Posted in Learning, Writing

Lesson #3

2004. Launceston, Tasmania. Lecturing to third year students I share with them an idea:

As a teacher

your job is to generate thinking

not control it.

I don’t know if it’s a truth (are there any of those left?) but it’s something I firmly believe. I hold that idea as a central tenant of my teaching. It’s important to me, part of who I am as a teacher. Part of my teacher identity.

****

 2012. Burnie, Tasmania. A first year student evaluation: Sharon wants us to think what she thinks.

I am caught by surprise. Shocked. Disappointed. Silenced. Immobilised. I can’t move on/get past it/let it go.

I want to, but it’s like a pebble that I can’t dislodge. Sharon wants us to think what she thinks.

I shake my head, and silently protest, deny it.

Has my position changed in the eight years since I taught the third years?

If it has, why wasn’t I aware of it? If it hasn’t, why aren’t students aware of it?

****

Today. Burnie, Tasmania. I’m puzzled. I have a situation and I’m not sure how to deal with it. It speaks to thinking and learning and power and control and authority and … and … and who I am and who I profess to be and student perceptions and clarity and lack of clarity and what I can/could/should do.

****

I learn through conversation: sharing ideas,talking them out, hearing an idea spoken aloud so that I can determine whether it’s an idea worth pursuing or if it needs to be tweaked or tossed aside. Through conversation I hear others’ ideas and determine how they might fit within my worldview or why they might not. I engage in conversation to understand, to learn.

I learn through questions: asking them and answering them. When I ask a question I want to know what the person I’m asking thinks, feels, values, believes. I want to hear their response. I ask to challenge my own thinking. I am interested in different perspectives, different ways of understanding an idea/concept/theory/practice, different values, different beliefs. I ask questions to understand and learn.

I learn through writing. I come to understand myself-others-the world-ideas-thoughts-traits-distinctions-dichotomies-polarities through writing. I use language deliberately. I think about the words I write with and the meanings of those words and the way one word/one idea/one thought fits with another. I think about cadence and rhythm and connection and clarity. I write to understand and as I write, I learn.

I think.speak.question.write.realise.

I don’t have answers. I have ideas.

That’s my realisation. Today. Right now. This moment.

****

Ideas can be challenged, adapted, re-formed, tossed aside, melded with others, stretched, explored, evaluated, weighed, talked about, shared. They can enrich and empower.

****

The puzzle: I am an academic. For some students that means I have authority. For some students it means I have answers. I contribute to the discussion online and some students think it’s a truth: definite, complete, authoritative. I float an idea. I suggest, propose, offer. There is conundrum inherent in my contribution. I write authoritatively, I am in control of my ideas, my words, my expression. I am an academic. I should know and therefore I should tell.

Should I?

I don’t have answers. I have ideas.

Ideas can enrich and empower. They can be shared, talked about, weighed, evaluated, explored, stretched, melded with others, tossed aside, re-formed, adapted, challenged. Even my ideas. Yes, even my ideas.

I want students to do their own thinking. I want them to think about the complexities within the books they’re reading in Children’s Literature, to make connections to what’s going on in the world around them, to be aware of the world around them, to see other people’s realities, to have ideas and share them and get to the crux of the story/character/plot/reality writ large on the page.

I share my ideas … not my answers.

Ideas can be challenged.

Even mine.

 

Posted in Learning

Learning to write

How do we learn to write?  I don’t mean the physical act of writing – of picking up a pencil or crayon or pen, or even of tapping on a keyboard – rather I mean write as in stringing words together to make meaning.  How does that happen?  Some people, like Amanda Lydon, write beautifully, but her writing goes beyond simply stringing words together.  Amanda’s writing is underpinned by great ideas, metaphors (did you read her post on juggling?), symbolism (the different coloured ball symbolised aspects of her life) and humour, warmth and openness.  Where, how, when did Amanda learn to write like that and can we all learn to do that?

Are writers born or made?  Did Amanda learn those skills or was she born with them? Is writing something you can learn how to do more effectively? If it is, where might that process start?  With a desire to write more effectively?  With a desire to communicate a point of view creatively, clearly, concisely?  And then what? I know I want to write more effectively, but how do I make that a reality?

So many questions!  How about some answers Sharon?

My view is that you learn to write by reading, and you learn to write by writing.  I once was an adult literacy tutor and one of my students was an older Dutch man.  He couldn’t write … but he couldn’t write letters (Aa, Bb, Cc …).  His words didn’t flow from his pen because he couldn’t physically write well, or speedily.  He wrote in upper case only and it was only when he learnt to write in lower case that he finally began to write with some fluency.

I use the keyboard a lot – it won’t surprise you to know that I’m using it now – but when I have a good idea and I want to get it down on the ‘page’ my fingers have to move more quickly.  I watch the letters appear on the screen and when I see the red wriggly line, or when I type ‘like’ instead of ‘line’ I have to go back and correct it.  My thinking moves more quickly than my fingers and so by the time I have corrected all my errors the words that are in my head are fading.  So fluency – the speed with which you physically write – might hinder your writing.

So that’s one issue.  The physical act of writing and the speed with which that happens.  Writing slowly (whether that’s typing or with a pen in your hand) can inhibit your ability to communicate effectively.  The same is true of reading. Have you ever listened to a poor reader reading?  Poor … readers … have … to … p … pause … after … every (is that every Miss?) … w … wor … word … and … me … meaning … is … lost.  It physically hurts those of us who read fluently.  We want to jump in and read it for them.  And we want to do that because meaning is important.  Why read if we don’t gain any meaning from what it is we’re reading?  If we aren’t gaining meaning, if we’re just reading words on a page then we’re doing what some call ‘barking at the page’ (see http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/reading.htm).

Barking at the page shouldn’t be the goal of any reader, or of any teacher of reading.  Stabbing at the page with a pencil or pen shouldn’t be the goal of any writer, or teacher of writing.  Meaning … understanding … comprehension … these things are important because it is through gaining meaning that we come to understand things better.  By ‘things’ I mean the world, what’s right and what’s wrong, ideas, others’ points of view, ourselves, abstracts concepts such as institutional racism, imagination, education.  When we get to understand things better we become empowered.  If we know how our bodies work we can recognise signs of a cold and take action to slow it … otherwise we might imagine that a cold is the work of the devil.  If we are not empowered we are unsure of what is causing the pain/runny nose/aches/stuffy head.  We attribute it to things outside of our control, we won’t think to wash our hands, or not sneeze on others, or cover our mouths when we cough.  We would act in ignorance.

So we read (and learn) and through that process become empowered.  How, then, might we become empowered in our writing?  How might we learn how to write?  What does ‘good’/effective/high distinction worthy writing look like?  How might you learn to write high distinction-worthy writing?  The goal, of course, is not just for the grade (you might remember learning that external motivators don’t work over the long term), but for the empowerment that being able to write clearly and concisely brings.  You’ve all read great writing, whether that’s writing for children or for adults, but you may not have stopped to think about what made it ‘great’.  Next time you read a book, an article, a newspaper report (actually, probably not that) think about the ‘how’.  How did the author bring me to tears, make me laugh out loud, make me angry enough to take some action?

And then use what you’ve learnt from reading in your own writing.  Write.  Write.  Write.  And read, read, read.

Reading and writing … writing and reading.

And speaking … but that’s for another time.

Posted in Learning

This is what I predicted … and more

It’s another way of saying “I told you so”.  In my very first blog post I wrote the following: “I could do something nerdy and schedule a time in my calendar to write a blog entry each week, but I doubt I’ll do that”. 

I didn’t schedule time and I didn’t write a blog post each week.

But I’m going to try to write one now.  Here goes …

In two weeks’ time my Children’s Literature unit will be live for students to access.  I have spent hours on the assessment tasks, agonising over the wording, trying to work out the practicalities, thinking about the tasks from the students’ perspective.  Are the tasks too prescriptive?  Do they allow enough space for students to be creative in their response/s? Do they provide enough scope for students to demonstrate their understanding?  Is there room for independent thought and action and learning?

It’s hard to determine how students perceive assessment tasks: are they just hoops to jump through in gaining a qualification to teach?   What more might they be?

Oh, sad question.  Cynical even, and short-sighted. What do students understand about the purpose/s of assessment tasks though? Perhaps I should ask them.

I’m getting off-track.

I’m teaching Children’s Literature and one of the assessment tasks requires students to create a blog and post to it each week.  I thought I’d see how it feels.  Students have to write 500 words for each entry and each entry has a specific focus.  The focus for the first entry is ‘what is children’s literature?’.  I won’t answer that question, but I will address what I think is important about a unit such as this.

Reading to children and encouraging a love of books is vitally important for children’s development, curiosity, understanding of the world, pleasure in language, and oral language development (Lukens, 2007, p. xxiii).  It is interesting as a mother to watch my own children’s development: some of my children have engaged readily in reading and being read to, while others have had very little interest.  My eldest son, who is in his early 30s now, has only recently taken to reading.  He had found biographies to be much more engaging than any other form of literature and has read more books in the last twelve months than in the previous 31 years.  My mother is the same: she would much rather a biography (or autobiography) than a novel.

My second son will read just about anything.  He’s always had an interest in language and as a child loved playing with words and sounds. I have a video of him at three trying to read a CJ Dennis poem about the Triantiwontigongolope.

There’s a very funny insect that you do not often spy,
And it isn’t quite a spider, and it isn’t quite a fly;
It is something like a beetle, and a little like a bee,
But nothing like a wooly grub that climbs upon a tree.
Its name is quite a hard one, but you’ll learn it soon, I hope.
So try:
Tri-
Tri-anti-wonti-
Triantiwontigongolope.

My grandmother on my father’s side loved language too and could remember verses of poetry well into her 90s.  It’s a real joy to give to children – the love of language – and children’s literature, good quality children’s literature, read in an engaging way will bring hours of pleasure.

My favourite at the moment is Nick Bland’s The very cranky bear.  It starts: “In the jingle jangle jungle on a cold and rainy day … ” and already, just with those few words, you get the delightful rhythm established and you know you’re in for a real treat!  The illustrations are gorgeous and the look on the bear’s face when he’s all dressed up is priceless.    It’s a book designed to be read aloud and I know that children will ask for it again and again.

So that’s one advantage of studying a unit such as this: you get exposed to a range of children’s books that you can take into the classroom and read to children.  Another advantage is that you get to do a lot of reading.  When that reading is primarily children’s books it’s neither difficult nor arduous.  The problem is knowing when to stop.  And knowing that you can’t buy every children’s book you come across.  I have to tell myself that constantly.  My book pile is growing and growing and I’m fast running out of space on my bookshelves.

So, exposure to lots of quality books, time for lots of reading … and the third advantage of this unit is the opportunity it provides to talk about books and features of books.  One of the great things about reading is the experience of sharing what you’re reading with others.  Through talking about your reading you can come to a better understanding of the text features or the characters or the themes or the key messages (depending on the book you’re reading of course).

That’s enough for now.  Maybe I will do this each week.