Posted in collaboration, Differentiation, engagement, Genius Hour, Passion Projects, technology, thinking

Student engagement in our Passion Projects!

This term the students in my class have been participating in their own individualised Passion Projects. I was inspired to try this in my classroom after attending the EduTech 2014  Conference in Brisbane earlier this year and heard about Google’s Genius Hour where;

Each week, employees can take a Genius Hour — 60 minutes to work on new ideas or master new skills. They’ve used that precious sliver of autonomy well, coming up with a range of innovations…

I shared  a video of some students sharing what they thought about participating in Genius Hour to inspire us. I then used a sharing circle to spark their own passions. This helped them to get started in their thinking about what they would like to learn or create during their Passion Projects.

I was really keen to develop my students skills in self reflection of their own learning and so I also set up a website titled Mrs Warners Passion Projects solely for my students to do a weekly post on their own blog page to reflect on what they did each week, how they went and what did they need to do next. I then went over the guidelines with the students so they were clear about my expectations throughout the project.

We then used postie notes for the children to refine and finalise their big question for their Passion Project. For some of the students this was really easy whilst others had trouble committing to one thing and kept changing their minds! But we got there. I was amazed at the variety of topics the students have picked to either teach themselves or create.Some of the topics the students chose included;

  • sewing a surfboard cushion
  • creating an online video game
  • growing a garden
  • researching about wombats
  • learning to draw or paint better
  • learning how to play the drums or xylophone
  • making a cardboard arcade game
  • researching gravity and space
  • creating art with recycled sea glass
  • making a battery out of a $2 coin
  • conducting science experiments
  • investigate how volcanoes erupt
  • make a wooden droid
  • investigate how stuff gets popular so quickly
  • learn how to cook
  • create a lego stop motion movie
  • create decorative cupcakes
  • research how tornadoes are formed
  • learn how to do a hip hop dance

I was a bit overwhelmed too – how would I manage all my students doing different things? The reality was I couldn’t and shouldn’t have to if they are engaged. Fingers were crossed!

Once the students had decided on a topic, they then had to do some initial thinking and planning about what they were going to need and what the end product or goal will look like. I wanted the children to have in their mind how the were going to present what they did to the class and to their parents, a bit like the Backward by Design method. So the students completed an A3 planning sheet (see below) to help them do this.

I also asked the students to help each other think of some people that might be able to help, guide and support them throughout their project, a bit like a mentor role. Once they choose their mentor they helped me construct a generic letter asking their mentors if they would like to help them. The students were delighted when we got three acceptances almost immediately!  We also wrote a letter to our parents explaining what our Passion Projects were and asked them to help their child gather some supplies during the holidays.

Each week students were given one hour to work on their passion project.We were really lucky to have 16 adults donate their time each week to become mentors for the students in my class. These ranged from parents and other teachers from within the school, to older teenage sisters and family friends to grandparents and local business owners. It was truly an amazing experience to watch everyone work collaboratively together. The students were totally engaged and become more responsible for their own learning.


Screen shot 2014-09-29 at 8.19.26 AMThe Passion Projects provided the students an opportunity to work on something they were truly passionate about and while the end product was their main focus, it was the 21st century skills that they acquired and developed throughout the term that excited me as a teacher. I kept reminding them that failure was always an option but giving up was not and this became a mantra for most of my students. They were able to recognise problems when they got stuck and were able to problem solve to correct and improve their work. Initially some struggled to manage their time well but often they were able to reflect on this and work harder next time.

Each week the students also had to do a reflection on their progress using our class website  . They were also given the opportunity to feedback and feed forward on other students progress using this website. Both mentors and myself were also involved in this feedback.

The students wanted to come to school in the morning and work on their passion projects before school started and I had students ask if they could work on them during our activity time. I even had students ask me if I had yard duty and if I didn’t, they would plead with me to open my class recess or lunch times so they could work on their projects!

In the final weeks of the term, the students were given a Passion Projects Rubric to do their own self assessment on their learning throughout the term. They also had to present their projects to their peers in their classrooms and each developed a speech for this. This was a great experience for the students as they were very proud of their projects and their work was acknowledged with rounds of applause from their classmates. It also provided them an opportunity to practice presenting their work, ready for our Celebration night to the parents and community in the last week of the term. You can read more about our presentation night here.

Overall I was thrilled with the student engagement of the students throughout the term and I will definitely do the Passion Projects again. The students in my class gave positive feedback on their experiences and most have already started planning what they will work on next term!

Posted in collaboration, Differentiation, education, engagement, Sandy Warner, thinking

Differentiation in the classroom

binder cover
Image from Carroll K-12

During my last performance management meeting, my line manager asked me how do I differentiate in my classroom. I was completely thrown by this question, not only because I wasn’t expecting the question but also because I hadn’t really thought about what it means in the context of my teaching. I have certainly heard the word bantered around many of the PD that I have been to in recent years but had thought it meant individualised learning plans for every lesson for every student in my class which then catered for their every learning need. I have certainly tried to do this in the past and ultimately abandon it because it is so time consuming and exhausting. I had a real sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough for my students.

So I mumbled a response that basically went along the lines of grouping students and getting support for those that were struggling and hoped that it would be a satisfactory answer. I’m not sure that it was but the conversation moved on and I had a sense of relief that that part of the meeting was over.

Fast forward to today and our school had a student free day so the staff could work on developing their understanding of student differentiation.

Initially we had to complete the following chart to get a snapshot of our personal understanding and beliefs on what we knew about differentiation.


We also explored the myths  around what people thought differentiation is or isn’t by completing a simple group activity which created great conversations around our own beliefs.


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The staff then looked at the work Carol Ann Tomlinson has done on responding to the needs of all learners from her book titled “The Differentiated Classroom”. I really like the chart below that Melanie Jones created by adapting Carol Tomlinsons’ chart.



You can get a snapshot of Carol’s work on differentiation in her video below;

The questions were then posed to us around What are your learners strengths? and What are your own strengths? We completed a Multiple Intelligence Quiz to establish our own learning strengths. My results indicated that I was highest in interpersonal skills which surprised me and interestingly was the highest percentage result for our staff. I also came out strong in verbal/linguistics and visual/spatial which I think is more like my strengths. I was not surprised at all that musical was my lowest. I think it would be really interesting to get someone else’s perspective to gauge a point of reference.

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I would really like to do this with my students to get a stronger understanding of their strengths as well.


“Formative assessment doubles the speed of student learning”

Black and Wiliam

We then looked at what kinds of assessment we are using to inform our student’s learning and provide feedback to improve their learning and understanding.  We were given the opportunity to reflect on our own recent assessment strategies;


This task clearly showed that whilst I used a range of summative and formative assessments in my classroom, I am stronger in the formative assessment of my students. However I think there is a place for both as students need to be exposed to summative assessments to develop the skills they need to participate successfully in Mandated tests such as Naplan. There is always room for improvement. I would still like to broaden the way I do formative assessment in my classroom and I really like this post on Edutopia on 53 ways to check for understanding.

So what is the differentiated classroom? I think Carol Tomlinson summarised it perfectly in her “Line of logic for Differentiaon Instruction” below;

Screen shot 2014-09-09 at 6.04.04 PM

For me the day was both a fundamental shift in my understanding of what differentiation was, as well as reaffirming, in that it made me realise that I am on the right track and that I do differentiate in my classroom. I do have high expectations for all my students, I provide continuous assessment for my students, I use flexible grouping and develop tasks that have a range of intellectual demands (although not as often as I would like!), I do ‘teach up’ rather than dumb down, I provide opportunities for students to develop inquiries and problem solve. I provide opportunities to celebrate individual successes and negotiate with students how they will present a product of learning. I establish my classroom so that it provides structure and routines with a variety of working areas that foster a supportive and engaging learning environment for all my students. I do so much more.

Posted in comprehension, engagement, reading, Sandy Warner, students, thinking

Reading Comprehension Conference


Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a Reading Comprehension Conference presented by the knowledgable Sheena Cameron.


I have previously used her books  “Teaching Reading Comprehension Strategies” and “The Publishing and Display Handbook” in my classroom and was eager for more. I wasn’t disappointed. Sheena has what she refers to as ‘street cred’, she was (up until the last three years), a practising teacher and a lot of what she presented today was hands on practical ideas and tools that I can now take back to the classroom and use. Sheena outlined throughout the day the importance of teaching reading strategies to children explicitly and provided a range of activities and ideas in which teachers can achieve this in the classroom both at the whole class level down to groups of children and individual students.
In some ways what Sheena shared today was not new.
As an Accelerated Literacy Accredited Teacher for the past six years. the explicit teaching of reading and writing has been at the core of my literacy program. My Accelerated Literacy pedagogy enables me to provide a common language for my students to talk about literacy and covers the explicit teaching of the comprehension and production of language. Through Accelerated Literacy my students learn skills within a relevant and meaningful text that will help them understand and apply the different literacy skills they will need. It is also about giving students plenty of time to consolidate and apply their skills and understanding.
What Sheena has given me, is a new lens in which to look at my practice. It is not so much about “throwing the baby out with the bath water” but rather reminding me to revisit some of the tools and activities  that I have used in the past in a new way and how to apply specific activities to teach reading strategies within my classroom. I now have some new tools to add to my teaching toolbox that compliment and strengthen my accelerated teaching pedagogy. After all, there is no one way to teach children to read, rather we need to explicitly teach a range of strategies to children and get them to think about what it is that good readers do, in order to improve their reading comprehension.
One of the ideas I really liked was something Sheena gave us at the beginning of the conference – an action plan sheet for us to use during the conference to start planning some teaching reading comprehension strategies we could use when we go back into the classroom. I used this to jot down any ideas that resonated with me during the conference and this sparked some thoughts around how can I adapt these ideas using technology.


I have already started implementing these and today I used the post it notes to ask my students “What is reading?”. The sideshow below are their responses and I was quite saddened that not one student wrote about the joy of reading or the ability of books to take you to ‘new worlds’. Something to think about. (I also think I need to work on their spelling of the ‘ea’ chunk for reading, but I digress!)

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Sheena has looked at a broad range of current reading comprehension research and what it is that good readers do. It is important to understand that good readers are able to draw upon their own personal experiences/knowledge to help them understand what they are reading, they ask questions about what they are reading and who wrote it, they are able to identify important parts of the text and self monitor or self check their understanding of the text. Good readers are also able to visualise what they are reading.
From this Sheena has developed 10 key reading strategies to improve reading comprehension in students. These are;
  1. Activating prior knowledge
  2. Self Monitoring
  3. Predicting
  4. Questioning
  5. Making Connections
  6. Visualising
  7. Summarising
  8. Inferring
  9. Synthesising
  10. and Building vocabulary knowledge

If you would like to explore these strategies more or look at the research, I encourage you to have a look at her books or visit Sheena’s website. What I really like is that Sheena backs this up with lots of hands on activities that engage and teach students how to think about these strategies and use them successfully. We were given opportunities to practice these activities too. We used the Dot to Dot Connections sheet to think about Prior Knowledge of a subject. Students work in pairs or groups of three to make connections between key words using what they already know. Later after reading,  they can go back to this and use a different colour to add any new knowledge and revisit to show development.

One activity that we did around Visualising that made us laugh was simply to draw a pair of shoes. Which was quickly followed by the Nogard activity, where we had to draw an animal according to the oral instructions given.
Both are quick simple visualising ideas that help students understand that we all interpret things in different ways and develop different meanings – and that is ok.
This conference has helped me to reflect on my current teaching practice and deepen my understanding of the strategies and activities that I have been using from Sheena’s two books. It was reassuring that a lot of what Sheena spoke to us about yesterday was what I was already doing in my classroom but I didn’t have all the same ‘labels’ to glue it all together. It highlighted the importance of being explicit in my teaching, providing lots of opportunities to role model good practice, to also allow and engage students to handover what it is that I did when I am modelling. I need to teach children to “read between the ears” by encouraging them to think about their own reading behaviour and their use of these strategies. I need to make sure they know how these reading strategies help them to be better readers. I need to ask them if they even know what comprehension means. I need to reassure them that even adults draw upon these strategies all the time.
So what to do next on my action plan? I would like to set up some reading strategy big books that my students can  refer back to when they are doing some of these activities. I would love to engage my students by developing some book trailers but I may need to wait until later this year. We have got a lot of learning to do. Meanwhile I think I’ll share this book trailer below with them.
Just click on the picture below and enjoy.