New opportunities for collaboration and research

Portrait photo of Margaret McEwan
Image: Margaret McEwan is teacher librarian at Figtree High School, a comprehensive school in south west Wollongong, NSW

Embracing change

In a letter to Jean Baptiste le Roy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. If you work in education, you would have to add change to this list.

One of these recent changes is the introduction of the NSW syllabuses for the Australian curriculum and, at present, schools around the state are feverishly planning for the first stage of their implementation in 2014.

For the English faculty at Figtree High School, a comprehensive high school in the Illawarra, the new NSW English K-10 syllabus has been the catalyst for a major renovation of our Stage 4 and 5 English programs. The prospect is daunting and also very exciting as we seek to create new learning experiences for our students.

As the teacher librarian at Figtree High School, I have been working closely with the English faculty through this challenge. The experience highlighted some of the fantastic opportunities that the new syllabuses provide for teacher librarians to consult and collaborate with teaching colleagues. On a personal level, the experience helped me define my role within the school and, more broadly, where teacher librarians can fit and indeed flourish within the brave new world of economic rationalisation in schools.

Focus on texts about Asia

One of the main differences in the new English syllabus is an increased focus on texts that provide insights about the peoples and cultures of Asia. Even though some students at Figtree High have been exposed to Asian culture through the media and travel, many students in our school do not have the opportunity to explore and understand Australian-Asian identity as the Illawarra has a relatively small Asian population (4%), despite the diverse cultural mix (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013). English teachers can create exciting learning environments by choosing texts that offer different points of view and engender balanced discussions on the perceptions of Asian-Australian identities (Cole & Bui, 2007).

Planning together

I worked with English Head Teacher, Louise Hotchkis and Angela Mintzas to explore this new focus and expose our students to texts that would be meaningful to them. We decided to do some research using their Stage 5 classes to assess the reactions of our students to texts that represented Asian Australian identities from a personal inside-out perspective (Cole & Bui, 2007). We chose texts that created relevant connections with Asian peoples and cultures, while challenging some of the media-generated stereotypes.

As teacher librarian, my initial role in this project was assisting with the selection of a suitable text to use as the basis of a short unit on cultural identity with a focus on critically evaluating the ways bias, stereotypes, perspectives and ideologies are constructed (ENC-5C). We eventually chose some short stories from Alice Pung’s great anthology, ‘Growing up Asian in Australia.

Together we read the stories and decided on five stories that we hoped would appeal to the audience. It would have been better perhaps to allow students to choose their own story but time was an issue.

Some of the stories were chosen because they were written by people that we thought our students may have heard of like Kylie Kwong (‘My China’) and the very funny Oliver Phommovanh (‘Hot and Spicy’). Other stories were chosen because of the compelling main characters and their predicaments. These stories resonated most strongly with our students:

  • Vanessa Wood’s ‘Perfect Chinese Children’
  • Aditi Gouvernel’s ‘Wei-Lei and Me’
  • Diana Nguyen’s ‘Five Ways to Disappoint your Vietnamese Mother’.

Designing the assessment task

Having helped to choose the stories, I was invited to participate in designing the assessment task and learning activities. This allowed me to experiment with some teaching strategies I wanted to use in the classroom. We chose a mini literature circle as our teaching strategy because we wanted to generate student discussion about how they could relate to the characters in the stories and their experiences.

Students were assessed on

  • how well they were able to make connections between themselves and the characters in the story
  • their ability to work together in a group
  • their final product, a story quilt square
  • the oral presentation.

Two examples of student work follow. The first (Figure 1) is based on a study of the text, ‘Perfect Chinese Children’ by Vanessa Wood. The poster displays the tension that the main character feels between her own wishes and the expectations of her parents — note the yin and yang symbol and the two sides of the girl’s face. The students who studied this story identified very strongly with this character.

Figure 1 Poster of student’s response to ‘Perfect Chinese Children’
Image: Figure 1 Poster of student’s response to ‘Perfect Chinese Children’

The second example (Figure 2) is based on Diana Nguyen’s ‘Five ways to disappoint your Vietnamese Mother’. This poster picked up on the strong Asian stereotype in the story with the eye representing different ways of seeing.

Figure 2 student’s poster in response to ‘Five Ways to Disappoint your Vietnamese Mother’
Image: Figure 2 student’s poster in response to ‘Five Ways to Disappoint your Vietnamese Mother’

The preliminary unit of work formed the basis for a longer unit on the short story for Stage 5, focusing on the English concept of characterisation. For more teaching ideas for this text, read the recommended teaching notes.

The class was booked into the library for most of the unit and I was able to team teach with the classroom teacher. Participating in student learning at all stages of the unit of work was a rewarding experience.

Collaborative programming and teaching

Resourcing the curriculum has always been an important part of my role as teacher librarian. The introduction of the new syllabuses provides teacher librarians with the opportunity to consolidate their role as resource providers and reviewers, and to continue supporting and assisting teachers to use new resources and implement new learning strategies in the classroom.

My recommendation for teacher librarians is to ask colleagues if you can be involved in programming and teaching the units of work. Your colleague will appreciate the support and, as well as the satisfaction you will receive from finishing what you have started, you will gain insight into which resources work best in the classroom. My experiences have enabled me to be at the centre of teaching and learning, not only as a resource provider, but also as a researcher, an innovator and, most importantly, as a fellow classroom practitioner.

Differentiating the curriculum

The preliminary work on texts with an Asian focus created many more opportunities for collaboration. Our most recent project involves looking at differentiating the curriculum. One of the key principles in the Australian Curriculum is equitable access to quality learning experiences for all students.

Teachers will use the Australian Curriculum to develop teaching and learning programs that build on students’ interests, strengths, goals and learning needs, and address the cognitive, affective, physical, social and aesthetic needs of all students.

ACARA 2013, ‘Student diversity and the Australian Curriculum’, p. 4

At Figtree High School we used the introduction of the new NSW syllabuses as an opportunity to examine our current classroom practice and make improvements where needed. In order to do this, a Differentiated Learning Team (DLT) was formed early in 2013. The team is coordinated by the Head Teacher Teaching and Learning and reports regularly to the Senior Executive. It includes the Head Teacher English, the teacher librarian, three learning support teachers including the ESL support teacher and the coordinator of the Physical Disabilities Unit, as well as three classroom teachers across a range of key learning areas, including English.

Members of the DLT work with and advise classroom teachers on programming and implementing a differentiated curriculum. This practical support, including help with integrating technology, informs an action research project. Through several cycles of action research, the team hopes to provide evidence of improved student engagement when learning activities and assessment tasks are designed to reflect specific quality criteria and the specific learning needs of students.

As well as providing the data we need for evidence-based practice (Masters, 2012) , this research will provide a foundation for formalising curriculum differentiation in school programming policy. Masters’ framework for continual improvement (Table 1) places a high priority on student learning. It involves students, teachers, school leaders and system leaders rigorously evaluating and improving school practices and programs.

Table 1 A framework for continual improvement
Image: Table 1 A framework for continual improvement, Masters 2012, p. 6

Change for the better

Implementing the NSW syllabuses for the Australian curriculum is an exciting time for teachers to work with colleagues to review and explore planning, programming, reporting and assessing practices.

Moving further into the 21st century, teacher librarians will remain passionate advocates of reading and literature in a variety of formats. They will continue to assist students and teachers to navigate the increasingly complex information super-highway, assist teachers to resource the curriculum, integrate technology into student learning and promote inquiry based learning.

Teacher librarians are uniquely placed in schools to coordinate and participate in educational research that informs the implementation of 21st century learning; this is a key focus for the profession. In this time of great change, the implementation of the new NSW syllabuses for the Australian curriculum is providing exciting opportunities for teacher librarians to improve learning outcomes for students through quality action research. While there are challenges, it has never been a more exciting time to be a teacher librarian.

References and further reading

ABC Education 2016, Alice Pung on story settings, accessed 20 January 2018.

ACARA 2012, The shape of the Australian Curriculum, Version 3, accessed 20 January 2018.

ACARA 2013, Student diversity and the Australian Curriculum, accessed 20 January 2018.

Board of Studies NSW, NSW syllabuses for the Australian curriculum, accessed 20 January 2018.

Cole, D. R. & Bui, H. 2007, ‘Teaching Asian-Australian identities through literature’, Literacy learning: the Middle Years, vol.15, no. 3, pp.29-39, accessed 20 January 2018.

Education Services Australia, ‘Differentiation’, Teaching AC English, accessed 20 January 2018.

Franklin, B. 1789, ‘Letter to Jean Baptiste le Roy, 13 Nov. 1789’, Notable quotes, accessed 20 January 2018.

Gordon, L. 2013, Growing up Asian in Australia: Teaching notes, Black Inc., accessed 20 January 2018.

Masters, G. 2012, ‘Continual improvement through aligned effort’, ACER Research Conference Proceedings. 2012, pp. 3-7, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Camberwell, VIC, accessed 20 January 2018.

NSW Department of Education and Communities 2013, In their position: Stage 5 unit of work, developed for NSW English K–10 syllabus for the Australian curriculum.

Pung, A. 2013, ‘Alice Pung on writing Asian Australian stories’, Off the Shelf.

Sheerman, A. 2011, ‘Accepting the challenge: evidence based practice at Broughton Anglican College’, Scan, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 24-33.

Keywords: Asian Century; teacher librarian; collaboration

How to cite this article: McEwan, M. 2013, ‘New opportunities for collaboration and research’, Scan 32(3)

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