A Guide to this Blog

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Island by the City: Manly Quarantine Station and the North Head

Over the last few days I've been at the Quarantine Station at Sydney Harbour's North Head, writing and workshopping poetry as part of a writer's retreat run by the indefatigable Kerri-Jane Burke. The station (styled as 'Q-Station' by the organisations that maintain and staff the area) occupies a unique position in Australia's landscape as a heritage-listed historical site situated within the confines of Sydney Harbour National Park. The Quarantine Station itself operated for 150 years until 1984 and is now known as a hotspot for ghost tours and historical preservation, and provides the perfect backdrop for creative observation.

What struck me most about this location was the extreme contrast between the surrounding harbour, with all its buildings and skyscrapers and landmarks crowded along the coastline, and this little three-point-odd square kilometre pocket of history and nature. Between the colonial huts, unmarked one-way roads, and general hilliness and isolation, the Q Station feels like a self-sufficient island. There's something incredible and mildly shocking about standing on an incline, staring out across the water at the city lights with that distinctive Centrepoint skyline, and being surrounded by dense foliage that shelters a Ringtail Possum with a joey on its back just a few centimetres from my arm. 

Here are some pics and observations from the last few days:

The Boiler Room
In the background you can see a big smoke stack chimney; this is 'the Boiler Room', the upmarket restaurant situated within the Quarantine Station. Businesses such as this help to supplement the funding of the heritage site (which goes beyond the remit of National Parks NSW). Many of the buildings in this area date from the 1830s, and the Boiler Room is situated near the wharf where ships would unload their passengers for quarantine purposes. Across it's 150 years some 500+ people died here, which actually isn't that much when you consider that the site serviced 13 000 arrivals in its time of operation.




Engravings
The rocks near the wharf are covered in hastily-made engravings representing the years of arrivals at the Quarantine Station, and indicate the vast array of ships and cultures that passed through here. The RMS Lusitania mentioned above isn't the same one from WWI, it's an earlier ship that the later one was named after. Note also the flag scratched in by some early Japanese arrivals. The rocks also feature inscriptions from Arabic and Chinese passengers who alighted here in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and are a wonderful insight into the early beginnings of Australia's multiculturalism.


Shower Block
Pictured above are the First Class shower blocks (you can tell that they're first class because the dividers go all the way up rather than to waist height). Upon arrival the passengers would be told to remove all items and clothes, wash themselves in carbolic acid whilst being watched by quarantine staff, and then come back to clothes that had been blasted-free of assumed diseases. Prior to this shower system (implemented circa the late 19th century) the arrivals would watch all their possessions get put to the flame on the beach. 




Sterilisation
By most accounts, the process of sterilisation at the Quarantine Station was imprecise in the early 19th century due to the pervading belief in the miasma theory. Later in its history, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, there were these huge lockable vaults where everything was railroaded in and exposed to extreme steaming. Clothes would survive but imagine the effect on cardboard-lined suitcases and books...


Hospital
What you see above are the actual beds used in the early 1900s, which have been preserved in the Quarantine Station Hospital at North Head. Circa 1918, these beds were home to many returned WWI soldiers suffering from Spanish Influenza.  Other common diseases of the time were Scarlet Fever, Typhus, and Smallpox.



Graveyard
There are three graveyards at the Quarantine Station, only one of which still retains its headstones. The above image shows the location of the one of the cemeteries that no longer has markers for the graves.


Third Cemetery 
These gravestones are found on the other side of the Head and contain those who passed away at the Quarantine Station during the turn of the century and earlier. It's a very quiet spot, and there is still a lot of archaeological work being done here to establish identities for the worn-away sandstone headstones. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the cemetery is the way it looks over the harbour and the Pacific from its serene vantage point.

The Funicular Stairway
I had a hard time with these stairs due to their length and height. I don't deal with heights very well so I found it much easier to do these stairs at nighttime rather than in the day when I could see between each step. These stairs sit in place of the steep railway that used to transport items from the wharf to the other buildings.


Wildlife
The most surprising aspect of this little national park is the prevalence of native wildlife in such close proximity to the city. Ringtail Possums run along the length of the Funicular Stairway's rails, fearless in regards to the human foot traffic alongside them. We also saw this Echidna nuzzling about in the dirt on our way back to our cottage one night - it seemed completely unperturbed by my presence as I crouched down next to it and at one point it looked up at me with its little beaky nose before returning to its antwork. 



Bandicoots
North Head is home to an endangered population of Long-nosed Bandicoots. I've driven through this area before and registered their presence, hoped to see them one day, and was happy to return to Manly in the hope that I might see one. They emerge at night and the area is apparently full of them. On the first night I was here I stepped out of the restaurant to get some air and looked down to see the little guy above inquisitively weave between my feet in his search for food. I watched as he systematically investigated each table and chair before disappearing into a nearby kitchen door! One of the pictures above also shows the little pockets they dig everywhere in their search for worms. 

Programme
As you can see, the days were spent doing a variety of activities relating to poetry. The poet and writer Kirly Saunders from Red Room Poetry visited on the Tuesday to talk over a few techniques and strategies she likes to use, and we workshopped some great ideas while exploring The Disappearing, one of the creative apps pioneered by Red Room Poetry. 

Anyway, it was a fantastic opportunity to work with other writing English teachers, share valuable feedback, and just have a space where I could write and experiment with different styles.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Differentiation in Stage 6 Assessment

UNSW, where Ignite the Spark 2018 took place
About a week ago I attended the Ignite the Spark 2018 Conference. This Professional Learning was mainly focused on assessment in relation to giftedness but what was most interesting across the conference was that, underneath a rhetoric built around excitement for assessment and the need for teacher quality, the real subtext of most of the sessions seemed to be that the HSC Exams have become obsolete and that the requirements handed down from NESA and the DoE aren't represented by this increasingly irrelevant process.

But, like it or not, the HSC exams remain largely unchanged and this means that Stage 6 has become an increasingly challenging transition phase between all the requirements of 21st century learning covered by Years K-10 and the need to perform well in a 19th century-styled examination at the end of Year 12. 

Enter Lisa O'Neill, the Head Teacher of HSIE at St Mary's Senior High, who presented a brilliant seminar at Ignite the Spark that centred on how we can better meet the challenges set forth by the demands of the HSC in 2018 and beyond by differentiating our assessment of Year 11 and 12. In her presentation Lisa identified our tendency as teachers to focus on preparing students for exams, and the way that our assessment tasks lead towards the HSC exams, and questioned the capacity of these assessments in actually helping these students to learn. We can't eradicate the exam but there is a concerted need to shift our thinking so that students become more skill-focused. NESA seems to be acknowledging this through the mandating of only 1 formalised examination per subject, per year. There is an undeniable tension, though, between the push for assessment in Stage 6 to become less focused on preparing for the HSC exams and the HSC exam-focused culture that already exists in NSW schools.

Here are some things we need to consider:
  • NESA syllabuses include a requirement that each KLA assesses their students using assessment as, of, and for learning. I've tended to interpret this as meaning that not all assessment tasks should be based on establishing data that assesses student ability (assessment of learning).
  • About 60% of domestic university student enrollments from 2014-2017 were non-ATAR, which suggests that universities are becoming less concerned with the HSC examination when it comes to evaluating who they admit into their courses.
Getting back to Lisa O'Neill's Differentiation in Stage 6 Assessment presentation, she takes her lead from John Hattie in approaching differentiation as something that "relates more to addressing students' different phases of learning from novice to capable to proficient rather than merely providing different activities to different (groups of) students" (from Hattie's Visible Learning for Teaching). O'Neill also piqued my interest by using this to interpret the as, of and for dichotomy of assessment in a more holistic sense - that each individual assessment task should encapsulate all three of these forms of assessment. 

I think I'm down with that. 

Linking her work to the Professional Standards, O'Neill highlighted Standard 1, IE. 'Know Your Students', and clarified her interpretation of differentiation as having one broad task that allows access points for all students. In a nutshell, assessment:
  • Should provide students with multiple ways to achieve.
  • Can provide access points for students moving through a spectrum of novice to capable to proficient.
O'Neill presents on the Assessment Cycle of Love
 Here are some other recommendations made by O'Neill:
  1. Use what she refers to as the 'Assessment Cycle of Love', a diagrammatic tool for designing assessment, to identify gaps in your tasks. Are the outcomes, marking criteria, feedback, and process of assessment all as per NESA advice? Are assessment as, of and for learning all functional within the task?
  2. Staff evaluation should be an integral part of the process, with consideration of whether a task has allowed students to set learning goals, and what skills students were taught while undertaking the task.  
  3. Know the data - use SMART, SCOUT, our own assessment tasks, and the Educator Calculator (a data tool for assessment that can be found at the DoE Centre for Education on Statistics and Evaluation).
  4. Consider the need for access points in tasks so students don't become disheartened when an assessment task has shown them that they can't do anything in preparation for the HSC exams. They might be able to access a band in the marking criteria, but can they access a skill set?
  5. Include feedback in the marking criteria. Feedback is pivotal for Stage 6 assessment and all criteria should be a form of assessment for learning (IE. What can teachers and students alike gain from reading this criteria in preparing for future learning?)
  6. Can we shift the student mindset away from marks and towards skills? Have students make an appointment for feedback conferencing and use this time for students to annotate their own response. Identity their areas of weaknesses ahead of time and get them to look for these weaknesses in the task so that they can establish learning goals.
Some Useful Links
"Crunching the Numbers" - A report from the Mitchell Institute on the use and usefulness of the ATAR.
Student Conferencing and Feedback  - providing students with 1:1 feedback to facilitate personal growth.
Assessment For Learning - an alternative approach in using separate diagnostic assessment with students.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Ignite the Spark 2018 Conference: Ways of Assessing Giftedness


On Friday I attended the Ignite the Spark Conference at UNSW in the hope of learning some new stuff about assessment. Associate Professor David Blaazer, the Deputy Dean for UNSW Arts and Social Sciences, opened up the conference after a reflective Welcome to Country delivered by a representative of the Dharawal people, and this led into an address from DoE Director of Secondary Education Lila Mularczyk, who spoke enthusiastically about the conference's role in highlighting the need to tie our assessment practice to current policy. 

Assessment is a funny beast though.

All teachers do it so it's not KLA specific, and the need for Professional Development around assessment can sometimes get relegated elsewhere due to its non-denominational nature. With this in mind, it's always interesting to see who shows up to these kinds of conferences. Suffice too say - there were a lot of teachers here and the presenters represented many different sectors of the education system - from primary to secondary, private to public, and including counsellors, psychologists, NESA representatives, DoE corporate, and other agencies who help care for our kids.  

The keynote address (which this blog focuses on) was delivered by Dr. Jae Yup Jared Jung, and focused on his research relating to assessment in gifted education, which represented a systematic review he has published in the Journal of Advanced Academics (28, 163-203). NESA considers 'differentiation' to include adjusting and modifying assessment activities in order to cater for both individual students and larger groups, and the idea of assessing students to locate giftedness is accordingly mandated. It should be noted, however, that there is no real standardisation for catering to the gifted in NSW and this is why Dr Jung's research is so incredibly relevant.

Dr. Jung demonstrates what a non-verbal ability test looks like.
The Research
In his search of research literature from 2005 to 2016, Dr. Jung essayed each of the major academic databases and the reference lists of retrieved articles found in the top research journals. By doing this, he found the following:
  • 148 articles in total that dealt with the topic of assessment in gifted education.
  • A clear majority within this of 128 articles that deal with identification of gifted students.
  • Only 14 articles that covered evaluations of gifted programs.
  • And just 8 articles that deal with learning growth. 
The majority of the presentation went on to cover the ways that gifted students are identified (since this is where the majority of research focuses). Dr Jung identifies two major categories of common assessment: Objective (or Traditional) assessments, which are quantitative and result in a number used to identify ability, and Subjective (or Non-Traditional), which involve qualitative judgements made by teachers, psychologists, counsellors, parents, etc. 

Objective Assessments

1. IQ Tests
These involve problem solving, utilising logic, and demonstrating recognition of patterns or relationships. Examples of this kind of testing includes the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-V), the Stanford Binet 5 test, the Kaufmann Brief Intelligence Test, the Cognitive Abilities Test (CoGAT), the Australian Council for Educational Research General Abilities Test (AGAT), Raven's Progressive Matrices (RPM), and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test II (NNAT-II).   

Benefits: The WISC-V is designed to measure five different areas (verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, visual spatial ability, working memory, and processing speed) and therefore allows for the recording of strengths and weaknesses in said areas. The Kaufmann Brief Intelligence Test is an abbreviated IQ test that can be given by teachers rather than psychologists, and the CoGAT and AGAT can be administered in groups rather than individually (which is practical for schools). The Raven's and Naglieri methods are nonverbal ability tests that assess students through the use of visual-spatial stimuli and can be useful because they reduce the reliance on a student's prior educational history or ability to speak English as a first language (or at all).

Concerns: The WISC-V and Stanford Binet 5 tests must be administered by appropriate accredited professionals (psychologists) and are designed for 1:1 testing. These can therefore be quite expensive; $1000-2000 per individual student.

Quote: "Aw, c'mon! Tell me which Poplar Tree is the tallest!!!" The Window Effect refers to the idea that if we assess whether students can achieve to a certain point then we can't see what they could do beyond this point.
2. Above Level Tests
Achievement tests designed for older students in higher grades, with 'higher ceilings' (see cartoon above). These tests are difficult for the majority of testees to 'top out', and assist in the search for talented individuals whose abilities may go beyond the scope of most assessment tasks. Examples include American-style examinations such as the SATs, ACTs, and EXPLORE tests. 

Benefits: Allows for the identification of outliers: the small percentage of people whose ability does not fit on the regular scale of assessment. This style of testing is also designed for specific age groups, so it allows for more targeted assessing of students.

Concerns: Results can be disheartening for the majority of students who undertake the test, so this data usually needs to be kept confidential and for teacher purposes only.

3. Computer Adaptive Tests
Online testing instruments that adapt questions to suit student ability, and scale each question based on prior performance in the same test so that the student is constantly working within their zone of proximal development. Abbreviated as 'CATs'.

Benefits: Can be a very efficient way to gather data as the computer generates reports automatically. It also differentiates the test for each individual student, which means no two tests are the same.

Concerns: CATs can be calibrated too closely to a 'pass-fail' dichotomy that doesn't allow for a diverse data set. These tests can also only measure as far as the student goes - when a student or the test finishes we may still not know what the student is truly capable of.

Subjective Assessments

1. Nominations
Having 'gifted' students nominated for recognition allows for us to consider the unique perspectives of various groups familiar with gifted students. One such group are parents, who are a subjective source of information but can also provide lots of information that we don't or can't have access to otherwise, such as milestones like the moment the child first spoke or formed a sentence.

Benefits: Nominations allow for assessment of different types of giftedness, and can also be a useful way of incorporating the input of a student's individual teachers (therefore making them part of the consultative process, which is useful and supportive in the formation of any kind of school-based gifted program).

Concerns: This process relies on human judgement and therefore lacks the psychometric rigour of I.Q. testing and similar methodologies.

2. Performance-Based Assessment
These are assessments that look more like subject-specific assessment tasks. This style of assessment could be: asking students to act in a prescribed way to create a product or a response, such as a written composition, or a teacher observing students in problem-based learning activities.

Benefits: The familiarity of this kind of testing will appeal to teachers already used to gathering data in this way. This method is also fairly open-ended and can elicit a wide range of results.

Concerns: There may be a lack of clarity in how it should be scored as each teacher will mark to the criteria in their own particular way. It can also be more time-consuming than objective methods of assessment as each individual student requires an individualised evaluation of their work.

3. Dynamic Assessment
Of all the things Dr. Jung spoke about in his keynote, I found his discussion of Dynamic Assessment the most interesting. I probably found this the most interesting thing about the whole conference and I can see myself looking forward into it in the immediate future.

Dynamic Assessment is a process that involves interaction between the teacher and the student, with a focus on how the student responds to educational interventions. It's not about the student's response to the task but about measuring how a student improves or reacts to a task. There are two main kinds: 
  • The first is the 'Sandwich Format', in which a student is pretested, given an intervention, and then post-tested. In the post-test the level of improvement in the student is measured in comparison tot he pretest. 
  • The second kind is the 'Cake Format', in which a student is given a task with a series of items and assistance is provided only when the student encounters difficulties. The amount of instances, or types of intervention, are then measured to show how much growth the student exhibited, or how much/little help they needed in independently adapting to the demands of the task.
Benefits: This process deliberately acknowledges the inequality of educational opportunity among students - as each student comes to us with their own unique context this means that their giftedness may have been either nurtured in the past or completely ignored. The result is that there isn't an even playing field when it comes to trying to 'see' the natural level of giftedness in a student. Using Dynamic Assessment minimises the role of performance in previous assessment tasks as this form of assessment focuses on observing the student's capacity in adapting to difficulty.

Concerns: A high degree of standardisation is needed when training teachers to administer this process of assessment. As such it can be time-consuming, resource and staff-intensive, and involves a lot of effort.

Dr. Jung
Further Observations of Dr. Jung

1. Multiple Criteria Identification
With so many different methods of assessment available to identify gifted students the consensus seems to be that multiple criteria should be used together. This allows for the minimisation of bias and multiple opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to demonstrate giftedness. So, with this in mind, Dr. Jung asserts that we should use both objective and subjective methods. Some other things to take into account:
  • We need to ensure that we're using instruments appropriate to our context - this means look at current student numbers, demographics of the region, etc.
  • Identification needs to take place as early as possible and there should also be training provided for the teachers identifying the students.
  • If using multiple criteria, the data should be collected and analysed concurrently so no students get left behind.
2. Disadvantaged Groups in Gifted Programs

Dr. Jung also expressed several concerns in relation to the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He posited that this happens due to several factors:
  • Inappropriate/unfamiliar content in assessment tasks.
  • Pre-defined conceptions of giftedness could be inherent in assessment tasks.
  • Pre-conceptions of teachers could lead to unconscious bias.
  • Socio-economic factors.
  • Lack of a mechanism for universal assessment of gifted students in NSW.
This last point is a big issue with giftedness in general. Not all schools test for giftedness and the ones that do may do so in very different ways, with specific ideas of what giftedness means. Many schools have 'self-select', 'opportunity', or 'academic-focus' classes but the criteria used to create these classes often have little to do with natural giftedness and more to do with prior performance.

Nevertheless, as we move forward into the 21st century, I have strong hopes that NSW will inch its way closer to some kind of standardised mandate to identify and better support those who may be hiding in plain sight.

Dr. Jung's research can be found here, but you will need access to academic journals in order to read it in full.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Teaching Advertising with Nathan For You


I'm currently in the midst of teaching a unit of work to Year 10 that's centred on advertising and advocacy, which I love because it gives me a chance to look at the role of rhetoric with my students. Before getting to the point where the students tie advertising to a social issue that they wish to advocate for (their assessment task), the time is spent looking at persuasive techniques and helping students work backwards from a final product to examine the purpose of these sort of texts. 

Last year I shared an activity on the three major persuasive modes (ethos, logos, pathos) in conjunction with the brilliant Reality TV satire Nathan For You

In today's blog I'll look at another way that Nathan For You can be used to teach some of the finer aspects of advertising but, before I do, I'll just reiterate the persuasive modes. In prior years I've focused on logos, pathos, and ethos. This year I've decided to bring in more explicit discussion of a fourth persuasive mode; kairos - something that is touched on when dealing with target audiences but could always be dealt with in a little more detail.

(Note: There's a fifth persuasive concept called topos but I'll leave that for another day!)
  • Ethos: The use of authority or credibility to get someone to trust an opinion.
  • Kairos: The use of an opportune time and place to achieve maximum persuasiveness with a target audience.
  • Logos: The use of reason or logic to convince someone of something.
  • Pathos: The use of emotion to persuade.

The clip above comes with an associated activity focusing on Nathan's wacky idea for rebranding a real estate company. The concept of 'rebranding' is primarily a marketing strategy but it can also be utilised here for English purposes when talking about audience and purpose. The effectiveness of re-positioning a product to suit a hitherto un-targeted audience (as Nathan does in the clip) is dependent on how well an advertiser or company understands kairos. For instance, if you are going to target a particular audience then you need to at least have an awareness of how and when this could best be achieved. The success (or lack thereof) of Nathan's ploy could be seen as indicative of both an understanding of kairos or a lack of understanding of kairos.

For anyone who is familiar with Nathan For You and its humour - fear not, I've edited the clip to avoid any elements which may be inappropriate for the classroom.

Here is the activity sheet that accompanies the video: Nathan For You - Rebranding.

This sheet includes the following questions (I have included possible answers here for ease of delivery but feel free to expand or adapt in whatever fashion you like).

Question 1: "In an oversaturated market it can be hard to stand out in the crowd". What does Nathan mean by this, and what language technique is he using?
  • Nathan is referring to the abundance of real estate companies and how difficult it can be to find a point of difference for just one such company.
  • Metaphor - "standing out in a crowd"
  • Jargon - "oversaturated market" (also a metaphor)
Question 2: What is the benefit in finding an 'unrepresented' audience? What does this mean?
  • An 'unrepresented' audience refers to a group of people (or demographic) that hasn't been catered for before. In this case Nathan is referring to people who believe in ghosts - an identifying characteristic that, as far as he knows, has never been the basis for marketing a real estate company before.
Question 3: Annotate the advertisement below; label the kind of persuasion used and point out any symbolism that reinforces Sue's rebranding as 'the Ghost Realtor'.


  • The stretching of Sue Stanford's body into a ghost-like shape symbolises her affinity with the spirit world.
  • The cross is a well-known symbol of Christianity, and this is also a religious allusion.
  • Quote on billboard: "My homes are 100% ghost and demon free" - this is an example of logos.
  • The colour palette leans heavily on shadows and the colour blue, which gives the advertisement a sombre, haunted feeling. Note also the shadowy faceless figures that are representative of unidentified beings from 'the other side'.
  • The line of Sue Standford's ghostly tail and the underlining of her name both work as vectors that lead the reader's eye from her body to the quote.
  • Gaze - Sue Standford's eyes are looking directly into the camera, which builds a connection with the audience. Note also her confident, positive facial expression.
Question 4: What does the psychic add to Sue's new branding?
  • The presence of the psychic adds a sense of credibility to her new angle on real estate salesmanship. As an authority on this particular subject he is a perfect example of using ethos to strengthen one's business.
Question 5: What problems are there with the example of re-positioning?
  • Students may have a whole range of responses to this question! Chief among the potential problems is the fact that some people just don't believe in ghosts, which essentially means that Nathan's scheme will never appeal to a sizeable portion of the market. 
  • Students should have a range of ideas in relation to this question, especially considering how intentionally ridiculous Nathan's idea is.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Text and Representation: W. H. Auden - Revision


Teaching HSC Advanced English last year was an absolute joy and whilst this was helped in no small part by a fantastic class of intelligent, funny, and hard-working students, it was also due to the great sequence of modules that my Head Teacher Kira Bryant had put together. As we enter the final year that such a progression of texts is possible (next year will see the debut of the new prescribed texts and modules for the HSC) I've been using the opportunity to share some modelled analysis that my students used in their study and revision for the Big Show. 

Here's the sequence:
I loved teaching Auden as part of the People and Politics elective. Far better people than me have attempted to define Auden and failed, and his poetry is so diverse in both content and delivery that I think nearly all Advanced English students should find at least one piece of interest in the prescribed suite from the HSC. Auden's mastery of a variety of genres in conjunction with using poetry to explore the political concerns of his time is perhaps unparalleled, and this is something that makes him perfect for our students in exploring the way public concerns interact with the private sphere.   


The table in the above document lists a collection of pertinent quotes from each of the prescribed W. H. Auden poems for Module C:
  • O What is the Sound which so Thrills the Ear?
  • Epitaph on a Tyrant
  • Spain
  • The Unknown Citizen
  • September 1, 1939
  • The Shield of Achilles
  • In Memory of W. B. Yeats
The quotes are paired up with some loosely paragraphed modelled analysis next to each one. On reflection I'd probably rewrite some of these paragraphs a little more formally but I was recall being a bit under the pump last year as my students hurtled towards the HSC exams. Nonetheless, the idea is to show students how to connect their ideas and quotes up so I feel like it still gets the job done.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Categorising Heroes: Literacy, the Soviet Union, and Differentiation in the Modern Classroom

The Khirgiz, once part of the Soviet Union, are still renowned for practising the ancient art of Eagle-hunting
A key part of early literacy for children is the development of a schema or model for understanding the world around them. We construct meaning by ordering new experiences and words into our own self-constructed epistemologies, and we can decode the unfamiliar with increasing confidence as a result. In simpler terms, a child's extending of vocabulary is made possible through their ability to classify words into self-determined categories based on what they already know. 

This now-commonly accepted theoretical underpinning of literacy was supported by the groundbreaking work of the Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria in the 1930s.

(What follows is an explanation of the way that thinking is tied to literacy. Skip to the end if you just want the 'Heroes'-based Stage 4 resource, but read on for some interesting stuff on how literacy works!)

Luria hypothesised that some cultures understood the world differently if they were non-literate, and thus used the Soviet-controlled Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support his work. The research that the Soviet socio-scientist conducted in these places revealed very strong links between literacy and the ability to think abstractly. 

Luria, circa the 1940s.
Context
As Luria's fieldwork was conducted in the 1930s, when Stalin's hold over the Soviet Union was at it's most stifling, this meant that several factors contributed to him being in the right place at the right time. The country was undergoing a process known as Collectivisation, in which farms and other peasant holdings were grouped together to allow for easier control by the state. Joseph Stalin was undeniably one of the most brutal and totalitarian dictators to ever walk the Earth but one upswing of his regime was a historically-unparalleled rise in literacy. Luria's studies in remote Uzbek and Khirgiz societies were therefore quite serendipitous as they came at a point in Russian history that allowed for observation of completely non-literate communities prior to rapidly-increased literacy. 

It would probably be most accurate to identify Luria's work as something firmly grounded in a Marxist context reliant on class distinctions rather than cultural ones. This is most clear in the way that the neuropsychologist delineates between the literate and the non-literate on the basis of the 'old' non-literate peasantry vs. the newly-educated and unified Stalinist proletariat (working class). 

(I should note here that Luria's writing on this matter is very much a product of its time in terms of the attitudes portrayed therein - he often uses the word 'we' to refer to mainstream Russian society and marginalises minority groups such as the Uzbek and Khirgiz in the process. He also, problematically and Eurocentrically, uses the word 'primitive' to describe non-literate societies). 

The Research
Luria examined five different groups in his field study, roughly half of whom were completely non-literate. I use the term 'non-literate' here rather than illiterate as 'illiterate' implies the option of literacy; these societies were non-literate in the sense that they had not even been exposed to writing (as opposed to illiterate members of Western societies). 

Luria conducted extensive interviews in the native languages of these groups, concentrating on three central questions:
  • How do people linguistically code basic categories of experience as colour and shape?
  • How do they manage classification and abstraction?
  • And then, what about verbal problem-solving and self-analysis?
Results
The Soviet researcher found that the non-literate groups were able to classify drawn shapes only by referring to them as objects from their everyday life (EG. A circle was a 'plate', a triangle was a 'tent'). They did not have abstract terms for these shapes that could be used to classify all circular or all triangular objects. If pressed to arrange two shapes together, they did not classify them through shared shapes but by shared use (EG. Two objects might appear to be tools and classified as similar in this way despite being different shapes). 

This appears to reveal that a lack of written language means that the non-literate groups lacked the language skills/tools for abstraction. The written alphabet is, after all, a series of symbols and therefore an abstract concept. By learning how to work with the abstract concept of written language, literate societies are able to develop a greater level of abstraction in their thought, and can therefore categorise ideas in more complex ways. 

For the Khirgiz and Uzbek groups, colour was even more problematic than shapes. Instead of assigning a name to things that literate groups might classify as 'green', they would instead describe certain things as 'the colour of grass in the spring'. When challenged, they lacked the ability to group colours in any way whatsoever.

When forced to group objects together, the subjects always needed to theorise a shared situation that had a practical use. For example, a log and some tools would go together because they could be used together to build a house. It seemed impossible for the subject to separate one of these things from the other because they could only think in practical terms.

Developing Taxonomies in the Classroom
In Stage 4 English the teacher will often still come across students who struggle with abstraction and this is almost always tied to the students' lower literacy levels. In order to deal with this in English the teacher can combine symbolism with categorisation so students can begin to experiment with building their own taxonomies for better understanding.

The activity here is in connection to a visual literacy unit on Heroes and Villains. Before starting, get students to brainstorm as many different fictional and real life heroes as possible. This should be done independently.

Click here for the Categorising Heroes activity.

In the activity, students use the symbols attached to categorise the list they've created and then assign themselves a 'diversity' score using the criteria. This can then be used to prompt discussion about things such as:
  • Representation of heroes in the media.
  • Who can be a hero?
  • What makes a hero?
  • How aware are we of the kinds of heroes in our world?
A while back I wrote about using an Assessment for Learning task in connection to this same Heroes and Villains topic. This diagnostic assessment can be used to differentiate students into streams of ability. The activity above can be targeted towards the 'mainstream' portion of the class, whereas students identified as more gifted can be targeted with an 'extension' version of the activity.

Click here for the Extension version.

In this version it's left up to students to create their own symbols/categories, and their own criteria to judge them against. This requires more independence, imagination, and willingness to take risks in one's learning.

Alternatively, here is the Adjusted version for the students with typically lower levels of achievement.

In this version the students are given a higher level of scaffolding; an array of heroes are provided in case these students have been unable to put a diverse-enough list together. This works well for students with low literacy as they can then monitor and interact with the lesson without having to write.

For more on Luria's research on literacy, see the chapter 'Cultural Differences in Thinking' from his book The Making of Mind.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Standard Module B: Close Study of Literature

Some of the texts in Module B for Standard English
Prose Fiction Options
There are just two options for novel study in Standard Module B: Close Study of Literature, both of which are Young Adult focused. One is from an American author, the other from a British.


Feed by MT Anderson
What is it: In the world of the future nearly everyone is directly connected to the internet through modifications made to their brains. Titus, a typical teenager, finds his 'feed' temporarily severed after having it hacked by a anti-feed terrorist. This disconnection prompts Titus to start a relationship with Violet, a mysterious girl who begins experiencing difficulties with her feed after both her and Titus have them repaired.

Scope for Study: Written in a challenging style that mimics the constantly dense yet vapid flow of information that the protagonist is subjected to, Feed will do one of two things for all readers (students included): it will either be A) Too strange for them to engage with, or B) Both intriguing and relevant in its quirky satire of modern online culture. Feed also gives Standard English students a chance to explore the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, with room for drawing connections between generic tropes and a 21st century information-age context.

NESA Annotations: The 2015-2020 Annotations position Feed's relevance within the Standard Module 'Texts and Society', singling out the novel's purpose as a satire of 'teenage consumer culture and saturation advertising'. The annotations also favour MT Anderson's use of teen culture as a point of engagement for our students, with irony and context identified as key elements in the author's use of language.

Verdict: The idea that the characters in Feed will be identifiable to NSW students is, unfortunately, an idea that will date fast (if it hasn't already). Teenage lexicons are a tricky thing to pin down as they are defined in opposition to adult understanding. The moment an author like MT Anderson attempts to project teen culture into a dystopian context with such a heavy emphasis on colloquialism is a dicey proposition that may automatically turn some young readers off. As mentioned before, the novel will either be a really interesting discussion starter and an eye-opener for some students, or something that is just too bizarre for a lot of Standard English students. I actually really enjoyed reading this novel but I kind of think it might have been better pitched at an Advanced English cohort.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
What is it: Christopher, a 15 year old boy, investigates the mystery behind the murder of his neighbour's dog. In the process of his detective work Christopher begins to make certain discoveries about his own family, and must navigate a new understanding of the world that fits with his own viewpoint; a viewpoint informed by Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Scope for Study: The author Mark Haddon has made it clear in interviews that this is a book primarily about being different rather than specifically about Autism. It should be noted, however, that students will be able to engage with the way the book tells its story from a perspective that reflects Asperger's Syndrome, with Haddon experimenting with narrative and novel structure in an attempt to demonstrate Christopher's world.

NESA Annotations: Notes can be found on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the 2009-2014 Annotations, a time in which the novel was also used for Close Study by Standard English. The document implies that the use of Christopher's objective viewpoint makes him an unreliable narrator, which would be an interesting concept for students to explore, considering they may not have considered this style of narration before. Generic conventions associated with detective fiction are also mentioned as apt grounds for analysis.

Verdict: It seems a little odd that both of the 'Close Study' novel options for Standard focus on first person narratives delivered by atypical protagonists. Coincidence? Probably not. That said, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a much more tightly-plotted and controlled piece than Feed, and may appeal to students more in terms of accessibility as the language allows for ideas rather than colloquialism to take centre-stage.

Poetry / Drama Options
There are four options in this section, three are from Australian authors (the other is Shakespeare), and two of the three Australian options are Indigenous-focused (though only one is an Aboriginal composer).

Coast Road by Robert Gray
  • Journey, the North Coast
  • Flames and Dangling Wire
  • Harbour Dusk
  • Byron Bay: Winter
  • Description of a Walk
  • 24 Poems
What is it: Gray is a contemporary Australian poet who grew up on the North Coast of NSW and has become renowned for his use of precise imagery in exploring a wide range of ideas and settings. In the selected suite of six poems from Coast Road Gray constructs a challenging vision of coastal Australia that combines the natural and the man-made.

Scope for Study: Teachers can examine the way that Gray uses figurative and descriptive language in service of creating imagery in the reader's mind, and the importance of the landscape in the author's psyche. There is also much that can be made of looking at the poet's use of minimalist and accessible language to allude to complex motifs, such as the clash of the human world with the environment. 

NESA Annotations: Some of Gray's poetry is written about in the 2015-2020 Annotations in relation to the Discovery Area of Study, however, only 1 of these ('Journey: the North Coast') is now in the current Module B collection of poetry. The NESA document highlights the way that Gray conveys 'minutely observed scenes' and the importance of the Australian landscape in the poet's perspective, which is still relevant to the current selection of pieces.

Verdict: Don't be deceived by the ease of Gray's crisp wordplay; the structuring of his poetry will be challenging for some Standard students as it often eschews more traditional forms of scansion in favour of building up an image of place. The brevity of this overall collection will, nonetheless, allow teachers to spend a significant amount of time exploring the language, themes, motifs, and context of the writing in some detail.

This volume of poetry is now out of print.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal poetry
  • The Past
  • China... Woman
  • Reed Flute Cave
  • Entombed Warriors
  • Visit to Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
  • Sunrise on Huampu River
  • A Lake Within a Lake
What is it: Oodgeroo Noonuccal was an Aboriginal poet who had not written any poetry for many years, however, upon visiting China in 1984 she experienced a creative re-awakening. This suite of poetry is representative of her epiphany there, and builds upon the common themes of her career - colonialism, the barbarity and cruelty of modern culture, the rights of Indigenous Australians, and faith in cultural identity. The listed poetry can be found on the NESA website, owing to the fact that the Chinese-focused book is now out of print and unavailable.

Scope for Study: The poet's style is minimalist whilst conveying sharp imagery relating to her themes and the Chinese setting. Students will find the writing accessible and evocative but may also be challenged by how sparse the language is, particularly in regards to the way the pieces are structured. Each of the 7 poems allude to the importance of culture, and students will need an understanding of Oodgeroo's Aboriginal context in order to approach a more complete understanding of the themes that she explores.

NESA Annotations: Notes on Oodgeroo can be found in the 2015-2020 Annotations, however, this previous Standard Module B: Close Study of the poet is a slightly different grouping of poetry (5 of the 7 are the same poems). These notes highlight the importance of analysing the cultural and spiritual themes of the poet's work, as well as the significance of Aboriginal oral tradition as an influence.

Verdict: Oodgeroo's poetry is a great way to get Standard students engaged with a wide variety of ideas and concepts, plus the poetry itself is highly readable and thought-provoking in the way that it deals with complex ideas. Normally I would think that 7 poems might stretch the focus of a Standard English class too far but the style, structure, and shared thematic core of this suite should allow for teachers to deal with the text holistically and in a satisfactory enough way to engage students. Plus, how many other texts would simultaneously tick both the Aboriginal and Asia-related Learning Across the Curriculum dot points?

Namatjira by Scott Rankin
What is it: In a two-man, two-act performance, this play explores the life of Albert Namatjira, the Aboriginal watercolour painter who won the favour of white society in a time when Indigenous Australians still weren't recognised as citizens of this country. Rankin, in working with the Namatjira family, has created a multi-perspective dramatic representation of a life and the politics of intercultural relations, for performance in a minimalist and semi-traditional setting.

Scope for Study: The play's connection to the tragic real life story of the eponymous celebrated painter will give teachers a strong way-in with students in terms of exploring context. The 'vignette'-styled structure will also lend itself well to chunking the text into separate pieces for analysis, performance, and further interaction. Discussion should also arise through the identification of issues relating to race and attitudes in both 1950s Australia and the modern day. 

NESA Annotations: The 2015-2020 Annotations cover Namatjira's use in Standard English Module B, highlighting the play's simultaneous exploration of two figures, Namatjira, and his artistic mentor, Rex Batterbee. Themes identified for study include; "mateship, perseverance, opportunity, exploitation and injustice". The notes also point out the play's context as part of a larger cultural project that combines traditional Aboriginal performance with Western stylistic conventions associated with drama.

Verdict: The alien-ness of the dramatic stage can be challenging for Standard English students to connect with due to their unfamiliarity with the genre, and I suspect that Namatjira's complex structure may create some difficulty in certain contexts when it comes to student engagement. There are elements of this play that will provide excellent fuel for student discussion and the themes are highly relevant to Australia's national identity, however, the style and structure will be intellectually confronting for some Standard students. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
What is it: Shakespeare's supernatural comedy concerns an Athenian love quadrangle, feuding fairy monarchs, the mischievous sprite Puck, and a troupe of tradesmen-turned-actors attempting to put on the worst play imaginable. Spurred on by Puck's magical mistakes and tricks, fay love potion prompts conflict as the lovers quarrel with one another and the already ass-like tradesman Bottom develops a donkey-like head!

Scope for Study: If students can get their heads around the complex interweaving of character relationships and the near-Herculean levels of mischief that complicate things further and further, Shakespeare's most 'magical' play has much to offer beyond its adherence to the Elizabethan comedy genre. The friction between male and female, the theme of appearance vs. reality, expectations placed on women in regards to arranged-marriage, and Bottom's misguided attempts to improve the play-within-the-play should all provide scope for discussion.

NESA Annotations: There are no annotations of A Midsummer Night's Dream covered in any of the three annotation documents provided by NESA in the last 10 years.

Verdict: I like Shakespeare, and I like that there is an option to teach Shakespeare to a Standard English class, however, I know that a fair amount of students pick Standard over Advanced nearly solely because of the apparent lack of the Bard's work in the Standard Prescriptions. With this in mind, I think it would be a brave teacher who decides to wade into this one with their class (you'd certainly need to be very passionate and energetic in regards to teaching it!). All that said, it's one of Shakespeare's more crowd-pleasing plays, isn't too long, and features several entertaining conceits that should provoke some interest - even if a lot of the plot's stickier situations are continuously 'solved' by the characters going to sleep, over and over again.
 
Nonfiction / Film / Media Options
The 'grab bag' section of the Prescriptions for Standard Module B features a non-fiction book written by an Australian, an American film directed by an Australian, and an Australian documentary.

Stasiland by Anna Funder
What is it: Australian journalist Anna Funder relocates to Berlin a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and explores life in former East Germany. Through interviewing the survivors of the now defunct socialist state, Funder meticulously recreates their human stories as part of a wider narrative about life under the oppressive surveillance-heavy regime of the Stasi.

Scope for Study: Funder takes the reader inside the process of constructing a narrative from non-fiction sources, connecting each person's story to the themes she wants to explore, such as the shifting state of security in a crumbling police state. The author's love of language is evident through her discussion and exploration of the German language's 'sticklebrick' nouns, and the sharp-but-economic observations she lands on the unique characters she meets. In regards to students some time will need to be spent on establishing the novel's highly specific context but, nonetheless, Funder's award-winning non-fiction book utilises language that manages to be both sophisticated and highly accessible.

NESA Annotations: Notes for Stasiland appear in the 2015-2020 Annotation document, with consideration given to Funder's blending of genres in the pursuit of truth regarding East Germany's sometimes confronting history, especially in regards to themes of "privacy, surveillance and free speech". The co-existence of opinion and fact within Funder's style will also test the ability of students to recognise subjectivity and context as driving forces behind investigative journalism.

Verdict: A brilliant and accessible piece of journalism that tells the people's story within the theatre of a grand historical event. Funder's proactive parsing of these stories in the 1990s is a perfect example of someone being in the right place at the right time, and represents her own canny understanding of how important it is to document and preserve history before it disappears forever (something that is highlighted in the last few chapters). The humanity and injustice that characterises the various stories she tells should provide something of interest for a wide variety of students, and it's great to see a historically-relevant text like this included in the Prescriptions for Standard English students to seriously get stuck into. This would probably be my pick if I were teaching Module B.

The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir
What is it: Truman is a regular, everyday guy who has never left the small town of Seahaven. Little does he know, his entire life has been taking place within a dome where his every move has been recorded for the reality TV program 'The Truman Show'. Truman's reality begins to unravel as he pieces together various clues that lead to the truth.

Scope for Study: Peter Weir's film has a lot going on and teachers should have no trouble pulling it apart for student consumption in a variety of ways. Consider: the constructed nature of Truman's life as a satire of the way reality TV edits narratives out of raw footage, the increasing commodification and banality of Western life represented by the insidious advertising that surrounds Truman, the allegorical nature of Truman as a Biblical figure going to meet his God (named Christof!), and the careful and inspired choice of camera shots used by Peter Weir to suggest a world under surveillance.

NESA Annotations: None of the three annotation documents from the last 10 years feature The Truman Show. If there were earlier annotations prior to 2009 they may have featured some notes on the film, however, such notes don't seem to be available on the NESA website and I'm not even sure that they ever existed.

Verdict: A fantastic film in its own right rather than just as an object for study. Teaching this film has been very enjoyable for me in the past (both with English Studies and Standard English classes) and the key has been just letting the film run through first so students can absorb everything uninterrupted. The scope for discussion of a variety of techniques and themes is wide open for Standard students, and while they should have no problem identifying visual techniques used by the director to tell his story, they will also appreciate the extra depth added through discussion of symbolism, allegory, and context.

Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History, directed by Simon Nasht
What is it: Frank Hurley, pioneering Australian photographer, is given the documentary treatment in Simon Nasht's clear overview of a complex figure. This TV documentary takes the viewer through Hurley's groundbreaking career - his early use of colour; seminal forays into the documentary genre; nailbiting adventuring through the Antarctic as part of Mawson's historic expedition; his recording of World War I; and surveys into Papua New Guinea, the Australian outback, and Libya in World War II. What emerges alongside this eventful life is the showboating nature of Hurley's 'genius' and his unquenchable thirst for innovation.

Scope for Study: Students will be able to engage with Nasht's themes, such as the problematic nature of Hurley's 'documenting' of history (many photographs were staged or created using composites) and the text's key question of whether Hurley was a 'Giant of photography, or just a conjurer with a camera'? Students can also examine the power of an image and Hurley's role in establishing photography as an art form in its own right, as well as Nasht's use of language to paint an epic tale of discovery and exploration, the questions posed about the idea of a legacy, and the use of photography to form a narrative.

NESA Annotations: Notes for Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History can be found in the 2015-2020 Annotations, albeit pitched as part of the Discovery Area of Study rather than a Close Study text. Attention is drawn to questioning the 'validity' of Hurley's work and the way the documentary constructs a narrative of the photographer's life. The rest of the annotation is particular to Discovery though and doesn't really apply to the text's re-assignment as part of Module B.

Verdict: This is a great documentary that, thanks to its relatively brief run-time and engaging examination of a fascinating subject, shouldn't be too hard to analyse for Standard English students. One particular aspect of the film that will give the teacher a lot of mileage is the idea of Hurley as a multitude of different characters: the shameless self-promoter carefully creating an image for himself, the failed film director attempting to break new ground in a commercial industry, the 'adventurer' relentlessly looking for his next 'hit', and the jobbing scenic photographer who reinvented himself in order to support his family.