Thursday, March 26, 2015

Puzzling skill development


Book week was approaching and I was scrambling for easy to implement but engaging activities for the secondary school. Inspired by the above tweet from @sarakiplinger aka the Library Princess I thought I would give the idea of a community jigsaw a go. I had tried doing a community puzzle it at a previous school in the primary school, but it was a bit of a disaster due to little hands stealing pieces and messing up the puzzles as they were nearing completion.

I looked up how to order the puzzle in the above tweet, but found it a little uninspiring with older titles so continued in my research and found Create Jigsaw Puzzles, an online company that will create and send you your custom designed puzzles very quickly and worldwide.

I quickly created a design based on the most popular, newly and just released titles, with interesting and detailed covers that would make the puzzle challenging in parts. I loaded it up and paid my money for a 500 piece puzzle. 10 days later the order arrived all the way from the USA. Just in time for book week.

Book week arrived and the puzzle was placed on a round table in the middle of a major thoroughfare with a couple of stools and chairs placed beside it. There was no promotion about the puzzle. We just let it talk for itself. Within seconds of students walking into the library a group started on the puzzle. They chatted about many things while completing the puzzle including the books they were piecing together - had they read them? They hadn't heard of this book - do you know what it is about? Did you like it etc... Many even sought to read the books they had pieced together on the table.

Through the week the puzzle has been completed about twice a day, sometimes a group completes it one sitting, sometimes individuals come along and finish one book and leave it, and sometimes individuals just sit and do the puzzle by themselves, but accepting casual help from passers by.
At first those who completed the puzzle were upset that we destroyed it 10 mins after completion, but as we explained puzzles are for doing, not looking at. They were accepting and looked forward to helping and watching another group finish the puzzle.
Due to its popularity we have left the puzzle out for an extra week, and it continues to be as popular with different groups as in the first week. We are now looking at extending our range of puzzles - double sided, classics, series etc. 

There have been many studies on the benfits of jigsaw puzzles on the brain essentially it comes down to the following from The Infinite mind blog

  • enhances visual perception
  • hones coordination
  • improves memory
  • develops critical thinking
  • increases dopamine production in the brain
  • heightens creativity
  • stimulates the whole brain
After observations doing group jigsaw puzzles also enhances collaboration, co-operation, altruism, conversation and inquiry.

I did not ask permission to use the book covers in this way, but feel it is fair use in the promotion of the books and it is for educational purposes, and I will not be using them for a commercial purpose.

Do you have community jigsaw puzzles in your library? If you don't, I would highly recommend it.






Saturday, March 21, 2015

Author visits - the good, the bad, and the ugly


Author visits are big business. There are companies that make money organising them, there are festivals arranged around them and schools pay quite a bit of money to host them, and of course the authors themselves are paid to do them. It seems that almost everyone who writes a childrens book is on the circuit, and just like the rock bands, much income comes from live performances rather than sales of their creations. There are a few reasons to go on tour: to increase readers of their books as it has been documented that author visits increase the short term sales and reading of books of the visiting author which may or may not spill over into further wider reading. (that site is from the Society of Authors, so may be a bit biased). If the visitor is a well known author, it is to keep young people reading their books and to fulfill the desire of their readers to personally connect with their favourite author. I did a very small action research on the effects of author visits in 2007, you can see the report here on this Prezi.

A very quick and informal survey of middle schools students want to meet John Green, A.S. King, Louise Rennison among others. Why? What is the appeal of meeting these authors? The students want to ask questions about the characters and reasons for creating the story the way it was created, they want that personal connection which makes the authors work come alive.

In many cases schools book an author visit unseen and go on the trust of other librarian and teacher recommendations. This can be problematic as we all have different expectations from an author visit. Sometimes author visits are a waste of money and time as they leave nothing behind and do not inspire anyone to do anything except be wary of author visits. In 2009 I tried to create a google doc to centralise information about authors and their strengths, contact information, but at that time there were limited options for sharing this information socially and widely. Maybe this will be something worth pursuing again on a better platform.

So what do I expect from an author visit? I have come up with a few ideas which you may agree with or not and may have further comment on ...

1. I  expect an author to plan for and cater for their audience. I do not like it when they deliver the exact same scripted presentation to all age groups whether it is primary or secondary. Authors need to be aware of how to deliver to different age groups. If they don't know, it is important for them to learn. It is OK to go off the memorised script, it makes it real. I do not expect a slick show, I want some learning to happen.

2. If a school asks an author to focus on a particular curriculum element that is being learned then they need to include it. The author has been asked to the school for a reason, if they cannot fulfill this request it, they need to say so, or learn how to include it.

3. Be aware of and know your audience. A group of international school students is very different to a school in the middle of London or rural Australia. You cannot deliver the same presentation to all.

4. The students want to connect with the authors work so talk about it. I have found recently that authors seem to be going on a self promotion tour of all the fabulous things they have done in their life with a "take a look at me I am so good attitude". Leave plenty of time or include time for questions from the students, they want to connect with you.

5. Authors need to be flexible and not precious. Schools are busy places, you will be fed and watered, but sometimes you may not get it exactly when you want it, and stuff happens that will require change of plans. Go with the flow.

6. I do not expect the author to humiliate the students in any way. Authors are short term guests in our school, teachers work hard at building self and personal confidence over the years, and the authors do not know anything about these students. If there is a problem with a student, the teachers need to deal with it, not the author.

7. The presentations need to be engaging and involve the students. Sitting and quietly listening to someone talk for an hour is tough for adults, let alone children. Authors need to include engaging and meaningful activities that relate to the work of the author or to teach the process of creation in an active participatory way.

8. Reading their work the whole time is not acceptable. They can use excerpts and include a few readings, but they also need to include something of themselves in between.

9. Authors should not use profanity when delivering their presentation. No excuses. (Yes it has happened numerous times).

10. I would like to have an opportunity for feedback, real feedback, not polite feedback. We have paid much money for your time and delivery, we need to tell you what we think and the visit could have been better. You can use this to improve, or even as a promotional tool.

I have organised or been part of over 25 author visits in various schools, and the best authors I have had the privilege to introduce to students are below with what made them so good.... do you have others? Please leave a comment on best author visits and why.

Jack Gantos (USA the visit to HK was in 2012) - Jack had different presentations for different age groups (yrs 4 - 12), he focused on the writing process, brought with him his diary to show and left resources for the school to use. He was dynamic and focused on teaching the students.

Deborah Ellis (Canada the visit to HK was in 2010) -  Deborah left a legacy of service. She is quiet, reserved but talks with passion about the locations, situations and the people she meets while researching her novels.

Mem Fox (Australia, the visit to HK was in 2001)- Dynamic, hilarious, personal and really connected with every child.

Darren Shan (Ireland  the visit to HK was in 2007) - Pure genious where he had over 300 students eating out of his hand while he had a small group re-enact the firsat chapter of Circque du freak. He was funny and was very personable.

Elizabeth Honey (Australia the visit to HK was in 2002) - Elizabeth drew pictures and helped the students create stories similar to hers. Her presentations were high energy and very engaging and active.

Alan Gibbons (UK the visit to HK was in 2013)  - high energy with engaging short writing/ creativity activities throughout his presentation time.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Small conferences, big learning.



The International School of Macau is hosting the 2015  Hands on Tech Conference which will be held on April 18. There will be a number of speakers and workshops which cover a wide range of topics all to do with using digital tools to enhance learning.

I am a little excited as I have been invited by Louise Phinney and her team to be one of the keynote speakers at the conference along with Kerri-Lee Beasley and  Kelly Grogan. This excitement stems from my following of these educators for a while and have benefitted from their insights and expertise on many occassions so it will be nice to work alongside them on this day of learning.

I am also excited on another level - did you notice anything about these presenters? I think it must be the first digital conference where all the keynote presenters are women and this has got to be a good thing.

I am also excited as smaller conferences lead to bigger learning. These smaller school based conferences allow for bigger conversations, more aha moments and more personal connections as participants are not lost in the masses and feel more at ease with asking questions of each other, approaching the presenters and having conversations over lunch with new friends.

These smaller conferences also allow people to take a chance at presenting without too much risk and to build confidence in sharing their expertise. For me it will be my first 'keynote' after many years of hands on workshops, so this will be a new challenge for me. I am reflecting on the keynotes that have stood out for me and have identified 5 key elements which make them memorable. These elements are personal insights which are thought provoking, practical, engaging and entertaining. So that is what I am working on...

If you are close by to Macau and have a free Saturday on the 18 April, register and come along for some big learning. Hands on Tech Conference Macau Int'l School.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Making the invisible visible

Image from Pixabay

Inspired by Katie Day, Barb Reid and Nadine Bailey's presentation at the School Librarian Connection last November, our library team put our thinking hats on to make our invisible ebook collection more visible to the students to boost awareness and reading of these resources.

One idea was to have a face out display on the physical shelf, but we didn't have enough shelf space to do this. So we thought about a physical book like object that would be integrated into the collection. Initially we thought that a discarded book wrapped and recovered with the cover of the ebook would suffice, but then we didn't have enough old books to do that with and we faced the problem of having different sized books which would mean the covers would need to be reworked each time.

We found some DVD cases in a storage cupboard and felt these would do nicely. A template was created using illustrator and a mock up book was designed using the cover illustrations of the ebooks. A QR code was included front and back which linked directly to the book on the Wheelers ePlatform page, where the blurb could be read. If the student wanted to read the book they would just need to log into Wheelers to download the book and start reading it within seconds. We also added a tiny url for those who wish to access the book on their laptop, a 'spine label' so it would be shelved according to where it would go if it was a physical book and instructions on how to access the book.

We may even keep a permanent display of the ebook covers with the QR codes available somewhere for even more "in your face" access.

The display of ebooks ready for the shelf.

What the printed insert looks like.
Shelving the 'book' in amongst the other physical books to
improve browsing options. (The Dollhouse Asylum)

The ebook has also been catalogued in the collection it would be in if it were a physical book, along with the direct link to the Wheeler's page.



Today I introduced this concept to three classes. They were impressed with the magic and some even borrowed an ebook to read. Mission accomplished!


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A blast from the past



About 7 years ago I was employed at Discovery College. One of the tasks was to set up the library from an empty shell to operational in 27 days. As part of the process I recorded the journey on another blog - Fresh Baked Library. (The link will take you to the very first post.) This blog is now dormant, but I still keep it as a reminder of the process we went through.  The library I am currently working in is undergoing a renovation and I have been able to go back to the blog and find suppliers and what we did, how we did things and what happened.

I found blogging through the process quite cathartic and through it I was able to justify decisions and how I was spending my days in the process. Looking back over it, no wonder I was exhausted!

I also created the following slideshare presentation for an online conference in 2009 as a form of reflection and consolidation about the project and to share what we did so others could learn.




If you are going through renovations or big changes, or even starting from scratch, I would highly recommend you keep a blog of the process to help keep track of your progress, identify what still needs to be done and also in a few years time you can look back and reflect and others can learn from you.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Scaffolded thinking



The opportunity

I was approached by an English teacher last week to create and facilitate a lesson on Romeo and Juliet. The main objective was for the students to create questions to prompt inquiry about the play, Shakespeare, Narrative, Language etc. We had a 3 minute conversation setting it up while I was busy doing something else, then when I had time I went over what he said and formulated some questions of my own ... 

Questions : round 1

  • Have they read the text?
  • What is the purpose of the questions they need to create? What do they need to be thinking about (context ... relationships? perspective? misunderstandings? etc)
  • What is the specific part of identities & relationships that you are focusing on ? 

When he replied with his answers (and the unit plan) I started to plan what might be possible ... then I read Buffy Hamilton's post on  Igniting Inquiry with think puzzle explore and thought how I could incorporate this style of a lesson into what we wanted to achieve.

Questions : round 2

  • Do the questions the students are creating need to be focussed on narrative? ie what makes a narrative? what is the effect? What are the elements etc? Rather than on Romeo & Juliet and the history of the story/ context/ characters / Shakespeare? or both??
  • Why I am asking is .. I want to give them some short stimulus to prompt them to ask questions, but I want the prompts to be appropriate to the unit and where you are heading with it...
The reply ...
"The questions created should initially focus on narrative, but I am hoping the students will learn to appreciate storytelling and how important it is and has been to all societies since the beginning of time. I also want them to gain an appreciation of Shakespeare and why his narratives are so highly regarded and what we can learn from what is seen now as high brow literature, but was written for the masses."
The planning 
We had one hour for the students to be inspired and stimulated enough to want to know more to then ask questions, which would be used at a later date in their unit to direct their own learning.
Something I have noticed in school settings is that students are not given much time to think, ponder and delve into a topic before they are required to formulate 'good' questions. How can one formulate questions if one has limited knowledge of the subject? This was driving how the activity was going to pan out.
Once I understood what the purpose and the context of the questions I started to look for stimulus resources that would support the 6 main themes of  
  • "Shakespeare speak" (the language of Shakespeare)
  • "What is it about Shakespeare?" (why are we still studying him 500+ years later?)
  • "Time and place of Romeo and Juliet"  (what is the context of the story)
  • "How the story was told" (narration devices used by Shakespeare)
  • "Themes of Romeo and Juliet" (self explanatory)
  • "Modernising Shakespeare" (Why modernise Shakepeare?)
(I chose 6 themes as we have about 28-30 in each class - 6 would mean  groups of about 4-5 and they tied into with what the teacher wanted to focus on)



These headings were each placed on three large pieces of paper. Under each heading was placed the focus for that paper ...  Think, Puzzle, Explore

The resources were created to support each theme and copied for each member of the group. (It would be a screen free lesson). (If you would like to see the resources, please contact me as they used sources from different places and I am not sure it would be good to share on a public forum without permission even though they have all been accredited appropriately)






The lesson 

I introduced the lesson and how it was going to work through a short keynote presentation below ...





The students were keen to get going. The first time we went through the activity I prompted them to move to the next stage of the activity by changing between slides. We gave them about 2 minutes for Thinking about and recording their prior knowledge. The Puzzle section was allocated about 15 minutes to read and talk about the stimulus material and to create questions, then about 3 minutes for exploring and reflecting on any new learning from the stimulus material. Once they had completed one topic, the sheets and resources were moved to the next table via a rotation cycle we had set up. The second and third time the students were able to move through the activities at their own pace.


The students had not done an activity like this for a while, so it took at least one rotation to figure out what needed to be done, by the third rotation they had it sorted and were experts at it.

I had two classes on the same day and unfortunately I had run out of time to make the professional looking pages, so i had to resort to handwritten. Not what I wanted to do, but what was required.

The result
Having the three area allowed for us to see what their prior knowledge was, and then in the explore section we could see their new learning or thinking about the theme or concept. The Puzzle section was the actual focus of the activity, and the questions the students created ranged from simple factual questions right through to conceptual. See below.

The created questions ...

How is it that Shakespeare’s invented words are still in use today?
Can you translate old english?
Why did shakespeare choose to make up words and how does he explain them to people?
Was there rivalry between other writers and him?
When, how and why is the new language adapted by people?
How do they learn unknown words without the dictionary?
Is our understanding of Shakespeares language equivalent to what he wanted to express?

Why did Shakespeare write Romeo & Juliet at that time and place?
Did everyone in the time period understand Shakespearean language?
What has changed over time in different versions of the story?
[What were] Romeo’s tastes [in women?]

How can they express & feel passionate about someone they don’t fully know?
Is shakespeare’s true intention to have different characters so individual audiences can choose who is the main character in their heart?

Which literary device does he use the most?
How does he get the inspiration for Romeo & Juliet
How did people respond to Romeo and Juliet first came out? was it very popular?
Why does Shakespeare want the audience to know the ending of the play before they have even read it or seen it?

Why does he make his characters wear tights?
Why did he create Romeo and Juliet play?
Has there always been tension between parents and teenagers?

How can Shakespeare change the grammar of english - Wouldn't that be bad english?
How does Shakespeare always seem to make all of his plays seem magical and dream like?

Who is Baz Luhrman?
Why did Disney base the Lion king on Hamlet?

Will people still be learning about Shakespeare 100 years into the future?
Is Shakespeare timeless enough to be modernised?
Are people going to modernise the modern version later?

This was just a sample of the questions the students created, some of them are so good and will allow quite a bit exploration and thinking.

The prior knowledge and new understanding comments were also interesting and highlighted some misunderstandings and confusing, which will be good to straighten out.

Feedback from the students :


  • Liked working in the small groups on different topics
  • Were able to learn a little bit about a number of things
  • Didn’t need to stick to one topic for too long.
  • Liked the critical thinking and making the questions together
  • The length of the stimulus articles was suitable for most.
  • Would have liked more time for the question creation and to discuss their learning from the sources.
  • One student said the activity was tedious doing the same thing over and over again.
  • The length of some of the stimulus may have been a struggle for some
  • the second class commented that the paper needed to have more guidance - this class didn’t have the same instructions on the paper as the others.



Reflection for improvement:

Take 80 minutes to do 3 rotations

Include discussion time about the stimulus with driving questions to help thinking
Have the students place their own questions etc into the google form (save teacher time)
Give the time to give better instructions at the beginning
Have the printed slides on the large paper for all groups and classes
EXPLORE - is not the right term for this activity as we really wanted to focus on the questions, maybe reflect, ponder with a question - "What are your new understandings?"

Overall I think it was a successful lesson and collaboration and, with some tweaking, will be better next time! Thanks Buffy Hamilton for the inspiration!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fixing a flexible schedule



There has been a raging battle with school librarians over the fixed vs flexible issue for their schedule. It has mainly been a battle for the elementary school because the library time is often used as a relief from face to face time, and secondary schools have have had a different battle of just getting access to classes. The whole debate is a difficult one as each school is different and each school librarian has different talents.

Something that we tried this year in the secondary school is for each English class years 7 -11 to be scheduled into library time once a fortnight. In the first term, I used this time to upskill the students on the library resources and services through a quick 15 minute activity as they really had had no formal exposure to the library before this after elementary school. They then had time to browse and borrow books and read. The teacher would always accompany their classes.

For the first few months, I scheduled other appointments around this schedule so I would also be able to be with the classes to help with finding resources, talk to the teachers, and to promote the library services. After a few months the English teachers started asking me to integrate some of the things they are doing in class into these library sessions - Introduce George Orwell and Animal Farm, run a literature circle group, and help to collect supporting texts (Star Crossed Lovers to support Romeo & Juliet).

Although the scheduled time with the secondary classes has been quite low level stuff on my part I have realised it has led to a number of long term benefits :
  • Building relationships with the students, I can see what they are reading, doing, and ask them about their lives. They are now more willing to approach me to be helped in any way they need to be helped
  • Building relationships with the teachers. This has led to being invited to be part of the planning process, and to co teaching in the English department. It has also led to being invited into other curriculum areas as word gets around.
  • Better collection development as I now know what the student interests are, and the context in which subjects are being taught.
  • Students who know how to use the library more independently remotely, and better use of our services and resources.
  • More use of the physical space during recess and lunch times and after school.
  • More meaningful access to the students by the school librarian.
  • Increased reading by the secondary students.
  • More students wanting to be involved in the Library Service programme, which has led to more positive student initiatives happening in the library.
It has all resulted due to the increased exposure of the students and teachers to the library and teacher librarian.

As  my schedule fills up, the flexible part of the scheduling comes into play. It is now 2nd term and  the english teachers are aware that I may not be with their classes during their scheduled library visit as I will be working somewhere else at that time - in a planning meeting or teaching a class in the classroom. I will tell them in advance and they have the choice if they wish to bring the students in for their scheduled time or not. Most choose to still come along as the students demand it!

My point of this post is that even though regularly scheduled classes may not be the best use of the School Librarians time all the time, if it is negotiated beforehand and used with purpose, it can lead to much, much more.