The Student “Eureka!”

“One of the very important characteristics of a student is to question. Let the students ask questions.”
– Attributed to A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

A positive article to round out the week, and I would like you to consider what your ‘win’ for the week was with your students and leave it in the comments. I was on a Year One class today, one that I have not had this year for no other reason than I have just not been assigned to that class. The teacher for whom I was covering for the day had left an outline of what she wanted to be completed over the course of the day. Nothing too onerous, some mathematics, some spelling, some HSIE and some grammar.

The class has been learning about nouns and verbs and this particular worksheet that had been left for them to do took them onto adjectives. It was a grid of words and the students were required to colour the nouns in blue; the verbs in red and the adjectives in yellow. We had the conversation about what an adjective was, and I reaffirmed that they understood what nouns and verbs were and sent them off to their tables.

About ten minutes later, one of the students came to me with a confused look on her face.

Mr Mitchell, what do I do with ‘open’? I can open the door, which means it’s a doing word, a verb, but I can also describe the door as being open, which makes it an adjective.”

It was a fantastic moment because it was a genuine demonstration that she understood the concepts and had integrated what a verb, an adjective and a noun were into her schema of the English language and could apply it in different contexts. I did read the worksheet particularly closely; I scanned the instructions to clarify what it was about before the session, but I did not look at each of the words in the grid. It was a fantastic moment and one that has gone in my Book of Wins (a hardcover notebook mum gave me as a graduation gift after I completed my Teaching degree as a way of recording the small things that happen that are ‘wins’ with the students and which will remind me why I teach on the inevitable bad days.

A Day In Kindergarten

“Everyone is in awe of the lion tamer in a cage with half a dozen lions. Everyone but a kindergarten teacher”
– Unknown (found here 9/11/15)

Ordinarily I would post an FTPL video on a Monday afternoon, however due to working on the elusive beast known as work-life balance I was unable to record one over the weekend. Instead, you have some musings on a day spent in a kindergarten class last week. My long-time readers would be aware that in my current role, Thursday is a day where I am utilised as a way of affording those teachers whom have missed out on their Release from face-to-face (RFF, also known as non-contact time in some states I am told) for various reasons. Last Thursday I spent the day on a kindergarten class as the teacher was at a course. Some of my friends from university would have been ecstatic with this, however for me, there was an element of fear.

I have felt, all the way through my initial teacher education program and the associated professional experience placements, and the teaching that I have done since graduating that I am better suited for upper primary. Teaching the younger years, particularly kindergarten, is out of my comfort zone. I have not been able to put a finger on exactly what it is about kindergarten that unnerves me, however going in for a full day on kindergarten had me rather nervous and feeling well out of my depth. At the end of the day however, I felt like I had achieved something with the class and was quite happy.

We began with a book reading, after which we discussed words that could be used to used to describe the main character, and students were then asked to write three describing sentences (the three snippets on the left-hand side of the above photo). Some students needed substantial support, but I was impressed with the effort and achievements, not having any real experience with kindergarten writing. The depth that some wanted to go to was, to me, impressive. There were a number that wanted to write about the main character’s pyjamas, but did not want to use the colloquial pjs, and needed help spelling the word.

When we moved on to mathematics, I introduced the concept of perimeter to them, something which I knew the regular teacher had not yet introduced after a conversation with the teacher next door. In this, I feel like I achieved something of substance. When we were finished, the class were all able to explain what perimeter was, could explain why each group had different measurements for their table, despite them being the same size, and could explain why you would not use small objects (e.g. paddle pop sticks) to measure the perimeter of large objects (e.g. the school) and vice-versa. When I showed some books to my supervisor, she was also impressed with the quality of their efforts.

The day gave me hope that, although I certainly do not see myself as a kindergarten teacher, I can be effective in a kindergarten class. As I gain more experience and confidence, who knows, I may well change my mind and move into the kindergarten space.

Reading for Professional Development

“The best advice I ever got was that knowledge is power and to keep reading.”
– Attributed to David Bailey

As a child I would read at any opportunity, even if it was only a few lines, I would grab the book of the moment, read the few lines I had time to read and then keep going. This often occurred, much to my mothers frustration, in the morning when I should have been getting ready for school, and would conveniently forget that fact, and become absorbed in the story. I grew up with a plethora of solid Australian authors to choose from, with my two favourites being John Marsden and Morris Gleitzman. Mum introduced me to Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum. Eventually Timothy Zahn re-introduced fans world wide to the Star Wars universe with the release of his Heir to the Empire trilogy, which for me served as a re-ignition of a much loved saga.

Somewhere along the way, between then and now, my reading habits changed. Growing up, I was a voracious reader and would often fall asleep with an open book late at night. At some point, my habit of reading for a while before bed every night changed to a habit of reading if I had time before bed, which evolved into it being too late to read, maybe tomorrow night.  I still read, just not as often. I found that I had fallen too far behind in the release schedule of the Star Wars novels and I did not know where to start in order to catch back up. I dived into Middle Earth, reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and the various titles in the Unfinished Tales from Middle Earth series.

Then I got to university, and my reading habits changed again. I had to read. The texts that I was required to read in order to complete tasks were often written in dry and dense language that is often associated with academia, and I began to churn through three of four journal articles a day, purely for the purpose of completing the assignment. Though I (occasionally) found the various texts I was reading interesting in themselves, they often simply served to aid in the completion of an assignment. Reading for pleasure became something that I did not have time for.

I had long disdained e-books, I am not entirely sure why, other than a love of the smell of books and the feeling of holding a book and turning the page, but I had not engaged with Kindles and the like at all. I then discovered, quite accidentally, and turned to it for five minute bouts of reading while I ate breakfast. I have, over the last twelve months, made a conscious effort to return to ensuring I read for pleasure. I have worked through the Magician series by Raymond E. Feist, and I have read through each of the immense books that George R.R. Martin has published thus far in the Song of Ice and Fire saga.

I was left with a dilemma. I had engaged in various avenues of ongoing professional development; attending FutureSchools in March of this year and participating semi-regularly in various education chats on Twitter however, I had not made any effort to engage with literature for professional development. Something about the nature of reading journal articles for university assignments had deadened an enjoyment of reading for professional development, and though I had skimmed a handful of journal articles, I had not engaged fully with any form of professional development through reading.

This term I am making a commitment. I purchased a copy of Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez whilst at FutureSchools, and had started to read through it on the train ride home that afternoon, yet having just been offered a temporary contract, I began to focus what spare time I had on developing a program to suit the specific role I had been assigned, and had, unfortunately, not returned to it. I also recently purchased a copy of Hacking Education by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez, which I have not even opened. So in order to return to reading for both pleasure and for professional development, I commit to reading through a chapter a week, beginning with Invent to Learn, and using this platform to solidify my learning, the ideas and inspiration, the challenges and the professional avenues I wish to explore, as a result of the reading, with one blog article each week, beginning next week, devoted to the previous week’s reading.

Gratitude Challenge – Day Two

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Ordinarily my articles open with a quote that somehow pertains to the theme or message for that day. However when I sat down to write today’s article for the Gratitude Challenge, I realised that I would not be able to select a single quote that encapsulated how I felt about today’s topic of gratitude, which for this particular iteration of the Gratitude Challenge, is a treasured possession. Hence, this article is sprinkled with a variety of quotes, all sourced from this page, and are merely the tip of the iceberg about how I feel about books.

“We read to know we’re not alone.”
– William Nicholson, Shadowlands

The treasured possession which I am grateful is my book collection. The photo below is merely one of the bookshelves that Mrs C21stT and I have filled, and the bulk of the books in our burgeoning library came from my collection. I am immensely grateful for books and everything they bring with them. They are a source of joy and comfort, and can induce feelings across the full gamut of emotions.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

I was fortunate as a child, as I believe many of my generation were, that my mother read to me every night before bed, up until the age of four, or thereabouts. My memories of her reading Little Golden Books to me before bed, or buying me a book from the checkout when we did the groceries (I cannot remember the name of the series; they were square shaped, roughly as wide as a small envelope) when I had been well behaved were things that I distinctly remember looking forward to. Further, my mother was an avid reader, so our house was full of books and reading books for fun was modelled to me from a young age by not only my mother, but some of her closest friends. My Grandparents were also avid readers, and the top two shelves in the photo above are actually some of the books that Have been handed down to me since Pop’s vision declined to the point that books need to be audio books.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
― William Styron, Conversations with William Styron

As a child, I moved house quite frequently (when I moved out of home at twenty-two years old, I was moving out of my twenty-second house) and though I managed to make casual friends at each new school, it was my books that provided me with the friendship I craved, the adventure I wanted and the succour that I needed each time we moved house and I changed schools. When we finally returned to my home town and I was enrolled in what would be my school for years three to six, I set out to devour the school library, and made a solid effort of it.

“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that’s because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little [messed] up.”
― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

I am blessed that Mrs C21stT is also an avid reader, and we both have dreams of our own house with a dedicated library and we have been searching for ways of maximising the number of books that we can realistically have, because as Rudyard Kipling has been attributed as saying, “a man can never have…too many books.” 

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
― Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

I think I aptly expressed how grateful I am for my books to the class I was situated in for my internship, a Stage Three class. There was a heartbreaking dearth of books in the classroom, with nary a bookshelf to be seen, and only a few books that were not dictionaries or textbooks on the shelves. I went through my own bookshelves and pulled out a wide range of books, around thirty all told, and made them available to the students to read.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”
– Attributed to Charles William Eliot

I introduced them by asking who wanted to do particular things; go into space, time-travel, explore the ocean floor, hike in the remote parts of the world, win wars, create amazing inventions, meet the genres as personalities, be invisible etc. Every student’s hand was up at least once. I then told them that I had done every single one of those things, and more, and rattled off in which book I had achieved which thing in the previous list. The student’s devoured those books over the remaining two months of my internship, books including The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, Dinotopia by James Gurney, The Pagemaster by  David Kirschner, Ernie Contreras and Jerry Tiritilli (though it must be acknowledge that authorship of this book is apparently controversial according to this Wikipedia entry and a range of others from varying genres and at different difficulty levels.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
– Attributed to C.S. Lewis

I am immensely grateful for my books and for the vast array of emotions which they engender and I would challenge you to get involved in the Book Week Celebrations that will be held in your local school from the twenty-fourth to the twenty-eighth of August tin year

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Modelling writing skills

“Art is the overflow of emotion into action.”
– Attributed to Brian Raif

As my regular readers would be aware, I have been utilising a short burst of creative writing, called quick writing to provide my students a more engaging way of practicing their typing skills. The students have been overwhelmingly enjoying the time. I have been trying to find a way to make it a more rigorous learning opportunity and to encourage them to improve their creative writing as well as their typing.

I had begun to provide four images as options, to allow for those students who did not connect with the initial image that was provided, and this has helped a number of students engage with the process and enable them to write more than they had previously, and those students whom are more advanced writers have an opportunity to extend themselves, through the challenge of connecting two or more of the images. What I have been noticing with the writing that students have been doing is that although they are writing at length, their output is quite surface-level, with very little detail enabling the reader to visualise the scene they are writing about.

The engagement of the students has created a situation where I have been able to sit and join them in completing some creative writing, something which I have not done in a great while, and have missed. Yesterday I listened to a few of the students read their writing out, as I have been doing, and decided to model to them what I meant when I have been asking them to provide more detail in their writing, and read out a few paragraphs of what I had written.

Having done so, I asked the class if they could visualise the scene in their heads, and then we had a discussion about the use of language to paint a picture for the reader, and how the use of language can play a role in determining the interest level of the reader. The challenge was then put back onto the students to revise their writing, to use their language to paint a picture of the scene and the characters they were describing.

For a number of them, it was a light bulb moment, and they immediately dove back into their writing to improve it, and I hope that this segue will pay off in the long run with higher quality writing. The other challenge I laid down for them was to remove the boring words, such as said with more interesting vocabulary, and we had a brief discussion about how to find more interesting vocabulary.

Thank you for reading, as always, and I would like to hear from anyone about how you have encouraged students to make their writing more interesting and more visual, while removing the boring words.

Quick Writing

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I have tweeted a few times recently about doing an activity with students called quick writing. In this activity, students are told that they will have fifteen minutes to compose any text type they like; poem, recount, description, short story, introduction to a longer story etc., using the supplied image as the writing prompt. I have presented this task to students across years three to six thus far, and all students have enjoyed it, and engaged with it honestly and wholeheartedly.

I have been doing a fairly simple Google Image search, using writing stimulus year x, where x represents the year group of the students. The activity’s primary purpose is to stimulate creativity and encourage students to use their imagination, and students have, on the whole, engaged with the task at higher rates than I thought I would, and created, without prompting from myself, a silent classroom filled with the sound of pens scratching across the paper and the hum of the computer projector.

The other way that I have been utilising this task is to provide students with an opportunity to practice typing, by using either the school bank of laptops or their own tablet, and, again, all students have engaged honestly. I was concerned that students would spend time playing around with font types / colours / sizes but that proved to be unfounded as students dived right into the task.

I have included below two samples of the writing that have been composed in this fashion, both from year six students. Students have given their permission to put the writing online, and I would ask that, while reading these texts, that you remember that these are off-the-cuff compositions that have not been edited or proof-read at all.

Zmaya and Callum created the following compositions using this writing prompt.

This image was sourced from on 39-07-2015
Image was sourced from on 39-07-2015

The House by Zmaya
It all started the day I went home
When I saw a huge dome
I loved the look
so I went and took
The thing that it belonged
I was wrong
To do what I did
Now my house flew to a bridge
Then to a rock were I now live
I have a boat to go to school
I live near an island
I live on an island
In my house
I have a pet mouse
I love the view my sky high
I love my house you should to

Random Story by Callum
My mum bought a new house on the weekend and I went to have a look but I couldn’t get in because it was on top of a little island than I saw a person  in a little dark door way at the bottom of the mountain and there was a ladder on the bottom tide to a boat. They started waiving and it was my mum.

When she stopped waiving someone puled inside she started screaming so I was stupid enough to jump out of the boat and swim to her safety but I was to slow she was gone in a flash I was scared but l had to be brave to run after her. I herd her screaming but could not keep up with her.

Suddenly I has getting pulled back by something and I yelled whos there [time ran out here].

The other technique I have heard of being used is to provide a range of images and allow students to select three or four images to use to link together as part of their story. I would very much like to hear from anyone who has used this method, and hear how you have found it as a literacy tool.

Get excited about literacy!

Today’s professional development day opened with a session about Focus on Reading. Part of that discussion was around the drop-off in students’ engagement with reading, the so-called fourth grade slump and what we, as teachers, could do to re-excite and reengage students with reading.

There are, I believe, a number of things that we can do. Some of them are simple, and others will take a little more effort, while some will open up doors for lessons or discussions that you would be doing or having, at some point any way.

The first idea is, I think, fairly obvious. Select texts that will engage readers. You may have a text that you have been using for the last ten years with every cohort you teach. Look at retiring that text and trying something new and more contemporary. Consider the cultural context withing which that book was situated when it was published and taken up as being a quality text and ask yourself if it is still relevant. I certainly am not advocating removing all old books, just suggesting that we be more selective about the texts which we ask our students to engage with.

When doing class reading, or readers theater, encourage, strongly, the use of expression, or where appropriate, character voices. My supervising teacher whilst I was on my internship was reading The Hobbit as the class text. It was an over and above novel deliberately chosen for the complex language structure, the rich vocabulary and imagery and as something separate to all the learning that was going on, as an enjoyment read. When Gollum had dialogue, the students were required to read it in their impersonation of Gollum’s voice, as made famous by Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings movies. Expression and character voices can liven up the often monotone sounds of class readings.

Another option is to ban a word for a week (or a different time frame appropriate within your context). For example, I might ban the word said for a week. The word is not part of the permissible vocabulary in writing or speech for that week. This then requires a conversation about what are our alternatives – synonyms and antonyms, and understanding what the various words mean and how they can be used, and why whispered and muttered are not the same, even though they are both synonyms of said. Create a word wall, or have students create their own word wall in the back of a writing book or somewhere similarly easily accessible.

I wrote recently about using newspapers in the classroom. They are also tools that can be used to increase engagement with reading, and some of the strategies I discussed in that article will be relevant here.

I would love to hear from people about what ideas they have about how we can excite our students about reading. Please leave your suggestions in the comments section.

Using newspapers in the classroom

“A good column is one that sells paper. It doesn’t matter how beautifully it is written and how much you admire the author… if it doesn’t sell any papers, it’s not a good column. It’s a terrible yardstick to use, but in the newspaper business, that’s the whole thing.”
-Attributed to Herb Caen

Many newspapers apparently provide copies, daily and for free, of their output to schools. I know this only because I walked into a classroom towards the end of term one this year, where I was due to provide some relief time for the regular teacher, and the teacher was trying to work out what to do with the newspapers. There stack of newspaper that she had received stood around half a meter high, and she pointed to a build-up of the stacks in the corner of the room. They had been receiving them all term, for free, every day during the week.

It got me thinking, how can the newspapers be utilised, genuinely, in today’s classroom, when many of us seek our news online, where we can quickly flick through the headlines to find the ones that capture our interest? Here are a few of the ideas that the teacher gave to me, and some others that I have thought of. I sincerely doubt that any of these are original ideas, so please do not think that I am claiming as such, and so here are my top ten (cue David Letterman music). Not all of these ideas will be appropriate to all stage groups within education. Most of them can be utilised within the primary sector, but some would be secondary.

  1. Desk cover – We have all been there, I’m sure. “We’re painting now, so make sure your desk is covered with newspaper.”
  2. Social studies – The newspaper can be a great way to bring current events into the classroom, whether you are focusing on global, national or local issues. Most newspapers will have sections dedicated to each, and you can open up conversations about events which may not otherwise be discussed, except through watching the ABC’s BTN program, and which can form a great tool to grow discussions stemming from watching BTN.
  3. Editing and proof-reading – It seems that more and more newspapers fail to properly proof read, and the number and range of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors that can be seen on a daily basis in many newspaper is alarming, and I should think for journalists, embarrassing. It can be a worthwhile task to have students either self-select, or select from a set range of articles, one in particular that are required to proof read and mark up with corrections. This can have a number of further implications.
  4. Linguistics – The explicit study of grammar was something that myself and many people my age missed out on in primary school. Apparently during the early nineties explicit grammar education, parsing, and the associated skills and knowledge was not part of the curriculum. It has returned into the curriculum now, and the newspaper can provide a vehicle for educating around word types (nouns, verbs, verb groups etc.). Set students the task of highlighting all the verbs in an article one colour, all of the nouns in a different colour, verb groups, clauses, etc.
  5. The structure of writing – The explicit teaching of linguistics leads itself naturally into the structure of writing. Have students highlight the simple sentences one colour, the complex sentences, the compound sentences etc. Have them take a paragraph and rewrite each of the complex sentences into simple sentences, or take a set of simple sentences and rewrite them into a complex sentence. Talk about the effect that it has on the readability of the text, the impact on the message being given.
  6. Stimulus material – The content of newspapers can be used as stimulus material for creative writing. Take a news story, write a diary entry from the point of view of one of the people in the article. Take an article and turn it into an editorial.
  7. Mathematics – There are so many options here. You can talk about statistics with the sports section where most newspapers will have results and completion ladders for most of the major sports, locally, nationally and in some newspaper internationally. Take soccer for example. Look at the top three clubs on the ladder, and work our what combination of results could get them to their current points total (zero points for a loss, one for a draw and three for a win). Have students create and maintain a ‘form ladder’ with the result of the last five weeks only taken into account. This will require some addition and subtraction, and keeping record of where they are up to in the five week cycle. After you have finished with the sports section, and there is so much more you could do there, turn to the finance and stockmarket section. Talk about what the terms mean in regards to the ASX, help them understand, even at a basic level, how to understand the finance report on the news each night, by understanding the same information in the news paper on a weekly basis. Track the changes and talk about trends and the impact on the economy.
  8. Environmental studies – Talk about how newspapers are made from the logging stage to the delivery stage. Track the carbon footprint. Talk about how they can be reused and recycled, talk about the difference in getting your news online and in print, and the impact on the environment.
  9. Text types – Discussion of different text types is now mandatory within the Australian national curriculum (which is not remotely national, but that is an entirely different conversation), and you can utilise the newspaper to talk about the different text types that are present inside from within the three core text types – factual, persuasive, and literary. You can utilise articles, editorials and advertisements alone and talk about the different language and structures within.
  10. Critical thinking – Personally I think this is one of the most important skills we can teach our students now. Teach them how to think critically about what they are reading, how to ascertain the credibility, reliability and validity of what they are reading. Teach them how to think rationally about what they are reading, to understand bias, to understand misinformation, to understand sensationalism, to understand ethical writing and reporting.

Those are the top ten things that I think newspapers can be used for in today’s classrooms and is certainly not an exhaustive list (another one that just came to mind is to teach how to understand the weather report, and the difference between weather and climate).

Many of these uses can also be leveraged to create links with the community. Want to talk about ethical writing and reporting – contact the local newspaper and see if they have someone who can come and visit and talk about the journalism code of ethics.

If you have another use for the humble newspaper in your classroom, let me know via the comments section.

Until next time, happy teaching.

What is your ‘go to’ for literature? in the classroom?

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I have finished the theoretical part of my planning for this term, and now I am up to the practical part, the recording. The way that I will be structuring my flipped classrooms will involve a lot of reading of books for the students. Essentially, the majority of the students will be engaged with the flipped lesson (a book study) whilst I focus on a small group of students. Over the course of a few weeks, I will have seen all of my students and can then move onto the next part.

As part of getting ready to record all of the flipped lesson videos, I spent a significant amount of time in the local library, wandering amongst the bookshelves, looking for suitable titles. It was then that it struck me, how out of date I am with junior literature. I was able to pick out an assortment of books that I think will be suitable for each of my classes, but it started a train of though.

Who are the ‘go to’ authors for junior literature these days, and which books in particular are part of your core literature repertoire? I recall, growing up, that Morris Gleitzman, R.L. Stine, Mem Fox, Duncan Ball, Roald Dahl etc were considered essential reading.

If I was to pull a book from your classroom (or personal) book shelf to teach with, for any class from kindergarten to year six, what book, or which author would you be recommending, and why?