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A Red Wheel Barrow: Using Google Images to Teach Poetry

At the heart of poetry lies the image, that highly condensed, often deeply metaphorical carrier of the meaning of the poem.

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

William Carlos Williams

One of the chief difficulties faced by any English teacher when trying to help a class learn how to read the imagery of any poem, in conjunction with the formal aspects of the poet’s craft, such as the use of enjambment by William Carlos Williams in the iconic imagist poem above, is that students struggle to lift the image off the page. It is presented to them as words on a page, and at one level they need to keep that in mind, but they also need to learn how to deconstruct an image and explore the associations and references in relation to the formal structure of the poem. Experienced readers are able to superimpose a template of one layer upon another and unlock nuggets of understanding. But most students are either too literal in their reading of the poem, or are not able to extract an image from the words on paper.

Lines of a drawing and lines of a poem.

Using pictorial representations of the imagery is one way a teacher can try to make the words come alive, and help the student make concrete what often appears as a senseless string of words. Before I had access to an Interactive White Board, I used to draw the images from a poem on the board, or ask students to draw what they saw in the lines. Google images, however, allows you to search, or get a class to search for images of what is mentioned in a poem, to discuss as a class which images best matches what the poet is presenting to us, and to build a collage of images which can be used to unlock the poem.

When students argue about which image best represents what the poet had in mind it makes a powerful statement about the nature of the inter-relationship between the poet’s voice and an individual reading of a poem. But more than that it allows a teacher to explore how images are deconstructed by devices such as enjambment. In the poem above, the way the lines are broken up presents a reader with new ways of reading the image.

The third line, for example, presents us with “a red wheel”, which changes our perceptions of the colour of the wheel from the image as a whole “a red wheel barrow”. One interpretation is superimposed upon another, and new possible readings of the poem are uncovered.

So much depends on how we read the poem.

Interactive White Boards offer ways of quickly finding and displaying images in visible forms for a class discussion. I like to select a student who is responsible for finding images of what is being discussed and displaying them for the class to see. Students will shout out advice and get far more involved in unpacking the imagery of a poem, than if only the dry words were used.

A great activity is to get students to create presentations linking the words with images they have searched. I often get students to create collages of poems they have chosen, and present them to the class with a discussion of the poem. I think it also helps students see tools such as PowerPoint or Prezi as visual adjuncts to their commentary rather than simply slides which they read out.

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What ICTs allow English teachers to do (which they can’t do with pen and paper)

IMG_20150909_105424Larry Cuban has famously observed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that when the computer meets the classroom, the classroom always wins. ICTs have often been touted as disruptive agents of change in an education system which clearly needs an overhaul, but change has been slow and classrooms today look much as they did when I was a child. And yet it is not true to assert that the influence of ICTs has not been felt, or that subtle changes have not taken place – they have. An Interactive Whiteboard may be used in the same way as the blackboard of old, but it may also be used in radically different ways as well, and increasingly teachers are finding ways of using technology effectively and innovatively.

My own feeling is that if technology helps us to do something more effectively and efficiently, or if it helps us to do something worthwhile that we could not do before, then it is worth using. Otherwise it is not worth it simply to do change for the sake of change. The question for me then becomes, can my students do this with pen and paper? If so, they probably should. If not, then does the technology allow me to do something that I can’t otherwise do as well?

English teachers have been amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of ICTs in the classroom. Take writing, for example. Teaching writing is one of the key areas of concern for any language teacher. Writing is concerned not just with form: the different formats of transactional writing, conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and of course grammatical correctness. It is also concerned with genre, tone, register, lexis and of course meaning. How do you structure an argument? How do you communicate effectively and develop your own style? How do you inject a certain flair into your writing? All of these are really questions of process rather than product. There are teachers who simply get students to write an essay and then grade it with allegedly helpful comments in the margins, but most language teachers see the need to address writing as a skill to be learned.

One of the problems with pen and paper is that it cannot readily be subjected to review during the process of writing, and is difficult to edit. Writing a draft, then editing multiple times until you have a final product is physically challenging with a permanent medium such as pen and paper. Some teachers used to duplicate a student’s first draft and give copies out to peers for editing, so that a piece of writing could be discussed in class and the editing process made visible. Other teachers would form students into writing circles, where peer editing could be more easily facilitated. But again the medium itself gave scant affordance to the process.

Google docs, on the other hand, allows student to share a piece of writing with peer editors, or a teacher synchronously or asynchronously. Editors can leave comments, or even do collaborative editing. The affordances of this technology not only assist the teaching of writing as a process, they make it possible in ways it was not conceivable previously. In tandem with an Interactive whiteboard, or a visualiser, and any text can be visibly dissected and discussed in a similar way. These technologies give a flexibility to the process that was absent before. If you wanted to discuss a poem it had to be available in book or handout form, both of which take planning. Now you can respond as a teacher to the cut and thrust of discussion and bring up any text onto the IWB for immediate discussion.

Another classroom routine in the language classroom, the analysis of text, is also revolutionised by technology. When you are discussing a text with a class, a poem say, one important didactic move is how to make difficult concepts or words accessible to students. I used to draw pictures on the blackboard often so students could see what a particular archaic object looked like, to help make it more concrete. Google images considerably aids this process, and youtube videos can be found which immediately demonstrate to students what a Dickensian poor-house might have looked like, or how a paddle-steamer works – or whatever it is that you need to make visual in order to bring a text alive and make it accessible.

As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.

 

Vine in the Classroom

A Vine is a mobile app owned by twitter. It allows users to create and post six second videos and share on social media. Now you may think that having only six seconds to express yourself would be the kiss of death for education, but as a general principle restriction is the mother of creativity, and a quick look at the following should illustrate my point.

 

Having only six seconds to make any point forces a student to summarize information concisely and succinctly. To do this successfully you need to understand the content completely. Good vines usually involve adequate planning and accurate execution, skills that we should be promoting in our schools. In the English classroom, students could create vines in the persona of a character from literature, a character selfie instead of a character sketch, if you like, encouraging a student to step into the shoes of the character and try to understand their soul.

Students could also make six second videos illustrating points of grammar, or solving a Maths problem – the applications are virtually endless. You do not have to use the app either. Videos can be made using any technology and posted on any platform. They can be put together quite quickly too. Most kids have cell-phones capable of filming short clips, and VideoPad or something similar makes for a very handy editing tool. A six second clip should not take longer than about twenty minutes to film and edit!

Best of all vines are fun to make and watch – and should become a useful weapon in any teacher’s armoury.

 

 

Branding and The Flipped Classroom

flippedLast week the school where I work held a meeting about Flipping the Classroom. Many teachers in the school have been quietly flipping for some time, in different ways, and to my mind one of the most interesting questions which arises once the flipping goes institution-wide, is the whole question of branding.

With some teachers using Moodle, some using Edmodo, and some using our Sharepoint intranet, any attempt by the school as a whole to bring some order to the scene is going to be a messy business. So the first concern, then, is should there be some order? Does the Flipped Classroom need the branding of the school, or should it remain an anarchic sea of different platforms and individualism?

Now I am an Anarchist at heart! I believe, passionately, that teachers teach best when they are doing something they believe in. I prefer the functionality and power of Moodle, but I would be the last one to want to get those who swear by Edmodo, or any other platform to change! But there’s another part of me that thinks that some sort of order in the chaos is not only necessary, but desirable. Anarchism as a political philosophy only works when one argues for organic, grass-roots, bottom-up order to replace repressive, top-down order. Real Anarchists are not Nihilists!

I believe there are at least five solid reasons for creating a portal for the school’s flipped content, and indeed for the school’s e-learning efforts generally. Please note that I am arguing for a single portal, not a single platform. Content can be hosted on myriad platforms: Google Drive, YouTube, Moodle, Edmodo or WordPress and still be accessed from a single point.

Firstly, and from the point of view of the students – and teaching is nothing if not a service industry – there is a solid case to be made for a single portal to access whatever it is that teachers are doing: a place to go so they don’t have to remember the URL for Mr X’s class blog, or for Mrs Y’s Edmodo class. The worst case scenario would be students uncertain of where to access the content they need. I have experienced this with my own sons trying to remember where the class blog is to be found, and having to search past emails to find the link. If only one teacher is online it is easier for kids, but when everyone is in on the act, it must be a nightmare. A single portal would alleviate this confusion.

Secondly, it gives parents an opportunity to gain some understanding of the school’s e-learning initiatives, a place to track their own children’s progress, perhaps, and sign on as mentors, or as parent accounts on platforms that have these functionalities. I know that as a parent I would really value this. It would certainly influence my impression of professionalism in the school, and influence my choice of school in the first place.

So, thirdly, from the point of view of the school, branding the e-learning is an important aspect of marketing the school, and schools are also businesses, whether we like to see them that way or not. For the last few years I have been quietly branding the school Moodle platform in my capacity as the Moodle administrator. This has included using the school logos, branding the site as Roedean Online, using the same format for my own flipped content,  and using twitter hashtags to feed content into course pages. I would be more than happy to use Moodle as a single portal (with links to Edmodo sites, class blogs and so on), but there is a significant core of resistance to Moodle amongst teachers, and so it would seem impolitic to impose that brand. I did, nevertheless set up a Flipped Classroom Course on Moodle in the Staff Training section, as my attempt to advertise and champion Moodle as a platform. If the forum didn’t win teachers over, surely the “flipped teacher’ badges would! It is merely an impression, but I feel that branding Moodle as the School Online helped win students and some teachers over. But I’ve climbed on my hobby-horse and I digress …

A fourth reason for having a single portal revolves around collegiate collaboration. In many schools teachers are somewhat isolated in their classrooms, with little contact with what other teachers are doing in theirs. This leads to a sense of isolation and as a considerable stumbling-block towards greater collaboration. This is exacerbated in cyberspace in some ways, and a single portal might help bring greater awareness and, if accounts allow guest access, a chance to share and collaborate more.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, shared portals could span not only classrooms, but schools as well. Several schools could work together, pooling expertise to share their online content. My vision of the MOOC in the High School is precisely this, of portals sharing Flipped Content, forums for collaboration and discussion beyond the walls of the individual school or even school district.

Are there any reasons not to have a single portal? If by portal you mean platform, then I would have to say yes, absolutely. Single platforms would kill all initiatives dead in their tracks. But as a portal linking to whatever platforms teachers are using or accessing, it can only be a good thing!

 
 
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