On Blogging: The Journey

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“There.

Look.

A little seed of an idea.

But where did you come from? Perhaps you were left behind, scattered, by a well-meaning guide? A number of you always are. Or, perhaps, you were forged from the alchemy of discussion, crackling into existence with unexpected force. Or, maybe, you have just always been there, hiding, waiting to tumble into view? Regardless, you’re here.

And now?

You need time to germinate, and a fertile place to do it.

Where? Here, there, anywhere where you can be bathed in thoughtful concentration, tended and nurtured by iteration upon iteration of reflective adjustments and warmed by the energising potential of conversation.

When? Now. And this evening. And twenty minutes tomorrow. And thirty minutes the day after. Whenever it feels right. Whenever the need to stretch and grow demands it. And other times, to schedule, when we know the conditions are right, when light and nourishment are plentiful.

And then, when you’ve flourished and bloomed, visitors, invited or otherwise, can come and acknowledge you, among those many others that have flowered. And these visitors can leave tributes – seeds of their own – or they may brush up against you, as they move along their way, pollen clinging unwittingly to them, destined to spawn others like you.

And so here you are. Just there.

Look.

A little seed of an idea.”


All of this is a rather poetic way of outlining the process of blogging I follow in my classroom. What follows is formulaic, but should be seen in the light of my own ideal that students’ writing must have the opportunity to move beyond the limited purposes which I can imagine for it.

  1. Provide students with a range of prompts or ideas, in written or oral form. Give them choice. Allow them to transcend those choices.
  2. Provide students with a scaffold or success criteria for the blog (as restrictive or open as the needs of the students require). This might include none, any or all of the following: word length, requirements for multimedia use, referencing and attribution guides, variations in font size, weight and colour, structure of content etc.
  3. Provide time for students to write in class, while also giving them plenty of time to write at home too. I often find that quality writing needs quieter, more isolated environments, more so than most classrooms naturally provide. I tend to ensure that there is always at least one weekend available for the students to use, if they wish.
  4. Commit time in class (minimum 40 minutes) for reading and discussing the students’ post via the medium of digital conversations (comments on the blogs) and paired, group or whole class discussions. I encourage (and sometimes require) students to share additional material in the form of links or questions at the commenting stage. Whole class discussions typically focus on the ideas provoked by the blogs.
  5. Repeat. At least four times.
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On Blogging

We’re discussing the purpose of blogging – for both students and teachers – in one of my school’s PLCs. “Why blog?” is an often explored area in circles increasingly concerned with 21st Century Skills. I think one of the reasons this question can be tricky to answer is that the notion of a “blog” is now wrapped up in magical pseudo-edu-myth. It’s one of those things that those progressive “others” do, one of those things that happen in those classrooms that a neo-traditionalist might dismiss as innovative mumbo-jumbo. Exactly what a “blog” is is also hard to pin down because, predominantly, it is a medium, rather than a genre, with a diversity of styles and purposes.

Here’s what a quick google tells us. It’s a standard enough definition:

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Google’s definition from the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current Usage

When you think of other mediums of communication, we rarely need to get to a point where we need to justify the decision to use the medium itself. We don’t ask, “Why do we write on paper?” or “Why do we take photographs?” Similarly, we don’t feel the need to justify “styles” of writing in our educational decision-making. We don’t feel a pressing philosophical need to ask, “Why write conversationally?” or “Why write in an esoteric academic voice?”

So, given Google’s definition, that a blog is a “regularly updated web page” that is written in a “conversational style”, this means when we ask, “Why blog?” we are really asking, “Why regularly update a web page in a conversational manner?” or, even more simply, “Why regularly self-publish?” And the answer to this question depends on the context and purposes of publication.

In an educational setting, whether students or teachers are the authors, there are two ways you might look at the general purpose of blogging:

Personal perspective: To reflect by organising and crystallising your thinking on your chosen topic(s), over time, accountable to a public audience.

Community perspective: To build connections and contribute to conversations with a wider, public audience, over time.

Now, we need to ask, if we are to blog, how might this help our own or our students’ learning? The elements which are of potential educational merit (but please don’t confuse this with some educational magic bullet) include:

1) The conversational style and commenting features of the medium promote socially constructed reflection

2) Positively leveraging the panopticon of social media can promote deliberate practice of these reflection skills.

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Facebook: The Panopticon of the Modern Age by joelle l licensed under a CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License

I am no expert in either Lev Vygotsky’s (social constructivism) or Ericsson’s research (deliberate practice), beyond the now ingrained takeaways of which I am probably no longer conscious. However, I will summarise what I perceive to be of practical importance.

The process of learning is social. We understand this implicitly when we take on the roles of teacher and student and believe that by putting people in a room together, learning can happen. And blogging, more so than, say, writing in a notebook, opens up our learning so that it is easily accessed by peers anywhere with an internet connection: it gives you an expanded, flexible, networked learning environment. Furthermore, the very fact that there are many potential readers, separated in both space and time (it could be your employee five years down the line), mean that the stakes for students and teachers writing in this medium are higher – it provokes both teachers and students alike to be practising writing and sharing their thinking that much more deliberately than they otherwise might.

Now, not everything is enhanced by blogging. Students should not be overwhelmed by those higher stakes without first preparing them with an appropriate degree of competence and understanding. The same goes for teachers. However, encouraging teachers and students to switch some of their written thinking to a blogging medium is only likely to enhance learning, rather than hinder it.

And, if you’re convinced, here are three simple principles to help your student blogs flourish.

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On Building Quality Curriculum

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” (Yogi Berra)

This post stems from the insights I have gathered while working for the MYP on their new Building Quality Curriculum initiative, one which involves schools receiving feedback on selected unit planners. As someone who spent a good chunk of time writing that feedback (and teaching the MYP), I’d thought I’d collate some key aspects about what is required to get the inquiry stage of the planners right, both in MYP planners and elsewhere.

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Key and Related Concept(s): ENGAGE WITH THE INTENDED CONCEPTS 

Common problems:

  • Too many for the length of the unit (no more than one key concept and three related concepts).
  • Only lip-service paid to the concepts in the actual learning experiences.
  • Key and related concepts confusingly overlap, e.g. “point of view” and “perspectives” in English Language and Literature.

Global context: STAY IN CONTEXT

Common problems:

  • No specific exploration is identified, with a real event, circumstance or situation in mind.
  • The real life event, circumstance or situation is not used as a lens throughout the unit.
  • It’s an afterthought, not a raison d’etre.

Statement of Inquiry: CRAFT A MEMORABLE STATEMENT OF “SO WHAT?”

Common problems:

  • A collection of jargon words with little meaning.
  • Insufficient use of modality (e.g. might, may).
  • Missing key ingredients (concepts and/or contexts).
  • No student would want to think about it.

Inquiry Questions: LEVERAGE THE POWER OF CURIOUSITY

Common problems:

  • Are not “factual”, “conceptual” and “debatable”.
  • Are not creative and engaging.
  • When considered alone, or together, fail to unpack the statement of inquiry.
  • Questions wouldn’t lead to success on the assessment(s).

Approaches to Learning (ATL): IDENTIFY THE SKILLS THAT ENABLE SUCCESS

Common problems:

  • Too many skill indicators suggested. As an upper limit, perhaps a limit of one indicator for every three hours of teaching.
  • Not directly supportive of student success on the assessment(s).
  • Are not accompanied with specific, explicit learning experiences.

Assessment: POWER UP ASSESSMENT AS PERFORMANCE

Common problems:

  • Would not produce reasonable evidence of performance on the stated objectives of the unit.
  • Not a performance of the students’ understanding of the statement of inquiry.

FOR AN MYP ENDORSED VIEWPOINT, SEE HERE

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On the Three Great Questions: A Guide, Part 1

Here are the three most important questions a teacher needs to inform their instructional practice:

Closing the gap
Sparks by avl42 (2011) modified by Philip Bruce

Where are we now? 

This is your ship’s radar, the pulses that allow you insights, however imperfect, as to the direction in which each of the independent young minds in the room are moving. In the classroom, this can be most powerfully addressed by on-going formative assessment techniques.

Dylan Wiliam is one of the leading experts in formative assessment, and though he offers many strategies that have a significant positive impact on learning, for me, the best starting place is to institute a no-hands up questioning policy. Immediately, it achieves two things:

  1. Everyone must remain involved in the classroom discussion. Why? You could be called on.
  2. You don’t just hear from a self-selecting students who “get it”. You hear the thoughts of any student, anywhere along the learning journey, misconceptions and all.

Additionally, the long-term benefit is that it is a wonderful way of challenging your students to value learning, which is messy and imperfect, over a desire to be seen to “be right”, which is often little more than a Pyrrhic victory for teacher and student.

More tips here

 

What are the insights for school leadership?

There are a number of equivalents to no hands up questions in an institutional context, not least applying a similar policy in staff meetings. The most powerful conceptual equivalent, however, is in conducting unscheduled routine observations of classrooms and team meetings. Instead of relying on teachers to voluntarily be observed, or it happening as part of a high(er)-stake appraisal process, observations should become an unfeared, welcomed routine. Undertaken regularly and intentionally, they would contribute to:

  1. Formatively assessing anything from school goals to the outcomes of recent professional development.
  2. “Pre-assessing” the school culture for more informed goal setting.
  3. Cultivating a climate in which teachers are encouraged to innovate; de-privatising practice erodes the fear of being seen to need to professionally grow.

Sometimes, we take for granted where we are – it seems too obvious – and yet surprising insights can be found when we remember to:

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On FriedEnglish

A fantastic colleague of mine, Tricia, is leaving our school community. Fortunately, because of the wonders of the social media age, though physically she’s going far (Singapore), she’ll only ever be a few taps of the keyboard away. And, I’ve no doubt, she’ll be ever present on my Twitter feed. Until Twitter is no longer cool, that is.

This post is a little ode to Tricia. Except, it’s not really my words that are important, but the sentiments of those who she spends most time with on a daily basis – her students. Her IB class spontaneously, and secretly, created a goodbye video for her (how many teachers inspire that?!) and I wanted to share it with you all.

So, Tricia, surprise – here it is and enjoy!

The students also wrote her a letter, also spontaneously. I think a word cloud of the students’ thoughts is revealing:

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The fact that ‘meaning’, ‘love’, ‘life’ come up so much is a testament to the qualities that both her students and her colleagues most appreciate.

So, a challenge to you reading this.

Whether you are one of Tricia’s students, or a fellow teacher, send her a tweet to @friedenglish101 with the hashtag #eaglememories capturing a favourite moment, what you will miss, or ways in which she has positively impacted your life.

Personally, I can credit Tricia with the following:

  • Complex webs of hyperlinks to challenge the Matrix.
  • Google slides.
  • Kahoot (a blessing and a curse).
  • This blog.
  • Tweeting, occasionally.
  • A daily challenge to make my teaching ceaselessly relevant.
  • Campfire conversations.

Thanks Tricia! Let’s meet again in the blogosphere.

 

On the Keys to the Cell

What is the future of education? What would the ideal school look like? Will schools even exist in 100 years? 200 years? 1000?

The only reasonable answer must be somewhere close to “we don’t really know”.

However, if there was one thing, just one, we could change right now, some aspect that we can control, what might that be? Well, John Hattie has been researching this issue for some time with his now infamous meta-analyses of educational research. Here is the most updated list of effect sizes, in rank order. Leaving aside the technicalities and possible criticisms of the methodology, what conclusions can we draw from the latest ranking? To me, I walk way with one over-riding thought:

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To unpack this a little, here are the mindsets we can control, right now, and know we are making a positive difference for student learning:

  • We must believe we have the resources required to be as successful as we wish to be, even if sometimes we need to go digging for them.
  • The first step to achievement, for ourselves and our students, is a ceaseless expectation of it.

So, my one upgrade to school, today? Let’s relentlessly visualise and expect excellence. Let’s have a shared understanding that we hold ourselves accountable for this on a daily basis, and through this mindset, spread an expectation for excellence to our students, to our colleagues, to our school, beyond our schools. The corollary to this, of course, is the resilience to embrace imperfection. In fact, it’s perhaps why being brave enough to fail is so important – it gives us permission to hold exceptional expectations.

So, as I start to look to next year, I will ask everyone that will listen:

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The belief alone, in the very possibility of achieving more, will be self-fulfilling.

Together, let’s look down, notice that we hold the key to the prison cell, fit it to the lock and turn.

 

 

 

On What If…

What if we acted out our belief that learning should be lifelong and that skills and concepts outlast knowledge?

The Backstory

My school uses a number of curriculum frameworks – the Middle Years Programme, the Diploma Programme, Advanced Placements and our own homegrown curriculum. One way of unifying the potentially disparate approaches is to focus on key attributes of curriculum that transcend them all. Our departmental team picked three:

AUTHENTIC – ESSENTIAL – LEARNING TO LEARN

Curriculum vision
Image of ‘Atlantis Shuttle Launchh 1988’ / NASA / Public Domain

Authentic stresses the relentless need to provide freshness and relevance. Essential captures the importance of meeting the needs of our students, whether those are the inevitable ‘exam ready’ skills, or crucial ‘future ready‘ skills. Learning to learn functions as a foundational concept, highlighting the need to develop lifelong skills in our students.

It’s this last aspect that my team has been playing with recently, re-envisioning the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills as a hexagon of future ready skills, accompanied by guiding questions, and designed for specific courses. Though you should certainly build learning experiences to develop more than six ATL skills in a year, when confronted with the question, ‘Which are the most important skills for a student in my class?’ the most authentic and essential aspects of the vision emerge:

Example ATL Hexagon
Which are the most important ‘future ready’ skills for students in my class?

But, what if we went further?

What if…

Every student identified, and reflected, on the six ATL skills they felt they needed to develop that year?

 

Every teacher identified, and shared with students, the six ATLs with which they were engaging?

 

Every teacher posts the six ATLs on their classroom door, with this note: ‘Dear colleagues, if you can spare the time, please come in and help me with my journey

 

These six skills became the focus of teacher reflection in their professional discussions, both digital and analogue?

Would we then be closer to acting out our belief that learning should be lifelong – that learning to learn is the most future ready skill of all?

At the very least, we might be just that little bit closer to curricular lift off.

Teacher ATL Hexagon vPB (1)Thoughts?