I “do”

Turns out I’m a bit pedantic about letters and words. No surprises there, I guess, given my English teaching background. Today I’d like to level my sights at an insidious little verb: to do.

I hear this a lot. Heck, I’ve used it a lot. I’m thinking about sentences like: ‘We’ll start off with some poetry, then ‘do’ some creative writing tasks, before ‘doing’ the assessment.” I was listening to a really interesting piece on the radio the other day about the importance of oral language rich childhoods. Some of this was qualified by explaining that strong oracy skills gave learners an advantage when it came to ‘doing’ reading and writing later on in school. It becomes a short-hand way of lesson or programme planning: we’ll ‘do’ this content, then ‘do’ this task.

Argh!

So I’ve been thinking about why ‘do’ drives me nuts. And I think I’ve figured it out. It’s because it makes the items become a ‘to do’ list: a tick box mentality. It compartmentalises the ensuing nouns into discrete areas. This all harks back to my other rants about timetables and silos.

When we talk about ‘doing’ learning, it prevents us from so much. It foregrounds content over skills. It implies we impose the learning on our students. It isolates knowledge from its context. It infers little personalisation, authenticity or relevancy.

So I challenge you to listen to yourself when you use the verb ‘do’. I know it’s an easy short-hand, and that you don’t intend to insinuate any of the above concepts. But listen and reflect. Is there another way to phrase your ideas so that you don’t ‘do’ ‘do’?

(And notice I didn’t use the word ‘try’ – that’s a whole ‘nother rant for another time…!)

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Whodunit??

detective-152085_640

This term my Year 8 class scripted, rehearsed and performed their own plays. I’ve taught various versions of this unit for a couple of years now. The students always enjoy it, and often create quite good dramas. It was time for a twist though, and it came in the form of cross-curricular learning with Science.

[A quick contextual note: at my school Year 7 and 8 are integrated into the secondary school, i.e they have subject specialist teachers. Year 7 are taught in a homeroom, with the exception of subjects such as Science, Art and Music. Year 8s move around from subject to subject, teacher to teacher, as Year 9s and upward do.]

I found out that the Year 8 Science classes do a forensics unit, complete with a trip to Police Museum – fun!, and often they make their own films showing a crime to be solved. It seemed that this could dovetail nicely with my drama unit.

In addition to the drama skills, including mime, improvisation and drama conventions, I usually taught, we also covered some plotting ideas. We discussed the need to plan carefully. The girls would need to know ‘whodunit’, why, and how before they started writing. This was a real spin-off bonus to the unit, from my perspective. I do find that sometimes no matter how much I emphasise the need to plan before starting, the starting is the planning for many! However, in crafting a detective story, students could see the benefit of working backwards, so to speak, in order to take their audience on a journey.

The Science teacher and I decided on some parameters: no brutal CSI or Criminal Minds episodes for us, thank you! (The relevant information sheet is here: Year 8 Crime Drama Play)The girls had the prompters of three titles: The Locker Raid, The Case of the Missing Lunch and The Words that Should Not Have Been There. The girls weren’t to stage the crimes, but to start in medias res, as many plays do – smack bang in the middle of the action – after the crime had been committed. The plays were to be set at school and be realistic. I wondered if the girls might not find this much fodder for their creative juices, and one group wasn’t so keen initially, but I think the task had its own challenges and working with a familiar setting and context actually was easier.

In order to incorporate the forensics, the girls had to include a ‘multimedia presentation’ in their play. This meant that the audience could ‘see’ the clues that were discovered during the course of the play. They learned about fibres and fingerprints and tooth marks in Science and took pictures with a microscope which they put into Google Slides. These presentations were then screened during the play – another element to incorporate into their scripts as stage directions. While the quality of the images wasn’t always so great, and the girls didn’t spread the clues throughout their plays as I had imagined they might, this definitely helped keep them on task and focus on the real Science behind their crimes.

Working in Google Docs and Slides worked so well for this unit. We had a lot of students struck down by illness, but sharing the documents and working collaboratively meant no excuse for work being in one book, or stuck on one student’s account. It also allowed students to work on different scenes of their plays at the same time – a more equal sharing of responsibilities. The illness was an issue when we moved into rehearsal phase though. I didn’t get to see many groups rehearse fully to give them as much feedback as I normally would around their use of space or audience awareness.

Overall though, this was an interesting unit. The girls kept a reflection log throughout the process, and the overarching theme of these was how much fun they were having. I did ask them to reflect on what they had learned, but some found this difficult. Maybe some sentence starters next time will help bring more focus to their responses. The thing I most enjoyed was the group who had a completed script…and then realised that the Science didn’t support what they had planned to use as clues…so back they had to go and re-work their piece. I don’t know if their Science teacher prompted them to do this, but I certainly didn’t. Seeing the girls having to think critically about how to interweave the forensics into their English script was amazing. I also enjoyed inviting parents into the class to see the girls perform. While we didn’t have a huge uptake, at least one-third of the girls had a supporting adult come along. This small but authentic audience helped the girls to focus on learning their lines and taking their performances seriously. As always, there are things I could have done better, but I was proud of what the girls achieved and having to work cross-curricular really added to their learning experience.

Marsden Matters

Our publication: Marsden Matters 

This year for my ‘traditional’ Year 8 newspaper unit, I decided to give the students a more authentic twist. I assigned each group one of the four ‘Marsden Pillars‘ – the values that underpin our school. The groups ‘pitched’ for which of the four pillars: creativity, resilience, giving and excellence, they wanted to showcase in their newspaper. Based on the suggestions they made for content, I matched one pillar with each group. Each newspaper had to include a masthead, three articles, and a solus advertisement.

An unexpected win was that the girls took their articles very seriously. Not content with just relying on what they knew of events and successes around the school, they undertook interviews and conducted research. If I had realised the girls would move in this direction, I would have taught more around questioning techniques. And also, the girls knew I was going to use Youblisher to publish their work. Just like when we completed our King of Shadows website in Term 1, having this wider, authentic audience, does encourage them to lift their work and not to be satisfied with a ‘one and done’ drafting process.

It struck me during the course of this unit how hard it is for students to write formally, in a newspaper-style. They struggled to recognise the difference between key facts and added detail. They struggled not to editorialise or not to put themselves into their article. They didn’t know conventions like avoiding brackets and using people’s surnames rather than their Christian names. If I use this unit again, I will make sure I teach some of these concepts more directly. However, when I realised we were struggling with some of these basics, I wrote a little lesson starter to highlight these points, and I think this helped.

Nevertheless, the four newspapers were well-written, and I am proud of their finished products. The reflections the students completed at the end of the unit attest to the fact that the girls enjoyed the work. Their suggestions of having more articles to write, and less time in class to produce their newspapers meshed with thoughts I had had during the unit itself – always gratifying to know that your thought are on par with the students’!

Being in the process of reading Key Competencies for the Future, Rachel Bolstad et al, 2014, I can see real possibilities to expand this unit into a focus on the relationship between the media and society, and I would love to explore some of the rich ‘meaty’ problems this would reveal.

Any thoughts or suggestions gratefully received – comment below!

 

Reflections on Term 1

Inspired by the likes of @GeoMouldey and @rosmaceachern and their reflective blogposts (Steve’s here and Ros’ here), I thought I’d put my thoughts about Term 1 so far in writing.

Firstly, here’s a link to my 2014 Inquiry Thoughts document I boldly drafted in January (yes, before school started) where I captured some ideas about what I’d like to focus on with each of my four English classes. The basic thought process was that I knew I needed to change my teaching practice in order to better ‘practice what I preach’ and in order to engage with my students in a more meaningful, ‘future focused’ pedagogy way. However, that was a pretty daunting task. So, my solution was to pick one focus for each class. For my Year 13s, it was around the use of social media in order to promote ubiquity and life-long learning. Year 11s, collaboration, which came out of a department review I conducted at the end of 2013. Year 10s, authentic context and Year 8s, personalised learning / inquiry.

social media

Year 13

  • I am fascinated by the low take-up of Twitter by my students. They seem to be keen users of Facebook, and no posting of amusing images or intriguing links appears to be tempting the rest of the class into the Twittersphere. I set up a teacher-specific account (@NicollEngTchr) and mostly remember to use #13AP2014.
  • However there is genuine enthusiasm for our Edmodo page, and I have recently seen a tipping point reached whereby students are independently posting links to other sources of information they have found which are relevant to our topic of study. This warms the cockles of my heart, and I hope this is a sign that the girls are seeing ‘English’ not just as something that happens when it is scheduled to during the school day.
  • I have also introduced the girls to the wonder that is Google Docs – they love co-writing and sharing their work this way. They even remember to share their docs with me 🙂
  • My next step is to check in with the girls themselves – in their busy lives, how else can I encourage ubiquitous, life-long learning?

collaboration

Year 11

  •  I feel as though I started with a hiss and a roar with collaboration extensively implemented during our poetry unit in the first few weeks of the term.
  • I haven’t explored a lot of different tech tools to encourage collaboration, but we do have an Edmodo class site which is the repository of all our documents, etc.
  • What I particularly noticed is that once the pressure hit with NCEA internal assessments (creative writing, personal reading, speeches), collaboration went out the window to make way for teacher-directed instruction and individual work on assessments. I can’t help but wonder if the time hasn’t come to remove some assessments in order to have more powerful, engaging learning. However, it is also a good reminder to me to continue to strive to find a new way of doing things, not to lapse back into lazy, traditional habits.
  • My next step is to look into tech tools that could encourage more collaboration – maybe VoiceThread as I noted in my inquiry document. It is also to remember to focus on my ‘word of the year’: innovate. 

Year 10

  •  Authentic context, I am rapidly discovering, is a real challenge. Interestingly so, in fact. Nevertheless this week we launched into a study of the language of advertising, which I have constructed in such a way as to have authenticity. This is that the English Department want to encourage girls to take English at Year 13, when it is no longer compulsory, and, what’s more, to take the ‘AP’ (advanced programme) course, where applicable, to have the challenge of Scholarship English. I have the Head of English coming into class as the ‘client’, I have a current 13AP student coming into class as a ‘consumer’, and I have a friend who works in marketing coming in as an expert who can guide us through the creative process.
  • I’ll be extremely interested to see if working in this way increases engagement and the quality of their final product – which will really be used!

???????????

Year 8

  • I have indeed ‘flipped’ my grammar/language classes by using TED-Ed. The girls like learning in this way. I want to start making my own videos, and I want to have some girls create videos. I can see that this will be an ongoing learning process for us all throughout the year. What I particularly want to get better at is working with the separate groups within the classroom, to better personalise the learning once the flipped homework has been completed.
  • In terms of ‘inquiry’ with the girls, I’m not entirely sure the current work we’re doing is ‘inquiry’ per se, but it is highly engaging for them. We are currently creating a class website using Weebly on our novel study King of Shadows by Susan Cooper.  I’m amazed really at how much ‘front-loading’ needs to go into this kind of task. We explored websites such as Wikipedia and Sparknotes to see how they were written and constructed. We co-constructed success criteria. We made a list of tasks and assigned these…and then we got started! However, it is heartening to see how focused and enthusiastic the class is. I feel as though they are improving their self-critiquing as when they ask me for feedback, I simply ask them if it’s the kind of information they themselves would want on a informative website, such as the one we’re aiming to create.
  • I’m keen to develop a more ‘open’ inquiry next time – what do they want to explore, how do they want to show their understanding.

Whew – no wonder it feels like the end of the term! There’s a lot going on, but I’m really enjoying working in this way, having a specific focus for each class, under the umbrella of the Marsden vision for future-focused pedagogy. As always, there’s a lot more to do, and that could be done, but I’m pretty proud of my baby steps so far. Thanks to my senior manager who met with me to discuss this reflection last Wednesday, and for the encouragement I have received.

Image credits:

Social Media: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Social-media-for-public-relations1.jpg

Collaboration: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/advice/research-excellence

Eye: Microsoft Clip Art