Yoda Was Wrong!

Technically the full title for this blog should be “Yoda Was Wrong, Kids are Camels, and Practice Makes Imperfect”. 
Basically, I’ve got three sayings that I’ve decided will guide me through this year. They’re all variations of existing sayings twisted so they’re more meaningful for my current situation. 
1. Do or Try, There is no Do Not
For a while schools adopted this mantra of the right to pass. I hate it. Yes, I get that it’s meant to make the classroom a ‘safer’ more supportive learning environment but it was regularly misused and misinterpreted. Too many students believed it gave them the right to ignore a reasonable instruction from a teacher. I misused it to, tweaking it to suit my needs. When a student would claim the right to pass I’d inform them they also had the right to fail.
What I told my students today was that effort is what I respect the most. We can’t all be skilled at English (or Math or Science or whatever Social Studies wants to call itself this week). Even within a subject there will be elements students will be strong in and others that they’d consider a weakness. What I want to see is effort. You do what I ask or you show me that you’ve had a go, that gets kudos. Giving up gets you nothing. 
2. You can lead a student to knowledge but you can’t make them think
I can put a book or worksheet or an iPad in front of a student and inform them of what they should learn but there’s no guarantee anything will sink in. What teaching has taught me is that kids love to copy from the board because it is an achievable task with a clear end point where they don’t have to think. What’s the point in that? I’m teaching humans not sheep.
The question is, what do I want them to learn? Content is all well and good but the curriculum (regardless of subject) is full of junk that is unnecessary. People don’t need to know what date an event happened on or how many lines in a sonnet. People need skills. Comprehension and control over language are essential English skills but I want my students to learn or strengthen their interpersonal skills too – that’s why I’ve chosen the PL I’m engaged in this year.
Essentially, what I want is to make learning collaborative and engaging. It’s not a new goal but it’s one I want to revisit. 
3. Practice changes nothing without feedback 
Practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes things more permanent. A skill practised builds habits (and muscle memory if we’re talking in the physical sense) but bad habits are just as easily ingrained as good ones. Some students write practice essays but, besides ensuring their wrist/hand is used to writing, what skills are they building?
I write poems. I was fortunate to be published early in my writing career but I now have a long line of rejections. I write fairly regularly but I have to assume I’m not improving when I’ve had little recent success. It’s for that reason I’ve joined two writers’ groups (1 online, 1 in real life). I want people to tell me how I can improve. 
This year I want more people in my classroom telling me how I can teach better. I want to help other teachers on their own upward journey. I want to find opportunities to talk to students 1 to 1 so I can articulate how they can write better. I want to teach them how to see areas for development so they can help each other improve. “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”

2016: a better me builds a better you.

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Deadpool – a spoiler free review

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Ryan Reynolds IS Deadpool

It’s true, I saw it in the credits of the Deadpool movie. Of course, Ryan Reynolds is actually a whole bunch of characters – he’s been in quite a few movies and tv shows you know. If you’re not familiar with Deadpool but you know your Ryan Reynolds, this film is like Berg (from Two Guys and a Girl) mixed with Hannibal King (from the 3rd Blade film).

If you don’t know Deadpool, he is a rip off of DC’s Deathstroke. Marvel and DC have a long history of copying each other but this isn’t one of those sneaky ones (like Thor being a variation of Wonder Woman). No, Marvel’s Deadpool takes ownership of his copycat nature – his name is only a few letters different from his DC counterpart. Add to this the fact he kicks around in a costume that looks like something Spider-Man rejected and his main super ability is a healing ability given to him by the same program that experimented on Wolverine, then there appears little reason to like this character. And yet, Deadpool is one of the most popular comic book characters.

A lot of this stems from his wise-cracking (also stolen from Spider-Man) which is enhanced by a self awareness possessed by only a few characters across pop culture. Deadpool knows he is a fictional character and often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. In fact, in the Deadpool movie, there’s “a fourth wall break inside of a fourth wall break. That’s like, sixteen walls.”

Speaking of the movie (this is meant to be a review after all), the opening sequence is beautiful. The camera pans over a tableaux of an action sequence while words pop up on the screen. Instead of names, as is normally the case, these words are the characters’ roles written in a comedic manner that acknowledges typical stereotypes found in these sorts of films, e.g. “A British Villain”. After this, nothing in the first half of the film is anything you haven’t already seen in the trailers and tv spots but that doesn’t make it any less brilliant.

One of the things I like about this film is the pacing. There is a surprising number of touching, emotion filled moments in the movie but as you settle in to these scenes and begin to tune out you are quickly transported to the next action sequence or laugh out loud crudeness. Deadpool’s trademark self awareness is also here in all its glory. There are references to Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability (or lack thereof), his critically panned Green Lantern movie and the fan-despised turn at Deadpool in that Wolverine film. My favourite of these humorous meta-narrative moments was when he asked the X-Men characters which Professor X he was going to see, James McEvoy or Patrick Stewart.

My nerd knowledge meant that I caught a few of the in-jokes and references but I probably missed quite a few too. Regardless, I like when properties with a rich source material reach out to their fans like this. That said, you don’t have to be a fanboy (or girl) to appreciate this film. It’s funny, full of action and has a killer soundtrack. There’s also plenty of eye-candy with one scene set in a strip joint and a few gratuitous shots of Ryan Reynolds’ chiseled body.

I’m not saying the movie is perfect but it’s damn good. It’s going to make a lot of money and there’s no reason you shouldn’t contribute to its earnings. It’s a film I will happily watch again (there are too many lols to keep up with during the first viewing) and some of the one-liners in there will probably make their way into our collective discourse.

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She’ll be right – until it’s not

One of the blokes in the office today was talking about his educational beliefs and the conversation was just getting good when the siren went. The best part about it was that other people in the office didn’t agree with his argument. That sounds like a recipe for disaster but it’s one of the things I like about my colleagues; we don’t agree on everything but everyone feels comfortable voicing their opinion.
Anyway, the initial point raised was that the Australian education system is inadequate and doesn’t encourage students to learn it just prepares them to be ‘good’ workers. He made comparisons between our results and those of European and Asian countries and claimed that our standards are poor when set side by side with theirs.

No one in the office disagreed with that; there’s research that says he’s right (although, if I was playing Devil’s advocate I’d say that there’s research to prove any point you wish to make).

The main point of contention was that he believed it was the fault of the system and other people thought it was symptomatic of our culture. Some agreed that, in following the American system, we were always destined to underperform. I, on the other hand, feel that the system is almost irrelevant if society doesn’t respect our educators.

Let me explain.

I’ve been teaching for 12 years or so and the system has changed 4 (or more) times over that period. We’re not stagnant, there are clearly efforts being made to address our deficiencies. Admittedly, some of these efforts/decisions are made by people who have been out of the classroom for too long and have seemingly forgotten what it’s truly like. I’d also suggest that some of the desired skills for 21st Century learners are skills many of us have always taught – note that skills are not to be confused with content (eg. spelling rules, essay structure, viewing codes and conventions, etc.).

The biggest problem I’ve faced in my classrooms is actually the Australian way of life.
We have this laid back attitude that sometimes takes the ‘hard at work or hardly working’ too far. If you need proof, you only need to look at the fact that Victoria has decreed Melbourne Cup day a public holiday as a response to the sheer number of people that historically take a sickie on that day. I’ve taught a number of talented, intelligent students but even they were guilty of work avoidance and half-assed approaches to their learning.

That’s ok. She’ll be right.

Which is a further aspect of that problem. Australian’s a stereotypically positive. We have this ‘no worries’ approach to much of our lives. This is fine if you have no worries because you’ve considered all possibilities and have a contingency plan, it’s not fine if you have no worries because you don’t care what happens. It’s amazing the number of students who think they will walk straight into the work force or will magically develop a work ethic over the school holidays.

This sounds critical of the students but it’s not their fault, they are products of their society after all. We need to change our attitudes towards teachers and schools.

I love my sport but we place far greater value on anyone who is vaguely coordinated than anyone vaguely academic. The gap doesn’t need to close completely it just needs to lessen.
We also need to do away with those notions that hurt the teaching profession. The majority of us don’t do it for the holidays or the supposed shorter work days; we don’t do it because we failed at something else – “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. The majority of us legitimately want to to make a difference. We want to improve your children’s lives and, by extension, the world.

If we don’t respect our teachers then our children won’t either. Our job already makes us feel like Sisyphus and each disrespectful student increases the size of the rock we are perpetually pushing up hill.

To paraphrase John Lennon, give teach a chance.