Category Archives: 6. Big Picture

A collection of posts about Big Picture approach to education.

I did nothing

I got some very kind replies on Twitter about this ‘golden moment’ so I thought I’d expand and tell the full(er) story.

Quick background: Our class (well … group) is in the middle of (re)designing our room. We have come up with a design, we’ve found and from today already have a large, lovely second-hand corner couch in the class, we have changed desks around so we can easily shift them around or put them away to suit what people are doing, we are creating murals for the walls to transform a boring off-white wall to something that is ours and pleasing to see and (importantly) maintain and more. I’m directing traffic a little, the rest is done by my students. More on the project and the pictures another time.

‘Steve’ (not his real name) is the quietest, most reserved and shy member of our group of nine. Confidence to do things at school had been shot well and truly in the past of his schooling and much meets the resistance and reluctance to give things a go.

A couple of days ago, he started sketching a drawing. Soon, a sketch became a lovely picture of the Road Runner against a landscape. He decided he wanted the whole thing as a class mural … big! This by a kid who’d rather hide and fly under the radar most of the times, suddenly expressing himself.

We found some large boards and he sketched the painting in pencil. Today, he started painting it. Patiently, slowly, precisely, totally immersed even at the recess break. This plus we know that the finished mural is going to look awesome.

Today, a couple of kids from our class were hanging around Steve before lunch. I asked Steve if he would like them to help him with the painting. “If they want to!” was a curt reply.

“OK …” I backed off, issuing no instructions just stepping back a few steps.

Next thing, the two boys, now joined by another, quietly picked up the brushes and started talking to Steve how he wanted things done. Steve directed them with a couple of purposeful instructions and away they went, all painting, creating, helping Steve and each other with no fuss.

mural crew
Magic !

Small thing? Yeah, it may look and sound like to a remote observer who’d probably miss the intrinsic value of all this, particularly if not knowing the kids in question.

Our deputy principal walked past and could not believe her eyes how these four boys and another one from our class also working on his mural, worked well, perfectly content and happy to be there, purposefully helping Steve and one another. This for a class of, *ahm*, notorious for ‘behaviour problems’ (and they do have their moments and sometimes entire days, trust me 🙂 ).

I don’t know exactly how Steve felt today, but this shy, barely ‘literate’ and so often ‘good for nothing’ 14 year old kid got an important lesson, so to speak, of the hidden curriculum at our school – you matter, others can and DO care.

None of this will see the light of day on school report cards, league tables, NAPLAN, pollie and other pundit speeches, performance reviews, ‘merit pay’ and the likes. But it was spine tingling to see, a moment to savour and just enjoy for its beauty.

It reminded me strongly of Evaluate that! And I mean it too …

And what did I, a teacher, do in all this? I did nothing. The kids did it all themselves.


Well, today we finished the job with the help of a few talented artists from a couple of neighbouring classes. Take a look of the whole process …

And going back to ‘Steve’ – he asked me today: “Will we be able to take these home at the end of the year?” He is PROUD of his effort, something he had thought of, planned and saw it to a great conclusion while including others too.

And that my friends, in the parlance of a popular ad:

Materials … $150

Artists … 7

Days … 2

Feeling of confidence in one’s efforts … priceless

A kindred soul in our school

This afternoon, after lunch (and those who teach will tell you the vagaries of THAT particular time) we gathered about 25 school staff and students for a chat with an interesting guest speaker via Skype – Ira Socol. If you don’t know Ira I recommend you check his blog and/or connect with on Twitter – you won’t regret it.

I didn’t want any long convoluted introductions of Ira, just a few factual ‘hooks’ about him (can’t read or write ‘properly’ as many would have it, hated ‘normal’ school, called ‘retard and dumb’, used to be a cop in South Bronx and similar) to start the questions going. This was always going to be a two-way street, not a one-way delivery.

It was wonderful to be a part of the conversation Ira had with our kids. First, he disarmed the initial posturing many would find offensive and rude with simple “yeah, that’s what I was doing when I was like you, I’ve seen it all”. Huh 😀

Ira's skype-in ...

He introduced himself and told us about himself a bit, showed on Google Maps where he worked, grew up, attended school. Of course, being a cop in Bronx was a cool thing to explore. Did you get shot? Did you get to shoot anyone? Did you see any drug deals? and so on were begged to be asked and answered. We also touched on his difficulties in dealing with dyslexia and ways in which people have helped Ira out and the ways he has had to ‘strategise’ to do things he really wanted to do all along.

Among many things, Ira also spoke with deep respect for the late Alan Shapiro as the teacher or rather a person who has affected his life so strongly and things he had done for him. One of our students asked, insightfuly: Where would you be without that person? The reply was vintage Ira: “I would  at best be a pre-fab concrete operator, do drugs and die young. Nothing wrong with concrete operators but only if by choice not as the only option and aspiration one has in life.”

The hour was at times chaotic, at times engaged, funny, noisy, thoughtful, with questions, big and small, exchanged both ways. We kicked a couple of kids out before they literally had a fight, a few left on their own, but towards the end, half a dozen moved closer to the screen and had a more personal chat with Ira. It was wonderful to see …

Through stories and anecdotes, the skype-in was laced with and concluded with Ira’s battle cry for education and life in a broader society – find what you really want to do and work out what is getting in the way of it, strategies to get it and deal with obstacles and successes along the way. Chase your passion and give a damn about yourself and others around you!

And speaking of passions …

Earlier today, I had the first student not just in our class but in the entire school present his first exhibition (a presentation of a project to parents and anyone else invited by the student, a prominent feature of Big Picture model)

This wasn’t a full term’s work or some deep exploration of a topic, it was more of a warm up to many of these in the future. The student spoke very confidently about the topic he chose: comparing parts of scooters, materials, prices, value etc. He acknowledged that there were many things he could explore further if he wanted (for example, materials in alloys scooters are made of, ways of welding, design of wheels etc…). Magically, we got to the point(s) where “I don’t know” did not make him sound stupid but more like an invitation for further exploration, if chosen.

I thanked the student not only as his advisory teacher but as a person wanting to buy scooters for his kids in the future. I genuinely learned A LOT from this young expert. And it was so damn fantastic to see this kid who has been ‘no good’ in so many places come alive as an expert, with confidence in something. His parents beamed with pride and promised to work together even closer with me and their son in the future.

Yes, passion and interest change things. And they are starting to change things for good at our school, despite the mountain of obstacles we as a community of learners have to overcome.

I think we’d make Ira proud 😀

PS Ira, thank you again for the ‘visit’ and apologies about the ungodly hour (1-2am).

By stealth


One of the best times I’ve had in my teaching career was starting and teaching a Philosophy & Ethics course at a high school – even though the course was choked off in the end, read all about it.

I had taught and truly enjoyed teaching P&E not because I think students should know Aristotle by hand or discuss the merits of Kant but to simply wrestle with the ‘stuff of their world’, vagaries of their daily and long term existence. Stuff like: How to be a good friend? What does ‘success’ mean? What is worth getting upset over and why? Is it OK to lie sometimes or never? Can anyone tell you what to do with your body?

While, again, enjoyable and successful, one of the biggest obstacles in running the course was the running of Community of Inquiry, the central (it seems) plank in the practice of P4C (Philosophy for Children, coined by Lipmann). No matter what approach we tried, it inevitably turned into periods of long silences and A-type personalities dominating the skerits of conversation face to face.

Reasons for that aplenty but main ones were the sense of ‘exposure’ and ‘shame’, lack of experience and value of a ‘rational conversation’ ie dialogue not a win-lose debate, cultural inappropriateness to challenge someone older and more. Over time I realised that this mode of exchange isn’t best served straight up with assumptions of nice, clear, rational, scientific-like discourse but needs to be deployed in context of a particular space and group of people.

So, I’ve learned the lesson …

At my new school, we don’t have or teach subjects as such (see Big Picture). So we don’t and are not going to have a subject called Philosophy and Ethics. But for the last couple of Mondays after lunch, we gathered all the students (and staff!!) in a large room, sat in the circle facing each other and, with no great introductions or statements or goals or procedural reminders started simply started talking about failure.

The rules were simple: Share something you have failed in, big or small. If you can’t or don’t wish to, simply say ‘Pass’ and the person next to you will continue. Well, about 40 of us sat in this room after lunch and shared stuff for an hour ! Previously unheard of!

First few rounds were about failure, then one about how school-related failure, and we then finished with examples of something good that is/has been school related.

This Monday, we ran another ‘circle session’ today. Bit rowdier with more interruptions but even to have these kids in the circle, facing each other and sharing this stuff for about 50 minutes is pretty damn good. And pretty damn insightful, with amazing gems among the trivial, teenage posturing/shyness noise.

I made a promise that things we discussed won’t leave the room and I will honour that. But I felt we started something that for now just tickles the 2 C’s our school is built to empower young people with – confidence and curiosity.

Yes, we will need to think carefully how to walk the line between between the ‘novelty factor’ and ‘booooorring!’ and not choke off the 2C’s with over-structuring things … but I tell you that opening of spaces where kids were game enough (and obviously felt safe enough) to share sometimes quite remarkably personal stories was something very, very special.

And I for one would love to see not (just) what philosophy can do for these kids but what can these kids do with philosophy, how can they use it to recognise their uniqueness, their becoming and what matters to them in the process.

So we are doing Philosophy. Slowly, gradually … just don’t tell anyone about it or call it that way 😉

Letting go

If you are sensitive to expletives, please stop reading now.

It’s Friday and I need a stiff drink. I have just spent first week as Advisory Teacher at our Big Picture school.

This is about as remote as it gets from the quiet of a desk at Moodle HQ. It is also remote from many a schools I have seen, worked in or read about.

For all the prep on Big Picture (an educational philosophy our school follows), I started the week with a teacher hat on. I had plans. Plans not for some stellar didactic performance but just some simple, ‘engaging’ (or so I thought…) activities, basic get to know you and perhaps a beginning of what I have always been about – valuing (good) questions over answers. Plans for (short) periods of time, where I would be listened to by students in my class, uninterrupted, with some important things to say. Plans for students to express, share a few non-threatening details and ideas…

Well, most I and the whole class got of that at one time was a few minutes. I have seriously re-thought full group (and I ‘only’ have seven kids at most in my class) activities. Cut them down to absolute bare bones.

We are a Big Picture school, an approach that, put broadly, is all about students pursuing their passions and interests. It’s about letting go of teacher over the head telling students what to do about something that the teacher, not necessarily the student, is passionate about. It’s about letting go, judiciously but deliberately, to build resilient, independent learners.

So I asked the students to create above their ‘station’ in our class a wall of images about their passions and interests. Well, serves me right for asking that – I got a wall of images of alcohol, weed, a few bikes and singers thrown in and a bit of soft porn which I requested to be taken down.

This was my first week in a new school with new kids who are so acutely sensitive to criticism, lack of trust because they have had little of it elsewhere. At the same time, these aren’t some poor angels but red and raw teenagers who’d love to get one over you just for the fun of it sometimes. With the lack of ‘history’ at the school, I found myself often relying on gut-feel on what is OK and what I should sometimes let go. One wrong presumption and bridges could be burned or damaged at least, one wrong presumption and I will be a soft target for sometimes cruel teenage jokes.

Sprinkle of a few memorable quotes:

  • Asking for students’ perception of this school, Day 1: “Do you know what this school is? We are retards and dumb c***s.”
  • Creating a login for Moodle that requires 8 characters, 1 capital, 1 number: “This is f***ed. It’s too hard I am giving up.”
  • Student: “Just don’t tell s**t to my mum because that ‘expletive 1, expletive 2, expletive 3, expletive 4’ of her boyfriend will find out and kick the s**t out of me.”
  • Student: “F**k off.”

Me: “Listen. Nobody tells me to f**k off in my face. If you were 18 and we met out on the street you’d be lucky if I didn’t slap you.”

Student: “OK, sorry about that.”

Me: “Apology accepted.”

After that, the student was genuinely very kind to me. An icebreaker of a kind :D. I ended up giving her a Gotcha! Award [recognition of good things] for being reasonable, courteous and quite polite.

  • Catching a repeat smoker: “This country is going down the c***hole. It’s cheaper to have and smoke weed and supply it than cigarettes. For weed you get ……. and for smokes you get ….. (the student ranted on but quoted exact and correct penalties for both as per current legislation – I only knew a part of it myself).”

and many, many more like that.

Yes, we have managed to offend just about all nice, middle-class sensibilities. To thousands of teaching colleagues, this would be horror, Hades personified!

Ours is not your ‘regular’ school. It is for kids who(m) mainstream schools in this ‘tough’ and largely ‘low socio-economic area’ (because ‘poverty’ is a dirty word and only happens in places like Africa, right?) just couldn’t or wouldn’t cater for. We have a group of about 90 kids who have come to this place as ‘terrors’, ‘freaks’, ‘no hopers’, ‘lost cases’, ‘druggies, ‘losers’ … sure you get the picture. It’s a mix of acutely shy ones, (ex)bullies, homeless, kids from broken, dysfunctional families, chronic taggers, spoiled teen brats, kids with degrees of mental illness (well, don’t we all…) and more (and not just with negative baggage here either!).

The name of the game here is confidence. Confidence to have a go. Confidence to imagine, express yourself, and preferably in ways that don’t include abusing oneself or others. Start small, think big.

And to work here, you need to have the longest fuse in the world.

But this is a magical place. No, truly.

This is a place where when an often truant, disruptive (yada, yada, yada, you know how a typical stereotype goes…) Aboriginal kid comes to school and the staff go: “Oh great, ‘Benny’ (not his real name) is here today!” (he is in my class, too 😀 )

This is a place where you hear a kid who got kicked out of a couple of schools for bullying quietly saying: “I want to leave that behind. I want to do better than that.”

This is a place where you see a kid who would not interact with anyone only a few months ago now plays a ball game with a few others.

This is a place where a staff member replies to a student, screaming: “I’m f*****g going home you expletive 1, expletive 2, expletive 3…” with “You know you can go but we are here for you.” The student in question is homeless.

This is a place where staff within 10 minutes board up ideas for an excursion and volunteer for tasks in great spirit, no fuss or excuses.

This is a place where the most reserved of students momentarily overcame the fear of standing in front of others and share an honest line or two about a much loved educational assistant who recently passed away.

This is a place where a shy, quiet student comes up with his first own Independent Learning Plan that includes interviewing adults in the workplace. Huge!

This is a place where students go to the library to pick up a book or check out an audio book for possibly the first time.

This is a place where the principal addresses the conversation about merit of giving ‘Gotcha! Awards’ to either every student or only those ‘outstanding ones’ with the words: “For many years I have heard this argument about ‘diminishing the value of the award by giving it to everyone.Well, I’d rather diminish the value of the award than the value of the child. If we can’t find something good, no matter how little, in each kid in front us, we are not doing our job.”

We have just returned from a barbecue on the beach with the students. Yes, we chased a few through the dunes, told them off for this and that. But we also played 3 on 3 basket, kicked a football, cooked sausages, teased and photographed each other and shared many of those little, precious, golden moments with the kids that build the bridges of relationships and confidence to have a go.

Make no mistake – this is not an easy teaching/education gig! But thanks to the amazing staff with the right ‘chemistry’ even after a few days together we are on track to ‘let go’ judiciously and have the kids experience something few of them have in the past – confidence to get out bed for something that deep down they want to be remembered for.

And that sort of thing grows on your heart, no matter how hard it may be sometimes.

Thanks team, see you on Monday!


This post was removed after a few days by request of a person whom I respect way too much to make petty issue with.

Today, a few days from the initial posting, this message arrived to my principal from the head of the umbrella organisation our school belongs to and who was one of the main drivers to set up our school:

“… has read the blog [post] and, like me, was quite moved.

When I read it I felt proud of why we set up this school and what we are achieving with these kids.

Our view is we need to have the courage to let Tomaz say this stuff. We understand your concerns about others taking a sentence here or there, but the best defence we can offer is to say “read the blog, read the whole blog, and then tell me what you’re problem is”.

The whole blog is utterly defensible and should be available for all to read.”

Even after such a short time, I am proud to be a part of this organisation, truly.

And if you ever get people whining about ‘why one shouldn’t blog’, feel free to knock them on the head with this.

Tomaz Lasic

But wait … Letting go – again (part 2)

First impressions

I am starting a new category on Human. Big Picture. A great model of education.

Motto of Big Picture: “one student at a time in a community of learners.” In a nutshell: students select an area of passion and interest and they ‘go deep’ over a term, looking at the interest from different perspectives and through it develop things like literacy, numeracy, scientific reasoning, social skills etc. Advisory teacher helps them develop, refine and implement the plan, together with parents and people in the community and beyond, connecting people, ideas and places. At the end of term, the students publicly presents what they have learned in a format of their choice.

Well, I am now one such Advisory Teacher to 12 14-year olds (Year 10, roughly) in an area that some people might call it ‘a nice place’, others would tell you it’s pretty much ‘one of the rough ends of town’ (usual suspects: poverty, violence, drugs … you know). Here, I don’t teach ‘subjects’ (but I do have strengths; digital technology, humanities, critical thinking, sport etc.), I teach kids. Or better – I try to make them think.

Because this is the launch of Big Picture programme at our school, we are spending the first week with parent/student/teacher interviews before the term actually starts. Now there’s a difference (one of many!), and arguably a luxury (?) from a ‘regular’, mainstream school where those meetings usually happen at the end of term over a bunch of grades.

In meetings, we go through the Big Picture approach, some basic expectations and kick off the planning process that will be refined throughout the term. We speak, but we primarily listen.We repeat the meetings towards the end or whenever required throughout the term.

I have met the first few students and their parents this morning and we’re off planning. I have my/our room to work on a bit (empty canvass at the moment) before we re-design it again with my group to suit us, I have started setting up our Moodle and conducting the first staff session this Friday, learning a lot about the kids and their background, new staff …

Finally, I love the physical setup of this place. You can see it from the pics above. Staff room, admin and common-use areas at the front, massive open area in the middle (all covered) with a range of workstations, then a cluster of smallish rooms at the back, all with desktops and IWBs.

Yeah, rosy glasses on for now but I feeI we are going to have our work cut out here in a good, good way. It’s a great, inviting place to give a damn.