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An Identity of One's Own



Some thoughts about teaching, learning and literature from someone who is still pretty new at this...



Updated: 2015-10-03T22:24:50.793+10:00

 



Planning a writing workshop

2011-09-07T10:59:43.422+10:00

It's interesting the way it all starts to come together. I am planning the next workshop for our inquiry group of pre-service teachers, who are currently away from campus on their final, five week teaching practicum.
This session will be a writing workshop: an opportunity for them to share and reflect critically on their experiences during their practicum so far. Hopefully, they will bring along some in progress writing to share (their impending assignment is an extended critical narrative about the teaching of writing).

Preparing for this workshop is bringing to mind some of the workshops that the Advocacy Group organised (when we still existed as a 'formal' entity) a few years back. This notion of writing (and talk) as a form of advocacy is something that I hope the pre-service teachers will be able to 'take away' with them after their participation in their group, even if they don't continue to experiment with new media, new literacies and the other buzz words next year.



Image source: http://staff.esuhsd.org/danielle/english%20department%20lvillage/informational.html



A common table

2011-09-01T14:10:45.824+10:00

I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment as I reflect on all that we have achieved so far with the English and new media inquiry groups that we have set up at Monash.The opportunity stemmed, initially, from a government funded project which enabled universities around the country to second teachers in schools to work with pre-service teachers in universities. The idea was to use the experienced teacher to help university lecturers develop curriculum that 'skilled' pre-service teachers up to be more confident about using 'ICTs' in the classroom. Of course, there are all sorts of tension and issues associated with an approach like this, with the teacher 'mixin' it wid th kids' each day positioned as the 'expert', rather than considering the prospect that such a partnership might be mutually beneficial. It certainly has been for me. Needless to say, we haven't really adopted the expected approach to this project. What we have done is set up two inquiry groups, one for interested pre-service English teachers at Monash, the other for practising teachers (all Monash graduates). The pre-service teacher group (with an amorphous collection of around 15 members)  has met together four times now. Each week, we explore a different avenue into multimodality, with a view to engaging in some critical discussion about the issues, challenges and possibilities that each avenue raises. We have explored multimodal narratives, such as Inanimate Alice and Such Tweet Sorrow; web 2.0 tools for creating texts, such as flickr, storybird and pixton; we have created our own digital narratives using images from Shaun Tan's picture books and art. It was wonderful to hear, after catching up with some of them last night, that our workshops have made them feel excited about the possibilities and what they can achieve with their classes during their final five week practicum.The practising teacher group is composed of teachers from a rich variety of school contexts. They range from Monash graduates in their first year out, to teachers who have been in the profession for twenty-odd years. Each one of them has been an exciting and dynamic presence in the group. We have met twice, face to face, over pizza, nibblies and wine. There is already a lovely rhythm to the conversation that develops, for each member of the group has so much to contribute. In our last session, a few members of the group took the lead by sharing snapshots of their practice. One teacher shared screen grabs of the 'Pride and Prejudice' facebook profiles that her students had created, and the discussion that unfolded amongst the group in response to these artefacts was fascinating. About playfulness, identity, language, experimentation, dialogue... Another teacher spoke about podcasting student feedback instead of writing it, but her approach was actually about far more than that. She spoke about how she felt that she was now responding as an interested reader of her students' work, instead of assuming the mantle of 'the teacher'. Another teacher shared these amazing ‘tweets’ from year 8s in a history class (she called the activity ‘twitstory’). I don’t think that she had realised, initially, just how cool they actually were. She gave each student a tag , such as #battleofhastings and they had to come up with a relevant tweet. They were just brilliant. So funny and so clever. I can already sense that this group will take on a life of its own, beyond the span of the government-funded project that has enabled it. It is a testament to the value of collaborative inquiry and the possibilities that arise when you get a group of passionate English teachers around a common table. Image from: http://ryanbushphotography.com/#[...]



Stumbling over unpublished blogposts…

2011-07-12T15:58:02.496+10:00

(from July, 2010I have spent the past few days in Perth, attending the AATE conference for teachers of English. This afternoon, deciding not to attend a keynote presentation on phonics, I walked beside the Swan River. In a garden near the Burswood complex, I found two sculptures. In a way that felt rather serendipitous, looking at these sculptures and reading the plaques nearby, seemed to capture the 'lessons' at the forefront of my mind after listening to the voices of various researchers, educators, and even a lawyer, over the past few days.The first sculpture that I stumbled upon was entitled 'The Storyteller'. The figure represented was Mary Durack, a local historian. In the sculpture, there are two 'Marys' represented- a young girl, representing Mary's youth, and Mary as a woman, taking on the role of an ancestor passing on a family history. The older Mary reads a book entitled 'The Swan River Saga' to her younger self, and so the narrative within its covers acts as a link between generations, or ways of knowing the world- as a child and as an adult. Conferences of this size always seem to convey this dichotomy to me- experienced voices and newer voices, conversing in the same space. The opportunity to listen to Bill Green talking about his 3D model of Literacy, for example, brings it to life in a way that cannot be captured in quite the same way as printed text. He reflected on the idea of using a model, such as his, as a vehicle for 'thinking' and 'talking' about literacy- a point of shared understanding, or a common starting point, that then forges the possibility of re-thinking and re-making our own model or metaphor. He stressed the importance of conceptualising literacy in a way that 'does justice' to the practice of literacy. The need for a framework that is rich and generative instead of reductive and without the potential to shift and grow through changing times. In the same panel discussion, Catherine Beavis applied Green's model to the teaching of digital literacies. As is typical in discussions about digital literacies amongst teachers, there was some disquiet expressed about teachers' knowledge of the 'operational' aspects of technology- and whether their lack of knowledge impedes their ability to use digital technology in creative and generative ways in their classes. I really appreciated Catherine's response to this- that teachers need to have sense of what they are looking for in student-generated digital texts- of how to articulate their understanding of the evidence of student learning in the 'product'. In this way, Green's model becomes a useful framework for analysing student-created texts as well as 'reading' the texts of others or planning for learning. It made me reflect on the complexities of assessing multimodal/digital texts that my students have created in the past.Some of my students have produced digital texts that have had a pronounced effect on me, and their peers for that matter, as the 'audience'. Most of my work in this area has been about merging poetry with digital technology and multimodality. My students have created multimodal interpretations, incorporating sound, music, images and animation, of poems by Plath, Blake, Dylan Thomas... the list goes on. My initial response to the texts that they create is often driven by emotions stirred by the music, the images, and the appropriation of the poet's words by the student. They can be profoundly moving and often seem to suggest an engagement with and understanding of the nuances of mood, language, and imagery in the poem in far more sophisticated and subtle ways than they may be able to demonstrate in a 'typical' poetry response like an analytical essay. But, more recently I have found myself wondering how much of those nuances are suggested by design and how much are made possible by the affordances of the technology platform and the sensibilities of the audience. The same difficulties arise in assessing all forms of writing, I suppose, but when the technology becomes more tha[...]



New beginnings

2011-04-19T23:03:19.666+10:00

I'm back. :)

I find myself, once again, arriving at a new beginning and so it feels natural to return to this blog and, hopefully, turn it into a new space. (a space that I will visit regularly- I hope!)

I have just embarked on a part-time secondment at M Uni, which means that for the remainder of this year I will be working across different spaces... my school... an education faculty in a university... other schools.... digital realms....

I'm excited, and nervous, about the prospect of shaping a new identity for myself (one more addition to my collection of multiple selves) in this university space as a... as what? Which label to affix here? And do I even deserve this shiny new label? (shh... don't tell anyone that I haven't figured that out yet)

One of the goals of the government-funded project that I am involved in (henceforth to be known as TTFF in case I want to write critically in this space further down the track at the risk of google gremlins tracking me down) is to improve the ICT capabilities of pre-service teachers before they enter this 'brave new world' of future-oriented curriculum documentation and classrooms full of digital natives. That's the rhetoric, anyway. I'm not particularly interested in buying into that sort of discourse. What I am interested in is the prospect of participating in, and providing opportunities for, some rich, ongoing conversations about English teaching, technology, what matters and what is possible, between pre-service teachers, English teachers and teacher educators.

The challenge is that there are so many possibilities.



It has been six months since my last (confession) blogpost..

2010-01-27T20:08:09.605+11:00

Back at school. In Oz. Noice.

It has been quite a while since I have felt any compulsion to blog... I'm not sure exactly what that means... or if it means anything at all.... it's just the way things have turned out.


After travelling through Europe until I ran out of dough, I returned to Australia and did some CRT work and other bits and pieces whilst looking for a new position for 2010.


At my new school today, I was excited and reassured by the new Principal's speech about community and creativity; interesting and interested colleagues; and intriguing opportunities for professional learning and development.


Two more staff days to go. Then, I get to teach again. Noice. :)

(image)



36 hours

2009-07-19T07:39:52.311+10:00

For the past 36 hours my head has been in danger of exploding. My school in England closed for the summer, I have said goodbye, and there is so much to process.

I won't deny that I have found it tough, arriving in January to pick up the pieces after two teachers that left before me and attempting to hit the ground running. There were times when I thought that I wasn't going to make it. But I have.

I can't claim to have made any sizeable difference though, or to feel anything close to the sense of satisfaction and completion that I experienced after leaving my school in Australia after five years in 2008. I know that I have only been teaching over here for a short time, and I'm sure that if I stayed for another year it would get a lot easier, although I'm not sure that I would want it to. This isn't an education system that I have any desire to 'get used to'. Even if there have been recent signs of the UK learning from the past. The decision at the beginning of this year to do away with the Year 9 SATs is one, and the recent reports in the media about government plans to return some autonomy to schools and local districts is another. But I am looking forward to getting back to teaching the Victorian curriculum with its emphasis on multimodality and metacognition, where creativity and deep thinking aren't sidelined by 'the basics'. Not that it is this simple- I know full well that curriculum documentation is only a small part of the conversation in a learning environment full of diverse students and teachers. But at least without the constant oversight, the threat of Ofsted inspectors and heavily regulated teacher performance system, they at least have a fighting chance.

There have been numerous times this year when I have stopped and thought to myself, 'oh, where is that learning focus gone?' or 'why are the processes of reading and writing treated so seperately over here?' I guess the fact that I have had the opportunity to ask these questions, to realise what it is possible to lose from our curriculum back home is worthwhile enough, particularly as we continue to march forwards towards a National Curriculum. My experiences here will certainly colour my perceptions and contributions to this ongoing debate when I arrive home.

For now, I am going to attempt to 'let go' and enjoy the rest of my travels before I head home and have to figure out what I am going to do with myself in 2010.

(image)



Arrival

2009-06-15T05:30:08.938+10:00

Heathrow airport at 10pm in January is a miserable place. After queuing for hours in customs and retrieving my two-ton suitcase containing all of my worldly possessions from the luggage carousel, I gazed bewilderingly at the regimented rows of Britons marching smartly towards signs to the tube station. I, on the other hand, sought out the counter for the national express airport- to-hotel bus service that I had booked back in Australia, not wanting to risk complicated transport routes on my first night in the country.I was directed by a woman in a twin-set to take a seat on the lonely row of moulded chairs beside the automatic doors. I pulled my massive suitcase over to the chairs and peered out through the glass doors for my first glimpse of England. An occasional set of headlights loomed through the darkness, but no sign of my bus. Through the mist a man in a fluorescent orange vest appeared, walking purposefully towards the glass doors. The doors slid open... the shock of cold sent me scurrying back to my suitcase to retrieve my coat.Precisely thirty minutes later I, along with a few other hapless Aussies, drove through the swirling mists towards central London. We seemed to take a circuitous route through streets lined with curry houses and signs reading ‘off-license’ until, two hours later, I was unceremoniously dropped in front of a BnB in Bloomsbury. Too cold to revel in the fact that I was standing on a street that members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood may have strolled along, I pressed the buzzer beside the bright blue door and waited, hands thrust deep inside my coat pockets.‘Hiya,’ said the blonde in a sing-song voice as the door pulled back. ‘Are ye a’right?’I blinked. Am I alright? Unsure how to answer the question, I responded with, ‘I have a booking’.‘Brilliant,’ she replied. She stepped back and allowed me to retrieve my suitcase from the pavement and haul it up the short flight of stairs and into the carpeted hallway. A forbidding staircase appeared before me, covered with red and yellow paisley carpet.‘I’ll get my husband’.‘Sure,’ I replied, staring at the portrait of a stern individual in navy uniform who glared at me from above the sideboard.Minutes later a short, thin man with a cream t-shirt tucked tightly into his jeans stepped into the hallway. ‘Good evening,’ he said.‘Good evening,’ I replied, stepping forward and revealing my suitcase cowering behind me. His eyes widened in horror.‘We don’t have a lift,’ he said softly.‘What?’ I replied, looking around in confusion, ‘well, that doesn’t matter, I...’‘We don’t have a lift and you’re on the fourth floor.’‘Oh,’ I replied, still not sure what the big deal was- I’ve climbed stairs before in my time. Then, I became aware of his fixed gaze on my suitcase.‘Oh,’ I laughed, suddenly comprehending, ‘that’s ok, I can handle...’‘No,’ he sighed, stepping past me and grabbing my suitcase handle determinedly. ‘I’ll do it.’‘No, really, I...’He heaved my suitcase up the first two steps and balanced there for a moment. I stepped meekly behind him.‘What have you got in here?’ he scowled.‘All my worldly possessions,’ I laughed, then stopped. My host wasn’t laughing.‘I’m moving here,’ I tried again. ‘That’s why I...’I let my voice trail off as he sucked in a deep breath and pulled my suitcase up another couple of stairs.‘Hmph,’ he said.Ten minutes later, he unlocked the door to my tiny room. ‘Breakfast is at 8:00,’ he huffed, before heading back down the stairs. I could still hear him wheezing as I stepped inside and closed the door. I held out my arms to touch each wall. I felt the tears well.‘I’m here,’ I whispered, and unzipped my suitcase to pull out my scarf, gloves and thermal underwear, ready for tomorrow.(after reading the prologue of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a s[...]



Late night photo shoot

2009-06-11T07:49:05.142+10:00

Possessed by the night spirits, I left my flat at 10pm with my camera, pen and journal. Here is the result.
(image) (image) (image) I sought the river, but it was the shadows that followed me home.
(image) (image)






The Sound of Music

2009-05-22T04:10:38.663+10:00

allowFullScreen='true' webkitallowfullscreen='true' mozallowfullscreen='true' width='320' height='266' src='https://www.blogger.com/video.g?token=AD6v5dza2AuAF5xJ-ewDbzgrRFArRqlTPsxX6_l45a86L1pfjbxGgTyLF0NiHg5m4U1WjLt5HWAFw3_bGQ' class='b-hbp-video b-uploaded' FRAMEBORDER='0' />

I am heading to Salzburg next week- looking forward to the Sound of Music tour!




Good News Stories

2009-05-17T06:59:05.902+10:00

I have been consumed with what is lacking in my new school, in this UK education system. I must remind myself to keep looking for the good learning and teaching moments, because they are there. This week, I will be getting my Year 7 classes to design their ideal school. We have been reading David Almond's novel, Skellig, in which the home-schooled Mina agrees with William Blake that schools are institutions which "drive[s] all joy away".

(image) Hopefully, they will prove the poet wrong.



Limitations

2009-04-01T06:53:09.904+11:00

I had an extremely frustrating lesson with one of my year 8 classes today. The first objective, which I wasn't expecting to be at all problematic, was to return their reading and writing assessments (discussed in last post) and have them record their 'levels' and 'targets for improvement' on their ongoing progress record, which was what I was instructed to do. Sounds pretty simple, right?My first mistake was to assume that they were familiar with their assessment grids, or at least had gone through them before. I was told not to provide written feedback for this task (thankfully, because I only had a week to assess 60 of them before recording their results on their reports) and circle the outcomes that they needed to improve in order to progress to the next level.I started to take them through it- they couldn't make head nor tail of it, and so began to lose focus and concentration pretty much straight away. This is a pretty tricky group at the best of times- so them not having a clue descended pretty quickly to mayhem. I was so frustrated at the time, and still am, at myself now rather than them (during the class, I wanted to throttle every last one of 'em). I should have known better. But, the question needs to be asked, why are we even bothering to return these app grids to students when they include language like, 'syntax and full range of punctuation are consistently accurate in a variety of sentence structures, with occasional errors in ambitious structures'? I mean, what is it that we are trying to achieve here?? What the "*&! is a Year 8 kid meant to do with that?There is a clear focus in the school (and I'm assuming other schools in England as well) of students knowing their current 'levels', and what 'level' they are expected to reach by the end of each stage of schooling. Students even have them on the front of their exercise books as a stark reminder of what is at stake! There is nothing wrong, on the surface, with students having clear achievement goals set before them. But when it becomes so arbitrary, and mathematical, like 'every student should be able to improve by two sub-levels within a year', there are so many assumptions being made about student learning (not to mention teacher performance) that simply aren't being addressed.At Key stage 3 (years 7-9) the assessment grids are the same for each individual assessment- one for 'reading'tasks, one for 'writing' tasks. The criteria are weighted differently (sentence and paragraph structures rank highly; writing 'imaginative and interesting texts', for example, is lower down the list). So, there are assumptions made about the skills that are valued, for a start. More troubling to me is the way that the same assessment foci for each task limit possibilities in the classroom- in terms of creating assessment tasks that 'meet' these same criteria, rather than using the learning itself as the starting point. And, when student performance data is so important for schools over here, it doesn't take a great leap of thinking to see that that is a likely outcome. 'Negotiating the curriculum' is one thing, schools having the courage and fortitude to go completely against the grain and value other skills is another.Thinking more deeply, what is truly worrying is how such narrow conceptions of 'successful' writing and reading will affect the way that students, as citizens of the world, will be able to value, appreciate, critique and, indeed, create texts that do not subscribe to these narrow parameters. What kinds of writers and readers are we trying to foster?I guess I'm just sick of feeling bad about the crap job that I feel I'm doing when I am having to grapple with so many limitations and parameters.[...]



The Surface

2009-03-27T08:00:00.166+11:00

(image)
I commented to one of my new colleagues the other day that I feel I have been 'tunnelling along' and have only just managed to stick my head up and have a look around during the past week or so.

I am working with good people, but in a flawed system.

Still, I suspected that would be the case before I even arrived in the country.

This past week has had a heavy assessment focus- year 8 assessments using very rigid (and frustratingly narrow) app criteria for 3 classes with a one week turnaround, and a day of moderating GCSE (year 11) coursework. This was a very 'quiet' day, and I missed the discussions over benchmarking that occur in my school back home. Still, they have a lot more to get down over here- whole folders of coursework have to sent off for external moderation (the paperwork alone seems ridiculous) and it is important to get them 'right' before they go. I found out today that things will shift again in 2011 when all coursework will be required to be completed in classtime under exam conditions. The UK did the right thing by getting rid of SATs this year, but they seem to be counteracting this move with even more rigid assessment practices in the GCSE. One step forward, two steps back.

My mind feels so alive at the moment- like waking up after a long sleep. I feel that I am thinking more thoughtfully, critically, about my own work and education in general than I have for a while.. but at the same time I am wondering what is the point of it all. Since my head has managed to pop above the surface, I have noticed all of these 'gaps'- missing pieces of my subject knowledge that I have taken for granted in Australia. Like multimodality... critical literacy... alternative readings... where have they gone? Where is their place in this strange, CS Lewis Wonderland of an education system?

I keep getting frustrated at myself when classes don't go the way I planned, or when it is taking longer than I would like to forge positive relationships with some of my classes, or when I feel lost and inadequate trying to make sense of an app grid... but then I have to stop myself from taking it out on me all the time- there are so many systemic reasons why these things are happening that aren't all my fault, that may in fact have very little to do with me. Everyone is very helpful, but trying to figure out what the right questions are to ask sometimes to get the answer that you don't yet know you need can be tricky, particularly when you don't recognise the pitfalls in a system that is not (thank God) your own.

Anyway, now that my head is above the surface, at least some of the time, I am going to work on feeling like my old 'teaching self' again.





Notes from a moleskine journal

2009-03-19T06:18:35.505+11:00

29/12/08, Somewhere over Russia

I am flying over Russia, following the sun. I was so nervous before I left home, but now that I am on my big adventure it feels right.

When I woke in South Korea this morning, there was snow on the ground. Korea reminded me of Thailand in some ways; the high level of organisation with stickers and directions and prompt service, but without the chaos. I didn't feel as though I was walking into another world the way I did when I walked, as though in slow motion, through the outer doors of Bangkok's airport into mayhem. Incheon is neat and polite, unobtrusive.

On the first leg of my flight, a Korean movie was playing called, well, I forgot what it was called, but it was about a sports coach trying to make it as an English teacher. A noble feat indeed. Here, as in Thailand, English is held in the highest regard- it is a source of power.

I was reminded of this again during breakfast this morning, reading an English translation of the 'Korean News'. The front page story- above the news of 200 dead in the Gaza strip after the Israeli bombings- was about the Korean government relaxing its immigration rules to allow other English speaking foreigners (outside the US, UK, Aust and S. Africa) to apply for positions as English teachers in Korea. Their hope is to expand the pool of qualified teachers for conversation classes. The America accent- their preference- is not so highly valued anymore. And, as I modify my own English in order to communicate, as I attempt to cut out my colloquialisms, mannerisms and excentricities, I wonder why English has ended up ruling the world for so long.


The sun is a yellow haze on the horizon. Soft, gentle. It must be growing colder- the clouds are no longer visible beneath the grey fog.





Austen moment

2009-03-18T09:49:04.762+11:00

Reading Mansfield Park is a totally different experience when you are living less than an hour away from Portsmouth and less than two hours from Bath. ;)
(image)



Relationships

2009-03-18T09:49:51.175+11:00

Starting in a new school has reinforced how important relationships are in my teaching. They are taken for granted until you have to start building them all over again. I am amazed at how much my teaching style has had to change without that 'relationship capital' in my backpocket. Slowly, surely, I'm building them again...



(image)

We had the experience but missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets)







Sixth letter home (extract)

2009-03-13T08:15:50.552+11:00

10th March, 2009I should be marking because I have just collected 90 pieces of work this week (the downside of having multiple, 30+ junior classes) but I can’t be stuffed and I want to write.I am settling into 'new school' now that I am here five days a week, which is both good and bad. I am glad to be in the same place every day (kind of), but I am finding the place a bit challenging, in a number of ways. The glossy, pretty picture that I was shown at my interview of those ‘excellent’ results and that angelic year 7 class has certainly faded, I am starting to think that this school is just plain weird. I have certainly been to Mass more times in the past two weeks (Lent is to blame) than I have in the last five or so years. I still remember everything. But that isn’t the weird part. The weird part is the way that people interact within this school community, what is expected of each individual, and what ‘teaching and learning’ actually means here.The last two weeks have been a case in point. GCSE coursework (for Year 11 students) was due at the end of last week, and consequently my colleagues have been running around like Molly (my dog) after some cruel person hides her ball. The reason for this is that they are not simply having to chase students for work that should have been completed during the last few weeks, but coursework that may have been set sometime during Year 10 (how re-doing an oral on Romeo and Juliet six months after the text was studied is actually going to help anyone is beyond me). There are no penalties set by the school for late coursework, or by the Welsh board, it seems, so as long as students get it in before final deadline (ie, the end of Year 11), everything is all hunky dory. In many instances, the students that teachers have been chasing are repeating coursework, because they did not receive their ‘target’ grade the first time around (or the second) and are therefore asked to resubmit. At a first glance, this might sound like a policy with student learning at the centre, right? Let’s give them opportunities to develop their skills over time, and learn from their mistakes? Wrong. It is patently obvious that the only reason for all of this pressure on teachers is the school’s desperation to get as many A-C grades as possible in order to look good in the league tables. Not that this is just the school’s fault, of course. The Education system has become so entrenched in this culture of statistics and numerical values and quantitative data that little else seems to matter. Which is why the school deems it necessary to hold staff meetings in which individual teachers are asked why student X did not receive a C for this task and whether the teacher thinks it would be at all possible to lift their result (please, pretty please?). Only if it is justified, of course (wink, wink). The result of this is that students are encouraged to take absolutely no responsibility for their own learning, and teachers have to shoulder it all.Anyway, I was disappointed at first when I heard that I wouldn’t have any senior classes as part of my load, but after seeing the stress that people have been under during the past few weeks I’m not at all sorry now.Some days, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. For example, this is the gist of a staffroom conversation that I overheard between two colleagues (one local and one from further afield):A: Is this the criteria for the speaking and listening task?B: Yes.A: But... this criteria only refers to content, not skills. Can I change it, so I can give them some more useful feedback?B: Well, that’s made from the official Nation[...]



Fifth letter home (extract)

2009-03-13T08:08:20.576+11:00

21st February, 2009 It has been difficult to write to everyone about happy news over the last couple of weeks, especially after seeing the coverage of the bushfires and hearing about the effect that they have had on my old school community in particular. It has been difficult to be here, and not there, but probably not as difficult as it has been to live amongst it. I was sad to hear about A’s house in particular, after having him in my tutor group, as well as the others.Anyway, I had intended to write some more about school, but now I just want to write about Paris! I spent the half-term break (schools in England have at least a week off every six weeks, gotta love it) in Paris, and arrived back in Guildford last night.I went over on the Eurostar when I found a special deal that I could use that wasn’t going to cost me much more than flying, and was so glad I did, because it was so much fun. I love the Eurostar. Drinking wine whilst watching France slip by at breakneck speed- what could be better?!I stayed in a hostel that was fairly far out of the centre, but it was right near a metro station, so that was fine. It smelt like disinfectant so I knew it was clean, so I treated the smell as a plus. It was much quieter than I had anticipated, not many people around, but that was ok because I was out and about from 7:30 each morning until about 11 at night. I crammed a lot in, but still only managed to do about a third of what I had hoped.When I arrived I made a beeline for Notre Dame and arrived when the organist was playing, so that was pretty incredible. The tower had closed for the day so I couldn’t go up and inspect the gargoyles.On my first full day I went on a free walking tour of the city that lasted for about four hours with Ange, the teacher from 'tiny town' who was staying in the same hostel as me. It was run by a slightly annoying but fairly knowledgeable Canadian ‘dude’ and it gave me a good sense (kind of) of the layout of the city. I still managed to get lost every time I tried to use a map though. We went to Montmartre in the evening and unknowingly ate dinner in Amelie’s cafe and I had my ‘Amelie moment’, tapping on the crisp toffee shell of my crème brulee. Sacre Coeur was beautiful at night (there are photos on flickr) and I thought of you while I was there, P.After that, I ditched Ange during the days so that I could see Paris in my own way, and we caught up in the evenings for dinner and plenty of glasses of kir (a regional French aperitif, or at least that’s what the Polish guy in the bar who recommended it to us said). We ran amok in streets of Paris, taking extremely un-Parisian photos, and discovering the free view of Venus de Milo (I can tell you which window if anyone wants to know!)I saved the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay until the end of my trip, because I knew that if I didn’t I’d spend too much time there and miss out on seeing everything else. The Louvre was a breathtaking spectacle, but the long hallways and crammed walls meant that there was just too much to see. I spent most of my time with the Italian paintings, but even that was too much to achieve any sense of narrative or understanding. Mona, behind her wall of glass, was nowhere near as impressive as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. I loved, loved, loved the Musee d’Orsay though. The Van Gogh room was just incredible, seeing his brushwork close up added so much to my appreciation of his work. And it was wonderful to see so many Monets. It was such a beautiful space, too. I spent one of my days in Chartres, about an hour out of Paris. I wanted to see th[...]



Fourth letter home (extract)

2009-03-13T07:51:20.624+11:00

31st January, 2009 I can’t believe that I have been in England for over a month. At the same time, it seems like much longer than that, because so much has happened. I am looking forward to everything being a lot more settled now that I have the job front sorted, but I’m also lamenting an earlier return to regular marking and lesson planning than I was hoping for! Oh well.My first three days at 'new school' went well, although it was certainly a case of ‘information overload’. Starting four weeks into a term, following a supply teacher who had only stayed for three weeks, is going to mean a lot of careful planning to ensure that I can cover the learning outcomes within the time remaining- before I have really come to grips with the individual skill levels of the students under my care. From what I can gather, the students have been left to mostly faff about or watch the dvds during the last three weeks, so we have a lot of catching up to do. The fact that I am still teaching at 'tiny town' two days a week until half term (because I’m more interested in doing the right thing than my agency was) also means that I am having to leave extras for the teaching assistant who will be filling in for me at 'new school' while I’m not there- hardly ideal. Anyway, we’ll get there.The English faculty has ten members, and from what I have seen so far they are all intelligent and engaged, and mostly young. They have been really helpful and I have no doubt they will continue to be, but at the same time 'new school' has no staff induction system to speak of. I rocked up on Monday morning and was teaching my own lessons from period one onwards... and that was it! At least the curriculum is well planned out so I’m not going in there completely blind, but the assessment and reporting practices are still a mystery, so I’m hoping to come to grips with that asap so that I don’t end up with a big mess on my hands. Getting to know my students will be more difficult than I am used to- I have three year 7 classes, two year 8s, a year 9, a year 10 and a year 8 drama class. That’s double the number of classes that I have been teaching in Oz over the last couple of years, and I’m actually under allotted by four whole periods. The 7-9 classes have over one hour less class time than they get at my old school, and the senior classes are about the same. I am missing 70 minute classes in which you can actually get quite a bit done. I am also missing laptops and access to technology in general. The change is going to make quite a difference to my teaching style, but that’s not the only change, of course.Working in exercise books has become quite an art-form over here! The students use different codes for course work and homework, and get quite agitated if you forget to write the date on the board or give them a heading, or don’t specify whether or not you want something written in the margin (margins? Try getting a kid at my old school to even rule one). Even the senior students, who wouldn’t give a stuff about headings and whatnot at my old school ask for bloody headings. I have to work pretty hard to bite my tongue and not say, ‘who cares? This isn’t learning- you’re never going to write in a bloomin’ exercise book again once you leave school and it’s just wasting our learning time’... but that wouldn’t go over very well. Suffice to say, I don’t think that developing independent learners is a focus of the English education system. The students are quite cute (a lot of them anyway- not the year 10’s so much) but I am so out of[...]



Third letter home (extract)

2009-03-13T07:37:40.653+11:00

15th January, 2009I have had an ‘interesting’ week (this is me remaining optimistic). After spending the weekend ‘moving in’- lugging my two-ton suitcase up the four flights of stairs and walking back and forth to main street with things like ironing boards and saucepans in my arms- I got an early night on Sunday night to wake up early on Monday morning. I showered, breakfasted, and sat and waited for the phone to ring. It did, eventually, with the pronouncement that there was no work available today, but that I would be paid anyway because of my contract (they have to find me five days of work a week and I need to be available every day). It was a bit of letdown... for about five minutes before I decided to head into London and visit the Tate Modern instead. Not bad for a day’s work! On Tuesday, the same thing happened again- I got up early, sat around in my work clothes until nine, tempting by pouring over guide books deciding what I would do if there was no work, then headed off to nearby Salisbury (about an hour away by train). I visited the beautiful cathedral, strolled around the town and got on a bus to visit Stonehenge before the sun set. Again, not bad for a day’s work. On Wednesday, when after I went through the same morning rigmarole with the same outcome I headed into town to attend to some errands, and bought some postcards with the intention of sitting in a cafe for the afternoon and writing to you. Before I made it to the cafe (the Garden Room, if anyone is interested or likely to be in Guildford any time soon(!). You walk in and it literally feels like you are in a greenhouse for the first five minutes until you adjust to the temperature, but after that it’s fine. They serve fruit scones with jam and clotted cream, and make their own mayo for their sandwiches. I would be the size of a house if it wasn’t for all the exercise that I have been getting, but I think I am actually losing weight.)... anyway, I got a phone call from my agent and my blissful plans for the afternoon changed in an instant.He reported that they had overestimated how much work would be available in Surrey (the agency had just opened up in the area, and their idea had been to use me to help them make connections with schools) and as a result they would have to terminate my guaranteed work scheme, as of Tuesday next week. I couldn’t begin to tell you what I thought. I had done my part-the only school I had been sent to so far had said they would contact the company with more supply work if it was available. After repeating how sorry he was he asked me if I had anything to say, and I had nothing to say (I had plenty to say later on, after I had gotten over the shock). So, I had signed a six-month lease just two days previously, and now the company was ending the contract that guaranteed me five days pay each week... after just three days of no work. I won’t go into this anymore, apart from saying that I’m not letting it beat me and I’m working through it. My agent is working doubly hard to find me work, and I believe that he is genuinely sorry for what has happened- Surrey was the first region that he was put in charge of and I think he got in over his head. My contract wasn’t terminated by him, but by his money-obsessed senior manager (I’ve never met him, this is just how imagine him when I line him up in front of a firing squad in my head) and as a result there have been some fairly intense conversations taking place between him and myself.Anyway, I’ve made contact with another agency that special[...]



Second letter home (extract)

2009-03-13T07:25:59.681+11:00

9th January, 2009 I have been living in Guildford for about a week now, which is quite a large town in Surrey (Jane Austen country) about 40 or so minutes out of London. It’s bigger than W-gul, but quite similar in terms of demographics (apart from socio-economic status, so rent is more expensive here it seems than in London). It wasn’t until I arrived in Guildford that I started hearing predominantly English accents- I heard mostly European voices and languages in London, particularly French and Italian. Guildford was alienating in a similar way to the way I found W-gul to be, when I first started working there (the sameness).It’s a beautiful town- it has its own castle (built in the 12th century), cathedral, and canal boats. But it also has Starbucks, Maccas, KFC and Marks and Spencer! I have enjoyed getting to know the town and getting myself settled whilst making friends with my real estate agent, bank clerk, employment agent, etc. (I’ll take friendly voices where I can get them, right now) but it has been quite stressful, too, as you can probably imagine. I am looking forward to my first paycheque in pounds so that I can stop watching my Aussie dollars disappear before my eyes, but it won’t be for a little while because I am using this dodgy (well, it seems dodgy to me, but everyone does it so I’m not arguing) off-shore bank account kind of set-up where I don’t pay anywhere near as much tax but have to wait slightly longer to get paid. I started work on Thursday at a school in a tiny town, about a ten minute train ride from Guildford. I will be there every Thursday and Friday until half term at least, filling in for a sick English teacher, so it will be nice to have a bit of consistency without too much responsibility! It went quite well, mostly. I taught mainly Years 7-9, including Romeo and Juliet to year 8’s (I can’t escape from that bloody play), poetry to year 7’s, etc. I had one Year 10 class at the end of my first day which was an absolute nightmare (but probably nowhere near as bad as it could have been if I was in central London). It started with their teacher announcing to them that he had to go and look after another class that had had a string of supply teachers, so he was going to have to leave them with a supply teacher (ie, me) for a lesson. (yes, thanks for that- very helpful). So that was great! To add to the agony, they had just come straight from a mock exam, and it was the last lesson of the day. I haven’t been in a situation even similar to that since one of my teaching rounds. There were too many spotfires to put out, I didn’t have a list of kids’ names, and the task that they had been left to do was, quite simply, stupid, and very confusing. So yes, not fun. But the rest of the classes were lively, but nice. English kids are just as funny as Aussie kids, which was nice to discover. So, I had a few successes, and I’m feeling quite good about going back there next week. Where I end up from Mon-Wed will be a mystery until Sunday night.I’m not even close to understanding the curriculum yet, but one thing that was really interesting (but quite the norm in England) was the way that each year level was streamed- and not just into top and bottom, but into about four-five different levels. I think that it is an absolute travesty. Great for the top kids, perhaps, but it is quite clearly a myth that the kids in the bottom groups will get what they need when there are so many behavioural problems and learning difficulties lumped together i[...]



First letter home (extract)

2009-03-13T07:12:56.678+11:00

... So far, everything has felt more familiar and comfortable than I was expecting during the admittedly anxious weeks before I got on the plane. As soon as I was looking through the plane window at a miniature London during a very slow descent into Heathrow, I regained that sense of euphoria that I had when I dreamed about this adventure before it became reality. It was a relief to feel that again. When I arrived at my shoebox of a room in a hotel in Bloomsbury (yes, Bloomsbury- I like writing that) it felt like 3:00am, because it was, back in Melbourne. Despite being determined to stay awake until a later hour to combat jetlag, I fell asleep immediately. Walking off my English breakfast the next morning, I discovered so many places that already had meaning in my literary imagination. Russell Square... Bloomsbury Square... Bedford Place... Just metres from my hotel I stumbled across this:And then this:Although I searched for Virginia Woolf’s plague in the area, I haven’t found it yet.I have spent each day since my arrival travelling around London and trying to see as much as possible. I visited good ol’ John Donne in St. Paul’s Cathedral which was absolutely incredible. The religious shrines have been my favourite sights so far- Southwark Cathedral, which I stumbled upon whilst the bells were ringing was even more beautiful than St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey to me. What I have found most surprising is how compact central London feels. I can walk from Bloomsbury down Tottenham Court Road and end up in the West End after 10 minutes or so, and every time I turned a corner during the first couple of days I discovered yet another cultural icon (or monopoly square). I have been to the Tower of London, looked up at Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Buckingham Palace, elbowed my way down Regent Street during the sales (big mistake), strolled around Covent Garden, walked awestruck through the British Museum... I feel like a pro at navigating the tube now. I love it. For one thing, it’s underground, so I don’t need to rely on my awful sense of direction, and as long as I follow the little coloured lines in the right direction, it’s all good. Two of the highlights for me so far have been seeing Twelfth Night on the West End, and walking around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I was queuing in the freezing cold outside the theatre for returns on New Year’s Eve (I am very grateful to everyone who made me get thermals) when an American couple came over and asked if anyone was after one ticket. I said, ‘Me! I am!’. They were going to give me the ticket for free but I insisted on paying, we agreed on 20 pounds and I ended up sitting smack bang in the middle of the second row! It was wonderful, and the theatre was beautiful. Since then, I have resisted temptation and haven’t seen any more shows, because it could easily become a very expensive addiction. I will have to pace myself. Hyde Park was all wintery and atmospheric. I will have to go again during the spring, but I love the way that London’s parks look in the late afternoon when the mists hang in the air (and the squirrels are very cute).Tomorrow I am moving to a hotel in Guildford, Surrey, and then reality will have to take a front seat for a while whilst I look for somewhere to live. There are a few options, so hopefully at least one of them will be decent. Then, I have a meeting with the teaching agency on Monday the fifth and after that I will start work, and then re[...]



Farewell Warragul

2008-12-21T21:47:40.495+11:00

(image) (image) The wetlands

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(image) Mike's tree

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Celebration

2008-11-06T20:22:30.616+11:00

nb is not celebrating because the literature exam is over, nb is celebrating because at 5:15, when her students came out smiling, one of them commented, 'oh... now we won't have lit classes anymore.' ;)
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The next leap

2008-10-25T17:56:43.981+11:00

Our year 12s graduated last night. As I watched them walk across the stage, it really hit me for the first time that I am leaving, too.

Endings are strange beasts. There is a sense in which your years of work are condensed into one small, rosy snapshot and the reality is lost amidst the tearful hugs and warm thank yous.

A number of parents hugged me last night, asked if they could take photos of me with their children, expressed regret that I was leaving, asked me if I would be coming back, thanked me for the relationship that I had developed with their son, daughter or children. It's all lovely, and gratifying, albeit a little weird at times, but it can also make it difficult to extricate yourself from the fuzzy feelings that arouse the doubts- am I doing the right thing? Will I find a community like this again? Will I teach kids like these again?

My Year 12 Literature class surprised me with a bound collection of the stories that they had written as part of their study. They had taken great care to make it look authentic, from the dedication, the blurb, the publication details, the formatting... it was a literature teacher's nirvana.

The epigrah they had chosen was a quote from Cyril Connolly: 'while thought exists, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living'.

So, perhaps leaving behind a trace like that should make it easier, not harder, to take the next leap.

This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

-T.S. Eliot (Little Gidding, Four Quartets)