Tickle app site and found out that they do support the SPRK+ on the latest version which sent me hurrying back to our IT support to change my order to include that as a required update. Finally to make my day, two staff members came through the library where I was starting to pack up the charged Spheros and asked if they could borrow one for the weekend. They downloaded Lightning Lab on their phones and were already buzzing with the possibilities as they had to give the Spheros a run around before heading off for the weekend.

So, this is a greatly improved Sphero. After getting over the fact that its improvements had made some familiar apps and processes irrelevant, I can see that this is a more focussed_on_learning_that_is_fun product with less connection to pure entertainment which can cloud the learning potential for some students. I am looking forward to see how the students engage with these robots and perhaps show me some new possibilities with their learning.

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Moving on from a school to a new role gives me some mental space in which to reflect on how this teaching career has panned out so far. I think I've been pretty fortunate to work in some very interesting places under some unique circumstances with many extraordinary educators. I mean, I have heard about some teachers who can't seem to take a trick, finding themselves in untenable situations in dysfunctional sites but that hasn't been my experience. Maybe it's a positive outlook but that has been made easier through a large number of factors. So, let me check back through the years.

When I was an early career teacher seeking out rural contract positions, I managed to end up at Miltaburra Area School for a year and a term. This is a school in the middle of a paddock, near a set of crossroads intersecting the Eyre Highway - the result of a compromise between four closing community schools. It was also pretty new when I worked there so that was a great experience.

When I gained my permanency and lobbed at Willsden Primary in Port Augusta, I had the unique experience of teaching one of my cousin's kids in my Year 3 classroom. And when I applied to head back to Adelaide after four years of country service, I had to list down all of the schools I was keen on transferring to. I didn't know Adelaide very well so I started by looking at where golf clubs with affordable membership were located. That really was my sole reason for listing Flagstaff Hill at No. 1 on my list and again, what were the odds of scoring the nearby school as my new destination? Also, what were the odds of being located in an open space classroom next to a teacher whose beliefs and innovative drives were so similar to mine that we would collaborate on everything for the next eight years and he would become a life long friend?

Sometimes other people's lack of engagement can be personally beneficial. Flagstaff Hill had a great computer room at that time but very few teachers were that interested in using it much, leaving me to take my class over there more frequently than what my fair share should have been. My enthusiasm was noticed by the ICT coordinator who started moving more computing equipment to my classroom's vicinity because he could see it would be used well, and cultivating my technology skills as a consequence.

On the family side, our first son was born and there were factors at play that had me seeking to looking for a role closer to home. We still had the "ten year tenure" here in SA which moved teachers onto new schools after their tenth year without much choice. I didn't like the idea of not being in control of my own educational destiny and with some encouragement from my teaching offsider and the ICT Coordinator, I started looking for Coordinator leadership roles. Well, would you believe it, a school less than five minutes drive from home were looking for an ICT Coordinator and there was no incumbent?

From this role, I also got to work with more incredible teachers and learn from one of the most knowledgeable and switched on principals I have had the privilege to work under. We got to become a Microsoft Innovative School and I got to go to Melbourne and network with other like minded educators from around Australia. Then my boss went on long service leave to Europe and I got to act up as Deputy for the term. The normal deputy (acting as principal) and I went out to a leadership hubgroup held at the brand new "superschool" at Woodville Gardens during that term, where we met in the conference room and I said hello to their ICT Assistant Principal who I knew through edtech networks. My colleague elbowed me in the ribs and said, "You know he's retiring at the end of the term? You should find out about the vacancy he will leave behind."

I did, so through that comment and chance encounter, I ended up in my next level leadership role at a school that was so new that the grass on the oval hadn't even grown through yet. A school that was a relatively blank canvas technology wise for me to nurture and grow - a responsibility I have never taken lightly and with a lot of second guessing. Again, I got to be part of an amazing leadership team and I can't describe the enormous personal growth with enough emphasis. This was my first chance to experience the process of line management where fostering and seeing professional growth of teachers under my care is as satisfying as the progress of any students I have taught over the years.

So, that's why as I take the next step to a new school in a new role from next term, I am pretty confident that my luck will hold out.

It has so far.

Brian Tracy I've found that luck is quite predictable. If you want more luck, take more chances

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Brendan Jones has a new post up about setting up his own classroom which is a really good read. He talks about getting his first room in many years of teaching (he's a PE Specialist) and how he ditched the teacher's desk as well as trying to set up the room without any budget at all. The main point I got out of the post though was the point that in this modern trend of re-designing learning spaces for optimum learning, it is a really good idea to involve the students in those decisions, which Brendan is well on the way to doing.

My school has spent a lot of time looking at the concept of re-imagining classrooms and learning spaces with the help of some focussed professional learning with Lisa Burman a few years ago. Most teachers have had a go at embracing the concepts outlined by Lisa, and to try and deconstruct some of the sacred cows of classical classroom set-ups. When our new principal arrived from country SA at the start of 2016, she remarked that classroom set up was a concept that really stood out to her a newbie in a way that her previous schools had not. A year on now, she had a conversation with me about how different teachers had embraced the letting go of some of the traditional arrangements of a classroom and how others thought they were but were still clinging to elements that left the teacher in control.

I'll tackle one of these elements. Furniture is one area where things can be re-imagined significantly. Our school is only six years old but there is a couple shed full of traditional furniture as teachers have tangled with the idea that you don't need 30 identical chairs and 15 identical desks to have a functioning classroom. But some teachers have worked with their students to co-design their classroom together while others have given their classroom a makeover that can look very pleasing to the eye but where the students have had very little input. And it doesn't mean that regular classroom furniture can't work - antique tables and cushioned chairs don't guarantee anything except for a rustic look. One of our best teachers still uses our standard furniture but negotiates the set up with her students, designates wall spaces for learning purposes and talks through their effective use with her students. There isn't eye-candy decoration in that classroom but a real feel of inclusion and belonging, purpose for learning and pride in a collaborative space that the kids share with their teacher.

Purpose is really important. Throughout our department, there have been a large list of schools receiving STEM grants. We are not one of those schools, having been judged to have facilities already that will fulfil that function. We do have a suitable learning space called the Da Vinci Studio which was built with a Science focus. In 2011, it had tall tables and science chairs but they have all been nabbed across the school to create the re-imagined classroom spaces where there is a variety of seating choices. The room itself fell into neglect, becoming a spillover area for students working on "stuff", a place to dump junk and so on because back in 2011, STEM was not really high on the educational radar. I arrived mid way through the year and had my hands full getting laptops to work, raising my game in student achievement data and becoming a rosters guru. But as the years have progressed, the school has supported some of its innovative teachers by investing in robotics gear, makey-makeys and LittleBits for buddy class technology projects. You can see some of that here. With the ICT Committee, we formed a working party that has a plan to claim back and renew this space as our school STEM/Makerspace HQ and I've assumed the responsibility for moving this concept forward. So, to get to the point, we've cleaned the space out and chucked a lot of accumulated junk in the skip. I have cleared the room of excess furniture and thought about how the purpose behind the learning we want to happen in the classroom should dictate the furnishings.  The working party got hold of a few classroom furniture company catalogues and gushed over some of the beautiful pieces in there. Things like tech bars, soft ottomans and makerspace storage cabinets looked really cool but were really expensive. Also, did they really serve the purpose of the space? So, hopefully through the end-of-life furniture replacement process (there are a bunch of tired looking tables and regulation plastic chairs) I want to get the following. One of those large roadmap carpets for gathering and discussion, plus being ideal for programming robot routes is on my list, flip tables with whiteboard surfaces so that set ups are quickly deployed and stackable stools. That way, the classroom can be set up as needed for a variety of purposes and not be locked in.

As Brendan found out and points out:

I quickly realised that it was in the arrangement, not the type of furniture, that made all the difference to the kid’s disposition in my class.

With that in mind, he really can't go wrong. But it sounds like he still has to convince a few colleagues.

 

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Several days ago, Stephen Downes pointed out this link, adding:

"The end is near for paper-based newspapers."

I can see this on a local level. I am offered a free local Advertiser regularly when grabbing a few groceries at Foodland. This weekend, two plastic wrapped papers were left on our front lawn. I initially thought that maybe there was a home delivery mistake until the offer from News Ltd was in the mailbox was opened. Both papers went straight into the recycling bin without being read.

Interesting turn of events - we certainly need news and reporting, but accessing it in paper form, not so much.

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I've been playing in the educational social media space for nearly 11 years now, and I would have to say that my enthusiasm to be plugged in at all times and have my finger on the pulse has waned in the last few years. Networked learning enthusiasts were fewer back then and much less mainstream than what I see today out in the two main areas of interaction for me, blogs and Twitter.

There are heaps and heaps of teachers on Twitter these days. Finding relevant, interesting voices to connect to is harder for me now than it was back in 2007 when I first tried out the platform. Maybe it is because I am getting older but I feel my impatience overriding my enthusiasm at some of the things I see posted in the name of professional learning. I find #edhashtagchats still leave me cold. It is difficult for me to follow conversations and I rankle at the formulated posing of questions that allow precious little time for full meaningful interaction. Yet some of these #edhashtagchats want to promote the idea that they are open and inclusive of all educators.

Mostly, I hate the Twitter shoutout. When someone posts a string of @mybestmate names for a question or an invitation or an idea, it feels like the "in crowd" reminding me that I am not one of them, my input is not valued or even wanted. That probably isn't the reality but that is how it comes across. And a lot of the time, there is a thinly veiled undercurrent of self promotion. Names that attach other names to TechCompanyEducator statuses, shout out congrats on the new book deal, or come to this great PD event featuring the tweeter as presenter or keynoter. It makes me feel very cynical as networked learning was where I went to be inspired or have my ideas challenged, but I find that hard to do nowadays.

Maybe I need to go search out that new tool that hasn't been taken over by the cyber-narcissists. Or maybe, if I don't "get" the people who populate my Twitterstream, it is time to unfollow, comb through my lists to see who actually does contribute to my learning and try again.

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I attended a day hosted on behalf of our partnership on PAT Data today as one of my school's representatives. Student Achievement Data is one of the key parts of my role as Assistant Principal and this testing system is one that I have made the effort to become familiar with. I have blogged about some of my work in this area before so for me, the presenter was going over some familiar ground in her introduction. As she spoke, I started typing up questions that were forming in my brain about this form of testing and the data it produces.

Does standard equal average?

How do these standards then translate into comparisons for Australian schools v. other countries?

Do we set standard as average which can be variable according to the cohort (even an Australian wide cohort as measured by ACER) or is it political when standards are determined externally and then we measure whether our students are above, below or matching?

Interesting that in a multiple choice test, a correct guess is measured as evidence of student achievement – so, should we discourage the “just have a try” method if it is likely to end up with a guess?

If a child guessing produces a scattered graph where the easy questions are wrong, are the guessed correct answers of greater difficulty discounted in calculating the score?

I got answers to most of these questions along the way, but it led me tonight to pondering about the concept of making a difference.

I was lucky enough to attend EduTECH last week for the fourth time, taking a team of seven colleagues with me. For me, the highlight was a presentation and then a workshop from EduChangemakers, Aaron Tait and Dave Faulkner, totally focussed on the concept of making a difference for students. If you read this blog and/or follow me on Twitter, you will know that I have complained about the term "edupreneur" and expressed concerns about its wider connotations. So, I was surprised at myself to be blown away by this duo's authenticity and story. We had just sat through a middling presentation by a private school who had done a makeover of their learning spaces, struggling to come to terms with terms like "non-selective" (code for they don't screen potential students for academic standards prior to enrolling, no different from the vast majority of government schools) and "double streaming" (they have more than one Year 2 class - we chuckled that we must be quadruple streaming Year Twos at WGS!) and then Dave came up on stage and told us the story of his first day at Halls Creek District School where the first student he encountered looked at him and said, "What the f#^& are you looking at?"

All of a sudden, we had someone in front of us who understood disadvantage and battling disengagement, who was telling us about how to empower teachers to solve problems in new ways. I did a complete 180 degree turn in my thinking and even went down straight after the presentation to buy their new "Edupreneur" book. Both Aaron and Dave were down there at the time and were down to earth and friendly to talk to, and they both encouraged me to come to their workshop even it was officially full. The workshop was a whirlwind taste of their full day workshop change process which uses Design Thinking as its basis.

No, now I am reading the book which is focussed on teacher-led innovation. As the title of this post suggest, this is all linked to the innate desire of most educators to make a difference. This can be on a small or major scale but it is surely a driver of any teacher who participates in any form of professional learning or self improvement. It is also the desire of systems who choose testing systems like PAT.

What making a difference looks like can wax and wane over time. I know it has for me. Even when I see some educators on Twitter participate in self-promotion and in-crowd shoutouts, I know that they are only seeking to make a difference for their students. I was probably like that a decade ago, full of idealism and a desire not only to make a difference but to be seen to be making a difference. But time can erode self confidence and the bravado and self righteousness of youth can be replaced by doubt. Every now and again, it is good to take stock and re-ask the question, "How can I make a difference for the students I work with?'