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


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


Picking your battles (aka – stick to the things that matter)

Out of all of the issues that come up in classrooms as I’m coaching, it is amazing how many of them are procedural and completely not linked in any way to the actual intended learning and teaching going on. It’s very easy to get sidetracked by things that, in the long run, don’t matter.

An example of this is pencils and their management, a familiar set of issues which raised my own stress levels as a classroom teacher on a number of occasions. Students lose them. They need sharpening. “She’s using a Grade 2 pencil and she’s only a Grade 1”. Students spend entire lessons rubbing out their work and then have nothing to show for their efforts at the end of the session (other than the lines still clearly visible on the paper). “He’s using a pen and doesn’t have a pen licence”. Reading through some of my favourite blogs recently, it was clear that this is not an issue just in the classrooms I hang out in but seems to be universal.

My take on this is quite simple – does it matter? Does a student’s choice of writing implement affect whether or not they’re able to achieve the intended outcome for the lesson? If they can’t find a grey lead pencil, would you prefer they spend the lesson trying to find one, stop you from conferring with other students while you find them one or write with something (anything!) else? Is writing in a green pencil, a pink marker or a purple biro going to affect the quality of their ideas? No – so let it go. Let them write with whatever they want to, as long as it is legible. There will be times when particular writing implements match the task better – teach them when that’s the case and how to make that decision.

While we’re on the topic, the same applies to using technology in the writing process. When I suggest to some teachers that allowing students to draft on a laptop or tablet is perfectly ok, I get responses ranging from ‘I’d never thought of that’ to ‘Oh no, that’s only for publishing’. As an adult, I rarely draft on paper and value the tools at my disposal when drafting straight onto the screen. I can have some of my spelling and grammatical errors corrected as I go and can move things around or add and remove text easily and quickly. If my text is going to be long, I find it quicker to draft that way and it saves me having to re-write things to get a ‘clean copy’ to edit later. Reluctant student writers may write more using technology, making the most of the supports it provides. And again, does it matter? If your learning objective is around handwriting practise, then yes, it does matter and no, it’s not the right tool. But if your aim for the piece of writing is more around content, structure and catering to the needs of an audience, let the writer decide what implements, tools and supports they want to use. Ultimately, it’s another way of providing students with some choice and responsibility for decision making in their learning, however small and insignificant that may seem.

Wanted – technologically confident teachers for mentor roles. Immediate start!

I’ve just attended the ALEA/AATE National Conference in Brisbane and am, as is usually the case at such events, feeling very intellectually stimulated and challenged. While there will undoubtedly be further blog posts on the topics I’ve been focused on and ideas that are building, this one is actually a bit of a plea.

It started with the twitter feed. I’m used to going to educational technology conferences and hanging out with people that I have first met online via twitter (or people who I have newly met on the day via twitter). At the recent ICTEV conference I attended, the hashtag trended within about 1/2 an hour of the conference keynote beginning. At the ALEA/AATE conference, I was really pleased that there was a twitter hashtag and there were certainly a few articulate and thoughtful tweeters but the feed in general was a little…….thin. Is it because English teachers aren’t comfortable with twitter? Do they know it exists and what an amazing source of professional development it is?

The theme of the conference was ‘Brave new world’ and random conversations that I had with teachers who attended were that they were looking certainly for ideas and conversations about literacy but were also very open to and wanting support and ideas for utilizing new technologies in their classrooms. What they need are the kind of mentors I’ve had over the last 3 years from the world of educational technology enthusiasts that I also frequent. Throughout the conference, I’ve attended some great presentations by teachers and researchers working with an expanded idea of what being literate means but think the overall conversation would be further enhanced by some of the work I know is being done in classrooms throughout the country that is often shared at ICT conferences and Teachmeets.

So here’s the plea to the twittersphere – come and present at next year’s ALEA/AATE conference in Darwin. Your ideas and contributions deserve to be shared with as wide an audience as possible and I know that it would enrich this fantastic event even further. Besides, if we think the Brisbane weather has been good, imagine what it will be like sunning ourselves in Darwin this time next year. Hope to see you there!

Digital dandelions: Exploring and interacting with diverse digital texts in primary classrooms

I’m presenting today at the ALEA conference in Brisbane on the topic of using digital texts in primary classrooms. If you’re interested, here is the Prezi and supporting notes that go along with the presentation. A proper blog post will definitely follow 🙂



List of digital texts that could be used in primary classrooms

Just right texts…..digitally

There’ll be a different tone to this blog this year as I’ve taken on a new role which comes with a whole new set of hats to wear, metaphorically speaking. As of 2 weeks ago, I am a Leading Teacher – 21st Century Learning/Literacy. To say I’m excited would be a huge understatement – what an amazing opportunity to combine my two absolute teaching passions in a school that I love and with a leadership team I respect. There are certainly some nerves in there as well at the steep learning curve I face but I’m really grateful to have the opportunity.

One of my first roles has been supporting teachers in setting up their Literacy rich classrooms and planning for their Literacy time. Within that, there is a very big focus at our school (and throughout our Region) on ‘just right’ texts. Even though our school has intentionally chosen to call these ‘texts’ and not ‘books’, there is still the inevitable lean towards printed material and a small part of my job is to make sure teachers and students consider other options.

On Friday, I had the chance to do a lesson on ‘just right’ texts in a digital sense after being asked by one of our fantastic graduates how to introduce this. I started with an online text from British Council which we used for Shared Reading. At the end of the first page, we talked about whether this was ‘just right’ and one of the students said of course it was because it was read to us so we didn’t have to figure out any of the words. That lead to a great discussion about not only being able to read the words but also to understand what they meant and what was happening in this text – a quick check revealed that not all students understood what was happening in the first page so some other students jumped in to retell it in their own words. By the end of the story, students were very much attuned to what was happening, predicting future events and making inferences about how the characters might have been feeling. In the discussion that followed, one student offered that he sometimes knew all the words on the page but didn’t understand the story so perhaps that meant that his book wasn’t ‘just right’ for him after all. Breakthrough!

Students then worked in pairs to read/view/interact with texts on the iPads, focusing on whether they were ‘just right’ and ensuring this by asking each other questions and retelling what was happening. We explored The Numberlys, The fantastic flying books of Morris Lessmore, Barefoot Atlas and Dandelion and the classroom was abuzz with really rich discussions of stories, characters, motivations and predictions.

To conclude, we talked about how the digital texts were different or the same as the ‘just right’ texts in their book boxes and whether there were features that had helped or hindered their understanding. I had originally thought some of the features in the interactive books might be distracting but one student said he used them to act out what had happened up to that point and get it clear in his mind before moving forward. Another student said she did find the features distracting and couldn’t remember the story – she’d decided in the end it was because that text was too hard for her so had closed it and tried something else.

I’m certainly not suggesting that students constantly be fed a digital diet but this lesson opened these students and their teacher up to the rich possibilities for comprehension in digital texts and, I hope, added it as an important ‘food group’ when considering their reading and viewing needs in the future.

Becoming literate in a media rich world

I was fortunate enough to present at this year’s ICTEV conference and happened to be in one of the rooms they had chosen to film sessions in. I’m not sure I like being filmed and am probably more critical of my presentation with the ability to playback and dissect it but I thought this wouldn’t really be a complete picture of my journey as an educator and learner without it so here it is! If you’re interested, there is also the presentation that I delivered.

I really enjoyed the opportunity and the conversations it prompted with participants after the session as well as the chance it gave me to clarify and articulate my thinking on the topic. Now that I’m over the hurdle of my first presentation, I’m looking for opportunities for the next one. Hopefully without the nerves 🙂

ALEA conference day 3


My first session was a keynote by Maureen Morriss, an educator most recently working in New York, helping schools and teachers develop their teaching capabilities in Literacy. A key message I drew from this was the importance of thinking of the intention first before selecting the appropriate tool – Morriss noted that many educators use Interactive Whiteboards as plugged in blackboards, rather than using the capabilities of these boards to fundamentally alter their practice.  The other key message that really resonated was that the age of the teacher as all knowing wise owl is gone (thank goodness!) and that we need to amend our teaching accordingly. It gives us the perfect opportunity to model for our students the qualities of lifelong learning and what that looks like as an adult taking on new ideas and experiences.

Next was Maggie Garard of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, talking about multi-modal teaching and learning strategies and resources. While some were similar to those outlined in the session I attended on Friday, I liked some of the insights she gave about promoting digital citizenship. In particular, I liked the advice that we need to help students understand all facets of publishing online and not just the physical act of doing so. They need to be aware of the potential for feedback (both positive and negative) and other people using or remixing their work, with or without their permission. The clips of Noah and Saskia that she showed could be used to great effect as part of such a discussion.

Other resources were also outlined that could be used as valuable tools in a range of classroom programs including Kahootz, the Learning Federation website and the Australian Screen collection. All have been around a while and you may already be familiar with them but I appreciated the refresher and will be rediscovering them as I tackle my planning for Term 3.

I followed this with a session with Michele Anstey and Geoff Bull on creating multimodal texts in a multiliterate classroom. This was a fantastic presentation which asked us to consider the different semiotic systems which are drawn upon in multimodal texts – linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial. Their presentation gave practical suggestions about how to tackle teaching some of the various ‘grammars’ associated with each of the semiotic systems through the construction of a multimodal text. They stressed the importance of the ‘before’ in the process – considering a design brief, planning to ensure that appropriate aspects are used to meet the purpose, appeal to the audience and are relevant to the context of the piece. If you want to know more, check out their new book, Evolving Pedagogies – Reading and writing in a multimodal world and the supporting website to the text. I left this presentation wanting to immediately head back into my classroom to begin planning, excited by the possibilities for looking more deeply into ‘consuming and producing’ multimodal texts.

And on that positive note, I shall end my coverage of the conference. Overall, a fantastic experience and opportunity to network with other educators and sample the happenings from all corners of the globe. Probably my only real criticism was the lack of internet access for either participants or presenters which I think was both disappointing and ironic considering the topic of the conference. We are living in a multiliterate, multicultural and multifaceted world and acknowledging that by ensuring that the discussion could be carried on with others not present in the building would have been a small but important step. I look forward to next year’s conference in Sydney and hearing how this conversation about the evolution of Literacy in ‘new times’ develops in classrooms, staffrooms and research centres throughout Australia and the world. No one can deny that we are teaching in exciting times!