Unteachable kids Part 4: Planning the reading

piles-of-books-in-a-private-college-library_www-luxurywallpapers-net_-960x540In response to my last post, Lady Magpie wrote

I’d be curious about how the readings would work – how much choice there would be, how I’d be introduced to different reading options, how the readings would be “paced”, and what incentives would be in place to keep me reading (i.e. how the readings would be used in the course. I hate when readings are either completely ignored OR completely rehashed in the lectures, making me feel like reading them was a waste of time in either case).

I’ve been playing with this for the past hour or so. I want there to be some compulsory readings, to give us some common language and specific ideas to discuss, but also lots of choice so that the students are able to explore the Central Provocation and their thoughts about their chosen subject X in ways that make sense to them. I know how flat I feel as a student when someone tells me to explore an interesting idea but then tell me I must follow a pre-determined path. It doesn’t feel like an exploration at all;  just a dutiful trudging down a known and over-used path.

Deciding on the compulsory readings  is something of a challenge though. The students will be asked to buy a number of textbooks for their whole M.Teach course, and given that they will have forked out lots of dollars for these textbooks, I feel obliged to use them. This is a problem for a unit constructed along the lines I’ve outlined, because the tone in the both of the textbooks is of the research-informed expert telling us how things are. I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m not a big fan of this tone. The tone is meant to instil confidence in the reader (‘Wow, here is some evidenced-based scholarship that is giving me grounded advice on what works in teaching?’). It doesn’t have that effect on me. These textbooks (and one of them in particular) present the (often sound) ideas as unquestionable truths, shutting down inquiry rather than opening it up. For example, at the beginning of a chapter on the learning styles, the authors say that ‘there is not any recognised evidence suggesting that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you to teach your students any better’. They dismiss the idea rather than invite us to think about it critically.

Nevertheless, I’m obliged to use the textbooks in some way. So here’s what I’m thinking (and it’s a modification of what I wrote in Part 3).

I’ve abandoned, by the way, my original idea that I’d have specific readings for specific topics/learning outcomes. The mandated topics (classroom management, social/physical/intellectual development, literacy & numeracy, effective feedback etc) are all so interconnected that none of the readings looks at just one; each reading covers a number of them.

Compulsory readings

(each to be followed by an online quiz (rather than test) which requires students to demonstrate that they understand what they’ve read, that they’ve critically thought about it in relation to the Central Provocation and their project with chosen student X)

Week 2: Hattie & Yates Visible learning and the science of how we learn, chapters 1,3,&13 (about 30 pages altogether) – 4 marks

Week 3: Krause Ch 12 ‘Managing behaviour and  classrooms’ in Educational psychology for learning and teaching. – 4 marks

Week 4 Chapter 2 Killen Effective Teaching Strategies – 4 marks

Week 5: Chapter 6 Tovani Do I really have to teach reading? – 4 marks

Week 6: Comber and Kamler ‘Getting out of deficit: pedagogies of reconnection’

Student choice readings

(At least 5 need to be chosen and explicitly drawn on for the later assessments – which I want to rename –  in 11 and 15)

My e-reserve folder on classroom management, with 30 or more articles on various aspects of what Krause calls the the interventionist, the inter-activist and the non-interventionist models of classroom management.

Other parts of the Tovani book, which I’ll encourage students to buy, borrow or download)

Killen Effective Teaching Strategies Chapters 6-14

Relevant resources that the students find themselves


So ends my preliminary planning. I have a meeting next week where I’ll find out how much of this I’ll be allowed to do. In the meantime, can I say again what a pleasure, and how useful, it has been to be getting so much feedback on Facebook.

Unteachable Kids Part 3: A possible unit structure

disengaged studentSo Step 2 was having a series of imagined scenes playing out in my mind of the students wrestling with the Central Provocation: There are some kids who are plain unteachable. (This imagining/visualising is similar, isn’t it, to the high jumper imagining, even befroe she sets offf on her approach to the bar, the spring in her step at take-off, the arching of her back, the upward thrust of her arms to gain more height, the smooth glide over the bar?)

Yesterday I wrote about how my students would be writing, chatting, moving around the room, speculating, reading, analysing, and so on. I realised, when I re-read this, that I’d left out at least two elements in my imagined scenes.

First of all, I implied but did not explicitly mention the sense of play. I want my students to feel that they’re able to explore as freely (and as pleasurably) as little children in a sandpit, trying things out, trying on personas, taking some risks, having some purposeful fun, sometimes on their own and sometimes with others.

Nor, paradoxically, did I didn’t mention the inevitable anxiety. There’d be moments, maybe even extended periods, when the students would find themselves asking uncomfortable questions. Why was there not a more defined and predictable syllabus that we were following? Was this unit giving them the knowledge, strategies and guidance they needed? Would they be properly prepared when it came their turn in front of a class? Student anxiety is uncomfortable for the teacher as well as the student. There’s a temptation to rush in, to make things prematurely safe and comfortable. But teacher education students need to become conscious of the gaps in their current ways of thinking about the lifeworlds of classrooms. The provocation is going to inevitably lead to an awareness of gaps. The trick will be how to allow room for this anxiety to manifest itself without it becoming overwhelming.

This leads to Step 3 in my designing of the unit: structuring the sessions and the assessments so that exploring the complex world opened up by the Central Provocation becomes manageable as well as unavoidable.

How would something like this work?

The Central Provocation: There are some kids who are just plain unteachable.

Week 1

Session 1 (4 hours): Exploring the Central Provocation: collaborative sharing of stories and first thoughts, and exploration of way(s) we might usefully come to understand the underlying issues better. Action Research Project explained, students decide who their chosen subject will be. HBDI profiles explored and discussed.

Session 2 (4 hours): Is X (the subject of my Action Research Project) a challenge because of a physical, social or intellectual deficit? Lecture, group work, readings, activities.

Week 2

School visits

Quiz 1a (10%). Combination of multi-choice & short answer questions, based on selected textbook chapters, and requiring making explicit speculative connections to chosen subject X.

Week 3

Session 3 (4 hours): Is there a way of organising the classroom that would make a difference to my chosen subject X? This would be a session around Krause’s three models of classroom management.

Session 4 (4 hours): What do those at the chalkface have to say about our Central Provocation? Stories from practising teachers, and in panel and small groups.

Week 4

Professional Learning Week (organised by others, on things like safe use of ICT, classroom management, including school visits)

Week 5

Beginning of placements?

Week 6


Week 7


Week 8


Week 9

Quiz 1b (10%). Combination of multi-choice & short answer questions, based on selected textbook chapters, and requiring the making explicit speculative connections to chosen subject X.

Session 5 (4 hours): Is my chosen subject X unteachable because he/she is illiterate/innumerate? Session around Tovani approaches & activities.

Session 6 (4 hours): Sharing of ideas about, and discussion of, the Take Home Test in Week 11 and the Professional Knowledge Bank in Week 15.

Week 10


Week 11

Take home test (30%): Written response to the following: In what specific ways has your reading (mandated and self-selected) contributed to your understanding of, and modified your thinking about, the Central Provocation?

Week 12


Week 13


Week 14


Week 15

Submit Professional Knowledge Bank (50%). A Mahara page organised around the following:

In this Unit you have explored the Central Provocation by learning about

a. Approaches to organising classroom activities

b. Literacy and numeracy strategies

c. Strategies for safely using ICTs to expand the curriculum

d. Approaches to managing challenging behaviour

e. Effective feedback

f. physical, social and intellectual development

Which of these six do you need to find out most about (either because it’s particularly interesting to you, or because it’s especially relevant to your chosen subject X? Research it. Prepare a Mahara page which reports on your research (readings, conversations, activities, UC sessions, observations). Discuss its relevance to the Central Provocation.


If you’ve got this far, thank you!

I’d love some feedback, particularly on the following:

If you were an M.Teach student and you saw this plan, what thoughts and/or feelings would you have? What would work for you, and what wouldn’t?

Also, let me know if you’re interested in being a part of Session 4.

Unteachable kids: Part 2

active studentsThe provocation ‘There are some students who are just plain unteachable’ seems to work, judging by the response when I posted a Facebook link to my last blog post. It was a lot of fun to be thinking along with a number of my past teacher education students, all of whom are now in schools and whose thoughts are therefore especially useful as I plan this new unit. In fact, as I gardened this morning (I’m still on leave, but like most teachers I mull), I thought it might be interesting to plan this unit ‘out loud’ on this blog.

Yesterday I wrote ‘provocation first, not outcomes or standards’. So, is Step 2 about weaving the mandated outcomes and Standards into the plan?

Nope. Not for me. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve got the outcomes at the back of my mind, of course. The seven learning outcomes for this unit are understanding the following:

  1. approaches to organising classroom activities,
  2. literacy and numeracy strategies,
  3. the safe and effective use of ICT,
  4. managing challenging behaviour,
  5. giving effective feedback,
  6. knowing about physical, social and intellectual development that affects learning and
  7. the implication of research on teaching practice.

So, as I said, these seven are at the back of my mind, but my next step isn’t to take each of these in turn and work out how I might structure the unit around each of them in turn. I find (is it just me?) that when I design a unit by breaking it down into its individual components that a number of things happen.

  • I find myself ‘filling pots rather than lighting fires’, and I definitely don’t want to be doing that, given that the provocation has this potential to light fires. I don’t want to position myself as the person who knows, the teller, rather (as I think works best) as the (albeit more experienced) co-researcher, discovering things about this complex world of teaching along with my students (all of whom come to the course with relevant experience and many thoughts).
  • When I position myself as the teller, the expert, the one who imparts his wisdom and experience, I end up putting theory first and practice second, as if (as the 7th learning outcome implies) you become a good teacher if first you have been told what has been found to work. I want my learners to be more active researchers.
  • When I design sub-units for each of the seven outcomes, I (and the students) end up missing the connections, the inter-relationships. Literacy strategies are largely about giving effective feedback. So is managing challenging behaviour, as well as knowing about social and intellectual development. These things are all mixed up, intertwined. Deleuze and Guattari once said something about always beginning in the middle, never at the beginning, that there is no beginning or rational order or unconnected phenomena in a complex ecosystem. And the classroom is a very complex ecosystem.
  • A good provocation produces a varied and rich mix of evolving responses. Things emerge and unfold. Treating learning outcomes separately takes students down predetermined paths; it limits their freedom to explore deeply and passionately

So my Step 2 is not to treat the outcomes separately, Nor do I yet ‘begin with the end’, as the Understanding by Design folk advocate. Perversely (given the widespread acceptance of the UbD wisdom), I don’t start by asking what I want my students to be able to do, or to understand. Often, I don’t know exactly what I want them to be able to do or understand. That’s why I like being in the classroom. It’s potentially unpredictable, chaotic, alive, generative. So I’m not yet ready to think too concretely about the assessments.

So what is my Step 2? (I’ve never thought like this before, by the way. I’ve never thought that I design a unit in steps.)

In Step 2, I play around with what I want my students to do. I try to imagine how I’d like them to be active. I form a picture in my mind of their faces, their expressions, their movements, their trajectories.

In this case, with these students, I know that I’ll be seeing them just six times, for four hours at a time. I know that they’ll be required to attend to this unit outside of those hours.

As I think about these sessions and about their time on their own, a picture begins to form in my mind.  I imagine them thinking about the provocation, of course, but not just thinking. Actively exploring it, both on their own and with others. I imagine each of them choosing an actual secondary student – it could be a student they have worked with in the past,  or someone they observe when they go into a school to observe, or even the self they remember being when they were in secondary school. This student would be someone who is (or was) difficult in class, a challenge to his/her teachers. My teacher education students write about the student. They speculate. They observe and discuss. They read. They come to tentative conclusions, which they refine after further observations, discussions, analyses and reading. They’re on the move, intellectually and physically.

So Step 2 in my unit design has been to imagine a project that will serve as a way for my teacher education students to know more about difficult students, and to explore the idea that some students are plain unteachable. In the process, I’m imagining, they’ll begin to see the connections to those seven learning outcomes.

Indeed, Step 3 of my unit design will be structuring the sessions and the assessments so that seeking out those connections becomes unavoidable. I’ll write about this tomorrow.

There are some kids who are plain unteachable

a-clockwork-orange-004I’m designing a teacher education unit I’ll be teaching in the new academic year, and it’s not easy to locate (amidst the seven pre-determined learning outcome, the seven mandated Graduate Teacher Standards, and the three compulsory textbooks) its beating heart, the thing that will determine whether or not the unit will have enough spirit and spunk to provoke, in useful ways, the students who will be here in just over a month.  Learning outcomes and Graduate Standards don’t provoke; they’re more like the sides of a cattle pen, making sure we go where those in charge want us to go. Textbooks rarely stimulate, telling us how things are rather than  inviting us to think, explore and create.

The unit is called ‘Teaching strategies and learning theories’. Yuck. The title implies that becoming a teacher is all about being told how research by theoreticians has led us to strategies that work. That’s crap. Thoughtful and resilient practitioners, wrestling with actual problems and drawing intelligently on useful philosophies and theories, have led us to strategies that work sometimes with some kids. There’s always more to find out.

I will require my new students to be thoughtful and resilient practitioners. Few of them will have had any teaching experience, many of them will be feeling unsure, and a few of them will be angry when they discover either that there are no simple answers. To survive in teaching, they’ll need to observe, experiment, analyse, adapt and persist. That’s what I want them to experience in this unit.

So I want to start not with the Learning Outcomes, the Graduate Standards or the textbooks, but with a Provocation, one that requires them to explore the territory described by the outcomes, standards and textbooks. Provocation first, not outcomes or standards or some author setting out the territory before the pre-service teacher has been thrown in the deep end.

But what Provocation?

There are some kids who are just plain unteachable.

That might do it.

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?

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.

On joy and depression in the teaching of English

 Sometimes, Sylvia thinks as she sits in the Las Vegas airport lounge waiting for her flight home, 140 characters aren’t enough. Like right now. One tweet is definitely not enough to say all she wants to say about the week she has just spent at her first English teachers conference.  For twenty minutes she posts to Twitter, or re-tweets as she comes across other posts from members of her rapidly expanding PLN:

 OMG! Just finished #ncte12 #alan12 English teachers conference. I’ve found my Tribe [Seth Godin]

Met authors. Bought books. Talked all night about writing. This is why I wanted to be an English teacher!

Listened to Penny Kittle, Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk. Inspired. And Ken Robinson. Wow!!

RT Great graphic novels from 2012 http://www.salon.com/2012/11/26/great_graphic_novels_from_2012/ … via @Salon

RT @pennykittle: @KellyGToGo What should children read? MORE. Amen to that!

RT Jim Burke@englishcomp   NYTimes: What Should Children Read? (Meditation on nonfiction & teaching CCore by teacher/friend of Malcolm Gladwell) http://nyti.ms/UVNJXL

I love Tom Newkirk’s book “The Art of Slow Reading.” This is so re-assuring! #titletalk

RT I would love to spend a week with #titletalk folks. Everyone brings 20 books and the week is spent rdg, talking writing rdg and so on.

RT@pennykittle Hope you don’t mind. We just started a book club for your book Book Love. Already nearly 30 people signed on!

RT Carol Jago@CarolJago  Teaching Frankenstein? Here’s the preface to 1831 edition http://bit.ly/SosKhu  #edchat

RT Donalyn Miller@donalynbooks  Shout your favorite book of the year– any age range. #titletalk

Her flight is being called, so Sylvia turns off her iPhone. She can’t wait to get back, to sleep in her own bed for starters, and then to return to school, to her English classes, with all this energetic joy she’s feeling. The imagination. The consolations and inspirations of literature. The joys of writing and talking, deeply, about words that move us, shock us, make us laugh. The sense that she’s been given this privileged opportunity to set up, in her own classroom, mini-versions of the conference she’s just attended, places where her students will explore, through what they read and what they write, the worlds within and without.


 Three days after attending the conference, Sylvia sits at her desk at home in the small hours of the night, all the post-conference elation drained from her body. She’s spent the past hour writing about the English Departmental meeting earlier in the day, and is wondering whether she should risk posting it on her blog. Probably not.

This is what she has written.

 I am lost for words. In fact I’m lost full stop.

For most of last week I loved being an English teacher. Feeling myself a member of the tribe. Amongst my own. I bought books and sat in corners with colleagues sharing excited thoughts about what we’d been reading. I rubbed shoulders with authors whose words take me into other worlds, worlds which become my own world. I was part of a virtual and live community made up of those who love language and the imagination and stories. I felt alive in a way that I did when I was studying English at college, a part of a community of readers and writers, a member of a tribe who had access to a unique way of knowing that helps us see more of what is around and within us. I couldn’t wait to get back to my classroom, invigorated, inspired, renewed, clarified.

Today I feel immersed in hopelessness.

We spent our lunchtime today – me, the Head of our faculty, and another colleague –  arguing about Enrico’s grade on the essay he wrote. Enrico is one of my students. He’s 15. I’ve been working with Enrico for months, now, trying to get him to see that writing can be a way of exploring things that matter. At first he was resistant, but then we talked one day while I was on lunchtime playground duty about the worried look on his face, and he told me that his younger brother had left home overnight and the family didn’t know where he was. We had a writing lesson straight afterwards, and I encouraged him to write, privately, about what was on his mind. Over the next weeks we developed it into a longer story, partly fictionalized, and he told me how he enjoyed the writing, how it felt good think, in a slow way, about some of the stuff that he and his family have been experiencing.

So, before the conference, when it came time to work on the essay task that was going to be graded, I encouraged him to write an essay about loss. His brother had returned, but there was a time when Enrico didn’t know what had happened to him. He’d talked, too, about the loss of a family dog that had wandered off and never returned. So there seemed to be lots of material there for Enrico to draw on.

He’d written the essay while I’d been away.

It was full of heart-felt material, it was a piece of writing that mattered to him, but my colleagues insisted that it be given a fail. It wasn’t smoothly written, he didn’t support his argument by quoting from the text we’ve been studying, and he didn’t discuss the writer’s techniques. Furthermore, it took a different tack from the rather glib and restrictive stimulus quote that the students had been asked to respond to. The essay didn’t fulfill the requirements of the rubric, and my colleagues, or one of them at least whose opinions matter, had insisted that his essay be given a FAIL.

My colleagues argue that we’re assessing his writing and not his character, but that’s not the way Enrico is going to experience it. And I can’t help thinking back to the English teacher’s conference, and to the talks given by all those authors who talked about the vulnerable parts of themselves which they explored and articulated in their books. They, or most of them, had the consolation of knowing that their writing had been published before, had the support of the editor and the publisher and probably lots of other folk. They’d been invited to our conference! Enrico, of course, has none of this.

I was reminded at the conference that reading and writing are at the heart of our discipline, that English is core because, through it, we learn about our own and others’ world. I so want this insight to determine what happens in my own English classroom.

It doesn’t, though. It can’t.

I end up feeling guilty that I’m not preparing students like Enrico for the hurdles he’ll have to jump. Is this just my inexperience? Is this just because I’ve only been teaching a short time? Will I ever find a way of helping him ‘play the game’ while at the same time getting some deeper pleasure out of reading and writing?

I don’t know how to do this.

I feel empty and defeated.


A Note on the story

The above story is entirely fictional (though the tweets were inspired, and sometimes copied, from tweets I read following the NCTE English Teachers conference in Las Vegas earlier this month). It’s a story I’ve written quickly in order to help me think about a link I’m becoming increasingly interested in: the possibility that some of the external demands on English teachers are distracting us from our core disciplinary business, and are unnecessarily depressing for teachers (especially young ones like Sylvia) and students (like Enrico).

Ethics in the English classroom

I’ve been asked to give a talk tomorrow night to our local English teachers association about ethics in the English classroom, and I thought I’d use this blog post to try to gather together some thoughts. In my belly I know what I want to say, but, as I’ve found to my cost in the past, what I think I know intuitively and what I can articulate clearly are sometimes two very different things!

If ethics is all about the way we live our lives, if ethics is about how to live a full and authentic life, then I think English is one of the key school subjects where …

… and here I pause, as I was going to type ‘ethics can be taught’.

I don’t believe that ethics can be taught. I think that a big part of the problem is that our classroom planning gets driven by outcomes, that outcomes are predicated on the idea that there is a teachable endpoint (an outcome), and that the growth of an ethical sensibility resists exactly this kind of approach. It’s this idea that I want to explore in my workshop.

The curriculum itself acknowledges this. It says

Students learn to behave ethically as they explore ethical issues and interactions with others, discuss ideas, and learn to be accountable as members of a democratic community.

What kind of an assessable outcome statement, though, would set up the conditions where students explore?

Students will demonstrate an awareness of the ethical issues implicit in The Giver?

Students will be able to articulate the ethical dilemma faced by Jonah as he realizes his father is complicit in the murder of a baby?

Exploration on the one hand, and closed and assessable endpoints on the other, are mutually exclusive categories. Students will not explore in the necessary free and personally engaged spirit if they think their thoughts are necessarily being channeled towards a given endpoint.

I suspect that the stark way that I put this might provoke some disagreement, and that in fact my own workshop might provide some evidence that I’ve oversimplified the case.

Here’s what I’m planning to do:

  1. I’m going to read six extracts, three from books which contributed in some way to my ethical sensibility (Robbery Under Arms, The Great World and The Marriage Plot), and three from stories I’ve used in English classes (Grimm Fairy Tales, Hard Times and Romeo and Juliet). I’ll be asking the audience to write and talk about some of these extracts, and I’ll be talking about some of the reasons I’ve chosen them.
  2. I’ll then look at the Australian Curriculum and what it says about ethics, and suggest (as I’ve suggested above) that outcomes and the growth of an ethical sensibility are incompatible.
  3. I’ll talk about a kindergarten classroom describes by Dahlbeck in an article about ethics in the classroom, one in which the growth of an ethical sensibility fostered through ‘the issues and interactions of the democratic [kindergrarted] community’  is contrasted with the attempt at ethical education implied by the existence of a number of posters around the walls exhorting the children to consider certain ethical issues and behaviours.
  4. I’ll briefly discuss Massey’s ideas about space, and in particular the need to recognize that space is by its very nature a dynamic and open system, and that attempts to close it down (via assessable outcomes) constrains its possibilities.
  5. Finally I’ll tell the story of an English classroom of my own where the tension between performing to the assessments on the one hand, and a genuine engagement with, and exploration of, the ethical implications of certain texts on the other, was played out.

There’ll be disagreement, I’m sure. I might even modify my own thoughts by the end of the evening. I’m quite looking forward to it.


Spatial delight

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished. Here, then, space is indeed a product of relations …  and for that to be so there must be multiplicity …. However, these are not the relations of a coherent, closed system within which, as they say, everything is (already) related to everything else. Space can never be that completed simultaneity in which all interconnections have been established, and in which everywhere is already linked with everywhere else. A space, then, which is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too. (Massey 2005)

Yesterday a colleague with a particular interest in the work of Doreen Massey invited a number of us to share some thoughts about the opening chapters of For Space.  I’ve never read any of her before, and found some of it puzzling or impenetrable, as I almost always do with a new author who is asking me to think in different ways. But there was enough in the first couple of chapters to make me want to hear more, and it was good to hear the others talking about this, particularly as Massey’s ideas so clearly animated their thinking.

I especially enjoyed listening to the group talking about the enlivened, relational and open space that Massey describes; Massey originally wanted to call her book ‘Spatial delight’. I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic, or at least for there to be a reason for engaging strongly with the world, at a time when too much seems to be happening at an uncontrollable pace in an inevitable and bleak direction. It’s not easy to care and to work when you think it’s all stuffed. I’ve been conscious of fighting against this feeling, and looking rather desperately for signs that it matters what we do.

So the discussion was heartening. It was good to hear about this thinker whose disciplined thinking about space has caused her delight, and has opened up possibilities for engagement with the world.

Then, as we were talking about these two early chapters, and as some of the group were describing Massey’s concept of space – connections yet to flower into interaction, relations forming, multiplicity, an open space of loose ends and possibilities, of intersecting trajectories and of a world being made – I suddenly found myself thinking about my English classroom, in the days when I was an English teacher.

I was an early advocate, in our staffroom, of outcomes and rubrics. I used to think these were such useful ways of making our values and teaching more helpfully obvious to the students. But it wasn’t long before I felt their restricting influence, and during yesterday’s discussion I saw, with greater clarity,  the reasons why.

My English classroom worked best when I allowed myself to be open to its nature as a relational, open, storied space, as a place where the students (and I) allowed our intersecting storied trajectories to surface and, in our engagement with literature of one kind or another, where we went in unpredictable and various ways to making new connections and having new (sometimes troubling) insights.

Outcomes worked against this. As soon as I tried to frame a lesson or project around outcomes (‘students will understand …’, ‘students will be able to …’ ‘students will know …’), I was attempting to create a closed and predictable system. I always, always, had the uncomfortable feeling that this kind of ‘teaching to the outcomes’ was closing down possibilities, that it was squeezing the potential life out of the space.

Fear, drive my feet: managing pre-course anxiety

I’m standing in front of a class of secondary students, sensing their restlessness and desperately trying to hold their attention. I’m pulling out every trick I’ve learned: cajoling one sub-group, trying to beguile a second with a story or an interesting fact, and threatening a third. But I feel weak and dreadfully underprepared; I don’t really know the content or where the lesson should be heading, and I can sense the students seeing through my bluff and bluster. They’re about to walk out, I’m convinced, or give up, or maybe even riot. I redouble my efforts, but I can see that I’m losing them and that nothing will rescue this hopeless situation.

[My dream last week.]

I’m now nearly 65 and have been working with students for over 40 years now. I’ve loved teaching and the academic job I’ve got at the moment. Yet I still have anxious nightmares before the beginning of every teaching year.

This underlying anxiety used to feel neurotic. Why would I have these dreams unless, underneath the surface, I felt insecure and unstable. I’ve come to think more recently that the dreams are healthy  and help motivate me so that I prepare well.

Because it’s fear rather than logic that’s driving my feet, my anxiety dreams trigger a process that is idiosyncratic and, in its early stages, not as immediately productive as it might be!

I can illustrate this by describing the five stages – familiar to me now – that I’ll go through between now and early February, when I meet the 200 students doing my Teacher Education unit on managing classroom.

Stage 1: Collecting resources

The logical place to begin would be to think about the purpose of the unit. What am I trying to achieve?

But that’s not where my underlying anxiety takes me.

Instead, with a kind of unconscious desperation, I collect my resources, scores of them, as if the more resources I have to throw at the students, the more prepared I’ll feel. I’m a bit like the warrior my son creates in his online game Skyrem. Before he goes into battle with an unknown enemy, he first gathers together an ebony dagger, an orcish battle axe, a dwarvish sword, full battle dress (including an invisibility shield) and various spells and potions. The more he collects, the more confident he feels.

I’ve taught this unit before, so I’ve already collected a fair few weapons. I revisited them this morning, and, like the pre-battle soldier polishing his weapons, I made a mindmap of them, trying (unsuccessfully) to resist the urge to keep adding to them as I went.

2. Imagining the resistances

The relief from my anxiety which this manic collecting affords is temporary.

I'd like to say that this is me, at my writing desk while I imagine Janine, Greg and my other future students. In fact it's a drawing of my hero Charles Dickens, imagining his various characters.

After making this mindmap this morning, I began to imagine characters, some of my future students, responding to the resources very much like the students in my nightmares. I could see  (for example) Janine, the student whose hard work and ability to play the game had got her top marks, being angry at the lack of guidance, at the assumption that she would have the time to wade through the resources and make independent decisions about which were relevant to her and which were not. I could see Greg, the practical down-to-earth student who had already decided that university learning was unconnected with the real world, and that he’d learn the job once he got into a classroom rather than by wading through an old man’s reading list. I could imagine conscientious Elizabeth, full of zeal and idealism about a new teaching career, quickly becoming overwhelmed with the mountain of stuff being thrown at her. And finally I could see Allan, happy to take seriously anything which immediately appealed to him as being interesting or useful, but more interested in talking about teaching than in reading about it. What would I say to them? How would I keep them engaged?

 Stage 3 Revisiting the aims of the unit

I hate Learning Outcomes and include them in my unit outlines only because they are compulsory. Here are the official Learning Outcomes for the unit I’m about to teach.

My unit's official Learning Outcomes

The spectre of the four resistant students forces me to think about purpose. What am I wanting to achieve in our 10 short weeks together?I understand the thinking behind Learning Outcomes (make the purpose explicit so students know what’s expected), but always find them lifeless and limiting, like trying to package a mystery in a formula. In this case I find them particularly useless because these Learning Outcomes spring out of a view about teaching as performance that tells only part of the story. Clear verbal and non-verbal directions and generic practical approaches and strategies are important, but they’re a fraction of what I’d want this unit to be about.

Here’s my list:

  1. Tolerating complexity: I want the students to know that there isn’t a single box of tricks, or a failsafe method of classroom management. There are different approaches that work with different teachers, different students and in different contexts.
  2. Embracing critical analysis and self-reflexivity: I want the students to examine their own assumptions about what works. The research says that many young teachers, once they get into the classroom, quickly revert to teaching styles that are familiar to them, based on the teaching styles of their former teachers and parents, and that these often result in the repetition of ineffective teaching practices. I want my students to understand and critically examine what comes naturally to them, and to begin the work of shaping a teacher-identity that is both authentic and effective. I want them to think about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. Is it just about control? How central is learning? What implications flow from what they value? What kind of a teacher do they aspire to be?
  3. Thinking holistically: I want them to see the important links between pedagogy, content knowledge and classroom management, rather than see these as unconnected components which need individual and separate attention and skills.
  4. Becoming creative and informed makers of meaning: I want them to notice the way our unit assumes that the learner (which is them!) is an active inquirer and meaning-maker rather than a passive recipient of the teacher’s wisdom and knowledge, and how this inquirer’s stance stimulates motivation and creativity … and then to reflect on what this means for the way they are going to run their classrooms. I want them to know that our profession requires this inquirer’s mentality for the whole of their professional lives.

Stage 4: Basing the unit around fertile questions

Yoram Harpaz

Yoram Harpaz suggests that our classrooms should become places of where communities of thinkers research fertile questions together. They define a fertile question as having six main characteristics:

  1. Open – there are several different or competing answers.
  2. Undermining – makes the learner question their basic assumptions.
  3. Rich – cannot be answered without careful and lengthy research. Usually able to be broken into subsidiary questions.
  4. Connected – relevant to the learners.
  5. Charged – has an ethical dimension
  6. Practical -is able to be researched given the available resources.

Here the work has been done for me, as last year our teaching team came up with the following fertile questions or Nine Provocations. These provocations form the basis of the teaching course within which my unit is situated.

  1. What kind of a teacher do I want to be?
  2. Will I be allowed to be the teacher I want to be?
  3. To whom am I accountable?
  4. Am I ready to teach?
  5. Is teaching a profession or a trade?
  6. What will students want and need from me?
  7. Should we teach students or subjects?
  8. To what extent is teaching an intellectual pursuit?
  9. How will I control my students?

Once I get to this fourth stage of articulating the central research questions, I begin to feel some of the anxious impulse to do all the work beginning to dissipate. I no longer feel I need to understand all the material, have all the answers, or accumulate a mountain of resources; I’m going to be guiding a community of researchers, not force-feeding my students with my own knowledge and experience. It’s not that I imagine that there will be no moments of challenge or discomfort with Janine, Greg, Elizabeth or  Allan. But I see my role more clearly now. The ground feels more secure.

Stage 5: Checking the alignment of assessment and objectives

Will my assessments give my students opportunities to show that they have tolerated complexity, embraced critical analysis and self-reflexivity, thought holistically, and become creative & informed makers of meaning?

I think so. We’re asking them to explore some of the Nine Provocations and to share the results of their explorations with us, using a number of different media. We’re requiring them to build their understanding on their critical analyses of their own and others’ experience and assumptions, gleaned from conversations, course work and time spent in the classroom. There are no short answer questions, no single mandated texts that they must study and master: they’re to pursue the questions that matter to them and to map the way their thinking evolves as a result of their labours.

My job, between now and the first class, is to make possible resources available, and to structure week-by-week events that will stimulate research and collaboration.

Perhaps, tonight, I’ll sleep more peacefully.