About this blog

Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Culturally responsive story choices

My Anxiety.

It's the end of first term for my experimental Literature class, and I'm taking a moment to reflect on how I think it went. The students have been assigned a writing task over their holidays (they voted for this option themselves) and I literally have no idea what things will come back to me in two weeks time.

I must confess I'm not feeling positive. For all my ambitions to make the classes accessible, relaxed, and open in many respects for students to engage and learn in creative ways, only half the class turned up on the last day to get their assignment, and to engage with the preparatory writing activities I had worked hard to develop for them.

Sometimes I reflect that my approach might well be counter-productive. Am I going too slowly? Are the texts too difficult despite my efforts to find ones which I felt would enable these particular students to feel their way in to the ideas more easily? I'm trying to locate the "average" zone of proximal development for these students. After seeing their presentations, I got a much better sense of what they might be able to understand. The challenge is for them to translate that understanding into a written piece, in an unfamiliar discipline, in a second language. I really don't know what that's like.

The Students' Anxieties

The assignment isn't the usual argumentative essay assigned to the general cohort. I'm building on the basis I've tried to establish. Here is a word - an idea lies behind it - and an image may also be conjured (out of imagination or cyberspace) to fill in the ambiguities.

I think this is easy enough in everyday discourse: the complication comes when the word is located in a context where meaning is not immediately evident - such as in a story. To ease the strangeness which my other students have reported feeling when confronted with a literary text in English, I chose one which was, in my view, both accessible and meaningful. The story I chose has a contemporary Indonesian setting, and tells a story which goes from the present to the past, and back to the present. The visual, auditory, and sensual images which supported the story were vivid, and had clear connotations - at least, I thought so (I might well be wrong, and will be pleased to understand the difficulty). The subject matter is contemporary, relevant to a growing proportion of the world's young people, and had multiple levels of possible engagement for the students' varied abilities.

The task is to write 400-500 words on the role of one of the repeating images in the story. What is the image? How is it described? What is the role the image plays? How does the image contribute to the overall meaning of the story? Many in the group have expressed anxiety and concern that they won't be able to write well enough - mainly based on their lack of experience, or past efforts in literature in their home countries. "But this is just a preparatory, non-assessed course," I remind them. "Don't worry so much." Strained, fearful faces peer back at me - half terrified, half amused.

If you are interested to read the rather wonderful 1500 word story being studied, "The Pilgrimage" by Tim Hannigan, you can see it here at Indonesiamatters.com.


A slide show of images accompanied my presentation of the story to the class. You can look at it on Slideshare. I aimed to find location credits for the pictures, and have author/publisher permissions. The excerpts are from "The Pilgrimage," by Tim Hannigan (Timdog).


When I get the assignments back, I'll have a grounds more relative than this reflection to base evaluation upon. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Noel Entwistle - Teaching for Understanding at University.
Deep Approaches and Distinctive Ways of Thinking

Publication Details

This book has had a profound impact on my recent reflections about my teaching approaches. Entwistle's focus is higher education, and there is much here to interest educators from diverse disciplines. Beginning from an understanding that the twenty-first century is ushering in unprecedented change in terms of global interconnectivity, Entwistle writes, "Increasingly, knowledge acquired at University can be no more than a springboard for coping with change and complexity in everyday life and the workplace." p1.

What really appealed to me about the book is an argument emphasising the need to identify and work with your subject's "inner logic" as well as the particular pedagogy to support it. "Effective university teaching thus depends on establishing a relationship between the specific subject content and the ways in which students are helped to engage with the ideas, so as to develop their own understanding" p3.

Short "bridges" connect chapters, linking the various discussions neatly. There are sections on 'How Students Learn', exploring educational psychology, learning styles, motivation and personality; 'The Nature of Academic Understanding', examining the conceptual basis of various disciplines (engineering, biological sciences, history, media); two chapters on 'How Academics Teach', and 'Research'; and also planning and designing curriculum and assessment to support student deep learning and understanding.

Student voices are included throughout - the author having sought out students' responses and evaluations of various pedagogical approaches. These sections are illuminating, reminding the educator-readers that there are end users whose opinions of our work matter. What educators think students need to know is only part of the new higher education landscape. Expository practices - the lecturer holding court with students as passive receivers - are out of style. Inspiring educators to create 'powerful learning environments' is the ambition of Entwistle's book. How to do this?

  • Provide authentic, open problems with learning materials in a variety of formats designed to make connections with students' previous knowledge and interests.
  • Use teaching methods which arouse interest, activate prior knowledge, clarify meanings and model appropriate thinking strategies and reflective processes.
  • Specify learning strategies in detail to provide scaffolding, with the guidance then gradually removed to encourage subsequent self-regulation of studying.
  • Encourage students to monitor their own strategies and discuss these with other students, to provide a classroom culture that encourages reflection on process. (p 105)

Well worth investigating.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Presentations in Lit class

In my second last post, I described the visit to the computer lab I made with my small student group. Their task: to look behind / below / around a word, idea or phrase. The groups had to then "teach" the rest of the class what they had found, and the groups watching and listening were invited to comment, question, evaluate the information imparted for its communication value.

The words / ideas / phrases chosen by the students themselves were:
1. Studying overseas 2. Cloning 3. Shake

To say I was impressed by the variety and quality of what these students presented is an understatement. Maybe it was because I have never done anything like this in my usual teaching, (where I have eight classes of fifteen students once a week) that the novelty and creativity of the activity made such an impression. I'm struggling to think of how I can do similar things with over a hundred students. Next year, there might well be WiFi enabled iPads in the hands of each student, if the pilot program our college has under way is a success.

The group looking at studying overseas produced a fantastic slideshow, with a story at the heart of it - a Chinese girl coming to Australia to study, and finding dilemmas and challenges in her way, to be overcome. This group showed in their presentation familiarity with the narrative arc of story telling, introduction, complication, climax, dénouement. I learned something important about my students' knowledge which I would perhaps not have uncovered so effectively, if I had just asked the group what they knew about story telling. Enabling them to "show" me, teach others, and share their ideas, brought this important piece of information the whole group in a powerful way.

The second presentation on "cloning" was deeply impressive. For a start, the group researching the word / idea were interested in the science, the potential, the ethical dimensions of this developing technology. OK, so, what has cloning to do with Literature? Well, the students were researching, asking questions, finding answers, and in their presentation they covered history, important moments, explored the positives and negatives, asked one another and the audience questions about possible futures - "Where would you want to keep a clone of yourself - in a deep freeze? In a specialised hibernation chamber? Would you want to spend time talking with your clone?" What fabulous stories such questions would inspire, and what complex and lateral thinking these students showed me and their colleagues! I can now draw on the ideas, problems, and ethical dimensions of this presentation to build parallel understandings with the literary and language ideas we will shortly come to.

The third presentation on "shake" was a fitting conclusion. Each student in the group found a story to match one of the several possible connotations or variations on the term. Physical movement, emotion, surprise, horrible realisations. They worked hard to find expressive visualisations to complement their presentation of the word, and the possible interpretations and uses to which it could be put in language, storytelling, experience. They DID the work required, and went beyond it.

While this isn't perhaps a revolutionary exercise, I hope that it will lay a foundation of ideas, concepts and reference points which might not otherwise have been available for these students, as they progress in the course. They were all explorers, researchers, storytellers, creators of knowledge, sharers of ideas. My aim is for them to continue to be so, but the next stage will be a development on this foundation.

In the next post, I'll briefly outline the next step towards the reading, analysis and writing task to be assigned.