Archive for category english

Teaching English using textual concepts

I know I just finished saying that my blog would mostly be used for PBL reflection in the near future.

But there is a new resource available for English teachers and English curriculum boffins that I must share immediately.

The English Teachers Association NSW, in partnership with the NSW Department of Education, have created a resource for programming in K-10 English.

It is organised in ‘stages’ (rather than in year levels), but once you get your head around stage 5 = year 9 & 10, stage 4 = year 7 & 8, and backward in pairs from there, you will get the picture.

English Textual Concepts - 'The Textual Concepts and Processes resource'

English Textual Concepts – ‘The Textual Concepts and Processes resource’

The creators of this resource analysed the NSW English syllabus (which in theory maps on to the Australian Curriculum) to identify core concepts and processes implied by the curriculum documents.

The 15 ‘textual concepts‘ are:

  1. argument
  2. authority
  3. character
  4. code and convention
  5. context
  6. genre
  7. connotation, imagery and symbol
  8. intertextuality
  9. literary value
  10. narrative
  11. perspective
  12. point of view
  13. representation
  14. style
  15. theme

And the six ‘learning processes‘ are:

  1. understanding
  2. engaging personally
  3. connecting
  4. engaging critically
  5. experimenting
  6. reflecting
First six concepts, with learning processes represented across.

First six concepts, with learning processes represented across.

There are questions that jump to mind for me when looking at this resource, including:

  • how are the ‘learning processes’ intended to interact/overlap with the ‘general capabilities‘ in the Australian Curriculum?
  • where do ‘language mode’ and ‘medium of production’ fit into these concepts? Is it in ‘code and convention’, or…?

Overall I am excited by this contribution to English curriculum understandings. The conversations it will make possible between primary and secondary English are especially promising!

I highly recommend a look.

How might this approach to English subject content (knowledge and skills) interface with the curriculum (Australian Curriculum or otherwise) being used in your area? It’s been designed for NSW obviously, but could it have application beyond there?

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Let the PBL begin (again)!

It’s the end of semester one, which means two things for me:

  1. It’s time to prepare my ethics application for my funded research on project based learning in secondary English.
  2. It’s time to finalise preparations for my own project based learning plan for next semester.

I’ve been trying out elements of project based learning (PBL) for a few years now, and this will be the first unit that I feel fully embraces the model to underpin class organisation and one of the two major assignments:

Draft: Program/Assignment Outline for Semester 2

Draft: Program/Assignment Outline for Semester 2

This assignment will no doubt shift a little as I develop marking criteria to align to the unit outcomes. Ah, constructive alignment, don’t you love it?

This blog will largely be used in the forseeable future to record and reflect on my PBL research and teaching.

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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 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

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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