Middle Schooling


I've just spent the last two days at a fantastic event hosted by ACEL (Australian Council of Educational Leadership) and led by the amazing Simon Breakspear. It was held for "Emerging Leaders" and it is nice to think of myself as fitting into the category somewhat, although I would definitely say that it has taken a fair while in terms of years for me to start to emerge. (A little more along that train of thought in another post.)

Anyway, one of Simon's recurring terms for teachers who are innovative, striving to improve and renowned for outstanding practice is "rock star teachers." He had this fantastic image up on screen of a guy drinking directly from the coffee jug as a visual metaphor for where these teachers are at this time of term as their energy levels start to flag from running at a furious pace from the start of the year. He painted this picture of teachers who push so hard in their job that they often forget to have lunch but who maintain the respect of their students the whole time, and who never stop trying to present the best possible learning scenarios for them.

The phrase has stuck with me, because as he spoke I started thinking about the "rock star teachers" I'm lucky enough to work with every day in my learning team. They fit his description perfectly. I've never worked with a bunch of colleagues who work as hard, who hold themselves to such high standards, who email each other and post stuff to share on our wiki with each other at insanely late hours, who take improvement so seriously as the team I work with right now. They are deserving of this title. They should be adulated and cheered by students as they stroll through the school. I know they are appreciated even though they are more of a "supergroup". Think of a teacher version of the "Traveling Wilburys" and they are a privilege to work with.

This morning, Simon had his PollEverywhere SMS system working and asked us to send in any message about the previous day that had stuck. I took the opportunity and sent this in:

That if we're talking about rock star teachers, then we do need to beware the burnt out rock star teacher!

I know that the metaphor is handy in a lot of ways to describe those high achieving teachers who lead out from the classroom. True rock stars progress in their musical talents and generally become better and more mature as their career advances, although it can only take a short amount of time to be propelled to stardom. But take on too much and you run the risk of being the burnt out rock star. The rock star teacher needs careful management to preserve their precious talent, because like many real life rock stars, their vocation can be detrimental to their own well being and health.




I've planned to hold my first class meeting for 2011 tomorrow. In the spirit of our school where we try to find the foremost expert on a topic and model our approach on leading edge practice, I've decided to use the exemplary work of Donna Styles as my model. There is a useful site that links to all of the elements required - agendas, a problem solving model, encouragement techniques and other templates. I like the fact that this approach blends formality with social skills to remind the kids that this is a worthy undertaking where they can contribute and air opinions in a safe way without weighed down by restrictive processes.

Before getting the technology bug, Student Voice was a big interest of mine. Back at Flagstaff Hill Primary I was the staff member responsible for the reconstruction of our Student Representative Council into a Student Voice Committee structure loosely based on the model used at the time by Grange Primary School. My team teaching buddy and I would run these focussed double class meetings where we dispensed with the then current vogue of observers and timekeepers, and modelled ourselves on the formal structure of staff meetings with all conversation directed through an officious chairperson, minutes typed up on a class computer and a complex process of motions, seconders, points for and against, and agenda details. Students had to identify if their item was Information, Discussion or Decision - or it wasn't discussed!

I fostered the concept of student leaders who applied for and were elected to this specific role. They would chair and minute the various Committee meetings around the school. There was an Environment Committee, a Technology Committee, a Graduation Committee, a Grounds Committee and even a Canteen Committee. The leaders were impartial supporters, guiding younger students in the ways of fruitful discussion and clear decision making. I was lucky and had some exceptional leaders who made the whole process hum along. I see a number of them now as successful adults as outlined on their Facebook profiles. I created proformas for the various meetings and the leaders were the tip of the community service pyramid we had going at the school over ten years ago. I even applied for a position as a Coordinator in Student Leadership at a nearby school, gaining an interview but not getting the nod for the final position.

The next year, I saw the job as ICT Coordinator at Lockleys North advertised, applied and turned my back on the issue of Student Voice to focus on my fledgling edtech skills. Over the time here, I've tried to recapture the effective class meeting formula but the part time nature of the job meant that my good intentions ended up being compromised by time pressures and other responsibilities. In 2009, I found the Donna Styles resources on the web and resolved to do a better job. That year started with a fortnight long heatwave that sapped the kids' energy and I know I did not build the base for the structure to stand on its own and for the kids to really see the benefits of the various components in making their classroom a better place. This year I find myself with a great new class who appear to be very receptive to my directions and I want this to be an effective model for all of the Torrens classes if my class lead out and model the Class Meeting approach that Styles advocates.

Class meetings are not just window dressing for a classroom or lip service to the concept of Student Voice - although I've seen more than one classroom teacher sabotage the process so that they could show how these things are a waste of time and effort in my time. But a well run class meeting is a powerful thing. It allows students to take on roles that give them responsible power over their peers, it gives quiet kids a chance to verbalise their ideas and to critique others' point of view in a forum that protects them. Students make a shift over time from raising problems and airing complaints to then planning events and recognising individual and group progress within their classroom. It can teach kids that if they take the time to consult, think through alternatives and consequences, their ideas can start running and take flight. A class meeting can hopefully ignite the realisation that they can make a difference to some one else, to something else, to their community and maybe, in the future, to their world.

So, tomorrow's meeting is the first foundation for a year where I want to foster ownership of their own learning. Using an experienced person's methods should enable me to spend more time fostering the skills and voice of my students instead of re-inventing processes and structures from my prior experiences. classmeetingplans

Tomorrow is the start of the new school year here in South Australia. I'm starting my ninth year at my school and this year will be the main teacher for a class of thirty Year Sixes and Sevens - kids who start the year as 11 and 12 year olds. Composite classes like this are very common in our education system and present additional challenges for teaching and guiding an already wide spread of skills and abilities. Technology helps in meeting that challenge.

I'm usually quite nervous about the first day. This is despite the fact that I am a well established teacher within our school and I have crossed most of these kids' paths numerous times in preceding years in my role as the school's Learning Technologies Coordinator. The old adage of "you only get one chance to make a first impression" is a pretty true one. And the cool part is that we're starting the year in our new building, one of four classes that will work together over the course of the year. I'm lucky to be part of a good team. There are six of us who make up the team and we work hard to provide learning for our students that meets our school's priorities, caters for their needs as emerging adolescents and enables them to take ownership for their own achievements and learning.

One anecdote that I'm quite proud of (and that I'm sharing with you before I've even told my team mates) is a comment that my principal made last year when we were both at a meeting winding up our involvement in a departmental research project. A senior person (who will remain unidentified) was lamenting the state of many schools and was espousing many of the things I've often read on some leading edubloggers' blogs. My boss just shook her head and turned to me and whispered in an (paraphrased) aside, "I'm sick of hearing people like this who haven't been in schools for years telling us that school is no longer relevant any more. She needs to come and look at how engaged our upper primary students are before she makes such sweeping generalisations."

To make a team work well, it starts with an openness and a willingness to share. We use a wiki to do this. Using the wiki isn't the amazing part but the sharing and cross-pollination that occurs because of it is. I decided to dump paper based classroom and curriculum planning back in 2008 in favour of the digital and persuaded my classroom neighbour Maria, and my tandem partner, Kim to join in on the fun in 2009. What we found was that we could clearly see how each other planned to cover specific content and concepts, we could poach ideas and resources from each other and as a result, our two classrooms became more consistent in nature. Parents could see that the two classes were in unison and that all of the teachers were on the same page. We used the wiki to create new initiatives and used an embedded chat box to thrash out many issues and clarify directions on many a night. A wiki doesn't do this - it takes committed educators willing to be more open with each other - but the technology overcame the obstacles of needing to be face to face and simplified the hit-and-miss method of emailing documents for incremental collaboration. By the way, the wiki is private. We're practising being more open - but just with each other.

So, I've posted up my schedule for tomorrow, including links to the Getting To Know You activity and a Vimeo video I'm using as a writing prompt. The others can see where I'm going and I can see how they plan to start the year with their classes. My new partner is newer to this methodology as Kim has increased time to take on her own class and I have less Coordinator time for 2011 necessitating a change in our team structure. Now we operate and plan as a four class team where innovation isn't something that just one class gets because of the teacher in front of them. My next challenge is to work what how Edmodo can add to this mix.


I was on yard duty on Tuesday and a Year 3 student came up to me.

"I saw you on the internet last night."

I smiled. "That's not hard. I have plenty of stuff on the internet. How did you find me?"

"I typed in the school's name and your name came up in Google."

Writing in this blog means I think about the potential readers scattered around the globe who might find my posts interesting or useful. But I forget about the people closer to home who might also be also reading - parents, students, even my teacher colleagues. My reputation as an educator goes beyond my words and actions within the school environment.

Reputation is a funny thing. At my previous school, I had developed a reputation as one of the better teachers in the school. I taught the older kids - the Year Sixes and Sevens who other teachers openly shied away from teaching. I had parents who requested that their child be placed in my class, that I keep their child for an additional year and the vibe I got back in general from the parent community was one of respect. Students were happy when they found that I was to be their teacher, and saw that the opportunities that Lindsay, my team teaching partner, and I offered meant they would be in a challenging and interesting classroom. I had eased into that position over the previous eight years after moving back to Adelaide from country South Australia.

But I didn't start at the upper primary level. I arrived as a young country teacher and was given a Year 4/5 class in a squashed up space in the middle of an open space unit. I had no reputation to speak of at my new school. But it didn't seem to matter that much back in 1995. After all, I wasn't teaching the big kids. So, after a few years, the reputation built up and I slotted into the Year 6/7 arena comfortably with content parents and engaged students. Reputation was what smoothed the path in 2001 towards Lindsay's and my most innovative and ambitious two years teaching together. We moved into the old library at the school which was a strange building and not built for two traditional classes at all.  We had the Year 6/7 classes and we had this weird space that had a large teaching area, a former librarian's office and a low ceilinged area for the bags. Upstairs was a L shaped area which could squeeze in a class for instruction - just. We had to design how our classes would interact, what the various nooks and spaces could be used for and challenge the students with the notion of how a primary school classroom could operate. But our reputation meant that no parents queried our approach or the suitability of the space for learning.

But when I won my current job and moved into a Year 6/7 class with a new offsider, I forgot that my reputation didn't automatically travel with me. The parents were suspicious of ideas and programs that a year earlier had been been given a supportive tick of approval by a different community. I had forgotten that over a long period of time in a school, students develop a strong notion of who you are, what you will and won't tolerate, what your expectations are like and that forges together into a reputation that goes some way to dictating how they respond to you when they come under your care. And I also forgot that adolescents are a tough audience to crack. They like reputation because they have some sense of how they will be treated, the sort of learning that will be valued. But you have no worthwhile reputation when you are new to the school and most importantly, new to them. Younger kids are less judgmental and more easily enthused.

But the silver lining in my first year as a coordinator was that I did have another aspect to my role in the school. I was "the computer guy", the teacher who would come into their classroom and help their teacher get logged on, or show them some new ways to use their computers or interactive whiteboards. Now, it is just as important that my reputation with my colleagues is solid, that they trust that my ideas for using technology in their classrooms, with their students. As I encourage them to make their way online, my reputation is built on the posts I write, how respectfully I describe my interactions with them to the wider connections of the online educator network, how tactfully I re-tell anecdotes from the classroom and as well, the connections I recommend that they make. The choices I make matter.

That means your reputation is important, too. Because as my little friend on the play equipment pointed out, it's easy to find me on the internet. Some of you guys are even easier to find - and your reputation spreads wider, too.

musicgraphThis is a graph created by our two Year Seven classes as part of our inquiry unit "What Are You Listening To?" The graph was the result of an exercise that asked the students the question "How do songs get onto your playlist?" Before the results came in, my offsider Kim and I hypothesized that kids today would barely listen to the radio and would lean more on their social networks to find and enjoy new music. Well, the results tell us that for our particular cohort, the radio still holds some power and influence.  Just in case, your eyes are struggling to make out the results, both the radio and recommendations from friends are the two most common ways of discovering new music, closely followed by the internet. Students also had to create a flowchart that showed the pathway of discovering and adding a new song to their collection. If I get permission, I might share some of their work here.


This week's maths focus was planned to be on time zones and I sat there on Sunday evening looking around for some web resources to help convey those concepts to my Year Seven class. For some reason, as I stared at the time zone map from worldtimezone.com, my mind wandered back to a conversation I'd had with a colleague about my favourite reality TV show Survivor. (Everyone has a weakness - cigarettes, gambling, golf, chocolate .... Survivor!) Sensing that maybe I was a reality television fan, she had also asked if I watched the show The Amazing Race. I've only watched the show on the odd occasion but her suggestion bobbed back into my mind as I pondered a hook, a reason for students to be exploring the concepts and the mathematics behind the world's time zones.

So, in my typical style, I started designing a challenge that would blend time zone differences, travel times and choices that involved time calculation. I started by finding an easy to read Episode Guide site where each season had each episode neatly summarised in a paragraph. I decided that the focus would be just on moving around the world and gave Season One a try as a test run. The first episode had the contestants starting in New York and flying to Johannesburg in South Africa, so I used Fare Compare to find flights starting today that would fit the bill. Even though money isn't a focus at the moment in our Mathematics, I figured it wouldn't hurt to add the ticket costs along the way as well. I also thought that getting the kids to use Powerpoint as a tool would be an easy way to standardise everything, making each slide a leg of the challenge. amazingslide1

So, part of this Amazing Race is work out the best choices to get from one destination as outlined by that particular season to the next. You can see that my earliest choice for a flight was an 11.15 am flight from JFK (I know that this isn't quite how the show works but this provides the decision making element). I recorded that plus the GMT zone, the ticket costs (Fare Compare automatically converted the costs into Aussie dollars but if I used another site or a particular airline site, then there is always the handy XE Currency Converter site) the time spent travelling including time spent on stopovers, the arrival local time with a converted time for the originating time zone. That would be plenty for the students to play around with.

So, the students are in teams of two or three and are aiming to cover at least two legs per day. After each leg, the team must program in an overnight stay before hunting for the next flight to the next destination. This may turn out to be too ambitious on my part but some teams covered three legs in today's hour. There are two "prizes" on offer - one for the first team to get through the designated season with correct calculations by week's end, and a second for the team that makes the best choices and solves the season in the least fictional time.

In general, the kids really got into the task although a number needed help in navigating the complex Fare Compare site. The tendency was to punch the two destinations in and take the top result. With the premium being on saving time not money, students had to be shown how to sort the results to give the shortest flight times and make better choices. After all, no one wants to spend ten hours in one airport and seventeen in another before arriving at the required city 37 hours after departure just to get a bargain basement fare when a direct flight will get one there in under fourteen! We'll see how it goes.

Our new BER funded library and classrooms are nearly ready. It has been interesting and exciting to watch them be built, then painted and furbished and go from shells and frameworks to spaces that you can visualise in action. So, there has been quite a bit of talk around learning spaces and re-imagining how we might go about the business of teaching and learning.

I was fortunate enough to go to a recent symposium hosted by iNet that featured Sharon Wright from Creative Wit. She talked at length about the various efforts in the UK to transform their schools and it was interesting to mentally tick the boxes as she outlined driving factors in the change process and how learning spaces were being designed or altered to cater for contemporary learning needs.

So add in the thought provoking ideas laid out by Ewan McIntosh in last week's MasterClass, and I'm trying to work out how I will personally operate in a new learning space. The concept of the classroom as a studio has been written about Clarence Fisher in the past and it is a challenge to get the balance right between whole class instruction, independent project or inquiry work, group discussion and helping individuals grapple with new understandings or knowledge. I know the underlying structures and practice we have at this school are all lined up to make the most of a new collaborative learning space - but any change from the status quo (in this case from my current individual classroom in an old transportable building) to a new environment challenges me to re-imagine how things could be, how new or improved opportunities for my students can open up.

I'm looking forward to it and working with a keen team of fellow educators means that we are re-purposing this new space for our students together.


Projectors going into our new classrooms.


Even though I'm in my eighth year here at my current school, it isn't the same place that I wandered into. Back in 2003 in my first taste of leadership, I inherited a school with a computing room with twenty PCs and one lone PC at the back of each classroom. In my role as ICT Coordinator (now Teaching and Learning Technologies Coordinator) I assisted to change the focus and nature of the technology used as part of our learning programs. I've documented a lot of that journey on this blog over the past few years and back when we were getting our IWB program off the ground on this blog.

The exterior is taking shape.

The exterior is taking shape.

We've funded the IWBs, the teacher laptops, the wireless classrooms, the students laptop trolleys and the netbooks from within our own school budget and have been blessed with a supportive Governing Council who've seen the need for us to grow our digital resources and tools to keep pace with our learning goals. Then along came Kevin Rudd and his BER (Building the Education Revolution) and for the first time in nearly every South Australian state school teacher's career, schools had the chance to fund some new forward looking buildings. Although we have been restricted by the limited designs, my school has taken the line that a standardised building does not mean we can't be innovative within the pre-designed walls and roofs. We ended choosing to build a new library and a new 4 class GLA (General Learning Area).

This will be one of the classroom walls.

This will be one of the classroom walls.

I'm lucky in that I'm going to be one of those four teachers who get to move into the new classroom block. And as part of my role, I've been talking with my learning team about how we should be outfitting these new classrooms. I know that this is still education in an age old paradigm that may be rapidly fading in this constantly connected world, classrooms built to house thirty kids per room, but it will be still pretty cool to be one of the first to teach in a new space. The last few days, Ann, my principal and I have been back on the building site, eyeballing off the progress, talking about cabling and wiring with the foreman and envisioning how this will all come together.

Looking into the future shared learning space where one IWB will go.

Looking into the future shared learning space where one IWB will go.

So, here's what we're doing. The new block will be fully wireless, latest generation, and we will use a fleet of HP laptops with hopefully a transition to some form of 1:1 program in the future. There is still a limited budget so it is not a matter of building the ultimate new learning environment without constraints. The teachers decided that interactive whiteboards were not a necessity, but good short throw projectors in each room were mandatory. The longer I've worked with IWBs, the less enthused I've become with that particular form of technology. So I think this is a good move because it will give us more budget to use in buying flexible furniture, crucial for building a new learning space environment.

So, I guess I am no longer a believer. I still have Simon Shaw's great quote from last year when we visited his school, St Albans Meadows Primary in Melbourne, when he compared their interactive whiteboards with their laptops.

"Why do you need interactivity up there on the wall, when all kids can have interactivity at their fingertips."

That's a good mindset to take into a new building. After all, it needs to be about opportunities for the students.


This year's class are an enthusiastic bunch of bloggers. A few have even made their own headers and avatars, drawing on the usual source for eleven and twelve year olds - popular culture. At this age where they are still trying on various identity cloaks as they work out who they are, the worlds of entertainment, professional sports and technology hold enormous appeal. So it is no surprise that their methods include scouring Google Images using search words of their favourite soccer star, music artist or product brand, stirring them around in Photoshop Elements and then hitting the upload button to display their new creation in their blog.

Except this year, the teachers are trying hard to teach them about the ethics part of online participation. Our new Student Use Agreement also points out that students will respect copyright in any online situation but it comes as a big shock to the kids to find that the common belief of "if it's on the internet, it's free to be used" is not true.

"What if it doesn't have a copyright symbol? It must be OK to use then?"

"Why put it on the internet if they don't want people to use it?"

And once we have explained the concept of intellectual property and that there are rights that should be respected, the kids are on board. What they want to know is how can they still draw on the things that interest them while not running foul of anyone's copyrights. One big problem is that nearly every image one could find of Fabregas (our school is big on soccer) is owned by some sports photography agency or news corporation - and the kids don't really want to use some pic from Flickr of a suburban kick around in its place. We, the teachers, are bumbling around a bit too. Often, we dispense advice that is misinterpreted from what we have gleaned ourselves. It's a reason that I've got my name on a waiting list for a course "Copyright For Educators" run by P2P University. I lean heavily on educators in my network who know more than me to keep me current.

One thing's for sure - we are certainly all learning together on this one.

Public Domain image - Jsmith11

Public Domain image - Jsmith11


text a[Some of my students]

text b [were designing their]

text c[covers for their High Flyer folders]

... when I noticed that they were on a number of free font websites. I thought that I would warn them that while I had no problem with them browsing fonts, they would be unable to download their choice onto the school laptops as they would be locked out by admin privileges on our network. Then I realised that fact was irrelevant - they were using the preview pane to create their own text samples, grabbing them as partial screen grabs and then inserting them into their design. Yet another example of student ingenuity - what I thought was a roadblock just needed a creative workaround.

text d