Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Setting Relief

If you look at the time-stamp for this post, you would be excused for thinking that I am either skiving off in class (or on a non-contact), or maybe I haven't gone to school today. I would like to assure you that it is the latter...

I used to dread needing a day off for illness. It was bad enough going away for Tournament Week or even for Professional Development Days, but at least I had time to prepare meaningful relief lessons in those cases because I could be organised and set them up the previous week. Illness just doesn't always give you the same warning... I have lost count of the number of days when I have gone to work when I should have stayed at home to get better. The time and effort required to set meaningful relief work used to mean that I would only take a day off if things were dire. Ironically, in many cases things would never have been dire if I had taken just one day off sooner.

So, when I realised last night that I was not going to be able to come to work today, I got that age-old pang of dread. Then I realised that there are a multitude of tools at my disposal to make today's lessons meaningful and to avoid me spending all night preparing these lessons instead of getting the sleep I need to get better.

Khan Academy

I am lucky that I teach Science. There are wonderful video tutorials on Khan Academy for most of the topics I am teaching. For today's lessons, there are some gems. So, I have embedded the applicable videos into my respective classes' Moodle courses.

It is worth mentioning that one video did not completely satisfy my needs for one of the lessons. In this case, I made my own video and uploaded it to YouTube. I just used some felt-tip pens, A3 paper and my cellphone to do this - things I have at home anyway.

It is also worth noting that this class has a very active Class Blog (http://l2chem2013.blogspot.co.nz/), so I did create a blog post for them as well. I wouldn't always do this, but this class are particularly diligent and lovely... Seriously though, I would not go to the effort to do a blog post if setting relief on the actual day that it was needed; I would do it when I felt a bit better or would get a student to do it as part of the relief work.

10 minutes of searching for videos and checking their suitability. 10 minutes for embedding into Moodle. Half an hour for making and uploading my own video (I did the tasks below while waiting for the video to upload). Three lessons nearly completed...


As I just eluded to above, I put the applicable resources into my Moodle courses. I also set online tasks (assignments) for all of my classes today. I can see (in real time if I want to) if my students are doing the work and check on the quality of their work. I can get a feel for their understanding before tomorrow's lesson to see how much of a recap I will need to do.

My classes are already in the routine of having an assignment on Moodle every week, so this is nothing new to them; it is just novel to do it in class.

5 minutes to set up each assignment for each class. Only two things to do now...


We are not yet a one-to-one computing school (we are working on that, though). So while I am doing the above tasks, I am switching to and from our school's online booking site. I am booking netbooks or computer suites for my classes as I complete each class's lesson. Without this online booking system, all of the above work would be wasted.


Just to make sure my students know what is required, I follow up the email to The Man (who arranges relief teachers etc.) with an email to my students explaining that they should bring their laptops and headphones to class if they have them and what they will be doing in class today.

In total, I spent an hour setting this relief. It took about 10 minutes to set up one class's relief so if I found I was ill in the morning, I could do the Period One relief immediately, then use the next hour to set the remaining lessons. Then, I could sleep/recover! I don't think I dread setting relief quite so much any more...

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Mirror, Mirror...

Having just enjoyed a three week break, I finally had time to do some genuine reflecting on my initiatives and ideas from Term One. In the hustle-bustle, I kept trying things out but only really reflected on the successes. What about the "not-so-successful" ones? Well, here we go... Before I start, I must stress that I still think these ideas were valid and in most both cases I intend to use them again, albeit tweaked.

Year 9 Class Blog


My Year 9 students were to have a blog for their notes, so we could spend more time on the actual learning and mastering how to use SOLO for self- and peer-assessment. The students would have turns doing the blog entry for one lesson each, and would be exempt from the online homework as their "reward".


  1. Some of my students were not 13 yet, so could not create a Google account.
  2. Many of my students lacked the digital literacy required to do even a simple blog post (and we lacked the time for me to dedicate a week to digital literacy alone).


For Year 9, I do the blog posts myself now. The students film my teaching and photograph the work on the board and I do the blog post while they do a collaborative task. They are encouraged to "help" me with it in class, but not expected to post any more. This also avoids the issue of students being too young to sign up.

The Job Interview


My Year 11 students were about to learn about meiosis and mitosis and, to be blunt, I think these concepts can be BORING! "Compare and Contrast Mitosis and Meiosis" - no thanks. I was given a great idea, but did not execute it too well:

Mr/Miss Mitosis and Mr/Miss Meiosis are to apply for a job in the Cell Division of a business. Depending on the type of business (The Gonad Collective or Epidermal Enterprises, for example), one would be better suited than the other. This interview was to be filmed. Then the interviewer had to work with a Mr/Miss Mitosis and Mr/Miss Meiosis from another group. Again this was to be filmed.


  1. Some students (primarily boys) were unprepared to "lose"; even if they were not the better cell division process, they used weak arguments and got loud and obnoxious to try to "win".
  2. Time. The groups which planned this well needed a lot more time than what I set aside. I adjusted for this, so the results were pretty good from a couple of groups.
  3. Quality. Some groups' respective work was not good enough. It showed a lack of planning and, in some cases, no evidence of critiquing their own work. This may be due to time constraints but was more likely due to a lack of road-markers from me for guiding them to create a mini film.


I now think I have a workable way to do this task:

NOTE: No prior teaching about mitosis and meiosis was done. After reviewing the students’ work, a brief overview was done, however.

  1. Split the class into groups of 4-5
  2. They allocate roles:
    • Mr/Miss Mitosis
    • Mr/Miss Meiosis
    • Interviewer
    • Camera Operator and/or Prompt
  3. They script a job interview for a role in the “Cell Division”. I gave ideas for companies such as The Gonad Collective and Epidermal Enterprises and intend to do so again. The guidance I gave this year was that both applicants have to start genuinely thinking they are the better applicant for the “job”, but ultimately it has to become obvious which cell division process is correct for the type of daughter cells desired. I think this is still good advice.
  4. They film it, critique it and often re-film it. I explicitly encourage them to do the first effort as a “draft” and be critical of it so the second attempt is better.

Now, it is time for things to get uncomfortable. The students are not warned about this next part:
  1. Mr/Miss Mitosis and Mr/Miss Meiosis now have to do a “blind” interview with a different Interviewer (from a different group)
  2. There is no forewarning about the “job”
  3. There is no chance for a draft, then final effort

The students now process their films to make a finished product which they publish to YouTube. Road-markers are set in place too: researching both cell division types; writing the script; practicing the interview; filming the interview; critiquing the film; re-filming (if required).