Critical Pedagogy meets Year 9 library orientation/ Focus #1

Standards: 1.1; 1.2; 1.3; 3.2; 3.3; 3.5; 4.1

This post was written during my online course ‘MOOCMOOC’ which was about critical pedagogy. Here I was learning out loud, fishing from others’ posts to construct an initial understanding of critical pedagogy, its theory and application, and reflecting on how this understanding could inform my practice as teacher librarian. I also reflect on shared vulnerability in the relationship between teacher and students. This thinking enabled a shift in the way I chose to conduct the year 9 library orientation session. For teacher librarians, sometimes we only have the one chance to see a whole cohort, and so this time is precious. Focusing less on the rules and research information, I decided instead to get to know the students and allow them to know me a little. Differentiation in terms of what teacher librarians can do starts with a personal connection. It’s easy for us to follow up with differentiated support if students are comfortable enough to come to us for help or questions after the orientation and throughout their schooling.

I write this post in the second week of MOOCMOOC which focuses on Chapter 1 of bell hooksTeaching to Transgress and two shortvideos from Anita Sarkeesian. As Jesse Stommel and Maha Baliwrite in their introductory post, bell hooks is writing about something more than just feminist or antiracist pedagogy. Maha and Jesse  talk about the way that bell hooks is influenced by Buddhist philosophy, believing that the whole person of the teacher and of the student should be part of the pedagogical process.

Showing vulnerability to our students is not part of our professional conversations at school. It is something some teachers might do instinctively while others might find it confronting and even wrong. Maha and Jesse quote Danielle Paradis who wrote about this in“The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy,”: Learning is uncomfortable, and the trouble with letting someone teach you is that it leaves a mark — an impression.”

Since we’ve just started the new school year, I’m keeping these thoughts foremost in my mind when thinking about my teaching goals for the year, and generally in terms of how to prepare my attitude to my classes and library supervision.  Teaching is easier to direct in terms of intimacy,  acknowledging  our responsibility to care for our students – and let’s face it, that’s easy to do with a new intake of students who are still well behaved and wide-eyed.

Library supervision is harder. Firstly, you don’t know all the students since there are too many of them. I’m really bad with names, and if I miss their name in the beginning of the year, I’m too embarrassed to ask later on.  A non-teaching relationship with students is both easier and more difficult. Easier because we can be more casual with them and we have the opportunity to chat informally without the pressure of teaching content, but more difficult because I think it’s the teaching/learning relationship which develops the intimacy through caring for the development of the student, and in the visible transformation of students over time.  We are also not supposed to be talking to students when they come to the library to study in their free periods, and that’s because we try to maintain a quiet study environment in one part of the library which we, as teacher librarians, supervise.

And: “teaching and learning ARE inevitably intimate.” Maha and Jesse talk about the importance of bringing our full selves to our teaching, and point out that teaching and learning are inevitably  intimate.

I guess that means that we would let the overly professional persona fall away when teaching, but it doesn’t mean we act unprofessionally. If we keep the students as our focus and care about the students’ welfare, remembering that we leave an impression whatever we do, then we surely transfer our focus from conveying content to interacting with our students.

I’m not sure if I’ve understood bell hooks’ feeling of estrangement from education but I know that there have been school or school library environments which made me feel uncomfortable, repressed and unhappy. I didn’t feel I was teaching well or relating properly to students. It didn’t have as much to do with the students themselves as the tone that was set by the head of faculty/library or other library staff. If I didn’t feel comfortable with that tone, that approach to the students, I felt as if I had to squeeze everything out of me, and put on a thin facade, copying the external behaviour and speech of others in an attempt to emulate them. It didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for the students. It made me feel bad.

On the other hand, when the attitude to students and approach to teaching is compatible with my own, then I’m happy to be vulnerable, to expose my imperfections, as well as my personality. You have to be comfortable within yourself to be willing to expose vulnerability. Some people might, by their nature, do this seemingly without effort, but for others it takes practice, reflection and time, while others still will not do this at all.

It took me a very long time to expose my vulnerability in my role as a priest’s wife in the Russian Orthodox Church. Possibly because I took on this role at the age of 26 – too young actually. And also because I was not ‘groomed’ for the role, and did not grow up in a particularly devout family – sure, we went to church but not every week. I was not educated in Orthodox dogma and no doubt had unformed ideas which needed time to mature. In a way, I interrupted that opportunity for growth because I suddenly had to take on a role that was associated with high ideals and pressure from the members of the church community. I ‘took on’ a persona but one which was dangerously superficial, ungrounded, and somehow managed to keep going in that way for many years. Having children only resulted in a more passionate stance on what I’d become because I felt it was my duty to educate them in the way I had perceived they ought to be educated – from the outside. Of course, eventually, the cracks start to show, and I was faced with a choice: to continue as I had been or decide to do it my way, true to myself. This took time, as you can imagine, because I had almost lost who I was, or at least, lost the confidence in my own instincts and understanding of things. Doing this meant I had to grow a thick skin so that I wouldn’t care about what people thought about me as much as I care about my own survival, and my honesty. Not going this way would have been destructive. I believe that you can’t have any kind of faith unless you stay true to yourself. Taking on something externally doesn’t work. Understanding it from the inside (of yourself) is the only way.

It’s the same with any relationship, and teaching must be intimate, surely, and must be vulnerable, if you are to connect honestly with students, if learning is more than a transmission of content knowledge. Obviously that doesn’t mean you expose every part of yourself which would be inappropriate, but it means that you don’t shut off who you are so that students see you relating to them honestly. And I think that’s the only way you get real satisfaction from teaching. A lot of this is unspoken in schools but you can tell when there is that kind of relationship between teachers and students.

So when I first started as a teacher librarian, having ‘forsaken’ the classroom (English, French and German), my library orientation was all about where the printers were,  the cost of fines, how to use the library catalogue, how to use databases. It was so boring, I was bored and unhappy about it myself. I was following the procedure of others because I was inexperienced.  In not showing my full self was really like not showing up at all. Presenting my authentic non-neutral self in the classroom has made me very happy.

Today was the first day we had students at school – just the Year 9s, all brand spanking new. In my ‘library orientation’ sessions I wanted to connect to my students first foremost, and convey information to them as the second priority. I was aware that they didn’t know each other on their first day and spent some time asking questions and encouraging responses to start that ball rolling. How could I possibly waste my first time with these young men talking about rules and regulations only? I wanted to make a much deeper impression than that.  I wanted to challenge their perception of the library, talk about information (the fire hydrant), the dangerous ideas, freedom of speech and expression, respect for others and their ideas – but most of all I wanted to be myself and get to know them a little. I wanted to start the process of getting them to know each other in their classroom community. I definitely wanted them to challenge their perception of the library as being just a space with books and bookshelves – which was the standard answer when I asked them.

Perhaps, to not show up as our full selves to the act of learning is not to show up at all. This means placing our authentic non-neutral selves fully in the classroom — with all the risks and challenges that brings. (Maha and Jesse)

My focus today was not on the listing of rules or information but on engaging them with me and each other, to give them the chance to consider important questions before they were sucked up into the wave which would push them through the year at a pace that might not have time for reflection because they were intent on survival.

Here’s the slideshow I created which serves as a prompt for discussion with the students. Some slides resulted in long and deep discussions and others just covered some necessary facts. Of course every session was different depending on the dynamics of the group and the response I received from them.

It so happened that just minutes before my session, amidst the predictable technology failings and panic, I read Maha Bali’s post and was reminded about the aspect of vulnerability in critical pedagogy.

Now, I find a lot of difficulty talking to people without knowing anything about them.

Yes, and I imagine that students feel a lot better meeting a teacher who says a little about herself.


So since they don’t all know each other that well, I asked them to do a round of “Name+something no one here knows about you”

… so the person on my left, he felt really uncomfortable sharing something about himself. He said his name. I said, “and something about yourself?” and he was like “no”.

I became aware of vulnerable beginnings. I shared something about myself first. I told them I had 2 sons and that one of them was completing a Masters degree in Urban Planning and the other was doing third year Music – both at Melbourne Uni. Suddenly they see me as a parent.  A little peek through the ‘teacher librarian’ exterior. I told them that, contrary to popular belief that librarians spent all their time reading fiction, I had not read much fiction in the last few years, that I felt like I wanted to learn and keep learning about things, and so I read information (non-fiction). Suddenly I’ve broken the librarian stereotype. It’s a start towards bell hooks’ holistic education, her ‘engaged pedagogy’.

Many of them shared things about each other, some being funny, and that’s all good. Their body language started to change. They were facing the front looking at me and the screen, and now they started turning to each other to exchange responses. The shift had begun. We talked about banned books, (burned books even), Charlie Hebdo, and many other things. I had added an extra slide to the end of my existing presentation.

I added Maha’s great questions: Why am I here, what are my goals, and what do I have to offer others here?


The wall has ears. When your students get it and start talking from the heart./ Focus #1

Standards: 1.1; 1.5; 2.6; 4.1; 4.5

It’s so encouraging when Competition Writing leaders start articulating to their peers what I’ve been trying to teach them over a longish period of time. They are demonstrating learning outside what is set and lifelong learning. These students understand what  blogging is about. This post is all about leadership and how it can come from less extroverted students. The post is also about understanding the power of social media. When students stepping up and being mentors/teachers, traditional authority falls away. The writing group enables students of different personality types and interests to give or accept from other peer support and to be involved in important conversation. This is also about community building. My online PD (moocs) have supported me in believing in the ability of different types of students to be leaders.  

Just when you think you’ve been talking to the wall, you realise unexpectedly that some of your students have been listening when they suddenly start speaking from the heart to their peers and you realise that they get it.

I coordinate the co-curricular group, Competition Writing. I’ve blogged before about this group I inherited along with the title that didn’t sit right for me from the outset. Three and a half years later and the title remains but the philosophy of the group is changing before my eyes. I’ve been talking to my students about the passion for writing and learning community which is what I hope will become the focus of the group despite the title, but talking at students and becoming as a group are two different things.

The co-curricular groups are designed as an opportunity for students to take on leadership roles, and this is one of the reasons why it’s taken so long to get to this point – the start of a more democratic learning community. Students stepping up to the role of captain must have some sort of idea of what behaviour a leader exhibits, and the leaders in my time have been an assortment of personalities but with one thing in common: taking up all or most of the hour-long session with talking AT the students. They feel that they have to step up as experts and relay their ‘expertise’ to the students in a lecture style. Some have used the screen for powerpoint and occasionally videos (spoken poetry) but it’s interesting what their perception of teaching is – and how this implies that their experience as students has been as passive listeners, being taught to.

My library roster has not always allowed me to be present at these meetings (yeah, right? but this year is different) but occasionally I have snuck in and attempted to have a word to the group.  My main objective has initially been to encourage students to share their writing in our blog, Unicorn Express, and I’ve spoken to them about the authentic reading audience – the fact that their writing is published and read by a global audience, not only read by their teacher; the opening up of constructive feedback and response by any reader – all the things that I think transform the act of writing from a prescribed thing to a real thing and which must affect the way writers feel. Yes, students write to improve writing skills and for a good mark, but more than that, everyone surely wants some kind of confirmation, something that affirms their ‘soul’ (and I feel entitled to use this word after reading bell hooks).  All learning surely exists in a space where our whole person relates to others in a holistic way, not just the intellectual side of ourselves, not just the grammatical or stylistic side of ourselves  as writers.

Last year our Writing Competition (always feel I use this word facetiously) leader did a great job running regular fortnightly meetings, with the energy of a confident extrovert. I’m grateful for that, but still I noticed that the students were sitting silently and listening for most of the session. Writing mainly took place outside the meeting. We also have a Facebook group which I created for communication but also in the hope of creating a space for sharing articles and interesting bits of information, ie. learning outside the meeting time.  It’s been a place where I do all the sharing but at least I can see how many students ‘read’ the posts. Despite my constant encouragement, none of the students have inhabited this space as their own, and I’ve been stuck between thinking I should stop posting and thinking that if I did the space would die.

Anyway, back to what I was saying before. Last year, as I read the wonderful writing students posted to the blog, the same students who remained silent in the meetings and gave nothing of themselves away – and weren’t put in a position where they were challenged to – I started thinking that it might be interesting to encourage an introverted student to take the leading role. Yes, that was a risk, and last year’s leader was concerned about this, but it was a risk I really, really wanted to take. Leadership is not always extroverted, and can come from quieter, less confident students. Isn’t the leadership role an opportunity for all students to learn about how they can also be leaders and for the group to see all the many faces of leadership?

So this year we have a very different leadership – one student as captain and two co-captains. I know how talented they are,  but I also know how challenging it is for them to stand up in front of the whole group (which is quite large) and win the attention and respect of the students. Having nominated them I have to trust them, and I do, but I also have to discipline myself not to step in too much and to let them run with it.

Last Friday the new captains ran their first meeting.  They did a spectacular job, and my heart melted listening to how they talked about the purpose and philosophy of the group. They had been listening all the time! They completely understood what I had been talking about and trying to model with the blog and Facebook group. In about ten minutes (because they wanted to spend most of the meeting writing together) they said that, although members would have the opportunity to earn diploma points (all co-curricular groups did) and to enter writing competitions, they hoped that the group would be more about sharing the passion of writing and becoming a writing community (I’m paraphrasing). They encouraged students to post drafts to the blog, and talked about the writing process as the most important part of writing, and how feedback during this process was invaluable. They encouraged frequent writing and posting without worrying about imperfection or incompleteness. In the same way, they encouraged students to make themselves at home in the Facebook group (MHS Competition Writing) as a space to share whatever they found interesting or were passionate about. I was so proud; I was exhilarated!

And then they gave a writing prompt (‘A man walks into a bar and sees’) with a short time limit, and everybody wrote, and then brave people read their writing out. It wasn’t brilliant but it wasn’t expectedto be. I felt the satisfaction in the group of being given the opportunity to write together, and then to share. I asked if students were comfortable to leave their writing (a short paragraph) with me, that I would post everything to the blog.

Speaking to the captains at the end of the meeting once everyone had left, they told me how nervous they were before the meeting, and I told them how fantastic they were, how they so naturally and beautifully responded with generosity to those students who read out their pieces, and how well they had prepared by thinking carefully about what they wanted to achieve in the session. Everyone had been involved in writing activity, and the expectations of the group had escaped the traditional confines beyond diploma points into the realm of joyful sharing of writing passion.

I’m excited about this group and look forward to see how it develops, and to documenting the progress of the writing community.

The wall has ears. Just when you think you’ve been talking to the wall, you realise unexpectedly that some of your students have been listening and that’s when learning happens.

Because #MOOCMOOC and Connected Courses have been about community building above everything (at least in my opinion), I am passionate about assisting my students to feel the joy of connected learning even as they learn within a program.

We are the magic, not the technology/ Focus #2

Standards: 2.6; 3.1; 4.5;

Technology is used ubiquitously in most classrooms at MHS. It’s most successful when it enables or enriches good pedagogy. As an add-on it fails. I think about this a lot when envisaging 21st century learning spaces and behaviours. When you add technology to what you already do then it’s not transformative. New, flexible spaces? Yes, they might encourage different kinds of learning and teaching but without a clear pedagogical vision, it’s just the same thing in a new fancy setting.

We get caught up in technology – applauding it, criticising it, defining and redefining it. It is at once our saviour and our damnation. It. It. It isn’t anything without us, without our thinking and attitude driving it.

In schools and universities, technology is at the centre of debate about what works and what doesn’t in education. Often used as a scapegoat for failed projects, technology is not autonomous; it is something we need to take control of in a collective, creative way. Yes, it shapes how we do things.  Yes, it’s changed the way we do things. It has become ubiquitous. As it continues to develop at an unsurpassed rate, we need to remember – more than at any time in history so far – that it is a tool in our hands.

In his TED talk, and with the aid of exquisite photography, Alex Hammond demonstrates the personal relationship between pencils and their creative owners to remind us that we are the magic behind what is created – not the technology.

Our recent focus on giftedness, differentiation. So many unanswered questions/ Focus #1

Standards: 1.2; 1.5

The purpose of this post was to reflect on my thinking and questions after the talk about ‘gifted and talented’ by Pelissa and Lynne during the staff meeting. I did some research and shared it, and this questioning led me to find and join Gifted Facebook and Google+ groups. I also started rethinking assessment and did further research on giftedness and differentiation, as well as assessment.

This was retweeted by Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) by keesa v (@keesav) on Twitter.

At school we’ve been looking at giftedness and differentiation. Our leading teachers (Curriculum and Professional Development) have spoken about giftedness in a staff meeting and we have met in our faculty teams with the other inner city schools (‘City Edge’) – namely, Mac.Robertson Girls’, University High School, Melbourne Girls’, Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, Princes Hill Secondary College and Albert Park College – to discuss differentiation.

Being locked into differentiation within the library context has left me with a sense of dissatisfaction and many questions about the definition of giftedness and differentiation. I often feel that, coming from teaching to the library, I still think like a teacher and not so much like a librarian but I know also that there is no universal ‘teacher’ or ‘teacher librarian’ so I try to acknowledge my individual perspective as a positive thing.

The most basic question about giftedness – What is giftedness – remains a mystery to me. As Melbourne High School has been identified as a school with some experience of teaching the gifted – since we have a high achieving cohort – we are apparently somehow authoritative in this area of pedagogy. I find this problematic since we typically have what I would describe as hard working students (on the whole), certainly with many intelligent and talented amongst the cohort.  Are they gifted? Some present as gifted – which means we recognise giftedness in them without having tested them. Our school attracts students who want to achieve a high score in their final VCE year and typically work hard towards this before entering the school in year 9 and throughout years 9-12.  Does this mean we cast a wide net and catch the gifted kids amongst the hard working ones? Perhaps. Do we miss gifted kids for various reasons eg. they don’t do well in tests, they are not interested in perfecting their testing skills, they are not interested in going to a highly competitive school? Perhaps. Do traditional IQ tests miss giftedness in the Arts: visual art, music, performing; creativity across disciplines?

Many students are trained early to do well in selective entry examinations. As Alice Pung states in her article The secret life of them: What it takes to shift class in Australia,  

There are now hundreds of such colleges around Australia, dedicated to drilling students in the skills needed to win scholarships to private schools, to get into selective state schools like MacRobertson or North Sydney Boys High, or to gain admission to state schools’ SEAL programs. These coaching colleges do not require any form of certification from state educational departments and are free to set their own curricula.

When my sons were very young I taught in one of these coaching colleges so that I could work weekends. Like Tina of Pung’s article, I found it ‘soul-crushing’.

“The scholarship classes I took were soul-crushing,” says Tina. “A coaching college! Dude, there are five-year-olds walking around that place. What are you possibly coaching them?” Still, Tina muses: “I am yet to meet an Asian child who doesn’t do some form of consistent tutoring.”

Less about learning (curiosity, inquiry, experimentation, collaboration…) and more about cramming disconnected fragments of information, I admit doing it for the money only. I taught primary and secondary English and Maths according to a strict script and at a frantic pace. I still remember a gorgeous Indian girl in my grade 2 class, after an hour of maths work, asking me if it was time to go home yet. I had to tell her that it wasn’t even half time.

Of course we don’t teach like that at our school but we do have students (and parents) whose concept of education is narrowly shaped by the cramming model, and whose learning resides in practice, practice and more practice.  So if we are a school known for ‘producing’ high ATARs, if we are locked into the VCE system where the focus is not on the process of learning but the final numerical position of the student in comparison to the rest of the state, do we have the time or opportunity to evaluate our teaching programs and our pedagogy?

From the outside I see how much time teachers spend on marking and reporting, and how they struggle to fit what will be tested at the end into the term – especially when so many things disrupt classes. From my privileged position as a teacher librarian who is not responsible for classes’ assessment, I try to persuade teachers to do things differently, eg to create learning communities through shared blogging and to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning supported by their peers – but I fail so many times. I don’t blame the teachers but I’m frustrated by the system.

Student empowerment is surely our focus and not the transfer of information or even skills.  As Ann writes in her post:

As an educator my main aim is creating/maintaining a space for individual empowerment and more importantly giving participants in the learning space the confidence to find the skills, information, and tools they need to feel empowered in society. It is not about imparting one specific nugget of information, a date, a theory, it is about supporting and nurturing that confidence so they can approach society, issues, and questions critically.

I think that teachers need the opportunity to unlearn – stop and reflect on how they are teaching and ask the most basic questions about teaching and learning to evaluate their pedagogy. But stopping to think is not part of the timetable. I’m not sure that times set aside in staff meetings or curriculum days will provide the opportunity for each of us to honestly say what we think. The structured meetings and student-free days have possibly not managed to provide a safe environment or created trust amongst teacher cohorts where they feel they can say what they really think.  Our inner city curriculum day for library staff was enjoyable and a great opportunity to catch up with other school library staff but for me it was still firmly planted in traditional library concerns. Differentiation is a broad term. We shared ways in which the library provided differentiation but it was all about what we do. For me, the basic questions – what is giftedness? what is differentiation? – remain untouched. I think we explored what we already know, what we already do, but we didn’t unpack the concepts to explore further.

So back to assessment.  Some of these ‘theses that work to re-imagine moocs’ are questions we might like to consider in schools also:

  • A course is a conversation, not a static reservoir or receptacle for content. Dave Cormier argues that “curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.” A course is a starting point, a space in which learners can experiment with their agency, discover the complexity of their oppression, and begin to work toward more liberated action.
  • Outcomes should give way to epiphanies -Outcomes tell learners what is important in advance, making the act of learning neat and tidy, while deterring the unexpected and unruly epiphanies that arise organically from within a learning environment. Invention arises from self-governance.
  • Learning should not be structured to conform to assessment mechanisms.

    In truth, learning is not a process that can be structured in advance without first hobbling it, like fitting a body to box by chopping off its limbs. Much goes missing when we remove learning from learners’ hands, and manicure it for ease of instruction. When we ask students to conform their learning to the mechanisms by which we measure it, we are not permitting students to learn, we are asking them to pull the right lever at the right time to the right effect — automatons.

    Assessment is too often the enemy of innovation. Our inability to quantitatively assess something is often in direct proportion to its pedagogical value. The best work confounds us. Because of the rampant culture of assessment that devalues students and their work, we’ve internalized grading as compulsory in education; however, grading is done in many more situations than it is actually demanded.

See the rest of the article here.

So, back to the subject of giftedness. If we confuse giftedness with high achievement, we are in trouble. It might be worth revising the characteristics of giftedness before we start guessing who is gifted and who isn’t. Einstein, Newton, Edison, Tolstoy, Pasteur, Lincoln – these are only some of the notable gifted people throughout history who were not high achievers in school.

Differentiation is an aspect of pedagogy. It’s not just providing extra work or more difficult work for advanced students. I think we should start our conversation about differentiation by looking at learning itself to remind us that our teaching should be built on our understanding of learning. Let’s bring the student to the focus, not the content, the outcome or even teaching itself.

Mihaela and I present at Curriculum Day: Using technologies to curate and share resources/ Focus #1

1.1; 1.3; 1.5; 2.3; 2.6; 3.6; 4.1; 4.5; 6.3; 6.4

I’ve been collaborating with Mihaela for a few years now. We work well together because we are both passionate about art education, and because Mihaela allows me to contribute to her students’ learning. The resourcing I do for Mihaela’s students and for the Visual Arts department is targeted and constantly changing to keep the curriculum dynamic and challenging. 

Mihaela is always open to new possibilities using ICTs, and Pinterest is a good match for the ipad because it enables students (and teachers) to search for good quality images/websites and to save them to collections. Mihaela has empowered her students by handing over curation to them so that they follow their interests and specific art focus, and organise these resources themselves. Furthermore, the power of Pinterest is in finding and connecting to experts in a chosen field, and taking from their rich resources, then sharing with peers. 

Here is the post I wrote after Mihaela and I presented to staff at the Curriculum Day.

First day back at school term 2 is a curriculum day for us at Melbourne High School. The theme is ‘knowing highly able students and ourselves’. Apart from set keynotes we have the choice of running sessions and also selecting to attend others’ sessions. Mihaela Brysha (Head of the Visual and Performing Arts faculty) and I will be running a workshop about Pinterest. I’m sharing the presentation slides here.

I’ve been banging on about Pinterest for so long, you’d think I had shares in the company. For example, here, here, here, and here. Some of the earlier slides I’ve re-used from earlier presentations.

Pinterest is often overlooked by educators because it looks like a bit of fun with no substance. The power of Pinterest lies in the ability to find people who have curated the stuff you want. And then see who they are following. Although it’s an image-based platform – and that’s what makes it a preference for those who prefer visual collections – it’s also a good way to collect text-based things online as long as you can attach them to a picture. I use Pinterest and Diigo equally, sometimes saving the same thing to both. Diigo is more sophistocated in its options, allowing keyword searches, but also collaborative annotation. I just haven’t had much success selling it to teachers. When I want to share a collection of online resources with teachers, I often use Pinterest because it’s easy to see the contents at a glance. Of course, now everyone needs an account before they can even view what’s on Pinterest.
Meanwhile I find it difficult to comprehend that most teachers and students are happy either saving things to folders on their computers and therefore needing a USB, or going through their history. Come on people, there are much better ways to do that! And easier ways to share.

Teaching a highly able (possibly gifted) cohort – Dr Toni Meath on differentiation and personalised learning/ Focus #1

Standards: 1.1; 1.2; 1.3; 1.5; 6.2

The final session I attended on our first day back to term 2 – a Select Entry Schools Professional Learning Day – was presented by Dr Toni Meath, principal of The Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, on ‘differentiation and personalising learning for the unique cohort of academic select entry schools’.

Brief: This presentation will provide a perspective on understanding the needs of gifted learners. Meath will put forward that to meet the wellbeing, curriculum and pedagogical needs of gifted learners educators must reflect upon how they personalise and differentiate the learning within a culture of trust present in both the school and the classroom.

Two things jumped out for me in this brief – wellbeing and trust. A focus on wellbeing is obviously an important one  when we consider students and their learning holistically.  Trust is an essential component of a healthy and happy cohort. Both are necessary for academic success.

Dr Meath started by saying that we needed to first believe that there is such a thing as a gifted/highly able child. I’m not sure about the choice of word, ‘believe’, which sounds a bit like blind faith, but I agree that we need to do the research to understand and be convinced that gifted/highly able students exist and have specific learning needs just as, at the other end of the spectrum, students need appropriate support.  In my experience of giftedness an understanding of the affective development is also important.  Dr Meath explained that  our intervention as teachers is based on contemporary knowledge of the brain which proves that although giftedness is recognisable in very young children, it is not fixed from birth. It’s important we understand how our students learn best so that we can support and enhance their learning and allow them to develop their potential.

Creating a culture of trust in the classroom is the first step to supporting students’ learning, and I liked Dr Meath’s point that good teachers remove their ego in order to allow their students to fly. She reminded us that some of our students would no doubt surpass us in our knowledge and understanding of the subject content. It makes sense – and not just in a gifted school. In my opinion, there is no place for insecurity in teachers or an insistence on hierarchy which only results in a power struggle in the classroom. I’m not saying that I’ve achieved this but I continue to remind myself that respect is the preferred attitude to students; wielding power will make students defensive and resentful.

Fixed and growth mindset were discussed by Dr Meath as well as by keynote speaker, Dan Haesler.  Dr Meath identified Carol Dweck, psychologist and a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, in terms of her work around growth mindset. I found the TED talk:

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?

It’s an interesting idea to replace the fail or N with ‘not yet’, and I like Carol’s reasoning:

if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere.But if you get the grade “Not Yet”you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.

This is important information (from the transcript):

Scientists measured the electrical activity from the brain as students confronted an error. On the left, you see the fixed mindset students. There’s hardly any activity. They run from the error. They don’t engage with it. But on the right, you have the students with the growth mindset, the idea that abilities can be developed. They engage deeply. Their brain is on fire with yet. They engage deeply. They process the error. They learn from it and they correct it.

Just the words “yet” or “not yet,” we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter.

Dan Haesler spoke about this experiment with the 2 groups of students that Carol talks about here:

Look what happened: in this study, students who were not taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades over this difficult school transition, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades. We have shown this now, this kind of improvement, with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students.

High achieving students deserve the same amount of support and encouragement to push out of their comfort zone as any other students. Sadly this doesn’t always happen in mixed ability schools because they might be perceived as already ‘being there’ with nowhere to go. How annoying it must be to be judged with a fixed mindset as being ‘smart’ and therefore not deserving of teaching or stretching. It’s also offensive not to recognise the effort put in by ‘smart’ students and instead to assume that everything they achieve is without effort.

Dr Meath asked ‘how often are students just marking time?’ I’m hoping that this happens much less in selective schools but who knows? I still remember how agonising it was for me in early primary school (and must have been equally for others) when I could already read, and had to sit silently and still while the teacher chose struggling readers to read aloud from our annual prescribed reader. Maybe it was easier for me to sit still and daydream the time away than others and of course I was determined to ‘be good’ but how boring it was! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had read the whole reader within the first few days and had nowhere to go after that. This was in the 1960s and in my school at least we were not offered library books although I did go to the public library with my mother. Things have improved a great deal since then in terms of differentiation for early reading and let’s hope schools hold onto their libraries, teacher librarians and library staff.

Dr Meath also talked about Flow Theory (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) in relation to learning at school and emphasized the combination of high challenge, high support and high success . I’ve included the TED talk and a link to the transcript.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, being in the flow is the ultimate in focused intrinsic motivation.

Dr Meath gave a good overview of what teachers should look into more deeply when thinking about how best to teach a gifted and talented cohort. I enjoyed her positive approach and confidence in teaching success based on a good knowledge of educational theories. It was refreshing for me because her view was crystal clear and her faith in what could be done for our select student cohort was absolute. Her students and school are testament to her success in putting theories into practice.

Anyone who has read my posts knows that I have more questions than assured answers but I suppose that’s the way I work through things. I have criticised the VCE as a system that sometimes seems to churn out test-taking students with a focus is on the final ATAR if they want to succeed and move on to their chosen careers. That isn’t to say that I can’t see the wonderful learning environments created by teachers but I also see how teachers’ passion is dissipated by increasing numbers of professional requirements and data charts to prove they are teaching properly. In my work as teacher librarian I’m not fighting the system but in small ways I ‘rebel’ by quietly colouring outside the lines – by taking student writing out of the classroom through blogging, encouraging the development of personal voice in writing rather than focusing on grammar and spelling (and believe me, I am a big fan of grammar and spelling), even by trying to take students out of their comfort zone through exposure to articles or images that make them stop and think.

I came across an old post written by Sean Michael Morris entitled‘Schools needn’t fail’ (2007) and he talks about how over time he changed the way he ‘ignored’ the system in order to teach honestly.

When I originally started this blog, I started with a pretty self-important diatribe against the systemization of education, especially in the form of standardized testing, rubrics, and the like. I find myself wanting to return to that discussion again.

On the other hand, I feel the urge to exactly ignore that discussion, because ultimately it leads to an us-against-the-administration discussion, or a persistent feeling of hopelessness, futility, and desperation. Because I did not get into teaching to feel desperate, nor to feel oppressed by or to battle the administration (hey, I am the administration), I hesitate to the point of intentional inertia to enter that discussion.

Spot on. What is the point of fighting the system if it makes us feel hopeless, oppressed, and if it leads to inertia?  Morris goes on to talk about ‘any centre of power’.

Regardless of a subject’s posture, though, the center is reaffirmed: slide toward it and you acknowledge its power, rebel against it and you do the same thing. Protesting the government reaffirms the power of the federal administration; leaving in frustration a teaching post does nothing to dismantle the school.

So how does one ignore the power of the school?

Morris provides an example of how one of his favourite teachers did this very thing:

One of my favorite high school teachers was a certain Mrs. Meyerle, who taught me the five-paragraph essay. She used a couple of class days to explain the reasoning behind the form, told us we’d rarely actually write in it, and then moved quickly on to helping us discover what it was we wanted to write about. She fulfilled the expectations of the curriculum in as little time as possible, trusting entirely in our ability to master it quickly, and then, almost without missing a beat, kept the actual learning happening.

Morris describes how he teaches English/Composition:

I refuse to give tests (and now, as chair of my program, have removed them from all our online templates), and deny fervently and repeatedly that there is a correct way to write. Instead, I lead students through a process of ideation, creation, and revision. I let them explore their own authorities (both over their ideas and their words), and give them lots and lots of room to make mistakes.

Of course, as Chair, Morris has more autonomy than the classroom teacher in a school but I have no doubt his teaching is very similar to that of many teachers whose focus is generating passion and engagement in their students which goes beyond ticking the boxes of what is required by the department.

And so, in highlighting the passion of the teacher in creating a stimulating learning environment, I’m back to trust which is surely one of the first, most important, things to be established between teacher and students as well as between the students themselves, so that students feel free to be themselves and challenge themselves at school. Morris quotes Jonathan Kozol:

“Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text … Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 15).

I know I’m over-quoting Morris but let me finish this long, rambling post with his words:

There is no standardization around merriment and hopeful expectations. There is no rubric for fascination. But these are human things, removed from the power struggle of “schooliness” (thank you, Clay), and they are more important than measurable skills to a life spent learning.

100 great novels by living authors (and more) – 3 lists compiled by Blair Mahoney / Focus #2

Standards: 3.5; 4.1; 4.5

Blair has 3 such lists and shares them with his classes. I wanted to share them with all teachers/students and beyond the school because they are of excellent quality. What a waste of time and expertise if we don’t share beyond the walls of the classroom. Of course, Blair was willing to share.

Melbourne High School Library

Hello there. I hope you’ve been enjoying the freedom of the Summer holidays. I definitely have and so this blog has been dormant for quite some time. It’s okay; we all need a break.

So to start off the year I thought I’d share Mr Blair Mahoney’s updated reading lists – looking fantastic in Medium. Just beautiful. And so I give you (drum roll…) : 100 great novels by living authors. Not that you’ll get through that list for a while, but I’m also sharing Mr Mahoney’s 100 great novels by dead authors and 100 great graphic novels.

That should keep you going for a while.

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