Thursday, September 29, 2005

Reflections on research

Reading the article by Wells will give me somewhat more of a theoretical framework for looking at my study of the use of Literature Circles in the English classroom. I’m constantly thinking about how my professional reading helps to refine my teaching. Then I write about this in my research journal. This, of course, will become part of the data that I analyse. Although I have a transcript of part of the focus group interview I now know that my tape of the focus group interview stopped working and did not record the whole interview. This is obviously an issue I have to work on for next time I do tapes. Obviously I need to transcribe the tape sooner, or at least listen to the whole tape soon after the interview to find these things out sooner. What I would have done in this case I don’t know, maybe redone the interview? Another problem that I had was that the Literature Circles part of the English course was too short and too intense. I need to start earlier with it next year. Clearly there will have to be negotiations with the library if this is to happen. There need to be more meetings with the focus group in order to get a sense, through their commentary, of their learning over time.
What have I learnt?
I have now refined my topic question and will be focussing on the role of talk in learning. I am asking what is of value in the teaching of literature and looking again at what does it mean to be an English teacher? I now know that I need to do my study with just one class rather than the three I was trying to do research with this year. I am asking questions about the learning that happens in Literature Circles, not just seeing it as a way to do the texts part of the curriculum, as the latest fad. I want to know what are the students’ goals in reading literature and discussing it in this way? I do want to negotiate these things with the students but there are problems with negotiating the curriculum because of the constraints caused by society’s expectations, by the all the things that mediate relationships in the classroom (number of students, time constraints and so on). I want to focus on what are the learnings that I am facilitating with my students in this intervention in the curriculum.
What I want to do next year?
I want to begin the small group discussion process earlier in the semester (with short story discussions) and incorporate lots more small group work into other areas. I want to record my experiences more often in my research journal, to find ways of capturing the moment of learning. I want to continue to think about my role as teacher in the class. In the past I have not been a member of the small group discussions. But I will try next year to rotate among the groups, to have that as normal practice. In this way I can model the kinds of talk by occasional interventions (without dominating the discussion or having it go through me). If I take on a role in each discussion as any student would and do the reading the students are doing, this may be a helpful thing. It’s worth a try I think.
In the meantime I will continue with my professional reading and reflecting in my research journal.

Dialogic Inquiry and Literature Circles

I have been spending some time this week on work for my Masters. I now have a transcript of a short focus group discussion with some of the students involved in the research about their experience of Literature Circles. In addition, as part of my professional reading I am tackling an article by Gordon Wells called “Dialogic Inquiry in Education: Building on the Work of Vygotsky”. So many interesting points are raised: I am making notations in the margins in almost every paragraph.

I really like his statement, referring to Vygotsky 1978 chapter 8, that curriculum needs to be reconceptualized in terms of “a negotiated selection of activities that challenge students to go beyond themselves towards goals that have personal significance for them.” This seems to articulate so much of what my vision is in the classroom.

Wells argues that the curriculum should be arranged around what he calls real questions – those that “correspond to or awaken a wondering on the part of the student”. Here I am reminded of the students who were reading and discussing John Marsden’s Tomorrow when the War Began in their Literature Circles group. They said themselves that a key component of their discussion was the conjecture of what it would be like to like through a terrorist attack. It seemed that they discussed this often and in their group oral at the end focussed on this as well. It is not surprising really in the social context of terrorism that pervades media representations of the world today. It could be see as a real question and one member of this group participated in the focus group. It will be interesting to read the transcript.

Another question for me is Wells’ insistence that “the goal of inquiry is making not learning”, and thus the construction of an artifact is necessary. The artifact can be “a material object” (some of my students made collages in their presentations to the class) “an explanatory demonstration” (some students gave PowerPoint presentations to the class) or a “theoretical formulation”. The problem with discussion on its own is that “it leaves no record of what has been jointly constructed”. This is interesting because the discussions can be taped, but would the process of taping the discussion change the very nature of the dialogue?

In another section he writes about inquiry not being a method rather it is an “approach” in which “tentative answers are taken seriously” and the teacher should be involved as a co-inquirer. As well, the importance of dialogue in coming to understanding is stressed. Wells writes on what he calls “progressive discourse… the process by which the sharing, questioning and revising of opinions leads to a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding,” and it would seem that taping a discussion would be important to show this happening in Literature Circles despite the reservations.

In the implementation of Literature Circles, if we want to conceive the activity in this way, we see knowledge as being (re)created in the school setting, which is the group of students pursuing their common goal. And what is the goal in Literature Circles? What would the students say it is? To come to an understanding of the meaning of the literature they are reading? I think it might be important to work out what this is. The data from the focus group may be able to help here.

The learning from Literature Circles in Wells’ view seems to be that it is the basis on which students can go on and create further texts in response. But surely there is more value in reading and discussing literature than solely its ability to create texts?

Wells discusses writing as a tool for thinking: I saw a poster on the wall of Yvonne Hutchinson’s classroom with the old quote, “how do I know what I think till I see what I say,” variously attributed to Faulkner, W.H. Auden and E. M. Foster (turns out that it’s from Forster in Aspects of the Novel). Wells sees that “few students seem to have discovered that writing can function as a ‘thinking device’. I admit that my first thought when reading this paper was to go to my computer and type up my thoughts and reflections as I was reading here on my blog. Wells sees this as “knowledge transformation” where the writer tries to anticipate the likely response of the envisaged audience (teachers and other interested in education, I guess) and “carries on a dialogue with the text being composed.” I will be seeing my supervisor later today and continuing this dialogue and my thinking some more.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

What I love about the internet

What I love about the internet

Looking at this post on the Remote Access blog led me to Darren Kuropatwa’s blog and a video. Watching it I hear Yvonne Hutchinson say, “This is what we call ‘metacognition’” (a recent topic of mine.) This is the real open classroom. Going public with teaching. This is brave – it’s easy to judge others (I found myself thinking that Yvonne was taking centre stage a bit too much) but would we do it, so others could learn? She is obviously a great teacher.

Then here I was checking out Edblogger Praxis and I found Teachers Improving Learning with Technology. Some good reading, listening and viewing here.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The middle of the holidays

A week of my holidays has gone by and what have I achieved? It seems not much. But I have spent some time with my family which is good, and I have spent a lot of time reading blogs and listening to podcasts. But I haven’t done the marking that I should have, nor written my research journal. But I have written a little description of a workshop session on blogging for the VATE mini conference Consuming Culture Creating Curriculum that I’ll be contributing to in December, and prepared the workshop notes for a student revision day in October, and contributed to two meetings on the draft VCE English study design. But I haven’t yet tackled the editing of Ellipses, the anthology of exemplary student writing from my school, that will be published later this year, although the editorial committee has agreed on the pieces that will be included.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What should English teachers teach?

What do students need? What makes a good teacher or a good classroom or a good school? These are some thoughts that engaged me today when the wider curriculum committee got together (in the holidays) to discuss VATE’s response to the draft VCE English Study design that is now up for consultation and has been the source of quite a bit of angst in some sections of the media. Commentators are fond of saying the world is different now. And in many ways I am glad that it is. But students need something different from teachers now too. And what we teach our students must recognise this as well. The draft study design is an attempt to cater for this realisation. The two main areas of concern are the reduced number of literary texts, and the inclusion of a new area of study called Creating and Responding. In this space there is the opportunity to make better connections with our students. As Chris Wheat’s article offers: the draft study design “engag(es) them more closely with the language” and that it does so “by moving the course onto their own turf.” It is the connections we make with the students and the connections we facilitate in them to their learning that are so important.

As Konrad Glogowski from the Blog of Proximal Development says: “This (the idea of teaching students to make connections) reminds me … students need to learn about great minds and the ideas they produced, and not just what’s online (or in books). They also need good teachers, people who are experienced “connectors” - people who will help students…(to be, as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English states, “individuals with skills for critical reflection and questioning. Such skills will equip students to be informed participants in our democratic society, allowing them to thoughtfully consider issues, and effectively articulate their own point view in keeping with their developing moral and ethical frameworks.”)” Konrad goes on, “They need to realize that this kind of content (”great minds” or “great books”) is not a set collection of facts.” And so we want them to read critically and to learn how texts are constructed. “Finally, they need the freedom to explore and connect, to co-construct, to learn through discovery. They need to know that the journey takes precedence over the final result.”

It is compulsory for VCE students to complete studies in one of the English subjects to achieve their certificate. Why should English be compulsory in this way? What should this English subject achieve? The reasons given above by AATE is clear. However, any study design for English should recognise and cater for the diversity of students who will take the subject, and the wide variety of knowledge and experience that the students bring to the study, to offer choices for students and teachers in the way the course is developed. So, while we want students to read literature and gain from it wisdom and pleasure, the idea that that this can only be done by reading “classic” literature is too narrow. It’s good that the course is offering choice while encouraging students to still read deeply and respond. To quote from Chris’s article again: “All students have a place at the table despite their reluctance to embrace King Lear.”

And what’s going on in the world of Ed Tech? The Worldbridges Webcast, a live discussion about what’s going on in educational technology, is informative and interesting. Recently they have discussed the use of blogs, and podcasting, connecting students worldwide, students publishing content, ideas for involving students in posting their own finished edited content to a wiki and more. At the same time the hosts are connected to a chatroom so the listeners can intersperse their own comments, which are then incorporated into the podcast, not to mention talkback (a teacher from Brazil called into share her work with students, inviting participation from the hosts).

When I reflect on this sort of potential I say bring on changes, engage the students with technology, embrace student creations and presentations. The literature we love is not going away, but we need to build on it. We need to broaden the range of literacies we foreground in our English classrooms.

Monday, September 19, 2005


It’s holidays and this weekend I spent some time at my mother’s holiday place in the country. Here there is no television, no telephone and no computer. So what did I do? I went for walks, read the latest Henning Mankell translation, slept and played scrabble. Some photos:

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Writers workshop

Today I booked the computer lab for my two writing workshop classes, period 1 and period 3. I also booked the data projector and laptop. What was I planning to do with all this technology? Well, it wasn’t about the technology, it was about the information; this is as you would expect. The students came into the room and logged on to pick up the message I had sent: it was a reading assignment. Inspired by Anne Davis I asked my students to get onto A School of Voices and read the posts and respond if they’d like; some did. Then there was the blog of the group at Nanyang Girls High School in Singapore who were the winners (out of 20 schools) in a blogging competition run jointly by the Ministry of Education and Singapore Telecommunications. The “blogs were evaluated in terms of the depth and clarity of thought as well as the creativity of presentation by a panel.” These blogs were very interesting to read, and the students were engaged in reading and discussing what they read for nearly the whole period. It was interesting for me because once again there was a great point of contact with the international students in one of my classes who were able to decipher the writing in a photo of a newspaper article written in Chinese about the winning bloggers.
After they’d had some time reading, I brought them up around the screen where we looked at some of our class blogs (although some students were too shy to have theirs discussed). We looked at what made some entries so successful that they had attracted a lot of comments (obviously they had been able to communicate an idea that resonated with others). The students’ comments and discussion during this activity were perceptive and involved a lot of participation from many students. They then eagerly (or am I dreaming? I thought it was like that) went back to their computers to write their own blog entries.
The period three class was half of a double (2 times 57 minutes). When that finished we had to leave the computer room, pick up some laptops and keep writing. I do look forward to reading these latest entries, as now we have finished the poetry anthologies the student will be free to write about what interests them. My suggestions to them will be to write about something they have learned lately, whether in or out of school, but that is mainly for those who don’t have an idea themselves. I think the reading of other blogs and the freedom of topic should result in more learning about good writing.

Monday, September 12, 2005

So what did I learn...

…on shadow day? On Friday, the teachers at my school went to various schools and other institutions to do “Professional Development” with other teachers or practitioners. We were given a list of schools to choose from, though other suggestions were certainly welcome. There were certain aspects of the schools that we could express an interest in. Some schools do a middle school International Baccalaureate program, some have integrated curricula in various year levels and in VCAL or VET programs that our school is interested in. As I wrote before, I went to see English teaching at another school as well as experience the 80 minute lessons and no bells that my chosen school had. I observed a Year 12 class hard at work revising the short stories of Henry Lawson. (One interesting decision that this school had made was to study only three examinable texts in the three terms and flesh these out with poetry that related to the various texts.) I thought this was an interesting idea in that it had the potential to add depth to the study of the texts they did do. It often seems rushed to complete four set texts in three terms. It is especially interesting in the light of the revised VCE English study design to be implemented in 2007 and now available in draft form for comment. One of the changes to the study design is that in year 12 students will now study two set texts instead of four. This has been described as the “dumbing down” of English study. But what are the students doing instead of the study of the four texts? In a new area of study called creating and presenting, “students read print, non-print and multimedia texts related to the context in order to reflect on the ideas suggested by these texts, to explore the relationship between purpose, form, audience and language, and to examine the choices made by creators in order to construct meaning. They then draw on knowledge gained from their exploration of this context, to create their own text/s in oral, written or multimodal form for adult audience/s and context/s, and draw on their experience of analysing the texts they have read to explain in writing their own decisions about form, purpose, language, audience and context.” To me this seems to be going in the same general direction as Will Richardson and co where the students’ own voices are valued and it is the creation of texts that is seen as (equally) important as the “consumption” of texts. Maybe the revised study design is in some way looking at this balance. I don’t know – I haven’t yet looked at the new study design in detail. In any case the reason for the reduced number of texts at the school that I visited would be more to enhance the exam marks of the students by giving fewer choices of texts to write on in the exam but giving the students more in-depth knowledge of them. And that is a whole other story.
What else did I see? I spent time in two year eight English classrooms with two different teachers, and in one of them the students were participating in Literature Circles. There were differences in the way that this school was doing them but the groups that I sat in on certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves and were engaged in the process of making meaning collaboratively. This was especially evident in the group where the students were creating an alternative ending to Two Weeks with the Queen (they didn’t like the one in the book). The students organised themselves to go round the circle each contributing one sentence each in turn to achieve the desired “happy ending” to the novel. I loved the long lessons (the pace was more relaxed and the students did not flag as you might expect, as there was more than one activity in the lesson) and I loved the no bells. It gave the teacher more control over those last few minutes of the lesson. These are two innovations I would definitely love to see in my school.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Nearly the end of term

It’s getting close to the end of term and I have just collected the two classes of poetry anthologies that my students have written. With all the reflection that went into the process - the negotiating the assessment criteria, the blogging, and maybe just because it was poetry, the students found it hard to submit them, hard to let go of them, to say they were finished. So much work went into them, and more than one student asked me to assess it then and there. They were so proud of them. A few students wanted to point out different features of their anthologies so I wouldn’t miss them. I just felt - wow! I have not had a reaction to an assessment task like this before. I know that reading the poems will be a moving experience as I have seen many of the poems in progress, have commented on their development, and read about their genesis in the student blogs. Part of their assessment was to write a statement about the inspiration of their poems and from what I have seen so far I think this will be a moving read as well.
So what to do now until the end of term? I don’t want to start anything major, so I have been doing something I call working on their writer’s toolbox (soppy, I know). For this we have revised some rules of spelling, and today we did an activity I found on the Teacher’s Lounge site on Greek and Latin root words. After they deduced the meanings of four root words used as prefixes or suffixes, such as anti, bio, ology, neo etc., students chose one to make either a PowerPoint slide of or a poster. I wanted them to be able to flesh out the concept of the root word. This was a buzz. Students became interested in talking about words and some stayed talking after the bell went. And people wonder why I love teaching?
Next term I have a couple of ideas for writing. One is from Working Blue, an exercise to help a writer begin connecting. The writer starts with a historical fragment about a place they know well and then goes on to develop a mythological account of some detail about the place, then a personal account inspired by a detail about the place. It sounds fascinating. Another idea is called Personal Best. In this case the writer chooses a subject they have always wanted to find out more about and researches it in detail before writing an informative or persuasive piece on it.
Previously I wrote about the writing competitions that some of the students are entering. Today they came and gave me their finished stories and poems for the competitions. There are two main ones that the students want to enter – the Oz Kids in Print and the Eastern Regional Libraries Short Story Competition. We’ll see how we go.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Ethical blogging

Some interesting questions posed by Barry on the ethics of blogging. He asks “Is it ethical to publish private conversations without the speaker's approval?" and goes on to ask, “or has the nature of networked community become such that just as the public has become personal, the personal has become public?” That’s transparency for you. A comment on the post asks: "Is anyone doing anything regarding the ethics of blogs?

Alex Halavais has an interesting take on this from an academic standpoint. The educational blogging community discusses ideas and, as Alex comments, as part of that community, individuals have “a special obligation to cite ideas that we may have gathered from others”. Maybe it is about “making (the) invisible assumptions of bloggers visible." Or maybe it's just about thinking of others' feelings. It's about time that we have this discussion, I think.

A fraud?

A new blogger hits the ground running. Read and enjoy.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Interactive Whiteboard Conference

During the last two days I attended the IWBnet Conference in Melbourne. There was a trade display and a number of workshops. So many things I want to learn. The workshops I attended were several by Jo Bonaz who presented (interactively) on bringing PC software to the Interactive Whiteboard. She showed us how to use Excel and PowerPoint in an interactive way involving the whole class. Many of the things she showed us could be done using free downloads from Microsoft (It’s really hard to blog about this without sounding like an salesperson for the company). Another of her workshops was on authoring your own digital lessons. (Is authoring different to writing? but I digress). What I was particularly interested in was the student created content and publishing this in a student centred classroom. There was a lot of information on this, and there is obviously a lot of learning and making mistakes for me to do before I’ll really feel confident about doing interactive things in our trial of the technology. But I am going to try something in the next two weeks. I’m sure there’ll be a future post on these trials. One thing that I want to try once we’ve read our text (in this case The Merchant of Venice) is to have students take a scene from the play and use Photostory to narrate it, adding visuals and music to present a powerful interpretation of their chosen scene. In doing this, students would have to research to find appropriate images and music, demonstrate comprehension and analysis, pay attention to intonation as they read their scene, and think about how they can manipulate visual representation of the information to make it make it more powerful. At the moment I was imagining just one speaker for each scene, but there are also great opportunities for collaboration as well.

Right now the next session is just about to start and it’s on Blogs, Podcasts and the Interactive Whiteboard so I’ll sign off now.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Is 'blog' a stupid word?

I was talking to a colleague today about the enjoyment and learning I was experiencing by reading educational blogs, and, just recently, starting mine. I mentioned how much I learned from my students' blogs and even referred him to a website, Blogs as tools for assessment, since we have been discussing our assessment and reporting practices at school as part of our school review. He looked at me, bemused, and said, “Blog, that’s a funny word. What do the letters even stand for? Is there a synonym we could use?”

I said that in simple form blogging was publishing to the internet, that it was a log or map of our learning as we searched the web and followed up areas of interest. I tried to say that there is a feeling of students and ordinary people being able to create content on the web not just consume it, the read-write web, that it gives students a voice and positioned them as constructing their own learning, I was on a roll, you can just imagine. Well, that’s enthusiasm for you. But it got me thinking about the word ‘blog’. Does the very term put some people off? Stop them from even finding out more? Is it jargon? Do you have any similar thoughts/experiences?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

An academic's view

From Ula at Blog blog comes this link to an article Across the blogosphere from Anne Bartlett-Bragg, Lecturer, Faculty of Education at the University of Technology in Sydney, on her PhD on the use of weblogs for developing knowledge and collaborative learning networks from a students’ perspective.

Some extracts from the article by Anne:

My PhD looks at the weblog phenomena for developing knowledge and collaborative learning networks, from the students' perspective. When I first introduced blogs in teaching and learning (in 2001), I was astounded by the enthusiastic uptake….

A weblog can develop into a series of conversations across the internet through the use of links created by the author. The linking structure makes it possible for the author to be notified when a reader has commented on their writing, creating an opening for dialogue….

Using a weblog is a dynamic and immediate process - as one student wrote, "...I was so impressed because [xxx] replied to my comment and gave me another link to look up. It was all very exciting!" The intimidation that many students feel about participating in classroom discussion evaporates in the blog domain as attention is shifted to writing in a dynamic internet context. Many students find this empowering - "...collaborative learning is so effective because it brings about confidence and helps to reflect upon issues in a different way. It opens up a dialogue and prevents isolation."…

It is also a good introduction to the real world as the responsibilities of publishing publicly apply - plagiarism, copyright, privacy, ethics and defamation must all be considered. My research shows that students feel their writing has visibly improved as a result…..

Blogging provides new ways for knowledge to be expressed and distributed, and as a personal learning or knowledge management tool, it assists in shaping the structure of cognitive processing. Students have indicated that it enables them to make connections between subject topics and content…..

Used appropriately, weblogs in teaching and learning encourage students to write regularly. This in turn assists in developing competencies in critical thinking and in making connections between theory and practice. The use of weblogs switches the focus from a single end-product such as an exam or essay, transforming learning into an ongoing process…..

While Anne is referring to tertiary students, I think that these extracts reflect the experiences of the students in the secondary classroom. This student blog entry by Katrina shows what I mean.