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Big curriculum concepts in English

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Hamish Chalmers, Albany Senior High School, discusses the construction of a course to provide students with access to a depth of learning. He explained how links were made across standards, and across units of work, as well as links to the outside world and other authentic contexts.


We’re aware of the tendency, or the potential, for courses to become quite assessment driven. Students will have to work on creative writing for four weeks and then they might work on a film study and a lot of students won’t make the connection between those two things. So we were really keen right from the beginning for students to have a real, or have access, to a real depth of learning. So we looked at ways to construct a course which not only appreciated the importance of those big concepts but also made the links across standards and across units of work really explicit for students. But also the links with the world outside of school and other authentic contexts as well.

I think it’s easy for us to lose sight, as teachers, of the difficulty for students to make those kinds of connections themselves. For a lot of students that doesn’t happen at all. They might be working on creative writing and they’re developing their ideas in a piece of creative writing and then they go through a really similar process for writing a speech - but they don’t see those similarities at all. I guess in the past I’d seen students not make those connections and I sort of wondered how we were better able to help them make those connections themselves.

I was also really frustrated with the idea that students could sit down and do, I guess, a piece of creative writing for four or five weeks and then move on to another type of standard and just not carry over those kinds of concepts. Structuring a piece of creative writing is really similar in a lot of ways to structuring a static image or a short documentary. For them to understand those similarities, it enables them to really carry those concepts across to all different kinds of things, I think things outside of English as well. The idea of grouping information and ordering information is something you do all over the place, it’s not just in English. If they can take that understanding across to other things then that’s really, really important for them.

In the first year, just looked at ways to build that into the course design. So I guess the order of standards and how that could maximise those links across them. So we did that to start with and that’s continued as we’ve looked at, redesigned the courses, or refined the courses in later years as well. Last year and this year too. Then on top of that, there’s the formal delivery of it, I suppose in departmental meetings. Just finding ways to deliver that in the workflow, as it crops up in standards, or as it crops up in what we’re doing in meetings, how are we able to continue looking at these things in ways which encourage that understanding for staff and then can encourage it for students too.

Also, and I think perhaps more powerfully in some ways, just getting it in the flow of informal discussions with teachers as well - so how is it relevant to where they’re at at the time? So if a staff member is working on a particular standard or is working on a particular unit of work and they’ve decided to focus on structure, how is that relevant to the next thing the students are doing? What would be some ways in which we could, or they could, help those connections become usable for the students, I guess?

Often when students get up and do a speech they’re almost less likely to develop their ideas there than sometimes in other styles of work. So we looked at how to provide enough description, enough examples, and enough detail so that those ideas were understandable or clear to the audience. Then the next thing they worked on was a piece of creative writing and that was a descriptive writing piece around dystopias. So they were looking at again in creative writing how are they developing their ideas and how are they adding detail to their ideas in that context in a way that again makes it understandable for the audience? Even though that’s in a creative sort of a context. Then after that they moved onto, we did some work on, the novel. So part of creative writing was looking at language features and how they were utilising those in their own creative writing. So then they carried that over into some close reading that we did around the novel and that related to a 12419 unit standard around close reading. They were able to take some of that learning around language features into that close reading. Which of course then helped them in terms of the novel study further on in the term as well. That sort of process goes on and on throughout the year.

The benefits would certainly be actually being stretched a little bit ourselves, as well. Because often it’s the sort of stuff you think, ‘Oh I should know this’. Then when you sit down and try and get really specific about it, it can be quite challenging at times. I think that’s something to really embrace because I think it helps us improve our subject knowledge but also our ability to deliver that in a way that’s really helpful for students, I think.

Published on: 12 Jul 2012