PD at Woodrow First School

I just led 2 days teaching with Tim Taylor and Iona Towler-Evans as part of professional development for teachers of children aged 3-5 in Nursery and Reception classes at the amazing Woodrow First School in England. The topic was pirates. We demonstrated dramatic inquiry approaches using both a ‘man in a mess’ narrative and ‘the mantle of the expert’.

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Social Context and Using/Learning Academic Language

Posted to Guardian Teacher Network, May 7, 2013

Recently, working with a group of thirteen year olds with ‘special needs’ we planned how we might rescue hostages in Libya. As we imagined we were in 1804 in the days of the Barbary pirates, one boy asked, ‘What would we tell President Jefferson if we failed?’. We were thinking, talking, reading texts extracts, and acting, like historians. The boy was aware that history was his-story.

The learning in Lee Donaghy’s classroom is so powerful not just because one group is convincing the other. Significantly, the context of their talk – and of their writing – is more than ‘the classroom’. People (young and old) are engaged in the sorts of tasks that engage real historians. And that includes paying attention to the vocabulary they use to make meaning within an historical framework. This is not superficial ‘role play’. As in my example, students are becoming more aware of the language they are using – and learning – to explain and critique historical events.

At the heart of Michael Halliday’s theory is the idea that people use words, and learn how to use language, in order to create meaning in context. Social context is key. Why do teachers talk differently at home, in the staffroom, or at a professional conference? Because the social context – and thus the language expected to be used to make meaning – is different. The problem with most of the language used in classrooms is that the context is ‘schooling’ and the dominant genre for language use is as old as that used by The Bash Street Kids! When teachers are the ones asking questions that the pupils are supposed to answer ‘correctly’ then the relationship between teacher and young people tends to close down meaning-making. Using Halliday’s term, the ‘tenor’ of exchanges is hierarchical. When the meaning has been predetermined by a teacher – or by a test – then pupils don’t have to learn how to use language. Worse, they don’t have to learn – or think.

I, Cinna (the poet) and Julius Caesar: the RSC productions

On Friday May 3 I joined Jessica Sharp, Amy McKibben (teacher-leaders from the OSU/RSC PD Program) and their middle and high school students at the Southern Theatre for a performance of Tim Crouch’s I, Cinna (the Poet).  It was performed on the set of the compelling RSC’s production of Julius Caesar (directed by the new RSC artistic director Greg Doran) which I’d seen two days previously.  Placing the events of the play in a modern-day African setting had evoked in me knowledge and memories of contemporary dictatorships and civil wars in post-colonial Africa.

You can watch a video recording of I, Cinna (the poet) on the RSC website but as always, being in the theatre was so much more engaging and compelling.  We were framed as if we were in the imagination of Cinna, the poet, (masterfully portrayed by Jude Owusu who also played the character in Julius Caesar).  As the events of Shakespeare’s play unfolded off-stage (as if in contemporary setting like London) we became implicated as Cinna led us each in writing down words that gradually create a poem.  What would you die for?  What would you kill for?  We gradually wrote one of Shakespeare’s lines  – It must be by his death – as we realized we were seeing Cinna predicting and then accepting his death.  Cinna raises questions for us about the value of poetry: Mark Antony changed the course of the play (and of history) by his words.  We are left wondering about the effect of Cinna’s words and of ours when he asks us to write to explain his death.  Like the several hundred young people, over 5 minutes I wrote:

Butchered like a chicken

By heartless men

Following the rightness of the mob

Following the wrongness of the inauspicious day

Who let slip the dogs of war?

Transforming Teaching and Learning

Transforming Teaching and Learning with Active and Dramatic Approaches: Engaging Students Across the Curriculum. will published by Routledge in August 2013.

Tables and Figures are posted under Handouts.