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Creating A Learning Community

By Lizzie Moroney, Year 4 teacher

**Lizzie reflects on a former experience of working in the Year 2/3  space

When we first came in to have a look at the space, there was a lot of clutter and stuff, so we did a massive, massive clean, kind of paired things back, just brought it back to its original structure. We wanted to have things so that its clean lines help us focus. You’ve got the LA spaces around and you’ve got resources. It’s a really nice space.

But we were also thinking about the flow of the space as well. So we thought about how certain kids are going to move through the space, what’s going to be really tempting to jump on, what’s going to be really tempting to jump off, what’s going to be really tempting to run through, all those things. So, thinking about that as well when you’re moving things around in a space is how you create, you know, a beautiful feeling in a space.

I’m someone who’s all about a feeling in a space. I love bringing in green things, bringing in nature and natural sort of things. That’s a big thing for me. So, we’ve worked pretty hard on that. We’re not quite there and I’m still not really happy with it just yet, so we’re continually working as we go, which is nice. It’s nice to evolve in the space.

I just want to bring more nature stuff in, more plants, more indoor plants.

We had a big job tidying the space, so there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be put away properly. You don’t need everything out all the time. Especially when you’re working so that kids have access to everything in the room. But, for instance, they don’t need to have the clay out all the time but you’ve got things that they can just access. It’s really about being independent, promoting independence, which is what I really like. I think that’s awesome.

Teaching and learning around a SLP 

It pushes you so hard, sometimes it’s overwhelming. But it pushes you to find a balance between teaching kids those really important skills, those building blocks, and then, allowing kids to be independent, autonomous … to teach each other, to create spaces, to research, all those things.

It’s a real balancing act. The children have to be in control of themselves. That’s a skill that a lot of schools don’t really develop in their students … well, at least, not to the extent that our kids need to be in control of themselves.

We’re trusting them … we’re not with them all the time. You know, we’re in the room but they might be working on something here, and somebody’s working over there, and somebody’s working over there. So they need to have ownership over themselves … ownership and pride in their own learning. That’s empowerment.

And that’s something you have to model and you have to teach them and you have to help them, give them experiences that help them get there. I think that’s something that kids don’t have to do in a lot of classrooms. Whereas in this space we talk a lot about doing your best learning and the only person who’s going lose out if they don’t do their work is that child. So they really take up the ownership of their actions.

Yes, it pushes you a lot as an educator to get outside of your comfort zone. You’re constantly working with a team, you’re constantly adapting …. sometimes, you’re working on your own but you’re always communicating, you’re working with your team, you’ve got a million different things going on.

The dynamic sound of a space 

It’s funny, it depends what you’re doing.

During learning agreement time …you know, the sound’s nice. You know that hum of the things where kids are doing stuff, they’re on task. You know, that hum?

But, say, if you have, a workshop or even two workshops going on, or there’s two homerooms, you just have to know your levels. The kids need to know their levels too so that they’re not disrupting each other. We talk a lot about it, too…

I’ve been doing a lot of work on this thing called ChildosophyTM. I’m doing a children’s well-being practitioner course at the moment, and they talk about the seven foundational needs that every human being requires… the need to be safe and secure, to be heard and seen, and all sorts of things like that.

So, at the moment, the team and I are talking about the fact that everybody needs a different thing with the children. That means that sometimes some people need the space to be quiet and calm. We have little conversations about that and we make sure the kids are aware of themselves and their noise level and who needs what.

So it’s really a matter of having conversations about it and acknowledging that people need different things. You know, sometimes it can get really loud and then we kind of bring the kids back in and we talk about, “Hey, you know, we’re not asking you to be quiet just because. There’s a reason for it because noise is so dynamic and that it can really affect everyone”. So, yeah, in that way, sometimes it’s really difficult. But it’s generally not a problem, especially because they’ve come from prep. They know the culture.

Yes, it’s a culture of knowing, “Oh, well, you know, they’re working over there, I’ve got to be respectful. Because when I’m working, other people are respectful of me.” It is that real culture and understanding of the space. They’ve all had direct experience with how SLP spaces work. They’ve all had direct experience of the consequences of when someone else is being super noisy and they’re trying to work, you know, things like that. So they’re really understanding that.

But it’s definitely a culture and it definitely comes back to them being in charge of themselves and having those opportunities to continually think about, “How am I acting? Would I like it if somebody was acting like that when I’m working?”

With stillness and quietness foster… I’m in a big learning phase myself, which is really cool. So I did a yoga and meditation, kids yoga and meditation workshop in Bali just in January. It was amazing. It was so beautiful. And I’ve had a bit of an exploration over the years about how stillness and calmness helps kids.

And so, every day we do meditation. I’m working with a group of kids on a particular form of yoga I learned in Bali, and it goes through those foundational needs set out by ChildosophyTM. So, every afternoon after lunch, we meditate, and that’s a quiet, still time. And that’s probably the only time in the day where everything just stops. It’s really nice because we talk to the kids about teachers needing it just as much as kids need it. So it’s really lovely.

I did start reading meditations and saying my own meditations and stuff. But then I was finding that I needed meditation too. So we usually use a recording of a meditation now, so I can be a participant.

I find that kids meditate much better when I’m participating. So if you’re, you know, just over there or doing something else, they know that the activity is not really valued. Whereas if you’re sitting with them and you’re participating, you’re showing them that you value it enough to do it yourself. So then they’re more likely to think, “You know, this must be something…” And we have lots of conversations about why meditation important. It’s a really nice time where everything is quiet, everything’s calm.

Often, when lunchtime finishes, you think, “Oh, God, we’ve got another session.” You might have had a massive day already, huge behavioural problems, or a child has some trauma to cope with, or this or that is happening.

So you get to that point in the day and you think, “Oh, I’ve got another session where I really need to push to be the best educator that I can be,” and that’s exhausting. But knowing you have that 10 minutes of stillness, you can kind of muster up and then kind of move, yes, which is really beautiful.

The Spaceship SLP As Symbol and Metaphor

Working with the spaceship is an exciting adventure that’s kind of starting to begin for our combined community of two’s [Year 2s] and the three’s [Year 3s].

It came to our notice during class parliament, that the twos in here in the Spaceship unit felt like they’re missing out on the Dragon Boat Stimulating Learning Platform. And that the threes in the Dragon Boat SLP felt like they were missing out on the Spaceship. So, their solution was that we have some times in the week where the threes are together in the Spaceship, the twos are together in the Dragon Boat, when we’re directly engaging with the Stimulating Learning Platform.

We’re just starting to put this into practice. And then we’re going to do a project using the Spaceship as a vehicle to take us onto something. But it’s not something that I can really say… because it will be the kids who are going to take it somewhere. It’s really exciting, you know, because it’s my first time in this unit. I don’t know where they’re gonna take it, which is a really cool place to be in. And you know, you present them with something – To go boldly where no student’s gone before. But, you know, what are they gonna do with it? I don’t know. That’ll be really exciting. So we’ll see. We can report back on how its used.

But at the moment, they just love being in the front of space. It has just been fixed, so we can start to use it for simulations now. Hadn’t been able to be used for simulations because it was broken at the end of last year. It uses Google Earth but I’m not sure of other programs because we have literally just exploring and using it.

Yes. It’s a really cool idea. And it’s pretty cool to come to school, you know, and see a spaceship in the middle of the unit. It’s really exciting.

How the wider community sees what happens here

It’s really interesting to think how the wider community views what we’re doing here.

For instance, we took the kids to the park at the end of last term as a little bit of a celebration. There was a parent in the park with her child and she came up to us and began talking about, “You know, I’m looking at schools for my child.” And out of nowhere she said, “Do they still do, you know, the weird kind of education ‘there’? Or do they sort of do that different kind of thing?” And I said, “Well, actually, you know, it’s actually amazing. Yeah, it’s slightly different, but we still cover everything that the curriculum states and things like that. But we teach in a way that really engages our kids.” And so, I was like, “Oh, people think that…you know, what?”

That’s so weird. It was kind of new to me that people had this perception of the school being, a really different and a kind of weird place. And I was like, you know, actually, that’s not true. But then, you know, the community that actually engages with the school, that is, comes to the school, I find amazing.

Last year I experienced working in more traditional schools in similar areas … you know, quite low socioeconomic backgrounds, lots of trauma, lots of welfare issues. And coming back here, I’m realise that the way we teach actually reduces so many of so-called negative issues, because kids are engaged. They want to be here, they want to come to school. The children find something here that hooks them into learning.

Whereas there were so many issues at the other schools I worked in last year that just wouldn’t arise at Wooranna because the kids are engaged and there’s at least something

that they want to do at school. And I can guarantee you that any teacher here would bend over backwards to figure out what is going to engage a child. And I think that’s really rare.

I think the community at Wooranna is beautiful. Like the parent that continues volunteering to help in our breakfast club even though his child no longer attends. You know, if there’s no one to pack up, he’ll just stay and pack up. And, you know, we’ve got our parent committee and things, and we’ve got a big school-wide focus.

I think a lot of people get scared about their kids education. On the other hand, I think a lot of people just send their kids to the closest school.

I don’t know if there are parents that are like, “Oh, I’m not gonna send them to that school because I think it’s a bit out there,” who don’t really understand what the school does. I don’t know.

Assessment and reporting to show the gains

We use SeesawTM as a platform, which I have just fallen in love with because you can literally just take a photo, video of whatever the child is doing and you can put images out that parents otherwise wouldn’t see. It’s a really cool avenue and it’s on my mobile phone. And I just communicate with parents. I just talk to them about what is happening.

But in terms of actual assessment, that’s something that I really struggle with because when I think about assessment, I want it to be a rich assessment that really does justice to what the child is doing and learning.

And so in terms of that, sometimes I struggle to come up with assessments in the beginning because I’m worried “what it if doesn’t show everything”. But overall I just talk to parents and I show them things. That’s really what I do. And I ask the child, “Do you think you’ve improved?” You know, I want them to talk about how they’ve improved.

As for formal assessment… There’s heaps of work samples for writing and things like that on the curriculum website. For reading…we’re doing Oxford OwlTM at the moment. But I use running records a lot. I like to give myself a benchmark and then see where we’re going with that. I don’t know. I still always question any assessment.

We have a really good rich assessment for maths that was created at our school for Prep to 2 but we haven’t created one for three to six, so I’m pushing for that at the moment. In terms of writing, I’m using samples and things like that, comparing you know, that kind of stuff.

In first term we haven’t used peer assessment because we have had a massive term with welfare, huge, huge, and it was just all over the shop and the kids were just getting used to the idea of being a combined class of year 2/3. You’ve got your general scope of kids at all different abilities but we’ve got it doubled because we’ve got Years 2/3 altogether.

But now we’re starting to bring it in a bit more peer assessment and bringing in learning symposiums where they’re bringing the work that they’ve created before their peers. We’ve got lots of children who are really into writing, so they need the feedback, they need to share their writing, they need to move forward from what they first create.

We use a lot of anecdotal information. We get together as a team after we do workshops and by using a template to see whether or not we think the children have mastered the topic, or whether they still need more experience, or they just have no idea and really need a lot more time in understanding the work.

I wouldn’t say we do a lot of formal assessment, I would say we do a lot of informal evaluation where we’re just constantly thinking about, “Okay. Where are they at with this? Can they do this? ” Which also is kind of scary at the same time because I’d really like some way to track their achievements effectively, but I haven’t found that yet. And I think that takes a lot of time to find.

Yes, that’s something I struggle with is …. Assessment … because I am caught between a place where I want to know where children are at are and, at the same time, I want to know that they’re progressing. I wanna have that database, but I need the right data but I’m just now sure where that right data is coming from just yet.

So I’m still working on that. I’m in my fifth year. You know, I’m still figuring that out. I don’t want to just do useless tests… do something that’s really going to tell me a little bit. I want to look at the whole kid. I want to look at what’s going on, where we can take them, what they can do. Yes, that’s something I find really difficult.

Doing big learning.

Back in 2011, I lived in Tanzania for a while and I taught there. This was before I finished uni, and then I ran an art program there because I did visual arts at uni as well. And so I worked at the local school and then ran a free art program, and I had like 25 kids that the teachers had chosen the first day and then 60 kids the next day. There was just this need and desire to learn something different. And so I had kids just hanging in the windows and I was like, “Oh, there is so much thirst for knowledge. People wanna learn stuff.” And so I thought, “Well, there is a lot of potential for teaching English through the arts.”

So I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll start an art room at the local school.” At the time, I was tutoring a young girl who had left her family because there was violence and she was living with a friend of mine and I was teaching her English, and I became aware that there were actually a lot of young women who have missed out on formal education.

So what if there was a place they could go to learning? So then I had the idea of creating a community learning centre where anyone could come to learn and teach, to share their skills. So the idea was born and together with my friend Anthea, who has a degree in international development, we started fundraising to build the first part of a community center.

That opened in May last year. That’s why I was over in Tanzania, took the year off because I wanted to be able to spend some more time there. So I went for three months … yeah, we opened the center, had some programs running, everything happening which was really exciting. So that was the first thing that happened.

It’s called The Mto Wa Mbu Project. You can look it up on Facebook … But I find it really difficult to do my job and to run the project as well. But at the moment, I manage the Australian finance and fundraising stuff and we’ve got a manager over in Tanzania. So she runs what’s happening at the centre. But it’s also difficult because I’m learning how to direct something as a leader. As I’ve only got five years experience in education. I don’t have any experience in creating policies and things like that. And ultimately, it is a business as well.

Anyhow we have a vision for the centre. I want it to be this place where people can come and really learn anything, and I want to connect the internet so people can research and use YouTube to find out how to fix things … have a Projector so people can collaborate.

Just like Sugata Mitra hole in the wall projects, provide resources and things where people can undertake collaborative learning. So that’s the goal. But also I’m working with the community that has things that they want and need. And so I’ve taken a step back strategically because it’s not about me, it’s about the community. So I’ve literally just handed over the building and its resources to the manager. And so when I’m ask, “Oh, what do we do?” I’m respond with, “Figure it out. Ask people what they want to learn. Figure this out.” I think it’s wrong for me to say , “This is what you need to do. This is what you need to do,” because ultimately, the community, once they take ownership over it, it’s much more powerful than if I say this is what you’re doing you know?

To really understand a culture and to really understand what’s embedded in that culture, you need to be there for a long time, you need to have a lot of experiences in that. And I don’t have that. So I think somebody who does have that should lead

Welfare is a really big passion of mine and nurturing kids and understanding and looking beyond a single behaviour. My relationship with S., for instance, is about looking beyond his behaviour, looking beyond what he presents, looking at what’s behind what he does when he reacts in a particular way.

I think what children like about me is summed up when they say to me, “Ms. Moroney you’re always the same.” You know, in terms of consistency, I think that what makes kids feel really safe, especially if they’ve got so much going on that’s inconsistent. You know, when they don’t understand what people are feeling towards them or what they saying about them. So I think consistency has been a big thing for me, especially with S. because he was just all over the shop when he first arrived at our school. He was getting away with certain behaviours and sometimes and not at other times. So being really consistent in approach was important when I dealt with him.

In terms of that… I very much believe that it was my job to understand and instead of just pronouncing something like “You’ve done this and this is what’s happening. You just need to do that.” Instead, I believe in I talking things through with kids and saying, “Okay. Well, I understand. That must have been really hard for you and that must have been something that really triggered what you did.”

For example, this afternoon S. got frustrated and while sitting beside a little girl who had been working on a drawing for a good half an hour in learning agreement time, he painted all over it. I could have just completely cracked it at him, but I knew that the reason he did that was not because he wanted to ruin someone’s work, it was because he was so frustrated. So you know, I come at it with understanding. But also he needs to know that that’s not okay at the same time.

But I think the biggest thing is building the relationship with kids where they trust that even if they do something that’s not a strong choice that it is okay and that we can move past it and that it’s not the end of the world. With S., I let him cool down and then we had a chat about it. We talked about what we were going to do now and why he did what he did and what was behind it. And I think people need the chance to express what was behind their actions because we all have bad days and we all have things that we might say and do but not necessarily mean. But it’s quite rare, I think, for somebody to ask a child for an explanation and actually listen to it genuinely and say, “Okay. Well, I understand that. Okay. What are we gonna do now?” And you know, really think about it. And then the next time something happens, you say, “Well, okay. You know…”.

All you have to do is really just ask children, “Okay, what happened?” And, you know, S. tells me all the time. He couldn’t before. Back when I had him in year one, he would just lose it, lose it, lose it, and it would take me an hour to get anything out of him. But yeah, one of my strengths would be building relationships with kids, which is why being like that is effective. Because, you know, I ask about their interests. You know, I go to their concerts, and Iask to go to their football games. You know, if there’s a particular at-risk child, I involve myself so much in their life that they feel like I genuinely care about them. Because I actually do.

I want to know, “How did it go at netball?” I show them that I’m a real person, too. I think that’s a really big thing. It’s like, “Oh, you know, I struggle with that, too,”and relating with them on that level. And also, talking to their parents about positive things. So not always just, saying when something goes wrong. Knowing that, children see me talking to their parent as a really great thing. You know, sometimes we might be saying things that aren’t great, but the majority of the time, we’re talking about great things. So they trust that you see good in them. I think that’s a really important thing.

All of those things have to work together. It’s not just one approach. I think it’s quite complex working with a child that, you know, pushes you.