28 May 2012

Living learning

In his recent essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, Hugh Mackay reminds us of a familiar concept, one which we occasionally forget: that lived experience is what changes us. He argues that we are not changed by someone just telling us new information, nor are we changed by witnessing the opposing argument. Hugh Mackay tells us that it is life's experiences which enable us to see or feel or think something which we may not have considered before.

This relates to the field of education for both teachers and students. In my undergraduate years, one of my lecturers stated that education at its simplest was "change". According to this lecturer, the aim was to change knowledge, skills, attitudes and competencies through the experience of learning. I agreed at the time and twenty-odd years later, I still consider that the essence of learning is experience which leads to change.

It's both a blessing and a curse that I teach English literature when it comes to experience. As readers and analysers of literary texts, my secondary school pupils get an insight into rich emotional lives through their reading experiences. Reading is that unique practice of living a life vicariously, and books can change you, we've all experienced this.

The curse is that, by default of age, most secondary school students don't have a broad life experience, so connecting with characters and ideas can be challenging. Students are probably never going to meet an actual Macbeth or Othello, so we English teachers find the points in a text with which students can connect. Once this process begins (much more detailed than I have time for here), students are challenged to change their views and attitudes.

From a teacher development point of view, it's essential that teachers have experiences that change their pedagogy. I'd like to see more time for experimentation in the classroom. Perhaps teachers could choose one module per year to play with. I don't use the term 'play', flippantly - the education of young people is no game - but I do mean that teachers should try to tinker with an existing program so that they explore a recent pedagogical innovation. Whether it is incorporating interesting software, constructing a collaborative project, or using a new resource, teachers challenge themselves and test their theories, creating experience which becomes the foundation for change.

As Hugh Mackay tells us in his essay - "changed circumstances produce changed behaviour, and changed behaviour produces changed attitudes." 

21 May 2012

The Reading and Writing Community

On a number of occasions in my life I have been accused of stating the obvious. I mention this because I am about to do exactly that. After spending two glorious days at the Sydney Writers' Festival I am advocating the importance of - no, the necessity of - teacher reading and engagement with the reading and writing community. 

As an English teacher it's obvious that I need to be reading in my subject area; Adult, Young Adult and Children's Literature are all essential for me to be able to do my job well. I consider myself fortunate that my favourite pastime is so inextricably linked with my career. Each new text refreshes my knowledge of the world through its narrative arc. I also need to keep pace with experimentation and developments in voice and style. And - stating the obvious again - this is where Writers' Festivals are so helpful, personally and professionally. 

Through the curatorship of the festival director, current trends in literature are brought to my attention. What he (or she) selects to offer the public shows us what's 'hot', and often simply looking through the program gives us a sense of this. Writers whose work we may not know of, a form like the short story which is frequently marginalised, or quality non-fiction texts are just a few samples of what a festival brings to its audience. Being able to hear an author speak and witnessing the buzz of the audience often challenges me to read a book I wouldn't normally pick up. Sometimes it makes me buy or recommend a book for someone else, challenging their usual reading patterns. 

Aside from deepening my knowledge of authors and writing styles, often I come away with ideas for classes. In one of the sessions on Saturday, would-be writers were challenged to present a three minute story pitch and were given live, public feedback from three publishers. Whilst I have done something similar such as a Viva Voce for seniors, the format of this session was immediately useful. Each student could pitch their own stories as they write them, to teachers and/or a student panel for feedback (collaboration at work here). Students could also imagine themselves as the writer of a text they are studying, and pitch this idea to the panel. I could go on and on here, and that was just from one session. 

It's clear then, that Writers' Festivals, such as the one just concluded in Sydney, challenge me on a personal and professional level. Teachers across the state should be encouraged and supported to attend as professional development. It would give teachers a sense of agency when making choices for literature to read for pleasure and to teach their students. It would keep teachers in the loop of recent developments in voice and style. It would promote creative ways of interacting with literature in our classrooms. 


Until next year's festival then! 

14 May 2012

Creativity and Learning Part 1

I’ve just started reading Andrew McCallum’s Creativity and Learning in Secondary English and already there are a few insights. One of the reminders for me is that reading is an imaginative act, thus creative. In order for a reader to understand text, she or he has to create the images and ideas in their minds as they read.

Let’s look at just a few run-of-the-mill examples: in English, the reader has to imagine the life of the characters whose story is being told; in Science, readers have to be able to imagine the carbon atoms meeting oxygen atoms; and in Maths, readers have to be able to translate the problem (written in words), into real life and then into numerical data. Obviously the imagination required when reading in any field cannot be underestimated. Reading is not just a mechanical act but a creative act in all subjects.

Perhaps one of the problems with online reading is that readers don’t take the time to imagine the ideas or images as they read. It appears to me that when students are reading online, they use a number of strategies to skim and navigate, but don’t often concentrate for a length of time on a particular piece of research. Next time I set some deep online reading, I shall experiment with visual annotation. I shall ask students to find or create three images which would help them explain the material to another reader. In pairs, with each individual having read material from a different source, this could become an interesting verbal exercise. This process may help them to imagine the content of the material they have read, whilst simultaneously requiring them to discern significance.

More on Andrew McCallum’s Creativity and Learning in Secondary English in a later post; so far, it’s encouraging me to experiment with creative ways of learning.