Tuesday, 24 March 2015

It takes a village...

After almost 8 weeks of consistent effort with my students this year to improve their writing skills, I feel that today I have had a memorable moment!
My 27 Year 4 students are good little students and okay writers, but eight weeks ago, they were happy enough to give me a response that was "near enough" and not quite good enough.
Little things like capital letters, punctuation and editing for basic spelling were not a high priority for them. If they felt they had completed a task with a mediocre effort, they saw no point in refining their response, editing their work, or sometimes even putting a capital letter for their own name.
Turning them around to actually taking some pride in their work has not happened overnight but lots of practice and feedback, feedback and more feedback has had some effect on their writing habits.
Earlier in the year we watched this great short video about feedback:

We discussed the role of feedback in helping us to grow as learners and the students have had many opportunities to give and receive feedback and to reflect on what they learnt from the feedback.

This week we are looking at how we are part of a bigger, global community of learners, and my success with my young writers can be attributed to the work of other passionate and dedicated educators around the globe.
In particular, I can thank three great educators for my success as a classroom teacher this week:
Julia Skinner @100word from the 100 Word Challenge
Sue Wyatt @tasteach from the Student Blogging Challenge and
David Mitchell @DeputyMitchell from Quadblogging

Each of these people is passionate about making a difference to the learning of students not only in their own schools, but all over the world. They share their amazing talents and energies to assist other teachers like me to make a real difference in classrooms all over the globe.

This year is the first time I have been involved with the 100 Word Challenge after having seen it somewhere (probably Twitter) a while back. Each week Mrs Skinner posts a prompt and around 2000 students from around the globe respond to the prompt in 100 words. They post their responses to a class or student blog and then a band of volunteers provide specific and effective feedback to the students about their writing. The look on the faces of students as they discover that their assignment has been read and appreciated by someone from another part of the world, is priceless.

The Student Blogging Challenge was a (very) lucky find after I decided to try using Edublogs as my blogging platform for my class this year. The Student Blogging Challenge has been running since 2008 and through the weekly activities that are interesting and relevant to student bloggers. As a bonus, many activities align quite well with a lot of aspects from the Digital Technologies curriculum and ICT capability continuum from the Australian Curriculum. Participating in the challenge (I'm only four weeks in) has already helped to push me as an educator into trying new things or rediscovering old tricks. I know my students are benefiting from their involvement too. So far, we have focussed on protection of personal information, writing quality comments, and understanding creative commons and copyright issues. All of these are important issues for digital citizens and learning these things alongside hundreds of other students and teachers from around the world makes our learning even more exciting and purposeful.

Quadblogging is something I have been involved with before. I have just been assigned to a quad for this year and after sending out a first welcome email to our quadblogging buddy teachers and adding their blogs to our side panel so the students can easily access their blogs, I am eagerly anticipating getting started on a new adventure with classes from Sweden, US and UK.

What these three opportunities have in common is that they have given my students a real purpose for their learning and particularly for their writing. When you know that someone else (besides the teacher) is going to read your work, then there is suddenly a reason to make sure that what you have to say is both interesting and well punctuated. While they enjoy reading and commenting on their classmate's work, receiving a comment from a stranger who has taken time out of their day to say how much they have enjoyed what they have to share is so much more special.

So today, we shared our thoughts on how we can save water after World Water Day 2015 and as I approved the comments a tear came to my eye as I noticed how far they have come as a class with taking pride in their work and editing for punctuation and basic spelling. While their sentences are still not perfect (and I have some concerns for the hygiene of the child who has pledged to have 40 second showers in a bid to save water) I can see that all the hard work is paying off. (If you have time to drop by the class blog and leave a comment - they really love comments)

Thank you to those inspiring educators who inspire me and challenge me to push my students to new heights! 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Pulling myself together

Over the past year or so (about the same time period when I dropped off the blogging radar) I have been busily creating websites to pull together lesson plans and units I had written, taught and collaborated on.
I was inspired by some of the great work being produced by professional organisations around Australia who have created "one stop spots" for a number of units. These webpages house ready-to-teach units of work that are aligned to the Australian Curriculum. Typically these websites contain information about how the unit addresses specific aspects of the curriculum, lesson plans or ideas, resources, assessment ideas and links to other online resources.
Here are some of the really good ones I have discovered:

All of these sites have excellent units that can be used as is, or adapted to suit your class.

I decided that a website might be a good way to pull together planning ideas into an easier to follow unit plan with links to useful online resources and downloadable files. One of my earlier attempts is an English unit: Whodunnit? I have also created a website to house all of my planning for an entire year in Year 4.
As more and more schools are increasing student access to technology in the classroom and many are going 1:1, I wanted to develop online resources that would support teachers in planning quality learning experiences aligned to the Australian Curriculum but also create websites that would be accessible to students using laptops or iPads.
I worked with some Year 4 teachers and their classes last year to plan and implement a Science and Technologies unit, Let's Build a Theme Park. In this project, I tried to include things that would be useful to both teachers and students, including a clear inquiry structure (using the 5Es) and Learning Intentions for the unit.
Some colleagues in Year 2 asked me to create some audio recordings of some stories about St Francis of Assisi for a unit they were doing on Saints Who Care About Creation. I needed somewhere to put these so that they would easily be able to find them that year, and into the future. I created a website called Creation, Who Cares? and was able to link numerous resources that I found or created to support them during the time that they were teaching this unit.
My aim is to now pull together other units I have taught or worked on in the past so that they are easier to share with other teachers. As I am teaching units this year in Year 4, I will create other websites to support my students and to curate my planning ideas.
Since I have now ended up with a diverse collection of units and trying to explain to people where they might go to find them is becoming more challenging, I created a virtual home for myself to curate my collection as it evolves.

Please take a look at what I am working on and feel free to share this work with others. I am hoping that by sharing what I have done so far I will get plenty of feedback from others so I can improve as I go. Knowing that others find these resources useful will help me to remain motivated to complete the task.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The 100 Word Challenge

This week I tried the 100WC with my students for the first time.
If you have never heard of the 100 Word Challenge, then you can find out more about how to enter on their website: 100wc.net
Basically, once a week, some amazingly committed and enthusiastic educator posts a writing prompt and then children from all over the world write 100 words inspired by the prompt and posts it to a class or student blog.
The great thing about the 100WC is that the students can become part of a global community of young writers who are all working together to get better at their craft.
A team of dedicated parents and teachers (known as Team 100WC) volunteer to read and comment on the students' work. Students who enter are also encouraged to read other entries and to comment on other people's work.
At the end of the week a select few entries are chosen to be the "showcase entries" for the week. This gives students something to aim for, but also an easy way to identify some entries that are good examples of writing.
It was only our first round, but I was so excited by the way that my class were so motivated to write, read, reflect, write, read and write as they posted their own work and commented on their classmates and read the comments they received.
We did have some discussion about comments the week before.
I used the T.H.I.N.K. acronym to introduce a discussion about what might be appropriate or inappropriate in an online discussion. Since some of my kids have appeared to have confused blog comments with "chat", we really discussed the "helpful" and "necessary" components. I added to our blog expectations that the comments needed to be on topic, as opposed to random chit-chat.
We also watched one of my good-ole-favrits: Mrs Yollis' Guide to Writing Quality Comments.

This week as part of our focus on the qualities of a good learner, we looked at the role of feedback in helping us to reflect on our work so that we can improve.
I can never get sick of the video about Austin's Butterfly on the effectiveness of good feedback, and any student or teacher I have watched it with has enjoyed it as much as I have. It really helps students to visualise how learning can improve when they receive and reflect on good feedback.
After discussing the role of feedback and watching this video, the students were excited about the prospect of getting feedback on their own writing, and the quality of the feedback they gave to each other was much better than the usual "Good job" or "Nice story" because they had an understanding of what good feedback might look like.
I would like to get the students to read the feedback they received from me, their peers, parents and other readers from around the globe to set themselves a personal goal for their writing that they can work on for the rest of this term.
If you would like to give them some more feedback, I am sure they would love for you to read and comment on their work. Our 100 Word Challenges can be found at: http://mrsbathamsclass.edublogs.org/
We will continue to work on writing comments and feedback throughout the year.
Yesterday I found another good website that also promotes writing using peer feedback: http://www.writeabout.com/
I particularly like their guides to writing comments and self and peer review.
They have a great little poster that I might add to my growing collection of "tech help" on my back wall:

WriteAbout have also produced a short, student and parent friendly guide to writing comments which elaborates on the messages in this poster.

It is early days yet with our writing, but if we can maintain our enthusiasm, the 100 Word Challenge seems to be a very useful resource for improving student writing!

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Surface impressions

Almost six months after first using my Surface Pro 3, I'm still not a huge fan. I have held off writing this post for quite some time so that I could be sure I have given it a fair try. Please be clear that I think the Surface Pro 3 might be useful for some people and I don't think I am their target market. If you sit at a desk all day with a PowerPoint next to you, it might be the device for you. If you are a teacher considering this device for your classroom, there might be different things you are looking for in a device.
For the last few years I have been looking forward to the opportunity to work in a 1:1 classroom so that I can explore new possibilities without some of the hassles and inconveniences that come with sharing devices.
Given that my most recent experiences have been within the Apple ecosystem and I have spent many thousands of hours working with iPads and MacBooks, developing a deep understanding of how the amazing possibilities that are opened up when using Apple software and apps, I had sincerely hoped that I might have the opportunity to apply this knowledge and tap into the great connections I have made with other Apple educators over the past few years.
I was thrown a curve ball when somehow I accidentally found myself thrust into an environment that decided to go with Microsoft instead.
I was given a new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to "get to know" in September of 2014.
I tried very hard to grow to like this device which Microsoft would have consumers believe was somehow better than both the MacBook and the iPad combined. I even sewed a pretty floral bag to carry it around in and decorated the type cover with pretty washi tape to try to make it look a little less harsh and unfriendly, but the more I use this device the more I yearn for something else.
I have waited almost six months to write my first blog post on this topic as I thought that maybe with a bit of time I would get used to Windows 8.1 and come to like the Surface Pro's hybrid nature.
It still hasn't happened.
The countless early reviews I read that raised concerns about battery life and overheating have proven to be correct. This "tablet that can replace your laptop" is not very useful as a tablet. For starters, it doesn't fit in your handbag and it has sharp edges and no easy to purchase protective case. I bought a protective case for it online but the case made some of the features inaccessible so I ended up removing it.
Given that it has a touch screen, a removable keyboard (to be more accurate, it doesn't actually come with a keyboard but you have to buy the overpriced type cover if you are going to try to use it as a laptop) and a front and rear facing camera, you would expect that you can use it as a tablet. Unfortunately, the touch screen is active to the very edge so it is difficult to hold securely while walking around without inadvertently touching something that causes the program to change or a menu to pop up. If people think an iPad is a bit large to use as a camera, then this thing is even bigger and you can't hold it comfortably and if you dropped it without a protective case it has straight edges and sharp corners that would damage easily. As a camera, it is not comfortable to use at all and there are too many gestures required to do things such as focus that the iPad or iPhone seem to do so intuitively.
Having been a heavy iPad user and being used to a great smorgasbord of apps from which to choose, the Windows app store has proven very disappointing. To make this even more disappointing, the students don't have Microsoft accounts because they are under 13 years old so they can't load apps anyway. The techies who visit the school one morning a week are able to organise sideloading of apps for us but as the process of letting them know that there is an app we want and then them installing it would take over a week, it is not nearly as convenient as the processes in place for deploying iPad apps.
I am also very disappointed that it is left to me to go searching through the hundreds of rubbish apps to find the few hidden gems when I could list the iPad apps I want off the top of my head. Checking apps and test driving them takes time and money. I am resentful that I am effectively starting from scratch again here. It would be so much simpler if the students could load the apps themselves and do this work for me.
Without apps, the Surface Pro 3 is nothing compared to an iPad.
For the first few weeks of working with the Surface Pro 3, I tried to use it as a tablet because I really like my iPad and this has become my primary device over the past few years. Trying to use it in tablet mode was not making me warm to the Surface at all. Other people who were more positive were using it as a laptop alternative instead so I decided to change my mindset, write off the "tablet" and embrace it as a laptop.
As a laptop, it is clunky and uncomfortable. If it is the "tablet that you can't put in your handbag" then it is also the "laptop you can't use on your lap".
Surface Pro 3 would be an ideal machine for someone who sits in an office at a large desk with easy access to a powerpoint and wants something they can put into a briefcase to take home at night.
It doesn't meet my needs or expectations.
As a laptop user, I like to use my laptop on my lap, or at a coffee table or on the couch, or on my bed or on the floor and I like to be able to carry it from one room to the other without the keyboard falling off. In the classroom, I don't always sit at a desk. I use my laptop while sitting on a chair in front of the group or while walking around the room working with students. The floppy keyboard and sharp kickstand make both of these tasks very uncomfortable. Coupled with the screen being a touch screen, it is way too easy to accidentally bump the screen and muck things up if you aren't sitting at a desk.
For the students, the flexibility of using the device in different ways around the room is also compromised by the design of the Surface Pro 3.
I'm not going to even start on my opinion of Windows 8.1. There is no point because anyone who has used this operating system will know exactly how pointless and confusing it is and anyone who hasn't been forced to work with it should run to the hills if someone suggests you should.
So how is it working in a 1:1 environment? This bit I love. I am so excited to be able to work with the students and even though it is "early days", we have started blogging and they have made their first Thinglink to show their learning so far in Science. Being able to share files and set activities via the website I created has meant that we can cut down on paper use and the students are very engaged in the computer based tasks.
I'm yet to work out what I can do on the Surface Pro 3 that I couldn't do on an iPad or a MacBook Air, particularly to the level that would justify the extra expense. So far, since I have had to overcome so many hurdles in trying to come to terms with a lack of suitable software and dealing with a different operating system, it has felt like I am working with one arm tied behind my back.
Maybe in a few more months I will have discovered something to like about the Surface Pro 3, but unfortunately nearly six months of use hasn't converted me.TRying

Monday, 18 February 2013

Nouns are naming words

Last week we finally got some artwork up on our back wall - even if it was only a simple task!
Teaching only two days a week is really chewing into my time for art and finishing things off.
Since the students have been learning about nouns in English, we made a "picture dictionary" on the wall. Each child nominated a noun (something they might be able to draw) and they used black permanent marker to draw the outline on cartridge paper. Next they used water colours to fill in the spaces.

They glued the noun word onto their artwork once it was dry.
I hope this display might be useful for them when they are writing as they now have a bank of words from which to choose. And maybe they will remember what a noun is as a bonus!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

iPad apps for the classroom: Striking a balance

This year I am lucky enough to be getting six iPads for my classroom. This will give me a ratio of 1:4. If I use my personal iPad and my iPad mini, this could give me a ratio of 1:3 when I need it. (Plus one student brings his own iPad. Someone heard that iPads are good for kids with special needs so some kids have their own. That's another post for another time.
So I have come to the exciting part of the iPad journey - deciding which apps to load on the new iPads from the hundreds of thousands of apps available in the App Store.
I haven't got an unlimited budget but I don't want to download too many apps because it gets overwhelming. (To be honest, I'm not sure what my budget is, but I know it won't be infinite - I am lucky that I have been given the money for the iPads - I don't want to push the limits too far!)
Some of the free or cheaper apps are great and have been my "go to" apps up until now. (See my post on Sonic Pics and Pic Collage) Sometimes the old adage "you get what you pay for" really comes into play. The convenience of a good quality app that doesn't keep trying to sell you things is priceless.
Costs aside, I want to provide my students with a good range of apps so they can select the right tool for the right task.
I will provide them with some "drill and practice" and content type apps, and, of course, some logical thinking and strategy games, but the main purpose of the iPads will be as tools for learning, creating, sharing and collaborating. I want my students to be creative producers of knowledge, not passive consumers.
To assist in my quest for the right balance, I have started a Pinterest board for iPad apps for Year 2. I have put the links to the iTunes store and a brief description of each app. Hopefully this will make it easier next week to find them again and to select the ones that I decide I want now, or down the track. I am also hopeful that people will stumble across my Pinterest board and leave useful comments about how they have used these apps in their own classrooms.

I am working on a concept map that will hopeful clarify my thinking about how I intend to use the iPads with the students and which apps will best meet these needs. I will update this post as I go until I have worked it out.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Collaborative Planning using Web 2.0

This year I am beginning in a new role as Curriculum Support Teacher at my school. I am very excited as I am absolutely passionate about curriculum and I love to share my enthusiasm with others and (hopefully) help them to ignite a passion for teaching and curriculum too.
I will have three days a week in my new role and two days a week in my Year 2 classroom - the best of both worlds!
This will mean that I will have to relinquish a lot of the responsibility for the classroom goings on. My new teaching partner is enthusiastic about coming on board so hopefully she will survive the first little part of the year while I am learning not to be such a control freak. After (more than) 10 years of being able to do my own thing, I am going to need to adjust to the idea of sharing. It will be good for me. ;-)
After the huge learning curve I experienced last year when my life was opened up to the world of blogging, twitter, pinterest, dropbox, evernote and other ways of reflecting on, organising and sharing my teaching experiences, I am keen to support other teachers at my school to take the plunge!
I have just set up a collaborative Pinterest Board for the Life Stages topic that we will likely be studying in first term. 
I invited my fellow Year 2 teachers but so far I haven't had any responses. (Most probably because they are enjoying the last moments of their holidays before we have to come back to work!) I am hoping that this will be a new way of sharing our ideas that will be quick, simple, fun and collaborative. I don't expect that any of us will be able to do even half of the activities that I have pinned already but Pinterest is a nice visual display of resources. The collaborative board will be kind of like a menu of ideas that people can pick and choose from, and if there is nothing there that they like, they don't need to choose any. Hopefully they will add to the ideas as well.
In the past we have shared links in emails but sometimes we get a lot of these types of emails from each other and it can take a while to check all the links and try to work out what idea on the page the other person thought was relevant. Often I get one of these emails and read the first part and think "I'll check this out later" and then bury it in my disorganised inbox, never to be seen again. 
I have tried searching my inbox (either using the approximate date, the person who I think I can remember that sent it to me, or a possible keyword) and this sometimes works but can be very time consuming. I am hoping Pinterest will open up a new and better way for us to collate our ideas so we can retrieve them easily when we need them.
My teaching team are wonderful, and even though they think I am a little crazy, they usually give things a go just to humour me.
If this works, I am hoping this will be an effective and time-efficient tool for supporting the curriculum in my school.
I am also in the process of setting up a blog for my new role that will be situated within the walled-garden of our LIFE Learning Management System. Hopefully using LIFE like this will help me to get used to it so I can apply it more effectively in my classroom as well.
My hope is that I can share information with my colleagues about curriculum matters in a way that is easy for them to access when they need to without overwhelming them with too many emails which may or may not be of interest to them.
I think this year is going to be full of challenges for me, learning to use these tools in new ways and supporting others in beginning a journey to more collaborative practice using Web 2.0.
What tools do you use for collaborative planning?
How do you share your ideas with your colleagues at your school?