Trying to be hands-off for creative tasks


To finish the year, I have my Year Eight students working in teams to engage with the ‘now what’ question that flowed quite naturally from the work we have been doing on social justice, third world countries and aid agencies. Effectively, I have given them free reign to complete a task of their choosing. This is not ‘academic’ work but it is definitely making use of higher-order thinking skills. This is not life-like learning. This is real-life, make-it-happen, dirt-under-the-fingernails learning.

It is challenging! Both for the students and for me. There is no planning I can do. There are no defined outcomes I can aim for. All of it is in the hands of the students. And it is stretching us all.

I have kids who want to use social media to promote a cause. Others are wanting to visit the local hospital to hand out toys to kids. Others are creating social justice themed art work. Still others want to tattoo symbols on wrists. (Seriously!)

Now, I tend to be a fairly hands-on teacher with clear plans and goals. You could see how this is definitely outside my comfort zone and why I’m feeling a degree of being out of control. (OK… I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to learning in my classroom…)

Basically, I need to be prepared for my students to (potentially) fail. But, as I’ve said many times, it is in those times and scenarios that the kids will learn. It’s a tightrope to walk for a teacher… How much do I input to ensure success, and how much do I let things run a natural course recognising the risk of failure. Is success needed? How do we define success anyway? How do I determine busy noise from distracted noise in the classroom? And does it matter? Does every kid need to demonstrate they are involved or, again, does that not really matter? Is the process seen as being as important as an end-result?

These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind, lesson by lesson, as we work through this process. I’m not sure I have too many of the answers at this time but I’m hoping I do in a week or so once we are finished.

But that’s just like life, isn’t it?

Hopefully, sometime soon, you’ll see some links on this blog to the work the kids are doing…


The infinite value of the multicultural classroom


I am teaching a wonderful unit on multiculturalism, refugees, migrations and asylum seekers.  Here in Australia, this is a relevant and current issue and there is a lot to discover and explore.  What has made the teaching so much richer than I anticipated is the fact that, across the two class groups, I have seven students who have intimate experiences with migration.  Several are refugees and a couple have parents who migrated here.

I invited each student to share about their family’s experiences and I could not have planned the results if I had provided them with a script.  Completely unprompted, the students spoke about war and displacement, about waiting in a refugee camp for years, about abuse and poor education and family tensions, and about the release and relief that came with resettlement.
For a significant time, the rest of the class sat spellbound as their peers spoke.

There has been a lot said and written about the self-centeredness of adolescence and their inability to engage with non-bells-and-whistles didactic presentations.
I can assure you that engagement can happen in all sorts of ways.  The key is the passion of the presenter, especially when it is an adolescent’s peer.

And none of this would have happened without the fact that I am blessed with the richness of a multicultural class.


Engaging Lessons; Life Lessons


I read a great article recently about the value of real life teaching.  I’d encourage you to check it out…

Obviously, it got me thinking about the degree to which I teach for real life and the ways in which I do it.  Sometimes I am like Teacher A but I strive to be more like Teacher B.  Let me give you a recent example of some life teaching that happened in my room.

Now, we know that young adolescents can be passionate beings, connecting on a deep level with injustices and offering creative solutions (though sometimes misguided or limited by their understanding).  To tap into this and to further their exploration of the issues facing people living in disadvantaged locations, I ran an introductory activity with the help of two of my students.  They were asked to role play with me but in secret.  They were my targets at which I threw every inappropriate teacher behaviour I could think up, disciplining them unjustly in front of their peers for half an hour.  The two kids did a great job of copping what I asked them to do, moving seats, standing up, being sent from the room, being told they were silly for not knowing something I felt they should know (even though the rest of the students didn’t know it either).  You get the idea.

At the end of the time, I called them both to the front of the class and we ‘confessed’ our role playing and allowed the rest of the class to discuss their feelings about what had happened.  Wow!  We certainly did a great job.  There were so many discussion-starter comments from the class about injustice, their feelings toward me during the activity, and their feelings toward the kids who were unfairly treated.  From there we looked at the UN Charter of Human Rights which, all of a sudden  became a living document to the class as they related what I had done to what happens in places around the world, and what we should do in response.

I’m convinced that what could have been a dry, stand-alone lesson on the Charter, had suddenly taken on new depth and meaning.


What activities do you do in your classroom to create real-life learning?


Boundaries when everything is Google…




Our school is currently moving into the Google environment, using Gmail for communication between students and staff, creating Docs and making them available on moodle, encouraging discussion threads on Groups, and so on.

I love the level of connectivity it affords me and I’m hoping to get subject specific content online for the students soon.

As a starting point with my Year Eight kids, I sent an email to them to check I had their address was correct as well as to ensure they knew how to access their mail. (I know these kids are intuitively tech savvy, but that is no guarantee they all can do what I need them to.).  Having asked the students to shoot me back an email, I then spent the evening at home on my school-supplied iPad replying to their responses. I also dealt with an email from an older student about an upcoming off-campus event she is involved in.

This is a new world of connectivity for us all.  I love it and I’m wary of it.

And it got me thinking… With the increase in connectivity and access to and from my students, has our teaching day just become significantly longer?  Have the boundaries between work and home become more rubbery?

Now I know that teaching is, really, a 24hour profession; we almost constantly mentally engaged in the job at one level or another*.  We will consider the content of lessons, collect resources, worry about kids and evaluate our effectiveness.  We will blog and tweet and read and grow professionally in our ‘own’ time.  But I believe we, as professionals, need to engage in discussion about boundaries and work-life balance.  We need to ensure that the connected classroom does not ever take us to a place where we cannot easily disconnect.

How do you set boundaries for yourself?  Where do you draw the line and turn off the technology?

I’d love to get your feedback.



* This reminds me of a couple I met while teaching in Canada in 2005. They were both art teachers but returning to the Ukraine and giving up on teaching to return to producing art.  Why?  In their own words, “You know how it is. When you are teaching you never have enough head space to pursue other things in life.”


Shouldn’t we be working?


Wednesday afternoon. Library. Research time. Double lesson. Year Eight.
All Middle Years teachers will understand…

I decided that we all needed a break so, without too much explanation, I got the kids to leave their books and laptops on the desks and walk outside. Once we had gathered on the side of the oval, I started my narrative: I love big trucks and diggers, I had not yet had the chance to look at the construction work (a new road on the other side of the oval), I need some sunshine and fresh air, we were going for a walk…
At this point I expected cheers of delight (part of the reason I told them this outside and not in the library). Instead, I was met with some blank looks and confused faces. One girl asked, “Shouldn’t we be working?”
I was flabberghasted! Are you serious? You are shocked that we’d take a break in the middle of a double lesson?

It got me thinking about the busyness of our classrooms and our curriculum. I have to admit that I don’t take a break like this one very often (this was the first time in the 5 weeks of teaching these kids) and it would seem no one else does either. Yet I remember a time where I’d head out for a 15minute run-around quite often. It cleared the head and burnt of excess energy and was just a lot of fun.
But today, 2014, would we do that? Highly unlikely. And how sad that is. We need to take the time to have fun, to explore, to build relationships.


A New (for me) Classroom Setup


Having spent some time considering the sort of content my students will be covering this year and what style of learning environment will best suit that, I’ve decided to do something a bit radical (for me, at least) with my classroom setup in preparation for my students next week.

I’m not a desks-in-rows sort of teacher nor do I assign seats.  Usually I change the desks around from time to time during the year, always in groups, and I allow the kids to pick and choose where they sit on a lesson by lesson basis.  I have my boundaries, of course, and the students know I’ll move someone if I need to.  But that tends to be rare and the kids appreciate the ‘freedom’ they have.

Anyway, I’ve gone a step further for the start of this year and placed all the desks around the outside of the room with the chairs semi-randomly placed in the middle.  I am wanting the flexibility of the kids just using chairs for instruction and chatting, and then moving them to the desks when and if they need or want to.

Here is what I’ve come up with (click photo for larger version):



You’ll see my freebie lounge against the wall.

I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of response I’ll get from the students and how long the setup lasts…  Stay tuned for an update…

So, what do you think?  Ideas?  Feedback?

How have you experimented with classroom design to create positive learning outcomes?


Visual Literacy


While we teach out teens many literacy skills, from text analysis to grammatical correctness, the world bombards us with many forms of literature that should be analysed as well.

I’ve just finished teaching a great unit about non-textual communication and analysis. It is creative and a good way of keeping the students engaged in the last few weeks of the year.

Effectively, the students are to analyse the lyrics of a song and represent the themes in pictorial form; basically they are creating the foundation for a film clip to go with the song. The results have been wonderful!

While the kids had selected a variety of songs (including a few I didn’t know, which was nice), they all tried to choose a song that help some sort of inherent meaning. Some of the kids also caught onto the call-to-action concept we’d discussed earlier in the year and went for a song that deeply engaged the audience in a ‘mission’. Having analysed what the lyricist what trying to communicate (or interpreting it from their own life experiences), the students used good old Google to source images that communicated the same type of themes and emotions.

We had also explored the power of imagery, looking at what make a powerful image more significant than others. We also explored black-and-white and colour images, and even sepia, as a way of communicating emotion.

As I’ve indicated, the end results have been amazing. We’ve spent about a week now showing the work to each other in class and there has been more than one presentation that brought tears to the kids’ eyes! How powerful is that!

Communication is such a broad field and I’m really proud of my students for the way they’ve expressed themselves in a new genre.



Chalk and Talk – a winner!


I had an interesting thing happen in class recently. I used the whiteboard.

Now, I honestly can’t remember that last time I wrote on the board, let alone teach a ‘chalk and talk’ lesson with my kids (does anyone know the 21st century term for this when we use whiteboards?). I can’t say I am a particularly technology-intensive teacher but I do like to use a wide range of teaching methods and styles and C&T is a fair way down my list. But we were talking about the use of commas and it was a simple teaching process for the content.

I started the lesson (with my girls’ class) by saying it would be a bit of a “chat-and-explain, chalk-and-talk lesson”.  I said it almost apologetically. I was quite surprised when a few of the students gave a ‘that’s great’ type of response. They seemed keen to learn this way.

Anyway, we had a good time chatting and learning with me explaining things and writing stuff up on the whiteboard. They got the concepts and completed a few practice examples on a worksheet. They demonstrated their engagement and their acquired knowledge.

At the end of the lesson I told them, as I often do, that they’d done a great job in learning. One lovely girl responded with, “You did a great job teaching today, Mr Wilcox’.

Hmmm… chalk-and-talk and great-job. I wonder how many pedagogical boffins might struggle with that!?

Now, I’d never go so far as to assume that all things old have become new, but I do know we must not throw the baby out with the technological, ritz and glamour, high paced bathwater. It seems our students are happy with meat and three veg lessons from time to time.

How do you provide balance in your teaching styles?

CC Image:


Integrated Units


One of my beliefs about adolescent education revolves around the power of integrated / cross-curricula learning. I firmly believe in the need for a “decompartmentalised” curriculum where teens get to experience learning outside the bounds of subject specialities; where ‘Science’ knowledge and ‘English’ knowledge are used side by side and used without the student really identifying their thought processes as being linked to a subject at all.  Why is this important?  Because real life rarely compartmentalises though or knowledge.

The reality of education, however, is often far from what I’d like it to be, even in my school. The tyranny of time, timetables and staffing make integrated learning difficult.

So, let me tell you about something that did work just recently.
After a bit of chatting, our Head of Humanities and I realised we could run two units of work in parallel. In History, the students were learning about refugees and world crisis. I was looking at the book ‘Boy Overboard’ which is about an Afghani refugee’s journey to Australia.
Long story short, we relied on each other’s content to enhance the learning in our own subject. For me, as the English teacher, I knew the kids were gaining a great understanding of the background to the book in History and I was able to focus on other aspects of the analysis of the story.

What I have loved most, however is that we had the students do a single piece of assessment for the two subjects. For History they needed to research a crisis in the world – something like the AIDS epidemic in Africa. I wanted the students to do another oral presentation, this time in a multimodal format. The two fitted together well.
Over the past couple of days, the students have presented their orals and did a great job of combining the content required for History with the structure and format I required for English. The best thing for the students, I believe, is that they effectively had one less piece of assessment in the term and the fact that they used skills and knowledge from one subject in the other.
Gotta love decompartmentalised learning!

How do you combine curricula elements for your students?