What is Touch?

Two weeks ago a colleague and I freaked ourselves out discussing “What is touch?”. We did some googling and laughed about this being the planning for our next lessons.

Fast track to this morning and a pastoral class was born. We’d been exploring Body Image and I’m always wondering the effect this kind of class has, does our talking help?

I had an idea to prime their minds with “What is touch?” and then use that mental state to explore another question.

It went like this:

  • Start sitting together on the floor
  • Whole class focusing/meditation exercise
  • Prompt asked by teacher: “What is touch?”
  • 1 min silent reflection
  • share your thoughts with people around you
  • tell me something you heard while I write it up on the whiteboard (all nice and easy, no debate, we all agreed: contact, meeting, things coming together, etc)
  • then we watched this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE8rkG9Dw4s
  • Got into a circle on the floor and had a huuuge discussion

“But the makeup comes off my face and goes on the wipe! It must be touching!”, ”Are you saying Audrey doesn’t get wet when she goes in the pool?!”, “How do my clothes stay on?”, “If I fall off a building do I touch the footpath?”, “What about the blood, that must be touching my face!”.

We’d moved from complete agreement to questioning reality in about 4 minutes (we didn’t watch the whole video because we got bored – 5 minutes is so, like, 2011).


At the start I’d explained we’re doing this as an exercise to open our minds then we’d apply that mental state to another question.

So I asked: “Can you change another person? Can you change the way they think?”

Another 1 minute silent reflection, applying our open state of mind to this stimulus, then…

Lots of opinions:
“You can change people by being an example of right behaviour.”

“People don’t really change, essentially they remain the same.”

“You can tell someone what to do. Like my Mum told me not to speak so unkindly to my sister and now I’m not going to do that anymore…and she confiscated my phone.”

“Temporary change is possible…sometimes.”

One thing that came up was you can only have an influence if the person wants to change.

Then I asked the class to contemplate “What could you offer someone who wants to change?”

And with that we filled our hands with chalk and hit the concrete:

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 8.22.03 pm

Who knows what impact we had?

We are all Artists!

As one of my students was walking out the door (literally) on Friday she yelled out “Mr Isma. Remember to learn something this weekend!” – she was smirking and I think she may have been using my own words against me.


It did, of course, prompt me to reflect throughout the weekend asking myself “what am I learning?”. And then on Sunday I was given a book about Joseph Beuys. I opened it up and saw this and it was like a revelation:




We had an assembly Monday morning, so as we walked over to the lecture theatre I told the student that I’d been prompted to reflect during the weekend by what she’d said on Friday (because what better way to encourage someone to continue to speak up than by showing them the impact it can have when they do??).


I said “I think I learned that everyone is an Artist. I’ve thought for a while that everyone was creative but something about reading it in this book and seeing the picture of this guy was like a transmission of an extension of that idea.” She smiled back looking both a little delighted and like she may have just unleashed some kind of madness in her teacher…


Then, of course, the presenter was late for the Year 9 assembly and I was asked to do some time filling. A thought arose and so I took the whole year level through a guided meditation that, after watching a few of our breaths, went something like this:


“You are an Artist…
You’re surrounded by the medium you work in and you get the urge to create…
It flows through you, through your hands and through the medium you’re working in…
You continue to create…
Then, you step back and you’ve created a masterpiece…
You look at it…
You’re satisfied and glowing with the creative energy…
And you realise that this is available to you every moment of every day…
Now bring your awareness back into the room.”


And then onto their feature presentation.


How absolutely amazing and crazy are the opportunities you get given when you are a teacher? In my previous jobs, and there were a few of those, there were nowhere near as many spontaneous opportunities to engage in creative action. Or if there were I missed them. So lucky for them now to be revealed.


What just happened???

Emergent Phenomenon

Emergent Phenomenon

Something happened today and I am still processing it, still coming to terms with it. This phenomenon emerged in my homeroom today.

There is a story.

I am what some people describe as a ‘morning person’, and for whatever reason, even if I am enveloped in a black cloud in the car on the drive in, I often feel uplifted as I walk into school in the morning.

One morning earlier this year my homeroom had a dour air about it, there were many dull faces and a feeling like an energetic black hole had sucked all the joy. I said something like “But School is Awesome!! In fact that is the name of the musical we’re going to create. We’ll each write a song and we’ll perform them and…” there were some confused looks and it was left at that. The next day someone said something that became the next song in our musical and it grew a little. Not a lot, just a little. School is Awesome: The Musical just popped up causally during homeroom sometimes.

Then a “Reserved” sign appeared on the wall. I asked what the part of the wall was reserved for and students just said things like “Oh, we’re going to put something there.” and let my question die. I was content with this response.

Today, the first day of term 2, some students were standing in a line with their arms in the air when I came into the room. “What are you guys up to?” I asked. One said “We’re part of the unveiling…” and then they moved to reveal the School is Awesome wall.

What happened can be easily understood in terms of Complex Systems Theory. In a complex system there are many inputs and outputs. Because of the number of inputs and the complexity of the system it can be difficult to determine what the outputs will be. Complex systems can be said to lack a God Like controller, however stimuli can be brought into the system which the system itself may accept or reject. The interplay between the system and a stimulus can result in emergent phenomena, the nature of these emergent phenomena is also difficult to predict.

Now admittedly, I work in what could be described as a celestial realm but I was taken aback by the way the system responded to the stimulus provided and the nature of this emergent phenomenon.

This takes creativity, planning, collaboration, time and care, as well as intelligence and wit. At the moment I have no idea who actually did what. All I know is I love the piece of Art that emerged.

I think I have processed now. I believe I stand before a wonder.

Can you feel it?

Visualising and experiencing your goal.

“How are the one word goals going?” I hear you ask.

Well, here’s a peek at some of yesterday’s twitter reflections (oh, talking about that one is going to be a tasty post!). The prompt question was: “How have you worked towards your goal today?” – the individual steps of our journey are so important to take and be aware of.

Web Design Reflections

We’ve been beginning each Web Design class with a quick mediation/visualisation/focusing exercise. It’s normal to stretch your body before exercising, why not warm up your mind when you’re about to use it? We sit in an upright posture, close eyes or focus on a spot on the floor and watch our breath for 5 breaths, then we visualise our goal word.

One time it was on a hill surrounded by blue sky, the goal was coloured brightly, written in large letters like the Hollywood sign, mine was a hill on the drive from Melbourne to Ballarat.

Another time it was a neon sign on top of a building at night; then we lit it up and watched the light reach all the citizens of our inner metropolis. Looking back, I think mine was based on the Mad As Hell opening credits.

I’ve seen a range of students react positively to this sort of short exercise. One time, in a particularly boisterous VCAL Work Related Skills class, we visualised ourselves as fully qualified, surrounded by the tools of our chosen trade and feeling that sense of being really capable at what we do. As the students filed out of class at the end of the period, one quietly said to me “You’re a good teacher Sir” and continued walking out the door.

High praise indeed :)


Beyoncé Goals

Watching a doco late last year partially shot, produced, directed by and starring Beyoncé, she turns to the camera “…at the time my goal was ‘Growth’” she says.

It was so famous of her! And right there and then I thought, “I want goals like that!!” In that moment I outgrew the cumbersome, multi-word, specific, targeted, rational goals that had served me perfectly well up to this point. I threw them out. I reworked them into sleek, stylish, single word statements. I felt like a super star.

Today I gave this gift to my Year 9 Web Design class. Prompted by the starkness of the bare walls of our start of semester classroom, one student suggested we each create Twitter style goal statements and stick them up.

I told them about Beyoncé and suggested the idea of one word goals – who wouldn’t want that?!? They came up with their own in a flash: in-a-flash!!! Because one word goals are so awesome!

Great goals like: creativity, perseverance, focus, determination, bravery, and ambition. We tweeted them to each other as a mini planning document for the posters we’ll create in Photoshop. Check out Vanessa’s:


Each student is differentiating the curriculum for herself as she simply and clearly outlines her focus. How wonderful to be able to refer to her one-word goal as we discuss aspects of web design throughout the semester, especially in those moments where she is challenged to work to embody that goal. What if we end up with a few experts, ready to share with each other what they’ve learned about passion, creativity or resilience? How great would that be?

I can’t have Beyoncé’s house, I can’t holiday in the Bahamas like she does, I can’t have her car, hang around in her circle of friends or even spare the cash to go to her concert. Most aspects of Beyoncé’s super-rich mega-star lifestyle are beyond my means. Each of us can, however, easily get hold of a single-word-super-famous-person goal like Beyoncé!*

Now, find some space, sit quietly and ask yourself: “What is my one word goal for this year?” and then, just sit, wait for it to spontaneously arise from within you and go and live your amazing life!!!


*this post also demonstrates how exclamation marks are relatively inexpensive to deploy :)

The Rick Stein Classroom Observation Method



The other day I was watching Rick Stein’s India. He was in the home kitchen of an old Indian lady, not an exotic kitchen, a village home-cooking space. He stood there watching her cook and writing down each step, each ingredient and her method. There he was, a world famous TV chef respectfully learning from a village woman, giving her his full attention and happily learning at her feet. He knew good cooking when he saw it.

It struck me that this is how I want to observe other teachers work. I need a beautiful notebook, small, flexible, carried anywhere and whipped out at a moments notice. I want to watch carefully and observe the detail, watch this teacher in front of me looking for how they create opportunities for learning, like Rick Stein seeking out the choice recipes of India.

Afterwards, just as a chef goes on to re-create the recipe in their own kitchen, (maybe making some adjustments as they’re tasting and cooking) I’d like to try out what I find valuable in my colleagues method and apply it in my own classroom. If a chef decides to continue using a recipe I assume they will, over time, make it their own – with the recognition of the source of the recipe and a gratitude to the chef who shared it. I want to be like that. Just like a master chef.

Is Time Travel a Valid Teaching Tool?


Today I was teaching a pastoral lesson on body image with a class of Year 9 girls. We watched the Dove Real Beauty Sketches, which almost all the class had seen before, and discussed how our images of ourselves are different to what others see. The students talked about false ideas, truth, external vs internal influences, distortion, negativity and beauty.

We followed this up by watching the Dove Evolution video, which surprisingly few of the students had seen, they gasped as they watched its fast motion transformation of an ordinary looking girl into a billboard beauty icon. Then we discussed the distorted images that are presented to us everyday through countless media forms.

I asked the girls if any of this was new to them, the idea that we have distorted views of ourselves – no, not new. The idea that all the images they see of famous beautiful or just normal people in the media were manipulated – also not new. They weren’t shocked or surprised by any of it, which is good in lots of ways.

I had planned to finish off the class with some affirmations from the class members to each other. I’d been to the front office and procured some superb A5 manila envelopes for these to go in. The school receptionist told me they were cheaper than the white ones with the school crest; in my mind these orangey-yellow envelopes are far superior in both construction and colour. I love their look and feel. They need to be used.

As we spoke, I’d heard so much from the girls about the external influences on how we view ourselves that I thought this process of giving each other affirmations was just more of the same. More external opinions, this time aiming to cause a positive distortion.

I asked the girls: “Given that you are aware of all this, none of it is new, how can we change how we feel about ourselves?”. There was some discussion but no definitive answer.

Then a little idea emerged in my mind. I wrote on the board “A Letter of Hope” in the nicest, closest to copperplate script I could muster. I heard a few girls say “a letter of hope?” and I let the question hang in the air for a while.

I explained what I’d had planned with the affirmations. Maybe after our discussion we could try something experimental. We could write a letter of hope to our future selves, seal it in the envelope and open it in a year. What would happen?

Then this class, who seem to question and debate any task we undertake, sat quietly and wrote their letters. It seemed intriguing to them that they could be making contact with their future selves. It also seemed less threatening – the idea of a Letter of Hope – than any of the goal setting tasks we’d undertaken through the year, even though it is essentially the same thing. I sat and wrote a letter to my future self with them.

One of the students suggested we put a reminder in our iCal so we’d remember to open it on August 20th 2014, so we did. As the class finished I said it will be interesting to see if we run into each other in the school yard on August 21st 2014 and we talk about what we’ve read. How will we feel? Who will we be? Will we have changed?

I wonder if this time travel experience is a way of tapping into a method through which we can change our view of ourselves? There was a different feel in the class at the end – a feeling of potential. Maybe we’d just done something significant? I look forward to finding out through possible conversations on August 21st 2014.

What about when the wheels fall off?

On accepting imperfection.

A real rain

We read, see and hear a lot about success, when things go right in classrooms from our colleagues, bloggers, presenters, books, best practice initiatives and all the other channels we tune into on our journey towards understanding learning.

What about when it goes wrong? What about when the students lose focus en masse, when the magic of engagement leaves you, when you just forget how to “catch the wave”, what to do then? I think we need to develop strategies to cope with and bounce back from these situations because they are an important part of the process. They are actually essential.

In his book about imagination and creativity (the possibly now discredited) Jonah Lehrer discusses the juncture in the creative process where things fall apart and how this collapse is often the precipitator to some form of inspirational change.

Three days ago I was in wonder at the way my Year 7 class were functioning as a problem solving, learning community. They were posting their problems on Edmodo and responding with solutions, collaboratively working through complex obstacles, working independently and all of them seemed to be progressing. I was onto something here!

Seeing how in the past my spontaneity had rewarded me I asked My Principal to drop by (I wish I could put that word in a wiggly font so it looked scary, not that My Principal is scary but it’s supposed to be scary to do this, like staying in a haunted house). I said something like “It will be interesting to see”.

Of course my lovely class decide to choose this class to revert to a range of behaviours such as: losing their files, thinking only the teacher can help them, not sharing ideas, losing interest in the topic. Then My Principal walked in, talked to the students, asking what they were doing, taking interest in their work, while I sat at my desk with a thick surround of needy students shielding me. I made some excuses “It’s not normally like this” actually came out of my mouth.

I reflected on this with the help of a range of my colleagues, friends and the space my dog provides for me when I walk him. As teachers we all have boring classes, unsuccessful attempts, mistakes and even *shock* ordinary moments. I‘d love to work in an environment where, when I fail, I can rely on the support of those around me. As soon as I thought of writing that last line I recognised that in fact I do. It’s actually my negative inner colleague, the one closest to me who is my own worst critic. I sometimes see this approach reflected in my external colleagues in the way they talk about their classes.

I exhort my students to embrace failure, to take risks, to prototype even if they have a hunch that it might cost them marks. I need to remember to take these words to heart…because I believe them to be true.




Want Feedback?

Ask a [student] teacher…

I was lucky enough to have a student teacher come in and observe my Year 7 IT class the other day. I like it when people come in and watch me do my thing. I like to talk to them about what they observe; another person’s insight can shed light on unknown areas of strength, the secret things I do that I’m unaware of.

Student teachers are a great resource, they’ve got the time and they’re in a semi-permanent, hyper-vigilant state so they pick up on tiny details and (because they’re still students) they’ll answer any question you ask them in the way only a institutionalised mind can – quickly and concretely. It’s great!!

After the class we talked and the student teacher said to me “I liked how at the start of the class you asked them about the food on camp. When they said they loved and hated it you got them to indicate who liked the food and who didn’t. Then you got them to explain their position. It was a good exercise to get them thinking about their thinking and it was building rapport.”

I laughed because from my side I was just making unplanned, casual conversation with my students before we moved onto the planned classroom activities. But she was right, I had done all those things: I’d engaged with them about their world, I’d asked them to align themselves with a viewpoint and then give evidence to support that viewpoint and I’d asked questions to get them to reflect on the position they’d taken.

Through this spontaneous and casual exchange, I’d set the tone for our class – “I’m interested in what you have to say and I want to hear you explain your thinking. “. These are things I’m consciously interested in doing in my classroom, and it’s exciting that they come through in the ‘incidental’ interactions that take place between me and my students.

The super-great thing about knowing that you do something well is that you now have the possibility to use that skill more purposefully, experiment with it and strengthen your ability.

Imagine if I’d never opened the door to my classroom? This aspect of what I do would remain unconscious, and underdeveloped.  That’s why peer coaching and peer observation are so crucial to improving teacher efficacy. That’s why we should all be in and out of each other’s classrooms like bees going in and out of the hive, gathering pollen and making delicious honey.

I hijacked another student teacher a few days ago, I was walking through the staffroom having just come up with an experimental approach for my next class. I was a bit excited about it and I saw the student teacher sitting at a table planning some upcoming class. The excited energy bubbling within me blurted out “Do you want to come and see something that could be either amazing or a complete disaster??”. She looked at me a little startled, nodded in her semi-institutionalised way and off we went – more free feedback coming my way.

Would You Really Trust a Student

“Would you really trust a student?”

I had just finished writing an article for the school magazine. Something had compelled me to print out a paper copy and go to a colleague’s class to interrupt her teaching. I would ask her to proof it for me. I thought to myself as I walked over: “This is good for the students to see that we value the strengths of each other as teachers and we collaborate.” It was to be a conscious act of modelling the behaviour we expect in our students.

When I arrived Flick was not there. I remembered that she was out on PL that day. There were some students working on the floor in the corridor. I stood in front of them and stared up at the roof wondering what I would do about this lack of a proof reader – deadline fast approaching.

It’s only as I write this that I recognise how this may have looked a bit strange, my mind was turning over slowly so I think I was there for a little while, facing the wall, holding my piece of paper limply in my hand, briefcase firmly in the other, head tilted skyward, eyes glazed over.

“Are you lost?” one of the students joked. The other girls laughed.

“Do I look lost? I don’t feel lost.”

“You look like a tourist.”

“I think I often look like a tourist” I said, thinking about how I like looking up high, particularly when I’m in the city, losing any local street cred I might have otherwise had if I was walking like a drone staring down at the feet in front of me.

“You look lost, do you need assistance?” she joked again, this time in an accent, like she was helping the poor lost tourist. More laughter issued from her co-conspirators. At this point it seems they were in charge of the situation.

“I was looking for Mrs Brundell to proof read this article I wrote for the school magazine, but she’s not here… [brainwave occurs] can you do it for me?” I handed the article to the japester. At this point she freaked out and recoiled: “I can’t do that?!”. The tables had turned.

“Why not?” I asked “Are you good at English?”. She replied she was. “What year are you in?” She replied she was in Year 10.  It seemed good enough for me, so I convinced her to take the challenge.

She quietened and concentrated and read over the article. She gave me some feedback “It’s true, we are learning differently with our laptops”. I asked her if there was anything to change and we discussed the break in a paragraph. At this point a friend of hers taunted her, saying “Hey, you know if something’s wrong with it then you’re responsible”. She replied both proud and bold “Yeah, I know, I’ve read over it and I know it’s all right!”. Nice one!

I said thanks and was heading off and she called out to me “Are you really going to trust a student?” and I said “Of course, why wouldn’t I? Doesn’t the article talk about us being a learning community?”.

I told her I’d give her a by-line in the school magazine for reviewing the article and she was genuinely excited, she jumped up and down a bit as I left the corridor. It seems this was not a normal occurrence in her school experience. I love that you don’t have to do a lot sometimes to really shake things up.

Made me feel like a magician, hmm maybe a new blog post to come out of this??