NCSS Summer School

The idea of going to NCSS Summer School posed a mini-dilemma for lots of reasons but in the end, I decided to go and what a good move that turned out to be. The ‘intensive’ in their blurb is for real. It was intense.

This year, there were over 100 participants including 15 teachers (like me) who were meant to be just like the students – relieved of ‘duties’, so-to-speak. That’s interesting, in and of itself. I pride myself of being a good learner but being a student is different. Being a student (learning the content) as a teacher (learning the process/meta stuff, e.g. can I use how they teach to teach my students?) was full-on. I struggle to articulate all that just now so I’ll focus on my main NCSS reflections as a teacher….and hopefully, this would encourage other teachers (my main blog viewers) to give the camp a go.

The camp is project-based learning, a high-quality PBL.  I’m actually struggling to write this but if I don’t do this now, it may never get done so I’ll use my Process, Tools, People (and Products) post as a framework. Here goes…


PBL as a term was never mentioned but that’s what it was. 4 groups had to develop social networking web applications and 2 groups developed embedded systems. Lectures were streamed as per student ability, interest and/or systems. Throughout most of the 10 days, there were Lectures followed by lab so students had opportunities to apply what they’d learned with the help of amazing tutors (more on this later).  Tutors also helped with task and time management throughout the project which started officially on day 6. Groups had to brainstorm and decide on what they wanted to develop. There was even an all-nighter as happens sometimes in the industry. The camp culminated with a ‘graduation’ and presentation of group videos. Except, I’m finding out now that the project has not really ended as students continue to work on the projects and are now available online – for an even wider audience.

There were also plenty of fun activities with plenty of opportunities to develop collaborative skills and team-building: Newspaper tower challenge, Trivia Night + Chinese (Whispers) Charade, Scavenger hunt, cryptogram, simulation/theatre sport, programming challenge and excursions to some sponsors’ sites (WiseTech Global, Atlassian and Google). All these activities were cleverly designed and well-executed.


We used the University of Sydney’s School of IT facilities. We were told not to bring computers because, indeed, there were enough. We also used GitHub for version control and Sqlite3 for the database. They’ve configured Tornado for ease of use supposedly but I honestly wouldn’t know the difference – it still looked complicated for me.

Analog-wise, whiteboards were used for planning and tracking.

Tools used are all ‘free’ so in theory, anyone can do this.


This I think, is the strongest point of NCSS. At the helm is Dr James Curran (a very clever man and an endearing lecturer – I can only name 2 others in my experience), very ably supported by Nicky Ringland and Tim Dawborne plus an army of very clever and enthusiastic volunteers and industry mentors (they have to apply to be volunteers year-on-year – whoa!). There’s a fine mix of academia and industry perspectives to make the experience of app development realistic. I watched with interest how they interacted and managed students…including me (I was always there for roll call – haha – and definitely needed 1:1 help). It was good to see tutors get excited by a tricky problem/question

And then there were the students (and teachers as students). Such an amazing bunch of cleverness! I do believe every state was represented, and NZ, too. High levels of enthusiasm (boosted by cordial,  perhaps?) and engagement (good program, see?). Very few seemed homesick – alas, I was one of them! (who knew?)


Videos are yet to go up but there are links to the web apps. Our group developed Word by word (my only visible contribution there is the tagline: write a word. read a story.). Other groups developed Tableau and Pose challenge. Amazing stuff!

I honestly cannot replicate these projects in my classroom.

tldr version

It was a fun, intense, immersive and challenging experience. I met some amazing people, young and not-so-young, and had many fascinating conversations – people are truly interesting! I learned more about computing technology and computational linguistics(just a teensy bit). I learned more about teaching technology. I learned more about kids and how stereotypes persist even amongst the like-minded (still wrestling with why it’s so hard to get girls into computing). I learned more about effective pedagogy including planning and delivery. Surprisingly, I learned more about me.

Not sure if I could make it to NCSS2015 or if I’ll ever get accepted again but I sure would like to go back.

This snippet from a WiseTech Global t-shirt just about sums it up for me:



My next challenge is to incorporate some of what I’ve learned into what I teach.

It’s happening

Last Saturday, I went to the Project Learning Swap Meet organised by Bianca and Lee Hewes. It was inspiring, challenging and ultimately motivational in a ‘Make this happen’ sort of way. So then, while I thought my first blog post about PLSM would be about the day, I’m now blogging about how I came to making it real and happening on my first school-day back, in the middle of an existing project.

Circled are some of the ideas I thought I’d implement straight away.

notes on the back of the booklet Bianca shared

notes on the back of the booklet Bianca shared

I teach 8 Technology and on my rotation, students learn about Textiles and Digital Technology with a project involving the Design, Production and Evaluation of a pyjama set. It’s a common task for 4 classes taught by 3 teachers, including myself. The task has plenty of PBL elements including student voice and choice. Collaboration happens but more incidental than planned. Products are displayed along the hallway for all the school to see.

After attending PLSM, I felt inspired, challenged and motivated to implement some of what I learned on the day. Because I spent hours yesterday designing a Project Packet for year 7s (subject of another post), I decided to focus on something smaller for year 8s; something NEW that would be beneficial straight away.

Year 8s are submitting the Design products tomorrow which include sketches of their ideas and Final Design (the PJ set they’re actually going to make). I thought it would be good for them to get peer feedback prior to submission.

Techniques used (got all these from PLSM):

  • Gallery Walk – items for feedback are put on display and peers write feedback on post-it notes
  • Scaffolded Feedback – Based on @missjessm ‘s suggestion of “I like…Have you considered…”, the class decided to use +1 for “I like” and a star for the “Have you considered…”. Students suggested the ‘star’ and I’m still unsure why, maybe because it’s easy to draw?
  • Goals, Medals, Missions (I’ve used this before but the document here is new to me) – using the task assessment criteria, I listed the Goals. These were the basis of the +1 and star comments as well….i.e. things to consider when writing feedback



Students each had 3 post-it notes so they had to be more picky of what they wrote and who they wrote for. They could always add a +1 or star if they agreed on what has already been posted. It worked really well and every design got peer feedback. This went on for about 10-15 minutes.

Everyone then got their sketches and considered the peer feedback and filled in their Goals, Medals, Missions sheets.

Here’s what I observed:

  • Quality of peer feedback was excellent and the use of scaffold was evidently effective (eeek, that sounds so teacher-y)
  • Students appreciated the +1s and even more so, the stars – i.e. suggestions for improvements
  • Students were surprised at how true the peer comments were, making the +1 even more affirming
  • Students were more motivated and directed to create better quality products
  • Some students noticed things I haven’t (how good is this??? and yes, I’m collecting the post-it notes and GMMs)
  • I’ll know my students more based on their GMMs

It was soooooo worth getting this happening straight away. Read more about the above techniques and MORE in Bianca’s super post about managing the mushy middle.

Lost already

My previous post, No Entry, ended with this paragraph:

Can teaching be approached the same way, i.e. seek different perspectivesenjoy the unusual (every student is an individual, after all), maybe inject a bit more art and fun, maybe dare go where I’ve previously not dared?

Little did I know that I would face up to it so soon. Here’s what I’m doing with years 9-12.

When I introduced each of these, all classes seemed surprised and lost because they got tasks they knew not how to approach (PBL vs doing projects). I very nearly gave up then and thought perhaps, being a new teacher in this school, I should ease in and start with traditional teaching approaches….approaches the students were used to. I had doubts, i.e. felt lost…just a little.

BUT since I’ve invested time and effort setting these up, I thought I’d keep going.

This was good because the Year 9s really stepped up since.  Though they could choose any digital media type, I insisted the first one should be text, being the easiest theory-wise and to ease them into the process of self-direction. Some students have opted – with a bit of encouragement – to challenge themselves and try new things like writing an ebook, creating a wiki and learning HTML.

The Year 10s have started to wonder why a school would articulate its purpose at all and why bother to understand it.

The Year 11s have started to wonder how data can indeed be transformed into information to serve one’s purpose.

The Year 12s have started to wonder how the current HSC course connect to last year’s preliminary course.

BUT it’s not all wins.

Today one of my year 12s expressed her (and one other’s) panic on discovering, through our PBL, how little they remember of the preliminary course AND now considering dropping the course.

While it is good “to know that you do not know”, I realise it is uncomfortable for one not used to it and certainly for one facing the high-stakes HSC exams. 

Not long after I spotted @MaryAnnReilly’s tweet that piqued my interest:

Getting lost is a privilege? An affordance of being in the classroom? whoa!  I did not intend for students to feel helplessly lost and now I wonder what to do.

I really liked the idea of making maps.  

I am feeling lost – did I push some students way out of their comfort zone? – and I’ll have to map my own. I’m not quite sure how it will look yet. I cannot promise students will do well in the HSC but I can promise I will do what I can to help them.

I seek other perspectives and writing this post, while unnerving, helps…especially if you’ve got perspectives to offer; perhaps this has happened to you before?

Aside, I find it interesting that my year 9s seem more assured, even happily challenged in discovering what they don’t know.  Some are intentionally getting lost and excited about way-finding and sense-making …. making their own maps. Year 10s are showing similar signs, though perhaps with less enthusiasm.

Anyway, your thoughts welcome. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

Festival of Learning Day 1

Lucky me for making it to the Festival of Learning by PLANE.  Like any good festival, there was quite a buzz and lots of people all happy to be there and be part of the festivitites. There was a lot on offer – a smorgasbord of learning and networking opportunities.

I won’t be able to do justice in capturing what it was like because so much happened. Check out#FOL12 on Twitter, this Storify by @Townesy77, PLANE festival page, or within PLANE.

Instead, I’ll list some of my takeaways because this is personalised learning, yeah? My learning.

  • Celebrate Success.  Share your story.  from Adam Elliott – you can win even if no one else expect you to do so.  And when people acknowledge your success, enjoy the ride.
  • Work needed for success. Narratives as context for learning is a motivating factor. from Dr Jason Fox. “What if work is play?”  It’s not that work is play as such but viewed as play – I interpret this as the Mary Poppins spoonful of sugar approach:

In ev’ry job that must be done there is an element of fun

you find the fun and snap! The job’s a game

  • There are many accessibility issues and opportunities for a truly inclusive classroom. Technology can help students communicate (read: share their story). from Greg Alchin. We have the technology. The question is, are we designing inclusive classrooms? Greg also shared the CAP website – lots of resources there.
  • Take care of the teachers. from Dan Haesler. Ok, I just caught the tail-end of Dan’s presentation but I thought this message is so powerful in its simplicity and relevance.  I look at it as a colleague/peer of teachers but also as a parent of kids who have teachers.
  • Be kind.  from Vivien Tuckerman. Again, just one of her many shared thoughts. However, I find that this language is important and far easier to use with students – Respect is more abstract in comparison.  
  • Do it. Share it. Lead it. from Dr S Howard. A good wrap-up keynote because, for me at least, Sarah touched on all the themes mentioned above. There is positive change in education – we must acknowledge and celebrate it. We have to work  – do make things happen. We should share our stories. This is part of taking care of teachers. Technology is there with all its affordances. Sarah’s keynote notes has her keypoints but not the dynamic story-telling on risk-taking  with a meta approach – modeling to the max. (Yes, I have an edu crush and yes I’ve told her because I was lucky enough to have a post-conference de-brief with her, Ben Jones and Donelle Batty).
There are also social takeaways – having met a few  including PLANE’s Roisin and Jenny Lewis – and spending time with my edu friends.
All up, a good first day. Looking forward to tomorrow.
And look… a wrap-up in less than 500 words. I was aiming for 300 though. oh well. 🙂
PS. if you’re an educator, register at PLANE.

Make room

I love planning, I do. My kids’ birthday parties are legendary among their circles and a good friend has even advised me to write a book about them. When my youngest turned 6, you know what she asked?

“Can we have free play?”

Free play? As in, “do whatever you want?” Apparently, my parties were so structured with a tight schedule and the kids just want to device their own games, happy to be together.

Studying to be a teacher involved planning lessons (and units), including using a template scheduling how much time to allocate for each part. I was in my element! Planning, I could definitely do.  And students? Well, they couldn’t ask for “free play”, could they?

But, times have changed, because I have learned to …..

2012_007 by malynmawby, on Flickr


That’s it, I’ve learned to relax. I still plan – parties and lessons – to a (rough) schedule but I have learned to “let go” or be flexible (read: I schedule in free play). Plans can change and they do and they will. Part of this metamorphosis-of-sorts is playing with different teaching approaches that necessitate such flexibility.

I think Mary Ann Reilly said it well in this post, “When I make art my head gets calm”.

I think about the grand schemes and plans that get made (like the one I did) and how the lived moments in the classroom must trump the pre-made plans.

“the lived moments in the classroom” – YES!

On the same day, Phil Beadle said in  this interview on ABC Radio,

 You can be charismatic. You can be entertaining. But you must not be so big as to have no room in the classroom for the children.

The classroom is a shared space where interactions take place; some of them are meaningful, some of them can be life-changing (though we may never know), some of them are fun, some can be harrowing. But the “lived moments” are the most wonderful part of teaching…even better than planning. How I’ve changed!

Do you make room?

Recommended reading:

(Post update to show there’s more than one way to tell this story – more for my reference but see for yourself)

Teaching and Learning: The having of wonderful ideas by @cpaterso

Sometimes you have to stop teaching to learn the lesson by @erringreg

Don’t try too hard by @johntspencer