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)


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.


Preparation for Praccie

Well, thanks to the comments made on my last post, I’ve now got a long list of suggestions for how to be a good teacher and a good master teacher. So what should I do (as this mystical master teacher) in preparation for meeting the pre-service teacher who I will be supervising?

Obvious things spring to mind, such as growing a wise-looking beard/moustache, ironing some flowing robes (possibly borrowing a graduation gown and mortar board – I rented mine for my graduation) or working on my serious stare …. but of course those things are mere external symbols of an inner mastery that I know I have not attained.

Hmmm … next obvious preparation: plan lessons for classes to be taught on the day prac student is to observe my master teacher skills in practice. Plan? It’s a little scary to be honest. Consider the outcomes I hope for students to achieve each lesson and then plan accordingly? Oh dear. My ‘door handle planning’ isn’t going to help me now.

1. Planning lessons. (This will be done on something OTHER than scrap paper!)

2.  Organise extra ‘teacherly’ activities I have in the works. (Including DER leadership stuff; Rock Band co-ordinator stuff – RockFest must get underway; PBL with Year 8 English classes and the organising and getting films made for the DAVAs – our Digital and Visual Arts competition.)

3. Decide which classes I’m willing to give up for praccie to teach. (Year 12 is out, even Year 11 is out … that leaves 7, 8 and  10 English classes)

4. Answer Darcy Moore’s 10 Questions for your Child’s Teacher. (This should probably by number one … if you’re taking notes – do this step first!)

5. Smile and be honest. Tell her how it is, straight up. Give her some boundaries – let her know what my expectations are for a ‘good’ teacher.

6. Let her visit other teachers … it’s not about ‘me’ … it’s not even really about ‘her’ … it’s about the future of education (yep, vomit – but it’s TRUE!)

Alright … that’s the list. I wonder how much of it I can actually get done in the three hours before bed tonight?

Can you ever ‘be’ a teacher? Aren’t you always ‘becoming’ a teacher?

The title of this blog post is inspired by a reflection piece that I wrote for a university assessment after my first teaching prac. (Aside: I did a DipEd after reaslising, like many that my BA with a major in Philosophy wasn’t a ticket to a career. As part of my DipEd I was required to do two 4 week practicums – the first was 1/2 observation, whilst the second was teaching 1/2 of my supervisor’s load.) I stumbled across this reflection piece whilst tidying my desk, and fell to reading it – almost immediately being captivated by my own spark and vivacity. Not really, lol. What struck me was my honesty and the overall tone of confession – I had found teaching very, very difficult. I had been forced to teach a topic I did not know well and that, surprisingly I did not like in high school or uni – poetry. I also had to teach a senior class how to write essays, a skill that I had not ever been explicitly taught and which I felt I had barely (if at all) managed to master myself. The conclusion of my reflection was that it is impossible to ever ‘be’ an English teacher, that one is always learning and therefore one is always in a constant state of development, never actually being a teacher – just becoming one. I know this idea was pinched from someone else, as back then I was good at referencing and I acknowledged my source. Today I am still becoming an English teacher and this means I have no idea where that reflection piece is, and that I’m too exhausted to find it anyway.

Whilst I can’t name my source, I will acknowledge that he/she was correct in their assessment of teaching. I really believe the title of ‘teacher’ is flawed. I only feel that title fits me when I am finally broken by a student and I yell – voice raising, blood pressure too. This is a very, very rare occurrence – maybe once a term, so it should give you an indication of how rarely I feel like I truly am a ‘teacher’. The title ‘teacher’ conjures up images of cruel masters and matrons wielding long rulers and pointing long fingers at small children. It makes me think of someone who always has an answer, who is always right, who is organised and carries a red pen – armed and ready to deliver a fat ‘F’ or ‘A’. It just doesn’t conjure images of me fiddling with a OneNote notebook in front of a room of thirty laughing teens, handing over my whiteboard marker to a 13 year old to lead the class, chatting to Yr 12 students via email, blogs or edmodo about the purpose of literature, letting Year 10 students shoot scenes for a short film inside my aging Kombi or singing along to Aussie hip-hop to demonstrate the everyday usage of poetic devices. Is that your image of ‘teacher’?

Since day one of this term I have struggled to garner the enthusiasm necessary to engage and inspire my classes. I didn’t resort to textbook lessons like last year when the netbooks didn’t magically turn my ratty Year 9s into tech-savy engaged learners. I have plowed through the negativity that surrounds me daily – from my internal monologue and the external ones of others. I’m tired and downcast following an edmodo debacle that involved students registering as teachers to create ‘chat’ groups, resulting in cruel cyber-bullying. I am maintaining my stance that education institutions must change their response to poor student behaviour – it is no longer good enough to cancel an activity or block something that has lead to problems. I am trying to defend my choice to introduce edmodo as a teaching platform and aim to show staff and the executive that students must be shown how to use technology effectively to enhance their learning. These kids need to be ‘taught’ how to be responsible digital citizens. If we respond by blocking their path, they will dig around us and find a new way – they are kids of the 21st century, we should not underestimate them.

However, I have a feeling it is not just the students that need to be educated. It is the ‘teachers’. Professional development must focus on the changing nature of teaching. The old method just simply isn’t good enough anymore.  It was fine when access to information was limited, but now it’s not. I am hoping to organise some after-school workshops that show how technology can be embedded into the pre-existing teacher-centred method, but emphasise the fact that these little netbooks (and really all technology) enables and requires a student-centred method.

I find the netbooks frustrating at times and fall prey to thoughts of ditching them and returning to pens and paper. I never had issues with that method, so why should I change now? But then I remember that teaching is not about me – it’s about the kids. I don’t want students expecting that I have the answers – I don’t, and it’s arrogant to think I could. One thing I do advocate when it comes to DER is that we don’t give up, that we work together and that we embrace/advocate a culture of sharing and learning – it’ll be better for us, as teachers and learners in the long run. I was told by a teacher today that the worst thing that could happen would be for me to become cynical – people look to me as a source of motivation, thinking ‘Well, if Bianca thinks it’ll work, then I’ll just keep trying’. It was a flattering comment, and something I’ll keep in mind when I’m frustrated next time.

There is a world of ideas out there, and a world of unmade things waiting to be created. I just have to figure out how I’m going to get the kids (and my colleagues) to want to go out there and explore it.