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! :)

It’s been one month since my last blog post…

It feels like so much has happened since I last posted on here. I’ve been so insanely busy that, quite literally, I have not had the energy to write a post. So what’s been going on?
– year 12 have completed their final HSC examinations. They were all really happy with the questions and came out relieved and pleased. It is such an emotional journey for us all, and I continue to miss them every day. Just yesterday two of my class came to visit and we chatted for over an hour! I’m so proud of them all :)
– year 7 participated in Literature Circles for three weeks. They were so lovely and engaged in their chosen novels. They wrote excellent reviews of their novels which we will be posting to Amazon or Good Reads. They’ve also been participating in a pen pals project with three other year 7 classes from different schools. One school is from rural Australia, one from Western Australia and one from northern NSW. They’ve been learning the conventions of letter-writing, which is amusing to me but all new to them. Yesterday half of the class received their first letters – there was much excitement! They’ve now begun working on their final project for the year – introduction to film making focusing on the concept of inventiveness. They’re all entering their short films into a film festival. More on this later!
– year 10 have been engaging with images of war. They have been learning about the concept ‘representation’ and how composers position responders to think and feel a certain way about war. They just finished their end of year exams, so we’re starting to compose their own images of war to share in a showcase for Remembrance Day.
– Lee and I have completed the first manuscript of our first PBL book! It was a lot of hard work, but we’re really proud of it and know that it will be a great resource for English teachers. It should be on shelves by the end of the year – watch this space!
– I got a new job! I’m really excited to be heading to Manly Selective Campus next year in the role of Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning. A big role that will provide me with lots of opportunities to hang out with students and teachers, talking about what I love – teaching!

So that’s what my month has looked like… phew! Hopefully I’ll get some time to reflect more comprehensively on my projects later this term. How’s your month been?

Shadow Hunters Take Melbourne!

My Year 12 Advanced English class has been studying the historical fiction novel, True History of the Kelly Gang for their HSC. In order to deepen their appreciation for the history of the Kelly legend, the class, my husband and myself travelled down to Melbourne for the weekend of August 15-17. After an eventful and enjoyable flight from Sydney, we arrived in Melbourne city around 10pm. The bus ride in from the airport revealed to us the picturesque Melbourne skyline, featuring the neon beauty of the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel. We happily discovered that our hotel was located within walking distance of all the great locations in Melbourne city.

We had a super early wake-up on our first day – our tour guide arrived at 7.30am! Once the bus turned up, we hit the road, heading for Kelly Country. First stop was Beveridge, only 40 minutes north of Melbourne. Here we saw the childhood home of Ned Kelly. Stepping out into the cold and misty morning, we were surprised by the small size of the wood and stone cottage where the legendary Kelly was born. The cottage is over 100 years old and has been heritage listed, which means it will hopefully be standing for many more years. Our next stop was Avenel, the small town where Ned’s family moved when he was a young boy. Here we saw the place where 11 year old Ned rescued 7 year old Dick Shelton from drowning in the creek. We were also given exclusive access to the Shelton Hotel, where Ned was taken after rescuing Dick. The current owner, Margie, was so hospitable and we were all in awe of the original state of the hotel. It was a privilege to be given the opportunity to stand in the very place Ned Kelly had stood over in 1866. Afterwards we were taken to the Avenel graveyard, where we saw the grave of Ned’s father, Red Kelly.

The next stop was the Benalla Museum, where we saw the green sash that Ned was given by the Shelton family to recognise his courage. When you look closely at the sash, you can see dark blood stains – Ned was wearing this sash under his famous armour during the shoot-out at Glenrowan Inn. This historical artifact really brought to life the legend of the Kelly gang. Further up north, we were taken to the actual scene of the infamous siege – Glenrowan. Our guide, Airi, provided us with very detailed commentary about the events leading up to and after the siege. It is often surprising for people to learn that Ned Kelly should ne more accurately labeled as a failed revolutionary, rather than a bushranger. The siege at Glenrowan certainly was a remarkable event in Australian history, and all students appreciated the poignancy of the location.

Our final stop on the tour was Greta, the final resting place of Ned Kelly and many of his relatives, including his beloved mother, Ellen. Visiting the graveyard was a moving and surprising experience for all of us. Ned Kelly’s remains have only recently been discovered at Pentridge Gaol, in Melbourne. He was buried with ceremony early in 2013, however the exact place of his burial is unknown. He is buried in an unmarked grave, to protect his remains from grave robbers. This certainly interested us all! Grave robbers, in Australia? Kelly must truly be a controversial figure in our history! We were then taken to the land where the Kelly’s homestead, Eleven Mile Creek, once stood. By this stage we were all very tired, having been on tour for nearly 12 hours, but it didn’t stop us from taking time to acknowledge the hardships that the Kelly family ensured in that very location.

The next day once again started fairly early, with a VIP tour of the Old Melbourne Gaol, the place where Ned Kelly was hanged in 1888. Our tour guide was fantastic! He was engaging and knowledgeable and worked hard to bring the true history of the gaol to life. Despite being tired from the previous day’s tour, all students were fully engaged in the stories being told, and were particularly interested in the death mask of Ned Kelly that is on display. The harshness of life in Colonial Australia was made apparent when our tour guide pointed out the very low heights of the doorways. People were much shorter in the 19th century because of their poor diets.

After a very enjoyable breakfast at the Queen Victoria Markets, we made our way down Swanston Street to the State Library of Victoria. Outside the library we stopped for a couple of photographs in front of the statue of Sir Redmond Barry, the judge who condemned Ned Kelly to death. We made sure that we showed him how we felt about his decision. Inside the quiet beauty of the library, we were greeted with what we were all waiting for – the famour armour of Ned Kelly. There is something so powerful about that armour, and we all felt it. Even more moving was seeing the boot that Ned was wearing on the day of the siege. It seems to give humanness to the history. Another artifact that we were excited to see was the Jerolderie letter. Having read it in class, it was certainly special to see the neat and careful handwriting of Joe Byrne and read the heartfelt narrative of Kelly and his family.

The trip ended in a rush, with laughter and a bit of drama, as we caught the final bus to the airport shuttle. I can’t commend my students highly enough for their enthusiasm, positive attitudes, joy and maturity on this trip. They taught me how to sound off, how to look both ways when crossing the road, and of course, they taught me what a hair donut is. This trip reminded my husband and I why we became teachers, because young people are amazing and joining them on their learning journeys is a privilege.


Farewell to my PBL guinea pigs #shadowhunters

I began experimenting with PBL in late 2010. In 2011, I started teaching a class of students who would become my little PBL guinea pigs for the next four years. They are what is sometimes referred to as an ‘extension class’, a motley group of students who were talented at English, loved English or were very well behaved and completed all their work, haha. I am happy to say that the majority of them fell into the first and second description. Being well-behaved is never a sign of a great learner, in my opinion anyway. Over the years the line up of students changed – some no longer loved English (oops) and some ended up in a different class when year 11 came around (sad). Despite this, the class had some consistent members, about 15, who stayed with me for the full four years. Sometimes I think they lamented that fact – usually in the final week of a project when it’s all getting a bit stressful. However, overall, I know that we had an amazing time together. We learnt together, we laughed together, we failed together, we shared amazingly crazy highs together and we played together. Seeing them leave my classroom for the final time two weeks ago was terribly emotional (I did hold it together mostly) because I have seen them grow into wonderfully confident, independent learners who love asking challenging questions, enjoy working in a team and who are happy to take risks and try new ways of doing things. I’m going to miss them terribly to the point that these 26 letters on my keyboard and all the emoticons in the world fail to express.

I’m writing this blog post to try (somehow) to bring together all of the amazing learning experiences we have shared. If you can’t understand why I’m getting so wussy about one class and you’ve been reading my blog for a while, this might help: #HG2212. These guys played the Hunger Games. They are them. Wow.

OK, so here’s a list of the insanely cool project based learning we experienced together as a team:

Year 9:

Protest Poetry: I didn’t blog about this – waaah – which is random cos it was such an epic project. My students adopted the role of ‘guerrilla poets’ and composed team and individual protest poems. We then help a performance poetry evening where we handed out their poetry anthology called ‘Poems for the Silenced’ and students performed their poems for their parents. Students also had their poems published in the Australian Teacher Magazine’s student publication, I think it’s called Spectrum. It was cool.

Passion-Driven Blogging: This project saw my students writing blogs to try to answer the question, How can I shape the way the world sees me? We connected with a couple of schools from the US, who were also blogging. You can read about it here.

Passion Project: This was so cool. End of year project that saw my students having real-world impact by raising awareness of issues that mattered to them. You can read about it here.

Year 10:

Cyborg project: This was technically my first collaborative PBL project. Dean Groom helped me design this project and it’s been successful every time I’ve run it. My lovely class, now in that tricky year of high school where things other than school matter, were amazing. They created lovely little poems and turned them into YouTube clips. You can read about the project here.

The Emo project: Why do emos write poetry? This was a massive PBl achievement for me. I finally bagged a rock star – Craig Shuftan from Triple J came to my school! The wit of my students can be seen in their brilliant memes created part way through the project – check them out here. Oh, and read here about how CRAIG SHUFTAN came to my school, and I wasn’t there… waaaah! Finally, here are their adorable podcasts… we watched one in class during our very last lesson two weeks ago. OMG, so funny!

Resilience Writers Project: This saw my class connecting with a class in the San Francisco Bay area. Boy did my students learn A LOT about America from this project! They made some super funny videos to introduce themselves to the American students, and we received some pretty hilarious videos in return. So many memories. Such fun! This is an overview of the project.

Hunger Games: We played the Hunger Games. Legit. We totes did. It was insane. Students metaphorically killed other students. Students cried. Students worshipped me as I walked past (no, literally). We went to the movies. It was fucking brilliant. Sorry. Expletive was required. You can read all about it here. I think this is one of my most favourite memories with this class. There are so many, but this is WAY up there.

Wild at Heart: We studied Where The Wild Things Are (book and film), we learnt about Freud (that opened some eyes!) and we published a book of personal essays! These kids were writing at a university level when they were in year 10. No pressure of the HSC, just 100% engagement in challenging ideas. Sigh. The HSC is such a fail.

ECP: To end an insanely big year of learning, my students were given the freedom to choose their own project. It was called the English Composition Project and my mind was BLOWN by some of the work finally completed. Stories, essays, blogs… rad. We had writing mentors from around the world to support student learning. Here‘s a list of who helped.

Year 11:

Vampire Trivia: To be entirely honest, we didn’t do anything exciting in my year 11 Advanced class. That was my fault entirely, because I got so intimidated by the ‘HSC’. Urgh! However, my Extension English students did awesome PBL stuff, including running a super fun vampire trivia evening. Loved it!

Year 12:

I was DETERMINED to make year 12 so much more awesome than year 11. As such, I planned to return to PBL with my little guinea pigs, and it worked!

Belonging: We went for a bush walk. Doesn’t sound like much, but just getting HSC kids out of the school is a major drama. We went down to the local state park, The Cascades, and wandered through nature like Emily Dickinson – whose poetry we were studying at the time. Lots of laughter was shared, especially when Angus found a dead yabby. Walking back chatting about life and stuff was just awesome.

Module A: Ah, Shakespeare. He can be tough. Especially a history play, Richard III with all of its characters named the same. Anyway, to make it more exciting we did a bit of a ‘project’ where students worked in teams to make YouTube videos as study aids. It was cool because they worked so well together and it reminded me of their wonderful collaborative talents. You can see their work here.

Module B: Oh, this is probably the best project we did during year 12. Studying Orwell is always great, he totally challenges students in the very best ways. We totally bagged another rock star for this project, with Dr Peter Marks from Sydney University coming out to our school to adjudicate my students’ debates about Orwell. Peter was stoked with my students, and so was I. I’m pretty sure I cried. Great memory. You can read more about it here.

Module C: Holy crap how can we top this one? A trip to Melbourne for two nights and two days to immerse ourselves in the life and world of the ‘infamous’ Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Not really PBL, but kinda it was. The trip was part of the inquiry stage of Mod C, and the end bit was students presenting their learning about texts about history and memory to the other Advanced English class. Of course they rocked and the other class was dead jelly of how bloody rad my class are, haha. No blog post to link to yet, but watch this blog… I’ll be posting one up soon.

So, it is with a heart as heavy as a heavy heart, that I say goodbye to my super amazing class of 2014. They have unwaveringly supported my edu experimentation on them and their learning, which is totally likely to be unethical, but what happens in great classrooms anyway. If you don’t trust me that they loved it, maybe watch the video below and see what they have to say. Gosh, I’m going to miss them.


Post-It notes were my number one teaching tool this term

The humble Post-It. A genius invention that enhances teaching and learning so easily. This term I’ve used Post-It notes with two classes really successfully and will incorporate them into learning activities even more next term.
Here are the two ways I used them this term:

Year 7 – picture books analysis

The last three weeks of term can be hard going if you don’t have a fun project or unit of work planned. I am lucky that Lee came up with a way to connect our two classes – his Kindy/year one class and my year 7 class – on a writing project. His students had previously worked on a story-writing project and had written very cute little narratives. Sadly, their original audience fell through, so we decided that my year 7 class would transform the little kids’ stories into picture books.
Clearly the first stage of this project is for my students to discover how picture books use words and images to tell stories. To do this, firstly we read lots of picture books. Easy. Next, however, was considering the ways meaning is made through images. I use an acronym for the visual literacy terms that are used when discussing visual texts – LT McGAVSSS. (Layout, Texture, Modality, Colour, Gaze, Vectors, Salience, Shots, Symbolism.) I gave each team 2 terms, a laptop and a picture book. I set the task of defining the terms, understanding what they mean and then finding TWO examples of each term used in their given picture book. That’s where the Post-Its came into play – I asked students to include the WHAT, HOW and WHY of the visual technique on the Post-It and stick it to the page relevant. So that means they identified WHAT technique was used, HOW it was used to make meaning and WHY it was used. They repeated this twice with each visual technique. In the photos below you can see how I wrote up the task on the board and some of their work. I was really pleased with the thought they put into their responses and the Post-Its became a visual reminder of their learning.

Year 10 – reading Macbeth

Reading Shakespeare is tough for kids, but I was determined that my mixed abilities year 10 class would read the original text and not the ‘modernised’ version. The project for students was to design an advertising campaign for a production of the play, and as such they needed a really good understanding of the plot, characters, themes, symbols, imagery etc. In order to keep track of these, I issued each student with a copy of the play (I put their name on the front with a sticky-taped Post-It) and a pad of Post-Its. As we read, I used questioning strategies to get students to identify and discuss the aspects of the play listed in my previous sentence. At the end of the lesson, each team got together to check all team members had taken solid notes on their Post-Its and to add what they missed. This would not only helped students when they came to designing their advertising campaign (ideally), but it was a great formative assessment tool for me to see how each student was coping with the play. I did find it odd that only a handful of my students went back to their notes when they got to the designing stage, maybe two teams did? I feel like I should have made that step more explicit, then part of me was like, ‘Well duh, like you need to be told to do that!’ Haha.

Anyway, that’s just two ways I’ve used Post-Its for learning this term. How do you use them with your classes?








Sharing the love: grab yourself a copy of my new book

That title sounds like: 1. I’ve written a novel (I haven’t) and 2. I’m giving away heaps of books (I’m not). Sorry! I think blog titles are meant to be provocative or attractive and even sometimes a little misleading… how else will we get people to read what we have to say in this blog-saturated Internet?

OK, so what is going on? Basically, I’m super stoked because today I received a box of my latest book – the updated HSC Standard English study guide. It’s been updated since the first edition because the HSC prescriptions changed – that change resulted in me writing over 100,000 extra words on 25 new texts! Fun times, lol!

The box that arrived today contained 6 copies of the book. One for me, one for my faculty at school, one for each of my parents and one for lucky Emily Johnston – a new Twitter colleague who is working hard to write reports and responded to my ‘competition’ on Twitter, lol. The remaining book COULD BE YOURS! Haha.. just tell me what your favourite text is from the new Standard prescriptions and why you love it! My 13 year old son will pick his favourite response and I will post off a (signed, bahhahaa!) copy of the study guide to you later this week.

So, what are you waiting for? Start commenting below so you can win :P 

Oh, and if you can’t be arsed thinking up an answer and just wanna buy it, you can get it online at some point (I don’t know if it’s available just yet), try here: 


Lo-fi old skool formative assessment FTW

Formative assessment doesn’t need to be innovative or tech-based, it just needs to work. I think too often we get so caught up in the bright lights of new tools and ideas that we neglect older ones. As we all know, formative assessment is awesome. John Hattie tells us it is, and we all know he knows everything about education (insert sly snicker here). But seriously, he’s actually onto something when it comes to formative assessment (what he calls feedback… same, same). Black and Wiliam – the formative assessment gurus – tell us that it is a ‘self-evident proposition that teaching and learning must be interactive’ since it is our job as teachers to know our students’ progress and needs in order to help them learn. This information is gathered through ‘assessment’ – by teacher and by students – which takes a wide range of forms. This assessment ‘becomes formative when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student need’. Formative assessment, used correctly, improves learning outcomes. However, if we get wrapped up in the WAY students are being assessed (or assessing themselves/each other) then we may forget to use the assessment information for what it was intended – to modify teaching and learning strategies to meet student need. (Quotes from Black and Wiliam, ‘Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment’ – Google it and have a read, even if you have read it before!)

This week I have rediscovered the beauty of the quiz. Now, we mustn’t call it a test, because that – I have just learned – freaks students out. I’m assuming the word test connotes grades and rankings and thus fear. I used a quiz to assess my students’ understanding of the play Macbeth. We’ve been reading and performing excerpts in class as part of their project that will see them create an advertising campaign for a theatrical production of the play. I’d told them that the quiz was coming, they knew what it was they’d need to know, but it wasn’t something they were required to ‘study’ for – that would defeat the purpose.

It was funny that when I handed out the quiz they started asking me if it was ‘worth’ anything. I replied that it was an assessment of their learning and that it would help me see what we need to refocus on. They seemed to sigh with relief – how odd! Despite it not being ‘worth’ anything in their minds, they still all worked quietly and took the quiz seriously. It only took 15 minutes to complete. After the lesson, I took 30 minutes to ‘mark’ their quizzes, and it was really enlightening for me. Most understood the plot and characters, and many the themes, but a lot of them struggled with questions about Shakespeare’s language and dramatic techniques. This is unsurprising, really, cos they are much higher order content and less engaging. It might even be that they’ve decided that information is less important for their project – after all, they’re not writing an analysis of the play.

What makes this (pretty basic, old skool) assessment formative is that I will be using the information gained to adapt my teaching. There were also some students that have really obvious gaps in their knowledge of the play, and as such I will be working with them to address those. In class on Monday we will be going through the ‘correct’ answers in an attempt to help check if it was simple errors (often made with multiple choice questions) or if it’s something more significant which we can – hopefully – sort out together as a class. I don’t know of going through answers to a quiz as a class runs counter to the purpose of formative assessment – I feel a little like it might since I might inadvertently ‘out’ students as being less knowledgable because they got less questions correct. An alternative might be to ask each student to look at their results individually and to identify three ways they can improve their knowledge of the play in future. Maybe I could also just discuss some of the shared errors made by the class and try to address them through discussion and questioning…

Anyway, this post was written with the hope that some of you might rekindle your love for the humble quiz. It’s quick and easy to implement. Well, not easy if you’re like me and feel it necessary to create a quiz from scratch – it helped ensure I was assessing the knowledge relevant to our project. Obviously make your quiz it non-threatening for your students be discussing the pedagogical reasons for using it as a formative assessment strategy. Do tell me, what’s your secret fav old skool tool?