Tag Archives: good practice

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,  https://open.abc.net.au/projects/500-words-family-rituals-18ab0ae#/about 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 https://open.abc.net.au/projects/aftermath-08vh8ac/collections/aftermath-features-85vg9us It would also be useful for a unit on natural disasters.

My favourite was this story https://open.abc.net.au/posts/sharing-my-loo-with-a-frog-59hb5jx 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.

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.



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.

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.