Archive for May, 2010


Some people like to lurk and learn.  Some people like to jump right in.

Either way, respecting people’s perspectives and contexts is key.

As is a reciprocal willingness to learn and adapt.

Personally, I’m a ‘jump right in’ kinda gal.  I like to get involved, even if it makes me look a little silly.

Don’t damn me
When I speak a piece of my mind
‘Cause silence isn’t golden
When I’m holding it inside
‘Cause I’ve been where I have been
An I’ve seen what I have seen
I put the pen to the paper
‘Cause it’s all a part of me

Be it a song or casual conversation
To hold my tongue speaks
Of quiet reservations
Your words once heard
They can place you in a faction
My words may disturb
But at least there’s a reaction.

(The only question that remains: what can’t we learn from Guns N’ Roses? hehe.)

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I heart bookshops

Today I went for a lovely meander through Borders bookshop.  Mmmm…delightful!

There is nothing like the smell of a bookshop, and with the increasing popularity of e-readers, book covers seem more attractive than ever.  Publishers seem to not only be ramping up the quality of book cover artwork, but the range in textures is booming: there are books that feel fabric covered, books with pliable canvas-type wrapping, and reprints of classics like Wuthering Heights in black embossed moleskin-like covers, complete with elastic binding strap.

I love paper printed, holdable, page-turnable books.

But…I also love my Kindle.

One one hand this is not a new space to be in.  Remember when we all started getting iPods?  And getting all worried about the relevance/importance of our CD collections, complaining about how cover art would be lost along with a sense of ‘the album’ as people started buying more singles?  It turns out that for me, this hasn’t really been too troubling – I buy most music electronically now, but I do still tend to buy albums rather than singles, and many albums do come with their album artwork, albeit in an electronic file.  I don’t at all miss having a bazillion identical (breakable) plastic cases to house my music in, and when someone who I’m a real ‘fan’ of releases an album…well, I do still tend to buy the CD!  For a few, I even have bought a vinyl copy.

I wonder how long it will take for self-proclaimed bibliophiles to strike a similar level of comfort with the move to electronic readers?

Are they really that committed to filling vast walls of space in their houses with shelves of dusty once-read (and never-read) books?  (my inner cynic says: ‘but how else will they be able to show visitors how terribly well-read they are??)

Or are they just worried that using a Kindle is going to kill the book store?  I confess that being in the book store today did make me stop on this particular concern.

But CDs are still around, and books are WAY cooler as objets d’art than CDs ever were.  So perhaps it’s time to relax.


Defining ‘multimodal’

Reading the Draft Australian Curriculum for English (‘DACE’…?) I can see that confusion over the meaning of ‘multimodal’ text is about to cause English teachers some major problems.

My understanding is that when we say a text is ‘multimodal’, we mean that the audience participates in the text’s creation.  This is the definition I would say that academics and practitioners in the field of English curriculum would use; consider this explanation by Anastopoulou, Baber & Sharples:

Multimodality is based on the use of sensory modalities by which humans receive information. These modalities could be tactile, visual, auditory, etc. It also requests the use of at least two response modalities to present information (e.g. verbal, manual activity). So, for example, in a multimodal interaction a user may receive information by vision and sound and respond by voice and touch. Multimodality could be compared with ‘unimodality’, which would be based on the use of one modality only to receive or present information (e.g. watching a multimedia presentation and responding by pressing keys).

…but that’s not the definition that ACARA are going with.

The definitional confusion between terms like multimodal, multimedia and media has been around for a while, and speaks to the significant changes in what is considered core content in English brought about by the rise in visual and especially digital texts.  We are very familiar with the concept that language can be spoken, written or heard…but when it comes to texts that combine these modes, things are still a little muddled.

Please take a moment to check out, for example, the preface for the Year 7 section of the DACE (click the image below and get ready for your head to spin):

Year 7 English Content Preface

See what I mean?

In this Preface to the curriculum content descriptors multimodal texts seem to be pitted against texts that are ‘literary’ (which creates even more confusion as the definition of literary appears to change with each new use).  I can appreciate that the ACARA curriculum writers have had to avoid using the word ‘text’ because of the political beat up the term has received in recent years from certain op-ed writers in certain newspapers.  That is why this new curriculum has reverted to the more traditional term Literature – and it is because of this change that we are now supposed to say, it seems, ‘literary text’.

But now check out the etymological shenanigans that take place in the content descriptors of the Literature strand:

Year 7 - Literature

Oh brother.  The constant reference to ‘literary texts’ is supposed to be a nod to the strand content being described as ‘Literature’.  But this is ultimately VERY confusing, as ‘literary’ texts are separated from ‘non-literary’, digital’ and ‘multimodal’ texts in the Preface.  There result is that there is no sense in this strand of multimodal texts being included.

The term ‘literary’ is also conflated with ‘fiction’, and what are really language elements are referred to as literary elements.  In ‘Discussing and responding’ the term ‘text’ makes it in unscathed – which just goes to show that the word does make sense and can be used.  The term ‘text’ is highly appropriate for collectively describing all works of language art, and recognises that the works we study can be written, spoken, aural, or a combination of these.  The term ‘literary texts’ is stupidly redundant, but I’d be happy to get on with using it to placate the punters, if only it were used consistently and provided scope for the study of a broad range of texts!  Which brings me back to multimodality…

In the NSW English syllabus, students engage in what we call a range of language modes.  These are: speaking, writing, representing, listening, reading and viewing.  So ‘multimodal’ could reasonably be taken to mean ‘using more than one language mode’.  This would make film, picture books and digital stories (which use a combination of visual and written language) and many other forms of text multimodal.  OK, I can work with that.

But another thing we do in NSW English 7-12 is differentiate between the activities of composing (which involves text ‘making’ or ‘creation’, not just ‘writing’) and responding (a broader term than ‘reading’ which encompasses the ‘reception’ of all kinds of text).  These activities are viewed as always interrelated in some way, but I would say that it is only when text explicitly invites the audience to participate in the text (e.g. in video games, virtual reality, and participatory narratives such as Inanimate Alice) that the term multimodal should really be applied.  If I’m going to give up the term ‘multimodal’ to the meaning of ‘using more than one language mode’, then I’m going to need a NEW WORD that I can use when I mean ‘texts that the audience helps to construct’.

Currently this recognition of interactivity, and of the interplay between responding and composing, is severely lacking in the DACE.

[ED: Angela Thomas has helped me to clarify my thinking around this, and suggests that students could refer to the ‘cline of interactivity‘ for texts that invite participation.  My thoughts on multimodality have been developed here.  June 2010]

If you are an English teacher and haven’t yet responded to the consultation on the Draft Australian Curriculum, I implore you to log on to the ACARA site and say something about these contradictory and frankly bizarre definitions.  I can’t be the only one who feels like the curriculum writers just didn’t use a glossary!

Faced with the prospect of a shiny new curriculum that is supposed to be clarifying professional meanings and terminology for all teachers, students and parents across the nation, these definitional conflicts are something that must be sorted out before we go any further.  Agreed?

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Heeey Gecko!

One of the lovely things about the move to Queensland has been the geckos that reside in the area.

They mostly stake out lights on garden walls and house verandahs waiting for delicious insect feasts, but a couple have made it into the house as well:

Usually when they make it into the house I take them back outside.  As a kid I often handled common fence skinks in the garden, so these little geckos don’t phase me (spiders are another story entirely).  The main reason I take them outside is because I’m worried I will accidentally squash them or something if they stay inside!  But yesterday another baby one turned up in the bathroom, and I’ve decided that it can stay.

Reading this forum it looks like droppings can also be a problem if you have lots of geckos, but right now it’s just the one.  The forum also has lots of references to the pests and insects that geckos eat, so that is a bonus.

What do you think…to gecko or not to gecko? Does anyone else keep these critters hanging around indoors, or should I take it back outside like I did with the others?

They are said to symbolise regrowth and good luck, but perhaps they can manage these qualities from outside the house 😛

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Parents – I invoke thy name!

(alternatively titled Well whaddya know, the moratorium paid off.)

In the wake of the moratorium on NAPLAN testing imposed by the AEU, claims about ‘what parents want’ were bandied around left, right and centre.

A quick look at the website for the P&C Federation in NSW directs you to a statement that made their position clear:

The Federation of Parents and Citizens Association strongly opposes the Australian Education Union’s ban on teachers conducting the NAPLAN testing to take place from 11th to the 13th May this year.

BINGO! But wait…read on:

Despite the Ministers assurances to the contrary, we see no evidence of a constructive and useful dialogue between the Government and the Teaching Unions. Our position has always been that the Government needs to be proactive in addressing the concerns of parents and teachers in how NAPLAN data is being used and presented to the public.

Parents as an integral part of the education process and as a stakeholder in educational outcomes demand to be included in future discussions.

So let me get this straight…

It is fine and dandy for the government, and the DET leadership, and the media, to invoke the desires of parents when it suits them i.e. to convince teachers to run NAPLAN.

But as far as the desire of parents to be included in decision making around the construction of the MySchool website…well, let’s not take things too far now.

The expectations and rights of parents as stakeholders in education are all to frequently invoked in such a selective manner.

Today’s decision by the AEU to lift the moratorium on NAPLAN testing follows:

an offer by the Education Minister Julia Gillard to form a working party of educational experts, including representatives of the AEU, to provide advice on the use of student performance data and other indicators of school effectiveness.

As an English teacher who values NAPLAN as a dignostic tool, who values the rights of parents as stakeholders, and who is also a staunch opponent of use of NAPLAN data on the MySchool website, I am relieved.

Parents and teachers belong on the same side of the fence, and the way in which politicians and media pundits were setting us against each other was atrocious.

The AEU said from the get-go that the ban would be lifted if the Federal government engaged in authentic consultation with teachers over the MySchool website and took measures to prevent the construction of league tables.

And so it has.

Thus endeth the NAPLAN fiasco of 2010.



Civilisation and culture

A recent post of Darcy’s got me thinking a bit more about the questions of ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’, in particular about how these relate to my work as an English teacher.

One aspect of this is that the increase in use of technology has also brought an increase in people’s ability to create and publish their own texts.  Notions of the importance of the traditional, western literary canon are being challenged.  More and more students are approaching me, asking if I have read/seen/listened to a particular book/film/piece of music, and I am confounded.  The 30 students sitting in front of me in the class are exposed to so much in their cultural world, and I have no hope of claiming expertise on such a diverse range of cultural artefacts.

This stands in contrast to some of the notions I had about being ‘cultured enough’ to be a ‘proper English teacher’ before I started university.  I recall the summer holidays after year 12 when I found out I had gotten into a Bachelor of Education at Sydney University.  I was going to be an English teacher – hooray!  But there was also a dark side: now I was going to have to read friggin Lord of the Rings.  And so I dutifully did.  Later, in university, I also subjected myself to an entire box set of Jane Austen for the same reason – if I was going to be an English teacher, I was going to have to ‘know my stuff’.

Don’t get me wrong – I am glad for pushing myself to extend my reading to the English curriculum ‘canon’.  It turned out that I loved Lord of the Rings (my how I had grown since year 9 when I hated The Hobbit with a passion) and reading it opened a whole new world for me, whetting my appetite for the entire Fantasy genre.  A couple of the Austen’s were OK too – though Emma did become the first book that I ever didn’t finish (I’m a staunch book finisher) I was glad to discover that I didn’t care for pre-20th century stories about genteel English living, no matter how satirical they were intended to be.  So, reading Austen taught me not to fear the canon, and not to feel inadequate in it’s shadow.

Now, this post is meandering a little, but bear with me…

The extracts that Darcy posted from Kenneth Clark‘s television series Civilisation included a few ideas that I found very useful for reflecting on my own growing understanding of the relationship between society and culture.  In particular I noted these down:

Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies – in fact, the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality.

Well, I certainly wouldn’t say that England in the 1800s was primitive!  But could it be that people become besotted by this period of Literature because of its narrowness, because it is define-able and knowable?  Because its concentration lends it a vitality that is found wanting in contemporary culture which is so diverse and dispersed?  Is this also what makes Shakespeare so attractive?

We are not entering a new period of barbarism.  The things that made the dark ages so dark [were] the isolation, the lack of mobility, the lack of curiosity, the hopelessness…

This is an astute observation, and one that could perhaps quell any fears that people may have about technology, postmodernism, cultural relativism or whatever [insert social ill of choice here] posing a threat to civilisation and culture.  We live in a world that is more connected than ever before, and the growth in cultural production is surely an expression of our curiosity and willingness to engage with the world.  This doesn’t mean we should hate the traditional canon.  However…

One mustn’t overrate the culture of what used to be called ‘top people’ before the wars.  They had charming manners, but they were as ignorant as swans…the members of a music group or an art group at a provincial university [today] would be ten times better informed, and more alert.

Now Clark is really speaking my language.  Because, as I discovered when I made myself read explicitly canonical texts, I’m not the canon hater that I thought I was as a teenager.  On the contrary, even though I didn’t enjoy reading Austen, I found great value and pleasure in developing my knowledge of the way texts that had been deemed ‘the best’ influenced culture that superseded it.  And, as with Shakespeare, I now delight in researching and thinking about how texts reflect their social and political context (this makes me an excellent teacher of Advanced HSC Module B Critical study, in my very humble opinion).

The contribution I would like to make to this assemblage of interesting texts about civilisation is Alain de Botton’s book and documentary film about Status Anxiety.  Here is the introduction to the documentary:

de Botton argues that increases in living standards have not increased our levels of happiness, due to our anxiety about our social status.  To return to one last observation from Clark:

The children of [our] imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

I believe that the current boom in the production of cultural artefacts expresses an ideal that can lead us away from status anxiety – where something like the literary canon is valued, but is knowledge of it is not misused as a demarcation of status.  With a wider range of cultural expression being valued, our fears about being outed as ‘not knowing everything’ fade away as people recognise the impossibility, and folly, of this desire.  I also am hopeful that our increasing tendency to engage with culture as produsers reflects a growth in ideals such as respect for diversity in creative expression and authentic engagement with community.

Of course, there is another angle that we could engage in here – there is a famous quote that I can’t remember, something about civilisation being measured by how well we look after the poor…if you made it to the end of this post 😉 and you know the one I mean, can you add it as a comment?  In this vein I encourage readers to revisit a song from 1992 (a golden year for music!) where Mr Wendal serves as an example of the plight of the homeless:

Civilization, are we really civilized?  Yes or no ?
Who are we to judge ?
When thousands of innocent men could be brutally enslaved
and killed over a racist grudge.

Mr.Wendal has tried to warn us about our ways
but we don’t hear him talk…

…but that is food for a whole different post.

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