Sunday, 28 February 2016

A mind working over time

I've gotta stop my mind
Working overtime
It's driving me insane
It will not let me live
Always so negative
It's become my enemy
(From Save Me by Jem)

Last month I was presenting at the Teachers Matter Conference in Wellington. It is a real privilege to attend these professional development events and to be invited to present is a huge honour indeed. And one I didn’t take lightly.

When Karen asked me if I would be interested in coming along I didn’t hesitate, I was in and I was excited. This would be my third opportunity to work at the Teachers Matter Conference and the previous times had been massive for my own learning as a presenter as well as providing me with the opportunity to be inspired both personally and professionally as a teacher, parent and general human being.

As the time passed I started to become anxious… I didn’t recognise it as such at the time however, I just thought I was uninspired, stressed, tired. I found it hard to get what I wanted sorted easily, it was like writers block I guess, and then the self-doubt kicked in and it was brutal…
  • ·         Perhaps Karen made a mistake? Or she was being too kind.
  • ·         What do I have to offer? I have nothing to offer.
  • ·         What makes me think I am good enough to stand in front of other teachers spouting off stuff? I am not as good as I think I am, I am a complete fraud.
  • ·         What if I screw this up? I’ll ruin the conference and let everyone down!

Wowsers, I was being pretty tough on myself at the time and in hindsight I was actually self-sabotaging quite skilfully.

Why would I think such things
Crazy thoughts have quick wings
Gaining momentum fast
One minute I am fine
The next I've lost my mind
To a fake fantasy
(From Save Me by Jem)

This is the crux of the matter, I was projecting a negative outcome to an event that was still a few weeks away. I hadn’t actually recognised clearly this was what I was doing at the time so I didn’t press the STOP button and get off the beat-myself-up merry-go-round when it would have been healthy to do so.

The closer the day came the more wound up I became as the thoughts twisted and turned in my mind. I so wanted to do a really good job for Karen who I admire enormously and the conference delegates who had paid to be there and were attending in their holiday time. I felt that what I did would impact on the quality of the event for the delegates and the reputation of Spectrum Education and I so wanted to give my best for all. The pressure I had put myself under was really intense and unnecessary. It didn’t help me at all.

And the thing was… that NONE of this was real yet… the conference still hadn’t started!

Insecurities keep growing
Wasted energies are flowing
Anger, pain and sadness beckon
Panic sets in in a second
(From Save Me by Jem)

And then the day arrived. Did I give my best? I did the best I could at the time but I still feel that I could have done better if I had relaxed and enjoyed it more. Watching the video (which is useful once you get over the cringe factor!) I can see the moment where I actually relax and start enjoying myself. I get a buzz presenting and sharing ideas with others and it did come but the energy I wasted in getting there robbed some of this for me and therefore it took it from the presentation too. And the thing is I had allowed it to, unwittingly perhaps, but I still let it happen.

Be aware it's just your mind
And you can stop it anytime
(From Save Me by Jem)

So why am I sharing this story of insecurity with you? Well firstly because it is still wandering around in my mind and I need to let the words out. It is also because it isn’t all doom and gloom, it has been a really interesting learning experience and part of what I do is share learning.

After the conference I went through a little self reflection, obviously, I have realised I have some perfectionist tendencies. If you look at my messy garage and abysmal filing systems you might, like me, be confused by this as I was but it isn’t about having things perfect. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as “a twenty-ton shield that we lug around with us thinking that it will protect us when, in reality, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” Pretty heavy huh? (In more than one way!) And when I think about it, this is where the self-sabotage comes in… it’s almost like it is a way of protecting us from potential hurt/failure from flying too high but it actually holds us down and holds us back from what we could be if we were truly authentic.

I have also read a book called Presence by Amy Cuddy, an easy but informative read that gives practical explanations for research and concrete strategies to apply the learning in real life… largely based around faking it till you believe it using our body to give brain positive signals of presence and power. In this book Amy also talks a lot about imposter syndrome, this is where even despite evidence to the contrary, we feel that we will be found out to be not as good at something as people might believe. We believe ourselves to be frauds undeserving of our achievements, that we were lucky in our successes, and that at any time our lack of ability will be discovered and others will be dreadfully disappointed. It robs us from the joy of when things go well and has a tendency to have us exaggerate our limitations or failures.  

So what is the cure? Well I don’t quite know but I happened upon the following forty minute clip and have noticed it has helped me. The clip is called The biggest disease affecting humanity “I am not enough” by Marisa Peer. I thoroughly recommend the investment of time if you think you might be susceptible to a little negative mind chatter… like many of us!

So where have I come to now. Well I am enough. I am worthy. I do not need to prove myself to anyone, let alone the biggest critic, my own mind! I am enough and the realisation of this is quite freeing. I am remembering to enjoy the little successes along the way rather than minimising them and looking towards the things that have gone wrong or the next step. And I am looking forward to presenting again with this much clearer insight. 

Ok so here we go
If it works I'll let you know
(From Save Me by Jem)

I love the music of Jem and the song quoted ‘Save Me’ is one of my favourites. I have used it throughout this piece as it quite accurately sums up some of the thinking patterns I am describing.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Keep your head up

Lately I have been reading a book called Presence by Amy Cuddy and it has been a really interesting read. The text is exploring the role of 'presence' in self confidence and gives practical suggestions using body language to build our sense of personal power. 

One aspect is exploring the impact our posture has on our sense of self and it is suggested that an upright posture creates a feedback loop that supports greater confidence. Amy Cuddy shared some thoughts from a NZ physiotherapist Steve August who is concerned with the damage he is seeing from people hunching over phones, and other devices. I share this as I am sitting here writing this on my laptop and very much more aware of my posture. 

As reading, one small paragraph really made me sit up and take notice, literally and figuratively. The
Going to do more looking up and out at
the world just like this wee guy. 
average head weighs a little over 5kg and when our head is balanced over our shoulders then that is the load that the neck carries however if we are bending our necks forward by sixty degrees to read our phones for example, then the load increases to a massive 27kg, Crickey! 

So having read this I made a conscious effort today to be aware of my posture and I didn't realise how often I slouch! When we went walking I focused on keeping my head balanced over my shoulders and it actually hurt a little so I knew that my muscles have gotten into some bad habits. The other thing I noticed was that I saw so much more, clearly I look at the ground or just a little ahead of myself when I normally go walking. It really surprised me at how much I have been missing when I am wandering around with hunched shoulders. Sitting here at my computer I am noticing how I am sitting and have adjusted my position from my normal stance/slouch. I can feel the muscles around my shoulders and neck, I am so much more aware of the weight they are carrying. 

So going forward my intention is to continue to work on my posture and enjoying the new view I have on the world. The bonus is that adopting a more upright position is also thought to be better for clarity in thinking and confidence so I figure this is win/win. 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Celebrating our brilliant brains

"We can no longer ignore the neuroscience"
Dr Judith Howard

In education, we can no longer afford to ignore the neuroscience. This was a statement shared with us at a course I attended last year. As a neuro-nerd I couldn't agree more with this sentiment, we need to embrace the learning that science can share with us and let it inform what we do in our classrooms. It is also important that we share this knowledge with our learners. 
With this in mind we have started our teaching year with a focus on our brilliant brains and how we learn. And so far it's been fun. There is a wealth of great material online and we have used video, movement, art, discussion and writing to support our learning. 

One of the clips we started with was Ned the Neuron. We actually watched it three days in a row and it is on our class website for further revisits if individuals want to. The first time we watched it I paused at various spots. The class loved being able to say neuroplasticity! We talked about what sorts of things help our brains get stronger, we talked about challenges. In subsequent viewings we focused on different aspects to explore further. 

When we discussed the brain growing and challenges we used the example of learning how to walk to help us understand better. I asked one of our classmates to demonstrate what happens when a baby first tries to walk... our actor did a brilliant job of showing the baby falling over and then trying again and again. We talked about what happened when the baby first fell over and I asked the following rhetorical questions... Did the baby just stop there and go "oh well I tried walking but it didn't work for me so I guess I won't be a walker"? Did the baby go "walking is dumb, crawling is better and I like it better"? Did the baby just stop there and scream out "it just not fair, I can't walk, I can't do this"? and so on. The class laughed as we went through these scenarios and each time we were able to say that no-one would ever learn to walk if we did this. We related this to our own challenges. 

After this we talked about how when we learn something we make new connections and the more we try things the stronger the connections get. We talked about how learning something new or different can feel really hard at first but that is OK, that is what challenge can feel like, just like the baby learning to walk. We stood up and started off being like a neuron sitting there and trying something new and slowly, with a bit of effort, stretched one arm out and then kept going stretching our fingers out too. Then we stretched our other arm and fingers. After that we stretched out one leg and then another. Slowly and with effort until we were standing like strong stars. 

We talked about things that we find challenging and that different people find different things more challenging than others... again that is OK, we are all unique! 

After this we noticed when we were challenged and our mantra in class became 'we try and try again', sometimes adding... 'just like the baby learning to walk'. We notice when we make mistakes and now we know that making mistakes is part of learning, it helps our neurons stretch and grow. 

We have also been watching the Class Dojo Growth Mindset series. There are 5 clips in total and here is the first: 

These clips further expand on the notion that through accepting challenges and persisting when we find something tricky we can improve our learning. We can strengthen our brain. 

To support our learning about the brain we have made images and written short descriptions about one of our amazing neurons. Just like us our brains, which are made up of billions of neurons, all our images are unique and interesting. 

As are our descriptions. Here are a few examples: 

My neuron’s name is Excellent Swimmer. My neuron gets stronger when I sleep. My neuron likes water. My neuron needs challenges. My neuron loves ice cream. My neuron is as nice as chocolate.

My neuron’s name is Bob. He gets stronger when I learn. Bob likes to run. Bob needs food and water.  Bob loves hugs. Bob is awesome.

My neuron is Geoff. My neuron gets stronger by making mistakes. My neuron likes apples. My neuron needs lots of love. My neuron loves sleep. My neuron is strong.

My neuron’s name is Joe. My neuron gets stronger when I give myself a challenge. My neuron likes it when I give it food. My neuron needs water to live. My neuron loves it when I take it to cool places. My neuron is clever and friendly.

My neuron’s name is Disgust. My neuron gets stronger when I work really hard at working out problems. My neuron likes trying out words. My neuron loves the best hugs ever. My neuron is brainy.

My neuron’s name is Bob. Bob is very cool. My neuron likes to do rugby. MY neuron gets stronger when I make mistakes. Bob needs food and water. Bob loves to do maths. My neuron is wonderful.

Our classroom is known as Room 5 the Place to Stretch and Grow. We have developed a learning chant (an idea I have taken from the latest Teachers Matter Conference which I will write about in due course) and are practicing it regularly... we are developing actions to support this
 It is exciting to hear the language the children are using which is empowering. They are encouraging each other to persist. They are celebrating attempts. They are noticing when they have learned something new and they are sharing this knowledge with each other. 

This has been a great start to celebrating our brilliant brains. We are also practicing strategies to help us learn better. Our next steps will be exploring our magic brain and learning the Stop, Breathe, Think, Do technique to help us get back in balance and think more clearly when we get out of synch.

To read more about this you can check out some other posts in this blog: 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The importance of names

There is a question some researchers ask young people to begin to establish if they are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour, it is a simple question and by no means definitive but it is indicative. The question is: does anyone at your school know your name? Sounds simple huh? It is suggested that if an individual believes (and it is believing that is important here) that no-one knows their name, or knows them, then they are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviours as there is no need for them to follow the norms of the group. As a school teacher I know that often we all know the names of the students who are more antisocial but, as I stated above, the important thing is what they believe.

Today I was supervising an inflatable slide for our local A&P Show and I know several of the children as they were locals but there were many who I didn't know. As they lined up I asked each of them their names and introduced myself then would use their names when they were climbing, sliding down or lining up again. One child, Ciara, noticed this and said with some admiration ' wow, you are really good at remembering people's names'. I responded that using people's names is something I have practiced over the years and thanked her for noticing.

What I noticed today was that the behaviour of the young people that were coming along was really polite and respectful, to me and each other... it was actually a pleasure doing this job and to be honest I hadn't expected that. In part I think learning people's names helped. To be noticed and known is important for so many of us and perhaps using people's names is a start. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Just to get a little something off my chest

Now I know that this might sound a little controversial and may not win me any friends but I am going to say it anyway and this is just my own personal opinion... I am pleased to be a kiwi and proud of the All Blacks being in the final of the World Cup, it's a great achievement for the squad, but it is a game (I know a franchise and business are wrapped around it, but essentially we are talking about a game here.)

What concerns me is that this squad of committed and clearly gifted athletes, their coaches, management, trainers, health professionals etc are under tremendous scrutiny from our media. If the worst was to happen and they lose then our media will dissect the game, minute by minute, decision by decision, blame will be apportioned and, if past events are any indication, then heads will also roll. And this won't just happen the day after, it will happen for weeks and will be referred back to next time we meet Australia on the pitch, and every time after that until the next world cup. These players will enter that stadium knowing this and the weight of a nation's expectations sit on their shoulders... a hell of a burden of responsibility and also a source of immense pride if they walk away with the cup of course.

The big thing that irks me about this is that our politicians are held to a much lesser account than a rugby squad by our media. In fact while the World Cup has been running our media have feasted on our success which is great but where are the headline stories following the nations performance in, as an example, bridging the gap of educational achievement. There has been an experiment with charter schools running over the last year or so, we could think about this as an educational tournament perhaps, so why haven't the media taken to exploring this 'tournament' play by play, player by player, decision by decision, behind the scenes, success or lack of (remembering that this was supposed to raise achievement in our most vulnerable populations) and compared it to the success, or lack there of, of other countries participating in this 'tournament of educational experimentation' as well? What would happen if they showed the same rigorous investigation, reporting and enthusiasm for social and political issues in our country as they do for rugby?

The same exacting, microscopic analysis could be applied to health, poverty, Christchurch Earthquake recovery, spending on a flag change, the TPPA arrangements, Dunedin South flooding relief and so much more.

And yet, so much of our media misses the deep analysis, debate, discourse of politics in our country. If our politicians were held to the same account as many of our rugby players we might well end up with a more honest government and that would have to be a shift in the right direction. I know this sounds like a naive opinion but it just another voice in among many asking questions which I feel is important in any democracy.

So I sit here proud of the achievement of our lads on the sports field and the leadership I see, regardless of the outcome of the final, but frustrated at our media and the way that it feels that major issues in our country are largely ignored by them.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Game of School Revisited- #EdBlogNZ reflection

It has been an interesting exercise to go back through some of my previous posts and consider whether my position is the same or different now. As I have recently re-entered the state system and will be teaching full time again this term it is a good time to review my perspective and the difference between what is between my ears and reality. 

Earlier this year I wrote two pieces about the Game of School, the first a rather dystopian perspective (I learned that word in a Children's Literature paper I did a couple of years ago) and the second a positive, forward looking perspective to offer a challenge to the first post.  

On reflection there probably needs to be a third in the series and I think this one needs to be written for teachers, perhaps looking at how we can change the rules to the Game of School despite the pressures on us to stick to the old ones. Here are some thoughts: 

1. The first thing is that you are not alone, you don't have to change the rules on your own, there is a whole world full of people out there with different ideas that are happy to share and grow with you. 

Recently I have been getting more connected with other educators in various forums: on the NZTeachers(Primary) Facebook Page which is a valuable tool for sharing ideas; in online discussions with other learners completing a paper on Internet Based Learning through Otago University Distance Learning; more recently participating in the #amplifiEDU twitter chat (fast and furious for a first timer but SO interesting!); and most recently engaging with the #EdBlogNZ challenge. I can't believe how much I am learning! 

2. Don't be afraid to try something new, co-construct what you do with your learners, let them know that we are going to try some stuff that is a little bit different and if it doesn't work then we can try shift or change or try something else. 

We can teach our children heaps by trying things and being open to them not working out. Failure isn't a bad thing, it is what real learners do... just think about toddlers learning to walk, if they gave up at the first hurdle then most of us would still be crawling or bum shuffling (now the image that brings up makes me chuckle a bit!) 

3.  Not everyone will like you changing the rules, but remember you can't please all the people all the time and if you know WHY you are doing what you are doing then pursue it but remember to do so with respect to the values of others and your community. Sometimes doing what is right will mean you need to do what is different, sometimes what is right is darned hard work but if it makes a difference for your learners then it will be worth it. 

There are a lot of reasons for people not getting behind your new approach... sometimes they are happy with what they are doing and seeing positive results for their learners, they might like the rules, sometimes they feel like they have a better idea but no-one asked them, sometimes it is actually daft idea and they can see that, sometimes they feel threatened by the rate of change around them and just want to keep doing what they know, sometimes they just need time to get used to an idea and see it in action, sometimes they might not like you and that's not really your problem (unless you have really done something to upset them and haven't attempted to address that in some way!)...  you get the picture. New ideas will often be met with some resistance, in the past there have been times when I have felt really lonely as I have tried something new, technology offers us a community to help mitigate that isolation now-a-days. 

4. Notice what happens when you change the rules. Observe, research, read, listen, learn and record your new idea and what happens when you implement it. This is good for your own practice as an educator, it helps you to note positive or negative impacts, it also helps you to become more informed about your practice and then gives you the material to be able to share it with others. 

Again technology is our friend. Use the internet and your contacts to read reliable information about what you are interested in. Read/listen widely, not only to the perspective that supports your assumptions but to the ones that counter it too... there is much to be learned. Practice a little skepticism too and where possible verify your sources. The sharing of new practices or your adaptations of others ideas is what I understand to be amplification... taking what is and shifting it and sharing it so that it can grow more. 

5. Look after yourself. This really should be the FIRST rule. Too often I hear people talk about putting on your own oxygen mask first, that you cannot give of yourself if your tank is empty etc. It makes sense. We want the people in our class to be bright, engaged, enthusiastic learners but that is a hard ask if they have a shell of a human being eking out the last of their energy just turning up to teach.  

We are no longer isolated islands of practice in the four walls of our classrooms, we have the capacity to connect with other educators all over the world. We are in a position to learn so much more from each other than we could in the past. We do make a difference and can make an even bigger difference if we work together... it is so tough being a maverick all on your own, much more fun being a maverick with friends! Let's start a movement... see below for instructions... 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Discovering Learning... inspired by #EdBlogNZ challenge

My little boy is about to turn five and will soon begin school. It has been an awesome journey watching him learn and grow over the last five years, he continues to amaze me daily. It has been unsettling at the same time however. Watching him learn through play, trial and error, persistence and the emotional attachment to caring adults around him has made me reflect on my teaching philosophy. I have learned a lot about child centred learning through playcentre training and through continued learning about the brain and behaviour. The best teachers I have had are my little man, his friends, our other playcentre families and now the children in my classroom. I have always felt that we are unique and learn in our own time in a conducive environment, not that which is dictated by birthdays, curriculum levels, national testing standards or someone else's policy. The question that screams at me often is who decided that at five years old play is no longer a relevant way to learn? It serves us so well in the first five years and then becomes relegated to what we do when the bells go after we have been 'learning'.  
Now I know I am not the only one thinking about this and I know great stuff is going on that is challenging that final perception. I have been exploring learning through play and discovery time (as well as genius hour and project based learning) over the last wee while and have embarked on at the very least sharing more control with my class. It has been a journey as we have been building more self management in for our class since the start of the year to be able to operate successfully at this point. One resource I have read is Discovery Time by Brenda Martin and Gay Hay (, it is an easy read and I love the relation to our key competencies. 

So what's been happening lately... 
During term three we have been opening up our reading activities so rather than dictating set activities per mixed ability group per day, the students have the opportunity to choose literacy activities. This has been much more successful than I had envisaged. The big rule: students must be able to tell us what they are learning in the 'activity' they are doing with a focus being on literacy learning at the time. (Not that we ask very often but it creates a mindset of thoughtful selection... well that's the hope anyway) 
As an aside, towards the end of the term I had one child ask me if he could type out some of his writing and so he undertook that considerable challenge over consecutive days, in doing so he has discovered various aspects of the keyboard and shown real perseverance. Another child is really interested in Dinosaurs and wanted to find out more about them so we have started talking about what things he might like to find out and there where can we look. These are real and relevant literacy tasks that are child initiated and this is another branch of what I would like to see happening in our reading programme going forward. 
I am planning to introduce something similar with our maths learning time as well- when they are not with a teacher or participating in a specific learning activity then they are free to choose from a range of activities but they must be maths related and they need to be able to say what they are learning by doing what they are doing. 
We need to spend some time on working out what we mean by learning however and this is what I want to do at the start of the term with the class. If learning is creating and/or strengthening pathways in the brain then doing stuff that is challenging, stuff where we might have to think hard for answers, stuff where we can do things in lots of different ways, stuff where we are exploring and asking questions, stuff that helps us get better at something by practicing is some of what I envisage. 
It is important at the end of these open-ended sessions there is an opportunity for children to share what they have learned- either by doing a walk around, creating a display, talking to a partner or having a sharing circle depending on time available as well as having seesaw available for recording learning. This is something that I picked up from the Discovery Time book and see the value in making sure that the learning done is valued.  
I trialled Discovery Time with some focus on fractions on the last Friday morning of the term. Initially we spent a little time talking about what self management looks like and then I took them for a wee tour around the classroom to show them what was on offer- we had beads, weaving (a project that some needed to complete), maths books (for recording patterns), a collage activity to demonstrate fractions, computers (although WiFi was down so they weren't all that helpful), writing and painting, IWB (but the game on there didn't work as WiFi was down), varied literacy and maths activities from around the classroom. (Obviously I need more open-ended, messy play type options going forward) I was expecting a lot of noise to manage but that wasn't actually the case, in fact it was quieter than normal! The kids really responded to the openness and one student even completed his weaving task before getting on with the varied options where as earlier on he was really reluctant to complete his weaving when asked. I taught one student how to work out fractions for bead patterns and then she taught others, it was great to see that happen. We had a sharing time after morning tea and I was really stoked with how the kids could clarify what they had been learning. 
There is so much to develop here but I am pleased with how we have begun and stoked with the improvement in self management of our class from where we were at the start of the year... we have all come so far! 
Going forward- my thoughts at the moment: 
  • Morning meetings to clarify what is on for the day and clarify expectations 
  • Working with the class on what learning is, what it looks like... 
  • Calling open ended/discovery type times- Meaningful And Independent Learning- MAIL time  
  • Reading- continue with open ended time within the programme  
  • Maths- have some open-ended problem solving options available... need to review our maths activities to ensure there is enough variety and scope 
  • Ensure that there are movement activities (kinesthesiology movements) posted around the room and teach it to them so they can select them when they need to have a stretch
  • Have Discovery Time on Friday mornings first block- ensure that there is a range of options available, science focus, build in growing and planting learning into this time

This is obviously a work in progress and any suggestions and comments are gratefully received :) 
Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write and count. It is a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child. Earlier is not better.

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