Thursday, August 31, 2006

A challenge completed

I am so proud of those of our students in years 7, 8 and 9 who completed the Victorian Premiers Reading Challenge which finished yesterday. They read 182 books between them since the start of the challenge. I think its so great that they can be recognised for this even though it is only having their name in the paper (The Sunday Age) and a certificate. It's very different to when I was young, when I was castigated for reading when I should have been washing the dishes and so forth. I know that reading has done me a lot more good than doing dishes ever did, and the dishes are always with us anyway. Good on ya, readers.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A day at the Mebourne Writers Festival

The weather was beautiful, the company enjoyable and the speakers stimulating. Where were we? At the Melbourne Writers Festival, of course. As Rosemary Cameron, festival Director said, the presence of the students on students days brings the "festival back into the Melbourne Writers Festival". Our Recreating the Writer class caught the train and made the hour long trek into the city, hopped on a tram, and then we were at the Malthouse. We went to see Nick Earls who talked about his new book Monica Bloom in a most engaging way and then the process of having a previous book made into a film that is to be released on fifty screens tomorrow. It's called 48 Shades and he showed the trailer to the collected audience. The students came out wanting to buy the books (as I overheard) and I came out wanting to see the film. We had lunch and a browse in the bookshop where I got the students to select a couple of books we could add to our school library and then we went in to hear Randa Abdul Fattah, lawyer and author of Does my head look big in this? a great title, don't you agree? She writes about the decision of Amal, a Muslim teenager in suburban Melbourne to wear her hijab to school where she is the only Muslim. I am reading this book at the moment and it has definitely captured the voice of an Australian teenager who lives a hyphenated existence "Australian-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian". Some of the novel is based on her own experiences growing up, and she spoke passionately about the way the media portrays Muslims in this climate of fear and the war on terrorism. She is a most engaging speaker, who in her effort to get her point across speaks fast and knowledgeably. It was easy to see her as a lawyer in a courtroom.
Before we even got to the venue in South Melbourne, as we were waiting for the tram, Jacquie (fellow colleague and friend) and I had a serendipitous moment. We got talking to a woman who was obviously waiting for the same tram as we were. It turned out that she was speaking at the festival about her own novels. She was Fleur Beale, author of over a dozen novels and fellow teacher. It was lovely to talk to her and later I bought two of the novels I am not Esther and A Respectable Girl. I loved every moment of the day although I am a bit of a stress bucket when taking large groups on public transport. The girls were well behaved and I think they enjoyed it as well. We'll probably get to read what they think on their blogs in the days to come.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Changes in Teacher Quality

“Between 1983 and 2003, the average percentile rank of those entering teacher education fell from 74 to 61, while the average rank of new teachers fell from 70 to 62.”
How and Why has Teacher Quality Changed in Australia? is a study by Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan that has received considerable publicity in the shock-jock media and when I asked my writing workshop class to reflect on their blogs about teaching and learning (in a similar way to the Year 8 English class I asked the same questions of yesterday) I found that Kate had reflected on this report.

“To be a good teacher I think that they would have to have: the right amount of knowledge about what they’re trying to teach, because yesterday on Today Tonight I found out that the standard of teacher knowledge has dropped significantly, which is appalling and now after less than a generation ago Australia was regarded as one of the smartest countries in the world, and now it is 11th in science and 14th in mathematics. This makes me incredibly angry, that we could have slipped so far when we have all these resources at our fingertips.”

There is a lot to discuss here about critical literacy which we will, of course, but it is interesting that the findings of the report are not, however, publicised to the same extent in any of these media.
“We believe that both the fall in average teacher pay, and the rise in pay differentials in non-teaching occupations are responsible for the decline in the academic aptitude of new teachers over the past two decades.”
I don’t know how many current teachers would say that they were working for the salary; rather I think the ones that stay are there for less tangible benefits but benefits none the less. In looking at this class’s reflections there is the usual wish list for teachers that are fair and fun but also something I didn’t expect to be there as much, and that is a respct for the job that teachers are doing.There’s quite a lot of understanding expressed as well as humour:
“There isn’t just one type of good teacher, and I think that’s what makes a teacher good, they aren’t the same as all other teachers, and the experiences that you have in your classes with your maths teacher are different to those that you have with your R.E teacher. A good teacher is individual…and sometimes they give lollies…"
Keep dreaming, Annie!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Students' thoughts on teachers

"What are good teachers like? What qualities do they have? What does it mean to be a good learner? What are qualities of good students? What expectations do you have of this class? What expectations do you have of me as your teacher? What does it mean to have a good learning environment? I recently read Smiths 9th Grade honours class blog and was interested in what her students were saying. I would love to know what you think. "
This is the blog entry I posted to the year 8 class blog this morning and I was interested in what the students posted as their reflections on this topic. Many students saw the questions as just one more thing they had to do and simply answered the questions in as few words as possible, but others were a bit more reflective:
Gracie wrote: "Teachers would have to have people skills, knowledge, caring, and helpfulness, anger management, compassionate and persistence. I think kids should become more respectful of there teachers because being a teacher is a very hard and tiring job." Right on, Gracie! Fun was mentioned in many posts as was listening: students wanted the teachers to listen to the students but also thought that students should listen to the teacher. Hannah writes concisely about what she thinks and mentions that teachers should not bring their home problems to class, in other words she expects professionalism. So do I. She also reflects that if students are wagging it would be a sign that the teacher should make their classes more interesting. Fran's post is well worth reading: reflecting on respect and expectations, she writes with passion. I would have to say she gets the blog post of the week for this class, this week.
I should also mention that the students did not have a lot of time to reflect on this one, and I think it would have been better if they had had more time. Some of the brevity of their answers may also be a reflection of the stress the students are under at this time of the year with so many assignments. But I still thought it was good to take some time out to reflect on why we are here.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

New Year 11 English Study Design

This term we have been trialling aspects of the new study design which becomes mandatory next year. The normal features of English study persist; “Reading and Responding” to texts in Area of Study 1 (AOS 1) which has the regular study of texts like novels, films, plays, short stories and poetry that you would expect in an English study. The new Area of Study that has been added is called “Creating and Presenting” (AOS 2). This means the students are to create texts of different forms for different purposes, audiences and contexts and to:

* examine the effects of these elements on the creator’s choice of structure and language
* engage in a creating process which includes planning reviewing and editing.

This is obviously a development of the old writing folio but integrated both with texts and with metalanguage and critical literacy. Because the range of texts that the students use is based on a context such as “Exploring and Presenting themes and ideas”, “Exploring technology and communication”, and “Exploring workplace communication”, some teachers I have heard have dismissed this new way of looking at text and composition with “it’s the old themes resurrected again”, but this is to overlook what is new, and the opportunities given by the study of critical literacy in the 21st century when so much of our literacy has to be media savvy literacy. And to complete the study the third are of study is “Using language to persuade” (AOS 3). In this area of study, students focus on the use of language to present a point of view. This too is much broader than the current study design and looks at sound effects, colour, association, symbols, gesture as well as what was studied in the past such as rhetorical language devices.

And so I was really excited when my friend and fellow VATE council member Janet McCurry presented a unit of work and invited us to trial it. What is interesting about this unit is that, in her own words, Janet chooses “to see AOS 2 an integrating link between AOS 1 and AOS 3 i.e. between text response and analysis of the way the features of a text combine to construct meaning and to position the audience to take a particular point of view.” The unit starts with a study of the film text Gattaca, which is then followed by an examination of texts such as news items sourced on the Internet e.g. “Could genetic screening work?”, “The Human Ova Business” and cloning. In the last few weeks there has been a lot in the daily press about stem cell research and the debates in parliament over the ethics and desirability of therapeutic cloning. This has led to lots of interesting discussion and debate. The students are also required to (as Janet says) “write a commentary about their own texts commenting on the ways in its context, audience and purpose helped to shape it. This will mean that the student needs to have a vocabulary with which to describe linguistic structures and features, contextual considerations and available strategies. This vocabulary or metalanguage is relevant to all three AOS and can be developed throughout the study.” This segues beautifully into Area of Study 3, which is much enriched by the work that the students have done in analysing websites such as the League for Life in Manitoba, Repromed and XytexOvations. This was engaging work and integrated well into what some of the students were learning about in Biology.

Overall, I don’t think we did the unit full justice. Here was much that had to be left out due to lack of time as we juggled both the old and new study designs and next time I teach this unit I would like to use more of the resources that Janet put together. It’s given us a lot to think about, students and teachers alike.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Blogging across the curriculum

As I have mentioned before, our school will be starting with a new structure in 2007: a new structure of leadership and a new curriculum. This is caused in part by our school review (which recommended some changes) and in part by the opportunities created by the Victorian Essential Learning Standards. In VELS, unlike the old CSF (Curriculum Standards Frameworks) structure, the emphasis is on integrated learning, making connections across disciplines and foregrounding the education of the whole person and on thinking and communications skills rather than solely the old discipline based learning, along with the ‘hidden curriculum’. This necessarily involves a change in the structures across the school so that new Learning Leaders have been appointed whose job it is to work with the team of teams at a particular year level and integrate the experiences of that year level. There will still be discipline-based leaders and these are called Domain Leaders whose job it is to look at the scope and sequence of a student’s experiences in the discipline over the six years that they are with us. The announcements of the new appointments will be made next Wednesday.

This brings me to the question of “blogging across the curriculum.” Yes, you heard that right. Not maths or literacy across the curriculum but blogging. And why not? In this interview via Will Richardson’s del.icio.us links we hear the author of Culture Convergence: where old and new media collide, Henry Jenkins, of MIT. In a review of the book we read, “Convergence Culture maps a new territory: where old and new media intersect, where grassroots and corporate media collide, where the power of the media producer and the power of the consumer interact in unpredictable ways. And in this interview we hear that “Media literacy is not a class, it's a curriculum.” Jenkins talks about the educational use of games among many other topics and the necessity of being ‘undisciplined’ rather than being trapped in the old discipline boundaries. He sees blogs as “interdisciplinary spaces” which embody a “learner’s total integration of knowledge.”

And here is an example of blogging, which shows just this. The student is one I have mentioned before. Her love of writing and learning is shown throughout her blog. I am so proud that she has called her blog My Year Eight English Experience even though it’s much broader than that. The discipline of English was just her jumping off point, but the learning she is engaged in is truly interdisciplinary. The student from Year 8 has been blogging on her own now, about her learning both in school and out of school and her post "Traumatised Women" is my choice for blog post of the week. Good on you, Zoe.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Writely's back for new users

Writely has just opened again for new users. I've been using it to write my thesis and it's great. It's so easy to use and I can work on it at any computer connected to the intenet and save it. As the front page says:
  • Share documents instantly & collaborate real-time. Pick exactly who can access your documents.
  • Edit your documents from anywhere. Nothing to download -- your browser is all you need.
  • Store your documents securely online. Offsite storage plus data backup every 10 seconds.
  • Easy to use. Clean, uncluttered screens with a familiar, desktop feel.
Definitely very Web 2.0, however you define this term. But it's still in beta so I better save to ny USB drive as well, I think

Saturday, August 12, 2006

English stories rewritten

Some new blogs just posted on the Directory of Australian Edubloggers: Mark Howie has just started (Re)writing English; he says that the "enthusiasm with which other English teachers have embraced blogging as a means of reflective practice is something I have found inspiring." He also quotes Paulo Freire on writing: "If we think about the intimate relationship between reading, writing, and thinking and about our need to intensely experience this relationship, we might accept the suggestion that at least three times a week we should devote ourselves to the task of writing something." How true. His blog is a critique of the "neo-liberalist education narrative" which ranks students into "winners" and "losers". He writes passionately and from an informed postition. Have a read.
The second blog just listed is the related(?) English Stories, which "has been created to provide a central collection of the public stories that are told about the subject English." The creator of this blog hopes "that fellow English teachers might find this blog to be a useful resource, and can use this blog as a place to share comments, insights and opinions on the subject English and its public representation, especially in the media."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Not one of the best lessons

I’ve spent a number of miserable minutes today reflecting on what went wrong with the year eights in class today. I have been so used to this class being engaged and collaborative, willingly sharing ideas and opinions without too much shouting over each other and getting distracted by too much unhelpful thinking. But today? I couldn’t believe it! I always spend time trying to design the lessons with the students in mind and I am very generous in the time I factor in to get something done. But this wasn’t enough for them today. Everything I said about the new undertaking was repeated in a tone of disbelief: another assignment?? five hundred words?? three different sources?? as if what I had said was totally unreasonable. Even though I had said that there was no limit as to how many student did which topic, they started insisting that a certain topic was theirs because they had chosen it first. There was a kind of dull belligerence mixed in with excited shouting and after a while I had had enough. I began to look disappointed and stern. These did not seem the same students as I had been used to. By the end of the lesson I had asked four students to stay behind to find out what was at the bottom of this, but as yet nothing is forthcoming. I did hear, however, that I wasn’t the only teacher to have found a change in the class. Was it something they ate? Is it just their age? I don’t know. But I do know this: that what I did today isn’t going to cut it anymore, we might have to go back to re-establishing some class norms about respect and courtesy, both for their classmates and for me. Looking back over this entry, reading it as if I was an observer, I wonder if it might be something about the way I introduced the new topic, a very interesting research based piece of writing on any disaster. They are to use their research skills together with their imagination and write an account of a disaster from the viewpoint of one of the participants. I have seen this work well in other years, and the quality of the writing has been quite high. I hope this can still work even after today’s debacle. I have them again tomorrow and they’re starting their research in the library so it could be good.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Creating a community of Learners

Even though I've read Will Richardson's book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms at least once, I just picked it up again to dip into, and found this thoughtful idea which is probably obvious, but something I haven't yet done. He says: "...link to the best student posts and ideas in the class blog. This is a very important habit to form. When you celebrate good work or use students' unique ideas to drive further discussion, it goes a long way to creating a community of learners." I have an idea that I will be doing that with my two blogging classes, the Year Eight English class and the Reacreating the Writer class in the next posts on those blogs I write.

Teaching texts in Year 12 English

We are looking to choose some new texts to study in Year 12 next year. The teachers are all frantically reading the texts on the list to make suitable choices and we are having a film night at school to look at a couple of films together and discuss them. The films we will be looking at are Ray Lawrence's Lantana and Sarah Watt's Look Both Ways (both Australian films) and a few novels, including Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows, Larissa Behrendt's Home and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. As regular readers would know, I love The Kite Runner and I have just finished Home which I also think would be very worthwhile to study. It is a gripping story and very wide ranging. But unfortunately it is not all about me. We have to choose novels that the students find accessible and satisfying, that the teachers feel are compelling, thought-provoking, enjoyable and with literary merit but I think that somehow, in the way we always do, we will find such texts to study from the list that the VCAA puts out. If you are an English teacher, what novels, stories, film, plays, poetry do you teach with students in their final year of high school?

Literature circles in Year 12?

It is a Year 12 English class and the text is The Wife of Martin Guerre. The stakes are high, exams are just weeks away and we really have to get this essay writing under our belts. We have to be confident and fearless in our approach to the text and the topic, and most of all we have to have our own voice on the novel, our own interpretation. We have to show that we have mulled over the text and wrestled with it to make meaning. In other years, and with other students, I have stood there at the front of the room, leading the students through this process and I have felt fairly sure that there are teachers throughout the country in classrooms doing precisely that.
But not me, not this year. After several years of implementing Literature Circles in various literature classrooms over the last three years and wrestling in my own way with the pedagogical implications of constructivism and the role of student talk in students making meaning from texts with each other, I just found myself doing this with the year 12s. I didn’t consciously think that that’s what I was doing; I didn’t call it that in my head, but when it came to giving the students experience in planning text response questions on the novel, it just naturally fell out that way.
“Form groups of three” I said, in the manner of a magician about to perform a trick. The students moved reluctantly. When they were in distinct groups, I gave out sheets of paper with six essay topics on the text and set each group to work on one of the topics. I also handed out a sheet of A3 paper per group. “Now let's make a plan for the topic as a group,” I said, “You need to come up with your contention as a group, the first sentence of your introduction and three or four reasons for your contention. Then write the topic sentences for your paragraphs and include some appropriate quotes.”
I went on, “You will be presenting your for your class next lesson.” I listened to the buzz of conversation. I heard Bertrande, Arnaud and Martin being referred to knowledgably. I heard references to the nature of the feudal society and its implications. The students were using vocabulary they had been exposed to in the course of reading and discussing the novel in class. And then I realised what I was trying to do in using this pedagogical strategy in the study of a literary text in a Year 12 class. All that I had learnt and reflected on in the last years was being honed in this class and the learning the students were doing was apparent. The intensity of the work they were doing on a Friday afternoon would not have been matched in individual work and, even worse, listening to a teacher up at the front of the room would have robbed them of the satisfaction of doing it themselves. Students learning, especially in Year 12 is inherently social, and this bit of learning is one I will not forget.

Inconvenient truth at the Melbourne Film Festival

Last night I went along to the Melbourne International Film Festival at the Regent Theatre to watch Al Gore’s compelling slide show on global warming made into a documentary by Davis Guggenheim. It is, as Gore says “a moral issue”, and the film should be seen widely. It left me asking questions such as what more can we do. Raising awareness about the urgency of the issue is the least we can do. A few edubloggers (including Chris Lehmann) are commenting on this and as George Couros says: “I would suggest that ALL people see this movie, no matter what your political beliefs are; it is important to learn about what we are doing to a place that has done so much for us.” Hear, hear.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The audience is up to something

Found this via … well I just don’t know. Somewhere in my feeds was the pointer to this little gem. “The Audience is up to Something” is a great video by Peter Hirshberg of Technorati, and Michel Markman that has been uploaded to YouTube by Michel and is now up on Chris Anderson’s blog. I could see it as a really engaging way of introducing Year 9s to the study of media, advertising and critical literacy.