Archive for category english

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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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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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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Spoken Word Poem: Mathematics

I love this spoken word poem by Hollie McNish!

Uploaded in February this year, a colleague shared it with me today. It has been viewed over 665,000 times.

As well as being a stand out piece of speech, this poem would be useful for English teachers looking for texts to explore issues of immigration and racism (arguably with links to ‘numeracy’ capabilities as well!)

Press Play. Sit Back. Enjoy:

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To be recognised as a poet

Wouldn’t it be something to be recognised as a poet?

I mean, not just to be a poet – many of us write poetry, and are already poets.

But to actually be recognised for it!

To have people read your pieces and like them enough to want to share them, by giving them an award, or publishing them in a book…

Now that would be something!

Fun with Poetry in SL

Fun with Poetry in SL – by Anyaka CC-BY-2.0

Links of interest:

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Actually liking poetry

Backstory

Something I have been sharing with my students over the past few years is the story of how I became confident enough to read and teach poetry.

You see, the truth about English teachers is that not all of them like poetry. Not all of them feel like they ‘get’ poetry, either. In fact, just like there are English teachers that hate Shakespeare, or storytelling, or debating, or essay writing, there are some English teachers that HATE poetry, and avoid teaching it wherever possible.

I was never a teacher that hated poetry. But I was a teacher that saw poetry as ‘beyond’ my understanding for many years. I knew I was supposed to ‘get it’, but I had to study what I was going to teach quite intently before tackling it in class, every time.

Oh the revision I had to do when I was a beginning teacher!

Oh how useless my university units including study of poetry seemed (and still seem)!

Luckily, I did have enough positive experiences of poetry from my youth to stay engaged – as a little kid I had some illustrated poetry books that I loved to read, and as a teenager I lived up to the classic stereotype of hormonal girl by writing maaany lines of free verse about my horrible melancholic life etc. into notebooks covered with skulls and flowery tattoo sketches.

Ahh, those were the days!

In high school English I enjoyed studying poetry, and felt very clever at it. But our study was always heavily guided by a teacher – when left to my own devices to interpret an unseen poem, I always felt lost and frustrated.

As for writing poetry, well … aside from a few haikus in junior English, I don’t recall writing any.

So what changed?

My attitude changed very quickly in my first year of teaching. Tell me if you’ve ever heard this advice:

A teacher should try completing activities themselves first, before setting them for students.

I know I’ve heard that advice a few times, and of course it’s good advice though impossible to follow all the time. However, as a beginning teacher it was clear to me that my colleagues and I were setting work for students that we didn’t do ourselves about, oh … half of the time? At least??

You see, no-one in the staff room was writing poetry, or short stories, or letters to the editor, or pretty much anything in their spare time. Two teachers in postgraduate studies would have been writing essays, but the rest of the teachers sure as shoot weren’t. Yet we were teaching a curriculum that required students to spend half of their time composing texts of various kinds.

When I realised this, what changed for me was that I decided to be more of a role model for my students by attempting more personal writing.

And that included poetry.

How does writing poetry help you like poetry?

The short answer: by providing a source of intrinsic motivation.

The longer answer: I found that trying to write poetry forced me to look at other people’s poetry in a whole new light. Just try writing a poem… if you aren’t already in the habit of it, you’ll probably find it challenging! Sometimes when I try to write a poem, the limits of my own writing ability are so in-my-face that I feel driven to go and read more examples of other people’s poetry to try to get ideas about different writing styles and tricks. There are still plenty of poems that I don’t understand, but these days there aren’t really any that I’m afraid of anymore!

Maybe I’m not completely right about this – after all, if you feel too frustrated with poetry writing, maybe you won’t appreciate other people’s attempts or even want to read any. (A message for teachers might therefore be to make sure that writing at school stays fun, so that students stay motivated and encouraged to independently learn more.)

Reading contemporary Australian poetry

Now that I actually like poetry, I’ve found out that I also actually like Australian poetry!

In a workshop by the Red Room Company with Johanna Featherstone last year, my students and I were asked to name as many Australian poets as we could. The list was woefully short and mostly full of bush poets… we agreed that day had been a wake up call for us all!

Since then I have been reading some volumes of poetry and I am very happy to recommend the following, for anyone who is keen to pursue contemporary Australian poets:

Lachlan Brown - 'Limited Cities' (2012)

  Lachlan Brown – ‘Limited Cities’ (2012) 

Ross Clark (2007); Michelle Dicinoski (2011)

Ross Clark (2007); Michelle Dicinoski (2011)

Ross and Michelle are poets that I’ve met since working at QUT, and I got to know Lachlan when he visited my class as a Red Room Company poet. Knowing a little bit about these poets has helped me to engage with their work, but honestly, they are all just bloody good! Have your library order them :)

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This is why more English teachers should write a blog!

English teachers who blog

I’ve just come home from the AATE 2012 national conference in Sydney. It was exceptionally energising to spend two whole days and nights talking face-to-face with people in my PLN, as well as getting to know my colleagues better and meet new people.

One of the sessions that I spoke in was a panel discussion on being a teacher that blogs. Here is a piccie of me with the other panellists @Darcy1968 and @BiancaH80 with our chair @melanne_k:

Darcy, Kelli, Melissa and Bianca

Darcy, Kelli, Melissa and Bianca

Why we need more voices online

There are so many things I would love to write a blog post about, based on ideas I heard or conversations I had at the AATE conference. BUT – I know I won’t get a chance to write about them all! So, the first reason that more teachers need to blog is to literally get more of these ideas recorded:

  • Andrew Burn outlined a ’3Cs’ model of media literacy – Cultural, Critical, Creative. How does this differ to other models of literacy (e.g. Green’s 3D model, Luke & Freebody’s 4 Resources model)?
  • Bianca’s presentation on Project Based Learning emphasised the role of assessment. I have also found this to be very important, have others?
  • Gillian Whitlock from UQ presented some really interesting ideas about humanitarian perspectives on literature and children’s writing. She showed refugee writing from Australia and artwork that had been created to memorialise the refugee journey. Definitely someone in Queensland to talk to or hear from again!
  • The hashtag #5bells was used pretty successfully as a conference backchannel, I thought! What can we learn from this and how can we improve the experience for 2013 in Brisbane?
  • Vivian (@vivimat78) did us all a big favour by collecting many of the #5bells tweets via storify…this is super helpful and valued, as hashtags are no longer searchable, after a time period, and we don’t want to lose all that great sharing!
  • Vivian also coordinates the #ozengchat twitter chat and edmodo group. What relationship might exist in the future between AATE and #ozengchat? How can/do they support each other?
  • We got to say so much to each other in real life (IRL)! Talking uses up soooo many characters! Face-to-face conversations are fun :)
  • Hip Hop – OMG Adam Bradley was convincing. All the copies of his ‘anthology’ book sold out, and so many people left the keynote ready to exchange their cardigans for hoodies… In response I’ve started a Twitter list: trust-me-i-m-cool for teachers looking for Aussie Hip Hop links. One love!
  • I found the closing keynote by Bill Green and Jane Mills to be quite problematic. I understand their point to be that linguistic frameworks have taken over the analysis of ‘the visual’, and that ‘cinephiles’ understand film in a much more ‘visceral’ way. I don’t agree. I think this contrast is weird, given the way I cry like a baby when reading some books, and (I believe) can successfully understand the moving image, thank-you-very-much. I usually love Bill’s stuff, but would rather have heard about his theories on ‘spatial literacy’ than be told English teachers are inadequate at teaching film…wrong crowd for that idea bill and jane, wrong crowd indeed.

I’m sure there is more, but these are the big ideas that I would ideally tackle in the next couple of months. Who will help me? (Will it be you?)

 

Don’t do it for me, do it for you!

In the panel that we did, quite a few people wanted to talk about how to get more people commenting on their posts. This is a good question, and our suggestions included:

  1. Comment on other people’s posts so that they come and visit your blog
  2. Let people know you have written a post by putting the URL up on Twitter (you’ll need an account)
  3. Use categories and tags wisely to help search engines find your post

However, I really do believe in the power of reflective writing for learning, and I encourage any new blogger to write posts for themselves as much as for an imaginary audience. It’s OK to talk to yourself here!

Think about it – how many times have you tried to convince a student to do a piece of reflective writing for homework, because you know the benefits it will have for their learning? Writing up your experiences on a blog can have the same benefit for you! The mere process of deciding “what will I publish information about this time?” will put you more in touch with the successes and obstacles in your practice, I really do believe this.

So that’s the second big reason. Start a blog for yourself, because if you haven’t yet, then I think you need to.

If you think you “can’t find time to write anything, ever”, then making time to do this will hopefully help you see ways to make time for other things too. And don’t worry – the blogging police aren’t going to arrest you if you don’t add anything for 3 months!

 

And because all good things come in threes…

The third reason why more English teachers should start a blog is because teachers who blog and share their resources are usually friendly, generous and just plain fun to hang out with.

And the more we share our work and resources, hopefully the more time we can put back in to spending quality time with our students, friends and families x

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Coming to Voice

Looks like the theme for this blog at the moment is VOICE!

A little while ago I was alerted to this excellent production of student work from South Western Sydney, and I’d like to share it with everyone here on the blog.

Coming to Voice is a collection of ‘literary videos’ from students at Sir Joseph Banks High School. The video production by Westside is 5 minutes long, and showcases an innovative layering of student stories, voices, and animation:

Coming to Voice from BYDS on Vimeo.

From the press release:

Thirteen students from year 7 worked with the Chief Editor of Westside Publications, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, to develop writing that was then animated by 2012 SHORTCUTS film festival winner Vinh Nguyen.
The literary video, called ‘Coming to Voice’ will be screened at an assembly at Sir Joseph Banks High School and will also be launched on the BYDS website as a new web series on August 23rd.

Digital stories, literary videos etc.

BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Services) seems to have a range of resources relating to the local community on their website: http://www.byds.org.au/ including oral history and photomedia materials. I’m so glad that these kinds of digital arts-based resources are flourishing!

When I talk about ‘digital stories’ or ‘digital narrative’ with teachers, it can be hard to explain the possibilities for the genre. There is of course the Daniel Meadows school of thought that advocates for 2 minute, 12 frame, voice-only digital biographies. The digital storytelling project at QUT uses a similar form.

I think the folks at BYDS have cleverly carved out a different kind of genre here for what they’ve produced – a “literary video”. As the students are reading their POETRY, the production is not quite of STORYTELLING. Could they have called them “digital poems”? Perhaps. But that might distract from the multimedia nature of the production, and the way that animation and video shots add meaning to the piece.

Literary videos… I like it! Thanks for sharing Mariam!

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Voices from Elsewhere…

I was recently directed to the Wheeler Centre website to take a look at the speeches and talks they had available to view and download.

Finding out about the Wheeler Centre was very interesting…did you know that Melbourne is one of UNESCO’s ‘Cities of Literature’? The Wheeler Centre was established to celebrate this:

Melbourne has a new kind of cultural institution. The Wheeler Centre – a centre dedicated to the discussion and practice of writing and ideas. Through a year-round programme of talks and lectures, readings and debates, we invite you to join the conversation.

Their slogan is ‘Books. Writing. Ideas.’

Isn’t that wonderful?

It wasn’t long before I found a resource that drew me straight in – I am a big fan of Nam Le’s collected short stories in The Boat and even set the book on our ETAQ Book Club list this year!

If you also like books, writing and ideas, please enjoy this 10 minute talk by Nam Le, on the theme ‘Voices from elsewhere’:

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