Sunday, February 28, 2010

Appraising the Appraisor

I had my final appraisal meeting of the year on Friday - it took place in Starbucks and lasted for 2 hours. I have been appraised by the Assistant Principal, who is new to this position himself this year, having arrived at the beginning of the school year the same time that I did. He was interested to know how I saw the procedure, as it is the first time he has been involved in appraising teachers. This has been such an interesting procedure for me - certainly the best appraisal process I have ever gone through - and so I thought I'd like to write about how it was done.

To start with back in the Autumn I was given a self-appraisal form to fill in. This form started with two questions:
  • Which parts of your job give you the greatest satisfaction?
  • Which have given you the least satisfaction?
It was great to be able to start this process with a reflection of how I thought I was doing - this would then set the tone for the 3 observations that would follow. I was able to identify the things that I love about teaching such as interacting with the students, designing curriculum, coaching and mentoring teachers. It also gave me a channel to identify - before the formal observations - the challenges I was facing, for example having to solve the hardware and network issues that get in the way of student learning, being lab-based as opposed to classroom-based, having too many classes spread among too many grade levels and not having enough time to really do a good job teaching them, being unable to really differentiate and being unable to give students much of a choice in how they use the IT. Perhaps my biggest challenge was to change the way teachers looked on IT - they wanted to bring the students to the lab one lesson a week for what was basically a skills-driven lesson. I, on the other hand, only wanted students to come when they had something they could usefully do to support the units of inquiry, the maths or the literacy that was being done in class. I think at the beginning of the appraisal process my feelings could be summarised as follows: I have a lot of offer and I am not really offering much right now.

The next question on the self-appraisal was an interesting one: How could these be made more satisfying? I loved this question. It allowed me to not just identify the problems that were getting in the way of me being an effective teacher, but to come up with solutions to these problems. One of the things I asked for here was a proper job description that actually reflects what I am doing.

The self-appraisal asked many other interesting questions such as:
  • Have there been any constraints on your work which have hindered you in carrying out your job?
  • How might these be removed?
  • What changes in the school's organisation would help to improve your performance?
  • In what ways do you think the work of the school could be improved?
  • What contribution would you like to make towards these improvements?
Right from the very beginning, therefore, I had the idea that the Assistant Principal wanted to work with me in a partnership, identifying what was going well, what needed to be improved and how this could be done. I was amazed: this was the first time I had ever started an appraisal process with all of these questions and ideas laid out on the table for discussion.

Having discussed these questions and answers, we were then ready to start the classroom observations. I was given the choice of which classes I wanted to be observed formally. Again before each observation there was a questionnaire to fill in and a pre-observation meeting where we discussed the students in the class including any that had special needs, the learning outcomes for the students for the lesson, how these learning outcomes reflected the PYP, how I planned to engage the students in the lesson, what difficulties the students might experience and how I would plan to anticipate these difficulties, what resources I would use and how would I assess the student achievement of the learning outcomes and provide feedback.

All of the observations went as expected and each time, following the observation, we had another meeting where we discussed what had happened. I wanted to be observed across many grade levels so chose one Kindergarten class, one Grade 2 class and one Grade 4 class. I wanted to be observed in a lesson where I knew there were going to be lots of technical difficulties as I wanted feedback and suggestions as to how these issues could be improved. In each case, following each observation, I received verbal and written comments on my areas of strength and suggestions for areas of growth. These observations took place in November, December and February and in addition to these there were short drop-ins to see what else was going on.

Last Friday it was time to wrap up and do the final meeting. We decided to do this in Starbucks as there was no real need to do it on the school premises. This raised a few eyebrows as I imagine it was quite a departure from the more formal end-of-appraisal meetings the school may have done in the past. It was very relaxing and very positive. We returned to the initial self-appraisal questionnaire I had completed in November and we discussed any changes that had taken place since those comments. Certainly there had been some changes, for example I am now on a flexible schedule which does address some of the issues I'd identified earlier. I was also given the opportunity to discuss professional development and what I wanted to do in the future.

Appraisal, which contains the word "praise", is different from evaluation and should be a very positive experience. Therefore I was also asked to give feedback on the entire appraisal process. For me I only had positive comments to make as it was an extremely helpful and empowering process. During the past 3 months I had probably had about 7 hours of conversations with the Assistant Principal about the job, my performance, what was going well and what needed to be improved. I definitely feel I have come out of this with more insight into myself as a teacher and more ideas about how I can make a difference at this school.

Photo Credit: Good Things by StarbuckGuy

I'm feeling positive today

Anyone who has been reading this blog on a regular basis will know that this is my first year teaching in Switzerland, after living for 4 years in Thailand. Some time ago I wrote about the dip that people go through when moving from one country to another - culture shock - which generally starts in month 3 after arriving and can go on for about 6 months. I've now been here for 7 months so it is definitely time to come out of the dip. The shock of coming to a school that is so far behind where we were in Thailand is wearing off as I'm starting to reap the benefits of a lot of hard work to change teachers' attitudes towards the role of IT.

As I'm looking forward to March, I'm looking forward to more positive changes: we will start our tech training for one teacher per grade level, who will then be able to act as a mentor to the rest of his or her team. This will hopefully empower teachers to take more control of the IT and how it supports their units of inquiry and at the same time I'm hoping it will free me up from being so much based in the labs and let me do more work with students in the classrooms. The flexible schedule we started on our return from the Christmas break has now been running for 5 weeks and that is helping too. Some teachers are still very skeptical, but I'm loving it. I get to work intensively with just 2 or 3 grades each week, rather than having to spread myself so thinly from K to G7. This has meant that I have been able to run a photographic course with our G4 students, focusing on a different G4 class each week. We have spent the whole of one afternoon and the following morning walking around the school taking nature photographs, then coming back and editing them. With the old timetable these 5 period would have taken 5 weeks and it would have been hard to sustain the momentum.
As well as this the days are getting longer, we are getting more sunshine and the snow is gradually starting to melt. Yesterday I bought some spring flowers for my balcony. Life definitely seems to be getting better.

Photo Credits: These photos were taken and edited by Aleksi, Kristian, Anabel and Caitlin, some of my Grade 4 students

Friday, February 26, 2010

Large change needs to be done quickly

I've been reading Ten Big Ideas of School Leadership by Mike McCarthy in Edutopia today. Mike reflects on his 30 years as a teacher and principal and what he has learnt. One of his ideas is:
If you wait too long to make changes to a school culture, you have already sanctioned mediocre behavior because you're allowing it. That's when change is hard....

This week we had an in-service day devoted to the PHSE programme and behaviour. This last session was extremely interesting as teachers from all areas of our school, from Early Years to Grade 12, were asking for some sort of policy or guidelines about what is (and what is not) acceptable behaviour from our students. We don't want a situation where one teacher reprimands a student who is behaving in an unacceptable way, only to find that other teachers allow it. A good example of this on our campus is snowballing. As we are in Switzerland there are many months when snow is on the ground - is it acceptable or not to have snowball fights during recess? Sometimes students want to pick up some snow and throw it at their friends - it is very tempting - but sometimes this can get out of hand. Obviously we don't want to spoil anyone's fun - but fun has to be enjoyable for everyone and the distinction between a soft snowball and a hard iceball is hard to describe to everyone's satisfaction.

When we lived in Bangkok, we first lived on the 9th floor of an apartment block and had big balconies all around. Our children spent their teenage years in the city, and I remember having a conversation with my son when he was about 14, standing on the balcony. We were both leaning on the railings and looking down at the pool below. On this particular day I remember having a discussion with him about limits - the railing was the limit we could go to - it was there to stop anything bad happening to us. We liked having the railing there as we could go right up to it and look over, but we couldn't step over it. Actually without the railing we wouldn't have gone right up to the edge of the balcony as it would have been too scary - but we felt safe with it there. Our standards and values as a family were like those railings. Our children knew where the limits were and could go right up to them and even peer over, but they knew not to step over the lines. Looking back at this now, our son, who is 19, says he's glad we set these limits as they allowed him to make the most of his experiences there.

Our students want the same limits and guidelines from us as teachers so they know how far to go with us. They don't really want a different rule or boundary for each teacher - they like to know where they stand. As teachers we do need to deal quickly with mediocre behaviour (and work) to let students know it is unacceptable and that we expect more of them. If bad behaviour is allowed to continue it becomes the norm, then it is hard for us to raise the bar and tell them we expect better. We can't allow ourselves to become complacent, we can't allow our students to drift, every day is precious to them and shouldn't be wasted.

As a teacher and as a parent of a 16 year old at the same school where I work, I want a behaviour policy to be put in place. I hope something good comes out of our in-service - certainly my impression is that the teachers themselves want to see a positive change in this area.

Photo Credit: Mood Playground by Nonac

Learning with my students: Grade 7 MYP Technology

On Friday I taught my first ever design technology class with two groups of Grade 7 students. I've been an IT teacher for 10 years, but have never taught all the components of MYP technology (information, materials and systems) before - so now that we are half way through the year it's time to stop teaching the information technology and start teaching the materials and systems. For the students this is also the first time they have ever had to construct anything from scratch themselves, all the other technology lessons up to now being entirely information technology. For materials I decided to try something that sounded relatively easy and that didn't use resistant materials like wood and metal (for sure I am not up to giving students lessons in how to use power tools like drills and electric saws!) Having racked my brains and been given several suggestions by colleagues, some of which included making go-carts or which involved food (a definite no-no), I settled on kites. Since I know nothing at all about the design of kites, this is a project where I am learning alongside my students.

The first thing we did was to discuss the history of kites - they were first built in China about 3,000 years ago - and the materials these first kites were made out of - bamboo and silk. We talked about the sorts of materials that were easy to get hold of and that we might like to try to use today such as different sorts of fabrics and plastics, wooden barbeque sticks, straws and so on. Next we used the internet to identify different kinds of kites. We talked about the fact that here in Switzerland it is not very windy (though as luck would have it, it was EXTREMELY windy here on Friday afternoon with branches being blown off trees and one of the playground benches being blown over - definitely not a day for kite flying!). Some shapes of kites are better suited to light winds and some are better suited to strong winds - we definitely want to try to make the ones that are most suited to gentle breezes - and in fact will probably have to run down the hill the school is on in order to get these kites airborne. We tried to identify all the different parts of a kite (the frame, covering or sail, tail, line and bridle) and think about what we might use to construct them.

It was an interesting afternoon, and we all came up with more questions than answers. Why, we wondered, do some kites have 2 strings and others only one? What is the purpose of the tail of a kite? Most seemed to have one but we didn't really know why so we had to do some research to find out that a tail keeps a kite stable and oriented to the wind. We're still a little fuzzy about the exact role of the bridle.

Next week we will start to sketch out some design ideas and plan how we will make the kites. We'll then start to construct the kites and finally at the end of next month we'll participate in a kite flying activity. I'm hoping the students will be able to launch and fly their kites successfully, and if not I'm hoping that they will be able to identify what the problems are and suggest some improvements or modifications that could be made to the kites.

Just like the last assignment using Web 2.0 tools, I'm giving the students an entirely free choice of what kind of kite they design and make. I'm really interested to see what the students come up with.

Photo Credit: Better Days by Tripleman

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I'm a Lonely Planet kind of teacher

Over the recent "ski week" holiday I was reading a blog post by Hall Jackson about interactive white boards. Now this post is nothing to do with IWBs, though perhaps I may come back to this topic at some later stage. No, the real thing that caught my eye in this post was how Jackson likened teaching to being a tourist. As an international educator and traveller for over 20 years I've had the same sort of thoughts, but never really formalised them as such in the way he did.

The first type of tourist is the package tour type (think 18-30, think Club Med, think SAGA) where everything is organised: where you stay, what you eat, tours, information etc. Basically you just show up and everything is done for you. I've seen teachers (and students) who love this approach - they open the textbook at the beginning of the year, and at the end they are through with it. When I first started teaching in international schools we actually had big plastic packs that had come from the States - these plastic boxes contained text books, work sheets, tests, films etc in them and to be honest you didn't really even need to be a teacher - everything was planned for you, down to the sort of jokes you had to tell and when you had to smile! Coming from the UK where we wrote a lot of our own curriculum (in the days before there was a national curriculum!) this was quite a revelation to me. Sure it felt "secure" to have this pack, but somehow it didn't feel quite right. I missed the creativity of designing my own courses. I dipped in and out of these boxes for a couple of months, but to be honest, most of the time they just gathered dust at the back of the room. I've never been a one-size-fits-all kind of teacher.

There there's what Jackson called the JOJO type of tourists. The ones that travel on a bus going on a certain route, but who can get off and on where they like, stay where they like, eat what they like and so on. These people stay as long as they like in the places that interest them and then jump back on the next bus again. There is a set route, but you have to navigate and choose your own way along it. In international schools I have seen many teachers like this. Sure they know where they want the students to be by the end of the year, but along the way there they allow the students to set the pace. Some things will call for deeper inquiry than others. Some students will be more interested in some aspects than others. These teachers are flexible, patient and creative. They probably don't often teach lessons the same way twice. Now to be one of these sorts of teachers you have to be in a school that doesn't insist on every single class in the grade being on the same page at the same time. Probably this school is not heavily reliant on standardised testing. Teachers have to feel comfortable with the fact that they and their students have different strengths. Inquiry should look different in each classroom, though the learner outcomes will be the same as during planning meetings all teachers will have agreed on the central understanding they want students to have.

Finally there's the Lonely Planet type of tourist - they set off into the unknown and plan their own trip as they go. Sometimes things don't go quite according to plan, but on the other hand there are many interesting and quirky diversions that they wouldn't necessarily have come across any other way and it sure is a great learning experience. As a traveller I've realised I'm a Lonely Planet type of person - in fact once when my children were young we actually did go into a travel agency on our way home from school as I was booking a ferry ticket. To amuse my children, the travel agent gave them some brochures to look through while he was booking our ticket. The children's eyes grew wide as they looked at pictures of luxurious resorts and theme parks, then my son turned to the travel agent and said "We would NEVER go to a place like this for our holidays". Now as a teacher I'm thinking that I'm a bit of a Lonely Planet teacher myself too. I love it when the students go off and independently pursue their own interests, actually I actively encourage it. I always have a good idea of the end goal, but often am a bit vague about the way we are going to get there. I like trying out new things with the students and I feel we all learn a lot, even if things don't go exactly to plan. I'm quite happy to let students know that I don't have all the answers. I'm quite happy to inquire alongside them into things I don't know much about.

So this week I am starting kite design with my Grade 7 technology class. Right now I know nothing about kites at all, and though I have seen lots of people flying them in various countries of the world, I have actually never seen anyone flying one in Switzerland, which is not a very windy country. Right now I'm a little nervous about the fact that although I know nothing at all about how to get a kite airborne, by the end of this half term we will actually be out flying the kites that our students have designed and made themselves. Right now I don't even have a "Lonely Planet" guidebook, or a "Kite Making for Dummies" handbook. I think it's time to go and do a little bit of research on the internet ......

Photo Credit: Lonely Monks by Matt Murf and 70 kites on a single line by Ronnie44052

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Decline of Genius

Today I've been looking at the second part of Sir Ken Robinson's address to the Apple Education Leadership Summit in 2008. What a great combination - I loved the Apple Summit in Hong Kong last year, am looking forward to going to the next one in Prague next month, and always enjoy listening to Sir Ken. This talk was about divergent thinking, which is part of every creative process. It is the capacity to see connections and multiple answers to a problem, to read the questions differently and to generate more questions. It's the kind of thing I see teachers trying to do in the inquiry based approach of the PYP.

Sir Ken went on to discuss that tests made on kindergarten students showed that 98% of them were divergent thinkers. Follow up studies were done on the same children at the ages of 8-10 and again at the ages of 13-15. The students who remained divergent thinkers were only 32% at ages 8-10 and this number dropped further to just 18% at the age of 13-15. Sir Ken argues that this indicates that everybody is born with extraodinary capacities but that this declines as a result of an education that prizes just one right answer (standardised tests for example), and that regards collaboration as cheating. He says that underlying this is the problem of narrowing the curriculum and valuing science, technology, engineering and maths above all other subjects - and that all these other areas are just as important for children's well-rounded growth (or in the language of the IB learner profile, balanced).

Sir Ken talks about the Renaissance, a time of fluid interaction between different disciplines in a society that valued innovation for economic and cultural purposes. He says we need a new renaissance, yet our current education stops the interaction between the disciplines. Again this brings me to thinking about the MYP and what a great programme it is, encouraging students to synthesise their thinking, understanding and knowledge from two or more subject areas through the areas of interaction and integrate them to create new understanding.

Finally Sir Ken talks about what is most important in educational reform: curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. Of these pedagogy is the most important, yet in my experience all too often our in-service is focused on curriculum and assessment. Sir Ken argues that of course we need to reform all three, but the only way to get true reform is to tackle pedagogy - schools will only improve by addressing the teaching and learning.

The problem is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.

- Sir Ken Robinson

Photo Credit: Crayola Lincoln Logs by laffy4K

Being safe and being responsible

There is a lot of controversy about the best way for schools to approach the subject of keeping students safe online. There's the block them and lock them out approach of some schools, where many websites are inaccessible unless these sites have been approved by teachers, and there's the managed system, whereby students are educated as to the dangers and how to deal with them. I suppose the difference in approach can be summed up in the words "being safe" and "being responsible".

The best analogy of this is the example of a child trying to cross a road. If a parent always insists on holding the child's hand then of course that child is safe, however if the child is never taught to cross the road independently then how will they manage by themselves? As a parent once said to me, "Being a good parent isn't preventing bad things happening to your child, it's helping them to know how to deal with a bad thing when it does happen". Students who are locked down at school and closely monitored, may not develop the skills to use the technology responsibly when they are outside of school, and if they are not responsible then they are not safe.

At my school we start introducing the students to internet safety, along with other kinds of safety, in Kindergarten in the Who We Are unit of inquiry. This year we have used Hector's World with our students to help them understand why it is important not to share personal information or passwords. In addition students created their own Mr Men or Little Miss avatars on the Mr Men World website to show safe and unsafe behaviour. These avatars were later turned into puppets for the students to play with in class.

In Grade 1 we build on this in the How We Express Ourselves unit, giving the students their own email account and teaching them how to skype. We started skyping with other members of the class, the class parents and students on another campus. Eventually we'd like to have our Grade 1 students skype with other Grade 1 students in schools around the world.

At the top end of the primary school, we examine internet safety in the Sharing the Planet unit with our Grade 5s. We use the Thinkuknow Cyber Cafe activities and have the students blog about all the good and potentially risky aspects of using websites, email, SMS text messages and IM, online forums and social networking sites. Our message is to think before you post and to remember that anything posted on the internet or sent electronically can be stored forever. This leads us onto looking at cyberbulling where we use the excellent movie from Childnet International. In the blogs we have asked students to write about the problems of cyberbullying, how they can prevent it and what to do if you are the victim. Our focus here is not just on a student's own actions, but how they are responsible for their own actions and how these actions impact on others.

Keeping students safe is extremely important, but without teaching them responsible practices it seems only a half-way step. Teaching students responsibility will keep them safe too.

Photo Credit: Macbook by Swansea Photographer

Saturday, February 13, 2010

5th Grade students define the concept of conflict

Earlier this year our Grade 5 students were looking at peace and conflict in their Sharing the Planet unit of inquiry. As part of the work they did in IT to support this unit, students created cartoon characters of themselves and used the characters created by the entire class to make comic strips based on potential situations of conflict that could arise in the class and the ways that these could be resolved peacefully. Another thing they did later in the unit was to draw peace pictures which were then photographed. These were used in VoiceThreads with the students talking about the pictures they had painted and what some of the symbols in the painting meant to them.

Several months further on, I was back in the same Grade 5 class today doing some work with video cameras. The students are now making advertisements, trying to persuade people to buy certain toys. However I happened to see that on one of the windows was a large piece of paper where the students had defined what they meant by conflict. This to me seemed to sum up conflict in a nutshell:
We think conflict is caused when:
  • Someone is told/made to do something they don't want to do.
  • When you want to do something but you're not allowed.
  • When you are being hurt or threatened.
Having looked at this I started to think about the kinds of conflict we experience as part of our jobs as teachers. Certainly in the past I can remember feeling very resentful being told that I had to do something in a certain way that I didn't want to do because I didn't feel it was the best thing for my students. This could have been being made to use a particular maths resource that the rest of the team had decided to use and that I didn't feel was suitable to the needs of my students, having to have all the students take a standardised test which wasn't really relevant to students who were in the ESL programme (and was extremely stressful to them - I can remember one Korean student asking me "what's an Oz?" during the middle of one of these maths tests - the paper came from the USA yet we were teaching in a European school where we did everything using the metric system - he had never heard of ounces before!) or being told that I had to park at the end of the road in a car park belonging to a swimming pool as teachers were no longer allowed to park in the school car park. Other times I can remember wanting to do something with a class but being told that all classes in the same grade level had to be doing the same thing, or, for example, when I first started publishing my students' work on the internet one of my colleagues told me to stop doing this because I was "making the rest of the team look bad"! Also, when I was a Middle School teacher, I remember telling my students that they should come into the parent-teacher conferences with their parents as I felt it was useful to have them there discussing their learning - today student-led and 3-Way conferences are commonplace, but back in those days I was seen to be creating difficulties by wanting to do things a different way from the rest of the team.

I suppose the thing that kept me going when times were tough like this was the absolute certainly that if I had to fight a battle, it was a worthwhile one because it was not to benefit me in any way but to benefit my students - they were worth the hassle. It is difficult to swim against the tide, but the good thing is that sometimes the tide turns.

Photo Credit: Impala by Arno & Louise

Free is the Nice Price (Part 5) - Grade 7 Technology

Our final day of Middle School technology presentations today and a surprise at the end with Glogster just managing to pip Prezi at the post for the most popular Web 2.0 tool with our Grade 7 students. About a third of our students chose to use Glogster and roughly another third chose to use Prezi. Of the rest Scrapblog was the next most popular tool.
Because this was the last day before the holidays, all those students who had already shown their work over the past few weeks were given a free choice on the computer, while the final few students showed us what they had created. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following these posts, that the students all opted to make something else, using a Web 2.0 tool of their choice. There was no fooling around and time wasting - these tools were engaging and fun enough in themselves.
What I'm interested to see now is whether these students will take these tools and use them in their other subjects. For example, will we start seeing Glogs and Prezis being used in English or Humanities lessons - and are these subject teachers even aware that compared with just 2 months ago, our Grade 7 students have a far wider range of skills? Will they accept a Glog instead of a book report? Will they accept a Prezi about the Second World War?
This week I have been reading a number of posts about Speed Geeking, for example Clint Hamada's post today entitled Get Your Geek On showcasing some of the cool things going on in the UNIS Hanoi classrooms. Perhaps this is the way forward. But perhaps instead of the teachers showcasing what they have done, we could have the students showcasing to the different subject teachers some of these different tools that they have used in the MYP technology classes. Definitely worth a thought!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Third Culture Parent

On my bio on Twitter I'm down as being a Third Culture Parent. I'm not really sure if this is an official term, but I suppose by it I mean that I am the mother of two Third Culture Kids. The term TCK is the title of a book by the late David Pollock; I was given this book, which is is about the experience of growing up among worlds, back in 2004 on my birthday from the Head of Lower School when I worked at ISA.

Tonight I asked our 16 year old daughter, "Where do you think home is?" Her answer was, "I don't know, I don't think I have a home". It was such a sad little answer that it made me pick up the TCK book again and flick through the first few pages to see if her feeling was a common one (it is). I then started thinking about how I would answer that question myself. I've lived away from my "home" country for longer than I've lived in it. For me the country no longer feels like home, though when I go back and visit my mother who still lives in the house we moved to when I was 5, that does feel like home. However, I cannot imagine ever moving back to the UK. Actually to be honest I have no idea where we will end up. I think for us home is just wherever we happen to be right now, and the things we bring with us from place to place are the things that make it feel homely.

I'm a pretty international person. This is now the 7th country I've lived and worked in, however as my entire childhood was spent growing up in England I was pretty secure in that culture before leaving it almost 30 years ago. Since then I have worked in 4 European countries, the USA and 2 Asian countries. I met my Dutch husband in Portugal and both our children were born in Holland, though they have British passports and birth certificates. For our 18 year old son who is now at university in England, this is the first time he has ever lived in his "passport country". Our children left Europe for Asia when they were 11 and 14 years old, and much of what they are today has been influenced by their growing up in a country that neither my husband or I are from.

One of the characteristics of TCKs is that they "build relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any," which leads to a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere that our daughter described tonight.

For myself, one of the things I appreciated most about living in Asia was experiencing what it was like being a minority. It has given me a different perspective that will stay with me my whole life long. I was clearly a foreigner - I looked different and I thought differently from most of the people around me. For our children, many of their friends were Thai, and many of the cultural norms of Thailand rubbed off on them. They certainly looked different, but in many ways they thought in the same way as their Thai friends - peer pressure was certainly different. With our son I noticed he became much more respectful towards elderly people. Back in Europe again we are like hidden immigrants - we look the same as everyone else, but we actually think very differently as a result of our experiences and in some ways this has made moving back to Europe more difficult than when we moved away to a country where people expected us to think differently.

One of the great advantages this experience has given our children (and ourselves) is that we are very aware that there can be more than one way of looking at the same thing. Qualities that are valued in our Western society, such as independence, are not quite so highly valued in countries where the extended family is the norm, so we have often found ourselves questioning our own values. Our children have learnt to be more adaptable, but at times don't really know how to "fit in", they seem to move from one place to another easily, but often don't seem very settled anywhere, though they have large numbers of friends from all over the place and have even managed to maintain some long-term, long-distance friendships.

People often look on our lifestyle as being fairly "glamorous". It can be tough too! Generally I think the plus points outweigh the negative ones, but I guess only time will tell.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Assessment - Giving Students A Choice

This weekend I've been reading a very thought-provoking blog post about summative assessment by Greg Thompson. I cannot possibly do justice to his excellent post here - you really need to read it for yourself to follow all his arguments. Greg talks about the value of apprenticeships and how adults gave formative and summative assessments by observing the apprentices and correcting them as they went along. He argues that in the industrial age students went to school and learnt things that had "no apparent purpose" and so testing became the means of assessing whether the students had learned anything - this worked well for assembly line jobs. The material they were learning had no creative or original thought, the jobs they were going to didn't involve any either. Nowadays, Greg argues,
Formative assessment, far too often, is given only cursory acknowledgment and all the eggs are put in the summative assessment basket. There is something fundamentally wrong with this current situation. Formative assessment is the most powerful of the assessments in helping students learn and move toward mastery. In fact formative assessment enables a teacher to determine incremental amounts of mastery as the student moves through the learning process. Done effectively it renders summative assessment redundant and unnecessary.
Greg's blog discusses the difference between convergent summative assessment, where there is one right answer, and divergent assessment where students have many possibilities to demonstrate their learning. He says:
Divergent assessment, by design, requires the use of the top layers of Bloom’s ideas about learning. Because students have achieved mastery along the way, of information and skills, they have a new embedded knowing that allows them to take their learning and apply it in ways that intrigue them and allow them to find purposeful meaning in their process. At this point, the restrictions are minimal – very minimal – and students are allowed to evidence their learning in powerful and meaning ways.
I think the most interesting thing here is that the final product "will look different for each student". For our current unit of inquiry in Grade 4, students have been inquiring into different belief systems. We decided, for the first time this year, to give students a choice about how to present their understandings. Some students chose to use drama, and their work was videoed and uploaded to YouTube, some students chose to use VoiceThread and others chose to interview people about their beliefs and to write out this interview. Here is an example of the final assessment of this unit by one of our Grade 4 classes. As the year goes on, I hope to give more classes the opportunity to make a choice about how they will be show their learning.

Abstract Art with Grade 2

Our Grade 2 students have been doing a unit of inquiry called Abstract Art (this is in the How We Express Ourselves transdisciplinary theme). For the first few lessons students were using different tools on the National Gallery of Art website.

In the first week we looked at PhotoOp to introduce the students to digital photography and digital photo editing. Students used the virtual camera to explore different ways of composing shots and took snapshots. Then they changed to the PhotoOp editor to turn these photos into pieces of abstract art. Take a look at a slideshow of their work to see what a great job they have done.

After this we went on to explore BRUSHster, a painting machine with over 40 different brushes. Once again the students had fun creating different abstract art pictures and they were put together in a slideshow using Pixie. Take a look at the great artwork they have created using BRUSHster.

In another session we looked at Flow. For this the students first explored the ready made images, watching the changing patterns and colours in this motion painting machine. They then used the pencil tool to make their own designs that they could add to the flow. During that lesson we created 2 different slideshows: Flow 1 with the menu icons and Flow 2 with the students' own designs. This was a challenging lesson for the students who learnt to take screenshot of a moving canvas.

During this unit, students also explored self-portraits. They looked at artists who had done these self-portraits and were introduced to the pointillism style of painting. They then used PixelFace to make their own self-portraits. Pixelface has many colours and 24 different brushes that the students could play with.

In our last computer art lesson during this unit, we studied one artist, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. We found out about his life and why he painted the pictures he did. Students then looked at paintings by other famous painters and asked themselves how Mondrian would have painted these scenes. Here is the final slideshow showing the Mondrian-style pictures our Grade 2 students have made. The students made these pictures using Pixie.

Next week the Grade 2 parents are coming in for the Abstract Art exhibition. We are setting up laptops in each of the classrooms so that the parents can view the excellent work these students have made.

The National Gallery of Art Kidzone is a great place for students to play with the concept of abstract art. I only wish we had more time so that we could have explored more on this excellent website. Oh well, roll on next year ....

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Transdisciplinary, Interdisciplinary and Disciplinary - the 3 IB programmes

Since I started teaching in international schools, I have always worked in IB schools. The IB stands for International Baccalaureate, which was started in 1968 as a non-profit educational foundation offering high quality educational programmes to international schools. On it's website the IB states:
Our three programmes for students aged 3 to 19 help develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world. There are more than 778,000 IB students at 2,822 schools in 138 countries.
The IB is more than a curriculum. Although the IB is probably best known for its continuum of education with its three programmes, PYP, MYP and DP, spanning ages 3 - 19, the IB aims to do more. At the heart of the IB is it's philosophy for encouraging international mindedness and its attitude towards learning. The programmes develop critical thinking, questioning, research and reflection. And although the IB started as a programme for international students, now more than half of the IB World Schools are state-schools.

The first of the IB programmes to be developed was the Diploma Programme (DP). When I moved overseas to my first international school in 1988, this was the only programme offered. I taught IB Geography to a large class of 16 - 18 year olds. During my time at the International School of Amsterdam , I also became involved with the International Schools Association Curriculum (ISAC) which shared the same philosophy as the DP and was seen as a suitable pre-IB DP course. The International Schools Association created a framework that emphasised the importance of developing the skills, attitudes and knowledge needed in a global society. The IB Middle Years Programme (IBMYP) grew out of the work done by the teachers who were involved with teaching the ISAC, and was officially adopted by the IB in 1994.

At the International School of Amsterdam, we originally started teaching the MYP to our Middle School students in Grades 7 and 8, teaching years 2 and 3 of the programme. At that point Grade 6 was still part of the primary school, and the primary school was involved in developing a programme of its own. I moved into Grade 6 with the aim of introducing year 1 of the MPY, and at the same time the Middle School students who were moving up into the High School were pushing the MYP up there too, so that eventually all 5 years of the programme were being done at school. At that point the school moved into a new building, Grade 6 officially became part of the Middle School and we were offering the entire MYP course to our students aged 11 - 16.

However I had enjoyed my years in the Primary School. After one year back in the Middle School I decided I wanted to go back into Primary and I moved down to Grade 5. While the MYP had been developing, the primary teachers, myself included, had been busy with our own curriculum development. We were involved in the International Schools Curriculum Project looking at educational philosophies and theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky and Gardner in order to develop our own concept-based curriculum around units of inquiry. The group of educators that were the driving force of the ISCP, eventually initiated the IB Primary Year Project (PYP). In 1997, my school, the International School of Amsterdam, became the first school to be authorised by the IB in all 3 programmes, and I became the world's first PYP Coordinator.

The PYP is committed to students learning in a transdisciplinary context. Each year in the programme of inquiry, students study 6 units of inquiry that fall under each of the transdisciplinary themes:
  • Who we are
  • Where we are in place and time
  • How we express ourselves
  • How the world works
  • How we organise ourselves
  • Sharing the planet
This learning is transdisciplinary as it "transcends the confines of the subject areas to connect to what is real in the world". It is built around the 5 essential elements of knowledge (the programme of inquiry), key concepts that have relevance beyond subject areas, transdisciplinary skills (communication, thinking, self-management, research and social), attitudes and action.

Whereas the PYP is transdisciplinary, the MYP is interdisciplinary. The MYP stresses students synthesising their thinking, understanding and knowledge from two or more subject areas and integrating them to create new understanding. The subject areas connect through the areas of interaction - environment, human ingenuity, health and social, community and service and approaches to learning. The DP is very much seen as a focus on six academic disciplines (2 languages, maths, experimental science, social studies - called individuals and societies - and the arts) along with a study of the theory of knowledge, writing an extended essay and CAS (creativity, action and service) which requires students learn beyond the classroom.

Although IB World Schools can choose to offer one, two or all three IB programmes, I have only ever taught in schools that offer all three. Our son, now at university in England, moved seemlessly from the transdisciplinary approach of the PYP, through the interdisciplinary approach of the MYP to the disciplinary approach of the DP. Our daughter is now in the last year of the MYP and will be starting the DP next year. From a teaching point of view I can truly say I would never choose to teach in another programme. From a parent's point of view I would say I have been blessed to have been in the right place at the right time for our children to get the best education on the planet.

Photo Credit: Rainbow by Jakerome

Cheating ... or Cooperation, Collaboration and Collective Intelligence?

A couple of years ago at my old school two boys failed their IB for "collusion". This was a dishonourable fail, which meant both had to come back and re-do all their exams again the following year. These boys had collaborated together on an internal assessment. As we delved further into what had happened, it was clear that one boy had shared his work in a spirit of cooperation, whereas the other boy had used this information, submitted it and jeopardised both of them. Although the students had been told over and over again that cheating was completely unacceptable, the message they had also been given over many years of schooling was that of working together, cooperation and collaboration were to be admired. Perhaps they just got too many mixed messages.

Today I was looking at Carl Anderson's blog post about FRONTLINE's Digital Nation. In this post was a clip with Henry Jenkins talking about the internet and schools. He says the internet is based on a world of collective intelligence - we learn from each other. Nobody knows everything, everybody knows something, but what we all know is accessible to the social network as a whole. On the other hand schools are still based on the notion of the autonomous learner. Most forms of collaboration in the classroom are regarded as cheating.

Perhaps it is time to start thinking more seriously about the way we evaluate our students and how we value (and measure) collaborative work. Does a 3 hour exam where students have to regurgitate all they know really show more about their abilities than a long-term project worked on as a team? Isn't that more what real life is about, and aren't these the skills that students will need to be successful in the future?

Photo Credit: A Zed and two Noughts by Naccarato

Free is the Nice Price (Part 4) - Grade 7 Technology

I teach Grade 7 MYP Technology every Friday afternoon. Every student has technology with me whenever they are not having their instrumental music lesson. In earlier posts I have outlined my struggles to come up with a meaningful programme for these students when my only brief was to "teach them Excel" and "integrate with what the science teachers are doing". For the past few weeks students have been investigating, designing, planning and creating ways to teach younger students how to use Excel using Web 2.0 tools. Each Friday for the past 3 weeks groups of students have come to show me and the rest of Grade 7 what they have created, and it has been interesting to see which tools they have chosen and their reasons for making those choices. To date, approximately 50 students have presented to the rest of the grade, sharing what they have done. The Wordle above shows how popular the different tools are. Up to this week the clear favourite of our students was Prezi, but today for the first time we had more students using Glogster. In total approximately one third of the students have chosen Prezi and one third have chosen Glogster, with the final third divided between a number of other tools.

Today I had two students who had obviously struggled over their presentations - both are new to the school. The first, a Japanese girl, has only been learning English for the past year. She found this a very daunting assignment as it was hard for her to actually explain in English. Last week she had come with a PowerPoint which I had to tell her was not a Web 2.0 tool. This week she turned up with Slideshare - she had uploaded her PowerPoint so that she could share it with us. She spoke incredibly quietly (and was in serious competition with the drumming lesson next door) but the other students were very respectful and listened hard. As she talked she grew in confidence - everyone wanted her to succeed - they were literally hanging on her every word. At the end the entire group applauded her. She did a fantastic job.

The second student who was clearly challenged with this task was a boy who only arrived in school a few weeks ago. He had missed all the earlier lessons at the beginning of the year where I was working with the science teachers graphing the experiments they did. He had never used Excel before, therefore he first had to learn it from scratch by himself and then secondly he had to teach it to someone else using a Web 2.0 tool that he was also unfamiliar with. He chose to use Prezi which was a great choice. Again, students were supportive and applauded him too.

Somehow over the past few months I have seen a definite change in this group of 7th Graders. At the beginning of the year they were the usual 13 year olds, fed up with school by Friday afternoon and looking forward to the weekend. The last thing they wanted to do was to spend the afternoon graphing science experiments! They laughed a lot at each other and basically were not motivated to learn very much. Giving the students responsibility for their own learning by giving them the complete choice of what tool they wanted to use and how to show their understanding has changed all that. Some of the students chose tools that I have never used myself. They had to play around with them and discover for themselves what to do as I stepped right back and didn't teach them anything, just encouraged them to have a go. What actually happened was that they supported each other in this learning - today some students said they chose the tool they did because they were able to get a lot of help from others in the class. They have definitely become more of a community supporting each other through this. What I have also seen is that although I never set any homework at all for this class, many of the students continued to work at home or else came in during the recess times to work on the computers. This week I have been teaching a lot of classes of Kindergarten, with any extra computers in the room being taken up by the 7th graders who wanted to make their presentations just that little bit better. It has been good for them to be with me when I've been teaching Kindergarten, and it has certainly been good for the Kindergarten students to see the "big kids" beavering away next to them.

Next week should be the last week of this assignment, and I'm wondering whether I'll be seeing the same "big two" tools being used again, or whether next week's students will have explored some other, different tools. Then after the holiday we'll be leaving information technology for a while and moving onto design technology - we'll be making kites. Now this is definitely going to be something where the students will also have to do a lot of independent work as I know nothing about kites and have very little skill at making things out of different materials. However I'm hoping all the skills that the students have been developing over this half year, the skills of research and cooperation, will be utilized once again so that they will once more be proud of their creations.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Celebration of Teenagers

I first saw this last year when I was in Bangkok and I showed it to my IB group then. I'm posting it now because I truly believe our students will be able to make choices about their lives and will be able to make the world a better place. I hear a lot of negativity about young people these days, and I think it is important to speak out and give a more balanced view. I am the mother of a 19 year old. He and his friends are wonderful, caring people that I am proud to know.