Monday, June 30, 2008

The discourse(s) of conversation

I have been pondering the value of conversation lately. A collaborative group that I am involved in is currently reflecting on its future, and how it can operate productively. I won't mention the name of it here. There is no doubt at all that our efforts are worthwhile, but we are all very busy people, and we are too few, and there is just not enough time in each day. Late last year, we decided to do away with regular meetings, and instead communicate via email, until a clear purpose for a meeting arose. The work is still happening, in different ways, but it is the face-to-face conversations that I miss.
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


This is a 'wordle' of an old blogpost. I want to use this tool when I teach poetry next term

Monday, June 16, 2008


Next term is all about poetry (+words+music+images+sound+light+silence)


'Have you heard yet?'
'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.

end of term melancholy

I am staring down the last week of the term. Most of my students have already gone on work experience, etc, and just my year 12's remain. Exams are marked, reports are done, I just have to type up feedback on one more pile of assessment pieces and then I'm done too.

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

Disquieting 'truths'

I should be marking more Year 10 English exams, but what the hey.

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

Friday morning 'team' meetings

Friday, 8:30 am
(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)