Our Small World Tokelau

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Getting my year 9's to write paragraphs

When it comes to paragraph writing, a common phrase that my year 9 learners relay is 'I don't know how to start'.  I have wondered in the past at what this 'block' or 'bump' in the process was and when I talked to my kids about it, they say that they worry about getting it wrong.  With the affordances that the digital world offers (ie spell and grammar checks), I wondered if it was more of an intrinsic belief that caused them to stall rather than the lack of grammatical knowledge.

One of the ways that we will be looking at tackling this issue is to ensure that our students are supported in their learning through scaffolded teaching and learning tasks.  Marc Milford, our schools Student Achievement co-odinator has been coming to our department meetings and sharing strategies and writing templates that we could implement within our units.  He has been working with one of my level 3 students who is an ESOL student and has struggled with understanding basic terms and concepts.  When I checked her writing before Marc had helped her, I could see that she was not able to put proper sentences together and found it difficult to use words that made sense.  Marc developed a writing frame for her and I could see that she was learning to structure her writing a lot more clearer.  I asked Marc to share with us at our department meeting the template and the next day, I tried to use the same structure with my year 9's as they were preparing to write for their exams.

I introduced the framework to the class by saying that they could use the key words and ideas provided to help them but if they felt confident to write without them, they could do so.  The examples I provided were from the learnings we had around traditions in Tokelau and I wanted them to use the concepts to show their understanding of what they'd learnt in class.

Once I shared the document, I wondered around the classroom to check if anyone needed help.  One of the girls stopped me and said 'I don't know what to do miss' so I sat with her and explained what she needed to do.  I said I would come back and check on her after she'd written her first one.  I had given one period for the class to complete the activity, but feedback from the students I found was that they needed more time.

The next day, I checked student work and found a number of students had written some excellent paragraphs which really surprised me.  One example is from a student below, who I felt was often disengaged in class.

Another student who has struggled at times, felt confident enough not to use the sentence starter for his second paragraph, which helped me to understand that he can work with and with out the scaffold. 
An interesting point to note was that the girls struggled with completing the paragraphs set.  Only 1 of the 6 girls completed at least one paragraph and she completed it at home, whereas at least half of the boys completed the tradition and education paragraphs.  The boys also used any digital feedback I provided to motivate them to complete what they'd started whereas the girls needed more oral feedback.  This idea that different modes of feedback support all different learners supports a study that I'd completed 2 years ago, that compared digital, written and oral feedback.  With this in mind, I need to ensure that I address the importance of 'feedback' as a further strategy that could improve the writing of our students.  The next step is to ensure that students are provided more opportunities to write using scaffolds that support students. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

How to structure writing - which is the best model?

When it comes to writing, my department knows that preparing our students to write can be a daunting process.  As part of my inquiry, I wanted to find out what other departments at my school were using as their models for teaching and learning.  I emailed them to ask what they used in their teaching.

Our maths and P.E departments use the P.E.E chain which is reflected in the chart below:

The English department use T.E.E.P.E.E:
  • T = topic
  • E = example/quote
  • E = explanation
  • P = purPose (author/director’s purpose)
  • E = effect (also consider on whole text and reader)
  • E = evaluation (make connections, comments outside the text)

And we along with our fellow scientists, we use S.E.X:

I wondered if it made sense to use a more common, cross-curricula framework so that kids didn't need to learn and relearn from class to class how to write a paragraph.

In my department meeting, I discussed with Marc Milford, our schools 'Student achievement co-ordinator' which structure he thought would be the most useful and if a more common one across the school would be better for the kids.  He suggested we nutted out the best one with evidence and put it to our curriculum committee.  One of my team found that her kids struggled to get to the end of an assessment or essay and just needed to finish it off.   Although we use S.E.X, members in my team mentioned one called TEXAS and after a bit of study, I thought this one could be a good to implement as it allows to clear structure right to the end.  My next steps are to take this idea to the curriculum committee meeting to see what they thought.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The value of connected learning in our Manaiakalani cluster - Te Taiao o Tāmaki.

When posed with the question of 'what does future focused learning in a connected community' look like, the Manaiakalani cluster wide inquiry of Te Taiao o Tāmaki' set the foundation for our year 9 students to be 'connected' to their learning.

Te Taiao o Tāmaki allowed connections to be made between teachers and schools in our cluster.  At our meetings, ideas were shared and networks made.  Teachers selected students from their respective schools to quad blog with students from other schools, to gain an insight into each others worlds and see that they were not alone in their learning.  Teachers across the cluster also shared their teaching strategies to support each other to work towards the collective vision.

Te Taiao o Tāmaki allowed our year 9 students at Tamaki College to feel connected to the rest of the schools in the cluster.  Many of our year 9's had younger siblings in the primary schools and would share their learnings over conversations at the dinner table or homework time with their parents and whanau.  This connection enabled students to support each other with their learning in their homes.

Te Taiao o Tāmaki allowed our year 9 students to feel empowered when they saw their projects and learnings displayed at Te Oro, especially in front of their old school mates.  A group of year 8's from a primary school, who knew one of our presenters, asked what he was like at school now, 'cause he used to be naughty'.  They were surprised when I replied 'he's going to be a future school leader'.  When asked how he felt about the day, our year 9 presenter replied how excited he was because 'everyone got involved and created amazing projects for all the other schools to see'. "It made me feel proud because I was sharing my knowledge with everyone else and it also helped me build up my confidence".  In enabling our year 9's to showcase their projects to the younger students, it established the belief that Tamaki College could be (and should be) the first school of choice for them in the future because they could see what they could aspire to.

Te Taiao o Tāmaki allowed our whanau and our community to see the quality of projects our year 9's were able to produce.  People took the time to stop by and comment on how articulate our students were and how proudly they presented themselves.  The fact that our community could see our students in this positive, shared context created the opportunity for any barriers and stereotypes to be broken down and a more positive view adopted.  This can only be a good thing.

So when I reflect on 'what future focused learning in a connected community' looks like, Te Taiao o Tamaki fostered the 'values' of coming together as a community of learners with a shared vision.  Te Taiao o Tāmaki was more than just a showcase of projects from students in our cluster.  It was a time that allowed our students to feel connected and valued, and that they had a place in the world.

Tamaki College at Te Oro 2017 from SchoolTV on Vimeo.

Monday, 15 May 2017

My Spark M.I.T inquiry - take 2!

My initial inquiry was looking at ways to improve engagement and learning outcomes for our year 9 students through blogging.  Before coming to the college, the students in the primary schools in our cluster had been blogging since year 0 and I wanted to implement blogging as 'normal practice' in year 9 social studies programmes.  This was one strategy that I could see working in helping with transitioning from primary school to secondary school which has always been a challenge.

Although blogging at our school is something that is done dependant on the teacher (or department), I decided to focus on how we could implement it within my department.  I set up class blogs and helped to ensure that students had access to their individual blogs.  In our department meetings, we found opportunities to share lessons when we would write a class blog and what we wanted students to write and reflect on in their individual blogs. Looking back at our terms work, I found that my teachers added a few blogs here and there on their blogs, but rarely commented on students' work. On reflection, I have found that the teachers were hesitant and may have needed more guidance on blogging.  I had taken it for granted they would regularly blog and comment on their students blogs.  I also felt that like the kids, teachers too needed an authentic audience and purpose for blogging and commenting.  To confirm this, I conducted a student voice survey that found 78% of our students found that blogging helped them with their learning and that it was beneficial to help them succeed because other people were reading them which gave them purpose.  One student even commented about their future job prospects:

"Yes, blogging helps us. Because when you post all of your idea's, thinking/knowledge and that on your blog, their might be people from around the country that work at a very special big company or job like that and they might like our post or what ever and maybe want to make something out of it and stuff".

Our Spark M.I.T day today has helped me re-evaluate my focus slightly that in order to ensure engagement for our kids, the teachers need to be engaged and on-board.  My next steps will include showing the teachers the results of the survey and creating multiple opportunities for them to write their blogs and understand the value in using them in their teaching and learning pedagogy.

To support me in this process, we have been paired up with Spark 'Buddies' who provide insight and 'another pair of eyes' on our inquiry process.  As part of the Spark Foundation's initiative Raven Garcia has the privilege of being my buddy this year.  We discussed ways in which I could use strategies that could engage my department like 'Toastmasters' and 'Linked in' for ideas which were really useful sites that I will explore further.  As I move towards a different (but related) focus, I am excited to take up the challenge.

Spark M.I.T team getting to know each other

Friday, 12 May 2017

Making new habits - when teachers blog in a department meeting

One of the key achievement challenges that we have in our cohort is how to raise the writing levels of our students, particularly our boys.  At our department meetings, we are limited on the amount time we get to spend on figuring out ways to engage and motivate our students to write. Quite a bit of time is spent on admin, which is no doubt important, but alas once we get to talk about strategies and relevant activities that we could use in the classroom, the fatigue of a long meeting has set in.  Nevertheless, I needed to use the short time I had at the end of our meeting to tackle a few things that I wanted them to understand - blogging is important and relevant for teaching as inquiry and we need to use and develop more structured writing frames in the classroom.

Aaron Wilson from Woolf Fisher says that one of the ways to get students to write is to ensure that they are writing for a purpose.  The purpose for the writing activity that I got my team to do was essentially for their teaching as inquiry but also to understand how important it is to guide our students through writing. We also expect our students to blog and yet it has not been a main focus for many of our staff.  Only one of my team members regularly blogs and I felt it important to allow my team to blog in an safe and comfortable environment.

As with our kids, I didn't want my team to be stuck on how to start or what to write about.  I shared a structure around getting them to discuss a problem or a challenge that they'd had in their class, a strategy they used to address the challenge and a short reflection on what worked etc.  I also showed them examples of blogs using the template, my own one and Renee's who is one of our newer members on the team. I asked her to talk us through her blog to show how she formulated it and what she wrote.  She shared the fact that it did take her awhile to getting blogging, but understood the important purpose of doing so for her own professional growth.  In allowing her to share her experience, my team could feel that they could do it too.   I shared the template on a document and asked them to complete the task in 5 minutes.

I observed how members in my team prepared to write.  Aaron Wilson shared an insightful point about metacognitive writing strategies, and understanding how people prepare to write as being just as important as the writing itself.  One of my team stared at the ceiling for a bit, another wrote notes on bits of paper and brainstormed ideas, and another grimaced at the screen, adding and deleting words and checking the examples I provided before starting with 2 minutes left.  

After 5 minutes, I told everyone to finish off their sentences.  A comment was made about knowing how the kids felt when they're forced to write in a short amount of time and the team agreed that they needed a bit more time to do a good job for the blog.  I gave them til the next day.  What I did find interesting is how engaged my team were when they knew it had a purpose and with the limited time we had to do the activity, I found that I could achieve more by putting a few things together - blogging, writing framework and teaching as inquiry all rolled into one.  

When I checked their blogs the next day, 4 out of the 5 had blogged.  The next step is to get the teachers to use the same strategy in the classroom with the kids.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Focusing on my priority student

One of the key goals for our school is to find ways to improve the achievement outcomes for our priority students.  A school wide initiative to address the challenge is the formation of a cross-curricula group of subject teachers who meet to identify students who are not achieving success across curriculum areas and discuss and implement intervention strategies that could support them.  We call the initiative our 'PLuGs' groups (Professional Learning Groups) and for this term, we meet fortnightly.

At our first meeting we looked at years 11 and 12 and the students who had not achieved any credits across all of their curriculum areas in term one.  I don't teach year 11's but in my year 12 class there are a few students who had yet to achieve credits in social studies and this was an opportunity to see whether other staff were having the same issues with the same students.  It was interesting to see that yes, they too were having the same problems.

I selected a student (Student A) who had almost 100% attendance and seemed motivated and engaged in class.  In the first term, my class completed an inquiry and over half the class gained an achieved which was positive, but I still struggled with a few kids who weren't getting work done, in or out of class and student A was one of them.

One of the strategies that I used was a class tracking system.  I put the tracking sheet on the board each period and it worked to motivate many of the students to complete tasks set, especially the highly able students and some of the boys who were competitive.

A tracking system that helps to motivate kids to complete tasks set.
I linked their assessments to their names which made it easier for me to access their work and as they completed each task, the task would be shaded green - to gain an achieved in this standard, students needed to complete tasks 1 to 4.

I was also committed to giving as much digital feedback as I could because sometimes there is not enough time during class to give students any feedback on their assessments.  Here is feedback that I'd provided student A on her assessment.
Feedback on student A's assessment.
I noticed that my feedback became less and less about the work and more and more about motivation and encouragement.  I was even checking after one in the morning in the hope that if a student could see that if I'm willing to put in the time and effort to check her work, she would put in the time and effort to complete tasks set.  However, this tactic failed to work.

In class, I would talk to student A and she reassured me that she was working on a task and a number of times, I had sat next to her to see how she would write to try and gain a sense of what the struggle was with her work.  She always started off well but never finished a task.

I knew I needed a more focussed plan.  Once I selected her as my priority student, I created a document to share with her, that asked her to tell a story about herself to me (that she could include as much as she wanted and as little as she liked).  I then wanted to find out what kind of learner she was so I included a few surveys like the ones below that I would sit down with her and guide her through (I have linked the surveys below).  
I wanted to discuss a few goals that we could make together and then ask her to link up work that was due onto a common document as a way to see an overview of what she needed to do and how she needed to do it.

Yesterday, I shared the document with her and spoke to her about how I wanted to help her with achieving success in her school work and she seemed positive and excited, but time will tell.  I have a hunch that it may be a confidence thing but I needed to develop a trusted relationship with her by talking through goals and aspirations so I could get a better sense of what the barriers could be.  My next strategy is to think about ways to help her with her confidence, then look at her learning needs in an attempt to understand how she writes.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Writing is hard, even at year 12!

At the moment, my year 12 social studies class are working on their 40 hour famine projects.  When they heard that they were going to give up food for 40 hours and camp out at our school marae, they were mega excited and couldn't wait for the date.  When I said that they needed to plan and write about the reasons they were doing it, I literally thought the cyclone had hit us - kids were hiding under their desks, shielding themselves behind friends and refused to make eye contact - I knew they hated the thought of having to write anything.

The last two weeks of term 1, I'd given them the chance to start and we'd had a great lesson on the 3rd to last day where everyone was engaged.  But after the holidays, it seemed like something in the air had magically poisoned their minds and they'd forgotten everything.  Comments filled the air today like 'what are we doing? I can't find my booklet?  where do I find it?  where am I' and as I'd expected, there was no recollection by many of the kids of anything we'd done in preparation for writing.

Today, I'd had enough.  I stood over two of my very able but exceptionally evasive boys and said 'I'm not leaving here until you've got your netbook out and you've told me what you're supposed to be doing' - not very P.C I know, but I could not help it.  I knew if I didn't do something drastic, they would avoid doing any work and again I would feel like I'd failed them.

I watched them reluctantly get their stuff out, then open their booklets to the first page that had one question on it and the rest was a blank page (yip they were writing their drafts on paper).  That was when it dawned on me.  What if this blank page was just too much and they felt overwhelmed?  What if I was expecting too much from them?

I dug into my knowledge box of tools that were rusty and found a strategy adapted from the 'write that essay' book that I'd read last year.  I drew on the whiteboard the number of lines on the page and counted them.  I knew that the kids had to write 4 paragraphs over two pages and each page had about 25 lines on each.  I then counted 12 lines and scribbled out the 13th, which divided the page into two.  Then I said they they could write one paragraph over 12 lines.

I then divided the paragraphs further, by saying that each paragraph had to use the acronym S.E.E (a statement, an explanation of that statement and an example or quote to support the statement) in their paragraphs, and they needed at least two of these to complete a paragraph.

I then broke that down further and said that a statement could be written in 2 lines, the explanation over 2 lines and the example over 2 lines (so therefore each paragraph needed to have 2 S.E.E's which added up nicely to 12 lines).

When I finished explaining this scaffold to the boys, one of them looked like at me like the lights had gone on.  He smiled and said 'oh I understand, I can do that'.  Then I watched him for the next half hour, head down, only glancing up to check on the structure before he completed 2 of the 4 paragraphs and then the bell went.  He got up to leave and asked if he could finish the rest for homework and left on his merry way.  I knew he'd get his writing engine started - just had to put the petrol in and out of park into drive!

Structuring writing by counting the lines! Read all about it in this book.

Understanding the Asttle data and finding reading and writing strategies

Today I met with Marc Milford our schools 'Student achievement co-ordinator' with the hope of understanding where our year 9 students (particularly our boys) were at with their asttle reading results and discuss strategies to engage and improve their writing results.

Marc had sent the asttle results to me earlier in the week and he'd calculated the average reading score (ARS) for the boys was at a 2b.  He said that it was not uncommon for decile 1 schools and that there are always variables that happen that may impact on the results - what happens on the day, how seriously the students take the exams etc so the risk of them not being 100% accurate is a factor to take into account.  There are 67 year 9 boys in total and I noticed there were a lot of students that measured >2b and that immediately worried me.

The writing test was conducted with two classes at a time in the library.  Initially they had problems accessing google but Marc's overall impressions during the tests were positive and he found that the majority of the year 9 students who sat the test were serious about it.

This years genre was 'Explanation writing' and this was a good genre to choose as could be found across curriculum areas and not just in English.  I found this to be an excellent genre that could be developed and strategised with carefully within an integrated programme for our year 9's.

We discussed reasons why the results could have been so low and looked at methods some teachers used when reading.  Students were found to be 'barking at the text' in that they read it for the sake of reading but didn't understand what they read nor could they explain it.

A well developed strategy used in primary schools is the reciprocal reading method, which allowed students the ability to break down a text within a group reading environment.  In a few of our units, we use reciprocal reading and it require students to get into groups and allocate roles to different people.  The roles are predictor, questioner, clarifier and summariser.  Although it helps students in a group collaborate together to complete their roles, I know that we fail to utilise the strategy properly in that the outcomes aren't successful in producing writing that shows real in-depth understanding of the text especially for each individual student.

Marc talked about 'information transfer' which allows students to transfer information that can be spoken, written or drawn into another form such as chart, grid or picture etc and vice versa.  A quote that Marc shared and I found quite cool was that the 'written language is nobodies mother tongue' and I totally get that!

We looked at a few examples of boring readings about Governor Grey and other early leaders in New Zealand and how they could be 'chunked' or broken into manageable pieces for kids to digest.  A key aspect of understanding that Marc shared was that you could give students a scanning sheet that students must find information in the text to sort out and it forces them to reread it the text- this essentially means they become more engaged in trying to understand what it means without trying too hard because they are almost trying to solve a puzzle (I know many of our kids would love a challenge).

Highlighting of key words, using vocab exercises, sorting, matching, jeopardy and designing 'cline exercises' were just a few of the strategies we covered in such a short time.  Although it felt like information overload, I could see the usefulness in using these strategies for the kids in my year 9 class.  By giving students a purpose to write for would force them to reread, something that I know at times we don't really provide.  On reflection, letting our kids decide the purpose could be more beneficial then the teacher deciding because they would see it as more meaningful.

A really cool unit that Marc shared with me was a junior english one called 'Family and holiday'.  Students were provided an interesting and meaningful context, with plenty of scaffolded frameworks that allowed them to build the skills they needed to write an answer that met a co-constructed (student and teacher) assessment criteria.  One of the tasks I found interesting is shown below:

A reading that Marc suggested would support this exercise was Knapp and Watkins 'Genre, text, grammar: Technologies for teaching and assessing writing (2005)' which recognised the need to be aware of the type of verbs, modal verbs, nominals (eg relational, saying, emotional) etc needed for writing.  Although I didn't quite understand the relevance of this reading at first, Marc simplified it further by say that 'writing the way kids speak vs. learning what written language looks like, is a skill that teachers should learn if they want kids to write an effective paragraph - language features are really important.

The fact that reading and writing skills 'can not be divorced' has shown me that both are equally important in ensuring our kids can achieve success across curriculum areas and across year levels.   The expectations that kids can 'read the question and answer it' is something that I've taken for granted and can see the need for more purposeful and effective strategies to support kids when it comes to reading and writing.