Literature Circles – resources

I just logged into edmodo and saw a teacher asking for resources for starting Literature Circles. We introduced Literature Circles at my school about three years ago. I’ve had great success with the activity. I run a fairly regimented routine and students seem to respond well with it. I mean, after all the students do get to read a book of their choice in groups with their friends … that kind of thing needs structure so that they can actually get the reading and learning happening without being distracted too much by their mates.

Anyway, here are the documents that I’ve used for the last few years. I’ve borrowed heavily from a range of sites which are referenced at the bottom of the pages. I hope they help someone, somewhere. Please feel free to ask questions etc about the process at our school.

Literature Circles Roles Handouts[1]

Correct_Teacher Manual to Literature Circles[1]


Hanging out on the fringe #aarefringe

I wanted to write this blog post yesterday but my yesterday was crowded with so much awesome that I didn’t have time. (More about that later). On Wednesday night, Lee and I got the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with some wonderful people. People we have spoken with many times on twitter but never met in person, plus other people we have never chatted too ever before. To non-twitter people this seems like such an odd notion. Going to the pub with semi and complete strangers. OK, maybe it’s not abnormal for people seeking a date, or something, haha.

Lee and I were late to the Abercrombie pub. Why? Because I was driving and for some reason selected the slowest, most congested route possible. We arrived at the pub over half an hour late. The cool thing was, though, that those already there waited for us to arrive before beginning the provocations. That was so cool. Provocations? Yeah. That’s what we came together for. To share ‘dangerous ideas’. The gathering was planned by education researcher and all-round great human-being, Greg Thompson. You might know him as @effectsofNAPLAN on twitter. Greg and a bunch of other edu academics (including the lovely Nicole Mockler and the very genuine @tloughlan) were in Sydney for the AARE conference and Greg organised #aarefringe as an informal opportunity for academics, teachers and preservice teachers to come together for a chat about education and all of the other crazy stuff that comes with our world.

I don’t know what I want to say about the evening. Seriously. I think (weirdly) that I’m a bit lost for words. Hmmm. I’ve been to quite a few conferences in my time (and a couple of teachmeets) and I have to say that they just pale in comparison to this type of ‘event’. I don’t even think the word event is right. I remember being at the big Sydney TeachMeet earlier this year and watching side-stage as Ewan McIntosh spoke about the origins of teachmeets – the pub meet. It just sounded awesome and I loved the fact that grog was right at the centre of it all. It sounds so wrong, but drinking a cider, a beer or some wine whilst chatting with smart and passionate people about education is what we need more of in Australia. It happens weekly at schools all around the place – the Friday arvo drinks. I think that this conversation – where you can talk backwards and forwards between human beings about an idea, nutting it out, getting passionate, asking questions – isn’t possible on Twitter. What we had on Wednesday night when deeper and was more real. Sometimes 140 characters just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes your voice is lost in a ‘chat’ and your questions go unanswered or your concerns unheard (with loud-mouths like me around, I’m surprised anyone ever gets to say anything!). That may have happened on Wednesday night … I, for one, have to learn how to shut up and listen … but I think everyone there was just so stoked with the conversation whether they were contributing or listening.

Greg did a great thing and I know that there will be more of these grog-assisted edu chats. They need to be in a place like the Abercrombie (well chosen, Tony!) because it is gritty and gungy and darkly lit. The atmosphere of dangerous ideas about education, provocation and honesty was enhanced by the venue. These things can’t happen in the sterility of a school library. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the #aarefringe was teacher PD like Teachmeets are … it wasn’t about learning to use a particular took with your class or a particular pedagogy. So I’m not suggesting that these pubchats replace teachmeets. I also know that often the teachers who attend the TMs go to teacheats and I’m sure their conversation flows more freely their about all sorts of things. But what Greg did was he brought together the different sectors of education and gave us the opportunity to share radical and risky ideas in an environment free of the anxiety that we might tarnish our online relationships or digital footprints by being honest and giving constructive criticism.

I wonder if the messiness of this blog captures the necessary messiness of something like #aarefringe. There was no PPT, or plenary or speaking order. There were drinks, passionate people and one small request: share a dangerous idea about education. If you want to read a more succinct and articulate wrap-up of the evening that references that actual speakers and their topics, read Greg’s post here.

Finally, I just want to say a great big thank you to everyone who was there. Lee and I felt so welcomed and supported whilst we shared what we think are our pretty challenging thoughts about education and academia. We were nervous (just being newbies really) but we loved the conversations about our ideas and it has helped them to evolve further – you should have been in the car on the way home! It was a delight to meet people in the flesh for the first time – especially Greg, Denise and Nicole. The next day both Lee and I got heaps of tweets about our ideas regarding leadership and research … which made us feel proud that our ideas had been dangerous enough to provoke a mini debate/discussion online as well. So awesome.

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.

Edmodo and the NSW Quality Teaching Framework

Because I am a nerd, I enjoy reading education documents. OK, not all of them – just the ones that I feel might help me to be a better teacher. I was introduced to the NSW Quality Teacher Framework in my first year of teaching, but it only started making sense to me in my third or fourth year – when I started trying to do things in new ways and when I wanted to create my own ‘units of work’. I think the QTF is awesome – maybe just cos it affirms my own thoughts about quality teaching and learning. You can read it here.

A few months ago I was asked to present on Edmodo at a high school … not a terribly unusual story. The night before I had been thinking about the QTF and some of the ways I ‘cover’ the elements of the framework as a teacher. It didn’t take long for my brain to jump to edmodo and I began making the connection between the QTF and edmodo. At the request of a Twitter colleague, I am making public my scrawlings about edmodo and the QTF. It’s pretty skeletal but maybe it’ll help you ‘sell’ edmodo to your colleagues or executive, lol.

Deep knowledge

The knowledge being addressed is focused on a small number of key concepts and ideas within topics, subjects or KLAs, and on the relationships between and among concepts.


-      small groups

-      folders

-      whole-group discussions

Deep understanding

Students demonstrate a profound and meaningful understanding of central ideas and the relationships between and among those central ideas.


-      back-channel

-      notes

-      assignments

Problematic knowledge

Students are encouraged to address multiple perspectives and/or solutions and to recognise that knowledge has been constructed and therefore is open to question.


-      online debates/silent discussions

-      character accounts

-      back-channel

Higher-order thinking

Students are regularly engaged in thinking that requires them to organise, reorganise, apply, analyse, synthesise and evaluate knowledge and information.


-      individual and group tasks

-      small groups

-      calendar (PBL)


Lessons explicitly name and analyse knowledge as a specialist language (metalanguage), and provide frequent commentary on language use and the various contexts of differing language uses.


-      online discussions using metalanguage

-      quizzes

-      embedded games/flashcards

Substantive communication

Students are regularly engaged in sustained conversations about the concepts and ideas they are encountering. These conversations can be manifest in oral, written or artistic forms.


-      small group/whole group

-      image/video embedded as stimulus for silent debate

-      polls

-      connect with other schools

-      assignments

Explicit quality criteria

Students are provided with explicit criteria for the quality of work they are to produce and those criteria are a regular reference point for the development and assessment of student work.


-      assignments (resubmit, annotation)

-      PDFs and Word Docs added to posts

-      peer-assess using posts and replies

-      small group discussions


Most students, most of the time, are seriously engaged in the lesson or assessment activity, rather than going through the motions. Students display sustained interest and attention.


-      embeds (games, flash objects)

-      quizzes

-      badges

-      role-playing games (RPGs)

-      connecting with schools from around the world

-      PBL

-      back-channel

-      24/7 learning

High expectations

High expectations of all students are communicated, and conceptual risk taking is encouraged and rewarded.


-      feedback loop (goals/medals/missions)

-      badges

-      assignments (resubmit, comments, annotations)

-      gradebook

-      parent accounts

-      links to resources/model responses

-      embeds (how to vids)

-      peer-assessment

Social support

There is strong positive support for learning and mutual respect among teachers and students and others assisting students’ learning. The classroom is free of negative personal comment or put-downs.


-      notes (discussions; replies)

-      peer-assessment

-      direct messages with teacher

-      small groups

-      sharing found resources (links and embeds)

Students’ self-regulation

Students demonstrate autonomy and initiative so that minimal attention to the disciplining and regulation of student behaviour is required.


-      calendar (PBL)

-      student back-pack (cloud storage)

-      resources and activities accessible online 24/7

-      applying feedback from peers and teacher

-      assignments

Student direction

Students exercise some direction over the selection of activities related to their learning and the means and manner by which these activities will be done.


-      shared folders of resources

-      quizzes

-      embedded games/flash objects

-      polls (what shall we do)

-      PBL

-      links

-      video

-      cloud storage (back-pack, google docs)

Background knowledge

Lessons regularly and explicitly build from students’ background knowledge, in terms of prior school knowledge as well as other aspects of their personal lives.


-      polls for prior knowledge

-      quizzes for prior knowledge

-      online discussions

Cultural knowledge

Lessons regularly incorporate the cultural knowledge of diverse social groupings (such as economic class, gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, disability, language and religion).


-      connecting with students in other countries

-      bring in experts from other cultures

-      embed videos

-      add links

Knowledge integration

Lessons regularly demonstrate links between and within subjects and key learning areas.


-      cross-KLA groups (“essay-writing”)

-      badges (what are they mastering in other KLA?)

-      PBL

-      polls/quizzes for connections

-      videos


Lessons include and publicly value the participation of all students across the social and cultural backgrounds represented in the classroom.


-      24/7 online access to resources and discussion

-      back-channels

-      small groups for differentiation

-      calendar

-      badges

-      assignments (feedback, comments, resubmit)


Lesson activities rely on the application of school knowledge in real-life contexts or problems, and provide opportunities for students to share their work with audiences beyond the classroom and school.


-      connect with other schools

-      small groups for interests (sport, hobbies, music, celebrations)

-      edmodo as workshop and blog as showcase

-      public edmodo posts/page for easy blogging/audience


Lessons employ narrative accounts as either (or both) a process or content of lessons to enrich student understanding.


-      embedded videos

-      embedded flash objects like xtranormal

-      RPG – teacher as historical figure/thinker/character

-      students tell stories as posts

The Hotdogs and CoolBananas3000 show!

On Friday my two sons stayed home from school. Neither was sick, it was just one of those mornings where it was easier to have them at home with me than it was to get them to school. Maybe you’ve had one of those mornings or maybe you’re judging me to be a slack parent, either way my boys stayed at home on Friday.

Their preferred activity for the day was gaming – of course – and their preferred game was Minecraft. After about an hour of them gaming independently (OK, they may have briefly jumped on a server together, but mostly they were gaming separately), I decided that if they were to spend more time on Minecraft they’d have to produce something that I could show their dad, lol. So they got to work creating the first five episodes of their YouTube series: Hotdog & Bananas Multiplayer Survival Series.

They are keen to have an audience for their videos and so I promised that I would blog about them. It was great fun watching how seriously they took their videos and how quickly they became more comfortable in their digital identities – initially my eldest son (Hotdog) was nervous and concerned about small mistakes made. I loved hearing my youngest son (Bananas) being very forceful in his wish that the series contain his full gamer name ‘Cool Bananas 3000′ because that is what he is ‘known’ as on YouTube – he has his own YouTube channel, lol.

Here are their vids … the second one is a little grainy as I think Hotdogs potentially exported it the wrong size … oh well, it’s a learning curve! I’m sure they’d both love a comment or thumbs up if you enjoy their episodes … of course I can appreciate that you may not want to endure more than a few minutes! Oh, no – that’s not nice, is it? Haha. Enjoy!

Taking a break from social media …

One month ago I posted the image below to my Instagram account. The responses were to be expected from friends who are similarly connected 24/7 to a variety of social media apps – they were shocked and unsure of my motives for giving the finger to social media … even temporarily. I guess my text speaks for itself in regards to my motives … I needed to escape the connection to something that felt ‘other’ than the real world.

It is a curious world we First World kids inhabit. We spend much of our lives working in order to pay bills and purchase stuff we feel is important, and then we we come home we spend much of our time online accessing information, entertainment and connecting with people. For me it was the latter that preoccupied the majority of my time – even when I was at work. There are many, many stretches of writing that praise this connectedness and seek to inspire others to similarly connect. I have written a few stretches about it myself, right here on this blog. But the thing I haven’t read much about, and have never written about, is the need to disconnect.

A couple of years ago I was given the book ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ to read. It was a purposeful lending because the person who offered it to me could see me sinking under the weight of my connections. It took me two years (after reading the book) to finally feel the burden of social media threaten to break me.

So what was the metaphorical straw that broke me? Questions. Each day, through a variety of platforms, I would be asked and would ask questions. What about? Anything really, but mostly education related stuff. My incessant question-asking, my eagerness to know and try new things simply garnered answers and further questions (from me and from the people I am connected to). Then there were the questions directed at me from people interested in things I have said or done and shared via social media. I felt pressured and strung-out. The world got really busy. The world got really noisy and I wanted it to shhhhhhhhhhh.

Another thing was sharing. This is super obvious – after all it is the human desire to share our experiences, our struggles, our joy, that is the backbone of social media. I had (and have) multiple platforms for sharing my thoughts and experiences – twitter, facebook, edmodo, email, texting, foursquare, my blog and instragram were the main places I left the marks of my existence for others to ponder and respond to. Of course this is no one-way street, I commented on the marks left by others but – like all good conversations – this results in a follow-up comment and you are hooked. You will revisit that mark to see if another share is there. And you will revisit often and unconsciously. You are drawn back without even understanding why. And I was drawn back to these multiple platforms repeatedly each day until there was barely a breath that was not filled with a thought or an experience shared. And it was overwhelming. I wanted it to shhhhhhhh.

So I did it. I deleted all of the apps off my phone. That was a huge step for me. The phone, I think, was the clincher. If it was all just web-based stuff I know I could escape – after all I have a couple of kids so I’m often not in the house and hooked up to my mac. The phone and its connectivity meant I never could escape the questions and the sharing. I spent so much time looking down at the tiny touch screen that I forgot to look up and at the world. I know this isn’t the experience of everyone, but for me it got to the stage where everything I did, every thought I had, needed an audience bigger than just me and my mind. Weird. So I got rid of it all, I closed this blog and spent a month on ‘hiatus’. Well, I guess I didn’t disconnect entirely – I still emailed, texted, used edmodo and occasionally facebooked. I guess for me there is no complete silence.

And what was the result of my forced escape? I thought more. I read more. I sat with my boys and watched them play games, I kicked the footy around and played cricket. I read and I listened. I didn’t fill every breath and every silence with my words. Even now I can’t think what to write. What was it about that time away that I value so much? I think it was the solitude. It’s the experience of being disconnected, of not knowing and not needing to know what everyone is doing and thinking right now. That was hard in the first week – feeling left out and unsure – and then by the second week I felt empowered. I was excited about doing something alone – mentally alone – and enjoying that it was my moment and not yours. No one needed to say anything about the Chai I was enjoying and they didn’t need to reassure me if my day had started badly. I had to think for myself. I hope it continues.

Mental solitude is just as powerful – if not more so – than physical solitude. I encourage you to try it some day.

A 5 week ‘Wuthering Heights’ project (saving my arse).

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m teaching Wuthering Heights this term. I also have to teach the poetry of Keats to the same group of kids … and it’s my first time teaching both. I have found that using PBL (particularly the use of check-lists, drafts, plans and feedback) with this class has produced some high quality, original compositions from students who may ordinarily rely on ‘spoon-feeding’ and teacher ideas.

Instead of spending hours ‘up-skilling’ myself before my lesson tomorrow (cos let’s face it, when you’re teaching the very top students in your school you get a bit panicked about looking like the true holder of all knowledge), I’ve decided to create a mini-project for my students. Basically it’s just an outline of what they need to know by the end of our 5 week study of Wuthering Heights … and maybe the expectation that this knowledge is self-generated and presented on a webpage for the world to see. The project outline will hopefully give my students a vision of where we are heading … it becomes their learning goals for the duration of our novel study.

Anyway, if it freaks them out (which I know it will because what they need to know about this text looks fair epic!) I think that’s a good thing … better than them spending five weeks chatting about the novel, reading and viewing stuff about it and then at the end going, ‘What do I need to know for the Trials, Miss?’. But really – the project outline is for me. A glorified worksheet. Now I don’t need to teach anything at all. It’s all up to them.

Here is the project outline:

Gaming, ethics and the new responsibility of parents

A week or so ago I wrote a series of tweets about my seven year-old playing the video game, Assassin’s Creed. I was tweeting about how much I enjoyed sitting with him whilst he played. I’m not a gamer, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I probably never will be. But just cos I’m not a gamer doesn’t mean I know nothing about gaming. I’ll get back to this point in a little bit. My tweets prompted a response from a very savvy and generous educator who I have much time for, Andrew Miller. He was keen to chat further about my thoughts on gaming and how I engage with games as a mum and a teacher. As a consequence, I sent an email to Andrew and promised him a follow-up blog post. Below is the email I sent to Andrew and then my further reflections on this issue … one I am thinking much more seriously about as my two sons develop a greater love of video games and the world of gaming. 

Hi Andrew,

I haven’t got much for you except to recount the experience I had with Balin, my seven year old.

He loves to play video games and was happily playing Assassin’s Creed whilst I sat on the lounge with him writing chapters for a book on spelling, lol. He always gets so excited about playing and loves to ask me to watch things he can do. I love watching the cut scenes which he says are boring – haha. I like to ask him questions about his actions whilst he plays to check that he is comprehending the cause and effect of actions in the game – especially violent ones. He was telling me that the guards were bad guys and I asked why. He told me they were protecting a bad king who was stealing children and trying to destroy an innocent land. We chatted about guards in ‘our world’ and if they were good guys or bad guys. He could tell me a lot about corruption and abuse of power – even if not in those words. I think the game he’s playing might shock some parents because it is violent, I think they would ‘ban’ the games but that isn’t the right course of action in my opinion because the young people miss out on some super important real world knowledge and skills. Balin was saying before, ‘They’re running away from me because they think I’m bad but I haven’t done anything wrong’. I asked him why they might think he is bad, and he said, ‘Because I am an assassin from another country’ and I said, ‘How do they know this?’ he could tell me it was because of the way he dressed and behaved – his character also has a different accent. This was a great way to start talking about prejudice based on appearance etc. I hate violence and some of the actions make me sick to hear the sounds but I don’t stop him playing – I just talk to him about the behaviours and how they might differ in our real world.

Pretty valuable opportunity to discuss ethics. From a video game. How many parents sit and talk about the morality of people’s actions in films that they are watching as a family? Probably not as often. I think teachers could easily bring video games into the classroom as an opportunity to discussion decision-making and morality.

There is always a lot of talk about violence in popular culture. We know that violence is nothing new – it has always been part of the human experience and no doubt always will be. What seems to upset some is that this violence is now exposed daily to our children in their ‘virtual play’ through video games, online, television and films. People seem to forget that our perception of ‘the child’ has been reshaped dramatically since the 18th century thanks to those wonderful advocates of childhood, William Blake and Charles Dickins. We have a very clinical, almost anesthetised view of the child – their innocence is a given and we assume that there is a level of ‘purity’ which young people must retain until it is socially acceptable to ‘break out’ – around about 15 or 16 is acceptable for most people. But I think innocence and purity have been misconstrued and we now actually see children as impressionable, vulnerable, weak, needing guidance and protection. What an epic fail! Kids are resilient, clever, creative, witty, strategic thinkers and epic problem solvers. Conflict is central to human experience. If we spend all of our childhood having adults ‘conflict avoid’ on our behalf, how will we learn to be understanding, empathetic, critical and resilient adults?

I used to worry about my boys playing video games that were too violent. I even had a mini-meltdown when Balin was playing Skyrim and had the responsibility of deciding whether to assassinate a villager or spare his life. It distressed me greatly that my 7 year old was making these decisions without me there to talk it through with him. And there is the clincher! Parents have a massive responsibility to co-game with their kids. It doesn’t need to be immersive co-gaming – although this would be (and is) a fun and rewarding experience for both parents and children – but can be as simple as sitting with your child whilst they game and chat about what’s happening. Why did they make the decision to kill that thing or person? What is their character’s place within the wider game world? Who are their enemies and allies? Why? Why are there more male characters than female? Are children powerful or powerless in the game world?

Like I said in my email to Andrew, lots of parents allow their kids to watch films that have violence and fail to engage in any discussion about the causes and consequences of the behaviour of the protagonist/antagonist. I guess the same can be said for music videos in which women are all too frequently represented in an appalling, over-sexualised way. Do parents use these texts as an opportunity to discuss the valuing of women, power, gender stereotypes? Probably not. I know it sounds ridiculously geeky, but shouldn’t we be engaging our children in discussions about appropriate behaviour, right and wrong, social expectations, individuality … and more?

Of course, this also opens up the discussion about the new responsibilities of teachers. If our students are spending an increasing amount of their time (at home and at school) playing games, shouldn’t we feel obliged to engage with this form as well? We must concede that many parents will not engage with their children’s gaming. They may lack time or inclination. Surely this presents a need that teachers today must address? There is something really special about conversing with young people about the games they are playing. You should try it some time … even if you don’t play the game, get ‘em to explain it to you and make it your responsibility to ask questions that force them to think deeply about their gaming experiences. Maybe.

Video games are here to stay. They bring with them wonderful learning opportunities for your kids and for you as a parent. They also bring new parental responsibilities. If you’re willing to spend 50 or 70 bucks on a video game for your kid, do them a favour and spend some quality time with them learning how it works, watching them navigate the game world, the characters, the conflict … help them make the best decisions or at least think about the decisions they are making and why they are making them. Have fun with your children, laugh at their mistakes and cheer at their successes. I don’t game … I find it insanely frustrating and I spend too much time complaining … but I do know a fair bit about video games. How? My children taught me.

Habits of Mind and PBL

Last week the focus of #ozengchat was ‘critical thinking’. I couldn’t participate in all of the chat (I was out walking my dogs in the dark, and yes – that did end up with poop on my shoes) but I did tweet out a few strategies/tools that I use in my PBL classroom to facilitate critical thinking. I suppose I could have been a brat and just said ‘PBL = critical thinking’ and left it at that. But that’d be a bit mean, huh? So the three things that I did contribute were this:

1. The KWL table. Every teacher has heard of this. Maybe you haven’t used one in a class, but you know what one is. My students use a KWL table at least once a week. Our projects are structured around them. What do I mean? Well the very first thing my students to when they are introduced to a new project is to determine ‘What I Know’ (this is testing for prior-knowledge to ensure we don’t repeat stuff unnecessarily), then after reading the project outline they ask ‘What do I Want to Know’. We usually play a fun game called ‘Speed KWLing’ that I made up. (I explain it at point 3 in this post here). At the end of the project students reflect on ‘What I Learned’ during the project. Of course, I often use this structure for each stage of a project too – that means students complete a minimum of THREE KWL tables for each project – one for the investigation, one for the product and one for the presentation.

2. Geoff Petty’s goals/medals/missions checklist. This is an idea that I discovered whilst researching for my Draft Research Proposal. I read Geoff Petty’s famous book Evidence Based Teaching and was really keen on this idea of structuring learning experiences using the Goals/Medals/Mission system. You can read about it here. I have my students set their learning goals at the beginning of each lesson and then they reflect on their learning at the end by giving themselves ‘medals’ and ‘missions’. I have embedded this structure into assessment handouts as well because I think it’s super important to give students a checklist of what is expected of them for each product. You can see some of the checklists I’ve created here and Petty has sample feedback proformas on his site here. Of course, we need to keep in mind that flexibility for creative interpretation of a task is needed.

3. Habits of Mind(HOM). When I was at ISTE last year one of the keynote speakers was Stephen Covey. If you don’t know who he is, you probably have heard of his book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ – I hear it was a big seller in the 1990s, lolz. Well you may not know, but he recently wrote a book about education The Leader in Me—How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time. This was the focus of his keynote and it really was inspiring. It made me think about how I use Art Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind for the same purpose – to get students to think about their thinking! Having a good understanding of how you can control your own habits of mind is super important for students as they participate in project-learning experiences. For success in PBL students need to be fully conscious of their learning behaviours and how their habits of mind can hinder or help them succeed in the project. In my school my HT has chosen four of Costa’s 16 HOM to have our students focus on this term. I refer to these each lesson and students are starting to understand how something like ‘Listening with Empathy’ is important to master if you are going to be a great audience member, peer-assessor or speaker.

Cory MacDonald (@MrCoryMac) is a teacher from Newcastle who popped up on my twitter radar a few months back. He’s a man of mystery because he doesn’t tweet much and isn’t bothered about following too many people – he wants twitter to be useful and manageable and totally respect that. Cory came to my attention when he tweeted me his blog post about learning spaces – he had adapted some of the ideas I had posted here to make them work for him and his students. I must confess I am super envious of his space, it is just epic. So it’s not just the learning spaces that he has put to work, Cory has also adapted my use of edmodo, classDojo and Habits of Mind. To be honest, Cory has taken my ‘meh’ ideas and transformed them into complete, workable and beautiful ideas. His blog is like a secret treasure trove of AWESUM and I recommend you all read the posts he has written this year here.

The things I got the most excited about was Cory’s most recent post about learning management (I hate the expression ‘classroom management’ – for me ‘management’ is all about managing the projects well and using strong structures to enhance the potential for students’ success). You can read his post here.  My favourite quote is ‘Structure is about consistency not uniformity‘. This is very true! What I also love is how his focus is on personalising reward-systems to motivate students to develop better Habits of Mind. Just like me, he has selected a small number of Habits of Mind that his students will ‘master’ in Term 1. Like me he decided to use ClassDojo to award student points for demonstrating these positive Habits of Mind. Like me, he has linked the Dojo points to ‘awards’ that students can attain. Unlike me, he has personalised the award system to make them appealing, fun and relevant for his students. Unlike me, he has created beautiful posters that not only give visual cues for each Habit of Mind but he has also added a series of tools that students can use to ensure success at mastering this Habit of Mind. The man is a genius! I love that he has negotiated with his students the types of rewards they would like to work towards – Zombie Escape looks amazing! This is Student Voice at its best! I’m really looking forward to discussing with my students their chosen rewards – it could get crazy! I wish I could make pretty posters, I can’t. But I can set the task for my students to do it for me! Here are the first three of Cory’s Habits of Mind posters:

Please note that these posters belong entirely to him and it is super cool of him to share them with us. Please, feel free to use them in your classroom and in your school, but attribute him as the creator – attribution goes a long way in 2012!

That’s all from me – hope some of these strategies might come in handy at some point for you, even if you’re not doing PBL!

The draft NSW English K-10 Syllabus: more than a textbook

My new role at CLIC has me engaging daily with the current draft version of the new English K-10 Syllabus. After a couple of weeks of doing not much else but reading and talking about the new and changed content to the syllabus, I reckon I could call myself a bit of an expert. And as a self-proclaimed expert I just want to say this: the syllabus, just like all the others that preceded it, is NOT a textbook! It does not advocate teaching from a textbook, it does not advocate teaching from the front of the classroom, it does not advocate for worksheets and it does not advocate for teachers to use resources created by others. It is a document that is entirely focused on the student. It is a document FOR students – because guess what? They are the reason for our being.

Today I got sent an email from a publisher (not one of my publishers, of course) that invited me and my English teacher colleagues to an evening discussing the new Australian Curriculum: English and their latest series of textbooks. They forced my hand. I had to write this post. You ALL need to know this: we teachers in NSW  DO NOT teach the Australian Curriculum! We teach the syllabus of our state – the one written by the Board of Studies! Currently version two of the draft English K-10 Syllabus it is in consultation – you need to read through it and speak up! Go to a consultation event or write an email to the board if you don’t agree with something that is in the current draft. Use the links on the BOS site here to either register for a consultation or complete the survey giving your feedback on the draft. THIS is where YOU are empowered as an English teacher. You should NOT be attending meetings with publishers to discuss the Australian Curriculum – the content of the AC has been carefully embedded into the NSW Syllabus, this content is required content – we have to teach it – but it must NOT be decontextualised.

I really am worried about English teachers rushing out to buy an armful of resources that have been published hastily in response to the Australian Curriculum: English without any engagement with the state Syllabus. This is dangerous, indeed. Who wants their own children (and by that I mean the children you were responsible for bringing into the world) to be sat down in front of a textbook and/or whiteboard (interactive or not, I don’t give a shit) and ‘taught’ the ‘basics’ of grammar, spelling, complex punctuation, word origins and the consolidation of handwriting? No one! But guess what will happen if we desperately snatch up the latest textbook or teacher-manual from the bookshop shelves? You will have your child (yeah, the one with the big smile and the inquiring mind, the one who loves to be challenged by science fiction films and video games, the one who spends half a day burning bugs with a magnifying class or dancing in the sun to no music, yeah – that child) sitting in front of a textbook and/or whiteboard and being ‘taught’ the ‘basics’ of grammar, spelling, complex punctuation, word origins and the consolidation of handwriting. Why? Because that’s the stuff that these writers will pull out of the Australian Curriculum: English. That’s the stuff we English teachers are being sold as the new way to teach English because it is ‘in the curriculum’. Those things are in there, but they don’t make up the bulk of the document. There are so many wonderful new opportunities being presented to use English teachers with the introduction of this new syllabus. So please, look to the Syllabus and think how you can make some cool stuff for your students. Don’t rely on a textbook. By all means, buy them cos nearly all writers have some gems to share with their readers. Just don’t believe the hype that we will be teaching just the Australian Curriculum: English and don’t believe the hype that it’s all about grammar, spelling and punctuation taught in a decontextualised way. It’s not.

NOTE: I am a published author of a number of Excel books. My books are on NAPLAN (yup, that evil test) and the HSC Standard English course (yup, that other evil test). I have recently completed draft chapters for another book for a different publisher that engages with aspects of the new Syllabus – however it will NOT be published until after the final version of the Syllabus has been decided upon. Most importantly, that book treats the new and changed content in the context of responding to and composing texts. This post is NOT an advertisement for my textbooks(s) nor is it an attempt to discredit the super hard work of other writers. I just want you, English teachers, to engage with the NSW English K-10 Syllabus. It really is important.