Limbo within the liminal space

The term ‘liminal space’ may be something that is unfamiliar to many, yet it is possibly one of the most common spaces learners (and people in general) find themselves in. The liminal space is reference to the process of transitioning through a period of change. It is a conscious awareness of knowing that you don’t know something. This is a direct contrast to being blissfully unaware of something altogether (hence, the phrase “ignorance is bliss”, one would assume!). The liminal space defines the transition that learners experience as they travel from the known into the unknown, which for our students (and hopefully ourselves) is something that we experience regularly.

However, many learners (and educators) are unaware that there is a definition of this crucial aspect of learning. Furthermore, many learners (and educators!) are uncomfortable inhabitants once within this space. Some will even resist entering it altogether through procrastination and work avoidance.

The liminal exists whether we like to admit it or not. I believe that our attitude as we approach this space heavily influences the process. Once it is embraced, it becomes our companion that will travel with us from “the ‘what was’ to the ‘next’ (Liminal Space, 2016, n.p.).

As we guide our young learners to embrace this space, we may need to help them to navigate the emotional ambiguity that can come with it. This can be done by reinforcing feelings of self efficacy – the belief that they are capable of learning and mastering new skills and knowledge. It can also be supported by encouraging reflection – making time for learners to consider their own learning, to make connections with prior experiences, to contemplate what they know, what they want to know, and possible strategies to employ to achieve this. We can also model our own transitions through liminal spaces and allowing our students to understand that this is a natural process that all learners experience.

The following quote from Richard Rohr shared by Liminal Space (2016, n.p.) beautifully describes this space:

“where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”

The liminal space is one that educators should aspire for their students to embrace one day. This may take time and guidance for this to occur, but having an awareness ourselves of this space allows us to both respect and support the transition. Most importantly, it allows our learners (and ourselves) to respect the experience of being within the liminal space. We want our learners to know not to resist it, nor to plough through it panic-stricken and searching for ‘sameness’, and instead understand the beauty and value that comes from the limbo experience of not knowing….yet.

Happy teaching!

References:

Liminal Space. (2016). Retrieved on 9th September, 2016 from https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/

 

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Putting the ‘personal’ into Personal Learning Spaces

After an absence from my blog, recent academic discussion that I have been involved in has prompted me to reflect upon my understanding and opinions about Personal Learning Spaces.

One’s personal learning space is something that can be highly individualised, but often one that is not consciously decided upon. It is only when we reflect on our own preferences for learning that we then begin to notice the key features that we required in order to be successful lifelong learners. The personal learning space is designed around what our students need in order to demonstrate self-direction in their learning, self-efficacy and self-reflection. For younger learners, these are skills which may only be in the earliest stages of development, but they are crucial skills which their teachers should encourage and support.

Each learner, whether they be a child, teen, or adult, will have reasons which motivate them to learn and offer them a sense of self-direction. Sometimes the motivation will be a desire to avoid failure. Other times, it will be a desire to achieve the end result (e.g. mastery of new learning, a new skill, etc). It may be linked to a learner’s belief of the value the new learning gives them once it’s achieved – is it personally relevant? Whatever it is, it allows a learner to take responsibility for their own learning experience (Smith, 1996, n.p.).

Learners will also have a level of belief in their own ability to succeed which may vary from task to task, subject to subject, and even day-to-day. A learner’s ability to begin a task with the necessary amount of self-belief that they will succeed may be linked to prior success in that area, comments or feedback they have received in that area, or their own perception of the cognitive challenge that lies ahead. I have also found that this area can fluctuate greatly when influenced by seemingly unrelated factors such as life-pressures, social struggles and/or times of stress or duress.

The final area that I am concerned that doesn’t get factored in enough is to teach our students (and ourselves!) to become reflective learners. Students need time to consider what they have learned, to make connections to prior knowledge, and to express their understanding of their new learning to themselves and to others. However, often teachers find themselves finishing up lessons without having included any time for reflection (for their students or themselves) and soldiering on to the next timetabled activity in order to keep up with time constraints.

Given that these factors are all highly personal for each learner (hence the name ‘Personal Learning Spaces’), how does one teacher ensure that they are encouraging and fostering these skills in all of their students? My personal belief is that it comes down to keeping it personal and knowing your students.

A teacher will find it difficult to foster a sense of self-direction if the tasks that they assign for younger students unless they are engaging, relevant to their real lives and have value. In some cases, some learners may need more explicit scaffolding in order to develop self-direction skills, whereas others will need minimal assistance. However, teachers will know when they’ve hit the ‘sweet spot’ in lesson design because their learners will be positively engaged in their own learning and require minimal assistance or external motivation in order to keep going.

I believe this is even more true for self-efficacy. The relationship that you develop with your students will allow you to gauge their self-belief as it changes day-to-day, task-to-task, subject-to-subject. Having a genuine relationship, rapport and understanding of what your students believe about themselves as learners who can succeed is crucial. This knowledge allows teachers to ensure that their students will be faced with tasks and activities that will be challenging, but will still allow for success on some level. We don’t want to be bombarding students with unrealistic tasks which will chip away at their self-belief. We can only avoid doing this when we have genuine relationships with our learners.

As for reflection, this is something that our young learners will need to be explicitly taught. As teachers, how are we factoring reflection into each of our lessons? What questions are we teaching our students to ask themselves about their learning? What do we know about their lives in order to make their learning relevant? What connections are we encouraging them to make with prior learning? When are we ensuring that we revisit the learning pathways we have guided our students along?

So, although ‘Personal Learning Spaces’ asks us to consider something that may vary for each of our learners, it is important that each teacher considers their influence on each component. Just as adult learners would be reluctant to invest time and effort into an activity that serves no purpose, that is not relevant to their needs, and appears unrealistically impossible, so too will our students. As teachers, we have to ensure that we keep things personal with our students in order to create harmony between the lessons we design and the development of the skills they will need to become successful life-long learners – self-direction, self-efficacy and reflection.

Happy Teaching!

Celebrating International Day of the Girl

Today, October 11th, is the United Nation’s International Day of the Girl. For some females in first world nations, they may have the luxury of wondering why this day is even necessary? Perhaps, they are fortunate to have been treated as equals to our male counterparts and not feel that they were disadvantaged or discriminated in any way due to being a female. Or, instead, they may be one of the billions of females around the world whose future is limited in every way imaginable because they were born a girl. Their access to equal opportunities for healthcare, education, social-status, and/or political opinion is some cases non-existent, and in the worst cases, it is illegal.

However, the reality for many females who may feel that they haven’t been disadvantaged by being a female is that inequalites and stereotypes are so ingrained in our society that we don’t even notice them happening. That is where the #LikeAGirl campaign helps to demonstrate this beautifully.

This campaign was born from a desire to encourage girls to continue to participate in sports as they reach adolescence. From a global perspective, quite obviously fighting for equal access to quality education and healthcare is very clearly a top priority. However, the #LikeAGirl campaign resonated with me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates firsthand how otherwise young, confident, first-world girls have internalised what being like a girl means. This, in turn, presumably goes on to shape their thoughts, their conversations, their opinions of self-worth, and their perceived abilities and limitations as a female in the 21st century.

So, before you write off International Day of the Girl as just another token day on the calendar OR as a day which is only meant for girls in third world countries, just take a look at the #LikeAGirl campaign and see if anything resonates with you. And, if it does, I enthusiastically encourage you to change your dialogue with the boys and girls in your classrooms (and at home) to shed some light on how we can slowly shift such ingrained, outdated, and potentially dangerous stereotypes.

Happy teaching!

Teaching our students to become informed global citizens

I have enjoyed being privy to some of the online conversations of colleagues over the past few weeks as they discuss the importance of Learning Spaces for our 21st century students. More recently, their discussion has revolved around future learning spaces, specifically in relation to refugee crises around the world.

As you may be aware, I spent considerable time investigating this very issue last year in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis, with a central focus on Za’atari. This learning experience is something that has stayed with me since that time and one that changed me profoundly. However, I have had the luxury to go on with my every day life and forget that my reality is vastly different from millions of others. I have been distracted with my first world problems without ever feeling fear over my physical safety or long-term wellbeing.

So, what was the point of spending all of that time, energy, and emotional investment on a topic which I cannot potentially impact directly? Well, here is where I’ve changed my thinking – as a teacher. I bring my knowledge of global issues into the discussions with my students. I enlighten my students with another perspective of what day-after-day life is like for millions of children their own age. I do this in order to help them to develop an understanding of broader values such as respect, civility, equity, justice and responsibility. As the Victorian Curriculum states, Civics and Citizenship curriculum plays a crucial role in helping our students to become active and informed citizens and to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to question, understand, and positively contribute to the world in which they live.

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This is home for all of us, no matter what your beliefs. We really are all in this together.

I have limited control over the injustices which are in place throughout Syria and beyond. That is certainly not to say that I have given up on working towards them changing. Not at all. However, I realise that some of my greatest power is to have the next generation be more adequately informed on a local, national, and international level. As the Victorian Curriculum states, I know that by ‘investigating contemporary issues and events, students learn to value their belonging in a diverse and dynamic society, develop points of view and positively contribute locally, nationally, regionally and globally’.

I have incorporated my understanding of the importance of global issues and future learning spaces (here and around the world) and applied that in a setting where I can have the greatest impact – with my classrooms full of students. Our students may never physically set foot outside of a 100km radius of their current address. However, the children we teach will soon (if not already) be participating as members of our interconnected global society through avenues such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Musical.ly, Snapchat, etc. My aim is to instil the importance for my students to become reflective, active, and informed decision-makers, both now, and in the future.

Ultimately, I am aiming for my students to realise the position of privilege they are in due to their own global location, and to use that privilege with a sense of respect, purpose, and to become tolerant, thoughtful, and informed global citizens.

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Happy teaching!

 

Making technology your new BFF

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Are you a techno-savvy teacher? Someone who is always the first to know of the latest and greatest apps, websites, and tools to bring into your classroom? Or perhaps you’re a teacher who flirts with technology from time-to-time but is much more comfortable staying with your tried and true go-to resources? Or, are you a teacher who is convinced that you and technology are simply not meant to be? Maybe you have ventured so far as to reluctantly incorporate Google Drive into your teaching practise for the purposes of planning and collaborating with your peers, but the exercise of learning something beyond creating a Word document just about killed you?!

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Whichever type of educator you might be, the good news is that there is a level of technology available for everyone which will enhance your own teaching practise. The reasons for using technology in your classroom include: making your teaching practise more relevant and engaging for your students, catering for a diversity of learning styles, as well as providing educational experiences which may otherwise not be possible.

The techno-savvies will most likely be using tools such as mind maps, virtual presentations (e.g. Voki), audio responses (e.g. Vocaroo), comic makers (e.g. Comic Maker, Comic Strip), videos and/or PowerPoint/Keynote regularly in your classrooms. They may also be incorporating things such as Skype in the Classroom to access a wider global network of educators (and subsequently expose their students to a wider array of educational experiences). Or perhaps they’re utilising tools such as Class Dojo as an interactive way of engaging students in their own learning program or Smiling Mind as a pathway for student mindfulness and/or wellbeing. Whichever it is, there are an abundance of tools and resources available, and the list grows longer every day.

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For the novice or reluctant techno-user, I would suggest starting a more slowly and use technology as a means to avoid reinventing the wheel. Social media platforms that you may already be using can be a terrific way to access educational tips, lesson ideas, and resources. Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter all have seemingly limitless users you can follow (who have somehow found extra hours in their day!!). Many of them post regular updates of things that are happening in their classrooms and schools. Use these to your advantage! Search and follow educators in your local area, or ones who follow the same curriculum that you do, or who teach the same grade level. If you see a great idea, then save it for future use or share it with a colleague. If you need inspiration, consider searching one of these platforms for some options. Don’t feel the need to start posting your own things (unless, of course, you want to!!). Instead, take advantage of the nature of online relationships and simply click a ‘like’ button to acknowledge something you found useful, clever, or inspiring, and move on. Start small and build up your confidence slowly. Use things such as Once Upon a Picture to stimulate discussion and creative writing sessions. Use class iPads for students to write their retell of a book by using Keynote and take and save specific pictures from the story (where applicable) to the camera roll for them to use (I did this activity with a Grade 1 class and it was brilliant!).

Finally, when you find something that you thought was great AND it worked well in your classroom – share it with others! That might mean with other teachers in your own school, or perhaps with a wider audience (e.g. Online, email, blog, social media). We all know that teachers are time-poor and if we can save our colleagues from having to search for something that we have discovered, then it helps our own educational community to improve. And remember, if you are the reluctant techno-user, you are unlikely to be the first person to have no idea what you are doing when you fumble around a new website, tool, or app. Ask for help, have a try, and see what happens. You might just find something that becomes your new technology BFF!

Happy teaching!

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Student wellbeing and learning spaces – is there a connection?

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As an adult, it is hard not to make comparisons between what school life was like for ourselves as children versus today’s students. I’m of a vintage where I still have vivid memories of the smell of freshly printed copies of worksheets (albeit, I was inhaling toxic spirit fumes that had lingered on our purple-printed papers, but that’s beside the point!). However, there are aspects of our school days that stay with us into adulthood, and beyond. Some good, some great, and even some that may be downright awful. One thing I don’t ever remember being taught about in primary school was the importance of my own emotional and psychological wellbeing. We certainly covered general physical health to some degree (e.g. exercise, nutrition), but I can’t recall anything extending beyond that, even in my high school years.

So, what has changed to make this become necessary today? Firstly, I am a huge advocate for explicit teaching and discussion about wellbeing. I am of the firm belief that children who feel secure, calm, (and ideally happy) are much better suited to be engaged in their learning versus children who are not. The current Victorian Curriculum has numerous links to student wellbeing, both physically and emotionally. Many include topics that we as teachers will be covering include things such as analysing our own emotions and how they can influence our decision making with friends and family. Many schools now have Wellbeing Programs in place, along with Wellbeing Staff members.

Concerns about our students’ mental health today is real. The statistics are alarming. The 2015 Australian report of The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents states that in Australia approximately one in every seven children and/or young person has experienced a mental health disorder in the last year. Rates for depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide among teenagers is particularly worrying, with approximately one in ten indicating they have engaged in self-harming behaviour, with three quarters doing so in the past 12 months.

In a class of 30 grade 5/6 students I taught last week, we discussed the everyday pressures they face. Extra tuition outside of school, extra-curricular sporting/artistic/music/language classes, scholarship tutoring. In this Grade 5/6 class alone, we ran a survey and more than 70% of students had some kind of activity scheduled for every weekday after school. Furthermore, there was no child with less than three weekday outside-of-school commitments, whether that be before or after school care, sports, tutoring, or tuition. On top of that, the days they had off were often spent rushing around for their siblings’ activities. (As a parent of four kids, I know this feeling all too well – “Quick! We don’t want to be late!”, “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”).

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Our children today lead busy lives, which isn’t to say that we didn’t when we were children, but with the onslaught of constant online connectedness, I think we have failed to pass on the gift of being switched off and just being a kid. I am not trying to romanticise the olden days of my youth – there were plenty of times I would complain of being so bored with nothing to do! But, I had an opportunity to be bored, to not be rushed somewhere every day, to slow my pace and to just be. How many of our students today can say the same? 

With the Australian Government committed to provide strategies to focus on prevention and early intervention of mental health issues, it is no wonder that we now see it filtering into our curriculum. And although some of the statistics are for children who will have left the primary school system, I feel it is important that we equip them with knowledge and strategies (and even support services) before that point.

Since I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or the like, it is highly unlikely that I am going to be directly involved in the ongoing counselling of my students, other than to offer immediate crisis support if and when necessary. However, there are things that I can do to empower my students, and that is where learning spaces fit in. We are aware that children have different preferred learning styles, but they also have preferences for the spaces in which they learn. These spaces can vary from day to day, and from task to task. The important thing is to ensure you provide options. Allow students a little bit of independence to make responsible choices about where they are choosing to learn. Of course there are consequences if they misuse your trust, but a student who is already under pressure and possibly trying their hardest just to get through the day is going to be more inclined to do so when provided with an activity that matches their learning style along with a learning space that innately appeals to them. 

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As an educator, part of our role is getting to know and understand the children in our care. We need to be able to support them with guidance and boundaries in order to prepare them for the real world, but it is possible to do that while still honouring them as individuals. Offer spaces where they can learn somewhere other than at their desks. Provide tasks where they can choose how to convey their learning. Develop scaffolding so that working as part of a group doesn’t become the sole responsibility of one child. Plan for lessons that provide interaction with people within their community and beyond to broaden their understanding and their horizons. But most of all, create a safe, welcoming, and nurturing learning space where they can be themselves and where they will be supported while they learn the skills to look after themselves as well as others.

Happy teaching!

Practise what you preach!!

As educators, we are constantly asking our students to try new things, take risks, make mistakes, bounce back, and try again. And we do this for good reason. We know that growth is achieved through challenging and extending our learners. But, (there’s always a ‘but’), why do we so often find ourselves reluctant to do the same thing ourselves? We are educators and we know what steps need to be taken to achieve new skills and knowledge, but when it comes to putting it into practise for ourselves, somehow we suffer from stage fright and aren’t quite sure we can do what we are asked to. Why is it so uncomfortable to try new challenges and take risks ourselves when we are the cheerleaders for these growth mindsets in our own classrooms?

I have wondered whether this is because we are comfortable with the status quo and therefore don’t believe the reward (ie. new skills and knowledge) is worth the risk (ie. failure, embarrassment, time ‘wasted’)? However, even when the learning is connected to skills or knowledge that we want to master, we are often still reluctant to try something new.

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As adults, particularly as educators, we are accustomed to being the ones that guide or initiate the learning and challenges. We are not necessarily the one with all the answers, but we are certainly seen as the ones in charge. And it can be unsettling to loosen that grip on our own self-image and change from master to novice again. However, in order to continue our own development, it is crucial that we actually put into practise the learning behaviours that we preach as it is virtually impossible to achieve new growth following our old patterns. (There’s a reason there is a very famous quote about this phenomenon – you are not alone in being hesitant to take risks or trying something new. And neither are your students!)

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As an educator who was recently involved in a lot of professional development, I have a newfound respect for our ability to continually challenge, upgrade, and sometimes totally reinvent ourselves. That isn’t to say that the process was always easy (spoiler alert – it wasn’t!). But, it was absolutely worth it. I didn’t always master everything. I certainly didn’t always master things on the first go. I had to let my guard down, be prepared to enter the area so many of us avoid at all costs – a liminal space – unknown territory.

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However, just as we expect our students to evolve and attempt new challenges, we, too, need to be willing to do the same. As an educator, when it is our turn to try something new and your inner voice starts to whisper words of self-doubt and express a fears of failure, this is your chance to put on your best teacher voice and be your own best support. What would you say to your students if they shared the same worries and concerns with you? You would tell them with confidence, patience, and belief that they should just have a try, that you would be there to support them, and that you knew that they would come out the other side having achieved some element of new learning.

So, when you are in the position to extend your own skills and knowledge, remember to be kind to yourself, but never sell yourself short. Flip the knee-jerk panic reaction that you may be personally experiencing and treat it as if it was coming from one of your students. Be supportive of your own learning, lean on those around you who can guide you, and just have a go. You may just amaze yourself with what you are capable of.

Happy teaching!

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