Hammering my thoughts into a unity

Over the last few weeks I have been lamenting the HSC and summative assessment. It is causing far too much unnecessary stress and angst for both teachers and students. Reading an article about assessment in the senior years in QLD (‘Formative Assessment in Year 12: A conceptual Framework, Jo Dargusch, AATE journal Volume 45, #3 – no I don’t know how to reference properly and one day I will learn, lol) I found myself simultaneously nodding and shaking my head – no easy feat and I’m sure I looked silly sitting on the beach doing that! What caused this response? Acknowledgment and dismay. The teachers interviewed feel pressured to teach to the task (in QLD there is no external examination as such, but assessments by students are ‘judged’ by a panel of external ‘experts’) by a variety of players in their contexts. Feedback is driven by students attaining results in the task, not by learning outcomes. But I’ll got into that in another post – this one is a celebration of determination and faith in scampering visions.

In conversation with my Head Teacher, we have decided to re-vamp our speaking task for our Year 12 students. It was too dry and analytical – not allowing for student voice – haha – or for defending their argument. I am teaching George Orwell’s essays and have already written a unit that uses the conceptual framework drawn from the Stage 6 Visual Arts syllabus. I am also very keen to have this unit of work student-centred since the crux of the module is the students’ own personal response to the text – the module is designed to help foster independent, critical thinking. Doesn’t make sense for it to be teacher-centred then, huh? During term four last year (our first term of Year 12 work – I know confusing!) my class had become accustomed to a routine of learning based on the archetypal learning spaces. We had four periods per week – the first was teacher-centred ‘campfire’ instruction, the second was independent ‘cave’ work, the third was collaborative group work in the ‘wateringhole’ and the fourth was student-centred ‘campfire’ discussions. It was hard for them initially, but then they got quite familiar with it. I don’t know what happened this year – I just got caught up in the content and thus 90% of the lessons were teacher-centred. Not repeating that mistake again. So I shall return to our archetypal learning spaces structure. I’m also throwing in there key elements of Project Based Learning as well – main products and investigations, a learning journal and a driving question. Just for a little bit of spice!

Another aspect central to this unit of work will be the assessment itself – a task modified from an idea by my good friend David Chapman. Instead of the usual speech responding to an ‘essay-like’ question, our students will be engaging with a more challenging generic question that engages with the heart and soul of the module and forces students to reflect on their learning as a process. Here’s the question:

Is it the craftsmanship, the ideas or both that produces literature that has the power to endure over time and place?

This question was the subject of much twitter discussion with my friends Kelli and David. It was great to discuss key words and phrases from our Stage 6 syllabus that have been misinterpreted or misunderstood by teachers and thus students. The discussion reinforced my belief that a syllabus must be a working document – it must be accessible for the teachers who use it daily. Don’t get me wrong, I love our syllabus – but when it gets reduced to a series of single terms that students regurgitate without understanding, well of course that’s problematic. It was nice to finally come to the conclusion that our question actually gets to the guts of textual integrity without giving the students the term as a separate entity to add to their essays.

So what do they do with this question? They need to create a Pecha Kucha (ours will be 15×15) to visually support their presentation and act as a prompt for their discussion. We want them to focus on their prescribed text to answer the question and central to their talk will be a discussion of how they developed their own personal response to the text in light of the perspective of others, an understanding of context and an evaluation of the text’s structure, language etc.

We’re going to test that our students really do know their stuff, and force them to engage in critical and creative thinking, by asking them three impromptu questions after their talk. Students also have to submit a learning journal in which they have documented their developing appreciation of the prescribed text. This is very much like the Drama and Dance model of HSC assessment. We want our students to appreciate that learning is a process not a product.

There’s other cool stuff we’ve incorporated into the unit, like creative writing, Socratic circles and debates, to get our kids moving, thinking, doing.

I’m pretty excited about this new assessment – the actual task itself probably doesn’t seem that exciting to some, but what I find really cool is that I am beginning to understand how the multiple strands of my new approaches to teaching can come together in this task, and in future tasks. It might all go to the dogs in the end, but right now I am rejoicing that this task has helped me to ‘hammer my thoughts into a unity’ (Yeats).

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4 thoughts on “Hammering my thoughts into a unity

  1. Hi Bianca! Thanks for introducing me to Pecha Kucha. I like the question you have developed for the task – it is open ended but sufficiently rigorous to push students beyond generalised statements into developing their own ‘thesis’ for the module. This is an area I have done a lot of thinking about during the implementation of this syllabus. My reading of the syllabus points to a greater degree of student response and engagement, yet my experience through marking has been, if anything, a narrowing of focus with many more “prepared” answers that reproduce study guide and/or ‘safe’ thesis responses.

  2. Could not agree more with your post about the internal assessments just becoming prac HSC questions in disguise and agree with your understandable lament for student-centred learning. there is such a panic in schools today. parents are quick to complain that the school does not ‘get’ the student the grade they ‘deserve’. students demand teacher-centred answer-giving sessions and later complain for boredom. Well done on sharing a brave attempt to teach Orwell’s essays, not essays on Orwell.

  3. Pingback: Adopting the role of ‘student’ … « Bianca's Blog

  4. Pingback: Year 12 Advanced Module B: Pecha Kucha Assessment Task – helpers | Bianca Hewes

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