Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The 'fairy door' hike ...

A fairy door in a small cave

Fairy doors?  Hobbit doors?  I had no idea what the children were talking about as we set off for an afternoon hike up Mount Erskine on Salt Spring Island.  Thanks to a wrong turn, we ended up first climbing Mount Maxwell and then crossing to Mount Erskine before descending along the 'fairy door' route.  At the top of the mountain, we stopped to enjoy the spectacular view across the water towards Vancouver Island.  

Another fairy door

Shaded walking trail

The descent was the most exciting part of the hike - we were on the lookout for fairy doors!  Not knowing what to expect, I was both surprised and amazed when we came across the first fairy door.  Perhaps the loveliest thing about finding the fairy doors was watching the delight of the children as they gathered and left offerings to the fairies - beautiful leaves, unusual rocks and odd shaped pieces of wood.  

Flowers on top of Mount Maxwell

Mount Maxwell dotted with foxgloves

Despite the logical (and perhaps cynical) side of my brain not believing in the presence of fairies, the forest really did seem like a magical place.  I almost expected 'The Magic Faraway Tree' characters, Moonface, Silky and Saucepan Man, to come tumbling out of one of the tiny doors.  

The view from the top of Mount Erskine

Vancouver Island from Mount Erskine

When we returned home, I was intrigued about what I'd seen so I did a little research and found a lovely article about the fairy doors, which you can read here.

Another view ...

... and another

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Getting to 'the island' ....

Sea plane taking off

My life just seems to go from one adventure to the other at the moment.  I am truly very lucky to have these opportunities.  The next adventure came in the form of a seaplane and my arrival at the family's island in the Gulf Islands of Canada (maps below).  From Vancouver, I caught a small sea plane to Salt Spring Island.  It was a 25 minute ride and such a fun experience.  The view from the plane was stunning and it was hard to believe that I was going to be living on one of these islands for the next two weeks and then on and off again over the summer.  When I arrived, the family were waiting in their boat to pick me up for the 10 minute trip to their home, Deadman Island.  I arrived to a true island paradise (photos to follow).

As you can see, Vancouver residents are very original and creative in their housing design

Approaching the Gulf Islands

Getting closer ....

.... and closer ....

.... and finally here

For the non-Canadians out there, here are a couple of maps to give you an idea of where the islands are actually situated ..... 

The Gulf Islands - Salt Spring Island is one of the biggest of the islands

Salt Spring Island - the family's islands are located in the Ganges Harbour

Monday, 28 June 2010

Art Deco district of Miami ....

Miami is home to the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world.  In the late 1970s, many of the buildings were ready for destruction until a local woman set up the Miami Design Preservation League.  Now, all the buildings have been restored and are protected.  Many of the old Art Deco hotels now house cool bars, restaurants and clubs.  The audio tour I did was fascinating, it taught me all about the different Art Deco phases and the unique features of the various buildings.  My favourite buildings were those with the blue and yellow colour schemes. 

Welcome to Miami .....

View from my hostel room

You know those American TV shows and movies that you see with buffed bodies everywhere and the sun is always shining.  Most of those were filmed in Miami.  Beautiful people are everywhere.  Strutting down Ocean Drive you will find shirtless men and girls with never-ending legs wearing pre-shrunk dresses.  Miami is the party capital of Florida.  Every street is lined with cool restaurants, funky bars and live music pumping out of the night clubs.  Not the kind of place to visit by yourself.  Having said that though, I loved my short stay in Miami.  I began my day with breakfast on the beach, watching a Latin production filming their beach scenes followed by a walking tour of the Art Deco district (photos in the next post).  The afternoon was spent at South beach, people watching and swimming in the amazingly warm water.  In the evening, I went to a local Cuban restaurant (about 70% of Miami's population is Caribbean).  I stayed at the Deco Walk hostel, an old Art Deco hostel in the prime location of Ocean Drive.  It didn't feel like a hostel, it was very classy and the interior design was beautiful.   A short, but sweet visit.

Deco Walk hostel - Amazing location and beautiful Art Deco hostel

Hostel lounge area

South Beach - Not much to look at, but, oh, the people watching!

Early morning filming at South Beach

Buffed bodies working out at the beach

Sunday, 27 June 2010

American Journeys - Orlando to Miami and back ....

A mile and a half outside Fort Worth we stopped again.  After half an hour or so the lady from the snack  bar told us that the driver of the freight train on the track in front had gone home.  He had to, she said, because he'd completed his twelve hour shift ... We rolled into Fort Worth at four pm; the time the Austin train was due to leave.  Amtrak was good enough to wait the few minutes it took to clamber from one train to the other and I found myself sitting next to an oversized Texan in a baseball cap who occupied, in addition to his own seat, a quarter of mine.

 (American Journeys by Don Watson)

In Don Watson’s book, ‘American Journeys’, he describes the abysmal system of Amtrak, America’s train system.  I read his book whilst on my last US trip and found myself wondering what he was talking about.  The trains ran on time, they were clean, the stations were well served with cafes and other small stores, the staff were friendly.  “What was he complaining about?” I wondered.

On my Orlando-Miami round trip, I understood.  I arrived at Orlando station to be greeted by a dirty waiting room where the stale smell of urine and beer wafted through in the stifling heat.  There were no cafes or lovely bookstores to browse.  With no explanation, the train was late and passengers were continually given the wrong information about where to wait.  The system of boarding the train was complicated and confusing - how hard can it be to get people onto a train?

Everyone was relieved when we got going.  The standard of the train was still great – friendly staff and big, comfy, reclining seats.  Not long into the trip, we stopped.  And waited.  And waited some more.  No one knew why.  Was there a driver-less freight train ahead of us, as in 'American Journeys'?  Half an hour later we were still waiting but had a vague explanation - we weren't allowed to cross the crossing until the delayed north-bound train had passed.

Despite all this, I still love train travel.  Traveling by train gives you an opportunity to peek into someone else's life from a different perspective.  I learnt that people from Florida have lots of big trucks sitting in their backyards and that like in most cities, graffiti artists choose backyard fences as their canvas.  I saw orange trees in lush green orchards, industrial sites, along with many small and run-down townships.  Train travel gives you a time to truly relax, there is nothing you can do except sit back and enjoy the ride.  In between watching the scenery, reading and viewing a couple of episodes of Criminal Minds, the time whizzed by and I arrived in Miami only 2 hours late.  The return train was only 30 minutes late.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Conference Day 2 and 3 ....

My brain is very full after two very intensive but wonderful days at the conference.  The last two days were very intense and I left with lots of old and new ideas to keep my mind ticking for a while.  I was lucky enough to participate in two sessions with Grant Wiggins, the second half of the Understanding by Design team.  The first focused on making meaning through inquiry and dialogue and the second on transfer of understanding.  Grant presented in a very passionate and direct manner, opening with the statement, 'High school is boring.  I wouldn't want to be a student in today's high schools.'  I was glad I wasn't a high school teacher in the audience, particularly a high school Maths teacher, they got torn apart.  His main message in the first session was that teachers need to stop front loading students with information and knowledge and begin engaging them with essential questions to debate and discuss as a group, hence making meaning.  

In the second session, Grant presented some alarming statistics from the high stakes testing in America.  After the analysis of one particular round of tests, students were interviewed about why they may have got certain questions wrong.  On a writing question which asked students to choose what kind of text the example was, many students commented that it wasn't an essay because it didn't have five paragraphs.  Who says that an essay must have five paragraphs?  American school teachers, apparently.  Hence, the need for a greater focus on 'transfer'.  Grant continually reinforced the idea that students need to be able to solve real problems on their own.  He also talked about students needing to see the purpose of the knowledge, skills and strategies that are being passed on to them, therefore 'Why do we have to learn this?' is a valid question that teachers should be able to answer.  

I also attended a session on interactive white boards (IWB) and 'clickers'.  The session was very energetic and interactive, the excitement of the teachers playing with these tools made it easy to see how much fun they would be in the classroom.  The clickers were particularly fascinating.  For those of you who don't know what they are .... clickers look a little bit like a remote control and they are used by students to answer questions and provide feedback to teachers.  For example, the teacher can ask a multiple choice question and students respond using the clicker.  The results can then be displayed on the IWB for all to see (anonymous, of course).  Students can also use the clicker to text short responses.  Pretty cool stuff.  I'm still not 100% convinced of their educational benefits but they are a fun and novel tool to use.

My last session of the conference was about Differentiated Instruction (DI) and UbD.  Most of the UbD information was old news to me  but it is always good to revisit ideas with a different perspective.  DI seems like common sense teaching to me but it was good to put more of a formal spin on what most primary school teachers already do quite well.  The main point that I took away from Carol Ann Tomlinson's (DI guru) discussion was the idea of 'planning for flexibility' and 'refining for reality'.  'Planning for flexibility' means making time in the curriculum for opportunities to provide students with differentiated instruction.  Then, during the actual teaching time, the teacher is able to 'refine for reality' - use those opportunities to provide for the specific needs of the individual students.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The hotel experience ....

View from my room 

The Holiday Inn.  It's been a while since I've stayed at a Holiday Inn (Bali, 1993, I think) but because I don't stay in hotels very often, I am not complaining.  It's a far cry from the Gaylord Palms Resort where the conference is being held, but hey, I have a room to myself!  With two huge beds.  And a clean, private bathroom.  And fluffy towels.  Heaven for a hostel girl.  Having said all that though, hotels are definitely not as fun as hostels.  The hotel experience is turning me into a slob.  Each night, I find myself lying in bed, eating dinner (and ice-cream), watching Criminal Minds (my latest TV series addiction) in my PJs.  What a lazy life.  I need to enjoy it while I can because tomorrow, I'm back to the hostel scene in Miami.  To tell you the true, I'm really looking forward to it.  Bring on 7 snoring room mates, a top bunk and a crowded bathroom.  But, hopefully there will be some interesting people to meet and good conversations to be had.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Standards - the fear of all American teachers ....

For those of you who are not interested in teaching, feel free to tune out for the next few days.  If it was possible, I would blog about the conference and my adventures in Orlando, but alas, there is nothing that has captured my interest in Orlando.  I did try.  I had some tips about bars and restaurants but after finding out the cost of getting to them ($110 return), I decided to save my cash for Miami and throw myself into conference mode.

The conference got off to a flying start with my first session, entitled 'Connecting Understanding by Design, What Works in Schools and Curriculum Mapping: Curriculum for the 21st Century'.  The session consisted of a panel of four big names in education - Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (UbD), Robert Marzano (WWS) and Heidi Heyes Jacobs (Curriculum Mapping) discussing the notion of curriculum in the 21st century.  Questions were texted or tweeted from the audience and flashed up on a big screen - how very 21st century.  A lot of the questions from the audience were related to standards and pacing guides, something that we are not terribly familiar with in Australia.  The standards issue was huge.  You could feel the tension in the air when they were first mentioned.  Of course, I've been reading about the dramas caused by standards and high stakes testing that's been happening in the US but wasn't really aware of what an enormous impact it is happening in the real world of classroom teachers.  We can only hope that the same panic doesn't occur in Australia with the introduction of the national standards.  A couple of key points that came out of the session:

  • What is curriculum?  Grant described it as the best path for achieving long term academic and intellectual goals.  Heidi outlined it as a series of choices, a composition made for real people, in real time.  Robert emphasised the assessed curriculum because it gives the most accurate reflection of what is happening in classrooms.
  • Standards (audience shudders).  Grant made the very good point that it is not the teacher who has to meet the standards but that there seems to be the disillusion that if the adults organise the material well, then it will all just happen.  Heidi warned of cherry picking the standards that we like as teachers.  Jay made a great analogy of using the standards in the same way that a builder uses the regulations for building a house - you need to use them but they are not the only thing that is considered.
  • The importance of assessment in curriculum.  I fully agreed with Jay's point that assessment must honour the discipline and the 21st century.  Heidi also agreed, commenting that students appear to time travel at school - they come to school and travel back in time (because we are using the same teaching, learning, assessment ideas from long ago) and when they leave school, they return to reality.  Robert introduced the idea of assessing from the inside out.  Students need to take control and show their own learning progression (he uses the term 'learning progressions' quite a lot - I think he is referring to something like a continuum).
The second session I attended was called 'Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners'.  I chose this because I'm still interested in keeping up-to-date with the 'English as an Additional Language' world.  Firstly, I have an issue with the term, 'English Language Learners' - aren't we all English language learners?  Even as I write this blog, I learn more about the English language.  DI is something that I know a little about (I think I do it) but am not super familiar with the terminology associated with it.  The session really spent most of the time with discussions about the statistics of students speaking languages other than English and how hard it was for them, along with the most basic suggestions for helping them in the mainstream classroom.  I should have chosen another session.

The third session was called 'Understanding by Design in Early Childhood'.  Here, I was hoping to pick up some new ideas for teaching six year old R.  The session was interesting.  I learnt a lot more about the world of early childhood (which still scares me a little) and picked up some ideas for wording essential questions for younger students. 

My biggest lesson for today was ..... choose 'big idea' sessions that make you think rather than the more concrete 'this is how you do it' sessions because American education certainly seem to be a long way behind the schools and the educators that I have had the privilege of working in and with.  

Again, apologies to those of you who are not used to or interested in my educational rants.  In a few days, I'll be in Miami with plenty of 'normal' things to blog about.

Monday, 21 June 2010

First impressions of Orlando ....

On first impressions, Orlando appears to be a fairly uninspiring city.  It seems to consist solely of theme parks and major highways.  Major highways that are lined by the usual American suspects - McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, Tim Hortons etc.  Add to that tempting mix, a diverse range of hotels, a series of tacky gift shops, lots of small dodgy looking amusement parks and huge numbers of neon lit all-you-can-eat restaurants, and that is Orlando.  If you are into theme parks and eating a lot of crap, then Orlando may be the place for you, but from my first impressions, I wouldn't recommend it.  But, I will get out and do some exploring over the next few days, you never know what you might find when you dig a little further beyond your first impressions.

Old Town - a small amusement park near the hotel

Big, tacky restaurants

Big, tacky gift stores

All-you-can-eat restaurants

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Bringing back childhood memories ....

Recently, I have taken a trip back to my childhood literary experiences and am enjoying re-reading some of my old favourites with the children I teach.  I am a firm believer that children should be read to every day and should experience the joy of listening to good quality literature.  In schools, this often slips by the wayside as the pressure of 'covering' the curriculum and preparing for special events gets in the way.  One of the joys of homeschooling is not having this pressure and being able to spend more time really getting into and enjoying books.  At the moment, the kids and I are enjoying several books together.  Six year old R. and I are currently reading 'The Faraway Tree' stories, by one of my all time favourite children's authors, Enid Blyton.  Ten year old B. and I are reading a series of children's novels about Mount Everest.  And, each afternoon, the three of us spread out on the couch to read one of Roald Dahl's books, another of my favourite authors.  We've just finished 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and have moved on to 'The Twits'.

Now, I'll take you back even further into my childhood to the wonderful world of picture story books.  A  very close friend of mine has just had her first baby, so I jumped at the chance to go shopping for picture story books.  My all time favourite baby book is 'Peepo', in my opinion it is the best baby book!  Another favourite is 'Rosie's Walk', which is quite appropriate for my friend, Anita, as her newborn daughter will be growing up on a farm!  I really had to restrain myself from buying up big, so instead, I made a list of future books to buy, including anything by Mem Fox (especially 'Koala Lou' and 'Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes'), Pamela Allen, Shirley Hughes (especially the 'Alfie' books) and Janet and Allen Ahlberg.  It really is worth it to spend the time re-reading your childhood favourites, even if you're not a teacher.  Happy reading!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Lacrosse ....

Imagine this scene.  Twelve 10 year old boys covered with protective body gear and helmets.  They are all wielding lacrosse sticks.  Because they are only 10, there is not a lot of passing happening in the game but a lot of crowding around the ball and a lot of hitting.  Lacrosse is perhaps one of the only sports where you are actually allowed to hit the opposition.  It is violent.  It is easy to see how it appeals to 10 year old boys.  The spectators were also interesting to observe. The mothers and fathers of the two country teams would put the most die-hard Collingwood fans with cries such as "Get them!" and "Hit him!".  The only things missing were the foul language and Joffa.  I sat with B's parents - we were like the Melbourne supporters (minus the Range Rover) - quietly applauding good play from both teams.  Although I was first shocked by the violence, my competitive side could see that this could be a sport I'd like to try some time.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The chocolate spoon ....

I know that I've blogged about exercise and eating healthily the past few days but chocolate is a weakness of mine and I can never resist the temptation, so forgive me for food blogs two days in a row.  When I arrived at work this morning, after walking up the hill in the cold rain, I received a lovely surprise.  Waiting for me in the school room was a package from my lovely German friend, Kiki.  Not sure what to expect (B.'s advice was "If she is a funny friend, stand back, you don't know what could be in there!"), I opened the package to find two chocolate spoons.  One is flavoured 'Hot Chilli Orange' and the other 'Cherry Hazelnut Aniseed'.  We had been discussing chocolate spoons over email and I loved the idea of them, so thank you Kiki for satisfying my curiosity and my sweet tooth!  Guess what I'll be enjoying tonight by the open fire?!