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Putting students first in English at John McGlashan College

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Iain McGilchrist is the head of English at John McGlashan College in Dunedin. He discusses how they use student voice to help plan the content of what they are going to teach. Iain also discusses how student voice guides assessment opportunities.


We use student voice to help plan the content of what we are going to teach. We really went back to our classes and said, ‘We've got some choices, what would you like to do?’ And we presented them with some options, ‘Here's ones with broad theme for the year, here's another broad theme for the year, we might include these particular texts what do you think?’ And we'd discuss that for about a week, might dip into a few texts here and there and then build up the skills of say close reading of unfamiliar texts from that. Then after a while, after about two weeks into the year we let students vote, students decide it and the effect of that has been enormous, the student engagement and student buy-in has been phenomenal. I can't believe that with one for my level two classes, for example, they've chosen to do the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Macbeth and I haven't had one complaint.

Another example of the way we put students first in assessment was from our implementation of The New Zealand Curriculum. We were very keen on the key competency of managing self and very keen on the principle of lifelong learners and learning how to learn. So we put the burden of reassessment onto the students and after an initial assessment all students were entitled to a reassessment opportunity. They had to do that in their own time in the tutorial time that we have set aside after school. So the students now will come to us after school with their original assessment they are booked a tutorial time with us they will say, ‘I want to improve my grade what do I do?’ So often these tutorials are one on one and their work is discussed specifically. General feedback is given about what they need to do to improve what their next steps are - and then they go and do it that same afternoon under the supervised conditions of the tutorial. The benefit there has been huge because the feedback is so much more specific; it's verbal, it's instant and then they immediately act upon it. What we're finding now is English teachers have just been booked up with more and more students wanting tutorial time. It's changed the way that we've actually been teaching a lot of very individualised teaching is now done after school.  There's a big challenge in that for teachers and that's time. It does take longer to sit down and read students' work with them and comment upon it and then supervise them after school in a tutorial system.

The after school tutorial system is something that we have done as a school for a long time. But within each department it's organised in different ways. Maths department, for example, runs a tutorial on a particular assessment, where they're discussing the skills you need to do well in this assessment. Our assessment has been more student focused so the sort of general feedback you could give to the entire class isn't relevant for the entire class - it may only be relevant for the students who chose that task. So we've had to make our tutorials and our feedback an awful lot more student specific. 

The benefits for assessment I think are probably harder to see during the year as you're doing it. As teachers I think we like the security of having a complete set - I've got the whole set of tests, I've marked them, I can see there's been a big improvement from the start of the unit, therefore what a great teacher I am. 

I think we've had to let go of that and realise this is a longer term process and the assessment is not the endpoint. When you do get to the end of the year and you're looking at your overall assessment results I'm amazed at how much more improved they are. When the students have been an awful lot more involved in selecting their texts, selecting an appropriate assessment the grades are higher, they do better work.

Published on: 21 Aug 2012