Through the Rabbit Hole to the Familiar – The ETA Conference 2015

Hello and Welcome Back

It had been a fair few years since I last attended an English Teachers’ Association Conference.  Most years in the recent past I have been enmeshed in the completion of the Extension 1 English marking operation.  This year was different, as the exam was earlier in the cycle and as a result, the operation finished before the conference. One day before, but still, before.

I submitted a proposal to present at the conference, partially because presenters don’t pay to attend for their day but mostly because I felt as though my idea – PBL Fridays – needed one last forum.  I’ve presented on Project Based Learning Fridays three times now – once at a TeachMeet, once at the ACEC Conference in Adelaide.  The audiences all three times were quite different.  I remember I talked more about football in the Adelaide version, this time I spoke more about preparing junior students for senior English. 

It was refreshing to see the theme of this year’s conference – Curiouser and Curiouser – because it struck me that with this theme, the ETA wanted to see more presentation content that focused on engagement of younger students into the art of writing and analysis.  That’s a good focus, especially as conferences such as these run the risk of becoming just “preparing your students for the HSC” festivals.  Taking a glance through the program saw that they had succeeded in that goal.

Arriving at the Uni of NSW, it did feel as though I was falling down a rabbit hole, but this time, it was to a Wonderland that was very familiar indeed. The site was the same, the people were a bit different – except for a number of a familiar and friendly faces that remembered me – and yet again, there were the eager booksellers, selling their textbook wares. That air of complete familiarity is comforting on a level, especially the welcoming hellos of the likes of Michael Murray and Susan Gazis – two legends of the game.

The Keynote

Going into the keynote, by Dr Mary Macken – Horarik, I sat down to do what I like to do at conferences – tweet up a storm. I do it for two main reasons – I want to have a record of what I hear at conferences, and the storify I do later achieves that goal (this is the Storify done of the conference by the ETA – my tweets feature heavily) – but also there’s a number of people who can never make it to conferences.  There’s a number of reasons why people can’t make it – their school can’t afford the cover; their school / the teacher can’t afford the conference fee; they live or work too far away.  They can, if they want, see what’s going on by catching up with my tweets.

Before the talk started, up came two things that never change at ETA Conferences. The internet was dodgy for those who relied on the uni guest internet (I’m doing a Masters at the uni, so I was ok, thankfully) and the call went out to “not take photos of the slides” unless the presenter was ok with it.  Both of those things for me sum up what frustrates me about the ETA Conference.  Connectivity should be one of the first priorities, so we can tweet, connect and the like.  The idea too that people’s powerpoint slides are somehow state secrets and should not be shared puts a distance between the presenters and the participants.  This is not the ETA’s fault, of course – it’s the fault of an education system that runs on the belief that teaching is a competition and that if people are using your ideas for their own team, then that’s bad.  It’s also predicated on events from many years ago, before the net, when people were actually stealing ideas from presenters and selling them as their own.  Those boundaries have melted due to the net.

Apart from anything else, it’s nearly impossible to stop people taking photos.

Needless to say, I was taking photos throughout the keynote and tweeting about it.  Normally at a conference, I would say that about 20 – 30 people minimum tweet heavily during a keynote – many more the occasional tweet.  At this keynote, there was 1 tweeting heavily, 1 moderately and 3 throwing in the occasional one.  That was it.  I was surrounded with a sea of people evenly split between writing down things on paper and typing their own notes.  That’s why this event was so familiar.  No interaction of ideas, no backchannel discussion, nothing.  Again, this isn’t the doing of the ETA – they sometimes try to whip up some discussion / conversation through their official account.  It’s the culture of English teaching at conferences that likes things the way they are.

The keynote was solid.  I have been to keynotes at ETA Conferences that have engaged with ideas and dreams – the Where We Are and Where Can We Go speech, or sometimes the Where Should We Go ideas talk.  This one was focused on research and its relationship with grammar. Ideas and dreams weren’t really a focus – this wasn’t a TED style talk, for which I was grateful.  It taught us a few very useful things about grammar and had us engaging with Alice in Wonderland in a way that can be applicable outside the room.  It wasn’t, however, just about Classroom Ideas either. It did advocate the usefulness of research as it applies to grammar teaching, which gave the keynote a relevance that was rare in my experience of conference keynotes.

The New HSC in English

Then there was the discussion by Louise Ward of BOSTES of the possibilities for the new HSC course in English.  There were many interesting ideas discussed, but there three that stood out to me.  I will discuss these in a later blog post.

The Presentations

There were two presentations I attended – a sparky, new ideas focused one given by the Odd Couple of Abbotsleigh, Melissa Kennedy and Megan Townes about Poetry and Coding, which was daring to suggest that English and Computing can be friends. It was more than that though, and gave an insight into how poetry can be taught in an age where students have drifted away from loving literature of literature’s sake and other hooks are needed.  It was also – as one would come to expect with Megan and Melissa – had interactive elements and invited teacher involvement in the sharing of ideas.  I always like those kinds of presentations, as I get very easily distracted at workshops and presentations.

The other presentation I attended was made by Lisa Edwards and Rebecca Duncan of Engadine High.  It advocated the need for high schools to build strong curriculum links with feeder primary schools, rather than just pastoral ones. They did this by foregrounding the excellent work being done by the ETA in reconciling the concepts in the new K – 10 National Curriculum with what we do as teachers.  That is why the idea of building curriculum links to primary schools is such a vital and important idea right now. 

If people didn’t attend mine, then hard luck.  You miss out.   As you cry from the genuine feeling of FOMO – here’s the presentation.

What you didn’t see was me discussing my ideas – and inviting the people in the room to contribute their ideas to a communal Google Doc. There were the usual problems with dodgy internet and people not being able to connect, but we got there and there’s some interesting ideas already.  What I am hoping, though, is that my presentation doesn’t just stay inside the room in which I presented.  My fervently expressed hope was that as people go on experimenting with Project Based Learning, they could ask questions and float ideas on that Doc, or to this doc, which discusses problems and goal setting – a PBL Online Support Group, as Michael Murray said in his very generous closing words for my presentation.  That’s exactly what I wanted, because I believe conferences shouldn’t just spark ideas and start people thinking about how to change their classroom practice and then forget everything as soon as they get to their cars.

My gift for presenting was the same as the ones I have received before – this notepad folio.  It’s a curious object from a past era that seems to me to symbolise where the ETA sits in its worldview.

The question I always walk away from these conferences is – how many actually turn to their notepads and computers after conferences?  The challenge I have for myself is – how often will I return to my Storify of the conference and do something with it?


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