Sunday, September 22, 2019

High School Boardgames

It's been a while since I have written on board games successful with high school students.  While I still have favourites in my repertoire, a few new ones are being used to good effect.

Recently we have been playing Warhammer 40 Killteam, a skirmish based war-game after school.  Kids can now play the majority of the rules during a game, takes about an hour and is a bit of fun.  Cost of entry is a big concern unless you have a Warhammer person on staff and use their stuff.  Playing, painting, assembling, learning rules is part of the fun.  Warhammer stores offer school based offers from time to time.

Deception, Murder in Hong Kong has become my go to Cluedo/Ware-wolf, type game over Spyrun.  It's simple, can be learned fast, is easy to get your hands on, and is less than an hour to play.

5 Minute Marvel/Dungeon is a quick game, runs to a timer and gets a bit of excitement in the room.  Students have to refine their strategy as the enemies get stronger.

Together with Blokus, Citadels, SET, Ticket to Ride Europe, Apples to Apples, Dixit, Carcassone, Claustrophobia, King of Tokyo/New York, Triazzle; games in a classroom can become a whole class or small group activity that develops a classroom and builds social skills.

Thursday, September 12, 2019


In a small school, timetabling is a delicate balancing act.  If too many resources are placed in maintaining ATAR classes, limited resources are available for the lower school or for the majority in General or Certificate based courses.  If too few resources are placed in ATAR courses, students lack the diversity of subjects required to fully engage them to achieve their best.  It also can limit the career progression of teachers seeking positions in other schools as they lack the experience teaching ATAR courses.

The previous core of subjects (Maths II/III (in whatever incarnation Methods/Specialist, 3ABCD MAS/3ABCD MAT), Physics, Chemistry, English/English Literature, History) now has a few alternates with Politics and Law, Computer Science, Human Biology that can challenge the traditional big six for getting a high ATAR score.  Language bumps and min/maxing Mathematics Applications (Discrete, Maths I) could also provide avenues for success.  To provide a core of subjects can be costly when 10-16 students are involved in each ATAR cohort.

Timetabling is difficult in these circumstances.  Split 11/12 classes or combined General/ATAR courses become more common.  In our case we share courses with neighbouring schools and bus kids back and forth, using a pair of double periods (one after school) to minimise busing and disruption to the general timetable.  SIDE becomes an option where class sizes reduce below 5.  It is very important to have teacher buy-in to prevent resistance and disruption to learning.

Important to success is careful planning during course counselling.  Choices for students need to be limited to what can be delivered.  Failing to do this effectively results in a bloated grid or considerable disappointment and re-counselling of students when subjects are not offered.  This process requires long lead times and making accurate predictions on the nature of each cohort prior up to two years before a cohort hits upper school.

To maintain teacher morale, it is important that the needs of an individual are considered when assigning teachers to classes.  Planning must be in place through performance management and career planning.  A degree of equity is required to ensure that challenging classes academically and challenging classes behaviourally are shared. Strong vs compliant personalities need to be considered.  Promises made must be adhered to, to maintain credibility - especially hard as these can be made to past timetablers, HOLAs, Principals or "just be in the head of a teacher" as a fair response to a difficult prior year.

SCSA requirements through the CAR policy in year 7 and 8 has put pressure on the grid. Requirements for digital design, performing arts, visual arts, computing and soon languages puts pressure to maintain specialist teachers within the school, typically with less than a full FTE requirement.  This results in an increase of teachers teaching out of area or on reduced loads.  The alternative is to have more multi-skilled teachers and to create "teacher based solutions" that are hard to refill if the teacher moves on.

Specialist teachers in key areas (such as Certificate delivery, Physics, Specialist Sport, Dance, D&T, Media, Visual Art) can be hired on reduced loads, but typically request 0.8 FTE over four days.  With four to five people like this in a timetable, this is difficult to grid in a small school, requiring careful consideration to prevent lopsiding grids with subjects not evenly distributed across the week, creating situations where teachers have multiple days without breaks or a subject being repeatedly delivered during the last period of the day.

Requests to reduce load to cater to family requirements, mental health or in preparation for retirement are common.  With childcare costs similar to working costs, requests for fulldays rather than 0.8 over 5 days has significant proportions of staff on reduced load.

With diluted specialisation (if sharing a specialist subject such as Methods between multiple teachers), a teacher may only get to teach a subject once every two to three years.  This does not lend itself to the level of specialisation typically required to be able to accurately grade and design assessment materials.  This has created an increased reliance on purchased assessments (which are regularly compromised through sharing on social media) and small group moderation.  Small group moderation puts additional pressure on teachers as there is an overhead mantaining these relationships successfully.

More recently the need to use endorsed programmes to supplement WACE has become more prevalent.  Leadership, Sporting, Performing Arts and Workplace Learning skills developed by teachers requires individuals to deliver particular courses as only they have the expertise and patience required to monitor, manage evidence and deliver the programmes within the school, limiting where these individuals can be used on the grid.

Other considerations also drive the timetable. Marketing a school is important (put effective teachers in year 7/8 or risk reduced numbers from reputation loss), remediation through extra resourcing or multi-age grouping, extension classes, capacity building, balancing electives come to mind.

Understanding these factors, and the skill base of each teacher is the domain of the timetabler.  A skilled timetabler in a school manages this with ballet-like grace and few understand the surprise that comes with a grid finally coming together.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Staff and student wellbeing

Developing a positive culture at a high school is an ongoing task.  Transience, cohort changes, workload, personalities, religious beliefs and perceived racism, perceived sexism, competence, home life, mental health, physical health, systemic change, leadership styles can all influence the "mood score" of a school.

Most schools are currently grappling with the aboriginal cultural framework.  Some school will be grappling with societal changes (eg. changing the way the issue is viewed in society) as they will have few, if any aboriginal students in the school. There will be many people in these environments that believe the whole project is a minor inconvenience that can be for the most part ignored.

In our environment this is not true.  How we embed these ideas in the school will impact the mood of the whole school.  We're probably a little bit ahead of the game, which allows agencies to think we are a solution that will work for at-risk students.  Unfortunately that is not always true as these interactions require intensive support for success, support that is already stretched between the competing needs of the school.

There is that balance in resourcing for us that needs to examined as individual students can disrupt the learning of large number of students.  Although, through the framework we can assist these students, over time, in some extreme cases (like with any other student from any other nationality) the needs of the individual exceeds the ability of a school to respond to their needs and external help is required.  For these students, the ping pong between agencies begins as they see the best solution as a child in a school, but the school sees the situation as untenable as they put students, staff and themselves at risk when they enter school grounds due to their current circumstance.

The ability of teachers to deal with the individual needs of a student is not equal across a school.  Identifying new areas of challenge(weaknesses) and then working with teachers to resolve them is a delicate process, challenging established practices and then examining and redirecting to develop alternate practices.  Trauma informed practice, culturally informed practices, perceived racism in practices, perceived favouritism toward students, perceived sexism in practices, gender related practices (a relatively new phenomenon to deal with) all require a delicate touch, to confront someone after a complaint to challenge the way they teach can go as deep as personal identity which can result in emotional and aggressive responses.

Although teachers are relatively static in a school, year 12 cohorts leave and year 7 cohorts enter each year.  This results in a leaving of the leadership of the school, the most competent in a school leaving each year and a whole new group becoming embedded in the culture.  With the varying skill levels of teachers in year 7, this can impact the school for a significant period.  Students transitioning to school have siblings in feeder primary schools and this, more than any other factor, impacts on the enrolments at a school.  These are the parents giving feedback to new parents in each feeder primary school.  No amount of marketing will overcome the response of existing parents leaving the school or repeating that the school has an issue with fighting, bullying, drug use, poor teaching practices etc.

The one line budget has put significant strain on small schools, struggling to maintain ATAR classes, struggling with high class numbers and struggling to provide high levels of support to students with all the issues that low-socioeconomic areas bring in financially struggling, high levels of mental health concerns, limited parenting, low support for education, high levels of drug use in the home, and with considerable parts of welfare dependent cohorts.  Many of these categories are not covered through the one line budget outside of broad groups such as EALD, Aboriginal and Islander students, and Intellectual disabilities.  The use of one line funds to maintain additional school Psychologist time in particular is one drain on a budget.  To fund extra class resources, Professional Development is being done in-house as much as possible, external agencies are being brought into schools in an increasing rate (which feels a bit like money shuffling as all the money comes from the same place), requiring additional management time to do properly.

The story here is only the beginning which shows how complex and underdeveloped my understanding is of the issues we face.  I suppose the point is that school culture changes glacially as nothing seems to occur in a vacuum and very few simplistic solutions can have an impact across a school - all we can do is look for wins in certain areas, make sure they don't move resources from something that is already working and measure the effect.  A school has a simple goal at it's heart ("teaching kids well") but have allowed themselves to become much more and we may need to reconsider some of the roles that schools play to gain traction again with the idea that "high care, high expectations, high results" is narrow enough in its scope to  do well.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Back as Deputy again... .. and the NCCD list

So that little sojourn back as Dean of Studies lasted all of two weeks and I'm back as deputy again, this time under the new Principal.  This is the fourth Principal in 12 years, each having their own quirks, and I imagine wondering what the hell is this upstart talking about now and why do I have to deal with him.

A pet hate has always been implementing things just to tick a box or because an actual solution likely to succeed is too hard.   It becomes quickly evident through my body language when I feel this is the case.   The current solution for students identified through NCCD as requiring additional support may fall into this category, although the verdict is still out on the current solution. Students were identified and then pedagogy based solutions written up in documents outlining what will be done for them.  There is acknowledgement in staff that the current solutions are not working and more needs to be done to engage them.

My only beef with the current solution is that it appears more about documenting the existing modifications that are "good practice and good teaching" and should be done (regardless of being written up), rather than identifying strategies that will make a difference to a particular student different to the general needs of the group as a whole.

To my mind (as little as it is), this requires a multidisciplinary approach.  As a teacher I do not know the ins and outs of every intellectual disability or behavioural challenge (and in many cases I don't care about the diagnosis), I just want to know how to work best with my kids.  This knowledge is held by school Psychologists and Paediatricians and then provided to me through the school Psych or Deputy.  Best practice would say that it then goes into an IEP in conjunction with teachers of other LA's to make a consistent approach where possible.

With the NCCD kids, they may not have a diagnosis but we (as teachers) suspect that something is going wrong.  My issue with the approach on Friday at our PD day was that we were asking teachers for solutions - in most cases they had already tried what they knew (and thus indicated that something was wrong that required additional assistance).  A better approach (to my mind) is to look at standardised testing results, class results, psych files and then work with the care team to identify possible solutions for the student in the context of the whole class.  Working on individuals does not create a workable solution in a class as it does not take into account class dynamics, the biggest factor outside of appropriate content in engaging students.  This means that you will be looking at the whole class at once and developing IEPs for groups of students.  The class that I am thinking of had 85% of students on the NCCD list, a class that had come together from multiple primary feeders, each indicating that these students faced challenges in learning.

It also did not address the content issue.  By putting together teachers from multiple LAs, it did not address whether the student could access the curriculum or more specifically the modifications to the syllabus to allow them access to the curriculum.  When a student is 4-5 years below the year level achievement standard, modifications to pedagogy alone are insufficient to engage a student.  There it is, I said the elephant in the room.  You cannot deliver a year 7 syllabus to a student operating at a year 2 level.  They will be disruptive, bored and no amount of reward programs and pictorial representations will give them access to concepts that require years of scaffolding.

It does not address the workload issue.  Current estimations are that 25% or 100 students need to be placed on the NCCD list.  Staff are querying how IEPs can be written, maintained and followed for all 100 students.  I too am worried that the current approach is not sustainable.

What's more, having 21 IEPs in a class all different without significant (eg. bodies to assist the teacher) assistance is not going to set up a positive learning environment and put significant stress on the educator in the room.  The picture that is created must identify which IEPs align and then create workable groups after classroom cohesion has been constructed through success, rapport and them having belief that learning is possible.  I'm not sure this was understood during the session.

So the challenge going forward is to measure the impact of the PD (I would love to be wrong and see engaged students as a result of the PD) and then if it fails, identify the positive parts and then try some of the things listed above that did work during a trial earlier in the year.  One of the nice things that happened recently was an acknowledgement that a role of the Wellness team was to identify classes or teachers that were not operating to capacity and allocate support to these teachers (rather than solely relying on ad hoc support from deputies, HOLAs and through performance management).  This has the potential to be an avenue to implement some of the more holistic approaches listed above outside of the current NCCD process and get further support to these students in need.