Category Archives: Teaching

Blow up the brain (a bit)


Photo: Kansas Central Library

We did two things in class today:

  1. continue to write the murder mystery story
  2. continue to work on the Design your own school project

Some students were on a roll with the murder mystery, but others were stuck on how to bring their inanimate characters to life. Maria and I decided that next lesson we would look at Michael Gerard Bauer’s story more closely, pointing out puns and personification, discussing how and why these worked, and why they were clever.

As far as the school design goes, we get the feeling that the boys need some sort of enormous earthquake to blow up their carefully constructed concept of what is possible. Seriously. We didn’t see any trace of the daring or the unusual in their plans for their ideal school.

What to do?

I decided to find visual examples of weird and wonderful buildings to spark the imagination. As always Twitter yielded results in a flash. I was tipped by @tasteach to look at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day for a list of unusual architecture.


Photo: the Crooked House by Hundertwasser

Here are the links I pulled out to inspire the boys:

Here are some interesting websites to inspire your building designs.
This one shows buildings shaped like food and food containers.

Have a look at The world’s most creative buildings

Have a look at the 20 most bizarre houses around the world

What about The world’s slimmest buildings

50 strange buildings of the world

More strange buildings of the world

15 beautiful buildings carved from living rock

8 of the best treehouses in the world

10 most creative appartment blocks

The world’s wildest houses

You could really get lost here; such creativity! I hope the boys will break free of their safe thinking.


How do we present the ning to staff?

Following our school’s involvement in Powerful Learning Practice, our team has been asked to present to the whole staff next Monday. Maria and I will be talking about the ning in our English classes. We decided to present collaboratively, with Maria doing most of the talking and me driving the ning tour. Our idea was that teachers would find the ning more relevant and convincing if a classroom teacher presented. Sadly, I think that they would be less likely to listen if a teacher librarian was presenting, because we’re associated with the library (which means we’re seen as chained to the library circulation desk and focus on books).   Today we got together to decide how we were going to proceed.

The most difficult thing is deciding what is essential – we don’t have more than 10 minutes or so. We don’t want to overwhelm everyone but if we don’t present in some detail, it won’t make much sense to anyone.

For me, the essential part of the ning in supporting the English curriculum has not been the technology, but the possibilities for discussion and interactions. Within online discussions, every student gets an equal chance to participate in discussion at his own pace. The authentic audience and connections with others form a community of learners. Instead of responding to the teacher, students interact with each other; their learning is social. Although it’s not exactly Facebook, the ning has provided a Facebook-like platform for classroom learning.

What we’d like to stress is that the teaching is more important than ever. Yes, the ning is technology, but that’s not the focus. The ning is not some technical textbook with multiple choice questions and answers making the teacher redundant. Scaffolding the learning process is even more vital than ever to ensure rich discussion and push students’ thinking towards  critical and reflective responses.

During our planning session,  Maria and I focused on identifying the way the ning enhanced teaching and learning beyond traditional teaching methods.  We anticipated teachers wanting to hear why they should tackle the technology, what was special about the ning. That’s a fair enough question: there’s no point in using technology for its own sake. So let’s see…  Well, as I’ve already said, there’s the authentic, peer audience, and the interaction within that, and secondly, there’s the threaded discussion. When students are asked to write down their thoughts in class, it’s normally just the teacher who collects and reads them. Perhaps a few might be read out in class. The ning provides the transparency for all students to read everyone’s contributions, but also to reply to a specific one. Students can read every other student’s ideas, and respond to any of these.

Apart from the connection to the other students in the class, our class was joined by The Kings’ School boys in Parramatta. The ning has also provided an opportunity to bring in an expert, in our case,  our book’s author, Allan Baillie, who was able to answer specific questions of each boy individually. We provided authentic, engaging learning. The boys got a kick out of having their questions answered by the man himself.

I also love the simple fact that the ning contains everything so neatly – from a teacher’s point of view, assessment is made easy because everything that has been written is easy to find. I imagine it will be easy to see development in the boys’ writing as the year goes on.

Using videos to spark discussion has never been so easy. I embed videos when I come across them (handy for on-the-spot activities), and all the discussion following the viewing is neatly recorded underneath. Students regularly practise literacy without even realising. Somehow they think that discussion of a video isn’t real work. Videos are great for visual literacy -something I’ve noticed doesn’t come easily to young people regardless of what is said about the internet generation. They need lots of practice ‘reading’ visual clues, following visual narrative and interpreting and critically analysing visual messages. Of course, audio is also important, and our class has also enjoyed videos with music.

We plan to show teachers the variety of resources that can be included in the ning. Our videos cover many subjects – even grammar, information literacy (eg. evaluation of websites) and responsible online behaviour. I’ve started embedding TED talks which I think will be suitable for this age group. I’ll be looking to include more TED talks because they’re so inspiring.

I hope our presentation will demystify the ning and similar technology and open up practical suggestions for the use of such technology in the classroom. As long as the internet connection works! Keep our fingers crossed.

It’s been a good day

After all our early struggles and frustrations, what  relief and joy to experience smooth sailing. Touch wood. Maria and I were grinning at the end of today’s lesson because boys were connecting easily to our ning, and we were enjoying the fruits of our previous labours.

First of all, we looked through Allan Baillie’s responses to the boys’ questions. I’m not sure what the boys thought, but they kept it to themselves as usual. That is to say, they were attentive but not jumping up and down. That’s all we can expect, I think.

We discussed the fact that even Allan Baillie made typos. We talked about how, if you had a great story to tell, you could work through the editing  process to arrive at the polished product. I think it’s important for them to understand that having something to say, having a story to tell,  is the most important thing, and that it’s possible even for a student who doesn’t think he’s ‘good at’ English to work through the drafts, with help if necessary, and end up with a great piece of writing.

Some of Allan’s replies were worth singling out – there were answers that obviously revealed things about his writing process and decisions which we wouldn’t have know from his biography or website. Maria and I find that fantastic.

Since the boys are working on a Little Brother project with many parts, allowing choice and variation in presentation, it was a good time to show them Flickr. I showed them how to find the best photos of Cambodia and related things, talked about sets and pools and tags, talked about Creative Commons, and good behaviour in photo sharing, and they listened attentively because it was relevant to their needs.

Lastly, I showed them Tag Galaxy which is such a beautiful and absorbing visual search application, and that was a wonderful way to finish the lesson. Our flickr searches found some fantastic photos with interesting information that we wouldn’t have found on Google Images.

The great thing about the ning is that it’s dead easy to add links and explanations in a spot where the students can find what they need at a later time. I was able to put in the link to Creative Commons on Flickr as I went. Since we don’t expect students (or anyone) to retain what we tell them in class, it’s good to have a designated space for them to go back to when they’re ready to have a more detailed look.

Allan Baillie talks to the students

Well, last night, I received an email notification to say that Allan Baillie had answered one of the students’ questions. Then another, and another, and soon most of the boys had received a reply to their question. I was so pleased! I think the boys should be too. It’s very special that our boys are receiving individual answers to their questions. Here is an example:

Dear Mr Baillie,
I have read the book, Little Brother and I really liked the book. When I read it I felt like I was in Cambodia! I have one question, how did you feel when you were in Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge?

Allan’s response:

I was Cambodia in 1969 and I visited some Frenchmen running a rubber plantation.
They slapped a revolver in my hand and took me on a night hunt in the plantation. They warned me about careless shooting because we were going into an area controlled by a few bandits. Harmless, they said, and charming. The bandits were just sick and tired of the corruption of the government. Called themselves Khmer Rouge. We stopped and I shot four coconuts.

I hope that this little exercise will be a lightbulb learning moment for the boys. We’ve been discussion the thinking behind the writing and creation of characters, and now that they’ve had a conversation with the author himself, I hope they’ll understand the power of the story, and the man behind the story.

Allan Baillie has joined our ning!

Since we’re studying Allan Baillie’s Little Brother, I thought I’d muster up enough courage to email the author himself, in the hope that he’d join our ning and interact with the students. What better way to create an authentic learning situation?

Well, guess what!? Allan Baillie has joined! He is part of our ning! I tell you, a day that moves like any other day, when frustration mounts, as it has a habit of doing – receiving an email reply from the renowned Australian author himself really turned things around for Maria and me. We were so thrilled!

Not so thrilled were we when we couldn’t find a trace of any such excitement on the boys’ faces. What? Are you kidding? Here we are organising the author himself for your information and enjoyment, and you can’t even stretch your face into a half-smile? What’s going on? Besides typical adolescent disengagement with anything that isn’t a game or related to free time or sport or TV.

Still, today was productive. A few days ago, Maria prepared the boys for questions by developing what would have been for any other class (I’m sure) a rich discussion leading to rich questions. Only it was like squeezing water from a stone. Seriously. And yet, these boys are never as predictable as we think they are, and today they happily entered their questions into the ning, demonstrating thoughtful and responsible online behaviour. We were proud, and we told them so.

I think for us, as teachers, it’s a lesson about the fact that the boys will never be as excited or appreciative as we are. How can we expect them to be? And I think, as we look into the ning activity, we can see that so much has happened – not even looking at the invisible activity which goes on in the background in the form of brainstorming, discussion, etc. – and in the end the ning is a transparent receptacle of this development and these breakthroughs.

It’s not about the technology

‘It’s not about the technology’ has become a catch-phrase of mine. My experiences with Maria Toomey with 7M Ning has convinced me that good teaching is at the heart of the use of technology in education. Just as laptops in themselves do not provide a solution to student disengagement, so do Web 2.0 technologies, such as the use of Nings in the classroom, do not teach themselves. Maria and I have always provided scaffolding for the use of the Ning, unpacking questions, creating discussion, encouraging critical thinking.

I’d like to share the videos I made when I interviewed Maria about her Ning experiences; these are part of our Powerful Learning Practice presentation and can be found on this page.