Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?

This week, I experienced a familiar feeling. Awkward, a little sweaty, over-exposed and defensive. This wasn’t a first date, or a public presentation, but a lesson on the novel Noughts and Crosses.

In the incredibly diverse secondary schools I’ve worked in all over London, it always feels a little disappointing to answer, ‘here,’ to the inevitable  question; “Miss, where are you from?” While I’ve been told I sound Australian and look French (?!) there is nothing particularly exotic in my ancestry. Which, when talking about a book that subverts the expectations of racial prejudice in modern society, makes me feel very white. So this time, rather than shying away from it, I stood up in front of them and told them that we were about to talk about very awkward things, and that was ok.

I experienced a similar feeling while reading Jack by A.M. Holmes on the train not long ago. When the phrase “your dad’s a faggot,” was uttered by one of the characters, I found myself glancing furtively around the carriage, wondering if anyone was reading over my shoulder and judging me for being homophobic. That novel brilliantly explores the dreadful rhetoric of abuse and marginalisation of homosexuals, especially males, in the 1980s in the UK. And it’s uncomfortable.

Malorie Blackman’s novel turns history on its head, leaving the characters with a legacy of black oppression over white people, a history of slavery, along with all the inherent prejudices that go with it, such as not being able to find a white face in a fashion magazine, and only being able to buy plasters or makeup that are dark and don’t match your skin colour. Which forces us to acknowledge that this is still the experience for many people in the modern world. And it’s uncomfortable.

Whenever writers uncover the unpleasant and prejudiced sides of society, it forces us to examine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narratives that we immerse ourselves in all the time, and that are simply accepted as being the ‘way things are.’ If we had been studying A Handmaid’s Tale, the boys in the class might start to feel a little awkward about all the oppressive things done to women by men over the years. If we were examining Animal Farm, those who come from more privileged backgrounds might start to feel defensive about the things they have been afforded in their life that their peers have not. The important distinction here, is that rather than making the debate personal, literature allows us to examine these prejudices, better understand the plight of those personally involved, and have a more objective view of not just the society we live in, but the way we operate within it.

So, I said to the class, let’s acknowledge that we do not live in a perfect world, but appreciate how wonderful it is that such a diverse group of people have been afforded the chance to read, debate and discuss such issues in a classroom, together. Without books that make us squirm, we would not have reached a point where this lesson were possible.

Here’s to books that make us uncomfortable.

 

New Technologies – teaching the new generation

Don’t they know it all already?

In a word, no. Just because our pupils are exposed to a massive amount of ‘tech’ it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be adept at using for a variety of outcomes or be able to critically evaluate the impact that it has on them or on society. Most people tend to use this stuff on a ‘need to know’ basis. No-one knew how to tweet or IM before the technology became available, and so young people will tend to use whatever is most popular or most useful for them in their social interactions. Not to sell them short, in fact the massive positive to be taken from this is that because they do spend a lot of time using it, the possibilities in the classroom are hugely broadened.

Techs into teaching

There is an insane amount out there. From Storify to Posterous, from Twitter to Wallwisher, the web and associated technologies are just bursting with stuff that can add a bit of va va voom to your lessons. . The question that I feel is often left unanswered, is why it’s being used.

Issues and problems

All too often we end up ‘ticking the box’ of new technologies and then getting back to what we usually do. Schools or departments may desire a modern feel to their school but truly embedding into a curriculum or a school ethos may be tricky. Some teachers find these technologies challenging, and are reluctant to feel out of their depth. Others point out that a lot of teaching techniques could be done without them. While this may be the case, I think this is slightly missing the point.

Keeping it fresh

Allowing pupils to create content, comment in different ways, or even just see things on a different type of screen, is undoubtedly what is needed in the modern classroom. The value of taking something they are incredibly familiar and comfortable with and using it as an educational tool should ensure your lessons stay fresh and exciting. However, this doesn’t mean that throwing a blog writing exercise or getting everyone to Tweet about something suddenly escalates your teaching, and it’s interesting to note that Ofsted no longer include it as a criteria for an Outstanding lesson. As ever, if it fits with the lesson, and it suits the learners, it can have a valuable impact on the outcome. As ever, let’s not be doing things for the sake of it.

Teaching Beyond the Test!

I found myself in the unusual situation of defending my position on educating 11-16-year-olds about the world around them and was told that this was ‘A-level.’ Unfortunately this person held a senior position with an examining body. The topic in question was bringing current developments in the media into the classroom. Clearly not relevant. In a similar vein, a rather astute Year 9 pupil quipped just this week; “Miss, we aren’t really given an education, are we? We’re just taught how to pass tests.” In both cases I find a saddening reflection of our education system.

I am in no way advocating a return to some sort of 70s ‘freestyle’ education in which teachers rock up and we all get groovy and artistic, but it does bring me up short sometimes when I consider just how narrow a set of skills our children are learning in a school environment. Practically of course, there must be some way of assessing pupils. There must be some sort of benchmark of assessment in order to measure attainment, but when did this become the sole purpose of education?

It is an exam board’s job to communicate the to schools the nature and content of assessments to ensure pupils have an equal chance of success when measured against their peers. It is not an exam board’s job to make value judgements as to what is ‘worthwhile’ in a lesson. How often are employers heard to complain that young people leaving school to go into the job market lack the basic skills required? Might it be that the fault lies not in the ‘rigour’ or ‘discipline’ in schools, but rather that the goalposts for success in schools are so very narrow? A teacher, department leader, headteacher, would be perfectly within their rights to teach nothing but that which can be found on the different specifications. After all, this is how schools are judged. But what level of disservice does this do to the child, and more importantly, our future society and potential for economic growth.

Call me idealistic, but I look forward to a day when an exam board praises the inclusion of modern and critical thinking alongside the fixed curriculum, and a pupil can leave school with a greater and more rounded knowledge of the world than ‘what’s on the spec.”

Media Literacy Part 2

Limiting the field?

While I am incredibly pleased to see something so vital and fundamental to modern education being approved by the powers that be, unfortunately the main focus of this seems to be the ‘big bad media’ approach, through which we are all mindless, passive vehicles blindly accepting what the media tells us and that children should be protected from its evil intentions. This is, of course, only part of the story. On the one hand, I am reluctant to follow the line of children being passive sponges which soak up everything they hear and see with no filtering whatsoever, but it is also only the tip of the iceberg. While of course it is massively important that children are educated about how the media has the power to manipulate and alter perceptions, they also need to understand more about the very techniques that are being used to create these. It also seems to assume that the only media that influences children in any real way is adverts. What about the controversy sparked by Rihanna and what it suggests about music videos? How do the gender roles we see in blockbuster films affect our perceptions of society? How has social networking affected the way we interact with each other? There could of course be a much longer list here!

Approaches in the classroom

The possibilities here are endless, and will vary depending on what your subject/keystage/objectives are. We have tried including some sort of topical media story as a starter once a week with Year 9 pupils. Not only did they tell us that they found it interesting, it also allowed us to explore more complex ideas like the ways the press can sensationalise stories (the Japanese earthquake and aftermath at the time) and how the same story can be reported in a very different way by newspapers or news organisations with different agendas. This ended up being a wonderfully interesting digression about politics! The phone hacking scandal gave us a huge opportunity to discuss the press, regulation, the power of Twitter, and a whole host of media literacy topics. In English lessons pupils looked at the way similar messages were used across different media platforms when advertising, while another year group looked at different strands of the media and how the register and tone of communication varied, as well as their impact on society in general. I am running a whole-school group which is trialling different ideas in different subject areas so I will hopefully have some more ideas to report here soon. Some initial thoughts have been to look at how musical tastes can be influenced by the media, tracking the development of a news story across different media types and giving pupils a toolkit for deconstruction of media texts that covers all media types. There is a lot more to be discussed and studied, but for now the main issue is convincing educators that it is a vital part of modern education, no matter what subject you teach. What do you think? Should media literacy be dealt with more transparently in schools? How can we do this? I look forward to your comments.

Media Literacy Part 1

Qualifying

The term ‘media literacy’ (often also termed ‘digital literacy’) has been bandied around in educational circles for a while now, and has been the subject of several documents (http://bit.ly/gKEWmz) and case studies (http://bit.ly/qUdCz0), of which this is clearly only a sample that I have come across. It is a hugely broad and encompassing term which is possibly one of the most problematic issues, as it takes just as long to define exactly what it is we’re talking about as it does to figure out whether or not it’s something we should be prioritising. To summarise what I think are the most important elements of the general theory, it’s about educating people (I say people as I think it’s just as valid for teachers as it is for pupils) about the influence of the media. This includes the massive assumptions we have about ourselves and our pupils (see http://bit.ly/Cdgmv for discussion on ‘digital natives,’ although I would argue that the link between someone growing up with technology around them and therefore being able to use it successfully is too much of a leap) and also the but also stresses the importance of decoding and deconstructing the messages that bombard us every day via the mass media. Should pupils have an understanding of the motives of media companies and how this skews their messages? Should pupils be able to understand how something is constructed in order to not only decode the messages it promotes but in order to successfully be able to reproduce it?

Barriers

People’s main objection to taking something like media literacy seriously is heavily tied in with their lack of respect for the area in general. Often what is perceived as ‘easy’ or ‘obvious’ are the things we encounter every day. Therefore modern popular fiction is less likely to be treated as ‘literature’ and websites or films are less likely to be seen as worthy of study. The issue is not really about whether or not the media is worthy of study, at least not for this discussion, but rather that the widespread influence and all-pervasive nature of the media and digital technology means that we are doing our pupils a disservice not to help them in decoding and creating what will be an enormous part of their working and adult life. Interestingly enough, despite what appears to be a ‘back to basics’ approach to education in general, the government have just endorsed a ‘media literacy pack’ produced by Media Smart (http://bit.ly/p88Whu) in order to help teachers tackle issues of skewed messages in the media in advertising and related to body image in general which could have an adverse affect on young and influential minds. So where is the secondary equivalent? How can a topic so broad begin to be embraced in schools in any real way? Do teachers need to be convinced of its importance before it can be prioritised in curriculums? I’ll be trying answer some of these questions in the second post. Please submit your comments, I’d be really interested to know your thoughts or what you’ve encountered.


‘Embedding’ across the curriculum – real possibility or box-checking exercise?

Cross-curricular concepts

As a teacher in a secondary school, we are constantly bombarded with new initiatives, ideas and concepts that are to be ’embedded’ into the school as a whole. These can vary from government-led legislation (cynically often a knee-jerk reaction to whatever the popular press happens to be shouting about or the exact opposite of whatever the last government did, despite how effective it may or may not have been) to governor/headteacher priorities. Ideally, your school should give you the opportunity to trial and put into practice initiatives that are teacher-led and allow us as professionals to develop and expand on interests and skills personally. How often is this actually the case? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

‘Embedding’

Once the particular idea has been identified as worthy of further development (a tricky process in itself!) the process of ’embedding’ it into school practice begins. Here is, I feel, the trickiest area. Especially in secondary schools, where there is often a tendency to make assumptions about other subjects (“oh they cover that in Maths”) or at worst take a ‘pass-the-buck’ attitudes(they teach them how to spell in English so I don’t have to bother), it is often difficult to see how something can be truly entrenched over the entire school. Very often it leads to things which are merely bolted on, such as an extra lesson here and there, or a learning to learn week, or a poster around school. This can sometimes feel like a box checking exercise, where we have successfully used ‘X’ in our teaching and can now move on safe in the knowledge that is is embedded into our practice. Or is it?

Tackling the Issues

The conundrum lies between being able to prove something is actually happening in lessons, and a sense of trust in your teaching staff. Very often these things should simply be the process of good teaching (what teacher should not be developing a pupil’s ability to communicate as well as particular subject-related knowledge or skills?). But senior management and Heads of Department have the onus placed on them that they need to in some way prove and measure the fact that these things are taking place in classrooms on a regular basis. It seems naive to assume that we will return to a system where the inherent values and skills of a teacher are taken for granted, and perhaps this could lead to stagnation on both sides of the classroom wall. In the culture of assessment-driven education and a constant need to verify and measure teaching and learning aims and outcomes, is it truly possible for innovative, creative and highly important practices to be truly embedded across the entire school?

Possible Solutions

Invariably this must rest with the school’s approach to CPD. If a teacher truly believes they can test out theories, ideas and concepts with the full backing of the senior team, only then can you be assured that pupils will continue to be exposed to the full range of experiences they are entitled to as learners. While of course schools and departments need to maintain assessment standards, teachers must be able to feel that there is some space in the curriculum (yes, even at KS4!) to allow them to trial new teaching methods and base their teaching on a range of priorities. Only then will we be able to truly educate. Despite the pressures rained down on teachers, they must never be allowed to feel that all they are doing is preparing the next generation for a series of exams. We need to educate the whole child to deal with and thrive in the ever-changing environment they will find themselves in once they leave the classroom space. Some of these ideas will stick, and become whole-school policy, while others may fall by the wayside. But at least they will have been attempted. A combination of trust in your teaching staff and commitment to innovation should lead to a pupil cohort that is constantly kept on its toes. I am hugely interested in how other schools approach these areas and how much people feel their school ’embeds’ new ideas across the curriculum. Please share!