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.

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