Stemming the demise of poetry in schools

I am trying to rescue poetry on YouTube!

As part of my re-training to remain an English teacher in Australia, I have obviously had a lot to do with other pre-service teachers. While they all obviously have a range of strengths and weaknesses as beginning teachers, the one thing that struck me the most about the English teachers is the large number that are intimidated by, and flat out dislike, poetry. It’s not everyone, and I accept that not everyone that wants to teach English necessarily should want to do so because of poetry. However, the proportion of ‘haters’ (as the kids say these days – I’m reliably informed) is, well, disproportionate.

What is in vogue in education goes in cycles, and curriculum and policy are both skittish beasts that tend to change direction with little reason. It’s no surprise, given the neo-liberal influence in education these days, that something so trivial (i.e. good for the soul, but not for the bottom line of the nation’s economy) should be given less of a focus in our curricula. It is therefore completely understandable that today’s young graduate English teachers have less of a grounding in poetry.

But I think it is a travesty. I love poetry. It is the reason I became an English teacher, and if I could only teach the appreciation of poetry for the rest of my life, not only would I really enjoy it, but I can GUARANTEE that I could produce better citizens for the future.

In order to combat the demise of poetry, I’ve relaunched an old YouTube thing I used to do, called the Poetry Show. It is made up of two parts. The first is a weekly episode teaching people how to write better poetry. I have about a year’s worth of material already planned and it is very thorough. The second part is a collection of accessible and short analyses of commonly taught, and not so common but incredibly teachable, poems. My hopes for this enterprise is to create more capable poets, and in turn more capable readers of poetry. I also want to create a bank of (excellent!) resources for more poetry shy teachers to rely on.

The first video in the ‘How to become a better poet’ series can be found here:

If you know any English teachers that may be apprehensive about the teaching of poetry, I would love for you to share this channel, the Poetry Show, with them. And if there are particular poems you’d like me to analyse, drop me a note in the comments here or on one of the videos.

Stemming the demise of poetry in schools

The failure of reporting on NAPLAN

The media has put me in a foul mood today. Preliminary results have been released reporting on NAPLAN, and the reporting on it is pretty poor. For example, a story from the ABC, South Australian NAPLAN results behind the national average, relies on terms such as ‘below average’ and ‘worst performing’ without any sense of explanation of what that means or providing any adequate context.

Surely half of the students were below average, and half above average. Every teacher knows the truth that there is no such thing as average. So what does the report mean by average? Do they mean ‘meeting the acceptable standard for their age’? Do they mean, being in a middle band of achievement, with the parameters defined by ACARA? We don’t know, because they don’t say.

They don’t ask, or answer the question: What does this mean our kids do or don’t know? What, in real terms, can children in years 3, 5, 7, and 9 not do that they should be able to do?

These are important questions. If students are demonstrably failing to learn in schools, that is a problem. But are they demonstrably failing to learn? What skills are they failing to learn? How does the NAPLAN test demonstrate that failure, or success? Are there skills that students may or may not be learning that NAPLAN does not, and maybe cannot, report on?

These are also important questions, that once again are not being asked.

What is reported on is that particular groups are below some unspecified average. That some perform worse than others.

We could say that without NAPLAN, couldn’t we?

So ask the question – why don’t we? Is NAPLAN really an effective tool? Do we need it to build a successful education system? The much lauded Finnish system does not have it, and they are MUCH LAUDED.

Say ‘no’ to NAPLAN. Please.


The failure of reporting on NAPLAN

NAPLAN Reading Comprehension: Teaching to the test, the fun way with Interactive Fiction

First published sketchnote – It’s not very good, but it’s ok to let people see you not being very good!

Standardised testing is a problem. There’s a lot you can read about that, particularly Testing Times: The Uses and Abuses of Testing, by Gordon Stobart. My particular bugbear is with NAPLAN, and Ian Hardy at QLD Uni has written some interesting stuff criticising that, too. Track down his paper, ‘The Logic of Enumeration’, or ‘Catalyst data: perverse systemic effects of audit and accountability in Australian schooling’, by Lingard and Sellar, for a detailed critique of Australian testing.

To my understanding, the chief problem that NAPLAN gives rise to is that what is measured and reported on from the perspective of teacher accountability is the thing that will be seen to matter most, and therefore receive the most attention from teachers. The reason that this is a problem is because the literacy and numeracy focus of the testing is remarkable narrow. Despite having a brand new, and quite good, standards based national curriculum, what matters most according to these tests are skills that receive footnoted attention in some cases (see for an example).

Another problem is that preparing for these tests is boring. Kids hate it, and quite rightly see no value in it (there’s nothing in it for them, really – it’s to keep their teachers and schools accountable, not give them any tangiable, transferable reward like an ATAR score, for example). I can assure you that teachers hate it, too. Sure, we can use the data to see how our kids are going, but we have many more reliable tools in our toolbox than standardised testing. Standardised testing is not objective, it’s not reliable enough, it’s far too simplistic (multiple choice reading comprehension? You’ve got to be kidding?!), and it is far too narrow. Kids should be learning critical thinking and analysis, collaboration skills, authentic problem solving skills and a whole host of other desireable 21st century skills (despite whatever the politics of that phrase might do for you…). These don’t test well. They don’t end up on standardised tests. They never really get the attention they deserve. Instead, our kids perform tasks on tests that they will never be called upon to repeat again, and only for political purposes.

As much as I would like to see the demise of this form of testing in Australian schools (and worldwide, but I’m a NIMBY at heart, so lets do it here first), I also doubt the current policy makers to make such a sharp U-turn on what is still a newish venture for them. So my current thinking is that the best approach to the tests, particularly the reading comprehension test, is to refuse to drill and kill, but to add so much sugar to the spoon that the medicine going down better be for diabetes.

I am aware that I need to work on my metaphors.

The standard approach to prepping for the reading comprehension paper is to use student workbooks from various educational publishers and go through their worksheets over and over again. Lots of reading short prose and then answering multiple choice and short answer questions. Drill the skills over and over, and kill any enthusiasm a child might have for reading.

The approach I propose is to replace all the time spent working through those workbooks with allowing the kids free rein to play through interactive fiction titles of their own choosing. There is scope within this to teach practical comprehension strategies, like those proposed by Scharlach in the START framework, but teaching them as methods for solving in game puzzles rather than scoring well on tests. The prediction, visualisation, inferential and empathetical skills required to score well in NAPLAN are the very same skills required to be successful in playing IF. And IF is a lot more fun. More resources on this approach, and others, to using interactive fiction can be found at Brendan Desilets’ excellent site, Teaching and Learning with Interactive Fiction.

More on this subject to follow over the next couple of months…

[Edit: Next article in this series available here: START with Interactive Fiction]

NAPLAN Reading Comprehension: Teaching to the test, the fun way with Interactive Fiction