Where does change begin?

In the past few weeks I have had the privileged opportunity of participating in a community of teachers and discussing the role of educators today. Part of these conversations revolved around learning spaces, what they are, who they are for, and why teachers need to have a sound understanding of them in order to maximise the student experience. This alone makes for stimulating conversation.

However, one final comment from my mentor has once again left me pondering (as so often they do). He was commenting on the understanding that we are all aware that education has the power and ability to change lives. Yet, he encouraged us to remember this:

you are an arbiter of that change – do not leave it to others when it can be you who makes the change!” (Staples, 2016)

So often we feel that there are other people more qualified to make significant change. They are more capable, more skilled, more available, more experienced, more dedicated, than us. However, the reality is that as educators, we all have that power every single day that we are in contact with our students. What we choose to study with them, the conversations we choose to have, the experiences we choose to provide them with, and the global awareness we choose to bring into our classrooms will all contribute to make change.

We are the ones who are qualified to do this because we are educators. We are part of a global network of educators who have the ability to have a powerful and positive impact on the students we come in contact with. It is from this global network that some incredible professionals make a decision to make an enormous change to their daily lives in order to bring about change for others.

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https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/22/isle-of-wight-superhead-running-makeshift-school-for-refugees

However, as an everyday teacher (and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever) it may seem that we are not able to solve the educational crises we see around the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t (and don’t!) have an impact. The knowledge, skills, understanding, and behaviours that we assist our students to develop will add to how they choose to interact as members of a global society in years to come.

We will touch the lives of countless students during our time as educators, and it is important that we realise that even though it may seem that we are not the ones teaching the children from the most dire of circumstances, we still have the privilege to be the arbiter of change through the choices we make for ourselves, our students, and our professional networks, and our school community.

So, take a moment to enjoy being a member of one of the world’s largest professional groups and make the decision that change will start with you.

Happy teaching!

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References:

Staples, A. (2016, October 30, 13:18). Online forum: Final week.

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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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Today’s spaces to learn

Learning today can literally happen anywhere and anytime. This isn’t necessarily anything new. However, with today’s ingrained global-connectedness, we are now able to be exposed to teaching ideas at the touch of a button.

Many educators take advantage of having other educators only a click away, and rightly so. Our ability to create an engaging, intelligent, and supportive network of like-minded educators on the other side of the world has never been easier. But, we mustn’t forget to implement these ideas with discretion. What do I mean? Well, it is important that we don’t get so caught up in the next big idea that we forget to accurately consider whether it is right for the group of students we are teaching.

As a teacher who is currently doing a lot of casual relief teaching at a variety of schools, I think it is wonderful to see the value that schools currently place on learning spaces. The schools I work in aren’t necessarily in the wealthiest suburbs, nor do they have bucket loads of funding to spend. However, they have ensured they didn’t miss the boat and offer a variety of spaces for their students to learn – indoor, outdoor, online, group spaces, independent spaces, etc.

But (sorry…there is a but), it would seem that some educators aren’t recognising that not all spaces suit all learners, and therefore they aren’t preparing an alternative. For example, many schools now offer large, open learning areas where one, two, or even more classes may work together in a shared space. In just the past week alone I worked in a school where four classes inhabited the same learning space (yes, it was huge!). Yet, they simply happened to cohabit the space rather than actively interact with one another within it.

The large, open space had become divided with furniture to try and create boundaries and limit noise flowing from one room to another. It also meant that because each group was working independently from the others, some classes were running quiet activities whilst others were running something which created excitement (and noise). Furthermore, it was an uphill battle all day for those students who already struggled to focus or filter our noise as their attention was constantly challenged with activities occurring somewhere else within eyesight or earshot.

Let me clarify that I am absolutely an advocate for providing a variety of learning spaces to suit a diverse range of learners. However, educators still must tailor their programs to suit the student group they have from year to year and the learning spaces where they are situated. Teachers don’t often get to choose what classroom they will teach in, and most often they make the best out of whatever room becomes theirs. However, in the instance above, a better alternative may have been to engage in greater teacher collaboration so that classes sharing an open space were also sharing similar learning activities. This would potentially reduce the likelihood of distractions from other rooms interfering with their own students’ learning.

Also, a missed opportunity for the four classes mentioned above was that an open learning space invites occupants to share and interact with one another. There absolutely needs to be breakaway spaces for students who need less noise, less sensory input to work. However, if the shared area is effectively utilised, then it can potentially create a more harmonious, large learning environment, instead of trying to manufacture separate ones which challenge each other.

So, I would encourage educators to absolutely embrace new technology, new ideas for classroom designs, and new teaching strategies that we are fortunate enough to be able to research and share at the touch of a button. But, please remember to incorporate the ones that will be most beneficial for your student group from year to year whilst making the best use of the learning environments you have to work in.

Happy teaching!

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!

Footpath philosopher

Isn’t it funny how words can sometimes have new meaning based on your own recent experiences?

Yesterday, while enjoying the springtime sunshine in Melbourne, I came across some graffiti. I know – not that uncommon. However, I realised as I walked past the series of words left strategically positioned along the footpath that each word resonated differently with me that day than they would have previously.

The first words I came across were these:

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Now, this could mean many different things for different people. However, for me, it was reinforcing the change that has occurred in my own thought patterns. Over the past year, I have spent many hours having my interpretations and perceptions of things challenged, enhanced and transformed. Without this change, my preconceived “understandings” would have continued to limit the choices I felt I was capable of making, particularly in regards to what I could offer as an educator. I have learned to embrace the wonder in the unknown, the beauty in taking risks and the enormous benefits of making mistakes and reflecting on these for an enhanced learning experience.

It also seemed relevant due to my recently broadened perspective on what one person’s role as an educator may be able to contribute on a scale much bigger than a classroom teacher. Investigating the Syrian refugee crisis highlighted to me the importance of education on a global scale, but it also freed my thinking beyond that of purely academic learning for any student, whether they be in a refugee camp in Za’atari or in a classroom in suburban Australia. For me, “Free Your Mind” was reinforcing that sometimes we need to let go of old beliefs in order to experience insights into ourselves that we never knew we could. As a teacher, I believe this is invaluable, as we have to remember to role model that we never stop learning either.

The next words I came across were:

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These two words – Freedom and Unity – written parallel, yet upside down from one another, seemed particularly relevant when considering my new understanding of the situation facing the world regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. In Australia, as with many non-European countries, it is easy to distract and distance ourselves from the issue as we largely don’t have to see or experience the desperation or distraught families trying to find their way amidst chaos and uncertainty. We see snippets of it on our morning or evening news, but we can then redirect our attention to our own busy lives. However, it struck me that the author of these words chose to put these two together in this fashion, for the more I have come to consider the plight of the largest crisis of displaced people since WWII, the more I see that “unity” can lead to “freedom”.

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When people unite, they can contribute and collaborate to become a stronger force in the effort to making positive change in all of their lives. When countries unite, we spread the load and try and avoid potential “burn out” (for want of a better term) on only neighbouring countries bearing the load of the 4 million refugees trying to escape Syria. When teachers unite, they can share their knowledge, skills and experiences in an effort to embrace a better educational program for our students. Through unity, we can work together towards establishing freedom, whether that be for the refugees or for the students within our classrooms.

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Perhaps freedom really comes from having unity to begin with, for if you are not restricted by having to challenge for your position in the world (or the classroom?), then perhaps you have freedom already?

The final word I came across was this:

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I like that this was posed as a question. After all, it is such a personal question that requires intimate reflection to try to respond. However, in light of the train-of-thought that I found myself on during my sunny midday walk, I felt that this word was asking me to consider what “life” would mean without those things? What sort of life am I expecting others to live if I am unable to free my mind beyond my own relatively narrow firsthand experiences of the world; if I am unable to practice unity within my classroom and as a citizen of the world; and if I am not able to recognise a person’s right to the basic freedoms of humanity that so many billions around the world are privileged to take for granted daily?

At the end of my walk, I finished feeling relieved. A strange response, perhaps, given the enormity of challenges that face the world today. However, I was relieved that I had had the experiences over the past year that have given me new perspectives and further insight into what I might be able to contribute as a teacher. Change often begins with one person. I may not be that person that will instigate the huge changes that are needed to fix anything, but what if one of my students are? If I can demonstrate and instil these understandings with my students as their teacher, then I believe I am giving them the opportunity to contribute to more than just their own futures, but perhaps to “the future” on a much broader scale.

Happy teaching.

ps – I should probably put this as a disclaimer in that I don’t support or condone graffiti. (However, I certainly am thankful for the timely appearance of these words).

A mindmap for Za’atari’s future learning spaces

I found it useful to use a mind map to highlight areas that need to be considered and addressed whilst developing useful and meaningful learning spaces which respond to the educational and developmental needs of the children in Za’atari.

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A moment to reflect

For the last few months I have been fortunate enough to be involved with a group of enthusiastic educators whilst researching the place and contribution of learning spaces in education.

The research and learning that has taken place could not have been possible without the collective input of my peers. They have provided me with ideas, solutions, and motivation when at times I felt challenged. I can also wholeheartedly say that without the guidance, support and facilitation of one particular member and leader (thank you Adam Staples) none of this would have been possible.

Our research over the course of the last 4 weeks specifically has focussed on a topic that is not easy to digest – the Syrian refugee crisis. At many times, I found myself questioning the lack of humanity that people are capable of, and wondering what on earth I could do to make any improvements for such an enormous problem.

However, out of this I have come to develop a new sense of gratitude and inspiration. Gratitude for all of the unearned privileges I have been reminded that I have each and every day. But also extremely grateful to know that my children are going to be fortunate enough to be educated by the types of teachers I have come to know within this research group. The group of peers I have worked alongside are inspired, committed and passionate educators. They have approached each and every aspect of our research with determination and perseverance. They have inspired me with their ability to to create holistically-sound programs to meet each child’s educational and developmental needs.

As this experience together comes to a formal end, I am thankful for the changes they have afforded me, for I have a new outlook and perception of just what I can strive to achieve for myself and my students. And I am proud to know that the future of education within Australia (and beyond?) will be influenced by them.

Happy teaching.

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