Our year is over – tribute to Maria

Photo courtesy of langwitches

I just realised I haven’t written a post since November. That tells you a little about the frantic and even disjointed month we’ve had, as well as December being a time to showcase, wind down, enjoy simple hands-on Christmas activities, and sundry things.

I’m not sure about Maria, who leads a much more hectic life at school than I do, and who is about to make a major lifestyle change and move to another town, but for me, these last few weeks have disappeared unexpectedly, and I find myself wondering where all the time went.

There were still things we had planned to do. Planning with Maria was so much fun; we were like little girls cooking up schemes and dreaming of possibilities. And although we didn’t have time to do everything we planned, in retrospect, we came a long way.  Our boys started out as barely-out-of-primary school, bewildered and full of silly questions (“Do I rule a margin?” “Should I use a pen or a pencil?”), and finished their first year of secondary school having shared discussions about things that really mattered, having collaborated on chosen projects, expressed themselves in oral presentations, supported each other and learnt from each other in ning forums, laughed and chatted about films, shared personal stories, and much more.

They had taken on the challenge of the ning – something new and foreign to them, not in terms of technology so much as in terms of commenting and responding to others in discussion. They had been fortunate to interact with two authors online, learning from these people directly instead of just reading about them.

What do I think they have gained from our English class?

There is the visible and the invisible learning. Yes, the boys have demonstrated their learning both orally and through written responses.

But they have also sat quietly and not given away what will stay with them forever. Our boys have experienced a passionate, caring teacher in Maria, a teacher who believes passionately that the boys’ education is not just about grammar and essay writing skills, but about learning to appreciate beauty, to respect others, to think more deeply, to develop empathy and appreciate difference.

Sometimes I watched as Maria taught, and I knew that their attentive silence disguised secret internal activity. I could see that they were soaking in a kind of learning which keeps you going for years and years. I knew that these boys would remember their lessons for years to come, and perhaps express their learning eloquently one day to others who would learn from them.

Learning together. Learning for life.

Thankyou Maria xxx

School of Rock

The boys have really been getting into The school of rock.

They seem to be enjoying it so much, Maria and I are thinking that maybe we should have let them watch it at the beginning of the year. They’re engaged, they respond to discussion, they’re making connections – bliss. Or maybe it’s just that all our hard work – trying to awaken their powers of observation, to encourage them to think critically and creatively – maybe the fruits of our labours have finally started to come through.

I was thinking that the boys have been raised on media – it’s not really surprising, on the one hand, that they are in tune with the interpretation of visual clues. However, watching lots of TV and film does not necessarily produce critical analysis. This is where I’m hoping that we’ve had some influence in gently prodding (what am I talking about! pushing from behind!) the boys into a way of thinking and responding. Or just having guided discussion so often that it becomes a mindset.

To me, this is literacy. Doesn’t matter if they’re reading a book, watching a film, reading a graphic novel or listening to music – being able to talk about what you’ve observed and the reasons for your thinking is what literacy is about.

Following our discussions throughout the viewing of the film, we’ve put up a few questions onto the ning – the same ones we’ve talked about – as a way of consolidating the discussion, and allowing the boys to formulate these ideas into their own words. These are just short answers, but the idea is to provide regular time for sustained responses.

It’s also important for them to feel a sense of community by reading their colleagues’ responses and respond to these. As I’ve said before, in this way, they’re not writing for the teacher alone, they’re writing for each other.

These are our initial questions:

List some of the stereotypes represented in the film. What message about body image do you get from the film? Which characters have a problem with body image? Why do you think that is?

Dewey has an unusual style of ‘teaching’. What do Dewey’s students learn from him?

Blow up the brain (a bit)


Photo: Kansas Central Library

We did two things in class today:

  1. continue to write the murder mystery story
  2. continue to work on the Design your own school project

Some students were on a roll with the murder mystery, but others were stuck on how to bring their inanimate characters to life. Maria and I decided that next lesson we would look at Michael Gerard Bauer’s story more closely, pointing out puns and personification, discussing how and why these worked, and why they were clever.

As far as the school design goes, we get the feeling that the boys need some sort of enormous earthquake to blow up their carefully constructed concept of what is possible. Seriously. We didn’t see any trace of the daring or the unusual in their plans for their ideal school.

What to do?

I decided to find visual examples of weird and wonderful buildings to spark the imagination. As always Twitter yielded results in a flash. I was tipped by @tasteach to look at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day for a list of unusual architecture.


Photo: the Crooked House by Hundertwasser

Here are the links I pulled out to inspire the boys:

Here are some interesting websites to inspire your building designs.
This one shows buildings shaped like food and food containers.

Have a look at The world’s most creative buildings

Have a look at the 20 most bizarre houses around the world

What about The world’s slimmest buildings

50 strange buildings of the world

More strange buildings of the world

15 beautiful buildings carved from living rock

8 of the best treehouses in the world

10 most creative appartment blocks

The world’s wildest houses

You could really get lost here; such creativity! I hope the boys will break free of their safe thinking.

Michael Gerard Bauer joins our writing project


This is cross-posted on Brave New World and my fiction blog.

Last post I wrote about my hopeful expectation that Michael Gerard Bauer would accept my invitation to join our creative writing project after we listened to Lemony Snicket’s The composer is dead.

It’s a brilliant, witty and hysterical story narrated by Lemony Snicket himself. The entire production is fun – the story with its personified musical instruments presented as murder suspects (boisterous trumpets proclaiming loudly and with a certain arrogant rudeness), its alliteration (’we conquered the concert’; ‘battered the band’), and its playful use of language (the percussion instruments ‘percussed’, and ‘employed xylophoniness and cymbalism’).

Similar to Peter and the wolf, the story skilfully weaves plot around descriptive information about the orchestra. The boys seemed transfixed by the story, although the musical interludes may have been a bit much for some.

As a creative writing exercise, the boys will be writing their own story –

The … is dead

based on a group of inanimate objects who are suspects in a murder mystery.

Well, to our absolute delight, Michael generously agreed, and very quickly wrote a brilliant and witty piece which I’m going to share with you now.

Police Investigation Report by Chief Inspector Iva Noclue written by Michael Gerard Bauer.

It started out as just another routine investigation, but all that changed when I opened the fridge door.

The body was there lying before me. It was wrapped in plastic, naked, plucked and headless. It was obviously the work of a madman. I examined it more closely: female chicken, size 20, possibly from Ingham, and judging by the aroma – marinated.

You have to deal with some sick people in this job.

I immediately set out on the trail of the killer. I threw open the chiller door.

‘Freeze!’ I shouted. Luckily everyone already had.

I approached my first suspect. He claimed he was a famous rap singer called Ice Tray. I didn’t like his attitude at all. He was cold and hard and refused to answer my questions. He seemed very set in his ways.

I decider to move on. I found my next suspect lurking at the back of the freezer.

‘You, what’s your name?’
‘Really? Why? Did you see something?’
‘What are you talking about you idiot?’
‘I want to know what made you scream. Did you witness the murder? It was Ice Tray wasn’t it?’
‘No you fool. That’s my name, Ice-cream. Strawberry Ice-cream. But what’s this you say about a murder?’
‘That’s right sister. There’s one dead chicken downstairs. You see or hear anything suspicious? Notice any strangers hanging about?’
‘Yes as a matter of a fact I did. Yesterday a whole family of eggs moved in down there.’
‘Right. Was that was before or after the chicken bit the dust.’
‘How would I know if I’m not the murderer?’
‘Good point. I’ll work it out myself. Hmmmmm let’s see, what came first, the Chicken or the Eggs? This could be a tough case.’

I left the Freezer but not before I arranged for Ice Tray to come to the Station the next day for a more thorough interrogation.

My investigation continued. I questioned all the Eggs but they refused to crack. (Just between you and me I think some of their brains were scrambled – or possibly fried.) Then I grilled the Cheese but got nowhere. Next came the Honey. She was a real sweetie but she couldn’t tell me anything either. I was getting nowhere so I decided to offer the Bread a hundred dollars to help me find the murderer. He refused. Said he already had plenty of dough.

My chief suspect was still Ice Tray but there was another guy who made me suspicious – wouldn’t tell me his real name. First he said he was called Vegemite, then he reckoned his name was iSnack2.0 then it was Cheesybite. I decided I’d run those aliases through the computer when I got back to the Station.

Only when I was about to call it a day did I noticed the trail of what looked suspiciously like blood spots. They led me right to a tall red haired chap who went by the name of B. B. Q. Sauce. Of course he claimed he was innocent like the rest of them. Said it was just a nose bleed or something. But then B.B. told me something that got me interested. He said he’d seen Chicken getting friendly with some unsavoury characters recently, said he often saw Chicken mixing with Avocado or Chicken with Mayonnaise or Chicken with Salad and once he’d even seen Chicken with Sweet and Sour sauce!

The case was getting more and more complex and rumour had it that Gladwrap was involved in some sort of big cover up. Then, just when it looked like I’d never get to the bottom of the Chicken case, there was a major break through.

I was interrogating Ice Tray the next day under the hot lights at the Station when to my amazement, he went totally to water. I figured that was as good as a confession so I locked him away in the freezer and threw away the key.

I never did work out how Ice Tray actually committed the murder. I mean it must have been quite difficult with him not having any arms or legs or eyes or ears or brain or any visible means of support or movement, but you could just tell by looking at him that he was obviously a cold-blooded killer and a hardened criminal.

Ice Tray – his heart might have been made of ice, but I saw right through him from the start.

Our boys have been collectively brainstorming possible characteristics for their group of inanimate suspects, but as you can imagine, first time round, it’s challenging.

Thankyou so much to Michael for taking the time and donating his creativity so that our students can learn from an expert, so that they feel special, and appreciative of the privilege they’ve received.

As I’ve said many times before,

technology makes possible the connections between people which would otherwise not have occurred.

This is a great example.

The composer is dead!


Today we listened to an audio reading of Lemony Snicket’s picture book, The composer is dead, with music by Nathaniel Stookey, and illustrations by Carson Ellis. You can read about it on Wikipedia.

It’s a brilliant, witty and hysterical story narrated by Lemony Snicket himself. The entire production is fun – the story with its personified musical instruments presented as murder suspects (boisterous trumpets proclaiming loudly and with a certain arrogant rudeness), its alliteration (‘we conquered the concert’; ‘battered the band’), and its playful use of language (the percussion instruments ‘percussed’, and ’employed xylophoniness and cymbalism’).

Similar to Peter and the wolf, the story skilfully weaves plot around descriptive information about the orchestra. The boys seemed transfixed by the story, although the musical interludes may have been a bit much for some.

As a creative writing exercise, the boys will be writing their own story –

The … is dead

based on a group of inanimate objects who are suspects in a murder mystery.

For example, in a pencil case, the rubber has been murdered, and the red pencil is a suspect because it’s such a show-off, and the others are envious, or perhaps the compass is a suspect for obvious reasons. It could be the capsicum on the pizza which is murdered – you get the picture. Silly but it might be fun.

I’ve asked the brilliant and witty author, Michael Gerard Bauer, to join us in this little creative interlude, and I hope he’ll grace us with his presence. I would love to see what kind of personified inanimate objects he’d come up with for a silly story such as this one.

Back to school

Back to school for the last term of the year, and the second day of Daylight Saving – not a great way to come back, but we survived.

Maria started by asking what the boys did during the holidays – I always find that serves a dual purpose: beginning gently by talking about the students, and also showing them that she’s interested in them, and sharing stories amongst the students. Some students were fortunate to be able to go overseas in the two-week break – one travelled to Thailand and another to Africa.

I explained to the boys what I’d uploaded to the ning during the break. Firstly, the screen shots of the film, School of rock, which they’ll be studying soon, along with questions to spark thinking and analysis of the film.

Zack’s father has strong views on playing the electric guitar. What are they? What impressions do you get of the relationship Zack has with his dad?

Trivia: The finger point and nod that Jack Black teaches Zack is actually a move that Angus Young of AC/DC performs in concerts.

Each screen shot has a comment box so that students can write their answers, and these can all be viewed together, as well as further commented. It really works so well, so much better as a collection of responses visible to everyone, and enabling further discussion, than the usual collection by the teacher of separate responses with no further response from the class.

Next we toured the fiction blog, looking at reading possibilities, checking out author websites and trailers. We looked at Anthem of a reluctant prophet by Joanne Proulx. The book has its own, attractive website, Stokum Sucks.

The boys were impressed that the book came with a playlist (I think). We also looked at a post entitled If you like this, then you’ll love that, with ideas for similar series or genre.  Then we scrolled and skimmed, reminding the boys to check the blog regularly for reading ideas. During lunch the boys met Maria and me in the library so we could help them choose books.

And that was that. First day of fourth term. I think we’re going to have a good one.

Thinking about ‘what if’


Photo courtesy of midnight-digital on Flickr

Last day of term, and Maria and I are talking about what we’ll do when we get back. How’s that for dedication!

We’re thrilled to once again have the privilege of bringing a real live author into our ning for real live conversation. This time it’s Michael Gerard Bauer, another brilliant Australian writer, who has somehow managed to write several novels (including The running man and Don’t call me Ishmael and its sequel) in between teaching. Michael has recently been involved in Jenny Luca’s Year 9 ning, and Jenny has spoken glowingly about his generosity towards and inspiration for her students.

Maria and I have been throwing some ideas around, and we have ideas to work around the theme of ‘what if’. I facebooked (yes, it is so a verb!) Michael and he agreed to take part in a ‘what if’ discussion. We want to stretch the boys’ boundaries with regard to ‘what if’ possibilities which would lead to writing, drawing and multimedia creations.

I have a book called The dictionary of imaginary places which contains extracts from the most amazing literary lands from literature throughout history and from different cultures. Some of these entries are weird and wonderful, and we thought we’d include them in a group on the ning to get the boys’ imaginations working.

Here are a few examples of these imaginary places:

Growleywogs Dominion, a kingdom to the north-west of Ripple Land, which separates it from the Land of the Whimsies.

The Growleywogs are gigantic creatures with not an ounce of fat on them; their bodies are solid bone, skin and muscle. The weakest of the species is capable of picking up an elephant and throwing it seven miles without the slightest difficulty.

(L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz, Chicago, 1910)

Makalolo, a small country in central Africa inhabited by a tribe of women warriors. In Makalolo the men are never given any real power; the highest post to which they can aspire is that of royal cook. Travellers will be interested in the large military parades in which the tall women warriors, mounted on armoured giraffes and ostriches, display their combat regalia. Makalolo is an elective monarchy in which two queens are elected for a period of five years. When their reign comes to an end, a large banquet is served to the highest Makalolo officials and worthies in which the two outgoing queens are roasted and eaten.

(Albert Robida, Voyages Tres Extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde [et dans tous les pays connus et meme inconnus de M. Jules Verne], Paris, 1879).

Strange stuff…  That’s what we want the boys to get into. Push their safe boundaries a little. Personally, I think that growing up on the original versions of Grimms’ fairy tales (not actually very fairy), instead of our kids’ abridged Disney versions and Simpsons mashups, I’m more in tune with these weird lands and peoples than my students.

Maria had a couple of brilliant ideas this morning – how she managed that on the last day of term, afflicted with a cold and all, I don’t know.

The first idea is for the students to collaborate with Michael Gerard Bauer (we haven’t told him yet) on a continuous ‘what if’ story. Perhaps Michael could start it off, write a brilliant introductory paragraph which would get all the ‘what if’ juices flowing.

The second idea is to take a simple object (an orange, for example) and change it by adding 5 different things you wouldn’t normally associate with the object. You could add legs to the orange, change its colour to green, put it on wheels, etc. I thought we could make up a box of different objects, and the boys could pull out one; it could add to the ‘game’ aspect of the activity, so that it was done playfully, and not bogged down in the seriousness that classroom writing sometimes takes on. We thought this might be a good group activity, pooling on collective wisdom.

Altogether, while hanging out for the holidays, Maria and I are looking forward to an enjoyable last term for the year. We’re going to have fun.