Sunday, 31 August 2014

Where There's An Up, There's a Down - The Technology Rollercoaster

I absolutely love using technology within my classroom with my students. It is part of our daily routines and practice and a wonderful way to engage students. There are so many different ways to use technology and so many I still am yet to explore.


There are times when technology fails you. It can make using technology frustrating, difficult and quite frankly at times want to give it up all together.

This week we had a few hiccups with our technology. The first was our interactive whiteboard that decided to act up periodically. For whatever reason, it stopped being interactive at random times. It can make a lesson that was headed for greatness to fall smack down face first. Luckily, the lesson we were doing was about what hinders communication. So there we go great way to lead us into the discussion about how technology can make communication break down and how it can be frustrating at times.

Then there was the issue of my students collaborating on a Prezi. First of all, there have been some changes to signing up for Prezis for education since last year when I did it which was a bigger process than expected. Then we had the issue of all of us trying to collaborate on a single Prezi. Trying to have 16 students on one Prezi at once slowed down the entire process as it began to lag. Eventually we had to rethink our idea and only had 3 students on the Prezi at one time. This seemed to work but took longer than I had wanted it to.

Being able to roll with the punches is so important because in the classroom full of students, your going to have a few days like that. Technology can enhance teaching and learning in so many ways. But it is important that as teachers we remember it is only one of many available tools.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Creating a Class Website Part 3- The Students Take Charge!

Finally, done (ish). Or so I thought. In my mind, my website was ready to show my students and we could begin using it as a resource for learning and sharing within our classroom and with the greater community.

We have been studying communication for the past week so I did a lesson about how visuals, colours and logos can communicate certain ideas and feelings. I then showed my students our new site and said, "What do you think?" Their reaction - it was good but parts of it were boring because it didn't show them as a class. Secretly as a teacher I was thrilled about this response and had even hoped for it. So I simply asked, "What do you like? What do you want to change?" and that is when the real magic began.

My students told me that this website should have more of 'them' throughout it. So they split into teams and each took on a part of the website. A few students started to create a new banner for the class site. It was important to them that they identified us as 5EM and include our school crest. This was who they were and conveying that on the homepage was important to them.

Also on the homepage, they wanted to have a class picture. So of course what else would we be but have a class photo shoot? It was great to see their personalities shine.

One of the best things I felt they did was create an introduction video for our homepage using iPods to record the video and iMovie to create the video. The video was inclusive of every student where each student said hello. The team in charge of the video wanted to celebrate the different languages spoken within our class. Any student who could speak another language said hello in their language. I felt that showed the diversity of our class and our identity as a real community coming together from various backgrounds. As part of this video, another team created an original piece of music using GarageBand. The students tried to included different instruments and think about what message the music could convey. Together, the two groups merged their products and the music was added to their iMovie project. 

We used a number of pictures the students had taken on their digital scavenger hunt the week before to be part of the banners on each of the other pages. They wanted to see their faces on every page and I couldn't agree more! I love having the students be the photographer in my class and seeing the class through their eyes. 

There is a section where I(the teacher) am supposed to update my students' parents on what is happening in our class and what is coming up next. I told my students this spot should probably stay. But of course, my students asked where they could share their thoughts of the week. Good question! So I threw it back at them - How did they want to share with their parents and friends? The word collaboration was key to them - everyone needed access to it and everyone needed to be able to help each other easily within it. A Google Document was one option but it would be a little messy some students thought. So another student suggested Google Presentation. Bingo! The solution to our problem. The students asked that I create a template where each student got 1 slide to decorate, create and comment on. This is how the weekly 5EM Files was born. It is now going to be an optional activity for the students that can be done as part of their weekly homework or if they finish their work and have some free time. All of this was their idea and it was a little shocking they all agreed to doing more work. Who would've thought that something that was dreamed up by my students late Thursday afternoon would blossom into a full class participation activity by Friday afternoon? Is it perfect? No. Is the spelling all correct? No. Is the grammar all correct? No. Punctuation? No. BUT... those are conversations that can be had in the future. Those are conversations that students can have with each other. Those are conversations that can foster teamwork and further collaboration in the future. Students will be able to learn the need for peer review before publishing a piece of work. It is more about the process than the product in my classroom. 

The final piece of the students took ownership over when the icons that linked students to the different resource page. All of the icons originally looked like the PYP UOI icon below until my students said they wanted to make their own. In design teams again, they decided what image could convey the specific subject. Using iPods, they took the photos and then imported to their Macbooks. In Preview, the students cropped the images to become circle images and I was able to add them to our sites. They each link to a separate page full of different resources for that subject. 

I love that my class was so engaged in this process and focused on making what they wanted a reality. Our website is now a place that is just as much theirs as mine. They are proud of the work they created and are excited to bring their parents to the site over the weekend. What I am most proud of my class for is not just creating their website, rather, working together as a class community in an inclusive manner to create something that they feel they have ownership of, that they were able to use their skills and prior knowledge in a meaningful way and that they realised that everyone in our class has something to offer. 

Creating a Class Website Part 2 - Training the Teachers

I was asked to take on the role of a 'trainer' to help my fellow colleagues build their class websites from the template we created. First of all, this terrified me. Having never been in the trainer position before, I wasn't sure how I would be teaching adults, specifically ones I know, respect and work with on a daily basis. Then of course I wasn't sure how people would even respond to our new design and having to relearn a way of doing something they were already doing.

I spent hours learning the ins and outs of the website and creating my own Google Site from our template to ensure I understood how and why things work. It was important that I felt comfortable working within the template provided so that I could communicate to others how to successfully build from the template and help them problem solve when necessary. One of the biggest things I was able to do was to tweak the template as I went so that all teachers didn't have to redo the little formatting changes I found along the way.

The one thing that began to fascinate me as I built my own site was coding. Never before had I really understood the need to code. I simply thought it was something that more 'techy' people than myself used and understood. And yet, there I was trying to change code to make table properties disappear or centre objects, embed gadgets or adding in other features. I became fascinated on how the slightest modification to the coding could make the biggest change to a site. I found ways to do things that I was told weren't possible with some research and determination and was able to tweak my site to make it more functional for myself.  It made sense to me why some people can spend hours coding, creating and problem solving.

Then it was time for the teachers. A little nervous and lack of sleep (due to nerves) didn't seem to bother me as the first group of teachers joined me for the 'beginner' session. We were able to get them set up using the template and  changing the email, editing site layouts, creating their homepage and learning how to add links, images and videos. With patience, a smile and an open forum to ask any questions, together we began building sites for our new classes. I knew that if I could remain positive and calm that my target audience would have a better chance of reciprocating it. I was amazed how the whole session seemed to flow and how teachers were helping teachers next to them. A sigh of relief came over me when the last teacher had left that night knowing that I had succeeded in helping move teachers forward in this process.

The 'advanced' group of teachers was even easier than the first training session as many were familiar with site building. Many similar questions arose as we constructed the sites again from our templates but I was more relaxed this time round and even learned some neat ideas from my colleagues.  There was sharing of what had been used successfully in the past in an informal manner within the table groups. That's the beauty of working in a collaborative environment - you don't always have to know all the answers but you need to be open and willing to listen to the ideas around you.

As we went on to the third group with our 'specialist' training session, it became apparent that some individual specialist teachers required different needs than others. Here lies the beauty of flexibility. We were able to help them adapt to their needs while still maintaining the basic outline of expectations and maintaining consistency between sites. Their site template was quite different than their previous one and therefore more support was going to be needed moving forward. But again, overall the positive attitude towards the sites really helped make it a good session for teachers to learn.

I felt overall it went relatively smoothly.  There are always things that could be improved upon in the future both on the sites and training but feel a bit more confident taking on other challenges in similar roles in the future. It is a starting point but will continue to be a process.  No one was really frustrated with the technology or gave up. Everyone was positive about creating their sites. One of the biggest goals of leading the training was showing people how to do it for themselves and not 'doing' it for them. It's important that teachers (and students) are doing it step by step by themselves and 'the trainer' only guides and supports them through the process. In other words, the only person who touches the computer is the person that owns it. It's one of the biggest things I've learned by watching others lead training sessions about technology and one of the best ways to empower others.

Standing up in front of your colleagues to speak has never been an easy thing for me but I appreciate how supportive and receptive they were to what I had to share. I'm also really appreciative of having a school that is willing to put their faith in me for a project such as this and allowing me such opportunities. At the end of the day, it really is a team effort within a school and we are all there to support each other for the betterment of our students.

Creating a Class Website Part 1 - Developing a Template

At the end of last year, I was asked to work with another colleague from the East Campus and an early years teacher on a new website design for classroom teachers by our education technology department. Little did I know at the time how this would have the impact that it did.

Off we went in a Google Document writing about what was working, what went well and what could be changed. The ability to collaborate across the city without having to meet in person constantly really allowed us to maximize our time and focus on the task at hand. It was very easy to see trends across and within campus but also places where what we wanted as teachers were different.

While my opinion of what I wanted to see in a website was able to shared, I felt that my site impacted a lot more people than just me. It was important that I asked others who would be using the site for their thoughts as well. I created a Google Form and sent it to both the parents and students from my class to get their feedback. Ultimately, everyone said it was most important for it to be simple, user-friendly and updated regularly. There were things like a calendar tab that parents didn't use but yet knowing the dates of events was still important. My students felt the class resource section was the best part of their site so they could refer to it often. This information became very valuable in tweaking the sites as we progressed.

Our team of three decided to sit down and draw up what we felt would be the best design and easiest for parents, students and teachers. We decided to keep the tabs to a minimum and focus on teachers regularly doing a few things really well than many things on a site in a mediocre manner.

We met with the education technology team who would bring it to life. Of course there were a few things that weren't possible but for the most part, the design became what we wanted. The layout started to take form. We focused on having pages for home, important information, media, classroom resources and homework. My favourite part is and has always been the classroom resource section as it provides students with the support they need both in and out of the classroom in a fun and enjoyable way.

It's hard to find a one fit model to meet the needs of all teachers, students and parents. However, providing a framework of expectations allows teachers to know what to focus on and then those teachers who want to adapt to fit their needs can do so. Just like we can't teach every child the same, we can't expect every teacher to use the same template in the same way. But it is a starting point which allows for consistency and helps those that are not sure where to begin.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

First Week Back Reflections

This past Wednesday was the first day of school for students. As always, there was a sleepless night of excitement gearing up to that first moment in the classroom. The unsure feeling of what will happen, the curiosity of what my class will be like, the nerves that I will forget something important or that I will totally flop in my new role as a coordinator. But once the whistle blows and the students line up, the mind goes blank and a sigh of relief comes over me and so begins another year.

While it might be a big statement to say, this was the best first day of school I've had to date. Rather best first week of school with my students. I love my new little class full of characters. There is a range of abilities, nationalities, experiences, and perspectives and somehow they just all seem to mesh as we transfer our way to the classroom. It's amazing how quickly you can develop culture and routine but yet still have a sense of excitement the permeates throughout the room.

For the first time, I felt like I channeled the teacher I always wanted to be on the first day of school. Perhaps it was because for the first time as I teacher I wasn't battle nerves of my own at a new school - the benefit of returning to the same school and year group for a second round.

In they came, bags away, task ready to go on the board, on with the music and off we went. The day just went seamlessly. The cheesy get to know you games I usually dislike provided a time to just laugh and talk - really just appreciate the students and learn about them. It has been about building a community built on mutual respect, collaboration and honesty.

I've started reading a book to my students entitled 'Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing' by Judy Blume. My students already won't let me put it down. Peter and Fudge have captured their hearts. Though I did love my students' faces when I said I had sketchbooks for them so they could draw as I read and there were pillows to help make them more comfortable. They first looked at me like I was crazy that I was going to let them actually draw and then disbelief when I told them to get comfy and relax.  It is was interesting to peer out and see the different things that the students had chosen to draw. When given the option to choose whatever they wanted to draw, many of them still drew about what was happening in the story. I saw a few story maps and some symbols to represent the events, I saw character sketches and settings being drawn. It sometimes amazes me that when given the choice, students really do want to learn academic things, just in non-traditional ways.

Something I didn't always do the best last year was utilise timing to my benefit. I always felt like I was cramming in a bit too much into my lessons instead of just letting them be as they were without rushing. This year, I'm trying to channel the 'less can be more meaningful' mentality. But what I've loved more is what I do with those extra 2-3 minutes here or there now. I have a box of brain teasers, math problems, comparisons and word puzzles. I love stumping the little minds until one of them gets the eureka moment and explains it to the rest of them. We've been doing a few math warm-up type activities for just a minute or two to get their brains thinking and answering each others inquiry questions from our parking lot. Maybe I'm just feeling more relaxed and comfortable in my role as a teacher, maybe it's a different class but I am loving the physical and mental calmness I have when I am teaching now that I've just 'am' the teacher rather trying to 'be' the teacher.

One of my favourite things I did was a simple digital scavenger hunt. I gave students a list of clues they had to interpret and a list of people to identify, an iPod, a pencil and off they went. Some might say it was risky to let an entire class run wild (though we did all agree to a walking rule) around the school on only the third day in with technology in hand. But the students were so respectful, they came up with their rules of agreement for the activity and were open to the few extras I had to add in. And they loved it! The best was having them come back with the smiles on their faces feeling accomplished. Then came the challenge of part two - continue to take pictures based on a day in the life of a Year 5 student until the rest of the teams came back. I almost think this part was more successful than the first part. The kids had so much fun being silly creating freeze frames of what they thought Year 5 was to be ( an interesting perspective in and of itself.)

Once the students were back, we had an interesting discussion about how people perceived the clues in different ways and that we all have a different perspective on how things are or should be. The slideshow of the pictures made the students giggle and have become the perfect addition to my new class site.

An unexpected twist to my day was when a few of my students became curious of my smaller than normal door that led outside at the opposite end of the room. When I asked what they thought was out there, we got a range of answers but a little man seemed to be the one I decided to go with. And so, there I sat creating this elaborate background story about how I had met the little man once and only once before. My students decided to write him a letter asking the many questions they had. It was even better when they found his 'note' the following day after a few minutes of being in class. This is how Master Charles was born. I'm thinking Master Charles' letters might come in an ongoing manner. He has a lot of potential. Though I really didn't think they'd latch on to the idea of the story from the start. Now I just have to make this continue in a real way for them.

We've made this class ours - from the essential agreements, to adding our faces to the walls, building our positive post, attitude slogan posters and much more. No longer is it a room I was preparing for the students but a play we will now call home for the next 37 weeks of school. 

Bumps in the Road Make the View at the Top Worthwhile

This summer I climbed Mount Rinjani in Lombok with a close friend of mine. To put it bluntly, we both  are not so much the exercising type and showed up with our running shoes and a few items in our backpack ready to take a stroll up the mountain. Little did we know what we had signed up for.  We didn't know what lay ahead, the challenges, the mental game and of course, sore muscles. The 3 day trek that seemed almost impossible at times almost got the best of me and I thought I wouldn't be able to keep going a few times.

The physical exhaustion kicked in at 3am as I was literally taking baby steps up the gravelled trail where I would take a step forward and slide a bit back down. Without proper shoes, it was a struggle to move forward as I felt the world pushing back at me. It felt like I was doing all this work and yet getting know where. So what was the point of even trying?

At about 5am, I could see the top in the distance but the vertical climb was not something I mentally ready for yet. I almost just stopped to say this was a good enough view. But then a layer of sun started to rise at the horizon and the fire inside began to illuminate as well. The only thought in my mind was that I was going to make it to the top and that there was nothing anyone could do to stop me. The only one who could stop me was myself, and I wouldn't let that happen. I had set out on this journey to make it to the top, and that is where I planned to end up.

And so I pushed on with my brain cheering my physical self on with my head down, looking only where I needed to go next, focusing on the now. Every once and I while I looked up from where I was and could still see my goal in the distance. So again, I forged on.

Finally, as I pulled myself up, there I was at the top looking out at what I had accomplished. I could look back and see the hard work and dedication, the tenacity and drive and the mental willpower to achieve my goals. I could see ahead the volcano surrounded by a lake that was surrounded by mountains and just stood there enjoying the beauty that was there.

To me, this is my educational journey. I'm a long, long way to the top, a long way from where I want to be as a teacher and future career aspirations but nevertheless, I'm still moving forward. Some days you travel farther then others and some days your feet are just sliding in gravel.

As a teacher, there are so many other components to your job than just being a teacher - communicating with parents, staying current on best practice, collaborating with peers, meetings, paperwork, report writing - the list goes on and on. You can have days where your class just drives you a little crazy or you're dealing with girl drama or students using technology inappropriately. You can have the wind and the rain pushing against you as a teacher - but yet you keep moving forward.

The best part of my day is just standing where I am, no matter where I am on the mountain and enjoying the view. I see how far my students have come from the day they first come to my door, and I know they have a long way to go until I can help get them to their own mountain top in June. I love the smiles I see on my students faces when we spend the last five minutes dancing or when a student helps another one down the stairs who is on crutches. I love watching the students laugh as they play tag in the playground or succeed at a challenging task. Their resilience to the obstacles sets an example for us all. Their caring nature shows us how to support each other along the way. Their ability to take risks sets an example of how we should be in our own lives.  They are the reason that you keep pushing yourself forward to be better each day.

The bumps in the road as a teacher are always going to be there. The one thing I've learned is that you may never make it to the top of the mountain any day soon but it is possible if you keep moving in the upward direction. But most importantly, you don't have to be at the top of the mountain to enjoy the view - your students are right in front of you.