Middle Schooling


In English, I've been trying to weave the skills of debating into my classroom. It has been something that the majority have found quite difficult, with many mistaking the ability to argue in a contrary fashion for insightful and clever debate. Their confidence in combining oratory skills and a considered point of view has led me to go back several steps and try and nut out a better way to scaffold their way towards a successful in-class debate. I tried to use engaging topics to draw out their enthusiasm (Sport is more important than Science) but a lot found it hard to get beyond their own pre-conceived ideas. I then tried a simple approach where the need to be "right" was less important (Cats are better than dogs) but their keenness was not there.

Early on, I realised that using official debate structures were too large an initial leap, especially when the skills I really wanted to focus on were using powerful language to express a specific perspective, being aware of opposing viewpoints and being able to counter these in a persuasive way. The students needed to be able to get their ideas down in print first, to hold their ideas up to the light, re-word them and listen to how "powerful language" is used in the art of persuasion.

So, in the spirit of sharing, I developed a paper based written debate format that I'm hoping will scaffold the kids towards considering both sides of any issue. I used the free CMap Tools mind mapping program for this as I really like the font and the way it lays out a flow chart like style. It also exports to PDF so I can create something here on my MacBook and share it here or print from my school Windows laptop without any tricky formatting issues.

Here's my PDF original on the topic "Mobile Phones Cannot Be Owned By Primary School Students."

If you have CMap installed, here is the file you can open and edit for your own purposes. I'm not sure which is the best format for exporting that would facilitate others editing for their own classroom so any suggestions would be welcome.


I make no secret that I really enjoy Dan Meyer's blogging and his ideas around engaging mathematics. If I was a high school Maths teacher, I'd be rewriting my own curriculum and unit plans around many of his concepts and points of challenge. But because much of his content is based around concepts that students typically engage with in that high school setting, I've been hesitant to try and scale down his ideas into my own classroom, fearing that my own mathematical knowledge would fall short and my students would flounder in the over challenging expectations.

But his recent What Can You Do With This: Groceries post was too good to resist. The simple but engaging idea - surely I could work that in during our current focus on time. The comment thread has been fun to follow and read, and the television spot made for great viewing. So, I grabbed the image from Dan's blog, threw it up on the IWB and started to see if I could scale it down to a level that would make sense to twelve and thirteen year olds. I started yesterday and continued today, but with my tandem partner, Kim, coming into the classroom tomorrow, I tried to convey the essence of what we have covered in an online chat. See if this makes sense to you.

Notes from the wiki that Kim had already read:

Numeracy - looking at the concept of speed. Start with working out the connection between time and speed and then show Dan Meyer's supermarket checkout image as a warm-up for that thinking.

What is the question that relates to speed from this image? hopefully, someone will pose the question - which checkout line is the best one to join? Which one is faster? What information do you need to know to gauge the speed of either line?

Have students dicuss how they would determine the faster line. What information would they need? What factors could stop your prediction from being true?

Graham: Maths is still investigating the grocery queue issue.
Kim: So they just go on with that too - no new instruction required?
Graham: Maths - well, they are using a set of data that the teacher Dan Meyer created but some are not sure how to proceed. You can leave it until Friday if you want.
Kim: No that's ok - have time for maths and is prob best not to start something new midway. I'll get the kids to explain the task and we'll go from there. Do I need any links?
Graham: Except I'm not 100% where it's going!! http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=4646 This link explains the maths task and he also appeared on CBS about his topic. http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=4718
Kim: That's huge - what are the kids doing with it?
Graham: Well, we looked at the pic on the IWB, and got everyone to take an educated guess and air some theories, we then talked through what maths info was on the pic we talked about variables - credit card or cash, items that don't scan, old ladies, running out of receipt paper roll. H**** and E***** went to a supermarket and ran their own field test!!
Kim: That's cool!
Graham: Today, I threw Dan's data from his 90 minute observation and got them to talk about how they might work out which line is quicker. M**** had one method he was going to try but most were going to take a sample of ten customers, add the items scanned, add the time taken and try and work out an average of time per item that could "prove" their theory. Not perfect maths but getting them thinking and getting some of the less confident kids thinking about averages, adding time amounts so there is a bit of learning at a number of levels.
Kim: It's beaut - were they to collect this data (the items of the 10 customers?)
Graham: Yes, they have a print out of 36 customers.
Kim: OK - we'll continue on from that point. Have you had to revise averages with them at all yet?
Graham: Not as a class - can u make sense of that all?
Kim: I reckon I have now.
Graham: It's a bit messy but it was good to see more kids engaged for a change.

I should have maybe asked for help in scaling this down over on Dan's blog, but the conversation there was already very busy without me saying "Help me?" How else could we make this work well for our students? How can I ensure that good mathematics is there as well?

If we want our students to understand why certain groups of people from around the world chose to leave their home and end up in Adelaide (my students' home town) , then an overall sense of modern world history is needed to gain that understanding. This becomes a classic example of how skills and knowledge are intertwined. Content without skills is mindless but skills without meaningful content is just as hollow.

So here's what I'm trying to find in the fire hydrant that is the web. I'm hoping that someone has created a multimedia piece that covers the important events from a world perspective of the last century (there's plenty with an overly American bias which is not useful for this inquiry). I've hunted through YouTube and the best I can find is this creation below:

I still think that this is too complex and requires far too much prior knowledge for twelve year olds although we have one student who is a history buff who could probably take on the role of narrator for both classes. After all, not every child can excitedly talk about having stood on the exact spot in Sarajevo where the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked the Great War. But unless, I find something better, this might be the best way to give the kids the sense of events that pushed people, sometimes their own families, to seek out a better, safer place to call home.


Just a quick reflection on a tuning in activity I did with the class this afternoon. We're starting a new Inquiry unit titled "Why Is The World Coming To Adelaide?" which has a focus on examining the impact multicultualism has had on this city over time. So, the starting point is to help define "the World" with the students. Yesterday I had the kids pore over a unlabelled world map to see how much geographical knowledge they collectively possessed. We finished up that session with a discussion around reasons why some countries were easier to identify than others.

Then I gave them a simple homework task.

Pick a media source and gather some statistics from a news source (television, newspaper, web) about which countries were mentioned and how often.

The efforts ranged from a quick glance at the local paper to one enterprising student who recorded three different news programs on the family HD recorder and then scanned through them all to gather her stats. We then dropped those results into Wordle to generate this image:

So, I finished the lesson by posing the following questions to the class. "So, what does this tell us? Why do some countries feature so prominently in our news sample? Why are some countries barely mentioned or not noticed at all? What theory do you have?"

Any other classroom teachers elsewhere in the world who'd be willing to try this quick exercise and share the results with me and my class?


Back in March, Doug Noon wrote about his free and voluntary classroom reading program. After trying to get my own literature circle program up and running late last year and still unsure of the best approach with this current bunch of students, his post painted a picture that I want for my classroom.

This year, everyone in the class reads what they want to read, and they read without interruption for 30-40 minutes each day. They tell me about their books when I go around the room asking how it’s going. I write down what we talk about. They read short passages quietly to me. They write in journals about their books. They meet with partners or in small groups, and they give oral “book reports” written on sticky notes. They make book recommendations to each other. They read at home and before school without being told to, and they tell me they love to read. I even saw one of my students reading a book walking down the hall the other day. It’s going viral.

I emailed the link to our teacher-librarian and she agreed that this had all the qualities of a switched on reading program. This week, Doug put the icing on the cake with feedback from his kids about their reading and writing program. Being able to reflect on one's own learning is the mark of a successful learner who values what they are doing and the kids' comments certainly do that well. It's a skill that my teaching partners and I want our own students to have as well.

But what I struggled with was the connection with Doug's switched on atmosphere and the much touted literature circles approach. I'm certainly not the only edublogger out there trying to get it right. So, a whole stack of teachers at my school headed off to an after school workshop on "Literature Circles" to get our heads around this concept. The facilitators talked a bit about lit circles but soon switched focus, talking about their modified approach which stripped some of the formalities away but kept the basic premise of a group of kids reading a common text and coming together to discuss the text through making connections and exploring questions. They called this approach "Book Clubs" and it had many of the things that Doug identified as being desirable outcomes for students when reading - engagement, increased appetite for more books, improved comprehension. This approach is one I think I can handle and while I wouldn't adopt everything mentioned by the facilitators (snacking and guzzling while book clubbing is another time for feeding some of our kids don't need, and carrot and celery treats are not that appealing to many kids), I reckon that I can see this being a successful way of re-engaging middle school readers. Perhaps the major problem will be having enough quality texts in bundles of five or six to form the groups. I really liked the suggested way to form groups - you pass the book bundles around the classroom and everyone views them and then ranks the choices from first until last, then the groups form around who has chosen what book. When a group fills, students then drop to their second choice and so on. I'm feeling enthusiastic about getting the Book Club approach which combines the goals and shared experiences of the literature circle approach with Doug's less formal and peer-enthusing approach.

I really enjoyed our class camp last week to Hindmarsh Island, near Goolwa on the Fleurieu Peninsula. It was good to get to know my students some more in a different environment away from the classroom but I enjoyed the opportunity to step away from the lead teacher role and become an active learner for several days. I really enjoyed listening to, noticing and observing things from the camp instructors.

So for this blog post, I just want to share a few images from the three days from my perspective as a learner who has not really taken the time to find out about this interesting and vital area of South Australia.

This is the controversial Hindmarsh Island Bridge. I took the photo from the middle of the Murray River and the effects of the driest spell in recorded history are pretty obvious. Nathan, our guide for the “Murray River Walk” told us that the water level was two metres below normal levels and the salinity levels had given rise to a new issue - the bristleworm. There was castings growth from these creatures attached to the lower pylons of the bridge for the first time and what looked like rocks on the sandflats of the river were actually also castings growth on a variety of objects ranging from turtle shells to beer bottles to rusty metal pins and mussel shells.

You can see the castings growth on the metal pin held here by one of the students.

We also visited the Murray Mouth where the most important river in Australia finally connects with the sea. This is also a place in a state of flux. When the river isn’t flowing freely into the Southern Ocean (as is the case currently) sand builds up in the mouth, threatening to seal it off completely. From our viewpoint, we could see several dredges, giant vaccum cleaners sucking sand from the floor of the mouth and dumping it all back in another area nearby via lengthy black plastic piping.

Nathan, our instructor, told us that the Mouth is normally much wider - from the left peak to at least the white fluffy cloud is normally flow into the ocean. From the left is the world famous Coorong (think Storm Boy if you know your classic Australian films).

This photo sums up the Murray’s plight in my opinion. Here we have a paddle steamer, similar to the type that cruised all the way down from the sheep stations up on the Darling River system, onto the Murray and down to the port of Goolwa, beached on the shores of the Murray because the water just isn’t deep enough any more. So, it is time to ask the students “Why is this happening?”


The way I plan for my teaching has changed a lot over the past few years. This really was obvious today as my wife, Joanne, planned for her two days of teaching this week in the manner that I did not so long ago - writing out lesson plans by hand, cross referencing her resource books and creating some resources by jumping on the family desktop and printing it off ready for the photocopier. To be fair, she is just returning to teaching this year after five or so years out of the classroom (and we all know that the world has changed just a tad in that time) and she is teaching five-year-olds while I'm at the other end of the primary school spectrum. So, I thought I'd take ten minutes now and detail how planning digitally grants me flexibility and opportunity that was not possible in the past.

Firstly, I have the luxury of a school laptop. This means I can operate wirelessly wherever I feel comfortable around the house. I construct my program on a private wiki shared with my tandem partner and co-planning buddy - this enables transparency, collaboration, pooled resources and consistency in what we deliver in the classroom. We share documents, URL's and flipcharts via this wiki. I have all of my key documents on my hard drive and backed up on my 8GB thumbdrive. So, if I want to check if I have the laptops booked for my Literacy session on Monday, I can pull that document up in seconds. Likewise, if I want to see if there is a spare slot to take my class to the Resource Centre, I can also have that for checking in an instant.

Our Inquiry Scope and Sequence document is readily available, as are my PDF versions of SACSA, our mandated curriculum. So today, I quickly checked what the next inquiry unit was, briefly read the relevant outcomes from the SACSA Lite PDF and did a quick search on YouTube to see if I could find anything that suited the theme of human effects on the planet which is the broad concept behind the title of "Whose Fault Is It?" The YouTube search found a clip from a CNN documentary titled "Planet In Peril" which gave me a new lead to follow.

I found the website, and the Google Video version, which I know won't cope with our school filter and internet speed at school, so in the spirit of educational purpose, I started Vuze on the main desktop and started to download a torrent of the documentary so I could show excerpts tomorrow on the interactive whiteboard. This doco would be an ideal resource for "frontloading" students with ideas, base knowledge and questions for their own independent research later in the term. I also mentally noted the RSS feeds on the original website and fired off an e-mail to my colleagues about this find and then saved it to my delicious account.

I've been reading Dan Meyer's blog - in particular his refit of a Darren Kuropatwa mathematics lesson - and with this in mind started planning one of my own on the concept of measurement in metres. Another concept that needs to be covered is scale drawing, so I used Google Maps to get a decent screengrab of the school for a introductory lesson based on the BER intiative. I dumped this into a flipchart for the IWB and into a worksheet that could be given out to the students. With this image safely stowed, I posed the problem that will logically require some conceptual measurement skills and then headed over to the DECS website to download plans for new libraries and classroom blocks which I'm hoping someone tomorrow is going to point out as a requirement to successfully meet the assigned challenge.

With all of these plans detailed on the wiki and saved, I decided to write this post. Time now for some tortilla wraps for the family evening meal, then back after tea to insert some links here and then to assess last term's final inquiry assessment tasks which are sitting waiting for me on my students' blogs. If I don't get distracted doing other things, that is.

This term's Inquiry unit has focussed on the concept of leadership. This was designed by the three teachers involved (myself included) to cover the SACSA Health standards of 3.5 and 4.5

3.5 Assumes different roles when working as part of a cooperative group or team to achieve a shared goal and understands the effects on relationships.
4.5 Develops skills for working effectively in groups and in teams, explores different constructions of group dynamics such as leadership and identifies qualities for good leaders.

We used our school UbD planner, where we identified our key questions and overall inquiry statement, essential skills and knowledge, and formative assessment goals for the unit.

The Inquiry Overview

Every individual has the potential to be a leader. Leaders have a set of social and friendship skills to enable them to help and empower others.

Through this inquiry students will extend their social knowledge and skills to enable them to make and maintain positive relationships and close friendships and work collaboratively in teams.

As seems to be the case more often than not, these units of work are very fluid and in a constant state of revision to better suit the needs of our particular cohort of students. One of the key features of the UbD model is the identification of a final assessment task during the initial planning of the unit of inquiry. Well, that's the goal and while being mindful of that requirement, we haven't really nailed down what that would look like until later in the unit. The weeks seem to be so jampacked with other things, and our own agenda of "things to do" constantly on the overflow that it took until a week or so ago before we met as a co-planning team to design this final task. We had our understandings and our final task had to reflect some format that would enable our students to demonstrate the depth of their understanding of the leadership concept. We had chosen a selection of famous quotes on leadership appropriate to the 11-13 year old age level and thought that these would be a good vehicle to use to evaluate their understanding. But just reading and interpreting their responses was a pretty plain vanilla task that was begging (in my mind) for some ICT enhancement. Ever the web-savvy consumer, I suggested that the final task could be a replication of the Will Lion Digital Bites collection of quotes embedded in metaphoric images on Flickr.

We tried to work out how this could unfold, how many images a student could be expected to create and with each re-definition of the assessment task, we kept getting further and further away from our outcomes and essential skills and knowledge that we wanted to assess. So, Maria pointed out that we needed to take on board our own planning question for designing any learning task with "What's your purpose?"

Getting back to the planner, pulling out the skills and knowledge dot points enabled us to redefine and refocus the task expectations. We could easily revisit guidelines and other scaffolds to ensure that this challenging task was realigned and achievable by the students.

So, that was the task. The student picked a quote that they felt they understood well and could explain in a short paragraph. That quote would be matched with an image - either a digital photograph of their own, a graphic designed in Photoshop or a choice from the masses of freely licensed images available in Flickr or Wikimedia Commons. Of course, we all have had to scaffold this task effectively so that students understood the concept of an image metaphor and some basic Photoshop Elements skills to put it all together. We spent time discussing and choosing the quotes in groups and as a whole class so that they could relate them back to content and concepts covered throughout the unit like Michael Grose's Four Keywords for student leadership.

Of course, as I drafted and composed this post, Dan Meyer has posted a few times about the effective use of images in presentations, and it has made me even more conscious about working with the students to ensure that they don't just grab the first thing that looks good and bung it all together. I'm definitely no expert in graphic design but know just enough to know that it deserves some attention when the students are going to post their ideas to the wider audience on their blogs. Without getting into the finer detail of where Dan believes the standards should be at (that's a whole new blog post with a different emphasis), I still feel that this assessment task has been challenging enough to get the kids justifying their choices of quotes and graphic. The early finishers are only just posting their results now but there are some pleasant indicators that some kids have an innate sense of what goes together to "sell" a message and make a point.

I'll finish with two sample graphics and invite anyone with a passing interest to check out the students' leadership slides. This task is not a pen and paper exercise in my mind.


Maybe it is just my school that seems to be this way. Especially as our students on the whole don't experience life to this degree. But a significant number (enough to be bugging me and both my co-planning buddy and tandem partner) seem to have a severe case of the "yeah-buts" which kicks into gear every time they are asked to be accountable for their own behavioural choices.

It goes a bit like this.

Me: Could you go back to your seat and get on with the task?
Student: Yeah, but [insert student name here] is out of his seat too.
Me: Don't worry about what they are up to. You need to worry about what you are doing. Come on, you're distracting others.
Student: Yeah but you didn't tell me what to do.
Me: You don't need that - I gave out the criteria sheet for that task yesterday.
Student: Yeah but that must have been when I was out getting a drink.
Me: [frustrated tone starting to creep in] That's not an acceptable reason. There was one put on every desk by [insert student monitor's name here] just before lunch.
Student: Yeah but someone must have stolen it...

"Yeah but" is a code for "I'm going to start with a rhetorical acknowledgement that there is a small possibility that you as the classroom teacher may be correct, but in my twelve years of life on this earth I have yet to encounter a situation where I cannot successfully shift the blame / responsibility onto someone else or in a best case scenario, reflect back onto you."

I'd consider that maybe the problem is my classroom management style or the fact that my classroom learning tasks are not engaging enough but that might just be playing into this small group of students' mindsets.


At the start of a new school year I like to recall a key phrase my friend and team teaching partner of eight years, Lindsay used to say as we got our middle school programs up and running. "Make haste slowly'', was his reminder that in a system that annually reconfigures and juggles pre-adolescent kids into groups of thirty, taking the time to let them settle as a new group, establish routines and expectations is more important than launching head first into meeting explicit curriculum goals. Of course, an innovative teacher can subtly combine the two elements but it's a big mistake to think that getting a spelling program or unit of mathematics started is a bigger priority than working on the classroom agreement, personal goal setting for the year and generally scoping out the social and learning dynamics of the new classroom.

So, after Parent/Teacher interviews, helping to set up two days on student leadership, type up a class newsletter, initial testing, establishing class meeting procedures, negotiating an Agreement about class rules and formulating a class vision and setting up numerous other little tasks that add up to a chunk of time, I sincerely hope that I don't continue to work at this pace for the remainder of 2009. It's one thing to be working hard and feeling ke you're getting somewhere towards the top of the pile but when every piece of "spare time" goes towards this constant state of re-invention instead of watching the occasional television program (I did get to see the first episode of Underbelly on Friday after recording it on Monday), reading a book (Here Comes Everybody would be better titled Here Comes Nobody as it languishes on the bedside table) or even responding to some of my favourite edubloggers. As I remarked to my tandem teaching partner, Kim and next door co-planning buddy, Maria, "I hope we find some sort of rhythm soon or we're gonna be stuffed by Easter."

Anyway, I'd better get ready for my CEGSA meeting which will be followed by an appearance at my school's Governing Council's AGM. Although after one meeting after school and a quick dash to my youngest son's school to meet his teacher, I'm not sure when this slowdown is going to occur!

P.S. Turns out my CEGSA meeting is not for another week. Shame I didn't work this out earlier - building Speed Racer Lego vehicles with my youngest would have been a more enjoyable option.