Another Finnish Lesson

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This post is appearing simultaneously on Common Space. Common Space is part of the Common Weal, and an exciting component of the developing, democratic new media in Scotland.

Recently I wrote a comment piece for Common Space in which I suggested that, while the Scottish Government was right to try to address the issue of the ‘attainment gap’ in our schools, it was going about it in the wrong way, and that in Curriculum for Excellence we already had a blueprint for change, if only we had the courage to pursue it in reality.

The ‘new’ Scottish curriculum – which was written over a decade ago – is based on a number of key aims, set out in the report of the Review Group, including ‘for the first time ever, a single curriculum from 3-18’ and ‘young people achieving the broad outcomes that we look for from school education, both through subject teaching and more cross-subject activity’.

In reality, this ‘cross-subject activity’ is what always happened in primary schools, where one teacher at each stage is responsible for delivering the whole curriculum and where CfE, unsurprisingly,  appears to have had most impact. In the secondary sector however, the fragmented nature of the timetable has remained largely unchanged, making the goal of a single curriculum 3-18 seem as far away as ever.

Compare our approach to that of Finland, one of the more progressive and successful education systems in the world today. Not content with bucking the global trend towards exam-based, target-driven success criteria, the introduction of their National Curriculum Framework in 2016 will require all basic schools for 7-16 year-olds to have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, ‘phenomenon’ or topic-based teaching in their curriculum, the length of this period to be determined by the schools themselves (education in Finland is already far more decentralised than it is in Scotland).

Helsinki, the nation’s capital and largest local school system has decided to require two such yearly periods that must include all subjects and all students in every school town. This doesn’t signal an end to specialist subject teaching, but a move towards what you might call ‘big picture’ understanding, with topics including ‘The European Union’, ‘Community and Climate Change’ and ‘100 Years of Finland’s Independence’.

A holistic approach, involving the integration of knowledge and skills, is not new in Finland, but for the first time it will be a requirement of all school providers up to at least the age of 16. This will be a challenge to those middle-school teachers who have traditionally focused more on their own subject teaching and less on collaboration with their colleagues.

Pasi Sahlberg, leading Finnish educator and Visiting Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, thinks the rest of the world may look at the proposals and wonder why Finland is pursuing these aims, at a time when the country is slipping slightly in the international league tables, and the answer is as bold as it is revealing;-

“The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were.What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.” (full article)

By describing the curriculum in terms of broad outcomes and experiences, Scotland is already thinking more progressively than other countries with long-established traditions of decent public schooling. The challenge now is whether, like the Finns, we will have the courage of our convictions in pursuing that more integrated curriculum, or whether we will continue to talk a good game while just coming up short when we actually take to the pitch.

Read A Banned Book Today

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Today is World Book Day.

Away back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when I was a young and idealistic Head of English in a secondary school, I was taken aback when a story reached me of an act of censorship for which I was not prepared. Our headteacher, with whom I had a good relationship, had been driving across the country the previous weekend when he chanced upon a radio discussion about ‘Forever’, Judy Blume’s novel for young teens. The book was reportedly sexually explicit (it isn’t really) and was causing quite a stir. The following day he happened to walk into a class where one of the girls was reading the book, demanded that she hand it over, and returned it to the library with the instruction that it should be removed from the shelves. Word quickly got round, and within a few weeks there was hardly a girl, and very few boys, who hadn’t read it.

The banning of books is not new of course, particularly in those parts of the world where religious puritanism still has a strong grip. Perhaps the Headteacher who decided to ban the award-winning play Black Watch in her school (full story here) has friends in Kansas, where last week the State Senate approved a bill which would allow prosecutors to bring charges to teachers and school administrators for assigning or distributing materials judged harmful to students (read the story here). The bill was introduced by the Republican state senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who says it is necessary to prevent the distribution of pornography in schools, a situation which ‘has not previously arisen’, while fellow Republican, senator Joseph Scapa, cited as an example of pornography a novel by Nobel Literature winner Toni Morrison, proving apparently that he is well-read and not-very-well-read at the same time.

Read the full text of this blogpost which first appeared on Bella Caledonia.

Many of the modern texts which have come to define America and American literature have been banned at one time or another. Here is a selection of them. A more complete list can be found on the Banned Books Week website under Banned Books That Shaped America.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884

The first ban on Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885, called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965 (Grove Press)

Objectors have called this seminal work a “how-to-manual” for crime and decried it for its “anti-white statements”. The book presents the life story of Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X, who was a human rights activist and who has been called one of the most influential Americans in recent history.

Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987

Again and again, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel, by perhaps the most influential African-American writer of all time is assigned to high school English students. And again and again, parental complaints are lodged against the book because of its violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, 1970

Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” this book tells the story of the USA’s growth and expansion into the West from the point of view of Native Americans. It was banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it,” the official is quoted as saying at the time.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903

Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised in the US, but the book was banned in Italy, in former Yugoslavia, and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

A school board in Strongsville, Ohio, refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951

Young Holden, favourite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always believed that “people never notice anything.”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA used an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors’ religious beliefs.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940

Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, declared the book ‘non-mailable’. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text. This wasn’t Hemingway’s only banned book – A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees were also censored domestically and in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy.

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936

The Pulitzer-prize winning novel (which three years after its publication became an Academy-Award Winning film) follows the life of the spoiled daughter of a southern plantation owner from before and the fall of the Confederacy to the decline of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Critically praised for its thought-provoking and realistic depiction of ante- and postbellum life in the South, it has also been banned for more or less the same reasons. Its realism has come under fire, specifically its portrayal of slavery and use of the words “nigger” and “darkies.”

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

Kern County, California has the great honor both of being the setting of Steinbeck’s novel and being the first place where it was banned (1939). Objections to profanity, especially ‘goddamn’ and the like, as well as sexual references, continued from then into the 1990s. It is a work with international banning appeal: the book was also banned in Ireland in the 50s and a group of booksellers in Turkey were taken to court for “spreading propaganda” in 1973.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Perhaps the first great American novel that comes to the mind of the average person, this book chronicles the booze-infused and decadent lives of East Hampton socialites. It was challenged at the Baptist College in South Carolina because of the book’s language and mere references to sex.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

Ellison’s book won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855

If they don’t understand you, sometimes they ban you. This was the case when the great American poem Leaves of Grass was first published and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.

Moby-Dick or The Whale, Herman Melville,1851

In a real head-scratcher of a case, a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. Community values are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

Restricting access and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, 1947

The sexual content of this play, which later became a popular and critically acclaimed film, raised eyebrows and led to self-censorship when the film was being made. The director left a number of scenes on the cutting room floor to get an adequate rating and protect against complaints of the play’s immorality.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

Harper Lee’s great American tome stands as proof positive that the censorious impulse is alive and well in our country, even today. For some educators, the Pulitzer-prize winning book is one of the greatest texts teens can study in an American literature class. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.”

Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963

Sendak’s work is beloved by children in the generations since its publication and has captured the collective imagination. Many parents and librarians, however, did much hand-wringing over the dark and disturbing nature of the story. They also wrung their hands over the baby’s penis drawn in In the Night Kitchen.

Art For Art’s Sake

There’s hardly a day goes by these days but I am engaged in a conversation with someone about ‘the future of the book’. The future of reading, not so much, which I think just goes to demonstrate how ‘reading’ and ‘books’ have become synonymous, despite the fact that most of the reading we do now is demonstrably NOT linked to a book. Personally, I find myself reading novels almost exclusively on my eReader, while I buy physical books for their physical qualities i.e. the look and feel of the book. You could say that I am increasingly looking at books as artefacts, or indeed ‘works of art’, but here’s someone who is taking that to a whole new level. Brian Dettmer is an artist who creates beautiful sculptures from old books, one form of recycling which definitely makes you sit up and take notice.

Nous Sommes Charlie

It was a sad day yesterday, a sad day for democracy, and a sad start to the New Year, as news came through of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Two masked gunmen attacked the magazine’s headquarters and shot dead twelve members of staff, including the magazine’s editor and three prominent cartoonists. French president Francois Hollande called it a ‘cowardly murder’, and said that the secular republican country’s tradition of free speech had been attacked. Cartoonists around the world responded with a series of poignant images, reminding us of the need to defend freedom of expression, in a way that words alone could never do. I have reproduced some of these images below as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo and political cartoonists around the world. You will find many more on my ‘Je Suis Charlie’ board here on Pinterest.

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Time To Get Into Film

Into-Film

See. Think. Make. Imagine.

It may be too late for Christmas, but one of the best professional development offers for teachers in the UK at the moment comes absolutely free, and it will still be available in the New Year. Into Film‘s recently expanded catalogue of teacher training covers all ages and stages, from nursery education to media studies, from beginners to seasoned film critics. I have written often on the blog about the potential of film (and specifically short films) to impact on literacy development in young people, and how, very often, it is only the teacher’s fear of what they regard as a lack of specialist subject knowledge that holds them back from using it more often. Now the solution is to hand.

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“Film is a powerful tool to engage young people, capture their imaginations and bring the written word to life. Our programme places film at the heart of education to engage and challenge students and bring texts to life. Our training demonstrates the benefits of using film as text to develop learners’ critical thinking, analytical and contextualisation skills. These skills are equally applicable to and transferable between film and literary texts. As film is both visual and auditory, learners develop skills of description, deduction and inference, as well as the ability to decode texts and translate images and sound into words.”

Into Film website

cinemaRecently I spent a couple of days working with fellow Into Film CPD providers on the new resources at the London Connected Learning Centre in Lambeth, and I have to say I came away truly inspired. Whether you are looking to use practical filmmaking to develop creative skills, to deliver aspects of the curriculum through the medium of film, or to develop a better understanding of the language and grammar of film itself, there really is something here for everyone.

 “The CPD session last month was extremely beneficial to me from both a teaching and learning perspective. I have already started implementing some of the videos into my own teaching practice…It genuinely was one of the most useful and practical courses I have been on for a very long time.”

Daniel Cooper, Assistant Head, Ysgol Park Waundew

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*Accessing the Into Film CPD is very simple. Generally speaking there should be a minimum of 15 trainees in a group, though exceptions can be made for those in small schools or more rural areas. Senior Leadership Teams, Heads of Department, Youth and Community group leaders, library staff, and local authorities can book free bespoke training events, with sessions ranging in length from 30 minutes to a full day. Literacy CPD and Filmmaking CPD strands may be delivered separately or as a complete package, and an Into Film CPD Practitioner will work with your event organiser to customise a session or sessions which are appropriate to the immediate needs of the group.If you are an individual teacher who would like to attend Into Film CPD training, but are unable to convince enough of your colleagues at this stage, you should visit http://www.intofilm.org/cpd-events where you will find a growing number of centrally-organised events taking place across the UK.

Why Not Start A Film Club?

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Into Film will also support teachers who want to set up and run film clubs in their own schools. To ensure that children and young people get the best educational and social experience from their clubs, Into Film also provide film club leaders with comprehensive training and support. Leaders are introduced to Into Film’s expertly curated film catalogue, then given advice and support on programming films which are appropriate for audience and purpose. Additional advice and resources are available should schools wish to develop filmmaking as part of their offering to young learners.

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*If you are in the South or South-West of Scotland, and wish to have free Film Literacy training in your school or local authority, please feel free to contact me directly. Contact details can be found at the top of the blog under ‘About’ or use the Comments section of this blogpost and I will contact you.

Related Posts:-

Film Shorts as Literacy Texts

Literacy, Film and the Scottish Survey

Ten Tools For Reading Film

Everyone Needs Positive Feedback #edcmooc

neverOne final reflection on the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (for now). Last week I wrote about what was required to complete the course. While it is not over-demanding, the possibility of failure is not something any of us welcomes, so it was with a sense of relief as well as satisfaction that I read the very positive comments on my final submission this morning, and discovered that I had secured a Grade 1 Pass (the only alternative being a Grade 0 Fail!).

I suspect that it is this aspect of the massive, open and online course which will attract most scepticism, if not outright cynicism, the fact that success and failure are based largely on the observations of your peers and not the course tutors. Yet in a way that is what I find most attractive about it. While the ultimate responsibility for learning remains with the learner, there is a great sense in which the whole endeavour is a collaborative effort. Every participant is reaching for a better understanding of the topic, not for the right answer. This piece of advice on the MOOC site sums it up perfectly:-

Giving and receiving constructive feedback
“Explaining your understanding of someone’s work to them will help them to refine their own understanding and will also help you refine your own – it’s a reciprocal process. This is the purpose of this peer feedback exercise.

Of course this formal exercise should not be the only opportunity that you take to interact with your fellow students during and after this course. This process is formal, and anonymous. You should seek to create your own opportunities for collaboration and discussion – in the discussion forum, and in self-organised and emergent groups in which you can cultivate relationships, pursue common interests, and engage in more intimate discussions.

You should be both supportive and critical in what you write. What might that mean in practice? The notion of being supportive is probably the easiest to understand. You are all in this together. This course – learning in general – is not a ‘zero-sum game’ where only one person can win and others must lose. When the group works together everyone benefits. Receiving feedback on our work provides valuable guidance and stimulus to further thought. Giving feedback on the work of others helps us to clarify our own thinking through the act of framing it in the process of communication. To be supportive will also imply courtesy and sensitivity in the way in which we express our views. We can more productively assimilate and work with a comment when the other gives it and we receive it in a context of politeness and trust.

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The notion of criticality is more difficult to grasp, not least because our everyday usage of the word tends to carry the implication of negative criticism – focusing on, and pointing out, what is wrong. However, it is perfectly possible to be positively critical as well. One may point out a strength in some work, and then build on this by giving advice as to how to enhance that strength. ‘I like what you have done there. It made me think of ….. You might consider incorporating …..’. Or it may be that you see a strength that the creator has not made as explicit as they might have done. Encouragement may then be offered to the creator to go further with what they have started. A positive criticality may involve seeking to empathise with the creator, and how he or she might take the next steps. It may be about articulating sincerely held questions about a piece of work, and about the creator’s intentions in its production.”

When I embarked on this 5-week course, one of my aims was to examine how the principles of the MOOC might be applied in school settings, within the context of compulsory education. Sharing the responsibility for learning, including greater use of peer assessment and feedback, and removing ourselves from that ‘zero-sum game’ might not be a bad place to start.

The E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is offered by the University of Edinburgh via Coursera. If you are interested in taking part in a MOOC you may also want to have a look at the FutureLearn website where you will find courses run by some of the UK’s top universities.

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