Monday, 4 December 2006

Principals' Collegiality at Daylesford

Last week principals of the Mount Alexander Cluster of Schools met at Daylesford for an end of year reflection and setting some plans for 2007. I was involved as educator for the cluster's Innovations and Excellence Initiative and ran a session on evidence-based teaching and learning. The principals group has been meeting as a collegiate for fifteen years and over time a sense of trust has resulted in an openness in sharing school data.

The focus on evidence-based teaching and learning is the result of wanting to improve our students' literacy and numeracy skills. You can ask a teacher if she can identify students in her classes who are learning at a higher level as a result of the teacher's work and if the answer is "yes", the next question is "How do you know?" We can only know if we have evidence and i don't mean anecdotal evidence. I first used this strategy with student readers after reading Aidan Chambers book Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk. If you haven't read it, you should.

At the conference I used the THINK-PAIR-SHARE strategy with cluster principals after they read a paper "An evidence-based approach to teaching and learning" presented by Michele Bruniges at an ACER (Australian Council for Educational Research) conference in Melbourne last year.

Teachers are moving along the path of using evidence but in my experience most of the energy so far is in looking at results and comparing them with past years' results or state-wide results. The important development I think is what do you do with the data? It should lead to identifying weaknesses in the students responses, agreeing on strategies for improvement, having a go at teaching the strategies and then seeing if there is an improvement.

Mike Schmoker argues that there is a way for this to happen by focused structured teacher collaboration:

This simple, powerful structure starts with a group of teachers who meetregularly as a team to identify essential and valued student learning, developcommon formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, setachievement goals and then share and create lessons to improve upon thoselevels.

Picture these teams of teachers implementing these new lessons,continuously assessing their results and then adjusting their lessons in lightof those results. Importantly, there must be an expectation this collaborativeeffort will produce ongoing improvement - and gains in achievement.

If there is anything that the research community agrees on, it is this: theright kind of continuous, structured teacher collaboration improves the qualityof teaching and pays big, often immediate, dividends in student learning andprofessional morale in virtually any setting. Our experience with schools acrossthe nation bears this out unequivocally.... Mere collegiality won't cut it. Even discussions about curricularissues or popular strategies can feel good but go nowhere. the right image toembrace is of a group of teachers who meet regularly to share, refine andasssess the impact of lessons and strategies to help increasing numbers ofstudents learn at higher levels.

This is the direction we are going. Early next February the collegiate is meeting to develop a plan for improving our approach in improving teaching and learning through the effective use of data.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Anne Tyler and writing

The blogosphere has lots of posts about writing and in fiction editor Margo Rabb grabbed the chance to ask Anne Tyler about her work, her approach to her craft, and, in particular, her latest novel, Digging to America. The last sentence in this extract will resonate with many of you:

You have said that you go through a "refilling" stage after finishing a novel - how long does this stage generally last? Once you return to work, how do you start -- by outlining, drawing up character histories, or jumping right into writing?How many hours do you write each day?

I spend about a year between novels. My decision to start a new one is just that, a decision, since I never get inspirations. I'll say, "It's time I stopped lolling about. I'd better think something up." Then for a month or so I'll jot down desperate possibilities. "Maybe I could write about who does such-and -such. Or wait: I think I already did that. Well, then maybe about about that woman I saw in the grocery the other day. What was she up to, exactly? what might her story have been?"

Eventually, one of these possibilities will start flowering in my mind, and I'll manufacture what's initially a very trumped-up,artificial plot. I'll write maybe one long paragraph describing the events, then a page or two breaking the events into chapters, and then reams of pages delving into my characters. After that, I'm ready to begin.

My writing day has grown shorter as I've aged, although it seems to produce the same number of pages. At most I'll spend three or four hours daily, sometimes less. The ironclad rule is that I have to try. I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning. If I waited till I felt like writing, I'd never write at all.

You can check out the full interview at

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Use a fountain pen to improve your thinking

I have always enjoyed writing with a fountain pen. When most, well virtually all, of my friends and colleagues use biros, roller balls, and felt tip pens I stick to my fountain pen. When I was a secondary school student I loved pulling pens apart and checking the bits and then putting it together, hoping it would work. Didn't always work.

The Lamy Safari, with a fine nib shown above, is my favourite. I've got Watermans and Parkers in my collectin but it's the Lamy Safari I return to use always.

Not everyone likes handwriting and I've been told at times that writing notes in a notebook and then typing them is double work. But I like the feel of handwriting, I can doodle, draw arrows, make connections, and quickly jot notes in the margin. In fact I think differently when I handwrite. Jack Vinson in a blog about thinking while notetaking. He talks about typing being more linear and careful but

Writing, on the other hand, allows me to make more jumps and smash thoughts
together even when they are not discussed in the same sentence. You might talk about X-Y-Z-A-B-C-Y, and I can lump the Y's together by simply smashing some text into the margin. Or I can draw lines and arrows and conceptually group things with circles and squares. I can also doodle. I can't draw at the computer without finding a different application that breaks my chain of thought.

I came across this in a post of Angela Booth's titled: Writing is thinking: switch to pen and paper and use both sides of your brain.

Success for low achieving kids with chess

Yesterday I met with Dr Steve Tobias, Senior lecturer in maths education at James Cook University, Townsville, to review the chess numeracy initiative in our cluster of schools. Steve is keen to explore the data we have been collecting on the connection between playing chess and maths thinking.

All thirteen schools in our cluster took part in the project. We mainstreamed chess in grades 5 & 6 as part of the initiative, paid for tutors to take the students through strategies and playing games, all the while making connections to maths. The knowledge and passion of the tutors coupled with enthusiastic classroom teachers made for a heady and successful mix.

One of the successes, which we are keen to explore, is that in a number of schools, students with low academic achievement found success playing chess. A number of boys in different schools told us that this was the first time in their school life they had been successful at something mentally challenging. We're not sure exactly what's going on here but plan to conduct surveys gathering some quantifiable information and follow it up with quantitative data by interviewing students.

It is possible that the spatial relationships is an area these kids are good at. I came across a piece by David Cohen on chess education which i have yet to read but I intend passing it on to my chess experts. You see the irony of the situation is that I'm coordinating the initiative but I don't play chess. One of the sections in his paper deals with maths and visualisation:

Children develop math skills with chess because of a common requirement of chess and math: visualization. This usually occurs in
Grade 2 (at age 7). Chess develops visualization abilities as follows:
Chess board - The chess board is laid out in a checkered pattern of a large square comprised of 64 smaller squares arranged 8x8. Children can be taught their way around the board through its various patterns(ranks, files, diagonals, colouring of squares).
Moves of the chess pieces - The child first learns the movements of the chess pieces which travel in straight lines: pawn, rook, bishop, and queen. But then the child is introduced to a movement that is quite different from the others: the L-shaped jump of the knight. The movement is not only different from the child’s previous chess experience, but is also likely an entirely new experience for the child. The child must learn to visualize the movement.
Moving chess pieces around on the chess board - Moving a chess piece from a starting square to an ending square forces the child to visualize the patterns and movements.

I found this information through a google alert which led me to the Waterfront Juniour Intermediate Chess Club. I'm beginning to see what the web 2.0 - read, write web, is all about.

Friday, 27 October 2006

Is it learning or work we are after?

Last Wednesday I attended a afternoon and evening conference with Guy Claxton, on the topic 'Building Learning Power'. He talked about 4 generations of professional change:
1 Scratch generation- what the culture is about, examinations and behaviour.
2 Hints and tips - this is where teachers attend workshops and get little things we can add on to our repertoire of teaching skills and strategies, such as mind maps, thinking tools etc. It's about how to organise and retrieve information in a better way.
3 Generation of thinking and learning skills - very cognitively focused on thinking and often involving stand alone strategies. According to Claxton, these tend not to last, to spread or to deepen. "The long term evidence is not good." He talked about how to move from a language of skills to a language of dispositions.
4 Infused Learning - this is the move to more powerful habits of minds/ dispostions.

One research anecdote he used is based on the experience that every school's mission statement, vision, and teacher talk features the word 'learning'. A researcher sat in the back of classrooms noting the times that the words 'learning' and 'work' were used by teachers. You guessed it; learning was used 2% of the time. Everything else uttered by teachers was "get on with your work", "get back to work", show me your work", "are you having trouble with your worlk", you need to work harder".

His question: "Why don't we use the word learning if we think it's important."

I'm thinking it's the incongruence students often experience between what their teachers say and what they do.

When teachers learn more about learning the effectiveness of a school improves and learning follows.

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Theme Time Radio with Bob Dylan

The rhythms of the English language sound great when Bob Dylan introduces his theme and songs on Theme Time Radio. The show is broadcast on XM Radio in the U.S.A. and I first heard it on a podcast a friend, Jeff Langdon, gave me. I remember thinking at the time Dylan's cool patter would be great to use with students. Maybe as a Quickwrite piece to spark writing from.

If you haven't chanced apon the broadcasts here's a little sample to whet you interest:

First let's get in the mood with the husky voice of the woman announcer who sounds like she's had one whisky and cigarette too many, or then again maybe she's had just enough. "It's night time in the big city. A truck driver runs a red light. A strange, quiet man practices Tai Chi in the park. It's Theme Time Radio Hour with your host Bob Dylan."

"Tonight we're going to visit the big house. The clink, the brig, the coop, the grey-bar hotel, the hoosegow, the joint, the jug, the slammer, the stir. A real hush-hush subject where everyone is hurting for someone or something. We're going to learn about cons, jailbirds, stoolies, lifers, new fish and politicians. Prison, the house of many doors."

"Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" BESSIE SMITH
"Bessie Smith doesn't want to be in prison. She caught him with a trifling Jane. She cut him with her barlow knife. She kicked him in the side. She stood there laughing as he wallowed around and died. She admits it. She's nutso, crazy, unbalanced, unsound, loony, witless and wrong. She has a grave disorder of the mind that impairs her capacity to function normally in society."

"We got an email from Johnny Depp in Paris, France. He wants to know: 'Who was the founder of modern communism? Well Johnny, Karl Marx was the founder of modern communism. He also fathered seven children. Four of them survived to adulthood. His only son, Frederick Demuth, was illegimate. I wonder if he calls his daddy on Father's Day?"

Primary school students seem happy

Wouldn't it be good if school and learning for our students was a joyful experience?

Today I visited a number of primary schools in the Castlemaine district with Matt Theobald, an art teacher from Castlemaine Secondary College. Driving between schools he said, "The kids seem really happy. I even saw one boy skipping on the way to class."

Why do some kids often seem to lose the joy of learning when they are in secondary school? Is it timetables? Is it the disciplines? Is it the teaching and learning?

But it shouldn't be forgotten that many students do experience secondary school as enjoyable.

Adolescence is one factor in the changing attitudes of students at secondary college. I often taught the same students in year 7 and maybe year 9 or 10 and then year 12 and experienced the ups and downs of their teenage life. A fast forward button would be useful I often thought.

If we could have more teachers moving between primary and secondary schools I'm sure we'd have greater awareness of the plusses and minuses of teaching at each level.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Here we go again

Here we go again. This time it's the federal Education Minister, Julie Bishop who says it is "unacceptable" for students in English classes to be studying Jerry Springer or learning how to send text messages. A report in Today's The Age reported the ministers remarks.
"It is unacceptable for students in English classes to be learning SMS, which is a travesty of English, studying television chat shows such as Jerry Springer, and other topics that are a distraction from their need to learn communications skills that will support them in a job and in further education and training," she said.

This is interesting as in a previous post I referred to an article in the Guardian which says that researchers at Coventry University found that contrary to popular belief, the use of text message abbreviations is linked positively with literacy achievements.

I sometimes wonder if politicians have any real idea of what happens in a real classroom om a day by day, week by week.

I often wish teaching students to be influence to adopt some idea was as easy as politicians seem to imagine.

245 kids in prison

Yes, yesterday 245 primary schools students marched, strolled and bussed their way into the Old Castlemaine Gaol to compete in the Mount Alexander Schools Chess Competition.

Once inside students sat at tables lined along the spokes of the prison which made it a unique experience for the them. Chess Kids ran the competition, supplying all of the equipment, boards, pieces, clocks and computer program.

Each student played 7 games competing with others at their level. The winning team of 4 students get to play the state final next week.

The enthusiasm of the kids for chess has surprised all of our teachers and principals. The Mount Alexander Cluster chess/numeracy initiative mainstreamed chess as part of each school's numeracy work; tutors worked with the kids and their teachers passing on their passion for chess. One of the principals, Kevin Brown, said to me that he had attempted to get chess going with a little success but the tutors brought another level of knowledge and enthusaism to the classes.

In all of the schools I have worked in as a consultant one thing that kids constantly say a good teacher has is 'they really like their subject' or 'really like teaching'. Passion, you can't beat it.

Content knowledge in your discipline is important. It's obvious to kids that you really know what you are teaching and that you can assist them in moving to a higher level because of your knowledge. Both process and content are important. I'm emphasizing this because I seem to be reading a lot of teaching material which virtually dismissed content knowledge as unimportant. But in chess like other areas knowledge of your subject can inspire kids.

The chess competition was the finale of our initiative for this year. We aimed to finish on a high note.

Now we need to evaluate our pre and post test data, anecdotal information and conduct some student assessments to see if there has been some effect on the numeracy skills of our students. Some initial information looks positive.

If you have any stories about using games successfully in class let me know.

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Chess kids in prison

Like many good ideas this just began with 'let's have a go'. I was approached by two teachers Steve Carroll and Harry Poulton who had an idea to extend the idea of chess clubs into the mainstream classes in thirteen Castlemaine district schools (central Victoria).

Steve and Harry wanted to get kids enthused by playing chess and seeing if there is an improvement in numeracy skills. They gained academic support from Dr Stephen Tobias of James Cook University, who is just as enthusiastic to see if there is an improvement in numeracy thinking and strategising skills of middle years students.

The cluster principals decided to use funds from our Innovations and Excellence initiative to fund tutors and to purchase chess kits for each school.

Once a week for a maths session tutors would take the kids through chess strategies and play chess games. The initiative took off at an astounding rate with kids who never expressed an interest in chess getting hooked. The key ideas of mainstreaming the chess as a normal class and supplying outside tutors proved the key.

A chess blog is running and has received favourable feedback from US chess guru Susan Polger.

I've been involved as the Educator for the cluster and we have a big tournament this coming Monday, also funded by our Innovations and Excellence Initiative.Chess Kids is running the tournament at the Old Castlemaine Prison, a rather unique environment for our students.

We estimate over two hundred of our primary students will compete. It seems virtually all of the grade 5 and 6 students want to compete, that's how enthusiastic they are.

Monday, 25 September 2006

Texting helps spelling

Texting will ruin spelling. Or will it?

An article in the Guardian says that researchers at Coventry University found that contrary to popular belief, the use of text message abbreviations is linked positively with literacy achievements.

One of the researchers Beverly Plester said: "So far, our research has suggested that there is no evidence to link a poor ability in standard English to those children who send text messages. In fact, the children who were the best at using 'textisms' were also found to be the better spellers and writers." The trial group was small but more research in this area is needed.

Spelling is one subject the public gets easily worked up a over because everyone figures that there is a right answer. Therefore teachers can easily teach kids to spell. In my blog wanderings I read this piece on spelling in Jo McLeay's blog. She also talks about the need to use spelling strategies and mentions David Hornsby who recently ran a one day workshop at Campbells Creek PS in central Victoria on spelling.

Teaching kids strategies is important as we need to be mindful that if students write without attempting to spell correctly, they are practising to spell incorrectly. Just think that after 6 years of practising spelling incorrectly how difficult it is to change or unlearn.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Reading circles group meets at Romsey

Last week I spent a few hours after school with a group of teachers who are using Reading Circles as part of their reading work in schools. You couldn't meet a more enthusiastic bunch of teachers; well this isn't exactly true, as I work with enthusiastic teachers in all schools, which is surprising given that politicians and the media love to constantly criticise public school teachers.

The group is using an adapted form of Harvey Daniel's Literature Circles. We use the roles and basic cooperative learning approach but adapted it to using short text such as short stories, non-fiction articles, extracts from texts including Maniac Magee and King Lear with great success. A couple of teachers said that their kids also use reading circles when discussing television and film.

It seems students enjoy the support the reading circles structure provides for them to discuss and explore texts in depth. They become enthusiastic readers and talkers in their circles. I remember one grade 5 student Nick saying, "It's amazing you know, we do all the work; we read the text, think of the questions, run the discussions and then work out what went well and what we need to do to improve."

Also I remembered a grade 7 boy saying that he hated reading because his teacher made the class write a book report for every chapter they read. Enough to turn kids off reading but reading circles is turning them on. It certainly isn't about the Gradgrind model from Charles Dickens of filling the empty vessel with facts.

Saturday, 16 September 2006

Leisurely reflection

Do you notice that when you take an interest in something which might be a certain model car or a new style of fountain pen you suddenly seem to see them everywhere. Well in today's Melbourne Age philosopher Tony Coady served up this morsel on slow knowing:
" I love universities, I think they are terrific institutions. But there is no longer time for the important activity of leisurely reflection. There's a constant driving necessity to be in committees, to write reports on what you've done or are about to do or might do some time, retreats, endless bureaucratic matters, the pressure to publish, do extensive amounts of teaching and raise outside sume of money. Most of this is down to government policy."

Friday, 15 September 2006

Slow ways of knowing

Guy Claxton in his book 'Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind' talks about "the slow ways of knowing ... the mind needs to be given time" and that we need the disposition to take one's time. I've just been to a slow food weekend in Melbourne which is about "living an unhurried life, beginning at the table." This sounds like a good idea that should apply to education where everything is speeded up with standards, assessments, progression points, high level thinking, authentic learning.

To add to the food metaphor, Claxton also says that the "know-how regions of our minds are organised less like the Library of Congress than a well used kitchen". We need both the organised, logical, deliberative thinking, as well as the meandering, serendipitious, playful, dreamy thinking.

Let's slow down and enjoy our learning and teaching.