Monday, January 30, 2006

What are we doing when we teach English?

I'm sitting here at school on the morning of the last teacher preparation day before the students come back. I really love the energy of the new year. There's lots of discussion among teachers about texts and ways into them. There's a sense in the air that we won't do things just the same this year as we have in the past. We're planning the first few lessons of the year with the new students and of course returning students, and we're thinking of ways to convene communities of enquiry in our classrooms. I have loved listening to Paul Allison's podcasts with his students as they go about this activity back in September. He recorded his students as they sat in a circle after having interviewed a partner with questions such as what their favourite tv show or other entertainment is, their favourite music and sport, what they did in the summer and something that nobody else knows about them. He recorded the students as they introduced their partners and it was quite moving to listen to this activity and compare it to the times that I have done it in my classes. Despite being in different hemispheres students have the same range of issues and ways of approaching school tasks. I enjoyed it a lot.
The first text that my Year Eights will be investigating is the film Fly Away Home and I hope to set the class up with blogs as they make meaning of and discuss the themes of this text. In Year Nine we will be doing Literature Circles again and once again I will be collecting data for my Masters project. I'm really looking forward to that. We had our Faculty meeting on Friday and as an opening reflection before getting onto the business of the meeting we discussed "what we think we're doing when we teach English". The teachers wrote their thoughts in 10 to 15 words and we will be looking further at this in the next meeting. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thoughts on teaching

Two things that I’ve been mulling over for a few days:

From Chris Lehmann:
“I want our students to be the '21st Century citizen’ in that they understand how to thrive in an ever-changing world. I want them to have the cognitive tools and energy and passion not just to react to the changes around them, but to help to shape those changes.”

And via Joanne Abel from the Oz Teachers mailing list who points to a quote from Bernard Percy:

“What makes a great teacher?

  • They have high standards and expectations that they won't compromise.
  • They dare to dream of truly making a difference in their students' lives.
  • They're the "restless" individuals, innovative thinkers. They don't want to adapt or conform to the world around them, when that world has limited expectations of what a teacher can do or achieve.
  • They challenge students to think differently, innovatively, and not merely adjust to their environment.
  • They're comfortable in a space with motion, action and innovative thinking.
  • They help students find their true purposes; develop their unique, special talents; and ensure they develop certainty in their ability to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.
  • They create space for students to find and develop belief in their own potential.
  • They create special, positive moments where a student has a realization or experience that positively affects his or her life, forever.
  • They seek the real barriers that prevent students from learning, i.e., helping students learn the skills, gain the knowledge, and develop their abilities to be problem solvers.
  • They never see the child only as a statistic or number, but as worthy of the recognition of his or her own individuality.
  • They strive to put and keep the joy in learning.
  • They're willing to find the magic residing in each child.
  • They're dream makers, not dream breakers.
Technology in the hands of a great teacher becomes a powerful tool to individualize and customize each student's educational program, one that aligns with their true potential, interests, needs and uniqueness. It's a tool that can help students rejoice in what they can and do accomplish.”

JoAnne goes on: I tell the children that I am teaching them ‘how to learn’ so that they can spend the rest of their lives finding out about the things that they love!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Podcast Conversations

Just recently there has been a wonderful conversation unfolding by podcast between Bob Sprankle's grade 3/4 class and a member of one of David Warlick's workshops at a podcast conference. The conversation started here when Bob introduced his class the the Wikipedia controversy when a false entry was made in this online encyclopedia. The students investigated this and did a podcast on the incident. Then David Warlick played this podcast at his workshop and recorded the discussion with teachers that ensued. One of the participants was sceptical that the work was that of the students. David recorded the responses of the teachers and put it out as a podcast here. Mr Sprankle played this for his students and recorded the discussion that followed and put it out as a podcast here. The insights of the students and the discussion really made my day. The who conversation really shows the potential of this technology and the learning that can happen. Have a listen - it's great.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Writing Narratives

2005 was the year I learned blogging, really learned it by focusing on it and by doing it myself, not just reading others', although I learnt from reading as well. 2006 will be the year that I interrogate myself as a teacher, by focusing on my practice, and reflecting on it and writing narratives about it. The fact that I am writing (and practising) within the context of the edublogging community makes it all the more useful and potentially valuable. I have been reading Teacher Narrative as Critical Inquiry - Rewriting the Script by Joy S Ritchie and David E Wilson. It is very rewarding and I am captivated by this quote about the "generative and heuristic functions" of writing: that it has "implications beyond self exploration and affirmation." It can allow one to "re-examine and revise (one's) experience and ideas" and to "engage in exploratory, critical thinking in order to solve personal and public problems."
Recently I looked at some writing I had done eight years ago when I was teaching in an all boys school. It is, of course, fictional, but in rereading it from my present vantage point I realise both how much I have learnt (how different I am as a person) and how much of myself I put into this story. It goes without saying that I had not been teaching very long at this time.
The room writhed and heaved with activity and noise. A pencil and then a ruler sailed over the heads of the boys and the hubbub of voices formed an amost palpable wall through which a teacher entered the classroom. Weaving her way through groups of students, she reached her desk at last.
The boys ignored her, seemingly, although now in the far corner of the room shrieks and thuds emerged from the ambient din.
"Fight, fight, fight," the boys were chanting now, onlookers to the fight but more eagerly watching for the teacher's reaction.
The room stilled momentarily and into this tiny chink a roar inserted itself.
"Seats, please, gentlemen!"
More shouted orders, the boys in the front seat covering their ears. Sheepishly the two involved in the fight grinned and took their places.
"I'm waiting," pronounced threateningly, by now the roll book and pen in hand.
"John, Michael, Hai, Khoung, Matthew...," the list of names droned on.
"Come on, I can't hear myself think," imaptiently and angrily now.
Why does settling the class have to take so long? Maybe it's something I'm doing wrong. Maybe it's my body language as I come into the room.
At the side of the classroom near the window sits Domenico. Already today he has done a days work though it is only 9.20 am. Waking his younger brothers and sister, he's prepared breakfast, supervised the making of lunches, and hung out a load of washing. There's so much to do now that Dad's gone and Mum has to work full time. It's night shift and of course that means they've got to keep the noise down while she sleeps after the night's work. Domenico is not one of those who even now are subverting the teacher's approach to this class. He's too tired and maybe a bit worried.
Sitting nearby is Hieu. He watches till the teacher's gaze is not directly on him then throws the ballbearing hard at Tom on the other side of the room.
"Oww!" A great cry fills the air. Tom jumps up, looks wildly around.
"Orright, which one a yous done that? Miss aren't ya gonna do anythink? I coulda been killed!"
He gets the reaction he craves. Later Hieu and Tom will snigger at the success of that tactic - and think up others too horrible to contemplate.
They want to get rid of her, a figure of weakness and therefore despised in this most macho of cultures. They've tried, but not yet succeeded, in getting her to run from the room in tears. It's this they work for, and plot in groups.
The teacher doesn't have any idea... Maybe it's the way I'm dressed or the pitch of my voice... maybe it's....

I do feel for this teacher now. I wonder how she made it through. I'm amazed she's still teaching and, not only that, is passionate about it. Maybe writing the story had something to do with it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Inspiration for the New Year

I have just finished reading James Gee's Situated Language and Learning. It's true I really am having a reading feast in these holidays. The main work of the holidays is to catch up on my reading for my Masters but also to prepare and set goals for my new classes, classes that I'm really looking forward to. Just wanted to include a quote that I want to remember. Gee (and I) sees the potential for schools to be:
sites for creativity, deep thinking and a formation of whole people, sites in which all (students) can gain portfolios for success, ... success defined in muliple ways, and gain the ability to critique and transform society.
Doing this will involve arguing against the neoconservative agenda such as that exemplified in this article from The Age yesterday. The limited views of text seen in this article is doing no-one any favours, least of all the students in our classes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Situated Language - Situated Learning

Just reading James Gee Situated Language and Learning and a very interesting read it is. He speaks about the three kinds of learning: natural, instructed and cultural, and consequently I start to think about my own learning of blogging and other web 2.0 tools that I have come to know in the last six months. The learning is not instructed by anyone, it is “just in time learning”, and if I want to know something I go in search of it (see Steve Dembo’s post about where teachers go to find out things) and I read and imitate. In the last resort I just click it and see. When Gee talks about the learning of a first language (he implies that humans are hardwired to pick up on a first language) I again think about my own experience. For three years I spoke my first language (didn’t learn to write in it, though) and then learnt my second language at school. For a variety of reasons I stopped speaking my first language in the next few years and although I understood it (and still do) I am unconfident and deficient in speaking (and writing in it). My mother often speaks to me in Dutch and I answer in English and it has been like that for most of my life. I can still remember learning to speak English as my second language, and my interest in what I could express in it (an example is learning the concept of “damp”).
This has to do with my identity. Gee reminds us that our first language is “connected to … family and community. Thus a person’s vernacular dialect is closely connected to his or her initial sense of self and belonging in life.” (p. 17) I had never thought of that before. There are things I couldn’t speak to my mother about growing up, as we didn’t share a common language. The sad thing is that I didn’t keep my first language. I wish the technology had existed to record my speaking a language I have now forgotten. Speaking of identity (and the very common experience of being the child of migrant parents) here is a photo of my mother’s grandparents. There were taken in Holland about 100 years ago I think. These ancestors of mine are Pieter and Cornelia Willems and Hanneke and Josina Van Dongen. Coming back to James Gee, however, his argument that schools should change to take account of what students bring to school in the way of language and that learning should be situated in the culture (very gross over-simplifications of what he is saying) is interesting and thought-provoking. It also fits in very well with a presentation by Jay Cross on his Informal Learning Research which is really well worth viewing and listening to.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Into 2006

I have been having a lot of fun tidying up around the house. I think its been over 12 months (more like two years, if I'm honest) since I've sorted through my books and papers. Inevitably I had lost and forgotten lots of useful stuff and now that I've found it again and put it in an accessible place I feel I'm in a good place to prepare for the year ahead. My pattern in the busy times to cope with mess had been to buy a big plastic container and just stack everything in unsorted and this is a recipe for disaster. I have found two very! overdue library books that I thought were lost forever. Here is an extract of a piece of paper I cleverly saved called 101 Ways to Cope with Stress. I have picked out the top 10 - at least for me. Some of these I do and some I will put into practice in 2006.

Here they are:
  • prepare for the morning the night before
  • say "no" more often
  • don't know all the answers
  • say something nice to someone
  • stop saying negative things to yourself
  • practice breathing slowly
  • remember you always have options
  • don't rely on your memory - write it down
  • talk less and listen more
  • always have a plan B
Over the new year period I spent some time listening to and participating in the Worldbridges New Year Webcastathon which went for 15 hours. Wow! Jeff Lebow hosted the cast, interviewing guests such as Dave Sperling from Dave's ESL Cafe (who I had a chance to speak with), Scott Lockman, Will Richardson from Weblogg-Ed, Stephen Downes and lots of others. There were also lots of interesting people in the chat room. Over the hours Jeff asked various people to contribute to an audio time capsule of 2005 where they reflected on things like:

- In 2005, I was most grateful for......
- My most memorable web experience of 2005 was.....
- The coolest innovation of 2005 was....
- The biggest surprise/disappointment of 2005 was....
- The most overhyped thing of 2005 was....
- In 2005, I started....
- My favorite blog/podcast/vlog of 2005 was....
- I think 2005 will be remembered as the year....

This is just a sample. There were also sentence starters for hopes and predictions for 2006. I think once it's all put together it'll be fantastic to listen to. I think Jeff is wonderful for doing this and bringing people together the way he does. The webcast will be edited into podcasts so you can have a listen over the next few weeks. The first bit is already up. Have a listen - I think you'll enjoy it.