Last night I attended the VATE Forum on the Victorian Essential Learning Standards. A number of teachers came to speak at the forum on where they had found their own entry points into VELS as English teachers. There were teachers from private schools, state schools, experienced teachers who were heads of faculty (one was the innovations and excellence coordinator) and a first year teacher. The highlight of the night for me was the team of two teachers from Melbourne Girls College, Deb Huismann and Sally Sutherland who had been involved in revisioning their Year 9 program. They went for an integrated curriculum and experiential learning (sounds a lot like one of the working parties at my school, doesn’t it?). An important part of the revisioning was the formation of teams; as they said, they expected the students to work in teams so they should model this as well. The group that was composed of all the English teachers, teachers of SOSE (the Study of Society and Environment, including History and Geography), Information Technology and Health teachers for the eight classes at the year level formed a unit called The World of Ideas. There are nine periods a cycle for this and the periods are seventy minutes long. For Maths and Science they had another integrated unit that was called – naturally - The world of Science and Maths. Then there were a few electives they could choose as well. Each term in the World of Ideas saw the girls at the school get into a different theme, such as Humour, Decision making, Opening Doors, and Global Citizenship.
The term one theme on comedy was based on a serious issue and turning it into a comedy performance. They ended up with a Comedy Festival that was put on simultaneously with the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was linked in other ways to this wider festival, as there were guest speakers from the Melbourne Comedy Festival brought to the school to work with the students on their presentations. This unit incorporated peer and self assessment and was linked to the keeping of digital portfolios.
The theme that interested me very much was the Opening Doors theme which was put on with a cluster of nine schools. It had a history focus and involved the students in researching the local community around the school. The students were acting as historians, trying to find out the untold stories of their local area. The students will be curators of a museum they will be setting up and they will have a choice as to what and how they present. The students are working with real artists who will help the students chose and help with Photoshop and so on. They will be involved in excursions to other museums, such as the Immigration Museum and the Holocaust Museum. The emphasis is on giving students choice and responsibility.
Another interesting account was from Julie Brennan at Strathmore Secondary College where they set up professional learning teams. In these learning teams, small groups of teachers discussed units of work, and ways of teaching thinking and personal learning. They found that for these learning teams to work democratically they needed to institute formal meeting protocols. Each contribution is timed and no one voice can dominate. The teachers retain some student work after the unit has been taught so that work becomes the focus of the discussion. Julie finished by reminding us that it is in the classroom that initiatives happen but that is important that these professional conversations are maintained. I tend to think that excitement and passion for teaching comes also from the rich professional conversations we have with our colleagues in many different forums.