About biancah80

I teach English at a public high school on Sydney's Northern Beaches and fledgling PBL in English researcher at Sydney Uni. Happily married & mum of 2 boys. My blog: www.biancahewes.wordpress.com

My super fun creative writing hook lesson with year 10!

I’m fairly convinced that my favourite lesson of any project is the hook lesson. It’s where I get to do something completely random with my students, under the pretext of introducing our new project focus. The idea of a hook lesson is to hint at the focus for the project through a fun and engaging activity. Of course, some hook lessons are more successful at engaging students than others, and that’s what I want to share with you now.

The new project I’m running with year 10 is about narrative writing. I’ve decided to skew the focus a bit to concentrate on narrative memoir… is that a term? I don’t know. I’ll just pretend it is. What I mean is, the students’ narratives will be loosely based on the life story of a loved one. I think this will make it easier for them to focus on the act of writing, than trying to imagine a scenario where ‘change’ occurs – see, the concept we’re looking at is change.

I actually came up with this hook lesson in my lunch break before class – typical! I didn’t know if it would work, but luckily it did. OK, so here’s what I did. I gave every student two strips of paper – enough to write a short paragraph on. I then explained the activity to them: they needed to choose a partner, and they were to sit across from them on the floor and write two descriptions of that person. The first description was imagining that person when he/she was five years old. The second description was imagining that same person when he/she is 65 years old. The descriptions were to be approximately 100 words, they could not mention the name of the person being described (they were allowed to use gender-specific pronouns), and they were not to put their own name on it.

I took my class out into the hallway outside of the classroom, and they sat facing each other. I gave them about twenty minutes to complete the two descriptions. When they were finished they had to post their two pieces of paper to the whiteboard using blutak – in different spots – and then sit back at their chair. When the whole class was back inside, I chose three descriptions and read them out (in an exaggerated way, of course, lol) and the class tried to guess who was being described. They loved this! Next, I invited them all up to grab one description at random (not their own), and then each student had to read it quietly and try to guess who it was describing. We went around the class and each students read out the first two lines and said who they thought it was being described. Often we they needed the assistance of the writer, but not always. It was pretty hilarious! By the end of the lesson everyone got their two descriptions, and everyone was laughing.

I loved this lesson, and so did my students. I think they’ll want to do it again. I told me son about the lesson, and he asked if we could do it with his class. That’s a win, surely? Below are some of the descriptions that my students wrote – sorry about the handwriting! ;)

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Thanks for the chat, Will! @willkostakis

I love Twitter. I love writing. I love teaching. Put them all together and what do you get? One freaking awesome Twitter chat between my class and a young published author. Oh, and you get one deliriously happy me.

Last week I launched a new project with year 10. Here’s the project outline:

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After our insanely epic hook lesson (I’ll write a separate post about it), I came home and tweeted one of the coolest young writers I know, Will Kostakis, and asked him if he’d participate in a Twitter Q&A with my class. He said yes!! We arranged a time to chat – in real time – so the next step was questions. Before the next lesson with year 10, I quickly created a Google Doc with info about Will (nicked from his website) and added a table for each student’s name and question.

When I told my class that Will had agreed to answer their questions about writing, their response was magic – they were thrilled that a real writer would speak with them, with some excited because he’s ‘like a celebrity’. I shared the question GDoc with them (we have a Google Drive folder for this project, and everything I put in it automatically shares with them – thanks for the tip Ginger Lewman!) and off they went, adding questions. Now that I’ve set up sharing with students properly, I can see who is editing what, so it was easy to catch the silly boys adding ‘funny’ things after people’s name. We had a chat about being responsible and respectful online, and I threatened to put the silly ones on read only, and they got over it pretty quickly. By the end of the lesson we had 30 amazing questions, ready to ask Will the next day.

The beginning of the Twitter Q&A lesson was a little manic – I had to open to GDoc, open Twitter, get the students focused on a small side task to keep them working during anticipated delays in the chat, and then I had to start posting questions to Will. The first few questions Will actually answered in video form – my students were all ‘Vines be like’ haha. The videos were so cool, but unfortunately our WiFi is a bit sluggish so they took ages to load. We ended up asking Will to respond through text, not video, which worked much better but I think the kids really enjoyed the videos the most.

It was so sweet to see my students’ eyes light up when Will answered their question, and even sweeter to see how shy they were about posting a reply. Most were happy just to say thank you, with the obligatory winky face, of course. A couple asked follow-up questions, which Will answered with enthusiasm. During the chat I noticed one of my students was on his phone, and discovered that he had made a Twitter account there and then, just so he could ask his own questions of Will. Totally cool!

I spent most of the chat with my fingers attached to the keyboard – we used my Twitter account to ask Will the questions – so I can only imagine how intense the chat was on Will’s end as well. I was totally blown away by the quality of his answers – they were honest, insightful, humorous and really pitched perfectly to their audience. There’s not really enough praise that I can give to Will, a young writer who gave up his time to chat with students. Not just chat, but ENGAGE – he wasn’t arrogant, or superior, or critical, or dismissive. He was warm and inviting and genuine. Bloody brilliant.

By the time we were halfway through our chat, one of my students suggested that we should Skype next time – I think they really enjoyed watching Will talk, cos he’s a very funny, animated speaker. With trepidation, I asked Will if he was interested in a Skype chat next week, and guess what? He said yes! I suppose I should start thinking how to get connected to Skype at school now, huh?

Below is a series of screen shots of our #writerwill Twitter chat. I’m sharing these with my class via a GDoc – or maybe I could do a Storify? Either way, my class now has a wonderful resource to help them become better writers. If you haven’t done a Twitter chat yet, I really think you should soon!

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Tech & Tea: an attempt at ICT workshops

As you probably know, I have started working at a new school this year. You probably know that it’s not just a classroom teacher position, but an executive position where I am responsible for the professional learning of the teaching staff at the school. It’s this new role that has both excited and terrified me. I’m excited because professional learning for teachers is my passion, but terrified because I know the reality of schools. It’s grappling with this reality that has been the biggest challenge, and the biggest learning curve for me. Initially my focus was on introducing PBL to the whole staff, through subject-specific projects in year 8, and then a cross-KLA project with year 7. Well, despite my vision, and optimism, (and far too many pleading emails) this first focus has stalled. I think what I learnt the most from this first attempt at introducing something new, is not to make assumptions, and to communicate with people in person.  Anyway, I quickly moved onto a second focus (whilst still holding out hope for the first) which is ICT based workshops for interested teachers.

After chatting with my friend Megan Townes, I came up with the idea of Tech and Tea – after school workshops where I would introduce teachers to a new web-based app, or tool, that would enhance teaching and learning. I provide afternoon tea as well. I made a flyer outlining all of the workshops, and advertised it to staff via a morning staff meeting and email. Here’s the flyer, which I made using Canva:

Tea & Tech-T1 (revised)

So, the first workshop was at a lunch time and was on Twitter and four teachers came – three from the English faculty, and one of our deputies. I provided WAY too much food, which gave away my overly optimistic assumption that heaps of teachers would want to come to my workshop on Twitter. I mean, Twitter and me! Who wouldn’t want to come? I have over 4500 followers – I am KNOWN, right? Well, no, I’m not. Busy teachers don’t give a rat’s about how many Twitter followers you have, or how long you’ve been tweeting for. Anyway, two of the teachers have started using Twitter now, which I think is a win – that’s two more than were on it before. Below is my presentation for the workshop. Maybe you might have more success luring teachers to your Twitter workshop?

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The most recent Tech and Tea was also held at lunch time. It was on blogs – reading them and writing them. I brought less afternoon tea this time, but it was still too much. I sat by myself in the meeting room for the first half of lunch, and then half way through the second half one of the HSIE staff came in. She’s a lovely person, who is super keen to learn new things. I flicked through the slides of the blogging PPT, but discovered she was more interested in Twitter. We spent about ten minutes trying to set her up – it failed due to the Internet dropping out – and then the bell went, and it was time for class. Once again, here’s the slides if you want to use them.

Tech&TeachPL-Blogging

So what have I learnt from this? I’ve learnt that I am stupidly persistent. I know I will continue to buy/make cakes and bring them in, sit in the meeting room and hope that someone will turn up. I’ll continue to email the whole staff and promote Tech and Tea, and share the PPTs with them incase they can’t come. I’ve learnt that teachers are crazy busy, and that I’m pretty much as insane as people have always hinted at. I spend way too much of my time thinking about teaching – as a profession, not as an activity that occupies me for most of the day. I’ve learnt that there must be another way to do PL, other than hoping people will turn up, and I’m going to find out what it is.

Edmodo still has my heart <3

There are so many tools available for teachers these days, many more than when I first embarked on my tech in edu adventures way back in 2009 – coincidentally the year I first found Edmodo. This multiplicity of tools is both awesome and overwhelming, especially for those teachers who are just (finally) dipping their toes into the (sometimes) murky waters of edtech. What should I use? When should I use it? How do I use it best? These are the big questions that teachers need to find answers to if they are going to use technology effectively to enhance student learning and engagement.

For me, Edmodo continues to be a staple in my web-based apps diet. Yes, they have changed it a lot since it first debuted, and yes, some of those changes haven’t been for the best (the iPad app continues to be dodgy!). However, its main functionality is the same, and I continue to find it super reliable and user-friendly for my students. I’m thankful that the school I’m now in sets all students up with Edmodo right at the beginning of year 7. This approach normalizes the use of technology in learning, and means students aren’t messing around signing up in class etc.

I’ve tweeted a bit about my love for Edmodo recently, so I thought I might go the whole edu blogger cliche and list 5 reasons I continue to be enamoured with one of the most used, and well known edtech tools:

1. Silent discussions.
There’s nothing simpler or more engaging than posting a provocative statement, question, image or video to a class Edmodo group, and letting students respond quietly in a given time. I’ve done this recently with year 10 (who studying consumerism) and year 11 (who are studying journeys) with great results from both classes.

2. Assignments. I use this feature for homework and class tasks. I don’t give students a grade, rather I prefer to use smiley faces – most kids receive this :)/:) which means they’ve completed a task. I then use medals and missions feedback to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses with a particular task.

3. Embedding videos and links. So freaking easy that Kindy kids can do it! I share a lot of resources, and so do my students, via Edmodo. You can add them to folders too – which keeps everyone organised. So easy!

4. Google Drive connectivity. Oh man! Now that our department has unblocked Google Drive, it’s so easy to have my students collaborate! My students have all been using Google Drive – docs to collaboratively analyse texts, and presentations to share their learning with the class. They even each have their own google doc learning journals. The fact that Edmodo allows us to directly link from our Google Drive accounts is AMAZEBALLS! No more worksheets getting lost, or eaten by the dog, lol!

5. Connecting with teachers (and classes) all around the world. The teacher communities continue to grow, with so much interaction and sharing it really is remarkable. I bet it’s one of the largest education-specific online communities around! Just this morning I connected with a teacher in Turkey, and we plan to connect our classes to talk about WWI and the importance of the centenary. What a fantastic opportunity for us all, and it happened totally organically via Edmodo.

There are lots of ways to use Edmodo, but these are the five that I keep coming back for. I hope that Edmodo continues to be viable, and that they start earning money for this awesome tool. If it wasn’t for Edmodo, I wouldn’t have had half of the awesome edu experiences I’ve had in the last 5 years.
How have you used Edmodo this year?

Creative writing with year 11: online, and outside

You know how you’re not meant to pick favourites? Well, I definitely stick to that rule, but if I was allowed to have a favourite class it would certainly be my year 11 English Advanced class. We’ve only known each other for four weeks, but already I feel very comfortable with them, as they do with me.

They’ve happily embraced me idiosyncratic approach to teaching, and are reveling in our unconventional learning practices. So far they have had a silent discussion via Edmodo, collaboratively deconstructed a short story and shared their ideas via Google Docs, made a video showcasing their analogies for journeys, and spent time learning outdoors. Oh, and they’ve also set up blogs through which they’ll be writing with, and for, a year 11 class in another school.
Here’s their journey video:
http://youtu.be/9Cc9FllsIVo

Last week my class participated in a couple of cool creative writing activities. The first one was our first ever Creative Writing Challenge. Each week I’ll be posting a writing prompt and some constraints, and students will write a 300 word response and post it to their blogs. The class they’re connecting with will be entering the competition too. This week it was super hard for me to pick the best writer, so I turned to my English teacher colleagues via the NSW English Teachers’ Association Facebook page. One lovely teacher, Amanda Hannah, spent a couple of hours reading through my students’ writing, giving them feedback and then choosing the winners. What an awesome human! So cool! My students were stoked to know someone would be that committed to their writing. You can see the challenge here: http://kidblog.org/MSC-Davo11/f7276668-afb3-4258-8926-38fab3832f51/creative-writing-challenge-1/
The winning writer was Katie.

On Friday afternoon (last period) I decided that more creative writing was in order. It was hot, and we were all tired, so the outdoors was a must! We’re studying journeys, so I decided to take them on a journey into their school. Each student was given three or four ‘constraints’ for their writing – basically stylistic features they HAD to use – and sent to the ‘setting’ for their 100 word narrative. I sent them to the canteen. Haha! So what were the possible constraints? Narrator (third person omniscient, third person limited, commentator, first person or unreliable narrator) mood (depressed, surprised or angry) character (teacher, student or stranger) imagery (natural or artificial). It was so fun, seeing my students think a lot about their writing and being really challenged by their constraints and their surroundings. They produced some great writing.

Maybe someone has a similar activity, or might modify this idea for their classes… let me know by sharing via a comment below :)

Introducing year 8 to genre…

In my last blog post, I explained how I used a series of ‘station’ activities to introduce my year 10 students to poetry. This week, I used a similar approach to introduce my year 8 students to genre. I only teach the class one period a fortnight – I share the class with their main teacher. As this was our first lesson together, I figured a hands-on, face-paced and fun lesson would be best. I had the students work on a range of genre-related activities for 5 minutes, then move to the next station. This time, I used an online timer on the projector, so the students could see when to move to the next activity. It was heaps of fun, and the class told me that they’d learnt new things about genre, and had done some creative thinking. Yay! Below is a quick overview of the activities students did:

Comic-making:

I gave students a pile of blank comic strips (I used this one) and they had 5 minutes to create an ‘action’ comic.

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Two-sentence horror story:

Students read through a bunch of two sentence horror stories – you can read some here. They then had to write their own two-sentence horror story and then post it to the whiteboard using Blu-Tak.

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Six-word love story:

I gave students a bunch of pink paper strips. On the strip, they had to write a 6 word love story. Completed stories were posted to the whiteboard using Blu-Tak.

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Genre mix-and-match:

I printed off a list of 15 genres, and a list of the genre conventions for 10 of them. I cut them up, and mixed them up on the table. Students then had to match the genre with the appropriate conventions. Once the students had matched them all up, they had to choose three genres and list as many texts they knew of that genre.

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Genre film match:

Students had to match a film to its genre – I used the same genre lists as with the previous activities, but made sure there was a film picture for each one. Once students had successfully matched them, they had to pick one film and explain to their team why it fits the genre they chose.

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Puppet-Pals 2:

Students were given the task of creating a fairytale using the Puppet-Pals 2 app on my iPad. This was the activity that the students were the least successful with – probably because it takes longer than 5 minutes to create a finished video, but also because it’s so fun to play around with!

Friday afternoon poetry fun!

My first lesson ever with my new year 10 class was at the worst time possible – last period on Friday of the first week back at school. Our topic? Poetry (OK, the topic is consumerism, but the text form is poetry). I knew that I couldn’t stand up and talk at the kids, or even get them to do a writing task. Why? I’m the new teacher, they’re in year 10, you work it out. So, I went for a hands on hook lesson.

I’ve done a similar lesson to this before with year 7 last year. I had the students work on a range of poetry-related activities for 5 minutes, then move to the next ‘station’. This time I added a couple of new activities, relevant to the age and skill level of my new students. Below is a list of the activities:

- What is poetry?
Students had to work in their small team to come up with a detailed analogy for poetry. They recorded this on a piece of A3 paper.

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- Lego Poetry
Students wrote micro poems using a box of Lego where each brick has a different word on it – I used BrickStix for this, which you can buy online.

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- Poetic Terms
In teams, students brainstormed and recorded all the poetic devices they knew and wrote examples of each.

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- Instant Poetry
Using the iPad app, ‘Instant Poetry 2′, students wrote poems and matched them to a background. The poems were saved to a gallery. This is like digital magnetic poetry – hard but fun.

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- Blackout Poetry
This is where students take a photocopy of an existing written text and a black marker and create a poem. I gave my students pages from James Paul Gee’s book ‘The Anti-Education Era’. Fun!

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- Post-It Poetry
I took a very short famous poem (Emily Dickinson’s ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking’) and wrote each word on a Post-It. I then put these out in a random order, and the students had to try to put the poem back together!

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Needless to say, the lesson was noisy but fun. It was great getting to know my students by the way the engaged with the tasks, and with each other. Also, it was nice seeing the furniture in the classroom being moved around so the desks weren’t all facing the front. I’m really looking forward to learning with this class, I think they’re going to be high spirited and engaged. Lucky me!