Thursday, August 10, 2006


As a teacher of VCE English Units 3 and 4, I spend lots of time dealing with cheating in School Assessed Coursework. The fact that as teachers we can’t trust more than a few of our students really spoils the intent of the VCE English course.

In past years we allowed students to bring notes into Text Response and Craft of Writing SACs. To ensure consistency across classes, we specified that the notes had to be in the students’ own handwriting and that they were only allowed to bring in, say, two A4 pages. Of course, as specified in the Study Design the work had to be completed mostly in class and under teacher supervision. Seemed clear. Unfortunately, this allowed for cheating. Under such conditions, one student produced a film review vastly superior to anything that he had written, or that I believed he was capable of writing. Yet I’d supervised him, and the other students, closely during the SAC. He only had the permitted notes which I thought he’d produced largely under my supervision in a previous session.

At the next opportunity, I asked the boy to remain behind.

“Harry,” I said, “I don’t think this work is your own. You’re going to have to redo the SAC.” I can still see his open affronted mouth.

“I wrote that, I swear. You can ask anyone.”

“Look, Harry,” I said. “You’ve been getting a D average for the past two years. I know this isn’t your own work.”

“I swear to god it’s my work.”

“Well, I’m sorry, Harry, but I can’t accept it. I’m giving you the opportunity to repeat the task. You’re lucky to be given this opportunity. Many teachers would simply fail you.” I thought I was being extremely generous.

Just out of curiosity, I googled his work and, lo and behold, found the exact film review that he’d painstakingly hand-written on his two A4 sheets. He’d then evidently copied these a second time during the SAC.

Two days later, the principal summoned me. He questioned my supervision of SACs; demanded to know how I could have allowed this cheating to take place. You see, Harry had run home and told mum that his wicked teacher had accused her precious child of cheating. (By the way, how stupid was this kid??)

I explained exactly how Harry had managed to conceal his cheating and produced the article that the boy had plagiarised. Principal ordered me to ensure this never happened again. I must tighten up the procedure for SACs.

But mum was not mollified. Her hatred of me was put into writing for the record. How dare I suggest that her son wasn’t capable of producing A plus work? She trusted her son. Her son would never cheat. The teacher – me - was unprofessional and shouldn’t be allowed to teach let alone teach Year 12. And here’s the rub. Even after being shown the plagiarised documents she still didn’t believe that her son had cheated.

This incident prompted a review of our procedures for SACs. Students would no longer be permitted to use prepared notes during SACs.

Dictionaries would, however, still be permitted.

This year we’ve had a few incidences of students writing essays in their dictionaries. This happened in one of my classes. I was immediately suspicious when I noticed a student studying what appeared to be the Z section of his dictionary as soon as the SAC had begun.

In another teacher’s class, a student had meticulously typed an entire essay in about a 6 point font and had pasted it flawlessly throughout her dictionary.

Another of my students had his bag under his desk and for the duration of the SAC was taking surreptitious glances down at a page of prepared notes in his bag. I was very grateful to the student who dobbed him in because I had no idea, even though I was closely supervising. I just didn’t see him. He cheated so deftly and looked so innocent.

Another student, according to the posse that dobbed her in to the Year 12 coordinator, allegedly wrote parts of her essay on tiny scraps of paper concealed amongst the pencils in her pink pencil case. This one couldn’t be proved – the cleaner had emptied the bin where she’d allegedly disposed of the evidence - and the student had to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Now all bags and pencil cases must be placed at the back of the room before the SAC begins. Dictionaries must be surrendered to the supervising teacher at the start of the SAC. This hasn’t stopped kids writing essays on hands and arms. One desperate student had an intro on her palm and a topic sentence on each finger!

The craft of writing SAC is a joke. Our current practice – necessitated by the rifeness of cheating - is to ask students to produce a draft of each piece that they intend to complete in the SAC. Teachers comment on this first draft and make suggestions as to how it might be improved. Students must then reproduce this piece under exam conditions. Students with good memories can then vomit up what they’ve remembered. As if writers produce ‘finished’ pieces of writing in 90 minutes under such conditions.

We spend lots of time theorising about ‘Teaching and Learning’, and what is ‘powerful to learn’, thinking of all these wonderful ways to inspire learning. But this is the reality of the pressure of competition, disadvantaged desperate kids and the ENTER score.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

What’s not working for me in teaching: meetings.

School Council Meeting. I’m wedged between two largish people at a long table. The table groans under its weight: plates of party pies and sausage rolls, hard cheese, soft cheese, three types of dips, rice crackers, sandwiches, with various tempting fillings, cut into little triangles, plates of sliced carb rich fruit. Squeezed amongst the plates and cups and saucers and brightly coloured paper napkins are drifts of papers to which people will talk as the meeting proceeds. I’m starving but food at this time is prohibited for me because I have Type 1 Diabetes. (And no, I don’t want a plate of carb free food at this juncture. Perhaps I’ll blog on the joys of diabetes some other time.) Besides. My father’s disdain for church ‘bun fights’ rubbed off on me a long time before I was diagnosed with diabetes.

So I’m the only person at the meeting not slavering with glee at the repast spread before us. The abundant food adds to my torture. My nose is almost in a plate of food but there’s nowhere to which to remove it. (My nose or the plate.) The chairs around the table are remarkably upright and close. I can almost feel the ample flesh of two enormous upper arms – one on each side of me – not mine – especially as they reach delicately across me for party pies before tucking them into their pie-holes. (One grasping hand has fake red manicured finger-nails at the end of sausage fingers adorned with too much bling.) The person on my right has gappy protruding teeth and talks with food in her mouth. Pastry has flaked onto her left breast and down onto her enormous navy polyester clad thigh.

I shouldn’t be noticing these details, a hidden agenda, I should be focusing on proceedings. But if I do I will fall sideways, probably onto the cushiony arm of the person on my left. In fact, it’s an appealing thought. I’m unutterably tired and the meeting is so god-awful boring that I’m nearly sick with stifled yawning; my eyes, barely open, are blurred with exhausted tears.

I should just pack it in. But I’m an elected staff rep at the beginning of a second two year term. I feel I’ll be disappointing my constituents if I resign. Laugh out loud.

Earlier. Same day. Curriculum Committee Meeting. I loathe this one. Our Leader lacks emotional intelligence and a sense of humour. The members of committee must mind the eggshells. (I wonder what it’s like to have people walk around one on eggshells.) The meeting, as usual, is repetitive and unproductive. Intelligent people with great ideas repress them lest Our Leader take umbrage, roll her eyes, and sulk for the next three weeks. My two worlds almost collide when we are taught how to blog on this very site. (Big scary adrenalin rush, but my secret is still safe.) We are to have an on-line ‘conversation’ – “these professional conversations – spotto new buzz word - are the most important aspect of Teaching and Learning”. Not a bad idea, but woe betide anyone who upsets Our Leader on-line. I clench every muscle that will clench for the duration to avoid letting Our Leader have it.

At the previous meeting Our Leader sanctioned me for making some innocuous quip, which got a laugh from those who dared to. The minutes possibly recorded my loud “It was a joke! Fuck!” Very unprofessional, I admit. (Another committee member later suggested that, for the benefit of our dour Leader, we should hold up smiley faces on poles to indicate levity.) Anyway, for the rest of the meeting I recited the lyrics of American Pie in my head to calm myself. (By the way, this works very well. I recommend it.)

The meeting ends eighty minutes after it began.

I’m dying with fatigue and I’ve still got to get through School Council.

I should just pack Curriculum Committee in. So much stress is not good. But I enjoy other aspects of being English Coordinator. Curriculum Committee is simply penance for The Fraud.

Same day. Six on. Double Year 12, double Year 7, double Year 10.

And I haven’t even started on the oxymoronic Professional Learning Teams.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

What’s working for me at school? My teaching revolution.

I’ve been teaching for a lifetime now, and many things remain constant. Where I teach, students are still of mixed ability and, when they come to us in year 7, most can invariably write reams of poorly spelled text without using a full stop. Somehow, it is part of my role as a teacher of Year 7 English, to eliminate the run-on sentence. I’m wondering if when I die it won’t matter any more. Perhaps I should just roll with it; let the language regress to some unpunctuated past; get over myself. Students seem to communicate efficiently on MSN in their abbreviated codes. I’ve almost capitulated to ‘quote’ being used as a noun. It even appears thus in respected VCE English texts. Has the world ended? Am I an old fart for caring? Possibly not. After all, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves has been a best seller.

Back to my teaching revolution. About three years ago, I made the tentative decision to bring technology into my senior English classes.

How did this happen? Initially, I’d decided to reduce the number of handouts I gave to all my years seven to twelve students. I didn’t think these printed notes were enhancing teaching and learning. (I wasn’t even thinking of the trees.) The handouts contained what I considered to be invaluable information, whatever it was, that I wanted students to absorb and use, and indeed some students did value these resources. However, just as many students tuned out during the lessons; failed to engage. Many handouts were surreptitiously folded into paper aeroplanes which flew a few times around the room or were jettisoned into the rubbish bin on the way out. Other handouts met their crumpled end amongst the detritus accumulated in the bottoms of school bags. Consequently, many students returned to the next lesson having lost the handout and thus needing a replacement. Somehow, the prepared, photocopied notes were ‘too much information’ for the average student. As long as I was preparing notes for my classes, most students weren’t actually thinking or writing much. I’m not talking about mindless copying of boards full of notes. I suppose I’m talking about note-making based on students’ contributions; writing down ideas; plans; vocabulary; definitions – material that can be remembered, revised and used in extended pieces of writing. I wanted to engage students more in contributing to discussions; force them to think. And it does bother me that students in Years 11 and 12, who at our school are required to hand-write their School Assessed Coursework essays under exam conditions, often struggle with the task, in some part due to their use of computer word processors.

So how did this lead to my teaching revolution?

For a few years now, I’ve taught two Year 12 English classes both of which require the same curriculum. And when other teachers are sharing your classroom, it’s a bit selfish to cover an entire whiteboard wall with terrific notes that you’d love to use with your other class and write PLEASE LEAVE! at the top. Every time I erasedthese notes it seemed like such a waste.

I toyed with the idea of using an interactive whiteboard. We do have one – yes one – in our school of 900 students. However, I felt this would lead to more photocopied notes and back to base one.

Instead, I decided to use a data projector – we have three of those! - and my lap top computer. This would have two advantages, I thought. I’d be able to re-use those wonderful student-discussion inspired notes and I’d be able to efficiently store my class materials and be rid of some of those arch files. However, I was unaware of how brilliantly the technology would work, once I got the hang of it.

After being ‘in-serviced’ by an IT support person, I trialled the set up with my Year 11s. The first lesson was hysterical. The students were mischievously delighted with the idea of me using the data projector. I couldn’t get the projection the right size on the whiteboard. I was fumbling, publicly and hilariously, as far as I could gauge from the laughter, with my toolbars, trying to enlarge the image. I’d foolishly used the Inspiration software thinking I’d be doing these brilliant Venn diagrams and concept maps – as I’d seen one of my colleagues do - while my students’ heads expanded with all the learning they were absorbing. Well, the students – a great bunch of people – didn’t learn much that lesson. But we had a few side-splitting laughs, so it wasn’t a total waste.

At this stage, I might have given up, but I didn’t. I kept practising. I decided instead to project a Word document onto the whiteboard. This worked very effectively once I got the font to the right size. Easily done.

There have been unexpected advantages. First, you know that when you turn to write on the whiteboard you lose a little – sometimes a lot – of your connection with your class. On many occasions when I turn to write on the whiteboard the class erupts into irrelevant talk. Or projectiles fly just outside one’s peripheral vision. “Hello?” I’ll say. “I’m still here; haven’t left the building. Back to work.” I turn back to the whiteboard and it starts again. Unless you’re one of those people who can face the class and write legibly on the board – and I’ve recently seen a brilliant presenter with this skill – or one of those teachers who terrifies students into submission – and happily I’m not one of those - like me, you probably get frustrated that your students disconnect when your back is turned and you have to waste a bit of your precious teaching time getting them back on track. Well, using your typing skills, your laptop and your data projector, this doesn’t happen!

And there’s more. I can sit down occasionally - hurrah - and direct class discussion more effectively. Somehow, it seems more civilised and much more educational. No more problems with the illegibility of my handwriting. Given I can touch-type quickly, my note making can keep pace with the discussion. If students are absent I can easily print, or email them notes from the lessons they’ve missed. It’s easier for students to keep track of discussion and to make notes; good for those visual learners. Furthermore, it helps me to keep track of my progress with a class, or a text I’m teaching.

With the addition of a couple of speakers, it’s great for film viewing too. Anything you can see on your screen can be projected onto a whiteboard.

Young techno-savvy teachers will not see this as revolutionary. However, I know that many of my colleagues - some not so old - are shy of technology. But I’ve proved that you only have to start using technology to develop your skills and become comfortable with the equipment and experience your own teaching revolution.

What’s the downside? Well, I teach in a battered portable classroom with no blinds. The sun blazing into my early morning classroom has me scurrying for the whiteboard marker. Another problem? There are only three data projectors in the school for which several teachers must compete. One has to book ahead and can be occasionally caught short when a teacher fails to return a projector to the resource centre after use. The inevitable five to ten minute round trip to the resource centre to collect the data projector is a pain when one is teaching a ‘full-on’ day. But, that’s life in an under-resourced state school. (And there was the time when my computer crashed, mid-lesson. School IT gurus to the rescue and my files were saved. Don’t forget to back up your files.)

I used to suffer from a condition that I called ‘whiteboard – formerly blackboard - arm syndrome’ – a chronic ache in my upper right arm. No more.