Tag Archives: school teaching

Crossing boundaries


Sometimes the invisible line that separates the junior and the senior school seems impenetrable, at other times it seems fluid and malleable. Students know not to cross from one playing area to the other and teachers pass through the boundary as they move from one set of buildings to another but it’s not often that we get the chance to stray into the other’s territory and spend some time living and learning in someone else’s classroom. When I walk through the junior school yard at recess I often think that it’s like a packet full of small children exploded all over the yard. There are kids everywhere, playing games, running, laughing, throwing balls, talking fervently and passionately about all sorts of things. When I go into the senior school, the students seem more relaxed, sitting back on the grass, leisurely, talking and there seems less intensity in their interactions.  I wonder if this is a good thing and I wonder where the passion and fervour of primary school has gone?

I wrote a while ago about a cross age tutoring experiment I was planning with my Year 7 students and a Grade 1 class (Bonjour and Bienvenue) and last week I was finally able to make the timetable collide in my favour to take my Year 7s down to my friend Ros’ classroom. Ros and I worked together in a rural secondary school when I was in my first year out and despite moving in different directions, ended up at a different school together again. A couple of years ago Ros retrained as a primary teacher and now she has crossed that invisible line from secondary to primary teacher and has her own class full of excited, enthusiastic Grade 1s. My Year 7s had made little picture storybooks, with basic French vocabulary in them, things like bonjour, salut, ca va, je’mappelle. Some of the storybooks looked ‘prettier’ than others, some had elaborate illustrations and English and French translations, while others were like tiny flip books with stick figures and speech bubbles on jaunty angles. In the classroom we paired up 2 Year 7s with 2 Grade 1s and watched as the Year 7s read the books and talked about what the language meant. Ros and I smiled at seeing our kids together in this way, and we smiled at once again being able to be together in a classroom – we’d been together in a classroom many times, but this was a new way of being together in a classroom for both of us.

Each of us were interested most of all in the sharing and talking that might occur between the students and we were pleased to see some students slipping easily into conversation with someone they had just met. The Grade 1s were excited to have visitors in their room and the Year 7s were talking about their own memories of primary school. Some conversations were stilted, with others ran over with enthusiasm. We joined all the students together and Ros and I began to ask the Grade 1s what they had discovered. A sea of hands burst into the air as they shared the vocabulary they had found out, telling us the French word and what it meant in English. Like sponges, they were soaking up the new words that the Year 7s had shown them. We left some of our books in the reading stand for the Grade 1s and Ros and I hatched plans to make this happen more often. While it’s not revolutionary, it’s something we have to fight to make time for, to bend and reshape the boundary that exists between our classrooms and to create classroom experiences that bring our students together.


Let the rap battle commence!

I’ve written before about the white noise that can exist online and sometimes I search for ways to navigate this noise, to find a path through the bombardment of ideas, exchanges, tweets, posts, emails, links and connections. On Sunday though as I sat in my pjs doing school work and thinking about the week ahead I was reminded of the power of Twitter and of the ways that social media enables us to connect with other teachers, classrooms and students. In the interactions that occur online, enthusiasm and inspiration can come from all sorts of places and people, and in these interactions there exist possibilities for our learning and our thinking.

After searching the web for some interesting clips to help me teach the verb avoir with my Year 7 French class, I came across a youtube clip of a teacher rapping the verb with his class, you can check it out here:


I loved this concept and began trying the rap out at home, teaching Rohan (my poor husband who was trapped at his desk doing his own school work) the parts of avoir through rap. I emailed my LOTE colleagues at school eager to share the link with them and then posted it on Twitter.

Suddenly there was a familiar sound from my iPad – a notification to let me know someone had sent me a tweet. I checked and discovered it was Alix, a teacher from Byron Bay.  I’ve included the screen shot of our tweets (don’t worry dear reader, I emailed her today to check this is ok with her!).



A tweet is sent. An idea is shared. A connection is made.

The idea blooms and grows as it is shared and the connection moves from Twitter to email, as Alix and I exchange plans and ways for our students to share their learning with an audience outside their immediate school community. As we discuss the ways we will share our rap battles, we share ideas about how best to do this, we navigate our way and hopefully we will create a moment of learning that our students will remember and grow from.

I’m sure there is learning for us as teachers as we embark on this process and I look forward to sharing this as we go – so let the rap battle commence!

I am a voice shouting (maybe whispering) into the abyss.


This is what I thought yesterday. Some days are harder than others in this place. Some days I feel my difference even more keenly than I had imagined. Instead of returning to find that these people, ‘my people’ are just like me, I find myself at odds with them and with myself. I have changed, transmogrified, altered and in that altering I have become something different, something other.

Teachers, who once saw me as ‘one of them’, now see me as something different. I am with them, I am like them, but I don’t think they regard me as ‘one of them’ any more. Maybe it is me though and maybe I don’t see myself as one of them either. It is in the moments with my LOTE colleagues that I feel most like a teacher, in the ebb and flow of good natured conversation about teaching and learning and classrooms and kids. The conversation washes over and around me and I feel happy to be here with them.  With my PSTs and two teachers in a classroom working on a curriculum design project about sustainability, the air is full of possibility, of growth, of change and of innovation.

At other times in the school day I feel trapped, constrained by structure, bound by rules, and regarded with suspicion by some in leadership positions. Some still wonder why I am here. Some don’t understand what would drive an academic to return to school. Some regard it as some sort of failure on my behalf, one questioned if I ‘couldn’t hack it at uni’. Another questions ‘what do you teach them at uni?’ before going on to complain about what they see as the failings of the teacher education system. Another writes a policy that is at odds with all I know about education and I find my views and assumptions challenged in multiple ways. In arguing against it I set myself apart, I reinforce my difference. I am conscious of not wanting to take on the role of ‘university expert’ (for I am not), but I am torn by seeing things that are rushed and I cannot help but speak out. The cycle and circle continues to spiral and I stand in the centre, questioning the use of it.

This is good for me.  This is the hard, sharp edge of what it means to be a teacher and to be a researcher at the same time, to be thinking about our education systems and what we are seeking to achieve. I don’t know everything about teaching and learning, I know a tiny bit about a tiny field and sometimes that knowledge seems as small as a grain of sand. I try and use this knowledge though to test it against practice, to test it against the world, to compare, to contrast, to filter, and to understand. In my head are voices, voices captured in research papers from across the globe. I hear them speak, their words, their messages and I try and process them and think of what it means for me as a teacher, a learner and a researcher. Some days these bump up hard against my practice and against the ideas of teachers in schools. Some days this bumping feels like a collision that throws me off balance and out of kilter. The collisions make me think again about how best to go about change, about how to transform a system from within and how to work with people to do this.

Today I don’t have the answers, just the questions. Like the whispering wall in the Barossa Valley, I stand at one end asking questions and you can hear them clearly at the other end of the wall. One day I hope to whisper to you some answers.

Bonjour and bienvenue – welcome to my language cross-age tutoring experiment

First term saw me returning to teaching Year 7 & 8 French for the first time in 4 years.  I love teaching LOTE as there are so many possibilities to encourage students to make connections between their own lives and language, and French language and culture. There’s lots of space for role plays, games, singing and playing with learning.

We don’t run an immersion program in the way that some schools do, where students complete some of the core subjects in the language they are learning. Instead we run a program that primarily teaches language skills and culture primarily delivered in English. From day one though, I have made a real effort to speak as much French in the classroom as possible, including all of our basic instructions. I’m aiming to immerse students in the language so that they are able to build their understanding of vocabulary in context. My year 7s have been able to respond to simple instructions given in French, including things like  ‘turn to page …. of your textbook’, ‘open your exercise book’, and ‘write in your diary’. They are learning days of the week and months through our method of writing these on the board each day. They are learning how to ask some basic requests in the classroom in French and students are starting to go to their dictionaries to find words that enable them to experiment with creating their own sentences in French. One of my favourites was the student who used his dictionary to create a simple sentence ‘Thanks for today’s class Miss’. You’ve got to be happy when a student teaches themselves to say that!

By the end of term, students were confidently using formal and informal modes of speaking in order to introduce themselves, ask how people were feeling, ask someone’s name and ask about who people were. I’d been asking them to go home and teach their parents what they were learning and in week 6 we had some wonderful parent-teacher interviews where parents talked with enthusiasm about the language they were learning. Parents who had some knowledge of French were starting to use their French skills, meeting and sharing with their child’s developing knowledge. Other parents are learning along with their kids – it’s great to have these conversations with parents about the ways language learning is becoming a family affair.

I’ve got a long way to go in developing my pedagogical skill in teaching French. It isn’t one of my strengths as a teacher and so there’s so much more I need to learn, but I’m loving teaching and learning with my students and I’m excited about one of the tasks we are doing when school starts back this term.  I wanted my students to be able to experiment with using their knowledge of the language in a way I hadn’t done before and so I decided to get them to do some cross-age tutoring. As a P-12 school I have the possibility of getting my Year 7s to teach what they know to the primary students, and so my students are currently working on basic storybooks using the vocabulary they have learnt so far and they are going to take these books to the primary classroom of one of my colleagues and each student is going to share the book with a primary student and talk about what the words mean. My students are incredibly excited about this, spending time storyboarding how they will set out their books, they are linking about the way they might use illustrations to support their text and what might be the most effective way to incorporate both English and French words to help their primary student understand the simple stories we are writing.  I can’t wait to see how this sharing unfolds!

Most of all though I love the way students are open and receptive to learning, keen to tackle the challenge of learning a new language and eager to stretch their understandings. It’s a joy and a privilege to take this journey with them 🙂

Your mission, should you choose to accept it …

The name of John Hattie has become synonymous with feedback over the last few years in education circles. Many of the schools I have worked with have been looking at Hattie’s work and thinking about the types of feedback they give students and the impact that different types of feedback have on student learning. Coupled with an increasing awareness of assessment of, as, for learning, teachers are experimenting with ways of providing students with opportunities to grow their understandings of critical thinking and content through a range of assessment and feedback styles.

As a teacher, I’ve always been focused on doing more than just giving students a ‘well done’ on their work and at the same time searching for ways of giving feedback that will encourage students to take the next step in their learning. When working with Year 12 English students a few years ago, I experimented and tweaked a PEEL (see peelweb.org for more information about PEEL) strategy that encouraged students to keep feedback logs. In these logs, students would create a log of feedback that highlighted where they had demonstrated success and where they could continue to work on particular areas. In order to do this, they would read feedback given by me and then summarise that feedback into their logs. They would also use activities such as peer and self-assessed criteria to review their own learning and understanding, and notes on these would be added to their feedback logs. In using the feedback logs I was hoping that students would be able to chart their own progress over the year and that this would inform our discussions about their development and learning. One of the challenges of this approach was that as the time pressure of Year 12 intensified and led towards the final exams and the all dominating fear of what mark they might get on the final exam, students were driven to searching for the ‘quick fix’ when it came to feedback. They wanted it distilled down to the simplest of parts, the recipe for what would gain them the highest mark, the sure, never-fail strategy that would provide success. Such is the challenge of a system that is driven by assessment of learning and where students saw their future hopes as determined by a number on a final exam.

Despite these kinds of challenges, I continue to search for ways of giving feedback that encourage students to take an active part in their own learning. Following a couple of teachers on Twitter (@BiancaH80 and @alicelung), I saw ways that they were using the concepts of ‘Medals’ and ‘Missions’ when giving feedback to students. @BiancaH80 writes a blog about her teaching and has written an awesome post that I only read today about the ways she uses medals and missions http://biancahewes.wordpress.com/tag/geoff-petty/ Before that I’d just seen her twitter posts about using it and had gone from there to look into Petty, but then came across her post today so had to edit my blog to link to hers.    What I  first liked about this idea of using the medals and missions  was the language as for many students who play computer and platform games, the idea of medals as things they have gained, and missions as the things they still need to accomplish, are familiar concepts.

I’d heard Black and William but not of Petty and again it was @BiancaH80’s tweets who alerted me to his work. Drawing on the work of Hattie and of Black and William, Geoff Petty describes medals as feedback on the work students have done well, while missions are the information about what a student needs to work on, develop further and explore. You can visit http://www.geoffpetty.com/feedback.html to find out more about what Petty says on this type of feedback. The medals and missions are related to the goals that we have for learning, so that students are aware of what they are working towards.

Towards the end of last term I decided to experiment with presenting feedback to my students in Years 7 & 8 French using the Medals and Missions approach. I was interested in seeing if the approach encouraged me to target more effectively the areas that students had done well, as well as what they still needed to work on, and I was also interested in seeing the student response to this kind of feedback.

The first class I used this feedback approach with was my Year 7 French class and after explaining the medals/ missions idea, I handed back some work students had recently completed. It was great to see that students were reading the feedback carefully and then asking questions about the kinds of strategies they could use to tackle the missions sections of their feedback. This was also the case with my Year 8 students, and it was great to see the Year 8s talking about the ways they wanted to grow their understandings.

At the end of the term I gave the students a self-evaluation where I asked them to reflect on their learning over the term and the activities/ strategies that had helped them to learn throughout the 9 weeks we had spent together.  The students gave excellent feedback about their learning and about the strategies that worked well for them in helping them build an understanding of language and culture. When we return to school next week, we are going to start with our medals and missions for this term related to our goal of learning new vocabulary and developing new understandings about culture. I’m going to ask students to identify their medals from the previous term and then set themselves some missions for the term ahead.

So far, I’m liking the way that the medals and missions approach to feedback is encouraging students to process the feedback that I am giving them. The approach also encourages me to move away from bland feedback statements (eg ‘great work’ ) that are not actually related to the specifics of what students have done in their work, it encourages me to think about each student and their learning and the strategies that are going to help that student develop. So my mission, which I have chosen to accept, is to continue with the medals/ missions approach this term and see how it works for the students this term and what kinds of learning we may be able to bring about.

The persona of perfectionism

I had a little group of pre-service teachers at school today observing in a range of classrooms with teachers who are relatively fresh to teaching and others who have been in the ‘game’ for quite some time. When I introduced my PSTs to some of the teachers, one teacher made a comment which almost was an apology about the types of things the PSTs might see in the classroom. One of the pre-service teachers commented, ‘This happened at my observation school last week too, teachers kept saying either you won’t see much today or we’re just in the middle of a task –sorry or this might not be very exciting”. I’m thinking about his comment and what it reveals about teachers, our work and the ways in which others perceive us. These are some initial thoughts, not particularly well formed, but I’m trying to capture them while they are fresh in my mind.

I’m wondering if this pre-emptive apology about what PSTs might see is an indication of the pressure teachers feel to perform? Hargreaves (1994) described the ‘persona of perfectionism’ (p. 149) which creates an environment in which teachers find it difficult to share their doubts for fear it will be perceived as ‘bad practice’ (p. 150), and Shapiro (2010) contends that teachers try and present the façade of the model teacher, someone she describes as ‘a pedagogical whiz who appears pleasant and calm in all situations and is imminently able to exceed the expectations put upon her by state, school, parents and students’ (Shapiro, 2010, p. 618). I wonder whether this pressure to be the pedagogical whiz is one which some teachers feel when PSTs or other teachers are in their rooms?

Last year when collecting feedback from PSTs about some of their classroom observations, some of the students made extremely critical comments about the quality of some of the teaching they had observed in their initial observation days. Not having been involved in their observations, or in the unpacking of these, I wonder if they had expectations that fed the cult of perfectionism among teachers? We all have our bad days, the lessons that don’t work as planned, the times we struggle to find the means to get students to the next stage of their journeys. I know that on some days if people were to walk into my classroom they would not see the pedagogical whiz, some days they will see me battling with ways to link concepts together in a manner that assists all students in learning. Some days they will see me tired, frustrated, and trying to respond effectively to a range of unexpected events. Other days they will see me in what Csikszentmihalyi would describe as ‘flow’, days when everything clicks, when the kids are caught up in their learning and when the classroom dynamic all moves together like clockwork.

I think it also highlights a problem with the way teachers have been subject to observations in the past – with a critical focus on the teacher alone, rather than on the students and their learning. This should be a central part of our focus when we are in classrooms – how are students progressing with their learning? What is aiding them? What might assist them further?

So today I’m thinking about the ways we can build school cultures and spaces where teachers can take professional risks, where they can break down the personas of perfectionism and talk freely about the good days and the bad. Perhaps the pedagogical whiz is one who is able to acknowledge both the crunchy and the smooth, and who takes both as opportunities for learning?



Doing the right thing even when it’s wrong

So I found out that someone had asked a mutual friend if I ‘done the right thing?’ in dropping my academic load to 0.5 and taking on a 0.5 load in a school. Something about the question bugged me and so I’ve been thinking about it this afternoon. I wanted to work out exactly what it was that was irritating me, I needed to scratch the itch that the question had caused in the back corners of my brain.

After a bit of thought I think I’ve come up with the solution – the reason I’m irritated is that the question implies that there is a guidebook somewhere that gives us the rules on what are the right and wrong moves to make career wise, and as someone who hates the feeling of being trapped in a box, I don’t like this. I’m not convinced that what I’ve done is the right thing (especially not on the days when work is falling down on me from all directions), but all I know is that I am doing the right thing for me at this moment, even if that right thing may turn out to be wrong. Is it a mistake? Who knows, but if it is, then it is my mistake to make and my mistake to learn from.

It might sound ridiculous, but sometimes doing the wrong thing can be so right in so many ways.

I know that dropping a permanent ongoing academic position to 0.5 to teach 0.5 in a school might not be the conventional academic path. I know that a 0.5 job in academia is not really a 0.5 job (my research doesn’t stop just because I’ve worked half a week already, papers from my editorial internship don’t stop needing to be reviewed and my writing doesn’t stop).  Similarly, I know that a 0.5 job in a school isn’t 0.5 either. There are parents that need to be called no matter what day it is, there are classes to be planned, marking to be done, projects to be organized, and all these things creep out to fill up every waking working moment. Some days I look at my ‘to-do’ list and the very sight of it makes me want to crawl back into bed and hide under the doona.

Still if I had not decided to do this I would be sitting in my office at uni wondering if my place was there or at school. Now I have a better sense of what my place is (and I’m not telling you the final verdict yet…no spoilers). I get the chance to move between two worlds that I love and in doing so I see things anew.

Returning to school I am reminded of the relentless nature of teaching. Everything is rushed and there is never enough time to do the things that I would like to. More than ever I feel the pressure of implementing a curriculum that has been stripped and pared back to a series of parts, a sequence of identified skills that are decontextualized and which are then tested, categorized and filed away. I have ideas for projects that will enable students to link between big ideas and to represent their knowledge and understanding in creative ways, and I feel trapped by teaching schedules that confine thought and pedagogy to a pre-determined list of tasks to be ticked off and completed. I see parents of year seven students asking for an indication of where their child sits in the class ranking and I wonder when this became the key focus of educational endeavor.  When did ranking become more important than the child’s ability to form relationships, develop independent thought and develop their understanding of who they are in relation to the world?

Some days I wonder if I have changed too much to fit into the world of school teaching. There are things that once I would have accepted that I now cannot. I cannot stay silent. I question, I critique, I challenge, I wonder. I cannot stop myself, and nor do I want to. These things have become a fundamental part of me and I wonder why it is that on some days I work in an education institution and I feel that it would be easier to not think. Thinking makes things more difficult, it makes it harder to fit in with colleagues, with leadership and with the system more broadly.

I wonder if the teacher who asked if I have done the right thing asked this question because as teachers we can so often be forced into taking the paths that are safe, that are traditional, that are expected. In some schools we are advised not to challenge, to quell our voices, to adopt without question. In taking this path I am doing the unexpected. I don’t see it as particularly revolutionary and yet it is not the norm. It is not the safe, expected, required path. Some university colleagues say they ‘couldn’t go back’ and the words themselves imply regression. I have begun to use the word return, as it is indeed a re-turning. While the simplest definition of returning is indeed to go back, if we explore the implications of the term more deeply we can consider it as a coming and a going, a reoccurrence, a conduit for moving something again to the starting point. In turning again to my life as a teacher in school, I have returned to the starting point of my journey.

In school I find the focus of my research is sharpened. I am returning to concepts that emerged in my doctoral work about the ways in which teachers’ working lives are mediated by micro and macro social/political/cultural forces. I am returning to my questions about the ways in which teachers navigate their working world when the space for intellectual and pedagogical freedoms seems to be shrinking. I find myself questioning how it is that teachers find a sense of agency in this world, how they align their personal and professional values in a culture that is driven by standards for accountability.

I am reminded more than ever of the importance of the relational in teaching. The work we do with students in schools is fundamentally what drives me back to school and the connections I form with students as we undertake a journey of learning together is one of the things that is sustaining my professional practice as a teacher. My year 7 French class has been one of the highlights of my return to the classroom, a room filled with 28 students who are bursting out of their skins to learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of interacting and of being in the world. In teaching French I feel more freedom to experiment, to use creative pedagogies and to play with the system. There is no NAPLAN for my French teaching and so I feel less bound by the constraints of the schedule.

Have I done the right thing? Well it depends on what we consider right to be. I am finding what I am doing hard, it is tiring, it is challenging and yet, already, it has been rewarding. I move between teaching adults to teaching adolescents and in each of these spaces I interact differently as a teacher. I speak, move, relate and think differently. I am learning more about myself as a practitioner, as a researcher, as a thinker and a writer than I had imagined I might. I’m intrigued as I watch my year unfold into and onto itself and I wonder where the re-turning will lead me.