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Putting students first in English at Albany Senior High School

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Hamish Chalmers, from Albany Senior High School, provides examples of how his students are at the forefront when designing English courses. He says the important thing to remember is that it is all about the students' own learning, their engagement, and therefore their ownership of that learning.


A big part of the school vision is the three Rs. Which is research, responsivity and respect, in no particular order. So research is about us being aware of formal research but also really seeking information from the students about their views and where they’re at as well. Respect is about maintaining respect in the classroom for each other, and the students for each other, but us in our relationship with them too. And then responsivity is about knowing where the students are at and really delivering stuff, finding out where they’re at, and delivering stuff which is appropriate to that.

Why put students first was a slightly more difficult question to answer than I thought it would be to start with. I guess because primarily because it’s about their learning - the most important thing - and also I guess on top of that, I mean it’s the easy answer I suppose, it’s about engagement as well. They’re more likely to engage if they’re put first. Also I guess taking responsibility for their learning they’re much more likely to be engaged in that respect.

Really looks, with individual staff, at building where relevant - and it has cropped up before that kind of stuff into their professional inquiries. So looking at student first, it’s around more than just the choices as well but how that’s relevant to stuff that they might already be looking at or how they could look at that as well.

We also build that consideration, based on student data from the surveys, but also our discussions at the end of the year around course design. So how can we adjust the course or how can we refine it to better put students first? Across the course of the year just encouraging, with staff, their informal discussions with students around it as well so just what the students’ perceptions are of how they’re being put first and how that’s going for them in the course of the year.

Specifically in our department, obviously there’s the text choice thing, we would run that by typically doing a vote in class. The joy of democracy, some students didn’t get what they were after. We’d also look for groups of students there if they were really passionate about a particular text that they were able to work on that, if we thought they were capable of it, so we looked at that. Also the choices around what source text they’d use for assessments. So they’re able to look at choosing, say for as a basis for a piece of creative writing. In year 12 this year we’re in the dystopian course, we’re doing creative writing tasks based around ‘Escape from L.A.’. The students are basing a character or their story on the character Snake Plissken and that was where the task started out. If they’ve got another character which they felt they knew really well or a character of their own invention they’re able to adjust it for that as well.

So in terms of acting on student views but also getting their voice we have specialist subject student leaders. So we’ve got a student leader in English and I utilise, this year in particular, I have been utilising him this year quite extensively for organisational things. Also often he will, part of his job is to collect student voice but also to feed that back to us. So there’s that part of his role but also we conduct extensive student surveys at the end of the year which feeds into our course design as well and that covers a lot of different areas.

Benefits for teachers - I think they’re able to communicate with the students more positively, so often we can start discussions around decisions that the students have made in the past. So immediately they’re much more I guess involved with that which is really positive. And also I think it’s more engaging for the students as well. If they feel like their wants have been catered for, or their desires have been catered for but also we may have had a discussion, a really clear discussion with them, around times when we can’t do that and the reasons for that rather than just a straight ‘no’.
Managing those choices for students at times can be difficult in a course, and we’ve approached that all as a department I think which has made it easier too. But also being honest with students you know, so actually I can see you want to make a choice there but given where we’re at in the year and given where you’re at perhaps that’s not realistic and having open and honest discussions around that.

I guess some advice around it might be get a student leader it’s been really helpful for us. We’ve used them in other ways too but certainly around student voice it’s really really good.

Try things as well. I mean nothing is likely to be a complete failure, hopefully. So you can always refine things as you go along. Come up with a concept and work together in a department to see how it goes really and ways of implementing that and then just refine them as it continues. And I guess really encouraging those informal discussions across the course of the year as well. Obviously the surveys are really helpful. Often for a really quick piece of feedback and getting a general idea of how things are going, the more of those kinds of discussions that you have with students the better I think.

Published on: 29 Sep 2011