Category Archives: Student Writing

Posts and resources for teaching writing.

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 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.

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?

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!

Creativity, Procedures and ‘old dogs learning new tricks’


What a lot we pack into our days! Last week we hosted a visit from acclaimed author, Jen McVeity. Jen has delivered her workshops  ‘Seven Steps to Success’ both in 2007 and 2008 and we asked her to come again this year. Jen’s creative writing workshops are fun, stimulating and the emphasis is on inspiring creativity in kids. Her mantra is a simple one: keep it short, make sure it’s fun and teach the microskills. Just as we learn a skill in sport, writing narratives needs to be broken down into the ‘serve’, the ‘lob’ and the ‘backhand smash’. If you sign up for the newsletter Jen revisits each of the steps in her course with great classroom ideas.

This year Jen delivered a workshop on ‘The Final Four’ to a mixed group that included teachers of English, Drama, Aboriginal Studies, History, Visual Arts and Geography. Jen’s steps are about narrative but aren’t just for English teachers. The steps can be applied to all topics for writing and writing narratives is a great strategy for increasing literacy and deep knowledge in any subject. In fact, some really interesting things happen when you apply the ‘story graph’ Jen uses for planning to writing a speech or a reflection on learning!

Now, about ‘old dogs learning new tricks’. I bought myself a copy of Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School after reading about it on  Marie’s Learning Curve blog. I thought it would be useful for the beginning teachers I work with as well as offer me some fresh ideas. You can read Harry’s column on effective classroom management at Teachers.Net and there are lots of great ideas. I meant to just ‘dip’ into the book but ended up reading the whole thing. While the chapter on effective classroom management is a winner, it mainly confirmed the things I do (teach kids the ‘routines’ that make the classroom run more smoothly).  I realised that I do these things because I learnt the hard way, through years of experience and days of frustration in the early years. Harry’s message is that all teachers need to learn these things early in their teaching career, or we lose those teachers because the classroom becomes too frustrating and not at all fulfilling.

The chapter that really got me thinking was about ‘writing good assignments’. Once I figured out what Harry meant by ‘assignments’ – lessons! – I was confronted with what is probably a self evident truth to everyone else out there: telling the kids what the lesson concept is, identifying the learning objectives clearly and then matching both the lesson strategies and the ‘test’ to these objectives guarantees better results.

Now I know I do these things most of the time in most lessons but just the same, I started to think about how well I was doing it. First thing I did was help some year 10’s with an assessment task on researching a ‘voice of a generation’ and then preparing a presentation for the class. The original task had 6 broad ‘steps’ to guide students. Taking Harry’s advice I broke down each step  using ‘verbs’ from Bloom’s taxonomy and then finishing the sentence. There were 15 things kids had to do to complete the task effectively!

Here’s an example: ” Step 3 – Research the life and context of the world your composer inhabited” became:

  • List the main events in the person’s life.
  • Describe the historical events that impacted on the person’s life.
  • Explain any social changes during this person’s life.
  • Explain any events that influenced this person in a significant way.
  • Describe the medium this person uses.
  • Describe the audience this person addressed.

I was a bit stunned – no wonder some of the kids were having trouble with the task! I’m sure I verbalise these sub steps when talking about the task but we all know how well teenagers listen!

Needless to say, I’ve been looking at all my lesson preparation in a whole new light! So, we are never too old to learn new tricks. Which is just as well, since the DET in all its wisdom and after spending lots on training Connected Classroom teachers to use Activstudio software, has decided to change to ‘Notebook 12’ for Smart boards. Just when I thought I had mastered Activstudio!

Bravos and Brick Bats


I’m going to brag a bit here. Two of our lovely Year 11 students are State finalists in the ABC HEYWIRE competition. As there were only 9 State finalists for NSW we are naturally preening at the moment.

We set the Heywire writing brief as an assessment task for Year 11 early in the year and this is the first year any of our students have been selected. Teachers worked in lessons with students on listening to and analysing previous entires as models of good writing and working through planning, drafting and revising processes . The great thing about their writing is the way kids found their ‘voice’, something they often have difficulty doing.

The competition is open to young people in rural and remote Australia and they are asked to write/record a one minute personal comment on youth issues. Both students are taping their entries this week and these will be aired on ABC Local radio. Cause for celebration, not only of their achievement but also the wonderful work of the English teachers I work with!

On the brick bats, I’m going to have a whinge about State governments that change email systems (with not a lot of preparation) and then don’t transfer your distribution lists or provide sufficient ‘help’ to navigate a completely different process for creating contact lists or address books!

I feel much better now.