7 boys, a mum & 28 pre-service teachers: A narrative of challenges

This post also addresses prompt number 6 in the #edublogsclub challenge – Challenging situations.

Once upon a time….

No, sorry…

This semester sees me working with 2nd-year pre-service teachers. The unit is the same as the one from 2016 and once again we get to go out to a school in Week 3 and ‘teach’ a couple of Year 7 students on campus. This is usually done during our tutorial time, however, this year proved to be a little challenging in that our tutorial time is 4-6 pm!! Um, schools don’t usually have students ready to go at that time – but alas – the time slot couldn’t be changed regardless of how important this ‘teach’ visit is to my students’ first assignment, (that’s another story!).

Anyhow, let’s not get side-tracked. I wanted to share once again the wonderful adventure we had that afternoon and how we managed to pull it off considering we went from 28 Year 7 boys willing to participate, all the way down to 6. With pizza and choc mud cake on the menu, the boys signed up to remain after school and participate in the activity. Until…

The bribe

They realised it was actually parent/teacher/student (P/T/S) interview evening and they finished school at 2 pm! The numbers dwindled down to 10 boys, and with only a couple of days before the activity, we went to Plan B – there is always a Plan B!

The hour we had with the students would need to be split into two. We have 10 boys participating in two sessions. This would be okay, as the teaching was only for 30 minutes, so my own pre-service teachers would be prepared and it would not impact on their lesson plan. Emails were sent to all and preparations made. I would pick up the food and make my way to the school, arriving in time to feed the students and set up the space. A half dozen of my students, who didn’t have a class before the tutorial would meet me to help with preparations. And then the phone rang…

It’s the day of the activity.

“Hi Jo. How are you going?”

It’s my contact from the school.

The conversation goes something like this….’Everything is okay. We are all set to go except we are now holding the activity in the library and not in the performing arts centre (where I told my students to meet me). No problem we’ll send the boys down to direct them. See you later in the afternoon.’

All good.

And then the phone rang…again…

“Hi Jo. How are you going?”

It’s my contact from the school.

“I’ve got some bad news.”

We are now down to 6 students.

Time for Plan C. Hang on. I don’t really have a Plan C. I have 11 groups (28 students in 2s and 3s) and 6 students. Each group except for 2 are expecting to be teaching 2 Year 7s for 30 mins. I get in my car to pick up the food and head on over to the school. Plan C, if I had one, won’t work, at least not without disppointing my students.

Later, at the school, I’m so happy to see my students who have arrived early as promised. We make our way to the library space, Plan C still isn’t coming.

“Hi Miss!” exclaim 2 little Year 7 boys awaiting our arrival.

I already feel better.

“Here boys, have some pizza. Now while we set up why not go find a friend to join us?”

“Ok,” they reply enthusiastically.

They soon return with another student willing to join in. That’s 7. Is Plan C on it’s way?

Slowly my other pre-service teachers begin to arrive while a few get caught in traffic and message to say they are running late. No problem. Plan C is slowly appearing. We have 3 groups already here and we’re 30 mins early – let’s start the first session and instead of 2 rotations we’ll do 3, plenty of time till 5 pm! H-E-L-L-O … Plan C!

And so the sessions begin.

In no time at all we have paper planes flying, gold coins appearing and science experiments taking shapes.

Planes, coins & science

My pre-service students keep arriving and another student arrives after finishing with P/T/S interviews in tow with mum and dad ready to join in the learning. “Please join us, mum and dad, you’re most welcome!” Mum is keen. So now we have 7 boys (yes I know that should be 8 but one has to leave to attend the interviews so really it’s still 7). The boys grab another piece of pizza and make their way to join another group ready to go again. In this session we’re doing kinetics, working probability and travelling to the land of ancient Egypt. There is also evidence of more science experiments to do with chocolate. I also spot one young man exploring through a paper telescope – I can’t wait to read about that one!

I spy…

Ancient emoji?

30 minutes later … A-N-D … TIME! Last cycle: the 7 boys and the mum rotate one last time. In this session I find more science experiments, this one has balloons and looks very interesting. In another corner, Japanese is being taught, while yet another group is deep into the medieval world and a third is working on area and perimeter – looks and feels nothing like when I went to school. Much laughter and engagement prevail and it looks like Plan C worked!


More pizza and mud cake, lots of thank yous and satisfaction prevails. We did it!

Time for reflection….

Reflecting on our teaching

Many thanks once again to De La Salle Malvern and especially their Year 7 coordinator who supported us all throughout this process, including entertaining the idea of having students stay after school to accommodate our tutorial time. Hopefully next year common sense will prevail and the tutorials will all be scheduled during the school day when students are actually in school!

Thanks for reading 🙂

So what if the beach was a whiteboard?

In today’s classrooms on at least one wall, there exists a whiteboard – used to be a blackboard but those days are long gone. I’m wondering then if maybe it’s almost time to sign off on whiteboards. Yes, I know we have those interactive numbers in many schools but even so…I’m not convinced they are being used to capacity.

Since it’s supposed to be summer in Melbourne – I say ‘supposed to be’, cause I’m currently at the beach in a lovely new house on holiday, just a few minutes walk from the beach, and it’s freezing… aside from that… what if the beach was a whiteboard? What might this look like?

This post was initially prompted and began swirling in my head by a couple of photos sent to me in November when most kids were busy studying for upcoming exams. It was cemented in me last night when walking along the beach here and happening upon some wonderful sand drawings.

sand drawing

What prompts children (and adults) to write and draw in wet sand? Have you ever thought about it?

I bet you’ve done it.

Thomas was prompted to write in the sand while studying for his English exam. Yes, really. He scraped out quotes from his novel as a way to remember them. Funny. No one encouraged him to do it, in fact, he was on his own down at the beach and then…he picked up a stick.

He tells me he actually planned to walk down to the beach so he could write them in the sand.

Thomas’ sand quotes


“I didn’t have a whiteboard. I usually write them on a whiteboard, rub them out and write them again.” At the beach, he didn’t need to rub them out. It was expansive enough to just move on to another space and repeat.


Thomas purposefully adapted his preference for learning and used his immediate access to the sand in order to learn.

As he stands back to admire his writing, passers-by are curious.

“It’s okay,” says Thomas, “I’m just revising for my English exam.”



Is that what it is?


Thomas doesn’t think so – for him, he was just studying, thinking, adapting to his environment, taking advantage of what he had – a stick, a voglia, (desire) to explore learning, sand, prior knowledge and experience.

So what if the beach was a whiteboard?

How might you use it for learning?

Thanks for reading 🙂

Reading from the outside in

A new term usually signals a new text we have to ‘teach’. In many cases there’s a 90% chance that your students haven’t read the novel in advance and if they have, well, that’s a bonus.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of ways to try and get students involved with the class texts. I’ve sat in on meetings where teachers decide which novels their students should read in which year level and during which term. I’ve been in on discussions as to whether to allow the film version to be studied and what the sparknotes might have to offer.

I’ve had occasion to actually introduce novels in a few classes over the years with great success (usually as a CRT or while on a short term contract) even though I’m not a trained English teacher. This is what I have to offer…

Reading the novel from the outside in

There are many students who don’t like to read, especially not books that are prescribed by their teachers. However, until we change our ways and actually allow the students themselves to choose their own novels  – now there’s an idea – we need to find ways to engage them. We need to ‘hook’ them into learning.

Blue book

Blue book

For a student to connect with their novel we have to tease them into wanting to know more. Therefore I never begin with the Forward or the Introduction and nor do I begin at Chapter One. In fact, I don’t even do this in my own reading, which is probably why I was a little disappointed when the book I put on hold last week turned out looking like this (Blue book). I know I’m going to need to make some effort in reading it over the coming weeks (sighs). So what is it that would engage my students and I into reading a book? What’s the hook? For me it’s going to be the cover – front and back.

For this experiment, I’d like you to grab a novel or any book close by and follow the prompts while simultaneously developing a mind map by hand or using any brainstorming apps:

Here’s mine;

One version of the cover – ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time’

  1. Have a good look at both the front and back, and write down everything you see (use adjectives to really help describe what it is, e.g. 6 red cars and extend the mind map). This is even more interesting if your students have different editions.
  2. Ask questions of the students – What does the colour ‘red’ represent? Extend the mind map as students respond – red, love; anger…

    beginnings of mind map

    Beginnings of  a mind map

  3. What of the awards? Google and add info to mind map
  4. Keep going – accept all responses as students begin to engage with your questions. They may have some of their own. Ask.
  5. They may want to add colour or other images which they can draw or download.
  6. Now get them to read the blurb
  7. Who is the main character?
  8. What do you know about this character from reading the blurb? Explore further the idea about not understanding human beings. Do they know anyone like this in their own lives?
  9. What more have you learnt about the dog?
  10. Keep building the mind map…Are there any other characters mentioned? Who are they?
  11. What kind of novel is this? Mystery – who likes mysteries? Tell me about something mysterious…
  12. What mysteries might the main character unravel in this novel? Write a paragraph we can compare later…or draw a picture…or record your idea on your device…

Let’s find out what happens shall we?

And so only then do we turn to Chapter 1 – ‘It was 7 minutes after midnight.” #hooked

Try it; I’d love to hear how it goes.

The mind map can be updated, re-designed, discussed, and dissected as they go through the novel – extending and comparing their first thoughts and developing ideas for later analysis. Some students might like to follow along using the audio version as they read through the book. Did you know that there is a stage production of the novel and even an overview?

So, how did you go with your book? Do you think this could work in your classes? Are you willing to have a go? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading 🙂


5 things I want my pre-service teachers to know

Of course, if you’ve been following this blog you already know that one of my professional goals was to teach pre-service teachers and that this semester I am privileged to have my own tutorial group of 29 students. Given the large number and the course outline which stipulates that they must prepare and deliver a 30-minute lesson first to a couple of Year 7 students in a school -you can read about that here – and then to their peers during our tutorial time over 6 weeks it leaves me very little time to review or give feedback out loud. Our sessions are all about getting everyone a turn to deliver their class, while feedback is provided in writing or sent via email after the sessions. I have to say, there has been much learning in these sessions and as second year students they have done a great job!

Next week the students are due to go out on their professional practice rounds and so there will be no tutorials scheduled for two weeks after which there is only one more session for the semester aaarrgghhh!

Hence this blog post. I really want my pre-service teachers to know the following:

1. Relationships



All of you have delved into this area at some point in your peer teaching session but I cannot stress it enough for when you are teaching and learning students. It does not take much to learn your students and does get easier the longer you remain in the most rewarding of all professions. However, sometimes we forget, especially when our own baggage comes in with us into the learning space. I have always said and will continue to do so – when going into your learning space, leave your baggage outside as there will be no room for it given there are between 25 and 29 other pieces coming in. Please remember that those students come into the learning space with needs, some with more needs than others, but they always need to feel safe, to be respected, to be loved (you know what I mean here) and for you to believe they can and be prepared to show them how.

2. Aims & Objectives

SMART goals

SMART goals

There is a clear difference between aims and objectives but they are constantly running into each other. Your aim (usually only one) is what you hope to achieve or the overall big picture item. The objectives are the steps that need to be taken to achieve the aim. In other words long- term plan and lots of short term plans to make the journey more enjoyable, less stressful and more achievable. Objectives usually begin with verbs – doing words. I encourage you to use the S.M.A.R.T goal process in developing them.

By the end of the lesson/class/week the students will be able to….(now list the objectives based on SMART).


3. Information overload

MacMeekin's infographic on Blooms 'revised' Taxonomy

MacMeekin’s infographic on Blooms ‘revised’ Taxonomy

So you are about to plan and teach a class -how much information is enough? By information I mean knowledge and skills. I think you can never have enough knowledge and skill but one can only digest certain amounts at particular times. This is mostly true if you are ‘feeding’ them the information. I want to remind you that you don’t have to have all the knowledge nor do you have to give them all the answers. I’d like to see you take more risks and allow time for students to explore a little more and hence develop their own skills and knowledge. Consider practical applications to encourage your students to think, to evaluate and to analyse. Why do they need to know this? How will it help them in the future? These are sometimes really hard questions to answer especially when there is a set curriculum to get through. Don’t be afraid to accept any teaching moments that occur BUT be wary you are not leading them down the garden path. Incorporate into your lessons some Bloom’s Taxonomy – you don’t have to do it all, all of the time but we do have to move from just receiving and regurgitating knowledge for testing and then forgetting all about it. Create ‘fun’ ways for them to seek, find and apply.

4. Learning activities



While it is important for students to develop collaborative skills, there are many who don’t enjoy it, feel they have nothing to offer, or take advantage of the others and choose not participate. Sound familiar? As a pre-service teacher you need to build a repertoire of different ways you can get them to collaborate without saying, “Okay now let’s get into groups and discuss…”  Sometimes it’s important to allow them time to think on their own or perhaps with just one other peer. The way you ask is also crucial  – let them know there is no one answer – I always like to say for example, “What do YOU think of ….?” ” Can you give me an example from your own experience ….” “What does your partner think of ….” These types of questions don’t require correct answers because it’s their opinion and these are the types of queries that help build confidence and lets them know that what they think is important and they are encouraged to share it if and when they wish. Can you think of ‘fun’ ways to group your students without exclaiming the dreaded “Okay now let’s get into groups and discuss…”? Why not share them below so we can all begin filling our tool box. 

5. Thinking scaffolds

FAIL - First Attempt In Learning

FAIL – First Attempt In Learning

Every student has different learning needs and every class is different and I understand that this can be quite overwhelming for any teacher but most especially for pre-service teachers. Don’t be intimidated by this, remember what I said; each of your students needs to feel safe in your classroom, a place where it’s okay to make mistakes and that learning is challenging (this is good) but there are plenty of scaffolds you can use to help them get to the goal. Providing scaffolds my dear pre-service teachers is not the same as giving them the answers or making it easier -they are different kinds of challenges that don’t overwhelm students and burden them so they give up. Think of it this way…there is treasure on the other side of a deep, deep forest and each student will take a different path through that forest to reach it. Some students are armed with sickles and make their way quickly only having to stop when the trees are very thick to re-think their options. Other students take their time and discover little entry points here and there and follow the paths, stopping at lookout points along the way to take photos, others plunge into the forest without a plan and soon find themselves lost and without supplies, another lot of students stand at the clearing, too frightened to attempt the journey in case they are discovered as imposters as they haven’t a clue where to begin. These are the students in your class; there might even be others. Scary isn’t it?



Everyone will learn, eventually, you just have to help facilitate and encourage that learning through scaffolds. It is always a good idea to begin with a plan, ask questions -both open ended and closed and discuss some scenarios. “What would you do if…?” “What options do you have?” “Which option would you be willing to try? Why?” “What do we need to …?”

Step by step graphic

Step by step graphic

You may give them some tools to use to clarify their thinking – my favourites are graphic organisers and there are hundreds of websites and apps you can use just google it and see. I also think that if each student had a chance to discover which 2 or 3 were their favourites they could use them over and over when they needed to plan out their thoughts.

There are, of course, many more things I would like to tell you but taking my own advice in information overload, I’ll leave that for another time.

Finally my dear pre-service teachers, remember teaching and learning is meant to be ‘FUN’ don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Now get out there and make a difference!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Understanding the ‘cryptic assessment task’: The English Language Proficiency problem.

This week I attended a presentation at Monash University about English Language Proficiency (ELP) at university level. I recently secured a casual position at the University as a Conversational English Programs Facilitator, so this event was timely and very relevant and I’m glad to have received an invitation.

I’m very excited about this position and hope to make a difference and assist as best I can with academic and conversational English in particular, for our international students at Monash. The Senior Manager, Marta Skrbis, at Conversational English Programs provided some details regarding numbers: there are currently over 580 000 international students studying in Australia and it is expected that by 2020 Australia will be hosting 1 million students from overseas countries. At Monash in 2015 there are almost 24000 international students, that’s close to 40% of total enrolments! WOW!

Are you getting the picture as to why ELP is on the agenda and should remain on the agenda? People think that just because students are enrolled at university level they automatically have proficiency (competency) in English. The presentation covered many important elements but at the top of my agenda for the sake of this post remaining at an acceptable word count I would like to focus on ‘cryptic assessment tasks’ (as one audience member described them). You see the questions that got my attention, thanks to one of three speakers, Dr Rowena Harper, were thought provoking:

  1. Is English the problem?
  2. Is it students who are struggling?
dictionary entry

dictionary entry

As a secondary school teacher I have to say that university is not the only place one can find ‘cryptic assessment tasks’. Over the years I have come across some extraordinary tasks that have been distributed to students and that have successfully extended them as learners. They have been creative, challenging and even fun to do. Other tasks have been successfully differentiated to meet individual learners’ needs, some even modified effectively. And yes there is a difference.

So what are ‘cryptic assessment tasks’?  They are such that what is asked of the student is not clear cut. It may contain words the student cannot decipher -I don’t mean that they can’t look it up in the dictionary for definition- I mean they cannot apply the ‘skill’ it requires of them because they have not yet been taught how.

Take for example this task: Summarise the main points in the following article and reflect on the message it is trying to relay to the reader.

Okay let’s highlight the key words:

Summarise the main points in the following article and reflect on the message it is trying to relay to the reader.

So these are the VERBS -the actions the student must undertake in order to be successful in realising the task objective. Let’s take SUMMARISE  – what does that mean? Sorry, I didn’t finish the thought -What does it mean to one who is not proficient in English? (Please note: This is not only those students with an additional language, or those born overseas, or recent arrivals but also those who were born here). You see one major factor that came out of the presentation was that ELP is for ALL students. Another important aspect is that ELP is really about COMMUNICATION PROFICIENCY – spoken and written.

Here are the first three hits on google using the words ‘definition summarise’:

1. give a brief statement of the main points of (something),

2. to make a summary of; state or express in a concise form,

3. using your own words to shorten a piece of text so that it includes only the essential information.



Now to the next verb: REFLECT. For this definition I’m going to use part of Rowena’s slide from the presentation. In this context,

Reflect def

It also has very little to do with a mirror.

Lithograph by M. C. Escher, 1935

Lithograph by M. C. Escher, 1935

And lastly, RELAY.

passing the baton

passing the baton

Now, if the student had some experience of athletics or swimming then he or she might think it means taking turns with a team of people but did you also know that a relay is an electrically operated switch? Of course, in this case we mean it to be communicate, tell, share… or maybe it means analyse, synthesise, evaluate? Does the student know which and how?

Let’s return to the original task: Summarise the main points in the following article and reflect on the message it is trying to relay to the reader.

Let me ask you this: As the teacher, what would you do first?

Read the article to the class?

Have students take turns to read aloud?

Have them read it silently?

Set the task for homework?

Set up some sort of collaborative task for them?


Let me tell you what I would do first as the teacher;  I would make sure they understand what it means to summarise, reflect and relay, in THIS context. I would provide examples and begin the discussion.

The task can wait.

Your thoughts…?

Thanks for reading 🙂