Saturday, 23 September 2017

Slow Down Now - Join A Growing Movement

There have been a few triggers for this blog post, which has actually been going around and around in my head for the last few weeks, but I have been pushing it back, in the hope that we would be given the ability to once again embrace our fabulous NZ curriculum.

So there are several triggers for this post:

1) A post on facebook about data walls (horrific things)
2) The debate that resulted around the need for children to be able to see where they are going and reflect on their process and the need for this to be visible. (through the narrow lens of literacy and mathematics.)
3.A discussion as a staff about the slow school movement
4. Last but not at all least, the very real likelihood that we will be stuck with another National Government who, bless their cotton socks,  have worked tirelessly to narrow our curriculum, undermine teachers and increase anxiety and competition in our learners and promote shallow, fast learning.  Hey they have even coined the horrid phrase 'accelerated learning.'

What have these things triggered, well they have triggered a hugely emotional response in me.  A fear for all I hold dear and hoped for education over the next three years and a real reluctance to continue working under such a system.

Many say you can not blame National Standards, they say that it is up to schools to work with them and frame their own curriculum, and many schools, like us have done just that.  Worked around them, given them as little attention as possible while still being compliant.  However I talk to and hear from enough teachers to know this is not common.  From what I hear many schools have truly narrowed their curriculum, they are overly worried with assessment, they are causing great anxiety for the children they work with and go completely against what the research tells us to do.  They test children from the moment they step through the classroom door, to the moment they leave.

I am left wondering now, with the proposed National Standards plus, how schools like ours will be able to continue to give them as little thought as possible.

Let me be clear, this testing culture is destroying learning for our children.  They learn to define themselves by their test result, and  this is then how they see themselves going forward.  Children learn to work within the system, they like to please, they may even appear to be happy with the constant measurement.  The reality is that they know no different, and we do!

These horrid data walls people have been speaking of make my blood run cold.  This public shaming is bad enough, but I ask you what happens to that child who has always been at the top, how does their perception of themselves change when they drop back, when someone else is ahead, when dear I say it, they struggle? Research tells us they are inclined to give up, to sit within their comfort zone, and only do those things they know they can achieve at (I refer to what I have read in Jo Boalers books.)  Is that the type of learner we really want to produce from our education system?

Ok, so we could take the measurement line away and make learning visible in other ways.  That sounds great, but does it not still narrow what children see as learning?  We all know learning does not happen in a bubble...authenticity of learning is crucial, if we are going to make up displays, surely these displays should be showing learning in an authentic context.  Children need to see themselves, their talents, their urges displayed.  Children need to see how what they are learning relates to the real world.   The quiet truth that is not spoken about enough is that children are natural learners, they are mimics, they want to learn, they are naturally curious, their brain is designed that way.  They will take in learning around them and naturally want to improve, they don't need us to push them, what they do need from us is help with developing the dispositions to make this possible.  We will not create these dispositions when children fear being wrong, or judged.  When they see us as the fountain of all knowledge and a display on the wall as the high water mark.

My ultimate goal would be for all schools to embrace a slow school movement.  A notion that has been around for while now.  This is a good starter article. 

To allow children time.
To truly listen to their voice and allow them opportunities to just go with it.
To have time to revisit, to engage in authentic learning situations, to give children more control of what they are learning and how they are learning.  Our senior classes quite often spend a few days or even a week solving a problem in maths, and believe me, the results are so rewarding, the learning is deep, challenging and real.
To construct programmes that give the teacher time to sit and talk to children, to give them individual feedback, to praise the process of learning.  I would love our system to stop squeezing everything and the kitchen sink into what we have to do in a day.
To embrace a more play-based approach.
To embrace brain research and allow children outside to move more often than they are inside.
To reward teachers that allow children to follow their learning urges with our trust and respect.
To set six and seven year olds free of a prescribed line that they must meet.  Timed tests, would be gone, blanket assessments for everyone would be gone, we would use assessment to benefit our learners, not to measure them.

Over the last couple of years I have come to realise that by slowing down, children will come to their next learning steps in their own time, in fact I have found that they are often ready far earlier than I would have previously thought for their next learning steps.  Do you have to be a great teacher, have deep pedagogical understanding, of course,  in fact far more than in a narrow prescribed system that dictates what you do.  But this also happens naturally, just like the children we are natural learners, I have never been more interested in learning about how children learn, than I have in the last two years.

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of play-based learning for all ages, it is also no secret that I love Mantle of the Expert, these two approaches have re-defined learning at our place, they make slowing down possible.

It is also no secret that I am a massive fan of the education system of Finland.  I believe many of the answers to our issue lie in this system, and just wish that someone in power would choose this path rather than the narrow, test driven one we are currently on.

And as a last bit of food for often do you write?  How often do you compare what you have written to a sample that is better than yours?

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Breaking Through The Perfectionist Barrier

I often blog about the progress of boys in writing and how we can break down some of the barriers for them in achieving success.

In this blog post I would like to reflect more on an affliction that often affects our girls...perfectionism and a fixed mindset.  Not to say that boys can not be equally afflicted with this disposition, but in my experience it mostly affects girls and it has the most impact on early writing  success (and maths, but you will already be aware of what we do through Number Agents to help with that.)

Perfectionism is something I hypothesize that we see in girls that have been encouraged to be 'school ready' in the way that people often think of as school ready.  This may look like knowing their alphabet, recognising words and being able to record words.  In my experience these children (usually girls) are first born and have clearly been given the message that school is about the 3 R's.  They come in with skills that are great cognitively, but lack the emotional and social dispositions that will allow them to be a successful learner.  It is like they have been fast forwarded through their natural sequence of development.

Now, if you have read my blog, you will know that this form of academic readiness is not what I believe we should be after, and it would be my opinion that this term of readiness actually forms a barrier for these girls as it defines for them what 'learning' looks like.

These girls are often people pleasers, they are quiet, love to sit safely in activities like colouring and crave and often specifically need teacher direction.  They love step by step instructions and often struggle with any form of independent or creative thinking.  They lack learning resilience and their confidence is easily knocked.   They have been told they are smart, and when they first meet a struggle or find something they can't do yet, they then believe they are dumb.

Sadly these girls often get through the first couple of years in an overly academic environment feeling successful and enjoying success.  Their safe sitting and people pleasing is rewarded in an overly  environment that praises and rewards these dispositions.  It is not until things get harder and they begin to struggle that barriers become apparent.

These girls are usually perfectionists.  Their writing will usually be pinpoint accurate, with patterns repeated over and over because they have had success with these early attempts and therefore repeat the same type of story over and over again, alternatively they may spend the whole writing session on one word as they do not know how to spell it.  

 At some stage this perfectionism in any environment will become a problem for them and when it becomes a problem it is a barrier, and when it is a barrier they struggle, and when it is a struggle they give up.

So what can we do to help these girls?

I have several ideas that I have tried this year that I have found particularly useful.

Play-Based Learning
In a play-based environment these girls become apparent straight away.  They are no longer the golden goose.  They are the children who struggle socially and emotionally, in this environment these dispositions are challenged and they learn to embrace new ones quite quickly.  They struggle straight away with self-direction and have to quickly develop dispositions that allow them success.  They develop their creative side and begin to be more resilient.  They begin to step out of their comfort zone.  In a self-directed play environment there is little direction from the teacher other than invitations or reflection.  These girls learn to self-direct, they discover their talents and passions, they explore their urges.  They also get the opportunity to see how their understandings about literacy and numeracy can help them and they begin to expand on these without the worry of being wrong.

Growth Mindset
This has been huge for us this year.  The power of yet is incredible.  Helping children and coaching them about the power of mistakes and the importance of the challenge from day one has been transformative for our learners.  By rewarding and praising the process of learning, rather than praising the product, we give these girls (and all children) the understanding that it is what we do, the dispositions we use that are important, not the finished product.
There are loads of growth mindset songs on youtube and my class particularly love the class dojo big ideas.

This year our writing is been about storytelling.  It is out loud and in picture form, long before it is written down.  We spend a lot of time retelling, loads of time describing, they are rewarded for creativity, taking their time, having a go, generating their own ideas.  There are no story starters, no inane sentences that children begin to use out of habit ...the good old "I went to the beach" is gone.  Out of that children begin to add the written word naturally, without being asked, they learn that those earlier skills they have are of benefit to them now, but it need not be perfect.

Inventive Spelling
Whilst this is something I have always encouraged, I have never used the word inventors with children.  This year I have given the status of 'inventor' high priority.  Children learn early on that I just want them to invent words using what they currently know about letters and sounds.  This is liberating for children, the success is focused on having a go and using the letters and sounds they know.  The power of really working away at 'nutting' out what a word may look like gives the brain an absolute workout and can not be underplayed.  Alongside our phonics teaching we encourage inventing and we have a special time in the day for it.  The reward is in the inventing, not in the spelling.  Children are more capable than ever of writing stories that can be read and are not hung up on spelling.  For those perfectionist girls they have learned that their is more success in being an inventor, at having a go at tricky words than there is in producing a perfect sentence.  They are much more inclined to write more.  In fact one lovely girl, just today took our eggs from the planet Rong (from our mantle) for a walk.  She then sat down and wrote two pages about lovely to see.
At no stage do we make a mark on their writing and we do not correct their invented spelling.  We will use common patterns we see for further reflection if needed (just in time teaching.)

I feel like the changes we have made this year have greatly assisted the girls that would have previously been seen as perfectionists.

Now we just need to transform what parents see as school ready, so we don't have anything to 'undo' in the first place.  Now that is another blog post. :)

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Glimpse Into Our Agency

Over the next few weeks I am going to post videos that show the different parts of agency.  I will post each new video as I get to them.  This first video shows how we check in.  This is what happens at the beginning of each session and is used to help move children from the real to the imagined world.

There are many ways children can check in and this is just the way we do it.  It is a little noisey... we have 42 agents now :)

This next video shows the next step and come straight after our chant.  We do different things for warm up and professional development obviously, but this gives you an idea.

This next video also shows another way we warm up.  This is a dot talk.  We have used our agent eyes for visual images all year, but we have not done many of these dot talks (three tops) The agents have come a long way in a short time.

This next video follows on from our professional development today (professor led the same concept again today, tally mark, to tens frames, agents were much better today and we will repeat again on Thursday, I think the key is revisiting a session many times to allow them to build on understandings)  The alarm went off and we got a notification from the Teacher ...well you can see what happened from there.  Today was the first day an agent has had a go at going in to role as the villain.  I think he did well for the first try at this.  A little hard to hear.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Brain Development - Informing Teaching

Deeply understanding how we can best teach and facilitate learning in a new entrant room is one of my professional goals and one I have been working at for some time, in fact this is probably not a goal that will even have an end. I found this poem on twitter this week and it really reinforced my desire to help all children believe in themselves and best assist them based on their individual need.

Using a play-based approach was one of the first steps in my journey, but certainly not the be all and end all.  I think if we are to really 'get it right' in those first couple of years at school we need to have a deep understanding of the process of brain development so we can cater for children on an individual level.  Simply because all children are different, they all enter at different stages of development and require programmes that cater for this.  They also have different interests, passions and urges that we need to understand a whole lot better, simply by taking more time to get to know them.

In our new entrant room we have been working on a sequence of foundation skills that will assist our children's learning, ensuring they have a strong foundation and also ensuring that we are not foisting learning upon them that they are not ready for.  These are home support goals that parents can assist us with and the sequence has been one we have been playing around with.
Document so far
We have tried  and will continue to try to align the individual goals we have for children with the sequence of brain development outlined in these diagrams.  You will have seen these if you have listened to Nathan Wallis speak.  I love his work!

This diagram is one I have modified and played around with also, it is one I share with parents and it is a document we can use to help children appropriately according to their individual development and is based on the sequence of the diagram above.

My journey so far has seen me transform my own beliefs about learning in a new entrant room, rather than believing I have to start feeding in cognitive knowledge straight away 'teaching' them to read, write and 'do maths.'  I now see how these are aspects some children are simply not ready for, and can come to in their own time when they are ready.

This does not mean I don't provide a learning rich environment, I just provide it in a very different way that is much more fluid, individualised and flexible.  It is also an environment that allows children to follow their urges.

I also find I am in a state of constant reflection about learning and the process of learning, which I love!

Building parent understanding is also a big goal.  It can be difficult for a parent to have a child start school, expecting one experience and then getting a goal home that says "I am learning to hop, crawl, skip etc"

Part of my new entrant information evening is now dedicated to talking about brain development and what we need to be doing for children in the first couple of years at school.  I also take this opportunity to share the values of play-based learning.

Further Implications For My Current Programme

I have arrived at a place where I am happy with writing in my classroom.  Developed mostly through play and based on urges, along with a strong focus on oral language and specific phonics teaching in bite sized amounts, I feel that children are allowed to develop in their own time and have noticed huge gains in this area.

I am also happy with maths.  Number Agents is an absolutely gorgeous way to expose children to mathematical ideas, vocab and content in an imagined world that children naturally slip into.  There is no burden on them to develop understandings that they are not ready for and it is all about materials and experience.

It is reading that is still my challenge.  We read individually with children and this is fantastic.  However taking into account research on brain development even trying to read formally with some seems to go against what I believe in terms of readiness.  At the moment we allow them a month or two to settle, but then do start reading with them, even if it is just alphabet books.  After trying this for almost three terms I see I have added little value to those that are not ready, and my time is probably better spent facilitating other learning with these children, learning that they do need, perhaps related to movement skills.
What I think I will do, perhaps from next term is to wait until children have worked through the first seven learning goals we have identified before leaping into individual reading.  This should see children much better placed for this cognitive learning.  These goals (which we monitor closely through one to one time) should be useful indicators for us in terms of children being ready for this type of learning.

My greatest wish at the moment is for National Standards to go, for new entrants year 1 and 2 to be able to use ECE curriculum along with our own gorgeous curriculum, to be given the chance to slow down and ensure children are given time to develop readiness so that from the age of 7 or 8 they are more ready and able to take on further cognitive learning.

I believe in doing this we can greatly improve our children's wellbeing and sense of self, along with giving them a healthy learning esteem which will serve them well in the future.

There is nothing average about a child, what is average is how our current system treats them...together I think we can do much better!

Friday, 1 September 2017

Storytelling Should Come Before Writing

Writing is something I have been giving a lot of thought to this year.  In my discussions with a range of teachers and principals this year, the one thing that comes through is that writing levels are a concern.  Particularly in Year 3 and 4 with many of our struggling children being boys.

Part of my reflection this year has been on this, why?  Why do some children struggle to get started with writing, why does it become hard, and why are boys in particular struggling?

I believe there are several components here that need to be dealt with separately.  Very briefly these things include:

*Fine motor skills, if holding and using a pencil is an issue for me, then I am not going to want to write, it will be hard for me, and that will be a major barrier to my progress.  These fine motor skills need to be addressed early on.  We need to look at each child individually and assist them each to develop these skills.  Fine motor schools can be linked to hand and arm strength.  Some children will need some specific activities to grow their abilities in this area.  Imagine trying to write if your fine motor skills and hand strength were a real area of difficulty for you?  I compare it to typing skills.  How easy is it for you to create a word document quickly if your typing skills hold you back?  Is it fun, is it a quick process, or is it something you need frequent breaks form or causes you great frustration?  Is it something you choose to do?

The good news is a lot of these fine motor skills and activities to grow hand strength can be incorporated through play. It is also no surprise to me that it is often boys that lack these early motor skills, or hand strength.  Along with balance and crossing over these can be huge barriers.

There are many awesome resources on youtube that give great ideas for assisting with the development of these skills.

*Awareness of the code and phonemic awareness.  
Children need specific phonics teaching, for many, their foundation in phonics is the barrier.  Spending a lot of time going over the very basic short/dominant letter sounds is a real benefit to children.  They need to be explicitly shown that the letter is just a symbol for the sounds that we can hear.  There is a strong connection here to the acquisition of mathematics here.  Encouraging children to see patterns, shape, make their own patterns etc will directly help their understanding of letters and numbers.
  I believe we need to be wary about how early we introduce more complicated blends etc, and once again this needs to be approached on an individual level.  Confusing some children by moving on too quickly is one of the biggest mistakes we can make. Once children understand that the letter is just a symbol for a sound, they can start to see how words are just these sounds joined together.  Understanding of rhyme is vitally important as well and this needs to be woven through and checked individually.

*Vocab, this is one of the biggest barriers,  If you do not have the words to describe what you are trying to say, how on earth can you write it down?  Once again a play-based class is the perfect place to learn about my world out loud and to have loads of opportunities to talk.

So that is just a cursory summary of some of the things that I believe are barriers for the writing progress.  
Writing is an intricate and complicated process and very sadly sometimes we fail to see how complicated this process is for children and don't allow them the time they need to put all of these skills or understandings together.  It is easy for some, it seems to come naturally, yes, because these children have those early foundation skills in place, in essence they are writing ready.

In my opinion this is where play-based learning comes to the fore, by its very nature play-based learning allows us the time to get to know children very well at a foundation level, it allows us to provide them with invitations to develop these skills and it allows us to give them the time to grow these skills before they associate them with barriers to writing.

Getting back to the point of my post.  Storytelling. 

Sadly we have come to believe that by writing daily, children will somehow miraculously make progress.  That by sitting down, scribing a story ourselves, even giving them a sentence starter, or scribing something for them to copy, they will make the link to their own writing.  

The reality is if children do have the foundation skills in place that are listed above, they will.  If they don't, they wont.  The danger here also is that children will begin to believe that "I went to the beach" is a quality piece of writing. They will repeat this over and over again because it is what they know, often they struggle to move past this stage.

The reality is that the children with these foundation skills in place will acquire the writing process and develop their own understandings without us deliberately setting aside time in our day.  From what I have seen, these children will find pleasure in writing because they understand it is a way they can convey a message and will actually spend far more time writing than we would have ever allotted.  They will make signs, posters, write letters, copy from books, make cards....they will use writing for an authentic purpose.

Even more alarming is that many children by being 'forced' to write in an allotted time, will begin to see writing as 'hard' early on, this is a barrier we will struggle to remove for them, but one that I believe is easy to prevent if we really think about writing as the complicated process that it is and allow for this in our classrooms.

In my programme I allow for the foundation skills through my daily activities, I don't present them to children as writing, but allow them to build up these skills without ever attaching any difficulty to the writing process.  I do however explicitly show them how these skills will help them with their writing.  When we do have a formal writing session (once a week) I make sure that the children who do not have these foundation skills yet, just draw a picture and talk about their story out loud.

In my opinion the beginning of writing in our junior rooms should be about and through storytelling...

I always begin our year with writing through pictures.  All we do is talk about our picture.  I teach my children that the writing that they see me write down, is just they way I can record my picture, so that I can create a picture in the reader's head.

We spend a lot of time just telling stories out loud.  

I use little videos like this, to show how storytelling happens out loud and can be done through pictures, long before we turn it into words.

The more time we can spend talking about ideas, the better.  I do show them what it looks like written down, but if they are not quite up to that yet, that is ok.  If they ask me to write a word for them to copy, I do.  

I wanted to share with you a fun session we had the other day, that was writing, but perhaps not quite as you'd know it :)

We started off by everyone having a blank piece of paper.  I told them I had written a story down, that I was going to read each sentence and I wanted them to draw my idea onto their paper. 

I started reading my story, one sentence at a time.

1)One day I went to the beach.  (children drew me at the beach)
2)The sun was shining in the sky.  (the children drew a sun)
3.) I saw three little fish swimming in the sea. (the children drew the fish)
4) Beside me was a sandcastle with a flag on the top.  (they drew the sandcastle with the flag)
5)In the sky were three wispy clouds.  (they drew the clouds)
6) I was startled by a crab scuttling along the sand. (they drew the crab.)

You get the the end I turned my paper over and showed them it was blank.  I told them that my story had been in my head, and now it was on their paper, because words paint a picture in the listener or readers head.  These words can be written down into a story.  I showed them what it would look like written down.

We took some time to retell my story.

That was it.  

Next time we will draw our own pictures to tell a story from these.  Some will go away and write the story down, some won't.

The idea here is that children start to see the role extra detail plays in stories, long before they are up to that level in writing.  This will mean that when they can write, their stories will hopefully be much more than, "I went to the beach."

Ultimately I think to deal with the current struggle children have with writing, we have to slow down.  We have to understand how complicated this process is and break it down into its parts.

Don't expect children to do, what their current foundation skills don't allow them to do.   Help them have a growth mindset, but allow them to go at their pace.  Understand that by allowing children to acquire writing in this way, we can prevent barriers being put up.

Storytelling is what cultures are based on, it came long before written symbols.  Therefore it is the logical place to start when we are 'teaching' children to write.

In my opinion anyway :)

Monday, 28 August 2017

What an adventure!

The part I love about Agency when it has been well developed is the opportunity to have extended adventures.  To take a child's love for the imaginary and for stories the next step and cast them in their own story.

On Monday we received this message from Head Agent at the end of our session.  Voki is hard to infuse with emotion but the agents clicked that something had gone wrong.

This morning we entered agency for an extended session.  Once in agency we received a voice message from Head Villain.  His message went along the lines of this...

"It is Head Villain here.  I have your Head Agent.  He is locked up in my lair.  My Villains are wreaking havoc, the baker has too many cakes, the gardener is planting snails and the firefighters fires are doubling.  They are on their way to the others now.  You will not defeat us.  But try if you dare!"

Upon receiving this message I had set some children to play the role of some clients.  We were able to talk to them about the problems they were having and we worked out that more than one Villain was involved.  Upon checking the map we saw that four Villains were hovering over Whangarei.

Just to add a little bit of drama, before we started I used our time travel device.  We hopped into our 'pods' belted ourselves in, put on our helmets and travelled forwards to the next day so we could check how we had gone in defeating the villains.  Through storytelling I was able to share with the villains that their past selves had failed.  They had not listened to each other, been in a rush to solve the problems and had not got the right code to unlock Head Agent.  This had led to the villains winning and wreaking havoc for all of our clients.  The agency ceased to exist as we know it and was taken over by our nemesis Head Villain.  This gave me an opportunity to warn them about what we were about to do and to reinforce all those positive habits we would need.

(I love this strategy in drama and often use it in my Mantles)

Promising to do better next time we travelled back to present day.

Agent 81 (me) was then called away to the secret spy team that had been sent in to rescue Head Agent.  She left us in the capable hands of Peter the Policeman (me in character.)

What followed was a sequence of problems presented to us first by Subtraction Shark, followed by Knight Adder, Captain Fraction and the Doubling Dinosaur.

At the end of each problem we had to agree on the correct answer.  This then became part of a code that would unlock the padlock and free Head Agent.

After  we had the four answers, one of the agents was picked to communicate directly to Agent 81, who was outside the building where Head Agent was being held and had constantly been giving us updates via Peter the Policeman's phone.  It turns out Head Villain is nocturnal and had fallen asleep, Agent 81 could hear the snoring from outside the door.

Peter left and the agent selected communicated clearly with Agent 81 (me standing out the back of the class.) Agent 81 pushed in the code, but unfortunately the agent had given it to her backwards.  Luckily we got another chance and this time were able to free Head Agent.

81 came back to agency.  We celebrated with our chant, cleared the boardroom and then heard from our clients (children in role) who all reported that the problem was over.

We were lucky to hear from Head Agent who confirmed that he was free thanks to us.

We checked out of agency after a fantastically fun session...who would think it was maths!

The session took 1hr 30.  You wouldn't have known it though, children were so involved in being the heroes in the story and working to free Head Agent, they worked together really well and immersed themselves in the imagined.  Obviously I wouldn't do this too often, but it makes a lovely addition to our normal routine.

I love weaving these missions into our programme.  I think if I had the time to make them into story books the children would refer back to them constantly.  Something to think about :)

This creativity in delivering maths is completely changing the way children see themselves as mathematicians, I love it so much and so do they!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

What I love about this time of year in agency

I love this time of year in agency, by this stage of the year Agency is humming.  It is no coincidence that the name I have given to this approach includes the word agents and can be referred to as agency, because it truly involves a huge degree of student agency.

By this stage of the year children believe absolutely in the world that is Number Agents.  They know the characters inside and out, I don't even need the puppet on my hand to become the character...they know them so well by voice.  The know and love the characters so much that even when we are not in agency they blame the villains for issues we may be having.

By this time of year they truly love the heroes and have a love-hate relationship with the villains.  They look forward to being in agency so much that they will remind me if they think I have forgotten that day.  They also spend a lot of time inventing their own agent adventures during play-based time.

By this time of year they slip so easily in and out of agency that I can simply say "is it ok if for a moment we look at this problem as agents."

The strength of this approach clearly comes shining through at this time of year.  Children have a real strength in the imaginary.  They can exist in many different worlds and Number Agents feeds beautifully into this.  It is also at this time of year that parents notice how amazing their child's mindset to maths is and often tell me how much their child loves maths and being an agent.  Embracing this approach at home makes helping with maths easy.

I also love this time of year because it is absolutely possible to include a range of curriculum areas into the one approach.  Children equally love to read and write as agents.

While we have 42 children in our agency now, you often wouldn't know it, they are engaged and still work just as well as they did in the small group.  By this time of year many agents have a deeper understanding and flexibility with numbers and are able to 'teach' and support other agents.  The teaching and demonstrating is learning in itself.

I also love this time of year because talk moves are humming.  Agents engage in number talks and are able to clearly explain strategies and what they notice.

This time of year allows me to get a bit more creative with what we do.  Planning out adventures for the agents and going into character more myself.  This week I have a kidnap of Head Agent planned.  The agent's maps will have led him straight to the hiding place of Head Villain, unfortunately it was a trap and Head Villain is ready and waiting.  We will receive a message from Head Villain and the villains will be wreaking havoc.  We will need the assistance of Peter the Policeman to solve a variety of problems, getting the right answer to each one in order to crack the code to the padlock that is securing the door to where Head Agent is being held.  The agents loved the last time I was kidnapped I know that they are going to eat this adventure up!

I know that this approach can be a little confusing at first and for some I know it will seem a little unnatural for some teachers to use drama in this way.  My advice is to persist, the children love it and you will get to a place like me, where it all comes naturally.  I plan to create some videos of us in agency soon, so hopefully that will help others along their journey.  I have been using this approach for three years now and each year I get better!  I can use any materials I like to teach in this way, but the key is tapping into the imagined world of a child, this is the difference between agents and teaching maths in a regular way.  Anything that works well in your current approach will work even better through Number Agents.

Head Agent is in danger, will we be able to rescue him?

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Permission to slow down :)

We have been thinking deeply about the teaching of maths at our school.  In the last two years in particular we have transformed the way we do things, simply by being open to change.  The work of Jo Boaler has been revolutionary for us and transformative for our learners.  We only wish we had embarked on this journey sooner.

We would have said three years ago that we taught maths pretty well.  In fact the data would have backed this up, with almost 100% of our learners at their required stage each year.  However as we all know, children are not data, and regardless of the brilliant levels they were achieving, their mathematical mindsets were probably not quite where they should have been.  This is probably because ours were not either.  We streamed our classes from Year 2 up, we used timed tests, and we were pretty conscious of coverage.  The message we were sending to children about what maths is were misguided and unfortunately quite damaging.

I look back on this with dismay, aware of the learners that may not have achieved well in this environment.  Sadly we were doing what we thought worked well, the data showed we were doing a good job and the simple truth is we knew no better.

If asked I would have said that my teachers and myself were good teachers of maths.  I would not have been lying, but this judgment is very dependent on what you class as good and what you believe in terms of teaching mathematics.

The turning point for us was maths PLD and the massive lightbulb that was the work of Jo Boaler.  Has our data changed, no, it has always been good.  What has and is changing are the mathematical mindsets of our children and ourselves.  Do I care about our data, no not really.

The biggest change has been the elimination of any testing that will cause more timed testing that is for sure.  Secondly we no longer stream, we each have our own classes and use mixed ability groupings throughout.  Thirdly we use problems to develop knowledge and strategy in creative ways and are not afraid to repeat the same lesson in different ways several times over.  We have also redefined what a high achiever is in maths, it is not those that can come up with an answer quickly, but it is those that can take their time and see a problem in a variety of ways and persist to a solution even when it seems impossible.  We need to embrace mistakes and help children see how vital they are.  We also need to not be afraid of not getting a session quite where we wanted it each day, or worry if we didn't quite get the 'right' answer.

It is the third point that I want to touch on.  I am frequently asked about planning and coverage.  We seem to have a system that convinces us we must cover everything to ensure we are doing a good job.  This thinking often leads us to over plan, and aim to simply 'teach' to much.  This leads to frustration for us when we don't get everything done and also means we rush learning so we can get onto the next thing we have planned.

My learning over the past year in particular has shown me that the less I aim to teach and focus on each session, the better the session is.  The more I touch on the same concept, often in the same way, the deeper the understandings I am able to build in my agents and the more success they have, the more confidence they have.

If you think about it from your own perspective for a moment the more times you come back to the same task or learning opportunity, the more opportunities you have to see it and come at it in different ways, the more opportunities you  have to talk about it,  the deeper your understanding is and the more success you have.  This deep understanding allows you to make stronger connections and has a flow on effect to new learning.

This is the same for children, the more they are able to come back to the same activity, the same learning, the more they develop their understandings, the more likely they are to firmly consolidate their learning and be able to use it in different ways.  They are then likely to use these understandings to assist them in future challenging situations.

For ourselves as teachers I think we need to stop over-planning.  We need to slow down and perhaps revisit the same session over a few days.  Perhaps even allowing a problem to span over a few days.  If we do this the coverage will come naturally and be much more authentic.

I know across many  of our classrooms now teachers are using low floor, high ceiling problems in this way.

So my challenge for everyone is to explore ways they can slow down.  To allow children time to explore and revisit problems in deeper ways.  Slowing down and allowing ourselves and our children time also allows for more time to talk.  Maths is all about communication.  The more opportunities children have to share, convince, explain, question and even coach their peers, the deeper their learning will be.

I think if we can consciously keep this in mind we can help our children to become confident, capable mathematicians that see maths for what it is, patterns, relationships, connections that are all around us.  If we are able to give them this, then all that knowledge will suddenly have a place and make real sense.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Glimpse Into Mantle of The Expert

This post is a little different from my normal.  I thought I would write a little about what a Mantle may look like in a junior room (that is play-based.)  I get a lot of questions about Mantle of the Expert and find it hard to sum it up in one short statement, so thought it may be useful to share what I am doing this term to give you an idea.  Also a Mantle can look a little different in a junior room and often seems quite impossible, I want to spread the word that it is not impossible and that the benefits for children and how they view themselves as learners are huge.

Number Agents is based on Mantle of the Expert.  The beginning of the year sees us hooking in, and building belief.  I like to step in slowly as I find that children buy in so much more when you take time with this.  We also take time to build up drama in our room so that the culture of acceptance is just right.

The rest of the year with Number Agents is about our daily clients and professional tasks to grow our agent brains.  So basically for us Number Agents is a Mantle that runs for the year.  Just before I go further into this, I had to share this recent poster by Jo Boaler.  This is what I base Number Agents on maths wise.  So powerful when you add in the drama, games and playfulness of agents.  Obviously as my recent post suggested a lot of my foundational maths comes out of play...I feel that gives us the best of both worlds.  My children honestly absolutely love being Agents and I am happy with the balance of self-directed play and teacher directed play we have been able to achieve. In fact if we don't go into agency on a certain day, I get very loudly reminded that I have forgotten!

Anyway, back to the point of my post.  One thing I have struggled with this year is that I have not had a genuine Mantle going.  I say genuine meaning a Mantle that integrates curriculum areas, as opposed by Number Agents that is basically mathematically based.  I've put up a few barriers or you could call them excuses, for example we have 40 now, that is harder, we have children coming in at different times, that is harder, we are huge believers in self-directed play as much as possible, so that makes it harder....lots of excuses.  But I know the value of Mantle, so do not want to deny my children of that experience, so I have done a lot of thinking and found a way.

Firstly I know that my children are achieving so much through play.   In fact my Science has all come out of play very authentically this year and we have explore a lot more than we would usually do.  However I hold this approach to delivering integrated inquiry so highly in regard I really wanted to try to run a Mantle this term that allowed me greater integration.  I still feel confident I can fit this in around our self-directed play sessions and am just aiming quite small, basically I have given myself an hour a week, so what we are doing is bite sized.

Rather than getting children into another responsible team, I decided to try to keep children in their team of agents, but propose to them (through head agent) that there was someone else that needed their skillset.  

This formed quite a discussion, with agents debating if we should help or not.  At the end we used the fingerprint scanner (whiteboard with two circles) to either express yes or no.  Three agents decided no, they did not want to help.  We then entered a discussion to try to convince them.  This is what I most love about Mantle, moral tensions are great learning.  One agent managed to convince them by saying, It is the right thing to do, we should help!

And so we embarked on as Planet Protectors.  

Obviously if you do not have a responsible team already set up in your room like I did, you will need to do more work on the hooking in and building belief.  We have already established all of that through Number Agents.

Agents went home that night to draw what they thought the leader of Rong looked like.


Roger then communicated with us.

From this came our first task, to teach the council of Rong the difference between non-living and living.  Of course this is where Mantle is great, obviously we needed to develop this knowledge before we could teach them.  We completed a sorting activity and discussed our decisions, using some clear criteria for living things.   This will be something we revisit over time and then continue to build connections from onto our other scientific understandings.

Our portal is a little purple table and the messages arrive in a bottle....children love this, it makes the activity seem so much more important.

And so from here we will be weaving in and out of professional tasks and the drama of it all.  

Basically the backstory of Rong is that it is messed up.  The air is dirty, the water is dirty, rubbish is taking over.  The people are miniscule (think Horton hears a who)  the planet is the size of a large marble.  The storyline is much like the Lorax.

Time in Rong flies faster than ours, one month is ten years in our time, this will allow us to make real change.

Our next steps are to receive the last eggs of endangered creatures from Rong and the planet itself for safe-keeping.  The eggs are hatchimals and the planet will be a large marble.  I am interested in how the children will decide to look after the planet and animals (once hatched) but that is entirely up to them.  

From here we will explore ideas further through the Lorax and Horton hears a who.  We will also take a step out of our team to create the 'surveillance' video that the council of Rong has of the litter bugs who have been causing the havoc on their planet.  They will need to 'tame' and 'teach' these litter bugs if they are to be successful.  We will then step back into our responsible team and 'view' the surveillance video as if we have never seen it before.

I can see huge spin offs into our play already, but where this goes will be up to the children.

While I have a plan, it is important to remember that this will probably change according to the direction the 'team' takes us and the discussions that we have.

I keep any session as short as possible and we only have about an hour in our week to expand on the story.  Children will do a lot of thinking at home and we'll be sharing a lot through seesaw.  

Just like in Number Agents children love this approach because it is like they are characters in a storybook.    In fact it would probably be a very good idea to write a picture book based on the journey of the planet protectors, would be great to be able to revisit it over and over again..(think I just gave myself an

Mantle of the Expert works because although it is imagined, it is very authentic.  We could explore the science within it in any other fashion, but it would not have the same meaning to children.  We already have a child asking her mother if they can clean up their road and we have not even really started yet.  They make the connections to their real world so quickly!

I love this little visual from Ken Robinson, I see Mantle as having these same benefits.

If you are stuck in the same old cycle of inquiry like we used to be, where what you are teaching is great, but how it is being delivered is not quite cutting the mustard, I really recommend you find out more about Mantle of the Expert.  We started from a point of wanting to Engage and Motivate more, the spin offs have been far greater than that. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Combining Self Directed Play and Number Agents To Teach Maths

Below are a range of photos that to me demonstrate some of the absolutely vital parts of mathematics we want to de developing to ensure children have strong foundational understandings to build on.  

Through self-directed play based time and games and activities through Number Agents I am looking for children to make strong connections. Through play I can provide materials and invitations that can explicitly develop these things.  I can work alongside children coaching them with the correct language, posing wonderings and simply discussing what they notice.  It is incredibly important during this time that I feed in the mathematics language with at least three statements or things I notice before I pose some sort of question.  

I love to capture this maths on camera and when we come back together for a short maths time the whole class can benefit from what one child or group has been doing.  I find this then prompts them to move off and try the activity themselves.  

Through Number Agents I use a range of games that promote early understandings and find children will often use this equipment in similar ways through their play.  Sometimes the games we play can take up half or all of our session and this is ok.

The understandings I want to develop through play and Number Agents initially: (certainly not an extensive list.)

1) Grouping,  and sorting.  Exploring.
2)Exploring colour and shape, looking for same and different.  Exploring similarities and differences.
3)Looking at sets and estimating.  Comparing groups and items, bigger, smaller, more, less, longer, shorter.
4)Maths eyes - noticing visual patterns, discussing and exploring what we notice.  Beginning to apply this to word problems etc.
5)Measurement concepts such as heavier and lighter.  Capacity of containers etc
6)Sequencing numbers and ordering.  Understanding 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc  Understanding before and after.
7)Zero.  That zero is important, it is a place holder and it represents that we have no tens, no hundreds etc.  Although it represents that I can have nothing of something.  Without zero our system of counting would not work.
8)Awareness of ten.  Counting in tens.  Sorting into tens.  
9.)Subitizing.  Seeing a pattern and knowing how many.  Exploring these and noticing different ways of making that number.
10) Breaking a number into parts.  We can have a whole set of seven for example, but I can split this into groups and join this back together.
11)If I take some away I have less, if I add I have more.
12)Creating patterns and talking about them.  Repeated patterns and following or making up rules.
13) Symmetry, lovely to explore using loose parts.
14) Understanding that a digit represents a group of that many.  Deep sense of number and what the digits actually mean.
15)Time, yesterday, today, tomorrow.  Morning, afternoon, evening.
16)Giving basic directions.  Positional language.
17)Basic addition and subtraction understanding.
18)Number Bonds and the relationship between addition and subtraction.
19)Number Sense
20) Beginning to record number problems and illustrate with visual strategies.

At every opportunity we talk about the maths, we draw attention to it, children quickly begin to notice and certainly have 'maths eyes.'  My desire is for children to see mathematics authentically and to understand the very real part it has to play in our world.

Number Agents as an approach then builds on and from this play.  Developing on these foundations to explore basic problem solving.  It is authentic because the world of Number Agents while imagined is very real for the children.  The problem solving has a purpose.  We are helping our clients.  It is like a storybook, we are the heroes of the story and here to save the day with our brain power.  Combine this with a growth mindset approach and they are unstoppable.

The villains and heroes weave in the mathematical language strongly and it is one thing most people that observe notice really strongly, children have a strong command over and understanding of mathematical language and an understanding of how to use pictures or materials to help them.

Even better children LOVE the villains and heroes, there is a strong emotional attachment and in turn children from this attachment and connection with maths.  How they feel about themselves as mathematicians is strongly shaped through these enjoyable experiences.   

Talk is the key, we talk a lot.  The more we talk, the stronger the connection made.  The talk moves are an absolute must for any teacher to explore further.

The Heroes

 The Villains

The balance between self-directed play and the more 'teacher' directed playful approach of number agents is really having positive benefits for my learners and I am loving it!  I feel my own maths teaching going from strength to strength and my confidence flows through to my children.