Archive for February, 2010

Ten rules for writing fiction

I came across this link today – it is one of the best articles I have ever seen about writing fiction.

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian newspaper asked authors for their personal rules for writing.  The rules often apply not just to writing long novels, but also to writing short stories…some of the rules are hilarious, and some are applicable to life in general, not just to writing!  (Make sure you click through to the second part of the article as well – loads more ‘rules’)

I would love to do an activity with these – perhaps a jigsaw group activity, or something where students were given a random selection to read and discuss.  They could make a poster of their favourite rule/s for the classroom wall.  They could form their own sets of rules…

Here are some of the rules that I like best:

  • Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that. - Rose Tremain
  • Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”. - Roddy Doyle
  • Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils. - Margaret Atwood
  • Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand. - Anne Enright
  • Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea. - Richard Ford
  • The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator. – Jonathan Franzen
  • Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to. - David Hare
  • The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.” - Helen Simpson
  • Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on. - Al Kennedy

Love it :D  Good writing IS hard work, and students need to understand this if they want to refine their abilities.  It can also be a lonely task, solitary and isolating, and remembering that there is a whole community of writers out there, bunkered down at their desks and struggling to keep themselves in check, is a comfort.

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How to inspire passion #edchat

Working from home has made it easier to participate in the weekly #edchat on Twitter – the topic today was how to discover student passion.

An interesting chat I had with @joe_bower and @monk51295 was about the use of grades in assessing student learning, and how they work to kill student passion.  Joe makes an excellent argument on his blog for abolishing grading – a form of assessment he believes is obsolete and archaic.  I couldn’t agree more.

Grading student work using reductive labels such as an A-E scale, or a mark out of 10 or 20, just doesn’t do the job that anyone wants it to.  Parents (well, most of them) seem to think they want this kind of measure, and yet when it comes to parent-teacher conference evening the first question I am usually asked is along the lines of “so, what does a ‘C’ mean?”

In NSW Australia it is now mandatory for schools to report to parents using an ‘easy to understand’, ‘jargon free’ A-E scale.  The purpose?  To allow teachers to report student academic achievements at any point in time using clear standards.  So, what does a ‘C’ mean?  Well, it means that the student’s achievement is sound; that they “have a sound knowledge and understanding of the main areas of content and has achieved an adequate level of competence in the processes and skills.”  (Parent: “so, what does ‘achieved an adequate level of competence’ mean??”…and here we are, back at square one…)

NSW schools have the option of using the grade labels (A-E), or they can use the corresponding descriptors:

  • A = ‘Outstanding’
  • B = ‘High’
  • C = ‘Sound’
  • D = ‘Basic’
  • E = ‘Limited’

I was absolutely dismayed when I started teaching at my school to find they had wholly and solely adopted the A-E grade system, even though the use of the letter grades wasn’t mandatory.  While I recognise that faux-descriptions like ‘High’ or ‘Basic’ aren’t much better, at least they are somewhat descriptive.  The ideological baggage alone attached to A-E grades is enough to poison parents’ understanding of student reports – using these terms in my experience transports parents right back into their own school experience, and instills an instictive kind of dread.  Parents who were ‘C’ students in school now apologise for their ‘average-ness’ in semester interviews.  And parents who were ‘A’ students seem puzzled that their spawn have not exhibited their genetically inherited excellence.

The problem with this is, as an English teacher, I truly believe that the way in which we engage with texts in todays classrooms is so much more complex than in the past, that comparing a ‘B’ grade from the 1970s to a ‘B’ grade in a NSW English classroom today is like comparing apples to oranges.  Yet it is this historical understanding of grades that we draw on when we offer them to parents as a ‘clear standard’.

In my teaching I have taken a pragmatic approach to grading student work, and I tend to use a combination of grading individual outcomes on a tick-a-box scale, following this with comments.  My faculty insists that I allocate a grade to any common assessment tasks, but for most assessments I can withhold this from students and just record it in my markbook.  Here is an example of the feedback sheet I use in our Year 7 Debating assessment task – syllabus outcomes are rephrased to connect with what students have learned to do, and an overall grade can easily be calculated by looking at which column got the bulk of the ticks:

debating task assessment marking criteria (download PDF – feel free to use!)

One thing I know I don’t do enough of is getting students to explicitly reflect on their progress, and this is something I worked on a lot last year.  In a post on his leadership blog @dan__rockwell explains that a sense of making progress is the greatest motivator of all.  Unlike grades (which act as ‘carrot and stick’ motivators), giving students a sense that they are making progress can really inspire them to learn and move forward.  A practice I would like to start in my classes is to give students the assessment feedback sheet at the start of the unit and get them to fill it in with what they would get before participating in the lessons.  They could then compare this to my eventual feedback (and/or their own self-assessment using the same sheet) to guage their progress.

It seems obvious to me that this is more valuable than knowing you got a ‘C’.

Joe suggests in his blog that when an organization has some policy or rule that simply desn’t allow you to always to the right thing, then professional acts of subversion are called upon.  Refusing to grade student work is one way of subverting the archaic A-E grade system in NSW.  Refusing to conduct NAPLAN exams this year in light of their use in the MySchool website would be another example (but I wonder how many of us will put our money where our mouths are on that one?)

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Do English teachers hate going to the movies?

How many times have you been asked this question?  It might have also sounded like this:

“Miss, has being an English teacher, like, killed every book for you?”

“Do you end up analysing every scene in a movie all the time?”

“Honey, can’t you just enjoy the story?” ;)

Re-reading through Jack Thompson’s first chapter in Reconstructing Literature Teaching I have just found the best answer ever to these questions!  Thompson quotes Selden (1985, p.3):

Readers may believe that theories and concepts will only deaden the spontaneity of their response to literary works.  They may forget that ‘spontaneous’ discourse about literature is unconsciously dependent on the theorising of older generations.  Their talk of ‘feeling’, ‘imagination’, ‘genius’, ‘sincerity’ and ‘reality’ is full of dead theory which is sanctified by time and has become part of the language of common sense.

Wonderful, huh?  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  ‘Dead theory’…I’m gonna use that one!

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Super Teachers

Many of my teaching friends have criticised the move by the Department of Education and Training to introduce the new role of Highly Accomplished Teacher in NSW schools.

On face value I could see why: the potential to alienate teachers by only elevating a select few (an eventual total of 100 across the state) to the ranks of HAT is huge.  And the salary for these teachers – $98,000 – is higher than the salary for a KLA Head Teacher, and just under that of a Deputy Principal.  Weird.

However, as my school was once of the first to gain one of these positions, I am here to testify.

It’s easy to be upset and feel unappreciated because someone who used to sit next to you in the faculty staffroom is all of a sudden getting paid up to an extra 50% (and for a smaller teaching load at that!)  But you have to remember that these positions are different to that of an rank-and-file teacher.  Curriculum Head Teachers get paid more for doing less teaching too, but we are used to that – we understand that their role is different to ours.  And they sure do earn their crust; on days when HSC, School Certificate and NAPLAN data are released there is no way I would trade my job for theirs.  And as for sitting around in boring Executive meetings planning school targets and discussion policy issues…well, most teachers would rather not do that too.

Is the position of HAT any different?

Why shouldn’t someone get paid more for doing a harder job?

I suspect the issue is that many teachers currently don’t believe that the HAT role is very difficult.  But let’s consider what the HAT in my school is taking on as we blog:

  • Classroom observation and team teaching with beginning teachers, and later with each faculty in turn
  • Developing the resources and in-school PD for refining the literacy and numeracy focus across all KLAs
  • Establishing research partnerships with local universities (and later co-ordinating and leading the school side of the action research)
  • Liasing with university education faculties to build formal mentoring structures for the influx of pre-service teachers that our school will now enjoy
  • Leading the school in its new role as Centre for Excellence by building relationships with surrounding public schools to ensure the quality teaching practices that our school is refining are spread far and wide to benefit the wider community
  • And still teaching!  Albeit a much smaller load.

Sounds like schools just got someone in who can do the cool stuff that we teachers never get time to do. Aren’t you excited about having fellow teachers, rather than admintrators and bureacrats, helping you to develop your teaching quality?

Of course, the success of someone in this role will depend on whether they are the right person for the job.  But this is true of all promotions.  In my school the teacher who got the HAT role was an English teacher already in the school.  She was my mentor in my second year of teaching, and she is one of the warmest, most patient, most hard working, professional and reflective teachers could ever hope to meet.  You can read Luisa’s statement on why she teaches on our school leadership blog.

Personally, I am excited by the idea that there is a career in schools now that I can look forward to.  I have always wanted to be a teacher AND a researcher, but other than working crazy part-time roles in both, there was nothing on the horizon.

The other benefit of the HAT scheme is that teachers who love teaching in public schools and who are really, really good at it don’t have to end up lost to administration roles if they want to earn a higher salary.  I love teaching, and I am commited to teaching in public schools.  I don’t want to be a Principal.  Or a Deputy Principal.  I’m not even sure I want to be a Head Teacher.

But I sure would like to be a HAT :)

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NSW DET teachers and web2.0

Teachers in NSW public schools are invited to add a profile of themselves and share online resources with other teachers in a new wiki, NSW DET Staff 2.0 created by Sydney Region’s Stu Hasic.

What a great way for NSW teachers to find each other, network and share expertise.  I love the way that you can search the wiki for the tool you are trying to use (e.g. edublogs, ning, twitter) and find like-minded professionals who have used it before.  Networks like these are becoming increasingly important as we learn new pedagogies required to bring on the Digital Education Revolution in our classrooms.

Thanks for bringing us together Stu!

PLN Wordle (used on the staff wiki) by Cobannon – http://www.flickr.com/photos/cobannon/2983755525/

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3 Comments

The Library

In the UQ library, remembering good ol Fisher

Tucked away behind the sandstone veneer
cool air washes out.
The smell of musty pages
connects familiar memories
of beige, metallic shelves;
sorting shelves;
photocopiers, giant staplers;
Dewey decimal
Archibald artwork.
Fines (low on rent money) and the Closed Reserve.
The infitite products of collective late nights.
Countless rights of passage for
heavily esteemed and long forgotten authors.
Drowning in multisyllabic streams of wisdom,
catalogued spines set on display
in lonely, poorly lit rows.

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My English faculty Moodle

I’ve been working on my faculty Moodle course this past week at my high school, and wanted to share some of what we are doing in English.  I’d love some critique, and ideas for what has worked well in other English faculties specifically.

I have set our faculty area of the Moodle up with the following courses:

  • Year 7 English
  • Year 8 English
  • Year 9 English
  • Year 10 English
  • Standard English Prelim
  • Advanced English Prelim
  • Standard English HSC
  • Advanced English HSC
  • English Extension 1 Prelim
  • English Extension 1 HSC
  • English Extension 2 HSC
  • Fundamentals of English (Years 11-12)

Each course is set to topics view, and begins with 2-4 topics that are relevant to the entire course.  For example, in the Year 10 course:

Underneath the general course information topics, each class has been given a topic area – individual teachers will maintain their own class topic area, adding information and resources throughout the year.  Here is an example of one Year 7 teacher’s class information:

Am I on the right track here?  I didn’t want to make a whole course for each class – too cumbersome.  And I’m setting up class ‘groups’ in each course now.  Has anyone else had experience with this?  Any advice?

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