ACSA Symposium – STEM, STEAM or HASS? Interrogating models of curriculum integration

The Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) held its symposium in Sydney on the 13th and 14th of October. It’s title was ‘STEM, STEAM or HASS? Interrogating models of curriculum integration‘. It seems that educators everywhere, particularly those in Secondary Schools, continue to grapple with a system that has taught subjects in silos for as long as formal education has been on offer. As we face the challenges of changing workplace scenarios and expectations, and endeavour to develop in our students what the Foundation for Young Australians terms ‘Enterprise skills’, many schools are looking to find ways to use models like Project Based Learning to bring disciplines together to work in tandem to develop skills and address knowledge acquisition.

enterprise-skills                                Foundation for Young Australians: The New Basics

I was very keen to attend as there were a number of people within my network who were presenting and I’ve been following what they have been doing for some time. Case in point, Gavin Hays, now Assistant Principal at Parramatta Marist High in New South Wales. I’ve been watching the Project Based Learning journey of Parramatta Marist since 2008. Gavin’s presentation shared the commitment this school has made to PBL and provided concrete examples demonstrating the effect this kind of curriculum structure has made to their community of learners. Impressive work indeed.

Other notable presentations were from Jane Hunter, Bianca Hewes, Lee Hewes, Jake Plaskett, Nicole Mockler and Steve Collis. There would have been others I’m sure, but you can only be in one place at a time at a conference!

As is my custom at conferences, I try to tweet as much as I can so that I can share what I am learning with those who aren’t able to attend. I’ve put together a Storify of the tweets I posted over the two days and where possible, I’ve added photos and links that will take you to resources mentioned within the sessions. Click here to take a read.

What I think was apparent from the schools who had successfully developed integrated curriculum models was that a whole school approach had been taken and programs had been developed over successive years. This is no easy task. To be successful requires the development of a school culture that can embrace change and place value on collaborative learning. It requires shared vision, strong school management, leadership from many facets of the school, trust in your teachers, a willingness to rethink the structure of the timetable, respectful relationships and close communication with your parent and student body. No easy task, but without a doubt, worth it.

Spoken Word Poetry as a Year 9 Project Based Learning task

Tomorrow, I start a new job. In it, I will be leading the direction of technology use in classrooms across three campuses. It’s a big job, and one that means I no longer will be teaching my own class. While I welcome the opportunity to think in a big picture capacity and support teachers and students across a very large school, I am going to miss the vitality of the classroom and the close relationships you form with a class over the course of a year. Hopefully people will welcome me into their classrooms, because I think you need doses of classroom reality to keep you grounded.

I’ve had to leave my wonderful class who are taking the elective I created called ‘Language of our Times’. This term begins with the Project Based Learning Spoken Word Poetry task that I have loved teaching. I’ve been meaning to write about it over the past two years so thought now was a good opportunity to share my experiences with it. It also might help teachers at my new school see that I am a classroom teacher too, even if they’ve never seen me teach a class. 🙂

Spoken Word Poetry task: Year 9

Driving question:  How can language move people?

Your task is to work in groups and create a Spoken Word Poetry piece (also known as Slam Poetry) that will be performed in class and then performed for a public audience during our celebration of Book Week in August.Your Spoken Word Poetry piece must use language effectively to convey meaning, and must capture the attention of your audience. The focus for the piece will be decided via negotiation with the members of your group. Group performance, your individual contribution, effective language choices, and high level collaboration efforts toward a common goal will form the basis of your assessment.

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • Listen to, read, analyze and write poetry;
  • Recognize, discuss and employ the poetic techniques employed in poems;
  • Analyze the techniques used by performance artists; and
  • Perform their own poems.

Reference explaining Spoken Word poetry:

“What is spoken word poetry?

Spoken word poetry is poetry that is written on a page but performed for an audience. Because it is performed, this poetry tends to demonstrate a heavy use of rhythm, improvisation, free association, rhymes, rich poetic phrases, word play and slang. It is more aggressive and “in your face” than more traditional forms of poetry.”(follow the link above for more detail explaining what to keep in mind when writing a Spoken Word poem)

Relevant Australian Curriculum Content Descriptors addressed in this task:

Interacting with others

Listen to spoken texts constructed for different purposes, for example to entertain and to persuade, and analyse how language features of these textsposition listeners to respond in particular ways(ACELY1740)Use interaction skills to present and discuss an idea and to influence and engage an audience by selecting persuasive language, varying voice tone, pitch, and pace, and using elements such as music and sound effects (ACELY1811)Plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content and multimodal elements for aesthetic and playful purposes(ACELY1741)

Interpreting, analysing, evaluating

Explore and explain the combinations of language and visual choices that authors make to present information, opinions and perspectives in different texts (ACELY1745)

Creating texts

Create imaginative, informative and persuasive texts that present a point of view and advance or illustrate arguments, including texts that integrate visual, print and/or audio features (ACELY1746)

Text structure and organisation

Understand that authors innovate with text structures and language for specific purposes and effects(ACELA1553)

Language variation and change

Investigate how evaluation can be expressed directly and indirectly using devices, for example allusion, evocative vocabulary and metaphor(ACELA1552)

We had a hook lesson with Poet, Alicia Sometimes, late term two because that is when she had been booked to come to the school. I had discussed PBL with the students and we went through the ‘main course’ elements when we started with the task.

A “Main Course” project:

  • is intended to teach significant content.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new.
  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • includes processes for revision and reflection.
  • involves a public audience.

At the start of the task I introduced the students to the rubric we used for assessment  so that they were aware of what was being assessed before they began and understand what to work towards. It was also made clear that although they were working in groups, they would be individually assessed based on what they demonstrated throughout the duration of the task. We used the collaboration rubric from the Buck Institute of Education and I added a component for reflection  because I wanted the students to value the importance of reflecting on their learning. (now part of Gold Standard PBL) I used a scoring rubric from the Out Loud Poetry competition Judge’s Guide to assess the Spoken Word performance element of the task.

The first year I made the groupings without consulting students. Last year, I asked students who they would like to work with as some had begun a poem when workshopping with Alicia Sometimes and I didn’t want to interrupt the flow that some had attained. Some groups formed naturally from this process but I did place students in other groups.

I was continually heartened by the majority of the groups’ application to this task. I tried to focus them at the start of a lesson by asking each group to briefly provide feedback to the whole group about where they were at and what they think they need to build on for that lesson. At the end of a lesson (when time hadn’t got away from us!) we refocused by watching a YouTube video of a spoken word poem to continually provide exemplars of effective performance.

Braemar College-Comp from Australian Poetry on Vimeo.

The LMS we used had a sharing space where the students  posted examples they had found of Spoken Word Poetry to share with the class. I also included information about Poetic techniques within this space and we explored this as a group to give them some grounding to assist with the development of their poems.

Each group used their Google Drive account and were working on a shared document to collaboratively write the poem. I asked them to identify who had written each part by colour coding the lines for individual contributions and indicating when the group achieved consensus with some lines. That worked well and they honestly provided indicators of individual’s contributions. I always find it interesting when you give the students a lot of agency with their work – my experience has seen students honestly reflect and acknowledge when they are pulling their weight, and when they aren’t. They are self assessing all the time. For some, this is impetus to do better not just for the teacher, but for their own self worth.

The rehearsal stage was always interesting. The scoring rubric from the Out Loud Poetry Guide measures physical presence, voice and articulation and dramatic appropriateness. The students were exposed to many examples of group performances (some seen above) that demonstrated how they could incorporate movement into their poems for effect. They practiced tirelessly to coordinate movement and time delivery of their poems and those who really worked at this performed pieces that quite literally left me and many in the class almost speechless. Other groups were not so polished with some group members not being able to stay ‘in character’ or able to commit all of their lines to memory. They were Year 9 students – I wasn’t expecting miracles because to pull off spoken word poetry well is very difficult indeed.  However, over the two years when I taught this unit there were groups who did pull off a miracle, and that was satisfying for me, but more importantly, it was personally satisfying for them.

Working within the Project Based Learning model was eye opening for me as a teacher. I saw students work way beyond the capacity of what test scores predicted as their achievement level. They were invested in their groups, saw the value of shared purpose and some exhibited leadership capabilities I had never seen evident in more traditional learning tasks. More than once students told me how proud they were of what they were doing and this was clear when they publicly performed their pieces at our Book Week performance days. In the second year, we invited parents to come along and those who came were blown away by what their children had managed to achieve.

A moment stood out last year when sometime after we had finished the unit, an English teacher came to see me one morning to let me know that a student in her regular English class had written a remarkable poem that incorporated an extended metaphor, repetition and other poetic techniques that she did not think were in the range of this student’s ability. When she quizzed her as to where this inspiration emanated from, the student explained that in our Language of our Times elective we had studied Spoken Word poetry and that was where she had learnt these techniques. What did I love about this? Being able to talk to this student and ask to view her poem as I had heard how wonderful it was. I could almost feel her pride in herself envelope me at that moment.

You guessed it, those are the moments to savour, and the moments I will miss.  🙂

Discussing Personal Learning Networks with Pearson’s ‘In Conversation’ series – Part two!

Screenshot 2015-06-17 20.03.22

Part two of the interview I had with Pearson’s ‘In Conversation’ series is now available. Click here to gain access.

Screenshot 2015-06-17 19.25.22

Like I said in my previous post, this interview was conducted over the phone. It’s difficult to think on your feet in situations like that, and I don’t think what I said has translated well in reference to Project Based Learning and what happens when students find themselves not succeeding. Here’s what is in the post;

I’ve had fantastic feedback from students involved in project based learning, but it’s not easy as it puts the onus on them to take responsibility for their learning. When they learn via this method, students have a sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished.

I’ve observed that that’s what they respond to best, because they want permission and the responsibility to take charge of their own learning. Through this process, they may eventually encounter and experience failure which is positive feedback. Analysing failure is something we don’t do enough of in school.

When these same students who didn’t do well finished a project, they were then able to articulate and identify where they’ve gone wrong. These same children also went on to perform better in subsequent activities because they were working through the process and ultimately learning how to fail successfully.

Hmmnn…not quite what I wanted to say! I don’t see failure as positive feedback, but it can lead to positive outcomes. In the case of the students I was referencing, they learnt from failure and went on to be very successful in subsequent PBL tasks.

Wish I’d had a rewind button so I could have fixed that up before it went to print!

I do like the quotes they have selected to place in images accompanying the interview, so I going to share them here (nice little bit of archiving for me!)

Screenshot 2015-06-17 20.01.04


Screenshot 2015-06-17 20.02.10


Thank you Pearson Australia for asking me to be involved in your ‘In Conversation’ series. I enjoyed the experience and am really pleased that you have identified the strength of Personal Learning Networks to support the professional development of our teaching profession.

School’s out Friday

I love a good marching band, and the Ohio State University Marching Band are better than good, they’re exceptional. If you’re not impressed by their Hollywood Blockbuster show, then I’m sorry, but you’re very hard to impress.

I’ve been impressed by my students this week. We’ve been looking at the future of journalism in the digital age, engaging in plenty of discussion and even talking with Skye Doherty, a Lecturer in Journalism from the University of Queensland. Skye skyped in last week to give my students her thoughts about the impact of the digital world on journalism and its future. Next Friday, Jewel Topsfield from ‘The Age’, is visiting the class to add her thoughts to the discussion. I’ve been trying to think of an appropriate form of assessment and was really pleased when they embraced the idea of tackling another Project Based Learning task, this one with the driving question being, ‘How do journalists report news in the digital age?’ Here’s the outline of the task:

You are part of a team of investigative journalists who have been assigned the job of responding to a strange incident (or series of incidents) at Toorak College.

You are reporting on the spot, and are using whatever means possible to pull together a story quickly for readers who have heard that something has happened and are hungry for news. Your newspaper is highly regarded and your readers are interested in learning about what has happened.

To get your report out quickly, you will be using a page on iVE* to curate the story. We’ll be trying to get our iVE page looking like Storify. Storify can be updated quickly and is used by some of the most highly regarded newspaper teams in the world to deliver digital content to their readers who are used to accessing the digital versions of the paper.

What will your story contain???

*iVE is the name of our Learning Management System

They are enthusiastically working in groups and have come up with some terrific scenarios. They are planning in Google Docs and are assigning group members differing roles eg: some are writing the report, others will be filming witness interviews, footage of the incident etc. I love watching them sculpt the learning and really enjoy the creative process. Stress levels will increase as some of them realise that time constraints may inhibit their grand plans, but that’s all part of the process. Me, I can’t wait to see the outcome of their efforts – they have yet to disappoint!

Melbourne Cup Day here in Melbourne means a four day weekend ahead for me. I am beyond excited about that – relaxation, here I come! Enjoy the weekend ahead. Find the sun and soak in it. 🙂

Anticipating the future

I gave myself the luxury of dedicating 30 minutes of my day to watching this video from Valerie Hannon from the Innovation Unit in the UK. It was delivered here in Australia at the AITSL Professional Practices Symposium. My suggestion is that you do the same, and after that, share it with educators you know so that we can continue the discussions around reconceptualising what it is we do to create engaging learning environments for the students we teach.

After using Project Based Learning methods in my classes this year and last, I’m in deep agreement with Valerie that this is the kind of pedagogical practice that needs to become more commonplace in schools today. I’ve seen my students challenged by imposing tasks, and watched them use collaborative techniques and creativity to produce results that often exceed their own expectations. I decided to give my students an individual learning task recently and was very surprised to have many of them say they would like to do more PBL work because they’ve enjoyed the dynamics of working this way. I’m going to have them analyse the differences between the individual task work and their PBL experiences later this week and am very interested to see what they’ll be saying. Hopefully they’ll agree to me sharing some of their reflections here.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 9.42.03 PM


(image accessible here)

Valerie elaborates on this diagram in the video at around the 20 minute mark (if you’re impatient!). I think it presents interesting ideas about approaches to learning and teaching that would be worthy of staff discussion. For some, ideas like this are very challenging. They present a very different approach from ‘traditional’ classroom instruction and requires heavy investment from teachers to change up their practice and rethink assessment. To gain a better understanding of Project Based Learning, I’d recommend you take a look at the Innovation Unit publication, ‘Work that Matters: the teacher’s guide to project based learning‘. The guide grew from a partnership between the High Tech High Schools in San Diego, California and the Learning Futures project in England. It’s very thorough and will give you some very good insight into what Project Based Learning looks like in classrooms.

We’ve been looking at the draft Technologies curriculum from ACARA for the Australian Curriculum. My reading of it sings Project Based Learning approaches to meld the related subjects of Design and Technologies and Digital Technologies. I’d love to hear from educators who are looking at this draft document to see how they are envisioning delivering this in their schools. Feel free to leave comments (a bit of a rarity in the blogging world today I have to say!) to extend the conversation.

School’s out Friday

It’s been awhile since an Improv Everywhere video featured here, but this one is worth watching. I can see the benefits in this service, can’t you? We really need this kind of service to combat the behaviour of people in cars – cannot tell you how many people I see looking down while driving and who are obviously reading screens or texting. Unfortunately, it’s a by-product of a population immersed in quick access to information. I’ve fallen prey – my phone sits beside my bed acting as my very efficient alarm clock and it’s there when the dog or cat wake me at some ungodly hour to be let outside. I read, watch videos and send tweets at some very odd hours for my time zone. There are others out there like me – I often see other Aussies in the twitter stream at hours that are deigned for sleeping and not tweeting!

I began a Project Based Learning task with my Year 9 students today and I hope to find some opportunities to blog about its progress over the coming weeks. Today was a lot of fun as we launched ‘What does it take for an idea to go viral?’. Next week will be telling as we move into investigation and the students begin to determine what their product will be. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing where this one takes us.

I hope the weekend treats you well. Chilly days forecast here. Electric Blanket is on – all is good with the world. 🙂

School’s out Friday

As part of the the follow up to the Project Based Learning task my Year 10 class have just completed, we reviewed the identified 10 skills for the future workplace as identified in the Future Work Skills- 2020 report. In the course of our discussion, we talked about the use of robot seals in Nursing Homes in Japan and the possible impact robot technology would have on jobs that are currently performed by human beings right now. Tonight I came across the video featured above on Reddit. It’s further proof that robot technology is powering along and will have an impact on the way we live our lives. After a big week at work, I wouldn’t mind a few Swarm Robots cooperating with an AR Drone to perform some household tasks for me and free my weekends up for the finer things in life!

Early to bed for me. I stayed up very late last night writing a post for the ABC Splash site and my eyes can take no more.

Enjoy your weekend. Find some sun. Maybe some good wine too. I’m hoping to. 🙂

Project Based Learning – giving it a go in an English Classroom

I’ve been reading about Project Based Learning for some time now, and struggled trying to find a way to integrate this kind of pedagogy into my regular classroom practice. I think I do a fairly good job of challenging my students and getting them to think beyond the obvious, but my English classes do tend to follow what would be perceived as traditional structure.

This last term we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We did make a decision early on to plan the unit using the principles of Understanding by Design, and this meant we had a driving question to help us focus. Our question was, ‘What drives the choices we make?’  It took us some time to get to this question in one of our planning sessions, but I’m so glad we went to the effort of doing this. I referred to this constantly throughout our study and it really helped the students to think carefully about the motivations of  the characters and the circumstances surrounding the tragic outcome of the play. I’m not ashamed of saying that my instruction involved some fairly explicit teaching in that we examined the text thoroughly and focused on key scenes. Our classroom was full of spirited discussion and some moments where we employed drama techniques, but our intent was to understand the complexities of the play in order to respond effectively in a text response essay at the completion of our study. That my students did, and quite impressively I might add.

For the last two weeks of term, we’d decided that we would try and have them do something creative in response to Romeo and Juliet, and have them work on a multimodal task as per the requirements of Australian Curriculum. Specifically, we were looking at the following content descriptions and achievement standard:


Interacting with others:

Identify and explore the purposes and effects of different text structures and language features of spoken texts, and use this knowledge to create purposeful texts that inform, persuade and engage (ACELY1750)

Elaborations: ·  applying knowledge of spoken, visual, auditory, technical and multimodal resources (for example sound and silence, camera shot types, lighting and colour) in conjunction with verbal resources for varying purposes and contexts

  • selecting subject matter and language to position readers to accept representations of people, events, ideas and information

Plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content and multimodal elements to influence a course of action (ACELY1751)

Elaborations: using assumptions about listeners, viewers and readers to try to position them to accept a particular point of view

Create texts:

Use a range of software, including word processing programs, confidently, flexibly and imaginatively to create, edit and publish texts, considering the identified purpose and the characteristics of the user (ACELY1776)

Elaborations: designing a webpage that combines navigation, text, sound and moving and still images for a specific audience

Create sustained texts, including texts that combine specific digital or media content, for imaginative, informative, or persuasive purposes that reflect upon challenging and complex issues (ACELY1756)

Elaborations: creating spoken, written and multimodal texts that compel readers to empathise with the ideas and emotions expressed or implied.

Achievement standard: Students create a wide range of texts to articulate complex ideas. They make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, building on others’ ideas, solving problems, justifying opinions and developing and expanding arguments.

Now, our usual course of action would have been to develop a task and have the kids make some choices about what presentation method they would use to explore it, and our focus in terms of assessment would have been on the outcome. I’m sure we’ve all been there. You have your students working in groups, but invariably there is one group member who either chooses to do the bulk of the work because they want to achieve a good result and can’t bear to have the rest of the group let them down, or someone gets left to carry the can for members who slack off. In these kinds of instances I have marked group members differently, but it is sometimes difficult to ascertain who has done what, particularly if they’re working in friendship groups and they don’t want to fracture the relationship so they cover for the group members who aren’t really pulling their weight.

My reading in relation to Project Based Learning told me there was another way, so I did what comes naturally to me and I suggested to the other team members that we try something different with this and give PBL a go. For those of you with no concept of PBL, here’s some information from the Buck Institute site that outlines features of a PBL unit:

A “Main Course” project:

  • is intended to teach significant content.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new.
  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • includes processes for revision and reflection.
  • involves a public audience.

These points are elaborated here – I suggest you take a look.

For the other teachers I was working with this was their first exposure to the ideas surrounding PBL, so we spent one of our planning sessions with me sending them links to the writings of Bianca Hewes, an English teacher in Sydney who uses PBL extensively in her classroom, and to the Buck Institute site, where once you’ve registered (it’s free), you gain access to a range of curriculum resources to help guide you through the process. After we’d looked at the collaboration and presentation rubrics, we could see that this was a far better approach than the usual multimodal task. The reality for us was that this was going to be an assessment task, only this time what we’d be doing is assessing collaborative skills and the process that leads to the outcome; a far better way of measuring student input and one that ensured we could assess students based on their contribution.

A good PBL task has a ‘hook’ lesson to get the kids motivated. We knew we needed to convince our students that what they were going to be doing was of benefit to them, so we focused on a report called ‘Future Work Skills – 2020‘, that was published at the end of of 2011 by the Institute for the Future for the University of Phoenix Research Institute. I suggest you take a read of the report. The following visual (perhaps a little difficult to read here) is a representation of the ideas contained in the report.

I think it was really useful using this with our students. It certainly got them thinking and provoked some spirited discussion. It’s also something I intend to revisit with them at the end of this task so we can evaluate what key skills we’ve addressed throughout the course of our PBL task.

Our driving question came into good use once again, and became the basis for the task. Here’s what we used with our students to help them get a handle on what they were going to be doing:

We have just finished our study of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. While we were investigating the play, we used the following driving question to frame some of our discussion:

What drives the choices we make?

Working in groups, you are going to be creating some form of multimodal response to this driving question. You can use some of the ideas presented from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to frame your project, or you can take your project in a direction decided upon by members of your group.

Because we are studying English, we would like to see you incorporating writing, speaking and visual components to your task. Think about the following essential questions to help you develop a creative artifact:

‘A choice made today, will affect our lives tomorrow.’

‘What are the consequences of choosing wisely, or unwisely?’

 To help get you and your group started, use this thinking routine to start generating some ideas:

  1. What do you think you know about this topic?
  2. What questions or puzzles do you have?
  3. How can you explore this topic?

Think about the skill set of the members of your group. How can the differing skills members of your group have help you develop an artifact from your investigation?

Our next three weeks of classes will be structured like this:

Week 1 – Investigation

Week 2 – Process

Week 3 – Presentation

We will be looking very closely at developing in you what are considered 21st century skills:

critical & creative thinking, collaboration, self monitoring and self direction, leadership and project management skills.

I was concerned about grouping the students. Should we let them choose, or choose for them. After asking my Twitter network, it became clear that making the decision about groupings ourselves was going to be the way to go. This way, they’d be assured of having to work collaboratively with people outside of the normal social groupings they gravitate to. I decided to make groups of three, and this has worked very well.

Giving the students the task as outlined above was an interesting exercise. They were already sitting in their groups and watching their approaches to what they’d been presented with was eye opening. Some groups settled down to proactive discussion immediately, while others floundered with the lack of parameters surrounding the task. This is where you as a teacher really need to be on your game. This was definitely not a time to be watching events unfold. It was a time to be circulating, checking in, watching for cues that some weren’t comfortable. The thinking routine helped some groups focus, but other groups had students who were expressing agitation at the open nature of the task. These students in particular needed reassurance and reminding that this was something they needed to be shaping -they needed to be thinking about the course they could take and engaging in discourse to help ideas form.

The formation of ideas for each group’s PBL task extended into a second lesson the following day. One of my students entered the room visibly unhappy about the task. She was one of the most capable students, but was finding this a real struggle. I was concerned, but 10 minutes into the lesson I looked over to that group and was amazed to see smiles and animated discussion taking place. I moved over and asked what had transpired to change the mood. “We’ve got an idea!”, was the reply, and they were excitedly tossing around what they might do to make their idea a reality. To focus this session, I used the ‘Compass Points’ thinking routine  from the Visible Thinking site for examining propositions.

  1. E = Excited
    What excites you about this idea or proposition? What’s the upside?
  2. W = Worrisome 
    What do you find worrisome about this idea or proposition? What’s the downside?
  3. N = Need to Know
    What else do you need to know or find out about this idea or proposition? What additional information would help you to evaluate things?
  4. S = Stance or Suggestion for Moving Forward
    What is your current stance or opinion on the idea or proposition? How might you move forward in your evaluation of this idea or proposition?

I was doing a lot of circulating at this stage and monitoring progress. Two groups were working well, but were struggling to come up with a concrete idea. I asked if it would help if they heard from other groups about what their ideas were, and they were really interested in doing this. So a sharing session ensued and this helped these groups get a handle on the direction others were taking and seeded ideas for their own approach. One group needed more direction, and I sat down with them and talked through what the strengths of the participants were. This helped them narrow an idea down to something that drew from these skill sets.

What was reassuring during these sessions was hearing some students express excitement about what they doing. One group in particular who formulated their idea really early, were just buzzing with the possibilities of what they would do and what the outcomes might be. One of these students was someone who had seemed tuned out during our exploration of Romeo and Juliet, and yet here she was now, animated and driving discussion. One of the most powerful things this experience has shown me is the way some students power the group, and quite often, they’ve been students who have not necessarily been the shining lights in other classroom tasks. I’m getting insights into students that I wouldn’t have gleaned unless we were doing a task designed this way.

Now, where’s the technology in all this you may ask? It’s sitting right alongside and working as an enabler and facilitator. We’re using Edmodo as our virtual collaborative sharing space. All the students have joined the group I’ve created using the group code you get when you create one, and I’ve created small groups within this group to help them discuss ideas outside of class time. When you’re the teacher, you automatically become a member of each group when they’re formed and the space is visible only to members of that group.  I’ve made the students aware that I’ll be watching these group spaces carefully as it’s another sign of their collaborative efforts and will help with the assessment end of things. Again, it’s been interesting seeing who is sharing in these spaces and how the groups are using them for communication. One group is using a Google Doc for collaborative purposes and has it linked to their group. Their honesty is apparent in their reflections – for the most part, they’re certainly not afraid of acknowledging both their strengths and weaknesses.

As a teacher, I’ve been working hard. This is no ‘sit back and let it all unfold before your eyes’ kind of activity. This is constant checking, questioning, supporting, encouraging, monitoring kind of work. My energy levels need to be high so that I can keep their energy levels high. For the last two weeks of term as we worked on the investigation and process phase, I was chasing links in my Twitter stream and finding ways to connect them to our driving question, and was pouring over YouTube videos looking for examples of collaboration to help get across to them the importance of a group working as a team. Here’s one we looked at that really got us talking.

What’s been incredibly encouraging is the spoken feedback I’m getting from students. I’ve heard some say they are enjoying the challenge of thinking, of directing their own learning, of working with people they don’t normally mix with. One student stayed back after class to tell me how much she was enjoying learning this way and that she’d never thought it would be possible to work like this in an English classroom. Many are excited about their ideas and are genuinely interested in seeing them come to fruition and sharing their artifact with others. Most of them have structured manageable tasks, but some have been ambitious. I’ve made a point of saying to them repeatedly that it’s the collaborative work and process that is important here, and if what they come up with falls short of their plans due to time restraints, it’s still possible to do very well on this task if they have done what is expected from them. As teachers, we decided to weight collaboration most heavily for their assessment and the students know this. They’ve been provided with the assessment breakdown so they know what they are working towards.

And that brings me to what I think is probably the most important element of this PBL task. Our classroom climate and their level of trust in me. I work incredibly hard in my classes to establish a respectful classroom climate where sharing is encouraged. I try to take an interest in my students and develop positive relationships with every one of them. This doesn’t mean I’m a pushover – far from it. I have high standards and expect all of them to work to their best of their ability, and I’ll ride them if they falter in this. My feeling is that there is trust in our classroom. They know I’m working hard for them and they trust me to make the right call in relation to their performance. If we didn’t have this, I’m not sure I’d be feeling so positive about this task, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be either.

It’s not over. We’ve had the school holiday break happening now and some of the groups are in the process of creating their videos, testing their theories, writing their blog posts, making their books, interviewing their subjects and whatever other method of capture for their ideas they’ve come up with. When we return, it’s to a lesson where they can come together as a team again to plan their presentation that will take place in the first week back. We’ve asked them to think about audience, and have suggested they invite people in to view their presentations to meet the requirement of having a public audience. I’m not sure if this is going to happen for all groups, but we have organised for a combined session where the Yr 10 cohort will come together as a group and each small group can showcase something from their task they’d like to share with everyone. I am very much looking forward to seeing their completed tasks – spending time with them all in their investigation and process stages has me excited about the possibilities of what sharing will take place in the presentation phase.

From my perspective, this has been one of the most rewarding activities I’ve been involved in this year. I’m invested in it and can feel that passion for what I do apparent when I’m interacting with the students. I’m not sure if what we’ve done is entirely true to PBL, but I do know we’ve done our level best to understand the process and try and make it happen. It’s exciting and it’s meeting some of the achievement standards of the Australian Curriculum for Yr 10 English as well as quite a few of the elements of the General Capabilities. Once again, my thanks go to Bianca Hewes for being such an inspiration and for helping me to see how PBL can fit into the structure of our curriculum. I’ll keep you posted as to what transpires when I return to school next week.

Why challenging our students matters.

Watch this and be inspired.

If you’re a teacher and you’re not moved by the words of Eleanor Duckworth here, then leave the profession now so that other people who are inspired by these words and who can find ways to make this kind of learning happen in their classrooms can take your place.

I’ve spent the past two weeks using Project Based Learning methods in my English classroom to do the kinds of things that Eleanor suggests we need to do in our classrooms. My kids have been thinking. They’ve been challenged by the task. Some were struggling finding a way to work collaboratively and some were struggling with what they perceived as the ‘looseness’ of the task. They were looking for defined parameters and were finding it hard to move out of the regular classroom model of ‘here’s what we’re doing’. Some were relishing the freedom to think, to challenge themselves, to set their own parameters.

It’s been fantastic. I’ve been energised watching and guiding them through their excitement and their struggles. I’m working in a team with two other teachers who have embraced PBL and are trying to make it happen in their classroom too. One of these teachers is a young graduate, and to see her come and find me out so that she could share with me the wonderful experience she had when she launched the task was a moment I will savour always. She’s a fine young teacher and she’s going to be an even better one by the end of this project, I’m convinced of it.

A longer post will follow where I’ll outline the process we followed. It might help others who are thinking of using PBL approaches in their classrooms. My sincere thanks go to Bianca Hewes who provided help through her frequent blog posts about her practice and a very generous phone call where she answered many of my queries in our planning stages.

School’s out Friday

Now, I’m none too impressed with the weather this week in Melbourne, but this timelapse video, created by Filip Laureys for a project at Deakin University, makes me appreciate the city I live in. Melbourne really is quite beautiful, even more so when it’s a few degrees warmer and the wind and rain isn’t messing up your hair!

It’s been a busy week at school and I’ve got a bag load of essays to correct this weekend. Lucky me. I’ve also convinced the two other Year 10 teachers of English that we can try out Project Based Learning for our next unit beginning next week. This means translating my understanding of PBL to them, ensuring that we’re all on the same page, and that we have useful support material to do our best to make it work. We’re all trying out Edmodo for the first time to assist with collaboration for small groups and I’m interested to see how the kids take to it.

Sometimes I wonder what it is that drives me to create more work for myself, but I think I know the answer to that one. I want to make learning relevant, and I want to see the kids I teach develop skills that will be the expected norm in their future working lives. I do have to thank Bianca Hewes from Sydney, who very generously spoke with me this week and answered the stream of questions I had for her about PBL. Bianca has been sharing her experiences with PBL in her English classroom over the last year or so and I would encourage you to take a read of her blog and start following her on Twitter. She shares her practice freely, both the successful and not so successful PBL experiences. I have very much appreciated the guidance she provides through her sharing and feel more confident about the next two weeks thanks to the lessons she imparts.

Enjoy your weekend everyone. I hope to, despite the millstone that comes with a bag of marking. I’ll have find something to temper that! 🙂