Friday, 7 February 2020

Looking back...what is it our children need from us?

The start of the year always brings into strong focus for me the true power of play.  The reason for this is simple, I remember what was, and reflect on what is.

Looking back I remember myself and the expectations I had for children and their learning.  I remember the structure I put in place, thinking I was doing the right thing.  I remember the inappropriate way I expected children to engage with learning, how developmentally inappropriate it was of me to expect them to embark on the 'traditional' learning that I so strongly valued.

Reflecting on this, I regret the stress and anxiety I caused children by doing what I was told to do as a new entrant teacher, what I was trained to do, what I was programmed to value.

I remember the struggles I had managing 'behaviour' enforcing routine and settling children into school.  I remember the deficit thinking I applied to children entering school that I didn't think were ready, to their oral language, their readiness for reading and the early childhood that they had come from.

I know now that I was the cause of the behaviour, the upset and the reason why children balked at the routines I so blindly tried to enforce.  I was the reason some children didn't seem to fit.  I was the reason, my lack of understanding around the actual learning process, how it works and what developmentally appropriate practice looked like in action.  It was the way I trivialised play and prioritised achievement through an academic lens that led to some children not truly flourishing.

Owning this is hard.  But once I was able to, I was able to truly fix it and learn from it.

Now play and developmentally appropriate practice, guided by a true understanding of relationships and the power of just being present, truly seeing children has led to a transformation to not only my classroom, but my school.

We have had two days back, the children already feel as if they belong. We've had even the most shy, anxious child embark on the school journey with happiness.  This brings me absolute joy.  Play has already allowed me to see children, their needs, their individuality, their interests, their urges.  It has already opened up the curriculum in a way that my previously narrow, teacher led approach never could. 

Play has taken away any stress.  It has allowed me to meet children where they are at, not the other way around.  I has allowed me to be ready for them, not the other way around.  Our classroom already belongs to all of us, everyone already feels successful.

I have been able to own my practice and the damage it was doing, I have been able to fix it and I have been able to learn from it.  I will never go back, and I want that to be a gift I can give to everyone.




Thursday, 30 January 2020

Assessing or Stressing?

This whole topic is so important to me right now.  Actually I think assessment and the very traditional way we still use it in most of our schools is one of the biggest things standing in the way of real time to engage in the teaching and learning process.  It is the hurdle for teachers that want to truly engage with their students, but lack the time to do so because of outdated expectations for assessment.  In fact I believe it is one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of many truly embracing play based learning.

I believe most of the assessment currently used is redundant when we think about all the research that tells us about how children learn best.  In fact the way assessment is used completely contradicts what we know about the learning process. 

Let me ask you, do you perform well when put into a stressed state?  If asked to do something that was challenging for you, without the opportunity to clarify or to collaborate, or to have a go and get some feedback, how would you go? 

How do you feel when going for a job interview, I bet you spend so much time worrying about where to go and what you will be asked, that its not until the third or fourth question that you actually hit your straps.  That is one of the reasons I always provide the questions well ahead of time and make sure as much as I possibly can that people know what to expect and who will be there.  This is what we need to be doing for our students.

Quite honestly we all know that under stress we would not perform our best.  In fact, if it was me, I am highly likely to completely shut down in a situation where I feel like I am being measured or evaluated that I am not an equal partner in.  I am not a person that will leap to an answer, I like time to mull it over, to listen to others points of view, to research, to seek clarification.  I would say most of the learners in our classrooms are like this.

I would go as far as to say that when we use these very 'test' based modes of assessing (or should I say stressing) we are seeing a quarter of what the student knows.  If we were to use the same questions and actually sit with the student, discuss the question, talk about how they might approach it, let them go away and mull it over, talk to others and then come back and talk to us, we would then see their potential ability (strengths, needs) much more clearly. 

If then we were to ask them about their thinking, ask them about their reasoning, ask them what was difficult, what they need clarified, we would be going another step further to deeply understanding them as a learner.  If we were then to ask them to show us what they understand through a vehicle that is their passion, eg music, drama, literacy, game based etc we would see them in a whole different light, and while we had been 'assessing' we both would be 'learning.'  Assessment, as and for learning.

But we don't.  We often sit them down with a test, we put them in a stressed state within the constraints of time, where they are already doubting themselves and we expect to be able to 'know' what they are capable of or not capable of at that current mode.  We put the brain in a stressed state and expect to see what they can do.  This completely contradicts what we know about the brain. 

As an example I will share with you my take on exams.  They are a waste of time, I hate them, yet as a student, exams were something I coped fine with.  They are an old measure that does in no way replicate what our young people will do in the workplace.  A student I know well, who is highly intelligent, failed an exam they should have passed.  Quite simply because it was an online exam and the worry of actually being able to 'get into the exam' worried them hugely.  In fact the stress of this meant they completely went on the wrong tangent for the exam and explored the question from the 'wrong' perspective.  In short, they didn't know what was in the examiners head when they asked the question.  If this student could have sought clarification, they would have passed and passed well, in this case and exam was not a good measure of what they actually knew.  But I would I would say that I don't ever think an exam is a good measure of 'intelligence' or ability.

There are many test based assessments in primary school that also need to go.  Very sadly we do allow our Year 6 students to experience PAT assessments because we don't want them to be petrified when they move on and have to do them, largely there is really no other reason we use them.  We simply want to take the fear of the unknown out of the test itself.  Do they give us some information, yes probably, but nothing we couldn't have found out by posing a few questions in a non-stressful collaborative way and engaging in a learning discussion with the child.

Am I claiming we should ditch assessment altogether.  Of course not.  But we do need to reframe it.  Any of our tools can actually be modified so they can be used in a collaborative, dynamic way with our children.  Believe me, actually asking them about 'why' they have answered a certain way, or approached something in that way is very revealing.  Often a wrong answer, reveals a very interesting thought process a thought process that we would never have even known about had we not asked.

For those imposing assessments upon you, I challenge you to ask them 'why'...what is the assessment providing us with that dynamic assessment would not.  Where is their research for using this assessment?  What is the purpose?  For ERO, they deserve the same questions, if they can not back up what they are asking with research, then the process is an absolute waste of time. 

If the purpose and reason for the assessment is useful for teacher and learner, then use it.  If not, ditch it and spend the time you gain talking to your students.   I promise you will learn so much more.

Always ask this question, are we assessing or are we stressing?

If through the process of assessment we are causing children stress, then we are never going to be finding out what they actually understand. 


Sunday, 26 January 2020

When did the Arts become fringe? An essay by my daughter

There have been a few articles shared recently around concerns of the fact the arts are dying in school.  I have to say it has made me really happy to see this finally out there as it has been something of great concern to me.  If you have read my blog to the 'system' or listened to my conversation with Kate Webber, you will know that my daughters schooling journey, since she left the shelter of primary has really given risen to this concern.

Contrast this with my highly sporty, people pleasing son, and their experiences are night and day.

You see, my daughter is a creative.  She thrives on this, it is what makes her heart sing.   Not only that, the performing arts have been a bright light helping her through a deep dark tunnel of anxiety.

Around the country, the Arts have been shelved, and if they have not be shelved, the way they are taught have become so product driven that any essence of what would or could be called creativity has been drained out of it. 

If you know my work at all, you will know the Arts from the basis of our school, largely through play and Mantle of the Expert.  This is not to the detriment of the other areas of learning, instead it has enhanced everything.  Everything is connected and should be.  By cutting out the Arts we are crudely cutting off an arm and a leg from the body that is learning.  Art (and I mean all areas of art) is a means of expressing, it brings learning to life, gives it breath.  It is in fact a huge part of our human experience.

Anyway this blog post is not really about me, if you will scroll through my posts, you will see many of these themes repeated.  This post is in fact dedicated to my daughter and her (almost over) journey through school.  She is a great speech maker, with something to say.  Her speech last year was exactly around this subject...so I thought I would share it here, so we can hear directly from a student, now entering her last year of High School, who believes deeply in the power and importance of the Arts.


---------------Please remember, this is written as a speech, not a perfect essay by any means, but the idea and theme is very clear.


We as teenagers are currently living in the time of adults trying to work out how to try and improve our wellbeing.  This is something our school tries very hard to do but sadly often falls short. While I appreciate the posters telling me to meditate the occasional visiting speakers all sharing ways to cope with our angst and the seemingly random drop out if you’re struggling messages we get in assembly, they really do fall short on what we need and are often counteractive when it comes to improving our wellbeing.   Sadly they often cause us more worry. Alarmingly NZ has the highest suicide rate amongst young people of any developed country, not something to be proud of, and not something simply meditating can change.  

If schools genuinely desire to see an improvement in our mental wellbeing, one very valuable thing they should consider caring more about is the arts.
I feel that in today’s society the arts are losing their value and recognition due to lack of funding in schools and a failure to prioritize these areas of learning. Sadly everything else seems to be prioritised above the arts.  Yet in our world of today, where mental health issues are on the rise, where people feel disconnected, where creativity and innovation are being forgotten, the arts and all the wonderful benefits they bring are becoming more important than ever before and we should be accepting, encouraging and celebrating these areas more. 

The arts is a great way to express yourself and become more connected to the world around you, whether you are creating the music or listening to it you are expressing yourself and using it as an outlet to speak your mind in a way. Everyone likes music even if you can’t perform it everyone enjoys listening to it and using it as a tool to express ourselves, the type of music you listen to can direct express your outlook on the world or how you wish to be perceived. Just think mid 2000s teen angst music, although perceived as over the top by the general public or people of older age groups it was used as a form of expression by those teenagers that they had no other way of expressing. 


Music through the years has been used as a way of starting political movements and giving others a voice, it has been a way of saying things that you couldn’t get away with normally to express your opinion and outlook on the world.  Music should play a big part in our lives. Research suggests that music can stimulate the body's natural feel good chemicals (e.g. endorphins, oxytocin). It can help energise our mood and provide an outlet for us to take control of our feelings. Music can even help us work through problems in our lives.  

In today's world we have a very high rate of depression and general stress, especially in teenagers, in my opinion, one way we could help to support this is by promoting the arts more. Although the arts could not necessarily cure anything directly I do believe it is a way to support some of these issues, as it is something that brings joy and a sense of relief. I know personally for myself and many other people that theatre can be a great stress relief and a good way to boost confidence. By doing something creative and pouring your heart and soul into it whether it is theatre or art or music it can be a great way to relieve stress, you can totally forget about all your stresses and just focus on one thing. 

Things like drama also build confidence as you get put out of your comfort zone and in the end are rewarded with the satisfaction of performing and seeing people enjoy what you have created, same thing with any of the other arts. Doing anything in a group results in feeling more connected with other people and if it is something you all enjoy you are guaranteed to feel more accepted and connected to those around you. Not only that, but drama helps us to explore situations from different perspectives and in turn increases the empathy we have for them.  The performing arts is an effective way to learn about our world and understand our place in it.

The world is changing that is something we all know, we have technology that people even 30 years ago could never even imagine having. Along with all these new amazing advancements in technology we also have a lot of new problems such as climate change, poverty, and mental health issues along with many others. We are going to need creative and innovative people to solve these issues and one of the ways to support creative people is to support the arts, by participating in anything creative you are growing your skill to think outside the box and to think of new ways to do things. 

Along with all these creative benefits we also see an improvement in maths and languages when children take part in structured music activities and an improvement in literacy when they take part in drama. If we support creativity and the arts more as a society we will see more people rising up to help these issues in new ways that may not be thought of otherwise and will see more people excelling in literacy and math which would also help support a stronger future. The arts are a window to the world, they give us a sense of perspective and belonging.  They are a way we can make sense of our world.

In conclusion I believe that we as a society as outlined above are facing many challenges that could be solved or better supported by those in power prioritising the arts. Wellbeing is negatively affected when we lack the vehicle to express ourselves and feel isolated or disconnected from those around us.  The arts allow this connectedness, they give us value and a way to be seen in a positive light. The arts light up our brains and leave us feeling more positive about ourselves, the arts give us a voice. The world faces many problems some of which are yet to be discovered, it is the ability to be creative and innovative that will solve these issues and help to create a better society. We foster this ability through the arts.  
Haylee Allen - Year 12 2019


I love this quote and it is exactly how I feel...but what if their weirdness means they have to dwell on the fringes of curriculum?

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Step Two - Mathematics Development

**Before you start reading, the great thing about agency is how you deliver the mathematics is totally up to you, the crucial part however is that it is a collaborative problem solving approach.  My only plea is that you leave worksheets where they belong, in the recycling bin and make your maths visual, oral and hands on.

**Also your villains, the names you give them and what they look like, are up to you.  When I first started they were simply still images that I acted out.

**No video needed for this one as I think it is pretty straight forward :)

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So the next step after developing the narrative is thinking about what maths development will look like within agency.  Specifically what are the mathematical foundations you are aiming to develop, build on and consolidate throughout the year.

For me, this is all about number sense, no matter what level you teach.  Our aim, in my opinion should be to give children the gift of fluidity and flexibility with number, to have a deep sense of number, not a rote learning of facts that they don't even understand.  Fact learning comes long after a deep sense of number is developed.

For that reason my planning in mathematics will always centre on number sense and everything else will flow out of this even what we call 'strand maths.'  It is important to remember that within a class that is based on play, a lot of very purposeful and authentic maths understandings will be explored.

This year, I have decided to take some of the core parts of the maths out of agency, just because I feel it is just so important that it needs to be done every day if possible.  That is maths eyes.  The skill of noticing and being able to talk about what is noticed folds deeply into strategy development.  Using a range of pictures, patterns, shapes, everyday images, specific subitising images etc through a math talk approach has the biggest impact on children I have found.  It allows them to really develop that sense of pattern and number that is so crucial for mathematics development.  I have decided to give this a slot somewhere in our day, rather than in agency, allowing me to do it more frequently, with a range of different images, in different ways and allowing me to further streamline the flow of our 'in agency' time.  You will see this reflected in my initial plan.

This is the time I try to break down what I actually want to focus into into smaller chunks that I can build on throughout the year, this however is where the blank page next to my plan is so important, because as we all know, our teaching is guided by where the children are at, so next to my plan, I will scribe what we are actually covering as well and what I am noticing in terms of common or individual need.  I guess the key ideas in the mindmap are my 'musts' the specifics that I really want to be bringing through in Professors PD.  The games and activities he leads will be based around this mindmap.

This is also where 70:30 comes in so strongly for me and in my opinion should be priority in every classroom.  Each session will be 70%, or even 80% of content that we have already covered and 20-30% new understanding.  Everything we do is built on in this way, the games professor plays remain largely the same, but are simply layered and extended on throughout the year with new understandings.  Everything is connected, because everything should be connected.

Years ago I used to do a topic in maths for two-three weeks and then move onto a new topic.  This could be in strand or number.  This did nothing to show children how connected all of mathematics is and did nothing to deepen their understandings.  In fact it did nothing to build their thinking skills, which in fact is what I want.  Now learning is woven in and layered, we build on what we know, but never leave the understandings we have been developing previously.  This allows us the opportunity to see and make connections.  This also means a wide of needs are catered for because the games and activities we play can have a low floor entry point, but a high ceiling for those that need stretching.

Mathematical language is really important as well as understanding this vocab ensures consistency of understanding. 

And so in terms of mathematics within this world, I will start with a few favourite games, songs and activities and then build on them from there to meet the needs of the agents and to assist them to see connections and develop fluidity and flexibility with number, sticking within the agree rhythm of the session each day so it is familiar and safe.  The villains then will present us with problems that will allow us to use our knowledge and further develop the strategies we have been working on.

In terms of the villains, they are not all created equal within agency and Knight Adder, Subtraction Shark, Which is Mine and Gaza the Grouping Goblin and seen far more regularly than the others.  The Colour Changing Dragon challenges us with strand based challenges from time to time and the Puzzler hits us with codes to break.  The challenges these two set often take the whole session.

Using the villains In this way gives a purpose for the mathematics and for the agents it all clicks slowly into place in a happy, playful, fun learning environment where they always come out on top!

Here is my planning for this term :)





Thursday, 16 January 2020

Step One - Part 2 Building the Narrative

The important part of this approach is a strong narrative.  My narrative is based strongly on the Sci-Fi movies and shows I was forced to watch as a child, with a touch of batman and a sprinkling of any other good vs evil story I have ever read or watched.  The narrative needs to be open enough to allow children to add their own voice to it, and obviously doesn't have to make much logical sense.  It just needs to capture the imaginative play of children.

This section of the planning builds on to the blog I posted earlier today and is part of the same step in the planning.  Basically it is a little like my storyboard.  It sets the parameters of the story that are agreed to by the 'actors' working within it.  Your narrative does not have to match mine at all, and a lot of the narrative that will be built on this year, was introduced by last years agents.

The hooking in stage will be fleshed out more when I get to that stage, with specific problems to deliver.  My children are Year 1 and 2 so these problems will be based within Level 1 of the curriculum.

I hope you can read these ok, sorry for my messy scrawl, also excuse the twink, for some reason my holiday brain just couldn't get the word villain spelt right. 

I have actually decided to keep all my Number Agent planning in a scrapbook this year in handwritten form,  I find it fits my learning style much better and allows me to backward plan and reflect easily when I have to.

Building the narrative/rhythm of agency(what is agreed to)



Specific Storyline for 2020





Step two will be about building a skeleton of the mathematical understandings or number sense that will be built on or developed in 2020.  Will get to that video as soon as I can.

The skeleton - step one, my planning

So it took me a couple of days to get this done.  I like to handwrite this stage of planning, I find my creativity flows a lot better this way.  It makes it a little harder to read, but I hope you get the idea.  My intention in sharing each stage of my planning is not for you to copy, as your agency will be up to a different stage than mine, but to give you an idea and a framework to sit yours on if this is new to you, or you just want to try something different.

I start with mindmapping the world.  The characters, main, supporting and cameo roles.  I think about the setting and about the nuts and bolts of our agency.  The things that make it tick on a daily basis, the gadgets, the artefacts, how we will check in and out, our ritual etc.  I call this production management.  You will see from my planning that I think of agency very much like a tv series or chapter book.  Number Agency to me is a narrative.




In the next post I will share the backstory and plot for 2020 along with the hooking in and building belief stage, just finishing that off now, then it will be on to step two...mathematical development.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Stepping In - Post One

This video details the first step I go through in my yearly Number Agent journey.

Basically it is all about creating a skeleton of the world, your vision for the world you want to bring to life in your classroom, who will be the characters, who are the goodies, who are the baddies, who will the bit players be, how will the agents be symbolised (numbers, initials etc) how will the agents move in and out of this world?

How will children be hooked into this world, what will be the very first clues, the steps into agency.  Who will be the key players in this world?  What symbols and gadgets will be used.  How will belief be built once children are hooked in?  What rituals will be established?

I map this all out as it helps me to further develop ideas, the process of recording for me really feeds my creativity.

I really hope this video plays ok, you may need to play it full volume if it is hard to hear, but it seems all good from my end.

I will check in with you soon in a few days with my skeleton plan, in the meantime have a read of the book as it will explain a lot of the 'why' behind this stage.