Thursday, April 27, 2006

English teachers in the Media

English teachers are somewhat in the public eye at the moment with education journalists wanting to get the teacher's point of view since the Howard broadside. Some of my English teacher colleagues at VATE (the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English) have been contacted by journalists and I was interviewed as well for an article to appear in the Education Age. This time it is not about classroom blogging (as this article from last week’s edition of the Education Age is) but about what I am doing in my Year Nine classroom in Literature Circles. During last period today a photographer from The Age came to photograph the students discussing their novels, an experience that ironically interrupted the discussions. As my blog has reached a readership among the parents of some of my students and others outside of the education field I have had people tell me that they had no idea about the behind the scenes work in a teacher’s life. It was like they had a new perspective from reading my reflections on my work, and that my writing was somehow making the work of education visible. However, my thoughts are only a part of the equation. By far the most important part of the equation is what the students experience, and how their lives are affected by what happens in the classroom. I guess this is the reason I called my blog The Open Classroom. I want to be open and reflective about my part in the educational adventure in order to improve the experiences of all my students. So welcome any new readers, whether in Australia, or international. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me if you wish.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Literary theory and English teaching

The new iteration of Literature circles is going well. The students have had two meetings discussing their novels. The novels they chose were: Guitar Highway Rose by Brigid Lowry, Stalker by Hazel Edwards, Mandragora by David McRobbie, Borrowed Light by Anna Fienberg, and Holes by Louis Sachar. Each week they get into their groups and discuss what they have read. The discussions are very interesting, especially in the light of John Howard’s criticism of English teaching last week. The gist of his displeasure is that English teaching is being “dumbed down” by teachers focussing on literary theory in the English classroom. The literary theory that Literature Circles is based on is sometimes called Reader Response theory, in which the primary focus is on the reader and the process of reading rather than on the author or the text. It sees students as active agents in the making of meaning and that interpretation and knowledge production is largely a social act. It fits well into the curriculum at adolescence as, in my experience, the students are supremely social beings on the whole. If the alternative that Howard is proposing is a return to a diet of only whole class text study where the teacher is seen as the fount of all knowledge and student choice is not encouraged then I for one would see that as an impoverishment of English curriculum. Literary theory has enriched my teaching of English, and the discussion coming out of Literature Circles is just one example of this.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Baby blogs

This is a bit off topic, but my friend Liz who I have known for nearly forty years (we met when we were quite young, you understand) has a grandchild. Kaytie has a condition that means she has had to stay in hospital all of her short life and has had two operations before she was six weeks old. Kaytie’s parents are recording the journey on a blog called Kaytie's Story and I just wanted to mention it here because I am so impressed with their courage and honesty and how beautiful Kaytie is.

And on a related topic Dave from Worldbridges is going to be a dad very soon and his partner Bonnie is recording her journey on a blog called Crib Chronicles. Last night I listened to a podcast that Bonnie put out which was a Skype discussion between Bonnie and two of her friends, one in Canada and the other in Australia. As I listened to the podcast I was returned immediately to my days in playgroup which is where I learnt all the secret women’s business of what it meant to be a mother. Now it’s on the internet, and new generations of parents are sharing their knowledge and experience with the world. It really is a privilege to be part (however peripheral) of these momentous journeys.


I learnt something yesterday, from one of my students. Literature Circles are going reasonably well in their 2006 iteration, but I realise more strongly than ever that I have to teach the skills of group discussion of literature. So used as the students are to being told what to do, the freedom to find their own focus in the discussion provides a bit of a challenge. For this reason I provide as scaffolds the much maligned “role sheets” that give the students a bit of a guide to help their discussion of the novel, and to go into a bit of depth. The role of connector is a key one, in finding and exploring connections that any aspect of the novel has to their own lives. I came across this interesting resource on the different ways that students can make connections with the text on Geoff Chapman’s very useful blog. But I hadn’t yet thought to use it in class. Instead I decided to have a non-Literature Circles lesson.
I have been collecting free advertising postcards that you can find in cafes and cinemas for a while (always two copies of each postcard). The students were to do some writing inspired by any aspect of the postcard they were given then share that writing with the other (random) class member who had received a copy of the same postcard. The pairs shared their writing and then there was the opportunity to read their pieces to the whole class. In discussion afterwards I found myself pointing out how the writers had made connections to their own lives, such as when V. wrote about her love of playing tennis in response to a card advertising the Australian Open and A. wrote about a Japanese teacher at her previous school in response to a part of a photo on her card that reminded her of a kimono.
And here is what I learnt: A. said that this was just like the connector role in Literature Circles and I realised that this activity that I had thought unconnected to Literature Circles was most definitely connected. I made a connection and I learnt something.
Another part of the discussion came up when one of the students said (and others agreed) how good it was to share the stories with each other. The need and desire for an audience. Who knows? In the future we may have our own blogs for this class too, the class who have seen the value of an audience.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Powerful writing

In year eight the students have been exploring writing and the power of language to convey strong emotion. We discussed powerful verbs and strong nouns (having previously looked at some poetry as well) and then we moved on to what issues they felt strongly enough about to research and then craft such a piece of powerful writing. We tossed around a few issues, and then Maddy spoke up. “I was watching something on Behind the News,” she said, “and I was so shocked.” It was the issue of the athletes from Sierra Leone who had gone missing from Melbourne during the Commonwealth Games. She told us what she had seen about the conditions in Sierra Leone. She spoke passionately to the class and we all listened. There was a hubbub when she had finished. There were questions and various points of view about what she had said. The discussion went on for some time and it became clear that we needed to find out more. Maddy had told us about the detention centres in Australia that had been mentioned on the program; an extract of the transcript of the program tells us: “While asylum seekers are waiting for their claims to be checked in Australia, they are often locked up in one of 7 detention centres. A lot of people who now live legally in Australia were once kept in detention centres while their details were being checked.” One of the students burst out with, “Well, where are these detention centres then?” So there was a time of research and then a time of writing and I am so pleased with the quality of the writing.

This is an extract of Zoe’s blog:

“When I heard about this, I said that these refugees don’t deserve to be punished like this. They are humans just like us! We happened to be born in Australia, and they happened to be born in Sierra Leone. What have they done wrong? They don’t deserve this. Think about it. What if it was you who was trying to enter Australia? If I lived in Sierra Leone, I would be trying everything I could to get out of that country. All I wanted was to live in another country, and I was told that I could not live in another country.”

And further on:

“We have luxuries here in Australia. We have fresh drinking water, computers, houses, jobs, education and television. We have more than we could expect, more than the basics. A family has extra cash. What do they do with it? They don’t think about those poor people like in Sierra Leone who a lot of them don’t have a house to live in or even enough food to eat! So what does that wealthy family do with their extra money? The go out and buy ANOTHER T.V. “One with a bigger screen,” they say. “Or a computer with a flat screen, or a lap-top that I can carry around with me.”
As you can tell, the whole blog post is very powerfully written.

But the students didn’t stop with the research and writing. They wanted to do something more. And so they decided to hold a cake stall to raise money to help the refugees in Australian detention centres. The students all participated. They did all the work themselves. And they were so proud when they raised over $200 in one lunchtime. This was largely as a result of their passionate concern for the well being of others. The students were very clear that they do not want this issue to be a transient one. They want to keep learning and keep acting. And they want to keep publishing their findings and their thoughts on the internet. Wow!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Blogging (a) means (of) reflection?

Just browsing through my bloglines and came upon the post that I was going to write, only not so eloquently. It is part of my thinking from yesterday's post on reflective teaching and also my thoughts on the new requirement for teachers in Victoria to renew their registration on or before the fifth anniversary of their full registration (which will not affect teachers in the short term). As part of this the Victorian Institute of Teaching wants to to "canvass teachers' views about professional learning." The institute sees that it is important for teachers "to demonstrate over the preceding five years that they have maintained an appropriate level of professional practice with reference to the Standards of Professional Practice for Renewal of Registration, and continue to be fit to teach" and requires a "strong commitment to professional learning. Teachers know that exposure to new ideas is essential for continuing learning and the invigoration of practice, and that when this is perceived to be of value, teachers are motivated to renew their practice."
I'm convinced that at least for some blogging will be a part of the way that teachers demonstrate their commitment to professional learning. And now to the post that caught my eye. It is by Christopher Sessums who has written lots of thought provoking stuff recently.
Blogging can "provok(e) levels of awareness. Blogging can be seen as a constructive and projective medium. Blogging allows us to shape our feelings as to what kind of people we are. It becomes a mirror for us to look into (What am I thinking? How do I feel about teaching, learning and computing? Can I create or offer something meaningful?) Blogging allows me to look at myself in the reflection of the medium. Turkle (Sherry Turkle (2005). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. Cambridge: MIT Press) notes that computing can threaten our independence. In essence we can become hooked on it....Yet, blogging allows us to build a safe environment for ourselves where we can experiment with our identity; we can try on new thoughts and feelings, we can share this identity with others without the responsibility of having to actually deal with other people. (Really?) When I talk with people about blogging who do not blog or consider themselves technically all thumbs, they want to know what it means in general, what it’s all about. They want to know who I am blogging to, what I’m blogging about, why do I do it, what is the value or practicality of it. Do I tell them I’m world-building?
When you see it in this light, blogging is more than just professional learning - it is the opposite of the "unexamined life" which Socrates so disparaged.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Teacher reflecting

For me, reflecting on my practice is really important as a way of continually trying to improve my teaching, and so when I received this newsletter in my email inbox I was very interested. I thought I’d share it with you and write a post about it as a way of remembering what I liked about it. It comes from Inspiring Teachers at their ezine site. You can subscribe to their email newsletter here.

When I started really thinking about it, I realized that I reflect quite a lot each day. Throughout each class I mentally make note of what works and what doesn't. Then, when I have a free moment, I try to implement a change to my plans for the next class. At the end of each class period I think back over what worked and what didn't in that particular class as a whole and use that information to mentally adjust my attitude, plans, and spiel. This is a continual process for me. Then, at the end of the day, I sit down with my plans and make notes to help me remember the changes that were successful.

What type of reflection works best? As usual, it varies from person to person, but there are a few things that everyone can do to make full use of those informal and formal reflections we make each day.

1. Catch yourself thinking: Whenever you have a thought about the way your lesson or activity is proceeding, you are reflecting. Jot down your thoughts on your lesson plan or on a separate sheet of paper. At the end of the day, label the paper for easy identification later and staple it to your original lesson plan.

2. Don't be afraid to make changes immediately: When you are reflecting about a lesson and you feel that it just isn't working, don't think, "Oh well, there's always next year." Instead, make a notation in your plans and change them for the next class period. Lesson plans often are in a state of flux changing from class to class and year to year.

3. If you work in a teaming type situation where you and one or more teachers work together teaching the same lessons or related lessons (interdisciplinary units, etc.), be sure to do some reflection together at the end of the day or at some point during the week: Find out how the lesson went for the other teachers. Did they approach it differently than you? Was their approach more or less successful? The purpose is not to compare teaching styles in order to judge, but rather to determine the most successful way to help your group of students.

4. Keep a journal: Often when we write down our thoughts and feelings, we are better able to analyse them. I know that when I write about a situation or problem I face in the classroom, I am better able to fully think through everything. Later I can go back and follow the flow of my thoughts. This especially helps when I feel frustrated but cannot identify the problem. Often I am better able to pinpoint the exact issue through my writing. If you are not in the habit of keeping a journal, start small. Try to write for five or ten minutes after your students have left. Make it part of your daily schedule or even part of your lesson plan. This may help you get into the habit. Once you are writing daily, you may find that you are writing for longer periods of time.

No matter what method of reflection you use, mental, verbal, or written, it is a vital tool to use towards self-improvement in teaching. Take some time right now to reflect over the past school year or a recent teaching experience and think about what you
can do to become an even better teacher for your students.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Year 11 and 12 practise learning and metacognition

I had such a good teaching day yesterday. One of the elements that made it great was putting into practice an idea I got from Germana, a friend/colleague I talked to at the VATE review day between sessions. We talked about how to make the study of Macbeth real for the students and she mentioned that she had had her students get into groups and plan how they would stage the murder of King Duncan. In the play this occurs off stage, but asking students to think about how Macbeth would hold the dagger, with what demeanour he enters the room, his body language during the event and what he does just afterwards requires students to interpret Macbeth’s character and complex motivations and emotions during this critical time in the narrative. I brought in a gold crown (made very artistically by Rachel, a student teacher at our school), and a richly purple royal robe for King Duncan to wear (even though he is asleep) and two daggers (according to the play when Macbeth comes to Lady Macbeth after the murder he has two daggers in his hands). There were three groups giving us their interpretation yesterday and they were all different. In one the murder was committed tentatively; Macbeth couldn’t even face Duncan but attacked him from behind as he lay asleep. The next group had Macbeth enter the room confidently and do the murder quickly and take the crown and bring it straight to Lady Macbeth. The third group had Macbeth played by two students – one reluctant and pulling away, the other taking the hand of the first and guiding his hand to commit the murder. The different interpretations showed that students had engaged with the text and presented a reading consistent with the text, which highlighted one or other aspects of the complexity. When talking to the students afterwards I saw that it really helped change the students to appreciate the text more. Thank you Germana.

The next lesson was with Year 12 English students who have started their preparation for the school-assessed coursework in Responding to Media Texts. We were in the computer room and I had given them some websites to look at that had to do with the issue the students are exploring: the Tourism Australia’s “bloody hell” ad campaign. To help them reflect on their learning I set up a class blog on Learner Blogs and each of the students set up their own blogs for exploring and reflecting on their learning. It was so easy. Only one student didn’t know what a blog was. The interesting thing is the metacognition that goes into choosing a name for their blog which shows why they think they’re doing blogging in the first place. I was excited by the potential of blogging with year 12 students and will let you know how it goes. Each time I introduce it to a new class it gets easier for me and I reflect here on my own learning. It seems so natural now that the students have a space where they can write informally on the subject matter and thinking that they are engaged in during the day, and when the excitement and social aspect of learning moves into the more reflective place of thinking about their learning that they should have a place to do it that is connected to their classmates asynchronously. In this way the conversation can continue but perhaps at a deeper level than is available in the ‘hurly burly’ of the classroom.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Responding to Media Texts

The year 12 students at my school are studying persuasive language techniques in preparation for their Responding to Media Texts SAC. I have heard a number of teachers say that teaching this section of the course is dry and boring, not only for the students but also for themselves. But I think that it depends on the way it is framed. If this study is seen as an exploration of the language of power, the students may more readily see its relevance to their lives. So much depends on the way the teacher presents this task. A friend of mine similarly is disturbed by the glib assumption that school literacies are boring. She talks about her classroom and the way that students are doing things in the classroom which show they are really into what they are learning. Few students would say in public that they love it but their actions and discussions show another side to this. I too have seen students reluctant to leave the class when the bell goes because they are discussing something that is important to them or they are writing something or sharing something that has to do with what they are learning about.

As a result of going the Meet the Assessors program put on by VATE I have started asking students to report on an aspect of persuasive language use they have seen in the course of their day or week, something on a billboard, or a tv ad or a headline in a newspaper or whatever they like. It is very engaging, at least so far, and students are gaining practice in using the metalanguage needed for their analytical work. Often it leads to a continued discussion as students share their own experience with that particular persuasive strategy. It reminds me of the podcast I listened to by Wes Fryer on the importance of informational texts for our students. For so many of our students the only texts that they will read when they leave school will be informational or persuasive texts and thus the importance of being deeply literate is incalculable. I am really interested in following the path of looking at how the language is being manipulated and showing and demonstrating to students the way they too can have power over the language and be in command of strategies instead of being uncritical consumers of whatever is dished up. Although I do wonder sometimes if people in ‘real life’ (those not in classrooms) go around identifying rhetorical strategies and techniques and analysing their effect.