Category Archives: Standard 4

Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments

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?

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…