Sunday, May 30, 2004

how true, how true. My year 12s confirm this one. Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 29, 2004

our little johnny howard! what a guyPosted by Hello

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

VATE Review day 'retrospective'

This is the text of my contribution to the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE) Review Day.

Once a year this organisation, which is obviously a professional association for English and Literacy teachers, holds an organisational 'review' day. After the IFTE conference in July 2003, those of us involved in the planning of the Professional Identity and Change (PIC) strand estalished a relationship with VATE as a 'working party'. As a corollary we were subsequently asked to prepare and run the review day. I'm not sure why 'they' (the VATE Council) let us do this, but it gave the PIC another 'project' to work on and toward - more opportunity to talk and get together to engage in some excellent professional learning.

I was 'assigned' to be a 'participant' and 'member' of a 'fishbowl' panel discussion designed to kick off the discussion and provide stimulus for the rest of the day. We asked those involved in the panel (we chose a variety of people, represeting different groups - an academic and science teacher educator (female), a bureaucrat and ex-teacher (female), an older teacher (female), and a young early career teacher (male) and me). We asked these panel members to prepare comments around two questions:

1. Could you share a story about a moment in which involvement in a professional association was important/valuable in your professional career/journey?

2. How do you see a professional association contributing to a teacher’s professional life?

So anyway, here is the text I prepared, what do you think?

My involvement in IFTE was certainly of central importance. But it didn’t start there – of course it rarely does …

I was sitting with Brenton at the Monash ‘Den’ over a coffee when he raised the possibility of having some ‘beginning teachers’ involved in the IFTE Professional Identity and Change strand. At the time I was half way into an honours degree – examining my ontological assumptions, reading stuff about teacher knowledge and professional learning, and getting lost in Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination.

Grappling with research issues and trying to formulate an honours project that felt as if it had ‘something to say’ and somehow connected to what I was doing with the rest of my time. I began teaching last year too.

So I had my head in two places at once – or at least that was the plan (there are always other things going on as well – and perhaps these other places or things are just as important – but they are for another day – my biography and history perhaps). Some of you might think that sounds like a luxury – only two places? Try 22, young’n!

And so it was a real challenge. To begin teaching, with all the inherent complications, challenges, brilliance, fun, and dispair, but to add to this a first real attempt at researching – and to research my own practice and learning – and now that I was ‘teaching’ for real, I could call my learning ‘professional learning’ and not just ‘learning’. And what a difference!

So I began an attempt to bring these two things together. The teaching and the research. And if we are truthful, we must recognise that the two have an interesting relationship, to say the least. But I do not want to go down that track too far. And then of course, there is the question of VATE or of professional associations.

I guess what I want to suggest is that as professional association should somehow embody the same tension I am trying to describe.

VATE was important for me because my involvement in IFTE and in PIC helped me to realise that this ‘teaching – research’ tension is a productive one and should be developed. My involvement in IFTE and PIC helped me understand the necessity and reward of engaging in both these activities – and also the difficulty of doing both.

That understanding the difficulty of doing so was just as interesting as doing so. And on this point I keep coming back to C.W Mills. I love what he says about this kind of thing,

Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues and in terms of the problems of history-making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science … must include both the troubles and the issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations (quoted in, Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001: 14)

So I guess I was tired of listening to the ‘teaching-can-never-mix-with-research’ naysayers. Those voices that told me I was at fault, or that kids were at fault, or that teacher-education was at fault, or that ‘soft’ research was at fault, or whatever. That the conditions of my work were natural and ‘just the way things are’.

I don’t like that idea.

And here I must avoid painting myself as a naïve, young, inexperienced idealist. And of course if you don’t like what I’m saying you can always pass me off as this – just some young dumb kid who wants to change the world. (I don’t think I want to change the world – but I’ll settle for a little understanding!)

The conditions of my work (and yours) are not neutral. Perhaps everyone else figured this out a long time ago, but they are a construction, a shifting complex mass of interrelationships and compromises. A network of actors, desires, policies, timetables, directives, technologies, buildings, histories, texts etc.

I don’t know about you but I am interested in better understanding my own professional learning experiences, and how these are 'co-authored' or 'co-constructed' as part of wider human, institutional, historical, political, economic and technological relationships.

I mean, we don’t learn as individuals apart from the world – as if we can separate ourselves and just learn, work and live in some kind of vacuum. We are all players - actors - in many different 'networks' and 'systems', all of which are important influences on our learning, work and lives. (that strut and fret their hours upon the stage and then is heard no more! It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing).


And so this dichotomy is one way to approach this question about the importance of professional associations for me.

(I'll have to add something here about these two elements being important to my professional growth as a teacher. Struggling with classroom teaching and all that, and studying for my honours and working collaboratively with other colleagues, being mentored by older more experienced educators.)

Of course, I always come back to the same issue – time and the many factors that conspire to sap and drain it from us. Perhaps we have two choices then – get rid of VATE altogether and just struggle on the way we do in schools presently (or as many of you have for the last 1000 years), or we take VATE in a new direction altogether. What direction? Well a powerful, intellectual and organisation. Of course you can always dismiss my words as the ravings of an inexperienced, idealistic and young man. And you’d be right. But I also understand that change on the scale that I see necessary does not happen in huge shifts or movements, or in revolutions, or whatever, but ...

... I guess what I’m trying to get at here is the different things that VATE means to me and the different levels my involvement operates on. At one level (I don’t like the levels metaphor, but anyway) I think VATE needs to provide some kind of discursive space where big ideas can be discussed and thrown around and argued and marvelled at and all that kind of thing – a space for the intellectual life that is so often crushed out of teaching. I was never comfortable accepting the words of other teachers when they told stories about the luxury of uni life for navel gazing – can’t teachers engage in intellectual debate about their work? Of course this means critiquing the kinds of pressures in schools that box people in and isolate – that debase teacher collaboration and professionalism and construct teaching as ‘delivery’ of content and teachers as some kind of Asimov dystopian nightmare. There are a thousand different pressures all with a biography and history, a tangled web, an actor-network where we are not humans, but ‘actants’

2. As providing a intellectual and critical focus on issues that effect English teaching.

I want to tell another story.

As an English faculty we occasionally go out for lunch together; of course you have to eat fast otherwise you’ll miss period five. Last week while sitting around a table at Café Oggi in Nunawading, I imagined our own Beer Hall Putsch.


Well, KB (our head of faculty) relayed to us an experience she had had that very morning. She had been ‘called into’ see Alex our principal (who incidentally, was an Economics teacher in a former life). Let’s just say he didn’t congratulate her, in fact they discussed (or he discussed – all by himself) some ‘alarming’ figures showing our ‘terrible’ performance in VCE English compared to other ‘like schools’ in our region and across the state.

‘Don’t try to rationalise the figures, Karen. They mean what they mean …. Just tell me what we need to do?!’

This is the general refrain when anything is being discussed. A few weeks before I sat in a small group at a staff meeting where we were supposed to be analysing student survey data. Same story here – don’t try and explain the figures, don’t rationalise them – just give us some strategies for fixing the problem. Like giving the kids a GPA, getting them to write it on their diaries and look at it each day, while humming to themselves, ‘I can do better, I will do better!’


So, anyway, we are at lunch in a nice café surrounded by corporate and business types – this café is in a ‘business park’ – right near the Eastern Region Office actually – and were getting louder and louder as we get more and more upset. The business types are casting odd glances at us and looking worried.

‘Alex wants us to life our percentage of students scoring over 40 for English – the goal is 5.9 %. He wants us to identify who achieved an A or A+ last year and work with these students specially to make sure they receive 40 or over. He doesn’t want too many, just around the benchmark.’

‘He says he cannot understand why we are doing so badly in English at Y12 when there seem to be many more students succeeding at Y11. He wants to know what is happening. I think that he thinks we are perhaps marking to easy in Y11 or too hard in Y12, and that we are not preparing students well enough for the exam, as our kids coursework scores are often marked down.’

So we talk about what we can do and some arguments we can use against this kind of oppression. We also talk about that great versatile line, ‘It’s the teacher that matters most and that makes the most difference.’

But things have continued. The school is in the throws of writing a new charter and English has been singled out as a concern. If something is ‘wrong’ with our VCE results then there must be a problem with our 7-10 curriculum; fix this and you’ve solved the VCE problem - that's the extent of the thought process!.

Despite this, I guess I have noticed some GOOD vibes emanating from some of my colleagues. We are talking more as a faculty. KB and I are always at it – every chance we get, (the dialogic thing that is ... ) but others are not so interested.

But things are changing. Discussion is building and good reflective conversation is beginning to occur.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

this is a call ...

I'm reviewing a couple of books for the upcoming AATE Review Of Books (English In Australia) and would appreciate any feedback if anyone has been using them in the classroom.

There are four short stories anthologies:

Kavanagh, M. & M. Kavanagh, A. Tan (eds) (2003) Australian Short Stories Book 1: Fantastic. OUP: Melbourne.

Kavanagh, M. & M. Kavanagh (eds) (2003) Australian Short Stories Book 2: A Moment in Time. OUP: Melbourne.

Kavanagh, M. & M. Kavanagh (eds) (2003) Australian Short Stories Book 3: Reading the Signs. OUP: Melbourne.

Baines, R. (ed.) (2003) Journey through Humour. OUP: Melbourne.

And there is a dictionary/thesaurus, but I won't bother you with that.

I have used the first short story anthology with my Y7s and 8s and they loved some of them. Opened up some good discussions re: their own creative writing. Some sensible activities included. But these things are always much of a muchness and I'm not sure what to write about really.

anyway ...

undercutting professionalism or assisting a colleague?

There have been several interesting issues this week. I hope I can remember at least some of them.

A colleague of mine has had a rough run of late. Sickness, divorce, buying a house, unhelpful children, pressure at work, and others. All this has taken a toll on the self-esteem and confidence. Of late, when she has been off work sick, her students have begun to talk negatively about her and what they perceive as the lack of learning going on in her class. They are 'worried' about their upcoming exams and other assessment SACs. In expressing their concerns for their own work and achievement they are running her down - and they have begun doing this to other staff. Dilemma. Defending a colleague in this situation is fairly normal and most staff I'm sure would not even think twice about it. The problem is though, that some of her students have decided that she is the cause of their problems and seem intent on blaming her for their perceived lack of skills - knowledge. CW takes this pretty hard - with all the other that is is dealing with too - it's a heavy load.

We are doing out best to cover her classes when she's away - but her students are either using CW absence as an excuse not to work, or they are panicing and worried. Some have begun to ask other teachers for assistance and extra work to do. Some have even requested class changes!

KB and I have talked about it at some length, and are being very careful not to undermine CW professionalism by giving her students mixed messages about the work and how to approach it (the kids will often pick up on differences in advice we have given them, not understanding that there is often no one way of doing something). At the same time we need to be responsive and help those who need assistance - especially with upcoming exams etc.

Anyway, this will remain an ongoing issue.

I can't remember the other interesting issue ... at present anyway.

a long week in edublog land ...

A lot going on as always, but not much time to write about it, but you make your decisions and you run with 'em.

Jeremy Hiebert had some nice things to say on his blog about blogaboutblogs. He mentions Kieran's blog - I'll need to tell Kieran he's been linked - I wonder how he'll take it!?

Blogaboutblogs has been on my mind lately for a number of reasons. First is I feel like I'm running out of gas. I'm not sure where I should be taking this thing and where the kids would be interested in going. The knife edge of tension that I've had to walk to even do something like this is feeling sharper these days as report writing time speeds inevitably closer. I share this class with another teacher - she does regular stuff with them and I 'do blogging'. We decided early on that the blog would form part of the students' writing mark for the semester, but I didn't really give it much thought after than. Some of the blogs are fairly shabby (sorry guys, I'f you're reading this!) but they are not want I had in mind before beginning. Some are quite good and certainly are showing some justification for continuing (with the course I mean), but in terms of getting the volume and quality going I really need to rethink my approach. Many of the students are not self-sufficient yet - i.e. they are not posting regularly without my insistence. Of course, I would prefer them to take this on and make more of an effort when I'm not prodding them in the ribs.

I should also welcome HN (thoughts) to the blogosphere! Your voice is a valuable addition to the dialectic ... the community grows! Next ARo will be posting up a storm. I'm hoping that we can engage in some decent professional conversations and show those silly PD meetings what professional learning is really about!

a bunch of different stuff

Jeremy Hiebert digs up another interesting piece on eportfolios
EDUCAUSE Quarterly | Volume 27, Number 2, 2004

This nextwave festival seems to get better everyday ... this guy is in town talking about blogging and iraq and related stuff.

Internet sensation to go back to his day job - World -

I guess blogging is fast becoming the new orthodoxy ...
Spreading the word to the world - TheEdge -

Looks like Ilana is on the hard sell again, in the education age this week, Teachers Critical Of Online Learning. All in aide of a new book with Catherine Beavis. I wonder if she has any complimentary copies this time? Does sound very interesting though.

Found an interesting site at the uni of qld that may come in handy for my presentation in June. It's a suject page that talks about blogs in the course MSTU2000 - Guide to the Weblog Task

Sunday, May 16, 2004

formal or informal?

Friday night brought the Y12 formal/ball. The kids ask staff to come along and then later probably wish we didn't (some of the staff too!) For my part, I actually enjoyed myself. E stayed home (heavily pregnant!) and watched Mary Donaldson become a Danish Princess.

Despite the event being held at a fairly kitschy establishment way down in the burbs, the kids seemed to enjoy themselves - staff too. Most of the English faculty turned up in support of the students(or for collegiate support?) and so we had a rare chance to chat and talk - some of the conversation was even NORMAL - as in NOT work related! Probably only time this year.

Throughout the evening, I was struck a number of times about the huge potential these young adults have - that they're about to launch themselves in the 'big blue', to hack a place out of the wilderness for themselves, to pursue all number of interesting things. Perhaps I was reflecting on my own future? or perhaps longing for the past?

In anycase, it's always refresing to mix with interesting young people in casual (more or less) settings. Most of them scrub up very well.

On a darker note I am reminded of what can happen when young men combine alcohol, drugs and sexual frustration. Let's just day that there were a couple of interesting tensions throughout the night.

Lovely weekend. Did no work.

here is my ugly mug - just trying out 'hello' from picasa (some photo posting program for blogs) Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 13, 2004

creating space to breathe

I took the day off yesterday.

It was difficult to arrive at this decision. E has been pushing me all the way and I finally broke last week. I told her I would take Wednesday off and she has been riding me the whole way.

At first I felt a little dodgy - then I began telling people - just the English faculty - maybe in an effort to gauge the level of popular support for my truancy?

It was made slightly easier by the fact that 'open night' was the night before.

So I took E to the train station then came home and read for a FEW HOURS! Can you believe it. I certainly couldn't at first, and it seemed as though the body was a little confused and tired from all the activity. I promptly fell asleep on our dodgy couch and slept till early afternoon. Ahh, I need to do this more often.

KB and I caught up in the afternoon (after I had showered! I felt so lazy and so good at the same time!!) for a chat and a browse through the bookstore. And I whiled away the afternoon just thinking about some interesting ideas for my kids.

The space to think was sorely needed. I think people around me have noticed some stress developing (they're wrong of course, I'm fine!) The perspective that a little space and time away offers is priceless and enriching.

Heard some interesting stuff on the radio (RRR) about the nextwave festival coming up in Melbourne. They had someone on talking about MICROFICTION. I have used a similar thing with younger students - 100 or 55 word stories, but this stuff is supposed to be under 25. CUT THAT FLAB! Does anyone know any more about this stuff?

Anyway, time well spent, even thought I didn't really make a dent in my marking pile, I'm feeling better about doing it (kind of). Ah, and it's only 10.30 - a couple of hours good marking remaining!

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Open all night ...

Yesterday, we put on an open night at school. KB gives a good description.

For my part, I managed to bribe some Y10 students to come down and do some blogging (I offered them pizza - food and the young male's mind!) I was actually really surprised at the turnout - five! You may think this is fairly sad - but I was proud to sit in the computer lab and hang out with these five young guys and blog for a couple of hours. The great thing is that these young guys are not your traditional 'computer geeks' (if I can be so bold), they are 'rough', 'cool', normal average guys.

PO showed me some online games and tested my laptop capabilities. He is bringing some games for me to look at (Call of Duty, I think). Adam suggested we have a competition to find the weirdest item for sale on ebay (little chicken salt and pepper shakers, fake scratchy lottery tickets etc.) AJ and SL were happy to muck with their blog colours and flick b/w Duke Nukem 3D and their work when parent and vistors walked by. I reciprocated by showing then Bush Shoot Out.

On top of this I got to hang out with some colleaguesl; make funny (to me anyway) injokes when speaking to groups of parents (who mostly feign interest and ask really silly questions); and practice talking about technology and literacy learning.

I came away from this last one wondering how I can do this better. I probably sounded rather up myself as I talked about those now old and tired phrases 'digital literacies' and 'information and communication techologies'. I felt the need to be able to justify my use of technology in language arts based studies. But how? I need to do more on this ... especially as I am presenting at some dodgy teacher professional development day in June - for the 'HSC Cluster Schools'. Whadever!

Overall, not a bad way to spend an evening.

student stress and teachers who question their practice

The other day a student in my Y12 (senior) English class made an interesting comment.

"Why is English as a subject so disorganised? I mean we come in to class not really knowing what we are doing from one day to the next. We sit down and try and work out what we are doing today! In other subjects we know what we are doing and what we are working towards. It been this way for years - since maybe Year 9."

I wasn't expecting this kind of question.

Trying to be understanding, I listened and nodded and said, 'Uh, huh ... uh, huh' while he spoke, but inside I was wondering where this was coming from. This student often shares his opinion on my teaching and teachers in general and can be quite arrogant and difficult - he has an air of 'I'm better than you, and will be better than you forever!' He can also be fairly intimidating (especially for some of the more sensitive souls in class. He also has some insightful things to say as well and generally participates well in class discussion.

At first, at least to myself, I thought this was strange since I am fairly anal about helping the students contextualise the work we are doing; feel familiar with how the course fits together; what assessment they are required to do and when it takes place (I gave them an outline of the unit in early FEB that had all assessment dates and I remind them regularly; my expectations of them, etc. etc. I have also started emailing the class weekly to let them know what they should be doing in terms of their English studies and the kinds of work that are coming up. I thought this would overcome some of the issues this young man was talking about.

He says he hasn't checked his email for ages ...

He also says he hasn't referred to the course outline recently ...

I found out later that he had a 'Legal Studies' assessment task the next class and he was very unprepared. A little projection perhaps?

So the following day, I wrote up on the board a list of things I thought they should be doing to prepare for an assessment task they are doing next week, "What you should be doing this week for English". I gave them three tasks. Let's hope this young fellow wrote this down.

I mean I could go around to his house and remind him personally?

I don't mean the sarcasm, only that most of the other students I think understand what we are trying to do as a class. But this class is a strange one - some fantastic students whoa are going to do very well (and how much will be due to my own influence?) and there are a bunch of others that just want to get through and that's enough. Helping both of these groups get the most out of this year is proving a challenge, but I think we are 'kicking some goals'.

Monday, May 10, 2004

blame the teachers - those commie bastards!

A busy day in education journalism today - although, some of this scribble is not worth the paper it's printed on ... (thanks Mr Bantick, you now join your teacher bashing colleagues, Andrew Bolt and Dr Connelly, at the top of the "self-professed expert list" - those who leave teaching, but won't leave teachers alone). You should all be ashamed of yourselves for

The muse is standing outside the classroom (Christopher Bantick)

Thank goodness for some clear sighted and measured writing that attempts to see teaching for the intensely complex and political game it has always been. We need more people writing like Chris Wheat and less spouting bulldust like Chis Bantick.

It is no coincidence that we are in an election year and the battlelines are being vividly drawn along education grounds. My fear is that Mark Latham will be drawn into John Howard's game and loose sight of the real issues and the button pushing he seems to be attempting.

Ah, you've gotta lauf ...

Howard's Real Budget Test (Pamela Bone)

What if Melbourne Grammer went west? (Chris Wheat)

How to make private schools pay their way (David Burchell)

Sunday, May 09, 2004

advancing the cause of public education with a bolt

It's comforting to know that we have such intellectual giants as Andrew Bolt and Dr Kevin Donnelly in our corner, to champion the cause of public school education and the professionalism of teachers.

Check out the lastest hatchet job Teach, don't preach.

Friday, May 07, 2004

observing my blog class ...

I'm sitting in my Y10 blog class looking at a funny bunch of students. Some working well, some not working at all. I must say that this class has been a mixed success. It has not been the frenzy of passionate writing that I had originally thought it would be! Some students have come along way, but others are still stuck back in term 1, week 3.

One young student has an integration aid to assist her and never seems to work very well. She is very slow and tends to go at her own pace a lot of the time. She is a recent arrival at Highvale this year and so has no real history here - usually a valuable thing for teachers to draw on in terms of knowing how to work best with a student. She is also mute. She often seems very tired and apparently does not eat very much through the day. Our blog class is in the morning so she still has some energy - I'm told that in the afternoons she is very listless. Because she does not talk and I do not sign very much (Hello and goodbye are about my limit at present!), combined with the fact that this young lass spends most of her time with her integration aid, we have not been able to build a very strong connection.

Anyway today, her integration aid (a lovely woman in her mid 40s) was busy somewhere else and not able to come to this class. I realised this was the opportunity I had been waiting for - some time to sit and talk with her (I talk and she listens; then she signs and try and understand - she often writes notes too). Well, today she wrote quite a lot (compared to her usal efforts). She seemed happier than usual and seemed quite open to communication from me.

It's these little breakthroughs that make everything seem worthwhile.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

making up with poetry?

another classic from Blackboard Jungle, what an interesting way to demystify poetry and the very middle class practice of 'analysing and extracting meaning from the printed word' - as if meaning resided in the text itself ...

I'd better start paying for these quotes if I can't get up and write something myself,

There's a point in teaching poetry, a particular moment, that I love.

You stalk the classroom demanding opinions, doing buzz sessions on connotation, encouraging text marking, creative interpretations, asking them to make original links between poems, forms, ideas. Asking if there's any poem with a layout that reminds them of jazz music? Whether poems use sound to remind us of states of unreality? Do some poems implicitly finger our culture as purgatorial?
About a third (two thirds if you're lucky and it's the first lesson of the day) of the class buzz and flutter excitedly, as ideas start to pop and bubble around them.

The other kids sit quiet, their faces darkening as they try to follow what's being said. Trying to make their unruly, unwilling minds *know* what the magic secret behind the words is. Carefully glancing across and writing down everyone else's ideas.

And that's when the moment I love arrives.
"There might be some people in the class who feel like the odd one out because they don't know how the others are working out what the lines mean. Actually there are quite a lot of students sitting, trying not to be noticed, because they can't spot an ambiguity when they're asked to, and they have no idea how everyone else has found the answers."
One or two eyes look up, grateful and worried, all at once. No voices or raised hands - who wants to be noticed, when we're feeling stupid?
I agree to let them in on "a secret: We're all MAKING IT UP."

One or two voices, muffled, 'What?'
"We're pretending to know the answer. We're just guessing. We're making it up as we go along. it's all lies. We don't *know*. None of the people speaking out and writing down meanings and patterns *knows* the answer. We just make out as if we do."
That's when it's easy to spot quite how many students had been left behind, were smuggling themselves through the lesson on false pretences in fear that you might think them stupid, because they'll speak now - a chorus of 'what?', a hubbub of 'eh?', 'unnh?' and 'huh?'

"I might say a poem is about religion. You might say a poem is about slavery. I think you're full of it. But guess what? If you can find some evidence, there's not a damn thing I can do about it.
I might think that's the wrongest opinion I ever did see, but I hafta give you the A grade anyway."

By now all the kids who weren't sure of themselves are grinning. Poetry has moved from 'guess what the teacher is thinking' to 'beat the teacher'. Be original.

"There's no such thing as a wrong answer in poetry. There's only answers that you found enough proof for. If you can find some evidence - even if it's just a word or two - then you're right. No matter whether I agree with your idea or not."

No such thing as a wrong answer. Isn't that great?

Sunday, May 02, 2004

blogging and portfolio stuff

Just a couple of things I want to keep for later - cluster curriculum day in June ...

Jeremy Hiebert's Headspace - a fellow interested in educational technology etc. has some interesting things to say about blogging and portfolio development

Another article about porfolios - AERA paper from 2001 - Brenton and Graham might like this ...


Saturday, May 01, 2004

Conference notes ...

This is the text of my panel presentation .... Of course, it came out slightly different at the time;

Tales from the Blackboard (or should that be ‘whiteboard’?)

I’ve wondered long and hard (well kind of) how to approach this panel. The three of us did attempt some online discussion about what we might talk about, but this didn’t get us very far. In the end it always seems to come back to time. Time, time, time. There is never enough of it – and when I have some I tend to sit and daydream (or watch CSI, or write in my blog – even as the marking pile grows before my eyes).

So because time is so valuable to teachers (to most people, of course) I have wondered about what to talk about. Probably a natural thing I would think.

I was here last year. What had I come expecting? Maybe the prospect of a day off, and time to think and talk to others who were doing the same thing I was? Maybe to see friends and colleagues from uni - to catch up and tell some stories (we are English teachers after all).

As I think back to last year and what I remember, I realise a key that might help me understand my students better as well. I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember how I felt (Sure I took notes and all that, but I can’t find them now and probably don’t have the time to read them). I also realise that in these days of VIT portfolio assessments, increasing accountability measures, standardized testing, essential learning frameworks, and all the rest, that talking about ‘feelings’ is probably very soft.

So as a way of promoting some discussion – if only with myself and my computer, I have phrased my ‘topics’ as questions.

1. What can I realistically expect to achieve in my first year teaching?
I really have no idea. That is a question you will have to answer for yourself as you go along. Perhaps this is not something you can really know beforehand. It’s more fun if you don’t know beforehand anyway. My first year was huge and I often wonder how I made it through still sane (some would say I didn’t). You just do what you have to. I began teaching and studied for my honours degree I education at the same time. It worked for me (I mean I didn’t sleep much, and didn’t see my wife much) so perhaps the question is what do you want and what are you prepared to do?

2. How do I go about creating good relationships with colleagues? How can I use these good relationships with colleagues as professional learning opportunities?
There are some things that made my first year (and this year) much more rewarding that it would have been otherwise. Good conversation. You can’t go past good friendships, especially with someone who really understandings what is going on – another teacher – another English teacher. Possibly from another school … someone from your degree program with whom you share an affinity.

Make sure, that despite whatever you are going through at home, school (work) or whatever, you can meet with this person or persons regularly and just talk about stuff – whatever – work (school), weather, football, education research, your VIT portfolio, that cute new Drama teacher, your wonderful year 9s, that insane librarian who keeps giving you Manga to watch, Tyrone the friendly Sri Lankan cleaner who used to work in the RAAF and is now your friend because no one else stays at school till 6pm – whatever. Mix in some good coffee or hot chocolate, and some cake, and you have yourself some quality professional learning.

With this little strategy tucked under your arm you can go anywhere. (apologies to Andrew Niccol and GATTACA)

There are many other things you can do of course. We could TALK for hours on this one. Maybe we should …

3. How do I take on new opportunities and learn to say ‘no’ at the same time?
Contrary to popular advice, don’t put your hand up for everything. It might be better to sit back and watch for a while. Regardless, you will be noticed eventually, whether for your ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovative’ teaching style, or your intimate knowledge of ICT pedagogy (you know where the power switch is!) you cannot hide.

It may seem strange but even stranger jobs will come your way without any pro-action on your part. This year they gave me the VASS job (VCE administration software system) because ‘he’s good with technology’ – what they didn’t tell me was that I was about to become a glorified data entry pawn. By day I fight at the barricades against the use of statistics to push me and my colleagues around, and by late afternoon I’m printing the reports that the administration use to hit us with. I’m still coming to terms with this odd arrangement. Schools can be places of uneasy alliances and clandestine operations. In fact, a colleague suggested I mention here today, that he thought we should all be watching Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. He figured teaching was often akin to being thrown behind enemy lines by some crazy chopper pilot (the principal, of course) and then struggling to find your way back. I haven’t seen it.

The other part of me says, just load up and see what happens. If you crumble, you will probably be passed off as a young inexperienced beginning teacher anyway, most teachers are forgiving and patient types.

4. How do I engage in “reflective practice” and what does this actually/really mean?
Just what exactly does this mean?

5. What is the role of research now that I don’t have to read it?
First, I must say that I absolutely loved my teaching degree. I believe it prepared me for teaching better that I could have hoped. I completed a B.A/B.Ed at Monash. I/m not saying that everything about the course was valuable – but that in the end I came away feeling very lucky and privileged to have had a such a great opportunity. If you can, I would encourage you to keep ties with the teacher educators you know. I have managed to do this and the rewards have keep flowing in various ways, all of them rich.

Don’t rule out returning to study. I believe this is a fantastic way to renew teaching. To claim a discursive space to engage in the big issues related to teachers’ work. To give space to the “intellectual work” of teaching that so often gets sidelined through lack of time and energy.

Now I want to go out of a limb here and say that I am an unashamed theory lover. I believe that the best teaching is reflective by nature and has a kind of intellectual underpinning – not so that it becomes a dry intellectual pursuit – but so that good teaching becomes an invitation to continually enquire after the why, hows, and wherefores. For me anyway there must be some sort of critical edge, some form of intellectual engagement.

Studying for my honours degree in the evenings, getting up early to prepare lessons, or to write about my experiences, then heading off to teach a full day of classes is tough, but that is where my best learning experiences came from. That is where I lost myself in the joys and pains of the job. This is where I struggled to make the connections between what I was reading and hearing and then what I was seeing and doing – a valuable experience. Many people argue that theory (and by implication most research), has at best, a tenuous link to practice. I don’t like that assumption, for me it smacks of anti-intellectualism. To these people I would recommend some John Dewey (Experience and Education), Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) or Neil Postman (Teaching as a Subversive Activity).

Teachers are valuable knowledge producers. To often they are seen as just deliverers of curriculum and content material. To often they have PD ‘done to them’, rather than designing and participating in professional learning with other teachers (and there is a huge difference). Our professionalism is often under threat.

All this kind of talk, brings me to the next question,

6. Does it really matter what goes on outside my classroom door?
Mostly, I am not satisfied with just operating alone and ‘doing my own thing’. Teaching can be fairly isolating work, but it is more rewarding when efforts are made to bring teachers together, despite the many difficulties and obstacles.

How can we teach year 12 students, helping to prepare them for their futures, and not be interested in the design of the new English course? How can we be concerned about the success of all our students, and not wonder about the social inequalities that are stacked against the poorest and most in need? How can we lament the lack of time in our workplaces to talk and gather as interested colleagues, and not be concerned about increasing workloads and poorer working conditions? How can we be concerned about our students critical literacy needs, and not be concerned about the corporatisation of education and projects that allow big business to slip under the classroom door and be become part of the hidden curriculum. How can we be concerned about our own professional learning needs (you are all here at a VATE conference after all) and not be concerned about how the performance review process, and VIT portfolios for ‘full registration’ offer poor professional development opportunities for a new generation of teachers now entering the profession?

My history method lecturer summed this up nicely – and I need to modify slightly. To be an English teacher is to be a political animal. Teaching is an unavoidably political act.

7. How can I explain and come to terms with all these difficulties, pressures and competing interests?
Well, one way to do this is to understand that many of the ‘problems’ we face as early career teachers are not really our ‘problems’ – that is they are not all our fault. Sometimes it is easy to feel inadequate or inexperienced or responsible, but there are many problems that existed before we arrived on the scene and many more that may be there for many years to come. Feeling unable to make much difference in the lives of students is not necessarily a personal problem, or a lack of experience or a lack of expertise, it is also a function of many other factors and relationships, timetables, bells, curriculum, buildings and rooms, resources, culture, history, health, economics, etc.

The teacher is not the only important factor in student achievement. We should know that even though we are intelligent, caring, well-dressed, well trained, funny, cool, and hip, we cannot solve all these problems – not should we beat ourselves up about them either.

8. How do I go about finding a voice as an early career teacher?
In the end, as always, I am left wondering what to make of all this for me and those that share my practice setting and classroom. Obviously it is important to do more than just reflect and talk. So while professional learning for teachers is often about ourselves, we must go on to ‘organise ourselves for future action in our classrooms and schools'

What education system do we want to have? How do we go about REMAKING it? That is one question that perhaps we can talk about together.

a discursive space for talk, opinion and renewal?

I fortunate to be asked by people at VATE (Victorian Association for the Teaching of English) to present on a panel of early career teachers at a conference specifically for early career teachers. Four of us - my colleagues were the wonderful and eloquent Katrina, Olivia and Paige - spoke of our experiences entering the profession and shared some stories of success and failure. The session was well attended, and after we all spoke there was some excellent dialogue, questioning and comments.

It is heartening to attend these sorts of events and chat with people who are committed, interested and passionate about English teaching. It 'fires up the boilers' and gets the blood running to know that many others are toiling away at the 'coal face', loving every minute of it (well most minutes). The kind of professional learning that goes on at sessions like these is a something I think we need to ponder more and more. Te power of sharing common experience, but doing it a way that does not necessarily encourage 'crap talk' - the kinds of destructive talk that teachers can often engage in when they are stressed and tired and overworked (most of the time perhaps). Obviously, there is a difference between 'blowing of steam' and engaging in come critical refection about our work. Getting teachers together for the later can result in some fantastic learning and 'knowledge contruction'. Perhaps that is why governments and regional education departments don't seem to encourage this kind of thing. We might get ideas you see ...

I guess I would have liked to get some more feedback from people listening in. It's very easy for me to say that there was some interesting conversation, but I have been in the 'audience' before and have felt pretty cheated - as if some guru (the sage on the stage) is stroking their own ego. Despite this, this type of conference, where teachers talk WITH teachers (instead of AT them), is a palpable example of how to open up discursive spaces for reflective talk.

Did see Nathan, which was excellent.

Rather than hang around and attend the other conference sessions, I hurried back to school - some loose ends etc. I realise this might be pretty sad, but I have a VASS (VCE Administration Software System) deadline on Monday.

When I arrived back at school I found the staffroom door locked - it is never locked. It turns out that everyone else had gone to lunch. A few days ago we had talked about the need to 'get out' more - i.e. get out of the school more together - lunch, dinner, etc. Just to talk about work and whatever else without hassles and interruptions.

KB needs to know that she is doing a FANTASTIC job getting this faculty 'online' again. I don't mean technological, but TOGETHER and REVITALISED. There is a noticable difference in the attitudes and motivation of some staff. I think she probably feels that all her hard work is not achieving much. I guess sometimes it can be hard to see change that close - esp when you are a major part of it. For what its worth I think she's excellent. GO KAZZA! She doesn't know it, but a discursive space is slowly being opened up for productive talk (even if this means stating dissatisfaction with the status quo). This includes the idea of an English 'newsletter', more time with each other outside of the workplace (lunch etc.) and even the possibiliy of some subversive publishing (we thought we could publish a little book of all the bosses amusing, mental and stupid quips).

enough ... (oh and Es back from a week in Syd!)