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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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 :)
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:
I was prompted to write this blog post after watching my friends Justin and Alex tweet about their marking yesterday:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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!
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!
Links of interest:
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:
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 :)