Teaching as inquiry 2019 – improving student achievement Level 1 Geography (Focusing and developing a hunch)

At the beginning of Term 1, 2019 I was looking for a focus for inquiry. Starting my first term teaching at a new school I initially thought I would like to focus my inquiry on finding ways to include and incorporate student and whanau voice into the geography program. However, I quickly Continue reading “Teaching as inquiry 2019 – improving student achievement Level 1 Geography (Focusing and developing a hunch)”

Teaching as inquiry 2018

After reviewing the senior geography exam results for 2017 (level 1, 2 and 3) I wanted to find ways to improve outcomes for senior students sitting the external exams (see some reflections here).

A number of students explained to me that they were tripped up by the wording of a question and rather than skipping that particular question they would simply give up and skip the entire exam. In 2017 all geography students prepared for 2 externals but the majority of students only ended up sitting one. This was frustrating as I knew if students had more confidence, better literary or more practice with exams they would have not been so quickly deterred by the wording of a question. While I felt that I had given students plenty of opportunities to practice exam questions and had spent a lot of time having class based discussions brainstorming about old exam questions this was still a major hurdle for students. A number of students gave me feedback that they would like more practice questions to better prepare for the exam. I felt I had given students a lot of practice exams to work through – however, students seemed to lack a sense of urgency around completing these and could take weeks of class time to write practice answers for one exam. As a result students were not really being exposed to a range of questions or getting the feedback they needed to be confident in the final exam.

My hunch was this sense of urgency and feedback needed to be developed over the whole year and not just leading up to externals. I also got the sense that perhaps teachers were providing a bit too much feedback during assessments which meant students lacked confidence and experience in tackling issues on their own – as this type of problem solving was required in the exam I thought I could potentially prepare students for this during internal assessments.

I decided to approach assessment differently and do all the teaching over 4 weeks and then run the assessment like a test – under exam conditions over a week. Students could answer practice questions and prepare in advance and seek feedback (much like in an exam) but for the internal they were on their own. (see previous posts)

I attempted this approach for 2 assessments at level 1, 2 and 3 throughout term 1 but what I found was many students were away during the week which complicated things (this perhaps may be a useful approach in schools with high levels of attendance but it wasn’t really the best strategy for my students who were regularly missing class).  Another key issue I noticed that for many a week just wasn’t enough time and this affected the hand in rate significantly.

At the end of term 1 I realized I had to reconsider this approach and adjust my program to accommodate students. We were half way through our internals and the majority of students were not achieving or submitting work with the exception of my level 1 geography class (all work was completed!). I decided to revisit individual goals with students and create individual plans in order to support students with their internals (see previous posts). I sat down with each student one on one and discussed where they were at and what we could do moving forward. Every student in my level 2 class was now on their own individual plan to support the different academic ability, rates of attendance and other learning needs. This worked really well, students were engaged and those who had missed a bit of class were able to just carry on where they left off. The majority of students in the class gained at least 5-8 credits during term 2 – so this was a big improvement on the results in term 1.

During term 3 I revisited goals with students again and decided to give students the option to sit the externals or carry on with internals at the beginning of the term. 5 students ended up opting in to the exam. A one on one discussion with each student allowed for students to make their own decision on this – many who had not completed all the internals felt they could get more credits focusing on the internals.

While it is unclear at this stage whether this inquiry has improved students outcomes in externals – I feel it has allowed me to reflect on my own teaching practice and develop and improve my teaching practice. Adapting the course to suit individual students is a useful way to better support the diverse needs of learners in the classroom. Not all student is the same and this needs to be considered throughout the school year. Having regular conversations with students about their success meant that I developed stronger relationships with students and they seemed to feel more confident in seeking feedback on their work when required. Students also seemed to be taking responsibility for their own learning – often submitting work when it was ready without me chasing them for it.

Next steps – I will focus on individual plans much earlier in the year.

Level 3 – observations of History and Social Studies

Recently, it has been a bit of a challenge to motivate my Level 3 Geography class to do any work. While this has been an issue for most of the year – as mentioned in previous post the criteria for the Rotorua field trip that required work completion acted as a motivator for some students. However, as we begin term 3, post- Rotorua the momentum seems to be wearing off. I had tried a number of strategies such as setting goals, talking to students one on one, removing students who were disruptive and trying to limit distractions in class such as cell-phones and eating. Since a number of students taking geography also took history and social studies I decided to observe my colleagues to see what they were doing differently.

On Monday the 6th August – p3 I went to observe Mr Brown’s History class. This was particularly useful as I observed:

  • Students were also coming in late to class – dripping in 20 minutes into the lesson
  • Students were distracted by eating, using phones and talking rather than listening to instructions
  • Overall, the level 3 History class collectively had the same work ethic as the Level 3 Geography class.

An approach adopted by Mr Brown that I found particularly useful was I noticed he didn’t give up nor lose his cool he just continued to patiently give instructions from the front and walked around all lesson continuously reminding students to get back on task. I felt this was something I needed to do more of – patiently reminding students to return to the task at hand and stay on their case the whole lesson.

Following on from my observations with Mr Brown on Tuesday the 7th of August I observed Ms Apelu’s Year 13 Social Studies class. As I arrived Ms Apelu was giving the class a bit of a talking to. She was telling them how much their teachers cared about them and was inspiring them to do something that  could feel proud of.

I liked this approach and again, this was a useful reminder for me to remind students that I cared about them. As we moved through the year I had become increasingly frustrated with my year 13 class and as a result had become increasingly short and impatient with the class in general. Listening to Ms Apelu speak to her class reminded me I needed to remind students that I cared about them.

In summary, observing Mr Brown and Ms Apelu teach the Level 3’s reminded me of the need to have patience with the class and it is important to remind students that we as their teachers care about them.

Mentoring and support at Tamaki College 2017/2018

As noted in my previous post I received mentoring and support from a Specialist Classroom Teacher, My HOD and one of the Deputy Principal’s during my time at Whangaparoa College.   Upon starting my teaching journey at Tamaki College I also had mentoring with the Specialist Classroom Teacher and my HOD.

Throughout 2017 I met regularly with Cheryl Harvey to discuss both challenges I faced in the classroom and registration. We met fortnightly throughout 2017 with a group of other beginning teachers. We generally discussed the registration process, literacy and culturally responsive pedagogy. Cheryl often arranged for guest speakers to come to these meetings to give support on particular topics. Here is a log I kept of these meetings:

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 9.32.22 PM.png

Here is some ways I incorporated literacy into my teaching after the meetings with Marc and Cheryl on 10/5, 7/06 and 23/08 (Teaching as Inquiry, 2018). I also used points discussed in the meetings with Melba and Brent on 22/03/2017 and 9/08/17 

In addition to meeting with Cheryl Harvey I met regularly with my HOD and the Social Sciences department (once a fortnight) to discuss curriculum based issues.

Throughout terms 1 and 2, 2018 I have continued to met with Cheryl Harvey. However, once a month rather than fortnightly. I have been meeting ever other fortnight with my HOD one on one to get extra support with subject related issues. Here is a log I have kept of my meetings with my HOD:

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 9.40.09 PM.png

Changes to Level 3 – global issue

I made some changes to the Level 3 program this year. Last year for AS91432 – Analyse aspects of a geographic topic at a global scale we looked at Malaria. While students found this topic interesting enough I wanted to make the Level 3 program a little more exciting for students. At SOC CON 2017 Geostuff were selling resources for units and one that caught my eye was a unit on Maritime Piracy. I tried this with the Level 3 class this year and what I liked about it was this brought unit presented the course content in a really clear methodical way which made it really easy to teach. As I am still in my second year it was a really useful resource to help me get my head around the standard.

Furthermore, as noted in previous posts its important to keep course content up to date and fresh – as it is just as important for the teacher to be excited about the material as it is for the students. On reflection, it also reminded me that the presentation of material is important – where possible teaching needs to be made explicit and ideally content is presented in clear sections. While the Malaria unit was rich in content there was perhaps a little to much collected over the years which meant it was difficult for students to focus in on key points or key ideas. Sometimes less is more 🙂

Revisiting student goals

As mentioned in a previous post I set goals with my students at the beginning of the school year as a way to get to know new students and have a conversation about strengths, weaknesses and hopes for the future. However, my senior classes in particular level 2 and level 3 students seem unmotivated in class and struggling to submit their assessments.

A number of students seemed to have pretty much given up – perhaps this was because they were new to geography or they found the subject challenging (some didn’t even have level 1). However, some other students who were more than capable were lacking motivation as well. I decided the goal setting we had done earlier in the year was a useful starting point to a conversation. I sat down with each student in the class one on one. Brought up their goals and ask them how level two was going? I emphasised it was not yet halfway through the year and they could still turn it around. I also asked questions about what their plans were after school. While most didn’t know – we talked about the value of keeping opportunities open rather than closing doors. One student in particular was reluctant to take part in the conversation and had done absolutely no work all year. I decided to take a different tactic with her and asked her to think about how she wanted to use her time in class productively – it didn’t have to be doing geography just doing something! She was still just saying “I don’t know”. So I said we could revisit the conversation on Monday. With the rest of the students in the class we talked about next steps moving forward and how I could best support them. Another student without any credits at level 1 and 2 decided to work on her level 1 rather than level 2 so we came up with a individualised plan for her.

Overall, the reflection of goals conversation was a success. The majority of the class began to re-engage with some of the struggling students taking ownership and sending me work for feedback. A few sitting right next to me so I could help with their work during the lesson – including the student who I gave the opportunity to tell me what she wanted to do during class time.

On reflection revisiting goals is a powerful way to re-motivate students and find out where students are at. While this is useful at the start of the year it is hard to have realistic conversations with students about where they are at this point in the year. In the future I will have this conversation a little earlier on in term 2 in the hopes this shift in attitude and newly found enthusiasm could emerge a unit or work or 2 earlier 🙂

Level 3 Rotorua trip and setting criteria

In 2017, the Level 3 Geography class took a field trip to Rotorua for 3 days. This trip was to support students with an external and students were required to conduct geographical research as part of an internal. The trip overall supported students towards gaining 9 credits in geography. While this trip was beneficial to students beyond assessment (see previous blog posts) However, reflecting on results from previous years I decided to try putting some criteria around attendance for the trip. This is largely because only 4 students attempted both the internal and external. Furthermore, a number of student rarely attended class throughout the year and then disappear after the trip to Rotorua. It is important to reflect on this because currently the Board of Trustees and the Geography department pay a significant amount of money for student to attend this trip.

This criteria was set with students in the first week of school for 2018. This way expectations with students were clear and hopefully I would get more Level 3 students attending class and submitting internals (this was a big issue in 2017).

As a class, we decided that prior to attending the trip students needed to have 80% attendance (although 90% is recommended by NCEA – this was a more realistic goal for the majority of students). Students would also need to complete ALL internals leading up to the trip.

This approach seemed successful in the first month or so of class with the majority of students making an effort with attendance. However, when the first assessment deadline came up only 9 (out of 23 students handed this in). This unfortunately meant attendance and work completion dropped off for a number of students. A similar number of students handed in the second assessment. While this work completion doesn’t seem great it was a significant improvement from the Level 3 class in 2017. Additionally, students were making an effort with attendance. At this point I discussed the results with my HOD who suggested revisiting the criteria. This seemed like a good idea in the hopes to motivate some students to complete their third assessment. If students completed 2 assessments and had 80% attendance they could come on the trip.

Some key reflections on setting this criteria and the adjustments made latter in the year:

  1. it helped motivate students to attend class and summit work
  2. However, it meant if students didn’t hand in the first assessment they almost gave up as they knew they were missing out on the trip – it would be good to consider a way to address this in 2019.
  3. I needed to follow through on the conditions I made with students regarding the second assessment as only one of the four students I extended this to actually handed in their assessment but came on the trip anyway (as arrangements were made too close to the deadline).

Overall, it was worth having criteria and putting restrictions in place as it meant students took their geography work and class attendance a bit more seriously since they wanted to attend the trip. It also meant we ended up with a nice crew of geographers on the trip. However, this criteria needs some adjusting for 2019 – perhaps it doesn’t need to be so credit focused potentially attendance is enough? In saying that, attendance in general has seemed to drop off since the trip in term 2 and only 1/3 the students that attended the trip have submitted their research assessments (similar to 2017).

Deadlines and having high expectations

Throughout 2017, I had trouble in most of my senior classes with students handing in work by the agreed deadline. While I initially tried to enforce strict deadlines, students didn’t really seem to take these deadlines very seriously. On several occasions in my level 1 and 3 classes students would just completely ignore the deadline and as a result I would then give the entire class an extension – feeling like this was perhaps because I hadn’t given students enough time for their assessment.

However, towards the end of 2017 I came to realise my enabling of missing deadlines was an unfair approach to assessments. On the one hand I felt that giving students more time was better than them not gaining credits for their incomplete work. However, this seemed unfair for small minority of students that did work hard in class to complete work by the deadline. It meant effectively I was favouring some students over others and some students were getting a lot of extra time to complete work. For some students they were then gaining; achieved,  merit or excellence grades while other students who were handing in on top potentially could have gained a higher grade if they were given the same amount of time. Furthermore, students did in fact have plenty of time in class to complete their assessments but because they were no real consequences for missing deadlines and too many second and third chances this meant student were developing poor time management skills in class. If I wanted my students to develop strong time management skills and take deadlines seriously I needed to address this issue. I knew I was setting students up to fail later in life (at university or workplaces) if I didn’t foster a sense of urgency around work completion. I realised  I needed to establish a clear extension policy early on and follow through on this policy.

As noted my level 1 and 3 classes seemed to have a pretty relaxed approach to work completion and deadlines however, this didn’t to seem to be as much of an issue in my level 2 class. I realised this was because I had set some clear expectations with this class at the start of the year. I had gotten students in this class to apply for an extension on their first assessment prior to the deadlines.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.58.18 AM

As you can see on the form students were required to reflect and take responsibility for meeting the new deadline. As a result of doing this early on with my level 2 Geography class I think this meant students took their deadlines a little more seriously than my other senior classes.

At the end of 2017 during a Social Studies Department meeting my colleagues and I were discussing the challenges of getting students to take deadlines seriously. I shared my application for extension form with my department and we decided to use this and implement a department policy. This would involve students applying for an extension (prior to the deadline). A phone call would be made home to inform parents/caregivers. This would then be signed off by the classroom teacher and then given to the HOD. The HOD would then talk to the student and approve or decline the extension.

The policy was made clear with students in the first week of classes and a letter was sent home to all Social Science students informing parents/caregivers of the policy.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 12.19.46 PM.png


The process was made clear with students and the deadlines were set early on so this meant students knew exactly what was expected of them in terms of assessments and deadlines. The expectation being deadlines would be taken seriously and there was a clear process on how to get an extension. This meant that it was fair for all students – those that needed more time needed a legitimate excuse and their were clear steps for them to follow if they needed an extension. This policy was discussed with students in week 1 and the assessment calendar was shared with them.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 12.25.41 PM

Reflecting on this policy at the end of term 2 I think it has been successful in getting students to take their deadlines seriously and there is definitely a sense of clarity around what is expected in terms of taking responsibility for completing work on time and taking ownership if an extension is required.  There is definitely more of sense of urgency and stronger work ethic in class leading up to a deadline.

Social Sciences Study Class

As noted in an earlier blog post the Tamaki College Social Sciences Department implemented a strict deadline policy for 2018. However, I wanted to provide students with an opportunity to catch up on missed work or if they were falling behind. I had held a geography study class for the majority of 2017. Since there are a number of students who take more than one social science Mr Brown (a history teacher) and I decided to hold this together. This meant students could come after school and get support for one or more of their classes. At the beginning of the year we sent a letter home to ALL students studying Social Sciences letting them and their parents/caregivers know this support was available.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 2.09.33 PM.png

Nearing the end of term 2 it is important to reflect on this study class. Ideally, students could come and get extra help (or time) spent on their assessment and therefore this would support them with course content and therefore assist students in meeting deadlines. However, students seemed to come in the first half of term 1. Since then it has been just myself and Mr Brown. Perhaps I need to remind students more regularly that this class is on. Or perhaps check in with students about preferred days since I asked students in term 1 but sports and other extra-curricular activities may be getting in the way as the year moves on. Nonetheless, having a regular time where support is available is useful. Often students will ask if they can come see me after school for help with stuff this way there is a clear time I can make myself available for them outside of class.

PLUG Groups PLD 2018

As mentioned in earlier posts at Tamaki College teachers meet regularly (every 2 weeks) to discuss and collaborate on how to best help priority learners with their academic achievement. In particular, students who have 0 credits in a number of subjects. In 2017 we focused on Level 1 and Level 2 students. However, in 2018 we will just be focusing on Level 1 students. As my Level 1 class only has 7 students there is only one student I am focusing on within the PLUG group discussions who prior to meeting in our groups had 0 credits in Geography.

I wasn’t really sure why this student wasn’t achieving  in geography. While attendance was a bit of an issue she worked hard when she was in class and cared about her academic success. I mentioned to her Science teacher who is also in my PLUG group that I had found her writing to be a bit of a problem. This student’s writing was at times overly descriptive and perhaps better suited for creative writing or perhaps speech writing. However, this didn’t really work in geography. Her science teacher also commented on some issues with her writing.

After this conversation I decided to pursue this further by talking to the student one on one and giving feedback. I suggested she use grammerly and regularly share her work with me so I could comment on her writing (as well as content). We have been doing this were possible and since then this student has achieved 3 credits in geography and I have noticed a vast improvement in her writing style.