The Basic Ideas behind Literary Analysis: A Guide for Newbie English Teachers

AKA: Why the Curtains are Blue.

Presented at the SAETA State Conference, May 7th 2018 at Immanuel College, Novar Gardens.

I love this meme. I think of it often when I’m in class attempting to make bored teenagers believe me when I say ‘Shrek is not about an ogre who abandons a swamp’ or ‘Cars is not about cars’ or ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not about ‘spying’.’ As a new teacher to English, I knew that the message of the meme was wrong, that the curtains could represent his ‘immense depression and lack of will to carry on’. But I couldn’t explain how. Like many newbies to English teaching, I felt I didn’t really understand the basic ideas behind analysing literature or texts.

My presentation at the SAETA State Conference was a basic intro into the key ideas behind our discipline. It’s kind of like a ‘Philosophy of English Education 101’. It’s the session I wish I’d attended in my first year out. If you’re a newbie to teaching English, or you’ve ever wondered why we do what we do in English teaching in Australia, this is the blog post for you!

Presentation Resources:

First up, here’s the PowerPoint and other resources from the presentation.

Plus: I’m currently doing my Masters (parttime, of course), and I’m looking to specialise in Middle School literacy … any feedback or ideas on this topic would be greatly appreciated! Have I got something wrong? Tell me! duffystirling@gmail.com

What makes an accomplished English student?

esides literacy (of course), to be successful in Literary Analysis, our students need:

  1. Strong understanding of language features, elements, techniques, textual concepts
  2. ‘Worldliness’
  3. An understanding of constructivist, post modernist ways of understanding meaning

The first is covered well by most English teachers from primary school onwards. Newbie teachers who are still not sure should check out English Textual Concepts website and Insight Publications. There’s a whole website covering them here: http://literary-devices.com/.

The second we are all trying to do by exposing our students to current events and unfamiliar ideas in our text choices. But it’s the students who are widely read and interested in the ideas of the world that do well in literary analysis.

The third is what this post is all about: getting our students (and ourselves) to understand how texts are constructed.

Constructivism

If you did your pre-service training in the last twenty years, you have probably been trained in  the constructivist approach to education, whether you know the terms or not. If the names Vygotsky and Piaget mean anything to you, then you probably have.

Constructivism is a philosophy of mind, centred on the idea that our ‘reality’ is ‘constructed’, and influenced by our perceptions, experiences, culture and worldview. The central idea is that our ‘truth’ is relative and influenced by our experiences.

Constructivist education posits that:

  • Knowledge is constructed, not transmitted.
  • Learning is influenced by experience, perception, culture and worldview.
  • Learning is assimilated and accommodated in existing understandings.
  • Building useful knowledge structures requires effortful and purposeful activity.

Prior theories of learning assumed that knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student; and arrived in the same state in the mind of the student. Constructivists believe that learning is influenced by experience, perception, culture and worldview. Learning something that is close to what you already know is easier than learning something completely different. There’s also a massive emphasis on students being active learners, in that they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. Most of our ‘best practice’ principles, such as student-centred learning, project based and inquiry based learning etc. come from the constructivist model of education.

Texts are Constructed

In terms of teaching English, understand that modern English teaching in Australia is constructivist. The key points are:

  • Authors make deliberate choices when assembling their texts.

The idea that authors make deliberate choices when constructing texts is sometimes hard for students to get their head around. After all, a lot of kids when they write their texts just ramble along until they’ve met the word count. A great assignment for students is to write a text, then do a literary analysis on their own work: did they use first or third person, and why. Did they write informally or formally, and why. After a while they can come to understand that they did make choices; and that in future they should plan their writing so they’re making better ones!

Another way for them to get the idea that authors make deliberate choices is to look at texts where the author is documented clearly stating their intentions. For example George Orwell has been pretty clear about his intentions in 1984 and Animal Farm; Steve McQueen also clearly states what his intentions were for 12 Years a Slave, in multiple interviews.

  • They draw upon a selection of textual elements to assemble (construct) their texts. 
    These elements include techniques, conventions, features, language choices, structure and so on.

You can use the metaphor of a house being constructed (e.g. the foundation, the studs, the bricks) to show how different choices in elements leads to different styles of house.

  • Those textual elements are influenced by cultural conventions.
    Over time our culture has developed conventions regarding communication. So every text is heavily influenced by those that come before it.

You can talk about cultural conventions through assignments which explore archetypes; e.g. look at archetypical characters (the hero, the mentor, and so on), or archetypical narrative structures like the Hero’s journey. Website TvTropes.org tries to track these cultural conventions, especially as used in popular culture (consider the ‘token black guy’ convention in teen movies, or the ‘Matthew McConaughey leaning’ convention in romantic comedies).

The concept of Intertextuality comes in here. Philosopher Julie Kristeva proposed that “any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” Basically, intertextuality is the idea that, because all texts are so heavily influenced by what came before, they are effectively re-assemblies of previous texts. Sarah Chamber’s 2017 presentation on Intertextuality was a great place to start for teaching this concept – a handout can be found here: https://www.aate.org.au/documents/item/1315

Purpose, and Creating Meaning

  • Authors assemble texts, making deliberate choices between cultural textual elements, to create meaning, and to achieve a purpose.

English education is all about examining literature and texts to identify how they make meaning. For Example, the purpose could be:

  • To entertain, persuade or inform.
  • To influence a particular audience
  • To explore ideas, values or issues.
  • To create an emotional response.

Different types of texts intend to achieve different purposes; for example narratives are usually written to entertain or explore ideas; advertisements are usually created to influence an audience.

Subtext

Often texts achieve meaning in a subversive way: the meaning is ‘suggested’ or ‘hidden’.

The ‘hidden meaning’ is called subtext. The idea of subtext is popularly compared to icebergs: on the surface a text might appear to be silly and superficial; but the meanings are extensive and hidden underneath.

Literary analysis involves looking ‘beyond the text’ to see the hidden meanings. 

Theme

The easiest way I’ve found to start students on the idea of subtext is to talk about themes. Now, I found it really hard at first to get a solid, concrete definition of ‘theme’; it seemed everyone online had a slightly different understanding. This is the definition of theme I’ve ended up with:

  • Themes are the big ideas of a text.
  • Themes are about the universal shared experiences of being human.
    love, death, pain, loss, envy, revenge, conflict, friendship, struggle, resilience …

The key point here is that themes are the big ideas about what it means to ‘be’. I treat the short phrase (e.g. ‘growing up’ ‘resilience’) as the ‘theme’. Other educators see this as the ‘topic’ or ‘subject’, with a short statement which establishes a point of view as being the ‘theme’ of a novel. Instead, I treat that ‘short statement’ as a ‘message’ or ‘lesson’, or ‘moral’:

  • THEME: growing up
  • MESSAGE / MORAL / LESSON / CONTENTION: growing up is painful, but necessary

Napthine and Tulloh’s explanation of this in Insight Publication’s Year 12 English skills is particularly good (I believe this text isn’t available anymore, but I’m sure it’s reflected in some of the other Insight texts). Here are a few examples from this book:

THEME CONTENTION / MESSAGE
Gender roles Women are limited by their roles in marriage
Family Family is the basis of your happiness
War War is horrific; stop war; war harms only innocents
Self Acceptance You cannot love others until you love yourself

Each time I have students read or view a text, I make sure they suggest the theme and contention.

 

Reader Response Theory

Louise Rosenblatt is the godmother of modern English teaching. In her 1938 book ‘Literature as Exploration’, she posited the idea that a reader creates meaning every time they read a book; that a reader (an audience) is essential to the creation of meaning. She is immensely quotable:

and

“A reader makes a poem as he reads. He does not see an unalterable meaning that lies within the text. He creates meaning from the confrontation.”

and

‘Each individual reader, in essence, creates the work anew each time it is read. Reader’s engage with a text as a transaction. The reading of a text is an EVENT in which the reader gives the text life. Each reader has an individual experience with a text.’

Traditionally in English, teachers would train students to regurgitate the traditionally established interpretations of a text. After Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory (also called Transactional Theory), the importance of the reader in the creation of meaning was established. Instead of teaching an established meaning, or what the author intended, teachers should foster students’ trust in their own interpretation.

Rosenblatt’s work is absolutely fascinating, and I’ve got a copy of the book on order. Find more here:

Death of the Author

Well, Rosenblatt started something. By the 60s, the idea of authors as the true holders of their text’s meaning ended up, well, assassinated:

Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay ‘La mort de l’auteur’ (The Death of the Author) firmly moved the authority of meaning out of the hands of a text’s author:

“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing […] [However] by refusing to assign a ‘secret,’ an ultimate meaning, to the text … liberates  [us, because] to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases–reason, science, law.”
Roland Barthes

Basically, he was arguing that examining a text by considering the author’s historical context, their political views, their psychology and so on, was pointless. Like Rosenblatt he put the burden of meaning in the reader. “To give a text an author” and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it “is to impose a limit on that text”. Barthes didn’t like the idea that once a text is finished by an author, it is ‘done’ or ‘fixed’.

This is one of my favourite concepts in philosophy. It’s worth reading up on. It’s also worth exposing students to this concept.

Additional Readings for Death of the Author:

Plausible Interpretation

So for literary analysis, Reader Response Theory and the Death of the Author mean one thing:

  • A reader’s interpretation of the meaning of the text is as valid as the author’s intended meaning, and the traditionally accepted meanings; provided it is plausible.

So, yeah kids, what you think the text means is as real as what the author meant. But don’t get too excited. Your interpretation must be plausible:

 

In other words, students have to prove their interpretation. I usually tell them that their opinion doesn’t matter; their informed opinion does. Avoid the fart in the wind tunnel:

 

For more on combatting the ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ logical fallacy, check out Wikipedia’s page on it.

Literary Criticism

These philosophical approaches promote the idea of the reader as creator of meaning. That’s led to literary criticism, whereby texts can be viewed through ‘lenses’ to examine how power and oppression is created and perpetuated through texts; e.g. through a ‘feminist’ lens or a ‘Marxist’ (class systems) lens.

The new SACE has critical perspectives in Stage 2 Literary Studies. I’m hoping to work some into my future Year 11 or 12 classes but as yet my knowledge is a bit thin.

But anyway, Tim Gillespie’s book Doing Literary Criticism is the bible: it’s written specifically for high school English teachers. He discusses the same literary theories on this page in the intro.

The Curtains are Blue

So I had the answer to why the blue curtains DO represent his immense depression and lack of will to carry on, even if the author didn’t intend it to do so. I teach my senior students about Death of the Author and the blue curtains, and I’m proud to say they get it.

More on why the Curtains are Blue:

Deconstruction

So, what are we doing when we do analysis?

Analysis is when we pull something apart and look at how the separate pieces fit together to understand how something works.

This is true in science, in maths, and anywhere ‘analysis’ is used.

Literary Analysis is when we deconstruct texts and look at how textual elements are used to create meaning.

When a student or a literary professor is writing a response to a text, they are arguing to prove their interpretation is plausible. They do this by providing textual elements, and the way they are assembled, i.e. the deliberate choices made by the author, as evidence. In this way, Literary analysis is really pretty much a persuasive text.

I’ve been working on various ways of getting students to do this. I’ve got to do some thinking around how I’ve been approaching it (the ‘TIEE’ approach I mentioned at the presentation), so there’ll be a future blog post on it.

Finally:

The takeaway points, dear newbie English teachers, are these:

  • Texts are deliberately constructed from culturally available textual elements and conventions for a purpose / to make meaning.
  • Your interpretation of a text is as valid as the authors, and your teachers, as long as you have the evidence.
  • Analysis involves deconstructing texts and arguing your interpretation of the meaning made.

SO GO MY DEAR ENGLISH TEACHERS, INTERPRET WELL!

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Are you feeling the Collaboration Buzz?

Under steam from Hattie’s assertion that ‘teachers make the difference’ (2003) there has been a focus of moving teacher professional development (PD) away from ‘sit and get’ learning (Barry, 2013) towards collaboration. AITSL consider collaboration and mentoring a critical apart of achieving ‘Highly Accomplished’ status, and promote ‘Collaboration’ (AITSL, 2017a). DECD’s 2018 Performance and Development policy heavily promotes collaborative learning over formal training (DECD, 2018a). Even Hattie has placed ‘Collective Teacher Efficacy’ at the top of the list in his 2016 update on the influencers on student achievement (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Hattie’s Top Influencers on Student Achievement, 2016

I’m sure you’re feeling the Collaboration Buzz. AITSL and DECD want us doing it. But how is it really going?

The Research: Why Collaboration is the Buzz

Since the 80s, PD research has promoted a move ‘From Isolation to Colleagueship’ (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010). Social learning theories, where learning is viewed as a social activity inherently attached to context, suggest that a teacher’s professional network is fundamental for their role (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010) (Hur & Brush, 2014), and continuous support and collaboration among teachers is key to successful teacher PD (Moore & Chae, 2007).

The answer seems to be to ‘deprivatise’ the classroom, that is, make what you do public. Working in isolation is considered ‘an inadequate way of performing teacher’s work’ (Van Waes, et al., 2016). We need to observe, listen, discuss and interact with our peers to gain expertise; attending conferences in isolation without sharing your learning is considered ineffectual. Collaboration is apparently the answer for many modern education challenges, including ‘digital native’ students with ‘increasing economic disparities’ (Barry, 2013), and emotional burnout (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010).

The Policies: What We’re Meant to be Doing

AITSL – The Ideal

In the ‘Essential Guide to Professional Learning: Collaboration’, AITSL argues the benefits of collaboration well (AITSL, 2017a). Collaboration promotes ‘change beyond individual classrooms, resulting in whole school improvement (p. 2), ‘higher levels of job satisfaction’ (p. 3), and ‘improves student outcomes’. schools that effectively collaborate ‘create a base of pedagogical knowledge that is distributed among teachers within a school, as opposed to being held by individual teachers’ (p. 2).

The role of leaders in promoting a collaborative professional learning culture is heavily emphasised (p. 4). Leaders should be aiming to ‘change the culture’, build trust, and develop a ‘positive learning atmosphere’ for staff. Emotional support and trust seem to be the critical elements: delegation of responsibilities is encouraged to ‘increas[e] teacher trust and buy-in for any change initiative’.

DECD – The Practical

Similarly DECD’s ‘Performance and Development’ policy (DECD, 2018a) and ‘Guideline’ (DECD, 2018b) heavily promote collaboration. However, unlike AITSL, this policy is ‘firmer’ and focuses more on ‘organisational needs’ and teacher ‘accountability’, discrediting the priorities of individual teachers. ‘Individual aspiration’ must be aligned with the ‘future needs of the department’; employees are ‘accountable for their contribution to outcomes for children and young people’; the ‘deprivatisation’ of classrooms, rather than in aid of improving teacher practice, is promoted as a way to ‘enable employees to embrace professional accountability’ through ‘openness to performance feedback.’ As part of a ‘primary commitment’ to ‘improve outcomes for children and young people’, employees have a responsibility to align their PD to ‘improvement priorities’ of their site and the department. Employee wellbeing is only nominally identified, but employees must also focus on ‘improving behaviour’: leaders must support ‘constructive behaviours’ which ‘align’ to ‘organisational values’ (p. 6), and must identify behaviours which ‘help or hinder’ performance.

The move towards collaborative PD is emphasised by the unsettling ‘70/20/10 formula’ (DECD, 2018b, p. 10) which suggests 70% of learning at work takes place ‘on the job’ through trial and error; 20% through practices such as observations, reading and mentoring; and only 10% through formal training (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: 70-20-10 Formula of Learning
Figure 2: 70-20-10 Formula of Learning

Like the AITSL guideline, the role of leaders is clearly defined, but with emphasis on management: leaders should coach employees through ‘meaningful and regular performance conversations’, ‘maintaining written records’, and conducting observations and reviews. A small nod is made to ‘recognising and celebrating employee’s contributions’, but leader responsibility primarily involves ensuring employees follow process.

Instead, much of the responsibility for PD lies on teachers. It is their responsibility to ‘participate positively and actively in agency performance development processes’, identify areas of development which contribute to ‘organisational goals’, seek and receive feedback ‘openly’, ‘critically reflect’, and ‘share learning and practice with others’.

The Reality: What’s Really Happening

I asked various colleagues, via an open survey posted to Facebook communities ‘Teachers of Adelaide’ and SAETA, what is really going on in terms of collaboration in South Australian schools. Of 27 respondents, 11 were Primary, 8 Secondary, 7 Leadership with a range of experience.

Multiple staff reported involvement in ‘coaching teams’, ‘priority groups’, ‘team meetings’, ‘hubs’, ‘Think Tanks’, and assessment moderation groups. Most reported a decrease in involvement in isolated PD. It seems a ‘collaborative culture’ is slow to be built in many sites: while 15 respondents reported enthusiastic and effective collaborative culture at their site, 10 reported that although collaboration processes were put in place at the site, barriers were preventing effectiveness. Only one respondent suggested their site was not collaborating at all: it looks collaboration is here and here to stay.

Most were enthusiastic about the idea of collaboration (‘so much potential!’)l collaboration challenges teachers ‘ego’ and allows access to ‘the vast experience that exists under our own roof.’ About 5 were generally positive, but were concerned about its implementation, especially in terms impacts on time and workload. Only 2 respondents were actively against collaboration, cynically suggesting that DECD is interested only in saving money.

Most of the barriers identified are reflected in AITSL’s Guidelines (2017a), cheerfully presented as a ‘snakes and ladder’ boardgame (see Figure 3):

Figure 3: Barriers and Enablers to Collaboration
Figure 3: Barriers and Enablers to Collaboration

The primary barrier, unsurprisingly, was time, with more than half complaining of limited access to shared time: most teachers ‘find it quicker and easier to just work alone with what they have’; it’s ‘another thing to do’, or it just ‘fills another meeting time slot’. This concurs with the literature regarding collaboration, where American (and similarly, Australian) education systems are criticised for not providing adequate non-contact time for shared planning, unlike ‘famous’ educational systems like Finland, Singapore and Japan (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010), (Mardis, et al., 2012).

Secondly, professional relationships and emotional wellbeing were identified as a major barrier: ‘staff egos’, cynical colleagues, colleagues with different priorities and motivations, uncommitted colleagues, anxious colleagues, a lack of trust in leadership, and colleagues who don’t ‘pull their weight’. AITSL’s guidelines also heavily emphasised ‘emotional support’ and ‘building trust’ as significant ‘ladders’ to collaboration. The literature concurs: again Hattie found Collaborative Teacher Efficacy – a group’s belief in their capability to achieve their goals – was critical in improving student achievement (Visible Learning, 2018); Downer pointed out that teachers with low self-efficacy were less responsive to reflection and mentoring (2009); that ‘emotion, cognition, and action are integrally connected’ (Moore & Chae, 2007). Hur & Brush found in their study of teacher collaboration that many turned to online communities for emotional support, as ‘on the internet, there isn’t a disapproving look; there is just advice’ (2014).

Finally, ‘mandation’ was also a major barrier. It seems where collaboration is heavily structured and ‘mandated’, enthusiasm for collaboration was low. Sites where leadership ‘set’ the PLC focus without consultation with teachers, enthusiasm and commitment to collaboration was low; one referred to these as ‘random groups that have to sit together on training days’. Others were critical of their mandated collaborative policies, highlighting that they felt discouraged to collaborate because their personal goals did not align with site priorities, or were forced to collaborate in areas which were irrelevant to their areas of interest. This is unfortunate as the literature suggests that mandating collaboration is a sure way to squash collegiality, as ‘putting too many requirements and restrictions on allowing teachers to grow the necessary relationships and shared work’ (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010, p. 78), and that ‘structural incentives for joint work’ didn’t lead to stronger collaborative relationships (Van Waes, et al., 2016).

The Possibilities: What We Could Be Doing

It’s clear that building a collaborative culture is the way forward for improving student outcomes and whole-school teacher improvement. It seems that teachers on the whole are willing to (even enthusiastically) collaborate. Yet it seems that culture is slow to grow in our sites. So what can we do?

Clearly building a collaborative culture is hinged on leadership. Time, resources emotional support and ‘trust’ have been identified here as significant barriers to collaboration, and these are all things identified by the AITSL guidelines as under the control of leaders. Where leaders do not allocate significant shared time for collaboration, where staff have no input into the focus and structure of PLCs, or staff do not feel safe or supported, a collaborative culture is unlikely to develop (see Figure 4). Sadly, the DECD policy does not make that responsibility clear.

Figure 4: Does your site have a collaborative culture?
Figure 4: Does your site have a collaborative culture?

Another possibility, also confirmed by the literature, is to use technology for collaboration. Over half of the respondents used Facebook regularly for collaboration, seeking assistance and to discuss educational issues, and others recommended cloud services (e.g. Google Drive, OneNote, Dropbox). Twitter was also identified as the place to go for discussions about learning, a phenomenon occurring worldwide, according to Guardian journalist Erin Miller, who considers joining Twitter ‘one of the best career decisions I’ve made’ (2017). Similarly, many teachers pointed out that collaboration outside their site – such as in regional moderation groups, or discipline organisations and conferences – were also important. The APSTs (AITSL, 2017b) encourage involvement in the educational community under standards, where Standard 7.4 requires educators to ‘engage with professional teaching networks and broader communities’. Clearly, collaboration via technology and external to school sites encourages collaboration that benefits teacher PD and site improvement: perhaps these need to be reflected in DECD policy.

Finally: What about you?

How do you feel about the rising tide of collaboration? Are you encountering snakes and ladders preventing or enabling you to collaborate more effectively? Are you concerned about the downfall of formal training, the neglected ‘10%’ of learning? Let me know your thoughts below, complete the survey yourself, or send me an email: duffystirling @ gmail.com!

References

AITSL, 2017a. The Essential Guide to Professional Learning: Collaboration. [Online]
Available at: https://www.aitsl.edu.au/tools-resources/resource/the-essential-guide-to-professional-learning-collaboration
[Accessed 5 April 2018].

AITSL, 2017b. Teacher Standards. [Online]
Available at: https://www.aitsl.edu.au/teach/standards
[Accessed 5 April 2018].

Barry, B., 2013. Teacherpreneurs and the Future of Teaching and Learning. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, 1(2).

DECD, 2018a. Performance and Development Policy. [Online]
[Accessed 4 April 2018].

DECD, 2018b. Performance and Development Guideline. [Online]
[Accessed 4 April 2018].

Donohoo, J., 2017. Collective Teacher Efficacy: The Effect Size Research and Six Enabling Conditions. [Online]
Available at: https://thelearningexchange.ca/collecti ve-teacher-efficacy/
[Accessed 5 April 2018].

Downer, J. T., Locasale-Crouch, J., Hamre, B. & Pianta, R., 2009. Teacher Characteristics Associated with Responsiveness and Exposure to Consultation and Online Professional Development Resources. Early Education and Development, 20(3).

Hattie, J., 2003. Teachers Make a Difference, What is the research evidence?. Melbourne, Australian Council for Educational Research.

Hur, J. W. & Brush, T. A., 2014. Teacher Participation in Online Communities. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(3).

Lieberman, A. & Pointer Mace, D., 2010. Making Practice Public: Teacher Learning in the 21st Century. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), pp. 77-88.

Mackey, J. & Evans, T., 2011. Interconnecting Networks of Practice for Professional Learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3).

Mardis, M. A., Elbasri, T., Norton, S. K. & Newsum, J., 2012. The Digital Lives of U.S. Teachers: A Research Synthesis and Trends to Watch. School Libraries Worldwide, 18(1).

Miller, E., 2017. Teachers on Twitter: why you should join and how to get started. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/apr/20/teachers-on-twitter-why-join-get-started-social-media
[Accessed 5 April 2018].

Moore, J. A. & Chae, B., 2007. Beginning teacher’s use of online resources and communities. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 16(2).

Van Waes, S. et al., 2016. The networked instructor: The quality of networks in different stages of professional development.. Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 59, pp. 295-308.

Visible Learning, 2018. Visible Learning. [Online]
Available at: https://visible-learning.org/2018/03/collective-teacher-efficacy-hattie/
[Accessed 5 April 2018].

 

Improving Academic Literacy in Our Senior Students

Notes and links from the SAETA State Conference session, June 3rd 2017.

Hope you enjoy the presentation!

Downloads

Register

Functional Grammar – Field, Tenor & Mode

Register Continuum

Handouts / Factsheets

Vocabulary

Germanic vs Latinate

Nominalisation

Clarity and Conciseness

Readability Statistics

Other

  • University of Alberta’s fact sheet on Science Writing:  http://www.crystaloutreach.ualberta.ca/en/ScienceReasoningText/ScientificLanguage.aspx
  • The DECD Literacy Secretariat had some excellent resources which are now mostly available on the DECD Intranet. One that was particularly useful is available via DECD intranet > Educating >  Numeracy and Literacy > Literacy resources > Engaging and Exploring writing in the secondary years. Sorry Non-DECD schools, these are only available for DECD employees.
  • If you haven’t already, every English teacher in Australia really really needs to check out the English Textual Concepts website developed by the English Teachers Association of NSW. It is basically a catalogue of the content we need to teach. Our primarily skills based subject can sometimes feel content-lite, especially to new teachers. Go here if you want to know what it is we actually need to teach and when. This is a brilliant achievement. http://englishtextualconcepts.nsw.edu.au/
  • If you can get someone to pay for you, I recommend the How Language Works course. If you have to pay the $4000+ fee for yourself, give it a miss. Literacy for Learning is How Language Works lite; I don’t recommend it. More details here: http://www.unlockingtheworld.com/programs/how-language-works

 

Useful websites for English students

Check your work!

Clarity and Style

Pick up run on sentences, comma splices, and overly long sentences, as well as improving clarity and style using Hemingway Apphttp://hemingwayapp.com 

Plagiarism

While Turnitin is the industry leader in plagiarism detection, it is expensive. Free checkers are available but I recommend checking work in more than one to be thorough.  I use http://smallseotools.com/plagiarism-checker/ and http://www.quetext.com/. You can also compare two texts at http://www.copyscape.com/compare.php. Most of these are just automated Google searchers.

Generally I avoid using https://www.grammarly.com/plagiarism-checker because it’s always been quite painful to use in practice and it requires login.

Referencing

There are many online bibliography generators but Cite This For Me is the best. I do encourage senior students to use Word’s referencing functions, however, to prepare them for university. http://citethisforme.com.

Making a Nation: Year 9 History Resources

This year I’ve picked up both Year 9 HASS classes at my small site. The second depth study – Making a Nation – promised to be mind numbingly dull to deliver, with its focus on early Australian history and that thrilling topic ‘Federation’. I vaguely remember memorising mnemonics regarding the reasons for Federation during my 90’s high school career and entered into the topic with a heavy heart.

However I have to commend the Australian Curriculum in this area: the topic is now filled with enough blood and controversy to keep my middle schooler audience happy. Why didn’t we study Indigenous resistance fighters when I was in high school, I ask? Afghan cameleers in the outback are fascinating. Sure, the usual list of ‘key [white male] players’ is required to be covered and the events leading up to Federation (snore) but at least there’s some good stuff out there.

In fact there’s enough out there in the internet ether that I haven’t needed to resort to developing many resources myself. This page will collect the best of what I’ve found.

Note:

Australian students cover first contact, exploration, settlement, convicts and the Gold Rush in primary school years (from Year 4 onwards). Many resources available online target this age group and are simplistic. Although Year 9s cover similar territory, I felt the focus should be more on exploring bias, differing viewpoints and controversies. Another suggestion: avoid resources which describe Europeans ‘discovering’ Australia. These are outdated.

First Contact
ACDSEH020

‘Terra Nullius’

Frontier Wars

Famous drawing of Yagan's preserved head; note the culturally inappropriate headdress which were attached post-humously (a good talking point with students)
Famous drawing of Yagan’s preserved head; note the culturally inappropriate headdress which were attached post-humously (a good talking point with students)
  • Yagan: My students really engaged with the story of Noongar warrior and leader Yagan, who fought back against settlers in his homeland. His story would make a great film as it features misunderstandings, betrayal and loss.  ABC commissioned a great documentary – Yagan (2013) – which tells parallel stories of Yagan’s life (through gritty recreations) and his family’s bid to have his head returned from England, where it had been sent 160 years ago as a ‘souvenir’. We watched the documentary on Clickview (which I don’t recommend – it was frustratingly jumpy and fuzzy), but a DVD can be purchased from The Education Shop. ATOM has a study guide for purchase here.

From Colonisation to Federation
ACDSEH091 and ACDSEH090

  • Changing map of Australia. Source: Wikipedia
    Changing map of Australia. Source: Wikipedia

    Changing map of Australia: I used this Wikipedia page to quickly throw together a worksheet where students had to cut / paste each map with its matching description. Took 20 minutes and isn’t too difficult. Gets kids reading and reasoning.
    Worksheet: PDF / PPTX (original file for editing and answer sheet)

  • Why Federate? I found this semi-roleplaying activity on TES and I’m going to give it a go tomorrow. Basically, the resource includes a series of roleplaying cards representing each colony. Students work through a series of questions and then report back to the class about whether their colony would vote for Federation or not. I’ll be using it as an intro to the reasons for Federation.

 

September 11 Introduction Worksheets

Today is the 10th Anniversary of September 11; it’s a cliche to say it but man I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already.

When I first started teaching, September 11 was relatively recent and my students knew enough to discuss it in depth. Now most of my students were only four or five when it happened (and soon they wouldn’t have even been born) and 2001 is almost ancient history to them. Kind of like when I was a kid learning about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With my year 10s this year I did an English unit with a War on Terror theme. September 11 may be a long time ago for these kids but the War in Afghanistan is very real and recent (Christ, just had a thought: this means the War in Afghanistan has been going on for 9-10 years too. Bugger.) Anyway, I developed these worksheets as an introduction to 9/11. When I’ve put it together, I’ll post that unit of work as well.

Also this year I have been reading Tomorrow When The War Began with my year 9’s. Being a story about an invasion of Australia, there is a link to September 11, Pearl Harbor and the Bombing of Darwin as these are all incursions on First World countries that otherwise go unharmed.

What is it?

A crossword with vocabulary related to the War on Terror.

Two articles explaining the basics of September 11 in common kid-friendly language. One is from a News Limited article (circa when Osama Bin Laden was caught and killed) and a Behind The News transcript (a kid-orientated news service run by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.) Take your pick.

Note: the Behind The News article video may be available to stream through Iview if you are in Australia at this address:

There is also a notetaking form; I suggest you update the comprehension questions in the bottom box.

How to use it:

Instruct students to read through and circle unfamiliar words; or at least words they don’t understand. They copy these into the first table.

Students then read through and highlight the key words and phrases. They copy these into the second table and explain them.

Then students answer the comprehension questions. These do need updating and I suggest you change them.

Download:

2011 307 September 11 Worksheets DOC

2011 307 September 11 Worksheets PDF

Update:

I also adapted the same articles for my year 8s as a cloze rather than a notetaking activity.

2011 308 September 11 Cloze DOC

2011 308 September 11 Cloze PDF

The plan is to stream the BTN news story so they can get the answers.

http://www.abc.net.au/btn/story/s3307593.htm

Update 2016

I found this excellent free TPT task from a fellow Teacher Author that is quite useful for being a quick introduction to the events of September 11:

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/September-11-Terrorist-Attacks-on-America-Text-and-Exercise-Sheets-948492

Indigenous Studies – Wyrie Swamp Boomerang Worksheet, Timelines and History Task

10_img02b
The Wyrie Swamp boomerang

Just a quick share. I taught Year 8 History in South East SA for many years and had the pleasure to work with several members of the Boandik people from the area in delivering a cultural studies program. From the knowledge they brought I developed this task about a local artefact: the Wyrie Swamp Boomerang, the oldest discovered wooden boomerang in Australia (it is around 9000-10000 years old).The original is now stored safely under controlled conditions at the South Australian museum but a replica was carved and is now on view in Mount Gambier.

Information about the Wyrie Swamp boomerang is taken from here.

The intention of this worksheet and timeline task was to make links between the European history we were primarily studying and Indigenous history. It is somewhat humbling to see that this boomerang is older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge.

Hope it is helpful for some:

Wyrie Swamp Boomerang (DOCX)

Australian Curriculum Year 10 English Unit / Lesson Plan / Resources: Divergent, The Giver and The Hunger Games

I love the plethora of BAD ASS ladies in teenage media these days.
I love the plethora of BAD ASS ladies in teenage media these days.

Nothing is more engaging for fifteen year olds than watching bad-ass teenagers kicking authoritarian butt. I have two Year 10 English classes this year and both feature die-hard Hunger Games fans, so I decided to target teen dystopian texts for our novel and film studies. I’d been trying to figure out how I could hit the content descriptors in the Australian Year 10 English curriculum which focus on ‘value systems’, ‘social, moral and ethical positions,’ and ‘beliefs and assumptions’; dystopian texts seemed a good entry point. Also I am trying to up-skill our socio-economically-disadvantaged students in good-ol-academic skills, like literature analysis, essay writing and referencing.

Overall, this has been one of the most successful units I’ve ever completed with Year 10s. Some of the conversations we had regarding what ‘values’ are inherent in our society, and how they’re reflected in the texts we read and view, were brilliant. I wanted to share what worked well and share the resources I found useful in case there’s another Year 10 English teacher out there looking for Aussie Curric. ideas.

The Downloads …

More information about each of these below.

The Hunger Games: Life Lessons

What can we learn about ourselves and our world from this novel?

In the first unit of work, each class read The Hunger Games and completed work with a focus on the ‘life lessons’ the novel has for teenagers. The key question throughout was ‘what can this story teach us about the real world?’

Before Reading

Reality TV is DESTROYING OUR SOULS! Go to my right if you agree!
Reality TV is DESTROYING OUR SOULS! Go to my right if you agree!

We covered a few concepts first:

  • ‘desentisation’ to violence by TV and video games
  • Developed vs. Developing countries (and the terms ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’)
  • the good and bad of Reality TV.
  • social justice and economic inequality.

My opening to discussing these issues was a standard ‘Agree / Disagree / Depends’ strategy. Label one side of the class as ‘Agree’, the middle as ‘depends’ and the other as ‘Disagree’; once the teacher reads a controversial statement (Reality TV is destroying our souls!), students move to the area which represents their view. They then may be selected to explain their decision; students can move if they change their mind. When this strategy goes well, you have students running the class on their own. It’s always handy to have one or two highly opinionated students as was the case in one of my classes: we spent an entire lesson discussing these ideas.

The statements I posed were:

  • Reality TV is TERRIBLE: It represents the worst of society; it’s bad for us!
  • Watching violent movies and playing violent video games encourages teenagers to be more aggressive
  • It is the responsibility of wealthy countries, like Australia, to help support developing nations: we shouldn’t waste our money on giving them aid.
  • Every person in our society has the opportunity to be successful … if they just work hard enough!

I was quite sneaky because that last one is particularly salient for the students I work with: rural kids from a low-socio-economic background. I think a lot of Australians believe deep down that those who are in poverty somehow deserve to be in poverty, so most of the class hopped over to ‘Agree’ on that. However, I also have multiple students who come from a background of generational poverty and – given the class is quite cohesive and emotionally comfortable with each other – they stood up and said, ‘Well actually, working hard isn’t always enough.’ The next step was to make a connection between the poverty in Australia and poverty in developing nations: what opportunities for success do sweat shop workers in Bangladesh have? Later, I would make a connection between this and the situation in the Districts in The Hunger Games.

I gave students the following worksheets to consolidate and record their ideas:

Reading the Novel

Tears to the eyes ...
Tears in the eyes …

To tell you the truth, The Hunger Games novel is not the greatest of classroom texts. While Katniss is a well formed character, there’s some clever use of language, and there are some brilliant concepts leading to good teaching moments (black market trading, poverty, ‘salutes’ and silent protests), the pacing is clunky, the chapters are uneven (with important plot points and dramatic moments sandwiching dull descriptions of food, sulking, Avoxes and makeovers). An editor needed to cut a good proportion of the beginning to get to the much better written Part II (where Katniss competes in the Hunger Games itself). While covering Part I, I tried to read aloud those sections which were critical to the story (‘I volunteer as tribute!’, ‘the girl on fire!’, ‘Thank you for your consideration!’ and ‘she came here with me’) while setting the remainder as (effectively optional) homework reading. Part II was mostly read aloud in class: it’s marvelous seeing the most disengaged boys in the class begging to be allowed to keep reading.

When it came to basic comprehension (vocabulary, journal questions etc.) the majority of the resources I used are easily found online. I bought Tracee Orman’s ridiculously comprehensive Hunger Games package on Teachers Pay Teachers, and hand picked the ‘journal questions’ we completed as we read. I didn’t spend too much time on ‘comprehension’ type activities because the focus was on the general gist of the ideas represented.

We did complete a standard ‘Themes’ based activity at the end, just to get them thinking:

After Reading

With the final assessment I wanted the students to discuss the ideas, beliefs and assumptions they had developed over the course of reading the novel. I formed these as ‘life lessons’ based on several blog entries I found. I encouraged the students to brainstorm ideas, and then we read studied some of the blog articles. The final assignment asks students to argue whether the novel should be taught next year given how valuable the ‘life lessons’ are for Australian teenagers.

Brainstorm worksheet: What life lessons does The Hunger Games have for teenagers activity DOCX

Google ‘Life Lessons Hunger Games’ and you’ll find dozens of blog entries. Most are for the film adaptation, however, so you may need to adapt. The three I used are:

Students could self-select the text which matches their literacy level to read: we use a ‘black, grey, white’ differentiation strategy in our school where black tasks target above average students, grey average and white below average. The texts were leveled using a readability analyser like Readability Score

Finally, students completed the final assignment: a persuasive writing task where they argued whether the life lessons in the novel make it worthy of being taught as a class text:

Of course, I would do any necessary scaffolding depending on the class, such as showing how to structure paragraphs in a literary essay, how to use quotations etc. I almost always go back to Read Write Think’s Persuasion Map to get some low literacy kids through the planning stages (yes, it’s still good for fifteen year olds).

The Giver and Divergent Comparison / Intertextuality (Connected Text) Study

We don’t have class sets of either Divergent or The Giver, and with the low levels of literacy in the class, struggling through one novel per year is enough, so I chose the film versions of both.

The Giver (2014)

Is this some old movie, Miss? Why is it in black and white. Hang on, isn't that the guy from Home and Away?
Is this some old movie, Miss? Why is it in black and white. Hang on, isn’t that the guy from Home and Away?

80’s standby The Giver has hundreds of study guides available for the novel, but few for the film. I found most are pretty useful, except in that the film emphasises the role of the Chief Elder much more, creating a stronger villain.

A Perfect World Ms Roberts answer
An English teacher’s view of a perfect world … free schools and universities. And eco houses and non-stop produce markets.

I started out with questions regarding what makes our world imperfect (PDF), which then moved into worksheets (PDF, DOCX) adapted from this very comprehensive Giver pre-reading activity. We discussed the answers as a class.

At this point I led a discussion regarding dystopia vs utopia, in case they were not all dystopian-obsessed teen readers and were unaware of what the terms meant. Aris Dufree’s Prezi on Dystopias is useful for this.

After viewing the film (Is this some old movie, Miss? Why is it in black and white? Hey, that’s Stu from Home and Away. That’s Taylor Swift. No it’s not! Yes it is!) we did a character comprehension check:

… before brainstorming the differences between ‘The Community’ and our society:

In instructed students to leave the Divergent column empty. This was an important step in the assignment ahead as it helped clarify some of the more obscure rules of the Community.

Divergent (2014)

Another badass chick!
Another BAD ASS chick! I love teenage dystopias!

Before watching Divergent, I briefly explained the whole ‘Faction system’ concept and had students complete a faction aptitude test to ‘sort’ into a Faction. There are literally dozens of these tests online but I found the most interesting was the official movie page aptitude test. As this was, of course, blocked by our school’s nanny-software, I ended up using a printed version of this great one on a Divergent fan site. This site also has very good visual descriptions of each faction. Another colleague also teaching the film at the same time as I then did an activity where students could brainstorm adjectives which described the personality characteristics of each faction (sanguine! temperant!). If a student scored highly in two or more factions I told them that they were ‘divergent’ and must not let anyone know.

divergent badges
Print, laminate, stick a pin to their back and you have yourself some faction badges. From Living Locurto.

I also printed out badges from Living Locurto’s Divergent Party Printables. After laminating, I stuck a small safety pin to the back and gave them out. I did it as a bit of fun, but I had toyed with the idea of doing some kind of creative game activity. I found the majority of my class ended up in Dauntless with sporadic Amitys and Candors.

We watched the film, completed a character comprehension check, and then filled in that final column in the comparison chart.

Values, Assumptions and Beliefs

Because of the copious amounts of Aust. Curric. links regarding ‘values, assumptions and beliefs’, I then had the students consider the films in terms of what ‘values’ each society represented. Part of this involved leading students through the process of writing a comparative text analysis essay, a frequent feature of Year 11 and 12 Senior English.

I first had students determine what they believed their values to be, using various tools I found such as Mindtool’s step by step questions. It worked out best to give them a list of values – as can be seen in Step 4 of that page –  and to ask them what they believed was important.

What are our values
A worthwhile task was plotting the students’ preferred values in a spreadsheet.

The next step was to ask the students what they thought their community valued:

Our beliefs regarding the values of our small regional community ... sport rules all.
Our beliefs regarding the values of our small regional community … sport rules all.

It led to the one of the most interesting conversations I’d ever had in my teaching career, regarding the disparity between what they felt they valued and what they felt our small regional community valued: my students felt the pressure to play sport, play sport, play sport (in Australian rural areas it’s common for life to revolve around local football and netball clubs). I suspect Friday Night Lights (2004)  might be an interesting text to cover for this class in the future.

Another interesting aspect was the lack of ‘education’ or ‘good grades’ or similar in either list (except where I added it for myself). This is very typical of Australian students in general (In my experience, I’ve found education is not as highly prized as it is in other countries) but it is particularly the case in small rural communities where getting an education is not seen as all that important (but getting a job, or working hard, is). When I do this unit of work again, I will probably head more in this direction, perhaps having the students do a creative writing task which involves imagining what happens when a value is taken to its extreme; or doing a think piece whereby students theorise which values should be more valued in our community.

I moved students through to considering what values are implied in both The Community of The Giver and the Faction System of Divergent. From there it was pretty straight forward for students to argue which of the systems represented their values the closest to complete the final assessment piece: a comparative exposition:

So there we are. I hope there are some ideas in here somewhere which you wonderful AC English educators out there can use!

Australian Curriculum Links

These assignments targeted:

Values

  • Understand that people’s evaluations of texts are influenced by their value systems, the context and the purpose and mode of communication (ACELA1565)
  • Evaluate the social, moral and ethical positions represented in texts (ACELT1812)
  • Identify and analyse implicit or explicit values, beliefs and assumptions in texts and how these are influenced by purposes and likely audiences (ACELY1752)

Literature Analysis

  • Use comprehension strategies to compare and contrast information within and between texts, identifying and analysing embedded perspectives, and evaluating supporting evidence (ACELY1754)
  • Analyse and evaluate text structures and language features of literary texts and make relevant thematic and intertextual connections with other texts (ACELT1774)
  • Analyse and evaluate how people, cultures, places, events, objects and concepts are represented in texts, including media texts, through language, structural and/or visual choices (ACELY1749)
  • Evaluate the impact on audiences of different choices in the representation of still and moving images (ACELA1572),

Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

Love the PARSNIPS acronym. Will never look at root vegetables without thinking about those ‘whale’ lessons we avoided teaching in Japan.

teflgeek

most requested ebooks

The concept of Parsnips in ELT has always intrigued me.  These are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about with your classes, the taboo topics that might get you into trouble or which your students might protest at.  These are the topics that mainstream coursebooks leave out.

And for a very good reason – coursebooks are market dependent and they rely on economies of scale to make a profit.  A coursebook that cannot be used in an entire region of the world because it touches on political issues that might offend ruling regimes means potentially losing money in sales.  But this leads to some interesting omissions and to a one size fits all policy that essentially has us teaching to the lowest common cultural denominator. And to what someone once described as “in-flight magazines for the grammatically challenged” (Scott Thornbury I think…?).

Personally, I see no problem in…

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