Tagged: challenge

Who has voice?

Photo credit: HowardLake via DIYlovin / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: HowardLake via DIYlovin / CC BY-SA

This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.

It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)

Student panel

Student panel with Dan Haesler

Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.

Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.

Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools.  Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.

 What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.



It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?

So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.

Check out the Storify from the day.

Get Class, Add Tech…Innovation?

Developing innovative teaching is not a “get class and just add iPad” fix. In fact innovative teaching doesn’t require iPads, computers or devices of any kind. These things are just tools that enable the production of the same “stuff” just in different ways.  It’s the approach that makes learning innovative.

I was recently at a school that has a great reputation for providing students with “21st century” learning. They have amazing spaces, facilities, technology and materials. I was able to see two classes in action. One group of students were constructing iPod cases which were to hold speakers which they soldered themselves.

Sounds like a great design challenge doesn’t it?

The second group of students were racing cars they had built. They were constructed from the same materials and as they raced in pairs, the slower car was eliminated.

Sounds like fun yeah?

Both tasks provided opportunities for students to engage in relevant content that they could connect with. Both tasks provided opportunities to engage with peers and/or work independently.

One task had students follow an explicit sequence of instructions. Every end product looked identical except for the colour or decoration on the outside.

The other task had students challenged by a design problem. They had to consider how to make the BEST product with the materials provided and test the end product to see if their design was successful.  Each end product looked different even if the colour matched others.

Only one of these tasks was different than a traditional build from the 20th century tech class.

I remember woodwork in high school. We built paper towel holders and coffee cup trees. Each one looked the same, some were sanded finer or stained darker, but generally the end products were hardly different.  I know that some schools still complete very similar tasks and thus we would consider them static in their progress.  I argue that the first task I mentioned above might as well be a paper towel holder. The only difference is that kids would prefer to make it over the paper towel holder!

Whatever the product, the change in the innovation is giving students the opportunity to approach it in authentic ways. Given a design brief with limitations, not a sequence of instructions which results in identical products at the end.

The same can be said in all class rooms. If we are just providing options to do the same task in different ways, for example instead of writing your narrative, type it on the iPad/computer or record it in audio, this is differentiating the learning yes, but it is not transforming the experience for the student. It is not challenging them to think about their learning in different ways. It is merely making the learning look pretty. Don’t get me wrong – I LIKE PRETTY!!!

Developing an innovative learning experience is not limiting our students to topics or ways of expressing themselves, it is about inspiring our students to think beyond the examples we provide.  It is about establishing a culture of exploration, adaption, modifying what we know and making it better!

This is what I endeavour to do each and every day. How about you?

Circle of Influence

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Marin: http://flickr.com/photos/cityhunter12/2612805262/

I never thought head butting with you would be so much fun!  cc licensed flickr photo by Marin

Recently I have been thinking about the people we surround ourselves with, whether that be within our workplace or beyond and how these people impact on our professional and personal development.

I have experienced a wide variety of workplace environments, some where I felt isolated and others where I was part of a dynamic team.  I have worked in situations where I had very few colleagues and others where there were more than 100 in my direct workplace.

Regardless of the staffing numbers, the environments I have felt promoted my growth and development most have been places where I connected with one or more peers or leaders who challenged, inspired or set high expectations of me.  I wonder if this is a reflection of my personality or whether this is something we should all be aiming for.

I consider myself  a fairly confident, resilient person and when someone asks “why” I do something a particular way I enjoy the process of articulating and justifying it. I see this as an avenue  to either reinforce my choices or as a trigger  for change. I have never thought of my practice or personality as stationary or static but see myself on a development journey as a teacher, leader, mother, friend and human being.  I see people who are threatened by being challenged, whom take it as a personal assault and whom use strategies of blame or avoidance  to deflect responsibility away from themselves and this makes me wonder how they approach their own development and growth.

So I ask these questions;

Who are the people you surround yourself with that challenge your practice or ideas?

Do you seek a group of people who affirm your ideas and thus maintain your thoughts and practice?

Do you choose to work with people based on their passionate approach or whether they have similar views or interests as you?

Do you feel threatened by an antagonist or do you relish the opportunity to develop your ideas and reinforce your position or possibly reflect on adapting?

Having joined twitter and continuing to develop a PLN has meant I can draw from people beyond the confines of my workplace who  have shared similar experiences.  Of course I choose to follow people whom I share like ideas with and those that reinforce my thoughts on education, however I also purposely select those that challenge or provoke discussion that may oppose my views or at the least broaden my approach to different topics.

I wonder how we truly develop if our own status quo is maintained and we never engage in opportunities to see a different perspective?

Perspective Matters

Huge Blinders by emilio labrador

Huge Blinders, a photo by emilio labrador on Flickr. cc

Recently I reconnected with an educator I hadn’t seen for a while.  I cherish these opportunities because a fresh set of eyes can betray the things you take for granted.

It is so easy to become complacent in our actions, behaviours, standards and expectations especially when we work in a busy environment where it is a constant challenge to keep our eyes on the big picture.  When an “outsider” comes in and can feel the culture, see the interactions, hear the conversations and see the environment without the blinkers we develop over time, it can open our eyes to things that have become “part of the furniture”.

I consider myself a passionate professional, whom does not shy from a challenge nor turn a blind eye to things I deem destructive or inappropriate. Yet I was surprised to acknowledge that my own complacency over certain things was potentially being detrimental to myself , my staff and my school. Huge wake up call and one I am extremely grateful for.

So who is providing you with a fresh perspective?  Is it adequate to discuss your professional practice only with those within our own schools?

Engaging = Entertaining?

Many classroom and school improvement strategies encourage or promote the importance of student engagement! But what is this “engagement” they speak of?

It seems there are many different ideas of what student engagement is.  I have written previously about the role of ‘fun’ in building relationships (see “Do I have to be a Clown?”), but I see engagement as something else.

So I asked myself…

Can I be engaged without being entertained?

Am I entertained without being engaged?

My answer to both of these questions was YES!

So then, what is my understanding of engagement? If others believe engagement relies on being entertained or enjoyment, then their definition must be different, surely.

In an article in Forbes Kevin Kruse explores employee engagement. He identifies what it’s not….

Employee engagement does not mean employee happiness. Someone might be happy at work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working hard, productively on behalf of the organization. While company game rooms, free massages and Friday keg parties are fun–and may be beneficial for other reasons–making employees happy is different from making them engaged.

Employee engagement doesn’t mean employee satisfaction. Many companies have “employee satisfaction” surveys and executives talk about “employee satisfaction”, but the bar is set too low. A satisfied employee might show up for her daily 9-to-5 without complaint. But that same “satisfied” employee might not go the extra effort on her own, and she’ll probably take the headhunter’s call luring her away with a 10% bump in pay. Satisfied isn’t enough.

So if we apply this to student engagement, then it infers that students can be happy in class but not engaged in their learning and satisfied with their teacher/class/subject but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer to be learning somewhere else.

I take this further with this query, why is it, that a parent will take their “perfectly satisfied, happy” child out of their local school and send them to an independent school 200m down the road?

I believe it has to do with challenge. If we promote a culture, an atmosphere where students are challenged, this is where engagement is fostered. The challenge mustn’t be beyond our reach nor should it be too easily attained, but I believe this is where the learning is most rich.

The majority of my own learning is developed void of any entertainment. I have experienced several professional development sessions where I was thoroughly entertained yet I didn’t take any new learning away. I have also spent many hours reading dull lengthy studies which actually provided me with a rich source of information and a new perspective to take forward.


I asked my son (aged 10) a few questions to gauge his experience of challenge (I often ask him questions because he is completely honest about his classroom).  This is how our conversation went:

“What has been something you found hard to learn?”

“This year or last year?”

“Any time.”


“Why was division hard?”

“I couldn’t figure out what it really meant, whether it meant add or subtract.”

“What helped you understand?”

“We did lots of problems, where we had to figure out whether it was sharing or getting more. Then we used short division to figure out the answer.”

“What helped you keep going even when it was hard?”

“I knew it was important to understand it so I could figure out the problems.”

“Do you think you understand division now?”


“How did it make you feel when you figured it out?”

“It felt good, I felt relieved. Do I have to answer any more questions now?”

“Be off with you!”

So what I get from this brief conversation is:

1. He was learning something he couldn’t already do (challenge)

2. He knew it was important to learn it (purpose)

3. He was given real problems to solve to develop his understanding (relevant)

4. He was able to develop his understanding (learning)

This is what I think engagement is!

When engagement is defined as paying attention by looking at the teacher/presenter, then you already discount every child/person on the Autism Spectrum who find difficulty in face to face or those who prefer or focus better with hearing as opposed to seeing.  If you define it as contributing to discussion, then you cancel out all the introverts who may be uncomfortable in group participation. When you suggest that engagement is students taking notes, it would be interesting to see if these notes have any actual “meaning” to that student afterwards.

I think the measurement of engagement is the learning.  Are you learning anything new, are you developing your understanding, or changing your perception? Do you see purpose or reason and keep going even when it is challenging? If you do, I think you are engaged.

I believe if we want to engage our students we have to:

Increase resilience in challenge, so they gain satisfaction by overcoming difficult problems (intrinsic motivation not extrinsic reward based satisfaction).

Provide real and relevant learning opportunities, so they see meaning and purpose to keep going when it is hard.

Then recognise the learning that has occurred and provide opportunities to demonstrate or acknowledge it.

I would love to hear from others as to how you see engagement and ways you would “measure” it in yourself and/or your students.

Inspiring Young Mentors

This term I have been fortunate to be a passenger on the Peer Mentor ride. I have been privy to boys developing into young men, showing leadership, with genuine compassion and interest in developing relationships with my students with disabilities.  These young men have impressed me, but more importantly, they have connected and the benefits are immeasurable.

Let me put this into context.  I was brought to my school with the establishment of  a Unit for students with disabilities.  A brand new challenge for  my new colleagues, many of whom had never interacted let alone engaged with students with intellectual disabilities. Never had to “include” students with disabilities into sports days, assemblies, year level or whole school activities and schools events. I also arrived, prepared for the potential bullying and harassment of my students. Aware that students with disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of bullying and furthermore, those with obvious physical conditions (such as cerebral palsy or  down syndrome) being more likely to be excluded or made fun of.  In an attempt to be proactive and prevent such things, I set about to have my students involved in all whole school and year level activities. I aligned myself and sought support from staff whom were enthusiastic, accepting and inclusive.  The student response was overwhelmingly positive, it was a good start. Pushing forward from this point I was in search of something more than just short term class buddying, or one off activities here and there. Fortuitously I was approached by a passionate, energetic colleague who had taken on the challenge of working with a group of at risk, disengaged boys. Identified by staff due to their  “disrespectful” behaviour, poor attendance and/or  avoidance strategies towards class work.  I jumped at the chance to work together to try something new! A Peer Mentor Program.

Whilst I had some apprehension and a slight mother cat protective arch in my back as we approached our first session, it was quickly defused by the enthusiasm and positive manner in which the boys approached the opportunity.  I was astonished by their maturity and their commitment to potentially looking silly just to engage my students.  What “cool” teenage boy wants to lose a tag game to a child who is hardly going to break the land speed record for duck-duck-goose? But they did, over and over and over again, chasing and cajoling them.  We played several games in that first session and immediately there were some boys who stood out.

Initially I thought they showed none of the behaviours that led to them being “identified” as at risk, but then I started to reconsider.  They showed great leadership, perception, energy, compassion, and respect. If these students have these qualities, yet seem to be some of the most disengaged in our school, then what is that telling us? They challenge, they think for themselves, they set an example and others follow.  In a classroom where they are not challenged, not valued, not identified for their obvious strengths and given opportunities, I can imagine they could cause chaos! To me, they are heroic, prepared to take a risk and not wait until someone else was brave enough to dive in first.

After 6 short weeks, my students were trying things they would never have imagined. The greatest highlight – taking on the rock climbing wall!  Secure and confident in the support of their mentors, they not only put one foot above the other to scale a wall physically, they also scaled to heights of confidence and self-esteem through embracing the challenge.  This would not have been possible without the belief, support and encouragement of these young men.

They have inspired me. They are motivation to continue forging ahead with our vision to build the capacity of staff to establish positive relationships, supportive and challenging learning environments and to negotiate the learning process with our students. We must enable these boys and their like peers to flourish, to develop their skills and to lead their peers in positive endeavours, not to send them to detention because they challenge us.

Let’s not be frightened of non-compliance, sometimes it just proof they can think for themselves!

Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Susan B. Anthony

The Missing Link…

After reading  ‘The “Why” of Writing’ by George Couros I was inspired to tell my own classroom story of how the “Why” of writing has impacted on one of my students in particular.  Teaching special education, especially students with speech and language difficulties means that communication can be a challenge. Imagine struggling for 14 years to be heard, understood or even have the opportunity to contribute.  Imagine people turning away because they can’t understand you, the frustration of wanting to tell, explain or ask but your ability to move your tongue means you cannot make the right sounds and your words become distorted and unclear.  Imagine struggling to write, sitting in a class where you practice basic sentences that are functional but not expressive or meaningful over and over again. See the student disengage with learning, with people, with ambition.

George stated..

If we really want to improve the literacy of our students, we need to look just as much (if not more) at the purpose, at why they are writing, as to simply the strategies and process.  I have seen the evidence within my own family, that the why of writing means more than anything.

I too have seen the powerful impact that purpose can have.

Enter a dynamic, resourced classroom with people who take time to listen, to figure out your language, who share experiences and take time to ask for help to understand.  The language barrier becomes their challenge to overcome not hers.  Enter the iPad and laptop.  Enter edmodo and email. Welcome to the world of immediate response! Welcome to the “why” for writing.

I have seen this young person blossom, become engaged with her world, make new friends and contact old ones.  She enters the classroom desperate to talk about our conversation on edmodo from the night before and never leaves before being reassured that I will check for a message or remind a colleague to check for theirs.  Within 5 minutes of entering the classroom, she can be “logged on” and sending messages to peers, to me, to other staff. She constructs meaningful sentences and is motivated to “get it right” because she is desperate to be understood. Responses and replies reinforce and motivate her to keep going.

Having the “why” has engaged her in literacy, increased her self confidence and enabled her voice to be heard.  It drives her learning and the improvement follows!  I am excited to see in the near future, how blogging will impact her and her peers as we start connecting with people all over the globe!

Aren’t we responsible to find the “why” for all our students?