Ken Robinson has a great story about a school inspector going round a school somewhere in England or possibly Wales, and finding that in every subject the students were studying daffodils. In Biology they were looking at bulb germination, in English they were reading Wordsworth, in Art they were drawing and making daffodils. The inspector goes up to a small boy who is poking at a gnarled, yellow- tinged excrescence of flaking clay. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘it’s a daffodil.’ ‘Oh,’ says the inspector. ‘Very nice. And do you like daffodils?’ ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘I’m sick to death of the bloody things.’
A colleague of mine at a very good English independent school – the Head of History, and a respected historian and author – once said to me, ‘The trouble with your subject [ie ‘English’] is that it doesn’t have a discipline.’
I didn’t argue with him – and wasn’t quick enough to take a pop back at his own discipline. ‘Well, Nick,’ I could have quipped. ‘history is bunk, as someone once said!’
I didn’t, because he had a point – more than a point, he was spot-on. The problem facing the high school literature teacher is that there isn’t really any agreed equivalent of the scientific method to be imparted. Instead, there are all kinds of competing schools, new paradigms touted every generation, a jungle of fads and factions with no deep roots. Among these, we have (apparently) found no dominating theory, no over-arching narrative about narrative to use or push against. We don’t have a paradigm, we have a wilderness of mirrors. And so we have more or less declared high school English/ Language A classrooms a theory-free zone. We are not aware of a theoretical basis for what we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools. Put it under the microscope, and what do you see?
OK, you might say – here’s a theory –
“My English class is about learning to write well. It’s about recognizing good writing and learning from it. Everything we read and discuss serves as example and as stimulus for good writing. We learn to read well in order to write well.”
It’s not a bad model.
here’s the problem. It doesn’t support inquiry.
In English classes we have a lop-sided situation where there’s a strong, fresh educational theory (constructivism) which is effective and portable, but we don’t have the literary theory to match it and to enable meaningful inquiry into the subject.
Is our inquiry always to be – what does this text teach us about good writing? Is it to be – is Juliet too young to get married? Is it to be – why don’t we write the chapters that the author decided for very good reasons not to write?
The result of the problem is the inflow of dross to fill the vacuum. The confusion about literary criticism. The alarmingly narrow technical base. The shallow politicization of the subject.
The result of that is in turn the loss of engagement across a broad band of students – the more logically minded, or epistemologically-minded, who find the subject empty for them. The technical and scientific types, who don’t understand what they’re supposed to be inquiring into. Many of the boys, in fact.
We escape the theoretical vacuum by shooting off in other directions, embracing the refuge of other subjects in which we might have little training but which still feel somehow more solid than our own. In my first international school, I encountered a Language A (English) MYP curriculum which seemed to have been designed entirely to support the Humanities curriculum. In the name of inter-disciplinary study of course. Everything we read in English served to illustrate a historical experience. Of Mice and Men when they were learning about the great Depression. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch when they were doing the Cold War. Easy to justify from the Humanities side – but from the literature side the overwhelming lesson seemed to be that literature can tell us what history felt like.
Or else it’s all about ethics, concern, identity politics and wedge issues.
At its lowest level, of course, it’s about maps, or anything we can put on display. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head, shall we? Let’s make it out of cardboard!
I would love to know – how many English teachers have had their class draw maps or even make papier-mache models of the island in Lord of the Flies?
I’m sorry, but that’s a clay daffodil.
Have you ever used Of Mice and Men to have a class debate about the ethics of euthanasia?
The second session of the day was all about finding out what people are saying about the connections between issues and nature. Students:
- searched online
- looked through newspapers, books and magazines
- referred to notes they had taken from TED talks, guest speakers and videos they’ve watched
- wrote their own quotes!
The students were able to locate a lot of very powerful quotes that they can use in the latter stages of their exhibition.
The students were given some decent paper and a small selection of chalk and oil pastels. They were asked to use shades of green and only one more colour in order to show their issue from a green/nature perspective through abstract art.
Many of them were not familiar with abstract art, which was quite a shock! However, I shared some examples of the work done by the teachers at the Green School (see previous posting) and that seemed to unlock some of their creativity.
The students wrote an explanation of their work on an index card and then they put them up on a display board.
Some of the ideas that came out of students sharing their work were very interesting and could lead on to some bigger works of art to form part of the exhibition:
- Sasha’s drawing of blue water that is becoming more and more polluted could become a large “timeline painting” that shows what we have been doing to water throughout history. It could also include some vision for the future.
- Rosna’s image of plastic bags on top of a natural background could be extended to become a painting of the Earth that is covered with cut-out bits of plastic to represent plastic bags. She could stick these on herself, or make it interactive in order to increase the shock value!
- Alfie’s growing cloud of cigarette smoke could also be turned into an interactive piece of work. He wanted to get people to sign a petition. maybe, instead, he could get people to contribute to a massive cloud of smoke?
These ideas for further development of the artwork came from Naomi Natale’s One Million Bones project.
The slideshow is doing some strange things!
I’m going to attempt use this blog to document all my planning, both before and as everything happens, as I work with my Year 6 students through the PYP exhibition process. I’m going to call this “Blanning”… because “Blagging” is just too honest!
Tomorrow, I’m going to use the Nature lens of the Compass. Through the Nature lens, students are asked to consider the implications of their issues from the natural perspective. So, for example, making links between local beggars and deforestion and loss of homes in Myanmar and Cambodia.
I was thinking of having quite an open-ended day, with students making choices of a number of ways to consider the links between issues and nature. But then I thought it might be good to have a series of finite activities that need to be done within a specific timeframe and then shared and reflected on before moving on to something very different. Perhaps:
- Students could use expressive materials like pastels and charcoal to create an impulsive abstract piece of artwork based on their thoughts about their issues in the green context. I will limit them to using only shades of green and one other significant colour. I got the idea from a session my Dad did for the teachers at the Green School Bali: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=199675&id=114095042424&ref=mf
- Creating quotes, locating quotes, sharing quotes: This would be the search for existing and student-created quotes that illustrate connections between their issue and nature. They will have a set amount of time to find and develop their quotes, and then the same amount of time again to think about how they will share it.
- Green Data: Up-to-date facts and figures that will back up student ideas, arguments and conclusions. Again, they will have a set amount of time to find and collate their data, and then the same amount of time again to think about how they will share it. Emphasis will be placed on producing infographics here, probably leaning heavily on using the SmartArt features of Microsoft Word, or paint.net for the more technologically advanced.
- I’d like to end the day with a lot of talking, walking and looking at what the kids have produced. I’ll try to provoke conversations and play devil’s advocate a bit. Then, I’ll get them to identify the “Key Connections” between their issue and the Nature lens of the Compass. They may blog those by comments on a posting. They may display them visually in the room, they may do both… we’ll see what happens tomorrow!
So, during all of this – hopefully – the Compass Guides will be dropping in whenever they have 5 or 10 minutes to spare and taking a look at what the kids are thinking, what directions they’re moving in and what ideas they have for them.
I've shamelessley created another wordle for this posting by copying pasting the words in the posting into wordle and hitting "randomize" several times. So simple, so good to look at. But... they can't be used all the time.
It’s hard to make exact plans for the next stage of our exhibition as we’re never fully sure the school will be open or that several students will take extended holidays. However, it will be a priority for us to look at the students’ issues through each lens of the Compass in myriad of ways. I ‘m thinking:
- Hi-quality image searching, seeking images that are entirely relevant, powerful and large file sizes for added manipulation and poster design. I get the students using the Creative Commons image search as they have share-alike copyrights which means we can use them as long as they are credited.
- Quotes from media reports and opinion
- Data in the form of infographics – see http://www.coolinfographics.com/
- Use Wordle to create visuals of frequently used words in media stories, blog comments, interviews (see the examples in the slideshow that I created by pasting the text of this posting into Wordle).
Students will spend the day looking at their issue solely from the perspective of one lens and will be responsible for sharing their findings throughout the day. Compass Guides are invited to drop-in to the classroom at any time during the day in order to give feedback, provoke ideas and familiarize the students further with actually talking to different people about their issues.
Technology will play a major part in each day. I’m imagining students will be:
- Searching the Internet for images
- Reading online news and reports
- Watching Youtube videos
- Reading or writing on the 6SS Blog
- Recording video using Flip cameras
- Making calls on Skype
- Designing pages using Word
- Creating infographics using SmartArt or paint.net
- Taking and manipulating photographs
- Using Prezi or PowerPoint to deliver short presentations.
- Developing their own big picture/small picture tasks for other people
Basically, the students will be exploring issues with a very clear focus: Nature, Economy, Society and Well-Being. Have a close look at the original Compass developed by Alan Atkisson.
For a number of years I have been getting more and more concerned by the terrible quality of students’ presented work. Many times I have walked past posters created bystudents in Grade 8, 9 or 10 and seen products that look exactly like they do in Grade 2 and 3. Big bits of paper with pictures or text that have been printed out, cut out badly and then stuck on badly. Headings that have run out of space and had the last letter squeezed in at the end or even underneath! White-out. Spelling errors. Pixelated images. Text that has been copied and pasted. Irrelevant text. Horrible, nauseating colour schemes.
The same goes for Powerpoints. So many of them are poorly created. The images are selected without thought for visual communication. There is always way too much writing. Horrible clip-art is strewn about them like a plague. The students bore everyone stupid by reading every word. The colours ae a psychedelic nightmare of blends from red to fluoro-green!
Does any of this ring a bell, a loud and piercing bell?
The time has come to stop the rot. Who is with me?
One person is Will Kirkwood, IT teacher here at NIST. He’s running a series of lessons that he is calling his “Presentation Roadshow” in which he is opening our students’ eyes to presentation issues such as layout, colour choice, image selection, reducing text to a minimum and so on… He is also exposing them to new presentation tools and strategies like Prezi and In Plain English videos.
I’ve also been doing a lot of work with the students on poster design and the students have created some outstanding posters that really reflect that main points I hoped to get across. This website was an invaluable tool in the process. Getting students to think about themselves “as designers” has been really empowering and effective.
During this unit of inquiry (central idea: “Being organized empowers us to achieve.”) we have put up a huge display of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. We have adapted the model to suit the purposes of this unit of inquiry and to enable students to inquire into how independent they are on a day-to-day basis.
Students are thinking about every aspect of their lives, such as packing bags for school or waking up in the morning, and plotting where each aspect fits into the GRR. As they take more responsibility for the simple things in their lives, they move their index cards along the line towards the goal of increased independence.
Recently, parents came into school for our 3 Way Conferences and were able to share this experience with the students. Some of them agreed new things to focus on and work on at home.
I have really been working hard on strategies to make my students’ inquiries visible, not only for my benefit but for theirs too. Over the last two weeks, my students have been conducting research as part of our unit of inquiry. The central idea is:
“People’s ideas and actions can cause a shift in thinking and change the course of history.”
I decided that I would base the whole unit on what the students already know, rather than try to fill their minds with information from videos and texts. I really wanted to take a wholly constructivist approach. To do this, I developed a number of resources and the kids used them in this order:
- The Prior Knowledge Tag
- The Construction of Knowledge & Understanding Tag
- The Research Skills Checklist
- The Knowledge After Research Tag
The students did not start any research until they had generated useful questions as a result of filling in the outer section of the “Construction of Knowledge & Understanding Tag”.
After completing each tag, the students pinned them up around the provocation question on the notice boards in our room. This makes their inquiries and their thought-processes visible.
It enables them to use each other’s thinking and it enables me to assess their thinking. It enables my colleagues, other students or visitors to get an immediate idea of what the students are thinking about and inquiring into right now. When our unit of inquiry reaches an end, the students will be able to pull down their tags and use them to reflect and to gather evidence of their thought processes and the paths of their learning.
Classroom displays are powerful when they are dynamic and truly represent the thinking that is going on at the moment.
Classroom displays are powerless and obsolete when they are static and represent the thinking that has happened months before.