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In a recent post, Ross Cooper reflected on his journey in regards to reading comprehension. He shared the phases that he has gone through and the texts that have supported these changes. At the end of the post, he posed the challenge to share your own journey. So here is my attempt to represent my somewhat fractured journey that I have followed:

Honours and Post-Structuralism: If my journey is to have a beginning, it is in my Honours year at University. I started out writing about the historical connections between Virginia Woolf and psychoanalysis, but ended up down a rabbit hole exploring what it means when we talk about psychoanalysis. Building on the ideas of Stanley Fish and J. Hillis Miller, I explored the influence of personal and collective context associated with interpretation. I am not sure how many ‘strategies’ I take from this time, but it did leave me with a deep appreciation for the subjective nature of reading and perspective.

CAFE Menu and Comprehension Strategies: I spent my formative years facilitating the teaching of novels, films and media texts by providing students with long lists of questions. I would work for hours scrolling over texts to come up with the best questions. This changed when Di Snowball was hired by the region to improve literacy results. A part of this change was the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies via the work of Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels, as well as the introduction of the CAFE Menu to support reading conferences.

Reading Textbooks: Along with the introduction of various strategies, one text that had a considerable impact was The Comprehension Toolkit. The particular book that stood out was the one on reading textbooks. What was significant about it was the change in how I saw textbooks. Rather than depending on predefined tasks and questions, I started using chapters as provocations for student-led questioning and inquiry. The book provided a range of simple strategies to support this process.

Digital Literacies: The integrated approach of incorporating instruction and use of comprehension strategies into every subject within a secondary setting helped develop the capacity in a more consistent manner. The problem that I found was that strategies and supports were primarily focused on the printed text. This bias become obvious when I started teaching ICT and Digital Publishing. Spaces such as the Ultranet, Edmodo, Google Apps (G Suite) and other social media forms provided different ways of working and demonstrating understanding. For example, one of my initial questions when starting out on Twitter was how this could be used to share key ideas and quotes. The reality is that digital learning technologies allows a level of social interaction and sharing that just is not possible in person. The text that brought this all this to the fore was Doug Belshaw’s The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, in which he identified eight elements which work together to inform our (digital) literacy practice.

Disciplined Collaboration: Another change which had a considerable impact on my teaching of comprehension was Disciplined Collaboration. The basic premise behind Disciplined Collaboration is a cycle involving the identification of a problem, initiating some form of intervention and then measure the impact of the various actions. For some this is no different to a PLC. However, Alma Harris states that where it is different is that it is disciplined. In regards to comprehension, this is a more responsive approach. It provides a means of developing of specific response to the problem at hand.

Visible Thinking: The latest step in my comprehension journey was reading Making Thinking VisibleBuilding on the learning started in regards to making sense of textbooks, this book simply focuses on making sense. Unlike the comprehension strategies, the thinking protocols provide the means for developing understanding. I think that it is only now that I have truly linked my theoretical thoughts captured within my Honours work, as well as my actual practice.


So there is my journey, what about you? What have been your influences in regards to your understanding of comprehension? As always, comments welcome.


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We got talking the other day at school about our NAPLAN reading results. Again, the reading results were below the state average. It was therefore raised that maybe this needed to be a focus and that maybe we should investigate bringing in a coach from outside of the school. So even though we have several great coaches already working within in the area of literacy and we had a focus on reading a couple of years ago, it was believed that the answer was to get a new perspective on the problem. As long as you are seen doing something then that’s alright.
 
Having been a part of the push across the region a few years ago in regards to literacy I posed the question as to whether anyone had carried out any sort of audit of the current practises to identify any areas of improvement. For I was told that to bring about deep and meaningful change takes between three to five years. The comment that I got in response really startled me. I was told that it wasn’t anything that we were doing or not doing, that what I needed to understand was that reading standards in the region have always been poor, a consequence of our clientele. Maybe I’m too much of a dreamer or just naive, but I think that before you go chasing the silver bulletin maybe you stop and reflect on your own practise and back your own staff.
 
This subsequently got me thinking of some simple things we could introduce tomorrow to improve reading and responding within the school. Here then are three changes that I would make:
 

Share the Conferences

A few years ago I investigated the idea of digital workbooks as an alternative to the usual exercise book. Going beyond the cliché of ‘saving paper’, I wanted something that I could check in at any time without having to go through the rigmarole of collecting books at the end of the lesson. After moving to Google Apps, I then realised that there were benefits far beyond the workbook. One change I brought in was making reading conferences collaborative.
 
Before that moment, the conference notes were kept by the teacher, with students writing their goals in their reading journal. Other than being owned by the teacher, rather than the student, the process of a literacy coach checking how students were progressing was rather tedious. In moving the notes to a collaborative document, sharing with all the various stakeholders was just a click of the button. This provides a means for teachers to possibly touch base with students on a more regular basis, even if they are not able to literally conference them. It also allowed the process, which was done by Session Five teachers, whoever that maybe, to be shared with English teachers in order to gain a better perspective as to where students are at.
 

Recognising Digital Literacy Too

One of the things that has always confused me in regards to reading and comprehension is the dominance of the written text to the digital text. Although there are differences between the two, I feel that the ability to be critical is pertinent to both. As I have spoken about elsewhere, I wonder how we are modelling the way we read online within today’s curriculum.
 
Personally, a majority of what I read is online now. One of the reasons is that I feel it supports my comprehension, allowing me to annotate texts, as well as is interact with others in a way that was not possible before. In the past such sharing was often stunted by whether they too had read or were interested in what I was reading. Now online I can find my niche community, those who are also interested in the same topics as me and connect with them whenever I like.
 

Fluency and Authenticity

Another interesting idea in regards to working on areas such as fluency and accuracy (see the CAFE menu) is the ability to record yourself and become your own critique. Usually when working with Secondary students I suggest reading to sibling or finding someone else. However, the challenge associated with this that not everyone has a sibling and for many it feels contrived. An alternative to this, that I came upon, via +Corrie Barclay, is to video yourself reading. Not only does this make learning visible, but it also allows students to watch themselves back and be their own critique.
 
A way of building upon simply recording yourself is to create an audio book. For example, I had some split kids in my class the other day and they had finished all their work, so I asked them to get a picture book and record themselves reading it for a Prep class using Adobe Voice. Not only does this then bring in visualization, as they need to choose the appropriate images to support the text, but I have found that the authenticity of the task brings something out in the students. Instead of recording a one take performance, they would read over each line, play it back and then often rerecord it until they felt they had perfected it.
 
 
In the end, the problem to me is that the search for a silver bullet is a facet of the fixed mindset. A belief that if we just get the right teachers or brought in the right coach that somehow everything will magically click and we will get the results. The only silver bullet for success is hard work. No outside coach can bring that in my view, this sadly needs to start at the top with the question why do you want to change and what is the desired outcome. So let’s start there.

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In a provocative post, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, Peter Skillen wrote about six ‘bricks’ that he considers are combining to prevent the evolution of education into the 21st century. The bricks are that:
  1. There is an inability for leaders and administrators to practise the same things that they preach and also become learners.
  2. Too many educators are living on a diet of abstracts, one-line wisdoms from Twitter and drive-by professional development.
  3. We need education for our students and ALSO for our teachers – not subjugation.
  4. Rather than overload teachers with initiatives, administration needs to help teachers to understand the ‘essence’ residing in all these practices and out of the distilled essence, teachers could then ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’.
  5. If we want the culture and context of the classroom to change, we need to embrace technology and how it might bring about this change.
  6. we need to educate the public about the changes that are needed.
Peter’s post definitely left me with more questions than answers, such as: Can you really have administrators as ‘learners’ and still expect them to continue with their same roles as they are now? How do you convince students and teachers to embrace their own education, rather than accept a life of subjugation? What happens if different teachers working in the same team develop a different ‘essence’ associated with learning and teaching? Isn’t technology one part of 21st century learning, not the whole part? How do you go about educating the public in regards to the evolution in education when there are so many stakeholders out there providing mixed messages about what this means? However, the biggest question of all was whether the modern phenomena of perpetuating ‘one-liners’ was actually detrimental to any sort of productive change?

 

 

Summing up the Main Idea

One of the biggest instigators in this one-line revolution is Twitter. Restricted to 140 characters per post, it seemingly forces users to clamour to the highest point of land and jump up and down to be noticed. Posts therefore often lend themselves to absurd statements, such as “5 Things Preventing You From Becoming a Billionaire” and “The Secret Video Obama Doesn’t Want You to See”. But the question is, does it have to be this way?
 
Having really taken to Twitter as a place to share and connect with others, I feel a little guilty as charged, as I often reduce arguments down to one-line. When I started tweeting, I initially went in thinking about how students could use such a medium to record regular reflections with their reading. I therefore made an effort to share those pertinent quotes that stood out from the texts, the main ideas if you’d like. This would always be followed by either a title or a URL where applicable. As I progressed, I started to struggle with the challenge of fitting the message into the restrictions of a 140 characters and turned to such programs as Quozio to quickly and easily capture and share longer passages. For me, this was more important than simply sharing a link or re-tweeting a previous post. My attempt was to give a meaning to the message, to provide a taste of the text, rather than just some catchy title. However, does this really guarantee to provide the reader with an entry point or simply provide a short and quick summation, providing the feeling that the idea or argument is now known and understood.

 

Digital Identity

 

I think that in some respect this whole argument is really about digital identity and how we each present ourselves online. I was once told by a fellow teacher in an annual review meeting that every day is a living job interview, you shouldn’t wait until you are sitting in front of a panel. Often the decision is made before you even speak, whether it be the examples that you haven’t got to present or the positive references that you haven’t got.
 
This content – tweets, posts, images – is a way of constructing your own brand, posting aspects that we associate with, marketing ourselves. This needs to be differentiated from the self-aggrandizement, where we spruik ourselves in the climb up the ladder. Instead this ‘marketing’ is a more rhizomic in nature. Although we may eventually ‘move up the ladder’, this is often a by-product, instead the real strength of our sell is in the connections that we are able to develop.  For in the modern world, it is not necessarily what you know, but the network of people you know that can help you get to a better answer. (For a great discussion of such matters, read +George Siemens introduction to connectivism.) The question this becomes about how we actually form these networks.
 
In a +Mashable post ‘Stop Linkbait Before It Ruins Content Marketing’, Sam Slaughter gives a few suggestions about how to best approach content marketing. He provides six different suggestions:
  1. Standing out requires adding something new to the mix, bringing users a piece of information they could not have gotten elsewhere.
  2. If it looks written by a machine, for a machine, it won’t resonate with human readers.
  3. It’s important to produce content that will uphold and retain value for your target audience.
  4. It’s key to understand the landscape and which solutions fit best with a brand’s current and future content needs.
  5. The portrait of “success” looks different for each case.
  6. It takes time and effort to create an engaged audience.
I think that these suggestions carry across to the development of our own digital identity. One of the prime ‘solutions’ for this situations is Twitter. It provides a medium through which you can publish regular and authentic posts. The problem though is it is easy to read like a robot, rather than like a human. However, this is often easier said than done. With so many programs and applications that easily post information to various social network platforms on our behalf, it can be be challenge.

Tweet as Aphorism

Another perspective on this whole debate is thinking of a tweet as being more like an aphorism. The Oxford Dictionary defines an aphorism as ‘a pithy observation which contains a general truth’. Although it may touch upon a truth, often the success of an aphorism is not necessarily the truth or ‘wisdom’ it provides, but rather the point of contemplation to which it often leaves the readers.  Whether it be Lao Tzu or Donald Rumsfeld, an aphorism often leads to more questions than answers. I admit then that not all tweet are deep in nature, but does that mean that the medium is subsequently flawed?
 


Infinite Hope

I can change the way I work and attempt to influence the way other people do things, but in the end it still all comes down to choice. A choice of whether to write like a human or like a robot. A choice of whether to publish authentic ideas or simply run for the absurd. Although there may not be some gold nugget hidden within each tweet, waiting to be unearthed, I think that there is much to be gain in getting learners to think differently. I admit that Twitter as a medium does open itself up to a false sense of contentment, but this is often a fault of the the reader to think that this is dialogue stops there. For one of the tenets that seems to get bandied around in regards to 21st century skills as the notion of critical thinking. If I naively think that all you need for a Teachmeet is to “pick a date, pick a pub/library/space that is free and go ahead” as +Matt Esterman put it to me, then I would be the fool. For even though it is a free and open form of professional development, at the very least, it still requires some organisation and PR to get people there. However, Matt’s statement does plant a seed, it does at least provide the basic principles of what is required to organise a Teachment and that is important.
 
So to answer the question, can you really find wisdom in one-line? The answer is probably no, but you can definitely find hope. Hope for a different world, hope for a different way of doing things, hope for a more critical viewer. And sometimes that hope is all that we have.

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In a recent blog post on being a connected educator, Tom Whitby suggested that:
The unconnected educator is more in line with the 20th century model of teacher. Access to the Internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern. Whatever they need to know, someone will tell them. If they email anyone, they will follow it up with a phone call to make sure it was received.
The question that it got me thinking was that if not being connected means not being a part of the 21st century, what does it actually mean to be working within the 21st century? There are many contrary opinions out there about what 21st century learning is and what are the skills associated with it. However, the one thing that stands out across all discussions is that to ignore one element often collapses the whole definition.

 

Reading, a Sum of Many Interconnected Parts

The other day, I was discussing the practise of reading with a fellow teacher. Although seemingly obvious now, it occurred to me that although there are various strategies and focuses (inferring, summarising, questioning etc …), they are all interrelated and interconnected and cannot really be taught in isolation. Take inferring for example. Students are asked to refer to background knowledge or text structures in order to develop inferences from the text, even if they are not necessarily the focus (see Harvey & Goudvis Strategies That Work). The reality is to talk about any strategy or skill-in-itself often misses or denies something else that is happening during the process of reading, pushing the other activities into the margins. Reading is subsequently often taught in an isolated fashion, with ‘focuses’ and so forth, based on the effort to structure or organise practices. In this situation, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ S/Z where he unpacked the different layers of meaning inherent in Balzac’s novella, ‘Sarrasine’. Barthes approach was to be open to the meaning within the text, rather than restrict himself with a predefined focus. This seems in vast contrast to the practise of reading with a ‘focus’ in mind. The question this poses then is whether focusing one particular strategy really constitutes reading? (I have also written about this elsewhere). To me it is comparable to a running through a training drill as opposed to playing a game. Clearly they are related, but are they really the same? 

 

21st Century Learning, A Whole or Many Parts?

In an effort to organise the different skills associated with the 21st century learning, the researchers at ATC21S divided them into four different categories:
Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
Often this division into separate categories leads to people responding to the different parts in isolation. However, when you start to look at the list, you begin to realise that each of the different categories are inseparably interlinked. For example, it is through the use of Blogger that I am able to critically engage with ideas and communicate them with others. The question that needs to be considered then is whether the different categories can really be dealt with in isolation? Are they things-in-themselves or just a way of thinking about the bigger question of learning in the 21st century?

I think that this point is particularly comes to the fore when you consider the use of ICT tools. It is often believed that teaching the tool somehow automatically  equals  utilising 21st century skills. However, in my opinion, this is a bit of a misnomer. Too often the focus of professional development revolves around the use of a particular tool, as that is where the money has been spent, rather than focusing on the skills that are made possible and the changes that this might bring to learning.

Take for example the failure of interactive whiteboards. I was once privy to an inspiring presentation run by +Peter Kent for Promethean. His main point was that the interactive whiteboard offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Take this possible sequence of events as a model: after brainstorming ideas, students are invited to come up to the board and engage with the content by reorganising the information, these choices are then used to develop a further conversations, such as ‘why did you make that choice’. This series of events shows the possibility of the interactive whiteboard to not only decentralise the classroom (at least remove the teacher from the stage), but also the ability to engage students in the critical question of ‘why’ they made the decision that they did. Sadly, from my experience, the use of IWB’s has never really gotten past using the boards as an overpriced projector, a part from those few cavaliers trying to lead the way. I feel that there are two things that have inhibited the take up of IWB’s by teachers. Firstly, many staff struggle to utilise the associated software to its full potential (this is often the biggest hurdle), but more importantly, there is often an inability to link the use of IWB’s with the skills of thinking and collaboration. Is it any wonder then why they have never really taken? (I am of the belief that many of the benefits of interactive whiteboards are slowly being undermined by the rolling out of 1 to 1 devices, see Rich Lambert’s blog on the matter.)
 

Thinking in the 21st Century

Once again we come back to the question, does focusing on one particular category really constitute 21st century learning? Does the fact that you are focusing on thinking-in-itself simply equate to focusing on the skills of 21st century learning, rather it means you are focusing on thinking. Would you consider teaching students how to infer as covering all the different skills associated with reading,? Clearly not, it is simply teaching students how to infer. Why then does the same not apply to the different skills associated with the 21st century? When introducing 21st century, it is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities. There are sometimes in life when the sum of the parts are just different to the whole.

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