Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shakespeare's sonnets with middle school students

Experienced a little frisson this morning as I was preparing for my year 8 poetry lessons.  Shakespeare telepathically communicated with me from somewhere circa 1590.  He was talking to me.

In my youth I wasn't a big fan of Shakespeare.  I enjoyed Macbeth in Form 5, taught by a great teacher. At fifteen, I also liked the idea that I was studying Shakespeare.  But more or less left to my own devices in Form 6, through a special combination of my own ignorance, immaturity and an uninspiring first year out teacher, Othello was pretty much lost on me.  I'm better now, you may be glad to hear, given I've been teaching English for over 30 years.

My copy of Shakespeare's sonnets is a Signet Classic. In 1975 I covered it in some recycled plastic.  The plastic has a red RCA records logo on it.  I'd saved it from some throw out pile when I was a sales assistant at John Clements Records in the city. Melbourne, that is.  Loved that holiday job.  Was actually sad to leave when I finished my degree and had to start teaching.  (Sorry, can't remain focused and don't really care.  Just saying.)

The pages of my Signet Classic are 'maiden' - see paragraph 2 - and yellowing with time.  There's an irony there, if you're familiar with Shakespeare's sonnets.  That tyrant Time, 'Devouring Time', has been at my little book, and the rest of me.

I've been 'doing' some poetry with my year 8s.  I always like to begin this work, as you do, by getting the students to write out the lyrics of a song they like that they can remember, or look up on their phones.  This really appeals to most of them, despite my 'no profanity' clause.  (Have to explain what profanity is, but that's okay.  Vocab development.)  I tell them they can choose anything, even a nursery rhyme - sad how many kids don't know what they are (and these same kids watch Underbelly and other unsuitable stuff on their own in their rooms).  I tell them they can even choose the theme from a television show. 

To demonstrate I sang the theme from Gilligan's Island - a ballad?  They loved that, and how surprised they were to hear me singing, quite tunefully and going the full soprano on the last line.  Have to say it took some courage to sing the whole song, complete with swaying motions when the weather started getting rough. 

The kids didn't mock me.  They clearly enjoyed the show and understood the task.  I told them they could sing their lyrics if they felt confident.

They also listened respectfully when I recited Vanessa Amorosi's Shine, especially given I'd told them that her original refrain had been 'Everyone you see, everyone you know is going to die'.  Considered too dark, apparently, hence the change to something quite different, if perhaps less striking.  Or so I've heard.

So the students wrote their song lyrics and recited or sang their lines in front of the whole class.  Quite confronting for them.  A few students opted out but most had a go.  My theme was that words have power.  Even a pair of students reciting Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star created a certain mood and presence when they took turns to say each word.  They added value to the words and the student audience could tell.

One boy with a lovely voice sang Bruno Mars' Grenade.  The audience was moved by his rendition and easily able to appreciate the power of the imagery in the words.  I was able to segue into a talk about the pain of unrequited love; how so many songs - so much poetry - is about these human emotions.

Which led me to dig out my old Signet Classic and read a few sonnets; wonder whether I could possibly read these arcane verses with my year 8s, many of whom are below their expected VELS level in reading and writing. 

I photocopied sonnets 16 to 19 on one A4 page for the students and searched for some translations on-line.  Too easy.  It was sonnet 18 that worked its magic on me.  I had shivers and tears sprouted, because there was Shakespeare's adoration for his love, and his love alive in his words, just as he said it would be.  Shakespeare writing it back there in 1590 something, and me thrilling to it in 2012.  Felt amazing.

And what's more, my year 8s, who've never heard any Shakespeare before and often struggle with the simplest text, were moved by the words and the experience.  They listened respectfully to my very brief history of Shakespeare's times and enjoyed the sound of the words in the sonnets. 

Once more Shakespeare was immortalising his love down through time.

It worked.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Fruit watch. Another side of secondary teaching.

Best to keep on the move on yard duty, twenty-five minutes of which I endure each week.  (Full-time teachers get more.)  Even better to grab some barbecue tongs and a bucket and pick up kids' rubbish.  The time goes more quickly, the yard gets cleaned up and I can avoid engaging too closely with some of the bestial behaviour one is sure to encounter on one's tour.

But on this particular Friday, fate had other plans for me.

Morning briefing.
"Teachers on yard duty in Zone A need to be particularly vigilant.  Especially at recess.  We've had some serious fruit throwing incidents."  That's the principal speaking.  He does a spoonerism on fruit-throwing and laughs at his tongue trip.  It is hard to say fruit-throwing fast.

Guess who's on yard duty in Zone A at recess.

I'm to plant myself amongst the picnic tables and watch for rogue Year 10 fruit throwers.  Great.  Standing still on yard duty invites confrontation with randoms: kids who don't know me and don't care that I Am A Respected Former VCE English Guru and Coordinator.  Kids will generally utilise me as they see fit.

On good days, especially when the sun's shining, some kids will bail me up for the simple pleasure of a catch up.  I love that.

Other days, I can be a prop in whatever boisterous game they're playing.

"Miss! Miss! Did you see what he did?" they cry as they climb up each other.  I'm also 'barley'; the safety zone.  If a kid's chasing you, run behind 'Miss'; dodge behind her, grab her by her hips and whip her around, your human shield preventing your assailant from catching you.  That's me.  Buffer zone.  No matter that buffer zone is a 56 year old woman.

That's all good; part of what I signed on for back in 1974 when I accepted my studentship and guarantee of three years work in one of our state secondary schools. Thirty-two years later...

But on this particular TGIF, I am stuck guarding Zone A, at recess. I'm eating an apple.  Several teachers scurry by on their way to the refuge of the staff room.  "Now don't throw that apple core!"   They all say words to that effect; wagging fingers.  Hilarious. 

I'm already attracting student attention.  A couple of big boys gawp at me and laugh.  I resist flipping them the bird.

My problem? I can't ignore all the blatant littering going on around me when there are three big green bins in the immediate area.

Girls are generally more discreet than boys.  Girls gather in groups on the very expensive and quite aesthetically pleasing fake lawn. (Seriously, this stuff works.)

They cross their ankles and lower themselves effortlessly to the ground as thirteen year old girls are wont to do.  Some hands are thrust deep into those little multipack snack bags.  They blithely drop empty bags by their sides and let the breeze have them.  Or they stand simultaneously and walk away, leaving a circle of tetra packs, orange peel, half eaten apples and sandwiches.

"Girls!  Pop your rubbish in the bin, thanks!"  I have to shout over school yard noise but my tone is polite.
"That's not ours.  It was there when we got here." They're all stunned by my rude accusation.  "Is she serious??  Oh my god!!  Get a life!!"
"Put it in the bin! Now!"

They sullenly comply, casting me filthy looks, muttering.

How dare I demand that they put their own rubbish in the bin?  Clearly I'm deranged and a Big Bitch to boot.

If I have somehow communicated that this school yard interaction is benign, it's not.  You have to really stand your ground.  Doesn't affect everyone like this, but my little heart will be thudding in my chest.  It's a battle of wills.  Yes, I know.  I could just ignore it, and often I do.  But yesterday I was stuck there.

That was when a portly boy strolled down the steps.  He threw the lid of his icecream cup vaguely towards the bin.  Suppose I should have just given him credit for trying and picked it up myself.  But I didn't.

"You missed," I say.  Well, he's had eye contact with the hapless teacher on fruit watch.  What could I do?  "Go back and put it in the bin."

He keeps swaggering towards his group of mates, all the time, eye-balling me.

I step towards him to block his path.  "You can either pick up your own rubbish, or you can clean up this whole area."

Reluctantly he backs up. leans down and hurls the lid into bin, snarling at me now.  He stomps to his group who've been watching the show, which unfortunately must go on.  He scoops a huge spoonful of icecream and plops it onto the fake lawn. 

"Clean it up."
"No."  He's huge; towers over me.  The crowd closes around me and Mr Plop, who continues to defy me. 

My hackles rise as I'm  taunted by twelve year olds, none of whom I can put a name to.  My arms are out now, clearing a space around me.  I order them off.

"Coordinator's office.  Now."  Mr Plop stands his ground.  I reach behind him and steer him in the appropriate direction.
"Get your hands off me!" this gruff giant threatens.
"Yeah, what are you going to do?"

Without further physical contact I barrel the kid along the gauntlet of year 7s who part in front of him, with his melting strawberry swirl in one hand and his plastic spoon in the other.

He sits outside the coordinator's office and I feel ridiculous explaining the situation to the twenty-something male coordinator - who's in his second year of teaching, BTW, but, you know, he's the Year 7 coordinator; he has power - and a shitload of work that he's welcome to.

Mr Plop, true to form, denies any transgression.
"So you're calling me a liar?" I demand.
"Yes," he sneers.
"Leave it with me," says my young champion. 

I trail off back to fruit watch, dragging my dignity behind me.  Definitely didn't win that one.

Bet Mr Plop is in my class next year.

First world problems.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

PD workshop worked; Edmodo, Wallwisher and Changing the Paradigms

Even though the business of education is teaching kids, I find it a relief when they aren't actually in the school.

Not that I don't generally enjoy teaching.  It's just that one never knows how much stress - ie. shit - one is likely to incur in each 75 minute period.  So Thursday, the day before a pupil free day, felt like a Friday, and Friday, Curriculum Day, felt like a gift; a junket.

First mid-year curriculum day we've had for a while, like most Victorian state schools. For the last four years, under a different state government, the curriculum days had all been bunched up at the start of the school year.  I've found that arrangement wanting.  Lots of time wasting for various reasons.  And I'm quite cynical too, in case you hadn't noticed.  Most of the PD offerings at school have seemed to me to be 'under-graduate' and I'm too long in the tooth for that.  There have been exceptions, of course.  

Today's focus was ICT.  Given all our year 9s and 10s have been issued with notebook computers, this was timely.  As I've said, I'm keen to use the computers with my year 10s more effectively, even if it does mean assessing student work on-line.  

The day began inauspiciously when 80 plus of us crammed into the learning centre.  The principal had made a powerpoint.  The screen was so low as to prevent all bar those in its immediate vicinity from being able to see it.  I struggle with my eyesight at the best of times so that first half hour was literally a blur with me twisting, squinting and craning to see between the heads and shoulders of my colleagues.  Something about how we're no longer preparing students for one life-long career; things have changed.  To be honest, I don't remember much other than writing a note to my mate asking her if she thought I'd had my hair cut too short.  I did notice a student teacher opposite earnestly taking notes with a fountain pen.  Or perhaps she's already learned my trick of 'journaling' whilst feigning interest in the proceedings.  Just keep that brow furrowed, nod occasionally and incline your head in the direction of the speaker.

Next hour for me was a KLA - Key Learning Area, ie. Faculty - meeting.  More of the same, but not too bad now I'm not the coordinator.  Time to 'booklist' texts for next year.  Same old discussion.  Basically, the sixteen or so members of the English KLA have divergent tastes for various reasons. What some want to teach others want to drop and vice versa.  I no longer care.  I can 'teach' anything unlike some of my colleagues who fear setting a new text that may not have a prepared assignment.  Sheesh.

During the next part of the program we'd elected to attend one of three ICT sessions.  Unfortunately, before we could get started we all had to herd into the learning centre again for a useless ten minutes of the curriculum coordinator needlessly providing a summary of the contents of all three workshops.  Why? Why not just send us our separate ways so we can get on with it? Power trip?

 Happily, after this my day picked up.  My workshop was led by three male science teachers, two of whom don't ordinarily lead.  That was refreshing; different.  One is my vintage and one of my friends on staff.  So good to see someone who's seen it all, with 30 years of teaching experience, rolling creatively with the changes.  The second speaker is probably in his forties but is still a 'beginning' teacher.  (I could be doing this guy a disservice.  I'm estimating his age based on his bald head and a five o' clock shadow that developed into a full beard during a two hour session.  Yes, I know.  Irrelevant, but nonetheless remarkable.)  The third presenter is probably around 30 with perhaps four years teaching under his belt. 
Basically, the three of them prompted in me a storm of emotions and ideas concerning the way I teach.  I felt variously like an absolute beginner, an anachronism, borderline redundant and, happily, capable of changing and improving the way I teach some of my students.  (Not all.)

They began their session with a short film, Changing the Paradigms.  (Perhaps you've seen this RSA Animate film already.  Perhaps I'm the only teacher in Australia that hasn't seen it.  Highly recommended.)  It made a lot of sense.  Based on a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson, it's one of those powerful, assertive pieces that seduces the viewer with its matter-of-fact confident tone.  We didn't discuss the assertions in the film; it wasn't that sort of a workshop.  But it's something I wouldn't mind doing in the future. 

One thing posited in the film was the alleged 'epidemic' of ADHD and the consequential anaesthetising, with Ritalin and the like, of so many kids.  Robinson suggested, I think, a link between the hyper-stimulation of the 21st century and the phenomenon of ADHD.  Not so sure.  Those hyper-active easily distracted disruptive boys - usually - were certainly around, unmedicated, when I began teaching in the late 1970s.  I also remember how savagely they were beaten back in primary school in the 1960s, subduing all but the most extreme by my high school days in the late 60s and early 70s.  Those boys continued to get 'the cuts' regularly, administered by the principal, who strode around our western suburbs school in his academic gown.  Think it's more a case of some parents these days needing to 'pathologise' their kids' unorthodox behaviour and having the means to do so, given the willingness of medicos to prescribe Ritalin etc.  (I say this knowing my own son would have been beaten to a pulp by those strap and cane wielding school masters of my youth had he been born a generation earlier.)

The point? This film made me think about things, rather than sitting cynically feeling my time was being wasted, and it led appropriately into learning about what seem to be potentially more effective ways of teaching my year 10s.

I'd chosen this particular workshop because it was about using Edmodo, an educational Facebook of sorts.  But I also learned about Wallwisher, a web program that could enhance the way note-making occurs during discussions with year 10s. 

Love it when I learn something new, but I especially love it when presenters recognise that we're all teachers already and they take it to the next level.  All three presenters spoke efficiently - I could learn something there!  They didn't jaw on for the love of the sounds of their own voices; no time wasting.  They showed us the programs and got started.  It was easy to access the on-line tutorials and videos they'd prepared to explore the media.  Meanwhile, they modelled effective teaching by roving and assisting as required.  

It was very good, so much so that I, and many of my colleagues, turned up early after lunch for the second part of the workshop so we could get on with it.
Now to develop a bit of expertise and put it all into practice.  That just might help my year 10s.  My year 8s?  Na-ah.  That's a whole nother blog.

BTW, I hadn't heard of the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson.  It was worth going to school yesterday for that pleasure alone.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Fahrenheit 451? Welcome to my year 10 English class.

Ray Bradbury's imagined future is happening now, in 2012, in my school, and more especially in my Year 10 classroom. Last week, Guy Montag and his crew of firemen would have had to burn just four paperback copies of Bradbury's book. Irony.

Recently, every Victorian student in years 9 and 10 was issued with a small notebook computer. They all had their computers in class that morning, but do you think they could manage to bring the set text, Fahrenheit 451? Why did I even expect they would?

I had repeatedly reminded them to bring the text, all to no avail. Just about every kid in the class has got a mobile phone. Many of them have new iPhones. Most have the white headphones, plugged into at least one ear under a wadge of hair, or swinging around their necks. But many of them still haven't acquired, so they say, this book-listed text.

If I want to chat to them about The Shire, or Masterchef or their mums reading about sex in Fifty Shades of Grey, I'm on. But trying to get them to engage with something that uses figurative language - huh? - or complex ideas? Apologies to the writer of Fifty Shades if he/she uses figurative language. Don't know. Haven't read it. I'm currently getting my gratuitous sex courtesy of Boardwalk Empire. (BTW, the teacher's aide was keeping quite a poker face as she read Fifty Shades during Year 8 sustained silent reading recently.)

Re those free issue computers: Good that I'm getting lots of typed essays handed in - takes me twice as long to assess on line so I'm not going there again. Bad that plagiarism's on the increase. You have to be really limited to hand in something brilliant and not think the teacher is going to do a Google search. Tip to sad plagiarist students: at least put it into your own words. You never know, you might learn something.

And another thing. Students who've never done any work before are now eagerly flipping open their computers and concentrating furiously and quietly while I try to teach them the finer points of using language to persuade. Must be making tons of notes; all those intense, furrowed brows. As if. They're checking their uploaded weekend photos or browsing pictures of 'muscle cars' on line. And the rest.

So, taxpayers' hard-earned money at work. Well, at least in my class.

Yes, I know, I know. Computers are here to stay and I certainly love my gadgets and social media. These kids were born into this world and I'm an immigrant.

The task is for me to get the kids to use their computers to do some complex learning. I'm working on it.

Suggestions gratefully received.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Ab Circle Pro Obsession

Here's proof that I really am strange.  Read about my OCD and my Ab Circle Pro experimentation at Fraudster's Musings

Happy holidays to all those teachers out there who have just started their two week break.  Commiserations to those who haven't.

I'm celebrating no longer teaching VCE Year 12 English.  First term holiday and NO marking.  Hurrah!


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Me, Evernote and parent-teacher interviews

Note: ditched Evernote some time in 2016. They changed the conditions of use. Non-premium users were limited to use on two devices only, if memory serves, and the price for a premium subscription went up. Was good while it lasted. Changed to OneNote. It's free.

Yesterday was part one of the biannual torture: parent-teacher interviews.  I've blogged about this before.  Let's just say it was a four paracetamol gig; a variation on a theme that won't end until I leave secondary English teaching.  Just need to remember:  it's not about me.

What was different was my use of the Evernote app on my iPhone 3 - a tad slow, but functional all the same.  (I've just paid off my iPhone and I don't feel inclined to upgrade it just because the newer model is available.  Could be tempted by an iPad though.)

Heaps of tech-savvy teachers are already using the Evernote app. You can read about it in some detail on Richard Lambert's blog.

But as a new user, my experience is thus:

Having decided to give the Evernote app a try,  I photographed at least one piece of all my students' written work.  This added thirty seconds per piece of work to assessment time.  Yes, in my anally retentive way, I counted out the seconds.

You can get Evernote as a free app for your phone or iPad.  However, half way through my piles of marking I exceeded my monthly data upload allowance.  I bought the premium upgrade for $46.99 for a year.  Suppose it's cheap if you use it.

All the students' work is stored alphabetically on my iPhone and on the web, so I can access it anywhere.  It's easier to view the students' work on a computer monitor than on the iPhone, of course.  So without any other records, apart from the VELS grade in my chronicle, I can see at a glance the quality of each student's work, including their typical errors.  I also photographed my final comments.

Unfortunately, I couldn't use my laptop during the interviews because I was sitting in the centre of the indoor basketball court.  My laptop battery is on the wane and only lasts for 90 minutes.  But I could use my iPhone.

At the first round of parent-teacher interviews there's always the concern that one won't be able to provide accurate assessments for parents - given it's week eight of the school year and secondary teachers on a full load teach perhaps 125 students. 

I teach 75 kids this year.  Yesterday, during seven hours, I saw the parent/s of 45 of them.  Mostly, I was able to recall student details accurately.  However, for a number of students, or when parents wanted more specific information, it was Evernote to the rescue.  Had to do a bit of 'finger-spreading' on the screen to enlarge the relevant pieces of work sufficiently to see them, but it worked.  Think several parents were impressed with my efforts too.

So thanks Evernote.  And thanks Richard Lambert on Twitter for giving me the idea.  I expect my Evernote records will be invaluable come report writing time.

Meanwhile, I'm preparing myself to get ticked off tomorrow by the principal for playing on my iPhone during parent-teacher interviews.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Day off.

Day off today.  Besides weekends, I have two other days off a week.  I'm off work more than I'm on.  A good life.

As on every day off, weekends included, I wake up in the morning, full of big ideas of what to do with this brilliant pool of time ahead of me.  Start writing a novel - cos the last one was such a big success - not.  Write a blog.  Maybe.  Do a twenty k bike ride.  Too windy.  Such are my thoughts.

Could have rolled on my back all day in bed, reading.  Currently, I'm reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help.  If I was going to read anything all day, that would be it.  Great book set in Mississippi in 1962, so far, written from the perspectives of a couple of 'colored' maids working for rich white families.  Apparently there's a film too.  I'll get around to that eventually, I suppose.

But the truth is I can only read all day when I'm away from home on a holiday.  If I'm here, there are jobs to do, even though there are only me and my husband living here full time.  My son's in and out.  Tidying around the kitchen - ten minutes, max.  Make bed - three minutes.  Washing:  four minutes sorting and loading then Asko takes over.  Ten minutes hanging it out; five to bring it in; ten to fold and put away.  Gives the day a bit of structure.  Don't know why I felt I had to prune the agapanthus today, but there you go.

Could have spent a few units of time blogging about my feral year eights, but it's the same old.  The fourteen year old kid daubing ink all over the desk, chair and the kid next to him yesterday was a newie, but I'm hoping if I don't detail it, it will recede into my vacuous head.  In that group, it's all about four domineering boys and one domineering girl.  Me standing up the front trying to teach and these five kids keeping me too busy to do it effectively.  Still, it's a breeze compared to all that prep, marking and stress incurred teaching Year 12s for the past thirty years.  Middle school classes are busy at the time, but I've done no homework so far this year, apart from endlessly analysing it all and planning how to do things differently tomorrow to make a success of it.

Got a bit panicky trying to get onto the sodding Ultranet - the DEECT website - at about ten this morning.  Couldn't log on.  Tried the virtual help-desk and went around in circles.  Did a bit of to-ing and fro-ing on emails to colleagues for advice.  Nothing was useful.  Finally decided to start again by re-registering.  Got into the system to discover that not only am I already registered - derr - but I'm a 'designated administrator'.  Well, really, ROFL.  Couldn't do anything on that page so logged out and started from scratch.  Logged in successfully this time, using exactly the same user ID and password that had failed several times earlier.  But you know what?  I had no idea what to do once I got onto the Ultranet.  And clicking around left me no wiser.

It was about 11 am by this stage and the possibilities of my day off were drying up and my anxiety levels were rising.

Seemed like a good idea to ride that bike.  But only a few k.  And how did the wind manage to turn around while I was in the supermarket so that I was cycling into it on the way home as well?

So what's my point?  Too much time on my hands.  And loving it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Stranded in Saigon

Our travel misadventures in Vietnam continue.  Update at Fraudster's Musings.  Link in sidebar.

Cheers, sort of, again.  Fraudster.

First world problem in the third world.

So teachers get all these holidays they don't deserve? Well, I'm paying for it now. Lost credit cards, passports and cash in Vietnam about ten days ago. Read about it at Fraudster's Musings. Link in side bar. But hey. It's not life threatening. Cheers. Sort of.