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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“Generation Standstill”

I have had the opportunity to revisit the Syrian refugee crisis over the past few weeks for study purposes. After looking into it intently almost a year ago, and then revisiting it in May of this year, it is somewhat disheartening to see that although some progress is being made, there is still an awfully long way to go.

Throughout my latest research, I came across a documentary about Syrian refugees titled “Generation Standstill”. The title immediately resonated with me as it perfectly and succinctly captures the precise dilemma faced by millions of Syrian refugee children. Not only have they lost the tangible and familiar objects of their past, but they are being robbed of their futures as well. Globally, the UNHCR reported just last month that over half of the world’s refugee children (3.7 million) have no school to go to.  Adding to the problem is the rapid rise in worldwide refugee numbers, including children. In 2014 alone, the refugee school-age population grew by 30%, meaning that an additional 12,000 classrooms and 20,000 teachers would be needed annually to meet the demand (UNHCR, 2016). 

The conflict in Syria has reversed the positive educational trends that the country once enjoyed, with school enrolments dropping from 90% in 2009 to only 60% in June this year (UNHCR, 2016). That 30% drop means that 2.1 million children in Syria are without education. Every. Single. Day…..Indefinitely.

For those who have fled Syria, only 39% of Syrian school-aged and adolescent refugee are enrolled in schools in Turkey, 40% in Lebanon, and 70% in Jordan. These numbers equate to a further 900,000 children accessing education. Every. Single. Day….Indefinitely (UNHCR, 2016).

So, where does education fit in within a liminal space for those who are now part of “Generation Standstill”? UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, states “As the international community considers how best to deal with the refugee crisis, it is essential that we think beyond basic survival. Education enables refugees to positively shape the future of both their countries of asylum and their home countries when they one day return.” (UNHCR, 2016).

One thing that has remained constant over the course of my 15 months of reflecting on the Syrian refugee crisis is the reluctance of many countries to actively work to address it. It is evident that the task at hand is too great for Syria’s neighbouring countries, and some countries have gone above and beyond in terms of welcoming refugees and assisting them to settle, recover, assimilate and start new lives. However, the silence of others is deafening.

There are challenges for Syrian children to attend education. Some are turned away from schools for not having the necessary paperwork even though legislations states they are able to attend. Others are concerned for their safety when commuting through parts of large refugee camps or foreign countries, or suffer bullying whilst struggling through language barriers. Ohers spend their days, seven days a week, being the sole breadwinner for their families, cutting their education short in order for their family to survive. It is time that the future of learning spaces for refugees adequately addresses these challenges. My mentor suggested mobile education – education that comes to the children. Another suggestion I considered was education via television, as many have access to a very basic television, even in some of the most appalling living conditions. Many others before me have discussed the benefits of education via online channels. All of these are worthy of being considered if there is the chance that children can begin preparing for their future again.

So, what can we do when we are not there to help firsthand? What can I do, here in Melbourne? What can you do? Take an interest. As an educator, educate your students to the realities of what life is like for children around the world, refugees and otherwise. With awareness often comes action. We want to ensure that the children whom we are educating today will make informed and empathetic decisions when interacting within their global society. Furthermore, we want the students in our classrooms to understand that refugee education “is one of the few opportunities we have to transform and build the next generation so they can change the fortunes of the tens of millions of forcibly displaced people globally” (Grandi, UNHCR, 2016).

And in the meantime, we want to do all that is within our own power not allow “Generation Standstill” to lose both their pasts and their futures. We wouldn’t allow it for our own children, so why should we allow it for any child, any where?

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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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!

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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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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