Tag Archives: writing essays

Resistance is futile.

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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

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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.

30 Year Gold Star

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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!

Revising in English for the HSC

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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!