Saturday, July 04, 2015

A fraudulent teacher attempts to analyse a Bruce Dawe poem

Tip: when analysing a poem, read the entire poem first.

Here I am, armed with sticky notes, reading Bruce Dawe's Sometimes Gladness on the middle Saturday of my winter two week break. This anthology is part of the Identity and Belonging Context which we are teaching in Year 11 English this year. I've never really studied Bruce Dawe, apart from three poems that I recall - Enter Without So Much As Knocking, The Not-so-good Earth and Life Cycle - back in the mid-seventies, perhaps in form 5.

The best thing to do, I tell myself, is start, not with the internet, but with the actual text. So I did. Read Dawe's introduction to the sixth edition of the anthology. Found something in common with Dawe. "...we write out of a need to come to terms with some concern, something 'bugging' us - the popular American expression fits well here for that inward feeling which we need to get out there, where we can come to terms with it, where it can be seen to have a shape, a character." (xvii) And there, I suppose, all similarity between me and Mr Dawe ends.

I've never taught English literature so am unsure of the methodology of teaching poetry to VCE students. (Which is ridiculous, given how many years I've been teaching English, BTW.) So I decided to approach Dawe in the way I'd approach teaching using language to persuade. That is, what is the writer's main contention? What is the writer saying? How is he saying it? Then, basically, let's look for 'interesting' language and consider how it prompts us to take a particular point of view. Fair enough.

But the point of this post, that 'inward feeling which [I] need to get out there where [I] can come to terms with it', is how I went up my own backside trying to analyse a poem. Somehow, my close analysis meant I became stuck in the trees, taking quite a while to see the wood. The poem I was reading was The Flashing of Badges. Between the title, and the term 'dead-beat' in the first line, I got lost.

On my pink sticky-note I've written: dead-beat, very negative; flashing of badges - establishing of credentials. Sounds like a know-all.

Furthermore, I've noted: the dead-beat always has a stake in everything, pretends to be on the same side; religious? so's he/she?? Student/academic? - dead-beat says he has some literacy in his background, trying to impress.

By the second stanza I've realised the dead-beat is collecting money. That was a light-globe moment.

My notes continue: And 'you' want to donate but he won't stop talking. Is he a beggar? I've asked myself.

Whoah. The penny drops.

By the time I'd arrived at some sort of understanding of the poem, I actually thought it was really amazing; a very compassionate portrait of someone clinging to the last scraps of what it is to be human. But my misinterpretation of the term 'dead-beat' led me a merry dance.

I read the poem aloud to Al, my old man. Asked him what he thought. It's about a street beggar, he immediately responded. I'll put it down to me having read it aloud to him, with appropriate inflection bringing it to life, rather than accepting that I'm actually quite slow.

Can't find a transcript on line, so rather than heading out into the bleak Melbourne winter, I'll transcribe it here for your reading pleasure. (Trust I'm not transgressing copyright. If so, please let me know.)

The Flashing of Badges by Bruce Dawe

The first thing the dead-beat does
Is flash his badge...
                               If you're in uniform,
I'm an old digger myself, he says. If coming from Mass,
He's Catholic of course and loyal as hell,
While if you're wearing corduroys, carrying books,
He'll grimace towards learning's obscure god,
And - like a child opening its hand revealing
A pet frog for your wonderment - disclose
Literacy squatting somewhere in his family.

Which makes you wish to God he'd only stop
Long enough for you to acknowledge freely
(Via your pocket) the world's rank injustice,
Yet if by such magnanimous means you should
Cut him off halfway through some bleary anecdote,
You do him double harm, since what sustains him
In that Tierra del Fuego which distinguishes
Dignity's southern limits is the faith
That somewhere still, in a sheltered corner of the bleak
Island, in the lee of the storm, it's possible
For a frail personal herb of deception
To take root and survive where awareness shrieks
Nothing but wintry truths from year to year
And value, the essential topsoil, sluices
Seaward with every small indifferent stream.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Content or skills?

Should we teach content or skills?

My first impulse is to opt for skills. Teach the same skills to the students at a particular level. We must do this to make sure they can proceed to the next level and be on track with course requirements and their learning.

Part of the mantra at our school is 'Guaranteed Viable Curriculum'. I agree. We should aim to guarantee the learning. But I disagree with its interpretation at ours. And I suppose at many secondary schools. (It was on my list of reasons to leave the last private school at which I taught.) Guaranteed Viable Curriculum has been interpreted, in my words, as everyone lift your left bum cheek and fart at the same time. Crude and basic, I know, but not an inappropriate analogy.

It's about 'auditing' the curriculum - like accountants, no less - on a 'Scope and Sequence' grid. Thanks for that one assessment authorities. I can't even bear to hear certain people say it aloud with its Gollum-like sibilance.

Auditing is about filling in boxes on the Scope and Sequence grid, treating each AusVels outcome as a discrete entity then signing off, assuring 'prin class' that all elements of AusVels are accounted for.

Thus, every teacher at every level provides the same teaching materials in the same weeks as every other teacher, preferably on the same days. Thus, we are organised. And I've just remembered a few lines from Blake. He used the word 'charter'd' and was talking about something else, I suppose. But here it is, powered by Safari:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Certainly fits my mood in regard to our Guaranteed Viable Curriculum. 

Look, I totally get it. I'd say most teachers prefer this method of curriculum design. There's safety in numbers. And sharing; collegiality. Nothing wrong with that. It also works for those who like to be given a sheaf of materials - digital or otherwise - to deliver to their students - especially if they haven't read the book. (I kid you not.) Working on a 'team' designing such curriculum materials is mandated at our school. Means another hour meeting every week, of course. In an ideal situation, with abundant time that wouldn't be bad. Seems to me, though, that the only way to accommodate all these meetings is to continue working on one's own time. Which most of us do.

And therein lies the rub. The GVC is designed, amongst other reasons, to foil those teachers who err on the slack side in class. If they can be forced to attend meetings, forced to write each teaching unit according to a specific framework, forced to write their Learning Objectives on the whiteboard, forced to deliver uniform teaching materials to their students and forced to assess their students on a common rubric, then they will be better teachers.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. They continue along their way while others work even harder to meet the accountability requirements at their schools.

Meanwhile, creativity and spontaneity is stifled. Well, mine, anyway.

I actually like a couple of common texts to be taught at each year level in middle school. Wide reading, of course. Then I prefer to research widely to find appropriate curriculum material; content that inspires me so I'll be inspirational and fresh when I teach my students. As long as I'm teaching the same skills as my colleagues, what does it matter if I use different content? 

Fraud or maverick? Whatever. It's hard work.

My hope is that by thinking out loud I can stop worrying about it and get on with my job.

So content or skills? On reflection, special combo.


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Still teaching, because I believe the children are the future.

So easy to bitch about what's going on at school. Seems it's all I do these days when I write, in my journal or or any handy scrap of paper. Writing notes during meetings helps me to keep my focus, to retain some of the information bombardment. Who am I kidding? The notes I made during a recent presentation on the adolescent brain descended quickly into me writing out the lyrics to The Greatest Love of All. (BTW enjoyed belling that out to the computer screen just now. Extraordinarily therapeutic. Recommend highly.) But at least writing out those lyrics prevented me from falling asleep, or being sick on the floor at hearing the same old stuff for an hour that I could have spent getting through my marking. (The adolescent brain is still developing. Who knew?)

I spend lots of time doing positive affirmations during meetings to keep my spirits up. You can do this, I tell myself. I was sitting at a little plastic table in the library. About 80 of us were seated in exam formation given the meeting was held during NAPLAN week. The meeting was about completing our Professional Development Plans. Very prescriptive little beggars, these PDPs. It was all about accountability. Don't get me wrong. We should be accountable. But GANAG. Ugh, there's that hint of chunder in the back of my throat.

I've just had a flick through my school provided copy of Classroom Instruction That Works and my heart rate increased, but not in a good way. This book is our school's bible; guaranteed to turn me into Super Teacher as I follow the principles of GANAG and teach according to High Yield Strategies. I will teach in this research based formulaic way and then after some 'pre and post-testing' I will check my Effect Size - whether I've 'value added' to my students' learning - on a couple of Bell Curve graphs.

What the hell have I been doing for the last 35 years?

I take comfort from the research that says that if I don't do anything other than write notes on the board and give out a few handouts I will still make a .4 percent difference to my students' learning.

Enough already with my cynicism given that, as I've said before, my school admin genuinely wants to improve student learning outcomes.

So apart from being GANAG-ed, this year I've been very challenged by being forced back into teaching VCE English, albeit Units 1 and 2. I haven't taught VCE at our school since 2011. That year I decided to pack it in after having taught Year 12 for thirty years straight.

Couldn't really refuse to teach VCE when I saw it on my timetable. I assumed that given I didn't request to teach it, the fact that I'd been given it was because I'm an experienced, competent teacher. Sorry, back to cynicism for a sentence or two. It suited the time table to give me VCE English. Nothing more than that.

Trouble is, I'd let the entire VCE Study Design drop out of my brain, thinking I wouldn't be dealing with it again. Suddenly I'm jolted back into Outcomes 1, 2 and 3 and Identity and Belonging as an unfamiliar Context. Work Requirements, SACs - School Assessed Coursework - Pending Ns - notifications to parents that their kid is on the verge of failing - pressure, shit-loads of marking and twenty-six needy students. Twenty-six students, five of whom began the year by challenging every remark I made because, to them, I had no VCE teaching credibility, not having been on that team since these kids started at the school.

There's a culture amongst our students of comparing teachers and classes. It's possibly endemic in schools but I haven't fallen victim to it before. Ms X gave this to her students, they lament; Ms Y did it this way; Ms Z's class have already finished their questions. You can perhaps imagine how much I love being compared to teachers who weren't even born until I'd clocked my tenth year of teaching. (That's a whole other post waiting to be written, possibly entitled What Will I Be If I'm No Longer A Teacher. I'm getting on, dear reader.)

Some of these students have been toxic in their undermining of the class. It's better now, because I am actually an experienced, competent teacher. But I've been tested, and GANAG's not much help until one's class dynamic is sorted. Bottom line is class management.

Apart from dealing with disruptive, passive aggressive students though I've really resented the extra ten or so hours marking I have to do on my own time; on those precious days off. When I'm not being paid. Suppose it were ever thus. I've just had three blissful years not doing it.

Ends rant. For now.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What? No curriculum? Teaching back in the day.

Nineteen-seventy-nine. Big year for me. My first real year of teaching English. 'Seventy-eight didn't count given my first posting was as a 'teacher-librarian' - something that didn't 'take' in my case. That year I also did a little remedial English teaching with a small group of Form 1 girls - it was an all girls school. Gave me a bit of practice in teaching so in '79 I wasn't quite a novice.

There was no curriculum in English except at Higher School Certificate; year 12. No one handed me a course outline. There were no common assessment tasks apart from exams in the senior years.

So how did I know what to teach?

Suppose there was a trickle down from HSC. That was ultimately where the academic students were heading. This determined what we taught.

At 22 I knew a bit about how kids learned but it was based on my own experiences. Played at being a teacher from the time I started school. My mother then kindly produced a sister upon whom I could practise. (Janey, you didn't stand a chance of escaping education as a career. It was inculcated into you from about your second year.)

Oh, and I'd completed a four year Bachelor of Education. That probably helped in my knowing what to teach. 

But still, no curriculum. Seems we made it up. We'd done our academic studies, were expected to be at a particular level and were trusted to do our job. (Didn't know at the time that they were the good old days. Does one ever?)

In English we taught reading, writing, speaking and listening as we do today but sans computers and photocopiers in my first few years. Our lessons were inspired by our passion for the subject and the novels and text books on the course. We had a selection of 'class set' novels and text books from which to choose. We added new texts as we discovered them.

In my first year of real teaching I taught forms 2 and 4 - 30 students per class - and form 5 - slightly fewer students.

To teach my form 5s, without a curriculum, I unearthed my own form 5 texts and used them as a guide to what to do. There was also amazing wisdom and mentoring from more experienced teachers who shared and guided. 

Did you notice something there? In my first year of teaching I only taught three full classes of English. That is, fifteen periods out of a possible thirty. I also spent two periods a week teaching remedial English to two year 8 kids. Seventeen periods a week. Wow. That's about the same as I'm teaching now and I only work three days a week.

The following year I taught four English classes as my full load. 

The thing is we worked those kids hard. Heaps of reading, writing and discussion and loads of marking outside school hours, despite all that extra time in our teaching day. Was always preparing and correcting.

Today's younger teachers would perhaps also marvel at the lack of meetings. We had staff meetings after school on Tuesdays and occasional year level meetings. Had an English meeting about once a term - three terms a year back then. Nothing like the bombardment of meetings these days, forcing teachers to complete even more work outside regular hours - that is, 8.30 to 4.30; not the easy hours that the general public think we enjoy.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Confidence Crisis.

Happy new school year. The anxiety dreams of the final days of the long vacation are over and now I'm waking up in the small hours trying to remember the names of my 75 new students. That will stop soon enough. Doesn't take long. I'm almost there.

However, I have been suffering a confidence crisis, in this, my thirty-fifth year of secondary English teaching. I blame the education department. but more than that I blame my school admin for assiduously sucking up to it; trying to get the most ticks in those bureaucratic boxes. 

Yes, I know it's complex and that schools must adhere to standards and aim to educate students in the best possible way. But really?

My first day back, a pupil free day and I was sitting towards the rear of our auditorium. Ninety or so teachers and support staff had been listening attentively - or feigning attention - for ninety minutes of acronym heavy drivel. And then we got onto data, sorry, dada. It was at that point that tears sprouted in my eyes, the hairs stood up on the backs of my arms and I felt the urge to scream. 

The theme was the importance of NAPLAN, how the 'dada' - NAPLAN and AusVELS - would reveal who had been a 'bad' teacher.

I thought of the individual students I'd taught in previous years and the progress they'd made, immeasurable in a series of NAPLAN tests. The tests would reveal some students had very low literacy and numeracy skills. As for the AusVELS data, teachers are responsible for keying that in and it's easy enough to just move the students up through the levels based on where they're supposed to be ranked.

And then there was the holiday reading. Not the reading and revising of the texts I'll be teaching in my English classes. No, this was a theoretical research based text written by a team of erudite education leaders high in the academic ranks who are clearly no longer actually teaching real kids, if their CVs are anything to go by. This turgid text was going to tell me how to be a better teacher. More fool me, I actually read the first half of it before I could take no more. My conclusion: yep, all fine in theory.

Despite my cynicism, I try to be good; try to implement the initiatives insisted upon by our school admin who are genuinely concerned about improving teaching and learning. Lesson plans must be written according to a particular methodology, learning objectives and learning activities must be written on the board in each lesson, blah blah blah blah blah.

This theoretical framework becomes the focus, befuddles my brain, without 'value adding' - oh they love that expression - to my teaching. It infuriates me; robs me of confidence. Not sure that I'd have lasted in this profession if it had been like this when I began my career. Surprisingly, most of us were effective teachers without all the GANAG

My best lessons are those when the students and I are so engaged in the discussion and learning that the bell rings and everyone is startled wondering how the lesson could have flown by so effortlessly. 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Teaching Freedom Writers to Year 9s

Dear Diary
I’ve been teaching the film, Freedom Writers, to my Year 9 English students for a couple of years now. It’s one of those films about a charismatic young English teacher who, against all odds, works miracles with a class full of apparent misfits and delinquents, transforming them into model students. (See also To Sir With Love, Stand And Deliver, Dangerous Minds. The list goes on.)

Freedom Writers, with its action, rap music and sympathetic ‘gangsta’ kids, invariably engages every student. The students in the film are fourteen year olds; Freshmen; the equivalent of our Year 9. (Challenging to find a kid in Room 203 at Wilson High School who actually looks fourteen, but that’s Hollywood.)

And of course, Freedom Writers is a film. Easy. Students see this as a soft option. Oh how they curse me when I pause the film and ask questions about the mise-en-scene.

Freedom Writers is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, by ErinGruwell, the Ms G of the film. (Most of my kids might not be so thrilled if they had to read the actual book although some of them would enjoy it.) In the film, Ms Erin Gruwell, a first year teacher, is assigned to teach the ‘integration’ students: disadvantaged students who’re all together in their English class. No one wants to be lumbered with the class. The kids are seen as hopeless by the school admin. Then along comes Ms Gruwell.

It’s a really inspiring film. I tear up every time this particular boy reads his diary entry to the class. In it he describes his horrific life and how Ms G’s classroom is home. She certainly made a difference to those students.

However, teaching this text can be problematic. Beware if you’re past your prime. Your students are going to compare and you might not measure up.

Erin Gruwell is rendered delightfully by toothy, pretty Hilary Swank. Youthful, coltish vivacious, irrepressible Erin – Hilary Swank - Gruwell. She’s cool and she can really teach. Consider yourself warned.

Another problem I have with this film is its stereotyping. Head of Department, Margaret Campbell, looks to be in her fifties. She’s depicted as a frustrated crone who’s been unable to roll with the changes in her school. She guards class sets of books, not wanting to sacrifice them to Ms Gruwell’s students who she is sure will destroy them. Bitter, vicious and condescending, Campbell tries irrationally to thwart all Gruwell’s efforts.

Ms Campbell makes me sad though. In one scene she berates Erin. “I know what it’s like to be loved by a class of students!” She probably does, given she’s been teaching for thirty years. Whether she’s a composite of a few jaded old teachers or based on a real person, I do feel for her. In the closing credits of the film we find that Erin Gruwell only taught high school for three years before following some of her students to college. Ms Campbell, on the other hand, has endured. She may be afraid to teach ‘integration’ students, with their gang affiliations, but she’s probably been a decent teacher with the right sorts of students. That would be a different film though. In Freedom Writers, Ms Campbell is the archetypal harridan who shouldn’t be inflicted on any students.

There’s another thing I'm sceptical about in the film: the way those supposedly educationally delayed students take to reading and writing. I, too, have bought books for my students, sometimes out of my own money. I devote hours to matching kids to books to try to get them reading. I'm ecstatic when a student finally reads an entire book. It does happen occasionally. More often, I struggle to get most students to read anything beyond the classroom. So when I see Ms Gruwell’s students reading on buses, in locker bays, in squats, I'm cynical. Perhaps it’s different in the US.

I'm currently reading The Freedom Writers Diary and it’s incredibly articulate. Must have been some heavy-handed editorial assistance happening.

Perhaps it’s the Hollywood effect that allowed Ms Gruwell to have total success with all her students. I've witnessed some of our kids behaving badly on a visit to Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum. Have also had bored year 11 students moaning through Schindler’s List, complaining because there wasn't enough action in it.

Ah, enough of being Ms Campbell. I love teaching this film and I love the way all students respond to it, even those kids who don’t do a lick of learning. Freedom Writers may be Hollywood Over The Top but it’s so worthy. You'll find heaps of ready made teaching resources on line and your kids will love it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Report writing again.

Couldn't move my fingers much this morning when I woke up. Tendonitis had flared after two days' solid typing of student reports. Old age sucks. (And why am I typing again today??)

Proud of those reports though; proud of myself for refusing to use 'comment bank'.

For the past few years, as directed, I've used the school 'comment bank' when reporting. Using the 'comment bank' supposedly cuts down on errors, providing there are no mistakes in the rubric, in which case errors are multiplied. The comments in the bank correspond with the descriptors in AusVELS, the Victorian version of the Australian curriculum. They've been simplified to some extent, but they're bland and generic. Furthermore, students can end up with the same comments from year to year, depending on their progress along the AusVELS continuum. Oddly, there don't seem to be any complaints from parents or students.

Reporting on students is agonising. Lots of data entry. (Love Mr Fill Down, BTW.) Lots of writing. I'd estimate it's taken me 20 hours to create reports for 75 students. Would have been much quicker using the comment bank.

Then there's the proofreading meeting after school. About 80 of us print off our report comments and we swap and check. Last year, some of my comments were checked by a colleague who pointed out some really poor expression. 'It's not me. It's the comment bank,' was my lame response. It wasn't the first time I'd been ashamed of what the comment bank, with my assistance, had produced.

The comment bank may produce uncohesive, bland, generic descriptors of 'what the student has achieved' but it won't allow making even slightly negative remarks about a student. Negative remarks are verboten in these days when a few aggressive parents rule the school and we quake in fear of their wrath.

Reporting what some students have achieved is challenging. What to say about a student who has done nothing all semester except disrupt the learning of others? Who has resisted all my canny efforts and encouragement? "X enjoys contributing to class discussions, often in a racist mock-Indian accent. He has successfully resisted attempting any reading, writing or formal speaking and listening tasks." Suppose that's an achievement.

About 35 years ago, when I began teaching, it was perfectly acceptable to write this in a report: "X is an excellent student in every respect." Done. Too easy.

My first student reports were hand-written in a rectangular box - about 6 x 18 centimetres - on a piece of plain foolscap with the texture of blotting paper. Under that was a sheet of royal blue carbon paper and another sheet of foolscap for the second copy. A metal paperclip held it all together. After you'd written your little comment you passed the pages back to the coordinator who'd pass it to the next teacher of that student. Depending on how early you'd done your reports, you'd be able to see comments written by students' other teachers. 'Good' kids' reports glowed with superlatives. 'Bad' kids were described as disruptive, distracting, talkative, hopeless.

Unacceptable, of course. Even at 22 I knew it was inappropriate to take one's frustration and vitriol out on a student, even if they had caused it.

We moved to 'goal based descriptive assessment' at our school in the early 1980s. No grades, if memory serves. (No exams for 'junior' students either.) We also received our own 'no carbon required' report pads, designed to fit about four hand-written reports on each A4 page. Had to remember to put a sheet of cardboard between the reports so you didn't accidentally write extra copies

Didn't mind those descriptive reports. If necessary, you could still be honest about a kid's tendency to subvert learning in the classroom. Parents tended to support us back then. (Think that's a fair generalisation too, based on my experience teaching in three state secondary schools.)

Those reports were probably issued three times a year to correspond with three school terms. Don't remember anyone ever criticising my hand-written reports.

We thought we were working hard back then getting those reports out. Now we have computers and the internet you'd think it would be simpler.

At our school, as well as semester reports and two parent-teacher meetings we issue six interim reports.We're also expected to phone and email parents regularly so they 'don't get any surprises' on reports.

In the words of Redfoo , let's get ridiculous.