Marvel is my one word this year.

I don’t usually do this thing. However, as the new year ticked over and the Aussie summer school hols was coming to a close, I thought it would be good to have one to help me re-focus back into teaching. So, I picked one!

Marvel as a noun and verb seemed apt as I start not just a new school year but at a new school.

To be filled with wonder or astonishment.

To discover a wonderful or astonishing person, place, thing, etc.

Marvel, I think, is what brings joy in learning… and, truth be told, in teaching as well. 

May the year ahead be full of marvels!

Happy 2016!

Disclaimer: The link above shows an official site for ‘my one word’. I didn’t use the process documented there as I’ve derived my word before I saw the site. Still, I’m sharing for those of you who may find this process helpful.

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We write our own reports?

Ever had an idea you just had to act on?

Today with my year 10s, we had 15 minutes to ‘spare’ after we de-briefed their yearly exam paper. Just then, I had a thought to get them to write their own report comment. I figured ‘why not?’

So, I asked my students to spend the next 15 minutes drafting a 500-character report comment for IST. I mentioned that I have already drafted their reports – which was true – and that I wanted to make sure I did not miss anything – which was also true – and that I would use their input – which was more or less true.

One of the more astute ones asked, “Does that mean we write our own reports?”


I replied yes, of course. I write the words but in fact, what they do (or not) throughout the year is what is written in the report comment. So technically,  students do write their own reports. Right?

Awesome as they are, they humoured me and actually did the activity.

It was an authentic context to reflect on the year that was, how they were as learners in my classroom and even how they could improve. No scaffold. No prompts. No advice from me….just the time and space to do it…and a bit of ‘rah rah’.

I was so pleased by their honesty and accuracy of self-assessment. I was also pleased that my report comments got validated by theirs which, for my part, means I do know my students and that my data collection (via formative and summative assessments) and feedback systems work.

Writing reports can be onerous, often due to sheer volume and tight deadlines. This has been a ray of sunshine.

I would do this again as a win-win activity. That is, students reflect meaningfully on their learning – content and process and I, their teacher, gets validation and more importantly, personalised insights about them.


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I do and I understand

Confucius says (oh my, I’ve been wanting to do that for ages…haha):

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

In my random clicking on the internet disguised as professional development (or maybe it’s the reverse), I found a couple of strategies interesting enough to try.


The first came from an Edutopia video, How to teach maths as a social activity. I’m a big fan of cooperative and collaborative learning and this video has good strategies. What I wanted to try immediately was called Fishbowl (video link). Basically, it’s having a small group sit and discuss while the rest of the class observe. I’ve heard of it before but this is the first time I intended to give it a go.

With my year 10s going into their exam block next week, and coming in from a 2-week school holidays, I thought that Fishbowl would be an interesting way to do some revision. So I set up 3 groups to discuss (1) Bias in algorithm, (2) Use of cookies, and (3) Robotics in employment.

These topics are directly related to the topics we did this year (1) Software Design and Programming, (2) Internet, and (3) Robotics.

I gave them 5-10 minutes to do a quick revision using our class notes or to look up on the web. This had to be done individually, i.e. no discussions. Then, the group took turns to be in the Fishbowl.

While I set this out as a revision exercise, what I found was Fishbowl is also an effective assessment activity. I doubt I’ll use it for summative assessments but as formative assessment, it was really good to see what the small group, and whole class, knew…or did not know…or got confused on. It also contextualised my assessment tips such as – give specific details, use technical terms and make sure you know their definitions, think of positives and negatives when discussing issues, you can link topics we studied,  use Asimov’s Laws on Robotics when discussing issues, and the like.

Tic Tac Toe + Jeopardy

Our current unit of work in 9IST is game design, a culmination of the Digital Media and Software Design and Programming topics we studied this year. They also have a yearly exam coming soon and I thought what better way to do revision than to play games. We will unpack the following experience next lesson and use that to feed into the work they yet have to do.

I found my inspiration in a recently discovered (read: yesterday) differentiation site, daretodifferentiate (link to Choice boards or tic tac toe, though the wiki site warrant more exploration). I wanted to try it straight away but all mu units are already designed so I figured I might as well use it for revision….and as a game!

The plan was to have a choice board with easy, medium and hard questions – that’s the tic tac toe part. Assigning points to the questions was the Jeopardy part.

I’m not going to include all the questions here but here’s a small sample so you get the idea: easy – JPEG is a lossy format (True or False?), medium – Define algorithm, hard – Explain one way that text can be digitised. For points, I gave 100 for easy, 150 for medium and 200 for hard.

Using the simple definition of games = goal + rules, I discussed the rules of tic tac toe and Jeopardy. They work in groups, nominate a speaker (and there can be no repeat speakers) to provide the answer. I also added a rule of ‘stealing’, i.e. if a group can answer a question better then they “steal (the chance to earn)” the points. This was actually good to ensure they all tried their best and that they listened to other groups. Revision and learning were happening at individual, small group and whole class level. Granted, still at different levels but even the quietest student could learn from others at least. I dropped the ‘tic tac toe’ all in a line across three columns because I had 3 groups…but that would be fun to design to get some blocking strategy happening as well.

Speaking of designing the thing, I wanted to implement this in Scratch, or with more time and effort – JavaScript or Python perhaps. But, given that I thought of this on the eve of using it, I resorted to a table in PowerPoint and using animated blocks to hide/reveal the questions. It’s been a while since I used the ‘click on object’ as trigger (default is just click anywhere) that I’ve forgotten about it. On the whole, it worked quite well actually….yep, a PowerPoint hack 🙂

Even with a short activity, I can see the power of differentiation through choice….and of course, I’m convinced about cooperative and collaborative learning anyway.

9IST groups in a huddle, discussing strategies and answers

9IST groups in a huddle, discussing strategies and answers

Back to Confucius

There are so many teaching and learning resources out there and seriously, there are many good ones. Finding ones to try and then actually making it happen help cement them in my mind because I don’t only know of, I also understand.

Also, because I mostly teach via Project-Based Learning, my students have done the ‘do’ bit and yet, as I’ve uncovered in these revision activities today, they don’t always remember or understand. And so then, back to Confucius:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Revision (look at again) – as an example of reflection (look deeper perhaps over-and-over from different perspectives) – has shown a path for remembering and understanding. In writing this blog post, tired as I am after an all-period teaching day on the first day back at school in 35C heat, I have forced myself to revise and reflect on these strategies.

Ah, I feel wiser now…haha

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What’s the fuss with coding?

The fuss about coding has grown exponentially in the past year. Having watched this space for years, I’ve certainly noticed the increased interest to expose kids to coding. Industry has been pouring resources into it, with huge initiatives and funding coming from Google, Microsoft and more besides. There is a national curriculum for it and most Australian states have adopted it….not in NSW though, the state where I teach. Media, print and online, regularly features this, too; often, about having a shortage in IT skills.  I can also see the increase in teaching coding in many schools.

Hey, one could almost think teaching and  learning to code is trendy.

But, there is always the niggling question, “Is it for everyone?”

I wonder now whether everything in various school subject curricula was subjected to such scrutiny. And if not, why not?

Is it really for everyone?

Firstly, I’d like to make a distinction between computational thinking (CT) and coding. Google’s resources on CT are quite extensive and accessible. As a problem-solving process, it is easy to see why it could be adapted across all disciplines including humanities. Some could even argue it looks like critical thinking. Can you imagine asking “should we teach critical thinking in school?”

Further, algorithms – or step by step instructions – are present in every subject. Google is right to say it is relevant across all disciplines. Quite often, however, algorithms are taught as given, e.g. using formula. And why not? It is an efficient way of disseminating human knowledge developed over time. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

Algorithms in the CT sense is less prescriptive. Creative thinking could be incorporated as well.  Can you imagine asking “should we teach creative thinking in school?”

I heard Dr James Curran refer to CT as a process for answering “What can we automate?”  I think this really promotes a mindset leaning towards efficiency as well as innovation, a premise that things could be better and we can use digital technologies to actually make it happen….and scale it, relatively quickly and cheaply. That’s incredibly empowering!  But, it’s the sort of thing that is best experienced vs merely talked about. This echoes elements of design thinking. Can you imagine asking “should we teach design thinking in school?”

Big jump there, i.e. I joined CT with coding – using digital technologies, software programming in particular, to create solutions.;  automation via giving computers detailed instruction.

Algorithms can be viewed as just an idea. It can be represented in many ways. As a teacher, making thinking visible – i.e. ascertain students are learning – is a challenge.  In Information Software & Technologies (IST), one of the subjects I teach, algorithms can be presented as pseudocode and flowcharts.

What of coding then?

Coding can actually help refine algorithms. Sometimes this is done via affordances of programming languages such as more sophisticated built-in functions and data structures.  Often, the refinements are done as one delves deeper into solving the problem and one thinks of more possibilities or cases or scenarios.

In a nutshell, CT promotes development of algorithms and with coding, it is made visible and refined.

Is it for everyone?

I am biased and I think everyone should experience what CT and coding are like. In the same way that I think everyone should experience what creative thinking, critical thinking, design thinking – and way many more ways of thinking like systems thinking, mathematical thinking, etc (see what it’s like in schools now?).  For me, it’s beyond being trendy or shortages in skills or future job opportunities or anything like that or being great at it or even being interested in it. How do you know unless you try?

If you’re a teacher, student, parent or really anyone just wondering what the fuss is about, it’s best to experience it.  Have a go. There are lots of resources out there. One of my favourites is the NCSS Challenge – and we’re a week in.  🙂

Here are some for starters:

Feel free to add your thoughts and resources in the comments below. Thanks.



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Can you imagine?

Little did I know that my post “Have wings, will fly” would turn out to be prophetic. The wings helped inspire a cross-curricular collaboration between 5 year 9 classes to create a spectacular exhibition inspired by VIVID Sydney.

I used the wings as a prop for a friendly challenge of ‘Can you imagine….us having our own version of Vivid?’ very early in the school year.

Not only did we imagine, we made it happen. By we, I don’t mean just the teachers but especially our students and with support from the school community. This was no mean feat and here are just some of what I’m really proud of:

  • 2 9DT teachers and myself wrote our course programs and assessment tasks to suit
  • Going on an after-school excursion and not losing any kid
  • Collaborating with other teachers and members of the school community – we’ve never done anything of this scale
  • Staging an exhibition, including an opening night where we got Vivid designers talk to students (thanks to Joachim Cohen from Intel for helping make this happen).  Harmanto Nguyen- Toy Shadows and Simone Chua – Affinity were awesome and I got to showcase our students work to them, too
  • Having students that are proud to share their work publicly (here’s our YouTube playlist)
  • ultimately, making real that which we imagined

A bit more background info: 9DT-Textiles designed and created garments as well as accessories with soft/textile circuits. 9DT-Rigid materials designed and created light installations for outdoors. 9IST designed and created digital movies/animation using iconic buildings as their canvases. 9PDM captured light photography.

A bit more detailed info on my IST project for those who may want to build on the idea.  This was a PBL on the Digital Media topic, specifically movie and animation. The challenge was to “create an illusion of movement” using frame-by-frame animation. Working in groups to create a movie 2-4 minutes long, each student has to create 30-45 second segments which should include at least 15 seconds of frame-by-frame animation; the rest could be video.

Each group had a tab in the class OneNote where all deliverables were outlined, whether or not they were part of the assessment for reporting. They had to document target audience and purpose, concept maps, storyboards, etc. I created the Project Schedule for the class and gave mini deadlines (activity and time chunking is a good strategy to help manage projects spanning an entire term as well as help identify students who are at risk of non-submission). This shared space facilitated seeing what others are doing and thus, peer feedback, both written and oral. The quality of the end result is testament to the validity of this practice.

There are the obvious option topic outcomes involved in designing, producing and evaluating. This included a variety of data manipulation techniques including the use of layers, masks, garbage matte, transparency adjustments, special effects, etc. There are also core topic outcomes relating to project management, communication techniques, career options and issues.

At the end of the project, I also did a structured review using peer instruction or think/pair/share with answers written in the class oneNote (shared notes, yes?).  Here are the questions we worked through (I had more as we discussed):

  1. Define:
    1. Animation
    2. Frame rate
    3. Morphing
    4. Warping
  2. Was your animation mostly cel-based or path-based? What’s the difference between the two?
  3. What file types were used for your project? What software programs created them? Can read them?
  4. What factors affect the file size of finished movie?
  5. Contrast embed and link?
  6. Define keyframe
  7. Was the storyboard helpful? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  8. Which communication technique proved most useful for you – verbal, written, graphical and visual? Provide detailed example.
  9. Rate your contribution to the group on a scale of 1 – 5, 1 being ‘meh’ to 5 ‘rock star’. Justify your rating detailing your criteria and detailed example.
  10. What advice would you give to next year’s 9IST if they were to do this project?

I think the structured post-project review was really helpful to assess learning, clarify misconceptions, fill gaps and revise course content using personal experiences. It’s a great way to end a PBL unit.

At the end of this review, I showed this path-based animation created using Scratch and character/costumes drawn by one of my students (check out Group 4). This not only helped compare/contrast cel-based vs path-based, it also served as a relevant segue into the next topic, Software design and programming 🙂

Long post I know but it barely scratches the surface of what this experience has meant to me.

If you have a similar story or feel inspired to initiate a cross-curricular collaboration, please leave a comment or relevant link.

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