Civic Pluralism Case Studies

Rachael R. describes two projects utilising Learning by Design.

“Champagne, lunch and horror… writing a learning element”

Last year while at the Australian Literacy Educator’s conference in Hobart the idea for a new learning element was born. Inspired by the work that we had presented at the conference and a few glasses of wine, we decided to write a learning element focussing on the genre of Horror Fiction. So armed with books, movies, ideas and plenty of champagne Rita, Prue, Jess, Jen, Christina, Anne and I met for lunch at my house.

Our ideas overflowed, you can imagine the noise of six excited women all talking at once about their favourite horror stories, movies and tv shows. It was Rita, our mentor and source of wisdom who kept us on track, and we soon started recording our plans on a Learning by Design placemat. Using this tool helped us to move from unstructured brainstorming into designing the learning. It helped us to keep a balance between experiential, conceptual, analytical and applied learning activities. We decided to use Edgar Alan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell Tale Heart’, the Dr Who episode ‘Blink‘ and Nick Shyamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense” as examples of texts that made use of horror techniques. We had planned to analyse each text, building towards the students application of their learning in their own design of a horror scene in storyboard format. At the end of our luncheon, we felt that we had designed a pretty good learning element. That night I documented our unit using the CG Learner website.

During term 4, the team taught the learning element for the first time. Although I wasn’t teaching Year 9, I watched them with interest as they tried the different activities we had planned. Team meetings and staff room conversations involved ongoing reflections about the unit and how the learning activities were working. Some activities were added and some adjusted to enhance student understanding. The students were really engaged in looking at the genre and at the end of the unit they produced some quality work, which reflected their deep understanding of the the genre techniques which had been studied. In fact, the unit was so successful that we decided to move our Year 9 curriculum around, to place it at the beginning of the year, as a way of getting kids “hooked” into English.

This year I am on the Year 9 team, so I have finally taught the horror fiction learning element. Working with two teachers who were teaching it for the second time, we met to revise and improve the learning element. We decided to change “Blink” to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho“, the horror elements were more obvious to the students, and it helped students to see cultural shifts in what makes people feel fearful over time. We also included lessons on the historical context of the film, so that students could explore and discuss the social subtexts presented. Finally, we used the functional grammar of mode, field and tenor to analyse the famous shower scene. By getting students to think about the mode (or film techniques used), its interplay with the field (the action) they could see how the tenor (influences on the audience) was constructed. Students were asked to annotate screen shots from the scene, analysing the function of each of these elements. This strategy deliberately modelled their final assignment, which was to demonstrate their understanding of film techniques by designing a horror scene in a storyboard format.

As we reach the end of this learning element, even with the students yet to complete their final assignments, I can see how we can improve the unit. More explicit instruction on the meta language of film techniques would better provide the students with language that supported their analysis of the films and construction of their own scene. I would also like to analyse the social construct of fear more closely. Why do certain images and scenarios make us fearful? How have these changed (or stayed the same) through the ages? This points to the fact that teaching is a constantly evolving science, one which needs ongoing reflection and adjustment in response to the needs of the students. We will review this learning element, add to it and adjust it, and next year, when it is taught again, perhaps there will be new changes.

“Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”

This learning element has evolved over a few years. Initially, I set the topic as an in class essay question. I used it as a diagnostic tool, a way of seeing what my students were capable of. No discussion, no research, no scaffolding. Just write about the statement ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The essays came back. Some students sort of ‘got it’. Others just wrote about how nice people don’t have to be beautiful. It was clear that I wasn’t seeing the thinking that they were capable of. It was like asking painter to paint a landscape without allowing them to use paint. Of course some individuals might be ingenious and devise a way to make paint from dirt, but the majority would be unable to fulfil the request. The topic beauty was a powerful way to get kids thinking, yet I had wasted a teaching opportunity.

So when Prue (with her youthful enthusiasm) started to develop resources to help kids think more deeply about the topic, it began to evolve into a learning element. Initially we didn’t plan it using the knowledge processes, but our familiarity with using the Learning by Design framework helped us to make the unit more robust by scaffolding student thinking, providing visual and written resources and making the students question their own perceptions. So a learning element was born. In 2009 it was finally fully documented, taught and then rewritten using the CG learner website. Each rewrite enabled me to ‘tune’ the learning element, and by adding and modifying activities I was able to provoke deeper thoughts and more searching analysis. This year, when I collected the essays they had written, I got a far more vivid sense of what my students were capable of. They were starting to really think about social and cultural influences on an individual’s notion of beauty. They were thinking about beauty from different perspectives and moving beyond their own frames of reference.

Of course an essay is not a definitive assessment tool. While we were exploring, discussing and thinking about cultural perceptions and influences on the notion of beauty, my students were engaging in substantive communication. This took the form of lively group discussions about the reading materials and an enquiring approach to researching perceptions and practices to do with beauty. They experimented with using metalanguage through a discussion in our fledgling wiki and many of them delighted in what one student described as ”sounding smart” when they responded to each other’s comments. For policy reasons I am unable to provide public access to our wiki so to convey a sense of the discussions which were taking place I have included a selection of wiki posts. They were written by my Year 10 class (15-16 years old). It was interesting to see that some of the most quiet students in the class were most vocal in the wiki discussion forums. …

The entire discussion is far too long to reproduce here. In the end it included five different threads and well over 90 separate posts. This was real evidence that my students were engaging with the topic and thinking about complicated abstract ideas. By using the knowledge processes to consciously plan a learning element I was able prompt higher order thinking and I could really see what my students are capable of. I also found that by using a wiki, I had provided the less gregarious students with a voice. They could carefully consider what they wanted to say and communicate to the class without the pressures of thinking on the spot or speaking before a larger group. I am really pleased with the way that this learning element has evolved, it provoked the students into thinking critically about what influences their own perceptions and made them aware of the fact that other people percieve the world through different lenses.

R., Rachael. 2010. “Champagne, lunch and horror… writing a learning element” and ”Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”. ||