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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Let's Pull Down the Apples

If you haven’t visited Hilery Williams’ rather wonderful Blog, ‘The Woods Would Be Very Silent If No Birds Sang There except Those That Sang Best’ please go and do so, you will love it. I read her post on ‘Inanimate Alice’ the other day – we are both teaching ‘Alice’ at the same time but to different groups of kids – and was moved by the honesty of the kids’ responses.  A dyslexia specialist, Hilery tells of her students who say they ‘cannae read’. A cry that teachers all over the word will recognise in one accent or another. Whether they can or ‘cannae’ read is one thing but for me the fact that our education system has allowed any of our children to believe that they cannot read is tragic and heart-breaking. And it happens all the time. All educators should be doing something about this. Reading is too important to allow some kids to miss out.
This lead me to trawl through some old notes I’d made while reading Rafe Esquith’s ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire’. (Viking, 2007)  He says: ‘Powerful forces of mediocrity have combined to prevent perfectly competent children from learning to love reading.’ (p.31) He goes on: ‘Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time.’ (p.33)
You may or may not agree with both of those comments but the second one would be difficult to dispute.
Coincidentally, I had been listening to 10,000 Maniacs’ glorious album ‘In My Tribe’ the other night, for the first time in years. I remember falling in love with Natalie Merchant’s voice as I played it and played it and played it back in the days of vinyl.
I was still at least ten years away from becoming an English Teacher but, even then, the song ‘The Cherry Tree’ resonated. I was a huge reader even then – before my mature student, University days, and was working in a series of terrible, uninspiring jobs. But I knew, as I threw paperbacks over my shoulder – having read them of course – that reading would play a fundamental role in my life.
 ‘For all those lines and circles, to me a mystery’, sings Natalie Merchant in the guise of an illiterate narrator. How many confused, terrified kids have looked at a page in my classroom and thought that? I have no idea; and that shocks me. So, tomorrow, I go back into my class and try harder. Reading saved my life. It provided an escape from a life of drudgery.  It provided, and still provides, solace from a world of stress and occasional distress. As an English Teacher, who am I to deny that experience to any child in my care? I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday. Join me.
The Cherry Tree

Over your shoulder, please don't mind me
if my eyes have fallen onto your magazine
Oh I've been watching and wondering
why your face is changing with every line you read.

All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery.
Eve pull down the apple and give taste to me.
If she could it would be wonderful, but my pride is in the way.
I cannot read to save my life, I'm so ashamed to say.

I live in silence, afraid to speak
of my life in darkness because I cannot read.

For all those lines and circles, to me, a mystery.
Eve pull down the apple and give taste to me.
If she could it would be wonderful.
Then I wouldn't need someone else's eyes to see what's in front of me.
No one guiding me.

It makes me humble to be so green
at what every kid can do when he learns A to Z,

but all those lines and circles just frighten me
and I fear that I'll be trampled if you don't reach for me.
Before I run I'll have to take a fall.
And then pick myself up, so slowly I'll devour every one of those books in the Tower of Knowledge.
(Robert Buck/ Natalie Merchant)

Sunday, 20 February 2011

How Tom Sawyer Helped Me Out - No Longer Living Next Door to Alice- Week 6

In Chapter Two of Mark Twain’s glorious, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ – believe me, if you are an adult and haven’t read this in years, drop everything,  stop reading this daft Blog and go and read it; I promise you’ll thank me – Tom is punished for his bad behaviour by having to whitewash his Aunt’s picket fence.  Initially mocked by friends, Tom’s genius and razor sharp mind manages to turn the tables and convince everyone that painting the fence is the best party in town. The task itself becomes the prize.

Daniel Pink, in his book ‘Drive’, calls this ‘The Sawyer Effect’. He cites Twain’s key principle of motivation; ‘that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.’ ‘Rewards’, Pink goes on to say,
‘...can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behaviour toppling like dominoes.’ 
                                 (Kindle edition, Canongate Books, 2011)

When I read this I couldn’t stop thinking about our work on Inanimate Alice. Almost everything we’ve done so far- analysing and reading the episodes, creating timelines and storyboards, working together to ‘infer’ and constructing our own episodes – has been fun, even play. I’ve had to do little motivating; the task is motivating itself. However, I have a Parents Evening on Wednesday. I’m told that Parents want to see things their children have done. Yes , I’ve been teaching for years and have had about sixty Parents Evenings in that time, but I still need to be told that. 

Therefore I’m faced with a dilemma. If I suddenly begin to talk more about outcomes and targets do I impose the ‘Sawyer Effect’ and deflect from the ‘Play’ aspect of Inanimate Alice which so clearly exists? Or do I allow the students to speak for themselves, to discuss the experiences and the fun they’ve had with their parents? 

This seems like an age old problem teachers are faced with. How much does evidence of learning need to be something you can read?  

Earlier successes – and, I’ll be honest, some nice comments from educators around the world – can’t blind me from the fact that we need to produce something. Yes, the journey is often more enjoyable than the destination but I truly feel that with time and effort we could all produce episodes of which we can be really proud.

What I’ll take away from this series of classes is a huge lesson in motivation. Given the correct challenge, motivation takes care of itself. I’m already transferring this idea to other lessons. Give students the time, space and opportunity to be creative and they’ll knock your socks off. Pressures of coverage have already meant that we have only two fifty minute sessions a week but I’m already looking forward to Alice in America, Scotland, France, trapped in a fairground in Florida, locked in a store cupboard in an ‘Apple’ store in Edinburgh. As for Wednesday’s Parent’s Evening, I’ll have laptops out  so that mums and dads can read their child’s Glow Blog. They will read comments like this:


Beth’s Blog
The best bit about the episodes were the storylines, I think they were really good, and the way that episodes three and four aren’t like the first two. They are longer and more interesting, and definitely scarier. The scream in episode three and the face on the wall in episode four? I’ll be honest, I was a wee bit scared.
My own ideas for the episode we’ll be making in groups will be the same sort of changes the episodes have. Alice will be a few years older, Brad will help her out of her problem, her player will be different and she’s in another country, just things like that. I’d like to make it scary though, I think that would be fun to do. Obviously it will have games and maybe a few animations in it as well. The difficult thing will be making it not look like a power point though, but I’m always up for a good challenge!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Daniel Pennac's 'The Rights of the Reader'

Just because it is nice to reminded...

1. The right not to read.
2. The right to skip.
3. The right not to finish a book.
4. The right to read it again.
5 The right to read anything.

6. The right to mistake a book for real life.
7. The right to read anywhere.
8. The right to dip in.
9. The right to read out loud.
10. The right to be quiet.

from 'The Rights of the Reader' by Daniel Pennac. translated by Sarah Adams (Walker Books, London, 2006)

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Animating the Classroom – No Longer Living Next Door to Alice - Week Five

“The conversations that follow viewing the stories are often filled with the feelings associated with discovering new territory: excitement about being in a foreign land, anxiety about not understanding the native language, in this case the language of media, and frustration as they struggle to remain open-minded. It is my job to act as guide...”
Jason Ohler; Digital Storytelling in the Classroom p.21 (Corwin Press, California, 2008)
After four episodes of Inanimate Alice our world was somewhat turned around this week as we began to construct our own episodes.  We agreed, as I claimed in my last ‘Alice’ post, that the story had to be the most important thing so we had to ask some hard questions.

 I was faced with some big decisions; how much freedom would I give them?  Should I give any guidelines, rules, deadlines? Should they work in pairs or groups? 

As teachers, we can often be guilty of being too controlling in the classroom. We can be over prescriptive in what we expect our students to produce and in the manner we expect them to produce it. We can stifle creativity and explode confidence and self-esteem when we express disappointment if they produce something which does not match our assessment criteria. Even if it is really, really good.  Therefore, no rules from me. They will have to organise their groups, their assessment criteria, their homework targets. 

Blogging their thoughts has allowed students to track their own progress and understanding and they all had a good idea of how their episodes would fit into the series. The difficult things for me this week was reining them in to keep to the story. Ideas about music, movie, colour, everything, could potentially distract them from an effective story. 

Again from Jason Ohler: ‘music (especially)…can be so emotionally engaging all on its own that it can easily overwhelm a story, or worse, compensate for the lack of a story.” P.30
However, this was proving to be an extremely complex process. Have we taken on too much? Am I asking too much of them?

Half way through Friday’s lesson, I took a step away and took in this scene. One group was researching oil rich capital cities for potential settings; another had a storyboard sketched out; another was whistling possible soundtracks for the scarier scenes of their episodes; the last group was involved in a heated debate about what the 16/17 year old Alice might be thinking.

They delegated homework tasks to work on the technical aspects – try out movie-makers, music etc- everyone has a job to do.

Our work on Inanimate Alice has taught me that allowing the flow of creativity in the classroom means I have to step back, bite my tongue, sit on my hands, and let them get on with it. It is often difficult for educators to admit that sometimes our students know more than we do but it is vital for the learning process. It has been a remarkable learning experience for ME so far. The students are loving it; my classroom is coming alive.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Why Reading Dialogue Journals Really Work

In an earlier post on Reading I mentioned my use of Reading Dialogue Journals in the classroom and received some comments and e-mails on the subject.  What makes journaling such an effective tool in the classroom? How easy are they to implement?  How time consuming are they? How do you know pupils are genuinely benefiting from having a reading journal? Great questions; but off the top of my head, I struggled to answer them beyond a ‘they just work, I don’t know’. So I’m led back to assess my own practice again.

I’ve been journaling with my classes for about five years now. I started slowly with one class and the success I found led me to another, then another, then another. I don’t journal with every class but certainly both S1 and S2 – we have had a class maximum of twenty for four years although that is about to change to thirty three AGAIN in August.
A Reading Journal allows each pupil to reflect on their reading at their own pace. They write in it once a week, replying to a series of questions from me and this continues throughout the year.  Responses need not be more than a paragraph – which is great for the less able – but can continue for as long as the student wants – which is great for the creative and confident. On the chosen day, students arrive in class with their journals on their desk and quietly get on with their responses; and the great thing about them is that each one is a very personal response. Each child gets to feel that you are talking to them solely. I start every journal with a ‘Hi John or Julie’ and end with ‘Mr P’. I encourage them to do the same. It is amazing the things they get to tell me about their reading experiences.
As I get to know their strengths and weaknesses, I can start to adapt questions which challenge and extend their reading skills and push them in directions they may not have thought of. I see ninety nine percent of the pupils in my classes reading and responding to reading very well every year. The regular slots of reading and the Weekly Journals give those who ‘don’t like’ reading the space to find what is right for them.  And Journals look great on Parents Evenings; they chart a child’s reading development better than anything I’ve known.

Yes, they can be time-consuming. Many a Sunday night I’ve been faced with a class set of Journals needing dealt with but I do think the amazing things children pick up from reading, and the things they want to share with you, more than make up for that. However, as the year progresses I have asked students to choose a Journal partner and, with my help and advice, they respond to each other’s Journals. Cuts down significantly on my work load.
I love seeing my classes rushing in to see what is in their Journals this week, which questions I want them to think about. And no Book reviews.  Hallelujah!  Children will read with time to read in class, space to relax and read in their own way and a good selection of books. And, of course, with Reading Dialogue Journals.

Check out these links:

Saturday, 5 February 2011

It's the Story, Stupid! - No Longer Living Next Door to Alice - Week Four

I quoted some of my students’ Glow Blogs in my previous post, where they were beginning to reflect on the reading experiences involved when studying ‘Inanimate Alice’.  These experiences helped us this week as we begun to think about creating our own episodes.

Episode Three is staggeringly good, a hugely imaginative and clever development from Episode Two. The interaction is more complex, story more grown up, and reader involvement all the more focused, reflecting Alice’s development in skills, age and articulacy; and that was the subject of our first class talk this week. Why do the episodes get longer?
Indeed, we noticed that the common themes from the first two episodes were all here – Baxi, Brad, Dad’s job, etc – but more complex storyline, darker subject matter and increasingly sophisticated, and surprising, gaming suggested that Alice – and her readers – were growing up. The students cleverly pointed out that this reflected a similar pattern to the Harry Potter novels in a way. Each successive episode becomes darker and more serious. Something for us to think about. However, what happened next proved to be even more illuminating.

As a teacher with little or no ICT expertise beyond e-mail and Internet –I only successfully learned how to use the Digital Projector LITERALLY an hour before the first Inanimate Alice lesson - I have been relying on my class to teach me as we proceeded.  Their confidence in creating online content is fabulous and they were raring to go. However, despite their excitement about the music they would use, the movie makers they would employ, the photos they would upload, they were insistent that the story had to be good first and, as a Teacher of English and lover of reading, that delighted me. 

Of course they are right. If Digital Stories are ever to take root in Scottish Secondary Schools then the story must be key.  So we will start next week with writing an excellent next episode of Inanimate Alice. It will fit in well with the previous episode and lead on to a next episode. It will reflect Alice as she grows up, as she continues to be The Animator; and this increasingly impressive, abundantly creative group of  thirteen year old Scottish children will make it happen.

What have I learned this week? If you intend to create new episodes of ‘Alice’ get the students thinking about the technical possibilities and potential problems as early as possible.  However, remember that the story is the most important thing.  It’s the story, stupid!