Monday 4 February 2019

Team Building: Creating a safe, fun and inclusive classroom environment

Team building activities are an essential for the beginning of the year, especially with upper-primary/intermediate students. It is a chance for students to make connections, collaborate and realise their potential as confident and capable members of the classroom. Every year I use the same words when beginning this fun team building unit - safe, inclusive and fun.  I strongly believe that if a classroom is safe, inclusive and fun, then learning and achievement will come naturally. A happy student is a student who will feel ready and motivated to learn!

This year I have brought in some old favourites, and introduced some new team building activities. Here are my favourites:

People Bingo!

Since I had a feeling my students would need a little push to interact with each other, I decided to use a ice breaker activity that would literally force them to talk to everyone on day one. I created a 5 x 5 grid and came up with a bunch of statements about students likes, dislikes and hobbies. I purposely used a 5 x 5 grid so students would practically speak to everyone (there are 27 students in my classroom).

Instructions: Students need to roam around the room and find someone who matched the statement. Their challenge was to dill their entire grid, and only have a persons name once.

Duration: 10 - 15 minutes.

Adaptations: this activity usually calls for students getting 5 names in a row, however I wanted to force them to speak to all of their new classmates. Also, because I knew some would be shy, I allowed them to choose between working with a peer or by themselves. This really helped my introverted students, as having a buddy gave them more confidence to approach their new classmates.

The verdict: Students started off pretty quiet, so I had to be patient with this one. After about 3-5 minutes, students had already asked their 'friends' to fill in their sheet, so they had to start asking people they didn't know. About 10 minutes in the class was buzzing with movement, chatter and giggles. If you have patience and keep encouraging your students (and hyping them up!) to take risks and speak to everyone, this is great for to use for your very first ice breaker.

Build it from memory

Create a structure (or series of structures like I did), and place it somewhere that the students can't see from their workspaces. In groups of 4, students have to work together to recreate the structure, making it exactly the same as the example. 

Instructions: One at a time, a student may look at the example structure for 5 seconds. The catch is, if they are the one that has looked, they cannot touch their blocks. Students will have to use their memory and communication skills. 

Duration: Around 15-30 minutes, depending on your students and the types of degree of difficulty of the structures. For my class, this took just over 20 minutes for three groups to finish.

To make it easier:

  • Allow students to look for 10 seconds
  • Be more flexible about the choice of colours of the blocks.
  • Have less structures, or more simplistic ones.
To make it harder:
  • Add additional blocks to their piles so students are not sure which ones are needed and which are surplus.
  • Set a time limit to add more pressure.
  • Make structures more complicated and involve more pieces (I was restricted by the number of blocks I had).

The verdict: this activity was so much fun! it was great to see students using their communication skills with their teammates, and coming up with strategies to make their structures the fastest. This activity does require a lot of teacher preparation, as you need to make sure that each student has the same exact blocks to work with.

Can you draw it?

This is activity is a class favourite!  You will need to find a simple drawing for your class to recreate. Each group (4 students only) will have a print out of the drawing, their own A3 paper and a felt pen with four strings attached.

Instructions: Each student must be holding onto the string. They need to communicate and work as a team to complete their drawing. They are not allowed to touch the felt, and all four students must be taking part and holding onto a piece of string.

Duration: depending on your students and the drawing you choose for them, it could take between 5-10 minutes. This a quick but super fun lesson! You could draw it out for longer by stopping part way through and having a discussion about why some groups are more successful than others.

To make it easier:

  • Securely tie the strings to the felt pen (I didn't do this because I wanted the students to problem solve and work collaboratively, as if one student pulled up too fast then the string would come off).
  • Get them to write TEAM or TEAMWORK instead.
  • Choose a very simple drawing
To make it harder:
  • Don't give students any guidance or tips.
  • Give your students the tools and ask them to figure out how to assemble the strings so they are controlling the felt pen but not touching it.
  • Have a complicated and detailed drawing

The verdict:
This activity is always a hit with students. There is a lot of laughter during this activity, as it is really tricky to draw as a team. Can You Draw It helps students to work on their communication skills, problem solving, their patience and co-operation as it is vital that all students take part, listen to each other and work as a team


Another classic team building activity. You will need a large playing space (indoors and outdoors works fine!) some obstacles for students to avoid and some blindfolds. It can also be useful to have a minefield for each group so that more students can be involved, and to add a bit of friendly competition!

Instructions: Students get into small groups and wait at the start of their minefield. One at a time, a blindfolded student will attempt to make their way through the minefield. Their team members will need to give clear, simple and careful instructions!

Duration: between 10-20 minutes.

To make it easier:
  • Space out your 'mines'
  • Have less 'mines'
To make it harder
  • Have tarpaulins (or something similar) to crawl under.
  • Set a time limit to add more pressure.
  • Add lots of 'mines'

The verdict: this activity is great for building students communication skills and trust. This is heaps of fun and is a good way for students to take risks and trust their classmates. My students also enjoy making it into a little competition with the other groups.

Saturday 2 February 2019

Start of the year: teaching values to set your expectations for the year

In my opinion, there are two crucial things to begin the school year with - team building activities and values. It is these two things that help students to settle into their new classroom, establish connections with their peers and understand the expectations.

Beginning the year with values (either school or the Key Competencies in NZ) is absolutely imperative for a number of reasons...
  1. It sets up expectations for how you want your students to work and behave for the year.
  2. It will be useful when creating your class contract or treaty.
  3. It can be used to create a meaningful wall display. It is something that the students would have had an active role in creating, which can be used as a point of reference and a constant reminder of the values and expected behaviour your the classroom.
  4. Is a great way for students to start learning how to work collaboratively.

This year at Glen Innes School, we have introduced our brand new school values. They are Responsibility, Effort, Ako, Commitment and Honesty... aka REACH. Since it was our first year with school values, it was super important that students made a connection to them. I expect my students to become role models to the rest of the school in showing the REACH values.  Here is how I have taught them to my classroom.

Bus stop rotation

The purpose: This activity helped students to recognise what they already knew about each of the school values - aka their prior knowledge. It is also a great way to maintain enthusiasm and energy, as students are at each station for a short period of time, and have to get up and move to each station.

Preparation: I created a Google Doc which I printed out as a3 and double sided. For each REACH value, there were four sections: What is it? Definition in a sentence, What would happen if we did use (value)? and What would happen if we did not use  (value)? Each 'value' is stationed at a specific group of desks.

'Bus Stop' activity in action
  1. Students get into groups and begin at a specific 'station', where a large sheet of paper and some questions/prompts on it (or just one question/prompt if you want). 
  2. Students work collaboratively to record their responses to the first question. 
  3. After about 3-4 minutes, students get up and move to the next 'station'. 
  4. Then, students read what the previous group has written, and adds their own ideas to the first question. If they feel they can, they move to the second question on their new sheet. 
  5. This cycle continues until the teacher feels the students all have shared enough ideas and they have a good understanding of the topic.
  6. Then come together as a classroom to have a conversation about what they can remember about each value.

Class discussion of the values 

Students' suggestions of values
Since it was the first time using these class values, we also had a discussion about their general thoughts on each value, as well as values that they felt were also really important. It was interesting that some students felt like commitment was not that important, as it could be tied into responsibility and effort. Students also spoke about Attitude, Respect, Perseverance and Courage. I was very proud of my students for being able to think critically and come up with additional values that could be used in our classroom. As a side note, students will soon come up with a response to the values and propose the addition of Courage into our school values (which I think is awesome!).

What does each value 'look' like?

After the bus stop activity, the class came together to think about how we could show our school values in the classroom. Students had to share their ideas on a collaborative Padlet, which was displayed on our Activboard. For this task, I let students work in peers. I explained that students would need these ideas for the next task.

Made with Padlet

Walking the walk

Next, in groups of around 6, students were tasked with staging photographs which showed the students using each value. I also told them that they could edit them with speech and thought bubbles to make each value clear.

Some of my students photos to show our school values

Creating a DLO 

A DLO (Digital Learning Object) is Manaiakalani speak for 'creating something to show what you have learnt'. Since a lot of students haven't done this before, the school values lessons are a great way to introduce DLOs. Students work in groups of 3 to create a DLO that explains their understanding of the school values. For each value, students MUST

  • Have their own explanation of the value (use the bus stop activity and Padlet to help them)
  • Include a their photo that shows the value in action (they can add in thought or speech bubbles to make the value more explicit)
  • Explanation of why the value is important.

Quick plenary

As a second form of the 'bus stop' activity, students share what each value means. For this activity, cut up coloured paper (a different colour for each value) into strips. Again, I created stations for each of the values, and included a new value - courage, to the task. Students had to write their ideas in big letters so that it could be easily seen on the wall. 

This task is great because it serves as a plenary AND you can use it for your wall display, saving you from writing or typing them out yourself. Also, having the students write their ideas themselves makes the wall display more purposeful and meaningful.

Make it a wall display

Make some lettering, print out the photos and staple everything onto your wall. And there you have it, your first, purposeful and student-created wall display!

Our values wall display. Next to it is our class jobs and class dojo rewards and consequences (we came up with this as a class). Underneath those will be our class contract.

What's next?

Now you can use your lessons and wall display to help create your class contract or treaty. You can also refer back to your wall display to reinforce expectations in your classroom.

Friday 1 February 2019

Back to School 2019

Same room,  very different students!

Week one 2019 is already done and dusted! This year will be an interesting one as my classroom is very different from last year. They appear a lot calmer and reserved. Last year I had a lot of super extroverted, bold and confident year 8s who immediately were established as the 'leaders'  and big personalities of the classroom. In turn, the class fed off the energy, and the classroom was pretty lively from the get go. In stark contrast, this year my year 8s are a lot more laid back but quietly confident, and most of my year 7s are pretty timid.

My mission

My mission this term is to help my students to break out of their shells (especially the year 7s), and to help them to feel safe, included and happy in room six. I also want to help the year 8s realise their potential to be fantastic leaders.

How will I do this? With activities in the first 3 weeks that encourage students to make connections, take risks, collaborate and have fun together! Stay tuned to find out more about my team building activities and lessons about our school values.

So far I am absolutely loving my new classroom. I am looking forward to getting to know my new students and helping the class to be the best class they can be!

Monday 12 February 2018

Reaching milestones

Two crazy years of being a beginning teacher, MDTA teacher and part time student has paid off! Last week I was ecstatic to open an email informing me that I am officially a registered teacher! If that wasn't enough great news in one week, I also received an A- for my dissertation on integrated reading and writing instruction. I am super stoked with this result, as I put a lot of effort into setting up the intervention in my classroom, gathering data and drawing conclusions.

I am looking forward to continuing to challenge myself by sharing my practise through Manaiakalani Google Class OnAir.  The site is going live tomorrow and I am really looking forward to putting myself out there and sharing what I do.  Here is a sneak peak at my little introduction video which will be on my Class OnAir page.  Sorry it is not the best quality and location for filming, I had to film on my laptop and it was too rainy to shoot outside! I hope my video will help viewers get an idea of my personality and beliefs about teaching, as I feel that they heavily influence the way I teach and the lessons I create for my learners.  

I am glad to have my beginning teacher years behind me.  Now it is time to refine my teaching and ensure I am doing the best for my learners.  I think that Class OnAir will help motivate me to continue to push myself and get my learners to think critically. 

Onwards and upwards!

Saturday 3 February 2018

Why "don't smile till Easter" is the worst piece of advice for a beginning teacher

I am sure that every beginning teacher has heard it before.  Don't smile till Easter.  No smiling means that you mean business. It demands instant respect with a hint of fear.  If you appear too human and friendly, it will be way too difficult to manage your students come term two...

While I can see the reasoning behind the mantra, I think it is a terrible piece of advice. It implies that being friendly and smiling is a weakness, and will ultimately lead to an unruly classroom. This is totally untrue.

Clear expectations and routines must be put in place from day one. However, it does not need to be done in an inhuman manner.  Teachers should firstly think about the type of learning environment they want to create.  Want it to be quiet, serious and teacher centered? Then don't smile.  Want it to be inclusive, positive and safe? Then smile!

 If you want to create a safe, inclusive and positive classroom environment, then ask yourself this: how does a unsmiling teacher help this? How will students feel safe to take risks, share ideas and be a part of the learning community if you are demonstrating one of very things that you wouldn't want in my classroom? Is an unsmiling teacher really a good role model for how they want their class to look or feel?

If you want  to create a collaborative, inclusive and positive classroom environment, then be a smiling teacher. A smile means that you are welcoming, approachable and positive. It shows that you want to be there, and that you care about your students. A smile is contagious, and exemplifies the kind of disposition you want your learners to have.  Teachers have the power to set the tone of the classroom, so a smile goes a long way in helping to create a happy classroom. It helps to ease the anxieties that come with being in an unfamiliar environment with new peers. A smile does not mean that you are weak. 

Start the year the way you intend it to continue

Instead of the old "don't smile till Easter" line, here is what that I go by: Start the year the way you intend it to continue. Just because you are not an unsmiling teacher, doesn't mean that you do not have expectations and routines that you expect to be followed. Here are my tips for doing this while still smiling!

1. Give the students ownership over how they want the classroom to run/feel.  Ask the learners what helps them learn, what doesn't, and what kind of classroom would they like to be a part of.  When I do this, recurring themes are collaboration, friendship and inclusivity.

2. Start on day one with purposeful activities. Choose activities that require the types of behaviours you need to help create your positive, inclusive and safe environment.

3. Be clear with your expectations. Set clear expectations regarding behaviour during these activities and use positive reinforcement when you notice that the good behaviours are being used.

4. Whenever student behaviour isn't good enough, stop. Even if it is only a little disruption, or students are becoming slightly less focussed. Don't be afraid to stop the class and remind them when they are not using positive behaviours. Relate this back to the reason WHY it is important (how it will help create the classroom environment they want and help them to learn).

5. SMILE. Share a smile with your learners.  Remember that you set the tone for your classroom and that a smile is contagious.

These steps will help students to understand your expectations as a teacher and will help to create a classroom environment that students (and teachers) will want to be a part of!

I'm going to finish this post off with a brilliant excerpt that was sent to the staff by our awesome AP.

...I have a sneaky suspicion that this kind of teacher would smile on day one!

Thursday 1 February 2018

New year, new role, new challenges!

After a relaxing summer holiday I am ready to hit the ground running as a third year teacher.  Heading into the year, I feel a lot more confident and relaxed. I have a much better idea of what it takes to be an effective teacher, and how to a better work/life balance.  So after successfully tackling my first two years as a BT while completing my honours, I feel I am ready for some more challenges!

A change in year levels

I have made the move to teaching year 7 and 8s - a slight change from my year 6 and 7s last year. This will bring a new challenge, as we all know that the hormones will be well and truly kicking in... bringing all sorts of lovely things into the classroom! I found that the year 6 and 7 combo worked really well last year. In my opinion, it helped make the year 6s step up and mature, while still keeping the year 7s grounded. Last year there was a noticeable difference in the attitudes and behaviour between the year 6s in room 6, compared to the other year 6s. I treated them like seniors and spoke about them being seniors - despite being year 6. As a result, they really did step up! I loved teaching year 6 and 7s last year but am excited to teach year 7  and 8s. A challenge will be making sure that I am helping the year 8s to grow into being positive role models and proud leaders of the school. The year 8s have a very strong influence on the other students in school, so it is important that the year 8s make positive and responsible choices.

I'm going OnAir!

I also have picked up a new role, taking part in Manaiakalani Google Class OnAir.  I will be recording and sharing a range of lessons which embody Manaiakalani's  'Learn, Create, Share' Pedagogy.  This will offer an authentic window into what happens in my classroom and how I use LCS to engage and extend my learners.  This is something that I am both nervous and excited about. My time in the Manaiakalani Digital Teacher Academy (MDTA) has really helped me grow and become at ease in a digital 1:1 environment.  I have moved from solely focussing on making learning fun and engaging with the use of digital tools, to how I can extend and challenge my students thinking, and really make use of the affordances provided by digital tools.  Being a part of Class OnAir will help me to ensure I am always engaging, exciting and stretching my learners.

My goals

I have a four goals that I have set for myself which I think will help improve my teaching practice.

1. Stick to timeframes

So often I would want to keep teaching a group or subject, even if my allocated time was up.  Sometimes the class would be so engrossed in what they were doing, that I would let the lesson run for longer.  While I thought this was a good thing at the time, some other subjects ended up getting  less attention. This year I would like to try and keep to the timeframes so I see all groups for the same amount of time and also give enough time to every learning area.

2.  Continue to integrate reading and writing

Last year the focus for my inquiry and dissertation was to discover whether integrated instruction led to an improvement in students understanding of audience, and quality of writing.  The integrated instruction led to a significant improvement in students quality of writing and students also loved the integrated activities.  I intend to keep integrating the two practises this year and continue to extend student's quality of writing. Additionally, I would like to see if integrated instruction leads to any improvement in students reading ability. Further, integrated activities will mean I am killing two birds with one stone, which will help me with goal one!

3.  Use 'wait time'

This sounds so simple, but pausing for a second of two is not using 'wait time'.  This topic came up while I was at a Teachers Matter conference held by Karen Boyes.  After asking a question, Karen suggests waiting 7-10 seconds before speaking.  This sounds terribly long and has made me realise that I definitely do not 'wait' long enough!  Students need enough time to stop and think before they can answer a problem, and not enough time can lead to student's feeling anxious and saying 'I don't know'. However, with the use of digital tools such as Nearpod, Mentimeter and Padlet (check out my tags to find examples of how I use these tools), I find I have the opposite problem.  Students start hurriedly writing responses because they like seeing their ideas on the screen, and the anonymity helps them to feel safe.  I think using 'wait time' will help increase the quality and depth of student ideas.

4. Encourage more creativity

Because I am a part of Manaiakalani, I am confident with using digital technologies to enhance the learning process within the Learn, Create, Share pedagogy.  I have also worked hard to empower learners to share their learning on their blog (read here).  This year, I would like to encourage more creativity.  I have spoken before about learners at Glen Innes being unfamiliar with the creation of DLOs (Digital Learning Objects). Most students are only familiar with using Google Presentations, Google Drawings, and some storyboard creators. This year, I don't want to use this as an excuse for not encouraging creativity. During the first term I will ease students into the idea of creating DLOs, but by term two I would like to encourage learners to become more creative when sharing what they have learnt.

I am looking forward to tackling the new year and continuing to become the best teacher I can be!

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Dealing with conflict in the classroom

This term has seen some significant changes in my classroom. Due to an almost school-wide reshuffle, my classroom lost 4 students and gained 5 more from another, younger classroom. This was something that my class really struggled to cope with. Prior to the class change-up, room six worked hard to create a close-knit classroom.  Everyone was mates, and nobody wanted their mates to leave. At the same time, the new students were coming into an unfamiliar classroom environment - one which had a very close bond. This made the new students feel somewhat unwelcome and apprehensive to join their new classroom.

This term we have had to work hard to work hard to establish a new classroom culture, where both new and original room sixers feel included, safe and happy. This is an honest reflection of the realisations I have come to.

Here are some important things I have discovered when dealing with conflict in the classroom

Getting to the bottom of problems ASAP

As soon as I have gotten wind of a problem, I have made it my priority to deal with it straight away. Sometimes this has meant that I have had to leave the rest of the classroom whilst dealing with a small group. I think this has helped because things were not left to escalate, or become worse by others getting involved.

Two sides to every story

This is something that we all know- but do our students?  Before starting a restorative conversation, I have learnt the value of expressing this to my learners. There are two sides to every story, and there are always truths on both sides. Emphasising this fact helped my learners to understand that I was willing to listen and support both parties. As a result, situations were calmed down because both parties knew that I cared and would listen to what they had to say.

Compartmentalising problems

I noticed that often the 'big problem' between the two parties was created from many smaller, unrelated problems.  Some of these problems involved intentional unkind acts, whilst others were not.  I felt that it was really important for the students to see that while there were some instances of meanness, other times it was just misinterpreted and innocent.

As a group we work through each problem in isolation. Initially this is difficult, as students will bring up other issues when trying to deal with the one problem in particular. I needed to remind the group that we would make sure we shared and solved each problem, but it was important to focus on one at a time.

Asking why

A problem isn't solved unless you get to the root of it, and find out what caused it in the first place. Asking why helped to find out more details, understand the feelings and thoughts behind actions, and also find out how the problem began. It also helped to discover when actions were intentional or just misinterpreted. The more information you ask for, the better you understand the problem and how best to solve it.

Taking time to talk, listen and say sorry (and mean it)

It turns out that one of the biggest problems we had this week was due to a fight that happened last year.  There a physical altercation between two groups and it was broken up by the teachers.  It turns out they were still holding onto what happened a year ago, because they never actually dealt with the problem.  Instead, they were just told to apologise.  This meant that body language, meaningless comments and moods were misinterpreted as angst towards the other group.

The biggest problem with this is that they never able to move forward because there was never any restorative conversation.  Instead, their anger was just left to fester and become much worse. It can be easy to just make children apologise and expect them to move on. However I have seen the value of taking time to allow all learners to share their perspective of what happened, why and how it made them feel.  It was much easier to give a genuine apology once they understood the thoughts and feelings behind the actions. Following that comes the joint decision of how to move forward.

Understanding learners cultures and family backgrounds

This is probably the biggest thing I have learnt. Due to their cultural and family backgrounds, children deal with conflict in different ways. At home, some children are free to share their problems. Others are expected to 'suck it up' and never voice their problems. Some children are even punished for speaking their minds. It was pretty naive of me to think that all learners would be able to voice their issues with ease.  In fact, this turned out to be a huge barrier to dealing with conflict.  This had meant that small issues were left to fester, leaving all parties more upset, angry and confused.

It is really important that students know that they have permission to share what is making them angry, hurt and upset.  In saying this, it is also important to acknowledge that all families deal with problems differently, and that is okay. The last thing I would want is to come across disrespectful towards my students families and cultures. While stressing this to my learners, I also explained that at school we need to be able to talk about our problems so we can solve them together and move on.

And lastly...

Everyone always says it, but it is so crucial to know your learner.  I have found that if students feel valued and cared for, they are more likely to open up and respond better to restorative conversations. The hardest students to get to talk were the new students to room six.  Building rapport takes time to develop but I feel it can make such a difference.

Summing it up

This week has been quite the challenge. I have seen how important it is to deal with problems as soon as they arise. I also have learnt that students home lives and cultures can play a huge roll in how they deal with conflict. This can make it difficult for some learners to openly express their feelings. In saying this, it is super important that students understand that they are encouraged to share what is bothering them. At first it felt personal that my learners were unwilling to share how they were feeling.  But taking the time to the right ask questions allowed me to learn so much more about my learners.