All posts by Melanie Spencer

Melanie is an English, History, Drama and Religious Studies teacher who will be taking up the position of Deputy Principal (Wellbeing) at Burgmann Anglican School in Canberra in July. Prior to this she was the Acting Executive Principal at Brindabella Christian College, after serving at that College as Head of Senior School, Deputy Principal and Head of Lyneham Campus. Before moving to Canberra, Melanie was the English and Creative Arts Coordinator at Toongabbie Christian School. She values mentoring, curriculum development and initiatives to remove the disconnect between life & school. Wanting to teach since she was 4, she now wants to teach until she is 80... just because. Good books are good friends. Family is precious.

Looking at Paintings from the Canvas Side

Looking at Paintings from the Canvas Side: A Comment on Perspectives

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My husband jumped out of a plane last week. While he was up there challenging himself, I lay beneath a tree in the early autumn sunshine, eyes intent on the metal bird which hummed into view then released my beloved from its belly.

From where I lay it was a picture of complete serenity; a gentle unfurling of a red canopy against a blue sky, a graceful floating to the ground. I am told the experience of having your feet dangling out the side of a plane at eleventy hundred feet and contending with the wind in your face while free falling brings an altogether different perspective. The pictures testify! Kudos to Mark, though. He’s done something I never will.

photo (5)Last month, my 18 year old daughter caught a plane to Germany then a train from Frankfurt to a town called Herrnhut on the German/Czech border – alone. Without me. From where I sat at my desk or at the dinner table or on the lounge, or in the car, this looked like the most insane, preposterous, terrifying thing in the world.

I am told the experience of a first international flight as an independent adult, the wonder of navigating airports alone and of frolicking in the German woods brings an altogether different perspective. She is having the adventure of a lifetime and is growing and maturing in such a way that my heart sings. The pictures testify.

Last week I drove into the car park at school. For those who’ve been there, you know this is a risky business. It is not the sealed bitumen paradise, complete with curbing guttering, that many have the luxury of parking on each day. No. Rather it is a dust bowl in Summer, a lake when it rains and an obstacle course of inverted speed bumps most of the year. This day,  I navigated my way in and, thankfully, out of Potholes 1, 2, 3 and 4 etc., located the high ground, donned my gum boots, rolled my trouser legs and began to swim to the front door. Imagine my thoughts when a 4 wheel drive powered its way out of Pothole 379 and covered the entire back of my poor little red car in mud. I breathed deeply and swam on, reflecting on the joy of knowing, soon and very soon, the car park upgrade will begin. I’m not sure about the shoes in your house, but the ones in mine will be celebrating when that day comes.

Perspective is so important. In each of these examples there is one side of the story and then another. A way of seeing that seems to be the only one but in truth, there is more. Skydiving is both wonderful and terrifying. Letting our adult children go is both terrifying and wonderful. Living with the car park at school is… well, truthfully, a blessing, because we have one.

In much of life, we don’t get to see ‘the other side’ of events. It’s a bit like looking at the back of a painting, presuming it’s a bit ordinary with its tape and string and not choosing to turn it round and look at the canvas side. I am reminded often of my own need to do this – to make the deliberate choice to consider things from different angles and to see them in their fullness.

There’s a beautiful poem at the end of Cameron Nunn’s novel, Shadows in The Mirror. It’s sourced from the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul in the book of 1 Corinthians. Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely just as God knows me completely. Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.”

It would be easy to look at Paul’s words as pejorative, to consider that a child’s way of seeing is ‘less than’ and that childish things must be put off. In the context of Jesus’ own  insistence that we should be childlike, I think this would be a misreading. We in the education world know just how valuable a child’s view of the world can be. I think, here, we see another comment on perspectives and that different perspectives come with maturity.

This is actually what I hope for in the young people I teach. I hope that as they grow in maturity they will grow in their capacity to see things from a range of perspectives, to look to the whole rather than looking through a glass dimly. I hope they will be people who operate out of a spirit of love, that they will choose to turn paintings to the canvas side, that they will celebrate the risk taking of others and that they will determine to find the blessing even in the muddiest moments of their lives.


How’s Your Appetite for Risk?

The Pacific from the other side – overlooking Stinson Beach CA 2014

The white knuckle experience of driving on a Californian freeway is not something I will quickly forget. Having grown up in a small country town where I learnt to drive on a farm, and now living in a big country town where peak hour finishes when the traffic lights change (sorry, Canberra, but it’s true), this was definitely an ‘out of my comfort zone’ experience. I do have to say, it was a deliberate choice to place myself in that car on that day and I probably need to explain why.

I’ve always played it safe… never applied for a job I didn’t think I’d get, never took a course I feared I’d fail, never took a dare I couldn’t win. The classic high achiever, all my ‘risks’ were calculated and summarily dismissed should there be any chance of me coming out the other side less than perfectly composed. In reality, they weren’t risks at all.

When I decided to travel to San Francisco to visit my sister in January, driving while there was not high on my agenda. When I learned that getting around might be problematic without a car, my mouth overstepped… in a flurry of sisterly affection and excitement, I misspoke.

“No worries,” my mouth enthused, “I’ll just hire a car.” Then my brain caught up.

“You’ll WHAT?! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?! They drive on the wrong side of the road! Remember the freeways Bugs Bunny drove on in Looney Tunes? You’ll get on and starve to death before you ever find your way off and you’ll NEVER see your family again!”

It was too late.

“Great,” came the equally excited and affectionate voice down the phone, “I’ll go ahead and book.”… and then the ring tone.


In the weeks that followed, the conversations inside my head ranged from deranged to farcical as I tried to wangle my way out of this. In the end, some sane voice spoke from the distant recesses of my left cerebral hemisphere; “Oh for goodness sake! Grow up! You ask kids in your class to do things that make them uncomfortable every day.”

And that was the wakeup call.

I realised that in my teaching when I  nonchalantly declared we would make a film or design an infographic, create a vodcast, enact a play, write a blog, deliver a speech, make a presentation… I rarely thought about the impact this might have on my students. I was in the habit of every day asking my students to take risks with their learning with no consideration of what kinds of internal conversations that creates in their heads. I felt abashed.

At that point I made the decision that I jolly well would drive on a freeway in California and that in fact, every time I felt afraid to take a risk while I was away, I would do the very thing my brain was trying to convince me not to do (now bear in mind, given my personality this would not involve dangerous risk taking of the sky diving kind… oh…gasp again!). I really wanted to feel what it was like to step outside my comfort zone, to get a glimpse of how my students sometimes feel and to understand what they might need in those moments of stress, blind terror or, perhaps, extreme excitement.

Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach CA 2014

So, when my sister suggested a trip to Stinson Beach, I volunteered to drive. After 2 hours of driving through what my brother-in-law described as ‘it doesn’t get any worse than that traffic’ (there was a football game on) and winding down a narrow cliff-side road absent of guard rails on what I considered the wrong side of the road, I was rewarded with a view of the Pacific from the other side. It was a gorgeous winter afternoon and as I waved across at Australia, though exhausted, I felt exhilarated. This was how I wanted my students to feel when they finished something that was really hard and I determined then to be the steady voice guiding them round the hair pin turns, speaking courage into their fears and resisting the temptation to apply the imaginary brake foot.

Mt Diablo Road
The road up Mt Diablo

I took several other risks while away (all of them legal), including driving up Mt Diablo on a road, also without guard rails, that was crumbling away in places. I remember staring out at the Delta from the top and forcing myself to appreciate the view instead of focusing on the dreaded drive back down. It’s amazing how sometimes knowing what lies ahead can be scarier than not knowing and I wondered how often my students feel this too.

Safely back in the Land of Oz, I know this experience is impacting my teaching and the learning of my students in positive ways. Our class lives by the one rule that ours is a room in which it is safe to take a risk with learning. All daring. No put downs. We’re taking the time to appreciate the view – our study of Wordsworth involved a most ridiculous enactment of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and a punny game of “What’s a Wordsworth’s word worth?”. When we finish we intend to reflect on the journey and to celebrate our challenges and triumphs. I’m hoping it will be reminiscent of breathing in the Pacific sea air with the afternoon sun on my face and the knowledge in my heart that the risk was worth the taking.

How Revolutionary Are We?


Picture, if you will, a 7-12 high school, with approximately 100 students per year group. It does not run to a traditional timetable, introduces indigenous language studies, does not use bells and operates within an open plan learning environment where students work independently through units of work and project based tasks. Teachers operate as co-learners and learning coaches. There’s an absence of technology but that can be forgiven, because after all, it’s 1979, I am in Year 7 and we’re just about to watch our teacher boot up an Apple II computer for the very first time.

This is not my blue sky dream for education so much as my very real education experience. It occurred at O’Connor Catholic High School in Armidale in the New England region of New South Wales between 1979 & 1984. I first experienced this kind of learning in 1976 in a public school classroom at Walcha Central School under the tutelage if the inimitable Mr Barnes (who goes down in history as THE best teacher ever). Radically for the day, Mr Barnes and Mrs Potter took down the wall between the two Year 4 classrooms. They rearranged the furniture and built desks that were more like work stations with tools attached to backboards. They brought the library into our classroom and Mr Barnes built a stage on which we gathered from time to time each day to share our learning. I still remember two significant projects I worked on that year; one about bee hierarchy in the hive and the other about imagery in poetry. I was 9 years old.

So here’s the question… if a generation of children was learning this way close to 40 years ago, how revolutionary are we in 2013 and is it only access to digital technology that defines our learning environments as 21st century?

Many of us have listened to or taken part in discussions with colleagues about ‘removing the disconnect between life and school’ (my passion), ‘authentic, student-centred learning’ and about using ‘real-world’ scenarios in our teaching. These are often inspiring but presently they leave me wondering whether this was also how our educational predecessors thought. Because of that I wonder whether these wonderful approaches are not necessarily the things that make what’s currently happening in our schools ‘revolutionary’.

Imagine if you were the person who had tutored Robert Stevenson (engineer who built the Bell Rock Lighthouse) or mentored Washington Roebling (took over construction of the Brooklyn Bridge) or taught Jørn Utzon (architect of the Sydney Opera House). Imagine if you were the one who had taught Sojourner Truth to read people well or introduced Marie Curie the concepts of Chemistry or ignited the passion of Dr Fiona Wood.  I suspect you might say your pupil was engaged in authentic learning with real world application… that they were encouraged to pursue their creativity and imagination… that their learning had a strong connection to life and that this was going to impact the world in unimagined ways. I think you would probably also burst with pride.

Fret not! I am not calling for a return to the good old days or to ‘chalk and talk’ (oh dear!). I believe we live and teach in the good ‘now days’, that we have access to far more sophisticated technology than chalk and many more voices than our own. I also know somebody is currently teaching Malala Yousafzai (when she is not teaching us), and that is an extraordinary thing.

In truth, the challenge for education systems, as it has always been, is to be contemporary and contextual. The ‘sausage factory’ model of teaching and learning that was the 19th century education system performed this task brilliantly. It produced what the industrial age required. While we talk in educational circles about moving away from this (which is absolutely necessary) and while we talk about our innovative, revolutionary approaches to learning, the uptake of digital technology to connect globally and redesigning our learning spaces, the dominant discourse must be about pedagogy; the art of teaching in the way that children learn and for what children need. It’s a contextual issue. Should I take my 20th century experience of pedagogy into the 21st century context of the learners in my classroom, it would be fraught. My students don’t need that.

More and more I am interested to hear and to see what is happening in schools. I am more interested to watch a child impact a global audience assisted by digital technology than to hear that they have it. I care less about a learning space than the freedom students have to learn within it. The question is not really about how revolutionary the learning is but what the learning is for.

Photo Credit blakespot via Compfight cc


Finding Tenzing Norgay In Your Classroom


I really wish I could say it was my idea but it wasn’t. In 2012 my Principal and I attended the Building Learning Communities conference in Boston, BLC12. Apart from feeling incredibly affirmed about the digital direction we were taking at our school back in Australia, we were struck by one remarkable teacher and his team of ‘Tech Sherpas’. Kern Kelley was at BLC12, and was again there in 2013 as a Google Certified teacher hosting sessions on using Google apps in education. Apart from being one of the most engaging speakers at the conference, he had with him a team of students; his Tech Sherpas.

The Sherpas were at the conference to support the digitally challenged amongst us… to help us with our tech issues, to teach us how to use some things and to guide us as we climb the Everest that is teaching in a digital age. Apart from being entirely affable, they were a joy to learn from and to learn beside. Imagine my awe when the young 15 year old who was giving me a hands on tour of my then newly acquired iPad started telling me about the apps… yes, more than one… that he had invented and was now selling. The impact of being taught by such students was so profound we both went back to Australia determined this would become a part of our school culture. I am blessed to work with a Principal who made it happen.

We now have a team of Tech Sherpas ranging in age from 11 to 17. (There is one girl amongst a sea of boys but we’re working on that!). Two of the Sherpas are employed by the school and work with the IT staff after school and during the holidays. They are paid to do this. I have one in my English class who makes me look good every day. What I love about the Sherpas is their fearlessness, their curiosity and their ingenuity. They are completely reliable.

So what exactly do the Sherpas do?

  1. Their main brief is to support the staff in the use of Technology for learning – while they are fearless, some teachers are not. Fear prevents such teachers from engaging with technology. Rather than having these teachers left behind (a slippery slide to redundancy), the Sherpas are assigned to them to become their champions; to show them how to engage with technology, setting it up for them so it doesn’t fail and ironing out the ‘glitches’ they encounter. They act as human training wheels, keeping teachers upright until they are confident to ‘ride’ by themselves.
  2. They support other students. Where students once headed off to ask the IT staff to resolve their technical problems, they now talk to the Sherpas. Sometimes this occurs in class, at other times they visit the IT window. This window is manned by the Sherpas. A significant benefit of this, apart from the peer to peer learning, is that the IT staff are freed to work on other things.
  3. They are our roadies and gophers… they set up for events such as assemblies, open nights, presentation evenings etc. and ensure these run smoothly. They ask what is needed and they make it happen. The stress relief this provides cannot be overstated! It is such a joy to turn up to a microphone that works, a sound system free of feedback and a visual presentation that looks like it came out of Dreamworks studio!
  4. They teach each other. Because they are doing what they love, their curiosity drives them to learn, to discover and to share that learning with like-minded individuals. In this way, they are becoming regenerative, almost in charge of their own succession planning.

I am sure that as the role evolves, there’ll be plenty more that happens. This is really the very beginning of our journey and I hope the first of several posts which chronicle how this initiative unfolds in our school. If it’s something you are interested in implementing in your own school, you may want to check out where you can view Tech Sherpa shows hosted by Kern Kelley’s students. It’s quite inspiring!

Photo Credit: mckaysavage via Compfight cc