A few notes on ‘3 of Me’ – an upcoming project by @AmyBurvall

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My old friend Soba, responsible for takeaway number three. I loved our walks.

I was recently asked by the inspirational @AmyBurvall to contribute to a project that she has dreamed up. Selecting from a series of prompts, I am getting some ideas together related to a specific learning journey. My task is to describe three big takeaways from my hobby/passion/art. I have chosen the general term ‘writing pursuits’ which touches on different aspects of my life. To find out what Amy will do with these ideas, you will have to stay tuned.

Firstly, I needed to address a problem of definition because I do write as a hobby, but I get slightly obsessive about it so I guess you could call it a passion. As an English teacher I would also consider the process of bringing a new idea into the world, in whatever form, art. However, I won’t waste any more of your time or this precious electronic font on the problem of definition. Writing to me is all of these things. Here are my takeaways. I’ll address each in a separate post, framed with some images of me along the way on this writing journey.

First takeaway… We decide whom we see in the mirror tomorrow.

Second takeaway… Cultivate your procrastination.

Third takeaway… You have to walk the dog.

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Keep Writing!

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Recently, I was asked by the irrepressibly creative @AmyBurvall to say a few words about things that I have learned through one aspect of my life. The first questions that come to mind are which part of life can be chosen and is it possible to isolate an understanding to a single aspect? Parts of my life that come to mind are my work as a principal, my life as a surfer, my penance as an author and my joy as a father. I can’t seem to identify a single understanding of life that can be traced to one of these parts in isolation. I can, however, trace some of these understandings back to the writing process as the stories we tell connect all of the ways that we come to understand the world, or at least an initial glimpse of them. It is story that ties it all together.

This is the greatest benefit of writing, whether it be a tweet, a blog, a personal letter, a diary, a poem or a work of fiction; it helps us to get to know ourselves better. It is simple to get to know someone else. Ourselves, harder. For this reason, keep writing.

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‘Service for Learning’ or ‘Learning for Service’

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A popular site for our kindly forced-volunteerism, the MS Garden.

As an IB school we have a strong commitment to service, but as with many schools translating the idea of service into the realities of action needs some thought. One of the issues that we have bumped into is the question of what came first, the learning or the service? An infamously difficult question to answer. Also, which one is the driver?

Currently, our school system of requiring students to participate in community service – a kindly forced-volunteerism – is based on the idea that learning will happen through the service projects that we are engaged in. While this may be true, as a school we would hope that the learning we carefully plan for in units of inquiry would further enable students to contribute to the community, to take action, to have a voice.

So it seems that we may not need to answer the question, rather recognize the cyclical nature of the service/learning relationship. Next year, we hope to follow through more consistently with action originating from school based learning and some of this will be in the form of service. Identifying some of the great action that our students are involved in independently and supporting this with further learning incorporated into our units of inquiry is also important. In this sense, the process should incorporate an element of ‘service for learning’ as well as an element of ‘learning for service’, but only if we widen our focus.

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BYOD – Be brave!

The decision to move ahead with a policy shift to ask students to bring their own device (BYOD) was the subject of much concern and trepidation. As teachers responsible for the  learning of 180 middle school students, any potential added confusion gives you pause for thought. Many of the issues that we had been concerned about didn’t end up causing problems and we found some unexpected ones that we hadn’t considered.

Concerns that didn’t turn out to be issues:

  • Access to software that teachers needed (perhaps the greatest pre-BYOD worry) caused few problems with teachers switching to more web-based applications, specifically the use of Google Suite and online editing programs. Nearly everything we want to do is available online and students choose which application they want to perform the task. What software? What were we thinking?
  • Technical problems (the second greatest pre-BYOD concern) did not inundate the technical staff. Students know their own computers well and even though they bring a variety of PCs, Macs and tablets, rare technical issues are dealt with at home. A renewed focus on technological integration in the classroom was possible with the reduced focus by school staff on maintaining school computers.
  • Cell phones causing a huge distraction was a concern, and they in fact were and continue to be, however, no more or less than pre-BYOD. Cell phones (treated as a secondary device) are used at teachers’ discretion and have been incorporated more and more as a useful tool in classroom activities. Videoing (vlogs etc), capturing images of notes/homework and the use of reading applications such as Kindle are examples of common uses that have increased greatly. Under the desk texting still happens, but it is still less problematic than the parents texting at the wheel when picking students up from school. Texting restraint is a broader societal issue, not a BYOD specific problem.
  • Printing wasn’t a problem, as we asked students to do all printing at home. This saved time in class and resulted in much less wasted paper. It’s a good thing that student computers don’t link directly to printers with an inexhaustible supply of nice fresh paper, ready to print random articles during a quick Google search masquerading as research. Yes, no student printing at school is definitely a benefit, not a problem.
  • Forgotten computers were not an issue. In fact, in some cases, the computers were one of the only things that weren’t forgotten on a regular basis. With cloud-based storage there is less and less to forget to bring to school.
  • Lost and broken computers. Students treated their own devices more carefully than the school ones. We have a small stock of old ‘back-up’ school computers to use in case of emergency. This has been sufficient.
  • Wifi overload did not happen, at least any more than pre-BYOD.
  • Mayhem during online standardize testing was not experienced. The download by students of a secure browser was simple. Without the constant technical difficulties experienced when using communal computers, the process was easier after BYOD.

Unexpected issue:

  • Battery life and supplying electric outlets. We found that this has been the major problem derived from either short battery life on older computers or excessive gaming before school. This has been a self-correcting problem in many ways. If ten years ago, you had asked a student to draw a map of available electric outlets in the school, they would have looked at you blankly. Now, they can draw it from memory.

In short, we worried about many things, and experienced few of the woes that we had imagined. If you are considering BYOD and are concerned, be brave. You may be worrying for nothing.

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Principal as Journalist – Could this be the secret?

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Not seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees. Telling the story of schools – the story we want it to be.

It is hard to describe exactly what a principal does. It’s even harder to describe what a principal is supposed to do. I have never really heard a good, concise description. It may be easier to think about the position in terms of who a principal is supposed to be, particularly as our mind works chiefly in metaphor. Thinking back on my own school experience, I would have to say that as a student I would probably have to say that the ‘prison warden’ metaphor would have been accurate in the 70s, control of children being the central theme, with little need for interactions with families – at least in my memories.  As perceptions of the purpose of education has changed over the years, it seems that principal as ‘journalist’ may be a more fitting role to help us re-imagine what we do in schools and how we do it – the tellers of story, the creators of news, the shapers of discourse – less about control and more about communication. Making sense of the experience, shaping the experience.

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Helping hands, watchful eyes

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When we are struggling, it’s sometimes difficult to see the people watching out for us. We see this in schools everyday – students being supported behind the scenes by teams of teachers.

This morning, surfing off a reef quite a way from shore, with my board lost  I was confronted with the prospect of swimming back to shore, a difficult task in a big swell with a strong rip current running across the reef and out to sea.

A fellow surfer asked me when I first lost my board, slightly worried, ‘Are you a competent swimmer?’ I considered myself so, however at that moment I thought somewhat darkly that I was just about to find out. It seems that I still am. When I finally reached shore, I realized than many supportive eyes had been upon me during the swim, ready to lend aid if needed, quietly concerned.  I hadn’t know it in my time of trouble. It struck me that a learner’s journey is much like this. A word for teachers; keep watching, keep caring. They’ll make it.

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Threat or opportunity? An arbitrary choice.

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Mist over the Kawainui Marsh on my ride to school – threat or possibility underneath?

In schools, when we approach uncertainty, collective emotional responses need to be managed carefully. Such responses are not just passive reactions to a context: they create the context. We have all experienced this.

My thoughts turn to an impending accreditation visit. As a reflective institution, is such a visit a threat or an opportunity? We make a choice, quite arbitrarily it seems. As humans, our imaginations enable us to exaggerate the danger posed by potential threats. This is useful in a hostile environment where we might be eaten; where, if we were not sure of the distinction, erring on the side of caution is a sensible approach.

With instances of uncertainty, as in an impending accreditation visit with a self study and all that this entails, it is necessary to force ourselves to choose a reflective perspective – one of opportunity, to be embraced; to be excited about. This is how we will learn, as individuals and as institutions. This is the choice (a focus on opportunity) that will determine the nature of the context – pleasant, reflective and a valuable learning experience. Your other choice  (a focus on threat) will create a completely different context.

The question is, how do we override our problematic, natural impulse to choose the ecologically safe option?

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