Archive for category reflections

Assignment marking: Do the math

Something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while is the unseen labour that goes into marking student work.

It’s semester 2 marking time in Australian universities, and I’ve just finished a stack of mine. ‘Stack’ in the figurative sense, because these were a combination of learning logs and and video blogging, all submitted and marked digitally, so there were no actual stacks of anything.

Being the audience and assessor for these students’ work was a privilege, and I don’t think any teacher should forget that having the authority to do this work is always a privilege. Sometimes it is also a joy. And it is always something that we do, knowing the important positive impact that quality feedback has on student learning.

It is a labour of love, but it is a labour to be sure.

Generally a student assignment takes 30 minutes to mark. So they say. Once I get my hand in, I can usually get through an exam response in 20 minutes (they don’t tend to require any feedback), and an essay in 30 minutes, but a set of professional plans (e.g. annotated lesson plans, units of work) takes about 45 minutes and you just can’t rush it.

A typical formula for university marking in my field is that formal assessment feedback and grading for each student should get an hour of your time each semester. That’s 30 minutes for each assignment if you only set two assignments. If you want to set more assignments, it’s on you to mark them quicker. If you’re in the edu-biz, you’ll know that this is where group presentations and short response exam papers start looking attractive.

In a typical semester I have 120 students. That’s maybe 90 students in one big unit, and 30 students in a smaller unit. As a high school teacher this was also roughly the number of students I had – roughly five classes of 25 (some with 30 students, some with closer to 20, e.g. senior classes).

Using me as an example: I set two assignments each semester. And we know that on average I plan to spend 30 minutes on each.

My semester runs for 9 weeks (because it’s followed by prac.), but they can also run for 13 weeks. You can’t really set an assignment in weeks 1 or 2. If the assignment is big, worth 40% or more, you can’t really set it in weeks 3 or 4 either.

Let’s say assignment 1 is submitted in week 5. We’re expected to get work back to students in 2-3 weeks. So they say. Which puts me giving their results back to them in week 8 (a very important deadline if the next assignment is due in week 9).

120 students


30 mins each


60 hours extra work

/over 3 weeks


20 hours of extra work each week.

Add about 3 hours for each of the following:

  • getting your head around the task and long times spent on first few tasks marked
  • moderation with a colleague
  • administration of grades, uploading feedback to LMS etc.

Rinse and repeat just one week later if you have set assignment 2 to be due in week 9.

So if you’ve got about 120 students on average, and managed to keep yourself limited to your 30 minutes per assignment in all units in both semesters, then you will have worked about 23 hours of overtime for 12 weeks out of the year.

I say overtime, because the whole time you’ve been doing this, life, and other work, goes on…

Classes still need teaching. Emails still need answering. You still have to front up to important meetings. Research papers still need writing, grant proposals still need submitting, you may be collecting research data and attending conferences too. If you’re a school teacher, it’s classes, emails, meetings, lesson prep, school dance supervision, year 8 camp, sport coaching, bus duty…the list goes on.

As depressing as this exercise is, I think we should all do the math on this for our own teaching context.

People need to know the reality of what teachers mean when someone asks them how they’re going and the only response they can muster is a stoney-eyed “I’ve been marking”.

Spouses and family members need to be acknowledged for how they support the teachers in their lives during marking seasons.

Teachers need to grasp the reality of their workloads so they aren’t taken by surprise each time the overtime cycle hits, and help each other learn how to manage the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes (or collectively rise up and change this system maybe, hey?).

And beginning teachers need to be aware of what they’re in for.

I am so grateful to my boss for giving me lighter teaching load this semester (just 35 students!) so I can focus on my research publications, but next semester I’ll have 120 students again. I can’t wait to meet them, but I sure do wish their assignments would mark themselves!

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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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It took nine weeks

How long did it take for you to settle back into work?

This is what people will ask me, down the track. What people have already been asking for a few weeks now.

I started work just after bub turned 11 months, and now she’s 13 months. It’s my ninth week back.

It took nine weeks to get ‘with it’.

I think I have successfully: decided where to get coffee and lunch; remembered most of my passwords; stayed back at work a couple of times; stayed up late working after bed time; said hello and had a chat to most people at least once; started teaching, with three lectures under the belt; presented a conference workshop; established a new dinner time routine.

Working. Enjoy responsibly.

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Returning to work

So, in January 2016 I’ll be returning to work.

This fact has been a source of mixed emotions for a few months now. Once I hit the halfway mark of my parental leave, the reality started to sink in that my time at home looking after bub would come to an end.

The first time I had back on campus this semester filled me with anxiety. ‘I’m not ready!’ I thought. ‘I’m not going to be able to do this work anymore!’ – my sleep addled brain couldn’t grasp how I would remember my log in password, let alone check my emails. Let alone read and write scholarly work.

But visiting campus again this week filled me with joy and excitement.

Am I tired? Yes. Woefully so. I haven’t had more than 4 hours sleep in a row for six months, more than 5 hours sleep for eight months. Mostly I sleep in 2-3 hour cycles between feeds (feeding the baby that is).

Do I feel out of the loop? Yes. There have been massive staff changes in my Faculty while I’ve been on leave, and an entirely new degree has started. I’ll be teaching units from the new curriculum when I return, and commencing a new research project to boot.

But as the start date draws nearer, I think I can do it.

One of the reasons I’m excited about returning to work is that I feel like, despite the sleepless haze, I’m coming back with a healthy dose of clarity. People talk about this happening after you have kids – you can no longer afford to waste time at work, to waste your hours away from your family. But they’re often talking more about efficiency than anything else.

For me, I think clarity has come simply from having time away from the job. It’s been a chance to get some perspective, to realise how much I was comparing myself to others, worrying about ‘output’, fretting about research funding, lamenting student feedback, feeling the weight of all those metrics…so many metrics.

But now I feel refreshed. I feel ready to come back and set personal goals, to work hard on the things that matter to me.

I’ll let you know how it goes😉

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Public school educated and proud of it

I’ve been thinking for some time about what to write about for my 300th blog post. I wanted to make it about something close to my heart, something that tapped in to a long standing passion.

One of the public schools I've enjoyed teaching in

Public high school (my image)

One area that I have been passionate about for a long time is my commitment to free and inclusive public school education in Australia. As an alumnus of the public education system I want to use this blog post to outline the main benefits I see in public schooling, and champion the teachers and students that work and learn together in these high quality institutions.

Ethics, values, and public schools

To say that public schools are lacking in values due to their secular nature is an abhorrent slur on the sector. However education commentators such as Kevin Donnelly will readily tell anyone that will listen that the lack of religion in public schools is a left-wing agenda designed to deny Australia’s heritage of Christian values.

My experience in public schools flies in the face of such assertions. In all schools I have worked and studied in there have been student-staff groups that meet to discuss or practice religion at lunchtimes and study breaks, and many schools continue to offer scripture sessions. I freely admit that my personal preference is for scripture to be taken out of school settings, but I respect the decision of school communities to offer the service where parents and/or students have expressed a desire for it to be in place.

For those like me that would rather see discussion of ethics and values occur in a broader context than the religious one, public schools promote this freedom. All schools will choose certain words or phrases to guide their students in fruitful directions – in my primary school the school crest offered ‘Honour and Service’ as a creed to focus the development of student values, and my high school offered ‘Loyalty, Sincerity, Generosity’, words that continue to frame my personal values in adult life.

In addition to these pithy creeds, public schools all offer codes of conduct, mission statements, and other means of imparting values to their students. And although the adequacy (and currency) of the National Values Education Framework is contestable, the ‘Nine Values for Australian Schooling‘ are in place as a shared set of values for all schools in Australia.

Of course, all school sectors utilise similar means of organising school life around shared values and I am not trying to claim here that public schools do it any better! I simply hope to speak against the myth that public schools are a ‘wild west’ of value-free behaviour and anti-establishment attitudes.

Public schools and diversity

One of the biggest things I think public schools have going for them is their remit to provide free education, and to provide it for all.

I realise this claim does not always translate into a level playing field at the school level. The operation of specialist schools and the efforts of families to move into the catchment areas of ‘more desirable’ public schools cannot be ignored. I am not so naive that I think all public schools are operating with equal resources – they are impacted significantly by factors such as the sociocultural background of their communities and geographic remoteness.

By and large, however, the public school sector is authentically committed to diversity. Not just diversity in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of culture, sexuality and class.

You will not find a student that is gay being asked to leave a public school because they are not living ‘as God intended’.

You will not find a student that is poor turned away from a public school because they cannot pay the fees.

Public schools continue to teach disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous students, as well as students with disabilities and from low-income households

I struggle to understand how parents who send their children to private schools do not see that they are effectively paying to ‘opt out’ of diverse communities. I have fought long and hard with some of my close friends about this … at work however, I tend to invoke the ‘do not discuss politics at the dinner table’ rule. I will happily make my personal view known here, however: I think that propping up a system where richer families pay to quarantine their children from learning alongside others that are less like them, or less well resourced, is a blight on our nation.

Resources in public schools

One reason I have often heard cited for sending children to private schools is that they will ‘have more opportunities’ there.

And this may be true in some cases – your average local public school might not have an orchestra, or a swimming pool, or an annual school play (then again, they very well might – have you asked?).

But if they don’t have these things when you enrol, is this really the end of the world?

If your school doesn’t offer violin lessons, might it not teach your child resourcefulness to go and find somewhere that offers after-school classes?

If your school debating team doesn’t win many trophies, might this not teach them how to focus on personal bests and celebrate teamwork?

If your school doesn’t have a drama club, might your child not help to start one? Or maybe even you could lend a hand?

The attitude that the school must provide every opportunity imaginable to students strikes me as an arrangement where parents over-rely on a single institution to provide learning opportunities for their children. I much prefer an arrangement that is grounded in community efforts rather than provision of an exhaustive suite of culturally elite services to a ‘clientele’.

The notion that opportunity only exists where it can be bought is the myth I seek to bust here. If the (perhaps not-so-glossy?) brochure for your local public school doesn’t advertise a chess club, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one, or that they can’t start one.

Public schooling and future success

For those who assume that paying fees to a private school is a way of buying a student a ticket to future success, think again.

Barbara Preston from the University of Canberra recently discussed the findings of a number of studies that showed ‘State school kids do better at uni‘. This topic was also dealt with in a follow up piece by Jennifer Chesters from University of Canberra, who presented further data to demonstrate that ‘Private schooling has little long term pay-off‘.

Of course, the issue of future success has many other faces and is a more complex picture than that painted by test results and future earnings. One thing to keep in mind is that formal assessment and reporting can only ever show us part of the picture when it comes to learning and student outcomes. On the other hand, kids from public schools can face discrimination in the workplace when employers perceive a lack of social capital as a reason for passing over applicants from public schools (disregarding merit). My glasses aren’t so rose-coloured that I’ve never noticed the “old boys/old girls” phenomenon in play!

What I fear though, is that many middle class families are sending their children to private schools with the good intention of providing a ‘better’ education and an advantage when it comes to university entrance. Some parents report taking on second jobs just to pay for private school fees. Such families should be aware that there is no guarantee of getting bang for that buck. If it were me, I’d spend that money on a annual family trip abroad instead.

Why I will never work for a non-government school

In case anyone has gotten the wrong idea, can I pause here to say that I highly value the professionalism of my non-public sector colleagues. In the work I have done for the English Teachers Associations in NSW and Queensland I have had the pleasure of meeting English teachers from all sectors that have one thing in common – a desire to do right by their students and help their respective schools be the best they can be. In both my professional association and my research work, the resources that I create relating to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and literacy are intended to benefit all teachers, not only those in public schools.

However … I could not ever, for any amount of money, work as a teacher or administrator in a private school.

This is due to the simple fact that I would rather contribute my labour to the public sector, where I believe the values of equity and social justice are most fully realised.

It is also because for every person who has anecdotally told me about the benefits of private school pastoral care programs, there has been another reporting stories of being bullied by their peers and/or forced to conform to hideous rules by their teachers. Anecdotes aren’t representative, and in my line of work, I’ve really heard them all. Sure, some public schools have issues. Let me assure you, so do some private schools!

My point here is: anyone who cares to argue that private schools are better because they can afford the best teachers, keep in mind that I am one of many teachers that are committed to remaining in public schools. If you’ve ever pictured public schools as a wasteland of second-rate teachers, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sure, maybe I’m wrong…

Earlier this week I broke my ‘no politics at the dinner table’ rule when colleagues brought up the question of where I would send my own kids. And I respect that one of these folks comes from a devout Catholic family and so will likely send his kid there. I concede that if, like another colleague, I have a child with special needs that cannot be accommodated in a public school then I will have to consider a private school alternative. And when one colleague raised the possibility that the entire school system is already irrevocably broken and that old notions of ‘what works’ may need to be discarded completely … well, that gave me pause for thought. But honestly, I do trust that the system that served me so well will serve my children well too.

Maybe I’m wrong to be loyal to any sector of a system that is so badly failing to innovate and change. Maybe politicians aren’t done propping up the private sector and the slide into a truly two-tier system of schooling is already inevitable.

For now though, I just can’t ignore what I know about the awesome work that happens in public schools, or the sense of responsibility I have to continue improving that system from within.

And for always I will remain proud to be a product of the public school system.

300th post

Happy 300th post to me🙂


New Milestones – Twitter, Blog, Work

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It was very satisfying this week to get a notification from WordPress reminding me of my blogiversary.

Six years of blogging!

The time sure has flown. And although I still have much to learn about online writing, I can say with confidence that nothing beats the professional development and reflection that public writing has afforded me.



As if one milestone wasn’t enough, this was also the week that I clicked over the 10,000 tweet mark (!)

Sadly I missed the exact moment and didn’t get a screenshot, but here’s how it’s looking today:

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2008 – what was happening?

A quick look at my profile stats shows that I joined Twitter in May 2008, and created my blog not long after in June 2008.

Around this time I was:

  • 27 years old
  • living in Southwest Sydney
  • halfway into my second year of full time teaching
  • part time enrolled in my PhD
  • newly married
  • on the ‘Web & Technology’ and ‘Curriculum and Assessment’ Committees of the NSW ETA

Whew! When that’s all written down in a list we can see it was big year! And that’s just the ‘big stuff’.

The ETA bit is important, because it’s through ETA work that I met one of my most influential and constant mentors, Darcy Moore – it was his persistent encouragement that persuaded me to start tweeting and blogging. His advice at the time, which has always stuck with me, was that I shouldn’t be afraid to put my views in the public domain, as long as they are views I am prepared to defend and stand by. In fact, the test of whether you are prepared to say something in public can be an excellent method for testing your convictions.

I’ve used the metaphor before, but real True Blood fans can stand to hear it twice: Darcy you’re the best ‘maker’ ever!

My other big digi-hat tips go to Bianca Hewes for being such an incredible force of energy and inspiration, and to Mary-Helen Ward who got me writing my first ever blog posts back at university on the internal network. You gals have left footprints all over my professional (and personal) life and I’m so grateful for it.

Milestones IRL – Work

The end of this semester also marks a non-virtual, real life work milestone: four years in one job.

Four. Years. In. One. Job.

It’s not for lack of stamina that I haven’t stayed anywhere else for longer than three years. I worked part time for awhile when I started my PhD. Then I taught for three years in one place before moving interstate and reseting the meter. So it’s not like I’m some kind of education sector Runaway Bride! Although I am also no Baby Boomer, and I confess the idea of staying in one job for a lifetime is simply unfathomable to me. I won’t bother linking to any of the plethora of ridiculous articles about how Gen Y make bad employees – as a Gen X/Gen Y ‘cusper’ I never see myself in those stories (I’m too young to relate to Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, and too old to pull off skinny jeans). But suffice to say that after four years in one job, I’m feeling a sense of stability that I’ve never known before. It’s nice. I’m finally standing still for long enough to start sharpening the saw.

What Next?

Well, it turns out that this is my 299th blog post, so post number 300 is just around the corner🙂

Other than that, I’m going to keep on keeping on with my online writing and continue to integrate digital communication/curation into my teaching practice. I’m working on a few scholarly journal articles for publication early next year, so my post-PhD academic writing funk looks like it may have finally run it’s course.

I’m trying to take a more active role in promoting our local English Teacher chat on Twitter (#ozengchat).

I’m slowly collecting my poetry teaching materials on the web for other teachers to access with ease.

Aside from that, time will tell.

But for now let me just say: thanks for reading, and happy blogging everyone!

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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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