I returned yesterday from three days in Melbourne attending the first Microsoft Innovative Schools Forum for 2011. Twenty schools were selected from around Australia to participate as the 2011 cohort and Melbourne was the first event in a program that is designed to promote innovation and networking between public schools with a change agenda that leverages the potential of ICT. My school, along with Charles Campbell Secondary School, was fortunate enough to be one of the two South Australian representatives attending with our key select group of Ann, my principal, myself as the ICT coordinator and Trent, our focus classroom teacher. Each school sent a similar team of three. The forum consisted of an official launch at Parliament House in East Melbourne on the Wednesday night, a full Thursday meeting, setting up for and connecting the 2011 cohort at an inner city conference facility, and the Friday was spent out at the fabulous Silverton Primary School following through on a focussed inquiry that would tie to our own school's developing project plans.
Trent and I flew out of Adelaide early Wednesday and took the opportunity to visit Dallas Brooks Community School. Amanda and Lynn, the two campus principals, and Ramon, their ELearning coordinator were extremely generous with their time and we got a really good look around a school that has really made a name for itself. I won't go into a lengthy description about the school here but if you go to this page, click on the Worldwide tab and scroll down to Dallas Primary, then the embedded video tells their story far better than I can.
But I can tell you what I saw, and that was students focussed on their learning, using technology tools as they required, across the year levels in a variety of ways. We had a look through the Year 5/6 unit first and saw the students using their 1:1 netbooks. Much like I saw at St Albans Meadows 18 months ago, the devices were an integral part of the classroom, students using them as the need arose in a very independent way. There were no whole class teacher led lessons going on, but a mixture of independent and paired kids working on tasks, or small groups focussed on a particular activity. Throughout the school, this was a real feature and what impressed me was the focus of these students, many of whom come from a disadvantaged background. In one classroom, there were two Year Six students coaching some Year One students on how to use an X-Box Kinect that focussed on developing their gross motor skills. They had four young proteges and worked with them in pairs, bringing one pair to use the LCD television at the front of the room while the other two simply picked up their readers and continued with that particular task. While this went on, a larger group of students were seated in a corner on the floor working with their teacher on word letter blends, completely absorbed in their activity and no paying any attention to the potentially distracting Kinect action. Dallas has a student television station that is part of a larger focus on oral language skills - something that their large English as a Second Language population needs as a priority. My takeaway from this is not that every primary school needs a television station, but that having a whole school project around a student priority is a great way for all year levels to connect.
I think one mental danger when visiting other schools is to start thinking about what can be replicated back at my own school, or grabbing ideas that start next week, when clearly what I saw there was part of a long term big picture strategy that requires staff commitment, exceptional leadership, piece by piece implementation and tellingly, a commitment to being as open as possible. The fact that we were able to access that is a great example of that openness. Dallas are also a Microsoft Innovative School (Pathfinder status) and Amanda's and Lynn's advice on how we could get the most of the program was very helpful.
This was a pretty swish affair with all 2011 school teams gathering around drinks and nibbles before an official launch by the Microsoft Australia Education team, in partnership with the Victorian DEECD. We heard from the principals of Dallas and Silverton, and got the chance to mingle and start the networking that promises to be a major feature of this program.
Forum Day One - Cliftons
Our next day was run at the Cliftons Conference Centre a short stroll from our accommodation, where the day was capably run by Sean Tierney, Joan Dalton and Cheryl Doig. We were paired with another person from another school to conduct a Partner Inquiry. I got to connect with a young teacher, Mitchell, from Buckley Park College who was a very nice person with a high level of tech-savviness. She had the AnswerGarden page for the group up and bookmarked before I could even get logged into delicious. I suppose that could explain why she was the school's eLearning Coach. The two of us then made up a larger six person Co-Lab who met to introduce ourselves. The Co-Lab was made of two principals, two middle managers (like myself, holding down coordinator or Assistant Principal positions) and two classroom practitioners and our group of six came from six different states. Later the group met to discuss a document called the Learning talk Covenant using a structured method called "final word". We all read silently, highlighting a phrase or section that struck a chord with us. That was shared in turn, with each Co-Lab member reading their chosen segment aloud, then each other member responding until the original person had the "final word". A lot of this activity was geared towards opening lines of communication and getting us all to be open to listening to other cohort members without necessarily polluting conversational waters with our own experiences from and change agendas for our own schools.
We had a look at an online project for students called DeforestAction, which is what Microsoft Education believe technology enabled learning could (and maybe should) look like. Another tool we were introduced to was the Microsoft PIL "Building Skills for Tomorrow" which shares a strong resemblance to many similar tools, including the ISTE NETS which we use at my school. At this stage, we re-convened back in our school teams as we then use that tool to hone in on planning a Learning Walk¹ for the next day's program at Sliverton. Ann, Trent and I identified Love of Learning as our focus, keeping in mind the possible transference to our own school's needs. We then formed planning groups with other people covering the same Skill, and worked out what questions we would focus on asking students and staff in the classrooms at Silverton, what we would be looking for in terms of student learning and facilities and tools to assist that learning, plus thinking about what it would sound look as well. I worked with a teacher, Julie from Tasmania, and a high school teacher from Townsville in Queensland.
Old Melbourne Gaol
This was the site for the Gala Dinner and we were assigned three other schools to sit with. We were given a guided tour by Mrs. Kelly, the "mother" of infamous Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, who was hanged in that very gaol in November 1880. The dinner was served at an enormous long table running the length of the bottom level of the gaol and was a great chance to meet and mix with others.
Friday saw everyone up early and on the bus down to Silverton Primary on the south east side of Melbourne. We were greeted by the two school captains and ushered into the school's new BER funded hall. We got ourselves ready for our targetted Learning walk throughout the school where we were free to talk to any child, staff member or leader about what we were seeing. We met Tony Bryant, the principal and got into our teams to check out the school. The first thing I noticed was a large LCD television screen embedded into a wall with a Wii-mote hanging from a hook - Wii for the students during their break times! We went into the Year 5/6 Learning Centre first and what struck me first was how scattered the students were around the unit, all engaged in a variety of learning activities using a blend of technologies and traditional paper based materials. The students were obviously used to having visitors and happily spoke about their learning. We saw inquiry tasks around the topic of the Victorian gold rush before adjourning to the Year 3/4 Centre where Literacy block was in full swing. Again, technology was there but used as one of many choices for the learning to be done. Students were constructing learning goals on documents and small groups were gathered around portable projectors examining texts as part of their reading program. We looked at the Year 1/2 kids and the Preps involved in their Discovery Time, which is a structured play program that had a very detailed ongoing assessment regime maintained by the supervising teachers. I spoke to the Multimedia teacher, who ran the Television and Radio station, an enterprise much like the one at Dallas, that was a whole school project focused on improving the oral speaking skills of their students. There were predetermined roles for various year levels - the Year 1/2s were the anchors, the Year 3/4 kids did the filming and the Year 5/6 students were the reporters. The footage was then broadcast around the school on the many LCD screens and uploaded onto the school website where the parent community could access it.
The Learning Walk focused us on the Love of Learning angle, and we took photos and snippets of Flipcam footage because our final task was to start a multimedia presentation on that angle about the school that we could share with other 2011 MIS cohort members and to take back home to our own schools. We also shared our start on this with another school - in this case, Coomera Springs State School from Queensland. Seeing another group's take on the school also opened up our own perspectives. No matter about what anyone thought about the school's practices, it is one heck of a statement of trust and belief to open up your school to sixty high level educators for examination and Silverton should be congratulated on that. They do have a lot to be proud of.
So, What's The Big Deal
Microsoft is often portrayed as being the bad guy in the technology world and there are some good reasons for that label. But Apple advocates don't hold the moral high ground either when it comes to monopolistic practices, so I'm fine with my work at educational improvement for my school and its learners being associated with the Microsoft name. Truth be known, I've applied three times to be a Microsoft Innovative Educator and never got close. But my record with helping my school to gain entry to these sort of programs is a lot better, and now I'd rather be a team player than an individual maverick seeking acknowledgement from a mystery corporate judge. So, this opportunity to meet and mingle with leaders and teachers from over twenty public schools around Australia trying to make a difference is a career highlight. The Microsoft funding gives us access to some of the highest quality facilitators available in this part of the world and a chance to look closely under the hood of schools that have moved to the next highest level in the Microsoft Education program. These three days have been invaluable for examining where our school is heading, whether the initiatives we are trialling will have legs, gaining some affirmation for the programs and ideas we already have in place and making plans to continue the growth of learning programs for our students.
I have had some personal revelations building from my participation at the recent ACEL conference when thinking about my own leadership roles and opportunities within our education system. The message I got from that conference was don't be afraid to look for the next opportunity, be ready to move if needed and don't stay in one place for too long so that your own change agenda becomes mundane and ineffective. But listening to Tony describe his school's journey and his role over an extended period of time (he started as principal in 1989) had me re-thinking about what it means to make a difference. I'm lucky. I work at a progressive school in a role well suited to my skills and knowledge in Learning Technologies and one could argue that the school could continue to progress without my input but another school less advanced in their journey would benefit from my experience. Our school has already that several times as teachers and other leaders have gone onto more influential positions in other schools, thereby raising the possibilities for their new schools and improving the education system in that way. But another way to look at that could be that my current position helps drive our school in time to a level similar to Dallas and Silverton - the influence is then that schools come to look at what we do and take those ideas and seeds for improvement back to their home base. Either way is a valid use of my talents - and my leadership does not have to come from a positional title. I like to think that I also provide some of that influence via this blog and my other online contributions, showing that ordinary educators need to roll up their sleeves and get online to mix it up and trade ideas and knowledge with other educators worldwide.
1. A Learning Walk is defined as "a regular, focused walk in and around learning areas for a brief period of time - observing and gathering data - followed by reflection, feedback and setting of future goals." think.beyond.co.nz
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