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Category Archives: creativity

A five-finger exercise

I published this before the 2009 HSC on my personal blog. You can’t use it, because it’s my life, but it may give you some ideas…

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While my coachee slaved away on a Trial HSC English Advanced paper this morning I undertook to answer the creative writing question from our previous session: “Select one of the following quotations. Use this quotation as a catalyst for your own piece of writing on belonging.” I think I rather overdid the thematic side, but I was hoping to demonstrate how this rather artificial task may be done. It isn’t fiction, but that’s in the parameters given.

c) “My fondest childhood memories”

When you think about it there is a lot of truth in the old Catholic saying “Give me a child to the age of seven and I will show you the man.” By that age our sense of identity, which is so much shaped by our sense of belonging to family, home, town and country, are basically set – if not in stone, at least firmly enough that escape if needed is quite difficult.

In my case my grandfather rather than my father was the key influence. My father, you see, was rarely home, being overseas with the RAAF, so my family were living with my grandparents, and the one who had time for me most was my grandfather.

My grandfather was a retired teacher. I don’t know how he did it, can’t remember, but before I went to school I could already read and tell the time. This led to early alienation in Kindergarten. Invited in week one to “write” on the blackboard I wrote “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date. I gather the teacher was not amused and rang my mother to complain – strange as that may seem.

He was a mine of information, my grandfather, and I was a hyper-inquisitive child. Once he was gardening and I asked him: “What are snails for?” He stood up and took me round the garden, showing me snails, describing their life-cycle, their means of locomotion and their feeding habits and why, if we wanted our lettuces, he had to get rid of them. “Yes,” I replied with precocious analytical skills, “but what are they FOR?” Since the metaphysics of the snail was not something that had occurred to him he became uncharacteristically short with me and called out to my mother, “Get this bloody kid out of here!”

I never have found out what snails are for, but I guess they fit into the web of life. Even snails belong, don’t they?

Another thing about my grandfather was that he talked to just about everybody. He was genuinely interested in their lives and what they did. I would accompany him on his walks and get impatient as he stopped at this fence or that gate to chat to someone for what seemed like hours to me. I was not displeased though when he would climb over the railway fence to chat to the driver of the milk train when it was waiting at the siding for the express train to go through. There were steam engines in those days and I was enthralled standing on the tracks with my grandfather as the fireman and driver leaned down from the cab to share finer points of their trade.

On the other hand, so I am told, when my father at last returned from overseas my first words to him were “Get that man out of here!” (Perhaps I learned the expression from my grandfather.) To me my father was the picture on the dressing table, not this large imposter who had suddenly disrupted my life, just when I had my mother pretty much in control. What this may have done to our relationship, indeed to my father’s recovery of his belonging, I can now only guess – but it did rather colour our later lives.

You can see what a network one close relative can set up for you in those formative years. With my grandfather I explored so many aspects of my environment and he was, you could say, my map-maker. Through him were developing all those templates of background, culture and place which shape so much where “I” fits in – belongs, indeed.

There are many other stories I could tell of my grandfather. Did I mention he only had one eye? No? But that is another story.

I was 21 when my grandfather died. He had mentored me in so many ways, easing the pain of high school maths, answering my incessant questions about other countries as we browsed the atlas together, showing by example tolerance of people from other cultures, leading me (without pressure) to emulate him in my choice of career. If he were removed from my life story I wonder if I would today have the network of belongings that I now possess, modified as they may have been by other experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, if I look for the rock on which it all has been built I need look no further than those childhood experiences with Roy C. – my grandfather.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2009 in creativity, HSC, writing

 

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I’ve had a request I can’t really answer…

For starters, I can’t really offer advice online, except for general clues as in this post. The only ones I can directly help are those I see “live” and even there I never help with assessment tasks, except to help clarify the meaning of the task. That said, here is the request:

I’m a student doing my HSC now and read your blog on Frankenstein and Blade Runner and it was really good. I have an assessment on it, which is a visual representation, to compare how the two core texts treat similar content in different ways because of the context of their composition. I have to make 2 A3 posters and compare them with each other. I really have trouble with doing this and completely clueless on how to represent a concept in different contexts…

Well, I would go looking for images, poems, quotes on such things as what the environment was like at the time each text was composed. I’d also go looking for old pics of scientific experiments for Frankenstein, or for typical Romantic and Gothic paintings. For Blade Runner I might go looking for examples of genetic engineering or cloning gone wrong…

Here are some samples of what I found. The top one is an 18th century laboratory. The middle one is an industrial landscape. The bottom one is a still from the movie Koyaanisqatsi (1982). 

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krup_industrial_revolution

koyaanisqatsi_cityscape_at_night

Those are just starters. Keep looking and thinking! 🙂

 
 

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Visualising new media

Pretty, eh! Not the new template, but this.

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It’s called “Conversation in the digital age”.

Hat tip: The Tubes are Diverse and Crowded (Reverend Jeremy Smith).

 

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Check the VodPod; do the poll

Go down the side bar to find the Pod. Then —

 

My own views

I wasn’t going to say anything, but on reflection decided I would.

The three videos interpret and recreate something of William Golding’s much-studied novel Lord of the Flies. Each was done by students working in different contexts and for different purposes. Two of them take the “facts” of the novel and seek to present them in cinematic terms; one is the result of an alternative ending exercise, a “what if?” question. Two of them are highly imaginative; one is not. In fact one is everything I was afraid a YouTube video might be and is, from an English teaching perspective, a total waste of space. Two I would give “A”; one I would give “F”. In one case I would also want to send the students to some kind of course in water safety or surf life saving!

Now you decide. 🙂

 

English/ESL honoured

I am really pleased about this. Go to Creating a Community of Writers Using Technology and you will find details of a March 7, 2008 Conference in Grand Rapids, MI.

Activity 3 (30 min.): Show examples of blogs and evaluate how well they would add to the community of writers in the classroom; teachers can follow links while facilitators show the link on the screen.

Thanks, people. Have a good conference!

 

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Legitimate concerns about writing rubrics

There is no doubt that some criterion-referenced assessment procedures and related documents such as the Australian ESL Scales can be extremely useful; one example of the latter in use comes from The New England (NSW) Girls School. A “cut-down” form I use myself is here, and it has proven very accurate.

However, there are legitimate concerns about the use of writing rubrics. See for example The Trouble with Rubrics by Alfie Kohn (ENGLISH JOURNAL March 2006 — vol. 95, no. 4).

Once upon a time I vaguely thought of assessment in dichotomous terms: The old approach, which consisted mostly of letter grades, was crude and uninformative, while the new approach, which included things like portfolios and rubrics, was detailed and authentic. Only much later did I look more carefully at the individual floats rolling by in the alternative assessment parade — and stop cheering…

Consistent and uniform standards are admirable, and maybe even workable, when we’re talking about, say, the manufacture of DVD players. The process of trying to gauge children’s understanding of ideas is a very different matter, however. It necessarily entails the exercise of human judgment, which is an imprecise, subjective affair. Rubrics are, above all, a tool to promote standardization, to turn teachers into grading machines or at least allow them to pretend that what they’re doing is exact and objective. Frankly, I’m amazed by the number of educators whose opposition to standardized tests and standardized curricula mysteriously fails to extend to standardized in-class assessments.

The appeal of rubrics is supposed to be their high interrater reliability, finally delivered to language arts. A list of criteria for what should be awarded the highest possible score when evaluating an essay is supposed to reflect near-unanimity on the part of the people who designed the rubric and is supposed to assist all those who use it to figure out (that is, to discover rather than to decide) which essays meet those criteria…

I worry more about the success of rubrics than their failure. Just as it’s possible to raise standardized test scores as long as you’re willing to gut the curriculum and turn the school into a test-preparation factory, so it’s possible to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating. Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things.

This attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment is objectionable in its own right. But it’s also harmful in a very practical sense. In an important article published in 1999, Linda Mabry, now at Washington State University, pointed out that rubrics “are designed to function as scoring guidelines, but they also serve as arbiters of quality and agents of control” over what is taught and valued. Because “agreement among scorers is more easily achieved with regard to such matters as spelling and organization,” these are the characteristics that will likely find favor in a rubricized classroom. Mabry cites research showing that “compliance with the rubric tended to yield higher scores but produced ‘vacuous’ writing.”…

Maja Wilson has written a book on the subject: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment . The fact it won a NCTE James Britton Research Award attracts me, and the chapter I downloaded looks very promising indeed. The gist of her argument may be seen here:

So if you really do want to think about what rubrics, for all their uses, might miss, and whether what they miss could after all be very important, I suggest you follow these ideas and keep thinking…

See Maja Wilson (PDF) Chapter One

RELATED

Right-wing education critique is historically inaccurate and perpetuates myths on my personal site quarrels about some relevant issues. It was written around the same time as this post. Teachers may be interested. As the title indicates, it is a bit of a rant…

 

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Recycle 4: from March 2006

I have been rereading Wuthering Heights in the excellent revised Penguin Classics edition of 2003. What a pleasure it is! My rereading has been prompted by my little bit of private tuition, a girl doing the HSC Advanced English course. It so happens, as I told her much to her amazement, that I first read Wuthering Heights for my Leaving Certificate in 1959 where, though I am not knocking “Rockjaw” Smith our excellent English teacher, the interpretive skills required were minimal really: basically just the oversimplified schematic interpretation by Lord David Cecil in Early Victorian Novelists plus a smidgin of Arnold Kettle’s somewhat Marxist, and very boring, analysis, plus whatever crib one could lay one’s hands on. Much more is expected of my current HSC student, in fact I would say perhaps too much.

Back in 1959 our ENTIRE course was: 1) Wuthering Heights; 2) Julius Caesar; 3) a handful of poems from a standard anthology; 4) a handful of essays from Bacon to Edwardian times, some of them splendid, many of them pointless; 5) Douglas Stewart’s The Fire on the Snow, a radio play about Scott of the Antarctic. Good too, that play, I still think.

Contrast 2006: Coleridge; Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; Wuthering Heights; Frontline. But that’s not all, as the Coleridge is matched with study of a range of set and student-selected texts; similarly Frontline is not the sole study there, but the student must also find other texts that explore truth and representation in some way or another.

Dumbed down? Pull the other one! In fact I think my student has to work much harder than we did in 1959. I hope she ends up being as glad to have studied Wuthering Heights as I have been.**

Note too that when comparing present and past courses, the best comparison is between the Advanced course and the older course, as retention rates become very significant. “The student retention rate has increased from around 35 per cent in the early 1980s to over 70 per cent today.” In 1959 it was probably below 30% — we were elite students doing an elite course with university — and there were only three of them in NSW — very much in mind. The nearest I could get to a retention rate for 1959 was a 1960 figure for all of Australia on this PDF file — 12% of 17-year-olds* were in school in Australia in 1960.

* See comments. It is true that in 1959 NSW had five-year high schools. In my own cohort we ranged from 15 (Ted Oliver: brilliant!) to 19 when we sat for the leaving. I was 16; maybe half were 17. Now the HSC is usually done at 17-18, with most being 18.

2 Responses to “Penguin Classics: Wuthering Heights”

  1. 1 Marcel Proust May 5th, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    Haloscan 16 March 2006

    That’s a good attempt to obtain a retention figure, but as NSW in those days only had 5 years of secondary education, the “standard” age for the final year must have been 16. Presumably the introduction of the Wyndham scheme (1967 was the first year of six-year secondary education) accounts for a large part of the jump in the percentage between 1966 and 1968 shown in your source.

  2. 2 Owner May 5th, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Haloscan 16 March 2006

    I wish I had kept my copy of the Wyndham Report; I think it was all in there. I agree about the five-year high school; I was 16 myself when I did the Leaving. I seem to remember the retention rate was somewhere around 25%. Even at Sydney Boys High where it is now close to 100% (actually more like 110% due to add-ons in Year 11) we went from 206 in 1955 to 143 in that cohort’s final year of 1959.

 

 

** NOTE October 2007. She did end up loving Wuthering Heights and got a good result in the HSC.

 

Turning one-way education around

Hans Mundahl from New Hampton School in central New Hampshire has put some future-oriented thoughts on YouTube. So after all my recent reminiscing I thought, well let’s try to see where inspiration might be found into the future.

Education used to be about transfer of information from teacher to student. Now there is too much information available in the world. Much of this information is being used by people trying to sell us something: an idea, a product, a political agenda, a way of seeing our entire country.

New Hampton School’s Junior Urban Adventure attempts to turn around this notion of one-way education in the same way that Web 2.0 is changing the way we think about the web. Students will learn to ask questions, make meaning from the glut of information available to them and engage, upload and maybe even start to solve some of the world’s problems.

That seems good to me.

And yes, it reflects my own concerns.

 

Playing your part

Another principle Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game (Teachers Who Change Lives) derive from their corpus of interviews goes beyond the culture wars.

The canon doesn’t restrict student self-expression but develops it: students find their particularity by taking part in the life of cultural traditions. Because a tradition is continually changing, teachers initiate students to its wonders by allowing students to show them these wonders in a new light. In this way teachers demonstrate to students that the tradition will carry them if they carry it.

Yes but whose tradition? In any class I ever taught in the past twenty years at least a multiplicity of traditions sat in front of me. Should we just bulldoze all that potential, all that opportunity to expand our horizons, in the interests of some narrow Australian-ness? I don’t think so: rather let our Australian-ness expand to include what was hitherto alien. Time and again I have seen that wonder in practice, and neither Shakespeare nor Banjo Paterson emerged the worse for rubbing shoulders with Omar Khayam or Du Fu. Actor David Ritchie said in the relevant chapter of Teachers Who Change Lives:

Even when I am teaching I am discovering. For example, a group of students from China did a piece from The Seagull, which I’d coincidentally seen the week before. Chekhov calls The Seagull a comedy. The students’ English was not perfect but they were doing a good job. I said to them, It’s actually quite funny, go for the comedy, and it was hysterical, hysterical! They did it in a heightened style. One of the students’ mothers actually works for the Peking Opera and she’d got at that style. I went, Yes! Chekhov can work like that!

Interesting for me, as I know Nick, is Australian writer Nicholas Jose’s account of Mr Schubert, his English teacher.

I learned to read literature from him, a way of reading that was close, sensuous, and very precise. This subtle way of responding is what I still use when reviewing something or writing something myself. I feel quite confident in my method; I can trust my responses and I can articulate them. I don’t need to try too hard, but just do it naturally as I’ve been taught. I know it will work: I proved that to myself with Mr Schubert, who wouldn’t let me get away with showing off. When showing off, you’re interposing your own bright ideas, rather than letting your responses come from the text.

There is much in this wise chapter. Do seek out Teachers Who Change Lives.

Meanwhile, I think all this is a cue to think about my own English teachers over the past fifty years. Next time…

 

Changing lives without aiming to

The first principle Andrew Metcalfe and Anne Game derive from their corpus of interviews is:

Inspiring teachers always challenge their students, but they do not set out to shape them and do not know how or when to measure the success of their classes. Through the strange chemistry of classroom relations, students change and yet become more themselves.

That is a terrifying thought for the bureaucratic mind, yet paradoxically the most successful teaching I ever did was most often very poorly documented. Often it took place in environments where I really did not plan every step of a lesson or unit of work, where I kept limited lesson  registers, if any, and where I was never entirely sure where the next lesson was going to take us. In such circumstances the contingent was foregrounded over the planned, and the result seems to have been deeper learning — learning in which I participated as much as those I was allegedly teaching! To quote the late Donald M Murray:

We also have an understandable tendency to over-organize our courses. Perhaps we want to impress our superiors, our colleagues, our students, or just to give ourselves a sense of security. We plan to teach diction in the third week in September, iambic pentameter in October, parallel construction in November, the essay in December, description in January, footnotes in February — everything neatly organized into some pattern which seems rational to the teacher in advance on the beginning of school.

I am not saying, of course, that one goes into a class totally freewheeling, though this has been known to work very well. One does have outcomes one wants to achieve, and material one wants to get through. One of the more sensible pieces of record-keeping is in fact a list of outcomes with check boxes so that one can see what has been achieved and what needs more work.

But the most “inspiring” poetry unit I ever taught was to a Year 9 class that informed me on Day One how much they hated poetry. My response was to challenge them to prove it! I brought in a large box of poetry books and set them all to find something they either didn’t hate or actually liked. This went on for a whole week. I interspersed the activity with the occasional reading. They were a bright group, so I even read them a poem of my own. That led to dead silence. I asked, “What have I done? Talk to me!” One student put his hand up: “I’ll tell you what you have done. For the first time ever a teacher has said something in class that really means something. That’s what you have done.” From that point on the students started finding poem after poem that they actually liked. After that the “formal” part of the course flowed easily. A couple of the poetry books went missing and were never seen again, I might add…

Some seven years later I met that same student in a coffee shop. He introduced me to his girlfriend thus: “This is Mr W. He’s the one who got me interested in poetry.”

OK, that is a peak example, and a rare example — but I treasure it. Wouldn’t you?