Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!

Posted in Uncategorized

Manners and public discourse

While I have had a Twitter account for just over a year now, I have not, until recently, given it much attention. Nor have I given much attention to my LinkedIn account. Over the past two weeks, for a reason I have yet to understand, I have taken to checking my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts on a very regular basis. I read through the tweets and articles that arrive during the night while eating rhubarb and ricotta for breakfast, and then I check again at lunch time and regularly throughout the evening. My daughters would call “nerd alert” if they could see who I follow (ABC News 24; The Guardian; BBC World News; Oxford University Press, etc) but that’s okay. Nerds are usually quite harmless and I don’t mind being counted amongst their number.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The point isn’t to tell you that I’ve become somewhat addicted to Twitter and LinkedIn, and to the information, ideas, perspectives, thinking, opinions, moments of humour and sometimes outrage to which I am now exposed.

The point is to try to make sense, for myself as much as anyone, of some of the things I’ve read in recent times.

One of the tweets that came through on Friday was news of a message to members of the Australian Army by Lt. General David Morrison, AO who was responding to reports of unacceptable behaviour.

I also read tweets about the questions put to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, by (former) Perth radio presenter, Howard Sattler.

The two things became linked in my mind, and also called to mind the list of things others have said about and to Prime Minister Gillard over the last two and a half years.

One of the things that Lt. General Morrison said in his message to members of the Australian Army (and let’s face it, to the rest of us given that it’s on YouTube for all to see) is that “every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army”. What if we were to replace Army with “school” or “workplace, houses of Parliament, radio station or home”? Would what he said still apply? Are we responsible for the culture and reputation of where we work and live?

As an aside, he also said: “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. One thing I find interesting is that this hasn’t already been said loudly and clearly by an editor of a newspaper, a news director in a radio station, a senior executive of a TV station, a leader in the community … 

But I digress.

I stumbled across Angry is a Habit while reading articles on LinkedIn. It is a short blog post about habits. We have habits of behaviour, but Godin (the author of the post) suggests that our emotions can become habitual too.

I thought about this in relation to the words used by some in the media and wondered if the emotions behind their words are habitual ways of being. Why the need to pour hate and loathing and anger into the world? Is it just a habit? Do we, the consumers of these words, buy the emotion as well? Is it a package deal? When we read/hear/watch the angry, hate-filled words that we wouldn’t say to our boss, principal, Dean of the Faculty, chair of the Parents and Friends committee, head of the local arts organisation, do we buy the emotion too so that we get just as angry and hate-filled at whichever politician is being scorned, ridiculed, put down? Do the words cause us to feel particular things? Does hate and anger therefore spread through our communities in the same way that videos go viral on the internet?

From LinkedIn I also read Three words that will transform your career. In this article author Bruce Kasanoff claims that to improve our quality of life we just need to think “help this person” every time we encounter another person: “When you walk into Starbucks for coffee, think help this person about the barista who serves you. Instead of being frustrated that he isn’t moving fast enough, see if you can make him smile. Better yet, tell him to keep the change.” Kasanoff claims that this will “change your demeanour, your thought process, and the entire interaction.”

It is a similar sentiment to one put forward by David Foster Wallace in his now-famous speech to a group of university graduates in the US in 2005. While Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho amongst other works) considers Foster Wallace “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation“, others have been taken with Wallace’s notion of choice … we can choose to behave in certain ways, we can choose to see the world in particular ways, we can choose to look beyond the surface and (although he didn’t use these words) we can choose empathy. We can choose to live beyond our “default setting” (of being annoyed and frustrated by, for instance, the slowness of airplane passengers when putting their bags in the overhead lockers; of being annoyed and frustrated that even when someone is eighth in the queue for the ATM they still don’t have their purse out of their handbag when they “suddenly” find themselves first in the queue, which has now grown to 23 tongue-clicking, foot-tapping withdrawers of money). We can choose to think/live/behave/feel differently.

So what have I learnt from all this reading? What sense am I making from these seemingly unrelated tweets, articles, speeches, thoughts? It has something to do with manners and respectful behaviour … but it also goes beyond that.

For me, one thing is clear: We can change our habitual ways of thinking and acting. To do this, we first need to become aware of how our thoughts impact our behaviour, speech, interactions, emotions. We need to consider our habits of thought and emotion and then to do something about them if we find ourselves thinking/feeling/acting negatively/rudely/in an ill-mannered way on a regular basis.

Through a change in thinking we can transform others’ lives and in the process transform our own as well.

We can stop walking past what we know (deep down) we don’t accept. We can speak up for respect, care, kindness, professionalism and manners. We don’t have to accept the hate and anger of radio shock-jocks and political commentators (of whatever persuasion). We don’t have to accept their hate-filled, angry, vitriolic rantings, and their disrespectful questioning, and their words which claim that we are all somehow implicated in their tawdry games (we continue to listen, to watch, to read, to buy, to comment and thus give them credibility or at the very least our time).

We can choose to think for ourselves, read critically, and ask questions of the texts produced and served to us on a regular basis. We can live by habit, or we can choose to live consciously, being explicitly aware of the world around us and how we are being shaped by the views/words/actions of others (yes, even of me in this blog post), and the ways our views/words/actions shape others.

If we are teachers, then we need to be even more aware of that influence.

None of this is new of course. Educator Wayne Sawyer, in an editorial he wrote in English in Australia in 2005, noted that “our current students face a relentless barrage of shockjocks, media barons, advertising and corporate greed masquerading as common sense” (p. 4). Sawyer called on teachers to ensure that critical literacy was an integral component of their teaching. But in order to do that, teachers too must be aware of how their views are being shaped by the same shock-jocks and media barons that shape our students’ thoughts. And more than that, we need to know how to deconstruct the messages they (and we) consume and know how to teach students to unpack them.

We can choose … that’s what I’ve learnt. We can choose.

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

Being …

This year I took on a new identity … not, I hasten to add, in a witness protection kind of way. Nothing that dramatic! … but a new identity nonetheless.

I could say that I took on a new role … but with new roles comes new identities. We can choose to define ourselves by our new roles/identities, and thus think about ourselves differently. Being an academic means particular things. Being an under-graduate student means almost the polar opposite. We may choose to act in ways that are consistent with our new role and that might lead to inconsistencies in how we portray ourselves to the world. Will I be student today, or teacher? What does it mean to be a student in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my teacher or my peers; when I don’t get to hear their voices or even see what they look like? It’s a disconcerting experience. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a teacher in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my students, when I don’t get to hear their voices or see what they look like? Experiencing that as an online student heightens my awareness of that ‘disconcerting experience’ as a teacher of online students. 

In addition to thinking about myself in a different way and considering if I will act differently to signify this new role/identity, others see me in that new role and make different kinds of connections with me, or think about me in particular ways and so have their own view of who I am (which might not bear any relation to who I am when inhabiting a different identity/role).

My university tutors do not see me as a colleague; as someone who, like them, teaches in an online environment. They see me as a student – a distant one, it has to be said: one who doesn’t appear to be very engaged, who forgets to read her unit outline, who leaves assignments till the last minute, who doesn’t follow the requirements of the task as closely as she should, who doesn’t engage in conversations online, who hasn’t made connections with other students in the online environment.

For those of you in the know, why didn’t you tell me it would be like this? 🙂 If only you’d told me to read the unit outline carefully and repeatedly, or that I’d need at least 10 hours per week per unit to do full justice to the work I needed to do, or that learning to use new software is time-consuming and requires a great deal of independent learning and commitment and energy, or that coming home from work and having to study till late is exhausting, or that trying to find information when it’s in ten different places in the online environment is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole experience (it really isn’t all that difficult to put all the information required for weekly activities in the one place), or that reading all the other students’ posts can be mind-numbing and take up all the time I’d set aside for study (and seriously, do 18 year olds really like talk in that like annoying way where they like say a lot without like saying anything at all, you know, sort of, I guess, do you get me? Despite my student status I am still a teacher and despair over the abominable use of language on public discussion boards).

Not that it’s all bad of course. In one subject (Writing Professionally – actually I don’t know if that’s the name of the subject because for some reason I haven’t looked at the unit outline properly to even know what the unit is called), the tutor gives general feedback on our ‘writing watches’ (which are assessed) and on two occasions has encouraged other students to read my work for its ‘quality and depth’ (you have no idea how embarrassed I feel writing that). We had to do three ‘writing watches’ across the course of the semester – responding in a systemically functionally linguistic way to something we’d read. I chose to respond to:

1. an article in a photography magazine

2. an essay by Richard Flanagan which appeared in The Monthly (the article was on David Walsh and MONA which I’d just been to, so it seemed fitting)

3. a blog post titled The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y” from the Oxford University Press’s blog. It was interesting. Seriously!

These writing watches were practice for our exam. Yes, you heard that right – exam. I had to sit an exam.

Why didn’t someone tell me how stressful that is?! That you spend days and nights thinking about what the questions might be, what the text choices might be, what you know (or rather, don’t know) about systemic functional linguistics and how you’re going to write “pages” on it in two hours?

But I did it and wrote (typed) five pages of blather about an advertisement for Income Protection titled Confessions of a financial adviser. An interesting way to spend a day, particularly when you’re at home and the phone keeps ringing just as you think you have the modality worked out!

We also had to do weekly ‘word watches’ (which were assessed). We had to find two unfamiliar words each week and write about them: what they mean, where we’d read/heard them, their derivation, and we had to use the words in a sentence.

At first I found this difficult. I don’t want to sound like a pompous git (unlike some people I know), but in the everyday, normal, regular reading I do I don’t come across too many words which I don’t know. So I determined to try harder.

Here are my words (you, clever reader, are quite possibly aware of their meanings and already sprinkle them through your everyday conversations. I, on the other hand, did not).

  • Eupraxis (thank you David M)
  • Conation (actually, I did know what that meant because I’d written about it in a journal article published last year, but until I wrote about it I didn’t know what it meant)
  • Heuristic
  • Prevaricate (actually I wavered on this quite a bit)
  • Mendicant (it had been in the news – Tasmania is a mendicant state apparently)
  • Noetic (nothing to do with Christmas)
  • Rendering (a word from my Graphic Design unit)
  • Misandry (its opposite had been much in the news)
  • Chirographic
  • Contumacious (if my mother had known this word when I was a child I’m sure I would have heard it a lot!)
  • Whovian (my sister is a mad one of these)
  • Gonzo (I’d been to MONA and learnt this word while wandering the subterranean halls. Tim already knew it. He’d read Hunter S. Thompson apparently)
  • Metaredound (don’t ask me)
  • Analogous (I actually had heard this word, but I wanted to use it in a way I hadn’t used it before and that was in relation to colour: analogous harmony)
  • Indigent (thanks Germaine)
  • Calumniated (and again)
  • Emic
  • Etic (yes, they are related)
  • Eschatology
  • Ratiocination (I had to listen to this a number of times to get the pronunciation right. Thanks YouTube!)
  • Contingent (used in a way I didn’t understand – of all people, by my husband, in a journal article we wrote some time ago. I hadn’t told him I didn’t understand the way he used it as I didn’t want to look stupid!)
  • Hegemony (with a soft ‘j’ sound for the ‘g’)
  • Picayune
  • Ludology (nothing to do with Ludo as it turns out … although …)

So there you have it. New words to pepper through my dinner-time conversations. Feel free to use any of them, particularly in ways that are inventive and thus deeply satisfying.

I am a student and I am learning things. That’s what students do isn’t it? Isn’t that the purpose of being a student? It’s why I decided to be a student: to learn something/s. And even though I’ve said ‘the message’ countless times, it’s always different when you’re on the receiving end of it. The message is: learning can be hard. And it isn’t always fun.

But it is satisfying.

Being a student not only challenges my own identity (I have to flip between student and teacher on a regular basis and I am very conscious of not being a teacher in my student role – which is partly why I don’t engage on the discussion boards: I don’t yet have the student language down pat. I’m too caught up using teacher language and saying teacher things and I don’t want to do that as a student).

Being a student also challenges how others see me.

Some people, on first hearing that I am a university student again, thought (and said) “are you mad?” and other equally dis/en/couraging words. My new role was something they wanted to reject – it was ludicrous, or unnecessary (especially at your age), or just plain silly. I have a PhD, why would I want to be an under-grad again? That’s something young people do. I should do some serious study, not a bachelor degree in an area I potentially know a little bit about. Why, for instance, am I doing Professional Writing (that’s its official title – I thought I’d better check) when I have had a number of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers published?

I guess I feel that I can always learn more – and I did. Heaps in fact, and that’ll help my writing when next I write something for publication. 

On hearing that I am a student again, other people saw me differently. They made a different kind of connection with me. Some, because of their own identity as ‘student’ (or perhaps, student-in-the-not-too-distant past) applauded my decision – I was now one of them, a member of a community of adults who are (or were) university students. For those whom I’ve taught – who have been my own students – the connection is even closer. Their teacher/lecturer/colleague is now in the same position they recall so clearly and thus our connection is strengthened. There’s a shared understanding … and as I give advice quite freely about being a student, I also imagine there’s a little bit of mirth around my stumbling attempts at student-hood.

But I have finished the semester, completed teaching and learning surveys (and been very honest – in a professional way – as all students should be), and am eagerly awaiting my final results.

I have also determined to be a better student next semester. I have already created folders for my two new subjects (one is Production Planning; the other is Visual Storytelling), downloaded the information from the course and unit handbook, looked up information about textbooks (I don’t have to buy any), and worked out what I do when I procrastinate (I work … yes, on my study days!).

Being a student: challenging, stressful, but ultimately satisfying.

What’s your experience?

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

The envelope

My online students, in the days before we went online, used to talk about waiting for ‘the envelope’. Ours were yellow and students would camp at their letter boxes waiting for the big yellow envelope to arrive. Some would leave it sitting on the kitchen bench till they felt strong enough to open it; others would rip it open, eager to see their result.

My first envelope arrived in the post earlier this week and I have to say it was an odd feeling. Partly, I think because of the ways my students (now graduates) used to talk about the arrival of the envelope, and the importance it held for them. It was a validation of them as students, scholars, learners, and sometimes it was even more. It was a validation of themselves. Were they worth anything? Could they do it? Were they cut out for this thing called university? Did they have what it takes? Was university really for people like them?

Many of those students had not been on to the university campus at that stage, or had not been on to the campus often. Many of them didn’t live in the same state as the university; many hadn’t physically met their lecturers, tutors, peers. University was a disembodied experience. An experience that involved sitting at home, on their computer, by themselves, struggling to work out what the task required, having little access to anyone to seek clarification, advice, ideas. Not knowing if they were on the right track.

They did their best, not knowing if they measured up; their whole being invested in this. What if I’m not on the right track? What if I fail? Will that mean I’m a failure?

It’s high stakes.

A few days before my own envelope arrived, I had returned my own students’ assignments – though not in envelopes – and was aware of the emotions involved in receiving feedback and a grade. But I was aware of the emotions as an objective observer: as someone who knew that the students would have an emotional reaction, but not as someone who felt the emotion directly. Some of my students had not met the pass standard, and the emotions varied: some were angry, others were disappointed. Many of them spent the weekend crying. Other students had met the pass standard but had expected the same success as they’d had at college. Their emotions were similar – to them their pass (or credit) felt like a fail.

I had warned students that they might feel this range of emotions and that they might react in particular ways; I had wanted to prepare them and to let them know it is normal to feel a range of emotions … and to be quite honest, to let them know that they weren’t to email me at the height of their emotional response. The “post-assignment-blues” email is not a good one to look back on when the emotion has subsided!

All of this was raging through my head when my own envelope arrived. What if I failed … or just as bad … what if  I only passed?

So when my envelope arrived I felt part of a community – a community of those who knew the importance attached to the envelope – and for the first time I was an insider in this experience. I felt the weight of expectation and the weight of former students’ associations. It was exciting and daunting in equal measure. The assignment was to write a non-fiction piece of around 500-800 words on a topic of our choice. We had to state the purpose and the audience of our piece, and we had to submit two drafts of our writing plus the final copy. We also had to write a statement about the editing process. Suggestions for our writing included CD liner notes (I didn’t know they still existed), a review (of a book, an art work, an exhibition), a newspaper feature article.

I didn’t know how to write any of those things so I wrote a blog entry. And while I wrote about a real-life experience I wrote it a bit story-like (I used elements of narrative writing) and so was uncertain whether the tutor would accept it as non-fiction.

She did.

I enjoyed your blog immensely. It’s rare to receive an error-free assignment; you’ve obviously invested time and effort for this submission. Thank you.

A validation …

… of my capacity to correct errors.

That won’t surprise any of my own students!

I won’t be so scared when the next envelope arrives. Except I can’t remember when the next assignment is due. I really will need to read the unit outline soon!!

Posted in Learning, Writing

Flower/story challenge

[Day 2 of seven]

Before I start today’s blog I want to say how impressed I am with the stories that emerged from yesterday’s flower-story challenge. They were diverse, succinct, used the boundaries cleverly, and showed imagination and thoughtfulness. Thanks to all those who created a story, I really enjoyed reading them. 

******

Character.

Plot.

Setting.

These are the three main characteristics of a story. Many authors will develop characters as the starting point of their novels (and some will go to great lengths to learn as much as they can about their characters), some authors will write plot-driven stories (many authors who write for boys will begin with plot – the action of the story). Fewer authors will start with setting, but some do so to great effect – think Nadia Wheatley and Jeannie Baker.

The challenge today, if you choose to accept it,  is to write a 50-word story with one of those characteristics in mind. Which one will you use as a starting point?

Here’s your flower stimulus … have fun!

Standing proud

 

Posted in Learning

Lesson #6

1992. Wynyard, Tasmania. A brochure from the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania sat on the counter at the radio station. Two words spoke to me as soon as I picked it up: English/Drama. Before that moment I couldn’t have articulated my passion for either of them. They didn’t fit in the world in which I lived; a world of domesticity on the one hand, and male-dominated sports on the other. Football, soccer, boys basketball, cricket.

But the brochure did more than cause a realisation in me that here were two areas of interest to me. When I read that it was possible to study English Literature and Theatre a rumbling began deep within me.  Over the next few weeks as I pondered whether it was possible, the rumbling became louder until it was a roar in my head. I discovered that it wasn’t possible to not do it. To not enrol. To pass up this opportunity.

Opportunities that allow us to begin, to change direction in our lives, to choose the direction in which we head may not present themselves on a regular basis. They certainly hadn’t for me. I had had no choice in the move from NSW to Queensland, or in the decision to move from Queensland to Tasmania. They were life changing decisions, they changed the direction of my life, but I was not in control of those decisions.

But here was an opportunity to take control, to make a decision. I knew instinctively what my choice was going to be, but my decision also impacted on others. It was a life-changing decision, and it wasn’t only my life that would be changed. It meant yet another move to yet another new place, yet another move away from family – this time my own children. It meant sacrifice – theirs and mine – again.

It meant making a decision that was ultimately selfish. It was a decision that was all about me.

****

1993. Launceston, Tasmania. I made the move, began again, and changed my life.

And I learnt.

I learnt that making life-changing decisions means your life changes and you can’t predict the ripple effects those changes have.

I learnt that making life-changing decisions requires courage and resilience and a willingness to sacrifice.

Any new beginning, no matter how big or small, requires us to adapt, to hang on, to allow it to happen (and we never fully realise what ‘it’ is when we first start out).

A beginning is not a moment in time; while it begins with one step it requires more than the first step. Beginnings take time and energy and commitment and desire. We have to want to begin and we have to commit to the messiness that often accompanies a beginning, the messiness of the steps contained within the beginning.

Beginnings lead to new identities. We try them on, test them out, sometimes deny those identities because they don’t fit comfortably with the view we have of ourselves. We often can only see ourselves with the old identity on … wife/mother not student; teacher aide not pre-service teacher. Others see the shiny new identity, but denial is strong. Sometimes we only see that new identity when we’re about to lose it.

Beginnings lead somewhere. They inevitably lead to endings. Beginning a university degree leads to ending a university degree. We might not be able to see that ending when we first begin. It might seem out of reach at the beginning, but the end of that particular beginning means a new beginning.

Beginnings mean journeys. It’s a journey we’re not wholly in control of … the pathway may seem clear when we’re looking at the satellite image, but when we zoom in a little we see a connecting maze of laneways, dead-ends, cul-de-sacs, open spaces. Changing the view to street view means we see the detail up close – letter boxes, flowering shrubs, front yards, driveways. We can get lost in the minutia when we only see through street view and it seems to take an age to move from one block to another. We see the complexity of the journey in a whole new light, and we need spaces/time/semester breaks to step back and re-look from the distance of the satellite.

Big beginnings contain many smaller ones. Beginning school as a five year sets the child on a journey through education that will take many years, but within that big beginning are many other beginnings: beginning a new grade, beginning with a new teacher, with new students, making new friends, learning new rules and expectations, learning new skills that lead to other beginnings – learning that squiggly lines on a page can be interpreted and can lead us into new worlds, new ideas, new imaginings.

****

2013. Burnie, Tasmania. Another beginning.

 

 

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 Writing

Writing Challenge (Day Four)

Tim starts reading and says you’re a dag. And smiles.

He finishes reading and says you’re so clever. And I smile.

Daggily clever? Cleverly daggy? Daggy and clever?

Voice.

When I ask students to write a reflection or a statement of philosophy about teaching, I want to hear their voice.  I dealt with a student this week who had found someone else’s philosophy statement on a blog and pasted it into her assignment. It wasn’t her voice. It was an easy pick-up. It happens way too often. I’m happily reading along and suddenly it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife pops into the middle of the sentence. My ears prick up. Hang on, I say inside my head, that’s not Student A, that’s Jane Austen.

I keep reading and lo and behold it seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days and I recognise the very distinct voice of Stevens. It seems strange that his voice would appear in the midst of a student assignment on the fundamentals of communication in the classroom. I pause, I puzzle, I shake my head to clear it, only to read on and discover that I remain transfixed by Stevens’ voice.

Stevens’ voice comes about through long sentences and parenthetical comments: An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days. It’s a voice that takes me instantly into the complexity of the character and slows me down. I move to the couch to be more comfortable because this is one of my favourite books, but I read on only to discover that many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. I am transported into the magically real world Gabriel Garcia Marquez paints in One hundred years of solitude.

I am confused. Student A (let’s call her Anna and in that way flesh her out a little) is writing about communication in the classroom, but her voice is lost in the other voices that keep intruding on her paper. I would go so far as to say that Anna has not found or established her own voice yet. She has let herself be distracted by other readings, others’ thoughts, others’ voices. She has not done her own thinking (which, let’s face it, is difficult); rather she has relied on my mother is, like, a totally confirmed A-list [expletive riddled passage deleted] *** hole cretin [expletive riddled passage deleted] ***head of the highest order. Fact. In fact, I, of this moment, officially declare my entire doubt of the fact that she is in fact my actual real mother.

My head is spinning, I flick backwards and forwards through Anna’s paper wondering where that voice came from. There’s no acknowledgement of her source, but it really doesn’t sound like Anna.  I do a Google search and find that it is the voice of Dora from Dawn French’s A tiny bit marvellous. Possibly not the best source Anna could find for her paper, but I suppose that all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

Tolstoy? Wow. 

Voice. Use your own. I know, believe me I know, it can be hard to develop your own, but your audience wants to hear First the colours. Then the humans. 

No, Marcus Zusack, now is not the time to intrude. I’m trying to establish my voice. A distinct voice. A voice that emerges from the snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks … excuse me, Donna Tartt, please don’t do that. I’m trying to write in my own voice. A voice that is uniquely mine, a voice that is worth being heard, that emerges from this is Albion Gidley Singer at the pen, a man with a weakness for a good fact.

Kate Grenville, seriously, this is so not the time. I cannot finish on someone else’s words. I have to finish with my own because the war had ended as wars sometimes do, unexpectedly.

****

Tomorrow, the conclusion.

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.