Saturday, December 31, 2005

Gunther Kress and 2006

Just lately I have been thinking of what we need to teach in subject English and whether, and why, English should be a discrete subject (notwithstanding Leigh Blackall’s question via Wara of whether there need to be subjects at all; this reminds me of the discussion over at David Warlick about what schools of the future will be like, as the result of an interesting experiment he did, asking teachers what their classrooms will be like in 2015)
Reading Don Watson’s Weasel Words about public discourse in Australia, and a recent find by my sister about the PowerPoint form of the Gettysburg address (part of the PowerPoint makes you stupid meme, I think) has made thinking about what students need all the more relevant. Similarly, the experience of reading Gunther Kress has been absorbing for me as an English teacher. The concept of the ‘affordances’ of the modes of writing and image is very interesting. The uniqueness of each mode give them particular capacities to communicate in different ways; as he says "the world told is a different world to the world shown”. I found chapters 6, 7 and 8 really compelling. He theorises about literacy and the genre debates in his social theory of text; and looks at punctuation as framing. One quote in particular was “…punctuation can give one kind of insight into a writer’s sense of their place in the world, whether as a child or as an adult.” (p. 124)
Kress’ take on genre is affecting how I read all the texts I’m exposed to – it adds another layer of interest. When you think about genre “who acts in relation to whom” as “a social practice” taking place in “fields of power” (p. 85) you can see I have a lot to think about. His discussion on punctuation will definitely affect me next year when I’m responding to students’ writing. He gives lots of examples to illustrate and back up his points and, while I don’t understand it all, it seems to have enough in it to reimagine my teaching in 2006.
The subject that we in Australia call English is called different names in other English speaking countries: Language Arts in the US and Tim Frederick’s blog is called the ELA teaching blog (the ELA stands for either English Language Arts or English Language Acquisition, I think – maybe you’ll leave a comment, Tim, putting me straight). In a recent post Tim posits a divide between English teachers between those who see themselves as primarily Literature teachers and those who see themselves as Language teachers. That has been a great aspect of teaching English as I know it – that there hasn’t been a divide like that. In Year 12, the revised Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) English study design, to be implemented in 2007, does sit midway between the two other related subjects, English Language and Literature. Students wanting to pass VCE can now do four units of any one of these three subjects and combinations in of these in year 11 (thus English Language 1 and Literature 2 and English 3 and 4 or English 1 and Literature 2 and English Language 3 and 4.) One of the Englishes is still compulsory to pass VCE. Our challenge is make the subjects for our diverse cohort doing one of these three subject combinations as interesting as possible. Gunther Kress’ Literacy in a New Media Age looks at these issues in a way that makes me interested and thus I hope I can design classroom experiences that engage and energise the students.
The debate on what constitutes appropriate texts for study that has been simmering in the Australian media gets another little run in The Age today in Helen Razer’s article. Interestingly, Kress looks at the texts we should study in our English classrooms in three categories 1. literary texts, 2. socially significant texts that are not literary, and 3. banal, everyday texts. His analysis of a simple card that came with the purchase of a leather wallet was fascinating about what it communicates and the design and creation decisions that had to be made by someone (including background colour, size shape and weight of the paper that made up the card, font and so on) argues that being aware of these factors, making them visible, is a necessary precondition to being considered literate in this century.
It all leads me to think about what kind of teacher I want to be in 2006 and reading these two posts from Aaron Nelson and Graycie are just spot on. I love the title of Aaron’s post “Creating addictive classrooms” and similarly Graycie’s post “Passion” and the comments made me think about these issues. I’m sure there’s another post for me in there somewhere, when I’ve finished all the essential holiday tasks such as buying new bookshelves and getting my books and papers and so on into some kind of order.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Listening, Reading and Viewing

This post is a short one just to let you know about a wonderful podcast I just listened to on blogging and eportfolios by D’Arcy Norman. Well worth a listen. My holiday reading includes Andrea Levy's Small Island and Gunther Kress Literacy in a New Media Age. And the other day I saw Goodnight and Good Luck, (tag line: we will not walk in fear of one another) which is a bit of a treat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

2005 reflections

It’s coming close to the end of the year and it seems a good time to reflect on all that I have learnt since I started this blogging adventure. I’ve had it in my mind for a while to write such a reflection but have been so busy reading (and being speechless) I haven’t written. Then I read Graham Wegner’s post and found so many similarities between his experiences and mine. I started reading blogs about 18 months ago starting with my friend Scott’s blog and just kept reading. Sometimes I read from his blogroll as well but I felt a little bit like that was o.k. for these people: they were young enough, techie enough, maybe radical enough, but I wasn’t anything like that. Scott seemed, however, to assume that it was not totally impossible that I might one day start a blog but I was fearful. What if I made a mistake, what if I wrote something wrong, what if …. Oh well I’m sure you know the kind of thing. Then one day in May I stumbled across a podcast by Steve Dembo (I wonder if it was the same one, Graham) and through him found Will Richardson and David Warlick (it must have been the same one) and all of a sudden the world seemed to open up. At one particular point when faced with the Blogger home page it just seemed easier to start a blog than to continue to resist. And boy was it fun. Like Graham I found myself encouraged by Will Richardson, and the sense of community I found in the Worldbridges webcasts (as well as meeting Daf and Bee and others from the Webheads in Action) cannot be overestimated. When I started my blog I was still a bit cautious so I wanted to be anonymous. I called myself Reflective Teacher and then listened to Scott Lockman’s podcast. He referred to my blog (“he or she”) and I knew then that I didn’t want to be anonymous (at least not nongender specific – I know Ms Frizzle does it (be anonymous, that is, with class). As part of the edublogging community I wanted to be me, so I added the subheading for my blog “constructing an identity in the blogosphere”. Later still I added a photo which I would never have dreamed of before – I normally hate photos of myself. But this photo was taken by my fourteen year old son without me expecting it. I had just received my school supplied PDA which came complete with camera (though I didn’t know how to work it) and then he just snapped the photo. I like it. Later still I added my email contact details as part of being open to my community (not that I get many emails from readers – yet). I am amazed at all that has happened, and I haven’t even begun to speak of all that I have learnt from reading, reflecting and commenting and receiving comments. Or the joys and learning experiences of blogging with my Year 9 students and the contact with Clarence Fisher’s class. I would like to thank Clarence for his inspiration and guidance. To top it all off being nominated for Best Teacher Blog in the Edublog Awards (I was just blown away and to be honest I found it hard to write after that – I was speechless). I am just so glad to be on the same page as Anne Davis and Konrad Glogowski (who has just been contacted by a mainstream radio station to speak about blogging) Good on both of you for your win in the category. You deserve it and I find you both very inspiring. I plan on continuing on this journey with a various group of very fine teachers who show a range and depth of thought about learning and education that makes me feel quite optimistic about my profession. I’ll be doing a lot of professional reading over the holidays as part of my studies (which have taken a backseat in the middle of all this informal professional development) so I’ll be continuing to post my reflections about my reading and planning for next year.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

How should we teach English?

LAST week I had my first meeting in my capacity as new Faculty Head of English at my school. The current Head started the meeting and then I took over. At this end of the year the idea was to be well prepared for next year, to introduce the new staff who will join us, and to end off with a look at the mission statement for our faculty and our goals as a faculty. This made me think again about how I would articulate my own goals as head of English: how would I see my role as providing for the students the best possible educational experiences for their lives and their futures and how I will support the staff in this as well. I know I will post about this soon.

At the same time there are rumours and whispers around schools in general that faculties or key learning areas may be dissolved in favour of an integrated approach to learning. That we should not be looking at discrete subjects like SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) or Science or English but at ways of providing learning experiences for students where they choose a project to investigate and learn what they need to learn in any discipline as they need to learn it. I don’t know of any specific school doing this but I have heard that some are thinking about it. I’m sure some schools out there are doing this or something like it. I’d love to know how it’s going.

In other cases I have heard of, it is agreed that there should to be content taught in Maths, and Languages such as French or Indonesian, so these Faculties need to be retained, and even History and Geography. But for English there is seen to be no such requirement. I know of one school that has done away with the English Faculty although there are still English teachers. English is seen as Literacy and Communication, and it is agreed that these should be taught across the curriculum, along with ICT (also in some schools not seen as a separate subject). It is true that in an earlier iteration of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS), there was no separate discipline called English (it was put together with Languages Other than English in the category of Language), but this has since changed and English is again one of the discipline areas. However, Technology is still seen as being integrated into all the discipline areas. I’m interested in other people’s views on this. What are the arguments for each side? Are they convincing? What leads to better learning experiences for students?

New Literacies

I have just seen (I’m a bit behind with my Bloglines) the most fantastic presentation on multimodal literacies by Angela Thomas when she was presenting at NRC (?) in Florida on "Out of Bounds: Some social, psychological and pedagogical implications of new literacies for young people’s learning, lifeworlds and social futures." Angela writes on new literacies and feminism and many other topics, and is always a good read.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Reflecting on the semester

We asked the students to do a report on the "Recreating the Writer" English unit: “It’s your turn to have a say about this semester’s course and the way it was presented.” The students were allowed to stay anonymous to encourage freedom of expression, although we promoted constructive comments “to help us plan for a better course”.

Many students put the blogging section of the course as “the topic/section I enjoyed most”. Some of their reasons were: “they were a good opportunity to express myself”; “I liked using the computers”; and “It was good to communicate with people”; “It was a different experience of writing”; “it was more interesting to receive a response compared to writing in a book no-one reads.” Some said they enjoyed “all of it” and mentioned the “great discussions in class”. Others nominated their family stories as the best part of the unit citing “getting to know more about your family history”; and “it helped me to think about my family background”. The poetry also got a big rap: “learning new ways to write poems and different styles of poetry”; also “I had never been a good poetry writer but I gained new knowledge and improved my skills”. Some students referred to their love of poetry and one said “I learnt heaps about the different styles of poetry and we got to be creative.” Students also spoke positively about the Family Stories and the Personal Best style of writing. We also asked students to comment on the topic/section they liked the least and the aspect of teaching they liked the least. Of course some students liked least the topic that others liked most, so poetry was mentioned here as were most of the other assessment tasks. One student said she liked the poetry least but then admitted “only because I didn’t put enough work into it. I believe I would have enjoyed it if I had”. Some mentioned they would like more time given for writing before the due date. One thought blogs “wasted too much time”. One didn’t like the conferencing with others. But what I take away from the experience of having the unit and my teaching evaluated is the students who wrote (in answer to the prompt: List any three new things you learnt during the course) “to trust my imagination, a fluidness in my writing and the importance of having a notebook to write ideas in”, and another student: “I like the blogging; it was fun and I will continue mine.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

We are the readers of ourselves

At the moment I have just finished reading How Proust can change your life by Alain de Botton. It is funny, very tongue in cheek. But I loved this quote from Marcel Proust in the book:
In reality, every reader is, while they are reading, the reader of their own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he or she offers the reader to enable them to discern what, without the book, they would never have experienced in themselves. And the recognition by the reader in their own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity. (somewhat adapted).
And I just have to say I am very excited. This little ol’ blog has been nominated in the Best Teacher Blog category of the Edublog Awards. If you are interested go on over and have a look, and vote if you want to. And, via Bill Kerr’s blog, here is the blue ball machine animation.

Don’t sit there too long now! ;-)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The last lesson of the year

It is the last lesson of the year in my writing unit. The students have a chance to pick their favourite piece of writing that they have done in this unit. It could be a poem, a short story, something they’d researched or a family story or an excerpt of one of these. Some found their favourite blog entry. We sit in a circle and each student reads her selection. There are memories here. Each piece that is read has its echo in each other student’s own folio. There is genuine appreciation here of others’ writing. Because I’ve read each piece they read, and some more than once, there are no surprises for me. However, this is the first time that the whole class has heard a piece from each other student. This was certainly an oversight. Next time I will definitely do this more often. After this there was a chance for the students to fill in a report from them on the teaching of this unit. And that will be the subject of another blog. But, as one student said, the public sharing of the writing was a way to see another aspect of each of these students. It was a privilege to be there. for English teachers

One of the bright sparks in the Victorian Association of English Teachers (VATE), Greta Caruso, had the idea of gathering an extensive collection of interesting and valuable websites for secondary English teachers. I had the notion of combining this with the convenience of tagging and social bookmarking and thus the idea of was born. The bookmarks are for sites that are especially useful for teachers in Victoria as they contain references to texts that are on the Year 12 list of texts for study but the websites are from all over and would no doubt be useful for any study of English, Literature or Language Arts for secondary school students. It is only a beginning at the moment and the tagging is in natural language so it may take a bit of getting used to. The idea would be to click on any tag to get other links of that tag or to add + novel to the adress bar to get all the VATE items that have the tag ‘novel’. At the moment there are five of these items giving useful site for the novels Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis, First they killed my Father by Loung Ung, I’m not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti, and others. The other items that have been bookmarked are items on Shakespeare, grammar, literary theory, engagement, resources on teaching language analysis and lots more: books, classroom, drama, education, educational, engagement, English, lesson, lesson_plans, links, literature, plays, poetry, reference, research, sonnets, teaching, text, texts, writing). There are a few blogs as well. Go on over and have a look if you're interested. Let me know if you find it useful , or if you have some ideas for improvement. If you are an English teacher and know some good sites for these categories you can tag them with VATE too to add to the list (if you have a delicious account). It's a free resource to save your bookmarks so you can have access to them anywhere, that anyone can have and I would recommend it. Just go to and get yourself a username.