Category Archives: Standard 1

Know students and how they learn

Shifting sands of culture

I recently attended the Adelaide Making IT Mobile workshops facilitated by the staff from SCIL. One of the key moments for me was Steve Collis’s presentation about space and the impact it has on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of our work. His words helped me see past some of my own frustrations about the process of trying to reinvent the thinking and learning at our school and also got me thinking about why it’s important that we don’t just give up. If you’re not familiar with Steve’s work, check out his blog and his definitions of space. While transforming the physical and virtual space of schools is relatively straight forward, (albeit requiring a cash injection), changing the cultural space (the mindsets or headspace, expectations, habits and ways of responding) of the individuals and groups (staff, students and parents) that make up a school is likely to be more complex and take longer. It is unlikely that the various groups involved will all move at the same pace, afterall. To really transform education requires changes in all 3 ‘spaces’.

It would be simpler to continue doing what we’ve always done, what the parents expect as ‘normal’ given their own experiences of schooling. So if it’s not going to be easy, why bother? Why continue seeking to transform what we do and how we do it? As I’ve thought about it since, culture as space and the culture filter so familiar to me as a languages teacher provided a reason and anchor.

The culture of the outside world, in which our students experience all other facets of life, is constantly changing and evolving. We see it reflected in their language (if I hear “hashtag yolo” again this week…!), in their social interactions, in their pastimes. We know many jobs they will go into do not yet exist – many which do exist now didn’t exist in my parents’ youth! Cultural literacy as we usually think of it enables one to function within and engage with daily life and society in another country rather than just looking in from the outside always feeling bewildered and out of place or causing offence to the locals. If the culture in our schools does not move in time with the culture of the outside world how can students function in them? Because the two cultures are incongruent, with one changing rapidly and the other changing little in over a century, our students are rather culturally illiterate in our schools and our schools risk becoming culturally irrelevant. How many times does a 2013 student sitting in a classroom little changed since the 1900s appear disengaged or cause offence to the locals, aka teachers? Bringing the two cultures closer together removes the overwhelming sense of school being ‘foreign’ and empowers students to be engaged, participate and succeed in their learning. And that’s why we bother!


All the world’s a stage


cc licensed (BY) flickr photo shared by Daniel Oines

Mr Shakespeare certainly knew a thing or two about life. As I thought about writing this particular entry, this famous line from “As You Like It” came to mind and seems a fitting title.

Since starting to experiment with iPads in my language classroom about a year ago, firstly with just a few for group work and now in a 1:1 set up, I’ve been excited by the ability for my students to create tangible products with language and to share their products with an increasingly diverse audience which can give them feedback. I’m especially looking forward to my class connecting with the classes of some of my Twitter PLN later in the year. For this term, however, my students will be performing to a much more traditional audience, and their resulting efforts and focus are a very definite reminder of the importance of giving our students a real reason and audience for their learning.

Like many schools in rural areas of Australia, my son’s primary school has struggled to find a Japanese teacher to fill a maternity leave vacancy. For a while it looked like there would be no alternative but to call a halt to their language lessons for the remainder of the year. Already teaching full time at my own school, I couldn’t even volunteer as a parent to help out, until I saw an unexpected potential in the gap. I contacted the principal, excited by the idea that some of my classes could be teachers for the primary school. The logistics took some working out, but at the start of next week, two of my year 8 classes will spend their double lessons at a school 10 minutes away, in order to teach others what they have only recently been learning for themselves. And they will do it again at least another 3 times between now and the end of the year.

My students were up to that part in many a beginner course where they learn to talk about their likes and dislikes. Japanese sentence structure is wonderfully regular and at a basic level works somewhat like algebra, so learning the pattern ‘noun ga suki desu’, and its associated question and positve and negative answers, took Year 8 students very little time. Together we brainstormed various categories of nouns which my students thought would be ideal for the year levels they will be faced with next week. In small groups, they were then asked to come up with no more than 10 words in any one of those categories. At this point I stepped back and let them work freely. They used dictionaries, both paper and online, their textbooks, apps they found and their prior knowledge. They then set about developing activities and materials to teach the primary students the new words and the sentence pattern.

As I watched, all sorts of things quickly became clear. Having a near immediate reason to need the language, students were focused and positive, eager to ‘get it right’. Because they had to design learning experiences for others, they were discussing and reflecting on their own learning, both more recent and in years gone by. They were creative, critical and solving problems. As they finished preparing materials, (think everything from laminated Bingo cards to fishing rods made with spare dowel from the Tech Studies faculty), they automatically practised their activities, tested their games and asked me to listen to their pronunciation.  Today they were very much like a drama class about to put on their major production! A hive of activity in the midst of which I was largely obsolete – what a strangely wonderful thing to be in a class of 13 and 14 year olds!

What wonders occur when we give our students a stage! I can’t wait to see how their performances are received!

Time to go down a different stream?

Have you ever noticed how the water in a stream doesn’t all take the same path around rocks and trees in its way, but it is all still heading in roughly the same direction, towards a bigger body of water further down the stream? Or how rain drops on a window wind their way down, some picking up others and becoming bigger drops along the way but all ultimately ending up at the bottom of the window?

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

I think the students in my language classes are much the same. It really got going when I was pondering over how we can improve the transition from primary school language learning to secondary school language learning in my school.

We have a large number of feeder schools, most of which have a program and specialist teacher for one of the languages we offer. There is a smattering of students who come to us having done neither Japanese nor German. Year 8 students select which language they will study for the year and may choose to study both. The time allocation and focus of the primary school language programs vary according to local needs and circumstances, so the students walk into our language rooms every year with a wide variety of past experiences, prior knowledge, expectations and hopes for their secondary language studies.

Common practice in the past has been to start everyone at square one.  Beginning from the beginning again. Certainly this was a reflection on the language predominantly taught in primary schools until around 10 years ago, but we are seeing this change. We used to have more students who had some knowledge of German for some of their primary schooling and only a small group who had previously done any Japanese. So starting again didn’t seem a problem. But that has been in a state of change recently.

As more of our primary schools are valuing language learning right from the junior primary years and as the numbers of our feeder schools offering Japanese has increased, more students now come to us with significant experience in learning the language. In addition, some choose not to study the language from their primary schooling, looking forward to a new experience and challenge.

While as recently as a month ago I heard a colleague from another school say that ‘by the end of the first semester they’re all at the same point anyway’, I have begun challenging the idea that all students need to go back to the very beginning. Certainly keeping everyone moving together at the same pace makes planning, teaching and assessing relatively straightforward and easy. But what about learning? Notice it’s not mentioned in that statement…

If we start everyone back at the beginning, it seems there are increasing numbers of our students who are treading water, going nowhere for a semester… and where is the learning in that? Of course revision and consolidation are valuable, but 6 months feeling unchallenged and stifled is surely going to lessen their enjoyment of the language which they have perhaps chosen because their primary schooling experience of it lit a fire and excitement in them. As language teachers we yearn for that enthusiasm from our students! On the other hand, those who are new to the language also seem to feel pressured to ‘hurry up’ so that the class can move on. And that is also less than conducive to their feelings of enjoyment and success in language learning. We did not all learn our first language at the same rate…

With the Australian Curriculum’s focus on differentiated teaching and learning, the time is ripe for us to come up with some alternatives. I know other schools stream their students into classes for those who have done the language before and those who are new to it. While this means students can start from 2 different points, it doesn’t ultimately overturn the idea that the whole class moves together. Nor is it possible in all schools, for multiple reasons ranging from student numbers to timetabling issues.

What if my student ‘stream’ was allowed to flow more like a stream in nature? I am far more excited by the idea that if students understand something, they should be allowed to move on to the next thing. For others who need more time they should be allowed to take it, to have more practice and to keep refining their skills and knowledge. I have begun working this way with my Year 9 students. The digital tools we have available to us mean that students can learn about different language structures at their own rate. Today I assessed them with a quick test, they marked the answers for each other and then those who clearly understood how the grammar and vocabulary worked sat together and worked through the next thing using a YouTube clip I’d made and helping each other piece the steps together. Those who needed more time to review, question, relearn, and think differently through the material in the test sat together and did just that. Tools frequently used for the flipped classroom are coming in very handy and students can access them at their own pace. At different points I think we’ll all come back together and students will not always be in the groups the were in today. They will change direction and pace as they hit the ‘rocks’ along the way, but ultimately we’re all heading down the same watercourse.

It’s not streaming in the traditional sense, but perhaps this way of thinking about catering to multiple pathways in language subjects is more realistic and learning centred. If we follow this thinking through, can we better cater to the very mixed experiences in our Year 8 classes? Can we use podcasts, screencasts and other online tools to allow the students to begin at a number of points and thus value their prior learning and help them move forward rather than tread water for a semester? It will likely be far from straightforward or easy, but isn’t the learning the key here?

I would love to hear how others manage the transition from primary to secondary school language programs and the ‘mixed ability class’ in general!

Timely reminders

With the start of the new Australian school year well and truly off and running, I’ve been reminded of a couple of things that I enjoy most about my work. I’ve also realised I need to make a time to blog every week or two, or it is the first thing that will be put on hold!

1. The less I do and tell, the more the students do and learn

I have two great Year 9 classes. Many of the students I taught last year and we had a great time exploring and learning together and it looks set to continue. These students responded with energy and enthusiasm when I told them I wasn’t going to tell them about Japan’s food culture and they weren’t going to read about it in their textbooks. Instead we came up with a list of things they thought they knew and things they wanted to know. I then set them to work finding things that would help them answer their questions. Having the students themselves find snack food advertisements on YouTube taught them far more than me telling them what Japanese kids snack on or me finding the ads for them! They were in the driving seat of their own exploring and learning.

Today we set ourselves up for the new term then onto reviewing what we could remember from last year. To finish the lesson students split into 2 teams ready for a game. I absolutely love that there was an uneven number of students – it meant they could take turns calling out the Hiragana characters the rest had to try to find amongst the cards on the floor in a ‘fruit salad’ style game. I sat back and occassionally reminded them that I did not want to fill in incident report forms and that knocking out their opponents with a hip and shoulder was not ok. But the language and revision was all from the students!

And games brings me to my second reminder…

2. Students are never too old for games!

With the pressure of getting through the curriculum and preparing for the exam, it is all too easy to get bogged down in ‘serious’ work with senior students. I met my Year 12 class today. They are excited and eager, having just returned from the school trip to Japan over New Year. After the usual “this is how the assessment is broken up” spiel I told them we are not having weekly Vocabulary and Kanji tests this year. The assessment board does not want to know about them and the marks are purely formative. They were delighted, then they heard my ‘but’. Every Friday is a competition and there is only 1 prize. The vocabulary list or kanji set will be the focus. They were ecstatic! Learning to do better than their classmates even when the stakes are only as high as a lolly pop is far more motivating to this group than learning for a test that doesn’t count. We then went on to play a game using soft balls, throwing them at the kanji around the room. They left happy and with brains reconnecting old character knowledge. I could have made them write them all out over and over, but how much more motivating for me and them to learn through play!

Unexpected Lessons

I used to think my lessons were pretty well student centred – my classes played games, did lots of work in groups and could make choices at various points along the way. With the introduction of iPads at my school and the call to make as much use of them as possible, I’ve realised my idea of student centeredness didn’t go far enough. I was still making all the calls about what was covered how and when and how the students would demonstrate their learning. Since I’ve started consciously looking for ways to move forward and make changes towards more student constructed learning I have noticed many changes, not least among them that my students seem happy and engaged even on a Friday afternoon. But there have been other changes as well. Students seem to better remember the language they have chosen to find or use, are more creative with their use of language and seem generally more “switched on”. But the biggest change so far is one I was not specifically looking for, nor expecting, and one which will likely not lead to better measurable scores in any testing or assessments.

When I was studying for my Grad. Dip. Ed we were told (lectured) that there was the normal curriculum – the body of knowledge and content we would be expected to pass on to those we taught – and a so-called “hidden” curriculum – the values and expectations we would pass to our students not explicitly, but through example and our reactions to behaviours and situations. We were told that this “hidden” curriculum was important, but in reality little attention was paid to it for the remainder of my course and it seemed to remain hidden and beneath the surface.

With the introduction of the AITSL standards and the Australian Curriculum, however, I now argue that many of the things formerly ‘hidden’ are now part of the ‘normal’ up front curriculum. But when time is already short and we struggle to cover all the necessary topics, language, grammar etc, it can be difficult to specifically plan out how and when some of these other things be covered.

The beauty of a student centred learning environment is that the teacher is very mobile, involved in offering advice rather than filling an empty vessel with knowledge. No longer is it possible that I stand at the front of the room, white board marker in hand or walk between rows of evenly spaced desks. Nor is it expected that students will hand write everything in an exercise or work book  – rather they are creating all sorts of texts using a variety of media and technologies. Because students are working together and I am moving among them and because they are creating rather than just absorbing language, some of the hidden curriculum seems to have become far less hidden and is definitely getting some air time!

For example, when students are using pictures to illustrate their work in whatever form, there is a natural place for discussion and learning about plagiarism and how it extends beyond copying a passage of written text to the misguided use of an image found via Google. Such discussions taken out of context would seem forced and potentially turn students off, but when they arise from the activity and learning of the moment, they are without ceremony and seem to make more of an impact. I love that my students are now more likely to use a camera or a drawing program and create their own images!

Likewise, Google Translate, usually the cause of language teachers letting out a collective groan of  horror… In not ‘banning’ my students from using it we have had reasons and moments to discuss why it doesn’t generally work if they type in a whole sentence. We’ve discussed the cultural context of language because GT automatically uses the formal ‘Sie’ form of you in German, which is not appropriate if one is trying to communicate with a friend or family  member. So most students now use it like a dictionary – one word at a time as they need to – and just like a big old Collins dictionary, they need to sift through the options to find the most appropriate one for the context.

Even a game played in small groups with butchers paper and textas can lead to these moments. An inappropriate picture drawn as part of the game resulted in a quick, quiet but effective discussion about sexual innuendo and the harassment issues associated with that – after all, a school is the students’ workplace. Had I not been moving around helping the groups I would either not have seen it or someone else would have drawn unwanted attention to it and caused more of a fuss for all concerned!

It is these unexpected lessons that I am finding most rewarding with my students at this time of year. This learning won’t be measured in their reports, but it will go with them beyond the classroom and into the real world, where the consequences for not learning them are much more dire.

I wonder, what other unexpected lessons are occurring out there? If you use social media with your classes are you naturally ‘covering’ cyber safety? Is this perhaps a way beyond lecturing en masse via a guest speaker? Are others experiencing similar discussions?

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!

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…