Monthly Archives: November 2012

An Open Letter to Graduating Teachers (and their future colleagues)

Dear Graduating Teachers of 2012,

For the past 18 months I have had the privilege and challenge of working closely with a wonderfully energetic, confident and intelligent graduate teacher. I say it is a privilege because I feel honoured that she has seen me as a sounding board, confidant and colleague with whom she could question and explore this amazing profession. I say a challenge not simply because she has asked so many questions, but because she has challenged my thinking, my teaching and thereby has helped renew my enthusiasm and enjoyment of this vocation. If you had told me 18 months ago that I would look forward to the prospect of throwing out a textbook completely, I’d have told you you were mad! Our conversations have been many and varied and I have appreciated each of them. She has taught me much! So as you step out of the hallowed halls of your university, I want to share some of our learning with you.

Everyone keeps saying that the students today are different. Graduate teachers are different too! You are no doubt eager to walk into the staff room, confident in the knowledge that you are up to date agents of change in the world of education. You have the latest IT skills, you know all about creating interesting, varied lessons and you know how the kids of today learn. And you are also much more confident than most experienced teachers were upon their first day on the job. I assumed this was because of a change at the tertiary level – that you were finally being given time in a classroom to put into practice all those theories, the proper names of which you will soon forget… What my young colleague has taught me is that your confidence is built on much more than that. You have probably been working while studying, quite possibly in a leadership role of some sort. You know you can lead. You already know something about working life. You also feel perhaps that classroom teaching is not what you want to do for the rest of your working life. So while you are doing it you want to throw yourself into it completely. You are not content to quietly do and wait for another time when an older colleague looks to retirement to challenge and change things. You want to do it now and you know you will do it well, because if something’s worth doing it’s got to be done properly – you live with something of an ‘all or nothing’ approach to life.

This means you will be wonderful young teachers. You will work hard, you will be creative and you will have an easy rapport with your students. With some of your colleagues, however, your eagerness to change everything and to change it all NOW may not go so smoothly. So here is some advice I hope may ease the way forward.

Firstly, remember that your colleagues are at many different stages of life and career. While you have time and energy to devote to constantly creating and changing, some of your colleagues are sleep deprived parents of young children, carers of elderly or ill parents, dealing with teenage angst at home as well as at work or… who knows? Their classroom practice may be the only thing providing some stability to their emotional well-being and their sense of identity at the moment. Be careful that you don’t pull the rug out from under them entirely.

Secondly, if at first your ideas and suggestions are met with suspicion or negativity, don’t take it personally and PLEASE don’t drop those ideas! Chip away with them. Just like our students need time to process new concepts, so too your colleagues need time to mull over them, to consider them from multiple angles. Many of us will be looking bigger picture, longer term, carefully contemplating how your ideas may have implications on many levels. Remember too, that we have had many changes thrust upon us in the last couple of years, mostly from outside our schools, and we are adapting to change on many fronts. You are not having to unlearn and relearn. You are not having to re-write pages and pages of curriculum documentation along the way. Your ideas will make us better teachers, but please be patient with us! Like I said, if you had suggested I throw out the textbook 18 months ago I would have thought you were mad. That’s partly because it had been done in one area and replaced with something I think is even more restricting. But my young colleague gave me time, added to her initial ideas and now I think we will have a better overall result! We haven’t reinvented the wheel, we’re improving the wheel together instead!

Thirdly, please don’t tell us that we have to change just because kids today are different – we know they are! Articulate to us how a change will work better with them and for them. And it’s probably a good idea to preface it with something along the lines of “I think x is really good, but I was thinking about… because…”. We probably worked hard to bring about whatever it is you’re ready to improve.

So, Agent of Change, inspire us, challenge us and work with us. Your contributions will be valued. Don’t be disheartened by our apparent slowness to do things differently. Keep prodding – we are listening!

Welcome to school!


One size doesn’t fit all – so why do we do it?

At this stage in the Australian school year most teachers are at least thinking about, if not writing, reports. It is always a time for reflections, calculations and wondering. This year I’m wondering more than ever. My eldest child is having school visits as he makes that transition from Kindy to Primary School. At my first parent information night where I was on the receiving end rather than the delivery end of the information, we were reminded that children progress and develop at different rates, just as they have since they were babies. That some will cope well with having to be organised right from day one but that others will need more help in getting settled and managing the school routines. This, together with pondering some ‘tricky’ reports, has got me thinking…

We know that our students are all different, have individual strengths and interests, areas to work on and things they find downright overwhelming. They are human. Why then do we insist on assessing and reporting with a one size fits all (or at least most) approach? I know, government requirements mean we must give students an A-E grade. But what do those letters actually mean and what do they really say about a student? Even with a supporting comment, often limited to 400 or so characters including spaces and punctuation, what do they show about a student’s development throughout the year?

If a student has always received an ‘A’ grade, worked independently, self-motivated yada yada yada, what is my report saying that the parent and student don’t already know? Likewise, if a student struggles with the assessments that are standard for the class but scrapes together a ‘C’ grade, what am I telling them besides “you’re just on average” and what good does it do their learning? How does it show them their progress, which is generally considerable, given they entered the language classroom with little or no exposure to the language previously?

I also wonder why assessments in High School are so often standardised and made ‘common’. I used to be able to tailor tasks to my classes to suit their needs, but the whole class still had to be doing roughly the same tasks. Now, due to circumstances beyond my control, all Year 8 German students have to do exactly the same task in the same way and preferably in the same week. The students I can ‘modify’ tasks for have to have a diagnosed and documented learning difficulty. But if all my students are different and still developing at different rates and in different ways like they did as babies and in Primary School, why can’t I allow them to demonstrate their understanding and learning in a variety of ways and in their own time?

Yes, I know, they need to have a balance of the four key skills of language – Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. I would also like to add in Intercultural Understandings in it’s own right, but I do not have that ability so for now it is thrown in with the rest depending on what form the assessment took. And yes, I can ‘tweek’ the task to give students some choice about how they present it: “If you don’t want to do a poster that’s fine, just make sure you do it in a way that includes writing” for example. But why is the assessment even divided up into formative and summative? Why does only the summative ‘count’ when the formative shows learning along the way?

A question from Louiza Hebhardt on last week’s #teacherwellbeingchat on Twitter got me thinking: “If you were a parent what feedback would you consider most valuable?”  If you could rewrite assessment and reporting requirements, how would it look? As my child starts school I want to know if he is making forward progress from one term, semester or year to the next. I don’t want him compared to other students, although I know routine standardised test like NAPLAN may help pick up otherwise unrecognised delays in his learning and development. I don’t want him to get an ‘A’ if he is bored and could be challenged more and I don’t want him getting a ‘D’ if it means he should be working at a different level. So if I could redesign assessment and reporting, I’m currently favouring a continuous portfolio of work to show how a student has developed, how their learning and understanding have grown compared to where they were at the start of the year. Much like the scrap book he has brought home from Child Care with pictures and anecdotes from when he was 11 months old until now – I can distinctly see that he has made progress! Perhaps returning to a system where students are profiled against levels and outcomes they’ve demonstrated. Maybe at the start of the year they’re at Level 2 but by the end of the year they’re at 2.7 or 3… Comparing the student only to him or herself.

I can do roughly this with one of my students, a young lady with Downes Syndrome – her ‘C’ means she has met the outcomes her parents and I negotiated at the start of the year, a ‘D’ would mean she needed assistance to demonstrate the outcomes but a ‘B’ would mean she exceeded them. She has obtained her ‘C’. Her parents know exactly what it means and are proud of her because of it! We compare her only to herself and where she was at the start of the year.

On the other hand I have Mr A+, a student with Aspbergers Syndrome, who is so focussed on “learning for the test” that he refuses to complete practice activities and games. I would like to be able to not give him the ‘A+’, but under the current system he is sitting on 99% and he knows it, so I have little choice! I think he would learn more if he were compared against a description that shows that he knows a variety of words and can use them in highly rehearsed situations, and where the next description level shows students beginning to use the vocabulary and structures creatively or for his own expression. I wish I could compare him to himself and show him that despite another ‘A+’ he is yet to make any real progress in his language skills besides adding words. Thankfully, I can add something to this effect in his comment box!

Kids Seeking Comments

We did it!!! After 4 weeks, 5 groups of my Year 8 students have finished their VoiceThreads about their school routines and sent them out into cyber space. They are so excited to see whether we get any responses from other students or speakers of German! Please help us get some comments back so we can learn about school in German speaking countries and all around the world!

Schule in Australien 1

Schule in Australien 2

Schule in Australien 3

Schule in Australien 4

Mein Stundenplan 1

Vielen Dank for any help 🙂


Is the new way always better?

I love using games to get my students engaged with new or revise old vocabulary. Since starting our iPad trial this year I’ve specifically tried to find apps/games to use for vocabulary acquisition. A few months back I came across one called ‘VocabBattle’. Two days ago I finally got around to trying it out with a colleague to see how it works. In the process I also adapted the game for my middle years classes and decided that ‘new’ is not always better…


How the app works

Players can select to ‘battle’ each other through a local blue tooth battle or through Game Center. You select the target language for the game (8 available) and can choose a free game utilising 50 words or pay to unlock more content. For the purposes of our trial we chose the free option. Players load a photo of themselves. The game then flashes a word on the screen in the target language along with 4 multiple choice translations. The first player to tap the correct translation gets a point. The winner in the best of 5 then gets to ‘attack’ his or her opponent. The attacks take the form of additions to the loser’s photograph such as a silly hat, moustache, huge nose etc.

We quickly decided the vocabulary used by the game was too advanced for Year 8 or 9, but could be useful for senior students revising in the lead up to final examinations.


What did I do instead?

As not all of my students currently have iPads I decided to use a similar concept but do it the ‘old’ way with my students that afternoon. Students divided into groups of 3 and each student was given an A3 piece of paper and drew a head and shoulders on it… although one creative soul decided to go with a Calvin Klein style sideways version including legs and a hand on the hip…

Students then decided which person in their group was to be the ‘Battle Master’. He or she was permitted to have vocabulary lists/books if needed. The other 2 students were to be first to battle. The Battle Master could say any word we had covered this year, either in English or the Target Language. The first of the battlers to say it correctly in the opposite language was allowed to draw a feature on the other person’s sheet. After 10 words the Battle Master changed. I didn’t direct students whether they were to start new drawings or not and most ended up continuing the ones they had started in the first battle.


Why do I think the ‘old’ way is better?

I modified the game initially out of necessity – not all students had iPads – but I think I would still choose to do it my own way now anyway. The paper version while far from high tech is, I believe, better suited to use in the classroom for 4 key reasons:

1. Engagement

When my colleague and I tried the game she quickly tapped quit when she wasn’t getting a turn at ‘attacking’ me because I was quicker more often. When I asked her why she quit she said “It sucks if I can’t get you back!” But, because they were ‘rewarded’ after every correct answer rather than after 3-5 questions, I believe the students remained engaged longer using their textas and A3 paper than they would with the app version, even last thing on a Friday afternoon.

2. Personalisation

The app version doesn’t allow for personalisation of language at this stage, although I did send the developers a suggestion to look into it. In the paper version, students could focus in on the vocabulary we had done that day and earlier in the year.

3. Active language use

With the app version students are quiet, looking at the screen and waiting for the next word, but besides choosing from the multiple choice list, they don’t have to do anything with the language. With the ‘old’ paper way the students were more actively engaged with the language. They all had to speak! In their turn as Battle Master they also had more practice reading. There were also no multiple choice answers to help them – they had to be fully focussed and find that vocabulary in their brains.

4.This one was the clincher for me… Welfare of students

In the app students are required to use their own photograph and allow their classmates to add to it in an ‘attack’ and the language of the game calls it that. Sure, many students would find this fun for a while. But some wouldn’t and ultimately teachers have a responsibility to protect students from ridicule and torment! in this day and age where there is already stress about body image and appearance, when my students are at the age of hormones changing and skin breaking out, where there is already enough bullying in sometimes underhanded ways, I think the paper version is less likely to leave students feeling bad about themselves. For a start, the ‘selfys’ taken up close on one’s iPad are rarely flattering…

In the old fashioned version of the game students started with just the blank head and shoulders outline. They weren’t ‘attacking’ someone else’s actual image. They drew lots of funny pictures and there was plenty of laughter at the characters they created along the way. It didn’t worry them that there was no winner or loser in the game – all of them came away with a funny picture and most have kept them!

Steve Collis, Director of Innovation at Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney says that technology is space and space mediates relationships. I also know he values whiteboard tables and butchers paper when they are the right technology for the job and creating the right space. I wonder would he agree with me that in this case the best technology for the job was A3 paper and textas…

All or nothing? Or something in between?

For the past year and a bit I’ve been bugged by the question of if and how a problem or project based learning model could work in my languages classroom. The push for students to be able to construct their own learning and understanding is far from new, I realise. In many other curriculum areas I know it is popular, highly successful and energizing for both students and teachers. But I’ve never seen it in action in a languages classroom in a main stream high school. Perhaps I just need to get out more…

How does a foreign languages teacher even start helping students construct their own knowledge and understanding on a topic or problem of the student’s choice when the student has limited or no vocabulary in the language and curriculum and reporting requirements dictate the need for specified language components and topics to be covered? It’s not like I can just help the student find information and resources online in the target language… He or she would look at me like I’m out of my mind. Some would suggest I take an immersion based approach or something like CLIL which is increasingly popular throughout Europe. But with 3 lessons a week of 45 minutes each, split into a single and a double, it is hardly going to be immersion on a grand scale. And yet the traditional approaches to language learning are rather boring at times…To me! And if I’m bored with it despite making changes each year, my students must be beside themselves!

Don’t get me wrong! Walk past our language rooms on any given day and you would see a different game in each. There is always noise and laughter and most students are happy enough to give things a go. It’s just a bit… Ho hum… So why am I currently more excited about teaching middle school languages than I have been for the past 2 or so years?!

Why am I not excited at the prospect of teaching senior classes?! Don’t most of us long for those classes? Small group of students, motivated and engaged because they are there completely by choice. BUT what we and they do is heavily dictated by assessment boards, time lines and final examinations. What they can create and do with the target language is funneled down to their Folio requirements and the need to meet the minutiae of performance criteria. As Shelley Wright has written in her blog here, it is rather like a straight jacket.

My answer is partly due to Selena Woodward who opened my eyes to the possibilities of social media and things like Voice Thread and Audioboo and giving students a real and authentic reason and audience for their language use. The iPad trial at my school had helped me realise my students could be more creative than before because we had the tools for them to try things, create, delete and recreate over and over again. But we also have the tools for them to share their creations AND have people respond to them! It is an exciting time!

So instead of going with a Project or Problem based approach as I would were I teaching another subject, I’ve started going with what I think of as Purpose Based Language Learning. There are problems and projects within it, but my overall aim for my students is that they engage in meaningful, purpose based communication with other students and speakers of the language around the world.

We started with a VoiceThread by some primary school students in Italy learning German, introducing part of the key vocabulary for our topic. I then challenged my students to add to the list in pairs, using whatever they could find – iPads, phones, iPods, PCs and good old fashioned pocket dictionaries. We then played games with the words THEY found. I then outlined my Purpose Based Challenge. They are to create VoiceThreads about our topic, put them ‘out here’ and see what responses we get and what we can learn from them. The following lessons were filled with guided brainstorming, guided searching, finding ‘how to’ clips on YouTube, Educreations and elsewhere, small groups teaching the rest of the class what they had found, drafting, correcting and voki. I think we may have found something of a balance between needing more direct input for language and constructing their own understanding.

Drawbacks? O yes! It has so far taken 2 weeks longer to cover the topic this way and we are still not finished the VoiceThreads! Then of course there are technical issues. VoiceThread and I are yet to get back to speaking terms… A colleague and I have played with it and figured out settings so the recording is available via the browse function or a link, but for some reason it’s not happening on the student network… Yet more calls to our friendly and very patient ICT Crowd…

The upside? Only one student asked if we could go back to ‘the old way’ because thinking was too hard!

So have we found a happy medium? Do you use PBL proper in your language lessons?
I’ll let you know when we hit cyber space with our final products and cross my fingers some German classes out there respond!

Lightbulb On!!

When staff at my school were introduced to the iPad late in 2011 I was one of about half the staff NOT too already have an iPhone or any sort of smart phone. My phone was, and sadly still is, an older flip open phone on a prepaid account… Most of my students have better phones! My iPod was/is a 4th gen nano containing the latest in children’s music courtesy of long annual road trips with 2 boisterous cherubs. So my idea of what an iPad could do was limited to gimmicks and advertising. And I am not one of the old members on staff!

As we filed into a meeting room to be ‘workshopped’ I was lucky to have one other language teacher with whom to consider things… The others were in the other half of the alphabet and in another room. We were simply told to search the App Store for things to use in our subject area. Despite the facilitator assuring us we should keep looking, my colleague and I lamented the shortage of anything we could use to teach our students either Japanese or German. Language specific apps were either babyish or too advanced. We felt we were wasting precious time! Given we knew only a handful of our Year 8s would have an iPad each term that feeling was doubled.

Until we had two lightbulb moments…

The first was later that day when we were sent out to make a short film in iMovie. How do two German teachers amuse themselves? By narrating in German and attempting to use as much complex grammar as we can in a single sentence of course! Lightbulb on!!! We realised we needed to find apps that allowed students to create and to demonstrate what they could do. We started to make the shift from teaching to learning and demonstrating learning.

The second lightbulb moment was early this year…
“We could get the kids to work in groups and record a role play in that Puppet Pals app”
“Yeah but then they’ll just read the script off, they won’t actually learn it off by heart”
“Yeah but what are we assessing them on anyway? I just want to hear their pronunciation really”

Considering what students could create meant we needed to get back to what is at the heart of every assessment task; ask ourselves what evidence of learning we actually needed. In language classes it is communication rather than a student’s ability to memorise lines that is important! The humble role play could be left to shrivel and die quietly because it essentially skewed our attention away from the real learning!

These two lightbulb moments have propelled us into the possibilities we have as teachers and learners in this age of digital tools. And that was just the start!