Monday, 27 April 2015

Going Beyond #beyondlaptops

When I got back got from #beyondlaptops conference on Monday at school, a close colleague of mine asked me if I learned a ton of new things at the conference. My answer even surprised me, "No I didn't learn a ton of new things. But it was one of the best conferences I've been a part of in a long time."
Japanese Cherry Blossoms in April 
I think the key thing to note in that statement is 'been a part of'. Not often do you feel like you are a part of the conference. Even though I helped with some of the planning, I really felt like during the conference I was always actively involved as the participant.

Each day was full of conversations that really pushed my thinking and made me question my own practice. I realised I usually walked away each day with was more questions than answers but only because the conversations I was having made me want to find out more. As I flip through my notes now to reflect on my time there, there aren't many. More than anything it's full of"Contact ____ to chat about ____" or a few pictures drawn out of ideas. I spent so much time listening, reflecting and sharing there often wasn't time for taking notes on my computer or notebook or even 'tweet' as the day went on. I found my laptop had more than half its battery full by the end of one day (not a normal thing by any means). It's not often that you have the luxury of focusing only on discussing educational practice without other distractions or responsibilities. These types of discussions are so powerful but often fall to the side when you mix in report cards, parents, paperwork and planning during your prep time.

One of my favourite parts of this conference is getting so many unique perspectives from such a small group of participants (approximately 50). With each school limited to bring 4 participants, the group often consisted of administrators, education technology coaches, EdTech directors and teachers of various subjects, allowing to hear the viewpoints from every side on every given topic. Thus, it forced me to think about teaching and learning in new ways. This helped me to understand the bridge I will soon be walking from teacher to technology coach. By hearing the different perspectives, it provided me insight into the role I soon will be stepping into, but still understanding the role I am currently. Challenges and successes will always be seen differently depending

I believe the idea of travelling with a team from your school is a powerful concept at a conference. Often I have veered off on my own path this year to various conferences because I wanted to continue learning from others. This time was different - we went as a team, with a goal as a team and hopefully now can come back to our school and plan to implement positive a team. The growth of a school doesn't happen because of one person, rather a team of people who want to move the school forward. By having a team from your school, you can discuss challenges from multiple perspectives to move towards creating a solution. Through discussions, it was valuable to see my own school through 4 different lenses, 3 of which were foreign to me, but together helped gain a more whole picture of our school.

Technology seemed only secondary to the power of face to face communication and collaboration at #beyondlaptops. Technology is often the resource to communicate and collaborate but not the only way. What is more important is having conversations that have an impact, creating connections between and within schools and pushing your thinking beyond your comfort.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Taking the Learning Out of the Classroom

This year our Year 5 class seems to be out of the classroom a lot more than last year. And I will be the first to admit that when we agree to a '2 in 1 trip form' that I have my doubts. It's not due to the extra paperwork by any means but rather I think of the time we spend travelling back and forth from the school to our destinations and back and how that is eliminating time for learning.

But does that matter? Is the learning the students gain in shorter amounts of time through experiencing something just as valuable (if not more) than the daily teaching in the classroom? What is really does, is bring the learning that happens inside the classroom to life.
We have been studying buildings and structures in our class for the last 4 weeks. Our field trip consisted of taking a bumboat ride beginning in the Clarke Quay area of Singapore followed by touring the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
We lucked out with beautiful weather (which always makes a boat ride better, especially compared to last year's attempt to do this trip). The bumboat ride not only had audio to provide the history of Singapore and the buildings we were seeing but also allowed for students to really make their own connections between Singapore past and present. It always amazes me when I hear my students talking to each other in a way they wouldn't have done just a few weeks before. The students engaged in conversations about aesthetics, materials, the balance of natural vs. manmade, structural design principles - all things we had inquired into while in the classroom. The difference was now they were putting it into a real-life context.

After lunch in the park, the students went to the Urban Redevelopment Authority where they were able to see miniature models of the entire country and the buildings right before their eyes. They were able to interact with the displays and learn about balancing the needs of the people when constructing a city. They saw blueprints and multiple models of buildings. These are all things they were being asked to do in their summative task and they had some of the best examples that were real-life examples that they could learn from.
And so even though I will always have a small bought of hesitation going out for yet another trip, it quickly fades knowing the real-life experiences we can provide our students are often more powerful than the lessons within 4 walls. Thank goodness for this... because we have another trip on Thursday and we're off to camp for 3 days next week.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Holding On When the Countdown Is On

We’ve got 10 weeks left of school right now. For some teachers, that means counting down until summer, trying to get reports done and easing into 2 months of summer. While I’ve never been a fan of the countdown and the effect it has on the students. This year is a little bit different and I’m very much aware of the countdown, but for different reasons.

Next year I am moving into the role of Technology Coach at my school and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity and the year ahead. I will have the pleasure of working with talented teachers and passionate students at all year levels. But in the transition, I’m going to be leaving behind a part of the job that I have grown to love more than anything - my own class of kiddos.

Being a homeroom teacher is an experience that has been so rewarding over the past few years. I absolutely love seeing the faces of my kids each morning and just wondering what’s going to happen that day. The relationships we have built in our classroom are truly special and I am so grateful for how much they teach me each and every day. They let me throw anything at them and they take it in stride. Together, they create an environment that is challenging, exciting and enjoyable to work in each and every day. They tell me when I’m wrong and shower me in their affection. Together, they build on each other's ideas and have taken learning to a level I had never imagined. They have taken over the class, designed our classroom, taught lessons, developed courses, and been a constant source of inspiration.

I am away for 3 days from them right now due to a conference and I feel a bit like a crazy parent worried about them and if they’re managing without me. I was sent off at the end of the day before I left with hugs and assurance they would manage just fine with the supply teacher. But in reality, it’s more me managing without them that should be the concern,  knowing that our days together are numbered.

It’s going to be hard not having a class to call my own next year. It’s dawning on me more and more as the last day of school draws nearer of the drastic change I’m about to jump into. I have no idea of what my career holds and am unsure if I will ever end up back in the classroom again as a homeroom teacher now that I’m transitioning out. So as some countdown to the number of days before summer, I’m trying to hold on to every day that’s left with my students, trying to enjoy each day and make it a memorable last few weeks.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Hurricane: Teaching In the Eye of the Storm

I have to say this was one of the most unsuspected and unplanned learning engagement I have done with my students, but was definitely was one of the most fun ones. Last week, my students were watching a few videos about buildings, structures and environmental factors architects needed to consider when planning and building in various locations around the world. One of the videos featured Hurricane Sandy and showed the effects it had on various buildings. One of my kiddos asked, “What makes a building ‘hurricane proof’? What makes a building not get destroyed in a hurricane?” Of course, when a student has an inquiry, we usually go about investigating so this was just another one of those days. At that point it was made known, the hurricane would be here in 3 days.

First the students broke into teams of 5. I am still amazed at how well my 9-year-olds can make groups. Ever since our design thinking and inventions unit at the start of the year, they see the value in creating diverse groups. WIthout teacher support, they make sure there is varying abilities, boys and girls, and unique perspectives. They choose not to work with their best friends and understand that by making these decisions they can make the best teams that can solve any problems.

Once the teams were established, they started to do their research. They brainstormed questions that would be necessary for the investigation such as what happens during a hurricane, what materials are best for structures in hurricanes, etc. and documented them in a shared Google Doc. From there, they began their research. Each student in the group was responsible for different questions as well as keeping a list of references they used to solve their answers. Some groups even colour coded who did what to help them self-monitor if they were each contributing equally to the gathering of research notes.

From there, they pulled the keywords out from their research that would need to be included in their design before creating blueprints that they drew by hand. One group even drew their building from 5 perspectives so they could have a well thought out plan. When they had finished their sketch, they had to meet with me briefly to explain some of their design decisions in the sketch. I was amazed by the thought and detail they went into for their structures. One group thought about being inspired by the Gherkin with a rounded building so the wind would curve around it, Another group had the building on stilts in case there was flooding. The final group created a basement for safety with reinforced walls in the basement with lining to prevent water from seeping in. There were inclined planes for water to run away from the building, multiple exits for if there was something blocking it and a variety of different materials used that they felt would be best to minimize damage.

Then they got to the building process. The students were allowed to use any materials they wanted to construct their buildings. We used recycled materials primarily as well as other resources that were found around the classroom. I loved watching them as they talked through their disagreements in designs, working collaboratively and inclusive of all group members.

Finally, it was hurricane day. I walked into class still unsure of how it was going to play out and no real plan on how to make it happen but sometimes creativity strikes and you roll with it. We had a video with sound effects on the projector as a visual and hurricane sirens as a warning for the members of the community. It was time to see if these buildings would hold. Every student played a role in creating the hurricane. Some students were the storm chasers who used iPods to video document what was happening and finding different angles to capture the storm. Other students were the fierce winds with large sheets of cardboard or boards used to create the wind. Finally, we had students who were the rainstorm who would toss water at the buildings. Hurricane Mac was intense. As the hurricane progressed, debris (in the form of pencil crayons) began to be thrown about and hitting the buildings.

When the storm had passed, we looked at our buildings to see how they had stood up against the storm. Luckily they were all pretty much intact. We had a lot of discussion about why some were better than others, how some materials had been more durable than others, etc. First the teams debriefed individually and then they shared with the whole class. To wrap it up, the students created a written report about the experience from beginning to end including all of their reflections, photographs and experiences.

It was the absolute best way to begin our Monday morning (even with the bit of mess we created). The experience brought about so many questions and inquiries. The students worked collaboratively to investigate and create an experience that was memorable. I honestly think they are still shocked of  how we did the simulation in the end. But the smiles on their faces was completely worth every second.

Sometimes teaching can’t be all planned out. Sometimes you just have to jump into the storm, get a little bit messy and be ready for whatever is thrown your way.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

NEW Pinyin Tones Add-On for Google Docs

About a month ago, I was speaking to one of the Primary Mandarin teachers at our school and she was sharing with me that Google Docs was limiting in some of the features required to make her work easier when typing in pinyin for the students. I began to ask around to a few people and couldn't find quite what we were looking for in terms of a solution.

Then as luck would have it, I was investigating all the awesome add-ons in Google Docs to try to figure out which ones are most beneficial for teaching when I re-stumbled upon a goodie - Easy Accents. As someone who unfortunately only speaks English fluently, I hadn't had the need to use this add-on personally but as I read about it, I wondered if this was the answer but there were no pinyin tone feature yet.

With a 'Why not?' attitude, I emailed Dan Baker (Network Administrator, Ursuline Academy) on the chance that maybe something was in the works for the future. I cannot say enough good things about Dan. He was so helpful and quick to respond as we both tried to talk about a language we were not familiar with. After consulting with one of our Mandarin teachers, Ei Lin Tan, who created a video to help explain our needs and clarified the tones, Dan came back to us with the Pinyin Tone Easy-Accent Add-On in no time.

Check out our video for a quick overview of how to use
 the Pinyin Tone Easy Add-On for Google Docs!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

7 Schools, 7 Lessons: Things I Learnt As a Workshop Facilitator

Over my two-week summer break, I had the pleasure of travelling to the New Delhi region in India. This was my second time in India and I had previously only been there for 2 days for the Google Teacher Academy in December. I knew I absolutely loved the food, the culture and adventure that India had to offer, but hadn't realised how much I would be accepted with open arms and such amazing hospitality by the educators I would encounter when I returned. Over my holiday, I was blessed to be welcomed into 7 schools for 7 days of workshops to do some outreach support in local public schools that focused on introducing the Google Apps for Educations tools to teachers and how they could integrate them into their classroom to support their current teaching and learning practices.

As I prepared myself to transition into a technology coach position at my current school next year, I began to realise how different my role would be. Every session was unique, even though a lot of days I was facilitating workshops with the same products. No day was the same and each had its own unique challenges. I very quickly learnt that working with adult learners is a very different experience than working with my nine-year-old students, but yet some core factors stayed the same. The more I facilitated workshops, the more I began to explore how adults want to be supported in their learning journey.

Throughout my time, I constantly was reflecting on my experience and came away from the experience with valuable lessons.

1. Embrace questions. - Sometimes teachers fear the unknown. You can have a lesson planned out one way and a student asks a question that makes the lesson shoot off in a completely different direction - I love that. You begin to learn after a day or two of workshops what questions teachers have, how to reduce the fear of uncertainty for those participating in a workshop but also embrace the fact that you never are quite sure what you will be doing when facilitating workshops. No question is a bad question. When you take the time to listen to someone and walk someone through how they can be successful, you are able to spark more curiosity to learn. Often more questions will come from solving one query - those are my favourite. To see teachers continuously become more excited about what they were doing as they learn each piece of the puzzle is truly a treat to experience. I loved when teachers engaged in asking questions and it made my job easier than trying to guess what they wanted to learn by knowing I was actually helping them meet the needs of their inquiries. I'm so thankful that the educators felt comfortable asking the questions so I could support them. I also loved that the learning hasn't stopped since I left their schools and that the conversations and questions are continuing even though we are now separated by distance.

2.  The Internet is not always reliable. - I am very privileged to work in an international school in Singapore where I don't have to think twice about having a consistent internet in my classroom. I know that I can plan a lesson using the computer and I can execute it without the concern of having the internet drop out. But that isn't the case in all schools in India. The internet would drop out at times or even be very limited in some cases. For me, it definitely kept things interesting and forced me to be ready for anything. If the internet did drop, I was constantly forced to evaluate how I could keep the audience engaged and learning without becoming frustrated and give up. I also learnt how valuable it is to have a backup plan. For me, this was having a Google Slides presentation for the various apps that could help walk teachers through the tools at the moment but could also act as a resource beyond my time at their school. I am empathetic towards teachers who work through these challenges every day and yet continue to inspire their students and embrace a world of technology.

3.  Repeat the instructions - often.  - I've always thought students are better students than teachers. But the level of excitement and engagement for teachers and students can always be high if you go about it the right way. Teachers seem to like to listen and do at the same time, rather than watch, then do. Therefore, a one time demo isn't always sufficient. Just like students, instructions need to be repeated verbally, demonstrated and also have time for teachers to 'do' what they are being shown. When you walk around and support teachers, you have to be ready to repeat, repeat, repeat what you've said again and again while also not making them feel small that they didn't understand the instructions the first time or two or three. Learning is a process. We all learn at a different rate and in different ways. It's our job as facilitators to help find the best way to help our students discover how to be successful in their learning and support them with the resources and means necessary.

4. Patience is a must. - I wouldn't consider myself a patient person, especially outside of my classroom. I like efficiency in my personal life and have always said I use up all my patience each day with my students. However, I found this sense of calm working with teachers that I hadn't experienced before as I walked teachers through different features of an app step by step and having them do it, rather than me. It was almost a very zen experience. Not once did I feel overwhelmed, frustrated or rushed. We just took our time and explored as necessary and flowed onto the next application when we were ready. Some days we focused on one app for an hour and the next day it only took twenty minutes and worked through challenges as they presented themselves. As a facilitator, I learnt that in the face of any challenge you have to stay calm as your 'students' are looking to you for that sense of security and insurance.

5. Stay positive. - The moment you become negative, you will lose your audience - so don't. When you are positive in a room, the energy and excitement levels will go through the roof. Creating a safe environment to learn in allows teachers to the fullest and feel safe making mistakes and growing. Technology isn't meant to be something that is a pain for teachers, even though there is a learning curve. By having a smile on the face and showing teachers you are learning together helps break down their defensive walls against technology. No obstacle can't be overcome and it's important to help teachers develop their growth mindset mentality.

6. Be flexible. - I never really knew what type of school I are was walking into each day, the technology and comfort levels of the teachers or how often the teachers were even using the tools. I very quickly learned that building relationships and engaging in conversations before a workshop began was a sure way to begin to figure those things out. I loved hearing about where teachers were at in their technology integration and how much they wanted to do this, but sometimes just weren't sure how to go about it yet. I became very aware of how to read the audience to know when they were struggling with a concept or when teachers felt like they accomplished a task. I noticed the small things that made a big difference to how I would adjust to my teaching environment. I knew that I had to be open-minded when the direction of the workshop would change without planning and two seconds later I'd be showing a different application I hadn't planned to share that day. I really felt like I had be a chameleon adapting to it's surroundings to meet the needs of the teachers.

7. Have fun - Every one of those 7 workshops were unique. Nothing ever went the same or fully as 'planned'.  The only consistency was making it fun for both the workshop participants and myself. I was on spring break after all. But learning should be fun. It shouldn't be stuffy and a lecture from the front of the room for hours and hours - that's not real learning. Students need to be getting their hands messy and trying things. As they make mistakes, they ask questions and problem solve. I learnt to not take things so seriously and when I was faced with my own uncertainty with a question we figured it out together. Technology can be daunting for some teachers but when you create a learning environment that can minimise that fear, teachers actually get motivated to develop their skills. We laughed, we smiled, we had fun, we experienced, we grew - that to me is learning.

By the end of the two weeks, I began to look at the role of a workshop facilitator and technology coach with a new perspective and even more excitement. The experience forced me to think about how educators learn best and reflect on how I learn best too. It also helped me think critically about what I need from others to feel supported and successful in my new role and how I could take that thinking and translate it to help better support other educators. The amount of personal growth in such a short time seemed tremendous to me and I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with over 200 educators from around the Delhi region. This experienced filled me with excitement and has motivated me to continue to push myself further as an educator with a new perspective of teaching and learning. I can't wait to see where my journey takes me next and look forward to learning from every opportunity that continues to unfold.