Monthly Archives: April 2013

Reading notes

I turned to my reading last night to get my writing back on track. It hadn’t gone wildly off course but with a bit of travelling and occupied head space after some family funerals last week I was starting to feel disconnected from my writing process, rushing from one task to the next in my desire to tick things off my to-do list. So I’d gone to bed early with my books, listening to the rain on the tin roof and the wind hissing through the barely open window. Picking up the books I was reading (about writing) gives me time to slow the pace down and to reflect on my processes of writing, reading and thinking. It legitimises spending time thinking and writing about writing. The imposter monster lurking in the critical part of my brain wonders if this reading, writing and thinking about writing takes time away from ‘proper’ writing, but I tell the imposter monster to be quiet and leave me  to my journey.

I smiled when I opened Goodson’s book and read exercises 7 and 8 as both of them were things I’d done during the course of the week. I’d read exercise 7 earlier and it must have been subconsciously ticking away in my brain, but that coupled with the need to reflect on and make sense of some data analysis had led me to write a blog post on the ways I was analysing data, the way my ideas were become more refined and the steps I was taking in the analysis process. I’ve become strangely addicted to my excel spreadsheet writing log. I’ve never loved excel the way I am at the moment. Each time I open my spreadsheet I get a little zing of pleasure as I look at what types of writing I’ve been doing. There it is laid out before me, my progress or lack thereof. Nothing like that to keep you either a) inspired or b) terrified.

Rather than have a separate writing journal for projects, I’ve started new columns in my excel log where I take more detailed notes about what I’m up to in particular writing pieces so that the log doesn’t become just a record of time and task, but also of next steps and development of ideas. Things that I want to write about in more detail become longer pieces written in notepad or saved in my word writing file-a word folder with entries about the process of writing across a range of projects. Having my mega excel log is easier for my brain to deal with -I have a tendency to be terrible at version control and so one log with notes is easier than a log and journals for individual projects. It’s all horses for courses though and so while this works for me, I’m sure that other people would find it clumsy and cumbersome.

The other thing I’d been doing was doing what Goodson refers to as writing to learn, and I’d had Richardson’s notion of writing oneself into understanding in my head as well. A lot of the writing I’d done over the week hadn’t been academic in nature, but rather a way to unpack the week that was. At first glance it seems totally removed from the work writing I should be thinking about, but somewhere in there are moments of clarity, things that enable me to move forwards, backwards, sidewards and back to my work. I think I was writing in the spaces in between, using words to make a bridge to get me where I needed to go. Out of context that probably doesn’t make much sense, and maybe one day I’ll post that writing too, as a way of showing how the personal leads to the professional and back again.

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Finding the story in data

Over the last few days I’ve been working on analyzing some data generated using a survey as part of a study looking at the work of teacher educators. When I first looked at the data and began reading through it, nothing was speaking to me. I was reading through the words and categories and the problem was that I couldn’t find THE story. There was nothing that was calling to me, nothing that I wanted to read, or write, or learn more about. The ‘so what?’ question was reverberating in my brain and I wondered ‘what is the story here?’

I thought back to my PhD and advice that I’d had written on a post-it on my pinboard –  ‘Let the data tell the story’. 

Working on this project with a colleague we’d created a survey in Google drive and had used the automatic summary function that calculates the quant data into percentages and pie charts and which collates all of the qualitative responses together as well.  When I printed this data off and read through it there didn’t seem to be much of a story to the data – sure we could generate some themes and get some understandings about concepts but there was nothing that was ‘sexy’, nothing that appeared at first glance to have an edge. It’s an odd concept to think about our data as being ‘sexy’, as being something that captures both our imagination and the rational, logical parts of our brains, but it’s something that I was looking for and I was thinking of Robyn’s question ‘What do we want to read about?’ When I first looked at the data using this automatic summary, it seemed flat, boring, all dull edges and no shine and I wondered why this was.

Spurred on by Robyn’s question about what the silences in our data might be, I began to look at the possibilities of ‘reading between the lines’, of finding these silences, the concepts that are hidden, of finding only what is expected in the answers and of not discovering the unusual or the interesting. I was torn by this notion though, as in reading the silences am I only reading the silences of what I think should be there? Am I only projecting my own assumptions about what is hidden? I also wondered about highlighting the silences, as maybe the silences would just convey errors in our survey design, becoming a projection of our dysfunction as survey creators.

I walked away, crunching numbers and data and thinking about the story and the angle- what was the data trying to tell me? Like an investigative journalist I was thinking of what more there was to discover, determined that there had to be more that I was missing, that there was a shortcoming to the way I was looking at things. Later that night I dragged out the survey and began manually coding the data, organizing it into questions, looking at each participant and finding the similarities and differences between them. Suddenly, a light of story began to flicker in the data darkness.

When I began to look at each survey response, I began to see each person as a whole, not as a fragment of data, a figure, a percentage, a wedge of pie in a chart or a statement in isolation. Looking at each response in its totality I began to see the story emerge. In each response people were telling me more about themselves, what matters to them in their work, what helps and what hinders progress and development. Looking at their responses as a whole I began to see who they were. Here were their stories, writ large. Looking at each person’s story I began to find the connections, synergies and disconnections between their experiences. It was here that things started to get interesting. Suddenly I was enthused and excited and couldn’t wait to unpack what these differences meant and what we could learn from them.

In going back to the whole picture, I began to get a better understanding of the parts. When I listened properly and didn’t take shortcuts, I began to hear the data and the story it is telling me.

 

 

Reading to write

It’s Saturday morning here and I’d been planning on having a day off from anything work related, and yet as soon as I free myself from feeling that I need to work or write, I suddenly want to. I’ve worked my way through the morning papers, had a coffee and put some soup on to burble, while outside the wind whistles through the trees and dark clouds inch their way across the sky. It looks like a nice day for staying inside and reading. I’m still reading a lot at the moment, reading to write.

I was reading Pat Goodson’s book again the other day and was looking at her section on fast writing- writing for 5 mins everything that’s in your head, generating ideas and dumping them on the paper where you can come back to them later and sift your way through to find the connections, synergies and ideas for further development. I like these fast writing moments, I’d tried a couple of 5 minute ‘shut up and writes’ from Pat Thomson’s website too and then I’d come across Inger Mewburn’s (you can find her on Twitter @thesiswhisperer) presentation on writing a journal article in 7 days (http://www.slideshare.net/ingermewburn/write-that-journal-article-in-7-days-12742195), which also had a couple of these 5 minute writing activities. There is something that frees your mind when you set yourself only 5 minutes to write. I’ve done this using focus questions suggested by Thomson, and I’ve done this with nothing other than a blank page before me. Each time at the end of 5 minutes I have a page scrawled with inky black words. I can’t do these writing dumps onto the computer screen – I have to have a hard copy notebook, a glistening white page just waiting for words to appear on it (I wonder why? This is something I need to think more about).

Going back and looking at what I’ve written in my 5 minute brain dumps I’m reminded of what my husband says about the way I mow the lawns. He thinks I mow like I’m pushing a shopping trolley, seeing one thing, zooming over to it, grabbing it and then zooming in the other direction, so that my mowing (like my shopping) becomes a criss-crossing of paths and intersections as I see something new to grab. My 5 minute writing activities are like this too. When I look back on them I see they are a criss-crossing of ideas, as my brain flits between one concept and the next. This flitting and jumping between ideas is one that happens to me when I read as well. I read something and suddenly my brain is taken on an adventure where I begin to think of the ways I could use, transform, challenge, link the ideas that I am reading. Sometimes I wonder how I might get back to the starting point.

It is then that editing and sifting becomes a key part of my processes as a writer – the point where I need to take control of my messy thoughts and mold them into a shape that might be worth reading. I’ve got a chapter in a new edited book ‘Pedagogies for the future’ which has just been released (you can find out more about the book here if you’re interested: https://www.sensepublishers.com/catalogs/bookseries/other-books/pedagogies-for-the-future/ ) that shows me how I need to do the sifting.  When I wrote the first draft of this chapter it was like my 5 minute writing pieces- full of what at times seemed like disparate ideas as I tried to get as many thoughts on paper as I could. The re-drafting process was central to me getting a chapter that had a sense of coherence and I spent some time visually mapping the progression of my chapter so that I could work out which ideas to strip away and which ones to flesh out in more detail. I hope I’ve been relatively successful in doing so and getting to a final product that links effectively between concepts- I’m still not convinced!

But as today’s blog suggests, today I’m reading to write. As an English teacher I tell students all the time that reading is an important way of improving their own writing. Yet, I can fail to take my own advice. It’s easy to get caught up in the all the things we need to do and all the reading that needs to be done as part of my academic and school teaching lives, and reading for pleasure or for discovering the ways that other people write can get lost. So I’m taking Goodson’s advice and spending some time reading about writing, in order to write. One of my favourite lines from her section on reading about writing is ‘Don’t waste precious time reading material that doesn’t help, motivate or touch you. Life is way too short to read all the good writing available let alone to waste time reading what doesn’t help’ (p. 35). In the same way that filling my body with transfats and sugar makes me feel stodgy and bloated, filling my brain with words that lack beauty, clarity, incisiveness and meaning makes me feel slow and sluggish. I love it when I read something that is so beautiful it makes my teeth ache, or something that is so perfectly constructed that I get a pang in my stomach. These are the things I want to read more of, and in my academic reading, I want the stories that reinforce the meaning of people’s lives. I want writing that shows me people, the world and myself in new and interesting ways. I’d like to write like that too, and so as I turn off my soup, I’m heading to the couch and I’m suspending the outside world for a while as I read to write.

Bonjour and bienvenue – welcome to my language cross-age tutoring experiment

First term saw me returning to teaching Year 7 & 8 French for the first time in 4 years.  I love teaching LOTE as there are so many possibilities to encourage students to make connections between their own lives and language, and French language and culture. There’s lots of space for role plays, games, singing and playing with learning.

We don’t run an immersion program in the way that some schools do, where students complete some of the core subjects in the language they are learning. Instead we run a program that primarily teaches language skills and culture primarily delivered in English. From day one though, I have made a real effort to speak as much French in the classroom as possible, including all of our basic instructions. I’m aiming to immerse students in the language so that they are able to build their understanding of vocabulary in context. My year 7s have been able to respond to simple instructions given in French, including things like  ‘turn to page …. of your textbook’, ‘open your exercise book’, and ‘write in your diary’. They are learning days of the week and months through our method of writing these on the board each day. They are learning how to ask some basic requests in the classroom in French and students are starting to go to their dictionaries to find words that enable them to experiment with creating their own sentences in French. One of my favourites was the student who used his dictionary to create a simple sentence ‘Thanks for today’s class Miss’. You’ve got to be happy when a student teaches themselves to say that!

By the end of term, students were confidently using formal and informal modes of speaking in order to introduce themselves, ask how people were feeling, ask someone’s name and ask about who people were. I’d been asking them to go home and teach their parents what they were learning and in week 6 we had some wonderful parent-teacher interviews where parents talked with enthusiasm about the language they were learning. Parents who had some knowledge of French were starting to use their French skills, meeting and sharing with their child’s developing knowledge. Other parents are learning along with their kids – it’s great to have these conversations with parents about the ways language learning is becoming a family affair.

I’ve got a long way to go in developing my pedagogical skill in teaching French. It isn’t one of my strengths as a teacher and so there’s so much more I need to learn, but I’m loving teaching and learning with my students and I’m excited about one of the tasks we are doing when school starts back this term.  I wanted my students to be able to experiment with using their knowledge of the language in a way I hadn’t done before and so I decided to get them to do some cross-age tutoring. As a P-12 school I have the possibility of getting my Year 7s to teach what they know to the primary students, and so my students are currently working on basic storybooks using the vocabulary they have learnt so far and they are going to take these books to the primary classroom of one of my colleagues and each student is going to share the book with a primary student and talk about what the words mean. My students are incredibly excited about this, spending time storyboarding how they will set out their books, they are linking about the way they might use illustrations to support their text and what might be the most effective way to incorporate both English and French words to help their primary student understand the simple stories we are writing.  I can’t wait to see how this sharing unfolds!

Most of all though I love the way students are open and receptive to learning, keen to tackle the challenge of learning a new language and eager to stretch their understandings. It’s a joy and a privilege to take this journey with them 🙂

Your mission, should you choose to accept it …

The name of John Hattie has become synonymous with feedback over the last few years in education circles. Many of the schools I have worked with have been looking at Hattie’s work and thinking about the types of feedback they give students and the impact that different types of feedback have on student learning. Coupled with an increasing awareness of assessment of, as, for learning, teachers are experimenting with ways of providing students with opportunities to grow their understandings of critical thinking and content through a range of assessment and feedback styles.

As a teacher, I’ve always been focused on doing more than just giving students a ‘well done’ on their work and at the same time searching for ways of giving feedback that will encourage students to take the next step in their learning. When working with Year 12 English students a few years ago, I experimented and tweaked a PEEL (see peelweb.org for more information about PEEL) strategy that encouraged students to keep feedback logs. In these logs, students would create a log of feedback that highlighted where they had demonstrated success and where they could continue to work on particular areas. In order to do this, they would read feedback given by me and then summarise that feedback into their logs. They would also use activities such as peer and self-assessed criteria to review their own learning and understanding, and notes on these would be added to their feedback logs. In using the feedback logs I was hoping that students would be able to chart their own progress over the year and that this would inform our discussions about their development and learning. One of the challenges of this approach was that as the time pressure of Year 12 intensified and led towards the final exams and the all dominating fear of what mark they might get on the final exam, students were driven to searching for the ‘quick fix’ when it came to feedback. They wanted it distilled down to the simplest of parts, the recipe for what would gain them the highest mark, the sure, never-fail strategy that would provide success. Such is the challenge of a system that is driven by assessment of learning and where students saw their future hopes as determined by a number on a final exam.

Despite these kinds of challenges, I continue to search for ways of giving feedback that encourage students to take an active part in their own learning. Following a couple of teachers on Twitter (@BiancaH80 and @alicelung), I saw ways that they were using the concepts of ‘Medals’ and ‘Missions’ when giving feedback to students. @BiancaH80 writes a blog about her teaching and has written an awesome post that I only read today about the ways she uses medals and missions http://biancahewes.wordpress.com/tag/geoff-petty/ Before that I’d just seen her twitter posts about using it and had gone from there to look into Petty, but then came across her post today so had to edit my blog to link to hers.    What I  first liked about this idea of using the medals and missions  was the language as for many students who play computer and platform games, the idea of medals as things they have gained, and missions as the things they still need to accomplish, are familiar concepts.

I’d heard Black and William but not of Petty and again it was @BiancaH80’s tweets who alerted me to his work. Drawing on the work of Hattie and of Black and William, Geoff Petty describes medals as feedback on the work students have done well, while missions are the information about what a student needs to work on, develop further and explore. You can visit http://www.geoffpetty.com/feedback.html to find out more about what Petty says on this type of feedback. The medals and missions are related to the goals that we have for learning, so that students are aware of what they are working towards.

Towards the end of last term I decided to experiment with presenting feedback to my students in Years 7 & 8 French using the Medals and Missions approach. I was interested in seeing if the approach encouraged me to target more effectively the areas that students had done well, as well as what they still needed to work on, and I was also interested in seeing the student response to this kind of feedback.

The first class I used this feedback approach with was my Year 7 French class and after explaining the medals/ missions idea, I handed back some work students had recently completed. It was great to see that students were reading the feedback carefully and then asking questions about the kinds of strategies they could use to tackle the missions sections of their feedback. This was also the case with my Year 8 students, and it was great to see the Year 8s talking about the ways they wanted to grow their understandings.

At the end of the term I gave the students a self-evaluation where I asked them to reflect on their learning over the term and the activities/ strategies that had helped them to learn throughout the 9 weeks we had spent together.  The students gave excellent feedback about their learning and about the strategies that worked well for them in helping them build an understanding of language and culture. When we return to school next week, we are going to start with our medals and missions for this term related to our goal of learning new vocabulary and developing new understandings about culture. I’m going to ask students to identify their medals from the previous term and then set themselves some missions for the term ahead.

So far, I’m liking the way that the medals and missions approach to feedback is encouraging students to process the feedback that I am giving them. The approach also encourages me to move away from bland feedback statements (eg ‘great work’ ) that are not actually related to the specifics of what students have done in their work, it encourages me to think about each student and their learning and the strategies that are going to help that student develop. So my mission, which I have chosen to accept, is to continue with the medals/ missions approach this term and see how it works for the students this term and what kinds of learning we may be able to bring about.

Jumping into the mess and pleasure of story

I’m currently reading Robert Nash’s ‘Liberating Scholarly Writing’ and it’s taking me longer than I thought as I keep putting it down and just spending some time sitting with it and with the words and ideas he presents. Nash presents a case for using SPN – Scholarly Personal Narrative and so many of the ideas he mentions feel like a homecoming for me and yet, there still exists a tension as I read. I read sections of the text finding a tangible representation of whispers that have been thudding in corners of my brain. As I read I wonder, could I pull this off? Should I jump without the harness of the conventional academic scaffolding I have used thus far in my writing? Will I play with the structures that that exist both ‘out there’ but also, inside me, in the part of my brain that conceptualizes what ‘real’ academic writing looks like?

It is the notion of story and narrative that entices me as I read. So many times I find myself reading lines of his text and finding synergies with some of the questions that have haunted me since I was an early doctoral student, questions that still haunt me now I am a ‘proper’ academic.

 I read Nash’s line that ‘We are storied selves who write our own realities based on these unique stories’ (p. 8) and I begin to think of the choices I make in presenting my own story, my own reality, my narrative. Why is it that I choose to place proper in quotation marks when describing myself as a ‘proper’ academic? Is it because the spectre of the imposter still lurks when I think of my work? Is it because I think I’m still trying to find my voice as a writer and the ways that I can represent the knowledge and ideas that I’m accumulating?

I think of the stories we all tell about ourselves and our worlds, every day we engage in a construction of the self in the way that we choose to interact with others and the world. This is a concept I find myself returning to more and more as I ponder the pervasive nature of social media, each time we upload a Facebook post, a blog, a tweet –we are engaging in this construction of the self, we are telling a story about ourselves to the world. In constructing a presence we then alter the world, we reshape it and our place in it, and these reshapings  multiply and intersect, over and over and over again. Again I find resonance in Nash who argues ‘The trouble with trying to discover objective truths in our worlds is that we are constantly distorting them with our narrative truths’ (p. 38).  Just like truths, our conception of self is constantly morphing, transmogrifying as we reflect, retell and refine our story.

I worry about the place of narrative in a neo-liberal world driven by measures, standards and accountability. In this world, managers talk of finding a ‘grand narrative’, a story to which they can hitch their wagon and the story becomes less about meaning and understanding, but more about finding a way to sell the latest version of reality to consumers. What is my narrative in the midst of this meta-narrative? Is it one of the emerging scholar trying to find a voice with which to protest? There are many stories, and I wonder, which one should I tell you? I could be a chameleon of tales, I could construct the world in a multitude of ways, changing my story, my register for a different audience. I pick, sift, filter, anlayse and then present a version to you that I am happy with. For now. Tomorrow, I may not be happy with this story and so I will rewrite it. And the storytelling and moulding of reality continues.Image

Without the scaffold of ‘traditional’ academic writing, part of me feels cut adrift, at danger of being swamped in a sea of narrative. In today’s story, I think I need to make a decision, to give myself up to the messy, swampy, encompassing sea of postmodernism and float in the stories, or to find some driftwood and float to a more stable shore. Today’s story has no ending, just a to be continued and in the meantime I’ll keep reading Nash and others and see where the current takes me.  

Tacking, shifting and stitching

So I’ve had a little of a break from my online writing over Easter. I spent some time down the coast and ended up spending most of my time thinking and daydreaming about writing. Suffice to say by the time I got home, there was a scratch that only writing could itch and I spent all of yesterday working on a couple of projects that had been lingering.

By the sea, my thoughts about what I was writing started to meld together. I’d driven down to the breakwater and sat there as the Easter tides crashed against the manmade barrier and foam and spray surged over the wall and onto people perched against the railing with cameras to capture the sea in all her glory. As I sat there thinking I began to see how sometimes seemingly disparate ideas could be stitched together to make a coherent whole. Yesterday, when I sat down to write I had one of those days where I could get lost in what I was writing. I had decided to start with a 25 min pomodoro session to get me going, but instead I just wrote and the 25 mins drifted past me without realizing. So it may have been a pomodoro fail or a writing success depending on how you look at it.

When I returned home from the beach a copy of Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing: The power of personal narrative (2004) had arrived in the mail and so it is on my list of reading for today.  This was a book that Pat Goodson had recommended to me and I’m looking forward to reading it. I had a very quick look at the opening chapter yesterday and was struck by this line “Good teaching, good helping, and good leadership are, in one sense, all about storytelling and story-evoking. It is in the mutual exchange of stories that professionals and scholars are able to meet clients and students where they actually live their lives” (p. 2). Already I like this notion of the mutual exchange of stories, of the points in which our lives and stories intersect and of stories being the place where we can uncover more about the world, ourselves and our work through that meeting. After a gloomy day here yesterday, the sky is blue and I figure this is the perfect way to spend the afternoon after doing a bit of writing this morning on a research proposal and a couple of abstracts.

Speaking of writing abstracts, I’m doing some experimentation with abstract and journal writing courtesy of Pat Thomson who is currently in Iceland running a short writing course. You can find out more about her course here:

http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/im-running-a-writing-course/

Today she uploaded an overview of what she had done in that day’s session and she invites you to write along at home if you so desire:

http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/day-one-writing-course/

As I was about to start on an abstract proposal for a conference I wanted to attend in December I thought I’d start with her 2 x 5 minute shut up and write activities to help me on my way. What surprised me was doing the 5 min writing activity on ‘the article I’m going to write’. When I sat down to write I had a vague idea of what I wanted to think about in the paper I might present, but in 5 minutes I was able to jot down a whole range of ideas that I wanted to cover. Looking back over what I’ve written, I think there might be more than one paper in there, so it’s time to do some paring back and work out what fits where. At the moment I’ve got too many pieces that I’m wanting to put into one puzzle, so I need to take out some of the pieces that don’t go with this picture and put them somewhere else.

The second 5 minute writing activity on ‘why journal readers need to read my article’ was a really good way of getting me to think about the ‘so what?’ question. In 5 minutes I had to think about and sharpen my ideas of why what I’m doing matters, what is it adding to the cacophony of noise out there already about teaching and teacher education. Even though I can  answer the ‘so what?’ question, it is at this point that the imposter monster rears up and questions  ‘Why does your voice matter?’ Sometimes he’s useful as he keeps me honest, but other times, he can become debilitating, halting progress and keeping me stuck. At times like these though when I need a critical voice asking ‘so what?’, I let him out of his cage, give him a bit of food and air, and then lock him back away until I might need him again.

10 minutes in total and I’ve got some ideas that are starting to form shape. With some moulding, rearranging and stitching they too will become part of the coherent whole I picture in my brain. I’m going off to do some more tacking as I place the draft pieces together, moving them to see where their seams fit together perfectly.