Wanted: MORE mentors for students working on their ECP

If you read my last blog post, you will know what this post is about. I’m not going to rewrite that post, so just go read it here.

After an AMAZING response to my previous request for mentors (all students had a mentor within 24 hours of the post being published!), some more of my students have asked if I can find them mentors. These students have spent some time looking on their own, but haven’t been successful – I think they now know the power of having a strong online network!

So below is a list of the topics my students are focusing on, and if you’re keen to mentor one, just post a comment below with your preferred topic and I will arrange for you to join our edmodo group. Thanks so much in advance – it’s a great opportunity for all involved!

Student 13: short story (form); What makes a short story interesting? (concept)

Student 14: critical response (form); Purpose of dreams (concept)

Student 15: personal essay (form); What’s the appeal of Ellen Hopkins’ ‘Crank’ trilogy? (concept)

Student 16: personal essay (form); the philosophy of success (concept)

Student 17: personal essay (form); Are serial killers born or created? (concept)

Student 18: feature article (form); Inspiring people from the medical field e.g. Chris O’brien (concept)

Wanted: mentors for students working on their ECP

What’s the ‘ECP’? It’s the English Composition Project that my Year 10 Extension English class is working on this term. For those of you from NSW, you’ll recognise the project as being a mini-English Extension II project. It’s not designed to prepare students for the HSC, it’s designed to give students the opportunity to spend time researching a concept of interest and to compose in a form of their choice. It is the ultimate opportunity for student voice and choice. I love EE2 and think it’s important that all students have the opportunity to create a unique and personal composition; not just those deemed to be ‘the most clever’.

As part of the process of the ECP, students are required to find a mentor. The role of the mentor can be as big or small as the mentor and student feel is necessary. The main purpose of having a mentor is to have someone outside of the classroom who can listen to my students’ ideas, provide feedback and read through drafts at the later stage of the project. I’ve told my students that electronic communication is preferable, unless they know the mentor personally and have sought parental approval. And this is where you, dear readers, come into the picture. I have a number of students who are at a loss as to how to locate a mentor … they have tried a few avenues but have not been successful. Networking in this way is new to my students and so I offered to use my network to see if I can locate mentors for them. Each student who wanted to use my network, needed to record the concept and form of their ECP as this will help you to identify if you can be a mentor for that student if it’s your expertise, or if you can recommend another person to be their mentor. Below is a list of the concepts and forms students would like a mentor for. If you are interested, post your name and Twitter i.d. or email below and I/they will contact you soon. The preferred communication method between mentor and student is via edmodo. (If a line has been put through it, the student has now got a mentor!)

Student 1: Expose (form); What is the point of life? (concept)

Student 2: Magazine article (form); Pop vs Rock (concept)

Student 3: Short story (form); mystery (concept)

Student 4: Critical response (form); vampire culture and its popularity (concept)

Student 5: Speech (form); Do politicians take their personal prejudices to office? (concept)

Student 6: Critical response (form); Should ‘moral crimes’ be regarded as legislation? (concept)

Student 7: Short story (form); fantasy genre (concept)

Student 8: Short story (form); teenage experiences/realism (concept)

Student 9: Blogging (form); Belieberism: fan or freak? (concept)

Student 10: Personal essay (form); emotional/mental triggers (concept)

Student 11: Poetry/Short story (form); Why do we fear? (concept)

Student 12: Blogging (form); Why are people fascinated by the art of Tim Burton? (concept)

Here’s the ECP outline:

Three new English projects: Years 8, 9 and 10

This term I am free of Year 12! That’s not a very nice way of putting it. I loved all of my Year 12 students (still do in fact, as they struggle through the last cramming stage of the HSC and ask me for tips, feedback and support) but it is a tough and sometimes dispiriting course. It’s nice to see the back of it for 12 months. This is the very first time in six years that I haven’t taught an HSC class. Last year I had three Year 12 classes; I asked to be taken off Year 12 next year. And as our system works … next year is already here, haha!

My focus can now rest solely on my junior classes. This is something, I feel, that doesn’t happen often in 7-12 schools. It is all too easy to prioritise seniors over juniors. That situation, of course, is like shooting yourself in the foot. Too much focus on senior classes means that the juniors aren’t getting those skills and opportunities that they desperately need in the senior years … we then spend almost a year (all of Year 11), up-skilling  students to get them ready for the HSC. Oh dear. I am confident this is a pretty normal picture … I mean, it’s not like we ignore the juniors, but really they just can’t be the key focus when the stakes for the HSC are so high – for both teachers and students.

This term I have devised three epic projects, and if you read my last blog post you will see that my students are just as amped about them as I am! (Note: for those playing along at home, it seems I haven’t learnt from the Year 8 project failure last term as I still spent the holidays planning awesome teacher-created projects for three classes. I guess I’m a slow learner or just stupidly defiant.) So I promised in that last post that I would share with you the project outlines because maybe, just maybe, some of you might want to run the same (or similar) project with your students. I spent a bit of time on these projects, trying to ensure that the (BIE) 8 elements of PBL were covered in each. My big focus is on revision and feedback this term. I am determined to get this right before the end of the term! I think also that student voice and choice is important and so that has been worked in to each project even if it might not be apparent via the project outline … the product and audience for Year 8 and 9 have been determined by me, however the content of the product is entirely up to the students and whilst that might seem like I’m paying lip-service to student-choice, I’m really not. The fact that students feel free to imagine, generate, reshape and then commit to their own ideas and creations is super important and something we’ll be spending a lot of time talking about when we get to that stage of the project. I’m pretty interested in the Design Thinking phase ‘ideation’ (it is SUCH a goofy word, not keen on it at all, but the principle is great). My interest was inspired by Suzie Boss’s reference to Ewan McIntosh in her book Bringing Innovation to School:Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World. Whilst I have been known to take on Ewan re: his criticism of PBL, that doesn’t mean I don’t think some of the DT ideas aren’t worth pinching and adding to my projects.

OK, enough crapping on (although thanks to the groovy, personalised, ‘do what I want, when I want’ nature of the Internet, I’m sure you’ve already scrolled down past my blather to find the project outlines, lol) I’ll get to the substance – the project outlines. If you’ve been keeping an eye on my project outlines over the years (get a life! Haha!) then you’ll notice that the format keeps changing, evolving, shifting shape and focus and content. I think that’s completely normal. I haven’t found one ‘perfect’ method, but this one seems to work nicely as a general overview of the project and helps students get excited but also be informed about the project. I think I stole this layout from a Year 3 teacher who I helped to design her first project. I think she may have modified the main layout from one of my project outlines I showed her, haha … I love living in a post-modern world, it really makes things cool.

Project Based Learning … struggling …

Well I’m feeling as though I am officially ‘back’ at school for Term 2. Last week just wasn’t making me feel down about myself or my ability to teach well.

Today on the other hand …

The day started at a brisk 7.30am with a meet and greet with my new prac student (who is very lovely by the way and I hope to rope her into a guest blog post at some point) and then my double Year 11 class. The class was great – kids were funny, engaged and completed the tasks set for them. Showing Lauren (the prac student) around the school was a breeze as well – in fact, quite fun seeing a new teacher’s reaction to a playground full of students and a maze constructed from concrete and bricks.

Anyway, it wasn’t until the last period of the day that I really started to hit panic mode. My class are in the middle of doing (what I think) is an interesting, engaging and fun project – the students have to work in small groups to create a book trailer. These guys needed to persuade me to want to rush out and buy the book. They needed to draw on all they know about persuasive devices (you can guess what year group they are now, right?). I have included all of the elements that I ‘know’ are elements of a great task: the students could select the book they based the trailer on (they had just finished reading it for literature circles) as well as the other students they worked with, they could select the programs they used to make the trailer also. Tonnes of student-choice and flexibility. That’s what great tasks have, right? Each lesson I have given them a goal setting sheet to complete at the beginning of the lesson as well as a reflection sheet to complete at the end. (I hate that these are ‘sheets’ and not just jotting down goals etc on edmodo – but I accidentally copied too many from a non-netbook class and didn’t want to waste the paper. I hardly think that paper vs. electronic recording of goals/reflection is the root of my problems with the class, but I’m happy to be proven wrong! I would LOVE an online tool to help with the goal-setting/reflection I use in this PBL-style of teaching … but that’s for another post!)

So why have I now spent three lessons with students poorly planning, chatting off task and getting minimal work completed? I am frustrated by this group as being an extension class I would imagine the task would be engaging and something they could do well. I know it’s the group work element and I’m struggling to work out how to improve it. I was so excited about this task, thinking how it will help them improve their understanding of persuasion, audience and purpose as well as shaping meaning within a text. All I seem to have done for three lessons is cajole them along through humour and tactile, external rewards (of the sugary, sweet variety) to get them to make a small dent in the task.

I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I need to start smaller. Perhaps I have not given a strong enough scaffold for the task … I did show exemplars … I gave a rough marking criteria (perhaps this is my flaw, needs to be tighter/clearer/more explicit?) … the audience is even ‘real’ – as the book trailers will be uploaded to youtube with the one getting the most views the winner. The prize is respect. If I was 14 I’d find that cool. But, I’m not. I’m 31 and a complete geek. Hmmm …

Having my mini ‘I am doing it all wrong’ melt down in front of my new prac student isn’t very professional. But it was real. Do I get brownie points for that?

Can you point out what I’m doing wrong? I kinda feel like I better go back to chalk and talk with these guys … maybe they need to be thrown into the cave for a little while. But really, it’s not about me – it’s about them. Maybe they just don’t learn this way? Maybe constructing knowledge with their close peers isn’t their ‘style’? Help!

Hammering my thoughts into a unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presenting on PBL to English Head Teachers Network meeting

Just realised how boring my post title is but since it is 5.43am, I hope you will forgive my lack of creativity.

About 4 weeks ago I was asked via email if I could present my experiences with PBL at my region’s English Head Teacher’s network meeting. Before I get into the guts of this post, let’s just get a couple of things clear first. 1. I am not an English Head Teacher. I am a teacher of English is a medium sized faculty with a brilliant, caring and trusting head teacher. 2. This is my seventh  year teaching English to high school students. 3. In Australia English = Language Arts. 4. I only started experimenting with PBL in Term 4 of last year thanks to the inspiration of Dean Groom.

Being asked to present on PBL was fine. The person asking me to present had seen me present on PBL previously at the NSR DER Innovators Conference late last year. But presenting to Head Teacher of English? Not the same group of people. At all. Having presented a couple of times at the annual English Teacher’s Association conference, I’m familiar with the stomach churning anxiety that English teachers as audience can stir in a person. Head teachers? Let’s just say I was feeling pretty queasy for a number of days leading up to the presentation!

PBL, in my opinion, is essential for the future of English in Australia. Survey results from past HSC students reveal that most of them found their HSC English courses lacking relevance to their future careers, lives and the wider world. This fact distressed me considerably. Something is very wrong in the state of HSC English. There are numerous reasons for these results – but I can’t give them to you yet. What I can tell you is that as a teacher I am uninspired by the HSC and its narrowing of subject English into the essay-writing under examination conditions funnel. I don’t want to spend two years teaching students to ‘spot the technique and reference to concept’ in works of art. If I hadn’t found PBL, I would have lost faith in my subject and myself as a teacher. I know I was close to calling it quits last year. Imagine how other young teacher must feel who don’t have the support, guidance and inspiration of a powerful PLN?

Here is my prezi for yesterday’s presentation. It went SOO well. I was terrified but so excited to be surrounded by such passionate and intelligent teachers. They knew the score when it came to English. Maybe they hadn’t taken the looming National Curriculum with its three strands (language, literacy, literature) as a dire sign for subject English as I have (how do we know they won’t take just one strand – say, um, literacy? – make it compulsory – and relegate the rest to student choice? I bet no one foresaw that Maths would become optional in senior studies?) … but it was great to see them take this idea on board as one worth considering. I made amazing new connections and have been given the title of ‘honourary Head Teacher’ thus being allowed to share in the professional dialogue of this very experienced team.


My PBL journey is just at its very beginning steps but already I am reinvigorated as a teacher and a learner. This approach to learning forces students to engage with their world, not just dead white males on a page. I’m excited that my enthusiasm for PBL has helped my great friend and mentor Kelli McGraw as she begins her journey into the world of teaching teachers.

HSC Exam Preparation Strategy

I’ve just had a great idea for a study strategy for HSC students – well, it can be used for all types of examinations.

One of the weaknesses our students seem to have is writing under examination conditions and responding to the essay question. Far too often they rely on pre-written and memorised essays. This really isn’t in the spirit of English – and I’m sure it’s not in the spirit of most subjects.

At HSC marking last year, something we saw a great deal of was pre-written responses that students tried (and failed) to ‘fit’ with the essay question. The problem for a great number of these students was that the essay questions were quite specific – take the ‘loyalty’ aspect of the Hamlet question and the ‘one related text’ dilemma of the belonging question. It is important that students realise that examinations (especially extended response questions) are designed to test a student’s ability to ‘apply’ what they know to an unseen question. Often these questions are challenging and unexpected – this forces students to adopt a position on the question being posed and apply what they have learnt as supporting evidence.

So, what is my solution you ask yourself? Simple!

I give the student TEN practice essay questions for each module/elective.

Each set of TEN questions is printed on a specific colour paper. E.g. ‘Belonging’ is green,’Module A’ is red.

The student cuts these questions into separate cards. The cards are put into a plastic sleeve – one sleeve for each colour.

The student then sets the timer to  2 hours (length of English exam), take out ONE of each of the coloured questions (for English this is THREE separate colour cards). These are laid out in front of the student – this is their exam paper. Press ‘start’ on the timer and off they go!

There are so many possible configurations that the students should have PLENTY of sample exam papers to keep them busy.

This is a really basic idea, but one I have never heard of. I’ll let you know how the kids like it.

PS: I’m sure there’s a fantastically EASY way to make this activity web-based. Press a button and the questions are automatically generated from a selection entered by the teacher – there could even be an online timer. Could you help me out with this? I’m sure kids would like the option for tech or low-fi.