Engaging the Disengaged – Digital Literacy Really Works

Long before the dizzy heights of, sometimes, twelve views per day on my Blog, when I started blogging in January, I was about to undertake a project which would completely rejuvenate my classroom and my approach to teaching. Inanimate Alice grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shook me about a little bit. It did indeed turn out to be storytelling but not as we know it. I like to think I’ve never looked back. Making this blog post somewhat redundant, you might think. What I learned from the experience was that there is another way. I have never come across a resource which fires up the reluctant learner more than the digital storytelling power of Inanimate Alice. Perhaps until now.

Digital literacy has its critics, however,  and I’m not sure I would recommend it for all ability groups. I became an English Teacher because I was inspired by books, poems, and plays and wanted to share that love of language with others. I still get a thrill when they ‘get’ ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘November’ or ‘Out, out-‘ ; but there are kids who will never get it, whatever ‘it’ may be, will never belong to that world. We need to do something about that.

My class of demotivated learners – the same class who undertook the Sugata Mitra/ Carol Dweck lesson earlier in the year – have been working on Machinarium. If you haven’t heard of it yet it’s a puzzle point-and-click adventure game developed by Amanita Design (thank you Wikipedia) and, as a stimulus for lots of quality writing, it is simply wonderful. There is a free three level demo which my class have been working on but the downloaded paid version has thirty levels. I gave my lot a handful of lap tops and left them to it.

It doesn’t fit the mould of the usual ‘shooty gun’ games they are used to and challenges them to work out problems and think of strategies and sequences. I ensured that they got a taste of their own medicine as I replied, ‘I don’t know’ to every question, but the initial confusion was quickly overcome as one pair, then another, then everyone began to manoeuvre through the stages. Their sense of achievement as they moved on was something they have struggled to find this year. The classroom was buzzing.

The wonderful graphics are ripe for descriptive work on setting, which will, hopefully, lead to some great imaginative work; they want to create an advertising campaign to publicise the game; and they are currently working on a functional help guide. Not bad for a class who would not write, never mind could not- not well anyway. They are now blogging on GLOW and producing pieces of writing of a far more sophisticated standard.

What I’ve learned from dipping my toe into the world of digital literacy this year is that it may not be a panacea for all but in my never-ending quest to engage the disengaged it has been amazing.  It is not and should never be a replacement for reading quality literature – I still feel it is my duty to open this world up to them – but as an aid to writing I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Don’t dismiss digital literacy as a modern fad. It doesn’t mean you have to ditch the classics; but Machinarium may just be the answer to some of your prayers.

A Glass More Than Half Full

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever…That assurance burns very bright at certain times…”

                                                                            Tobias Wolfe ‘This Boy’s Life’

We’ve had student teachers in our Department recently and, as it usually does, it has sent me on a wee trip down amnesia lane. I recall the fear, the constant expectation that things would go horribly wrong. I remember the thrill of the first great lesson, the learning from experienced English teachers. There were also the constant sniffles, the never-ending shirts to be ironed, the sleepless nights; sleepless because I was worrying so much about the next day’s lessons. It seems like a lifetime ago.

It is then not difficult to recognise those same feelings and experiences in the students we have with us now. As I always tell them, learning to teach is very similar to learning to drive. We begin by clutching tightly to that first lesson plan like the white knuckle clamp of fear on the steering wheel. We see nothing else. Then we begin to raise our eyes and see what’s going on in front of us. We might even spot potential dangers in our path, possible pitfalls. It does take a lot of practice and a lot of failure but eventually we can see a mile down the road and very little fazes us. It is worth it, isn’t it? Best job in the world.

One of the biggest challenges we face every year, every week, every day is to retain that optimism, the bounce, the energy. Who was it who said that if you could find a job you loved you’d never work a day in your life. Well, I do. But there are days when I struggle to deal with barriers which are placed in front of me. What I try to get across to the students I mentor is that the work level never gets any less, the marking never goes away. It seems to me that resilience is the key to life as a teacher; but we can never forget the reason why we do it. To pass on our knowledge and skills to children, perhaps providing them with a platform better than we had.

I recall a piece of advice given to me ten years ago when I found myself sat beside the staffroom curmudgeon very early on in my career. ‘Put your coat on, turn around, walk out and never even think of coming back.’ I can laugh about it now but I was shocked then. Hardly inspiring to the potential teacher. Perhaps the best lesson I learned from that was to ensure that I remained as supportive and as positive as possible to any new teacher who crosses my path. I like to think that, mostly, I’ve succeeded.

At times I can understand the cynicism, perhaps even the realisation that this will never be an easy job. It is hard to remain optimistic in the face of cutbacks and a society which undervalues us. But if we believe that education is a fundamental right then we experienced teachers have a duty to ensure that the next generation are also served well. We should remember every day that, despite the knocks and the criticism, this is an important  job which affects everyone around us.

If you love your job then go into school tomorrow and tell someone. If you have training teachers then tell them what they are in for. If you don’t agree then keep it to yourself. These new teachers deserve the right to be optimistic. The world is lit by lightning when you’re teaching. Never let that feeling fade.