Innovation in the Hunter Region – Part 1

Last year, in fact over the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to observe classrooms where innovation is taking place and students are being effectively engaged in the learning process.

It started back in 2011 when a fellow English teacher I admire, Bianca Hewes, posted on a her blog about a videoconference she did with someone in my region, a certain Neil Fara, head teacher HSIE at Irrawang HS who was doing some interesting things centred around student engagement. (You can check out his blog here to follow the Project REAL journey). Neil kindly offered me the chance to come and visit his classroom.

It was a wonderful experience to say the least. Here was someone doing what I wanted to be doing, and it was working! Now, being the person I am, I couldn’t just sit back and observe so I walked around the room (actually two classrooms with the dividing wall removed – a great metaphor for change in education if I ever saw one) engaging students in conversations about what they were learning. There was a relaxed, yet busy vibe to the room that was inspiring.

Neil’s approach has been to “flip” (not just in the now trendy flipped classroom sense) the way the environment and learning is structured. His students have all the work for the semester loaded onto their laptops and make their way through the content at their own, personalised, pace. What was particularly interesting for me was where this change in pedagogy had come from- the students themselves. Neil and his staff had surveyed the students to find out what they disliked about the subject and about teaching, and their voices were heard. Student voice in action!

What I was also able to witness was their differentiated model of assessment where students were allowed to demonstrate their learning and mastery of the subject in diverse ways. A year 10 girl learning about the Vietnam war and the effects of post traumatic stress disorder had composed a song about a Vietnam veteran’s experience. The video is on the Project REAL website, well worth the look. Also included are several other examples of authentic, engaging assessment tasks.

I remember driving home from the experience so enthused about the possibilities of student engagement and student voice, and that one visit continues as an inspiration to me to help remind me of what is possible when change seems far off.

As Molly would say, “do yourself a favour” and head on over to the Project REAL website to find out more.

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Project Illustrate

    Day One

This time of the year I get sick of doing things the same old way and I get off my butt and try something different.

Today I introduced my year 8 English class to Project-based Learning. They have an assessment task due in a few weeks and rather than teaching them all about picture books (the topic) and then constructing the end product, I decided to dip my toe back into the PBL pond (see previous posts for my last foray into PBL) which I’d been longing to do. I clearly explained to students the difference between assessment of learning and assessment for learning and how our needs in completing the product would drive the learning that will take place. Just as before, I also want them to develop 21st century skills of collaboration (the project can be completed in pairs), communication and connection.

To make it even more engaging than just “you’ll make this picture book and a teacher will mark it” I told the students that we’d have to engage with our audience (7-9 year olds) and that to do this we’d have to visit a local primary school. We haven’t nutted out what the audience assessment will be yet, but it has certainly added that element of danger (?) to what we’re going to accomplish – that is, students will be accountable to a real audience.

Today we started by discussing (using Think:pair:share and a KWHL chart) what students already knew about picture books, why their favourites were their favourites, what they might need to know to complete the project and how to go about getting the skills and knowledge needed. There was a buzz in the room as these students were engaging with a different way of doing things, and I was certainly buzzing too. I had them first period and then again last period and I was so energised (and so were the students) that it didn’t seem like last period on a Friday at all.

This is only the beginning of the project and I know that the project will have its ups and downs, but right now I just want to share the excitement I feel at beginning to do something different.

What are my aims for this project? I want the students to learn how to make a great picture book, I want them to learn how to collaborate with others, I want them to engage with the world outside the classroom, I want them to experience frustration when things get tough and elation when it all comes together.

Most of all I want to see the proud looks on their faces as the present their books to a real audience.