Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Games Design Workshop

I've been thinking again about my Games Design Workshop that I ran last year. It raises its head every time I have a break. I recently bought a book called (funnily enough) Games Design Workshop by Tracey Fullerton and am looking at ways to supplement my existing course. It's a great book with heaps of comments from experienced games developers about their favourite games and draws direct links from brainstorming to prototyping to end product.

I think using the workshop as a linking concept would be an excellent way to create a horizontal cross curricula course for the middle school. The maths part is easy with examinations of coordinate geometry and algebra with analysis of games like Pac man, Pong and Tetris, English using storyboarding, physics with acceleration and speed calculations, Sose by incorporating historical elements (Civ or AOE) or urban planning using SimCity. Art, media, music have obvious connections as does potential electronics and robotics courses. It could be a fabulous piece of work.

It could also be adapted to vertical use as an option class focusing on T&E and mathematics for advanced students over a number of years.

This would be something that I would love to create and have at least a one year lead time to work with teachers on creating the work samples and creating meaningful assessment.

Management of teachers

Inspiration is a key element of teaching. Inspiration is contagious and desirable in schools. Maintaining high levels of inspiration is a task that requires knowledge of the teacher, their current capability and their motivation. If the balance is not present the inspiring character burns out, leaves and/or the light goes out.

There are always external factors that contribute to performance requiring emotional support. Ill grandparents, pregnant wives, family members need time and rightly come higher up the priority chain than school needs. As teachers, we must give these things in our spare time, there are no weeks of holidays available to call on in times of need - things just pile up to the next school holidays. I feel for those without partners as they are the primary source of emotional support in most cases.

The ups and downs of professional and academic careers correlate directly to the amount of support available at any point. In teaching, the majority of academic support comes from fellow teachers. If you look carefully at any team you can see those being supported and those supporting. This is a fragile structure, as each teacher needs to be a beacon of light and there is a dwindling supply of these stalwart teachers selflessly providing experience when needed.

We need to understand and monitor the 'expected vs actual' career progression of staff to assist in the creation of a supporting cast of experienced teachers and make the bright lights of our profession brighter and glow for longer. We so often focus on student outcomes but forget to examine why something works and the minor elements that have contributed to their success or failure. When we clearly identify a positive outcome, identify issues and reward contribution, you have an example of leadership at its foremost.

What I find interesting is the poor use of performance management tools in teaching. If I asked senior management of five different schools, 'What inspires (insert name here) on their staff?' I would be surprised to hear answers that related directly to the staff member. I would be even more surprised if they knew that staff member's technical background or desired career path. On the other hand, the top 3 students in year twelve and the professions of last years top five may be more readily recitable. This outlines a key problem in schools today created through central staffing. The lack of coal face staff management and limited experience 'out of school' in true management positions is a key element in the morale issue within our schools. If management does not feel the requirement to understand the needs and wants of staff, providing optimum educational opportunities through inspired leaders for our students will always be a haphazard affair.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Establishing a connection with kids

Being a little fond of gimmicks, I've tried a few measures to connect with the kids. My guitar is a frequent addition during revision periods, I know a bunch of games on Playstation (and have an addiction to Guitar Hero, Singstar and Oblivion) and the Wii (and have another addiction to Mario Kart and the Wii Fit). I play any PC games that aren't FPS (am quite looking forward to Spore). I play a bit of soccer, follow the trials of the local footy teams, play cricket, have been a part of cross country teams, read fantasy fiction, like board games, watch Idol, Scrubs, have watched the first 7 seasons of Buffy, had a V8 commodore, grew up in the area, like modern dance music, remember the 'old school' rap scene first hand, have a history before teaching, can still do a laughable running man in time to music and can mispronouce emo as emu (as sticking your head in the sand is not a subculture). I know what Facebook, mySpace and proxies are.

And talking about all of these works with some kids but the upkeep is a fulltime occupation. The best gimmick I have found is an oldy but a goody.. the 'I'm a big maths dork and I don't have to be cool' line. It's 'like umm, the best thing, EVER!' - I can do whatever I like - dance strange, sing, wear a stupid tie, have green hair, long socks and sandals, anything.. Don't worry - he's just the maths dork.

The best fun of all is during duty sitting with a bunch of popular students. You sit down, they start to freak out and you have a laugh threatening to do this everyday until they improve. It's great and I heartily recommend doing it if you wish to instill a little fear of social decline! If that's not working you can always start talking about who likes who in class.

Entertaining students is not the only path to a great rapport. Another great way is to start a before school maths group for each year group that you teach. This has given us a lot of insight into which students are in the zone and for others given an avenue to ask for more assistance. It also gives whiners no excuse if they fall behind - the morning class is available if they need help!

For those recalcitrants who get sent to my room for faculty isolation, I make sure that the rest of the class has a good time and I refuse to allow the isolated student to engage. When they ask why isn't our class like this - I show them the work that these students get through in a lesson and show how it could be. Many of the younger students assume that more 'familiar' student/teacher rapport that year 11/12 students typically attain is a right, rather than an earned privilege and don't realise that 'respect' is a two way street (although they must be a little slower than normal if it has taken until year 10 to figure it out!).

Peer pressure also works well. If we are doing an activity that the majority enjoys and one student refuses to engage, I'll pack up the whole activity and do board work (copy the following into your book in silence and then complete questions 1-4350). The next time that student is not as quick to use "refusing to participate" as an attention seeking/power play strategy.

Lastly, in upper years I am interested in what their plans are past school. By knowing where students are going can help a lot in establishing relevancy of content. Also knowing their graduation point total (they need to earn 24pts, 'a C average' to graduate) can be a great focal point in the final two terms. The rule is - no work in class, no assistance out of class; no excuses, no extentuating circumstances or whining will change my mind. It's one of the few things I am fixed on as groups of students believing that their issues out of school and their social life ranks the needs of the rest of the class is plainly wrong. Setting work ethic before leaving school is the best lesson we can provide and an equity issue for those that work hard, week in, week out.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Students badmouthing teachers

When you have a great rapport with students they reach a stage where they wish to talk about other teachers. Your response can do a lot to enhance or damage the atmosphere in the school.

Whatever you do, whatever you think, support your fellow teachers. Resist reasoning or justifying your/their position as the student has probably thought about it more than you and could leave believing that they were right and now you agree with them too.

Stopping this sort of conversation dead is usually quite easy. Take the moral high ground. One way is to say, if they didn't care they wouldn't be doing (insert supposed misdemeanor here) they would just let you fail. I usually have a talk about diversity and how students react differently to some teachers than others. Another good strategy is to talk about how in the workforce you rarely get to work with people that you like and have to develop coping strategies. Another is to stick your hands over your ears and say loudly "La La La" until they stop.

A celebration of diversity in teaching staff is important. Having the happy go luck teachers - with a laissez faire mentality, the disciplinarians, the collaborators, the facilitators, the technically focussed, the passionate, the administrator are all important to maintaining a rich and diverse culture within a school. There is always a teacher that students don't like, protecting that staff member can also be a self preservation measure, it just might be you the students target next!

The worst scenario possible usually happens when popular students are underperforming and are being encouraged by caring teachers to raise their standards. The mob that can occur needs to be diffused, detected in early stages and squashed by team leaders. Teachers and more often parents indirectly cause and encourage these issues as typically we judge and discuss actions based on reports by students and when we have only a limited view of the whole picture.

Raising resilience of students such that they can work with a range of people, especially ones they don't like or relate to, is an important skill developed in school. Only by supporting all of our teachers 'publically' and working on issues with team-leaders, peers and managers 'privately', can we adequately support teachers with perceived image issues.

So get to it!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hardest part of teaching

The hardest part that I find in teaching is about now... I am useless at waiting and I'm sitting here at 3am in the morning thinking about all the things my students need to know prior to sitting their university entrance examinations. All the concepts, skills and content that they need to know whizzing about keeping me awake, new methods of teaching, old ways revisited - all with the potential of being better than what we did this year.

The programme of work is finished for many year 12 courses. Now these students need to study past papers, ask questions, work together to master final concepts before sitting their mock and final exams.

Did they get through enough? Will they be ok? I've been told by many a teacher that we just do a job. Deliver, let them sit exams move onto the next cohort. I'm still pretty skeptical of this view. We're not their friends as some suggest, no doubt in many cases we become fond of them - but the academic bond is far more important than what they think of us, we live through their successes and failures. It's the nature of the job.

I suppose this first set of exams is the hardest, we want the best for their futures. Even at 16 they are still kids and any number of factors can affect their performance on the day. There are heaps of ways for them to succeed outside of this exam, but this one opportunity is a confidence builder and can be the thing that sets them on their academic pathway.

Being an idealist, the early stages of a project is the most interesting as this is the time new ideas flourish and before we get too set in our ways, we are now most open to these new ideas. The longer the idealist lasts, the greater the opportunity to do something great. We have so many opportunities - creating a legacy in the school with all sorts of kids; indigenous, troubled, high performing, from families of low academic success, sporting kids, kids that will pursue social good over money - all needing mentors and pathfinders. The school itself needs subject areas built to attract new students to the ethos of the school and its values.

Sometimes the brush fires outweigh the big picture but the big picture is where we need to keep our focus. The current feeling is that the current pay dispute needs to end and ended quickly so we can start preparing for next year in earnest. Let's hope this is what ultimately happens and a new brighter dawn in education begins.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Allowing a resit for a test

This is often a difficult question. If we are only assessing outcomes, the most accurate assessment of a student's performance is the last assessment for a task - and in this case a resit for an assessment is ok.

If we are assessing the ability to learn then a resit is usually not appropriate as it will not give a fair indication of how long it has taken for a student to learn a topic and a modifier to the raw score is required to retain equity with other students.

I try to take a flexible approach when it comes to resits based on prior knowledge of a student and the subject being studied. If a student is frequently absent on test days then it takes a fair bit of effort to convince me that it is necessary and I also start to enquire as to whether the student has valid test/exam anxiety. If this is the case - off to the counsellor they are sent.

In a normal case, where student results are far below normal I will grant a resit with a two week delay between now and the new test. This means that the student does not miss the start of the next topic doing the test and the student has to actively seek me out in two weeks to do the resit. If they are serious about maintaining their grade - they nag me until I dig out a new test. Most of the time, they just forget and life goes on. We then re-evaluate performance at the end of term exam.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Apologies for broken links!

My apologies to anyone looking to use links to the Curriculum Council website. Although I understand why they would wish to make it harder to find some information given the quality of some of it - I wish they would just alter the interface and leave the core pages in the same place. This is common web practice - and in most cases, just good practice.

Somebody has thought that the tidiness of directories on the CC website is more important than the 45,000 teachers and parents that directly link to frequently used information.

If someone raises that idiodic comment, "go through the search interface to ensure you have the most recent information" they obviously don't use information on a regular basis. Nobody wants to sift through pages of irrelevant search items to find an article frequently referenced.

I've updated the few links that I keep on the blog, though if you find any more broken links I would appreciate if you would leave a comment here and I will endeavour to re-locate the information.

PD Days

Here we go, about to hit another set of PD days. Admin is currently looking for topics to use for in-school PD. Luckily I'm off to an out of school PD, which I am hoping is going to be ok.

So that I'm not all critic and no solutions, I thought about what would I like to have at a PD session.

Firstly I'd like it at the end of term and to be more of a planning session. The last days of term are rife with missing students and kids on holiday. Let's use one of the days when students are generally AWOL for PD rather than one where the kids would be present fresh and keen.

Being the last day of term it would be the best time to reflect on what has been done and what could be done better next term and next year. Review each course and note what has worked and what has not. Do any handover to the teacher for the following year if teaching loads are to change. If we have set performance management goals at the start of the year, let's review them now. I know teachers are tired at this time, but if team lead (and teachers are encouraged to share successes and failures) and line management driven it could be a very effective tool to promote student performance especially if teachers are forewarned at the start of term of this intent.

Secondly I'd like it HoD lead rather than admin lead. Heads of department report on successes and failures and course/staffing changes to line managers such that changes can be implemented and hopefully improvement seen the following year. The success of the department becomes a performance management measureable for HoDs.

Lastly I'd like it to take a long and short view. There needs to be time to address/discuss immediate issues and report on what has been done about past issues. There also needs to be time dedicated to setting medium to long term goals that are meaningful. Managed statistics should be collated of where students are headed - initially teacher based decisions in earlier years leading to student based intentions as students move to year 11/12. For instance from year 8 cohort, 22 identified possible TEE students. Year 9 cohort, 15 of 17 originally bound for TEE in yr 8 + 2 new possible students etc. This could also be used for future proofing/planning for staffing issues. It would also help hone identification of students at an early age, the ability of the school to mentor students through middle years, identify where the system is working/failing and overall measure the performance of the school in converting students from potential to actual university/VET candidates.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Teachers in administration roles

From time-to-time teachers get tired and need to get away from the classroom. Administrative roles have provided a haven for teachers, a temporary solution until batteries are recharged. Many positive things can occur when a teacher embraces this opportunity.

Experienced teachers in administrative roles contribute to the school when using their experience to monitor the progress of a whole cohort and use this experience to ensure that courses run are providing the opportunity for students to progress at their optimum rate.

The means mentoring, monitoring and assisting new teachers through their first few years, providing encouragement and new materials to experienced teachers and ensuring that everyone understands the expectations of their role, have clear, workable and achievable outcomes. They also need constant feedback on their progress.

Teachers in administrative roles need to be involved in the delegation of materials and sequences that are workable given their experience at their particular school and of the staff available. This may mean setting specific curricula, assessment, recording frameworks, assessment timetables and monitoring assessment results such as classwork, standardised testing and competition results. Ideas need to be adequately measured for success and they need recognition of the successes of their ideas.

To keep perspective this person must be connected to the classroom and seen as being put in a leadership role. They cannot be doing permanently pastoral roles (for years at a time) as staff in this position quickly become disconnected from students and teacher colleagues when not actively involved in the day-to-day lives of our students. This may mean resuming .6-.8 FTE doing classroom related work and .4-.2 FTE pastoral care work and gently easing back into the classroom as the tiredness wanes and need for teaching a classroom returns.

Unfortunately some now see these 'Level 3' roles as permanent promotional positions as they attract higher wages with little student contact. Good teachers in these positions without the opportunities to do 'good' within the school (such as the tasks listed above) have no positive classroom contact, are only solving pastoral issues and are seen by other teachers as doing administrative trivia are bound to eventually feel isolated and have self esteem/self image problems. Poor teachers without pastoral flair tend to make a mess of the situation, are rewarded for poor classroom performance and cause further issues for genuine classroom teachers.

We need to carefully look at administrative positions, consider how they are used and treat these roles with the care they deserve. Staff in these roles are the glue and grease of a school. With clear goals in mind they can produce wonderful results for teaching staff, students and the school.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Recursion & Arithmetic Sequences

As a programmer a recursive algorithm is something that comes naturally. The idea of defining something as a consequence of a previous action or term is something inherent in most programming languages.

In teaching high school mathematics where actions are typically focussed on an instant in time rather actions over a period of time, this is not always obvious.

When teaching recurring formula for an arithmetic sequence (I lack the ability to subscript properly in Blogger - subscript after T until a space is encountered) we usually discuss:

a, a+d, a+2d, a+3d,..., a+(n-1)d where n is a position in the sequence

Tn+1 = Tn + d or Tn = Tn-1 + d where T1 =a

It is not easy for students to recognise (especially in year 10) the n+1 or n-1 as describing position in a sequence.

eg for the sequence 1,3,5,7
T1=1, T2=3, T3=5, T4=7

when n=1; Tn=1, Tn+1 = 3, Tn-1 is undefined
when n=2; Tn=3, Tn+1 = 5, Tn-1 = 1

I had a think about it and next time I think will try teach it using an investigative introduction.

I will write on the board:
Describe in mathematical/algebriac terms my yearly salary based on "I get $10
000 in my first year and a pay rise of $1 000 each year thereafter."

And then determine the sequence for the first five terms and introduce recursive algorithms to give students more idea where this form of mathematics could lie within their internal schema. I would construct the sequence (10 000, 11 000, 12 000, ...) and have focus students on the concept of thinking of the $1000 as the difference(d) between terms and the $10 000 as the first term(T1 or 'a') - then introduce the following:

Tn = Tn-1 + 1000 ; n>1 and T1 = 10000

This I think would lead well to the introduction of Tn+1 = Tn + d and Tn = Tn-1 + d.

Then write on the board and investigate students answers for:
For the above problem find T100
And then launch into Arithmetic Progressions (AP's) and the formula Tn = T1 + (n-1)d before completing a set of practice examples.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Learning by mistakes and reflecting on my current practices

For those that have read my articles you would see that my first draft is usually full of typing and grammatical mistakes which over a few days and my re-reading become able to be read without cringing. This need for self correction was drummed into me as an adult by a colleague and it has stuck with me through teaching.

All too often I receive work from students that is clearly a first draft. This is clearly not acceptable as first draft work is incomplete - next year I intend on informing students that I will be handing such work back as 'not being finished within the deadline' and thus invoking non-completion of assignment consequences.

In mathematics, the trend to assess outcomes has drawn attention away from mathematical technique - such as one equals sign to a line and recording working such that patterns of thought can be read within answers. I intend on looking at this more closely next term, making clearer my expectations and then ensuring that these expectations are adhered to. I will need to investigate further for my next topic what is commonly accepted as good notation (as my notation may not be perfect) and clearly communicate this to students.

Furthermore, I have noticed a worrying trend of students not using notes and worked examples as the first point of query during classwork, nor are they effectively questioning peers when they have a question. All too often I feel I am being used as an instant repository of information (perhaps as a ready replacement for internet instant answers). I need to discourage to some degree questioning of the teacher, prepare better modelled lessons and encourage independent and collaborative learning.

I have noticed that students are not delaying rounding to the last calculation. In many cases the rounding operation itself is also being completed incorrectly. This is poor technique and I need to address this with many of my top students.

I did a lot of work with my students to ensure that all work was self-checked for accuracy and correctness (eg. self marking from the back of the book). Many thought that looking at answers was "cheating" rather than a necessary indicator that an error was occurring. I had to show students that investigation into the cause of an error was also necessary. I need to further encourage students to investigate their errors and help them feel rewarded when investigating and solving their own issues independently.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Single Sex vs Co-educational schools

Those observant of you may have noticed my little countdown to our first child. This has ignited an old debate at home whether our students should go to a co-educational or single sex school.

I started out in teaching with the intent to teach in an underprivileged school, which I am now doing and very much enjoying. I had the privilege of teaching in a single sex girls school for my first semester of teaching. I can't say it was my greatest achievement in life, I pulled the pin after 6 months as I was unable to sustain the pace required with my limited experience. It did show me something more important though - Girls are more focussed, happier, more effective and achieve at higher levels without the competition and distraction of boys.

When I was seventeen, I spent a lot of time with boys from one of the local independent boys schools and leveraged their connections and knowedge of the Perth marketplace for much of my corporate career. I could not have achieved as I had in corporate life without these connections and attitudes picked up from these lads.

In my experience with both the boys and girls school students, both had clear ideas of their own values and what they expected in those they associated with. I did not see the sheer amount of students clearly lacking workable values systems.

At this time it is my intent that our baby will go to a single sex religious high school regardless of sex of the child for these widely different but equally valid reasons. Perth is a small place and any advantage that I can give my children I will attempt to do.

As I rediscover research supporting or disputing evidence of this position I will post away.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Teacher Pay rise, EBA 3

Well, it's official. Teachers have voted no to EBA3. About 65% voted no. We will not be getting a lower than inflation pay rise.

It will be interesting to see how the public and the new state government (whoever it is) responds.

This was the same pay rise that the union said was great... yet the majority of union members thought otherwise. The union was not representing the wishes of its members and believed negative publicity would change the minds of teachers. I suggest that there are a few members of the executive (re: President and secretary) that are in trouble at the next union election.

Who was the union representing if not the teachers and administration of schools during this negotiation - personal self interest? I would join a union that represented my interests, the interests of my colleagues and clearly researched goals for public education.

Clearly the SSTUWA does not do this and is following its own agenda that is leading to poor morale and teaching standards. It is appalling. Some housekeeping is now necessary.

Reporting in the media (the ABC in particular, though the West and commercial stations are similarly guilty at times) keep stating a 16-21% pay rise. What they fail to mention is that this is 16-21% over three years and the final 2% is applied on the last day of the agreement. For a fair comparison we should take 16-21% subtract 2 and divide by three. Thus for the majority 4% per year which at best is 1% + inflation or perhaps 2.3% + inflation if you are at the lucky end.

This type of reporting by the media actively misleads the public into believing that a 16-21% (in one year) pay rise is being declined by teachers and administrators. Government employees or consultants employed by the government being trotted out in support of the government proposal is not supplying an independent or well researched viewpoint.

The current payrise and activism by teachers is intended to redress the lack of parity in teacher wage claims over the last 15 years, raise awareness over OBE issues and address the constant reduction in conditions in the vocation (a major cause of the current teacher shortage). A 1% + inflation payrise with reduced conditions does not correct this parity issue.

A better solution would have been to bump the entire payscales by say $10,000 this budget and again by $10,000 in three years time and only apply CPI to incremental scales for the life of the EBA. This would have established parity without misleading percentages and recreated an attractive profession to graduates by creating entry and exit points comparable to like 4 year university graduate careers.

Perhaps our new premier Mr Barnett will take note.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Values based education and religion

Determination of the goals of public schooling with respect to values education is a clear issue that needs to be resolved in WA education.

Students are reaching senior school and approaching graduation without considering the questions of 'where am I going' and 'what is the 'purpose of life'. Outside culture promotes the 'me' generation where income, fame and status are the measures of success. As we all learn in later life, family, continuity of generational values and the selfless acts of greatness/goodness are far more important in generating a vibrant and healthy society than current media constructs.

Having a focus outside of the dollar opens students to vocations that may better suit their personalities and provide them with opportunities to find like minded people to work with.

Religious schools have a far stronger grasp on values education than does the public sector. Goals such as 'going to heaven' make sense to a child in a way that hides good actions behind self interest. As children progress through the religious systems, the fear of not going to heaven recedes and for many selfless acts become a part of the nature of students and they are given a strong sense of what is right, wrong and humane through the 'witness' of staff and the community. They seek to understand what is right and develop principles that they believe in to live by.

Public schools lack this selflessness to some degree. Students are protective of each other, but more in a mob sense than in a selfless sense. Students have a sense of what right is, but no real reason to do so other than the rules dictate certain actions. The biggest consequence of not doing right at present in public schools is suspension (seen as holidays by many students). The exceptions are the students with parents guiding them with clear value systems. Unfortunately these parent/student pairings can be few and far between. Forming in our schools is a religious underground, where students know that if they talk about their spirituality they will be subject to teasing and ridicule from staff and students.

Another topic that springs to mind is that if a student has no real goal in life and limited self worth, it reduces their motivation to achieve excellence and seek capabilities in knowledge and skills for when opportunities arise. This lack of focus raises the difficulties of teaching and opens questions of the relevance of education by our youth.

Currently one measure to address the development of values in public schools, is to make students commit to community service hours to receive their graduation certificate. I have always been against compulsory community service for the negative connotation it permanently attaches to voluntary services, students see community service as a chore at best and record a bunch of lies at worst. It takes a special person to develop a community service programme for students, and all too often it is place on someone who is under load teaching and has little interest in the development of values in students. Rarely are the coordinators given the time to create the community connections and develop the support of parents to ensure that promises of service are available and completed. To my mind it is more a community development/youth work role and should not be handled by teachers.

Definitely a topic that requires more thought.

Seating plans and motivation

I remember as a practicum student that it was difficult to arrange a room where students worked well. I always resist seating plans initially as I am not sure how the social groups were aligned.

One strategy that is reasonably effective is to run a test, pair desks in rows and put the high scorers in the t-zone (through the middle and in front) and then put next to each one a student that they don't "hate" but is performing below their ability level. Any students that have lost focus/have situational issues or are behavioural challenges can be isolated to corners until attitudes improve. I put the high performers across the corridors so that they still have contact with each other but are often tempted to discuss with their partner first as it is easier to compare notes. In upper classes it can be good to do this a few weeks before the end of term and tell them that it can go back to free seating at the start of next term.

Like this (in a square room):

UH HU UH HU (U=Underachiever)
BM UH HU BM (H=High Achiever)
MM UH HU MM (B=Behavioural challenge)
BM UH HU MB (M=mid range student)

I then start a new topic and run a paired activity. It takes a bit of encouragement for students to speak to their partners, but quickly enough it stops much of the social chat in the classroom (as they have little socially in common) and promotes chat about the topic at hand. It's not a permanent solution but can raise the 'happiness' quota especially if struggling students need more attention in a big class where teacher time is limited.

This helps the underachievers as they have modelled behaviour from the high performers. It also allows separating chatty students without feelings of being "singled out".

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Teaching index laws cont..

Ok, I was with my little challenge group again today. I had the full range of students all with their own idiosyncrasies, the rapper (and his periodic burst of song and then bouts of narcolepsy), farty (with his own special tuba), the two in love (that hate each other passionately), kermit (with his constant slurping noise), the dark cloud and the two year old. Normally when introducing indices I would do it one law at a time. With this group though, I had to do something different as I'd have glazed eyes and riots after the first five minutes. So... I introduced them all at once and focused on helping them generalise what is basically a group of abstract concepts.

I put a range of examples and the laws on the board and asked them to find the law that was most like the equation supplied. They then looked to see which law could be used to simplify the equation. By the end of the class they had a reasonable idea of what could be done - I selected the part of the equation we were simplifying (at this stage they could not decide what to do first) and they chose which law to use to simplify it. All of this was done with algebraic terms, tomorrow we go back to numeric terms and start looking at BIMDAS (order of operation) so they begin to think themselves what order to apply the laws - and evaluating the answer with their calculators.

One difficulty I have found is getting these students to continue working/thinking for the whole lesson. I'm breaking it up by enforcing copying of information from the board into their books (mainly as a break from the interactive work on the whiteboard) to promote engagement when as a group they select the correct law to apply and I model how it is performed/recorded. This way they can participate for a whole working period, not just a play time or a pocket of time where they pay attention between potential rewards.

Real Estate & the calibre of staff

I have worked in many careers, but my first was as a receptionist (of all things) when I was 17. I worked in a real estate office for three years.

Now if there is any career to direct a real plod of a student it has got to be real estate (What am I saying about myself??!!??) and the real estate rep generally is the stupidest person and most dishonest you can find.

Anyhow.. I come home today and there is a real estate for sale sign on my home. I think to myself.. have I decided to do this in a moment of insanity (no.. I don't think so..), has my mushbrain pregnant wife done so.. (no.. she loves her home)... did I not pay the mortgage this week??

No.. the real estate company "Ray White" just decided to put my house up for sale. A quick phone call and the sign was gone literally 3 mins later and two reps had some fairly burning ears. If they can't put the for sale sign on the right house, I wonder how good they are at selling houses (or even the right one!).

Not to mention the agents that can't read "no junk mail" yet still drop unsolicited mail in the mailbox (yes Professionalscoastal - Monika van Namen - I mean you!).

Yep.. an industry still full of plods.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Issues with classroom differentiation

In my top year 10 class, although basically ability streamed (with a few exceptions in the class for social reasons), I have thirty students. Behaviourally there are few problems but as the year has progressed I have 8-10 3AB MAS/MAT bound, 3-4 3AB MAT, 8 2CD bound and 10 2A bound.

This means that as the course continues, student goals are different for each block of students. For some it is so important that they master content now (such as 3D trig and bearings) to leave time for new content introduced in 3AB MAS and 3AB MAT. For those entering 2CD next year, they have a few bites at the cherry, the content is seen for the first time this year, consolidated next year and mastered in the following year. For the 2A crew they do not ever have to master some of the content, but by spending extra time on the basic concepts of more difficult areas of mathematics (especially algebra), they have a higher chance for success as they need to learn very little new content over the next two years.

With such broad groupings though, students are feeling frustrated that they cannot reach the 3A MAS bound students and some have asked to be moved to lower classes (better to be a big frog in a little pond, than a little frog in a big pond). Yet I have resisted this as there are transition issues this late in the year moving students between classes and no guarantees of success in lower ability classes. I have tried to redirect them to before and after class tutoring sessions.

I just thank my lucky stars that we streamed at the start of the year (thanks to one of my colleagues pushing for it). If there were 1B students in the class as well as behavioural issues the class would have had no 3A students at all.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Music soothes the savage beast

Our school has no music programme. Many of our teachers attempt to use music in their learning areas to fill the gap. In English it might be examining lyrics, in IT examining how digital delivery is changing an industry, in media how music can emphasize and focus delivery of a message.

In my mathematics classes at the end of term I tend to bring in my guitar. Sometimes there's a bit of singing, other times it's placing a guitar in the hands of a student for the first time, sometimes it's a bit of strumming whilst they are doing their work and a bit of banter about 'more modern music' please. Last class I was told it was soothing and they did a fair bit of work. All in all it's simple classroom building.

A strategy I have seen in another school is using music to keep class noise low. The music is turned to just an audible level.. as long as the music can be heard it is left on. Other times, MP3's are allowed as long as students are working with reasonable efficiency.

I have also used music once or twice in statistics, where we examine radio station choice, genre's and the like.

One point that I should make is that I cannot stand the ghetto subculture. Would-be rappers beat boxing and talking about their 'hoes' make me want to fume. Girls that 'booty shake' and behave as property get a stern talking to. I would much rather pop, 'happy house' and dance music was the genre of choice and women viewed the 'empowered' nature of such video clips being object of desire and love rather than being objects of ownership found in rap culture. I inform the young ladies that they should be playing with dolls and doing schoolwork rather than thinking about boys. Once pointed out, the concept has a tendency to stick and find a home in their minds.

It must be a generational thing.

At home, these students work with constant noise/music in the background. In some ways I understand that they wish for similar circumstances in the classroom. There is some kernel of logic in allowing them to listen to music whilst working as known music probably blocks background talking out and allows the student to focus on the task at hand - conversely up-to-date music may be distracting as they will actively listen to the music (and want to discuss it) rather than actively doing work. I believe though that in many cases silent work still has it's place.

Impact on WA of election result

This was the election where no-one wanted to vote for anyone. The major political parties were for the most part an insipid bunch. Now that the voting is over and they are being counted here's how I see the outcome.

In a perfect world (with lots of wishful thinking):
A) The National party has the balance of power, education in rural areas will gain increased support - more incentive to take rural posts, improved housing conditions, higher wages and community encouragement to stay.
B) Political parties will no longer dismiss the impact of educational lobby groups in marginal seats
C) The teacher pay dispute will be resolved quickly as the first item of the new government.
D) Teachers will resume community building roles and prevent disconnect with youth and community that is currently forming within low ability/low socioeconomic students sector.
E) The role of permanency, selection, relief teachers, class sizes and teaching administration will be investigated and resolved.
F) League tables will disappear as they are proved to have provided incomplete and misleading data to parents.
G) Performance based pay scales will be thoroughly investigated and found impractical to implement.

It is clear from this election that both political parties cannot rely on party loyalties of voters - strong leadership is required at all times to maintain government. If a leader is stale, arrogant or belittling to the electorate - move them along, no matter what their perceived importance to policy. It is time politicians looked to running the state rather than their careers first.

I believe that politicians should stay with big picture issues and not turn up 5 minutes before an election and talk about local problems. Either be in touch with your electorate throughout the whole tenure or risk exit stage left. Parachuting politicians into safe seats is also a recipe for disaster.

We need strong experienced leaders. Not young up and comers - unless they are brilliant beyond their age. One only had to look at the faces of politicians last night to see that in "good times" conservative faces is what the electorate demands. Political parties take note! (How Albert Jacob managed to get elected I can't understand - let's hope he is more capable than he looks.)

Well done to the 3 independents and the National party for standing in seats and on issues that matter to their electorates. It shows that our political system is not yet as dead and showy/frightening as the American system or boring as the English. And for a small nation like ours we should be - vibrant, able to take action and go forward in leaps, stumbles and bounds.

I don't mind who is in government as long as progress is made. For now though... no more naive politics from me (at least for a while!).

Here is a link to education policy statements of all parties.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Using notes in tests

Having a working memory of four units, I know the necessity of having well prepared notes. Everything I do has a paper trail of sorts that lets me manage the many things I'm juggling at any one point. The programme we use is far more detailed than most - but without it I would be lost as to what I had done and what I still needed to do.

Students coming through junior school (where tests and assignments are not the norm and alternate assessment is more often used) don't know how to prepare for tests. More so, many suffer extreme test anxiety that affects their performance in later years. Making and having notes makes sense as in real life we do not work in a vacuum and normally have our notes/diary/teachnical books at hand.

To alleviate issue of recall and anxiety in year 10, we test often - at least once every two to three weeks and have a 2hr mid year exam. Students know that a test is coming (and have been forewarned when and the topic).

For the first term, the notes consist of their journal and I tell them what to write in it as we go along. At the end of each test the aim is to do some self reflection (5 mins) that I read in spare moments about their performance and how to improve.

In second term, they can still use their journals but I now insist that 2 pages of notes is all they can bring into the test (by the end of the term the journal has too much content to use effectively). Those that bring notes get an extra 10% for being adequately prepared.

In term three I no longer reward students for bringing notes as they are in the habit and know the consequences of not bringing adequate notes.

Interestingly I had one student indicate that her notes never had the material on it that she needed. On reading it I found that the information was there but she was unable to generalise the notes to assist her. This is an issue that I need to investigate further.

By going through this process I believe that my students are better prepared for tests and exams in yr 11 & 12 and have shown anecdotally that they are not as stressed in the assessment process.


I must admit, being a fairly self motivated person, motivating others is not my forte. Many teachers do I much better job than I do - my primary motivational tool is ensuring student see and value success. TEE kids approaching their final exam need a bit more than this, so I had a bit of a think and did the following:

I dug out my old gown and scroll from my degree ceremony. I talked to all of the students about my goals at their age - many were absolutely ridiculous. They then each wrote ten goals of their own. Each wrote theirs on the board and stood in front of it. I took a photo of them in my old gown, cap and sash, with my degree scroll and printed the results on my little photo printer. The results are that they now have a permanent record of their goals in year 12 that more than likely they will keep. They had graduated from my goal setting session.

Hopefully it will motivate them to lift a little higher when needed.

Index laws and the lower ability group

It always surprises me what will work with a low ability group and what will not. Generally you have to hit the ability level spot on for the whole group for them to be able to grasp a concept (even if only momentarily).

Take indices. On one day grasping 3x3 = 3 squared = 9 was impossible, not to mention any attempts at 3^2 x 3^3 = 3^5. We went through a number of examples and by the end of the lesson I had 10 bored students and had lost half of my hair.

The next day I took a different investigative approach. This might be obvious to an experienced teacher but was fairly radical to me.

Sequence (imagine that ^3 is written as 3 superscripted):
a) Discuss nomenclature with notes (base, index, indicies, power, factor and power form)
b) Use calculator to evaluate single term powers - eg. 3^3 = ...
c) Add multiplying powers to the board (with positive index) - eg. 3^3 x 3^5 = ...
e) Look for a pattern in the numbers - supply the base after a few minutes.
f) Explain how multiplying powers works and supply notes including general forms
g) Rub off the answers, write as index addition - eg. 3^3 x 3^5 = 3^...+... = 3^8 = 6561
h) Add dividing powers to the board where answers are positive > 0 - eg. 3^5 ÷ 3^2 = ...
i) Look for a pattern in the numbers - supply the base after a few minutes.
j) Explain dividing powers, supply notes including general form (as ÷ and fraction)
k) Rub off the answers, write as index subtraction - eg. 3^5 ÷ 3^3 = 3^...-... = 3^2 = 9
l) Supply mixed problems

About 40 mins. I don't think I could have done this investigating factored form with these students as regrouping and cancelling bored them silly the previous day (I will revisit it later though). Using calculators to do the sum and examine the sum backwards worked far better. Special note was made from e) onwards about checking for same base, superscripting properly, neatness, identifying operator used in original sum and always referring back to general form to make sure the correct index operation is being done. By the end of class all 5 students were engaged and had grasped the concepts involved. yay!

Now some may ask 'why do index laws with a low ability group in yr 10?'. I suppose it is a philosophy problem put in place at uni. Students shouldn't have impoverished courses 'entertainment based/childcare oriented' purely because they are in a low ability group. If they could master simple algebra earlier in the year and ratios later in the year, I consider index laws and other more 'pure' maths well within their grasp even with behaviour difficulties. These students too should have the pleasure of mastering something that looks quite cool on paper, harder than they believe possible to learn and not feel inferior to peers when they walk into an upper school maths class.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Longitude and Latitude problems

We revisited longitude and latitude today just prior to a quick quiz on Monday of elevation/depression, longitude/latitude and bearings problems.

Firstly the section that we did on angles(complementary/supplementary) and bearings seems to have resolved many of the angle addition/subtraction problems students encounter in longitude and latitude (this makes sense). The second was that teaching how to solve latitude problems before longitude problems is far easier than vice-versa (this was not expected).

Sequence used:
a) nomenclature & uses - great circles:longitude+equator, small circles:latitude
b) how to draw latitude problems - uses of front vs side views
c) find the radius of small circles - r(small circle) = r(great circle) cos (longitude)
d) how to find the circumference of small circles - C(small circle) = 2 x pi x r(small circle)
e) how to identify the angle travelled - reading diagrams carefully & common errors
f) how to calculate the distance travelled - angle / 360 x C(small circle)

The reasoning for the second finding is that students were happy to learn new skills (eg. solve latitude problems)...

... students were even happier to be told that longitude problems were easier than latitude problems (eg. remove step c), draw the diagram a little differently - front view edge marked)

.. rather than teach longitude first and say that latitude problems were more difficult (as you need to add step c) and have to think harder about the diagram).

All in all, it can be taught in a lesson to a good group in year 10, maybe a bit longer if proving step c), with practice for a couple of sessions. I never would have identified the second finding if I hadn't chosen the wrong question as an example. Nothing like a random event to improve your teaching and give an insight into student thinking.

Different approaches to supporting teachers

It is interesting to view different teaching styles and different ways of supporting teachers. Support staff such as team leaders and HODs are important parts of school machinery. I've been to a couple of schools and have made a few observations about how these support staff operate.

Type 1: Student focused (Soft and mushy).
The soft and mushy students support person always has the student in the forefront of their mind. They are 'friends' of the student, listen to their grievances and reason through their issues. Issues with this person relate to support of students based on student reporting of incidents especially as students often only relate parts that they remember and conveniently forget negative portions. Positives of this type of support staff is that many issues can become non-issues without further teacher intervention and they can negotiate middle-grounds where teachers and students both feel POV is acknowledged and resolution has been achieved. They also have great rapports with parents. Generally supporters of BMIS management techniques.

Type 2: Authoritative (Firm and stern)
For me, the easiest support person to deal with as many issues are black and white. They will investigate, report and resolve issues. In most cases will lean to the side of the teacher. Negatives is that some students will feel that their POV is not given enough weighting. Positive is that student POV is not given weighting over teacher and holistic classroom position. Middle ground resolution tends to focus on end results and measurable future performance. Generally supporters of the "teacher is boss" type mentality.

Type 3: Administrative (Paper pusher)
This is the worst type to my mind as nothing gets resolved but all paperwork is in order. Chaos tends to follow a support person of this type and responsibility is delegated to anyone but the support person for ultimate resolution of an issue. For specific issues they are often unavailable as they are pursuing "pet" projects. They tend to be active self promoters. The main negative is the sheer amount of unresolved issues pushed back onto teachers - students are not sent to support staff unless an unresolvable issue within the classroom has been encountered and pushing unresolvable situations back to teachers does not help maintain programme momentum. The only positive is that major incidents have well recorded backgrounds. Generally supporters of give anyone the responsibility as long as it is not me.

As I think of more I will add them to the list.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Curriculum Council Moderation

Here are words that inspire fear in the most confident graduate teacher - "Moderation". We had ours and the one thing it showed was the need for experienced teachers to guide the less experienced teacher. Our most experienced teacher took the work of students, repackaged it to make it easy to be viewed and removed much of the stress.

I'm not saying that moderation was not stressful - the idea of redressing issues 3 weeks before the end of a course kept me up at night for a number of days. When it happened though, it was great to have recognised that the grading given was correct and also be given ideas about how to improve the course.

In my non-TEE course I now understand that they like to see context heavily developed into the course - coursework specially developed for the cohort. If this can be demonstrated in assignment pieces this can be a good thing.

Another insight was that moderators look at the intake as well as the results especially in TEE courses - to check if the students selected for courses has been done appropriately. It was interesting to hear of restrictions placed on student subject selection in other schools to (I imagine) protect school TEE rankings and student self esteem. As schools reduce the number of subjects on offer and students have reduced options, I wonder if we will see more issues in this area.

Our moderator liked to see cognitive type assessment. I shall seek out some more of this sort of thing (to be honest I have no idea what they are (isn't an investigation typically cognitive?) - but will ask around).

It shouldn't be underestimated the time it takes to prepare for moderation and the disruption it causes to other classes. I strongly suggest for portfolios of all assessment to be gathered and kept for all students in a class by the teacher. If you don't have these pre-done, prepare a couple of each for moderation or you may have your D turn into a C and have to find another portfolio at the last minute to fill the gap (...I wonder how I know this??).

Keeping portfolios from students is detrimental to test preparation (as you have the portfolios rather than students for study) but is far preferable than trying to gather materials in the lead up to moderation dates (especially as for us they fell just before the start of TEE mock exam preparation). After moderation dates portfolios can also be a great study tool for exams that careless students wouldn't have at the end of the year.