Why we’re paying for Ning

It’s Inquiry Week for our Year 8 students, and we are using a Ning to support the students to communicate and archive evidence of their research. We collapse curriculum for a week, and allow our students to investigate in groups a topic in depth around the idea of Triumph over Adversity. We first used a Ning two years ago, when they were free for educators and it was a dynamic learning environment then. What was great was that our students could form groups within the space and use the chat function at night to help them organise themselves for the next day. Last year, after Ning started charging for the service, we looked for an alternative. We used Wall.fm, but it was fraught with problems that I outlined in a post and not something I would use again. One of the stumbling blocks last year was the price Ning charges for a network that includes groups and chat. At the time, we felt that the $200 outlay was too expensive.

This year, our Head of Year 8 really wanted to run a paperless inquiry week. We had a wiki we used last year for the inquiry week, and we added pages that incorporated what the students would formerly receive in booklet form. When we discussed an online environment to support the project, I recommended that we bite the bullet and outlay what is now a $239.00 a year cost to run a Ning that has the features we needed; in particular, groups and chat.

I’m glad we did. I spent time last week in classes explaining the Ning environment and making sure the students were signed up so that we could hit the ground running this week. Yesterday the students went on an excursion and were asked to post a reply to a discussion prompt in the evening. Over half of them got something up last night, and those who didn’t were busily posting this morning. What has been amazing is watching it develop during today and this evening. Groups are formed, and the students have posted their topics and guiding questions within these spaces. This afternoon’s discussion prompt has seen over 100 replies this evening. These are from students, detailing what has inspired them about their topic, and replies from teachers who are encouraging their efforts. The chat space has been used this evening, and i’ve been pleased to see students suggesting that they move to Google Docs to work on their planning for tomorrow. (There’s some transference happening : ) They used Google Docs earlier this year in a Humanities project) The Head of Year 8 sent me an email late this afternoon and said,

The Ning’s like some living organism!

Here’s a screenshot of part of the front page from earlier tonight.

It is most certainly a living organism. It’s providing focus, encouragement, and transparency to our learning environment this week. Even though I’d love to see the powers that be at Ning work more closely with education and provide better pricing, our financial outlay is already paying off. I can’t wait to what it’s hosting by the end of the week!

Liana’s second guest post – The Sustainable Table

Liana Gooch teaches at Toorak College with me and is one of the hardest working people I know. She was part of our PLP group and has really tried to embrace new technologies into her teaching practice. She holds the position of Academic Enhancement Coordinator, and goes out of her way to try to create interesting learnng opportunities for the students at our school. I asked Liana to share with you the inquiry project she ran at the end of last year with our Yr 8 students. It was called ‘The Sustainable Table’ and I can vouch for the fact that it had our students immersed in a learning experience in the final days of the school year (and we all know how hard it can be to hold their attention at that time, when reports are written and there are no assessment tasks to complete!). This is Liana’s second guest post; it’s wonderful having a colleague willing to share her work with others.

So, take it away Liana!

The Sustainable Table – creating a recipe for the future

It may not be so apparent but your dinner table is the reflection of how well you apply the sustainability of food resources.  Have you ever wondered how far that apple that you’re eating has travelled or felt guilty about the amount of food we waste?

The two questions above were just part of the collection of thoughts Year 8 students at Toorak College have considered over the last two years in the highly successful inquiry ‘What does the sustainable table look like’?

Motivated by the global food shortages and related price hikes in 2008 which saw desperate people in developing countries such as Haiti resort to rioting, we were keen to develop an inquiry which not only informed students but developed some practical strategies which they could apply to their own lives.  There were two key objectives of the inquiry:

– How can we shift our students’ awareness and understanding of sustainability as being a practice not just being observed at a global or national level, but one that can occur in their individual lives as simple as changing some of their practices in the kitchen?

– Just as important, how could we as teachers ensure our delivery of the concept of sustainability is both inspirational and engaging so that students would be keen to adopt these practices from a young age?

The answer came in the form of an inquiry which would culminate in a sustainable afternoon tea which would not only demonstrate the students’ understanding and application of sustainable cooking practices for their guests, but would create an innovative platform for them to inform the wider school community about their findings.

The inquiry involved a successful partnership between several disciplines – Food Technology, Humanities, English and Science.  In the past we had conducted many inquiries between English, Humanities and Science so it was exciting to bring Food Technology on board. We wanted a project which students could get their teeth into, and the work conducted on cooking sustainably in Food Technology classes proved a perfect stage to initiate the project, and then merge with the concept of sustainability from a Humanities perspective. Students had been working with Giselle Wilkinson’s book ‘The Conscious Cook’ which provided students with  a range of insightful and practical approaches, ideas and recipes to assist with becoming more sustainable in the kitchen.  Students have been extremely fortunate to have had Giselle Wilkinson present ideas about food sustainability in the launch of the inquiry. Students acquired formal writing skills in their English classes in the preparation of invitation for guests to attend a sustainable afternoon tea.  During the introduction, a Science teacher explored the idea of food wastage experienced from paddock to plate.

Blended through this project was the commitment to the Toorak Attributes in which students were developing and demonstrating the ability to become more Community minded and Communicative and Innovative in their inquiry work.

Running over two days, students were initially exposed to a variety of ideas which they would then explore through their own inquiry depending on their choice of topic.

  • There are different cultural attitudes towards the choices of food we make.
    • The choices of food and cooking methods we apply can have a huge environmental impact
    • There are some sustainable choices to be made related to cooking which can reduce their environmental footprint.
    • There are a number of issues related to social and environmental sustainability and food.
    • Individual small actions can still make a huge contribution to sustainability.

Some examples of topics explored by students were: genetically modified food, feeding the world, food miles, fair trade, animal rights, food waste, pesticides, water sustainability, greenhouse warming.

Students became enthused about their inquiry upon discovering what their task entailed over the two days:

  • The preparation of an annotated page of recipes for a recipe book to inform people about strategies to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle in the kitchen.
  • The creation of a placemat related to their inquiry to inform people about sustainability and food.
  • The organisation and preparation an afternoon tea which is composed of sustainable snacks made by the students.
  • Preparation of an oral presentation about aspects of their inquiry to their guests.
  • The development of an appreciation for sustainability.
  • The development of literacy and communicative skills.

The scope for developing leadership and communicative skills was enormous. Each group had to work industriously and creatively to not only inquire about their topic but also to prepare invitations, recipes, place mats, an oral presentation as well as a themed table setting (following a demonstration by the Food Technology teacher of some creative and innovative approaches). Careful consideration had to be taken in the selection of their materials used for their table setting and meals.

The morning of the afternoon tea saw students cooking up a storm of activity. The rooms were filled with an array of inquiry products receiving finishing touches, coloured serviettes, clattering trays, food goods being transported to kitchens, flower arrangements and fluttering tablecloths.

The fruits of the students’ labour could be seen in the form of some inspiring presentations and products created for their inquiry. A real sense of achievement was sensed as guests wandered around the room and was seated to enjoy their afternoon tea while learning about sustainability.  Finally, the students were able to take a copy of all of the groups’ annotated recipes to continue applying the concept of sustainable living in the kitchen at home.

All in all, both students and teachers thoroughly enjoyed this engaging and thoroughly practical experiential approach to inquiry.

I hope you can see the effort and commitment shared by everyone involved in this project; teachers and students alike. Perhaps you can take some of this and adapt it for your own school. Liana would love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment if you can. : )

‘Good ideas have lonely childhoods’

Hugh McLeod reckons this is the best line he’s written in a long time. I don’t know Hugh’s work well enough to agree with him, but I do love this line. It made me pause in my tracks and reflect on the meaning it has for me.

I left work Friday exhausted. We’d been reliant on technology very heavily for our inquiry project with all of Yr 7 and things just didn’t swing our way. Like I said in a previous post, the kids were amazing; they weathered the difficulties and found ways around their problems. I think by Friday afternoon I’d lost perspective. I felt like I’d being rowing upstream and was finding it hard to stay positive. A phone call from a colleague when I got home helped. She posed these questions;

Were the kids engaged?

Did they find ways around their problems?

Did they learn something?

Yes to all the above. Watching a business show this morning clarified things a bit for me too. A CEO was talking about his business plan and how it was a model they aimed for, but invariably it didn’t work to plan with all of the variables that affected the growth of their company. He talked of how you need to be adaptable to changing circumstances because it’s the only way you are going to move forward.

These are skills our students need. If everything works to plan all the time then maybe we’re facilitating a learning environment that isn’t reflective of the world they are going to enter. Work requires you to be adaptive and to find ways around problems. This is exactly what my students were doing as they battled issues with technology. I suppose what worries me is the perception of other teachers about the difficulties we encountered. It’s hard trying to get them accepting of technology rich projects and I do want to see adoption in my school.

Which brings me back to Hugh’s line. Here’s what he said in his post;

1. “Good ideas have lonely childhoods”. When I say, “Ignore Everybody”, I don’t mean, “Ignore all people, at all times, forever”. No, other people’s feedback plays a very important role. Of course it does. It’s more like, the better the idea, the more “out there” it initially will seem to other people, even people you like and respect. So there’ll be a time in the beginning when you have to press on, alone, without one tenth the support you probably need. This is normal. This is to be expected. Ten years later, drawing my “cartoons on the back of business cards” seems a no-brainer, in terms of what it has brought me, both emotionally and to my career. But I can also clearly remember when I first started drawing them, the default reaction was “people scratching their heads”. Sure, a few people thought they were kinda interesting and whatnot, but even with my closest friends, they seemed a complete, non-commercial exercise in futility for the New York world I was currently living in. Happily, time proved otherwise.

I feel like I’m in the playground, sitting in the sandpit pretty much alone right now in terms of my thinking. Friends will come, they always do, they’re just hanging around the fringes. I need to draw a few more lines in the sand to attract a crowd. I’ll keep at it.