Category Archives: Standard 6

Engage in professional learning

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!

Australian Curriculum: Languages – Changes in a Nutshell Part 2

Understanding ‘Understanding’

In my previous post I explored the way language content is outlined in the Chinese and Italian drafts for the Australian Curriculum. As explained in the Language general draft Curriculum Architecture and Content Structure, the content is divided into two Strands, Communicating and Understanding. My reflections last post were only related to the Communicating aspects. I am far more overwhelmed by the Understanding component.

The terminology in itself does not relate to understanding in the way we as language teachers have used it in the past. To us, understanding has been largely concerned with the comprehension of texts in the target language, either real and live or adapted and recorded for language practice purposes. True, in recent years we have seen analysis of language added to senior curricula requirements around the country and have had to work at building towards these skills in the middle years. In the ACARA document, however, Understanding has nothing immediate to do with general comprehension of key concepts, ideas or messages within written or spoken texts. That is all covered under the Communicating umbrella.

Understanding now relates to how and why language is used, how language varies, how the target language is used in our local communities and globally and how language and culture are reflected in each other. It’s all well and good in theory and is in keeping with the ever present calls for students to be taught ‘higher order thinking skills’, but…

Some of the Content Descriptors take an adult language and culture geek quite a lot of thought and reflection! While I gather the discussions, exploring, teaching and learning around all of this can/will take place primarily in English, I have a number of related concerns. I have looked over these parts of the documents for the past 2 weeks and still feel much of it is beyond my students, even with carefully guided questions, modeling and the like. Why?

Firstly, the time factor. How can we cover this deeper level of language analysis in the time we already have? I can see it is possible to cover the Communicating side of things – we are pretty much doing that now. But while the Australian Curriculum gives so called ‘Time on Task indicative hours’ for subjects, it does not mandate the number of hours for each subject, nor in our case can I find any mention of Languages becoming compulsory to the end of Year 10, as implementation and provision decisions are left to schools. Looking at the indicative hours for the 7-10 Sequence, each Level (2 school grades) is 160 hours. So each year is assumed to be 80 hours. I am currently covering my course with slightly more time than that, without the heavy going of this Understanding. Of course we talk about these types of things as they come up, but in reality not all students are interested in things far outside their own experiences.

My only solution so far is to adopt aspects of the flipped classroom idea. In 2012 at my school we trialled it at various points by using podcasts and screen casts to explain and illustrate grammar and students were able to ask question and submit work via Edmodo. The pay off was more time for actual practice of the communication using the language introduced. My Year 8 and 9 students (we don’t yet have 7s) have 3×50 min lessons a week, a single and a double. They get homework both days. By using one homework slot for new language and the other for reflection on the language and tying this to student blogs, perhaps I can get through some of this new content… I am keen to hear from teachers in other subjects who have used blogging with their students!

My second concern though, is harder to fix. I can ‘do’ understanding systems of language, the building blocks (yes, these now come under understanding) but exploring how the target language is used by our local community, how it features in local media etc is far more difficult. If a school is in the city, it is plausible. If the language taught is connected with the heritage of a majority of the local population AND still used by them, it is plausible. But for many country schools, this will present a difficult challenge! In many a school the language program taught has depended solely on teacher availability.

So where to? My first step will be to explore blogging with my students in English about the target language and culture. If I pose some questions and engage them in these thoughts, are they able to think that far? If Chinese and Italian teachers give feedback that affirms the draft or if little changes in the final version (I said in my first post about the Curriculum that change can make one cynical… Now is one of those times) then we will all just have to get creative with how we use our time and build these skills up gradually right from the start in partnership with our colleagues in junior years!

Australian Curriculum: Languages – Changes in a Nutshell Part 1

Right upfront, I should clarify that I teach Japanese and German and that my understanding of Chinese and Italian is limited to a couple of words. So why have I even bothered looking through the drafts of two languages I won’t have to implement in the classroom? Well, I have never liked the feeling of being unprepared and figure these two drafts, written mostly in English, will contain some information and clues for all languages as to what we can expect in the drafts of the language specific documents yet to come. I’m going with the “forewarned is forearmed” line and have already taken note of some of the things I need to think through and work out a way to introduce or adapt. Admittedly I have focused my attention on the 7-10 Sequences of both and only the Second Language Learner Pathway for Chinese. From my quick look over the F-10 documents, I believe my assertions outlined below apply across the board.

Will the language content change?

On the weekend I went to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane. If you’re not familiar with it, there is an old but still good film version. At the start we see Nellie Forebush, an American nurse, in the home of Frenchman and plantation owner Emile De Becque. He asks if she learned French at school to which she is happy to answer in the affirmative. “So you can speak French then.” She gives a nervous little laugh then says, “No, but I can conjugate you a few verbs!”

Obviously Language education has already made considerable progress from the time when success in language studies could be guaranteed with rote learning of vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and definite, indefinite and posessive article declension. We’ve been through the translation approach, into the communicative approach and seem to have been there for a while now. Even so, our idea of content has tended to be defined by topics. Take a look at the Senior Secondary curricula around the country and you will find content divided into prescribed Themes (eg The Individual) under which are listed Topics (eg Personal Identity) with which we find Suggested Sub-Topics (eg Family, friends and relationships). These are usually accompanied by a list of expected grammar and script characters where applicable. Look at the majority of textbooks commonly used for junior and middle school classes and they are divided into chapters which are built rather neatly around lists of vocabulary for a specific topic with grammar thrown in to make use of the vocabulary.

When you look at the ACARA documents you won’t find listed topics etc and it can be rather overwhelming when that’s what you are expecting. I started looking at the Scope and Sequence documents which are in table format, rather than the longer, wordier Sequence. If you haven’t yet looked at them, I suggest you ignore the urge to take the quicker table option and go straight to the Sequence. You’ll save yourself minutes of panic and doubt. Rather than just containing the Content Description in point form, the lengthier document fleshes each one out with extra detail and examples, as well as Band Descriptions and a full Achievement Standard description in paragraph form. The extra details immediately put my mind at rest that the language elements covered and the level of language expected of my students is not terribly different. (Please note though that this relates only to language – more on culture later.)

The difference is that in the Australian Curriculum: Languages, content is described as how the language is used. In fact, each of the Content Descriptions begins with a verb! Interact, Describe, Express, Write and so on. There is also an increased focus on collaboration and “with others”. We will also need to provide ample opportunity for our students to be creative with the language and to use digital tools for this purpose.

So while the topics we have previously used to direct our thinking and planning are still there, they are less a focus than the USE of the language. This is not a bad thing, but will require a change in thinking by many of us as ‘knowing’ language is overtaken by ‘doing’ language. And isn’t that a good thing! We’ve always known we were teaching a practical subject, now we get the chance to prove it to everyone else!

Next post: Understanding… What it means in the new curriculum and why it is already changing how I plan to have my students use class and homework time


The Lego Compromise

With the start of our summer holidays, I’ve had a lovely time playing with my 2 sons. The eldest recently turned 5 and received lots of new lego to add to his already impressive stash! But the influx of new blocks and pieces exacerbated what was already a topic of contention in our household.

In the lead up to our wedding my husband and I were required to attend some pre-marriage counselling sessions with our church pastor – pretty simple, run of the mill stuff. We filled in questionnaires and then discussed the points where our answers were deemed by a computer to lead to possible conflict. All sorts of little things were included, from how we use the toothpaste tube to which way the toilet paper should hang from the roll. But nowhere amongst the minutiae were we questioned about Lego… and perhaps we should have been!

You see, we have fundamentally different ideas about the purpose and process of playing with Lego. Perhaps not entirely surprising when you consider I am something of a Performing Arts and Languages teacher and he is a Design & Technology (aka TAS) teacher. For me Lego is all about building whatever takes your fancy, trying new ways of doing something and creating creatures or scenes. It doesn’t matter if you can’t find the exact block you need, because you can choose a slightly different one that will do the same job. For him, there are instructions included with each set which lead step by step to the construction of what was pictured on the box. After it is built, should it be broken down again, it goes back in its original box with the original instructions. For me, it doesn’t matter if it all ends up in one big box because you can mix and match it – plus the alternative is that it will go up the vacuum cleaner next time I do the housework if the boys leave it lying around. So we recently reached loggerheads… It was time for a compromise. In the end we found it easily at Bunnings.


All the blocks are now in 2 cases, sorted by colour and type of block. The instructions are filed away in a folder on the bookshelf. Simple! We are both satisfied and the blocks can serve both purposes and building styles.

All this has had me thinking about the year I’ve just had at school, the little conflicts which have arisen from time to time and how they’ve been dealt with – people are all a bit like Lego, but so is our subject matter. One would assume that teachers of the same subject area would all see the subject in a similar way. But that’s not necessarily the case. Kind of obvious when I think about it, but only really hit me this week.

We teach the same material but in different ways. When one of us feels we are being told to teach the same way as another without some form of dialogue and consultation, there is bound to be unease. While Teacher A may see grammar (to use an MFL example) as being the most important building block and feel it needs to be the focus, Teacher B may see it as just a component of communicating. Teacher C may see students’ using the language to create their own texts as the key. And all of these teachers are also trying to meet the needs of their rather varying students. We all look at the same language, but our focus and use of that language may be different. We all assess the same language and skills, but how we see that assessment taking place may be different. We need to find the commonality so that we can assess as our students’ needs require but also so that the assessment is still comparable. All of that takes openness, dialogue and a willingness to compromise and find that middle ground. Surely the result will be a more balanced and rounded learning experience for our students. New Year’s Resolution number 1 – encourage my fellow team members to be open in considering all our differing perspectives so that we cover all our students’ needs better.

And what about at a whole school level? Conflict at a staff meeting? Disagreement about policy? What if the cause for such disagreement is not a total difference of opinion, but rather a difference in perspective and focus? Is there a perspective that has not yet been considered? Would staff be more engaged in their own schools if their perspectives were included in the dialogue more explicitly? My husband and I both agree that the Lego blocks are for creating something – how we arrive at that creation and the storage of the blocks needed an actual discussion because our perspectives were different.

I know, issues in schools are rarely as simple as how to store Lego and take considerably more time and effort to work through. Plus the time frames for implementing things are usually tight to begin with. But I wonder… Is a Lego  compromise possible?

The sweet smell of success!

thumbs up

We all know that learning is meant to be a life-long journey. In the past 3 days I have learnt so much! Thanks to a request to present to my fellow teachers during this week’s Staff PD days and my growing PLN on Twitter and their patience I have learned…

How to create a simple website on Weebly

How to share work samples created in Apps not connected to a website or Evernote without emailing it to numerous people – by putting them on the weebly site

How to screencast a tour recorded in Google Earth so that I can easily attach it to a QR code to share

How to create and share an Audio boo – this has been on my ‘to do’ list since September!

How to take the simplicity of a QR code and turn it/them into a learning challenge or treasure hunt

How to stick with something even though it can be extremely frustrating!

How good it feels when you know you’ve achieved something!!

So often as teachers we get to the end of the year and see the students walk out of our classroom, never really sure whether we’ve made much difference – students are not an end product after all. But I think what I’m feeling now, having just finished preparing my PD session, is something like the satisfaction a student feels when they try for ages to get something right and then something clicks and they get it! When I finally worked out how to share my Google Earth tour on my weebly site AND have it then play on an iPad WITH sound I actually did a ‘happy dance’! I was genuinely excited!

cause of happy dance

Now just to keep those pre-presentation jitters at bay… I guess it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of what our students go through…

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!