Jamie McKenzie: questions of import, authentic learning, quality teaching

Today, the staffs of seven schools in our learning community gathered in my school’s assembly hall to hear Jamie McKenzie speaking on the importance of authentic learning in today’s schools.

I first became aware of USA-based Jamie McKenzie (and his online writings in From Now On) when commissioning one of my first articles as editor of the teacher-librarians’ professional journal, Scan. It’s amazing to look at the date on that article and recall that it was in 1998 when Lyn Hay, of Charles Sturt University, provided “An interview with Jamie McKenzie” (for Scan, vol 17, no 2, pp 5-7). Jamie had become a guru among teacher-librarians around the world for his then-current investigations into power learning and imagining the “post modem” school. The printed interview ended up being a prelude to his visit to Sydney, later that year, for a professional development day attended by many teacher-librarians and a few intrigued school principals. Teacher-librarians following Jamie McKenzie’s work found much to bolster their efforts in collaborative teaching, and Jamie has continued to be a great advocate for the work being done by Australia’s teacher-librarians. But how far did his message reach?

A full decade on, some of his emphases have certainly evolved but it was rewarding for me to be back in the teacher-librarian role, and seeing Jamie’s latest messages about questions of import, authentic learning and assessment, the “smart use” of information communication technologies (ICT), quality teaching and learning, and the embracing of complexity, being shared with a room full of attentive teachers, executive staff, teachers’ aides, not just the seven teacher-librarians. It was also pleasing that he, again, complimented Australia’s teacher-librarians for their ongoing proactive role in supporting teachers and students grappling with authentic learning and the smart use of technologies (and he included print books as one “technology”).

More commentary will follow as I continue to synthesise today’s learning…!

Book Week approaches

Welcome back to a brand new school term!

In the rush of all the end-of-term events a few weeks ago, the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) announced the 2008 shortlist for the annual Children’s Book of the Year Awards. The Winners and Honour Books will be announced in Term Three, on Friday 15th August, 2008. This year they are again presented in five categories:

  • CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers
  • CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers
  • CBCA Book of the Year: Early Childhood
  • CBCA Picture Book of the Year
  • The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books.

I found a few minutes between finishing up book raps, rounding up overdues, gathering resources for Term Two units of work, etc, to find out how many books on the shortlist were already in our collection. Quite a few, actually, which was pleasing; my selection criteria must be pretty good. I made some little badges (representing the bronze nomination stickers the books will start displaying in the shops) to put on the covers of the shortlisted books so I could set up a display. It occurred to me that, this year, I can parallel the gold, silver and bronze medals of the Book of the Year Awards with the medals of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Wandering through the supermarket during the holidays, I found the most wonderful $1.69 teaching aid! Three little “party favour” plastic medals in simulated metallic gold, silver and bronze. The number of times, in previous years, I have been presenting titles from the shortlist, only to find myself really stretching to describe the colour “bronze” to young children – and the number of times I end up realising that many young students simply have no concept, whatsoever, of what a medal is…

Maybe this year my $1.69 extravagance will pay off?

A recipe for reading success

Our whole school community has just celebrated their love of reading this afternoon with our quarterly reading picnic – a great sight to behold: 400 students, their teachers, students’ parents and toddler siblings, spread out in groups scattered throughout the school playground, enjoying books and nibblies in a wonderful picnic atmosphere.

These celebrations have become an end-of-term tradition here over recent years, and they are so effective at bringing a community together with a literacy focus. This term we has an emphasis on procedural writing as our reading matter, with student-made recipes collected in a school cookbook, and baskets of commercial picture books, School Magazine issues and recipe books. There was also a quiz about bizarre foods, with prizes for successfully completed entries.

The last of my Wilfrid book rap groups had an opportunity to finish off their elderly resident outlines yesterday – it was frantic here last week, with Book Fair and Grandparents’ Day – and I’ve just taken digital photos of their work, which I’ll add to the rap blog’s Gallery tonight.

It’s been a busy end-of-term. While the rest of the staff were at the student disco, I presented the Wilfrid rap blog and wiki pages to a group of our parents on Tuesday night and they were surprised/enthused/fascinated at how we had harnessed the capabilities of Web 2.0 to share such meaningful learning and teaching, especially that their children had been communicating with students all over Australia and even Vietnam. While preparing my talk, I re-read the early introductory messages again this week, and it was a great reminder at how far the groups of rappers and their teachers had come in such a short time!

We are always looking for opportunities to improve community involvement in school life and promoting our website, blog and wiki URLs for parents to access at home will go a long way to fostering such involvement.

Next term’s reading picnic coincides with ALIA’s simultaneous reading of the picture book, Arthur. We have big plans for that one. Watch this space!

Murphy’s Laws of school book fairs

I think I’ve finally recovered from our Book Fair week; the whole school had directed a lot of energy at our annual Grandparents’ Day. Although my only contact with the grandparents this year was in the crush of the Book Fair, there were numerous events throughout the school, all well attended. Once again many of the staff observed that, these days, most of us are older than the average grandparent of a primary school student. Sigh…

As I was attempting to close up the Book Fair cabinets on Thursday morning, I had a last-minute request from a parent who’d been waiting on an automated payment to be made into her account so she could buy some books. Luckily, I’d mastered the art of EFTPOS this year, although the transaction ate into my morning preparations!

At the exact same time:

* a tech guy arrived to re-image two testy OASIS Enquiry kiosk terminals

* the locksmith turned up to repair both main entry doors to the library (they both jammed at the same time yesterday, effectively locking me out of the Book Fair (my Principal congratulated me on my excellent security practices: every window was also locked tight when he tried to gain entry via the burglars’ route, and…

before the desks and chairs could be restored to their usual arrangement…

* my first class turned up for the morning. Accompanied by a casual relief teacher, clutching English worksheets on procedural texts. Could I help model some recipes?

For the briefest moment, I almost hyperventilated. I wanted to run screaming from the room. (Ah, but we do have a Library Rule: “Please walk in the library”.)

“Yes, of course! I know just the resources we need” I said.

I reached for three big books in close proximity: one with recipes, one with science experiments and one with handicraft procedures. You know, it was the best team-taught, impromptu lesson I’ve done in ages!

Barely settling down in the staff room for coffee, I received a frantic message: the Book Fair men were here for the cabinets! Back to the library. And where was that recharging cord for the EFTPOS machine?

I realised today that I’d actually put together the following little piece last year, and it’s still quite valid.

Murphy’s Laws of School Book Fairs

1. First sale of the day – an 80 cent pencil – will inevitably be countered by a crisp $50 note.

2. If you put a signature on the item’s price sticker at a school book fair, in an attempt to prevent shoplifting, the child will inevitably have a single ten cent coin to pay for a $10 item. Or even a $25 item. (These students have expensive tastes. And a totally unrealistic idea of the value of money. They also believe that if you keep buying items that give you change, you’ll never run out of money.)

3. If a student hands you a bunch of 16 shiny $1 coins, and it looks like he raided Mum’s money box, he probably did. (And why was he so desperate to purchase a personal burglar alarm, anyway?)

4. If someone sees you sneaking a look at the EFTPOS machine manual, they’ll suddenly demand you test it out on their card. (“Please do use the Ready Teller across the road please, these instructions are too obscure, okay?”)

5. Of course, you’re supposed to charge up the EFTPOS machine the night before.

6. Stationery is still way more exciting than books, even on Day 3 of a Book Fair.

7. Tired teachers only make addition errors in front of the parents, not little students, who wouldn’t notice anyway.

8. Today’s grandparents are younger than most of the teachers. (Welcome to the middle ages.) But they are quite generous (Ka-ching! Ka-ching! – sound of cash register).

9. A major computer system changeover shall occur on the same day as the takings of the annual Book Fair must be finalised. It will also be the last day of term, and only one day before a public holiday. (We had to do a set of tasks to prepare for conversion to OASIS Thin Client in 2007 – seems like only yesterday, or decades ago.)

10. The final tearful request for a $1 scented eraser will be announced precisely ten minutes after the van, full of all the cabinets of product, leaves the school grounds. (A prediction: just you see if I’m right.)

If memory serves, I was.

Was it worth it? Sure, why not? Especially with 30% of sales being returned to us in books – some even being just-announced CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Awards shortlisted titles. But Thursday morning was a great example of a day that some people would see as a string of disasters, but others think of as a typical day in a school library. In some perverse way, it was fun and rewarding.

What’s under the stairs?

It’s been frantic at school this week: the annual Book Fair in our school library and today is the culmination, Grandparents’ Day!

I just had to share a wonderful moment from yesterday afternoon. One of the Year 1 students came racing into the library, wild-eyed – just as I was trying to slip away from the Book Fair for a quick lunchtime coffee.

“Mr McLean! Mr McLean!” he exclaimed, “There are some Bad Words out here, under the stairs.”

I’d noticed some chalked arrows on the steps earlier in the day, but I hadn’t thought to investigate further. Crouching down, I could see some choice four-letter words on a support beam of the stairs attached to our portable building.

“Well,” I reflected. “You’ll just have to make sure that you don’t read them until I can get them removed.”

“It’s okay, Mr McLean,” he said, beaming at me. “I can’t read!”

(The funny thing is, he’s quite a talented little reader.) It was just the release I needed towards the end of a tense day, topped off only by numerous parent visitors, getting a sneak preview of the Book Fair stock.

“My kid talks about the library all the time,” several of them said. “He/she just loves coming to this library!”

Yes, enough ego-boo to get me through Grandparents’ Day, I reckon.

To Twitter or not to Twitter

As yet I’m not convinced about Twitter – although I’m also assuming the NSW DET firewall would block it as another form of social networking?

At home I often have MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger on, and dash off messages to friends when I notice them come online but, from samples I’ve seen of Twitter – short snappy mini blog post-like entries – it doesn’t seem all that different. I fear the temptation for me to keep Twittering every few minutes would mean I’d never get any other work done. I procrastinate enough as it is. Would I just be a Twit? 😉

I’m sure if I had time to “play” on Twitter, some educational purposes would begin to be suggested by the tech. Judy O’Connell had mentioned at the recent ASLA NSW conference about “no live blogging of the workshops”. Personally, I think we are all waiting for etiquette to catch up with the (revised rules?) of Netiquette – in that Twittering means doing more than two things at once but still pretending to give full attention to the speaker. 😉 I, for one, had made a point of turning off my mobile phone at the start of each talk at the conference, lest I be distracted or curious (as usual) about any incoming messages. And yet there Judy was asking the audience why no one was mobile blogging!

I could have been there with my (borrowed) laptop or my mobile phone and live blogging, but I made do with nightly summaries to my blog – which meant that I was able to have at least some synthesis in my posts. Raw Twittered reactions to speakers during the speech might not be as useful. Depends on what you think people might want out of a blogged conference update, I guess.

Book Fair mode

There are perhaps only Three States of Being in teacher-librarianship:

* the regular collaborative teaching mode

* a few weeks of stocktake mode – when I literally Zen out, fully absorbed in the appealing (to me) chore of annual stocktaking

* and a few consecutive days of Book Fair mode. (Pass me my money bucket, a pen, point the customers in my direction – and wake me when it’s over.)

In my current school, our Book Fair traditionally falls in the lead-up to (and on) Grandparents’ Day. After getting over the shock that the current crop of grandparents are actually younger than many of the staff members (yours truly included), these special event days have proven very popular – and a major boost to our annual book-buying coffers.

Not all teacher-librarians like the commercial book fairs for schools. I heard someone call them “slavery to the book company”, or they dislike the book selections – but I’ve found commercial book fairs to be very useful and successful.

With book fairs in K-6 schools, I’ve always promoted the selection and purchase of books, for a personal collection, as being a valuable learning experience for the students. Watching them engage with racks and tables of books for sale can be a valuable exercise. Some students have definitely seen book buying (and book reading) practices modelled at home – long before they arrived at school. But there are just as many students who’ll visit the annual Book Fair with a big wad of money, but then try to buy handsful of highly-decorated stationery items – but no book!

Bringing Grandma or Grandpa to the library for a Book Fair brings back some balance into the equation. Grandparents tend to have such a different type of rapport with their grandchildren than the parents do.

Roll on this week’s festivities!