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Theme courses in English at ASHS

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Hamish Chalmers, Albany Senior High School, discusses the introduction of theme-based English courses in years 11–13. He outlines the benefits for both students (engagement and deeper learning) and teachers (focusing on their personal enthusiasms and co-constructing courses).


So the development of theme courses started after our first year. One of the really big things we were looking at was greater student engagement, and we thought that'd be a really positive place to start, so we looked at that. In our second year we had year 11 and 12, so I had a bit of contact with Pakuranga High School who also have theme courses. We just looked at ways to implement that for students, for greater engagement really, to start with.

When students vote for the theme that they'd like to be into, we move them around just within that option line - so it just means they don't have to change around the classes basically. So there's a lot of flexibility if there's a good number of classes in that option line and less if there isn't. So, we just have discussions with students about whether we could do it or not - and in most cases, we've been able to cater for it. So we looked at that first. Then in the department we talked about possible themes and tried to come up with themes that were specific enough to enable some deep learning but also not so specific that it narrowed the focus too much.

In terms of, I guess, an overview of how the theme course works, we typically choose the novel and the film to fit really nicely within the theme that we've done. So for sci-fi and fantasy, in our first year, we looked at the film Gattaca and then we looked at the novel The Hunger Games, which was quite dystopian. As we've progressed we've looked at ways to really get that theme across the whole course rather than just the actual text studies.

This year, when we developed the year 12 themes, we actually went more specific - especially with science fiction one; it ended up being a genre study. We narrowed that down to dystopia. This year in year 12 we've got three ‘Ds’, which are dystopia, desire, and diversity. Just to narrow it down, but also make it a bit simpler for students. So those are actual ideas rather than just a straight genre in that respect. Then in year 13 this year, we went for even, perhaps, more specific ones. So we’ve got ‘the power of society to crush the individual’ in year 13.

So quite a big part of the theme courses last year was students creating an online textbook of the work that they were doing around The Hunger Games and the film studies as well. So because its on Wiki Educator it's open to anybody to have a look at as well. While we're not doing collaborative textbooks again this year, that's proved a really valuable resource for students, this year, because it's there.

In terms of the benefits for the students, obviously there is that engagement one to start with. If it’s something that they're interested in to begin with, or perhaps they just think could be interesting to begin with, it gives them a real chance to engage with that. Also on top of that there’s the potential for deeper learning as well. So if they're able to look at a theme across a number of texts, they're able to gain a much deeper understanding of it because they've seen it in different ways throughout those texts. Also before they come across a text, or before they create a text of their own, they know a lot about that theme. So whether they choose to utilise that for their own text or not that's up to them, but they've got that choice. I think that's important.

In terms of benefits for teachers, two main ones I guess - sometimes the teachers’ interests can come out a lot more as well. Certainly, another male colleague and myself teach the dystopian course and we bring a lot of ourselves into that course and that’s really positive, I think, for the students. It's easier, I guess, to maintain that enthusiasm if it’s something you're quite passionate about yourself - that's been really good. Also I think for teachers too, it really encourages us to look at those connections across texts as well. It’s the sort of thing we've looked at in the past but perhaps not in a specific, focused way. That's been really positive too. On top of that it really encourages - and I’ve been looking for ways to facilitate - co-operative resource design. So especially if you're doing a theme that another teacher is doing, that's a really good opportunity to get together and work with them, and also set things that you can go off and work on in your own time - covering stuff that way to.

I guess advice, if you're looking at implementing a similar system - one, is to just be aware of the other kinds of systems that come into play. There's obviously the timetabling thing, but it can be done. It's a little bit crazy for that first couple of weeks but I think the benefits really outweigh the difficulty there. Also utilising technology - so when the students vote for a course we just use Moodle or our intranet system to collect those results, and they're quite easy to process. On top of that, also, I guess just being really co-constructive in the development of that course so that everyone is involved in it, in terms of the staff. Everyone, I guess, then really has an ownership of it.

Published on: 15 Feb 2012