ALEA conference 2016 – day 2

I’m a little delayed on this blog post due to the enormity of thoughts floating around in my head after 3 days of intense learning. Forgive me. Here is as coherent a summary as I can manage.

The power of the word – Jenni Connor

This was my first keynote of the day and Jenni grabbed me early as she spoke of the importance of a childhood rich in books and literacy experiences, something I’ve blogged about before and which I am particularly passionate about. She talked of how, to truly grow a lifelong reader, we need to let them read rich and inviting texts, not necessarily those which are age appropriate or at the right level for them. She provided us with some rich examples of quality literature, in picture books I’d forgotten about, such as The Coat by Julie Hunt and Ron Brooks, but also in places you wouldn’t imagine, such as the powerful writing of Stan Grant in his speech for The Ethics Centre on racism and the Australian dream.

Jenni also ranged into novels and spoke of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once‘ with its honest, raw and child centred portrayal of a horrific time in the world. This novel and all that it embodies sums up for me another of her key messages – the power of fiction really is in its lessons of empathy beyond our own lived experiences. As a young child, I was fortunate enough to experience actual life in both the UK and Australia but the diversity of experience I was exposed to was much broader thanks to the range of texts I read or had read to me.

Narrative and creativity: Where do they fit in today’s schools? – Misty Adoniou

I love hearing Misty speak and still count the keynote I attended at last year’s conference as amongst the most powerful professional development I have been part of.

To begin with, Misty spoke about the messy, competing demands and critical thinking required by engaging with multimodal texts in the real world then considered whether this was the case with those neatly packaged, single genre texts encountered by students in the classroom. In fact, it was a speech of considering contrasts – literacy as skill acquisition vs literacy as meaning making being the next. As a primary teacher, this is one I often grapple with, particularly in writing. While students obviously need to develop a whole range of skills and will need varying amounts of time and practise to build them, there is no point in developing such skills in the absence of meaning and purpose. Grammatically correct sentences with sturdy punctuation make no difference if there is no one to read them.

Misty finished with an idea that resonated that helped bring the contrasts to a point – perhaps part of our role in school is providing students with additional skills, opportunities and beliefs that, in conjunction with those from their home environments, allow them to exist in and create in a third space, separate from but informed by (and enriched by) both. I like that concept a lot and I think it helps me reconcile my role as an educator – not there to be the only element in a child’s education, just part of the complex mix that will support and extend their life choices.

Using picture books to explicitly teach about language – Robyn English

A thread that was very common throughout the conference was the power of narrative, particularly picture books, for learners of all ages. This session was no exception and provided both multiple great picture books as well as novel and interesting ways to use them with students.

One of the games I liked was a ‘grammar by dice roll’ game where students were given sentences from favourite picture books and, based on the roll of a dice, were encouraged to…

1 – change the verb

2 – add an adjective to the second noun

3 – add an adverb

4 – add a circumstance

5 – add detail to the subject noun

6 – add a circumstance that includes a conjunction and a pronoun

I could see this being a lot of fun, especially playing with language from texts that my student already loved and were familiar with.

Another activity involved using vocabulary from familiar books and asking students to discuss and justify which was the odd one out of each line. This takes the skills beyond just knowing what the word means and requires students to think more broadly and argue for their point of view.Cm5tHk-WIAA03wc

Overall, another great day of ideas and wonderings.

Day 3 post to follow soon…

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ALEA conference 2016 – day 1 reflections

Well timed to end the school holidays on an inspirational note, this weekend is the ALEA conference being held in Adelaide.

Literacy & imagination: schools as wondering places and spaces?

The conference started with a keynote from Barbara Comer  encouraging us to consider teachers as ‘imaginative designers, weavers and researchers’ rather than bound by templates and programs which restrict us and limit opportunities for our students. It set the scene for the rest of the weekend well – these conferences are always an energetic mix of new ideas and revisiting more familiar but forgotten ones and I always leave feeling full of possibility. So being reminded that, as teachers, we are responsible for researching, interpreting and implementing ideas, woven as an intricate and specifically crafted tapestry was exactly what I needed to hear.

Students with literacy difficulties: Same and different

Anne Bayetto presented about the needs of students who experience difficulties with literacy and the message was both clear and reassuring – on the whole, all students, whether experiencing difficulties or not, have similar needs, including requiring cognitive level tasks and dignified access to a range of aural, visual, print and digital texts.

Most importantly, students who are experiencing difficulty need to speak, listen and read more. Activities involving cutting and pasting, colouring, drawing and, generally, doing ‘busy work’ are not likely to have any impact and will further disadvantage students.

Anne spoke of some great resources to encourage speaking and listening:

Embedding oral language across the curriculum

This presentation was full of both new material and reminders of things I used to do but which need to be revived in my classroom. The concept of ‘hands down’ to ensure all children have an opportunity and an expectation to speak and participate is an important one which needs to be developed as the culture of the classroom and school. Too often, quiet or less confident students are able to fly under the radar during sessions involving oral language, deferring to those who more confidently raise their hands. Sheena Cameron and Louise Dempsey suggested a number of different strategies to encourage greater participation during speaking activities, such as:

  • allowing adequate thinking time for students when using ‘think, pair, share’;
  • turning it into ‘think, pair, square’ with student pairs becoming a group of 4 to provide more opportunity for student talk;
  • compass partners (one name at north, one at south, one at east and one at west) so that students are quickly able to find a partner during oral language activities;
  • a listening triad where one student is speaking, one is purely listening/responding and the other is recording.

Another great reminder from this presentation is that, as teachers, we ask a lot of questions throughout our day and this isn’t the only way to prompt and provoke student discussion. Comments and statements can be just as effectively used to get students talking – the important part is that we provide quality and meaningful reasons for them to speak that are relevant to them. It would be frustrating for our students to be asked to talk about thing that aren’t worth talking about from their perspective.

This presentation in particular has given me food for thought – so much so that I went and bought their new book, The Oral Language Book. Looking forward to diving into that one and exploring more possibilities for student talk in my classroom.

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 – Mary 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 – all 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 – the 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 – Geoff 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

VITTA conference day 2

Day 2 of the VITTA conference was another inspiring mix of practical and thought provoking presentations that have me eager to get back into the classroom to try out new ideas and share some gems with my colleagues. As well as presentations from educators, there were lively and interesting keynotes from Mark Pesce and Suelette Dreyfus, contemplating digital citizenship, what it means and how it continues to evolve as the technology and our society do. However I’m mentally worn out after 2 days of intense contemplation and am going to keep this brief(ish!). Instead of the ‘running commentary’ I gave about Day 1, today I want to share a couple of highlights.

One of the sessions I attended was on games-based learning, the result of a DEECD initiative to support innovative practice in schools.

  • Meredith and Boneo Primary Schools presented on creating digital games using Gamemaker and the rich literacy practices that this supported. Encouraging students to build their back story, focusing on the verbs and nouns of game play, developing characters and providing structure through a design brief all take students beyond just ‘playing’ into a more critical approach that helps develop their skills as active digital citizens. Powerful stuff.
  • Fitzroy North Primary School presented on using SimCity as part of a civics unit. The aim of this was to provide Grade 5/6 students with a more meaningful experience and understanding of decisions and consequences when building civic infrastructure and planning for the needs of present and future citizens. Hearing about this, I could instantly imagine the excitement of students in such an environment, being given opportunities to not just learn about adult concepts but test, re-test and succeed at them, all in a supported yet challenging environment.
  • Pentland Primary School presented on Lure of the Labyrinth – this blog post summarises it much better than I could and gives yet more examples of engaged and motivated students being inspired and challenged with technology.
  • Balwyn Primary School presented on Quest Atlantis – an online, multi-user game where students can explore, extend and build collaborative skills with other ‘Questers’ from around the world.

I hope I haven’t missed anyone on the list – all presentations were packed with sound reasons that games are a great way to engage students and don’t have to be an ‘add-on’ to learning. Games are learning! I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic in future posts – it’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate effectively into the ICT lab for a while and, thanks to the presenters today, I’m hoping to be able to enthuse others at my school to extend that into classrooms.

My other highlight was meeting up with fellow educators who I have been talking to, sharing with and, most importantly, learning from for ages. The difference is, this is the first time I’ve met most of them in person. Fostering a PLN through twitter has made a huge difference to my development as a teacher and has made what can be a very lonely and isolated journey feel a lot more supported and encouraged. Catching up with like-minded people today was, therefore, definitely a bonus of such an event and was the icing on the cake.

Thanks again to the organisers, presenters and attendees who all added to the buzz of such a vibrant event. Now to get back into the classroom and see if I can take that buzz with me…

Leading and learning from the edge – VITTA conference 2011

Another conference, another blog post. This time it’s the VITTA conference with 2 days of ICT bliss at Caulfield Racecourse.

Managing in a constantly changing world – Roger Larson
The keynote by Roger Larson (Senior Vice President, Strategy and Market development, Pearson Platforms) was actually interesting and not the blatant pushing of product that I was expecting. It resonated as a lot of the points he was making are ones I’m grappling with as part of my PhD literature review – the nature of education, the fact we haven’t moved on much in the last century of schooling and the role ICT can play in personalising and evolving what it means to be a learner (or a teacher, for that matter).

Roger referred to some of the work being done in different places on 21st Century skills including those of the Partnership for 21st century skills, The New Learning Institute and Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century skills. In probably my favourite point of the session, he noted the power of technology – it can provide higher quality and personalised learning for all, if used effectively. He then gave an example of schools in London who were now connected to a Managed Learning Environment, bringing together a number of services, learning tools and resources and providing an array of options for learning.

The next part of the keynote was a promising but, as it turned out, over ambitious attempt at using technology to bring together legendary ICT thinkers from around the planet. Yong Zhao and Stephen Heppell were to be hooked up with questions fed to them from participants via the twitter feed however the technology was not up to the task on this occasion. The brief insights we managed to get from Zhao were definitely worth the wait and it would have been a great session had the technology worked.

Copyright in the digital world – Sylvie Saab

Sylvie Saab of the National Copyright Unit ran a very informative session on copyright as it applies to schools – not an easy or straightforward topic to deliver but she achieved a level of clarity that was refreshing. Copyright is definitely an area that many teachers shy away from due to its complicated requirements. However it is both a topic important for us to consider and vital to pass on an awareness of it to our students.

The most important resource is the Smartcopying website with a plethora of information about how the regulations apply to different types of media. There’s not much more I can say on the topic other than to urge you to take a look and be informed – ignorance is no excuse!

Are we there yet? – Lynn Davie & Christian Enkelmann

Another thought provoking session showcasing some of the work that schools are doing around the state to use technology to enhance student learning and provide a range of options for students and teachers. The work of Ringwood North Primary School in using technology to help students connect and contribute to their community and Silverton Primary School integrating technology across their school were both great examples.

The presentation finished with a list of challenges to using technology which would have actually made a good starting point for a ‘think tank’ type segment (had time allowed!). Challenges such as defining what we mean by digital literacy, balancing the need for a standard operating environment with room for individual school innovation and how curriculum and assessment fits in with opportunities for innovation all added extra ‘food for thought’ and are deserving of a discussion in their own right. Save that one for another day!

Education first: Using technology to accelerate learning – Nathan Bailey

This keynote stressed the overriding theme of not just the conference but of any time when ‘technology’ and ‘education’ are used in the same sentence – pedagogy first. Nathan spoke of the changing nature of society from a factory model back to a ‘global village’ and how this is being explored through social classrooms at Monash University. He presented interesting research including a great finding that students prefer lecture style presentations when delivered with PowerPoint, despite further findings that these were actually less effective in terms of student learning! Nathan noted that content was ‘no longer king’ and that community had usurped it’s place and that, if teachers were still focused on content, they needed to prepare to compete with the internet….and lose.

Multimedia making learning real – Lois Smethurst

My final session was a hands on exploration, ably guided by Lois Smethurst of Berwick Lodge Primary. An inspiring session full of practical ideas and different ways to use a range of tools – voki, voicethread, blabberize and tux paint to name a few. They’re all tools that I’ve come across before but Lois gave lots of examples for their use that I just hadn’t thought of and I’m now eager to get back into the classroom to try them out. If you need some inspiration, check out her blog.

Sorry for the long post, particularly after such an absence. Obviously an inspiring day and I’m looking forward to seeing what Day 2 has to offer!

Literacy in a digital age – Day 1 of ALEA conference 2011

The Australian Literacy Educators Association Conference kicked off today and I opted for the ‘Literacy in a digital age’ stream. In the fabulous and inspiring surrounds of ACMI, a small and varied group of educators came together to ponder the evolution of Literacy.

Brett McLennan of ACMI started off with a thought provoking keynote, ‘Towards a transformative Literacy’ which instantly resonated because he referred to the skills needed in a participatory culture originally identified by Henry Jenkins. He talked about learning as a 24 hour, 7 day a week activity, not something that should (or could) be restricted to school hours. Why are we making students turn off when they walk into the classroom? As proof of how much of his own life is lived and enjoyed online, he showcased a great tool in Intel’s Museum of Me, taking your facebook information and turning it into an impressive digital resume of your life online. Brett also touched on the ethics of living online and some of the dilemmas we face both as users and educators, citing a case demonstrating the greyness of the area – Virgin Mobile’s use of a teenager’s flickr photos under Creative Commons licensing. He ended with probably the key message for the conference – the fundamentals of literacy will always be there but the balance and the details are changing. And we need to keep up.

The next session was by Deborah Cohen of Australian Children’s Television Foundation on ‘Engaging Gen Y with digital learning strategies’. Unfortunately, not one that resonated so strongly as her references to our current students as ‘digital natives’ hit a nerve (read my recent blog post to understand why!) and I felt the presentation was aimed at an exclusive subset of the audience – those born pre-1965. However, as always, the ACTF’s resources are of top quality and it was great to be reminded of them – their YouTube channel has some gems and the My Place website is a good complement to an excellent book.

Session 3 was on Cloudstreet by Tim Winton and walked us through the extensive and well thought out website to support the mini-series. We were also treated to insights into how the book evolved into a screenplay from Producer Greg Haddrick. The book might be too old for the age group I teach but it has inspired me to wipe the dust off it and read it. It’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile next to my bed for over a year.

Project CLaim are an inspiring bunch of educators from Canberra who are working hard to re-engage Secondary school students who are struggling with Literacy. Through a multi-pronged approach with authentic experiences at its heart, they have experienced success, trialling Kindles to promote reading, having students publish a street magazine to promote writing and providing mentoring opportunities for both University students and Secondary school students to support their skills development and raise their self esteem.

Next was Vincent Trundle, also of ACMI who spoke passionately about video games and their role in literacy and education in general. He demonstrated that games can be beautiful (such as machinarium) and highly motivating (such as minecraft) as well as being fun. Vincent also stressed the importance of children as producers of content in terms of games, not just consumers. He noted that the process of thinking through how a user will experience your game is similar to telling a story albeit in an advanced, multi-threaded way.

Finally, Elise Hurst took to the stage and gave her take on the future of books from an author/illustrators point of view. She provided a thoughtful appraisal of the possibilities for and benefits of e-books including their ability to regenerate out of print books and provide an outlet for new authors unable to get a foot into the current, competitive market. Her artwork was a beautiful background to the Plenary and showed the power of the visual in conveying messages. A great way to end the day.

So that’s day one – looking forward to seeing what day 2 has to offer!