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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

What an insult!

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 5, 2009

All teachers in Australia are used to being undervalued, but every now and again there’s fresh evidence that the complexity of our work and the expertise that underlies our profession counts for nothing…

Today I was approached to work as a consultant (for an organisation I won’t name) for a flat fee of $350 for 10 hours work.  

My cleaning lady is paid $25.00 per hour. 

You do the maths.  Don’t forget to deduct tax.

There’s no prize for guessing that I said ‘No thanks! ‘

Posted in Opinion | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Victorian Students Top of the Class again!

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 15, 2009

This time last year I blogged about Victoria’s excellent results in the annual NAPLAN – and expressed my disappointment that the Minister for Education, Bronwyn Pike, had in her press release failed to congratulate Victoria’s teachers…

This year our results are again excellent – and this time, there’s credit where credit’s due:

The results are also a tribute to the dedication of our highly motivated principals and teachers,” Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said *.

That’s much better! Thanks!

*Source: and

Posted in News, Opinion | Tagged: | Comments Off on Victorian Students Top of the Class again!

Assistive technology in the classroom: ICT for students with literacy problems

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 31, 2009

I went to two sessions at the ICTEV Conference that explored software that enhances learning for kids with literacy problems, and was impressed.  More than that, I think that any education system that is serious about making provision for all students (and has jazzy little slogans like ‘every child, every opportunity’ ) ought to provide funding for every school to have access to this type of software.  It ought to be installed on every computer used by students, including in secondary schools.  Make it cheap, and make it mandatory.

These sessions were presented by Yvonne Lynch, Jo Evans, and Pat Minton from SPELD, and Mary Delahunty from St James PS,  (not the journalist Mary Delahunty!)

Of the programs I saw, I was most impressed by

TextHelp is an interface which works across many programs, with its own toolbar at the top of the monitor screen.

TextHelp toolbarThis program will

  • convert text to speech, reading aloud, for example, from a web search on Wikipedia;
  • check spelling, offering not only alternative spellings but also dictionary meanings of each alternative so that students choose the right one;
  • sort out homophone confusion;
  • predict words from even the most bizarre invented spelling;
  • and more.

The reason I think this program should be standard equipment in schools is not just because research shows that 20% of students anywhere everywhere have learning difficulties.  It’s also because here in Victoria we have a large Non English Speaking Background student population, for whom this program has huge potential.  When the student is using any MS Office program, TextHELP can intercede to help them with pronunciation, grammar, idiom and spelling.  It can help with study skills like summarising – and solve the plagiarism problem with the click of a mouse.  You have to see it at work to see the possibilities – it really is amazing.

I was lucky enough to win the door prize, which was a demo copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. This is speech recognition software which is ideal for people with dyslexia and is a million times better than the version that comes with MS Word.  It has perfect spelling, and once it ‘learns’ your voice you can dictate email, spreadsheets and documents.  Although it doesn’t work for everyone with a speech disability, it can in some cases also learn to recognise their speech so it is sometimes a brilliant tool for people with physical disabilities.   What I really liked about it was that you can dictate a sentence, and then tell the computer to ‘scratch that’ – and it does!

This software also has possibilities for mainstream students (or adults).  Speech can be recorded on a digital voice recorder and then when you connect it to the PC, it automatically downloads and transcribes the recording.  I could take a DVR with me when I walk the dogs in the morning, dictate a chapter of The Great Australian Novel as I go round the block, and Dragon would transcribe it straight to text for me!  (I wonder what Dragon would make of the barking when we go past the big shaggy dog on the corner LOL).

I really do admire the software developers who create these wonderful tools that support kids with special needs!  Contact Jo at EdSoft for more information – and when you’ve checked out the programs, then contact

if you agree that these programs should be in every school.

Posted in Conferences Attended, Learning and teaching, Opinion | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

School librarians – at risk

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 13, 2009

The SLAV Bright Ideas blog has alerted me to an excellent article in the May edition of the AEU News (Victorian branch).  It’s called On Borrowed Time.

My school community is lucky that my principal understands the link between literacy and libraries.  There’s mountains of research which shows how crucial it is, and anyone who’s taken more than a cursory look at what passes for a library lesson in those primary schools where the class teacher takes the children to borrow and a library technician processes the books, knows that it’s not fair to anyone to do that. 

The kids miss out because the class teacher has so much else to do that she can’t possibly know the bookstock, purchase quality texts, help the kids find the right book or have time to prepare a really good lesson week after week.  Even those of us who really love books and reading (and not all teachers do) would find it difficult.  I’ve been in my library for nearly five years now, and I read 4-5 children’s novels a month but I still haven’t read some of the novels that I need to, in order to help those kids who are struggling to borrow something they’ll enjoy.

Schools make hard choices because they have to.  If we were really serious about an education revolution, we’d restore funding for teacher librarians, and schools wouldn’t be able to spend it on anything else!

Posted in Opinion, School Library stuff | Tagged: | Comments Off on School librarians – at risk

VIT (at last) offers 21st century option

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 28, 2009

news_hero At last, at last, at last.

If there is one thing that annoys me more than having to pay ever-increasing registration fees to VIT for the privilege of teaching in this state, it is receiving their pointless iteach newsletter on glossy paper every now and again.

The good news is that they are replacing it with a quarterly and teachers can elect to receive it by email.

Posted in Opinion | Comments Off on VIT (at last) offers 21st century option

Children’s Literature Laureate

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 17, 2009

Like many others, I have been numbed by the Victorian Bushfires disaster, so I am pleased to have some good news to share.  The Australian (16.2.09) reports that there is to be a children’s laureate to promote reading from next year.  Funded by the Australia Council and supported by the State Library of Victoria, (SLV) the laureate will tour every state and territory, visiting schools and libraries and popular events which offer the opportunity to champion reading.

The Australian Children’s Literature Alliance comprises publishers, authors, the SLV, the CBCA, teachers’ associations and others.  Their aim is to promote Australian children’s literature, which is amongst the best in the world.  Alliance Chair Bronwen Bennett noted Colin Thiele and Patricia Wrightson as ‘literary greats’ but is not dismissive of the ‘irreverent humour’ of Andy Griffiths.  The idea is

‘to convince children to read books of any type, whether Harry Potter or The Day My Bum Went Psycho.  The aim is to encourage young people to …value literature’. (The Australian, 16.2.09 p3)

I think this is a wonderful idea – and somehow I must ensure that Mossgiel Park is on the list of schools the laureate will visit!

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Opinion, School Library stuff | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Violence in schools

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 16, 2008

On the same day that we learned that a 15 year old boy had been shot dead by police in Melbourne, we learned that the government plans to reduce the time that unmanageable students can be suspended from a maximum ten days to just three, and then only after an exhaustive process involving regional staff.  A new code of conduct is due to take effect from next year under the Education Department Blueprint.


Whatever the rights and wrongs of the police shooting, if that boy were still alive he would have been back in school this week under the proposed rules.  3 days suspension is not enough to set processes in place to protect staff and students from irrational and violent behaviour by disturbed young people such as these.


No wonder parents choose to send their children to private schools where they have autonomy to make sensible decisions in situations such as this.

Posted in Opinion | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

SLAV Conference: Concurrent sessions & Featured Address

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 16, 2008

chipper-cover-newThe first of the concurrent sessions I went to was a presentation by Jan Letta.  Jan is a wildlife photographer who has made it her life’s work to photograph endangered animals in their natural habitat and bring their stories to life for children.  She has produced some very fine little books about lions, cheetahs, tigers and so on, in a series called True to Life Books – each with simple text that makes them perfect for beginner readers.  The ABC persuaded her to document her adventures in Africa, India and China in a magnificent hardcover book, Diary of a Wildlife Photographer but what I found interesting was Jan’s explanation about the economics of publishing books like hers.  The cost of including full-colour photographs is prohibitive for the educational publishing market, but she is able to produce them at a reasonable price because she designs and publishes them herself, selling them at school visits and on the internet.  Another example of cottage industry thriving on the web!

garden-of-empressAfter lunch there was a most interesting presentation by Gabrielle Wang, author of The Garden of Empress Cassia, The Pearl of Tiger Bay, and the forthcoming A Ghost in My Suitcase.  Gabrielle is of Chinese descent, and her fiction explores belonging and shared cultures.  I liked what she had to say about imagination – our culture tends to disparage it, but everything man-made that we see was once imagination.  Reading is an act of imagination that should be cherished.

jane-godwinIn the second concurrent session, I heard Jane Godwin’s talk:  Publishing and Writing: How These Worlds Connect. There were lots of auditory distractions in the Function Space – the clinking of crockery in the cafe, and very noisy contruction work outside.  It seems odd that a space like this in an award winning design like Federation Square couldn’t be closed off properly to reduce the noise. Did the architects and designers really think that curtains would achieve this?

Anyway, Jane soldiered on, and I liked what she had to say.  She’s not a fan of what she called ‘heavy-handed social issue picture books’ and I certainly agree.  She says that even though they are well-intentioned,  such books are cruel to little children, because they’re a lesson not a story.  Good literature is not didactic.  If we want to explore these issues we should use fairy tales because they are removed from the child’s real world.  She believes that young people don’t understand hindsight, and therefore although horrors can be examined, they should usually be righted.  Happy endings are psychologically important for children – and why not?

little-catJane’s work includes Little Cat and the Big Red Bus; The True Story of Mary Who Wanted to Stand on her Head, Millie Starts School, and the young adult novel Falling From Grace.  There’s also the non-fiction title When Elephants Lived in the Sea which looks as if it could be useful for the Life on Earth unit that I am currently doing with Year 5 & 6 because it explores evolution.

Little Cat and the Big Red Bus is an interesting story, because it features a male bus driver caring for a little one who falls asleep on the school bus.  Jane told us that she was asked to change the gender of the driver, but she refused: she wanted to depict the kindness of strangers who care for us when we need it as children, and she wanted to show that men can be good and kind.  I think it is a beautiful book, and I think it is very sad that marketers are so paranoid about child abuse that they are spooked by an image of a man carrying a little child to safety.

Jane finished up by reminding us of something that Ian McEwan wrote after 9/11: Imagining yourself into the lives of another is the beginning of compassion and morality.  It was a most engaging session.

After that, I did something really foolish: I went to the wrong session.  Instead of going to E-Readers and E-texts which I was really looking forward to, I went by mistake to ACMI 2 and not ACMI 1.  It was all about changing the reading culture at a very challenging school in the northern suburbs, but it was not what I wanted to go to! By the time I realised what I’d done, it was too late to barge into the right session so I slithered out of my seat and took an early train home.

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Conferences Attended, Learning and teaching, Opinion, Professional Development, School Library stuff | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

SLAV Conference: Tohby Riddle

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 16, 2008

This keynote address was brilliant. tohby-riddleTohby Riddle is a wonderful author-illustrator of quirky picture books that never fail to engage children’s interest.   He uses literature and art to break out of habitual thinking and enter the world of imagination – with humour, enchantment and surprise.

Fiction, he says, is a word that can be used perjoratively.  The world created must not seem false – it must feel authentic and real.  To create his worlds, he starts out with a real situation, then mixes in the imaginative elements in small steps.  While his animals are metaphors for humans, he says it’s important when anthromorphising animals not to overdo it – he tries to keep his animals as close to reality as possible, and he retains their essential natures: in The Great Escape from the City Zoo, for example, they don’t talk and their undoing happens because they are true to their natures.  (The elephant can’t resist playing in the fountain). 

irving-the-magicianTohby recognises that sometimes the ’emotional feel’ of a book is what stays with us, not the facts, and he gave the example of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I think this is certainly true of Irving the Magician. I read this just recently to Years 3 and 4, and what stays with me from the brilliant images and simple text is the powerful idea that a child who believes in himself can wreak magic on lonely, empty lives around him, but what is heart-achingly real is the sadness of their lives before Irving achieves his little miracle.

great-escapeTohby’s art work owes some of its technical brilliance to his studies in architecture. He pointed out that in architecture, every line that’s drawn is something to be built, in 3D. So there’s a discipline to his drawings and even when a situation is quite zany, the pictures seem very realistic. He talked at length about the influences on his art, and in the Great Escape from the City Zoo in particular. I loved the way he references 1930s New York architecture with the Empire State Building and the anteater, but he’s also included ideas from the Steve McQueen film, stills from B/W film noir, and the Beatles Abbey Rd image. There are Nighthawks and Homer Simpson memes, and when his animals set off in the truck there’s even a reference to the John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath film scene .

There are other titles by this brilliant author that I must buy for our library when I have some more money next year: The Tip at the End of Our Street; The Singing Hat; and The Royal Guest.

Books, says Tohby, are old technology you can hold in your hand to go to another world, and return to this one better for it.

This was the best session of the conference.

Posted in Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Conferences Attended, Opinion, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

SLAV Conference: Setting Literature Free

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 16, 2008

fed-square The SLAV conference was held this year at Federation Square, so I went in on our much maligned train system (punctual, clean and swift) and then had a very nice breakfast at Time Out until it was time to make my way up to ACMI Cinema 2.  I am still not entirely convinced that Federation Square is a success for events like these – although the cinema is a much better venue than VIT in terms of being able to see the speaker and all of the screen, it has a strange disembodied feel about it.  The lighting is a bit dim for taking notes, and there’s definitely something wrong with the air conditioning.  I was not the only one nodding off, and not from boredom!  The same thing happened at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival earlier this year, even when some of my favourite writers were on stage.  Elsewhere the informal spaces for gathering and chat don’t seem to work at all, and there simply aren’t enough toilets for large numbers of women.

Anyway, the theme was Re-imagine Other Worlds, very appropriate for teachers of literature.  However, much of the focus  was more secondary orientated than last year.  Although it was interesting, I often found myself thinking how lucky I am that I don’t have to teach library lessons to unwilling year 8-9 students!

The conference began with an introductory address called Setting Literature Free: Story Lines by Linda Gibson-Langford.   Linda talked about how boys in secondary school don’t want to listen to stories – they will fidget and disrupt even a really good book like Brisinger.  Linda quoted research by Schnog (2008), telling us that if we listen to the ‘voice of the boy’ we will realise that they feel no connection to the library or the world of books, because a library lesson is bounded by print and 19th century ‘good’ literature rather than connecting with contemporary culture.  Efforts to create sophisticated teen readers means we often dissect the work and ruin it, alienating the reader. 

This generation is used to publishing their own ideas any time they like – and we should try to explore their world.   Young people today live in a world of choice whether they are consuming, expressing or producing. It’s a world of multimedia, video editing, animation, 3D visualisation and twitter.  It’s Facebook and Second Life, and the interactive Web.  To engage them, she said, we need to discover their place, realise their privilege and develop their passion with creative ways of enjoying the story together.  These ways could include research with digital identities such as avatars to make a game of it, and ‘moving the reading experience sideways’, letting their world converge with reading.

This all sounded fine until she gave an example: they’re interested in Spiderman, so bring in a spider and then read Charlotte’s Web.  This seems just like gimmickry to me, and I was very surprised by her choice of book.  This great classic children’s story suits 8-11 year olds, but I suspect that secondary students would dismiss it as babyish, even if a teacher did jazz it up with Web 2.0 somehow.

However, some of her other ideas were more intriguing.  Reading aloud on a podcast or Second Life; or facilitating an author visit with Skype and a WebCam sounds fun. Personal reading with Kindles or iPhones might lure some students into the world of literature, and pairing a novel with video games might engage interest too. 

I use film and cartoons on and off during the year with most of my classes, always focussing on how the book differs – even with Preps when we read and view the Beatrix Potter stories in term 2.  For some students, seeing the film is an incentive to borrow the book, but for others it is not.  I recognise that some students are never going to become keen readers, and at least they have had some exposure to the great stories of our culture through hearing it and seeing it on film, and they can articulate what the differences are.

However I am not entirely convinced about jettisoning ‘good’ literature in favour of what’s popular and ‘relevant’.  There is a price to pay for spending time on interactive experiences and listening to the voice of the adolescent.  There is less time for story, and I believe that the imagination needs stories of all kinds.  A good library teacher dramatises the reading to engage her students and takes them to a world beyond their own experiences.  As one of my students wrote in the library survey earlier this year: ‘Sometimes we spend too much time doing other things, and not enough on the story.  Library time is supposed to be about books!’

Posted in Conferences Attended, Learning and teaching, Opinion, Professional Development, School Library stuff | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »