Posts Tagged ‘Language’

For those reading my blog overseas wondering What is Naplan?, think of a series of standardised tests, undertaken in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Australia. For those reading in Australia, I’m guessing you’re already aware of it.

There has been a fair bit of coverage in the media of late about Naplan, including, of late, the stress that it has put students under. For a good overview, see Jewel Topsfield’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. I have “taught” Naplan a few times now – to Year 7 classes mostly and, this year, to a Year 9 class. This is also the first year that my own son, in Year 3, completed the tests. Topsfield’s article captures most perspectives accurately. I think both sides have important points to make. Naplan certainly provides a snapshot of where your child “is” and should, over several years, give an indication of how they have developed in relation to larger cohorts (school and nation, for example). However, I am also conscious that some schools spend ridiculous amounts of time “teaching” Naplan skills. I’m reminded of the excellent Heckler article, again from the SMH in March, from a teacher – Testing Times for Teachers and its amusing take on the pressures to prepare for the upcoming Naplan test, even though it’s months away. The idea that we jettison valuable content opportunities for a wholesale (and, let’s face it, dull) process of teaching to one test is disconcerting. Again, I’m reminded of a number of talks by Ken Robinson – well worth viewing – including the one illustrated by RSA, Are Schools Killing Creativity? 

I also have a larger concern and this is it: I wonder whether Naplan might be testing what it is setting out to test? I’ll give one example to highlight my idea.

This year, once again, the main focus in the extended writing task in English has been on Persuasive Writing. This, in varying guises, goes across all the age groups. Thus students are taught/drilled in ways of writing a piece of writing that aims to persuade the reader of a position, along with an understanding of the various text considerations that are representative of Persuasive Writing. All good so far.

But, I would like to think that Naplan is not so much about skills that have been rote learned. So, let’s say that, instead of writing an extended piece on Persuasive Writing, we were to switch it at the last minute for a piece of Creative Writing. In theory, for some of the students, this would have been an aspect examined by Naplan until only recently. And, I understand, it is due to be switched back to this at some point in the future.

Then one could see how a student ‘stands’ at that point in time, on a piece that they would have developed skills in, as part of a larger curriculum, over the last two years (since their earlier Naplan examination). So rather than a process built, mass-produced response that everyone is building towards, we could explore how students are faring more broadly.

Perhaps a more flippant way of looking at it is to compare it to a scene in the film Rain Main. Dustin Hoffman’s savant character Raymond is fantastic at counting cards for selfish brother Charlie in the casino, yet cannot distinguish between the price of a candy bar and a car which are both “about a hundred dollars”.


Maybe we should be looking at Naplan and assessing its value in fresh ways as well.

But why…

Posted: November 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Most of my students seem to get the other ‘w’ questions when considering a text (who, what, where, when and, if you like, how) but why seems most likely to stump them. We are close to exams and the ability to analyse a text is being called into question. They are good with spotting examples (we are looking at poetry and novels in two separate ‘areas’) and, nowadays, I’ve found that being able to identify a technique is a straightforward process for them as well. However, giving consideration as to why the technique has been used, can be a different matter.

Therefore, getting a well intentioned student saying something like ‘ In Mending Wall, Robert Frost uses the simile “like an old-stone savage armed” to help us imagine the neighbour more clearly’, is not an uncommon thing.

Mending Wall

Mending Wall (Photo credit: Bill Ward’s Brickpile)

It can be hard to move beyond the “spotting” of the technique, to consider why it has been employed. Sometimes, to highlight the situation, I might say “in exploring techniques, you could say that the poet uses words to help us understand the poem”. In being deliberately facetious, the students are able to reflect back on what they are offering in their own writing.

Maybe, in reflecting on this, we should look at that time when very young children start to question everything in the world. That moment when every answer you offer to their initial question (such as “Why do dogs bark?”) seems to elicit the same response of “But why?” Four “But why” questions (responses)  later, parents (and others) feel compelled to bring it to an end. How often have we heard (or perhaps, just perhaps said ourselves) “It just is” or an equivalent?

Is this the point, as parents and educators, that we should be most alert to? Not that I am suggesting that a halt to the path the conversation is taking isn’t necessary (even if only as a sanity circuit breaker!),

But why can't I?

why not? (Photo credit: hannah8ball)

just that we should be conscious of  the thought processes that are going on with that young mind grappling with the “reading” of the world.

I’ll give you one instance to finish off with. When much younger (and learning to read and count), my son walked up the street, reciting the even house numbers as he went.

All good for 2, 4, 6, 8 etcetera, until we got to the “teens” (14 in this instance). Here the mixed process of reading and recognising the number stalled, as he tried to apply the “one” instead of the “four”. Result? Dad, why is it fourteen, if the number starts with a one? And he’s absolutely right – all the numbers ‘work’ except for the teens.

Sometimes it takes a student to raise the good ‘why’ questions… the ones we’ve learned to overlook.

What is the aim of a dictionary?

I am certainly my mother’s son. There are times when, as a teacher, I find myself channeling my mother, also a teacher herself. Growing up, this would usually arise when she would hear the destruction of the language. One example would be the word “vulnerable”, which was often (and still is) pronounced as “vun-rable”, thus doing away with the “l” sound altogether. At the time, I recall the way that she would enunciate the word carefully, precisely.
Come forward to more contemporary times and I am having to decide my own reaction as my two children, aged 8 and 5, have started to use the word “versing”. Versing, as in, “Who are we versing on the weekend?”
This clanger has been around a while now in Australia. Having taken a number of sporting teams over the years, we were often versing this school or that, or, after the event, who we versed on the weekend (clearly, the past tense usage of the event). The fact that there is only one form of the word, versus, has not got in the way of this level of functionality. For a while, having failed to correct its use, I tried a different tack. I’d say, “Okay, I’m prepared to accept the word versing, if you are prepared to alternate with againsting“. While they could recognise the discrepancy, they weren’t prepared to opt out of versing either.
And, I suppose, why should they? Am I the dinosaur who (admittedly mixing my metaphors) is tub thumping in order to force an unnecessary rigidity into language usage, thinking and application?
So, if U.S. president Warren Harding can cheerfully bring ‘normalcy’ (apocryphal tale or not)  into mainstream usage (the word does not even prompt the red-squiggly line as I type this), should I be reconciled to my fate and brought into the present day as an accepting acolyte…
What about the contrary position? If we are adding words to the current “lingo”, what about the words that are taking on archaic status? Year 8 students are the first to ‘do’ Shakespeare and I am often presented with queries such as “Is this old English (or sometimes, middle English)?”, despite most of the words still being recognisable, if not commonly used, today.
In writing this post, I “recalled” that the size of the complete Oxford dictionary was massive. Of course, completely underestimating what ‘massive’ meant, I decided to check online and ended up at the Dictionary Facts page of the OED. The totals are nothing short of stupendous, with such mind boggling elements including that it would take 60 years for one person to proof read the 1989 version, containing 291,500 entries and weighing in (in paper form) at over 60 kilos! It is wonderful and horrifying in equal measure. The average (whatever that means!) person today makes use of between 5000 (high school educated) to about 8000 words (college educated). I say about, as in looking up this question alone, the range of answers, depending on your choice of sources, varied quite wildly (20 000 was quoted by one optimistic site). If Shakespeare uses 17,677 different words in all of his works, what on earth is going on with the other 270 000 odd (give or take a few between friends!) words?!


Words (Photo credit: Southernpixel – Alby Headrick)

Which brings me to another idea – perhaps heretical to some – Should we look to remove words as well as add them? Is a dictionary more of a historical document? A record of language (and thus society and culture) through all ages rather than just a device for looking up (at its most mundane) the meaning of the word you are now presented with? Going back a few posts of mine… does Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak Dictionary ironically help modern humanity with removing the morass of ultimately redundant words? This would at least give us a living dictionary, pertinent to all using it today.

But then the chance to come across that lovely, colourful and hopelessly archaic word would be lost forever.

PS: Thought I would close by mentioning a discussion that took place in my department yesterday about another ‘term’ doing the rounds with the students. The phrase “Don’t dog it” (and variations thereof) are in vogue – the word dog signifying Sir-you-are-being-slack-and-how-unfair-is-that! An example might be an attempt for a student to give me a high five, which, if I don’t respond within milliseconds, might elicit the “Don’t dog it!” The irony here is that dog seems to have become a verb or an adjective, while the usual idea of the noun has gone.

What current lingua franca are you facing in your locale from students conversing with you and other students? Would love to hear…

Just a lighthearted look at some observations…

1. Like is the new um
Not sure if this is due to the rise of Facebook, but pauses in thought while speaking (formerly signified with sounds such as er, ah and um) are being filled with the word like. So, the following is not unfamiliar: “Sir, you know how like Demetrius wants to, like, chase after Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream…” Any use of simile or as an indicator of appreciation is unintended.

Throwing Rocks...

Throwing Rocks… (Photo credit: mollypop)

2. Boys are afraid of topography
This is based on many excursions and school camps. Put simply, boys, subconsciously, hate any landform that is higher (or lower) than any other. If you wish to replicate this yourself, take a group of boys out, climb a hill and have a rest at the top. Within minutes, boys will be looking to rectify the imbalance of land by throwing rocks over the edge of the hill. Left unchecked (i.e. as the boys become more nervous at the disparity), the size of the rocks will get progressively bigger. This model also works for waterways, such as lakes and rivers – boys will quickly look to find items to throw into the water in order to plug the gap that should be apparent to anyone.

3. A moving shopping trolley is more attractive
Ever noticed how children feel compelled to grab on for the ride as soon as a shopping trolley starts to move? I think there is a further correlation between the narrowness of the aisles (and perhaps how difficult the trolley is to steer) and the propensity for them to jump aboard.

Let me know if you’d appreciate part 2! [For those waiting for app strategies… I haven’t forgotten… Explain Everything to come shortly]  

How good are words! I enjoy seeing when senior students learn how a well placed word in a sentence has the power to resonate, giving off a ripple effect of nuance and meaning. Conversely, the sentence has to remain in balance, so students using five “big” four to five syllable words feels unwieldy, like the reader is wading through mud. For many students, having them appreciate that more is not necessarily more, can be a difficult thing that seems to be counter intuitive. Having an economy in writing can allow words the space to flex their power.
Ironically, I think George Orwell, in 1984, had a pretty good take on it. Look at the following, as Syme talks to Winston about his efforts on creating (or destroying) the new language for the upcoming 11th Edition Dictionary of Newspeak:

A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word.

The notion that if you remove one’s language, you remove their ability to see, imagine and think is compelling. However, is it possible to explore the other side of the equation. Is it possible to have “too much” language? I understand that there are more than fifty hues of the colour blue. Yet the ability to capture the exact hue one is witnessing is probably unlikely.


Journey away on holidays – the view from the window as I type…

As a task, students can do or consider the following:
Look out the window and take in the view. Imagine that you call someone on the phone and, being so taken by what you see, set about describing the vista before you. Students can attempt to write, in a paragraph, the picture before them, or even an element of the whole. This is where the limitations of a language might become apparent. On one level, if language could do its “job” of communicating, then the result would be the equivalent of a photograph or facsimile. The listener, despite being deprived of the physical view, would be able to replicate the image in their own head. As a point of comparison, consider how effectively a musical score is able to transfer meaning, or mathematical notation. Of course, at its most reductive, music comes to four possibilities once a note is played. You can repeat the same pitch, have a higher or lower note, or rest. Words offer the potential to take this further, to almost limitless possibilities.

But who wants to be omniscient? Where is the pleasure in having precision in all facets of language when reading poetry? If we had a word for everything, would this equate to being a god-like individual who knows every joke and therefore every punchline before it can be delivered? While it is striking to have so many hues of blue, so many more are left uncharted and benefit from being couple with other adjectives.

In concluding, I counter one of the observations frequently posited by my students when we are analysing poetry – “You don’t think the poet intended all these meanings do you?”

The answer is “no” and “yes”. The beauty of poetry is its ability to conjure up word paintings as we read, based on our own experiences. However, I’ll sometimes show Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth in order to show both how a beautifully placed word exudes power and potency, and an ill fitting alternative can bring about diminishment.

Below is an early draft of Owen’s poem. In knowing the copy that we have with us today, it is appropriate to see how the poet played with words and their placement and, feeling dissatisfied with a choice, sought to improve or rectify the choices made. With writing, it is certainly a gestaltist approach – the sum of the writing is greater than the individual parts.

An early draft of what would become ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – note the trial and error of word choices that Owen makes


noun /ˈwôrəntē/  /ˈwä-/
warranties, plural

  1. A written guarantee, issued to the purchaser of an article by its manufacturer, promising to repair or replace it if necessary within a specified period of time

Educational “contracts” have been around for years and I recall the (attempted) introduction of the green desk system at my school in my later years. This basically revolved around William Roger’s Discipline Plan that saw students given ascending punishments such as being given a warning, being moved to an isolated table and being removed from the room for ongoing poor behaviour. At the time, it had mixed success at the government high school that I attended.

I recently came across this great blog post at English Teacher Confessions, which lists 13 pet peeves – number 12 reads:

The day after a major essay is due, ask your teacher if she’s graded them yet; if she balks, ask her if she’s graded yours yet; ask every day until they’re returned.

This followed on from seeing this cartoon at the start of the year:

from Joe Bower’s For the Love of Learning Blog

So perhaps student behaviour is a timeless, known quantity and the changes in society and the expectations of education have evolved. As more mobile devices become used/available in the class room, should we be exploring what the expectations are for student and teacher alike? Schools are developing the ability to allow students to access their files on servers at any time and many have contact with staff via email and class portal pages. What are the expectations for being able to contact staff at any time and, in being able to do this, what are the (time) expectations for staff to respond? In writing this, I am exploring the idea of the motivated and probably more able student, rather than the disruptive or indifferent one. Certainly, the days of a student heading off to the nearest major (university?) library to spend the day going through all the reference and stack items are endangered if not gone already. The issue is not what can be accessed, but how best to do it and how to develop a student’s curiosity, as well as the ability to discriminate with information that is available online.

Therefore, I am (lightheartedly) proposing a school warranty. You’ll notice that I copied the definition that came up for ‘warranty definition’ on Google at the top of my post and this covers the noun. I like the verb – warrant –  to justify or necessitate (a certain course of action), even more so. It suggests an active ‘doing’ rather than something set in place. I have no legal experience, but how about, as Draft 1.0, something like the following?

This understanding is made on the basis that we live in exciting technological times and you are a student looking to do your best, wanting to discover new ideas and thinking and you are ready to work. To this effect:

I warrant that I

  • will look to challenge the way you think, in order to open up your mind to fresh ideas and ways of working
  • understand that you have those mobile devices and that we will look to use them to further the ideas and content creation of the class
  • will continue to learn myself and challenge the way that I think and teach in order to promote both our positions
  • can learn from you and that together we will both benefit
  • will commit to giving you the best service that I can, through preparation, resources, feedback and direction and that this will often occur out of class time
  • am human; that (like you), I will make mistakes and I will endeavour to make amends and learn from them in future
  • will sing your praises from the rooftop because I can be so proud of your efforts

In accepting this Warranty, you undertake to

  • question everything and accept nothing at face value until you have scutinised, analysed, and tested it
  • bring your brain as well as your iWhatever along with you to use to benefit the work of all in the class
  • not try to add me as a “Facebook Friend” – we can be friendly, without having to be Friends
  • commit to fully participating, including completing the tasks and readings set, respecting the efforts of all and not shortchanging yourself through shortcuts
  • produce your own work, including attributing all sources you have used, to the best of your ability, which may involve re-drafting a piece of work at a later date
  • respect my role as teacher, including realising that, while I have may be able to access your communications at any time, I am not necessarily going to respond then and there
  • teach me as well with ideas that you have, apps that you come across and possibilities to explore

There’s probably more, (quite possibly less too!) but it’s a start. As a colleague said when I mentioned the idea for this post, “Not sure about the idea of the extended warranty!!”

Would love your thoughts and perspectives, as always.

George, you’re playing with my mind!

When I set out to write this post, I realised that my recollection of the film Star Wars, had become corrupted. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith in 1984, I was a victim of the “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” scenario. However, a little bit of memory is a dangerous thing.

“Blast it Biggs, where are you?!” was originally, “Blast it Wedge, where are you?!” and even as I type the latter, it feels more like a memory implant than my own memory, now returned to me. You can see why I’m confused. The following was written before I went to one of the many alterations pages available on the Internet:
For years, this line from Star Wars, expressed by Luke as he flies about the Death Star in his X-wing fighter, seemed out of place. It was only years later, with a (updated cut), that, with the introduction of additional text, the relationship between Biggs and Luke was made clear(er) in the exchanges prior to their departure on the mission. This went some way to explaining why Luke would be sounding off at “Biggs”, who had been unseen and heard of thus far. I had coped with the original position but felt it thoughtful that someone (George?) had seen fit to help clarify the oversight.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Now, having decided to type in a few more search phrases and click on a few more links, I’ve realised the behemoth that I’ve come across. The aim of my blog was not to add to the vast range of fan sites dedicated to haranguing Lucas over his “upgrades”. There are many of them, including Nicolas Pell’s George Lucas’ 8 Most Irritating Changes To The ‘Star Wars’ Films and they do an excellent job in their own right.
For me, I had no intrinsic issue with some relatively “cosmetic” improvements. Things such as making sure that you could see the fleet of x-wings as they blasted off into the twilit sky, or “fixing up” the pink glow of their engines when viewed from behind. I understand that the film print can become worn and might need a bit of a facelift.
But, it was only sometime later, as I watched the film with my son, that I came across all manner of additions. Silly creatures having to get out of the way of the landspeeder containing Luke and Obi-Wan as they approached Mos Isley, was niggling; making the film feel more like Sesame Street than Star Wars. Then, at that time, the big surprise as a “new” scene showing Han Solo negotiating with what can only be described as a svelte Jabba the Hutt was revealed. That it was obvious that this was original footage blended with new CGI effects only added to the sense of annoyance. Why would you want to “improve” Star Wars? Having grown up seeing it at the cinema, followed by numerous viewings on VHS tape, recorded from the TV, one comes to create a personal perspective about a text.

You might have guessed that the paragraph above was another “draft 1.0” version of my post. But I thought it worth keeping. So now to the larger idea which, thankfully, remains intact.
I recall coming across Roland Barthes’s article on The Death of the Author when I was at Uni. At the time, I found the idea that a text could become ‘alive’ with the experiences that the reader brought to the text when reading it, invigorating. The end result saw texts with almost limitless possibilities for interpretation, based on time, locale and perspective.
It has only been recently that I have come to value Mr Barthes afresh. For the following, think of the old “author” equals “composer”, in the sense that this applies to any “text” you might conceive, including film.

“The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child. In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.”
Where is George Lucas in all this? Is he afraid of his own relative mortality with Star Wars, that he would lose control? Texts may show that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” but the possibilities from that one definitive act of creation can lead to countless possibilities in the millions of “readings” that individuals bring to a text. Why not create fresh representations of a text if it is deemed worthy of consideration, whether this be through a re-make of the original (for instance, the two versions of Ocean’s Eleven, decades apart) or a re-presentation of the original idea (as in the film Seven Samurai, which became the western The Magnificent Seven, the space film Battle Beyond the Stars, and later again, A Bug’s Life)?

I recall an art teacher telling me that a skill for an artist (or a school student) was when to know that the picture was “done” – in other words, when adding anything more would lead to the decay of the artwork, through overwork. Why would it be any different for any other text type?

I wonder whether George Lucas should acknowledge that “Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor can thus no longer… indefinitely ‘polish’ his form… we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Barthes wrote this in 1967, a decade before Lucas released the first Star Wars film. We aim to teach students when, after the necessary re-drafting, to leave a work alone – perhaps it is time for George to put down the brush and do the same with Star Wars.