Knowledge is the key …

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Knowledge organisers.  The BIG new thing in education.  Suddenly they are cropping up everywhere and everyone is raving about them.  But I think there is a missed opportunity with these things.

Firstly, I am all for knowledge organisers.  When I first heard of them through the Twittersphere, I merely used them as a revision tool.  I printed out a series of them that someone else produced for the Nazi Germany course and told my students that if could remember these key dates and concepts, it would help them get a half decent grade.  Did they use them …. probably not.  But it was a start.

As the months have gone on, their role in education and developing a “knowledge-rich curriculum” (by the way, isn’t people’s curriculum already knowledge rich.  98% of my lessons is covering new knowledge) has increased.  So much so, we have now decided at my school to introduce them in Year 7 across all subjects.  Personally, I think we are missing a key group here, as KS4 students (Years 9-11) would benefit so much more from them.

I had started producing them for the new GCSE.  It involved me sitting down with the textbooks for each unit, ploughing through and essentially picking out key information from that chapter.  And what I produced was a simple effective design.  It was colour coded, words easy to read, with nothing to distract the reader from it.  Here is one:

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As you can see a simple design.

Now as other departments in the school started to produce them, we as a staff started talking about them.  In particular, Geography (that old nemesis of History) started to produce these amazing looking ones, full of bright colourful diagrams, that made ours look simple.  Now I know simple can be effective but this got me thinking.  (What I am about to say may be really obvious to some, just took me a little more time to cotton on to it).

Knowledge organisers are not supposed to just be a summary of a topic.  They should be considered a gateway document.  A document that is a starting point, not a finishing point for a topic.  If you give it out at the start, students should use this as a starting off point in learning more about a topic. So if that was the case, how could I improve them?  How could I keep the simplicity of design and ramp it up to 11?  How could I do better than Geography? (It’s not nice I know, and I think the Geography teacher is great and amazing, I just wanted to do better).

On my drive home, it dawned on me.  Hyperlinks.  When you are identifying key events, and giving a VERY brief summary, why not hyperlink it to a website that gives more information about it?  Well, these are designed to be printed out and given to students. Great, learn from a piece of paper, but that’s not 21st-century thinking.  If we also give a copy to students digitally, they can access it in many ways, and hopefully use the links.  It was a simple idea, but one I hadn’t seen yet.  And here’s the end result.

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Key people and ideas with hyperlinks.  Expansion of the knowledge organisers.  A jumping off point for students.  But what about students who couldn’t read well. These documents would scare them, as they are text heavy, with keywords listed and events.  So, I decided to read the text for them.  For the key events box and keywords box, I dug out my microphone and read it, recorded it and uploaded so students can simply click on the link and follow as I read.

KO 2

So can it develop further?  Well possibly.  I am toying with the idea of a link for further reading, tied specifically to books in a school library and main library on the island.  But as it stands I’m very happy with it.  It keeps the simple but effective look.  It is not cluttered.  But it is interactive and does add those extra things that take it from being a knowledge organiser, to a gateway to knowledge document.

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Smartphones – Friend or Foe?

Firstly, these are all my own thoughts and opinions.  They do not reflect my employers, and I do not intend to cause offence to my employers or anyone else from this post.

I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring of this fairly divisive subject.  Now, lets set the scene.  I’m 36.  I grew up at a time when Windows 3.1 was being used in schools, with RM Nimbus machines.   Therefore, you could say I have had a lifetime of tech use in and out of schools.  As a man, I like my gadgets.  I’ve gone through the phase of owning one of every console (before I met my wife) and stopped buying CDs and Blu-ray to instead buy online movies and have a streaming account for my music.  I am not an Apple man, but instead, prefer the work of Android.  And yes, I have a smartphone, which I think I use fully – social media, online streaming of video and music, work (sometimes), email, photography, tracking my fitness in the day AND even occasionally the odd text and phone call.   I embrace the idea of the smartphone, the computer that fits into your pocket.   (My wife can’t see the point and uses it as just a phone!!)

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In school, most students bring some kind of device with them.  Some have padlet computers, but most bring their smart phones.  Where I work has a Bring Your Own Device network, allowing users on with the username and password, and offering a good WiFi connection, but one that is still has the normal restrictions on it meaning that inappropriate sites cannot be accessed.  So, safe use of devices can occur.  However, should we ban the use of smartphones/mobile phones in schools?  I believe no although I do understand the arguments for.

Firstly, banning mobile phones in schools would start to remove methods of bullying that can take place in today’s schools.  By “mugging” people off online for all your followers to see, this is intimidating behaviour.  We have all heard the stories of students across the country committing suicide over cyber-bullying.  It is also very difficult for us as teachers to deal with.  Once it is out there, it can be passed on very quickly from people’s accounts and impossible to limit the spread.   They can also be a distraction, with students forgetting to turn them off and messages and alerts coming through at all times, sometimes disrupting the flow of a lesson.  However, from my experiences, this is often by accident.

Now for the counter argument – allowing students to bring mobile devices into schools.  We are living in the 21st Century.  Everywhere you go, computing technology controls or influences our lives.  As I am sitting here writing this blog on my computer, I have my phone flashing with a message from my brother, my iPad in my bedroom, my wife on her iPad looking up a recipe and a music streaming device playing music as we write and cook. Technology is everywhere, and we as people are a) pushing it forward to new areas of our lives, and b) running and maintaining it.  Therefore, we need to feel comfortable using such devices.  And more than ever, this should include the classroom.

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Many times , teachers have been accused by many groups of spoon-feeding our students, teaching to the exams to get as good as a result as we possibly can.  We are told we are not developing independent thinkers, explorers of knowledge, students bringing no useful skills to the workplace.  So we adapt our teaching methods.  We encourage students to go and find the answer, create snappy phrases such as “3 before Me” to educate them to explore other avenues before coming to the expert in the room.  We call it research, maybe we should now be calling it exploration (sounds better).  How do we learn?  As professionals, we are always learning, whether it be skills or knowledge.  Students always seem shocked when I “reveal” to them that I am always reading around upcoming lessons, either if it is a) something new I am teaching or b) just revising.  My phrase “4,000 years and the entire world” makes them understand how limited sometimes our knowledge can be.  So if we want to develop students into explorers of knowledge, they will need the tools to succeed.  Books would be ideal, but numbers of books in school are not as high as they were 25 years ago.  The internet is the go-to repository of knowledge.  Yes, they need to sort through the crap and fake news that litters our search results, but guided in the right direction, they can succeed and marvel at what they find.

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So what do they need?  Simple, a device to access the internet.  But ICT resources in any school across the world is limited.  In my department, we have 13 Chromebook devices for a two person department, who at most times has 50 students being taught History at the same time.  The ratio of school devices > students unfortunately doesn’t fit.  But students are more than happy to whip out their phones and use them instead, to free up another device for a peer who doesn’t have a device with them.  And Bingo! You have an explorer, searching away for the answer by themselves.

And what about a final product, something that can be assessed by themselves, by their peers and by myself?  Students in our current Year 11 told us in no uncertain terms, they like variety, and you know what, WHO BLAMES THEM!!  If I came home every night to the same old routine and meals be exactly the same, I would be fed up too.  One thing I pride myself in doing is having variety in the learning activities my students engage in.  I’ve used programmes that question students after watching a video, I’ve shared podcasts, students have produced mind maps, and online timelines.  They have collaborated and taught presentations.  My Year 7’s are currently engaged in a choice board activity where THEY choose 3 tasks from a selection of 9 to produce on the topic of the Spanish Armada.  Our Year 9’s currently each have their own chrome books in a 1-2-1 device scheme.  They have had Nearpod lessons, completed and Year 8 have retold the story of Emmett Till in storyboard form.  Variety comes from the innovative use of technology.  Students have requested making short news broadcasts they can record and edit, what better device than a mobile phone.  Essentially, lacking technology in schools, means that the type of education we should be offer, is very difficult.  We ask students to bring their own pens and pencils.  What is wrong with allowing them to help US and their peers out by being allowed to bring their own devices to help those around them who don’t.

Finally, we are dealing with teenagers.  You tell them they can’t do something, they are going to test to the boundaries and see how far they can test them.  If you make it wrong to have them, you are only going to encourage them more.

So to summarise, smartphones or mobile phones, which ever name you want to use, are our friend.  Don’t be scared of them, cause if we do, we could be seriously restricting the possibilities open to use.  Embrace the tech, enjoy the experience, and let the students show US how it can be done.  They are growing up with, we are simply living with it.

https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2016/09/why-faculty-shouldnt-ban-smartphones-classrooms

http://www.centerdigitaled.com/blog/cellphones-in-classrooms-part-2.html

Transparency and honesty – Get the students on board.

So a few weeks ago, I started my journey into Blended Learning with one of my Year 8 classes.  Generally, the lesson went well, but it was a quite long-winded, and not as blended as outlined in by Catlin Tucker in her book Blended Learning in Action.  I had always planned to go back to this, and keep developing my technique.  This week, I did, but with a different class in a different year.

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Year 9 students have just recently started their GCSE course.  They are also a year group who have been given their own Chromebooks, which they take home with them.  As they all have Chromebooks, these are an ideal group to do flipped and blended learning with.

The main thing that I wanted to do differently this time around was to make sure that the 4 tasks didn’t take 4 lessons.  These were designed to be shorter and quicker.  What was essential was to have a teaching element.  Now with my room in 4 groups already, this made things a lot easier.  Unlike my Year 8’s I didn’t alter the groups but kept them in their seating arrangement. This meant that the groups were of mixed ability.

The four stations I set up were as follows:

  1.  Teacher-led teaching – using a Nearpod presentation, giving the students the foundation knowledge they need to know about Joseph Lister, his inspirations and ideas about antiseptic.
  2. Research/blended task – students were to complete a biography sheet about Lister, using a series of carefully selected sites linked to the students through Thinglink.
  3. Improve the paragraph – (a favourite of mine now) students were given a basic factually correct paragraph, and have to include it by adding details into it.
  4. Create an online quiz – originally planned to use Quizizz.com (site was blocked to students on the first lesson) or Kahoot, students to create a short quiz on topics studied so far.

Since my last time, I had done some reading and attended a webinar by Monica Burns (@classtechtips) of her books Tasks before Apps.  Within it, Monica talks about ACES or Access, Curate, Engage and Share, and this was at the forefront of my mind when planning the tasks for the students.  All students would have Access to the content with their chrome books and also notebooks with notes from previous lessons.  For the biography, it was important for me to Curate resources for the students.  Past experience has taught me that given a blank sheet and the whole internet, they would type too long search enquiries into Google and get nowhere.  This would speed things up, and I also know that the resources they were using are more reliable.

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At the start of the first lesson, it did take a few minutes for students to engage with the tasks.  It was something relatively new to them, and some of them had difficulty understanding the task (plus access to Quizizz was impossible and students had difficulty logging into Kahoot as they had joined the year before and forgot their log in details.)  With 50 minute lessons, the plan was to allow 22 minutes at each station (therefore taking two lessons to complete all tasks). So timing was quicker, the tasks were shorter and more manageable.  For me, this was looking and feeling better than previously.

In reflection, the timing was slightly out as not all students completed all the tasks during the time provided and required extra time after a complete rotation.  However, I felt it had worked well.  This time though, I asked the students for their thoughts on the lessons.  Always a risk, but the results were encouraging.  And honesty with the students shows that if students are aware of what we are doing, they are more receptive to our ideas and methods.

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A New World …

When I first started out as a teacher, I wasn’t one who was great at reading all the theories behind teaching.  Like all trainee teachers, I bought the various books that were essential to become good teachers, but I never read them from cover to cover.  Although books are very important, I found I learnt more by trying things out.  My amazing mentor gave me guided reading, which I did, but I never really pushed myself to go beyond what was expected.  I wasn’t lazy, I just felt that I could a great deal more from talking to those around me at work.

Roll it forward to 2017 and I’ve had a change of heart.  Through my activities on Twitter, I have been introduced to the idea of flipped and blended learning.  Now for those who are not sure what these are, here is a simple explanation of both.

Flipped learning – this is where students do the learning at home.  This could be either using texts or getting the students to watch videos.  This then allows you to become less “Sage on the Stage” and more “Guide at the Side” (not my terms, but those of Jon Bergmann).   Check out this introduction video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hwu3xqbMKw

Blended learning on the other hand is all about the blending of “traditional” and technology based learning activities.  During the personal CPD I was undertaking on a Saturday night on Edpuzzle , I came across some short information videos from Catlin Tucker, and this idea of Blended learning.  It was intriguing, especially with our Yr 9’s starting a 1-2-1 device scheme.

So I started to dig a little deeper.  I bought Catlin’s book (Blended Learning in Action) and started reading.  And the methodology really intrigued me.  The simplest method is referred to as “station rotation model” by Catlin, where you have a number of activities and students moved from station to station at set times.  The key thing is to have tasks that rely/use technology.  “Great” I thought, “nice and simple in theory.  But who to do it with?”

Year 8 were chosen as the “guinea pigs”.  They had been doing some group research work on Martin Luther King Jr, and had spent two lessons researching and creating their own fact files.  The ground work was there already and had been done independently.  So step 2, was to decide the activities.  After some thought, I opted for 4 stations, with each one a different task, all based on MLK.

Station 1: ICT based – using Edpuzzle, students watched a video from Youtube and had to answer questions. There score and extended answers were lived marked by me.  At the end of video, if they didn’t achieve 80% pass, there score was reset after talking to me about their misconceptions, and did it again.  Once this was completed, I added a digital crossword and hangman activity to develop their language.

Station 2:  Timeline activity with ICT support.  15 events they had to match the years to listed underneath, and plot onto a blank timeline and annotate if time.

Station 3:  Improve the paragraph activity.  A basic, but correct paragraph the students had to rewrite and add extra information to to make it more interesting, but all their added information had to be in a contrasting colour.

Station 4: Plan a biopic of MLK’s life.  Decide a title, choose 3 key events that would be the plot structure (with reasons why), decide on the characters and the actors who would play them, then finally design a movie poster to advertise.

So, the four bases were planned.  A variety of activities, all aimed at developing different skills, and knowledge of MLK.  How then to split the classes?  Well, as we had now moved to a pathway system of recording and tracking students attainment, this was a really logical step, so thats how I planned my groups.

On paper, everything was ready to go.  I planned that at each station, students would only get 20 minutes, and then move on.   Therefore, 4 bases and 20 minutes each would mean in 2 lessons all completed.  Perfect.  Reality was so different.

Ok, so firstly, the tasks were challenging.  For some, very challenging.  The time limit of 20 minutes meant that students really only completed 1/2 of the task.  So I had to adapt on the fly, and by the end of the first lesson, realised that each station would take at least 40 minutes for students to be anywhere near complete.  Now, these students were working solidly for those 40 minutes.  And the room was buzzing with discussions and arguments about their research.  But had I created a blended learning environment?  Well, the time it had taken had worried me.  Back to the book – time not a problem.  Had I covered all the aspects of a blended learning classroom.  Sort of. In a true blended learning classroom, ideally would have a station of small group teaching to identify misconceptions.  However, due to the lessons prior to this, I decided to drop this.  There was also no “makerspace” station, however, in my mind, the movie planning more than made up for it, and had no mess to clear up.

The first thing Catlin’s book says, is expect to fail.  On the road to blended learning environments, you may fail numerous times.  So I expected to.  In some ways I did, and in some I didn’t.  The activities took twice as long as expected, and that would be my biggest annoyance about it all.  But I saw great collaboration through most students.  I saw students develop resilience.  Two girls today were having trouble identifying the dates to events.  When I came over to monitor, and said do you want some help, they both said “No, we can do this”.  Proud moment.  I saw students not frustrated at having to redo the video quiz as they hadn’t passed first time.  They listened to feedback, and in all cases, scores increased and most of the mistakes they made were rectified.

So where do I go next?  I’ve started on this road of blended learning, but a long way to go still.  Flipped learning is my next step.  I have invested in a cheap app to record screens, and dug out my old Rockband microphone to record with. Watch this space …

 

and if we fall, get straight back up again.

Since writing my first post a few days ago, a lot of thoughts have been going through my mind.  How did I feel now that I had started?  Was this something that was going to cause me more work?  Was it being misunderstood as offensive to some people? Did I want to continue?

It is now Sunday morning.  First post was written on Monday.  With the sun shining outside (but a bitterly cold wind with it), I find myself at home alone, with a hot cup of tea.  Wife is down the road riding a horse, and I set myself the job of sorting our books onto book cases just brought back home from England.  Subsequently, the answers suddenly came to me.  I felt good, not at all, not as far as I am aware, yes definitely.  Especially after emulating any good two-parter, with a cliff hanger.

So where did I finish?  2017 exam results.  They were terrible to say the least.  I admittedly was expecting disappointing, but to see those was a “sink into the chair and try and hide” moment as individual department results were broadcast onto the screen on our first day back in September.

Questions were asked, answers were given.  And then around early October, during my PM meeting with my HOD, I was told that I was being put onto a support programme, focusing on my Year 11 teaching.   For me, this was a deeply embarrassing thing, made me sick to my stomach.  I had heard of these “support plans” in the past back in England, and essentially they were a “teacher-bashing” – lets observe and observe and observe and monitor every action they take and then tell them how they are doing a poor job, refer to them as incompetent, and force them to quit.  I became annoyed with myself, and withdrew away at breaks and lunches, embarrassed about what I was going to have to go through.  I saw the rest of the year stretching out before me as one long stream of observations and meetings.  I didn’t even tell my wife.

A week later, I was in a meeting with HOD and an AH, where the plan was outlined to me.  However, it didn’t go as I expected.  It was a very simple plan – 8 weeks, 4 observations during that time, weekly meetings with HOD, and observing other staff in school to help tighten my game.  That was fine, not all year as I had thought.  But what made this different, was the way the discussion went.  It was warm, supportive, reassuring, not a bashing as I had imagined.  The phrase “We know you are doing great things,” was used more than once.  My spirits began to lift slightly, and after the meeting, I looked through the outline of the plan again.  There was nothing here to suggest they wanted me gone and just needed paperwork to support it.  This was a genuinely simple but supportive plan.  I then did something which I can only class as being very British, I went back to them individually and thanked them!  However I was still slightly embarrassed.  I only told one other friend in school about it initially, but slowly I felt that it wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about, so much so, that as the 2 months went on, I was very open about what I was going through, and how I felt.  It made me realise even more that from where I had come from in England, to where I was in the Channel Islands, was more than just a 40 minute flight away, it was a whole world away in terms to how staff are treated.

I challenged myself to teach with a variety of different methods, to prove I had a lot of ideas and skills to help my students learn.  I delved more into my PLN, looking for ideas, and was running them past by HOD regularly.  Now after 12 years of  being observed, many would think that a) I was used to them, and b) I would “pass” them well.  Well the answer to both was No.  Like most teachers, I have never got on well with them, I get nervous and my mouth dries up.  And secondly, I always tried to do too much or something too “out there” that didn’t necessarily work.  The definition of stupidity is to repeatedly make the same mistakes, and never learn from them, and that was me when it came to observations.  However, I was determined that this cycle needed to break.

I had by now a list of different educational technology (edtech for short) sites and programmes I had come across I wanted to try.  I kept reading and reading sites, and blogs and adverts on different sites.  My CSI time was spent online, looking for all sorts of different ideas.  I was like a small child with lots of toys to play with, which one would I use first?  What about all the others?  But I started to realise, this was where I wanted to be.  The support plan subconsciously guided me this way, talking about allowing students to be more independent but still have the guidance there.  To allow students the ability to work at a speed that is suitable for them but ensuring that they all keep up.  It slowly dawned that edtech was the way forward, and where I wanted to take my teaching full time, a History teacher who would be using technology to open up my classes to new ways of learning.

3 weeks ago, after being extended by a couple of weeks because of the dates of exams and first observation being the second day back after Christmas, I completed the plan.  And for once, I am going to blow my own trumpet.  The compliments meant a lot, the phrase “inspirational” almost brought a tear to my eye, and the smiles on my HOD’s face (not that she never smiles) made me feel almost as proud as I was the day I got married.  Although it was extra work for a short time, the plan made me think about myself and my future career in a way that had only been an idea.  In making me reflect on myself more than I had ever done since my training over a decade earlier, I had discovered my future, my niche that I want to develop and improve on over the next few years.

We’ve all got to start somewhere …

It was on the train to London during half term, that I said to my wife “I think I might start a blog”.  “Ok” she said, followed by “any particular reason why?”  And that was the tough one.  The idea had been banging around my head for a while, but what would I write about?  Was it just another flash in the pan idea that would die a death soon after starting?  Probably, but here we go anyway.

So where to start?  At the beginning.  I’ve been teaching now for almost 13 years.  In that time I have worked at only two schools, my old secondary high school in Kent (which became an academy 8 years ago), and my current high school in the Channel Islands.  I teach History,  something I’ve wanted to do since a teenager after being inspired by own teachers at school.  I was a head of department for a couple of years whilst teaching in England, but honestly, was not great at the role.  I am not one for paperwork, for long reports on data and analysis that HODs are expected to do now.  And even in my teaching, I would rate myself as good, but never hit “Outstanding” using previous terminology.  And that sums me up nicely.  In all aspects of life, I’ve been good at a lot of things, but a Master of Nothing.  I had taught at the same school my entire career until I moved 2 1/2 years ago, and at times I was becoming disillusioned with the work, with the students, and had at times thought of quitting teaching altogether.  I even once had a resignation letter printed and in an envelope in the top drawer of my desk ready to hand in.  And then I met my wife.

We met online.  Not ashamed of it, I know a number of my colleagues over the years who engage in online dating.  We hit it off instantly.  She was a teacher too, primary special needs, but someone who knew the stresses and strains that the job can have.    Within 6 months, we were living together, 30 miles away from my work (prior to this it was less than 2).  The drive home in the evening gave me the time to relax and start to take my mind off the busy days I had gone through, and not living in the neighbourhood of my students was a joy.  But she was from the Channel Islands, and wanted to go home.  So, we started looking for jobs.  By this point, we were engaged, and had set our wedding for Summer 2015.  Six months before our wedding I applied for a job, and was successful, and two months later, so was she.  Although a daunting prospect moving onto a new school after a decade in one place, I didn’t realise how much of a change this move would be (and that was including the idea of married life).

Now don’t misunderstand, I did enjoy most aspects of working at my previous school. It was a tough place, but with a supportive number of colleagues around me.  SLT not as much so.  When exam results were down, it was a case of “Why is this?  Explain these low numbers!  What did you not do? etc” and no real support in how to be a better HOD.  But when I moved to my new school, I went back to just being a classroom practitioner.  It was joyous.  And my new school was very forward thinking.

As a Xennial (apparently someone born between ’77 and ’83, who grew up in an analogue age, but whose adult life is digital) I was very switched on, and more than confident with modern technology.  I wanted to use social media in a way that would engage my students, or drop them little nuggets of revision advice, or even a way for them to reach out to ask for help.  This was something my old school didn’t want.  Even now, their only digital presence is their website.  But I now came to a school that had a devoted network to allow students to connect their phones to.  I was allowed to start a twitter feed for the department.  We were a school who was using Google Suite,  something I had no clue about at all, but gave better interactivity with students.

And I floundered.

My first year was not the best.  My observations were poor, my HOD left, and my wife and I argued a lot.  I had thought going back to being “just” a teacher, I would suddenly be creative again, and not repeat the same old OK lessons as I did back in the UK.  But it didn’t happen.  I felt that I hadn’t found my niche.

Year 2 came along, and I start to look around at the support for the students and myself on island.  I come across the Schools Library Service, and started to work with them.  It is then I was introduced to the idea of a Personal Learning Network.   And I start exploring, finding amazing people to follow, who I either “magpied” ideas off, or who inspired me to try new things.  I got a new HOD who was open to listening to ideas, and even if she didn’t understand them, allowed me to try things out.  And I start to find myself drawn towards new ways of teaching.  Then Summer 2017, exam results came in and they were not great …