A humbling experience 

Today at the bank a lady approached me and asked some questions to confirm who I was. She then told me she thought it was me and she followed my blog. I was in utter shock as I never knew my ramblings would result in being recognised in public. The lady walked away quickly as I think she was busy. But I was in such a surprise I was lost for words. Hopefully I didn’t seem rude. So if you are that lady, I’d like to say thank you for reading my blog. If we bump into each other again, I hope we will have more time to chat 🙂

Breastfeeding and being a teacher – how to make it work


Term 1 is over. I have survived 10 weeks of full time work while continuing to breastfeed my baby, who was 6 months old when I returned to work. In my last post, I shared my challenges to continue providing my baby with breastmilk while working full time. Since that post was published I have received many comments on this blog and from Facebook and Twitter from mothers-to-be and mothers soon returning to work on how the post has given them an insight into how they can continue to breastfeed their children when they return to work.

Continue to breastfeed while working full time is challenging for anyone. However, being a teacher is particularly challenging. A non-breastfeeding teacher will tell you how little time there is during the school day. Most teachers, without need to express breastmilk, are already so busy they do not have time to use the bathroom. Many teachers don’t even have time to eat.

So after completing a term of school, I’d like to share again my experience at breastfeeding my baby while working as a full time teacher. The main purpose of this post is like my previous post – to share my experience and hopefully someone else can benefit from it. It is also to get breastfeeding ‘out there’, as breastfeeding is often an issue that is hidden and not spoken about. This I believe is the main challenge of breastfeeding. The community knows almost nothing about it and the more everyone knows the more they can support breastfeeding mums returning to work.

As a teacher, these are the things to consider and talk with your school leaders before returning to work:

  • Where to express – Negotiate a place to express that is private, can be locked, has electricity and close to a fridge and freezer. The place preferably will have a sink with an area where you can leave your expressing equipment to air dry. Staff should know that this room is for mothers to express. I express in my classroom as it is not being used much this year for timetabled classes. I can leave my equipment there to air dry and it is extremely close to my staffroom where I use the fridge and freezer to store expressed breastmilk.
  • Let the relevant colleagues know that your availability is limited at recess and lunch (even if you are expressing at times outside of recess and lunch, you need these breaks to eat and drink). I told my faculty that I will be expressing twice a day. None of my students have asked about expressing yet. If they did, I would tell them like it is. This of course is a personal choice. It also means negotiating around recess and lunch staff meetings.
  • Let coordinators of whole day events like swimming carnivals of your expressing requirements. At my school’s  swimming carnival, I was able to use the pool’s freezer. I was assigned carnival duties that enabled me to leave and express twice. I had to express in my car in the pool car park but that’s ok for a one off event.
  • Be aware that whole day excursions will be extremely difficult. I let my school’s leaders know that I will not be able to go on excursions until my baby turns 1 year old.
  • Work out how you are going to handle student issues that are usually handled at recess and lunch. For example, recess and lunch detentions cannot be part of your classroom management plan if you are expressing during these times.

If you are a public school teacher in NSW, there is a breastfeeding policy. Ask for it from your principal. NSW DEC is very supportive of breastfeeding.

I am hoping that this post will make it easier to other mothers to continue breastfeeding when they return to work, particularly teachers. I’m also hoping that this post will raise awareness amongst all educators so they know what they can do to support their colleagues who are breastfeeding. Support from colleagues and the school is vital to making breastfeeding work when a mother returns to work, which is why I like to thank my wonderful colleagues and school for making my transition back to work such a positive experience.

Project Mars – learning science by being real scientists

My Year9 class has just completed Project Mars, a project based learning unit in conjunction with the Powerhouse Museum where they get to take on the role as NASA space scientists and find out whether Mars can support life. This is done by remotely controlling a Mars rover on a recreated Mars surface, just like NASA scientists remotely control their Mars rover, Curiosity, on Mars.

The project involved Year 9s coming up with their own research questions and hypotheses for the driving question “Can Mars support life?” Some examples of the Year 9s’ research questions were: “Is there carbon on Mars?”, “Is there nitrogen on Mars?”, “Are there copper and cobalt on Mars?” And “Are there signs of water on Mars?”. All questions were based on what students already know about what is needed to support life. Eg. Life we know are all carbon based; nitrogen is needed to build DNA and amino acids; and copper and cobalt are needed to generate electricity, which is vital if Mars is to support human life.

Students worked in teams over a term on this project. They had to learn how to control the Mars Rover so that it will safely navigate the Mars surface (crashing it will waste the millions of dollars spent on getting the rover to Mars). They had to learn how the Mars Rover took samples of the Mars surface (through photos and lasers which generate data for spectrographs). They also had to learn the science content on how the Mars Rover gathered data and how to interpret the data, which involved learning about atomic structure, atoms, the wave theory and spectrographs.

Students and a mission day where they used laptops to remotely control the Mars Rover to gather the necessary data from places which they had previously determined from maps. The unit concluded with students presenting to, and received feedback, from the Powerhouse Museum, an astrobiologist from the University of NSW and their parents. We also had a Project Mars cake to celebrate the students’ achievements.

Overall this was a very challenging project, and year 9s rose up to the challenge and did a fantastic job. Also, this project would not be this successful if it wasn’t for Smriti Mediratta, who took over the last part of the project as I went on maternity leave. This project allowed students to experience what it’s like to work as a space scientist and enables them to participate in authentic science that engages them more than any textbook or whiz-bang experiments on atoms and waves could.

For more information on Project Mars, visit The Mars Lab.




Science with gummy bears

Gummy bears are not only a delicious treat, they also have multiple uses in science. This term my year 9 class are completing a project called Project Mars. Project Mars is a joint project with the Powerhouse Museum where students can remotely control a Mars Rover to perform experiments on a recreated Martian surface to find out whether Mars could support life.

To collect and analyse the data from these experiments on the Martian surface, students need to learn about atoms and waves, and this is where gummy bears come in. Gummy bears have come in really handy for two experiments showing the properties of light.

(1) Gummy bears and laser experiment

Gummy bears can be used to show how light is absorbed, transmitted and reflected. This activity show why objects have different colours.

Students shined a red laser light onto red gummy bears and green gummy bears. The red light will transmit and reflect on the red gummy bears, but absorbed by the green gummy bears. Students then shined a green laser light onto red gummy bears and green gummy bears and compare the observations. This experiment makes the concept of absorption, transmission and reflection of light more real to students.


(2) Gummy bear wave machine

I came across this experiment on YouTube. Gummy bears, skewers and duct tape is used to make a wave machine to demonstrate a range of properties of waves. I really like this experiment as it is a hands-on and visual way to show students properties of waves and works a lot better than skipping ropes and slinkys.



Acting out the nitrogen cycle

I’ve always found the nitrogen cycle to be one of those concepts that students find difficult to understand. Not only are there so many unfamiliar terms and ideas (denitrifying bacteria, nitrogen fixation, different types of ammonia, etc), but students often think that the nitrogen cycle is linear, that all nitrogen atoms go around the cycle step by step. I often hear questions like “Where does the nitrogen cycle start?”

To challenge this misconception, I decided to play the nitrogen cycle game with my Year 9s this year. I first saw this activity in action from my student teacher, Smriti Mediratta, who is now a temporary teacher in my faculty. She adapted the activity from a range of websites such as this one.  All you have to do is to place station signs that show reservoirs of nitrogen and place 1 dice on each sign. Students then role play a nitrogen atom and follow the instructions on each sign. On their nitrogen cycle journey, they fill out a worksheet to show where they went in each step and how they got there.

Note that these resources have been created by Smriti so hat tip to her 🙂

During the activity, I heard one group say “We are going to soil again. We are always going to soil!” From this and the class discussion afterwards, it was evident that students understood that the nitrogen cycle is non-linear; that some nitrogen atoms might never go to all reservoirs and just go from one to another.


I also found this activity to be effective in allowing students to physically act out the nitrogen cycle, which makes it more memorable than just reading a text and looking at a a diagram. If you are a science teacher, I highly recommend trying this activity with your students.

Formative assessment with hexagons

Formative assessment is something I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on over the past few years. I’m so sick of just relying of end-of-topic exams to gauge what students have learnt. I want my students to continuously question how they are going and make changes to their learning accordingly. This is one of the reasons that my faculty has embarked on a Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) journey this year. One of the ways that many teachers using SOLO use to assess student learning is with SOLO hexagons.

SOLO hexagons involves the major concepts or ideas from a topic to be placed individually onto hexagons. Students then work individually or in groups to connect the hexagon concepts together and they must justify why they have made these connections. It is the justification where both the teacher and the student can assess the student’s learning. It is how students have connected the hexagons and their justification of WHY they have done it that way that allows their learning and thinking to then be assessed using the SOLO taxonomy (or not; the hexagon activity still works with no understanding of SOLO).

Here’s a video showing one way of using the SOLO hexagons in a UK science class.

Here’s an explanation of how to use SOLO hexagons from the SOLO guru, Pam Hooke.

I changed the hexagon activity slightly to suit the needs of my students. The picture shows the instructions that my students received.

instructions for hexagon activity

And here are the hexagons my students used (note that the hexagons were pre-cut for students and placed into zip lock bags with the above instruction card). My students worked in groups of 2 to 4. I used the SOLO hexagon generator to create the hexagons.

Here’s some samples of the hexagons my students made.




Some things I noticed was that:

  • My students were all fantastic at explaining each hexagon concept
  • Some groups connected all the nervous system concepts and the endocrine system concepts together, showing they had an understanding that the nervous system and endocrine system worked together. However all the groups had the immune system concepts separate altogether. I did spend a lot of class time making it explicit that the nervous system and the endocrine system work together to control and coordinate the body. And while the students’ project was to make a fact sheet about how a particular disease/health issue affected the nervous system and the endocrine system, they seem to think that the immune system works on its own and is completely separate from the other systems.

From this activity we discussed their SOLO levels of understanding and how they can use their hexagon connections to see whether they were at a unistructural level, multistructural level, relational level or extended abstract level. Most students concluded they were at a relational level for most concepts and some thought they were extended abstract for some parts of the topic.

The SOLO hexagon activity is definitely something I will use again with my students. Now that they have done it once, the next time will run even better. Feedback from students was that they enjoyed talking about science with each other and that they learnt a lot from each other just by listening to what others had to say about each concept.


3 lessons from swim school for science teachers

Swimming pool

This image was originally posted to Flickr by ruurmo at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rufino_uribe/178577542/. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In the last few weeks of school for the year, I got the opportunity to teach swimming to a small group of students. At our school, Year 7-10 students participate in a ten-day swimming program where they learn swimming and survival skills. This year I taught six Year 8 students and the experience has enabled me to reflect on how I can improve as a science teacher. These were the lessons I learnt by being a teacher a swim school:

Lesson #1 – Know the end at the beginning

In swim school, the students I taught had to demonstrate skills such as diving, swimming continuously for 200 metres using a range of recongised strokes and survival and rescue skills in order to pass their swimming level. The students knew what they had to do to pass their level at the very start of swim school. They were shown what each skill looks like (eg. a good dive looks like) at the start either by another student demonstrating or by video. How often do we do this in regular science classes? At the beginning of a unit, do we as teacher sshow explicitly to students what they should be able to demonstrate at the end? When students learn about atoms, are they clear on what they need to be able to do at the end of the topic? This is why I’m a big fan of using learning intentions and success criteria in science lessons. This is also why I’m a big fan of using projects to drive learning. Learning intentions, success criteria and projects enable students to know where they’re heading towards.

Lesson #2 – Opportunity for mastery

Practice makes perfect. At swim school, the students practised each skill every day so they can make small improvements each day. For example students practised a quite challenging survival sequence each day where they had to tread water for 4 minutes, do a surface dive and swim underwater then swim for 6 minutes continuously using various survival swimming strokes. At the start, nearly all students found the sequence physically exhausting and could not do it. However we practised twice a day and by the 5th day of swim school, they were all able to do it. It was still challenging but they could all do it. How often in regular school science lessons do we allow students to practise the same skills until they master it? In school science lessons, we seem to allow one lesson for students to master a skill or understanding and we then move on. If the survival swim sequence was taught like a typical science lesson, all my students would be allowed one lesson to master it, then the topic would move on and the students would not be asked to demonstrate the survival swim sequence again until the end of the topic. All learners want mastery. As Dan Pink says, mastery is what motivates us to keep going. It is why people spend hours practising musical instruments. How often do science teachers allow the time and opportunity for their students to master science?

Lesson #3 – Rapport

I’m not talking about teacher rapport with students. All teachers know that rapport with students is vital for effective teaching and learning. I’m talking about rapport with students. For my swim school group, it just so happened they were a group of students who knew each other well and got along. They were supportive of each other and encouraged each other, particularly in learning challenging skills. Because of this, they were not afraid to take risks in their learning in front of each other.

I always knew that high-performing groups of students were ones that have a positive and supportive relationship with each other. Even till now I don’t think I spend enough time and effort to enable the students in my regular science classes to get to know each other as learners and develop positive relationships each other. In high school science lessons (and probably in most other subjects), teachers plow straight into content and assume that the class of young people in front of them know and get along with each other. Do we as teachers put sufficient time and resources to develop a supportive learning community amongst our students?

Knowing the end goal, enough time to develop mastery and rapport are nothing new; they are well-known essential elements for successful learning. They are also more evident in subjects that students tend to enjoy the most like sport and art. At a time where science educators are trying to figure out how to reverse the trend of declining enrolments in science in the post-compulsory years of schooling, it is a time for us to reflect how well do set up learning for our students.

Using music to engage students in science

My Year 8s are currently learning about the periodic table. The periodic table is often not the most exciting thing for middle school students. A few months ago one of my students sent me a YouTube link to a song about the periodic table so I thought I’d use it in class to introduce the periodic table in a more interesting way.

The class absolutely loved it! Much more than I thought. When I played the video the first time, a student found some laminated periodic tables on my desk and started handing them out to everyone so they can look at the periodic table while following the song. I have never seen a 13 year old voluntarily getting a periodic table and spending 10 minutes just looking at it (they kept replaying the song as some of them set themselves the goal of learning the lyrics). This is a short video of how the class engaged with the song. (I had to place a visual effect over the video to protect student identities)

After the song, we did the usual worksheets where students look for the symbols of common elements, etc.

I often receive comments that using songs like these trivializes the science and perhaps “wastes” learning time. But I’d rather spend 20 minutes with this song and have students engaged and interested.

TeachMeet at the Zoo – a different kind of Professional Learning

Last week I had the privilege of leading a science-flavoured TeachMeet with Matt Esterman at Taronga Zoo. With a great view of the monkeys at the zoo, over 70 educators from pre-service teachers, primary school teachers, high school teachers, university staff and other educational institutions, gathered to share ideas on ways to make learning more effective for our students. There were teachers from government schools, Catholic schools and independent schools sharing their classroom practice with each other with the aim of improving teaching and learning for all students.

We had presentations on differentiated learning, learning design, inquiry based learning, using iPads in the science classroom, mash ups, social media and many other ideas and strategies to enhance learning for our students. Mitch Squires and Jackie Slaviero captured the crowd with their talk about NASA space camp. We got to make a pocket solar system with Rob Hollow from CSIRO to experience a way to introduce students to the scale of the universe. We also got to pet a snake to learn about how Taronga Zoo’s education programs are addressing sustainability in the Australian Curriculum.


What I really like about TeachMeet is that it is a different kind of professional learning. You get to see real teachers sharing ideas and strategies they have implemented in their classrooms. You build cross-sector networks and have opportunities to share and learn from teachers from government, Catholic and independent schools. You are also exposed to many new ideas in a very short amount of time.

What I like most of all is that teachers volunteer to attend TeachMeets. Teachers attend out of their own time because they want to learn. Presenters are not paid (they might receive a chocolate koala for their efforts) and are sharing their practice because they want to. I think this really shows the collaborative and generous nature of teaching as a profession.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, it is very worthwhile to check one out. If you been to one, I’m sure you will go to another one very soon. To find out more about TeachMeets in Sydney visit this website and join the Facebook group.