Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What makes an effective Innovative Learning Environment (ILE)?

The term Modern Learning Environment (MLE) has been replaced in NZ during 2015 by the OECD's term Innovative Learning Environment (ILE). Much of the original discussion was about the space and the furniture within this space, but increasingly it is recognised that it is what happens inside the space that matters+Michaela Pinkerton's May 2014 #TeachMeetNZ presentation summed it up beautifully when she said "The most important open space is your mind" (see my post here). I have been fortunate to visit a number of schools with purpose built or refurbished ILE spaces, and this year I have been lucky enough to be working in my own ILE. I would like to share my thoughts about effective ILEs with you.

What is an ILE? 
I thoroughly recommend reading this OECD report on Innovative Learning Environments. It underpins much of the MoE's thinking on ILEs. Their ILE website includes useful information for our NZ context as well as case studies from new purpose-built schools and refurbished existing schools. To sum it up in my own words, an ILE is a flexible space for a combined group of learners to lead their own learning with the support of each other, adults (teachers, teacher aides), whānau/community, the world and with access to physical and digital resources.

Image Source
Why run an ILE?

Preparing for the future
Learning and teaching in the 21C is still trying to prepare students for their future, and what this future looks like is no longer predictable. Some of the common themes of what we think students will need to be successful in their future include (in no particular order):
  • collaboration skills (beyond local communities and countries)
  • communication skills (incl. digital communication)
  • social intelligence (face-to-face and online, with people from varied cultures and backgrounds)
  • flexibility (in thinking, in where and when we learn and work)
  • creativity
  • ability solve real-life problems
  • digital fluency
Nothing is more powerful than to practise these skills hands-on, and to see them demonstrated in the practice of those around you.

Improve student learning
Extensive research has proven that students learn best when they are:
  • actively involved in decision making
  • initiating learning
  • collaborating together
  • making connections within and across learning areas.
Improve teacher practice
Teachers and leaders comment [that] flexible learning spaces allow the power of teacher collaboration to be maximised in ways not possible in traditional classrooms. (

How to set up an ILE?
Who will be involved?
When you collectively (usually leadership, teachers and maybe whānau, though it would be beneficial if all schools regularly involved whānau and students in this process) have decided that an ILE is the best option for your learners, you need to think about who will be involved in it. The teachers (and teacher aides) need to be fully committed to it as it requires a shift in thinking of how learning and teaching happens. You need to be prepared for change as and when it is required, many teams have found that sooner or later their assumptions were challenged or their students' needs changed.

Many students are resilient, they tolerate or enjoy the change. Most students I have spoken to have appreciated the flexibility of space, the fact they had multiple adults to work with and the increased agency they have been given over their own learning. However, some student can struggle in an ILE unless their needs are well planned for. For example consider the additional noise and distraction a larger group of children can create for a student with sensory issues. Sudden change can upset the need for routine for other students. Students who have difficulty managing themselves and their learning will require extra attention.

Where will the ILE be located?
Unless you are building a new school or classroom block, many ILEs are confined to working within exisiting classroom footprints. You will require a certain amount of flexible space for your larger group, but you can also reduce double up (e.g. when combining three classes you won't need three art areas, but you might need a larger mat space).
Think about your exisiting spaces and how you can adapt them: We operate in two traditional classrooms adjacent to each other with a large 'hole' in the wall in between. We also have a covered verandah out front. To create different spaces within these two rectangles we have a variety of furniture that easily can be moved, e.g. benches / kneelers and lily pads, jelly bean tables with stools, tables at three different heights, ottomans and chairs as well as a cheap beach shade tent (very popular!). In addition we have large outdoor beanbags our students use inside and outside (Note: Ensure that you can remove the covers and wash them as they can get dirty quickly).

The role of digital technology
Google Chromecast
In my practice digital technology plays an important part to transform student learning (you can read more about our 1:1 Chromebook environment here and here).  In a flexible space you need mobile devices, you need a robust connection, a place where digital work can be showcased to others (e.g. a TV with Chromecast / ATV), in addition to online spaces (Google Suite for Education - formerly GAFE - or O365, sites, blogs etc.). Where do you charge and store devices securely when they are not in use? Will students be able to get to their devices easily? Headphones are vital; where do you store them and how do you keep them intact?

If your students work on digital devices, how will you monitor and support their work? I absolutely love using Hapara Teacher Dashboard to monitor my students' work within the Google Suite and generally in the Chrome Browser. We use other educational programmes to help our students' learning such as Reading Eggs, Mathletics and XtraMath; most come with dashboards that helps us view some of their online work.

How does learning happen in an ILE?There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there would be little point in setting up the above and then strictly teaching in a 'sit down, be quiet and face the front' style (there is a place and time for this, too, of course). Know your learners, keep their knowledge, skills, maturity in mind and start  by giving them some agency over their learning. It could be choice about where they work and with whom. Choice about the order of completing learning activities, about how to complete a task (think UDL). Vary groupings and size of groups. Offer them to access the learning in multiple ways (again UDL). Observe and collaboratively reflect, and regularly. Talk to your learners, what works for them, and what doesn't? You could be amazed by what happens...

The benefits
Image Source
Through cross-grouping across the ILE, students can work at their level and make progress, as long as teachers plan their programmes carefully so that their learning can accelerate (if below the expectation for their age). Still, by being exposed to many students of different ability across the ILE, students can feel encouraged to work hard and move up. Their social skills improve as they have different groups of students to interact and work with (tuakana-teina) and different adults work with them. Learning happens individually, in small and in larger groups. They can shine in different areas beyond what one teacher would normally cover in their class.

Teachers can teach to their strengths and receive support in the areas they are less confident. Overlap can be taken care of, e.g. three teachers would normally each have maths groups at Stage 3-6, they can split them between all of them instead. They can observe students interact with different students and adults, and together they can form a better picture of how to support individual students. Collaborative inquiries help teachers inform and improve their practice and enhance learning outcomes for students. Teachers can follow their passions and collectively expose students from across the ILE to more different topics than one teacher alone would have been able to. They can informally observe their colleagues' practice to support their own and / or come up with ways to support their colleagues.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers I spoke to shows that collaboratively teaching improves their wellbeing and they take fewer sick days; there are other teachers able to support them on an 'off' day (while still teaching rather than taking the day off) and they will return the favour. While an ILE is a concept not all relievers are familiar with, having additional adults in the same space helps them cover for a teacher who is away.

From my experience

  • Everyone is a learner, and no-one is 'the expert'. You lead your ILE collaboratively.
  • Teachers do not have to be 'clones' of each other, in fact difference in experience, age, passions etc. add to the flavour of an ILE.
  • A shared vision is a must, and it needs to be revisited regularly.
  • You have to respect and trust each other, and laughter is an important and very useful ingredient.
  • Collaborative planning is vital, especially as all changes impact on a larger group of students and adults.
  • Observe, reflect, discuss - and repeat.
  • While you might start out with 'your' group (home group, maths rotation, reading group etc.), ultimately all students are all your students. 
  • Digital technology used effectively can transform learning and teaching.

Given the chance, I would choose an ILE with like-minded colleagues over a single-cell classroom because I believe in the benefit students gain from it. An ILE is not a panacea for every problem in education, but combined with strong pedagogy, ongoing inquiry and other positive initiatives like PB4L, it certainly holds a lot of promise to prepare 21C learners for their future. Please feel free to share your experiences (positive and negative).

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Why choose Chromebooks for students in Aotearoa / New Zealand?

Just recently I was asked this question again, and it was interesting for me to reflect on it from a teacher's point of view, in addition to my ideas as facilitator. This is the time of the year where many schools are thinking about their devices requirements for the next year. Here are my thoughts:

Firstly it is important to know what your vision is: What is the school vision, and how does this translate to the vision inside your learning environment? Much could be said about how to develop such a vision, but for this exercise, let's just assume, I want to 'raise self-directed, connected, life-long learners'.

The next step is to look at your pedagogy: How will you go about working towards this vision? Again, a topic that requires lots of thought and can lead to much debate. In this instance I have decided I want to give students agency and choice over their learning, I will use the UDL principles when planning our learning plan our learning and students will have choices within a must do / can do programme.

Out of this and my school's focus I will be able to develop the actual curriculum and activities.

Nowhere in the above does I talk about using technology; however, in a future focused learning environment effective use of devices is a must to work towards a vision like the one stated. With the multitude of devices available, where do Chromebooks fit in?

Chromebooks are laptop type devices set up to work within the GAFE environment (though saying that, two of my own sons use Chromebooks at their O365 high school). These devices are relatively cheap, they are quite hardy, especially with their SSD (rather than a spinning hard drive), and easy to manage by your GAFE administrator. Chromebooks can access any site on the www (unless you restrict access), they are many useful Chrome apps and extensions to allow you to get more creative - all provided you have reliable and reasonably fast internet access.

Schools use various approaches when it comes to devices: My current school has purchased all devices and students from y3 (and some y2s) are assigned their Chromebook to use at school. Other schools have parents supply a device to bring to class, and other schools again follow the Manaiakalani idea and establish a community trust to support parents purchasing a particular device. All these approaches have their own merits and can work when the local community are on board. There are also lease options which I have not looked into myself; in my opinion Chromebooks need replacing less frequently than the desktops / laptops / netbooks of the past, so I personally see little point in paying for lease - but I am happy to learn otherwise if you would like to share your experiences.

There are a range of small and large suppliers of digital devices: Large, nationwide suppliers might be able to offer a good price, but purchasing locally ensures that money stays within the community. Large suppliers now tend to have a special education team to help you choose the most suitable device and support setting up etc. Local suppliers might be able to help you at short notice as they are close by etc. Check with your usual suppliers, or contact companies advertising in publications such as the Interface Magazine.

There are few (or rather no) devices out there that can do everything you want to do at a reasonable cost. I feel strongly that a mixture of devices is beneficial but this requires additional managing by someone with technical know how. In our y2/3 ILE we have 28 chromebooks, all of them assigned to individual students (y3 students, and y2 students working at the beginning of CL2). We also have 13 iPads with various educational apps, as well as six Win8.1 touch screen laptops. In the back of the cupboard we have a set of old Android tablets which we have talked about but not used recently (they would still work well for recording students read etc.). The Win8.1 devices are favoured by our y2 students, but due to age of the device (and age of the users?) I have a lot of trouble with the touchscreen flickering which often though not always comes right after giving the screen a thorough clean.

Whatever devices you choose, it is important to think about device management. Who sets up the GAFE accounts and the Chromebooks, and how? Who manages device settings within the GAFE Admin Console? Who sets up individual student blogs, and how do teachers best manage online work? If you are using a mixture of devices, this task gets more complex. What usage agreements are in place, do your students understand them? Who pays when something gets broken? Saying that, since we have assigned our devices to individual students, we had basically no breakage though our children are only 6-8y old.

For managing digital student work, I thoroughly recommend using Hapara Teacher Dashboard for anything GAFE related, it makes a teacher's life much easier, and children appreciate the feedback / feed forward comments on the Google Docs etc. A lot of online programmes (such as XtraMath, Reading Eggs, Typing Club etc.) offer online dashboards for teachers, but how do students view their progress? In our ILE we use solutions from simple post-it notes on A3 card to printed out avatars which the students move along the printed out Reading Eggs maps - digital is not always better.

With devices comes sound: Think carefully what headphones you need for your devices. Despite my best intentions our headphones are still not assigned to individual students, and my guess is that this is partly to blame for the breakage of headphones we experience. Have you every had twirlers and chewers in your classroom? However, after a very serious talk with our 38 lovelies, we have seen marked improvements.

How does your classroom setup support using portable devices? Our ILE consists of two rectangular classrooms with a wide opening between them. We have flexible furniture arrangements, my side of the room has desks at 3 different heights with chairs and stools as well as benches / kneelers and 3 comfortable low seats. My little beach tent is waiting to get unpacked again. The other half of the ILE has mainly kneelers, ottomans and low seats as well as lilly pads. We have a covered verandah along most of one long side of the classrooms, and the children use outdoor beanbags to do their work out there. We deliberately removed the old desktops from the classroom as they would have restricted our ability to rearrange furniture when we needed to.

Device storage and charge are important points to consider: Some schools invest in purpose built cabinets, others rearrange exisiting furniture such as cupboards or filing cabinets (remember to leave enough gaps for air circulation). All storage areas should be lockable. Prior to being back in the classroom I had not regarded charging as a big issue, but now I personally make sure everything is plugged in over night so we are ready to go every morning.

Please feel free to ask any questions, I am happy to help if I can!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Google Sites: Permissions for Folders and Documents

Several years ago +Helen King taught a group of us about setting up folders within Google Drive for documents to be shared on a Google Site. With a little help from the fantastic +Fiona Grant (and a little doctor enforced rest for a very sore back), I finally got this little tutorial completed. Please let me know if anything requires further clarification, I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 24 October 2016

"We do not learn from experience... We learn from reflecting on experience."

Whether this quote is actually from John Dewey or not, it sums up well my recent Ulearn16 experience.

Leading up to the conference I thought very hard about where I need and want to focus my professional learning energy and funds (for example see here my post on Passion Learning for Teachers). There was also a Twitter conversation whether the Ulearn concept was still relevant and still offering value for money for those teachers attending (admittedly the cost is considerable even as presenter). To not keep you in the suspense, I felt it was absolutely worth every minute and every single cent both my school and I personally invested in my attending.

To make such a judgement, it is important to consider what I would want to attend Ulearn - or any other PLD event for that matter. What is it that I hope to gain from attending?
Some teachers consider Ulearn as the event to learn about how to use devices in their practice. Others will (thankfully) put the 'why' and 'how' before the use of devices. While it saddens me that there are still some people that don't know to put the pedagogy before the tool, I realise that teachers still need support with how to use devices, and Ulearn is a great place for this. But this is not what I went for.

I attended Ulearn to have a look at the bigger picture of the ideas and policies that influence learning and teaching in New Zealand. I deliberately chose breakouts that made me think harder and deeper about how learning happens in our classrooms in NZ, and how we could improve on this. While I had read about Larry Rosenstock and High Tech High, and about Michael Fullan and his work on educational reform, it was inspiring to hear from them both in person about their work. Especially Michael Fullan's ideas really resonated with me, probably only now am I ready to have a look at his work in more depth than previously and seriously consider what impact it can have on my own practice and on the practice of others.

Some of the sessions provided much food for thought, e.g. Mary-Anne Mills' session on what future-focussed curriculum really is, and Derek Wenmoth's session on 4D learning. Derek really made me think a lot harder about the way technology underpins and enables what we try to achieved with our future focused curriculum (I'm meshing both sessions into one it appears lol). I also really enjoyed the session by Rosemary Hipkins and Cathie Johnson looking in depth at how the PAT test is set up and what information we can learn from the student results - I am already looking forward to using this tool again, because now I'm in a much better position to make use of it.

I was surprise to hear so much talk about CoLs; while our school is part of the beginning stages of a CoL, I must have had my head in the sand about it. While on the one hand I am all for collaborating, for working together for the best of the students of a community, on the other hand I am concerned that by schools feeling forced into such communities they might lose sight of the opportunity that this collaboration could provide. For many years I have dreamed of a time where all education providers in a community would sit down together, examine what their strengths were, which niche they might occupy, and then together find the best way forward for all students in their community. Sadly the reality can look quite different with schools competing for students from the same community, and when certain academic expectations are to be met, schools could be choosy about whom they might enrol.

One of my biggest takeaways was thinking about vision: What is your vision? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? What is your school's vision? Do your team, your students and whānau / community share this vision?

The social aspect of meeting tweeps, friends, ex-colleagues etc. from all around the country and beyond was a great bonus to coming to Ulearn. There are a number of educators I call my friends though we have only met in person a handful of times if at all, thanks to social media we have gotten to know each other so well that long periods of no f2f contact make no difference to this friendship - you know who you are!

Back at home I did not want to lose this momentum, so I asked on Twitter:

I decided to set myself goals 3-2-1 style:

So far I am happy to report I have NOW left my hermit cave more often, I have participated in a few twitter chats and I have (finally) finished my blog posts about Ulearn.
It was interesting to investigate my first SOON - connecting other teachers online. I realise I had dropped off social media for professional purposes for most of this year, so it is not really surprising that I did not know where educational online conversations nowadays happen. I have noted that the VLN has gone very quiet, the POND does not seem to be a very bustling place, and while there are lots of members in FB Groups, I have seen few deep discussions amongst many rather shallow ones. G+ does not appear to be frequented as much as previously, but there are a number of busy Twitter chats. So where does everyone go who is not into Twitter? Where is all the rich discussion gone we used to have in the admittedly a bit clunky interface of the VLN? This is one of my current ponderings brought upon by reflecting on Ulearn.

The hustle and bustle of everyday had me in its grips far too soon after Ulearn, so it has taken me two weeks to come back to my blog posts (the threat that I won't be able to storify tweets was probably the biggest motivator!). However, it has been great to go back and read back through notes to remind me what it was that I found important, to refresh why and how I see education in New Zealand. This is where John Dewey (or not) quote comes in - reflecting on experience. What will you do with what you have learnt from Ulearn or other PLD events you have attended?

#Ulearn16 Day 2

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Reflections #nzla16 and some navel gazing

Enlightening and thought-provoking - that's my summary on the 3 1/2 days at #nzla16. I am incredibly thankful to my school for giving me the opportunity to attend, and the TTLA Committee for selecting my proposal as one of the presentations. With my children being teenagers, they did not really care whether mum was home during the day or not (as long as the internet was working lol), so attending such events, especially when it's local, just down the road at Waitangi, is quite easy  for me nowadays.

Presentations and keynotes resonated with me on different levels:
  • Learning and teaching literacy
  • Learning and teaching in general
  • Personal
In my day-to-day life teaching in a y2/3 ILE, the first is probably top priority. As our school uses Sheena Cameron's approach to writing, and I also use her approach for reading, we had recently purchased an early copy of the Oral Language book which I had already borrowed and madly scribbled notes about (guess what, I now bought my own copy - highly recommend it!). Louise and Sheena's resources are very practical and user friendly, and their presentations added to what I had already learnt from the resources.
Another session that resonated with me a lot was by Andrea O'Hagan, called Seeing Spells Success. I had a particular child in our ILE in mind when I registered for the session, and I believe her NLP approach could be very helpful for this child as well as the other students. I will definitely follow this up further.

Most of the keynotes were extremely inspiring for teaching in general as well as on a personal level. +Karen Spencer spoke eloquently, as always, about navigating digital spaces safely, steering away from the icebergs as well as the scaremongering so common in popular media. I had heard Nathan Mikaere Wallis speak previously (at least twice), and I used to follow information from The Brainwave Trust, but more in an ECE context. It was great to hear him speak about brain development, learning, risk and resilience factors, looking at it from a primary school perspective. Having grown up in a country where schooling does not start before the age of at least 6, his explanation of how the brain develops, when the brain is ready for literacy etc. was especially interesting. None of us would deny that high expectations are great, but are our expectations, at least partly stipulated by NS, developmentally appropriate? I also had heard Marcus Akuhata Brown speak several years ago, and it was very thought provoking to hear him speak again about breaking through and shattering glass lids of low expectations.

Marcus Akuhata Brown's keynote also resonated with me on a very personal level. Internationally the common stereotype of Germans are a bit like elbows out, striving for the top, highly efficient, not being shy of blowing your own trumpet. Yet after 19 1/2y in Aotearoa New Zealand, I would find this very arrogant, and I really struggle to see myself as even 'good enough', leave alone talk about it out loud. What glass lid have I put on myself? How did it get there? Is the fact that I have changed jobs so regularly over the years, usually when I had started feeling comfortable in that particular role, a mechanism to keep a self-made glass lid over me? [An interesting side note is that in the legal sense I am actually no longer German at all as I only have a Kiwi passport nowadays, yet, anyone who hears me speak clearly recognises I was not born in Aotearoa New Zealand]. 
Another very important point he made was about the connection to a place we call home, a tūrangawaewae. While in his case, as with many other Māori, his home is where his family comes from, after a year in Australia our family has clearly decided that our 'home', our 'tūrangawaewae', is the Far North district, especially the mid north around Kerikeri and Kaikohe. I have previously thought and written about some of the limitations living in a rural, economically challenge region brings with it, yet we chose to return 'home' to all of this. It is where we feel we belong, and it is where we plan for our children to complete their education and spread their wings from. The Far North is the area where I want to make a difference and for what I want to make a difference - despite my accent :)

In preparation for #Ulearn16 I just skim read through some of my past Ulearn reflections, especially this from #Ulearn13. With the demands of my day-to-day teaching job I have retreated somewhat back into the hermit cave, but I can't wait to get out more, because if we truly want to make a difference to the learners we are working with, wherever that 'home' we are operating from might be, we need to connect and we need to learn with and from others.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Chromebooks for 6 & 7 year olds

Our school is well equipped with digital devices, all of us believe strongly that they are part of teaching our students for their future. I feel very lucky to be offered the opportunity to have 1:1 devices for all my students, funded by the school. But as I have always said, it's not about the devices, it's not about me - it's about how can these devices be utilised in the best way to transform student learning?

The introduction of these devices to my students coincided with us starting up a 40+ student, y2/3 ILE at the beginning of term 3, which added some very capable y2 students into the mix. While our students were well used to the idea of completing Must Dos and Can Dos when not in a group guided by an adult, with the emphasis on digital tools we added a number of tracking displays to our learning space so students can (and have to) show their progress on there. This does not only help us to monitor, it also helps them develop agency over their learning (and creates some healthy competition!). In relation to this, I have thought long and hard about displaying where children are at in relation to their peers; will 'low' students feel put down? My observation after 1 1/2 terms is that all students know who are the 'slower' and who are the 'faster' students, and while I am certain there is some of the "Look where he/she still is", I have found overall that our 41 students are kind and caring to each other, and they applaud each other when they have shifted.

A few things were very important for me from the outset: My students would be working in GAFE, they would have their own personalised blogs to document (some of) their learning, and there would be a big emphasis on collaboration. I had always advocated for the use of Hapara Teacher Dashboard to make sharing, monitoring etc. easier on the teacher and I am happy to report that indeed I find this an extremely helpful tool.

Many New Zealand schools now use Chromebooks, though often with older students, from year 4 upwards. At this younger age, though, what do my students need to be able to utilise this technology? I have to admit, my very first thought was the their technical skills, but I very soon realised that there are other, more important (key) competencies, that need developing first: Managing self, relating to others and participating and contributing.
  • Managing self is important not only to look after the digital device, by working on a device they are also required to manage some of their own learning (Must Dos and Can Dos), assisted by their teachers. They also need to learn to manage the temptation to go elsewhere on the www without us blocking everything.
  • Relating to others is hard enough for many 6 & 7 year olds in the 'real' world, leave alone an online space. We have used our school Minecraft server as one of the platforms to practise how to work with others in an online space. We have also found that after a short time students need little guidance to gravitate towards 'expert' students, and many of them have become very good at seeking out each other when they need help. (Just as a little side note, Friday week before last one of my girls asked me to stop talking during the start of their Minecraft session so they could get on with their learning [from each other]. Mission accomplished!]
  • Participating and contributing again is a skill some children need to work on both in the real world and in online spaces. Not every student is capable yet to do this to a high degree, so I have limited the number of occasions where they are truly collaborating in Google Drive for the time being. However, I have noted that some of my students are now creating and sharing Google Docs with each other as a natural progression from working together on one piece of paper.
How about those technical skills I mentioned? I realised very early on that not all students have a grasp on how to use a keyboard yet. Out of all the typing programmes out there, BBC Dance Mat Typing still appeals to me the most. It is quirky and fun, and it teaches the necessary skills. However, it is lacking a teacher dashboard, and I have not monitored its use by the students thoroughly, so one of these days I will get back to it and think about how I can utilise this (or another typing programme) better.
Another skill I wanted them to obtain early on was how to actually work in their Google Drive. As mentioned above we have Teacher Dashboard, so certain folders are set up for them. I took them through one lesson of how to create a new document, how to insert images etc. A number of our students have never looked back, just the other day some of our 6y olds wrote up a document all by themselves, printed it off and gave it to the relief teacher for pasting on a poster.

Example of a student using Google Docs to write a narrative inspired by the inserted image.
Some of our students target students for our ALL programme (to accelerate their writing progress), so I have introduced all students to the Read & Write for Google Chrome Extension (which I have added to each of their accounts through the GAFE Admin Console). In Google Docs we have experimented with using Voice Typing, followed by using Read & Write to listen back to what we have written.

Here are some ideas of how we are currently using our Chromebooks:
We have a class site which contains our planning, links to external sites and some of the students' tasks. Every day students have to complete a number of Must Dos, currently this consists of XtraMath (at a designated time) and Reading Eggs or Reading Eggspress and Mathletics, as well as Study Ladder (when we have enough time). All of these are linked out of our site, which I have set up (via the GAFE Admin Console) as the first tab they see when they open Chrome. We have had issues with the homepage not showing after we closed tabs, so we have also bookmarked it to their Bookmarks Bar.

In addition we have been using Google Drive for some of our writing as well as for Reading Responses. While I love Voice Typing in Google Docs, I have found that younger students can be intimidated by a big blank piece of paper, and should they get beyond the page, they easily lose track of where they are at. I have found Google Slides much more user friendly for children this age, as each slide shows on the left and they can easily navigate back and forth. We have used this for basic narratives (slide 1 title, slide 2 introduction, slide 3 problem, slide 4 ending), for a collaborative poem inspired by a poem in a Junior Journal etc. For connecting reading and writing (reading response), I have set up a file called "Independent Reading Activities" in Google Slides where my top reading groups get to complete one task every week in relation to one of the texts in their readers. I speak to them about it briefly in class, put it up on the white board and show it in the reading plan on our site, so to there are multiple places to get their instructions from. As with many tasks, I encourage collaboration, because I believe they learn best with and from each other. Another big plus for Google Slides is that they easily embed into Blogger, more easily than Google Docs.

Hapara Teacher Dashboard is a fabulous in helping me keep track of what and how they are doing. At a glance I can see who has or hasn't started their task. 
I visit each of their files to give them feedback and feed forward through comments - or as my children say "Mrs. Kern, you messaged me, and I messaged you back".

And teachers make typos, too...
Teacher Dashboard also allows me to see at a glance what site students are currently working on. Over the last ten days I have used the Highlights part of the Teacher Dashboard on two occasions to close a tab to a site I didn't want the students to visit. As the children are using just their device, it is also very easy to check out the browser history to see what sites a particular student has visited (this simple way is still the fastest for me at the moment).

Getting their 'own' Chromebook has become something students aspire to. At this point in time we have assigned a device to each of 'my' year 3 students as well as those year 2 students working at the beginning of CL2 in writing. With their name on the lid of the device, students have been very careful with 'their' device, and we have had no breakage whatsoever in 1 1/2 terms. 

What isn't working so well...
  • Posting to our blogs - we don't do it often enough! I am not sure if if they are a bit young, if it is my first time working with this year level, or a combination of both - or something else entirely! My intention was to have something published to their blog at least every fortnight, but another week has just passed where we did not manage to do so. While our school expectation is that we show good quality work on our individual blogs, we also advise our audience that we are still learning:
I think my biggest problem is that I still see it as an 'extra' and don't integrate it well enough into the programme itself, and as an 'extra' it doesn't happen often enough.
  • Headphones!  Headphones don't get treated with the same respect as their 'own' Chromebooks, so we have purchased more, have put up shoe organisers to house them, and I had all intentions of naming each set of headphones to encourage a similar care as the students have shown with their devices. However, the naming part is yet to happen... We had some issue when ordering our headphones, returned one lot, finally received another, when I realised that they had two individual plugs (microphone and headphone) rather than one integrated plug. I kept these in the end (as I really needed them), and we can make them work just fine, but ideally, in the future, I will make sure to get sets with integrated plugs.

Does it make a difference?
The devices themselves make no difference, it's how we use them that hopefully transforms learning. I am convinced that my students have further develop their ability to manage self, relate to others [in the online world] and to participate and contribute  - and some of this is rubbing off into the 'real world' (as some students have earned a lot of respect from others online, their offline relationships have changed, too). Most of them are now well able to navigate through our site, to access their Google Drive and work on files within their folders. Many students are able to create new documents and share them.
Aspects of their writing are benefitting, too. Spelling is overall improved when using a device (yes, we have spell-check enabled, but I believe that this helps you with spelling, you need to be able to choose from a selection of suggested words - or realise that none of them are what you are looking for as your spelling attempt was too far out). They have become faster at typing. Most importantly, though, when they are using their devices, they are showing more pride in their writing as from the outset letter formation and 'rubbing out' is no issue, neither is rearranging their writing to make more sense, or adding detail.

In 2017, the year 3s will move into our previously established Y4&5 ILE where they will continue to work on 1:1 devices, they will publish to their blogs more regularly etc. I am hopeful that our work this year has set them up in a way that they will find it easy to fit into the environment and cope with the work at the next year level up. With another 1 1/2 terms to go, this is merely a snapshot of where we are at currently, and I plan to update on our progress later on this year.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Minecraft and Literacy - midpoint review

You would be hard pushed to find any parent or teacher who have not heard of Minecraft. An open-world sandbox game, it was first released in November 2011 and has since developed into the second best-selling video game (behind Tetris). According to Wikipedia, as of June this year over 106 million copies have been sold, across a variety of platforms. About 20 or so of these have been purchased by me...

Minecraft has fascinated me since my then about 11y old abandoned his expensive Lego Technic sets for this blocky, nausea-inducing computer game. Over the last few years I have spoken about and presented on the value of Minecraft for education on many occasions both in New Zealand and Australia. With my return to the classroom this year, I was keen to put all this talk into action, and my supportive principal encouraged me to give it a go.

Before getting started with Minecraft, it was very important to consider the age and maturity of students. My students are 6-8 years old and are working at CL1 or early CL2. At their age, they are still learning about Managing self, Relating to others and Participating and Contributing (NZC Key Competencies). They are not used to being members of 'online communities' yet. However, about half of our 40 students are working on their personal Chromebook within Google Drive and post to their individual blog. Minecraft proved a great forum to teach them about above Key Competencies, their application within the online world and digital citizenship.

How did we set it up?

With Chromebooks as well as some iPads in the classroom we had to weigh up options what platform we would use. In the end I chose the regular Minecraft PC Edition with Premium Accounts, installed on old desktops in a spare classroom, with one server running a size-limited world. Due to hardware issue we only managed to instal it on 11 devices of which five have given me grief last week (guess how I will spend my lunchtime tomorrow?). We had considered iPads and (old) Android tablets but felt it was important that all players would interact in one world. The new Minecraft Education version was not quite released yet when we wanted to get going (start of term 2), and even now I am not sure that is the avenue I want to take as the Premium addition allows me to customise to my heart's content.

The original installation was done by my now 16y old son, including Read Me files for when things go wrong ("Make sure you actually read them, Mum"). To quote the wonderful +Annemarie Hyde "your technician needs to be 13 or have the mind of a 13y old". We purchased Minecraft Premium Accounts through Mojang, each linked to a school email account I had set up (note: We ran into trouble when we tried setting up too many of these Minecraft accounts in one go, maybe some sort of spam filter?). As Minecraft gets updated more regularly now, we set our Minecraft versions to a particular version under profile (profiles and server need to be on the same version). Our server properties have disabled 'cheats', the 'nether', 'hostile mobs' etc.

So what do we do with it?

While there is quite an obvious link between Minecraft and Maths, I am focussing on the links between Minecraft and Literacy, partly influenced by the work +Kassey Downard did with her class at Mokoia Intermediate School. However, there is a large overlap between many different disciplines.
At first we needed to learn how to actually work together in this world. The students negotiated a Minecraft Treaty, based on our school Kaitiaki values:

Some students found it easier, some harder, but about 3 months into the process, the children are working very well together. Very early on I started introducing the point that we don't just play Minecraft for the sake of it, but that it is linked to Literacy, especially writing. Over time we have come up with some of these ideas:
  • Putting up signs in Minecraft
  • Using the 'chat' to communicate
  • Writing our names using a block alphabet
  • Looking up items in the inventory
  • Writing narratives in books in Minecraft, signing them and keeping them in a chest for others to read
  • Explaining how to do things in Minecraft, orally and in writing
Some of the interesting things I have noted:
  • Several of the students who find reading and / or writing challenging are our  best Minecrafters.
  • When they talk about Minecraft their vocabulary is extensive.
  • Good Minecrafters have become the go-to experts, they teach other students and often have become more confident outside Minecraft sessions, too.
  • Initially less confident Minecrafters are becoming more confident and are teaching others.
  • I have become quite redundant during these sessions, in fact on Friday a girl asked me to not talk so they could learn from each other :)
  • Minecraft is definitely a carrot for students to be on task in other areas!
  • At times I tend to overplan things; last week we were building our version of the Olympic Games in a new super-flat world, and where I had first thought I needed to 'direct traffic' etc., my children just got on with it and created swimming pools, Rugby 7 fields, race tracks, even an ice skating rink (they had planned it all and were so keen to build it that I didn't have the heart to point out the difference between summer and winter games).

Does it make a difference?

We are part of the ALL PLD programme, and for a while I had made Minecraft an important part of the work I did with my ALL group. All five boys in this group are keen Minecrafters, and they have created some good explanations as well as some narratives set in Minecraft. During the first 10 weeks of the ALL programme, one boy has accelerated to CL2 and left the ALL group, 4 others have moved one sub-level. This is not just due to Minecraft, but Minecraft has definitely helped them to see that they have got something to say.
Currently I am using Minecraft with all our students in rotations with 10 students at a time, and the ALL boys are my go-to experts. However, ultimately I would like to move towards the 'YouTuber' phenomenon, where the ALL children - and possibly other children - create their own walk-throughs and tutorials.

First attempt at writing a narrative in Minecraft


Early on we had one instance where the chat feature was abused. Luckily I was able to retrieve all of the chat from the server file. This became a very useful lesson of how to be a digital citizen for the students involved, and it has not reoccured.

Hardware issues can be frustrating (enough said...).

Having the devices in a separate room has positives and negatives by not always being instantly available.

Increasing the amount of devices running Minecraft could make the timing of sessions easier.

Minecraft Lunchtime Clubs

In addition to using Minecraft in my class, we are also offering lunchtime clubs during the winter terms. Responsible y4 & 5 students are supporting juniors and seniors on two different days, and I just spend my lunchtime in the room to support them should they need it. We have set up different worlds for different occasions and purposes, and my Minecraft leaders are very pleased that they have additional privileges when they come in for a fun session once a week all by themselves.

Overall, I believe Minecraft has an important place in my classroom, and I am looking forward to how our use further develops as the year progresses.

Club Leaders' World

Sunday, 31 July 2016


My first time attending #educampAKL. Not only did I love catching up with old and new friends from near and far, I absolutely loved the sharing, collaborating and learning. Here is a collection of the tweets. Feel free to follow the links to access the resources shared at #educampAKL. Can't wait for next year! Thanks heaps to Stuart Kelly and Jacque Allen for hosting and organising, and to N4L and Cognition Education for sponsoring the event!

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Self-marking Google Forms

Previously you had to use Add-ons for Google Sheets to mark the responses you got Google Forms, such as Flobaroo. Last week I read online that now Google Forms includes this within the app, so today I had a play with this.

At the age my students are at (y3, 7-8y old and working towards / at the beginning of CL2), there is not often the need to mark responses to 'tests'. However, I was intrigued with the possibilities this could offer, so I created a CLOZE reading worksheet which my students can fill in online. Originally I had planned for them to complete it as Google Doc (I shared individual copies with them via Hapara TD), but then I would need to go back into each of their sheets to check their answers, so a Form sounded a good idea.

When you create your new Google Form, as usual you add question after question. I had set up the sentences with gaps for the students to complete, so my first attempt was to choose Short Answer, with the students hopefully choosing the correct word from a list at the top. However, this did not give me an option to add the Answer Key and with that to set up the Self Marking.

Instead I went for Multiple Choice (which I prefer for young learners over Drop Down where they can't easily see the choice of answers). I randomly chose 4 words (including the correct one) as options. I considered selecting Shuffle Option Order (find by clicking on the three vertical dots bottom right of the question), but this could be confusing for my students whom I want to encourage to collaborate.

To set up the Self Marking, you click on Answer Key at the bottom left of the question. Choose your correct answer and assign points. You can Add Answer Feedback which I have left off. I could see how this could be very useful when you want to use the form to straight away feedback to your student, or when you want to use it as a tutorial (maybe you remember this Tutorial I created as Google Form couple of years ago?).

This is a copy of what I came up with. I have linked it out of our Class Site, and I'm looking forward to using it next week (feel free to fill this is so we get some data to play with):

I have submitted a test response, this is a quick screen shot of what data you get:

You can select your Summary and Individual Responses, what questions were answered wrong frequently, and you can see the responses to each individual question. 

You can also create a Spreadsheet to have all data in one easily accessible place:

I can see that this could be an easy to use and helpful tool, but please give it a try and let me know if and how it works in your context!

Monday, 27 June 2016

Changing World

"The future is unknown but not unimaginable" is a saying I have liked for a long time. Like many other future focussed educators I am trying to prepare the young people in my charge for an unknown future. There are different theories out there about what will be required to be successful in the future.

Our NZC's vision says: 
Our vision is for young people:
  • who will be creative, energetic, and enterprising
  • who will seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic, and environmental future for our country
  • who will work to create an Aotearoa New Zealand in which Māori and Pākehā recognise each other as full Treaty partners, and in which all cultures are valued for the contributions they bring
  • who, in their school years, will continue to develop the values, knowledge, and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives
  • who will be confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.
Another view on the skills required to be successful in the future comes from the Institute for the Future:
Image Source

Both above statements emphasise the importance of being connected and culturally aware and competent. Some of the more recent international political landscape has been somewhat contrary to this, and this brought back to me how the future could be less imaginable than I expected. I am now wondering if this requires me to change my approach, to prepare my students differently? While I want my students to be valuing different cultures and I want them to be connected learners, do I also need to prepare them more consciously for situations where they encounter people that are less so inclined?

Our students will be the future society. What are we doing that helps shape this future society? And how do we ensure that these future citizens of Aotearoa will not (need to) search on Google after their vote what the decision was all about in the first place?

I have many more questions than answers - how about you? Keen to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Passion Learning for Teachers

Having attended a number of PLD events over the last few weeks, I have been pondering my own 'passions'. While I thoroughly enjoy my current role teaching 'little people', I have found that one of my passions still endures: Supporting other educators to transform their practise. This starts with sharing information about PLD events with others, encouraging others to attend events I think they would find useful, with trying to make myself available for others who would like support from me, to submitting proposals and presenting at events. Due to a lack of time I have heavily reduced my participation in online communities, creation and sharing of resources, as well as blogging and I do miss these aspects - but there are only so many hours in the day, and my little people and my family have to come first:)

Image Source
It has been interesting to observe who participates at various events:
There are still many teachers out there who are 'new' to digital tools and the pedagogies required to transform learning for their students. This is not saying that in the past no teachers have adapted to meet the needs of their students, or that they have not had their students' best interests at heart. I am passionate about using digital tools in a way that we transform our students' learning experiences - though I am not necessarily the best example of putting this into practise myself (I have said before, I seem to be more of a 'do as I say, not as I do' person...).
I have encountered teachers I would regard as more experienced or experts in using digital tools in order to transform learning at these events; in most cases they would be presenting at such events. But what other avenues are there for them? Where do those teachers get their PLD who are already experienced / experts (gifted?) in this area? Where can I get my PLD fix?

While I know that every teacher has many areas they need to be confident in (and I have many areas I need to work on), when we compare teacher learning with student learning, we have moved away from the deficit theory of telling our students to only worry about the areas they are not good at. We want our students to follow their passions while we help them build up the areas they are less confident in. What does this look like in teacher PLD?
Image Source

I am wondering if we can learn from the classroom when we look at teacher PLD (I have previously written here about how I don't think I applied enough of what I used to tell my teachers in my work with them). Let's assume we have a technically confident future focussed teachers looking to further their passion for this, what are we offering them? Just like in the classroom, teachers have different needs, so considering UDL we might want to offer them Multiple Means of Engagement (why), Multiple Means of Representation (how) and Multiple Means of Action and Expression (what of learning). What could this look like at a f2f event I wonder? Could we design workshops and sessions around these principles rather than a one-size-fits-all present approach, and what might this look like? How can we incorporate asynchronous, digital learning with this?

I have had some of my proposals to present accepted for the NZLA Conference and for Ulearn16, and I am really keen to make these sessions applicable to as many learners with different needs as possible. I have previously attempted to incorporate UDL into my presentations, (e.g. my Supporting UDL with GAFE presentation at Ulearn14, see post here).  This could be my starting point for how to design my sessions for later this year. I am also interested to see how this might further influence what we already do in our y2&3 ILE classroom.

The question remains though: How do we ensure that teachers can push their passions further? And where can I learn more about this?

I asked the wonderfully knowledgable +Hazel Owen for some advice around it, and she wrote:
The interesting thing is - there isn't (as far as I know) that much research / papers out there that look into this specific subject. Rather the research is around:
  • personalised, tailored learning, 
  • teaching as inquiry, 
  • action research in teaching, 
  • Continuing Professional Development (CPD), 
  • (online) communities of practice, 
  • PLEs, and 
  • mentoring / coaching for teachers' / education leaders' PLD.
In the holidays I plan to start reading more on this topic. If you regard yourself as confident or an expert in a particular area, but still passionate about learning more about that same area, how do you go about this? I would love to hear from you :)