Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Learning and teaching

Today I met with my supervisor for the Masters and we discussed the writing and reading that has led to reflections that I’ve been doing on my teaching in the light of the theory. I will be looking at my practice in the classroom in an alternative framework. Recently I reread Neil Mercer’s The Guided Construction of Knowledge which explores the role of talk among students in their learning. As a result, one of the goals of my teaching in the year nine classroom is that I want to arrange the learning environment so that students will be encouraged to:
  • Share ideas effectively
  • explain clearly
  • discuss
  • make connections
  • justify opinions
  • negotiate
  • decide on relevance and truth
  • summarise
  • examine contributions critically
  • be publicly accountable
I realise that group discussion skills need to be taught explicitly so that the discussions do not reproduce a lot of "unexamined platitudes". As well as this, the students need to have a shared understanding of the point and purpose of the activity of Literature Circles. They need to be invited to disagree, ask questions, share knowledge, and consolidate what they have learnt in words.
Like Alistair Pennycook in Critical Pedagogies (2004) I want to introduce a critical element into my analysis of my teaching. As he says, "my aim is to be a bit disruptive." I don't think that my learning would be advanced if it were not for this critical element. In his writing he is discussing his observation of a student teacher at work, and in my writing I am reflecting on myself as a learning teacher at work.

In my research I want to link the questions I have about my teaching to "a broader social agenda" so as not to "reproduce my own or a current social agenda". I am trying to reappraise the frames of knowledge or "problematising" my own practice. I want to cast doubt on the categories we employ to understand the social world, of which teachers are a part. I want to keep questions of "language, discourse, power and identity to the fore." (p. 330).

In my research journal what I am looking for are "those critical moments when we seize the chance to do something differently, when we realise that some new understanding is coming about." For all the planning that I've been doing, these moments cannot be explicitly planned for, but I've got to be ready, to look out for them: a comment that shifts the discourse, or moments of potential transformation when someone 'gets it' as Pennycook says.

Points for investigation in the next few weeks:
  • How are my students engaging in the opportunities for language and learning?
  • How am I attempting to create these opportunities?
  • What can I learn about learning (and my impact on the students) from my students?
Phew! While I’ve been doing all that there has been a deeply reflective discussion happening in the edublogosphere on why people blog. I picked it up on Will Richardson’s blog and it is well summarised here at Cool Cat Teacher Blog. Not everyone wants to blog; it doesn’t suit everyone, but I love it. It is but one of many ways to learn and to think.

Friday, March 24, 2006

No marking but lots of reading

It’s the end of the holidays – how did that happen? And have I finished marking the Year 12 Writing Tasks and practice essays on Henry Lawson? No I have not. Have I marked the Year 8 assignments on Fly Away Home? No I have not. Do I need to give them back on Monday? Well, there goes my weekend. I wish I was in Nat's position after her great effort.

But I haven’t done nothing in the holidays. I have read a lot for my Masters. I have re-read an oldie but a goodie – Douglas Barnes From Communication to Curriculum and planned all my lessons for year nine. This is interesting since I want to leave some things up to the students, a space for negotiation, but I think I’ve been able to this. I’m looking forward to this bit of teaching and will writing a detailed research journal documenting anything that seems significant. I’m also going to look for a book at the library that a friend recommended. Barbara Kamler’s Relocating the Personal. Here is a review of the book.

In my referrer stats I also found a blog post of a case study on my career as a blogger at the writedesignmultimedia blogsite which is the class blog for RMIT Professional Screenwriting 'Designing Digital Media' class 2006 The post, which is called 'Edublogs and their value as professional development tools for teachers', is based on an interview I did with Andrea Hayes. I’m not sure that everyone would agree with me about the pleasure and educational value of blogging but all of you, my readers, would I’m sure.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Some answers to "Why do you blog with your classes?"

The other day I asked a question: "Why do teachers blog with their classes?" The original poser of the question was Nancy MacKeand. She received 20 comments from teachers saying why: answers that ranged from giving students a 'voice' and an authentic audience for their writing, to the sharing of writing and the social aspect of blogging, the diverse array of writing experiences, the fostering of class discussions, the fact that many discussions can be carried on beyond the walls of the classroom and so on. I encourage you to go over and have a look for yourself.

There are are two further things worth mentioning I think: the last comment from Darren Kuropatwa who doesn't answer the question himself, but rather lets the students answer for him. A little segment from one of the students:
"We as a class have learned how to communicate, how to ask questions, and take the most of of the opportunities that are handed to us. We now can take these things with us to future courses, and wherever our lives may take us."

And then what Nancy herself says. She asked the question through her blog and was able to get a variety of answers for her workshop. In fact as she says: "The teachers there were most impressed, I think, by your quick responses to my post. They could see the potential of blogs from that one post. "

Friday, March 17, 2006

Why do we blog with our classes?

From Christine of the Alan November Learning community today comes a great set of reflection questions:

Reflections for bloggers…..
  • How has blogging changed the way you do things in the classroom?
  • In what ways has blogging enhanced your teaching?
  • In what ways has blogging engaged your students?
And if you have anything to say about this it might be worthwhile posting it over here where Nancy is asking for ideas from teachers blogging with their classes:

"I am making final preparations to talk about blogging to a group of teachers on Saturday. One thing I want to talk about is why we blog with our classes. "
It'd be great to know what others think, especially since I am hearing a bit about blogging being uncritically hyped up. It is worth thinking critically about this, I think.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

When we're teaching English we're...

In January I wrote a post about our school's English faculty reflection on the question: What are we doing when we’re teaching English. These are some of the words and ideas that we came up with. Our next step is to bring these ideas to life in the classroom. I hope that the plurality of views that are in any largish faculty are represented here. But is there something we haven’t thought of? Where should our reflections go next in our efforts to educate the students in our care? I’d be interested in what other teachers of English have to say about it.

When we're teaching English we're....
"When I’m teaching English… I am demystifying, equipping, conceptualising, and developing our language in young minds for the future. We teach an understanding of our world and how to interpret and operate in it. We are developing a love of language. We are working towards enabling students to read, write, listen, communicate and understand. We are helping them be effective members of the community. Teaching English helps students to be able to “read” the world around them and therefore participate more effectively. Effective communicators. Expression. Passion for words. “Decoding” the world around us. Displaying understanding of matter, appreciating the written word, thinking beyond the text. Teaching thinking and analysing. Teaching reflection. When we teach English we teach to communicate, to appreciate, to provide means of expression, to provide a way to utter what comes from within. We’re helping our students to be informed and articulate and responsive to great ideas. We are inviting young people to share in the richness of the English language, to learn to use it and to participate in the world through it. We are passing on or sharing a love of language, literature and ideas. When we’re teaching English we are teaching students the ability to communicate effectively using the conventions, standards, expectations that enable connection, understanding and experiences to be shared, we are communicating and exploring and we are inviting responses to the world of language. We are providing students with the opportunity to gain social and creative skills to be able to succeed in society. In English we are educating the whole student. They are learning the English language, while learning about themselves and their world. In teaching English I believe I am broadening outlooks, encouraging tolerance, and expanding powers of thinking."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


In my research for my Masters thesis I will be looking for "evidence of authentic language and learning" in the small group discussions of literature in my Year Nine English classroom. I looked at this in 2005 and will implement Literature Circles again this year. My thesis will use my learnings from both classes. I am interested in reading more of Louise Rosenblatt's writings and other Reader Response theorists, to help me think about the kinds of discriminations the students might make in response to texts when reading and discussing their novels in Literature Circles. These holidays are well timed this year giving me, it seems acres of space and expanses of time to read and think creatively. I'm sure I won't feel that on the 27th March when school goes back. But it is how I feel now.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Constructing an academic life

Last week Professor Laurel Richardson came to give a free public lecture at Melbourne University. I would have loved to have gone but I’d already been out two nights that week so I decided not to. Then I picked up her 1997 book Fields of Play: Constructing an academic life. I am enjoying it immensely and thinking I should have gone to hear her speak. Oh well. Her defence of experimental writing including the writing of narrative and fiction to explore academic knowledge is boundary defying. She asks questions like: How do the specific circumstances in which we write affect how we write? How does what we write affect who we become? Her connection of autobiography and theory has resonance with me both as a blogger and in my Masters work where I am investigating my own practice in the classroom and reflecting on it. It is amazing how what she writes in 1997 (before blogging) has so much relevance now when bloggers do this work routinely. But there is still a disconnect between what bloggers think we’re doing and what many academics think of blogging. The lack of editors and other gatekeepers, and the lack of peer review make the knowledge production of edubloggers suspect in some people’s eyes. This is strange I think since blogging is not so much a technique, as a space where people write and are read, where readers can comment and writers review. Isn't this what learning is about?

Monday, March 13, 2006

A New Media Curriculum for Education

In a demonstration of the collaborative nature of educators using technology to achieve something new, the Edtech Talk people Jeff and Dave facilitated what they called a “barnraising” to develop “A New Media Curriculum for Education” where ‘new media’ simply means anything after the overhead projector. They make it clear that they are not interested in technology for technology’s sake, but because of what it enables. The beginning of this curriculum can be seen at the wiki. Why would you be interested in this? Because this wiki came out of a lot of thinking and discussion by people who are passionate about education and who are experienced in using the technology elements as tools to enable learning. The use of the wiki both synchronously and asynchronously is beyond the controls of any one person and brings together plural voices with all the disruption that this entails. I’m willing to put in and see what can come out of this experiment and see where it leads us. I’ve already got a lot out of it. I’ve met new people, even talked on Skype to some Aussies, I’ve learnt some new vocabulary and there’s lots to think about with regard to how and why I’m teaching what I’m teaching.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Planning for Literature Circles

As I reflect on my teaching last year (or at least the circumstances of my teaching) I tell myself a story as a way to interpret what happened as a way of thinking about the best way to proceed this year. Here is the narrative plus some of my reflections.

March 2005
I am rushing around. I know I have a lot to do and in the classroom I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I have taught this film before and I’m waiting eagerly for the time that I can implement literature circles again in these year nine classes.

The beginning of the year in my school has a lot going on - I suppose it's the same in all schools. In the first term we are interrupted by photo day (when all the students have individual and homegroup photos taken, the aquatics carnival, (and so on.....) I have three year nine classes this year and I'm planning to collect data on all them. As the early weeks unfold I take stock of the classes. I know some of the students and the overall sense is that I have three great classes to work with. One is a bit more lively and as I noted in my research journal seems less 'willing' than the other two but I have a good feeling about the rapport I can build with these classes. In this early part of the year I am concentrating on giving them experiences of language through free writing and building up their understanding of studying a text through watching and discussing a film. The course is designed in sections which becomes problematic for me later.

Literature Circles is going to be a bit later than I’d like as C, the faculty head, has made a decision that there will be equal time devoted to the three sections of the course. I hear this in a 'pod meeting', a twenty minute time before school twice a week where we are updated on information we need to know for that day. Most of the teachers in the pod teach the same subject and so it is just casually that C. states "I've just neatened up the dates for year nine so they fit in with the other dates." My heart sinks and I go up to her to speak quietly after the meeting. I am not successful and I think that maybe it will be alright.

The reason this matters is that because all the texts the students read are borrowed from the libray, not just in year nine but throughout years seven to ten. The library needs to coordinate start times and end times for the use of books in all the different year levels, and C thought it would be simpler to have the same dates in Year nine as in the other year levels for the ease of library coordination. I had had other ideas as for year nine there weren't class sets to coordinate but I was overridden on this.

The first section is a film as text study and this will take up one third of the semester, the second section is the independent novel assignment, with another third and only then with six weeks to go will we start Literature Circles. And somewhere in there we have to fit a section on advertising (this is already in the curriculum and is to be reported on). There are interruptions and then the ultimatum comes down from on high: the reports have to be ready before the progress interviews with parents. This cuts another two weeks off the time for Literature Circles, as it wasn’t mentioned until we had already started the last section of the course.

This of course doesn't only affect the English teachers. There are mutters in an undertone in the staff room. But teachers are expected to be professional and to adapt their courses accordingly. The reason for this stance is unclear to me as I see the progress meetings as oral reports, but the Administration Team are adamant. The parents have a right to discuss the written reports on their children during the progress meetings. I know that this will not be the case in 2006 but have no idea why.

Now we have the situation where the students in all good faith are choosing the novels they want to read in their groups. The way the novels are selected is that L. the librarian comes into the class with a set of novels that the class teacher has selected. If there are to five groups L. may speak on eight novels so there is a choice for the students from among the books. L. shows the book and speaks about the title and the cover, reads the blurb and a section from the novel. The students listen attentively, even though they sense that the book is less important than that all members of a friendship group choose the same novel. (Maybe I'm being a bit cynical here). When all the books have been spoken about there is a buzz of excitement. "Can I have a look at the one about the boy and the dog?", "Here throw me the one with the explosion on the cover." There are heads together bent over the books, books are briefly skimmed and tossed aside, and there is a slight sense of, is this all there is? But eventually they all write their selections on the voting sheets, and then it's up to me to make up the groups, taking into account the students' social needs and their reading level as well as the books they've voted for. One group chose When you wake and find me gone which is a big book to read in three weeks. And we have to fit in an oral presentation before the reports are printed as well.

On reflection I don’t think that pedagogically we did all that well. It was frustrating for the students to have to read so fast (and I suspect that some didn’t read the whole book). Some of the students' journal entries made it clear that Literature Circles weren't seen as opportunities to read for pleasure, which was one of my aims. As well as this I didn’t send out the letters to parents and students until we were ready to start Literature Circles, another mistake, as I didn’t factor in the time it took for the permission forms to come back. This meant that I didn’t really do the focus groups as I had planned. At the end of this very frustrating experience I realised there had to be changes if we were to get the most out of Literature Circles. The timing has to change. The way the course has changed is that there will still be eight meetings of each group but they will be a week apart to allow for the reading that is to be done between meetings. It means that the students will be doing their Independent Novel Assignment at the same time as their Literature Circles, in fact they may be reading two books at the same time. Another change I feel is important is that the students need to have the full range of books to choose from. And we may as well get rid of the idea that students will choose on the basis of interest in the novel alone and get them into their groups before the choice of novel so that they have confidence that they will be with their friends. So I have arranged for small groups to go to the library for a limited time and for the group to select the title they want to read. To make it easier for them there will be enlarged photos of the front covers together with book reviews from other year nines from previous years in the area of the library where the Literature Circles books are. I just hope this works.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Responding to student writing

As a teacher of writing I have a lot of “marking” to do (called by teachers in other places “grading” or “correcting”) and it takes a lot of time. In common with many teachers I usually spend one day of every weekend on this task. There is a sense that unless you read carefully, and show that you have read carefully, you are not doing your job properly. Students may expect there to be lots of red marks on their papers, especially if they are ticks, and even better double ticks and exclamations like “great work”, or “good point”. But is this really what we should be doing? We all remember stories of students testing whether their teacher is reading their papers by writing in the middle of the paragraph “put a tick here if you are still reading” (or much worse comments). So how can we make the process more useful for the students and make more effective use of our time?

In year 8 my students are writing stories (the theme was loss, whether your team is losing the game or the loss of a pet) and one student suggested putting her draft on her blog and inviting comments from readers. You can imagine how happy I was that this student “got it”, both the process of writing and the idea of a draft, and the idea of blogging. In year 11 my students are preparing for an in-class assessment where they have to produce a piece of personal or creative writing as a response to one or more prompts. In the course of their preparation they created a piece based on the Garden of Panic activity where the student is presented with a setting and some words that are associated with the setting and asked to write a story based on this stimulus. The students were very keen on feedback from this piece of writing and were at pains to stress that I should respond to their ideas rather than other aspects of the writing such as surface level appearance – spelling and punctuation.

Similarly, I remember when I wrote a piece for publication, working with an editor who responded to my draft, and how polite she was in her responses, simply asking questions rather than evaluating anything I had written. I felt honoured to be working with her and she certainly brought out the best in my writing for the piece. So how can we writing teachers respond to student writing to bring out the best in them?

Some years ago I read an article on just this issue that had some really good ideas by K. Murray, called ‘Responding to Student Writing’. It was published as a supplement to Idiom in Spring, 1984. This piece was followed up by Responding to student writing: Continuing conversations edited by Brenton Doecke in 1999 published by the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. Thinking about these articles again now I realise that responding to student writing means, like blogging and commenting, being part of a conversation between student and teacher and, I sincerely hope, between student and student. Wish me luck as I sit here once again engaged in this honourable task of bringing out the best in our student writers.