5 ways my teaching will change because of today’s GCSE results.

Despite having now completed my fourth year as a teacher, today’s GCSE results were my first batch. Unfortunately, they weren’t great. In fact, they were rather embarrassing. 😮

I could list many reasons why my two Year 11 History classes didn’t do as well as they were predicted – or as well in History as they did in other subjects. But I’m not a whinger. Instead, here’s the ways I’m going to prevent the same thing happening again:

1. Spend some time ‘off the bandwagon’ before implementation

I was guilty of using my GCSE class as guinea pigs; we tried a whole host of Web 2.0-related stuff. I should have focused on stuff I knew inside-out instead of being intent on being an early adopter. There needs to be a sound pedagogical reason for using a tool, rather than just finding it ‘cool’.

In every other sphere of my life I try not to be an early adopter. For example, I usually wait for the second revision of products, for others to work out the quirks and foibles. Perhaps I need to do that more when teaching, too.

2. Treat students as teenagers, not adults

I tend to have a fairly laid-back approach in the classroom. I’m interested in stories and tend to go off at tangents. I assume that students have an interest in doing well and so perhaps I wasn’t strict enough with those who didn’t hand in practice exam questions during the revision period. I’m fairly certain it was those students who just missed out on C grades…

3. Get parents more involved

In my first, less successful school, I phoned home often – and not just to ask parents to discipline their children. I’d phone home and let parents know how fantastically their child was doing in my lesson. Cue extra effort in my lessons. I haven’t done that nearly as much at my current school.

Parents obviously have a massive influence on the life of young people and help shape their values and beliefs. I need to call on the power they hold a lot more often than I do now.

4. Be more positive

I smile a lot. In fact, people comment on it. But there’s more to being positive than just appearing happy. I know that I’m overly sarcastic and can take the mick a bit too much. I just find it hard to big people up in a non-sarcastic way. Too much Monty Python and Eddie Izzard, perhaps.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to, as John Johnston commented on a previous post, adhere to a policy of ‘unconditional positive regard’ within my classroom.

5. Feel less guilty about detentions for not doing homework

I don’t like homework set for the sake of it. I’m fine with project work done at home and students doing extra research out of interest, but homework for the sake of just trying to get knowledge into heads seems to me a waste of time in this day and age.

But when students get to GCSE level unfortunately they have to fill their heads full of some knowledge that they’ll probably only ever use for the exam. In this scenario, then, I’m going to feel a lot less guilty about insisting they complete knowledge-based homework.

What lessons have YOU learned recently?

And finally, just to make me feel better: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.” (Oscar Wilde) – also read this. Thanks goes to @theokk for both. 🙂

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Today, I helped Phil Rowland set up a blog to use primarily with his BTEC Sport class. We’d previously set one up via Edublogs, but it didn’t really get off the ground.

The blog platform I introduced to Phil was Posterous. I chose Posterous because it’s so easy to use. Here’s what you do:

  1. Email post@nullposterous.com from any email account of your choosing. The subject of your email is the title of your first post and the body of the email the content of the post.
  2. Posterous emails back asking you to click on a link to validate your blog. You are then logged-in and ready to setup your username (giving you username.posterous.com) and password.
  3. Further emails from the account you used to Posterous add more post to your new blog. Attachments are dealt with in an intelligent way: for example a YouTube video link automatically embeds that video in the blog post. It does similarly great things with Word documents, Powerpoint files, MP3s, etc.
  4. You can configure your profile by logging into Posterous – avatar, details about yourself, and link to other accounts you’ve got online – Flickr, Twitter, and more!

Phil’s still playing about with and getting used to his new blog – you can visit it at: http://mrrowland.posterous.com. I’m sure he’d appreciate a comment or two. 🙂

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90% digital, or 12 ways my teaching ecosystem is evolving.

I’m looking forward to the new academic year. Having said that, I’m not hugely excited about the Web 2.0 tools I’ll be using next year – and I believe that’s a good thing. It shows that such tools have become part of my teaching ecosystem. As I read recently, “The music is not in the piano.” (i.e. it is but a tool, just like technology)

The only reason my teaching ecosystem isn’t 100% digital is because of outside influences: documents from colleagues and marking student books. It’s part of my aim for my E-Learning Staff Tutor position to put more digital tools in the hands of colleagues. I’ll be using the new elearnr site to help with that. 🙂

This week I came across Top 100 Tools for Learning 2008. It’s made up of a large number of educators’ top 10 lists of elearning tools. I haven’t tried to stick to 10 in what follows – it’s just a list of what I’m going to be using (in order of what I’ll be using most!) 😀

1. Google Calendar

I’ve been using Google Calendar for a couple of years now for my day-to-day planning (see here and here). Although it takes around half an hour to enter your timetable initially, you can then set this to repeat until a certain date (i.e. the end of the academic year).

I use a ‘double-star system’ (see screenshot below). Before a lesson has been planned it has two asterisk after it. Removing one star means that I’ve entered the title and lesson objective (and homework, if applicable). Removing the second star means that the lesson is fully planned.

After the lesson, if there’s anything I need to remember for the next lesson with the class, I just add it to the comments section.

Obviously things like meetings, parents evenings can be entered ad-hoc. As you can access Google Calendar via mobile phone as well, it means I’ve got my day-to-day planning everywhere. 🙂

2. Attendance/Homework checkers

I run a two-laptop classroom. I’ve got my school-provided laptop at the front of my classroom running the interactive whiteboard (a SMARTboard) and my netbook (an MSI Wind-like Advent 4211 now running Mac OSX) is for everything else.

Whilst I could use Google Spreadsheets for my attendance registers, there’s two reasons I don’t. First of all it just doesn’t update very quickly, being web-based. Second, I’ve got to have a register – even if Internet access goes down at school. So I use Microsoft Excel with some conditional formatting goodness that I blogged about ages ago.

3. Google Docs

I’d be the first to hold my hand up and say that I’m a last-minute planner. What I do in the next lesson with a class depends very much upon what happened in the previous. Students have different questions and things can go off at a tangent. That’s not to say I don’t medium-term plan, however!

For my medium-term planning I use Google Docs. Nothing fancy, just a table with columns for lesson title, objective and possible content. The great thing about this is that I don’t have to remember to back it up and I can drop in links to any online resources quickly and easily. I do about a half-term at a time, having worked out before how much I need to cover to get everything done within the year. :-p

4. Evernote

You’re not going to believe this but my school still doesn’t use email as the primary method of contact between members of staff. Hard to believe, I know! Consequently, I’m overwhelmed by a deluge of paper. To counteract this, I started taking a photograph of the documents using the camera in my Nokia N95. The trouble was that organizing these images was difficult and time-consuming. In the end, I just gave up.

Then I was invited to take part in the private beta for Evernote. This program is available cross-platform and is now out of beta, so it’s available to everyone. It takes the image you’ve taken and transferred to your laptop (e.g. via Bluetooth) and recognises the words – even when they’re hand-written! You can add tags to the photos and they’re automatically (securely) synced with your account on their server. That means they’re available wherever you’ve got an Internet connection.

Evernote’s a great system no matter what phone/digital camera/laptop combo you’ve got, but if you’ve got an iPhone, you really do need to download it from the App Store!

5. Google Presentations

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for still using Powerpoint. After all, I’m training colleagues to use software such as SMART Notebook when I rarely use it myself. The truth is, Powerpoint is compatible, flexible, and has great clipart.

The problem comes when you want to get a Powerpoint online. Say that you’ve drawn on top of a diagram and want to make it accessible for students outside the classroom. In the past I’ve had to use OpenOffice to convert it into Flash, upload it to my website, and then create an HTML page in which to embed it.

Not any more. Now I just upload it to Google Docs and it’s transformed into a Google Presentation. This can then be easily embedded into a blog, wiki or website. Marvellous! 🙂

6. Google Sites

I used a self-hosted installation of WordPress for a couple of years successfully at learning.mrbelshaw.co.uk. That’s the place I direct students to in order to access homework activities and resources to aid their learning. At the end of last academic year, however, I switched over to Google Sites. My version actually comes as part of Google Apps Education Edition, but there’s no advantage in this other than the ability to customise the domain name.

I’ve found it really useful and reliable. Because it’s hosted by Google, I’ve never experienced any downtime and, of course, it’s not blocked by the school network’s proxy. You can edit things in a straightforward, easy-to-use manner. The built-in navigation features make it simple for students to navigate. Embedding objects is easy – I could ask for any more! 😀

7. Twitter

I’m disappointed that Twitter, the micro social-networking service, has made the decision to stop the ability to receive SMS updates when you receive direct messages or replies. It means that I’m unlikely to use it with my GCSE students this time around.

To neglect to add it to my list, however, would be misleading. I’ll still be using it both in and out of school in a professional development capacity. I can’t imagine being connected only via blogs now (as in the early days of the edublogosphere). Twitter and other real-time tools make professional development fun!

8. Edublogs

With my last cohort of GCSE History students I installed WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) edition at mrbelshaw.co.uk. Whilst it worked fine and the students took to it well, the system took some configuring and was a bit of a nightmare when I transferred web hosting companies.

This year, I’m going to be using Edublogs. It, after all, is a giant installation of WPMU, but they host it for you, make hundreds of themes available and there’s added values with wiki and forum integration (to name but two). It should cut down on hassle. I track what students are up to via the RSS feed for the blog entries and comments. 🙂

9. Google Earth

It’s fair to say that I use Google Earth a lot. In fact, when I had to teach Geography to a Year 8 Set 4 class last academic year, I think I used it every lesson! It’s also of great use in history as it’s so much more than a mapping application; the ‘layers’ and ability to create tours add huge amounts of value.

I’ll be using it next academic year, as I have in previous years, to plot the route of Hannibal’s march with elephants on Rome, doing a flyover tour of Engladn in 1066, building up the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a lot more. I’ve shared some of the resources I’ve created for Google Earth over at the historyshareforum.

10. Simple English Wikipedia

Although I’ve threatened to do it a couple of times before, this academic year is going to be the time when I carry through my plan. I want students to be creators and contribute to the Internet. In Years 10 and 11 whilst they’re doing their GCSEs, I get them to blog. But what about in Key Stage 3?

I’m going to get them to add to the Simple English Wikipedia. This lesser-known sibling of Wikipedia is for children and foreign language students. Every page on the main Wikipedia site (potentially) has a similar page on the Simple version. The trouble is that the Simple version doesn’t have as much content – I want to rectify that by getting my students to edit that.

The main problem with this is that they can’t do it at school. I’m sure it the same with most educational institutions: our IP address is banned from editing do to ‘vandalism’ of Wikipedia by a minority of immature students. So, I’ll get them to do it at home and look at the revision history of the page for proof! I’ll let you know how it goes… :-p

11. bubbl.us

I’m a big fan of mindmaps. Although I’m not convinced that bubbl.us creates mindmaps in the true sense of the term they are, at least, very useful brainstorms. If you haven’t given online, collaborative mindmapping/brainstorming a try with your students, I’d suggest you try.

Due to a re-organization of the core subjects at our school, students only get to choose two options for GCSE. This has the knock-on effect of meaning they have 4 lessons to cover content that previously was covered easily in 3. I’m going to spend that fourth lesson with them in the library or an ICT suite blogging, brainstorming/mindmapping, and more…

12. Posterous

I came across Posterous during the summer holiday (see this post). You couldn’t really ask for a blogging service to be made much simpler. All you do is email post@nullposterous.com and it intelligently sorts out what you’ve sent (including attachments) and displays them appropriately. At last I can say to staff that if they know how to email they can set up their own class blog!

If you read my previous post on Posterous, you’ll see that I feel the killer feature will be themes. They’re adding features all the time, it being a new service, and if they add this ability before the start of the academic year (1st September for me) then I’ll seriously consider using them with students too. It might seem shallow, but I’ve found that teenagers like to create an identity online, and the ability to make their site different from their friend’s is important to them.

Finally, I’ll be charting my progress and adding resources to help colleagues as part of my E-Learning Staff Tutor role over at elearnr. Do visit there often and/or subscribe to the RSS feed. 😀

(Image credit: Personal Ecosystem by activeside @ Flickr)

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Buddha knows best, or why ‘digital literacy’ is so hard to pin down.

The more you try to pin down a concept, the more slippery it becomes. I’ve been collecting definitions of various terms relating to the topic of my thesis (‘Digital Literacies‘) on my wiki and have found almost as many definitions as there are authors. In fact, I’m considering beginning my thesis with this quotation from Buddha himself:

All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else. (Buddha)

Why is it, for example, that whilst everyone seems to know and understand what it means by good old-fashioned ‘literacy’, there is such confusion in the digital domain? Conceptions and definitions of ‘literacy’ in this regard range from the overly-simplistic:

[Digital literacy is] the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers. (Gilster, 1997)

(what about iPods? TVs?), to the laughably complex:

Information literacy is not a fixed or static phenomenon; rather, it is a self-renewing panoply of capacities using critical thinking, metacognitive strategies, and, perhaps most important, creative abilities, dispositions, and native talents to foster self-motivation, to construct new knowledge, to build up expertise, and to acquire wisdom. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005)

The trouble is that all the definitions I’ve come across capture something of the essence of the nebulous concept that is ‘digital literacy’. Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that we conceive standard literacy as being a state that is achieved, rather than an ongoing process? If this were the case, then it would be easier to define digital literacy as being something akin to the ability communicate effectively using contemporary digital tools. But even that is a bit wishy-washy. Hmmm, more work needed methinks… :-p

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elearnr – new blog for a new role!

I’ve mentioned several times before that as of this coming academic year (2008/9), I shall be E-Learning Staff Tutor at my school. This involves me ‘raising the baseline’ of educational technology integration and helping staff blend technology with their exisiting pedagogies.

To that end, and to avoid giving this blog an unduly narrow focus, I’ve set up elearnr. I’ve advertised it as a place for ‘elearning links, resources and guides’, although it will grow and evolve as my new role takes shape.

Feel free to subscribe to the RSS feed here:



Twitter Fantasy Football

We’re back from Wales. I forgot to take our ‘proper’ camera and the one in my N95 has stopped working. So no pics – unless you want to look at some of the area on Flickr. We had a great end to the week, although Hannah and I were struck down with a bug almost immediately upon arrival and then it proceeded to rain for 3 days… 😮

Before I went away I mentioned on Twitter that it would be great if we could have a Twitter Fantasy Football league. Low and behold, @damian613 @iusher set it up and @tombarrett texted me whilst I was away to say it was going ahead.

If you’d like to get involved, get in touch and I’ll send you the details! 🙂

Here’s my team and the standings after the first games:

Doug's Fantasy Football Team - Borussia Munchonthat

TwitterVersus Fantasy League - standings after 1st games

Congratulations to Lisa, but there’s a lot of games left to play… :-p


The feature that will make Posterous better than Edublogs is…

…themes! Or at least backgrounds and the ability to change the colours on your blog home page – à la Twitter.

<<< Rewind! For those who haven’t come across Posterous, it’s a great blogging platform that just works. You can blog by logging into your account as with normal platforms, but the real power of Posterous comes through it’s ability to ‘intelligently’ deal with anything you send to post@nullposterous.com.

In fact, sending an email is all you need to do to set up a blog in the first place. I love how straightforward it is to use – it certainly sticks to the 7 Essential Guidelines for Functional Design as far as I’m concerned! Text formatting from your email is retained on the blog post, links to YouTube become embedded videos, PDFs and text files become Flashpaper-like previews, and images become galleries. Check out my test posts here and here! 😀

As far as next year and my E-Learning Staff Tutor role, this is perfect for recommending for classroom teacher blogs. It’s just so easy to get stuff up there and online! For students, however, a Twitter-like ability to change colours, backgrounds, etc. needs to be there before they’re likely to be sold on it… :-p

Thanks to @tombarrett and @johnjohnston for making me aware of Posterous!

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4 quotations that will guide me next academic year

I love a good quotation. What I mean by a good quotation is one that takes something you’ve been thinking about abstractly and would take you lots of words to express, and then says it in a very concise (often, pithy) way. I’ve a new role as of next academic year, starting in September. Alongside a 50% timetable, I’ll be E-Learning Staff Tutor. It’ll not be easy!

1. “It’s hard not to act like a caveman when you’re living in a cave.” (paraphrased from John O’Farrell‘s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain)

I’ve got to recognise that not everyone lives in the extremely connected world I and my peers inhabit. There’s staff at my school who don’t have broadband at home ‘because I don’t use the Internet that much’, have had the same mobile phone (if they own one at all) for about 8 years, and who only use an interactive whiteboard if and when they are observed. I think my first task will be to lure them out of the cave. It may be safe and offer shelter, but there’s no sabre-toothed tigers out there anymore… 😉

2. “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” (Chinese proverb)

I came across this marvellous proverb thanks to Dave Stacey in his helpful post Write Doug a job description! In terms of my role next year, focusing on the task at hand could prove rather difficult. I can see so much that needs to be done! So long as I know where I’d like the school to be in 3 years’ time, I can start thinking about the baby steps to get us there. And I’ve got the power of the network™ behind me! :-p

3. The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. (Marcus Aurelius)

I’m going to have to accept the fact that I may not be the most popular person in the world next year. It’s a bit like when you become a teacher and initially you want all the students to like you. Then you realise that you’re not there to be liked – that’s just a bonus. You’re there to help them learn things. It’s going to be the same with my E-Learning Tutor role. So long as I ‘keep it real’ and don’t just try to please everybody, I’ll be OK. 🙂

4. “I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself.” (Michel De Montaigne)

At the end of the day, and as I have said many times before, I came into the teaching profession to change the experience of school for students. I know my principles and I know when I’m letting myself down. There’s a lot of jargon and extraneous stuff in the world of education that I haven’t got to get bogged down with. Whilst I need to move people on within the school, it hasn’t got to be at the expense of my core beliefs and values. 😀

What about you? What quotations guide and inspire you? What are you aiming for next academic year?

*If you haven’t read O’Farrell’s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Montaigne’s Essays, I urge you to!

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3 reasons I returned my iPhone 3G

A couple of days ago I bought an iPhone 3G. Today I returned it. Although it’s an amazing device and revolutionary, it didn’t really suit me. My Nokia N95 is pretty much exactly what I want at the moment – it’s like comparing a quality family car like our Ford Focus C-MAX with a supercar such as the Koenigsegg CCX:

Whilst it’s great looking at and borrowing someone elses supercar, you wouldn’t want to go to Tesco’s in it, would you? It would be impractical. And so the iPhone proves to be. Here’s the 3 main reasons why I returned the iPhone 3G:

1. It’s difficult to text

With the N95, as with most mobile phones, it’s possible to compose and send text messages with one hand. It’s not straightforward to text on the iPhone – it requires two hands and is fiddly to enter characters using the QWERTY keyboard.

2. Hannah wasn’t happy

Although if I’d really liked it this wouldn’t have been an issue, my wife didn’t like the fact I’d taken out a contract with 02 when I’ve still got a few months remaining on my Orange contract. We get free broadband and VOIP calls with the latter contract, you see… :-p

3. It’s painfully proprietary

Although you can jailbreak it and there are workaround to create your own ringtones on the iPhone, it’s not always straightforward. It makes you feel like you’re using someone else’s device rather than your own. It’s kind of the same reason I bought and then returned a Nintendo Wii earlier this year.

What I’d like to see is a touchscreen tablet, slightly larger than the iPhone, that can connect both to wireless networks and to mobile broadband via HSDPA. I’d carry that around in addition to my N95 (or equivalent). Either that, or something that has a touchscreen and a keyboard… 😀


My life in the next couple of weeks…

It may be the summer holidays, but I’m busier than ever! After meeting my new thesis supervisor yesterday, I need to get cracking investigating the concept of ‘digital literacy’. I’ve also got an impending deadline for the work I’m doing with Nick Dennis for a publishing company. Not to mention the list Hannah left me when she went down to Devon with Ben to give me some time and space… 😉

Thanks to @langwitches for linking to the image!

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