Day 3 of SWIFT and we had a change of venue. We moved to the library on the south campus and into a big airy room with glass walls. It naturally shifted the dynamic, as we all had to change our seating arrangements. As usual, when I arrived, there were a few people deep in chat. The day had started already over tea and coffee.
Right on time (we’re good on timing at SWIFT), we settled to daily tasks. Rebecca had volunteered to write a daily log for day 2. She read out a thoughtful and gently humorous recollection of yesterday’s highlights. I related, and I reflected on another day of learning and how much we packed in. Rebecca’s account reminded me of the fun side of SWIFT and the enjoyment and craic while we learned.
Now we were warmed up for the first demo of the day. It was by Aoife, who teaches English in a very large, diverse, and co-ed secondary school. Her lesson was on story writing and development of character, and her focus was on the importance of discussion in the teaching of writing. Aoife started by handing out lollipop sticks and then she explained the embedded usage of Blooms Taxonomy in her own school environment and an encouragement to use rotational questioning techniques. Her school makes Blooms visible through posters in classrooms and teachers are encouraged to refer to it during lessons from 1st to 6th year. In Aoife’s lesson, as she explained to us, we were heading right towards the top piece of that triangle – create.
Aoife introduced us to various techniques that she uses to aid responses to her questions: lollipop sticks (we had all now written our names on one and she had collected then into a jar), and another called snowballing. Snowballing is where students write answers on a piece of paper, scrunch it into a ball and fire it towards the front. The teacher lifts and reads some out loud. I was now imagining Aoife pelted by paper, or knee deep in paper snowballs.
Aoife started the lesson with examples of text which effectively described character. She asked for two volunteers to read aloud and then she asked questions - we answered if our lollipop stick was drawn. Aoife built to a second task, and asked us to write down the first thing we tended to notice about a person when we met them. We were asked to share based on the lollipop sticks again. Now she showed us some images of people with different expressions. She asked us to choose one and write a list of describing adjectives. We shared and discussed again. Next she asked us to visualise a character and to answer the following questions: what is their main talent, ambition, fault, secret, fear, best friend, and enemy? What have they lost in their lives? What do they want to change? Lastly (to avoid earlier distraction), what is their name? On discussion, we were revealed to have created a one armed juggler who wanted to turn professional, a concert pianist with stage fright, and a man whose best friend was his enemy (his secret was that he had killed someone).
Next, we were asked to circle one or two of the questions about our character. We had to think of a scene to suit those questions and how our character might be feeling in that scene. To help with feelings, we were asked to do a short writing exercise which involved picking a feeling and naming it. So, we gave it a colour, listed describing words and metaphors for that feeling, and wrote sounds, tastes and smells that resonated with it. These helped to generate description and to elaborate on feeling and character. We ran out of time, but we had fun building up to a scene that we could write next and we had loads of ideas and vocabulary to do so.
After lunch, the second demo of the day was with Jenny. Again, she is a secondary school teacher teaching 12-18 year olds - with a lot of leaving cert English classes. She focused on speech writing and explained that many in that age group lacked confidence in their own voice through lack of experience in the world and fear of exposing their own values and beliefs. She finds it relatively straightforward to teach students to identify features of speech writing, but very difficult to persuade them to apply these in their own writing. She has developed a range of inventive techniques to help. We diverted briefly into a discussion of the influence of social media on student writing habits and debated whether the condensing of facts into digestible sound bites has left many teenagers lacking in exposure to extended argument, analysis and elaboration. Predictably, we raised problems with no easy solutions.
All through Jenny’s exercises, there was a pervading sense of fun – a silliness, with clear purpose, that made it very entertaining but very informative (no mean feat). First off, she encourages her students to seek to elaborate and exaggerate, in order to build their skills, and later, to pare back.
So, our first task was to listen to a speech from Braveheart and to identify its language genre from a list given – it was the language of persuasion. Then a ‘word dump’ exercise on what made it persuasive – some brainstorming in pairs and then class discussion. This aided formation of a list of features (Jenny had one she prepared earlier to speed us along). Now we were handed a checklist of features and she played another clip – this time the rousing speech from The Great Dictator. We listened and ticked when we heard a feature. We were looking for elements such as: a striking opening, use of contrast, use of personal pronouns, an anecdote and many more. Jenny had the checklist now formed into a mnemonic. Next, we were given a topic and asked to write a really short speech incorporating as many features as possible. Then, a really fun bit, where Jenny attributed shout-out words for each feature e.g. ‘whohoo’ for a striking opening, ‘schtoree’ for an anecdote, ‘ying yang’ for a contrast etc. Class members were given a feature to look out for, and their word to shout out. Then a volunteer read their speech and we shouted our words as we heard our designated feature. It kept us listening, gave feedback on features and was entertaining – a winning combination.
Two great demos today – thank you Aoife and Jenny.
The final hour of our day would need a post of its own to do it justice. We were privileged with a tour, presentation, and artefact viewing in the magnificent Russell Library in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. It houses historic and ancient books and artefacts
It is home to 66 ancient artefacts with cuneiform writing – some dating back pre-3,500BC. We were treated to a presentation on cuneiform writing and a viewing of three pieces (a strictly no touch policy). Thank you to the staff of the Russell Library for such an enriching and enlightening hour in such beautiful surroundings. And, the smell, wow, the smell of all those old books.
Lastly, Angela was persuaded (a lot of persuasion was used) to write the daily log for tomorrow. And, Alison gave us homework – a post-it to fill with cuneiform writing.