Building student voice into a project

How do we get students to invest in their learning? One way is to involve them in the planning process.

Involve students in the project design

Whilst this is a fantastic way to get students energised about a project, it can also be daunting. It helps if you have a clear idea about the parameters of the project. Consider what skills/content you are required to cover, these are your non-negotiable. And where can you afford to be flexible? Discuss the parameters with your class and brainstorm the possibilities. If you’re studying Shakespeare, would they be most invested in a play? Film? Satire? Invite them to be creative. This process can take anywhere from 10min to an entire lesson, depending on the class. From this point you can design the project based on the information you’ve gained.

Involve students in creating the criteria for success

Designing the criteria for success not only ensures students understand the criteria, but that is reflects what they view to be a quality project. This can be created with the entire class or by a group who expresses interest. If it’s the latter, I like to ensure the rest of the class views the criteria whilst it’s still a draft and gives it the seal of approval. This maintains the view that we’re a team and everyones voice matters.

Student leaders

If the first two options seem a little too chaotic, this is a nice simple addition to any project. Form student teams to look after specific aspects of the project. This might be event planners for the presentation, or a curation crew to oversee the design of a large scale product. Whatever it is, giving students specific roles and the autonomy to fulfil this role helps them to own the project, and by extension, their learning.

Entry Events – Building the Hype

I know we don’t always have time to do this, but when we do we should. Arguably, this is the part of teaching we need make time for. An entry event is designed to get students excited about their learning, and the excitement can start long before the event itself. Delivering teasers and cryptic clues before a project commences can generate buzz amongst your students and make them more receptive to the project once it finally arrives.

Here are a three simple ideas to get you started:

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  1. Create a simple ‘coming soon’ sign where your product will eventually be curated.

This will not only get your students talking, but the rest of the community who walks by. Once students are ‘in the know’ on the project, they can even take over and update the sign with teasers of their own.


2. Guerrilla Advertising

Get creative in the way you promote your project. In this project about mosquito eradication, pictures of mosquitos and the slogan “what’s the buzz?” written on windows had students talking in the days leading up to the Entry Event.

3. Digital Promotion

Posting photos, clues or even short clips on your class communication page can also get students thinking. This could be you setting up your resources for the entry event. One past project involved filming envelopes being sealed with wax. The enigma of such posts should be enough to get students asking questions, and one step closer to buying into the project without even realising it.


Presentation of Learning

This was one of my goals this year. I wanted to run a Presentation of Learning (POL), High Tech High style. Post experience, it’s got to be one of the most valuable things I’ve done in years.

The day started off pretty rough – students pulling out, panel members not showing up etc. Then, our first speaker gets up. She’s shaking. The moment she starts speaking, all of my expectations go out the window. This is not an academic speech. She tells us about how she was a year ago, about how her personal confidence has grown as a result of this class and lists the factors that have built her as a person. She breaks down crying, and it’s not long before the class follows. She was amazing.

She set the trend for the day. Students who had pulled out or never volunteered were suddenly asking to do impromptu speeches. Whilst most of our speakers discussed their academic growth, four others delved into the more personal throughout the day and had the audience in tears. The kids took over the Q+A section, praising the speakers and asking questions throughout. The atmosphere shifted into this beautiful space, we had bonded from the shared experience. It was amazing.

Whilst I don’t believe every POL would be like this, how could it? I do feel that when you give students time and a platform, when you say we want to hear about YOU, you never know where the experience will go. And that in itself is powerful.

The set up

From what I can gather High Tech High shuts down for a day and devotes their time to their POL’s. Parents come in and students are allocated a session for their presentation. I wanted to replicate this as best I could, and my amazingly supportive head teacher backed the attempt.

I selected a class that had had the most project exposure over my 15 weeks at the school and offered it as an optional task. This was the hitch. This year group had completed all of their assessments for the year, and given this was a personal experiment I was essentially asking them to do a speech, that no one else had to do, for what? Fun? I introduced the purpose of the POL:

  • Experience in metacognition
  • All about you: take time to consider yourself as a learner, what works for you and what doesn’t.
  • A safe place to practice speaking skills, take risks with the worlds most supportive audience.

As an incentive, we made up Golden Tickets that would grant participants entry into the class of their choice in 2018. This proved a massive draw card. I also catered the day to make it feel a little exclusive.

Criteria for Success

I’d given them a run down on my overall purpose and vision, but what they wanted was a clear checklist – what do we actually need to do?  We negotiated a checklist that all speakers would have to cover. It came down to four things:

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The Audience

We had a panel to mark the girls and add an air of formality to the occasion. I contacted the University of Wollongong and they sent out an invite to their pre service teachers.


One of the pieces of evidence a lot of the girls referred to was their goal setting. I hadn’t realised how powerful this experience was for them. We’d had several growth coaching sessions over the term, and as part of this they’d made little goal sheets as a visual reminder. On them, they wrote questions they wanted people to ask them to remind them of their goals.


I can’t describe how powerful this event was. My only regret was that we did it at the end of the year, something to work on for 2018…


Presentations of Learning: Student voices

High Tech High, Presentation of Learning

Entry Events – let’s not forget the fun!

I’ve gotten a little slack lately, and my entry event’s have been the victim.

In my time-poor state, I’ve been classifying team planning sessions as Entry Events. They’re not. Let’s not kid ourselves.

So last week, I decided to inject a little fun back into the process and kicked off Year 7’s picture book project with some craft and finger painting! Welcome to our hour of fun!

Station 1: Finger painting! This was a double station, meaning they could stay here for 20min rather than 10. Seemed to make sense with the mess.

Station 2: Picture book scavenger hunt. I set out a bunch of picture books, from tactile toddler books to Shaun Tan. They searched through to find symbolic items.

Station 3: Pop up books. This station kinda turned into general craft. Turns out they aren’t as excited by pop up images as I am…

Station 4: Silly rhymes



Coming Soon…

This week has been massive! We have two very cool projects about to launch (I’ve just added them to Project Cards – House of Cards and Mosquito Project). Johnny and I have spent a rainy Sunday holed up project planning – feels like the good ol’ days. Anyway, we’ve got very some cool Entry Events planned which I’ll get back to soon, and I’m experimenting with some gurilla advertising trying to get the kids buzzing before it begins. Exciting stuff!



What you like a story with that?

I’ve already posted about our 50 word stories, (here and here) they’ve since become a staple with all my classes. But what I haven’t covered is how we share these with the world. Cue today’s blog.

The original idea sprung from Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought Author Series Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.27.04 AM.png, and resulted in me ordering 200 coffee sleeves late one night in the whirlwind of  excitement… Luckily, the kids matched this. Phew. We contacted our school cafe and a plan was made. We would write our stories onto the coffee sleeves and deliver them each Friday morning. Each coffee sold was encircled by our words. The effect of this was better than I’d imagined, one teacher actually tracked a student down to complement her on her writing. We hadn’t really advertised what we were doing so it was a genuine surprise to staff when their coffee’s arrived. The only downside is the kids didn’t get to see this (I may have re enacted it for them)

The next step? No more handwriting. There is little joy in hand-printing 20 sleeves per child, we’re hoping to figure out a way to print them next time round!

Whatcha reading?

I’ve discovered a ton of great resources lately, here’s a quick run down for anyone interested.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 11.46.42 AM 1. ‘The Motivation Equationis my top pick. From the first page it breaks down how to capture student motivation, each chapter unpacks the concept in beautiful detail. A great read, you can find it here.

2. I love this woman. Her blog is a beautiful rabbit hole that I wound up losing two days of my life to. You’ve been warned.

3. ‘Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams‘ is another online resource, something I wish I had this article four years ago when we first started. It explores step by step how to structure and manage effective team work. All resources are included in the appendix. Find it here.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 11.45.46 AM4. Both a book and a websiteMaking thinking visiable‘ has some fantastic practical strategies. And when I say some, I mean more than you’ll ever be able to use. It also has strategies for shifting culture on a whole school level. I’m so energised reading this at the moment, I’m itching to get back in the classroom and start using them!

5. Lucky last for the moment, Johnny and I are reading this one together. It has sparked so many interesting conversations already and we’re only a few chapters in – ‘Authentic learning experiences’.

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Socratic Seminars

Socratic seminars are my newest interest/fascination/obsession – sometimes it’s hard to tell these three apart. I’m curious to see if there is some kind of magic formula to making this structured discussion a success. Admittedly, my initial sample size is small… Ok, it’s just my class. But the goal is to observe other classes and find the common elements that work, and those that need tweaking.

Bit of context, whilst this is a super nice Year 11 group they’re not the chattiest bunch. Crickets have been known to work overtime in our room. Que awkward silence. And yet since we’ve started the seminars I feel like I’m actually hearing their voices. Their real voices. Not just the answer that they feel like they’re expected to give, but their real insights and questions. It’s kinda cool sitting on the outside and just listening. Some of these students I’ve taught for three years and it’s only been the past three weeks I’ve seen them voluntarily contribute to a lesson. I don’t know if I can handle unpacking that one…

Here’s what I know so far, and again, not polished or perfect.

They’re in charge from the beginning.IMG_0029.jpg

If the ultimate goal is to sustain a 40 minute conversation without the teacher, then my voice should be out from the beginning. Right? Before our first seminar I asked them to make three key decisions:

  • Select the norms (rules)
  • Decide on the structure (fishbowl, big circle etc)
  • Pick a leader for the first circle

Embrace the awkward silence.

The leaders of our first circle came perfectly prepared. I’m talking adult level preparation. But, they got super nervous about the silence. They would ask a question and then leave around a three second pause before answering it themselves or moving on. And I get it. It’s nerve racking feeling responsible for a productive experience. But at the end, the groups exit cards all reflected they hadn’t felt they had the opportunity to speak. The secret? 5-7 second silences. Snuggle into the silence and get comfortable with it, eventually someone steps up.

Preparation is everything

Ok, the only reason someone wouldn’t step up is if they’re not prepared. If they haven’t done the readings, jotted down thoughts and questions prior, they just can’t participate. It’s too much weight on the others to carry the conversation. 90% of the exit cards from the first seminar indicated the students didn’t feel they were prepared enough to contribute to the discussion, at the level expected. However, second seminar 90% of feedback indicated they were relieved/satisfied with their level of preparation. No surprise the second discussion was far more insightful and interesting for all involved. And this is coming from them, I’m not hinting or swaying. My group of relaxed, passively sweet kids are saying: preparation is everything.

It’s not about me.

This has to start and end with them. In my view, anyway. I’m aware that I may appear mildly neglectful during the seminars. I speak as minimally as possible. I greet them in the hall but do not enter until they’ve arranged the furniture as we agreed. I pretty well ignore them for the first five minutes as they revise their notes, have those frantic hushed whispers. Then I begin very formally, welcoming them to our circle and reminding them of the norms before handing over to the leader for that session. I started in the circle, I maybe asked three questions. Then I’ve been slowing moving myself out as they become more confident. At the end of each session we spend about 10 minutes debriefing. They critique themselves and make any changes for the next session. So far, the magic number seems to be about eight students. Any bigger than this and they feel like there are too many voices. Their solution? Break the class into two separate groups, running two simultaneous seminars. I love their problem solving.

I get that this could be seen as just another buzz word for discussion. But you know what? I suck at whole class discussions. Having a highly structured way to conduct a student centered discussion works for me. And, so far, it seems to be working for them. Three seminars in and we’re all hooked. Bring on number four.

Finders Keepers!

imageAs a year 7 teacher this year I get to juggle multiple curriculum hats. I love it,  except for the fact that I suck at geography. Let’s rephrase that, it’s an area with ample opportunities for development… (que my growth mindset!)

One thing I am good at is throwing myself into new challenges, especially when it’s student driven. So a few months ago my  year 7’s started telling me about their hobby – Geocaching. Even to my outsider eyes it reeked of geo skills. The evil villain living in the back of my mind started plotting instantly.

I started grasping around to build my oh so basic understanding of this field, and then realised that was the wrong direction. Why fake it when I have the real thing? Student experts! My four experts were dubbed as such and took on the role of fielding all questions and leading our class excursion to find three real geocaches in the local area (this was our entry event). image

So my master explores marched us on out of the school with the efficiency and speed you would expect of those intent on discovery. Equipped with our iPhone compass’ we unearthed three geocaches, feeling like real live explorers.

The next step was to create our own!

Side note: Ok, just go with me for a second… what if we could merge Year 7 Geo skills with Year 12 ‘Discovery’ AOS? Worth a try? This is my goal next year. Our geocache presentations could the entry for Year 12 Discovery…