Gilded Mason Jars

Gilded Mason Jars.

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Media Education: a Narrative approach

I’d like to return to Barry Duncan’s quote from my previous post.  To paraphrase it, Media education should be about media not through media and as I have said previously this is very hard for most English teachers who would prefer to stay in the realm of literature where they are most comfortable.  There are a few approaches that I am sure many people have tried such as looking at a genre e.g film or using the teachable moment and examining the media coverage of an event.  Both of these approaches have merit and at least can address the expectations in the Ontario curriculum. But with both approaches, there is the sense that this is an add-on and not connected to the more important business of literature.  Sometimes, even the students will query why we are looking at some media text.  There has to be another way to embed this so that it becomes a more natural part of the course.

At my former high school, we created 4 different units, one per grade level.  Some of these arose out of the course material and some did not.  In grade 9, the students study music video as a genre and initially this came about because the Baz Luhrman  Romeo and Juliet has many music video conventions.  Caroline McAteer who is both a Music and English teacher designed the unit based on a British model from BFI.  Students enjoy the process and it is easy to teach.  In grade 10, we do satire and The Simpsons or Family Guy and there is no reason for doing so although satire is a legitimate literary topic.  In grade 11, we have look at the characteristics and validity  of websites and sources like Wikipedia.  Students construct their own site based on either life of Pi or Othello.  In grade 12, we teach about the conventions of documentary film and students do an individual analysis of a documentary in the form of a presentation.  There is no connection in this unit to the literature but the process requires critical thinking and analysis.  Students have often told me that this was the best thing they did in an English class.  Although these units meet most of the Media expectations, I feel there is more that can be done to make them more effective.

I can think of two ways to make the process more holistic: one is to structure the Media study around general areas or topics that are already being studied in class.  I am not talking about a thematic approach; the problem with using a theme then exploring it through something like a novel, poetry and medium is that the theme becomes the only focus and not the medium itself.  I think teachers already do this; this is teaching through the media.  Getting kids to make connections is great but you want them to be able to do more than that.  As I have said in previous posts, Media study is not just about what, it is about how.  What I mean by a general area is something like narrative or persuasion.  Everything we teach in literature has to do with narrative in some form.  It is standard practice to teach short stories in grade 9 and to emphasize the Aristotelian model for conflict and plot.  But there are other narrative theories such as Togorov’s theory of Equilibrium or Levi-Strauss’s theory of Binary Opposites and these can be applied to both literature and the media.  Narrative in media education means how a media text has been structured  to create meaning for the audience.  This applies to anything-a print ad, a commercial, a TV show, a music video, a Facebook page.  It would be very simple, in grade 9, to work in narrative theory as part of your course e.g when you are looking at short stories, you could look at a print ad or a commercial or a YouTube video.  It is important to keep the key concepts of Media education in mind and to work some of them into the discussion.  Here is an example of how this could be done:  I would start my short story unit with a hand-out on narrative theory and apply it to a story we read.  Then, I would  show them a print ad or a commercial  and I would ask the students to explain what story was being told ( either implied or explicit) within the ad and how they arrived at those conclusions.  We would look in detail about how the parts of the ad created this story and then decide whether this was Equilibrium or Binary Opposites ( or both).  I would take the opportunity to introduce the Key Concepts at this point and then follow-up with a mini-assignment.  Throughout the grade 9 course, I would return to these ideas to make sure that the concepts had been absorbed.  This would lead eventually to the music video unit that I have already mentioned.  Everything that I have suggested here is relevant to both the lit and Media and fulfills the expectations within the curriculum.  Here is an example of an award-winning commercial that could be used to discuss narrative theory.  It is called  Embrace Life  and it illustrates both theories quite well; the visual symbolism and the camera work are all key elements in creating the story.

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Change and Media Education

Recently, I learned about Barry Duncan’s death who died in June 2012.  Barry Duncan was a hero to many because along with a few other people like John Pugente, he was the author of Media education in Ontario as well as being involved with the Association for Media Literacy.  In the late nineties, the Harris government wanted to take Media education out of the English curriculum because they felt it was covered in subjects like Com.Tech but Duncan and others lobbied to keep it in and argued for the necessity of examining Media’s influence and techniques as opposed to using or creating it.  In an article in Forum( 2009) Duncan stated that often “when media education is adopted it is wasted through misapplied pedagogy, teaching through media rather than about it. ” He was absolutely right about this and in spite of having been mandated for 13 years, it is still not being taught very well.

The most difficult aspect of teaching Media studies within a traditional English course is finding some way to incorporate it within the course so that there is a connection to what is being taught.  This is one of the reasons why most teachers do little or do something like comparing the film version of a text to the actual text as their media unit.  The Ontario curriculum states:  “This strand focuses on helping students develop the skills required to understand, create and critically interpret media texts…It explores the use and significance of particular conventions and techniques  in the media and and considers the roles of the viewer and producer in constructing meaning in media texts”.  I wonder how many teachers can honestly say that they are doing this in their English classes, regardless of level.  I am not pointing fingers because I know how difficult it is to do this and I also know the reasons why so many people resist this topic.

First, the reasons why people resist:

1. They have no background in the topic and the expectations are vague enough to allow a teacher to do what she wants and also vague enough to show no direction.

2.  There is not enough knowledge or acceptance of the term “text”.   Media education stresses the concept that all media are a type of text that have conventions and characteristics that can be analyzed.

3.  In spite of 13 years of new curriculum, many teachers have not really looked closely at the curriculum and still place most of their emphasis on literature.  The Independent Study unit from OSIS was eliminated but is still in place in many schools and is actually the Summative project even though the school board has encouraged teachers to address the Oral and Media strands in their Summatives because the exam focuses on the Reading and Writing strands.

What has to change

1.  The school board should recognize that the changes of 2007 curriculum have been only partially implemented and do something about it.  A Media curriculum designed by Curriculum services is needed to help teachers cope with the topic.

2.  A recognition that some of the traditional approaches to teaching literature cannot continue if  schools are going to include Media studies within English.  It’s mostly a matter of time; something has to change in order to create room.

The Positives

1.  Students enjoy examining Media and it is highly relevant to their lives.

2.  Media studies require a lot of critical thinking .

3.  It is possible to approach the topic so that it ties in more closely with literature without it being an add on but this requires planning and knowledge.

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My new hobby

Well, I have 4 more days to teach( actually to mark exams).  It’s hard to believe since I started in 1976.  I haven’t been full-time for all those years but I have taught something for most of them.  It has become a huge part of my psyche and my identity and I will ( do ) have trouble letting go.  I still have a few more media-based topics that I will write about in the future but they are not ready yet; so for now, I will unveil my new hobby: painting old furniture.

Up-cycling of old pieces has become popular and it is a shame to let solid, well-made pieces linger in basements and thrift shops while people continue to consume new products that are cheaply made and are harming the environment.  I have fallen in love with Annie Sloan chalk paint which is not only environmentally safe but which is the most wonderful stuff to work with.  You can paint over anything without having to strip it first.  The stripping is the part that most people want to avoid as well as the chemicals in primers etc.  This is a mahogany dresser that I have recently finished and put up for sale.  It belonged to my husband’s grandmother and is beautifully made but 70+years of wear and tear meant it was in need of a complete re-finishing or a paint job like I have given it.  The colour is called Provence blue, all the edges have been distressed and it has been protected with clear and dark waxes.IMG_0277IMG_0292022(1)

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A personal view of educational reform in the last 36 years

When I started teaching in 1976, Ontario was in the grips of the Hall-Dennis report.  This report had recommended progressive, liberal changes to a rigid, rote-dominated system.  The changes were supposed to create child-centred classrooms, encourage creativity and learning and de-emphasize grading and marks.  Open-concept schools were built, discovery learning and learning centres were set up in elementary classrooms and traditional teaching of writing and grammar was replaced with the mantra that students should be taught writing without these inhibitions.  It wasn’t long before many of these ideas were discarded and walls went back up within schools.  In theory, some ideas were admirable but in practice, there was at times, a feeling of chaos.

In 1984, OSIS created guidelines for the secondary curriculum.  For an English teacher, this meant that there were 5 areas emphasized for evaluation purposes:  group work, writing, tests, an independent study and a final exam.  The most remarkable idea that came out of OSIS, was that of the writing process and a writing folder.  Although this is standard practice today, the whole writing process idea was new and made a great deal of sense.  English teachers were also encouraged to mark holistically because the content was not separate from the writing style.

In the mid-nineties, Ontario introduced Transitions in grades 7-9, one of the recommendations of the Radwanski report.  The theory was that students were streamed too early in high school and that all students should receive the same program in those 3 grades so that they could make better choices in grade 10 onward.  Transitions was accompanied by some vague educational ideas about how to make the learning more relevant and teachers attended various PD workshops given by presenters who had to face a very hostile secondary audience.  Transitions was a massive failure because again it was more useful in theory than in practice and because no one really knew how it was supposed to be implemented.

In 1999-2000, the Harris government overhauled the secondary curriculum ( along with a lot of other things in education) and brought in the largest changes that I have experienced in my career.  The most dramatic change for an English teacher has been in the area of what is now called Assessment and Evaluation.  Holistic marking is seen as a negative because it is not transparent enough for the student; hence the use of rubrics to explain what is being evaluated.  The new curriculum also introduced 4 categories for evaluation: Knowledge, Thinking, Communication and Application as well as 4 strands that must be covered within the curriculum: Reading, Writing, Oral Communication and Media Study.  Any one who teaches English knows that the 4 categories are not discrete when we evaluate most assignments but originally my school board, the OCDSB, decided that all secondary teachers should use these in determining  marks.  It was a period of adjustment for most teachers and a great deal of time was put into creating rubrics for this purpose.  However, 10 years later there has been an about-face and the categories are not considered useful any more.  Teachers are now being told to evaluate according to the expectations in the 4 strands.  As well, we are supposed to be using levels, something that was brought in 1999 but never completely implemented, and only provide a number grade on the report card.  This mark is arrived at by eye-balling the levels and deciding what the approximate average is.  Personally, I have no problem with levels but I do take issue with converting these to a number.  This is impractical and open to all kinds of criticism by both students and parents.  We don’t need 2 systems; if we are going to use levels, then put that on the report card.  The universities will cope with it somehow ( most of them use letter grades themselves) and parents will get used to it eventually.  And as my brief history has shown, ultimately things that work only in theory don’t last.  Into that category of the impractical, can be placed the misguided policy of not allowing late marks on assignments, not allowing zeroes for missed assignments and creating alternative assignments for certain students.  I know the explanation is that this is evaluating behaviour not product and that the punishment for not doing something should be that you have to do it.  The theorist behind this brilliant idea is either ignoring human behaviour or has a rose-coloured view of the teenage brain.  This theory and the present dual method of evaluation will both disappear like all the other ineffective practices of the last 40 years.

I am all in favour of teachers constantly learning and evaluating their own teaching but the reality is that since 1999, we have been hit with an explosion of theories and changes to our system.  Who can even remember what we were supposed to be embracing for the past 10-plus years ?  Was it multiple intelligences, balanced literacy,differentiated instruction, critical thinking, character education, multi-culturalism, assessment for learning, as learning or of learning ( note the change in the word assessment since 1999)and of course, all the various technology that is supposed to make learning so much easier.  How many marks programs have come and gone in that time?  Under the new system of levels, you won’t even need one. I can almost sympathize with those colleagues of mine who have paid lip service to the changes because they are right-most of the ideas have produced little change.  I may sound bitter but I am not.  I have enjoyed teaching in spite of all this. However, the powers that be have no idea what goes on in the average classroom and no idea how to implement successful reform.

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The reading dilemma

Are the majority of secondary students reading their English texts?  This is a question that educators have been asking for a few years.  These 2 short videos suggest that this is a real problem here and here.  In the first video, students talk about all the books they didn’t read and how they managed to still write essays, participate in class discussion etc.  In the second one, Kelly Gallagher gives a brief summary of his book Readicide.  His premise is that certain practices within schools are killing a love of books. A quick survey of this topic on Google will produce blogs  that criticize the books that are read in school.  One blogger that I read said that she felt betrayed entering high school.  She loved what she had been had been reading in elementary school and then had to start reading classics when she entered high school.  A newspaper report links academic success with giving students choice( here).  The ACT report of 2012 shows that 33% of graduating students in the US did not meet the English standards for college readiness.  How does this apply to Canadian students since most of the information is US based?

The literacy movement of the last 10 years has put an emphasis on reading strategies and the notion of balanced literacy.  Although these certainly help the struggling readers, the majority of students that I have taught fit the category of aliterate; they can read but they choose not to if they can get away with it.  The problem with aliteracy is that one only grows as a reader in terms of vocabulary and comprehension with practice.  A student has to develop a certain amount of perseverance in reading as she/he moves towards post-secondary education or she/he won’t be able to handle more difficult text. Another issue that has come to light through the literacy agenda is that reading narrative text well does not mean that you will necessarily be able to read other types such as what is found in textbooks.  This also applies to writing; my own experience has shown me that students don’t readily take the skills they used in writing a literay essay and apply it to science writing or social science.  Hence, the thrust towards non-fiction texts that is showing up in curriculum

My own evidence for this topic is mostly anecdotal.  I have had many students tell me in later years that they never finished a certain book.  I know that many of my students look like they are reading the book in class but then go home and read summaries on the internet.  This shows up regularly when they have similar answers or pieces of writing etc. I know that my own son never read any of the novels he studied in high school and he still managed to pull off a mark in the 80’s in OAC English.  He read only comic books in high school but still went on to finish university and is now an avid reader but most of it is non-fiction.  I would say he is like a lot of the boys I teach especially the ones who are reading Manga or Calvin and Hobbs.  How is it possible to do well without reading the books?  You pay attention in class and write down everything, you read parts of the book , you use Sparks notes.  It’s quite possible to write a credible essay especially if you have paid close attention to the teacher.  The reality is that we have no fool-proof method of really being sure if they have finished a book.  We could read the whole book out-loud together which is what we more or less do with Shakespeare but then they still may not be reading but listening which is a different process.

There are some solutions but none of them will completely deal with the problem.  There are too many factors working against us-the internet, the emphasis on visual culture and instant gratification, the no-shame, no-consequence attitude toward cheating and the lack of money that is allocated for books.  Parents might be shocked at how little we get to spend on books-it sends a message that they are not a priority any more.  The solutions that I can suggest will only partially alleviate the situation and they  spring from my philosophy about teaching English.  I don’t actually feel that I would have short-changed a student if he/she never got to read Shakespeare or a novel like Lord of the Flies if what I had read with him had been meaningful and made the student want to read something else.  I’m not saying don’t teach these but I am saying that a student can grow academically through hundreds of other texts as well.  The advantage to using different and newer texts would be that there isn’t as much material to cheat with.  I also believe that the most important thing a student does in English class is use his/her own reading, thinking and writing skills.  Yes, it is wonderful to discuss ideas, to look at language, to analyze but ultimately, it’s not what I can explain about Hamlet  but what he/she has actually thought about or explored.  This leads to the idea that we need a greater variety of texts and they should be more relevant to today’s student. Of course, we’re back to money again.  And finally, although we want our students to be good essay writers, we need to use other tasks that are not as easy to cheat with.  This is challenging for the teacher but a reality.  If you give them a topic about appearance vs reality in Macbeth, you are inviting plagiarism and may get it from even the best students.

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Things that I have loved teaching

English Companion Ning has an invitation on their website for teachers to write about poems that have inspired them or their teaching.  While I don’t have one that has inspired me in teaching, I do have a few pieces of lit that I have loved teaching or that my students have really enjoyed.  I have to say that what I have loved is not always the same as what the students enjoy; most teenagers don’t like stories  that are bittersweet or ambiguous, two things that I gravitate towards.  Maybe it’s an age thing but teenagers are still a bit like children in that they prefer to believe that the world is good and that everything will turn out for the best.  You will notice that I am not including any of the standard texts that I teach because although I greatly appreciate Hamlet, for example, I have taught it so many times that a lot of the joy has worn off.

My list in no particular order:

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.  I actually only got to teach this novel twice and it was to a grade 12 Literature class.  I had excellent students who were skilled readers and our exploration of this novel was great fun.  The novel is complex in its structure with layers of symbolism and the conclusion is  open-ended for the reader.  I haven’t had the experience very often in teaching English where everyone wants to be there and actually cares about what you are discussing.  I loved it.

The Tempest.  Again in a lit class.  It’s not a play for younger students; you have to have a certain level of sophistication to appreciate the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation.  When it is paired with the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, it has a powerful message.

The short story “Going to the Moon”by Nino Ricci.  It’s beautifully written, sad and universal in its theme of being an outsider yet also about the immigrant experience.

“The Lottery”by Shirley Jackson.  I’m sure most teachers have enjoyed teaching this one.   There is no real answer as to why the events are happening in the story but it is fun to speculate.

Any short story by Alistair Macleod.  I have to admit this is the bittersweet side that the students don’t like but I love his painful, lyrical stories.

“By the Waters of Babylon”by Stephen Vincent Benet. This is an old story ( 1937) but I am a sucker for any of those futuristic/ what has happened  stories and this is a classic.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton and We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier.  We used to call these the magic books.  They are YA fiction, the reading level is around grade 7 but our less than academic students loved them.  They are both well-written in different styles and they both have the capacity to move or engage students.

“Fern Hill”by Dylan Thomas.  Probably my favourite poem-fits the bittersweet category.  I love the gorgeous language of the poem.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”by John Donne-my second favourite poem and as different as chalk and cheese from Dylan Thomas.  There’s something about the metaphysical conceits that appeal to me.  I have also had success teaching this one.

Anything written by Alden Nowlan

Did I miss anything?”by Tom Wayman.  A classic teacher’s poem.

Ïn just”by e.e.cummings.  It’s my 1960’s education but I love cummings and this is one of the easier ones to teach.

Famous“by Naomi Shihab Nye. I’ve mentioned this one in an earlier post-it has a great message for kids.

“Dream Variations”by Langston Hughes.  A simple, beautiful poem that says a lot.

If you aren’t familiar with it, I would like to recommend Nancie Atwell’s Naming the World: A year of poems and lessons.  It’s a great resource for accessible poems and I have used it frequently.

If this listing of favourite things appeals to you, then by all means, please share what you have loved teaching with everyone who reads this blog.

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Poetry Recitation

I have never been a fan of memory work.  I had to do a great deal of it when I was in school and on a scale of thinking abilities it ranks quite low.  I also feel that many of my students over the years have relied too heavily on their memory skills and too lightly on their abilities to formulate their own ideas.  Having said this, I have to admit to really liking Poetry Out Loud or its Canadian version Poetry In Voice.  These are national competitions where students recite poetry.  They both have excellent websites with collections of poems, videos of performances and podcasts on how to recite poetry meaningfully.

As part of my grade 10 poetry unit, my students have to recite a poem of about 25 lines to the class.  I turn it into a mini-competition and award prizes for the top 3 performances.  The students are not allowed to use notes or cue cards although they may have someone prompt them.  They have spent time learning all the vocabulary in the poem and deciphering its meaning; we have listened to performances and podcasts and discussed how to stress a word or use effective pauses.   Almost everyone in the class managed to memorize their poem and perform it without stumbling too much.  Many of the students showed great poise and an ability to convey the meaning of the words.  The value in something like this is that it takes most students out of their comfort zones; the performance itself is really only about a minute long but it challenges them to deal with nervousness and to get something letter perfect.  I would never insist that a student perform if they had extreme stage fright but surprisingly no one in my class of 27 refused to do it.  Last year, the top performer was a boy who has a speech impediment and a slight stammer.  Not only was he able to speak without stammering but he really performed his poem with emotion.  This year I have 2 exchange students from South America; although they speak with heavy accents that didn’t stop them from reciting their poems well.

Oral communication is one of the four strands in the Ontario English curriculum and it is something that we probably don’t assess enough.  This activity does cover quite a few of the expectations.  When I combine this with the writing and reading aspects of the poetry unit, I have covered many expectations in 3 strands.  I can even throw in a bit of media study as well.  Here is a short film/visual poem called Mankind is no island.  My students were asked to explain how this could be called a poem and they had to figure out what the visuals in the film would correspond to in a regular poem.  The students were also able to pick up on the use of different fonts in the signs and how they often corresponded to the idea that was being expressed.  Throughout the poetry unit, our discussion often came back to the idea that poetry is a vehicle for expressing emotion and ideas.  They were able to see this in this short film as well.

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Using short films in the classroom part 2

In one of my previous posts, I wrote about how I use short film and how useful I found the site Short of the Week.  I teach a documentary unit in grade 12 and having access to short docs on the internet has been very helpful in analyzing technique.  Here are a few that I discovered through Short of the Week and its very insightful comments:

Avatar Days ( here ) is about 4 World of Warcraft players in Dublin who see themselves in terms of their avatars in the game.  The film is only 4 minutes long but it is a gem for discussion.  There is the mood or tone that is set by the music. colour, lighting and choice of visuals. The film uses a visual hook ( the animation) to keep the viewer interested in- spite of the somber mood.  Many conventions of documentary are employed such as voice-over, realism etc.  The director is showing a bias and at the same time is making a statement about everyday life.  My students and I had a really good discussion about this film.

Amar is an observational documentary.  There is no music or dialogue; the only sound is the background noise.  The viewer is left to draw their own conclusions without much bias from the director although he does appear to be making a type of statement.  We had an interesting talk about this one because some students bring their own bias to the film and draw certain conclusions that are not necessarily there.  A discussion of the structure of the film and the shots that the director chose to show us helps to reveal the subtle bias that the director has.

Dinosaur Curtains ( here) is a character study.  It has some documentary conventions e.g. talking heads and a shaky hand-held camera but it is mostly about the 2 people whose story this is.  We looked at how the film established character and why it was the focus of the film.  It could also be used to examine theme e.g. materialism, small-town life etc.

Kwa Heri Mandima is the most experimental film in this group.  It is told from the second person and uses one photo as the focus for the film.  There is a lot to talk about in this film: the construction of the narrative arc, the use of ” you”, the video at the end, the themes, lack of music etc.  It is a sad film and well worth watching.

When I showed the films, I gave the students questions to focus on but if they were more experienced with docs, you could ask them to construct the questions.  You could also ask them to write an analysis of one of the films.  As I have stated in my previous posts, analyzing film is similar to any literary analysis but you have to be familiar with the conventions before you can do so.  This is challenging work for many students because they are used to being just watchers.  Because you are asking them to speculate and find evidence, they are using higher order thinking skills.

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Computers as saviours of education

The ‘sexiness”of computers. I have recently heard of a principal who feels that traditional art classes should be replaced with some type of computer art class. I am not a Luddite; I see a time when textbooks will be online because it’s cheaper and saves paper but anyone who has been in a classroom for awhile knows that education is a lot more than transmission of information and that kids don’t work or tune out for a variety of reasons.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

“Zombie ideas” are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die,” according to Paul Krugman. The astonishment that Krugman expresses about the return of erroneous ideas again and again that simply won’t die regardless of how much  evidence there is to destroy them springs from Krugman’s belief in policymakers being rational beings. Policymakers consider research studies and rational argument, logic, and evidence to inform, make, and determine policy. As anyone in political life knows, however, such analyses do not destroy zombie brains with laser-like rationality. Erroneous ideas trump rationality and account for the zombie phenomenon again and again.

The repeated return of mistaken ideas captures well my experiences with technologies in schools and what I have researched over decades. The zombie idea that is rapidly being converted into policies that in the past have been “refuted with evidence but refuse to…

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