Why Creative Commons?

I recently tweeted about the copyright rules for a resources site which charges for membership.

I’d like to take this chance to clarify – as I already have done to several of the editors of the site – that this was not intended as a specific criticism of them, but of the industry standard which makes distributing, sharing and finding resources so difficult. I’ve blogged about this before, but this seems like a good opportunity to explain how I aim to get my resources ‘out there’ using Creative Commons Licences, and to share a possible future approach – albeit a utopian one.

EDIT: I’ve swapped a couple of very good-natured emails with people at the site, and promised I’d add a couple more facts. Firstly pdf versions of resources, where relevant, are free to all users after registration. It’s only for interactive or editable versions that a paid membership (individual or school) is needed. Royalties are paid based on number of resources, not popularity, with the remainder of income going to pay for the editing and curation costs associated. An exclusive licence is needed (ie you can’t upload your material if it’s on any other site), and it still means searching is done within a walled garden.

(I’d also like to make it clear that I don’t make a financial profit from this site. It’s a fairly cheap hobby in terms of cash, but not in time. If anyone wants to say thank you, they can buy me a coffee, or I can put a link to an Amazon wishlist if you’re feeling generous.)

CC-BY-NC-SA

You may have seen the above letters on my resources, or the logo which does the same job. If so I’ve tried to make sure there’s a link back to the human-readable explanation of the full legal licence. Basically, it means you’re welcome – indeed invited! – to use my resources, as they are or after editing (CC), as long as you don’t make a profit out of it (NC). That’s a bit of a grey area, as teachers technically get paid to teach, but I think most people would understand that if you changed a few words and sold it on, I’d be annoyed. You’re also supposed to credit me (BY), simply by including the links I build in is fine, and if you make something share it (SA) with the same kind of licence, or at least expectation.

cc-by-nc-sa

It’s a legal statement and, I suppose, a philosophical viewpoint. I like sharing. I’m in the process of going through all my resources, adding the code where needed, and trying to make sure I’ve not accidentally used images that aren’t CC-registered. From a community-spirited point of view, I’d like to think people are using my resources to make their teaching lives easier. And selfishly, it gives me a huge ego-boost when I find out someone is. 🙂

Utopia

Loads of teachers share loads of resources, often without expecting anything back. (Although comments are appreciated, I promise.) The following is recycled from a proposal I put together a while back. It wasn’t picked up, but I still think the idea has some potential. It certainly explains why I think sites like TeachIt Science are perhaps not as useful as they could be, in an ideal world.

There are some fantastic materials – worksheets, videos, presentations, activities of all kinds – available on the web, much of it free. TES and the more recent GuardianTeachers site work in effectively the same way, although much of the material is produced by individual teachers. There are many others, but each works as its own walled garden. Current sites use one of two business models; paid membership, or based around the advertising revenue, which in turn depends on the number of people visiting the site. Either way, the problem isn’t a lack of resources. It’s finding what already exists.

At the moment, if a teacher is to find what they are looking for (or more importantly, what they weren’t looking for but would be really useful) they have to trawl an awful lot of sites. The biggest issue is that each time a new resource site is set up it tries to replace what already exists. As is often the case, XKCD has something useful to say:

xkcd-standards

For producers of content – in many cases working teachers – it means yet another place to upload our material. There is a fairly limited market (although I suppose the percentage of teachers looking online for resources is increasing) so the sites are competing for a fairly static number of
‘customers’. Why should we as teachers take time uploading our resources to commercial sites, which then make a profit from what we have done?

Teachers don’t just need a library; they need a catalogue.

An associated issue, and very noticeable with some of the sites, is that the balance between crowdsourcing and curation isn’t right. Some accept everything and curation only happens by looking at popularity scores. Others commission a small amount of material which they check rigorously and end up being a very niche operation, because the costs of this are unavoidable. For consumers, it takes so long to look in all the possible places that they end up spending as much time as it would have taken to create their own. The web is about sharing ideas, not restricting resources to one group, even if it is free to access.

Commercial sites such as the TES don’t want to routinely send users to their competitors. Google can’t usefully find this sort of content quickly as professional judgement is needed to assess quality. To be effective, a directory needs to reference a wide range of content, use good keywords so it’s searchable (by type of resource, age group, qualification etc), and be graded usefully by quality – not just by users’ star ratings. Fortunately, crowdsourcing and curation could be applied in a much more effective way so teachers can peer review each other’s work.

Crowdsourcing:

  1. Produce a checklist to describe and assess teaching resources. Part of this would be defined fields based on obvious criteria (type of resource, age group etc). Make this checklist – effectively a ‘markscheme’ – public, and adjust it based on comments from the eventual users.
  2. Issue an open invitation for submission of URLs to a GoogleDocs form. Each submission would require relevant keywords from set fields to describe the resource. For example an exam checklist might be tagged with 14-16, AQA, Physics, exams, pdf, CC-BY-NC-SA etc.
  3. Set a deadline, either in time or when a certain number of submissions have been received, and publicise the project as widely as possible.

Curation:

  1. Find a half-dozen subject specialist teachers who are happy to spend a weekend together. Pay them overtime. Provide accommodation and food. Lock them in a meeting room with good ‘net access and lots of coffee. Have a computer technician who can troubleshoot as they review every link, scoring them according to the agreed criteria.
  2. Moderate a random sample of each teacher’s reviews. Ask them to suggest any useful changes to the checklist/markscheme. Every rating is based on teacher judgement.
  3. If you can convince a national teaching body to fund it, make the directory free to all users. The cost would be tiny compared to many projects with less impact. If not, cover the costs with a small fee for access to the directory. I’d happily pay a few quid a year if I knew it would save me time – one login, then all the resources linked (not hosted) from one place. I wonder how many teachers woud feel the same?

This is a high impact approach with a minimal cost.

By balancing crowdsourcing (where individual teachers do a small amount of work by submitting a favourite resource) and curation (where the time commitment means it needs to be paid properly) the strengths of both are acknowledged. The process is focussed on teachers using their professional judgement and being rewarded for it, not consultants who no longer use the resources in a classroom. Teachers would feel ownership in the process and so get more out of the product.

If, of course, it ever happens. Consider this idea to be simple Creative Commons – CC-BY – do what you want. Please. I’d love to see this happen.

Advertisements

Jobs For The Summer

New planner? Check. New timetable? Check. New class lists? Well, depends on how well organised your school is. Pile of coursework to mark? Probably. Schemes of work to tweak ready for September? Probably.

Now think carefully about this one. Have you got the important jobs sorted out?

Yes, I know those jobs are important. Like you, I spend a day during the summer gettting into my September mindset; filling in my first fortnight’s timetable, making sure I’ve identified top end and struggling students, rearranging seating plans. This year life will be much easier as I’ve evolved my electronic markbook (Excel, if you care) into something more fit for purpose. Mainly by eliminating the mistakes I made this year. But there are things that are more important, parts of the bigger picture which you should be thinking about too.

Assuming you know what you’re teaching in the new term, could you find the resources and links for one outstanding lesson for each group in that first fortnight? Use some of your gained time in these last few days to try out a new practical. Save the video files to your ‘September’ folder. Turn the questions into a gameshow format. It doesn’t matter what – just be ready to enjoy that moment when a new class is in the palm of your hand, hanging on your every word.

Do you have your summer reading ready? Each year I invest in a couple of interesting-looking education books – this is as well as the popular science I consume on a more regular basis. Right now I’ve got Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey, bought through the Book Barge; I’d like to see about applying the GRR model to practical skills in my lab. I’ve also downloaded the Perfect Ofsted English Lesson to my Android, and plan to blog about my reflections on David’s ideas and how they relate to Science lessons. Alternatively, you might like to put a few relevant research papers to one side. Or does your school have a professional development bookshelf? If not, why not?

Of course, a great way to find things to reflect on is to do something teaching-related. I’m attending an AQA stakeholder meeting in July and the #YorkTU in late August. Between them – the arguments at the first and the presentations at the second – I’m sure I will find new things to mess around with. Like the books, this sort of thing costs money. Think of it as investing in your own development, more to add to your CV as well as helping you do your current job better.

Have you identified your areas for development for the next year? How well these match up to your official performance targets will depend on your setting, but it would be good to choose things that you want to change. Pair up with a colleague and agree that you’ll informally observe each other, swap ideas and prompt each other during thr rough patches. Maybe you want to work on questioning techniques, or find ways to improve the quality of your feedback to students without tripling your workload. Write a list in next year’s planner and spend some time coming up with approaches. Change/Observe/Reflect can be the start of an action research cycle if you want to think of it that way.

What’s wasted time over the past year? What problem do you wish you could solve? For me it’s coming up with good starters; the ideas are interesting and get kids engaged, but there’s no enough variety of method. So my project is to produce three ‘starter schemes’ in powerpoint. This doesn’t mean all whiteboard activities, but that the instructions or prompts will be there ready for me and my students. I want to get a few ready for each topic now, and by the end of the year I’ll have varied, challenging, interesting activities organised into KS3 Biology, Chemistry and Physics. My plan is to put them on Google Docs too, perhaps so online colleagues can help put them together. (Yes, I’m lazy.)

It’s always really tempting to take time off completely. Time with kids, family holidays, a respite from marking all mean that it’s understandable. But like we tell the kids, a small amount of preparation can go a long way. I don’t expect to manage all the things on my ‘to do’ list. But anything I do manage will make my job better in September, and make me better at my job.

Not bad for a holiday.

Guest Post: An EM Circus

(This post was generously contributed by @MissMolecules, a science teacher in Yorkshire.)

When @teachingofsci asked me to do a guest post, my initial reaction was panic. I’m not a blogger, I’m sure no one would have the slightest interest in my inane ramblings. I am a teacher however, and with Biology being my specialism, teaching Physics takes me way out of my comfort zone. The days of having the luxury of only teaching to your specialism are gone and in order to be an effective educator it is important that science teachers are able to teach physics, chemistry and biology up to GCSE level.  It is not my intention to be controversial, and I’m not so conceited as to believe that Science can simply be categorised into the three main disciplines but we are working in a time when there is a shortage of science teachers, Physics teachers in particular. I work in a very large 11-16 secondary school with a Science department consisting of 15 very skilled members of staff. Out of those 15 we have 1 Physicist, so due to circumstances, staff are expected to be competent at delivering all three Sciences up to KS4.

I teach a challenging BTec group, they require plenty of activities and stimulation in order to be engaged in lessons. The topic we were looking at was the Electromagnetic Spectrum and I was struggling for inspiration. After a chat with @teachingofsci, he suggested a circus of activities with an activity corresponding to each part of the EM spectrum.

This is the teachers’ guide to the activities that I put together after perusing TES resources and looking through various textbooks. Our wonderful technicians used this guide in order to put the circus together for me. (EMcircus_teacher as a pdf)

Each activity was numbered and had a student instruction sheet with it; I also gave students a copy of all the instructions that they could keep in their portfolio to help with writing up the task. (EMcircus_student as a pdf)

I provided students with a very simple grid to record their results on; I found it helped them to stay organised. (EMcircus_ws as a pdf)

I decided not to teach the Electromagnetic spectrum prior to this lesson. I wanted students to work at each station, investigate, discuss and think about what they saw, and then start piecing the spectrum together for themselves.

The students responded well to the practical session; they enjoyed the activities and were asking a lot of questions.  I staggered the stations that students started working at, but the practicals were numbered. This helped students organise their results at the end of the session and in the follow-up lessons. I had TA support and between us we spent a lot of time talking to students, asking them questions and encouraging them to think about what they were observing and what their results could tell them. An interesting point that came from discussion with the students was that a large number of them did not realise that tinfoil is actually a metal; they also had no idea where the metal comes from. This is a nice example of why dialogue with students is so important; often, a throwaway comment can lead to a whole lesson or series of lessons on a related (or even unrelated) topic. If students show an interest in something, it’s nice to capitalise on that curiosity.

In the follow-up lesson, students wrote up their results and completed the student worksheets. When writing up, I encouraged students to think about the effect of each type of EM radiation as it links well to applications. Students then organised their results using the number assigned to each activity. I gave pairs of students a large piece of A2 sugar paper and, using post-it notes to represent each activity, they started to construct their own models of the EM spectrum. This model was then refined until students had produced a poster representing the EM spectrum. Students added pictures and additional information corresponding to the appropriate place on the spectrum.

The EM circus lesson can be differentiated either up or down and adapted for a range of abilities and student needs. One of the main things I took away from the session, from a teacher’s perspective, was that with seven distinct activities the lesson needed a fairly lengthy introduction. These students needed the information but higher ability students may not need so much initial instruction. I was conscious that I wanted students do be ‘doing’ something as soon as possible, rather than just listen to me.

It just happened that this lesson turned out to be observed. It was noted that students were engaged, motivated and asking questions. No mean feat with the group it was delivered to I can assure you! I was really pleased with how the students responded to the lesson and I will certainly be using the format again. Any comments, suggestions of improvements or adaptations are very welcome.

#SciTeachJC: Subject Knowledge

The paper for Week 9 of SciTeachJC was Johannes Met­zler and Ludger Woess­mann “The Impact of Teacher Sub­ject Knowl­edge on Stu­dent Achievement: Evi­dence from Within-Teacher Within-Student Vari­a­tion” IZA Dis­cus­sion Paper Num­ber 4999 (2010) (.PDF link)

The main conclusions of the paper were that higher teacher expertise in their subject resulted in a higher level of achievement for their students at primary level. There was an effort to account for confounding factors, partly because the same teacher taught both maths and reading to the student tested. This provides an immediate limitation as far as secondary teaching is concerned, as it might be reasonably suggested that there is a bigger overlap in knowledge between any two science specialists than between, for example, science and language specialists.

Perhaps predictably, the discussion had two main themes; the need for an ‘appropriate’ level of subject knowledge, and how pedagogy also has a huge impact on a  teacher’s effectiveness. To place this in context, @declanf and others suggested that 0.1 standard deviation is a small improvement compared to other factors.

@uncletungsten: I say that 0.1 sd advtg. is next to nothing. Even when 1 sd of subject knowledge could mean 3-5 years of subject specialization.

It was suggested that there is a balance between specialist knowledge – giving a teacher confidence to teach effectively – and having recently struggled, thereby having empathy for a students’ likely problems. @morphosaurus was one of several participants who felt that as a non-specialist, she taught some areas of the specification better than those who had studied it in more detail. How much of this is due to enthusiasm, and how much to better pedagogy, is of course hard to measure. I wonder if colleagues are more likely to use innovative methods with content they are experienced with, or with more recently studied material? @Bio_Joe pointed out that being able to tell a student that yes, we struggled too is very powerful.

@Arakwai: I agree! Gives the teacher a better appreciation & understanding of misconceptions & difficulties students may have.

We agreed that expertise and enthusiasm would often be strongly correlated, and that as long as correct information is taught, that personal interest is often what enthuses students. @Lethandrel and others agreed that a basic level of subject knowledge is necessary before someone can be considered a ‘specialist’. The issue here, as uual, is KS3. Should we be teaching within specialism there to improve confidence and avoid misconceptions?

@mariamush It’s my experience and knowledge beyond spec that enables me to teach Chem successfully, couldn’t offer the same in phys and bio

Most of us pointed out that with a limited amount of time and money, continuing subject knowledge development is possibly challenging. It is, hoever, necessary, when both scientific understanding (Higgs boson anyone?) and the greater emphasis on scientific method have changed since our original qualifications. We talked about how swapping ideas with colleagues, in and out of specialism, can be a big help. Book and documentary recommendations can keep the costs down.

@cardiffscience: Quite RT @teachitsobeing “one page ahead of the class”? Curriculum changes rapidly- anyone’s degree really embed HSW?

@teachingofsci: possibly – you don’t get much better than Jones, ridley, dawkins, @edyong209 and attenborough for evolution!

@RobertDavies2 so revision on top of planning, evaluation, reports, book marking… to name a few? #toomuch

This comes back to an important question; in most cases is there enough variation in teacher subject expertise for it to be worth worrying about? Yes, there will be variation – but cost (both financial and time) is high if effect is small. (@teachitso pointed out that Hattie puts subject matter knowledge 125th in his rank of effect sizes)  Who should pay these costs? Will Heads of Department consider it worthwhile (for general CPD rather than troubleshooting identified individuals) when there are courses on exam specifications?

@AnthHard: If the Sci Learning Centres put on some subject knowledge CPD, would there be much response?

@SciCommStudios:  one of my hats is Uni of Surrey Outreach – we are looking at putting on some Chem CPD…and have been wondering about interest

@Bio_Joe: If SK needs a top up I recommend the 7day free courses run by Goldsmiths (I did genetics one it’s amazing)

Worthwhile as these aims are – and I would comment now that we are considering the opinions of a self-selected group of teachers, not the profession as a whole – are we making the same mistake as Gove, Jamie Oliver and many others by focussing on subject knowledge when we should recognise that we are teachers first, and scientists second?

@danidelle23: i think we agree with each other to a point. knowing how to use your knowledge is probably the hardest part

@DrDav: Think knowing how to teach a topic can be more important that knowing the topic. How to identify and deal with misconcepts.

@morphosaurus defined pedagogy as “Ability to break down concepts for students to understand, and have resources that explained things well helped.” Having these resources to hand, and having needed to break a topic down, might explain why some of us felt that being a non-specialist was not necessarily a big disadvantage when working with younger or weaker students. Avoiding misconceptions is of course a major concern – you might reasonably equate this to the medical precept, “First, do no harm”

Our priority should perhaps be how to teach specialist knowledge, rather than having the knowledge ourselves. In the same way that teachers need to be able to model and teach thinking skills, we need to express ideas so that students can understand them. #asechat, subject specific teachmeets and similar ideas are perhaps a good way to share good ideas about what matters most.

In conclusion: we should neither over, nor underestimate the importance of a good level of subject knowledge. We’d like to see more research on the relative importance of truly specialist subject knowledge (degree level or higher, with continuing ‘refreshers’) in secondary education, compared to other factors.

Further reading

@alomshaha shared a link to a post TwentyFirstFloor blog on ‘what makes an expert teacher.

@Bio_Joe linked to an abstract of a 1998 paper that concluded subject knowledge is one of several factors.

@AnthHard recommended @teachitso’s summary on ‘who should teach’ considering Hattie & the Finland enigma.

From Good to Outstanding (#aseconf 1/3)

I managed to make it to the 2012 ASE Conference for just one day, the Saturday. My plan is to blog it in three chunks for the sessions I attended, in order. We’ll see how it goes. These will be edited versions of my Evernote summaries of the sessions and my commentary (in italics), although I’ll link to other resources I’ve since found that I think are relevant. Apologies if I mix up any names or misquote any of the people involved. I really enjoyed the sessions and the social side, but will cover this in more detail in the third post.
 
From Good to Outstanding (T124)
 
In theory the slides for this are on the ASE website. I can’t find them so I can’t link, even if they are available to nonmembers. Grr.
 
What does ‘outstanding’ look like?

OfSted have a video explaining what they are looking for.

  • Over time, look for evidence of themes not just snapshot
  • Main focus will be on checking amount of progress by students, a way to measure impact of teachers.
  • Data also checked, record sharing and tracking, pupil and parent discusions.
  • Minimum aim is ‘good’, not ‘satisfactory‘.

It’s really interesting that we start with how we will be judged – cf Robin Millar’s ‘backward design’ concept.

Nick O’Brian

  • An outstanding teacher covers all areas, one bit at a time.
  • This is (or should be) a corporate, not just an individual aim.
  • Can be easy to focus on one area, often linked to School Improvement Plan.
  • Being more rounded means supporting each other.
Best way to improve is to share outstanding practice in a department, tap into ‘local’ skills.
 
I’m looking forward to restarting lunchtime ‘skills’ sessions in my workplace. These run informally at lucnhtime, where a few peers meet (discreetly) to swap ideas and suggestions. the aim is to bring to each session one difficulty and one resource or approach to ‘show off’. 

From HOD’s point of view, improving results may be focus. In most useful cases (ie not exam ‘strategy’) this will be via improved teaching. A good way to help with this is to cross reference performance management targets. This allows a department to set up mentors/mentees, so everyone makes the most of each other’s strengths. This could also work online.

He recommends Pimp Your Lesson and Ginnis’ Teachers’ Toolkit. In his setting this has led to a ‘focus of the week’.
 
Link this with lunch sessions? It sounds like the aim is to get preproom as supportive as twitter – imagine if you could share the same enthusiasm in there as we see on #asechat or at #SciTeachJC.
 
If department time is not focussed on teaching and learning, bin it. Requires brave approach and sadly works best coming from the top down. I would love to think that this could realistically include exams.
 
Refer back to test scores, using them as formative assessment for you as well as students. If kids underachieve, reflect on this and seek advice from collagues whose students have done particularly well. What have they done differently to you?

Identify and tackle groups that are not achieving:

  1. Classroom intervention (over time)
  2. Set or group (sessions, etc)
  3. Back to individuals, but led by department
Open doors, learning walks should have a specific focus. They are not just for SMT!
 
After reflection, I’m now going to give this a try in combination with the ‘focus of the week’ idea, perhaps modified to a different idea every fortnight. Each time I’ll choose an aspect I want to work on and see if I can observe colleagues for this. We don’t do enough peer observation in my workplace but things will only change if I try things out myself; we are fairly conservative. It might work best if I observe first, then try out myself.
 
He talked about cards providing quick checks for reflecting on oneaspect of a lesson (we have equivalents for the students, L2L cards which they use to prompt contributions to a split plenary). Use paired observations, self-moderating:

  • What went well?
  • Even better if?
I really like this language and will start to use it with the students.
 
Only do things in lessons that will allow/encourage kids to progress.
Always ask yourself: How will Monday be different?
 
Laura Monroe

Explained KS3/4 in Northern Ireland. Sounds much more open than in England, although a few ‘must cover’ areas, eg careers.

  • Do they know about careers in science?
  • What surprises them?
  • Links to syllabus
  • Minimum qualifications
Have kids research for marketplace, then give indirect questions. For some it will be obvious who to ask, some more tricky. Each group gets different questions to avoid collaboration.

Emphasis on women in biology, displays in corridor, people with Nobel prizes, local, inc current/recent. Use key words so kids can link to own learning. Include staff at school, hope to add ex-pupils in future. Steal this idea!

Have kids research then sum up an assigned scientist in a tweet. Have kids set success criteria before doing homework. Alternatively write obituary. Anything like this (careers, literacy, online skills) ticks a lot of outstanding boxes, esp if you start with a hook demonstrating local/contemporary relevance.

Write CVs for anything that shows adaptation – organisms, cells, organelles (eg red/white blood cells) – then kids compete. Judged by peers who therefore need to know both sides. e.g. 8 students, 4 present CVs for white blood cells while other 4 (red blood cells) mark their information, then swap. Worth stealing – pass on to Biology colleagues, add to KS3/4 SOWs.

Essays – write a paragraph, then spend lesson improving with markschemes, glossaries, peer checking, then redraft at end. Very good way to show AfL, and progress in lesson, would work well for split plenary. This isn’t too different from what I do now but would be a good way to practice use of checklists.

Friday afternoon [Subject] Resource pack, fun but relevant AS/A2 packages with markschemes. £90 makes this a department not a personal purchase. Learning without realising it, is best way. Q&A cards can be created and used in a similar way. An online version is ‘Ript’, free software. I’ve found several things that could be this, but there are loads of online flashcard systems available.

Complete Q loops by discussion and make an actual physical loop – much more interactive, especially for the first time. If you use a stopwatch, you can challenge students to beat their previous time. Because they get different cards each time, they gain familiarity quickly.

James O’Neill

Hates paper based activities, but can be useful to boost kids, if you can stop all the cards getting lost.

National Strategies still very useful, but you’ll have to look for them in archives. Especially worth checking out the Ped-Pack. Unfortunately the original resources were all really badly organised; teachfind or similar is a good ‘doorway’. I’m not so sure about this but it could be my misbehaving computer/internet connection.

Tea stained paper and magnets practical shows the field. Can’t find a link to this at the moment.

Emphasize to students that when filling in APP sheet it will be hit and miss, each activity will have a level and will not always meet target over 2/3 years. Conditional formatting in excel can automate feedback by pinpointing themes.

Use of red/orange/green cards for immediate feedback – can assign kids as troubleshooters, go over, stop lesson.

Taboo and wordslap activities are quick and easy to use. Put together powerpoint?

“Who doesn’t know?” – if they stay quiet, they are accepting that they should have an answer.

Use Blooms for objectives in lessons, check out digital version which includes podcasting/tweeting etc.

Ideas I want to try out in the next week/fortnight

  • Linking a ‘focus of the fortnight’ with my own observations of colleagues and trying out one new approach at a time.
  • Having students write CVs – I’m going to try it for power stations (year 10 revision for exam)
  • “Who doesn’t know?” as a way to involve quieter kids.

Entering the Virtual Staffroom 2/2: Twitter

It was probably from Alom Shaha that I first ‘heard’ the term virtual staffroom to encompass the ways in which Twitter and blogging can help teachers improve their professional practice. I’m not the only person who likes the concept, and there’s some excellent discussion elsewhere about the benefits it can offer. I’ve mentioned some of these ideas in passing before, and I’m not going to try to tell you that you must blog about teaching, or why Twitter will change your (professional) life. But I’ve gained enough from both that I thought it was worth highlighting a few things.

Twitter

If you’re not already on Twitter, your impression of it may be that you have to spend your whole time reading every detail of Stephen Fry’s day. In fact, although I first got into it to let people know about this blog (blame Alom again) I now use it for all kinds of things. I’ve blogged about this before TK but in the context of professional practice it seemed worth revisiting.

I follow lots of teachers, both science specialists and those of other subjects. I follow lots of people involved in science or science communication. These people share ideas and links that I find useful at work – from discussions about the recent (possibly) FTL neutrinos story to classroom management strategies I hadn’t thought of. (I also follow some authors I like, a few media, some atheism/secular tweeters, altmed debunkers and a few random others, which are less useful professionally. Because I am a real person as well as a teacher, despite what my kids may think.)

I started off tweeting mainly work-related stuff, and I hope it still makes up a fair bit of my output. However, it’s a good way to share comments and links to media or websites that aren’t about (science) teaching, but are interesting – religion, liberty, politics often come into these tweets. Conversations about particular topics can get started, which is where Twitter can be a really useful CPD tool, just like teachers gossiping over a coffee about good practicals, ways to structure a lesson or the best ICT tool for a particular job. Using hashtags avoids half of your 140 characters being used with the twitter handles of the other people involved.

Of course, some hashtags are used for planned, organised and moderated conversations, rather than spontaneous chats. #ukedchat is a well-known example of this, although I don’t take part as often as I’d like. I’m more likely to find time for #asechat, the science-teacher-specific version (my summary here) or #SciTeachJC, focussed on discussing academic papers. These can be confusing and busy sessions, but they are certainly a good way to get you thinking about CPD.

So why not try it? Try tweeting each day about a lesson that’s gone particularly well or badly. Give a link to a resource – an iPlayer clip, a concept cartoon, a New Scientist article, an academic paper – that might be useful to colleagues (shortening with bit.ly or similar if needed). Start a hashtag for topics that others might be interested in. Follow people who have interesting things to say, and use their #ff tweets to build up your own ‘personal learning network‘. Twitter is about sharing, so share.

A cautious note to finish on – it’s very easy to forget that Twitter is an open forum. Unless protected, or sent as DMs (direct messages), anyone can read a tweet. They show up on search engines and may be taken out of context. Just as staffroom conversation can be negative and unhelpful – it’s easy for it to turn into a whingefest at the end of a long day, when you’ve really had enough – Twitter can seem like a good way to let it all out. That might be constructive, when colleagues or friends rally round to offer support and suggestions. But it can be easy for complaints or issues with political aspects, which don’t have a resolution, to get passed around and around.

Never tweet anything you would be worried about coming back to you in the staffroom, especially if you’re logged in under your real name. Be cautious about how you phrase criticisms, and never be insulting about pupils or mention anything that could identify them or their class. Remember that students or their parents could follow you, and you might find it useful to check how your school’s social media policy applies to Twitter. I choose to tweet pseudonymously, but I hope never unprofessionally.

As with my previous ‘virtual staffroom’ post, I recommend the relevant posts on the Creative Education blog. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts about uses of, or attitudes to, Twitter I’ve not mentioned.

Setting the Scene

The first lesson with a class is always a challenge. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, I think – you’re still aware of the need to make a good first impression. Because in many ways it’s the first few lessons – what Bill Rogers and others call the ‘establishment phase’ – that set the tone for the rest of your time together. I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to do too much in my first hour with a class is counter-productive. After swapping some ideas on twitter about what the first lesson should cover (although I’m sure there are many other suggestions out there) I wanted to blog my own routine. As tends to be the case, the summer has gotten away from me so I’m now doing this in a rush, but so it goes. Whether you already use some of these ideas, or think they’re crazy, I’d love to read some comments below.

Of course, in some schools (including my own) some classes will have a ‘pep talk’, perhaps including some statistics or previous rsults, to inspire the students to do well. How constructive you think this is will of course vary.

Introduction

Some students will know who I am, by reputation or by having been taught by me before. I still introduce myself and explain my specialism (Physics), and tell them that I’m looking forward to working with them over the next year.

Seating

I use a seating plan with my classes, which I aim to mix up fairly regularly. In practice it often takes a while, as it helps to provide some stability to start with – and makes learning names easier. I use targets and SEN info to help me plan the seating, so that I can readily assist (or have TAs within reach of) those students who are likely to need support. This will usually need modifying, as I find I’ve inadvertantly sat deadly enemies next to each other, or that I have an entire row of effectively silent students. But it’s a start.

Administration

There are some really boring jobs that still need to be done sooner rather than later – a bit of thought will help them to go more smoothly. Folders may need to be issued and names written on the front, perhaps textbooks (and the numbers collected in), dates of exams flagged up, targets issued and recorded. I try and use this time to pick up a few names, especially for those students at the top and bottom of the ability range. It’s also a chance to praise kids who can listen to the instructions (which ideally should be on the board/IWB as well), so setting a precedent. If you’re new to a school, ask someone who isn’t about tips and tricks for what matters most, where book numbers are recorded and so on. Trying to catch up at Christmas isn’t fun.

Routines

How you tell students about what is expected of them will vary between teachers and between schools. If there is a school code of conduct, it’s perhaps worth discussing how this will be applied in the science lab. I’ve posted before about how I try to negotiate the wording of the rules, so that students feel ‘ownership’. It’s important they understand that teachers as well as students are bound by the agreement. Some teachers will have students sign a copy for display; others will save an electronic version, and return to it from time to time. I find emphasizing that the lab is for learning, and asking students how we can make that happen, is a useful approach. Learn, Enjoy, Achieve are three separate aims that cover most of it, and students find it hard to object to these goals. Be prepared for questions from the students about consequences for those who don’t follow agreed rules, and be ready to emphasize that right now they all have the chance to leave bad habits behind them. I sometimes have them write out the agreed rules and underline the one they think they’ll have most trouble with themselves.

Trailer

If at all possible, you want there to be something in the lesson telling the kids what the subject is going to be like. This doesn’t necessarily mean a flashy demo – it’s a pain to set up and might set expectations a little high. Talking about what science is all about can be useful; I’ve emptied out my pockets on to the demo bench (a nice way to show you’re human, too) and talked about how the coming topics are applied. Credit cards (chips and magnetic strips), mobile phone (EM, materials, electricity), keys (metals, chemical reactions), karabiner keyring (forces), pocket torch (light, energy), chocolate bar (nutrition)… all kinds of possibilities.

This year I plan to use the “I know a place” speech by Phil Plaitt, who among other things writes the Bad Astronomy blog. If you’ve not read this before, I really think you should. I’m hoping that this will set the scene nicely for my students in terms of telling them what science is all about. Of course I’ll also tell them the topics for the next year, how they’ll be assessed and all that. But it’s the big picture that I want them to have, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the universe.

EDIT: @alomshaha has reminded me of his Why Science? site, with all kinds of useful introductions to the best subject in the curriculum. 🙂 I’d probably use small sections for this purpose rather than the full version, but I should emphasize that’s about time constraints!

If you want/need to start teaching content, remember a few basic things. You’ll be pushed for time. They’ll want to catch up with friends more than they want to make a good impression. Some won’t have pens or pencils. Several will swear blind they’ve never covered the material you know they did last year. So if you must, I’d suggest an assessment exercise, auditing previous knowledge. This could be a comprehension piece, perhaps with some HSW elements or, as Lauraj987 suggested, a research activity where they use textbooks to remind themselves of what they’ve already done. That way those with good memories don’t have a particular advantage.

Enjoy it. Get off to a good start in September and life will be much easier in March. I don’t agree with the old “Don’t smile until Christmas” rule but it’s much easier to relax later in the year than get stricter. You’ll be with these kids for at least a year, perhaps two – make the most of it.