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Stewart McGowan's blog

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

What do exemplary teachers look like?

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about what makes a good teacher a good teacher. The idea that you could measure it using NAPLAN, or even HSC results is laughable. But how do we decide what a good teacher is or isn’t?

Wayne Sawyer’s talk from the Five Bells conference had a really radical idea: maybe we should talk to the students. Not in a shallow, ‘which teachers do you like’, ‘ratemyteacher’ way. Wayne suggested that exemplary teachers have students who typically associate themselves with ‘engaging messages’. In short the students, if asked, will say this sort of thing:

– ‘We can see the connections and the meaning in what we learn’
– ‘I am capable.’
– ‘We can do this together.’
– ‘It’s great to be a kid from…’
– ‘We share…’

What it makes me think about, though, is how many of my students would say these same things? In my context I don’t see a lot of students in poverty but if I’m doing my job well, shouldn’t they have the same messages? I’m guessing that some of my students would have messages more like these:

– ‘what we learn is challenging but I don’t always see the connection’

– ‘I’m not as capable as others in the class’

– ‘I can get help if I need it but I need to do this on my own’

– ‘This school’s okay’

– ‘I produce the work I have to’

They are, to a greater or a lesser degree, disengaged. And in my context, because my students are more likely to be compliant, this can be a hidden problem. Is there some evidence of it? Parental complaints about assessment tasks, parental non-attendance at Parent/ teacher nights, submission of work of minimum standard, students absent on the day of major tasks who don’t make completing it a priority, the number of students who use their digital devices for entertainment or peer connection rather than for programmed work…. I’m just listing the kinds of things my staff and I complain about. I think there has to be a link.

The challenge in my context  is to get teachers to re-think the way they interact with high-achieving students. If we take the view that schools are about more than knowledge and ability, that students need a voice, a sense of place and control over their own learning, that students feel more capable when they have a context for learning and a personal focus, then it has to have an impact on our students.

It may even show up as improved HSC results. Wouldn’t that be a shock!

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Angry Penguins

During the Sydney Olympic Art Festival, I saw a draft version of a musical based on 1944’s Ern Malley hoax. There was a particularly good song showing the conservative poets,  James McAuley and Harold Stewart, assembling the fake poems from a mashed up a range of sources – misquoted dead poets, Army manuals and so on.

It’s a fascinating story. But the musical was (as far as I can tell) never completed. The difficulty was in the point of the whole story. Who should we ridicule? Max Harris, because he was taken in by the hoax? McAuley and Stewart, because they produced their best and most interesting work as a prank?

The musical came to mind while I was listening to Assoc Prof David Brooks’ talk, ‘Literary hoaxes: Throwing out the babies with the bathwater’ at the Five Bells conference. He was arguing that we are too quick to dismiss hoaxes as being not worthy of study, when in fact they can be both influential and revealing.

I love a good hoax: I’d recommend ‘Banvard’s Folly’ (http://www.amazon.com/Banvards-Folly-Thirteen-People-Change/dp/0312300336) to anyone who shares my interest. But David’s talk asked me to look at literary hoaxes in a new light. Ern Malley and other hoaxes – Helen Demidenko, B. Wongar and Colin Johnson were mentioned –  are very revealing about our national character.  We seem to like our fiction in a safe creative ‘cage’ – that’s David’s word, not mine.Is the reason we are so dismissive or Demidenko, for example, a response to the way the  ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ hoax revealed our naivete about multiculturalism?

Ern Malley was influential in the world of modern poetry despite his lack of existence!  His influence continues today – see the official website http://www.ernmalley.com/index.html for details.

  Perhaps what was missing from the musical was this sense that the hoaxes provide insights that ‘authentic’ literature doesn’t?

Crime Writing Masterclass

I know some people are over crime writing as an elective but I’m still a big fan. But I’ve been thinking about the best way to deliver it to Extension English while I’ve been at conference.

There’s some innovative ideas out there. Yesterday I saw Bianca Hewes talking about her project based learning approach to Extension. Exciting! She had her two main assessment tasks both based on collaboration: a novella and a website on romanticism. The website is here: http://lastromantics.weebly.com/. It’s really worth a look, especially if you’re feeling a bit jaded with Extension. I think I may use this approach with crime, and direct students to this site as an example.

The masterclass on Tuesday also threw up a range of ideas. The power of the object in writing – I got to hold one of the razors used by the razor gang! – and the power of place is something I think we brush over. The photo will do, too hard to get there…. So yes, the Justice and Police Museum tour is definitely worth the effort.

What I’m thinking about is how to get students in Extension to write more often and more effectively, working in collaboration with others, commenting on each others’ work. My first thoughts were that I could use an edmodo driven ‘ten pieces in ten weeks’ approach, with a mixture of critical and creative writing. This needs work, though. How do I encourage students to take control? How do I make it about learning, not just hack work? How do I keep it ‘low stakes’, so that students feel comfortable about sharing their writing, while also thinking of ‘high expectations’, so that students can learn more about themselves as writers? How do I make it multimodal?

Okay, too many questions. But at least this is a starting point.

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