Archive for category reflections

Public school educated and proud of it

I’ve been thinking for some time about what to write about for my 300th blog post. I wanted to make it about something close to my heart, something that tapped in to a long standing passion.

One of the public schools I've enjoyed teaching in

Public high school (my image)

One area that I have been passionate about for a long time is my commitment to free and inclusive public school education in Australia. As an alumnus of the public education system I want to use this blog post to outline the main benefits I see in public schooling, and champion the teachers and students that work and learn together in these high quality institutions.

Ethics, values, and public schools

To say that public schools are lacking in values due to their secular nature is an abhorrent slur on the sector. However education commentators such as Kevin Donnelly will readily tell anyone that will listen that the lack of religion in public schools is a left-wing agenda designed to deny Australia’s heritage of Christian values.

My experience in public schools flies in the face of such assertions. In all schools I have worked and studied in there have been student-staff groups that meet to discuss or practice religion at lunchtimes and study breaks, and many schools continue to offer scripture sessions. I freely admit that my personal preference is for scripture to be taken out of school settings, but I respect the decision of school communities to offer the service where parents and/or students have expressed a desire for it to be in place.

For those like me that would rather see discussion of ethics and values occur in a broader context than the religious one, public schools promote this freedom. All schools will choose certain words or phrases to guide their students in fruitful directions – in my primary school the school crest offered ‘Honour and Service’ as a creed to focus the development of student values, and my high school offered ‘Loyalty, Sincerity, Generosity’, words that continue to frame my personal values in adult life.

In addition to these pithy creeds, public schools all offer codes of conduct, mission statements, and other means of imparting values to their students. And although the adequacy (and currency) of the National Values Education Framework is contestable, the ‘Nine Values for Australian Schooling‘ are in place as a shared set of values for all schools in Australia.

Of course, all school sectors utilise similar means of organising school life around shared values and I am not trying to claim here that public schools do it any better! I simply hope to speak against the myth that public schools are a ‘wild west’ of value-free behaviour and anti-establishment attitudes.

Public schools and diversity

One of the biggest things I think public schools have going for them is their remit to provide free education, and to provide it for all.

I realise this claim does not always translate into a level playing field at the school level. The operation of specialist schools and the efforts of families to move into the catchment areas of ‘more desirable’ public schools cannot be ignored. I am not so naive that I think all public schools are operating with equal resources – they are impacted significantly by factors such as the sociocultural background of their communities and geographic remoteness.

By and large, however, the public school sector is authentically committed to diversity. Not just diversity in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of culture, sexuality and class.

You will not find a student that is gay being asked to leave a public school because they are not living ‘as God intended’.

You will not find a student that is poor turned away from a public school because they cannot pay the fees.

Public schools continue to teach disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous students, as well as students with disabilities and from low-income households

I struggle to understand how parents who send their children to private schools do not see that they are effectively paying to ‘opt out’ of diverse communities. I have fought long and hard with some of my close friends about this … at work however, I tend to invoke the ‘do not discuss politics at the dinner table’ rule. I will happily make my personal view known here, however: I think that propping up a system where richer families pay to quarantine their children from learning alongside others that are less like them, or less well resourced, is a blight on our nation.

Resources in public schools

One reason I have often heard cited for sending children to private schools is that they will ‘have more opportunities’ there.

And this may be true in some cases – your average local public school might not have an orchestra, or a swimming pool, or an annual school play (then again, they very well might – have you asked?).

But if they don’t have these things when you enrol, is this really the end of the world?

If your school doesn’t offer violin lessons, might it not teach your child resourcefulness to go and find somewhere that offers after-school classes?

If your school debating team doesn’t win many trophies, might this not teach them how to focus on personal bests and celebrate teamwork?

If your school doesn’t have a drama club, might your child not help to start one? Or maybe even you could lend a hand?

The attitude that the school must provide every opportunity imaginable to students strikes me as an arrangement where parents over-rely on a single institution to provide learning opportunities for their children. I much prefer an arrangement that is grounded in community efforts rather than provision of an exhaustive suite of culturally elite services to a ‘clientele’.

The notion that opportunity only exists where it can be bought is the myth I seek to bust here. If the (perhaps not-so-glossy?) brochure for your local public school doesn’t advertise a chess club, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one, or that they can’t start one.

Public schooling and future success

For those who assume that paying fees to a private school is a way of buying a student a ticket to future success, think again.

Barbara Preston from the University of Canberra recently discussed the findings of a number of studies that showed ‘State school kids do better at uni‘. This topic was also dealt with in a follow up piece by Jennifer Chesters from University of Canberra, who presented further data to demonstrate that ‘Private schooling has little long term pay-off‘.

Of course, the issue of future success has many other faces and is a more complex picture than that painted by test results and future earnings. One thing to keep in mind is that formal assessment and reporting can only ever show us part of the picture when it comes to learning and student outcomes. On the other hand, kids from public schools can face discrimination in the workplace when employers perceive a lack of social capital as a reason for passing over applicants from public schools (disregarding merit). My glasses aren’t so rose-coloured that I’ve never noticed the “old boys/old girls” phenomenon in play!

What I fear though, is that many middle class families are sending their children to private schools with the good intention of providing a ‘better’ education and an advantage when it comes to university entrance. Some parents report taking on second jobs just to pay for private school fees. Such families should be aware that there is no guarantee of getting bang for that buck. If it were me, I’d spend that money on a annual family trip abroad instead.

Why I will never work for a non-government school

In case anyone has gotten the wrong idea, can I pause here to say that I highly value the professionalism of my non-public sector colleagues. In the work I have done for the English Teachers Associations in NSW and Queensland I have had the pleasure of meeting English teachers from all sectors that have one thing in common – a desire to do right by their students and help their respective schools be the best they can be. In both my professional association and my research work, the resources that I create relating to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and literacy are intended to benefit all teachers, not only those in public schools.

However … I could not ever, for any amount of money, work as a teacher or administrator in a private school.

This is due to the simple fact that I would rather contribute my labour to the public sector, where I believe the values of equity and social justice are most fully realised.

It is also because for every person who has anecdotally told me about the benefits of private school pastoral care programs, there has been another reporting stories of being bullied by their peers and/or forced to conform to hideous rules by their teachers. Anecdotes aren’t representative, and in my line of work, I’ve really heard them all. Sure, some public schools have issues. Let me assure you, so do some private schools!

My point here is: anyone who cares to argue that private schools are better because they can afford the best teachers, keep in mind that I am one of many teachers that are committed to remaining in public schools. If you’ve ever pictured public schools as a wasteland of second-rate teachers, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sure, maybe I’m wrong…

Earlier this week I broke my ‘no politics at the dinner table’ rule when colleagues brought up the question of where I would send my own kids. And I respect that one of these folks comes from a devout Catholic family and so will likely send his kid there. I concede that if, like another colleague, I have a child with special needs that cannot be accommodated in a public school then I will have to consider a private school alternative. And when one colleague raised the possibility that the entire school system is already irrevocably broken and that old notions of ‘what works’ may need to be discarded completely … well, that gave me pause for thought. But honestly, I do trust that the system that served me so well will serve my children well too.

Maybe I’m wrong to be loyal to any sector of a system that is so badly failing to innovate and change. Maybe politicians aren’t done propping up the private sector and the slide into a truly two-tier system of schooling is already inevitable.

For now though, I just can’t ignore what I know about the awesome work that happens in public schools, or the sense of responsibility I have to continue improving that system from within.

And for always I will remain proud to be a product of the public school system.

300th post

Happy 300th post to me :)

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New Milestones – Twitter, Blog, Work

wordpress screenshot

Blog

It was very satisfying this week to get a notification from WordPress reminding me of my blogiversary.

Six years of blogging!

The time sure has flown. And although I still have much to learn about online writing, I can say with confidence that nothing beats the professional development and reflection that public writing has afforded me.

 

Twitter

As if one milestone wasn’t enough, this was also the week that I clicked over the 10,000 tweet mark (!)

Sadly I missed the exact moment and didn’t get a screenshot, but here’s how it’s looking today:

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 5.15.41 PM

 

2008 – what was happening?

A quick look at my profile stats shows that I joined Twitter in May 2008, and created my blog not long after in June 2008.

Around this time I was:

  • 27 years old
  • living in Southwest Sydney
  • halfway into my second year of full time teaching
  • part time enrolled in my PhD
  • newly married
  • on the ‘Web & Technology’ and ‘Curriculum and Assessment’ Committees of the NSW ETA

Whew! When that’s all written down in a list we can see it was big year! And that’s just the ‘big stuff’.

The ETA bit is important, because it’s through ETA work that I met one of my most influential and constant mentors, Darcy Moore – it was his persistent encouragement that persuaded me to start tweeting and blogging. His advice at the time, which has always stuck with me, was that I shouldn’t be afraid to put my views in the public domain, as long as they are views I am prepared to defend and stand by. In fact, the test of whether you are prepared to say something in public can be an excellent method for testing your convictions.

I’ve used the metaphor before, but real True Blood fans can stand to hear it twice: Darcy you’re the best ‘maker’ ever!

My other big digi-hat tips go to Bianca Hewes for being such an incredible force of energy and inspiration, and to Mary-Helen Ward who got me writing my first ever blog posts back at university on the internal network. You gals have left footprints all over my professional (and personal) life and I’m so grateful for it.

Milestones IRL – Work

The end of this semester also marks a non-virtual, real life work milestone: four years in one job.

Four. Years. In. One. Job.

It’s not for lack of stamina that I haven’t stayed anywhere else for longer than three years. I worked part time for awhile when I started my PhD. Then I taught for three years in one place before moving interstate and reseting the meter. So it’s not like I’m some kind of education sector Runaway Bride! Although I am also no Baby Boomer, and I confess the idea of staying in one job for a lifetime is simply unfathomable to me. I won’t bother linking to any of the plethora of ridiculous articles about how Gen Y make bad employees – as a Gen X/Gen Y ‘cusper’ I never see myself in those stories (I’m too young to relate to Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, and too old to pull off skinny jeans). But suffice to say that after four years in one job, I’m feeling a sense of stability that I’ve never known before. It’s nice. I’m finally standing still for long enough to start sharpening the saw.

What Next?

Well, it turns out that this is my 299th blog post, so post number 300 is just around the corner :)

Other than that, I’m going to keep on keeping on with my online writing and continue to integrate digital communication/curation into my teaching practice. I’m working on a few scholarly journal articles for publication early next year, so my post-PhD academic writing funk looks like it may have finally run it’s course.

I’m trying to take a more active role in promoting our local English Teacher chat on Twitter (#ozengchat).

I’m slowly collecting my poetry teaching materials on the web for other teachers to access with ease.

Aside from that, time will tell.

But for now let me just say: thanks for reading, and happy blogging everyone!

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Risk-taking and risk-aversion in teaching

Happy 2014 to all! It seems I inadvertently took a blog break over summer holidays – a break from most things digital, in fact. I’m back in the swing of things now though, with a head full of ideas and energy stores replenished. Who knew I was so tired after 2013? Well OK, I did. Now you do too ;)

So, this is my fourth year at my job as a lecturer. How time flies eh? Reflecting on my time so far I can confidently say that I’ve continued the spirit of innovation I had as a high school teacher into my university teaching. I’ve pushed forward with using social networks to support student learning, with developing project-based learning pedagogies, and with developing blended learning experiences including wiki work and blog-based assessment.

But this week when I was offered a chance to trial a new technology with my class, I turned it down.

There are any number of reasons that teachers say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to trying something new. Watching this keynote by Sarah Howard from 2012 today gave me a chance to reflect on my own tendency to be a risk taker in my practice – I usually see the benefits of innovation as outweighing the costs:

…and boy last semester there were some costs. Some cyberbullying from a student really put a damper on my teaching with Twitter, and right at the end of last year I experienced a big delay in giving students assignment feedback after a swathe of electronic assignment files got deleted. Further technology fails ensued as I struggled to negotiate student assignment return via Blackboard, our university LMS. It was a nightmare, and a confidence shaker.  In a university teaching context where a whole semester of awesome learning can be overshadowed by a single student complaint to the wrong person, I ended 2013 wondering if all my efforts were ‘worth it’.

Fortunately I value innovation and creativity to such an extent that taking risks in pursuit of better practice is still worth it to me. In her keynote Howard explains that people are less likely to take a risk to pursue something they see no value in, which makes sense really.

I guess the shift for me will not be from being a risk-taker to being ‘risk-averse’ – I haven’t had the stuffing beat out of me quite hard enough yet to be averse to risk! For me the shift will be from high-stakes to more low-stakes risk; rather than pushing the boundaries with a wildly new practice I’ll be consolidating and refining my current pedagogies and taking stock of where I want to go with my teaching in 2015. Which will be nice timing, given the massive course changes we are implementing next year (PS. in six months if I disappear completely, somebody please come find me, I may be perishing under a mountain of new unit outlines…).

Do you see yourself as a risk-taker in your teaching? How risky are you planning to be in 2014?

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Common blogging complaints

Latte blog...

‘Latte blog…’ by filipe ferreira (via Flickr CC-BY-2.0)

1. Blog Blockage:

I really shouldn’t write any more posts until I write up the totally timely thing I did the other day.

Cure – write a very short post on the totally timely thing. Then get on with life. Or, just write something else in between, you’ll live.

2. Posts Piling Up:

I have so many ideas for different posts, I can’t decide which one to start with!

Cure – start a whole heap of the posts and save them as drafts. Pick one to complete at a time.

3. Lonely Blogs Club:

No-one comments on my blog, I should just give up.

Cure – invite your friends directly to add a comment. Adding tags and categories will help Google to find you. Or just be content to write reflectively. Wait, back up…did you decide if you even really want an audience to be a happy blogger?

4. Beginning, Middle…:

I don’t know how to end a blog post.

Cure – finish a line of thought and hit ‘publish’. A short post is a good post anyway.

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It was a cyberbullying kind of day…

Most teachers have had some experience with cyberbullying. Whether your students are very young primary schoolers or adolescents, circumstances can arise when students post nasty comments about each other on social media, share embarrassing photos, or email hurtful letters. 

But what do you do when a student engages in bullying tactics online toward you, the teacher?

It’s the fear of this happening that stops many teachers from engaging with students on public platforms. I’ve heard several teachers ask questions about this, including in every ‘teaching with technologies’ workshop I’ve ever held: what if a student acts out online? what if a student posts inappropriate comments that get linked to the school name, or mine?

Unfortunately, this has been the story of the past week for me.

The scenario: A student felt that I had not uploaded assessment criteria in a timely fashion. I differ on this opinion, but that is really besides the point! The student (or a group of them?) had created a fake twitter account, unlinked to their real name or photo, to post tweets about our class. They sent tweets addressed to the class twitter handle and using the unit hashtag to make, at first, a series of queries about unit materials in an aggressive tone. Yesterday these tweets became more critical, referring to university policy, slandering the education faculty, and linking the official university twitter handle into the tweets as well.

My response: It’s always hurtful, on a human level, when something like this happens. But as a teacher it’s probably easier than in many professions to let these kinds of criticisms roll right over you – “water off a duck’s back” style. Teachers face the wrath of student disappointment in many manifestations! After a while in the teaching game you learn what to take on board and what to turn a blind eye to. We try not to take things too personally. This is why, at first, I simply replied to the tweets in question with helpful advice and invitations to contact me via email or in person, out of the public domain. Once the tweets this week started to include references to the uni though, I knew I had to be firm – I used a couple of reply tweets to make it clear that cyberbulling was not tolerated in our institution and outline what constituted bullying behaviour.

Resolution: As well as public tweets I sent a series of three direct messages to the student/bogus account asking them to stop making public statements that critique my professionalism and letting them know that I wouldn’t be further engaging with public criticism. I asked someone higher up the food chain than me whether it would be OK to ‘report and block for spam’ the offending tweets and they advised YES. When I went to block the user this afternoon, I was relieved to see that the student had thought better of their actions and deleted the entire offending account.

PHEW!

The reason I want to share this story is to emphasise the strategies I used for dealing with this over the past week:

  • INFORM: Be polite online and try to diffuse critical questions with helpful information.
  • INVITE: Ask students that publicise critical views to contact you directly to discuss issues that are bothering them.
  • CAPTURE: Always take a screen capture of material that you suspect is, or may turn into, bullying. I did. This ensures you have a record of events even when/if the student deletes the material. This becomes vital down the track if the bullying is repeated elsewhere.
  • REPORT: Even though you will naturally want to avoid embarrassment and ‘bad press’ for your name/class/initiative, it’s important that your boss (e.g. Head Teacher of English in a school) knows what is happening and has a chance to help.

I’m going to try turning this into a very light and positive ‘teachable moment’ in our class lecture tomorrow – not by attacking the student but by highlighting good digital citizenship practices. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about cyberbullying, excellent material can be found on the ReachOut website here: http://au.reachout.com/Cyberbullying

The new Safe Schools Hub also has a useful Framework for building safety into the school culture: http://safeschoolshub.edu.au/safe-schools-toolkit/the-nine-elements

One last thing…

I won’t be closing down my twitter account or ceasing the use of twitter in my class learning environment or anything drastic like that! Although this is exactly the kind of thing that scares teachers away from online teaching spaces, I still think the value of positive exchanges via social media are ‘worth it’ for my class.

Although…I will be renewing my commitment to talking about digital citizenship with students in the first week of the semester. On reflection, this could probably all have been avoided if I did some explicit twitter teaching and set clear boundaries in weeks 1 or 2. D’oh!

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A ‘rhizomatic’ take on Semester one so far

Last week I had the good fortune to hear Professor Diana Masny speak about her Deleuzian approach to researching multiliteracies theory (which she referred to as ‘MLT’). Masny is from Ottowa, Canada, and is an adjunct prof at QUT.

In this presentation I was returned to the idea of ‘the rhizome’, something that had interested me when I encountered the work of Deleuze and Guattari. The idea behind looking at things rhizomatically is that we can stop focussing on binary oppositions, or organising concepts into ordered taxonomies and such. Instead, rhizomatic analysis involves looking at things and ideas spread/propagate…and at where new possibilities ‘shoot off’ out of of what already exists.

A rhizome in plant form

A rhizome in plant form

This talk by Masny was interesting for a number of reasons to do with designing research methodology, as well as considering MLT from new angles. One thing that inspired me was the way that her presentation was organised around ‘entry points’ to her own topic as a rhizomatic collection of findings. This is in contrast to a presentation that tries to summarise ‘key findings’ or ‘ways forward’. Seeing as I most often use my blog to reflect on ‘findings’ and ‘planning’, I thought it might make a nice change to adopt Masny’s (after Deleuze’s) approach of exploring the ‘entry points’ into my practice so far this semester…

ENTRY POINT: Attendance

At QUT we have a policy that attendance is not to be counted in any way toward assessment, and that students choosing to catch up on their study from home are to be supported in that choice. I have heard some lecturers complain about this – they think students would learn better if they turned up to all the classes, and wish the university would enforce this. Most of us, however, respect the purpose of this arrangement, which is to provide flexible study options for the grown-up human beings that are our ‘students’, and cater for a range of learning styles. Personally I find it very motivating, as it forces me to think about HOW I can make my lessons “worth coming to”!

I’m really happy with the attendance rate in my classes at the moment. Out of the 110 students I have studying on campus, almost 100% turned up in Week one, and the students that were away mostly emailed in their apologies. In Week 2, attendance in tutorials and the lecture was down to about 85%, which is to be expected. What I am eager to see is that 85% attendance rate maintained for the rest of the 9-week semester, rather than drop of over time to 20-50%, as other lecturers often report. I’m pleased to say that in the past few years here, I haven’t noticed the same kind of drop of, and I like to think this reflects the usefulness of my classes.

ENTRY POINT: Engagement

As always it has been a slow start on Twitter…but as always, there are several students ‘coming around’ to the tool already and engaging with informal peer tutoring as well. Once again, I am glad I chose to persevere with introducing students to an unfamiliar (and for many of them, unloved) social media tool.

I had a really great out-of-context engagement moment as well last week, on Pinterest. I use Pinterest among other things to collect useful resources for English teachers, and one day I saw a collage about English teaching and ‘re-pinned it’ to my board. I thought (and commented) ‘wow…this is just like an activity I do in class!’. Then I realised that I was following one of my students already, and that it was her! Funniest bit was though, she had been following me too without realising who I was, or making any connection to out uni lives. Good times!

There has been a growth in socia media profiles and ‘chats’ that I can now connect my students to, and the most important of these is the #ozengchat that takes place on Twitter on Tuesday nights. Feeling like they are engaging with ‘real teachers’ seems to be helping with motivation in the class, but at the moment that’s just my anecdotal take on the situation.

ENTRY POINT: Assessment

In my class students undertake THREE assessment tasks:

  1. Personal essay on teaching philosophy and resource analysis (individual, 30%)
  2. Lessons plans for a junior English class (in pairs, 40%)
  3. Portfolio of completed learning ‘challenge tasks’ (individual, 30%)

What I like about what I have achieved with this set of assessments is that there is a balance of individual and group work, that there is a variety of tasks, and that no task is worth more that 40%.

At this point I’ll put myself out there to say I am disappointed to see how many uni coordinators choose to use just TWO assessment piece in their own classes. This is not good practice imo! Having less assignments does mean a smaller marking load for the lecturer, and less due dates for the student, but at what cost?

I really do believe that students in uni should not have assessments that are worth 50% or over, as this is too high-stakes to promote good learning. To do this, you must have more than two assessments for a unit in a semester.

FINAL WORDS: The CLB018 ‘assemblage’

In the theory of Deleuze and Guattari, the context of my CLB018 class provides an assemblage of bodies and things that can produce any number of effects. I hoe to keep reporting throughout the semester on the effects (and affects) of our assemblage!

In the meantime, any comments on these POINTS OF ENTRY are most welcome.

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Classes start tomorrow!

The week we’ve all been waiting for, week one of the university semester, is finally here!

This semester, I will be focussing on the following areas of my English Curriculum Studies unit for development:

  • Building in more support for student reflective writing. The design of my lesson planning assignment last year included a tutorial presentation of the key teaching strategies, but it didn’t really work that well. So I plan to change this element of the assessment to a written reflection, and add two targeted activities to tutorials in mid-semester to more constructively scaffold the task.
  • Finding places to make connections between English curriculum studies content knowledge and other professional frameworks. In particular I want to ensure that students understand how the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers can be used to self-diagnose areas of strength and directions for further learning, and are knowledgable about the Productive Pedgagogies framework that is advocated by Education Queensland.
  • Registration. After three years of running this unit it will be time to write up the final unit design, as well as a ‘scope and sequence’, so that the unit is ready to be passed on. At school we called this ‘registration’ – when the Head Teacher would check out your unit plans at the end of the semester and ensure you met your learning objectives. Here at uni there are other other mechanisms in place, but the Head Teacher check isn’t one of them. And official changes are made so sllllloooowwwlyyyy. So, for my own piece of mind, I’m going to put my own unit through a final tick-and-flick, then prepare my reflections and field notes for scholarly publication and sharing.

I’ve included below another classroom poster I’ve made, a visual resource to support my students’ engagement with the Productive Pedagogies – feel free to use and share (though note that the values/opinions expressed on it about alignment with ‘prac’ are only my own POV!).

Now…deep breath!

And once more into the breach!

Productive Pedagogies for Prac (image by Kelli, CC-BY-SA)

Productive Pedagogies for Prac (image by Kelli, CC-BY-SA)

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