Archive for November, 2012

For those reading my blog overseas wondering What is Naplan?, think of a series of standardised tests, undertaken in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Australia. For those reading in Australia, I’m guessing you’re already aware of it.

There has been a fair bit of coverage in the media of late about Naplan, including, of late, the stress that it has put students under. For a good overview, see Jewel Topsfield’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. I have “taught” Naplan a few times now – to Year 7 classes mostly and, this year, to a Year 9 class. This is also the first year that my own son, in Year 3, completed the tests. Topsfield’s article captures most perspectives accurately. I think both sides have important points to make. Naplan certainly provides a snapshot of where your child “is” and should, over several years, give an indication of how they have developed in relation to larger cohorts (school and nation, for example). However, I am also conscious that some schools spend ridiculous amounts of time “teaching” Naplan skills. I’m reminded of the excellent Heckler article, again from the SMH in March, from a teacher – Testing Times for Teachers and its amusing take on the pressures to prepare for the upcoming Naplan test, even though it’s months away. The idea that we jettison valuable content opportunities for a wholesale (and, let’s face it, dull) process of teaching to one test is disconcerting. Again, I’m reminded of a number of talks by Ken Robinson – well worth viewing – including the one illustrated by RSA, Are Schools Killing Creativity? 

I also have a larger concern and this is it: I wonder whether Naplan might be testing what it is setting out to test? I’ll give one example to highlight my idea.

This year, once again, the main focus in the extended writing task in English has been on Persuasive Writing. This, in varying guises, goes across all the age groups. Thus students are taught/drilled in ways of writing a piece of writing that aims to persuade the reader of a position, along with an understanding of the various text considerations that are representative of Persuasive Writing. All good so far.

But, I would like to think that Naplan is not so much about skills that have been rote learned. So, let’s say that, instead of writing an extended piece on Persuasive Writing, we were to switch it at the last minute for a piece of Creative Writing. In theory, for some of the students, this would have been an aspect examined by Naplan until only recently. And, I understand, it is due to be switched back to this at some point in the future.

Then one could see how a student ‘stands’ at that point in time, on a piece that they would have developed skills in, as part of a larger curriculum, over the last two years (since their earlier Naplan examination). So rather than a process built, mass-produced response that everyone is building towards, we could explore how students are faring more broadly.

Perhaps a more flippant way of looking at it is to compare it to a scene in the film Rain Main. Dustin Hoffman’s savant character Raymond is fantastic at counting cards for selfish brother Charlie in the casino, yet cannot distinguish between the price of a candy bar and a car which are both “about a hundred dollars”.


Maybe we should be looking at Naplan and assessing its value in fresh ways as well.

A possible start of year address from a few hundred years ago…

Good morning students, and welcome back for the new school year. We certainly have an exciting year ahead of us. I have called this assembly to go over how the new iSlate devices will operate.
By now you should all have received your devices and, looking around, I can see many of you have brought them here today. Well done.
You will already know that the school has moved to implement these devices across all years. My aim this morning is to go over the process of this implementation.
Firstly, I want to thank your parents. They have outlaid a not inconsiderable sum of money to ensure that you have access to the latest technology. If you haven’t done so, you should thank them for their selfless act in putting you at the forefront of their thoughts. It is also beholden upon you to respect and care for your device. These slate pieces are quite robust but, as Worthington major found out this morning, tend to come off second best if dropped on the cobbled paving. We have asked you to get the wooden cork backing, but this will only provide a small level of protection. I encourage you and your parents to consider having specific insurance to cover possible damage to your device.

iSlate 1.0 From four shillings & sixpence. Available now.

Once at school, there are some expectations that we have with how you will use your device. I wish to go over some of these here with you now:
1. In starting, it is important to see your iSlate as a tool and not a toy. Certainly, you have the potential to use it for its novelty value, for its newness. However, we hope that we will see you use this as a device that aids in your education, as a content creation device and method of storing your invaluable notes. Social media, such as doodling is fine in itself; just contemplate where and when you should consider its use. Leaving your iSlate lying around with inappropriate observations about staff and students could lead to serious long-term repercussions for you and for others.
2. Practical considerations are important with using your iSlate. You will need to supply your own chalk and be attentive to how you manage it. It should be kept sharpened to make the most of your iSlate. You should not fritter away this resource with pointless doodling and, I need not say, borrowing the chalk of others will be regarded in the same light as stealing.
3. iSlates are to be kept in locker areas for safe keeping when not in use. As mentioned before, think carefully about how you intend to transport your devices to and from school. Again I remind you of their monetary value and the need for care. You should think carefully about ‘wiping’ your iSlate each day and what erasing this information will mean for your revision. Back-ups are, obviously, prohibitively expensive at this time.
4. In class, it is important to realise that the iSlate may not be used all the time. There will be times when its use is inappropriate, and your teacher may request that you put your iSlate ‘face down’ on the desk. The expectations regarding respect for all, and especially staff, remains unchanged.
5. Finally, it is important to realise that, all things considered, your iSlate device is only another tool to help you learn. It does not replace the most important tool that you possess in your arsenal, namely, your brain. It cannot do the thinking, the questioning, for you. Only you can do that. In addition to this, it will not make you a better person. Your values and what you stand for come from within. It may help your productivity, but will not replace your personality.

Certainly there are exciting times ahead and the staff and I are looking forward to some striking work as always. Rest assured, we will all be reviewing the use of these devices in coming months. Students dismissed.


iSlate 1.0 replaces the A-book as the new “device to have”

Following on from the positive feedback from my ROBOT Drama post, I’ve decided to put up another game that works well over an English (or Drama) class. Once again, it is one that I recall from the out-of-print When Are We Going to Have More Drama by Peter Moore. It provides for some good follow-up work covering communication and prejudice, which I’ll come back to at the end of the post.

Premise: Students are, in groups of three, to make a party hat.

Procedure: The fiddly, time consuming bit comes in the set up for this lesson, which is the only real downside. You will need to get 8 bags (for a class of 24 – for numbers less than this, just remove a bag per three students), 8 “lots” (2-3 big broadsheets work well) of newspaper, 7 lots of scissors, 7 lots of stick tape and various smaller items that are self-explanatory from the instructions that are found in each bag. I also look to put a piece of coloured paper in the bag (like an A4 sheet size of one colour) that can be used to help highlight the hat’s “beauty”.

When your students enter the class and are in groups of three, one member can select a bag that, to all intents, appear the ‘same’. There are no ‘returns’ on the bag – it is a lucky dip that you commit to.

Here are the 8 sets of instructions that you split,  putting one in each bag. You will see that the instructions are simple and outline the task very effectively:


*You are to make a party hat. *You have 25 minutes to make it. *You have no handicap.


*You are to make a party hat. *You have 25 minutes to make it. *Two of your members are blindfolded. *Only these two are able to use the materials.

Paper hat

From the basic… (Photo credit: shufgy)


*You are to make a party hat.

*You have 25 minutes to make it.

*Each member will have masking tape placed over the mouth to stop talking.


*You are to make a party hat.

*You have 25 minutes to make it.

*You are not allowed to use your writing hand. This must be placed behind your back at all times.


*You are to make a party hat. *You have 25 minutes to make it. *You must use your tie to bind your wrists together (separately) and must work in this fashion.


*You are to make a party hat.

*You have 25 minutes to make it.


To the unlikley… (Photo credit: George Eastman House)

*You must use your tie to bind your left wrist to the right wrist of one of your team members (and theirs to yours).


*You are to make a party hat.

*You have 25 minutes to make it.

*You have no scissors.


*You are to make a party hat.

*You have 25 minutes to make it.

*You have no tape.

Run Through and Follow Up: Reading through the above will probably prove self-explanatory as to how the game would run. While the task is running you are likely to find: that the group without sticky tape finds the process the most challenging, that students may use their initiative and may use any and all (including the scissors!) products – and the bag – in making their hat, that you will need to monitor some groups more than others to see that they “stick” to their challenge.

At the end, students model their hats at a hat parade. From this point, some follow up activities that extend the drama  in a number of directions can include:

  • students create a one minute ‘pitch‘ to accompany the launch of the hat – this can be used to promote (and perhaps explain!) the hat and its features
  • having an outsider ‘judge‘ the hats. One aspect to this is to not tell about the handicaps, or perhaps to amend this by mentioning that there are handicaps but not which ones are which
  • once the judging has been done (and the clean up!), a debrief on the task is useful. This includes the students’ reaction (especially when the judge knew nothing of the handicaps) to not winning. Stimulus points for discussion are useful, such as how wider society views individuals and groups (e.g. judging us on our handicaps and not our potential) as well as how both communication and handicapping can affect group and individual dynamics.

Overall, this can be a messy, noisy and enjoyable lesson and can act as an effective ‘one off’, or a good segue to units dealing with underprivileged groups, ‘able’ society and its responsibilities, and communication and values more generally. Let me know if you’d like further Drama ideas and suggestions like this and the ROBOT game.

But why…

Posted: November 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Most of my students seem to get the other ‘w’ questions when considering a text (who, what, where, when and, if you like, how) but why seems most likely to stump them. We are close to exams and the ability to analyse a text is being called into question. They are good with spotting examples (we are looking at poetry and novels in two separate ‘areas’) and, nowadays, I’ve found that being able to identify a technique is a straightforward process for them as well. However, giving consideration as to why the technique has been used, can be a different matter.

Therefore, getting a well intentioned student saying something like ‘ In Mending Wall, Robert Frost uses the simile “like an old-stone savage armed” to help us imagine the neighbour more clearly’, is not an uncommon thing.

Mending Wall

Mending Wall (Photo credit: Bill Ward’s Brickpile)

It can be hard to move beyond the “spotting” of the technique, to consider why it has been employed. Sometimes, to highlight the situation, I might say “in exploring techniques, you could say that the poet uses words to help us understand the poem”. In being deliberately facetious, the students are able to reflect back on what they are offering in their own writing.

Maybe, in reflecting on this, we should look at that time when very young children start to question everything in the world. That moment when every answer you offer to their initial question (such as “Why do dogs bark?”) seems to elicit the same response of “But why?” Four “But why” questions (responses)  later, parents (and others) feel compelled to bring it to an end. How often have we heard (or perhaps, just perhaps said ourselves) “It just is” or an equivalent?

Is this the point, as parents and educators, that we should be most alert to? Not that I am suggesting that a halt to the path the conversation is taking isn’t necessary (even if only as a sanity circuit breaker!),

But why can't I?

why not? (Photo credit: hannah8ball)

just that we should be conscious of  the thought processes that are going on with that young mind grappling with the “reading” of the world.

I’ll give you one instance to finish off with. When much younger (and learning to read and count), my son walked up the street, reciting the even house numbers as he went.

All good for 2, 4, 6, 8 etcetera, until we got to the “teens” (14 in this instance). Here the mixed process of reading and recognising the number stalled, as he tried to apply the “one” instead of the “four”. Result? Dad, why is it fourteen, if the number starts with a one? And he’s absolutely right – all the numbers ‘work’ except for the teens.

Sometimes it takes a student to raise the good ‘why’ questions… the ones we’ve learned to overlook.