18 November 2012

Opportunities for Learning

I'm sorry I don't have time for extended discussion today but I did want to reference this blog post from Mind/ShiftStruggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures. Alix Spiegel writes about a UCLA professor, Jim Stigler, who has been studying the differences in how East and West approach "intellectual struggle". 

We seem to be spending more and more time talking about persistence and self-regulation, and about tinkering and successful failures, that I thought this post offered some different insights into how people might learn. 

I am not necessarily advocating students work though their thinking with a full audience. I do firmly believe the process counts as well as the product, and allowing time for that process to occur in a supportive environment should be the aim of all teachers. 

The Mind/Shift post is well worth a read. 

15 October 2012

Thinking and Deeper Learning


As I was reading a recent paper from the USA on the need for developing 21st century competencies, I came across this interesting diagram. It describes the interplay of capabilities needed for what is becoming known as deeper learning. 

Many of competencies identified above accord with my own reading (and blogging) over the past few years. On many occasions I have had conversations with colleagues about the importance of adaptability, self-evaluation and perseverance. Just seeing them overlapping with problem solving, innovation and critical thinking, reminds me of the connections needed for deeper learning. Indeed, it indicates to us that teaching to just one aspect of the student is not enough if we are to succeed in helping them navigate the 21st century with confidence. This theory also helps to explain why some very 'bright' students - with traditionally sharp cognitive skills such as analysis - don't always succeed to the extent that intelligence testing suggests they should. 

Teachers already have altered their teaching styles towards more student-centred, competency based delivery. As an English teacher in NSW, this approach has been the mode for many years as we connect literacy and literature to help students achieve their cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal goals.

I'm also pleased to see the new Australian Curriculum broaden its horizons with compulsory competencies such as Critical and Creative Thinking:

"Critical thinking is at the core of most intellectual activity that involves students in learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems. Examples of thinking skills are interpreting, analysing, evaluating, explaining, sequencing, reasoning, comparing, questioning, inferring, hypothesising, appraising, testing and generalising.

Creative thinking involves students in learning to generate and apply new ideas in specific contexts, seeing existing situations in a new way, identifying alternative explanations, and seeing or making new links that generate a positive outcome."

As we come to terms with these notions of deeper learning, 21st century competencies, and critical and creative thinking, we will need more education, learning how to model and 'teach' these essential facets of life - for the here and now, and for the future.

26 August 2012

Left to their own devices

A recent article on Mindshift caught my attention as it raised some interesting ideas about teaching young people the definition of success. The article reports on an interview with Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. Two particular points resonated with me because of their correlation with my own observations and reading.

Dr Levine made a point about praise echoed by Carol Dweck and others: that too much praise can be counterproductive. She states, “The reality is that self-esteem comes out of competence.” Earlier in the interview Dr Levine argues it is important to let kids fail as it is one of the chief ways for children to make progress, such as when they are learning to walk.

Dr Levine sums this up well in her op ed piece in the New York Times:
The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.

This accords with my own reading and observation: few students are ‘left to their own devices’, and this new way of being may be undermining the kind of thinking needed to engage resiliently with the world.

This is also relevant for teachers. How do we intervene when we see students not succeeding at a task? Do we let them finish it and then give feedback? Do we tell them straight off that they are on the wrong track and that, in this case, their response does not meet the criteria? When time is available for students to complete extended compositions, do we ask questions during the process about how the product is developing and meeting the criteria? How do we avoid being the hovering teacher?

In group work, leaving students ‘to their own devices’ is essential for generating ideas and getting them started. Refraining from hovering is essential. Occasionally, engaging in the critical conversation mid-composition can help students to realign their focus. If a group is off-task, asking pertinent questions can result in members of the group recognising that their developing product could be altered to better meet the criteria.

Many of us are creating rich tasks where there is enough time for students to try and fail, and then make adjustments if needed before submission (write, edit, and rewrite). And many of us are inviting students to assess their success against the intended goals whilst in the process of composing. Hopefully, their learning will be much more effective.

22 July 2012

Creativity and Learning Part 2

As promised in an earlier post, I am returning to the idea of creativity in teaching now that I have finished reading Andrew McCallum’s Creativity and Learning in Secondary English. The author of this book shows us how creative tasks can coexist with traditional forms of assessment and how this model may give teachers a better picture of what students are learning. This text has encouraged me to develop an authentic, collaborative, multimodal task for one particular form which I teach. It will be a cross-the-form assessment with marks that will count towards their reports.

McCallum writes “The concept of multimodality … offers exciting opportunities for the subject [English] and creativity, enabling an exploration of how meaning can be brought into being and responded to in multiple, combinatory fashions.” We are fortunate to be studying the fantastic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This text makes meaning through both pencil drawings and traditional verbal (written) narration. It is just as essential to ‘read’ the visual pages as it is to read the written in order to follow the narrative. Thus, our students will learn about telling stories in both modes, and will compose their own combination of visual and verbal modes to complete their assessment. (I can’t give away all the details in case my students read my blog!)

Since reading New Kinds of Smart last year, I have been more aware of the need for quality collaborative learning. Hence, the task I am designing involves group work where students learn together, construct the product together and are assessed together. New learning spaces at my school make it possible for an entire form to be working in groups at the same time, with doors and walls open between classrooms, enabling teachers and students to share different skills.

I am aware that much rests on the design of the task so that students can respond with creativity. I know there will be setbacks and unforeseeable issues but as I stated in an earlier post entitled Living Learning, is essential for teachers to ‘play’ with learning to ensure students are able to use their diverse skills and talents. 

15 July 2012

The Gift

I am just about to return to work after a period of fourteen weeks of long service leave. According to sources (okay, Wikipedia), long service leave ‘is a benefit unique to Australia and New Zealand’, and used to be a particular entitlement of the public service which leached out into other workplace environments. Anecdotally, I don’t know anyone who actually takes their long service leave entitlement other than public servants and the education and medical professions.

The last time I did not work for a sustained period, I was in my twenties, six years out of university. I was living and working in London and spent at least four months continuously travelling and the rest of the time supply teaching. As many young Australians have a similar experience at this stage of their lives it’s fairly easy to imagine what a great year I had. Long service leave has been an entirely different experience. Obviously I’m older, hopefully I’m wiser, and I will return to work happier.

This unique experience has been a gift - of time. Something that in our contemporary experience, we are so short of, we’ve even coined the phrase ‘time-poor’ to explain this phenomenon.  Media outlets frequently run stories about work-life balance which discuss the benefits of time off work – even if that’s just the weekend. I’ve been off work for long enough to forget which day of the week it is.

Of course, the reason this time off is a gift and not a burden is because I work in an industry where it is possible to accrue this time and choose long service leave at full pay. I’ve been with the same employer for eleven years and, even if I left, my leave for the most part would be portable. I am not one of the unfortunate Australians who have time on their hands because they are out of work (although there were many stories in the media immediately following the GFC about the unexpected benefits which many out of work Australians came to appreciate).

When I return to work everyone will ask me what I’ve been doing. And whilst I haven’t been travelling as many people do, I have benefited from the gift of time in the following ways:
I’ve spent much more time with my husband – during the week and on the weekends instead of doing schoolwork. I’ve had time to visit with friends, sometimes for a whole day. I was able to see a friend with whom I had not sat down for at least seven years, and it felt like our last conversation was yesterday. I’ve had time to be with my elderly mother, both when she needs me and just to chat. I’ve had more people over to the house in than I have had in the last five years. Twice I’ve made meals for 12 people! With no drama! This leads to my next point …
Always opposed to being the stay-at-home wife because of its 1950s connotations, I found myself well able to fill the days when I didn’t have plans. Who would’ve thought I would read recipe books, watch the odd cooking program, seek out new ingredients in the shops, and generally cook like a trainee domestic goddess? I haven’t begrudged doing housework because it hasn’t taken up precious weekend time. I actually fold clothes which have been washed instead of living out of the basket for a week. I’ve walked my dog - the added bonus being the three cafes within walking distance.
By living, I mean doing the things which make my life fulfilling and which contribute to my well-being. Reading is fundamental to my existence, experiencing other people and other places through stories gives me immense joy. I’ve finished nine books, five of which were over 500 pages and all of them for pleasure. I joined a gym and have attended three to five times a week, with very good results for both my physical and mental energy levels. I have not had even a sniffle – usually a miraculous feat for a teacher during Term Two. And … I have not once been exhausted.
The opportunity to increase self-awareness is central to the gift of time. I knew that through rest and distance from work I would be able to perceive certain thoughts with greater clarity and this has been very true. I have had time to pay attention to my emotions, to experience them in their fullness. I have given due consideration to my future, but not so much that I have it all sown up. And I look forward to tomorrow, whatever it may bring.

13 June 2012

Annotating - diving in at the deep end (Part 3)

The study of English at school is about discerning meaning.

The NSW Board of Studies sees it this way: Language shapes our understanding of ourselves and our world, and is the primary means by which we relate to others. The Australian Curriculum emphasises literacy: … students become literate as they develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to interpret and use language confidently for learning and communicating in and out of school and for participating effectively in society.

Now I don’t think I am drawing too long a bow when I talk about engagement with texts fulfilling these lofty aims.  If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know that I consider the process of annotating to be one way of deeply engaging with texts. It enables students to ‘study the use of language in its various textual forms’ and to develop the ability to ‘interpret and use language confidently’ (see above websites).

So here’s a list of ten ways to annotate texts that will encourage students to ‘think deeply and logically, and obtain and evaluate evidence in a disciplined way’, and ‘play an active role in their own learning’. (The Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians)
  1. Clarifying: this is one of the basic processes of Reciprocal Teaching and essential for comprehension. Which words or phrases have not been understood? Where is the answer – in the student’s head, on the page or elsewhere?
  2. Focus on language choices at the word level. Find and annotate the verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, etc. Consider how the author’s diction shapes meaning.
  3. Sentence structure. What do students notice about the length and composition of the sentences? Consider how the author’s choices shape meaning.
  4. Further questions. Which parts of the narrative are unclear? Are there elements operating which require the student to draw on knowledge from outside the text? What has the student forgotten from earlier reading?
  5. Interpretation: what is the text really about? What is the student’s own interpretation? Does the text move the reader? What other interpretations are gleaned from class discussion? Colour coding of notes can be useful here.
  6. Other sources. What do the academics and theorists say about this text? This can develop into a palimpsest on the page with each layer of interpretation creating new meaning.
  7. Language and/or poetic devices. Obviously the list here is endless. Frequently, students can identify these with ease on the page so the annotation activity might be to explore patterns in the usage.
  8. Images, symbols, motifs, allusions, intertextuality - IDEAS. Whilst this can be dealt with in the previous point, some students are not adept at this level of recognition thus it may need specific targeting.
  9. Text structure. How does the structure of the text affect your reading of this section? Annotation in this are can be about the physical layout of the text and/or the internal structure of the form – e.g., plot points in a narrative, coda in song lyrics.
  10. Summary - what’s happened so far?

I haven’t even touched on audience or context or the variations of those over time. Readers will have to work on those concepts themselves.

All of these activities can be used individually, in pairs or groups, and can be used simultaneously for different group formations. Highlighting and writing/typing is a good start, whether the text is online or offline. Post-it notes or tape flags can be utilized where students cannot write on the text itself. This can lead to fun activities such as swapping post-it note questions, or using a document camera to photograph their notes, much like I did in the previous two posts.

Actively teaching students how to annotate can only deepen their reading experience.

07 June 2012

E-Annotating (Part 2)

E-books offer many ways for us to increase student engagement with texts. I highly recommend Adam Renfro's article on Getting Smart (sourced from Deliciouswhich rang all sorts of educational bells with me and inspired some of this post. 

Following on from Annotating Part 1, I'd like to offer a brief share of some of the practices which I have found come with e-reading. Late last year I read my first full book using Kindle e-book software on an iPad (I read it but I don't get it, which I have blogged about before) and immediately explored the options for annotating.

This image shows how you can leave notes or questions on the text. I found this practice had a similar effect to those I discussed in my earlier post about paper/pen annotations. This annotation could be used to record students' personal connections to the text, as Cris Tovani suggests in her book. I would also use this aspect for student questions about a text, as the note allows them to specify the type of question which they had. 

Highlighting is invaluable, but I found myself only selecting individual words as it was difficult to select a chunk of text. However, this is still so useful in the classroom. Students could be asked to highlight something specific, such as the verbs in a passage or the figurative language, or some other relevant textual feature. I envisage students then sharing their selections with other individuals/pairs/groups, followed by using the note-making application to show their interpretation of the textual features.

Once I was finished the text, I found that the notes were not as easy to find in the text as the highlighted sections, which stand out on the electronic pages. That was until I discovered that I could search for all 'Notes and Marks'. When I wanted to peruse this text again, I used the Notes and Marks as a guide to what I had deemed salient on first reading. It allowed me to quickly find the section on connections to the text which I wrote about in a subsequent post on Cris Tovani's work.

As I said earlier on, e-books offer many ways to increase student engagement with texts, and I would have to devote a month of blog posts to all of them if I were to do them justice. I hope that as e-books become more available, I can develop further e-annotation strategies.

04 June 2012

Annotating Part 1

This is a photo of my copy of Heart of Darkness which I still have from high school in the mid 1980s.

A somewhat impenetrable book to me on first reading (excuse the Heart of Darkness pun), I have notes like this on most pages of the second half, accompanied by copious underlining. I was a serious note-taker, making footnotes with numbers and filling the top and bottom margins of the page. 

As I read the notes now, many of them seem to be my teacher's explication of literary devices, themes or contextual events. (Themes were big in  the '80s.) As this was a text for my final year of schooling, I was keen to get down everything my teacher said, knowing at the time that he knew more about this HSC game than I did.

Some of the notes were made later, particularly in the first half of the text as I went back to marry up the pre- and post-Kurtz sections. The highlighting came some time after the notes, as I was revising for the final exams. Both of my HSC novels have selected pink bits, which obviously represent what I deemed significant once I had negotiated the text sufficiently.

No one taught me to annotate, or gave me directions for the types of annotations I could make.  This artifact of my education shows my initial annotations as comprehension devices and memory aids, in the case of Heart of Darkness, helping me to understand the text. As my understanding develops, so do the annotations until they represent my interpretation of the text, arranged in layers on the page.

I know now that I am the type of learner who likes to write. Annotation came naturally to me because I find writing about texts and ideas part of my process of learning. But annotation does not come naturally to all students. In an earlier post titled Thinking and Reading, I wrote about the importance of teaching students one specific way of using annotation, making personal connections with a text. Over the next few posts I would like to expand on how annotation - both pen/paper and online - can become an essential learning tool for literary and non-literary texts. 

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. 

26 February 2012

On Collaboration

An article in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald caught my attention because it was discussing how technology continues to change work patterns. The article arrived at the following conclusion:
“Because complex design and supply chains favour cross-disciplinary collaboration, employers want people with "employability skills". That means being able to work in teams, solve complex problems, manage large projects from start to finish and negotiate intercultural relationships.”

It reminded me that careers of the future will require both collaborative and cooperative skills and educators need to provide students with learning opportunities to develop these skills.

Some educational theorists delineate a difference between cooperative and collaborative learning.  Dillenbourg (1999a) defined the distinction roughly as follows:
In cooperation, partners split the work, solve sub-tasks individually and then assemble the partial results into the final output. In collaboration, partners do the work ‘together.’
Workplaces require both types of skills, sometimes whilst working on the same projects. Students are frequently assigned group work, for example when a research task is divided and individuals report back on their findings, combining their knowledge. This is generally seen as cooperative learning. 

True collaboration occurs largely through interactions among students as they work towards group cognition. Students actually learn by the process of communicating, raising questions about knowledge, teaching each other, and arriving at shared resolutions. 

This process is not only required by jobs of the future but by the job we teachers hold today. Time for greater collaboration between and among ourselves would be of substantial benefit.

12 February 2012

Thinking and Reading

‘The “E”-generation needs to comprehend more than ever before. … They must be prepared to analyze, validate and ask the next logical question. They have to know how to think.’
This quote comes from a book by Cris Tovani, an American educator, called I read it but I don’t get it (p.110.), which has encouraged me to reflect on the relationship between thinking and reading, a topic I raised in an earlier post titled The Reading Revolution.
Tovani’s book is a simple account of how good readers operate and shows teachers how to explicitly teach that information. Many teachers will be familiar with some of her strategies, as frequently we are good readers ourselves and have used these strategies to gain access to meaning in our own learning as well as our classrooms.
Annotation, or the use of sticky notes, is one of the first tools she discusses and one I have been using forever. (Digression: I was delighted that my sister worked for 3M during my undergraduate years when she introduced us to Post-It Notes and Tape-Flags. All my texts since that time have been punctuated with little bits of paper and plastic.) Showing students my annotated texts has inspired many to follow suit – with even greater organisational and colour-coding gusto.
Tovani, though, goes further. She invites us to plan the annotation students make on texts with specific connections to aid comprehension. She writes that ‘By the time students enter middle school, they have begun to rely on their teachers to tell them what their reading is about.’ (P.98.) Making annotations or sticky notes which record the teacher’s explication, e.g., ‘Here Hamlet is referring to blah...’, is not helpful for individuals trying to comprehend the text. Instead, Tovani argues that the students try to make the following, more personal, connections:
  • Text to self: Connections between the text and the reader’s experiences and memories.
  • Text to world: Connections the reader makes between the text and what she/he knows about the world (facts and information).
  • Text to text: Connections the reader makes between two or more types of texts. The reader may also make connections relative to plot, content structure, or style.  
Tovani argues that by making personal connections it allows students to ‘hold on to [their] thinking as they process text’. This one strategy has the potential to improve student comprehension when encountering the reading material accessed in any subject. And there are many others in this book.
Cris Tovani writes in her conclusion ‘… that comprehension strategies are really thinking strategies and are used in every aspect of our lives.’ (P. 109.) All teachers know this on some level. With greater knowledge of strategies, every teacher could be teaching comprehension, and therefore thinking, every time their students engaged in reading.