Tis the Season of Assessment…

It’s about this time in the term when you start to feel a bit like the honeymoon is over; the kids start to tire of your puns, the first assessments are due and the workload piles up.

This week, I’ve been marking Year 12 Advanced speeches for Module A and it dawned on me that when students hand in assessment tasks, that’s when I do my most effective teaching. That’s when I truly take stock of what students have actually learnt and where the holes are that I haven’t filled. It’s when I get the chance to provide feedback that they are guaranteed to read and consider important. It’s when I get to congratulate students on what they’ve done well. It’s when I can plan where I will take the students next. Not that I don’t do all these things during the teaching of the unit, but the formal assessments provide a more explicit avenue for me to reflect upon these aspects of my practice.

With this new appreciation of the integral role of assessment in MY learning, I’ve approached assessment in a new way this week: with excitement! And I’ve even infected some of my students with the same attitude; one of my Year 9 students has been diligently working away on her assessment task, which is an original poem, visiting her elders in the community to research the impact of the Stolen Generation on Indigenous people in our town. Obviously, she is aware of the valuable opportunities assessments provide too!



Personality Clashes

I have been struggling with a Year 8 class I have which has been formed specifically to address the needs of students with behavioural difficulties. I have found that there are some extremely defiant students in the class, who it is obviously quite difficult to win over and form a relationship with in order to maximise their learning. I have been working on teaching them what it looks like to show respect to me and to identify and appreciate when others are showing respect to them. It’s going to be a hard road, I’m thinking!

What I have an even bigger issue with, however, is the way that they interact with each other. There are some very obvious personality clashes in the class, and this usually plays out with them degrading each other, the class taking sides, etc. etc.  I came across a chart on edutopia’s twitter account which has helped me over the last few days make my expectations of their behaviour towards each other very clear.


Each student has one of these charts (except I cut off the love hearts off for the boys!) and they are expected to be able to put a tick into one box each lesson. We have then had some reflection time, discussing which acts of kindness they had ‘completed’ and why those things are important. Interestingly, most of them are very keen to share what they’ve achieved and have been very proud of their acts of kindness.

I’m still waiting for the ‘make a thank you card for your teacher’!

Humans of…Part One.

This year, in an effort to ensure that the learning of my students has more meaningful links to life beyond the classroom, I have decided to go for an online audience.

Over the holidays I became obsessed with the ingenius blog, Humans of New York; the way that it deals with perspective and characterisation, from the viewpoint of an English teacher, is so original and engaging. It is also great to show the diversity amongst a community, which we lack here in my small, rural town.

I decided I was going to capitalise on the success and concept of the blog and apply it to our Year 7 unit, Real and Imagined Worlds. I also realised this was a great opportunity to incorporate PBL elements to the task, letting the students determine the audience, content of the site and organise the blog. They were extremely excited about having ownership of such a text.

This week, students voted as a class and decided on writing their own descriptions of places which were significant to them to share on the site. After much discussion and debate, they entitled the blog ‘People Down Under’, as a nod to the Humans of New York brand. These descriptions had to incorporate poetic devices which we have been studying, most notably imagery. Students also chose a template for the site, having to justify in terms of visual literacy why their choice was the most suitable.

During the next week, students will get to work uploading the content to the site and choosing colours, fonts, pictures, etc. They also plan to contact the famous blogger himself, Brandon Stanton, to ask for advice on creating the blog and keeping it updated. Hopefully they continue to stay just as excited about the project over the next couple of weeks as we hold its “launch”!


Finding Meaning in our Teaching

I’ve been focusing in my preliminary lessons this year on making the content and skills students are learning meaningful. Meaningful to the content and skills they will eventually learn and also to their lives outside school.

Year 10’s study of poetry began with them considering the value of literature and compiling lists of the things they have learnt from studying classic texts over the years. Some of their answers made me proud to be part of a profession that imparts a love of literature to a new generation. They are also part of a PBL-style project in which they will ‘become’ the poet we study and discuss their poetic preoccupations in the form of a podcast. Therefore, they see everything they learn in the unit as building a picture of their poet for this task.

Year 8 are studying a novel based on the life and adventures of Ned Kelly, and they are all very keen to find out how you can commit so many criminal acts and still be considered a national hero. It has already dawned on them that it might all be about the way the facts are presented (perhaps I have the next cohort of lawyers?) Lots of them connect with the downtrodden boy who faced prejudice and discrimination and have made comparisons with refugees in our current society. With them, I am discussing which values shape our nation and why icons like Ned Kelly accord with this view.

But it is my Year 12 group with whom I have had the most success in this area; they started by considering the skills which Module A would develop in them (drawn from the syllabus and their knowledge of the methods of assessment) and how these skills would be useful to them post-school. I was interested to note that they saw the value of synthesis as applying to the purchase of an item, like a car, and being able to compare and contrast the different options to get the best value. I have also shown them where EXACTLY (using very detailed and poorly drawn diagrams) the information we are learning can be used in their responses.

I find that this Module provides a lot of temptation to get bogged down in detail (especially because I love Pride and Prejudice!) and so this approach has really kept me focused by forcing me to ask and make explicit to the students: What is the value of this in terms of assessment? What is the value of this in terms of being able to be an accomplished and fully-functioning adult? The students in the class have also found the contextual information fascinating; some of the more politically-inclined students have been suitably outraged at the lack of rights for females and other minority groups, which has brought out a fierce love and defence of Elizabeth Bennet, a total damnation of white middle-class men and a recommitment to the feminist cause.

Not only does it make me feel like the students are more focused, it makes ME feel like there is more value in my teaching and their learning. Even though, for years, I have been teaching them valuable things, making that connection explicit to them has hopefully made them more motivated to learn.

PBL with Year 10

As well as reconnecting with my PLN this year (see my post about the New Year), my aim is to make learning more engaging, exciting and meaningful for students by taking more risks myself.

I have an extension Year 10 class this year, and our first unit is a close study of a poet. I always struggle to find meaningful ways to assess speaking, so I am going to run a loosely-based PBL unit with this class, with their product being a podcast in which students interview the poet about his context, poetic concerns and style to answer the driving question:

What is the value of poetry in our modern world?

It is a question I put to my Year 10 class last year, and students came up with some really interesting answers:

  • to express ourselves
  • to communicate ideas
  • to gain new perspectives
  • catharsis

I want this year’s class to explore these ideas in more depth.

With most students now bringing a device to school, students will use these to research, compose and record their interviews. Their podcasts will then feature on the podcast channel we create to ensure that students have a real world audience.

Having neglected technology for a while, I had to do some informal PD. I have been researching exemplar podcasts, manuals and tutorials on podcast technology, and come across these great examples of podcasts which are effectively ’round table’ discussions of poems and poets:

I also found this guide helpful, but it may be a bit technical for students who lack digital literacy:

I am going to aim for the flipped classroom approach (another risk!), giving them the analytical information they need to know to study at home, and then giving them time to collaborate, seek feedback and work on their project in class. Hopefully I can get back on the PBL horse without too many hiccups and students can see the value in studying poetry.


Module A Musings

Whilst I was preparing to teach my Year 12 Advanced class their first Module (Module A, Intertextual Connections) over the holidays, I spent literally weeks puzzling over the best way to present the content to them whilst ensuring I was developing the requisite skills for the Module the entire time. In the past, my teaching style has been to teach the content, THEN work on the skills, but I wanted to go for a more integrated approach this time and really try to make learning meaningful. I set it up like a project-based learning initiative for myself, with the goal being the meaningful delivery of content and development of skills which improve their HSC and real-life outcomes. Eventually I hope to become confident enough in the process to enable students to do this process themselves by the time we reach Module C.


Step 1: Make Learning Meaningful
So I made a list of the skills they need to succeed in this Module (research and discovery through close reading of syllabus documents and markers comments), in both the final exam and the assessment, and also the skills which I wanted students to take away with them into the workforce, and their general life (again, research, but this time most of it came from education journals and psychological studies), from school. It looked a little like this:

  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • independent inquiry
  • deep understanding of the content of texts and author’s context
  • ability to synthesise multiple texts
  • ability to extrapolate and use relevant key information
  • ability to construct a cohesive, coherent and insightful argument and support it with evidence
  • respond to a variety of different topics under timed conditions
  • appreciate the value of the texts studied

Of course, the students need to know about these skills and WHY they are useful to them, they aren’t supposed to be a secret! So I made up some notes for them about how each of these skills, which they will develop in this module, will help them beyond school (Of course, I will ask THEM to consider this before I give them these). I included some research findings (quite a few ‘science-brains’ in my class) about life-long learning and 21st century skills in the workplace, as well as some personal anecdotes about deadlines and working within budget constraints.

Step 2: Skills development through engagement with syllabus documents
I decided that the best way for students to start developing some of the skills was to first flesh out the ideas in the syllabus and prescriptions. For those of you who don’t teach English, it is a bit of a tricky and abstract document, so it really needs to be broken down for the students (personally, I cannot wait for the implementation of the new Stage 6 syllabus!). Here is the relevant section for those interested:

Module A: Comparative Study of Texts and Context
This module requires students to compare texts in order to explore them in relation to their contexts. It develops students’ understanding of the effects of context and questions of value.
Students examine ways in which social, cultural and historical context influences aspects of texts, or the ways in which changes in context lead to changed values being reflected in texts. This includes study and use of the language of texts, consideration of purposes and audiences, and analysis of the content, values and attitudes conveyed through a range of readings.

Elective 1: Intertextual Connections
In this elective, students compare texts in order to develop their understanding of the effects of context, purpose and audience on the shaping of meaning. Through exploring the intertextual connections between a pair of texts, students examine the ways in which different social, cultural and historical contexts can influence the composer’s choice of language forms and features and the ideas, values and attitudes conveyed in each text. In their responding and composing, students consider how the implicit and explicit relationship between the texts can deepen our understanding of the values, significance and context of each.

I mapped each of the skills I brainstormed in Step 1 to this document, so students could see the links. Then I made some notes myself about how each of these aspects of the syllabus/prescriptions could perhaps be turned into a simple general thesis statement which targets the key aspects of the Module. My plan was to model a few for students and then let them loose on their own to tap into their independent ideas after these discussions. For example, The context of a composer is critical in shaping the ideas and values in a text. I want to use this activity to really reinforce that their study is NOT about the texts, but about the key concepts of the Module, and practise their skills (especially in independent thinking, extrapolation and constructing an argument) as they become familiar with syllabus content.

Step 3: Skills development through discussion of context of authors
I gave students research tasks to complete during the holidays to investigate some of the key aspects of Austen and Weldon’s context (one of the texts studied being Pride and Prejudice) and so their research will form the basis of this activity (like a flipped classroom). I want them now to develop a flowchart using their contextual research which looks like the following (practising their independent inquiry, critical thinking and gaining a deep understanding of the author’s context):

*please note that the flowchart usually says social/cultural/political values, but the text was too small for the purpose of a small graphic on here!

Mod A flowchart

After students complete this (they may need to work BACKWARDS through the flowchart) for each author, they compare and contrast their contexts, enabling them to see where conflict in the ideas of the authors may arise, and where there will be opportunities for synthesis.

Step 4: Skills development through the content of the texts
You will notice that the final box in the flowchart is ‘ideas in text’; this is because this section of the flowchart is designed to facilitate the discussion of the text only after the students understand how social, political and cultural factors influence the composition of a text.

My discussion at this point with students will focus on the key ideas of the text. The most difficult thing I find with Module A is that there is so much detail in each text that it is difficult for me (let alone them!) to include only what is SIGNIFICANT. The dot point form of the flowchart makes it easier for students, when they come to write their responses, to whittle down the information to only the important parts.

This section I will mostly want them to be doing independently, instead of using whole class discussion, as I want to let their ideas form before they share them. We have spent a considerable amount of time in our class discussing how IDEAS differ from EXAMPLES. That’s also why I find this flowchart useful; there should be no character, plot or style information in the ‘Ideas’ box, an idea is more general than these aspects of the text. I use the metaphor of ‘taking a step back from the text’, a colleague of mine tells the students to “close the book and think about what you remember”. They must be able to relate each of these ideas to the THESIS statements they came up with from the activities in Step 1 (at this point, they may choose to refine these statements).

Students need to, again, compare and contrast ideas between the texts:

  • Where are the possibilities for synthesis?
  • What are the strongest ideas I can write a response about?
  • How do these ideas relate to the syllabus and thesis statements I’ve generated?

Step 5: Skills development through analysis of ideas.
Now that they’ve done the ground work, constructing an analytical response should not be difficult. Students need to find evidence for each idea from the texts and be able to analyse the significant aspects of the form (in our case, novel and non-fiction) which represent these ideas. I gave my students handouts of what constitutes a ‘significant’ aspect in each form (e.g. don’t discuss metaphors in a drama, this is NOT the most important aspect of the dramatic form).

Step 6: The response!
Now students need to generate thesis statements (which they’ve already done, they just need to refine these) in relation to a variety of topics (all taken from the syllabus, so if they did Step 1 correctly, at this point you can say ‘Voila!’) and break these down into the ideas they generated in Step 4 and 5. I recommend to students that they have 3 ideas per thesis statement (remember, thesis is taken from the syllabus, ideas are taken from the texts) and that those ideas relate to both texts (whether it’s a point of comparison or a contrast). Of course, this is where they will need scaffolding with their introductions and body paragraphs, but I have been more interested in the process rather than the details during my planning.

What I’ve realised during my reflection upon these musings, while compiling them into a comprehensible for others, is that essentially I need to work in both forward and reverse, if you like, to help them integrate their knowledge, see their own development and make their learning meaningful in several ways. Hopefully when I make this process transparent to them, they can practise it during Module B and be independent in its application in Module C-mastering yet another important skill I’m trying to target: problem solving!

More than just a New Year’s resolution

This year will mark a four year anniversary that I’m not overly proud of. In 2012, I headed out to my first teaching position, optimistic and ready to spread the word about the power of technology and the importance of developing a wide PLN to support best practice. And a year in, I fell off the wagon completely. As I enter my fifth year in the classroom, I’ve realised that it isn’t just about my teaching, or the learning of the students in my class, or even in my school. It isn’t about my faculty, or even the staff at my school. I have cut myself off from so many valuable resources, so much valuable input and so much support, and it hasn’t been until I’ve come up for air, so to speak, that I’ve been able to realise that a great deal of the inspiration I took with me out to my first teaching post was the feeling of contributing meaningfully to a community.

This year, I’m not just making it my New Year’s resolution to reconnect with my PLN, be active on Twitter and blog regularly, I’m also including it as a goal in my PDP. I want to rekindle the fire I once felt when issues surrounding the education industry were discussed and reclaim my own thirst for knowledge. One of my passions, in particular, was the support of Pre-Service Teachers, and I think that with the additional experience I’ve now had, I can offer them far more practical guidance and help.

Time for a long weekend…

Is it nearly time for holidays yet?

I bloody hope so.

Despite the fact that I have been much less tired this term than I was this time last year, I think I am more emotionally worn down than anything.

The huge weeks that have been a regular occurrence in our faculty (year 12 marking, excursions, planning) have been very draining this year. As has the game of Wipeout my senior classes have been playing with my emotions and confidence and the dread I feel every time the staffroom phone rings; which parent has been in complaining now?

I must admit that the difference this year comes not only from being a year wiser but also from friends in my support network as stabilising presences to tell me it is actually bordering on certifiable if I mark until 3am or occupy every second lesson planning.

And although I am feeling utterly exhausted, I feel a sense of accomplishment this year; a sense that my lessons have continuity and that kids are building knowledge gradually but solidly in these areas as opposed to collecting bits here and there and somehow having to piece them together. This time last year, I was just trying to survive until the end of the lesson with my year 10 class.

I think this year my focus should be more upon emotional resilience rather than survival. With all of the new challenges I’m taking on this year (new courses, year advisor) I think I will need some coping mechanisms to deal with the barrage of criticism (not all of it constructive) that I will face, mostly from the wider community (read: parents).

It has taken me the better part of first term to work that out; how have your goals been altered by what has happened thus far this year?

Why do I care?

After having some hurtful things said about me today by a student, I started to wonder why it upset me so much, after all, is it important that your students like you? Think you are cool? Want to be in your class?

Now, I’m not talking about respect, I’m talking about positive feelings towards. Undoubtedly, a student must respect their teacher (and vice versa) for learning to occur.

Last year, I developed a thick skin. The students who hated me hated every teacher, hated school, their parents, and most things generally. The students who have expressed their displeasure this year, however, are the “nice” kids.

I have always felt that as a teacher or a parent, it isn’t important that kids “like” you, because, after all, kids won’t always appreciate you doing what’s best for them when they disagree about what it is that’s best for them. However this rationalisation hasn’t helped the feeling that today’s comments have planted in my stomach.

How do we cope with these comments about our personal qualities in a professional capacity?

Change is upon us!

With the NSW version of the Australian Curriculum to be implemented from 2014 in my KLA (English) for years 7 and 9, our faculty is planning how these changes can be incorporated into our planning for next year.

Our Head Teacher suggested that one of the most pressing things is to conduct planning with primary school teachers, particularly Stage 3, in order to map out how the new outcomes will shape the content we teach.

I have been pondering how this discussion might be best facilitated recently, and have wondered how other English faculties and primary school teachers have been preparing for this change.

I have thought about drafting a matrix like this and filling it out using backwards mapping: i.e. what do we want students to know by the “endpoint”? And working from there around the concepts that we teach in different aspects of English (which will fit into the different strands in the new syllabus).

Concept Desired End Point Stage 6 Stage 5 Stage 4 Stage 3 Stage 2

Syllabus outcome

Syllabus content

Suggested texts

Learning across curric

For example, if we take the concept of figurative language, we may have a desired end point of wanting students to understand the way comparisons affect the qualities and characteristics given to a person, object etc and be able to identify these qualities in common and explain the effect of the given figurative device. If we assume that the end of stage 6 is our end point, by working backwards, we see that this is what we must teach them in stage 6. So what must we teach in Stage 5? Perhaps the identification of these devices and an explanation of their definitions and the effect. Which devices are expected knowledge in stage 5? What kinds of texts would be appropriate for teaching these concepts? And the questions go on and on.

This may be a slightly simplistic view of how the new syllabus can be planned and programmed for, however I think that it is a good start to see what teachers consider THEIR role as a primary school teachers of English and high school teachers of English.

What I find especially daunting is the fact that some of the new Stage 3 outcomes resemble outcomes we are now teaching at the end of Stage 4 and into Stage 5. Now while this doesn’t sound like a dramatic leap when it’s phrased like that, the fact is, that the burden will now be put on primary school teachers to teach these extremely complex aspects of English, when previously it would have fallen to those of us who don’t need to be trained in millions of different KLAs like primary teachers.

I think that without working backwards, which is what most competent teachers do anyway in their everyday planning, we cannot possibly meet the demands of the new syllabus, which is that learning is supposed to be viewed as a CONTINUUM.

Please, any helpful advice would be appreciated! As I said, we are in our planning stage and would love to have input!