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Stewart McGowan's blog

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

An Unguarded Moment of On-line Panic

Troy Martin, an education writer from Educational Experience, asked me if I’d like to write something about a couple of questions:

  • What advice would you give to teachers planning to create live sites for their students to publish creative writing?
  • What challenges may teachers’ face when moving students’ learning online?

Um, er… yikes!  Okay, here’s what I wrote.

I have to admit that when I read your questions I went into a bit of a panic. ‘I don’t know anything about sharing work on-line… I don’t know if I’m doing this well…. I’ll bet my staff or someone on-line has better ideas than me…

 Yes – classic teacher-centred panic when faced with the on-line environment. So the first thing that I have to do here is get over myself. What’s the worst that can happen here? Someone could have a better idea and I might learn something.

 So here goes: this is what I think. Correspondence gladly entered into.

 Because I’m a Teacher of a Certain Age, I make sense of on-line spaces by thinking back to what I know from pre-digital times. I used to do a task with seniors where each group had to contribute a page to a class summary that would then be photocopied and distributed. Today that’s what I use a wikispace for.

 Similarly, I’ve always used anthologies, getting students to publish their works as part of a literary magazine or something similar. In the past, students would work with their peers on paper. Today that’s all digital. An edmodo group as an editing circle, graphic software to create the pages for publication, publication on a blog as well as on paper.

 This is one where I’m happy to take advice. I’ve invested a lot of time into staying up-to-date on Microsoft Publisher – but I see others using programs like Fireworks with great results. I’ve been reading a lot about ‘fan fiction’ projects, too – and I’m wondering if there’s something better than a blog for sharing these.  When I get some time, I’m planning to check out Weebly to see what’s possible there. A quick side note: I’ve just noticed that someone else I know is using weebly like a wiki as well – and it looks better than what I’ve done in the past.

 The presentation to the class, formally spoken with palm cards, is something I used frequently – last century. This century, I’ve moved towards digitally enhanced or delivered presentations. The PowerPoint, Prezi or Slideshare particularly. I’m still a fan of the live voice if we’re talking senior assessment tasks but really, I would much rather watch a well-constructed short film than an essay on legs.

 Real audiences are important in all this, too. In the past, I’ve been involved in activities where my class has written letters or exchanged work with others in a far-flung, distant land. Nebraska, for example. Skype, Adobe Connect, edmodo all make this exchange more immediate and positive.

 So there’s my thoughts. I’ll stress again that I’m not the expert. But I am going to post this on my blog and send it to someone who’s more expert. Alison Byrne, what do you reckon?

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Dodging the ‘essay on legs’. The speaking task question.

I’ve stolen the phrase ‘essay on legs’ from Sam Schroder, who used the term on the ETA facebook page. I like it because it’s a great summary of the problem: since the introduction of the new senior syllabus at the turn of the century we’ve been looking for decent alternatives to the highly formalised, analytical speaking task.  

Even as someone who has spent a lot of their career as a public speaking and debating coach, I have to say that I’m glad to see teachers looking for a range of engaging and relevant ways of delivering speaking tasks. I don’t have all the answers here. I see value in the live presentation and in the recorded one, the one with audiovisual support and the one without, the collaborative and the individual…

What I can do, though, is share my school’s response to the speaking task question. At our place, the speaking task is part of the Area of Study. This gives us the opportunity to assess the formal presentation at the end of Term 4, when there’s more flexibility in the timetable.

The task we do gets students to read out three hundred words of their original writing and then comment on how it reflects their learning about ‘Belonging’ It’s a common task across Advanced and Standard, delivered in panels of about eight students. Visual presentations – PowerPoints, Prezis – are recommended as a strategy to increase audience engagement. Students not only get the task, they get a model presentation. Here’s the task: AoS Speech Belonging Creative HSPA

How do they go? Well, here’s a sample. English sample AoS creative speech. This student chose to do a PowerPoint with their speech and it was a particularly good one. It’s here: Imp writing Belonging speech pp. Lastly, when I worked with this student we talked about what he needed to do to lift this work towards a top band response, so here’s some ‘feed forward’ work: Feed forward practical example English. (This was written with a view to working with staff so it includes a copy of the task and my notes as well as the improved response.)

I’m looking forward to Sam’s presentation at ETA to see what else is happening out there in terms of moving speaking tasks into this century. But in the meantime, there for your consideration is what we do. We have found this much more engaging than the former ‘essay on legs’ practice – and much more engaging. Students seem to enjoy hearing each other’s writing! Who would have thought, eh?

Advice on first entering into study of the science fiction genre

I was asked about teaching science fiction on the ETA facebook page by someone who was teaching it for the first time so I put together this reply. I’m thinking others might find it useful, too, so I’m publishing it here.

Dear Santhe,

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Barbara Stanners’ Exploring Genre Science Fiction book. If you haven’t, here’s the link to Phoenix Ed who publish this: http://www.phoenixeduc.com/shop/item/exploring-genre-science-fiction

 I’m a big genre fan so I read a lot of Australian Science Fiction and Crime. The SF can be a little harder to find but it’s out there. A good starting point is the Australian Science Fiction Society’s Ditmar Awards. All the winners are on Wikipedia. What can be particularly interesting here is the criticism. For example, this is the winning article from the 2013 awards: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/12/historically-authentic-sexism-in-fantasy-lets-unpack-that. This is Tansy Rainer Roberts’ look at ideas of history and sexism in fantasy – but the issues are very much the same for the science fiction genre.

 Here’s a good pop culture sf site that your students might enjoy exploring – I know I do: http://io9.com/tag/books. For example, there’s a very interesting article on one of the favourite talking points about science fiction – predicting the future – here: http://io9.com/how-to-measure-the-power-of-a-science-fiction-story-1334642372. This is Annalee Neewitz’s take on this. Here’s her conclusion:

 Predicting the future is a cheap parlor trick. Giving people a way to understand their lives is the true gift of the storyteller. The better we understand our world, the easier it is to think beyond the confines of the present and change the future.

 Nice. I can see an activity that involves just exploring this site and tor.com to find key contemporary ideas about genre.

 Now, something specific: I worked with Denise McKinna at Dungog High on this: https://stewartmcgowandet.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/better-writing-in-extension-english/. This is the reference to my blog post where I published the results of our work. The challenge here was to take a fairly average piece of work and make it better so this is a good practical activity for later in the course.

 Anyway, there’s my thoughts. Hope this helps. If you see or find anything else that’s fabulous, please pass it on!

Towards a grammar scope and sequence

Why is it that English teachers, when they get hold of a ‘reading visual texts’ resource are happy to play with it, talk about vectors and salience and gaze, in a way that they won’t with grammar?

I mean, if I were to say that I prefer the term ‘focal point’ to ‘salient features’people might not agree with me but it’s not going to cause a ruckus. But if we move from a visual grammar like this to a grammar of English…

I think it’s about time we re-imagined grammar. There’s still too much of the old ‘what are the rules’ thinking rather than the ‘how is meaning being made here’ thinking. I had this point driven home when I was visiting my old school on Friday. We were working with the primary staff on a secondary scope and sequence that’s designed to make sure that we are up to speed on the language outcomes in the new syllabus. And I kept running into people who found the very idea of grammar frightening. A DP with an English background who’d marked NAPLAN, Primary exec, other English teachers, all looking like rabbits in the headlights at the very mention of the G word.

Time to get over it, I reckon. Time to say, ‘anytime I’m talking about how meaning is being made, that’s a part of grammar.’ Vectors and salient features? That’s a grammar of visual text. Motifs, use of performance space, taking focus? That’s a grammar of performance.

Mel Dixon’s got a great quote in one of her workshops about how we need to see grammar not as something distant and unteachable but as a resource for the creation of meaning, a metacognitive strategy that can assist our students – and us – to do what we do with text in a more considered and effective way.

I’ll be doing some more work on this during the week and I’ll post the details here. The goal is to get English teachers used to the idea that we are confident and capable users of language and that we can happily ignore any latinate nonsense that doesn’t help us understand what is is that we do. An update soon!

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