Sunday, June 27, 2010


There has been a lot of talk recently about how best to prepare new teachers for the classroom, and today I read a blog post on this subject from Edna Sackson.  When I trained to be a teacher, back in the early 80s, there was not a lot of preparation and not a lot of support for new teachers.  Following my degree, I did a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate of Education) which was a one year course.  In the first term all trainee teachers had to follow 4 courses - one was on the history of education, one was on psychology and I can't remember what the other two were on.  Looking back I really don't think any of these were any use to me at all in a practical sense during my first year of teaching - though if I was doing this course again I think I would definitely pay more attention to the psychology lectures.  In addition we had to attend seminars about our subject (mine was Geography) and have a weekly tutor group meeting with other students, none of whom were studying the same subject as myself.  We also had a couple of sessions where we were supposed to learn how to project our voices.  During the first term I went with a small group of trainee Geography teachers to visit a local school for 3 afternoons.  In the final session of these our group had to plan an activity to do with the boys that involved some Geography fieldwork.

The entire second term - Christmas to Easter - was spent in a school.  This was known as "teaching practice".  During these 10 weeks or so, I had to teach two subjects - Geography and History.  I was assigned to 2 teachers who started off with me observing their lessons and then after a week or so of observation I had to teach some of the lessons with them observing me and finally after another week or so they left me alone in the class to plan and teach the lessons myself.  During this term my university tutor dropped by twice to observe how I was doing, and we spent every Wednesday afternoon back at the university working on creating resources for our subjects.

The third term was spent back in the university again, and the only activity I remember from that time was having to produce an essay about some aspect of teaching.  I wrote something about creating resources to use with students with special needs.  Did this year prepare me to be a teacher?  Definitely not!

Fresh out of university I then got a job in a very tough comprehensive school in a depressed area of England.  The school had 1200 students aged 12 - 16 with just a few staying on after that to do A'levels.  Probably less than 1% of the students went on to any further education after the age of 18.  The school was in a mining community - the aim of most of the boys was to go down the local pit.  Salaries with bonuses as a miner were higher than I was earning as a teacher.  The girls had very little ambition other than to get married.  I started at the school in 1983, and within a few months the miners went out on strike, a strike that was to last for a year and which would result in the total decimation of the community and the closure of the local mine (which meant unemployment for almost all the boys leaving school).  I think it's fair to say that nobody at the school was very motivated to learn anything at all in the years that I was there.

Nowadays this probably wouldn't happen, but in those days I think new teachers who were just a few years older than the students they were teaching were seen as being enthusiastic, idealistic and ready to take on challenges and able to connect with the students, therefore we were given some of the toughest classes - probably the ones nobody else wanted.  The school was interested in the fact that I had written an essay about resources for teaching students with special needs, and I was appointed to teach a remedial class of 14-15 year olds (with absolutely no training or experience in special needs at all!)  I was to teach them for all their English, Religious Studies (neither subjects I had studied myself), Geography and History which covered 1/3rd of their time in school.  My first year was pure survival.  Some of the children couldn't read very well, so I remember reading novels aloud to them - their favourite was Roald Dahl's Danny Champion of the World, which was probably more suitable as a book for primary aged children.  This probably wasn't the best way to teach them English, but they did enjoy being read to, and they did stay quiet and listen.  Other lessons were not so orderly!  However in that first year I do remember teaching the students how to read a bus and train timetable so that they could plan a trip to the coast, and later in the year we also did a little bit about the Geography of Europe as they seemed to be interested in places that they could go on on holiday.  Perhaps some of that was useful for them - I hope so!  As this was in the days before the national curriculum in England there was no pressure to teach them anything at all that would be assessed.  In fact the school did Mode 3 CSE exams, which we wrote ourselves and moderated locally with other teachers.  Looking back I'm grateful that I started teaching at a time when there were no standardised tests or league tables of schools - my students would certainly not have been able to pass them and this would probably have reflected badly on me as a teacher.

I started teaching with 5 other new teachers - we stuck together and supported each other and gave each other suggestions of what might work.  The school was a rough school, but it was also a strict one, and there were always people in the senior management who we could turn to to sort out behaviour problems when they arose.  Of the other 5 newly qualified teachers who started with me, only 1 is still in full-time teaching, which I feel is a terrible waste as all of us started off being pretty keen and enthusiastic and all of us were actually good at what we did.  Possibly if we had been given easier classes and some mentoring more of us would have stuck to it.

After 6 years of teaching in the UK, I moved into international education.  Now from that day to this I have never looked back and that move is probably the reason why after 28 years I am still a teacher and still loving what I do.

While I was teaching in Amsterdam I became part of a European-wide group of teachers who were studying pedagogy in our various countries.  We met regularly and discussed such issues as how we pass on our knowledge of teaching to others.  We asked:  can you really teach someone how to teach?  We talked about techniques that worked for us and realised that what works for one teacher doesn't necessarily work for another.  One important thing we discussed, however was mentoring.

We questioned how anyone ever really learns to do anything.  For example we looked at simple things like learning how to drive a car, or learning how to cook.  We came up with 4 statements that today still hang on the wall of my room.

I do, You watch
I do, You help
You do, I help
You do, I watch

As an IT teacher, one of the things I'm responsible for is also developing the IT skills of the teachers, as well as the students.  In my previous schools I did this by giving the homeroom teachers the responsibility for leading the IT in one unit of inquiry per year, with me supporting them in this.  Once they had taken on one unit, the following year they could take on another one.  Sometimes all the teachers in one grade decided to lead the same unit, sometimes they decided to lead different units.  Next year, in my current school, we are starting a new model of mentoring using the SAMR model.

This year it has mostly been a case of attending the collaborative planning meetings and deciding what IT will support the unit, then me leading the lessons and the homeroom teacher watching and helping the students.  We've had a whole year of this and now we are definitely ready to move onto the second step of the teachers leading the lessons and me helping them.  We have decided that all teachers will lead the S (substitution) activities and that they will lead the A(augmentation) with our support.  We will still lead the M (modification) and R (redefinition).  This means that they will most likely be leading some IT in every unit of inquiry and the IT teachers will be leading the rest.  I'm thinking that this will be another way of mentoring the teachers and encouraging them all to move forward on their learning journeys.

Mentors in international schools are needed in another way too.  When you first arrive in a new and strange country feelings of helplessness can be overwhelming.  I remember that even simple things like opening a bank account or getting an internet connection can be exhausting if you don't know what you are doing or which are the right papers you have to have.  It's very depressing to go home to an empty apartment while you are waiting for your shipment to arrive.  It's really hard to wander around the supermarket looking for familiar ingredients and not being able to read what is in the tins.  Last year it took me 4 months to realise that I actually needed to get a TV licence - even though we don't have a TV - because I have a radio in my car.  Apparently the fine for not having this piece of paper in Switzerland is very large!  This year we are starting a mentor system for our new teachers too - and hopefully they will find their transition here much easier than we did when we arrived and perhaps avoid the very low dip into culture shock that we experienced.  We have discovered that it is hard to be a good "new " teacher - even if you are a very experienced teacher in your own country - if you are worried about child care, finding a doctor or how to pay your bills.  We have realised that our new teachers need mentors, not just to help them with the academics, but to get them through all the social issues they face as well.

Photo Credit:  Loose Ties by CharlesFred

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Thank you Google

I'm so excited today - I just heard that I've been selected to participate in the first ever Google Teacher Academy in the UK next month.  This is also the first Google Teacher Academy focused exclusively on educational leaders and is designed to help K-12 educators get the most from innovative technologies.  Upon completion, Academy participants become Google Certified Teachers who share what they learn with other K-12 educators in their local regions and beyond.  This is what the press release says:
Google Certified Teachers are exceptional K-12 educators with a passion for using innovative tools to improve teaching and learning, as well as creative leaders and ambassadors for change. They are recognized experts and widely admired for their commitment to high expectations for students, life-long learning and collaboration.
I'm totally in awe about this, and have hardly been able to sit still since I received the email this morning.  On the Google for Educators website it states:

Google Certified Teachers are:
  • Exceptional educators with a passion for using innovative tools to improve teaching and learning.
  • Creative leaders who understand their local needs and can spread innovation as a recognized expert.
  • Ambassadors for change who model high expectations, life-long learning, collaboration, equity & inclusion, and innovation.
Google Certified Teachers are expected to:
  • Develop a "Personal Action Plan."
  • Lead at least three local professional development activities over the course of 12 months.
  • Successfully deploy one school on to Google Apps for Education.
  • Actively participate in the Google Certified Teacher Online Community.
  • Share the impact of their work with other Google Certified Teachers through an end-of-year reflection.

Everyone who knows me knows I'm passionate about professional development, and when I read what GCTs are expected to do I'm excited that I will become part of a community dedicated to developing other teachers and promoting Google Apps for Education in my own school.

So at the end of what has been a quite a difficult year for me, moving to a new continent, teaching at a new school, facing adjustment issues from my family and so on, I am feeling positive about next year and I'm starting to think that the move we made to Switzerland may just have been the right one after all.

Thanks to Doug Belshaw for his blog post which put this whole train of events into motion.

The Pleasant Life, The Good Life and the Meaning of Life

OK, I'm now as far as the chapter on Meaning in Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind.  Part of this chapter deals with what makes us happy.  Not surprisingly we are happy when we are engaged in satisfying work, avoiding negative events and emotions and being in a meaningful relationship with a rich social network.

The first rung on the happiness ladder is the Pleasant Life - here people have positive emotions about the past, present and future.  Higher up the ladder is what is called the Good Life - this enhanced feeling of happiness comes from using your strengths and all the things you are good at to achieve satisfaction with your life.  This is how some people refer to teaching (and other jobs) when they talk about it being a vocation or a calling.  When we feel like this about our work we are getting satisfaction from the work itself, not for the material or financial benefits it brings.  Finally, at the highest level of all is Meaning - going beyond yourself and using your strengths and abilities for something larger than you are, or in the words of the mission statement of my old school:
to inspire and empower each student to pursue individual excellence and to enrich the world
Dan Pink talks about the 20-10 test.  He asks, would you still be doing what you are doing now if you had $20 million in the bank, or knew you had no more than 10 years still to live?  If your answer is yes, then obviously you have found the meaning in your life.

Photo Credit:  Life is Good by Bob Formal

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Techie Breakie Session 7 - The Final

Today was the final Techie Breakie of the year.  Although I wanted to introduce the team to Dropbox, I also wanted to reflect on where we had come with our Techie Breakies, to ask for feedback on what had been most useful and what had been least useful and to discuss where we go from here.

I'd already sent the group the link to Dropbox yesterday so that they could set up an account.  They all immediately saw the uses of this for themselves and for organising, sharing and backing up their own files, music, photos and so on.  At the end of the session our Kindergarten teacher, Emily, immediately invited the rest of her team to Dropbox.

Everyone said they had discovered a lot of new tools that they didn't know about before.  They asked for help in using these with the students in their classes.  A common issue raised was the lack of time to really play with these tools and to see how they could be used for teaching and learning.  I mentioned the 15 minute rule I had read about over the past week - giving yourself just 15 minutes a day for 3 days to play with a new tool to see if it was something that could be useful.  On the other hand I also read a blog post that said the lack of time is a poor excuse - after all we don't accept that excuse from students who don't do their work!

Next year, we decided, it would be good to start the Techie Breakies again with a new group of teachers - the aim would be then have 2 teachers in each grade level using these tools and suggesting them to others at their planning meetings.  One of our group, Rebecca, also set herself a goal for next year:
My goal for next year is to start blogging, personally and for the new grade I'll be teaching.
All in all I think our Techie Breakies were successful and I would definitely like to continue with them next school year.

Playing Games

Back in January I first wrote a blog post about the concept of play.  In March, when I went to the Apple Education Leadership Summit I attended a presentation about the New York school Quest 2 Learn which uses the design principles of games to create a game-like learning experience for students.  I was intrigued with this idea at the time, but have only recently started to look a little deeper into it.  Then this week I had a Kindergarten class who asked if they could play the number bonds game Save the Whale for their last lesson and I started thinking again more seriously about the benefits of learning through play or games.

Quest 2 Learn uses games to enable students to "become" historians, explorers, mathematicians and so on in different worlds.  The games are "rule-based learning systems" and the players cannot learn passively as they have to seek knowledge, use strategic thinking, make choices, work in collaborative teams to interact and solve problems, consider other's viewpoints and - what I have seen is very important in games - they receive immediate and constant feedback about how they are doing.  

Dan Pink talks about play in his Whole New Mind book too - it's another of the aptitudes essential in the Conceptual Age (along with design, story and symphony that I have written about earlier).  In this chapter Dan writes "people rarely succeed at anything unless they are having fun doing it" - which reminds me of the whole Thai idea of "sanuk" (having fun).  Thai people love to have fun - sanuk is really important in their everyday life and it is also very social as it happens with other people.  Thai people are far more likely to ask you if something you have done was fun, than if something you have done was successful.

When I read Dan's chapter on play I learned a lot of things about computer games.  For example:
  • half of all Americans over 6 play computer and video games - on average 75 hours a year (which is more time than they spend watching DVDs/videos)
  • more than 40% of game players are women
  • the video game business is larger than the motion picture industry
  • games take between 50 - 100 hours to master (roughly the length of a college semester!)
Why is gaming such a powerful form of learning?  James Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin says it's because "learning isn't about memorizing isolated facts.  It's about connecting and manipulating them".  Studies have shown that gaming increases visual perception, the ability to recognize patterns and detect changes and the capacity to process information simultaneously.

My most recent experience with games was the Coffee Shop Game, which I wrote about in a previous blog post.  Our 4th Grade students played this game to buy and sell ingredients to make coffee, decide on the recipe and fix a price.  The idea of the game was to make the most money by deciding how much stock to buy each day, coming up with a tasty coffee recipe and setting the price to take account of supply and demand.  When they later set up their own trading fair at school to sell products they had made or services they could offer - which ranged from homemade bookmarks to mohawk hair styles - they used these understandings to run a small business for other students and to make a profit that could be used to buy supplies for the class.  It was a very successful activity, more so because the students had already had the experience of a "trial run" of setting up a business through the game they played at the start of the unit.  

So this summer I'm going to do a little more research - and see what online games I can find to try to deepen the students understanding and to enhance their learning.

Photo Credit:  Starting the game by Nico Carvallotto

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Story and Symphony

People who follow my posts will know that a few weeks ago I attended a workshop at Munich International School with keynotes from Daniel Pink and Jason Ohler. Since being back at school I've been dipping into books written by both.

Jason says "I know only one thing for certain about the technologies that await us in the future: we will find ways to tell stories with them." He says that we all need stories as they enable us to "take snippets of life and put them together in ways that make it possible for us to learn and remember new things." Dan says the same thing - he says that stories are how we remember and that "most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories." Our students, who live in an oral and digital world, are mostly confronted with print in our classrooms - a lot of their days are spent reading and passively consuming. Digital storytelling allows them to be creative and develop skills that can be transferred to solve problems in creative ways. It also encourages them to think critically about the persuasive powers of the media they are consuming.

Digital storytelling can be used in just about any subject in school, yet it often isn't seen as important as, for example, writing reports that just give the facts. In the first half of the year I was using Excel to show the Grade 7 students how they could graph the data collected from their science experiments and add these into their lab reports. Very dry and for the students very boring I'm sure. But by turning this around and making the students the teacher, having them use Web 2.0 tools to create something that would show a younger student how to use Excel, we had some amazing results. The students really cared about their presentations, the design of them, how to get their message across. Dan calls this "context enriched by emotion." He also says "story represents a pathway to understanding that doesn't run through the left side of the brain."

Story, therefore, is the second of the six aptitudes we will need in the Conceptual Age. Symphony is the third. Symphony is all about relationships and connections. Dan talks about boundary crossers - people who can operate in very different areas. He says the most creative and innovative people are those who see relationships that most of the rest never even notice and who can therefore combine existing ideas in new ways. It's also about seeing the big picture, for example the composer who can put all the individual instruments of the orchestra together in order to create beautiful music. And perhaps it's also the teacher who can see all the individual strengths of the children in the class, and can therefore pull them all together in a way that makes learning relevant and interesting for each and every one of them.

Photo Credit: Symphony by True2source

Friday, June 18, 2010


Today was my last MYP Technology lesson with the Grade 7 students. As this year I've moved away from information technology towards design technology with our Grade 7s, I have been thinking quite a bit about design recently.

I read a blog post by Kelly Tenkely today where she discusses the link between critical thinking and design thinking. Kelly says:
I believe that we are losing students as critical thinkers because in our current model of education, where we are standardizing education with tests, we teach kids that there is one correct answer to every question. We limit their thinking to what we have already determined is an acceptable answer to the question. This is extremely limiting. Critical thinking means that we aren’t satisfied with the easy answer, we think about multiple solutions to the problem and even think of additional questions. We approach a problem differently, more creatively.
Kelly uses Tim Brown's TED Talk to explore the links and similarities between design thinking and critical thinking. Tim talks about the differences between design and design thinking and urges us to focus less on the object of the design and more on applying design thinking as a new way of tackling problems and creating new solutions to issues such as global warming, health care, clean water and so on. Design thinking is human centred and involves participation and the active engagement of the people involved to explore new solutions and ideas to make their experience better.

This week I've also been reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. I'm right at the part where Dan is explaining that today, in what he terms the Conceptual Age, we need to develop more right-brain aptitudes - one of which is design. Although Dan is more focused on the design, rather than the design thinking, he does quote from John Heskett when explaining that design is "the human nature to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives." He talks about design being both useful and significant and about how design is a means of differentiation and a way to create new markets. For example almost every week we get flyers in our mailbox from a discount store advertising mobile phones and other similar devices. Most of them are very similar in what they can actually do (make calls, send messages etc) and most are a fairly similar price too - therefore the only thing that really distinguishes one from the other is design. And even though people may choose their phone because of the design, they continue to spend more money on other nonfuctional but decorative items such as ring tones and faceplates. Another example about creating a new market is that 6 months ago the iPad did not exist - nobody thought they needed one or were missing out if they didn't have one - but now there is a whole new market for iPads - they are seen as useful and beautiful and a way of getting a different experience out of, for instance, browsing the internet or reading a novel.

Later on in the chapter, Dan talks about design as being the "activity of creating solutions", which seems more in line with the design thinking mentioned earlier. For our students, design will continue to be increasingly important in their future as "to be a designer is to be an agent of change".

This brings me full circle: our students need to develop their creativity and critical thinking and need to be able to come up with many answers and solutions to the problems we pose them. I have now had 6 groups of Grade 7 students on Friday afternoons who have designed and flown their own kites. Some kites have been big, some have been small, some have been traditional kite shapes, some have been very odd shapes indeed, but all of the students who have created these kites have had to think in a very different way than they do in most lessons as there are no "right" answers, and what they have seen is that there are many different ways to make a kite, many different materials that work well and many different shapes that will fly. Above all they have learnt to be risk-takers, to try things out, to see what works and doesn't work, to modify their designs in the light of these early experiments and to keep on trying when the going gets tough. These lessons, I think, are the ones that will endure.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Learning German and English

Because I'm working in an international school in Switzerland, some of our students are learning German and some of them are learning English. This week I went into some Grade 1 lessons - they were making apple cakes. I took photographs of what they were doing and then they wrote down the procedures they followed in order to make the cakes and we recorded what they said using VoiceThread. The students spoke in either English or German to practice their vocabulary. The end result was excellent - the apple pies were good too.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

First thoughts about using the iPad with my students

OK, so I've only had the iPad for 3 days but here are my first impressions:

On Thursday night I was very excited. I rushed home, unpacked the box and switched it on. I loved the size, I loved the touch screen and everything was working fine. I hooked it up to my wireless network at home and went to the App Store to download some apps for trying out with the students on Friday. My first thoughts based on the visit to the App Store were that it was not very easy to search for apps that would be good for different age groups in primary. I went to Education and found 880 apps which I then sorted into most popular, but these were not sorted into either subject or age range, though when I searched for Kindergarten I did get to 6 apps designed for this age group and when I searched for Elementary I got to 3 apps (all maths). I installed several of these apps to try out with the students.

I then went to Reference and again searched using most popular. Some of these apps would be very useful for me (for example the Swiss Phone Book) but not very useful for me to use in class with my students. I found a translator and dictionary that looked good and went ahead and installed those. I went to the Books category and installed iBooks and Kindle. Then I went ahead and got a book to try to see if I would like reading on the iPad as much as reading a "real" book.

What I have learnt from this: I need to have some suggestions of apps that are good to use with primary students. Searching around and trying out different apps is very time consuming.

On Friday I took the iPad into school. I was teaching two classes of Grade 2s in the morning and when the students had finished what they had to do on the computers, I asked them to try out the iPad and some of the apps I had installed. The most popular one I noticed was RushHour. I deliberately didn't give any instructions on how to use the iPad to the students, I just wanted to observe what they were doing. Generally I found they worked well together, shared and took turns. If one of them didn't know what to do, the others helped and made suggestions. Every single student was successful using the touch screen.

On Friday afternoon I had MYP Technology with Grade 7 students all afternoon. As soon as the students walked into the room they saw the iPad and asked if they could use it. Since some of the students had been away on the past couple of Fridays doing sports activities, they had missed the investigation and designing of kites. I therefore asked these students to go and sit on the couch with the iPad and to search YouTube for some movies on kite making that would help them decide what they wanted to make. They tried out various positions such as holding the iPad in their hands, putting it on their laps and so on but the favourite position seemed to be reclining with their knees up and the iPad propped up against them. Other students wanted to use it too. I asked them to search for some useful apps in the App Store. They came up with an app about the planets, a graphing app, one that showed historical maps, and a graphic calculator, all of which they installed on the iPad.

After school I went to the library to have a chat with our librarian. On the way there I met a teacher who noticed I was carrying the iPad who asked if she could "touch" it. I handed it to her and asked her to try it out. Earlier this year, one of the other IT teachers had shown her an app for the iPod Touch where students could practice telling the time. Her reaction to that had been that she thought the screen on the iPod was too small - however she was very happy with the size of the iPad and definitely wanted to try it out. She asked about typing and having it in a comfortable position for both her hands and eyes. She asked about balancing it on her knee of having it flat on a desk while working. However as we were in the library she sat down on a bench and put up one knee and used it that way. "Wow!" she said, "It sticks to my trousers!" Another happy customer!!

On Friday evening I went to visit a Kindergarten teacher. We spent some time looking for more apps for her students and I am going to give her the iPad to use with her class on Monday. I'm interested to see how the students get on with the apps we have installed.

For myself I have found that using the iPad to read a book or to surf the internet is relatively easy if I'm sitting down with one leg crossed over the other. It doesn't work trying to sit upright with it balanced on my knee. I find I'm reading a lot in landscape view, but when I read a book I turn the iPad round into portrait - though perhaps this is because that's the way I'm used to reading the internet on my computer and how I'm used to reading a book page by page. I like the touch screen and I like the way you can pinch to make things larger. Typing is more challenging for me, however (hence I am writing this blog post on my MacBook Pro). It feels very odd trying to type - perhaps because I am still trying to use all my fingers. When I am just using my index fingers it feels better (but of course it's much slower!) I'm still trying to find a good position to type in. Putting the iPad onto a table and trying to type definitely doesn't work!

So, does anyone have any advice for me, any apps that work well with primary and middle schoolers? If so please leave a comment. Thanks!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Connected Learning is Priceless

Today I came across this YouTube movie by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano. A year and a half when she posted this video to YouTube I was living in Bangkok and had never heard of her. I didn't write a blog and the only teachers I really connected with were those in my school, my previous school and teachers in other schools in Bangkok whom I met sporadically at Job Alikes and conferences.

A year and a half later I am in Switzerland and my students have skyped with students in Silvia's school in Florida, as well as with many other classes around the world. They have created blogs and wikis which they share with other students in their class and school. They have made VoiceThreads to share their learning with students around the world. They have made a Google Earth tour and have worked with a whole variety of Web 2.0 tools to show their learning. As Silvia says, the experience they have had is priceless.

How quickly our lives have changed! Once I used to have to wait my turn for PD, perhaps to go to a conference or to visit another school. Now every day I connect with educators worldwide who share resources and ideas. And if I have an idea and I want some feedback on this idea I get it in minutes from teachers around the world who make suggestions and share what has worked for them. The learning I have experienced as a connected teacher is priceless too.

I was reading a post on Facebook last week from an old colleague. She said: when time is spent it is gone forever. So as I reflect on my first year in Switzerland I would like to think I have spent my time well, and that for some of my students the experiences they have had connecting with others will remain with them forever.

Photo Credit: Bound by Domiriel

Techie Breakie Session 6

Our Techie Breakie this week was about social bookmarking and tagging. I wanted to show our teachers Delicious, Diigo and Evernote, all of which I thought would be useful tools for them to use both to organise their own bookmarks and, for those working with the older primary students, for the teachers to help the students organise their inquiries.

As we are drawing close to the end of our school year - with just two more weeks to go - there will probably only be time for one more Techie Breakie this year. I'm thinking of introducing DropBox, and would also like to touch on how our teachers could use podcasts and movies.

When I started Techie Breakies, my hope was that this group of teachers would be able to be the first point of contact in each grade level for their team, to encourage the integration of technology in the classroom. Of course what has actually happened is that some of the teachers have moved grade level, or in one case has actually moved out of the classroom altogether and become the Early Years librarian. We therefore have one of our team still in Kindergarten, two moving from Grade 2 and Grade 4 into Grade 1, and one moving from Grade 5 into Grade 3. This means that some grades will have more than one mentor (Grades 1 and Grades 3) but some grades won't have anyone (Grades 1, 4 and 5). I guess next year it will be time to start the process all over again, though I am excited that in Grades 1 and 3 - both of which I will be supporting for IT - we will have a solid team of teachers interested in moving forward with the technology and able to help the others in their teams too.

Award Ceremonies

In the past week I have been to two award ceremonies: graduation which also included the secondary awards and prizes and a sports awards evening. At both these ceremonies there were a lot of proud students and a lot of proud parents, as well as students who hoped for recognition and were disappointed. The same was true last year when I attended my son's graduation at a different school.

Last year I remember discussing the choice of valedictorian with my son and a couple of his friends after the ceremony. The student who made the speech was definitely the student who was expected to gain the highest IB score - after all she had got a perfect score on her MYP just 2 years earlier. She had certainly worked hard over the 2 years of the IB diploma course. My son, however, argued that there were two other students who, in his opinion, deserved this title more. Both were also extremely hard working and exceptionally bright and were expected to do well. These students, however, were also more "balanced" - they had been involved in various sports teams, in community service, in school plays, house activities and so on - they had both added something to the school community rather than just using the school as a place for furthering their studies. Since balanced is one of the attributes of the IB learner profile, my son argued that the valedictorian should not just be measured on knowledge/grades alone. I have to say I agreed with him.

Yesterday I read a blog post called Death of an Awards Ceremony by Chris Wejr. Chris tells how his school has abolished the awards part of the end of year celebrations as his school's goals are to celebrate each student's talents and areas they excel in, rather than just to recognise the top academic or sporting students. In keeping with a lot of what I have been reading recently about motivation, Chris says that striving for excellent grades is extrinsic motivation, whereas focusing on the learning is intrinsic motivation. Awards ceremonies focus on the final grades, not the learning that has been going on and awards can act as demotivators to accepting challenges and taking risks (risk-taker being another attribute of the IB learner profile).

One of the things I have loved about working in an IB world school is what happens at the end of the PYP and MYP - the PYP Exhibition and the MYP Personal Project where every student is involved and their work is celebrated. I am always amazed to see what has sparked the interest of our students and what they have come up with as a result of their interests and ideas. Recently attending the Grade 10 personal project evening I was able to enjoy the achievements of a student who had learned to hang glide, a student who decided to train a horse, a student who made jewelry out of recycled materials and a student who had traced back her family tree. At our PYP Exhibition I learned about homelessness in Switzerland, the problems of smoking and how hard it is to give up, environmental issues and children's rights. Both these events allowed each and every student to shine in the areas they were interested in.

So for me, while it was good to celebrate the achievements this past week of some of our brightest students and some who had excelled at sports, I think there are better ways of recognising the achievements of all our students. I certainly agree with Chris Wejr when he asks: Why do we present awards to certain students? What does this do to help learning in schools?

Photo Credit: World's Best by Martin Deutsch

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Being stung by social media in education

I have had a lot of conversations this week with friends and colleagues about the benefits and the dangers of social media in education. I'm putting this blog post out basically because I want to hear from other educators about how they deal with some of these issues. As most people who know me will confirm, I'm a great fan of social media as a way of building and connecting with a PLN. I have promoted various forms of social media at the Techie Breakies I have been running. However, recently I have seen an uglier side of social media in education.

The first problem that I was asked to help with happened last year. A friend of mine called me to ask for help because the students at her school had made a Facebook group about her. Actually the first students who were involved with this wrote complementary things about her, but then other students joined in and wrote things that were both not pleasant and not true. Another teacher at her school had found this group and had told her about it. She had tried speaking to her administration about it, but found that she wasn't getting the sort of help and support she expected - at times she was made to feel that some of the comments on there were actually her fault and since it happened "outside of school", the admin was not really prepared to deal with it (despite the fact that the photo posted of her had been taken from the school website). Sadly, this lack of support was one reason that she decided to resign from her job, however she was then worried that if she applied to other schools they would also be able to find and read the comments on this page. She spoke to the students and explained to them that the comments needed to be removed. This was mostly done, but she was unable to contact two of the students who had already left school and were living in different countries. She tried to report the page to Facebook, but several weeks later it hadn't been removed. She tried to report it again and just got a message saying that she had already reported it. Months later, the page has not been removed, and she has not yet applied for another job as she feels too vulnerable. Over the past few months I have seen this very professional and competent teacher reach rock bottom as a result of the bullying she has experienced from these students. I am concerned that the students felt it was OK to post such comments - which to me indicates that the education these students had received about the issue of cyberbullying and the use of social media sites had been lacking. If these students had written these comments up, for example, on the walls of the school, or the local bus station, would the response from administration have been different? And how about if the comments had been about the school, instead of about an individual teacher?

As a parent of teenagers I have always asked them to think before they post on a public forum. Universities and future employers commonly Google people's names. I have talked to my children about privacy settings and security. I have also talked to them about respect. For example I would not find it acceptable to walk into my daughter's bedroom, rummage through her desk and read her diary. I would not expect her to open and read private letters addressed to me. Because we have a mutual trust and respect, we can leave things lying around at home and not have to worry that one of us will invade the other's privacy. The problem I have found with social media, however, is that your personal information is only as private as your friends allow it to be. Our daughter has no control over what people write about her, or photos they post with her in them. At a previous school, a student took a photo at a school event of a teacher chasing another one around (it was part of a skit) and then posted it on Facebook in one of his albums with a comment about the teacher in the photo being gay. The teacher was not a "friend" of the student on Facebook and initially had no idea that the comment and photo was there for a large part of the school population to see.

Another issue that I've heard about in a couple of schools is that of parents Googling the names of teachers and finding things that these teachers have written, for example on Twitter. These comments are mostly taken out of context, however parents have got upset about them. Despite the fact that some of these posts are from people who protected their tweets, it is still possible to jump around through accounts of people who have not protected their tweets and see what those teachers have written. Again I think this is a question of respect. Would the same parents find it acceptable to go through unlocked filing cabinets in that teacher's classroom to see what they could find there? If they found the teacher's mobile phone, would they think it was OK to read the messages on it? If there is no respect of teachers' privacy then teachers will also resort to doing things in order to protect themselves - for example removing their photo or coming up with very obscure names that nobody would be likely to trace.

So now I'm back to what I should be doing and telling my own colleagues at these Techie Breakies. Should I tell them not to post their photos on Twitter? Should I tell them not to put their names on their tweets? Should I tell them to protect their accounts? Should I be telling them to hide? In that case who will ever want to become a member of their PLN? And even more important, should I also be talking with the admin about how they would respond to all this?

Photo Credit: This photo was taken by my daughter Rachel

Friday, June 4, 2010

Modelling the IB Learner Profile

The IB Learner profile describes the type of learner that the IB hopes to develop through its programmes. Originally the learner profile was part of the PYP and was known as the student profile, though it later became adopted by all 3 IB programmes. At that point the focus changed so that it was not just for students:

The IB learner profile is the IB mission statement translated into a set of learning outcomes for the 21st century. The attributes of the profile express the values inherent to the IB continuum of international education: these are values that should infuse all elements of the Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme and, therefore, the culture and ethos of all IB World Schools. The learner profile provides a long-term vision of education. It is a set of ideals that can inspire, motivate and focus the work of schools and teachers, uniting them in a common purpose.

One interesting aspect of the IB Learner profile is that it applies to everyone involved in the IB programmes (students, teachers and administrators), as the IB recognises that we are all part of a community of lifelong learners and the learner profile should be the shared vision of all involved in creating the learning environment of the school. The IB also promotes international mindedness and the learner profile is seen as a way of aspiring to this. How successful a school will be in promoting the learner profile mostly depends on the values, culture and ethos of the school. The learner profile should be apparent in each classroom, forming the basis of teaching and learning, and in addition should also be seen in the daily life, management and leadership of the school:

Individual teachers, faculty groups, school administrators and school governors should ask themselves “To what extent do our philosophy, our school structures and systems, our curriculum and units of work enable students, and the adults who implement the programmes, to develop into the learner described in the profile?”

Our staff meeting on Wednesday was different from the usual pattern - our task was to walk around the school in groups visiting the rooms of each teacher in our group to look at what was on display. In our school the learner profile is displayed in every room, and it looks slightly different in every room. In my computer lab I have tried to show what each aspect of the learner profile means for students using technology:

Inquirers: We are curious about new things and we like learning new skills

Knowledgeable: We know how to use the equipment safely and why we have rules in IT

Thinkers: We think carefully about decisions we make using the computers and we are problem-solvers.

Communicators: We share our ideas with others respectfully, using different media and tools.

Principled: We always cite the sources of our work and the pictures we use in our projects.

Open-Minded: In IT we listen to others and we respect their ideas and abilities.

Caring: We try to help others and we are careful with the equipment and materials

Risk Takers: We have the confidence to try new things in IT

Balanced: We know how to use the computers and other equipment for work and play.

Reflective: We think about our skills in IT. We know when we have done well and when we could have done better.

As a teacher I'm conscious that I need to model the behaviours I would like to see in my students. I am always interested to try out new ideas and love doing things in different ways. Today in my MYP technology class I had another group of students who were making kites. At one point the students needed to calculate how much plastic they needed to have for making the sails of the kites and one student asked me if it was OK for him to use the calculator on his phone to work this out. I was amazed he asked this, since as a technology teacher I would always encourage the use of any technology the students might have. I was surprised to find that phones and the applications on them are banned in most lessons.

I then started thinking about what the learner profile would look like for administrators. Are they open-minded, for example, to the new ways that students can use the technology that they have in their pockets? Are they good communicators, working effectively and willingly in collaboration with others? Are they caring and supportive, showing empathy and respect towards the needs and feelings of others? Are they risk-takers, exploring new roles, ideas and strategies and are they brave and articulate in defending their beliefs? Above all, what I really want in an administrator is someone who is principled - someone who acts with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of others. This is exactly what the IB learner profile expects of our students, and we as adults in the school have to model this too.

Photo Credit: These photos were taken by my daughter, Rachel

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Five Minds

Earlier this week I wrote a post about bringing two minds, or in this case IT and Library, two areas of the school, together. Today I had a day off school as it is a public holiday here in Switzerland, and I started to do a general tidy up - finishing off writing up the IT integration curriculum documents I started earlier this year and also sorting out some of the things lying around on the desktop of my computer and putting them into folders. While I was doing this I came across a list of professional books that I would like to read, and a graphic based on one of these books, Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. I therefore decided to have a look and see what I could find out about these five minds.

About two years ago, Howard Gardner came to Switzerland and spoke at the International School of Geneva about these five minds:

The Disciplined Mind - Howard Gardner talked about 3 types of discipline: regular and steady practice in order to improve on things, mastering different disciplines or different ways of thinking, and becoming an expert in one thing. He said that if you are not an expert you will either not be able to find work, or you will end up working for someone else who is an expert, as in the knowledge age expertise is the only thing that has value. He makes a clear distinction between subject matter (information and facts which can be passed on to people) and disciplined thinking which is the way that historians, or artists or scientists approach their work. Gardner says it is the responsibility of schools to encourage disciplinary thinking in order for students to make sense of the world.

The Synthesizing Mind - is very necessary today because we are all inundated with information and it is therefore important to be able to put all this information together in ways that make sense to you. It's also important to be able to communicate this synthesized knowledge to others.

The Creative Mind - Gardner says that being creative is coming up with new ideas that eventually get accepted. If something gets accepted right away it's probably not creative. Creative people and their works change the way people think and behave. He also says that you cannot be creative unless you have mastered one discipline. Interestingly he also goes on to say that personality is as important as cognitive powers in the area of creativity as people who are truly creative are risk-takers and not afraid to fail as they can learn from their mistakes. He spoke about how schools sometimes kill creativity by insisting that there is only one right answer.

The Respectful Mind - This is important because of the great diversity of people in the world - they think differently, look different, have different values and beliefs. For the future it's important to understand different people and their points of view.

The Ethical Mind - asks questions about how we should behave and what our responsibilities are. The ethical mind is not just about thinking, but about action - how we fulfil our responsibilities. Howard Gardner talks about the three Es - excellence, engagement and ethics and he mentions that they don't always co-exist, though the challenge is to intertwine them all. Unfortunately many young people have a problem with ethics and say that to be successful in the world today you have to compromise your values. He quotes from Martin Luther King Jr who said "Intelligence plus character - that's the goal of education" and says that of these character is actually the most important. He said we don't need more people who are better and brighter, but we do need more people who have good characters.

So I'm off to Amazon to order the book now. I hope I can get a group of people together who want to read it with me next school year.

Photo Credit: Catching the Rain by Pandiyan

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Meetings in One - A Meeting of Two Minds

Last week we were supposed to have an IT meeting where we looked at our vision for the future of technology in our school - the aim of this was to lay the groundwork for writing up an IT vision for the next three years.  For various reasons connected with teacher absence at school this meeting did not go ahead.  Instead a meeting that was scheduled for this week between IT and Library to discuss the future of these two departments was expanded to include the IT vision.  At today's meeting were the two librarians, the two IT teachers and three members of the administration.

Much of the first part of the meeting was spent discussing where we were at the beginning of this school year, where we are now and how we have moved and made progress during this school year.  It was only after each of us had talked about where we had come from that we started to discuss where we were going.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, I've had several discussions this year with our librarian and with various members of the administration about merging the Library and IT departments into one.  The teachers in both departments agree that our roles have changed in recent years because the whole nature of finding information, viewing it, validating it and communicating it has changed so much.  We have seen that our roles currently overlap in many key areas and that it would be good to work together on the digital literacy skills our students will need for the future.  There are some areas of difference - for example literature appreciation is taught in the library, e-safety is taught in IT - but in general we are moving along parallel paths and therefore would benefit from closer planning.

Back in November I had been involved in a strategic planning meeting about IT.  At the time it was impossible for me to come up with a single vision for IT, instead I drew up a vision for the teaching and learning, for IT professional development without which teachers would find it hard to move forward, for staffing and the provision of technical support, for purchasing additional hardware and software and for using IT for interacting with our entire school community.  As I've been thinking about drawing up a three year plan, I've returned to that original vision and have been asking what we need to do to bring that vision to reality.

For me the main themes when thinking about the future of IT in teaching and learning involve embedding the technology into the curriculum in an authentic and meaningful way, using IT to help differentiate learning and giving students a choice in how they learn and how they show their learning.  In a PYP school this involves using IT to promote the transdisciplinary skills (thinking skills, communication skills, social skills, research skills and self-management skills).  I did a bit of reading around the future of technology last week, looking again at the Futurelab report Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum as well as looking at the British National Curriculum for ICT and the ISTE standards for students.  What I wanted to do was to see how each of these fit with the PYP transdisciplinary skills.  I drew up a table so that I could see the similarities and differences:

Everything that I had read pointed to the fact that our roles as teachers are changing - we are shifting to become  facilitators, coaches or even a co-learners to guide students' explorations and inquiries and as a result of this teachers need to focus less on acquiring technology skills themselves and more on the role the technology can play in improving student learning.  In addition I have always believed it is important to give students the choice of using a variety of technologies to support their work.  Teachers, therefore, need to be happy with the idea that learning won't look the same for all students.

We also discussed how we could encourage our teachers to integrate technology and transform learning over a 3 year period.  Clearly ongoing support is what is needed, not just a couple of in-service days a year where we have teachers learn things like iMovie or GarageBand out of context.  We discussed how we could actually assess the level of technology integration using the LoTi levels and the Technology Integration Matrix.  I also suggested that it would be useful to have an all school committee set up that could meet perhaps three times a year to discuss future plans - such a committee could be made up of administrators, tech support, teachers from primary, middle and secondary school, students from primary, middle and secondary school and parents, so that each could contribute from his or her own perspective and suggest ways for moving forward.

Clearly technology will only be used effectively if it is supported by staff professional development and in-service opportunities that are explicitly linked to student learning.  We had a look at the ISTE educational technology standards for teachers and for administrators and agreed that staff development is the key to integrating technology.  In particular we talked about how teachers need time to develop their pedagogy as well as their IT skills.

Recent years have seen the purchase of a lot of new hardware:  IWBs, laptops, document cameras, digital cameras, proscopes and so on.  We felt it was important to make sure that there is adequate technical support for these new purchases and that staffing needs should be taken into account as part of any plans to purchase new hardware or software.  We do need more technical support, and we also need to make sure that when teachers are recruited one criteria should be that these teachers are open to innovation and are capable of applying technology effectively and adapting it into their teaching strategies.

At the end of this long meeting - over two hours - I have to say I did feel a little disappointed.  I felt that there had been a lot of talk about where were were at the beginning of the year and how we had managed to get to the place we are now, but I felt that more time should actually have been spent planning where we are going to go in the future.  However I am telling myself this is just a start.  Both the library and IT teachers are looking in the same direction and saying the same things.  It's truly a case of two monologues coming together to produce a dialogue.

Photo Credit:  from the set Hey Teachers Leave Those Kids Alone by FotoRita