Tag Archives: relationships

Why communication is hard

I’ve spent this weekend and the week leading up to it thinking about the various ways we, as a school, can improve our communication methods. I went through this process at my last school as well, and after consideration of the problem again I’ve come to this conclusion – setting up the channels with the technology available is easy, but making sure it is both sustained and valued by the community is hard. We’re constantly fighting the battle of content that dates quickly, and the increasing demands on teacher time that ultimately mean a reluctance to write-up content, especially if it needs to be done multiple times for multiple publications.

To combat this, we’re going to be using a set up that I’ve had in place in the past and ties everything we use together very nicely. The school has a number of tools at its disposal*:

  • The school website
  • Schoology (our LMS platform)
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google +
  • A mobile App (for both iOS and Android)
  • An online calendar (powered by Google calendar and Outlook)
  • A WordPress installation
  • Digital displays throughout the school buildings
  • Regular pastoral care sessions with students

* I should point out that for the purposes of this discussion I’m leaving out direct teacher-parent or school-parent communications over student-specific issues – that still tends to occur via email and phone calls and can’t be beaten when there is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed.

Interestingly enough, of all of the above tools the one that is the least flexible for us is the website, and yet for many prospective families looking to enrol their kids it is the website that is likely going to be their first point of contact. So I feel that whatever the strategy, what we need to ensure is that the website doesn’t get neglected – it is the one place where content is most likely to date quickly and become less relevant for our school community.

As we redesign the website, we’ll be making sure that those parts that don’t tend to change often (such as our Principal’s greeting or the rundown of our timetable structure) are kept to a minimum, and instead aim to feed as much of the regular activity that takes place in the school through to a regularly updating news feed that is front and centre of the user’s view.

To integrate all of the above into a single communications channel, here’s how I intend to set everything up:

How the various channels are linked together

How the various channels are linked together

As you can see, when the tools are all linked together data only has to be entered into one of two locations, either the calendar (for dates and events) or the WordPress blog (for news articles/information). The information is then fed, via various plugins, application integration tools or RSS feeds, into our other communication channels, many of which families can then subscribe to in their favourite social application.

Right now there is no easy way to push the updates from WordPress to Schoology, nor is there an integrated solution that I like for a calendar/news solution (although I will be looking into that – a single point of data entry would be fantastic). However, one of the great things the Schoology developers have done is they have made an App API available for other developers to use to integrate their applications into Schoology. I haven’t investigated it in detail yet, but I’m thinking there may be an opportunity to at least bridge one of those gaps in the chain.

So now that everything is linked up, the next step is ensuring regular content is published to keep our community engaged. We’re tackling this by providing every teacher with an account to the WordPress blog with authoring privileges, and providing some professional learning to hep those for whom blogging is new to learn the ropes. Since we need to ensure we’re publishing accurate and quality articles, teachers will submit their items for review, and identified staff in the school will then become our sub-editors, reviewing the posts for any errors, omissions or anything else that may need to be fixed up before publishing.

We want the articles to be both reflective and forward-looking – we want celebrations of the great things the school has done in the past (posted within a day or two of the event), and posts about upcoming events and activities we want the community to engage in. In that way we give everyone a reason to visit, whether it be hearing about an event they were unable to attend or finding out about an activity that is approaching and needs their involvement to be successful.

However one of the criticisms of this kind of approach that I have had directed at me at the past is that there are many families that don’t want to have to visit the website every day, or to subscribe to the site and get a barrage of emails or posts on their feeds each time a new article is posted. Some people still prefer the good old newsletter – either an email or printed copy. Thankfully, there’s a WordPress plugin for that, and we’ll be ensuring that for those people who prefer the good-old-fashioned fortnightly email everything that gets posted to the blog (it’ll do tweets as well!) in the previous two week period is bundled up and sent to their inboxes.

So that’s a run down of our strategy from a technical standpoint – to eliminate the need for extra work required to draft additional items for a newsletter and reformat existing content into a different publication. The idea is that a write-once, publish everywhere strategy will mean staff are more willing to contribute regularly. With the number of staff we have and the number of events that happen at the school, I’m thinking that if each staff member posted one article every month, we’d have a vibrant, regularly changing online presence that will keep all of our parents and community partners interested and engaged in our activities at the school.

Hopefully, and I’m feeling pretty optimistic, we’ll be able to overcome the hard point of communication – the regular updates and ongoing engagement – and take advantage of the power this technical setup provides.

Differentiating the Curriculum for senior students

Today was my first official day at my new school, and as is typical here in the ACT it was a whole school professional learning day. The topic that the school decided on last year was differentiation – ensuring that all students can access the curriculum and have opportunities to show their learning regardless of any disabilities or learning difficulties that may create barriers for them to succeed. It is a topic I’ve done many PL sessions on in the past, so whilst I think the day itself was well organised and run, I didn’t feel like there was much “new” information presented for me to take in.

That said, one thing I was really impressed with was the way staff conducted themselves during the day – it is clearly something that the school has identified as an area that needs to be improved on this year. While these events tend to be a lot of information presenting, there were opportunities to get details that were specific to the needs of students in my classes so it wasn’t so general as to be of limited use.

We were provided with some resources to look at before attending, exploring differentiation and/or diversity from a range of perspective. Websites, presentations, videos, policy documents – it was a pretty good collection of readings that addressed many of the aspects that are important to understand the issues and complexities of differentiating successfully. Of course, Gardner and Bloom’s came up, as did the work of Maker and others known for their differentiation research, but it was interesting to see where the emphasis on differentiation is placed by various educational jurisdictions. Some tend to focus on the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, while others look very much as disability and severe learning difficulties. Our interpretation was much broader, and tries to capture students who, for any reason, may hit a barrier to learning. These could include the above, but may also be as simple as moving around a lot due to a parent working for Defence, being a non-native speaker, being independent and needing to balance work as well as school or in more extreme cases being a primary carer for a relative at home, among others.

The video below is just one of the resources – I’ve provided links to everything at the end of this post if you want to explore some of them on your own. This one provides a good starting point for thinking about the importance of keeping students engaged with their learning through variety, and ensuring that school doesn’t just end up being a waste of time (for all involved).

One of our sessions consisted of us choosing from 8 different activities and working in small groups to either consider some of the issues surrounding differentiation or to work through a differentiation activity. I found a few of these interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. Differentiation strategies abound on the net for primary school teachers. Adapt one of more to a college setting.
  2. To what extent does differentiation differ from simply good teaching?
  3. Choose a model of differentiation (or make up your own) and use it to develop a differentiated lesson or unit of work.
  4. Write a soliloquy/sonnet/dramatic monologue from the learning environment to the teachers of the college.
  5. Evaluate a differentiation strategy of model of differentiation.
  6. Why do some of our most gifted students get bored in class?
  7. To what extent is differentiation a ‘machine-gun’ approach to the teaching of students with diverse needs? Aim, pull the trigger and hope for the best!
  8. Choose any content. Fill out the boxes in the Blooms-Gardner’s matrix.

I worked with one of the science teachers on the last activity, mainly because I have done quite a bit in the past on this topic and I thought I’d go to the smallest group and contribute there. We only had about 25 minutes to work on our matrix, but the result of that (which we’ll probably go back to and refine at some point – some of the notes are a bit rough right now) is visible here.

The statements that I found the most interesting, though, were 2 and 7. One of the biggest gripes I have with the discussion around many of these topics and issues is that they are often discussed independently of what it means to actually be a teacher. If I didn’t differentiate within my classroom, I wouldn’t feel as if I was actually performing my duty as a teacher. My role is to instil in all of my students a passion for learning – what they learn in my class is, to a degree, secondary. And the only way I can do that is to engage them, which means taking into account their individual circumstances and making sure that they have every opportunity to tie their own experiences in with the material and activities I present to them.

The best way to do that, of course, is to know your students – relationships are in my mind the most important part of being a successful teacher. What each relationship looks like may be different – teachers and students all have their own unique personalities; some are built on respect while others may use a shared passion as the underlying foundation. Either way, getting to know your students is the number one priority, especially early in the teaching period.

Which brings me to the machine gun analogy – I don’t believe it works for effective differentiated instruction. The image I conjure up in my mind when I think machine gun is of a general target (understanding a concept) that is simply delivered in multiple ways in the hope that something clicks for each student. It doesn’t imply any considered thought about what those strategies would be, just that there are a lot of them.

Using the strong, positive relationships your build with your students allows you to make informed choices about which strategies are going to be effective for your classroom – there’s no need to just spray bullets, because each bullet has already been carefully selected to meet an identified need.

Then, there’s the question of assessment. Ultimately, my view is that this can be done well – even when working within imposed constraints such as the HSC, VCE or (in our case in the ACT) the BSSS courses that dictate what should be taught and when. If, when we design our assessment tasks and learning activities, we keep in mind that what the students need to understand can be considered independently from the opportunities we create for them to learn, share and explore it, we can then introduce flexibility into how that learning is demonstrated to us. Where an external exam forces us to test concepts in a written form that can be hard (thankfully, we don’t have external testing), but for the assessment that occurs at the school level ensuring that how students present their learning is not restricted ensures the maximum success when it comes to marks and grading.


NSWDET Policy and Implementation Strategies for the education of gifted and talented students
A fairly comprehensive overview of the contemporary approaches to differentiation (60 pages)

NTDET Curriculum Differentiation and Education Adjustment Plans
Focus on individual needs and reasonable adjustments (23 pages)

UNESCO – Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity
A vast consideration of the topic of differentiation notable for the international perspective it brings and the breadth of disadvantage that forms its context. (109 pages)

Basics of Differentiation
A fairly thorough example of how student choice boards can be applied.  The example considered is on figures of speech. (26 pages including some irrelevant ‘water cycle’ material)

NSWDET Developing Differentiated Units of Work
A range of practical charts, lists and templates that enable differentiation in a range of different and sophisticated ways (28 pages)


Are your lessons fun? (3m 20s)

Special Ed Differentiation – Some Ideas (Tiered Activities, Tic-Tac-Toe, RAFT) (5m 14s)

Why Differentiate? – Carol Tomlinson (3m 47s)

Learning Stations – Tiered Activity, Speech Bubbles, Memory, Choice (2m 55s)


Queensland Managing Learning for Diversity – Teaching
A range of adjustments suggested alongside some movements in curriculum design that are compatible with differentiation i.e. Productive Pedagogies, Universal Learning by Design (1 webpage + links)

WA Schools Plus – Helpful hints for differentiating the curriculum for all students
A comprehensive list of tips for teachers (1 webpage)

A Different Place – Examples of products
A list of different ‘products’ of learning categorized somewhat dubiously according to their potential to elicit more or less sophisticated performance. Most usefully used as an ideas source for products. (1 webpage + links)


Strategies for Differentiation: Curriculum Compacting, Tiered Assignments, Independent Projects
Very practical in nature but focusing significantly on curriculum compacting (50 slides)

Reaching all children in the classroom: an overview of differentiation strategies
Powerpoint presentation that is well pitched in terms of dealing with complicated ideas in an accessible way. Some good examples included. (32 slides)

Extending Gifted Students
An authoritative presentation on the extension of gifted students with an emphasis on creativity as well as some local research on the way gifted students prefer to learn (36 slides)


Maker and Williams Model Template
Curriculum design templates for differentiation based on the works of Maker and Williams respectively (5 pages)

Bloom-Gardner Matrix
Tool for developing activities that cater for both Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive difficulty as well as Gardner’s multiple inteligences (2 pages)

Scholarly Articles

Integrating the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with Multiple Intelligences
Scholarly article by Toni Noble addressing planning for both differentiation on the level of academic rigour alongside also addressing multiple intelligences (21 pages)

Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction
Scholarly article arguing for inclusive strategies for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in mainstream classrooms as opposed to structural solutions (13 pages)


SERUpdate June 2010
Newsletter of the South Australian Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) containing a range of articles from educators in SA schools focusing on the successes and challenges of differentiation in the classroom. (40 pages)

Teacher Professionalism and NAPLAN Testing

NAPLAN testing for our students is over for 2011 and, whilst I could use this as a chance to vent/debate/rant about the merits and pitfalls of standarised testing, I’m sure plenty of my colleagues will do that for me. So, rather than spend this post raising issues such as the appropriateness of the data, the validity of it is a measurement tool etc, I’ve chosen to question another aspect of the testing that I don’t think all teachers consider in quite the same way.

You see, I administered the testing this year for some of our Year 9 students and, whilst the group I was supervising was exceptionally well behaved and followed all of the directions they were given to the letter, the whole process still managed to get me riled up. It might seem a tad silly, but the aspect of NAPLAN that made me the angriest had nothing to do with the measurement of student performance – it was the demand that every teacher deliver the test in exactly the same way. Not the timing, or the format or anything like that – it was following a pre-written script to the letter when explaining instructions and procedures to the students.

A lot of current educational thinking places real value on the establishment of relationships with our students. A large part of my day is not spent delivering lessons or preparing learning activities, but rather involves talking to the kids about what they want to achieve, what they want to learn, how they would like school to be better/different – things that help me engage them not only when they walk into a classroom, but also when we encounter each other on the playground or (shock horror!) at the shops or in the community. And, when the relationships we build are strong, respectful and built on trust, students value their interactions with you and value their learning.

As professionals who use what they have learned through formal education and (more importantly) experience, teachers know how to get the most positive results from their students because they have strong relationships with them. Our students learn a bit about who we are, and they build expectations about how we’ll behave and what we expect.

However, delivering NAPLAN requires us to follow a script when the kids enter our class to begin the test. We are instructed not to deviate in any way from the provided text, and it contains no emotion, is uninteresting and designed to ensure a common and consistent experience for all students in the country. Every student will hear exactly the same instructions, and no student is therefore advantaged or disadvantaged. So the theory goes.

I understand the reasoning behind it all, don’t get me wrong – and I see how following the procedure prevents teachers from inadvertently giving some students assistance that others don’t receive, but I question the justification of such a need. Teachers are professionals – we are all educated, have chosen to pursue a career in a field aware that we’re not going to be rolling in cash or working short hours, and know and understand the purpose of testing on this scale (and the importance of being fair and equitable). Does ACARA have so little faith in the profession that it doesn’t trust us to do the right thing by our students?

If the data was used for purely diagnostic purposes (which is what it is designed to do) so that we can assess how our kids are progressing and can tailor our educational programs to address their needs, we’d have no reason to “artificially inflate” our students’ results – we’d be doing them a disservice if we did. It also wouldn’t matter whether our students were, as a cohort, above or below “the line” – it’s an average, and therefore it is IMPOSSIBLE for ALL students to be above it! Even comparisons of “statistically similar” schools will lead to some kids being below the benchmark, purely because of how it is calculated. And, if we know which kids need the additional support, that data can be used to help us address their needs through better resourcing, investment and potentially through action research.

I may appear to have drifted off topic a bit, so let’s reel this all back in…

Let’s consider another occupation that performs diagnostic analyses on a regular basis – the medical profession. Every day, GPs will have their patients visit for a myriad of reasons – some for checkups, some to collect results from tests, others with some sort of discomfort they are experiencing, and so on. I’m not sure about you, but if my interactions with my doctor involved them stepping through a scripted, pre-determined text that failed to acknowledge our relationship, my needs and personality and my medical history, I probably wouldn’t go back. I can also guarantee I’d be less likely to actually open up about any problems or concerns I may have, especially if they were embarrassing or awkward. Why? Because I wouldn’t be comfortable. And my failure to feel comfortable/relaxed, and the inability for me to develop trust in that relationship, is going to be negative for both me and for my doctor – me because I get poor medical care, and for my doctor because he is unable to do his job effectively due to the constraints of the procedure.

This wouldn’t happen in the medical profession – in fact, the many doctors I have met/spoken to/visited in my life so far have all had their differences. And some I haven’t liked. I like my doctor to be direct – I don’t want them to soften the blow if there’s something wrong, and I want the most practical and direct advice they can give me. I don’t want them to be consoling if the news is bad, I just want to know what the next step is. You might be different, and if you are, then you wouldn’t go to my doctor because you wouldn’t be comfortable. Or you would go to my doctor, but his response to you would be very different to the one he gives to me.

And this works, because we all respond to people and data differently. Doctors are expected to use their professional judgement to identify how best to establish a relationship of trust and respect with their patients. They’ll use the strategies they have developed to do it, and we accept that they are capable of doing so.

Our kids want to know that when we’re in the classroom with them, we’re there to support them and all that they do. They know they don’t have to be the brightest kid in the class to have our respect, nor do they need to get everything right all the time. What matters most to us is that they continue to learn and develop a passion for learning that they’ll carry with them when they leave us to move onto the next phase of their lives. If every time something “matters” we turn into unfeeling, uncaring robots that all say exactly the same thing and stop being the people they know and trust, how does that make them feel?

Are teachers not professional enough to respond appropriately in such a “serious” situation? Is that the fear? That we are unable to make good judgements about what is best for our students and for the outcomes of the testing process? If so, then I find it both disheartening and infuriating that society does not respect educators enough to give us credit for the work we do. If it’s not, then why is the benchmark for professionalism in various occupations different?