The Four Winged Dinosaur

I have always been fascinated by dinosaurs. In fact I am one of millions who has. Somehow they have captured our imaginations. I used to say in the days when I taught in a “topic based” system that there were two certain topics that would be bound to capture the imaginations of the children… one was dinosaurs and the other was volcanoes.

But the days of making topic books and creating wonderful “topic webs” passed, as indeed did the age of the dinosaurs. Here in Britain we had QCA (The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) proscribe what our children had to learn in technology, in science, in history and dinosaurs had disappeared.

A few days ago I received a Tweet with a link to something called “The Four Winged Dinosaur”. The very idea of a dinosaur with four wings really appealed to my imagination and so I followed the link.

The video above was a PBS production and I have to say that I found it fascinating. It explored the evidence of the find of a fossil of a four-winged ancient animal in China. Was this a dinosaur? How did it fly? Or was it a relative of the dinosaurs closer to the modern day crocodile?

We knew it had feathers as these were very clearly seen on the fossilised remains. The programme showed us a number of learned paleontologists arguing about their theories of what kind of animal this was and how it flew. Eventually they used one of the world’s leading wind tunnels to test the aerodynamics of four-winged flight.

As the programme continued I could see just how much learning could come from it. There was biology, physics, computer science, mathematics, design… all of these subjects inter-related and made real from being part of a fascinating investigation. There was collaboration by the scientists as well as argument that showed that there is often no definitive answer to what something is or how it works.

I would guarantee that children of all ages would get a lot from looking at the programme. I would not test them on what it found out… or who were the Professors involved. I would let them write, or draw or discuss and maybe investigate or research because there are so many possibilities that come from this  brilliantly filmed programme.

This shows the strength of real Project Based learning. It should come from the interests of the children and I can assure you that if they are really interested they will learn… and there is nothing quite as interesting to us humans as dinosaurs.

I will leave you with one fascinating idea that came from the programme..almost as a throw-away line. Did Tyrannosaurus Rex have feathers? Now there’s a concept to get the mental faculties working overtime!

Rachel Boyd: Leading the Way

As I have said on quite a few occasions it is Twitter that remains my most important source of information and contacts. A couple of days ago I found out that I had a new follower.

I always follow up my followers to see what they do and often I click on their linked website which can be a great source of information.

My new “friend”  was Rachel Boyd a Year 2 teacher from  Nelson, New Zealand. I followed the link on her website and came to this website: http://www.rachelboyd.com/

I clicked on the link and found myself immersed for the next hour or so in the world of an exemplary 21st century teacher  leader and her wonderful class of Year 2 children (aged 6 to 7) from Room 4 in  Waiuku Primary near Auckland, New Zealand.

I could go on and on about the excitement I felt in looking through this Wiki. As an e-portfolio of how to work creatively with children allowing them to learn using 21st century technology  it is simply outstanding.

Rachel has shown that you can work using the tools of the 21st century to allow children to really enhance their learning. She has not  kept her inspirational classroom to herself but has become a leader for technology in schools both in New Zealand and internationally, attending conferences and conducting CPD.

She has really led the way in showing just how much her young students are capable of doing if they are given the opportunity to use the technology. It made me think of just how much other children in primary classrooms throughout the world can be doing (and sharing and communicating) who will be returning to their schools for the new school year and will not have a fraction of the opportunities or excitement for learning that Rachel’s very fortunate children have.

I recently wrote a post about “How Not To Use Computers In Schools” : http://malbell.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/how-not-to-use-computers-in-schools/

In Rachel’s case we see a brilliant example of just how to use them. I feel that teachers would benefit from seeing her work online (there are some excellent videos showing the children’s work) and also using the links to other sources of information (I have been researching these for nearly two days now!)

One area where Rachel is really leading the way is in her use of class blogs. Her children run their own blogs and read other children’s work from all over the world. A really useful introduction to and an example of Room 4′s work can be see at http://www.youtube.com/user/byrachelboyd#p/a/u/1/whm3pxqkvB8

Another great example of her work can be seen in her class blog.. the latest entry contained the following information:

Today we visited a NASA website, it said that they were sending a new rover to Mars next year.

It is taking with it a special microchip with our names on it!

We went onto this website and filled out the form all by ourselves. Then it gave us a special number and made us a certificate of participation saying we were part of history!

We printed our certificates to take home. If you would like your name to go to Mars you can visit the same NASA website we went to here:
http://marsparticipate.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/participate/sendyourname/

Rachel had her certificate of participation from NASA on the blog:

As I think you can see from above..we have here an extraordinary 21st century teacher leader and I feel that we can all learn from her example.

I have a dream for education

47 Years ago today (28th August 1963) The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King made his famous and wonderful speech “I Have A Dream”  in Washington D.C. at a huge Civil Rights gathering.
I have always loved that speech and wondered if it could somehow act as a stimulus for children to express in writing their own dreams for the world. I thought I would start with myself and have penned the following lines about my dream for education in the future.
Maybe some of you might try this with your students on Monday… we should collect the results together in a massive e-folder for all the world to see!!

I have a dream
(with great respect and appreciation to the memory of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King  Jnr.,)

I have a dream today
I dream that schools will be about learning and not instruction
I dream of children able to follow their feelings and inclinations.. indeed their dreams
I dream of creativity in the classroom and collaboration
I dream about teachers and children learning together
I dream about the end of testing for the sake of testing
I dream about schools which do not divide by age, sex, class, creed, religion, sexual orientation  or skin colour
I dream of a school where children communicate with the world
I dream of all schools having equal access to resources
Equal chances for their children to become the people that they have the possibility to be
Of children who are happy and involved
Of an end to boredom and anger, frustration and despair
Of an end to children who see their education as a prison not a release for their minds and their potential
I have a dream that the kinds of things we expect for our children are considered the norm for all children throughout our world
And that the child who would have faced no school, or boredom and despair within his prison will be released to create the wonderful idea or invention that can help all of mankind
I have a dream today!

10 reasons we should allow mobile phones into schools

1. They are powerful tools
2. They are easy to use
3. The children do not need to be trained in their use they know it already…. they can show you!
4. They can be used for immediate access to information
5. If they take pictures or videos they can provide children with a means to get visual data immediately
6. They have a recording facility which will promote oracy in the classroom and can be used for podcasts or for incorporation into blogs
7. They have calculator facilities which will promote calculator use in investigation or just in ordinary day to day mathematics work
8. They have a messaging facility which comes in handy for communication  (in a disciplined way within the school day).
9. They have really good organisers that can provide information about dates, events and as reminders of when assignments, homework or coursework needs to be handed in and is a good life skill for the children to practise and learn to use effectively.
10. Media can be saved and used in groupwork (videos, music tracks)

These are just some of the things that most mobile phones can do today. If you look at the power of the iphone or the Android phones with their amazing Apps then you can extend this list almost endlessly.
I know there will be arguments against their use… that they can lead to bullying, that the children will spend all their time texting or playing games. All I can say is that the school sets the groundrules and the majority of children will obey them. Some will lose their valuable phones and some will have them stolen… some will bully others but that cannot be used as an excuse to cut every child off from a powerful tool that can really add to their learning and change the way that their school lets them learn.

Some schools have already made the bold step of allowing the phones in. I think in ten years time we will look back and ask what all the fuss was about and why we had all the discussion about something that will really help our children learn better.

How not to use computers in schools

How Not to Use Computers to Teach Kids from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

In 2007 at a conference in Bratislava in Slovakia, Dr Brian Harvey made the presentation that you can access in the link above.

There has been quite a lot of discussion about this lately as there have been some who have stated that the examples given by Dr Harvey are atypical of what is going on in ICT in schools today but I have to admit that watching his presentation most of it resonated with me as the kind of thing that I see all too often in schools that I go into.

I have been saying for a long time that many schools play with the idea of Information and Communications Technology (which is after all what ICT stands for). Many schools have still got the eponymous computer suites where children are marched in to use computers on a timetabled basis maybe once or twice a week.

I see a lot of children still doing Powerpoint presentations that Dr Harvey quite rightly says are all about the presentation and the whizzy effects and little about the content.

The Google search still tends to be about the children taking the first two or three links and then cutting and pasting the information. It is laughable the examples of information that Dr Harvey says the children got hold of and the way that it can lead to real misinformation!

The communicative power of modern technology is hardly used in many schools. Yes you can tell me about the exception schools that communicate with the world or at least one partner school in Italy or maybe China but I see little of this actually going on.

I still se too much use of the computer for old fashioned rote exercises and in particular I am concerned about the use of computers for Special Needs children as a means to go over boring and repetitive exercises in the morning (I have actually witnessed this in a school that I have been working in this last academic year). The children looked heartily bored of doing yet another phonic or spelling exercise.

The strange thing is that these bored children probably have exciting games that they play at home and by Year 5 they are almost certainly on Facebook and maybe using Twitter.

I think that we must seriously examine the points that Dr Harvey makes and realise that we need to really make some progress in getting effective use of the existing ICT equipment in school. We do not need rote software, hours spent on presentations that mean nothing and computers used only a timetabled basis.

We must think about really getting schools to the point of using their equipment as effectively as I have seen it used (sadly only on video not in my local schools) in some outstanding and forward thinking schools.

Letter to America

Dear Citizens of America,

I have always followed your country’s fortunes with great interest. I used to sit in my dark bedroom and listen to the great British born journalist Alistair Cooke broadcasting his weekly “Letter From America” so I thought I would return the compliment in this blog posting.

I am a child of the postwar generation of Great Britain who grew up with “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and the wonderful “Bilko”. My family loved the Hollywood films and we were passionate Trekkies (Star Trek) and watched every episode many times over. I read Superman comics and chewed bubble gum. When I was seven years of age I became interested in politics for the first time and remember having a discussion in my primary school playground along the lines of “Kennedy or Nixon?”  Much to my later shame  I think I blurted out “Nixon”!

I have always had connections with the country in that my grandfather from the Ukraine joined his brother in coming to Britain whilst their youngest brother Max found his way to the “Golden Land” and eventually settled in Philadelphia P.A. (via New York City) where I still have a number of relatives. My father had family who settled in Chicago (all we knew was that one of them was shot in a raid in the days of Al Capone) and that his aunt Mamie came over for his wedding from Chicago and tried to take over the whole event and was never seen again! My uncle Jack (later called Joel) settled in San Jose California (Via Winnipeg Canada where he met his wife) and now lives in Las Vagas.

I read American literature as I was growing up (my favourite book of all time is “To Kill A Mockingbird”) and I followed the famous American playwrights like Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller and the wonderful Neil Simon. Like so many of my generation I became obsessed with the exploration of outer space and watched the Apollo flights up to and including the near disaster of Apollo 13 but have to be honest and admit (this is the first time I’ve done this publicly) that I actually went to bed on the famous night of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and missed the “One Small Step For Man….” speech by Neil Armstrong.

And yet I have never really  been there!  I have had “one small step” into Minnesota when visiting the Canadian/U.S. border whilst on holiday with my aunt in Winnipeg in 1972. Somehow I never got to see your huge and beautiful country. I have therefore been an observer from afar, as I still am. I have observed the violence of the sixties in protest to the war in Vietnam. I observed that decade as one that started in hope and then had J.F.K.’s assassination, followed by the assassinations of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and finished with the election of Richard Nixon. I have to admit that I somehow enjoyed the events of Watergate and the way that Nixon handled himself whilst in office (the expletive deleted will always be in my memory).

I did not really know a lot about your education system. I had of course heard about Harvard and Yale and knew that there was a number of great universities as well as some rather small and frankly poor colleges. I knew that there was a difference between your inner cities with their deprived communities and the suburbs who were far better off. I had seen films like “The Concrete Jungle” and knew that there were a number of brave teachers who spent their lives trying to teach disaffected children many of them from black and Latino families.

But I also knew that you were a country that had always taken a lead in science and technology. I remember phoning my wife’s cousin in Portland Oregon well over ten years ago and being amazed when he set up a three way conversation between us and also his mother who was living in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. always seemed to be light years ahead of us here in Britain. I just came to the opinion that whatever happened in terms of technological change would be led by the U.S. and that we’d get it here eventually.

I got into computers when they arrived and noticed that, although Tim Berners Lee was a fellow Brit, it was the U.S. that was making all the running in terms of the internet and its development. Apple and Microsoft became household words for us in Britain. Silicon Valley seemed to be the place where there was a hive of “geeks” who were inventing the future. Yours was truly a country of innovation and enterprise.

Your school system though did not really reflect this powerful enterprise and innovation. It was only recently when I have used the power of the internet and in particular social networking to make contacts with many American educators that I have begun to get a picture of your education system that is not a good one to the outside observer like me.

I have heard about “No Child Left Behind” which sounds wonderful, except that it seems to be producing exactly the opposite in terms of children from the inner cities’ life chances. I follow people like Diane Ravitch saying that the testing to destruction of your children is wrong. I hear about the teachers who are about to be fired because the state has no money and that the rest of the workforce has to watch their backs and produce “good results” if they are to keep their jobs!

There is though another side to all of this. There are your brilliant educators who I speak to all the time. There are shining examples of brilliant schools who are trying to push education in the direction that it needs to go to make it move into the 21st century. I am a supporter of a wonderful school in Iowa called Van Meter where visionary educators are introducing 1 to 1 laptops for every pupil and experimenting with virtual reality education as well as exploring social media and international communication.

I wonder therefore why I continue to read about the pressure that your President and Secretary of Education are putting on my colleagues in many of your schools. You have the technology (you mostly developed it!) you have the means and the leaders to develop your education system into one that will guide the rest of the world into the possibilities of a real 21st century education. I believe that you will help yourselves greatly if you follow these wonderful leaders and innovators and turn away from the path that you are presently taking… for the sake of your children and your future that we in Britain realise effects our future as well.

signed, in friendship and hope,

Malcolm Bellamy

My transformative moment in teaching

I have just come across an excellent series of videos where leading educators discuss the moments that transformed their teaching lives.This can be found at http://www.thedailyriff.com/2010/08/critical-transformations.php

The videos are touching, interesting and show reflective practitioners letting us in on the moments in their career that really made a difference to the way that they saw themselves as a teacher. I think that this would be a really good exercise for any of us to indulge in and therefore decided to add my own (although without the video accompaniment!).

I think that my transformative moment was when I was teaching the dreaded subject of fractions to my Year 6 (Grade 5) pupils in the Primary (Elementary) school that I taught in at the time. I thought I was a progressive sort of teacher and had tried my best to go through the usual textbook examples of how to get children to understand fractions. We had divided pieces of paper and I went through the mantra of “whatever you do to the top you do the bottom of the fraction”. The children smiled back at me and they tried their best.. until I decided to see the ones who couldn’t “get it” on a one-to-one basis (this was me being very progressive and understanding the child and trying to have a personal connection to them and explain it all so that they would certainly get it now.)

One of the people I saw was a girl who I will call Sarah (not her real name). She seemed somewhat nervous coming up to see me at my large teacher’s desk. She showed me her book with every fraction “sum” done wrong. I was just about to do my progressive 1 to 1 with her when she suddenly burst into tears and sobbed to me “I just don’t get it”.

This too me aback. I could see the power that we teachers have in these children’s lives and the way that we can make them feel inadequate and frankly stupid. I had not realised that I was contributing to this child’s negative mindset about her abilities in mathematics. It was after this that I decided that I needed to promote a positive self-image in the children I taught and that I was not here to make them cry or make them feel bad about themselves but to encourage them to learn in whatever way was best for them.

I am now a consultant in primary mathematics and have tried to pass on the ideas that we are not here to drill in techniques to my fellow teachers.We are about the promotion of learning and that means starting from the point of making children enjoy mathematics and understand its power to help them in their lives.

I wonder what your transformative moment was? I would be interested to read your comments.

In your element

I have been a supporter of Sir Ken Robinson and his ideas ever since I saw his seminal TED Talk of 2006 (for a full introduction to the man and his ideas see his excellent new website: http://sirkenrobinson.com/).

In the book “The Element” he talks about the way that we each have within us the thing  that represents  the “real you”. This thing is so much a part of you that if you are consumed with doing it for a living for example work will not feel like work at all.

He tells the stories of the rich and famous as well as the not so rich who have “discovered their element”. Sometimes it is very moving to read the words in his book and realise that these people have achieved something very important in life… the ability to do what their “inner self” (soul?) is telling them they should do. My favourite story from his book is about the fireman who as a child always wanted to be a fireman and had a teacher who decried this ambition. Years later that self same teacher was in a motor accident and his life was saved by the young man who had indeed become the fireman he had always wanted to be (who also saved the teacher’s wife as well).

A couple of days ago the Advanced (A)  Level results were published here in the U.K. My seventeen year old niece received her results and they were not good. Her parents were understandably upset as they had harboured ideas of their child following so many others into higher education. My niece though had other ideas.

My wife had sent her a text stating that whatever the situation we still loved her and hoped for her only the best. She replied by saying that we should not worry, that she had definite plans. She has always loved dress designing and making. Her mother paid one thousand pounds last year for an advanced sewing machine. She had made a stunning “Prom Dress” for her end of year dance that was the envy of many of her fellow students and was well thought of by her teachers.

She replied to us that she had decided that she was going to go into her own business that she would design her own dresses and make them. She knew what she wanted to do and she was not at all thrown by her lack of academic success.

I was elated by her reply. Here was an example in my own life of what Sir Ken had been saying in his book. Here was someone who knew what she wanted to do and she felt no fear in attempting to go out into the big wide world and try and design her dresses and then sell them. Maybe she will not succeed but that is not the point. She is doing what she is good at and what is her element. She will enjoy what she does, it will not really feel like work to her and who knows she may well be the most successful student in her current year group at school!

I compared her experience to my own when I was discussing events with my wife. I had also come up against the dreaded brick wall of examination failure at the age of eighteen. Unlike my niece I had been groomed to be an academic success and go on to higher education. I had “failed” and now I was stuck with what to do next. I had no real idea about what my element was. I had not been given the chance to explore anything other than a narrow range of academic study whilst at my Grammar School. I had loved writing as a hobby whilst in my teenage years but had been dissuaded from attempting to make a career from writing as “there are too many failed writers out there” (to quote my father when we had discussed this when I was about fifteen).

I therefore reached a similar point in my life as my niece has just reached but I was lost. I did not know what to do and did not have the same kind of conviction that she has that, make or break, it is worth doing. I had not realised what my element was and I took a similar path to many people in retaking my exams, passing them and then going on to university.

Sir Ken says there are many people now and in the past who could greatly contribute to our economies and indeed to our culture but never get the chance. This is why I am so proud of my niece and why I think that the book, “The Element” is one of the most important books that has come out in the field of education and human endeavour in the past few years. If you haven’t read it I would urge you to…as Sir Ken says, it might just change your life or the life of someone who you care about.

Real writing: blogging is the answer

I love blogging. It gives me the chance to write. I have always loved writing and at one time fondly believed that I would become a well known writer and add to the world’s list of great writers!

Alas this was not to be and I have spent my life in contemplation of what might have been. I have been a journeyman teacher in my obscure corner of the world teaching children the joys of literature and the joy of writing. I have found myself bogged down in this pursuit because of the way that I was supposed to teach the art.

The “Literacy Hour” produced writing as a mechanical exercise. I taught children to make a brave start to their writing, explaining what they were going to write about. They then had to develop the  piece by making sure that they developed their characterisation, used their extended language and remembered to use full stops, commas and if they could, paragraphs.

We had to explore something called “genres” which meant that children wrote reports, looked at direct and indirect speech, spent ages on persuasive writing to make sure that their “audience” was moved to act upon the power of their words. We covered playwriting and poetry.

The only problem with all this was that the children rarely got the chance to complete their writing. They learnt to do a good beginning, or development (don’t forget to use the extended language!!) and then there was the ending where they had to sum everything up.. if writing a story they had to make sure they had a snappy or surprise ending.

Did this allow them to express themselves on what they wanted to write? No.. it taught them writing as a mechanical exercise. Writing becomes a chore and doesn’t really have the excitement that I am feeling now in being able to use the ability that I have with the manipulation of words to create some thing that has a finished effect that I want to produce.

My blog is about the things that I meant to write about and it gives me the ability to express myself in a way that I personally find satisfying. I do not understand those teachers who find the idea of giving children the chance to have a blog as some sort of threat to standards. It is real writing about things they want to write. It allows them to use writing as a tool to express themselves rather than as a mechanical learning of processes.

I  have personally benefitted greatly from starting as blog…. think about how this media can help our children to really develop their writing.

Brian Crosby: an outstanding 21st century teacher

I can recommend this video for all teachers who say that new technology is just a fad and that it costs so much and doesn’t really add to the education of children. Apart from the fact that the internet provides us with the a mega-library of information that grows every day it is also the communicative power of technology that really makes a difference. In this film a brilliant teacher, Brian Crosby who has taught upper elementary children for 29 years, shows how he uses technology to enrich and enliven the real learning of his class.

This deserves a really wide audience..it has so much in it  like the hot air balloon video and the way he linked the experiments to empathic writing for the children.. many of whom are on the poverty line and have English as a second language!

He speaks with the passion that many of us feel about the potential of technology to really effect the lives and the futures of the children who are lucky enough to be in his class. Perhaps the most moving thing in the talk was the way that he incorporated a child who would otherwise have been home educated because of having life threatening leukemia but who became a full member of the class by the use of technology.

If you get the time  please watch this talk… it really does deserve to be seen by as many people as possible and, in my opinion, Brian Crosby deserves some sort of award as a truly outstanding practitioner!

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