Manageable, meaningful and motivating

One of my professional focus areas in 2016 is around marking. Student voice in 2015, and at the end of the first term this year, has shown my area for improvement to be ‘timely feedback’.

I’m going to be straight up here; it bugs me. I feel like I am battling and tackling marking all the time.   So to not receive strongly positive ‘student voice’ in this area is a bit disappointing. (To clarify, the feedback isn’t strongly negative either, just a bit ‘meh’ around this aspect). I swear, I could work seven days around the clock and I still wouldn’t achieve all that I would love to achieve for my students.

And, I am on-the-hoof most of the time as a teacher, aiming to get around everyone in the classroom–but with some squeakier wheels than others, it is never going to be a perfect science. Even if I gave quality oral feedback to every student in my class, every lesson, I suspect ‘student voice surveys’ would still show room for improvement in ‘timely feedback’.

This is because students, and parents, and teachers, tend to think that feedback is only of any value if it is written, probably in red or green, on the student’s work. If it hasn’t been inked, it hasn’t been given feedback.

Imagine my delight when I discovered in the UK an independent review group has just published a report on Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking.

A summary of what that report contained which resonated with me:

  • Effective marking/feedback can happen without written comment
  • Not all written feedback should be eliminated, but it should be proportionate
  • Good quality feedback is measured by how the student is able to approach the next task
  • There is little evidence that extensive written comments improve student outcomes
  • That you must spend hours marking student work to be considered a good teacher is a myth
  • All feedback should be manageable, meaningful and motivating
  • The overemphasis on written feedback prevents teachers from working with students in a meaningful way
  • That ‘marking’ might just be more valuable as evidence to demonstrate teacher quality in the eyes of parents and school leaders, than actually having an impact on student outcomes.
  • Marking should only ever be to improve the outcomes for students
  • Too much feedback can actually take the responsibility for learning from the student  

Loosely and instinctively, I knew that setting ‘timely feedback’ as my PD focus would require a shift in three different aspects of feedback practice.  First, the need to manage time in such a way that there is more for the can-be-drudgery of ‘marking’, secondly, research better ways to approach feedback (peer, and self, and how to make it meaningful/efficient), and last of all, educate students that they are receiving ‘timely feedback’ nearly every day in class; they just need to learn to recognise it when it happens.

Yes, I need to not put off the pile of assessments that I carry home and back to school without taking it out of my bag some nights–perhaps because I ‘procrastinate’ with some other work, like resource writing or unit planning or ….

But, there are clearly some other practices we need to identify and adopt which might just change the culture in our classrooms around feedback. I’ve begun by using the audio-to-text feature on Google Docs to record my thoughts as I read the work. Much faster! One of my senior IB girls recently recorded on her phone our conference about her essay.  And there must be many more practical strategies like this. 

I’ll update with what I find in my search. As they say, watch this space.


Is there ‘growth mindset’ fatigue?


Is there ‘growth mindset’ fatigue in education? Are the claims, from various educators and experts, that ‘growth mindset’ practice doesn’t work justified? And are those claims cut and dry–or are the critics simply identifying flaws which can in fact be overcome by mindful practitioners?

A person with a fixed mindset, regardless of their intelligence, isn’t much about challenge or discomfort or much interested in, as the kids say it these days, ‘gains’. They believe their ability is their ability. Immovable.  

Conversely, someone with a growth mindset, regardless of ability, thrives on reaching, the art of solving a problem, or the discomfort of something new.  When I read Carol Dweck’s book in 2014 I recognised both mindsets immediately. My daughter has a growth mindset. My son, by natural disposition, a very firmly fixed one.

A few weeks ago during our professional development I heard the phrase more times in two days than I had throughout all of 2015. It was being communicated in the discussion of graduate profiles and it seemed to me that the question of how to create a ‘Growth Mindset’ in my classroom needed my focused attention.

Will wall displays and posters do it? Does it require explicit teaching? Was it just remembering to respond, ‘yet!’ to every student who says, “I can’t do it.”  Or, if we simply repeatedly use the words in our professional conversations will that be enough?

A bit of reading in the past few weeks has lead me to some helpful insights and practical suggestions. The criticisms of ‘growth mindset’ are justified. But they are not a reason to dismiss the theory altogether.

Firstly, if you want to promote a growth mindset, offer plenty of small achievable tasks. The little, regular wins for students create confidence and ambition. Seems obvious enough. We are the same as adults.  This strategy is flawed, however, if not done properly. If the task isn’t valid its futility will be amplified. Each mini-goal needs to have thoughtful curriculum purpose and excellent pedagogy. Constant reflection on this by the teacher is a must for the success of a growth mindset environment.

Further to this, praise the effort and the grit and the progress, but never the ability or the intelligence of the learner in front of you. This seems so logical. But the shape and form of this praise has hooks. If you only praise the effort, you risk disengaging the learner. For growth mindset to thrive there needs to less testing, more learning. More learning happens through more feedback. And the feedback should be structured around three things; the areas to work on, praise for the ‘gains’ and acknowledgement of effort and ‘grit’. If we only praise the effort, the futility of the effort (and the insincerity of the teacher-student relationship) will soon become acutely obvious to a learner who is not making progress.

To promote a growth mindset culture we need to stop putting kids in lanes. Or giving them labels. By all means, we need all the information and all the resourcing and all the diagnostic testing we can get our hands on to understand and know the learner in front of us. But please, for the love of teaching, don’t put any student in a box. Ever. Allow them to confound you, surprise you, or even just make a small ‘gain’. Don’t decide that they have ‘peaked’. They haven’t. No one has.

In a previous professional life I was a teacher of boys. In this respect I was interested to read that removing competition and designing tasks which are collaborative will also shift mindset in learners. Competition is so engaging for boys though! Competition was the backbone of my classroom management strategy most weeks. But, on reflection, I can see how contest works for those who consistently win or are within reach–even if they have a fixed mindset. It must be soul destroying for those who know that the gap is just too far.

And in a similar vein, growth mindset requires the class teacher to make learning the priority and not the grade or the marks. To be fair, I’ve been banging on about that one since we introduced NCEA in 2001-2002. I like the system, but it is a constant challenge to focus on what we are learning rather than not achieved-achieved-merit-excellence-criteria-credits-assessment conditions-etc. A constant challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

My most important reflection is best illustrated by my son’s Year 7 year.  No student can demonstrate a growth mindset in a classroom where the relationships are not warm, or where the generation of fear is a classroom management technique. As teachers we must have a growth mindset too. My son had the love of a teacher who saw all his qualities, saw all his challenges, watched him struggle time and time again, and never once expressed disappointment or frustration. Instead, she let him know how much she respected his grit and persistence, celebrated with him all the little wins and micro goals achieved, and quietly guided his work ons. She never demanded compliance and obedience above all else. He was too engaged in what he was doing to be distracted anyway.  He is a far more determined learner than ever before–a ‘growth mindset’ approach, implemented well, certainly can’t do any harm.


“4 Ways to Encourage a Growth Mindset in the Classroom (EdSurge News).” EdSurge. 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.

“The Perils of “Growth Mindset” Education: Why We’re Trying to Fix Our Kids When We Should Be Fixing the System.” Saloncom RSS. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

A Pod What? – three blogs in one

Two of my loves

My love of John Campbell is long standing. It well and truly predates the Canterbury earthquakes, but was made deeper by those events and his determination that all Cantabrians who needed to be heard would be heard.

And once, on Campbell Live in 2012, he looked slightly off camera and gently corrected the autocue, explaining exactly where the apostrophe should have been put.  I tweeted something about how I would happily run away with him and he tweeted back, “Phooooaaarr!!!”  My children were both alarmed, and proud. My husband looked mildly amused.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 9.57.48 am

A few years later I cried with Hilary Barry at the stupidity of his departure from our screens. And wondered who would give voice to the seldom-heard-but-should-be-heard New Zealanders now.

Podcasts are a much more recent love.  I was probably bored when I wondered what that long ignored purple app on my iPhone was… unaware of the voices and expertise of teachers around the world about to be opened up to me.  Over the past 12 months I have moved from listening for professional development, to using for curriculum delivery and creating for formative and summative assessment.

Podcasts for Professional Development
About the same time I discovered education podcasts I was heading back into the classroom after a two year break. Technology advances and curriculum alignments had surely left me behind and I was certain I was going to humiliate myself.

To try and get ‘up-to-speed’ my commute across town to the new job became about listening to education podcasts…The Google Educast, K-12 Greatest Hits, Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips, Education Talk Radio, Edutalk, Edtech talk, Talks with teachers …and others. Some were brilliant, and some became white noise as my mind drifted to other things but ultimately, I learned a lot.  And I realised I still knew some stuff and was some way from my ‘used by date’ yet.

A useful list of educator blogs to begin with can be found here:

Nota bene: I don’t always stick with the podcasts I start. There is enough choice that if it is grating, or light on valuable content for you personally, you can just move on to the next one.

Podcasts for Curriculum Delivery
At some point I discovered Serial. It is a compelling and addictive podcast about a 1999 murder case.

Listen to it. Once you have listened to it you will understand why last year I took it into the classroom the first chance I got. First to my Year 9s–what do you think? we love it, Miss?–and then to my Year 10s–can we hear the next episode, please?! Please?!

It astounded me that in this attention-economy, where we barely step away from screens anymore, a room full of teens could stare into nothing, tuned in and engaged for the full 50 minute period, then ask for more the next day.

Happy NZ childhood memories include sitting around the radio on a Sunday morning in the seventies listening to Bad Jelly the Witch and Flick, the Fire Engine and other stories. All other senses were stripped away as we concentrated earnestly on Tim and Rose and their search for their cow, Lucy. This 2014 appreciation of an old fashioned medium seemed counter intuitive. Delicious.

  • This year, I created some listening comprehension tasks to justify introducing the medium to a new class of Year 10s. It received the same positive response. Several went on and finished all 12 episodes in their own time. I heard from parents how much they had enjoyed it. Next year, I hope to include a full unit based around Serial in the junior course work.
  • We also used Hilary Gilbert and the BBC Bookclub in class. My Year 12 IB girls and I listened to Bernhard Schlink discuss with her his book The Reader. Her interviews are well-crafted, and crisp, with plenty of audience voice. No one can explain the author’s intentions quite like the author.
  • The Year 11s did the same, taking notes pertinent to ‘author’s purpose’ and ‘beyond the text’ from Hilary Gilbert’s interview with Malorie Blackman about her novel ‘Noughts and Crosses’.

I recommend all English teachers have a look at If you don’t discover something to share with your class, you will no doubt discover something to listen to for your own enjoyment.

Creating podcasts
Soon enough it occurred to me to have the students create their own podcasts.  

  • My Year 13s broke into groups, and researched the history of the short story along with the background to New Zealand short story master, Owen Marshall. Their task was to then distill this information into a podcast recording. Mixed quality resulted, but the collaborative group work was evident and understanding gained. Some were brilliant recordings, which I hope to seek permission to share with future classes. I learned a lot.
  • My Year 10s, at the conclusion of a poetry unit, were given ‘Dulce et decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen and asked to close read it in small groups, recording their findings as a podcast.
  • My Year 12 IB girls have done similar exercises twice, once recording a group discussion around references to Dante’s poetry in ‘If This is a Man’ by Primo Levi and once recording a podcast discussing aspects of ‘Antigone’ by Jean Anouilh.

Following on from the above dabble into podcasting for formative work, four of my Year 13s elected to use this medium for their Oral Presentations and the results were superb. Next year I plan to set this as a task for all Year 13s at the end of each literature unit – to create a ‘revision’ podcast to share at the end of the year.

How? I actually don’t really know
Here is the question I am most asked when I say we have been recording podcasts in class: What software or app do you use? That is the beauty of it all as the teacher!! I have NO IDEA what they use. They use the phones in their pockets to record and they edit them probably on Garageband or Audacity or similar.  Then they export them and email or share the completed file with me.

These students know how to do this stuff, and if they don’t, they know how to find out from each other or online. They don’t need me over-explaining it. All I need to know is that when they slip out of class to find somewhere quiet to record, they don’t disturb the other classes on the way!

I do go through the traditional aspects of oral language which apply to podcasting, and we talk about variances of sound and voices and their value in making up for loss of eye-contact and body language. They will need to have heard a podcast too.  Again, Serial is good. Here is a sheet I share with them about the elements of a successful podcast:

And we always put a time minimum and maximum. 4 to 6 minutes worked well for most of the tasks above.

And John Campbell?
What has my reference to John Campbell in the introduction got to do with any of this? Open up that purple app, and search Radio New Zealand First Person.  Last week I found John, and some of the seldom-but-should-be-heard New Zealanders there. And it was podcasting brilliance.

(Written for Christchurch Connected Educators – 31 days of blogging October 2015)

Sage! Off the stage!

For those who have been doing this teaching lark for awhile, wouldn’t it be curious to put your early students in a room with your current ones to compare notes? Curious and terrifying.

No doubt all past and present students would have criticisms. I still haven’t mastered the 24 hour marking turnaround, among other ‘work ons’. The biggest surprise to the earliest students might be that I raise my voice less. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I used that sure-to-fail behaviour management strategy.

But another marked change, led by the arrival of technology in the classroom, is that any aspirations to attain ‘expert’ status have been surrendered and I got the hell out of the way.

Yip, I relinquished the ‘sage on the stage’ role to become the ‘guide on the side’ or the ‘meddler in the middle.’ The appearance of these labels in education circles has helped me recognise how I have evolved as a teacher.

Example? Dozens and dozens come to mind and none of them are any more special than what colleagues in the building and those around the country are delivering daily.

For what it is worth here is one example: my Year 12s studied Jean Anouilh’s drama Antigone in term 2 and 3. This was a text I had not taught before. In the past, ahead of their reading, I would have gone to great lengths to be confident in the context and historical background of the text and then share this with the students early in the unit. In my early classrooms this would have probably meant screeds of notes across the whiteboard—left side, then right side, then left side again—and if I’m honest, little follow up after that other than an implied expectation that they ‘know it’.

Fast forward 20 years (and it did go that quickly for me) and the approach is completely different. I asked the class what would we need to consider if we wanted to understand the context and cultural background of Anouilh’s Antigone. They threw ideas forward and I scribbled them on the whiteboard: gender roles, links to other texts, author’s education, author’s politics, religion of the time, theatre in France, important events in the author’s life, arts in France, life in France during WWII … it finished up as quite a decent number of suggestions.

With their help, we percolated the brainstorm to a list offering good coverage, and divided the topics among the class.  24 hours later we had a Google site with each topic as a page. This became a valuable reference tool for the ongoing study.  And each student was an ‘expert’ in their particular area and this informed their confident participation in particular discussions of the text. My own learning alongside them was considerable.

It isn’t always a case of Let’s Google that! as the construction of the Antigone website could be seen to be—they did have to critically evaluate what they chose to include on the site and were expected to put it into their own words. Often it is a matter of asking the right questions and letting students explore the hard copy resources that they have in front of them, knowing this has to be distilled to a product of some meaningful sort.

All my classes in 2015 have completed variations of this with live presentations, slides, prezis, podcasts, static images and the still valuable written report or essay. They are often on their feet presenting back to the class what they have deduced, decided, discovered or disproved. This approach through the year was telling when it was time to complete the Year 13 Oral Presentations at the end of term 3. They looked comfortable. And they did well.

I’m no longer ‘delivering’ content, but helping them to collect, evaluate, collate, construct and communicate content.

Most days, they teach me. And that makes me too busy learning to have time to raise my voice.

Ducks to Water – Google Classroom

At the start of the this term,  I set up Google classroom for each of my classes. They took to it like ducks to water, and other than asking them to use a bookmark for quick reference, I haven’t had to explain a thing. (All classes at our school are 1:1 laptops, and I know how lucky I am to be able to easily go all in.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 3.59.19 pm

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 3.58.46 pm

What can we do using Google classroom?

My Year 13 English class are working with the theme of ‘people in the margins of society’ and our current text is the fictional story of a Nigerian refugee. I link news articles and short clips I happen upon which show the horrendous realities of refugees, our fellow humans, around the world today. The girls have started to share them back.

Or my IB class read lofty texts and a lot of them and Google Classroom is where I share the things I enjoy to help them step out from under the weight of our course for a while. A few weeks ago it was an article about Kris Jenner and her Kardashian daughters published in the New York Times. It is in no way connected to our course, but it was well written and I wanted to share with them my love of long form articles.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 4.02.22 pm

Or, in my drive I have a folder called Handy Dandy files. These are the resources that are not particular to a unit, or a year level. For example, a list of useful connectives, or a sheet about rules for embedding quotations from poems in written responses. These go on to the classroom ‘stream’ as and when they are needed by each class.

In fact, links to any digital format – videos, news article, word documents, jpegs, MP3s and MP4s, PDFs, urls, google drive files etc etc – can be added to the stream. And at any time, when a student has time or has a need, they can come back to the one place, scroll the time and date stamps,  and look at a file.  No more requests for the links to be sent out again.

And sometimes the announcement is just a reminder about work due or a heads up about what we will be doing in the next class. In a busy school, this communication tool has proven very useful. I don’t always remember to tell them everything I need to as they take off out the door.  I don’t always know what I need to tell them as they take off out the door.

In term 1 I began using Hapara Teacher Dashboard which alleviated some of the Google Drive management issues the students and I were having. They no longer had to email me links or share folders so long as they worked in the allocated folder.  However, with Classroom it is even easier, as it generates a folder for them when they enrol in the class. This is where all documents and files shared as assignments are automatically placed.

And here is the real selling point for me; while it was good to be able to see into a student’s folder via Teacher Dashboard, I prefer the Classroom approach which creates a folder for each task or activity set. I would rather have a folder where I know Lucy’s essay is, than go to Lucy’s folder and search for her essay among other files.

Through the ‘assignments’ function I can send out documents, sheets or slides – to view, to edit, or each student receives own copy.  The day, and time, that work is due is set for all to see.  When completed they click the ‘turn in’ button. My senior girls keep telling me they love doing that. Maybe it is the satisfaction of being ahead of the deadline, who knows.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 4.01.23 pm

With Google Classroom the seniors tell me they ‘get it’ now. I guess they can see continuity in the teaching and learning steps and know where to go to look back on something they might need at a later date. They can see the order I shared files, and know from this if they have gaps to cover. This must also mean there is less pressure on them to manage the files themselves, and more opportunity for them to focus on the learning.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 4.01.07 pm

Other advantages I have found:
RELIEF: In week 2 I had to stay home with my child who was unwell. In the past that may have meant a very early trip into school to hang out at the photocopier, or a mad scramble with the home printer and trust put in the spouse to drop off the ‘busy work’ sheets to the right place.

With classroom, I was able to push the day’s work out directly to the students and follow up with an email of instructions to share with the reliever. Happily, this also meant that the work was an adaptation of what we would have been doing anyway rather than busy work.

ABSENT STUDENTS: And it works the other way too. Students who are absent can see the work on classroom and catch up when they are ready. No more trying to remember what the heck we did when that earnest hardworking child asks the question!

PUBLISHING TO THE CLASS: And often our work takes place outside of Google, on eMaze or Prezi or Kahoot or YouTube or PowToon. When this happens I have students add links themselves to the classroom stream. Easier for me to find without trawling back through my inbox for sunken emails, and they get the benefit of sharing work with their peers.

But Google Classroom has hardly any functions?!
Somehow, jumping in early on a product doesn’t seem as risky when you know it has the weight of the Google development team behind it.  If teachers are using the product, and feeding back its potential and shortfalls to developers, then the product ought to increase its functionality quickly. My feedback has been to ask for capacity to share a course overview, and topic pages for the class, as we might on Ultranet, or Moodle, or OneNote, or a Google Site or any other Learning Management System in use around the world.

To help ensure we don’t corral students to screens and keyboards at all times, I’ve asked to be able to override the late or incomplete records of students.  It may be that, true to blended learning, I sent them assignment instructions through the classroom so they have a record, but we might complete the task in any of a myriad of non-digital ways.

Please never let us see a time come when we stop doing any of our learning away from a screen. But for when it works best to use computers, Google classroom seems to work well for me and my classes.


Planner Progress

My last blog post was written during the last school holiday soon after setting up a site in place of the traditional teacher planner. I shared screenshots of the early, quite crudely built, stages. Five weeks into the term and things have evolved somewhat.

To recap, when deciding to take lesson planning online I started with Planboard App and other ready built apps. Finding it cumbersome to move so far from my resources in Google Drive, and inspired by a colleague on #engchatnz, I then moved to Google sheets (with URL links to drive) at the beginning of this academic year. Sheets for five classes was messy and hard to maintain so during Easter I decided to use a google site to curate all my resources and links.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 11.54.06 am

The Challenges:

It is definitely an undertaking, which will take all of this academic year, and some of the next, to build the look and function I would like. As teachers we are always on the hoof, or the fly, and sometimes sitting down at a computer screen is not the most convenient way to create or record teaching steps. I have found myself back dating some entries – but, in the spirit of being realistic, it was like that with the old fashioned black book also.

Getting the look and feel just right takes work. I can’t tell you which version I am up to now, but I have tried several different themes, gadgets and layouts.  (Bonus, it is a good way to learn all about sites! – which are blimmin easy to use!)

The Advantages:

We are a GAFE school and using a Google site to collate and curate my planning documents makes perfect sense. Only returning to teaching less than 12 months ago I had the advantage of ‘green fields’ when it came to managing my resources. All in with Google, that’s me.

The ‘game plan’ is on any and every device that I am on. I don’t need to remember to carry my Teacher Planner home in the evenings.

Units of work, and lesson plans are ready for ‘another go round’ if course work is used again with future classes. And by the same token, alterations and additions are easily made when reflecting on the teaching and learning taking place.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 12.43.53 pm

For now my online plan book includes:

  • My Google calendar, with a subscription to the official school fixtures and NCEA assessment dates (on home page)
  • Links to school email, weekly staff diary, internal relief requirements, Google Classroom, my YouTube channel
  • Course outlines
  • links to unit plans, lesson plans and embedded slide presentations by class, term and week
  • embedded mark book (using google sheets)
  • link to Kamar
  • link to class lists for quick printing

So, an online plan book using sites is still working for me, but there is still much to do! Not sure that I have hit the tipping point in terms of time saving, but suspect that will come very soon.


Settling on Sites

After a three term search for a digital ‘teacher planbook’, I have now moved to Google sites. Up until now, I’ve been everywhere, man!

There were three or four apps, the names of which I cannot remember (except for Planboard), and an attempt to use Google Presentations as daily lesson records.

Then there was a somewhat more successful use of Google sheets to create a term planner, and a weekly planner, which linked out to various Drive contents including mark books (again, google sheets). This worked well, but was a little all over the place for easy management. It seemed like I was hyperlinking in never ending loops!

And, with each different method I explored, I kept going back to my paper planner (patchy as that makes the paper planner now look).

Then on Good Friday, early in the morning because what use is insomnia unless it hits when you CAN actually sleep in, I decided to try Google sites. Less than an hour later I had a plan book structure that I really liked. It was so easy to create.

Some screen shots are below. Would love to see other examples of teacher planbooks on Google Sites if you have any to share.



ABOVE: Landing page for each class has link to Google Drive folder for that class


ABOVE: Home page includes live calendar, which has my timetable, some personal entries and a subscription to the school calendar.


Above is an example of period by period planning. I’m still working through the best way to format this for me and I need to ‘polish’ the plans so no judging, folks! Not adding dates to the lessons is deliberate – recycling lessons/units, or moving plans should be easier this way. Links are there to the documents which need to be printed or shared electronically with my students. Each class has a markbook created using Google Sheets. 

Using sites is intuitive and, once the structure is in place, adding the detail is quick. It’ll be a work in progress but feels like the right planning approach for me.