The cover image for my new book: Rembrandt’s ‘Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer’

Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_Google_Art_Project

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam)

This is the image we’re using for the cover of my book Imagined worlds and classroom realities, to be released later this year or early in 2015.

I saw this painting a couple of years ago, in the Met in New York, and the first thing that struck me was the deep thoughtfulness in the philosopher Aristotle’s eyes as he reaches out and rests his right hand on the bust of the storyteller Homer. He seems more than lost in thought. He’s also full of feeling, wondering perhaps about the place of poetry and mythology – with their evocations of beauty, love, courage, truth and the good – in his thinking about the world.

Then I remembered that Aristotle was a teacher. In fact we can just see the image of his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, on the medallion which hangs from the chain around his neck. Aristotle’s left hand is touching the chain, a gift from Alexander, representing (perhaps) Aristotle’s connection to the world of action, power and the everyday.

These two – the mythopoetic represented by Homer’s bust and the political represented by Alexander’s chain – are the teacher’s worlds. We necessarily pay attention to everyday necessities and realities – the bells, routines, timetables, expectations, demands, complexities, resistances, power dynamics and so on. We try to stay in touch with the values that brought us into teaching in the first place, and which animate our best moments in the classroom.

The stories in my book are attempts to represent this ‘living in two worlds’, this reaching out to stay in touch with what we care most deeply about amidst our classroom realities.

 

 

A mockup of the book’s front and back cover

Here’s the latest version of the cover. Soon, I’ll write something about the image (it’s from a painting by Rembrandt), and why we chose it for the cover.

To see it properly, click on the image.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 9.41.07 am

My new book

book cover draft 1 JPG copyI have been silent here for a while, finishing my book and getting the manuscript to the publishers.
It’s now there and in production.
The publishers and I have been working on the cover and blurb. Nothing is set in stone as yet, so if anyone has any feedback on what you can see here, I’d love to hear it.

The blurb

Stories matter. Stories speak about complex aspects of our lives that intuitively we know are important but for which the language of rational discourse is often inadequate. Stories draw on archetypal structures and evocative language in ways that create affect: they penetrate,  provoke, and disturb.

This is a book of nine stories about teachers and students. A young woman sits in her first teacher-education lecture and wonders what kind of a tribe she is joining. A preservice teacher clashes with his mentor teacher on a practicum. A teacher and students inhabit an online space with unpredictable consequences. Sally discovers the Universarium. Joseph writes a story that undoes his therapist. Sylvia struggles to free herself from an oppressive discourse about the nature of teaching. Two siblings support and console each other through their complex inductions into classroom lifeworlds.  A secondary student goes missing and police, the media and his teachers wonder why. A teacher-education academic wrestles with elusive ideas in order to prepare a lecture that he hopes will make a more-than-passing impact.

There is no other book like Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities. It not only tells nine gripping stories; it also both positions these stories as part of a growing scholarship about story-telling, and provides practical ways of using the stories in teacher education and professional development.

Steve Shann is a teacher and writer with over forty years experience in primary, secondary and tertiary classrooms.

Keywords: Classroom lifeworlds, mythopoetics, teacher education, story, affect

The body without organs … further thoughts

Body without Organs

Body without Organs http://bit.ly/UCll3T

A couple of months ago I wrote a couple of posts in which I was trying to get my head around the Deleuze/Guattari’s concept of the Body without Organs (The Body without Organs and Seeing Multiplicities and assemblages). I had a strong intuitive sense that this concept was relevant to what I’ve been trying to see more clearly about teaching and learning, and the blog writing was helping. But I sensed that I hadn’t quite got it. So I wrote a fictional story (it’s to be included in my new book (Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities: mythopoetic provocations for teachers and teacher educators). The story is about an academic preparing a lecture and trying to make sense of, and be clear about, the relevance of, this concept of the BwO. In the story, the academic thinks back to an incident that happened in one of his first year’s as a classroom teacher. I’ve drawn here on my own experience; it’s the story in the blogpost A hot afternoon in a 1971 classroom. The academic uses Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the BwO to help him conceptualise what happened on that day. Here is the relevant passage of my story:

For weeks, now, he has been trying to understand this weird concept. He’s read about it in Anti-Oedipus, and more recently in A Thousand Plateaus. He’s read commentaries, and even tried to write about it on his blog. For a while, it was a concept that kept slipping out of his grasp: one moment he’d think he got it, the next he’d read something that made it obvious that he was still a long way off. And then – and wasn’t it like this with much of learning generally? – this accumulated tangle of confused and jumbled thoughts about what the term could possibly mean suddenly resolved itself, almost overnight, through no disciplined synthesis constructed by his conscious mind. One morning he woke up, picked up a commentary on the concept of the Body without Organs, a commentary that he’d already read and highlighted several times, and this time it all made sense. Even more satisfying was the realisation that it was saying something about his memory of that hot Friday afternoon in his second year of teaching, and that perhaps it might say something useful for beginning teachers. All bodies seek to persevere in their own being (the phrase is Spinoza’s). Each body, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s way of saying this, is a desiring-machine seeking to join with other desiring-machines in order to increase flows of intensity. At a certain point, however, bodies find themselves organised into relationships and couplings which constrict libidinal flows, and there’s an instinctive and often unconscious move to create and occupy what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs (the BoW), but which might perhaps more accurately (but clumsily) be described as ‘A-milieu-less-constrained-by-organisation’. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari speak poetically rather than logically about this BwO.

… you have one (or several) … you make one, you can’t desire without making one … It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. … on it we penetrate and are penetrated. … The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them … the BwO is also full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance … Where psychoanalysis says “Stop, find your self again,” we should say instead, “Let’s go further still, we haven’t found our BwO yet, we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self.

It’s what first Andrew, and then the rest of the class, were discovering and then occupying on that Friday afternoon. They, and their teacher, both found and created a space where behaviours were not organised from without, where there was license to experiment, create and play. It was a move towards a de-stratification in order to allow for more flow, greater intensities, a more animating experience for a body.

… It is where everything is played out. … A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. …The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree – to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced. It is nonstratisfied, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity … That is why we treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism and the organisation of the organs, before the formation of the strata … the organs appear and function here only as intensities.

Such a strange, unsettling, subversive concept. And what do they mean that they ‘treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism’? Again he thinks about the steamy atmosphere in the classroom on that February day, and the dormant energies of those boys slumped at their desks. The soupy mix in the egg, the soupy mix in the classroom: a milieu out of which new organisms take shape (become extended?). He and the class, in those minutes following Andrew’s question, were making their own BwO. They were freeing themselves from a previous way of being organised (by a teacher, a classroom, a curriculum, a task), and creating the right conditions for energies (potential intensities) to be released and to flow.

The siren song of the explicit outcome

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper… we must steer clear of the Sirens,

their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers …

… you must bind me with tight chaffing ropes

so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot,

erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast …

[The Odyssey, Book 1217—280 Fagle translation]

 

So Odysseus commands his crew as they approach the Sirens and their ‘urgent song’. They obey and they all survive.

There’s a siren song that we English teachers heard some time ago, but unfortunately we  listened and got waylaid. It was the song of the explicit outcome.

This is taking longer than she thought it would. Filling in a plan for the poetry lesson seemed like such an obvious and helpful thing to do, especially given the warm and encouraging supervision of her mentor teacher. But she kept getting stuck on the ‘Lesson Outcomes’ box.

‘It’s important,’ her mentor had advised, ‘that the outcomes are explicit and measurable, otherwise you’ll have no way of knowing if you’ve achieved your aim, no way of knowing if the students have learned what you want them to learn.’

It seemed so reasonable, so useful, this advice. She had a tendency, she suspected, to get lost in her love of stories and words, and maybe the students didn’t learn anything particularly useful as a result. Being explicit should help.

But what was it that she wanted her students to learn? And did she want Sophie (who loved their present text and wrote poetry herself) to learn the same things as Brad (who thought English was a waste of time and was desperately trying to get by to please his parents)? Did she want Ayati (who was struggling with the language) to be learning the same as Desheng (who wanted to be a doctor, was a high achiever, but who struggled to see beyond the literal)?

‘The students will respond to the text in various ways,’ she wrote, but immediately scribbled it out. She could hear her mentor saying ‘too vague’, and ‘not measurable’.

‘The students will understand that poetry can open our eyes to the previously unseen.’ She liked this. It was what Maxine Greene had always said about the function of literature. But how would she measure it? She giggled inwardly as she imagined a test which said ‘describe what you you could see before and after reading this poem’. Desheng would go ape.

Perhaps, she began to think, the problem was with the assumption that lurked beneath the whole idea of outcomes, the idea the English teaching was entirely to do with teaching what can be made explicit and what could be measured. What had her own English teacher done, she wondered. How had she become someone in love with the English language and the stories it continually tells?

Her mind drifted back to her own school days and lessons spent where the students read their favourite poems, where they played with language (along with her teacher) in ways that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, where the school librarian would bring each Tuesday a box of books (different genres, different lengths) for the students to choose from. Were these the keys to her love of English? Or was it the friendship group, and the time spent listening to Alysha? Or perhaps it was the work they all did on preparing a school play?

English, for her, was more about engaging with the world through language – something she now realized she’d been doing from the moment she’d been born. Birds fly, fish swim; people language.

Outcomes were a distraction, a siren call. Could she tie herself to the mast and resist it?

The gathering of the mushrooms

Brenton Doecke has just published a review of a recent book on English teaching. The review is wonderful; the book sounds timely. Both are deeply encouraging.

Why encouraging?

The review’s title is ‘A new beginning?’, and we English teachers need a new beginning.  In staffrooms, in the press, around dinner tables, in syllabus documents and rubrics, we are subjected to discourses attempting to define our job as if it were some offshoot of science:  examine the elements of a text, closely observe the evidence, construct logical analyses of author’s intent and the techniques used, etc In the week which marks the passing of Maxine Greene, it’s good to be reminded that the function of literature is not to crawl under the microscope but ‘to awaken, to disclose the ordinarily unseen, unheard and unexpected’. (Releasing the Imagination, p28). Literature, she says, resonates. Our job as English teachers is to make available the forms with which the life within our students (already resonating, even if wordless) might be expressed, and to help those same students receive the resonances from the words around them.

This is what (it seems to me) Doecke and Yandell are reminding us of. A new beginning? Yes. But a new beginning of a once-vibrant sense of what it meant to be an English teacher.

The review, and the book, tell the story of two English teachers who know that ‘at the heart of the work of every committed English teacher is a capacity to suspend his or her preconceptions about the value of a literary work in order to entertain other interpretations’ (140). It’s the story of teachers who enable their students ‘to make the set texts their own’, who know how to help their students ‘locate these texts in their own life-worlds’ (141).

For Yandell, the version of English and English pedagogy that Monica and Neville enact in their classrooms, though ‘recognisable’, ‘is underrepresented – indeed, scarcely acknowledged – within the dominant, policy-oriented discourses of literacy and literacy instruction’ (Yandell 2013, 66) that currently hold sway in England and indeed other countries like Australia, where standards-based reforms have been implemented over the past few decades. This managerial dis- course is full of rhetoric about the rigour that teachers need to exercise in order to bring their students up to the desired level of achievement, but while Monica and Neville do not shy away from the responsibilities imposed by such mandates, they are also driven by a richer understanding of the learning that can occur in classrooms. Indeed, Yandell shows how they enable their students to explore dimensions of language and experience that far exceed the expectations prescribed by curriculum outcomes specifying what individual pupils should be able to achieve at each level of schooling. The crucial point of difference here is that, rather than treating reading as an individual ability to be measured against pre-defined standards of accomplishment, these teachers conceive of it as a social activity that opens up rich possibilities for social engagement and an exchange of ideas and experiences that reflects a deep respect for what everyone brings to the classroom conversation. (141)

Doecke reminds us that this version, while underrepresented, is ‘recognizable’. I hear it in the discussions of beginning English teachers when they talk about why it is they wanted to become English teachers, and when they attempt to visualise the kind of English teacher they want to become. They’re motivated by their own love of words, and by the energetic contribution this love has made to their own lives. These young teachers are in danger, of course, of being swamped by the more dominant discourses shaping our curricula and classroom practices. But there is (I want to believe) a potential army out there ready for Doecke and Yandell’s ‘new beginning’.

I would like to think that it’s an army of mushrooms such as Sylvia Plath described:

 Fungi Perfecti Mushroom farmMushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

________________________________

Brenton Doecke (2014) ‘A New Beginning? John Yandell’s The Social Construction of Meaning: Reading Literature in Urban Classrooms’, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 21:2, 139-149, DOI: 10.1080/1358684X.2014.897040

The lifecycle of a thought

I’ve been thinking recently about how thoughts are formed, how they move from something vaguely intuited or perceived to being more clearly understood and articulated.

I think about this quite a lot these days. I watch myself, I observe my teacher education students, and I think back to the secondary classrooms I taught in.

The first thing that strikes me is that it’s a slow process. At least it’s slow for me, and I know it’s been slow for many of my students (university and school). Insights or understandings rarely arrive fully formed. For example, as my last few blog posts have documented, my understanding of what Deleuze and Guattari meant by the term ‘body without organs’ kept shifting (and indeed it’s shifted a lot since I wrote those last posts). I’ve had to read and re-read sections of their books. I’ve needed to write the blog posts, in order to allow my emerging thinking to become worded, so that I could sit with it for a bit. I’ve gone through gloomy times when I thought it was too complicated a concept for my brain. I’ve read commentaries and watched some online lectures about Deleuze. I’ve let things percolate. I’ve gone back and adjusted my provisional understanding of the ‘body without organs’. I’ve (finally) written a fictional story about someone wrestling with, and then applying, the concept. It’s been a slow process, never linear, constantly looping back on itself.

It’s made me think about the lifecycle of a thought.

alch3

The alchemist at work: sourced from http://bit.ly/1phHuBA

Jung once compared (in The Psychology of the Transference) the psychoanalytic encounter between doctor and patient to an alchemical process: encounter, mixing of the raw materials, blackening (and seeming death), emergence of the elixir (new life). Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ has a similar pattern to it. Perhaps the lifecycle of a thought is similar: encounter, confusion, despair, emergent new form. Something like that.

The image that comes to mind (perhaps only because Deleuze and Guattari at one point liken the body without organs to an egg) is of the slow process as the matter within an egg takes shape over time, and only emerges into the fresh air once it has gone though countless changes.

It is for this very reason that too much of school- and university-based learning is, for many students, not real learning at all. There’s so little time for that slow, hesitant, sometimes distressing (but perhaps telelogically driven) process to take place. There’s a reading and then a quiz, and then the students are moved on to something else. Even the idea of a cumulative curriculum (‘In week 1 we do x, in week 2 we build on x by doing x+1) doesn’t fit what I’m describing here as the more chaotic but still patterned lifecycle of a thought.