Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Right of reply (100 words- 10)

Ilana Snyder's new book 'The Literacy Wars' has managed to get some 'commentators' at The Australian all uptight. I can see the hand gesticulations and furrowed brows from here. Poor things.

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.

ICT Arvo (100 words- 9)

We had our first 'ICT Arvo' after school today (semi-regular professional learning sessions that I run for teachers at my school who want to talk about/learn about/experiment with the use of ICTs in their classrooms). I have been doing this for three terms now and have developed a group of 'regulars' as well as individuals who feel comfortable enough to pop in, depending on what else they have on. This year, I am planning to take it to the 'next level' by beginning an 'ICT Action Group' whose priority will be to think critically about our use of technology in the classroom on a whole school level and be able to make recommendations to the school exec by giving the 'teacher's perspective' which often seems to go unnoticed, even though we are the ones working with the students. Sound familiar? I'm really excited about this, and I am imagining/hoping that it will run in a similar way to VATE's Advocacy Group, with a similar philosophy and goal (except it will be about ICTs and their relationship to pedagogy). I really like the fact that the group has 'emerged' if you will, rather organically, from a suggestion made during an ICT Arvo late last year. It also suggests to me (I'm hoping that I am right here) that the ICT Arvos are beginning to fill a more expansive/flexible role than technical know-how, by prompting debate, allowing discussions to occur across faculties, the beginnings of critical reflection, and all those other good things that can be achieved when teachers meet regularly with the common goal of professional learning.

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

Spasm (100 words- 8)

At the beginning of each school year I remember the beginning of another school year, when I met M and we talked about literature and English teaching for the first time, with an intensity that I haven't experienced since then. He is the person that I want to talk to about Wilde, Sophocles, Astley and the others now, to clarify my understandings and crystalise my readings.

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

Back to school (100 words- 4, 5, 6, 7)

Ok. Well. Hmm. Of course. The kids come back to school and my blogging resolution falls in a heap. Typical. My students came back on Thursday, and so I've only had two days of teaching, and in those two days I've only actually taught two of my four classes. It's been one assembly/swimming carnival sign-up/tutor group after another. No time for academic classes. Good fun though. Week one down. Only seven weeks to go. This is going to be a crazy term!
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.