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”!



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!

Update: Students as Teachers

Over the last 2 weeks, my Year 9 class have become teachers. Read my previous post for the details.

Students came up with some excellent ideas, including cartoon strips, group stories and the use of graphic organisers. Unfortunately, two groups were unprepared on the day they were required to teach, which led to me having a chat about the importance of organisation and time management to learning effectively.

On Monday, they wrapped up their teaching sessions and were given some time to reflect upon two questions:

1. What does it mean to be an effective teacher?

2. How do I learn best?

Some of the replies the students came up with are as follows:

An effective teacher is; a teacher who knows how to get everyone involved and concentrated. Someone who makes it fun, which is a good way for students to keep it in their heads. An effective teacher understands the subject they are talking about and ensures that the student does too.
How do I learn best; I learn best normally by reading things. When the information is organized well I can keep it in my head the way it was shown to me. I think that’s why I learnt alot from the theme group. They wrote a definition on the board and wrote up different things in a way…

I think to be an effictive teacher means that you get your message across, in a fun and enjoyable way. I think i learn best through group work and class discussions. If i enjoy an activity it is more likely for me to pick up on the information and it is more likely for me to remeber it. I enjoyed the plots group activity because it got the whole class involved and conveyed the message effectively whilst still being enjoyable and funny.

I think an effective teacher is someone who knows what they are talking about to the extent of them being able to teach without looking down continuously. A good teacher also needs to be able to improvise when something goes wrong. Control of the students is also a vital part to being an effective teacher.
I prefer it when the students do not teach because they cannot control their peers and I think that they play favourites. Also a maturity factor comes into play to distinguish those who take learning and teaching seriously from those who think it is just for fun. Noise does not allow me to focus which impacts my learning abilities. Working independently and occasional group work and teaching the class is the most effective way of teaching in my opinion.

Obviously, the peer teaching was not enjoyed by everyone in the class, and didn’t play to everyone’s strengths. But most of the students appreciated the way in which this taught them about what it means to teach and how difficult it is to provide a quality learning environment for every student in a class. It also taught them a lot about their own learning due to the spectrum of activities the groups used.

If I were to do this exercise again I would pay close attention to:

-classroom management issues (when students are teaching): students need to come up with how they will deal with certain behaviours and set expectations for students in their teaching plan (unfortunately this was an oversight on my behalf!). One way to combat this might be to break the class into small groups and have a peer teach each group.

-finding a balance between teaching, fun and assessing knowledge: some students just did quizzes or crosswords without actually teaching students the information first. This led to students disengaging because the didn’t know the answers and the groups didn’t explain the answers completely either.


Living in the dark ages

Not that I doubt the truth of what she says, but I couldn’t believe so many people could be opposed to the brilliant work bhewes (@BiancaH80) is doing with PBL in her classroom.

I knew it wasn’t an approach which other staff members were eagerly taking up at her school, but I just honestly couldn’t see any valid reasons for not implementing more student centred styles of learning in the classroom. Except for the fact that it might involve more work for those teachers who are used to just standing out the front dictating notes to their class.

And then I experienced some of those negative vibes firsthand.

Someone associated with the university I am completing my preservice training at is coming to supervise a lesson of mine next week. In her instructions to me, she advised me that I needed to make sure I was “actually teaching”. When I enquired as to what she meant by this, she said, that she wanted to see me teaching them something, not just “setting them a task and walking around helping them”.

I then explained to her that my master teachers classes were run according to PBL. The supervisor dropped the second bombshell, “what’s PBL?” When told it was a more student centred approach to knowledge, involving students in inquiry and giving them freedom to determine the direction of their own learning, she made a noise which sounded like a stifled groan.

Again, she reinforced that I was to be doing actual teaching the day she came (as opposed to what I usually do, which is clearly NOT actual teaching).

I saw red when I got off the phone. How DARE the university relentlessly shovel the phrase “student centred” down our throats, and then completely chicken out when it comes time to endorse it in practice?

As someone who is yet to even start a career in teaching, I am already astounded by the politics which plague the profession. The way any form of change is resisted is ludicrous, especially when this change is so obviously beneficial for student development of all the skills we apparently value so highly.

I can only imagine the enormity of the battle ahead, and completely admire those pioneers who have gone, or as in the case of many of you, continue to go, before me in the challenge of chalk and talk.

A hectic weekend

Starting the weekend without my usual 2 hour dog walk, coffee and sonoma toast routine really threw me Saturday morning. I was actually less productive in the time I set aside to get started on assignments and prac work than I would have been had I ventured out. I blame Twitter.

Yes I have finally joined the alternate universe which is Twitter. And now I am an addict. I completely blame my master teacher for introducing me to all these fantastic ways of connecting with people (edmodo, blogging, twitter), and opening up a world of opportunity to connect my classroom with classrooms all over the world (quite exciting really!). When I say ‘blame’ of course I mean ‘thank’.

So now, I spent the weekend procrastinating on these web tools instead of completing a legal studies assignment (which is frankly quite boring) and starting an English assessment.

After completing my first worksheets and sending them off to my master teacher for feedback, I was surprised that I didn’t get told to start again. Only a few things needed editing! Sigh of relief. Got that sorted first thing on Monday morning via a whispered conversation during a yr 11 exam. Teacher skill-using time wisely: tick!

Monday was interesting, I observed “circle time” with yr 9-such a miracle that you can get 30 kids sitting on the floor listening intently to their peers experiences and sharing their own. Definitely a great way to introduce a PBL focus unit!

We also decided to turn the new PBL units into a game, with teams, leaderboards and prizes to motivate the students to complete individual and group tasks. A great way to utilise all the masculine energy we have in the classroom!

I was also able to observe a different style of teaching, one which was based around yelling, issuing confusing instructions, not being enthusiastic about the work and not listening to the students. Needless to say, this teacher is quite unpopular with the kids. It really demonstrated to me the importance of laying down the ground rules with students and ensuring students understand them before issuing punishments; these students were genuinely confused about what they were supposed to be doing, why they had been given detention, and most of all they felt like they had been jipped. I felt really sympathetic; how could they concentrate on learning when they wanted a question answered but the teacher wouldn’t listen to them.

Reading a novel aloud in class-sounds relatively simple. But the teacher managed to make it ultra boring. No expression, no voice projection, no varying of her tone, pitch or volume. She tried to get other students to read, but no one showed any interest-and why would they when her attitude indicated it was the most boring thing in the world. I almost fell asleep. When I read Animal Farm to the yr 9 students later that day, I paid very close attention to the way I used my voice. I spoke in an animated way, and even used a distinguished mock-English voice in Major’s speech. And I didn’t even wuss out on the song!

I think what I learnt NOT to do today was just as valuable as the tips I found useful to incorporate into my own practice. Am slightly anxious as Thursday approaches-my first lesson! Thankfully it is with yr 11-a good class for the most part. No doubt Thursday night’s blog will offer a chance to reflect upon the experience.