The Kimberley: A small big place

Here’s the physical area of the Kimberley, the breathtaking northernmost region of Western Australia where I’ve lived and worked for the last 6-and-a-bit years, courtesy of Google:

Here are a few other well-known jurisdictions for comparison:

Although the place is vast, it’s also rather small in terms of the degrees of separation amongst it’s inhabitants, as I was reminded last Friday.

Each year the Clontarf Foundation host a Year 11 and 12 senior leaders camp in Broome. Senior school students from Kununurra, Halls Creek, Derby and Fitzroy Crossing join their peers in Broome as the boys get ready to work towards their education goals for the year. One of the elements of the camp is for the guys to do some volunteer work, and each year we’re very happy to host one of the groups at Broome North PS.

As I greeted this year’s bunch in the front office I noticed we had boys from a couple of the places I’ve previously worked in the Kimberley. To the lad in the Kununurra shirt I asked, ‘Which footy team do you play for back home?’ to which he gave me a one word answer, ‘Crows’. I followed with something like, ‘Ah, the best team! That’s who I played for when I lived there’ to which he instantly replied, ‘Yeah, I know you!’. Naturally, young adults at 17 look very different to when they were kids at 11, so I started racking my brain to try and recall who this fella was. I was then fortunate to get his surname correct before he filled me in with the first name. We’ll go with the pseudonym Frankie here.

After walking the boys down to the Year 1/2 area so they could help our kids with some Science activities, I realised just who Frankie was. I recalled helping out at footy training each week with the Clontarf crew when he was a Year 5/6 student. I then remembered that Frankie’s actually made an appearance in this very blog before! Here’s the picture of him proudly holding a very large barra as an 11 year old in a post from October, 2013:

And here’s Frankie as a young man now, helping out in Science class:

While the boys were working I printed the barra photo ready to show Frankie. When they came back through the office I made sure to first ask him which of his uncles and brothers are still playing footy for the Crows. (The photo at the end of this post, taken prior to the 2013 grand final, has some of the most talented guys I’ve ever played footy with. Most are family for Frankie.) I then pulled out the barra photo, and instantly got a quiet smile and a nod of ‘wow’. The other lads were pretty keen to have a look, and then dish out kudos in the form of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ for such a great catch. Frankie, eyes fixed on the pic, said quietly, ‘That was my first ever big barra’ and then didn’t to be asked twice when I asked if he wanted to keep the copy.

I love that connections made with kids and families 6 years ago still hold currency today. It’s a great reminder for all of us as educators that the moments of interaction in the short term can mean plenty to others in the long term, even without us knowing it. And you just never know when a previous student will walk through the door, even from 1000km away!

Planning the Journey

Last year we published our school’s 2018-2020 Business Plan. Whilst we were really pleased with the final product, it dawned on me that most people would have no idea of how a plan like this comes about. Does the principal lock himself in the office and write it alone? Is it as simple as cut and pasting from a centrally provided template? Does one merely get a marketing company to put it together?

Hopefully you guessed that the answer is indeed ‘no’ to the above questions. In the case of Broome North PS, staff spent the best part of four months engaging in facilitated sessions to ensure what we produced was ours. Along the way I had some slides to keep us on track, and I thought that collating them into one place might be a useful way of documenting the process. Once we had all of the words together (here’s the original Google Doc), we shared it and a folder of photos with a publisher. After a week or so of proofing and tweaking, voila! Business plan complete.

(May I suggest that if you’re looking for some one to bring your own plans to life, Craig at Gumption is demonstrably a wizard!)

Below are the aforementioned slides; I’d love your feedback/comments on them and/or the completed plan if you feel that way inclined.

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Spot the Difference

Differentiation is nothing new for teachers. Clearly, the days of pitching your teaching to the middle ability level of your class alone are long gone. However, I thought I’d shared these two anonymised work samples from a recent Year 3-6 spelling placement test our students completed. Sample A shows a student who’s at one end of our range. It was pleasing for us that they got the initial consonant sound for the first word, because we’ve done a lot of work with them on this as part of their individualised plan. Sample B is a up the other end of the spectrum, and shows a student who has a mastery of phonemic and morphographic spelling that far exceeds most adults (one just has to peruse the comments on any social media site to be confident this is true).

Catering for both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, is what we expect our teachers to do. That’s a complex job that requires a high level of expertise in lesson delivery, instructional language and classroom management to pull it off. It’s why teachers that routinely pull it off are superheroes!

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the student responsible for Sample B is a in a year level below the one who completed Sample A.

Sample A
Sample B

Back on the Blog Train

So a fair few things have happened since I was last here, the most significant of which was a move of schools (I’ve updated the current and previous school sections so you can see where I am now). The main question, I suppose, regarding firing the blog back up is why? The answer: inspiration + time = action!

The inspiration, unbeknownst to him I’m sure, came courtesy of a gentleman by the name of Mark Pegrum. In Term 4 last year I worked through the sixth unit of my Master of School Leadership, titled Integrating Technology and Pedagogy. Mark did an expert job facilitating the unit, and used his fantastic website to organise all of the content into one place. I suppose you could say I had a bit of website envy, so decided that if I get back on the blog train I may be able use this site to also keep relevant links, readings and resources all in one online spot.

The time component was meant to come over the recent school holidays, but I’m pleased to report that I managed to completely switch off from work related tasks for a solid four weeks of the break. The subsequent two were then spent resuming planning for the 2019 school year. Now we’re into the second week of the term, I figured if I didn’t pick it up now it would sit on the shelf for another year, so here we are!

Until next time, here’s a pic of one of the places we got to over those aforementioned school holidays. Bonus points for anyone who knows where in Australia this is…

Connecting in the Valley

Most schools in Australia would consider themselves to be a part of a network, and the 7 Department of Education schools in the Fitzroy Valley are no different. However, unlike schools in towns or cities the distance between schools is rather large:

(Tech footnote #1: The excellent ‘My Maps’ feature on Google Maps was used to knock this up; I love the new custom icon feature on show here, too!)

Understandably, with such large distances involved you can imagine that it’s not often that teachers in the Valley get a chance to meet face to face. Additionally, when you consider that two of these schools are ‘1+1’ schools (just 1 principal and 1 teacher) and another two are ‘1+3’ there’s a definite need for teachers to be able to meet and converse, both from a professional and a social perspective.

With this in mind, I was keen to put the possibility of a Valley-wide common school development day on the agenda when the 7 Valley principals met at our Kimberley Senior Leadership Team conference in October last year. It was quickly established that there was an appetite for the proposal, and after a few teleconferences, many group emails and plenty of behind-the-scenes hard work the 2016 Valley Big Event came to fruition!

Valley Big Event Poster

(Tech footnote #2: The Google app Fotor makes creating posters like this child’s play, even if the creator (me) made a mistake with one of the dates…)

We were able to use some of our network funding allocation from regional office to pay for charter flights for the folk at Wananami and accommodation for the four schools more than 30km from town. All schools committed to the two days, with the Saturday being billed as ‘trade off in one day’ – those in WA DoE schools will know what this means. And then we were able to secure an outstanding and diverse range of presenters, including Diana Rigg from PLD resources and John from Big Picture Education Australia whose programs are widespread throughout the primary and secondary settings in the Valley, respectively.

So how did it all go? It was absolutely fantastic! We’re all Stronger Smarter schools up here and we’d all do variations of a ‘Check-in’ before we meet with our staffs. This was the first one I’d ever done with 90 odd people at once though:

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Then it was into 2 days of concurrent sessions tailored to the needs of each phase of learning. This was strategic, as it enabled, say, all of the lower primary teachers to be together to discuss their practice and build connections with those teaching the same level in the other schools. We were even able to secure the excellent Office of Aboriginal Education team to present the Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework professional learning to our Valley AIEOs, saving them an 800km (or more) round trip to Broome for the sessions scheduled by central office. And of course the teachers and school staff located in the communities out of town enjoyed the chance to have a drink and a dance with their colleagues at the social event on the Friday night.

The plan is to make this an annual event, and if the teacher feedback is anything to go on then we’d be crazy to shelve it after just this year. Here are a few of pics of the PL sessions in action – enjoy!

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Show Me the (Attendance) Data!

Earlier this year I commenced a Masters in School Leadership at UWA. My very first assignment was all about examining Place; specifically how things like location, geography, history, traditions, economics, employment, race, social structure and class influence a principal’s role in the pursuit of enhanced outcomes for students. Clearly, the aforementioned factors mean that no two school leader roles are exactly the same. For instance, what is required for a beachside school in Perth’s western suburbs will not be congruous with the needs of a suburban school with a high EAL/D population, or another in the Pilbara or Kimberley.

With this in mind, I thought I’d share something that is a priority for my current school that may not even crack a mention at hundreds of schools around the country: Low student attendance.

A cursory glance at MySchool or any Education Department’s school directory will show you that the mean percentage of school attendance for primary students around Australia is in the low nineties. Focusing on primary WA Department of Education students, the 2015 mean was 92.6%, whilst for aboriginal students in our system it was 81%. Here are the numbers at Bayulu for 2013-2015:

2013:  70.3%
2014: 69.9%
2015:  74.4%

The takeaways? Firstly, in raw terms we’re a long way behind the state mean. The reasons behind this are complex and would need their own (much longer) post, but put simply life in remote aboriginal communities is very different to that of mainstream Australia. Secondly, we made some significant progress towards increasing student attendance in 2015 compared with the previous 2 years. This was a direct result of the new-for-2015 school leadership team moving attendance from the ‘too hard’ basket to the ‘if we put a strategy in place and work hard surely we’ll get results’ one.

So now we’ve been back at school for half of Term 1, how are we faring? Very well I’d suggest:

2016 (so far):  79.9%

We’re only 5 weeks in, but a stable staff and rigorous, established processes have seen the improvements of 2015 translate into a great start to 2016. If we look closer, we can see how this looks for the proportion of students in each of the four categories our Department uses to classify a students attendance:

  • Green: regular attenders who attend school more than 90%
  • Blue: students at indicated risk, attending school between 80 and 90%
  • Orange: students at moderate risk, attending school between 60 and 80%
  • Red: students at severe risk, attending school less than 60%

screenshot-docs.google.com 2016-03-07 13-49-30

I love this graph for many reasons, but the main one is simple: Look at the colours! Semester 1 2016 has the biggest green section (37%) and the smallest red (13.9%) of any of the previous 7 semesters. Here’s what that looks like as a pie chart, compared to the dreadful outcomes that represented such a tragic outlook for our students from Semester 2, 2013:

So the proportion of kids above 80% (green and blue together) is more than double what it was three years ago! And the proportion of kids at severe education risk (the red) is 3 and a half times smaller than three years ago. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the two charts show data from different schools. We agree with our friends at the Stronger Smarter Institute: high expectation relationships work!

Now, with all this colour shift what is the bottom line for individual students? Here are the numbers for two students whose school attendance levels in 2013 and 2014 gave them almost zero hope of being literate and numerate upon leaving school.  (The names used are fictitious):

screenshot-docs.google.com 2016-03-07 20-23-14

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Just think about those numbers for a minute: Lainey has barely attended more than three days of school per week  from the time she started compulsory schooling until now. Imagine the lack of continuity in her learning for those 3 years! And Jimmy once only came to school for 4% of an entire semester! Now, thanks to the outstanding work of their classroom teachers, our AIEOs and our leadership staff, the prospect of Lainey and Jimmy leaving school with some skills which will help them in life is much brighter. They’re now on the way to having a chance of breaking the cycle of poverty and disadvantage present in their families. And the sense of pride you see on their faces when they can sound out words or add up numbers by themselves is something that you just don’t see in city schools.

Is the progress sustainable? Can we maintain an attendance rate of 80% for the entire year? Will Lainey and Jimmy keep coming to school or will they fall off the wagon? These are questions that I can’t give you a guaranteed answer to. What I can guarantee, however, is that it won’t be through lack of engagement from our school leadership team and our staff that is the determining factor in what happens.

I’ll leave you with a few photos of the most important stakeholders in all this attendance talk; they serve as a great reminder as to why we do what we do!

FotorCreated

Teach remote and change lives

The WA Department of Education recently put together this video in an attempt to capture what it’s like to work in a remote school like the one I’m in at Bayulu. I’d say they’ve done a pretty good job!