Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Padlet in Year 10 English

The plan. Utilise Padlet - the web tool formerly known as Wallwisher - to engage year 10 students in a meaningful discussion about youth justice. Basically, with Padlet, you can create a 'wall' upon which you can post things.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher and her students will have created a number of discussion 'walls'. Students will have participated in on-line discussions on the causes of, and possible solutions to, youth homelessness. They will have shared their own opinions, as well as considering, and responding to, a variety of views from their fellow students.

Prior to the lesson, I'd played around on Padlet so I'd be confident with the tool. In class, we'd also discussed various issues concerning youth justice and had just watched the harrowing Oasis documentary. I'd prepared a few questions to promote discussion. (By the way, if you haven't yet seen it, the Oasis documentary is essential viewing.)

As a background to all this, I've done some school based professional development using Padlet. This involved participating in an educational on-line discussion with my school colleagues. We pasted a particular URL into our browsers then responded to a question. The 'wall' quickly filled with thoughtful, earnest remarks. It was the first day of the new year and the principal who facilitated looked pleased with the outcome. I think he mentioned something about aiming to be a paperless school somewhere down the track.

You see, we're in the 'one to one' age now. Every student from years 9 to 12 has been given, gratis, courtesy of the federal government, a netbook computer. What's more, we've been urged to use these computers, especially since the school is expecting years 7 and 8 students to buy their own. We don't want the older students telling the younger ones that the computers aren't being used, do we? That wasn't a question. It was a directive from an AP. Parents Will Complain.

So what happened in my classes today?

First, I had to send several students back to their lockers to get their computers. The government may have funded these computers to make our students the smartest in the world - whatever - but that doesn't mean the kids are going to charge them up overnight, or even bring them to school. (It's a discipline thing and we're working on it.)

Second, I recapped our previous lesson about youth homelessness to remind students of the gravity of the issue.

I gave them the URL for our first 'wall' and made a couple of rules. No anonymous comments. No profanity.

As if. (My favourite phrase.)

The wall was instantly and hilariously covered in totally inappropriate, often misspelled, sexually explicit posts. Students quickly discovered that they could also take photos of themselves and other students and tag them.

In nano-seconds I had a wall plastered in posts that had the students in hysterics. The comments were posted faster than I could delete them - it was my wall so I had some editing control for all the good that did me.

I suppose at least they were all engaged in the activity.

Seriously, I'd like to know what really happens in other teachers' classes when they do these activities.You know, teachers who work, like me, in western suburbs state secondary schools. During the PD session, this activity was presented as a highly effective teaching and learning tool and of course I can see its potential. But if kids can write anonymous comments - and get away with it because it's impossible to monitor - how does this occur?

Will it get better if I persist, once the novelty wears off?


Seriously, comment below. I really want to know.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Back to high school.

Attended a high school centenary yesterday. Probably wouldn't have bothered except a friend reminded me it was happening and another friend came along with me.

Didn't give it much thought before we turned into the car park where we were lucky to find a space. You see, this event was packed. The school 'playing fields' had even been converted to parking space for the day and they were chockers with cars.

However, I felt really odd, crossing the side street and walking through to the quadrangle, past the staff room. Appeared as though nothing had changed since I'd left there nearly 30 years ago.

I spent the first six years of my teaching career at that school. Those six years went on for a very long time, much longer than the 14 years I've been at my current school. The years flash by a bit these days. My dad used to say that when he was around the age I am now, but in my twenties I had no concept. I was still waiting for the big things to happen: travel, marriage, mortgage, children. In that order.

I encountered a former student almost immediately. An older man: fifty-something? Shaved presumably bald head, portly, acting more confident with me than he should have been. 'I'm going to kiss you,' he said, grabbing me by the waist and pulling me close. I got an unwanted wet one to the corner of my mouth. I generally avoid random kissing.

He invited me to 'stroll' over to the registration table; offered me his elbow. I hooked my arm through his for about ten seconds. 'Sorry,' I said, letting go. 'This feels really uncomfortable. I wouldn't even do this with my husband.' I didn't like the feel of this guy's arm under his shirt sleeve.

I didn't see him again after that. He was in my first ever form five English class. I was 22, in my second year of teaching. Interesting that I could remember him and the quality of his English. Now, I can barely remember the names of kids I taught last year.

I saw a few familiar faces, all former teaching colleagues. Mostly, I was incredulous that all these people were so delighted to be there. Masses of them milling around, greeting very old friends. Lots of white hair and quite a few walking frames. They'd all made the effort to go back to their old school with its almost unaltered central quad.

I had my moments back there, made a few life-long friends, learned heaps, had some great memories. But somehow, my experiences left a slightly bitter aftertaste. I think of clashes with a couple of colleagues: people being really unprofessional; some awful behaviour. And of course, i think of my own immaturity back when I knew everything, as many of us do back in our twenties. I was glad to leave that version of myself behind in that place. As if.

I heard bits of a couple of speeches yesterday - the sound system swallowed the rest as I strained to hear beneath those quadrangle eaves. Two former students, one In his 70s, one in her 40s, spoke so fondly of their own six years in the place. Around me, former students and teachers tittered and nodded at remembered characters and anecdotes. The woman who spoke was overwhelmed by emotion. It really got to me.

People's school days are really precious. That's a statement of the bleeding obvious. But yesterday was a bit like a church gathering; worship.

Despite having spent my professional life, since 1978, in secondary schools, I really hadn't thought of schools like that before.

I did make my own pilgrimage to my primary school back in Sheffield, UK, a couple of years ago, but that was about emigration, memory and being severed from my childhood when I was eight.

School, for me, and perhaps for most teachers, hasn't been something intense in my formative years. It has been my life. The continuum. Suppose that's why I was so incredulous that those six years of high school had been so precious to so many people who did the pilgrimage yesterday.

Thanks to the organisers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas." Why I love reading. And teaching.

Friday, home time. I'd held a couple of Year 10 students back after English. I was giving my annual plagiarism lecture, which usually occurs at about this time of year.

"Look," I pointed to my laptop screen. The girl was standing next to me, arms crossed defiantly. "You'll have to admit that it's quite strange that your essay is identical to this one."

"I swear I didn't read it," she persisted in the face of contrary evidence.

Her friend, packing up her books, was listening in. "I copied an essay from the internet when I was in year 7," she said, matter-of-factly. "I was really embarrassed when I got caught." Had a bit of a laugh at the memory.

The boy was all outraged innocence too when I showed him how easily I'd Googled a few words from his essay, enclosed in inverted commas, and found what he was passing off as his work

I wasn't particularly angry. Plagiarism happens even more regularly in these 'one to one' days - every kid has a computer and internet access - and it's easy to spot. It's good for students to find out early that this is cheating. It avoids more serious consequences in the future.

They left, ruefully promising to repeat the work.

Meanwhile, Chris was waiting to see me.  He's a quiet, intelligent student.

"You said you wanted to read this, miss." He placed a copy of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on my desk.

I taught Chris for a couple of semesters in years 7 and 8. He was one of the more talented students in my now defunct Creative Writing class. A couple of days earlier he'd asked for help with his 'wide reading' essay. He was working on the topic "A worthwhile text makes you view the world a little differently".  This is one of five generic topics that my Year 10s must respond to. I'm trying to teach them to write well structured introductions including at least three general points that they'll develop in the bodies of their essays.

I hadn't read Chris' novel but knew vaguely that it was about the Holocaust. I took a stab at an answer. Suggested he could write about those awful perennial themes, survival, racism, inhumanity, good versus evil. He seemed satisfied with this and set about writing his essay. I'd also asked if I could borrow his book, given several students had expressed an interest in reading it.

Well, Chris, your old teacher started reading your book on Friday evening and was easily engaged, as one is by an apparently simple driving narrative. I finished it this morning and I have to say it's made me see the world a little differently.

The simple narrative cleverly belies the wisdom and strength of this story. It is the story of 9 year old Bruno, whose quite self-satisfied life is somewhat spoiled when he, his small family and their servants are transported to 'OutWith' as he pronounces the unfamiliar Polish word Auschwitz. However, at Auschwitz he is on the protected side of the fence, his father being the camp commandant. Bruno's naive remarks on his life in what becomes his new home are profoundly ironic.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has given me another poignant indelible impression of the horror, injustice and cruelty of the Holocaust. I highly recommend that you read it. (Having done a bit of Googling myself, I'm thinking I'm perhaps the only English teacher around who hasn't read it.)

Chris, thanks for putting up with my plagiarism lecture, cos you were subjected to it too on Friday arvo. I'm really moved that you remembered I'd said I'd like to read your book. You've reminded me why I love both reading and teaching. (And you know how I said you might really appreciate Markus Zusak's The Book Thief? I'm sure you would.)