A fortnight of visual learning

The last couple of weeks have been a bit manic. Lots of teaching highs that have been obscures by lots of administrative (and personal) lows. My year 12 students continue to push their thinking about Orwell’s significance, my year 7s have loved every minute of Winton’s ‘Lockie Leonard’ and my year 10 students have shown a growing appreciation for poetry. On the flip side I’ve been dealing with the death of a colleague, the grinding reality of traditional assessment and reporting as well as completing far too many forms about photocopying and printing. It’s just been a weird ride and as a result, I haven’t felt compelled to write anything meaningful. I have, however, been collecting visuals from Twitter and Facebook – these images, I think, track my thinking and learning over the last ten days or so. I only just realised that I’ve been an unconscious bowerbird; stealing the gems of wisdom others have captured through well-selected images and groovy fonts. Can I just say this, THANK YOU. They helped. They inspired me, challenged me, made me laugh. I, sadly, haven’t been considerate enough to record who each image belongs to. Do me a favour? Claim ownership by commenting below?




































Using design to hook my students into their project

One of the best parts of PBL is the hook lesson (or the project launch, whatever you wanna call it). I know it’s dumb to think that the very first lesson is the best part, but seriously they are as memorable as the concluding celebration of learning but with WAY less anxiety, and therefore honestly more fun.

Year 7 are currently working on a project that engages them with the highs and lows of transitioning from childhood to being a teenager. They’re reading the Tim Winton novel Lockie Leonard: Human Torpedo and will be creating a website to help year 6 students in NZ and Perth to support them in their impending transition. Designing a hook lesson for this project was tricky; I wanted them to be engaged in the ideas of the project, but I also wanted them to have fun and think critically. I still can’t remember how I came up with the idea I ended up going with, so if you suggested it to me, you should totally claim it by adding a comment below.

Students came into class and were put into teams of four – two boys and two girls. On the board I wrote the following:

photo(36)Each team was given a variety of building materials (just a bunch of random things that I could find in the staffroom), making sure each team has the same amount of each material.

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.48.17 PMI set the online countdown timer to 20 minutes and left them to it. The class was loud with designing – loud! There was also quiet focus and excited sharing of ideas. I loved watching the different ways in which my students approached this task. I walked around the room and gave encouragement to teams, but mostly I stepped back. They certainly didn’t need my ideas – it was an ideas factory in there! When you think about it, this is a really, really hard task. It requires students to think critically about what they know about the experiences of teenagers – the good and the bad – and then think creatively about how these experiences can be represented metaphorically through the elements of a theme park. Oh, and add to that the need to actually create these elements from very basic materials, under the pressure of a ticking clock and negotiating the ideas of peers. Tough!

After 20 minutes, this is what students presented:

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.48.36 PMSome of my favourite elements of the designs were these:

- a rollercoaster that represents the emotional ups and downs of teenagers

- the mega-drop that represented being dumped by your boyfriend/girlfriend

- dodgem cars that represent fights with parents and teachers

- a ferris wheel that symbolised school achievement: sometimes you’re on the top and sometimes you’re on the bottom

- maps discarded on the group symbolised the refusal of teenagers to follow an established path

- a kiosk where you can buy stupid things because that’s what teenagers often spend their money on

- the giant swing which represents the mood swings of teens

- a haunted house that symbolised the anxiety and fears experienced by teens regarding school achievement

- a tug of war between teenager children and their parents

The day after this lesson, one of my students if we could build something else cool. He’d obviously enjoyed this creative design activity! I was really impressed with not only the designs if my students, but the ideas that they presented. This will definitely put them in good stead for the rest of this project!

Involve me and I learn…

Last Thursday was, officially, one of my most memorable days as a teacher. Ever. It was terrifying but awesome. After five weeks of studying the essays of the marvelous George Orwell, my year 12 students were ready (sort of) to complete the first part of their Module B project – participating in a debate about Orwell as an essayist in front of Australia’s top Orwell scholar, Dr Peter Marks, author of George Orwell The Essayist. Pretty intimidating, right? I confessed to my students (after their debates were over) that I could never do what they had done. They were truly, truly amazing.

The project’s driving question is ‘What would Orwell have to say about our world today?’ and students were required to participate in a debate and write a personal essay answering the above driving question. I know it seems weird doing PBL with year 12, but for me and my students it is natural. They are used to the pressure of sharing their learning with an audience beyond the classroom. Obviously they were still freaked out before the debate last week – they were well aware of who Dr Marks is and what he has contributed to the study of Orwell’s essays in particular. So, how did I manage to get Dr Marks at my school? Did I pay him? Nope. I just emailed him and asked. We had been in contact way back in 2009 when I discovered that he had written his PhD on Orwell’s essays and organised to meet him at Sydney Uni so I could photocopy his (entire) thesis. Asking Peter to come to my school was risky, I figured he’d be too busy… but he happily fit us into his busy schedule! How cool is that?

On the day, my students spoke passionately and confidently for their team’s position – arguing whether Orwell was a rebel, saint, prophet or common man. Peter was so generous in his praise for my students, letting them know their speaking skills were superior to those of many university students and encouraging them to enroll to study at Sydney Uni. You can imagine the delight of my students! The value of his visit went beyond praise of my students, as he shared so much of his knowledge about Orwell as a writer, person and thinker that will certainly help my students not only in their HSC but in life – seriously, Orwell was one amazing human being. I will always be grateful to Peter for giving up his time to support my students’ learning. His visit allowed me to see my students in a new light, as young learners distinct from HSC students. This is a powerful thing.

Finally, it was super, super, super cool to have one of my students tweet me to share with me her thoughts about PBL and learning after the debate:



Pitching serious games is serious business

Over the last six weeks my year 9 gaming students have been working hard researching, planning, designing and preparing to pitch their serious video game idea to game designer, Dave Kidd. You can read about the project here. To begin the project, I showed my class a game review by Hex and Bajo on Good Game. It is a review of the video game Papo and Yo which I found particularly moving when I saw it review. It uses the video game form to communicate a powerful message about alcoholism and its impact on children. You can see the review here.

We spent time in class discussing the role of video games in wider society and how they have the potential to do good. Students worked in small teams to brainstorm a range of issues that need action or advocacy in our world. From this list, each team selected an issue they would like to design a serious game around. They then researched the issue to develop their appreciation for the seriousness of the issue as well as what they wanted their game to communicate and to whom. The issues students selected were wide-ranging: youth homelessness, kidnapping, bullying, teenage drug use, suicide, childhood innocence and racism. The next part was more complex, but also more creative. Each team had to brainstorm and then work-up their game elements: narrative, genre, sounds, objectives, feedback, resources, graphic style etc. I also asked them to consider their audience, the message of their game and organisations who would be interested in publishing their game.

I am a complete newbie when it comes to game design, so a lot of these aspects I had to teach myself via YouTube and other online sources. In order to give some expertise (and credibility) to the project, I invited Dave Kidd to speak to my class about his experiences with game design. Dave has designed the popular text-based zombie adventure game Zafe House Diaries which is available on Steam. His insight into the challenges of designing a video game – from the early stages of narrative to the finer details of coding images – was inspiring for my students. One student told me afterwards the he was going to start his own game design company. It was nice to also have some reassurance that I wasn’t completely off track with my expectations for what students would need to prepare for their pitch! The cool thing was that Dave agreed to come back and hear my students’ serious game design pitches. Having an expert from outside of the school who actually works in the field of gaming as a designer was so powerful for my students’ learning. My students have two weeks between hearing Dave speak and when he would return to get their pitches ready. In that time I ensured each team presented a ‘draft’ pitch to the class and received feedback and feedforward from me, Gerard (the awesome uni student doing his honours research on my gaming class) and from their peers. The class took this really seriously and all teams improved as a result of the feedback they received.

The big day came about and I was just as scared as my students. I knew that the teams were prepared to varying degrees yet this is part of the learning process. During the team pitches, I was truly proud of what all teams had achieved. They all took the project super seriously and had developed some interesting and original concepts for their serious games. Ultimately the two most effective pitches were from the only to teams of girls! I loved this so much, as it really affirms my belief that gaming is not a male-exclusive domain and that the creativity and innovative thinking of girls can (and do) bring something unique and powerful to the gaming world. The most effective pitch was for a game called ‘Through the Streets’ which gives the player insight into the causes and effects of youth homelessness. The runner-up team had a really creative game call ‘In The Dark’ which explores the consequences of parents failing to be honest with their children in an attempt to (naively) protect their innocence. I really loved the ideas for both of these games but what made them so successful was the time put into fully realising each concept as a game that truly has potential to be made, as well as a game that would have a profound effect on the player.

Below are the comments that Dave emailed me about the top three games. I have to admit, his high praise of my students brought tears to my eyes. This course has caused me a lot of heartache in the last term (Am I doing games justice? Am I too serious? I don’t know anything!) so it was cool to have someone from outside of the school appreciate and value my students’ learning.

The most notable was Through the Streets. Out of all the ideas, this was easiest to imagine as a final game. The conventional, RPG-like system is well suited to the issue — homelessness is about tough decisions, constrained choices, survivability, risk-taking and development — and this idea is such an obvious fit that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done by the serious game dev crowd. The little touches, like the radio, are really clever and give it a kind of ‘indie charm’. I genuinely hope they continue with it.

Next is In the Dark. The through-the-looking-glass idea is great (and it’s interesting to see how this theme was in other presentations too), and I’m impressed at how thoroughly they fleshed out the concept, resources, assets etc. I’ve no doubt that there’s a complete game floating around in their heads, and they seem to be so organised that they could probably pull it off.

But unlike Through the Streets, I didn’t get the sense that the gameplay really connected with the project’s goal (the ‘serious game’ aspect was mostly contained in the theme – the gameplay seemed like an action game talking to magical creatures). But my god, this might be the first game to have a ‘hug’ button! Extra points for that.

The third notable one was Trail Blazer. There were a lot of really interesting things about this. Multiple endings, for example, is something few designers think of, but is really important (I think) for serious games. The nod to Oregon Trail is surprising – it’s a very old game, but very excellent and suitable. They also mentioned something about how your actions in one scenario can influence the next scenario – again, this really fits with serious games (ie, there are consequences). They were also the only team to put together a kind of prototype — the MS Paint style graphics were actually pretty cool — and I’m still blown away that it was written in batch code.

This feels like a classic indie punk game from the 80s, with the kind of content you’d expect from high school boys. I think it’s kinda great to be honest. And it’s quite straightforward to make, especially for these guys. I’d love to see them do it!

I will endeavour to post students’ PPTs and websites here so you can read more about their serious games.




Using music to engage year 10 students with poetry

My emo poetry project is an oldie but a goodie. I’m on to my third time teaching it and even though I’m doing things slightly different (as we always should), it’s still the idea of exploring poetry through popular music that makes it a success. OK, it’s only three lessons in but I still reckon it’s gonna be a success.

Here’s the project outline (it’s evolved a bit since I first created it, drafts and more drafts as I get things to a happy standard to be published):

EMOS-PUNKS-PROJECT-OUTLINE2So, I just want to record here the activities that my students have been working on as a kind of extended hook lesson… it’s gone over three lessons. The first lesson students were shown 6 different music videos – three songs were ‘punk’ and three were ‘emo’, of course I didn’t tell my students that. As they listened to each song, students had to write down three things: what did the song make you feel, what did it make you think and what did it make you imagine. Below are the music videos that students watched:

Each student was asked to read out their ideas about one of the six songs, and there was some great insight shared with one student suggesting that ‘God Save the Queen’ made them imagine the whole of society going up in flames. The next lesson I put students in their teams and each team was given a brainstorming strategy and either ‘emo’ or ‘punk’ as their topic. The strategies were starbursting (creating a series of questions about their topic using who, what, when, where and why question starters), brain dump (just a spider diagram dumping everything they know, or think they know, about the topic) and visual representation (creating an annotated picture of an emo or a punk). The team with the questions read them out and they other two teams looked at their ideas to see if they could answer them, if they couldn’t then those questions were added to our project ‘need to know’ list. The visual representation teams showed us their images and explained them – so fun.

The next activity was hard but important… I made my students step away from stereotypes based on behaviour and fashion (let’s face it, a lot of their ideas about people, especially sub-cultures like emo and punk, come from what they see on the surface) and to consider attitudes and values. I asked them, as a class, to come up with five key characteristics of emos and punks. This is where I want them to go because they will be applying these characteristics to poets who can be classifies loosely as either punk or emo. I did the famous ‘stand and wait’ for this activity… I didn’t tell them what to say, I didn’t fill the awkward silence with my own ideas, I just gave them time to think and respond. It was so powerful – you can see their insightful ideas below:


Finally, the last activity involved going back to the songs they listened to in the first lesson and focusing on the lyrics. In their teams, they were given the lyrics of one of the songs (emo or punk) and had to try and identify where the above characteristics were evident to justify why the song may be classified as emo or punk. Really hard, right? Yeah… but it’s such a good first step towards thinking critically about poetry. My class is still working on this task… so I’ll see how it goes. And, yeah… that’s been a great start to what I think is a great project.

A textbook approach to cross-KLA literacy

Well, that title sounds like a pun, but in fact it’s quite literal. If you’ve known me for a while, or you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you will know that for the last 7 years I’ve been writing textbooks. My oeuvre (lol) consists of the Standard HSC English Study Guide, Year 9 NAPLAN Revise in a Month, Year 9 NAPLAN style literacy tests, three chapters in Language Investigations (on the Language of Orwell, the Language of Video Games and the Language of Involvement: Fan Fiction, Blogs and Social Media) and the latest book (and what this post will be about) Years 7-8 Writing and Spelling Workbook. It’s probably surprising to some that I write books like this, but I’ll be 100% honest when I say that I put my heart into writing those books and do my best to be as forward-thinking in them as I try to be with this blog and in my classroom. The focus of this blog post is to present you with a way in which a textbook (the Years 7-8 Writing and Spelling Workbook, in fact) can support literacy across the school whilst also helping to support and even strengthen project-based learning in your school. I’ll just let you know right now, my position is that literacy (and numeracy) are NOT the sole responsibility of one faculty – all faculties require and desire highly literate students. I’ll acknowledge that often it may seem hard to incorporate literacy lessons into your non-English classroom – to be honest, it’s often hard for English teachers to do this as we are responsible for teaching much, much more than just reading and writing – but it is essential that all teachers do this at some point. You’ll note that my book’s title is not ‘English Workbook’ – that’s because it’s a literacy book and can, and should, be used by all faculties.

If you look at the preview of the Years 7-8 Writing and Spelling Workbook here, you will get a sense of how it is structured. Essentially it is a book designed to support students as they work through the process of writing 12 different types of texts. I love the word process and I love that this book focuses on the process more than on the end product – aligning beautifully with my vision for project-based learning. The 12 different types of texts fit under a category umbrella – either persuasive, imaginative or informative. These categories are those outlined in the Australian Curriculum and thus the NSW English Syllabus, but what they do is they allow us to see which texts may be more appropriate for different faculties. I will argue here that English shouldn’t be the only faculty that engages in imaginative writing – I imagine that this would be helpful for History, Geography and even Science.

Each chapter poses a question for the students to answer and in doing so they must compose an extended piece of writing – very similar to how PBL works in my class. Admittedly, the questions aren’t PBL questions, they’re not meant to be. They are designed to lead students through the process of writing a type of text (including blog posts, research reports, narrative poems, persuasive speeches and argument essays) including the planning, looking at the relevant language features, learning the spelling rules of words relevant to the type of text and engaging with work samples, both at an intermediate and an advanced level.

So how would this work as a cross-KLA literacy program? Simple. Each faculty would take on the responsibility of ‘teaching’ a particular type of text. There are 12 in the book, as I said before, and because it is a stage based book (years 7-8) it could easily be assumed that each faculty only needs to be responsible for one type of text per year – pretty easy! So, for example, Science might choose to use the research report chapter with year 7 and the procedure chapter with year 8. History might choose to use the persuasive speech with year 7 and the biography chapters with year 8. Maths might choose the blog post with year 7 and the description with year 8 – why can’t students use figurative language in Maths to describe the beauty of a triangle or a parabola? PD/H/PE might be keen for year 7 students to write a narrative poem about a game of volley ball or eagle tag or year 8 might write a discussion essay about health-related stuff. Note, I’m no pro at PD/H/PE, or any other subject, can you tell? lol.

I think the reason I’m passionate about this book (like, I really actually am – have I written about any of my other books on this blog before this day?) is because it has the potential to transform how literacy learning is viewed in a school. The book is broken down into accessible parts with all of the spelling rules explained and with straight-forward activities. I don’t take any credit for the structure of the book and the nature of the activities – that was all designed by the amazing series editor, Kristine Brown. There is an answers section at the back for teachers who may be less than confident with the different between a connective and a conjunction or an adjective and an adverb. That’s totally fine – we can’t all know everything, except that we are all responsible for literacy and if we took a team approach to teaching it, I reckon our students would be so much better off.

Finally, what the heck do I mean when I say that this book can strengthen project-based learning in your school? Most projects end with students presenting their ideas to an audience  – usually persuasive or informative in nature. These types of presentations are enhanced by students understanding and applying the language features and structure of a number of types of persuasive and informative texts – there are eight in my book. Projects may require students to create a real-world product such as a research report, short story, poem, blog post or review – all of these are in the book. So when students are working on the ‘discover’ phase of learning in a project, teachers can make good use of a specific chapter in the book. Teachers may prefer to use a chapter in the ‘create’ phase, as students begin to focus on the process of creating their product for their audience. The chapters in the book DON’T give students a real-world audience or a real-world problem – that’s the teacher’s job (or the students’ job if you’re planning projects collaboratively as a class team). For me, it’s easy because my students are frequently composing products that reflect the real work of literary artists – writing and publishing stories and poems, reviewing films and video games and novels, writing weekly blog posts etc – and therefore this book fits seamlessly into how PBL functions in my English classroom. I can see a lot of very creative teachers – from all subject areas – using this book in the same way, to really support an embedded approach to literacy learning throughout project-based learning.

OK, so that was a first for me – flogging my book to my blog readers. It feels weird, but also good because, you know what, that book took me 18 months to write and I’m damn proud of it. I’ve used it with year 7 and they responded so well. Their appreciation for the writing process has improved significantly! One last thing, if you want to get a copy and see what I’m on about, you can probably get it from your local newsagent or bookstore (definitely from educational bookstores like Dominie) and of course you can buy it online, here. If you do buy it and use it with your students, let me know by commenting below. If there’s anything that needs to be improved, tell me, because I’m writing the years 9-10 version right now!

Paper based blogging with year 7

Yesterday, my very first lesson back for term, was awesome. This was SUCH a relief, because – as you might be aware from reading my last post – I have been a tad stressed about returning. The feedback from a lot of my lovely PLN was that I need to relax and have fun with my classes in the first week if I was to have a great term. Accidentally, my lesson yesterday embodied that wisdom. I had planned to allow my year 7s to have time writing their stories from last term, however I quickly realised that I had neglected to give them feedback on their drafts during the holiday – oops – and therefore I had to improvise a lesson.

This term my year 7 class will be blogging for their first project. I have connected our class with classes from the US, so that will give their writing an audience beyond the classroom. I decided to introduce them to the idea of blogging through paper blogging. Essentially I spent the first ten minutes generating discussion about blogs and why people write them as well as the key elements of a post and quality comments. For the latter we spent a bit of time discussing what was and wasn’t appropriate when commenting. They had great ideas and theses will become the class rules for comments. You can see them on the picture below.
I think gave students a piece of A4 paper and had them rule it up to look like a blog – it needed a blog title, a post title, a blog post of two paragraphs recounting something interesting they did in the holidays and then since for comments. When this was completed, students posted their ‘blogs’ to the WWW – the World Wide Whiteboard. They chose someone’s blog, took it to their desk and read it then commented. They did this about four times – reading the work of a range of peers and commenting using their rules.

This was such a fun activity and ALL students participated because it was non-threatening and interactive. I hope that it’s just as much fun blogging in the web, and if not maybe we’ll just go back to paper-based blogging!