Guest Student Post – Improving your teaching

I’m excited to post the contents of a speech given last week by a student from my school.  Crispian is in Year 10 and has been working with me for a couple of months to develop his speech writing and delivery.  Last week he presented this speech in front of about a dozen of his teachers.

The content is great and includes a few challenges for all teachers about the need to consider new and engaging teaching practices.



You will probably remember the ridiculously comical film, Shrek. This peculiar film has many memorable parts. You may remember the heroic upside-down rescue to save Princess Fiona or the interrogation of poor Gingerbread Man. And of course, you could never forget Donkey, for one, who seemed to get all the good lines. Except for one in particular. That Shrek got. About onions. ‘Wait a second,’ you say. ‘Onions?’ Yes, there was something about onions.

Ogres have layers, onions have layers, and therefore ogres are like onions. Outstanding logic there. Well, in all truth, Shrek has a point. Ogres most definitely have layers. In fact, virtually everything does. Each person has a character that is built and wrapped by layers of their life. But what is most relevant is that the best class environment is built upon by many different layers, just like how the core of an onion is wrapped in layers.

Throughout my journey as a pupil, I have discovered that some students are not overly keen about school. I know, shocking, but it is a fact! Some don’t really care, some just get bored and some feel pressed with difficulties, each having their own reasoning. Occasionally I can relate to these. Despite these occasional lows, I am aware of the effort you teachers display to increase the fun factor of classes. Through my student perspective, I am confident that I can help your classes become even more enjoyable for all students through five layers that can be easily wrapped around your class plans. These five layers are: relevant work, being the unique you, telling stories, initiating discussions and being creative.

The first layer of the onion is… making work relevant. As a whole, schoolwork often does not relate to real life. This is a problem. Learning information that has no apparent relevance to any of our possible future careers is a complete waste of time. Notice how I said ‘apparent’. I think that we students are missing the hidden relevance of certain work half of the time. We need to know about the hidden benefits of learning the work you teach us.

One of the primary deciding factors that sets one class from the rest is whether students have the incentive to learn what is taught. I’ve heard from an adult youth worker that our generation – the generation you teach – is becoming much more self-centred, and I hate to say it, but it’s probably true. Despite the obvious problem of selfishness, you can still turn this negative into a positive! This characteristic can be easily exploited to get students to learn, and to enjoy learning, by giving them a ‘what’s in it for me’ reason.

Work is easier to remember and understand when links are made throughout the learning process. I know that I don’t like learning something I don’t understand. And I’m sure it’s the same for most people. So if all the other reasons aren’t enough, why not make what you teach more understandable?

There are some questions teachers should be thinking of and answer when preparing lessons. Why should students try learn the information you teach? How does this information relate to real life? By simply spending an extra minute in lessons to answer these questions allow us to connect and understand class work easier. Speaking is not the only way to create links. Activities can be designed that show and let students experience the real life importance. Connecting topics to the outside world is highly beneficial.

Our next layer – a livelier layer – considers how younger people, like we students, are naturally more inclined to be active. Writing notes is boring. I don’t like it and my class doesn’t like it. Why? Youth are active people, despite the stereotypical idea of teenagers lounging around watching television and trying to do their homework at the same time… but failing. But back on subject – we are active people. The majority of us prefer practical subjects, especially PE, over more theory-based subjects

Most of you are probably aware of the push by students to reincorporate sport during afternoons, which was discontinued a few years ago. I think that one of the primary reasons for this push is because of the appealing activity that would be involved in those lessons.

However, active work is not limited to the practical subjects. Theory-based subjects such as English, Mathematics and History can easily incorporate a more active aspect. Similar to the appeal of afternoon sport, setting aside a few minutes to play short games during class to illustrate points easily grabs students’ attention. Other activities that simply get students out of their seats are engaging, waking students from the typical boredom of writing notes.

On to the next layer. You are a living story! Just being yourself tells as much of a story as speaking, but being fake is detrimental. You can easily see through a big cheesy smile like the one I’m trying to talk through right now. Obviously the smile was fake. It’s the same way with students. We can tell whenever you are not displaying your true self. Displaying a character that is not your true self not only downgrades your credibility as a teacher, but is nearly always bland and always undeveloped. Your real character, which is built on layer upon layer of experience, is the real jewel of a classroom. It is your personality and your experience that makes your class unique and different from any other.

You teachers must be sure to share the real you to students. In Psalm 139 it says “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Every one of you… your character… is the unique work of the creative, all-powerful and mystifying God. Why not display you, the work of God, throughout the classroom?

For the past term in English, our grade has been discovering Nazi Germany from a literary point of view. Part of the unit involved the viewing of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Some of you may have seen this film, while others would have heard of it, and would know of the film’s highly emotional content. I for one am a ‘highly emotionally intelligent person’, meaning I become affected emotionally more than a typical student. Due to my self-knowledge of my emotional intelligence, I came to the realisation very quickly that I would be very affected by the film. Upon this realisation, I decided to inform my English teacher. With guidance from the teacher, I met with our Counsellor to learn strategies of tackling emotions.

Now the only reason I ended up learning strategies that did effectively deal with the impacting emotions was because I felt connected with the English teacher. The teacher had shared throughout numerous occasions personal stories about herself to the class. I am certain that due to the sharing of these stories, my relationship with the teacher reached the point where I felt comfortable in sharing my personal story.

This is only one example of the importance of sharing yourself to a class. But there’s more. As strange as it may seem, we actually enjoy knowing about you. Sharing true stories and experiences about you builds layers of relationships between each and every student in the class. Plus, those stories are breaks from working, and breaks from working are always enjoyable.

Pastors and preachers have embraced the principal of story-telling in their sermons just like Jesus. The stories act as both a hook to generate interest and an illustration for the sermon. This principle can be applied easily to lessons. How did you feel when I shared about my ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas‘ experience? Telling stories like this is an example of how telling stories during your lessons will engage and interest students. And guess what! You even manage to provide a real life situation to refer to throughout the lesson, so bonus!

Stories told by teachers also help create a more appeasing vibe in the classroom, as students feel they are being communicated with rather than being lectured to. Lectures are considered by the majority as uninteresting, while stories are the opposite – they are interesting. Over the course of this public speaking task, I have discovered the purpose of stories… or what is technically called anecdotes. All I ever hear from Mr Wilcox is that anecdotes are important. He must have literally drilled that idea into my head. Thanks.

Stories and anecdotes are much easier to tell when you display your character. In fact, your character is one of the most crucial things to display when teaching. You have spent years developing your character, so why don’t you display what is truly you? Your unique and special character has been built through a journey that is unique to you. This unique character brings life into the classroom, ensuring it is different to every other class, and not transparent but instead much more interesting.

Stories are not the end. Initiating discussions during classes is just as golden. Discussions are an engaging way to recall, develop and apply information that has been learnt. We students are given the opportunity through discussion to express our values and thoughts on a subject, consider ideas from other students and expand on our own. All of this allows us students to discover new ideas and perspectives that would otherwise be displayed only by the teacher.

As I just said, discussions are engaging. As we reach a more mature age, we students are increasingly finding discussions more appealing than when we were young. In my spare time I am actively part of a forum community – an online site where discussions take place in thread format. Numerous threads sprout in these forums daily, threads of which I would typically read through and then input any discussion I feel necessary. There is a reason why I, and many other people, enjoy participating in this online environment during free time – to engage discussion and challenge myself.

I generally do not bother participating in forum threads that begin with a simple question. This is similar to my participation in class discussions. I like to share my view on other people’s ideas in the classroom, but I dislike answering simple questions. Teachers should set aside some class time to express their own potentially controversial ideas for students to discuss.

Discussions are also advantageous in developing the critical thinking of students by encouraging them to show their ideas and ask questions. A student with good skill in critical thinking constantly tries hard to understand and evaluate learnt work, and especially through rhetorical questioning. Students that learn this type of thinking also become more engaged in classwork, and thus find it more enjoyable.

Finally, the topic you’ve all been waiting for… Homework. I could never pass the opportunity to ramble on about – I mean briefly mention – the topic of homework. You’ve probably heard about debates over homework for years, but one thing that stands out is the obvious negativity of students towards being given homework. I am one of those that lean against – I really think homework should be limited in supply. From a student perspective, being given extra homework on top of assignments from other classes inflicts huge amounts of pressure, especially as homework is typically due during much shorter timeframes.

Now, I’m not going to be like every other student and say that homework should be abolished, decimated and pulverised, and never seen again, because, granted, there are certainly times when homework may be necessary, such as to revisit work learnt. However, I am sure that there are ways to increase the fun factor of homework! How? Using the layer of creativity!

Homework should be something that students would want to do in their spare time. Simply answering questions, researching or doing the ‘go home and look at this’ is bland. Interesting homework should be creative, such as making something artistic, or be ingeniously related to hobbies.

What do you think might happen if you relate homework to hobbies? All of us have some type of hobby or interest. Teachers can take into account student’s common hobbies and use them to make homework seem more engaging. Firstly, teachers should find out what a student’s interests are by

communicating with them. Then, teachers should relate homework to hobbies, so homework becomes something that students actually want to do. I remember one time that I actually enjoyed homework. Pretty amazing for someone like myself. This homework came in the form of creating a poster. I love computer art and graphical work, so this really appealed to me. It is one case of homework I actually did, started work on quickly and actually enjoyed. That is creative homework in my books.

As I reach the end, let’s remember to apply the five simple layers wrapped up in this package.

  • Make work relevant – tell us ‘what’s in it for me?’
  • Show us the wonderful you – display your flare for all to see.
  • Bring us from the classroom into another world with stories and anecdotes.
  • Initiate discussions – we think, we learn and we enjoy it.
  • And be creative. Turn homework from the ‘ugh’ the ‘ha’!

So, just remember that you… and your classroom… both have layers.


Learning motivated assessment

A corollary of last week’s post…

Our Year Nine students have been studying the Holocaust with cross curricula links in English (Boy in Striped Pyjamas), History, Music (composition), Drama (performance) and Art (visual interpretation).  The culminating activity was for the students to present their knowledge in an evening display and presentation.  Each small group focused on an element of the war and the Holocaust, each spread out in our gym but in chronological sequence.

Those attending journeyed through the stories of the holocaust, sometimes in confronting ways.  Each group presented solid, factual information and were prepared to engage in conversation and answer questions.

And they were amazing!

It was clearly evident that the students had deep understanding and were using the higher order thinking skills of analysis, evaluation and design.

I bet none of those kids were focused solely on the fact that this was an assessment task…


Assessment motivated learning?


As a culminating activity to a unit on Australian poetry, I have my students writing a paraphrase of a pslam.  It’s not an easy task as it requires a high degree of analysis and interpretation but it’s a great activity and I try to publish a book of their work.

Today I had one of the students ask if the writing was being assessed.

Internally, I saw red!  Seriously… have we come to this, that students are only focused on assessment?

Externally, I threw a few curly questions around the class to generate some discussion and thought… Why do you need to know? What difference does it make?  Would you do different work according to the answer I gave you?

You know the sort of thing.

Interestingly, I actually had kids who were saying that, yes, they would work harder if they knew it was being done for assessment.  One actually said that, for a piece of assessment, they would stay up to midnight to finish it, but not if it didn’t count.


I have no idea if I made an impact but I trust my students (at the very least) heard me say that assessment is not the most important thing in life and that giving their best in all things is the best way to demonstrate personal integrity.


“The road to creativity is littered with failures and assumptions that didn’t work — unless you learn to make assumptions you can never truly become innovative and creative. It’s an essential skill…  Perhaps, just as importantly, unless we rethink our approaches to assessment, our assessment will fail to indicate who is going to succeed in life and who is not.”                      Prof Eric Mazur


Connections Shaping Lives

Ever had one of those moments where everything just seems to fall into place and the end result encourages a students in a way you never thought possible?

A couple of years ago, while on a bus on the way to camp, I notices a boy writing in a journal at the back of the bus.  I would never have connected Brian (who has a very complex, challenging background) with writing so I asked what he was doing.  “I’m writing a song”.

I was a bit surprised (to say the least) so I asked to see what he’d written.  Despite the fact that I struggled to get Brian to write anything much in class, he’d put down some deep thoughts as lyrics to a song.  As I dug a bit deeper, I discovered he wrote lyrics quite a bit and had several completed songs.  But he didn’t know how to put them to music.

Aah… connection made.

My son, Hayden, writes a lot of music.  So the challenge was set: if Brian finished the lyrics, I promised to send them to Hayden to see what he might come up with.

The end result was a great collaboration and a very cool end result.  Brian was thrilled to see his lyrics come to life and become ‘real’.

That was a couple of years ago.  The two have collaborated a couple of times now and Brian is developing into a very skilled lyricist, expressing much of the unique elements of his life in this way.

Right place.  Right time.  Right connection.

And, maybe, a life shaped and transformed.



It’s been a while since I posted.  Life is packed full of activities and events and something needed to give.

But I’ve missed the challenge of evaluating my teaching and thinking through my life as a teacher in the Middle Years so I’m going to try and get back to it.

Hopefully you’ll see a post in the next few days…


Changing the World


I wrote last week about my Year Eight students and the mini project they were doing to end the year.  I am incredibly impressed and proud of what they have achieved, especially one group.

I have kids who are wrapping almost-new second-hand books and making cards which will be delivered to the children’s ward at the local hospital.  Others are making videos with a social justice theme and posting them YouTube. Still others are writing letters to encourage people to consider partnering with an aid agency to support impoverished people.  A couple of individuals are creating social-justice themes art work.

But the group that are impressing me most are those students who have created an awareness campaign and are promoting it through social media.  do a search for #Heart2Change in twitter or instagram, or look up Heart2Change of FaceBook to see what they are doing    It is such a simple but powerful concept.  The students are encouraging people to put the heart2change symbol (above) on their wrist as a way of engaging people in conversation; a way of explaining that they have a heart to change the world, that others can have a heart to change, and that, together, we can change hearts.  How great is that?  simple, effective, and a clear message.  A couple from this group were even interviewed on the local community radio station this morning.

I really hope this concept goes viral (like the ice bucket challenge) but if it doesn’t, I am still incredibly impressed with that these kids have achieved.  Their thinking and discovery and problem solving… and their passion… has been astounding.

Please check them out and join their movement to change the world.

I cannot imagine a more exciting place to be working than here at my school with my young adolescents and in this wonderful, collaborative environment.


Trying to be hands-off for creative tasks


To finish the year, I have my Year Eight students working in teams to engage with the ‘now what’ question that flowed quite naturally from the work we have been doing on social justice, third world countries and aid agencies. Effectively, I have given them free reign to complete a task of their choosing. This is not ‘academic’ work but it is definitely making use of higher-order thinking skills. This is not life-like learning. This is real-life, make-it-happen, dirt-under-the-fingernails learning.

It is challenging! Both for the students and for me. There is no planning I can do. There are no defined outcomes I can aim for. All of it is in the hands of the students. And it is stretching us all.

I have kids who want to use social media to promote a cause. Others are wanting to visit the local hospital to hand out toys to kids. Others are creating social justice themed art work. Still others want to tattoo symbols on wrists. (Seriously!)

Now, I tend to be a fairly hands-on teacher with clear plans and goals. You could see how this is definitely outside my comfort zone and why I’m feeling a degree of being out of control. (OK… I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to learning in my classroom…)

Basically, I need to be prepared for my students to (potentially) fail. But, as I’ve said many times, it is in those times and scenarios that the kids will learn. It’s a tightrope to walk for a teacher… How much do I input to ensure success, and how much do I let things run a natural course recognising the risk of failure. Is success needed? How do we define success anyway? How do I determine busy noise from distracted noise in the classroom? And does it matter? Does every kid need to demonstrate they are involved or, again, does that not really matter? Is the process seen as being as important as an end-result?

These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind, lesson by lesson, as we work through this process. I’m not sure I have too many of the answers at this time but I’m hoping I do in a week or so once we are finished.

But that’s just like life, isn’t it?

Hopefully, sometime soon, you’ll see some links on this blog to the work the kids are doing…


Community Connections

In her book Secrets of the Teenage Brain, Sheryl Feinstein comments on the value of, and need for, adolescents to experience activities that help develop a conscience. “Teenagers, as members of many communities, deserve schools that promote moral sensitivity and character… School and life experiences that support moral character foster individuals with high self-esteem who are capable and willing to give back to others.” (p157, Hawker Brownlow 2007)

Many schools provide curriculum content opportunities for such social and moral exploration but we know that most adolescents learn best in hands-on experiences. There are many schools that provide real-life experiences for their students in a whole variety of ways. In some cases it is even included as a mandatory extra-curricula learning element. My nieces in Western Australia, for example, were expected to log a minimum number of hours of community service during their senior years. One volunteered at a LifeLine Op Shop, another helped out at the RSPCA. What they learnt about themselves, about others and about their community was significant. I know they both developed an increased empathy during their volunteer hours as well.

Activities like these take students outside of their own realm of experience and are given the opportunity to give back to the community. They challenge the sometime-held belief that adolescents are self-centred. They help adolescents put their own life into perspective. And they engage that passionate advocacy part of an adolescents’ developing self.

In my school, we have established a strong link with a primary school that has quite a number of disadvantaged students in their population. For the past couple of years we have taken Year 9 students to that school to run a breakfast program, one day a week. The connections between the school have grown from there and I trust they might grow more.

I love the compassion, care and concern my students are developing as they prepare a simple toast-and-spreads breakfast and shoot a few hoops with these younger kids. I also love the broadening understanding of life that is developing in my students.

As Feinstein says, “…mature and sensitive people take into account the effect of their behaviour on others.”

I know you’re busy but… 10 ways to be present for your students


I got pulled up recently by a passing comment from one of my students… “Mr Wilcox, I know you are really busy but could I come and talk with you about my work?”
For some reason (guilt?) the ‘really busy’ bit was the barb in her words.

Why did she perceive me as busy? In what ways am I communicating that to my students? Sure, there are always plenty of things going in my professional life, but the most important of them must always remain my ability to be present for my students and their learning.  Teaching is a very busy career but it is a profession  founded on the needs of the students.  We must never put the cart before the horse.

Here are some things I have observed that will likely communicate the wrong message to students about your availability. (Some I confess to, others are not ‘me’.)

1. Using technology
Technology is an important part of teaching and should be seamlessly integral to what we do. Sometimes, however, it can become a distraction and a time-drain. Be sure it never gets in the way of solid student relationship.

2. Tweeting, texting, emailing in class
I am aware of people who will do this during a class they are teaching.  It’s time to disconnect from your online world and connect with the kids in front of you.

3. Getting stuck at your classroom desk
It can be easy to set a task that engages kids and then find yourself, as the teacher, working on something else. But consider how this looks to the students. Be 100% present in every element of your student’s learning, wandering and questioning and encouraging.

4. Frequently focusing on what you (or they) need to do by a deadline
Deadlines are real and necessary but an over-emphasis on them will communicate a one-dimensional approach to learning: the busier you are the more you are effective. Take care not to let your own deadline pressures to complete things or have kids complete tasks get in the way of quality time for engaging, relational learning.

5. Being late for class
This is obviously poor form and can easily communicate that something else is more important that your presence with your class.

6. Leaving class quickly
Very much like point 5, this yells ‘too busy’ to the students. Or, even less desiringly, ‘I’m done with this teaching stuff’. Frequently, the after-lesson time will be when students will hang back and chat about learning or life. Be present for them.

7. Turning up with a coffee or cookie in your hand
Personally, I hate it when teachers bring coffee or food to class. I know there will be times when you have duty and don’t get a chance to have a break, but let’s be sure that we don’t become so relaxed about our class setting that we lose a professional, attentive approach toward our kids. By all means, have a snack time with the kids if you want. But be careful not to inadvertently communicate that you are so busy you can’t even take a break during break times.

8. Brushing kids off
I guess this is the ultimate way of communicating you’re too busy to care. If you cannot speak with a student immediately, negotiate the soonest time possible to catch up. And then, don’t forget.

9. Not providing good eye contact and attention when speaking with students
This is akin to brushing kids off. Your body language is critical in communicating positive, healthy, connected communication with your students. If you can’t give them your full attention, don’t try to give them just part attention. Either stop what you are doing or negotiate another time when you can give all of your attention to the student’s needs.

10. Not being able to be found by your students
I can think of a few teachers I have worked with who did a very good job of disappearing during break times or spare lessons. Sometimes, these are the best times for students to access you and work through issues.

Let me finish by saying again: teaching is a very busy job. There is a lot that goes on and many things that demand our time. But I believe that, in reality, many of the tasks can wait so that our students remain our main focus.
What’s your opinion?


Begin with the End in Mind


I was re-reading sections of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion recently… particularly the part where he reminds teachers of the need to begin with the end; in other words, to ensure you have a firm understanding of where your lessons are going and to what purpose the teaching is being done before you plan your daily content.
While I wholeheartedly agree, I also started thinking about the need for this to happen with and for my students. They need to be able to see the reason for every lesson; for every activity. At no time should they be wondering why we are doing something. At no time should they feel any disconnect from the clearly identified themes are purposes of their learning.
For me, this will happen through constant conversation. We will start a unit of work by exploring metanarratives and global themes (I will however vehemently avoid putting any content in the context of ‘it’s in the curriculum’). I want my students to own the purpose of their learning. Maybe this is through real-life or life-like learning. Often it will be through topics that I know will be of interest to them, or ones we have negotiated. Once the big picture is established, I will work toward providing links to these purposes at the start of each lesson. I find this helps students to connect the daily learning with the whole unit; it helps to avoid students compartmentalising a lesson in isolation from the unit. Ultimately, it helps students keep their eye on the big picture and the purpose for all their learning.
We are coming toward the end of a whole-semester unit of work on asylum seekers and aid agencies. It would be easy for the students to become focused on the intricacies of tasks like writing orals and creating videos and building presentations spaces. I find, however, that as I remind them of the deep, over-aching reasons for their work, they maintain a more focused attitude toward their work.