Wednesday, September 21, 2005

News break. Fraud still stressed despite hols.

First week of sure to be fleeting school holidays, but still can't stop thinking about school, particularly Year 12 English, and how my students will fare. It's also my second year running of being the parent of a Year 12 student, which adds considerably to the stress load. I'll be glad when the final exams are over and my kid - currently watching television and eating a late breakfast prior to hopefully doing some work - is off enjoying a well earned vacation. I've foregone my own trip up north this year to accommodate the exam schedule of my kid's school. It runs for the second half of week one of the hols and the first half of week two. The coordinators - well, those who have to supervise exams - at that school have my deepest sympathy. At my own school, we schedule practice exams for the first three days of term 4. Piles of marking under pressure on the first weekend back, but at least I'm spared working during the hols. (Marking on the weekend? What else is new?)
Chris Wheat's article in The Age about the proposed English Study Design made lots of sense. Perhaps because his views coincide with my own.
My kid's on MSN now she's finished brekkie.
Time to nag.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

VCE English 2007 English Lite?

I’ve been reading the debate in The Age about the proposed 2007 VCE English/ESL Study Design with much interest. Tony Thompson ("English Lite is a tragedy for students", The Age, 12th September, 2005) laments ‘dumbing down’ in the new Study Design. He also says he teaches in an ordinary suburban secondary college. I have a bit of insider knowledge here. Both my kids recently attended that ordinary college. I, too, teach in an ordinary suburban secondary college; a different one. Perhaps some colleges are more ordinary than others.
Thompson says “a few years ago, we pulled To Kill a Mockingbird from the year 10 reading list. The students have never stopped complaining and next year it is going back on.” Interesting. Personally, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I first read it in 1970. I’ve enjoyed teaching it over the years, too. The first time was back in 1979. The last time was in 2002. (Maybe if I’d applied the multimedia approach, as I did with Of Mice and Men, my year 10 kids might have enjoyed it more.) Unfortunately, many of them didn’t have the skills to read the text, so worthy classic or not, what’s the point if your kids can’t read it? (And there’s always the risk that the ‘well-meaning’ English teacher will read the whole thing aloud to the captive audience! One enterprising student carried a little pillow in his backpack so he at least knew he could sleep during this ‘well-meaning’ teacher’s English classes.)
We no longer booklist Mockingbird at our school. I’m unaware of any complaints from students or parents. No one has begged to return it to the booklist, not even the teachers. Nor do we force students to read Macbeth at Year 11. My focus is improving literacy. My aim is to booklist texts that most students are able to, and will want to read, even if they’re relatively ‘easy’ reads. (At year 10, we booklist Bernard Beckett’s Jolt. Worthy themes. Driving narrative. Most students and teachers love it.)
I don’t see the proposed English Study design as lacking intellectual rigour. If the course lacks rigour, that will probably be down to the people interpreting the course at school level. One can’t just rely on ‘doing’ a text each term, an issues SAC and the craft of writing then a bit of a run up to the exam with a few practice Writing Tasks and analytical text responses. One might have to be a bit more inventive. For me, the present Study Design has almost become a bit of a comfort zone. (I still remember all the freaking out that was happening when VCE was introduced in 1991. That was a fun year. The year of English as political football. I digress.)
Perhaps we should be encouraging those students more inclined to enjoy reading and analysing books to take English Lit Units 1 to 4.
I’m pleased the ‘old warhorse’ (Thompson's term) issues unit is still there. When I’m teaching issues, I tell my students that this is the most important part of the course. I accept that many of my students will never read another book after they leave school. (Of course I tell them they don’t know what they’re missing when they tell me they can’t understand how I could possibly enjoy reading.) But they will certainly be deluged by the media and they need to be able to recognise how easily they can be manipulated. (Outfoxed was a text we included in our Year 12 course this year. Worth watching.)
At present, we teach three VCAA listed texts at VCE, as do many schools. The other text is decided at school level. So, in 2007, we’ll teach two from the VCAA list, and no doubt, several others.
In my ordinary school, there’s no way I’d ever teach Hamlet at Year 12, even though I love it. It’s not about me.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Of Mice and Men goes multi-media

Inspired at this year’s VATE conference by Sarah Boland, author of To Love Veronica Bee, I thought it was time to give the hoary old beast, Of Mice and Men, the multimedia treatment. I explained the concept to my Year 10s. (And by the way, for the past three years, most of these students have been passive recipients of entire novels being read aloud at them.) They were to read the entire text, then produce an ‘art form’ based on their reading. We had a bit of a discussion about what they could do and they actually seemed moderately aroused by the idea. Is it do-able? I asked, knowing little about getting students’ work on-line. Yes! beamed Girl In The Back Corner, normally resistant to anything. That was enough for me.
Thought I’d need to be very regimental about deadlines for this project, so I set the due date four weeks in advance. The students seemed okay with that. I intended to use the expertise in the classroom to overcome my shortfalls with technology. (You have to understand that I’ve never even held a video camera.) I devoted all class time for each of the four weeks to completing this project. To assuage my fear that they might not actually do anything during that time, I anchored them, and me, in their regular language development program, so they were submitting written work each week and getting their usual feedback.
The outcome? Seven weeks later, the project is still a work in progress. The positives? More students were engaged in what they were doing. The whole experience reminded me of my drama teaching days. Kids who work, get on with it; kids who bludge are even more conspicuously bludging.
We had some Japanese exchange students and their teachers visiting the school at the time. Very conservative people. (Our Japanese teacher, bit of a comic, warned me not to mention the war to one of the older men!) Anyway, these teachers wandered into my chaotic classroom. Students sitting on tables, hats on, swinging their legs; someone rolling on the floor in the corner; the Japanese exchange student seemed bemused at the freedom compared to his school back home. I asked him what it was like at his school. Another student translated my question and the boy keyed in what translated to ‘discipline’ and ‘regime’ on his little computer.
I explained the project to the visiting teachers, and despite the mayhem, I managed to throw in a couple of words like ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘ICT’, Middle Years Literacy, VELS – like they really cared! – and pretended, fraud that I am, that I was in full control of a planned, highly educational, literacy enhancing ‘unit’. Smiles set on their faces, they bowed out of my classroom. Wonder what they thought.
So what did my students do with Steinbeck?
Two groups decided to make films of scenes. Both groups wrote huge scripts; lines were rehearsed. The girls filmed Lennie and George doing the ‘ketchup’ scene. They dressed up and brought props. I was treated to the sight of this little group, sitting amongst the trees, one of them stabbing at the top of the can with a knife (!) and Lennie, improvising in a southern drawl saying “Why don’ you just use the ring-pull, George.” Pity their video camera wasn’t working properly. No sound. They had to do it all again.
The boys did the fight scene where Lennie crushes Curley’s hand. They didn’t bring along any props, but as they were filming in the sick bay, they took advantage of what was available. So Curley wore a surgical glove to keep his hand soft. This was a feature of the film. So was the mercy dash through the admin block and out to the canteen, with groaning Curley and his mashed hand on the sick bay stretcher. A couple of concerned teachers made spontaneous cameo appearances.
Both videos are in the process of being edited.
Three students decided they were going to write a children’s picture book based on the novel. These girls struggled to motivate themselves. Full of good intentions, but quite often off track with Dolly and gossip. Then they had a fight and one of their group, Girl In The Back Corner, decided to go it alone. What did she do? Presented a very nice looking book of character studies, but with very little evidence of actual engagement with the text. She copied the lot from a text book. No doubt developed her copying and typing skills. The other two approached me at the eleventh hour to show me their kids’ book. In one illustration, two cartoony hayseedy looking bumpkins are sitting under a couple of trees by a stream A blonde frilly floozy is talking to them. The accompanying text says: This is Candy, Curley’s wife. She’s going to give her money to George and Lennie so they can buy the farm they’ve always wanted.
- Have you actually read the book?
- Bits of it.
- Well, you didn’t read the bit about Candy being a bloke.
They panicked. One of them did an all-nighter and managed to produce a very effective cartoon strip, which the other one coloured in.
Another student dressed up as Crooks, the stable buck, and filmed a plausible dramatic monologue. Another devised a Power-point slide show based on a chapter of the text. Another did a collage.
A couple of boys worked laboriously on a animation using Flash. This was particularly good, because one of these boys hasn’t done any work, at all, this year. He proved to be a bit of an expert and taught the other boy how to actually work the program.
Three boys did very little, but they did hang around on the periphery of the other groups and occasionally read the parts of absent students or operated the video camera. I have to see this as a positive. They were more involved than they are when we are doing more conventional English.
I learned how to operate a video camera and how to design web pages. I also had lots of exercise charging around the school checking on the various groups.
Did the kids have fun? Definitely. What did you learn? I asked. You’ve got to read the book! they chorused. You’ve got to cooperate; work as a team; learn your lines; learn to use the computer programs for animation and editing; keep on task. In their evaluation, however, they conceded that it was really easy, and tempting, to bludge. This is problematic. And the whole thing looks very casual and I spent a lot of time wracked with guilt because students easily got off track. Hence the frantic running from place to place. I suppose the lesson is to stick to deadlines, make sure the equipment is available and functioning properly and be prepared to push and support those students who are inclined to relax.
And no one said This is shit. Why do we have to read this shit book?

Check out Sarah Boland’s website It’s very inspiring.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

VELS pd activity for teachers with ADHD

The Fraud is at a meeting to discuss curriculum matters and the new Essential Learning Standards and how they will be implemented. Also present are department heads, level coordinators, the principal. It’s been a long day. It’s a long way from over. Around the long table eyes glaze over as more downloaded photocopies, in plastic envelopes this time, to give them increased importance, it seems, are distributed. The Fraud and her colleagues dutifully take them and put them in folders. And then we’re into an activity, the purpose is apparently to validate our current teaching practices; to model an activity which we’re to present to our own faculties. Write about a time when you really thought that you were teaching effectively. What were you doing? Why did it work? How many examples do you want? the Fraud asks. She scribbles down the required three examples. Next, we cut out our work. Our leader pastes our efforts onto coloured prism board. The Fraud is again amazed at how much pleasure some people gain from this cutting and pasting process. Kinaesthetic learners? The colourful display of our efforts is posted on the wall. Now we are given coloured sticky dots. We all must take four. We’re to stick our dots against the lessons with which we most identify; the best lessons. At this stage, Fraud has hit the four-thirty wall. It’s an age thing. Do I have to actually get up? she asks. Yes, says the leader. Fraud collects her dots and stands at the back of the group of her colleagues who are dutifully leaning in to read about others’ lessons. The LOTE teacher hits a few points with his Principles of Learning and Teaching knowledge. Gets a few dots. Fraud doesn’t get any. She’d like to think it’s down to her handwriting. The meeting concludes an hour and three quarters after it began. The Fraud ponders the purpose of the activity, which worked for some, on the way home. It failed to augment her understanding of VELS. Similar ‘hands-on’ activities have worked well in the past for the Fraud when she’s been teaching twenty-five year eight students, thirteen of whom have ‘diagnosed’ ADHD. Well, it worked for about ten minutes until the students worked out how much fun could be had by snipping the tops off the Blu-stiks and firing them at the ceiling, where they stuck. Some of them are still up there four years later.