About biancah80

Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning at a public high school on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Happily married & mum of 2 boys. My blog: www.biancahewes.wordpress.com

Everything is different this year…

I started my new job on Wednesday, and whilst initially I was terrified and felt full of regret, it actually feels like it’s going to be great. Different, absolutely, but an opportunity to grow and learn that I know I won’t actually end up regretting. But this post isn’t about my new job, well, only incidentally. It’s actually about being a mum.

In 2015, when I started working at Manly, my eldest son had already been attending the school for a year. When I started he was going into year 8. The fact that he was at the school was my sole motivation for applying for the HT T&L job. I (ridiculously naively) believed that in my role I would transform every single learning experience for him. I believed I would be the solution to his increasing disengagement and underachievement. Of course, I was wrong about that part… but I did get to spend four wonderful years with him at school. We chatted and shared music on the morning drives, we laughed together in the hallways, took photos together at school events… and by the time he was in senior school (and almost entirely fed up with school) he would sleep in my office during free periods. When he decided to leave school early at the end of the first term of year 12, I was sad for me because I knew I would miss him – but I also knew I had my youngest coming into year 9 at our school the following year. Things wouldn’t be too different after all!

So, my baby boy (who was then 14 and is now 16) got to hang out with me at school. Everyday we drove to school together, stopping at 7/11 to buy coffee for him and lunch sandwiches for both of us, telling each other stories from life and from the online world. He’d pop into my office frequently to say hello or grab a pen or drop off some of his stuff he didn’t want to carry around. I’d make jokes with him and his friends when we passed in the hallways, and at lunch I would grab his food from the staffroom fridge. My colleagues would laugh at his silliness, and celebrate his wins in life with us both. When checking playground duty, I would go past where he sat and see him mucking around with his mates – often sitting on top of the huge recycling bin. Sometimes at lunch when he couldn’t find his friends (or he was bored of them), he’d come and chill in my office, listening to music. Just like his older brother, he would sleep on the floor of my office during my before school classes, surprising teachers who came in trying to find me.

This year, if I was at school, I would be teaching my him Philosophy, just like I taught it to his big brother. But, I’m not at school, and the course got cancelled for this year. I feel a strange sort of grief for this lost experience, and all of the lost experiences from this year. As I look at his school clothes laid out ready for this morning, I feel stupidly emotional about him going into year 11. I still have the clearest, clearest memory of him starting year 7. That was a hard day because he had so badly wanted to be starting school with me and his brother, but it didn’t work out that way. All I could do was drop him at the gate. Today he is starting this huge chapter in his life, and again all I can do is drop him at the gate. I know how silly I sound writing this, given so many parents and carers never get the time with their kids like I have had with my sons, but I just have to write it out. I feel teary and full of regret. I want to be with my son this year. I want to have him pop into my office during a free period and complain about a lesson (which I know now I can’t fix) or to tell me something funny that he just saw or heard.

And yet, I know already from my experience of two days in my new role that I am going to be so much more present for him this year than I ever could when teaching. If I’m honest, this year I would have been physically there with him, but mentally and emotionally timetabled out to my students and colleagues. My son would have popped in to say hello, but more often than not he would have found a frazzled mum who could barely find the minute or two needed to laugh at the joke or run to get the lunch ready. I have to remind myself that I had taken on so much at school that it had leeched into my home life and made me far too often exhausted and irritable. So when I give him a cuddle at the gate today, I will keep that awareness of presence in mind because when he comes home I will be present. I won’t have essays or lessons or emails to distract me. Oh, and at school he’ll be free to be year 11 Baz, independent of his teacher mum. This year is going to be different for us both. But it’ll be good different, right?

How to make your English essay more conceptual…

I feel sorry for students in English Advanced because they seem to pretty regularly hear their teachers utter the frustrating sentence ‘Make it more conceptual’. Well, mine do at least! When I took on my new year 12 class at the beginning of the term, I realised that most of them weren’t humanities/Arts kids, and as a result they didn’t have a true love of English, let alone a genuine interest in it. Most are looking forward to careers in engineering, medicine, science, technology. I knew I had to give them something to turn to when I inevitably told them their writing needed to be more conceptual.

There is a bit of discussion around concepts and what we mean by the term, for me it’s shorthand for ‘deep philosophical ideas’ and for me this usually takes the form of a single abstract noun (like hope, reality, truth, existence, desire) which is fleshed out through an argument/interpretation dependent on the intention/purpose/reception of the text. When I was at school I called it ‘thematic concerns’, but we have moved away from this a bit as students who write thematically then to do so in a superficial way – they might structure an essay on three themes explored in a text, one paragraph on each, and never really get to a point where they are demonstrating any insight (the ‘so what?’ kind of moment). So themes has become a bit of a dirty word because it’s associated with B range responses – that’s my perspective anyway. Now, concepts can also relate to craftsmanship – so a concept for English might be genre, perspective, narrative – you can see more on this approach here. Personally I don’t really take that angle because for me I teach essays as concept (what is being said) and craftsmanship (how it is being said). OK. So, are we clear by what I mean by ‘conceptual’ when I say ‘make it more conceptual’? It means what BIG ideas are being communicated by the composer that are relevant outside of the text – so we aren’t talking about plot or characters, we are talking about enduring ideas about life, the world, everything that will continue to be discussed by human beings (maybe conscious robots?) 100 years from now.

Let’s get into how I have helped my students to make their responses to texts more conceptual. Firstly, I introduced them to what I refer to in class as our ‘conceptual frameworks’. These are four theories about human experience that are not specifically related to literature. These will be familiar to teachers, and even maybe some students. I bower-birded them from the Internet and from my own weird wanderings online late at night. So, the four are these: Existential Themes, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, and Anderson’s 555 Personality Types.

We spent a bit of time discussing these in class, and I gave students print outs of each to put in their black books (these are their writing books that live in the classroom and are used for time writing activities almost every lesson). I encourage students to make direct connections between the ideas in our conceptual frameworks and the ideas being represented in their text. We are currently studying Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I remind students they don’t need to directly reference the conceptual framework – no need to say ‘According to Anderson’s list of 555 personality types…’ rather, they use those personality types to describe the traits of characters in the text, and link back to how this traits may or may not be valued by others (Anderson’s list goes from most valued to least valued – so great for vocabulary development!). A recent activity required students to related each framework directly to our novel (the narrative and Orwell’s intentions) and then choose the framework they felt most effectively deepened their conceptual understanding – there was no clear winner, although the two most popular were the Existential Themes and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The two final strategies I used with my class to develop their conceptual thinking about their text were interrelated – the question quadrant and communities of inquiry. We had finished our analysis of the novel and were moving into essay-writing – time to start choosing a preferred conceptual interpretation of the novel to form the basis of their thesis. Our class goal is to have a ‘bad draft’ of their 1984 essay written before the end of term.

So what is the question quadrant? Basically it is a critical thinking tool designed by philosopher Phillip Cam – I found it in his book Twenty Thinking Tools which I bought to help me better teach Philosophy and critical thinking. In his book he spends a chapter walking you through how to use it, because it’s not something you just try to do without understand how to use it. I actually discovered that the DoE have it as one of their Digital Selector learning tools, and it includes some slides you can download – here. They are awesome and I used them successfully with my class! The question quadrant relies on students having all read the same text (can be a short or extended piece of fiction or non-fiction, poetry, could be a film etc) and then they spend time asking questions related to the text. The questions that they ask are categorised either as:
* closed textual questions – questions that can be answered by knowing the text well, I tell my class you can put your finger on the answer in the book (e.g. Where does Winston meet Julia?)
* open textual questions – questions about the text that can be answered using your imagination (e.g. What is Julia’s greatest fear)
* closed intellectual questions – questions that have an accepted ‘answer’ but are discovered through research, basically these are contextual questions (e.g. Which totalitarian regimes inspired Orwell’s creation of Oceania?)
* open intellectual questions – questions that don’t have a single accepted answer and that require collaborative inquiry to get closer to answering (e.g. Is it acceptable to manipulate the truth to obtain what you want?)
It is the last type of question – the open intellectual questions – that really deepen a conceptual interpretation of a text. However, as I told my class, when you’re writing an essay for English you actually need to be able to understand and think about your text at the closed and open textual questions as well as closed intellectual questions level if you want to write a successful essay. Deep textual knowledge and contextual understanding underpin the more philosophical conceptual concerns central to an essay’s thesis.

As I went through the question quadrant, I had my students write down one example question in their books and asked students to share to check for understanding. When we got to the open intellectual questions, I made them all write one question in their book, and then I had them each read out their question to the class and I wrote them on a Google document projected for the class to see. I was SOOO impressed by their questions, and could immediately see the potential for very sophisticated conceptual arguments about the novel. You can see some of their questions below.

The next lesson, I introduced them to the final strategy used – community of inquiry. Basically this is just a structured dialogue responding to a set of questions or a single question. I had my class choose their top three questions from our list of 20, and then we selected the top three from the class. These became the focus on their communities of inquiry. You can see the what this was structured by reading the slides below:

Each group of 6 or 7 students discussed the question for 10 minutes (I used a timer) and were encouraged to use examples from the novel and the real world to support their points. The students not in the community of inquiry sat on the outside and took notes in a Google doc – you can see a snippet of their notes below. From this process I was excited to see that they were touching on some really strong ideas central to philosophy, specifically the branches of philosophy that I teach to year 11 (three students in my year 12 class were philosophers in year 11 with me). The questions they selected to discuss covered ethics, epistemology and metaphysics (including ontology). I made this explicit in my discussion at the end – you can see in my notes beside their questions where I identified the philosophical focus of their discussions. I’m a total nerd who just thrives on finding connections, and this got me super excited!

The following lesson I introduced students to a way of approaching their thesis generation which is focused on their conceptual interpretation of the novel. I referred them back to our conceptual frameworks, to their open intellectual questions, and to the notes they had taken during the communities of inquiry. I also encouraged them to try converting some of the open intellectual questions into statements which could become lines of argument in their essay, and showed them a couple of examples I had done with their questions – see examples below. I had to stop myself from doing all 20, I just love that sort of writing-as-thinking activity! I set them the task of writing their bad draft introduction and three lines of argument by next Tuesday, so I’m really eager to see what they come up with. They’ve been writing conceptually all term in our timed writing activities at the start of each lesson, so I hope that translates into making the essay-writing process easier for them. If in doubt, they can return to our conceptual frameworks and use one of more of them to frame their own conceptual interpretation around. (For those thinking I’m neglecting the craftsmanship of Orwell and the actual narrative, fear not, we spent weeks and weeks on that too!). Anyway, this is how I support my students to make their writing ‘more conceptual’ – after all, isn’t thinking deeply about ‘life, the universe and everything’ why we study literature in the first place? 😉

Marking, grading, whatever you want to call it… it’s core business, right?

Marking is intense because it is both physically and intellectually demanding. It is also a core part of our role as teachers, and thus unavoidable. I’m a high school English teacher, so I feel like my marking load is exponentially greater than everyone else, but I doubt that is true. With the introduction of mandatory and frequent data gathering on students, it feels like the marking burden is going to continue to increase significantly. This, of course, is a problem for teacher workload and the dreaded ‘b’ word – burnout. Currently I am neck deep in HSC marking – this is an optional activity, so I can’t compare it to the mandatory marking load, but of course I am going to anyway. Why? Because the experience is the same whether I am paid to do it or not, and in fact what HSC marking does is crystallise just how intense marking can be on mind and body. When you tell people you are HSC marking they have sympathy and admiration in bucketloads. Tell them you’re giving feedback on year 10 draft essays and the response is less so – they might even think you’re a nuts. (Not denying this claim yet!)

So what is marking all about anyway? Why is it such a fundamental feature of teaching? Has it always been that way? Look, I’m not about to go into a long history of educational practice because basically my eyes are stinging as I type this having just woken up tired again. But from my understanding of history, marking and education are a fairly recent phenomenon. Well, at least to the extent that we do it. When I say marking, I’m referring specifically to the practice of having students complete a specific set task (typically written but it isn’t always and the medium doesn’t really influence the nature of the marking experience in my opinion) which is then submitted to the teacher for one of two purposes – to be assessed (usually against a criteria and often for the purpose of reporting on student achievement) or to receive feedback (usually in anticipation of the former, but not always). I think it quite funny that regardless of which of the two I am doing, I refer to both as ‘marking’. Maybe that’s why it feels like I never stop marking, haha! Well, I just Googled ‘marking definition’ and it doesn’t give me what I want… and I’m thinking that’s because in America they use the term ‘grading’, right? My Google definition is this: ‘the act, process, or an instance of making or giving a mark.’ But the word ‘mark’ here doesn’t mean 15/20, it means like a little coloured tag or a symbol on the side of an animal, haha. Maybe that’s a good analogy for what marking does to the recipient (cos as teachers we sometimes forget about the receiver of our hard work) – a little coloured tag or symbol that students carry around with them. (Genuinely don’t get me started on the impact that marking – giving a numerical mark or grade – has on kids, we know I don’t like it, right?)

So where was I going with this? (Flicks to mental notes about purpose of rambling, ahem, discursive piece of writing at 6.30am.) Oh yeah, why do we do it? Why do we mark/grade stuff so obsessively? I guess it’s to know if what we’ve taught has stuck, right? For some people it’s to find out how smart kids are – like what their potential is based on a criteria of excellence. I’m more of the belief that what my students produce reflects my performance as a teacher. Of course this isn’t entirely true (life has a way of bleeding into education and there’s not much we can do to stop it, thus full responsibility for student success isn’t ours I suppose) but it is a good mindset to have if you want to improve and grow as an educator. I suppose that adds a third dimension to the intensity of marking – the emotional. It can be quite dispiriting to spend hours marking work that isn’t at the standard you would hope it was, and you can feel a bit of creeping despair about your practice and your potential. At least that’s how I feel when my students’ results don’t reflect my hopes for them, and really for myself (given that ego can never be separated from the marks your students receive, not if we’re really honest).

The physical aspect of marking can’t be denied. Right now I’m sitting on my bed, typing this rambling post on my iPhone, eyes stinging, back aching, unable to go morning running like I had been for the last 6 months. Marking require teachers to sit for prolonged periods of time, doing relative movements, with intense focus. Almost everyone I know who has done HSC marking (which requires you to do sustained periods of marking with only small breaks) has had some back or wrist trouble. One of my colleagues has RSI in her wrist from marking papers in her first years of teaching. My recommendation is to stand and mark if you can, to get a riser for your laptop, a separate mouse and keyboard – laptops really can give you neck problems too because of being hunched over and looking down. In saying that, I marked for four hours last night whilst sitting on my lounge and the laptop on my lap. I’ll pay for that tomorrow. I guess the physical aspect is also the fact that you can’t fit marking into your school day – not typically – and that means that you’re doing overtime. Either you’re marking at home after school, or on your weekends, and this takes away from you ability to take a break and refresh.

I feel like these days my posts are becoming more and more about teacher workload and how difficult it is to balance. I try to be constructive and positive, but perhaps the exhaustion of the last few weeks has caught up? Yesterday my colleague used the best word to describe how I’m feeling – fatigued. My goal is that teachers don’t feel that way (I’m talking generally not about the madness of HSC marking which is optional) – that we feel fresh and ready for each day with our learners. Maybe my next post will be a part 2 on marking – some tips for avoiding the physical, emotional and intellectual fatigue that it has the potential to inspire? We’ll see. Until then, I’m going to be late for class so I won’t spellcheck this post. Enjoy the typos! 😆

A little bit of hope for the future…

Last night I had three glasses of strong moscato (yes, that seems to be an oxymoron, but the bottle was 12% which is a big deal for a moscato) as I watched Biden edge closer and closer to winning the US presidential election. He was sitting on 253 and Trump on 213 with 99% of Pennsylvania having been counted (and he was 29,000 votes up). How bizarre that I know this detail about an election that isn’t for my country! I went to bed hopeful but nervous – the counting has been going since Tuesday and the media haven’t been keen to call Biden the winner. Luckily Lee woke up a little after 5am so he could go fishing (heading to Berowra for a bass) and I woke up with him – jumped on Facebook and discovered the result! My friend Betsy has been working so hard to get the messaging out there to vote – I remember when Trump was elected and she lived in DC, looking right onto the protests that erupted after his election, she joined many of them too. I can confidently say that Betsy is central to my connection to this election and to America.

Let me tell you a little bit about it…
At 30 years of age, I had never travelled overseas. Never. I was (and still am) a super anxious person and flying just didn’t agree with me. In 2011 this changed. How? Betsy Whalen! She selected me as one of a group of Edmodo users to fly out to ISTE, Philadelphia (Pennsylvania – the connection to the election doesn’t escape me) to attend a huge Edmodo party. I still have a distinct memory of reading that email – I was in a science lab at my former school, I read it on my phone, and I almost fell to my knees with shock. I called Lee and I was crying happy tears and scared tears. As soon as we got to America, we fell in love with it. So much so, that we returned every year for five years (well, we skipped 2015 cos I just started a new job as HT). We visited Betsy at her home in Washington on our last visit in 2016 – we introduced her to Vegemite on toast and chai tea (she wasn’t a fan of the former, haha) and she gave our boys a collection of small gifts to unwrap each day of our road trip (a tradition her mother started when she was a child). One of the things we unwrapped? Donald Trump toilet paper! At this time in 2016, we knew he was running for president, but it seemed so silly. When we returned to Australia, we agreed we wouldn’t use that toilet paper until Trump was kicked out. To be honest, when he caught COVID-19, we hoped to use it (yeah, evil, whatever) but even during the lockdown in Australia back in March when toilet paper was like gold, we refused to use it! (Aside – bet you didn’t expect to read about me using toilet paper on this blog, did you? Haha – sorry!)

This morning, the first person I looked for on Facebook was Betsy. She had worked at the polling station in her area, spending hours counting votes, and she had been glued to the results coming in over the following days. I knew she had a fridge of champagne, she had such hope, she HAS such hope, and it’s remarkable! Commenting on her posts was another friend and former Edmodo superstar, Lucia, and I realised as I was replying to her that once COVID is under control (which at least is more likely to happen with a Democrat president – Biden has already got together a COVID taskforce) then I can finally travel to the States again and see my friends!! I vowed never to return whilst Trump was president. I *know* how real this is for so many other people – people who haven’t seen family for years. It’s a long way away, and we have to continue to be patient, but the result just gives me so much hope for our future that in 2020 had been lost.

For me now, I will continue to watch CNN (which I only discovered I have on my Fetch account) and listening to their analysis. Right now Trump is threatening to disrupt the transition of power to Biden, which is worrying but it doesn’t diminish the celebrations and the sense of hope I feel. When Lee returns from fishing, I’m going to remind him about the toilet paper that Betsy gave us, and he can decide if we wait until 20th January to open it. I’m so relieved for all of my friends in the States who have clearly been suffering this year, and the three prior, and who clearly deserve to breathe a sigh of relief today. I’m looking forward to the excitement of my students tomorrow – they’ve been watching the count on their laptops and phones since last Wednesday (one of my colleagues even called a moratorium on the election because it was so nerve-wracking those first few hours as they counted in-person votes and Trump was pulling ahead) and will be delighted with the result. And I’m just happy for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and the American people who fought so hard for this victory. I hope it really does mean change for those who deserve a better life, and I hope it leads to healing and justice and action on COVID. It’s 7am in Sydney, and I’m celebrating with a Bushell’s blue tea, and a little bit of a headache from the moscato.

November 3rd, 2020

Above is a prompt I gave my students in class yesterday. Given the significance of today, I decided to take five minutes to write my own thoughts. Kept the punctuation though cos old habits die hard, sorry Orwell.

In Australia we are hours ahead, the sun having risen on the third a couple of hours ago. I’ve been anxious the last two days every time I think about today, well today in America (which will mostly be tomorrow for me by the time they count the ballots, I suppose). It’s just that the outcome either way of this election seems somewhat terrifying – obviously the preference for me (and hopefully other sane people reading this) is for Biden to win, and for Trump to fuck right off. But of course the problem isn’t Trump but what he stands for – or maybe it is him, I don’t know, did Nazism end when Hitler died? I suppose it did, but then it’s back now, right, with its buddy fascism. I’m just scared that America will be plunged into civil war – the news are reporting that Wallmart have removed their guns from display (been there, seen them, super crazy) and that shops are boarding up their windows. I mean, if Trump gets in it just means despair for us all. I thought that when he first got in, and it wasn’t really wrong. We’ve just gone past the point of no return on climate, right? And the Rona isn’t going anywhere. I worry for my sons and what type of a world they are inheriting from us. It’s really a piece of shit in a lot of ways and yet there is so much beauty and potential and love that I hope, hope, hope it wins. I suppose Biden represents hope for me – I watched a doco on CNN about him on Sunday and boy what a sad life he has lived. I’m a sucker for the sappy human stuff, I’m sure there is awful politician shit in there too. But isn’t it good to have some human in there? I fear there is none in the bully Trump. The UK is heading into a one month lock down to try to suppress COVID, in Australia we are heading out and back to normality, and the States… I just don’t know. Please don’t let the hatred bleed further into my country and around the world. I am clinging to hope that it won’t and that the kids will rise up soon. Until then, I’m avoiding walking underneath ladders.

Trying to keep fit and healthy as a teacher… impossible goal?

The kettle just boiled, and whilst I currently regret drinking a cup of tea an hour before bed last night (my sleep what as disrupted as if I had a newborn), I am going to make tea anyway. Right now I should be half-way around the 10km lake track I told myself I was going to run this morning before school. Yet, here I am, watching the sun rise from my kitchen and feeling bad about myself. Not a great way to start a school day. Why is it so hard to stick to fitness and nutrition goals as a teacher? Look, I’m sure everyone will say it’s not just teachers, but I feel like we have a special kind of pressure to both *need* to be as healthy as we can be and difficultly actually *managing* to be healthy.

My goal for most of this year (yes, even during lockdown, sorry everyone) was to get as fit as I could possibly be as a 40 year old teacher. In lockdown I started doing yoga using the DownDog app, waking up and doing 30 mins of yoga every morning. I actually got really pretty good at it, and I credit that commitment to yoga as helping me stay mentally healthy during the craziness of Learning from Home and the related COVID-19 anxiety. Once we were released from our homes, I rediscovered the love of running. If I’m honest, I find it physically easier than yoga, so that’s probably why I ended up giving yoga the flick entirely to focus on running. Last term I set myself two goals (you know how I love my goal-setting and planning, haha): to run 5km in under 30mins and to run a total of 100kms in the month of September. I found that having specific goals really motivated me, and I’m pleased to say that I achieved them both – if you follow me on any social media you would already know this cos I’m a compulsive over-sharer. And yet, this term, my goals just aren’t motivating me – it seems so unfair that last term I could push myself mentally to achieve my goals and this month I can’t.

I’m going to claim that it’s the structure of the school year for teachers that makes the fitness and health goals a little harder. At the beginning of each term it’s like the beginning of a new year – we are all setting unrealistic expectations of ourselves, as though each new term requires new resolutions. ‘This term I am going to drink 2 litres of water a day.’ or ‘This term I won’t buy lunch from the servo on the way to/home from school.’ or ‘I’m going to run every morning before school.’ Of course, each term has its hump in the road of high expectations – reports, parent-teacher interviews, massive marking loads – and sometimes it’s impossible to push through. Last term I did push through, and it was on the second last day of term that I smashed through the 30min 5K goal! But then it was holidays, and I celebrated with some wine, some more wine, a little gin, some chocolate, a few days of sleeping in, and… well, you get the picture. I gave my body what it needed (OK, not the alcohol but it did seem to be asking for it a lot) and lost my rhythm. I exercised very little, and ate a lot. Now it’s back to term time, and I’ve given myself new goals which already I am failing to achieve. Bloody goals – maybe they’re the problem? Perhaps my new goal should be to have no more goals? What a paradox!

It’s now ten minutes before I have to get ready for school and my tea is almost finished. I feel shitty because I didn’t get up to do the 10K I promised myself last night I would do. I slept badly, my eyes are still stinging, and I can’t see myself eating well today. Of course I’ll try, but it’s Friday – so I get to reward myself with takeaway and alcohol tonight, right? I made it through another school week! Maybe each week is a mini year for teachers too? And the weekends are like school holidays? No wonder I’m finding it hard to stick to my running goals and to eat healthily. I’ve still got eight more years until the end of this term… blimey.

I’m a lesson over-planner and a word mechanic…

Recently I took the ‘16 Personalities Test‘ with my whole family for a bit of fun. The questions are the same for everyone, and my family knew exactly what my response would be to the one about planning – I am an over-planner! It’s funny, because my husband who is also a teacher is not an over-planner – is an under-planner a thing? He’s actually an incredible teacher, so it goes to show that really the best thing to do is find what works for you, and for me that is spending time scribbling down lesson ideas, revising them, making new resources or changing up old ones (I am known for designing a new project for a topic every year). I can’t decide if this is because I am easily bored, or if it’s because I teach completely new young people every year. I think it’s both, but to make me sound like an exemplary teacher, I’ll claim it is the latter.

Yesterday’s year 12 lesson is a good illustration of me tendency to spend too long planning my lessons. (Oh, and just a little aside here, when I say ‘lesson plan’ I don’t mean write them up in fancy templates that outline outcomes and stuff – we all know that, right? I’m an English teacher, our outcomes are slippery and ephemeral like mist. Having said that, I always have learning goals in mind – and if you wanna call them learning intentions because you’ve swallowed the Hattie bible, well so be it!). Over the weekend I had received a few emails from a year 12 student about to do her HSC (the class just about to finish up) and she asked me to check her vocabulary in her essay plans. She was making an effort to incorporate some of our ‘wonderful words’ into her writing – she absolutely smashed it, and it made me realise that I need to teach vocabulary explicitly throughout the course, not just at the end. I also decided that I needed to focus more on writing. An aside: after a year of looking at a pair of amazing coveralls from Dickies, I finally bought them and they arrived last Friday. When I put them on I was instantly in love! An ex-student messaged me on Instagram to tell me she loved them and she wears similar – she’s studying to be a vet – and I joked that I was a ‘word mechanic‘. That’s my new title. Do you like it? Anyway, if I am a word mechanic, then it’s my job to work on words all day, right? How can I work on my students’ words if I don’t get them to write regularly? With my last two year 12 classes I introduced bell work (you can a read post about it here) which made a real difference on my students’ writing BUT they were just writing a bits of paper and they got lost and students couldn’t see their progress over time. My solution? Books! Before school yesterday I went to Officeworks and bought 22 x 96 page A4 exercise books. They were 50c each. I then spent my first two periods (no lessons) creating some documents for students to glue in the front and back pages.

I made myself a book – gluing in the documents in the right place and ruling up a sample planning page so my book could be an exemplar for my class. What did I include? The front of the book documents are our conceptual frameworks for Texts and Human Experiences (the things I wrote about in my last blog post) and the back is a vocabulary poster. I am very proud of this poster, so I thought I would share it here with you if you wanted to use it with your students, or a modification. One of my colleagues shared with me a friend’s approach to teaching vocabulary in Nineteen Eighty-Four and I used her definitions and sentence builder for the word ‘abject’ (such a great word!). I don’t know her name, so can’t thank her here personally, unlikely she is reading this but if she is – thank you!! I love it when teachers share their ideas – there is always so much to learn! Essentially my strategy for vocabulary is a simple one, a primary school approach. Come across a word you don’t know? Write it down, define it, use it in a sentence snippet. On the Friday of each week when we do our timed writing, students select 2-3 new vocab words to incorporate into their response. They will also have identified 1-2 writing goals for that response also. These goals will vary depending on the form of the writing, but could be things like improving discussion of composer purpose, writing a more specific topic sentence, or answering the question explicitly.

Students spent the first ten minutes of our lesson writing a timed response using a plan they created last Friday, and then the rest of the lesson they spent cutting and gluing sheets into their new writing books. They were delighted by this hands-on task, one student said ‘This feels like primary school.’ and was clearly pleased by the temporary regression! These writing books will stay in class – I will give feedback on every piece of writing using my coded system (you can read about it here).

To get back to my original point about planning, if I didn’t revise my lessons every time I teach a course, I couldn’t have had this lesson at all. I guess I am sort of claiming the exemplary title a bit, haha, insomuch as this lesson came about from my reflecting on how to improve my students’ writing based on the experiences of previous students. When it comes to planning lessons, I am terrible with my organisation and I blame my love of writing with a pen! I just can’t help grabbing a pen a scribbling a lesson or a series of lessons on scrap paper. Try as a I might, I can’t get myself to use an actual book for this planning – wouldn’t that be helpful (and likely what I’m meant to do for NESA purposes… urgh, don’t panic, we have programs with syllabus outcomes!!). I have tried using the Apple pen on my iPad with GoodNotes, and it’s OK, but I usually don’t bring my iPad to school (too tempted to watch Stan, Netflix or Amazon Prime, lol). See below for a look at my latest series of year 12 lessons – pretty representative of what I usually do: texta and written over neat tables. At least you can see with the table that I do have a big plan for the term, and learning goals, it’s just the fine details of the lessons themselves that I need to nut out and spend far too much time on. Perhaps this tendency to spend a lot of time planning out lessons is why I always feel behind with my head teacher responsibilities? Oops!

Week 1, Term 4, 2020 – I had a good one

Like everyone else, at the end of last term I was pretty fried. Along with the usual emotional, intellectual and physical exhaustion that accompanies the end of Term 3 when you teach year 12, it was the third term of school and COVID. That just added extra frazzled brain to the mix. At some stage last term I was told I’d be picking up a new year 12 class in Term 4 – one of our teachers can’t fit year 12 Advanced into her load next year (she teaches other HSC subjects), so I took over her class. This is the same thing that happened at the end of term 3 last year. Both times I had the naive thought that I might have a year without teaching the HSC, and both times I was disappointed. Oh, and to add to my senior load I also accepted the offer to teach Extension 2 English. This will be the first time I’ve taught the new Extension 2 syllabus – I haven’t taught the subject since 2014 at my previous school.

You’re probably like, where is she going with this? No, I don’t want to hear tiny violins (which hopefully you can tell by the title of this post), I actually want to write about meeting my class for the first time and how my first week of school went as a whole. Spoiler alert: it was great.

I must admit that I had a very restful two week break, something which I am grateful for knowing the intensity of the term to come. I knew to get my programming and resource making out of the way in the first few days of the break, when I still had my ‘head in the game’ even though I was pretty tired. I spent about two days writing a program on Shakespeare, and then another day giving feedback on year 12 essays. Then I stopped for ten days. Just did no school work at all. I’d emailed my year 12 students to let them know I’d be uncontactable for that time, but all theirs when I came back – and it’s true. I’ve given feedback on year 12 essays every day since last Saturday.

I started Monday of the first week super refreshed and eager to meet my new year 12 class. At the end of last term I had sat down with their year 11 teacher and she had given me a bit of a snapshot of each student. I made sure I took notes on things like their interest level, their engagement in class, any wellbeing concerns, and their academic achievement to date (I just used the A, B, C rough estimate). I also did something which I haven’t done before when taking over a year 12 class, I looked up their timetables on Sentral to find out what other subjects they were doing. English Advanced is compulsory at my school, so I can’t use it to judge whether the students actually enjoy English. By looking at their other subjects I got a sense of their interests before I met them – and I guess I wasn’t surprised but I must confess I was a bit disappointed. Out of my class of 21, only three students are what you’d call ‘humanities’ students. That is, most of the class are studying mathematics (with almost half doing 4 units), sciences (more than one), engineering, design and tech, software and design. A handful have economics in with their STEM, and then the other three students have subjects like VA, music, history, society and culture etc. So, yeah… I guess the government got their wish, well at least with my class! To be fair, this is probably the make-up of all year 12 classes at my school but I’ve never looked until now. So, what am I going to do with this information? So far I have acknowledged it in class – told them I looked up their timetables and joked that I was intimidated by them all… well, maybe it wasn’t a joke, haha. I have also re-considered how I will teach them because I want to use a more structured approach that will appeal to their way of thinking. Obviously since my mind isn’t a STEM mind (at least, I don’t think it is), I am going on assumptions with my attempt to cater for them. Just at this stage, that is! I’ll get to know their minds soon enough!

My first lesson with year 12 went a bit like this. I ensured I was *very* prepared for the lesson. I had set up our Google Drive folder with all of our resources neatly organised. I came to class before the bell (luckily my room was empty the period before) and set up my computer and projector and made sure the tables and things were all neat. I was interested to see where they all sit in the space – I always take note of this information as it reveals so much about the group dynamics. Usually when I meet my classes for the first time I write a letter on the board to them (including things like how long I’ve taught for, my favourite shows and foods, a bit about my family, the fact my parents divorced when I was 2 etc) and then I have them write me a letter with similar content about themselves… but for some reason I chose not to do that with these guys. I can’t even explain why, I just decided not to. What I did instead was give them a verbal CV – I tried to impress them with how many years I’ve been teaching the HSC, how many years I’ve been an HSC marker, and how they should feel confident that I know what I’m doing. That’s a weird approach, haha, but I just felt I needed to do it – these poor kids are getting a new teacher right before their HSC year, maybe they needed that reassurance? I then asked them if they had any questions about me. I’ve never done that before either – could have been awkward! Actually it sort of was awkward because they stared at me a bit blankly, like ‘Why would we be curious about you, Miss?’ until finally a student asked a question. ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Haha!! My answer, ‘Black and green, although I think black is a shade?’. So yeah, pretty funny.

The next thing which I decided I needed to know about them (based on my snooping into their timetables) was what their career/study aspirations are, what they hope to get for their ATAR (don’t panic, I can ask this because I teach at an academic selective school) and what they hope to get for English (what band or mark). I helped them navigate our Google Drive shared drive to a template doc with all the above information plus a table with English skills goals. You can see a screen shot of the doc below. I gave them 10 minutes to fill it out. I’ve since looked at their answers to the questions about their aspirations, and wow, I almost gave myself a heart attack! I’ve got six students who want to get into medicine! That’s an ATAR of 99.95. Blimey! No pressure, lol. Most students want ATARs of 90 or above, and most therefore need a very strong English mark. The reason knowing this information is important is because it tells me how hard to push each student – I told them this. I was like, ‘If you tell me you need a Band 6 in English then I will nag you if I think you’re not working hard enough.’ Clearly that’s my joking way of telling them that I will make it a priority to work with them to achieve that goal, and that they have to step up too. It’s also nice to know that some other students just want to enjoy the course and are happy with a low Band 5 – this means that I won’t nag them as much, because we both know their goal. And to be clear this doesn’t mean we both lower our expectations, it just means that I’m not unnecessarily chasing them or pushing them as much. Gosh, these last few sentences make me sound like a horrible teacher! I’m not, I promise. Just think of it as an Olympic coach vs a coach for an ungraded weekend sport. I like to know who my athletes are, and what they are playing for.

I think it’s safe to say that my class are still a bit weirded out by me, especially after I taught them about existentialism on the very last period of Friday. I know I said I’m trying to be structured because these are STEM kids, and existentialism seems the opposite of structured, BUT I have a plan! I have chosen four of what I am calling ‘conceptual frameworks’ on which they will draw ideas for their arguments about Texts and Human Experiences. Ideas about texts (the deep conceptual type) can be hard to develop – these kids told me this in their tables – so I’m giving them four big idea frameworks. One of them is existentialism. I know, I know, so weird and the kids looked almost as frazzled as I was at the end of term three but it’ll be OK. Gotta start with high expectations presented in a self-deprecating way, that’s my thinking anyway!

Week one was also great for me because I reconnected with my colleagues (both in my English faculty and with the senior executive and executive teams) and approached new tasks with an even-headed mindset. I didn’t let myself get angry or overwhelmed when something was introduced that I didn’t perhaps agree with, I just steadied myself and considered rationally what is in my control and was is not. I wrote little to-do lists for each day and kept my head down to get the work done. I gave time to responding to year 12 (the ones about to do the HSC) questions and essays after school each day but I did it because I chose to. I also managed to get out for a run in the morning on three of the five days, and ate really healthily during the day (not so much at home when I was marking but that’s a given, right?). And, as right now it is a grey Sunday morning, I am going to spend a couple of hours planning for the week to come, and then I’ll probably chill out and watch Pride and Prejudice again for the millionth time (mini-series this time). Let me know how your work week went, even if it was terrible – nothing like a good download in the comments section! 🙂

First week back, and I fell asleep at my desk

Every Tuesday and Thursday I have an 8am class. It’s year 11 Philosophy, which I love, so no resentment there at all. It’s just an early class, and given that I have been really committed to exercising before school every day, and given that this is the first week back of full-time face-to-face teaching since schools went to Learning From Home, well… maybe it’s excusable that I put my head down for a quick rest of my eyes only to wake up ten minutes later. Right? Luckily for me I have my own office, although I am pretty sure that a teacher in a classroom that looks into my office saw me asleep. What a great image for one of my colleagues to have of the head teacher of teaching and learning! Oh dear.

Philosophy was great, students are always keen even if they do meander in well after the bell (who can blame them – asking 16 year olds to be at school for 8am is a deal, at my old school our before school classes started at 7.30am!). Following my philosophy lesson, I had a prep period so I used it to get resources ready for ILP. ILP = Independent Learning Project (you can read about it here on the website I made www.ilpmanly.weebly.com) and the six teachers come from a range of faculties. We try our best to put on teachers who want to teach ILP, but sometimes we get teachers who have gaps on the timetable. Not this year though, which is really nice. We haven’t seen our ILP classes since Week 9 of Term 1, so the focus for the lesson was to catch up, but to also give them an opportunity to add evidence and annotations into their MLP. MLP = Manly Learner Portfolio. I haven’t made a website for that yet, although I probably need to because we hope to run it across all year groups soon. It started this year, and we are running it with year 7 in Praxis and year 10 in ILP. You guessed it, I’m the coordinator of it, haha. Who knows what will happen when it’s introduced into years 8 and 9 where I don’t have any whole grade courses that I coordinate. I made a video explaining to students how to add content to their portfolios (we are using Google Slides) and some tips on writing annotations etc. Students identify evidence of where they have demonstrated growth towards one or more of the nine attributes of a Manly scholar. We decided on these attributes in collaboration with staff and students. I presented on it parents earlier in the year, and they loved it. (Please don’t steal these without crediting me/my school as your original source, thanks!)

MLP

Period 3 was year 7 Praxis! The first time I have seen these guys since Week 9 of Term 1 also. They’re currently working on the Games 4 Good project, which you can read about on the website I created praxismanly.weebly.com. They’ve tried really hard to keep collaborating on their game designs remotely, but it was much better being together in the one space. We just spent the lesson going over what the game designs were for each team, and writing a little 150 word summary of it. It was funny overhearing one of the teams re-introducing themselves as they had forgotten names! We have to remember that year 7 had just over 2 months with each other before COVID-19, so they really didn’t know each other that well! It’s like starting school all over again – I can only imagine what Kindy kids are like this week!

Period 4 I was off class and spent most of my time responding to emails (yay, not) and finishing that Henry IV article – finally! This is the period when I fell asleep at my desk, haha. Once I woke up, it was lunch so I went into my classroom and tidied it up – I share this space with other teachers (two of my classes are offline, so that means a lot of time when others are in my room) and it had got into a bit of a state. I put up some new posters, and moved my desk to a new position. I’m not sure the other teachers will like the new desk situation, so I’ll have to check in with them to see. I’ll move it back if they don’t like it. After lunch would normally be my flexi-time (when I can go home early because of my off-line classes) but my son attends my school so I have to stay. I spent the period giving feedback on year 12 bell work and checking their team analysis tables.

Oh, I also forgot – it was Public Education Day, where we celebrate being an awesome system. At the end of lunch a colleague caught up with me to ask about the pay freeze to the public sector that the NSW government has just proposed. I assured him that the NSWTF will be doing something about it, and it reminded me to email my colleagues. Here is some of the email, if you want to follow some of the links and have your say about teaching I recommend you do because this data will be used to support union action on teacher workload.

Happy Public Education Day! 

Whilst today is a day to celebrate our wonderful profession (and you can read some lovely notes of thanks from notable Aussies here), we must also acknowledge that we are facing another blow from the government – this time an attack on our wages. As you may have heard through the media and via an email from the NSWTF, the NSW government has proposed a pay freeze (which is effectively a pay cut) for all public servants. You can read the NSWTF press statement in response here.  More information about the nature of the NSWTF response will come soon, no doubt. 

Given the timing of this proposal, in the first week back of full-time face-to-face teaching, it is really important that we use all opportunities to have our voices heard.  The best opportunity we have is to contribute to the ‘Valuing the teaching profession’ independent inquiry. If you would like to make an individual submission to the inquiry, you can do so here

Playground duty checking is a job, am I right?

As much as I’m glad I don’t have to do playground duty anymore (HTs don’t do it), checking that teachers are actually on their playground duty isn’t a bag of laughs (HTs do the teacher checking). My day is Wednesday once a fortnight, so it’s not a gig I can complain about, BUT I will make the observation that it’s quite hard to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea or eat some food or prepare for a lesson when you need to be walking around the school (outside and the occasional trip to a staffroom when someone forgets their duty – literally that was me every week when I did playground duty, so I have total empathy for them and feel like a jerk chasing them) every bell. I’m like Pavlov’s dogs – bell? Up and out! Haha!

I really can’t complain though, because I had two ‘free’ periods yesterday in which I could eat food and drink tea. Period 1 I spent marking year 12 bell work (yes, it seems excessive but I’m loving it – super good way to know where they are all at) and replying to emails and continuing to read the Henry IV article. Period 2 I had year 12 – they are REALLY getting into the reading of the play. I think it helps that we watched the Hollow Crown the week before, which is super fun, and now they understand the plot and the characters as we analyse the play-script itself. I thought it funny that the student whose work I read out as an exemplar was celebrating his birthday that day – what a present I gave him, haha!

After recess duty check (at least it wasn’t raining!), I spent period 3 writing yesterday’s blog post (is that bad of me, meh), revising my Philosophy slides (the ones I had used the morning before, I edited them based on class response to some of the wording), and continued with the Henry IV essay – it’s long, OK? Lunch duty fun followed that, and then two hours of Philosophy. I tell me students that epistemology takes a long time to get through because of the difficult content, but ethics takes a long time to get through because they all have something to say about every single ethical theory that I introduce them to! I had them all share via a Google Doc what their topics are for their PIP, and had a long conversation with a student about the difference between a sociology paper and a philosophy paper – he wanted to do his essay on nature vs nurture with a focus on psychopaths, and we ended up deciding that a focus on the nature of evil and moral responsibility would be a great philosophical angle. Looking forward to reading that paper!

I went home, did housework, watched TV and… did absolutely NO school work! I’m on a roll this week!