Take five: big ideas from Féilte festival

Féilte festival of education, now in its second year, is establishing itself as a significant event in the educational calendar. Here’s a sneak preview of some of this year’s innovations

The life of a teacher: short working days and long holidays interrupted only to complain about Junior Cert reform. That’s the popular narrative about what Ireland’s teachers get up to, but, behind the scenes, educators are always working on innovations and ideas, developed through online networks, local education centres, and teacher union groups.

Some of those ideas will be on display at the annual Féilte Festival of Education, which will feature more than 50 workshops and showcases from across the primary and second-level sectors.

Visitors will also find a selection of speakers and panellists, including journalist Matt Cooper of Today FM's The Last Word, Prof Barrie Bennett of the University of Toronto, and Tomás Ó Ruairc, director of the Teaching Council. This is just the second year of Féilte, but it is already establishing itself as a significant and popular event in the educational calendar, with demand for tickets outstripping supply.

We had an advance look at just some of the most interesting innovations and ideas in Irish education today.

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1 Ten easy ways to use technology in the classroom 

How can teachers use Twitter hashtags for class project work? Can computer programming make PE fun? How can a mobile phone be used for maths trials?

Technology is no longer an optional extra, it is an essential resource for effective teaching, but some educators have struggled to stay afloat in a rapidly changing landscape. Wife and husband Rozz and Simon Lewis, both practising primary-school teachers, have been running the popular education website Anseo.net for eight years. During this time, they have used the internet and social media to encourage children to creatively collaborate and communicate.

"Technology has transformed the way we do everything, and primary schools are no different," they say. "Even with a lack of infrastructure and resources, however, there are creative ways to use technology to enhance learning. We got 100 classrooms around Ireland tweeting about visual arts during Digital Art Week. Children created games that respond to their body movements using the Scratch computer programme, which we used to fun effect during PE class. We also used mobile phone technology to take photos of shapes, caption them, and upload them to the blogging platform Tumblr [see classroomcaptions.tumblr.com]."

During Féilte, they will showcase 10 easy ways to use technology in the classroom. There will also be an online brainstorm, where teachers can post their ideas for using technology in the classroom. All the ideas will be collated and developed into a crowd-sourced user guide for schools. anseo.net

2 Next Steps: moving from primary to secondary school

While he was minister for education, Ruairí Quinn focused on the disjuncture between secondary school and third-level, rightly pointing out that many students were not adequately prepared for the very different demands of college life.

Several studies also point to the difficulties facing young people moving from primary to secondary school, as they adjust from short days with one teacher in one classroom to longer days with multiple teachers across multiple classrooms. The next Step (second-level transfer educational programme) is a unique and interactive project to get sixth-class pupils ready, delivered by trained volunteers from outside the school and involving parents, grandparents and others from the school community. Eight modules – covering topics such as fears and feelings, decision-making, self-esteem and bullying – are delivered over eight weeks.

The Next Step programme, developed and refined over the past five years by three home school community liaison teachers from New Ross, Co Wexford, has been running in two New Ross schools for the past five years, and has just begun in two schools in Wexford and three in Cork. Materials are presented in folder and CD format, and are available free of charge to schools.

Milo Walsh, one of the teachers involved in the programme's development, says they are waiting to gauge reaction at Féilte, but that it may be rolled out nationwide over the coming months. olimdeise@gmail.com

3 Arts in the classroom: The Marrog

“My desk’s at the back of the class

And nobody nobody knows

I’m a Marrog from Mars

With a body of brass

And seventeen fingers and toes . . .”

– Extract from The Marrog by RC Scriven

This peculiar poem has inspired an equally peculiar arts project. Last year, six primary teachers wanted to build artistic ideas based on the poem. Visual arts ideas included asking pupils to plan a picture of the creature, and asked them to construct a rocket for his journey; to build a character profile that allowed him to develop from hostile to friendly; to create a drama around him whereby a child tries to convince his or her parents that the Marrog is at the window; and to research myths and legends about famous monsters such as the Yeti or the Loch Ness monster. The creative possibilities showed what can grow from one simple idea.

This group, now called the Meitheal, meets once a month for a practical workshop where they share ideas and solutions around arts in the classroom. It is a teacher-led model of continuing professional development that includes displays of children’s work samples, short demonstrations by some of the teachers, and reflections and planning of classroom work for the next Meitheal.

"We bring evidence of our pupils' learning on an appointed topic – usually curriculum-based – to the Meitheal. This includes photos and samples of student writing and displays," says Helen Hallissey of Macroom Arts Circle. "The group seeks to nurture our own creativity with a view to better understanding of how we can nurture our students' creativity."

4 Health and fitness in schools

Several projects will showcase efforts to improve physical education and general health in schools. About a quarter of children in Ireland are overweight or obese, while four out of five are not getting enough exercise.

At Carndonagh Community, a secondary school in Co Donegal, teacher Niall McGee has worked with the entire school community to develop a range of actions highlighting calorie content and the recommended daily amount of exercise for young people.

In another project, Dublin City University's Copet+ (co-operating physical education teachers) drew together 10 like-minded and passionate PE teachers, and together they are developing their mentoring abilities to work with new PE teachers. "The development of communities like this can offer practical and workable solutions in overcoming the challenges of teacher education. The Teaching Council ought to take note of this," says Marie Clonan, a member of the group and a PE teacher at Margaret Aylward School in Dublin.

5 Instructional Intelligence: a leadership programme 

How self-reflective are teachers? How intelligent are they about their own teaching, and how can they improve the outcomes for students? Three years ago, Prof Barrie Bennett, a teacher and academic from the University of Toronto with experience from primary through to third-level, set out to answer these questions. He worked with 150 teachers from the vocational sector in Ireland, and, over six residential seminars, the teachers undertook in-service on the key principles underpinning a concept called “instructional intelligence”.

Broadly, instructional intelligence refers to how teachers can deliberately and consciously develop a range of strategies and techniques to improve learning outcomes, while taking into account the different factors that may affect individual students, including diverse learning styles, ethnicity, gender, students in “at risk” environments and multiple intelligence.

For many of the teachers involved, this has been their first engagement with professional development that is focused on teaching and learning in general, rather than on subject-specific in-service training. Two more sets of teachers have since started the project and many have facilitated in-service in their own schools.

The programme is expected to continue rolling out across Irish schools in the coming years, and has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of teaching and the educational outcomes for schools.

FÉILTE 2014: THE WHEN, WHERE AND WHAT

The Féilte (the Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence) is at the RDS, Dublin, on Saturday, from 10am-5pm. The theme is Talking About Teaching: Tearing Down these Walls. The event, which marks World Teachers’ Day, features more than 50 showcases and workshops from across the education sector and is organised by the Teaching Council. It is open to the public, but is heavily oversubscribed; the draw for tickets is now closed.

Féilte will include three panel discussions chaired by journalist and broadcaster Matt Cooper, as well as performances by the National Children’s Choir and the Teachers’ Musical Society.

Panel discussions will focus on the wellbeing and needs of experienced and newly qualified teachers. The panel on wellbeing will include contributions from musician Bressie, former Cork hurler Conor Cusack and TV presenter Eoghan McDermott – all of whom have spoken previously about their own mental-health difficulties – as well as Claire Hayes of Aware and Ann-Marie Ireland, a teacher and facilitator with ChillOut Ireland.

More information at teachingcouncil.ieTwitter @Feilte2014