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 🙂

‘Salsa dancing’ into my second year p/t PhD: A MOOC reflection

I just re-enrolled for 2016 (confidence) and promptly got a response that I hadn’t been successful in so doing (frustration) only to have a third email relay difficulties the university is having with re-enrolment processes and reassuring me that I had indeed been successful in re-enrolling (confusion). Phew! I remember thinking at the time – Really? I’m not re-enrolled? (fear) Is this a sign? (confusion again) Should I be re-thinking this? (and fear) But my good sense (more confidence) told me I should just let it go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on MOOC #survivephd15 with @thesiswhisperer et al. is that everything I’ve felt, am feeling, will feel throughout my PhD journey has a name, some research to back it up, and strategies to deal with it (curiosity).

This week I’ve been reading Kristin Luker’s book Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences (2008). I like how she writes. I can hear her saying the words, giggling when I do and reading seriously when I am. Infact the first chapter begins “I’m serious. Really I am.”

Me too!

Reflecting on my own blog posts about my PhD I can pretty much put a label on each entry. Everything I have written about fits into an emotion from the MOOC. Extraordinary!

In my first post about my PhD I discuss my reasons for beginning the journey itself:

This research is relatable – in fact it relates to a very important part of my memory and attitude to teaching and learning. I do this because I will never forget what it felt like to not understand what other people were talking about.

It’s personal.


In my first blog about my journey beginnings I promptly announce that I have been preparing for this all my life. Now that’s confidence!


There’s been plenty of frustration this last year, including potential supervisors telling me ‘you can’t do that type of research, just too much work.’ Reading between the lines it really meant “I’m too busy.” Luckily my existing supervisor who was very supportive helped me find my current supervisor -an inspiring individual who had no issue joining the team. In fact our team meeting just this week was a really fun and engaging learning experience!


Lonely? Are you kidding? Not anymore with my great new PhD mates on MOOC, twitter and facebook.  This experience has been terrific and I hope that it continues into the future. My final submission was an idea to begin a tweetchat using the #survivephd15 1st Thursday of every month beginning Dec 3, 2015 at 8:30 – 9.30 pm AEST. I’d be happy to moderate/ co-moderate and have guest moderators if anyone is willing

I have prepared the first three months worth  – 6 questions per chat with the themes of MOOC running through each but with a twist. More details will follow via social media as the time draws nearer. I do hope you will join me in helping to maintain the wonderful support network we have shared throughout the MOOC and retain it as a place to continue to post and share ideas and resources and even get a pat on the back or a supportive word when needed!



For me fear is a motivator – I work well under pressure.




There have been plenty of times when confusion and self doubt creep into my thinking. The process of becoming continues and I think it’s just one of those things that will be just out of reach until perhaps one day I will be submitting my PhD and it will be good – no more confusion or self doubt. Well, at least until the next process begins.


This post is part of the November #HDRblog15 challenge @debsnet announced as her final activity for MOOC. Never a dull moment. I look forward to sharing and hearing about all of our PhD journeys.



Thanks for reading 🙂

I will survive my PhD


Inside front cover of my journal

Over the last five weeks or so I have been privileged, as have been many others from all over the world to be part of Inger Mewburn – The Thesis Whisperer’s MOOC course “How to survive your PhD” via EdX and ANU.

To date we have covered, amongst others, modules to do with Confidence, Frustration and Loneliness. Each module has related readings and videos to read and watch as well as a weekly periscope live chat, twitter feed and a myriad of Facebook pages that have been set up to assist in sharing resources, feelings, and whatever else we may need or seek. Sometimes we even get homework! Last week’s was to go out and meet up with other PhDs over coffee!


Homework complete!


For me as an older PhD student, at 51, the MOOC course was something that I jumped at – not to mention – I love the Thesis Whisperer.

My favourite module to date has to be the Loneliness topic only because all of a sudden the social network seemed to have exploded as the course becomes ever more popular. I have had the opportunity to connect with great fellow PhD students including the ever growing Facebook page PhD Owls -Older, Wise Learners.

PhD Owls

My cup tipped for all PhD Owls

While there has been discussion in regards to whether loneliness is good or bad and if it needs to be cured at all. I feel there are instances where some ‘alone’ time is essential to all but especially to me as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, neice, friend, cousin, educator, learner, teacher, PhD student and a human being. Alone time allows for me to read out loud, to walk around the house with a book or my laptop, gesticulating and making weird expressions – now they know – without having to answer to anyone. I like breaking up my learning with cooking, cleaning, folding, washing, etc. – they call it procrasti-something (replace as required)! Right now I’m sitting at my kitchen bench having moved from the study, to the lounge, into the dining room and finally to here, all after having done three loads of washing, made our bed, stripped the one in the guest room, baked a chocolate cake, and put the dinner on. My friend cancelled lunch on me today and secretly I am quite happy as it’s given me more ‘me’ time. I miss catching up with my mate but just today it seemed better for me to stay in and just get on with things, including this post that I started early this morning -now almost 5:30 in the afternoon.

I haven’t really done too much PhD reading today but I’ll tell you what, I’ve thinking about what I read yesterday. This week is all about Freire and critical pedagogy. You may have come across my post on the PhD Owls Facebook page which got a whole lot more attention than I anticipated and hooked me up with a few others who were interested and/or contemplating Freire themselves. We even exchanged some resources. See, I’m not lonely -well at least not this week so much. I just figure my way of beating the loneliness factor is getting on MOOC and bam! I write this blog with the idea that someone may read and comment and get me thinking differently. That’s how I stay connected -oh – and did I mention twitter? I love twitter. ‘Hello my name is Jo and I’m a twitter addict.’

I felt like I was there with the MOOC gang last night during the live periscope chat on Loneliness, a little awkward that the meet up didn’t quite work out but it was a lot of fun from the ‘outside in’ anyhow. My favourite part is logging in early and listening in as Inger and the gang chuckle at posts and stick their head in view to tell me only 4 minutes till we start, but secretly we’ve started – it’s like my other favourite ‘thing’ to do – taking photos of people I love and care for while they are unaware. It tends to give them this whole new perspective and mostly it reveals how comfortable they are within themselves and when interacting with others.

There’s a party going on around them but these two have got their own little ‘festa’ going on…

Anyhow, I just wanted to give a shout out to all PhDs on MOOC and to The Thesis Whisperer and her gang of helpers just to let them know how much I am enjoying the course and the interactions on social media. I love telling non PhDs about it and watching them roll their eyes or laugh out loud or look at me like I’ve got two heads – Where do you find the time? I make it cause it’s worth it. I will survive my PhD. I am not an imposter. I am smart enough to get into a PhD and therefore I will come out with a PhD. I won’t be scared and I’ll try not to doubt myself. I will survive…wait…is that a song?

Thanks for reading 🙂