Tag Archives: english

The Facts of Memory Project

One of my favourite classroom projects comes from FLIGHT 10. The project began by asking students to discover the truth in memory. The concept of this inquiry unit is that by studying the non-fiction narratives and comparing the two versions of stories from the elders (plus the visual and oral versions), students would see how the line between fact and fiction can be a fine balance.

We worked as a team, myself the classroom teacher, and Bryan Hughes the teacher librarian/media specialist for the school to have students answer that question orally, visually and textually to see how the line between fact and fiction can be a fine balance.

The students began by reading non-fiction narrative books in literature circles. Some of the novels we used included:

The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagna

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky by Benjamin Ajak

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

Next, students were paired with a classmate to interview a local elder. Most of the stories were based on conflict (since their novels from the novel study had a great deal of conflict in them), but some were just funny or unusual tales that the elder wished to tell.

After the interview, students individually wrote a biographical narrative in the first person about one of their elder’s stories. We did multiple drafts and critique processes on the stories, peer, self, and teacher, so that students could improve their work.

At the same time, students built shadow boxes for their stories. We supplied the pre-cut wood and used a woodworking room to nail and glue the pieces together. Painting them black took another couple of classes, but the students were extremely proud of having put their own display together! Students also created 5 to 7 artifacts to represent the story to place in the shadow box. The only requirement was that the artifacts needed to be their own construction. They also loved doing something tactile in an English Language Arts classroom (I have written on their engagement in this task in this previous post).

Finally, student used VoiceThread to tell the story orally using their own narration and recordings from the interviews they conducted with the elder. Here are two great examples of the final product from Declan and Ryan. Please feel free to add your own comments! This was displayed alongside the boxes with a QR code so the audience of the boxes could add comments on the VoiceThread.

After returning to the retirement home to share with the elders and after a presentation of learning to the community, students summarized their learning in a comprehensive blog post reflecting on the process of the project and the overall discoveries students made about the topic and themselves.

This project made an indelible mark on the class and us as their teachers. Together we were moved, frustrated, honoured, and overwhelmed – and we wouldn’t have given any of it up! We can’t wait for next time to improve upon what we have started! Check out this student’s personal reflection for more information!

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Links Referred to in this Post:

Petra’s Blog on Engagement during the project

Declan’s VoiceThread on Newt’s Story

Ryan’s VoiceThread on Irene’s Story

Sample drafts of stories and critiques

Photos of interviews and boxes

Student’s Reflection on the process

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Filed under English, FLIGHT, non-fiction, Project Based Learning

Using Goodreads.com in the English Classroom

For many years I have run a reading program in my English Language Arts classroom. Students know that every class begins with them coming into to class and reading for 10 minutes or so silently before we start the lesson for the day. The requirements for the reading are pretty basic: students are expected to read a certain number of books per year based on their grade level, the book must be a reasonable length (no newspapers or magazines) and after they finish the book, they write a brief (5-10 sentences) review of it.

This year, I decided to use goodreads.com for students to publish their reviews. The advantages seemed obvious: students can access reviews from home to complete them, they can share reviews with each other and they can update their progress as they are reading. So, going all in, in the first month of classes, I had all my students register and ‘friend’ me.

Immediately there were some issues – student forgot passwords, they couldn’t find me to friend, the site slowed to a crawl with the entire class bombarding the server etc. But gradually reviews have started to come in. As students wrote their reviews, I tried to comment on each one – which has led to some interesting exchanges: Goodreads Example


I always love it when students catch me on my grammar! What I like best is that the student felt comfortable enough to give me a hard time.

The other thing I really love about goodreads.com is the new recommendations it makes to students once they’ve read a book. This student put it best:

Goodreads Example 2

Since this isn’t a book I knew, goodreads.com is doing a better job than I could have at helping this student! Overall, I’m super impressed with the results of using it in my classroom and I can’t wait to see where students take it next.


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Filed under English

Authentic for Some, Standard for English

This morning’s tweet from the BC School Superintendents’ Association’s meeting in Kelowna by Chris Kennedy, Superintendent/CEO of the West Vancouver School District, was the first I saw regarding the decision of the Ministry of Education to eliminate optional provincial exams in BC. Soon after, the Ministry’s press release publicized the decision.

Frankly, I’m not surprised by the news. Once the exams were made optional and universities began to drop them from admission criteria, the writing was on the wall. There should be no doubt that this is of benefit to students. Without the pressure of a 40% weighted standardized test, classroom teachers are freed to be creative in both their delivery of curriculum and the assessment of the learning outcomes. All in all, a win for the BC education system.

What concerns me though is the continuation of the grade 10 and 11 exams and the English 12 provincial, as well as the strengthened ‘link’ between scholarship provisions and these exams.

As an English teacher for many years, I am demoralized by this news. Since the English 10 provincial (which rose from the ashes of the grade 10 FSA) is worth 20% and the English 12 provincial is 40% of a student’s grade in those years, for a student’s three senior years of English Language Arts, an average of 20% of their grade in those three years comes from two separate three hour, high stake tests.

My school has worked hard as an English department with our teacher-librarian to make assessment relevant and meaningful to our senior English students. Our grade 11 exam is an amazing piece of cumulative work in which students get to show their passion for a topic and the skills they have learned all year. Next year, we are even taking it a step further and making it into an electronic portfolio. This is, to me, true learning. With our English 11 exam the students demonstrate their completion of the learning outcomes with a commitment that I have rarely seen in any classroom assignment. It is one of the best exercises any member of our department does in any of our courses precisely because the students are empowered to drive their own education.

That is exactly what is missing from the provincial exam process. The fact that a 20% average of each year of my students’ senior English grades is determined in only 6 hours of standardized testing is appalling to me as a professional who believes passionately in authentic assessment and has seen the benefits of such assessments to her students.

When you add in to this mix the increased weight of these exams on a student’s chance for a scholarship, my disenchantment with the graduation program is deepened. The Ministry’s release does not reveal how the scholarships will be determined other than to state, “scholarship criteria will shift to focus on students’ performance in grades 10, 11 and 12 required provincial exams.”. Not only will I still be preparing students for standardized tests in two out of their three senior high school years, but now these exams will be even more firmly determining whether or not my students will receive scholarships.

So although I welcome the Ministry’s decision to end the optional exams, I am left wondering, when will the English teachers too see the end of standardized testing in their classrooms?

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