Thursday, November 06, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Endings are strange beasts. There is a sense in which your years of work are condensed into one small, rosy snapshot and the reality is lost amidst the tearful hugs and warm thank yous.
A number of parents hugged me last night, asked if they could take photos of me with their children, expressed regret that I was leaving, asked me if I would be coming back, thanked me for the relationship that I had developed with their son, daughter or children. It's all lovely, and gratifying, albeit a little weird at times, but it can also make it difficult to extricate yourself from the fuzzy feelings that arouse the doubts- am I doing the right thing? Will I find a community like this again? Will I teach kids like these again?
My Year 12 Literature class surprised me with a bound collection of the stories that they had written as part of their study. They had taken great care to make it look authentic, from the dedication, the blurb, the publication details, the formatting... it was a literature teacher's nirvana.
The epigrah they had chosen was a quote from Cyril Connolly: 'while thought exists, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living'.
So, perhaps leaving behind a trace like that should make it easier, not harder, to take the next leap.
This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
-T.S. Eliot (Little Gidding, Four Quartets)
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
The head of senior school came into the English faculty staffroom today to announce that we had enough students for two full Year 12 Literature classes next year, and two classes at Year 11. I did a bit of a happy dance.
Each year, the numbers have continued to grow steadily from five years ago, when there was one combined class of 11 and 12 Literature, consisting of about 12 students- total. One could argue that the recent changes to 'Englishes' from VCAA which allow students to study either Lit or English at Year 12 level, rather than having to do both could be the reason for the growth since students could find it easier to 'fit' Lit into their timetables... except for the fact that most students who are electing to do Literature are also choosing to do English as well. So, I'm going to choose to believe that the development of the curriculum of our Year 10 Literature course and Year 11 Lit course in recent years has been a big part of it, and I'm feeling pretty good about that. The students feel encouraged to engage with literary texts in all kinds of ways and are developing so much more confidence in their own readings.
I think that another factor is that the teaching of the subject has also become far more open in recent years, on a collegiate level. It's not hoarded by one person as the 'secret' highbrow literature subject anymore. I'm working in a team with my favourite colleagues- our knowledge is shared and teachers have the chance to 'follow their kids through' into year 12 if they wish to. I think that the students are really aware of the fact that we work together so closely too, and our collective passion for the subject comes through to the students.
All of this popularity is wonderful, and particularly the fact that students seem to be heeding our message that they should choose subjects that they love and not make choices according to which subjects get scaled up the most is great, but becoming so popular so quickly has its challenges. Teaching in an environment in which numbers are- if not quite everything- then pretty damn important, has sent a cold chill down my spine once or twice this year as the range and variety of students that we get wanting to study literature these days continues to widen. It takes guts to stick to your guns and not get caught up in the numbers game and the fear campaign which whispers in your ear to contain those classes to the cream of the crop, rather than open up the doors. But it's worth the stress, in so many ways.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Don't get me wrong, most of the reflection into my teaching over the past five years has occurred through email conversations, but this isn't happening as much these days, and I don't think that the reason for this is that there is no longer a need for it. Blogging serves its purpose, but this is different again from how I write, and how openly I can write, when I am communicating directly with an audience that I trust. But I'm getting sidetracked...
What I am trying to say is that not even email is the same as face-to-face conversation. It just doesn't fill the same need, partly because it's not in 'real-time'. When I'm writing, the energy is in my fingertips, and it doesn't fill the whole room.
But it's more than this... it's not just 'face-to-face' conversation that matters, it's conversation with people who share similar philosophies. I get passionately involved in conversations during meetings at school, but that's partly because these meetings often feel like battlegrounds.
Really, it's about discourse. When I first started meeting with this group I often found myself struggling with the discourse- it was part of the everyday conversations of other people in the group but not of mine. Now, I miss it. I miss using the language that allows me to talk about education and writing in a richer, more nuanced way than I could otherwise. I miss having regular opportunities to speak with, and even more, to listen, to this language around a common table.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Monday, June 16, 2008
'Don't worry, you will soon, I'm sure'
'I'm not that fussed, not really'
'It will be nice to know though, won't it?'
My colleagues and I make jokes about me disengaging. 'It's started already!' they announce, 'nb has left the building!' 'Yep,' I reply, stretching arms overhead, 'whack it on the pile over there. I'll get to it eventually. So, exactly how many year 12 classes will you be teaching next year, P? Up to four yet?'
We're only joking. As if anyone worth their salt can ever disengage.
I am going to spend most of my time over the break thinking about and planning for the future. I have big plans for next year, but lots of research still to do.
I thought I was going to write about this some more, but I'm too tired.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
I have spent some time over the past few weeks contributing to a multi-voice review of 'The Literacy Wars' by Ilana Snyder, so the contemporary landscape of literacy education is on my mind, particularly the furores that have roared around critical literacy over the past few years.
My Literature class has just finished their latest assessment task, in which they write an analysis of a critical review of a set text, unearthing the assumptions and comparing it to their own interpretation. It's quite a challenging task, requiring close reading of both the set text and the review/critical essay, as well as confidence in their own reading. The text they studied was Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I have already drooled over in this blog, and the review that I found could be roughly described as a post-colonial reading of the text, a fabulously controversial essay by Jane Marcus-Delgado.
It worked so well, because the majority of my students absolutely hated her reading. They hated what they saw as her selective use of textual evidence, railed against the lens that she had 'subjected' Bel Canto to, and were quite indignant about what they viewed as her complete disregard for the author's intention. It was certainly a polarising interpretation and it really enabled the students to consider a perspective on the text that was drastically different from where they were coming from.
Bel Canto is a beautifully written text about, well... beauty. In all its forms. For my students, reading a review about a text they loved which had turned that beauty into something quite monstrous- well, at first it was like something had been stolen from them. Their initial reactions reminded me of how I felt after I read 'Wide Sargasso Sea' for the first time. It was as if Jean Rhys had stolen Jane Eyre. It is these sudden realisations, these alternative ways of seeing, that the traditionalists/canon preserversationists would rather we didn't have. And yes, they can be painful revelations. About the comforting, familiar stories that we love, about ourselves. It also brings to mind a student's voice in Deborah Appleman's wonderful book, 'Critical Encounters in High School English' (NCTE, 2000) after using deconstruction in the classroom: 'Why did you teach us this? I'm so sorry I know about this. How could you have told us about this? What are you trying to do- destroy us? How am I supposed to live with this knowledge?' (pp. 112-113).
Theory is uncomfortable. Theory can make us feel uncomfortable, because it makes us ask questions. It exposes wounds, belief systems, values, silences. It unsettles my students. It makes us talk about 'uncomfortable' topics in the classroom- race, gender, power, versions of history, identity, knowledge, truths... as my students and I discussed Delgado, we realised in the middle of our conversation that we were doing the very thing that she accuses Patchett of (and what Delgado is also guilty of)- privileging certain kinds of beauty and knowledge over others. 'But that's not the point of using opera in the book,' we tried to reassure ourselves. 'She's not using it as an example of high culture, she's using it to suggest that in opera, language doesn't matter... ' After horrifying my students with Delgado's failure to be seduced by the beauty of music, the interesting thing was what this did to their own readings. How fiercely they wrote, how determinedly they flipped through pages to prove her wrong. They found a new level of confidence. Was this a result of our blind determination to cling to a text that we identified with? Or was it simply our frustration with the way Delgado's reading reduced the text to a binary opposition? I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that the uncomfortable, challenging conversations produced some of the best, and most thoughtful, writing that I have seen all year.
I understand why some conservatives are so frightened by the prospect of young people engaging with critical theory. Get rid of theory, and nostalgia- a single, pleasant, banal truth -rules.
Critical theory has been invariably linked to some of the most uncomfortable, and rewarding, moments in my classroom over the past five years. It has shaken preconceptions, opened up possibilities, challenged both my students and myself. I can't imagine teaching and learning without it.
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
(Old codger doesn't get his way)
Sit down, nb (Old codger says, leaping from his own chair with sprightly 60 year old legs)
Thank you, no, I'm happy to stand.
Isn't a man allowed to be chivalrous these days?
Chivalry isn't dead, I just want to stand on my own two feet.
So, what are we doing in tutor group next week?
Friday after, 8:45 am
(Old codger attempts to 'educate' me, by hopping onto my 'feminist wavelength')
The sixties, now there was an era. The sixties and seventies, there haven't been decades like 'em since. If I was gonna design my own history course, THAT'S what I'd teach. The Kennedys, the assassinations, the revolutions... not any more. Social change... social change... no more. This decade is all about technology...
Technological revolution without social change? ("ooohh" someone chuckles, "here we go...") What, no global village? What about...
Nah... huge changes were laid back then.. changes for you. Don't you know what you have now, because of then? It all started with the second world war... women were able to prove themselves in the second world war. Before then, they had to stay in the kitchen, but during the war, they proved that they could do the jobs of men. The country girls all went into the city to be tram conductors, the city girls came to the country to work in the fields...
Actually, I think they proved themselves long before then. It's just that no one was...
It made all the difference. I saw it, saw it with my own eyes. I saw my mother stand up to my father, boy, when he didn't toe the line, he was sent to sleep on the couch! Yes, everything you have now, it was all because of the second world war. I'm not kidding, that's the way it was.
And yet, we still have such a long way to go... (more chuckles from the table. People stand, the meeting should have been over five minutes ago, I start walking out....)
(loudly) That's why you can do anything you want now. You should have respect for that!
(I keep walking)
Oh, I got away with that one, did I?!
(over shoulder) No, you didn't.
Friday next? I can't wait.
An imagined Friday morning, on the other side of the world...
Democrat elder: Hillary, it's time to read the writing on the wall. You're not going to win the nomination. Now is the time to bow out gracefully. If you keep this up, you will be responsible for tearing the party apart. Yes, I know, I know, you're following the democratic process... but you've made it this far, further than any woman before you, isn't that enough?
Don't bow out gracefully, Hillary.
(with thanks to Catherine Deveny)
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I rarely get sick enough for it to affect my day-to-day life, but losing my voice for over two weeks was the most frustrating experience. It was particularly frustrating because there was absolutely nothing that I could do to fix it. I got so sick of trying to talk that by the end of each school day I simply wasn't interested in having a conversation with anyone, everything centred on trying to preserve as much of my voice as possible for the next day, and that wasn't much fun, for me or my house mates! It's so nice to have it back, and this week even my upper register returned so I am able to sing again without my voice cracking.
I am feeling really good about the way that the new 'context' part of the Year 12 English course, 'The Imaginative Landscape' is panning out. It's been tough (as it always is this part of the year) trying to keep my kids from going off the deep end due to their huge sac load and upcoming Unit 3 exams, but they are producing some wonderful writing, even if some of them aren't quite prepared to admit it yet. I think that this new part of the course is far more rich and complex than 'writing for different purposes and audiences' has become over the past few years (at least when you compare what we have been doing at our school over the last few years, to what we are positioning the students to achieve this year). They are thinking deeply about some really interesting concepts, and this isn't just improving the depth of their writing, but is also allowing them to explore texts and make connections between their 'literary landscape' and 'societal landscape' in some really lovely ways. It's bringing the notion of 'the writer in their world' to life for them. It's been so nice to be able to talk to my students about their writing, and the concepts that they are making their own, and feel my mind stretch.
My Lit class is really breaking ground at the moment, too. In a class populated by musos, the beautiful Bel Canto is really working for them. Many of them are starting to capture the musical lyricism of the novel in their own writing on the text, and that is so, so gratifying. The pressure of teaching Year 12 Lit in a school with so many kids who just love it and want to be part of the class but where the pressure to achieve 'results' is never allowed to be forgotten has weighed on me more heavily than I was expecting at certain times this year. It has kept me awake at night on a number of occasions, when I should have been revelling in the conversations, the passion, the fact that I have this group of kids who look forward to being in the same room as me to talk intensely about Sophocles, or laugh about the muffin scene in Wilde, or sigh over the language of Patchett.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Monday, May 12, 2008
Friday, May 09, 2008
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
I came across one such article today that I found particularly amusing... and bewildering. Good ol' Slattery took a young teacher to task for her teaching of the American classic 'Of Mice and Men'. I felt terrible for Mr. Slattery as I was reading the article- he has obviously been given a very, very hard time by all those scary English teachers. He must be feeling extremely wounded and insecure to bother to selectively quote an unnamed early career teacher in order to make his argument. He writes:
As one of the contributors to Advocacy Matters concedes, her "deep" interaction with Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men invariably involved an examination of the "power structures at play in the novella". She goes on: "How you can complete a thoughtful study of this text without examining notions of class, gender and ethnicity is beyond me."
Unlike some critics of the new literacy, I wouldn't want to deny students an engagement with these notions; but I don't believe we should build an approach to literacy around an ideology of textual resistance that easily descends to cliche and is, moreover, unresponsive to any kind of hermeneutics not fed by these socio-political energies. It is not, simply put, a pluralistic environment.
Now, I happen to know this teacher very, very well, and she was deeply concerned to read that her teaching was, by implication (hope it's ok if I quote selectively, Mr. Slattery), 'cliche'-ridden, apparently not very "deep" at all, and completely engulfed by 'socio-political energies' (she never pictured herself as a 'new age' teacher-type, into 'energies' and so forth).
But, then she realised that poor Mr. Slattery mustn't have had time to read her article 'deeply', for he would never have come to the conclusion that her classroom was not a pluralistic environment otherwise. He must be very, very busy. After all, the original text was as follows:
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.
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, 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.
Yep. That sounds like a pluralistic environment to me.
Starting the ICT Arvos has allowed me to experience the dialogic possibilities of relationship-based professional learning through a project that I have 'gotten up' under my own steam. I am finding that this is even more gratifying than being part of the discussions that I love with people who have a deeper understanding of dialogism and community-based professional learning than I do. I came to the ICT Arvos with the knowledge and understanding of professional learning that I have gained from people like GP, SB and the Advocacy Group, and slowly, slowly, I can see it 'playing out' in a professional culture and environment that is far removed from where those conversations initially took place. Very, very cool.
Anyway, I was very nervous when I first started these sessions- certainly more nervous than I have ever been running the odd professional learning session for teachers outside my own school. It's a tough thing, at least it was for me, taking charge of a professional learning activity for my older, more experienced colleagues. But I am much more relaxed about the whole thing now, and it is quite amazing how quickly new directions, conversations and possibilities are appearing all the time.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Grief is a funny thing. It lingers, simmering, and then spasms at odd times, like when P's son had his car accident last year and it was announced during the morning briefing. He was ok but the bitter taste, the clouds over the eyes and the knee tremors were suddenly back again, and the world suddenly felt very small again. And suddenly you remember how tears would stream quietly down your face every day for months while you were driving to school, and how you couldn't listen to music because it sounded like chainsaws.
Anyway, I should be studying.
Saturday, February 02, 2008
The year 12's came back with pages of holiday homework (which I have spent today reading) and new resolutions, which should last them for a couple of weeks at least! As always, I felt very nervous and strange the day before I was teaching (this always happens to me at the start of the year) but of course once I was actually in the classroom everything was fine again. My year 10's and I did some thinking/talking/writing while analysing some reality tv clips that I had grabbed from youtube- from Big Brother to the 'Corey phenomenon' which is currently sweeping the entire country. It was a really positive first meeting, especially since I haven't taught any of this year level before. They come into Year 10 and have to 'integrate' back into the senior school after learning within a very different culture and environment at our Year 9 centre. This is my resolution for my teaching with my two year 10 classes this year- I want to be really conscious of drawing on their experiences and knowledge from year 9 as much as possible. It's so easy for it all to get lost amidst the pressures, procedures and levels of organisation that confront them as soon as they step into our senior school.
It was lovely to chat to my Lit kids again, and that's basically what we did for most of the first lesson. I had planned to begin by going around the room briefly and asking them to make a couple of comments about their summer reading, but of course what should have taken 10-15 minutes blew out into a conversation that trickled along through most of the lesson, and the close reading activity that I had planned to get their brains back into 'Lit mode' was clearly not the right choice for the remainder of the lesson. So, we talked while I collected the writing that I had asked them to do over the break. They are in love with Ann Patchett's novel 'Bel Canto' already, which I knew they would be because I am too, and it is clear that Antigone is also going to be a favourite. We'll get stuck into 'The Importance of Being Earnest' next week (they are obsessed with the muffin scene, and we haven't even started yet. It's going to become a running joke, I know it).
Ok, well, that's 461 words. Too easy.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Luckily, I have another day of planning tomorrow before the students return (I really need it). My Year 10's are starting off with 'The Truman Show' which I haven't taught before, and which I am very keen to approach 'differently' if I can. I am tossing around using the film to look at how writers/creators shape human experience into a narrative- how even the stories that we tell our friends are constructed around familiar notions of narrative. I am thinking about trying to get a lot of raw material together, and then getting students to work on editing the material into a tight little narrative. I am keen to use the webcams that we brought last year, too. Just haven't quite figured out the 'how' yet. Any ideas?
Monday, January 28, 2008
Here is some text that didn't make it (obvious when you read it):
The writing that I am supposedly ‘responsible’ for appears to begin here, but that isn’t really the case. It germinated in informal emails; individual, reflective blogposts; and face-to-face conversations- with both my co-writers… and others. During one of these face-to-face meetings with my co-writers, I was charged with the responsibility of beginning the text that would eventually form this paper. I will admit to feeling over-awed by the task. During the meeting I found myself trying to clamber for a little stretch of comfortable ground- which to me was the ground inhabited by my co-writers, two brilliant researchers whom I wholly respect and wanted to please. As the conversation meandered along, seeking out glimmering possibilities for the paper, I confess that on the tip of my tongue was the plea, ‘just tell me what you want me to write!’
Here I was, little NB, early career teacher, endeavouring to keep up with an Associate Professor and a Senior Lecturer. Often, the tensions in collaborative writing of this nature remain hidden, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
Already, now that I have delivered some text and received some encouraging feedback, I am feeling much more comfortable- excited, actually- about it. It's such a strange process, collaborative writing, even stranger than the process of writing on your own. A direction will germinate in a conversation, and then someone, in this instance myself, will head back to their study and crank out some text, which may bear some resemblance to the initial direction but not much. And then that text, paragraphs that are born of spoken words/shared words/old words/new words/others' words will disappear into someone else's brain for a while and will change, grow and emerge again. And in the meantime there has been more thinking/writing/talking/listening which will colour this new collection of words momentarily, before the process begins again with another writer in their study. The result, at the end, (at least for me), is that you think and write differently than you did before you started. And maybe some readers- who haven't been privy to the head-scratching agony of the writing- will too.
And that's how words enable change.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Darkness falls, the electric lights on distant fishing boats are piercing. A string of electric stars on the horizon. Walking home, grasshoppers sing and geckoes scuttle past our luminous toes....