Leaders of learning

Leaders of learning

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to coordinate LeadMeet Sydney. This event grew out of the TeachMeet family and was based on the principles of being open, free and led by educators. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to hold the event in NSW State Parliament courtesy of the Minister for Education and his great team. It was wonderful to have the Minister come by, talk to people and stay to see what this sort of forum is all about. (The fabulous @Mrs7James also got him signed up to twitter, you can follow him @PiccoliMP.)

As this event was themed around leadership I wanted to provide opportunities for longer discussions and to engage with particular topics in more depth. For this reason there were 3 sets of 25 minute workshops with 3 workshops in each session from which to choose. One of the (many) things I love about the TeachMeet model is how much the education community pitches in and generously shares with each other. For me this is really inspiring, I feel that for too long professional learning was something that was done to us by experts and didn’t recognise and value the expertise of classroom practitioners and those in school based leadership positions. It was wonderful (and something of a relief) when so many fantastic educators stepped up and volunteered to lead workshop discussions. I owe a huge thanks to @danhaesler, @mansournatalie, @cpaterso, @sqeasley, @ldeibe, @staceyquince, @tloughland, @jeneng and @johnqgoh. For more information on the workshops you can find the google document here.

Each of the workshops allowed time for discussion, sharing, asking questions and collaborating. What I loved about this part of each LeadMeet workshop was this buzz; the conversations, the honesty, the connections and, the learning. For me, this is what a classroom is like: collaborative, unpredictable at times and responsive to the experience that those in the room bring with them. This is when the learning happens. It was wonderful to get the chance to talk with educators I’d never met before, to hear about their experience, to share my own and to recognise, regardless of sector, age group taught or setting, how much we have in common. Huge props to the workshop leaders for allowing space for this freedom to share and building on these discussions. Because, let’s be honest, it’s easier to stand in front of a prepared presentation and deliver it to an audience without reference to who makes up that audience.

What it makes me wonder is: how do we, as educators model the sort of learning that we are increasingly recognising as benefiting our students? How much have we moved away from professional learning via expert presenter and towards a collaborative model where ideas and feedback flow between all members of a school community. How much are we stepping outside our comfort zone, pushing beyond the slides and projector and getting our hands dirty, offering our ideas even when (especially when) we’re not sure if we’re right and recognising ourselves as experts in our field? My dream professional learning would be one where a series of questions are asked or statements suggested and educators collaborate to discuss, explore and refine their ideas. This is the learning I expect my students to engage in, seems only fair that I’m prepared to do the same. Let’s not seek to be comfortable in our seats watching and listening, let’s grab the reins, be confident in ourselves as leaders of learning and lead.

For me, part of this stepping out was taking the chance on running the LeadMeet. What right did I have to try and organise a leadership forum, what if no one turned up, what if no one volunteered to present, what if it (or I) fell apart? Turns out all the risks are far outweighed by the opportunities. Opportunities to try something new, to collaborate with a different group of educators and to learn. I heartily recommend that educators have a go at running a TeachMeet, lead learning on a topic that matters to you, model the level of engagement and ownership of learning that you expect from your students. It’s absolutely worth it!

You can catch up on the #leadmeetsyd tweets in this storify compiled by @johnqgoh and by looking at the # on twitter.

If you’re interested in running a TeachMeet there’s great tips here or by looking up TeachMeets running in your city or state.

Now it’s your turn, are you leading your own learning? Where to next?

Thank you to @7MrsJames for the pictures!




Reports, reflecting, reinvigorated

I’ve been contemplating a blog post for a while and have been really struggling to determine what it is I want to say. Since the change of federal government there has been a lot of attention directed at education, not all of it (hardly any of it) has been helpful, accurate or morale boosting. What I’m wondering is; how much of that is sound and fury. How much of the noise about a ‘back to basics’ approach is just that. What is important to educators, students and the future? Is it the posturing of politicians determined to distance themselves from their predecessors or is it the passion of those people in our schools, childcare centres, flexible learning spaces and all around our country working to inspire, to teach and to engage? 

It’s the final term here in Australia, for teachers that means writing school reports, organising end of year celebrations, culminating tasks and, above all else, many opportunities to reflect. I actually don’t mind writing reports, once I sit down to do them rather than the previous weekends spent in avoidance mode. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience, an opportunity to really evaluate students’ progress, not just academically but socially, emotionally and to see how far they’ve come in a year. I’ve been lucky enough to teach some of my students for two consecutive years (small school, composite classes) and it has been wonderful to watch them grow and develop as people, not just in terms of their learning.

As I reflected on what they had achieved it occurred to me that those people who are currently stomping around saying that students need more drills and we need to return to ‘chalk and talk’ really have no idea what is going on in our schools. There’s absolutely no way that students in our schools today would benefit from that style of education. These are students (children) who use technology in almost every aspect of their life, who are used to problem solving, to finding work arounds, to adapting, to manipulating tools and learning as they go. This week my class used iPads to create posters to advertise a farmers’ market they are organising (they are Year 1 and 2 students). Leading up to this they had evaluated different posters, identified features, heard a graphic designer explain how he creates a product and planned their own posters. Over the course of 2 lessons they took photos, imported graphics, experimented with text, colour and layout, evaluated each others’ work and then improved their own based on feedback.

Students were engaged in these activities, they were asking questions, justifying their responses, solving problems, collaborating and reflecting (I’ve got the photos to prove it). Imagine if I asked them to spend the same amount of time sitting at desks, listening to me teach and copy down spelling rules or lists or whatever it is people mean when they talk about ‘back to basics education’ (a topic for a future post). Which activity would have achieved better learning for those students? Which activity is providing them with the opportunity to develop skills they can use and will need in order to participate as engaged and informed citizens? Which activity would lead to the harmonious hum of students on task and which would lead to apathy, loss of motivation and disengagement?

While it might sound like I’m getting a little ranty again, that’s not the purpose of this post. My main point is to share the realisation that I’ve had. No matter what rhetoric the government or think tanks or the media might be peddling we, as educators, recognise what our students need. We are in an incredibly privileged position to watch these students engage in learning in unprecedented ways. There is no stopping them (and good luck Mr Pyne and all those who try). I am not suggesting we do away with explicit teaching by any means. We engage in a range of tasks through which students are explicitly taught skills, such as phonics, mathematics strategies, writing, that are of course fundamental to their learning, and whoever is out there saying that teachers aren’t currently doing this needs to go visit some schools. What I am saying is that perhaps these sessions are no longer the backbone of our structure. Watching my students learn and question and understand has reinvigorated me, what an opportunity we have to engage students, to respond to their interests, to connect with them. How many other occupations provide you with opportunity to build real, lasting and inspirational relationships with your clients? Not many.

I’m beginning to look ahead to the next school year. I always approach this time of year with a certain amount of sadness as I farewell those students with whom I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours for a year (or two). This year, I’m taking the time to thank them for what they’ve taught me, to appreciate how much they inspire and I’m looking ahead reinvigorated and excited for the learning adventures of the future. Surely this is more powerful than the latest government slogan. 


Sharing of learning or sharing as learning?

This year I have jumped on board the social media train. Previously I was fairly ambivalent towards twitter, blogging, personal websites, instagram and other social media forums (and quite frankly negative about facebook). It’s fair to say that I had an epiphany and have become something of a social media evangelist. It started with a solid 6 months of lurking on twitter, a few forays into instagramming and reading the occasional blog. Gradually, almost without me making a conscious decision to do so, lurking became the occasional retweet, then the odd response to a question, question of my own, and before I knew it I was setting up a rotation curation account for educators in Australia (if you don’t already follow it it’s called @EduTweetOz, just hit 2000 followers, we’re very excited) and writing my own blog.

How did this happen? Or perhaps more importantly why?

The short answer is learning. I am by nature a learner, for me social media is like an enormous classroom in the best possible sense. I choose what I want to learn by who I follow and what links I open. I choose how to learn: reading articles, asking questions, engaging in conversations and I choose when I learn; a time and pace that suits me. The biggest shift for me has been realising the importance of sharing. Sharing my opinion, my ideas and my own learning has been an incredibly powerful learning experience. It helps me to clarify my ideas, 140 characters is a great motivator for succinctness. It is an opportunity to reflect in the context of a real question, issue or someone else’s ideas. At times it forces me to defend my beliefs and even, at times, change them. I’m not just sharing what I learn but the very act of sharing helps me to learn.

Watching the Grade 1and 2 students in my class draft, refine and redraft a tweet about their learning for our class twitter account reinforces this even further. There’s no shortage of volunteers to tweet about what they learnt in a lesson and they rise admirably to the challenge of getting the main points across in 140 characters. Sharing this tweet with the rest of the class provokes further discussion as other students have different ideas about what happened in the lesson and, in sharing them, the understanding of the class is refined and improved.

There are the obvious benefits of social media: connecting with learners around the word, access to information, ideas and viewpoints and then there’s the value of sharing. Sharing as part of the learning process, not as an end result in itself of some finished product but as an opportunity to reflect, to challenge and to change.

In the spirit of this, I would really appreciate your thoughts. Does sharing help you learn or is it sending out your thoughts into the universe? What does social media bring to your practice and learning? What else do you do for yourself and your students that uses sharing as learning not of learning?

Education: the heart of it

These are tricky times in education. Educators are faced with funding arguments and uncertainty, accreditation systems lacking coordination, upheaval in the government sector and confusion about employment prospects for new graduates. A career as an educator is one often met with ridicule from the media, lack of respect from the community and a barrage of blame statements from society. Despite all that, beyond the policy arguments, shifting priorities and increasing scrutiny there is absolutely no other job I would rather do. None. Not a single one.

I say this as a fairly experienced teacher, having taught for 12 years now, half in London and half in Sydney, in a range of schools and in a range of roles. This week, it struck home to me just how much I care about my job. It was the first day of the school holidays, where was I? At school, not alone, but with my colleagues, preparing for next term’s learning. There we were, sitting at the computers every so often saying to each other, “I’m really excited about this.”, or “I can’t wait to do this activity.”, or “What do you think about trying this?”. No one made us go into work, we care about what we do and believe in the potential of education, it makes it worth it.

Change can be challenging. It can be confronting. It can mean the end of things you like, or understand, or feel comfortable using. For me change is what I love about education. Change is at the heart of what we do and what we seek to do. Education is change: change in understanding, perceptions, ideas and lives. I can’t remember a term (or a week, or a lesson) where I haven’t changed what I intended to do. I’ve changed my lesson structure or activity in response to student interest or needs. I’ve changed my strategies for classroom management. I’ve changed the way my desks are organised, the technology I use, the questions I ask, the groups I organise for students, the texts I read, the materials I provide and so much more. Sometimes these changes work well, sometimes they don’t, but regardless of that, learning has happened, I’ve learnt, the students have learnt and my colleagues have learnt.

At the moment I’m learning about Project Based Learning. I’m thinking about what student engagement looks like and how I can maximise that. I’m reading, I’m watching videos, I’m asking questions, I’m talking to people and I’m trying things out. I’m excited. How many other careers give you this freedom? The freedom to take charge of your practice, to try new things and to change. This is what excites me about education, this freedom and the potential it holds. The potential for change, change in me, in students and my school community. What a privilege.

A quote from a book I’m reading at the moment struck a chord with me today. Agnes is a librarian in Zambia. The author asked her how she copes with all the difficulties she faces and asks “…isn’t that a challenge for you?”. Agnes’s response was “Yes, it can be challenging. But when you love something, when you love something, you do it with all your heart, all of your passion, and all of your energy.” (Wood J, 2012, Room To Read, p47).

While the challenges I face may be different to those Agnes encounters, her belief in the power of education resonates. I know of no other way to be an educator other than wholeheartedly, passionately and with love. Why would I want to do anything else?

What do you say when people ask why you are an educator? What’s at the heart of it for you?