Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

The title of this blog post comes from another blog post I stumbled on via Linked In recently, which talks about James Dyson and his thoughts on the creativity process.

Finding this blog post came at the perfect time, as I have been thinking a lot about creativity, innovation and how they work. This is partly from a teaching standpoint – how can I teach my students to think more creatively and be innovators? How do I help them see that they aren’t just ‘ping’ moments that happen to Einstein but are things you can plan for and work towards?

I’ve also been thinking about it from my own perspective – how can I be more creative and innovative as an educator? In the post linked above, Matthew Syed wrote about how to be creative, you first need a problem. As an educator working in a system which still has many remnants of 100 year old schooling, problems are definitely not in short supply. I’m in a very fortunate position to be working somewhere that is giving me opportunities to look at some of these problems and think creatively; to reconsider and adapt some of the supposed ‘givens’ of school life. Hence why I’ve become so interested in the process.

I’m at the start of this journey and I know this blog post is necessarily sketchy as I grapple with all of this. I’m sure there’ll be a lot more posts brewing – these are a great way to get out my ideas and thoughts and reflect on what I’m learning, doing and seeing. It’s kind of like Dumbledore’s pensieve – taking the strands of thought out of my head and putting them here for safe keeping so that I can view them when needed and make sense.

Stay tuned ūüôā

5276887620_f4d6e10e22_zPhoto by Eric C Castro (adapted from an image by Alec Couros) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Stop dumbing it down – a message to authors of children’s fiction

One of the lovely roles I have is as an occasional book reviewer for ALEA and it’s a job I love. Every now and then, I get sent some books to read and the pile is very diverse in age range, topic and genre.

Sometimes, I get some absolute gems. Picture books that are well crafted with rich language and evocative illustrations, holding you on the page. Short stories which artfully build up in a limited amount of words and often leave you wanting more. Novels with great characters (and not so noble characters) which you can identify with and walk alongside.

However I have noticed, both in this role and in my general obsession of reading young people’s literature, that the diet being served up for children is not always rich and high quality. In particular, I’ve recently read quite a few shorter novels, pitched at the grade 2-6 market which are the literary equivalent of burger and fries – quick to produce, quicker to read but with no substance. Stories without quality storylines or themes. Characters who are shallow and 2 dimensional. Even worse, Australian authors who feel the need to write as if they are American, borrowing colloquialisms and stereotypes from their culture. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that books embracing¬†American culture are bad or that I don’t enjoy them, just that I’d rather see Australian culture celebrated and reflected in books that purport to be Australian).

Most importantly, what I’m seeing is books completely bereft of the rich language of literature. For some reason, it appears that many authors feel the need to ‘dumb it down’, particularly for this age group and I don’t understand why. Picture books generally have a fantastic array of language – why, as children get older, should this disappear? I vividly remember reading all sorts of literature as a child – The Railway Children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Heidi (read to me as a 4 year old), even Les Miserables when I was in Year 7 (thanks to my older sister studying it at University). I didn’t always understand all of the words or sentiments but that was part of the mystery, challenge and, dare I say it, fun of reading. It became a problem to solve, a secret to uncover and a world to explore. It also gave me a plethora of new words to try to fit into dinner time conversation (usually incorrectly) and surprise my parents with.

So, authors, I implore you. Don’t be tempted to turn your ability to craft rich and amazing tales into a mass produced, assembly line of fast food books. Young people need to be surrounded by quality literature which lets them explore and experience their world in all its richness and diversity, from the safety of a comfortable reading spot.

How to grow your own word detective

I haven’t always been passionately interested in spelling. During my first year or two of teaching, I will admit to being similar to so many teachers – frustrated with my student’s attempts, reaching for commercial spelling programs and over-reliant on the ‘look cover write check’ method.

Initially, I put it down to the fact that I had been one of those children who ‘just got it’ when it came to spelling. And reading and writing for that matter. But it wasn’t something I was born with – it was a product of the environment I came from.

From a very young age, I saw the power that words held. They mesmerised my Mum when she relaxed on the couch and read, ignoring whatever yells and screams were coming from me and my sisters as we fought over something petty on rainy afternoons. They earned praise for my sister when she brought home writing from school to show my parents – those words on the page made them smile and say how proud they were of her. And they earned a lot less praise for my other sister when she brought home her school report. I didn’t know what the words said but Mum & Dad clearly did and it wasn’t good. Powerful things, those words.

Growing up, I began to understand how certain words could achieve different things, depending on where they were used and who you gave them to. If I used certain words or phrases at school, teachers listened to me more (for positive and not so positive reasons) and different words and phrases would get me attention at home. A whole other set worked with my peers. As a teenager, I realised that using a certain tone in my speaking and writing made others see me differently and allowed me to build a picture of who I wanted to be, no longer limited by socio-economic or geographic limitations. I saw the power of words take my sister through Year 12 and into University.

Wanting to use and play with that power, I chose to become a journalist where words were my only tool and the product that I spent so long crafting each day.

So I didn’t just ‘get’ reading, writing and spelling. I was raised in a literacy rich household where I had daily demonstrations of the power and wonder of language, almost guaranteed to make me curious. And my reflections on my journey through word curiosity is why I now am so passionate about spelling and words and literacy in general. Ultimately, language¬†has power, whatever age you are and whatever your postcode is. Some children are fortunate enough to be born into environments swimming with rich examples, while others get demonstrations of how limiting it can be when you hold an incomplete set of tools or the wrong ones to do the tasks that you need. Getting children excited about words helps them fill their own toolbox and unlock that magical power that language holds. How can you not be passionate about that?

ALEA conference – Day 3

The final day at the ALEA conference was shorter but just as rich as the previous 2 with a large range of keynotes and workshops available – too many good ones to choose from!

Deepening comprehension through digital inquiry, collaboration & participation – Julie Coiro

Julie started the day with a focus on comprehension of digital, specifically online, texts. I was very interested in some of the research she quoted which stated that, while 35% of the reading comprehension required for online texts could be predicted by a student’s offline comprehension, 15% required a different skillset unique to the online environment. Worryingly, 18% of student’s assessed in one study couldn’t name the author of a website while a staggering 73% of them couldn’t offer any evaluation of the author’s expertise. These insights present us with a challenge – how to teach the broad range of comprehension skills needed for both online and offline texts?

Julie walked us through how to use the familiar gradual release of responsibility model when teaching students about online inquiry. Using scaffolds such as Google custom searches and initial use of more structured, authentic tasks to guide students through the process both support the development of important skills and can be used at all levels.

I was also lucky enough to attend Julie’s workshop session in the afternoon which stepped in more detail through the process of guiding an online inquiry. Various resources demonstrating this can be found at this site, as well as some great support materials here and here.

Importantly, it’s the fact that there is so much ‘more’ when reading online that makes it challenging and we need to help our students learn how to successfully navigate, evaluate and filter the information and resources they need.

For the love of words: Fostering curiosity about spelling in the primary classroom – Sami Wansink

This was a workshop being run by an early career teacher with a incredible passion and clearly a very sound understanding of both content and pedagogy. Most of this workshop was already familiar but I’m really glad I attended anyway – it reminded me how important it is to get students excited about words and to do all we can to wash away the stigma of spelling which so often lingers.

CAFE: Empower students to take an active role in setting goals for literacy improvement – Joan Moser and Gail Boushey

I had been really looking forward to this keynote and wasn’t disappointed – I was very lucky to get a seat as it was clearly a very popular session.

I’m not particularly familiar with the CAFE model, other than that I’ve heard teachers talk about, usually in glowing terms. I suppose my biggest reason to attend this session was curiosity – both about the model and about ways I can support my staff with conferencing.

Joan and Gail spoke about the CAFE model generally but were specifically focused on what conferences with students looked like within this. What appealed most was that their advice was firmly grounded in both more formal research and in searching for solutions to problems they have experience in the classroom.

They talked through the whole process – from assessing individual, through discussing and setting goals with students to reviewing goals and modifying instruction. They talked about their own experiences in setting goals but not getting anywhere, only to realise the goals were too large and the strategies not specific enough. This led to their guiding question – what are the 2 strategies that the student needs in the next 2 weeks that would make the biggest difference in their reading?

Another key point for was about how voracious our readers need to be. While I’ve certainly moved students forward and set goals in their reading, I don’t know that I’ve been specific about page numbers and quantity however research from Richard Allington shows that the amount and the speed that students read both have an impact on their reading skills.

And so ends the ALEA conference for another year. As usual, it has been a rich and thought provoking few days which have reinforced some of my beliefs and practices and challenged others. I’ve also really valued the networking opportunities with colleagues across a diverse range of settings. Well done ALEA & I hope to see you in Adelaide next year!

ALEA conference – day 2

Another huge day of wondering and questioning which reminds me why I love to blog – this is my reflection time, when I try to distill the essence of the messages I’ve heard and consider what the implications are for the world/s I inhabit.

Ignorance killed the cat: What’s left out of literacy research & policy, and the implications for teachers’ knowledge and practice¬†– Peter Freebody

Peter Freebody¬†spoke about the need for educators to be ‘research savvy’ and not just blindly dismiss or accept research and this was something that instantly resonated with me. There has been such a push over the last few years about ‘research led practice’ however few stop to consider whether they have the knowledge or experience in this area to really make sense of and evaluate the research in question.

To demonstrate this, Peter spoke about both PISA and PIAAC¬†and highlighted some of the results that the media don’t focus on – that girls consistently outperform boys in reading on PISA but that the situation is flipped when adults are tested, with men outperforming women. More than asking a simple ‘why?’, he encouraged a deeper ‘what’s going on here?’ to look into¬†it from all angles and beyond just the results.

Considering what’s included in research and what’s missing is an important step towards evaluating its value. National/International level reading data, for example, rarely breaks reading down into the different skills of readers (and frequently isn’t even testing all of those skills in the first place). Knowing this, it makes sense that, as reading isn’t a single entity which an individual can be graded on, there can be no silver bullet which will fix/move/change/extend all learners. As a complex set of skills which even more complex humans acquire at different rates, both our data and our responses need to be tailored to individuals and their needs.

Key message – Literacy is complex and data often tries to make it look easy and neat. Don’t be sucked in and make sure you understand the story behind it before you start believing and acting on it.

New media & new learning РMary Kalantzis & Bill Cope

During my Masters and PhD studies, I spent a lot of time quoting these two but it was the first time I’ve actually seen them in person. Mary’s comment about Australia’s general reluctance to mandate when it comes to education, instead leaving the door open to creativity instantly struck a chord. And, like Peter Freebody before her, she reiterated the diversity in our students and their needs and, therefore, how it was inevitable that there wouldn’t be one right way to teach them all (as much as politicians may try to convince us otherwise).

Bill Cope then took up the narrative, reminding us that

the classroom is a 19th century invention to pass knowledge from the teacher to the student

and that many new technologies and trends (such as flipping classrooms, e-textbooks and electronic whiteboards) simply repeated old pedagogies rather than replacing or reinventing them. Instead, he proposed using the affordances of technology to build the classroom as a knowledge community and change what learning environments could be.

An example of this is Scholar, an online creation and collaboration tool which allows learners to create multimodal texts, seek and provide others with feedback and contribute to¬†a purposeful learning community. I only got the opportunity to look briefly at it today but am keen to explore further. Equally in need of further exploration are the amazing range of resources on Bill & Mary’s website.

Key message – Learning is at the heart of what we do, as teachers & as human beings. Schools and classrooms are social constructs that meet/met specific purposes but aren’t immovable, prerequisites for learning. Technology is pedagogically neutral yet can be a great enabler through the affordances it provides.

What do teachers of literacy do? The importance of speaking up, speaking out and speaking loudly – Misty Adoniou

Misty unapologetically told us her session would be ‘bolshy’ & it really was the perfect tone for her message – teachers need to speak up, speak out and speak loudly.

Why?

  • because our work is important: We don’t always know it but we have a huge impact on children’s and, later, adult’s lives, within classrooms and long after they leave them
  • because others get it wrong: Misty gave some great examples of this from politicians and those appointed to positions of power over education (but rarely educators themselves). My favourite was Christopher Pyne who claimed that:

    Everyone’s been to school; everyone’s an expert in education one way or the other

  • because if we don’t speak for those who need us most, who will?: Misty challenged us to think of who our curriculum represented and whether all of our learners would be able to see themselves represented in it. It’s not hard to see the answer when you consider who wrote it and reviewed it.
  • because we need to for our own happiness: Misty shared a quote from a first year educator she visited, who summed up what so many of us feel after being dragged through the wheels of education for a few years. She said to her:

    Don’t let me forget the teacher I wanted to become

Most importantly, Misty encouraged us to find our ‘desire path’ through the curriculum to keep our spirits alive and to make sure we speak out – in our classrooms, our staffrooms and wherever we can. Because it matters. She described it as a revolution, albeit one which will not be televised or have a theme song or a t-shirt. But be part of it anyway.

Key message: One of Misty’s comments summed it up nicely – if you don’t engage in the politics of teaching, others will run it for you. So speak up. Speak out. And loud.

Australian Literacy Educators’ Association conference – Day 1

My head is buzzing after the first day of the ALEA conference in Canberra. I really value conferences such as this for the opportunity to share ideas and learn from teacher and researcher leaders in my field. Invariably, I walk away feeling energised and with a renewed sense of enthusiasm.

So, what were the key points of today?

Children writing with new technologies – Lisa Kervin

How can we nurture children as authors in our classrooms? This question summed up the heart of the keynote by Lisa Kervin for me and got me thinking about how children’s writing is seen and valued in the classrooms I work¬†in. It can be very easy for teachers to get caught up in teaching and focusing on the mechanics of writing and, without meaning to, lose focus on the intentions and process of the young authors creating the texts. The words we use, the reactions we give, our discussions during the process and what we do at the end of it all help shape how these authors see themselves as writers and their understanding of and beliefs about writing. Do we have children write texts that end up scrunched up in the bottom of a school bag or piled on the teacher’s desk but soon forgotten or are they treasured products delivered to their intended audiences?

In particular, Lisa drew attention to the multimodal nature of texts and the role that technology plays in every aspect of the writing process. From my coaching experiences, I know that teachers are mostly confident in jumping to technology for publishing (albeit only on Word) but Lisa demonstrated how different tools are used by authors of all ages at all stages of the writing process. Planning through mindmapping tools like Popplet and researching using tools like Instagrok; browsing for & creating visual images to support the message & audio recording pre-writing notes and thoughts Рall of these come long before the final product but are crucial to its development. In many ways, they reshape the writing process and make it more recursive and flexible than ever, with planning, drafting, revising and editing all streaming into one another. Overarching the process are the purpose, audience and form Рthe key factors that the author needs to have had in mind from the start and continue to reflect during every decision through to publication.

All of that reminded me that writing is beautiful and complicated, a fact that Donald Graves summed up nicely:

Writing is an organic process that frustrates approaches to explain its operation

A fabulous, thought provoking keynote….and that was only the start of my day!!

Improving Student Literacy Outcomes through the Development of Dialogic Classroom Talk Practices РGeoff Bull & Michèle Anstey

I had seen Geoff and Michele before so was really looking forward to their session and wasn’t disappointed.¬†They talked about the predominance of classrooms characterised by¬†monologic talk and initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) type interactions – you know the ones. Where the teacher asks a question (which they already know the answer to), a student responds and the teacher gives some evaluation (eg, ‘well done’ or ‘that’s right’ or ‘not quite…’). At best, students get to say a few words during these interactions and those words are directed by the teacher. Research in this area shows that up to 90% of talk in the classroom can consist of these type of interactions.

Instead, they spoke about moving to including more dialogic talk – where students and teachers have genuine dialogue with both making substantial contributions, both to the direction and content of the talk. This doesn’t mean talk that goes off on tangents (“Yeah, I used to have a dog! It’s name was Jack….”) – dialogic talk still has purpose and direction but the path to get there is more flexible and reciprocal.

To develop this, the classroom climate is crucial – students won’t¬†suddenly start having rich discussions with each other or with the teacher just because you want them to. By even the early years of schooling, students have learnt a lot about what talk is valued in classrooms and how to respond – if I put my hand up, I might get asked to respond and the teacher will decide whether it’s right. If it’s not, they’ll keep asking someone until they get the answer they want. Creating a classroom climate for dialogic talk involves building an environment where students feel comfortable and safe to talk and aren’t concerned about making mistakes or being contradicted. Importantly, classrooms with dialogic talk depend on the teacher getting off the stage and creating space for students to talk. There was also a lot of references to this book¬†which I own but is on my ‘to read’ pile – I shall definitely be pushing it to the top!

See what I mean about a buzzing head –¬†this was my first couple of hours of the day!

To avoid this turning into an essay rather than a blog post, I’m going to stop there, even though my day was far from done. After lunch, I was lucky enough to see the keynote with Kath Murdoch who is always inspirational and full of thought provoking ideas. So I’ll leave you with one about how to help children remain curious as they grow:

Be curious ourselves – and show it

curiosity

Photo courtesy of Brian Donovan shared under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0

leading schools in a digital age

I’m sitting on the train on my way home from the final session in this Bastow course which has taken me on a journey over the last 15 weeks, so this seems a fitting time to sum up what I’ve got out of it.

It’s quite simple and quite profound – I’ve gained a renewed passion for teaching. That sounds like a big statement but it’s definitely true. Prior to this course, I was certainly doing my job, and doing it as well as I could, but I felt like I was missing something. I thought it was student contact – I’ve been out of the classroom for over 2 years and thought that could be the missing piece. I love what I do and get a buzz from helping and learning with my colleagues, just like I did with my students so I didn’t think that was it. However re-exploring lots of the ideas about learning and what it should look like have made realise what was missing – I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong not with my setting or even my system but with education itself and didn’t feel like I had much power to do anything about it.

So, most of all, I’m finishing the course feeling empowered. And I am very much looking forward to seeing where that feeling takes me.