Archive for category education

Choose your terms wisely. Alt title: How I am slowly eliminating the term ‘basic skills’ from my classroom

I’m half way through semester 1 and currently reading my students’ assignment 1 work. They had to tell me, with reference to personal experience as well as scholarly theory, what their philosophy is on English teaching and which pedagogical approach they find most relevant in 2014.

In the weeks leading up to the assignment due date I impressed this message upon them:

If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.

Now, I wouldn’t seriously fail an assignment on the back of such a mistake (though I will ask students who make the mistake to meet with me and explain why they haven’t been in lectures!). But from what I’ve read so far, the scare tactic worked and the message has thankfully sunk in.

So this is how, one cohort at at time, I am slowly doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.

Why do I bother with this?

I have a personal beef with the term ‘basic skills’ as it is an affront to the work of educators on many levels.

Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term basic. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we expect teachers to employ pedagogies that drill students on them lest we run the risk of boring everyone to death.

Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. If the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then buddy, how about you come try it?

Thirdly, I find that when most people talk about basic skills, what they really mean to talk about is something like ‘key concepts’.

A prime example was seen today when national education correspondent Justine Ferrari (who should well and truly know the difference between knowledge and skills) wrote an article comparing how “key maths concepts” are taught in Australia compared to Singapore, then tweeted to publicise her article announcing that it was about ‘basic skills’. I would dismiss this as an honest mistake, except that Justine is no rookie and has been writing about education for years.

I tweeted back to let her know my thoughts:

twitter convo JF 5April2014

screenshot from twitter.com 5.4.2014

 

Am I just being pedantic?

No, I don’t think so.

The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.

As an English teacher, I know this. As a journalist, Justine knows this. But what I want so desperately is for all my students to know this too.

This semester I personally lecture and tutor all 110 students in English Curriculum Studies 1. They all have a sense that there are such things as ‘fundamental concepts’ (which relate to content knowledge) and they all wanted to advocate learning ‘skills that are important for life’. By taking the term basic skills away they were forced to articulate what it was they actually believed in. Was it literacy? If so, they were empowered to use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies. Was it life skills? If so, I directed them to the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, where they could find out about and debate the thing closest to ‘skills’ currently underpinning Australian schooling.

Good bye basic skills!

I know I can’t change the world over night. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from my own class that I at least give the 100+ students I teach each semester pause for thought.

My message to them: If you mean literacy or numeracy, then say so. And be ready to explain your definition of such terms.

I’ll end this post by sharing an answer that I gave one student a few weeks ago. She asked: what should we do when people insist on using the term ‘basic skills’? I suggested she might ask such people to list what those basic skills are. I already know from experience that most folks have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t you tell me what they are?). Instead they just have some washed-out notion in their heads that includes spelling and multiplication tables…and that’s about it. I also assured her that most people at dinner parties would be bored by the conversation by that point, so it’ll rarely come up ;)

Parent-teacher interviews are another story. A story for another time perhaps.

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Risk-taking and risk-aversion in teaching

Happy 2014 to all! It seems I inadvertently took a blog break over summer holidays – a break from most things digital, in fact. I’m back in the swing of things now though, with a head full of ideas and energy stores replenished. Who knew I was so tired after 2013? Well OK, I did. Now you do too ;)

So, this is my fourth year at my job as a lecturer. How time flies eh? Reflecting on my time so far I can confidently say that I’ve continued the spirit of innovation I had as a high school teacher into my university teaching. I’ve pushed forward with using social networks to support student learning, with developing project-based learning pedagogies, and with developing blended learning experiences including wiki work and blog-based assessment.

But this week when I was offered a chance to trial a new technology with my class, I turned it down.

There are any number of reasons that teachers say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to trying something new. Watching this keynote by Sarah Howard from 2012 today gave me a chance to reflect on my own tendency to be a risk taker in my practice – I usually see the benefits of innovation as outweighing the costs:

…and boy last semester there were some costs. Some cyberbullying from a student really put a damper on my teaching with Twitter, and right at the end of last year I experienced a big delay in giving students assignment feedback after a swathe of electronic assignment files got deleted. Further technology fails ensued as I struggled to negotiate student assignment return via Blackboard, our university LMS. It was a nightmare, and a confidence shaker.  In a university teaching context where a whole semester of awesome learning can be overshadowed by a single student complaint to the wrong person, I ended 2013 wondering if all my efforts were ‘worth it’.

Fortunately I value innovation and creativity to such an extent that taking risks in pursuit of better practice is still worth it to me. In her keynote Howard explains that people are less likely to take a risk to pursue something they see no value in, which makes sense really.

I guess the shift for me will not be from being a risk-taker to being ‘risk-averse’ – I haven’t had the stuffing beat out of me quite hard enough yet to be averse to risk! For me the shift will be from high-stakes to more low-stakes risk; rather than pushing the boundaries with a wildly new practice I’ll be consolidating and refining my current pedagogies and taking stock of where I want to go with my teaching in 2015. Which will be nice timing, given the massive course changes we are implementing next year (PS. in six months if I disappear completely, somebody please come find me, I may be perishing under a mountain of new unit outlines…).

Do you see yourself as a risk-taker in your teaching? How risky are you planning to be in 2014?

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Explaining theories of learning and pedagogy

I want to post here two excellent images that I have come across to explain the various theories and concepts that can be drawn on in relation to learning and pedagogy.

The first is an image that I found via TeachThought (an excellent website – set aside a good hour to go and browse):

A Diagram Of 21st Century Pedagogy

A Diagram Of 21st Century Pedagogy

The image originally came from a 2008 post by Andrew Churches on edorigami, which also features diagrams explaining thinking skills, assessment and ‘fluency’. You can check that post out here: http://edorigami.edublogs.org/2008/08/16/21st-century-pedagogy/

 

The second image I am sharing here is this maaassssssive map of Learning Theory produced by the HoTEL project in the EU:

Learning theories map by Richard Millwood

Learning theories map by Richard Millwood

While all of the links made in the maps above are open to challenge and discussion, I really value them as texts! Both maps do a great job of visualising some of the theoretical complexity that sits behind education practice and decision making. I’ll definitely be sharing them with my pre-service teachers next year.

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Inspiring PBL unit outlines from #CLP409 students!

This semester I modified my unit planning assessment for CLP409 (Secondary English Curriculum Studies 2) based on the outline developed by Bianca Hewes. You can see the 40 fantastic project outlines by her fabulous #EDMT5500 students on her blog.

Bianca developed her ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ model for project-based learning (PBL) units after finding that planning PBL units needed to involve more visible teaching and explicit structure to ensure students learned required knowledge and collaboration skills.

As I see it, this approach is a variation of existing models that suggest units of work be designed around phases of ‘Orientate, Enhance, Synthesise’. These particular verbs are popular in Queensland Schools, and can be found as one of two recommended unit planning frameworks on the QSA website.

The two things that I love about the unit framework that Bianca has developed are:

  1. It provides a structure for PBL units that takes on the narrative flow I find so natural in teaching – there is a clear beginning, middle and end in these units.
  2. The shift in verbs used to drive learning activity is important; activities to ‘Orientate, Enhance and Synthesise’ could still be very teacher-centered but ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ and similar verbs deliver an imperative to engage student-centered learning and project sharing.

Following Bianca’s lead I am posting my Assignment Task Sheet here for all to see, and below you will find some of my students’ finished products, reproduced with their permission.

CLP409 2013 Assignment 1 Task Sheet

Task sheet for CLP409 Assignment 1

Please notice that I used the same Driving Question as Bianca, ‘How can I create a project for English that will help my students own their learning?’, and that I retained some of the structure of her original project as well. Some things I did a bit differently were: adding an essay writing component where students justified their choices using scholarly and professional literature; requiring students to refer to Australian Curriculum elements rather than ISTE NETS and professional standards; providing models of other assignments.

Of course, I could only provide my class with models of assignments because Bianca’s students had been willing to publicly share their work in the first place. So a big THANK YOU to those fabulous (and generous) #EDMT5500 students, and to the University of Sydney, for making their work available to the world :)

Sam Mason:

Sam Mason CLP409 Unit Plan 1

Chloe McIntosh:

Chloe McIntosh CLP409 Poster1

Ben Niland-Rowe:

Ben Niland-Rowe CLP409 poster

Emma McVittie:

Emma McVittie CLP409 A1_poster

Toni Petersen:

Toni Petersen CLP409

Miranda Clignett:

Miranda Clignett Final poster image

 

Sarah Smith:

Sarah Smith Macbeth unit poster 2013

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Guest Post: ‘Christopher Pyne, equity goals, and the p-word’

This week a former student of mine posted a link to a piece she had written for the University of Sydney student newspaper, Honi Soit. I read the story (feeling proud, impressed, and agreeing with her the whole time), and quickly asked if she would mind if I reposted the article here as a guest post on my blog.

Lauren checked with Honi, and Honi were fine with it (thanks editors!). Which makes me happy, because I think this story about the systematic exclusion of disadvantaged students from university is an important one to tell. As a ‘first in family’ university student from Sydney’s Southwest, I too have experienced the cultural and financial barriers to university success.

So here, with kind permission from the author, Lauren Pearce, and the original publisher, Honi Soit, is the article…

Christopher Pyne, equity goals, and the p-word

Lauren Pearce thinks those advocating to keep USYD “prestigious” often do little more than lock out the disadvantaged

by Lauren Pearce, published by Honi Soit on October 15, 2013.

I’m going to drop the p-word: prestigious. There’s really nothing wrong with that word. The only real issue is if you keep applying the word to yourself, justly or otherwise. Then you start to look like another p-word: pretentious.

On Thursday, 10 October Tony Abbott emerged in Melbourne to assure reporters the university reforms that Christopher Pyne announced earlier were to be put on a back-burner. These changes would mean a cap on university places as opposed to the “demand-driven system” currently in place and the axing of equity goals that encourage students from low-SES backgrounds to enroll, a move that Pyne stated would ensure quality but which had been criticised by the NTEU as detrimental to students from low-SES backgrounds and regional students.

Read the rest of this entry »

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TeachMeet Debrief – September #TMBrisbane

Tea break at #TMBrisbane (photo by author)

Tea break at #TMBrisbane (photo by author)

#TMBrisbane 2013 (September)

I recently publicised a TeachMeet that my students and I were hosting at QUT as part of a unit on English Curriculum Studies. This particular TeachMeet had the theme ‘What works in education?’ and was designed to facilitate the kind of professional sharing that I want to model for my students – open, generous and friendly with a focus on developing relationships and building communities of practice.

The picture above shows a few of our participants in further conversation during the tea break. This was an after-school session, run from 4.45-6.30pm, and it was great to see presentations from a wide range of contexts. Speakers on the day were:

  • Alison Welch – The benefits of collaboration
  • Mark Yeates – Use of LMSs from a Year Level Coordinator’s Perspective
  • Greg Howes – Designing infographics to promote creativity
  • Garry Collins – One little thing that works in teaching grammar
  • Nathan Beveridge – Bananas about STEMx: Applications of Fruit and High Technology in C21st Learning
  • Lisa Furuya – Gamifying your practice
  • Kelli McGraw – The ongoing relevance of the Productive Pedagogies
  • Anita Garnsworthy – Inside learning goals: Gathering student insight and feedback
  • Josephine Wise – Leading and Teaching: 10 Top Tips for moving from Highly Accomplished to Lead Teacher
  • Bruce Lee – Introducing the Scootle Community (www.scootle.edu.au)

The big messages and important links from the TeachMeet have been captured using Storify at this link:

The power of TeachMeet…

Reflecting on the event, I think the best part of a TeachMeet is the opportunity for face-to-face connection with other educators in a non-threatening environment. Although we also had a strong backchannel occurring in both Twitter and Scootle, it was the chance to ‘put a face to a name’ that I valued most.

It was also awesome to see experienced educators modelling courageous sharing for my preservice teachers – everyone authentically attempted the ‘pecha kucha’ or ‘micropresentation’ styles, which are challenging to master!

TeachMeets are PD events run in the ‘unconference tradition’ – they are free to attend and the presentations are short (2 or 7 minutes only). Our TeachMeet had a mixture of classroom teachers and school leaders, as well as a university teacher, a student/pre-service teacher, teachers undertaking research degrees and policy workers. I was so proud of my students for having the confidence to host the event and get involved in professional conversations…they also put on a pretty mean afternoon tea spread ;)

The next Brisbane TeachMeet will be held soon, on Thursday 24th October, at Marist Ashgrove. If you are an educator in SouthEast Queensland I encourage you to attend – you can sign up via the wiki.

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We’re hosting a TeachMeet!

It’s been over a year since I went to my first TeachMeet, up here in Brisbane. I presented a pecha kucha on ‘fair’ assessment and Project Based Learning and had a great time meeting a bunch of other educators from a wide range of contexts.

Now the time has come for me to donate space at my institution to the cause. Each semester I endeavour to arrange an activity that puts my preservice students in touch with teachers and practitioners in ‘the real world’, and this semester the TeachMeet will be that event! When I asked my students a few weeks ago if they were keen to act as hosts for this event they were really into it the idea and the planning (mostly of potential snacks) began straight away.

Our theme is ‘What Works in Education?’, which doesn’t really narrow the focus too much but is intended to get people interested in sharing good ideas.

If you follow this blog and live in Brisbane we’d love to see you at our TeachMeet!

Details for (FREE!) registration can be found here: http://tmbrisbane.wikispaces.com/

If you exist in the Twitterverse you can also follow along and add ideas during the event using the hashtag #tmbrisbane

*** Teachers, lecturers, preservice teachers and educators at large all welcome ***

TeachMeet - BNE_Sept2013

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Slaves to the Grade

It’s that time of year. Teachers of Year 12 around Australia are scrambling to varying degrees to prepare students for final assessments and exams, which inevitably involves a whole lotta marking.

Of course, all teachers have to grade student work. And they are engaged in doing this all year. But nothing beats the pedal-to-the-metal feeling of marking Year 12 practice tasks in a last ditch effort to refine their examination responses.

In particular, nothing beats the hellish pressure that exists in states like NSW and Victoria where the HSC and VCE exams respectively loom over teachers and students alike. And out of all these teachers and students, I argue that subjects that are writing-intensive (e.g. English and History) have it the toughest; if you have a class of 25 for Year 12 and it’s coming up to an assessment, teachers in these subjects are spending their nights and weekends correcting pages and pages and pages of long form expositions.

Which can leave your eyes (and soul) feeling kinda like this:

bill crying blood

I was prompted to write this blog post after watching my friends Justin and Alex tweet about their marking yesterday:

twitter convo 24.08.2013 HSC marking

I’ve taught for the HSC three times and this slavish marking routine is the only part I do not miss…having said that, the jolly task I have now of marking as a university lecturer has involved marking binges that certainly rival the pain of HSC workload.

The question is – what can we do about it?

Is there anything we can do about it?

Some ideas that I threw out into the twittersphere yesterday seem promising, but without a class to try them on I’m at a loss, not sure if they would work. The ideas I bounced around with Justin and Alex were:

  1. Focussing on writing just the introduction, or a body paragraph. This would make the task smaller and more focussed for students, and more manageable to mark 25-30 of them.
  2. Setting a paragraph writing challenge. To address Justin’s problem of the student that only writes about ‘tone’, each week set a different language feature/form for students to write a paragraph on. By the end of the term they will have a bank of paragraphs on different elements.
  3. Gamify the writing process. This could be done by putting students in groups, getting every student to write a paragraph (or essay), then each group submits it’s best one (as judged by the students in the group) for marking. This means you only have to mark one essay/paragraph per group, not per student. Keep a chart of which group wins each week and award them a prize at the end of the unit. Change the groups around for each new unit.
  4. Peer assessment. This can only be used in a limited way, as students don’t have the capacity to grade work to a Year 12 standard. However you could use the ‘medals (feedback) and missions (feedforward)’ framework that Bianca draws on to give students a direction. I think the main benefit is that they read each other’s work and discuss their strengths, not that they actually give each other a ‘grade’.
  5. Find an authentic audience. Partnering up with another teacher/class would provide an avenue for students to share their work with another class on a platform such as a wiki. This would give students someone to perform for besides their own teacher, which could prove motivating. The teachers could also arrange to do a marking-swap, and grade each other’s student essays…this may get you writing less comments, marking more objectively (?) and just plain old provide a change of pace as you get to read a different set of handwriting!

I really hope these ideas are useful to someone out there.

If you have any other good ideas for getting feedback to students without going through so much of the eye-bleedingly painful million-essay marking process, I would LOVE to hear them!

Thanks to Justin and Alex for inspiring this post and helping me brainstorm ideas :)

 

Images: Cropped screen still from True Blood, Season 5; Screen shot of conversation on Twitter.com

Postscript: If you liked this post, you may also like the post Matt Esterman wrote today, ‘The home stretch for Year 12′. Looks like we all have Year 12 on the brain this weekend!

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Using Pinterest as an ‘inspiration board’

I have been using Pinterest a fair bit this year to collect links and images of interest to me an my students. It’s a nifty platform for curating – it’s highly visual and has an app for both apple and android that I find myself using often when surfing my mobile devices in front of the telly.

When introducing Pinterest to newcomers, I am often asked the question: “how does this website full of pictures of cupcakes have anything to do with learning?”. It’s a good question! Pinterest at first glance presents as a space filled with links to homewares, fashion, craft and cooking. I know some people claim that Pinterest is therefore “for girls”, but plenty of people refute this.

One way that I have seen Pinterest used very powerfully in education is for the creation of ‘inspiration boards’.

Tania Sheko has provided an excellent account of examples from her school in a recent blog post. I’ve included her screenshot here to give you an idea of what is covered:

Pinterest screenshot by Tania Sheko

Pinterest screenshot by Tania Sheko

Working as a librarian in her school Tania was able to really boost the teaching/learning resources available in a visual arts unit by creating a range of boards with images to INSPIRE students in their project making.

What a great idea!

If I was teaching English right now, I could definitely apply this strategy. I would probably start by making inspirations boards for:

  • Shakespeare
  • journalism
  • poetry
  • different genres (a gothic board! a crime fiction board!)
  • characters for story writing
  • locations for story writing

So there you have it – INSPIRATION BOARDS. An excellent way to utilise the (wonderfully visual and digital) Pinterest in your teaching.

Thanks to Tania for sharing her ideas!

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It was a cyberbullying kind of day…

Most teachers have had some experience with cyberbullying. Whether your students are very young primary schoolers or adolescents, circumstances can arise when students post nasty comments about each other on social media, share embarrassing photos, or email hurtful letters. 

But what do you do when a student engages in bullying tactics online toward you, the teacher?

It’s the fear of this happening that stops many teachers from engaging with students on public platforms. I’ve heard several teachers ask questions about this, including in every ‘teaching with technologies’ workshop I’ve ever held: what if a student acts out online? what if a student posts inappropriate comments that get linked to the school name, or mine?

Unfortunately, this has been the story of the past week for me.

The scenario: A student felt that I had not uploaded assessment criteria in a timely fashion. I differ on this opinion, but that is really besides the point! The student (or a group of them?) had created a fake twitter account, unlinked to their real name or photo, to post tweets about our class. They sent tweets addressed to the class twitter handle and using the unit hashtag to make, at first, a series of queries about unit materials in an aggressive tone. Yesterday these tweets became more critical, referring to university policy, slandering the education faculty, and linking the official university twitter handle into the tweets as well.

My response: It’s always hurtful, on a human level, when something like this happens. But as a teacher it’s probably easier than in many professions to let these kinds of criticisms roll right over you – “water off a duck’s back” style. Teachers face the wrath of student disappointment in many manifestations! After a while in the teaching game you learn what to take on board and what to turn a blind eye to. We try not to take things too personally. This is why, at first, I simply replied to the tweets in question with helpful advice and invitations to contact me via email or in person, out of the public domain. Once the tweets this week started to include references to the uni though, I knew I had to be firm – I used a couple of reply tweets to make it clear that cyberbulling was not tolerated in our institution and outline what constituted bullying behaviour.

Resolution: As well as public tweets I sent a series of three direct messages to the student/bogus account asking them to stop making public statements that critique my professionalism and letting them know that I wouldn’t be further engaging with public criticism. I asked someone higher up the food chain than me whether it would be OK to ‘report and block for spam’ the offending tweets and they advised YES. When I went to block the user this afternoon, I was relieved to see that the student had thought better of their actions and deleted the entire offending account.

PHEW!

The reason I want to share this story is to emphasise the strategies I used for dealing with this over the past week:

  • INFORM: Be polite online and try to diffuse critical questions with helpful information.
  • INVITE: Ask students that publicise critical views to contact you directly to discuss issues that are bothering them.
  • CAPTURE: Always take a screen capture of material that you suspect is, or may turn into, bullying. I did. This ensures you have a record of events even when/if the student deletes the material. This becomes vital down the track if the bullying is repeated elsewhere.
  • REPORT: Even though you will naturally want to avoid embarrassment and ‘bad press’ for your name/class/initiative, it’s important that your boss (e.g. Head Teacher of English in a school) knows what is happening and has a chance to help.

I’m going to try turning this into a very light and positive ‘teachable moment’ in our class lecture tomorrow – not by attacking the student but by highlighting good digital citizenship practices. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about cyberbullying, excellent material can be found on the ReachOut website here: http://au.reachout.com/Cyberbullying

The new Safe Schools Hub also has a useful Framework for building safety into the school culture: http://safeschoolshub.edu.au/safe-schools-toolkit/the-nine-elements

One last thing…

I won’t be closing down my twitter account or ceasing the use of twitter in my class learning environment or anything drastic like that! Although this is exactly the kind of thing that scares teachers away from online teaching spaces, I still think the value of positive exchanges via social media are ‘worth it’ for my class.

Although…I will be renewing my commitment to talking about digital citizenship with students in the first week of the semester. On reflection, this could probably all have been avoided if I did some explicit twitter teaching and set clear boundaries in weeks 1 or 2. D’oh!

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