Archive for March, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson FTW!

The first TED talk I ever watched was by Ken Robinson, and I was enthralled and moved to reconsider my own practice by his explanation of how schools work to kill creativity.

He now has a book out called Element . Thanks to Raman for posting a link to this five minute interview with Sir Ken about the new book and his views on standardized testing:


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Tell me about it.

This is spot on.  The Alice quote tops it off beautifully:

Link to PhD comics website (loving their work since two thousand and…let’s not go there)

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The conversation continueth…

I love it when Hiba says a few quick things!

I encourage you to read Hiba’s comment, and Troy and Melissa’s, in response to my last post. It is so important IMHO for us to be talking frankly, reflectively and supportively about the difficulties and fears that we/others have in regards to using technology in our teaching.  Ignoring the problems will not make them go away!

I totally agree Hiba – using technology for the sake of it does not lead to effective teaching. And I think you’re right – this is bound to be the thing that Shaun has experienced. And yes, ‘too much of anything IS too much’. But…who decides what is too much?

“Just a few quick things” from me 😉

The end of your comment Hiba is very telling – you love and can see a clear use for OHPs, digital stories, twitter and youtube. Ok, but what about other teachers who don’t like these things? When they are told they ‘have to’ use them, won’t they have the same feelings as you expressed about other technology?
So: (1) teachers will best use what they know about and can see a use for, and (like all other pedagogical tools) each teacher will have their own style and ‘favourites’. I think this is OK, and a natural product of how we work.

What do you do with teachers who are refusing/reluctant to learn new things? New tools? New ways of doing things? Is it good enough to just say ‘blogging is not a preferred teaching tool of mine’? Well, perhaps…but is it good enough to go wider than this and say ‘online learning is not a preferred teaching tool of mine.’?   Er, NO.   IMO this is tantamount to saying ‘I just don’t like doing group work’. Unlucky mate. Because:
(2) there are things that we know, for sure, things that are like fully researched and proven and everything about how collaborative learning enhances the learning experience, and about how online tools can facilitate this better than pen and paper work. This is not a matter of opinion, or personal style (though whether you use a wiki or a blog or a Ning or Moodle etc. certainly is).

I hear you about being too immersed in technology. I am a screen junkie, and have to constantly remind myself that not everyone is. I DO prefer to mark essays using track changes and comments in Word (it takes more time for me to negotiate the margins of someone’s handwritten essay than it does for me to just TYPE), but that’s just me. I don’t think that everyone needs to work this way. But I do think, at some point, you have a (dare I say) duty to expose students to this method of editing. This is especially important because:
(3) the distinction between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ has been helpful, but is is not that black and white. Fact: not all kids have the kind of access to technology that you describe yourself as having – this is a class/SES/cultural issues that we MUST remain aware of. Another Fact: just because you use a lot of technology doesn’t mean that you can think critically about it, or apply it to new knowledge. Case in point – students’ PowerPoint presentations are generally REALLY AWFUL until they are taught how to apply skills of good public speaking, visual presentation, summarising, metalanguage/metathinking etc. How do you explain this phenomenon if it is true that ‘all young people already know about technology’?  There’s a reason why English teachers teach novels, and don’t just say ‘go read it at home kids’.

Back to the concept of ‘too much’. You know what else I think we use too much of? Workbooks. And writing notes off the board. And teacher talk. And homework (when it is not project and passion based, which I do like). But these practices are never questioned, never challenged, never stopped because people find them comfortable and familiar. And no-one notices when they are overdone because they are part of the traditional landscape of schooling, and because (most importantly I think) because this is how parents, and politicians, were taught and what they expect to see from kids’ classrooms.

My Head Teacher will get me in trouble if my kids don’t have a workbook, but no-one else gets in trouble for not having a blog!

So: (4) Let’s make sure we’re applying the ‘too much is too much’ rule across the board, and not just as an excuse/a reason for neglecting the new. If what we mean is ‘we haven’t had enough PD to use this right’ then by all means say that. But there are some things that would be good to drop out of our current practice to make room for the new.

One thing that we know about teaching is that no matter what you are taught to do, as a teacher you will instinctively model your practice on the teaching you received at school.  Fighting against this instinct takes concentration, and learning about new practices and tools takes a lot of work. Because of this, teachers who are embracing technology are feeling increasingly overloaded and burnt out this is the real problem that needs managing.  In Hiba’s post I felt a real sense of fatigue, and I know how she feels because I have felt that way too.  We teachers have to look after ourselves personally and adjust our level of change commitment as our energy ebbs and flows.  People who yell and scream and try and force everyone to use technology all lesson, every lesson need to be more sensitive to change fatigue…but in return, teachers need to ‘man up’ when the energy does flow, and explore these new tools for refining their craft.

Without understanding and effort on both sides, the student will be the one who misses out.


A personal response to technology hating

This is a post for my friend Shaun, but I hope it’s something you all can use.

Shaun is a top bloke.  He’s an English teacher who has a deep passion for literature and from what I can tell a real knack for sharing this with his students.  His students get great results at assessment time.  He’s warm, funny, relatable and engaging.

But, in a brief chat about another blogger’s controversial anti-technology post, it was clear that Shaun was not enthusiastic about digital learning.

In fact, he despises it.  And also has had such bad experiences that he now doesn’t trust teachers who use it.

So…what to say to my friend who is in the position of already being a great teacher getting great results?

How to convince him that digital learning is more than fancy icing on his otherwise tasty, filling and nutritional educational cake?

I thought that this task might call for a personal story.

ABOUT ME: I am an English teacher who has always loved English.  As a child and teenager, reading was like breathing to me – not just ‘part of life’, but an urgent necessity.  In school I excelled at debating, and public speaking.  For my HSC I studied as much English as I could – 2 unit Related plus 3 unit English.  I loved essay writing, adored my English teachers, and was in my element during teacher lectures that were accompanied by class discussion. My UAI was in the mid 90s.  I was a successful English student.

MY CONFESSION: While all of the above is true, it is also true that in year 9, for the first time, I did not read our class novel The Wizard of Earthsea.  The teacher never knew, and my grades were stellar.  Same again in Year 11 with The Scarlet Letter.  Same again in HSC 3 unit English with Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  And…same again with about a third of the books I was supposed to read for my University English courses, though in that arena my grades weren’t stellar…just above average.

Why do I make these confessions, horrible as they are for an English teacher?

Because when Shaun tells me that his students are all engaged with their learning without the use of technology, I can tell you from experience that they aren’t.  Not authentically.  Sure, they may gaze up in awe as he speaks passionately about the wonder of Hamlet, and they might have the skill to assemble good essays by aping the points brought up in class discussion.  But I guarantee you Shaun, you are teaching at least some people just like me – people who slip under the radar due to their genuine love of English and their skill in using language, but who have the potential to be far more active in their learning.

The other reason I make these confessions is because arguments trying to promote the adoption of technology are often made with reference to engaging low-ability or disinterested students.  And I support those arguments whole-heartedly – I have seen students, especially in the junior years, really turn their attitude around (especially in regard to writing) because the fun side and familiarity of using computers gave them the confidence and motivation to complete some work.

It is so much harder to convince teachers of ‘successful’ students that anything needs to change.

But (and Shaun this is my final point I swear!) not only does digital learning have the potential to increase student engagement at all levels due to its inclination toward communicative and collaborative learning practices, but I truly believe that neglecting the development of students’ digital literacy means that as teachers we are neglecting one of our key roles – the preparation of students to participate and engage fully with society, present and future.  Technology isn’t going away.  And English teachers that say ‘digital literacy is not my job’ would do well to remind themselves of the times when English teachers used to say ‘visual literacy is not my job’.

Times change.  Media changes.  Language changes.  We must make sure our students are equipped to cope with this.

I would be most grateful if people could add comments to this post with their own personal success stories from English classrooms that have embraced technology, either in content, pedagogy or assessment.

We will not convince technology haters to change by telling them they are wrong, when their experience is to the contrary.  We must do it by showing that we know about some amazing, engaging and powerful tools for achieving the outcomes they value and desire

…and that not all teachers using technology are merely doing so to look cool and get promoted 😉


Poems to Share

I love The Red Room Company.  I started working with them last year, team-teaching poetry workshops with my year 10 class with poet Lachlan Brown.  They are a group that loves sharing poetry with students and encouraging poetry writing as much as they love poetry itself!

Just now I have bought one of their new poetry teaching products, a card set called Poems to Share:

“Red Room Co. have teamed up with designers Corban & Blair to produce a beautiful card set featuring forty poems by contemporary Australian writers, along with writing exercises to get things moving.”

Red Room’s educational products are simply gorgeous.

Check them out and I know you’ll be adding them to your English faculty wish-list!


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Leadership and the lone nut

Darcy posted this video to his blog on the weekend, and it is just too good not to re-post!

I agree: it is the best three minute video about leadership you will ever see 😀

“Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership.” (full transcript)


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HSC English: Standard or Advanced?

Does your school offer both Standard and Advanced English courses for the HSC?  How about ESL? Extension courses?  If not – why not?

This is a question that has been debated over the past couple of days via email between members of the NSW English Teachers’ Association.

One member asked: Do you think it is wise to only offer the Advanced course to students? His school leaders have been advised that this will lead to higher ATAR scores for students at the school.

Here are some of the responses that were given via email in support of offering a diverse range of courses:

“The emotional pressure on students to learn (=compete and achieve) at an Advanced level was very detrimental in the schools I observed [that had decided to take away the option for Standard English].  Students’ self concept was very low for the bottom achievers in the Advanced stream, where in schools that also run Standard these kids might still perform lower, but they do so with the knowledge that they are in a different, less ‘academic’ course.  Or, they find themselves at the top of the Standard course, and their self concept goes up.  Offering Advanced-only also limits your capacity to differentiate learning for students, and it builds a distorted sense of entitlement and expectation among parents.”

“I have been discouraging some students who want to do Advanced.  Last year when I arrived there seenmed to be some students who really should have taken Standard.  Advanced can be soul destroying for them and can impede the progress of others.”

“I was also put under pressure [to increase] value-added – they argue that it is better for everyone to do Advanced because scaling boosts poor Advanced marks above good Standard marks and there may be an infinitesimally better uni ranking as a result. Whether this is actually the case or not is difficult to accurately gauge – there seems to be a lot of numerical flim-flam in the value-adding business. What is clear, however, is that students who struggle in Advanced and then withdraw from discussions and activities they feel are beyond them engage much more readily in Standard classes and find themselves enjoying English – heaven forfend!”

“I remember this type of pressure being applied at a previous school of mine – with the result of good Standard students being forced to do Advanced.  That type of auditor-driven statistical analysis does not take into account the different kind of intellectual demands required to be a success in Advanced.  At my current school, we have scaled back our Advanced classes because there were a number of students who were not suited to the contextual and researching demands of the Advanced syllabus – they were also not motivated readers”

Comments like these about student welfare were reinforced by teachers who had marked HSC English scripts and saw the outcome at the other end:

“Anyone who has marked Advanced will know there are many students out there who really should not have sat the course and would have been better off in Standard, where they would have had a much better opportunity to show what they knew and understood.”

“From the point of view of Advanced HSC marking, as many of you will have experienced, it is becoming more frequent to see that “poor child” who should have been advised to do Standard, often in the middle of a bundle of very competent students.”

Some teachers were in favour of pushing the Advanced course, and gave a mixture of pedagogical and statistical reasons for this:

“There is an ongoing debate about this in schools around mine. The pressure in schools is to achieve better than state mean and this can be easily achieved by encouraging students to do Standard rather than Advanced… I believe this is anti educational and think any student who is interested should have the opportunity to do the more interesting and challenging Advanced course. In terms of value added, this does us no favours [to push students into the Standard course]. Have a look at the difference in the curves for Advanced and Standard on the value added graph. Again I could easily make the actual course results look better by encouraging more students to do Standard and indeed have at times been pressured to do so. If you run the Advanced students against the overall English Value Added curve you get a different picture, however.”

“Our students do seem to get a strong sense of achievement from doing Advanced and actually engage well with texts which have not much relationship to their lives and experience. I agree that the Standard course is difficult since it is so language based and that is what students have trouble with…We don’t not offer Standard because it is too easy, but because our students can and do gain a great deal from the Advanced course and they value it. Or is it their parents? It just seems a pity that it is much more difficult to get very high marks in Standard than Advanced but it is historic. Remember why we brought in the common strand in the first place?”

Other teachers had arguments that spoke to the benefits of or need for the Standard course:

“What we have done is to present the challenges of the Advanced course to Year 10, outlining exactly the demands.  We have also challenged Advanced students in Year 11 to consider seriously the demands of the course.  This has meant many more “borderline” students have chosen Standard, either at the end of Year 10 or the end of the Preliminary course.  As a result, we have had excellent Standard results from students who either deliberately chose to do Standard, or changed at the end of Preliminary when they struggled in the Advanced.  The end result in those cases were very happy students and parents.”

“We certainly could not omit Standard from our curriculum, and fortunately, we are also able to maintain a more academic focus by running one advanced class. I hope that by doing that, we are meeting the diverse learning needs of the type of students who attend a school such as ours. I know this is not the same issue – but spare a thought for the large number of country schools who are struggling to offer courses and to do that, both Standard and Advanced are offered in the same room, sometimes with both 11 and 12 together as well. That is the only way their wide range of learning needs (for just a small number) can be met – either that, or Advanced is not offered at all.”

The role of school administrators in balancing the need for high results against student welfare and quality learning was also raised:

“Perhaps some school administrators need to be reminded of such determiners for course choice as “needs, interests and abilities of students”- not to mention their health and well-being. When there is a significant percentage of boarders these factors are particularly critical.”

“I think the whole debate is disgusting because no-one is talking about what we think students should know; i.e. education. Instead the whole debate seems to be about what puts the school in a better light statistically. Let’s worry about what our students should learn and where they are at, not what looks better for our school. How has this abominable shift in what teachers are thinking happened? Well we all know the answer to that: and the answer is not the National Curriculum.”

“It has been interesting to see two distinct problems emerge from this question and also dispiriting that in both cases it is all about perceived numerical and statistical success, with anti-educational ‘solutions’ imposed on English faculties from above.”

The debate itself was in fact surprising to some:

“Coming from an area of the state that is maybe too far in the bush, I have never realised that this would be an issue. I know that some schools, for very good reasons such as being selective, have none or very few Standard students, and that is just a given, but I would have thought that the majority of schools in the state would not fall into that category. I guess that might be blissful lack of knowledge or awareness on my part!”

I’d (we all!) be interested to hear how other schools and English faculties are approaching this question.

When I put the question out to Twitter this afternoon, this is what tweeple had to say:

“I think English should be an elective course. If they haven’t got it by year 10 why go further?”

“Really? [that not all states have mandatory English] so only NSW is dumb enough to think senior english is for all.”

“I think students should be allowed to go with what interests them – as long as they understand the possible implications 4 ATAR”

“NO! [to only offering Advanced]…particularly for gender focused classes, does the fact 45 marks are the same Area Of Study matter?”

“Imagine a male, studying Chem, bio, physics, a couple of Maths subjects, Standard English is perfect…”

“What about the kids doing 2 VET, ITP, PE, Industrial tech, do they need standard English?”

“Eng so much more than writing essays 4 exams. Lets push boundaries so studs fall in love with English”

“I know pressure of getting good results! Would like to think we can make results gr8 via love of learning. Combine both 4 synergy”

How do you decide what HSC Engish courses to run and who gets to do them??

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Application for extension of candidature

Waiting today with bated breath to find out if I’ve been approved for another semester.

I just need three more months!

Collage made using

UPDATE 11.03.2010: APPROVED!!!

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Macquarie Poem Project


After working with The Red Room Company last year, Macquarie Fields High School is again working with poet Lachlan Brown.  This time the project goes outside the Toilet Doors and into the Sydney Conservatorium, as students dabble in a bit of history and consider their namesake through the poetic lens.

The students are writing a poem in response to Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s First Speech in the Colony.   This will be read at the unveiling of a new statue of Macquarie, which commemorates 200 years since his governing began.  How exciting!

You can read more about Lachlan’s workshops with the Macquarie Fields ‘Live Poets Society’ (facilitated by @imeldajudgeat the Red Room Company blog.  It is interesting to see how different students have thought about the themes in the Macquarie Poetry Project, and I think Lachlan’s workshop reflections also provide a great account of poetry pedagogy.

As a poetry teacher, the power of collaboration with working poets in these projects has been a an incredible experience.  One of the most important things I learned from Lachlan was how to get more out of poetry by focussing in, taking it slow, encouraging personal interpretation and wonderment, and giving students time to write (which may sound obvious, but English lessons are so darn short!)

And the students have been awestruck by the experience of engaging in authentic discussion and receiving feedback from a real, live poet.  Projects like these really do increase the sense of connectedness that students have with the curriculum, as they participate in intense thinking about words, about language work, and about the role of creativity in understanding the world around them.  Students in my Year 10 class were also begging to learn more about the technical aspects of language so they could improve their poems (back to basics…I think not).

To read more about Lachlan Macquarie I recommend a brief speech given earlier this year by NSW Governor Marie Bashir.  Macquarie’s endeavours to emancipate convicts and promote their employment and equal and fair treatment are a legacy I believe we should strive to uphold, and his support of education and poetry speak especially to my English-teaching soul!  I can’t wait to see the poem created for the unveiling of the bicentenary statue 🙂



Don’t delay – get involved NSW

Without a strong response from English teachers about what they like and don’t like about the Draft Australian Curriculum, the chances of it changing are slim to none.

Here are the details of consultation and information meetings happening in NSW in the coming month.

Remember, consultation ends in May, so make sure you respond as an individual, as a faculty, as a school, or as part of the profession through these meetings to make sure your voice is heard.

Because come 2011, it’ll be too late to argue.

NSW English Teachers’ Association consultation meetings:
Saturday 20th March 9.30am – 3.30pm

  • Sydney: Seminar Rooms, DET Curriculum Directorate.
  • Armidale: Armidale High School
  • Border: Albury High School
  • Orange District: Canobolas High School
  • Peel Valley: Quirindi High School
  • Wagga: Wagga Wagga High School

NSW BOS consultation meetings:

  • 9 March – Campbelltown Golf Club
  • 16 March – Tara Anglican School
  • 11 March – UNE Tamworth Centre
  • 15 March – Trinity Catholic College Senior Campus Goulburn
  • 18 March – [VIDEOCONFERENCE] State Government Offices Wollongong

NSW DET online consultation forums:

Videoconferences held at various locations from 4pm-6pm

  • 15 March – English 7-10 (venues)
  • 30 March – English K-10 (venues)

ACARA will also be running a Public Information Session for New South Wales on:
Thursday 25 March 6pm – 7:30pm
Venue is TBA, but most likely will be in Sydney.