Why the thing that made me want to quit is now the thing that I’m most looking forward to

In my nine years of teaching so far there is one thing that comes around again and again. I think about quitting. I Google phrases like “what careers do English teachers go on to” or “what careers can I do with an English Lit degree”. The answer to the latter question, especially if you don’t have much of a sense of entrepreneurialism (which I don’t), is: not much! This happens at the end of term two, every year, because it is when three things converge:

  1. the end of VCE unit 3 and all of the marking that goes with that;
  2. the semester one exams and all of the marking that goes with that, and;
  3. the reports home to parents and all the marking that goes with that.

Marking has been the bane of my English teacher existence.

It’s not that I don’t think I should have to work hard as a teacher. Having hours of marking ahead of me is hard work, but that is not why I don’t like it. I love hard work! That’s why I willingly choose to teach teenagers a compulsory subject!

I hate marking because it is mostly ineffective.

What’s wrong with marking?

Let’s say, for example, that I am marking a VCE English SAC. I have 22 students submit something they wrote in a little over an hour and a half. They’ll likely produce somewhere between 500-1000 words depending on ability. I read at approximately 300 words per minute, with a comprehension accuracy of around 80%. Per paper, at that level, by the time I have read the work, annotated some feedback throughout, thought about my final response, given the piece a grade, and finally written about 70 words of further formative feedback, it might take me roughly 15-20 minutes. On a good day. Often the writing is hard to read because it is illegible or not particularly coherent, or I’m tired and hungry so the words blur and I can’t remember what they wrote in the last paragraph…

Then the student receives their work back, and they look straight at the grade. They might, might, look at the feedback. They might even re-read their work and see how the annotations apply to them. But the first thing they do is look at the grade.

That will lose many of them.

Without re-reading the piece, the grade doesn’t apply to their work. It applies to them. “I am an A“, they think. “I used to be a B, but now I am a D.

With the appropriate coaching and scaffolding, of course, you can overcome that. You can train them to approach the feedback in a more constructive way. You can even withhold their grades until they have satisfied you that they have processed the feedback. This step is a must, by the way. But there is still something unsatisfying at the heart of marking.

After at least 6 hours of work on your part, the student receives about 70 words of feedback, which they might read and act upon.

It’s not easy to concisely help someone improve a 700 word piece of writing in 70 words. All nuance and subtlety is stripped from your words. You could write a lot more. But you don’t only teach this one class of 22 year 12 students and only have this one assignment. You teach two year 8 classes and a year 11 class, too. And you’re the assistant year-level coordinator, or the soccer coach, or the kind soul that agreed to organise the formal. And you’ve got your professional review coming up, so you’re reviewing the SMART goals you set yourself, setting up a meeting with your peer mentor, and organising a lesson observation to evidence how you are meeting your goals…

So you give them 70 words each, and Google “what other jobs could I be doing right now?”

Why I can’t wait to start marking again

Just before I took my paternity leave last year, I tried out some audio feedback on a set of student work. A colleague had mentioned that she’d heard it was something some teachers did and she always meant to try it out, and when I heard about it I resolved to float the idea with my year 12s.

I let them opt-in to the audio feedback experiment, and they all did!

I didn’t do anything fancy. I simply read their essays and briefly told them what I was thinking at the end of each paragraph, as though their essay had become a conversation with me. I gave them a grade and filled in a rubric with some ticks as well. I put all of the audio files in a Dropbox folder and shared each student’s link with them via email, telling them they’d get the grade and rubric in the next class.

Of course they listened to the feedback several times before the class when they got the grade, and all came in explaining how clear and helpful it had been. Some even said they’d wished we’d always done it that way because things finally seemed to click – not great on the last piece of coursework, but better late than never.

They also thanked me for how much work I had put in to the feedback. This was funny to me, because it only took marginally longer than usual, and felt a lot less like ‘real’ marking (i.e. tedious marking). They perceived it to be much more work, though, because they got much more feedback. It’s true. Having the freedom to say what was on my mind plainly, knowing that my voice would convey the tone more effectively, and being able to speak faster than I can write, meant I gave them a lot more feedback than usual.

Since then, I have promised myself I will make it a regular feature of my marking, and hopefully develop a workflow that allows me to deliver all feedback this way.

The exciting solution

Enter Kaizena. Kaizena is a document annotation tool that works with Google Drive, designed specifically with teachers in mind. It allows you to highlight parts of a student’s work to give feedback, and to link these easily to skills or standards that the student should be working towards. It also allows you to quickly link to specific lessons that either you’ve created previously, or that exist elsewhere on the web.

But the feature I am looking forward to using the most is audio feedback.

You can record audio feedback directly on to the document and the student can hear it and see exactly what part of their work it relates to.

This genuinely excites me so much that I cannot wait to start marking again, and I honestly never thought I would utter that phrase in my lifetime.

Why the thing that made me want to quit is now the thing that I’m most looking forward to

START with Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction has an excellent shot at being the best preparation kids could have for the incredibly boring NAPLAN reading comprehension tests. I think there are some sensible approaches to explicit instruction of key skills for standardised reading comprehension tests, but even the best of them leave me cold as a teacher when I think about the true reason for having the explicit instruction in the first place. I am somewhat resigned, in the short term at least, to having to prepare kids for NAPLAN. However, I am keen to find ways to modify existing strategies to make them more engaging for students. That’s where the happy union of the START framework and interactive fiction come in.

START

Scharlach’s START framework (Students and Teacher Actively Reading Text) breaks down comprehension skills into 8 distinct and linear stages:

1. predicting/inferring
2. visualizing
3. making connections
4. questioning
5. determining main idea
6. summarizing
7. checking predictions
8. making judgments

Students also utilize a metacognitive reading journal where they are prompted to record their thinking according to these 8 stages. In her study, Scharlach concludes that it is the metacognitive step of the reading process that sees the greatest gains in later test performance.

The Engagement Problem

Unless the texts chosen for reading comprehension practice are of particular interest to the students, it is hard to find anything truly engaging about preparing for NAPLAN. If you consider engagement according to Schlechty’s model, borrowing from Daniel Pink, student motivation that hangs upon scoring well or simply following teacher instruction because that is what one does, will lack the long term effectiveness a teacher should strive for (or a student will enjoy).

Learning any skill ‘because it is on the test’ will always come a distant second place to learning a skill because it is in one’s immediate interest to learn it.

Games-based-learning is a education trend I have been wary of adopting, but I think there is real potential for interactive fiction to give kids engaging games to play that provoke an immediate need to learn comprehension skills. If kids want to win the game and progress through a text adventure successfully, the same comprehension skills required by NAPLAN are the ones most likely to help them solve the various puzzles they will come across.

Modifying START for IF

The START framework provides prompts for the reading journal to help students with their thinking as they read. In order to successfully modify this framework to suit interactive fiction, I propose adding alternative prompts to aid with interactive fiction problem solving. In a classroom, I would likely have these on a poster, with their original START counterparts, so students can be made away of the cross over these skills have into all reading.

NB: In the context of IF, the reading comprehension strategies become useful at the point when a player is stuck. This usually means they have encountered a puzzle of some kind.

START stem Skill IF stem
 In this chapter I think… Predicting / Inferring  I think my immediate objective is…
 In my mind I see… Visualizing  If I explore the environment I see…
This reminds me of…  Making connections The objects I can access can be used to…

OR

People usually do or say things like that when…

 I wonder…  Questioning  I wonder…
 I think the most important thing…  Main idea  My priorities are…
 In 10 words of less…  Summarizing  The current problem I have is…
 My original prediction…  Checking predictions  I have tried…it did not work because…
 My favourite part…  Making judgements  I am / am not pleased with that solution because…

I would recommend playing through one text together as a class, with the teacher modelling these strategies. I think Lost Pig is a wonderful place to start (play it online here). Once the thinking / comprehension strategies have been conveyed and practiced, I’d further recommend continuous free exploration of other titles throughout the year, letting kids choose their own adventures. If you are in the habit of assigning weekly / fortnightly comprehension passages and accompanying worksheets / quizzes, stop those immediately and replace them with interactive fiction.

[Edit: Previous article in this series can be found here: NAPLAN Reading Comprehension: Teaching to the test, the fun way with Interactive Fiction]

START with Interactive Fiction

NAPLAN Reading Comprehension: Teaching to the test, the fun way with Interactive Fiction

First published sketchnote – It’s not very good, but it’s ok to let people see you not being very good!

Standardised testing is a problem. There’s a lot you can read about that, particularly Testing Times: The Uses and Abuses of Testing, by Gordon Stobart. My particular bugbear is with NAPLAN, and Ian Hardy at QLD Uni has written some interesting stuff criticising that, too. Track down his paper, ‘The Logic of Enumeration’, or ‘Catalyst data: perverse systemic effects of audit and accountability in Australian schooling’, by Lingard and Sellar, for a detailed critique of Australian testing.

To my understanding, the chief problem that NAPLAN gives rise to is that what is measured and reported on from the perspective of teacher accountability is the thing that will be seen to matter most, and therefore receive the most attention from teachers. The reason that this is a problem is because the literacy and numeracy focus of the testing is remarkable narrow. Despite having a brand new, and quite good, standards based national curriculum, what matters most according to these tests are skills that receive footnoted attention in some cases (see http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Glossary?a=E&t=comprehension%20strategies for an example).

Another problem is that preparing for these tests is boring. Kids hate it, and quite rightly see no value in it (there’s nothing in it for them, really – it’s to keep their teachers and schools accountable, not give them any tangiable, transferable reward like an ATAR score, for example). I can assure you that teachers hate it, too. Sure, we can use the data to see how our kids are going, but we have many more reliable tools in our toolbox than standardised testing. Standardised testing is not objective, it’s not reliable enough, it’s far too simplistic (multiple choice reading comprehension? You’ve got to be kidding?!), and it is far too narrow. Kids should be learning critical thinking and analysis, collaboration skills, authentic problem solving skills and a whole host of other desireable 21st century skills (despite whatever the politics of that phrase might do for you…). These don’t test well. They don’t end up on standardised tests. They never really get the attention they deserve. Instead, our kids perform tasks on tests that they will never be called upon to repeat again, and only for political purposes.

As much as I would like to see the demise of this form of testing in Australian schools (and worldwide, but I’m a NIMBY at heart, so lets do it here first), I also doubt the current policy makers to make such a sharp U-turn on what is still a newish venture for them. So my current thinking is that the best approach to the tests, particularly the reading comprehension test, is to refuse to drill and kill, but to add so much sugar to the spoon that the medicine going down better be for diabetes.

I am aware that I need to work on my metaphors.

The standard approach to prepping for the reading comprehension paper is to use student workbooks from various educational publishers and go through their worksheets over and over again. Lots of reading short prose and then answering multiple choice and short answer questions. Drill the skills over and over, and kill any enthusiasm a child might have for reading.

The approach I propose is to replace all the time spent working through those workbooks with allowing the kids free rein to play through interactive fiction titles of their own choosing. There is scope within this to teach practical comprehension strategies, like those proposed by Scharlach in the START framework, but teaching them as methods for solving in game puzzles rather than scoring well on tests. The prediction, visualisation, inferential and empathetical skills required to score well in NAPLAN are the very same skills required to be successful in playing IF. And IF is a lot more fun. More resources on this approach, and others, to using interactive fiction can be found at Brendan Desilets’ excellent site, Teaching and Learning with Interactive Fiction.

More on this subject to follow over the next couple of months…

[Edit: Next article in this series available here: START with Interactive Fiction]

NAPLAN Reading Comprehension: Teaching to the test, the fun way with Interactive Fiction

Getting my willy out in public

Hear this at Spoken.

Getting my willy out in public

Sharing your poetry is not unlike
Getting your willy out in public.
The reaction it garners is much the same,
couched in politeness or unrelenting disgust.
Loved ones might find something encouraging
to say, while strangers have permission to pass
unflattering review. That’s too long. It left me
unsatisfied. What’s the purpose of that weird
bit at the end? I don’t know.
These weird bits might not have any purpose,
except to stand before you, exposed
accepting that mine is different to yours
but what we have in common, we humans,
is flaws.

Getting my willy out in public

Semi-circles

Another poem you can hear at Spoken. I originally wrote this in 2007, and to be honest, I was never that keen on it. However, the subject matter suited what I wanted to try and do on the recording, which was to use an Audionautix track as a music bed for the piece.

Semi-circles

I walk in semi-circles, clockwise
Until the link of an arm changes
My trajectory, counter-clockwise
Until the link of an arm changes
My trajectory. Walking in this way
Will eventually see us linking arms:

Our looped steps, our brief tango,
Our waltz in opposite directions
Will be brief. Will we acknowledge
One another, remember we were
Supposed to link, or will we think
This is just another incomplete
Semi-circle?

               We step in unison
In opposite directions, we move,
We look into each others eyes
And we realise that together we
Have indeed completed a circle
With this fox-trot, this pirouette
With this, our only revolution.

Until the link of an unwanted arm
Changes my trajectory once more
My arm, my eyes, my semi-circles
Will meet others, the dance carries
Me away and every other circle
Can never seem so complete.

Semicircles cover art

Semi-circles

Rescue Poem

Hear this at Spoken. I have been enjoying trying out Spoken.co and am finding that it really fuels my wanting to write.

Rescue Poem

The wounded poem was found crawling
into that dark space between the oak
and the alleyway. With barely enough strength
to fight off the advancing pack of smutty
Limericks that rule this part of town,
it tried to utter some plosive alliteration –
“Be bold! They can but bury beauty!”
– but the consonants died unformed
on its fish-out-of-water lips.
Had it not been for the earnest youth
that took it home swaddled in damp
similes, the poem may not have survived the night.
She listened closely to the heartbeat,
that was a mess of anapests and weak spondees,
with the care of a watchmaker, resisting
the urge to turn feeble ticks into driving tickity-tocks,
to let the lines linger a little longer, and in the dawn
it managed to keep down an original metaphor,
growing stronger, it started to look less like a ditty
scrawled on a bathroom wall, and with renewed dignity
began to stand for something, and could sound
its own clarion call, to take a drastic measure,
to write something – anything at all –
between the next line break and the caesura
urging other earnest youths to rescue those that fall.

Rescue Poem

Really excited by online learning: Update on MTeach

I’ve finished the first round of subjects for the MTeach and while there was a mix of feelings throughout the process, generally speaking I’m really happy with how the course is panning out.

The newest subject we’re starting, though, really embraces the potential for this style of learning. I was just reading about the importance of designing educational experiences rather than planning lessons (i.e. to adopt a heuristic rather than algorithmic approach to teaching and learning), and I was thinking about how insightful that was, when my new ‘lecturer’ published our subject with the explanation that he has used a non-algorithmic approach to the subject. I was immediately impressed and the timing of this revelation was incredibly serendipitous. Note: Read chapter 3 of Phillip Schlechty’s Engaging Students for more on design versus planning.

So I have jumped into the next subject with both feet and the only problem I have had so far is that I have too many ideas for the assessments. My key idea is to challenge the effect and place of traditional assessment strategies in the face of 21st Century learning goals. I have big ideas about this, but it may be too ambitious. Having too many ideas is a wonderful problem to have, though.

The other downside of this subject is that it has revealed to me how ineffective I have been in my attempts to integrate technology in the classroom. I’m being a little hard on myself, since I’ve had some real successes, but seeing my new teacher use technology is a real wake-up call to how well and professionally it can be done.

On the one hand, the ad hoc approach to using innovative technology means that you invest a minimal amount of effort to get it up and running so you can evaluate it. This means if it fails you have not wasted too much effort. However, this teacher has gone all in: professionally produced video materials, customised design of the LMS experience to suit the needs of the subject (no mean feat in Moodle!), integration of a range of embedded tools, and a commitment to nano-fora to foster collaboration and discussion. And this was all ready to go before the course officially started. So if this fails, this teacher will lose a lot of that investment of time. But, why would it fail? It is expertly done. It is a joy to engage with. As an online student, I have never been more comfortable within an online learning space and felt that my needs and interests were being met in such a robust and personalized way. It embraces the rhizomatic approach to learning, but provides excellent structure and signposting so that learners do not get lost.

Absolutely phenomenal.

Really excited by online learning: Update on MTeach