Promised great learning experiences but stuck doing boring assessments and tests.

At the start of this school year, our teachers said that this year would be the best school year that we will ever have. They said that they would give us iPads and computers and they said that there would be a new, cool learning space for us to use these utilities to learn. However, it is now Term 4 and the teachers STILL haven’t given us those. The only thing they have changed is the reading groups. It was OK to begin with, because it was different from the worksheets that we completed last year, but after doing the EXACT SAME THING over and over again, it just turned out to be plain boring. The only thing I have enjoyed this year is the fact that all Year 5s and 6s are in a composite class. There are three composite classes.

The teachers said ALL of the classes would have the best year ever, but only ONE class has parties at the end of each term, only ONE class does cool projects like making book trailers and going outside to learn. Only ONE class has a new and awesome time … and it isn’t my class. It’s unfair that they get to do fun and new activities, whereas the other two classes are stuck doing boring assessments and tests. Everyone should have the right to have good learning experiences – it should be equal. Seriously, where is the PBL?  My brother got the chance to participate in a PBL project and he loved it. It’s the only cool thing he has done all year. This year, if anything, has been probably one of the worst years I have had … only because I had high hopes at the start of the year, but they were shattered over time.

By a Year 5 student.

Horror Genre Unit – Year 9

I was just trawling through all of the files I have on my laptop, trying to find a film quiz, when I stumbled across a unit of work I wrote a while back. It’s for Year 9 and looks at the ‘Horror Genre’. Thought I might share it with you all … might come in hand for someone? I’m starting to think that I’m nuts planning a new project for Year 9 genre study … looking at the fantasy genre. Maybe I should just do this old-skool unit of work? Might have the same result skills-wise? Hmmm … HORROR GENRE PROGRAM

 

Presenting on PBL (again).

I feel like I’m a one string ukelele … boring and annoying with many strings and even worse with just one. Once again I find myself presenting on PBL at a conference in Sydney. I wonder how many people have walked away from one of my 60 minute sessions and actually taken the time to create and implement a project. Surely by now no-one needs to hear me bang on about this particular pedagogy again? It makes me super self-conscious to be presenting on PBL to English teachers at the annual AATE conference next week. (Ah, not to mention the epic line-up of presenters and speakers!)  What if some of the attendees had been at one of my other presentations, or they’ve read my blog? Won’t they be all like, ‘Um, isn’t this what you told us 12 months ago?’

I really liked the advice that a twitter friend gave me today when I lamented my nerves on twitter. She said, ‘People need to hear why it is so important in our world today and see the relevance before they feel confident to apply it.’ And she’s write. Thanks Ashley. The last time I presented on PBL to my English teacher colleagues, I focused mostly on the ‘how’ of PBL and a little bit on the ‘what’, but I didn’t touch on ‘why’. I guess that was because I wanted to run a hands-on workshop and actually had teachers move chairs around and stuff, which was fun but I don’t know if anyone seriously took on this new approach to teaching English. As I said to Ashley, ‘I don’t want someone saying ‘you should do this’ without telling me why & how.’ That’s going to be my goal for this presentation … why and how.

Here is my presentation outline:

This session will give insight into the nature of Project Based Learning (PBL) and how this inquiry method of teaching can be used to enhance student engagement and learning outcomes in the English classroom. PBL, enhanced by digital technologies, promotes skills in collaboration, problem-solving and critical and creative thinking, all general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum. In PBL projects, students use texts as a springboard for their investigation into real-world problems and then share their discoveries with an authentic audience. Bianca will discuss her classroom experiences with PBL and her research, which is a case study looking at the relationship between PBL, multiliteracies, feedback and ICT in the English classroom. Participants will be introduced to a range of strategies and tools for implementing and running successful projects with their classes, as well as gaining insight into the power of being connected to a global PBL community.

What a mouthful, huh? I promised to cover a bit too much in an hour and fifteen minutes, hey? Interestingly, the direction of my research (if it ever happens) has changed since I put in my EOI for the conference. I’ve had 6 months experience working at state office, immersing myself in the new NSW English K-10 syllabus … and as such my interest is in what it has to say about assessment and how teachers can implement these varied assessment practices using a PBL-style approach to teaching and learning. I’m still super interested in digital technologies and multiliteracies, but a new way to approach learning in the English classroom. Cos, you know, assessment is actually about learning – whodathunkit? ;)

Tonight I am going to actually ‘make’ my presentation for the AATE conference and when it’s done I’ll share it here. I guess by ‘make’, I just mean get a rough scaffold, sift through my expanding bag of project resources and then put it into some kind of thrilling slideshow format – urgh. Or maybe I’ll just go old-skool and write a speech with no pretty things to distract a bored attendee? Not sure yet. Anyway, I’ll post below the skeleton I have so far for my presentation just because posting here always makes me feel like I’m being productive but really it’s just a very public way of procrastinating.

1. What is PBL?

2. How can PBL be used to enhance student engagement in English?

3. How can PBL be used to enhance learning outcomes in English?

4. What digital technologies can support PBL?

5. PBL and collaboration.

6. PBL and problem-solving.

7. PBL and creative thinking.

8. PBL and critical thinking.

9. PBL, the Australian Curriculum and assessment.

10. Texts as springboards for investigation into real-world problems.

11. Students as composers for an authentic audience.

12. My own classroom experiences with PBL.

13. My research – a case study.

14. Connecting to a global PBL community.

Why I write …

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

The above quote is from George Orwell – one of my favourite writers – and comes at the end of his short essay titled ‘Why I Write’. This blog post (accidentally typed ‘essay’ first, lol) is both a homage to Orwell and a required activity. Why? Well, I’m going to be talking about blogging on a panel at the upcoming AATE conference in Sydney. I’m pretty nervous cos my co-panelists are two people who I hold in high-esteem: Darcy Moore who is the catalyst for my use of social media and this blog, and Kelli McGraw who has supported me and inspired me to always set high expectations for myself. I’m actually really anxious about this presentation – more so than the other two I’ve found myself involved in – because I received a list of questions from the lovely Melissa Kennedy who will be chairing the panel. The questions scare me – don’t get me wrong, they are amazing, important, interesting questions – but the most scary is, ‘Why do you bother with this blogging thing?’

This question got me thinking about Orwell’s argument that there are ‘four great motives for writing’. I guess falling back on great writers as a means to cheat and steal and answer to a tricky question has always been my style. So why stop now? Do I agree with Orwell’s motives? Um … stupid question, he’s Orwell. My philosophy lecturers always complained that I lacked a critical stance and too keenly accepted the ideas of others – guess I haven’t matured since I was 19, cos I’m very happy to accept Orwell’s four motives as being my own motives for ‘why I write’.

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one … Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

This is such a great first motive. No one would write a public blog if they didn’t enjoy the attention (positive or negative) that it brings. Bloggers certainly aren’t interested in money, because you don’t get any (well, I don’t anyway so maybe someone who does can teach me how) and education bloggers are certainly not going to be getting any – in Australia at least. It’s true – I do like being talked about by other people – of course I’d prefer that it was my ideas and words, and not the clothes I wear. Education bloggers in Australia are few, and so it is pretty easy to get ‘known’ if you post regularly and the content of your posts are relevant to at least a small group of other people. Sometimes I’ll write a blog post just because I want someone to comment or tweet about it … if bloggers weren’t egotistical that we wouldn’t keep an eye on our stats.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement … Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

I have always loved to write and I have always dreamed of being a writer. Any type of writer would do. First I wanted to be a journalist, then it was a music journalist, a zine writer (I did this throughout my teen years before the Internet), a novelist, a confessional poet (but at 17 I didn’t have anything to confess), a philosopher (with no original thoughts this became too hard), a playwright (I even wrote a play and acted a small part in The Importance of Being Ernest) until finally I found blogging. It’s seems to have stuck. I find it easy to write here … intially I was scared shitless thinking thousands of people would read my words and laugh at me. Then I realised (thanks to the blog stats) that thousands won’t read my posts … 482 on one day is the most I’ve ever had.

Realising that my blog is my playground means I can write however I like. Mostly I write like this – honest, silly, personal. Sometimes I am angry and serious. sometimes emotional and irrational. I take great pleasure in constructing sentences, sometime carefully considering my purpose and sometimes typing in a great rush. I rarely, if ever mull over a post and very infrequently rewrite/edit a post. My writing is my thoughts. It is what it is. I post my travel adventures here too and if I ever felt like writing a story or a poem, I’d post them up too. Orwell is right … the impulse is a desire to share an experience, and that’s why this blog is a hodge-podge of posts … my life is a hodge-podge of experiences.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

This is a very important impulse for an education blogger. It’s important – I think – that the real experiences of classroom teachers are being shared. Too often in this world of political agendas relating to education, or even worse the constant suggestion that there is a ‘reform’ to education coming or happening, means that we teachers are forgotten. Remembered publicly as numbers and words, forgotten privately as human beings and as professionals. Those statements are a bit big really … honestly my agenda is not that big. And anyway, politics is the next motive. Really, I want this blog to record my successes and failures as a teacher. I always say you can never ‘be’ a teacher, ‘you’re always ‘becoming’ a teacher … so this is a documenting of my ‘becoming’. It’s a process diary – a work in progress. An historical document of my attempt to be a better teacher and a desire to share that attempt with others who are similarly attempting to become better teachers too.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

Hmmm … I think I’m politically minded. Not very good with keeping track of polictical debates and can’t contribute intelligently to a political conversation … simply because numbers bore me. That doesn’t mean I’m not politically minded. Of course this blog has a political agenda insofar as I truly have a ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’. My attitudes towards traditional schooling, my frustrations with limitations put on student expression and access, my disgust at the politicisation of education and my sincere interest in project-based learning and authentic learning experiences where young people are empowered by passionate teachers to change their shitty world. All of that is political. This blog always comes from the heart and with an intention to change or challenge current ineffective teaching practices … there’s a political motive in that, I reckon.

My research: PBL, assessment and subject English

OK. So on Monday I got a really serious email from my MEd supervisor (Dr Jon Callow, Sydney University … cool, huh?) … it was a timetable for my Masters and it was hectic. There is so much for me to do between now and next August when I graduate that it makes my head spin and my toes tingle. Not in a good way.

The first thing that is due is my research proposal … and I have to present that to a panel! Eek! I’ve already written a draft thesis proposal as part of a unit of study that I did last year (you can laugh at it here). Looking back over it now, I cringe – I have learnt so much since then, most importantly the value of ‘small’ ideas. It’s nice to dream big, but research is expensive (time and money) and I need to be realistic about what I can achieve. Over the last 8 months I have pared back the focus of my research to just assessment, project-learning and the English classroom. It is still too loose to be able to write, so I’m at that ‘read and immerse’ stage where I just have to drown myself in other people’s words and ideas and experiences. It’s so weird because – to be completely honest – I don’t particularly enjoy reading other people’s ideas and experiences. Oh, I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the right word – I enjoy it when I do it, I just rarely do it and I dunno why. Arrogance most likely. Anyway, what I’m trying to get at (in a slow, stuttering Hugh Grant is proposing to a daft blonde kind of way) is that I need help.

<ignore this paragraph it is garbage>

I am leaning heavily towards a case study consisting of one English class – focusing on the attitudes (but maybe not attitudes??) of the students and the teacher towards (the effectiveness of??) different forms of assessment. I’d do something like help a teacher plan and run a PBL-style project whereby three different forms of assessment are included (assessment of, for and as) in the three week project. Urgh. Writing it down makes it sound so stupid. Basically there seems to be ZERO research into PBL (my type of PBL, like the BIE model basically) in Australia and absolutely ZERO into PBL in the English classroom. So that means there is a ‘gap’ – a good thing for researchers. My job is to fill up the gap, haha. The final layer is assessment … well really feedback is truly what I’m interested in … or is it the ‘assessment cycle’ in the English classroom?

SORRY! Here is what I want to say about assessment … it’s from my draft thesis proposal:

A challenge faced by secondary English teachers in Australia is the nature of assessment. Often the primary assessment in English is summative despite evidence that formative or assessment for learning practices have ‘more impact on learning than any other general factor’ (Petty, 2006). The Rationale of the NSW English Stage 4/5 Syllabus (2003, p. 7) and Australian Curriculum: English (2011, p. 6) both advocate assessment for learning practices including peer and self-assessment.  In their seminal paper, Black and William (1998) conclude that the introduction of effective assessment for learning  “will require significant changes in classroom practice” (p. 141) because “instruction and formative assessment are indivisible” (p. 143). Importantly Black and William propose that “what is needed is a classroom culture of questioning and deep thinking, in which pupils learn from shared discussions with teachers and peers” (p. 146). These features are key elements of project-based pedagogies which have been shown to “have documented positive changes for teachers and students in motivation, attitude toward learning, and skills, including work habits, critical thinking skills and problem-solving” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, p. 4, 2008) Barron’s (1998) study of project and problem-based learning using a longitudinal case study of 5th graders found that, given timely feedback as part of their PBL experience, students took “advantage of the opportunity to revise” (p. 304). Moreover, Barron concluded that an “emphasis on formative assessment and revision” (p. 305) is central to PBL.

And this is what I want to say about Project Based Learning … from same place as above paragraph.

Project-based learning is a pedagogy that engages students in relevant, real-world problems that require them to attain and strengthen skills essential for success in the 21st century – collaboration, communication, creativity, digital citizenship – as well as understanding positive ‘habits of mind’ (Costa, 2007). Founded in Constructivist theory, Project Based Learning “involves completing complex tasks that typically result in a realistic product, event or presentation to an audience” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 2).   Research into project-based learning (PBL) “has found that students who engage in this approach benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to those of students who engage in traditional forms of instruction” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 2).

What do I want from YOU?! Well … I’m doing this research thing new-skool. Yeah, I can read through the reference list of a hundred journal articles and I can trawl through the edu data bases of Sydney University … but I could also use my wonderful edu network and ask YOU what articles/research you have read relating to ANY aspects of my focus topic (PBL, assessment/feedback and the English classroom in NSW, Australia) that might help me better immerse myself in this topic and find some truly awesome gaps to fill, haha. If you just know the name of an academic or writer or teacher or article or blog or journal that you think I should track down or read … pretty please let me know by posting a comment below. I reckon edu research should be collaborative and should be shared immediately. I’ll be posting here everything I think, find and write … straight away, no waiting for a journal to tell me I’m good enough. Unless of course I get told off for doing so, haha – then I’ll tell you about me being told off ;)

Thanks a million in advance!

Grammar: an English teacher’s newest metalanguage

If you are an English teacher, and you didn’t already know, the new NSW K-10 English Syllabus requires us to explicitly teach some basic grammar stuff. It’s all come from the Australian Curriculum content (with its somewhat goofy division of English into three strands – Language, Literacy and Literature) and the lady responsible for writing the grammar component is the very wise Beverly Derewianka – she also does the NAPLAN stuff. NSW being the wise state that it is (I’m biased, of course) has acknowledged that these strands shouldn’t be (and never are) taught separately, that’s part of the reason why we have a Syllabus … plus we also have some awesome content and skills that we didn’t want to lose.

Anyway, Bev has written a wonderful book called ‘A Grammar Companion’ (get the updates edition) which is SO user-friendly for teachers just starting out with grammar. I love the book because it has diagrams and pictures (haha) but also because she focuses on the ‘text’ level – which assumes we are English teachers and not ‘literacy experts’. She tackles the finer points of grammar in such a way that we can see how grammar is just another metalanguage for English teachers and students of English – understanding texts at the word, clause and sentence level helps us to better appreciate how meaning is shaped by composers and the effect this has on responders.

Most of the English teachers that I know who are my age are freaked out about having to learn grammar – because we didn’t learn it by rote when we were at school, we barely even identified nouns, verbs etc – so I’m thinking I should to make a series of videos or podcasts or blog posts just going through the stuff that has the potential to be confusing (like clauses and cohesion). Just so we can see how grammar can help us better appreciate literature too … like what does Hemingway do at the sentence level that is different from Orwell? What do you reckon? Actually – it wouldn’t just be for English teachers, since a knowledge of the fundamentals of grammar can help all teachers to better support their students’ reading and writing. After all, literacy isn’t just the domain of the English teacher! ;)

PS: Sorry for the incorrect grammar in this post if you spot it – I didn’t proof-read. Oops!

You’ve gotta walk the walk …

Yesterday was the first time that I have taught on a Monday in 6 months. That’s a big deal because I have four junior classes on a Monday and NO senior classes. I have Year 8 twice – period 1 and period 6. Yup, it’s like two completely different classes. It’s bizarre what five hours of being caged can do to a group of 30 14 year olds.

After struggling to invent some kind of engaging ‘hook’ lesson for our new literature circles project, and doing my best to keep the students ‘under control’ whilst they took part in the activities; I came out of the lesson shell-shocked. For real. I was all like, ‘What the heck am I doing this for?’ and, ‘I am so bad at teaching!’. I felt like a prac student after her first solo-lesson. Thank goodness there wasn’t a supervising teacher in the room or I would have been sent packing.

Next lesson was Year 10 (although I thought it was Year 9 so I amped myself up for discord only to be greeted by the smiling faces of 19 girls). The boys were out for their ‘Men of Honour’ day, so the girls and I got to spend the lesson sitting in a circle, chatting about the women in Macbeth and vaginas, lol. It was a lovely lesson.

Recess – yay, chocolate cake for my colleague’s birthday! Then the nightmare of a double period of Year 12 Trial marking and helping our teacher/librarian out with her first attempt at creating a PBL project. Lunch time? I forgot that I had play-ground duty so had to rush out and stand in the sun watching boys play handball. Not so bad except I had a towering pile of marking that wasn’t getting much smaller due to a bombardment of interruptions in the English staffroom.

Period 5 was Year 9. I haven’t seen these guys on a Monday for so long and they were super excited to have me back as their teacher – such a nice feeling! What was rather ‘trying’ was the eagerness of a small group of boys to participate in EVERY drama activity – even when they weren’t meant to … urgh. This is a ‘cute’ thing, right? Like they were SO engaged in the tasks that they couldn’t STOP participating. Or maybe there is something else at play, like the boys being dominant and not just playful? It didn’t bother the other students and therefore I took it as playful – kids at my school are usually over-friendly more than devious. It was an exhausting lesson though – those ‘fun’ lessons we all hear about from the presenter on our occasional PD days are impossible to sustain, given more often than not when we teach 5 or 6 lessons per day.

Period 6 was Year 8 again … we had some special guests in the classroom – students from Maebashi, Japan. It’s always hard to know what’s the best type of lesson when you have ESL students in a class of primarily English-speakers. It was even worse given that these three students had minimal to no English. What was I to do? I did the wrong thing. I just ignored their needs and powered ahead with a lesson I felt I ‘needed’ to get through (introducing the roles in Literature Circles because I will be away from class the next two lessons). OK, I didn’t ignore my guests, I said hello and smiled at them a lot, haha. Shocking, hey? Then I went off on my teacher-centred whole-class instruction mode and ‘taught’ what I needed to get through … what a horrible approach to a lesson! I even yelled a little because the kids were noisy coming into the class and made them sit in a seating plan. Who the hell am I? Half-way through I saw some kids staring out at the trees, I saw others drawing pictures in their books. I hated the lesson but felt confident the students would ‘learn’ the roles despite the boredom. The quiz at the end revealed that to be false. Most of them didn’t learn the responsibilities of each role. Wahhh.

After school I sat with my colleague and we compared our marks for the Belonging essays – all essays are double-marked and checked for discrepancies at my school. Then when I got home (at 5.30pm) I sat down and wrote detailed, personalised ‘medals’ and ‘missions’ comments on the back of every essay and in the middle of that managed to eat a hasty dinner. At 8.30pm I started marking English extension two major works and reflection statements. I got to bed at midnight.

You know what? This is the daily experience of the every-day teacher. Don’t come into our schools – or target us on social media or email – and try to tell us that we should do this and that to be better teachers. Don’t try to tell us we need to work harder. If you aren’t walking than walk, then don’t talk the talk. Word.