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 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

Getting published

On the 6th of February last year, I wrote the following in a post on this blog:

This morning I began a story which I’ve called ‘Sally and the Universarium’. It’s unfinished and unrefined, and perhaps unwisely I’ve decided to post what I’ve done so far. Spurred on by a rather pleasurable hubris,  I’ve imagining myself as a try-hard Dickens, and am hoping that by publishing this first ‘installment’, I’ll feel a healthy pressure to finish the story quite soon … though I can already feel it slipping out of my control and wanting to go somewhere other than where I first intended it to go.

Over the following ten days, I wrote seven installments of the story, then took it down from the blog, tidied it up a bit, and sent it off to a journal.

This morning the journal arrived (Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education) with my story in it.

Seeing a story or article in print is a special pleasure. But there’s always that worry that it then sits there, between the covers of the journal (or whatever the electronic equivalent is), alone and unread.

So I thought I’d write a quick post today, giving a link to the story, and to the other four articles I’ve co-authored over the past few years.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.09.56 am Sally and the Universarium

This is a story, set sometime in the future, where Sally and her classmates visit an unusual building, the Universarium. Their guide, Wilson, takes the school group through a series of rooms – the Science Room, the History Room, the English Room and so on – which turn out to be very different from what Sally was expecting.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.10.23 amBoth Alike in Dignity (co-authored with CeCe Edwards, Libby Pittard and Hannah Germantse)

In September, 2012, I discussed, with three of my former Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education students, the possibility of writing some educational fiction together, as a means of exploring some of the tensions and challenges of the practicum experience. The result was a story about a lesson that Allan, a preservice teacher on his first prac at Nullinga High School, gives to an English class. His task is to introduce Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while his mentor, Susan, observes. Allan loves words and loves Shakespeare and he comes to the lesson with some optimism, despite previous behaviour problems with some of the students. He has a detailed and imaginative lesson plan, and, from his point of view, the lesson goes remarkably well. Susan, however, is critical. The story is about what happens next.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.09.01 amCommunity and conversation: tackling beginning teacher doubt and disillusion (co-authored with Hannah Germantse, Libby Pittard and Rachel Cunneen)

Based on the teacher education course experience of two students (Hannah and Libby), this is a partly playful (we made academics like Deborah Britzman, Jean Clandinnen and Margaret Somerville into characters in some of our scenes), partly heartfelt attempt to highlight the continuing importance of flesh-and-blood, face-to-face contact between staff and students (and student and student) in this era of online learning.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.07.51 am Mythopoetics in the English Classroom (co-authored with Rachel Cunneen)

 This is an article based around letters written to each other about English teaching. The language of story and poetry, mythopoetic language, is at the heart of our English discipline. It is language designed to enrich our comprehension of our inner lives, a language that helps us to see beyond the literal, beyond the world revealed to us through other disciplines like science
and mathematics, history and geography. In this it shares an epistemology with the other creative arts, though our medium – the language of words – is different. Our mythopoetic discourse helps us see the world more fully.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.08.23 amAgitation and Animations

At the beginning of 2010, I taught a first-year undergraduate unit called ‘Literacy for Teachers’. Something of significance in relation to the students’ learning seemed to have happened during this unit, and this article is an attempt to write about it.

This ‘something’ is quite difficult to pin down. Descriptions of content, structure and student responses are relatively easy to write about, and tell a part of the story. But there’s an elusive something else.

This ‘something else’ is connected to the lived life of the classroom: the moments of uncertainty and embarrassment; the false starts (by teachers and students); the yearnings and little risks taken; the personal projections and identifications; the wrong assumptions; the missed moments. The agitations and animations. These agitations and animations, felt and expressed more in passing moments than in statistics and questionnaires, have always seemed to me to be essential elements in the learning drama.

I’m working this year on the manuscript of a book of short stories, to be published by Sense Publishers. Some of the above will be included, together with other stories set in secondary schools and universities. The book is tentatively called Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities.



A hot afternoon in a 1971 classroom

Some stared off into the distance, a couple squabbled half-heartedly, half a dozen had their heads on the desks (was Michael actually asleep?), and even the most conscientious were struggling to keep their minds on the rather mundane exercise I’d set for them. Well, it hadn’t seemed mundane when I was planning it the night before; in fact, I’d managed to convince myself that this activity would, finally, allow the students to get their teeth into something enlivening. But it hadn’t really worked.

We’d shut the windows to keep the hot February wind out of our classroom, but this only made it worse; after a lunch hour tearing around outside, twenty-five sweaty boys meant that they brought the heat in on their bodies. All day – no, if I was honest, all week! –  I’d struggled unsuccessfully to engage them, and I was beginning to think it was time to abandon the attempt.  Maybe it was best just to see out the afternoon and try again tomorrow.

This was 1971. This was my second year of teaching and I hoped it would be a fresh start after a challenging first year at a different school. I was desperate to find some way of focussing the intelligent energy I was convinced was there, though up til now I’d seen only flashes of it. The boys were usually compliant, most of them keen to please and wanting to continue to succeed (as most had done at this Melbourne private school), but there’d been little real intellectual excitement.

And, right now, there was none. Just lethargy. Going through the motions. Waiting for the bell. I could feel it in myself.

Then Andrew, something of a class clown, climbed up on a desk, apparently intending to open one of the high windows in our stuffy classroom. There was a long rope attached to this high window, installed make it possible to open the window without climbing on the desks, but Andrew wasn’t a boy who liked to do things the obvious way.

‘Andrew,’ I said rather irritably (and perhaps more loudly than was necessary). ‘Get down from the desk.’

A slow smile spread across his freckled face. He had my attention. He looked down from his vantage point and saw that he had everyone’s attention. He grabbed hold of the dangling rope and put it loosely around his neck.

‘Is this a hanging offence?’ he asked.

We all laughed.

I looked around the room. Where a moment before the boys had been listless and unconnected, suddenly they were alert, focussed, engaged. It was what I’d been hoping the exercise would have done, or any number of things I’d tried during those early weeks.

I very much wanted to prolong the moment, and, not quite sure where this would lead, I had an idea.

‘You are on trial, Andrew English,’ I intoned in a voice that I hoped sounded like some 19thh century judge, ‘for the wilfull act of attempting to hang yourself by the neck until dead. Take your place in the dock …’ I hastily moved one of the desks so that it sat in relation to my ‘judge’s’ desk where a dock in a courtroom might be. ‘… and subject yourself to the full might of blind British justice.’

Andrew’s smile broadened. Then he made a half-hearted attempt to look awed, bowed his head, and solemnly got off the desk and sat himself down in the ‘dock’.

I sat in the judge’s chair and hastily appointed a lawyer for the prosecution, another for the defence. Other students became character witnesses or observers, court reporters and the like. The ridiculous nature of the alleged crime – attempting suicide – was never questioned; we’d suspended disbelief.

For the next hour or so, our classroom was transformed, the heat forgotten. I watched as a group of lethargic 11 year olds transform themselves, in an instant, into a galvanised team attempting to creatively cope with the excitingly unexpected. They put on new voices, adopted new body language, created (in that hour or so) a new space shaped by their imaginations and ability to think on the go.

All of that happened 43 years ago. I think it’s possibly fair to say that I’ve spent the last 43 years trying to understand that moment better, and to find ways of building what I glimpsed at then into my teaching. Dull minds became intelligent, spent bodies became animated. Something significant was triggered, released, harnessed.

One way of describing that moment would be to say that a story was told that captured imaginations, got into bodies, agitated molecules, and changed the way an environment was constituted. A story did something. It became an actor, an agent, a mover, in our classroom. We became infected by its presence and found ourselves being carried along by a momentum that hadn’t been present before the story made its entrance.

During the past 43 years, I’ve come to know better (but never understood enough) about the ways in which a story acts in and on the world, and how this capacity of a story to do its work can be used in classrooms to release and focus dormant energies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I moved into secondary English teaching and then, for a period of about ten years, into psychotherapy, where those who came to see me – often adolescents or primary aged children – would tell me stories and we would work with them.

These two moves – to secondary English teaching and psychotherapy – were, as I said, perhaps unsurprising, given my professional preoccupation with the potential power of story. Yet in both those professions, I found myself being diverted from my earlier insight that a story is a free agent, an actor, a do-er of things in the world. In both secondary English teaching, and then in psychotherapy, I found myself being unconsciously seduced by the notion that a story is less an agent of unpredictably but exciting change, and more an object to be understood and studied from a disciplined distance.

Mythopoetics: useful word or distraction?

In my story ‘Sally and the Universarium’ I had one of the characters use the word ‘mythopoetics’ to describe his thinking about an undervalued aspect of English teaching. It’s a word that has been sitting uncomfortably with my colleague Rachel. She wrote on this blog, after reading the Sally story:

I thought I’d just come right out and say a few things about the word ‘mythopoetic’ and what has been bothering me about it for a while. We’ve of course written together on mythopoetics and mythopoesis – and I still don’t have a better expression that encapsulates some of the qualities of teaching and studying English and how it seems to differ from teaching and studying other current disciplines. But I’ve come to dislike this word, to be honest. When I google it, one of the first links is always something about the Men’s Movement, like the one here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoetic_men’s_movement. Personally, I want to distance myself from this movement and some (perhaps not all) of its tenets. The associations between the essentialism and rejection of cultural relativism here, and the mysterious, non-rational qualities of stories and fiction that we have wanted to describe, are uncomfortable to me. So my question to you and to your readers is: is there a better word? Or can a new word be created, one that redefines MacDonald’s categories, as Wilson describes them. It needs to be a word that defines itself against calibrated, technical neoliberal forms of scholarship. It needs to acknowledge – perhaps even privilege – the power of myths, stories and poetry in school curricula. What does everyone think? Any ideas?

Lady Magpie responded:

This is so interesting, because my reaction to the word “mythopoetic” is so different! I didn’t study English much at university (I got my English teacher quals sneakily via linguistics) and the first time I ever heard the term was during the dip ed. I had no idea what it meant and I certainly knew nothing of any stigma or associations positive or negative that may have come along with it. All I knew of it was that it had something to do with myths and stories and poetry. I loved the word instantly and have come to love it more and more as I create my own associations with it, mostly through your (Rachel) and Steve’s writing. When I think of “mythopoetics” I think of the stories and the poetry that are in the real and every day, and the real and every day that are in powerful works of fiction and poetry. At the same time I think of the mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary; the things that seem ONLY to live in story worlds but in some way change the way we think and live. I still don’t know what “mythopoetic” means, really, but it’s been good to have a word to hang on a preoccupation: to say that I am searching for mythopoetics in life, or that I’m trying to enrich my students’ worlds by viewing them through a mythopoetic lens.

Like Lady Magpie, I’ve felt ‘it’s been good to have a word to hang on a preoccupation’. But is there a better one, Rachel is asking, one that doesn’t have other associations?

This has prompted me to ask myself what words some of the giants in this field have used. I’ve been reading Maxine Greene Releasing the Imagination, and this morning I retraced my steps with her book to see how she has described this elusive concept.

She never uses the word ‘mythopoetics’. Instead of relying on a portmanteau word, she tells a story about what a release of the imagination through an engagement with literature and language (and the arts more generally) can do. It discloses the unseen (28), evokes memories and desires (44), expands perspectives (58), returns us to our body and to its relationships to other bodies (61),  restores lost spontenaeity (78), reconstitutes the known world  (104), transcends the given (111), encourages action (116), creates hope and leads to repair (130), creates community and acknowledges plurality (155).  At one point, she uses the phrase ‘aesthetic education (137), but never ‘mythopoetics’.

Does the term ‘mythopoetics’ add anything? Why not just talk about ‘the release of the imagination’,  or ‘an aesthetic encounter with literature and language’? Surely Maxine’s Greene’s emphasis on action (release, encounter) conveys more than a possibly misleading and vague word like ‘mythopoetics’?

I want to keep thinking about this. But, for the time being, I find it useful to have a word that describes an element rather than an action. Having a word which describes what we sense is a missing or undervalued element might help us find a language with which to unite and put our case. The fact that an English teachers like Lady Magpie has fallen in love with the word is promising.

Maybe we should try to occupy the ground, rather than allow others with other associations to hold it. Maybe we should re-write the Wikipedia article. I wonder what we’d write?


Since writing the post above, I came across the following from an article by Maxine Greene. She writes:

 To experience it is to come in touch with a “reality” deeper and richer than the everyday but underlying it, feeding the ongoing becoming of a self. To enter into a poem may be to come in touch with a lost landscape, a landscape of color and smell and sound brought into a kind of rebirth by an act of imagination. And so, in distinctive ways, is an aesthetic experience achieved. It may be dark and fearful like an encounter with Medea; it may be ripe and various and startling like Toni Morrison’s Jazz; it may arouse rhythms in our hearts and mind as may the improvisations of jazz. We grasp a little more if we can explore the medium of jazz, the medium of words, the medium of paint, but there is the remarkable possibility of awakening, of overcoming the “anesthetic” said to be the opposite of the “aesthetic,” of attaining the wide-awakeness that resists apathy and withdrawal. The new educator must be awake, critical, open to the world. It is an honor and a responsibility to be a teacher in such dark times—and to imagine, and to act on what we imagine, what we believe ought at last to be.

‘Teaching in a Moment of Crisis: the Spaces of Imagination’, New Educator, 1:2 2005

Secondary English: lost in the forest?

As with all good mythopoetic literature, a folk story is  layered enough to contain many meanings, and the story of Hansel and Gretel is no exception. This morning it came to mind as I was thinking about an article I’d just read about English teaching.

First the article.  It is called ‘The Challenge of English’, and it’s written by a senior English teacher at a Victorian private school. (It’s a school that I have a family connection with, as my grandfather was its Headmaster for a while and my father was brought up on its grounds.) The author gives advice to Victorian students beginning their final year of English studies.

First he describes the nature of the English course. It is, he says, ‘an English course that develops a variety of language, interpretive and writing skills. It is a course based on the use of language; every outcome has language at the heart’.

He then explains how best to tackle the course.

There is an implicit metaphor in the way he describes this course, that of a scientist observing, dissecting, describing and analysing an object.

Students need to have a mastery of their texts [in order to develop] insights into the key themes, characterisations and ideas of the text. [Students need to] have a thorough understanding of the structures, features and conventions used by writers or directors to construct meaning …. In what ways do the narrators present their stories and what are the limitations of their narration in respect to biases, personal beliefs and their world as they understand it? This is the sort of question a thoughtful VCE student should be asking. [With the section of the course devoted to the language of persuasion], the task of the student is … to surgically analyse [the language of texts] to demonstrate an understanding of the ways language and visual features are used to present that point of view.

This is all good, sound advice. Given the nature of the English course, and the way student responses are marked against explicit and measurable outcomes, to advise anything different would be irresponsible.

But the subject has wandered far from where it has its home. And that’s where the story of Hansel and Gretel comes in.


Hansel and GretelIn the story, all at home is not beer and skittles, and the children – Hansel and Gretel –  are forced to leave and venture into the forest. They attempt to find their way back, but in the end are lost deep in the forest where, desperately hungry and tired, they stumble across a small house, tantalizingly made of bread, cake and sugar. As they begin to eat the house, an old woman comes out of a door, a woman who seems kindness itself.

The old woman, however, nodded her head, and said: ‘Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.’ She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.

It turns out they’re not in heaven at all, but in the clutches of a cannablistic witch.

Then she seized Hansel with her shrivelled hand, carried him into a little stable, and locked him in behind a grated door. Scream as he might, it would not help him. Then she went to Gretel, shook her till she awoke, and cried: ‘Get up, lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for your brother, he is in the stable outside, and is to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.’ Gretel began to weep bitterly, but it was all in vain, for she was forced to do what the wicked witch commanded

What was it about the newspaper article that had me thinking about the story of Hansel and Gretel?

It’s been my sense for some time that secondary English teaching, as it has been represented in curriculum documents and assessment protocols, has lost its way. It’s been cut off from its home (more about that later), and, in its search for some kind of recognized position alongside valued school subjects like maths and science, has tried to establish itself within the neoliberal discourse. It’s found itself feasting on a house made of cake and sugar. It has been seduced by the promise of rubrics and measurable outcomes into thinking that its real value lies in its potential to raise literacy standards and teach communication skills. For a while outcomes and rubrics gave us some relief, some welcome bread and cake, a sense that we could explain to the students what we were looking for and how they could succeed in our subject. But, instead, we find ourselves in a place where we’ve lost touch with our true home, the deeper essence of our discipline.

Which is what?

I’d like to come at this (in an attempt to do what good stories do) meanderingly.


Last weekend I read Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.

There’s so much in that book that made me think, both about my own life and about the world in which I live. That’s the thing about great books, isn’t it; they make you think, they help you to see more, they give you words for feelings or intuitions that until then had remained below the surface. They help nudge us towards a greater connection with the world: the world out there or the world inside.

At one point Winterson has one of her characters say:

I have set off and found that there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind. I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves. I choose one, no sooner begin, than a hundred more appear. Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it, and yet those straits and canals still lead me to the open sea, and then I realize how vast it all is, this matter of the mind. I am confounded by the shining water and the size of the world.

This reminds me of Digger in David Malouf’s Great World,  who was ‘dizzied by the world. He could never, he felt, see it steady enough or at a sufficient distance to comprehend what it was, let alone to act on it. ‘

And this, in turn, reminds me of Spinoza, who said that our limited faculties mean that we are only able to comprehend a miniscule portion of what is, a tiny bit of the vastness that only ‘the eye of eternity’ can take in.

Reading these things doesn’t just help me make sense of my own confusions. They connect my experience to that of others. I am consoled that it’s not just me that finds things so complex, so dizzying, so endless. Reading these things tells me something about the nature of the world. Ironically, I end up knowing more, being less dizzied, more able to join in.

I do not read these books in order to dispassionately observe, dissect, describe and analyse. They are not objects like that. Instead they are minds with which I strive to have some kind of relationship; they are voices I listen to in order to know more about the world that I’m in. The focus here is not on the text-as-object, but on what happens when I, as reader, open myself up to a conversation which involves trying to see the world as the writer, or one of the writer’s characters, might have seen it, or to understand something more about a character’s – and therefore a human – experience . I’m not outside, looking in at the text. The text and I are standing shoulder to shoulder, looking together at the world and sharing thoughts about it.

English has lost its way because its become text-centric. The proper object of study for any discipline is not, as the article implies, the text; it is the world in which we live, and we enter into a relationship with useful texts only in order to help us understand that world just that little bit better.


I want to explore this idea some more in my next post.

English teaching: looking backwards to the past and forwards to the future

BarnesHmmm. The authors I’ve been reading this past week have been unsettling my instinct that secondary English teaching might be thought about as a discipline, as a distinct way of explore the world. It’s more a hybrid subject than a discipline, they say, an evolving collection of components shaped partly by political and economic drivers (Green and Cormack 2008; Dixon 2012; Misson 2012), partly by its genealogy (Cormack 2008) and partly through individual teachers adapting curriculum frameworks in eclectic and various ways (Howie 2008).

I’ve just read an article (Kostogriz and Doecke 2008) which shifts the focus from what English is to what English should be.

They begin by describing the progressive turn in English teaching, led by Barnes, Britton and Rosen in the 70s and reaching its ‘high point’ in Australia at the International English Teachers’ Conference in Sydney in 1980. The leaders of this movement – people like Barnes, Britton and Rosen –

argued the need to negotiate the curriculum, making classrooms into sites where students are able to bring their experiences and values and use them as a basis for creating new understandings, new knowledge. (260)

This was a time then, say Kostogriz and Doecke, when English classrooms were seen (at least by the proponents of the progressivist turn) to be places where difference was central. I was one of those proponents, and I remember the times as being exciting, full of possibility and potential.

The progressivist turn failed and we live in different times. Kostogriz and Doecke argue that today’s English classrooms are heavily influenced by a quite different driver. Instead of difference, assimilation. Instead of a plurality of experiences and values, a drive towards a ‘cultural core of Australian-ness.

The paradox is that at a moment when classrooms are becoming increasingly culturally diverse, schools are being required to teach in a way that discourages difference… language and literacy education plays a crucial role in managing differences. (264)

This leads them to call for a re-imagining of English teaching ‘to transcend the moralism of modernity and find ways of acting ethically towards the Other’ (267). They draw on the thinking of Bakhtin,

in which neither the self nor the Other remain the same in a dialogical encounter, nor can they attempt to negate each other through cultural assimilation or domination. (269)

And here is the link with the progressivist turn, where the English classroom that Kostogriz and Doecke imagine once again is centred around diversity, around the valuing of different experiences and values and where there are

more numerous and more fluid relationships between people using literacies in multiple ways and contributing to the production of new meanings (272).

The authors began their article by describing the gap between the intended and the enacted curriculum, suggesting that teachers of a progressivist bent in the 70s and 80s found ways of teaching English in ways not necessarily envisioned by the curriculum designers. I suspect that nothing has changed, and that there are many classrooms around the country where you’d find numerous and fluid relationships between people using literacies in multiple ways and contributing to the production of new meanings’. The animating enacted curriculum lives on.

Perhaps, though (and this is where my thinking is leading me), we need a stronger sense of English as a discipline. Those English teachers in the trenches, making their classrooms places where new meanings are generated through engagement with other bodies through provocative and engaging texts, might have their confidence boosted and their loins girded if there was a more clearly articulated alternative version of English teaching to the one implied by our National Curriculum, or when it’s described as a hybrid of contextually defined elements making up a subject rather than a discipline.


Cormack, P. (2008). “Tracking Local Curriculum Histories: The Plural Forms of Subject English ” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15(3): 275-291.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. and P. Cormack (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Howie, M. (2008). “Problematising Eclecticism and Rewriting English, .” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15:3, (3): 339-350.

Kostogriz, A. and B. Doecke (2008). “English and its Others: Towards an Ethics of Transculturation, .” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15(3): 259-274.

Misson, R. (2012). “Understanding about water in liquid modernity: Critical imperatives for English teaching.” English in Australia 47(1).

English as a discipline: what does geneology suggest?

genealogyIn these past few blog posts, I’ve been trying to read and think my way towards greater clarity about the nature of secondary English. In particular, I’m asking: Is secondary English a discipline, with a distinct and recognized purpose, content, methods and forms? Or is it a hybrid subject and not a discipline at all?

This matters, I think. Students enter a secondary classroom in the expectation that what they learn in that class will be valuable, either because they will learn a collection of valuable skills (and a hybrid subject can teach them these), or because they will come to understand their worlds better (the promise of studying a discipline). Unless we, as English teachers, are clear about our work (do we teach a subject or a discipline), we’re likely to give out confusing messages to our students and have teaching programs that lack coherence and conviction.

Perhaps some would say that this question of the nature of English is not the business of the classroom teacher, but of policy and curriculum makers. But if, as some suggest, the new National English Curriculum is more a broad framework than a prescriptive syllabus, then how an individual teacher programs units of work will reflect a view – consciously or unconsciously held – about the function of English teaching. Greater clarity than we presently seem to have about the purpose of English would seem to be an important imperative.

So I’ve been reading.

[And here I want to make a quick diversion. As I drove into work this morning, I asked myself why I was reporting on my reading in my public blog. There are three reasons, I think. The first is that it helps me read if I record the questions I’m hoping the reading will address and the ideas that come to me as I read. Secondly, I always read better when I’m reading and discussing material with others, so I’m hoping to tempt others to join what would otherwise be just my cut-off and limited reflections. And finally, I want to demonstrate to my students how I go about reading, so that they understand something of its generative and evolving nature, something that they sometimes need to be reminded of.]

Yesterday I read an article by Phil Cormack (2008) where he traces some of the origins of English as a secondary subject. His study is of the genealogy of English in South Australia, though he suggests that what he has discovered there accurately tells us something about the origins of English as a secondary subject in Australia (and probably elsewhere).

His conclusion is that there is no single root version of English of which all subsequent versions are variants, thus denying me any chance of suggesting that we used to know what English was all about but have lost the plot. Instead, says Cormack, the subject (or different versions of the subject) have emerged out of the gradual expansion of education from Primary Schools (where different combinations of composition, grammar, reading, and spelling were taught) into new Secondary Schools who took up, in inconsistent and varying ways, these Primary-school components and began to call some or all of them ‘English’. English as a subject, in other words, grew not from any sense of it being a coherent discipline capable of offering secondary students a way of exploring and understanding the world, but out of contexualised and pragmatic preoccupations at the close of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, with preparing a skilled workforce, and ‘civilising’ a growing working class.

He concludes:

The purpose of this article is to tell a history of English from the margins, and at the level of the local, in order to trouble it as a story in the singular – in other words, to take a genealogical perspective on its emergence and subsequent forms. Genealogical approaches to history emphasise discontinuity and don’t seek to describe a ‘linear development’, which involves assuming that ideas/words keep their meaning over time, or that ideas developed at one time retain their logic in another (Cormack 1998; Foucault 1977, 139). Foucault counsels against the search for origins underpinned by the belief that understanding the moment of birth enables a special insight into the true nature of the thing being studied. He notes that genealogical study will find that ‘there is ‘‘something altogether different’’ behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in piecemeal fashion from alien forms’ (Foucault 1977, 142).

So, if I’m to successfully make the case for English as a discipline, Cormack is telling me that I can’t make it be referring to its origins. As I reported in previous posts, nor can I make it by analyzing its current forms, which reveal it to be more a hybrid subject ((Green and Cormack 2008; Dixon 2012), whose focus shifts over time (Misson 2012) and whose nature is determined by practitioners in their eclectic programming rather than being determined by any shared disciplinary understanding (Howie 2008).

Am I ready to give up the project to think about secondary English as a discipline? Not quite yet.


Cormack, P. (2008). “Tracking Local Curriculum Histories: The Plural Forms of Subject English ” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15(3): 275-291.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. and P. Cormack (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Howie, M. (2008). “Problematising Eclecticism and Rewriting English, .” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15:3, (3): 339-350.

Misson, R. (2012). “Understanding about water in liquid modernity: Critical imperatives for English teaching.” English in Australia 47(1).