What’s a lesson look like?

If I’m really honest, I haven’t thought much about instructional models since I finished my Masters a few years ago. However, the release of the Victorian DET document High Impact Teaching Strategies last year, coupled with some feedback from my students made me re-visit what I was doing in the classroom.

I’ve been teaching senior English classes for a number of years and one of the greatest challenges is providing students with time to practice the skill of sustained, analytical, writing. They know they need it, but so often, I was allocating this important skill to the margins of homework. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think there’s a tendency for teachers to not value that writing time in class. But it was clear I needed to change this.

In order to deliberately build in more writing time into my lessons, I had to think about the structure of my lessons. Our school has 4 x 72 minute periods and so I had 72 minutes to work with – below is the template I designed based on the I do, we do, you do model.

Common Lesson Structure – VCE English 72 minute period

Component of Lesson Plan Time Allocated
1.     Homework Conversation Students spend time reflecting on the homework (this may be in small groups, whole class, individually) 10 – 15 mins
2.     Explicit Instruction Teacher explores in detail ONE element for the class – establishing the learning intention/success criteria. Things that could be discussed include, but are not limited to: a passage analysis, characters, key event, point of interest, language/style, elements of the study design, themes, vocabulary development, skills etc. 10 – 15 mins
3.     Discussion – small group, whole group The discussion will be informed by the explicit instruction. The aim of the discussion is for students to clarify the instruction, ensure they have a developing understanding of the teacher’s instruction/discussion and assist each other to reach understanding. 10 – 15 mins
4.     Writing Activity Independent writing activity – ideally, this is a development of the discussion component of the lesson, which stems from the teacher’s explicit instruction. 10 – 15 mins
5.     Wrap up – set up Teacher reminds students what they have been working on this lesson – connecting it back to the learning intention.

Teacher sets up the homework to be completed by the next lesson, to ensure the productive use of class time.

10 mins

I don’t think this is anything ground breaking; but stopping and thinking very deliberately about the skills/knowledge and understanding I want my students to have has forced me to put this down on paper and commit to it. It’s also allowed me to consider how I employ the High Impact Teaching Strategies in my classroom: Explicit teaching, worked examples, collaborative learning, multiple exposures, questioning and feedback are part and parcel of this structure.

Another way I’ve shown my commitment to prioritising the writing time is by completing the writing tasks myself in class. I’ve found this is one sure-way to stop talking and interrupting the students, by grabbing a whiteboard marker and modelling the task myself.

Of course, I could always do more, but bringing these to the front of mind has had a powerful impact on my teaching and on student learning.

I’d love to hear about your instructional models, lesson plans, templates and activities that get the best out of your students. Comment and let’s share!

April 2018


Who are our Horizon students?

My last blog post Outside The Square introduced our independent learning program, Horizon. In this post, I explore how the planning team came up with the criteria for the applicants, which year levels were invited and the application process. I also introduce you to each of the 13 students that we were so lucky to work with at Catholic College Wodonga. 

Initially, we set out thinking that this program would be for high achieving students who were looking for a challenge in their school day. However, after many conversations with the team and some healthy disagreements, it became clear that the opportunity to work on passions and learn in an authentic, independent, way should not be limited to those who have already learnt to play the school game. It would have been much easier to manage and plan, if the program was for high achievers, but at a large regional Catholic secondary school, we cater for all students, and so, Horizon did too.

We thought long and hard about the year levels we would invite to participate in this program. We decided to focus on students in Years 8 – 11. Our thinking was that students in Years 8 – 11 have experienced enough traditional learning in school to decide if they would benefit from a different experience. Year 11 VCE students needed to have successfully completed 6 units before being allowed to engage in the program, ensuring enough units for successful VCE completion if they decided to return and complete the VCE after Horizon.

Students applied in any way they felt best able (written, video, interview, presentation) to answer these questions:

  • Explain your experience of school so far …
  • Why do you want to be a part of the program?
  • What do you think it will look like for you?
  • What are your areas of interest / what are you passionate about?
  • What makes a good team?
  • What motivates you? What do you put effort into?
  • Why would the program be beneficial to you?
  • Provide the name of two referees who can talk about you as a learner.

40 applied. We shortlisted. 21 were interviewed by the Principal and another leadership team member. 14 were offered a place. 13 accepted. We chose not to replace the student who decided not to participate.

After the application process we had the following students: 7 x Year 8s (3M, 3F), 3x Year 9s (2F, 1M), 2x Year 10s (2M), 1x Year 11 (1M).


Mr W (Year 9) – has struggled at times with motivation and engagement in the classroom. Applied to participate in Horizon to develop skills that would be useful for a career in agriculture. His ongoing project was to design, budget for and finally build a steel dog-box for the tray on the back of his ute.
Miss WP (Year 8) – enjoys school and learning. Applied for the Horizon program to allow her to more intently follow her passion of astrophysics. Projects included exploring quantum entanglement, light pollution and high altitude balloons.
Mr W (Year 11) – has a keen passion for Hospitality. He completed VET Hospitality throughout the program, in addition to solo-catering for 25 people on a 5 day business retreat. This catering opportunity was his ongoing project including recipe development, budgeting and creating a timeline for the event. Mr W has successfully obtained an apprenticeship as a chef and will not be returning to complete his VCE.
Mr G (Year 8) – has been making short films for many years. He chose to apply for Horizon to allow him more opportunity to develop his film-making skills. Mr G engaged with script editors in Melbourne through Skype, worked with media professionals on camera handling and completed a short film as his ongoing project.
Miss C (Year 9) – has a real interest in health and healthy living. Keen to explore the impact of different diets on her own body, Miss C prepared meals and lived through a range of different diets – paleo, Mediterranean, gluten free, vegan etc. all the while keeping a journal of her dietary adventures. A website presenting all her learning made up her ongoing project.
Miss B (Year 9) – couldn’t decide where her passions lay, so she explored a number of them – learning Italian and building.  Miss B engaged in active work experience to fully immerse herself in the building industry, took time to have Italian lessons and returned to playing the piano throughout the semester.
Mr G (Year 8) – listed his passions as: history, politics, geography and basically the world. Fascinated especially with World War Two, Mr G pursued this interest through 3 essays exploring the impact of that event on scientific and technological advancements, social movements and military advancements.
Mr S (Year 8) – loves the media and has an arsenal of equipment at his disposal that he wanted to improve his skills using. Developing a website as a means to showcase his skills and work was his ongoing project, but his drone footage of a whole school event that local media picked-up both in print and on TV was a highlight.
Miss P (Year 8) – came into Horizon listing her passions as Vet Nursing and agriculture. Miss P struggled to settle on an ongoing project, being too young for work experience didn’t help. In the end, she settled on exploring the different forms of agriculture and explored the impact of different soil types on crop growth.
Mr T (Year 10) – jumped at the opportunity Horizon presented as a means to explore his interest in programming and gaming more broadly. Working on both the hardware and the software, Mr T was able to produce a hand-held game device with two different games. Mr T also took the opportunity to explore other areas of interest such as diabetes and insulin.
Miss H (Year 8) – impressed the application panel with her interest in and knowledge of biology and genetics. Throughout Horizon, Miss H’s attendance at school increased exponentially and she explored a range of different genetic mutations and their consequences.
Mr C (Year 10) – is a keen animator, but had had little opportunity to learn the skills and master the craft of animation. Horizon allowed him to explore this interest and in the end, each of his weekly projects culminated in a fully animated short film incorporating movement, lip-synching, and all elements of feature length animations.
Miss S (Year 8) – is fascinated with toxicology and especially interested in the debate surrounding medicinal marijuana. Her ongoing project explored this through a film that zoomed out from the physiological impacts, the neurological impacts right to the social impacts of medicinal marijuana.

These were our first Horizon students, and we’re so proud of what they have achieved. I will continue to share this story through this blog, but please contact me if you have any questions or would like more information.

Shaun, November 2017.



“Outside the square”

“Horizon is the closest I have come to not just seeing outside the square, but being there.” @DartaHovey, via Twitter 6/617.

For the past 18 months I’ve been working with a team of Learning Leaders from Catholic College Wodonga (@CCWodonga) in NE Victoria, Australia, trying to solve a problem. We’re not sure, but we think we have a potential solution.

Our problem was – what is stopping students in our school from really engaging and wanting to do their best? Are we giving every student the opportunity to pursue their passions and areas of interest – in an authentic way, not just a tokenistic nod? Where do we hear our student voice?

Our solution – Horizon.Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 1.06.54 pmHorizon is an independent (but collaborative) program that we have begun this semester for 13 students across Years 8-11.

Students effectively have a blank timetable that they fill with the following three elements:


  1. A weekly challenge – where they set a question that they want to answer (about anything!) on Monday and present their findings on Friday.
  2. An ongoing project – an area of interest that the students pursue in a sustained and developed manner over the course of the semester.
  3. A collaborative project – connected to Catholic Social Teaching Principles and located in the local area for the common good.

In addition, the students can also choose to continue attending some of their classes, or apply to attend classes that pique their interest (a Year 8 student may apply to attend a Year 11 Physics class, for instance).

Also, Tuesday and Thursday are non-compulsory school days. We know that learning doesn’t simply happen at school between the hours of 9am and 3pm, so, if the students’ weekly challenge or ongoing project requires (or would benefit from being somewhere other than school) a visit to a worksite, a chat with an expert, a day in a library/museum, or a day at an airport, then Tuesday and Thursday can be used for these experiences.

Application Process

Students were presented with the program outline in year level groups. A parent information night was held prior to applications opening in order to get their support and clarify any questions they had (it was fundamentally important that they were onside!)


Students then applied in any way they felt best able (written, video, interview, presentation) to answer these questions:

  • Explain your experience of school so far …
  • Why do you want to be a part of the program?
  • What do you think it will look like for you?
  • What are your areas of interest / what are you passionate about?
  • What makes a good team?
  • What motivates you? What do you put effort into?
  • Why would the program be beneficial to you?
  • Provide the name of two referees who can talk about you as a learner.

40 applied. We shortlisted. 21 were interviewed by the Principal and another leadership team member. 14 were offered a place. 13 accepted. From Years 8, 9, 10 and 11.

We’re 7 weeks into the program and we have identified strengths and gaps. I’ll be blogging over the coming weeks about some of the challenges we’ve faced and how we’re going about tweaking the program. I’ll also share more details about what our students are up to, how we’re monitoring their learning, the literature that supported our program, the role of the teachers and how it’s working logistically.

We’d love to hear from people who have tried similar programs or who want more information.


Shaun (@shaunmason79)

The challenge of working in a “good” school.

Lots of schools are looking to improve and challenging themselves to innovate. But what drives innovation more than a need to improve, some sort of imperative or potential crisis that needs to be averted – think Templestowe College in Melbourne (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk).

But what if your school isn’t in crisis? What if your results are consistently strong and in fact on the improve? What if different data suggests students and staff are genuinely happy? It’d be easy to rest on your laurels, but of course we don’t want to do this. We see things that we would like to develop and improve. Yet, where schools in crisis have an imperative to change/innovate, “good schools” face another hurdle – the difficulty of convincing staff, students and parents that the improvements are necessary and worth the effort. Legislated changes (i.e new curriculums or system level edicts) provide an opportunity, but they rarely engage staff enthusiastically to radically overhaul how they operate. It requires something else.

We’ve been thinking about a formal independent learning program during the past twelve months. We’re pretty excited. But, excitement will only get you so far, and in a school that’s performing well, this excitement can be quickly replaced with the “that’s unnecessary” retort, or the “yes, but…” brick wall.

Last week I led a group of staff and students through a process to help us explore what this program might look like in our context. Having student involvement was pivotal as this is all about the students. Our day began with us asking one question – Why do this? We started with our gut instinct…”not extending our top achievers enough”, “losing kids in the middle years”, “not engaging our learners” etc. But, we moved very quickly to the available evidence. Where do we see these concerns playing out in our school data and what are our students saying?  When we started looking, it was there, we found it: The Why. It didn’t take much, but without it we had nothing.

So many new programs and proposals are presented to school leaders that are designed to do a range of things; engage students, solve their literacy woes or increase their Year 12 results. The pitch often starts at the WHAT, HOW, WHERE and WHEN we could implement these programs and more often than not the WHY is conspicuously overlooked.

My Principal reminds us over and over again to ask this question of why because without it nothing else makes sense, and because with it, we can justify our decisions and actions.

In a school that is travelling well, the answer to the question ‘Why’? provides the impetus for improvement and a force for development.

Shaun Mason, 2016.

Real student voice?

Last week I was challenged by my colleagues and my students.

I led a planning day with our Learning & Teaching leaders from across the school (Years 7-12) where we were exploring the possibility of formalising an independent learning program. We were challenged by the story of Monument Mountain Regional High School (see clip here) and more locally, the story of Templestowe College (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk) . Both these places take student voice and make it something more than that seemingly token notion. We wanted to do that too. So, for this planning day, I invited our new College Captains to contribute to the conversation and in fact, lead it at times. They were brilliant. They spoke eloquently and articulately about a range of challenges the proposed program might present. They asked questions we would never have thought to, they provided answers we could have sought for weeks and they challenged us to be better leaders at our school.

The intention of the day was to clarify our plan and prepare a proposal for the school’s leadership about how this program would work in our context and why it was needed. But, by the end of the day we had shifted our intention. If this program was all about student voice, then despite the eloquence and ideas of our College Captains, they were only 2 out of 1100. We needed more student involvement. They needed a greater say. It had to be shaped by them.

So, the next step will be to present this program to the student leadership team (students from Year 7 – 12) and seek their adjustments/input and alterations. This will all happen before the school leadership team see the proposed program. That way we guarantee our students will genuinely contribute to the program and we also increase the programs’ chance of success because they have co-created it.

How have you offered students more than their voice?