Thursday, October 29, 2015

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 04, 2015

A fraudulent teacher attempts to analyse a Bruce Dawe poem

Tip: when analysing a poem, read the entire poem first.

Here I am, armed with sticky notes, reading Bruce Dawe's Sometimes Gladness on the middle Saturday of my winter two week break. This anthology is part of the Identity and Belonging Context which we are teaching in Year 11 English this year. I've never really studied Bruce Dawe, apart from three poems that I recall - Enter Without So Much As Knocking, The Not-so-good Earth and Life Cycle - back in the mid-seventies, perhaps in form 5.

The best thing to do, I tell myself, is start, not with the internet, but with the actual text. So I did. Read Dawe's introduction to the sixth edition of the anthology. Found something in common with Dawe. "...we write out of a need to come to terms with some concern, something 'bugging' us - the popular American expression fits well here for that inward feeling which we need to get out there, where we can come to terms with it, where it can be seen to have a shape, a character." (xvii) And there, I suppose, all similarity between me and Mr Dawe ends.

I've never taught English literature so am unsure of the methodology of teaching poetry to VCE students. (Which is ridiculous, given how many years I've been teaching English, BTW.) So I decided to approach Dawe in the way I'd approach teaching using language to persuade. That is, what is the writer's main contention? What is the writer saying? How is he saying it? Then, basically, let's look for 'interesting' language and consider how it prompts us to take a particular point of view. Fair enough.

But the point of this post, that 'inward feeling which [I] need to get out there where [I] can come to terms with it', is how I went up my own backside trying to analyse a poem. Somehow, my close analysis meant I became stuck in the trees, taking quite a while to see the wood. The poem I was reading was The Flashing of Badges. Between the title, and the term 'dead-beat' in the first line, I got lost.

On my pink sticky-note I've written: dead-beat, very negative; flashing of badges - establishing of credentials. Sounds like a know-all.

Furthermore, I've noted: the dead-beat always has a stake in everything, pretends to be on the same side; religious? so's he/she?? Student/academic? - dead-beat says he has some literacy in his background, trying to impress.

By the second stanza I've realised the dead-beat is collecting money. That was a light-globe moment.

My notes continue: And 'you' want to donate but he won't stop talking. Is he a beggar? I've asked myself.

Whoah. The penny drops.

By the time I'd arrived at some sort of understanding of the poem, I actually thought it was really amazing; a very compassionate portrait of someone clinging to the last scraps of what it is to be human. But my misinterpretation of the term 'dead-beat' led me a merry dance.

I read the poem aloud to Al, my old man. Asked him what he thought. It's about a street beggar, he immediately responded. I'll put it down to me having read it aloud to him, with appropriate inflection bringing it to life, rather than accepting that I'm actually quite slow.

Can't find a transcript on line, so rather than heading out into the bleak Melbourne winter, I'll transcribe it here for your reading pleasure. (Trust I'm not transgressing copyright. If so, please let me know.)

The Flashing of Badges by Bruce Dawe

The first thing the dead-beat does
Is flash his badge...
                               If you're in uniform,
I'm an old digger myself, he says. If coming from Mass,
He's Catholic of course and loyal as hell,
While if you're wearing corduroys, carrying books,
He'll grimace towards learning's obscure god,
And - like a child opening its hand revealing
A pet frog for your wonderment - disclose
Literacy squatting somewhere in his family.

Which makes you wish to God he'd only stop
Long enough for you to acknowledge freely
(Via your pocket) the world's rank injustice,
Yet if by such magnanimous means you should
Cut him off halfway through some bleary anecdote,
You do him double harm, since what sustains him
In that Tierra del Fuego which distinguishes
Dignity's southern limits is the faith
That somewhere still, in a sheltered corner of the bleak
Island, in the lee of the storm, it's possible
For a frail personal herb of deception
To take root and survive where awareness shrieks
Nothing but wintry truths from year to year
And value, the essential topsoil, sluices
Seaward with every small indifferent stream.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Content or skills?

Should we teach content or skills?

My first impulse is to opt for skills. Teach the same skills to the students at a particular level. We must do this to make sure they can proceed to the next level and be on track with course requirements and their learning.

Part of the mantra at our school is 'Guaranteed Viable Curriculum'. I agree. We should aim to guarantee the learning. But I disagree with its interpretation at ours. And I suppose at many secondary schools. (It was on my list of reasons to leave the last private school at which I taught.) Guaranteed Viable Curriculum has been interpreted, in my words, as everyone lift your left bum cheek and fart at the same time. Crude and basic, I know, but not an inappropriate analogy.

It's about 'auditing' the curriculum - like accountants, no less - on a 'Scope and Sequence' grid. Thanks for that one assessment authorities. I can't even bear to hear certain people say it aloud with its Gollum-like sibilance.

Auditing is about filling in boxes on the Scope and Sequence grid, treating each AusVels outcome as a discrete entity then signing off, assuring 'prin class' that all elements of AusVels are accounted for.

Thus, every teacher at every level provides the same teaching materials in the same weeks as every other teacher, preferably on the same days. Thus, we are organised. And I've just remembered a few lines from Blake. He used the word 'charter'd' and was talking about something else, I suppose. But here it is, powered by Safari:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Certainly fits my mood in regard to our Guaranteed Viable Curriculum. 

Look, I totally get it. I'd say most teachers prefer this method of curriculum design. There's safety in numbers. And sharing; collegiality. Nothing wrong with that. It also works for those who like to be given a sheaf of materials - digital or otherwise - to deliver to their students - especially if they haven't read the book. (I kid you not.) Working on a 'team' designing such curriculum materials is mandated at our school. Means another hour meeting every week, of course. In an ideal situation, with abundant time that wouldn't be bad. Seems to me, though, that the only way to accommodate all these meetings is to continue working on one's own time. Which most of us do.

And therein lies the rub. The GVC is designed, amongst other reasons, to foil those teachers who err on the slack side in class. If they can be forced to attend meetings, forced to write each teaching unit according to a specific framework, forced to write their Learning Objectives on the whiteboard, forced to deliver uniform teaching materials to their students and forced to assess their students on a common rubric, then they will be better teachers.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. They continue along their way while others work even harder to meet the accountability requirements at their schools.

Meanwhile, creativity and spontaneity is stifled. Well, mine, anyway.

I actually like a couple of common texts to be taught at each year level in middle school. Wide reading, of course. Then I prefer to research widely to find appropriate curriculum material; content that inspires me so I'll be inspirational and fresh when I teach my students. As long as I'm teaching the same skills as my colleagues, what does it matter if I use different content? 

Fraud or maverick? Whatever. It's hard work.

My hope is that by thinking out loud I can stop worrying about it and get on with my job.

So content or skills? On reflection, special combo.


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Still teaching, because I believe the children are the future.

So easy to bitch about what's going on at school. Seems it's all I do these days when I write, in my journal or or any handy scrap of paper. Writing notes during meetings helps me to keep my focus, to retain some of the information bombardment. Who am I kidding? The notes I made during a recent presentation on the adolescent brain descended quickly into me writing out the lyrics to The Greatest Love of All. (BTW enjoyed belling that out to the computer screen just now. Extraordinarily therapeutic. Recommend highly.) But at least writing out those lyrics prevented me from falling asleep, or being sick on the floor at hearing the same old stuff for an hour that I could have spent getting through my marking. (The adolescent brain is still developing. Who knew?)

I spend lots of time doing positive affirmations during meetings to keep my spirits up. You can do this, I tell myself. I was sitting at a little plastic table in the library. About 80 of us were seated in exam formation given the meeting was held during NAPLAN week. The meeting was about completing our Professional Development Plans. Very prescriptive little beggars, these PDPs. It was all about accountability. Don't get me wrong. We should be accountable. But GANAG. Ugh, there's that hint of chunder in the back of my throat.

I've just had a flick through my school provided copy of Classroom Instruction That Works and my heart rate increased, but not in a good way. This book is our school's bible; guaranteed to turn me into Super Teacher as I follow the principles of GANAG and teach according to High Yield Strategies. I will teach in this research based formulaic way and then after some 'pre and post-testing' I will check my Effect Size - whether I've 'value added' to my students' learning - on a couple of Bell Curve graphs.

What the hell have I been doing for the last 35 years?

I take comfort from the research that says that if I don't do anything other than write notes on the board and give out a few handouts I will still make a .4 percent difference to my students' learning.

Enough already with my cynicism given that, as I've said before, my school admin genuinely wants to improve student learning outcomes.

So apart from being GANAG-ed, this year I've been very challenged by being forced back into teaching VCE English, albeit Units 1 and 2. I haven't taught VCE at our school since 2011. That year I decided to pack it in after having taught Year 12 for thirty years straight.

Couldn't really refuse to teach VCE when I saw it on my timetable. I assumed that given I didn't request to teach it, the fact that I'd been given it was because I'm an experienced, competent teacher. Sorry, back to cynicism for a sentence or two. It suited the time table to give me VCE English. Nothing more than that.

Trouble is, I'd let the entire VCE Study Design drop out of my brain, thinking I wouldn't be dealing with it again. Suddenly I'm jolted back into Outcomes 1, 2 and 3 and Identity and Belonging as an unfamiliar Context. Work Requirements, SACs - School Assessed Coursework - Pending Ns - notifications to parents that their kid is on the verge of failing - pressure, shit-loads of marking and twenty-six needy students. Twenty-six students, five of whom began the year by challenging every remark I made because, to them, I had no VCE teaching credibility, not having been on that team since these kids started at the school.

There's a culture amongst our students of comparing teachers and classes. It's possibly endemic in schools but I haven't fallen victim to it before. Ms X gave this to her students, they lament; Ms Y did it this way; Ms Z's class have already finished their questions. You can perhaps imagine how much I love being compared to teachers who weren't even born until I'd clocked my tenth year of teaching. (That's a whole other post waiting to be written, possibly entitled What Will I Be If I'm No Longer A Teacher. I'm getting on, dear reader.)

Some of these students have been toxic in their undermining of the class. It's better now, because I am actually an experienced, competent teacher. But I've been tested, and GANAG's not much help until one's class dynamic is sorted. Bottom line is class management.

Apart from dealing with disruptive, passive aggressive students though I've really resented the extra ten or so hours marking I have to do on my own time; on those precious days off. When I'm not being paid. Suppose it were ever thus. I've just had three blissful years not doing it.

Ends rant. For now.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What? No curriculum? Teaching back in the day.

Nineteen-seventy-nine. Big year for me. My first real year of teaching English. 'Seventy-eight didn't count given my first posting was as a 'teacher-librarian' - something that didn't 'take' in my case. That year I also did a little remedial English teaching with a small group of Form 1 girls - it was an all girls school. Gave me a bit of practice in teaching so in '79 I wasn't quite a novice.

There was no curriculum in English except at Higher School Certificate; year 12. No one handed me a course outline. There were no common assessment tasks apart from exams in the senior years.

So how did I know what to teach?

Suppose there was a trickle down from HSC. That was ultimately where the academic students were heading. This determined what we taught.

At 22 I knew a bit about how kids learned but it was based on my own experiences. Played at being a teacher from the time I started school. My mother then kindly produced a sister upon whom I could practise. (Janey, you didn't stand a chance of escaping education as a career. It was inculcated into you from about your second year.)

Oh, and I'd completed a four year Bachelor of Education. That probably helped in my knowing what to teach. 

But still, no curriculum. Seems we made it up. We'd done our academic studies, were expected to be at a particular level and were trusted to do our job. (Didn't know at the time that they were the good old days. Does one ever?)

In English we taught reading, writing, speaking and listening as we do today but sans computers and photocopiers in my first few years. Our lessons were inspired by our passion for the subject and the novels and text books on the course. We had a selection of 'class set' novels and text books from which to choose. We added new texts as we discovered them.

In my first year of real teaching I taught forms 2 and 4 - 30 students per class - and form 5 - slightly fewer students.

To teach my form 5s, without a curriculum, I unearthed my own form 5 texts and used them as a guide to what to do. There was also amazing wisdom and mentoring from more experienced teachers who shared and guided. 

Did you notice something there? In my first year of teaching I only taught three full classes of English. That is, fifteen periods out of a possible thirty. I also spent two periods a week teaching remedial English to two year 8 kids. Seventeen periods a week. Wow. That's about the same as I'm teaching now and I only work three days a week.

The following year I taught four English classes as my full load. 

The thing is we worked those kids hard. Heaps of reading, writing and discussion and loads of marking outside school hours, despite all that extra time in our teaching day. Was always preparing and correcting.

Today's younger teachers would perhaps also marvel at the lack of meetings. We had staff meetings after school on Tuesdays and occasional year level meetings. Had an English meeting about once a term - three terms a year back then. Nothing like the bombardment of meetings these days, forcing teachers to complete even more work outside regular hours - that is, 8.30 to 4.30; not the easy hours that the general public think we enjoy.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Confidence Crisis.

Happy new school year. The anxiety dreams of the final days of the long vacation are over and now I'm waking up in the small hours trying to remember the names of my 75 new students. That will stop soon enough. Doesn't take long. I'm almost there.

However, I have been suffering a confidence crisis, in this, my thirty-fifth year of secondary English teaching. I blame the education department. but more than that I blame my school admin for assiduously sucking up to it; trying to get the most ticks in those bureaucratic boxes. 

Yes, I know it's complex and that schools must adhere to standards and aim to educate students in the best possible way. But really?

My first day back, a pupil free day and I was sitting towards the rear of our auditorium. Ninety or so teachers and support staff had been listening attentively - or feigning attention - for ninety minutes of acronym heavy drivel. And then we got onto data, sorry, dada. It was at that point that tears sprouted in my eyes, the hairs stood up on the backs of my arms and I felt the urge to scream. 

The theme was the importance of NAPLAN, how the 'dada' - NAPLAN and AusVELS - would reveal who had been a 'bad' teacher.

I thought of the individual students I'd taught in previous years and the progress they'd made, immeasurable in a series of NAPLAN tests. The tests would reveal some students had very low literacy and numeracy skills. As for the AusVELS data, teachers are responsible for keying that in and it's easy enough to just move the students up through the levels based on where they're supposed to be ranked.

And then there was the holiday reading. Not the reading and revising of the texts I'll be teaching in my English classes. No, this was a theoretical research based text written by a team of erudite education leaders high in the academic ranks who are clearly no longer actually teaching real kids, if their CVs are anything to go by. This turgid text was going to tell me how to be a better teacher. More fool me, I actually read the first half of it before I could take no more. My conclusion: yep, all fine in theory.

Despite my cynicism, I try to be good; try to implement the initiatives insisted upon by our school admin who are genuinely concerned about improving teaching and learning. Lesson plans must be written according to a particular methodology, learning objectives and learning activities must be written on the board in each lesson, blah blah blah blah blah.

This theoretical framework becomes the focus, befuddles my brain, without 'value adding' - oh they love that expression - to my teaching. It infuriates me; robs me of confidence. Not sure that I'd have lasted in this profession if it had been like this when I began my career. Surprisingly, most of us were effective teachers without all the GANAG

My best lessons are those when the students and I are so engaged in the discussion and learning that the bell rings and everyone is startled wondering how the lesson could have flown by so effortlessly.