Letters of Introduction

I really love the first English lesson of the year. The anticipation and expectation that fills the room is palatable. Watching the quiet (mostly) students sitting and waiting to hear what I have to say, all the while making assumptions about the kind of teacher I will be and the kind of student they will be.

I find that this is probably the only time of the year that they are at their quietest selves. There’s a lot to internalise and make sense. My expectations of them are made clear in this lesson. They know what it takes to be a good English student and they know that a positive presence in the classroom will create a learning environment that is conducive to great learning for all.

After telling them a little about myself and my hopes and goals for the year, I take the opportunity to tell them that I want to get to know about them. About their goals for English and their expectations of me and what they want me to do in order to help them achieve their goals.

They are invited to write a letter to me. They can tell me a little or a lot about themselves. They do need to include what excites them about studying English, what makes them nervous about studying English, their strengths, likes and areas for improvement. So tonight, after having a lesson with three of my four classes, I am slowly reading through each letter, taking in the words of each student. I have told them that I will write a letter in response. If they have taken the time to write to me, it only seems appropriate that I reply to their letter.

I have long maintained that teaching is as much about establishing great relationships than it is about content. I have found that my students learn best when they relate well to me. They like positive feedback but they also like constructive criticism. They understand that mistakes are welcomed and there are no such things as stupid or dumb questions. They also understand that I am often more interested in their questions than in the answers. I have said all of this to them today and as I read over their letters, it is so pleasing to read their excitement and enthusiasm for learning.

I will reply to each student and will use the letters to discover ways I can tailor the content and activities to meet their needs. I want to broaden their experiences of literature given a number of students have indicated they want to discover the classics. I have also discovered that a number of students want to broaden their vocabulary or ‘read the whole novel for the first time.’

Letter writing can be a cathartic activity. Letter writing may not be as popular a form of communication as it was only years ago, but my students certainly enjoyed the opportunity to express their thoughts and I know they are anticipating a reply.

 

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My word for 2016 is TIME

I love this time of year. It’s been a month since I was at school and the rush to finish the school term and the busy week of Christmas is a distant memory. We’ve been on a short but relaxing holiday away. Renovations are talking shape at our place and everybody is relaxed, happy and healthy. It’s a time when I can read a little more and later into the night. A time to reflect on the year that was and on the year that will be and I am not alone. In fact, my reader is filled with some truly inspiring posts by some esteemed educators who have been thinking and reflecting on the year that was and the goals they wish to achieve this year. A number of words are repeated throughout these posts but the word repeated most is balance. Balance. It’s the one goal that is repeatedly set by teachers the world over. How do we balance our work with family responsibilities? I’ve decided that my word for 2016 is time. I need to focus on how I use time. I am not a time waster by any means but I feel that if I am going to achieve any of my goals, it will come down to time. I have always seen time as some sort of enemy. Time would steal moments of rest, of peace, of happiness. At times it would linger (particularly playground duty or exam supervision) but for 2016 I have decided to rush less. I think my frenetic approach to time, of feeling like I am governed by the passing of each minute, has led to unnecessary angst. I think that better preparation (of lunches, of breakfasts, of dinners) and more careful reflection will lead to better balance and greater productivity. My goal is to use my time efficiently so I can achieve more and have greater balance in my life. I hope everyone who has set a goal for the year is able to create a path so they can achieve it.  Continue reading

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Inspiring a love of poetry

In my year 8 class, we have been studying poetry this term. Some classics and some contemporary poems. Throughout the unit, students have been given opportunities to perform poetry, respond to poetry and to write their own poetry.

We have spent some time reading poetry that captures the beauty and majesty of nature. Students have considered how poets use techniques to create vivid, arresting imagery and evoke emotions. In order to give it an authentic quality, we have spent time listening to poets read their works. We have also performed poetry.

In the last week, our class has created an anthology of poetry and they’ve performed and recorded a reading of their own poetry. We used GarageBand to record the files and they’ve uploaded them to their English folder.

They have also created their own digital inspiration board, collating all the beautiful photographs, paintings, imagery, words, quotes, poems, proverbs, psalms etc that inspires them to live a wonderful, happy and creative life. In getting them to create a digital inspiration board, bringing together the many facets of the unit, they are learning how literature and art can inspire them to live a wonderful, creative and happy life.

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Authentic Learning

There is much that has been published about ‘Authentic Learning.’ I think the idea of grounding learning in a real world context is a good idea. It makes sense to help students make links between the skills and knowledge they acquire with their own contexts. I’ve always believed teaching something out of context and without helping students make connections between what they learn and their world, to be somewhat futile. We all need a point at which we can connect with what we read. I believe that our own experiences are central to helping us understand new and challenging concepts. For example, I wasn’t a particularly great Science student at school, but after leaving school, I found that narratives about scientists and the work they had undertaken, really helped me to understand a range of concepts that were so foreign to me at school. Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100” was a great book to read about how Physics plays such an important role in our lives. The grounded, authentic experiences allowed me to understand the very difficult and complex science behind a whole range of innovations, from driverless cars, to talking walls and clothes detecting changes to heart rates, breathing etc.

There are many such books about science and innovation that I have read, that have grounded the theory into practice and have in essence opened up these worlds to me. Granted, not everyone learns this way, but I have learnt through the process, that sometimes you need an expert to ‘connect the dots’ so that people who don’t necessarily think a certain way, can still access the information.

With this in mind, I have been working with my year 7 class, on creating documentaries. We’ve just spent the term focusing on the power of persuasion. We’ve looked at what makes an effective piece of persuasive writing. My students have spent the better part of three weeks, creating documentaries designed to present factual information, to inform and persuade their audiences about a local issue of importance to them.

Initially, I have asked them to research the documentary form. They presented this information in slideshows to the class. They shared these on the class’ Edmodo page. I have structured the planning stages whereby they have used mind-mapping tools (bubbl.us) and a PMI to decide on the topic they will research for their documentary.

They are also using Google Forms to create surveys. This is a fantastic tool as I was able to teach them about the different kinds of questions you can ask people and how thinking about questioning can allow for a range of responses. We were able to discuss when and how we would use short answer, multiple choice, longer answer responses.

Today they have reflected on the process thus far. I look forward to reading their journal entries and commenting on each of them. They have created all of this in a Google doc (as our school uses the Google platform) and this is shared with me. I’ve also taught them about how to select different sources and to ascertain the credibility and validity of an article or other piece of research they have found.

So far I can say that they have really engaged in the process. There hasn’t been a question about when they can start to “create the documentary in iMovie” which is great. It means they are thinking about the process. I have also told them we will spend a week on editing the films in class and then we will share them with the class.

Their audience will grow from the class, to include their parents and other people in our school community. It is really interesting to facilitate this process in the classroom. They have shown me that they are much more aware of the issues in their local area than we would give credit. They have shown me, that when given the opportunity to think, plan, research and reflect and to teach these skills, they can certainly imagine and create bigger and better documentaries. I may even extend an invitation to the local Mayor, to come and watch a selection of the films.

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Back into the swing of things…

I have to confess: it has been a really busy year and I have not blogged nearly as much as I would have liked. Returning to work after having a baby, balancing full time work and family commitments is something I feel I am slowly becoming better at managing. I think the many articles and opinion pieces about mother’s guilt and balancing work and family do summarise the angst that returning to work can bring, though I have to say that it’s a challenge that is worthwhile. A good friend said to me that a baby will grow and eventually become a little person with their own identity. It’s so true because when I look at my little one now, he is vivacious, loves exploring and has a warm and endearing nature. He also loves to joke around. I think that day care has enabled more and varied opportunities to develop his social skills and motor skill development. I think that work has enabled me to reconnect with people and remember what it is that I love so much about being in the classroom. Anyway, will promise another blog post soon.

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“I’m not here to be average. I’m here to be Awesome!”

I love twitter. I love it because I can log in at any time of the day or night and can be entertained, challenged, vindicated or otherwise. This morning was no different. I had been perusing the twitter feed and a picture was tweeted by Peter Millett, British Ambassador to Jordan.

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I have been looking for some inspirational sayings to motivate my students. I teach wonderful students but have found that they need to develop confidence in themselves as learners. There are some students who need the extra encouragement and who need to build resilience. As their teacher, I feel compelled to want to provide a learning environment that allows them to be awesome, not average. I want them to understand a culture of high expectations and success can be a positive experience and that it requires them to be responsible and active learners. I won’t accept average and they’re beginning to realise that if I don’t feel they’ve done their best, then they have to do the work again. I have seen some wonderful improvement in their work. Sometimes I find myself thinking about the common complaint that students are pushed to work really hard in primary school, often exceeding expectations, until they get to high school where we lower the benchmark.

I’ve set some really challenging work for my students and have watched them grapple with the work. What has impressed me is that they have begun to have a go at the work, rather than putting up the barrier by telling me that ‘it’s too hard.’ A person’s self efficacy can really influence their approach to their studies and in turn, how they see themselves as a student. I have been continually impressed by my students, many of whom will accost me in the playground to tell me about something they liked about our English lesson or to ask me about something related to what we are studying in class. They have come to learn that I wont accept mediocrity.

Essentially in order to reject average and celebrate awesome, there needs to be trust. Students need to trust that I will be there to support their learning, to provide the instruction they need, to provide the feedback and encouragement they need in order to achieve their best. I need to trust them as well. Building positive relationships is crucial to creating a learning space that celebrates awesome rather than average.

I have been posting inspirational quotes but also interesting facts and ideas to help develop their thinking skills and to establish strategies to help them to become better learners. I am thinking of creating a wall in the classroom, where each student contributes one quote that may inspire another student. I’ve really decided to make a concerted effort to create a classroom that celebrates awesome rather than average. I have always believed in it, but feel with my current cohort of students, it is more important than ever. Will look forward to sharing further reflections. If you have found ways to motivate and inspire your students, please feel free to share.

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A Whole New World Of…

At the work Christmas Party in 2013, after reflecting on the year that was (over some mineral water with fresh lime) I remember a number of colleagues talking about how my life would change with a baby, about how I wouldn’t want to return as Curriculum Coordinator and how I wouldn’t want to work full time. I have blogged a little about this in the past so I wont cover that topic again, only to say that 2014 flew by in what now seems like the blink of an eye (though settling a newborn to sleep at 3am, in the middle of Winter, didn’t seem to fly by at all) and at the start of the 2015 school year, I find myself at a new school, in a new role (English Coordinator) and of course, my most treasured role as a mother to a healthy, happy baby.

2015 has begun really well. The new school is going really well in so many ways. The staff are professional and friendly. The students are generally interested in their learning. My baby is settling in quite well to daycare and I have a supportive husband, so the transition to returning to work has been made a lot easier. I’m not at all certain that I have the work – life balance right just yet, but I am certainly not letting the small stuff get in the way of quality afternoons with my baby.

I believe that 2015 will provide me with a whole new world of experiences and challenges. Already some of the challenges I’ve faced in the workplace are a considerable number of students who just hate reading. Students who wont pick up a book and read. They wont pick up anything and read. I have a number of reluctant learners and one of my projects is to get to understand them better so that they can become engaged in their own learning. I am researching a number of ways that I can do this, because it seems that some of my strategies that have worked in the past, don’t seem to be working as well this time. The saddest part is that they are only in year 8 and are already so disengaged. I suspect it comes down to their self perception as learners. I think a number of them have ‘got by’ and a number of them have very low self-esteem and self confidence. I don’t know that I can address all of it, but I’m certainly going to do my best to help engage them, so they can value themselves as individuals, as learners.

I’ve also joined a department at the time of the implementation of the new English Syllabus in NSW. This is indeed a very exciting time and I find myself thinking of ways to engage with the new syllabus. I am going to do some work on programming, assessment and unpacking the syllabus with my staff. All the things I absolutely loved doing when I used to be an English Coordinator. All the things I rarely had an opportunity to do when I was a Curriculum Coordinator.

I have reflected on what it was like to come home after work, before having a baby. I would get home around 6:45pm every night. I would go to the gym, have dinner and then work for 3 hours. I would spend hour after hour each weekend, planning, preparing and just researching and reflecting. I guess my work life balance before baby wasn’t particularly great either. Coming home after a day’s work in 2015 means taking my baby to the park to play on the swings and other play equipment with other children and then meeting all of his needs before a story and bedtime. It also means prepping everything for the next day, so that the morning runs as smooth as possible, I still spend some time working in the evening and at weekends, but I must admit, I use my time much more efficiently at work. I have also found that by having five lessons of one hour each, per day, rather than six lessons of 53 minutes a day, has really made a huge difference. It means there are one or two days where I may have an hour of non face-to-face teaching time, but other days where I have two hours of non face-to-face teaching time and in these hour blocks, I get a lot of work done. I always used to wonder how the mothers managed to do everything on time and fit it all in to their busy schedules. Time management and working efficiently – something I thought I was good at, but this is a whole new world.

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