Dad

I’m sure he loves you. But your father has chosen how he wants to be, Freya. He chose to do what he’s done in the past, and everyday he is choosing his future. You can’t do anything about it except learn from his decisions, so you’ll be wiser when it comes to making your own. Perhaps that’s one of the unsung gifts a parent gives a child: lessons in what not to do.

Rex, in Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys (2014)

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Try Teaching This

One of the most provocative areas I have had the pleasure to introduce to teenagers is the Stolen Generation.

This one particular class, a small group just 15 or so students, in a rural town, full of students aged 14 or 15, sticks in my memory. Most would be their family’s first child to finish high school, some wouldn’t, some spent history lessons looking out the window (I must admit that at times I would join them).

I would begin with a reading excerpts from the personal accounts from the Bringing Them Home Report.

We would watch a clip or two of the Women Of The Sun.

Often the students would voice their opinion. ‘But we didn’t do this; we shouldn’t feel sorry for this.’ Never was it my intention to provoke such responses, but I would reply. We can have a great sense of pride in the achievements of great Australians. I would cite Florey, Fraser, Bradman. We can feel good about the events around these people, and we weren’t there; we didn’t do those things. Then we too can feel empathy about the horrid moments.

We would have a polar debate- is it ok to remove children? This question would evolve. Is is ok to remove children from one culture and forcibly bring them up in another?

It would be then that I would hear parents perspectives through the students mouths. At that moment I knew I had succeeded- the students had begun to speak of school at home. The echo of parents wold hurt me.
It was for their protection.
It wasn’t all bad.
We shouldn’t say sorry for something we didn’t do.

Many times I felt I was losing them. Passive hostility and stereotypical generalisations asserted as fact. ‘They (who is they?) get too much. They are lazy, drunks, violent.’

This class had a moment though. One of the students spoke to the whole class. ‘If the same practice was around now,’ she said, ‘my baby would be taken away.’ Her recently born child spoke to the group; the class sat up. If the same practices were in place she would lose her child. They felt it, they found something. Respect.

It is now as we as a nation turn back leaky boats full of the poorest people on earth. And as our leader speakers in terms of war, it is now that we should say (even if you believe the rhetoric of ‘it’s to save their life!’ (Sound familiar? It was to protect them!) or if you believe in the mythical queue or you want to echo your parents views) if the same practices were in place many of our parents, grandparents, friends and family wouldn’t be here. Mr Abbot wouldn’t be here. It will be only when we can think like this, find something, feel something. Find respect.
Only then will we be able to change the direction of the discussion and alter the political position that is writing another piece of our history that will be a source of shame alongside the Stolen Generation.

The same barbaric, international law violating and inhuman practices that echo through the Stolen Generation are being repeated now.

The Motorcycle Diaries

There is a brisk energy in every sentence of Guevara’s seminal work, The Motorcycle Diaries. The fresh, poetic voice is unfiltered and infused with idealism and heart. This is a book of human kindness, all that is good and bad about humanity is here. The ultimate companion to any one wishing to make a difference in this world, The Motorcycle Diaries is a timeless, heart breaking, pleasure.

As if patiently dissecting, we pry into dirty stairways and dark recesses, talking to the swarms of beggars; we plumb the Ivy’s depths, the miasmas draw us in. Our distended nostrils inhale the poverty with sadistic intensity.

Writing during a period of less than a decade since the hideous scar of World War Two, Guevara gives a passionate and personal insight into Latin America. The gap between the poor and the rich is so stark that the diary could fall into a monotone diatribe of the world’s wrongs. Instead, the pure hospitality and hope of the portraits drawn by Ernesto allow for what is an idealistic hope that will not be surrendered.

The stars drew light across the night sky in that little mountain village, and the silence and the cold made the darkness vanish away. It was- I don’t know how to explain it- as if everything solid melted away into the ether, eliminating all individuality and absorbing us, rapid, into the immense darkness. Not a single cloud to lend perspective to the space blocked any portion of the starry sky. Less than a few metres away the dim light of a lamp lost its power to fade the darkness.

Ernesto, despite the moments of isolation of the trip, often alone with the natural features, does not overstate his political or personal desires. Of course, his friend, Alberto is an ever reassuring presence; but this is all Ernesto. We don’t have to believe his vision of the world, but effortlessly, you do. No matter your politics, the mythical Che is humanised. This is not a political diatribe, it would be too easy to label this as from the political Left. It is of the humanist tradition.

It is Ernesto’s observations and seamless prose that allows the natural environment to consume the humans roaming the land. I can’t help but compare this period, the 1950s Latin America, to Australia at the same time. There are times when Ernesto could be describing Australia. The mineral wealth and the dispossession of the Indigenous people and the intrusion of the colonial mentality into every facet of life is remarkably familiar. I sense many similarities in the discoveries of Ernesto and Alberto to that of the Freedom Rides through New South Wales in the 1960’s. With that comparison, who is our Ernesto?

We know the end; we know that this man who we come to love and share his pain and joy, is dead, killed. Knowing the end of his life and all that came before the untimely death will not weaken the beauty of his diary.

From 2014,The Motorcycle Diaries will be on the NSW HSC English Course prescribed text list in the Area of study: Discovery.

Ruffle…

I follow the English Teachers Association on Facebook. Aside from the increasingly frequent posts from people trying to sell their skills, I have loved the interaction between people from all educational contexts. The discussion or suggestions for the study of texts has been so…mundane.

When someone offers up a suggestion for the study of a play or poet, the replies are the same plays and poets that I studied in high school and most have been staples in classrooms for three decades. Hasn’t someone, somewhere written something that is as good as The Club, or Away or The Removalist? The old white males (not so dead…) still dominate. Surely there are playwrights from all backgrounds and all cultures that can be ‘used’ in the classroom?

It is two pronged dilemma:

1. Where is our David Williamson or Judith Wright? The cultural policy of the major political parties has been basically invisible since the fall of the Keating led government in 1996. Support for the Arts, it seems, doesn’t fit the socially conservative governments. This does have a flow on effect to production of Australian cultural heritage. After the 2012 London games calls for reviews into the sporting funding came faster than some of the swimmers. I didn’t see any calls when no Australian made it to the long list for the Booker Prize.

2. The selection of texts: In my experience this is still a process dominated by the bottom line. We all know it is the bottom line that dictates the texts in English classroom. Why buy new texts that no one has resources for? The texts already there have worked, why change? It could be said some still think in hard copy, some still think in the 20th century. If that thinking is dominate, the economics crush any innovation.

 In the Facebook thread for the suggestion for Australian poets to study, was one ‘new’ suggestion, but aside from that, the same recycling of poets the teachers posting studied in classrooms in their teens. I am not naïve to think just because something is new, that it is better, but there must be a debate about the type and range of ‘texts’ that the teacher selects for a classroom. Firstly, I know it is revolutionary, but how about a democratic process: ask the students.

Some will say, what is being taught in University courses? It has never been more important to have stand alone, distinctive secondary English courses in Education degrees. The same should be said for all courses. The days of all Education students being thrown together are over.

Are English teachers still reading poetry and seeing productions of drama? If the answer is no, the same suggestions for the plays and poets that have been consumed by thousands in the last three decades will continue. The recurring nightmare will continue.

A confrontation I liked to make to fellow new and beginning teachers: why reproduce the classroom of your own education? Every other subject area has evolved. While bread boxes are still made in ‘Woodwork’, take any Design and Technology course, the embrace of new materials and processes allow for those teachers to evolve with their students. Imagine design and tech not embracing the influence of plastic in the construction of, well, everything.

I hate a term that I came across in my first years teaching: ‘don’t reinvent the wheel.’ It is not only a conservative but also a lazy notion.

What if we don’t need wheels anymore?

 

Why study Shakespeare?

The monotone voice is mine. The stumbling sentences, mumbled.

My first experience with Shakespeare.

My English teachers at High School tried hard. They really did. They would allocate speaking roles. The next day the lead would be away. Another round of allocating some one in the lead would drop someone else it to. The next day, they too would be absent. This would begin a pattern. There would be an absolute struggle of a class reading from the script aloud.

Why should Shakespeare be compulsory?

Is the only reason we study Shakespeare is because we have to?

The simple beauty of the language? The insight in humanity? The profound poetic power? The provocative and perceptive use of character? The representation of humans in Shakespeare is timeless, right?

Then, why make it compulsory? The quality of a Shakespearean play is abundant. In my opinion it should not be compulsory. The subjective quality of his drama and poetry is worthy of study as it is provocative and evocative. If education can be boiled now to one thing, it is to challenge. There are many other writers, novelists, poets, film makers…that will challenge young people.

Shakespeare’s plays are relevant in the 21st century, so much that there is no need to make it compulsory.

The first thing I reinforce when approaching Shakespeare: it was written to be preformed. It is not a stagnant text, instead, it is meant to be three dimensional, an experience of the mind, the eyes and ears. It is multisensory. The words must be made to come alive.

For over a decade Shakespeare has been a compulsory part of Stage Five (years 9 and 10) English. 14 to 16 years olds must study Shakespeare. Why? Why is Shakespeare revered above all other writers? What impact does this have on how Shakespeare is taught in year 7 and 8 and later, in year 11 and 12?

Some background:

All students must study English. In my region in 2012 4162 students selected Advanced or Standard English. About 38% selected Advance English.

At the highest level of secondary literature studies there are still five Shakespearean plays listed as options. You must study a Shakespeare if you study the Advanced course.

In the Common Content Area of Study, ‘Belonging’, As You Like It, is an option. While in other sections of the Advanced Course King Richard III, Hamlet and Julius Caesar are options. While the ultimate English literature course available in NSW, Extension English has one: Twelfth Night.

The first issue here is if you select As You Like It, effectively your students will compose a response based upon the script and other related texts. This will be worth 15 marks. The other options, a comparative question for Richard III (20 marks), a critical study of Hamlet (20 marks) and JC as the basis of a response with other related texts (20 marks). The position of Twelfth Night is also within a grander idea of ‘Language and Gender’, again allowing students to respond to the Shakespearean script and other texts. Depending on your students, 5 less marks for a question on Shakespeare could be a big difference. Effectively, four out of the five Shakespearean dramas veer away from a ‘traditional’ extended critique of the play. Yes, you still must ‘know’ the text, but within the well defined descriptors prepared by the Board. How might this effect how to study Shakespearean drama?

Next post: Teaching Shakespeare in years 7 and 8…

A History of the English Speaking Peoples

There is an inherent conservatism to Winston Churchill’s second volume on the history of the English speaking world. Writing in the post war period, Churchill’s meandering prose waxes lyrical about the period between 1485 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, highlighting the political and social structures that created and recreate the social inequalities inherited by every generation since. That is not to say there is not significant reflection on aspects of society that many in the English speaking world take for granted. The legal separation of powers and the desire for representative government are two areas that Churchill positions elegantly alongside war and revolution.

The birth of the American colonies is dealt with from an economic perspective, with little reference to the slave trade or the indigenous dispossession that helped construct this new world. Reading from a 21 century perspective it is easy to see Churchill’s bias as a mere product of his position and education. However, by the time the collection was published there were many historians assessing the role of women, the African American influence in the new colonies and how the legal fictions of England and European enabled cultural genocide of many traditional people.

The concise nature of the history is maintained by a grand tone, making this a delightful but flawed read. It is as if the history is written with one eye closed, but that doesn’t mean you have to read this with a white blind fold.