Pay it forward: Last thoughts on Harwood


Why is it that I only feel I have come to grips with a text when it is about to be removed from the Prescriptions list? Happens all the time. Finally feel I am teaching Belonging well and its gone. Now it is time to say goodbye to Harwood. My lovely Harwood. She was with me through the death of my Dad, giving me comfort. She reminded me that daughters have their own agendas, not mine and each year as I began the next Year 12 class, she helped me get to know them as people as well as students. I shall miss her. For what its worth, I’ve put a bit of a unit together from my notes. If you can use it, great! As I approach retirement I feel this need to pay it forward.

2014 Module B Advanced Harwood

Approaching Harwood


This is for Polly.

So, I’m away from home and for the first holiday in forever I’ve brought nothing with me except my iPhone and iPad. Any the ipad is only getting a run today because I wanted to share some stuff with Polly. I was a bit amazed that I had a bit of stuff on Harwood with me, which I have duly shared with Polly through the wonders of modern technology. Hope the sharing actually worked! I plan to send some more to Polly when I get home, but i know I might get sidetracked between now and then so I’m writing a post on something I do with Harwood that I think actually works rather well ( and can be applied to other modules). I have blogged about this when I posted on teaching Atwood. The principle is the same.

I noticed a few years ago that I kept running out of time when teaching poetry in the ‘new’ HSC. The problem, on reflection, was teaching a 21st century syllabus using 20th century methodology. Two years ago I tried something different. Instead of ‘teaching’ each poem, I taught Harwood. Yes I know Duh!  The first thing I do now is divide the class into 7 teams (because there are 7 poems). The class will work in these teams during the unit. The teams are numbered and I rotate the teams through the poems. I aim for every team to work with every poem twice. This has worked amazingly well, in terms of kids knowing all the poems. I have to keep a running table in my notes, to make sure they do get every poem.

An example of how it works:

Harwood’s use of imagery around water. Poems are allocated to teams and students work through a set of close reading tasks on ‘their’ poem. I start with the basic ‘find the words and lines’, move on to connotations, links within the poem, explore the techniques used, describe the main images, connect the imagery to the meaning, consider theoretical perspectives (romanticism with water imagery), connect students previous poem experiences. At each point we stop and talk. The conversations are always lively and interesting. Usually I send them off to write reflectively about what they learned about Harwood’s use of water imagery in both the poem they worked on and other poems. The kids get a new poem every lesson, so an exploration on water imagery might take a few lessons, but kids will look at water imagery in several poems.

The technique works equally well with themes, or applying critical commentary. One thing I should have mentioned earlier, i do start the module with tasks where kids have to read every poem and I usually finish with tasks where kids have to re read every poem. I’ve really enjoyed teaching this way, although I frequently have to hold myself back from going through a poem! It may sound fragmented but the outcomes so far is that kids have much more of a sense of the poems as a body of work and it has lifted their own critical commentary on her work. And I get to the end of the Module without feeling that I’ve left things undone and a feeling that I have to come back to it later, when I know the thinking about Harwood will have moved into revision, not discovery mode.

Why do we need related Material in Module C?


The syllabus says:

“Students are also required to supplement this study with texts of their own choosing which provide a variety of representations of that event, personality or situation.” 

“Students explore the ways in which different media present information and ideas to understand how various textual forms and their media of production offer different versions and perspectives for a range of audiences and purposes.”

“students consider their prescribed text and other texts which explore the relationships between individual memory and documented events”

The ‘ big idea’ in Module C is understanding the ‘constructed-ness’ of ‘reality’, recognizing that meaning is shaped not only by the content and what we understand of that, but also by how we receive the content. In the History and Memory elective we look for related material that tells us something else about the idea of history and the idea of memory and compare this to the ideas offered by the set text. This comparison enables us to make generalizations about the relationship between individual memory and documented events.

I’m going to try to explain history and memory as different kinds of stories. My explanations are not definitive, of course, just my response to the questions What is history? and What is memory? at this moment in time. I want to frame what I say next rather than get bogged down in a debate about my definitions.

History is a particular kind of collective story that we tell ourselves to help us understand the past and to navigate the future. Memories are a different kind of story. These stories are personal, fragmented, revised through time, told to ourselves and others  so that we don’t forget who we are.

In class we viewed a Youtube clip by a spoken word poet  Phil Kaye: Why we tell stories. (Thanks Eli! Great choice)

Phil Kaye begins his TED talk with a poem “Repetition”. I thought it was really apt  as a way into our discussions of history and memory. The poem explores the influence of repetition on removing the power of language and I thought about how I had avoided the Holocaust for most of my adult life. After ‘The Diary of Ann Frank” and Modern History in Year 12, I could not bear to revisit such sorrow and suffering, or be reminded of man’s inhumanity to man. There was enough around in the intervening years anyway. I think Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate avoids the problem of repetition. He doesn’t repeat what we already know. In fact, the book expects us to know what the Holocaust is and for that reason many study guides provide masses of information about the holocaust, perhaps recognizing that school students are less well informed about these documented events. Baker reminds us that simply repeating documented events does not make them ‘real’, nor does it engage us in remembering with empathy or allow us to make sense of what was, in a world that has moved on from that time.

Phil Kaye’s thesis on ‘why we tell stories’ is that we are all trying to make sense of what it means to be alive and how he has struggled to understand why we tell stories. He concludes that “In the face of this great unknowingness of our future, I think we tell stories to make a context for our past”. He uses the analogy of a map and that our stories are our landmarks on the maps of our lives.

Phil Kaye is an American. A Japanese – Jewish American. He ends his talk with a poem about his grandfather. He eloquently expresses the impact of the events of WWII on both his grandfathers and ultimately on himself, as the heir to both these histories.

In my next post, I will consider the poem using Mrs Langford’s questions as a possible piece of related material.

Advanced Module C Related texts


I get a little break from prep for a while while my colleague leads the class in  Module C: Representation and Text, so I thought I might use this time to really get inside the use of related texts in this Module and plan to write a series of posts on related material. This is the first post.

I looked up my two favourite sources, just to check how what I think fits with what other reliable sources are saying. First I checked in to Mrs Langford’s Weblog. Her advice, as always, is succinct. Four questions that go to the heart of the matter:

  1. What is the text’s message about history and memory?
  2. Identify and explain at least two language (or aural or visual) features that explore this aspect of history and memory.
  3. What is the tone?
  4. identify and explain at least one language (or visual or aural) feature that reinforces this tone.

She also explains how the elective concept is related to representation in her post Approaching Module C: Representation and Text.  I especially like her comment that:

“There is a difference between what a text is about and its message. The Smithsonian’s September 11 website is about history but its message (intentionally or not) is that history is selective and constructed. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes portrays some conflicting perspectives but one of its messages is that perspective is shaped through and by language. Similarly, The Justice Game portrays conflict within the formal setting of the court; however, one message is that the dominant perspective tends to be the one that is most effectively represented in the “game”.”

If we apply this rationale to Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, then I would say that while the text is a journey through the writer’s family history surviving the holocaust, one message is that documented events are limited in their ability to develop empathy in the reader without the nuances that personal experience and survivor memories bring to the event, or without the capacity to enter into the experience through our imagination. To do this Baker employs a range of devices we would not normally expect in a fictional text. The imaginative reconstructions of his grandmother Hilda’s last moments is an example. The structure of Baker’s text, the fifty gates that lead us from the metaphorical blackness of forgetfulness in the first line to the illumination of insight in the final gate, forces us, as readers, to engage with the fragments of both history and memory to make sense of the ‘story’.

My second favourite source for confirmation of the essence of this Module comes from Mel Dixon and Deborah Simpson in their Cambridge Checkpoints Study Guides on HSC Advanced English. Their explanation of representation and the construction of ‘reality’ is better than any explanation I could give:

“The ‘reality’ you see in the documentary is a mediated version of reality. For example, because you do not know what has been omitted and what has been changed in the sequence of events, you cannot know how close to actual reality the documentary is. The documentary has been constructed to lead you to a particular view of the ‘facts’. it is a representation of what was originally filmed.”

I have used Shaun Tan’s picture book, Memorial as an example of a related text in the past. If I apply Ms Langford’s four questions, this is what is might look like:

1. What is the text’s message about history and memory?

Memorial is about the chopping down of a fig tree in a rural town, originally planted to commemorate those lost in WWI. A message of the text is that remembering the friends and family who lived through or died in war is more important than the memorials themselves. The memorials commemorate the events, of ‘facts’ but the memories of family and life that individuals associate with the memorials are ‘ever-livin’ things’.

2. Identify and explain at least two language (or aural or visual) features that explore this aspect of history and memory.

Each character is a vignette, a brief description that captures the essence of the person, through a combination of the memory and the language each uses. Old Pa, remembers the tree being planted on the day he returned from WWI and the memories obviously still haunt him, “and he shrugs, and he sniffs and he wipes his watery eyes and his grizzled cheeks.” His son remembers climbing the tree and associates it with pleasant memories as well of his wife, Audrey. ‘There’s a lot of special memories under that tree, Audrey. Like coming home from the pictures, eh?” he says. The boy’s father also links the tree with memories of the boy’s mother and a tree house as well as the memorial service when he returned from Vietnam, ‘some things you don’t want to remember, son”. Each of the women associates the tree with memories of their men coming home.

Shaun Tan’s illustrations try to capture the fragmented nature of memory. Tan says the book ended up “being not about war, memorials or remembrance as ‘grand’ subjects, but about the small, quiet memories that make up ordinary day-to-day lives – really about the nature of memory itself.”  His images have a metaphorical quality and he doesn’t represent any of the characters in a literal way. Each page is an artwork in itself, with layers of fragments of materials capturing the texture of memory as something that consist of snippets and pieces, not a linear, resolved image as that found in a film. He also acknowledges that this can reflect the dreamlike nature of memory. He uses other techniques that represent the way memory sometimes has hazy bits, like faded line drawings and other more vivid elements, such as the colours inside the tree house. Each double page, except for a central image of the tree, also consists of only part of an image, never a whole scene, like conversations and memories wandering off at a tangent. The images have a quietness about them implying the things that are left unsaid when memories are recalled.

3. What is the tone?

The tone is reflective and gently questions our ideas and beliefs about war memorials.

4. Identify and explain at least one language (or visual or aural) feature that reinforces this tone.

The dialogue between the members of the family is often fragmented and leaves things unsaid and the reader is invited to ‘fill the gap’ of these silences with our own personal connections to memorials, family who were part of these wars and to empathise with the survivors. Like Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, Tan recognises that history is more than documented events, it is the stories of human existence and that we understand history not by knowing what happened and when but by understanding something of the people who lived through these events. As Tan says, “Perhaps the point of this picture book is to open a passage for its readers to think about the way symbols really work in relation to collective memory, as a container that needs to be continually topped up to have any currency.”





Haiku Deck and Showme on ipad


Our school is getting ready to roll out ipads to Year 7 and 8. I’ve had my ipad for a few months now and have started exploring apps that might be useful in class. Over this very rainy north coast weekend I tried out Haiku Deck and ShowMe.

We are working on descriptive writing in Year 9 and I want to run some mini lessons this week. These will brush up their skills and ‘prime the pump’ for their own descriptions of an imaginary world they have created using Michael Pryor’s Walled City exercise.

Here is a Haiku Deck on using similes and metaphors:

and a ShowMe on writing similes.

The beauty of both tools is that they are linked to websites. That means I can use them on the interactive whiteboard without hooking up the ipad to the board. (I don’t know how to do that yet – small steps!). The apps are so easy to use that I know the kids are going to love making their own.

And I’ve finally had a go at embedding something into my blog!

Looks like the embedding didn’t work!

Resistance is futile.


I think I’ve cracked the homework problem. I don’t want to get into a debate about whether kids should get homework at all. That isn’t why I’m blogging about homework.  Over the last few years it has been increasingly difficult to get our kids do do any homework. This becomes a problem when we get to the senior years and they need to do some work out of class time to get the results they want at the HSC. Last years HSC class were the absolute worst. Apart from a stalwart 4 or 5 kids who did everything they were asked, the rest resisted any attempt to get them to do any work outside class time, and whinged about it, became resentful and just didn’t seem to make the connection between a bit of work and better results. And it did show in their results.

After some feedback from last year’s year 12, it was clear some changes needed to happen. Their main concern was that homework often felt like more pressure when they clearly needed less. As one kid put it , “it’s homework miss, not an assignment”. Quite by accident I set some simple HW for year 11 on the first day. We ran out of time to complete their interest surveys and I asked them to have it done for the next day. There was an amazing 90% return rate, and the other 10% had it done by the end of that day. Then I set 1/2 page of writing on “One Word” that would be their academic motto for the year. Another amazing 90% return rate. The light bulb went on.

Since then I’ve experimented with my current year 12 and year 9 and 10. The results have been consistent. Each group has had about 85-90% return rate, no whining and a lot more effort. Half a page of writing is all it takes. I’ve increased the frequency to 2-3 times a week. At first I was hesitant to set more than on piece a week, mainly because I was worried about the time I needed to read and return it. At the same time I recognised less and more often might reinforce the habit I wanted to develop. I have been able to keep up with reading and returning. Half a page doesn’t take long to read and I’m not setting things that need “correction”. I’ve confined myself to underlining inaccurate spelling because I’ve been more interested in what they have to say. At the same time, the standard has been high, with few errors, maybe because half a page is easy to rewrite and correct. And that’s another spin off. Kids are frequently rewriting and not handing in first drafts.

This has been really useful with Year 12. The things they have been asked to write give them practice at succinctly linking concepts in class to texts they are studying, preparing the groundwork for essays in exams. This also came from feedback from last years HSC cohort. During the year they had a writing task at the beginning of most lessons. This was usually a quote from the current text that they explained in a well structured paragraph. We collected this work and the feedback focused on the micro skills of essay writing, like how to integrate a quote or embed the technical language. Past students had told the new group to keep all these bits, because they had found them useful when preparing to write essays.

There are of course a few kids still resisting and if I really want to push the point, ten minutes at lunchtime solves the problem easily enough!

Playing with PBL


I love the philosophy of PBL and think a lot about how I hook kids into learning but somehow I always keep coming back to ‘tried and true’ habits. Despite that I really do feel the generation gap and recognise that kids have changed and what used to work doesn’t work nearly as well as it did in the past.

I read a great post on the Generation Yes blog last night about NOT writing the objective up on the board, NOT starting with a talk about what we will do or what they might learn in a lesson and doing something before discussion that gives kids a platform from which to enter the discussion. I tried this out today with Year 10, using a video from the Crashcourse channel on Youtube: How and Why we Read

We are working on a novel unit that explores the marketing, style and appeal of Young Adult Literature. The ‘big question’ is “Have the writers of YAL got it right?” Kids have selected from a range of YAL novels and begun independent reading. The video is a fun look at critical reading and after the viewing kids wrote about some quotes from the video applying the comment to the books they were reading. Examples: “imagining what it’s like to be someone else”, books try to communicate “complex ideas and experiences between people” and “bigger and better life in your mind”.

We will talk about their responses  tomorrow but what I did notice was a deep level of engagement with the task as they wrote. A lot of staring into space and then writing and a bit of angst when I go them to move on to the next quote because they weren’t finished.

My second foray into engaging kids critically is with Year 11. We have started with a very short unit on essay writing. I know, sounds like the most boring way to begin Year 11. However, we recognise that our kids aren’t confident essay writers and we need them to be. The plan involves more than just this short unit, but that’s not what this post is about. I’ve approached the unit using an inquiry model and we have begun by debating what is and is not an essay.

First kids develop a list of criteria they could use to ‘test’ a text. Then I gave them 8 sample texts and they worked in teams debating whether the texts were essays or not. All of the samples were real world texts. Some I would say were essays, some not. But I was very careful not to telegraph this kids (and I still haven’t and I’m not going to!). What we found was a high level of critical debate, with ‘evidence’ and arguments that continued when we opened the debate on particular texts to the rest of the class.

Two small attempts to move into a PBL model. So far, so good.

Ipad mania


Ended the first week tired but inspired. Worked hard on establishing those teacher student relationships that focused on real conversations and not name games. Year 9 are going to need a lot of team building. They don’t seem to know how to talk to each other. Best lesson was year 11. I managed to introduce them to all the things I do in the classroom that they need to get used to (and that also tell them a lot about what kind of classroom it will be, without a powerpoint!):

  • seating plan
  • check the board
  • start immediately on a task
  • team work
  • take responsibility for your learning
  • Stand Pair Share
  • feedback slips
  • homework
  • enjoy learning
  • Be interested

Enough about that. The title was ipad mania. Enjoying my ipad more and more. I’m having lots of fun finding apps that I can use that move me away from paper diaries and lists. Although still under construction, Diarycentral is my favourite. It picks up gmail calendar and drops things into your schedule. The main page is set out in blocks that are easy to read and includes adding notes and tasks. A bit of a bug in the “week” format but the builder is working on it.

My other favourite app at the moment is Flipboard. Found more great lessons to ‘fit’ current units of work from the feeds I have added to my flipboard.

I’ve downloaded about 5 sticky note apps that I’m trying out before i decide which one will work best for me. I discovered I prefer to ‘sticky note’ my ideas and pre-planning for meetings etc than use the ‘list’ type apps like Paperless. I think I like the colour and moving things around.

Also discovered “padagogy”. Lots of ipad apps and tools reviewed that I can see will work well in lessons, once kids have ipads, which is planned for our Year 7 and 8. My role this time will be to assist teachers. After the roll out of laptops where I ‘led the way’ using them with my own classes, I found I had little time to actually get in and help teachers, so I’m not taking a Year 7 and 8. I want to work beside my teachers as they start working with the ipads in classrooms this time.

Ipad explorer


I haven’t blogged since October because my Dad died early in November. I can just about type this without crying.

After some time out and school holidays I am just about ready to go back to work. Over the break I’ve played with my ipad and read 30 books totally unrelated to school in ibooks. So easy to download a book when you have just finished the last one and I love the backlighting. I’ve had a “medieval murder mystery” start to the year

I’m starting to get the hang of it. Yesterday I found an app called Flipboard. It was free and I have already found it useful. As well as a news feed you can add your own content. I added ABC OPEN,  ABC news, Children and teens books, Brain Pickings, and Jim Bourke’s feed (English Companion Ning). A quick flip today and I found three things I can use in class next week.

I thought this one, Family Rituals, would be a great ice breaker with Year 10 and they can also enter. It might prompt them to bring their laptops!

We’re starting Year 8 with a unit called Resilience so I sent the link to my Year 8 teachers for Aftermath It would also be useful for a unit on natural disasters.

My favourite was this story about sharing a loo with a frog. It seemed particularly apt on Australia Day. I plan to share this story with Year 9 and tell them my story about the python in the chook house on Christmas Day.

I like the way this app gathers in one place things I’m interested in and lets me send the link to others.

Harwood highlights


Great 2012 Harwood question! I felt very comfortable with the question and confident that the kids were well prepared to answer. As one said: ” At Mornington” wasn’t one I had prepared but I knew enough to link it to my other two, so I was OK. We can only hope.

With the new Year 12 we have introduced their assessment task and got started on the weekly workshops that will build to their performances. In this module our task is a team performance and an individual reflection on their own performance and that of others. We have used this task for the last two years and it always generates close reading of the poem the team selected, as well as lifting their critical thinking about the way different poems can be ‘read’.

I introduce the task by showing kids some past performances and getting the class to analyse some features of the performances. This includes the main idea of the poem performed, devices used by teams to convey these ideas and the strengths and weaknesses of the performances. Modelling the task usually allays their fears. We follow this with workshops every week throughout the module where students develop their own performances. Since part of the task is to learn the ‘lines’, kids always end up with one poem they know really well (and never forget) and a really good understanding of the others.

While viewing other performances students complete a table recording their responses to the performances. These notes are used in their reflection on the performances, which they do at the end of ‘performance day’. I am hoping this year that I can upload some videos of the kids performances to the blog.

While, at first, the task can seem daunting, at the end of the year in the evaluations the outgoing year 12 all commented on the value of this task. Kids could recite from the poem easily and frequently did when we were revising for trials and post trials. And it was fun!

HSC: here we go again!


While this year’s Year 12 get ready to do their final exams, their teachers wake in a cold sweat wondering if they did enough and if the kids are writing practice essays. Meanwhile Year 11 are transitioning to Year 12 and we start all over again, promising we will be more organised, give more feedback,  do more to ensure our kids get the best results they can, not just the results they deserve.

I began with a motivational lesson, congratulating kids on sticking with it and making clear some expectations about the course requirements. (yes, you have to read all three books, watch the film and collect related material!) The shock always comes about now, when they realise it is not just their results that matter, but everyone else as well. They will get better results if everyone does their best.

We studied Margaret Atwood to develop students skills in critical study and reading poetry, in preparation for Module B Critical Study of Texts with Gwen Harwood. A few must have missed that lesson early in the Atwood unit: what, we’re doing poetry again?

Despite their dismay we press on and begin with a ‘cut and paste’ task. Kids were given a random selection of lines from the set poems, all mixed up. Their task was to cut them out and working in pairs, create a poem by pasting the lines, with a title, on to another sheet. This was a lot of fun, engaged kids in a close reading of individual lines and making connections between lines and ideas. During this task I wander around and listen to the conversations in the guise of the teacher/monitor who hands out scissors, paste and cleans up the scraps of paper, occasionally answering questions about word meanings, punctuation, what they can change etc. I always find these conversations illuminating and am frequently re amazed by their perceptiveness and skill.

Once finished, kids circulate around the room, reading other poems. The we discuss ‘what are the poems about?’ Naturally the kids pick up on the main themes and techniques Harwood uses. It will also lead us into a discussion of ‘textual integrity’. As one student noted, the lines from seven poems were easily shuffled around to create new poems that had similar themes, suggesting some coherence and unity in Harwood’s work. How cool was that! Good way to get started on a new poet.

Catching up with Atwood


Anyone who teaches HSC in NSW knows how busy the end of Term 3 is, so you will understand why my blog got shifted down the priority list for a few weeks. While we finished up Year 12 and got them off the premises, Year 11 were finishing Atwood and doing their end of course exams.

We moved on from imagery to reading critical commentary on Atwood. Since kids will need to read some critical commentary in Year 12 and in general this is not done well, I wanted to do some work on how to read these kinds of texts and we put together a short book of ‘readings’ on Atwood. I appropriated this idea for teaching the skill of reading ‘academic articles’ from my daughter Zoe (thanks Zoe!). Zoe has read many academic articles in her time and worked out a ‘system’ that she taught her Year 11 and 12 this year.

We talked about the purpose of reading these kinds of texts first, identifying the need to test ideas against our personal response to the poems as well as getting to know the territory, as we did when we began preparing to teach the poetry unit. Kids were told they would ‘read’ the text three times and each time there was an explicit goal.

Step 1: First reading – read the first and last sentence of every paragraph to get some idea of the thesis and scope of the article. While reading identify key words and terms that you are unsure about. Look these up and annotate the reading with meanings before you go on to step 2. Make a note of three things you think the article will focus on.

Step 2: Second reading – while reading the text through make a summary note next to paragraphs you understand. Don’t worry about the paragraphs you don’t understand, build on what you do understand.  Also highlight interesting quotes and language that drives the argument. Look for connecting ideas and draw lines to connect them. (Some examples/modelling required here)

Step 3: Third reading – During the this reading look for lines/phrases ideas that provide fresh insights into the text you are studying (quotable quotes!) and annotate these, commenting/questioning/summarizing.

Step 4: Finally, make a short summary of key ideas, supporting details and useful quotes.

This approach supported students into both reading a dense academic text, developing confidence in their selections, note-making skills and added to their skills base for writing about Atwood. We followed up the class work with a second reading for Homework.  We noticed that kids used quotes from these readings in the exam essay.

We are coming to the end of the unit now and the final sequence of lessons was about ‘big ideas’ that linked together poems we were studying.

At the centre, there is an image.


Imagery was the focus of our explorations of Atwood’s poems this week. My colleague began with a guided relaxation exercise drawing students into considering the way imagery works in our minds and hearts. This was an innovative way to engage students in thinking about how imagery works and to shift them from the “picture in the mind” concept to considering the other elements of emotional association and response. This was followed with a discussion of seven types of imagery and a ‘scavenger hunt’ for the different types in the poems. A closer study of the nature of imagery – hard for any of us to define in the staffroom immediately preceding the lesson – was followed by some writing exercises where students began with an image and added something that moved the description from image to imagery. This was quite a challenging task but we both believe the path to understanding how a writer uses a device or technique is to make it yourself.  We finished the week with teams creating drawings (not necessarily realistic) of the images they felt were central to the poems. Their justifications were as always entertaining and hilarious at times.

The real treasures from this week’s study of the poems were their assessment tasks and some creative writing we set last week. The writing task required kids to write back to the poems in some way. They could write their own poems, modelled on one of our set poems, write the back story, write the story from some other perspective, perhaps a voice that isn’t heard in the poems (like the voice of the sister in “Mourning in the Burned House”), write a response to the persona – no limits really. Their work was incredible. Many chose to write their own poems and we are both inspired by the work kids did. Their poems showed amazing insight and their use of the poetic form reveals some extraordinary talent – may be they are channeling Atwood? Those that chose recounts and story also showed amazing insights with one student researching the “Siren” and writing a story from the Siren’s point of view, weaving Atwood’s poem through her narrative with a deft hand. I am always struck by the way creative response tasks generate such depth in student’s thinking about texts.

The best is yet to come. The illuminated texts are magnificent. I have permission from one of my students to share his work with you: Enjoy!BrendanMorningintheburnedhouse

To rhyme or not to rhyme: ‘vers libre’ in Atwood’s poetry.


We are rolling along at a merry pace with Atwood this week. Our final lesson last week was an exploration of the “spoken to” in the poems. This generated some fascinating discussions about both the persona and the person/persons/cyberspace(?) addressed by the speakers in the poems. These kids are awesome. They recognised the idea of the ‘mask’ of the persona and the task drew them deeper into considering the way some of the poems we are studying seem to be ‘dead’ voices (This is a photograph of me and Morning in the Burned House) and wondering why Atwood would choose a ‘dead’ speaker and who would this speaker be addressing? At some point students began to discuss the possibility that the poems weren’t really about someone who had died but might be about the self and identity!

We began this week with some theory on the use of persona and masks and students were asked to write 5-6 questions they could ask the persona of an allocated poem in an interview. In teams they reduced their combined questions to 3. They were encouraged to use questions that would deepen their understanding of the persona and avoid questions that anyone could answer directly from the lines in the poem. Pairs then conducted their interviews in front of the class, with one partner speaking in role and the other interviewing. The role plays were fascinating and their insights and engagement with the poems continues to grow. We followed up with some short writing in class where students explained how Atwood used persona in one of the poems.

A homework task drew on this work around personae. Students were asked to ‘write back’ to the poem in some way. They could write their own poem using one of the set poems as a model; find a ‘gap’ in a poem and tell the story of the gap; tell the ‘backstory’ of a persona or select a character other than the persona in the poem and tell his or her story.

We then moved on to an exploration of Atwood’s use of free verse. After some theory on the use of free verse and noting some features of the structure of poems that recur, such as the two part structures of Journey to the Interior, This is a Photograph of me and In the Secular night, students worked in small teams to prepare a performance of an allocated poem. They had to choose 6-10 lines, all members of the team had to speak some lines and could add movement as they wished. While this was fun and generated some very funny performances as well as insightful selections of lines, I’m not sure it generated the deeper thinking around “other more subtle effects” created when the poet chooses not to use “the regular rhythmic power, emphasis and song” of traditional versification”. Next time I would get the kids to prepare a choral reading of the poem, without the ‘performance’ element and focus more on the sounds and patterns of lines.

Now I am working out how to revisit free verse in a way that will engage students in that deep thinking.

Who was that man in the mask? (or persona in Atwood’s poetry!)


We are having so much fun exploring Atwood’s poetry in class. The poems we set for study are: This is a photograph of me, Siren Song, Helen of Troy Does Counter-top Dancing, Morning in the Burned House, In the Secular Night and Journey to the Interior. The poems span decades of Atwood’s poetry, which is useful, but more importantly they have some similar themes and some very different ideas. The use of persona is one of the features of Atwood’s work that I find most intriguing. Moving on from last week’s explorations of  the “You” and the “Me” in “You fit into me”, we focused on the speaker and the ‘spoken to’ in this group of poems.

After a lesson on the assessment task, (kids have to create an illuminated text, using slideshow, of one of the poems, with analysis notes) we spent some deep thinking time on one poem each, beginning with ‘first impression’ questions:

  • What is the poem about? ie subject matter
  • How does the poet feel about the subject?
  • What social/cultural/historical/personal issues is the poet commenting on?
  • How do you know how the poet feels about the subject?
  • How does the poem make you feel?
  • What does the poet do in the poem to make you feel this way?

I like these questions as a starting point for students own explorations because they usually lead students to the ‘heart’ of the poem, so that everything we do after leads back to this. Kids are encouraged to annotate as they undertake this first personal reading of the poem.

I should probably explain that I have shifted my practice a bit and instead of treating one poem at a time, we start with a focusing idea or feature and in pairs and teams students are assigned one of the poems to work on. I have a system set up to make sure they get in class activity time on each of the poems at least twice.

After their deep and meaningful encounter on first impressions (could have heard a pin drop) we followed up with the first stage of the Thinking Routine Connect, Extend, Challenge , where students were asked: How does Atwood’s poetry connect to your previous experience of poetry? These responses were shared in teams and then a member of each group explained the differences between his or her connections and others in the team to the class. HW was to do the first impressions on the five poems they didn’t do in this class task, spending only 15 minutes on each of the other five.

In the next lesson we considered the question: Who is speaking? Kids were encouraged to look for things that weren’t said, ambiguities, circular ideas, ‘who is this person, really?’ as well as the details about the speaker that were stated or made clear. They began with time alone with the poem (another satisfying engrossed silence from 16 year olds) and then moved into pairs and threes with the same poem.

In the team task student chose one line that ‘summed up’ the essence of the speaker and then wrote 10 lines together justifying their choice. Of course, they could refer to other lines in their justification, and they did. We shared these explanations aloud. Great task for building and modelling analysis essay writing skills.

The final lesson of the week focused on: Who is the speaker addressing?

Joyfully teaching Margaret Atwood’s poetry.


There is nothing dearer to an English teacher’s heart than starting a new text study in class! We felt it was time for something fresh and new for our Year 11 Advanced classes this year and were after a poet and a study that would develop some important skills to lead students into their first HSC module. We start HSC with wherever we are doing the poetry. This overcomes the problem we have with textbooks, since our leaving groups of Year 12 don’t usually bring texts back until their exams are finished. This year our incoming HSC group will begin with Module B: Critical Study of Text – Gwen Harwood.

Atwood was a perfect choice. She has a considerable body of work, there is a considerable body of work about her work and well, her poetry is just wonderful. Added to this are the distinctive similarities and differences between Harwood and Atwood. Like Atwood, Harwood disliked attempts to “label” her a feminist. Atwood’s exploration of power relationships, her use of persona, allusions to other works and the distinctive style of the poems are also useful in preparing students to explore Harwood’s poetry.

I’m working with a young teacher who is teaching Advanced for the first time and he brings to our study a freshness I sadly lack, his own experience as a poet and an understanding of the Y generation that I struggle to acquire. It has been an exciting week. Eli began with a lesson on ‘what is poetry?’ which he approached with a cryptic clue, encouraging students to think deeply about the type of close reading, critical and analytical thinking they would undertake in this unit. From this he led the students to consider a metaphor for ‘what is poetry’ –  narrative = milk : poetry = condensed milk. Students creatively developed their own metaphors for poetry. The lesson ended with Atwood’s poem “You fit into me”. Students readings of the poem quickly brought to their attention aspects of Atwood’s style and concerns.

We continued with the exploration of “You fit into me” in the next lesson after Eli took students through some very creative thinking around perspective and context and then ‘words on the page’. My task after that was to begin with an exploration of ‘truth’, given the previous lessons thinking around perspectives and contexts. As a class we analysed the poem, considering the “You” and the “me” in the first line and moving on to the distinctive qualities of the imagery. This lesson generated the most animated discussion I have seen from this group. The different perspectives they brought to the poem crystallized very quickly into a debate about ‘who’ was speaking and how she/he felt, what she/he was trying to express, what the relationship between the two was ,or had been and on it went!

I finished the week with a ‘matching’ task, where teams matched the title to the poems selected and then had to explain how the title ‘fitted’ the poem in more ways than ‘obvious’ key words (which there are in all of the poems). We concluded with a list of what we had individually, and as a class, discovered about the poet. My week really ended on a high and I can’t wait to get back into class with the next installment.



I played around with Wallwisher with my classes this week. It has been on my ‘things to do with laptops’ list for over a year but I kept forgetting the name! Finally had time to look it up and think about how to use it. My first attempt was: What do we already know about essay writing?  This worked well in class, despite the number of kids who didn’t bring laptops on the first day of school or didn’t have them charged. After kids posted their notes we grouped the notes. Great tool for working out what the kids knew, misunderstood, thought was important and thought about the topic. My favourite note was the comment that we “write them in English”!

With year 10 I used it to get kids into our new unit on Young Adult Literature. Responding to a quote This time we worked in small teams (3 kids) who shared the availabe laptops. Kids were totally engaged and focused. Great example of what happens when you turn the lesson over to kids and laptops with a clear purpose.

I learnt that it works better if kids have think time; that it is a great way to get kids working in a small team and helps them stay focused when they are working in a team; that it is quick to set up on the spur of the moment in a lesson and you have to insist they use their names.

When using a new tool in the class room I try to use it in a number of different ways over a few lessons. I get better at knowing how I can use it and kids internalise how to use it. They use it more effectively after a few trial runs and then I can return to it periodically and it will work more smoothly.

Trial HSC AOS Belonging paper







We have our trials early and the available Trial papers for purchase come out too late.  That means we usually prepare our own. I’m really pleased with this paper and have included marking guides.

#Ozengchat and Jog the Web via Twitter


Been back on twitter for the first time in ages. Besides amazing people online I found #ozenchat at Interesting things to read within seconds and then clicked on “Figurative Language” discovering Jog the Web. What a cool tool for preparing lessons. Fast and fun and great with 1:1 laptops! is a site where you can create your own online newspapers. I wonder if it is blocked by DET? Could be fun to do as a class.


HSC websites and blogs and a fun pic for Belonging


I’ve spent the last two days writing a Belonging paper. The questions were easy. Finding the ‘right’ texts took a little longer (and I’ve got a sore neck!) Along the way I found a few sites and blogs with ideas on related texts and other things:

Mrs Langford’s weblog *****

One thing that’s hard to find are visual texts that aren’t a cliche. Although I did like this one. “Write the story of the alligator on the right”,: “Buzz off, I saw him first!” or add a caption for the baby bird!


Module A: Exploring Connections between “Looking For Richard” and “Richard III”



As I said in the previous post, this year I have changed my approach to teaching the Modules in the HSC Advanced course. I have included a link to the unit I prepared and taught on Module A at the beginning of this post. The difficulty, for me, has always been the shift from text based study to concept based. What this has usually meant is that I run out of time because I have tended to separate the concept from the close study and then come back to the concept at the end of the teaching unit. This always comes to a head when I teach the poetry, whichever Module it is in. I attempt to do a close analysis of each poem (which can take 3-5 lessons) and we never get through all the poems in class time. While students have had a sound understanding of texts and concepts, they often haven’t had enough time to refine their thinking.  NSW teachers may find this unit useful and /or interesting. Generally the model I am using goes something like this:

  • Developing questions from the rubric to guide student learning.
  • Building the field around the concepts and the texts at the same time.
  • Identifying 2 or 3 broad themes or features of the texts.
  • Using one broad theme or feature as a starting point and moving into and out of the text.
  • Moving onto another broad theme or feature and moving into and out of the text.
  • Returning to the guide questions to summarise the Module.

To do this, students have been responsible for their engagement with the text, since we only analyse and discuss relevant and representative parts of the text in class. They are expected to read, view and analyse the whole text outside of the classroom. Naturally, this has led to some students choosing not to read whole texts. In the AOS I attempted to overcome this by setting an assignment where students chose their own questions to respond to, requiring them to read the whole text to make those choices. In Module A, I was very explicit that we would not view the whole film in the classroom (they all had a copy of the DVD) or read the whole play. Generally, most students viewed the film and read enough of the play in class, or through homework tasks, that they had read most of it. Students who had read the whole play generally got more out of lessons than those who didn’t, but all students knew enough to participate in class discussions and complete homework and assessment.

Is it working? I think so. Their assessment work across the class suggests every student has a better understanding of the Module and the texts, and what to use as evidence. This is particularly important in Module A because two whole texts are compared, and they have to consider the impact of composer’s context on questions of value. I am interested in comments on this. Does my unit look different to the way you teach it? Have I missed something important?

HSC Area of Study Belonging


For what it is worth, I’m sharing my AOS unit on The Joy luck Club. I experimented with a different way to teach the unit this year. Instead of a “close study’ of the text accompanied by exploring the concept through various stimulus and related texts, I very deliberately approached the Area of Study through related concepts. The focus is on two main idea: Belonging and place and belonging and identity. Each phase began with a stimulus and investigation of the concept, then moved into the text, back out to some creative/response writing, back into related texts, back to the main concept.

In previous years we always seemed to get bogged down in the set text and students frequently stayed stuck in the text. I wanted students to be more responsible for their own learning and grapple with the text themselves within the framework of the Belonging concept. It was much more enjoyable teaching this way, and did give students many opportunities to connect and reconnect with the set texts and a variety of related texts. Their work in the assessment task was also better.

In preparing the unit to share, the simple table format is one I have used for many years. It helps me remember what I was thinking when I designed the original lesson. I think it helps another reader to  understand the point of a lesson. Any comments appreciated.


The Book Flood takes off!


Well, it is happening. Year 9 and 10 started slowly, not quite believing a) I expected them to read everyday, b) I expected them to choose their own books and read things they really wanted to read, c) there wasn’t a ‘catch’ where they would have to do some kind of ‘assignment’. The first breakthrough came when a year 10 students asked if he could go to the Library because ‘there isn’t really anything I want to read on the shelves here’. The answer was , of course you can and four other students joined in. All four dutifully went off and got themselves a book they really wanted to read! Another 3 in the same class came the next day with books from home. One is working his way through his Dad’s fantasy collection, another is starting a new series by David Eddings, the third is reading the two books he got for Christmas! I could never wait that long to read a book I got for Christmas.

Almost all of Year 9 are ‘in the zone’ during reading time. I still have two students who are super resistant but are at least quiet when we are reading because everyone else is quiet. One Year 9 student has chosen to read only the picture books and graphic novels. I don’t have many graphic novels yet so need to get some pronto. We are just getting to know each other so I am building trust with him and trying to engage him in conversations about the things he likes in each book. I pointed out to him that I had enough picture books that he could easily read a lot of the genres through picture books and graphic novels.

My motto of  ‘read anytime and anywhere’ is starting to sink in. I’ve noticed kids picking up their reading book when they have finished a task early or someone comes to the door and interrupts me (happens often!). This week Year 9 had to begin the process of logging into their DER laptops, so I had one lesson where 2/3rds of the class were at the Library getting that done. The rest of the class had a choice of reading, playing a game on the whiteboard or doing a fun writing activity. They chose reading. (silent cheering from Mrs Tiernan).

I also had a lovely ‘critical’ conversation from a girl who, up until now, has seemed uninterested in the subject and not at all engaged. She had just finished a Michael Pryor book and when I asked her what she thought of it she said it was OK. When prompted further she admitted that it was a ‘bit boring’. I reminded her she didn’t have to finish a book if she wasn’t enjoying it. Her response was ‘I always finish books I start’. I tend to do this too so we talked about why. She then spontaneously said she didn’t enjoy the book as much as she usually enjoyed ‘fantasy’ books because she didn’t feel the writer really engaged her in the imaginary world, which was something she expected from a fantasy book, so that led to a bit more discussion about expectations and best books.

I also responded to Allen and Unwin’s offer of a  free book if I review it. I chose Margo Lanagan’s Seahearts. I found the book difficult at first, even though I am quite used to multiple narrators. There is something about the timing that I found hard to get my head around. But the writing itself is beautiful. So lyrical and the descriptions evoke both mood and image, using the senses skilfully to engage the reader. I have two students who are keen to read it, having just read Black Juice. I plan to get them to help write the review.

It is starting slowly and I confess to being a little disappointed at the seeming lack of response. I realised in the last week it wasn’t lack of response but more a ‘wait and see’ approach from the kids. They are still getting to know me as a teacher instead of ‘head teacher’ so I will continue to be patient.

The 40 book assignment genres


I thought some of you might be interested in the genres I finally settled on for the assignment. After thinking through our course and the syllabus requirements I settled on 10 which I think will cover most tastes. I have left it with the kids to add other genres/classifications if they have a particular interest and it can’t be covered by the genres I have set.

They are:

  •  Biography/Autobiography/Memoir
  •  Fantasy
  •  Historical Fiction
  •  Mystery
  •  Non-fiction
  •  Picture books/Graphic Novels
  •  Poetry
  •  Realistic Fiction
  •  Science Fiction
  •  Short Stories

Class Library roll out


Ok, so I have the class library up and running. A few teething problems with kids checking out books and giving me that blank stare when I enthusiastically tell them how great it will be when they read heaps this year. Despite early apprehensions, over first two weeks the majority of kids have settled into routine and are “in the zone” during reading time. (also read Nancie’s “The Reading Zone”).  Still have some Dormant readers that I am working on. “I don’t read miss’ and’ I hate reading miss’ are the standard responses but really only 2 from each of year 9 and 10. I am working on a) building trust and b) finding the book that will get them hooked.

Kids are pretty compliant ( I am the HT after all) but not keen in the way I would like them to be. I am just going to be patient here. I did notice the ‘recommendation effect’ several times, especially from girls who stay very quiet and a bit cynical until I share with them a story about my reading of a book or refer to my daughters and their favourite books at that “that age” and how I actually borrowed the copy they are reading from the stash both my daughters have left up in the top of the shed!

Speaking of books in the shed. I was sure I had a collection of great books from 20 years ago stored somewhere but haven’t been able to find them. In a search of the shed I did find some theory books on reading and writing going back 25 years. I can’t wait to share them with Zoe, my beginning teacher daughter. Not to mention my entire collection of Ancient history texts ( Aeneid, Virgil, Herodotus etc etc etc)!

Book Flood gathering momentum.


Called into school today and found a spare bookshelf! Yippee. Talked to our General Assistant and he has suggested I get the boss to buy the materials and he will make the shelves. He says it will be cheaper, quicker, nicer shelving and fit where we want them. Isn’t he a darling.

Also bought some cheap baskets and have gathered a heap more books from local charity shop and by raiding my own shelves. I think I’m going with a mixture of genre and types: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Autobiography/Biography/Memoir, Non-fiction, Poetry, Picture books/Graphic Novels, Short Stories. Kids will be asked to read 3 of each and will be able to choose 10 of their own to make up the difference. I think these categories will work well with our programme and satisfy our text requirements.

My next job is to “mark’ the books with coloured tape and put corresponding tape on the baskets. I’m using coloured electrical tape. I know you can get it in pink, purple, orange and different greens but not so easy to get in Australia. If any Australian readers know where to get some, where I don’t have to buy boxes of it and it’s cheap, please let me know.

To begin with I will be using a mix of my own books and the books we have available for free choice reading already. There’s quite a lot of these since we have had mixed reading boxes for units in year 9 and 10 and have kept the remaining books when sets have gone out of fashion. They have already been accessioned through our Library and the kids will need to borrow these through the Library. They can do this as a Textbook loan so that they can keep the books longer and have more borrowing power.

Also finished cleaning out the filing cabinet in the staff room, so am feeling both virtuous and organised.

Book Flood


This is a term used by Kelly Gallagher in Readicide that roughly corresponds to Donalyn Miller’s immersion of students in books in the classroom. As I said in my last post I’m keen to revisit ‘surrounding’ my students with books. Gallagher teaches secondary students, as I do and has a similar view to Donalyn, in terms of giving kids time, space and choice. He approaches the need to balance the teaching of the class text (often iconic or classic texts in the cultural heritage) in some interesting ways, but I plan to talk about that in a later post, so back to the subject of my post – the book flood.

I did a lightning quick re-read of The Book Whisperer noting in particular the approach, goals and methods, and then thought about how this might work in my classroom. Some of the things I’m grappling with include the ‘genre’ approach that Donalyn uses to frame the 40 book assignment. I’m not sure that will be the most useful frame for my students and am thinking about how our syllabus and programmes have some specific requirements, such as close reading of : two works each of fiction, non fiction, drama, film, variety of poems or study of poets. These always drive the close study and critical analysis focus of our programme. The other requirement is about ‘experience’. The syllabus says:

The selection of texts must give students experience of:

  • a widely defined Australian literature and other Australian texts including those that give insight into Aboriginal experiences and multicultural experiences in Australia
  • literature from other countries and times
  • Shakespearean drama
  • cultural heritages, popular cultures and youth cultures
  • picture books
  • everyday and workplace texts
  • a range of social, gender and cultural perspectives.

While these give a little more guidance, they are mostly too broad to frame the reading, particularly for developing readers in Year 9, so I am trying to find frames that  will work with my students. Gallagher’s list of “101 books my reluctant readers love to read” (p119, Readicide) has some potential categories, that I think could be used to organise the books in the classroom, but I’m thinking I might just ask the kids what will work best for them from their perspective of needing to find books they really want to read.

As far as the reading assignment is concerned I’m torn between a mixture of genres and text forms. So far I’m working with: Australian Authors, Aboriginal Experience, Multicultural Experience,  Other Countries, Other Times, Young Adult Literature, Poetry, Picture Books, Informational and Autobiography/Biography/Memoir. I can already see problems with the mixing of Australian authors and Young Adult Literature and feel like genres will help students to identify texts that want to read more easily.

Anyone tried implementing Donalyn’s 40 book assignment in a secondary classroom? How did you frame the assignment? Did you use genres or some other categorizing approach? What success have you had? What refinements can you suggest?

The Book Whisperer, Part 2


Just finished The Book Whisperer and want to go back and read it again. It must be my year to revisit things I did in my first years of teaching. Like Awakening the Heart, this book reminds me of things I used to do and the passion I had for teaching reading and writing that I have some how lost over the last decade. I think it coincides with becoming Head Teacher. Maybe now I feel comfortable enough in that role to be a teacher again!

I loved the book so much I sent Donalyn an email , and I seldom  do that. I have already culled my home shelves for old favourites for a class library and plan to raid the stored boxes of books in the shed for more. I’m planning how I am going to get some shelves into my room and a trip into town to check out the Op shops for more books. And I’m not going to spend Term 1 doing Naplan practice! I have a secret desire that my seniors will start asking to borrow the books when they are surrounded by them and plan to have some space devoted to Related Texts for Belonging and History and Memory.


PS if you are interested in resources I have set myself the goal of adding a resource/lesson plan to the Lesson Plan page every week. My first offering is a workbook on the play Two Weeks with the Queen. It’s not your usual kind of workbook so have look and feel free to adapt. Created for Year 7 in 2011, it worked well with my very noisy, energetic, lively Gen z-y (my term for those on the ‘cusp’)


The Book Whisperer


Another great read. I got my copy of  The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller this week and am about half way through. The author’s commitment to creating lifelong readers is reflected in her enthusiasm and ideas for taking our love of reading into the English classroom. It confirms my own belief in the value of a free choice reading programme and providing time for kids to read in class. I am planning a rebuilding of free choice reading in class in our faculty plans for this year and Miller is helping to shape how I might do that. Her description of the ‘underground reader’, a student who is already an avid reader and just wants to get on with the current book brought back memories of hiding a book in my desk in primary school and reading it in my lap when I had finished other work or while waiting for my turn to read the next section of ‘The School Magazine’ which we read aloud in class. I couldn’t help thinking back to last years Year 7 that definitely had a few underground readers. For some reason I didn’t get our reading off the ground until later in the year. How they must have suffered!

Miller sets a goal of 40 books a year for students and reading across a range of genres. The high expectation generated by this goal and the use of genre to support the work  in key units are ideas I plan to take into my reading programmes this year.

Awakening the Heart


I have just finished reading Awakening the Heart by poet Georgia Heard. I enjoyed it very much and I think she would be delighted that her book has re-awakened my joy in reading and writing poetry with students. Something I feel I haven’t done a lot of, over the last few years, and something I always loved as a young teacher. I think a love of poetry is what led me into teaching English.

Georgia’s book is about the importance of bringing kids to poetry in a positive way and for them to learn that poetry is ‘food for all’. She says, “One of the most important life lessons that writing and reading poetry can teach our students is to help them reach their well of feelings — their emotional lives– like no other form of writing can”. Right now, I think that is a really important and significant goal for our current students, and goes to the heart of the debates about subject English. There are many wonderful ideas and inspiring stories in her book that make you want to go into the class room right now and begin. A book to add to the very best books all English teachers should read.

One of my personal favourites from the book is the Living Anthology Project, where kids choose and place poems where people will read them, like waiting in line at the canteen or at the office, or for the bus.  Inspired by the Poetry in Motion project, it made me think about the ways we traditionally teach poetryand how to turn our poetry teaching into project based learning. My idea is that this year we ask year 7 to create their own poetry project which might be a Living Anthlogy project or could take some other form.

English teachers tend to love books, and I am no exception. When it comes to buying school related books, most teachers seem to buy the books that they can use directly in the classroom. The textbook kind. I am not a great fan of these books and my clean up of my resources and shelves has led me back to books  I have collected over the years that inspired me in all kinds of ways. The kinds of professional reading I like are the books that go to the heart of teaching, about how and why and invariably they are books that make me rethink what I do and lead me to some kind of creative innovation, taking me beyond the writer’s ideas into my own, like Teaching Literature: Nine to Fourteen (Benton and Fox) and If you’re trying to teach kids how to write, you’ve gotta have this book! (Marjorie Frank). These are books worth sharing with beginning English teachers, because these books will help them re frame their theories about what teachers do and what English teaching is all about.  May be you have some other suggestions?

30 Year Gold Star


I guess it’s official. I got my 30 Year certificate from the DET on Tuesday at our end of year Christmas lunch. It is a funny sensation. It actually doesn’t feel that long and I still think I have a lot to learn. Every time I work with a new group of kids or a new member of staff or listen to my beginning teacher daughter I am reminded that I know very little. I am challenged to think in new ways about the job I do, and I keep having this thought “why didn’t I think of that?”.

I am taking a break from cleaning out my filing cabinet and folders at home. I have to do it now. It’s all over the spare bedroom and we have guests for Christmas! And yes I have found some things that are 30 years old. Am I still using them? No, but they do remind me of things I thought then and ways I taught that are probably embedded in my thinking now. It is quite exciting. It is also very therapeutic. I am chucking a lot. I want to get it down to ‘manageable’ and easy to find. I have discovered the best system anywhere, any time is a simple alphabetical system. Finally. It only took 30 years!

So how do I decide what to throw out? Our current syllabus and programme helps. Not much use keeping things that have been  superseded by more innovative thinking. No point keeping grammar sheets – there is a lot more around on the internet that is a lot more fun. Do I keep my personal notes on texts I have taught? Even if I do refer to them, I know I will make a new set of notes next time I teach that text anyway. And they will focus on completely different things because my frame of reference has changed.

Anything on Shakespeare seems worth keeping, and there is such a lot of it over the years! Great ideas for getting kids writing seems worth keeping too. Kids still need to be inspired to write, that hasn’t changed much. And poetry. Poems and ideas for teaching poetry. And there is a lot of that too! I must really like teaching poetry, because I can’t bear to part with a good poem.

Notes from 30 years of professional learning and conferences? Not much I want to keep. What ever I was excited about I used straight away, so the rest obviously didn’t inspire me that much. Thinking skills and pedagogy? Yep, still like trying out ways to challenge kids to think. Still interested in the craft of teaching and how kids learn.

I am procrastinating, I know. I need to get back in there and finish it. A few gems have turned up. A few years ago I did a presentation on “ten things I learnt this year” at Annual Conference. It must have been a good year. Looking back over those ten things I covered a lot of territory. Naturally it got me thinking about the things I learnt this year, so here’s my list:

1. How to set ‘a reasonable amount of homework’ – thanks to Edmodo. Set things that kids have to think hard about but don’t have to write a lot. Focus on the really important thinking they need to do and the really important skills they need to practice, like writing a well structured analysis paragraph with evidence. And do this every week, without fail.

2. How to teach kids to write better essays (I know, I have a million ways to teach essay writing and I am still experimenting!) Teach them how to write a well structured paragraph. Teach them how to write different kinds of paragraphs for different kinds of essay questions and different modules. Model it and make them do their own in the next lesson or homework task. Use the videos on “Building a PEE paragraph”  Give them a formula for writing the introduction and make them practice it until they can go beyond it.

3. Get kids to do some short writing at the beginning of every lesson. Link it to the current work, revision of last lesson, concepts for the next lesson, fun writing. Follow it up with sharing in lots of different ways. Give them a half sheet of paper to write on and collect it. You get a lot of insight into their learning and what they still need to learn.

4. Never forget the joy of performance, or the deep knowledge and understanding that comes from performance.

5. Plan lessons that only take one lesson.

6. Keep finding new ways to get kids engaged in making their thinking visible. They just loved ‘illuminated texts’!

7. There are only two rules for the classroom. Good manners and everyone participates.

8. Kids actually do like reading. Don’t stop.

9. Make connections. Plan units so that the texts are constantly referred to in exploring a ‘big question’. Choose the best texts, not just those that are available. Don’t try to teach everything about the text. Focus on the things they will actually need to know about  to do the assessment task or the exam. And make the kids do all the thinking.

10. If it is not working, try something else. Keep trying until you work out what works. Then keep doing that.

11. And …. there is nothing like a good game of jeopardy to keep them buzzing right to the end of last period Friday!

Now, back to the filing cabinet!

The excitement of new technologies.


I love using Edmodo! It has created a very different learning environment for students but most of all it has pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me something I wished I’d learnt an eon ago. When Edmodo added the Quiz feature I quickly created a quiz that reviewed the first few lessons of a new Module I was teaching to my Advanced English (HSC NSW) class. It took about ten minutes. This set me on the path of setting weekly homework through Edmodo assignment and quiz features for the whole module. I liked the ease with which I could set tasks and the way Edmodo tracks the turning in of tasks for me. I also liked that Edmodo records students grades. Since I don’t want to spend hours marking, even if it is easier in digital form, I focused on setting short tasks that built skills and was relevant to the learning objectives for the week. The most students were asked to write was two well structured paragraphs, although, as one student said “That was a really hard question!”

Some things I learnt were:

  • A short task that has a higher order thinking skill is doable (and therefore more likely to be done), easier to mark and actually develops the critical thinking skills kids needed to learn.
  • The tasks progressed from revising some work done in class to going beyond recount to analysis and evaluation.
  • The relationship between learning objectives for the week and the homework seemed to be a key feature in the increasing quality of their answers over time.
  • The grade book feature insisted kids be accountable. Edmodo kept telling kids they had Late assignments.

Since the new Annotate feature has been added, the marking is even easier, without the need to open documents, mark and then re save and resend. I am keen to see how I can keep up the momentum in the next Module.

School Certificate English Exam revision games, NSW


While we are celebrating the demise of the external exams as of 2012, we still have to get this lot through the exams for 2011.  I have been using games (mostly online freely available fun) over the last few years to keep Year 10 going when their minds are already fast forwarding to jobs, maybe HSC, car licenses, work experience, big Year 10 final overnight excursion to fantastic resort(!), leaving school early and summer holidays.

I have been using a Literary Terms jeopardy game I first found through Jefferson County Schools website and I sincerely thank whoever created it! We have played the Literary Terms Jeopardy game throughout the year, usually after lunch period on Friday afternoon, or whenever it was our faculty’s turn  to look after the ‘remainders’ when the rest of Year 10 were off doing something wildly exciting. While there were some aspects of the game that were useful to revise student knowledge for the Literacy exam, there was other material, relevant to our course, but not really useful for this exam. So I finally got around to creating a few more. I know – the exams aren’t on next year, but I figure some of it will still be needed for students entering HSC and we will still have bored kids left at school on Friday afternoons.

First I googled making jeopardy games and found Jeopardy lab – great site. It’s an online web template, free, and very quick and easy to use – make sure you don’t forget the password you used to create it! So I did one on language devices. Literacy exam revision is aimed more at reminding kids of the kinds of things they need to write about in both the short answer and should use in their own writing in the Writing section of the paper. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the previous game but still easy to set up, and quick. Once created you can send the url to the kids and they can do it on their own, in groups or as a class. It also has a handy scoring tool – adds and subtracts for you.

I also checked back to the original site where I had found the Literary terms games. Turns out there was a whole lot of templates you can use to create a variety of PowerpointGames The advantage of the Power point game is that you can add your own “bells and whistles” and there are some good tutorials out there for creating games. Powerpoint 2007 Hints helped me solve the problem of showing what questions had been already selected and I also experimented with downloading ‘wav’ files (legally) that could be added as sound animations to keep them interested and laughing. I set up another game based on the “language features” questions in the multiple choice section using terms that had appeared in the exam papers for the last two years, SC Language features jeopardy.

I think I can take this further by getting the kids to create their own games, of different kinds. They do seem to enjoy this approach to revision and they do learn the material – they get better each time we play!

Do let me know if you try any of these games in class, or create something to share.

Revising in English for the HSC


These are the last few weeks of school for 2011 HSC students and we have been busy writing practice essays and adding some depth to our thinking about each module and its concepts. Over the years I have worked through many ways of helping students to prepare for this exam, not least with my own kids. How to summarise effectively in English often presents problems for students. Unlike many content based subjects where a list of headings from a textbook and memory cards can help a lot, in English students have to think about the concepts and essay question, draw on everything they know about the topic,  select from their knowledge to answer effectively, as well as write an effective essay all under exam conditions. You can tell by the length of that last sentence how overwhelming that can be.

This year I experimented with a great piece of advice from Mrs Langford’s Weblog. She suggested students prepare for Module A by thinking about the ‘big questions” in the texts for Module A and organsing notes under these big ideas. She concludes: It is important that you integrate your notes by organising them under key ideas rather than summarising each text separately. Integrated notes lead to writing integrated responses.

I really liked the thinking behind this and tried it out in the classroom with the Area of Study. Students thought about the “big ideas” about belonging on their own and then combined in teams to share and write down three “big ideas”. They had to write complete well thought out sentences, since I wanted them to practice writing topic sentences they could use in their essays. We selected 7 of the ideas as a class. We then  had a discussion about how an idea was related to a text they had studied in the AOS. With some prompt questions we pushed that thinking to include the techniques the writer was using and evidence from the texts. I then moved students into teams with one “big idea” each and we played ‘Speed Dating”.  Each team had a few minutes to add text, techniques, quotes and evidence to the big idea on the sheet and then moved on to the text ‘big idea’.

It was great fun requiring some high energy from tired year 12 students, and produced lots of deeper thinking and revision of texts. By the end of the lesson we had a very useful summary that students could refine and add to and that was set up especially to support their essay writing.

I’ve since tried it out with year 11 who are also preparing for exams. The response from Year 12 was very positive, with students keen to repeat the exercise with their modules. It is nice to find a workable, high energy way to keep Year 12 working in the midst of what can be a trying time at school!

Time Out


I’ve had a bit of time out this year. I had a simple fall early this year that caused a compression fracture in my left tibia. It is taking a long time to heal and I have had time off work. I’m back now, although still on crutches. These really slow me down! First week back has been busy with a great project I am working on with English teachers in our district. We are a rural district and our project is about improving outcomes for our top 25% of students. Distance, cost and access are real issues for us, despite the advantages of the internet. We had a very successful day on Friday, not least because we were able to meet each other and talk. We have lots of plans but our first need is to be able to continue our conversations in a way that is easy and allows for collaboration and sharing resources, both for students and teachers.

We have started an Edmodo group and I am really excited at the possibilities this will offer in terms of our own professional learning and for our students. Our teacher group has a range of skills and all our schools have video conferencing so we can meet in cyberspace for mentoring and collaborating on texts and teaching units. I think Edmodo will make it possible for the network of teachers to drive itself. I am also hoping that the opportunity to work through Edmodo with students in other schools will be seen by the students as a incentive to be more engaged and motivated to aim higher.

I’m sure other teachers are collaborating to improve outcomes for their students, perhaps through Edmodo, perhaps in other ways. I would be very interested in hearing how you went about it, the issues that came up and your solutions.

Time flies!


I can’t quite believe my last post was so long ago! Life has been racing along at its usual hectic pace. Perhaps I haven’t felt the need to blog because I have been having so much fun playing with Edmodo with my classes and hanging out in the Edmodo language arts community and on the English Companion Ning. If you haven’t tried Edmodo yet and you have classes with DER laptops you have to try it. It makes life so much easier! Without a great deal of effort you can be “integrating technology”, sometimes without even trying.

My Year 11 class have been handing in their writing assignments this term using Edmodo assignments feature. This has been a revelation. A high rate of return, straight from laptop to me, no messy email attachments, and I have actually enjoyed marking them “online”. I could have used Word comments or got them to save to PDF and used various markup tools but that would have meant saving their work and attaching a file to the “Note” I left for them. Too many extra processes. So, I opened the file, read the work and began commenting on their work in the “Note” box as I read – a bit like a think aloud. It didn’t take long, my comments were much longer (and probably easier to read) and I found myself putting more responsibility on the kids. For example, since I couldn’t underline spelling mistakes I would say “You have five spelling mistakes”. This put the onus on the student to find them, a learning experience in itself. Interestingly by the last piece there NO spelling mistakes in any kids writing.

I also found that my comments were more explicit. Perhaps because, even though they could only be seen by the student, it was after all cyberspace and we all know that once something is in cyberspace it is there forever and will come back to haunt us one day. I think I was careful to write comments that were clear, supportive, constructive and that I would happily defend now, or anytime in the future. That is, they were clearly evidence based and I used the evidence in the comment.

The kids seem to enjoy using Edmodo. We have a bit of ‘chat’ going on during lessons which is minimal, not distracting, comes up on the IWB so I get a laugh too, and probably keeps the real world chat to a minimum. Using Edmodo everyday has also meant ALL of my Year 11 students bring their laptops to school!!!!! How cool is that!

Where I’m from


I’m starting to think about school and planning lessons and playing around with internet to find resources. My year 7 class begin the year with a unit called Belonging and  we use Nadia Wheatley’s picture book My Place along with some other texts and lots of poetry. I wanted to find some “models” and also a text for their first homework sheet. It proved to be a bit difficult ( so if you know of any online resources that might fit here please let me know). Eventually I found a nice story by Frances59 about her crazy family.  I was rally looking for something about “home’. personal recounts of the way people feel about ‘home’. It got me thinking about how even though I haven’t lived at ‘home’ for 35 years, it is still ‘home’. This has become more significant lately because the house I grew up in and the ‘home’ I go back to will soon be sold.

My Mum has decided it is time to go into a retirement villa, near where my Dad is in a Nursing home. This is something she and Dad have talked about doing ‘when the time came’. Well, the time has come and it is the best thing for them. It has still had quite an impact on me and my siblings. On a recent visit to my Mum, my husband, Paul, and I talked a lot about how lucky we had been to be able to go back to this place so often. I grew up in Port Stephens, NSW. Shoal Bay to be more accurate.  (There is a pic of my favourite view of the heads at Shoal Bay in the Flickr stream). I was born in the community hospital there and my parents moved into the house where they have lived for 48 years when I was five. I still remember Dad developing the garden and planting the lawn, the cubby I set fire to playing house and Mum throwing the clothes I hadn’t picked up off the floor out my bedroom window to greet me on my return home from school. It’s where I met by husband when I was 16, it’s where my kids had their first Christmases, where I learnt to swim and surf as a teenager, where my sisters and I were married from, where we came back to after living overseas for a few years. Most of all it is a beautiful place that taught me to appreciate natural beauty.

I do sound very attached and yet where I live now is home too. Our family life is here and it will also be a hard place to leave, filled as it is with our family memories. Now I live on ten acres, with gardens and horses, a creek and lots of Australian wildlife, a long way from the beautiful beaches of Port Stephens. I wonder if I will ever leave here and call some other place ‘home’. Neither Paul nor I can imagine living anywhere else. Sometimes we talk about maybe retiring somewhere else but it never seems to get much airplay. Home is very much a place but it seems to be more than just place. It is family and memories and milestones too. Things that actually do remain long after we have left the place where they happened but in some strange way also tied to those places forever. So while this is my home, where I grew up will always be home too.

Too many balls in the air


It’s the last day of the New Year long weekend in NSW and the first time for a while I’ve had the time or inclination to look at other people’s blogs or write my own. As I mentioned in my last blog I have been grappling with some trying times and some really wonderful stuff too. My Dad has had to go into a Nursing home and I’ve spent some time going back and forth to ‘home’ to support my Mum(8 hour drive!) This will continue into 2011. My daughter also got her first prac report – truly excellent and I am so proud of her.

As we all do at the end of a school year I have been rethinking the things I’ve done in 2010 and thinking about the things I’ll do in 2011. The laptops have certainly posed some new challenges and I am busily thinking about how I will tackle those challenges in 2011. My first priority will be getting kids to use them! Year 10 2010 made some insightful evaluation comments on their use of laptops so far. The bad news was that few of their teachers seem to be using them – me. They also commented on a school rule we have that students must bring a notebook for every subject as well as the laptops – in case the laptops weren’t working or the teacher wanted the kids working in their books. Their complaint about the ‘weight’ and the pointlessness of bringing both books and laptops was significant I think. Needless to say- we worked out a compromise pretty quickly. In 2011 notebooks will stay at school.

Another comment was on teachers’ level of comfort with laptops in the classroom – they had clearly recognized that asking teachers to use a tool they themselves were not experts in was asking a bit much. This was said kindly and respectfully – not as a criticism of their teachers which I found quite endearing. While they were willing to bring their laptops on days when they had English, many had dispensed with them on the other day. This is an issue I have already taken up with my colleagues and executive. While we have had plenty of professional learning opportunities for teachers there is some generational resistance to insisting kids use the laptops and more leadership is needed in this area.

The kids also did not see the laptops as something that had any impact on the quality of their learning, while IWB’s were considered to have added to their engagement in learning and quality of learning. This is an area I would like to explore a lot more in 2011. I have been thinking about how to get kids using the Web 2.0 tools more effectively and ‘organically’ – because they choose to not because I tell them do do it this way. I am going to start with edmodo again and really spend more time on teaching kids to use it, before moving on to other tools. One thing I will try to avoid this year is trying out too many tools, which is what I did in 2010, hence the title of this blog.

My New year’s resolution is to juggle one ball at a time.

Missing in Action


I haven’t blogged for a while and you probably didn’t notice. My husband and I are at the age where our parents’ health is an issue. Unfortunately my mother in law became ill and died recently and not long after my beloved Dad had a stoke. Life does go on. At the same time my beautiful daughter did her first prac as an English teacher and loved it, after doing many other things over the 12 years since she left school. We have had lots of great talks about teaching, what I do, how I do it and more importantly why I do things in certain ways and my teaching philosophy. She has certainly heard most of it before but until now hasn’t really understood the context. While I was away from my desk the wonderful team of teachers I work with pulled together and managed all sorts of difficult situations. I am so grateful to them and so proud of my team.

At this time of the year we are all reflecting on what worked and what didn’t and evaluating our programmes. I’ve been thinking about my first experience with laptops. I can see why some teachers might still be avoiding. They can be so frustrating. The issues around sites not working or kids not having their laptops multiplied throughout the year. Learning lots of new software programmes and trying to manage electronically “handed in” work, not to mention Moodle were all not highlights. Despite this I am still enthusiastic. Fantastic slideshows by students on all sorts of things and are useful starting points for next year. I’m also rethinking blogs, wikis and how I introduce new programmes. Somehow mindmapping online is not so much fun as big sheets of paper and lots of coloured pens. What I have learned is to start slow, do one thing at a time and teach the software with lots of demonstration. I’d be interested in other people’s “first” impressions after our first full year of 1:1 laptops.

Edmodo, and Student teachers.


I discovered Edmodo last week and am in love with it already. What a great site! Perfect for working with 1:1 laptops and easy to join, for kids and teachers. I began by creating groups for my year 10 and year 11 classes and sent them a group email with the join codes. It doesn’t need kids to register with email addresses, you can keep it closed or make some posts public and is not blocked by DET!!!! I especially like the file sharing Library and that students can upload assignments. Another great feature is posting assignments and then as students upload their work it tells you how many have responded. Have you used it? Any advice for a first time user?

I had planned to ‘enrol’ kids in class time but as usual, a technical hitch. For some reason my IWB internet connection has gremlins. Very frustrating and after three service calls this week, no change. Despite this kids have been joining up – their wireless connection works fine!

We have a school Moodle but I think Edmodo is much easier to use – very simple to share files through the library and you don’t need to do a course to learn how to do it. I like to do a lot of my prep at home because I am too busy at school and get a bit tired of the amount of download I have to use to organise material with Moodle, not to mention how slow it is with satellite broadband.

One of my daughters is currently studying to be …. an English teacher. I have really enjoyed hearing her thoughts and ideas over the last few months and her questions have ‘tested’ my memory, assumptions and philosophies. Her questions about how I plan my lessons were a real test. After 30 years of teaching I don’t seem to write much down. I know I walk into the classroom prepared, knowing what I am going to teach and what I expect kids to get from the lesson and how I will do it – it just seems to be all in my head! I had offered her and some of her Uni friends some ‘work experience’ time, mainly because she had expressed her concerns about not knowing what to expect and not remembering much about the classroom because she is a ‘mature age student’!

Yesterday she and a friend visited our school for the day. I really enjoyed having them both in our staffroom and classrooms. They had some time in some classrooms, looked at resources, visited the Library to look at our new Senior Learning Centre and played with the IWB for a while. I made sure I ‘planned’ year 10’s lesson in a bit more detail than I usually do!

I think it is really valuable  for potential teachers to ‘visit’ schools. I know they do a couple of pracs (professional experience and internships) but I think time spent ‘helping out’ in a school would be very useful and create a stronger teaching service in the future. They have so much insight and a different perspective and we older experienced teachers have much to ‘pass on’ that is lost when we retire. It’s like we keep reinventing the wheel. If you have a Uni nearby why not open your doors to some student teachers? Or maybe you are part of a programme already running?

New website


I have a new site:

I’ve had a website for about ten years. I began building the website to support my work in the classroom and delivered a whole terms work in the first year for year 10 via the website and using a computer lab. This was way before IWB, Video conferencing, laptops and most kids having access to a computer an the internet at home. over the years the website has become a place to ‘store’ links to sites and organise the links into topics such as poetry, plays, speeches, writing etc. Obviously before the development of sites like Delicious and Diigo. With changes to Microsoft products and Windows my site became redundant sometime in 2009. I could no longer update the site, fix links or change any materials I had uploaded. After a few stops and starts I managed to organise another host and a domain name. Then followed a difficult time trying to upload the old site to the new host. I built a completely new site in an attempt to overcome some of the issues.  The new site has my Delicious tags embedded on the front page. Much easier for me to add new links and for others to go directly to links. I also started uploading lesson material in Word documents, so others can access the material and adapt as they need. I’ve also included some pages on new technologies, with links to sites I like that work well.

I would be very interested in your thoughts, suggestions and feedback.

Laptops, IWB and changing the role of the teacher.


My classroom is undergoing an interesting transformation. As I come to terms with my changing role with laptops in the room, I started to feel that I needed to ‘teach from the centre’ instead of teaching from the front. So this week my classroom got a bit of a revamp. Teacher’s desk moved to the back centre, tables grouped in sixes (instead of fours), table groups angled in to the middle, remote keyboard and mouse on the teacher’s desk at the back.  Soon there will also be an additional ‘normal’ whiteboard on the back wall. That will give me three normal whiteboards as well as the IWB. I wanted the extra boards so that we can ‘leave things up’ and we still use the normal whiteboard for note-making and brainstorming quite a lot.

The first response from the kids was positive. They liked the ‘change’ and the novelty. Year 10 (who had suggested the change) were happy and I noticed that it immediately changed who was ‘running’ the IWB. Since I wasn’t out the front, kids stepped up to find sites, follow links, complete a quiz etc. Not me! Pretty neat! In one simple move I had created the flexibility I needed and shifted the focus away from me as the sole person in charge of the IWB. Suddenly the IWB became interactive!

Has anyone used Museum Box? I regularly visit Bright Ideas blog and think this would work well with laptops and be a very different research assignment. We do character life boxes as a task when Year 9 study a Shakespearean text. I think the Museum Box would be a very techno alternative. What do you think? Have you done anything with the site?

Stretching the boundaries and listening to the kids.


The laptop learning journey continues. Year 10 and I have explored using the BlogEd further. We used the ‘article of the week’ idea and linked it to the novel we are studying, Guitar Highway Rose. The unit is The Human Condition and I’ve paired the novel with Taming of the Shrew. Each fortnight I am posting a related online article and some ‘starter’ questions. The choice of articles are related to significant themes in the novel and later in the play.

An example:

I linked to an article on “Growing up Saudi, Part 1 Boys” that explored the constraints these young people face and some very underground acts of ‘rebellion’. The blogpost was titled “courtship, dating and rebellion” (The links to the novel and play should be obvious). Here is my post:

Rosie clearly likes Asher. Asher is not so sure about Rosie. Still, there is some kind of connection if they are prepared to run away together, even for a few weeks. Read the article Growing up Saudi, Part 1 Boys This article is about expectations. How do the Saudi boys fulfill expectations and rebel at the same time?   Do you think Rosie and Asher are fulfilling society’s expectations of the way teenagers react by running away? What kinds of expectations does your family have of your behaviour? Are the Saudi boys rebelling in any way? What do you think they would think about Rosie and Asher running away together? What do you think about Rosie and Asher running away together?

Th kids responded in some interesting ways. It did generate a discussion that got deeper as it went on.  We’ve found that this task doesn’t work so well as homework, so we have a blog session at least once a week where everyone gets on line and ‘blog comments’.  We put it up on the IWB as well which seems to encourage students to join in more and allows kids without their laptop to comment – they get to use this IWB. I’m waiting to see if as they become more confident they will check into the blog from home or at other times. The class also decided that comments had to be a certain length (at least five lines). This arose from students noting that other students were just agreeing with comments and didn’t really add much to the discussion. I plan to return to the Saudi article on girls later when we are looking at Taming of the Shrew. I’ve also found it useful to send a group email when I’ve posted. We’ve decied to try the blog out during term 2 and then evaluate. We may continue or try something else in Term 3.

In using the laptops every lesson I am constantly checking with the class on the meaningfulness of the tasks we are doing. Kids are starting to tell me when we need some ‘techno’ training with something I may have assumed they can all do. The kids are doing a reading assignment on the novel at the moment where I’ve given them choices and suggested ways they could use the software or internet sites to ‘deliver’ their work. I keep stressing that I’m learning how to do this laptop thing as I go along. This task is due soon and the kids have to email me a word attachment with web links, written work or images. One of them finally asked if I could show her how to email an attachment, so next lesson I’ll do a demo on the IWB for those who need it.

I’ve been reflecting on the change in my role and management strategies to put into place to accommodate the change in my role. If I’m not careful I can end up being “all over the room” as kids ask for help with a wide variety of things. So one strategy I’m starting to put unto place is coaching each other. I’ve always done this but now I’m implementing ‘Ask three before me”. This naturally leads to more student movement in the room. I’m enjoying being “in” the room with the kids, rather than out the front which is where I normally direct the lesson from. Incidentally the IWB actually made me more out the front than usual! The kids are also offering to ‘show’ how to do things at the IWB.

How about you? Have you some interesting/amusing/useful laptop insights to share?

Is anybody out there?


I’ve had a super frustrating time lately. Mega issues with home computer has meant that I have been without a home computer for about two weeks. I’ve been able to connect and get some work done using my DER laptop but the screen is so small! Must drive the kids crazy. I’ve also been trying to migrate my website to a new host in the middle of home computer having a hissy fit. Despite this I have kept working on my goal to try out software and other resources with Year 10 laptop lessons.

This week we used the laptops to create mindmaps on charaters in Guitar Highway Rose. We used instead of FreeMind (which we all thought was too limiting anda bit boring visually). Kids picked up how it worked really fast and it works well on the IWB. I’d like to experiment with the “sharing” function. Has anyone tried it? Before we used it I reminded students of the security aspects of “social networking” since it is a social networking site, even if it doesn’t look like one.

I’m still struggling with the pedagogical shift in using the laptops and trying to maintain a student-centred focus and collaborative team classroom. I’ve noticed in the past that whenever I am using new skills or strategies in the classroom I shift into teacher-centred mode. I think it is a fall back position for coping with risk taking and not being completely sure how something new is going to work.

The other thing I’ve done is start a ning for our local area English teachers. After our combined Staff Development Day there was a lot of interest in sharing and helping each other so I’m hoping this is a way for people to do this.

Has anyone used the DET BlogEd resources yet? I’ve tried to begin a class blog but I think I’ve hit the wrong button somewhere, it seems to be just my blog which really limits kids participation.

As for my title this week. I don’t think anyone reads this blog and feel like I’m talking to myself. Not that I mind talking to myself, but it does seem a bit self-indulgent. So even if you just look sometimes – a little feedback would make my day!

Yes, but what are they actually doing? (with the laptops!)


Easter break is a good time to take stock. I’ve been thinking a lot about how engaging my lessons actually are with laptops. As this is my first term with the laptops there have been some management issues and I am working out how to shift my teaching practice. I’m missing team work a lot and trying to work out ways to get kids collaborating. I’ve also noticed that kids stop getting their laptops out or using them if there isn’t a clear reason for doing whatever it is we are doing with a laptop. We have just started using Moodle as well so my time has been divided between playing with Moodle and working out how to set up our courses and planning lessons that use the laptops in a constructivist way.

I spent some time today going back over the DER resources and thinking about how I might use them in Term 2. I love the movie trailer idea and plan to get kids to create a movie trailer for a section of the novel we will be reading. I’m also thinking about getting them to create a video blog for the main character. One resource I’ve found that opens up a few ideas is LiveBinders.  In the last unit I created a LiveBinder on ‘Social networking’ with sites that commented on the impact on social networking for teenagers.  Students had to look at the site and respond to the question: Should we be worried about social networking?  This worked well for some students. Others had difficulty scanning and locating information and it might have worked better with a ‘shared’ focus.

I’ve also been reviewing a few ideas I had collected some time ago. Jamie McKenzie’s The Question Mark has some useful ideas about asking the bigger questions and creating slam dunk digital lessons. Lots of browsing time this holidays.

Website changes


I know, I know, my resolution was to post more often. I’ve just spent some quality time with Google reader catching up on favourite bloggers and finding lots of new resources. I’ve also finally bitten the bullet and organised to move my website to a hosting service that will answer my emails and has a phone number with a person on the other end. In the process I registered a domain name. Boy was that tough! I can’t use the title of my website, ‘English Matters’, as the domain name. Apparently it is actually owned by someone and I can buy it for $14,000! Obviously it is time for a reinvention so the new site will have ‘lyntiernanenglishclassroom’ in the url. Boring, I know but everything I tried was ‘owned’ and I needed to keep some connection to the original purpose of the site,  resources for kids and teachers I work with. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bright Ideas always has…well…bright ideas. This one is from Chrissie Michaels and should work well with laptops. Instead of a ‘book report’, kids can create ‘book trailers’ using Windows MovieMaker. Looks like fun and I’ve been very conscious lately on the need to use the laptops effectively. Our school is currently surveying on who is using them and how often, since we noticed about 20% of kids were regularly not bringing them to school. Many, when asked, said they ‘hardly used them’. Teacher training and time is part of the problem, as is the lack of wireless access in most of the school. I’m still managing to use them every lesson, but I have wireless access in my classroom. I’ve been using SpellingCity for weekly spelling tests and practice and we use OneNote for our lesson notes. I’ve only just started learning Moodle and am looking forward to a quicker method of student access to resources than email.

My next job is having a really good look at the National Curriculum proposals. As you can see, I’ve been putting that off as well.

In a perfect world…


In a perfect world I’d be able to use the ning I created for Year 10.  Unfortunately, I don’t live in a perfect world, and the ning is blocked and will remain blocked by DET.  It seems even a closed private ning might encourage students to create their own! And social networking has to be handled with care. I thought I was…. Oh well… sigh. I got very discouraged and haven’t yet looked up the alternatives suggested: wikispaces and edublogs. I will when my inspiration comes back. Year 10 were understandably disappointed. After all the principal had already joined and had promised he would read some of their entries and I was inviting their parents to join. I think they were secretly quite excited at being treated as responsible young adults with something to say.

One thing that has surpised me is the number of students who don’t bring their laptops every lesson. It seems they are a bit disillusioned with the technology or maybe they are just too heavy? I have seen a growth in the numbers bringing them over the last week, since I am planning my lessons around using the laptops for some aspect of every lesson. I’ve also noticed that when they don’t bring the laptop they make sure they have their notebook and pen and write down whatever we do with the laptops including site addresses and ‘how to’ instructions. So maybe the enthsusiam will return as we progress through the year.

Laptop Mayhem


What fun technology is! I taught my first lesson with laptops this week. I had sent my year 10 class an email and began the first lesson by asking them to check their email. Problem 1 – only two thirds had actually brought their laptops to school on the first day. Problem 2 – about 3 couldn’t remember their passwords and another 10 didn’t know how to check their email. Problem 3 – the DET access failed and no one could use the internet. Despite the potential for disaster we had a great lesson. We talked about using laptops at school and home.  I explained what a ‘ning’ was, since I had created one especially for them (but couldn’t show them on the IWB because the internet wasn’t working!) and began introducing my procedures for the year. Oh, and I have one student who hates using the laptop and had planned to hand it back in because she didn’t want the responsibility and was going back to pen and paper! Can’t wait for next lesson. Always optimistic, the cybergods will fix it all over the weekend, won’t they?