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!



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!

Integrating technology into Year 8 Drama

My year 8 English class had the benefit of a technology enriched assessment task at the conclusion of their drama unit in term 2.
Students wrote and filmed a monologue using the class set of iPod touches. I then viewed each of these videos and marked them on their use of body language, voice, movement, etc.

Because we had already done quite a lot of performance in front of peers, I felt they weren’t missing out by not having an audience for their monologue performance, and the technology facilitated completing the assessment in one lesson as opposed to the 4 lessons other teachers had to dedicate to it. The technology also forced them to practice their monologue. Many of them were horrified when they watched their first playback. They were allowed to have 5 attempts at recording their monologues, and they had to show me their first and last recording, between which there was a marked improvement!

The students then used their recording on the devices, along with headphones, to reflect upon their performance and analyse it in the same way we had analysed monologues being performed in films or during our in class reading of the play being studied.

Students were given a scaffold and were asked to reflect upon the elements of drama they were familiar with from weeks of study. The technology really assisted this process, as many of them were able to scrutinise particular parts of their performance through rewinding, fast forwarding, pausing, and viewing multiple times, allowing them to also make detailed suggestions for improvement.

Students gave feedback about the assessment, a part of which was about the use of technology in the process, which they said helped them to analyse their performance more effectively, and also enabled them to feel more comfortable during their performance as they could practice several times, view themselves, and then make improvements.

Although it was only a simple addition of technology to the assessment task, it enabled meaningful reflection to occur and allowed students to become more cognizant of the importance of dramatic conventions through the ability to view, discard and improve.

A week of highlights

This week has been highly stressful, but extremely satisfying and very productive. Some of the best moments of my teaching career (although it is very limited!) have occurred this week, right on the back of feeling highly frustrated with myself for the year 9 assessment and feeling disillusioned about year 10, who, after building momentum and making great progress, have been disrupted by a couple of students who have returned to school after considerable truancy.

Tuesday saw a great lesson with year 8, who I have been frustrated with all term. I spent a period with them editing, discussing and sharing story writing tips. Most of them, even the often troublesome students, were excited to share their story with me, and with each other. Students’ stories were then submitted to a local program to be published. I was impressed with the stories which they were producing, and also with the rate of completion. Almost every student had submitted a story, and they had made a valiant attempt (considering their effort in previous tasks).

But the highlight of the week was having a notoriously troublesome student hand in their first seriously attempted assessment task on time in years. He stayed at lunch time to finish the assessment, and handed it in a day early to ensure he didn’t forget. After I helped him at lunch time with it, he thanked me several times, and then told me to have a good day. Another teacher walking past the classroom almost fainted. Then I got the warm fuzzy feeling from calling his father, who only hears the negative things, and informing him about his son’s achievement.

Despite having 2 other students completely off the rails that lesson, I also had the satisfaction of reading five or six students’ finished essays and seeing how far they had come from knowing next to nothing about poetry to being able to explain the humourous tone in a poem.

To top it off, I get to spend 2 days this week at a languages conference networking with other new scheme teachers and sharing ideas and resources.

Year 7, usually little darlings anyway, have been working on a task which requires them to expose themselves to a variety of cultures. In a little town like ours, this is a valuable (and rare!) opportunity for students to interact with something beyond football, netball and the river. The task has engaged some of the more reluctant kids, with 2 of the class clowns presenting their information as an Indian cooking show using images of food and teaching students some vocabulary (they are required to teach the class 5 words in the language of the country they have chosen).

A rude shock

This week, year 9 completed their first assessment task for the year. It was a speech to be presented on a protest poem, and required them to investigate and analyse a protest poem/song using the skills they learnt in class.

Listening to and marking their tasks on Monday afternoon was eye opening. Students were SO concerned about the form of the task (a speech) that the content which students were required to present was overlooked by them. Suddenly, all the brilliant and insightful discussion which is characteristic of this group fell by the wayside. Instead what I saw was mumbling, confused students, who were summarizing rather than analyzing.

It really made me realise that some forms of formal assessment really aren’t assessing the students’ knowledge. I also realized that I should have been more vocal in the design of the assessment task. Because it is a class I share, I went along with, and trusted the leadership and experience of, the teacher I share the class with. When I thought about the process more carefully, I realised how differently I had gone about planning the assessments I had given to my year 7, 8 and 10 class. Especially in regards to year 10, who required a considerably modified assessment, I thought long and hard (for weeks, actually) about how I was going to design an achievable assessment which both demonstrated what they had learnt, how effective the methods I had used to teach them had been, what (or who) I had missed or let slip through the cracks. But I also wanted the assessment to be an opportunity for them to apply skills they had learnt, and gain a sense of mastery.

I felt like I had let year 9 down, partly through a lack of communication with the teacher the class was shared with, partly through assuming that the other teacher was teaching the same thing I was and had the same ideas about assessment, and partly for not considering their assessment as thoroughly as I had considered the others.

Teaching to an assessment: are we zapping our students’ motivation?

My year 11 standard English class are generally good kids, with the occasional students who is only there to pass the time, but on the whole they are quite a fun group.

Until you are trying to prepare them for an assessment.

The teachers who wrote the assessment (Bianca Hewes) did so in a way which made the assessment connected to the outside world of the significance of story telling. And the kids were all down with listening to, reading, and watching the presentation of the stories of others (and discussing them in depth might I add) but when it came time to actually do the assessment themselves they bucked.

Because it was basically a race between classes as to who had their stories done and ready first, I gave my kids ample class time to write their stories, edit their stories and the stories of others, and practice presenting their stories. Class time which, for the most part, they wasted by whinging that they were worried about the assessment.

You might suggest more scaffolding, more examples, more direction and guidance for their writing and presentation skills. Tried it!

You might suggest giving them more freedom and choice in how they approached the assessment and used their class time to work on their assessment. Tried it!

Waterhole work, cave work, pair work, campfire work…tried it all, with minimal success. Still, half the class hasn’t even written a story, whilst the other half has a story but is quivering with fear at the prospect of a presentation to an audience. Sigh.

I felt that I had to force them to learn, which is unfortunate, because these are the kids who enjoy the discussions, enjoy group work, and enjoy activities which are slightly obscure (for example, I made them wear paper hats, and they loved it!).

It hasn’t been a complete failure, the stories which have been produced have been of a phenomenal quality, and I hope to get them together in an ebook or something similar. For the 4-5 periods which they did do solid and productive work I was astounded at what they managed to produce. And they all seem to have taken something away about effective creative writing.

It has lead me to ponder the challenges of teaching to assessment. Creative writing should have been such a fun experience for these guys, and I feel as though I’ve let them down by making it so boring; but the reality was that if these kids didn’t do their assessment in class, it just wouldn’t be done at home, and I wanted them to perform to their full potential.

And so it is with this in mind that I will wander into class tomorrow, scare them with the prospect of only having 2 more hours of class before their assessment is due and then try and motivate them with drama activities which they will hopefully apply when they are presenting their stories to their audience.

If anyone can offer any guidance as to tips for teaching to an assessment whilst maintaining the interest and motivation of kids who, if we are being honest, are hard to motivate about English, please share! I am almost at a loose end!