Monday, December 16, 2013

Destination 2014: Magical Maths

Hello, I'm back! I haven't given up on the Destination 2014 series - just had to take an enforced pit-stop while we took our u15 girls chess team to Nationals (where we came 4th in the country, by the way!). But now it's time for the next area of thought - Magical Maths!

While English is my first love, Maths is my first teaching love - it's the first subject I ever taught, and probably my favourite subject to teach. Well, maybe not. I don't know. But anyway I enjoy teaching it.

I've been teaching Maths for four years now, and I believe I am starting to get the basics right. Of course now the syllabus is changing, but I think the underlying principles are remaining the same, and I can teach those. I have a solid selection of basic resources for different topics, and enough headspace to create more as necessary during the year. I have also developed a sprinkling of interesting/inspiring ways of introducing topics and making them come to life which I can reuse each year.

So yes, I think (hopefully without hubris) that I'm a pretty decent Maths teacher at this point.

Now to improve!

The thing about Maths is that it's often awfully dry. Most people don't find the subject interesting for its own sake. They take it because they have to, and hate it most of the time. They struggle with it, stress over it, get poor marks for it. They blame the teacher, blame themselves, blame the system. All in all Maths is a stressful, often unsatisfying subject to teach or learn. Understanding seems to be an unattainable goal.

The role of the Maths teacher, if anything, is to tie the learner up in knots, confusing them and rendering them complete incapable of making the climb to Mathematical brilliance.

The Maths itself, rather like Rapunzel's hair, becomes this esoteric weapon which the teacher wields mysteriously, and the learner has no hope of developing for him or herself. But it doesn't have to be. The teacher could teach every learner to wield a weapon. If not the glorious hair of Mathematical truth then at least... the sword of logic? The frying pan of hard work? And once the learners are armed? Well then we can all tackle the tower of Mathematics together instead of working at cross purposes.

How to make Maths magical? I think the answer is somewhat counter-intuitive. Make it more magical by making it more predictable. Predictability is where the learners will discover the frying pans and swords which will make their Mathematical experience manageable.

Usually I would think that predictability would make a subject boring. But actually I think that predictability cuts down of stress. And cutting down on stress makes learning possible. And once learning is possible - then you can start having fun.

Here are some of the ways in which I will be trying to increase predictability in my Maths classes this year:

  1. Structure: Learners need to feel that they know how each lesson/chapter is going to go. I had great results this year when I published a lesson by lesson plan of a chapter before starting. This helped the global thinkers to work out where everything fitted in, and helped the incredibly busy people to plan their workload. And it helped all of us to stay on task.
  2. Homework: Unfortunately Maths is one of those subjects where homework needs to be done (and checked in class) I hate this. I find it tedious and boring. BUT. It is necessary. I got it mostly right in 2013, but let it slide a bit (at least the checking part) towards the end of the year when I became demoralised by how many students weren't bothering. That's not okay. I need to find the energy to persist in following this up all year.
  3. Independent Work: I want to make a greater variety of resources available to the learners online. This includes extra worksheets and memos, videos, quizzes and so on. I want them to be able to do extra "frying pan drills" whenever they can. In our department we are going to try and make better use of Edmodo to post these extra resources once a week after our subject meetings. This also puts some of the onus onto the learners and parents: if they want to improve, the tools are there.
  4. Communication with parents: This is key. It connects with structure, homework and independent work. It links to preparation for tests and exams. The basic principal is this. If the classroom is the battleground of Mathematics, then the home is the training ground. And the parents are the drill sergeants. They just need to know what to do. SMSWEB, Edmodo, emails and phone calls... essential.

I know that despite its title this post hasn't really mentioned much about Maths itself. But all these structural points are what I believe enable me and my learners to actually get the Maths done. Because trust me, it's a WAR out there, and we need to be as thoroughly equipped as possible.

Do you think predictability helps or hinders learning?

yours mathematically

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Destination 2014: Excellent English

I so enjoyed writing the first post in my "Destination 2014" series, not because I think I will get all that stuff right, but because it means that all those ideas and aspirations have stopped swirling around my head. I stopped desperately trying to remember all those things I want to get right next year, because it's all written down...

Ahem! So, speaking of the necessity of writing... Another aspect of my goals for next year: Excellent English!

(Belle is me, encouraging my students to greater heights in the great library of the English language. Look, there the little learners are, disguised as furniture...)

I have one fewer English classes in 2014, and I will be focusing (yay!) on the juniors: grade 8 and 9. A bit of background: I love teaching English, but found the switch from all Maths in 2012 to 3/5 English classes in 2013 extremely stressful. Even the ways in which the departments function is totally different, and I was tearing my hair out in 14 different positions trying to keep up with everything I needed to know/learn/teach/do. So going a tiny bit back into my comfort zone - while keeping the incredibly joy of teaching English as well - is really the best of both worlds for me. I'm so lucky to be at a school where management at least tries to take my preferences into account (most of the time!).

So. Two English classes. Juniors. My focus - which links up with the focus of my department, don't worry - is writing! I want learners to be able to write fluently, confidently and above all with enjoyment. How do I get that right?

Well, they need to get inspiration from good writing, observing what works so that they can reproduce it...

They need to write all the time, in all kinds of weird and wonderful situations...

They need to work on writing, critiquing and editing each others' work...

And at the end of the day they need to take flight and write LOADS:

(The old man is me, admiring the huge oeuvre of writing that the learner's will have produced by the end of the year. This time Belle is a student, showing off her wonderful work!)

Let me stop mixing my Disney movie metaphors (though at least I stuck to one movie this time) and get down to brass tacks. These are some of the things I want to implement in my English class (in no particular order other than that which they occur to me!):

  1. Class Blog where each child makes one post per term - themes would be book reviews, comments on literature studied in class, creative pieces etc... A strict schedule would have to be set up at the beginning of the year to ensure high quality, varied content. I have taken the first step towards setting this up, but the idea needs some fine tuning particularly with regards to privacy for the learners. But I think it is important to expose the kids to writing in the modern world, and blogs are an important part of that. Plus, how better to drive home the need for editing than knowing that the world will be able to see your work?
  2. Journals for private/free writing at some point in every single lesson. They have brought A5 books for this purpose. Now all I need to do is choose topics that integrate the journal writing with our other class work. I am starting an index card box full of "topics". We need to just produce VOLUME of creative output, at least to start with.
  3. Integration of writing work with EVERY other topic we cover. Grammar rule? Let's use it in a piece of writing. Poem? Let's mimic the poet's style. Novel? Let's write a letter from the point of view of one of the characters. Writing needs to be a part of absolutely every lesson, topic, idea. An INTEGRAL part. This impacts a lot on how I need to plan my lessons...
  4. Grammatical Correctness - of every sentence and paragraph. Not always - of course there is room for "free writing" (see point 2) but sometimes we have to sit and nitpick at the grammar of their writing until every child can write a perfect sentence. A careful, precise, simple sentence. A controlled, specific paragraph with no "fluff". Much harder said than done. This takes a lot of editing, proofreading, time, effort. Especially on my part. It's an investment. On a related note: vocab lists and spelling tests. Yes. Peer editing. Yes. This also impacts a lot on how I plan my lessons. Duh. Should I do another post on lesson planning? 
  5. Functional Writing. This is important. The writing they learn needs to WORK. They need to be able to see its usefulness in their other subjects and ultimately in their lives. Do we need to write love letters before Valentine's Day? We are already spending the whole of the first term in grade 9 concentrating on formal writing to help them with their major Science Fair project in the second term. Where else can I demonstrate the practical applications of their writing skills?
I have a lot more to say about my ideas for English next year. But this is already a marathon post, and is probably full of those errors I want my learners to weed out of their work. More later, if I get a chance what with all this lesson prep that needs to happen.

How would you teach writing?

yours writingly,

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Destination 2014: Punctual Planning

During exams every six months, I try to carve some time away from marking and trivial admin to use for dreaming big and creating plans and resources for the coming six months or year. This time has been no exception, and in fact I feel that I've been more successful than usual at making this a priority. This is partly through necessity, because I am acting as curriculum organizer for not one but two year groups in my two subjects so flying by the seat of my pants in terms of planning is just not going to cut it!

Now that exams are over, and school is winding down for the year, I want to make thinking ahead even more of a priority for December. I want to get my ideas, aspirations and plans for next year down on paper (well, virtual paper). Although they may not work out how I imagine now, at least I can refer back to these goals, and see how I have done. Hence my new mini-series: Destination 2014.

My first topic - though it really links into all the others, and is maybe more of an introduction to the series concept: Punctual Planning.

You see, no matter how hard I try to be an good, solid, consistent teacher; cool, calm and collected; patient and caring...

...taking my students on wild, but carefully organised adventures through the syllabus...

...more often I am a lot more like poor Jasmine trapped in the deadly hourglass:

Too little time, too much admin, too little inspiration, too much material and just too many students!

Now of course this dilemma isn't unique to me, nor is it one that can just be solved with a click of the fingers. BUT... I find careful, boring, precise and punctual planning can help a lot. To mix my movie metaphors completely, it just means that I have a bag of tricks to call upon when things get...sticky...

Anyway, so here is my strategy for conquering planning in 2014:

  1. Expectation Management: planning lessons at least two weeks in advance (including resources/activities) just isn't optional. No, really. Come now. Why two? See below points...
  2. Sharing (staff-team): I need to be sending at least fortnightly emails keeping all the teachers of grade 9 Maths and English on the same page. Probably more like weekly in the case of Maths. Thursday afternoon deadline: emails must be typed (at home if necessary) so that they can be sent on Fridays. This is partly why one week ahead just isn't good enough. By the time I do the email, my personal planning already needs to be done for the week after next so that I can give good outlines and deadlines (especially for English).
  3. Communication (learners): I want to print fortnightly lesson outlines, including topics, textbook references and activities to put up in my classroom. This will help to keep me and the class focused and goal orientated. Hence two weeks' worth of planning, again.
  4. Tests: for English, these need to be done a term ahead (term one 2014 already done, yay!!). For Maths I need to start setting two weeks ahead so that I can distribute for comment a week ahead. Diarise these "start setting" dates at the beginning of each term. Do the actual test dates for the year NOW. Yes you can. Tomorrow.
  5. Scheduling: one of my two non-chess afternoons (until 5ish) must be dedicated to lesson prep and printing. The remaining chess-free afternoon must be used for test setting and moderating, plus general resource creation. No trivial admin (emails! marking!) on these afternoons. Saturday morning while Adam teaches = laundry and spill-over planning.
Important Questions for...
  1. End of Every School Day: Is everything printed for tomorrow? Can I roll into school and "do" tomorrow off the top of my head? Does anything on my plan need to change based on today's lessons? Do I need to do a bit of top-up work at home?
  2. End of Every Week: Does everyone know about next week's tests/deadlines? Is everyone comfortable with the goals and resources required for next week? Am I on top of tests/deadlines/goals/resources for the week after next?
  3. After Every Assessment: What and when is the next one? Is it set? Has it been checked by everyone? If not... why am I not already doing that??? If so, can I get ahead on next term's assessments?
  4. End of Every Term: Are all the English assessments set and checked? Do I have all the dates for Maths assessments + proposed topics + "start-setting" dates?
Remember, future self... planning makes everything better! It means that you are free to just go with it, improvise, have fun, roll with the punches... and still get everything done.

And also remember... all of this punctual planning? Starts now. 

yours planningly

Saturday, November 30, 2013

NaNoWriMo Weeks Three and Four: Stress and Success


As you can see, my NaNoWriMo 2013 story had a happy ending! Yay!

But it came close(ish) to not happening. It's easy to be optimistic about finishing 50 000 words when you're bucketing along merrily at 2000 words a day and things look rosy. Not so much when you've just moved house, you can't find an extension lead to plug your laptop in, you're trying to process year-end marks for 200 kids and you haven't written a stitch in three days...

Especially when you're at a sticky patch in your plot and don't have that much more by way of detail to include before the final reveal!

Yeah, but with some encouragement from my wonderful husband, a special effort to get home earlyish from school one day and just one last 3600 word push: yippee, we have a winner!

Seriously, though, I am pretty pleased with my effort this year. I'm definitely getting into the swing of things, and my preNano prep helped a lot.

So, next year? For sure!

yours triumphantly,

Thursday, November 14, 2013

NaNoWriMo Week Two: That Awkward Middle Bit

This is Week Two of NaNoWriMo. And I'm bang in the middle of That Awkward Middle Bit.  This is the part of the month where things get really tough. Especially when billions of exam papers and planning meetings and all kinds of other stresses attack perfectly innocent novelists!

The good news is, although I am not really alive and full of energy, I am still on track with the word count.

Here are some of the reasons why:

1) Plot Outline(ish)

So I didn't actually plan my novel in that much detail in the end. I tried hard, but I just ran out of time before NaNo began. So I have a hand-wavy excel spreadsheet which I have mostly ignored and certainly changed an awful lot.

But what I do have is a dead body, a good isolation mechanism (island in a summer storm!), a reasonable murder method and A LOT of people with subtle and complicated motives which are taking chapters and chapters to elucidate. 

So when I finish explaining one bit of motive/dark secret, I can usually just open up the next can of worms and serve. As long as I keep remembering to add little hints ahead of the time! 

Having a pretty good idea of all this detail before the time (though I'm STILL not sure whodunnit) has made a big difference to my experience of the difficult middle patch this year!

2) Conversations


Almost all of my big drama takes place in conversations. I like writing conversations. They go fast. They gallop through words. They don't usually require a lot of background information. They tend to be more emotionally believable. I can write a thousand words of reasonably believable conversation in just over an hour. 

..." she said ironically.

Win-win. Seriously. Particularly when above-mentioned characters and motives can be merrily elucidated (mostly) via multiple little conversations!

Having more than three main characters to converse with each other (unlike last year) has also helped a lot. There is only so much three characters can say to each other. Eight characters? So much more possibility.

3) Sprints

Late in the evening, when I'm really tired and sick of the whole damn thing, doing word sprints with my mum or sister via Whatsapp or even with myself via well, real life has really helped!

The idea is that you write like mad...for a very short defined period of time. Fifteen minutes works well for me. If I'm racing and already in the middle of a scene, I can sometimes get close to 500 words done in 15 minutes. And not that poor quality words either.

Oddly enough, once the sprint is done I often have more motivation to keep going for longer. Yay for self-inflicted mind tricks! 

4) Um...Not spending too much time writing blog posts...

Okay, so I'm out of here. See you next week!

Just kidding. Seriously, keep wishing me luck. Two weeks to go :-) Do you have any survival hints for "that awkward middle bit" of a large project or piece of writing?

yours perseveringly

Thursday, November 7, 2013

NaNoWriMo Week One: Fitting Writing into Life

(Or, Fitting Life into Writing)

Writing 2000 words a day is manageable... if you're on holiday. Trying to fit the relentless W/C into a demanding work schedule (in terms of hours and headspace) is... interesting, to say the least. At this time of year it is essential not only that I am at work, but also that I am fully engaged and focused at work.

These are the strategies I have adopted this week - so far so good:

Plan ahead

The reason I'm attempting 2000 words per day instead of 1667 is that I will be moving house at the end of November. So I know that at least five days will be lost. By planning on a 'spare' five days from the beginning of the month, I have (hopefully) minimised the impact of this.

Work Harder

When I'm at work, I'm at work. 120%. This is exam/reporting/planning month at school, and it is imperative that I'm totally accurate and quick. I must make good decisions. So I don't write at school. I don't plan NaNo chapters at school. I don't even think about my story at school (except when it just sneaks in there...). It's just too distracting.

In fact, if anything I am working harder this month. Mainly for my own peace of mind. I have to set my conscience at ease - my real job is not suffering because of my 'hobby'. I stay at work longer than most other staff members. I take very few 'breaks', and make sure that my marking is always up to date. I'm not leaving school earlier because of NaNoWriMo. I spend long afternoons working in the staffroom, even though school lets out earlier.

But on the flip side, when I leave school I'm really GONE. My marking is left in my locker. I'm in the NaNo zone, with no work distractions or worries or guilt - because I know that I'm doing my job properly.

Keep it Separate, Stupid (KISS 2.0)

This is a continuation of the previous one. A couple more handy tricks that I find helpful to keep my different activities clearly demarcated. I keep NaNo work on a separate device to my school work. I don't try to write before school, because I need to get my head around school concerns (even though I'm a morning person, and that would be prime writing time). As I said before, marking packs stay in my locker at school.

Important Things are Still Important

I am still cycling to and from work with Adam. I am still going to church and cell group and visiting my family. I still take long relaxing soaks in the bath. These things take time, but give energy. Time is relatively spacious, if you're really honest. What is often TRULY lacking when I say I have no time is a) energy and b) motivation. I'm actually amazing myself by how much I can achieve in a day when I put my mind to it.

A subsection to this might be: coffee doesn't help as much as you think it does. True story.

Get Support

Adam isn't attempting NaNoWriMo but he is super supportive and generously makes supper most nights (sometimes my school lunch too!). He also reads my efforts on a regular basis and laughs at my typos. I have coerced a lot of the rest of my family into attempting NaNoWriMo with me, and we message each other with encouragement and gentle nagging most days.  Many of my colleagues and friends know what I'm attempting and are wonderfully enthusiastic and encouraging either in person or over Facebook. All of these things contribute to the aforementioned energy and motivation.

Suck it up and do it

But ultimately, when I get home at half past five or six in the evening, I just have to sit down at the computer, no matter how little I feel like it... and JUST DO IT. 

And after the first half an hour... it starts feeling good. 

Two hours later it doesn't feel as good, but when I'm done for the day? BEST feeling ever!

Do you have any work/NaNo strategies?

yours encouragingly

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Before the Story Madness Hits

Well, the time for planning is past. NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow people!

Sonja's flight is landing at Cape Town International. Callie is drinking a Vida coffee in arrivals, giving her brother Steve a dirty look. Annalise is hitting jug night in Claremont.

Ben is looking through a photo album in his room. Anton is drinking whiskey in his study. Jaco is reading an email from his partner in Cape Town. Dottie is making a shopping list.

AB is in the underground office, getting his accounts in order.

Murder is afoot...

yours in anticipation

Thursday, October 24, 2013

NaNoWriMo Prep: World Creation I

I'm posting these fledgling maps - drawn on scrap paper in a coffee shop with my wonderfully creative parentals - so that one day when (hopefully) my beautifully murderous world is complete then we will all have something to compare it to...

Believe it or not I do actually have a pretty clear idea in my head of what my world looks like now. But of course I'm still planning on making delicately inked masterpieces that will make the frontispiece of my book quintessentially Victorian... But at least these guys make a start!

Reinvention of the unsuspecting Dyer Island as millionaire's playground.

And of course the three storey floor plan of the house of horrors! 

We shall have to see how the rapidly waning days of October pan out, but I hope to bring you part two of World Creation (complete with delicately inked maps) very soon.

Yours cartographically

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

NaNoWriMo Prep: Character Development II

This is what my character development 'forms' look like once they've had some life breathed into them. As you can see, although I love a good form I still tend to spill over the edges once I get going... And I'm certain that I will continue to spill even more over the edges as I go along! Writing is not a tidy process as far as I'm concerned.

There are no real spoilers here by the way, I'm still not a hundred percent sure whodunit (oh I do amuse myself sometimes!) but the images do give the victim away if you look carefully. Consider it fair warning.



I have 8 main characters, including the victim, plus one or two minor ones, and each main character has his or her own character development page in my NaNo file... The characters are slowly starting to round out, but it takes a staggering amount of thought to remain consistent-ish. Just reminds me how incredibly complicated real people are! Anyhow, real or not I hope that these 8 are enough to keep me going for 50000 words!

Yours characterfully

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fun in the Classroom - Zombie Apocalypse

So Megan has once again (I think) hit the nail on the head with her link-up party and is collecting ideas for having some FUN in the classroom. Especially in high school classrooms we seem to get awfully serious and grown-up and (horrors!) test-driven. No wonder teachers and students always seem to be stressed, miserable, reluctant, bored or a combination of the above. Whether it is something small like a sweet rewarded 5 minute quiz at the start of class (bribery for the win!) or something more educationally sound (we hope), I am a firm believer in FUN for the classroom (also parentheses for the sentences...and exclamation marks, clearly!).

My latest and greatest FUN idea is entitled:

The Zombie Apocalypse

image from Shaun of the Dead - the only Zombie movie I've ever seen. I hated it.

It was born in last lesson on a very long, dull day when frankly the last thing I felt like doing was the next little poem or grammar exercise. Does anyone else find that some of the best ideas emerge when you're avoiding something?

I only played the game with with my English classes, because a) Maths is too curriculum crowded and b) it was harder to make it sound relevant in Maths. But I think at the beginning of next year I will play it with all my classes - I found the activity really thought provoking for me and my students. Not only that, but it really gave insight into certain class dynamics and opened doors for really fascinating class discussions in the lessons that followed.

So, without further ado, I offer you The Zombie Apocalypse Game.

I start building it up very seriously. I have a very important question to ask you... Something everyone should think about in their lives... Something potentially life changing, and very serious... 

"So, if there was a Zombie Apocalypse..."

[wait for laughter to die down]

"...and everyone in the world was infected except the people in this very classroom, and the school building was surrounded by Zombies, and we have one hour to prepare before they break through the fence and attack us..."

[forgive the criminally compounded sentence but that's how I talk sometimes]

"...where in the school building would we go, and what would we do?"

[pause for the murmur of conversation, questions and general surprise]

"...and by the way, there is only one right answer."

[mostly true, so far, though every time I've played I've added to that 'right' answer]

The answers to that question forms the first part of the lesson. Getting food, water and weapons; finding a safe-ish location - it takes a while to debate, discuss and generally argue about all the issues raised. After the first few minutes of confusion, everyone has an opinion. I'm very strict about not "cheating on the thought experiment" - but within the bounds of the question, anything goes.

The second part of the game is much more challenging - both to play and to manage. I start by pointing out this sad truth:

"Um, guys... we've just used up half of our survival time  arguing..."

This leads to a discussion about how best to make survival decisions most effectively. So far every time we have decided to elect captains in various fields: defence, food & water, health and long term survival. We talk about what would make a good captain for each of these categories - what personal characteristics will benefit the group.

Then I ask for nominations (with motivations) from the class. This part is tricky. I come down very hard on rude or inappropriate nominations, and I warn them beforehand to think carefully about what they are going to say before they open their mouths. But once the process is moving properly it can be incredibly affirming for the kids. It forces them to think about the qualities they REALLY admire in their classmates, instead of the silly things which often result in popularity at school.

Once captains have been nominated (I don't actually take it to a vote, but rather accept all sensible nominations) we discuss priorities and assign a different number of people to each work category based on urgency and heaviness of the tasks involved. 

All in all, this part of the game still looks like fun, but it is actually pretty serious work. Strengths and weaknesses, group work, prioritizing - it starts to look like a serious assignment! But we're all still (somehow) engaged, and having fun. Weird, huh?

The last part of the game gets very deep and begins to tread on very sensitive ground. In fact I don't play it with every class. But if I decide to take the plunge, it sounds like this:

"But what happens if some of us don't act in the best interests of the group?"

The kids have got my point by now, but they're still so absorbed in the game that they're willing to really think about it for a change.

We discuss whether we should elect an overall captain, and how we would choose that person. We talk about the important role of "enforcer", and some of the rules we would choose and choose to enforce. And of course HOW they would be enforced. Curriculum links to The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm become obvious at this point, but the same discussions come up in any class. If I did this at the beginning of the year then links to classroom constitutions are practically mandatory.

Either way, the game has paid its weight in educational value.

And it's fun! It really is. In the weeks after I played this I have heard rumours of zombie apocalypses in the playground. Other classes have requested that we play. 

I smile. Me 1, Boredom 0.

[linking to Megan's Better Together Linky! Thanks Megan... Go check out the other entries!]

yours in survival mode,

Thursday, October 10, 2013

NaNoWriMo Prep: Character Development I

When my then-boyfriend-now-husband introduced me to the delights of old fashioned D&D style computer games, it was love at first sight (ha! spot the deliberate-ish ambiguity!). And while playing the games themselves is magical, for me the best part is usually ...dum dum dum... the character creation. 

How most of these games work is that there are a certain number of parameters (race, character class/type, abilities, appearance, skills etc...) which you get to adjust (using a limited number of points in each category) to "create" a relatively unique character. Certain parameters affect each other - for example, if you choose to create a elven mage then you are likely to put more points into intelligence than strength: mages need intelligence to cast spells rather than strength to fight. But once you've put more points into intelligence, then you can't put many points into shields, because your character is too weak to carry a shield. Instead, you have to give him points in unarmed combat, or healing. You get the idea.

The point is, I've always wondered how much this kind of thinking could translate a) to thinking about strengths and weaknesses of real human beings (in fact I once led a youth group session on understanding and accepting yourself through computer games...interesting!) and b) to creating characters for my writing. Well, my friends, the time has come. I have designed a form to do exactly that. It is based partly on the D&D notion of basic characteristics and skills, partly on the Enneagram - an interesting idea which I stumbled across on Wikipedia (bless you, Wikipedia!), and partly on things that I know I will need to know based on the specific needs of my story.

So without further ado...

The idea is that I will either fill it out manually (leaning that way, to be honest) or digitally for each of the characters/suspects in my NaNoWriMo attempt at detective fiction. Where are the details, you ask? Why isn't it filled in already? What about all the other important and relevant questions? As you saw, this is part ONE of my character development. I will get back to you with tweaks and changes to the form once I have started using it in earnest. But I was too excited to keep it to myself a minute longer. 

What categories would you include in a character development form? What parameters am I missing?

yours thoughtfully

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Cupcakes

Show any teachers in your life some chocolatey, strawberry-ey love this week! Thank you school governing body for our early morning treat :-) We also got wonderful brown paper bags full of goodies at lunch time - what a special day!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Midweek Confessions

1) The kids in my class have asked me whether I only have one pair of shoes... The truth is I only have one pair of winter school shoes and one pair of summer school shoes! I'm surprised it took them so long to figure it out.

2) We only cook once every two weeks. Then we freeze the meal in batches and make friends with the microwave for week-night meals. If we don't do it like this, we don't eat vegetables... At all. And takeaways just keep slipping into the menu... funny that! Variety is overrated. Health isn't.

3) I have one particular class that I am struggling with at the moment. They are frustrated and not understanding the work. I am frustrated and not teaching particularly well. I dread going to that lesson. So I'm writing off this section of work. It is very hard material, I am being forced to move on by the curriculum pacing and it isn't 100% necessary to grasp for next year. I will start again with a positive attitude at the beginning of a new chapter - tomorrow. Yay, can't wait!

Linking up with e myself and I for the first time :) Check out the other confessions!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Winning, Losing and Loving It: have we taught sportsmanship?

So, I hear you ask, what have you been doing with the first weekend of your weeklong mini vacation/break thingy??

I've been waking up early, to get to school an hour before the normal school day starts, to load 13 teenagers and myself into a pilchard tin bus a bit like this one... that we could drive for forty minutes to take part in a three day, all day, chess tournament. Yay!

This entailed watching seven rounds of two hour long games, keeping score, trying to keep up with strategies and points tables and hovering around to defend my players when opposing players or managers become...over-zealous. It happens, people. Chess can bring out the killer instinct!

But aside from the obvious downsides, the tournament has been a great experience. Granted I have a headache, and bitten nails from a (nearly) photo finish in our group. Granted my holiday is now 6 days instead of 9. Granted my ears are still ringing a bit from the bus trip home. But I find it impossible to spend a significant amount of time with a group of teenagers and not start loving them, at least a little. And this particular group has been working towards this particular tournament so faithfully that by now my husband and I have spent a great deal of time with them. So I have started loving them.

Not in a creepy way. Not in a parental way. In a teacher way. I enjoy spending time with them. I find them funny. I care about what happens to them. I am interested in the next episodes of their love interests. I want them to win, because they will be sad if they lose. But I want them to win well, and to behave perfectly, and show the world what amazing kids they really are, beneath the hysterical love interests, and phone obsessions, and weird hairstyles... *sniff*

This particular tournament had a good outcome for us. It was the provincial playoffs for the whole of the Western Cape, and our u15 mixed team won bronze against some unbelievably talented opponents. Our u15 girls team won gold in their section and will be going to nationals in December.

They were happy with their results. I was happy with the results too. I was also happy with the way they acted around their success, and around the teams who did not succeed. But it could easily have gone very differently - as I said, it came down to a very tight points difference in the final round. And I can't help wondering how different their behaviour would have been if things hadn't gone our way.

I hope it would have been the same. The amount of effort and skill they put in would have been the same, and would have deserved a similar amount of celebration. Being defeated by chance or a stronger team is nothing to be depressed or miserable or grumpy about. We always try very hard to prepare the teams for good losing behaviour as well as good winning behaviour. But the proof, as always, is in the pudding. Today we didn't get to taste the pudding. Maybe next time we will.

The mark of a great sportsperson is not how he wins. It is how he loses.

But I must say, I still prefer to win. Not even the prospect of doing it all again at the beginning of the December holidays can dampen my spirits. I am sure my ears will stop ringing soon...

Yours triumphantly

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Planning vs Pantsing - NaNoWriMo 2013

I know it's early, but as you know I am already chomping at the NaNoWriMo bit. For those who don't know what NaNoWriMo is an epic challenge: write a novel in the month of November. 30 Days. 50 000 Words. Yes, that is the correct number of zeros.

I won NaNoWriMo last year (by that I don't mean "came first" or anything. EVERYONE who finishes 50 000 words is a NaNo winner) and am firmly addicted to the rush of hurtling through a story at 1 667 words per day. The feeling is kind of like caffeine on a high. So naturally I want to do it again. Duh.

Now according to the NaNo lore and prophets, there are two ways of writing your NaNo novel. Planning (self explanatory) and Pantsing (flying by the seat of your pants). Last year, having discovered the notion of NaNo in the 20s of October, I pantsed it. Largely, anyway. I had a more-or-less chapter plan scribbled somewhere on a piece of paper. I had a couple of characters developed a couple of days before starting...but that's about it. Perfect for my episodic, fantasy-ish romp of a story. Short of words for the day? Insert a new species of monster, and some flashy spells. 

But this year I'm thinking about emulating some of my favourite authors of all time and writing a golden age style detective story. Think Dame Agatha and her coven of cronies. Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers... *happy sigh* I do love a good murder mystery. If I had the creative energy to write Poirot or Lord Peter fanfiction I SO would. small problem... as we all know, a good detective story is built on timetables, and alibi charts and stuff. Turning clocks back, train schedules, tide tables, that sort of thing. Just the sort of thing which is impossible to make up on the fly. Not at 1000 words per hour, anyway. And in any case I may, possibly, skip over those pages in detective stories. I want to get to the good stuff, you know?

I have some ideas about how to do this without making myself miserable with tables and boring alibi charts, such as making characters like I would create computer game/dungeons and dragons characters. If and when I carry these ideas out, I will share them. Judiciously, of course, so as to save you all from the spoilers.

But basically, if I want this year's NaNo to be a win for me, and if I don't fall back on the interesting zombie apocalypse/teacher twist that is still a valid possibility... I need to start planning. Like, now.

So, er... bye! No time to talk. I'm planning...

yours prudently

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stayin' Alive: My Classroom Management Survival Strategy

I am not a disciplinarian. I am not super strict or super scary. And I think I've come to accept that. I'm young and relatively inexperienced - and occasionally I find their naughtinesses funny (anathema!). But I can still manage a classroom well. I can still make sure I am the boss when it comes to the important things. Even in a class filled to overflowing with rowdy, hormonious (sic) teenagers. Linking up (for the first time ever, go me!) with Megan at M* are my top survival strategies for chaos (I mean, classroom) management.

1) Insist.

Decide which battles you want to fight and be willing to stop the class and spend however long it takes winning. Once you've thrown down the gauntlet you MUST win. Unless a child presents a sensible argument as to why the gauntlet shouldn't have been thrown down in the first place (oops!) in which case apologies and move on. Everyone else in the classroom is willing to waste learning time to misbehave, so you sometimes HAVE to call their collective bluff and be willing to 'waste' learning time to insist on good behaviour. And break time too, if necessary. On a related note, if you say you'll do something as a punishment (give detention, call parents, whatever) you MUST do it. Not following through = discipline suicide. On another related, and perhaps obvious note...

2) Pick your battles

Don't throw the gauntlet on the floor for every little thing. It's too exhausting and time consuming otherwise. Ask yourself whether it is really worth it. Johnny putting a sweet in his mouth? Not so much. Johnny swearing at Billy? Definitely. Johnny and Billy having a quiet conversation about something unrelated? Your call. These are the things I will go to battle for, more or less in order of importance:
  •   anything that threatens the safety and well being of themselves or the other people in the classroom (hitting, nasty remarks, setting things on fire...)
  •  anything that severely impairs the ability of anyone in the class to learn (talking loudly, not taking books out, coming late...)
  •  anything that impairs my ability to teach (or irritates the living $&#% out of me - whistling continuously, throwing pens and papers, eating something that rustles or stinks...)

I try to think about a potential infraction VERY carefully before putting on my helmet and elbow guards and wading into the fray. If it doesn't fit one of those categories, I often let it slide. And if it does fit one of those categories...

3) Explain

I've always had a better response, and less repetition of bad behaviour if I have addressed the WHY and not just the what. If the class understands the underlying reason behind why I'm going all in on an issue, they are less likely to brush it off as the teacher being petty or just 'in a bad mood', and more likely to change the problematic behaviour. Okay, SLIGHTLY more likely.

4) Correct rather than punish

This one isn't always possible, but it's one of my favourites. If the behaviour isn't all that heinous, or hasn't been repeated all that often, or simply isn't that big a deal... as if often isn't (because let's face it, most issues we deal with are stupid petty little things), then there isn't always a need to provide a punishment. This saves time, whining and emotional energy. It also means that when I do punish, it is a lot more of a big deal. In my classroom a detention is a BIG DEAL. It doesn't mean that the other behaviours, the ones I correct without punishment, are acceptable. They still have to stop. They still provoke a discussion, and sometimes even a consequence. It just might not warrant a punishment. Starting with correction also leaves you with somewhere to go if the behaviour doesn't change.

5) Quality Time

That's all very well, but we all know those kids who are perennial offenders. The constant chirper. The lazy lout. The latecomer. The attention seeker. I honestly don't know how to deal with those kids, but the strategy that has come closest to working is... quality time. Call the kid over privately, after class, or when you see them wandering around after school. Find out their 'why'. Take an interest in their circumstances. Can you make any small changes which will help them correct their own behaviour. Most kids don't like being in trouble. Let them know you don't like their being in trouble either. Call the parent for a friendly, concerned chat. It helps more often than I would have thought. Surprise! Apparently that naughty kid ISN'T actually evil...

For that kid who doesn't respond to that, to ANYTHING... my last resort is:

6) Get help

I have been lucky enough to find myself in a very supportive school, with many helpful bosses at different levels. I have battled and LOST battles with various learners through the years, and have gone knocking on doors with a frantic SOS. People, you will get to the point where you're just not coping. In which case... Don't be a hero. Ask for advice. Ask for help. Your boss/colleague/SOMEONE might need to come to the rescue.


That's it from me. I haven't got all the answers, and goodness knows I'm still learning. I've certainly enjoyed working out how much I've learned about this whole aspect of teaching over the past few years, and I'm longing to read what everyone else says in the linky party "Better Together" at M*Print. Hope this contribution helps you too!

Good luck with the chaos management...

Yours in solidarity

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

November is coming...

Man, you know! I just blinked and August was gone. In fact, most of September is also gone. Yikes!

It's been busy and wet around here, as the entrance of my house one early school morning testifies...

But there have been unexpected moments of peace and sunshine...

And as usual, a liberal sprinkling of blessings...

So I can't complain on the whole! But it's definitely time for something seriously constructive...

Yes, I know that's only in November, but I have been mulling over my plans for a while now. Needless to say I am definitely attempting the challenge again and super keen for it. More details soon, but I am trying to choose between writing a golden age detective novel, or a zombie apocalypse...

Join me?

Yours productively,

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Marking Highlight

This is a bit delayed, but here is my marking highlight for the previous exams...(this photo is proof that I do occasionally mark, for all those doubters)

I took a photo of the actual text, but decided to type it instead - the handwriting is distinctive, and I don't want to embarrass anyone. But this is really an excellent, creative, thoughtful and intelligent wrong answer. Love it!

Q: What does fleet of foot mean? (Context was an article about endangered cheetahs)

A: This phrase means there were lots of cheetahs walking together all in a herd, and when you look you see a large amount (sic) of feet.


Signing off - all day chess tournament today!


PS if you're wondering why 'amount' is incorrect, 'feet' are countable and should therefore be refered to as 'number'. 'Amount' is for uncountable quantities (sugar, grass, milk...). Grammar lesson over!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Adventures in Teaching Connotation

Sorry for the bad photo, but it was taken off my whiteboard with my phone in the 5 minutes between lessons...

I put the basic sentence up, and divided the class in half. One half had to insert words with negative connotations, and the other half had to insert words with positive connotations. We started by changing nouns and verbs. Then we added adjectives and adverbs. They each wrote in their books (I allowed them to help each other in pairs and groups of three) and I wandered around giving the whiteboard markers to people who had interesting contributions to add to the board.

It took about ten minutes, and was a fabulous fun way to cement the ideas of denotation and connotation. In hindsight, it was also a fun way to sneak a bit of new vocabulary in to certain learner's repertoire! I will definitely do this again.

Friday, June 7, 2013

It's Five O'Clock on a... Fri-iday...

...the regular crowd shuffles in. There's a young man, sitting next to me...

And these guys are my new best friends for the next few hours:

I/we have been on a major Big Bang binge for the past couple of weeks - we're not about to let some trivial marking interrupt. Not much, anyway!

I think the main reason I love Big Bang Theory is simple... I married a slightly less dorky but pretty much as smart, funny and caring version of Leonard. Shout out to you, my angel (that's Adam, just so we're clear)!

Adam also wins on height ;)

Oh yeah, and he's REAL.

Beat that, homies