Monday, 23 June 2014

How to teach creative writing

Ha ha! I fooled you! I know nothing, John Snow. But after hearing about the Radio New Zealand National Creative Writers Panel this idea has been cogitating in my mind.
Interviewer Wallace Chapman invited questions from the public to be put to Eleanor Catton, Robert Sullivan and Daren Kamali, and I emailed in the following:

I am a secondary school English teacher at Trident High School in Whakatane, Eastern Bay of Plenty. As a teenager I wrote a lot of fiction and attended classes at The School for Young Writers in Christchurch. I have only one friend from my teenage years who wrote as a teen and has become a professional writer. I know so many people who loved to write but lost their zest for literature and language arts, possibly as a result of their experiences of English in the classroom.
Nurturing creative writing in the secondary school setting is a challenge, especially when trying to work within the bounds of the NZ Curriculum and NCEA. I would like to ask Eleanor, Robert and Daren how they feel secondary English teachers can nurture our young writers in a constructive way that will not stifle their creativity.

I was obviously thrilled that they answered my question because my name was said on air (!!!) but I also found their thoughts to be incredibly helpful.

'The Manukau Institute of Technology has just opened its new campus which will see students learning in a fully cloud based environment.'

If you don't have time to listen to the interview (although my question is in the first 15 minutes so...) then I will gladly paraphrase what these authors have wisely suggested:

When teaching creative writing, remember that...

  1. There are no rules
  2. There are no right answers
  3. Work should not be assessed

Let's assume we can handle numbers one and two. If you read and engage with a broad range of texts you will know that the 'rules' of the English language can be bent and broken. And if you encourage creativity in your class then you will know that (while what is deemed to be creative by one may not be by another) a dichotomy of right and wrong does not fit in the English classroom.
It is number three, Catton's suggestion, that English teachers could struggle with, and for obvious reasons, but I think it is a worthwhile suggestion. 
At this point I think it is important to bear in mind the difference between work being 'assessed' and receiving feedback. Assessment for Learning encourages the use of feedback as opposed to grading work, and there is a vast repository of research that shows providing formative grades such as B+ or Merit can hinder students' growth. Sylvia Plath knew what she was talking about when she wrote "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
So here is my compromise. Not only should we continue to provide constructive feedback on students' work, we should also provide the option of having the finished work assessed. If we stop talking about students' creative writing in terms of assessments and credits, they may actually embrace the creativity more readily. Given that AS91101 is now a portfolio assessment that students work on throughout the year, I think this approach is not only beneficial for the students but for us as markers. Steering away from NAME grades at every draft will enable us to forget about the marking schedule for a while and focus on guiding students to learn and grow as creative beings. Some students may fear that a piece of work they have poured their heart and soul into will only earn an Achieved or Merit due to their ability to spell or correctly place a comma. If we allow them to 'withdraw' a particular piece from summative assessment we are protecting their very fragile self esteem, and for good reason.
And yes, I can already hear you say "what about the student who never bloody hands in anything? Surely they can't be allowed to opt out of having work assessed!" Well, I have two responses. Firstly, perhaps this new approach might encourage more submissions from our reluctant writers. And secondly, I'm the first to admit that some students just need a good kick up the bum and commonsense would dictate that kids who submit the bare minimum aren't going to have much say in what does and doesn't get summatively assessed.

I would love to hear from those of you who write creatively (whether you share it with anyone or not!). What could your secondary teachers have done to encourage your creative spark? Did they ever do anything that stifled your voice?

Here is a kitten so you don't have to look at my giant face on your Facebook feed.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei
Pursue excellence – should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain

Monday, 16 June 2014

Survival of the fittest

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” 
― Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge

With such a broad horizon and seemingly limitless possibilities it is important to establish your non-negotiables in the classroom. For me, this means making my expectations around organisation of work and also my availability very clear from the out-set.

Naming work and taking responsibility for backing work up

I have never named students work. If a student hands me a piece of paper with an amazing essay on it and no name, it will not get marked. I also place the responsibility for naming work squarely on the students' shoulders. The same goes for 'backing up' your work. Students in my classes are frequently reminded not to hand me a piece of hand-written work if they don't want it to get lost. I am organised and I have my systems but there are days when my desk will end up looking like a pigsty and, shock horror, I have lost work.
And this philosophy is still in practice in my classroom. If students share their work with me through Google Drive I expect them to do the following:

  1. Select the correct folder so I actually see it when I'm marking work
  2. Name it as follows: Hamilton, Polly: The Hunger Games Essay or Hamilton, Polly: Research notes
  3. Take responsibility for creating a back up at regular intervals

With Year 9s you should probably back up work to your laptop every so often (just don’t tell them about it!) until they are used to this process.

Establishing boundaries and how to maintain them

Student-student interaction
I am fairly ruthless about maintaining a professional environment on our Edmodo page: if the comment or question isn't about our learning in English, I press delete. It doesn't matter where you draw the line, as long as you maintain it. You may not think this matters very much, but I have found that deleting the 'lols' and 'rude!' comments mean there is no slippery slope into disrespectful or inappropriate comments.

Parent-student-teacher interaction
Because I established clear expectations with my students, I was able to deal with the one occasion I have had a student over-step the mark (and then parent...) quite painlessly. The parent 'element' is an important one to consider. When interacting with your students on Edmodo their parents are able to see all of the comments you write. This is further incentive to keep the conversation focused and appropriate. You are modelling positive digital citizenry to students and parents.

Student-teacher interaction
Further to this, it is important to remember that you can just ignore messages from students that are inappropriate or inconvenient. Creating an online learning environment does lend itself to students blurring the lines and suddenly they will message you with inane questions through whatever mode of communication is most handy. I have a 'teacher' Facebook profile that I use very occasionally and students do use it to try and ask me about school work. I just don't respond. Edmodo, email and Google Drive/Docs are the way that I will interact with my students online and they do not get to dictate the terms of our interactions. Prepare yourselves for the following 'questions':

  1. i dont get it
  2. can u tel me wat to do next?
  3. I'm stuck!

When they sit down and type to you, they are forgetting that what they are typing has no context and makes no sense. They are used to sitting with you one-on-one and often having the question teased out of them. What might take one minute of concentrated 'teasing' time in the classroom could be an exchange that takes place over 48 hours online - who has the patience for that! So you may want to consider teaching your students how to formulate effective questions.

Well, what is the point of all of this? As the title suggests, you need to avoid spreading yourself too thin. It can be tempting to just take five minutes and re-name their documents so they're organised, or just reply to that student's question on Facebook, or just check to see if Johnny has uploaded his document before you go to bed. Just because you can be available 24/7 doesn't mean you should.
Our role is not to baby students through this process at the expense of our own sanity, but to manage the change in order to maximise its benefit for all involved.

 Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei
Pursue excellence – should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Apps for the classroom

When I first got my iPad last year I was inundated with advice about which apps I should download. This information was coming from recommended lists online, professional development and colleagues who were also new to BYOD teaching. 
I have since discovered that teaching with BYOD is not about the apps, just like teaching with paper is not about the felts and coloured card. The number of apps you use in your teaching will be minimal compared to the number of apps students use. Moreover, they will be much more adept at teaching themselves how to use them. So don't re-invent the wheel!
In terms of apps that teach skills or content, you will probably discover what works for you along the way. Having said this, I have found that skills & content apps are largely geared toward pre- and primary-school learners. In the secondary classroom it's not about using apps to rote learn through game-based learning. It's about enabling students to present their learning in any way they wish, which is exactly what the SAMR model encourages.
Here are a couple of apps that I recommend you get yourself familiar with as they will help you be a more organised teacher. 


Edmodo is marketed as 'the Facebook for teachers and schools' but it is so much more than that. I use it as a way to disseminate information to my students through links to websites and documents as well as a way to share tasks and set deadlines.

Sharing a video with students

I really like the ease with which I can start a conversation among the students.

Starting a conversation about research topics

You can create classes and sub-groups and your students join up. Parents can also create an account and see what students are doing across all of their classes. I am yet to find out how many parents use this and how valuable they find it but I aim to ask parents at our next parent-teacher interviews.
There are apps within Edmodo that you can use to support your BYOD teaching, but I have found it does not work smoothly enough on the iPad to use it in this way so I recommend at looking into this on your computer. Either way, this is something for individuals to explore and find out about for themselves.
Of course, Edmodo is not the only student management site out there. Here is a list of alternatives and Hapara is a paid-for student management site that works directly with Google apps. I can't speak to any of these, but I think it is important that each teacher be able to choose what works best for them. Some schools are moving towards have all teachers and students on the same site to make it easier for administration and for the students. It is important to remember that you can only lead a horse to water and if a teacher (or student) is not comfortable with the use of a particular platform they just won't end up using it. If a school is going to push for the use of a particular site or tool, they need to provide not only professional development but non-contact time so that teachers can explore these tools without pressure.

Google Drive & Docs

The second tool I use is Google Docs & Drive. This has revolutionised the way I provide feedback for students and in a very small space of time. Just bear in mind the Drive and Docs are two separate apps and you do need both. It's like a folder in your computer, then opening the document in Word.

Providing suggestions of texts to view alongside The Hunger Games

Modelling how to discuss cinematic techniques

I always hated giving written feedback as I find it time consuming, it leaves with me with poor posture and a sore hand and shoulder. But now that I can type my feedback and provide links to sources on the internet, I am writing the feedback I have always wanted to write! All of a sudden I am...
1. praising much more, even for the smallest thing like correct punctuation or a nicely used word
2. able to connect the student with all sorts of information on the internet. I haven't done the following yet, but I bet I can connect students to a specific video I have made that can help them work through a problem
3. much more willing to model to the students what I would like them to do (see the second image)
4. challenging students more and finding it easier to extend those who need it. Typing these comments makes it so much easier to challenge students' assumptions and question their points of view

Organizationally the process has further benefits.
1. Under 'general feedback' I can see the progress the student has made over time, instead of this being spread over several different drafts on refill
2. All the students' work is in one folder (per piece of work), alphabetised. It's so beautiful! I would take a screen-shot but then I'd have to blur out all the students' names so it seems a bit pointless.
3. I know exactly who has done what and when. Talk about accountability! Well, more on that later...

Docs & Drive are just one of the options for managing and marking students' work. There are a range of options out there; see here, here and here. My suspicion is that none of those alternatives will be able to do everything that Docs does, and that's because Google is definitely trying to woo teachers. While I'm wary of companies like Apple, Google and now Facebook (well, Mark Zuckerberg anyway) getting so involved in education, but part of me thinks we should all milk it while it's there. It's not like my teaching will come to rely on Docs and Docs alone, but it does allow me to do what I want at this point in time. Adaptability is the name of the game.


Speaking of giant companies getting involved in education, iBooks is a damn good app. Not only can I read a book, I (and my students!) can also...
1. Highlight and define or search a word

Defining a word

Searching the frequency of a word in the text

 2. Highlight and write a note (for me, comprehension questions, for them, comprehension answers!)
Writing comprehension questions to myself as I read the text

3. Highlight and search a quote. For example:
Searching a block of text

Search results from block of text

iBooks connects students to a whole world of information. Suddenly, when they are unsure, they can access help in a discrete and efficient way.
All the notes you accumulate can be accessed in chronological order, connected to the quote you have highlighted, and can be shared if a student has missed any lessons.

The beginning of all my notes on Juno of Taris. This is where students' notes would also be stored when they go through the book answering questions.

Once again, if you are anti-monopolies, I'm sure there are many perfectly good book reading apps out there but iBooks does what I want it to do so I'm satisfied for now.

So these are the three apps that I use which help me organise my teaching. I'll talk to apps I use for content and skills next time. One thing that it is important to make very clear about Edmodo and Docs & Drive is that, even though I am recommending them for use with a BYOD class, I almost exclusively use them on my laptop. That these three apps are also browser based is an obvious strength.
All of this might seem counter-intuitive - why have an iPad if you aren't going to use it? When teaching, a question we ask ourselves everyday is "What learning outcome to I want to achieve right now?" And that learning outcome almost never has anything to do with me and in my BYOD class always everything to do with the student using their iPad to modify or redefine their learning.

I would love to see your comments and questions below, especially if you use alternatives to any of these apps. I've been having a little trouble with comments showing up due to 'captcha' (the random letters and numbers to make sure you're not a robot) so please make sure your comment actually appears!

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei
Pursue excellence – should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain