Sunday, 9 October 2016

Being bold and brave and honouring the New Zealand Curriculum- as we begin a conversation

This weekend I have been involved in a lively twitter chat about the New Zealand Curriculum and how we can use it to re-engage our teaching community with the front end of the document in particular. The front end is where the principles, values and key competencies are explained. I believe that they were put at the front because we put the first things first, meaning that these are the foundation blocks of all that we do within our curriculum. I believe they are aspirational, broad and challenging, they give us scope to be bold and brave (thanks Wendy for those words) in establishing learning cultures in our schools that support our learners to aim high, think deep, connect and contribute. We are required by law to teach to this curriculum (the whole curriculum not just the AOs), we are required to report against national standards in literacy and numeracy but here's the key thing we are NOT required to teach to the national standards despite what we might be led to believe in some circles. 

I remember fondly when the New Zealand Curriculum came out in 2007, I was so excited by the wonderful opportunities it opened up. (Yes I am a bit of a nerd to be fair) It made me want to return to the regular classroom but I soon realised that in education we had gotten into a comfortable habit of putting children into 'boxes' and this broad, open curriculum challenged that. We didn't have long before the talk of standardisation started, and then after a while we were given the National Standards. I remember hearing the minister of education at the time telling principals at a NZPF conference that no civil servants had the right to choose what pieces of legislation they adopted and that National Standards were happening and that was that. 

Moving on. 

I returned to the classroom a couple of years ago, Unfortunately I made a dreadful mistake, and to my shame it took me a while to work out why the wheels were coming off for me. You see I felt that as I had been out of the regular classroom (whilst still in education and using the New Zealand Curriculum) I was terribly out of date and needed to focus on what I hadn't been trained with which was, among other things, National Standards. I then felt driven by what was newer to me, due to my sense of inadequacy, but that impacted on my teaching and my engagement with my class. I forgot about the front end of the curriculum in my haste to 'catch up' with and embed things like the National Standards in my practice. In short I lost the educational plot... and the sad thing is that I don't think I am unique in that. 

I am lucky that I reflected on this and began to reconnect with what teaching and learning is really about and what we are required to deliver in schools in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Oh the relief, the joy returned. 

And so I ask these questions for myself and others to consider when thinking about how we honour the intent of the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) 

  • How do we ensure that we are reflecting the vision, values, key competencies and principles of our curriculum? 
  • How often do we refer to  vision, values, key competencies and principles when we are planning? 
  • How often do we talk about the front end of the curriculum with our colleagues? 
  • How often do we refer to the front end of the curriculum when we are talking about our learners and their achievements, strengths and  needs? 

I don't have all the answers by any respect but I do have lots of questions and I know there are many more questions I need to be asking.  I look forward to continuing the discussion we have begun. 

I also invite you to join in with the dialogue. We are exploring the option of creating a regular twitter chat to help us stay connected and reignite the enthusiasm and passion there was in 2007 when we were first introduced to our curriculum, we have a very short google survey about this possibility and welcome your input. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

On becoming curious in the classroom

It's been a long time since I last wrote, the excuse is that I am doing my masters research this year and any time I go to write something that isn't related to my research I feel guilty! Crazy huh?! But today I am putting my guilt to one side so I can share a wee thought that has been rattling around in my brain for a little while now.

A few months ago I read a headline for an article on behaviour management called Be Curious Not Furious and it was a great read and supported a lot of the stress and brain development material I have spoken about previously. But it also sparked another thought and this was about the power of curiosity in my wider teaching practice.

Curiosity for me as a teacher means not constantly anticipating and predicting children's responses, losing the predetermined nature that can sometimes feature in classrooms especially when our planning is too tight, too rigid. It means letting go of the tension built from trying to squeeze every last educational drop out of every minute for every learner in your room. It also means getting comfortable with doing less so you can see and learn more as a teacher. I see it as mindfulness embedded in teaching practice.

You cannot be curious and rushing at the same time, you cannot be curious and furious at the same time, you cannot be curious and absent minded or otherwise occupied at the same time. To be fully curious you have to be present, immersed and engaged in what you are doing.

When I am teaching from a place of curiosity I see more, I hear more and I understand more about my learners, their strengths and needs. When I am teaching from a place of curiosity I am also a lot more attuned to my own intuition and make better use of the time I have. When I am teaching from a place of curiosity I walk alongside my learners and we delve deeper into the learning opportunity happening at the time. And the funny thing is when I teach from a place of curiosity I achieve more as a teacher, my time is better spent and I give more to the learners that I am working with than I ever do when I am rushing, pushing, trying to do more and be more.

Curiosity is intense. It is not for the faint-hearted. It means that you are using all of your senses to teach and learn from. It takes practice and energy. And I am still learning, still working on avoiding distractions, making sure I give myself permission to continue to be curious more often. It makes a difference in so many ways.  

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.