Unusual school experiences: the epic escape attempt of Charlie the croc!

As part of my role within the school, I support students to find work experience placements and engage with work places so they can transition away from us at the end of their schooling. As many of the young people I work with have unique barriers to overcome (hence why they are no longer within the mainstream system) this support can take on many different forms.

Most recently, I accompanied a student to a meet and greet at the Canberra Reptile Zoo. When we arrived for the casual meeting, we were told the main guys we were going to meet with were a little busy but to head on through and see what was happening. It turned out….Charlie the croc had decided to have an adolescent temper tantrum and smashed some heat lamps in his enclosure. They had to rope him to move him away from the broken glass and Charlie wasn’t keen on that at all! In the last 15 secs of the video you can see where he breaks the safety glass on the enclosure and I have a little freak out. I had visions of completing an incident report about staff and student injury via croc!

Zoo staff were very reassuring that we were safe at all times though and that Charlie wasn’t hurt or upset – he was just really annoyed! In the second video you can see they are able to move him away from the glass and then they moved in to replace everything.

I was worried my student would feel more worried about the work experience placement after that somewhat daunting welcome….but nope, they thought it was “pretty damn awesome” I think it will likely hold the title as most unique work experience observation for quite a long time!


P.S. it was definitely good fun to respond to all the teacher/principal joking comments along the lines of “did you get eaten by a croc” on our return 🙂

video 1: eeeek there goes that safety glass

Photo: Yep, he broke that glass good!

Video 2: Charlie finally gets moved in to a safe space by his amazing handlers


Learning Activity: Easter scavenger hunt!

Level of Blooms: remembering, applying and a bit of analysing and evaluating!

How I used this strategy in the classroom + examples: As Easter approached, we took on the task of setting up an Easter egg hunt for our 17 students. It’s something that always happened at the other campus (a farm site) and used to be a “whole school” activity. Numbers of students, supervision needs and transport limits meant that for the first time the Easter egg hunt for the older students (aged 14-17) would be at their newer, more modern campus. This gave me some issues to mull over:

– how do we hide them when every space is in eye sight of every other space?

– how do we avoid conflict or an altercation if they are searching in small, enclosed areas full of potentially breakable things?

– how do we make it fair for those who may find the noise overwhelming or opt out part way through?

In the end, I settled on a scavenger hunt.

I divided all the Easter eggs up separately into sandwich bags (equal allocations) and then had 1st, 2nd and 3rd extra prizes for those who finished the hunt quickest. In the 15 min break before the hunt, a staff member snuck around blu-tacking “animal tokens” like the one below into specific locations.

Students had to follow different clues to get one of each of the 5 animal tokens. Clues were randomly allocated by coordinating staff and given out one at a time so we only ever had a few students searching in each spot. We also had specific staff whose job was to monitor interactions and assist if students were becoming agitated or distressed.

Clues included self-written classics like:

CLUE D (location was under the whiteboard tables):

You can write on me but I’m not a board

I’m also not paper, rest assured

I’m flat and not shaped like a bubble

You can tag these without getting in trouble

CLUE B (location was next to the dead strawberry plant):

I’m in a bed, but it’s not one you sleep in

I could be red if I wasn’t dead

Mmmmm juicy

My overall thoughts on the scavenger hunt: I’ve only been working in a trauma support environment for 4 months now and I still consider myself an absolute newbie. Even in that short time I have learnt that anything which changes the status quo or standard routine can cause ENORMOUS issues. Read back to my post about the marshmallows….When you remove the routine, students become heightened and are then unable to regulate themselves which can cause big issues. The tricky part is to try and balance this understanding with valuable and authentic real life experiences that will help them move beyond a supported learning environment.

This particular scavenger hunt ran really smoothly, despite my worries. My final thoughts were:

  • It was much better than a free for all egg hunt as there were control elements in place and students had structures to follow. We were able to pair some students with staff and also keep some separated from each other which helped manage the heightened states of a few young people in a calm, unobtrusive way
  • Non-participants or those who opted out (which was only one in the end!) still felt included and valued as they got treats at the end as well as an Easter hug or high-5
  • It turned out to be an amazing literacy activity (unexpected side benefit for me, the English teacher) and it allowed those who may not always shine in their written work but have excellent creative thinking skills to “show off”.
  • We had one minor student escalation and because we had been careful to have extra staff around and specific roles allocated to supporting the students, it was quickly managed and the young person was supported to make good choices
  • A student who rarely speaks with staff and is often negative about all school activities really got into the hunt, asked to keep his tokens and chatted for the whole 30 min bus ride home about better clues he could have come up with!

Reflection and Learning Activity: Photography – learner and teacher at the same time

As a high school teacher, although we are all lifelong learners, it is common to stay within a specific content area and build our subject specific knowledge up. This means that while we are frequently learning new things, it’s often building on an already exisiting, in-depth subject knowledge.

I work in an unusual school setting and currently have a class with only two students in it for a couple of hours a week. One night in the not-so-distant past it was 11pm and I was pulling my hair out trying to work out what to do with them that would be engaging, relevant and link to literacy….and I settled on photography.

You see, I have a lovely new mirrorless Olympus EM-10 mark II which is still used mostly on auto mode. I am in the very early stages of learning the different settings off auto. The school happens to have two canon DSLR cameras for events, which I was able to borrow for the students. I had no idea how to use them though having never operated an actual DSLR! I was very upfront with the students that we would genuinely be learning TOGETHER in this situation and that they could direct the learning and skill development.

First of all, we each shared some photos we had recently taken. The two students picked a few favourites from their respective smart phones and I showed a few I had taken at 6am that morning at the balloon festival in Canberra.

As a group, we read up on the basics of how to use the canon cameras (turning it on, manual viewfinder etc) and also did some reading and discussion around composition. We then went for a bush walk around the campus to gather examples of using the rule of thirds in commotion. We printed a few of our photos out and critiqued them for application of the rule of thirds, then we also critiqued my photos from that morning and used a free online program (PIXLR) to edit them for better composition structure. This was a really valuable experience as myself and one of the students found it a useful composition tool but the other student loathed it’s restrictions on his creativity.

To conclude, we planned our next lesson, where we intend to learn about aperture / depth of field and take pictures of food with different f number settings. Our focus will very much be on the different options within the aperture setting. They have also expressed an interest in macro photography so we will be researching how it can be done without a macro or telephoto lens in the future.

This was a unique experience for me. Sure, I’ve taught something on the fly before or acknowledged I don’t know something and looked it up with a student but today we were all students – learners – together. We were at the same starting point and supported each other with learning unfamiliar concepts and skills.

We also had one really memorable instance where one of the students who struggles with self confidence was watching me get a teeny-tiny bit frustrated trying to work something out on the camera controls and when I asked him to do it for me, said “if I do it for you, you won’t know for next time. Here, watch me do it again then try on yours…”. Ummmm – what a moment!*

* I was able to really reflect on the massive step this was for the young person much later, when I was less frustrated and focused on the immediate issue and how it was making me feel in that moment. A definite learning experience for me both in camera usage and my own responses in a “learning” situation!

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Sometimes I think we forget about this when trying to fit all of our curriculum content and skills in to the day.

If a child is hungry, they will struggle to pursue knowledge. If they are scared or feel unsafe, they will struggle to pursue knowledge. If they feel like a failure/unloveable/not good enough then they will struggle to pursue knowledge. If they don’t feel like they belong, they will struggle to pursue knowledge.

There are very good reasons why mainstream education doesn’t work for every student.

Professional Learning: presenting at All Colleges Day 2018

Last week I presented at the College Conference here in the ACT for the first time. It was both nerve racking and rewarding. I really enjoyed the keynote speeches and was a huge fan of the fact the interactive app allowed you to both ask questions and upvote them. My Q ended up pretty close to the top! I think 5th one down isn’t bad; I won’t share how upset I was that mobile phones was the top one. Ergh.

This is the spiel about me, although the school attachment details are incorrect.

And this is the spiel about my workshop which focused on the principles of authentic learning and applying them in year 11/12 curriculum restrictions.

I’m a passionate believer in authentic learning experiences. While I know that the ideal is to hit all ten of them main principles (Herrington and Oliver, 2000) I also know this is hard to do. Our Australian curriculum isn’t designed to be applied in that sort of learning environment….but it is definitely designed to encourage teachers to embrace the overarching pedagogy behind authentic learning.

My two sessions seemed to be well received (it’s always hard to tell) and I had good feedback on the specific examples I included to show how I had integrated authentic learning into year 11 and 12 at all levels of the ACT curriculum.

I enjoyed the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas with my colleagues and it was wonderful to meet so many passionate Canberra educators in one hit. Hopefully it’s an event I’ll be able to attend again, being able to share what I have learnt through the early stages of an EdD (later converted to a second MEd) and implemented in my own practice with other teachers was very rewarding.

Reflection: the marshmallow experiment and the trauma brain

I just came across this article again from a few years ago: https://www.scilearn.com/blog/marshmallow-experiment-self-control-young-children?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheScienceOfLearningBlog+%28The+Science+of+Learning+Blog%29

The gist of it is that the majority of self control relates to the pre-frontal cortex, which is not fully developed in young children. It is also something which can easily be over run by the limbic system in moments of high emotion or fear.

Research is very clear that people with “trauma brain” are constantly in fight or flight mode and it doesn’t take much to escalate to a full take-over by the limbic system. A misspoken word, a look, a perceived slight, a minor change in routine….any of these are enough to trigger that limbic system overload and all self-control disappears under an onslaught of fear and uncontrolled response. That traumatised teenager doesn’t just eat their own marshmallow, they snatch everyone else’s that they can get to before smashing a window to get away.

I am finding reviewing these articles and readings in my current context really interesting. The idea that we know all these things about the brain and about how neuro-typical people function but continue to expect traumatised young people in schools to behave in line with these identified norms baffles me.

I believe more teachers in mainstream schools need to learn about trauma and trauma based models of behaviour support so they can effectively engage these young people in a mainstream schooling context. Although that would technically put me out of a job I would be BEYOND HAPPY for my school to no longer be open because mainstream schools could meet all of the students’ needs.

Learning activity: creative writing journals

Today I’ve been planning what my students will be doing for English in term one. Working at a school like mine (using a trauma framework) means the year levels have no real meaning….a kid in year 10 English could be at year 10 level, year 7 legal or year 2 level with their literacy. Nonetheless, we program with year 10 curriculum and content descriptors, then we modify and differentiate for each student.

An activity I’m planning to use this year is one I’ve had success with before – writing journals. One of the main things I have done with these in the past is let kids pick a “stress colouring” pic and stick it on the front. They can then colour it on days they don’t want to write, or finish before everyone else. I also provide weekly feedback on any writing they do within the journal – it’s always positive for my students.

Level of Blooms: remembering, understanding for the lower levels, hopefully analysing and evaluating!

How I would use this strategy in the classroom:


Provide students with a physical writing journal (I also provide an online option if preferred) and each time they write they are given a prompt. Prompts can be themed or adjusted for interest e.g.

– write about the day in a life of a Pet from the pets POV

– story started “it was a dark and stormy night when suddenly….”

– persuasive writing “should animals be kept in zoos”

If needed, the class could spend the first 10 mins of the allocated time brainstorming together to create a list of ideas for those less confident.

This can be used as a writing development task on its own, however I used it as an assessment and at the end of the term asked students to choose their three favourite pieces and respond to prompts on why they were their favourites. This then made up their creative submission (writing + rationale) for the semester and almost entirely removed the “but I can’t write creatively” response from students who view writing as a chore.


Provide a digital version if needed. Adjust writing goals for individuals e.g. provide a scribe, ask for 3 lines, allow dot points etc

Relevant Links: 



The example at this link was based on our class work at the time and the prompt was for them to envision a day in the life of our class project – a giant fibreglass cow! https://lakegarchibullprize2017.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/creative-cotty-work-short-story/comment-page-1/