Thursday, October 29, 2015

Teaching 'The Shawshank Redemption'. Again. And again...

I was slumped at my front desk during period 4, the last period of the day. My laptop was plugged into the data projector, blinds were drawn, the room was dark; a tad warm. My year 10s were watching – their third viewing – The Shawshank Redemption, the story of a banker, Andy DuFresne, wrongly accused of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to serve two life terms in the fictitious Shawshank Prison. During the students' first viewing they just watch; the second is stop/start and includes commentary from me and discussion. They concurrently complete written tasks to develop their understanding of plot, characters, themes and cinematography. The usual. You know the drill if you’re an English teacher teaching a film text
It was about 2.50 pm; 25 minutes until the final bell. I closed my eyes briefly and did that slight drift into sleep from which I awoke with a start. Don't think anyone saw, given the dark. (Have never actually fallen asleep in class but I need to watch myself.) To engage my mind and see if I could prevent the barely stifled yawning, I started writing. (Think I've already mentioned elsewhere that this is a great tip for staying awake during a boring meeting.)
I calculated that given I’ve taught year 10 for at least ten years at my current school, that’s at least thirty viewings of Shawshank. Add to that an extra fifteen viewings for the years I’ve taught two year 10 classes. Forty-five viewings. Plus the initial couple of viewings when I prepared my lessons. Consequently, I can just about recite every line.
We don’t mix it up much in English in these days of the ‘guaranteed viable curriculum’. No variety permitted. Seems there’s too much team planning incurred if we choose another film.
But never mind that. I love Shawshank. It’s an engaging, uplifting story with plausible characters and a terrific plot. It was written by Stephen King and effectively rendered for the screen by Frank Darabont. With its important themes of justice and the prison system and whether it rehabilitates it is perfect for our year 10s. It also addresses the idea of hope, of having an inner life and the importance of education and a sense of purpose.
But what really gets to me is that notion of people becoming institutionalised, being so enmeshed within a system that they can't function beyond it. Red, the narrator of the film, in a dialogue with Andy DuFresne, the main character, wonders where the last thirty years of his life has gone while he’s served time in Shawshank Prison. I watch the film, with this current generation of students, and wonder the same thing about the years - 35 - I've served in education.
Brooks Hadley, another significant character, paroled after 50 or so years in Shawshank, can't cope with the outside world. "He's an institutional man," says Red, explaining how the walls of Shawshank have a curious effect. At first you hate them and then you get used to them. On the inside Brooks is an important man, an educated man, the custodian of the library. On the outside, as an ex-con, he probably can't even get a library card. ( I said I could recite it but I paraphrased because I'm not quite sure.)
A student stayed back at the end of that class where I nearly fell asleep. He asked me to explain again what it meant to be institutionalised. While I was explaining about Brooks, again it struck me how I am also institutionalised. I've always been either a student or a teacher. At 59 - yeah, I know - I'm struggling to imagine myself retired. Sad, perhaps, but I feel I am very little without my profession. I'm totally used to running to bells and whistles.
The irony of teaching Shawshank again and again is that it has become part of the institution of our school. While our school is devoutly embracing the latest educational research it seems some of us are making safe reliable choices for which there is already a scheme of work and resources.
Another irony. when we first taught Shawshank we were concerned about its profane language, its brutality and its references to male rape. Today's kids seem almost inured to that kind of thing. They know it all. They've seen all the horrors of the real world on the internet. To think that fifteen years back we were so concerned about MSN messenger and kids creating MySpace profiles..
Final irony. Teaching Shawshank has become part of my own institutionalisation.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


So hard to sum up the experience of being GANAG-ed. Let's say, initially, after the two day professional development with GANAG guru, Jane Pollock and her incredible below bum length blonde hair, I barely had time to reflect on what I'd been teaching. The hair comment suggests I'm taking the piss. I'm not, but her hair was a presence at the PD. In a fascinating way. (Sorry, Jane, if you ever read this, but you must know everyone was thinking it, if not chatting about it.)

I'd been quite cynical about my school's approach to GANAG. It's non-negotiable; part of our professional review. We are required to implement this teaching and learning methodology. You can read my previous whining here, if you haven't already. But given that I'm a cynic/zealot special combo, I put my hand up for the Jane Pollock PD, about which admin and several subject coordinators were singing the praises. Happily, I got to go.

There's almost too much irrefutable research informing GANAG. As I've written before, the research based text, Classroom Instruction That Works (CITW) 2nd edition, seemed to me to be a bit of a tedious read. How good it was, therefore, to have the information presented in a compelling, highly engaging way by the charming and unwreckable Pollock. I haven't read the first edition of the text yet, but I'm hoping it will be more readable because Pollock was a co-author. And here's a link to the PDF. Read the introduction to that first edition and it will sum up what GANAG is about.

Meanwhile, Pollock's PD training excited me. After the PD I couldn't wait to type up the notes I'd furiously made during each session. Couldn't wait to return to school and deliver lessons that were going to engage and inspire even the most reluctant kids.

That was eight weeks ago. GANAG initially made me work mind-blowingly harder as I tried to implement new systems, some of which have worked. So what's changed?

1.  I rearranged the desks in my room into rows of pairs to facilitate 'pair/share' - see CITW - because it's a 'high yield teaching strategy' which enhances students' learning. Students protested loudly. One year 10 boy almost cried and refused to come out of the corner. The year 11s got into one lesson ahead of me and returned the desks to their previous formation. I re-rearranged them and encouraged the pair/sharing so students, through discussion, could clarify and reinforce their learning.

I persisted for about two weeks before the resulting chaos started to seriously interfere with my chi - the energy force that runs through all living things. Call me anally retentive but I reverted to the previous 'horse-shoe' desk arrangement. Apart from my chi hurting, I was sick of looking at students' backs; found that students' talk was unrelated to my teaching goals; that I'd actually facilitated little gossip hubs and reduced the learning in the classroom. Was wasting time getting students to stop chatting and turn around so they could actually read the learning goal on the board.

Pair/share worked so well during Pollock's PD with a group of enthusiastic teachers. My kids thought it was party time; that their teacher had 'lost it'.

2.  The goal - the initial G of GANAG. At the start of each lesson, the learning goal, derived from the appropriate curriculum standard, is displayed on the white board . Students have been issued goal sheets and have immediately copied the goal and given their initial self-assessment of their effort and understanding.

No, I'm kidding. I write the goal on the board, then I have to distribute the goal sheets so students can copy out the goal. I collect the goal sheets at the end of each lesson because if the sheets leave the class room with the students several students won't bring them back next lesson. (Funny. They never forget their mobile phones.)

At first, when I distributed the sheets many students moaned. But I've persisted with this one and the students did indeed get used to it, as Pollock assured us would be the case. It's been a worthwhile process. Students know what they are supposed to be learning; they make honest judgments about their effort and understanding. Collecting the goal sheets each lesson allows me to quickly gauge students' learning. Yes, there are other ways of assessing this but the goal sheet provides an efficient record for me and the kids.

3. A is for accessing prior knowledge. This is the part where I begin the lesson by projecting a visual onto the front screen and writing a question next to it. For example, we'd been studying the text Chew On This. It's about the fast food industry. Prior to the lesson I Googled 'fast food images' and found a photo of an infant facing a huge plate of french fries. How does this relate to what we've been reading? I wrote on the white board.

Students instantly start talking about the image. They connect with their prior learning. Their neurons start making connections. They drop their gossip and tune in.

Have to say, this unfailingly works. Meanwhile, I mark the roll and after a few minutes we're into the lesson.

I thought this 'accessing prior knowledge' would be the most challenging aspect of GANAG for me; that it would increase my already heavy workload. In fact it's easy to find relevant images while I'm reading various media and social media on-line. I use Evernote and Everclip to save articles and images. It only takes a few minutes at the start of the day to set up my 'APKs' -  GANAG-speak - as open tabs on my computer,

As for the final NAG, I may or may not write about that later.

There is heaps more to being an effective teacher than GANAG, of course. However, I'm grateful for having participated in Pollock's GANAG in-service and love it when I learn something new that actually improves my teaching effectiveness.