Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Planning a writing workshop

It's interesting the way it all starts to come together. I am planning the next workshop for our inquiry group of pre-service teachers, who are currently away from campus on their final, five week teaching practicum.
This session will be a writing workshop: an opportunity for them to share and reflect critically on their experiences during their practicum so far. Hopefully, they will bring along some in progress writing to share (their impending assignment is an extended critical narrative about the teaching of writing).

Preparing for this workshop is bringing to mind some of the workshops that the Advocacy Group organised (when we still existed as a 'formal' entity) a few years back. This notion of writing (and talk) as a form of advocacy is something that I hope the pre-service teachers will be able to 'take away' with them after their participation in their group, even if they don't continue to experiment with new media, new literacies and the other buzz words next year.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

A common table

I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment as I reflect on all that we have achieved so far with the English and new media inquiry groups that we have set up at Monash.
The opportunity stemmed, initially, from a government funded project which enabled universities around the country to second teachers in schools to work with pre-service teachers in universities. The idea was to use the experienced teacher to help university lecturers develop curriculum that 'skilled' pre-service teachers up to be more confident about using 'ICTs' in the classroom. Of course, there are all sorts of tension and issues associated with an approach like this, with the teacher 'mixin' it wid th kids' each day positioned as the 'expert', rather than considering the prospect that such a partnership might be mutually beneficial. It certainly has been for me.

Needless to say, we haven't really adopted the expected approach to this project. What we have done is set up two inquiry groups, one for interested pre-service English teachers at Monash, the other for practising teachers (all Monash graduates).

The pre-service teacher group (with an amorphous collection of around 15 members)  has met together four times now. Each week, we explore a different avenue into multimodality, with a view to engaging in some critical discussion about the issues, challenges and possibilities that each avenue raises. We have explored multimodal narratives, such as Inanimate Alice and Such Tweet Sorrow; web 2.0 tools for creating texts, such as flickr, storybird and pixton; we have created our own digital narratives using images from Shaun Tan's picture books and art. It was wonderful to hear, after catching up with some of them last night, that our workshops have made them feel excited about the possibilities and what they can achieve with their classes during their final five week practicum.

The practising teacher group is composed of teachers from a rich variety of school contexts. They range from Monash graduates in their first year out, to teachers who have been in the profession for twenty-odd years. Each one of them has been an exciting and dynamic presence in the group. We have met twice, face to face, over pizza, nibblies and wine. There is already a lovely rhythm to the conversation that develops, for each member of the group has so much to contribute. In our last session, a few members of the group took the lead by sharing snapshots of their practice. One teacher shared screen grabs of the 'Pride and Prejudice' facebook profiles that her students had created, and the discussion that unfolded amongst the group in response to these artefacts was fascinating. About playfulness, identity, language, experimentation, dialogue... Another teacher spoke about podcasting student feedback instead of writing it, but her approach was actually about far more than that. She spoke about how she felt that she was now responding as an interested reader of her students' work, instead of assuming the mantle of 'the teacher'. Another teacher shared these amazing ‘tweets’ from year 8s in a history class (she called the activity ‘twitstory’). I don’t think that she had realised, initially, just how cool they actually were. She gave each student a tag , such as #battleofhastings and they had to come up with a relevant tweet. They were just brilliant. So funny and so clever.

I can already sense that this group will take on a life of its own, beyond the span of the government-funded project that has enabled it. It is a testament to the value of collaborative inquiry and the possibilities that arise when you get a group of passionate English teachers around a common table. 

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stumbling over unpublished blogposts…

(from July, 2010

I have spent the past few days in Perth, attending the AATE conference for teachers of English. This afternoon, deciding not to attend a keynote presentation on phonics, I walked beside the Swan River. In a garden near the Burswood complex, I found two sculptures. In a way that felt rather serendipitous, looking at these sculptures and reading the plaques nearby, seemed to capture the 'lessons' at the forefront of my mind after listening to the voices of various researchers, educators, and even a lawyer, over the past few days.

The first sculpture that I stumbled upon was entitled 'The Storyteller'. The figure represented was Mary Durack, a local historian. In the sculpture, there are two 'Marys' represented- a young girl, representing Mary's youth, and Mary as a woman, taking on the role of an ancestor passing on a family history. The older Mary reads a book entitled 'The Swan River Saga' to her younger self, and so the narrative within its covers acts as a link between generations, or ways of knowing the world- as a child and as an adult.

Conferences of this size always seem to convey this dichotomy to me- experienced voices and newer voices, conversing in the same space. The opportunity to listen to Bill Green talking about his 3D model of Literacy, for example, brings it to life in a way that cannot be captured in quite the same way as printed text. He reflected on the idea of using a model, such as his, as a vehicle for 'thinking' and 'talking' about literacy- a point of shared understanding, or a common starting point, that then forges the possibility of re-thinking and re-making our own model or metaphor. He stressed the importance of conceptualising literacy in a way that 'does justice' to the practice of literacy. The need for a framework that is rich and generative instead of reductive and without the potential to shift and grow through changing times.

In the same panel discussion, Catherine Beavis applied Green's model to the teaching of digital literacies. As is typical in discussions about digital literacies amongst teachers, there was some disquiet expressed about teachers' knowledge of the 'operational' aspects of technology- and whether their lack of knowledge impedes their ability to use digital technology in creative and generative ways in their classes. I really appreciated Catherine's response to this- that teachers need to have sense of what they are looking for in student-generated digital texts- of how to articulate their understanding of the evidence of student learning in the 'product'. In this way, Green's model becomes a useful framework for analysing student-created texts as well as 'reading' the texts of others or planning for learning. It made me reflect on the complexities of assessing multimodal/digital texts that my students have created in the past.

Some of my students have produced digital texts that have had a pronounced effect on me, and their peers for that matter, as the 'audience'. Most of my work in this area has been about merging poetry with digital technology and multimodality. My students have created multimodal interpretations, incorporating sound, music, images and animation, of poems by Plath, Blake, Dylan Thomas... the list goes on. My initial response to the texts that they create is often driven by emotions stirred by the music, the images, and the appropriation of the poet's words by the student. They can be profoundly moving and often seem to suggest an engagement with and understanding of the nuances of mood, language, and imagery in the poem in far more sophisticated and subtle ways than they may be able to demonstrate in a 'typical' poetry response like an analytical essay.

But, more recently I have found myself wondering how much of those nuances are suggested by design and how much are made possible by the affordances of the technology platform and the sensibilities of the audience. The same difficulties arise in assessing all forms of writing, I suppose, but when the technology becomes more than just a tool and begins to shape or direct student work... then assessment starts to become a little more complex and requires more critical thinking. And, I haven't really figured all of this out yet, but I can see the Green's model might be useful for me in this respect, too.

The second statue that I came across on my walk was called 'Hopscotch: Children at Play'. The positioning of the three child figures captured the feelings of exhilaration, absorption, immersion that characterise children at play. Alongside the statue was another Hopscotch that children could use to mimic the game played by the frozen statues. In this way, the statue was no longer a piece of art to 'observe' from a distance, but something to interact with- a source of imaginative play. The plaque described at the concept at work as "one of participation. Visitors to the park are encouraged to join in this simple but fun filled activity." In the final paragraph, the author (the artist?) states, "it is hoped that in this day of sophisticated electronic amusements children can learn to recapture the mood of a by-gone age by taking part in this traditional game".

This notion of 'play' has certainly been a notion that discussions have swirled around and touched on in this conference.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New beginnings

I'm back. :)

I find myself, once again, arriving at a new beginning and so it feels natural to return to this blog and, hopefully, turn it into a new space. (a space that I will visit regularly- I hope!)

I have just embarked on a part-time secondment at M Uni, which means that for the remainder of this year I will be working across different spaces... my school... an education faculty in a university... other schools.... digital realms....

I'm excited, and nervous, about the prospect of shaping a new identity for myself (one more addition to my collection of multiple selves) in this university space as a... as what? Which label to affix here? And do I even deserve this shiny new label? (shh... don't tell anyone that I haven't figured that out yet)

One of the goals of the government-funded project that I am involved in (henceforth to be known as TTFF in case I want to write critically in this space further down the track at the risk of google gremlins tracking me down) is to improve the ICT capabilities of pre-service teachers before they enter this 'brave new world' of future-oriented curriculum documentation and classrooms full of digital natives. That's the rhetoric, anyway. I'm not particularly interested in buying into that sort of discourse. What I am interested in is the prospect of participating in, and providing opportunities for, some rich, ongoing conversations about English teaching, technology, what matters and what is possible, between pre-service teachers, English teachers and teacher educators.

The challenge is that there are so many possibilities.