Inspiring a love of poetry

In my year 8 class, we have been studying poetry this term. Some classics and some contemporary poems. Throughout the unit, students have been given opportunities to perform poetry, respond to poetry and to write their own poetry.

We have spent some time reading poetry that captures the beauty and majesty of nature. Students have considered how poets use techniques to create vivid, arresting imagery and evoke emotions. In order to give it an authentic quality, we have spent time listening to poets read their works. We have also performed poetry.

In the last week, our class has created an anthology of poetry and they’ve performed and recorded a reading of their own poetry. We used GarageBand to record the files and they’ve uploaded them to their English folder.

They have also created their own digital inspiration board, collating all the beautiful photographs, paintings, imagery, words, quotes, poems, proverbs, psalms etc that inspires them to live a wonderful, happy and creative life. In getting them to create a digital inspiration board, bringing together the many facets of the unit, they are learning how literature and art can inspire them to live a wonderful, creative and happy life.

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Authentic Learning

There is much that has been published about ‘Authentic Learning.’ I think the idea of grounding learning in a real world context is a good idea. It makes sense to help students make links between the skills and knowledge they acquire with their own contexts. I’ve always believed teaching something out of context and without helping students make connections between what they learn and their world, to be somewhat futile. We all need a point at which we can connect with what we read. I believe that our own experiences are central to helping us understand new and challenging concepts. For example, I wasn’t a particularly great Science student at school, but after leaving school, I found that narratives about scientists and the work they had undertaken, really helped me to understand a range of concepts that were so foreign to me at school. Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100″ was a great book to read about how Physics plays such an important role in our lives. The grounded, authentic experiences allowed me to understand the very difficult and complex science behind a whole range of innovations, from driverless cars, to talking walls and clothes detecting changes to heart rates, breathing etc.

There are many such books about science and innovation that I have read, that have grounded the theory into practice and have in essence opened up these worlds to me. Granted, not everyone learns this way, but I have learnt through the process, that sometimes you need an expert to ‘connect the dots’ so that people who don’t necessarily think a certain way, can still access the information.

With this in mind, I have been working with my year 7 class, on creating documentaries. We’ve just spent the term focusing on the power of persuasion. We’ve looked at what makes an effective piece of persuasive writing. My students have spent the better part of three weeks, creating documentaries designed to present factual information, to inform and persuade their audiences about a local issue of importance to them.

Initially, I have asked them to research the documentary form. They presented this information in slideshows to the class. They shared these on the class’ Edmodo page. I have structured the planning stages whereby they have used mind-mapping tools (bubbl.us) and a PMI to decide on the topic they will research for their documentary.

They are also using Google Forms to create surveys. This is a fantastic tool as I was able to teach them about the different kinds of questions you can ask people and how thinking about questioning can allow for a range of responses. We were able to discuss when and how we would use short answer, multiple choice, longer answer responses.

Today they have reflected on the process thus far. I look forward to reading their journal entries and commenting on each of them. They have created all of this in a Google doc (as our school uses the Google platform) and this is shared with me. I’ve also taught them about how to select different sources and to ascertain the credibility and validity of an article or other piece of research they have found.

So far I can say that they have really engaged in the process. There hasn’t been a question about when they can start to “create the documentary in iMovie” which is great. It means they are thinking about the process. I have also told them we will spend a week on editing the films in class and then we will share them with the class.

Their audience will grow from the class, to include their parents and other people in our school community. It is really interesting to facilitate this process in the classroom. They have shown me that they are much more aware of the issues in their local area than we would give credit. They have shown me, that when given the opportunity to think, plan, research and reflect and to teach these skills, they can certainly imagine and create bigger and better documentaries. I may even extend an invitation to the local Mayor, to come and watch a selection of the films.

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Back into the swing of things…

I have to confess: it has been a really busy year and I have not blogged nearly as much as I would have liked. Returning to work after having a baby, balancing full time work and family commitments is something I feel I am slowly becoming better at managing. I think the many articles and opinion pieces about mother’s guilt and balancing work and family do summarise the angst that returning to work can bring, though I have to say that it’s a challenge that is worthwhile. A good friend said to me that a baby will grow and eventually become a little person with their own identity. It’s so true because when I look at my little one now, he is vivacious, loves exploring and has a warm and endearing nature. He also loves to joke around. I think that day care has enabled more and varied opportunities to develop his social skills and motor skill development. I think that work has enabled me to reconnect with people and remember what it is that I love so much about being in the classroom. Anyway, will promise another blog post soon.

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“I’m not here to be average. I’m here to be Awesome!”

I love twitter. I love it because I can log in at any time of the day or night and can be entertained, challenged, vindicated or otherwise. This morning was no different. I had been perusing the twitter feed and a picture was tweeted by Peter Millett, British Ambassador to Jordan.

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I have been looking for some inspirational sayings to motivate my students. I teach wonderful students but have found that they need to develop confidence in themselves as learners. There are some students who need the extra encouragement and who need to build resilience. As their teacher, I feel compelled to want to provide a learning environment that allows them to be awesome, not average. I want them to understand a culture of high expectations and success can be a positive experience and that it requires them to be responsible and active learners. I won’t accept average and they’re beginning to realise that if I don’t feel they’ve done their best, then they have to do the work again. I have seen some wonderful improvement in their work. Sometimes I find myself thinking about the common complaint that students are pushed to work really hard in primary school, often exceeding expectations, until they get to high school where we lower the benchmark.

I’ve set some really challenging work for my students and have watched them grapple with the work. What has impressed me is that they have begun to have a go at the work, rather than putting up the barrier by telling me that ‘it’s too hard.’ A person’s self efficacy can really influence their approach to their studies and in turn, how they see themselves as a student. I have been continually impressed by my students, many of whom will accost me in the playground to tell me about something they liked about our English lesson or to ask me about something related to what we are studying in class. They have come to learn that I wont accept mediocrity.

Essentially in order to reject average and celebrate awesome, there needs to be trust. Students need to trust that I will be there to support their learning, to provide the instruction they need, to provide the feedback and encouragement they need in order to achieve their best. I need to trust them as well. Building positive relationships is crucial to creating a learning space that celebrates awesome rather than average.

I have been posting inspirational quotes but also interesting facts and ideas to help develop their thinking skills and to establish strategies to help them to become better learners. I am thinking of creating a wall in the classroom, where each student contributes one quote that may inspire another student. I’ve really decided to make a concerted effort to create a classroom that celebrates awesome rather than average. I have always believed in it, but feel with my current cohort of students, it is more important than ever. Will look forward to sharing further reflections. If you have found ways to motivate and inspire your students, please feel free to share.

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A Whole New World Of…

At the work Christmas Party in 2013, after reflecting on the year that was (over some mineral water with fresh lime) I remember a number of colleagues talking about how my life would change with a baby, about how I wouldn’t want to return as Curriculum Coordinator and how I wouldn’t want to work full time. I have blogged a little about this in the past so I wont cover that topic again, only to say that 2014 flew by in what now seems like the blink of an eye (though settling a newborn to sleep at 3am, in the middle of Winter, didn’t seem to fly by at all) and at the start of the 2015 school year, I find myself at a new school, in a new role (English Coordinator) and of course, my most treasured role as a mother to a healthy, happy baby.

2015 has begun really well. The new school is going really well in so many ways. The staff are professional and friendly. The students are generally interested in their learning. My baby is settling in quite well to daycare and I have a supportive husband, so the transition to returning to work has been made a lot easier. I’m not at all certain that I have the work – life balance right just yet, but I am certainly not letting the small stuff get in the way of quality afternoons with my baby.

I believe that 2015 will provide me with a whole new world of experiences and challenges. Already some of the challenges I’ve faced in the workplace are a considerable number of students who just hate reading. Students who wont pick up a book and read. They wont pick up anything and read. I have a number of reluctant learners and one of my projects is to get to understand them better so that they can become engaged in their own learning. I am researching a number of ways that I can do this, because it seems that some of my strategies that have worked in the past, don’t seem to be working as well this time. The saddest part is that they are only in year 8 and are already so disengaged. I suspect it comes down to their self perception as learners. I think a number of them have ‘got by’ and a number of them have very low self-esteem and self confidence. I don’t know that I can address all of it, but I’m certainly going to do my best to help engage them, so they can value themselves as individuals, as learners.

I’ve also joined a department at the time of the implementation of the new English Syllabus in NSW. This is indeed a very exciting time and I find myself thinking of ways to engage with the new syllabus. I am going to do some work on programming, assessment and unpacking the syllabus with my staff. All the things I absolutely loved doing when I used to be an English Coordinator. All the things I rarely had an opportunity to do when I was a Curriculum Coordinator.

I have reflected on what it was like to come home after work, before having a baby. I would get home around 6:45pm every night. I would go to the gym, have dinner and then work for 3 hours. I would spend hour after hour each weekend, planning, preparing and just researching and reflecting. I guess my work life balance before baby wasn’t particularly great either. Coming home after a day’s work in 2015 means taking my baby to the park to play on the swings and other play equipment with other children and then meeting all of his needs before a story and bedtime. It also means prepping everything for the next day, so that the morning runs as smooth as possible, I still spend some time working in the evening and at weekends, but I must admit, I use my time much more efficiently at work. I have also found that by having five lessons of one hour each, per day, rather than six lessons of 53 minutes a day, has really made a huge difference. It means there are one or two days where I may have an hour of non face-to-face teaching time, but other days where I have two hours of non face-to-face teaching time and in these hour blocks, I get a lot of work done. I always used to wonder how the mothers managed to do everything on time and fit it all in to their busy schedules. Time management and working efficiently – something I thought I was good at, but this is a whole new world.

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It’s time to publicly thank the mentors who walk the walk.

Ask any teacher in a school they love, in a role they relish about where they see themselves in five or so years time and they will often tell you that they see themselves exactly where they are. Who could blame them? After all, knowing that your students enjoy learning and willingly come to class, complete their work and achieve solid results is the gratification teachers generally enjoy and often come to take for granted. Ask a middle manager in the same school, the same question and chances are they will also envisage that they will remain at the school, for in addition to the great students, they have generally worked hard to establish a cohesive, collaborative and efficient department.
There are very few heads of department who willingly decide to leave their role and take on a role in a school that poses new challenges and different needs. Those who do, often seek out a similar or better performing schools, hoping to carve a niche for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s a rarity that someone will find fulfilment by leaving a high performing school to a school that holds great promise and potential, but is working hard on school improvement and changing the culture and expectation of students and their colleagues. In short, the idea of leaving a place that works like clockwork, to a place where you can draw on your philosophy of education to implement new and exciting ways of teaching and learning does not hold great appeal for the majority of educators in middle management. This is largely because it takes so much time and energy and because results are so public. The intense pressure is felt by subject coordinators, particularly English Coordinators because their results are public. The number of Band 6’s attained in English are published each year in the paper. The NAPLAN literacy results are often the domain of the English department and of course we know these results form a big part of the MySchools Website, which we also know, a lot of potential parents check out, well before they come to an Open Day or set foot in the school. The role of English Coordinator (and the same can be said for the Maths Coordinator) is so much more public.
The reason that I have outlined some of the challenges of the English Coordinator is to highlight something fantastic that one of my closest friends and mentors has decided to do. Early on when I started out as an English Coordinator, this woman was the first person at a Network Meeting for English Coordinators at our region, to introduce herself to me and immediately offer me her number and any assistance I may require. I remember feeling at ease after meeting her and at the same time, thinking I don’t even know what I don’t know, so what will I possibly ring and ask her! It didn’t take long to establish a great working relationship and friendship with her. We worked collaboratively, writing HSC programs and sharing them between our two schools. I learnt so much through her actions and her words. She treated everyone with dignity. She was so creative and dynamic, I remember thinking how much I wanted to be like that for my staff and I was so proud that I found my way and was able to be the creative, energetic leader of my department.

Today I have found out that this wonderful, creative, energetic and inspiring educational leader has decided to take on another role at another school. She is heading off to be English Coordinator at an all boys’ school, a school that has seen enormous changes in leadership over the past couple of years. It is a school that desperately needed change and is now well and truly on the way to achieving great things for their students. When I spoke to my friend, I initially thought she was going to tell me that she was going to be Head of Curriculum or Assistant Principal at another school (because I always imagined that would be her career path) but she told me that she was going to be English Coordinator at a school that was going through a lot of change. She spoke positively about the challenges she will face and the ideas she had for meeting the needs of her staff and students. The energy, enthusiasm and creativity she has is balanced by her keen intellect and common sense approach. I thought long and hard last night about how lucky her new staff will be to have her as a leader. When I think of her unwavering support, encouragement and generosity, I am confounded by how much energy she has for her work, but also her family. She has shown me that it is possible to balance your passion for work and your passion for your family. She has shown me that it augurs well to be generous and share your resources and ideas, because it serves to improve teaching practice and ultimately student outcomes (I think Hattie did some research that also showed effective teaching practice has a huge impact on student performance). She has shown me that the depths of a teacher’s heart run deep. To want to step into the same role in a different school, with all the expectations and anticipation for success must be both thrilling and a touch overwhelming. If anyone can find the best in her colleagues and her students it is Mosh Mavrakis. Mosh is a great mentor because she is someone who has seized the opportunity to transform the learning of students and staff in need. Reminded me of dear Robin Williams’ role as Mr John Keating when he says to his boys ‘Carpe. Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” No doubt your mantra to inspire your boys in 2015. All the best dear friend in your new venture in 2015. I cannot think of anyone else who could take on such a challenge with the love, passion and dedication that you have for teaching and learning. You are a human dynamite and your colleagues and students will know that soon enough! I can imagine that as the news filters through your school, there will be a real sense of sadness and loss, because you have done outstanding things at your current school. You’ve etched a path for success that has been well trodden. I wish you every success.
Thank you for being the mentor I needed in 2008 as a new coordinator and again in 2014 as a new mother. You’ve inspired me in so many ways and I know for a fact you’ve inspired many a Coordinator in the Inner West Region. I look forward to hearing about your experiences in 2015. Enjoy the last few weeks of term, allowing your colleagues and students to farewell you and thank you for all that you have done.

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In gratitude for friends who tell it like it is…

For those who know me well, know that I have agonised long and hard about returning to full time work in 2015. In fact, reading a number of blog posts by teachers also on maternity leave, contemplating how they are going to balance work and family life, resonated quite strongly with me. For starters, I resigned an executive position that I enjoyed, at a school that I loved, so that I wouldn’t have to sacrifice either work or home life. Following that decision, I was going to return to that school as a full time English teacher. I have held a leadership role in schools for the last 7 years, so returning to a full time teaching role was going to create some new challenges for me, but I felt that it would be better for creating a work/life balance, because ultimately, I could do a lot of prep and marking while my baby was sleeping.
No sooner had I made this decision that I had begun feeling rather anxious about leaving my baby. Would he cope being away from me, day after day? Would he thrive in a childcare environment? Would they attend to his needs? Would be be cuddled if he was sad? Such questions had never entered my thoughts prior to having a baby. In fact, prior to having a baby I was quite confidently telling everyone that I would be returning to my executive role and everything will be business as usual. I was affronted that a number of people were just as confidently telling me that I wouldn’t want to do the role once my baby was born. In fact, I never thought I would be one of those people, the person who would easily give up a great position, something I had worked so hard to achieve, so quickly.
It’s amazing how very quickly your priorities change once you have children. As cliched as it sounds, it is so very true. I had no idea. No idea. No. Idea.
I was contemplating just one more year of leave. Just one more year with my baby boy. I was determined that one more year would allow me more of an opportunity to prepare him for the world. It would allow me greater opportunities to share his milestones. I rationalised that he would be just that little less vulnerable. I then began to think that giving up a full time job and working casual until he was at school was probably a better decision. In the space of a night, I had all but said goodbye to a career that I loved and had worked so hard to develop.
It was then that I had a conversation with a friend that changed it all.
In her way, her honest and forthright manner, proceeded to tell me a number of home truths, not least of which, that not returning to work was not a good idea. Ultimately my baby will grow and have his own life and forge his own identity. Where will I be then? She reminded me that I had worked long and hard to get to where I was and that I could offer my baby a lot by being an example to him. I must admit I was a bit taken aback. After all, I loved being at home with my baby. I loved spending all this time with him. Nobody knew him better than me and therefore there was no way that anyone else could meet his needs. As I began to listen to my arguments I realised she was right. She was right. As much as I love staying at home with my baby, there will come a time when he will go to preschool and then school. How will I fill my days? More fundamental was my self efficacy and identity as a teacher. I love teaching and would miss it terribly. It was that conversation, back in about June that made me realise that I needed to return to work for my family. I have been successful in finding a middle management role closer to home. I am looking forward to being an English Coordinator again.
I share this post in the hope that other new mothers who are probably struggling with similar thoughts and emotions, realise they aren’t alone. I think my friend really helped me. In telling it like it is, she enabled me to see that if I had decided not to return to full time work, I probably wouldn’t return at all. It doesn’t make me selfish in any way. In fact I will be able to provide richer experiences for my baby. The opportunity for him to develop his interests and skills at day care will be exciting.
So, Mosh, thank you. As a working mother you are a source of strength and inspiration. You always have been to me, but this is a newfound respect and admiration for helping me to snap out of my bubble. You’re right and I thank you.

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