Category Archives: Teachers

Some posts aimed directly at teachers rather than students.

The Old Warrior and Me

Let me tell you a little story.

It’s the story of an earthquake. It’s a story of poetry and justice and community. Oddly, it’s also the story of how I got published in a book in the Philippines.


When an earthquake struck the Bohol province on the 15th October 2013, perhaps I was fleetingly aware. It may have registered briefly in my consciousness even as it registered 7.2 on the richter scale, killing 200 people, displacing 380,000 and leaving 75,000 without homes.

What do you do in the face of such devastation?

If you live far away, untouched, relatively unaware, probably nothing. Perhaps you donate a few euros to Concern or the Red Cross. Perhaps you don’t. The news flits in and out of your consciousness. Another natural disaster takes its place. Occasionally a friend will be fundraising to go build houses somewhere houses need building (India? Africa? the Phillipines?)  and you mindlessly throw ten euros their way. Of course you’ll help. Worthy cause. It costs you nothing in the big scheme of your life. You will not miss the money.

But then one day, you get a message from a retired teacher, Milwida Reys. She grew up in the Phillipines and though she spent most of her adult life teaching English in Sydney, her heart is still at home, at home with the earthquake victims as they struggle to rebuild their lives from the ruins. Her childhood friend, Nestor Pestelos, has been fundraising to build 150 houses for the earthquake victims most in need, families with disabled or elderly members, families who will spend years living in tents if something is not done to help them. Entire communities come together, provide salvaged materials and labour, take the process of rebuilding their homes into their own hands; all, of course, with much needed financial assistance and guidance from the Bohol Quake Assistance fund.


But why is Miwilda emailing an English teacher in Ireland who lives half way across the globe and who she’s never met?

Well, Nestor is not only a leader and visionary in community development. He’s also a poet. His friends and colleagues recognise the beauty of his writing even as they appreciate that many years ago he put his first love, writing, to one side, to focus on his other passions: community and justice. At 72, he is showing no signs of slowing down, despite occasional mumblings about retiring so that he can write more.

Now, these two passions – poetry and community – have come together is an altogether unexpected way. Mrs Corazon Verzosa Lanuza, who attended the same high school as Nestor and is a former student of Milwida’s, has made a significant donation to the Bohol Quake Assistance fund, but she has also made a request. She has requested that some of this money be used to publish a school edition of Nestor’s poetry collection “Old Warrior and other poems” so that the students who now attend their alma mater can read and appreciate the poetry of this man who once roamed the same corridors they now roam; who encountered poetry just as they encounter it now at school.

In fact, the vision for the project grows and expands as other people become involved. What about including some of the poems in translation, so that those students whose English lags behind their native tongues of Tagalog and Visayan, can still access their beauty and their message? What about including a guide to studying poetry, so that reading and appreciating poetry becomes a more accessible, less elite activity? Why not also tell the story of the earthquake and the assistance fund? Couldn’t this book inspire young people to consider development work as a legitimate future, one which is quite different from the usual self-centered pursuit of career and self-fulfillment?

And so, an idea was born. Milwida, living in Australia but desperate to help, was given the task, alongside Nestor, of putting the book together. She had the original book of poems. Nestor could tell the Bohol Quake Assistance story, in between project meetings and fundraising and liasing with volunteers and contributors. Perhaps she could gather some responses to his poetry and some poems in translation? Now she needed a poetry study guide. And when she googled poetic techniques, from all the way across the globe, up popped little old me.

Milwida’s request was characteristically humble:

My main reason for trying to contact you was to ask your permission to reproduce ‘Poetic techniques & terminology’ from Is ‘Poetic techniques & terminology’ for the exclusive use of your students? Is it possible for Filipino students to access it, too? Not many schools in the Philippines are equipped with a computer system similar to that in schools in the West. Students cannot search information online as easily…

I’m helping Nestor Maniebo Pestelos, a friend since high school, promote his self-published book of poems, Old Warrior and Other Poems as a supplementary material to teach high school literature in my home country. The book would be even more invaluable if your ‘Poetic Techniques & Terminology’ could be included as a Study Guide when the Second Edition is printed”.

And that is how I came, one morning not too long ago, to greet the postman as he handed me a package all the way from the Philippines. That is how I came, for only the second time in my life, to hold in my hands a book in which my writing was published, the thrill altogether different to that of publishing online. That is how I came to read Nestor Pestelos’ beautiful poems and the Bohol Quake Assistance story and to feel the earthquake register in my consciousness in a way it never had before.


I don’t know what the moral of this story is.

It may have something to do with the remarkable way in which we are all now connected online in this incredible global village.

It may have something to do with the capacity some remarkable human beings possess to always look beyond the self. For Nestor, ‘Art, relative to life, can always wait’ which is why, rather than retire, he has responded to a summons to work for the next 6 months on a UNICEF project in Samar to assist those hardest hit by last year’s super typhoon.

It may, conversely, have something to do with how difficult it is for a tragedy that does not touch our lives to touch our hearts. This is perhaps the hardest thing of all for me to digest. How, without that random google search leading somehow to me, this earthquake would have remained nothing more than a barely registered event in the myriad of human and natural disasters that rain down on our TV screens night after night. Numbed by over exposure, how do we retain the capacity to care?

For more about the work being done in Bohol, take a look at












Blog Awards – We Won!!!


Every year since 2012 the Blog Awards has been a highlight of our calendar year. Granted, I was hitherto attending as a plus one, as my hubby’s blog was a finalist in two categories – twice – and I was but the poor relation who made the shortlist but never quite made it to the ball…

Fast-forward to this year and I featured on the shortlist once again, but I figured it’d be a case of history repeating itself so we didn’t make any plans to attend the awards. In fact, I was so sure I wouldn’t feature as a finalist, I picked the weekend of the awards to move house.

And then I won!

Despite a lovely evening of twitter congratulations, even now I feel like a bit of a fraud typing the words “Winner of Best Education Blog”!

You know what they say, if a tree falls in the woods, yadda, yadda, yadda…

Well, suffice it to say that because I wasn’t there I’m still not convinced it actually happened! Perhaps once I manage to collect this lovely hunk of glass off Simon Lewis, I’ll become a believer…

blog awards trophy

In the meantime, it would be remiss of me not to offer sincere thanks to the judges and to my readers who have made my blogging experience such a positive, interactive and rewarding experience. I raise a glass to you all from the comfort of my new couch!


It’s September now, summer’s only remains lie in the uncut grass taunting me every time I glance out at our overgrown lawn and it feels like I need to somehow reclaim my blogging mojo. Still at a loss for inspiration or motivation or dedication, perhaps revisiting the lost four months gone past might relight some dampened fire in my typing fingertips…

Back in May I delivered two related keynotes in quick succession, the first being the ICTedu conference in LIT, Thurles campus organised by the wonderful Pam O’Brien. It was my first time keynoting; I was grieving; I was scared; but I was also determined to prove that I could say something worth saying; that I could rise to the challenge presented.

My trusty notes app, on my phone, filled with rough cut thoughts and teaching anecdotes formed the backbone of my talk, which you can view here, should the mood take you.

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I was overwhelmed afterwards, with kind words and exhaustion, and the remainder of the day was quite simply a joy, particularly the inspired Learning Walk.

Although then Junior Education Minister Ciaran Cannon mentioned that he’d like to have me at the Excited conference, it wasn’t until the next day that it clicked in my teeny tiny brain that he meant he wanted to have me present. A keynote? Aw crap! Ok!

At his request, my ICTedu keynote formed the backbone of my talk, which you can view, should the mood take you, by clicking on the vimeo link below… and my reflections on the day you can read here.

From a blogging perspective, nothing new to see here really… but a necessary dipping of toes back into the water, methinks…

Open Gardens

Sometimes something comes along at the perfect moment. It’s been almost three months since our beloved Mary passed away and somehow it feels like we should be doing more to keep her memory alive.


So when her husband Michael heard that we could open her private garden to the public as a fundraiser for the Irish Red Cross, he – and we – felt it would be the perfect way to honour her memory.

Mary’s legacy is evident everywhere I look – in her hat-making and painting, in her house and all her baking utensils, that now only gather dust. But her legacy is most evident in her beautiful garden which covers 1.5 acres and features over 150 varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees. As you can see from the photos below, the gardens run through the old village centre, with an old granary and a little cottage as the most visible remains of a road that no longer exists.

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If you’re a garden enthusiast or just fancy a day out, please come along this Sunday 13th July to stroll in her beautiful garden. We’ll be serving tea and buns and there may even be some live music! The garden (in a little town land between Gortaganny & Ballinlough, Co.Roscommon) will be open from 12 noon until 6pm. For more information check out and if you decide to take a spin this way, DM me on twitter or email me for directions / GPS co-ordinates.

If you love gardens but Roscommon is a bit of a trek too far, do keep an eye on your local paper for details of open gardens in your locality – or better still, host an open garden fundraiser yourself! You can sign up here on the Irish Red Cross page.


p.s. Of all the things I’ve ever posted here, I can freely admit that this one has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Leaving Cert English. Or Junior Cert English. In fact its only connection to the subject may be the fact that it’s written in English.However, as this is my main portal for communication with the online world, I’ll plonk it here anyway and hope to be forgiven. It is the summer holidays after all!

Musings on ExcitED…

Sometimes I’m pretty dim. Take for example, three weeks ago at the ICTedu conference. Saturday morning, the Minister for Training and Skills Ciaran Cannon opened the conference, then I got up and did my (first ever) keynote.

Ev at ExcitedWhen I sat down he complimented me on my thought-provoking talk, double-checked the name of the book I’d recommended (“Teacher Proof” by Tom Bennet if anyone’s interested), asked if I’d heard about the ExcitED movement/conference at the end of the month (if you’re a tweacher on twitter, you’d want to have been living under a sound-proof boulder not to have heard about it) and politely said he’d love to have me there.

So here’s the bit where I’m pretty dim. I thought I was just being invited to attend! It wasn’t until the next day when the provisional schedule was emailed to me with my name pencilled in for a keynote that the penny dropped with an almighty clunk in my teeny little brain that I was being asked to speak.

Perhaps it’s the Irish tendency towards suspicion of authority figures (which, let’s face it, is quite ridiculous on my part – as a teacher I’m an authority figure myself!) but I approached the conference with some trepidation, as well as excitement. It seemed unclear what the balance of attendees would be, as a mix between international speakers, techies, edtech companies, policy makers and educationalists looked like the eclectic target audience. Unsurprisingly, I’m most in my comfort zone addressing other teachers so the prospect of the unknown was a little daunting. And more than once I had heard concerns muttered amongst my tweacher friends (and I had done some muttering myself) that perhaps this would be one of those events where tech people look down their noses at teachers, tell us we’re doing a terrible job (we’ve heard that one before), that we don’t ‘get it‘, need to ‘get with it’ and that the solutions are very simple; all involving technology permeating every aspect of the educational experience. I’m sure I sound cynical, but don’t forget, there’s a major financial incentive for the tech industry if you can convince governments worldwide that their education system is broken and the only way to fix it is with technology!

Photo excited kids

Thankfully my concerns about the conference – if not about the bigger picture – were unfounded. Friday and Saturday were a celebration of the remarkably innovative and creative projects students and teachers engaged in this year all over Ireland. In fact, it was not dis-similar to the Féilte event organised by the Teaching Council and the Learning Walk which was such a highlight of ICTedu. The speakers were challenging but never insulting; the panelists were a wonderful mix of students, teachers, experts and innovators and the genuine palpable passion in the air was a lovely thing to breathe in and behold.

I was utterly blown away by the BT Young Scientist winners Ciara, Sophie and Emer, who articulated the vision students have for blended learning (which they collected and collated at the festival). I was also deeply impressed by the panel contributions of Adrienne Webb (CESI chairperson), Mags Amond (CESI exec member and innovative secondary teacher) and Bianca Ní Ghrógáin (the most creative primary school teacher I’ve ever come across). If I hollered from the audience spontaneously, please excuse me! I get a bit rowdy when I’m excitED 😉

As with every event you give your weekend over to, you want to feel as if you emerge having learnt something, having met some really fascinating people and with questions and challenges bubbling in your brain. On this front, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Three people in particular challenged me to re-assess some of the things I have embedded so deeply in my psyche that I no longer view them as even being open to debate.

Mike Feerick

Mike Ferrick, founder of was perhaps the most provocative panellist, confidently proclaiming the death of the traditional classroom and challenging us to consider schools as being in competition with the internet. He believes that problems of non-attendance will loom large in the very near future, as students realise that they can learn a hell of a lot more if they stay home from school and take charge of their own learning via the internet! I can list many reasons why I disagree with him – schools provide structure, motivation, interaction, social support – but I’m sure he could just as easily argue back that these features are being developed, rapidly, in online learning environments.

Instead of dismissing him as a crank, or a profit-hungry entrepreneur, I want to sit down with this man and have him show me what he sees right now that I can’t see. Because what struck me most forcefully about him was his absolute certainty. I want to understand why his faith in digital learning is so powerful that schools in his mind are already obsolete. And once I can understand this, once I can see what he sees, perhaps I can harness things I don’t yet know exist to help my students’ learning.


I also had a provocative challenge from Ciaran Bauer of Bridge21 during the round table sessions where we offered our suggestions for the National Digital Strategy for Education. The teachers at our table, including yours truly, immediately got stuck into the nitty gritty niggles and practicalities which make the integration of IT into the school and the classroom so time-consuming and difficult. Our concerns are genuine; as one of our number observed, it’s hard to get into the flow of competing in the Mathletes challenge when the internet connection keeps dropping to nothing every five minutes and I know I could give a hundred similar examples of where the petty obstacles to integrating edtech become so great (and they are generally so bloody stupid too) that you just give up in frustration. We’re certainly a long long way from tech as an invisible tool, like water from a tap, that’s always there when you switch it on (I can’t remember who gave this analogy but I liked it!).

But it was at this point that Ciaran suggested to us that a failure of imagination was what was holding us back; that we needed to get creative; that the solutions are there waiting to be discovered. That teachers need to stop looking at what’s NOT possible and making excuses and start dreaming of what is. Then find a way. Although at the time I felt quite annoyed with him, and a bit judged and mis-understood, having had a day or two to reflect, I think he had a point. Way back when I began using tech in my teaching, it was because Catherine Cronin had said something very similar, albeit in gentler language, to look for the white spaces, to find what is possible even in situations where so much seems impossible. That was the catalyst that led me to the point I’m at now and it’s a journey I’m very thankful I embarked upon!

I need to ferment some ideas around making the impossible possible a bit more but suffice it to say that there’s a room in our school that desperately needs to be re-vamped into a creative space, with computer pods and couches and beanbags and right now there is no money. We have the space, we have 7 computers and we have the vision. We need three more computers; a carpenter to rip out rows and build some pods; some comfy seating and the money to pay for these things. I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t perhaps some kind of sponsorship deal out there to make it happen? Although it was acknowledged on the day that the very idea of educational philanthropy is still relatively alien in an Irish context, could it really be as simple as Ciaran seemed to suggest? Create a compelling proposal, then hound potential investors until one of them – or some of them – come on board? Hmmm. I’m not sure…

Anyone out there want to transform one room in our school? I’ll give you all of the credit and LOTS of publicity…plus my undying gratitude as an extra bonus?

I await your response!

Yours in anticipation,

Evelyn O’Connor


Finally, I was fascinated by the adaptations people offered to my not-at-all-original outline of the skills we’re told students need to develop, consisting of the three C’s – creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. Tricia Kellegher suggested adding in communication and curation. Her suggestion was partially echoed later in the day when I was lucky enough to grab a quick chat with Marty Cooper. For him, it all comes down to people developing the confidence to communicate their message clearly. It didn’t go over my head that here is the man who invented the mobile phone suggesting that the most important skill we can teach is clear communication! It also fired some kind of synapse in my brain, making me recall that Bill Liao, co-founder of coderdojo, had tweeted earlier in the day that the c he’d suggest adding to my list was Computational Thinking.

Tricia KellegherMarty CooperBill Liao
Now I was starting to see a pattern. The inventor of the mobile phone values communication about all else; the co-founder of a movement to teach young people to code values computational thinking; and my keynote raised concerns about edtech devaluing or undermining critical thinking. When you consider that my final year extended essay focused on the later novels of George Orwell, including 1984, it’s not surprising that I value critical thinking above all else. After all, being able to think critically about the world is what enables us to question those in power – a process that I believe should be on-going and never-ending.

Yet during our panel discussion, memorably for me, Bill Liao challenged us to consider that maybe there’s more to being educated than only developing the ability to think critically. And suddenly it was like a light switched on inside my head. I’m doing good things by giving my students the opportunity to be creative and to communicate and to collaborate and if our focus isn’t on critical thinking 100% of the time during the school year, that’s ok too.

You’d be forgiven for muttering to yourself right now ‘she’s right you know, she really can be quite dim sometimes‘ because this seems so bloody obvious. But I think my own personal preferences and talents and the system I grew up in taught and measured and valued little else except critical thinking, although I’m willing to accept that this was perhaps my own fault for selecting all academic rather than practical subjects. I’m not for a second advocating that we ease off on getting students to develop critical thinking skills – I haven’t lost my mind completely – but that doesn’t have to be our exclusive focus ALL OF THE TIME. Basically I think the message Bill was offering, which is one I needed to hear (and perhaps I’m just putting words in his mouth now, in which case I apologise) was that we need to re-conceive what we value; to widen the scope of what we value.

How wide should be widen our focus? Well perhaps we could begin with creativity, collaboration, communication, curation and critical and computational thinking?

The other thing I kind of want to clarify, is something I said during the panel where I mentioned that I felt it was mostly the middle class students I teach who were accessing and using my site. I then said we should all be thankful for having grown up in a home where education is valued. I’d be concerned that anyone would conflate the two and think that I was offering the patronising view that only middle class families value education, which is a trend, certainly, but by no means a given.


It would also do an injustice to my own parents to imply that somehow I grew up in a comfortably well off family of doctors or lawyers or teachers. My mum completed her Leaving Cert and at her father’s urging joined the Civil Service rather than follow her dream of becoming a hairdresser. It wasn’t much of a career move as she had to quit her job a few short years later when she married in April 1973; only months later the marriage ban was lifted, but it was too late for her. My dad left school after the inter cert and worked on building sites but an innate talent for numbers saw him move into accounts and he worked in various jobs before joining Mayo County Council as a revenue collector and working that job for over twenty years (oh the taunting I got at school about Zacchaeus the tax collector in the bible stories!). I’m the fourth of five children, yet despite the first four of us being steps of stairs, we all achieved a university education and two of us have Masters, in Film Studies (that’s me the lightweight) and Financial Maths (that’s David the heavyweight) respectively. So I guess my point is that a household where education is valued is far more significant and important than a household where money is comfortably available.

One final thing occurs to me. At ExcitED, teachers as subject specialists was quite a hot topic of dispute. There was a general vibe in the air that the old chestnut “primary teachers teach kids, secondary teachers teach subjects” is entirely true. I have to say, as someone utterly devoted to and consumed by my subject speciality, yet at the same time utterly devoted to my students, this blanket dismissal of the importance of subject expertise made me really uncomfortable. Think about the Mathletes participants, how important it was for them to get the encouragement to participate from their teachers, who are also, presumably, lovers of Maths. Think about the success of my own website, which exists, I firmly believe, because I communicate my passion for my subject. Or Marty Cooper’s obsession with communication and Bill Liao’s emphasis on the importance of computational thinking. It’s possible to be an obsessed subject specialist and a really caring teacher simultaneously!

Yet I will grant one thing here. I am most certainly waging a constant battle not to be biased against those who don’t love my subject; who don’t value the same things I value. I’m conscious of it and I try at all times to challenge it and minimise it but when people tell me they don’t like reading, I have to admit some small part of my brain starts to view them as alien life forms. I was heartened recently when I confessed this prejudice to my Principal and she laughed and admitted that she (a former PE teacher) finds it hard to understand people who don’t enjoy sport, or at the very least exercise. I wonder if I had asked Bill Liao, would he see people who don’t embrace computational thinking as missing out on half of the wonder of the universe? Or if Marty Cooper met someone who had taken a vow of silence, if he would see this person as nice, sure, but odd in the extreme?

The only other observation I have to offer here is this: when we drink from the fountain of knowledge, it does not matter what we like to drink or how we like to drink, only that we find the magic liquid that quenches our thirst and then instantly inflames it again so that no matter how much we drink of that fountain, our desire is never quashed, never lost, never drowned out, never squashed.

Maybe everyone has their own favourite drink and when they sup at the fountain of knowledge it tastes different for every individual person. Perhaps how they drink varies too – some gulp, some sip, some take their time, others swallow in one go and go for another and another and cannot be sated. Some drink standing up, others lying down. Some stick to the same drink but try different recipes, different vintages. Others never sup the same liquid twice, because there are so many flavours of knowledge in the world and so little time to savour them all.

Nonetheless, we must still admit that the difficult thing is FINDING your favourite drink and your preferred style of drinking from the fountain of knowledge in the first place. Students having to study a broad range of subjects is often criticised but a large part of me hesitates to embrace the idea that we should specialise earlier. We have our entire lives to devote to a narrow field of endeavour. Perhaps looking at the vast horizon, rather than zooming in with tunnel vision on one area, is to be desired rather than just being an end result of an outdated system.

Finally, do we have students who thirst for knowledge? I think far too often we whinge and moan that they do not want to learn. I’ve started to think of it like this instead: maybe they are thirsty – but just not for the same beverage (writing, writing, writing) every day! And once they find the thing they cannot get enough of, irrespective of how they feel about your subject, they will transform utterly and a tangible beauty will be born.

For fantastic coverage of the day, check out the Youth Media Team blog.
If you’d like to see photos, go to

ps Oops – forgot to say congrats and bloody well done to the organising team of Minister Ciaran Cannon, Bernard Kirk and Frank Walsh. Bravo gentlemen!