Thursday, November 30, 2006

A (failed) Guide to Indoctrination

I was part of a panel discussion at the VIT (Victorian Institute of Teaching) today. The topic was 'Critical Literacy: Pedagogy or Ideology. The other presenters were Assoc. Prof. Catherine Beavis (wow!), Assoc. Prof. Ray Misson (cool!), and Dr. Kevin Donnelly. It was a surreal experience sitting up the front with that crowd, to say the least.

Below is roughly what I had to say about the matter. I have tried to embed my powerpoint slides in this post, which were mostly visuals that were part of the narrative that I was trying to convey.

An Early Career Teacher’s Gaze:
A (failed) Guide to Indoctrination

When I am beginning to explore a new text with students, I ask them to share their initial responses- the lines that jump off the page at them, their favourite characters, the moments that surprise them, the questions that remain with them. But then, I often ask them to put on a pair of sunnies. Not literally, but metaphorically. I ask my students to ‘see’ the text through someone else’s eyes- other than their own.

This is because I want them to read consciously, rather than unconsciously. I want them to think about the way that they derive meaning from a text, and whether this process is the same for everyone, every time. I want them to read critically.

And so, for a short time, I would like to ask you to look through the eyes of an early career English teacher. (slide 2) So, put on your sunglasses! What colour are the frames? What shade are the lenses? Are they cool and funky or a fashion faux pas? Perhaps these sunglasses are familiar to you and slip on comfortably, or perhaps they’re like the pair that I unearthed from my glove box last week, clumped together with sticky mintie wrappers.

After donning this pair of metaphorical sunnies, I would like you to imagine how this ‘debate’ over critical literacy that is currently taking place in the media, political spheres and here, might engage an early career English teacher, for whom critical literacy is an important part of their pedagogy.

You may have been as surprised as I was myself when I realised that my pedagogy placed me firmly within the ‘loony fringe’- a term used by the editors of The Australian for those who do not share their view that anything other than the ‘universal’ Western canon should be taught in English classrooms. You may also be able to appreciate the somewhat disconcerting experience of learning that the ideas I was engaging students with were “serious ideology” (as opposed to frivolous ideology, I can only assume). You might have experienced the dismay that I did when I read that by encouraging my students to engage thoughtfully and critically with texts, I was apparently denying them the opportunity to experience the “simple joys of reading".

What’s a young English teacher to do? Should I blindly accept the observations of various conservative commentators and dismiss the value of my own education, pedagogy and aspirations for my students?

My year 10’s finished formal classes for the year a couple of weeks ago. I would like to share with you the voices of these students, through extracts from their contributions to our class discussion board. We use this space to continue the conversations that begin in the classroom, and I would like to use my student voices to extend the discussion that we are having today. Sometimes my students begin the conversations on the discussion board, and sometimes I do, but our final discussion topic for the year required us to think carefully about what we had learned through our exploration of various texts.

(slide 3)

‘Jane’, the philosopher, writes:

Nothing in life is black and white and nothing in literature or art either really. If we had learnt it just one way we wouldn’t have learnt as much and couldn’t teach our teachers.

One attack that has been levelled at critical literacy in recent times has been that it is responsible for ‘dumbing down’ our English curriculum.

Around the time that catch-phrases like these were being printed in newspapers, my students and colleagues and I were busily exploring Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. We had wide ranging discussions about friendship, loyalty, dreams and disappointments. My students laughed at the antics of Lennie as he sneakily hid his pet mouse from the grumpy George, responded in shock and sorrow at the terrible choice that George made and empathised with poor Candy for the loss of his beloved companion.

But we also delved deeper as we interacted with this text. We examined the power structures at play in the novella. How you can complete a thoughtful study of this text without examining notions of class, gender and ethnicity is beyond me, I’m afraid. (Slide 4) I used The Simpsons to get students to think critically about class distinctions and their impact on society and to develop a reading of the novella with these ideas in mind. We also looked at movie posters, like this one (slide 5), and debated whether this interpretation of Steinbeck’s work was consistent with or different from their own. We discussed the implications of images like these, the values that lie behind them, and how our 21st century eyes respond to the portrayal of Curley’s Wife.

As part of this exploration, students produced creative responses to Steinbeck’s work that brought to light riches in the text that they unearthed after much investigation and questioning. Some students gave Curley’s Wife a name, and delved into more of her history. Another re-visioned the red-feathered mules from a symbol of danger and desire into Curley’s Wife’s personal link to her lost dreams. Yet another brought to life a story from Crooks’ childhood, illuminating possible reasons for his bitterness.

As an early career teacher, I’m still developing my pedagogy. I’m constantly reflecting on my professional practice with colleagues, about what I’m doing well, what I need to improve, what I want for my students, what I think education is for and the role of English and literature in all of this. When I was exploring Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with my Year 11 Literature students earlier this year, I asked them to think about the text as being like a kaleidoscope (slide 6): what we see depends partly on who we are, where we are, and how we turn the wheel. I like to use the same metaphor when I think about my learning process as a teacher: my vision shifts as I learn and grow. But it is clear to me that the impact of critical literacy on my pedagogy opens up opportunities for my students, rather than diminishing them.

(slide 7)

‘Simon’, the lover of exclamation marks, has this to say:

Now I know that if I don’t look deeper and ask more questions, there is so much that I am missing out on! So many different views, that the writer was trying to show, that other people picked up, and that I might find for myself.

I can learn so much more this way, it has been fun!

It is interesting to compare Simon’s excitement with the argument that the use of critical theory in the classroom steals the joy of exploring literature from students, replacing with theories “that they find abstract, dry and empty of meaning".

I haven’t found this to be my experience.

And I’m sure it’s fairly obvious to us that good teachers use a range of strategies and approaches to foster a love of reading in their students. Teachers provide opportunities for students to respond both critically and creatively to texts, sometimes simultaneously.

(slide 8)

‘Cam’, the film buff, writes:

It’s made me look deeper into things- especially movies. Analysing art has helped as well. But maybe sometimes we shouldn’t criticise and grade everything all the time. The world we live in these days rates everything. A new movie comes out and we rate it out of five stars. Maybe we should just accept it for what it is and not put it on a scale to see how good or bad it is?

Cam’s contribution to the discussion board made me stop and think. The question mark at the end of his response leads me to believe that he is still thinking about this, too, and grappling with what it means to develop a response to a work of art, whatever the medium. I’m glad that he is thinking about this, and even more importantly, that he felt comfortable enough to think aloud about it.

For me, one of the premises that critical literacy builds on is that there is more than one way of seeing. There is no doubt that this can be a challenging notion, for students, for teachers and for others outside the profession.

An English classroom is filled with different ‘ways of seeing’. Students bring their own values, beliefs, experiences, reading practices and questions with them, and so do teachers. Surely, it is better for students to be aware of the factors that make up their worldview than remain blind to them.

The questions that Cam is asking of himself, his classmates, and me, his teacher, reminds me of the questions that we, as teachers, ask ourselves and each other all the time. When I look around at the extraordinary wealth and diversity of experiences, practices, philosophies and contexts that are collected in this room, it makes me incredibly nervous for a start, but it also brings to mind the very reason why we must continue to seek out opportunities like this to share, critique, question and affirm what we do.

Our ways of seeing, understanding, and articulating, our teaching and learning are complex, intricate, colourful and multi-layered. They can’t be conveyed in a sound-bite, or a clever catch-phrase. Perhaps this could be considered problematic, when people seem so eager to speak for us, or position us, rather than allow us to speak for ourselves. But this isn’t a good enough reason to stop asking questions and exploring possibilities. If anything, critical literacy teaches us the dangers of assuming that there is such a thing as one ‘accepted’ position.

(slide 9)

‘Sophie’, the advocate, writes:

By learning how to look at a situation from alternative views, it can also help us in society. When someone is being treated poorly, we can look at the world through their perspective. We can learn to stand in someone else’s shoes.

To be confidently literate in this world is not just about reading for comprehension or being able to follow established rules for spelling and grammar, even though these skills are important.

I want my students to be able to stand on their own two feet in this complex and intricate world, but I also want them to be able to slip on someone else’s shoes occasionally, or see through someone else’s sunnies. I will continue to look for ways to achieve this, and I will continue to pursue this in my own professional learning.


janet said...

This sounds excellent Nat. No wonder you were radiant at the Lit Conference. You're a luminary!

Jo McLeay said...

Nat, your post is so inspiring and the way you have featured student voices is so important. I'm very glad you had this chance to speak and put this point of view.