It Was a Very Good Year – Part Two

6. Pedagoo Friday – was an idea initiated by a few Scottish teachers but mainly the inspirational Fearghal Kelly who is the driving force. Pedagoo is ‘an attempt by a loose collection of educators in Scotland to move beyond the rhetoric and inevitable negativity that surrounds most new initiatives in education’. I came up with the idea of #pedagoofriday in September when I saw so many creative ideas happening in schools and little access to sharing. The idea is to share one great thing that happened in your classroom that week. Some of that sharing has been inspirational.

7. Being brave – I’m not sure if it’s a Scottish thing but I know there is a wee voice in my head every time I tweet or blog, whispering, ‘this is terrible. You know nothing.’ Perhaps that is true. But no-one ever achieved anything by doing nothing. Whatever it is you have to say, say it. Maybe it is rubbish; maybe no one will want to read it. But what you will do is reflect upon what you’ve written and be better for it. The world doesn’t need another Blogger but what it does needs is another educator reflecting on his or her practice. It will help you, first of all. And that must be a good thing.

8. Not being afraid of self-promotion – Yes, people will criticise, point a finger, mock. But you want them to read your work, don’t you? Twitter is great for getting your stuff out to your audience; an audience which, remember, has chosen to follow you and what you do. I’ve never really felt bad about publicising my blog. God knows, there have been times when I’ve felt my posts were not as good as they could have been but there is a sense of urgency and immediacy about blogging which I enjoy. Reaction from others can sometimes be the best editing process.

9. Twitter – Despite the cynics, and I was one, Twitter is the best and easiest and quickest way to share ideas with other teachers. It is not the only way but for ease and speed it has been a life changer for me. I am constantly amazed by the wide variety of resources and ideas I can find on Twitter and even the wide ranging opinions can be a real eye-opener. What is important is that, if you want to use Twitter for educational purposes, then only follow those involved in education. I soon developed a fantastic personal learning network who are both helpful and unafraid to point out when I’m in the wrong.

10. The Hope That 2012 will be even better – And it will, you know. The first Teachmeet of the year is on January 4th. Come along. It may just be the change you’re looking for. Thanks to everyone who has read or commented on My Blog this year. In 2012 Ipromise I’ll try to be better then last year.

It Was a Very Good Year

‘Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.’

Miracle on 34th Street.

This is part one of my final Blog post of 2011. Exactly a year ago I had written my first one. It  lay untouched for days,  a result of my procrastination and general weak-willed assumption that it was rotten. However, I leapt in and a year later I can happily say that that decision changed my teaching life. I may never be the best writer, the best blogger; I may never win awards: but I am more confident as an educator, more connected to like-minded souls and more prepared to take a risk. If there is one piece of advice I would pass on to anyone in the same position as I was a year ago it would be this. Go for it. To paraphrase someone else, blog like no-ones reading.
So, in the finest tradtion of lazy journalism and even lazier TV programme scheduling, over the next two days I’ll highlight the top ten most important things that have happened as a result of that decision to Blog. In  no  particular  order:

1. Teachmeet – I attended many of these this year and spoke at two. Speaking in front of large crowds of your peers may not sound appealing – it was terrifying actually – but it was massively rewarding. The huge confidence I gained from forcing myself up to talk about things which are happening in my class was amazing. There are no cynics, no grumblers. Merely like-minded souls who want to listen. Do it. First chance you get. Just do it. But make sure you keep your shirt tucked in.

2. Persisting with the Blog– From the tentative scribblings of a wannabe blogger to the Guardian in seven months. I had two of my blog posts chosen for the Guardian Teacher’s Network this year and it blew my mind. I genuinely think that my Blog can be good at times but never that good. To see my work on the Guardian website –here and here– and to be able to mail the link to friends and family was hugely important to me and a massive confidence boost.

3. My Scottish PLN – A year ago I wouldn’t have known what a Personal Learning Network was but now can count many great, great educators as friends. In Scotland alone, Fearghal, Colm, Dave, Neil, Liz, David, Ian, Drew, Russell and those too many to mention. You know who you are and I thank you for the unbelievably creative ideas you have shared with me this year.  And the Twitter heckling at Teachmeet, Neil. Thanks again.

4. My worldwide PLN– The great thing about Twitter is that it breaks down barriers in so many ways, not just geographically. I can contact writers, educationalists, anyone around the world and it is amazing how kind people can be. James, David, Mark, Tom, Phil, Lisa, Nina, Eugene, Laura and many others: thank you for opening doors for me and creating the best CPD I’ve ever known. And thank you for your patience and support.

5. Digital Literacy – I started the year with Inanimate Alice and wrote at the time that it was the most incredible learning experience I’d had. I wouldn’t change that looking back. The process as well as the amazing classroom experience is something I would recommend to every teacher who crossed my path.  Student engagement rocketed and we produced some excellent writing as well as our own digital episodes. No experience necessary. Highly recommended. And it does not mean that you throw everything else out. We still studied literature, grammar and everything else you would expect. We just worked harder.

I’mpretty impressed with all of that. It hasn’t been a bad year at all. Tomorrow I’ll get to #pedagoofriday and a few other things.

Uniformity – Same Old, Same Old..

My classroom has been set out in groups for years now. I occasionally resort to rows for assessment purposes, perhaps the odd poorly behaved class, but, more or less, it remains the same. As a reaction to my own school experience, I always wanted to avoid that monotony some students must experience at times, when faced with six periods of the same thing; but groups are just another form of uniformity, aren’t they? To believe I am being especially revolutionary or radical is ludicrous but also missing the point. The uniformity is not about the layout of the desks. It is the desks themselves.

Our student teachers left us this week and the subject of uniformity came up in our final report meeting. They have a day where they ‘shadow’ a pupil to every subject and experience the same things the pupil experiences. It seems not much has changed since my day in school. The same desks, the same copying from the board, the same experience of being trapped behind a desk. And we wonder why many of our children switch off. So, when you see a class which is neatly set out in rows ( or groups, for that matter) do you ever ask yourself who it’s all for?

Is it better for learning to have your desks in rows? Is there evidence to back that up? Are they in rows because they have less opportunity to misbehave or at least be distracted by each other? So it’s about the behaviour and not the learning? I suppose my real question is this; if our raison d’être of classroom management is concerned with controlling behaviour, is it any wonder that creativity is hard to come by?So how do we overcome that? We need to get over the idea that by admitting something is not working has to be someone’s fault. We do not throw years of good teaching out of the window by changing what we have always done. We simply approach from a different angle.

Where uniformity becomes a problem is when we lose the will to be brave and adventurous in the classroom. When we feel the lurking eye of management peering over shoulders. When our own creativity feels stifled.

I’ve written already about my thoughts on Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. I’m not against intending to learn. In fact, I think it is a good thing. I also want my students to be successful in their learning. Nothing wrong with that. It just concerns me that always having specific success criteria ultimately discourages creativity. If we always want students to arrive at the same destination there will be limited routes to get there.

I was about to start teaching the poem ‘Out, out -‘ by Robert Frost this week. I had copies of the poem, questions for analysis, photos, a clip from ‘Walk the Line’ set up. (thanks to @DavidMiller_UK). But I didn’t use any of that. Two minutes before, I changed my mind. I cut one copy up into lines and handed one line to

each pupil on entry to the class. I told them to get on with it and find out what they could. We moved all of the desks to the side of the room and I stood back. By they end of the period they were setting the poem out, mostly, correctly on the floor. They could tell me the story, recognise language techniques, comment on the tragedy. Not a Learning Intention or Success Criteria in sight but loads of learning.

Nothing original really but the students had the opportunity to learn for themselves. They got out from behind their desks and helped each other. I loved it. So did they.

It is the last week of term before Christmas. Go into your classroom this week with the same resource you were intending to use. Fight the desire to write that Learning Intention on the board. Hand it over to the students and see what they can make of it. I think you may be surprised.

Six months on… Has the iPad Changed My Life?

By the end of this week I will have owned an iPad 2 for six months. It was a bit of a jump for me. Never had an iPhone, always been a Microsoft man; but I took the plunge, sold on the sleek design and potential for real classroom development and change in my practice. A brave new world and all that. Six months later and you’ll be expecting a blog post full of inspiration and invention. Well, not quite.

There are many things which have changed in my classroom because of my iPad but there have also been frustrations. Could I have achieved these changes anyway, without fancy technology and greater willpower? Perhaps. Six months seems like a good time to reflect on the changes.

First of all, the apps that I use.  In class, I make most use of the ‘Kindle’ app to present pages from books I’ve been working on very easily to the class. We worked on pages of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’  and the iPad allows me to display important sections and annotate very quickly. I’m sure I could have achieved this with other technology but the iPad allows me to quickly connect to a projector if there is any confusion in the class without having to set up things beforehand. Very handy indeed. I also used the ‘Shakespeare’ app for similar purposes.

Perhaps the most useful app for me, however, has been ‘Essaygrader’. This app allows me to cut down on hours of marking by using a checklist of comments, which I can adapt to my own classes if I don’t want to use the existing generic ones. My students have all said that they find the comments much more helpful. They say that the advice is much more focused and I can use the saved time to concentrate on more evaluative advice. Not a replacement for hard work just a readjustment. I no longer feel that my written comments are often ignored. Highly recommended

More recently though, after reading a marvellous blogpost by Laura Knight I have returned to ‘Evernote’ with vigour. Following in Laura’s shadow, I now plan all of my lessons on this. The simple format allows me to plan much further in advance than I would have done. Or at all. Formal planning has never been a strong point for me. With ‘Evernote’ I can jot down ideas and resources every night and have them handy on my iPad during the school day.

I can attach weblinks, photos or simple reminders which will be there forever. No ground breaker but one which suits me and has helped me improve immensely in this area. Essential.

‘Tomorrow HD’ has been a wonderful list making app which has allowed me to ditch the post-its. I can add tasks all day long and it allows me to score them out as I go, anything undone can be easily transferred to tomorrow. I never forget anything now which, believe me, was often a problem. I’ve even started numbering tasks in order to prioritise. A life saver.

There have been others, less successfully implemented. I briefly flirted with ‘LessonPlans’ and ‘Teachers Pet’ but found that both need more input time than they would actually save me so I dumped them. ‘Machinarium’. I need say no more other than see previous post. 

I love my iPad. In many ways it has completely taken over the planning and organisation of my working day – sometimes even beyond. I do all of my writing on the ‘Pages’ App, catch up with the newspapers and Twitter. I am more organised, more productive, certainly more effective because of that. However, I am aware that many of these tasks could also be achieved through others means, mostly time and planning.

I could finish this post by mentioning that I’m fiddling about with this new device when the kids in front of me are not even allowed to turn on their phones. It’s a hugely relevant point but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post.