All posts by Tania Sheko

My name is Tania Sheko, and I am a teacher librarian at Melbourne High School, a selective secondary boys’ school 9-12 in Melbourne, Australia. ‘Teacher librarian’ usually requires a bit of an explanation. I think it’s a ‘School Librarian’ or ‘Library Media Specialist’ in the US and Canada. Often people are not sure what my role is, and it’s not easy to define. I like to think of it as the focus on ‘skills’ and ‘passion’ which exists in the spaces between the teaching of curriculum which is the domain of subject teachers. Some of my areas of focus include all sorts of literacies (information, digital, critical, network, etc.), collaboration with teachers as a kind of third hand (curating resources, differentiating learning, experimenting with blogs), and connecting people to ideas and an understanding of self and others through reading, discussion and debate. Most of our students go on to university, and we are always thinking about how we can best prepare them for the world of university and work. I’m interested in the educational environment, behaviours and directions of tertiary institutions, particularly as they move from traditional to innovative practices with connective courses. Connected learning makes sense to me, and I’m concerned that schools are often still envisioning learning as a passive consumption of content delivered by individual classroom teachers. With so much research-based evidence about student-centred, interest-driven and collaborative learning, and with the findings from the NMC Horizon Project, identifying and describing emerging technologies likely to have an impact on learning, teaching, and creative inquiry in education, I really think it’s time we woke up to ourselves about the anachronistic nature of our educational practices and took action. I learn from my colleagues, but also from my online network, reading their blogs, interacting with them on Twitter, exploring the wealth of their shared expertise online. This is what excites me about learning – connecting with people globally for a shared purpose.

Nothing makes sense

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash
“What I mean is….” 
“That’s yours isn’t it?”

How did I know? Which part of her was not part of me?
So close were we that the words made no sense at all. Mine, yours…

I saw nothing.
I heard nothing.
I appeared not to respond.
She walked away but I was already gone.
The distance was the closeness. No space between us.
We slept. We awoke. We appeared to live.
We slept.
Nothing.

Using the Medium blogging platform to teach critical and digital literacies in Art

My story

The teacher-librarian role is elastic

What I love the most about the teacher-librarian role is its elasticity; it can assume so many different shapes and play out in a variety of stories. In many cases teacher-librarians have come from classroom teaching and therefore bring their expertise and experience, as well as their passion for their methods. My teaching methods were English and LOTE (German and French) and this is what I taught before completing the Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship), however I also have a passion for the Arts, and love supporting and collaborating with teachers in the Arts faculty. 

New year, new challenges

Every year I challenge myself to a new project, aiming to forge new relationships with students and teachers while trying out something innovative – sometimes without knowing precisely what until it happens. When collaborating with teachers, I aim to integrate this collaboration over a longer period of time – at least a term, a year if possible. This gives me the opportunity to get to know the students and teacher, and experience their learning/teaching styles firsthand. 

This year I approached an art teacher I’d worked with a couple of years ago, with an idea I had been contemplating for some time. Previous experiences in the art classroom had me thinking about two things: 

  1. How can we solve students’ blocks to creativity, and simultaneously broaden their exposure to a variety of art works and styles?
  2. How can we improve their critical literacies when discussing or writing about art?

The first point stems from my ongoing role in supporting art teachers and students by creating online resources (libguides);and the second point relates to a recent realisation that, if I’m supporting critical literacies, typically by working with English teachers, then why shouldn’t I do the same with those same literacies in art?

Using Medium as a blogging platform 

https://medium.com/art-viewpoints

The teacher decided we would work with her year 10 Drawing and Painting class. I suggested to the art teacher that we use Medium as a blogging platform for our purposes. These were my reasons:

  1. The blog would be the space where we posted all our content and instructions;
  2. Student blogs would be easily accessible in the followers list;
  3. Students would be able to read each other’s posts, and respond to them (in the form of ‘clapping’ or comments),  resulting in the development of a reading/writing community;
  4. Images, videos and other media – particularly important in art teaching – could be easily embedded in the posts;
  5. Our blog and students’ blogs would be situated within a global writing/blogging community, instead of existing in isolation. The Medium homepage (https://medium.com/) is cleverly designed to entice the reader into further reading, based on reading history, as well as your network (as you follow people), and according to your self-appointed areas of interest. In this way students have agency over their feed, in the same way as they feel a sense of ownership while designing their blog.

From archive to targeted post

The Medium blogging platform enabled me to feature online resources I have been creating for years in our libguides. This is exciting because it solves the issue of how to make archived online resources relevant and pertinent to students and teachers. So, for example, when the teacher requested resources about an artist  or drawing techniques, I was able to pull these out of the libguides, and the blog post was all we needed for the lesson, easily mirrored on the large screen so students could follow the lesson, or set as homework prior to the lesson in the style of the ‘flipped classroom’. 

Medium allows the creation of tabs at the top of each page, and I realised, while thinking about blog design,  that I could create tabs for ‘drawing techniques’, ‘artists’, ‘artworks’, ‘critiques’ and ‘teacher posts’ and tag posts accordingly. The blog becomes an interactive resource, providing students with a wealth of resources they can easily navigate . 

The blog allows for quick and easy ‘just in time’ posting, so that my role in resourcing becomes ‘live’ when things come up during the lesson and I’m able to create a post on the spot. 

A real readership

When students post their writing in response to assigned tasks, they have a real audience, and this is very different to writing for their teacher. They usually feel more motivated to write, to edit their work before it gets published, and because we instruct them to read each others’ posts, they learn from each other. Students are also familiar with the ‘clapping’ (liking) and commenting options which are ubiquitous on all social media sites, and they enjoy being connected to the class, motivated also by the possibility of attracting a readership outside the school. Of course, it’s my job to monitor the appropriateness of all interactions.

Digital literacies

In the first lesson, I spoke to students about the implications of being published externally. The acceptable behaviour policies are permanently in the blog’s archive for students to revisit, or to use as gentle reminders. I also posted ‘How to comment on someone’s writing in an online environment’.

Commenting is actually harder than it first seems. Writing a ‘comment’ following another student’s post is much more than the monosyllabic or gif-laden comments on social media; it involves an understanding and evaluation of the post, and an articulate, constructive observation or even extension of the original ideas. These are additional literacies which, if not taught explicitly, or practised, will not be developed. 

Critical literacies in art

We sometimes forget that critical literacies have been taught explicitly in art even before they gained prominence in our students’ skills set. In art, these critical skills develop as students learn to see, then unpack, discuss, and finally, write about an art work. Blogs lend themselves to short ‘lessons’ on what this might look like. For example, I posted: ‘How to critique someone else’s art work’ which begins with a light-hearted cartoon, and then shows a video created by ‘The Art Assignment: PBS digital studios’. There is so much relevant media freely available online on this topic, and it’s the teacher-librarian’s role to sift through and carefully curate the best resources for the class, as well as for the teacher. On the same topic, I also posted: ‘Ways of seeing and writing about art’, in which I included a video from Smart History, as well as one entitled: ‘How to understand a Picasso’. This kind of resourcing is time-consuming; teachers always appreciate teacher-librarians’ help in this area.

Progress so far

Despite being in its early stages, our digital resource is growing in leaps and bounds. I appreciate being informed by the teacher’s and students’ needs which arise during class time,  so that the blog evolves organically and often at point of need. I find this works so much more effectively compared to my earlier experiences of emailing the teacher to ask how I might support her. My participation in classes has resulted in so many more ideas, and our collaborative teaching and conversations during class inform my work. As we play off each other during the lesson, ideas are generated in the most productive and creative way.

What is it about the blog…?

Since working with blogs in classes from 2008, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what works well and how to innovate for even better results. I think that the separation into posts of what might become too dense and difficult for students to take in, is one of the advantages of teaching and learning this way. Tags, categories (tabs), hyperlinks – help students take in digestible amounts, and enable them to follow hyperlinks to further reading if they wish, or navigate the site to find what they need to revise content. These are the digital literacies teacher-librarians will often teach, and in this way we are not teaching them in isolation, but in context. 

Differentiation

When providing extension material for students, the blogging platform allows teacher-librarians to provide differentiation by posting content for depth and breadth, and tag posts accordingly. In art, there are always more examples and opportunities to expand students’ horizons with more artists, more techniques, art history, local exhibitions, art from featured museums and galleries, and articles or videos/podcasts about art issues. I’ve shared a range of broad and issues-based posts, eg. ‘Who decides what art means’; ‘Women artists and their struggle’‘It seems art can help you if you’re studying to become a doctor. Does that surprise you?’ 

Projects such as this one have me thinking about the tragedy of staffing in some school libraries. Even with well staffed libraries, teacher librarians might not have the opportunity to explore and experiment. Some of my most valuable experiences have developed from a mere hunch that something worthwhile might eventuate. Frankly, there is always a positive outcome when you experiment with the stretchiness of your role, even if it’s not what you expected. As I said earlier, the teacher-librarian role can play out in a variety of stories, all as diverse as we are. Let’s hope that we hold our ground in schools so that we can prove our value.

This article has been published in the SCIS ‘Connections’ magazine.

Nada

Alexander Calder mobile

If all you have is nada
You should try a little harder.
If your mind is going blank
And it’s not just one big prank
That you play so’s not to play
Then you must go straightaway
To a doctor for a cure
To a good one to be sure
That the cure will really work
Or you might try your network
Fire the brain cells to connect
To become an architect
of words, ideas, forms,
magic places, unicorns,
Or an artist, a magician,
A word artist on a mission.
So instead of having nada,
You could try some Neo-dada,
Art and life could become one
If you just try to have fun.

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 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 particularly interesting area of investigation for me as a teacher librarian because it helps me articulate what the ‘teacher’ in ‘teacher librarian’ might be about. 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, and I feel as if they’ve put me into a box, like a music box that, when opened, keeps the ballerina firmly attached to her space, rotating clockwise only to one tune. They’re more likely to refer to me as a librarian; 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 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 skills, I create curricular content and educational resources, 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). I do a version of what all teacher librarians do. It might play out differently for each of us, depending on our areas of expertise and the demands of our students and teachers, but teaching and learning is our common focus.

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.  Teachers know that it’s much more than this but it seems that the time and energy assessment and associated administrative tasks take is what is exhausting teachers and taking them away from what they actually want to do: teach. And teaching comes in many forms; teacher librarians do it a different way but we still do it.

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, if I’m not marking or writing reports, 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. This whole-school, cross-curricular focus is what gives teacher librarians a unique edge.

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 into 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 a space for everyone – across age groups, academic levels, and areas of the curriculum. The library designs its spaces and purpose within these spaces very carefully, in response to the needs of its users – never static, always acting on ongoing reflection and observation, always 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 even new words acquire the baggage over time. In the past I’ve been 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 and community. When people come into the library, they may not be aware of all the different teaching and learning contexts that play out throughout the school day but they certainly understand the main gist of ‘librarian’.

However, it’s the ‘teaching’ part of ‘teacher librarian’ which may not be entirely clear.  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’.

We, teacher librarians, are all about the conscious intention of and potential for facilitating learning, and the creation of circumstances that lead to learning in our students. It’s in the way in which we organise our spaces, watching to see that our design works best for individual, collaborative, supported and any other kind of learning. It’s in the way that we select and promote our resources, and how we get to know each student so we can offer assistance with a resource, a skill, or just have a caring conversation. It’s in the way that we connect students to significant events that might otherwise go unnoticed, or to brilliant people whom they may not have heard about, enriching our students’ lives and reminding them of what or who is worth celebrating, which issues we might unpack together, or how much fun we can have dressing up as our favourite literary characters when we might learn something we didn’t know without even knowing we were learning.

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

 

What is wrong with school?

This is a question; I don’t claim to have answers. Just more questions.

When I think about our struggle with students, some of the articulated problems are plagiarism, as well as working strategically to get the best mark, often the mark for what is perceived to be the most important subjects. We lament that our students are not well read, do not have a desire to learn, do not go beyond the confines of the task, do not demonstrate creativity or innovative ideas. Cannot think critically, do not have a global understanding of their world, have enormous gaps in their knowledge, are abandoning the Arts, sleep in class, do not engage in discussion in class.

What are we to do?

And yet we have a system whose focus is on marking, is working to perfect assessment and data collection as if this efficiency were a valuable achievement. A system which frustrates us in the struggle to cover enough curriculum content so that there is time for students to write an essay or take a test, and for us to grade these things and enter them into a spreadsheet. We are unhappy, we can’t keep up, we complain about the students, we complain about the expectations put on teachers. We are part of a system that is designed to fail us all.

My tirade has been released by the reading of Jesse Stommel’s presentation: If bell hooks made an LMS: Grades, radical openness, and Domain of One’s Own. There is much more in Jesse’s text than here but still. My tirade.

“Grades are not good markers of learning. They too often communicate only a student’s ability to follow instructions, not how much she learned. A 4.0 or higher GPA might indicate excellence, but it might also indicate compromising integrity for the sake of a grade. Within this system, you would have to.

Grades don’t reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of learning.

Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration. And supposed kindnesses like curves or norming, actually increase competitiveness by pitting students (and sometimes teachers) against one another.

Grades aren’t fair. They will never be fair.” (Jesse Stommel)

And earlier in his post:

“We have built an educational system that puts far too much emphasis on grades, and we shouldn’t blame students for the failures of that system. Grades also motivate, in at least some small way, every tool developed by edtech software and hardware engineers. The grade has been coded into all our institutional and technological systems.”

Can we make positive changes within the system? Do the changes to curriculum and technological advances achieve what we aspire to in terms of learning and teaching?

Enough from me for now.

The seduction of censored material and other memories from the 60s

Today I noticed this book cover for the classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the library.

It’s clever, isn’t it?

It reminded me of my childhood days at Russian Saturday School when the fear of communism in the Russian community was still a raw sore.  We used text books from the Soviet Union because they were the only ones we could get, and one woman decided we could not be permitted to lay eyes on certain words which were associated with Soviet Russia. After all, many of us had living relatives who had witnessed and experienced atrocities, including my own maternal grandfather who, at the age of fourteen,  had witnessed his father being shot dead, and whose wife (my grandmother), many years later, was tipped off secretly that he was to be shot the next day. Which is why I was born in Australia.

Anyway, back to the forbidden words in the Soviet Russian textbooks. This lady decided to black out words and phrases to protect us. She spent hours with a ruler and black textas blacking out sections of the book. If there were too many words/phrases to be eradicated, she would glue pages together. My sister caught onto this, opportunist that she was, and glued her own pages together when she didn’t want to do her homework. I wish I had thought of that.

As you can imagine, the blacked out sections of our books became so fascinating that we used to lift the pages up to the light in order to be able to read the words/phrases. I don’t know what we expected but I know I was disappointed when I managed to decipher ‘pioneers’ (Soviet Russian scouts) and ‘Russian Victory Day’ and other words I’ve now forgotten.

It’s funny remembering things that happened in your childhood which you can hardly believe happened.

Like memories of things so different to the way they are now that they seem surreal. I remember in primary school boys and girls played together until they got to grade 3 and then the playgrounds were segregated. Not the oval (strangely) but the playgrounds. If kids wanted to be mean to you, they’d try to push you into the forbidden playground. I remember that happening to me and it was traumatic. Even putting one toe into the wrong playground was unimaginable.

Punishments for boys in my primary school included getting the strap. That usually happened in class – and I think it sometimes involved the yard stick which sat on the blackboard ledge or near it – but if boys got into really bad trouble, they would get the strap at the principal’s office and the procedure would be transmitted to the rest of the school. Maybe once a week we would tune in to the P.A. system mounted high on the wall and listen to boys getting the strap. In retrospect it was a bit like being part of the audience when early Christians were thrown to the lions. There was some sadistic pleasure there. I remember each boy being named, then the dreadful sound of the hard slap, followed either by silence or sobbing.

Girls never got the strap at my school although I have heard others say that they did at theirs. I sometimes wished we could have because it would have been over and done with instead of writing lines. In grade 4 my teacher used to make me write ‘I am a Russian parrot’ many times over because I talked too much.

Now I can’t even believe I went to school in the 60s! And it’s funny what stays with you. I guess you don’t have that original memory but you’ve remembered your way through your life and your memory has never gone out. In this way I remember being called a communist by kids in kindergarten. I didn’t speak English then, maybe just basic things like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ but I remember hearing the way they said ‘communist’ and thinking that I was disgusting, that people didn’t want to be near me. Later I would discover the irony in this.

Things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they? Schools have anti-bullying policies and educators are more conscious of the language being used by young people. Most of us are more politically correct than before.

I wonder how strong we are in upholding these basic human rights, and how strongly we would protest if this culture came under threat.

 

 

The outcomes of my life (today) – feverish thoughts

Southern Garden by Paul Klee

I’m sick at home and have been in two stages over 3 weeks. Unable to do anything cerebral,  I sit and take in the room and the view outside my windows.

There are things I appreciate:

The tea tree sways in the wind and sunlight re-enacts this movement in the shadows on a blanket at the end of the couch near the window.

Intermittent bird song and the sound of wind.

The feel of the breeze on my arms.

The sunlight illuminating the pink blossoms of an indoor plant.

The sensation of lemon and ginger tea soothing my throat.

The ‘silence’, as much as it can be.

These are outcomes for me based on external conditions: light, architecture, placement of objects, my position, my awareness, my appreciation.

I did not perceive these same things yesterday because:

I felt sicker.

The weather was different.

I wasn’t receptive to many things.

I wasn’t able to feel pleasure.

What I will not do is put these conditions in a spreadsheet and try to control future experiences. I will not create numerical data to ensure moments of pleasure for the next time I’m sick. I will not expect it to be the same next time. I will not assume these conditions will be experienced in the same way by others. I will not expect that everyone is privileged enough to be sick in similar conditions.

I will not write a policy for How to Feel Better During a Prolonged Virus.

Rethinking the value of technology in learning and teaching (and my own role as advocate)

Found on Pinterest – saved from Fiverr

It occurred to me last year, during a ‘lesson’ I was permitted to give to a year 9 English class, that I had marginalised myself as a ‘technology person’. ‘Permitted’ because TLs need to approach teachers for permission to interrupt their class if we want to buy time with students. To do this we need to have a sales pitch, to convince the teacher that what we are going to teach is valuable. Not just valuable, because why would you allow your class to be interrupted if it wasn’t for something that ‘better be worth it’.  And suddenly I realised that I was focusing on the sales pitch to justify my existence as a teacher, to justify the ‘teacher’ in my title ‘teacher librarian’. While pushing to be a relevant, valuable part of learning and teaching at school, somehow I’d become the person who pushed her way in to classes to feature a technology tool.

That lesson didn’t work so well because, although the tool (Thinglink) worked for me, it was blocked for the students – something I should have checked (because the same scenario had taken place so many times over the years, you’d think I’d remember to check). And although the teacher was patient and gave my tech tool the benefit of the doubt, it didn’t end up being the ‘enhanced learning tool’ that I had envisaged. She moved on, and I stayed to witness much more authentic learning and teaching which occurred in a traditional setting, without the aid of technology.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been forced to rethink the value of pushing technology tools but it was the first time I had realised that I didn’t want to be associated with ‘the person who always pushed technology’ or believed in technology as the saviour of 21st century learning and teaching . Rather, I wanted to be in an integral part of teaching and learning in the classroom, I wanted an organic partnership with the teacher, trusting in and respecting her teaching expertise and instincts, and coming in from behind to support and enhance the direction she was taking.

Just today I was tagged in a tweet by Geoffrey Gevalt to join Digiwrimo with my students – an event which is run by the Young Writers Project. This is an opportunity to connect with other writers and so is an example of technology enabling, connecting and enhancing:

We at YWP define digital writing as writing done in digital spaces — often with digital media — that is interconnected by social media and different external audiences.

Unfortunately for us in the southern hemisphere November is the time for end of year exams, and so we miss this opportunity. Neverthless I’ve shared this invitation with students in my Writing Interest Group (WIG), hoping that even one student might take the opportunity to connect to a global writing community.

This is not an instance of technology being an add-on, or even an instance of online learning  where traditional teaching and learning are transferred online just as they are. Digiwrimo connects writers globally and celebrates writing through a community of writers sharing and giving feedback . Although our exam- and VCE-focused curriculum makes it difficult to take up such opportunities, something like this might engage students in a way that writing for submission and marks would not. I believe so anyway.

What is digital writing? (from the Digiwrimo website):

The internet has changed writing. Today, there are more people writing every day — e-mails, text messages, blog posts — and more self-published authors than ever before. Written communication is popular in a way it hasn’t been in a century, and everyone’s doing it. But unlike when writing between two people was quiet and private, much of today’s writing is loud and public, connected through a web of hyperlinks to every other piece of writing out there. With the old masters like Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Hemingway, and Shelley being translated into code and uploaded onto the web, your blog posts exist right alongside their greatest works.

The school I dream about will shift its focus from prescribed curriculum, outcomes, targets, exams and preparation for exams, but retain and intensify the wonderful teaching I see in classes at my school, with time for deep discussions. Students will have the time to share their writing/work with their colleagues, discuss and give/receive feedback, but also be able to connect to other learners/writers outside the classroom and beyond the school. Technology will be the enhancer/connector but never the forced add-on, never the one-size-fits-all LMS; it will be a connection even as the old-fashioned phone connects voices.

The internet allows us to communicate through our text in new ways; it frees us to join our words with others’, to innovate, and to let our words become our actions. We can live spontaneously through our words, or vicariously, or cooperatively. Our words can form communities, can take a stand, can create at the same time as we create them. (What is digital writing?)

Recently I shared a poem a student had posted in our WIG blog, Unicorn Express. I shared with people and groups I’m connected to on different social media platforms. The post was written by a past WIG member (co-captain). How wonderful that the year 12 student who is no longer part of this group (because of the pressures of year 12) is moved to share something he’s written (and how lovely that he’s found the time to write for himself amidst the final exam preparation).

I was moved by my online buddy, Kevin Hodgson, who not only took the time to read my student’s writing, but commented to encourage the student, and then pulled out words that spoke to him, created a ‘poster’ and then shared it online with me and his own network. This is the human element enhancing the solitary writing experience, this is one of the best examples of the potential of technology.

In conclusion, I’d like to finish with a tweet I just read from Maha Bali:

Saying that any digital tool teaches us digital literacies is like saying a pen or a keyboard teaches us writing. #DigPed #OpenEd16

Amen

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?