Sunday, 15 November 2009

Pat Conroy has enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers

About eight years ago I read a book about teaching which I haven't forgotton. It's called THE WATER IS WIDE and is Pat Conroy's memoir of a year teaching poor black kids on Yamacraw Island about a world they didn't know existed.
The first thing I learned when I got there was that fourteen of the seventeen kids in grades five through eight read below the first grade level. Five of the kids did not know the alphabet; five of the kids also did not know how to add one and one, two and two, things I thought rather basic in the education of most people.

It was a year that changed Conroy's life. Read it if you can get a copy.

I remembered the book when I read this letter about book censorship which is a beautifully eloquent homage to English teachers:

A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteenstory building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye fortyeight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because bookbanners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works– but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against–you’ve riled a Hatfield.

pat conroy

Friday, 13 November 2009

Results of testing won't be used for league tables?

We seem to becoming more obsessed with tests and and easy comparisons. Julia Gillard, Australia's Education Minister, says there will be no league tables.

We've heard it all before.

Recently a meeting of principals in Canberra warned a new website that provides information on schools around the country could lead to the creation of league tables even though the website has been designed to stop that happening.

Are exams bad for children? The Telegraph, UK, quotes Greg Watson, head of OCR, one of three main exam boards, as saying that the system of league tables and Ofsted inspections piled pressure on teachers to get results at all costs.

In a speech, he suggested that “exam factories” were being created, potentially damaging children’s education.

The article is written by By Graeme Paton, Education Editor of The Telegraph. He says that the comments are a latest in a series of attacks on the way the UK Government uses exam results to hold schools - and pupils - to account.

Two of England’s main teaching unions – the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers claim the exams, which are taken in the final year of primary education, skew the curriculum and force schools to “teach to the test”.

Exams are not in themselves bad for children - what is bad is an exam the results of which "indicate the school's performance", making the school teach to the exam to improve their rating - together with financial incentives.

I remain sceptical when our politicians say the they are being transparent and that league tables won't happen.

At the Canberra principals meeting Ms Gillard insisted after the launch ''there is no part of this website that can be sorted into a league table by using sort functions on the computer. That is simply not possible''. clever - It's not us that will create the league tables.

League tables won't be created? Yeah, and pigs might fly.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Learning slowly according to Manfred Spitzer

Gary Woodwill reviewed a book about learning, thinking and acting. The title grabbed my attention "The Importance of Learning Slowly". The book is by Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting.One of the comments Woodwill makes about the book is that:
While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience ... and according to Spitzer "It must learn quickly for obvious reasons, but it must learn slowly in order to generalize in a way that will produce the optimal solution without oscillating around it or forgetting it because of some other stimulus.”
(p. 53)

Woodwill continues

We often find our models of understanding the world in the latest technologies available to us. Piaget developed his multi-stage theories of learning from observing his own children, and then applying the dominant mechanical metaphors of his day. In the 19th century, Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer, coined the term “the average man” based on the pendulum (Piaget’s “equilibrium”), while Herbert Spencer wrote a psychology of adaptation using the newly created thermostat as his model (Piaget’s “adaptation and assimilation” within set limits).

In the second half of the twentieth century, two models of computing competed for dominance. One model was artificial intelligence, based on a model of inputs, storage, processing, and outputs - in other words, a factory metaphor. The other model was that of neural networks, modeled on what was then known about the functioning of brains in humans and other animals. In the 1950s, AI became the darling of computer science, leaving neural network development far behind in terms of funding and attention.

Manfred Spitzer’s The Mind within the Net is one of the best non-technical narratives on how minds work using the neural network model. Some of these explanations are startling, while others reinforce positions of strong advocates of individual freedom and the power of informal learning, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Jay Cross.

Spitzer also believes that children can and need to learn more quickly than adults. Children need a rough and ready view of the world while adults want to increase their depth of understanding. Spitzer relates this to the pace of change in today’s society. “The old master violin building makes better violins than the young student of the trade. If, however, all of a sudden the customers want music synthesizers, student will adapt to change more readily.”

The importance of feedback is apparent in both brains and neural networks. Neural networks have a technique called backpropagation of errors that simulates feedback loops in the brain that slowly change the hidden layers between input and output. This means that learning is much more to do with practice and observation than being told what to do. “Children learn from examples,” says Spitzer. The brain stores its learning in “self organizing feature maps.”

Spitzer is a psychiatrist in Germany, so it is not surprising that he has a chapter entitled “The Disordered Mind” in which he discusses autism and oppression. Most of his conclusions are on the best way to raise children, making this book less applicable to the adult learning. However, there are so many insights going through it that I highly recommend it to everyone in education and training.

I’m looking forward to reading it.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

On line courses at Yale

Occassionally I remember to check out on line courses which I think are great. Yale courses can be linked at On line courses at Yale. For example the history department
... is home to one of the most popular majors on the Yale campus and encompasses the histories of Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America. Courses range in focus from the earliest recorded historical periods up through the modern day. Students are required to study history from a variety of geographical, chronological, and methodological perspectives, utilizing source materials wherever possible. The department also houses the History of Medicine and Science major. Learn more at

Check it out from your kitchen table.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Building reading stamina

"This year reading is really boring. Everytime we finish a chapter the teacher gives us a sheet with questions that we have to answer. Last year reading was fun, we made up our own questions and talked in groups about the text."

I was reminded of this conversation I had with a group of year 7 boys when I read Carol Jago's column 'Readers Just Want to Have Fun' in Voices From the Middle. The boys talking I had worked with in grade 6 as a rural primary school. We were using Reading Circles and the students really came to enjoy reading and to see that it could be fun. Yet here they were one year later and turned off reading because it was now a comprehension worksheet exercise.

If we want students to read we first need to get them enjoying reading and wanting to read.

Recently I've been working with teachers to get them to change from silent reading to independent reading. Independent reading where students choose their 'just right' book, read with a purpose, write in their reading journal with the teacher working by conducting reading conferences.

Sometimes the teacher might run a guided reading group during this time.

But the first thing is to get kids to build up their reading stamina. This means being able to concentrate on reading for 30 plus minutes. To really get into the story, which is something struggling readers rarely experience.

In a couple of classes where teachers have insisted on students reading for 30 minutes students have begun to enjoy reading. And they do not read outside of the classroom.

So, first things first, get them reading for a sustained time.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The beauty of mathematical language

They say a whole page of ideas
Can be captured in a symbol
And a large chunk of life
Can be explained in an equation

With powerful and elegant notations
People can picture in their minds
Through a few simple strokes or curves,
Whole chapters of imagination
And days and nights, countless explorations of intrigue,

A little Pi, is not so simple,
For books have been written, and still more will write
A small lemniscus, is not so naïve
For it never ends and never starts
A tiny epsilon-delta, is not so petite
For it takes tremendous insight and intuition
To see it beyond the small printed space

In a little Greek or Latin
The language of the dead and bygones
A process, and
A concept
Are in love, deep and profound
Tall’s mathematical duality
Like the wave-particle

The beauty of mathematical language
To those who see, they saw beyond,
Far beyond
To those who do not, the little Greek or Latin are
Discretely lifeless and collectively soulless
Like a wonderful poem left idle on paper.

16 December 2004

Victor Tiong

Universiti Malaysia Sabah

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Beautiful writing according to Kate Jennings

Kate Jennings in her Australian Quarterly essay incoporates an extract of 'beautiful writing' from a piece for The New Review of Books by Mark Danner Obama and Sweet Potato Pie:

Everything else they would never see. It existed only for the several thousand cheering people in Vernon Park on that bright morning in Germantown. They would never see, for instance, Obama's riff on sweet potato pie. It came as he told a story about his campaigning "the other day in a little town in Ohio, with the governor there," about how he and the governor suddenly felt hungry and "decided we'd stop right there and get some pie." Now here began a little gem of a story, which had at its center the diner employees who wanted to take a picture with Obama, not least because, as they told him, their boss was a die-hard Republican and "they wanted to tweak him a little with that picture." All this was heading toward a carefully choreographed finale, where the owner appeared personally with the pie for candidate and governor and Obama looked at the pie and looked at the pie-carrying die-hard Republican owner and "then I said to him"—perfectly elongated pause—"How's business?"

This brought on great gales of laughter from the crowd. For the joke turned on a point already precisely made: How can even the most die-hard of die-hard Republicans, if he is thinking of his self-interest, how can he vote Republican this year? "If you beat your head against the wall," Obama demanded of that faraway Republican with his pie, to a blizzard of "oh yeahs!" and "you got that right!" from the crowd, "and it hurts and hurts, how can you keep doing it?" But it was those two words, "How's business?"—that casual greeting thrown at the Republican diner owner that showed that there simply could be no other choice this year—that showed the case proved, wrapped up, unassailable.

And yet what struck me in this little model of political art was a tiny riff the candidate effortlessly worked into it from his banter with the crowd. When Obama launched into his story with "Because I love pie," a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, " I'll make you pie, baby!" and to the general hooting laughter the candidate returned, "Oh yeah, you gonna make me pie?" Then, after a beat, amid even more raucous laughter, and several other female voices shouting out invitations, "You gonna make me sweet potato pie? " More shouts and laughter. " All you gonna make me pie?"

"Well you know I love sweet potato pie. And I think what we're going to have to do here"—and the laughter and the shouting rose and as it did his voice rose above it—"what we're going to have to do here is have a sweet potato pie contest.... That's right. And in this contest, I'm gonna be the judge." The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting. "Because you all know," their candidate told them, "that I know sweet potato pie."

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Re-reading Marzano's books

I've been thinking a bout classroom management and organising for effective teaching and began re-reading some of Robert Marzano's books, especially on Classroom Instruction that Works. Another book is the Art and Science of Teaching from which these questions came:

What will I do to establish and communicate learning goals, track student progress and celebrate success?

What will I do to help students effectively interact with new knowledge?

What will I do to help students practice and deepen their understanding of new knowledge?

What will I do to help students generate and test hypotheses about new knowledge?

What will I do to engage students?

What will I do to establish or maintain classroom rules and procedures?

What will I do to recognize and acknowledge adherence and lack of adherence to classroom rules and procedures?

What will I do to establish and maintain effective relationships with students?

What will I do to communicate high expectations to all students?

What will I do to develop effective lessons organized into cohesive units?

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Reading to reach the dangerous moment

Last Friday while I was conducting some reading assessments with year 8 students one student became teary as she read a passage aloud to me. She and I talked about whether to continue with her reading or not. She decided to continue and was able to successfully read two of the three passages . After reading she answered the follow-up literal questions by just guessing the answer; in one case the question was 'What droned over the water?' . The text reads ' a fly droned over the water' but the student said "a green bird". She said that this was the answer because the story is about a green bird. I thought where do we start with assisting her to read with understanding.

She is an efficient decoder which to use Frank Smith's words, is "barking at print". It's the understanding of what they are reading that is not developed. Graham Greene called this his dangerous moment:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives ... I remember distinctly the suddenness with which a key turned in a lock and I found I could read - not just the sentences in a reading book with the syllables coupled together like railway carriages, but a real book. It was paper-covered with the picture of a boy, bound and gagged, dangling at the end of a rope inside a well with the water rising above his waist - and adventure of Dixon Brett, detective. All long summer holiday I kept my secret, as I believed: I did not want anybody to know that I could read. I suppose I half conscientiously realized even then that this was the dangerous moment.

How can we get students the dangerous moment?

I've been reading Maryanne Wolf's book 'Proust and the Squid' which besides having a great title is rich in ideas and an astonishing account of the development of the reading brain. She says the fluency in reading is not a matter of speed but is a matter of being able to utilise all "special knowledge a child has about a word - its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions, roots, and endings - fast enough to have time to think and to comprehend... the point of becoming fluent,k therefore, is to read - really read and understand."

The first thing is to get kids to enjoy reading, to want to read so as to get to the 'dangerous moment'. Too often reading for many students is a chore, boring and an activity which involves completion of comprehension worksheets. So we need to assess kids accurately, to get them reading texts at their 'just right' level, to explicitely teach how good readers read, to teach the strategies that good readers use and to creat a sense of joy and wonder and enthusiasm for reading.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Teaching is not brain surgery. It's Harder.

After watching Four Corners televison program tonight on unemployment I read this piece "Top Ten Necessities for Education Reform" that Will Richardson twittered . The piece is from a Psychology Today blog by Dr. Judy Willis a neurologist and middle school teacher:

For the first time since the institution of public education in the U.S., students currently in high school are less likely to graduate than their parents. the U.S. is the only industrialized country where that is true. Here are my recommendations to change the appalling dropout rate and prepare students for the 21st century.

1. Collaborate
2. Evaluate Information Accuracy
3. Teach Tolerance
4. Assessing Student Knowledge
5. Beyond Differentiation to Individualization.
6. Inspiration and engagement open the brain's information filters (reticular activating system and amygdala) to accept sensory input.
7. Lower Stress. React or Reflect?
8. Using Learning Beyond the Classroom.
9. Teach students (and educators) the Brain Owner's Manual.
10. Teaching is not brain surgery. It's Harder. When teachers receive the recognition, status, and more of the autonomy I receive as a neurologist, we will attract the best and brightest to teaching and keep professional educators longer than the current five year average.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Students like working

This morning I was in Terry Hillier's year 9 maths class at Maryborough, sitting at a table with a group of students discussing their learning. I asked " How are you going?" and one student replied, "good, I've learnt more this year (two months) than all of last year."

"OH, why is that?"

"Well last year we had heaps of teachers, and this year we've just had Mr Hillier."

"What does Mr Hillier do that helps you learn mathematics?"

"He explains things well."

"And we work."

It was obvious that the teacher has a strong positive relationship with his students. We know that explaining things clearly is important, but the comment that grabbed my attention was 'we work'. Students actually like to work.

A few years ago I remember some of my ex students saying that they liked a certain teacher but that he shouldn't be teaching. The reason was that they didn't work and students didn't respect him as a result.

Work doesn't mean busy work but meaningful, organised and challenging work. And you know, the very kids who struggle with reading and writing usually do very little reading and writing. We wound them by being undemanding.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Teaching the Passive Voice

This afternoon at Maryborough Education Centre, where I'm working as a teaching and learning coach, a group of teachers discussed the need to explicitly teach grammar, and we talked about using grammar in the context of students' writing. Yesterday I worked with Debbie Long, a science teacher, using shared writing strategy for students to write a scientific report. One aspect we covered was that this genre of writing should be in the passive voice. So here's a piece from

Vignette: Teaching the Passive Voice
To help students understand sentence structure, some teachers get physical.

Here are two ways to dramatize the passive voice. I stand at one side of the room and throw my keys on the floor, telling the class to make me a sentence about what I just did and to begin the sentence with my name. I always get “Ms. Van Goor threw her keys on the floor.” I smile and write the sentence on the board.

VG: And the subject of the sentence is?
Class: Ms. Van Goor.
VG: Right! And the verb?
Class: Threw.
VG: Right again.

Now I pick up my keys and do the same thing again, but this time I tell them they must begin the sentence with The keys. It takes only a few minutes longer for them to get “The keys were thrown on the floor by Ms. Van Goor.” I write that sentence on the board also.

VG: And the subject is?
Class: The keys.
VG: Right! And the verb?
Class: (This takes longer, several tries, but eventually someone says it) Were thrown.
VG: Right. Now, in the first sentence, was the subject (I underline the subject once) doing what the verb (I underline the verb twice) described?
Class: Yes.
VG: Was the subject active, doing something?
Class: Yes.
VG: OK, how about the second sentence? Did the subject (I underline it once) do what the verb (I underline it twice) described?
Class: (much more slowly!) No-o-
VG: Was the subject active, doing something?
Class: No-o-.
VG: Or was the subject passive, just sitting there letting something else do something to it?
Class: (very tentatively) Passive?
VG: Yeah. The subject didn't do anything, but somebody or something did something to the subject. I don't know why we call the verb “passive”; it's actually the subject that's sitting there passively letting something happen to it, but that's the way it goes. We say was thrown is a passive verb.

Another day, I use body diagramming. I call three students up to the front of the room and give them three slips of paper. Written on one is The new outfielder; on another, hit; and on another, the ball. Then I tell these three students to arrange themselves so that they make a sentence and that they must somehow interact with one another in so doing. They do fairly obvious things, the subject usually hitting the verb with enough force to bump the verb into the direct object.

Then I call three more students up, keeping the first three in place. These three get The ball and was hit and by the new outfielder. I give them the same instructions. It takes the students a few minutes but they usually end up with the subject and verb students out front and the prepositional phrase student a step or two behind them, with a hand holding on to the verb. Then, with both groups of three “acting,” I ask the class to tell me the real difference in what’s going on up there. Someone will eventually get it: that the action goes to the right in one group and to the left in the other. If I then ask them to look only at the verbs in the two sentences and find a difference, someone will eventually notice that the passive verb has two words. And if that class has by then memorized all the do, be, and have verbs, I'll ask what family the helping verb belongs to and wait until someone recognizes the be family.

If time allows, I get other sets of students up front and ask them to make up their own short sentences with active and passive verbs and rearrange themselves as necessary. We get lots of laughs—and students find out not only how to shift from one voice to the other but also how such shifts affect the meaning and flow of the sentence and how indispensable the be verb and the past participle are.

—Wanda Van GoorFrom Haussamen, Brock et al. Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers (NCTE, 2003), pp. 29-32.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Six ways to make Web 2.0 work from McKinsey

I've read about this article on web 2.0 from the McKinsey Quarterly in Stephen Downes' OL Daily blog , and then followed his reference to Derek Wenmouth from where I took a look at Jane Hart's blog.

Over past two years, McKinsey has studied more than 50 early adopters of Web 2.0 who are using technologies such as blogs, wikis, information tagging, prediction markets, and social networks. From this they have drawn six insights on how companies can best use these technologies.

1 The transformation to a bottom-up culture needs help from the top.
2 The best uses come from users—but they require help to scale.
3 What’s in the workflow is what gets used.
4 Appeal to the participants’ egos and needs—not just their wallets.
5 The right solution comes from the right participants.
6 Balance the top-down and self-management of risk.

For more detail, read the full article: Six ways to make Web 2.0 Work, McKinsey Quarterly, FEBRUARY 2009 • Michael Chui, Andy Miller, and Roger P. Roberts

Derek provides a paraphrase of the six points.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Blogs and wikis, where did the time go?

This morning my email inbox contained the latest Educational Leadership online and I decided to read one article by Bill Ferriter, 'Learning with Blogs and Wikis.' This will take me a few minutes I thought. Well, it's now three hours later and I'm thinking I've got to stop. As a result of reading his article I've read various blogs, added blogs to my bookmarks, read posts on Bill Ferriter's bog 'The Tempered Radical', checked out Bill Ferriter's pageflakes , gone to Pageflakes and set up a page of the feed reader, listened to the four day conversation on Kelly Gallagher's new book Readicide, checked out Kelly Gallagher's website and begun adding blogs to Pageflakes.

Ferriter writes that as a result of using digital tools:

"Thousands of accomplished educators are now writing blogs about teaching and learning, bringing transparency to both the art and the science of their practice. In every content area and grade level and in schools of varying sizes and from different geographic locations, educators are challenging assumptions, questioning policies, offering advice, designing solutions, and learning together. And this collective knowledge is readily available for free."

So I suppose this morning's effort is an example of this.

And I feel good because I've actually written my first post in ages.