Slice of Life 2014- Words in the Principal’s Office

I have recently taken on the position of Acting Principal in a  school. This has been a very interesting change for me. I thought I would share a couple of conversations I have had with students over the time for my first Slice of Life post for March 2014.

Words in the principal’s office

Incident #236

There is a student in the sick bay. She was pushed over by a boy in the yard.

I was just playing out in the yard when he started chasing me and pushing me.

I was playing on the flying fox when she pulled me off it and I fell on the ground and hurt myself.

I didn’t touch him at all. I don’t know why he started chasing me all of a sudden. No I don’t know why he chose me out of everyone else in the yard.

Yes someone else did see her start picking on me first. I will go and get them.

Yes we saw her pull him off the flying fox then she started pushing him and fighting him.

I don’t know why five other people are saying that, I just have a sore head from when he pushed me on to the slide. You’re going to call my Mum? Well ok then, I did it. But he should have shared the flying fox in the first place.


Incident number #453

I kicked her today because I was angry.

No nothing happened before it, I just decided to do it.

Well I did it because I was seeking revenge.

No, not for something that happened today, it was for something that happened the other day.

I was waiting until the time was right.

Well yes I can see how that would be confusing for her when I did it today for something that happened the other day.

No, I am not happy that I did it now that I have thought about it.

Hey, did you know I know the worst person in the world?

Don’t you know?! It’s Tony Abbott! (Current Australian Prime Minister)

No, I haven’t heard of Hitler or any of those other people…


A challenge for 2014

While scrolling through tweets tonight I noticed @rissL has finished book #2 for 2014.  The gauntlet has been laid down by Narissa and I accept the challenge.  In the past I have come across numerous reading challenges from  Donna Meyer ‘s a book a day, where she aimed  to stretch her imagination, creativity, skills and discipline. Donna I would be interested in hearing how that went.  Or 365 books in 365 days The issue has always been I love to read and the holidays are not a problem, I devour books, It is the return to school that is the issue. Instead of me consuming books I am consumed by emails, professional articles and administration.

The one extremely hot day followed by one too wet to venture into the garden has put me in good stead to rise to the challenge. Actually credit for the quick start off the blocks must be given to Virginia Roth whose Divergent series has been gripping.


The series was a Christmas present to our 14 year old who, whilst too lazy to source his own books, will read if the ‘right;’ book is put in his hands. Divergent was just that book. Much better than the Hunger games is his recommendation.



Anh-Doh-book-cover-high-resFortunately for me on the day that was too hot to work in the garden he was still finishing off Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. By all accounts an inspiring read and one we heard snippets from every meal time. (Did I say I love it that my children are readers?)


Once I began reading Divergent I couldn’t put it down, late nights spent reading then the series picked up again over breakfast. I smile to myself when I notice my son exhibiting the same behaviours. The series is full of intrigue and twists I didn’t see coming, and you know it has been a good read when you finish the series and grieve just a little there is no more.

So 2014, my year of reading, is off to a great start. The hype of if you enjoyed the Hunger Games you will enjoy this is an understatement. I can’t wait to see if the movie delivers on this entertaining read.

Improving Student Writing

Students in my class have recently been involved in an investigation on Information Reports. They started by writing (what they thought was) an information report about the school before we started looking further in to the genre.

I photocopied each of these initial pieces of writing for later use and then the students and I launched into an investigation of the genre. Students have read many information reports, listed the features noted in non fiction texts etc.

Although students could point out the features of an information report I wasn’t convinced they fully understood the unique features of this text- the ones that made it different from any other style of genre. In order to overcome this, I provided students with a sample piece of informational text next to a sample piece of persuasive text. They then used the Venn diagram option on to highlight the similarities and differences between the two styles.

Students now have a better understanding of the features of an information report and so today were ready to assess their first piece based on their growing knowledge. I gave all the students the photocopied version of their first piece of writing and had them highlight the facts vs the opinions and then any instances where they have spoken in anything other than the 3rd person.

Students then recorded ideas for improving the piece down the sides of their page (they stuck their A4 photocopy onto an A3 sheet to do the assessment). Students then used the assessment rubric created by myself and the other senior teacher to give themselves a score for their first piece of writing. (Note: In the future, once students are used to this style of text exploration we will create the rubric collaboratively with the students).

Students now have a much better understanding about what is required of them in this style of text and will next start to prepare a more informed version of an information report. Lucid Chart Venn DiagramThe key for their analysisStudents analyse their first piece
Self assessing using the rubric

Growing genius students

Inspired by my recent visit to the headquarters of Google, Microsoft and Intel in the United States, I returned to school keen to recreate the supportive atmosphere created by these big companies in my very own classroom. I wanted to recreate the breeding ground of creativity of these huge multinational companies.

I wanted my students to feel as inspired and supported to create and problem solve and grow ‘what ifs’ and ‘I wonders’ into amazing ideas.

Before visiting Google I had heard about their concept of 20% time for their engineers and thought it sounded like an interesting idea that could work in the classroom. I didn’t understand the full effect of such an idea until I saw and felt it for myself though. It was while at Google that I realised the strong underlying cultural message such a program delivers- “we value you and your ideas,” “we believe in you,” “we trust you to develop your ideas into something fabulous.”

How does this compare to the underlying message in many of our classrooms today?

I put a question out to my PLN on Twitter asking for resources to help me launch 20% time in my own class and received a number of replies carrying the #geniushour hashtag (another name for 20% time). I sifted through a few of these, further convincing myself that I had to get on board with this and get my students involved.

Introducing it to the students

I started by explaining how 20% time works at Google then asking if it something they would be interested in doing in our own class. I had to make it very clear that 20% time is not free time- it is time to work on a project of your choice. In short, they could study or learn anything and present it in anyway.

I encouraged students to think about topics they had always wanted to learn about, things they have always wanted to know or be able to do. After discussing it in groups and then going home to discuss with families most students came back with an idea for a project by the end of the week.

Project guidelines

In everything I do with my students I have 3 goals for them: be curious, be brilliant and be the change.

I therefore provided three ‘guidelines’ for the projects:

1)      Students had to learn something new while doing the project- it wasn’t enough to simply regurgitate information they already knew.

2)      The project had to tell me more about a topic than Google could- I had a collection of boys who wanted to make a video on how to play football (this probably contradicted guideline #1 anyway), I told them I could already go to Google to find out how to play football so they had to give me something more. I then encouraged them to further consider the third guideline:

3)      The project must have a connection to the community- this could mean that students interviewed a member of the community, got a member of the community to assist with part of their project, or maybe their final product educated the community in some way etc.

Once students had come up with an idea they had to map out a basic plan for what they would do each week for the next six weeks. They then had to book an appointment with me to discuss and refine their ideas. One pair of students were so keen to start on Monday they sent me a Google Doc of their 6 week plan over the weekend and asked me to leave comments and ideas on the side for them to think about.

Student Ideas

Interestingly, it was the students who are generally considered to be ‘at level’ who found selecting a topic the easiest. They generally had a good idea of what they were passionate about and were able to come up with an idea they felt comfortable with. The students who would generally be considered ‘above level’ seemed to struggle with settling on an idea and needed more prompting and support. The students generally considered to be ‘below level’ had the most difficulty with developing an idea that could run the length of the 6 weeks allocated. (They were great at coming up with ideas that would last for about 20 minutes!!)


Immediate effects

As soon as I introduced the genius hour to the students an excited buzz took hold of the room. I received several emails after school each night with different students testing out different ideas for projects and presentations. Just one week into the project I had a parent come in to say that his son had been outside digging up the garden every night planting plants to sell as part of his project. He had actually already made $40 selling plants over the weekend!

We have already had 2 one hour blocks of genius hour and they have been 2 of the most productive hours we have had all year!  Students are keen to take responsibility for their own learning, they are much more self-directed and require much less teacher support and nagging. They spread out all over the school and, because they appear to be very conscious of wasting their own time, there are only minimal issues with off task behaviour (a teacher’s dream!).


Some of the project ideas so far

  • A student with diabetes has decided to raise awareness of diabetes in the school and then try and organise a school fun run to raise money for Diabetes Australia.
  • Two students who have always wanted to learn about France are creating an information booth about France’s culture, food and attractions.
  • Two students who are passionate about animals are going to the local RSPCA to see how they can raise awareness of the work they do there.
  • Inspired by our current class novel (‘Trash’ by Andy Mulligan), two students are researching child labour and creating a project to educate others about it.
  • Two students are creating a video on what family means to different people in our community.
  • A student who loves plants is growing plants at home and educating people about them through a video. He has been to the hardware store (next to the school) and asked questions about plants and has sold some plants already.
  • Two students are creating a video on what it means to be a Campbells Creek footballer.
  • Two students are researching different programs used to create games and then creating their own computer game.
  • One student who has an autistic sister is created a website for other kids to raise awareness of autism and other learning disorders.
  • Two ‘hands on’ students are deconstructing an old school laptop- investigating all the different elements- and then hoping to put it all back together again.

Watch this space!!

A cold blooded reminder about the purpose of education

I am sitting here in Oregon, USA in complete  shock this morning.

I woke up this morning and went down to the breakfast room as normal. The TV was on and on it was the breaking news of a horrific school shooting in Connecticut, USA. As many as 27 students and teachers could be dead. Students and teachers who were going about their own business in the safe environment of school.  I met a bunch of wonderful teachers from Connecticut just last week and I feel physically ill, hoping that they are safe.

Watching this sickening event unfold I went through several emotions, eventually ending in realisation and anger.

What the heck are we doing?

We have become so caught up in the rat race that we have forgotten the central most important thing about schools, schooling and education. The most crucial and simple fact:

We are dealing with humans.

Young humans who will grow up to be older humans.

We have been so caught up arguing about where we rank in the world for test scores, about our reading levels and our declining ability in maths and science. Countries are redesigning their entire school curriculums in order to improve their test scores to improve funding and improve their numbers. We have been collecting numbers, analysing numbers and even triangulating numbers. We have been giving ourselves numbers and comparing our numbers to the rest of the worlds’ numbers. Is THAT the purpose of our education system? Is THIS why we all signed up to be teachers? So we could really all be mathematicians?

Enough is enough!

It is time to take a stand and stop this lunacy. It is time to stand up for the real purpose of education: to educate children to become successful and contributing members of a global society.

This isn’t something that can’t be tested or even ranked. It IS something however that will make a difference to a better future for our whole world.

For Australian this means placing much more emphasis on the General Capabilities in the National Curriculum.  Why aren’t these abilities assessable? What message does that send to educators in our country? Until these capabilities are taken seriously and made compulsory they are simply a token gesture towards acknowledging that 21st century skills are important. Australia needs to take the lead from Victoria’s Essential Learning Standards  and make these 21st century skills an assessable outcome (Interpersonal DevelopmentPersonal Learning and Thinking Processes).

For America this means acknowledging that while the common core subjects are important, you are missing a hugely important element from your core- the human element. Educators and school administrators need to ask how far your children will have progressed towards the ultimate goal of becoming successful and contributing members of a global society if they are only exposed to the current common core standards?

It is time we, as a global society, took a stand against the emphasis placed on world rankings in education. It is time we started focusing on what really matters and what can’t be tested.

United, we need to stop the lunacy and be the change.



My thoughts go out to all of the people and families involved in this horrific event. I know I won’t ever forget this day and will pledge to do my part in attempting to prevent anything of this nature ever happening again.

Why 1:1 can actually be dangerous for our students.

Never mind the digital divide, it is the distraction divide from which we need to protect our students.

It appears that in our haste to protect our students from the growing digital divide between those who have access to technology (and the connections, information and opportunities associated with it) and those who do not, we have left many of our students precariously close to the edge of an equally dangerous divide- the Distraction Divide.

On a daily basis the Distraction Divide sees entire classes of students using their school issued 1:1 devices to do anything but what the teacher has asked them to do. Often these students think they are completing the task (by having the work open on a separate screen etc) but in reality they are spending less brainpower on this than on their all-consuming distraction (be it games, Skype, youtube, itunes, Facebook etc).

The concerning factor about this is the sheer number of learning hours our students are missing out on as a result of these daily distractions. Hours that students in other schools with more rigorous 1:1 programs or less access to distracting technology are NOT losing and are in fact gaining over these (poorly implemented) 1:1 program recipients.  In fact,  if just a quarter of each lesson in a high school were wasted on these distractions the students would be deprived of enough learning time at school to warrant them finishing school after lunch every day. (So much for the ‘every minute counts’ programs we run in our schools to get the students to school on time).

One wonders if the top five nations in the PISA results would tolerate such loss of critical student learning time?

As a lover of all things technology and elearning- I am not for one minute saying technology is to blame here! What I am in fact saying is that a poorly planned and implemented 1:1 program could be doing our students more harm than good.

It is not enough to put hardware into the hands of our students and then expect improvements in student learning. We do not expect the distribution of pencils and pens to turn our students into amazing writers so why do we expect this from technology?

If schools don’t plan to explicitly teach our students the skills they need to deal with the all tempting distractions, the pointless time consuming Google searches and the plethora of unreliable websites sooner or later they will start to see a backward slide in their student learning and results.

  • How are you teaching your students to learn to concentrate in this world of distractions?
  • How are you teaching self-discipline skills to your students?
  • What processes and policies do you have in place to assist teachers to get the most out of their students’ access to technology?
  • How do you ensure technology helps the learning rather than hinders it?
  • How do you ensure your students’ use of technology is rigorous, purposeful and on task?

A thought to be pondered/discussed and debated when thinking about implementing a 1:1 (or similar) program in your school- Educational technology only amplifies teacher practice (both good and bad) – are you ready for that?

Book Review: Miss Understood

Miss Understood- James Roy

This book is proof that you really should never judge a book by its cover. Neither the front cover nor the blurb on the back do justice to the depth of the usually heavy topic looming in this book, depression.

Written in the first person, this book is Lizzie Adams’ account of her life being home-schooled after yet another ‘misunderstanding’ that saw her expelled from her school. Spending much more time with her work at home parents, Lizzie starts to notice the changing behaviour of her father, a moody food critic. She notices his declining enthusiasm, his impulse purchases and his irritability at those around him. Lizzie watches her mother carefully, noticing her mother’s reactions to her father’s spiraling behaviour and moods. She knows something is not quite right with her father but she can’t quite put her finger on what the cause is until he eventually reveals he has what the doctor calls the ‘Black Dog.’

In his book, James Roy presents us with a picture of depression through a child’s eyes. He manages to keep the tone of the book light hearted and optimistic through the use of Lizzie’s warm and humorous character and her ability to misunderstand the simplest of things. There were a few sections in the book that would have benefited from the liberal application of a red pen removing the parts where Roy tried to show Lizzie’s humorous personality at the expense of a decent contribution to the story line  Overall though, the book was an easy and enjoyable read.

Although suitable as a lighter read for secondary students, this book would be best suited to primary school students who have recently been reminded not to judge a book by its cover.



The value of words

The setting of Phileas’s Fortune is a world where words are produced in a factory and people must buy them to eat in order to speak them. Those who can’t afford expensive words must resort to using dull, boring, discarded words found in trash cans and gutters, or grab a bargain when old-fashioned and useless words go on sale. The main character, Phileas, catches words like butterfly and cherry that are floating in the sky, using them to impress parents or saving them for a special moment.

It is a story that deserves a place on our bookshelf for the contribution it can make to values education. The messages about self-perception, feelings, what we say is not nearly as important as how we say it and the power words have are all important ones.

It is this idea of the power words have that we can use with our students to improve their writing. I was fascinated with the concept of the boutiques and shops specialising in different types of words – discourse, sweet words, big words and so on. What a great idea for classroom use. Students could sort words into their own shops and name them. Which words would you consider to be valuable and cost more? Which words are essential for the piece of writing you are working on? Which words in your story belong in the gutter because they are dull and boring?

Looking for other ideas to grow students’ interest in words? Look up Franki Sibberson’s post for Choice titled Using picture books to spice up vocabulary

Other recommendations for using to tantalise students’ taste for words are Miss Allaineous by Debra Fraiser (a look at the trouble pronouncing words incorrectly can cause) and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A ‘not to be missed’ romp through a land of puns and idioms.

Which  books would you recommend?

A Ghost Story – Hooking the Reader

We all know how hard it is to match readers to books. That’s what I love about a series, once a reader is hooked then their next read is ready and waiting. If they enjoy one book by an author then they might try another. Point in case – Abela’s  Ghost club series. As kids, who didn’t enjoy reading and telling ghost stories? Abela cleverly uses this appeal of a good scare to draw the reader in from the first chapter but it is her fast paced story telling which holds the reader’s interest to the last page.

Twins, Angeline and Edgar, along with an unwilling Dylan, are ghost catchers. They use high-tech  tools of trade including ghost trackers, circuit breakers and protective clothing while on the job of solving paranormal problems, including a ghost haunting their school. The Haunted School is much more than a ghost story, it is also a story about the impact of bullying.

Don’t you love it when you find a new book to add to your mentor texts.

The opening sentence ‘The silhouette of Dismal Downs Boarding School sat ragged against the night sky, the moon struggling beneath grey suffocating clouds.’  Illustrates how, as a class read aloud, it lends itself to predicting, inferring and building vocabulary.  However it is the way Abela has built her characters that gets me seeing the possibilities of using The Haunted House as a mentor text. It is a book where all the characters, even the bit players,  are worth discussing; ask students to identify a character’s strengths and weaknesses, and support their views with examples from the text.  Students can explore the different ways Abela has added depth to her characters through their words, thoughts and actions as well as the words, thoughts and actions of other characters.

 The Haunted House is also a model for writers wanting to create vivid images and suspense in their own story. The first four pages leave the reader on the edge of their seat wanting more – a perfect place to stop…the book will fly off the shelf into the hands of a reader before you turn around.

It is a book to be enjoyed not only by primary students. Once I got my 13 year old to ‘not judge a book by its cover,’ he thoroughly enjoyed The Haunted House, appreciating the development of characters and creation of suspense. He declared he wanted to read on to find out what happened to the ghost. Try using the book trailer to launch Ghost Club 2: The Haunted School in your classroom. 

Booktalking Gold

Katherine Patterson said “It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations-something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” Book talks are one way to make students aware of the books of all shapes, sizes, themes and genres they have access too. The pages of books they can read for fun, for information, in order to understand themself and other people with quite different ideas, are opened to them through book talks.

Now normally a Monday morning would find me busy in a classroom in one of the nineteen schools I visit. This week, while on holiday, I was lucky enough to come across #titletalk and their chat on ‘booktalking’. It was like striking gold, a wealth of ideas for book talks. I have listed a few of my favourites in no particular order. I did try my best to limit it to my top 10!

Great ideas for Book Talking with students

1.Use book trailers

2.Searching questions – Who do you know that would like the book you are currently reading?

3.Poster /display – If you loved _______ then read ________.

4.Instead of Student of the Week try Reader of the Week.

5.‘I am currently reading’ board

6.Book talking by theme, subject area, author, illustrator

7.Use film or television clips or news footage to introduce historical fiction.

8.Voki on class blog

9.Book talks at staff meetings (Get other staff on board and reading!)

10.Make sure to promote poetry, non-fiction and other books that students may avoid reading.

11.Remember to include book talks about those books you don’t enjoy, then invite students to give it a go.

12.Scholastic data base of book talks

13.For more great ideas and sites check out The Styling Librarian’s Blog about this chat

I am looking forward to trying some of these with classes next term.