Pillar to Post

“You have to stick out the toughness of the business and form relationships with the people in it.”
– Attributed to Rocco DiSpirito

It is only week three of term three, and already I feel like I have been battered from pillar to post. I am struggling to get into this term, and a few colleagues across a few different schools have made similar comments, so I know it is not just me. There have been a number of issues early this term which been high on the urgent and important scale, the building project in our scale continues to progress and cause anxiousness amongst many staff members about the changes, there is the ongoing stress of not being a permanent teacher, a number of units of work I am planning for future use, ideas and things that I want to try in my pedagogical practice, our semester two programs are due shortly, and to top it off, Mrs C21’s due date for our first child is only a few weeks away (25th August), but we have been told it is likely to come early given its size (Mrs C21 is terrified the baby will be size of my brother who was 10lb 9oz / 4.8kg).

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A rough representation of how I feel.

I (rather foolishly, in hindsight), wrote late last year that I did not feel like I had had a proper first year out as a teacher, as I was in an RFF position. I should have kept my mouth closed. The conversations have already started about staffing for next year, as there is a huge shift going to occur in the school with the rebuild, a number of retirements this year bringing in different teachers, and a number of temporary teachers, including myself, who are going to be hoping for a new contract, some teachers going on maternity leave, and some permanent full-time teachers hoping to drop back to part-time. I do not envy our Principal his job, especially given that it looks like we are going to be on the threshold of crossing to having enough numbers for another staffing allocation.

 

I was away for the entirety of the first week of the mid-year holidays, acting as a referee coach and mentor, along with eleven others, to thirty-two teenagers at the Kanga Cup Youth Referee Academy, a part of my year that I look forward to, but which is incredibly draining mentally and physically. Week two of the holidays was essentially spent at school, planning with Mrs. W for the term. Of course, two weeks in, having been happy with what I had planned for my literacy sessions, I decided that it was not working the way i wanted it to, and have had to change it again.

Ugh.

Life is hectic at the moment. I am tired, frustrated, have too many things I want to and not enough time to do them in, am not sleeping, am eating chocolate like it is going out of fashion, and have not been able to get engaged with the term so far which is frustrating me a great deal. I have also not been able to get any writing done so far this term, and likely will not for a while.

Take care of yourself, especially in light of the 2015 Principal Health and Wellbeing Report which was published recently.

THRASS – A Phonics-Based System

“Phonics is one essential part of a comprehensive reading program that includes good literature and the development of literacy in the broader sense, but it must be taught well.”
Jennifer Buckingham, The Australian, 8 December 2015, Retrieved from http://www.acara.edu.au/news_media/testimonials_2015_12.html 5 June 2016

In 2014, I was in the final year of my initial teacher education (ITE) and thus was required to complete an internship. In my program, that meant a ten-week stint during Term Three. I had completed two professional experience placements prior to this (four weeks each in a Year Six and a Year One class) and was looking forward to this next opportunity to embed myself into a school, learn from a supervising teacher and perhaps actually see a unit of learning through to completion. When I walked into my classroom for the first time there were a lot of things that surprised me; each student had an iPad under the school’s Bring Your Own Designated Device (BYODD) program, the room was in a non-traditional format utilising beanbags, stairs, low tables and cushions rather than rows or groups of tables, and they were using a system for teaching spelling that I had never heard of previously, but which, after having the underlying concept explained to me, I wondered why that was the case.

1b9The system is known as THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading, and Spelling Skills) and the two-day course was led by a teacher from Melbourne. The underlying principle of THRASS is an explicit understanding of the phonemes (speech sounds) in the English language and the graphemes (spelling choices) chosen to represent those phonemes in writing. As a child, I was taught, like most of us, that within the English language, there are twenty-one consonants and five vowels (a, e, i, o and u), with a number of spelling rules such as i before e, except after c. This understanding of what a consonant and a vowel is is actually incorrect. Additionally, many of the spelling rules have more exceptions than they do words that conform to the rule.

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THRASS utilises the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which follows the primary definition of what is a consonant and a vowel, which I have shown in the below image. There are in fact twenty-four consonants and twenty vowels within English. Additionally, THRASS posits that there are no spelling rules, only patterns in the language which we can use to help us in understanding how a word is spelled and pronounced. This requires a significant shift in thinking and some people, myself included, struggled to wrap our heads around this new knowledge.

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The primary definition of consonant and vowel according to dictionary.com. Retrieved 18 May 2016

 

THRASS takes the forty-four recognised phonemes in the English language and places them on a chart, divided into a consonant section and a vowel section, with the most common graphemes (spelling choices) for each phoneme shown with a pictorial example. You can see what that looks like in the below image.

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The /b/ box from the THRASS Chart. Copyright 1998, Denyse Ritchie & Alan Davies. Used with permission.

The /b/ phoneme is typically represented by one of two graphemes, (b) or (bb). Though there are other graphemes, such as (pb) as in cupboard, these are not as common, and so are represented on the THRASS Chart with an asterisk and are referred to as Grapheme Catch-Alls (GCAs). This means that some phonemes have only one grapheme on the THRASS Chart, whilst others may have several, depending on the commonality of the phoneme and the related graphemes.  Take the below image as an example.

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The Schwa box from the THRASS Chart. Copyright 1998, Denyse Ritchie and Alan Davies. Used with permission.

Please remember in reading this, that we are concerned with the phoneme, the speech sound in our understanding of the THRASS Chart; we are interested in what we hear rather than what we see. As indicated in the previous paragraph, /b/ only has two graphemes on the THRASS chart. However, the above image is of the most important phonemes in the English language, the schwa (which surprisingly does not have its own letter representation). The graphemes shown in the above image are the most common spelling choices for the schwa phoneme. Again, as with /b/, the graphemes in the schwa box are not a conclusive list of potential graphemes. Indeed, in the THRASS Phonics Handbook (page eighteen of the catalogue), there is a total of seventeen different graphemes for the schwa phoneme, including those on the THRASS chart.

We were shown some videos of students who have been learning with THRASS, and the confidence and abilities of those students were incredible for their age. TO see some amazing examples of what students as young as Kindergarten can achieve with THRASS, please visit the THRASS Institute – Australasia & Canada’ Facebook page.

THRASS represents a tool that can provide students with skills and strategies to build confidence and competence within literacy. If students are spending less time trying to work out how to spell a word, they can focus on their writing. If students are able to confidently work out how to pronounce a word and understand the meaning of it, then they are able to focus on reading and comprehending the text as a whole and make various connections. THRASS, as part of a balanced literacy session, utilising the Four Resources Model as outlined by Luke and Freebody in 2002, can assist with this.

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Adaptation of the Four Resources Model by Luke and Freebody (2002). Image retrieved from tinyurl.com/jfdswm2 on 24 June 2016

I began using THRASS with my students at the beginning of the year. However, it was not a strongly embedded component, as I did not quite understand how to utilise it well enough. Since attending the course, I have embedded it as a core part of the class literacy session, and the students have begun to grasp the system and see the benefits. We are very much still in the process of learning the chart, however, I have seen some lightbulb moments occurring already.

 

There has been a conversation in the media about the need to return to phonics-based teaching for literacy (for example; here) and THRASS represents a fantastic way to achieve that. However, we cannot return to explicit phonics instruction, as it has never left. Explicit instruction in phonics often underpins the pedagogy of foundational teaching in reading, writing and spelling.

If you have never heard of THRASS prior to this, or want to find out more, I strongly recommend visiting the THRASS website and attending a Foundation Course. The two-day course is fast-paced but well worth attending to gain a solid foundation from which to embed THRASS as a strategy in your class. I have seen the potential of what THRASS can allow students achieve and understand, and while it has elements that may be sour to many that profess a progressive education philosophy, it works. There is a longitudinal research project beginning next year with Murdoch University, including the THRASS Foundation course within that institution’s ITE program and tracking the learning outcomes of those pre-service teachers and their students over the coming years, as well as other research supporting THRASS from previous studies.

I hope that this article has sparked a curiosity within you to at least investigate what THRASS is about by visiting their website and doing some research of your own. I have included below some links to other useful resources and websites, and I would be happy to engage in a discussion with anybody who is genuinely curious about learning more. Additionally, there are a number of schools who have implemented THRASS as a whole school system and I daresay that a school visit would be able to be arranged through THRASS to see how they are implementing it (I would also be happy to arrange for interested educators to come and visit my classroom).

Education Nation | Day Two Session One | Minister Simon Birmingham

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

When I read that Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham (@birmo@birmo) would be speaking at Education Nation, I was intrigued as to firstly, whether he would actually attend given that there is an ongoing election campaign at the moment, and secondly, what he would actually say. When he arrived, you would not know that he was five weeks into an election campaign, and looked fresh and energetic. Minister Birmingham spoke for approximately twenty minutes and then took questions from the floor for about ten minutes before leaving. Overall, I think he did well to avoid any overt political campaign rhetoric, other than one small comment, which was not in itself particularly inflammatory or accusing of the Opposition, before moving on. He also made some very sensible and thought-provoking comments. I have included here the full recording of his address, with the only editing being the introduction from myself, and a slight adjusting of the audio levels to make them more consistent throughout.

Minister Birmingham began by relating a personal anecdote involving his daughter, Matilda, showing the persistence and enthusiasm of five-year-olds, before relating that he was glad to hear of the discussions that were taking place within Education Nation. He added that as a father, he was confident that he could provide the best for his daughter, but that as the Federal Minister for Education and Training, that his focus to be on ensuring the best for all students across the country.

He then said something which I get the impression was rather unexpected, and which I found quite heartening.

“We have a good [education] system and a lot to be proud of. We need to celebrate our successes more than we do.  In general, we are above OECD averages [on a range of measures] and our system is underpinned by a good basic foundation.”

This was a refreshing message to hear, and to be realistic, it should not have been entirely unexpected; he is in the midst of an election campaign and speaking to a room full of educators, it was unlikely he would give a negative message about education. The measures that he indicated we are above the OECD averages included education funding, literacy, and numeracy results, however, he did acknowledge that there is always room for improvement

Minister Birmingham spoke about the long tail that we have and the falling results of students at the top end of the academic scale and that the challenges of education are largely well-known and understood, which does not make resolving them any easier. Our PISA results, Minister Birmingham commented, have dropped, in both real and relative terms and while they are not the be all, they are an important indicator that does need to be monitored.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jjubjyw on 11 June 2016. Slide Thirty-five.

 

We were then reminded that ten years ago, the iPhone and Netflix did not exist and that Facebook was in its infancy at one year old. We do not know, he continued, what the world will look like in ten years and what the world will look like for our students in the future when they graduate, however, we do know that they will require a richness in varied skills and learning, which sounds rather similar to the now famous Alvin Toffler quote shown below.

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Minister Birmingham said he welcomes the discussions taking place at Education Nation and that his commitment is to make sure that Australia is driven by evidence that is credible and reliable and that appropriately reflects what can best improve student learning outcomes. This, he continued, will be supported by two key goals. The first will be to continue delivering the basics on which all learning now and in the future is based upon, though he didn’t elucidate further as to what, exactly, that meant. The second is to prepare students for the dynamic world they will be entering into as young adults.Minister Birmingham added an additional thought to this. Typically, he told us, the two goals are considered in terms of either/or, however, they should be considered as complimentary goals.

It was here that we heard a modicum of election rhetoric, Minister Birmingham reminded the audience how much funding the Turnbull Government would commit to education, however, and I have respect for this, he also noted that while there were differences between the funding both parties had committed to, under either party, there would be an ongoing increase to education funding. Irrespective of your political stance, it would have been easy for him to make negative comments about the other side, yet he actually paid them a modicum of respect. A politically astute and rather sensible choice.

He continued past this, commenting that funding would continue to be distributed on a needs basis and that they would be working to address the challenges that education faces, specifically reading, writing and science, working to set minimum standards of achievement. This confused me a little, as I thought we already had minimum standards, as laid out as part of NAPLAN, if nowhere else. He spoke about the need to identify clear targets and address reading levels at a young age, to identify and learning difficulties in our children earlier in life.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h7nolqd p.85 on 11 June 2016

There will be fourteen measures put in place to lift STEM rates, including additional training and support for teachers, early years support, and the lifting of ambition for graduating students to encourage more to enter into STEM-based Undergraduate programs, though there was no mention of specific steps to ensure these occur.

His next point, the need to address and fix NAPLAN and the way it is implemented in order to foster richer data that is more quickly and easily accessible to teachers in order to make it useful and usable, was one which I believe surprised a few. NAPLAN, from what I have heard this election campaign, has had little attention in this vein, so it will be interesting to find out more about what that looks like if the Turnbull government are re-elected.

We need to ensure, Minister Birmingham told the audience, that students receive one year of learning for one year of teaching and one way that this will be attained will be an improvement in the quality of initial teacher education (ITE). This is an area that does need to be addressed, as there are significant skills that teachers need that were not included in my own ITE, which I have written about in the past.and which I suspect are not an isolated issue.

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Minister Simon Birmingham speaking to the Rethinking Reform Delegates at Education Nation. 8 June 2016

Debates surround educational policy are typically painted as binary arguments; we hear about public versus private education, or about STEM and coding versus traditional subjects, or about direct instruction versus experiential-based pedagogical practices. Minister Birmingham said that these all sit in a grey zone and that we should, in fact, be looking to give autonomy to our teachers, our schools, and our students to make contextualised and evidence-based decisions for the benefit of our students’ learning outcomes. Which of course brought to the fore the point that not all evidence is equal and that we need to be aware of the prejudices inherent in research, whether from the researcher or the commissioner of the research.

Minister Birmingham closed with an idea that I suspect gained him respect throughout the room. He spoke about what he would do, what issue he would resolve; if he could wave a magic wand and fix any single issue or challenge that faces education. It would not, he said, be within schools that he would look. It would, in fact, be in the home of students, to improve the home lives of students where improvement is needed. Minister Birmingham said that whilst teachers provide the greatest influence on a student’s learning outcomes within a school, outside of the school, it is the home life which provides the biggest influence.

The session was opened up at this point to questions from the floor, which I will not cover in this article but will leave for you to listen to in the audio above.

I thought Minister Birmingham’s comments regarding a desire to address and improve the home life of students interesting. I have heard colleagues from both government and non-government, and from early childhood, primary and secondary, all make remarks about students whose home lives negatively impact their learning outcomes.

Thank you, as always, for reading this far, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Minister Birmingham’s address.

Some musings about NAPLAN

Last week, students across Australia in Years Three, Five, Seven and Nine were required to sit the annual NAPLAN testing. NAPLAN is ostensibly inflicted upon students to assess their growth over the eighteen months since their previous NAPLAN (or to serve as a benchmark if it is the student’s first NAPLAN). This testing process has a significant number of flaws and causes stress, anxiety and frustration, amongst students and parents, but also amongst some teachers. This year was my first involvement with NAPLAN, as while I am teaching a combined Year Five and Six class this year, last year I was employed in an RFF capacity and had only been in that role for a few weeks when NAPLAN arrived, and thus felt only a minimal impact as a result.

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An example of a note sent home by a teacher to reduce stress in students. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/j6u8uoe on 16 May 2016

 

I remember sitting the Basic Skills Test in Year Five sometime in the early 1990s (though I have no recollection of sitting it in Year Three), and my recollections of it was that it was a low-key test, where my parents received a booklet which talked about grade-level expectations, and indicated where my results across the various tests sat in relation to my peers at my school, and then either across the state or across the country, I cannot recall which. My teacher, Mr. Davies, who is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession simply told us that we had to sit this test to assess our progress and to just give it our best effort. Mr. Davies was a fantastic teacher, and as far as we knew, the test had little importance beyond what it told him about our results. We sat the test, I rushed through it as I always did (and still do) with multiple choice tests, and then went outside and read a book while I waited for my classmates to finish. Mum and Dad received the results sometime later, we chatted about them, Mum asked if I rushed through the test (cue the head hang, “Yes Mum, sorry, I just wanted to read my book”) and life moved on.

I do not doubt that there was more to it than that, however, from my perspective at that time, as a ten-year-old boy, was that it was just something we had to do, but not something that was particularly important. Things have changed, however, and not for the good. My students seemed to do ok. I had two or three students who were a little anxious, but otherwise, they did not seem overly concerned. There were, however, students across the Central Coast, from conversations with other teachers, who could not cope and actually made themselves sick, including one student in Year Three. Additionally, there were students who would ordinarily write a high-quality narrative, with excellent character development, a complex plot twist, and a clever resolution, who simply froze because of how little time they were given.

I do not know what approach other teachers took in the lead up to NAPLAN, whether much preparation was in class, or set at home; nor do I know how much preparation my students’ put in outside of school, of their own volition (or at the behest of their parents). Personally, I sat down on Monday afternoon to talk to them about it for the first time (I had studiously avoided mentioning NAPLAN) at any point prior to that), and the reaction was immediate. Some students I could tell were worried about it, some were ambivalent, and some were annoyed that they had to complete them due to the time they took out of class. My Year Six students were ecstatic, as they would be spending the time undertaking Peer Support Training with another teacher and myself.

I talked to them about NAPLAN for a little while, telling them about my own experience with the Basic Skills Test, and then made it very clear that as far as I was not worried about their NAPLAN results, as long as they put in their best effort. I reminded them of the formative testing in literacy and numeracy that we had completed at the beginning of the year, and that we would be completing those assessments at the end of this term and again at the end of Term Four, and that I was focused on the growth they showed across the three iterations of those tests. I reminded them that NAPLAN did not know or care whether they had slept well the previous night, or had eaten breakfast or not, or are more athletically inclined, or anything else, other than the results that they put on their paper and submitted for NAPLAN.

We talked about the way they get feedback on their learning outputs in class, through the marking systems we use, or through one to one conversation during class time and that I do not get to see what they write and so cannot give them feedback, or know how they went, other than the number which is given for each test result. I could see some of the tension leaving some of my students, and my Year Six students were helpful as well, talking about their experiences and that it was not as hard or as stressful as they thought it would be.

I have a great group of students.

Whether or not we like NAPLAN, it is here, and it is here to stay, though I do not doubt it will evolve over time into something else (such as the move to digital completion which has been discussed for some time). There is a body of research about the impact that it has across the education sector and in the current education environment, where we continually here about the fourth-grade slump and the drop in results across PISA and TIMMS, short-sighted politicians are looking for a quick fix that will get them votes at the next election. There is talk about planning for the future, but I sincerely doubt that it actually means anything, given the way that politicians lie in order to get the support they need.

Students across the country have teachers who know and understand that NAPLAN is relatively meaningless, a single snapshot in time which takes twelve weeks to develop, and where the original negative (student submissions) are not available for checking. NAPLAN is a broken and flawed tool which causes stress and anxiety in students and teachers and from anecdotal reports, some parents far above what it provides in return. I await the result of this year’s NAPLAN test for my students, which will mean little as the text-type for the writing test was a different text-type to what they were required to write when they were in Year Three, making the data comparison invalid from every point of view I can think of.

What was your experience with NAPLAN this year? How did you, your students and your students’ parents cope? Do you prepare your students with pre-testing or give them a speech similar to what I gave to my students? Is your school one in which NAPLAN is a highly important test, or is it largely disregarded? I would appreciate hearing about  your experiences with NAPLAN and the strategies you employ in your context to survive the infliction of NAPLAN each year. As always, thank you for reading.

Education Nation | An Interview with Professor Masters

“There are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.”
– Professor Geoff Masters. E-Mail correspondence, 2016

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

All interpretations of Professor Masters’ views are my own and any misinterpretation also mine. The Interview with Professor Masters has been included for the sake of transparency.

After I had accepted the invitation to attend Education Nation in order to write a series of review articles about the event, I asked if it would be possible to conduct a series of pre-conference interviews via e-mail with some of the speakers. I was privileged to have been granted an e-mail interview with Professor Geoff Masters AO, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) as well as head of ACER’s Centre for Assessment Reform and Innovation.

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Professor Geoff Masters. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h2czpd6 on 6th March 2016

In developing the questions for Professor Masters, I felt that it would be remiss of me to not take advantage of the opportunity to ask his opinions about statements by Professor John Hattie in April 2015, where Professor Hattie indicated that he felt classroom teachers should leave education researcher to trained researchers. I recall there being quite the uproar on social media as a result of Professor Hattie’s remarks, with a great number of educators commenting that there is no reason they cannot engage with research.

Professor Masters’ view is that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

The title of the article in which Profess Hattie’s statement was published was certainly clickbait and as with most instances of clickbait, upon reading further, the statements were not as provocative as at first glance. Indeed, Professor Masters’ response to this question implies that Hattie’s sentiment that teachers should leave the research to the researchers is reasonable. Indeed, when you read further in the article, where Professor Hattie is reported as also having said “I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that,” I find it difficult to disagree.

I cannot speak to the level of training that other classroom teachers have received in research. Personally, having only received an introduction to educational research through the Honours program I completed as part of my initial teacher education (ITE) (delivered by Dr. Nicole Mockler), I do not feel that I would be able to put together a large-scale strong and rigorous research project on my own, whilst also managing the day-to-day requirements of teaching and evaluating the effectiveness of my practices. That said, I do feel that I have had enough training through the Honours program to enable me to read and utilise the outcomes of research to inform my reflections, or to work with a researcher to conduct more formal research.

Professor Masters further noted that high levels of training and proficiency are required for certain types of research, which dovetails neatly with Professor Hattie’s comment that “[r]esearching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill.” I do not have years to invest in mastering the skills to become proficient with rigorous, high-quality formalised research. I would prefer, at this point in my career, to invest that time in developing my pedagogical practice. In that frame of reference, leave the research to the researcher is not, in my opinion, as provocative a sentiment as it first sounds.

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Professor Hattie. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/z4e2ryr on 6th March 2016

During the last four years in various staffrooms and study sessions with my colleague pre-service teachers, I have encountered a variety of opinions regarding the relationship and relevance that research has to classroom teachers. Whilst there are pockets of teachers who see the value in the relationship, by and large, educational research appears to be seen as irrelevant. Professor Masters stated that too often pedagogical practice is shaped by beliefs about what should work in the classroom and beliefs shaped by fads and fashions of the day (Greg Ashman has written about various fads and fashions in education including here, here, here and here). Additionally, I have heard the “it worked when I was in school/first started teaching/we did it this way in the 70s and 80s”  refrain regularly, with its unstated implication that it will still work.

To improve the quality of classroom teaching, and by extension, the learning outcomes for students, Professor Masters asserts that evidence-based pedagogical practices should be implemented; that is, those pedagogies which have been demonstrated through research and experience to be effective in improving students’ learning outcomes and engagement. The relationship between educational research and classroom teaching is one of sharing, with Professor Masters commenting that “[p]rofessions are defined largely by a shared knowledge base. Educational research is playing an essential role in building that knowledge base.”

It is interesting to note that there is a growing community of educators on various forms of social media sharing with their practices, both the successes and the failures, with each other, and it will be interesting to see what role the online Professional Learning Networks play in contributing to educational research in the future, both as a source of information and participants, and as a vehicle for dissemination.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/j8vcs2p on 6th May 2016

I asked Professor Masters what his thoughts were on what stood in the way of Australian education and the heights of PISA and TIMMS testing results that seem to be the benchmark by which educational success is judged. I did so with reference to the ITE programs in Finland and the well-publicised reign of Finland at the top of the table in regards to PISA and TIMMS. Professor Masters’ response was relatively simple. High-performing countries, such as Finland and Singapore have raised the status of teachers.

Professor Masters noted that there are a number of high-performing countries who draw their teachers from the upper echelons of secondary education, typically starting with the top thirty percent and some drawing only from the top ten percent, making teaching in those countries, a highly respected and sought after career. This is not the case in Australia, where the required Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is quite low, as highlighted in this article from May 2015 which indicates that almost a third of all pre-service teachers achieved an ATAR of less than sixty. That demonstrates the low respect held for teaching compared with some of the ATARs listed in this article from January 2014, indicating that a to enter a Bachelor of Health Science/Master of Physiotherapy degree at the University of Western Sydney required an ATAR of 99.95, or the combined law degrees at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW, both with minimum ATARs of 99.70.

The school of thought that simply increasing the minimum required ATAR to enter an ITE program will improve the quality of teachers is not necessarily true. This article from October 2015 indicates that only a small percentage of pre-service teachers enter their ITE immediately upon completion of their secondary education. However, I do not believe that Professor Masters is advocating such a simplistic solution. His comment that “…teaching is a highly respected and sought after career and these countries have succeeded in making teaching attractive to their brightest and best schools leavers…” (emphasis mine) indicates to me that it should be merely one component of the admission process.

Professor Masters observed that in teaching in Australia is trending in the other direction to high-performing countries, becoming less attractive, an opinion I agree with. Personally, I am finding that time I would spend planning and preparing for a lesson is being taken up by mandatory training modules which provide no actual training, or on paperwork which is needed for the sake of bureaucracy. I, like many other teachers around the world, am struggling to balance work and family and am left feeling guilty for not spending time with my family. Perversely, I also find myself feeling guilty for not spending the time I want on marking and writing feedback, or on planning and resourcing a lesson, (often with things from my own home or which we have purchased with our own money).

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One of many memes which can be found on the internet with a similar sentiment. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/hgmax9j on 6th May 2016

The debate about how to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession is an old and ongoing one, and I look forward to hearing it discussed during Education Nation. When asked for his view on how the issue could be resolved, Professor Masters pointed out that it would require a series of deliberate policy decisions on a range of issues including teacher salaries, resourcing, and autonomy; as well as the number of admissions into ITE programs. Professor Masters noted that the countries which appear at the top of the international testing results, including Finland, limit the number of pre-service teachers each year. This article indicates that only one in ten applicants is successful in gaining entry into a Finnish ITE program.

There are also come clear benefits to restricting the number of entrants to ITE programs. You are also restricting the number of graduates, thereby helping to prevent what has happened here in Australia, where there is a glut of teachers who are unable to gain permanent employment due to the high number of graduates each year. Professor Masters’ final point was that an important factor in the perception of teaching is the academic rigour of the ITE program itself. I have written previously about my own ITE (part one can be found here), and I do believe that ITE programs, in general, can be improved, and look forward to hearing about that topic at Education Nation.

NAPLAN, which commences next Tuesday for Year Three, Five, Seven and Nine students Australia-wide, is an incredibly high-stakes testing process which has the potential to cause great anxiety and consternation amongst students, parents, teachers and policy-makers, and which invariably receives a great deal of attention in the media. When asked about why he thought NAPLAN moved from being a low-stakes test to what it is now, Professor Masters wrote that it is part of a deliberate strategy to improve performances through incentives.

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These incentives appear to use the carrot and stick method, with some financial rewards for school improvement or, alternatively, the threat of intervention and sanction for poor performance, and yet, the international experience has demonstrated that school behaviour is changed when the stakes attached to tests are increased. This is shown by the annual breaches that occur during the administering NAPLAN tests, including cheating and inappropriate assistance by some teachers, and the way in which many schools prepare their students for NAPLAN, as indicated in this article. Further to this, the public release of NAPLAN allows parents to compare schools and can result in some schools losing students as parents opt to send their child to seemingly ‘better’ schools.

Professor Masters commented that high-quality tests are an important component of education, providing diagnostic data around topics or concepts that require attention, monitoring improvement over time and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of programs and interventions. The widely used Progressive Achievement Test (PAT) is an example of the kind of test that can be an invaluable part of a teacher’s toolkit.

I do agree with Professor Masters about the value of testing. At the beginning of this year, Stage Three students in my school all completed a series of diagnostic tests across reading, spelling, and mathematics. That data was invaluable in identifying those students who need additional assistance in particular areas, and plays a role in developing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for some students, and also for discussions with parents about the student’s results and progress throughout the year. It will also play an important role in quantifying students’ growth across the year when those tests are re-administered at various points throughout the year.

My final question to Professor Masters was his advice to new teachers as they enter their classrooms pressured to ensure that their students to achieve high NAPLAN results. He responded that “[t]here are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.” Professor Masters’ belief that the goal should be to improve our students’ literacy and numeracy levels, and that if we do raise the NAPLAN results, it should be as a result of improved literacy and numeracy levels. The problem, he pointed out, is that NAPLAN scores can be increased in ways that do not lead to better literacy and numeracy levels.

I am grateful to Professor Masters for his time and willingness to engage in the interview process. I very much look forward to hearing him speak at Education Nation, where he is speaking to the title Addressing the five key challenges in school education that matter to you on day one. Professor Masters will also be joining Dennis Yarrington, Dr. Kenneth Wiltshire and Lila Mularczyk for a panel discussion about Student Testing on day two. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation, I would encourage you to do so by clicking here.

As always, my thanks for reading, particularly given the length of this article. Please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or feedback via the comments section below or on Twitter.

Welcome Back to Term Two

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
― Attributed to Lao Tzu

Welcome back for term two! I hope the mid-semester break was a chance to recharge and be ready mentally as well as within your program, for term two. It was, for me, a busy break, and the return to school has also been busy.

I spent the first  Monday and Tuesday of the break attending a Foundation Level course for THRASS, a phonics-based literacy system. It was an absolutely fantastic two days and I feel much more confident that I can have a positive impact on my students literacy levels than I did previously. I will write a THRASS-focused article  at a later date, as I genuinely believe that it is a highly worthwhile system which can have highly positive impacts for students’ literacy abilities and understanding of the use of English.

I spent some time planning for the upcoming term, getting my program in order, and after having attended the THRASS course, am not happy with it. I feel that the value in certain aspects of the program is not particularly high, and the course has made me question why I am implementing that spelling program in that way. I hope to be able to invest some time over the coming three days solidifying that program for the term. I also would like to spend some time revising other aspects of my overall literacy program.

Mrs Mitchell reached the halfway mark of her pregnancy during the break, and we attended the clinic for the appropriate scans to check up on Youngling. It is this scan where the ultrasound technician can provide high quality three-dimensional images of the baby, if, that is, the baby cooperates. Youngling decided to wave her/his hands a lot while we were there and so the arms covered the face. We have elected not to determine the gender, and so will have quite the surprise in a few months time.

I spent the entirety of the second week of the holidays working on an application for a full-time permanent position, which I will be submitting this afternoon. I have had some incredibly valuable and useful feedback from my Principal which has helped me refine and strengthen the application and as a result, I feel that I have a good chance to reach the interview stage of the process.

Yesterday, I returned to school for our staff development day, and discovered that the school rebuild progressed significantly during the break, with foundations and footings now being in place for a number of sections. I have included a short video clip below.

View this post on Instagram

There's been a few changes! #PCPS #buildingsite

A post shared by Brendan Mitchell (@c21_teaching) on

The day was quite productive overall, with the whole staff meetings completed quickly after the relevant sessions had been delivered, allowing us to break into Stage meetings. Stage Three have a large number of events occurring this term, with PSSA Knockout events, the annual Year Six Canberra excursion, weekly coding being lessons delivered by ScopeIT, a bicycle safety and awareness excursion, a First Aid course, planning and preparation for the Year Five excursion to the NSW Sport and Recreation Point Wolstoncroft site in term three and planning and practice for the school athletics carnival. A busy term indeed! That is all before you factor in the semester one student reports.

I have also been successful in gaining consent for pre-conference interview from a number of speakers at the Education Nation conference in June which I am excited to conduct. I have already completed one, with some others in progress. If you have not yet completed your registration for Education Nation, I would urge you to do so, particularly if you are interested in the Elements portion of the conference as registration numbers for that aspect are limited. Click here to register.

I spent some time yesterday rearranging the room in an effort to improve the flow and functionality of our learning spaces, which has been received well by students thus far, and was excited to hear that my sister gave birth to a healthy baby girl yesterday morning.

I hope that your break and the return to school has filled you with excitement for the coming term, and that you are filled with enthusiasm and excitement for what is to come. As always, thank you for reading, and I would appreciate any feedback via the comments section below, or via Twitter.

The Morning Literacy Block

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics, and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman, and child can realize his or her full potential.”
― Attributed to Kofi Annan

How do you structure your morning literacy block with your students? How do you choose your texts for guided reading, independent reading, and how do you choose the tasks to be completed by students while you are reading with the other groups?  Mrs. W. and I are going through a process of refinement as we work to find the balance between structure and student choice, between finding texts that are interesting and engaging, yet also have a purpose behind their selection, and tasks for our Must Do / Can Do list that engage whilst also serving the educational purpose that we want. as a side-note, as you read, be aware that I am writing this on Monday afternoon, and thus any references to yesterday, today or tomorrow are made within that context.

At this point, the literacy block on my days looks something like this:

  • Students enter and mark their name off on the roll, put any notes or monies on my desk, and immediately commence DEAR (silent reading) while I process the notes and monies, hand out any receipts etc.
  • On Monday morning, we conduct a spelling pre-test. I read out the words for the week, students write them down, we mark and any incorrect words then become the spelling list for the week, with blanks being back-filled by topic words or words from an alternate list.
  • We move into reading groups, where I spend ten minutes reading a text and we go through some comprehension questioning while the rest of the class focuses on their Must Do / Can Do list of tasks.
    • Must Do
      • Look-Cover-Say-Write-Check. There is an element of it’s always been done to this task though I would apply the same CLT thought process to this as I do to multiplication facts.
      • Word analysis: Students to break down the word to determine the number of syllables, consonants/vowels, phonemes, graphemes and any digraphs or trigraphs. Students also then form a Monster word (a word constructed using the same phonemes with different graphemes. E.g. phyti instead of fish (PHysics-pYramid-staTIon))
      • Definition, synonyms, antonyms: To encourage familiarity with the use and alternate vocabulary.
      • Prefixes and Suffixes: Can any alternate words be formed using prefixes and/or suffixes.
    • Can Do
      • Mrs. W has provided a spelling menu with a range of literacy activities that serve various purposes, from vocabulary expansion to etymology awareness.
      • Creative writing using visual prompts, including an editing process.

We are finding mixed standards across our class, both in regards to the quality and the quantity of what is being completed and handed in, and thus far, we have worked on finding a structure for the morning that provides independence to students to carry on with their tasks without needing our guidance every step of the way.

Initially, we provided a list of the tasks that must be completed and those that are then able to be worked through afterward, whilst we were with the guided reading group. This seemed to be too much independence, at this point in the year, as we found we were constantly having to answer questions from students about what they needed to do next, what they could do when they were finished etc. and it was completely ruining the flow of what we were looking to achieve with the reading group.

Following this, I had students decide in advance the order they were going to complete tasks in, thinking that having a plan of attack would allow them to focus on completing the tasks, give them confidence that they knew what they were doing, and allow me to focus on my reading group. This also failed, as some students spent far too long vacillating about the order in which they wished to complete tasks.

Last Wednesday I tried a different scenario and it worked very well, with students on task, engaged, and asking each other questions rather than disturb the reading group I was witrh. Today, I thought that I would use the same structure, given that it worked well last week, and discovered something that veteran teachers probably are well aware of:

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/zwqtban 29 February 201

 

Last week I structured reading groups loosely akin to reading groups that you would find in an infants classroom (indeed, they were very similar to how reading groups were structured in the Year One class in which I completed one of my professional experience placements). I put on the board the order in which I would see the reading groups, and the tasks that the other groups were to complete whilst I was with each group. I suspect that it failed today, whereas it worked last week, as today I attached group names to specific tasks, indicating what I wanted them to start on first.

This cause issues as some of the tasks required less time than I was with a reading group, and those students were left, apparently, floundering, not knowing what to do, and unable it seems to take the initiative to move on to the next tasks on the board. Having thought about it this afternoon, I know how I will structure things tomorrow to hopefully resolve that issue.

Tomorrow, when I indicate to students to move into reading groups, I will put on the screen the exact tasks and the order in which they are to be completed. In between each group, I will take a few minutes to quickly circulate and check students’ progress through the tasks (something I did not do today, which I think compounded the issue), signing off on each student so that I can track how they are progressing through the tasks, knowing that I am spending approximately ten minutes with each reading group. This will also help me gauge the appropriateness of the tasks they are being asked today in a certain timeframe.

I feel, upon reflection on the term thus far, that I was so frustrated by lost time early in the year due to a variety of factors (some of which I wrote about here) that I forgot to spend time bedding down good structures and process in the class in an effort to catch up to where I needed to be according to the scope and sequence documents, and am now paying the price, with structures still somewhat loose which is having repercussions in regards to what we are achieving.

I would very much like to hear how you structure your literacy block and reading groups, so please, leave a comment either here or on Twitter, and as always, thank you for reading. I am unlikely to post an article tomorrow (Wednesday) as I will be attending the FutureSchools expo and conference. If you are going, let me know. It would be great to catch up with some Tweeps. If you have not heard of FutureSchools before or are unable to make it this year, you can find my review of last year below, and this year’s reviews will appear over the week or two post-FutureSchools.

FutureSchools 2015 Review Articles

The difference a day can make

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
― Attributed to Edward Everett Hale

What a difference a day can make. In my previous article, I perhaps sounded rather more woe is me than I intended. Today, I actually felt like I found traction in my teaching. I got through most of what I planned for my literacy block, all of what I intended for my numeracy block and, unfortunately, none of what I had planned for my science lesson this afternoon due to a guest session about mindfulness from the school counsellor that I had unfortunately forgotten to diarise.

That said, I feel like today was a success and am leaving school happy. I was here at 0600 this morning to achieve that, having left yesterday evening at 1800, and continued to get work done at home, despite planning to relax, but I got there. I am now off to Newcastle for a fitness test, which I mentioned in yesterday’s article and need to leave now in order to get there on time. It will mean another late night and early morning to get myself ready for tomorrow, but I am feeling much more positive as well.

I hope to have time to reflect further on the differences between today and the last few days tomorrow morning, but we will have to see how that goes. Until next time, thank you for reading, and enjoy your afternoon.

The Student “Eureka!”

“One of the very important characteristics of a student is to question. Let the students ask questions.”
– Attributed to A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

A positive article to round out the week, and I would like you to consider what your ‘win’ for the week was with your students and leave it in the comments. I was on a Year One class today, one that I have not had this year for no other reason than I have just not been assigned to that class. The teacher for whom I was covering for the day had left an outline of what she wanted to be completed over the course of the day. Nothing too onerous, some mathematics, some spelling, some HSIE and some grammar.

The class has been learning about nouns and verbs and this particular worksheet that had been left for them to do took them onto adjectives. It was a grid of words and the students were required to colour the nouns in blue; the verbs in red and the adjectives in yellow. We had the conversation about what an adjective was, and I reaffirmed that they understood what nouns and verbs were and sent them off to their tables.

About ten minutes later, one of the students came to me with a confused look on her face.

Mr Mitchell, what do I do with ‘open’? I can open the door, which means it’s a doing word, a verb, but I can also describe the door as being open, which makes it an adjective.”

It was a fantastic moment because it was a genuine demonstration that she understood the concepts and had integrated what a verb, an adjective and a noun were into her schema of the English language and could apply it in different contexts. I did read the worksheet particularly closely; I scanned the instructions to clarify what it was about before the session, but I did not look at each of the words in the grid. It was a fantastic moment and one that has gone in my Book of Wins (a hardcover notebook mum gave me as a graduation gift after I completed my Teaching degree as a way of recording the small things that happen that are ‘wins’ with the students and which will remind me why I teach on the inevitable bad days.

Reading for Professional Development

“The best advice I ever got was that knowledge is power and to keep reading.”
– Attributed to David Bailey

As a child I would read at any opportunity, even if it was only a few lines, I would grab the book of the moment, read the few lines I had time to read and then keep going. This often occurred, much to my mothers frustration, in the morning when I should have been getting ready for school, and would conveniently forget that fact, and become absorbed in the story. I grew up with a plethora of solid Australian authors to choose from, with my two favourites being John Marsden and Morris Gleitzman. Mum introduced me to Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum. Eventually Timothy Zahn re-introduced fans world wide to the Star Wars universe with the release of his Heir to the Empire trilogy, which for me served as a re-ignition of a much loved saga.

Somewhere along the way, between then and now, my reading habits changed. Growing up, I was a voracious reader and would often fall asleep with an open book late at night. At some point, my habit of reading for a while before bed every night changed to a habit of reading if I had time before bed, which evolved into it being too late to read, maybe tomorrow night.  I still read, just not as often. I found that I had fallen too far behind in the release schedule of the Star Wars novels and I did not know where to start in order to catch back up. I dived into Middle Earth, reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and the various titles in the Unfinished Tales from Middle Earth series.

Then I got to university, and my reading habits changed again. I had to read. The texts that I was required to read in order to complete tasks were often written in dry and dense language that is often associated with academia, and I began to churn through three of four journal articles a day, purely for the purpose of completing the assignment. Though I (occasionally) found the various texts I was reading interesting in themselves, they often simply served to aid in the completion of an assignment. Reading for pleasure became something that I did not have time for.

I had long disdained e-books, I am not entirely sure why, other than a love of the smell of books and the feeling of holding a book and turning the page, but I had not engaged with Kindles and the like at all. I then discovered, quite accidentally, fanfiction.net and turned to it for five minute bouts of reading while I ate breakfast. I have, over the last twelve months, made a conscious effort to return to ensuring I read for pleasure. I have worked through the Magician series by Raymond E. Feist, and I have read through each of the immense books that George R.R. Martin has published thus far in the Song of Ice and Fire saga.

I was left with a dilemma. I had engaged in various avenues of ongoing professional development; attending FutureSchools in March of this year and participating semi-regularly in various education chats on Twitter however, I had not made any effort to engage with literature for professional development. Something about the nature of reading journal articles for university assignments had deadened an enjoyment of reading for professional development, and though I had skimmed a handful of journal articles, I had not engaged fully with any form of professional development through reading.

This term I am making a commitment. I purchased a copy of Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez whilst at FutureSchools, and had started to read through it on the train ride home that afternoon, yet having just been offered a temporary contract, I began to focus what spare time I had on developing a program to suit the specific role I had been assigned, and had, unfortunately, not returned to it. I also recently purchased a copy of Hacking Education by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez, which I have not even opened. So in order to return to reading for both pleasure and for professional development, I commit to reading through a chapter a week, beginning with Invent to Learn, and using this platform to solidify my learning, the ideas and inspiration, the challenges and the professional avenues I wish to explore, as a result of the reading, with one blog article each week, beginning next week, devoted to the previous week’s reading.