Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Creative Writing, EAL And Me

I've had two classes each - a double period - in Creative Writing and Year 7 EAL. So far so good, but I'm still learning.

The Year 7 EAL I'm doing in co-operation with the regular EAL teacher. Last year a couple of colleague had the job of teaching the students while the rest of the class was doing Italian or Vietnamese - no point making the poor kids do those when they haven't even mastered English yet! It did happen one year when the timetable had problems, but not now.

So what do you do? Strictly speaking , it's called "Cultural Studies" and there is a colleague on another campus who has prepared a whole year's classes on it as such. But I asked the EAL teacher what she would prefer me to do. She said she would prefer that I complete activities she is doing and vice versa. She gave me her lesson plans for the term. That has helped so far, but we have a hard time getting together when she has six period days before I take the class. And her lesson plans are really intended for herself, as aids to memory; she has been doing it for so long, she knows exactly what she means. Unfortunately, I don't, so have to ask, when she can spare a few minutes. Or else work it out and add my own bits, which I did.

The first week I took the students' photos and printed them out for a poster "about me" that was to be put up in the classroom. She had prepared a template for them to use. Yesterday they had to do work on nouns. She had supplied a work sheet, but there were other things to do, such as find a text they could use to highlight the nouns and work out what kind they were. And she hadn't brought that to work. So I went on line and found a fairly simple folk tale, which was still not quite simple enough; I had to adapt it. And because this was a double period, I knew the work sheet alone was not going to be enough to keep them going. I prepared "noun cards" for them to sort as to type, in groups.

In the end, with the help of the volunteer from the Ardoch Foundation, I was able to keep it going for two periods and we each took a table of students. The noun cards didn't get used until the next period, when the regular teacher used them as a warm up before proceeding to verbs. I did wonder if they would remember the noun types, though they seemed to have got it in my class. My colleague told me that they had; she said when they came into class, "So, you're now experts on nouns. Tell me about them!" and asked questions which they were able to answer. Success!

Creative Writing has the potential to be a huge success or a complete disaster. So far so good. The first lesson was introductory. My colleague on another campus is doing a very structured class, starting from the beginning. She has a larger class than mine and doesn't know them, having been moved from her other campus, so that's understandable; I have shared some of my material with her, though, the story starters, and she is happy with them.

If I asked my students to do basic writing exercises I suspect they would rebel. They know what they are doing, or believe they do; they just need my support.

So the first week I did an introductory class, beginning with showing them books by teenagers and telling them that just because you're young doesn't mean you can't succeed in this area. I talked about writers who plan way ahead and writers who write by the seat of their pants. I'm a pantser, but it would work better for them to be planners.

I prepared a set of story starters. On one side of the sheet were story starters taken from the Melbourne Writers' Festival student competition, Write Across Victoria, including one that had won a prize for a student from our school. On the other side, as a form of "differentiation" for the students who might need something simpler, I placed some much simpler story starters of my own.

Amazing how much I learned from this. It wasn't only the less capable writers who chose them, it was some of the good ones as well - it inspired them as the others didn't. Lesson number 1, Sue: don't make assumptions.

We went through the complex story starters first and I invited them to think about what kind of stories they might be, eg one was clearly Steampunk. Amazing the range of ideas that came from a single story starter that began with "I remember the day they came for me" and went on to describe fighting and clash of steel on steel. Everything from totalitarian state to ninjas! And one of the students, who is a huge Steampunk fan, nevertheless started with this one, writing a gruesome tale of slave takers killing parents to take the daughter.

Anyway, I got them started and Tuesday this week, they were continuing on. I learned another lesson I should have understood last week, preparing a story template with a basic "who is your hero, where does it happen, who are her friends/enemies, what is the problem, how is it solved" format. I thought it might help one girl who is having trouble getting started (and I came into class to find that she had decided her first page and a half just wasn't working, so yes, it did help her). Two others also used it, including one who had stuck fast on "I blacked out" with no idea where to go from there. We discussed her story, which was about an evil queen who didn't want to be evil but was under a curse. Then I offered her the template to enable her to break it down and she said that yes, it did help, very much, looking at it that way. Lesson 2, repeat of Lesson 1: don't make assumptions!

Another student I had thought might not do much last week had brought in a plan every bit as complex as the J. K Rowling one I had shown them the first week. She was typing away happily. Apparently her sister also writes and had shown her how to do this.

So that's working and when at the end of the period I asked them whether they were enjoying so far, they all agreed with huge smiles.

Only thing is, how do i gently persuade most of them we need some sessions when they read out their stories to each other? One of them agreed before class that she would read out hers and I wrote a Steampunk story using the story starter, so the two of us read our stories out and the others were gently critical of mine and I praised them. But they look like deer in headlights when I suggest they might do the same.

I have to think about it.

Monday, December 08, 2014

This Year... And Next

Each year I have had to do something different. From Year 11 English to junior ESL (or EAL as it's now known), then on to Year 8 English and Pathways, the homeroom subject. And each time I managed to learn to handle a subject - and I did very well at Pathways - I was given another challenge. This year's challenge has been teaching history.

I love history - but loving something isn't necessarily the same as teaching it. Just because you enjoy reading about something doesn't always mean that you can pass it on.

Have I done well? I'd like to think so, but the truth is, I have had to do the same as everyone else and bullshit my way through, asking for help every now and then from more experienced staff. Sometimes you have to do that. Some things have worked, others haven't.

Making iMovies worked the first time. If I had to teach history again, I would use that, but find a way to make the kids comfortable with it and learn more about it myself. For example, in English, Literature Circles, this year students were allowed to use iMovie to prepare book trailers. They had learned from me in history how to do it.

 That sort of worked, but what none of us had realised was that you couldn't get back to the unfinished task on the school iPads unless you had left it there. So some students who had made a book trailer - unfinished - on iMovie and saved it to the school's Public Share couldn't finish it. What they had done was quite good, but looked a bit silly in the blank grey bits. We - my colleague and I -accepted it anyway, because they had done their best. If I was doing this next year, I would make sure that they spent the entire double period on it, first collecting photos, then slotting them into place.

We had two classes joined for Literature Circles because mine was too small to do it without merging classes - and since we were on at the same time, we would have been competing for resources and space. Two classes together worked last year, but not quite as well as last year, because we had a larger number of difficult students and several integration students and only one aide available to help - last year we had two.

Still, we worked out as best we could which students would go into which groups and which books they could handle.

Some things worked, others didn't - and there were a few students who were given books too difficult for them, which it took us too long to realise. We did make some late changes, giving those students easier books which they were to read by themselves and produce a PowerPoint as their response - the simplest thing to do.

There were a few who had handed in very little this year and were not about to begin now, but we did what we could. I hope they'll mature next year.

We finished with a reflection by the students about what they had gotten out of it. That will help for next year.

One difficult student admitted to me "My behaviour hasn't been stellar this year, has it?" I agreed that it hadn't, but at the time I was talking with him about a story I had asked him to rewrite so it can go into the school anthology and persuading him to put his name on it, since he now had something to be proud of.

That's now happening. His story will be in the next anthology and he will be able to show off a bit. Maybe next year he will have matured? He was the student whose group messed up their podcast.

My history students did their posters and Powerpoints and booklets on the Aztecs. I've put up the posters, which are very good. I've done their last test for the year and am pleased at how well they all did - apart from one student who had been away a lot, everyone got high marks, including my most difficult student who has been improving and got full marks.

My survey of my literacy students worked well. Despite there being some who had been noisy and rude, even they ticked "agree" or "strongly agree" for questions as to how supportive/helpful,etc. I had been (and I overheard one say, "Oh, yes, she is, she really is!" And he was one who had given me a headache many times.

If I had these classes next year I would have a better idea what to do.

But I have been told that next year will be different again, with yet another challenge. . Creative Writing! I have never had writing lessons myself, so how do I give lessons to others? I have been thinking about this carefully. All I can do is offer them the chance to write and submit and the benefit of my own experience as a writer. I'm taking a little survey of students who have signed up for it, to find out what they hope to get out of it. There hasn't been the chance to get together with the other two CW teachers, though I have sent emails and spoken to one. They're both English teachers and will have to make the best of their own experience.

I will have a Year 7 EAL class, but I believe it is straightforward, just a double period a week while the other students are doing Vietnamese or Italian. I think I can handle that, if I discuss it with the EAL teacher.

I'm looking after the Year 10 Psychology students once a week, but I used to do that anyway till this year and it didn't count as part of my allotment.

And of course, there will be Sunlit (literacy class). Hopefully, I will continue with the same reading level as this year. I'm quite comfortable with this subject and actually felt left out one day when everyone else had begun and mine hadn't been sorted out yet.

I'm very tired and there's still so much to do!






Tuesday, August 12, 2014

8A Podcasts Rocket And Sparky!

Republished from Livejournal

  • Yesterday morning, 8A completed podcasts. They weren't brilliant, but they worked. Thing is, I never have more than fifteen anyway, because the rest are in ESL class. Yesterday, four were absent, two were on yard duty, one was on in-house suspension, two had to be sent off to sub school for sheer rudeness(but only till they had finished reading and rehearsing the play), one had to accompany them there. At one point, I looked around the library and saw SIX KIDS! But the two badly behaved boys returned and got some recording done. One of them was actually quite a good Eddie, the hero/heroine of Rocket And Sparky, a play based on Edwina Harvey's short story of the same name... Except his group ruined their otherwise not-bad podcast by inserting swear words. I don't know why they did it except it seemed a good idea at the time, because as soon as they had finished, they admitted to me that they had added swear words and I probably wouldn't like it. 
  •  I listened and they were right, I didn't like it. I didn't yell. I simply looked reproachfully at the ringleader and told him how an otherwise good podcast had been ruined and what a shame, because I had written the role of Eddie especially for him(well, I did hear his voice in my head while I wrote, anyway - "Eddie" was originally a girl, but I have a mostly male class)He looked shamed, deleted the podcast and called out, "Okay, everyone, let's have another crack at it." There wasn't time, unfortunately. I may have to find a lunchtime when they can do this.

    Two other boys did a good job, except they had to take on all the roles and one of them in particular sounded the same whatever part he played. At one point, the other boy was reading a dialogue between two characters without changing either voice. But he had the nous to begin with an introduction explaining who was playing what.

    The three girls did quite a good job and when I showed them a YouTube video of a camel bleating they kept it to play on a second iPad when Rocket was on. How clever! The others just read the script.

    So it worked, sort of. I got even the difficult kids to record - I suspect the swearing was a last-minute idea. That group actually came up with a silly but amusing bit of music with a camel theme to play at the beginning - Rocket is a camel and the setting is a desert. Their podcast would have been the best of the three if it weren't for the swearing. They used the script, they just stuck in extra - and I think they were already sorry when they told me.
    This was in response to being ordered to "teach a play". And finding nothing of interest in our few battered class sets. And writing my own, using a friend's story.

    Who would have thought, when I started teaching, that you could do this sort of thing? High technology was showing slides. Maybe we could have recorded a play but there would have been one old, battered school tape recorder.

    Amazing!

    Oh, and Edwina Harvey wants us to see if we can sell the playlet to the NSW School Magazine. I'm pursuing it. If it could entertain a difficult Year 8, why not a Grade 6?

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Further Adventures In Year 8

Remember that student who got working when I gave him something he thought he could do? Two weeks and I haven't had to yell at him. Yet. Fingers crossed. It's an ongoing thing.

Last week, I started with the play thing. We were told that according to a document called "Scope and sequence" we had to teach a play. What play? Any play. But all we had were those dreadful, shabby class sets - and the only one I could remotely live with was lent to another campus for the term. And I wasn't even sure what we were supposed to DO with the play. Teach it as a text? Just read it? Make them do their own? None of these were possible with the supplies we had and my students, some of whom are simply too shy to read aloud and others who won't take it seriously.

I wrote my own. And got the kids to read it with the original short story on which it was based. Who has time to do something original? And then I got them to practise it and play with Garage Band, so they can do it as a podcast. I hope I can get them going on Monday to actually DO the podcast. They really seemed to enjoy it.

Fingers crossed!

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Experiments In History Classes

I have a number of students who just can't cope with Year 8 work but aren't listed as integration students or funded as such. Even where they are, we have a limited number of aides to help. I wish I knew why we're receiving funding for more students and there are fewer aides, but there you are.  I have to make the best of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I do sometimes corner one or another of our aides, who are all kind people who know their jobs very well, and ask for an opinion of a piece of work I've prepared for a particular student.

In this case, the student was a very difficult young man who has a way of running around the classroom doing nothing except socialise and claim that he "helped" another student who has done a decent job of his own assignment. Occasionally he has found a picture, but that was it.

Something had to be done. I prepared a simplified version of one topic, breaking it down into instructions, but even that was too hard for him and the running around the classroom continued.

Last week, desperate, I did it again, even simpler. The topic was The Black Death. I supplied the   questions, eg "Another name for the Black Death was..." There were about six questions. I told him that I'd like him to answer the questions, looking them up on line, then use the answers to produce a poster or PowerPoint with illustrations he could also find online. I had showed them to an  aide, who said that yes, it was a good simple piece that he should be able to do.

Breakthrough! He set up his table among the shelves in the library, where we were, to prevent his friends  from distracting him - I kept shooing them away for him, telling them he was there because he wanted to be -  and got to work. I did have to help him with a couple of the questions, but he was more than willing. Well before the session was over, he'd managed to produce about three quarters of  a decent PowerPoint! I suggested a couple of illustrations to go with it. He completed it next lesson.

You see, everyone wants to succeed. He's naughty because it distracts his teachers from noticing that he just can't do the work. Given a chance to succeed, he did.

And it could never have been done in the tiny classroom that class calls homeroom. The library is big enough that he could  hide from those who would stop him from succeeding. That's something else I've learned. 

I don't know if I can do it again - this is trial and error, mostly error - but I do know that I was
blissfully happy afterwards.





Thursday, July 24, 2014

Year 8 Strikes Again!

What a weird week it's been so far!

Year 8A on Monday and this afternoon... It's so hard to know what to do. The two students who plagiarised did their hand written replacements without argument, though nether of them got past one paragraph on Monday. Today I sighed and told them they could start typing. Their story starts were fairly acceptable and today the girl, at least, got well past that, but I need to read it before deciding what she can do - it was the end of the day and I had to go to a staff meeting.

One student who is perfectly capable of doing more had to be made to handwrite his first draft on Monday and came up with something acceptable. I told him, too, he could type it today, but he showed me instead a new story he was typing! That, too, was acceptable if he finishes it, though I suggested e change the hero's name because he was using his own and it was not meant to be autobiographical. Whether he will complete it I don't know. What can you do with students who won't do anything outside of class time? Not everyone has a home computer, but there's always the library at lunchtime and I open three times a week. I may have to order some of these students to come in and use the computer room to finish at lunchtime. It worked last year.

I have an integration student who has done about all I'm going to get out of him - he has no classroom support and I can't persuade him to try another piece - so today I gave him a BBC vocabulary game to play while the others got on with it. I will have to come up with something else for our next activity.

There are the ones who have written thousands of words, but need to focus now on their grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.  How do you do this without having to mark every last missing comma and change of tense for them? And what do you do when, bless them, they want to write even more wen they haven't tidied up the six thousand word epic they've already done? My top student, the one who used The Hero's Journey to write a rather touching story about a boy searching for his mother, has now handed me another epic about a boy tangled up with the Taliban! I haven't read that yet, but did suggest she do a little research on the Taliban to make sure she was getting it right. Perhaps too much to ask of a Year 8 child? At her age I was writing dreadful historical novels I hadn't researched either.

And then there was the young lady who handed me some fan fiction... Well, she had written it herself, so I just suggested she make sure that readers like me, unfamiliar with the universe, could follow it.

And the boy with the gory story who decided not to kill off his hero after all and is up to chapter 3 of what's turning into a novel!

I don't know. I'm thrilled with the response from the keen students, but how much have I been able to teach them and the others? You spend so much time on discipline you can find yourself unable to sit down   with the students individually. It can be exhausting.

Tomorrow I am going to be with my history class as some do their presentations. Then we'll look at the iMovie trailers they did on Tuesday. More of that later.

Year 8 fiction - The Sequel! (From My Great Raven Blog


Well, the holidays are over and I've just finished reading the last of my student stories. They have ranged from a hundred-odd words to what has to be at least six thousand! Twelve pages of small print? Has to be.

Two of  them were plagiarised, word for word, beginning to end, from online sources and what I'm going to tell the students I have no idea. Clearly they couldn't handle the story starters I gave them last term and were desperate enough to pinch something. I'd love to just say, "Look, I don't CARE if your writing is bad! It's my job to help you fix it and I can't do that if I don't know how you write in the first place." If I thought it would do any good I'd say that. But I don't think it will. All I can do is offer them the chance to do it again, with a different writing prompt, by hand, in a single session.

There was a very short piece from a student who asked me for help for the first time this year. It sn't much, but it was what he could do. He did his best. I will give him some more short pieces to do. Perhaps start with a Cloze activity in which he chooses his own words to fill the gaps?

There was a story that used one of the prompts to have one gory murder after another, but the student really, really enjoyed the writing. He ended it abruptly with "and then he came back and killed my uncle and me. The End." but I think he just felt he had to finish. I went cross-eyed trying to edit all the punctuation-free sentences and the switching between tenses - finally I gave up and put in notes to ask him to make up his mind which tense he wanted and stick with it.

A lot were unfinished. I will get them to do a story outline before continuing.

I really must mention the two who used "The Hero's Journey." One was unfinished, but long, an account of a girl who is approached by a long-lost brother under mysterious circumstances, and broke off just as the siblings were about to escape from a murderous millionaire older sister... I have told her it's an exciting story and I'm keen to see how it ends. She used the basic elements - the call to adventure, the journey...

The six thousand word story was less obvious as Hero's Journey, but it also used the elements. The call to adventure was a young boy from a village deciding to go to the city in search of his mother, who was taken away for medical treatment by a doctor whose name he knew, but not much else, some time ago, also fulfilling a mission for a neighbour whose children have vanished into the city, and returning to his reward. It was written with a Vietnamese accent, as the young lady has only recently decided to join mainstream English classes, so it needs work yet, incuding some tightening, but she is proud of it, and so she should be.

I think the Hero's Journey is not a bad place to start students off and will consider using it again, but it's a work in progress, always needing adapting.

People keep telling me that because I'm a writer I should therefore be able to teach writing. I really don't think it's that simple.  There are a lot of people out there teaching creative writing without ever having sold anything. Then they sell a first novel and write in their bio notes that they teach it and I say, "Hang on, this is a first novel, not even a good one, and she's TEACHING this? How did she get the job?"

In my case, I know how I write, but that doesn't mean everyone does it the same way. For example,
I just start writing and worry about the quality later. But kids can't always do that, or they don't understand the concept of "first draft." I can't even show them my own work in drafts, because even my first draft is better than their finished products in most cases. I am never going to write a long, run-on sentence with no punctuation or change tenses and even person.

Guess I'll have to write something awful and let them crit it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Beginning Narrative With Year 8

I'm a writer. I know how to write, but teaching Year 8 how to write stories? If it was that easy, everyone would be selling.

Yet it must be done. Next year they will have to do their NAPLAN test, designed by a former government to gain votes by making those lazy, good for nothing teachers accountable! And when they sit down to do their Year 9 NAPLAN test they will have to write either a persuasive essay or a "narrative"(that's a story to you and me) - not a choice but one or the other, you aren't told which. And the narrative may well be a prompt such as "The Box". And they will have 40-50 minutes to write it - heck, I'm still working on a story submission for "Cranky Ladies Of History" after months! And I'm a professional.

I did three things on Monday. One was to gather some copies of the school anthology, stories written by students and put together and edited by Chris Wheat, a wonderful teacher and YA novelist who works at my school as the English and literacy co-ordinator. Another was to print out my much simplified version of The Hero's Journey, which I did as a workshop at last year's Continuum convention, with Paul Collins. It makes a good adventure story outline. The third was to put together some links to appropriate movie trailers on YouTube

It was not a good start to the day. The interactive whiteboard room computer didn't work - someone had unplugged the important bits and I had no idea which they were or what to do. Luckily, the other Year 8 teacher had cancelled her booking for the computer room. So I took them there and gathered them around a computer. One of the students logged in and went to YouTube  for me. First, though, I told them the general story, about this ordinary guy who is visited one day by someone who tells him he's special and must go on a quest. Along the away, he makes friends and deals with a major enemy and comes back with a reward for all that trouble. I invited them to think of some stories that fitted that description. They did very well - Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit, Up, even a couple I hadn't thought of, such as Percy Jackson and Doctor Who!

We watched several trailers, both the ones I'd prepared and some the students had thought of. We discussed how they fitted the story outline I'd given them.

It was going very well, until I started trying to do a story together on the board. That has worked with other  classes and should have worked this time, but I suppose I was lucky that some of the worse behaved  students had lasted even that long.

I told them we were returning to our classroom, where they would do the rest by hand. My original plan was that after the story on the board they could get into groups to brainstorm, but it was not to be. They went ahead of me and I arrived to find that one of the more difficult students was being told off by a teacher whose classroom window he had broken by butting it with his head.

He was sent with a note and a reliable student to sub school while I tried to unlock my classroom. The door wouldn't open. Some students told me that this had happened when they were last there with another teacher, who had taken them to another room.

I had to find another room for them. We found one, where we read some stories from the anthology together, then individually, about all there was time to do by now. The vice principal brought back the boy who had broken the window and asked for information. Not being suicidal, the students kept silent, so he told them that they'd all do a week's lunchtime detention unless someone came to him and discussed the matter(that worked, by the way).

After all this disaster, you'd think the lesson would be a compete flop. It wasn't.

Even the difficult boys found at least one story that appealed, once I let them choose their own. One of them, mind you, was delighted to find a story with swearing in it - written, mind you, by a good student who was using it in context. One of the girls found a story that touched her and exclaimed, "Oh, how sad! Miss, do read this one."

And two other girls were so keen to write a story based on The Hero's Journey, they started immediately and took their English books home to get on with it. One is a student who, though she is lovely and works hard, has never been able to write a lot. She showed me, today, two pages of dense text about a Percy Jackson-style demigoddess who discovers she is the daughter of a fire god. On Thurday, while the others do the brainstorm, I'm going to let those two get on with their stories.

If I can get into the classroom.