Island Survival: A Cooperative Game

Island Survival:
A Cooperative Game

Do you need a great cooperative game?

This one will sweep them away. I play Island Survival with year 4, 5, and 6s either at the beginning or end of the year and it is always a hit! They often ask for it again. It’s a great game that allows for problem solving, justification, reasoning, creativity and cooperation.

In Island Survival, students work in small groups to try and survive being marooned on an island through a story that unfolds piece by piece. They meet a series of challenges that require different types of thinking and ultimately aim to get off the island as a team.

For example, in one scenario, survival teams have access to a range of resources but a storm washes three away. They have to decide on and justify which ones they will lose in the storm. In another, they have to practically think about how they would respond to injuries in a group.

This game could be used on day one with your new students, after a holiday break, or at any time to reinforce teamwork skills or learning habits that you have been working on together.

You can use my slides above or make a copy for yourself to edit in Google Slides.

How to Play

  • ROOM SET UP: Group tables together and remove chairs. This encourages active participation. Some unsettling or ambient jungle sounds will help set the scene.
  • MATERIALS: Each group gets a large sheet of butcher’s paper and textas. Use something as survival points like counters, play money or gold bottle caps (if you are using points).
  • TEAMS: Select (or have students select) survival teams that will work together for the whole task. 3-5 in a team works well.
  • SLIDES: Use my slides (above) that walk through the scenario step by step with instructions and timers. Feel free to make a copy of my Google Slides and adapt them  – and ham it up with some dramatic storytelling!
  • GAMEPLAY: Each slide will describe a new scenario that groups are presented with. Show and tell teams the information, what you expect from them and how much time they have. For example, at one point they need to design a shelter. You could briefly explain that you will only accept structurally sound designs that only utilise resources and tools they would have access to, then give teams 10 minutes to discuss and draw their designs. Walk around and give points and prompts while they work. Once the time is up move to the next task.


There are lots of variations you can use and with some creativity it is extremely easy to adapt the game to what you need. Some are:

    • SURVIVAL POINTS: The game works both with and without a point system. If you use it, teams can only leave the island (win) after earning a certain amount of points. They earn points by doing things like justifying all the items they decided would be washed away in a storm. In the slides, I have included notes about how I give out points however you can adjust it to suit your students. You can easily play it without having any kind of point system – just skip those slides.
    • PHYSICAL CHALLENGES: All the challenges I have included are discussion-based but to get the kids moving you could add others such as “Get two of your injured survivors (team members) across the oval without them having to touch the ground” or “Fit everyone in your team on one piece of falling cliff (a scrap of paper) without anyone falling off for 20 seconds”.
    • ONE HOUR or ONE MONTH: I usually play Island Survival over 1-2 hours however you could easily break it into smaller parts and play it over a longer amount of time to build on the skills used during the game.
  • I would love to know if you try Island Survival, how you use it, or if you have something better that is great for teamwork! Let me know what you try. The Island is your oyster…

Edit: If you are having trouble accessing the slides:

  • Make sure you have a Google Drive account and you are logged in. You will need a Google Drive account to get a copy of the slides.
  • Is your internet connection blocking the site? Try accessing the slides on a different internet connection.
  • Leave me a comment below or tweet me and I can get in touch to help.

9 Types of Reading Journal Entries

A typical independent reading task in my classroom consists of reading and a response to reading.

A response to reading usually is done in the reading journal. It helps students to confidently and independently respond to texts if, over the year, you help them build up a bank of reading journal entry types that they can choose from.

Last year my class developed this list throughout the year, starting with sticky noting and building up options over time.

There are so many ways reading journal entries can look so I have decided to share some of the ones I use that I typically find to be popular with students, effective for developing reading strategies and open enough to encourage students to really think and make it their own!

Read more about where reading journals fit into the reading workshop, independent reading and what a reading journal is in an upcoming post which I will link here.

I would love to know about different ways you teach your students to journal when reading. Please comment if you have some new ones I could try!

Mrs Fintelman’s End of Year Report

You know that time towards the end of the school year, where you start dreaming about your next class and all the things you will do better next year?

The more I teach, the more I am concentrating not so much on what I do, but on the impact of my actions on students’ learning and wellbeing. So, I start thinking about the way I want my students in my class to learn and to feel. To do this, I ask them.

I use Google Forms to create the feedback form.

Every term, I get my class to review me as a teacher. I give them a series of questions and ask them to give some honest feedback about myself, and about the environment I create in the class, and the way they feel within it. It sometimes feels risky and vulnerable to open myself up to whatever they may say but it is actually very rewarding and insightful to see their responses.

I get a lot of honest, thoughtful feedback from this every time I do it. I get to hear what I’m doing well (“She is good at being positive and explaining things.”), what’s not working well (“You could improve on using a little less paper.”), and compare what I think is happening in the class to actual student perceptions about the same things.

What should I get feedback on?

This is up to what you. What do you NEED feedback on? Is it instructional strategies? Is it your ability to engage? Is it your process and procedure-related?

Some of the questions and responses I ask for are:

  • What does Emily do well?
  • What could Emily improve on?
  • “I feel like Emily challenges me to learn more” rating 1-5
  • “I feel excited and engaged in our class” rating 1-5
  • “Most of the time, Emily makes me feel…happy/listened to/angry/bored etc.” multiple choice answers
  • My favourite thing I learnt this month/term/year was… because…
  • My most challenging task/project this term was… because…
  • For me to learn best, I need… (provide some options or leave it open ended)

You could choose your own questions and prompts based on your own focuses. For example, in 2017 I tried eliminating ‘hands up’ in my class in the final term, so I asked students for feedback on how they felt it went.


Some tips if you plan to do this (and you definitely should):

  • Do it more than once in a year, and use some of the same questions each time to track your own progress.
  • Allow for students to be specific by including some long-answer responses. Don’t just use multiple choice or scales.
  • Make all responses anonymous. This takes away the implications of the student writing the comments and simply allows you to hear their message. (It takes away the tendency to say things like “Oh, that kid always says things like that, that doesn’t count). It also allows some students to be more honest, which is essential.
  • Use a digital tool like Google Forms or Nearpod to further allow for anonymity, and to make it simpler to get a range of feedback, like scales, multiple choice and long answers.
  • This year, after being inspired by another teacher at my school, I framed this evaluation as a report, because I had just written and sent home my student’s end of year reports. You might like to do the same.
  • See one of my previous feedback forms here.

What to do after the feedback

  1. Be prepared for honesty. You will get it.
  2. Celebrate the things to be proud of!
  3. Take on the feedback. Consider it. Plan for change. No, really – actually make a plan.
  4. Become a better teacher for having listening to what your students need from you.


How do you get feedback from your students on your teaching?

Thinking about next year?

Effort and Achievement Charts

Carol Dweck’s work around growth and fixed mindsets has been groundbreaking for education. It has reinforced for educators that is it essential to praise effort, not intelligence.

This has led to change in the way educators speak and lots of us are doing great work in the way we provide feedback to students based on the processes they engage in, like persisting, failing and trying again, rather than talking about how smart they are.

However I think it is essential for us to make it explicit for our students that it is not intelligence that will land you success, but instead, the amount of effort you put in will have a major impact on your achievements.

Each year I now have my students create effort and achievement charts to explicitly demonstrate what this looks like for them as individuals.

Understanding Effort 

I ask them to create a scale from 1 to 4 and to map what effort looks like at each level, 4 being the highest level of effort they could put into a task. We break down what people do when they are applying effort to something, and the way the behaviours change as effort decreases.

Some actions and behaviours that students say demonstrate effort are paying attention, asking for help, persevering, choosing a good spot to work, staying focused on one task at time, producing high quality learning products, taking their time to do something well rather than quickly.

Actions that students often say show a low level of effort are letting yourself be distracted, giving up, rushing, choosing to do something else other than their current task.

Students create their own personalised effort scale and map out what effort looks like at each level for them. It is important for them to identify how this might differ from others in their class. For example, some students focus more on the way they physically present when showing effort (e.g. staying with a group, keeping their eyes on the task, sitting in a certain place that helps them concentrate) while for other students the mental strategies they put in place are a stronger factor (e.g. ignoring distractions, focusing on one task only, persevering).

Silence ≠ Good Learning

This discussion provides a great platform to work through misconceptions about what learners need and do. Students often tell me that talking or moving around the class demonstrate low effort!

I seize the opportunity to begin to undo the myth that good learners sit silently in rows listening to their teacher talk at them. Together we begin to reframe what learning is and what effort looks like when we are trying to learn. This is tough and you can still see a few posters here that show the deeply instilled belief that level 1 effort includes talking.

Linking Effort to Achievement

Once we have determined what effort looks like, we map out what kind of achievement we would expect to get out of it using real scenarios (this can get very vague and wishy-washy without proper examples).

E.g. If a child says they are putting in effort into learning about decimal place value, it would looks like like paying attention to a decimal learning task, asking questions, staying focused, trying and trying again. The achievement they would expect from this level of effort is that after a time they would understand decimal place value, have evidence to show this and be able to discuss it.

At level 1 through 4 students describe the achievement they would expect from the explicit effort-related behaviours they have described. The guts of this part of the task is that students see the link between low effort and low achievement.


Sharing examples

When students share their charts with their peers, I ask them to share an example of a time when they showed level 1 effort and what the outcome (or achievement was) and then share a story of a time they used level 4 effort and what they achieved.

We display these charts where students can refer to them and use them as part of our daily dialogue. “How can you show a level 4 effort in this learning activity?” My students are able to refer to the processes they personally need to use to experience high levels of achievement.

Bonus: I encouraged my kids to think of metaphors and symbols to express something that gets better and better to create their chart. The Jedi is my personal favourite but the creativity for this part of the task was cool all round and meaningful for each student.


How do you explicitly teach effort to your students?

Mulling Time

The topic of what good professional learning looks like is always contentious. Some of us love to sit and listen and soak up some new knowledge from a great speaker. Others argue that the best professional learning happens in schools with colleagues through inquiry, observation and dialogue.

I think that there is a place for both and more. But both are useless we are able to do something with the new knowledge.

On the Coffee Pods podcast with Holly Ransom¹, I listened to Dom Price (work futurist at Atlassian) say that for a professional improvement event of some kind, we should ensure we have “equal parts consumption and equal parts reflection“.

This reflection is what I call mulling time.

I am a serial professional reader. I am always looking into new information, ideas, concepts, research. But sometimes I spend so much time reading that I don’t make the time to think it over and take action.

This is essentially a waste of time… what’s the point of all that reading if I don’t spend time mulling, questioning, using, discarding, sorting, trialling, implementing?


Plan to think deeply and at length

Price says he asks himself “What did I learn? What can I challenge? What foundations does that really go against? What might I do differently? What else could I go and read or consume on any of those topics?”

To mull, we need to think deeply, and at length. This can be difficult if we don’t set aside time or make a plan for it. Perhaps your school or organisation isn’t able to provide you with this extra time to mull but it is integral you find a way to process what you have experienced. With schools doing so much, we need to avoid going ‘an inch deep and a mile wide’. We need to make space to think deeply and at length.

After reading research, listening to a speaker, seeing a though-provoking tweet or attending a conference, think about the things you can put in place to prioritise this mulling time.


Schedule time to mull

Very soon after your professional learning, dedicate time to mulling and commit yourself to it. When you make plans for professional learning, like a PD day or finishing a chapter of a book, you could lock in a time you will not look into anything new, but instead process what you have already seen or heard.


Find a challenge partner

Make a time to meet with a colleague, mentor or someone who you can bounce off. Schedule in time to discuss your thoughts with them. Articulating your questions and conclusions out loud can help you solidify your ideas.


Record your thoughts

Sketchnote, journal, mindmap, blog, make lists, tweet… whatever works for you. Find a way to sort your thoughts and get them down on paper. Or iPad.


Don’t forget about your notes

It’s easy to put your notebook down and turn the page once you get back to work. But you most likely jotted some dotpoints or stuck in some sticky notes while listening or reading… don’t waste them. Instead reread them more than once to find the diamonds in the rough.


Teaching can be an overwhelming profession, with an overwhelming amount of knowledge, conversations, research and ideas on our digital doorstep at any moment. It is so important for us to identify and sharpen our professional learning needs, so we do not simply not just soak up endless information but balance out our learning with reflection so we can truly create a positive impact on student learning.


What do you do to make your professional learning hit home? How do you prioritise time to mull it over and make a plan for action?


¹Coffee Pods with Holly Ransom Coffee Pod #2: High Performing Teams & Leaders, and What to Expect from the Future of Work with Atlassian’s Dom Price

Show a Pro


Do you get annoyed when your students come to you for every little thing? Or conversely, maybe you sometimes feel yourself getting frustrated when one of your students speaks up about something they know lots about, rudely interrupting you when you are trying to teach that very same thing to the class.

Schools and teachers need to re-frame the classroom so that the teacher is no longer the knowledge-holder. If we continue with the perception that teachers have All The Knowledge and just need to dispense it at the correct time for students, we may as well stop now. When students leave school, where do they go for information if they no longer have a classroom teacher?

Young people are now digitally connected to overwhelming amounts of information and ideas. Amid this, students greet teachers’ attempts to deliver content knowledge using traditional didactic approaches with scepticism (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014). Students need to learn how to become well connected with the world around them and know where to go and who to go to when they need information. They need to know that there are millions of people within their reach who are all experts in something. We need to get kids connected. 

I am a big believer in the idea of “Show a Pro“. That is, rather than teaching everything about a concept or skills yourself, find an expert in that field to connect with your students, speak to them or coach them as they work in that same area. Even better, have your students discover ways to reach out to experts.

Some simple and powerful ways to Show a Pro are:

  • Draw on your students’ parent expertise. If you have a parent that works in a bank, get them in for your unit on finance. If you have a parent who is a works in a trade, get them in to talk about how to manage projects with lots of tasks. If you have a parent that is a programmer, have them come in and give tips to your students on their own coding projects. The possibilities are endless. Do a quick survey at the beginning of the year, asking parents about their occupations and special interests or skills, and whether they would be interested in speaking to students about an aspect of their job.
  • The internet has it all. When my students were making short films, we listened to filmmakers from the Pixar team explain how to create and pitch a storyboard via a video on their website. There’s nothing I could have taught about films that the Pixar team couldn’t have said better. While videos can’t always replace a teacher, listening to videos of legitimate experts on how do do things best is a powerful way for students to learn new skills and concepts.
  • Skype or Google Hangouts. Almost anyone can connect this way, and it can be easier and less time consuming for your guest to be able to connect via internet rather than to travel to the school. Once (through the Tech Girls are Superheroes Competition) I had a newspaper editor connect with a group of students via Google hangouts to coach them on a business they were designing, and the impact of having a mentor for their project was profound for this group.
  • Check out Skype in Education There are guest speakers, other schools and teachers and even virtual field trips.
  • Look for people and organisations that are willing to come into schools. For example, my team booked a poet to coach classes and run workshops for 4 weeks during a poetry unit. This poet offered a program for working in schools, and was able to adapt his workshops to what we needed from him. Even if the person or organisation you are interested in doesn’t usually offer a program, it is worth getting in touch to see if they are willing to put something together.
  • See what your council offers. Your local council can be a goldmine of opportunity for students to meet someone who makes real change in a particular area. You could be looking at experts on sports, community groups, local parks and rec spaces, recycling and sustainability, transport. For example, I had a local MP meet a group of students who wanted to know about the problems the local council experiences with bike safety in the area, and he was able to give them data the council had collected on this problem. Plus, did you ever hear of a politician giving up the opportunity for a photo of themselves speaking to a class full of students?
  • Draw on the local community. People who are part of the school’s local community are often very keen to be able to contribute to schools as a way of ‘giving back’.
  • Get in touch with universities. They are full of experts, a lot of whom are looking for ways they can share their knowledge or build their skills. Faculties will often have students who are looking to work with schools on different projects.



  • Ask your students who they think they should talk to to learn more about their topic. Have them make suggestions about WHO might have the knowledge they need, and HOW they might get in touch with them.
  • Some people you ask (especially parents) might feel that they don’t have enough to share. It’s important to be clear on what information you would like them to talk about, what you want them to demonstrate, and what level of understanding the students will come with. This can make it easier for your guest to understand how their expertise can help your class.
  • In most cases, experts are experts in their field, not in teaching or public speaking. It can be very helpful to provide some information on how to run the session, or for you to run it and allow time for your guest to share, and manage question time for them.
  • If your expert is willing, get their contact details so that if students have a follow up question, you can get in touch to find out their answers.
  • Excursions and incursions can be very expensive. Finding experts in other ways is often extremely inexpensive and is most likely more tailored to what the learning needs of your students are.



Fullan, M. and Langworthy, M. (2014). A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Sep. 2017].

The One Best Pedagogy

Teaching is like walking through a maze… you are often sure that the turn you took was the right decision, but you’ll never be able to be absolutely sure that the turn you ignored wouldn’t also have been a good one.

A thought that has been weighing on my brain is something I heard Mike Mattos say at a PD recently, and that is “There is no one best pedagogy“.

That sentence was the breath of fresh air I needed to hear.

It was obvious, but I needed to hear it.

I have noticed myself becoming a little bogged down lately by the range of knowledge I have on the different methods and approaches I can take to help my students learn. The last couple of years have been a turning point in my thinking; I have gone from simply sponging up everything I could about teaching, to trying to connect all the dots and sink my teeth into the best stuff. This is a huge feat and one I never expect to accomplish fully… there are too many moving parts. What has really become evident to me is that what is best sometimes might not be best at other times. And sometimes there is more than one best way and you just have to make the call.

As we become more experienced and more connected as teachers we learn about so many new or different ways of doing things. It is easy to get overwhelmed in a sea of best practice talk by teachers, schools and leaders as well as by the community. While this dialogue is integral to improving our practise it can be difficult to navigate.

With all the advantages of sharing teaching approaches online, comes the risk that we get the “Instagrammed version” of people’s teaching… it means we see all the fancy, different, showy and impressive parts of what other people are doing. We often don’t see the humdrum stuff that we’re most likely all doing. With sharing, we have the natural tendency to show only our best work and this can create confusion when we try to learn from each other.

Sometimes when we hear about new pedagogical concepts we hear them from the fanatics and it comes across as all or nothing… “do it this way or you’re doing it wrong”. Out with didactic teaching! Flipped learning for everything! Inquiry learning, all the time! Explicit teaching! No explicit teaching! Sometimes we become the fanatic, trying out new ideas with enthusiasm and freaking out our colleagues in our excitement.

But if we know anything about teaching, we know that is a broad and varying skill-set with a million nuances that can make all the difference in one child’s learning. Surely our greatest skill is to know good practices that we can apply, and from that to choose the ones that will be most effective in the situation we are in.

It is important that as teachers, we stay open-minded and ready to learn. Sometimes it can feel exhausting, confusing and frustrating to always have something that needs to change and to never feel quite like you’re getting things just right. But ours is a profession that needs to be constantly evolving. We know we are working in an antiquated schooling system and have a lot of catching up to do. When we hear new things, it is essential that we engage in dialogue about our practise and think critically about the why and how of what we are doing. But we must remember that learning new things does not mean to forget everything good we’ve done so far.

This means it is also essential that as leaders, we guide and support teachers to bridge knowledge gaps and broach new territory in a way that is respectful and supportive, and in a way that values what has come before, promotes practise, failure and taking risks. Often in a leadership position we can be all too aware of the many ways our schools need to change but without building a culture of trust and open-mindedness, change is impossible.

Professional learning and the constant evolution and evaluation of our teaching practice certainly is essential to what we do. There’s no way any of us know everything there is to know about teaching and execute it all to perfection. But sometimes we just need to remember – there is no one best pedagogy.

How to Let Your Students Set Up Their Own Classroom

You know that feeling you get? That one where you finally have had enough of your summer break, take yourself into school, and look at the blank walls of your new year’s classroom, just itching to fill it with colour and decorations and a reading corner and intriguing objects and all sorts of learning? Isn’t there the slightest chance that your students might walk in on day one and feel the same way?

I wrote a blog post about the need for students to be given the opportunity to set up their own learning space, not to walk in on the first day and see that their new classroom belongs to someone else. It is imperative that students know that you, their teacher, view the room as ‘our space’, not ‘my space’.

At the beginning of this school year, I left my Grade 5’s classroom alone. This was a challenge for me because usually I enjoy preparing the space and setting it up ready for learning, but it turns out that my students can do that better than me. Here are my tips for enabling students to be part of setting up their learning space at the beginning of the year.

Leave it alone.

Leave the room as bare are you can possibly manage before students arrive. Make it neat and clean but not set up. Have resources such as books and furniture organised but not placed. You might have welcoming items such as rugs or canopies available to be set up.

Sort out your own important things, like your assessment folders or filing system. I challenge you to take up half as much room as last year with your own ‘area’. (Next year halve it again. Keep going every year until you don’t have an area).

The ‘before’ shot.

Engage in deep discussion on what a learning space needs.

In the initial days of school, discuss together with your class what both the teacher and the individual students think a learning environment needs. Have students consider all the things they think they might do in the room, all the things they need out of the room and the ways it might be used. You’ll notice not many kids say “amazing wall display with the theme of *insert recent Disney movie here*”. Have students record the look, sound and feel of this room, using a simple Y-chart.

We used a Y-chart to organise thinking.

If you frame this conversation and your questions carefully, you will steer the conversation to a deep level. “What do you think helps you learn best in a classroom?” rather than “What do you want in your classroom?” will avoid the popular yet unrealistic dream of classroom rollercoaster or jumping castle.

Having this discussion will be essential in setting the tone for what the class believes is important in a space for learning – owned by the students, not the teacher. This is where the quiet kid gets to say “I need a space to be on my own sometimes” and the kid with difficulty hearing gets to say “I like when we sit in a circle because I can see people when they talk”. It’s when a group of students articulate for themselves that “We write better when it’s quiet” and “Table groups of six are too distracting”. It’s when the teacher explains “We need some space and materials to build and create and get messy” so that students know that this is part of learning, too.

Have students consider the spaces or zones that might be needed for various tasks or behaviours.

As students discuss and explain these ideas, list the physical materials and objects, the spaces or zones, and the arrangements mentioned.

Breaking it down into the important stuff.

When I did this with my class both they and I were surprised to find that lots of them had very similar ideas of what they wanted out of the ‘vibe’ of the space… there was lots of discussion about sound and atmosphere that continues to drive the way they interact in the room now.

Design the room.

Have your students work in small groups to consider all the ideas that have been presented, then draw what they think would be the optimal way to arrange the physical space. If you have engaged students in effective and realistic discussion, this should be the easy part. They simply transfer what they (and others) consider to be the important elements of a learning environment

You might like to put some parameters on this depending on your students (or your own confidence). You might start next term by just having your students decide how they could rearrange their tables or floor space.

Have each group share and justify their ideas. Allow time for questions and discussion.

An example of a group’s classroom design. Their book cave idea made it into the design created later that day.

Make a collective, and not final, decision.

Find a way of having students vote on the options. I find that hot-dotting works perfectly for this. Each student takes 2 or 3 dot stickers and sticks them on the options they like best. The one with the most dots becomes… NOT the winner. It becomes the first arrangement, the trial, the practise.

Hot-dotting to find a favourite layout.

Make sure students understand that this is not the last way the room will look, nor will it be perfect in every way. Explain that the class will review it and make changes often, according to how the space is working for current needs and how people are working within in.

Look over the plan, make any little tweaks needed and make sure everyone can see it.

Then let them set it up. Yes, it will be loud. Yes, it will get worse before it gets better. But they will get there. I promise they will. There’s nothing like 25 kids moving furniture on the first day of school for a teamwork exercise.


Make it beautiful, inspiring and inviting.

Last year I had my students decorate their book corner. Somehow, some flying hotdogs were suggested and the idea was greeted with a cheer. They were made and even though it is honestly the strangest decoration I’ve ever seen, the kids would always have a giggle looking up at those hotdogs as they sat in the book corner. If one little decoration brings a few extra laughs a day, perfect. They probably wouldn’t have been giggling at my perfectly laminated cartoon books and Dr Seuss quote.

Last year’s hotdogs.

This year’s reading cave is very popular. It drives me crazy because it’s not how I would have made it, but the grade loves it and they use the space really well, so it stays! The shelves now display the books we are focusing on currently, and one of the kids brought in a succulent to put on top to make the book area ‘feel more relaxing’. 

When I met my class this year for the first time (on day 2 of school as I unfortunately was not there on their first day in the classroom) they talked about how they felt when they walked in to their classroom the previous day (day 1 of school)  for the first time. Remember, I had left it as bare as I possible could. They described it as dull, boring, plain. When I asked them how they felt about the room after they had spent time setting it up, they used words like exciting, helpful, fun.  I asked whether they were happy or not that I had left it to them, and the consensus was that “every teacher should let their kids set up the room so they can get it how they like it”.  So there you have it.

The ‘after’ shot.

The Things that Counted: Reflecting on 2016

When I moved up to grade 4/5 last year after teaching only the early years in my career so far, one of the things I both looked forward to and most feared was how to engage students in their learning by making it real.

At the end of that year, I chatted with my kids about what experiences they got the most out of, what they enjoyed about the year. There were two consistent responses: the Poetry Slam and the Kids Conference.

Interestingly, a lot of the parents I talked to also had those two experiences as a stand out from their child’s year. This is important to me; if parents see enjoyment, value and focus in their children’s learning, it makes it much easier for them to support and extend the work of the teacher.

Poetry Slam

The poetry slam came about when my team was planning a poetry unit. We thought that ending the unit with a poetry slam would be a great way to share. When I explained this to my grade, I happened to mention that often poetry slams are held in public places, like an auditorium. One student asked if we could do ours in the local cafe and I said “Why not?”. My initial reaction was to say no because the teachers had discussed having all our grades share together, but when the students come up with a way better and completely reasonable idea, you have to drop your plans and go with it.

Throughout a really successful unit, the kids worked with a mentor poet, Cam Semmens, who coached them over four sessions. They wrote many poems, scrapped some and reworked others. They tossed and turned over their final performance poem. They practised the way their poem would be spoken and watched other poets slam (including this hilarious one by Nick Offerman entitled ‘A Slam Poem to Bacon‘).
They picked the date, called the cafe and booked their space (and submitted their milkshake orders too). They called up the local newspaper, were interviewed and organised a photographer to come down during the performance.

A self-organised story in the paper!

They invited their parents to come and watch, and nervously walked down to the cafe that morning to deliver weeks’ worth of writing. They beautifully performed their pieces and supported the students who had stage fright.

Read their blog post on the Poetry Slam here.

Often as teachers we talk about a genuine purpose for writing being important, but often forget to include this in our planning, and even more often forget to ask the students what would be the best way to share.

The Poetry Slam was one of the most powerful learning experiences I’ve seen in my class. Students were driven, they were excited, they were analysing their writing and helping each other do the same. They were desperate for conferences to get feedback, and soaked up every second of the mentor poet’s expertise that they could get.

Having purpose turns ‘work’ into ‘learning’.


Kids Conference

After speaking at #DigiCon16, I was invited by Jo Clyne, a brilliant historian and educator, to have students present learning at the HTAV Kids Conference. This conference showcases ways that teachers and students are doing using technology innovatively to learn about history and geography.

In the midst of a history and civics unit, together Jo and I came up with a plan which resulted in a launch lesson with Jo, followed by a longer-term project where students worked in groups to tell the story of an individual or group’s experience of Australia’s Federation. Some of these groups were selected to present at the conference.

My students were both excited and terrified at the size of the lecture theatre!

The whole class took the tram to ACU for the day and attended their first conference. They took notes and met students from different schools (including secondary students) who were all using technology in new and powerful ways to learn.

This conference was exceptionally powerful for my students; not just watching others, but seeing their own learning shared in a public forum was genuine, challenging and exciting. What they presented was something they were confident in and had worked hard on, and they got feedback from students, teachers and a university lecturer on how great their end products were.

As the dad of one of my student presenters excitedly mentioned to me on the day, “10 year olds did not present at conferences back in the day. That was for university professors.” This is not the case anymore. 10 year olds are more than capable.


The lesson I have learnt is that:

  1. It is possible to provide (and be open to) genuine ways for students to engage in and share their learning with a wide audience and in meaningful ways. 
  2. Not only is it possible, it is vital. 

Why I Hate Classroom Themes

At the beginning of each school year, my Pinterest feed fills up with tons of pictures that fall under the heading of “Classroom Inspiration”. Teacher friends will send pictures of their freshly decorated rooms to each other with questions about where to put the book corner. Ikea experiences a massive spike in sales of those giant canopy leaves and Officeworks sell out of laminating pockets.

Thousands of teachers begin creating themes for their rooms. Jungle theme. Space theme. Harry Potter theme. Garden theme. The list goes on. Sometimes I wonder if some teachers might have been better suited to being window dressers.

*Edit: I had included pictures here of a website sharing pictures of different classroom themes submitted by teachers from their own rooms. I decided to remove the picture to be more respectful of colleagues.*

Instead, here is a picture of some flying hot dogs my students created to make the book corner more ‘welcoming’.

Similar to classroom themes, many teachers will spend days and days before the students arrive setting up every aspect of the classroom, plastering their walls, floors and ceiling with posters and decorations. I’ve been there, and I’ve dragged my mum with me.

There was a time when I thought this was a cute idea, a nice thing to do for students by teachers who were willing to spend their time, money and energy creating an amazing-looking space ready for day one. I myself must have spent hundreds of dollars and hours on my classroom in my first year, spending my nights laminating and my weekends at Ikea or scouring Pinterest for ways to make it look more “enchanting” (I remember this being the word I wanted to describe my first ever classroom for my preps).

But every year I chuck out a bit more stuff. Every year I find more things I made or bought that were never looked at or used. Every year I notice the way the kids don’t notice it all.  Every year I’ve learned more about how kids learn best, and surprise, surprise, hand-painted Hogwarts Express mural across an entire wall, little owls hanging from the ceiling above every table, with pencils carved into wand shapes aren’t on the list, no matter how magical or enchanting they may be.


A list of teacher-reported conditions that promote learning, provided by Will Richardson.

So what does the classroom need in it? After listening to Will Richardson’s presentation ‘Old School to Bold School’, I was challenged to list the things I believe contribute most powerfully to student learning. He shared a list of responses he’d heard over and over again from teachers. You can read this below. Most likely if you were asked to write a list yours would look similar to this because we know these are the things that matter.

As I started to consider how I might set up my new room this year, I was reminded of this presentation and the things that matter most in learning environment.

Einstein famously said “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Obviously, this is not only about the physical environment, but we cannot deny that the physical environment has a huge impact on the way students act and interact in their school day. So, if we believe the role of the teacher to be to create the conditions for learning, or to model how to learn best, we must ask ourselves…

How do classroom themes or decorations contribute to learning?

How can I ensure that all aspects of the classroom contribute to learning?

What are our classrooms if not spaces for learning?

Teachers should curate their space and resources extremely carefully so that the room works in harmony with how we know students learn best. This should be our only focus.

Would you decorate your kitchen with mermaids, shells, blue crepe paper hanging from the ceiling and deck chairs and expect to cook better? No? Then it is unlikely that decorating your classroom with an ‘Under the Sea’ theme will make your students learn better.

Take steps in setting up your room that will directly facilitate student learning, for example:

  • ensure there is a mix of individual reflection areas and table banks for group work
  • ensure an attractive, easy-to-access, visible display of a variety of texts for students to browse and choose from
  • put resources and equipment (like stationery or games) within reach of the students that use it, rather than locking it away in a cupboard (to only be bestowed with the teacher’s permission).


Some teachers will argue that decorating the space makes it more fun or inviting. That might be so, but is there the risk that the purpose of the classroom space is lost in amongst all the shells and vines? When a student walks into a room that is themed or extremely decorated for the first time, they might be wowed and feel like they are in a fun classroom, and that’s great. But what happens when the fun wears off and there’s just a lot of clutter, a lot of teacher-owned items and not a lot of items or space where students feel true connection and control? How can they take ownership in a space so clearly owned by another?

Kath Murdoch, in The Power of Inquiry (2015), say that ‘setting the room up before the students arrive actually deprives them of an important opportunity to develop a sense of shared ownership of, and commitment to, their environment’.

I remember how one of my university tutors, Narelle Lemon, was talking to my uni class about setting up classroom communities. As we listened, horrified, she explained how at the start of each year, she would welcome her new class into an empty classroom with bare walls, the chairs stacked in the corner and the tables all pushed up against the wall.

At the time I was speechless with disbelief. Now I’m completely on board.

I really believe that an important part of classrooms is student ownership in the space and culture. This requires the (oftentimes challenging) feat of teachers loosening their grip and giving some measure of control to students over the space they work in. So another question comes to mind…

What is the balance between creating an inviting space and letting students have ownership?

This question has been on my mind for a few years now and I’ve been dipping my toes in, slowly relinquishing more and more control to my students over their learning space. Unsurprisingly, the ground hasn’t yet fallen out from under me.

At the beginning of the 2017 school year, I will be diving in and experimenting with setting up (almost) nothing at all in my classroom and working with the grade to collectively and carefully make decisions about our space. Watch this space for a follow-up post to see how this goes, both pedagogically and logistically.

‘Creating an inviting classroom means reflecting comfort and productivity throughout the daily routine’ (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001. p89). Considering that, I think some of the keys to creating an inviting and practical space will be:

  • Guiding students to create areas that are important to how the class will work, e.g. a classroom library or meeting space on the floor.
  • Having good quality furnishings and items (throw away the dirty old floor rugs and the sad looking cushions) that students can choose from to set up and furbish.
  • Making sure that students have the resources and freedom to own the space aesthetically, to add their personal touch (for example, last year one of my students brought in some little cupcake cushions that adorned our book corner and made it cheery, another time a lamp was brought in for a dark corner).
  • Creating zones or different areas for different purposes. Read more about ways you can do this here.

This post is not to discourage teachers from the effort they put in or discredit that work. I think most people agree that teachers give their heart and souls to their job, and sometimes this looks like dreaming up and creating a beautiful classroom space for their students to walk into on the first day. But is this the best way to expend our effort? Think back to that earlier list. These are the things that truly make a difference to student learning, so it’s time to re-direct that effort towards the things that make the most difference, the things that really matter.



Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2001). Guiding readers and writers (1st ed., p. 89). Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Murdoch, K. (2015). The Power of Inquiry (1st ed., p. 33). Northcote: Seastar Education.

Richardson, W. (2016). Old School to Bold School. Presentation, Bastow Institute.