Changing the World

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I wrote last week about my Year Eight students and the mini project they were doing to end the year.  I am incredibly impressed and proud of what they have achieved, especially one group.

I have kids who are wrapping almost-new second-hand books and making cards which will be delivered to the children’s ward at the local hospital.  Others are making videos with a social justice theme and posting them YouTube. Still others are writing letters to encourage people to consider partnering with an aid agency to support impoverished people.  A couple of individuals are creating social-justice themes art work.

But the group that are impressing me most are those students who have created an awareness campaign and are promoting it through social media.  do a search for #Heart2Change in twitter or instagram, or look up Heart2Change of FaceBook to see what they are doing    It is such a simple but powerful concept.  The students are encouraging people to put the heart2change symbol (above) on their wrist as a way of engaging people in conversation; a way of explaining that they have a heart to change the world, that others can have a heart to change, and that, together, we can change hearts.  How great is that?  simple, effective, and a clear message.  A couple from this group were even interviewed on the local community radio station this morning.

I really hope this concept goes viral (like the ice bucket challenge) but if it doesn’t, I am still incredibly impressed with that these kids have achieved.  Their thinking and discovery and problem solving… and their passion… has been astounding.

Please check them out and join their movement to change the world.

I cannot imagine a more exciting place to be working than here at my school with my young adolescents and in this wonderful, collaborative environment.

 

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…

 

I know you’re busy but… 10 ways to be present for your students

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I got pulled up recently by a passing comment from one of my students… “Mr Wilcox, I know you are really busy but could I come and talk with you about my work?”
For some reason (guilt?) the ‘really busy’ bit was the barb in her words.

Why did she perceive me as busy? In what ways am I communicating that to my students? Sure, there are always plenty of things going in my professional life, but the most important of them must always remain my ability to be present for my students and their learning.  Teaching is a very busy career but it is a profession  founded on the needs of the students.  We must never put the cart before the horse.

Here are some things I have observed that will likely communicate the wrong message to students about your availability. (Some I confess to, others are not ‘me’.)

1. Using technology
Technology is an important part of teaching and should be seamlessly integral to what we do. Sometimes, however, it can become a distraction and a time-drain. Be sure it never gets in the way of solid student relationship.

2. Tweeting, texting, emailing in class
Seriously?!
I am aware of people who will do this during a class they are teaching.  It’s time to disconnect from your online world and connect with the kids in front of you.

3. Getting stuck at your classroom desk
It can be easy to set a task that engages kids and then find yourself, as the teacher, working on something else. But consider how this looks to the students. Be 100% present in every element of your student’s learning, wandering and questioning and encouraging.

4. Frequently focusing on what you (or they) need to do by a deadline
Deadlines are real and necessary but an over-emphasis on them will communicate a one-dimensional approach to learning: the busier you are the more you are effective. Take care not to let your own deadline pressures to complete things or have kids complete tasks get in the way of quality time for engaging, relational learning.

5. Being late for class
This is obviously poor form and can easily communicate that something else is more important that your presence with your class.

6. Leaving class quickly
Very much like point 5, this yells ‘too busy’ to the students. Or, even less desiringly, ‘I’m done with this teaching stuff’. Frequently, the after-lesson time will be when students will hang back and chat about learning or life. Be present for them.

7. Turning up with a coffee or cookie in your hand
Personally, I hate it when teachers bring coffee or food to class. I know there will be times when you have duty and don’t get a chance to have a break, but let’s be sure that we don’t become so relaxed about our class setting that we lose a professional, attentive approach toward our kids. By all means, have a snack time with the kids if you want. But be careful not to inadvertently communicate that you are so busy you can’t even take a break during break times.

8. Brushing kids off
I guess this is the ultimate way of communicating you’re too busy to care. If you cannot speak with a student immediately, negotiate the soonest time possible to catch up. And then, don’t forget.

9. Not providing good eye contact and attention when speaking with students
This is akin to brushing kids off. Your body language is critical in communicating positive, healthy, connected communication with your students. If you can’t give them your full attention, don’t try to give them just part attention. Either stop what you are doing or negotiate another time when you can give all of your attention to the student’s needs.

10. Not being able to be found by your students
I can think of a few teachers I have worked with who did a very good job of disappearing during break times or spare lessons. Sometimes, these are the best times for students to access you and work through issues.

Let me finish by saying again: teaching is a very busy job. There is a lot that goes on and many things that demand our time. But I believe that, in reality, many of the tasks can wait so that our students remain our main focus.
What’s your opinion?

 

Begin with the End in Mind

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I was re-reading sections of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion recently… particularly the part where he reminds teachers of the need to begin with the end; in other words, to ensure you have a firm understanding of where your lessons are going and to what purpose the teaching is being done before you plan your daily content.
While I wholeheartedly agree, I also started thinking about the need for this to happen with and for my students. They need to be able to see the reason for every lesson; for every activity. At no time should they be wondering why we are doing something. At no time should they feel any disconnect from the clearly identified themes are purposes of their learning.
For me, this will happen through constant conversation. We will start a unit of work by exploring metanarratives and global themes (I will however vehemently avoid putting any content in the context of ‘it’s in the curriculum’). I want my students to own the purpose of their learning. Maybe this is through real-life or life-like learning. Often it will be through topics that I know will be of interest to them, or ones we have negotiated. Once the big picture is established, I will work toward providing links to these purposes at the start of each lesson. I find this helps students to connect the daily learning with the whole unit; it helps to avoid students compartmentalising a lesson in isolation from the unit. Ultimately, it helps students keep their eye on the big picture and the purpose for all their learning.
We are coming toward the end of a whole-semester unit of work on asylum seekers and aid agencies. It would be easy for the students to become focused on the intricacies of tasks like writing orals and creating videos and building presentations spaces. I find, however, that as I remind them of the deep, over-aching reasons for their work, they maintain a more focused attitude toward their work.

6 things teens need to hear every day…

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Tomorrow
As in, “You were to have this completed today.  Let’s work toward tomorrow”.
Grace is needed with teen learners and sometimes there are very good reasons why something needs to be put off for a day or two. Teen’s lives are complex. The reason why the task is not complete today might be as varied as the sky and the earth. Listen to the reason, evaluate, then show grace when you can.  Give them until tomorrow if you can.  But then hold them to account.

 
However
As in, “You’ve done well here, here and here however what do you reckon about this part?”  Students crave balanced feedback on their work. Providing just the positives eliminates the need for improvement. Providing just the negatives is crushing. The balance of the two provides the goal and the improvement needed to get there.

 
I believe you can
Advocacy is invaluable.  Our positive encouragement is vital.  Helping teens see the pathway to further success is enlightening.

However, never should we leave them to flounder in finding that success.  Scaffolding is necessary and cushioning their failure-fall is imperative.  Which leads to…

 
You made a mistake
Mistakes are normal, needed and need to be noticed.  Celebrate the growth that comes from the discovery of a mistake. And make sure you show your mistakes and your growth too.

 
Yes
How often do we restrict learning because of our preconceptions.  We need to listen to suggestions from students and say yes more often. Creativity and thought are based on permission and exist beyond the boundaries of restriction.

 
In other words
Adolescents require explanations to be given in various way, as many times as needed. Don’t become frustrated by their lack of understanding. Be the adult. Be the teacher. Find new ways to explain. And this is not just about new words to use, but also new methods and process to demonstrate and engage in learning.

 

What would you add to this list?

 

The infinite value of the multicultural classroom

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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.

 

Competency Based Positive Vocabulary

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We all know that positive language is important within the classroom but I believe that for adolescents is it critical.

More than at any other time in their lives, teenagers will struggle with aspects if identity as they move from relatively intimate parental control and influence into the adult word of personal decision making (and all of the consequences that brings).  Adolescents can easily feel overwhelmed with their life and the changes that are occurring.  At times they will feel in control but often they will struggle with their level of competencies and will need support.  One way of doing that is through the language we use and engender in the classroom.

Recently, I came across the following list of words that challenged me to consider how a small change in the language I use could make a potentially large difference to my students (and how I view them).

While the list was used to contract a pathology (‘how do I fix’) language set with a competency (‘how do I support’) vocabulary, I believe it can also be used to engender a more positive language in our classrooms and in our adolescent students.

 

PATHOLOGY BASED 

Negative vocabulary

COMPETENCY BASED  

Positive vocabulary

Fix Empower
Weakness Strength
Limitation Possibility
Problem Solution
Insist Invite
Closed Open
Shrink Expand
Defence Access
Expert Partner
Control Nurture
Backward Forward
Manipulate Collaborate
Fear Hope
Cure Growth
Stuck Change
Missing Latent
Resist Utilise
Hierarchical Horizontal
Diagnose Appreciate
Judge Respect

 

In what ways do you see this language could transform your classroom?  I’ve you to share your ideas and opinions.

 

Metcalf, L., (1995) Therapy towards solutions: a practical solution focused program for working with students, teachers, and parents. New York Centre for Applied Research in Education

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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):

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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?

 

Ski lessons

 

I can’t ski.

There… I’ve bared my soul by exposing a long-held secret.

In 2005 my wife, kids and I packed out bags and headed off to live and work in Canada for six months. It was one of the best personal, professional and family development times I have ever had. We made some awesome friends and experienced more of life than we thought could ever be packed into such a short timeframe.

During this time, just before Christmas, we headed to some ski fields to learn to ski. Now, I say ‘ski fields’ but the reality is less impressive than I’m sure you are imagining. Anyway, there was snow, there were not hoards of people, and we signed up for ski lessons.

None of us had skied before, primarily because the sum total of snow that falls in my state of Australia is measured in nanometres.

My two older kids were 10 and 12. They had one lesson and were off hitting the mildly sloping terrain with abandon. My youngest was in kinder-ski (she was six) and giggled her way through a few hours of hurtling into inflated animals because turning was not in her skill set yet. She was very cute. She became the darling of the (primarily Australian) ski teachers.

My wife and I, along with two other adults (I told you there were few people there) headed off to our lessons. We got the boots and skis on. We looked the part. We imagined ourselves heading for the triple black diamond run. We were pumped!

Then reality set in.

By lunch time, I managed to slide in a straight line without falling down. And I’d managed that… once. (Don’t ask about how incredibly difficult it is to ride those things that dragged you back up the slope or how much they hurt when they smack you in the back of the head when you’ve fallen down!)

I returned for the afternoon lessons hopeful that I’d master The Turn. I didn’t. I did, however, manage to justify in my mind the inherent value of skiing in a straight line (there’s much less wear and tear on one ski over the other).

The following day, because of the small number of skiers and despite my protestations that I just can’t ski, I ended up having an individual lesson.

By lunch time my instructor agreed with me. I can’t ski!

We all have strengths and weaknesses. There are those things that we struggle to achieve in.  And our students are just the same, especially during the early adolescent years when the complexities of hormonal changes and peer importance come into play.

Their beliefs about their failures are real (in their mind).  Their justification for failure becomes more engrained with every disappointment.

But I never want to be like my ski instructor.  I want to persevere and encourage and continue to find new instruction techniques that engage with my students so they can experience success.

I trust I am a better, more understanding, compassionate teacher in the light of my skiing experiences. I certainly understand the frustration of trying and failing.

 

The Ripple Effect

 

Do you ever get that end-of-semester, the-assessment-is-finished, what-do-we-do-with-the-kids-now feeling?

I have to admit that, for many teachers, the last few days of a semester can be a challenge.  Kids are disinterested and teachers are exhausted.

A few of our wonderful staff led us into wonderfully uncharted territory at the end of last semester in a whole-secondary event called The Ripple Effect.

Over three days (Monday, Tuesday and Friday) the students worked in house teams to create ‘something’.  The intention was to model and encourage higher order thinking skills within a non-structured, student-directed, creative environment.  And the results were amazing!

The students met in their house groups (Middle and Senior separately) to design a structure or event that upholds God and our College’s Honour Code while contributing to the community – be that the College community, our suburb or the wider city.  The focus was on making a difference with every day actions, skills and giftings.

Students needed to

  • complete a feasibility report,
  • show aspects of design,
  • cost the event/structure
  • consider how it might be funded
  • consider workplace health and safety
  • and present an event management proposal.

The students had access to the various skill sets of the staff as well as any other support structures they though necessary.

They were provided with thinking tools such as PCQs, SWOTs, decision-making matrixes and elimination draws.  Teachers supported, encouraged and challenged individuals and groups.

Ultimately, the groups had to present their proposal in a 10-minute presentation on the Friday to a judging panel, which included staff from our city council (it was a house competition after all!).

The work the students completed and the quality of their ideas and presentations was far beyond what was expected.  Perhaps more exciting, the ideas they generated were genuinely impressive and valuable, often demonstrating their collective compassion for others.  These ideas ranged from printing positive messages on coffee cups to counter the growing levels of depression in our society to running an encouragement afternoon tea for girls at a neighbouring state school and establishing a fun-day for the local community (these were from the Middle Years kids).

As I said, the results were far beyond what we expected and, while the amount of work needed to make this event happen was huge, we now have an established process that we will definitely use again.

And there was no evidence of boredom or disengagement.  A real win-win.

Feel free to contact me if you would like some more details.

 

What do you do in your school to counteract potentially wasted end-of-semester days?

Please leave a comment to share your experiences.