I’m just going to jump right back into blogging after a hiatus with some very complicated (or not, I hope?) project-based learning planning.
This is the third time I have lead the English Teaching Area for the MTeach unit EUN121 at my uni. I’m also the unit co-ordinator, and the second assignment in the unit allows me to get the English group planning an “inquiry task”, which in my class means “PBL”.
Students who are becoming secondary English teachers have four weeks (!) to plan their first ever PBL unit of work for English, submitting a project flyer and 2-page project calendar outline.
The first two times I taught this unit, I knew how to teach PBL. I set Bianca & Lee’s book as the textbook, gave students lots of example project flyers and plenty of direction in creating their driving questions. We had peer feedback opportunities, we used a planning template and gallery walk feedback method that I had already had success with in previous undergrad PBL unit. But when it came to making the “English stuff” visible in a project calendar, many struggled to see how a text study and a project could be done alongside each other. Questions persisted and I didn’t always know how to answer:
- Do you study the text completely first, before starting the project?
- How early can you start the Create phase?
- Can the Discover and Create phases overlap? If so, by how much?
- Is the the project product the summative assessment task?
- Can you have more than one summative assessment task?
- How do you assess process?
- Can I get them to write a reflection as well? Should I mark reflective writing? Do I mark it for content only, or also the quality of writing? (i.e. is a written reflection an assessment of writing, or process?)
I can share my knowledge about assessing process, and we look at the related rubrics from PBLworks to get an idea of this. But how to make the English ‘content’ visible? How to plan for text response and text production?
I think I finally have some ideas.
A couple of weeks ago I offered this planning grid to some colleagues on twitter for feedback, explaining that:
The grid that I designed tries to capture two distinctly different (though infuriatingly overlapping) cycles of learning in an English unit – the cycle of responding to texts, and the cycle of producing new texts. I also wanted to draw explicit attention to the need for clear ‘project milestones’, so that got a column too:
It needed a bit of explaining, which I found difficult to do without an example. I was able to show the two MTeach class examples that had lead me down this road – we’d been co-constructing a map of a term-long inquiry into poetry, playing around to answer the question of how to handle multiple assessment tasks, and how to make a text study overlap meaningfully with new text creation. But because the MTeach class example didn’t use the three PBL phases (we weren’t ‘there yet’), it’s explanatory power was limited:
So, there has only been one thing for it, and that is to trial the planning grid with my own MTeach PBL sequence. Here is the project flyer that I launched on Thursday (two days ago):
And here is my first draft of a plan that uses the basic grid design to attend to BOTH:
- text response and text production cycles, aligning to the English curriculum
- three phases of PBL (discover, create, share).
I believe the strength of the planning grid is that it allows a visual map to be formed, showing where the discover, create, share phases may overlap differently for text response and text production. In English, this could contribute a key resource for managing the mushy middle of a project by ensuring a realistic balance of directed learning and product creation can be achieved.
Another strength is the possibility for seeing PBL in English as consisting of two inquiry-driven ‘genre curriculum cycles’, where mastery of the assessment genre is attended to as closely as mastery of the texts studied.
I’ve teased out ‘project milestones’ and ‘assessment of process and product’ into two columns (the yellow and purple) after finding that trying to combine this information didn’t work out. Milestones are for planning, not for feedback.
The real road test will be in class. If the MTeach students find the planning grid useful, then we may finally be on to a winner for explaining the complexity of planning behind a unit of work in English.
The careful art of lawn maintenance
As good as mining blocks on a screen
Or thumbing an endless scroll
The pastime of encouraging grass to grow
In a suburban lawn plagued by weeds.
You may have heard there are a range of eco-friendly
solutions to the sprawling clover.
Something to do with vinegar and hot water
As so many solutions to contemporary problems involve.
If I took any of this seriously
I would have looked more carefully into the names
(characteristics and behaviours) of each weed by now.
Instead I non-methodically pry at tendrils and leaf unfurling through the blades
Elicit their reaching roots from the soil or
Snap their creeping stalks at the base.
Five major types at least stand out
As especially ambitious:
- Dark green leafy creeper, spreads close to the ground with thick, white roots spreading out in long runners under the soil. Pulling a thread up by the underlying white root is a deeply satisfying reward.
- Mini clover, spreading in patches via spindly stalks, criss-crossing between and around blades of grass. Can carefully be pulled up as a net, most successfully if edges are first unpicked.
- Sprouting grass: invasive. At first looks like healthy grass filling in a bare patch so it has been allowed to spread unchecked. May in fact be a weed. Pull up by individual tufts – tedious but high success rate with roots quick to relent. Evolving suspicion of an underlying rhizome.
- Spreading grass: invasive. Thin slender blades that form feather-soft patches of ‘maybe we should give up and let this grass take over’. Looks likely to burn in summer.
- Some kind of broadleaf weed. Starts as small, inconspicuous bursts nestled among healthy lawn. As it grows leaves spread wide out over grass, stealing sunshine and water for itself. Most likely to snap at the base when pulled. Roots plunge down in a tough spear as if clinging to hell.
My neighbour reliably tells me
We were sporting healthy Sir Walter buffalo
When we first moved in three years ago.
It must have been new turf, at the time.
Since then, the local mowing service has brought seeds
From corrupted yards far and wide
And a succession of resident bush turkeys have raked muck
From every neighbour higher on the hill, down through the low chicken wire fences.
But now we have our eye on you
And all the time in the world to invent
Runner breaks, cultivate watering routines,
Stage patch tests, chase the shade.
Images by author.
I’ve seen a lot of teacher conversation about how much classwork they are going to try and continue running over the coming months during the school-at-home period across Australia. Most teachers in my network are secondary teachers and their approaches range from attempting a standard timetable live online with slightly shorter classes, to running new ‘skeleton’ timetables with large amounts of self-directed work to complete asynchronously.
I’d love to hear more about how primary school teachers are approaching this, and more from other parents about how many hours of school-at-home they can reasonably sustain each day.
In the second week of schools being closed, after I had a chance to feel out how a ‘school at home’ day might run, I penned this outline of a daily schedule for my five year old:
Keep in mind that this schedule is us living our best day. Trying to keep a day running at a pace rather than just watching Frozen II, again.
If my teacher asked me about this schedule and how much of it I thought I could give to ‘teaching’ at home, I would say:
- There are SIX activity slots in this day. You can’t have them all.
- If there is no school to go to, I am not running a ‘school morning’ to get anyone dressed by 8am. This will create tension and ruin my day. Your earliest activity slot is 9.30am.
- There are two hefty one-hour slots in the middle of the day, you can usually have at least ONE of them. Otherwise, only send activities of 30 mins maximum.
- After 3pm my kid is too tired and strung out to do school.
- Most days I can give you THREE or FOUR of these activity slots. Some days I can only give ONE or TWO. That’s a maximum of 2.5 hours a day, most days, to do school learning with.
As a professional teacher I am relatively comfortable with the idea of teaching at home. The curriculum doesn’t scare me – I will have to learn more to understand it but that’s OK. I only have one child under my roof to keep up with. I feel well resourced and capable of helping my five year old complete QLD-Prep (NSW-Kindy) activities at home. But that does not mean that I would ever agree to running a school-like timetable here. My home is already a place where learning happens of its own accord, where relationships are developing within an existing context. Emotions are fragile as we are existing in this pandemic-induced lockdown and everyone is going a bit stir-crazy.
I expect that many teachers who are new to the online learning environment are about to over-plan a lot of material that simply cannot be completed happily at home.
If you are a teacher who has not yet consulted with parents about how much schooling they are able or willing to lead at home, it may soon be prudent to do so.
If you are a parent who feels they are expected to do every activity set by the teachers, but who cannot do so, it may soon be time to think about how to politely say ‘no’. Think about writing up your daily schedule like I have, to help explain to your teachers the available spaces in your home-based day. Your home is not a school.
It’s a heck of a time to be an online teacher/writer and try to stay ‘on leave’. With the global disruption caused over the past week due to the pandemic spread of the COVID-19 virus, social media networks and backchannels have drawn me in to the common story. Teachers and parents are reaching out to talk – to vent – about the decision to keep Australian schools open (so far) and the workload involved in shifting learning online. Parents are totally overwhelmed at the thought of having to simultaneously home-school their children and either work from home, or deal with issues like sudden unemployment. Teachers are tackling twice the workload, producing classroom as well as online materials, and crumbling in tears on their kitchen floors at the impossibility of the task – they were already working at capacity or burning out.
This post is to share some thoughts on…
Wow, teachers, you are in for an experience. That drawn, haggard look you have noticed hanging around your university teaching friends the past two or so years? That is in part because we have been increasingly moving our work online in ‘blended’ modes – teaching courses both on campus and via online delivery. It. Takes. Ages. To. Get. Online. Teaching. Right. It is hard and it takes ages. The tech fails, the learning curve is steep, you can’t produce everything you planned so are filling unexpected holes everywhere, all the time. It can take 10 hours to make one teaching video when you are still learning the ropes, is anyone factoring that in? In the university sector the mantra from the centre has more of less been: this is the way we work now. Deal with it, or find a new job. In higher ed, if we burn out, we’re just replaced. But there are SO MANY MORE teachers than academics! That workforce is irreplaceable. Education leaders can’t afford to have their heads in the sand on this one – teaching materials don’t just “go up online” like someone waved a magic wand. The labour involved is huge. Teachers, I would estimate you will need to take all your current plans for what can be delivered online, and start by halving it. Half the content, half the assessments, half the feedback, at least. Start getting real about this earlier rather than later.
Parents keeping their kids at home:
What a bloody disgrace to see some schools being heavy handed with parents and pressuring them to send their kids to school! Even this morning the QLD Education stance was that voluntary isolation is an “unacceptable” reason for an absence. Shame! And a shame to see so many QLD school leaders so completely under the thumb of their employer, so totally intimidated by the “don’t criticise your employer” mantra, that they won’t advocate in public for a softer approach on absenteeism. The NSW Department of Education had updated their absentee categories on Sentral by Friday afternoon to include an “acceptable” absence category for voluntary isolation, if QLD schools are to remain open they should also urgently follow suit.
Self care – it won’t be business as usual:
With the advantage of a month of LSL under my belt before any of this started, I can tell you I was already feeling unsettled by having to stop work. Although I had planned for the leave and taken it intentionally for the very purpose of slowing down, the actual slowing down wasn’t easy. We currently exist in a mesh of systems that are slowing down (working from home, businesses closing, grocery shelves emptying) and speeding up (keeping up with demand from clients/customers, panic buying) and it is going to feel as confusing as hell. I don’t know what Self Care in the Time of Iso looks like, but we’re going to have to work it out soon.
Yes, teaching is a social service:
A final thought about a common message I have seen this week – a lament that teachers are seen as “a social service, not an educational one” and that they are being used as “glorified babysitters”.
I do agree with the frustrated sentiment behind some of these laments and I think Steve Kolber summed feelings up well here in an article on 20th March: https://educationhq.com/news/another-stinging-insult-teachers-are-being-used-as-martyrs-in-covid-19-agenda-75456/. And yet… the phrase ‘in loco parentis’ plays on my mind. I’m not saying that teachers should feel obliged to work against their will or to put themselves at risk (they should not). I do think that school systems need to at least partially close soon, to allow a swathe of teachers to choose to work from home. But I do wonder why so many are surprised at the expectation that teachers act as frontline workers in a time of crisis, especially in public schools. In loco parentis – in place of a parent. It has always been my understanding that teaching is as much a ‘social’ service as an ‘educational’ one. I might have done more before now to make sure my pre-service teachers understood that too. I wish the government messages included acknowledgment of all this work and care without fear of the next enterprise bargaining agreement. They are so scared of having to pay teachers more if they acknowledge the depth of service they provide.
If you can support a teacher with a kind listening ear this week, please do.
There is also a new Instagram account you can follow to hear their stories: @from_teachers.
So, I am on Long Service Leave (LSL). If you don’t live in Australia and/or don’t know what that is, it is paid time off that your employer can give you after 10 years of work. The point of it is to have a short term break, so you can keep working in the long term. It’s to prevent you from getting knackered.
It is currently the start of week 4 of leave and I am finally getting slices of time with no work looming. Even though I’ve been on leave a few weeks, it will take another few weeks (I can see now) to resolve left-over deadlines and disentangle to various degrees from the multiple projects. It turns out that after 10 years work, there is a decent backlog of things to be finished, passed on, or discarded. All need sorting.
Things I will continue to do on leave include: volunteer committee work for ETAQ and QPF; supervision of three research students (meeting monthly); editorship of a scholarly journal.
Oh, and I am on leave for… FIVE MONTHS!
I took that sucker at half pay so I could stretch out the time off and boy I am so glad I did. If it takes about six weeks to really put the brakes on and be able to responsibly ‘down tools’, how ripped off would someone feel if their leave was only for 10 weeks! If you are reading this post and planning your own leave, let me highly recommend taking as long a break as you can, to compensate for your potential work hang over.
How do you like that term by the way? “Work hangover”. Also applies to the whole first week of any school holiday, in which we typically spend our time being sick or sleeping or drifting around in shell-shock. Surely someone has used it elsewhere, let me know in comments if you’ve heard it before.
I can see now that the best way to avoid the work hangover lag and get straight into leave would be to, well, leave. Go overseas, or outback, definitely off grid. Deadlines evaporate when you get properly out of range, but I am just here at my house, living the dream of getting up each day and not going to work. But for me the ‘get out of town immediately’ approach would have done more harm than good. I struggle to relax when I am stressed about the work I’ve left behind and I hate the feeling of coming back from ‘holiday land’ to the real world where the work sat and waited for me. No. For me this leave was a chance to clear the decks, so I will sacrifice these early weeks to do that, s l o w l y.
Anyway, to end this post I’ll return to what I came to say which is: this morning I have one of my first real mornings off. And I’m on my own, as hubby has a morning shift and kiddo is at school. And a little epiphany today is that I probably kept a few things on the boil because I don’t know how to “be on leave” and just “do nothing”. Is that even something that I have to have as a goal? Everyone seems to want that for me, but do I want to “do nothing”? I’m sure I’ll warm to it, work something out. It’s another big reason I took this break – to find out what happens in the absence of work. Who am I when I don’t work, that kind of thing. But yeah. I have no idea how to be on leave!
Advice, questions, or your own stories welcome in comments x
I created these slides to use next year in my English curriculum teaching. The idea I am using them to underpin is that an English teacher is expected to have ‘superpowers’ across a range of canonical/literary types of text (the traditional categories of study: poetry, prose, drama) as well as newer textual fields that have come up since that initial period (film, tv and other screen texts, media and new media).
At the same time as finishing these slides, I am audio-reading Wundersmith: The calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend. It is Book 2 in the Nevermoor series. I love it and would love my pre-service teachers to think about what their ‘knack’ is, in terms of studying or creating texts, so they can focus on developing it during their degree.
Whether you want to think about textual expertise as a superpower or a knack…
English teachers – how many knacks do you consider you have?
Everyone – how many text areas from the graphics above would you say is desirable for an English teacher’s expertise to cover?
For me, demands to attend to the concept of ‘praxis’ in my work come from two main directions – my English educator community, and my Arts education colleagues.
This post captures my current ways of understanding praxis in relation to my work.
- Doing praxis means you are basically in a constant state of action research: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_(process)#Education
- Praxis describes practice that is informed by theory, not generally, but purposefully (and perhaps systematically?)
- Praxis is underpinned by the belief that theory is understood through its realisation in practice, that proof of and improvements to theory are found in application
- So basically, all your practice gets explicitly framed by theory (and it’s therefore interesting to notice the texts and contexts that this ‘explicit’ framing happens through…is this also self-governance? is action research actually a self-review and reporting cycle to check for theoretical ‘compliance’, to conduct strategic planning in line with ‘vision and mission’??)
- …and you can reflect on your theoretical position by observing and analysing it’s application in your teaching (requiring a personal plan or framework for collecting valid evidence)
- It’s part of the answer to “so can I just tip a can of paint on a canvas and call it art?” – no. Artistry responds to other art, to discourses. Teaching becomes ‘art’ when there are processes for reflection
- In Vis Arts the VAPD is offered as a technology that enables praxis – study art, respond and experiment, create new art, repeat. This process became internalised, the VAPD supported cultivation of a praxis mindset/discipline. What does English offer? What does ITE offer English PSTs?
- How do the ruling texts of an institution shape praxis? Good question. Thinking about this.
Questions that linger:
- How does praxis differ from “reflective practice”? (is it because the later divorces the elements ‘reflection’ and ‘action’, when they should always both be
- This reminds me of the Action in/on Reflection scholarship from my undergrad/accreditation contexts. How is this different to ‘praxis’? Is Reflection in/on practice just the language teachers need to comprehend and embark on praxis?
- How do practitioner inquiry and action research methods facilitate ‘praxis’?
- Does changing the discourse from ‘praxis’ to ‘reflection’ constrain teacher agency? i.e. maybe reflection can be limited to self-reflection e.g. to better meet KPIs, doesn’t necessarily involve system-reflection or critical reflection…or this is an artificial distinction (?)
- Do I vibe with project based learning because it scaffolds praxis instead of practice?
- How are the praxis intensives at Bianca’s school more praxis-y than PBL (I think she and I agreed they are not more or less praxis-y, just needed a different name)? Is it problematic to label the week-long intensive projects ‘praxis’ if the received meaning is that other pedagogies (e.g. PBL) do not require praxis?
- When you practice you are a practitioner, when you praxis (do praxis?) you are a …? Praxitioner? (note to self: praxitioner as #medium)
I thought I knew the Australian Curriculum for English almost inside out, but recently discovered a whole new box I had been leaving un-ticked.
It was the ScOT box.
What does ScOT stand for, you ask?
Schools Online Thesaurus.
If you go to their homepage (http://scot.curriculum.edu.au/) you can search for a relevant term to your field and see what you get. I searched for ‘literature’ and was directed to this:
…you can see some of the rabbit holes I’ve been down from there already.
I found such useful things in the thesaurus for the work I’m doing this week.
I also found the other data sets available in the Australian education vocabularies list:
For the English teachers still playing along – see ‘language modes’ in the list? Kinda specific thing to make a vocabulary about, I thought.
I clicked though and interestingly, the entry does not reflect all six language modes in the Australian Curriculum.
‘Creating’ has been left out.
Creating has been left out, despite being there plain as day in the Achievement Standards, the Aim, and the Glossary entry for ‘mode’ in English.
And there ends the list of all the things I needed to stop and show you.
Who I do I write to, to point this out?
Enjoy the thesaurus!