An exciting year ahead

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As the students trickle back to school – for some, 7 weeks holiday is not enough – we now have a full complement in Grade 9, 10, 11 and 12. It’s our first year with a Grade 12 graduating class, so that in itself is exciting. We have some new students in grades 9 and 10, and have lost some students who have moved to pastures new so the classes all feel different.

This year there will be much more project-based learning going on and I’m excited by the changes that I am making to my syllabus and hope that the students respond well and become independent learners. It may be a slow start as they get used to this new way of working but I’m sure I will see a blossoming as students become more and more in charge of their own learning. I have reduced the number of units, built in a great deal of choice with regards to the texts used to explore the concepts, as well as choices in the ways in which the students demonstrate their understanding. I am mindful I also need to continue to develop their essential skills too but if this occurs in an authentic way, those skills will be more meaningful and relevant and make the acquiring and developing of them that much more successful.

Grade 9 – Culture

Grade 9 are starting off the year with a unit entitled “Culture”. To explore the concept of culture, the students will choose one of the four novels on offer, four short stories from a choice of several, and six poems from three different collections, complementing those literary texts with some non-fiction texts which they find for themselves. This unit centres around the production and reception of texts and explores how language is used to express and understand culture. We started with a general discussion: what is culture? The students viewed the cultural iceberg image and we discussed that much about a cultural identity is hidden and for many of us, it’s not clear cut. The students are exploring their sense of culture by producing a personal cultural map, visually showing how they see their own cultural background.

We are going to make our classes as connected as possible without being too bound by the classroom walls, so the students will continue to blog about their learning journey and I have introduced them to the world of Twitter. We agreed a hashtag which we will use for the year – #LisLAG9 to represent Léman International School language arts grade 9. It will be interesting to see how this develops as it’s a new way of communicating for many of the students. Their first Tweet should be “Culture is …” using appropriate hashtags. Some students have managed this:

#LISLAG9 #culture Culture is tradition or a belief for a family or a person which they experienced to built an “entire” personality.

Culture is the way you think, interest with others. Your beliefs, values, customs, attitudes, and behavior. Culture unites people.

It may not seem like such a big deal, but trying to get the students accounts on Twitter was not as easy as it should be. But we’re getting there. As I continually tell the students, the vagaries of the internet in China cannot be seen as an excuse but merely an opportunity for some creative solutions.

Grade 10 – Power & Leadership

Grade 10 will be working in a similar fashion this year. It’s even more important for the grade 10 students to become independent learners in order to prepare for their studies next year in the IB diploma programme. Returning students from last year will have some experience of this as we ended the year doing a project-based unit with the novel Frankenstein at its core. This year there will be more choice of texts, allowing for greater student input, engagement and personalisation.

The first conceptual unit is based around developing an understanding of power and leadership. A variety of texts, both fiction and non-fiction, print and visual, will be used to explore these concepts. The students have a choice of one novel from a possible four, two films from the many on offer, a biography of a leader they are interested in researching, and some self-selected and researched non-fiction texts, such as newspaper and magazine articles. As a starting point, the students will be seeing if they can come up with a “formula” for a good leader to investigate whether there is a set of common traits among good leaders. We will then discuss whether being a good leader means you have to do good things: Hitler, for example, could be considered to have been a good leader. They will then use these discussions as a way of exploring the characters in their novels and films, and the biographies through which they will investigate some real-life leaders. The unit will last eight weeks, during which there will be on-going formative assessment in a variety of forms, including Tweets and blog posts, to ensure the students are developing their understandings as well as their skills. Summative assessment will take different forms for different students. Over the course of the four units during the year, the students will have to balance out how they demonstrate their understanding. It’s important they continue to develop their analytical writing skills as well as creative and oral responses to texts but when they do which is up to them over the course of the year. One of the advantages for me is that this should mean that I will not have a whole class load of essays to assess all at the same time

At the beginning of the unit I envisage having to provide more structure for the students, particularly for those less used to working in this manner but experience tells me that students will relish the opportunity to be more in charge of how they learn as well as what they learn and will rise to the challenges and therefore reap the benefits of project-based learning.


Project Based Learning

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[The following represents a re-work and expansion of a post already published on my other blog.]

OK, it’s time to stop testing the water with a toe and jump with both feet into project based learning.

Grade 10 have today made the leap with me. A leap of faith? I hope not. Let’s hope it’s more of a giant leap forward.

But enough with the metaphors. Just as I require Grade 10 to document the process, I will do the same. I have been exploring project based learning for a while and have put it into practise in a small way. Now is the time to see how it really works, whilst addressing required learning outcomes and assessing the students effectively in order to write their reports at the end of the semester.

Day One: Introduction of the Unit


I introduced the project to the class. We were due to do a unit on 19th Century European literature, and they have done a small amount of research in preparation. Today, we were going to start reading Goethe’s Faust. And then I stopped. Really? What can the students possibly gain from that? What’s more important is to grapple with the ideas contained within the text, rather than the text itself. What would you sell your soul for? How much are your dreams worth? Not wanting to waste the work already undertaken, and believing that the essence of the unit has value, I decided to change the way in which we worked, rather than change the unit completely and so I used elements of my previously written unit to introduce the project to the class under the following headings:


19th Century European Literature: From Romanticism to Realism

Big Idea:

Expressions of the heart and life’s lessons: the age of Romanticism and the emergence of Realism

Essential Questions:

  • How do literature and social change connect?
  • In what ways were the Romantics influenced by both the natural and supernatural?
  • What are your dreams worth?
  • If everything is representation, what is real?

Learning Outcomes:

(these come from our curriculum)

  • Produce a variety of texts appropriate for audience and purpose
  • Determine central themes or ideas in a text
  • Compare and contrast themes and ideas within and between texts
  • Organise and develop ideas for the purpose and audience

Given the above prerequisites, the students need to produce a multi-media project, documenting their process and progress. They need to use 19th century literature as the vehicle to explore the ideas, so that the literature is secondary to the enduring understanding.

What I’m trying to impress on them is that they are not reading, for example, Faust or the poetry of Baudelaire or Wordsworth just for the sake of it, but as a means of exploring and understanding something more authentic and meaningful.

To ensure the project is still addressing the skills they need to be developing, they started with acquiring an understanding of some essential vocabulary:

  • Romanticism
  • Reason
  • Revolution
  • Idealised
  • Nationalism
  • Enlightenment
  • Industrialisation
  • Philosophy
  • Neo-Classicism
  • Realism

From there, they will start exploring some literature and decide what they wish to focus on and how they will present their findings. Despite several reminders that the ‘product’ comes last, of course that’s where they all start! “I’m going to do a video.” “I’m going to produce a rap song.” I have to say that I had to question where the latter fitted into the Romantic ideals, but if they can justify it they can do it!

It’s early days. They are currently engaged. Two of them are exploring a new ‘thing’ I found today: which looks promising.

Day Two: Providing Structure

As much as students enjoy project-based learning, I find that it’s important to give them some structure. Previous attempts at project-based units have lost momentum and meaning because of allowing the students too much free rein, and not giving them a framework within which to work. With each project-based unit, I am hoping that they will become more and more able to provide that framework for themselves, but at this stage there need to be stricter guidelines and deadlines in place to keep the students focused and productive.

Today was the follow-up lesson to the introduction of this unit on 19th Century European literature. Having given the students the opportunity for an initial surf of the internet and a read around of Romanticism in general and some authors in particular, I needed to get them to focus their thinking more keenly. Using Edmodo as our communication platform, I provided the students with some general links – mostly to Wikipedia as a first stop – and some statements that embody Romanticism – taken from ReadWriteThink – to ponder to help focus their thinking.

IMG_1773From this, and the initial details given, the students needed to come up with their main area of focus for their project, develop two research questions, and initiate some specific lines of inquiry. They had to discuss these with me by the end of the lesson, and write a blog post giving more details about this as their assigned homework. As I had told them that this project will require work outside of class time, I feel that assigning homework tasks is within the spirit of the project and will be enhancing and developing their learning, rather than being ‘busy’ work or homework just for the sake of it – something I try to avoid.

I found this approach to be quite successful: by the end of the class most students and all the groups had a much clearer picture of where they are going with this project and had clear and focused lines of inquiry to follow.

Some of the topics are:

  • How the philosophical and ethical thinking of the time is reflected in the literature
  • How social change and Romanticism are connected
  • How novels such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera provided impetus to the move from Romanticism to Realism
  • How the “limitations” of Romanticism led to the emergence of Realism
  • How the effects of Romanticism are felt in today’s world

Through the process of formulating and documenting their thinking, the students were able to determine in which direction their inquiries should go. For instance, in the first example above, the student will need to research what the philosophical and ethical thinking was and then find some examples in literature in which these are reflected.

I suspect as the students move forward, they will find they need to further hone and narrow their thinking in order to produce a demonstration of their understanding that is focused, detailed and specific. I continue to impress upon them a need for depth rather than breadth, otherwise the project becomes less meaningful in terms of enduring understandings.

Passion Project: Week One

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Week one for my passion project, so far, looks like this:

First steps:

  • I put a call out on Twitter for some advice as to what software options there were out there
  • I searched Google for “book creator software”
  • I downloaded and tried out

Thoughts as I explored:

  • I had a little play with Booksmart and it seems easy to use but maybe not very creative. There are many templates and you just fill them in. I found out that to print, obviously, will cost – I wonder whether I can download and print elsewhere? Probably not as that would be how they make their money – much like the Apple books you can create from iPhoto. It’s not a huge amount of money, but getting the final product mailed to China is always a challenge.
  • What I’ll need is one I can do and have printed here, which will obviously be cheaper. Photoshop? I hope not, as that’s pretty hard work and very time consuming. I’m not very good at Photoshop.
  • Hmm.. rather than a book which can be published, I should investigate some sort of digital book – I’d like it to be in digital format and interactive: connect to my Tripadvisor reviews, restaurants and hotels I mention, sites I explore, Google maps, that sort of thing.
  • I had a reply to my tweet from a company which had a link to a great blog by a teacher of grade 1s and 2s who’s doing an ‘I Wonder’ version of genius hour.
  • Spoke to the Grade 11s and asked their advice about format – one student recommended iBooks Author, which is an app/software I can use on my Mac Air, so I’ll check that out. I can’t find it in the app store, so it may be a downloadable software. I’ll check it out. My Mac Air doesn’t have much space on it, so I hope it’s not too large a programme. I didn’t get a chance to try it out yet.


All the students have to complete a proposal by the end of this week, so I modelled what I mean by completing my own. PASSION PROJECT my proposal

It was a good process to go through as it continued to help me clarify my thoughts and ideas. I’m sure it will continue to morph and change as I go through the project, but that’s kind of the idea.

I had a lovely comment from my sister-in-law about my previous post, who commented that it’s a good idea for everyone to think about their ‘passion project’ and “to take stock of where we are and where we want to go and what we want to do.” She also commented how much she’d enjoyed reading it, which is always gratifying. I’m finding that not many people are commenting on my blog itself, but rather where I share it.  Wherever the comments are, though, it’s always good to know that people are actually reading what I’m writing and thinking about it enough to make a comment. Makes me think I’m on the right track.

Passion Project

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We have returned from our winter break and are recovering from end-of-semester exams, and so the students here at LIS have started in earnest on their passion projects, even though it’s just a few weeks until our Chinese New Year break. I am trying to get them to solidify their thoughts by making them write a proper proposal, which will be presented to me, other teachers, the students, and the head of school. We will have a ‘gallery walk’ of the proposals so that everyone can make comments and suggestions on each proposal.

It did get me to thinking though: what’s my passion? If I could pursue anything I like for one hour a week, what would it be? I’ve been trying to give myself the same expectations as the students – in other words, I can’t just curl up on the beanbags in the classroom and read a book, much to my dismay. I have a feeling that I’m going to model this by completing a proposal of my own and pursuing my passion too. Whether I’ll be able to do that whilst helping the students with theirs, is open for question, but I should not pre-empt problems without thinking of some possible solutions – as I’m always telling my students.

So, I’m going to thought-process this out loud.

What do I love to do?

  • Eat, eat, eat.
  • Travel
  • Spend time with my husband
  • Spend time with my dog
  • Read
  • Teach (yes, really, I love doing that)
  • Craft activities – knitting, cross stitch, etc.
  • Jigsaws
  • Photography

(In no particular order, of course 😉 )

What could I research/produce in one of those categories? Or a combination? What things would make one of the above more fun / easier / less annoying?

Food – I could put together a cook book of my favourite dishes. I love cookbooks with pictures so I could even make the dishes, photograph them and put them together. Possible difficulties: very time consuming and not that original.

Travel – I could find a way of synthesizing my photographs and compiling some sort of digital travel log – with anecdotes and tales of my travels, illustrated with photographs. Making a book would be fun. The research side of it would be to search other digital books of this kind – and digital books in general. Also, I’d need to explore my pictures, see which are the best, and which ones would best illustrate my adventures.

Spending time with Stephen & Romi – not really much scope for a creative project here – other than finding ways to have more time.

Reading – a pleasurable activity, but again, not much scope for a creative project. I’ve been explaining to the students that the passion project is not an excuse to sit on the beanbags and read, as pleasurable as that sounds. We have DEAR for that!

Teaching – there are plenty of research opportunities here and plenty of projects I could be persuing. Spoilt for choice, really. But this seems more like work that non-work, although it would be a great opportunity to pursue the things I’ve been wanting to, such as project-based learning, and more educational technology platforms. Certainly one to consider.

Craft activities – Hmm.  Lots of possibilities to create here, of course, but what about innovate? What’s the research angle? I could try to knit something without a pattern – I’ve never done that. I would have to research tension, and yarn weights, and how to create a garment. Another one to consider, for sure. I also thought about cross stitch, but I don’t think the research element of it would be so satisfying. And it would end up being an excuse to sit and cross stitch for an hour each week. Pleasant, but not really what we’re trying to achieve with this project.

Jigsaws – I could make a jigsaw from one of my photos – but I’m sure there’s an app for that so not much research involved. Might be fun, but doesn’t grab me as a passion project.

Photography – Definitely scope here too. I would like to find out more about how to make my camera work for me. I tend to take my photos on the ‘auto’ setting. Years ago, when I had a less automated, non-digital, camera I spent many hours in a dark room, processing and printing my photos which I LOVED. I seem to have lost some of the knowledge I had about focus and depth of field. Definitely scope here for research as well as producing something – a collection of photographs, for example.

So that narrows it down to four: (1) teaching; (2) knitting; (3) photography; and (4) creating a digital travel photo story. It’s a tough decision.

  • Teaching: This seems like work to me, so I may do this another time.
  • Knitting: Seems like a good project but how excited about it am I? How innovative can I be?
  • Photography: Definitely experiential, but something I can do another time and seems more like discovery that creation.
  • Digital travel story: This does interest me and fits the creation criterion. And fairly innovative. It combines four passions: technology, photography, traveling, and writing. Seems like a winner.

So, there we have it. My passion project is going to be to create a digital book which combines photography and stories of my travels. How exciting!

The next step – for me and my students – is to produce a proposal. I have given them a template for this, so I shall use the same one.

I’m so glad that this is really beginning to take shape. So far the students seem to be fairly interested. I have a couple of students who want to re-design the school uniform, one who wants to re-design our classroom space, others who are creating something in Mincraft, another who is taking his sister’s toy apart to see how it works. I’ve told him that he has to then use this knowledge to make something.

Watch this space, as they say. 🙂

Utopia and Minecraft

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Grade 9 are currently studying the literature of The Renaissance and The Enlightenment. After the usual introductory classes undertaking some background research and collaborating on producing a visual display of some of the major elements, we read Boccaccio’s story “Frederigo’s Falcon” from The Decameron and then an extract from Thomas More’s Utopia. After discussing each student’s initial thoughts on what their utopia might look like, we came to the conclusion that one person’s utopia is often another’s dystopia. This led to some interesting discussions about the individual and society: exactly what the thinkers during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were concerned about.

The next activity involved the students creating and presenting their individual vision of a utopian society. They had to think about systems of government and societal organisation; whether or not there would be money; how people would organise themselves in family or other units. They were given free rein to present their utopia in any way they saw fit. It seems like previous lessons about shying away from PowerPoint as their go-to presentation tool are beginning to sink in and the students are thinking of more creative and innovative ways of presenting their understanding.

Four of the students got very excited when I suggested they could even use Minecraft to construct their Utopia. Energy levels raised and the excitement at the task was palpable. There isn’t usually much trouble keeping this Grade 9 class on task anyway, but this activity really captured their imagination – particularly those using Minecraft. They were a little concerned that someone coming into the classroom might  think they were playing games rather than working, but I assured them that the Principal and Head Master would appreciate their creativity.

IMG_1131 IMG_1130 IMG_1129 IMG_1132

The task is not due to be presented until tomorrow, but they’ve obviously spent some time on it over the weekend – I guess there’s not much difference between their down time and their homework when it’s creating worlds in Minecraft.

I’m particularly excited by this as what I’m trying to get all my students to understand is the connections with today’s world. The Renaissance period had such an impact on Western thought and creativity in ways they are beginning to appreciate more and more – and so in this way they can see that learning about “all that old stuff” has relevance for them. And not just because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – although as a literature teacher I have a lot to be thankful to them for too!


Story boarding with tableaux

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I am currently reading Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with my grade 10 class, most of whom are not native speakers of English. After completing Act One, we stopped reading and I was about to give them some of the usual activities I do at the end of each act. Thankfully I stopped and asked them to storyboard the act instead. They were asked to think of some key scenes and key quotations and then plan out their storyboard. We do have some fairly good artists in the class so I gave them the option of drawing their storyboard but also suggested some alternatives, such as finding images of people they thought fitted each character and printing and cutting them out before pasting them into a storyboard as a sort of collage. I also suggested they could pose their friends in tableaux for each scene, photograph it and then put those photographs together for the storyboard. This really captured their imagination and they all chose this option. The energy levels rose dramatically; all members of the class were involved; and I could hear that the discussions they were having about the play went beyond anything they would have had they merely written about what they understood or perceived.

A most satisfying lesson. See my other post for the photos.

Let’s get blogging!

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Alrighty then. That’s all the student blogs set up. Let the blogging begin. I’m hoping this will be a way forward for my students to share their learning with a wider audience in an authentic way, as well as encourage them to reflect on their learning, explore their passions, and share their successes.

As the students began to explore their new blog space in class today and yesterday it seemed like there was a positively charged atmosphere in the room, so the signs are good. They will be able to use their blog to write their reading reflections, chart their progress in their passion projects and generally have a voice.

This will also be a useful tool for their student-led conferences at the end of the year and they can use this blog as their e-portfolio.

CSI – Visible Thinking

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Oh, I love visible thinking, particularly for reflections. One of my favourites, which works especially well for a poetry unit, is Colour Symbol Image, CSI. Today my grade 8 class used this to reflect on our unit about Identity, and the depth of reflection is something you would not get with a written reflection.CSI 1CSI 2

In the past I’ve had some other wonderful reflections, too, such as an exploding head because “Sometimes when you are thinking of a meaning in the poem, it is really hard it makes my head EXPLODE!!!!!!!!!!”; one student chose light blue as his colour because “I have not learnt western poetry before, but I feel comfortable learning that; blue stands for happiness, because poetry is beautiful, and I can see nice pictures presented in poetry. But light blue means that I can’t understand English and emotions of poets sometimes”; another chose green which was explained as “There are many different kinds of green: blue- green, jade, apple green, dark green, British Racing Green.  This makes me realise that it’s all about perspective – we don’t always see things the same way, and yet there are essential similarities.  Culture and poetry are like that: we view them differently depending on our perspective and the way we interpret things and yet there are essential elements which are the same.”

I’ve used other reflections in other units but for poetry I have found this the most successful.

Visit the Visible Thinking website for more details.