My Ancient Tech Museum

When you have to account for everything, you end up not throwing stuff out. That’s why in my cupboard at work I have this.

It’s a beauty, isn’t it? It’s a super 8 editing suite. I’ve never used one. When I was in year 9 (that’s a long time ago now) my Media class made a super 8 movie and then found the only place we could get it processed was in Canada, so Chairwars, a brilliant stop-motion animation, never saw the light of day. Nor did Day of the Tripods, another stop-motion. But even though this is of no use at all, I keep it because I really like it, and I’m sure I would be the envy of many media teachers if they knew I had it.

Happy Belated Scratch Day

I woke up this morning to find that I’d missed Scratch Day. I’m not too worried by this, as every year I have a whole pile of Scratch Days at work, and I love all of them. However, I thought that it was worth jotting down one reason why I love Scratch so much. So, here is my tribute to Scratch.


IMG_0950
Is it a pig? Is it a duck?

This morning my daughter and I worked on her fine motor skills. Of course she didn’t know that we were doing that, she thought we were playing with plasticine, but I knew that there was a good reason for us to devote an hour to building snails, aliens, ice-creams and goat/wolves. And while I tinkered with a plasticine pig, it struck me that this is what’s so great about Scratch. You can’t fail at playing with plasticine. My pig may have looked more like a duck, but I didn’t fail at it. It was just not quite what I expected. I’m sure if I made a plasticine pig again I would do it better. But the point is that at the end of the process I had a model.

It’s much the same when you play with Scratch. You always end up with something. It might not be exactly what you expected, but you will end up with a program that does something. This is thanks to the absence of any possibility of a syntax error in Scratch. While programming generally forces you to focus on the tiniest little bits of syntax, Scratch allows you to focus on the big ideas of programming and to seriously play. There’s nothing more frustrating than not understanding why the 10 lines of javascript that you’ve just copied (as far as you can tell) doesn’t do anything. If it did something at least you’d know you were getting somewhere. Scratch always does something and this is why it’s great.

At the end of our plasticine session my daughter had improved her fine motor skills, though she wasn’t aware of that. She’d just had some fun. Likewise with Scratch, at the end of a unit my students have improved their understanding of sequencing, variables, iteration, events and conditionals. They’ve also developed their logical thinking and problem solving skills, though they think they’ve made Penguin Soccer.

Snails
Our Snails

There are many more reasons why Scratch is great, but there are also many more blogs out there detailing them. I just wanted to add my voice to the many out there saying “Happy Scratch Day”.

What I’ve Been Doing

It’s been about 12 months since the start of the TL21C program last year. Here’s what I’ve been doing, in no particular order.

 

GAFE

At the end of last year we set up our GAFE domain. That bit was pretty straightforward. Then we had to populate it with our staff and students. The easiest way to do this would have been via a series of CSV files (one for each org unit), but my rule is that if you have to do something twice (such as upload a csv file) then there has to be a better way. So, one of our wonderful techs spent considerable time setting up Google Active Directory Sync (GADS) and Google Password Sync Tool.

GADS worked with limited success. It imported all our students and staff, but not in their OUs. I’ve manually (and there was a quick way of doing this, thanks to our naming protocols) moved all staff into their own OU and all students into their own OU, but the Students OU is pretty unwieldy, and there is no way of differentiating students in year 7 from students in year 12. So, Google + will be staying off for students until we can sort this out. Hopefully this will happen before the end of the year, as I don’t relish the idea of manually removing all this year’s year 12s.

We’ve started slowly with actual use of GAFE. I’m basically letting people discover it fot themselves and steering people towards it when they come to me with a problem. For example, our VET hospitality students needed a way for people to pre-order coffee from our cafe.  As of a few weeks ago, a Google form gets sent out a few days before each coffee shop sitting, staff fill it in, and the students have coffee waiting for them at the start of recess. This makes everyone happy, and I’m not sure anyone realises that they’re using GAFE. The upshot of it is, though, that they’re all required to log in with their GAFE email address and password, which is one of the things I want people to get used to. We’ll do the same thing for the functions later in the year, with the addition of a Google Site promoting each function. (Also see this little post).

Additionally I have the administration all sharing their calendars, something that we could never get happening with the Edumail system. My next step is to get the school calendar onto  a Google calendar and get staff used to using it. One step at a time, though.

Chromebooks

I’m writing this while sitting on a bus between Canberrra and the NSW South Coast (see GAFE Summit) on a Chromebook. I’ve fallen completely for my Chromebook. It’s light and fast, has a great battery life and as long as it connects occasionally everything is synced up and I have access to whatever I need. What’s more, it was cheap. We are rapidly approaching a BYOD rollout and have yet to decide exactly how it should run. I strongly believe that it should be a Chromebook program, but I’ve yet to convince everyone that needs convincing. My next step is to try to get a class set of Chromebooks to run a trial program. The success of this depends largely on the willingness of the technicians to set them up correctly. Fingers crossed. 

I’ve also purchased one Chromebox, along with a management licence. My plan is to replace the PCs in the library with Chromeboxes. The cost will be less than half and they’re just much more efficient. I’ll let write more about how this is going once it’s happened.

GAFE Summit

I missed last year’s GAFE Summit in Melbourne, and so was determined to make it to one this year. So this weekend I’ve been to the Canberra GAFE Summit. The whole ACT government school system has “gone Google” so I suspect that every government school had sent a few people along. I was envious of the ACT teachers who didn’t need to think about any of the (admittedly relatively minor) headaches of setting up and administering their own domain. But also quietly smug about my access to my own admin panel where I could control absolutely everything.

GAFE Summit was also a great chance to meet some people whose work I’ve adminred for years. Jenny Luca and Chris Betcher in particluar. They both ran excellent sessions and were incredibly generous with their time and expertise outside sessions as well. With everything that Chris demonstrated I was tempted to call out “that’s not amazing” except it generally was.

Having travelled to Canberra, I now find that there is likely to be a Melbourne Summit in September. Oh well.

3D Printing

We have two 3D printers. They were both suffering from what we’ve dubbed “Sauce Bottle Syndrome”, where the printing nozzle gets clogged up with old filament and the new filament squirts out sideways and curls up like Shirley Temple’s hair. The solution to this is to replace the nozzle, which costs about $30. You can then drill the old nozzle out and reuse it, if you’re up to that.

My (literally) hot tip for this process is this: Heat the printhead before trying to remove the nozzle. Not doing this changes the process from replacing the nozzle ($30) to replacing the printhead ($380).  I encourage my students to make mistakes if it helps them learn, but I’m not overjoyed with myself for not learning this particular lesson in a cheaper way, such as actually reading the note on the webpage when I bought the damned thing.

Compass

We started using Compass School Manager last year. I love it but part of my job is administering it, which I love a little less. As more and more aspects of education move online, the role of someone who understands (and I use this term very loosely in my own case) how the systems work becomes bigger and more varied. I’m our college’s eLearning coordinator, but this year a part of my job has been to set up all the instrumental music classes so that their rolls can be marked. Is this eLearning? Certainly not. But it is something that I find easy and others find more difficult. I don’t mind doing it at all, except that I think there are probably better things I could be doing with the time that the college has given me (I stress that this is not “my time”).

The great thing about helping to administer Compass is that I’m learning a lot about the intricacies of how the college actually operates. I’m interested in just about everything, so learning about the processes that help the school run is sort of fun.

Losing Sight

So, has getting caught up in the minutiae of administering ICT and Technology at a school meant that I’m losing sight of the bigger picture? I certainly am. Am I making that 10% change that Will Richardson talked about at the start of TL21C? Probably not. When I step back from what I’m doing (as I am now) it’s easy to see what I’m doing as simply computerising (and isn’t that a quaint term these days) “the way we’ve always done things”.  Hopefully what I’m actually doing is laying the foundation for a very different way of doing things, but I’m not sure.

The keynotes at last weekend’s GAFE Summit have helped me to refocus on that bigger picture and I’ll go into term 2 with a refreshed vision of what it is that I’m actually trying to achieve with the things I’m doing.

Leading a Little Change

A brief late-night thought on leading change in a secondary setting.

Last year I introduced Google Apps for Education to the staff at my school in a whole-staff PD session. The reception was mixed. The ability for multiple users to be working on the one doc (which has been happening for years) was a novelty to many, but I was surprised that so few of them could see how this could be used in their classrooms. I don’t think I did a bad job of selling it. I certainly focussed on teaching and learning, not tech, but they just didn’t warm to it. One teacher in particular told me that she couldn’t see any application for this in the English classroom (which I found astounding, but there you go).

Since then I’ve managed (with massive help from the one of our techs) to get our email moved over to GAFE and (whether they know it or not) we have about 1400 active users in the domain. I’ve been too busy setting it up to actually do any PD with staff. All we’ve done is get everyone’s emails working the way they like.

However, I’ve fallen in love with Google Classroom. The way that it integrates with drive and allows me to see how my students are going before they submit their work is a huge improvement over systems where you only see the work once the student has turned it in, by which time it’s too late to help them fix it. The ability to drop in on students while they’re working simulates what I do in the physical classroom.

And today, the very same teacher who couldn’t see an application for GAFE in her class found me and asked me to talk her through some finer points of Classroom. It transpired that some of my year 11s had asked her if she could use Classroom instead of Edmodo, and she’d tried it and liked it.

Now this could sound like an “Aren’t I clever, I was right and you were wrong, I told you so” story, but that’s not why I’m setting it down. My point is this: When leading change in a secondary setting, the only people you really need to convince are the students. Once they can see the value of something, they’ll do the evangelical work. That’s it.

Actors? Seriously?

The other day I came across this on social media:

… teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. …. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. … My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments … It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart… Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. By NICK RIPATRAZONE

Underneath it were comments about how this is what we teachers all strive for and what a wonderful piece of writing it is and how true and wonderful. Now, I’m not pugnacious by nature, so I just let it go. But here in the private space of my blog, where only a handful of people will read it, here is my response:

What twaddle.

I’m tempted to leave this post there, because I think that would be funny. But I won’t because that would be doing Nick Ripatrazone a disservice. I’ve since read his entire piece The Last English Teacher and I realise that what I read was an unfair representation of all that he’s saying. It’s a lovely piece and I’m sure that he’s exactly the sort of teacher that I would have wanted for myself and I do want for my children. In terms of our teaching I’m sure we are more alike than different. However, that first line “teachers were born to perform… We are actors without stages” troubles me greatly. Here’s my hot tip. If you want to be an actor, be an actor. If you want to be a teacher, stop inflicting your thespian fantasies on your students and start focusing on how they learn. Seeing yourself as an actor is putting yourself at the centre of the classroom. You’re saying “Watch me, kiddies. It’s all about me.” Now I often actually say this to my students ironically in the hope that they realise that I know I’m dominating the conversation and that we all know that’s wrong.

If I were capable of being the sort of teacher I think is perfect, my students would hardly know I was there. They wouldn’t look back on their schooling and think of the teacher at the front of the room performing for them. They’d look back and think about the great things they did. If there’s going to be an actor in my classroom, I want it to be one of my students. If we’re to continue with the drama metaphor, I think teachers should be producers. Producers make everything possible, but they shouldn’t be getting involved in the directing or acting unless something’s going wrong. Basically, my students’ performances should be the important things, not mine. And as a place full of people producing things that they have put their hearts into, I certainly don’t think the classroom should, or even could,  be described as mundane.


Since starting this post, two days ago, Aaron Davis has posted this wonderful piece in which he reminds me that I once wrote:

“I think the important thing is remembering that we’re all in this to help our students. So we’re all on the same team even when we disagree about the strategies we’re using to achieve what we want. So everything I read, whether it’s a tweet or a blog, I remember that the writer is coming from the same place as me.”

And I suspect I’ve been a bit harsh. I still think that what I wrote about my own classroom is right, however, I know that a school is a place where students come to learn from a variety of people and in a variety of ways, and if everyone was like me the world would be a very dull place indeed. So thank goodness for those teachers who perform for their classes. The world is a richer place for their presence. Thank goodness for Nick Ripatrazone.

 

I’m good with computers

I’m good with computers. I don’t know much about how they work. I certainly can’t program them. However, like many people, I’m “good with computers”. But what does that actually mean? I guess it means that I can generally get them to do what I want them to do. So how do I do it? Well, it’s certainly not intelligence. I’ve known many super-intelligent people who struggle in front of a computer. My job involves trying to help people to use computers effectively, and I’m starting to think about how to actually help people be good with computers, rather than just teaching them individual software processes (over and over again).

So, here are the things that I think have made me “good with computers”, whatever that means. Very few are actual skills, and none of them are things that can’t be learned or adopted.

1. I’m precise. Sometimes. I know when it’s important to be precise. I also know when a problem is most likely to be because I’ve mistyped something. If my log in doesn’t work, for example, I know that the service I’m using hasn’t forgotten my details. I know it will by my fault, and the first place I look is at my own typing. I also know to look for things like spaces at the start of a username. These things are incredibly frustrating and lead to people throwing up their hands and saying “I’m just no good with computers”. You’re no worse with computers than anyone else. Just look for simple mistakes.

2. I practise. Working with computers isn’t like playing a musical instrument. There’s not much art to it. However, like anything that involves remembering a process, you need to do it a few times before you can feel really confident with it. Those people who are “bad with computers” don’t remember something after doing it once, and take this as evidence that they’ll never be able to do it. Put in a little practice and guess what? Also, like learning a musical instrument, learning one piece of music makes it easier to learn the next piece.

3. I know that Google isn’t cheating. If I don’t know how to do something, I press F1 and if that doesn’t help, I use Google. That’s not cheating. It’s research and it’s okay. If you don’t know how to get somewhere it’s okay to use a map, too.

4. I’m fearless (more or less). I know that I haven’t been given enough power to do any actual damage. As long as I back up regularly, there’s not much I can do that will create actual problems. So, I don’t hold back from pushing buttons just to see what they’ll do. Be brave and see what you learn.

5. I know what to expect. Sometimes this means limiting my expectations (for example, I don’t expect my computer to remind me of things I haven’t set it to remind me of. Sometimes this means not settling for doing too much work. I know that if I’m doing the same thing over and over, or matching boring data, that the computer can do it for me. I’m amazed at people who will happily type in 150 email addresses, when they’re already sitting in a database somewhere, but who will complain that the computer didn’t know that they meant “.com” when they wrote “.cmo”.

6. I think computers are magic. I don’t mean this literally, obviously. What I mean is that I still get a thrill from watching a computer do something in 4 seconds that would have otherwise taken a week. And I get a little sense of pride knowing that I got it to do that. And I love showing people and watching them get that thrill as well.

So there you go. People who are good with computers are like good readers; they have a set of strategies that they use to work effectively. People who are bad with computers are like bad readers; not only do they not have the strategies, they don’t believe the strategies exist. They think they were just born a bad reader and good readers are just born lucky. I’m a good reader, too. If my mind drifts while I’m reading, I go back and reread. That’s okay. Bad readers don’t do that. People who are bad with computers don’t practise vlookup functions in Excel. Not only have I practised them, I love them.

So, what have I missed. What else makes someone “good with computers”?


A bit of a disclaimer here: I’m not “good with computers” in any way that anyone who works with computers is. I’m the first to say “take it to the techs”. I’m good with them in a consumer sort of way. I’d hate anyone to think I actually know anything. I seriously don’t.

Backward Chaining

I’ve been shamed into writing this by my nomination in the Edublog Awards. This will be brief, as I strongly suspect that I’m the last teacher in the world to hear of Backward Chaining.

One of the things I love about teaching is how many other aspects of life inform my teaching practice. A parenting book (which is currently in an occupied bedroom, so I’m not going to get it and find the title) recently appeared in our house, I suspect thanks to one of any number of horrific tantrums by our three-year old. She is lovely, but she has a serious temper. Anyway, in a rare, quiet moment I picked it up and came across the idea of Backward Chaining. The idea is that when you teach a new skill you teach the last step first. You then do everything but the last step and let the child complete the task.

Pic
The tantrumer holding a festive backward chain.

Once the last step is mastered you teach the second-last step. You then do everything but the second-last step and let the child complete the task.

Eventually, the child has learned all the steps and is capable of completing the entire task for themselves.

The important thing about this is the recognition that learning is a very emotional process. When we get something wrong we (at least I) feel stupid, and we aren’t all that keen to try again. When we get something right, we’re keen for another go.

I teach quite a few lessons a year on software packages. I don’t teach them as ends in themselves, but as necessary tools for completion of bigger tasks. However, the fact is that a few times a year I teach a class the basics of Adobe Illustrator (for example). And the first lesson is always how to start. It’s the same when I teach HTML coding (which I do poorly), and the same when I teach Flash (which I do extremely poorly).

From now on, I’m teaching the last step first, because when I finish the task off for a student, the message they’re getting isn’t “You got step 1 right”, it’s “You aren’t up to steps 2-15 which I just made look easy”. And the emotional impact of this is, if not debilitating, at least negative.

Unfortunately I only have 48 minutes of teaching left this year to put my plan into practice. Never mind. 2015 will be the year of Backward Chaining.