Thursday, August 02, 2007

AATE Conference Reflection

Below is some text from an address that I gave at school, reporting back on my experiences at the AATE Conference in Canberra. I didn't want to do the usual blow-by-blow 'this is what happened' kind of presentation, so instead I chose to focus on what the experience meant. I don't get the impression that it went down so well- lots of glazed eyes- or perhaps Thursday afternoon isn't the right time for this kind of presentation. Sometimes, I feel like I am teaching within two different 'spaces'- my immediate school 'life' and a space where bigger ideas and more intensive reflection are valued. I get incredibly frustrated when they can feel so disparate, but I find it really difficult to have the kinds of discussions and participate in the kinds of discourses in my immediate school context that I enjoy and value so much in other spaces. I am feeling really disheartened about this at the moment, and don't quite know what to do about it. But, perhaps there is a chance that these ideas/word will get a better reception here.

'You don’t attend a National Conference to collect practical, ‘ready-to-use’, perfect for Monday morning, lesson resources. Or if you do, I think that you’re likely to come away disappointed, because that’s not what this kind of experience is about. I think that it’s too easy for us as teachers to subscribe to these kinds of discourses, too, this idea that teaching is just a matter of reaching for a photocopyable resource and dishing it out, or finding the next fail-safe great idea. In English classrooms, and probably other classrooms as well, we encourage our students to be wary of limited discourses that frame young people in restrictive ways- the ‘angst-filled teenager’, the ‘vacuous surfer dude’, the ‘black-obsessed emo’- these are images that kids see in advertising and popular culture all the time, and they can make the mistake of thinking that that is who they are.

What we perhaps don’t spend enough time thinking about is the way that teachers can be positioned in equally limiting ways- the ‘classroom practitioner’ who isn’t supposed to open a window to look beyond the four walls of the classroom, the ‘early career teacher’ whose only challenge in their first year of teaching is to ‘survive’, the student teacher, who as soon as they walk into a school is told that everything they learnt at uni is a ‘bunch of claptrap’ and that they should wait ‘until they get into a real classroom, that’s when they’ll actually learn something’. We’ve all been guilty of participating in these kinds of discourses, perhaps we even believe in them, but to me it seems to stem from a fairly entrenched culture in Education that defines the ‘purely practical’ as valuable and the ‘airy-fairy theoretical’ as a harmless indulgence at best.

This is a pretty dangerous binary, I think, principally because it devalues us, as professionals, and really limits the scope of the work that we do, and the way that we think about what we do, and the kinds of professional learning that we value. Just as damaging is the way that this kind of culture allows politicians to position teachers as mere technicians- John Howard’s and Julie Bishop’s attacks on English and History teachers in particular in the media recently have suggested that they would much rather that we simply ‘deliver’ a benign, centrally-prescribed curriculum rather than actually have us think about what we are teaching kids. Their fear seems to be that the lot of us will turn into card-carrying Marxist ideologues.

One of the most powerful moments of the Conference came during a writing workshop centred around the prospect of a National Curriculum. The idea was to be proactive, to start thinking and articulating what we believe is essential for our students to know and be able to do, before someone else tries to do that for us. We had been working on this task quite intensely in small groups, there was lots of rich, divergent discussion, and it was only at the very end that we realised that amongst our group we had every state represented. This was what characterized the conference for me- the notion that opening up spaces for dialogue, for conversation, is fundamentally important in the work that we do as teachers.

And so, this is what attending the National English teacher’s conference meant to me- not an opportunity to be a hell-raising Marxist ideologue, but a chance to engage with the minds of some great thinkers, to engage in some critical thinking about not only the work that I am doing in my classroom, but what it means to teach and learn in a democracy.'


SoulCradler said...

Hey nb,
Well put. It strikes me as ironic that so many educators are resistant towards any kind of intellectualism, yet I also see from your discussion how it is a much reinforced and safe stance.
We need more of this kind of reflection. Wish I'd been at your Thursday afternoon session!

Scott said...

thanks for this NB. you're ok in my book. let's have coffee soon.