This summer I climbed Mount Rinjani in Lombok with a close friend of mine. To put it bluntly, we both are not much of the exercising type and we showed up with our running shoes and a few items in our backpack ready to take a stroll up the mountain. Little did we know what we had signed up for. We didn't know what lay ahead, the challenges, the mental game and of course, sore muscles. The 3 day trek that seemed almost impossible at times almost got the best of me and I thought I wouldn't be able to keep going a few times.
The physical exhaustion kicked in at 3am as I was literally taking baby steps up the gravelled trail where I would take a step forward and slide a bit back down. Without proper shoes, it was a struggle to move forward as I felt the world pushing back at me. It felt like I was doing all this work and yet getting know where. So what was the point of even trying?
At about 5am, I could see the top in the distance but the vertical climb was not something I mentally ready for yet. I almost just stopped to say this was a good enough view. But then a layer of sun started to rise at the horizon and the fire inside began to illuminate as well. The only thought in my mind was that I was going to make it to the top and that there was nothing anyone could do to stop me. The only one who could stop me was myself, and I wouldn't let that happen. I had set out on this journey to make it to the top, and that is where I planned to end up.
And so I pushed on with my brain cheering my physical self on with my head down, looking only where I needed to go next, focusing on the now. Every once and I while I looked up from where I was and could still see my goal in the distance. So again, I forged on.
Finally, as I pulled myself up, there I was at the top looking out at what I had accomplished. I could look back and see the hard work and dedication, the tenacity and drive and the mental willpower to achieve my goals. I could see ahead the volcano surrounded by a lake that was surrounded by mountains and just stood there enjoying the beauty that was there.
To me, this is my educational journey. I'm a long, long way to the top, a long way from where I want to be as a teacher and future career aspirations but nevertheless, I'm still moving forward. Some days you travel farther then others and some days your feet are just sliding in gravel.
As a teacher, there are so many other components to your job than just being a teacher - communicating with parents, staying current on best practice, collaborating with peers, meetings, paperwork, report writing - the list goes on and on. You can have days where your class just drives you a little crazy or you're dealing with girl drama or students using technology inappropriately. You can have the wind and the rain pushing against you as a teacher - but yet you keep moving forward.
The best part of my day is just standing where I am, no matter where I am on the mountain and enjoying the view. I see how far my students have come from the day they first come to my door, and I know they have a long way to go until I can help get them to their own mountain top in June. I love the smiles I see on my students faces when we spend the last five minutes dancing or when a student helps another one down the stairs who is on crutches. I love watching the students laugh as they play tag in the playground or succeed at a challenging task. Their resilience to the obstacles sets an example for us all. Their caring nature shows us how to support each other along the way. Their ability to take risks sets an example of how we should be in our own lives. They are the reason that you keep pushing yourself forward to be better each day.
The bumps in the road as a teacher are always going to be there. The one thing I've learned is that you may never make it to the top of the mountain any day soon but it is possible if you keep moving in the upward direction. But most importantly, you don't have to be at the top of the mountain to enjoy the view - your students are right in front of you.
Even though I'm no longer a classroom teacher, I still get excited about trying new things in a classroom and seeing if they work or not. As a classroom teacher, I was always looking for resources online that could fit into my units to try with my class and just throw them out to my students to trials. The sense of uncertainty of how the lesson would go with this new tool or strategy made teaching interesting. For if the lesson went well, it usually went really well with the kids getting excited about whatever we were trying to use and the learning was enhanced to another level. If it didn't work, it meant either problem solving to make it work or finding an alternative on the fly to rework the lesson.
In a role as a technology coach, I often come across neat ideas that are worth giving a go but without a class of my own, I have to be okay with some teachers not wanting to take the same risks in their classes. So when I find a teacher that is always ready to try something, it makes me excited about the opportunity to work with that teacher and class.
This week has had a few of those moments. First of all, the education technology department led a professional development session on Monday about different tools for integrating videos into teaching and learning including screencasting, iMovie, YouTube and EdPuzzle. By the following day, a few of the teachers had already taken what they had learnt and integrated it into their lessons. As a coach, it makes these sessions meaningful and worthwhile when teachers can actually see the practical use of the tools and are willing to try them out. Beyond that, it's important they share with us their feedback about how it went so we can help support them more or celebrate their successes.
Guinea pig teachers are rockstars in my mind. I went to one teacher this week with Plickers - a formative assessment tool for teachers using iPads and the cards students use to respond to a question. The students hold up an assigned card in one of 4 directions with the multiple choice letter they agree with and the teacher uses the iPad to scan for the results. The app allows teachers to gain feedback on individual student knowledge and data on the whole class' understanding immediately.
I simply explained to the teacher what it would do and asked if she was interested and we installed the application on the iPad right away. I made the cards for her and by the next day she had set it up and was ready to try. I was also grateful to be invited in to see how it would work in the classroom. With a minor issue that was quickly problem solved, we gathered data on students' understandings of problem solving and action in a matter of seconds. This data is so useful as a teacher as a formative tool but could also be used as preassessment or an exit activity from a class. From there, we shared our learning and experience with the teachers in the year group and got them started on it as well. Great things really do spread.
Not all teachers are willing to be technology enthusiasms as innovators or early adopters but I absolutely love working with these staff members. These teachers help me get excited about my job and the positive impact technology can make on teaching and learning for students.
This past year was ... well... there's a lot of words I could use to fill the blank. It was a year of growth and exploration and I was lucky to have the class that I had who were always up for whatever challenge I wanted to tackle next.
As a relatively new teacher, I still have a lot to learn and I'm doing it the only way I know how - trial and error. The good thing about my class this past year is that with every risk I take, they jumped in and took risks too, pushing me beyond my comfort zone. About midway through the year, I found out I was transitioning into a new role which will take me out of the role as classroom teacher. It quickly began to dawn on me that if there were things that I wanted to try, I better do them while I had the chance.
It's been a little like standing at the edge of a cliff this year wondering if I'd finally slip off when things I tried didn't quite work, but luckily I seem to have good balance (or a class of students holding the rope to keep me from misstepping).
6 Units, 6 Things
1. Podcasting with Audio Effects
2. Home Learning Inquiry Projects
3. Games Based Learning
4. Online Courses
5. Choose Your Own Adventure
6. Photography and Film
Each unit brought new challenges for both me and the students but it kept the learning fun and exciting. Amongst each unit there were always smaller challenges embedded but the overarching theme of presented consistent interest, motivation and growth. We were always having a lot of conversations about the learning and reflecting on where we had been and where we needed to take our learning.
When you are out of the classroom, it is sometimes harder to have those ongoing, consistent experiences when you don't see the same students every day. The challenge then becomes finding the challenge that keeps you excited to try something new when you may not be part of the entire process of learning or see how the students are reacting, developing the idea and pushing it further.
Public speaking - to some, one of the most feared things in the world of education. Whether it is being called upon unexpectedly or having to give an oral presentation in front of the class, it is often associated with anxiety, butterflies in the stomach, panic, uneasiness and, quite frankly. can be terrifying for anyone.
I still remember having to write speeches in grade 3 and present them in front of the class for the first time. What if you forgot what you were supposed to say? What if you had to read from your cue cards instead of doing it from memory? What if people didn't like what you had to say or even laughed at you? What if you didn't want to picture everyone in their underpants in order to calm down and relax?
The one thing I have to say is that it really does get better with practice. The next time I had to present I wrote a speech in Grade 6 about water. The night before the written part was due, I had all the facts together but just couldn't piece it together the right way. I remember sitting down with my mom and her helping me plan out an order that made sense, told a story and would flow. She helped me rearrange my plan to have it unfold as a normal day and all of the different places a person would interact with water. When I got up to do that speech, it was easy because we had plotted out a path that would make it easy to remember and not be stressful. Who would've thought I end up getting to represent my school at the public speaking contest in our city? But it didn't stop. The following two years I was able to represent my school again and again. Each time I gave a speech, it got easier and I became more confident sharing in front of an audience. I began to enjoy it more and it was almost like I was in another world when I stepped on the stage to speak. It also helped that I had my number one fan in the audience cheering me on, my mom.
Grade 9 came and the unexpected happened and my mom passed away to cancer. The public speaking project was something that had kind of become a tradition for us each year. I had to decide if I even wanted to present a speech that year, do the research as normal, and have to figure out some kind of plan that made sense all on my own, with no guidance. So that year I decided to speak about something that I was really passionate about and mattered to me...my mom. I did a speech about cancer, the impacts of it on families and even shared a poem I wrote about cancer the night my mother died. Perhaps it was a way for me to say goodbye, come to terms with what was changing in my life or just do something I had learnt to find comfort in. The lessons she had taught me and the steps we would do together to plan it out were so familiar and comforting even when alone. But after I had done my speech that year, a part of me didn't want to share anymore and the door closed to my voice being heard in many ways.
Fast forward to this year. Encouraged (or rather pushed a bit by others), it was time that I start letting my own voice be heard again. I first co-presented at the Singapore American School who hosted the EdTechTeam Singapore Summit featuring Google Apps for Education back in September. Even though I was terrified and was up all night worrying about it, changing slides and reviewing what I wanted to say, it was easy to talk about something else I had grown passionate about in the last year or so - the use of technology in the classroom.
I went back to my class after that presentation and shared the experience with my students. It was a big deal to me to present at such an amazing conference and I started to wonder how my students felt about public speaking themselves so I asked them for their thoughts. Most didn't like it. They said they never had and it was a scary thing to stand up in front of their peers. They said they felt really nervous when they had to present something, just like me.
So I decided that if my mom could get me to conquer my nerves when it came to public speaking, maybe there was hope I could do the same thing for my students. Presentations became a much more prominent thing in my classroom. First, it was just little things they had found and they shared more after an activity. Then it became students doing a bit of research on a topic before sharing. I was looking for small ways for my students to share their ideas in a safe environment where they wouldn't feel those nerves and fears kicking in.
Finally, the moment that made the biggest impact was when we held a mini exhibition for students to share their independent research projects. We first presented to each other, then to parents, administration and other students into our class to share with. After the event, I asked my students again about presenting and one of the biggest things was that they wanted to present more. It wasn't so scary when they were confident about what they were talking about. It wasn't so terrifying when they saw how proud their parents were of them and their work. It didn't create anxiety when they knew everyone was supporting each other and they had worked so hard that they knew their topic so well. To be honest, they didn't want to stop sharing either. I think we spent about 2 days presenting and my students just kept inviting more people to come - their buddy class, a Year 6, teachers they had last year, administration - they wanted to keep talking about the work they had done and their process of getting to this point.
From there, we began sharing our e-portfolios orally to the class more and talking about what makes a good presentation. My students would give each other feedback about glows and grows and set targets for the next time they were to present. I would actually not provide too much feedback for this but rather let my students help each other grow. Now, it's almost time for parents to come back to celebrate our next end of the unit and it's the students asking for the parents to come in so they can present to them not the teachers saying the parents are invited.
Through all of this, I've tried to continue to present as well each time sharing with my students my own glows and grows as I develop in this area as well. I think my students have a different level of respect when they know you are doing the same thing they are and experiencing similar feelings. Whether it is a small 5-minute presentation or a full hour session, I know presenting is helping me develop in new ways, just like my students. It's something I force myself to do, even though I'd be just as happy listening from the audience. I know as I continue to move forward in my international teaching career, the importance of sharing, leading training sessions and presenting will become more and more a part of what I do.
Public speaking may never come naturally to me - I hate being put on the spot in public, big crowds, being the centre of attention and being put in a position to be easily judged - I'm an introvert, to say the least. But it's easy to talk about things in my career that I am so passionate about - my school, what I do in my class and most of all my students. But just like my students, I'm learning to enjoy sharing more. I can only hope that in my quest to find my own confidence to share my voice again that maybe I've helped even just one student find theirs as well.
Sometimes when you start out a project, you're not sure of where it will end up. For our personal projects for our inventions unit, this was very much the case. I had an idea of how to go about it. But how it would actually unfold, that was a big question mark.
On Friday, I was a very proud teacher of my students. They showcased their personal projects including their process journals and a variety of ways to present their findings as products to parents, students and administrators.
Before we shared our work with the wider school community, each student had the opportunity to share to their classmates. Was I ever blown away by the level of thought and effort my students had put into their projects. As each student stood up to share their work, there was a very evident sense of pride in their work. They each shared their work with confidence in a way they hadn't done before. They spoke about their research, their findings, their passion for learning.
No two projects were alike, no two students had shared the same learning journey but yet the amount of knowledge and understanding was phenomenal.
I loved seeing the students so excited to share their work with their parents and the parents were just as proud of them as I was. One of my favourite moments of the day was when a mother approached me with teary eyes to tell me how incredible it was to see how much work her daughter had done on the project and how much she had grown through the process. It made my heart warm.
My students are so proud of it that they don't want to stop sharing and we are going to continue to share with our buddy class on Monday.
This project has made me come away with some important lessons:
1. Student choice is a way to get students to buy-in to learning.
When students choose what they learn, how they will learn it and how they will present their findings, they often do more and to a higher quality. When they feel the internal want to learn, it doesn't even feel like work. Sometimes simply giving students a framework is all they need. I told them they had to pick a topic, show their learning process and create a product in the end but beyond that, their learning choices were completely in their hands.
2. Focus on skills leads to better results.
This unit of inquiry, I spent less time focused on content and more time on skills. My students learned about different ways to gather research and the importance of process vs. product. They explored different technology tools and ways of presenting their work. We discussed time management, organization and how others can be critical friends for each others. We looked at making small manageable goals each day and each week rather than taking on the project as a whole. We focused on gathering research questions that drive your learning, rather than just looking at everything. Through all of these conversations and discussions, not once did I say you have to tell me the past, present and future of your invention or why we need that invention or who invented it or when was it invented. While a lot of those things were discovered through the project, so was a lot of other information.
3. An unknown direction can work.
I've always been taught plan with the end in mind. However, this time, I wasn't sure what the end would look like or even what the project would be like week by week or even if it would be a multiple week project. This project became larger than expected and better than expected. It never meant to be an exhibition or a project the students spent hours on. Sometimes its okay to go with the flow and have something evolve as you go. Sometimes I don't have to plan everything (which I feel more comfortable doing) and still know that the final result will work out in the end.
After 5 weeks of learning, it all came together on one day in one room. Everyone left that Friday beaming with pride and excitement. Not every day does what you are doing make sense, but on that day, the final piece of the puzzle as we ended our unit fit perfectly.
A couple of weeks ago a group of 5 girls in my class were outside drawing at lunch. I wandered over to them to see what they were up to. "Ms. Mac, we are drawing unipigs and we want to have a unipig day!" Puzzled on what a unipig was, I inquired further - a pig and a unicorn all in one. I asked the girls if this 'day' was going to happen at home or at school.
"Can it happen at school?" was what I heard in response with the 5 innocent faces looking back at me. For a moment I paused and pondered before replying with, "Sure...But there has to be an educational component to it." From there it just took off!
That night the girls went home and by 5pm, they were on a Google presentation collaborating, commenting and coming up with how they were going to make this day happen. Within 30 minutes, they had already planned 2 lessons and created a Google presentation to use for their lesson. The document was shared with me by the time I got home from work and I sat there amazed at what had just happened.
The next day the first question I got from them was when was this going to happen. Putting the breaks on for just a second, I suggested that we meet to go over what they had planned and then we could discuss a date. At the break, we gathered in the conference room the 5 of them on one side me the other and they began talking me through their plans.
First up was a math lesson. They were going to create a menu of all the different cupcakes, cakes and beverages offered at the Decimal Dessert. Students would solve problems based on the open and closed word problem questions the girls had come up with. For the second lesson, the girls were going to have everyone design a cupcake in their writing books. Then, everyone would have to write a story incorporating the cupcake with the focus on developing their senses with taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. It sounded reasonable to me and we planned for the following Wednesday to be the day.
The excitement continued to build as the girls created more drawing for the day and modified their menu up until the last moment.
On the day, it was a very different experience for me as I stepped into the student role and actually did their lessons. I was incredibly proud of the girls and the way they conducted the lesson from start to finish. When students' hands went up, they were right there for support and even marked as they went. I loved that one when one student raised his hand and said excuse me and our PYP coordinator went to see if he could help, the student said he was actually wanting to ask the 'teachers' a question which gave me a good chuckle.
The biggest challenge for the girls was their excitement. They were all so excited by the event that they sometimes would talk over each other when giving the lesson. But how can you fault enthusiasm really?
It was a very reflective experience for me as well. As I did the lessons as a student, it reminded me of the little things that are helpful for the student to understand the instructions and tasks better. It was also interesting to see the girls modelling what I would normally do as well - the way they got the classes' attention, how they addressed students, approaches to questions. I saw the classroom truly through the eyes of my students.
Beyond this afternoon, I have had more students wanting to take risks and share. Two days after, I had a boy come in with a presentation about some action outside of the classroom that he created and wanted to share and I received an email from another student asking if she could present something she designed on the weekend. Perhaps sometimes it just takes one small step sideways to begin leaping forward.
I am glad I let go of the class for the afternoon and handed it over to the girls. It meant so much to them and they were so proud of what they accomplished individually and together. They developed their presentation skills, reflected on their work, communicated their ideas to others and challenged their peers academically. And the fact the girls also organised to each bring a few cupcakes in for the celebration to end the lesson was just the icing on the cake.
It's hard to believe only a year ago I truly took my first steps in the world of EdTech. I'm blessed that my learning curve has been steep and fast and I've had the opportunity to interact with some amazing educators here in Singapore and throughout Asia. I have a lot of things I want to achieve in my educational journey. I'm only in the beginning steps of that path but I just managed to check another wish off my list but it came at the cost of the case of some serious nerves.
This past weekend I attended the EdTechTeam Singapore Summit featuring Google Apps. I had attended the conference last year as a complete rookie to the EdTech world where I soaked up every once I could and quite frankly my brain was fried by Sunday at 5pm.
But this year was different, this year I was co-presenting one of the workshops with a colleague of mine. As a new educator, I have so much to learn from those who came into this profession beforehand. So taking the stage to share my own experiences completely terrified me. I am no better than anyone else and in my mind not doing anything remarkably noteworthy compared to the other educators who simply care about their students and want to make a difference for their kiddos. From that standpoint, I never thought I would be at the point where I had something anyone would ever want to hear.
Yet, when one day as I was in the tech office trying to solve a completely unrelated problem, I struck up a conversation with our Primary EdTech Coach about the conference. He told me he was presenting and for whatever reason, I asked if they were still looking for presenters. Somehow we got to the point where he suggested I present with him our e-portfolios. Bam - hooked in and too late to back out. (In hindsight, awesome choice!)
Preparing the presentation itself came pretty easy to me when I knew what I was talking about was just everyday practice to me and my students. Perhaps my time management on the actual prep work could be adjusted in the future to eliminate some nerves but the fact is it was ready for action when it needed to be. We had many successes and challenges with the portfolios last year and all I really had to do when it came down to it was to be honest and speak from the heart.
On the day of my presentation, my colleagues asked if I was going to be okay. I clearly looked like I was going to be doing the scariest thing in my life as I entered the school cafeteria for morning coffee. But somehow I managed to get it together. I am so appreciative of all of my colleagues who were the most supportive group of individuals I could have asked for during this event for me. Many asked if I wanted them in the audience cheering me on. While thoughtful, sweet and super caring, no I did not want them there. Having anyone from our school sitting there smiling back at me was not what I wanted or needed. I would only get more nervous in front of the people I work with every day, presenting the work we all do in our classrooms. In my mind, presenting in front of complete strangers was the best method - even though my colleagues promised loud cheers, banners and signs if I let them come. They did make sure to congratulate me and make me feel so special afterwards too. It's a wonderful feeling to know that if you stumble in your school you've got people to help you back up. I even had one friend make sure I got something special to have in my class to remember the occasion by. This also excited my students this morning and they told me I was a real risk-taker and asked if they could give teachers merits too.
I stood up at the front of the room about 15 minutes before it started with my co-presenter and looked out. 3 people there so far - well, at least I wouldn't mess up and embarrass myself in front of too many people. Unfortunately, we had a bigger crowd than that with each passing minute until it was time to start and there was a good size audience in the room. My co-presenter started off the presentation with the philosophy of the e-portfolios and I just stood there waiting my turn, jittery, and trying to remember to smile.
"And now I'll turn it over to my colleague, Emily." Darn! That's my cue. Okay, breathe, smile, breathe again, say something. And so it began. Honestly, for not really practising what I wanted to say, the words for the most part just rolled off the tongue. It's easy for me to talk about my students and what we do together in our classroom. I ooze pride when I talk about my kiddos - they change the way I think and make me a better teacher and person every day.
One of my favourite parts was just being able to have questions and answers with individuals in the audience. Like I said, I'm no expert, so sharing ideas and experiences allows us to grow together.
An interesting thing I took away from the weekend that was unintended learning was my attention to detail about how others constructed their workshops and keynotes. I found myself analysing the presenters thinking why did this work and why do I feel that part could be done differently (nothing against any presenters). I found myself viewing the presentations less about content and more about structure, flow and connection. Perhaps I did not take away as much EdTech learning as I did last year (though still many new ideas) because of this unintended focus, I still feel like the knowledge I gained will help me propel myself forward.
Secretly (or not so secretly), this was a huge day for me. My first real conference and one featuring Google Apps for Education in a country where EdTech is top notch? I mean, come on, excitement over this accomplishment doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. I kind of felt like I kid again when I Skyped my dad the next day sharing the experience and hearing how proud he was of me.
Would I do it again? Yes. Will it always bring out my nerves? Absolutely. I've already had a friend at another school make a pact to both do a presentation in October (thankfully this one can be much much shorter!) But I guess I realised was that I actually do have a voice in the education world. We all do. Teachers want to hear what other teachers are doing. It's okay that your voice is quiet and maybe not being heard by many but just like with my students, if I can make a difference to one, then that's a great thing I've done.