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Big Writing workshop @ #tmslfringe12

The workshop I’m am leading at #tmslfringe12 is on my experiences of using Big Writing in my classroom.  I don’t profess to be an expert as I have received no official training (cluster has arranged this for February inset).  Hopefully though people will leave with some new ideas they can use in their classroom.

Don’t worry if you weren’t able to attend because if you click here I have collated all the Big Writing resources I have found so far.

There are also resources available on Ros Wilson’s website.

Big Writing Timer

One Minute Writing
March 21, 2012

There are times when I have felt very demoralized when I read the children’s writing.  I teach Primary 4  in the north of Glasgow.  No matter how much input I give there are some children who simply do not like writing.

Recently I have started doing One Minute Writing.  It is a great way of using the odd 10minutes before breaks that can happen for a variety of reasons.

The first time I used this was after a fire drill and there was 10 minutes between getting back to class and the morning break.  The children were noisy and restless.

As their literacy jotters were on their desks I asked them to put the heading One Minute Writing and the date.  They were a bit bemused at starting what they thought was a writing lesson with so little time available.

When they had done this I explained that I would write a single word on the board and they would write about that word for exactly one minute.  A timer was set and I wrote the word “fire”.

They all looked wvery industrious. I was impressed. When the timer rang they out down their pencils and every child was keen to read what they had written.  I chose the ones who were usually reluctant to write and also reluctant to share their work with the class.

The results were like list poems.

One example:

Fire is dangerous

Fire can kill

Fire spreads quickly

Fire is hot

Fire can burn you

Keep safe from fire.


I honestly think that they write as much in the given minute as many of them would write in 30 minutes.

Now they ask when they can do One Minute Writing.

Why don’t you give it a try. Let me know how it works for you and your class.


Games-Based Learning CfE

I am a Secondary English Teacher, but first and foremost I am a Teacher. In my past ‘life’ I was a Software Engineer so I am a Bachelor of both the Sciences and the Arts.  In a way I am an embodiment of the tenets of Curriculum for Excellence – I should be, because I hated my schooling: it didn’t fit me, nor I it;

Around this time last year I was near to completing the excellent Postgraduate Diploma in E-learning at Edinburgh University; Digital Game-based Learning was one of the six modules of study that focused on the learning and teaching benefits to be gained from existing and bespoke software applications.

I stumbled upon Silent Hunter III, a World War II software simulation game for the PC, and purchased it for about 2 GBP from Ebay.  I did some thinking (and playing), noting that fans were creating montages of scenes from the famous Das Boot film, overlaying in-game footage with an accompanying narrative in the form of subtitles and posting these (as they do for many other games – especially ‘COD’, from my experience of all-boys Standard Grade classes) on Youtube. (#1 & #2)

Confirmed for me was what I had suspected in the re-definition of what is a ‘text’ formalized in the Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy and English – Principles and Practice (LTScotland, p. 4).  Here lay the opportunity to do cross-curricular with – at the very least – History, Geography and ICT.

So, for the past few months – most of which has been a very enjoyable, with the odd difficulty here and there – I have been trialing my development with an excellent S2 class and a very helpful Computing Teacher who facilitated in providing a room with enough PCs; the Technician deserves similar praise in installing what became 15 copies of S.H. (10 of which were at personal expense and all from Ebay/Amazon Marketplace) and the two ‘Single Missions’ I created using the program’s ‘Mission Editor’: dropping merchant ships in the Atlantic when recreating Patrol 4 (12th April – 22nd May 1941) against HX-121 and HG-61; placing a plethora of vessels, Swordfish aircraft, mines and a wolf pack of U-boats at the Straits of Gibraltar for Patrol 7 (27th October – 06th December 1941) against OS-10.

Pupils have immersed themselves (pun intended) in the life of a Kriegsmarine crewmember on board the U-96 during two of its Atlantic Patrols.  They have consulted non-fiction texts, personal accounts, diagrams, German Navy Grid System maps, clippings from Das Boot and re-creating (with the help of u-boat.net and Google Maps) two actual patrols undertaken by U-96 between April and December 1941.  Pupils responded through functional and imaginative responses, and choice was a key consideration, using non-fiction texts with diagrams as well as pure narrative to convey technical information; I plan to offer the same ‘carousel’ approach next year.  Pupils have read about the hydroplanes, but when they get a chance to command the ship itself and use the ‘external camera view’ they really see the causal connection – the planes in operation and the ship surface/submerge.

Assessment? I think that a metaphorical form of assessment suits Literacy Outcomes very well, adopting one that fits the context of the aspect of study.  For instance, a ‘Ranks and Awards’ metaphor was used to good effect, whereupon pupils progress from Submarine School and begin their careers across the ranks of Seaman (Matrose), Able Seaman (Matrose-Gefreiter) and Leading Seaman (Matrose-Obergefreiter); ‘Award Badges’ were also awarded when the pupil displayed competency or understanding in a particular activity or technical element. 

Outcome? Technical difficulties hampered the collation of in-game footage – a consideration for next year, should technical difficulties persist, would be to have a bank of event clips to cover all aspects of their narrative structure – but pupils superimposed their narrative against still images within Powerpoint.

Pupils have been working in collaborative groups (2-4) and thinking in the four dimensional space of their character’s ‘world’, both boys and girls alike experienced the frustration at plotting a convoy … undertaking watch… encountering a clear-blue horizon and a silent hydrophone; I have seen the most unlikely candidates express distress and excitement at an oncoming destroyer as it fills their periscope view.

With crews not exceeding 44 men for a Type VIIC submarine, the class teacher can have pupils draw names of actual navy men that served aboard the U-96, giving them an additional dimension to their imaginative and functional writing activities.  I am scheduled, with the History Department committed and perhaps offering in parallel a similar activity based on the Destroyer Command simulation game; other departments have expressed real interest but I think will need more convincing.  The plan is to fully implement what will be a 12-week unit during the January-April 2012 term for the next cohort of S2.

Today, complete with a couple of bottles of port for the aforementioned colleagues as tokens of my appreciation, I say “Auf Wiedersehen” to the excellent cohort from S2 (who, of course, signed and sent ‘Thank You’ cards) as we change timetable, and they enter Standard Grade and I contemplate the Microsoft Project plan, the directory of digital resources, the Revell Model Kit, the keyboard layout, the Leverarch folder of texts, the Kriegsmarine Map on the wall…

For my next project – English and Science – Orbiter!

Evolving Literacies in the New Curriculum

Originally posted on the Scottish Book Trust teachers blog

Like many teachers in Scotland at the moment, I am trying to evolve my classroom practice to encompass the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence. Below is a little of what I have discovered in developing and delivering a new unit for S2 on vibrations and waves – sound, light and radiations beyond the visible.

Firstly, I set out to write an exemplar teacher’s guide covering from first principles, the route through and some resources supporting the course. I started with the experiences and outcomes within the curriculum suborganiser and then looked across to the other curricular areas to see what I could pull in to enrich the experience. Needless to say, it was a much bigger task than I anticipated.

Secondly, my second year classes are no walk in the park. One particular day, twenty minutes into a period, having failed even so much as to get the learning intentions shared, I finally blew: I don’t have time to recount the details here but I had the class write me an essay on why I should even bother trying to teach them. What came out of that exercise were several examples of passionate, articulate and intelligent writing.

One example worth quoting from had:
“… I was doing well in first year and now I’m doing worse than I was last year because people in this class have wasted my opportunities for my dream job as a chemist.”

These responses brought me up sharply as I realised that the children already had developed literacy skills, enough to express the frustrations some of them were experiencing.

I saw my task as being to provide them a context within which they could develop these, possibly to a higher order. Two things emerged.

Listening and hearing – active engagement in traditionally passive learning
I thought of Pauk’s Cornell method and set a variant of it in context in the new unit. I was intending on using video extracts to support the learning, including one small 7-minute piece from Julian Treasure on sound health. I had the children make messy, contemporaneous notes on the key things that struck them as the video played. I made my own at the same time, then used these to challenge the children on the content of the video they had just seen. I was impressed by the quality of some of the notes – some hadn’t bothered – and the ability of those who had the key points noted down, to answer even the most difficult questions on the content. This was a rich seam for assessment of developing skills, providing evidence and opportunity. A good example* was from a girl, normally not a big hitter in the summative tests, who enthusiastically used the powerful weapon of good notes to outclass the others in her responses. The point was well made. Many students now take notes as I am talking to them.

Using new media and HHD
The other thing that impressed me in the class response to the new unit was how the childrens’ literacy overlaps and includes digital media fluency. I had another enthusiastic response from several pupils who, when asked if they had anything to share for (optional) homework, produced mobile phones with recordings of sounds they had made, answers to questions and even a video* submitted by email.

It is clear to me that the boundaries are being reset on literacy. Our task as teachers is to make sure we ourselves are sufficiently competent in the new literacies in order to challenge and develop children within them.

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