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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5 great websites for Media Education

In some of my previous posts, I have mentioned some websites that are helpful for information and for generating ideas about how to teach Media.  MediaSmarts is a must for anyone who is just getting started; they have extensive resources and are very up-to-date.  The following are sites that I have come across that offer some exciting ideas:

1.  The Lamp.  This site is dedicated to making students more thoughtful consumers of Media and challenges the status quo. Its goal is to reform and improve Media.  It offers some great interactive ideas.

2.  TeachThought.  For techies, it’s all about new Media and technology in the classroom.  It has very interesting articles about 21st century literacies and about critical thinking.

3.  The Media Spot.  Its resource page is excellent.  The goal of this organization is to promote the integration of Media within the curriculum.

4.  Mediaed.  This is a UK site that teaches how to use filmmaking within the classroom.

5.  Namle.  The National Association for Media Literacy Education.  This site has resources, research and networking.

Teaching Media can be overwhelming unless you have a firm grasp of the key concepts.  These concepts are worded differently depending on which province, country or website you consult but they are all essentially the same.  The following are from the MediaSmarts website and are an excellent summary of the ideas: Key concepts.

Mr. Media is a media teacher in New Brunswick whose blog reflects the reality of teaching Media Studies in high school.  In one of his blogs on teaching camera angles to students he posted the following video from YouTube which is both hilarious and very instructive on how film creates meaning.   It’s a clever way to illustrate this: video


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Media Education part 2

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”  Marshall McLuhan

The goal of media education is to make our students thoughtful consumers and users of media.  We know that in many ways our world is shaped by mass media and the fact that new technology is coming at us with ever-increasing speed suggests that young people need the tools to assess the effects or at least to be aware of the effects.  There are four overall expectations in the Media strand: Understanding Media texts, Understanding Media forms, conventions and techniques, Creating Media texts and Reflecting on skills and strategies.  In the past ten years, access to simple-to-use technology has become available and it is no longer difficult for students to create media texts.  As a result, English teachers have latched onto this and have incorporated some media-based project into their classes.  A good example of this is the web-based software called Fakebook which allows students to create Facebook like pages for characters in a story and to have them interact.  The positive aspects of something like this are that it is a contemporary connection and the students probably enjoy doing it.  However, without an examination of the conventions and effects of Facebook itself, this is only addressing one expectation and not even that effectively if you are not asking the students to address the question of why this would be an appropriate form.  My point is that teachers are not examining the first two expectations in the strand very often, probably because they are not sure how to work them into their present courses of study.

I have a few suggestions as to how this can be changed to make it more manageable for teachers:                                                                                                                                         One thing that has to change is that teachers need to stop seeing Media education as a way to extend their literature studies.  By that I mean that making a video or podcast on a topic connected to a novel is not Media studies ( I use this example because I have done exactly that).  However, if you had looked at the conventions of film making, how films create meaning, who controls the industry, how the business aspect affects film etc. then this would be an appropriate assignment.  So, one way to approach it would be to prepare a unit on the medium before you ask students to use it ( back to my Facebook example).

Another approach could be to take a topic like narrative and make that a focus.  We have many print examples obviously, but how do films construct narrative, what is the narrative structure of Facebook, how is YouTube changing our view of narrative, how is gaming using conventional narrative and creating new forms ? Bias is another topic that could be used this way.  Using a thematic topic allows teachers to work within their comfort zone but still learn about Media.

Finally, I think there has to be intervention at the school board level.  The vagueness of the Ministry document is not about to be changed in the near future but the role of curriculum services is to ensure that Ministry guidelines are put into practice.  I suggest that this is a very worthwhile use of some of their budget.

1.  The curriculum service department should focus on identifying a set of ideas and skills that should be taught at the secondary level.  The majority of teachers have not taken the time to figure out what it is they are supposed to be teaching in Media.  They need to have this done for them.  It should focus on key media concepts, what they mean and how they can be illustrated.

2.  Every text we teach in school has teacher’s guides, lesson plans and literary criticism available for it.  Quite frankly, it is through these materials, that most people learn how to structure their lessons, at least initially.  But this is not true for Media studies.  There are lessons available on various web sites such as MediaSmarts but most lessons have to be created by the teacher using a variety of materials.  I’d like to see curriculum services create a bank of essential lessons that a teacher can use or at least start with.  This would be useful PD if it were included with the key concepts.

Ideally, Media education would be part of other curricula since it is hardly exclusive to teaching English.  Cross-curricular discussion points could be set up between English and Social Studies, for example.  In a few years, technology will be a bigger part of the average classroom. The goal of Media education is to not blindly accept technology without an awareness of its impact.

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Why media education is important and why it’s not working so far in Ontario

A quick search on the internet will show that Ontario is seen as one of the leaders in the Media Literacy movement.  Media education has been part of the secondary curriculum since 1987 and has been embedded in the English and Language Arts curricula since 1999 (revised 2007).  In the secondary English curriculum, it is one of the four strands along with Oral Communication, Writing and Reading and Literature.  The curriculum document states that “This strand focuses on helping students develop the skills required to understand, create and critically interpret media texts.”  It makes reference to the significance of conventions, to the roles of the audience and to the production elements and industry.  In addition to being part of all four years of secondary education, students can take a stand-alone course, EMS 3O, as an option.  One would think that with all this emphasis media studies would be thriving and a vital part of most English classes.  It’s not.  My own experience within my school and what I hear or read about is being done in other schools suggests that there are some teachers who have embraced this area but the majority fit it in as an add-on to something in literature or as a product that is created for an assignment.  This is better than nothing but it fails to meet all the expectations in the strand and it does not capitalize on the critical literacy that media studies afford.

So why is it not working?  First, most English teachers do not have backgrounds in Communications.  Those who are successful Media teachers are either self-taught or have taken some university courses in the subject area.  For many years, Media was seen as the domain of a few interested specialists.  When the curriculum was changed to make it compulsory for all English teachers, the majority ignored it or interpreted any creation or use of technology e.g. newspapers on Macbeth, videos or podcasts on a topic as sufficient media education.  Secondly, as a subject matter, it is vast, ever-changing and open to endless possibilities and interpretations.  Most people have no idea where to begin and what to focus on.  If you are the type of person who likes structure and concrete approaches, then media studies is discomfiting to you.

Teacher education is vital for this area.  I do not understand why faculties of education do not offer a mandatory course in it.  As I have stated in a previous post, very few of the many student teachers I have mentored, had any idea of how to teach it.  The province is not being well-served by the universities and should demand that it is taught.  As well, present teachers should be given PD in it by their school boards.  There is a problem with this solution, however.  The fact is that a lot of PD has been offered in this area but it has not had any design or structure so that one walks away with a few ideas and maybe a lesson plan but no education in the matter.  Before PD can be offered, a focus has to be created.  What I am suggesting is that the Media portion of the curriculum needs to be more prescriptive.  The language is purposefully vague as in the other strands in order to offer flexibility and choice but this has not been successful in this area.  What has happened with the other three strands is that people took what they were already teaching and adjusted it to fit the strand.  This is obviously not the case with Media, since they weren’t teaching it to begin with.  Change at the Ministry level will not happen quickly; however, there is no reason why this could not occur at a school and board level.

Media education addresses the idea that one needs to be literate on many levels to be successful in our society.  This short video from the UK explores the topic with experts in the field.  Watch this here.  Two ideas that struck me from the conversation were:  we are doing a disservice to our students to overstate their competence with technology and you need to learn about and through media before you can create it.  In part two of this post, I will discuss my suggestions about what needs to be taught.

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The beauty of mind maps

A few years ago, I was introduced to mind mapping, a concept created by Tony Buzan.  I was instantly struck by the notion that this was something I had been searching for for awhile.  In the past, I had asked students to create a visual representation of some piece of literature.  This had mostly resulted in collages or posters of some sort.  While some students have artistic or visual ability, I felt that other than an aesthetic experience, these projects showed little learning or thought.  Mind maps combine the visual and at the same time demonstrate the depth of their learning.  It’s a simple concept but it is flexible and and can be used for many purposes.

Mind maps can be used for all stages of learning.  As a pre-reading or pre-writing tool, a mind map can be used as brainstorming or demonstrating background knowledge.  During the reading of a text, it can be used to explore ideas, make connections etc. After reading a text, a mind map can be a summative task which the student uses to show her thinking  and knowledge.  I cannot think of any other type of evaluation that can show as much of a student’s learning and understanding of a text.  Essays are limited by topic.  Tests could be made large enough to encompass everything but a test has to have questions and questions by their very nature tell the student what to look at or how to think about a topic.  Mind maps on the other hand are open-ended and because they don’t use traditional sentences, they can contain a great deal of information.  You could say to a student in an essay or test topic: write everything you have learned about Hamlet   However, the student is limited by the constraints of sentences and the organizational patterns that are required in writing.  A student would be able to make connections but he would have to present them logically in context.  In a mind map, the organization is visual and multiple connections can be demonstrated by simply drawing lines.  Mind maps are now used frequently in university in subject areas like science because of their capacity for flexibility and creativity.  You will find an example of a university and a grade 8 mind map here; this is from the book Beyond Monet: the artful science of instructional integration by Barrie Bennett and Carol Rolheiser.  One thing that I have discovered in using mind maps is that some students, often those who are proficient essay writers, don’t like doing them because they are challenging and they have to think spatially.  I believe that we spend too much time in school teaching students what they already know. In English, we ask the same type of questions, do similar tasks, we just do this with different books.  Some of the best students are locked into one type of thinking e.g telling the teacher what she  wants to hear, so something that is uncomfortable or challenging is obviously worthwhile.

I will always step the students into the process.  They will do group ones in class first or I will have them mind map something small like a short story.  This is a useful way to show what they understand about a text while we are studying it e.g. what have we learned so far about the people of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird.  They will mind map this topic as a group and afterwards, I will place them around the room and ask them to rank the top 3 based on criteria they create.  My best mind maps have been about Hamlet or The Kite Runner.  My assignment has been open-ended: make a mind map that covers major topics from the play or novel; be sure to incorporate quotes as part of your proof.  Or I have been more specific:  you must include themes, character development, questions about the play and quotes.  Either way, the students have given me some great examples that really demonstrate their thinking and knowledge.  A lot of planning has to go into their maps and they have to show hierarchical organization and make connections among the topics.  What you end up with is a large visual essay.

I have information, assignments and rubrics available that I will e-mail you if you wish to contact me.

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