Monthly Archives: September 2013

Flickering hope into a flame

I’m standing in a classroom where students work industriously on the simple present tense. In this moment time appears to freeze and I’m both present and distant, caught in a wave of emotions, in a montage of media images, in a swirling discourse of policy and rhetoric.
I sit down at a table with two girls and begin chatting. ‘How long have you been here?’ I ask. ‘I was on a boat for 83 days,’ one begins, going on to tell me that she has been in the camps for 4 months, for the girl next to her it’s three months, for the boy behind me it’s seven months, but as he says ‘we might get our visa in the next 2-3 days so we can be transferred. If not, we’ll wait 2-3 days more.’ He is quietly spoken and I wonder how long he has been holding out hope that the 2-3 day period will occur. Is this something he’s been talking about for 7 months now? In this room, right now, is the very human face of the asylum seeker debate that is constructed in vastly different ways in our media and in government policy. These are children, children on the cusp of adolescence, young people who are caught between worlds and as I look and talk with them I can feel my heart beginning to splinter into small pieces.
Teenagers, adolescents, young people, whichever term you use, they are people who have seen and experienced things many of us can barely imagine, and now they sit before me in a room learning the present simple tense of English and sharing their stories.The girls tell me that they catch a bus each morning and afternoon, one and a half hours each way to get to this school where they study in an asylum seeker unit housed within a mainstream Northern Territory middle school. There are 150 young people enrolled, who come to school each day, study hard and then return to the camps each night.
They return to the camps each night.
They return to the camps each night.
It is this that begins to bring me undone when I think about what I am seeing and hearing. One tells another teacher here that the camps are good, so much better than home and this leaves us all shaking our heads in the staff room later on. It is this expression though – ‘the camps’. There is so much historical knowledge and context embedded in this phrase, I think of ‘the camps’ that have gone before us in history, and I begin to wonder what kinds of horrors we might be fostering, ignoring, or implicitly supporting by our lack of action, by our willingness to stand by and do nothing about the humanitarian needs in our world.
The teachers focus on English skills, looking at the conjunction of verbs and there is much explicit language teaching and scaffolding of grammatical concepts. One boy has a picture of a body where he has marked in numbers that correspond to all the English words for the parts of the body and next to that the words of his mother tongue. He pronounces them for me, and I roll the words on my tongue and in my brain. The experience hangs over me. As I lay in bed now typing I’m scratching out words and thinking of his patient face as I tried to wind my tongue around syllables and structures so different to my own.
We have come here to Darwin for a conference and taken the chance to visit a school and what we have seen today has caused us all to stop and reflect on what it is we are doing as educators and what it is we are doing as people. The school has 350 students, with 40% of those being Indigenous students. Add to that 150 asylum seekers and you begin to see the complexity of the work that takes place here. The principal is an inspiring woman, new to the job and one month in, she has a passion and dedication to bringing about change, a change focused on improving the lives of young people and enabling them to celebrate success. There is much talk about curriculum frameworks, about government policy, about funding, and most importantly about students and what the school is doing for them. Days like today become a stark reminder of how privileged most of us are, and of how easy it is to fall into an insular life where we complain about the most minor of issues and worries.
Talking to students from the camps, I feel torn by multiple emotions. Part of me feels like a voyeur, peering through a lens at a life so vastly foreign to mine. I feel like an intruder, and one so naive as to the experiences these young people carry on their souls. Another part of me longs to hear more of their story, to record it, share it and make us all reflect for a moment on what it is that we expect from the world in which we live. So many Australians might easily say that these people are not from ‘our’ country and hence, are not our responsibility, and yet in a global world we are not able to delineate so easily or to absolve ourselves from responsibilities to our fellow humans. Perhaps it is the fact that under both Labor and Liberal governments we gave been progressively told that no children will live in detention, and yet, here we are looking at young people living in detention camps and coming out by bus each day to see a glimpse of a life that is tantalisingly close and yet still so far away.
For the Indigenous young people at this school, life is just as complex and the challenges just as great. The Clontarf academy operates in the school, hooking young boys in and providing them with a safe space to be while at school. A version for the girls, Gems, is in operation and is beginning to see results and positive outcomes. The spectre of funding cuts looms ever present as staff talk about finding ways to show evidence that these programs are making a difference – something that is needed in a system ruled by accountability, outcomes and benchmarks. Part of me wonders when we got it so horribly wrong, when did we drift so far from the shores of being able to listen to what is working for kids and go to this system focused on bureaucratic needs and statistics?
All three of us have been touched by the experience of today, and Rohan, Nam & I have different life histories that mean we all respond and process what we have seen in different ways. Despite the differences of our backgrounds, each of us comes together looking for ways that we can take what we have seen and come up with ways to expand our teaching and learning community beyond the walls of the school we work in. I wonder how many other people have toured this school and how they might have been changed by what they saw here. For each of us, the challenge is to walk away from this experience and towards something that enables us to connect our teachers, our classrooms and our students so that our worlds and lives might intersect. How can we stoke the flickers of hope into a flame?


Copying to write

Last week I began an experiment with my year 7 and 8 French students that was sparked by reading Pat Goodson’s book and her strategy of copying as a way of seeing the way that ideas are put together. I went into class with the idea of using the copying strategy in conjunction with some dictation in French as a springboard for developing writing skills in French.  

We began the class by brainstorming key words for the topic that we had covered the previous week. I then began dictating a short paragraph in French where I encouraged the students to write down the passage as best they could, using phonetic spelling for words they weren’t familiar with. Once they had done this, I put the passage on the board and students copied it directly into their books. The next step was for students to underline vocabulary that was unfamiliar to them. It was at this point I began asking questions about the vocabulary in the passage including; 

‘What cognates can you identify?’, ‘How does knowledge of these cognates help you identify the meaning of the passage?’, ‘What do you notice about the structure of the sentences?,’ ‘Where are the nouns and adjectives in the sentence? Is this different to English?’

After talking about the questions and listing new words on the board, along with possible translations, we spent some time translating the passage together into English as a group. As we went about the translation we were talking about the possible strategies and approaches students used as they looked at each sentence to translate and I used the key question ‘What strategies are you using to help you understand the meaning of this sentence?’ This was an important step of the process as students identified strategies such as using their prior knowledge, identifying cognates, using their dictionary, and understanding words in context. One of the key things we discussed was the fact that we can understand the meaning of the sentence without having to translate every individual word, something that students sometimes find difficult to accept as they become focused on needing to translate every individual word correctly. We also talked about the fact that sometimes words cannot be directly translated and therefore creating meaning by reading the whole sentence for context is important.

After we had translated the vocabulary and the passage, I then invited students to write their own passage, using the vocabulary and the sentence structure of the passage as a starting point for their own writing. Students were able to complete a written passage, asking questions about the kinds of words they could build into their writing and also making connections about the word order of sentences as well.

Earlier this week I handed out an end-of-term evaluation for students to complete, something I do at the end of each term. I ask students to write about their work throughout the term, to reflect on the strategies they have used and the strategies they plan on using in the future. I also invite them to write about the teaching and learning activities that have assisted them in learning French over the term and ask them to write about things they think might help them further, or things they might like to do more frequently. There was some good feedback from students in the evaluations about the copying to write strategy, with a number of students writing about how the activity had helped them learn and develop their writing skills. Students responded that they liked being able to identify what they knew and how they could also identify new words by using strategies or looking for cognates, while another student said she liked to lean by doing the process of attempting something independently, working through a model with me and the class and then working independently again. Other students identified that the dictation, copying and unpacking of the structure helped them to see the way they could structure their own sentences and lots of students requested that this is an activity we do more frequently.

The concept of both dictation and of writing out passages is nothing new, however, for me the key elements that made this copying to write activity successful was the explicit focus on the strategies that students might use at each stage and the questioning and discussion about the structure of sentences and of the elements they might build into their own writing. The feedforward for me is to build these kind of explicit learning opportunities into the classes that I have for my 7s and 8s next term, and building more complexity into both the dictation and the writing elements.

Recapturing my writing mojo, or how I got my groove back



I’ve never seen the film, ‘How Stella got her groove back’ but the name of it sounded apt for today’s post. Today I took to bed, like a heroine from a novel set in the1800s as I needed some time to recline in bed with a cup of tea and some books. At the end of a couple of long weeks, I felt like I couldn’t still my mind and was suffering from a type of hypervigilance where I had to be alert for every possible eventuation.

The internet exacerbates this hypervigilance, and FOMO (fear of missing out) pervades my working life. Twitter, as a professional learning network, is a pot of gold at the end of an electronic rainbow for academics and teachers. There is always someone sharing something – links to research, examples of practice, viewpoints, ideas, arguments – they arrive from all four corners of the globe every minute of every day. My brain becomes like a still from a Harry Potter film, owls delivering news that piles up, and up, and up, until every corner and recess is crammed with information. Sorting through the information, categorizing it, filing it in the right cabinet where I might retrieve it later on when I need it, is exhausting. Sometimes, like today, I need to re-set the system, shut down the flow of information and allow the system to back up and reboot.

This rebooting is necessary for recapturing my writing mojo. I’ve been snatching minutes each day to scrawl down ideas that then don’t get turned into entire arguments or pieces. They remain, inked across notebooks, typed into digital notes and even worse, stuffed in the dark, quiet corners of my brain, waiting to be released. My diary is bulging with pieces of paper pasted in, reflections, critiques and comments kept for later analysis and transformation.

So today, I wanted to refocus, to reclaim a space and a time for writing. An encounter with a family friend last night reminded me that to write, is for me, as important as breathing. Commenting on my personal blog entries, she said, ‘You need to write’.  How correct she is. I do need to write, whether personal blogs, this blog or academic writing. I need to write every day and on the days when classes, meetings, and life stop me from doing this I begin to feel jangled and disconnected.

I climbed into bed with Pat Goodson and with Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler and began to read while sipping steaming black tea and listening to my study day playlist on my iPad. Soon enough, I found myself slipping back into my writer’s mind and thinking of what writing piece I would begin with. Reading Thomson and Kamler I decided that it was time to rewrite a paper in three moves.

Clearly I’m not planning on rewriting the entire paper in in three moves as if it only took three moves my rewriting processes would be a lot less painful and a lot faster. But as I flicked through Thomson and Kamler’s ‘Writing for peer reviewed journals’ and reading their ideas about the creation of the tiny text (the abstract), I started to think of how my rewriting might take shape. It was when I got to the idea of a tiny text in three moves that I begin to sit up, take notice and start scrawling ideas on my iPad. The three move abstract is, according to Thomson and Kamler, appropriate for papers with a more theoretical bent, and I’m thinking of the paper M and I had rejected a couple of months back. The three moves tiny text might give the paper the structure and focus I thought it was lacking. By using the concepts of locate, problematise and argue, we can focus our ideas on the shortcomings we see, the problem of the elephant in the room. Thomson and Kamler argue that the problematise stage of the tiny text offers the opportunity to give ‘a bird’s eye view of a trend in an entire field’ (p. 65), with the argue section providing the scope to outline the practical implications. Re-reading the three moves section again, I’m revisiting the ideas from our paper, sketching and stitching them in a visual mind map before I sit down to do it on hard copy. There have been some articles in the news lately that have made me think our rejected paper matters, and now with the three moves tiny text squirreled away in my brain, I may have a beginning point to give the paper the structure and shape it needs to fly.

Meanwhile back at the farm….

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of a whole different idea thanks to Goodson. In her book, I read the activity about copying a text with interest. She traces the idea that writing might be developed through imitation, and that through carefully copying passages of the writers we admire and by going through the process of copying word for word what the writer produced, we can begin to learn about the way ideas and words are structured to convey a message. Goodson is not recommending blind, thoughtless copying as a way to improve writing quality, highlighting the reflective questions that need to accompany this type of copying work. Through examination of these questions, we might come to see the way words, ideas and meaning come together in successful pieces of writing. I’m both intrigued and unsure about this concept. I’m inking it in my calendar as a writing activity for later in the week and I’m going to experiment with it, to see what thoughts I have after actually undertaking the process.

One of the things that happens to me as I read and think about writing or anything to do with work, is that I cannot divorce my teaching from my writing and from my own personal learning. So as I read about copying, part of me is most interested in this as a teaching strategy. I’m starting to think less about my academic writing and more about my teaching, particularly my teaching at school. Goodson mentions ESL writers in her discussion of copying and that gets me thinking about the ways in which we learn another language. I’m frequently encouraging my French students in Year 7 and 8 to read in French, be it in magazines or short story books I picked up overseas. I get them to write, giving them a scaffold for how to construct pieces, but now I’m wondering what direct copying might do as a strategy to improve their language learning. I think that one of the ways it might help them is by getting them more familiar with the structure of sentences in French, in particular, the organization of subject, verb, object and adjectives, something students can often find confusing. It might also help them develop a bank of commonly used expressions in speaking and writing, something that we have all been focusing on. I’m looking at my planner and building in some brief copying practice as a trial over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to think about how best to gauge the impact of this as a learning and teaching strategy, and so will put together some pre and post reflective questions that students can fill out, along with a modified version of the questions Goodson recommends that are tailored to the types of things I want the students to be identifying and gaining from this kind of copying practice.

Now that the ideas have been captured and a plan has been made to experiment with it, I can move back to reading and writing and planning for the next steps in my academic writing. The tea has all been drunk, the jangling has ceased and I feel calmer as I take my plans and re-directions and head back to my writing den.


You are a glitch in the machine.



The machine glides smoothly and noiselessly most of the time. The pieces shift and move together, outputs occur and the makers of the machine are assured that they are producing something of worth.


Every so often a glitch in the machine appears. A piece of the machinery falters. It wears out, it moves to a new part of the factory, or it no longer works effectively and needs to be replaced. New pieces slide in, the machine pauses briefly and then begins humming again. Other glitches are more problematic, they cause the machine to clunk and they make too much noise, drawing too much attention to the way the machine runs and to flaws in the design. These pieces require special attention, sometimes the machine makers try to grease the pieces, to quiet the clunking and get the piece to slip back into unison with the machine. Other pieces are more stubborn, they will not be stilled, they want to work and whir out of step with the rest of the machine. This cannot be allowed. An alert message thrums, the message says ‘You are a glitch in the machine’.


You are a glitch in the machine.

The machine makers will attempt to still you, to silence you, and then, if this does not work, you will be removed from the machine.


You are a glitch in the machine.

 You make life difficult. You call into question things that others want you to accept blindly. You are problematic as you do not fit the pre-designed cutout pattern of a machine piece. They will try to blunt your edges, to reshape you. Yet, you will not be moulded.


You are a glitch in the machine.

The machine makers will tell you it is your fault. There is something wrong with you if you don’t fit the machine. The machine is not broken, it is not poorly designed, look how long it has been running and all it has created. It is you.


You are a glitch in the machine.

If permitted to remain, you may make the whole machine creak and sway. Your running out of time may cause other pieces of the machine to splinter and crack. This is dangerous. You are dangerous.


You are a glitch in the machine.

They are right to be worried about you. You want to make the machine anew, rebuild it from the ground up. The machine makers reach in and you hold tight, your bolt is threaded and they are not going to easily shift you, not without having to see what it was that first held you in place.


Will this be enough?