Lessons of remote learning

It’s been a very interesting Term 2. We’ve settled into remote learning (as much as we can) and have built some routines around it. The exhaustion hasn’t shifted and the hours required to keep up with everything haven’t shortened however there is a light at the end of the tunnel – mere days left until we have all of our children back at school.

With this period of remote learning coming to a close, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learnt & would like to keep as well as the bits I’m heartily glad to see the back of.

What I want to keep:

  • the fresh spark it’s brought to my teaching. I’m not a teacher who allows myself to get stale anyway but remote teaching has certainly forced me to try out new things, explore different tools and reflect on the success or pitfalls of elements of my practice.
  • the regular, structured feedback to students. I’ve always loved Google Classroom but have never managed to use it as consistently as we’ve done during this time. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to keep using this and other methods to keep up that personalised feedback (although, somehow, without the loooong days that went along with it).
  • embracing the variety of communication methods. I have seen a whole new side to many of my students and, when I thought about why, I think the varied communication methods open to them helped. I have received numerous articulate emails from students, asking clearly for help with different things, telling me what they’ve tried and exactly which part they’re stuck on. That might not sound unusual but these are students who find it hard to find their voice in the day to day noise of a classroom. For others, our small group Webex meetings have been an area of success as the comfort of a screen has helped them find their voice.
  • clarity of instruction. Having students try to follow instructions on our Google Classroom has brought into sharp focus the need for us to really think through what we expect and how those words and sentences might be interpreted by students. We’ve had quite a unique snapshot of how our students see things and, without us there to answer immediate questions, we’ve been given an insight into their problem solving strategies and processes.
  • giving students more choice in how they structure their day. Not sure what this might look like in the classroom but I have really seen the value in allowing students the space to manage their learning and want to continue to give them as much room to do this as possible.

What I’m happy to let go:

  • the ridiculously long days. Like other teachers, I always work longer than the 7.6 hours a day that I’m paid for but I’ve been facing days nearly twice that virtually every day for the last 7 weeks. I couldn’t find a way around it at the time but am happy to go back to ‘merely’ 10 hour days of ‘normal’ schooling.
  • having an exceptionally open classroom. I don’t mind being observed and am happy to have discussions about ups and downs of my lessons however having parents and other adults potentially listening to my virtual lessons has added an extra layer of stress that I won’t be sorry to leave behind. When another teacher or member of leadership observes my practice, they bring to it their educational background with clear expectations and boundaries. When parents hear a snapshot of a lesson as they walk past in their kitchen, it’s not only without an understanding of the pedagogical decisions behind it, it’s also out of context and could easily be interpreted in multiple ways.

Part of this post is also about ensuring I have a record of this time and one of the overwhelming feelings I want to remember is pride. I am immensely proud of myself and my colleagues, within and beyond my school, in how we managed to pull together a term of remote learning that managed to cater for the broad spectrum of students, families and situations we work with while managing our own personal issues.

This last point has been a big one for me that I think has so often been overlooked, particularly in the (very small) number of complaints I’ve had from parents about our offerings not being good enough – teachers are also humans who are experiencing this challenging time in their own ways. Many are also educating their own children at home, have partners who have lost their jobs, are dealing with illness or family difficulties and coping with the general limitations that this pandemic has put on all of us. In short, while pulling off a quite incredible and all encompassing change to our work, we have been there for our students while also managing our own challenging circumstances. So bravo educators – across all year levels and in all sectors, teachers and support staff. Bravo.

Not open. Not closed. And not up to me either way.

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about whether schools should be open or closed and whether the different stances that different states have taken is right or wrong.

Let me be clear – this is not a blog where I share whether I think schools should be open or closed.

I’m a teacher. I’m not an epidemiologist, a medical researcher or a paediatric pandemic expert. My medical knowledge is limited to a first aid certificate (which, at least, is very current). However I would imagine, even for those in such professions, their expertise in this particular arena is a bit limited, having not actually experienced a situation like this before. At best, they’re making educated guesses – definitely educated but also definitely guesses, about rates of infection and disease spread and likely outcomes. They absolutely have much more idea than I do but please let’s not pretend that they know exactly what will happen. In this situation, we’re all learning as we go. So, while it’s wonderful and completely appropriate to be guided by medical advice, let’s not pretend that it’s gospel.

No two countries can agree on the best way to manage anything in this pandemic so it stands to reason that the states of Australia can’t either. I know the theory is that we’re one country but we never really act like it and for good reason – we share lots of commonalities but also have a great deal of diversity and that’s why we have multiple layers of government to manage that. Therefore it also should not come as a surprise to find that states are seeking advice from different sources and are interpreting what they hear in a way that supports their circumstances and population while not being too bogged down in what other states are doing.

Having said that, the most important reason I won’t tell you whether I think schools should be open or closed is because it doesn’t matter – it’s not my decision. I’m an employee of a state Education Department and I do what I’m told. I was told, at the end of Term 1, to prepare for the possibility of remote teaching. So I did. And continued to prepare during school holidays. At the end of the holidays, I was told to begin remotely teaching my students which I’m now doing to the best of my ability. I’ve worked harder in this last 2 weeks than I ever have before, something I didn’t actually think possible. I was also asked if I was willing and able to go on a roster to supervise children of those who are unable to work from home (while continuing to remotely teach the rest) which I have also done and continue to do.

I’m sorry that the Prime Minister, the media and a bunch of uninformed people on social media have given you incorrect information – teachers don’t get to make decisions about opening or closing schools. I know my grade think I’m pretty special but those sorts of decisions are way above my pay grade.

Please also don’t be under any illusions – schools most definitely are not closed. The buildings may have a lot less people in them and my classroom may be empty but the cogs are continuing to turn as furiously as ever and staff continue to work as hard as we can to provide learning, support and some sort of routine in these odd times for our students. When those in authority decide the time is right, whether that’s next week or next term, I’ll be just as eager as my students to walk back through those classroom doors. Until then, can those of you who want to debate it please keep the noise down – I’m trying to teach.

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A day in the life of remote teaching

Social and conventional media has been overflowing in the last few days with pictures of kitchen tables covered with assorted books, pens and laptops with accompanying text about how parents are coping with their new role as direct supervisors of their child’s education. (Please note, I didn’t use the term ‘home schooling’ which this blatantly isn’t.)

This is completely understandable – I can imagine how overwhelmed many parents must feel, particularly those who are juggling multiple children and who are attempting to work at home themselves. For some parents, their own experiences of schooling may not have been completely positive which also could be providing an added layer of potential stress.

I thought I’d put out there a snapshot of the other side of the equation, to balance out the narrative and provide a well rounded picture. I will acknowledge that this is only my snapshot and that this looks very different for many colleagues who are attempting to do this while also supervising their own children’s learning – a whole other overflowing kettle of fish.

My first day as a ‘remote learning’ teacher:

  • I manage to enjoy a run before school (almost unheard of on a non-remote learning day) and then breakfast before making it into my home office by 8am.
  • Review the learning material that I’d planned previously and post it to our school remote learning website & to my grade’s Google Classroom.
  • Within 2 minutes of posting to Google Classroom, I had students adding comments and sending emails asking questions about the day’s learning. I reassure them that we’d unpack it all together at our online meeting.
  • Jump on to my online meeting with my team teaching colleague and 40 ish wonderful smiling students. Go through our day’s activities, trying to keep up with questions being thrown at us in the chat and desperately trying to carefully look at each face to read how they were really.
  • Once most of our cherubs leave the meeting to get started on work, we stayed online to work with, reassure and go through the entire thing again with several students who were anxious and unsure and, really, just missed us and needed us to ‘sit’ with them in a virtual sense.
  • Notice that my inbox is pinging and find several emails from staff with various technological issues to be resolved – Webex problems, things to be uploaded to the remote learning website, Seesaw questions, student password queries. Our staff have embraced opportunities to connect and I’m keen to answer them as quickly as possible so that they can get back to the important job – connecting with kids. Put together a ‘how to’ guide for some of the queries I’ve had multiple times to get them through.
  • Meanwhile, my Google Classroom rolls along with lots of comments from students that need replying to – questions about the learning tasks, submission of bits of their learning that they need feedback on and many who just need reassurance that they are on the right track.
  • By now, there are 10 tabs open on Chrome and messages accumulating in Seesaw – this time from 3 parents with issues ranging from Webex technical issues to not having enough books for their child to read. Have to do a search to figure out how to solve the technical issue and made myself a note to go into school and handpick some books for this child.
  • Phone rings – Principal updating me on what’s going on at school, how many students of essential workers have turned up and what the plan is going forward. Discuss some of the children we’re especially worried about and talk through options that might work to support them.
  • Teaching colleague pops up on messenger – we need to look at tomorrow’s planning and tweak it based on what we’re seeing today. What went well in our meeting this morning and what can we change? Who seemed engaged and who was yawning? What do we do about the 10 students who didn’t log on and haven’t replied to emails or messages – how do we make sure they’re ok? We formulate a plan and add phone calls to the list of things to do.
  • Can’t leave the email too long – more have pinged in from students asking for help, advice and reassurance and it’s important to respond quickly so they feel like we’re there with them as much as we can.
  • Take a call from the ES staff member who works in our classroom, planning how she can continue to support the students she works with.
  • Notice that a few students (and parents) are asking about uploading tasks on Google Classroom so create a quick screencast to show them how to do this and upload it. Am grateful that my technology skills are up to this challenge – not sure how I’d be managing right now if they weren’t.
  • Realise it’s now 2pm and I haven’t eaten yet but don’t really have time so rush to the fridge and grab whatever I can find to eat back in my office. Have had some requests from parents to borrow laptops for home learning so I add this to the list – will have to find time amidst all of this to go to school to get them sorted.
  • Afternoon check in with the students to see how they’re going and a message out to parents to thank them for their work, both of which see us receiving further messages that need replying to.
  • Check the washup in Google Classroom – most students have submitted their assignment for the day which now need to be given their final feedback and returned to them, ready for the next day.
  • Webinar to attend ‘after school’ being run by the Department on tools for remote learning – nothing like building the plane while you’re flying it.
  • Still can see comments coming in from the kids and another email from a parent so jump on and reply so that it doesn’t get added to tomorrow’s list.
  • Decide I’d better look at tomorrow’s list to see what the day might look like – lots of tasks that will require me to be at school so I need to time it carefully so that both the tasks and my remote teaching load can both happen.
  • 7pm. My eyes are done from all the screen time, my head is reminding me that I didn’t have enough water today & I’m a whole different kind of exhausted to that which I normally am after a day of teaching. And this is the first week of term. Time to log off, rest up and get ready to do it all again….

The evolution of remote learning or ‘What the heck is it?’

As a student who went to school in country Victoria, remote learning isn’t a new concept although for me it was called ‘distance education’. It involved a pile of material being sent through the post, work done and faxed or posted back and dial in lessons (in an era before the internet) which allowed us to interact with others in our subject. I did 3 out of my 5 Year 12 subjects by distance education and learnt a lot, mostly about my inability to manage my time when unsupervised and how I could complete requirements as quickly and efficiently as possible without actually permanently retaining information or developing skills.

Over the last week, many teaching staff have been spending time thinking about, researching, talking about and planning ‘remote learning’ in case we don’t head back to school after school holidays thanks to coronavirus. A lot of time has been spent discussing and debating what we mean by ‘remote learning’ and what we envisage it looking like.

I’ve really valued the experiences fellow educators have shared on Twitter and documents and suggestions I’ve seen. In the rich information landscape we live in, it’s a potential problem of too much and is a challenge to filter through and work out the best tools when it feels like my inbox is full of educational providers trying to ‘help’ me. Instead of tools and worksheets and schedules, I’ve tried to focus instead on what students need at this time, what myself and my colleagues are capable of providing and what range of needs, backgrounds, support networks and circumstances the students bring.

So here’s what I think is important to consider and think about with remote learning:

  • It’s not school. It’s not even close to school. It won’t look like or sound like school. And that’s ok.
  • It needs to consist of smaller chunks of meaningful, motivating learning that is fun to do. This might mean one or two open ended activities a day rather than 5 strictly timetabled and scripted subjects.
  • Students need a routine but it has to be one that fits and that’s definitely not ‘one size fits all’. We can’t assume all families and all households work like our own so accept and provide flexibility to allow every family to create the routine that works for them. Timetabling specific lesson times could be putting pressure on parents already close to the edge and don’t guarantee any better quality learning than a more open ended approach.
  • It needs to be learning that can be done independently by all learners as we can’t assume that there are adults or older peers at home with unlimited time or patience available to assist. We also can’t assume that adults or carers are all literate, numerate or fluent in ‘eduspeak’ that many of our children are. So keep it simple and make sure it’s something the child won’t need any or much help with.
  • The biggest reason to engage our students in remote learning at this time is to continue some structure and routine for them and keep their active brains ticking over in different ways. Our students’ mental health is being sorely tested and a daily check in with their teacher and some learning activities to engage in could make all the difference, allowing them to focus on something else.
  • It is not the end of the world that we’re not going to meet every curriculum outcome and I think it very unlikely that any child is going to be severely disadvantaged educationally from this disrupted time. Firstly – everyone else is in the same situation and secondly – it’s naive to think learning only happens at school. Learning happens anywhere and everywhere and the learning that happens while sitting on a plastic chair in my classroom is not inherently more valuable than learning that happens anywhere else.
  • Giving kids more screen time isn’t automatically the answer. There are going to be so many times in this that kids turn to a screen – for entertainment, for socialising, to maintain family ties – and yes, there is space there for learning. However it also makes sense to provide as many rich learning opportunities as we can that don’t involve screen time – it’s all about balance.
  • Consider your goals – at the end of this, I hope to have helped my students through it while feeling safe, supported and cared for while also helping them develop some skills in resilience, flexibility, independent learning and time management. I’m not particularly concerned if they haven’t met a particular outcome in the Victorian Curriculum – this is a mere blip in their 13 years of compulsory schooling so there’s plenty of time for that.
  • It’s not school. It’s not even close to school. It won’t look like or sound like school. And that’s ok.IMG_0399

‘For the greater good’

I had strong intentions this year of being more active on my teacher blog. Having just ticked over into my 15th year of teaching, I have as much enthusiasm and passion for this career as I did when I first stepped into the classroom and so many new ideas, big and small that I had on my list for this year. I love having this forum to share them beyond my classrom and, while I haven’t used it much, this year I was coming into it with renewed fervour.

Then the bushfires came. They didn’t directly affect my school….this time. But indirectly they affected all of us and they definitely affected my students, even if none were there at the time. I pushed on with all the things I set out to achieve with my beautiful and energetic grade but found myself working, if at all possible, just a bit harder to ensure their mental health was catered for in challenging times. Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe and loved and, for many, the bushfires shaved some of their sense of safety with the ‘what if’ questions floating into their heads at random times. In small ways that I didn’t notice at the time, my job was a little harder. It’s always been about more than curriculum planning and assessment but the balance towards wellbeing tipped a little further and put new pressures on me. I was ok with that.

And now the world has got the coughs and sneezes. If I thought my students were troubled before, this has shown me that I didn’t even understand what troubled meant. Sometimes it’s showing itself in obvious ways – students who can’t stop talking about coronavirus or washing their hands compulsively or constantly asking questions. For most others, it’s the less obvious but just as powerful signs that I notice because I see these humans every day – anger that flares when it never used to, inability to remain focused on things that used to bring them joy, friendship bubbles where they’ve never had them before. The effort it’s currently taking to make my classroom that safe space where our shared purpose in growing minds happens is getting harder and the balance has tipped so much further to the wellbeing side.

I don’t want this to be a debate about whether or not to keep schools open – I don’t feel either qualified or experienced in that area to be able to comment. As a Government employee, I’ll do what I’m told – if schools stay open, I’ll keep working as I am and helping my students be their best selves. If schools close, I’ll do what I can to help support learning beyond our classroom walls. I just wanted to let those outside of teaching in to see what our days look like right now.

This week is one of the longest I’ve experienced in my education career with each day of uncertainty and change feeling like a week. We are trying to keep things normal and our routines stable in an education system where everything is changing – excursions and camps going ahead one day then cancelled the next, sports days and assemblies cancelled, all the things our students were looking forward to taken away. Our students run around at playtime looking like life ticks on normally but teachers and ES staff are working hard behind the scenes to smooth over the cracks, support and encourage students who are feeling anxious, reassure those who have absorbed incorrect messages from the media and try to inject some fun, even when we’re not feeling much like it ourselves. I have colleagues who worry about their own health and that of their loved ones, unable to go into lockdown ourselves as we’re needed to care for our students who may, as time goes on, unknowingly pass the virus on to their teachers and school staff. Social distancing in a primary school may as well be something in one of the fantasy stories they write – it can’t happen. And as for hand washing? We try, we really do but children of all ages have a complete inability to keep their hands out of…well, anywhere and anything.

None of us want a big deal made and most are willing to do whatever is deemed necessary to get through this as painlessly as we can. ‘For the greater good’ and all that. No one would argue that health care workers aren’t putting in long hours in demanding conditions and at great risk to their own health as part of their contribution to containment efforts. While not in the front line in a medical sense, school staff are under pressure in different ways, trying to provide learning for those at school as well as those who’ve opted to stay home, managing the mental health of our students (and helping our colleagues) while also dealing with our own stress and anxiety like that which every other adult is feeling. A little acknowledgement, particularly from leaders who are talking about whether or not to close schools, that children aren’t alone in those buildings and aren’t those most at risk in this scenario would go a long way towards making us feel like the significant contribution and risk we’re taking is being seen and appreciated.

Growing teachers

I have been fortunate this year to mentor a variety of pre-service teachers in my classroom. Yes, I genuinely mean ‘fortunate’ because the experience is one I’m grateful for, despite the undisputable extra work that it adds. As well as being an opportunity to support and influence the next generation of teachers, it also allows me to see my own teaching through their eyes. It has equally made me reflect on the experiences I had as a pre-service teacher and how they helped me grow into the teacher I am.

One of the most powerful things we can do for our pre-service teachers is give them room – to try things, to flounder a bit, to explore their interests and skills (as well as the things that make them uncomfortable), to make mistakes, to figure out how to fix them. I always hope my pre-service teachers will arrive full of ideas, enthusiasm and an eagerness to jump in and try things. If they don’t, I encourage them with gentle-ish nudges and reminders that this is a safe space with my support for them to work on honing their teaching craft. I reassure them that I don’t expect perfect lessons (not from them or myself) but I expect lessons where they try things and then reflect on their successes and next areas of learning. As much as I want to, I try not to help them out too soon when things go wrong, just give them space and ask the questions that might help them dig their way out of the hole themselves.

We also owe it to our pre-service teachers to give them useful, honest feedback that helps them recognise their strengths and be realistic about the areas they need to develop. Whenever I’m having conversations that involve feedback for my pre-service teachers, I think of how I’ll feel if they end up being a colleague in a couple of years and what support and guidance I’ll wish they’d been given at this crucial point in their career. Telling a pre-service teacher that their tone when speaking to a child contributed to the child’s reaction is the perfect teaching moment, especially when thinking how this may help them in the future and what strategies they can use to change their thinking and behaviours before they become entrenched.

I’m also a firm believer that we need to help our pre-service teachers see how their learning at university provides a solid foundation on which to build their teaching, rather than teaching rounds and university being two separate and distinct sets of learning. I get frustrated when I hear teachers comment that university wasn’t helpful and that they learnt everything they needed once they started teaching. Obviously I’ve only been through one teaching degree so I can’t comment on the preparation from every university but I can say I felt as prepared as I could be. Of course there were things that I didn’t know and my first few years of teaching were the most intense period of induction but I felt like the learning I’d done at university gave me a solid foundation and an understanding of the bigger picture of education into which my day to day teaching fitted. My teaching rounds had helped bridge the gap for me while also giving me access to some outstanding mentors from whom I soaked up every bit of knowledge, experience and guidance I could.

I can only hope that I am providing as successful and useful an experience for my pre-service teachers as I was lucky enough to receive on my teaching rounds and I look forward to continuing to strive to be an effective mentor to our growing teachers.

“004-DSC_0015” by localmattersorg is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Digikids and the quandry of the declining literacy levels

I watched the Four Corners ‘Digikids’ program last night and it got me thinking, as I’m prone to do, about the various literacy debates and where we’re heading.

To begin with, I felt like the program lacked a clear focus – it was about declining literacy levels but skipped from questioning whether this was a lack of direct phonics instruction to how well prepared teaching graduates are to what influence technology has on the whole equation.

And then I realised that perhaps that’s actually the crux of it – literacy education is complex with so many contributing factors. To run a story on just one component would have been an attempt to oversimplify a challenging issue with so many threads, yet that’s so often what people try to do.

Early on in the program, that comment was made that “the current system isn’t working for every child” and I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with this. However I don’t know that any one system ever will as students are all different, bringing a range of skills, experiences and dispositions so it is fair to assume that ‘one size fits all’ won’t work. While we also know a lot of about the elements that make reading instruction effective thanks to extensive research on the topic, there’s still ample discussion on how much of each element is needed and how they should be delivered. The way I see it, the key elements of reading instruction are the proven science of reading and the combination of how much, how often and what it looks like in the classroom are the art.

I have no intention to get into a ‘phonics vs …’ debate because I don’t understand why it has to be phonics vs anything. Why can’t it be phonics + other things? Reading is a complex act that involves not only working out what the squiggles on a page say but also what they mean directly and through implication. Phonics definitely has an important role to play but I’ve also experienced students who arrive in Grade 5 believing they are star readers because they can decode every word of complex text yet can’t tell you a single thing about what they’ve read. I’m also dubious of any method being suggested that involves a whole class of students sitting in front of a teacher repeating sounds over and over with no consideration of what they already know. Where I’ve seen direct phonics instruction be particularly effective it was with small groups of students where sounds and the required practise could be targeted to their needs and gaps.

I also couldn’t help but be plagued with an overwhelming feeling that some people are longing to turn back time to a utopian era where everyone was literate….that never actually existed. Implying that the current system is the only one that has ever ‘failed’ students is wrong – educational history is littered with people who didn’t achieve equally.

So I finish watching still with many, many wonderings and I think that’s a good thing.  One of my wonderings I’ll just leave hanging here as a blog post for another time – are literacy levels actually dropping or is what being literate looks like changing in our modern, digital world?

Literature circles with a side of technology

I’ve just finished reading ‘Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups‘ by Harvey Daniels – a great read that both reaffirmed and made me reflect on my own practice and what areas I could improve. I’ve been using literature circles in my own classroom and those I’ve coached in for 6 years and have certainly made lots of minor tweaks and major changes over that time as I learnt from and with the students.

This year, technology has crept more into our literature circles in small but subtle ways to further enhance what we do.

In our classroom, we have been using the app ‘Equity maps‘ as a way of capturing the discussion, quantifying student involvement and tracking (ultimately to reduce) teacher talk in our literature circle groups. This app allows you to use an iPad to track who is speaking during a group session so that a clear picture of who speaks and how often emerges. I had thought I was keeping my input to a minimum but this app gave me the evidence that that wasn’t the case. It also records the meeting, allowing me to go back later when I have more time to listen more intently to the types of comments and questions students made and what they might need help with next.

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At the request of our students, we’ve also provided a virtual classroom for each of groups, setting up a Google classroom for each of our books. This has seen discussion between students outside of school hours about the chapters they’ve read as well as sharing time and task management strategies and reminders to help everyone stay on track. Initially I was a little concerned that these spaces might increase my own workload but I now realise that these virtual classrooms aren’t about me and don’t really require me (other than as an occasional visitor) – the students are using them in interesting, purposeful and valid ways on their own.

We’re nearly at the end of this round of literature circles and, with the chaos of term 4, may not get time for another round this year. We traditionally finish off with a book review to help the next round of readers decide on their book however we’re considering book trailers this year as a more powerful way of both students showing their learning and influencing others.

I’m also starting to reflect and plan for what things we might improve in the new year. What other opportunities could technology provide for us? I’m keen for us to utilise technology to take our learning and discussion beyond our classroom – meeting in virtual spaces with other readers to discuss our books? Offering access to our virtual classrooms to students from other schools to join in?

In what ways does technology add to your literature circles or books clubs in your classroom?

Igniting a love of reading through literature circles

One of the biggest successes of the last few years for me has been the growth I’ve seen in students through the incorporation of Literature Circles into our reading day. The type of growth I’ve seen spans both quantitative and qualitative measures, including significant improvements in reading benchmarking scores and individual NAPLAN results. Most important is the growth I’ve seen in student attitudes to reading, ability to think deeply and talk about what they read and make connections to other texts and to the world around them to help them understand both.

So what are literature circles and how have we done it?

There are lots of different ways of going about introducing literature circles and numerous blogs, books and guides on the topic. I’m not a fan of the approach that uses ‘roles’ to introduce students to the concept – I have found, even when used as an initial scaffold, they’re still too restrictive and students tend to get stuck in thinking in set ways.

To begin with, we started with great books. That sounds like a given but there is so much ‘fast fiction’ on the market these days and much of it is specifically targeted at schools. To have really good quality discussions about books, you have to start with really good quality books and here are some of the characteristics to look for:

  • rich vocabulary slightly beyond the level of the intended readers;
  • texts with real life themes that will have students asking and contemplating big questions;
  • complex plots with twists that leave the reader wondering what is coming next;
  • relatable characters with all the wonderful and flawed human characteristics;
  • books that students of this age generally wouldn’t choose for themselves.

While this all might seem like a big ask, there are many, many books out there that fit the bill. There is a list of potential title for consideration at the end of this blog.

Getting started – dangling the bait

One of the differences between excited and flat students when it comes to reading is exciting or flat teachers when they talk about reading. I know that sounds harsh but it makes such a difference – enthusiasm is contagious and a vibe students want to be part of. The first step in our literature circles is giving brief book talks about each title on offer to help students decide which is the right text for them. We tell them a synopsis of what the book is about and the genre, the level of vocabulary they’re likely to encounter, something about the main character and their traits and any connections to other titles (eg, “If you loved watching/reading Harry Potter, you’ll love this book!”). Students then get a short time to read the blurb and sample the first page. We stress how important it is to choose a ‘just right’ text for them – enough challenge to allow them to practise their growing skills but not so much that every chapter is a struggle. Students then finish by writing a list of their favourite 4 books to help us put them into groups.

Grouping students

Our students are grouped according to their choice of books. It’s rare that we can give everyone their first choice as we only have 5 copies of each title and their tends to be a certain buzz around certain books each time, often dependent on the chatter from the previous round of literature circles. However we ensure all students get one of the four they chose. If students have chosen a book that will be very challenging for them, we’ll have a discussion with them about this – not to put them off but to make them aware and plan some supports for them to be successful. These might include us getting an audio copy of the book, arranging sessions to read it with someone else or a weekly conference before our literature circle meeting to check in and prepare.

Let the discussions begin

We do a lot of work during our whole class reading sessions on different comprehension strategies and model a lot of how to talk about texts and these developing skills are evident in the way students talk at the start of literature circles. We’ve never needed particular roles to get students talking and, while some students are quieter than others, all have something to say at their own level of understanding. Our roles in the groups are as facilitators and it gives us the opportunity to model the talk we want to hear and to thrown in prompting questions or wonderings to move the talk on to the next level. For example, students might be discussing what has happened in the latest chapters at a quite literal level, talking to understand and recall events. Throwing a question in about why an author included that event or why they’ve written about it from a particular perspective sometimes leads to a bit of quiet thinking time then takes the talk off in another way. We also model how to agree or disagree with someone else’s ideas and how to build on to what they said (rather than repeat it).

What about when they don’t?

Some groups find the conversations easier than others. In some, I sit back and watch as the discussion pings around, arguments and debates happen (respectfully) and themes are suggested.

Some groups seem to sit in silence for a long time, looking awkwardly at each other and waiting for us to step in. We deal with this firstly through encouraging students to be prepared – we ask them to write very brief chapter summaries before coming to the group along with post it notes about any questions they have as they read or words they don’t understand. These are often a great jumping off point for meeting discussions – what were the key parts of the chapters? What vocabulary did the author use – which bits did you like and which bits didn’t you understand? Can we work it out together? Why didn’t the author use an easier word there – why that one?

Little by little, groups gain confidence and are more readily able to talk about what they’ve read. There will always be some students who find it hard to talk in such situations – the preparation they do can help them a lot in feeling confident in speaking and feeling their contribution is valued when they do.

How do we assess it?

We use a checklist adapted from Fountas & Pinnell to track the progress of our students’ skills – in reading, asking questions, talking about themes, providing evidence, working out vocabulary but also in group skills such as including others, being prepared and managing conflict and dissent.

Collecting student chapter summaries is also a valuable source of assessment – they often start off overly detailed but manage to hone it down to the really important parts and key events or characters. Quite often, we produce written artefacts as we talk – character maps showing relationships that develop (or deteriorate), lists of traits of certain characters and evidence to show it or physical maps of locations to get our head around where the action is.

Great – where do I start!

We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few visitors over the past year come and watch literature circles in our classrooms and the question we always get is which books do we start with so that seems like the perfect place to end this blog. List of books below that we’ve used with our Grade 4-6 class:

  • Paper Planes (Steve Worland)
  • Holes (Louis Sacher)
  • The Loblolly Boy (James Norcliffe)
  • The White Tower (Cathryn Constable)
  • The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)
  • When you reach me (Rebecca Stead)
  • Somewhere around the corner (Jackie French)

What does it take to be the ‘best and brightest’?

There has been another stir in the media recently about who should be allowed to become a teacher with the arguments centred on the ATAR (Year 12) score of those applying to teacher education courses. And, on the face of it, I agree – people aspiring to be teachers should demonstrate an ability to digest and teach the subject content required of them and a certain level of intelligence is required to do this.

This isn’t, however, as simple as reaching a certain ATAR score. How well you score on the specific assessments required during one year of your academic life are not a great overall indication of your intelligence or ability to engage with the subject matter.

My other issue is that it takes so much more than the ability to comprehend subject matter to become a teacher. It takes a high level of patience that must be maintained in the frenetic pace of school life. It takes empathy and the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, considering their feelings and reactions and changing your tack accordingly. It takes strong organisational skills to be able to juggle the competing demands, continually changing regulations and requirements and varied tasks that take up your day. It takes skills in negotiation and mediation, managing both interactions with children and their parents as well as skills in collaborating with colleagues.

Throughout my 13 years as a teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor a number of pre-service teachers on their journeys and have found it’s these latter attributes that are harder to foster.

There is also the added complication that, even though you might be an adult with a natural aptitude for, say, maths and science, it doesn’t automatically mean that you will be skilled at creating the conditions required to build a similar level of knowledge in your students.

I could give a number of examples of colleagues with low ATAR scores who are outstanding educators, able to build such effective relationships with students and present material in just the right way to have brain lightbulbs pinging all over their classrooms. I could also tell you about an equal number of colleagues who received high ATAR scores and clearly were subject matter experts but who just couldn’t seem to connect or get through to the students they worked with.

So when you see another media report or education ‘expert’ discussing how important it is that we recruit our ‘best and brightest’ to teaching, consider what attributes being the ‘best and brightest’ might entail. Look beyond their ATAR score to the combination of academic strengths and personal qualities that are both vital in developing teachers that inspire, motivate and educate students.

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