Monthly Archives: May 2013

Tell me a story….

Experimentation. To test an idea. From the Latin experimentum, it sounds like a Harry Potter spell in the Latin form. Today I wonder if I might need a wand as I try out this idea. For today, I’m trying a new way of telling a story.

Stories. I tell them all the time, every day, in many ways, shapes and forms. A lyric from Weddings, Parties, Anything reverberates in my brain: Tell me a story and make no omissions, as I’m all ears. Chapter and verse, the whole damn edition. On Twitter I tell stories in 140 characters, a microcosm of a full story. It’s the tease of a story, a fragment, not the full picture, just the hint of what might be to come if you know me in person.  On Facebook, I tell my stories most often with photos, uploading images that stitch together a panoramic. In person, I tell many stories, words tumble over each other as I create a plotline about my life, turning it into a series of escapades. I try to entertain, to convince, to encourage, to calm, to soothe, to share. Stories intermingle with images, images intermingle with music, music intermingles with lyrics- all is a story, a tapestry of voice, song, movement.

In my academic work I have told stories in conventional ways. Papers are formed in conventional structure. Read and you will find an introduction, a theoretical framework, a literature review, a method, data, discussion. I wrestle the words into sections and they form the jigsaw puzzle of conventional academic writing. Today I opened a file. A half-written paper loomed up at me and I quickly scanned it to see where I was up to. I was struck by a line in the data and was cast back to the interview I’d held with the teacher. Suddenly, I was transported back in time to a small room. The image became stronger.

The paper before me seemed lifeless, a shallow representation of the ideas she and other teachers had talked about. Their story was more important than this shell I had before me.

 I scrolled and clicked. Opening a new file a blank white page appeared. I began to write. In writing, I was transported back, captured by the spell of the story. I tapped into the mainline of their voices and tried to stitch them together. There are no conventional sections to this paper. There is a narrative. A story that explains a big idea. I’m not sure it works. I’m not sure whether it’s ‘right’. Is this how a narrative piece should look? I wonder this as I type, and yet, the words keep coming.

I’m casting the experimentum spell and letting the story take me to a place of discovery. I’ll let you know when I get to the destination.

Preparing for battle

On Monday I introduced the avoir rap to my Year 7 students. I’d made the brave, some might say foolish, decision to introduce this to them by doing the rap myself, rather than getting them to watch the youtube clip. In the staffroom at briefing, I tried to entice my fellow Year 7 LOTE teachers to do the same, but they decided to go for the safety of the clip as an introduction.

When I told my Year 7s we were going to do some rapping as a way of memorising irregular verbs, some looked positively terrified. You could almost see the awkwardness leeching out of their pores. Not wanting to step away from a challenge, I was determined to convert awkwardness into awesome- I just wasn’t sure how successful I would be in doing this.

I began to rap- my woefully out of tune voice alone in the classroom. Students shifted in their seats, a mix of fear, shyness and probably a healthy degree of scepticism as they looked at me moving around the room, tapping out beats on tables.

The silence from the students was almost deafening.

In these moments I am always interested in which students leap in first to participate and which ones hang back, waiting on the edges of the classroom, waiting to see what their peers think before they decide to act. The students who would probably not be considered ‘popular’ by their school yard peers were the first to leap in, voices raised, they used their hands on their desks to create a beat. Their ‘popular’ counterparts stayed silent, eyes flickering around the room as they battled internally to work out how they might be altered if they chose to join in.

More voices chimed in. Hands tapped desks. The noise level rose.

I wandered around the room, stopping to tap on different desks, reminding students that we were all taking a risk by using our voice in this way, encouraging them to join me in the risk taking. It’s harder for them than me, much harder for a self-conscious 12  year old to join in when crippled by fear of what peers might think of them rapping with their dorky French teacher.

More voices joined in. Hands tapped desks. The noise level rose.

Looking around the room again I saw laughter, smiling and relaxed students. The girls were at ease before the boys, who took longer to get caught up in the wave of sound, looking at their shoes, they mumbled before finally giving in and allowing themselves to be swamped, and suddenly, for one moment, we rapped as one.

Later that day my year 8s were introduced to the rap battle as a way of learning verbs. Unlike the year 7s we were not simply using the rap someone else had created, we were going to create our own rap to learn the parts of the irregular verb faire. Once again, I began by showing students the avoir rap, my voice warbling, my hands tapping to show them the concept. I told them we were going to create a rap and before I could say it, they chimed in with ‘And we can have a rap battle!’. I then told them we’d also be battling with students from another school, causing more cries of ‘It’s a cross school battle!’

I got them to work in small groups to come up with their own ideas for faire and in this room there was a difference between the girls and boys, but this time the roles were reversed. The boys were excited and enthusiastic about the rap, while the girls were more hesitant, using the avoir scaffold as their model and having difficulty in moving beyond that. The boys meanwhile, chatted enthusiastically about possible lines and rhymes. I have two students who joined the class this year, entering French at Year 8 without the Year 7 learning behind them, one of them has been quiet, seemingly reluctant to participate in activities where his lack of knowledge might be on display. On Monday a broad smile was on his face and he asked if he could use music from his USB as the backing track to his emerging rap. Ideas were shared and mix together. We decided to revisit our ideas next week and the students filtered out of the classroom and on their way.

On Tuesday Year 7s filed into class and their first words were the words from the rap. ‘We can’t get it out our head Madame!’ They laughed, they moved their arms and they began to rap without thinking of what others in the classroom might think.

This week we have begun to learn the way we might remember verbs and how to conjugate them, and we have begun to join our voices, ideas and experiences together. I’m hoping that we have embarked on more than just our rap battle.

Ugly Betty wasn’t like this…

For the last 6 months I’ve been an editorial intern on the board of an international peer-reviewed journal. When I first applied and was accepted as an intern I made lots of jokes to friends and colleagues about being the ‘Ugly Betty of academia’, going into my internship to learn the ropes of the peer review process from the inside.

Fortunately it hasn’t been anything like the tv show of Ugly Betty: no psychodramas, no power mad editors at the helm, no instructions for me to run around doing menial tasks removed from the actual work of the editors. Instead, being an editorial intern has been a time for learning where I have grown to understand more about writing, reading and the process of reviewing.

In this internship model, I worked as part of the editorial team, not standing on the sidelines watching what they did, but actively taking part in their work, reading papers upon arrival at the journal, participating in fortnightly teleconferences with the members of the editorial board and watching papers move through the process to final publication.

Before I commenced, I’d worked as assistant editor on a teacher professional journal but only had experience of the peer-review process as a fledgling academic. I wondered what the editors of peer-reviewed journals were like and what they talked about. Did they sharpen their knives, ready to wield them as they looked at papers submitted by nameless, hapless academics hoping to get their work out to a scholarly community? Were they to be feared? Loathed? Admired? Despite knowing rationally that they were academics just like any others, due to the positions they held, I saw them as something else, something other, something different. As an ECR, my imposter monster reared its head prior to the first teleconference- would I have the skills to do this? In the first teleconference we had a handover with the previous interns, who spoke with confidence and assurance and the monster woke up and shuffled around in my head again – I hoped that I could sound like this at the end of my term.

From the first meeting I was able to see the process of the editorial team as they looked at new papers, papers in progress, special issues, the selection of reviewers and more. I was heartened to see the warmth and compassion with which editors talked about papers and authors. As authors many of us pour our hearts and minds into our papers, like tiny, fragile birds, we send them out ready to face the world on their own. It’s easy to imagine faceless editors and reviewers butchering our papery birds when we send them in, not caring that there is a person at the other end, eagerly, tentatively waiting for news of them. This butchering of papers was not my experience though, rather, the editors were thoughtful and full of care as they thought about ways to improve papers in process or papers that were not suited to our particular journal. It is this notion of careful reviewing that has been at the forefront of my mind as I have completed my internship.

Throughout my internship I have looked carefully over submitted papers –  reading for the way the authors had linked theoretical and conceptual frameworks with methodology and analysis and discussion. I looked for gaps in the story, for where the paper could be improved, and for what it was teaching us that was new and important and would drive our understandings forward. Uploading my reviews of papers for the first time I was conscious of my inexperience in this role and hoped that I got my reviews ‘right’. As the months passed I grew to understand there is no ‘right’, there is just a careful, critical reading of papers. Sometimes I find a paper that really sparks my interest, but in the current form it doesn’t have the broad ranging appeal needed to make it into the journal, or it requires more work to get it to a point where the message is clear for those reading it. In those instances I recommend sending the paper bird back to where it came from until it is strong enough to fly on its own.

Over the last six months as an intern I’ve read all sorts of papers, by all sorts of authors. I have been immersed in a sea of ideas, concepts, frameworks, designs, methodologies, outcomes, implications, findings and discussions. I find myself becoming a more perceptive and critical reader, looking for the connections between the ideas and having a better understanding of the ways to structure a paper that allow this to take place. I think my own writing has become sharper in the time that I have worked as an intern. I think more about my audience when I am constructing a paper, imagining them reading it with a careful, critical eye and I am conscious of trying to fill in any gaps that emerge. I read and write for the ways theory and literature are intertwined with data, analysis and discussion. I return again, and again, and again to the ‘so what?’ question.

I hold paper birds in my hand and make a judgment about their ability to survive. I don’t underestimate the responsibility I have as an intern, I make sure I am fully present as a reader when I read, not allowing my attention to be captured by other things. This is what I owe to people who send their in work and so I take care in reading their words. I’ve watched papers go out to reviewers, returning with lists of things to be attended to and I’ve watched them disappear back to authors, only to return in time when they are stronger, smarter, sharper and slicker. In my mind’s eye I see this as something out of Harry Potter, with owls bringing papers to and fro. I picture people I will never meet hunkered down in offices, smiling when they receive an acceptance and shaking their heads softly and sadly when they receive a rejection.

Our fortnightly teleconferences are times for me to learn about the way the editors think and approach their work and I’m always impressed by the astute way they look at papers, their ability to think of the reviewer who might be a good match for a paper and the scope of their knowledge of the field. Sometimes the line is crackly and their voices seem distant, while at other times our Skype conversations are littered with laughter and you can hear a child’s voice in the background as the internet connects countries, states and lives. Some days I say very little in our meetings, I soak in the conversation and I listen for the process, the thought patterns, the critiques, piecing things together and building a framework for myself. Other days I talk about a decision or a possible reviewer and I find my voice growing more confident as the months pass. I see change evolve as the journal moves to online publication of papers before they move into the paper format.

Soon another email will arrive with some papers for me to review and the next few papers will be among some of my last as an intern. My time draws to a close and I have only a few weeks left in this role. I have been lucky as an intern as I have see one of the first papers I review move to publication, completing a full cycle. I hear the editors talk of how happy they are for authors whose work is accepted in final form. Here, in this moment is the human face of a process that from a distance can seem clinical and disconnected. Here is where we set the papery birds free.

Writing to type

Yesterday I went to the second day of a women in leadership PD. On the first day, the room was tense, the air hung with an uncomfortable silence and only a few spoke up, while others (including me), sat silent, removed, disconnected and wondering how we might get to a place where we could learn.

 Yesterday was different. Within the first few minutes the air was charged with excitement, interest, possibility and engagement. Julie, our facilitator, began with Holland’s personality and vocational types, asking us to think about how we would ‘type’ ourselves, choosing from Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, Conventional.

I’ve always been cynical about these typologies, naturally suspicious of anything that pigeonholes me into a box and gives me rules that suggest how I should behave, or work, or be. When I read through Holland’s description of types, it seems my argument against typologies is the hallmark of the artistic and investigative types- cue me saying ‘hmmmm’ in a suspicious, reluctant tone.

You can read about the types here:

I read through the checklists for each of these and thought ‘Am I really this easy to ‘type’?! How could someone have got inside my head to know everything that bugs me and everything that I like?’

My suspicions of Holland and other personality frameworks slammed up against the list of traits that I have in spades. How could this be? (Well according to Holland that questioning is ‘typical’ of the investigator at work again).

Julie talked about each ‘type’, arguing that those who fall into the artistic type are storytellers and that they ‘feel their way through the world’. She argued that artistic types are most at risk of hearing ‘should do’ messages, for example, ‘you should get a real job, artists/ writers/ performers don’t make any money’. Julie argued that the challenge for all of us is ‘to do work that is an expression of ourselves’ and that for artistic types, their work is an expression of themselves more than it is for any other ‘type’.  The purpose of all of this was to get us thinking about where we might fit in relation to the personality types and the implications this might have for our own personal leadership styles.

Typically (oh I’m thinking about the etymology of that word more and more now- typicalis, typikos, model, type), I started thinking about this notion of personality type and of Julie’s argument that we have a true vocational path that aligns with our type. She went back to that point of ‘what you liked at 5’ should be what you are doing. I had a flash to a box of belongings from childhood that now lives in my study. In the box? A yellow folder with pictures on the cover and in shaky, childish handwriting ‘Sharon’s stories’. If I take this ‘what you liked at 5’ theory, it seems that I should be writing, reading and telling stories. Perhaps this is why I became an academic? If I follow Holland’s personality type I have a framework to argue why I want to tell stories of research, to write in a way that helps to understand the world and to connect people and place together.

So, I may in fact, be writing to type. Well, until the investigator takes over and finds a flaw in my own argument.

Let the rap battle commence!

I’ve written before about the white noise that can exist online and sometimes I search for ways to navigate this noise, to find a path through the bombardment of ideas, exchanges, tweets, posts, emails, links and connections. On Sunday though as I sat in my pjs doing school work and thinking about the week ahead I was reminded of the power of Twitter and of the ways that social media enables us to connect with other teachers, classrooms and students. In the interactions that occur online, enthusiasm and inspiration can come from all sorts of places and people, and in these interactions there exist possibilities for our learning and our thinking.

After searching the web for some interesting clips to help me teach the verb avoir with my Year 7 French class, I came across a youtube clip of a teacher rapping the verb with his class, you can check it out here:

I loved this concept and began trying the rap out at home, teaching Rohan (my poor husband who was trapped at his desk doing his own school work) the parts of avoir through rap. I emailed my LOTE colleagues at school eager to share the link with them and then posted it on Twitter.

Suddenly there was a familiar sound from my iPad – a notification to let me know someone had sent me a tweet. I checked and discovered it was Alix, a teacher from Byron Bay.  I’ve included the screen shot of our tweets (don’t worry dear reader, I emailed her today to check this is ok with her!).



A tweet is sent. An idea is shared. A connection is made.

The idea blooms and grows as it is shared and the connection moves from Twitter to email, as Alix and I exchange plans and ways for our students to share their learning with an audience outside their immediate school community. As we discuss the ways we will share our rap battles, we share ideas about how best to do this, we navigate our way and hopefully we will create a moment of learning that our students will remember and grow from.

I’m sure there is learning for us as teachers as we embark on this process and I look forward to sharing this as we go – so let the rap battle commence!

I am a voice shouting (maybe whispering) into the abyss.


This is what I thought yesterday. Some days are harder than others in this place. Some days I feel my difference even more keenly than I had imagined. Instead of returning to find that these people, ‘my people’ are just like me, I find myself at odds with them and with myself. I have changed, transmogrified, altered and in that altering I have become something different, something other.

Teachers, who once saw me as ‘one of them’, now see me as something different. I am with them, I am like them, but I don’t think they regard me as ‘one of them’ any more. Maybe it is me though and maybe I don’t see myself as one of them either. It is in the moments with my LOTE colleagues that I feel most like a teacher, in the ebb and flow of good natured conversation about teaching and learning and classrooms and kids. The conversation washes over and around me and I feel happy to be here with them.  With my PSTs and two teachers in a classroom working on a curriculum design project about sustainability, the air is full of possibility, of growth, of change and of innovation.

At other times in the school day I feel trapped, constrained by structure, bound by rules, and regarded with suspicion by some in leadership positions. Some still wonder why I am here. Some don’t understand what would drive an academic to return to school. Some regard it as some sort of failure on my behalf, one questioned if I ‘couldn’t hack it at uni’. Another questions ‘what do you teach them at uni?’ before going on to complain about what they see as the failings of the teacher education system. Another writes a policy that is at odds with all I know about education and I find my views and assumptions challenged in multiple ways. In arguing against it I set myself apart, I reinforce my difference. I am conscious of not wanting to take on the role of ‘university expert’ (for I am not), but I am torn by seeing things that are rushed and I cannot help but speak out. The cycle and circle continues to spiral and I stand in the centre, questioning the use of it.

This is good for me.  This is the hard, sharp edge of what it means to be a teacher and to be a researcher at the same time, to be thinking about our education systems and what we are seeking to achieve. I don’t know everything about teaching and learning, I know a tiny bit about a tiny field and sometimes that knowledge seems as small as a grain of sand. I try and use this knowledge though to test it against practice, to test it against the world, to compare, to contrast, to filter, and to understand. In my head are voices, voices captured in research papers from across the globe. I hear them speak, their words, their messages and I try and process them and think of what it means for me as a teacher, a learner and a researcher. Some days these bump up hard against my practice and against the ideas of teachers in schools. Some days this bumping feels like a collision that throws me off balance and out of kilter. The collisions make me think again about how best to go about change, about how to transform a system from within and how to work with people to do this.

Today I don’t have the answers, just the questions. Like the whispering wall in the Barossa Valley, I stand at one end asking questions and you can hear them clearly at the other end of the wall. One day I hope to whisper to you some answers.