Bell-work becomes ‘CrossWrit’ by Smed!

So, my last blog post has proven to be pretty popular! I guess we all struggle with the same problems – not enough time for students to write AND get through the content, plus some ‘dead time’ at the beginning of each lesson. I’m really stoked that so many teachers are embracing the idea of bell-work (or whatever each person chooses to call it), and my experience with my students this term has been awesome. I definitely have a stronger picture of each of them as writers now, and we have only done four tasks from the thirty I have created! I’ll write a post about my coding system to make marking super quick soon.

Obviously we aren’t all doing the same texts, and this has meant that teachers have had to modify the tasks to suit their students. One such awesome human is Matt Smedley – Smed on Twitter – who emailed me through the updated document he created for his kids, and was quite happy for it to be shared here with you all! I also love that he has called his activity ‘CrossWrit’- rhyming with CrossFit! Bet the kids think that’s pretty hilarious. I’m sure Matt has been stretching that analogy nicely with the kids as well, considering CrossFit is all about short bursts of high intensity activity done at regular intervals – so clever!

Anyway, if you want a copy of the document generously shared by Matt, you can download it here: CrossWrit! Thanks Matt, you rock! 😀 


Bell work: ensuring students write every lesson


This term I am going to be trialling bell work with my year 12 Advanced class to ensure they are writing something substantial under timed conditions every lesson. I actually thought the term ‘bell work’ was pretty common, but seems like it’s not given the response on Twitter. Below is the definition and process I will be giving to my students:


Basically, students will work on these mini writing tasks whilst I mark the role and log in to GSuite… just getting myself organised for the lesson. This time is usually just wasted as kids saunter in, chat to each other, muck around on their laptops and phones. I have had great success with my juniors reading quietly for the first 10 minutes of each lesson, and I wanted something similar to settle and focus year 12. I decided writing would be best because they need to master how to write in so many different ways under exam conditions for this new HSC, and really there isn’t much time for that. I also was inspired by Will Kostakis who once told me about his year 12 English teacher who made his class do 5 minutes of writing to start each lesson. I’m going with 10 minutes because it means we can practise short answer questions for Common Module worth up to 4 marks.

Below is a sample of what the slides look like.


I have made sure that all types of writing are covered (persuasive, analytical, discursive and imaginative) as well as all modules and texts. It took me about four hours to come up with the tasks, and some I adapted from the sample NESA papers and other websites.

If you want a copy, just click here [TERM 2 BELL WORK] and you can download the PDF version. It will probably need modifying as it’s unlikely you’ll be doing the same texts as me for the Advanced course: 1984, Donne and W;t, Henry IV. I’ll get back to you with how it goes!



Want a copy of my new book?

If you didn’t already know, I spend some of my time writing education books (mostly for Pascal Press and Hawker Brownlow Education) and materials (mostly for SBS). I really do love writing (that’s why I’ve started blogging again) and since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever publish a novel, education writing gives me an outlet. Last year saw me tied to my desk most mornings before school, on weekends and during the holidays. Why? I was (re)writing the Standard English Excel guide. I have been writing this book since 2007. This book (well, the first iteration) was my very first education book – I had sent off some sample writing to as many publishers as I could think of in mid 2007, and when Excel got back to me requesting I write a couple of chapters for their upcoming book, I wrote like a mad woman and had the first draft ready way before the deadline. They were impressed, and I ended up co-authoring the book, writing almost half of the content. When it came to update the book a few years later (new HSC prescriptions), I was the sole author and ploughed away into the night to get the book written. Back then I was younger and could stay up late. This time around I was working whilst the sun was rising.

Anyway, it turns out that not only am I sole author of the Standard Guide, but I am also co-author of the Advanced Guide, given that I wrote on every text for the Common Module, which accounts for almost a third of the book’s content. I always write more than I am meant to for these books, and my publishers freak out about the page count. I guess I just really enjoy analysing and writing about literature. Look, I know it’s not academic level stuff, but writing these books over the years has been (I can say now that my mental health is back) quite enjoyable. Reading through the book (just flicking, I’m not that egocentric), I actually can’t remember writing most of it, and it feels like something someone else has written it. When you’re working 12 hour days and trying desperately to make a deadline, you sort of go into autopilot mode. (Skip to end if you’re over my ‘Hey, I’m a writer’ ramblings and just want a free copy of my Standard Guide, lol).

So why am I writing this post? Well, earlier this term I received my author copies of these two new books. There really isn’t anything like opening a box of books you’ve written. Books smell lovely to me at the best of times, but the smell of these ones was like nothing I can explain. They smelt like time. Haha. So, as it goes, yesterday one of my favourite colleagues left (he got a HT job) and I was contemplating giving him a copy of my latest PBL book – it’s for English teachers and he’s a PE teacher, but I thought it could help him make friends with the English teachers at his new school (swap little old me for a new English-teacher friend, haha). I quickly realised that was a dumb idea (too embarrassing to give your own book as a present), but it made me think about the different books I have written since my first one was published in 2009. I thought I had written ten, but I don’t have a list anywhere, and I can only find eight books online, so it must be eight. I know they all felt pretty brutal to write (all my writer friends, or those who have written theses, will know what I mean), but I’m super proud of them all, and all for different reasons.

The NAPLAN ones I am sort of embarrassed by (since I don’t agree with how NAPLAN data has been used) but I did try really hard to include source texts that would challenge the ways students saw the world (and I maybe added my family members’ names throughout the questions). Writing those books was torture, and I won’t be doing it again.

The Writing and Spelling books are the ones that I think get the least credit for what they are – I poured my heart into those books, hoping that they would help young writers improve their craft. I worked with the formidable Kristine Brown (her little 7-10 English Guide was like a bible for me as a new English teacher), as my books were to replace/update her very successful series of writing guides. I don’t think they are very popular, and that makes me sad, because I think they would pair so well with high quality English PBL. I’m going to use them with my year 8s next term, so might report back on that.

Then there are my PBL books, which probably took even longer to write than my Excel HSC guides because I was a total perfectionist about what I was putting in, and how I wanted it all to be set out. I went through two publishers to get to where they are now – they had to be ‘just’ right. I’m excited to be working on the primary school books with Lee this year, and really hope that I can focus and get those three published in the next 18 months. We have had such wonderful feedback from teachers telling us how the books have helped guide them with an unfamiliar pedagogy… and that’s why I write, to help people!

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As I was going through my bookshelves, looking for a copy of the 7-8 PBL book for James, I noticed I have a pile of my new Standard Excel Guides just sitting around. They’re a bit useless to me, as unfortunately I don’t get to teach Standard English as my current school. I figure that a teacher in a rural or remote school might find a copy useful. So if that’s you, and you think your students could use this book, post me a comment below telling me where you’re at and a little about your kids. I’ll get one of my son’s to pick a couple of people to get a copy of the Standard Guide sent to you. Currently my blog has about 20 readers, so your chance of getting this book is pretty high! Sorry for the Advanced teachers, I was only sent three copies of that book and I have to give my parents one each (they’re divorced). 

(Hopefully people are not judging me for writing this post and sharing screen shots of my books. I just decided it is time that I sit back and think positively about what I have achieved over the last decade. I don’t know if I’ll write HSC study guides again in the future, as I really don’t like the HSC at all, so I feel really conflicted about it. I guess for me, I take great pleasure in reading all of the set texts and writing about them (it helps me be a better teacher), plus I really like knowing that I might be helping some students and teachers I don’t know. So, yeah…)

When will the ‘grade addiction’ end? Probs never.

In one of my recent blog posts I reflected on our year 8 English/Geography project, where students composed personal essays about Australia’s relationship with water. Students handed in their essays on Wednesday, Week 10, and after marking them, I handed them back on Thursday, Week 11. I wanted to get them marked quickly as we are publishing them in an anthology for parents early next term. Anyway, I decided to give my students just their qualitative feedback on Thursday. Here was my process:

– First, I explained to them the ‘codes’ that I used when giving feedback on their personal essay. I’ve blogged about this process previously, but you can see in the screenshot below what it looks like. Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 8.20.15 am
– After I was confident all students understood the codes, I then gave back their essays ONLY (no marks) and had them identify their personal ‘medals and missions’ based on the codes/ticks/comments given throughout. They wrote on the back of their essays two medals and two missions for themselves based on my feedback.
– Once I had checked they had their two medals and missions written, I gave back the ‘medals and missions’ given by me (I wrote two-three medals and missions for each student, using the same language as the code list above). I then asked them to compare my M&Ms to the ones they had identified. Students loved seeing they were ‘right’ if we had the same ones.
– Next, I had each student write their ‘writing goals for Term 2’ in a Google Doc in our Google Drive. These goals will focus them for our writing focus for our next project.
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– After this process, the class looked at me expectantly, and I told them they wouldn’t be getting marks back because what was important was not a number on a piece of paper, but how much they had improved as writers. When I said this there was almost a mini revolt (funny in hindsight but at the time a bit depressing), lost of sighing, shaking of heads and muttered comments (I’m at a selective school, so their ‘revolts’ are admittedly pretty tame).
It’s funny, because I had planned to give them their marks back at the very end of the lesson, but their response made me withhold them until the next day. I actually thought that I might receive an email from a parent questioning my approach, given that one student asked me what they would tell their parents when they asked how they did with the task. (My response to this question was this, ‘Show them the medals and missions, and explain to them how this task helped you to grow as a writer.’) Anyway, planning for my next lesson, I got together their mark sheets (all formal on a criteria based on syllabus outcomes, don’t worry NESA, I know what I’m required to do) ready to hand back. I expected them to be badgering me for their marks the minute they came into the room, but not a single student asked me about their marks. Not one. We did a bunch of fun team-building activities, ate some Easter eggs, and then a couple of minutes before the bell, I asked them if they wanted their marks. They were pretty surprised, as they had believed me when I said I wasn’t giving them marks. Only one student said he didn’t want his (he thought he had done pretty badly, even though I thought his piece was lovely) yet what I was pleasing when the others got their marks is that they just sort of went ‘whatever’ and there was no screaming out, ‘What did you get?’. That was refreshing.
Anyway, this experience reminded me that our young people learn this addiction to grades from us, the adults. They don’t desire a mark or a grade for the mud pie they make and proudly display when they are 3. They don’t want to be given a piece of paper with an A on it when they learn to ride a bike. We make this unnatural framework for their learning, and often all it does is create anxiety, perfectionism, conflict, competition and, worst of all, not great learners. When I was at Davo, I stopped giving marks to all students in 7-10. It wasn’t faculty policy (even when I tried to suggest it become policy, the other teachers challenged me, and I lost) but I could see the really awful impact that marks were having on my students, typically those right at the ends of the learner spectrum – underachievers and overachievers.
I know I can’t do anything about the education system. I have resigned to my own futility – perhaps that’s what happens as you edge 40, and 15 years in the education system? I do know that I can change my attitude and approach to assessment in my classroom. That’s what I plan to do.

What do I want to achieve in the next three years?

This was the question recently asked of all HTs by the senior executive at my school. It was part of our executive conference – that’s basically one day where all the executive get out of school and ‘think big’. Our focus was on leading differentiated learning. I remember vaguely being asked this question at the time, and maybe I scribbled an answer somewhere, but I’ve no idea what or where. Yesterday my DP asked us all to send through our goals for the next 1, 3 and 5 years. If I’m truthful, I don’t have a ‘5 year goal’ because in my mind I will have stopped teaching by then. My youngest son has three more years of school after this one (he is currently in year 9) and after that, well, I just don’t see myself in school anymore. Not school as we know it now, anyway.

So, what am I going to respond with? I really do want to have a set of goals for myself for the next three years. I am a driven person, and if I set a goal, I usually achieve it (even if my mental health takes a back seat – speaking of which, that will be a goal ‘Keep my sanity’). Re-reading that sentence, I feel like a total wanker – it’s important to know that my goals are always rather small and realistic (I’m not out here hoping to be named World’s Best Teacher, haha!). I wonder why it is that I find it hard to plan ahead so far, maybe it’s fear that I won’t achieve those things, or maybe it’s (more likely) the knowledge that each term, hell, each week, of school is hard enough to manage without trying to layer over that continuous work cycle with more ‘to do’. Just reflecting on this week, where I have run around school like my dog Pirie when she’s at a dog park (unrestrained, looking slightly crazed, and not seeming to have a clear direction) and looking forward to next week where I don’t imagine I’ll get to sit down for 5 minutes (and that’s just Monday!). So, I’ve failed at focusing for this paragraph – the opening rhetorical question has been unsuccessful in getting me to plan a response to my DP’s email. Let’s try the next paragraph, shall we?

I don’t want to leave my school only to see all of my hard work dismantled because it was simply being held together by me (and those who like me). I don’t want to discover that Praxis has ended, the timetable returned to what it was pre-2015, that ILP has become optional (or replaced with 100 hour electives), that Philosophy is no longer being taught in Stage 6. I guess that’s it really. Maybe I’m worried about those things for myself. Maybe I want a legacy? Or maybe I’m worried that the changes I had hoped to effect in my school, for our young learners heading into an uncertain future, are superficial and temporary. Writing that out sucked… but I think it’s the truth. How do I use the next three years to ensure mindsets about education (it’s purpose and nature) have shifted genuinely as a result of my time at my school? I don’t think I can. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to reply to my DP’s email.

Four hours Saturday morning, four hours Sunday morning, all unpaid work…

I know there are bigger things going on in our incredibly fucked up world right now,  but sometimes we have to focus on our immediate personal experiences and try to make some tiny difference… or at least raise our voices.

My issue, if you couldn’t tell from my post title, is how much additional unpaid work we do as teachers. Today I spent four hours giving feedback on year 12 essays. It is Saturday. Tomorrow I plan to do the same because if I don’t I can’t possibly get the feedback all completed before it is due on Friday. When I told Lee this morning that I had four hours of work ahead of me he asked me if there was a better system than writing essays to demonstrate knowledge, to which I replied ‘No, not in the context of the HSC. The kids have to write essays for their exams, and since the exam drives everything, it’s what we need to work on.’ He suggested that system needs to change, and I agreed… but in a feeble way because I’m pretty impotent against NESA, right? Lee also suggested that perhaps I should just stop taking senior classes if it’s affecting my home life so much (which it is, like it does to all teachers, but we normalise it as ‘part of the job’). Of course, it sounds great not having the marking, but you also don’t have the joy of teaching content you love to the same group of young people over two years and building a beautiful connection with them at an important time in their lives – something you rarely get when only teaching juniors.

So, perhaps it’s the feedback process that’s the problem? I mean, lots of people share great alternatives to written feedback – 1-1 meetings, filming feedback, peer-feedback only – and I’ve tried all of these, but find the most success I get with student progress is through the process of making written suggestions throughout a complete essay AFTER having given feedback on a thesis, topic sentences and evidence selection. Essay-writing in the HSC English format is unnatural and hard (yeah, I know that the new HSC is valiantly trying to change this, but let’s be honest, even writing a discursive or persuasive piece requires revision – it’s even written in the bloody rubric for Module C!) so students need support throughout the process. So, no, I don’t think it’s the process at all.

I have actually tried to fit this giving of feedback into my timetable, you know, during my free periods built into the hours that I’m actually paid to work. I think I can hear my teacher friends laughing to themselves as they read that sentence. Why? Because it’s a joke. It’s not possible to get your marking completed during your working hours – whether that marking is giving feedback (we Aussie teachers typically use the verb ‘marking’ for everything whether it is formative or summative) or marking assessment tasks. In my free periods I am doing one of these things: in a meeting, writing programs (haha, rarely, TBH mostly this is done at home too), creating resources, doing mindless administrivia, helping my colleagues or my students, responding to or writing emails, or photocopying. A lot of that happens during my lunch, recess and before or after school as well.

I love my students, and I want them to achieve their very best, so I regularly give up my free time for them. Sometimes though, I think that the system – the education system – takes advantage of this generosity of teachers, and allows us to work ourselves into the ground. I’m not trying to make any profound or novel point about teacher workloads with this post – Gabbie Stroud started that with her Guardian article – I just needed to share where I’m at right now. I’m looking forward to a time when I’m not forced to choose between cleaning my house, hanging out with my sons and husband or helping my students. It’s a horrible choice that just foments resentment.

The Personal Essay Project

This year we are embarking on transdisciplinary learning for the first time. What is transdisciplinary learning, you ask? Well, it feels like what we sometimes call cross-curricula or multi-disciplinary learning, but it’s different in its purpose. I take the term from the work happening at UTS Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation, after my two DPs heard the Dean of the school, Professor Louise McWhinnie, speak at a conference. You can read more about their vision here. Below is their description of what transdisciplinary learning is, and is not:

  • Multi-disciplinarity occurs when the solution to a problem makes it necessary to “obtain information from two or more sciences or sectors of knowledge without the disciplines drawn on thereby being changed or enriched” (Piaget, 1972). An example is when an engineer, designer, marketeer, and UX expert come together to develop a product, using the perspectives and knowledge of each of these practices. The individual practitioners do not change or become enriched by this collaboration.
  • Cross-disciplinarity is what happens when the goals and concepts of one discipline are imposed on another discipline (Jantsch, 1972). Cross-disciplinary design thinking is what happens when design is ‘imposed’ on business. Design methods such as personas, storyboarding and prototyping are used for business purposes, without adjusting these methods to the business context. Business might be enriched through this interaction (or just confused), but design does not change.
  • Inter-disciplinarity is where “cooperation among various disciplines or heterogeneous sectors in the same science lead to actual interactions, to a certain reciprocity of exchanges resulting in mutual enrichment” (Piaget, 1972). For example, methods and concepts from biology, chemistry and psychology are integrated in medicine. Biology and chemistry, and psychology ‘enrich’ each other for the shared purpose of medicine. Similarly, design and computer science have enriched each other in the interdisciplinary field of interaction design.
  • Transdisciplinarity takes this integration of disciplines a step further. It is a holistic approach. It is not just about interactions between specialised fields, but about placing these interactions in a total system with a social purpose. (The italics and red added by me.)

What I really like about this type of approach to learning is the ‘social purpose’ which is reinforced in the Faculty’s further observation regarding some of the pressing issues we are facing, and how working together towards solutions to these is becoming an imperative: In this rapidly changing, hyper-connected world, we are facing increasingly complex and dynamic problems. To name just a few, we are facing mass-migration, youth radicalisation, mental health problems caused by social media pressure and increasing work pressure, and climate change is getting so out of hand that we have started to enter the anthropocene.

OK, so back to the small way in which I am trying to introduce more transdisciplinary learning experiences for the gifted and talented learners at my school. This year we have introduced Praxis into year 8 – just for term one. Instead of it being what I call ‘curriculum complementary’ like year 7 Praxis (no syllabus outcomes assessed, just ‘soft skills’), it is what I call ‘curriculum aligned’ – that means that syllabus outcomes are assessed as the projects are embedded into the scope and sequences of participating subjects. This year we have designed a Geography + English project (which is the focus of this post) and a Mathematics + Science project (which I can write about later if anyone is interested). In terms of logistics, we have played around with the timetable a tiny bit to ensure that once per fortnight (we are an A and B week timetable) we have a double period that is Geo then English, or Science then Maths. We call this our Praxis session where two classes of 30 work with their teachers (plus me, the Praxis teacher) in a purposefully designed space (thanks P&C!). During this time students actively apply their learning through project work – the old campfire, waterhole, cave set-up is being used to structure this double period. All work that happens in the classroom during ‘traditional’ lessons is directly related to the project, which means when we get to the Praxis sessions students are raring to go!

So, the current English + Geography (Geolish, lulz) project can be seen on the project outline below:

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So, as you can see, the social problem that students are addressing is Australia’s relationship with water, specifically with freshwater. Students are learning all about  the management of catchments in NSW in Geography, and they are demonstrating this through the form of a personal essay (which they are learning all about in English!). In my English class (yes, I get to be the English teacher AND the Praxis teacher for this project), we have been studying the wonderful writing of Tim Winton – looking mostly at his non-fiction, but also some fiction in the form of extracts from novels and short stories. Winton is SUCH a great mentor for young writers, and the fact that he always writes about water is an added bonus! From Winton students have learnt about how to create an engaging piece of writing that is persuasive, emotive, imaginative and informative. They have also considered how he uses the essay form to represent the different relationships that Australians have with water – economic, aesthetic, cultural and spiritual.

Last we we turned our attention specifically to the personal essay form, and who better to be my students’ guide than my favourite author, George Orwell? I ran a session on the personal essay for with the two year 8 classes currently doing the project. We started with me delivering a presentation on the language features and structure of the personal essay. (Click Personal Essays to download a PDF of the presentation.)

Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 7.27.14 pmFollowing this, we allocated each project team one of four essays written by Orwell – Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, In Defence of British Cookery, Good Bad Books, and the first part of The Lion and the Unicorn. Students complete these tasks as shown below… and you can see their ‘Tips from Orwell’ underneath the task – they did really well, and told me the were very confident with the form now. Many also enjoyed Orwell’s voice, and indicated that they wanted to read more of his writing – winning!

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After this single period lesson, we had out Praxis double period. I started off the double explaining to them the importance of planning their essay, and gave them a template to use as a planner. I had collaborated with my Geography colleague (who also has my class) via Google docs to create the planner, making sure that it included by Geography and English elements. I absolutely love how this document turned out, and the students’ responses to it has shown me that it is not just another ‘thing’ I’ve made them do, they are actually filling it in really thoughtfully and have commented on how it makes the final product much more achievable. Here is an example of two students using it for their essays – I just love that they are both clearly thinking about their purpose before they writes, so powerful for young writers to know they have the capacity to affect their readers through the language features they use!

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Anyway, I haven’t seen my class since last Friday (I was off sick the last two days), so it has been nice to see via Google docs that they are using the planners.  After they have completed the planner, they will fill in their personal medals and missions at the bottom… see below:

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Once this is done, they will seek feedback from their two team-members, fix up suggestions, and then it will come to me for feedback. Students must read through their feedback and identify three goals to work on as they write their personal essay. This process seems long-winded, but it is essential in ensuring they become self-directed learners who have the capacity to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve. I’m really looking forward to reading their final responses, which is pretty weird, but they will all be so unique and given I have seen where they have started as writers, I’m eager to see where they end up! At this point, I can say that all the hard work and planning to get this first transdisciplinary project off the ground has absolutely been worth it.