29 March 2017

Why write?

The Creative Non-Fiction Festival

An amazing array of writers spoke today at the NSW Writers’ Centre in the expansive old hospital grounds at Rozelle in Sydney. I arrived when registration opened, an hour before the first session, and sat with coffee watching joggers go by in the gentle sun, a rare sight of late.

I opened the magazine, The Lifted Brow, free with registration, and within the first couple of pages my writing cogs moved into action. A new event was added to my novel, still merely in the planning stage. I then wrote a half-formed poem. I don’t write poetry. Writerly air was wrapping around me.

The people drifting into the grounds gradually increased and moved inside. I took a breath and nestled into a corner seat, thinking I should just go home and write, instead of forking out money to be depressed by the successes of people who have already managed to do just that.

WHY WRITE?

This is a question I have been asking myself during my ‘Year of Investigating an Alternative Future’. I’m not working full-time this year so I can help my son through his HSC but also taking the opportunity to play with other projects, including writing projects. Although the Creative Non-Fiction Festival addressed many facets of writing non-fiction, the main purpose of my attendance was to answer this question.

ANSWER:

1. Adrenalin 

2. Rewrite history 

3. New discoveries 

4. The money 

5. Fame, glory and power


Adrenalin

When Lenore Taylor (The Guardian) and Osman Faruqi (Junkee Media) spoke, they were a little heightened, edgier, faster, frenetic than the other writers at the festival. I’m not saying that they were highly stressed people, just not as chilled as the other writers. This is the effect of politics and the fast pace reporting of it. There seems to be an extra sense of urgency due to new political parties disrupting the old guard and new media disrupting the old printed word. There is also a sense of urgency because time has sped up. The historian, Clare Wright, also on this panel, pointed out that in the Ballarat goldfield days (1850s) letters to England would have a six month turnaround. Political journalists are now often expected to file a story every half hour.

Even under pressure, the better journalists avoid ‘race call journalism’ (Lenore) or ‘stenography’ (Osman). They look for issues to investigate further, although the resources available for this to occur are not as they once were. That said, live blogs of political events are very popular with The Guardian readers. According to Osman, the difference between The Guardian’s live blogs and ‘race calling’ is the context and analysis that the The Guardian journalists provide. According to the chair of the panel, Judith Whelan, the live blogs are also entertaining because they include jibes and humour. Personally, one of my favourite political moments was being able to watch the #spill of Kevin Rudd live on Twitter, joining the smoking crowd huddled on the street outside a formal restaurant dinner to keep up with the blow by blow events.

This craving for immediacy dispels the idea that politics is boring and that the public has lost interest, agreed all the commentators on this panel. When Junkee Media was established with a target audience of young adults they deliberately steered clear of politics due to the assumption that young people weren’t interested. Junkee concentrated on other news and pop culture instead. However, they soon discovered when they touched upon politics they garnered interest. It is said around the Junkee office that Tony Abbott saved Junkee due to his polarising effect. Judith asked who else made ‘box office gold’ and the names Dutton, Morrison, Gillard, Trump and Hanson quickly came back. Lenore pointed out that The Guardian isn’t just about the hits. For instance, they deliberately avoided the white shirt bitchy battle between two Channel 9 female anchors despite the hits it would generate. I share with Judith the guilty fascination with this leaked tape. I could justify my interest with a sociological analysis of how women behave towards each other but that wouldn’t be the entire truth.

To achieve the ever elusive breaking story, it can be tempting for many political writers to fall into ‘client journalism’, another new phrase I learnt from Lenore as a result of this discussion. However, there needs to be some sort of genuine relationship, not friendship, between pollies and journos to avoid polarised reporting. Instead, journos need to know the politicians and the reasons behind their political positions. A story was told of a journalist being friendly with a politician to the extent of sharing dinners together and then one day the journo called the pollie for a chat, not realising the pollie had indulged in several drinks at lunch and consequently said something he shouldn’t have. The journo had a breaking story she considered to be in the public interest and reported it. The pollie was in trouble with his party and a couple of days later denied ever saying it and threatened legal action against the journo. Lenore also lamented that sometimes a journalist will uncover a story that they will know will have a terrible impact on someone but as a journalist the truth and the public interest has to be paramount.

So how does a political journo break a story? Persistence, says Lenore. “Get onto a story and dig your teeth in”.  At this point, Clare pointed out how much adrenalin it takes to report politics, that the stakes are so much higher for a political reporter than for her as a writer historian since Lenore and Osman write about live people and have such immediacy in what they are reporting and the consequences of what they report. In contrast, Clare writes in quiet libraries.

“Can we swap jobs?” asked Lenore.

“Yours is exciting,” Clare responded.

“Yours is nice,” says Lenore.

So what is Clare’s job?


Rewriting History

Dr Clare Wright’s love of history and writing, combined with an immense ability to achieve academically, has taken her down a path of university life that funds her book writing. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but it makes a great one sentence summary.

When Clare commenced research into female publicans for her PhD and the subsequent book, Beyond the Ladies Lounge, she did so with the premise that the ladies’ lounge was gender apartheid and fired up to argue this case. However, from the oral history she gathered, Clare soon felt like a “right idiot” for asking “naive questions” and actually found quite a different story. The women looked upon the Ladies’ Lounge as a place of belonging and empowerment. After all, why would they want to drink with the men when they had to live with them every day? The Ladies’ Lounge provided a room of one’s own, as it were, and the older women mourned its loss as younger women came in and demanded equality in the form of drinking with the men.

It could be argued that it’s a matter of perspective but particularly as a historian, Clare is interested in truth. Yes, she is a revisionist who is rewriting women back into history, deemed a political act since it inherently claims women to be of importance. This is not looking at history through feminist eyes but looking at history for greater accuracy, without the blinkers of elitist white men. It is not a female lens but a lens on the females not previously seen.

The festival’s director, Mark Dapin, a name I recognised from Good Weekend magazine, launched the day by interviewing Clare. He was obviously in awe of her achievements, having just finished his own PhD thesis this week. Mark remarked about Clare’s talent to provide through her words a sense of place, not just by sight, but also sound. Clare stated that it was important to listen. For instance, during the gold rush, people would arrive in Melbourne and take a week to walk to Ballarat with one prospector’s diary declaring you could hear the township (40,000 people living in tents) before you could see it. Clare equated her role as a writer to being a conductor of a choir of voices that rise from the archival material.

When Clare first ventured on her research into the Eureka Stockade, the old guard of Eureka’s history mocked the possibility of her finding anything new to say, since so much had been researched and written before. She steeled herself, and set out to ask the much examined archival material new questions. One of the most valued archival pieces held by the State Library of Victoria connected to the Eureka Stockade was known as The Lazarus Diary, named after its presumed author. In the pages of this diary Clare discovered a reference to a dead woman in a coffin the morning after the stockade with the writer remarking about the shame she had died defending her husband and his right to mine, or something along those lines. It had previously been claimed that no women had died at the Eureka Stockade battle. Further to this discovery, Clare also found from digging down a rabbit hole for six months, that Lazarus had actually not written this diary. A man named Charles Evans wrote it. 

Read all about the diary research in Desperately Seeking Samuel: a diary lost and found. The women of the Eureka Stockade are recognised in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.


New Discoveries

Clare’s revelations of the role of women in history previously overlooked were not the only ‘Eureka!’ moments revealed at the Creative Non-Fiction Festival. Writers on a panel specifically focused on research were asked by Mark about their favourite moments. After enjoying Jane Gleeson-White’s account of day after day entering between two statues of naked men into the beautiful Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, attention shifted to artifacts. Jane has written a comprehensive history of accounting, Double Entry, and a book, Six Capitals, about the role accounting could play in potentially solving environmental destruction of our Earth. The ‘father of accounting’, Luca Pacioli, a monk and mathematician from 500 or so years ago, wrote several books, including one about chess and its newly developed rules, or so he claimed. Scholars doubted this assertion but in 2006 the book was discovered amongst thousands of others in a private collection. The greater surprise, however, was the beautiful illustrations of chess pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, who was Luca Pacioli’s friend. Although this wasn’t Jane’s own discovery it created immense satisfaction and added to the deep knowledge and respect she had already gained for these men.

Helen O’Neill has written a wide variety of heavily researched books. Her book about Harry Seidler, A Singular Vision, involved the reading of Seidler’s prolific output of words. One day she was swimming at Clovelly when it struck her that colour had only been mentioned a couple of times. She then thought, “I wonder if he was colourblind?”. Helen asked his widow and found her hunch was true. Sometimes research just sinks in and makes completely unexpected revelations.

While researching the return of Vietnam War soldiers to Australia, Mark Dapin was constantly frustrated by being unable to track the specific flights arriving back from Saigon. He finished his thesis without this information but then found them while fossicking around the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, a collection of trade union material amongst other business and labour records. The government commissioned Qantas to conduct these flights. Qantas supplied a civilian crew. Each individual crew member needed to be insured for each flight they were on, thus the records. He accidentally smashed his phone in the excitement of trying to photograph them but thankfully a friend was able to lend him a replacement. The flights might not have made it into the thesis but I bet they’ll be part of his subsequent book.


Money

Research obviously involves a lot of time and time is money. Some of the writers mentioned so far were able to obtain funding through grants and scholarships. Jane Gleeson-White interned at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

It is also possible to make money as a freelance writer with shorter forms of writing. Angela Saurine mainly makes a living as a travel writer and has a friend that specialises in writing about cruises. Mark Abernathy and Chris Sheedy write on a wide variety of topics and in a wide range of formats, including newspaper and magazine articles, speeches and ghostwriting opinion editorials (op-eds). Mark estimates around 80-90% of op-eds purportedly written by famous people, such as politicians and sports stars, are actually ghost-written. Chris noted that he is trying to cut down from writing 14 hours a day and Mark supported this statement, describing his routine of writing weekly pieces during the day and books at night. He also said his personality means he embraces doing many things at once (sounds like me) but recommends emerging writers focus on one thing and let the ball roll on from there (I’ll try).

An audience member dared to ask for a specific figure per word. An amount of 75c-$1/word was floated but renounced by publishers and publicists sitting in the front row, stating a more realistic fee is 50c/word. Now I know why Benjamin Law was so happy when his newspaper column was increased from 300 words to 500 words. Apparently 500 words is the perfect length for a Saturday morning bowel movement. My only writing gig for money is for an extremely small publication, BusiDate, aimed at Business Studies students and teachers. I write 2500 words for $500 once or twice a year, which equates to 20 cents per word. It’s good to know I may improve on that in the future.

Last year I attended a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where Rosalie Ham said that having The Dressmaker made into a film meant that she was able to buy a brand new car for the first time. It’s looking like a career in writing is more likely to be a lifestyle choice rather than a financial one.

So if not for money…


Fame, Glory and Power

Before attending the Creative Non-Fiction Festival I recognised about half of the names of the writers appearing. Unfortunately choices had to be made and I’m sorry I missed seeing James Bradley, Paul Daley, Malcolm Knox and Susan Wyndham. I’m ecstatic to have been introduced to Jane Gleeson-White, Helen O’Neill and Clare Wright. I have already ordered or purchased multiple books by all three. It shows me just how many fabulous writers and books with which I am unfamiliar.

Lenore Taylor often appears on ABC’s Insiders so is probably the most recognisable of the writers featured at the festival but outside political nerds like myself I imagine her name doesn’t mean that much.  Political writers may feel some glory in breaking stories and rubbing shoulders with politicians but I guess the more familiar it becomes the less glorious the job.

Most of the writers I heard speak wield some power. Clare Wright is successfully bringing women into the historical light, Benjamin Law is possibly changing perceptions of gay Asians and Jack Latimore of indigenous writers, but it is usually the people and topics they write about that gain the fame and glory.

Writers are often subjected to backlash and trolling. One of the authors was subjected to periodical phone calls in the middle of the night calling her a slut and whore because she asked him to be polite towards a fellow writer. It only stopped two years later when she went to court for a protection order. Unanimously, the writers on the ‘Opinions’ panel agreed that you shouldn’t read below the line of an online article due to the vile and vitriol hurled. Kerri Sackville has written about this in her blog, A Comment About Comments. Jack Latimore warned of Pepe the Frog acting as a symbol of Naziism in the USA and of #dingotwitter in Australia, a racist AltRight movement. Typically the haters were men, but one writer said the commentators on Mamamia were mainly women being vicious to one another.

So basically, don’t become a writer for fame, glory and power then.


Why should I write?

I enjoy writing.

I don’t like my life to be constantly filled with adrenalin, I don’t want to constantly concentrate on history either. I’m certainly not into writing for the money, glory or power.

I like to make the complicated appear clearer. I like the solitude of writing but I also like talking to people and discovering who they really are. One of my favourite times ever was hanging around the 9/11 Memorial in New York and chatting with people about why they were there (blog). I think my Aussie accent helped them feel comfortable with opening up to me. It made me feel better about the world.

I think I write to discover and reveal humanity.

08 March 2017

My Feminist Failures: 28 failures (and 15 successful feminists)

'Failure' by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

As a teacher I have tried to make students aware of the gender bias and lead students into being strong vibrant people, no matter their gender, despite existing gender bias. However, in the rest of my life, sometimes I feel like I have failed as a feminist. Even though I make tentative steps in small ways, I feel like a failure, which is hardly behaving like a feminist but such a female thing to do. I am trying to make changes with some of these failures. Others I have listed have good reasons behind them and/or I don't really see them as failures in the logical sense, yet still, at times, they make me feel like I have failed. So much of being a woman is tied up with guilt that we are never good enough. Well, here is my guilt laid bare.

  1. I fail as a feminist because I left the male dominated industry of finance to have children and then joined the female dominated industry of teaching.
  2. I fail as a feminist because I took four years off work when I had my two children
  3. I fail as a feminist because I didn’t fight when I was bullied in the workplace. It happens more in teaching than in finance.
  4. I fail as a feminist because I leave workplaces rather than fight for my rights under patriarchal management.
  5. I fail as a feminist because I have taken a year out of the workforce, relying on my husband’s income, to help our son through the HSC.
  6. I fail as a feminist because I make my 17 year old son breakfast and lunch every school day.
  7. I fail as a feminist because I can’t leave home without makeup. I hate my appearance without it.
  8. I fail as a feminist because I dye my hair.
  9. I fail as a feminist because I am sucked into buying expensive designer clothes and accessories.
  10. I fail as a feminist because I don’t like being assertive.
  11. I fail as a feminist because I don’t like dealing with conflict, even though I’m good at it.
  12. I fail as a feminist because I went to the Geena Davis talk as part of the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House because I like Geena Davis, the feminist slant being just a bonus.
  13. I fail as a feminist because I mainly read books by white male authors.
  14. I fail as a feminist because in a review I wrote of Jasper Jones I forgot to look at it with a feminist lens, and there are issues with it (book and film) in this regard.
  15. I fail as a feminist because I expect my husband to take out the garbage.
  16. I fail as a feminist because I let it slide that our Telstra account is in my husband’s name so he has to deal with the issues, even though I feel I would deal with them much more effectively.
  17. I fail as a feminist because I take on most of the housecleaning responsibilities, justifying that it’s my desire to want the house clean and tidy, therefore I have to do it.
  18. I fail as a feminist because I didn’t work the system to be entitled to maternity leave.
  19. I fail as a feminist because I worry that all the rights women feel entitled to in the workplace, particularly regarding maternity leave, are actually detrimental to the cause since much of it puts a cost burden on organisations
  20. I fail as a feminist because I drive a hatchback, such a chick car. Google chick cars to find yet another horrifying realm of gender stereotyping.
  21. I fail as a feminist because I took my husband’s surname when we married.
  22. I fail as a feminist because I feel fat and ugly.
  23. I fail as a feminist because I felt I had no choice the night I lost my virginity. Speaking of which, I wholeheartedly agree with Zoe on My Year 12 Life who said the first time a woman has sex it shouldn’t be about losing something but gaining something, particularly if it is by choice.
  24. I fail as a feminist because I believe there is an extra bond, whether it is called nurturing or something else, between mothers and their children which means it’s usually better if mums are the ones who stay home with children.
  25. I fail as a feminist because I am an emotional person and thus cry easily at movies, TV and when ambulances have their sirens on.
  26. I fail as a feminist because I don’t often enough point out cases of mansplaining or manspreading.
  27. I fail as a feminist because I have tried to keep my writing and education blogs separate because I’m scared I’d lack credibility in education for my attempts at writing on non-education topics (as if there are any).
  28. I fail as a feminist because I haven’t ever joined a protest march.

As a developing writer I hope to limit the amount of gender bias I present in what I write and have hope that I can contribute to social discourse on gender issues in a positive way. I don’t plan to make a mark as a feminist writer but to be a writer who is also a feminist.

For International Women’s Day in 2015, I wrote a blog post called Voice. In my micro-world, my day-to-day life, it feels like nothing has changed in the last two years.  In the macro-world of government and media there have been changes. Some changes have been for the better and some for the worse.

I was glad to see Tony Abbott ousted as prime minister and hoped Malcolm Turnbull would be able to lead with a much more reasonable approach. I am immensely disappointed. After reading Annabel Crabb’s book, ‘Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull’, I wonder how much he actually holds onto principles and how much principles are up for negotiation depending on what will achieve a ‘win’. He may have won the title of prime minister but he hasn’t won at being a prime minister. The condescending, obnoxious, bullying, belittling, pompous, misogynist voices within the coalition seem to be louder than ever.

And then we have Donald Trump.

However, perhaps partly due to the painful parliamentary patriarchy, I feel that there is a stronger discourse of feminism within the media, with some strong feminist voices finding a presence, a space. These voices have to fight like hell to counteract the vile and vitriol that is flung at them. I admire them immensely for their stance, their fortitude and determination. So to finish this post here’s a shout-out to the voices I have loved hearing and reading over recent times:
  • Rosie Waterland for fighting for herself and what she believes in. My review in GoodReads for her book ‘The Anti-Cool Girl’ says: I laughed. I cried. My heart ached throughout. Yet, an enjoyable read. The writing flows beautifully in all its frank glory. I couldn't put it down, finishing at 3am.
  • Yassmin Abdel-Magied for her passion and vibrancy - I first adored Yassmin as an ABC presenter on ‘Australia Wide’ and then was privileged to be in the live audience when she appeared on Q&A.
  • Tracey Spicer, Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales as proud feminists reporting on the masculine world of politics and fighting the mud flung at them just because they are women with voices.
  • Jane Caro for writing and speaking passionately about feminism and education.
  • Rosie Batty and many others for speaking up about Domestic Violence.
  • A friend from school days, Jenny Rolfe, who is one of the numerous people fighting for feminist causes at a grassroots level, including greater representation in Wagga Wagga City Council, and faces phenomenal backlash as a result.
  • The Renaissance Women Leaders' Network - Wenona (a private girls’ school in North Sydney led by the amazing Briony Scott) gives back to the community in many ways and this group helps to encourage female leaders in education which is sorely needed since despite more women being in teaching, men dominate the leadership roles in education.
  • Emily's List Australia - I first became aware of Emily’s List Australia when a good friend gave me a tea towel with Julia Gillard's misogyny speech written on it. They are championing and funding feminist causes such as research into the gender pay gap.
  • Geena Davis as the only non-Australian on this list because I attended her talk at the Sydney Opera House last Sunday. She was brilliant. I already knew about the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (@GDIGM) through media reports. The research reveals alarming statistics of women representation in film and TV, particularly in family films.

I wish I could be more like them.

02 March 2017

Jasper Jones - a quick review of the book and film

Oh the good ol’ days when country towns were based on a pecking order with the shire president at the top and the foreigners and indigenous people at the bottom, where sport was valued infinitely more than brains. Jasper Jones, book and film, sets up Corrigan, a fictitious town in 1960’s WA, as being all that, and then rolls it over, exposing its belly to the sun.

The novel's town and its characters, written with a deft hand by Craig Silvey, is morphed into an extraordinary visual delight by the film. All scenes were beautifully shot with the lavishness of a cinematic viewing in mind. Whether it be entering dark woods in the middle of the night, or in the glaring sun of a local cricket match, the audience was invited in. The intricacies of removable glass slats in Charlie's window and the dust of the library made the locations seem touchable, real. The cars of the 1960s appearing shiny and new made it like a picture book. Corrigan's environment was clear and present, without taking on a lead role of its own, yet vital for the story to be told.

The narrator of the story, Charlie, is a quintessential teenager nerd, due to his love of reading, lack of sporting ability and fear of insects. This is reinforced with his glasses and “pansy sandals”. Derogatory gay terms, such as this, flow freely, mainly between friends as they take the piss out of each other, ‘queer’ being the main word of choice between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey. I grew up in a country town much larger than the one in Jasper Jones; the term ‘poofter’ was used in a similar manner, an insult for fun or to be hurled with venom. The film seemed to give this friendship a lighter touch than the book but the few interactions shown provided the main moments of comic relief. In the book, the beautiful dialogue between Charlie and Jeffrey was one of the many highlights for me but yet I cringed at the use of these terms.

Jeffrey and his family are Vietnamese Australians with young Jeffrey excluded from and bullied by the team of cricket whites, despite his outstanding talent. They called him ‘Cong’ in a demeaning and degrading way until he saved the team from a humiliating loss, having accidentally scraped into the team due to the illness of a team member, and then suddenly ‘Cong’ was used with affection. It doesn’t stop it being a derogatory term though. It is interesting to note that I had trouble finding the name of the actor playing Jeffrey, Kevin Long, just as the producers had trouble finding him.

Words are important to young Charlie and his father, both secretly harbouring ambitions of being authors. They understand the importance of words and terms and labels and try to understand the people beneath them. As for our titular character, Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), he couldn’t read, plus he had an Aboriginal mother and a drunkard father and was thus excluded from society. His only saving grace was his football talent, which excused him from being a school truant. However, it did not save him from being one of the first names on gossipers’ lips when something went wrong.

And, of course, something did go wrong. The shire president’s daughter disappeared one night. If it couldn’t be blamed on Jasper Jones, it must have been the fault of the other scapegoat, Mad Jack Lionel, who had killed before, rumour had it. Not believing either outcast did anything wrong, Charlie earnestly investigates the truth of Laura Wishart’s disappearance. It’s complicated by his love interest being Laura’s younger sister, Eliza, beautifully played by Angourie Rice. Her death stare is something to behold. Charlie is also beautifully played, by Levi Miller. Yet, in appearance alone, they are a little too attractive to be the school oddballs.

The one character that drifted too far from the book portrayal, in my view, was Charlie’s Mum, acted by Toni Collette. The author, Craig Silvey, has said he fleshed her out a bit more for the movie version but instead she became unconvincing as a character. She was too nice and typically Mumsy in the beginning, and then quite suddenly started flipping out, whereas the book had a darker undertone in her from the start. I was particularly annoyed with the movie having her buy a new car out of the blue. It didn’t seem to fit with the time or place. The only other whinge I have about the adaptation is the little extra bravery given to Charlie during the course of the film.

Jasper Jones is a coming of age story but it’s about all of us. It’s a strong Australian story with prejudices and secrets laid bare, without shoving them down your throat. The heart of the tale lies with the young characters, in both the novel and the film. They are exquisitely written characters brought to life by seriously talented actors. It is disappointing that a film simply can’t capture all the detailed nuances, thoughts and motivations of the book’s characters but it’s a superb film anyway. Watch the film. Read the book. It doesn’t matter what order you do it in. They’re both brilliant.


Thanks to The Monthly for my tickets to see the film at the Palace Verona, Paddington and my local bookstore, Novella, for selling me the book.

01 November 2016

Mind the Gap: Research and Schools

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Image by Mikel Ortega at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikelo/217048717

Last week I attended the AIS Education Research Symposium.  When I worked at Oakhill College I was part of the team that created and implemented REAL (Relevant Engaging, Active Learning) and then we researched its impact.  Unfortunately I left Oakhill before the end of the two year research project but thankfully I remained involved to an extent.  We designed REAL to create a paradigm shift in the teaching and learning environment at the school through a transparent curriculum in a detailed but clear (student-friendly) format, structured for students to know each lesson or week:
  • What is to be learned
  • How it is to be learned, and
  • The evidence of successful learning
The research project examined the impact of REAL on student outcomes but effectively discovered the effect it had on teachers too.  The research revealed REAL as a significantly successful program, although teachers found it hard to adapt their practices, and I’m proud to have been associated with it.
But this post is about the symposium.  The main participants at the symposium are from schools that have received a research grant from AIS and are at the start, middle or end of a two year research project.  It is also for any other teachers who are keen to make stronger links between research and teaching practice.  And the first keynote speaker, Dr Stacey Waters, was exactly on this topic.

It is extremely hard to make a cultural shift in any institution, let alone a school which has so many entrenched perceptions of what it should be like.  Nearly everyone in the world experiences school and our experiences are reinforced by pop culture’s representation of it, this image being a teacher up the front instructing students sitting in rows, resisting the learning process (except when they have a superstar teacher like Michelle Pfeiffer or Robin Williams).

This is not the one best way to learn.  Academic research has indicated this repeatedly, yet many schools resist changing (much like their students resist learning).  I think part of it is the conflicting voices dominating the discourse of how schools should operate. As mentioned before, there is the entertainment industry image but there is also the political viewpoint that schools must do better, meaning better at publicly published score achievement (PISA, NAPLAN, HSC).  In education conference circles there are a few (mainly men) who have a certain popularity, often stringing out their one concept stories for decades (I’m thinking the hole-in-the-wall story and the idea that schools kill creativity).

The academic voice is often lost in all this.  There are some who are picked up by politicians and/or the media. For example, John Hattie and his Visible Learning ideal is lauded by politicians and the media.  However, even the John Hatties often remain ignored in the day-to-day classroom, for a number of reasons.

Personally I think it stems from a dominating need of isolated teachers in their classrooms to have control and order.  Control and order is easier if learning is considered to be the mere accumulation of knowledge.  It casts a dark shadow on education.  Teaching is better if it is collaborative, learning is better if it is collaborative, but it is much harder to maintain control and order in a collaborative environment when there isn’t a desire to learn in the first place, by teachers or students.  It is harder to know what individual students are doing in a collaborative environment and if it is known that they are not participating in the learning process, it is hard to know what to do about them.  There are plenty of theories, methods and systems that can be put in place but really, it all comes to dealing with individual motivations and desires to learn.  And to be honest, the better learning environments take more time and energy to plan and monitor.  I love an active collaborative learning environment in my classrooms but boy, it’s hard work a lot of the time.  

Prof Ruth Deakin Crick shared this quote as part of her presentation about the use of technology to change school culture from exam-driven teaching to a learning culture with dynamic pedagogy and engagement (image, however, was clipped from elsewhere):

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Teachers are so busy and comfortable with what they know well and what they’ve been rewarded for in the past, they don’t want to become even busier and take risks that result in lost control and disapproval.

So now we can see why some resistance to change exists, let’s return to the academic voice and other reasons why it is difficult to implement research findings into school practice.

To be able to research in a detailed, scientifically credible manner, academics focus on narrow areas to reduce multiple confounding factors in their study. They generally want to discover a cause and effect, and the size of that effect, but to be specific and certain they can only concentrate on one cause and one effect at a time, whereas education is much much more complicated than that.  It is like reducing economic modelling to two products in the market.  It illustrates a concept but an economy with just two products is not real life.  This is why Hattie’s study is so appealing, it throws hundreds of studies into the mix and calculates which causes have the most effect.  However, one point worth noting, is how long this all takes.  A research project can take years, and then months to write and publish in an academic journal, and then even longer to garner the attention of those who it really affects, people in schools.  I’m not sure of the age of the studies Hattie includes in his meta-analysis.  Due to the narrow focus and time-lags the question was raised at the conference as to whether the academic rigour should be sacrificed, to an extent, to allow more pertinent and practical studies be undertaken in a more timely manner.  I don’t know the answer.

The publish or perish pressure on academics is a significant factor too.  The money associated with grants often comes with a proviso of what must be researched. Dr Stacey Waters also referred to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) system which awards points according to the category of grants.  To be published, it helps if the research is something new and different, rather than going deeper into something that has already been examined.  The dream situation for an academic though, is selling books.  And books sell if they have something novel and easy to implement.  We all know how hard change management is, but just how many books advocate just ‘x’ number of steps (eg Kotter’s 8 steps) like it is a simple linear process?  It’s not.

Even if academics find something that is commonly considered important to implement in schools, the process is slow and usually ineffectual. Researchers are already balancing teaching and research and then they need to market their findings so that schools will take their ideas on board, when so many ideas are already present.  Dr Stacey Waters says that publishing and even training people is not enough. One of her presentation slides said:

Implementation is most successful when…
  • Practitioners receive training and coaching
  • The organisation provides the necessary infrastructure for training and coaching and regularly evaluates
  • The community is fully involved in the selection and evaluation of programs
(Fixsen, Naoom, Blasé, Friedman & Wallace, 2005)

She argued that schools should build relationships with universities and establish a research culture by providing easy access to academic journals and having a forum to discuss what these journals have to say.

Before Oakhill obtained the research grant from AIS we asked some universities to help us perform academic research.  We discovered that not only did they want to be paid consultation fees, that some even wanted to virtually take over the whole process.  We backed away quickly and were relieved and grateful to receive the AIS grant.  As part of the inaugural recipients of the grants there was only minimal guidance but still, some important structural requirements, including an academic advisor.  However, we ended up only spending 50% of the budgeted amount we allocated for the advisor. He was extremely helpful for implementing research that produced quantifiable data and how that data could be used, but partly due to how late we were and partly due to the lack of need, we didn’t use as much of his services for the writing part as we thought we would.

So here we were at a conference that was bringing together academics and teachers, albeit those already interested in research. As Terrie Jones tweeted, “Teacher practitioner researchers in partnership with academics bridging the research practice divide? This room. #AISRandD16”.  One of the sessions I enjoyed the most was about Case Study as a form of research.  From what little I have been involved in research at a tertiary level, I have found case study methods frowned upon because it is not appropriate to extrapolate something that works in one circumstance as being applicable to a wider range of circumstances.  Dr Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn argued that yes, three case studies are better than one, but much can be learned from them and proceeded to demonstrate how powerful they could be but also recognising their limitations.  I tweeted that I’d love to work on a case study with Dr Kimberley and she responded with a “Let’s talk” which I will probably take her up on some time next year (see screen grab below).  However, I’m not looking to do research like this until at least 2018.  I started a Master of Research (MRES) at Macquarie University this year but stopped just a few weeks in due to lack of time. I’m currently not working full-time so I can help my son through his HSC (he has autism and anxiety issues).  I considered studying also during this year ‘off’ but I need to make him the priority, not my own work. After that I’ll be open to all sorts of projects!

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-6-30-03-pm

The people at this conference are the core people of their organisations interested in learning and continuous improvement.  What we we actually need to learn as researchers within schools, is how to gather-in colleagues to a learning mindset and join with us.

When we first attempted researching the REAL project ourselves, we applied to present at academic conferences in Seville, Spain, and New York, USA, and were approved for both based on our ‘abstracts’.  This was before the AIS grant even existed and we were without any support from universities.  We then had to write papers for these conferences, the New York paper being subject to a peer review.  It failed one reviewer but the other advised us to change the format significantly, which we did, and it was then published <http://shanihartley.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.264/prod.58>*.  We also had to review other papers which was a great learning experience for us.  At these conferences there was much said about education at all levels but over 90% of the presenters were from universities.  Universities seem to take a more hit-and-run approach instead of working in tandem with the schools they research.  It would be nice to see or even experience more collaboration between schools and universities in the research process at academic conferences.  Perhaps we were better off without a university’s own agenda. We were unusual in being school teachers conducting and presenting our own research.  There should be more of it.  
 
* Despite numerous emails to the publishers, the bios of the authors were not corrected.
* This post is also found at http://shartley.edublogs.org/2016/11/01/mind-the-gap-research-and-schools/

20 October 2016

TeachMeet: Solve For x

Phillip taking a selfie before presenting.
I'm the one waving up the back.

I have been to several TeachMeets.  This particular TeachMeet was held at Google headquarters in Sydney which was one of the main attractions for me.  I missed out on one two years earlier and as I searched for the Twitter hashtag for this evening I found an exchange that occurred about the use of #TMGoogle - the issue being that TeachMeets are supposed to be teacher ran and teachers as presenters, no sponsorship.  However, to host a TeachMeet in a cool location such as Google HQ there is a trade-off.  Tonight I felt the trade to be rather unequal.  The hashtag was not #TMGoogle but perhaps it should have been. It seemed every second speaker represented Google and was promoting something, useful somethings, but advertisements nevertheless. An extra grating factor was that teacher presenters were held to their time limits, albeit poorly, speakers not being deterred by soft Star Wars toys being thrown at them when their time had expired, yet Google presenters had limitless time.  And trust me, the teachers were much more interesting than the Google employees.

The stated theme of this TeachMeet was ‘Solve for x’, thereby promoting problem solving in education, that students solve whatever issue ‘x’ represented for teachers and/or students. The evening was officially launched by Kimberley Sutton through a YouTube video to explain the concept: Moonshot Thinking: Solve for x @ Tribeca Film Festival. Our first teacher presenter linked a goal to this theme nicely.

I have known Phillip Cooke through TeachMeets and Twitter for many years.  He is a passionate secondary school educator and declared this evening that his moonshot concept is teaching for life instead of for exams, a policy I am also passionate about.  I have enjoyed seeing Phillip present on this theme in many variations before. He is always interesting because not only does he and his colleagues come up with the ideas but they actually implement them, although I’m sure he wish he could implement more.  Phillip was intricately involved in the complete rebuild of his school, a school often seen in the industry as an alternative option for the misfits in our education system and thus had a poor reputation for a long time for drugs and disruptive behaviour. However, its hands-on practical approach to education is becoming more dominant in industry discourse and it has featured on a TV show for doing things a little differently.  

Phillip’s attitude towards authentic learning is borne out by some of the initiatives he has shared:
  • Establishing an annual Creative Careers Day where the future implications of their learning come to life through the people operating in creative enterprises
  • Implementing cross-curricular activities, such as Design and Technology with English and Drama to create wearable art costumes for a production of Othello, "Students didn’t just read Othello – they lived it"
  • Printing art designs of students on tea towels and selling them, simple but effective (also make great thank you presents at Teach Meets)

If I was to give my own moonshot for teaching and learning is that I desperately want students to be thinking for themselves. As a senior school teacher, I hate how much teaching is about preparing for HSC exams, such as artificial artifice that it diminishes authentic learning.  This is why I always like what Phillip has to say.

Dominic Hearne set the tone of his talk by quoting Gary Stager, “Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love”. In line with this philosophy, Dominic’s school has introduced a series of compulsory critical thinking courses, which I absolutely applaud. These include:
  • Future Problem Solving
  • Visions of Leadership
  • The Art of War / The Ethics of Peace
  • Epistemology (how do we think, why do we think, what influences our thinking and perception)

My daughter is currently studying International Relations and Human Rights at university. She would have loved the opportunity to examine some of these topics at school.  Her response being:
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One of the students undertaking this course used several sources to investigate the Jewish holocaust and, as might be expected, referred to movie representations of the holocaust such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He also had access to his grandmother’s letters and other documents depicting her time as a Jew interned by Hitler.  The result was not just a well researched product but the rest of the class had a new insight into the atrocities.

Nick Brierley hooked me by not only emphasising the thinking skill of problem solving but linking to the TV show Stranger Things, where the children in the show are constantly having to solve problems, not always successfully. He advocated the use of BreakoutEDU, a resource for creating engaging problem-solving games in classrooms. This is definitely a tool I will investigate further.
Technology definitely has a role to play in developing students’ critical thinking skills. A primary school teacher, Alfina Jackson commenced with the statement that she hasn’t heard students say they need PD before they can use technology, so if they can do it, teachers can do it too.  Glib, but mostly true. I have come across many teachers who are so ingrained in teaching the same way, with the same worksheets, year after year, that they truly struggle with making more than the occasional change to their regular modus of operation.

Alfina has her own YouTube Channel, mainly consisting of videos made by K-2 students.  These videos demonstrate learning in an authentic and meaningful way for our modern age.  Without many of us realising it, children are learning all the time through YouTube.  Actually many adults too.  I recently used YouTube to learn how to cast-off my knitting.  Alfina is therefore not only teaching students a particular topic, she is teaching digital responsibility.  Creating public videos also motivates students through the hands-on activity and real audience feedback.  All of this requires several higher-order thinking processes.

Another initiative Alfino implemented was Year 1 completing book reviews on Google Slides. For the content, the teacher taught students to use three simple sentence word-starters:
  • I liked the part…
  • I disliked the part…
  • I would change…
However, after a quick introduction to using Google Slides, the students worked out for themselves and taught each other the various creative features of using the slides.  After the first drafts were completed the teacher provided feedback through the comment feature which prompted students to comment on each other’s reviews, leading to a discussion of how to write positively, particularly in a public domain.

On the other hand, I don’t believe technology should be used for simply its own sake.  Alfino showed how students learning to write could trace the letter on an iPad.  I’m not sure how this particularly improves on the pen and paper version except simply for the hook that it is on an iPad.

The highlight of the evening was the dynamic Kathleen O’Rourke. Kathleen is learning to become a Primary School teacher at Macquarie University after a decade or so in the workforce. She is passionate about many things and her LinkedIn profile reveals she is not only an advocate for education and the marginalised but she walks the talk.  At first I thought she was also going to emphasise technology due to her tagline, “Is it OK to ask students to do something that we are not comfortable to do ourselves?” Instead, Kathleen answered that question with, “If we don’t pursue our x’s how can we expect our students to?”

As part of being a pre-service teacher, Kathleen decided there wasn’t enough professional development on offer, beyond the regular uni courses and practicum experience so out together some events and now the concept has exploded.  As a full-time carer for her grandmother, Kathleen found it difficult to access working disabled toilets, particularly in medical institutions.  Consequently, she has an aim to develop an app that lists and user-rates them. I spoke to Kathleen at the end of the evening and found just how determined she is to put theory into action. Earlier that day she had been at a school presenting to teachers and discussing with them a university assignment. This was not part of the set work.  She has also tutored primary-aged students who are newly settled refugees on a volunteer basis.

I was not the only one who thought Kathleen was amazing. This was the reaction on Twitter:

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All in all it was worthwhile attending this TeachMeet.  I learned about some new Google products and enjoyed hearing how other teachers are implementing problem solving and other critical thinking activities.  However, I’d prefer it if future TeachMeets adhered to the no sponsorship ideal, even (especially?) if it means returning to the pubs and clubs where they began.