Activity Title: Writing across the secondary curriculum

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Writing across the secondary curriculum series:

Developing writing in secondary English

Anna Mellar demonstrates how to use writing as a tool for learning. She uses metacognition about writing to cause her students to reflect on how the writing can lead to a deeper understanding of the novel being studied.

Developing writing in Senior Visual Arts

Michelle Chivas gives insights into how metaphor can be a powerful tool in supporting students' writing in senior Visual Arts.

Developing writing in History

Glenn Wykes demonstrates how to structure writing in a Year 7 History lesson.

Developing writing in Science

Barbara Doran gives insights into how to teach students to understand that writing in Science needs to have repeatability, validity and objectivity.

Video 1: English

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Anna Mellar: All right, boys. So I’d like to do a bit of journal writing now and what I’d like you to focus on is an evaluation of the process up until now … and if you want, you could talk about how effective you felt it was to write from this one perspective: whether you had to change that perspective because it wasn’t working. What sort of plot unfolded as a result of being in this other character’s shoes. And but also I might just put some triggers on the board as well for you. Things like find the process was just as difficult every time you sat down to do it or did you gain some kind of momentum? Did it become easier? What was the most successful part of your writing and why? And when you select, you know it might be a paragraph or sentence or something that you think works really well in your writing. If you then think about that, was there something about the way you felt or what you were thinking or your process or your …? Whatever it was at that time, that was different. So, I suppose we’re building up a bank of skills and confidence about writing and we’re trying to find out when it’s working, where it’s most successful. The way I had them thinking metacognitively about their writing was to first have them writing from the perspective of one of the minor characters in the novel we’re studying (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) and then to let themselves be carried along by that process, that creative process. That character was then free to engage with other characters either in the world of the novel or without. I did another timed piece of writing where they were to step outside of that creative process and actually look at their methods they were using for writing. So, they were more or less observing the process from the inside. The difficult thing, I suppose, was getting them to be more of a companionable editor to themselves rather than critiquing themselves and criticising themselves. I wanted them to be free to continue that creative process, but also be aware of the sorts of things that were working particularly well for them as writers. I think that for me, one of the main purposes when I set out was to get you guys thinking about … thinking empathically as well as intellectually about prejudice because I think, basically, if you’re not being empathic, you’re not really fully understanding the topic. And I think that you’ve really run with that and, you know, some of you have looked into perspectives I didn’t even think you’d try to imagine. They’re so different from yourself. Does anyone want to talk about empathy with us?

Student: I think it’s a really good way to look at the novel from a different perspective and get an idea of the theme not from like the main character’s view but from someone else and we can see the way the prejudice is maybe different.

Teacher: Sure.

Student: True perspectives.

Teacher: Yeah. It was interesting when I was reading the metacognitive parts of their writing to see the boys did have sudden realisations about something to do with their own writing process. So, that was really interesting to me. There was one boy who was very surprised actually at the direction his writing took. Other boys who were very surprised that they were able to actually establish a voice or take a voice from the novel and extend that. They had the sound of that character’s personality in their inner ear. They were able to listen for that. So, that was quite exciting. I have an understanding of the pitfalls of writing, how stuck you can get, what helps you get going again and often it’s listening to the characters. There’s one student who made the observation that he had begun to write listening to what the character would do as opposed to making the characters do what he wanted them to. And I think that is key to writing: if you really believe in your characters, you have to trust them and really be truthful about what they would do, how they would react, what they would say. Music .

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Video 2: Visual Arts

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Michelle Chivas: I became fascinated with how a metaphor or a word picture was a really powerful tool for Visual Arts students and I think this began when one year there was an exhibition. I asked the boys to use a metaphor in their artist’s statement to explain a word picture of what their art-making process had included. And from that, I remember one boy in particular said that making his art was like playing a game of soccer with a torn hamstring and it was difficult at every turn. And I thought it was a very powerful way of understanding his process. So, when I was looking at the boys’ extended responses in the HSC Visual Arts paper, I thought back to that and I decided to ask the boys in the senior class what would be an appropriate metaphor or simile or word picture that would explain the relationship with their writing; how they felt an extended response actually felt like. So, some of the boys would say … were fairly defeatist and they said, “It was like being Henry VIII’s wife, you try then you die”. And another boy said that writing extended responses was like forty five minutes of really bad asthma. And then another boy, he was probably quite buoyant, said for him writing is like singing in the shower: you think that you’re terrific, but the wider audience has a different view.

Student: So, I’ve got a story from Mrs Dubose’s perspective and it really shows empathy …

Michelle: It ranged to boys that were a little bit more confident. So, one of them said that it was like throwing darts in a snowstorm. And then another boy, who was probably my most confident writer, said it was like shooting a gun at a target and hitting it. So, they varied in the degree of confidence and empoweredness that the boys brought to the task. As a result of that, for example, the boy that was … perceived himself to be throwing darts in a snowstorm … we unpacked that as a genuine response and we learnt that it indicated that he had strong intent. And he actually felt that he was quite equipped; he was quite armed, but the conditions would really confuse him. So, as a result of that we looked again. We continued looking at the parameters of how the exam paper is set out, the time expectations. But in particular, we looked at decoding major words in the questions from the last eight years and, as a result of that, this particular student did a number of practice essays. And so between the time when we did our metaphor lesson and the time he did his next examination, he actually moved his extended response mark from a sixteen out of twenty-five to a twenty-one out of twenty-five. And he’s maintained that position in the Trial as he followed on. So, that was gratifying to see that if you understand where you are in a word picture, then visual learners like myself and like the students that I teach, they have some tools then so they can look at their preparation or their process or their performance and they can sort of develop more of an authentic voice but also one that’s more appropriate to the task. I’ve chosen to do this exploration of metaphor with my senior boys because it directly relates to the demands of the HSC and I have a more comprehensive engagement with them but I do think it’s suitable for younger years. So, for example, even at a Year 7 level when we’re constructing our artist statements, the boys are still trying to grapple with how to put their thoughts into words that does justice to their art-making using subject-specific vocabulary – all of those sorts of expectations. But as well as that, certainly with the next Year 11 coming through, I’ll repeat this in a more extensive form because I think it has … it’s given the boys and myself something, a dialogue really about the variety of ways you can approach a task and that there’s a variety of options you can sort of put in place as a result. After the initial work on metaphors with the senior students earlier in Term 1, after they had done a Term 2 examination and a Trial examination we spoke again and we revisited their metaphors and word pictures to see if they were still appropriate. And some of the boys had shifted in confidence because they’d made an improvement. But we also looked at a strong sample of, another strong sample of writing and thought what would it feel like to be a successful and confident writer in extended responses. And I got the boys to construct a metaphor or word picture for what they would feel like about their writing and that helped me understand where the boys want to be. And the sort of illustrations that they used were things like writing a successful extended response is like walking into a classy restaurant and saying, “I’ll just have the usual”. So, there was the predictability and there was the esteem and there was the pleasure of achieving. Another way that the boys described it was that it would be just like breathing or like a monkey peeling a banana. They like the idea of writing becoming more effortless and having more confidence in their product. Music .

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Video 3: History

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Glenn Wykes: Year 7, welcome today. It’s an exciting day simply because after two weeks you’ve been researching, you’ve been thinking, you’ve been creating, you’ve been planning your essay. Today’s the day that you finally get to write it. You get to actually put into practice everything that you’ve been doing for two weeks and start writing. Now, when you get a question, you’re not going to start writing straight away. I’ve seen so many people start essays straight away and what happens is that the argument gets confused because you start looking at another topic and you realise, ‘Ooh, hang on that changes. That’s different to what I’ve written.’ And then you have to change what you’ve written. And what happens is that your argument gets confused. So, by taking two weeks to think about it, hopefully now, you’re at the point that you can write but not be confused. I mean if you think about it. If you’re a number nine playing the All Blacks: if you’re going from a scrum half and you pass out to the number ten, you want to know what side the number ten’s on. You don’t want to be looking for him not knowing where to go. The most effective strategies I’ve seen the students benefit from have been the scaffolding across the whole writing process but also scaffolding each individual task. Having the boys being able to see what a good response can be and then taking that away and then letting them try. Often we are so restricted by time to be able to give them the time to actually practise their writing that providing that time in an environment where they have the scaffolding and the tools to be able to become effective in their writing has been most effective. Another, if not more effective tool, was actually getting them to teach a topic and the accountability that that provides with their peers but also as much as we as teachers think we might be the centre of the educational process, I think students often listen to their peers more than they listen to us. And so to engage and let peers give effective feedback to their peers means that I think the processing happens at a deeper and more meaningful level.

Student: What do you have for your answer? Well, I’ve got health and supplies because like it’s hard to fight when you’re starving and dying of smallpox. Yeah, but the Spanish crew, the Spanish probably learnt off the other tribes and then maybe made alliances, they probably learnt like from the other tribes what they could eat from plants and everything. So, it’s not really that valid. Yeah, I suppose. Although weapons and tools is a pretty big point because like it’s a lot easier when you’re wearing armour that covers like your chest, legs, pretty much everywhere, whereas the Aztecs would just like, I don’t know, be wearing fur. Well, that being said they were pretty different in culture. Yeah. And even though the Aztecs did not have armour but they did have very different war tactics.

Glenn: I’ve seen quite a few good responses there ... with that scaffolding and paragraph done. Now, if you took away that scaffolding, if you took away the framework that was holding that paragraph together, you’re now going to have a paragraph. So, what I want you to do for homework is to write your paragraph, the same one that you’ve got here scaffolded for you, just on blank lined piece of paper. So, your homework is to write one paragraph about the topic that you’ve just chosen as your number one and that you’re prepared to write using this scaffolding. Music .

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Video 4: Science

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Barbara Doran: We use writing in Science to help the boys understand the structure and the language features that are associated with writing a scientific report. We call them ‘experimental reports’. And beyond that we need them to understand the importance of the role of writing in the scientific method and how that’s used by scientists across the world in the protocols of science. So, we begin with Year 7 by looking at a very poorly written experimental report that I write deliberately badly and the boys work through a series of language exercises where they identify what’s wrong with the report. So, we look at things like chronology. We look at the use of first and second person pronouns. We look at future tense or present tense. We look at exaggeration; too much description – things that make their writing more like a piece of English writing than a piece of scientific writing. Our aim is to get the boys to identify the importance of their scientific writing being factual, being concise and being objective. And they really do struggle in their transition between prep school and the end of Year 10 in trying to make their writing objective, in particular. We work through a series of highly structured lessons. So, by the end of those lessons they have an understanding of what sorts of punctuation they need to use, what pronouns they need to use and what tense the writing needs to be in in order for it to appear to be scientific. The higher issue and the deeper thinking is about: How does that type of writing influence their thinking about protocols in Science? How does the fact that their writing is consistent and concise? How does that relate to reliability in scientific reports across the world? The fact that their writing is in past tense: How does that relate to the idea of publishing data in scientific reports across the world? So, the idea of repeatability leads to a very complex concept of reliability. Repeatability in Science is quite easy for junior boys to understand and that concept gets developed further in their HSC where they’re required to comment on and discuss reliability and validity in experimental design. And many students in the HSC struggle with that concept. And in my experience I’ve found boys, in particular, they find it difficult to express what makes a particular experimental design valid and how is the data collected from that reliable? So, with Year 7, we’re not going to get to that level of sophistication. But if we can start them thinking along the lines that the conventions of writing, in their scientific reports, have a purpose in terms of scientific method, we should be able to make that transition in Year 10 into 11 and 12 a little easier for them. So, we move from rewriting a very badly written experimental method to actually doing the experiment. Now, it’s a fun experiment. It’s a hydrogen test. The boys have never done it before. It gets very noisy, very excitable in class because there’s a small explosion depending on how well you do the experiment. They can make an explosion. They can do it over and over again. They think it’s terrific. So, we do the experiment following a very well written method and then at the end of that lesson, they write that experiment up – again, being guided through a repetition of all the language features and the structures that we’ve looked at. At the end of that lesson, they then are challenged by me to write the opposite of that. And, in my thinking, this is one way of me understanding whether or not they’ve understood why we’re harping at the language features and structural features of the experimental report. So, I encourage them to do the most unscientific version of the experiment that they’ve just written up in very scientific form. They only have one rule and that is that the steps involved in the method of this hydrogen test must be embedded in the narrative. They only get two pages to do it. So, it’s a very short narrative and they must use the opposite of all of the language features that we’ve studied. So, they must use too many adjectives, too many adverbs. They need to use exclamation marks. They need to use direct speech. They need to use similes, metaphors, personification, drama. We want exaggeration. We want unreality. So, and they only get one night to draft it, we then work through their drafts; we try and edit them without knocking the edges off the excitability that they take home. They normally leave the lab laughing and thinking about what it is they’re going to do that night in their story. And some of the stories that they bring in have blown me away. One boy decided to write from the perspective of a matchstick in the box of matches and his girlfriend was Maggie Magnesium, who was a strip of magnesium in the test tube that we used. And he started his story by describing how his house shook and how he could feel the rumbling in the house and how the roof slid open and one of his cousins was dragged from his bed and had his head scraped against the side of the house, as his head exploded in flames. And he went on with that level of drama and excitement and tension and described how, as a match, he had to watch his girlfriend, Maggie Magnesium, scream in agony as the acid poured over her body and she dissolved in a burning mass of flame. They were unbelievable. And I feel … we got time at the end to go through and look at the differences. Obviously, the boys loved writing the narrative way more than they loved writing the experimental report. But the important thing for me is that they understood that in that narrative, no one could repeat that. And therefore as a scientist, if every scientist wrote without these conventions of language, the idea of repeatability and reliability and validity in scientific method is meaningless. So, we need those conventions to make the scientific method work. And if the boys take away the idea that science writing is objective and factual and concise, that’s enough. In Year 7, if they can take away a bigger understanding of where that heads in Science, that will be ideal. Music .

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