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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.

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Orwell’s 1984. Some Critical material

I’m following up on the ETA’s Module A day on the weekend and as promised, here’s some of the reading material I used to prepare my talk. I’ve also included some images. Here’s the Empire map!

Empire map

Now, I’ve attempted to scan these so they still work as a pdf but I may not have been completely successful. But here goes.

First off, here’s something Neal Endacott had tucked away from the 1970’s. It’s from an old Scoutline – those of a certain generation will remember Scoutlines – but it’s very quick and easy. It has a refreshing certainty to it, as well. ‘There he learnt to hate imperialism and pity the downtrodden and exploited’ – that kind of definitive statement that gives a good sense of how Orwell was perceived in a ’70’s context: Orwell Scoutline

Here’s a couple of interesting sources from on-line locations. I’ve included the url so you can track them down yourself. The first is from sfsite, one of my starting points for any sf texts. The second is from a University site. It has a very clear analysis of the ‘did Orwell predict the future?’ debate: Orwell Neil Walsh SF site

Now this is more just for interest. It’s an article from The Guardian about Orwell’s composition of 1984. Engaging and interesting: Orwell Guardian article

More stuff: here’s Ben Pimlott’s Introduction to 1984. This is the one in my edition but I know that it won’t be in everyone’s, and I particularly liked it: Orwell Intro Pimlott. And here’s some straightforward explanation of content: Orwell Storgaard

Understanding the complexities of Orwell’s politics can be a challenge, so here’s something on that:  Orwell Laurenson. Last of all, here’s an article that pushes out a few more challenging ideas: Orwell Donoghue

And just so I can show off, here’s the watch I used in the presentation. Pocket Watch

It’s my 1905 Waltham, an American movement in an English case. From the 1880’s, the US was making watch movements faster, cheaper and better than the English equivalent. If I’d thought of it, I would have included a picture of my roll-top desk from the same time – also American, because American mass production was producing faster, cheaper, better American Oak office furniture as well.

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?

Dodging the ‘essay on legs’. The speaking task question.

I’ve stolen the phrase ‘essay on legs’ from Sam Schroder, who used the term on the ETA facebook page. I like it because it’s a great summary of the problem: since the introduction of the new senior syllabus at the turn of the century we’ve been looking for decent alternatives to the highly formalised, analytical speaking task.  

Even as someone who has spent a lot of their career as a public speaking and debating coach, I have to say that I’m glad to see teachers looking for a range of engaging and relevant ways of delivering speaking tasks. I don’t have all the answers here. I see value in the live presentation and in the recorded one, the one with audiovisual support and the one without, the collaborative and the individual…

What I can do, though, is share my school’s response to the speaking task question. At our place, the speaking task is part of the Area of Study. This gives us the opportunity to assess the formal presentation at the end of Term 4, when there’s more flexibility in the timetable.

The task we do gets students to read out three hundred words of their original writing and then comment on how it reflects their learning about ‘Belonging’ It’s a common task across Advanced and Standard, delivered in panels of about eight students. Visual presentations – PowerPoints, Prezis – are recommended as a strategy to increase audience engagement. Students not only get the task, they get a model presentation. Here’s the task: AoS Speech Belonging Creative HSPA

How do they go? Well, here’s a sample. English sample AoS creative speech. This student chose to do a PowerPoint with their speech and it was a particularly good one. It’s here: Imp writing Belonging speech pp. Lastly, when I worked with this student we talked about what he needed to do to lift this work towards a top band response, so here’s some ‘feed forward’ work: Feed forward practical example English. (This was written with a view to working with staff so it includes a copy of the task and my notes as well as the improved response.)

I’m looking forward to Sam’s presentation at ETA to see what else is happening out there in terms of moving speaking tasks into this century. But in the meantime, there for your consideration is what we do. We have found this much more engaging than the former ‘essay on legs’ practice – and much more engaging. Students seem to enjoy hearing each other’s writing! Who would have thought, eh?

Advice on first entering into study of the science fiction genre

I was asked about teaching science fiction on the ETA facebook page by someone who was teaching it for the first time so I put together this reply. I’m thinking others might find it useful, too, so I’m publishing it here.

Dear Santhe,

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Barbara Stanners’ Exploring Genre Science Fiction book. If you haven’t, here’s the link to Phoenix Ed who publish this: http://www.phoenixeduc.com/shop/item/exploring-genre-science-fiction

 I’m a big genre fan so I read a lot of Australian Science Fiction and Crime. The SF can be a little harder to find but it’s out there. A good starting point is the Australian Science Fiction Society’s Ditmar Awards. All the winners are on Wikipedia. What can be particularly interesting here is the criticism. For example, this is the winning article from the 2013 awards: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/12/historically-authentic-sexism-in-fantasy-lets-unpack-that. This is Tansy Rainer Roberts’ look at ideas of history and sexism in fantasy – but the issues are very much the same for the science fiction genre.

 Here’s a good pop culture sf site that your students might enjoy exploring – I know I do: http://io9.com/tag/books. For example, there’s a very interesting article on one of the favourite talking points about science fiction – predicting the future – here: http://io9.com/how-to-measure-the-power-of-a-science-fiction-story-1334642372. This is Annalee Neewitz’s take on this. Here’s her conclusion:

 Predicting the future is a cheap parlor trick. Giving people a way to understand their lives is the true gift of the storyteller. The better we understand our world, the easier it is to think beyond the confines of the present and change the future.

 Nice. I can see an activity that involves just exploring this site and tor.com to find key contemporary ideas about genre.

 Now, something specific: I worked with Denise McKinna at Dungog High on this: https://stewartmcgowandet.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/better-writing-in-extension-english/. This is the reference to my blog post where I published the results of our work. The challenge here was to take a fairly average piece of work and make it better so this is a good practical activity for later in the course.

 Anyway, there’s my thoughts. Hope this helps. If you see or find anything else that’s fabulous, please pass it on!

Challenging fixed ideas

Eng in Aus 48One of the advantages of being a consultant is that sometimes you find yourself in the office for a day – and you have time to do some professional reading! It’s a luxury, especially when you’re used to the colour and movement of an English staff room.

And today, I’ve been reading the latest English in Australia. That’s this one – if you have an ETA membership, you’ll have it on your desk somewhere.

There’s an article in there by Jennifer Watson that turns a lot of the accepted ideas about how we work with classes on their heads. In it she compares ‘open approaches’ with ‘directed approaches’ to the teaching of text in English. The big question she’s looking at is how these different approaches affect engagement and comprehension for different students.

What she concludes is surprising. She turns conventional wisdom on its head and concludes that more open approaches can be more successful with less able students, while more directed approaches benefit the more capable! Given that most teachers – and I’ll include myself in this – would generally say that less able students need more ‘structured’ activities and more specific tasks if they’re going to get anything out of a text.

This is a startling idea.  And additionally, there’s a real challenge to anyone who is teaching gifted and talented students in English. Jennifer’s article maintains that more capable students achieve less well with open activities! In her words:

“…evidence that academically stronger students – rather than academically weaker students – performed at a lower level during the Open Approach, challenges much research, particularly (suggestions) that a more explicit, authoritative teaching approach is better suited to ‘students for whom a text may be more challenging'”

If, like me, you’re one of the people who has simply tabled or filed English in Australia in the past, I’d recommend having a close look at this particular number. Jennifer’s article, ‘Engagement and Autonomy…’ is on page 23.

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!

Hunter ETA New Syllabus – the follow-up!

Thanks to everyone who attended the Hunter ETA’s new syllabus event at Hunter Performing Arts last week. As promised, this is the post with all the follow-up links. If you weren’t at the afternoon, there should still be interesting stuff for you here. Have a browse…

First of all, if you’d like to evaluate the evening, click on the following link. This will take you to google docs where there is a simple, ‘type your comment here’ form. Here’s the link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1rvMxxZbI5171cgbdYL5oEEOQ2fJjwXfKj3UL2bNlU5s/edit?usp=sharing.
Now, here’s the PowerPoint I used to drive the evening. A lot of the following resources are referenced in the PowerPoint but if you are working with your staff and have limited time, this may work for you as a summary. ETA New Syllabus Pres 26 Mar

If you liked the horoscope activity, it’s here. English Teaching horoscope I’m particularly fond of it and may trot it out on one or two other occasions…

I referred during the evening to some of the work Mel Dixon and Eva Gold presented at the ETA New Syllabus day. This is also available from the ETA’s website but I’ll include it here to save you hunting. Here is Mel and Eva’s critical reading of the new syllabus PowerPoint. Programming new syllabus1No pics And here is Karen Yager’s conceptual planning PowerPoint. Conceptual Programming 2012_KYager

I didn’t talk about them at the workshop but Karen also talked about one of her units in detail on the day. You can find these by going to the link on the last page of the PowerPoint but I’ve included them here ProgSt4ThroughMyWindow and here. ThroughMyWindowSupplementaryTexts

The scaffold activity, designed to get teachers thinking more conceptually about programming English, is here. ETA mapping concepts blank The ‘answer sheet’ excel document is here. ETA MappingConceptsSt5

I referred to the DEC’s course a few times. To save you whipping back to the portal, the Activity book is here. activities_all I’ll also add the presenter’s notes. Presenter_notes  To do the Outcome 5 jigsaw requires you to be logged onto the DEC portal but the manual version of that activity is here. Stage 5 Outcome 5 jigsaw

Okay, if any of that doesn’t work, let me know!

Teaching SF

I’m working over the next couple of weeks on drafting up a couple of ‘new syllabus’ units.

 The first one I’m working on is based around Marissa Meyer’s book Cinder. It’s a Cinderella style cyborg love story, so naturally I’m re-working a genre unit. I’d like this to be contemporary, edgy, funky… engaging in other words. I mean yes, I love Ray Bradbury, but there are only so many times that I can teach ‘There will come soft rains.’

 So I’m looking for good ideas. Where would you all go with this?

 It’d be nice if the Borad of Studies  interactive programming tool was available, but we have to wait until day 1 next year for that. And right now, I have a bit of time on my hands. Naturally I’ll be sharing the final product so if you’ve got a moment, let me know your thoughts.

What do exemplary teachers look like?

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about what makes a good teacher a good teacher. The idea that you could measure it using NAPLAN, or even HSC results is laughable. But how do we decide what a good teacher is or isn’t?

Wayne Sawyer’s talk from the Five Bells conference had a really radical idea: maybe we should talk to the students. Not in a shallow, ‘which teachers do you like’, ‘ratemyteacher’ way. Wayne suggested that exemplary teachers have students who typically associate themselves with ‘engaging messages’. In short the students, if asked, will say this sort of thing:

– ‘We can see the connections and the meaning in what we learn’
– ‘I am capable.’
– ‘We can do this together.’
– ‘It’s great to be a kid from…’
– ‘We share…’

What it makes me think about, though, is how many of my students would say these same things? In my context I don’t see a lot of students in poverty but if I’m doing my job well, shouldn’t they have the same messages? I’m guessing that some of my students would have messages more like these:

– ‘what we learn is challenging but I don’t always see the connection’

– ‘I’m not as capable as others in the class’

– ‘I can get help if I need it but I need to do this on my own’

– ‘This school’s okay’

– ‘I produce the work I have to’

They are, to a greater or a lesser degree, disengaged. And in my context, because my students are more likely to be compliant, this can be a hidden problem. Is there some evidence of it? Parental complaints about assessment tasks, parental non-attendance at Parent/ teacher nights, submission of work of minimum standard, students absent on the day of major tasks who don’t make completing it a priority, the number of students who use their digital devices for entertainment or peer connection rather than for programmed work…. I’m just listing the kinds of things my staff and I complain about. I think there has to be a link.

The challenge in my context  is to get teachers to re-think the way they interact with high-achieving students. If we take the view that schools are about more than knowledge and ability, that students need a voice, a sense of place and control over their own learning, that students feel more capable when they have a context for learning and a personal focus, then it has to have an impact on our students.

It may even show up as improved HSC results. Wouldn’t that be a shock!

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