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Archive for the category “Literacy”

Countdown 2015! The Improving Writing presentation

Jasper m beastI’m presenting tomorrow at the English Teachers’ Association’s Annual Conference. The presentation is an update of my work as a literacy consultant. For those who’ve seen it before, my presentation is based on a course I developed for an across KLA audience but I have adapted it several times for different KLA’s, student audiences, different contexts and different delivery timeframes.
Previously with English teachers I’ve used John Foulcher’s ‘Summer Rain’ as a related text but I’ve moved to The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, which is better suited to discovery.
The presentation’s meant to cover a number of bases. It’s meant to in the first case provide information and strategies for teachers who are less familiar with grammar and literacy within English. It’s also meant to give teachers in schools who have to work as part of literacy committees some information that will help them move their schools away from narrow, NAPLAN-based approaches to literacy. Finally it’s designed to continue the conversation. I’ve suggested a range of practical strategies designed to improve students’ writing and outlined a framework that structures the process. But I know that others will take this in their own directions; I encourage you to do so.
The PowerPoint for Friday’s presentation is here: Improving Writing ETA Nov 14 v4
The handout I prepared included my article from last year’s mETAphor, Issue 3. Members can download this from the ETA’s website.
I also included some sample paragraphs to start the conversation. These are here: jasper morello paragraphs v5
Elsewhere on the blog you’ll find previous versions of this course should you wish. Or you can just get in touch. I’ll see a large group of you at conference tomorrow, I’m sure.


Blogs worth following

I’ve just started following this blog http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=516 so I thought I’d share. This particular post picks up on dyslexia, language learning and recent advances in neurolinguistics but there’s other good stuff here, too. Very readable and accessible. I’ve also just read the most recent post on ability grouping and beginning teachers which challenges the practice of a number of schools.


Speaking task alternatives.

This is part of a continuing series. Some might say an on-going saga. But I think it’s worth sharing the latest thinking in my staff on speaking tasks.

Here’s the one we’ve just finished writing: T1_Yr 10_Social_Justice_Asst_Notification_2014. Naturally it comes with a couple of extras, like a scaffold and a marking criteria: T1 Yr 10 Social Justice digital presentation Scaffold 2014, T1_Yr 10_Social_Justice_Marking_Criteria_2014

It’s our attempt to keep mixing it up when it comes to speaking tasks. We’re very happy with our Stage 6 tasks, where we have students reading their own creative writing aloud and reflecting on their own writing, with support from a visual presentation if desired. In case you’ve missed it previously, here’s one of them: 1. HSC_AoS_Assessment_Notification_2014

The great thing about this task in Stage 6 is that it formally values the creative side of the syllabus and encourages students to see it as an essential part of the course. And, of course, it values the part of English that a lot of us love – the creative and the imaginative. However, we didn’t want our Year 10 task to be a ‘lite’ version of the HSC task.

Year 10 have just finished their speaking task – it went over exceptionally well, probably because we did have an authentic audience in mind and encouraged students to speak directly about issues that matter to them. The opportunity to pre-record before presenting, or to present a digital video, was taken up by about thirty students and prevented a lot of the refusals and melt-downs we’ve seen in the past.

So we’re very happy with this one. Hopefully you’ll be able to use this to inform your own practice! If you’ve got a better alternative, please share!

Sharing a noble failure

Okay, I’ve put about five hours into this but I don’t think it’s going to work.

 Krystal at Hunter Performing Arts bravely created the initial grid (and probably put in five hours herself as well) and I’ve been attempting the Stage 4 and Stage 5 extension of it.

 Here’s the problem: I don’t think it’s doing what people will want it to do. Have a look for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. HSPA K 10 Literacy Scope Draft

 There’s interesting things to be gained from the experience, though: 

  1. The Literacy Continuum doesn’t have enough detail for what we want with a scope and sequence
  2. The integrated language outcomes and content in the syllabus make deconstructing it for a scope extremely complex!
  3. If you start a project like this you need to perhaps stop and think about its purpose
  4. This purpose needs to be more specific than, ‘summarise the kind of language that we’ll use when we talk about literacy, grammar and language features.’

 There’s useful things here, too, but there needs to be a better pathway to using them. I know some teachers  are working similar projects as a wiki, I’m thinking that I’d love to get a staff working together, cutting things up and sticking them on a wall… Perhaps a grid system would work better? Something like this?

Stage: Whole text written/ spoken/ visual/ multimodal Paragraphs/ Sections Sentences/ Images Word/ Elements

I’ve got a couple of other projects on at the moment but I’d like to get back to this later in the term – so let me know if you’ve had more success than I have! In the meantime, why not pick what I’ve done apart? What needs work? What would work for you?

I’ll see (some of you) at ETA conference!

Students don’t answer the question because….

Answering the question is a hard thing to do!

I wrote about this in the last edition of mETAphor (if you’re an ETA member, here’s the link: http://www.englishteacher.com.au/Resources/mETAphor.aspx. If you’re not a member, sorry – I was paid for the article so I need to not republish it here for a while!)

But I thought it was worth adding something to what I’ve already written. I’ve been reading some work by English (Standard) students and I’ve been thinking through the issue of BOS verbs in particular.

When the HSC examiners set a question they intend for it to be accessible to all students. Unlike other subjects, where a question might be targeted at ‘Band 3’ or ‘Band 6’, in English questions are often targeted at ‘Bands 2-6’.

What this means is that the questions are written in such a way that only the very best students are going to be able to balance all of the elements. Think about this year’s HSC question on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, for example:

Owen’s poems present the reader with a powerful exploration of the impact of human cruelty on individuals.

How does Owen achieve this in his poems?

In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed text.

Look at everything that students are being asked to address.  Students who were doing what their teachers told them to and circled the key terms in the question would need to address ‘powerful exploration’, ‘impact’, ‘human cruelty’, ‘individuals’, ‘how’ and ‘achieve’. That’s a lot to cover! It’s no wonder that some students, when they see a question like this, latch onto one thing they understand and centre their essay on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of students just dealt with the horrors of war Owen describes, for example.

What I’m noticing in particular, though, is that the BOS verbs fit very nicely with what students do: some students working at an elementary level can identify some features of the text. Then there’s those who can describe. A student who’s doing okay can explain – they might tell me about the horrors of war in Owen’s poems, with some details drawn from the poems. A better student can analyse, going beyond the content of the poems to their effect. And the best students can evaluate, talking about the differences between poems and their effect on the reader.

I was visiting at my old school last week and I wandered into a class and shared this observation with them, and encouraged them to work their way up from identifying and describing to explaining, analysing and evaluating – and they were shocked at the revelation that the BOS verbs were applicable to English! Of course, they are – but how often have we bothered to make this explicit? Or to incorporate it into our teaching? As a way of developing quality writing in senior students, it’s a nice little framework. It’s different from my ‘six point plan’ strategy but hey, there’s more than one way to get to your favourite coffee shop.

Somewhere in there, there’s an explicit literacy lesson! I’m working two jobs at the moment so I don’t have the alertness levels necessary to develop it – but perhaps someone out there might want to develop a nice little QT literacy lesson?

An Unguarded Moment of On-line Panic

Troy Martin, an education writer from Educational Experience, asked me if I’d like to write something about a couple of questions:

  • What advice would you give to teachers planning to create live sites for their students to publish creative writing?
  • What challenges may teachers’ face when moving students’ learning online?

Um, er… yikes!  Okay, here’s what I wrote.

I have to admit that when I read your questions I went into a bit of a panic. ‘I don’t know anything about sharing work on-line… I don’t know if I’m doing this well…. I’ll bet my staff or someone on-line has better ideas than me…

 Yes – classic teacher-centred panic when faced with the on-line environment. So the first thing that I have to do here is get over myself. What’s the worst that can happen here? Someone could have a better idea and I might learn something.

 So here goes: this is what I think. Correspondence gladly entered into.

 Because I’m a Teacher of a Certain Age, I make sense of on-line spaces by thinking back to what I know from pre-digital times. I used to do a task with seniors where each group had to contribute a page to a class summary that would then be photocopied and distributed. Today that’s what I use a wikispace for.

 Similarly, I’ve always used anthologies, getting students to publish their works as part of a literary magazine or something similar. In the past, students would work with their peers on paper. Today that’s all digital. An edmodo group as an editing circle, graphic software to create the pages for publication, publication on a blog as well as on paper.

 This is one where I’m happy to take advice. I’ve invested a lot of time into staying up-to-date on Microsoft Publisher – but I see others using programs like Fireworks with great results. I’ve been reading a lot about ‘fan fiction’ projects, too – and I’m wondering if there’s something better than a blog for sharing these.  When I get some time, I’m planning to check out Weebly to see what’s possible there. A quick side note: I’ve just noticed that someone else I know is using weebly like a wiki as well – and it looks better than what I’ve done in the past.

 The presentation to the class, formally spoken with palm cards, is something I used frequently – last century. This century, I’ve moved towards digitally enhanced or delivered presentations. The PowerPoint, Prezi or Slideshare particularly. I’m still a fan of the live voice if we’re talking senior assessment tasks but really, I would much rather watch a well-constructed short film than an essay on legs.

 Real audiences are important in all this, too. In the past, I’ve been involved in activities where my class has written letters or exchanged work with others in a far-flung, distant land. Nebraska, for example. Skype, Adobe Connect, edmodo all make this exchange more immediate and positive.

 So there’s my thoughts. I’ll stress again that I’m not the expert. But I am going to post this on my blog and send it to someone who’s more expert. Alison Byrne, what do you reckon?

Towards a grammar scope and sequence

Why is it that English teachers, when they get hold of a ‘reading visual texts’ resource are happy to play with it, talk about vectors and salience and gaze, in a way that they won’t with grammar?

I mean, if I were to say that I prefer the term ‘focal point’ to ‘salient features’people might not agree with me but it’s not going to cause a ruckus. But if we move from a visual grammar like this to a grammar of English…

I think it’s about time we re-imagined grammar. There’s still too much of the old ‘what are the rules’ thinking rather than the ‘how is meaning being made here’ thinking. I had this point driven home when I was visiting my old school on Friday. We were working with the primary staff on a secondary scope and sequence that’s designed to make sure that we are up to speed on the language outcomes in the new syllabus. And I kept running into people who found the very idea of grammar frightening. A DP with an English background who’d marked NAPLAN, Primary exec, other English teachers, all looking like rabbits in the headlights at the very mention of the G word.

Time to get over it, I reckon. Time to say, ‘anytime I’m talking about how meaning is being made, that’s a part of grammar.’ Vectors and salient features? That’s a grammar of visual text. Motifs, use of performance space, taking focus? That’s a grammar of performance.

Mel Dixon’s got a great quote in one of her workshops about how we need to see grammar not as something distant and unteachable but as a resource for the creation of meaning, a metacognitive strategy that can assist our students – and us – to do what we do with text in a more considered and effective way.

I’ll be doing some more work on this during the week and I’ll post the details here. The goal is to get English teachers used to the idea that we are confident and capable users of language and that we can happily ignore any latinate nonsense that doesn’t help us understand what is is that we do. An update soon!

Improving Students’ Extended Writing – the Work So Far

This is largely a rehash of what I’ve written about elsewhere in the blog but it’s worth going over, mainly because I’ve had a few requests lately for resources.

A big part of my work as a consultant has been to work on later years literacy. The course I put together as part of this work is called ‘Improving Students’ Writing in your KLA’ – it’s designed to be relevant acros a range of subject areas.

It’s built around some key ideas in literacy. The really central one is that students’ writing won’t improve unless we explicitly teach writing. Sounds like a no-brainer but in the context of the HSC, with busy people intent on delivering content, it’s easy to lose sight of the need to build on what students can do and show them where to go next.

Central to the course is the idea of feedback. If you know Karen Yager’s work, or you’ve read John Hattie, you’ll know how powerful feedback is – but what does effective feedback look like? I’ve proposed a structure based around a six-point diagram that’s designed to give teachers a framework for providing feedback. I’ve borrowed from Karen the idea of feedback and ‘feed forward’ throughout. Telling students what they can already do, then where they need to go next, is a key strategy.

In short, when we’re looking at a student’s extended writing, we typically find a range of problems that we want to ‘feed forward’ to them about, including:

  • that they really don’t know the content well enough
  • that their writing is unstructured
  • that they aren’t writing enough
  • that their writing lacks complexity
  • that they’re not ‘answering the question’ in a precise way
  • that they’re not dealing with the big ideas

In the course, I suggest that these six points are points on a cycle. If we build knowledge, then structure, then elaboration, then complexity, then cohesion, then concept – then we’ve built quality writing. I came up with this approach in particular because, while everyone uses high-end work samples, there’s not to my mind much teaching about the steps on the way to composing high-end, academic, conceptual writing of the kind valued in the HSC.

Here’s the diagram that I use as the centre of the course:

The Writing Cycle

Try it out: have a look at a few work samples and see if you can ‘track’ the sample to the diagram. It’s supposed to help make the ‘feed forward’ conversation with the student easier: ‘Look, you clearly know your texts well, your essay’s well organised and you’re writing a longer response, but let’s work on your sentences to see if we can get more complex ideas into your response.’ That kind of thing.

When I’m working individually with students I often take them around this cycle in an effort to build a quality paragraph. There’s an example of this at the back of the course handout.

Now I mentioned earlier that improving writing should be explicit – and that’s what else is in the handout that you can download here: Improving Writing Support booklet. In it are a range of strategies that I’ve used in English and other KLA’s to explicitly build students’ writing skills. There’s activities that encourage students to learn about what they’re studying through writing, scaffolding proformas, suggestions for encouraging elaboration, activities on building complexity through sentence-based activities, passages that demonstrate high-level cohesion and suggestions for building complexity.

I thought of editing this all back so that it only included English examples but I’ve left the other KLA examples in there just to make the point: every KLA is responsible for the specific, subject-based literacies in their own area.

I’m hoping this is useful for the people who asked. Some of you will no doubt be sick of the mantra – ‘explicit, systematic, balanced, integrated’ – but there’s a solid, practical focus in this.

Ultimately, academic writing is no easy thing and many of our students will need help to get there. This is my model for doing that.

The Justice Game

There’s been a bit of action on the ETA facebook page recently around Geoffrey Robertson’s The Justice Game for Module C, Advanced. So this post is just about resource sharing. I’ll attach what’s in my files, with a few comments. Here’s my introductory lecture on the concept of representation that looks at the Boggs banknote, the Peters Projection world map and the Trials of Oz. Intro lecture Rep Justice Game

The PowerPoint that goes with this lecture is here. There’s some good images of Oz magazine in here if you don’t have them already. Intro Lecture Rep Justice Game

Here’s a language analysis grid, designed to focus students in on the language techniques that are central to Robertson’s construction of his conflicting perspectives: justice game lang. And here’s a detailed breakdown of Prisoner of Venda: Justice Game – The Prisoner of Venda

One of my favourite related texts for this module is Kenneth Slessor’s ‘The Vesper-Song of the Reverend Samuel Marsden’. Slessor makes his Marsden an overblown, sadistic hypocrite. (The poem is also fun if you’re fond of high-volume, stump-thumping readings…. just saying) There’s obvious content links with The justice Game but there’s also the conflict within the text (between Marsden and convict society) and within its context – what does it say about the relationship between the practitioners of law and our society? There’s a full break down of the vocabulary and a sample paragraph in the PowerPoint: Rep text Marsden lecture update 11

I’m also fond of this poem, Kelly the Murderer. Again, it benefits from high rhetorical delivery. But it’s very interesting: it was published in The Bulletin on the 6th of November, 1880 and gives a real insight into the conflicting views of Kelly and his crimes that were present at the time of his execution. The poem is so damning of Kelly, it’s shocking – there’s the very detailed imagining of his hanging, and the line ‘a bushel of quicklime is all that he’s worth!’ (Oh, bodies buried in unhallowed ground were often limed to make them decompose more quickly.) Kelly the murderer 

So there you go: I hope this is of some help to those who are teaching The Justice Game. As a final insight, I was working with a student just the other day and found that looking at how theatrical ”The Trials of Oz’ are is a great way in. Even looking at the way it’s written, with its pieces of dialogue, makes it obvious that it’s legal theatre – farcical legal theatre at that.

Good luck!

Improving Writing 2013

I’ve been running the Improving Writing in your KLA course again this week – for about the nineteenth time. Last week I ran the students’version that I put together for Hunter River again as well – this time in Maitland. Naturally I can’t avoid tinkering with this course and of course it’s going to change according to audience but here’s the latest version of the PowerPoint Improving Writing in Your KLA May 2013 and the course handout Improving Writing in Your KLA May 2013 Improving Writing May 2013 Handout.

For those who haven’t seen these before, please note that I’m happy for you to use them – but please respect copyright by acknowledging the creators. That’d be the consultants who contributed to the project – and me.

Given the way that the Improving Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership initiative suddenly consumed my time in the first couple of weeks, it was nice to get back onto familiar ground. I particularly enjoyed working with the students at Muswellbrook. Maybe I’m starting to miss the classroom!

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