Using space as a learning tool

What are school libraries used for? I think it’s safe to say that most teachers take their students to the library for physical resources like using laptops, computers, books for research or books for reading. I use to do that too. But lately I have found that I take my students to the library not for these physical resources, but for space, learning spaces that are open and flexible. The colourful, funky, movable furniture also helps, but me and my students mainly use it for the space. We bring our own laptops if we need technology. When I think about it, it’d probably be almost as sufficient if the library was a large, indoor carpeted area. With WiFi of course 🙂

Ever since I started project-based learning four years ago, it has driven more personalised, differentiated learning where students are working at different paces and at different tasks. During the one lesson, some students are working in pairs, others in small groups, and some individually. As the teacher, I might be working with an individual student, instructing a small group or instructing the whole class. What I am finding is that traditional classrooms are no longer sufficient for the pedagogy I have developed and grown into over the past four years with project-based learning. I am finding that being in a traditional classroom, that is designed to cater for 30 students, is now starting to restrict the learning of my students. We need an open space where students can find an area that suits their learning needs for the activity.

7A in library (2)

My class working in the school library in order to access an open learning space.

In the past two terms, I have been taking my students to the library for this specific purpose – space. The past fortnight has seen my students work in teams to design, conduct and report on an investigation to test factors that affect a parachute’s descent. For this project, students have to work in groups in some parts and individually in other parts. Students always end up progressing at different rates. This is where an open learning spaces is needed to enable this kind of learning to occur efficiently. However, teaching and learning in a open space has its challenges. The main ones I found are:


  • Students need to be taught and given the experience to learn how to work in an open space where there are other classes and school staff working as well.
  • Students need to be taught how to create their own little learning space in the open learning space. This includes knowing how arrange the funky, colourful furniture for the needs of the learning activity. This is why I no longer have seating plans for my classes. Students need to be given the opportunity to choose who they work with and where to sit or stand to work productively. If teachers always do this for them with seating plans, etc, students will never develop that ability.
  • Students need to be provided with the experience to develop self-regulation. The success of working in an open learning space is highly dependent on students to work individually, small groups and large groups simultaneously.

Eventually I’d like to be in a situation where there is team teaching of larger groups of students in large, open spaces. Where teaching and learning isn’t restricted an industrial model of one teacher per 30 students in a small classroom with a seating plan.

How do you use your learning spaces?


Field, tenor and mode – a literacy framework for all subjects

Literacy is a focus for every teacher, regardless of whether we are teaching primary school or high school, regardless of what subject we teach. Without strong literacy skills, our students cannot access the curriculum. Reading comprehension and writing are essential to succeed to every aspect of education.

One challenge I have always grappled with is how to create writers. I often feel like I have to continuously give scaffolds; a sheet to tell students this is how this text is supposed to be structured, you need to write this in this paragraph, make sure you use these connectives, etc, etc ,etc. I always asked how can I gradually remove these scaffolds so that students are 100% independent? It feels like I constantly have to provide scaffolds.

I think a reason why is the way I (and other teachers) approach extended writing. Too much focus has been on the overall text structure (eg.In a scientific investigation report, there is an aim, equipment then method. The method has to start with a verb and be in present tense.) There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it is not enough. It is not enough to say to students “Use PEEL to write your paragraphs. You need to write this paragraph so that it starts with a point, then elaboration, then provide an example then a sentence that links to the question. Throw in a complex sentence because you know, NAPLAN (Australian teachers will understand the NAPLAN bit).” But why do we have to write in complex sentences? Why do we use nominalisation? The PEEL stuff and text structure do not teach students why some words and sentence structures are favoured for particular texts and purposes, particularly academic texts.

So what else what needs to be done? I think the field-tenor-mode framework needs to be the overarching strategy. I came across field, tenor and mode a few years ago and am currently doing a refresher course. Field, tenor and mode are components of linguistics. Every text, regardless of subject, can be viewed from the field-tenor-mode framework. To put it simply, field is the subject matter of the text; tenor is the relationship between the author and the audience; and mode is how the text is constructed, particularly whether it is written-like or spoken-like. I think tenor is something that schools do not do well. The relationship between the author and the audience is essential is what words you choose. For an example, an email to a friend and a book review have very different relationships between the audience and the author. Frankly, schools don’t do audience very well. Very rarely do students know the audience of their extended writing.

Mode can help students in moving their writing towards being more written-like. Many, many students write texts in a spoken-like manner when formal, academic texts need to be written-like. This is where the complex sentences come in. Written-like texts are more lexically dense. To write a text that is lexically dense requires complex sentences, which may also require nominalisation. Designing activities where students can learn this will enable them to know why and when certain sentence structures need to be utilised.

So I am now using the field-tenor-mode framework for my students whenever they are composing any text, for any subject. Here are some resources I have created so far. All resources can be used for any subject.

  • A short video to explain field, tenor and mode to students


field tenor mode text composition planning sheet

Text composition planning sheet

Flipped learning isn’t about making videos


I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how I go about flipped learning for my Year 7 class since I blogged about it in a previous post. I teach my Year 7 class for English, Maths, Science, Geography and History and we use flipped learning in maths. Here are some misconceptions about flipped learning I’d like to address:

1. Flipped learning isn’t about making videos.

Flipped learning involves students watching instructional videos, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the teacher has to make those videos. Many teachers don’t want to try flipped learning because they are concerned about the time it takes to create instructional videos. This is a valid concern as creating instructional videos do take up time. Personally I have created some maths instructional videos using OfficeMix but only when I don’t find suitable instructional videos that are already freely available online. There are so, so many instructional videos on the internet that it isn’t necessary for each individual teacher to create videos and re-invent the wheel. Some of my favourite sites for maths instructional videos are ABC Splash and BBC Bitesize.

Flipped learning is not about creating videos, but rather a change in pedagogy. Instead of the teacher spending class time on whole-class instruction, whole-class instruction is done via instructional videos with students viewing those videos individually in class or at home. This enables more class time to be dedicated to student collaboration and students gaining guidance from the teacher. It enables more personalised learning as it doesn’t force all students to listen to the same instructions regardless of whether they understand it or not, like traditional instruction. It also allows students to work at their own pace. If they have been absent from school, it’s OK. They haven’t missed out on the instruction because they can watch the video. Personally I find that it works the best in maths lessons because my Year 7 class has students who are working at a Year 9 level and students who are working at a Year 5 level. Flipped learning enables me as their teacher to better personalise and differentiate their learning. The photo below shows the set-up of one flipped maths lesson where I worked with a small group of students near the whiteboard while the rest of the class used instructional videos to move on to the next concept. Flipped learning frees students from doing the same thing at the same pace.

flipped learning classroom setup

Classroom set up for one maths lesson where one group of students (near the whiteboard) needed small-group instruction and guidance from me as their teacher while the rest of the class moved onto the next concept.

So don’t let the video creation scare you off from flipped learning. Use videos that are already out there.

2. You don’t have to do flip all the time.

Just like all other teaching strategies, flipped learning isn’t the most appropriate all of the time. For me, my class has 3 hours of maths a week (a two-hour block on Wednesday and a one-hour block on Friday). I use flipped learning in the two-hour lesson and use the one-hour lesson to do formative assessment activities.

3. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

I think the “proper” flipped learning approach is for students to watch the instructional videos at home. For my students, that wouldn’t work for a range of reasons so they watch the videos in class.  Do what works for you and your students.

The key is to try it. Don’t let the video creation aspect scare you. Use videos that are already out there. Flip for a few lessons to start with and see how it goes.

Steps to HSC Success #MTM2016


This blog post is a collection of tweets from the 2016 Meet the Markers. The event had the Twitter hashtag of #MTM2016. I wanted to do a Storify but Storify isn’t working so hence this blog post. MTM2016 is a teacher professional learning event where teachers learn how HSC science exams are marked and how to teach students to maximise their HSC achievement

I wasn’t personally at MTM2016 due to a school event, but was able to learn from it via Twitter. The power of social media.

How to teach the reasons for the seasons


Diagram showing the Earth revolving around the Sun. Image is public domain.

Why does the Earth have seasons? This, along with other phenomena associated with Earth’s movement in space, is regularly taught throughout primary school and high school. In New South Wales, Australia, students learn the seasons from Year 3/4 through to Year 7/8.  By the time students reach high school (Year 7/8), they know that it is the Earth’s tilt and its revolution around the Sun are associated with the seasons. However, many students don’t know why or they hold the misconception that the Earth’s tilt causes the Southern Hemisphere to be a little bit closer to the Sun during some times of the year and this little bit of extra closeness to the Sun causes it to be warmer, so hence summer, and vice versa for winter. In reality, the Earth being tilted while it is revolving around the Sun results in variations of solar intensity due to varying angles of incidence. This is a very difficult concept for students to grasp. I have found the following collection of activities useful in guiding Year 7/8 students to understand the real reasons for the seasons.

Identify the misconceptions

Ask students to explain why the Earth has seasons. The majority of students will be able to say something about the Earth’s tilt and its revolution around the Sun. Many will stop there. Some will go on with the misconception about the slight changes in the distance between the hemispheres and the Sun causing the seasons.

Investigation – Angle of insolation and heat distribution

Students to work in groups in an investigation like this one to explore how the angle of insolation affects heat distribution, which in turn results in variations of temperatures and daylight hours as the Earth revolves around the Sun. I find that many students experience difficulty with this activity. Not only is the concept of seasons caused by angle of insolation challenging enough, but the activity itself is challenging as it uses challenging numeracy concepts.


I find this video from Crash Course kids effective in reinforcing the concepts discovered in the investigation.

How do you teach reasons for the seasons? Do you also find that students in Year 7/8 have difficulty understanding it conceptually? What hands-on activities do you do with your students?

How can we make Mars the perfect planet for the perfect society?

How can we make Mars the perfect planet for the perfect society?

This is the project my Year 7s will work on in Term 2. The project will be a cross-curricular project involving English, Science, Geography and History. In English, students will be reading the novel, The Giver, to explore a “perfect” society. In Science, they will be learning about space and space travel. In Geography, they will be learning about what makes a society (laws, types of government, etc) and in History, they will be learning about Ancient Rome as a society. Students will produce a range of learning artefacts for this project, including building their own “perfect” society in Minecraft.

Here’s their project outline. Keep in mind I had to frame this project with restrictions of existing assessments in place for all the subjects.

How can we make Mars the perfect planet for a perfect society-

I have also made a project progress wall in my classroom. Previously, I have found it challenging to keep track of the stages students are up to for their projects. Having the project wall will enable students to see the major milestones of the project and allow me and the whole class to visually see where everyone is up to.

This project will be launched to the class next week. Watch this space for updates 🙂

TeachMeet Kids – enabling teachers with young families to connect and share their practice

TeachMeet Kids

This week there was a TeachMeet with a difference. I organised the first TeachMeet Kids, a family-friendly TeachMeet. TeachMeets are a group of educators who come together to share their practice. Traditionally TeachMeets are held during after-school hours (between 5pm and 7pm) followed by TeachEat (dinner and drinks). I use to regularly go to TeachMeets but haven’t in the last year due to the birth of my daughter. I noticed that quite a few other educators have dropped out of the TeachMeet circles due to having children. Early evening is not a good time for teachers with young children. A few educators with young children indicated that they felt disconnected due to this.

And this thought came to me:

Why can’t we have a kid-friendly TeachMeet?

Why can’t we have a TeachMeet where educators can bring their children (if they wish)?

Why can’t we have a TeachMeet that’s during the day as early evening is reserved for the dinner and bath routine for the little ones and not everyone is lucky enough to have family to look after the kids?

The result of these thoughts was TeachMeet Kids. While TeachMeet Kids was targeted at educators with young children, any educator can attend. It was held in the school holidays during the day. Educators can bring their little ones if they wanted to. The venue was kid-friendly. It was pram accessible, had pram parking, close to public transport, had car parking, had baby change rooms and baby feeding facilities. All attendees knew to expect some rowdiness because this TeachMeet will also be attended by kids.

Australian National Maritime Museum very kindly provided a free space for TeachMeet Kids. Not only that, their museum educators also took the kids around on a pirates tour.

For me, TeachMeet Kids gave me back the opportunity to connect with educators like I did pre-baby days. I think TeachMeet Kids also enables the education community to tap into the expertise of educators who have young families. I learnt so much from the presenters. From how to use Kahoot! to enhance formative assessment, enabling all students to be leaders, film-making using mobile devices and making crystal radios to what it’s like to be a museum educator and embedding selfies as a learning tool.

I am looking forward to seeing more TeachMeet Kids 🙂

Project evaluation – What to do again? What to change next time?

My Year 7 class has just finished one of their projects. It’s semi project based learning. I usually do a quasi PBL at the start of the year to assess my students’ existing abilities to work independently and collaboratively on projects. Here’s an outline of the project.

language project

Now that this project has finished. I’d like to reflect on what worked and what can be changed next time.

What worked and should be done again

  • The theme and content of water ties Geography and Science together very well. For this project we focused on the water cycle (for both Science and Geography), the social impacts of water (Geography) and separation techniques to obtain clean water (Science).
  • Using Science and Geography as the content for English. The end project of the speech is originally an English assessment for Year 7s (whether they did PBL or not). Using the water concepts from Science and Geography as the content for the speech was a very efficient way of using time.
  • Using Google Docs as cycles of feedback. The students used Google Docs for the different formative assessment components. Using the Editing mode and Comments in Google Docs enabled an efficient way for feedback to be provided and acted on.
  • Using Google Forms for students to give feedback on each others’ final speeches.


What needs to be changed next time

  • The Driving Question. I was not a huge fan of this Driving Question. Next time I will have students create a persuasive product that convinced young people to donate to a charity that addressed water issues. I don’t know what the driving question will be for that but I think the end product is more meaningful that the current speech to their peers.
  • Sharing the end product to a wider audience. For this project this time around, we didn’t upload the videos of the students’ speeches online as many of the students did not feel confident enough to so. I originally had the idea of TED talk style speeches given by students. However, their speeches given in front of the class was still top quality. Just because it isn’t on YouTube, it doesn’t mean the end product isn’t worthy.
  • Feedback on giving speeches. For this project, we spent a lot of time on the language of persuasiveness. The speeches went through 3 cycles of feedback for each student. While we did look at some speech samples, we didn’t go through nearly enough feedback cycles for the actual act of speech giving. This is what I have to work on next time. I’m thinking of using a video annotation tool for students to annotate evidence of effective speech presentation for next time.


Work life satisfaction – my #edugoal progress

Previously I have blogged about my #edugoals for 2016, one of which is work life satisfaction. I don’t think I have achieved it. I sometimes still feel very overwhelmed being a teacher and also a Head Teacher.

And then I saw this photo posted on Twitter from a book by @teachertoolkit.

One thing I’m learning to accept is that there’s always more to do. It doesn’t matter how much you do as a teacher, there’s always more you can do. I’m learning not to stress too much when the to do list isn’t completed. Don’t get me wrong; I do know how to priortise . But what I have forgotten to do was to have wellbeing in the priority list as well. What I’m doing now is adding wellbeing activities on the to do list. Things like read Harry Potter or watch TV, because these little things are just as important as replying to the never-ending emails and modifying programs.

What do you do to achieve work life satisfaction?

Flipped learning – the ups and downs

This year I’m trialling flipped learning for my Year 7 class. I have one Year 7 class who I teach for 5 subjects – English, Maths, Science, Geography and History. For maths, I’ve decided to try flipped learning in order to be more efficient at differentiated learning.

So what made me feel the need to try flipped learning? In the first couple of weeks when I had maths lessons with my class, I’d find myself spending 20-30 minutes explaining the concept and doing worked examples as whole class instruction. I found that the whole class instruction treated every student as the same; that every student knew nothing about the concepts I was explaining. However the reality was that some students already knew how to do the maths I was explaining. Some students didn’t but picked it up quickly. Some students needed the explanations to be repeated. Other students needed individual instruction. I asked myself, ‘How can I better differentiate my maths lessons so that students are able to move at their own pace and allow me to provide individualised instruction more easily?’ The answer was flipped learning with OfficeMix.

Here’s an example of one of my OfficeMix maths videos:

I’m not doing the traditional flipped learning where students watch explanation videos at home and then do the exercises in class. I’ve modified it so that students watch the explanation videos in class. I find this version of modified flipped learning work for my students.

So here’s the ups and downs I have found so far with flipped learning:


  • OfficeMix is a really easy tool for making instruction/explanation videos. Because it is part of PowerPoint, it is extremely accessible to teachers (all teachers are familiar with PowerPoint). OfficeMix also have analytics where you can see how many times students have viewed a video and how long they spent watching certain sections. I have not used this feature yet.
  • Flipped learning allows my students to move at their own pace. Those who pick up concepts very quickly can move on quickly. Those that need more time can rewind and watch certain parts again. This then enables me to go around to each student and help them as individuals.
  • The videos allow students (and their families) to review the explanations at a later date, which is great for revision.

Downs (I prefer to label them as “areas to work on”)

  • Flipped learning is an acquired skill and needs to be taught. Flipped learning requires students to be independent learners, to know themselves whether they understand a concept or require further help. As a teacher, I need to teach this to my students.
  • Making the videos do take time. I have 4 hours of maths a week and I find that 1 to 2 videos per week is the most effective. We don’t have new videos in every lesson.
  • The need to copy information – I found that with the videos, some students did not take the time to process the information. They just watched it. In my latest videos, I have included instructions for students to copy the worked examples in the video as I believe the act of writing out the working out process will allow students to take the time to process the information.

So far, I think this version of flipped learning is working for my students. I am planning to evaluate this strategy with student surveys and focus groups in a few week’s time.