Saturday, 21 May 2016

Setting up and moving into a year 2 & 3 ILE

During last term the decision was made to move our y2 and y3 classes into an Innovative Learning Environment. After countless hours in the holidays setting up and planning, and 3 weeks learning together I can truly say I am enjoying my days!

We currently have 41 learners; we are using two connected classrooms with a large opening between them, and we have a large covered verandah out front with beanbags our children use as quiet space. We gathered a variety of furniture from our previous classrooms and elsewhere around the school, and we are eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of some additional items we have ordered. While we don't have separate breakout spaces, students have been making use of the spaces we have created within the classroom, e.g. my little green tent is well frequented. I am still watching in regards to catering for introverted students, but so far I have not seen any issues yet.

For continuity and administration we still have two official form classes, but we are mixing for many activities. We decided to run the class(es) loosely based on the UDL principles, with a particular topic / strand / concept for all learners but then adapting this for where these students are at. As a simple example, we were working on multiplication in maths, and while everyone worked on skip counting etc. the stronger learners had to go further than the less strong ones. As my experience is more with older learners, I mainly work with students at the upper end of the spread of abilities. Being able to focus on this has been real game changer for me as I feel I can now start to extend them where previously achievement data showed that while my students at lower levels were making accelerated progress, the students at the higher levels were progressing at a considerably slower rate.

One of the concepts I am still trying to get my head around more is 'acceleration' vs. 'remediation'. I originally come from a school system where everyone was expected to reach the same level at the same time while being taught in the same way. If you did not achieve the level, you either scraped through and continued to struggle in the next year, or if your 'failings' were severe enough in at least one subject, you had to repeat the full year in all subjects. Working at an individual student's level was the solution to this problem in my eyes.
However, one of the very valid points made was that if the expectation is that every student will reach at least a certain level of competency in a particular area of learning, keeping them 'at their level' and not exposing them to enough new, higher level learning can set them up for failure. Socially it can also be an issue when a student is working with children that are several years younger than them - what does it do to your confidence when the younger ones keep on moving ahead of you while you are still treading water? So how do you 'accelerate' a child's learning without going back to the 'one size fits all approach?
In our current environment, the children are up to 16 months apart in age, socially close enough in age (though it is relatively easy to spot the 6y olds from the 7y olds, and not just by size). As part of the ALL programme we are giving extra time to our struggling writers (most, but not all boys), and as of late I have started to see a difference in the way they approach writing in class. While we do group the students by level in reading and in maths, and in writing with the ones working towards or at the beginning of CL2 in my room, we are trying to have mixed ability within that and / or offer opportunity for mixed ability work. We are setting pretty high expectations, and I believe this has an impact on to what level the students aspire.
I am still working on my understanding of how to accelerate students, and I'm starting to think that the acceleration and working at their level are not the polar opposites I believed them to be when I first heard about it.

We are really trying for the students to develop agency, to know where they are at and where they are going next. We have many different displays where they are tracking their learning, where their goals are displayed, and with not much art work on the walls yet, most space is now taken up. On my recent visit to Stonefields School I had a glance at their app in development which will show this online; it was really intriguing, but I am not sure yet that would meet our needs best at this point in time. There is something quite satisfying about moving your avatar up on the Reading Eggs Skills Bank display, or moving your named rocket to the next level sight words? (We go through lots of blue tack, velcro and staples!). One of our rooms has a lot of visuals e.g. for 'interesting words', and I am struggling to find space to put more up. I have been wondering if I should move this online, especially as 'my' learners are using their own Chromebooks. Maybe I could connect an older unused laptop to my TV or the Chromecast and just have the relevant tab on our class site open during Writing, freeing up my laptop for when I need it? What works for others working with a similar age group?

In our jam-packed days, things do fall by the wayside, and for example posts to the children's individual blogs have not been happening as much as I would have wished. The students working towards or at the beginning on CL 2 in writing have been assigned their own Chromebook, and we had one session so far for students working in Google Docs. After the initial decision to go 1:1 last term, we I had held out assigning them as I very quickly realised that students needed much more than just the technical ability to operate a Chromebook, they needed to be able to manage themselves and get on with their learning. Btw, being in the shared space has really had a positive effect on those students that are still learning how to themselves, they had to learn that their actions affect a larger number of others and that some students younger than them were 'showing them off' :) I hope to incorporate the GAFE tools better in our days in the coming days and weeks. I had also intended to contact parents regularly, and in the busyness of my days I have really neglected this - something I definitely want to get back into.

On Friday we finally started my little passion, it was the first time we visited our new Minecraft Lab which my oldest son set up for us. All our learners present on Friday had a turn, and it has been very interesting observing them in their interactions. It also reminded me not to underestimate their skills as they were happily spawning all sorts of creatures - something we will curb with a bit of server tweaking :)

Inquiring into your practise has to be a way of life in order to be an effective teacher, so planning something like a whole term ahead in great detail is simply unthinkable to me. There are few days when our DP +Angela Nunn who I share the space with and I have not discussed how to tweak things to better meet our learners' needs. It can be very tiring, but there is nothing better than them succeeding or seeing the little light bulbs appear above their little heads - like when a 6y old just this week explained to me what 40 +36 was: "76!" he told me. "How do you know?" I asked. "Well, you have 30 and 30, that's 60, and then there's 10 and 6 more, that's 76!" Do I need to say more?

(Pictures will follow)

Fine lines; to blog or not to blog

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Do you blog, and if so, why? For me, blogging is an extension of talking through an issue or a problem. Yes, I am pleased when my visitor count spikes up. Yes, I am pleased when someone leaves a positive comment. But ultimately, blogging is one of the ways for me to make sense of the world around me and what I am learning, and I like putting this out there publicly as others might be interested in it.

You obviously read blogs if you are reading this post, why do you read them? I have many blogs in my Feedly, and while I don't always get to read everything, I pick up on bloggers' ideas, tips, links and resources, and I surely have learnt lots from them.

Many educators take to Google+, Twitter, Facebook etc. and voice their opinions and concerns there. I visit many of them on occasions, and in addition to my private FB account have a professional one (simply a second FB profile, connected to a different email) which I use infrequently only, but amongst many other things I have recently read about NZ teachers fearing they might get restricted in what they say online, similar to restrictions some other occupations seem to have.

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There is a fine line between being a private person and a professional and the things we can and cannot say. It is not always easy to distinguish between the two of them, e.g. I have blogged previously about being a parent and a teacher. I have been in professional roles where everything I sent out or posted online has been scrutinised as to how it might affect my employer's image. This had a marked effect on what I was blogging about, and the amount of posts. There was no option to be a 'private professional' without association to that particular organisation as in our networked world connections are made with ease. Having returned in the classroom, everything I write about my thoughts and questions in relation to my role can easily be connected back to my school (to save you the search, it's Mangonui School, one of the coolest little schools in the Far North of New Zealand). But I don't think there is anything wrong with thinking and asking questions, as teachers we are inquiring professionals.

I am strong believer that social media is fundamentally just another form of communication; just as a conscientious professional would not speak inappropriately of their employers or their clients in public, the same ought to apply online. I doubt that in New Zealand a profession would be restricted on voicing their opinion, thoughts and questions on a matter if it was done in a thoughtful and courteous way (and I hope I'm not wrong there). The thoughts and discussions created by such posts can be extremely rich and can help lift the whole profession. There is another fine line though: If we only blog about 'appropriate' matters, potentially where goes debate, discussion and healthy disagreement? 

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Often young people are accused of using social media inappropriately but I don't believe it is an issue of age. We all need to think about how we word what we say - no matter what the medium is. I am afraid though that some professionals could remove themselves from social media in fear or misunderstanding of what they can and cannot say online and how to say it. I for myself have to say that I would be a much poorer learner and educator in a world without the rich online discussions.

I will continue to blog about my thoughts, questions, about what puzzles me, because to paraphrase the amazing +Manu Faaea-Semeatu unless you give something to the online world, there is nothing for you to take. How about you?