It is a privilege to be part of this amazing project on Future Focussed Learning. This documentary was driven by Lisa Aitken and the UTS Future Learning: Lead Teacher Collective of which I am proud to be part of. I am hoping you will share this video far and wide to inspire other teachers who are considering implementing Project Based Learning at their schools.
I have spent thirty years in mainstream education as a student, a teacher and a parent. The fear I had shifting into an alternative education system at the beginning of the year was palpable. What if I hated it? Would I be able to transition back to mainstream in the future? I was stepping off the beaten track, way out of my comfort zone, and I was petrified.
Alternative schools offer a different educational philosophy to mainstream schools. They tend to be much smaller, learning is more individualised, and teaching can be more experimental. My school is located in a community centre, across two classrooms where we cater for twenty-four students. We teach only Stage 5 and are a fully accredited high school. The students have come to us, as mainstream education has not worked out for them for a variety of reasons. My day now includes driving the school bus, cooking lunch for them all and teaching across the curriculum.
I want to share with you the lessons that this shift in institutions has taught me. There is so much that mainstream schools can learn from alternative education.
Class Sizes – The work of John Hattie suggests that smaller class sizes don’t make much of a difference to student outcomes. However, the factors he does list as making a significant impact on student achievement would be much easier to focus on if class sizes were smaller. I have directly seen the benefits of smaller classes in my shift to alternative education. (Sorry Hattie!)
I have moved from seeing over 120 students on some days to seeing 24. I can intervene effectively when it comes to students with additional learning needs. I can provide richer and more immediate feedback because the marking I am doing does not take me 28000 hours to complete (Ok, slight over exaggeration!). Teacher / student relationships are richer as I only have to remember the interests and worries of 24 students. I have more time to plan, to evaluate, to scaffold. I know ALL the parents/carers of my students where I probably knew about 30% when teaching in mainstream. This is the reason many of our students seek out alternative education. They are getting lost and forgotten in over-populated classes. Although a costly exercise, class sizes need to be reduced. For schools located in disadvantaged areas this is even more significant.
Burn The Paperwork – Paperwork is making our teachers sick and about 85% of it is not necessary. Shifting to alternative education really highlighted to me the amount of unnecessary work teachers are asked to do in mainstream schools. In my current school if NESA isn’t going to ask for it at the end of the day, then we don’t do it. If it doesn’t serve our students learning, we don’t do it. For example, each term the parent/carer signs a blanket permission note covering basically any school excursion we might chose to run that term. We also have prewritten risk assessments for pretty much any activity. That way when I see my students aren’t engaged in their wetland case study in Geography, I can literally pile them into a bus and take them to a wetland without having to complete a few hours of paper work and obtain permission from four people above me to do so. I get that this will never be quite this simple in mainstream, but it can definitely be simpler. Another example would be assessment tasks. In most schools where I have previously taught their has been so much unnecessary garbage required on the assessment sheet that students have difficulty finding what they have to do. However, someone of importance deems that a school-wide pro-forma needs to be followed because it justifies their job. Does the pro-forma really make a difference to the students work? Nope, so get rid of it! Trust me, it is liberating.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Should Be The Priority – If you are not familiar with Maslow you need to be. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) is a five-tier model prioritising what needs must be met for an individual to ensure motivation and self-actualisation. We know, as teachers, that self-actualisation is necessary to become an independent learner. However, mainstream schools often fail to recognise that a students physiological needs, safety needs, sense of love and belonging and esteem need to be in place in order for students to be motivated to learn. While advocating for additional mental health supports for a student of mine in a mainstream school I was told by my school leader to “separate the emotion from the curriculum”. Essentially what she was saying is just teach the content and forget about this nonsense.
Education providers need to recognise that the two cannot be separated, that learning cannot take place if wellbeing is not the number one priority. If a student feels bullied, or has issues with their friendship group, they will not be able to learn properly. If a student hasn’t eaten or their clothes are not clean, they will not be able to learn properly. If a student lacks self-esteem and respect for themselves, they will not be able to learn properly. My new school not only recognises this, but acts on this. Many of our student’s basic needs were not being met when they attended mainstream high school resulting in low attendance, poor behaviour and in many cases suspensions. Our students are now able to learn and are attending school because their basic needs are being met.
Tear Down The Silos – Mainstream schools tend to have a very silo approach to education. For example, let’s take Mrs Fraction a hypothetical teacher in a mainstream school. Mrs Fractions teaches maths. She hangs out with the maths faculty. Maths takes place four periods a week in the same classroom. The only thing that is taught in Mrs Fraction’s class is maths. The classes are streamed etc. Sound familiar?
In my school I now teach across the curriculum. I teach geography, English, PDHPE, and arts. I am continually making rich cross-curricula links. I team-teach frequently with my peers. Project-based learning has a priority in our week with students choosing what they wish to work on. Furthermore, every morning and afternoon we are working as a team updating each other on what is working or not working for each student and problem solving any challenges that may arise. This is 21st Century teaching and learning in action, but I know what you are thinking - this isn’t practical for mainstream schools! Maybe not, but it isn’t impossible. Finland did it. Singapore has made massive changes in this area. We need to rethink our approach.
Play Is Important – Just like paperwork is making our teachers sick, so too is the removal of play from our schools. Where is the time for laughter and joy in our overcrowded, over assessed curriculum? Many of our students come to us sick. Yes, sick – depressed, anxious, even suicidal. There are many factors at play here, but I believe mainstream schooling is a large contributor to this. Play, fun and time for stress-free connections need to be embedded in the teaching week. I am not talking about a once-a-term lunchtime concert or fundraising mufti day, I am talking about significant time for fun and renewal at least once a week. At our school we watch our students and staff carefully. When we can see they are tired and drained we change it up. For example, one of our favourite things to do is go to a small reserve by the lake. We take fishing rods and a picnic lunch. Some students will sit on blankets under the trees creating art works or using natural materials for craft. Others will take a stroll over a small bridge to a little island to collect wild flowers. A game of soccer, cards or even a fishing competition may take place. Last time we had an epic game (staff and students) of forty-four homes on the island. We laughed so hard as we tried to make it home. These days renew us all – staff and students.
And guess what… the world does not end. Subject hours are still met, outcomes are still covered, and best of all our students become a little less broken each time we do it.
Community Connectedness – When was the last time your school really connected with the community? I am not talking about parents and friends, I am talking about the whole community. Teenagers often feel isolated within the community especially those in lower socio-economic areas. It is important that students are given the opportunity to connect with their local community, not only for their benefit, but also for the benefit of all. Students learn to empathise with others of different ages and feel personal self-worth when they are able to contribute to society. Additionally, community members will have more time for your students and limited perceptions of a particular generation can shift.
Once a week we partake in community activities. These involve assisting at the RSPCA, feeding the elderly at the local community centre, participating in random acts of kindness, working with playgroups and primary schools, or visiting local business such as farms to improve their understanding of a particular topic. The personal growth I see in my students through participating in these activities are profound. We also have many volunteers come and work in our school. People of different ages, social status and cultures volunteer their time to support our students. The students learn through these unique relationships developing new mentors and feeling a bigger sense of connection, support and belonging through their teenage years.
I am not saying that mainstream schools are doing things wrong, but I do want to highlight that it is not the only way. John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. This is what I feel has shifted for me through this transition. I am no longer teaching my students the skills they need for life, I am walking the journey of life with them… albeit off the beaten track.
Image sourced from Unsplash.
This week I had the privilege to present at an Alternative Schools Conference at Warakiri College on Project-Based Learning with one of my fantastic colleagues, John Martin. We are experimenting with cross-curricula project-based learning in our school context and our first major project has been The Archibull Prize. I would love to share some aspects of this case study here in hope to inspire you to consider the implementation of PBL in your classroom.
What is project-based learning?
The Buck Institute defines project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” (Buck Institute, 2018).
What is The Archibull Prize?
The Archibull Prize is an innovative program providing students with the opportunity to engage in agriculture. Through the project students “meet young farmers and engage in genuine farm experiences, gain knowledge and skills about the production of the food they eat, fibres they use and the environment they live in.” (Archibull, 2018) The program involves three elements – the design of a life-sized fibreglass cow based on the theme ‘Feeding, Clothing and Powering A Hungry Nation Is A Shared Responsibility’; a reflective blog; and a multimedia animation / infographic.
You can learn more about The Archibull Prize here.
How do you ensure PBL links with authentic intellectual engagement?
Ron Ritchhart (2009), author of Making Thinking Visible and co-author of Creating Cultures of Thinking, identifies four criteria that are useful in shaping classroom activities to more effectively promote the kinds of authentic intellectual engagement that leads to deep understanding.
These criteria include: Novel Application, Meaningful Inquiry, Effective Communication and Purposeful Reach.
Ritchhardt claims that the more prevalent these criteria are in a learning opportunity, the more powerful the learning opportunity will be for the students involved. He has designed a simple scale on which teachers can measure their learning opportunities against. You can find this here.
How did The Archibull Prize measure up as an authentic intellectual learning opportunity?
The Archibull Prize completely embodied the four criteria for powerful authentic intellectual engagement. Let me explain how.
Novel Application - Novel application comes in bucket loads in this project. Our students hadto use higher order thinking to complete the three tasks asked of by the project including the artistic design of the cow, the blog and multimedia animation. The direct question is or the problem they had to solve is – How can we artistically represent the current climate of agriculture in Australia?
Meaningful Inquiry - In order to solve the question above our students had to delve into many aspects of sustainability and agriculture in Australia. They examined careers in agriculture, climate change, biosecurity, food security and much, much more. They did this both in the classroom and on the farm.
Effective Communication - This project encouraged students to share their learning in a variety of ways. They had to reflect on and share their learning through the blog. They had to articulate deep understanding in the multimedia production, and furthermore each time someone new sees their cow our students launch into explaining the many elements of their design.
Purposeful Reach - For me this is the key to effective PBL. It raises the steaks for students. Students need the opportunity to present their work to someone other then myself or their classroom peers. In every instance that I have worked on a project with purposeful reach, the quality of work has significantly risen. This is a competition. They want to be competitive. This image here sums up the reach this project has had. Their multimedia production has been shared in a number of forums including the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Suddenly, our marginalised students, living on the fringe, have a voice across our nation.
How do we connect PBL within the curriculum?
Many teachers shy away from PBL and cross-curricula projects as they are unsure how to document or measure it against syllabus outcomes with formal assessment. However, there are multiple solutions to this problem. Firstly the advantage of choosing a competition generally means there are already teaching resources and pre-established links. This is definitely the case with The Archibull Prize with a number of resources available through the website across key learning areas. Most competitions will also have an assessment criteria that can be modified to formally assess the project either individually or as a group. We chose, due to the experiential nature of this project, not to make this a formal assessment, but in hindsight I wish we had because the evidence of learning was substantial.
When programing cross-curricula PBL I sit with all the outcomes across all subject areas I wish to cover, and I look at what outcomes I need to meet and want to meet that connect with the project. In this instance The Archibull Project covered both Geography and English outcomes. However, The Archibull Project could form the basis of any art, agriculture, design and technology, industrial technology, or even photography and media unit. As long as you program it effectively, identify and incorporate the outcomes you wish to cover and collect formal evidence of learning, you can easily embed a program like this into your scope and sequence.
Which PBL model should you follow?
Usually I work from the Buck Institute model for PBL but in this instance I chose the solution fluency model to map out my approach and structure the unit. I chose this model as I felt it was simplistic and well-fitted to what I wanted to achieve. The Essential Fluencies are outlined extensively in the book ‘Mindful Assessment’ (Crockett, L. & Churches, A. (2016) Mindful Assessment, published by Solution Tree. (See also ‘Solution Fluency’, Global Digital Citizen Foundation website.) The six phases of the solution fluency include:
Define – The define phase involves capturing students attention through the definition of the problem at hand. In our project this occurred through an entry event that involved a virtual reality beef bus. Students were able to witness the production of beef by virtually visiting the farm and following the production of beef from the paddock to the plate.
Discover – The discover phase involves asking questions and thoroughly investigating the problem at hand. In our project this took place through guided inquiry in our classroom and through two farm visits, one with our farming mentor and another at a local chemical-free farm. The discover phase can take place both inside and outside the classroom.
Dream – The dream phase is the time in which students apply higher order thinking to solve the problem. They dream up ideas and solutions that stem from the basis of their learning. No ideas is too silly, too big, too hard. Once all the solutions have been dreamt up, students go about selecting the best possibilities to further explore in the design stage.
Design – In the design phase students work together to plot out the details of their solutions. In our project this involved detailed discussion, draft designs, written symbolic ideas and mind mapping.
Deliver – There are two components of this phase – production and presentation. For our students this involved the production of the multimedia element, the construction of the blog and the painting of the cow. The students then find a way to present this to the community. In our case students presented the blog online, shared their multimedia production through social media and have presented their cow for judging in the competition.
Debrief – This is an opportunity to ‘revisit, review, and reflect’ on the process. The Archibull Prize provides both entry and exit surveys for students to complete which provides an opportunity to debrief. Furthermore, we have reflected with our students and reflected ourselves by presenting our learning at The Alternative Schools conference.
What were the challenges?
These are the challenges identified with my colleague and fellow presenter John Martin.
The delivery of the program and lessons for our students was no harder than the delivery of any learning we may offer. However, we are a small school and we don’t have an art department, agriculture department, a separate department for sciences or a department for TAS. As such we had limited resources and staff experience available when working through the practical aspect of the project. In saying that, it allowed us to turn to the community and encourage our students to develop a culture of thinking within our school.
The second challenge relates to the students level of learning and inquiry. Our students are in Yr 9 and Yr 10 and so they should be able to analyse, rethink, and synthesise yet, as so many of our students have experienced trauma and extended absences from school, we found that many their abilities spanned a wide range which required carefully replanning and differentiation for us. This included the careful selection of individual roles and scaffolded tasks.
The final challenge was to encourage our students to appreciate and understand that no matter the outcome, they could not fail. Our students come to us having experienced trauma, and a sense of shame and failure derived from words told to them in the past and actions they’ve experienced in their lives. Overcoming this sense of shame and failure is perhaps one of the hardest challenges we faced. Students were sacred to ‘mess up the paint’ or have a go in case they failed. Our responsibility was to work with them and say “It is totally fine! Let’s problem solve this together.”
What was the impact of the project?
Not only do we have to give students in our schools the opportunity to fail, we need to give them the opportunity to succeed. I have found it difficult to put into words the impact this project has had on our students but I will begin with authentic intellectual engagement. For the first time, pretty much all year if I am honest, my students were 100% actively participating in authentic intellectual work. The evidence of learning expressed by not only the cow, but also the multimedia project and the blog is substantial. I can guarantee that next year my students couldn’t tell you a thing about the novel we studied in a traditional sense this term but they will be able to tell you where potatoes come from, what products are made from beef, the impact of climate change on our farmers and one particular student now knows exactly where calves come from and is happy to share this newly found knowledge with anyone that will listen. There is complex thinking in this cow.
Secondly, the most profound impact I have seen in this project has been the collaboration, connectedness and belonging that this cow has brought to our school. Believe me people - a giant fibreglass cow WILL bring your school community together. The cow has lived in my classroom for two terms. Before school I would have students gathered around it asking when we working on the horns, and questioning how we were going to problem solve the window. This discussion would continue to lunch. At times we would have eight or more people working around the cow, engaged in conversation, growing relationships and painting, one stroke at a time, the perfect picture of community.
In a speech presented at our school open day this year one of our students said, “We are the students that are known as stuff ups, won’t amount to anythings, failures” but then he articulated school was the one place where they weren’t seen like this. We made it our mission as a school to change this perception, one cow at a time, and we did. Now our students, who would never have seen their work hung on the walls of mainstream classroom are being celebrated in the local newspaper, agricultural journals and many other community based forums…. and they have never been prouder.
I would highly recommend The Archibull Prize as a starting point to introduce cross-curricula PBL into your teaching program. Lynne Strong, founder of The Archibull Prize, is an incredible support and I know she will assist you and your school to implement the program in the best way possible.
To read more about our Archibull journey visit – www.tlcraisesthesteaks.weebly.com
It was a warm day in March. I was half way through my commute home after a horrific day at work. Horrific doesn’t happen very often, but this day it had. A student at my new school had run out of second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances, and he had been asked to leave. I was gutted. Where would he go? I work with the most marginalised of students now and for many our school is the end of the education line. What could I have done better to prevent this from happening? How could I change my practice to prevent this outcome for future students?
The phone rang. I didn’t recognise the number that came up on the dashboard but it was a welcome distraction.
“Hello,” I answered.
I listened as the caller, a colleague who had supported me over the last twelve months through the development of my Highly Accomplished Teacher application, told me that my application had been successful.
“You are now a highly accomplished teacher,” he said.
I couldn’t speak. I began to sob. Only moments ago I had been questioning whether or not I was cut out for my new teaching position and here he was running off statistics.
“As of the 30th January there were only 114 Highly Accomplished teachers in the state”, he said. “You are now one of them.”
Teaching is all I have ever known. I left school, went to uni and began teaching at twenty-one. I have dedicated many hours, and much of my heart, to teaching over the past eighteen years, yet a part of me still questions whether or not I am good at it. It’s silly isn’t it? However, teaching is one of those professions where professional recognition or acknowledgement is hard to come by. That is why I undertook the accreditation process. I wanted to prove to myself once and for that I was damn good at what I loved doing.
The accreditation process was not easy. To become a highly accomplished teacher you need to submit packages of formal, annotated evidence. I had 14 packages of evidence to prove 37 standards across a breadth of areas including knowing my students, knowing my content, implementing effective learning, mentoring, assessment and reporting, community engagement and much more. Additionally you need up to 8 referees attesting your ability to meet these standards, plus two internal teaching observations and one external observation where a representative of NESA shadows you for the entire day. This all goes to a panel at a system level, and if you get through this stage, it goes to another at a State level. It was one of the most challenging and gruelling processes I have even experienced.
I know what you are thinking. Is all this worth it? I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me I can teach! And you are right, you don’t… but here is what becoming Highly Accomplished has given me.
Firstly, through the development of my application I was forced to analyse my teaching practice in depth. I was able to rejoice in the areas I knew I was doing well in and give myself a pat on the back. However, it also highlighted the areas in which I needed to do better. The holes in my practice became clear as day. For example, analysing data to inform practice is not my thing, but it is now something I am conscious of and have made an attempt to embrace. Reporting was another area in which I needed to lift my game and to complete my application I had to really change up how I was doing this. It is a critical process and a process that forced me to improve my practice.
Secondly, becoming Highly Accomplished has now given me a professional voice. The NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, at the award’s ceremony last week said that being recognised as a Highly Accomplished Teacher is like a lawyer reaching the level of Senior Counsel. In the past week I have been featured on Channel 7 news and met with Rob Stokes where I had the opportunity to advocate for alternative schooling and increased mental health supports in our schools. I have also spoken with the head of NESA about the challenges disadvantaged students have in completing an overcrowded curriculum. I am being heard and this is just the beginning. I am hoping this level of accreditation will give me a voice in education across our country and I am now set to seek out ways to maximise the potential of this.
Lastly, my accreditation has given me newly found confidence when things get tough. I am currently teaching in a very challenging environment. Some days I feel like a beginning teacher again, unsure what to do in the new situations I am encountering. However, that one phone call in March, on one of my toughest teaching days, is a reminder that you can be a great teacher and still stumble. You don’t have to be perfect all the time, in fact you can’t.
According to NESA, "Highly Accomplished teachers are characterised as advocates of the profession, who contribute to the professional learning of peers, act as mentors to new teachers and demonstrate strong engagement with the school and local community." I know many teachers that come under this banner and I am writing this to encourage them to undertake the Highly Accomplished Accreditation process. It is a lot of work, it does cost you money and it will take up time, but I can assure you it is worth it. We need to recognise quality teachers and the impact they are having, not only in our profession, but across our nation. Teacher quality is the best indicator of student success and this process encourages good teachers to be great teachers. So take a risk, carve out some time and set the bar for yourself. After all, as Romain Rolland once said...
“If one is to shed the light of the sun upon others, you must first of all have it within yourself.”
It was 4.30am in the morning. My husband brings me my morning coffee, it tastes better when he makes it, and I go about checking the news, social media and emails. I have precisely until 4.50am to complete this task before I delve into schoolwork. It is my routine and I like it. I do my best thinking at this time when it is quiet and my brain is less exhausted.
On this particular day, at approximately 4.47am, my husband leans into the room and declares, “I sent you an article. Read it. You could have written it. I’ll be back by 6.15am. You can take off then.” He sets out for his morning run. He tries to be back by 6.15am as he knows I like to get to work early and make sure my classroom is just as I need it before lessons begin. If I am late, I get anxious.
I shift the cursor to my inbox. Subject: Love You. I know he does. The article is attached. It is titled Learning Things The Hard Way by Gabbie Stroud (The Weekend Australian Magazine, June 23rd, 2018). I was hooked as Gabbie, a former teacher, spoke of her students Ryan and Ed. I currently had a classroom defined by Ryan’s and Ed’s and the emotion she conveyed could have been my own.
A knot was twisting in my guts and I was already dreading tomorrow.
– Stroud, pg 4 / Me Sunday evening Week 2, Term 1, 2018.
There are no bad kids, I reminded myself primly. There’s just bad behaviour. But was does that mean?
– Stroud, pg 4 / Me Thursday afternoon, Week 6, Term 1, 2018 just after asking a student to leave the school.
“We should be able to do something,” I said. “You know what, Gabsie? Best thing we can do for that kid is keep him safe here at school”.
– Stroud, pg 4 / Me and my boss Monday afternoon, Week 3, Term 2, 2018.
The article was an excerpt from Gabbie’s new book Teacher. It was bittersweet, it was truthful and I wanted to read more.
Term 2 holidays arrive and I make my way to the bookshop to select some holiday reading. I know I won’t get through much. I have an English text I have to teach next term that I haven’t read yet, a pile of marking already burning a hole of guilt into my holiday peacefulness, and two new programs I was hoping to write by next term. I feel like I should chose a light fiction, maybe a romance, a sweet story of hope, but instead I find myself scanning the shelves for Gabbie’s book. Success. I rush home to crack a beer, settle in the sun and read more about the magical world of teaching.
It is gripping. The opening chapter describes a Kindergarten lesson on a hot Australian afternoon. I can feel the heat, the frustration and the exhaustion through her words. I have never taught kindergarten but I have had many year 9 lessons after lunch that weren’t dissimilar from the descriptive text I begin to devour.
Suddenly she throws a shoe out the door.
It’s ok, I tell her as though she is in the room with me. We have all been there.
Gabbie and I continue to share these conversations as the book progresses. Much of her story is mine. I have taught her Warren, worked with her Sophie and argued with her principal. Her husband Matt speaks the same words as my Andrew. I have felt the love, the anxiety, the frustration, the excitement, the exhaustion, the mother guilt and the joy. Her truth is in many ways my truth… until we reach the final chapters.
She walks away.
I knew this before I began yet seemingly forgot as I was swept away by her love for teaching.
Written by Gabbie Stoud, former teacher.
Don’t give up, I beg her. We are all in this together.
And this is where I get angry at her. Not for burning out or for being frustrated at the system or needing some space for herself, but for not finding solutions. She writes at the end, “…Australia needs a dramatic re-imagining of what education could be in this great country.”
Yes, it does… but it also needs teachers like you Gabbie.
Teachers who know how education has shifted in the last 20 years and where we have gone wrong.
Teachers who have stories to tell.
Teachers who are willing to share ideas, lessons, programs with others so that the workload is reduced.
Teachers who have the confidence to stand up to administration at staff meetings.
Teachers who are passionate and care about the students more than the system.
Teachers that lead the dramatic re-imagining of what education could be.
I should have bought the light-hearted romance, but secretly I am glad I didn’t. I needed the kick up the arse. The book reminded me that we need to share our stories with each other, share our work, share the challenges and share the joy.
I haven’t posted here in awhile. I have been trying to conserve my time and energy for my teaching position this year. I am already getting up at 4.30am! However, Gabbie has reminded me why I need to keep blogging and sharing ideas and resources. I want my colleagues to know there are solutions to the teacher burnout problem. I want to lend my colleagues a hand. I want my colleagues to know there are alternatives to walking away.
“We should be able to do something”, I said. And so I did. – The Joy-Fueled Teacher.
Stroud, G. (2018). Teacher. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative. - Hattie & Timperley, 2007.
Changing the way I gave feedback to students was high on my priority list this year. I felt that writing a few sentences on the bottom of an assessment sheet was pointless. Student’s eyes search for the mark barely caring about what the teacher has written. The mark becomes the star of the show, not what was learnt or where to go to next. I noticed that this process accelerated a fixed mindset rather then giving rise to a growth mindset and I wanted to change it.
I decided to experiment with audio feedback. I recorded my feedback using Quicktime Player directly after the assessment. I then emailed it to my students before they returned to class. I would wait a lesson before giving them back their actual marks. The time period between the assessment and feedback, and the feedback and the mark, was very deliberate. I wanted to reprioritise the mark and turn the volume up on feedback as a tool for ongoing growth and development of my students as learners.
I surveyed my preliminary students after trying out this new way of feeding forward. 100% of them found this to be useful.
They justified their response in the statements below:
Parents have also commented on the audio feedback at parent-teacher interviews. They expressed an appreciation for the personal touch the feedback provided. I think they feel like it took me longer to do, but to be honest it is just as quick as writing a paragraph.
So the audio feedback stayed. I have used it for about 80% of my assessments this year. As the files can be quite large I save them on Google Drive and share them with students from there. I always begin formally, Audio Feedback for Assessment Task 2 – Short film for Student’s Name. I then relax and speak directly to the student. It also forces me to really think about what I am saying as I know I am being recorded. I try to be very honest and specific with my feedback, acknowledging their positive achievements and the areas for growth. I use feedback stems such as:
I have also been trying to frame my language to encourage a growth mindset. Mindset Works has an excellent resource to help get you started. You can download it here. There is also a series of fantastic articles and research material around effective feedback at Visible Learning.
For those that want to take it to the next level use the QuickTime or Screencastify to feedback over written work, video recordings, powerpoints/keynote presentations, or any project submitted electronically.
Do the students in your classroom know what you value?
In a recent professional development day, my colleagues and I heard about a science lesson on chromosomes. At the start of the lesson the teacher explicitly said, "We are going to look at this like scientists, because in this class we value scientific thinking." Out of the entire day this was the moment that stuck with me. Do I explicitly tell students what I value?
I made a list of the things I know I value the most in my classroom. Risk-taking, critical and creative thinking, specific feedback and collaborative relationships. I definitely use these words in class at different times; however, I wondered if I used them consistently and linked everything we did to these terms, would I see a change in the way my students approached their work?
I made a poster, placed it on my classroom wall and consciously began to alter my language.
"Today as you move into your playbuilding groups, I want you to remember that we value risk taking in this classroom.
I would like you to share your work with a partner today and give them some specific feedback that can move their work forward… because in this classroom we value specific feedback as a tool for personal growth.
As I move around the room I am noticing that you are all working as effective collaborators because you are listening to one another and problem solving together. I think this is because you know we value collaborative relationships in this classroom.
I noticed that this group were trying a range of different options to move their piece forward. This is exactly what critical and creative thinking looks like in this classroom. This is what we value."
Have I seen a change? Without a doubt. My year 11’s are even beginning to say it themselves. One group was showing me a section of their group-devised performance last week when a student said, "We have taken a risk here Miss, because we know that we value risk-taking in this class. Can you give us some specific feedback to help us develop it further?’"
I am not kidding. I am not making this up.
She said, “…because we know that we value risk-taking in this class."
Ron Ritchhart calls this the language of noticing and naming. I am naming the values and noticing when the students are using them. This reinforces my expectations for our classroom and places emphasis on the qualities I wish to nurture within my students.
Try it. Make a list. Hang it up. Name and notice. I promise that turning this spotlight on to your core classroom values will improve student outcomes and effect the decisions your students make in regard to their learning.
My daughter and I have a new hobby. We make terrariums. Yes, terrariums. Glass jars, vases, bowls or globes in which mini plant worlds thrive and grow.
What does this have to do with teaching you ask?
I am exhausted. I haven’t felt like this for a while.
Some may call it burnout. They may be right. I have spread myself thin lately, adding two large and highly stressful projects to my already busy life.
Some may call me crazy (by some I mean my husband!).
Some may say I need to say ‘no’.
Some may say that’s teaching these days, what do you expect?
I always say… “I don’t have a hobby, teaching is my hobby. I mean that is where my joy is, my passion. It’s what I love to do.” And herein lies the problem.
This is not the first time teacher exhaustion has hit me square in the face and it won’t be the last. I was having a conversation with a beginning teacher earlier in the year, she said, “I am just not sure how this workload is sustainable. Tell me it’s sustainable.” I felt torn in my response. I was thinking the same thing just the week before and I have been teaching for more then half of this teacher’s life. I mean I should have my shit together by now. “Of course it is,” I say. “Once you have taught it once it is easier, and you learn to manage blah, blah, blah….” I lied. I lied because I know she is and will continue to be a great teacher. I lied because I didn’t have the heart to tell her it takes over your life. Teaching is not a profession, it is a vocation and we do it because the reward far outweighs the workload.
Now to the terrariums. My daughter loves nature. Making a terrarium is something we have been talking about for awhile, but I had been putting it off because of this pile of marking, that set of reports and the endless meaningless tasks that I was drowning in. However, three weeks ago I realised I was wilting. I needed nourishment and I needed it immediately. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and we set upon our task. We googled ‘How to make a terrarium and keep it alive’. We got our answer, made a list of supplies and headed off to Bunnings. With enough materials to landscape half an acre, we headed to the nursery to pick our plants.
“Succulents”, I declared and as I picked up the first little guy I realised he was just like me.
Teachers are succulents. We have thick skin, adapt to storing water, and survive in arid climates. Teachers acclimatise over the years to survive the harsh working conditions of teaching. The time we can go without nourishment increases as we become more resilient and our skin thickens. We learn to store the moments of joy that keep us going, drawing on them when we need it. However, even the toughest of plants need a reprieve. They need the rain to ease the pressure, to take off the stress, even if it is just for a day.
“Mum, can we get all of these?”
“Yep. All of them.”
We filled our basket high with succulents and came home to begin creating. I filled a goldfish bowl, a few jars and sixteen large tumblers for my sixteen year 12’s sitting their HSC practical exam the week after. My daughter made six others of various shapes and sizes. “You just need to use your imaginary feelings when you make them mum”, she said. I was nourished. It didn’t take much, just an intermission from the harsh climate. Just for a day.
Three weeks later and I am feeling better. My year 12’s have sat their practical exams and I have completed one of the large extra-projects I had weighing on my shoulders. I still have the pile of marking to do and reports around the corner, but I am also making time for my new hobby.
I made a teacher terrarium today. It will live in my classroom. A mini world reminding me to nourish myself, to step outside and soak in the sun, to refuel my joy as regularly as possible. I used my ‘imaginary feelings’ to build it into a joy-fueled classroom. A rainbow to acknowledge the diversity of my students. A chalkboard for inspiring collaboration. A glass container acknowledging that my class is always open and welcoming of other teachers. A string of work acknowledging critical thinking and creativity. And a reminder that children grow into the intellectual life around them.
What would your teacher terrarium look like?
How To Make a Terrarium
Image by Kristina Flour, Sourced from Unsplash
When studying threshold concepts for my Theology studies last semester I stumbled across a substantial body of research around the importance of silence in the classroom. As I was reading this material I immediately thought of my year 9 class. This mixed ability class of 27 students is my most challenging class, difficult to settle at times and often unfocussed, (or they were, before the silence project!). I made a decision in that moment to introduce silence as a daily practice into my classroom.
This is what I did. Try it, you can thank me later. :)
An excerpt from my essay on threshold concepts summarising the research around silence in the classroom:
Meyer and Land (2013) adopt the imagery of a portal to illustrate threshold concepts opening up “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (p.3). This imagery aligns directly with Berryman’s (2006) description of silence. He writes, “Silence is present as an opening and as a waiting for knowledge” (Berryman, 1999, p.258). The journey from noise to silence in the classroom is profoundly transformative, troublesome, irreversible and integrated, particularly in the current climate. Berryman (1999), Haskins (2010), Kessler (2000), and Stanley (2011) all highlight the ‘noise, speed and unceasing interaction’ of modern culture resulting in a loss of silence. The introduction of silence into the classroom can therefore prove challenging as it can be disorientating and uncomfortable for students. Kessler (2000) reveals this troublesome element noting that, “Students are so underexposed to silence that some have come to be afraid of any experience of emptiness” (p.38). However, it is in this emptiness that students become transformed as their connection with ‘God, others, their deep self, or nature’ is heightened and their creative energies are ‘refreshed’ (Berryman, 1999). Furthermore, Kessler (2000) describes silence as a ‘gateway’ that leads to “…deep connection to the self, transcendence, creative expression or the search for meaning and purpose” (p.36).
Anthony of Egypt advocated for an authentic spiritual life; a “life lived in an intense awareness of the present moment” (Bright, 2008, p.172). Silence places students in that present moment allowing them to open the doorway inward (to self) and outward (to others) by processing the constant external stimulus that they are bombarded with. However, the challenge for teachers lies in the culture of the school. Haskins (2010) argues that, “Teachers who are persistently pressured to improve test scores will find it difficult to honour slowness, stillness, and silence” (p. 16). Teachers have a responsibility to make time for silence even if they feel they are crossing a dangerous boundary. Building moments of silence into the day to day running of a classroom is not impossible. Teachers could introduce the Examin to the daily classroom ritual, build opportunities for reflective journaling or artistic expression into lesson plans, allow students to ‘go solo’ mid-class, or provide reflective spaces for quiet meditation in the physical classroom (Bright, 2008; Haskins, 2010; Kessler, 2000; Mudge, 2007). These moments of silence should be seen as opportunities rather then wasted time. Mudge (2007) argues that priority should be place on ‘slow, meditative thinking’ in order to complement ‘fast, linear thinking’ and cultivate wisdom, for it is in these moments of silence that students are truly transformed (p.25).
Similarly to apophatic knowing it is difficult to formally measure and assess the extent to which students have crossed the threshold from noise to silence. However, informal assessment is not impossible. Teachers can use direct observation to monitor the effects of silence in their classroom. Students may demonstrate increased connectedness, joy, calm, wholeness, sense of self, wonder, defined purpose, confidence, creativity, attention and a shift towards the ‘second naiveté’ (Berryman, 1999; Bright, 2008; Haskins, 2010; Kessler, 2000; Miller, 2006; Mudge, 2007). There may also be a decrease in anti-social behaviour, depression, lethargy and anxiety amongst students. Student journaling or artwork can capture some of the transformational benefits of silence and the individual growth of students. However, due the immensely personal and liminal nature of silence the full extent of the transformation and irreversible effects it has had may prove too expansive to fully measure.
I decided to introduce a minute of silence to the beginning of each of my lessons with my challenging year 9 class. They were told that I was experimenting with an idea. If they were keen to embark on this journey with me we would trial it for 5 weeks and they could then decide whether or not we kept it as part of our classroom practice. They agreed and so we added a minute silence to the beginning of our lessons.
I told them,
“You may use this time to clear your mind, or to notice what you are feeling and thinking right now, or to digest what happened in your last class. You might use this quiet time to pray, list what you are grateful for or to set a goal for our time together… or, if you need to, to rest.”
Lesson 1 –
Excerpt from Teacher Reflection: To be honest I didn’t really expect what came next. They were silent, but I could honestly say I could see them thinking. One of my most academic students decided to take a large walk around the room (which is why I will now insist on stillness) as it was very distracting and she became a focal point for some. I also realised I didn’t encourage them to close their eyes if they wanted to. It was like they were performing. They had to do something. They didn’t know how to do nothing. The minute went very quickly, which was odd as I had timed a minute before the lesson and felt like it went forever. I wonder if I have to make it 2 minutes to give them a chance to really stop. I have also asked five students to reflect on the process and will use their reflections to help inform my practice as we move forward.
Student Reflections – I chose five students with differing needs, abilities and personalities across the classroom to reflect on the process.
Student 1 - Ms Gill, I’m not really sure what brought this on, but personally, I don’t think the pause was useful. For me at least. Drama is already a break from all the busy stuff we do (that’s not to say that Drama is a super-easy subject that I think of as a break, because it’s not!).
Student 2 - I think the idea of the exercise was good because it gave me time to just not have to worry about everyone else but instead do what I want to do not what anyone has to do. It gave me time to be contained in myself and do what I felt I needed to do. I think that it does need to be longer though because by the time I decided what I wanted to do it was already over. For me I am not a sentimental person and didn’t want to pray or anything so instead I had a staring competition with the timer.
Student 3 - When Mrs Gill told us we were going to have to do this I was a bit worried because I talk A LOT but when we did it, it wasn’t that bad. I actually enjoyed doing this exercise as I get quite stressed and then to come into drama and be able to just have some time to think. I think it needs to be longer then one minute.
Student 4 - This is a good way to start the lesson. I used this time to listen to my breathing and relax. However, I think there should be more time, maybe 5 minutes because 1 minute was to quick.
Student 5 - I liked that. I liked watching what people do when they’re given free range and a basic guideline. Some people take it as a challenge and they try to out do something out of the box that they overthink it a bit, some people flick a switch and shut themselves off to the world like that. I liked feeling other peoples presence, then taking some time for myself. Today I didn’t want to think, so I was just there, being.
Lesson 2 –
Excerpt from teacher reflection- So today was ok. I set it up a bit better and asked the kids not to over think it this time. I also asked them to stay where they were. Some of them told me they would prefer to sit or lie down. I let them do this as it is their experiment too. About 10 students sat or lay and the rest remained standing. The time seemed to go slowly today but I wonder if that was because they were more settled and hence so was I. I felt like we were stiller and silent. I am going to increase it to 2 minutes when we do it next though, as it does feel short. A teacher walked past our classroom as we were doing it and I am sure she was thinking what the hell is happening in there! Wonder what our third lesson will be like…
Student Reflections –
Student 1 - Ahhh… Once again, I don’t feel any different from this exercise. Talking to other students, however, I think it may be because I don’t need ‘time’ to ‘prepare’ for a lesson. I’m already calm and relaxed, and therefore, for me, the one minute is just a time-passing exercise
Student 2 - I don’t think it is long enough still, I didn’t have enough time to settle down. Today I decided to lie down and I thought about the air conditioner. I felt different and more calm, but I think it is only good for a small percentage of us. Those who are more creative then others and it’s a bit hard to think about what to think about, I am still unsure how I would like it to be. See how it goes.
Student 5 - I really needed that. It feels like this whole week has been non-stop and that I’ve just accumulated tension in my body for 7 days straight. Taking two minutes to stretch and reflect was amazing. My body felt loose and light afterwards and I was the most relaxed I had been all week. I felt like I had been weighed down by an anchor before, but now I am floating.
Other feedback on the lessons that followed:
“I love having the two minutes to reflect on things on my mind, then prepare for the lesson. I like to stretch, because it feels I am physically getting rid of the pressure in my body. I feel relaxed and ready afterwards.”
“I liked the two minutes of time because I was able to reflect and wind down about the day. I think it is important and helps me throw everything out the window. “
“I liked it today as we are getting our exams back and finding out some results and I took some time to reflect. I am very negative. To take time out of talking is good.”
“It makes me look forward to Drama even more (if that’s possible)”
Students were also asked what they did with the time:
Decisions Made By The Class After The Five Week Experiment:
I noticed, after just one week of the experiment, that my students were more settled, focused, calm and creative as a result of the silent time at the beginning of the lesson. Instead of taking close to ten minutes of my lesson to really settle them, it was taking me one and a half! The research was right - I witnessed increased connectedness, joy, calm, wholeness, sense of self, wonder, defined purpose, confidence, creativity, and attention. I also noticed a decrease in anti-social behaviour, depression, lethargy and anxiety amongst students. My anxious kids were less anxious, my extroverted kids were quieter, my ADHD kids more focused and my academic kids more determined.
There were also many added benefits I didn’t expect.
This is now my practice in everyone of my classes. You should make it yours too. I promise you will see the effects immediately and I am 99.9% sure it will increase educational outcomes. As Mudge (2007) argues priority should be placed on ‘slow, meditative thinking’ in order to complement ‘fast, linear thinking’ and cultivate wisdom, for it is in these moments of silence that students are truly transformed (p.25).
Berryman, J. W. (1999). Silence is stranger than it used to be: Teaching silence and the future of humankind. Religious Education, 94(3), 256-272.
Bright, P. (2008). Ascending to wisdom: A Christian pedagogy. In M. Ferrari and G. Potworowski. (Eds.). Teaching for wisdom. (pp. 163-176). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
Haskins, C. (2010). Integrating silence practices inside the classroom. Encounter: Education for meaning and social justice, 23(3), 15-20.
Kessler, R. (2000). The Soul of Education: Helping students find connection, compassion and character at school. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2013). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: An introduction. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, (pp. 3-18). London & New York: Routledge.
Miller, J. P. (2006). Timeless learning. In Educating for wisdom and compassion, creating conditions for timeless learning. (pp. 3-14). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Mudge, P. (2007). Meditative thinking and ‘dwelling upon’ – A perennial challenge for the religious educator. Journal of Religious Education, 55(2), p.20-27.
Mudge, P. (2009). Towards a reclaiming framework of ‘knowing’ in spirituality and education for the promotion of holistic learning and well-being - kataphatic and apophatic ways of knowing. In M. de Souza, L. Francis, J.O’Higgins-Norman, and D. Scott (Eds.). International handbook of education and spirituality, care and wellbeing. (Chapter 32, pp. 611-629). Two Volumes. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Academic Publishers.
Mudge, P. (2013). ‘Crossing frontiers without a map’ – the role of threshold concepts and problematic knowledge in religious education and spirituality. Waikato Journal of Education, 19(2), 51-67.
I am not writing this for me.
I am not writing for sympathy.
I am writing this for my sister-in-law. In fact, lets just call her my sister because that is how I see her.
My sister (because that is how I see her) and I have a great deal in common. For starters, my husband. He is a pretty cool guy, but there is more to what we share then just him. We both have a passion for teaching. We can easily drink our way through a bottle of champagne discussing at length how we could change the entire education system if someone just let us.
about two months ago now,
a split second in time gave us one more thing in common.
We have both lost a child.
I lost my daughter eight years ago to congenital heart disease and my beautiful nephew was killed in a fatal car accident.
Again, I am not writing this for me.
I am not writing for sympathy.
I am writing this for my sister (because that is how I see her) and all the other teachers that have to return to teaching after losing a child.
Returning to work after experiencing a great loss, regardless of the job, can be difficult. There is firstly the challenge of pulling yourself out of bed, getting yourself dressed and facing the world. You know you have to, but some days you don’t want to because it hurts that bit too much.
To my sister, it is worth the effort. You are needed.
Work can be an escape, a welcomed distraction… that is if you are allowed that distraction. There is the fear of someone bringing it up just before the staff meeting, the fear of crying in front of your colleagues, the fear of those well-meaning looks of pity.
To my sister, you are both strong and allowed to cry. You are human.
To my sister’s colleagues, or the colleagues of anyone out there returning to work, if you want to give your condolences do so briefly. “I am sorry for your loss” will suffice. Better yet maybe you could say, “It is good to have you back. You have been missed.” Whatever you say move on quickly. Do not ask details, do not speak at length about what a great kid he is (even though he was!)…. speak to her about work. Furthermore, do not walk on eggshells. Normality is needed. Treat the person exactly how you would have before. Do not avoid them because you don’t know how to act. Just be yourself.
Stepping back into the classroom can be a challenge. You stare out and see all these faces staring back. These are someone’s children. They are not your children. This is when teaching really changed for me. When I entered my classroom for the first time after losing Rosie my heart was filled with love. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of my responsibility. The parents of these children entrust them to me each and every day. From that moment on every decision I have made regarding the kids in my class is pre-empted by the thought “What would I want done for my child in this situation?”. I will advocate for each and everyone of them. I love them regardless of their flaws and challenges. If they need a champion, a role-model, a mentor - I will be it. I know how precious their lives are and I want to make each one of their days with me joyful.
To my sister, you are a champion, a role-model, and the perfect mentor. Make a difference to each one of their precious lives and find joy in the time you spend with them. They will not judge, they will not look at you with pity. They will love you whole-heartedly and take away a little piece of that pain.
One of the most difficult challenges I faced when returning to teaching was dealing with parents. They often made me angry. I remember sitting in an IEP meeting with a parent who was more concerned about how the child was impacting on their day-to-day life then on the actual child. I wanted to shake them and scream “Do you realise how lucky you are? You have your child. You can hold them and tell them you love them. How can you sit here and selfishly complain?” The same happens when I see a kid come to school without lunch or a dirty uniform, or when I know they are going home to an empty, loveless house. This anger still rises up now eight years on and I have to let it go.
To my sister, the parents in front of you have not experienced the same pain. They need support, guidance and love. Their children do too and you are the right person to do this.
There are other challenges too.
When the kid in your class has the same name as your child.
When you are covering a topic touching on grief or loss.
When a word, an image, a moment reminds you of them.
When something triggers your grief.
These moments can knock the wind out of you.
To my sister, in these moments breathe and know that they will pass.
Most importantly, there is something healing about hanging with kids all day. There is so much joy in the classroom. Laugh with your students, dance with them, play outside and let their sunshine light up your day. They will not replace him, not ever, but they can bring you happiness if you can let them into your heart.
To my sister and all the teacher parents returning to work after losing a child, you can do this. I know because I have. You are a teacher and you can do anything.
Finally, one last note to my sister’s colleagues….
bring her cake and laugh with her about the time the first grader stuck half a crayon up his nose.
This too is important.