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Thinking about ‘what if’

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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.

Favourite books from when we were young

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So much has been happening – nothing extraordinary, just the usual illnesses, extra activities, uncooperative technology – and so we haven’t been back to the ning for quite some time.

It was nice to revisit yesterday. We showed the boys the slideshow of their bicycle artwork, and they were mesmerised. Having your creation take up the whole screen makes a difference to how it’s perceived, and seeing your work amongst the variety of art by all students is also worth doing. I can’t emphasise enough how important the sharing is. Why get students to create anything if nobody gets to see it but the teacher?

We struck a problem in showing the boys videos of their oral presentations. I uploaded them onto Youtube and set them to private. Since I could still see the videos when I looked on the ning, I didn’t realise nobody else would be able to. Now I’m not sure what to do, because obviously we can’t make the boys’ videos public on Youtube, but we would like to see them within the privacy of the ning. I’ve looked at Teacher Tube and Vimeo, and their privacy settings, but so far I’m not sure if this can be done.

Yesterday the boys brought in their favourite books from when they were young. It was touching to see the dog-eared, scruffy little books, some with bits of dinner on them (or maybe I’m just exaggerating), and each boy was given the chance to present their book, say what it was that they loved about it, recreate the context of this love, eg. hearing it being read in bed or on a parent’s knee. There were small sounds of recognition when cultural icons such as Spot or Franklin were presented. We had the boys reading their books out aloud. Interestingly, instead of the teenage dismissal I expected, the boys showed respect for each others’ loved and treasured books.

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Towards the end of the lesson, we showed the boys a video of Lemony Snicket talking about his picture book The composer is dead. Far from the miserable, pessimistic person you may expect having read his Series of unfortunate events, he is the funniest person. Perhaps the only dark thing about him is his humour. I thought at one stage that Maria wouldn’t be able to surface from a particularly extreme laughing fit. All good fun. The book comes with a CD which is obviously essential, since the story is about an orchestra, featuring instruments, all anthropomorphised, and all suspects in the murder of the composer (‘decomposing’). Nathaniel Stookey is the composer of the music for this book, and we hear him being interviewed as well. I have the book and CD, and we’ll be ‘reading’ the book with the students next term. It’s just so easy to embed videos on the ning, and pull them out when you want to.

While we were on a musical theme, with a few minutes to spare at the end of the lesson, we showed this video of a graphic representation of Beethoven.

How we started and what we’ve learned

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Well, it’s been a while (some time in March, I think) since Maria Toomey and I joined forces to teach 7M English – actually I joined her, and she’s made me feel so much a part of the class, and a real partner (I want to say ‘in crime’) in the classroom.

Maria is a brilliant teacher, and she’s comfortable with her role in the claas a teacher. She is also always looking for new and innovative ways to engage students in authentic learning. The perfect person for me to approach about trying out Web 2.0 ways of teaching. And so, I approached her about starting up a ning for 7M English. I hadn’t created a ning before, but I had been participating in many, starting with the Powerful Learning Practice ning which was the platform for learning and sharing as part of the PLP program run by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum Beach. As part of the PLP team, I enjoyed a rich learning environment shared by Australian as well as international cohorts. Whitefriars College joined 3 other schools in Victoria, as well as the State Library of Victoria, 3 schools from New South Wales, one from Queensland and one from New Zealand. We were part of an international cohort including 9 schools from USA. The ning provided a virtual platform for communication which proved to be easy to use, rich, collaborative and extremely enjoyable.

I began thinking that this would be a wonderful way to function in a class, and so 7M was signed up for the ning ‘What are we talking about?’

It would be misleading for me to say that everything went without a hitch. I’m so grateful that Maria is patient, flexible and can see the bigger picture. Finally now, in July, things are coming together for us in the ning. But there were many difficulties and many times of frustration that we had to weather. I’m sure that when I set up a second ning for the classroom, my experiences will ensure a smoother process, but in case anyone would like an insight into what the difficulties were, here they are:

  • internet access has to be booked for the class at our school, and sometimes you just forget
  • we’ve had ongoing issues with the students not being able to get onto the internet, either because of problems within our own school, or because of individual laptop problems
  • interruptions to the process with students having to go to sport or music lessons make it difficult to follow a lengthy process, aborting it mid-way
  • students sometimes misspell their email addresses, and this needs to be checked
  • students should record their usernames and passwords for future use; we wasted so much time because of forgotten passwords, etc.
  • teachers should write down student’s login details as a backup

I think that it would be fantastic if there was an IT person who could come in regularly and troubleshoot individual or school problems with online access.

At the beginning, before students become accustomed to the ning, it would be a good idea to plan short activities, such as profile questions as a way of getting to know everyone. Small steps keep everyone happy. The rest of the lesson could be devoted to something else.

You really have to be flexible because unseen problems can occur, and in that case we just got the students to write in a word document, then copy and paste it to the ning when possible.

It’s important to discuss online etiquette, including the use of respectful language, manners and positive commenting, appropriate subject matter. We made it clear to the boys that everything they wrote or posted could be viewed by everybody, and we had also invited our principal. You should have seen their faces!

We decided that the students would not upload videos because initially, when they could, we had lots of silly videos. The same goes with pictures – we had many car pictures. This is really a matter of  personal choice. Educators may decide to permit students to upload pictures and videos in order to make them feel ‘at home’ in the ning. Our boys are very young, and we decided that they would start off strictly controlled, and then perhaps be allowed more freedom as they became more mature and responsible.

Overall, Maria and I have been happy about the way things have gone. Amidst the difficulties and frustrations was the hope in providing a rich learning environment, and the belief that the interactive nature of the ning would engage the boys. The ning is also a wonderfully transparent platform, containing all the lessons and discussions in an orderly manner, making it easy to find.

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The discussion is my favourite part of the ning. You can create a group for a topic or book study, and then you can create different discussion threads within this group. Everything can be supported by pictures and video which is appreciated by the boys, since they love visual stuff.

Another valuable aspect of the ning is the fact that students take part in a discussion online, and they are writing for a peer audience. This is much more motivating than writing for a teacher. Our boys are learning to respond to posted comments in a thoughtful way, and the whole discussion thread is visible to all members. This is an opportunity for those who are generally quiet in class or unsure of themselves to take their time to respond, and to see their contributions alongside everyone else’s. It’s a very democratic process really.

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Another thing to remember is that the ning will not work without good teaching. The teaching is even more important in preparing students for online participation. Maria always takes the time to tease out topics for discussion, unfolding thinking and language, before allowing the boys to jump into the ning. Unsupported, the ning would be a failure, in the same way as any technology tool used in teaching would be.

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One of the most exciting things that happened to us within the Ning was when Marita Thomson from The Kings School, Parramatta, Sydney, organised for a year 7 class to join our 7M. So far we’ve only had time to share personal information, such as family background, likes and dislikes, interests, etc., because our holiday period is different to Sydney’s, and so we’re waiting for The Kings boys to come back to school and join us for further conversation. It makes a difference when the boys have a real conversation, wanting to know about similarities and differences about things they share a passion for.