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:

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:
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:


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.





– 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!


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!

A new school, a new me?

It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to my colleagues at Davidson High School at the end of last year. As I walked out of the school gates for the last time, my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of cider, holidays and Christmas. Despite being overwhelmed by the generous words and emotions of my colleagues on that last day, it didn’t feel like I was leaving. It was only as I prepared myself to begin my new school, that I started to realise what I had lost.

What had I lost? Obviously, I’d lost many hours of shared experiences and laughter with my colleagues (who of course are really friends, now) but what hit me most was the loss of my students’ future selves. It sounds weird, but I started panicking that I wouldn’t see how certain students ‘turned out’. Would Tom get taller than his sister? Would Adam ace English in his HSC? What about Lachie, would he become the new school clown, performing on stage in SOPA? Of course, you don’t know who these people are, but I do, and as I type those questions out, I get a bit choked up. I know that very soon their names and memories will be swallowed up by time, and replaced by new names and future selves. That kinda scares me. I am grateful, though, for social media – already one student has tweeted me about their new English teacher. Of course, that connection won’t last forever, but it does fill a little Davo void, whilst I work to develop my connections at my new school.

So how is my new school? It’s actually really awesome. This makes me very happy, but it makes me feel guilty, as though somehow I’m being unfaithful to my colleagues and students at Davo. I continue to use the collective first person when referring to Davo, ‘We didn’t have that’ and ‘Our students did this’. I suppose when I refer to Manly in that way, I’ll know that my heart has left Davo, and found its new home at Manly.

One thing that’s played on my mind a bit, is how much of ‘me’ I should be at this new school. Like, how slowly or quickly do I reveal that I’m really disorganised, or that I’m a constant apologiser, and self-deprecating? When do I let it slip that I can be a bit bossy and even arrogant? Should I let my new students know that I panic when writing on the whiteboard incase I make a spelling error (it’s always the double consonants that get me!)? What about the fact that I am pretty forgetful, and bad a managing class time? I guess by now they know I’m an anxious people-pleaser, since I’ve been running around like a nutcase trying to stay on top of stuff.

Most of all, I wonder how I should be in the classroom. Davo is a very different school to Manly. Perhaps what my students loved and respected me for at Davo, the kids at Manly will find frustrating? Perhaps they’ll think PBL is silly. Perhaps I’ll find myself giving them what they want, rather than what they need, simply because I’m anxious to be liked? So far, I’ve not planned any projects for any class. Not one. That’s weird, huh? I feel very unsure. That’s what it is. I’ve just got to find my feet, and then the creativity will come back, my confidence, right?

I certainly now have much greater empathy for teachers and students who have taken that leap and started a new school. If you’re new this year, and you’re feeling a similar way, or you have some tips on making the transition more confidently, let me know! I do know that having ridiculously friendly and caring colleagues at my new school has helped HEAPS. I also know how lucky I am… and I’m happy. I’m just still at that ‘tail between her legs’ stage, lol. Are you?

SEVEN: A short film festival

The final project that I ran with year 7 in 2014 was really fun – I loved writing the project and loved running it with students. Better than that, the students loved it too. I had two year 7 classes last year, so that meant almost 60 students working individually, in pairs or in small teams to create a short film to enter our inaugural ‘SEVEN’ film festival. I know that many people have run film festivals in their schools before, but this one was just for year 7. That’s why it’s called ‘SEVEN’. I hope that it continues to run each year, even though I won’t be at Davidson to organise it.

Here is the flyer for the film festival that also served as our project outline:

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The main focus for me for this project was to help students understand and appreciate the process of film-making, and also to get them to understand and appreciate the concept of ‘inventiveness’. It’s a difficult concept, but one that I feel passionately about in regards to art and literature. So how did we do it? Well, in typical PBL style, we started with the ‘need to know’ questions. You can see them at the end of this post. The students had heaps of great questions! The first thing we did was learn about film techniques – students worked in small teams to create a PPT with all of the film essentials. This was a hard task for them – many haven’t studied film before – but they certainly learnt a lot! Next we watched five of the finalists from the 2013 TropFest Jnr competition, as well as a range of other short videos. As you can see from the flyer above, I specified what film style the students could choose – animation, claymation, stop-motion animation, machinima or silent film. I did this for two reasons: I wanted them to understand style and the conventions of a style, and I didn’t want to watch any films with awful live acting, haha. Most students ended up going for claymation, perhaps that’s because the winning film for TropFest Jnr was a claymation. It was cool to see that students could appreciate why some films were better in terms of the camera work, narrative, etc.

After students selected their style, they spent time researching the conventions of that style. This only took a couple of lessons and required the students to share their findings via edmodo. This concluded the ‘research’ part of the project – we then moved on the the ‘create’ part, where students spent a lot of time ‘ideating’. Basically they had to come up with five different ideas for their film, share these with the class and get feedback on which was the most popular. We spent time reading through the BIE rubric for creativity, which helped them appreciate the importance of reworking an idea, not just sticking with one thing without making modifications. Finally, once students were happy with their narrative, they moved on the script-writing. I spent a lesson showing them the conventions of script-writing for film and looking at model scripts for short film. I did the same thing for story-boarding once students had completed their scripts. Many of the teams found this stage of the project really boring and time-consuming, but in the end they all appreciated how important it is. I loved seeing their surprise when I told them how much time goes into pre and post production when making a major film!

Once students had completed the pre-production stage, they were very excited to move on the production. The students who chose silent film managed to get their filming done very quickly in comparison to those doing the other styles. Regardless, students had a great time shooting, and my classroom was abuzz with activity for about two weeks – actually, if I am honest it seemed like utter chaos, haha. The final stage of film-making is editing and that is always THE most stressful part. It’s also where students learn the most. Unfortunately many students rushed into filming with a range of devices – iPads, phones, cameras – before they worked out how to get the footage off that device and into some editing software. We don’t have anything at school that students can specifically use for editing- just the Lenovo PCs and laptops that have editing programs that are too powerful for the slow machines. Very frustrating! Most students ended up using the iMovie or Lego app on iPads or phones, and then I used the hotspot on my phone to upload them to YouTube. Many films failed to make it that far, because students simply didn’t think ahead, I wonder how many short films end up in the bin because of this? I do know that students will do things differently next time they make a movie!

Those films that did make it to YouTube were entered into the competition. Two of my ex-students are currently studying film, and were happy to be judges for ‘SEVEN’. They watched them via YouTube, chose the 10 finalists and then sent me the list via Facebook messenger. The 10 finalists were invited to the film festival at 5pm on a school night, where all 10 films were watched and then we watched a video where Jake and Todd (the judges) announced the winner. It was so cool. The guys are hilarious and inspiring. The night was a success, and all students appreciated why the winner got the trophy. Phew! Here is the video Jake and Todd made, I love it!

Here is a link to the 10 finalists:

Here’s the winning short film:

At the end of the project, I had students go back to the original ‘need to know’ questions that they had come up with, and then answer them. It was cool to see so many students able to answer all questions confidently! I don’t care what anyone says, PBL worked for these kids, and they loved learning! Here’s the list of questions and the answers from one of my students:

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Video Games Appreciation Day #VGAD

Not everyone appreciates video games, and no one understands that more than year 9 gaming boys. For the last two terms I’ve had the pleasure of running the Game On critical and creative thinking course with 20 committed gamers. This time the gamers all happened to be boys. We’ve done some cool stuff – designing games with Gamestar Mechanic, filming game reviews and designing board games. We’ve also played a lot of Counterstrike 1.6.

In order to celebrate the boys’ love of gaming – and their awareness that gaming has a bad rep in some quarters, typically with teachers and parents – we decided to run a video game appreciation day at school. We named it VGAD for short.

The boys decided that they wanted admission to be competitive with students having to compete in gaming-related competitions in order to earn an invitation to the event. They were responsible for choosing, planning and running these competitions, as well as advertising the VGAD event and organising how it would run on the actual day.

Two weeks before VGAD we had over 70 students apply to attend. Only 30 invitations would be handed out. The week before VGAD the boys ran three competitions – Minecraft Build Challenge, Halo Grifball and Counterstrike 1.6 5v5. Each gamer had to earn a total of 50 points in order to earn an invitation to VGAD. For three lunchtimes we had two classrooms full of gaming – it was chaotic but awesome. Adding up all the points, deciding on the winners and getting the invitations out was a big job, and a great learning experience for the boys.

Last Tuesday was VGAD – two periods of gaming, Doritos and Mountain Dew. We had 50 students (48 boys and 2 girls) in the library playing Halo, Counterstrike, Minecraft, board games made by students (the teachers likely enjoyed these more than the kids) and generally having a great time to a backdrop of pretty loud music.

By then end of VGAD I had heaps of students asking me if we could do it again next year. That’s a win in my opinion. I hope it continues at Davo, but I’m likely to bring it with me to my new school. I think it’s super important for adults, especially in schools, to value video games and the knowledge and skills our students have.





Professional Learning Library

Well there’s only four more weeks left of term 4, which also marks four more weeks left at Davidson High School. I’m starting to get a bit nervous and a bit sad. It’s going to be so hard to leave my great friends at Davo – especially my English teacher colleagues. When I first arrived at Davo I was 25 years old and my youngest son was only 5 months old! Now I’m leaving at the age of 34, and my youngest son is 10. It’s all kinds of crazy! Anyway, this post is not about crying, so I’m going to stop thinking about what I will be missing and start thinking about what great new things I will be learning and experiencing!

My new role is all about teacher professional learning – how cool is that? If you read my blog regularly you’ll know that TPL is my passion, because learning is awesome and so is teaching. One of the first things I want to do is to establish a ‘Professional Learning Library’ for myself and my colleagues. Of course I will spend a lot of time introducing them to social media (Twitter being the world’s biggest staffroom) but I also know the value of the stillness and focus that comes from reading a book. As such, I want to buy some titles that are guaranteed to inspire my new colleagues to think in new ways and to try new things.

My question to you is this: What books have you read that have inspired you to think in new ways about your role as a teacher and to try new things with your classes?

All suggestions are welcome – even if they are books that are not necessarily ‘education’ books – so they might be about innovation, design, creativity, architecture, technology, leadership, managing change etc. If you could comment below with the name or names of the suggested books and brief description of why I should get it, that would be awesome. I’m hoping to get to reading a number of the books myself these holidays – especially any suggested books on leadership and gifted and talented education.

Thanks a billion everyone! :)