(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.