Favourite books from when we were young


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.


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.


Talk about reading

Photo courtesy of Nathan Tia on Flickr

After being away sick for a week, it was very nice to see Mrs Toomey and the class of 7M again.  They quickly filled me in on what they were up to. Two main things:

  • helping Lachlan with his speech as part of the Year 7 Oral Presentation Competiton (Lachlan was chosen to represent 7M)
  • discussing reading and everything associated with it

First of all, Lachlan presented his edited speech to the class – it had to be chopped a bit. The boys were enthusiastic and spot-on with suggestions about what Lachlan could do to improve his presentation. It’s a daunting task presenting an oral to the class, let alone representing the class, and Lachlan did extremely well, but if we had to be picky, we noticed the following:

  • he fiddled with his belt (Lachlan claimed his pants were too big and kept slipping down)
  • he ‘umm-ed’  a little too much (easily done)
  • he spoke a little too quickly
  • he needed to outline  what he was going to talk about in his introduction before he went into detailed facts
  • he need a few pauses for effect

Next, we went on to our discussion about Reading. While I was away, the class had collaborated to produce two lists:

Strategies for  reading

  1. Ease into the book by starting your reading with a small amount and then moving to a larger amount.
  2. Try to have as few distractions as possible.
  3. When you’re trying to get into a book, try and read at least 1 chapter before deciding you don’t like it.
  4. Make sure you are reading something that you enjoy or you will just find reading boring.
  5. Try and read after you have done some kind of activity, so you aren’t fidgety or restless.
  6. Set a time to read so that you know when it is time to read.
  7. Don’t just give up on a book if you don’t like the title or the 1st part of it.
  8. Only read as much as you want, so if you only want to read 10 pages, read 10 pages.
  9. Have a drink of water and some food that you can have while you’re reading so that you. don’t have to stop reading when you get hungry.
  10. Read in a calm place away from loud noises.

And also:

How to choose a Novel/book

  1. Choose a fiction that sounds like something you would read







  1. Try and read a book that is right for you, for example, read something shorter rather than a longer book.
  2. Google the Author and have a look around the website for information about his/her books.
  3. Read the blurb.
  4. Look for a good cover.
  5. Sit and have a read of it before you buy it.
  6. Ask for an opinion on that book.
  7. Look for something that you relate to in the blurb.
  8. IF you like an author look for other books that author has written.
  9. Look for a series that you think you would enjoy.

I created a Group in the ning ‘What are we talking about?’ called ‘To read or not to read’. Within this, I created 3 Discussions:

  1. Reading strategies
  2. How to choose a book
  3. Lots more genres

These discussions contain the boys’ strategies (which I’ve included above) as well as more genres which I copied from the magazine Fiction Focus ( Vol. 23 2009 Issue 2).

Here they are:

Here are some new genres you may not have thought of:

Animal fantasy – anthropomorphic animals as the main characters in a fantasy setting

Bildungsroman – a coming-of-age novel

Combat – a struggle between opposing individuals or forces

Dystopia – a setting in an imaginary world where the protagonists face extreme deprivation or oppression.

Gothic – broadly used to denote novels with elements of romance, horror and the supernatural.

Graphic Novel – a text type with a narrative largely conveyed through images, often in a page layout resembling a comic book.

Legend – a traditional story with a historical context and a human protagonist that has been passed down through the ages

Memoir– differs from an autobiography in that the author’s account focuses on one aspect of their life

Myth – traditional story featuring a superhuman being or an attempt to explain natural phenomena.

Non-fiction narrative – a factually accurate narrative written in a literary style

Parody – a light-hearted imitation of a serious piece or style of literature

Retelling – a familiar story, often a fairytale, retold, sometimes in a contemporary context.

Speculative – encompassing fantasy, future, science fiction and other discrete genres, speculative fiction asks the question ‘what if?’

Survival – a realistic novel where the protagonist is forced to rely on inner strength in order to overcome extreme circumstances

Tragedy – the main character is ruined or suffers as a result of a tragic flaw.

Lastly, we showed them the latest posts in the fiction blog, particularly, the trailer for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (which is coming out in October), and the internet video game show which the author John Green has created with his brother, Hank. The trailer is amazing, and it was funny to look around the room and see all the boys’ mouths open, with little exclamations ‘I wanna read that!’ John Green’s internet game is a hoot, and we played a bit of it; I hope the boys will go home and have a play for themselves (I’m sure Mrs Toomey will).

Altogether, it was a rich and enjoyable lesson.

Art plays with English

Following the discussion and writing based on what the bicycle represented to Vithy in Little brother, the boys created pencil drawings of the bicycle in an interpretative way. With all the technology we’ve been using, it was lovely to see the raw pencil drawings in hard copy, but it was also good to be able to scan them and upload them onto the ning. Maria and I are thinking of thanking Allan Baillie with a small gift, and we thought we might make a mosaic out of the drawings. Yesterday, I finally did that, using Mosaic Maker from the Big Huge Labs website.


Here are some of the bicycle drawings:







I love interdisciplinary learning. More of this!

How do we present the ning to staff?

Following our school’s involvement in Powerful Learning Practice, our team has been asked to present to the whole staff next Monday. Maria and I will be talking about the ning in our English classes. We decided to present collaboratively, with Maria doing most of the talking and me driving the ning tour. Our idea was that teachers would find the ning more relevant and convincing if a classroom teacher presented. Sadly, I think that they would be less likely to listen if a teacher librarian was presenting, because we’re associated with the library (which means we’re seen as chained to the library circulation desk and focus on books).   Today we got together to decide how we were going to proceed.

The most difficult thing is deciding what is essential – we don’t have more than 10 minutes or so. We don’t want to overwhelm everyone but if we don’t present in some detail, it won’t make much sense to anyone.

For me, the essential part of the ning in supporting the English curriculum has not been the technology, but the possibilities for discussion and interactions. Within online discussions, every student gets an equal chance to participate in discussion at his own pace. The authentic audience and connections with others form a community of learners. Instead of responding to the teacher, students interact with each other; their learning is social. Although it’s not exactly Facebook, the ning has provided a Facebook-like platform for classroom learning.

What we’d like to stress is that the teaching is more important than ever. Yes, the ning is technology, but that’s not the focus. The ning is not some technical textbook with multiple choice questions and answers making the teacher redundant. Scaffolding the learning process is even more vital than ever to ensure rich discussion and push students’ thinking towards  critical and reflective responses.

During our planning session,  Maria and I focused on identifying the way the ning enhanced teaching and learning beyond traditional teaching methods.  We anticipated teachers wanting to hear why they should tackle the technology, what was special about the ning. That’s a fair enough question: there’s no point in using technology for its own sake. So let’s see…  Well, as I’ve already said, there’s the authentic, peer audience, and the interaction within that, and secondly, there’s the threaded discussion. When students are asked to write down their thoughts in class, it’s normally just the teacher who collects and reads them. Perhaps a few might be read out in class. The ning provides the transparency for all students to read everyone’s contributions, but also to reply to a specific one. Students can read every other student’s ideas, and respond to any of these.

Apart from the connection to the other students in the class, our class was joined by The Kings’ School boys in Parramatta. The ning has also provided an opportunity to bring in an expert, in our case,  our book’s author, Allan Baillie, who was able to answer specific questions of each boy individually. We provided authentic, engaging learning. The boys got a kick out of having their questions answered by the man himself.

I also love the simple fact that the ning contains everything so neatly – from a teacher’s point of view, assessment is made easy because everything that has been written is easy to find. I imagine it will be easy to see development in the boys’ writing as the year goes on.

Using videos to spark discussion has never been so easy. I embed videos when I come across them (handy for on-the-spot activities), and all the discussion following the viewing is neatly recorded underneath. Students regularly practise literacy without even realising. Somehow they think that discussion of a video isn’t real work. Videos are great for visual literacy -something I’ve noticed doesn’t come easily to young people regardless of what is said about the internet generation. They need lots of practice ‘reading’ visual clues, following visual narrative and interpreting and critically analysing visual messages. Of course, audio is also important, and our class has also enjoyed videos with music.

We plan to show teachers the variety of resources that can be included in the ning. Our videos cover many subjects – even grammar, information literacy (eg. evaluation of websites) and responsible online behaviour. I’ve started embedding TED talks which I think will be suitable for this age group. I’ll be looking to include more TED talks because they’re so inspiring.

I hope our presentation will demystify the ning and similar technology and open up practical suggestions for the use of such technology in the classroom. As long as the internet connection works! Keep our fingers crossed.

Oral presentations – the power of speech

We had a good lesson, Maria and I, and we’re smiling.

As the boys start thinking about what they will do for their oral presentation as part of a year 7 competition, we thought we’d show them a few videos to spark ideas.

I embedded videos into the Oral Presentation group on the ning, and we decided to show the first three and leave the rest for individual perusal at the point of need.

The first video was a short introduction to the power of speech, produced by the BBC in conjunction with their TV show The speaker. The students listened to John F Kennedy’s speech in his voice through the mouths of young people.

Videos are great for sparking discussion. We didn’t spend too long talking about this one, but the boys had some spot-on responses to our questions about why Kennedy’s speech and voice was coming out of adolescents’ mouths, and how words could be powerful.

Next we showed them a video of a British boy, 15 year old Duncan Harrison, a secondary school student from Horfield, Bristol, who came first place in the BBC‘s The Speaker competition, winning the title of Britain’s best young speaker. I was amazed by this boy’s skills and charisma. He delivered a spine-tinglingly powerful speech about how poverty affected the right to education for children in Malawi, Africa.

I wasn’t sure whether to include this video, thinking it might put the boys off; they might think this boy is so brilliant and be discouraged from trying. But then again, a little inspiration goes a long way. Maria agreed with me, and said we should be lifting the bar.

The discussion that followed this viewing was very fertile. Maria and I have noticed a sudden awakening in the boys. Where previously, we had to work hard to receive any response, to ignite any sign of life in their eyes, all of a sudden, we have attentive faces, impassioned expressions, hands going up with urgency, and thoughtful answers. Imagine how we feel.

Lastly, we showed a funny little video from Brain Pop. Not brilliant but it still managed to maintain the boys’ attention despite it being the end of the long lesson (over an hour). At first I thought it might be too young, but it still goes through some of the main things to consider when making a speech. If you’d like to have a look, click here.

Lastly, I embedded a series of videos about different aspects of public speaking. They’re short and only cover one aspect at a time. This is great, but unfortunately the speaker doesn’t always practise what he preaches, that is, he doesn’t really engage the audience. Uninspiring, but since there’s nothing else I could find I thought I’d throw them in.

I’m beginning to feel a sense of excitment with this class. Boys I thought weren’t going to come on board are starting to jump on. I’m anticipating some surprises here.

It’s been a good day

After all our early struggles and frustrations, what  relief and joy to experience smooth sailing. Touch wood. Maria and I were grinning at the end of today’s lesson because boys were connecting easily to our ning, and we were enjoying the fruits of our previous labours.

First of all, we looked through Allan Baillie’s responses to the boys’ questions. I’m not sure what the boys thought, but they kept it to themselves as usual. That is to say, they were attentive but not jumping up and down. That’s all we can expect, I think.

We discussed the fact that even Allan Baillie made typos. We talked about how, if you had a great story to tell, you could work through the editing  process to arrive at the polished product. I think it’s important for them to understand that having something to say, having a story to tell,  is the most important thing, and that it’s possible even for a student who doesn’t think he’s ‘good at’ English to work through the drafts, with help if necessary, and end up with a great piece of writing.

Some of Allan’s replies were worth singling out – there were answers that obviously revealed things about his writing process and decisions which we wouldn’t have know from his biography or website. Maria and I find that fantastic.

Since the boys are working on a Little Brother project with many parts, allowing choice and variation in presentation, it was a good time to show them Flickr. I showed them how to find the best photos of Cambodia and related things, talked about sets and pools and tags, talked about Creative Commons, and good behaviour in photo sharing, and they listened attentively because it was relevant to their needs.

Lastly, I showed them Tag Galaxy which is such a beautiful and absorbing visual search application, and that was a wonderful way to finish the lesson. Our flickr searches found some fantastic photos with interesting information that we wouldn’t have found on Google Images.

The great thing about the ning is that it’s dead easy to add links and explanations in a spot where the students can find what they need at a later time. I was able to put in the link to Creative Commons on Flickr as I went. Since we don’t expect students (or anyone) to retain what we tell them in class, it’s good to have a designated space for them to go back to when they’re ready to have a more detailed look.

Allan Baillie talks to the students

Well, last night, I received an email notification to say that Allan Baillie had answered one of the students’ questions. Then another, and another, and soon most of the boys had received a reply to their question. I was so pleased! I think the boys should be too. It’s very special that our boys are receiving individual answers to their questions. Here is an example:

Dear Mr Baillie,
I have read the book, Little Brother and I really liked the book. When I read it I felt like I was in Cambodia! I have one question, how did you feel when you were in Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge?

Allan’s response:

I was Cambodia in 1969 and I visited some Frenchmen running a rubber plantation.
They slapped a revolver in my hand and took me on a night hunt in the plantation. They warned me about careless shooting because we were going into an area controlled by a few bandits. Harmless, they said, and charming. The bandits were just sick and tired of the corruption of the government. Called themselves Khmer Rouge. We stopped and I shot four coconuts.

I hope that this little exercise will be a lightbulb learning moment for the boys. We’ve been discussion the thinking behind the writing and creation of characters, and now that they’ve had a conversation with the author himself, I hope they’ll understand the power of the story, and the man behind the story.