Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Metablogging and the Connected World

It's been 6 months since I wrote about how Twitter has had an effect on my professional development and 7 months since I talked about the value of networking to me. 6 or 7 months later and my feelings are still pretty much the same, albeit now I've discovered not just learning opportunities that I can take from Twitter and the like, but learning opportunities that I can partake in or even create for myselfThe difference is that in this time I have expanded my personal network by getting more involved rather than sitting idly by as an observer. I now have over 200 people following me on Twitter, where I have tweeted almost 1,000 times. 

One thing I haven't talked much about is what I think the value of blogging is. I've reached a few online milestones in the past week or so. My blog has now had over 2,000 views since I started which, minus a 5 month sabbatical for an eventful summer, I have only been maintaining for a few months.  For the first time, one of my blog posts reached over 200 views in one day, with a little help from Steve Wheeler and Oliver Quinlan retweeting the link. Not only that but a few days later another of my posts again reached 200 views in a day, but this time without being shared by people much more connected than myself. 

This last point, for me, was astounding. At first, I had the feeling that my initial success (on a personal level) was because the staff at uni were celebrating what I was doing by sharing it with their Twitter followers - in effect, my audience was actually their audience. When I saw the stats for my last post I realised that I had created my own audience, that people were interested in my blog on its own merit.

My blog views by country (top ten)

Yes, yes, yes, there's a lot of numbers there, but what do they mean? Well, it depends entirely on your viewpoint. For experienced bloggers, or those that are well known in their field (or simply well known), I'm sure those numbers would be disappointing to them. For me, I'm hugely proud of the figures. To think that what I have to say has been viewed over 2,000 times by people from New Zealand to the USA is incredible.

I've realised that what I'm writing is a bit shallow. It's all a bit 'look at me' or 'look at these numbers'. Is that what I value I place in blogging - popularity? No, not at all. I do however use the statistics as motivation, as I've already said, the feeling that someone is interested in what I have to say pushes me to write more.

The true value of blogging to me is reflection. To write a diary of what happened is easy and to a certain extent not very useful. To be able to look at what happened and analyse why it happened or what you took from it is, for me, very important. I think it's akin to learning content over processes in schools - what do you learn more from, what do you remember more - what happened or why it happened? Reflection on events that have influenced my learning or my teaching is all well and good, but why post these reflections online? The thing I find disappointing however, is that there are rarely any comments left. When Philip Selbie left a comment here, it really expanded my views on what I was trying to reflect on, and I found that incredibly useful. As I say in the video below, my views are limited because of my lack of experience - when others bring their own experience to a topic then we all gain a greater understanding of the issue. 

(Thanks to Oliver Quinlan for the video)

Well, as many of you who know me will know, I love sharing. I don't understand why people should keep things to themselves if they know that someone else may get something from it. If I share my thoughts on how music has helped me develop confidence for example, then what I'm hoping is that I'll have encouraged other people to try it for themselves because it worked so well for me. The response I got was several people asking me where to get a ukulele from and some tips on where to begin teaching themselves. Sure, that was a few people that asked me, but the feeling I got was that sharing my thoughts had made a difference to someone. Is making a difference not a key value of a good teacher?

The main reason I decided to blog about blogging is that this Friday, I'll be setting up some Year 7 students in a local secondary school with blogs and I wanted to reflect on the value of blogging before I did so, otherwise how can I tell them why they should blog? Admittedly, there's a difference between the blogs of children and the blogs of professionals, but is there really much of a difference? We both must be selective in what we reveal about ourselves and others and we both intend to use blogs to enhance our learning. The only real difference I see is content.

To be honest, this opportunity seems like a culmination of several stages of how online activity aids development. Stage one: See the ideas of others - I follow David Mitchell (@DeputyMitchell) on Twitter and have seen the fantastic work that he's done with blogging in schools, so I wanted to give it a try. Stage two: Know who to ask - as my personal and professional learning networks grow, there are more and more people I can ask for help with something I want to do. Finally, Stage three: Just do it - when there's so many opportunities out there, why not take them?

So, to sum it all up in a nice little paragraph, what is the value of blogging to me? Well, it's a tool for reflection, for exploring and sharing ideas in the hopes that it will either garner a response that expands your viewpoint and points you to new avenues or will have a positive impact on the development or practice of others.

Finally, in an attempt to generate some discussion about this and expand my viewpoint - if you've read this far, why not leave a comment with your thoughts and demonstrate the power that sharing ideas with an online community holds?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Confidence is music to my ears

Two years ago my musical instrument collection consisted of a solitary kazoo

I've never considered myself particularly talented outside of academia. I was always of the assumption that people were either creative or academic, that people thought in a spectrum of abstract to logical. As a result of this, I largely ignored musical instruments for a long time. Don't get me wrong, I love listening to music, but as someone that considers their talents to lie in traditionally less creative subjects I felt that being able to play would be beyond me.

I tried - I had a guitar that sat in the corner of my room, unused and unloved for two years because I didn't have the motivation to overcome the initial hurdle of practice without much in the way of feeling like I'd made any headway. The classic case of lack of success denting motivation to continue I suppose.

Fast forward a few years and I'm in my second year of my course. I'm not ashamed to say that I wasn't at my best personally at this point, so I saw a lot of my friends to keep my spirits up. One of the most unique things about them was the fact that they'd recently developed a love for the Ukulele as a result of one of them being given a Spongebob Squarepants Flying-V as a present. Going to visit was often followed by a rendition of the latest song they'd learned to play and soon I was attempting to pick up the basics, eventually leading to me picking up a small, cheap ukulele for Christmas that year.

My original soprano (left) and my electro-acoustic tenor (right)

The joy of the ukulele is how low the barrier to entry is compared to an instrument like a guitar. You have 4 nylon/gut strings spaced fairly far apart compared to 6 steel strings and the chords are as simple in some cases of one finger on one string at a time, which means you can play basic songs within minutes of picking a ukulele up for the first time. Not only that but the size makes it extremely accessible, allowing you to take it anywhere with you. 

The thing that really got me hooked was how easy it was to feel successful. Once I had the basics down, I started to play songs you wouldn't usually associate with a ukulele. I guess this is where the joy of Guitar Hero/Rock Band comes from - being able to play songs you never thought you could in real life. This feeling of success drove me to play more, which made me feel more successful, which lead me to play more, etc, etc. 

The thing that really drove me was more than the success, it was that other people were celebrating my success with me. I'd play together with friends, we'd teach each other songs and generally, and I think most importantly, have fun. This lead to a massive boost in self-esteem. I was good at something, something I never thought I'd be good at. I'd overcome the mental barrier of telling myself I can't do it and I did it. This was an incredible moment for me. What else could I do that I'd told myself, or for that matter been told, that I couldn't do?

Then I remembered the guitar (I mentioned it for a reason!) I had left lying around unattended for years. It had long since gone, so I picked up another. I practiced. The ukulele had given me a solid basis to transition - I recognised chord shapes, my fingers were more used to what was going on, my sense of rhythm had improved dramatically and again I had this sense of 'Wow, I'm doing it. I'm actually playing a guitar and it's not sounding bad'. It became an addiction. I loved playing, I loved this feeling of satisfaction it gave me and I loved this feeling of confidence it gave me. As of now, I own two ukuleles, a guitar, a tenor banjo and a mandolin. I've even become confident enough to open myself to a barrage of abuse on YouTube by sharing my songs with other people! The value of generating a sense of confidence cannot be overstated.

I started taking my ukulele into school, and that's where I really made the link to education. The kids loved singing songs, or hearing stories that went with a tune. They loved being a part of something that I loved doing. I even started using my ukulele as a classroom management tool to get the attention of the class and give non-verbal instructions, through the beginning of the Deliverance duelling banjos no less. Nothing quite says 'Tidy away' like a little riff that means the children really listen carefully! It was also something that the children wanted to be a part of - they wanted to join in and play the ukulele too because they could see I clearly enjoyed it and the beauty of such a small instrument is that it is incredibly accessible to the smaller generation.

This is where my musical journey comes full circle. Maybe I never thought I'd be any good at musical instruments because I never had a teacher that was keen enough or confident enough to instill this relation between playing music and enjoying it. I barely remember music lessons at school aside from the shrill screech of a class of badly played recorders. If I didn't remember it, I probably didn't enjoy it. I think that the most important thing I've learned from my musical journey is the amount of confidence it can instill. Music is seen as something that is relatively difficult to access, and being able to be successful from the off drove me to learn more and more, so there's no way I would let such an opportunity to give my children such a boost.

I think that this attitude to music is a particular positive for me because it increases the versatility of my teaching, especially as a Maths specialist (one of those people limited to logical thinking after all) to show that I have that more creative side that I can bring into other subjects.

I'll finish not with a tweet this time, but with a video showing where I am now from my humble beginnings of barely stringing two chords together. This is my favourite example of how much my confidence has developed - my first ever YouTube video. Rock on, fellow teachers. Get musical! Get confident!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Shh... I'm learning!

Shh... I'm learning! Credit: inubleachanimefan
As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent the summer teaching English to foreign children aged between 13 and 18. One of the key methods employed in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is speaking and listening. What better way to learn a language than to be chucked in the deep end and forced to converse with others, listening to what they're saying and replying back?

Initially, while I didn't particularly struggle, I did have to adapt my teaching style to include much more speaking and listening than I was used to. I didn't think too much about it at the time, but looking back I'm really glad that I changed the way I teach because it soon became apparent that Talk for Learning (TFL) is an incredibly useful, and apparently oft-overlooked, learning tool not just in TEFL but in native-language schools too.

At the very basic level, talking is where all learning begins. As Vygotsky mentions, 

'Real concepts are impossible without words, and thinking in concepts does not exist beyond verbal thinking'

but I wanted to talk about the use of TFL at later developmental stages. Namely, the use of discussions over more traditional methods of learning like reading and writing.

As I used more and more activities to enable my students to talk to each other, I became aware of how little I used the process in schools. Every teacher uses small examples like talk partners, but it's not often I see or use open discussions with children with little to no recording, which is a shame. I think the best lessons I've had have had children talking through what's going on and not having to worry about formal recording, but until I stopped to think about it I didn't realise that was the case. My favourite example is a maths lesson I taught on measurement - the children talked through the learning process of using the scales to measure correct quantities with each other in groups, converting from 'parts' to 'ml' mentally and undertaking a practical task that actively encouraged communication. In the end they hadn't recorded anything but the recipe for their new concoction, though they had recorded an awful mess on the tables.

The children really engaged with the lesson because they didn't have to worry about filling in results tables, writing methods or explanations or doing the 'boring work' of having to work out the sums - they picked up what they needed to learn and applied their knowledge of addition and ratio in a way that made them feel like they weren't even doing maths.

The one problem I came across when I was thinking about this was the assessment of TFL, mainly the fact that with written work there is hard evidence of the children's ability to write, whereas assessing talk is somewhat less formal. I would argue however, that with classroom technologies that enable children to record sound or even video to save and edit negates the 'no record' argument entirely. In fact, technology opens a whole new world of TFL - It's easier to talk to someone on the other side of the world and learn about their culture and traditions via Skype than via email or letter, so why not encourage its use more?

I decided to ask some of my former students what their thoughts were on how much I'd made them talk and if they preferred reading or writing instead. Selma, from Germany, made a balanced argument, saying

"Both is important, because if I just listen or just talk I can't improve my writing skills..and the other way around ..it's the same! But reading/writing is sometimes really boring so I think I also prefer talking!

I quite liked this answer, diplomatic as it may be, because it not only highlights the fact that not all students prefer talking but also makes the connection between all three facets of language - they are all mutually dependent. Jasmin, another one of my German students, has this to say-

"If you cannot spontaneously think and speak about a problem in class, you may not be able to do it when you have an exam text either and need to think about it"

This continues the theme of what Selma was saying - the processes of reading, writing and speaking and listening are inherently linked. Jasmin makes a connection to Vygotsky's point about not being able to think without language, so the development of speech is incredibly imporant. Jone, one of my Spanish students, had a slightly briefer though quite fascinating point -

"Talking. Talking is more natural than writing."

This links really well to what Vygotsky said - Vocalising thoughts comes a lot more naturally than writing or reading and I think that children should be encouraged to use the method that makes them feel most comfortable. That isn't to say that I will forgo reading or writing by a long shot, but I think that Talk for Learning needs a much more prominent role in the classroom if we are to develop more confident children. I feel I am not going to have a quiet classroom and I'm proud to say it.

VYGOTSKIĬ, L. S., & COLE, M. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

And thanks to Jone, Jasmin and Selma for answering my questions!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Forgotten Teacher

If there was one thing that Sunday night taught me, it's that Twitter can be an amazing tool for generating discussions about a topic. Often, as it would seem, way into the wee hours of the morning. If there were two things that Sunday night taught me, the second would be that I have something I want to ask myself: Why do I want to be remembered as a teacher?

The question was first asked to me by Oliver Quinlan, a lecturer at the university, after I made a throwaway comment about my role with the Student Teacher Resource.

My initial rationale was simple - I remember the teachers that made an impression on me (for good or for bad), but those I don't remember... well, I have nothing to remember them for. The good teachers I will remember for inspiring me, pushing me to do well or generally make the lessons interesting. Steve Wheeler sees things pretty much the same by the looks of things:

I remember my chemistry GCSE and A-Level teachers really well, for example, because they had the ability to engage my practical side through experiments. I mean, who would forget that potassium burns with a violet flame when you get to burn paper that's been soaked in potassium chlorideA cheap trick, maybe. But at the end of the day, I still remember what colour flames are produced when alkali metal solids are present. Of course, this leads into teaching facts vs process, which I don't want to touch on this time. What I got out of the showmanship however, was a much greater interest in the subject, that it caught my attention (What teenage boy doesn't like playing with fire?) and then spurred me to engage with the learning and even go on to find out more about the subject. My point is, that if you're forgotten it's not likely you've made an impact on that child.

Oliver, being Oliver, asked the question again. Why do I want to be remembered?  Well I look back on my time spent with these teachers and I see how, many years later, what I learned from them is still with me, whether it be fact or process. They have made a lasting positive impact on me, so why would I not want to do the same for the children I teach? 'Yes!' I think. 'I actually answered it this time'. Apparently not. I'd answered the 'what' I want to do and not the 'why'.

Is trying to inspire children not an admirable trait of a teacher? Is there a reason why teachers aren't allowed to feel good about doing a good job? Of course, I'm not saying that teachers are merely in the role to satisfy their egos, but doesn't everyone derive satisfaction from being successful in something they love doing? If you don't feel good about yourself for being a good teacher, then one can argue that it's probably not the right job to be in. 

Oliver finally asked 'How does feeling good about yourself help the process though?'. I think that this is a simple one to answer. Motivation. It's motivation to keep teaching, it's what drives teachers to succeed, to keep going through rough patches because at the end of the day they know that those moments of success make it all worth it. Surely people become teachers because they want to have this positive influence on their students? I know I did. I'm not afraid to say that I want to be remembered as a teacher, not because I want to feed my ego (anyone that knows me knows how modest I am) but because I want to have made a significant positive impact on those I teach. As I usually try to do, I'll end this with a tweet. Who says pride is a sin?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Are Teachers the 'Managers' of the Classroom?

This summer, I took the opportunity to work as a local teacher for EF Language Travel. For those that have never heard of it before, EF is an international private education company that teaches English to millions of students around the world. There's an awful lot I learned from EF, but I think it's best to split what I want to talk about into separate posts because they are two very different topics.

When I first started writing this post, my first intention was to talk merely about motivation, but as I wrote more it developed into a comparison of staff management and classroom management. When teachers talk about motivation, the thing that comes to mind instantly is how to get the children motivated to work, but in this instance I wanted to talk about how staff are affected by motivation issues.

I've been working since I turned 13 and was allowed to do a paper round for the local newsagents. Since then, I've worked for a lot of different bosses, some good and some not so good. I'm aware as I type this that I am toeing a particularly narrow professional line and as such I won't go into particular detail about some of the things I mention. I think it's safe to say however, that for the last few years I have not enjoyed myself at work, which in turn lead me to perform below my own personal expectations. Now working below your own expectations isn't always a bad thing, everybody has off days, but my problem here was that I was able to justify my performance to myself because I wasn't motivated to perform better. This is very similar to what happens to children in school. If children aren't motivated to learn then it's unlikely that they will do, and more often than not it will lead to behaviour problems. Having not known any better motivation for such a long time, I took this to be the status quo and as a result of this, I had a bit of a shock waiting for me when I began teaching in school.

My first week I was a bit unsure of myself, new job, new surroundings, new people, but I felt welcomed by not just the management, but by the rest of the staff too. The cynic in me believed that sooner or later something would change, that I'd be berated for mistakes of others, spoken to like a peon or something similar, but nothing came. The point at which I really clicked what was going on was one early morning in the office. I was introducing one of the new members of staff to Mark, who I'm sure won't mind the fame of a couple of hundred more people hearing about him by name, when the phone rang. Excusing himself, I could gather from the one-sided conversation that it was someone calling in sick. What I didn't expect, however, was to hear 'No, it's ok, don't worry. Seriously, it's ok, you stay home and get some rest. Look, don't worry about it, we'll get cover! Get well soon'. 

Here's Mark in all his glory

It might seem odd that this had shocked me, but it was at this point I realised that the management genuinely cared about the people that worked for them. It went further - I came down with quite a bad chest infection halfway through the summer and instead of being made to feel guilty for asking for time off, I was repeatedly asked if I wanted the day off, without even asking for it. It totally took me aback and while on reflection I perhaps should have taken the time off (thanks for the offer though Karlie!), it had been drilled into me for so long that work comes first that I didn't even consider not turning up for work the next day. I would feel awful if I'd repeated the same classroom management mistakes so many times that my children had been drilled to accept it as the norm. I'd say this is why I have a fairly relaxed attitude in the classroom - If there is a reason for me to raise my voice then it becomes that much more effective if it's used infrequently.

It was this feeling amongst the staff that they were actually being looked out for that made us that bit happier with our jobs, and it made me realise that the methods we employ to motivate children are almost identical to how a good boss should motivate their staff, and as someone that would quite like to progress in my career I think that's something worth taking note of. Praise where praise is due, highly approachable but firm when it calls for it. One of the most important things I've noticed over the years is that the best managers are the ones that make decisions that are transparent, logical and fair. Being able to understand why a decision has been made from all perspectives is really important - it links so well with good teaching practice. If children understand why they are learning what they are learning, or why they are doing it in a certain way, they are far more likely to pick it up.

The best examples of management I have seen also provide a healthy balance of control and freedom. I remember one particular manager of mine who would micro-manage to such a degree that they might as well just do the job themselves, making me feel redundant. On the other hand, I've had managers so laid back that it didn't seem matter whether or not the job was done. These low expectations, while producing a relatively fun environment to work in, also reduced the quality of the work being done. In terms of classroom management, I would say this is akin to open-ended vs closed questions or investigations. Giving children too narrow a scope limits their visions of where the learning is going, reduces creativity and scope for individualism. But give children too much freedom and they'll lose focus, end up taking wild tangents and generally not learn as effectively as they could.

So, back to the question I use as the title of this blog. Good teachers and good managers share an awful lot of traits, as do bad teachers and bad managers. In fact, in terms of interpersonal relationships with a group of people, the role of a manager in somewhere like an office or a restaurant are very similar to that of the teacher in a classroom. Are teachers in effect the 'managers' of their class of 'employees', or are we something more? 

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Birth to Five Matters

Before I begin, I've got to say that I'm going to supplement my post with tweets from the event. It seems that a lot of the students at the university had a similar experience to myself, and some of us put the key points more eloquently than I could. Also, I do apologise for the length of the post (in excess of 2,200 words). but I honestly got so much out of this single day that it was worth writing every last one of them.

Since meeting Becy (@trainieteacher) towards the start of the year, I have come to realise that over the duration of the course, the students on the 5-11 pathway have had no input on the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. It also dawned on me that since my final, and technically most important, placement would be in Key Stage 1, it is entirely possible that I will have a mixed Reception/KS1 class. I do not particularly like the prospect of taking control of a class for which I haven’t the faintest clue what or how to teach, as I’m sure making the jump from Year 6 to KS1 will be hard enough as it is without having to familiarise myself and plan for an entire new curriculum.
When I found out that the entirety of the conference for the third year BEd students would be ECS-focussed, I had somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see and learn a little more about the EYFS curriculum, but on the other hand I debated the true value of what an entire day spent on ECS would help me to gain, as if I had missed the opportunity to experience something that could be of use to the entire cohort instead of the handful of KS1-placed 4th years.
However, it became quickly apparent during the opening keynote from Clare Bader that the EYFS curriculum is not just useful to those that will be teaching it, but all teachers can draw inspiration from the more creative approach it takes. She said that ‘Early learning should be active and multi-sensory’, to which I say that ‘early’ be extended to upper key stage two and possibly beyond. My most successful lessons have been the ones that involve so much more than just sitting at a desk solving problems, they’ve been the lessons where the children get to roam around, look at things from different angles, really putting into context the subject matter. In fact, one of my favourite lessons to date has been making cocktails with fruit juice in year 6, calculating and measuring the correct amounts, getting to taste, allowing them the opportunity to be creative and make their own, etc, etc.
Risk taking should be encouraged
There were a wide range of workshops throughout the day, but I only had time to go to three of them. The first I attended didn’t actually focus too much on the early years specifically, and that was the workshop chaired by David Mitchell (@deputymitchell) on safeguarding and e-safety. I was particularly looking forward to this session, having followed what the children at Heathfield were doing with their blogs for a while, so to meet the man that had inspired children to be so enthused by writing was great. What I really liked about this session was the fact that Dave opened up discussion to the audience, rather than standing and presenting. After witnessing a quote from our very own Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) demonstrating a surprisingly soft side (awwww!) opened the session, it was a quote from one of the parents at Heathfield that made the most striking impression. They said that they want their children to get hurt, but only a little. They want their daughter to have a boyfriend that treats her bad, again only a little, because learning by making mistakes is one of the most effective ways of learning. I think this approach to child development is key – if nobody makes mistakes at an early age, then how do people deal with making mistakes when they are older? I know my limits when it comes to how high I can climb a tree, how long I can run around for, how hot an object I can hold, etc, because my parents gave me the opportunity to test my limits, under a watchful eye of course, and I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as confident today if I was afraid of doing so. You can see David's Prezi and his reflection of the conference on his blog here.
Again, the risk taking theme comes into play
His next topic of discussion was talking about whether or not various web 2.0 tools should children be allowed to use, i.e. what are the benefits and drawbacks of each. Looking through my notes, I managed to list a lot of drawbacks to the use of Facebook, YouTube, Google, Wikipedia and Skype (Twitter was notably absent from the list!), but I have noted down no benefits. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that listing the benefits is required, as in the majority of cases they are self evident. Facebook was one of the exceptions, however. I don’t think there is much benefit to allowing children to use Facebook, as in my experience the features such as photo sharing and conversation/messaging can be offered in a much safer environment elsewhere. Unless the teacher has a ‘professional’ account in which they can befriend the children and keep an eye on their activities and conversations, I think that there would be far too many social problems involved. Only through openness and transparency do we solve and prevent issues of cyber-bullying.
Finally, Dave rounded off with a summary of the dangers of blogging. When you consider the dangers we came up with were to do with ownership of pictures and plagiarism of the writing, I do not understand the objection that some parents may have to the use of blogging with children. As Dave mentioned, his Year 6 blogs have reached almost 200,000 hits since the turn of the year and the proportion of level 5s has increased from 9% to 63% within a year. When you look at quantitative data, the results speak for themselves, but the qualitative factor of enthusing children to actually enjoy writing cannot be understated. When Dave mentioned his children getting upset that they didn’t have any hits on their own blogs when they tried to set their own up, but being encouraged when they had the audience introduced by his tweets, it made me realise that audience generates enthusiasm, which generates audience, which generates enthusiasm... For a child writing for an audience 200,000 times the size of the number of people that will read any other child’s work, that’s a whole new level of effort that teachers just can’t generate on their own. As David went on to mention in his keynote later, ‘It itsn’t about results, it is about unlocking something new and not losing the children’s interest’ 
Even Year 2s are encouraged to blog, to incredible effect
 The next session I attended was focussed on Forest Schools. Having been lucky enough to grow up on the very outskirts of town, with fields and forests featuring metres from my back gate, allowing children the freedom to explore their surroundings to develop their physical literacy is something that I am particularly keen on. This linked back well to the theme generated at the start of David Mitchell’s session about children being able to make mistakes and learn from them. The importance of outdoor education was also particularly highlighted for me when @forestmanct talked at the TeachMeet the day before, right after our presentation on the virtual environment of Minecraft – Whilst the use of technology in classrooms is developing at an incredible pace, removing children from ICT to give them firsthand experience of outdoor education is vital, something I’m sure places such as Occombe Farm and The Seashore Centre in Paignton can attest to. 
Cait agrees with the change of learning environment
During my first year placement, I was fortunate enough to be placed in Chagford, a tiny village in the middle of Dartmoor. The school there has very close links with an environmental education group and even from an early age the children are taught skills such as building and lighting fires, which was fantastic to see. What I really found interesting was the way in which outdoor activities can be adapted for early years children, even allowing a degree of independence to (safely) explore their environment on their own terms. The recurring theme of the day seemed to be that children needn’t be ‘mollycoddled’ as is the perception of many, but, with proper supervision, be given more freedom.
The risk theme returns
As I attend more and more events to further my CPD, I start to see more and more links between the things I see and hear. One of the thoughts that sprung to mind during the forest schools seminar was Stephen Heppell’s keynote speech at PELC11 on learning environments. Isn’t the outdoors the most interesting, varied and interactive learning environment? Displays that change on a daily basis, a scale of resources ranging from the macroscopic to the microscopic and the lack of a stuffy and cramped classroom... A solution to overcrowding in schools perhaps?!
Clearly I am learning something from all this extra CPD!
The final seminar of the day was the one that I thought would be most applicable to my original aim of learning more about the EYFS curriculum, which was managing a mixed EYFS and KS1 classroom. Running two the two curriculums side-by-side looks to be a particularly demanding task. Firstly, it must be difficult for the KS1 children to be stuck inside working while the EYFS children are allowed to play, so extra provision must be made to engage the rest of the children in the afternoons. Secondly, the planning looks a lot harder than for a class in a single key stage, or even a mixed KS1/KS2 class. We were given the chance to try and plan just the timetable which would include all the needs of both EYFS and KS1 and it proved to be quite a challenge. If the timetable alone is that difficult to plan, I’m sure the lessons would be a nightmare!

That’s not to say that there are no benefits from a mixed class. In fact, I would say that it’s not a bad idea at all. There’s the fact that it enables a smoother transition from the more multi-sensory teaching of early years to year one. This is important to ensure that children are not struck by the sudden change and discouraged by the different approach. Whilst I mentioned that planning may be harder, it does enable the teachers to differentiate the lesson such that the higher ability reception children can be pushed and the lower ability year ones can gain extra support. Not only that, but by mixing the age groups, you introduce the reception children to positive role models while simultaneously promoting an ethos of responsibility to the year one children about maintaining this status.
It was a shame that I was unable to attend the other seminars throughout the day, but thankfully the audience were active Twitter users. The #earlyyears hashtag has been archived and looking back through, there were some excellent points made. Whilst I'd love to comment on each of them, I think that they speak for themselves. I was really pleased that our cohort produced such enlightening discussion and really pick out the key ideas.
The final part of the day was David Mitchell’s keynote about blogging in the classroom. Whilst a lot of the things that were said had already been touched on in his seminar, it was interesting to hear him talk about the different opinions, ideas and discussions that had developed throughout the day. There were some really key ideas generated on Twitter about the keynote. One tweet, from @trainieteacher,  asks the question ‘What’s better – a single teacher marking a book, or several people leaving comments on a blog post? Again, this links back to the earlier seminar where we found out about the sheer size of the audience the children have garnered. What’s better than a second opinion or two (hundred thousand)?

One of the more interesting parts was the live chat with his students using Coveritlive. The fact that the children knew they were blogging to a live audience of hundreds of teachers must have been a fantastic feeling for them, and the responses they gave to the visual or auditory prompts featured language that I would not expect from of a year 6 class. I think that the most inspiring thing about the blogging taking place at Heathfield school is the fact that it is almost entirely child-lead. Children choose what to put on the blog, children write the posts and the staff act as their enablers, and this was aptly demonstrated.

Overall, I’d say that the Birth to Five Matters conference was a great success. It was definitely not what I was expecting, but then again I’m not really sure what I was expecting in the first place. If there are any key points to take away from the day, I’d have to say this. One: Allow, nay encourage, children to make mistakes. Learning from experience is one of the most effective ways of remembering things and generating critical self evaluation. Two: The EYFS curriculum is something that should not be limited to Birth to Five. Elements of the curriculum, such as the emphasis on multi-sensory approaches to lessons and learning through play can be drawn upon for inspiration in teaching styles throughout key stages one and two. Third and finally, learning does not always have to take place in the classroom. The seminars from @ForesterJo and @DeputyMitchell have shown me that taking learning out of the classroom gives the children extra motivation to learn by encouraging them to enjoy what they are doing. Perhaps this is a psychological barrier that we, as teachers, must draw on to improve the learning environment within the classroom. Does the enclosed classroom instil a negative learning attitude within the children?
Many thanks to the University of Plymouth, @ethinking and @philipselbie for organising the conference and to all that hosted seminars, including @deputymitchell and @foresterjo. It was a really informative and inspiring day!

As is becoming a theme with my posts, I'm going to finish with another Tweet.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

TeachMeet - Just Add H2O

On Thursday night, I was planning on attending and presenting at #tmaquarium, an event that an enormous amount of effort went into planning courtesy of just a handful of third year BEd students and a particularly supportive lecturer. Becy Allen (@trainieteacher) and Katie O'Reilly (@kforeilly) were the students most involved, really putting their heart into trying to make this the most exciting TeachMeet ever and it truly showed, so I want to congratulate these guys on a job very well done. Thanks must also go to Pete Yeomans (@ethinking), a lecturer in ICT at the University of Plymouth, who was instrumental in helping organise the venue and secure sponsorship. Unfortunately, Becy could not chair the meeting due to a last minute emergency, so she asked me if I could step in and chair. Now, my confidence may have grown considerably in the past year, but chairing only my second TeachMeet... Oh, who am I kidding? I couldn't say no! 

Again, Twitter was in full effect

This is very much the moment where, though I'm trying to set up various aspects of student support at uni, I mention how incredible the support network already in place at the University is. Alex Gingell (@alexgingell) and Katie O'Reilly (@kforeilly) were instrumental in helping me get some last-minute preparation done and thanks also to Alex Meiklejohn (@ameiklejohn) for helping us get set up and ready. Really goes to show the community feeling that is present in the faculty of education - no matter what year or specialism you are in, there is someone there ready to jump in and help out. One of the aims of the Student Teacher Resource in the future is to try and develop this sense of community amongst the students, but it is only when I needed the help that I realised just how important this aim is.

The venue for the TeachMeet was the National Marine Aquarium's brand new Just Add H2O Learning Zone. When I visited just a few weeks ago with Pete, the building work was still ongoing, but the venue looked fantastic. Arriving on Thursday evening to see the finished article was incredible - the staff at the NMA have done an amazing job, the facilities they have designed look to have amazing potential So again, a massive thank you to everyone there for your support! They have a TV studio with a green screen, breakout spaces and seminar rooms deigned to give children a range of learning experiences within their marine-based curriculum enrichment. The TeachMeet took place at their AquaLab, a stage playing host to crab and starfish filled tanks and strange bubbling tubes of water in front of a space capable of supporting an audience of around 60-70 people seated.

The AquaLab - photo courtesy of Alex Gingell

A few of the comments about the lab
The one thing that struck me about this TeachMeet above all others that I have seen is the number of attendees. We didn't have an exact count, but the 60-70 capacity of the AquaLab was almost full. It was incredible to see such a turnout and a large proportion of the audience were students from the BEd course in Plymouth. I think this goes to show the passion for education that has been developed in the students by the staff at the Uni. As I keep on mentioning, I think that sharing and collaboration is key to Continuing Professional Development (CPD), so it was great to see that not only were a lot of the students being enthusiastic audience members but many of the presenters too! I think that the future of education in the South-West is headed firmly in the right direction if the teachers being produced already have this attitude of supporting each other.
The enthusiastic audience - Photo courtesy of Alex Gingell
Taking the stage was quite a daunting feeling. The lights are shining on you, the audience is watching you. You are front and centre of everybody's attention. I'm not sure how much I enjoyed it at the time, but the adrenaline rush was great. Maybe with some more preparation, I would have been more comfortable in this role, but I guess with experience comes confidence. I am very much someone that learns through evaluation and reflection of my experiences and this, in essence, is one of the driving forces behind my blogging. If there is anything that I have learned  over the past year it is that confidence builds confidence, so I implore any of my readership not to shy away from opportunities -  take them. We teach our children that failure is perfectly acceptable, it's the fact they gave it a go that matters, yet we are hesitant to fail ourselves. But success is a driving force behind anybody's confidence and the feedback I got was fantastic, so thank you for everybody's kind words.

Speaking of confidence, one of the things we included in the TeachMeet was inspired by Dan Roberts (@chickensaltash) who created 'Chicken Nuggets' - a selection on the random generator whereby anyone from the audience that hasn't signed up can take the stage and talk unprepared about anything they'd like. Seeing as though there were no chickens there, and we were in an aquarium, we created the 'Fish Finger' presentation. Again, it goes to show the level of enthusiasm generated in the audience when the fish finger came up and Grant Taylor (@createach) took the stage to present. Very well done, I hope that in the future I can exude such an air of confidence!

One thing that I found particularly interesting about this TeachMeet was the fact it was being streamed and broadcast live for the entire world to see. Thanks to Ed Bolton (@eddbolton) for setting up this fantastic resource. Not only was it broadcast live, but recorded too. As much as I may hate seeing myself on stage, it was really interesting to watch as a spectator. I did want to talk about all the presentations I saw or made, but seeing how long this blog post is already has made me decide to put the stream here and record my thoughts on presentations in separate posts in more detail.

Thanks to Pete Yeomans (@ethinking), Katie O'Reilly (@kforeilly), Alex Meiklejohn (@ameiklejohn), Alex Gingell (@alexgingell), James Edwards (@jimmy_edwards), Gareth Excell (@garethjxl), Chris Taylor (@forestmanct) and Grant Taylor (@createach) for presenting. Everyone had some fantastic ideas to share and judging by the audience's applause and feedback, you all did brilliantly, big well done!

This TeachMeet gave me so much in terms of my professional development. Not only did I have the opportunity to see what all the other teachers brought to the table, but the support and feedback I was given has pushed me even further along the path of my development. Where this path is going, I do not know, but one thing is for sure, I'm very much enjoying the journey. I'll end with two of my favourite tweets from the #tmaquarium hashtag. I look forward to seeing a TeachMeet audience from a stage again!

Friday, 6 May 2011

On Twitter

Thanks to Steve Wheeler for the inspiration behind this blog post
Before the start of the year, I could not understand Twitter. I had never used it, and I never thought I would. Facebook held everything I thought I needed from social networking, surely Twitter is just 'Facebook lite' with it's 140 character limit, no? The perception I held was the perception that the media had presented to me. Celebrities caught up in a storm over a misconstrued tweet. Celebrities stroking their egos by collecting as many followers as possible. Celebrities filling the minds of the masses with useless trivia about their latest pair of designer shoes.

However, with a little encouragement about the benefits from some lecturers and coursemates, I signed up. I followed my friends at first, and people I knew in person. But that's not the point of Twitter. Not for me anymore at least. 

As I started to follow more people that had been suggested to me, I started to see the benefits that I could take from Twitter. Soon enough, I was following links from people high up in the profession. I was seeing these professionals converse about current events. I was seeing hundreds of teachers join in discussions about a particular teaching issue. As I got more involved, I started tweeting more, which gained me more followers, which encouraged me to share more and at that point it dawned on me... In a world of continual funding cuts, the network of educators on Twitter sharing their ideas and opinions grows. It's become my professional network to Facebook's social network.

My preconception of Twitter lead me to think that if I had Facebook then I didn't need Twitter, but as I've progressed through my course, I've come to realise that teachers have two lives. In one life, I am JC,  making the most of my free time, enjoying life to it's fullest and exchanging banter, amusing anecdotes and embarrassing photographs with friends. In my other life, I am Mr. Sheffield, a responsible adult charged with the education of a class of 30 little people, running projects for students and someone that upholds a medium of respect and grace at all times. These two lives are mutually exclusive. As such, one must keep them separate. Facebook has now become my 'Me' network. That is to say, it's my online escape from work, a chance to catch up with friends and have a good old gossip. Twitter is my online place of work almost. A place where I can find out what other teachers have been doing, find new resources, share my own opinions and generally gain some free CPD. I've been a member of Facebook for around 6 years now, and Twitter only 3 months. Twitter has now ousted Facebook in terms of daily usage.

I think that says something awful about my Work-Life Balance right now (the subject of last night's #ukedchat by the way), but to be honest, if I didn't think I was getting anything out of it then I wouldn't be using it. I've had a lot of hand in dates recently, and Twitter has made finding new sources of information and helpful quotes so much faster and easier, more often than not giving more direct and relevant information than trawling through books and journals.

I apologise, @timbuckteeth, for not being able to fit that reply into 140 characters. This reply will have to do I'm afraid...
And blog I did!

Monty Python as an Analogy of the Poor Use of ICT in the Classroom

This blog post may initially seem a little off the wall, but stick with it and it’ll eventually make sense. With the TeachMeet at the National Marine Aquarium next Thursday night, I thought back to PELC11 and the TeachMeet that was held there. While I was thinking about the presentation i gave, I realised that although TeachMeets are ideal places to share and flesh out ideas, they’re still somewhat limited to sharing ideas with the attendees. As you may well know by now, I think sharing and collaboration is one of the most valuable techniques that teachers, especially trainee teachers, have to grab hold of, so why limit my presentation about Monty Python to the attendees of TMPELC11? Here it is, in full textual glory!

Over the course of this year, I’ve had many an ICT lecture from Pete Yeomans (@ethinking). Thankfully, for the purposes of interest and engagement, Pete occasionally breaks his lectures up with a video clip. One of the videos he showed was completely unexpected, however. But then, nobody expects the Spanish inquisition! Pete showed several Monty Python clips to us over the module, managing to somehow relate them to what he was talking about. As a fan of Monty Python myself, I was entertained, but left wondering why one of my favourite scenes wasn’t used, because I thought it was incredibly relevant to ICT.

So I asked Pete, a week or so before TMPELC11, why he’d never used it, explaining why I thought it was an incredible analogy. His words were ‘Present this at the Teach Meet’.  Here I was, my first Teach Meet, following from some great (and very educational) presentations, when my name comes up on the random generator accompanied by the title of my 5 minute slot... ‘Monty Python as an Analogy of the Poor Use of ICT in the Classroom’

Firstly, I’d best include the clip so that you can see what I’m blabbering on about. The scene is taken from the opening of Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’, entitled ‘Part 1 – Birth’

‘But how on Earth does that link to bad ICT?’ I hear you ask! Well, let me explain.

(0:46) ‘A bit bare in here today isn’t it? ... Get the machine that goes ‘bing!’ – This line, to me, represents one of the common mistakes made by teachers using ICT. It seems like the doctors here are using technology for the sake of using technology. As @ethinking mentioned rather quotably in his first EICT350 lecture this year, ‘ICT is a tool for learning not a ‘silver bullet’ to cure the ills of the education system’. In other words, if you don’t need it, don’t use it!

(1:02) ‘Get the most expensive machine, in case the administrator comes!’ – In a world where you can find almost any application to do any task for next to nothing, this line brings up an interesting issue. This happens all over the world in consumer goods – price relates to quality. In teaching however, I don’t think that this is the case. Sure, with the costlier products comes a wider range of features,  more support, flashier graphics, etc, but more often than not it’s the simpler, cheaper, things that are more effective. It also makes me think about the number of schools that have bought expensive software or hardware as a ‘showing off’ tool. Again, this defies the purpose of buying it. In a world of limited budgets, teachers need to focus on what they really need and use it effectively.

(1:22) ‘Still something missing though... Patient!’ – One of the strongest points that can be taken from the clip. The doctors have brought in so much machinery that they’ve literally lost the patient. I think this is analogous to a teacher trying to bring so much ICT into a lesson that they’ve lost sight of the objective. ICT needs to be implemented in a way that it supports an objective, not hinders it.

(1:38) ‘Mind the machine!’ – Linking nicely back to the last point, the doctors seem more concerned about the machinery than the patient. Pupils should always come before equipment. After all, the equipment is there for the pupils to use!

(2:05) ‘What do I do?’ ‘Nothing, dear! You’re not qualified!' – This one made me chuckle. Who is better qualified to take control of a situation than the person it’s happening to. In other words, who better to steer the direction of the learning than the children themselves? Children should be allowed to explore technology, as Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall project demonstrates effectively.

And finally, (3:50) ‘OK, show’s over!’, is a line right at the end of the clip, before the doctors, staff and random members of the public leave. I can almost imagine a teacher taking the children away from a piece of technology once they’ve ‘taught it’, never to come back. ICT is often used as a ‘wow’ device, as a ‘look at how exciting this is’ trick than a constructive part of a child’s learning.

So there you have it. Share it with every Python fan you know. Monty Python was 30 years ahead of its time. I just hope it’s not too late.