By Dr Narelle Lemon
My doctoral thesis was a huge learning curve, personally and professionally – perhaps one that could even be said to have had quite a number of pot holes, cliff hanging moments and resistance (and of course there were great moments of celebration and reward). But its origin and the why remained consistent. I wanted to make a contribution to the voice that young people and children have, to empower them and offer opportunities for them to share their experiences of learning and teaching. I did this through encouraging them to be digital photographers of their learning and teaching experiences. Throughout an entire school year, the young children I worked with in a year one classroom captured their learning through visual narratives: their own digital images with their reflection and voice of the stories they wanted to share. What was important to them highlighted even further that young children, and in my doctoral study these were 5 and 6 year olds, are capable photographers and amazing sharers of their meaning making when trusted, empowered and listened too.
So to go back a few steps and frame where I had come from. I am an educator, trained teacher in music education. My teaching experiences allowed me to move between teaching high school students and in primary schools as well, and now I work in teacher education in the university context. My original thesis topic was to be on music performance and how students interpret their experiences. It emerged in the work I was doing at the time in a kindergarten to year 12 school and largely influenced by the changes I was noticing through teaching 3 year olds and then a class of 16 year olds on the same day.
My Masters had been in the area of music performance anxiety and I was noticing a few overlaps. In meeting with a potential supervisor, who had been one of my influential undergraduate lecturers, we soon unpacked that I was perhaps destined to research in another area. She gave me the best advice so early on in the journey, ‘Narelle, I think you are thinking too narrowly. Where do you really want to be in 5 years time? Will you really be teaching just music in a school? What do you actually really want to research?‘ Now this may sound a little harsh but in reality out conversation was nurturing and one where my tendency to go off in tangents and become excited about all things reflection, learning and teaching was dominating my enthusiasm, not my thesis proposal. So after a great heart to heart, and advice to go and chat with some of her colleagues, I met an inspiring researcher who would become my first supervisor. She introduced me to the world of image based research. What really excited me was listening to learners’ worlds, and understanding and appreciating their meaning making this way. Matching this to participatory teacher-research and photography was quite a momentous ‘ah ha’ moment. The turning of my eventual thesis topic.
At the time of wanting to study further and taking on the doctoral thesis journey, I had moved from teaching music into the generalist primary classroom. The passage of learning and teaching is one that has no ending. For me, my music teachers had characteristics about them that as a student I found enchanting. The teachers who impacted me significantly were engaging, enthusiastic, and they got to know me. They became my role models and have profoundly shaped the way I teach. In undertaking my doctoral research I wanted this to shine through as well. It was important for me to make a contribution to the field but also the children I was working with. I like to be creative and I like to challenge myself. My learning is ongoing and one that is very much open to learning from the children I work with. It is this way of thinking that has allowed me to have a career where I have taught music across the spectrum from early childhood to those in tertiary institutions. Opportunities have come along for me to challenge my notions of learning and teaching including being given the opportunity to teach in the year one classroom where my doctoral thesis study was set. This was a huge honour and a beautiful gift that also led me into looking at children’s narratives. The classroom, researched as part of my doctoral study allowed me to shift how I saw myself. It was the classroom where I moved from being a teacher to a teacher-researcher.
So in thinking about the thesis, the challenge was set for me, unexpectedly by a colleague, when she remarked in the months preceding my teaching the year one class of my doctoral study. Good luck with these kids, you’ll have fun with some of them. It’s a mixed bag of students who have a lot of special needs especially x, he’s a handful. There’ll be days when you can’t do anything with him and you’ll just have to sit him in the corner. I was horrified. What sort of teaching was this? And what on earth did this colleague think I was going to do? There was no way I would ever let that happen but there was certainly definitely no way it would happen after a comment like that. As a teacher I believed it was my role to inspire every student to experience success and to achieve their potential.
My idea to use a digital camera in the classroom emerged as a tool to encourage students to be out of their seats, to move around the learning environment, to be creative and to reflect about their learning and teaching experiences. I was excited and couldn’t wait to see what would happen. And the learning that occurred together was one of the most empowering experiences of my career. Through the digital camera I was invited into the world of each of my students; a world where each individual shared a part of their heart and allowed me to learn so much from them. It was a beautiful gift, one that I will treasure forever, that allowed me to see life and learning in such a different way. It was with these realizations, and enthusiasm for what could be possible, that the thesis topic was chosen.
As a teacher-researcher I was fascinated by the concept of being able to change from what is often called a specialist teacher to generalist classroom teacher, and thus my reflective practice was running at full speed. While I was reading literature about digital technologies in learning, curriculum and assessment, I was also addressing my inquiry into pedagogy. I was also led towards reading further about reflective practice – what I was doing, what I was looking at and how I was developing my own understanding and knowledge of the thesis. So alongside the thesis learning curve, learning to be a writer and researcher, I learnt an incredible amount from the young children who allowed me to actually be their co-researcher during their growth as communicators of their lived experiences of learning and teaching.
Dr Narelle Lemon works at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia where she lecturers in Arts Education and the interdisciplinary field of Teacher Education. She completed her doctoral thesis at the end of 2010 and is now writing in the areas of Arts education, image based research, community of practice, and social networking. She tweets as @Rellypops and blogs at Chat With Rellypops