What value in a word?

In my previous post I talked about words having power to change our perceptions, even of the job we do. I have been pondering the power of words again this week. But the power of words goes much deeper. You see, words give value to the things they name. And our use of words reflects our own values. Sometimes, there are words and terms closely connected and often used interchangeably. We need to ask ourselves, whether using these terms interchangeably enhances the values we are trying to convey, or causes us and our audience to lose something of the values and the bigger picture we are trying to create. I think it can depend very much on the words and the values under consideration.

As an example, consider my Year 11 German class discussing the German concept of Heimat. When asked to consider its meaning, most automatically went to google and a couple to their dictionaries, to find the English translation given as ‘homeland’. I asked them to tell me what that means in their own words. The general consensus was ‘where you are born’. But the German concept is so much richer and more involved than simply a place of birth. Heimat expresses feelings of belonging, being valued and contributing, feeling whole and like you and that place fit together. It may be a country, a region, a town. And unlike ‘birth place’, there is room to have eine zweite Heimat, a second homeland. If my students think of the literal translation, they lose most of the values expressed in the German word.

This ‘value laden’ aspect of words struck me again tonight at the staff meeting at my school. Firstly, that term ‘soft skills’, which I briefly lamented last post, was raised again. Soft as opposed to co-cognitive – which term places more value on those skills? Do we lose something of the planning required, the explicit teaching needed, and the practice needed to teach them and learn them well if we insist on using ‘soft’? ‘Co’ means together, with. ‘Cognitive’ relates to cognition, the mental act and process of getting to know something. How much more does that actually tell us about these skills? We have to actively get to know and be involved in a process to learn them! Please, no more soft skills!

On the other hand, the P in PBL reared its head. It seems to me that the definition of that ‘P’ at times creates a hierarchy. Is Problem more student centred, rigourous and difficult (read better) than Project? If a student has voice in defining the project, the process to achieve it and the demonstration of the outcome, then isn’t that also student centred? Either way, the P is often loaded with values and proponents of each are keen to point out the differences. But does it matter if there is some overlap and if we cross between the two? If we keep our students and their needs at the centre and tailor our learning programs to our specific contexts, then is it necessary or helpful to maintain a puritan definition? Or is the ability to adapt and adopt elements of both PBLs to suit our learners and have a looser definition actually more beneficial than dogma? It depends somewhat on our values.

Finally, the leader of the meeting briefly mentioned some work I have been doing on Universal Design for Learning. While I was pleased he drew attention to the offer to staff to involve them, I was rather less impressed when he defined it as ‘about differentiation’. I think something in the process and concept of UDL was lost when Differentiation was used interchangeably with it. UDL is more than that! Differentiation usually happens once most planning has already occured, and focuses on some students doing something ‘different’, with the focus often being on the student and their difference and often with negative connotations attached. With its roots in architecture and design, UDL seeks to remove barriers to learning at the planning stage. It seeks to have flexibility available in the tools, processes and environment for all learners so they can make choices to suit their learning, rather than a teacher directing them to task A, B or C based on the teacher’s perception of capability or need. Perhaps it is in the ‘universal’ as opposed to the ‘different’ that I see some opposing values being expressed.

Are there other edu words that have this conundrum?


What’s in a name?

Words have power to change the way we think and the way we see and interact with the world around us. As someone who moves often between languages, I am aware that the words I use and how I use them can impact the clarity and reception of my communication. While it’s very noticeable when ‘translanguaging’, it is perhaps less obvious to many that the same is true when communicating with others who have the same first language as us, or indeed how we frame our own thinking.

I have become aware of the power of words again this week during some staff professional development at my school. We were discussing the benefits of PBL, including the opportunities it gives for developing the so called ‘soft skills’. Personally, I have an issue with the term ‘soft’ for these skills – there is nothing soft about them, they are not easy and they take years of experiences interacting with the world to develop. We may wonder why many teachers find it difficult to ‘fit’ these skills into their programs or to cover them on top of the content of their subjects. Calling them ‘soft’ makes them seem extra, somehow less important. Certainly they are less concrete, less easily defined, than the content of many subjects. However, a colleague mentioned that in some circles, these skills are called co-cognitive skills. Soft vs co-cognitive. Which term gives the impression of being equally important and equally as difficult to master as the other aspects of our subjects? You see, words have power!

Our school is undergoing a period of transformation, particularly in terms of learning spaces. We have also developed a document regarding school-wide pedagogy. Money can be poured into renewing spaces and making them more flexible and school leadership can provide vision and direction for the teaching and learning that should happen within those spaces, but in the end, whether there is any change in the teaching and learning comes down to the individual teachers and the learning opportunities and experiences they offer their students. It is quite possible that despite new spaces and new visions, little may change in the experiences of our students. This pondering has had me thinking about what might happen if at the individual level, teachers stop thinking and talking about ‘planning lessons’ and instead start thinking and talking about ‘designing learning experiences’.

To many, this may seem just a question of a pedantic semantic, but I think it has the potential to actually change the way we see our role and the way we go about it. Words have power, after all…

Planning lessons – suggests to me a linear process to meet a required outcome, following a set text prepared by others with a little supplementing with other resources and activities, teacher led. The teacher follows the plan, students do what the teacher tells them is on the plan and then they are assessed. If students are assessed as not demonstrating satisfactory achievement, then it is easy to pass them off as deficient in something. No pressing need to look at what role I had. I followed the plan! The plan is then filed away for next year, only changing greatly when the textbook is swapped for another. It is all very fixed.

Designing learning experiences – the inclusion of the word ‘design’ may be what makes the difference here in my head. Designing is a cyclical process. It involves investigating a problem or need and finding multiple options, weighing them up, considering the impact from multiple perspectives. The problem or need is not just the outcome to be met, but the varied needs of the students in the class and the learning environment. Designing involves building in flexibility for multiple users, the ability to adapt. The design process involves prototyping, replicating, adapting, tweaking along the way. When the product is used, or in this case experienced, it is then appraised.  The designer seeks feedback. A process of reflection follows to see what improvements can be made, what was successful and why it worked. Furthermore, including the words ‘learning’ and ‘experiences’ also changes what is at the centre of our thinking while we design. Instead of a lesson I will deliver, there is learning that students will experience. And if the result is not learning, then I need to figure out why that was the case. I also need to review the learning design before using it again – the design brief that is each cohort of students can vary considerably!

So at this time of year as we finish one semester and begin readying ourselves and our classrooms for the next, what if we harness the power of the words and think of ourselves as Learning Experience Designers?

My response to the question of whether my original post is ‘normal’

After my original post in response to Senator Hanson’s suggestion re students with autism, I was asked whether my thoughts would be a ‘normal’ response among my colleagues. No doubt there would be some who would think otherwise. It is perhaps comfortable and easy to be able to do the same thing year in year out and with the rate of change in life and work these days, having to adapt what we do isn’t always welcome to everyone. Like our students, teachers are all different.
I don’t wish to imply by my post that I have done my learning without the help of support services or other staff, nor come to this perspective on my own, nor that it has been easy.
I think it’s a journey that I started in primary school when my mum started working in disability and my brothers and i would walk down to her work after school. Then as a Uni student, I taught ballet for my spending money – I had a student with Down Syndrome in one of my classes and while she didn’t have the muscle control of most of her fellow dancers, she had flexibility and a love of the stage – we played to those strengths. My first year teaching German in a school I had a student who was completely blind, used a Braille machine and I had to have all print materials organised a term in advance so they could be converted; at the same school I had a student with ASD and OCD – but boy did he remember the gender of German nouns if they were colour coded… I have used colour coding ever since. Languages is often the subject students will be ‘pulled’ from if they have dyslexia or processing delays. Ironically, we teach grammar and spelling very explicitly and they often find that for the first time they are on a level playing field with their classmates and they thrive. I’ll never forget one girl back in the early 2000s whose parents wanted to take her out of Yr 9 Japanese because she had an auditory processing delay but she refused – she topped the class that year and went on to go right through; a boy with ASD whose particular interest was Chemistry so we got him a Chem textbook from Germany and away he went – I learned what Brownian Motion was because we needed to find the German words for it for him so he described it in English and we went from there together – he got a perfect score in his Yr 12 German oral examination (external assessment) because they asked what his interests were and he took off! They are just a few – at one time or another I have taught students with each of the considerations I originally listed.
I also think that teaching the subjects I do has helped me look at teaching and learning as I do – I teach something that many consider ‘extra’ and so have pretty much always had to learn and change and adapt to work to student interests to keep the subject relevant for them. When you are always having to justify your existence, you rarely stay doing the same thing and teaching the same page from the textbook on the same day each year – if I’d done that, I’d have been out of a job about 10 years ago.
And then there’s the impact of motherhood – if my child had a particular learning difficulty or need, what would I hope for him?

A message for Ms Hanson

Ms Hanson,
I don’t for a moment believe that because at one time you attended school you are qualified to comment on educational matters, but let’s for a moment consider your recent suggestion –

If students with autism spectrum disorder take away from the time of teachers and learning of ‘normal’ students, and that means we should remove them, then logic has it that the same thinking would be applied to other students who do not fit your view of ‘normal’. So next, we take out students with 


auditory or other sensory processing disorders, 

Cerebral palsy,

Vision impairment,

Hearing impairment,

the selectively mute…
And don’t forget the ones identified as gifted and talented, because they take away time from ‘normal’ students too, so take them out as well…
Now you think we are left with ‘normal’ students, but how many of those need extra time and attention because

they are adjusting to changing family circumstances,

they live between two homes,

they have anxiety or depression or both,

they have lost a parent or sibling,

they have a very ill parent or sibling… the list could go on!

If you remove all of these students who take up my time, I have no class!

Ms Hanson, you do not realise that by looking at my students from the viewpoint of a supposed deficit they place on my time and each other’s learning, you miss the very important fact that all students have needs, interests, talents, thoughts and ideas to share with the world!
 So rather than deficit, let’s look at my students from a perspective of credit –

Ms Hanson, I would like to point out that having students with special learning needs in my classes has made me a better teacher for all my students. By learning how to create effective learning experiences for students who don’t fit the unrealistic and non-existent ‘normal’, I end up having more ideas, materials and strategies to offer every student. I learn to look for and utilise the individual strengths of the students – because they do have them! I grow and learn and reflect on my professional practice and adapt as my students grow and change – and that surely improves the education of all my students!

Reflections on LSA day 2016

Until now I had always intended to keep my blog language focussed and academic side of my work focussed. But as a teacher in a Lutheran school, there is so much more to my work and the professional development and learning that I do and I need to reflect on those ‘other’ parts besides language teaching.

Last Friday I joined with teachers from all over at a day for educators in Lutheran schools. I always enjoy the day, reconnecting with colleagues. But my head has been churning since lunch time that day on one word in particular – service. It’s something we try to inspire in our students as we play our part in helping them discover the best in themselves and growing that so they can be all they can in this world. Two aspects of the service session on Friday have left me with more questions than answers.

Firstly, we were asked to consider what service is and when it becomes ‘deep’ service. There seemed general consensus that service is the filling of a need without the expectation of recognition or reward. But the accompanying Twitter chat eventually led to a Tweet about ‘soft’ service vs ‘hard’ service. The tweeter later explained that hard service is ‘getting our hands dirty’ and takes us out of our comfort zone. Somehow the responses seemed to become about measuring service, what sort of service is better… None of this sits well with me, for two reasons. What is one person’s comfort zone, may be the complete opposite for another. Some may find it easier to do physical work, like building a toilet in a third world country, than sitting with someone deep in grief from loss of a loved one. How can we say one is deeper than the other or harder than the other? Secondly, why are we trying to measure it at all? It seems that in using the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives to discuss service, we start to build a hierarchy, which removes service from the realm of ‘gospel’ and a response to God’s grace to us and moves it back towards pre-reformation thinking and earning favour, be it God’s or people’s. So is there a difference in service? Does it matter? What is at the heart of it? When we work with young people and their families and with colleagues also on a faith journey, do we paint a service picture with the law brush or the gospel brush?

My second pondering is to do with whether service actually has to take us out of our comfort zones at all – straight up this will probably result in a ‘yes’ from some quarters, but hear me out…

If we believe that God gives us gifts, strengths, talents, and calls us to be something in a place our life has brought us to, then does he not also call us to serve there using those gifts? Otherwise why does he give them to us? Why does he say we are to be stewards? If he’s built within us strengths and capacities, surely the use of them will enable us to serve within our comfort zones because he puts us there too. Again doesn’t it come back to the heart and why we do what we do? My family is a comfort zone – don’t I serve Him there? My work is something I enjoy and not necessarily completely out of my comfort zone depending on the class and day – don’t I serve Him there? He brings people into my life in ways that are familiar and ordinary – don’t I serve through my time with them in the ways they need?

So three days on I still have questions. In a world and profession where everything is measured, documented and measured again always looking for improvement, is there room to not measure and compare some of the ‘God stuff’?

Back to blogging

For one reason or another, it’s been a long time since I blogged… But the time has come… I need somewhere to dump my thinking so that it stops going around in my head and I can focus. I started studying – so now there are even more things floating around in there waiting to get out…

I’m not here for the ‘A’ count

So it’s a while since I’ve written anything here… you could say things have been busy. I’ve been working on ways to allow students to personalise the pace of their learning in my language classroom – using techniques from the ‘flipped’ approach and combining it with other digital things like cloud storage, QR codes and the like so that students access the materials as they are ready for the next step. Having had students work this way for the past 9 months, I am now at the stage where I’m looking at what the implications have been…

I know from student feedback that for the most part they like working at their own pace – especially the boys. They like that if they need to move slowly through something they’re not holding others back, and that if they already understand something they don’t have to wait for others before moving on. The girls like that they can work with others who are at the same point and that they have had choice in how they practise language and demonstrate their learning.

I also have a group who have done the work but when asked for feedback they’ve been unhappy and they’ve asked “Can’t we just go back to the other way where you tell us what to do and we all do it?!”, complete with a stereotypical 14 year old whine. This one surprised me somewhat as they’d not complained until I asked upfront. But then I looked at the group and the nature of the students falling into it. They were students who in primary school and their first year of high school language lessons had always been the high flyers – the ‘A’ students. Looking back over my time with them last year and this, they were students who last year hadn’t found language difficult and who had generally been on task and completed the work quickly. This year, their marks had fallen (we’ve had less A grades than with our previous version of the course) and they had needed some reminders about what they were supposed to be doing. They were also generally girls. This I found interesting.

Chatting with them further, it became apparent that they weren’t happy with the lower grades and they said it was harder because I wasn’t telling them what to do anymore.

I had made varied resources available, said each lesson that they could ask questions, watch explanations as often as they needed and draft their work before submitting or recording it, and was constantly moving around the room. And this was the difference – I wasn’t spoon feeding anymore and they weren’t as quick to do any of those things as the students who were thriving under the new delivery mode. They found it more difficult to take responsibility for their learning and to do some self-evaluation as part of their learning process. Others checked in with me constantly, checked pronunciation and recognised that not being first finished didn’t mean they weren’t doing well. It meant they were doing properly. On the other hand, a number of times I’d asked the girls whether they wanted to alter and resubmit some work, and each time they made the choice not to.

Due in large part to the structure of senior secondary studies where I am, the majority of students do not continue their language studies after Year 9. When we started heading down this route of personalised pace in their learning, we had aimed to improve student engagement and have students finish their compulsory stint of Language with a positive mindset. I think we’ve done that for most. But our assessment data is showing less ‘A’ grades than before. So have we done the right thing or should we switch back to the old course? Switching back is very tempting – ‘A’s look good for the students and they make us look good as teachers. After all, being successful means getting good grades, and in a language has always been defined as knowing lots of words and using them correctly. And if I saw myself as just a language teacher, I would be switching back tomorrow!

But I believe as a teacher I am responsible for teaching more than language. I can’t define myself soley by the language aspect of my position. I’m a teacher – that means I want my students to be life-long learlners. Which means I want to help them learn how to think, analyse, draft, refine, face challenges – all the things we have to do throughout our lives if we are to keep growing and learning. So while the course we’ve developed this year isn’t perfect, I think it is doing more for the students than our old course when we followed a textbook page by page and I spent a lot of time at the board keeping everyone moving along together all the time. Instead of switching back in the hope of more ‘A’s in the class data, I think it’s time I look at ways to improve the process for those students who find taking responsibility more challenging than I had expected. I’m not here for the ‘A’ count, I’m here for life-long learning.