"It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."
Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene II.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The winds of change: blowing our way...

It's a week and a half into the new term and, as usual, nothing is normal in our college world... (yes, I know that's tautological!)

My 'holiday' was frenetic with finishing major reports and course outline information for next year, attending conference, singing in a couple of concerts for a choir I belong to, writing an essay for my course at the wananga, several days in at college marking, a parent/teacher meeting, being ill with a sinus infection and... a glorious two days off doing absolutely nothing. A lot got done but it was one of the least restful holidays I have had for a long time. In retrospect, much as I enjoyed the NZATE conference (see previous blog posts), it cost me a truck load of money (the school was only paying for about 1/4 of the costs) and it took a huge chunk of time which perhaps would have been better spent catching up on my sleep deficit. It pains me to say this, because I enjoy conference so much and normally get so much out of it professionally.

Week 1 of term was mainly spent helping seniors through the final stages of assessments (Connections for levels 1 and 2, and close reading of film for my Year 13s). I also needed to get my head around my programme planning for the rest of the year, re-jigging as necessary, and there is always the marking I didn't get done in the holidays. Week 2 has been very 'bitsy' as we had a teacher only afternoon on Monday, I had in-school PD on restorative practice on Tuesday afternoon, and today I have been in Palmerston North for a library course.

Which brings me to the 'winds of change' part. Due to the demographics of the local community and the fact that the population bulge is working its way on out, we have had a steady roll reduction in recent years. On the first day of term I was told that in order to reduce our property 'footprint' to our correct entitlement for the reduced roll, the Ministry of Education intends not only to remove some prefabs but also to bulldoze half of the building in which my department (English) and the library (for which I am also responsible) are currently housed. The library and the English and Social Sciences Departments are to be relocated elsewhere in the school, but where 7 teachers currently teach in 6 classrooms we will have to teach in 4. I am sure this makes perfect sense to someone somewhere in Wellington, but to me it seems a little bizarre to go around lopping bits off permanent buildings and the idea of not having a permanent classroom is extremely depressing. However, in this case, mine not to reason why. The decision is a done deal.

So, it is a case of seeing it not as a problem but as an opportunity. The library has to be relocated, and this gives us the possibility to redesign the space to better meet the needs of students, teachers and the community. We have been wanting to renovate the library for a long time, and now it is going to happen.

Moving the English Department will put some urgency around jobs we know need doing, such as deciding which old paper resources should be scanned and retained in electronic form, which kept, and which are outdated and no longer needed. We are going to need to do a big 'clean out' and weed out textbooks which we no longer use or need.

The first priority for me and Sue, our college librarian, will be planning our process and timeline. The move is apparently going to happen in term 1 or 2 next year, so we don't have a lot of time to work in. Watch this space.

Never a dull moment in this job!  ;-)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Unpacking the possibilities...

Final Keynote: Cilla McQueen - New Zealand Poet Laureate 2009-2011

“Unpacking the possibilities of metaphor is a poet’s pleasure.”

Both Cilla’s parents were teachers. She loved English and History and taught languages at Columba College. Her knowledge of English language is “continually developing.” 

At primary school her writing was mostly about horses and skiing…

She began keeping a journal in the 1970s. Her first book, Homing In, was published in 1981.

“Metaphor’s layers of possible meanings can enable a poem to say more than it seems to say.”

“Reading, both silently and aloud, is very important.”

“I think a real book is more memorable than its electronic version.”

“Perhaps reading aloud is even more important nowadays.”

“I like the human role of teacher as interface.”

I like the fact that she wrote a poem “surreptitiously” in the classroom while teaching! J

McQueen has been a full time poet since she was the Robert Burns Fellow in the mid 1980s.

We were privileged to hear her read three of her poems:

·      To Ben, At The Lake
·      Learning to Read
·      Revolution

A few other links:

You know what happens in Room 101...

Workshop 5 – Simon Williams, Waitaki Boys’ High School –
The ‘Ope in Dystopia

Aptly, this workshop is taking place in Room 101 here at our venue…

Simon read 1984 at high school and it really spoke to him. At the time (1989) people were saying that Orwell had ‘got it wrong’ and Huxley had ‘got it right’.

First use of the word ‘dystopia’ was by JS Mill in a speech in the British Parliament about Ireland. He also used the word ‘cacotopia’.

So where is the hope in dystopia?

Simons sees it firstly in the texts themselves. Some he was talking about:

·      Brave New World
·      Fahrenheit 451
·      Nineteen Eight-Four
·      The Hunger Games
·      The Iron Heel – Jack London
·      The Handmaid’s Tale
·      Ender’s Game
·      Uglies – Scott Westerfield
·      Lord of the Flies

1984 is his all time favourite. A few interesting facts – in Britain during WW2 some clocks were adjusted to 24 hours to assist in shift work. Also, vegetables were not rationed so the smell of cabbage would have been very familiar to Orwell’s readers.

Some other texts:

·      V for Vendetta
·      Dark city
·      Brazil
·      The Matrix
·      We
·      Notes from the Underground
·      A Clockwork Roange
·      Soylent Green
·      Starship Troopers (the novel by Heinlein)
·      The Man in the High Castle
·      The Running Man
·      Battle Royale
·      Blind Faith
·      Logan’s Run

There is hope in the quality of the texts.

Another hope that Simon sees is that dystopian texts are replacing the vampire texts as the teenage craze.

He asked what other texts workshop participants had used:

·      Children of Men – as film at Y12
·      Feed, M T Anderson – didn’t go well with Y11 although they did well in their external. They said it was ‘too weird’
·      Oryx and Crake
·      See article by Margaret Atwood in the Guardian on Ustopia

Quotes James Tiberius Kirk: “The three most beautiful words in the English language are, ‘I need help.’”

For Simon, that’s what many of these dystopian texts are about – they are a way of saying something is wrong with society – help!

Simon has real problems with A Clockwork Orange – he sees the ending as gutless – ‘Oh, I’ve grown out of it.’  Apparently the American edition cuts the ending!!!!  (This is why the film stops where it does.)

Orwell said 1984 was a warning, Huxley said Brave New World was a ‘reasonable prediction of the future’.

What did they get right?

·      Atwood: nuclear ‘accidents’; infertility
·      Huxley: genetic manipulation/engineering
·      Minority Report: so much information about us.
·      The Iron Heel: people coming into factories to shoot the unionists – apparently happened in Columbia
·      Orwell: telescreens (CCTV), thoughtcrime, double think (let’s invade Iraq because there are weapons of mass destruction there…), newspeak.

Belching out the Devil, Mark Thomas – about Coca Cola. Also As Used on Nelson Mandela.

[And if you don’t believe that Big Brother is watching you, check out this news story about electronic surveillance in the US!]

Sorry I didn’t write many notes, folks, too interested in listening and discussing. Thanks, Simon!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Grow your soul...

Workshop 4: Harvey Molloy, Newlands College – How to Grow Poets

Here I am with my old mate, Harvey, we go way back to university days, so I needed to come along and see if he knows what he’s talking about!

Harvey is the Dean of Gifted and Talented Students at Newlands. He is a published poet and all round awesome person! Here is one of his poems.

He suggests that if we are starting a creative writing group we talk to whoever is in charge of gifted and talented at our schools because they may have funding we can use, since a writing group is an extension activity.

Harvey also runs a book club and a philosophy club.  He taps the gifted and talented money to buy books for the book club (which end up in the library). Students choose the book they are going to read.

The first year Harvey ran his creative writing group he says it wasn’t so successful. It was too unfocussed. Then he saw the school focus in a major way on the school production so he decided that his writing group needed a focus.

So he decided to use National Poetry Day as the focus and have a poetry writing competition. Senior and Junior categories, $50 prize each, $25 runner up. He got 60 entries. Use an outside judge, anonymous entries. Restricted to no more than 4 poems per student. He gave the material to students to design and publish as a book. Winners and runners up had to be named. The only rule he gave was that they had to respect the poet’s layout of the poem and he gave the title (chosen from a phrase in one of the winning poems). Otherwise they could decide on the layout, cover, design, font etc etc. Prints 40 to start and after that on demand – free copies to the authors and charges $2 per copy to everyone else.

Anybody can enter the competition – it is not restricted to people in the creative writing group.  He got 60 entries the first year and it’s been running for several years now.

Q: any problems with authenticity? Yes, Harvey checks on them and has had some problems with it in the past.

It’s ok to have a poem inspired by someone else’s work, as long as that is acknowledged.

Harvey also encourages the students to enter the National Poetry Society competition and has dispensation for the same poems to appear as the school publication doesn’t count as an ‘official publication’.

Suggestions which have worked for Harvey:

·      Regular meetings
·      Poetry Day and competition focus
·      Visiting poets reading and running workshops
·      Use Juicy Writing by Bridget Lowry
·      Google “creative writing exercises”

There was some discussion of participants’ experiences at their schools with running creative writing workshops:

·      Small group that fizzled when teacher left
·      Someone who ‘hijacks’ the Y10 camp for poetry-writing purposes (way to go!)
·      Full school ‘Young Writers’ Awards’ – 6 different text types. Literary luncheon, poetry readings, with guest speaker; prizes book/movie vouchers, and top pieces published in the school magazine. Includes team entries. Some class time given for editing in the week before the entry deadline. Makes everyone enter something.
·      Use of chocolate for bribery purposes seems widespread at a range of schools!
·      Large group, meets weekly, publishes a newspaper regularly during the year and a collection at the end of the year – range of text types.
·      Poetry workshops as a rotation in a range of activities for gifted and talented days.
·      Inspiring poems by looking at their town using Google Earth and getting students to use metaphors and similes to write a poem describing their town.
·      2 day writers’ camp specifically for y9 and 10 writers – shoulder-tapped. Quite landscape-based. About 20-30 kids – best writers. Work is published. A range of different staff involved running workshops, plus visiting writers.
·      Writing group blog where members can post their work and comment on each other’s writing.
·      Students have a poem week – English classes are rotated to hear a teacher’s favourite poem.

Harvey’s Tips for student poets:

1.     All poems are not brush paintings. It’s ok to go back, rethink, rework, revise, chop and add. The poem can be better than the ‘flash’
2.     Read with your ear. Listen to the poem. Read it out loud. What parts stand out? Does it sound smooth or lumpy? Is it too soft or too loud? Are any words clunky?
3.     More or less? Have you said all that needs to be said? Have you said too much? What can you take away? Any filler? Any flat lines? Can you clarify?
4.     Be unusual. Write about dog breeding, or your Uncle Sam’s beer mat collection, or Linus, or your sister’s obsession with the bagpipes, or carburettors and stock car engines. Use the words you find there. Avoid the moon, love, feeling like shit, being dumped…
5.     Titles are tricky. They are so important; they can change everything. Have another think. Is it OK? What else could it be? What else could it say? What do you want the title to do? What is its function in the poem?
6.     Let it lie in the drawer. Leave it for a while. It won’t run away if you close the drawer tightly.
7.     Proofred your work! Use spellcheck. Double check. Many writers are terrible copy editors. Save multiple copies. Then double check the final version.

What Harvey would like more of:

·      More peer review – students reading each other’s work.
·      Workshopping the writing.

Remember – poetry is not an assessment task! The only rule is that you have to write. You are producing, not just consuming. Harvey gave us this great quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Check out Harvey’s blog at:  http://harvey.molley.blogspot.com

Sailing in a new direction, enlarging the world...

Workshop 3 Iain McGilchrist, John McGlashan College –
Co-constructing a negotiated understanding

I am looking forward to this workshop. I went to Iain’s workshop in Christchurch a couple of years ago, when he did “Thinking outside the triangle,” which was great. I always enjoy his posts on English Online too.  Am sitting here with @paulineHendog – interestingly she remarked that when she first met Iain she was surprised that he was so young. I laughed because I had thought the same thing – the tone of world-weary cynicism in his postings made me expect someone older ;-) !

Iain told us that the workshop was basically looking at the question: What can you do in your classroom that might make your job easier? [Sounds good to me.]

Up and down lessons

When he first started teaching, Iain would do a lot of chalk and talk – he wrote a lot of stuff UP on the board, and then students wrote it DOWN.  Then he got smart and did this using OHPs and powerpoint.

He commented that up and down is easy to manage because you could get a lot done in that 20 minutes while the students were just writing that down.

Powering Down

Referring to talks on TED talk by people like Ted Robinson, Iain talks about how students ‘power down’ when they get to school because it is less interesting and important than the rest of their life. So how do we get that student engagement?

One way could be to co-construct resources and understandings, using discussion.

Co-Constructing Resources and Understandings

Iain gives us an example of beginning a novel study, providing the following information on a ppt slide:

Eugene Onegin

·      Alexander Pushkin
·      Context
·      Significance
·      Adaptations: film, opera…
·      Byronic Heroes
·      The Superfluous Man

He told us that it is a novel in verse, sonnets, 389 stanzas. The character of Eugene Onegin is a good example of a Byronic hero – the superfluous man.

Step one, asked the class what they knew:

·      Alexander Pushkin 1799-1837 died at the age of 38, tragically – he found out his wife was having an affair, challenged the guy to a duel and was shot.

Iain then allocated the tasks of Vocabulary and Syllable Man whose jobs were to record and explain interesting words which come up in the course of the co-construction, and sent the rest of us off to find out about Byronic heroes, the poem itself, Pushkin etc. Students to post a link and brief description on the facebook page. Iain points out that facebook works for him, but you could use other platforms, such as Moodle, Knowledgenet (eg. using the Forum function), Wikis etc.

For this to work at your school you either need BYOD or access to the computer room – something which is often problematic. My own experience of trying something similar with Google Docs was a bit frustrating as bits of what students wrote disappeared into the ether or were transposed into some other part of the document from where they were entered. Admittedly, it still beat doing all the notes myself and was infinitely preferable from the learning point of view in terms of active student engagement.

I’ve been looking up stuff about Byronic heroes but have been distracted by the text itself – here’s a sample:


     Idle again by dedication,
     oppressed by emptiness of soul,
     he strove to achieve the appropriation
     of other's thought -- a splendid goal;
     with shelves of books deployed for action,
     he read, and read -- no satisfaction:
     here's boredom, madness or pretence,
     here there's no conscience, here no sense;
     they're all chained up in different fetters,
     the ancients have gone stiff and cold,
     the moderns rage against the old.
     He'd given up girls -- now gave up letters,
     and hid the bookshelf's dusty stack
     in taffeta of mourning black.

I love it. “Idle again by dedication” and “He’d given up girls”  - yeah right.  But anyway I have decided it’s a Must Read…

Go here to see the facebook page we made on Eugene Onegin (if you aren’t blocked by Campus Watchdog that is…).

You could do this in the computer room in one period, and then come back to it several times over a few weeks to test students’ understandings and decide whether they still agree with what they posted earlier.

Homework could be to go through and look at what everyone has posted and to comment on what you agree/disagree etc.

Syllable Man told us to check out http://visuwords.com/ - this site is awesome for vocabulary – go and see!!!

Iain went on to show us something one of his classes had done on Romantic Poetry. He gave them the table of contents and they had to build the document. He gave them an example – cut and paste, put in the URL to acknowledge source, add bullet point comments. He told them “maximum one page.”  Fabulous results, and they only had an hour to do it.


·      Remember purpose and audience
·      Remember your purposes – keep an academic voice – formal language
·      Be supportive
·      Reinforce other people’s ideas “Furthermore…”
·      Challenge other people’s ideas “Alternatively…”
·      Include specific details
·      “Like” other comments if you agree

Summary from Iain: there’s stacks of stuff on Eugene Onegin there that I didn’t have to go and find!

Co-constructing discussion

Tools to draw people, get opinions and voices and keep discussion going:
Warn the quiet ones that you want to hear from them. Before they contribute, does anyone want to start?  Sam, I’ll be picking on you soon. I’ll come back to you in 2 minutes, so collect your thoughts and get ready to speak.
That’s a great idea. Who can support that idea? Who can develop that idea further? Who agrees/disagrees? I’ll ask you to build a case to support/refute that idea.

Iain uses a digital voice recorder (USB) to record the discussion – provides a record of the discussion, which can be posted for students to access.

Giving students starters, eg:
·      This language technique is effective because…
·      This is significant because…
·      This helps achieve the author’s purpose because…
·      Moreover…
·      Furthermore..
·      Additionally…
·      Alternatively…

Teacher’s role is to summarise the points of view and progress of the debate, or students can take turns to do this.

Iain played us a recording of a class discussion – obviously some great teaching of language techniques had been going on in his classroom!  Students also had a clear model of how to construct a response – “ the poet uses <technique> to show/to make the reader feel… <effect>  - way to go Iain!!

Fabulous workshop! Has enthused me to go back and try to get that Y13 class talking, and to get those Y11s and 12s co-constructing their revision notes. I also withdraw and apologise re the “world-weary cynicism” comment. Iain is a totally positive dynamo!! 

Thanks so much for the great inspiration and ideas, Iain.