Category Archives: teaching

The ‘teacher’ in ‘teacher librarian’

Earlier this week, through Twitter, I became acquainted with Lisa Hinchliffe, Professor/Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an affiliate faculty member in the university’s library school.

While perusing her writing, this paragraph resonated with me:

Careful consideration to constructing the learning environment and not only focusing on teacher performance has been a mantra for my instructional design practice since then.

This is a very interesting area of investigation for me as a teacher librarian. When people ask me where I work and I say Melbourne High School, they assume I’m a teacher and when I say I’m a teacher librarian, they say, oh, you’re in the library, as if I’m in a box, maybe like a music box that, when opened, keeps the ballerina firmly attached to her space, rotating clockwise only to one tune – definitely not a teacher, not a real one anyway.

Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact, because (and I feel like telling them this, but it’s too long and sounds defensive), my role is just as integrated in education as a teacher’s only it’s more diverse and doesn’t necessarily play out as the teacher at the front of the class which the teacher owns.

Everything I do is connected with the teaching and learning that happens in the school: I work across the curriculum, I teach transferable, global skills, I create curricular content and educational resources online, and I depend on collaboration with teachers and students. Nothing useful would eventuate if I didn’t collaborate – that is, have conversations, come into classes, watch how teachers teach, watch how students learn, etc. If I didn’t do that, if I didn’t have that insight and developing understanding, then my work would be detached from the work of teachers and learning of students, and I would be exactly what most people think I am – in a world of my own, the library world, ‘not doing any work’, as some teachers like to joke (it’s getting tired).

Of course, the big one in terms of being accepted as a real teacher is that you assess student work and write reports – and that’s sad because teachers’ talents do not reside in this tiresome task.  It’s sad that the marking becomes the overriding signature of teaching.

So, big rave, but ‘teacher performance’ is what most people equate with ‘teaching’ and ‘being a teacher’. If I don’t ‘teach class on my own’, if I’m not standing there talk-teaching, then I’m not a teacher; I must be a librarian.

Sigh.

‘The learning environment’ that Lisa mentions is really something that I’m interested in unpacking, and I think I’m in the position of understanding it well because of my whole-school involvement with teaching and learning.

All teachers know well that learning happens everywhere, anytime and not just in the classroom during the class. I have a form this year, for the first time, and I try to inject as much learning (in the broadest sense) as possible in those 10 minute daily sessions. The blog that I started for my students is a virtual time-capsule which I hope they’ll appreciate once they leave school. It’s a mish-mash of photos of students, recorded interviews with them, short panel sessions about what they think, whiteboard surveys of inane content, interspersed with creative short films and animation, gifs, memes (whatever I think they might respond to), and some academic guidelines along the lines of study skills and sharing of our online resources for some of their subjects. Mostly the blog is an experiment, and the main aim is to create community, to let them know I care about them, not just their academic pursuits, hopefully support them when they do something they’re proud of, enable them to support each other.

The ‘learning environment’ is exactly what the library is about. Of course, the whole school is a learning environment but the library is a more concentrated one.  Unlike classrooms which are utilised by specific teachers and classes, the library is the space for everyone – across age groups, academic levels, and curriculum. It designs its space and purpose very carefully, in response to the needs of its users, never static, always acting on ongoing reflection and observation, experimenting.

The word ‘library’ has been contentious for a long time – some prefer ‘learning commons’, some ‘media centre’, others insist the traditional ‘library’ is still the most apt name. Perhaps. It does come with a lot of baggage, but then new words acquire the baggage over time. In the past I was annoyed when ‘library’s’ main connotation was a space for books but these days I doubt that anyone would have that limited view for either school or public library. Both are open, welcoming spaces and both are synonymous with learning.

It’s the ‘teaching’ part which is more difficult to insert. I’ve pulled out two quotes from Lisa’s powerpoint (linked from her blog post):

“Teaching: Any activity that has the conscious intention of and potential for facilitating learning in others”.  Robert Leamonson

“Good teaching is the creation of those circumstances that lead in significant learning in others”. Donald L. Finkel in ‘Teaching With Your Mouth Shut’.

It’s time to broaden our understanding of ‘teaching’. Only then can the ‘teacher’ in ‘teacher librarian’ begin to be understood.

Constant Moyaux (French, 1835–1911)
View of Rome from the Artist’s Room at the Villa Medici, 1863
Watercolor on paper

 

Do learners need teachers? A reflection

Last year one of our teachers, at that time an assistant principal, surveyed some of our senior students about how they learn, who they learn from, and the role of their teachers in their learning.

His survey, in a nutshell, demonstrated that ‘they don’t need us’. They have their tutors and they come to class but do not participate in class discussion because they don’t want to admit they are tutored and in some cases far ahead.  Not all students, but a large number of them.

So I wonder why, after being accepted into the much-coveted selective Melbourne High School,  they continue to be tutored. Isn’t this a lack of confidence in their teachers? Where does most of their learning take place?

Our students are competitive; in many cases they choose their tutor – the one who apparently ‘will get them a 50′. There is no self-directed learning in this relationship – they believe tutors will somehow get them the final ranking they aspire to. There is an implied process that, if followed and supported by the experienced tutor, will result in a top mark. These students are tutor-focused; I see how often they talk to their tutor on their phones in the library during their study periods. I guess they would be chatting to them even more frequently after school hours.

While they are focusing on their tutored work – occasionally even asking their teachers to help them with work their tutors have set -something else happens – it is the absence of these students from class. Students are sometimes physically and/or mentally absent from class because they don’t value a particular subject as much as other subjects, or they are in the library studying for their most important subjects. From year 9 onwards, students sometimes have already decided which subjects they will select in VCE  and which are not part of that plan.

Teachers are frustrated by absences, students’ failure to do assignments and homework, or lack of engagement when this happens. And with good reason; they have prepared interesting, engaging lessons and have much to give to their students. Focusing on more than marks, teachers try to engage their students in the learning itself, and that kind of learning takes shape in passionate collaborative conversations, healthy debate, critical thinking and reflection, deep reading and a writing process which evolves after feedback and review.

We talk about lifelong learning. In my conversation with teachers at school, I guess that our teachers realise that our students need to drive their own learning so that they prepared for higher education and life. I’m not sure, though, if our school system is designed to prepare them for this. I’m also not sure that our boys’ parents understand how much more important this is than helping them achieve the highest ATAR. I probably fell into that category myself when my two sons were at school. I understood the value of lifelong learning but was more concerned that their final VCE ranking enabled them to get into their preferred courses.  I may have thought that learning habits would fall into place once they got into their preferred tertiary courses. Maybe the two don’t play well together  – working for the high ATAR and delving into deeper learning and developing literacies. After all, in our school at least, the quest for the gold ATAR begins when the students arrive in year 9.

Lifelong learning. Funny how these catch-phrases somehow become meaningless. We know what the term means but I wonder if we are tied up with abstract notions more than getting our hands dirty.

I was reading Audrey Watters’ article, ‘Roaming Autodidacts and Entrepreneurial (L)Earners: The stories we tell about lifelong learning.’

In general, Americans do believe that lifelong learning is important, so it’s not that surprising that hyperbolic narratives about the future of learning are appealing to us.

‘Hyperbolic narratives’  – yes, I’ve fallen for these. They are so uplifting – temporarily – but they don’t always fit into the everyday reality in schools/higher education. As we constantly rewrite curriculum, exchanging definitions over the years to come back full circle, do we really have the time to build a deep understanding of the terms in our curriculum mapping and policies? Is all the rewriting and re-defining as useful as it could be or should we just get on with the business of teaching? And if so, could teachers spend more time engaging  students in the learning that inspired them in the first place, the learning that was responsible for them becoming teachers – than preparing them for exams and marking all their work?

 

Teaching a highly able (possibly gifted) cohort – Dr Toni Meath on differentiation and personalised learning

The final session I attended on our first day back to term 2 – a Select Entry Schools Professional Learning Day – was presented by Dr Toni Meath, principal of The Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, on ‘differentiation and personalising learning for the unique cohort of academic select entry schools’.

Brief: This presentation will provide a perspective on understanding the needs of gifted learners. Meath will put forward that to meet the wellbeing, curriculum and pedagogical needs of gifted learners educators must reflect upon how they personalise and differentiate the learning within a culture of trust present in both the school and the classroom.

Two things jumped out for me in this brief – wellbeing and trust. A focus on wellbeing is obviously an important one  when we consider students and their learning holistically.  Trust is an essential component of a healthy and happy cohort. Both are necessary for academic success.

Dr Meath started by saying that we needed to first believe that there is such a thing as a gifted/highly able child. I’m not sure about the choice of word, ‘believe’, which sounds a bit like blind faith, but I agree that we need to do the research to understand and be convinced that gifted/highly able students exist and have specific learning needs just as, at the other end of the spectrum, students need appropriate support.  In my experience of giftedness an understanding of the affective development is also important.  Dr Meath explained that  our intervention as teachers is based on contemporary knowledge of the brain which proves that although giftedness is recognisable in very young children, it is not fixed from birth. It’s important we understand how our students learn best so that we can support and enhance their learning and allow them to develop their potential.

Creating a culture of trust in the classroom is the first step to supporting students’ learning, and I liked Dr Meath’s point that good teachers remove their ego in order to allow their students to fly. She reminded us that some of our students would no doubt surpass us in our knowledge and understanding of the subject content. It makes sense – and not just in a gifted school. In my opinion, there is no place for insecurity in teachers or an insistence on hierarchy which only results in a power struggle in the classroom. I’m not saying that I’ve achieved this but I continue to remind myself that respect is the preferred attitude to students; wielding power will make students defensive and resentful.

Fixed and growth mindset were discussed by Dr Meath as well as by keynote speaker, Dan Haesler.  Dr Meath identified Carol Dweck, psychologist and a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, in terms of her work around growth mindset. I found the TED talk:

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?

It’s an interesting idea to replace the fail or N with ‘not yet’, and I like Carol’s reasoning:

if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade “Not Yet”you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.

This is important information (from the transcript):

Scientists measured the electrical activity from the brain as students confronted an error. On the left, you see the fixed mindset students. There’s hardly any activity. They run from the error. They don’t engage with it. But on the right, you have the students with the growth mindset, the idea that abilities can be developed. They engage deeply. Their brain is on fire with yet. They engage deeply. They process the error. They learn from it and they correct it.

Just the words “yet” or “not yet,” we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter.

Dan Haesler spoke about this experiment with the 2 groups of students that Carol talks about here:

Look what happened: in this study, students who were not taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades over this difficult school transition, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades. We have shown this now, this kind of improvement, with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students.

High achieving students deserve the same amount of support and encouragement to push out of their comfort zone as any other students. Sadly this doesn’t always happen in mixed ability schools because they might be perceived as already ‘being there’ with nowhere to go. How annoying it must be to be judged with a fixed mindset as being ‘smart’ and therefore not deserving of teaching or stretching. It’s also offensive not to recognise the effort put in by ‘smart’ students and instead to assume that everything they achieve is without effort.

Dr Meath asked ‘how often are students just marking time?’ I’m hoping that this happens much less in selective schools but who knows? I still remember how agonising it was for me in early primary school (and must have been equally for others) when I could already read, and had to sit silently and still while the teacher chose struggling readers to read aloud from our annual prescribed reader. Maybe it was easier for me to sit still and daydream the time away than others and of course I was determined to ‘be good’ but how boring it was! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had read the whole reader within the first few days and had nowhere to go after that. This was in the 1960s and in my school at least we were not offered library books although I did go to the public library with my mother. Things have improved a great deal since then in terms of differentiation for early reading and let’s hope schools hold onto their libraries, teacher librarians and library staff.

Dr Meath also talked about Flow Theory (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) in relation to learning at school and emphasized the combination of high challenge, high support and high success . I’ve included the TED talk and a link to the transcript.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, being in the flow is the ultimate in focused intrinsic motivation.

Dr Meath gave a good overview of what teachers should look into more deeply when thinking about how best to teach a gifted and talented cohort. I enjoyed her positive approach and confidence in teaching success based on a good knowledge of educational theories. It was refreshing for me because her view was crystal clear and her faith in what could be done for our select student cohort was absolute. Her students and school are testament to her success in putting theories into practice.

Anyone who has read my posts knows that I have more questions than assured answers but I suppose that’s the way I work through things. I have criticised the VCE as a system that sometimes seems to churn out test-taking students with a focus is on the final ATAR if they want to succeed and move on to their chosen careers. That isn’t to say that I can’t see the wonderful learning environments created by teachers but I also see how teachers’ passion is dissipated by increasing numbers of professional requirements and data charts to prove they are teaching properly. In my work as teacher librarian I’m not fighting the system but in small ways I ‘rebel’ by quietly colouring outside the lines – by taking student writing out of the classroom through blogging, encouraging the development of personal voice in writing rather than focusing on grammar and spelling (and believe me, I am a big fan of grammar and spelling), even by trying to take students out of their comfort zone through exposure to articles or images that make them stop and think.

I came across an old post written by Sean Michael Morris entitled ‘Schools needn’t fail’ (2007) and he talks about how over time he changed the way he ‘ignored’ the system in order to teach honestly.

When I originally started this blog, I started with a pretty self-important diatribe against the systemization of education, especially in the form of standardized testing, rubrics, and the like. I find myself wanting to return to that discussion again.

On the other hand, I feel the urge to exactly ignore that discussion, because ultimately it leads to an us-against-the-administration discussion, or a persistent feeling of hopelessness, futility, and desperation. Because I did not get into teaching to feel desperate, nor to feel oppressed by or to battle the administration (hey, I am the administration), I hesitate to the point of intentional inertia to enter that discussion.

Spot on. What is the point of fighting the system if it makes us feel hopeless, oppressed, and if it leads to inertia?  Morris goes on to talk about ‘any centre of power’.

Regardless of a subject’s posture, though, the center is reaffirmed: slide toward it and you acknowledge its power, rebel against it and you do the same thing. Protesting the government reaffirms the power of the federal administration; leaving in frustration a teaching post does nothing to dismantle the school.

So how does one ignore the power of the school?

Morris provides an example of how one of his favourite teachers did this very thing:

One of my favorite high school teachers was a certain Mrs. Meyerle, who taught me the five-paragraph essay. She used a couple of class days to explain the reasoning behind the form, told us we’d rarely actually write in it, and then moved quickly on to helping us discover what it was we wanted to write about. She fulfilled the expectations of the curriculum in as little time as possible, trusting entirely in our ability to master it quickly, and then, almost without missing a beat, kept the actual learning happening.

Morris describes how he teaches English/Composition:

I refuse to give tests (and now, as chair of my program, have removed them from all our online templates), and deny fervently and repeatedly that there is a correct way to write. Instead, I lead students through a process of ideation, creation, and revision. I let them explore their own authorities (both over their ideas and their words), and give them lots and lots of room to make mistakes.

Of course, as Chair, Morris has more autonomy than the classroom teacher in a school but I have no doubt his teaching is very similar to that of many teachers whose focus is generating passion and engagement in their students which goes beyond ticking the boxes of what is required by the department.

And so, in highlighting the passion of the teacher in creating a stimulating learning environment, I’m back to trust which is surely one of the first, most important, things to be established between teacher and students as well as between the students themselves, so that students feel free to be themselves and challenge themselves at school. Morris quotes Jonathan Kozol:

“Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text … Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 15).

I know I’m over-quoting Morris but let me finish this long, rambling post with his words:

There is no standardization around merriment and hopeful expectations. There is no rubric for fascination. But these are human things, removed from the power struggle of “schooliness” (thank you, Clay), and they are more important than measurable skills to a life spent learning.

 

Our recent focus on giftedness and differentiation. So many unanswered questions.

This was retweeted by Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) by keesa v (@keesav) on Twitter.

At school we’ve been looking at giftedness and differentiation. Our leading teachers (Curriculum and Professional Development) have spoken about giftedness in a staff meeting and we have met in our faculty teams with the other inner city schools (‘City Edge’) – namely, Mac.Robertson Girls’, University High School, Melbourne Girls’, Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, Princes Hill Secondary College and Albert Park College – to discuss differentiation.

Being locked into differentiation within the library context has left me with a sense of dissatisfaction and many questions about the definition of giftedness and differentiation. I often feel that, coming from teaching to the library, I still think like a teacher and not so much like a librarian but I know also that there is no universal ‘teacher’ or ‘teacher librarian’ so I try to acknowledge my individual perspective as a positive thing.

The most basic question about giftedness – What is giftedness – remains a mystery to me. As Melbourne High School has been identified as a school with some experience of teaching the gifted – since we have a high achieving cohort – we are apparently somehow authoritative in this area of pedagogy. I find this problematic since we typically have what I would describe as hard working students (on the whole), certainly with many intelligent and talented amongst the cohort.  Are they gifted? Some present as gifted – which means we recognise giftedness in them without having tested them. Our school attracts students who want to achieve a high score in their final VCE year and typically work hard towards this before entering the school in year 9 and throughout years 9-12.  Does this mean we cast a wide net and catch the gifted kids amongst the hard working ones? Perhaps. Do we miss gifted kids for various reasons eg. they don’t do well in tests, they are not interested in perfecting their testing skills, they are not interested in going to a highly competitive school? Perhaps. Do traditional IQ tests miss giftedness in the Arts: visual art, music, performing; creativity across disciplines?

Many students are trained early to do well in selective entry examinations. As Alice Pung states in her article The secret life of them: What it takes to shift class in Australia,  

There are now hundreds of such colleges around Australia, dedicated to drilling students in the skills needed to win scholarships to private schools, to get into selective state schools like MacRobertson or North Sydney Boys High, or to gain admission to state schools’ SEAL programs. These coaching colleges do not require any form of certification from state educational departments and are free to set their own curricula.

When my sons were very young I taught in one of these coaching colleges so that I could work weekends. Like Tina of Pung’s article, I found it ‘soul-crushing’.

“The scholarship classes I took were soul-crushing,” says Tina. “A coaching college! Dude, there are five-year-olds walking around that place. What are you possibly coaching them?” Still, Tina muses: “I am yet to meet an Asian child who doesn’t do some form of consistent tutoring.”

Less about learning (curiosity, inquiry, experimentation, collaboration…) and more about cramming disconnected fragments of information, I admit doing it for the money only. I taught primary and secondary English and Maths according to a strict script and at a frantic pace. I still remember a gorgeous Indian girl in my grade 2 class, after an hour of maths work, asking me if it was time to go home yet. I had to tell her that it wasn’t even half time.

Of course we don’t teach like that at our school but we do have students (and parents) whose concept of education is narrowly shaped by the cramming model, and whose learning resides in practice, practice and more practice.  So if we are a school known for ‘producing’ high ATARs, if we are locked into the VCE system where the focus is not on the process of learning but the final numerical position of the student in comparison to the rest of the state, do we have the time or opportunity to evaluate our teaching programs and our pedagogy?

From the outside I see how much time teachers spend on marking and reporting, and how they struggle to fit what will be tested at the end into the term – especially when so many things disrupt classes. From my privileged position as a teacher librarian who is not responsible for classes’ assessment, I try to persuade teachers to do things differently, eg to create learning communities through shared blogging and to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning supported by their peers – but I fail so many times. I don’t blame the teachers but I’m frustrated by the system.

Student empowerment is surely our focus and not the transfer of information or even skills.  As Ann writes in her post:

As an educator my main aim is creating/maintaining a space for individual empowerment and more importantly giving participants in the learning space the confidence to find the skills, information, and tools they need to feel empowered in society. It is not about imparting one specific nugget of information, a date, a theory, it is about supporting and nurturing that confidence so they can approach society, issues, and questions critically.

I think that teachers need the opportunity to unlearn – stop and reflect on how they are teaching and ask the most basic questions about teaching and learning to evaluate their pedagogy. But stopping to think is not part of the timetable. I’m not sure that times set aside in staff meetings or curriculum days will provide the opportunity for each of us to honestly say what we think. The structured meetings and student-free days have possibly not managed to provide a safe environment or created trust amongst teacher cohorts where they feel they can say what they really think.  Our inner city curriculum day for library staff was enjoyable and a great opportunity to catch up with other school library staff but for me it was still firmly planted in traditional library concerns. Differentiation is a broad term. We shared ways in which the library provided differentiation but it was all about what we do. For me, the basic questions – what is giftedness? what is differentiation? – remain untouched. I think we explored what we already know, what we already do, but we didn’t unpack the concepts to explore further.

So back to assessment.  Some of these ‘theses that work to re-imagine moocs’ are questions we might like to consider in schools also:

  • A course is a conversation, not a static reservoir or receptacle for content. Dave Cormier argues that “curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.” A course is a starting point, a space in which learners can experiment with their agency, discover the complexity of their oppression, and begin to work toward more liberated action.
  • Outcomes should give way to epiphanies -Outcomes tell learners what is important in advance, making the act of learning neat and tidy, while deterring the unexpected and unruly epiphanies that arise organically from within a learning environment. Invention arises from self-governance.
  • Learning should not be structured to conform to assessment mechanisms.

    In truth, learning is not a process that can be structured in advance without first hobbling it, like fitting a body to box by chopping off its limbs. Much goes missing when we remove learning from learners’ hands, and manicure it for ease of instruction. When we ask students to conform their learning to the mechanisms by which we measure it, we are not permitting students to learn, we are asking them to pull the right lever at the right time to the right effect — automatons.

    Assessment is too often the enemy of innovation. Our inability to quantitatively assess something is often in direct proportion to its pedagogical value. The best work confounds us. Because of the rampant culture of assessment that devalues students and their work, we’ve internalized grading as compulsory in education; however, grading is done in many more situations than it is actually demanded.

See the rest of the article here.

So, back to the subject of giftedness. If we confuse giftedness with high achievement, we are in trouble. It might be worth revising the characteristics of giftedness before we start guessing who is gifted and who isn’t. Einstein, Newton, Edison, Tolstoy, Pasteur, Lincoln – these are only some of the notable gifted people throughout history who were not high achievers in school.

Differentiation is an aspect of pedagogy. It’s not just providing extra work or more difficult work for advanced students. I think we should start our conversation about differentiation by looking at learning itself to remind us that our teaching should be built on our understanding of learning. Let’s bring the student to the focus, not the content, the outcome or even teaching itself.

The only answer to the best questions is another question – Michael Wesch

Photo source: Jesse Stommel

The only answer to the best questions is another question – Michael Wesch expressed this in his article Anti-teaching: confronting the crisis of significance (2008).

Michael goes on to say ‘Great questions are rarely asked by students in an education system facing a crisis of significance. Much more common are administrative questions: “How long does this paper need to be?” “Is attendance mandatory?” Or the worst (and most common) of all: “What do we need to know for this test?”

Assuming that we all agree that the above-mentioned questions are a symptom of an education system that has failed our students, what kinds of questions should we ask to propel us into a direction which engages students in learning that is not aimed at marks? 

When marks are the most important goal of education, it follows that there is a right and wrong answer, or at least the answer teachers favour – which is the best way to stand in the way of genuine questioning and meaningful learning.

As a teacher librarian, one of my roles is to support students in the research process. What I don’t think works is presenting the research process as formulaic, a process that is sure to work if you follow the given prompts. Research is more like the behaviour of a detective uncovering truths when following clues. It is a thinking and reasoning path which leads anywhere and everywhere. There is no single path. 

Today I was helping several students who were researching an ‘Old Boy’ who fought and died in the First World War. As one of the tasks within the Civics and Citizenship curriculum, students are given a list of questions to answer about the veteran: What is his name? his rank? When was he born? Where was he buried? and other questions. Sometimes there is no easy way to find the answers to these questions; you have to persevere and think about piecing together what you have found, making connections and intelligent guesses.  

What kind of questions did these students ask me? 

“I’m finding conflicting information – what should I do?” “What is the right answer?” What do you think I should write?”

The learning here is not just about the veterans and the war, it is also about the nature of research, it is about the critical process in discovering information. It’s about developing the confidence to make conclusions based on the collected data, and it’s about understanding what you need to find out, and finding the language to express your uncertainty when you ask for help. 

I’m completely comfortable admitting I don’t know the right answers with certainty. I usually tell the students that I trust their instincts and that they’re heading in the right direction, that there are many questions that lead the research. In preparing our students for tertiary study, we need to remind them that research will always be difficult, and that it’s okay to feel confused and disheartened when facing a great unknown. Learning is process; let’s not forget the process.

 

 

 

What’s been happening – term 3 has been a busy one

I’m not the only one remarking on the lapses between blog posts. The blog is no longer the main platform for sharing and communicating – there is a long, long list of online places which need to be fed and looked after – for me that includes other blogs, Twitter, Pinterest, Scoop.it, Diigo, Slideshare, Vimeo, Libguides, Facebook and all its groups, and more. So I thought I’d drop in and do a quick update on what may be worth checking out in case it’s helpful or even interesting.

My school library blog has been keeping up with reading ambassadors for the National Year of Reading (#nyor12). These short and informal interviews are a pleasure to read, and reveal thoughtful responses to reading preferences. We’ve also recently celebrated 2012 Book Week with a hugely enjoyable ‘party’ in the library. I’ve included photos I think you’ll enjoy of our costume and cake competitions so that’s definitely worth checking out. This is the first Book Week celebration I’ve attended at Melbourne High School since I started a year ago, and it was fantastic. I was so impressed by the willingness of staff and students to dress up and play the part. The creativity displayed in our book-themed cake competition added a gastronomical dimension – who can resist cake? Yes, we did go on a bit about the cakes looking too good to eat but it didn’t last long.

I’ve been having such a good time resourcing the art curriculum in the last few months. My art blog churns out a diverse selection of inspiration to art students and teachers (I hope). This includes images, photography, design and animation.

Our students explored links to websites with antiquated encyclopedia images to create their ‘transformations’ which I combined in a slide show. The reduced image size doesn’t do justice to the details in the students’ work, so have a look at larger ones in Mihaela’s new art blog.

Yes! Our head of art now has a blog, and so do her students. This term our year 9s and 10s were lucky enough to get iPads, so we decided to get them to create Posterous blogs which we linked to Mihaela’s ‘mother blog’ and encouraged them to start snapping away with their iPad cameras so that they could develop a store of visual inspiration for their work. The beauty of a mobile device is the opportunity to capture photos as you go about your everyday activities. I’ve found the best images are the unexpected ones. I was inspired to get the art students blogging when I saw my dear friend, Marie Salinger’s, student blogs. Marie’s students have realised the rich potential of blogs in terms of journalling, reflecting, evaluating and just plain sharing. A blog is visual, it’s sequential, easy to access online and share with others; it invites responses and conversation. In her Visual Arts blog, Marie has reflected about the way in which iPads have enriched learning for her girls. The way Marie’s students used their blog to experiment with and evaluate iPad apps for drawing, then share with others, inspired me to talk to Mihaela about doing the same. Consequently I went into obsessive mode and lived and breathed art and apps for a couple of weeks, adding an Art Apps page in our LibGuides, my art blog, Pinterest, Flickr and Diigo.

Robot I am Apps used: Blender Pixeltwist                 (iphoneart.com)

Recently a dedicated team of students from the co-curricular group, Writing Competition, successfully wrote a book in a day. They had to collaboratively write at least 8,000 words and illustrate their story. The whole thing had to be done within 12 hours. I was very proud of the way they managed to work together and fuse their ideas and talents to produce a fantasy story for the Children’s Hospital. I hope to be able to share their book once I check the copyright.

Well, that’s it for now. Hope some of this has been useful to you.

Thinking about teaching writing in a connected world

Image found here

The eye is naturally drawn to things you’ve been thinking about. So it was for me last night when I was browsing my Twitter feed and came across Susan Carter Morgan‘s retweet of Angela Stockman‘s link to her article The questions we ask when we begin to teach writing on the WNY Young Writers’ Studio  website. Angela asks:

“Is it possible to teach writing well if your students aren’t aware of what’s possible now? If they aren’t publishing online?”

An interesting question. Although I hadn’t exactly been phrasing it as specifically as this, I’ve been wondering about the task of teaching writing at a time when our publishing options are so many and varied; wondering whether we’re doing our students a disservice if we continue to teach writing the way we were taught. I mean without recognizing the opportunities for a broader, online audience. I’ve been rabbiting on about this for quite some time.

I also wonder why we are still predominantly text-centered with regard to storytelling options when there are so many other options for storytelling, particularly with the new digital possibilities.

“Composing isn’t just about text anymore.”

And it isn’t. That’s not to say it’s any less important to teach textual writing but there are so many other things to consider. If our students are reading stories online, enjoying graphic novels, following and creating stories in virtual worlds, then shouldn’t we be exploring these new forms of narrative with our students?

There’s a mounting list of technological applications which enable and enhance storytelling. These options incorporate visual and digital literacies, amongst others, but writing is still the crux, that is, creating plot, characters, setting. The story itself, is still a matter of writing. As Angela states:

“I don’t focus on genre or the writing itself at first either. I find myself asking questions about who the writers are, what kind of difference they want to make with their words, and for who.”

“When my grandmother died, she left behind her childhood journals and a whole bunch of letters,” someone mentions to me quietly. “Seeing her handwriting helps me hear her voice. It keeps her alive.” And I appreciate this. I know that when I look at my daughter’s blog and when I skim through her Flickr stream or her Facebook updates, I experience the same feeling. For me, it isn’t about the ink. But I’m not the only audience the writers I work with will have. In fact, one thing I do know for certain is that if I’m doing my job right, they won’t be writing for me—they’ll be writing for other people, and their purposes and the tools they will use to connect with them will vary. As a teacher, what I think and what I need doesn’t matter at all. It’s all about the writer.”

I wrote about something similar in a post a long time ago when I found my grandmother’s old autograph book, remarking:

The autograph book demonstrates a lovely collection of shared sentiments, but at the same time, this generation is collaborating in newly found ways to create.

The tools are always secondary to what is being created. Angela says:

“Our first task is to connect writers to themselves, their needs, their vision for the difference they will make, and their ideas. Who do they want to move with their writing? What is the best way to accomplish this? What’s possible, given the range and access of tools that are available today?” (my emphasis)

Trying out blogging as a platform with year 9 students has shifted something seminal to successful and convincing writing. I was nodding when I read Angela’s words:

“My work involves helping writers develop and share their own. What they are writing has to matter to them. It also has to matter to someone else. Otherwise, they will not persevere as writers. It’s as simple as that. School teachers can force kids to write by threatening them with failing grades. Fortunately, we don’t have that awful luxury at Studio, and I’m grateful for this. It keeps us honest. It keeps our writing real. It helps us persevere.”

In her excellent article Remaining seated: lessons learned by writing Judith M. Jester advises teachers to write if they’re teaching writing.

“As a teacher of writing, I consider writing to
be one of the most important things I can do for
my kids. I need to put myself in their place on a
continual basis so that I more fully understand
what I am asking them to do. How can I know
what difficulties they face if I don’t face them, too?
How will I know what strategies to suggest if I
have not tried them first? How will I know the
joy they experience when they are genuinely
pleased with a draft if I have not felt the same joy?”

It’s a shame that teachers are so busy teaching, assessing and writing reports that they don’t have time to do what they teach. Judith is passionate about the teacher modelling writing:

“What they fail to understand is that they will produce better writers if they pick up a pen for something more than evaluation. If they do, they will learn far more about teaching writing than any instructor’s manual can ever tell them.”

I’m not sure that teachers have much of an opportunity to do much more than keep up with teaching their classes, correcting work and writing reports. The expectation of schools, of a curriculum which drives teachers and students towards the final assessments in senior years so that students enter tertiary institutions of their choice – does this allow much room for senior school teachers to choose between what they want to do and what they must do?

The article gives food for thought. Judith writes about the power of process, the power of feedback, the power of audience, the power of modeling, the power of thinking. Definitely worth reading and thinking about.

Wouldn’t it be nice if teachers’ lives were balanced to allow time for themselves – to think, to try things out, to model what they teach, to alleviate the relentless pressure and give them some space just to be. Teachers should be nurtured as learners too, not just have their last juices squeezed out of them.

Image found here.

Hello, anybody out there? Writing for someone

Somehow I managed to create a visual presentation in the period before coming into a Year 9 English class to talk to the boys about blogging. My focus was on the motivation for writing and the reason why you would want to write a blog. I wanted the students to think about people writing from earliest times, what motivated people to write so that others would read. Whether it’s the love message scratched onto a tree or the messages on the back of a toilet door – or on Facebook – people seem to want others to read what they have to say. I told the boys that when I was their age, in order to have your writing in print, you had to either be super talented or important, or perhaps succeed in having your letter to the editor make the local paper. Not so anymore – we can all be published online and enjoy the satisfaction of audience participation through comments.

I’m sharing the visual part of this lesson in case anyone else finds it useful.

[googleapps domain=”docs” dir=”present/embed” query=”id=dcb397dn_157f26fq4dh” width=”410″ height=”342″ /]

21 signs you’re a 21st century teacher

Yes, the phrase (is it a definition?) 21st century teacher has been bandied about and annoys some people, but whatever you want to call it, shouldn’t we all, as educators, use this checklist to check our relevance? Or at the very least, we could evaluate these checkpoints to determine whether we judge them to be important in the scheme of our work as educators.

As a teacher librarian I can only do these things if I find a willing teacher with a class. Not much you can do without a class – a one-off lesson doesn’t make a great deal of difference. Some of the things I have done with classes include:

  • Your students work on collaborative projects…with students in Finland/USA.
  • You share lesson plans with your teacher friends…from around the globe. Most teachers don’t see the point of sharing. Sorry, I don’t want to sound critical, but I’m talking about those I know both in my own school and colleagues in my city. I say, try it, and see how much more satisfying teaching becomes. What you get back is amazing. Not to mention valuable connections with other educators. Start a PLN!!
  • Your classroom budget is tight…but it doesn’t matter because there are so many free resources on the web you can use. Yes, there is so much out there. I collect it, share it, promote it, but don’t often have any takers. What’s the problem? Teachers are too busy, too content-driven, too VCE-focused (not their fault), too afraid, too put off by technology not working. All valid reasons, I’m not knocking teachers, but from my perspective, I’m always thinking about how I can make a difference here.
  • You realize the importance of professional development…and you read blogs, join online communities, and tweet for self development. Oh yes, definitely, perhaps compulsively. Love it. Highly recommend it. Does it eat into you personal life? It becomes your life.
  • Your students share stories of their summer vacation…through an online photo repository. Yes, one of my classes used Flickr to share aspects of their life with classes in Finland/USA
  • You showcase your students’ original work…to the world.  This is something I feel strongly about. Authentic audience, global sharing. Students love receiving comments from people outside the school. Whatever I create, I make sure it’s out there for everyone. I’m proud of what I/we do.
  • You have your morning coffee…while checking your RSS feed. What do you think I did before writing this post. The rest of my family are still asleep. Yes, I know, I’m nuts.

Some of these have given me ideas –

  • You give weekly class updates to parents…via your blog (I have documented class activity in blogs, but haven’t gone the step further to sharing with parents. What a great idea.
  • Your students participate in class…by tweeting their questions and comments. (I would love to do this but I’m not sure about permissions. Fear of social media is still prevalent at school. I think this needs education.
  • You ask your students to study and create reports on a controversial topic…and you grade their video submissions. (Teachers have begun to offer videos as presentation options, but a consistent assessment rubric would be a good idea, and there is still the feeling that writing is most important as this is what is assessed in year 12. Videos are okay in middle years but after that teachers start to get nervous, understandably. We need an assessment revolution.
  • You prepare substitutes with detailed directions…via Podcasts. What a great idea! Yesterday I was talking to a teacher from another school who records his corrections as podcasts. I love that. And I think it would be less laborious than squeezing everything you want to say in the margins.
  • Your students create a study guide…working together on a group wiki. Another great idea! I’ve seen nings allow students to discuss essay topics and texts so that ideas and content are developed collaboratively. I might search for examples of study guide wikis to see what these look like. Any suggestions?
  • You visit the Louvre with your students…and don’t spend a dime. Must do this with an art class. Or any class.
  • You teach your students not to be bullies…or cyberbullies. How do I convince teachers that taking the time to teach responsible and productive online behaviour is just as important as a content lesson? Again, I blame the system
  • You make your students turn in their cell phones before class starts…because you plan on using them in class.  Bit of a sore point at school; we still ban many things. I am required to chastise students who play games on their notebooks, but at the same time, I show them problem-solving games on my iPad. We need a mindshift.

The last point: You tweet this page, blog about it, “like” it, or email it to someone else…

Yes, I write a blog post, tweet it, and add it to Facebook. I’m not writing this for myself…

What about you?

Read the full list here.

Music apps – a music teacher’s perspective

As I’ve already mentioned before, I’m in the process of investigating iPad apps for learning enhancement in the classroom. A few weeks ago a colleague and brilliant music educator, Stuart Collidge,  joined me in a meeting with our Deputy Principal (Curriculum) and a few other leaders in the school, to put forward a case for the use of iPads in the school, specifically for learning enhancement. I asked Stuart to write up how he sees the use of the iPad in the music classroom.

Recently, Tania asked me to speak with some of the decision-making powers that be at school to pitch the use of iPads as learning tools.  This was something that Tania and I had reflected on a little and saw some potential in so I was more than happy to make the pitch.  After borrowing Tania’s iPad to have a play on (I am not yet one of the iPad collective L), I worked my way through a few possible applications and uses.  It was also very useful to troll through Google and look at the ways that other music educators are using these beasts.

Being a laptop school, it was important to differentiate the potential of these units from the laptops that are already in the hands of the students. For a school with no laptop program, I imagine that a class set of these would be AWESOME for a whole raft of areas of study, but being outside my brief, I didn’t focus too much on it.

My impression initially (and once we are up and running with a program, I’ll report on the accuracy of those impressions) was that this device would be awesome for me on two levels: as a music/education professional, and as a performer.  I can also see how students could use these devices in the same way.

As a performer, the iPad is now a very comprehensive musical instrument. In fact, several instruments all in one.  There seem to be two different approaches to performance apps.  The first way is to use the device as a synthesiser. There are several things that already do that, but the advantage of the iPad is in the interface which can encourage different approaches to composing and performing.  If you sit down at a conventional keyboard, the notes are laid out in a particular way and we are trained to approach the keyboard in that particular way (unless you are into avant garde composition).  A lot of music is constructed around  melodies and chords that “fit under the fingers”.  Take a look at a synth like Musix.  The layout of the octaves and notes allows us a melodic freedom and an opportunity to audition sounds that are harder to achieve on a conventional piano.  I imagine that you can find many other synths that encourage alternative approaches to melody making.

There is also a variety of apps that are much like a hardware synth allowing you access to oscillators, LFOs, filters, etc. You can also use the iPad to drive Digital Audio Workstations for tracks or DJing live.  Ableton seems to be the best suited to creating and manipulating arrangements in a live situation.  And for patching your iPad into your amp/PA/recording rig, try this: https://www.alesis.com/iodock.

All of this means that with a few apps and some time, students can generate performance material  in a variety of different ways to suit a particular idea or project and allows for a greater degree of creativity and freedom.

As a music professional, I am most interested in using the iPad as music stand. I have spoken with people that do this and received mixed reviews, but I feel that this is where music reading should be going.  An iPad could contain an entire library of sheet music in PDF format (solo music, ensemble parts, method books, scores, backing tracks) and would be fantastic to use in performance or rehearsal.  No longer need to worry about losing original parts, remembering pencils (the software stores any annotations made), or sorting through libraries of stuff (although the logistics of scanning everything might be headache enough, until publishers are in selling more of their material in that format).  Imagine being able to transpose a score instantly into a new key (to my way of thinking, the only way for us to be rid of the archaic institution of transposing instruments).

Of course, it already has a variety of apps that are useful (and which I use on my iPhone) like chromatic tuners, tone generators, metronomes, DMX dipswitch calculators, remote control for lighting desks, decibel meter, power load calculators, chord finders, etc.

All this in a device the size of a small text book!

I am very much looking forward to putting my hands on a unit that I can stock it up with goodies!

Stuart Collidge