I’ve been featured in TeachSpace!

As is traditional around here, I’m breaking with precedent to show off.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been using ten-minute videos to explain new concepts to my students. Virtual meetings haven’t always been practical, partly because many of our students are now developing a habit of ‘asynchronous learning’: getting their work done at a time that suits them (usually earlier than normal), which is fine by me, seeing as I can’t be in the room with them anyway.

These videos have been my best tool, and certainly my proudest teaching achievement, in lockdown learning. I’ve been sharing snippets of them on social media to entertain my bored friends and relatives. My former uni got wind of them and featured me in this article on TeachSpace, a sort of virtual alumni magazine.

And if you liked last week’s song, check out my video on editing tips below. The quality of the advice far surpasses the quality of the video, I’m afraid. I pretty much just film in my study with my work laptop propped on my standing desk propped on a wobbly table. The blackboard was a stroke of luck, though – that came with the room!

When your students flunk the project, write a song… *clap clap*

One of my biggest worries about crisis learning is that I sound mean when commenting on student work. Video-chat has got off to a cautious start at my school (the internet ain’t great out here in the sticks), and tone can be difficult to convey in writing. Especially when your audience isn’t trained in identifying tone yet.

So what is a teacher to do when her class, interrupted by statewide lockdown, completely bombs on a core assessment? What is she to do when she wants them to take the mistake seriously, but not too seriously?

A teacher writes a song.

(It must be said that I also make videos that say nice things to my students, and/or explain the instructions, using a large blackboard. I’ve got some news about those coming soon! But this one, so far, contains what I contend is the most important lesson I have recorded so far. When your success in a particular venture requires you to follow instructions, follow the instructions.)

More creative writing activities for quarantined kids

woman in green and white stripe shirt covering her face with white mask

One of my most popular posts lately has been this one. When I wrote it, I was expecting – even hoping – that schools around the nation would be closed to control the spread of coronavirus.

I’m now in Week 3 of remote teaching. On the one hand, as a lifesaving measure, it is stunningly effective. Australia currently has about 1,000 known active cases of COVID-19. We’re currently detecting about 8 new cases a day. No, those were not typos. One thousand active cases. Eight new cases daily. But on the other hand, teaching remotely is so much harder than I expected. Everyone is frustrated, tired, under-motivated, lonely and overwhelmed. There are not enough hours in the day for anything. My shining light right now is that at least I’m doing somewhat creative units, most of all in Year Seven.

I’m guessing many other teachers and parents out there are in a similar position, so it seemed about time to share some of my resources. I’m using all of these in my classes at the moment.

I hope they come in handy, wherever you happen to be!


1. Historical diary 

Students complaining of boredom? Have them channel it.

There’s never been a time like this in living memory, and it will be studied in the future – much like the letters of eighteen-year-old Pliny the Younger, who observed the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79CE:

gray scale photo of active volcano

“It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); it can best be described as being like a large pine tree, for it rose very high on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.

My intelligent uncle [Pliny the Elder, who later died trying to help people escape from Pompeii] saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had given me some writing to do.”

The task for your students is to record what is happening to them – or not happening to them – right now. Mine have captured their worries, their frustrations, their pain and their gratitude in this simple activity. I can’t take credit for this idea – it’s been kicking around online for a few weeks. Here’s how I framed it.

Imagine that it is the year is 3320, Common Era. Archaeologists have finally discovered how to read the long-lost, very confusing language known as English. They have discovered how to use a machine that people once called a ‘thinker’ (computer) and have discovered many fascinating new texts. They are still trying to figure out whether a ‘TikTok’ and a ‘Tic-Tac’ are the same thing.

They are especially intrigued by a diary entry from a young person who survived a famous tragedy they have translated as ‘Invisible Crown Going Everywhere Disease’ (the coronavirus pandemic). This diary entry teaches the archaeologists of the 34th century many new facts about life in the days of the Invisible Crown. 

This young person is you. Write an account of your daily life, thoughts, feelings, things you miss, things you are looking forward to, and/or things you hope will never come back (goodbye, sweaty handshakes!)

Remember to include plenty of detail. You are the first ordinary person of the 21st century whose writing the archaeologists have seen, and they want to learn about how this unbelievable historical event affected you!

It’s also a good way to get a deeper measure of how your students might be feeling – but sometimes distraction is the best medicine. I set this for my competent students over a few periods while the others were finishing another project, and then let it go. It’s good Writing to Learn but eke it out too long and it might drag them down.

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Post… poned? Post postponed?

Readers, I hate to do this, but this weekend’s update is going to be late. I’m not sure how late because I feel disgusting and I honestly don’t know if I’m genuinely sick, or just tired. You know that slimy dish-cloth in the corner of your sink that you’re afraid to touch because it’s more mould than cloth at this point? That’s me. That’s how my face looks and my head feels and my mouth tastes.

As you may know, I’m a teacher, and like all my colleagues, I have been slugging my guts out to make this remote learning thing work. I thought finishing this weekend’s post would make a nice little me-time activity for Sunday night. Now I’m trying to figure out which one of my indoor plants can accommodate the most vomit.

Real content will be up within 48 hours, unless my head falls off, which feels likely.

For W. G.

The world is in mourning and so am I. Today we bid farewell to my grandfather. He was 90. His passing was blessedly peaceful and so were the little send-offs in all our different households. I thought I’d share the poem I wrote for his goodbye.

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The rakali

nobody swims in the river now
we are too afraid of drowning
not on clear water
among the rounded stones
but in a white bed on dry land
with poison in our lungs

the other night, the dog and i
walked off the edge of the map
in the smoke-hazed sunset
solitude was my duty
and the catastrophic radio
was always on indoors

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Creative writing activities for quarantined kids

Some call it coronavirus, some call it COVID-19, some call it the end of the world, and some (teenagers with a dark sense of humour, but honestly who can blame them) call it the Boomer Doomer.

Whatever you call it, we’re now living through an official pandemic. One of the best things we can do is slow the spread (thereby decreasing the pressure on our hospitals) by keeping away from each other’s filthy hands and disgusting mouths. And because some of the filthiest hands and disgusting-est mouths can be found in the common human child (Homo sapiens juvenilis), schools across the world have started to declare an early Easter holidays.

I suspect my school will do the same pretty soon. Now, I’m not a huge fan of homework on principle. Up until VCE, I reckon home-time should basically be a chance to recharge and be a kid, and science backs me up on that. Most of the homework I set is simply finishing off class work. But I also have a bunch of students who look forward to English; who want more work to do; who tell me they’d like to write stories and poems, and debate social issues, and solve riddles, and eat exotic fruit every day. I have students whose minds are ravenous for stimulation; who yell ‘we love this!’ during my creative writing classes; who ask for me to give them something to do at home because they’re bored on weekends. And I love those little nerds to bits.

This post is for them. And their parents. And their teachers. These are good rainy-day, end-of-week, quarantine or natural disaster writing activities to keep restless creative minds active. Some of them have been tested in my classroom; some haven’t yet. These are best for the middle-school age range (Years 5 to 8) but I’ve run some with younger students as well.

two boys looking outside window


1. Writing with your senses 

I’ve posted about this before, but since then I’ve run the same activity with my Year Sevens and I’ve gotta say, it’s a winner. Of course, the thirteen-year-olds could do it much faster and in most cases with more sophistication than the seven-year-olds, but it still encourages kids to notice and describe the details of a scene.

The way I started it with the Year Sevens was a little different to what I did with the little kids. I had less time, so I gave them a rough template like this to start off with:

Situation: I’m drawing
See: Coloured ink, black lines sweeping across white paper, characters coming to life
Hear: Marker lid popping, marker tip squeaking on page
Smell: the ink – intense, alcohol-based
Taste: N/A
Feel – touch/emotion: Smooth paper, quiet satisfaction, concentration

Once they fill out their own template (they don’t have to do every sense), have them rewrite it in full sentences as a paragraph. Some of the most beautiful writing I’ve got from my students has come from this exercise and the joy of it as a teacher is that you get an insight into what they like – whether that’s baking, riding dirt-bikes, showjumping, playing on the trampoline or creating YouTube videos with their friends.

Eminently adjustable to just about every age group, this is a great writing activity – and one that comes in handy to remember as a professional writer too!

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