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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Analysing Text to Facilitate Better Writing

Year 9: Youth Culture

At the HSC level, English becomes heavily reliant on a student's ability to write. This is a point in a student's education where it doesn't matter how eloquent and insightful they are during class discussion; if they are unable to formulate their ideas into a cohesive and sustained, structured piece of writing then they are going to run into big problems.

The solution is backward mapping. If we extrapolate the skills needed for quality HSC-level composition and map them backwards through the curriculum for Stages 6, 5 and 4, then we can help students build the technical expertise needed for this kind of text construction. 

There are several ways that English teachers work towards this goal. The most common approach is perhaps through the teaching of paragraph construction formulae - things such as PEEL (Point-Example-Explanation-Link), PEAL (Point-Example-Analysis-Link), TEAL (Topic-Example-Analysis-Link), TEEEEL (Topic-Example-Explanation-Example-Explanation-Link)... you get the point, they're all kind of the same. 

Another approach is text analysis. This is a method that works particularly well with Year 9, and it involves giving students a structured response and asking them to firstly identify the content, or main point, of each paragraph (as opposed to the structural components). The idea here is that students are asked to identify the concept behind separating paragraphs in general, the fact that each paragraph needs its own theme or topic sentence, and it is possibly too readily taken for granted when we teach Year 9 students that they will automatically know what the point is behind paragraphing. 

Run a diagnostic text with a mixed ability Year 9 class where they're asked to compose an extended response, and you'll quickly see what I mean.

There's simply no point in teaching the individual elements of constructing paragraphs if students don't even know what a paragraph is or how it works. You have to crawl before you can walk. (Sidenote: if your class exhibits a wide disparity between those who can and those who can't, then this is where differentiation of activities will also come in handy).

The other thing that works well with text analysis is getting students to identify cohesive devices that the author has used to avoid unnecessary repetition. This means:
  • Explicit acknowledgement of reference terms (such as 'these' - what does 'these' refer to?)
  • Text chains (the use of synonyms to refer to the same idea). 
Unless we show this to students, or test them, we simply can't tell if a student understands how these building blocks of cohesion work. There's often a shift in high school English teaching away from the explicit teaching of grammar in favour of more conceptual forms of engagement, but I would argue that there is room for both and that we are doing some students a disservice by skipping more straightforward means of text analysis. The grammatical approach not only caters to lower ability students, it can also offer a foundation of knowledge for students with learning difficulties, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and those whose epistemology favours ways of learning that are less compatible with English in general (all the prospective STEMsters out there!)

Resource 1
Below are two resources for a Youth Culture unit my school teaches. The focus of the unit is on issues related to being a teenager, with a sizeable slice of time dedicated to the inimitable classic '80s film The Breakfast Club. With that in mind, the text below is an introductory piece about the history of teen films, written to also function as part of our school's Focus on Reading project (in which we start every junior English class with ten minutes of reading).
Resource 1 - This can be put onscreen to demonstrate to students what you want done with the text in front of them.
Resource 2 - This is the version that can be handed to the students for them to annotate.
For more on teaching the skill of annotation to juniors, there's a novel study activity here: Extending Stage 4 Students in English
For more on text chains, see this History resources: Text Analysis: The Rise of China

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Political and Social Conditions in China

The Cultural Revolution is arguably one of the most volatile and problematic areas of modern history that we could ask our students to engage with, not necessarily in terms of ideology but in terms of nailing down the reasons for why things happened the way they did. This makes it perfect for teaching historical concepts such as Significance, Cause and Effect, Continuity and Change, Perspective, and Contestability.
Well, it's March 2017 and the new Stage 6 NSW History syllabuses have been released upon the world. I don't want to focus on what's been lost, and which options have shifted in outlook, or the ways in which the new structure of the courses may cause friction. As a pedagogical optimist I'd like to instead look at one of the new options that are available and the room it gives us as History teachers to help our students grow engage with the continuum of skills relating to the historical understanding. 

The new module for the HSC Modern History syllabus 'Change in the Modern World' features some great options for our Year 12 students. Option D: The Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square 1966-1989 builds on a previous Year 11 Case Study and works as a possible follow-on for the current Year 12 National Study based around the rise of China in the earlier half of the 20th century. I've heard some teachers refer to this new Change in the Modern World China option as a transported version of the Year 11 topic and, while there are similarities, it's worth remembering that The Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square 1966-1989 contains content points not previously addressed by the earlier syllabus - making the option an entirely new study of a very complex area of modern history.

Option D starts with the 'survey' dot point; the area of the syllabus in which students are given necessary context before investigating the overall case study. Knowing what to include here can be challenging for the teacher as the background for an event like the Cultural Revolution can be incredibly complicated and contestable. As a result, I've done my best here to boil things down to a manageable overview. In addition to this it's worth doing a couple of things before looking at the historical overview below.
  1. Have students mark out key areas on a map of Asia (China's border, Beijing, Taiwan, key provinces in the Cultural Revolution such as Guangxi and Inner Mongolia, and significant neighbours such as the U.S.S.R., Vietnam, India, and Korea) to build a field of geo-political knowledge to work from.
  2. Cover some key terms that will be coming up during the background/survey part of the study:
    • Bourgeoisie
    • Capitalism
    • Cold War
    • Cult of Personality
    • Feudalism
    • Great Leap Forward
    • Industrialisation
    • Marxism
    • Maoism / Mao Zedong Thought
    • People's Liberation Army
    • Proletariat
    • Revisonism
    • Stalinism
Anyway, here's the overview. The information below pertains to overall survey section of Option D: Political and Social Conditions in China

Picture from the Chinese Civil War
Legacy of the 1949 revolution
In 1949 China had just won a civil war against the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan. This group, the Guomindang, were conservative and largely traditionalist. In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to introduce reforms based on fairness, land distribution, and liberation of women. The CCP's establishment in 1949 was the first time China had ruled itself without war or colonial influence for 50 years.

Mao said, "We will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up".

This new China wanted to change, and to use communism to reach this goal. There was a sense that China was not developed enough yet to shake off its feudal and colonial past; it had to organise itself.

Mao's first plan was to introduce Soviet-styled Five Year Plans, but he abandoned this in favour of the Great Leap Forward in 1958-1960. This failed and China's attempts to modernise in the early 1960s reflected the ideological struggle between Mao's ideas and the Soviet model of communism. The Soviet ideas that appealed to Mao included the collectivisation of farms, a cult of personality that would elevate him to godlike status in the eyes of the people, redistribution of lands and private property, and total control of the lives of the people. However, the Soviet leader Stalin would not offer financial assistance to Mao when asked, leading China to become increasingly independent and anti-Soviet.

Mao was able to get the Chinese people to 'buy in' to his brave new world by encouraging them to take land off the rich and murder those who stood in their way. Nearly 2 million were killed in 1952, and China had collectively stained itself with the blood of the old regime - united in an act of brutal justice, this would not be the first time the Chinese people were asked to become instruments of state-sanctioned murder.

Tensions between the CCP and Mao Zedong that led to the Cultural Revolution
In 1955, the new Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev criticised the personality cult that had grown around the previous Russian leader, Stalin, and this led to some in the CCP recognising that Mao had similarly used power to cultivate worship amongst the masses. In 1956, some members of the Party changed the Chinese constitution to remove all references to Mao Zedong by name.

Annoyed, Mao began to test the loyalty of other members of the CCP as early as 1957, and his own writings on Marxism identified problems in the continuing emergence of elites in Chinese communist society. He warned his colleagues against corruption, and resented those who did not fall in line with his policies. Mao initially pointed the finger at rich landlords who he claimed persisted despite the famine that had wiped out so many in 1959 and 1960, but by 1965 he asserted that Chinese communism was under threat of those in the Party who wanted to 'revise' it (revisionists).

In 1964, fellow Party member Deng Xiaoping advised Mao not to attend a Party meeting, prompting Mao to remark, "Someone is shitting on my head". Mao grew angry at Party members resisting his attempts to target revisionists and 'capitalist roaders' (those taking the capitalist road by enjoying Western-styled privileges and material possessions), and he believed that China was beginning to become a series of 'independent kingdoms' where Party members in different regions had gathered power for themselves. The Party tried to target the education system as the way to address Mao's claims, but Mao put the focus back on them - he wanted to go after what he called the 'big shots'.

Social Conditions in China in 1966
China had undergone drastic change in the years between 1949 and 1966. 2-3% of the population were now members of the CCP, and more than 30% of all Chinese land had been redistributed more fairly. Mao instigated several new laws designed to make women more equal - the 1950 Marriage Law made it illegal for men to marry children, purchase brides, have multiple wives, or force marriages. Primary school attendance also increased by 200%, and university graduation by 100%.

The Great Famine that had arrived due to the Great Leap Forward led to millions dying of starvation. People had to steal or die, and the Chinese black market emerged to make survival possible. Corruption became commonplace. 

Sources for above information:
  • People's China by Craig Dietrich, 1986, Oxford University Press.
  • The Cultural Revolution by Frank Dikotter, 2016, Bloomsbury.
  • A Short History of China by Gordon Kerr, 2013, Pocket Essentials.
  • Mao's China and After (3rd Edition) by Maurice Meisner, 1999, The Free Press.
  • Deng Xiaoping by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, 2015, Oxford University Press.
  • Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, 1968, Grover Press.
Questions/Activities based on the above:
  1. Why did things begin to become strained between China and their fellow communist neighbour, the Soviet Union? 
  2. How did Mao encourage the Chinese people to commit to his ideology?
  3. Why do you think the other Party members took Mao's name out of the Chinese constitution?
  4. What was a 'revisionist'? 
  5. What do you think Mao meant by 'big shots'?
  6. Why did corruption become the norm in China by 1966? 
  7. Construct a timeline based on the dates featured in the above information.
  8. Which event do you think had the most significant impact on China and why?
Resource: Click here for a PDF containing the above information.

Metonym: Figurative Technique in Metropolis

Freder builds a bridge between Grot (the unofficial leader of the workers) and Joh Fredersen (the architect and de facto ruler of Metropolis)
Being a silent film, Metropolis is primarily a visual text - a piece of cinema reliant on the audience's ability to read film grammar. If a silent film cannot convey its narrative in this way then it will die on its feet and, thankfully, Metropolis is highly effective to this end. Visual literacy aside though, I wanted to get my students to tap into the core message of the film by examining the epigraph that precedes the action:

"The mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart"

...which is a quote that skews towards literary analysis rather than the visual. In this case it's a piece of figurative language, making use of the metaphorical device known as metonymy.

I start by showing the epigraph to the students via a worksheet as an example of a metonym and ask if anyone would like to venture a guess as to what exactly this technique is (or how it works). I then go on to explain it on the worksheet:

Metonymy is a metaphorical/rhetorical device in which a thing or concept is not called by its proper name but instead referred to by a part of the overall whole, or something associated with the whole. In other words, metonyms are usually parts of a thing/concept that are used to stand-in for the bigger idea. 

  • Washington refers to the American Government.
  • The King's Hand (in Game of Thrones) refers to an actual person designated to do the King's work, not just their hand.
  • The bush refers to Australian forest. Not just one bush!
  • Chili is an American dish made up on beans, mince and chili peppers, yet it is only referred to by the one defining ingredient.
  • The Crown refers to the British royal family.
  • A hired gun isn't just a gun, you're paying for the whole assassin who holds the gun.
  • Chernobyl is a city in Ukraine but the word on its own has also come to refer to the nuclear disaster that occurred there in 1986, EG. "We don't want another Cheynobyl".
Students can examine a few more by explaining them on their own, and could even come up with some of their own identified examples:
  1. 9/11
  2. "Going down the street"
  3. "We've got 10 000 boots on the ground"  
Then, to bring it all full circle, the big question is:

Explain the example from Metropolis, as seen in the epigraph.

Students should at first address it on the most immediate level, that the Heart refers to Freder operating as the 'mediator' (the figure foretold by Maria when she sermonises the workers). In addition to this, though, students should connect the epigraph on a figurative level to the class system in Metropolis. The Hands are the workers, with the metonym connecting to connotations associated with the working class and the sort of labour they undertake, and the Head is Joh Fredersen - a sole figure who controls all else, cold and calculating.

The worksheet can be found here.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Metropolis: Context

New York, circa 1924, when Fritz Lang saw it.

Teaching context is one of my favourite things. I know I have a lot of favourite things but I'd like to think that having several favourite things helps to make me a reasonably well-rounded individual. Hopefully that gives you some context to this blog post. 

See what I did there?

As I've mentioned several times before, the most difficult thing about teaching context is knowing where to start and where to end. As any decent student of history should know, the points where a historical narrative begins and finishes are often up to interpretation. Did WWI start with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand? Or was it the so-called 'blank cheque' that Germany had given to Austria, meaning that they would support their ally in war no matter the circumstances? Or was the rampant tendency towards imperialism that infected many European nations in the latter half of the 19th century to blame for the War to End All Wars? You can backtrack through the chain of cause and effect forever.

The same is true of English texts. How much detail do we need in order to understand the situation that birthed a text? Is it enough to know what the composer went through, and what they intended? Should we also look at the culture that created this individual? The larger events that were shaping the world at the time of the text's construction also bear examination too. An English teacher can get lost in trying to get to the bottom of where a text truly comes from. 

In coming at Metropolis, I put together a PowerPoint presentation that would help students situate their understanding within a three-tiered model examining the world context, German context, and Fritz Lang's context (in that order).

The presentation below encourages students to pick the three most significant ideas out of each slide. Discuss as a class as you move through the PPT, and then - once you get to the end - have the students consolidate their understanding into the Context Organiser sheet.

Fritz Lang is almost always pictured wearing the monocle, which helped to contribute to the stereotype of a tyrannical German director that others found hard to work with.

Significant factors to consider during discussion while getting students to formulate connections between context and text:

Slide 2: World Context
  • World War I took place 1914 and 1918, wreaking the most war-related devastation that the world had ever seen up until this point.
  • The nature of WWI - with its strategy of attrition and the use of shocking new technologies such as gas and tanks - had quite an affect on the lowest strata of Europe's social hierarchy (the workers) as they were the ones who were conscripted and enlisted to fight on the frontlines.
  • The old order of governance in Europe, the monarchies, were collapsing after facing increasing pressure from 'below' (the soldiers and workers).
  • England and America became increasingly industrialised during this period, giving rise to capitalism and liberal trade as the bourgeoisie gained power in Western societies.
Slide 3: World Context
  • The workers of Europe were inspired during the early 20th century by Marxist ideology, which promised equal distribution of land and wealth.
  • The first Marxist state was born in Russia in 1917 through a 'dictatorship of the proletariat', with the aim being that the workers would control the state.
  • The key figures of the Russian Revolution in 1917 had been Lenin and Trotsky, both politicians and activists who fought to put the workers in power. By 1927, at the time of Metropolis' release, the leader of the new Soviet Union was Joseph Stalin, a bureaucrat who would rise as a godlike dictator.
Slide 4: Germany
  • The German people felt humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles that as it laid all of the blame of WWI at their feet. They, in turn, blamed their own government and Kaiser - leading to the deconstruction of the German aristocracy and the rise of the Weimar Republic.
  • Berlin was wrecked by the rioting lower classes in 1919, and Germany faced crippling poverty after WWI. 
Slide 5: Germany
  • Early capitalists such as Hugo Stinnes took advantage of the situation in Germany to gain control of Germany's economy. By 1922, he owned and operated more than 60 German newspapers, and had so much influence that he introduced the idea of the 8 hour work day to increase productivity. Think Joh Fredersen in Metropolis.
  • Workers' unions in Germany began to form to represent the interests of the downtrodden workers, and tensions emerged between the classes in response to poor working conditions.
  • German culture saw a renaissance of sorts in the 1920s, with German cinema in particular adopting the moody style of expressionism to reflect the economic depression that had followed WWI.
Slide 6: Fritz Lang
  • Born as a Jew, Lang was brought up as a Catholic by his mother (she converted through marriage).
  • Lang trained in civil engineering and art, both of which are reflected in his concepts for the city in Metropolis. He also fought in WWI alongside the workers.
  • Lang co-wrote all of his films in the 1920s with his wife, who eventually developed Nazi sympathies. They would later divorce.
  • Lang fled Germany in the early 1930s due to the rise of the Nazi Party.
Slide 7: Fritz Lang
  • Lang visited New York in 1924 and was awed by its size and industrial nature.
  • Lang's concept for the city in Metropolis was also influenced by the gangster and prostitute-riddled Chicago, the 'city of sin'.
  • Both New York and Chicago were symbols of capitalism; representing the best and worst that it could offer.
  • The idea of liberalism encouraged industrialists and capitalists to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible (as a means to promote economic growth).  
Slide 8: Fritz Lang (Catholic influence)
  • The Garden of Eden = The Eternal Garden.
  • The Tower of Babel = alluded to the film through both Maria's sermon and Joh Fredersen's towering office.
  • John the Baptist = Maria.
Slide 9: Fritz Lang (Catholic influence)
  • Christ the Redeemer = Freder.
  • The Whore of Babylon = Robot-Maria and her incitement of the bourgeoisie.
  • The Seven Deadly Sins = the symbolism seen in Freder's hallucinations.
Resource: Metropolis Context PPT
Resource: Context Organiser sheet

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Antimetabole: Rhetorical Technique in 1984

First thing's first: don't ask me to pronounce the name of this technique... is it an-time-tabool? An-tim-eh-ta-bol-ey? Anti-meta-burlie? Anyway, it's a mouthful, and thankfully students wanting to discuss it in an essay only need to know how to spell it rather than pronounce it.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I like to use a 'mini-lesson' approach when it comes to teaching new techniques in the classroom. This has been adapted from the work of American writing guru Nancie Atwell and WSU Education Researcher Wayne Sawyer, and allows for students to engage directly with the technique or literary device before placing it in context and developing a greater familiarity with it.

Antimetabole is a rhetorical device, and I'll note here that I've already spent significant time covering the persuasive genre of rhetoric with my Advanced English students before getting to this particular technique, which means that students already have contextual knowledge of what rhetoric is and how it works (and to what end). I cover this in passing with Year 10 students, and then in more detail when teaching Shakespearean language to Preliminary Advanced English for Othello.

At its most basic definition, antimetabole is when a phrase or clause is stated and then repeated in reverse order. A famous example is one used in a speech by American President John F. Kennedy:

"Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country"

Antimetabole can be used for a number of reasons:
  • To call attention to certain key words.
  • To hint that reality is not what it seems (illustrated by the reversal of words).
  • To motivate/persuade an audience.
  • When the first clause is spoken in a speech it may not be that noticeable, however, when the words are repeated in the next clause it immediately emphasises the elements that have been repeated. 
  • It is a popular rhetorical device in political speeches, and is therefore used in literature to allude to political thought and intention. 
  • It can sometimes seem confusing; forcing the listener or reader to re-examine the ideas therein.
An example from 1984, spoken by O'Brien during his interrogation of Winston:

"One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship"

Get the students look at the quote above and then answer the following questioning after being walked through the above definition and breakdown:

Question: What is Orwell's intention in using this rhetorical device here, and through this particular character?

Orwell actually uses a few examples of this rhetorical device in 1984, another that comes to mind is, "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious". Rigorous teachers might also like to point out the paradoxical, Catch 22-like nature of this additional example. 

Resource: 1984 and Antimetabole

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pushing for Depth in Our Students' Thinking - David Camp

The Shore School (also known as the Sydney Church of England Grammar School). What a view!

It's a drizzly, slightly-steamy Saturday morning in Milson's Point, and I'm mingling with the learning cultures set at the Shore School for the 2017 'Cultures of Thinking' Conference. This convergence of teachers from all sectors of education comes at the behest of Project Zero, the Harvard School of Education's 50 year-old investigation into the Arts as a cognitive science.

It's free professional learning, which in my mind is one of the best kinds, and it's the best way to end a teaching week. Imagine contrasting the chaotic daily challenges that come with teaching in a comprehensive high school setting with a day of positive pedagogy. The sharing of growth-promoting teaching practice not only meets our Professional Standards for Standard 6 (Engage in Professional Learning); it also feels good and enables me to continue developing my approach to the classroom. 

There was mention made today of 'learning teachers'. If I'm anything in my job, I believe that I'm a 'learning teacher'. I won't ever stop learning and it's explicit exploration of this concept that continues to give my job meaning and, if I'm honest, adds value to my life.

David Camp is Head of English at the Emmanuel School, a Jewish school in Randwick, and he presented a fantastic session on rendering thinking more visible in line with Project Zero's aims for building a more pragmatic and embedded 21st century learning culture.

I've written before about Project Zero's See Think Wonder activity but it's always useful to revisit this practical tool for visible thinking with different examples, and Mr Camp showed us a great example in his session, which I'll outline below.

But firstly, to recap, the See Think Wonder paradigm asks for the responder to look at a text and ask the following questions, in this order:
  1. What do you see
  2. What does that make you think about?
  3. What does it make you wonder?


Watch the Pink Floyd film clip above (a classic) and then See Think Wonder it. Can I use 'See Think Wonder' as a verb? Why, yes I can, it's a neologism.

So, firstly, we SEE. Identify what you can see but don't attach anything of significance to your notes for this part.

Secondly, THINK. What associations or connotations come from what you see? What is being suggested?

And the third part, we WONDER. What do you want to know more about? What does it make you wonder? What are the bigger questions that arise from this text?

Here's my modelled example, completed in context during the session administered by Mr Camp (IE. The conditions we would ask students to do it in, only perhaps I was given less time to do it in - which is fine as Mr Camp covered a lot!)

People walking, classrooms, stuffy, high angle vs. low angle shots, muted colour scheme, modern/1970s music, montage of images, corporal punishment, drudgery, panning shot of bricks and grey, marching students, cellblocks, large clock, close-up on feet walking in unison, identical uniforms, teacher with idiosyncratic accent, angry, wide shot of hundreds of students, shadow of hammer falling with machinery, students turning into sausages, students smashing school, breaking bricks and windows, piling up of wood, burning building down, camera panning down to flames, flames are the first glimpse of real colour in the whole clip.

Historical associations - teacher's accent reminiscent of German / hard to understand - allusions to Nazism and Hitler? Dystopia. Symbolism of students being ground into sausages representative of exploitation and waste. Piling up of wood - French Revolution. Panning shots show how big and insidious the control is. Wall being broken down - connection to Berlin Wall coming down (a prediction?) Revolution. High angle and low angle shots establish relationship of power.

When was this text made, specifically? What was going in the world at that time? What happens to the sausages? Do the adults eat them? Who directed it? Is it a criticism of private schools? Or all schools in general? Or education in general? Or society in general? Which message is the most important - the value of the individual? The rigid structured nature of education? Has the system ever worked?

As you can see, the See Think Wonder activity is a great way to deepen student cognition. Mr Camp says that it takes thinking from the 'literal to the figurative, the shallow to the deep', and he also speaks about applying the framework to non-visual texts, explaining it as thus:
  1. What do you see? (identify the key words)
  2. What does it make you think about? (Which of the elements you have studied - themes, techniques, moments, quotes - comes to mind for these ideas?)
  3. What do you wonder? (What are the deeper ramifications raised in the question?)
This was just a small part of David Camp's overall seminar.

Something else I'd like to share that he covered was exploring what the future classroom might look like. 

The Jetsons view of the future classroom gets points for including robot teachers, however, the apparent presence of a blackboard seems unnecessarily hip and retro.
We were asked to imagine what our class would look like if money and time weren't issues. In other words, what would we do with our room to create the sort of student we want to see. This activity was guided through the use of six key questions, and it might be fun, intrepid reader, if you wanted to try this too - it's a useful activity for rendering our abstract philosophy as something more explicit.
  • What does this classroom look like?
  • What does it sound like?
  • What type of questions are being asked? and by whom?
  • Who is interacting with whom and how?
  • What types of activities are taking place?
  • What is the headline for your classroom? That is, if a newspaper came along five years after you created this perfect classroom, what headline would they run?
My thoughts in relation to each of the above questions:
  • I'd love to have windows that could be closed with shutters to keep light out, screens on each wall for projection from my computer, air conditioning, whiteboards on every wall, single tables to facilitate better maneuverability in the classroom - or, better yet, some way of programming a table-organisation plan into an app that then moves the tables around in my room for me on a period by period basis. How cool would that be? Also, I'd love a way of electronically opening my classroom door with a button on a key (like my car). 
  • Soundwise, I'd hope my classroom would sound loud during discussion, and quieter than that when I'm trying to speak to everyone. To be honest, I haven't really thought about sound in the classroom that much. I'd love to have high quality speakers that played loud enough without distracting neighbouring classrooms. Sound-proofing between rooms, maybe?
  • In terms of the third and fourth points, I would want students to question everything, from in-context and comprehension questions relating to the content of texts being studied, to metaquestions about curriculum and teaching practise. I would like students to feel comfortable giving honest and useful feedback to me, and to ask why we learn what we learn, and how it relates to what they might want to do with their lives.
  • The kinds of activities would be predominantly student-designed with teacher guidance (where necessary). Students would match what they learn with their vocational goals and interests, they would research projects of their choice in order to apply their learning authentically to the outside world, and would interact with teachers in a meaningful way to meet their personal learning goals.
  • And my headline? Students Take Control of Classroom: Coming to grips with co-design between teacher and student.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Honeycomb Matrix

Like it or not, part of being a teacher inevitably involves some kind of behaviour management. There are many ways to approach this, and every experienced teacher will have strong views on the best ways to administer this part of the job. It shouldn't be a surprise that, like most other teachers, I have my own strong views on this subject. I tend to use this blog to primarily focus on content-specific resources but I would like to take a moment here to share a resource that is applicable to all KLAs and all year groups.

But firstly, a few things I consider when it comes to behaviour management:

They're Kids
As adults, it's an inconvenient truth that we have to deal with issues that arise from dealing with people who are yet to reach adulthood themselves. That is to say, we're adults and our students are not. A lot of friction can arise from expecting students to behave in ways that we might expect adults to behave. Or we might even just expect our students to behave as an 'ideal' type of child that we have in our head.

The students who present the biggest challenges do not fit into this paradigm. They often come to us unequipped for the mental marathons we want them to run. And, honestly, so they should - the entire basis for our profession is to assist the next generation in reaching some kind of adult actualisation in terms of emotional, mental and physical development. If they came to us fully-formed then we wouldn't be needed, would we?

Difficult Students are Difficult for a Reason
If a student is unable to behave in the way that we expect, for whatever reason, then that's something we should be compassionate about. The stories behind some of these students are absolutely devastating and, if we knew the full details behind why they behave the way they do, we would wonder how it is that they might be able to focus in class at all.

Some of these students are going to be defiant, and oppositional, and this can be because they are afraid and angry about things that really have nothing to do with us. So we should do our best not to take it personally, to disengage from the instinct to respond in opposition, and to remind ourselves that we're the adults in these situations. No matter how hard it might get in a particular lesson for us, at the end of the day we can walk away from the problems these students have - and they can't.

Behaviour isn't Straightforward
Behaviour is always a reflection of context, and a student's personal context is inevitably going to be complex. The problems exhibited by a challenging student are not simple in origin - they can be the result of multiple things. A student may have a learning difficulty, compounded by instability in their home environment, and further reinforced by issues that have arisen in social interaction over a sustained amount of time due to the other aforementioned problems. This in turn has probably led to friction with some teachers in the past, gaps in learning, and ongoing attendance issues due to said student aiming to avoid further conflict as much as possible.

It's not something that can be solved with a detention.

If I give this hypothetical student a detention is it going to change their behaviour the next time I have them in my class? The answer is no, so the only real consequence is that it would drive a wedge between myself and the student in question - a wedge that will make it difficult to continue working with said young individual. I've seen this happen; punishment for punishment's sake can lead to ongoing grudges between teachers and students that can last for years and are impossible to mediate. For the teacher it sometimes becomes about asserting authority and teaching the value of following rules. I cannot think of a single time that this approach actually resulted in a student adopting those values and responding to this authority in a supplicant and respectful way. For some teachers it slots into a metanarrative about "what's wrong with the world today"... I'm not saying that it's incorrect to criticially analyse the malaise one may perceive as having descended upon modern society, but what I am saying is that tying behaviour management practice to a theoretical idealised worldview won't actually get the kind of results that will make you and your students have a less stressful time in the classroom.

Would you rather be right, or would you rather just have the student learning something? Sometimes we can't have both, and being right (and authoritative) shouldn't be the cornerstone of education. Education should be the cornerstone of education.

But hey, don't just take my word for it, here is some supporting evidence:
Blank Honeycomb Matrix
The Honeycomb Matrix
Anyway! I honestly did not intend to write that much, but I am very passionate about Positive Behaviour for Learning.

The Honeycomb Matrix is a quantitative assessment tool that aims to assist students in engaging with their class work. Nothing more, nothing less. Firstly, here is what it is not:
  • It is not used to generate marks or data for assessment of ability.
  • It is not used to assess thinking skills or the ability of a student to understand certain domains of knowledge.
What it does do is this:
  • It allows students to see how well they work while they are present in class.
  • It allows the teacher to build a culture of student engagement with classwork.
  • It makes it clear to students that the most important thing is, and always will be, how hard they try in regards to the work set during class time - thus promoting a growth mind-set. 
I have been using and developing this matrix for three years now and I can give you some feedback on its impact in the classroom. Back in 2014 I introduced a version of this matrix to a mixed ability Year 7 class where 40% of the students were only completing 10-40% of the set classwork. After a term of transparently judging student engagement against the matrix, student work levels got to the point where all students in this class were completing 40% of set activities (or higher). The top end of the class improved too, with a third of these students achieving 85% of completed classwork or higher.

How it Works
The matrix is good for 10 lessons at a time. Each column has two boxes per student - one to note down if they are present in class or not (this way you can use it as your roll and avoid double-handling if your school is not on electronic rolls), and one to note down a score that equates to the amount of work completed. The scores run as thus:

0 = no work.
1 = some work.
2 = most work.
3 = all work.
4 = exemplar work (more work than the teacher expected in their wildest dreams*)

*It should be noted here that 4s are only given out in exceptional circumstances.

Make it clear to the students that 3 is the normal maximum, and that it works out as 3 out of 3. If they should get a 4 then this is actually a 4 out of 3. It's at this point that I like to remind students that I can do this because I'm not a Maths teacher.

At the end of the topic, add up all the scores and divide it by the amount of lessons that the student was present for, with each lesson worth 3 points in total.

Sample Honeycomb Matrix (with fake students)
Here's an example of how it would work:

Jane Rice has been present for ten lessons. This means that her possible total is 30. Her actual work score is about 21 out of 30, which means she has completed 70% of the work for the term.

Let's say a student gets an exemplar score at some point, or completes work that they missed out on due to absence (thus earning points for lessons in which they weren't present - which is encouraged). They can theoretically get 100+%. Well, it's not really theoretical, because this does happen - usually with one or two students per class.

At the end of each topic the percentages are equated to grades, and I keep a sign up in the classroom that explains the system:
  • 100+% = A+ (getting the student two Bronze Awards)
  • 85-100% = A (getting the student one Bronze Award)
  • 70-84% = B 
  • 45-69% = C
  • 25-44% = D
  • 0-24% = E (and a call home to express concern to their parents)
Since introducing this system to all of my classes, I haven't had to call home about unacceptable levels of class work once.

Another positive byproduct of this system is that it doubles as an efficient way to mark books. By filling in the Honeycomb Matrix once at the end of every lesson after observing the students working, and then calculating totals at the end of each topic, I have a handy percentage that can be typed up and handed to each student. I don't even need to collect books (which can often be problematic anyway as students who haven't done any work often actively avoid handing their book over to you).

[I'll note here that every now and again I do collect books to do some close-up marking on the quality of a written paragraph or something like that, but that's not what this blog post is about].

After a while the students get used to the system. A good example of this has been my senior English Studies classes. By transferring my expectations for behaviour primarily onto classwork, it assists in building a positive working relationship with the students, and they will often be quite honest in telling me if they've only done a 1 out of 3 for the lesson. For reluctant workers, knowing that I'm explicitly keeping track of what they do every lesson ensures that they do put some effort in occasionally and are able to meet the expected minimum. 

Also included at the front of the sheet are an optional two columns for diagnosis. Students can be informally pre-assessed at the start of the topic (or 10 lesson cycle) and then broken into three streams of ability to allow for occasional differentiation of tasks.

In short, the sheet becomes an all-in-one organisation tool for each of my classes.

Resource - Honeycomb Matrix