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.
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?
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.
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:
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,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
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
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
I’m an academic and I get paid to be a thinker. I get paid to perform other identities as well, and as I type this I can see, sitting at the edges of the page, shadows from these others, which I try to block out.
While I’m down here at the coast (for three days this week and then three days again next week), I manage to ignore the shadows for long stretches of time, and I just think. I write, read, walk and cook, and all the while I watch thoughts rise to the surface, or make new connections between thoughts and projects, or write to colleagues so that I can fix these thoughts in my increasingly leaky mind.
Yesterday morning, I planned my reading for the day. Orange post-it notes, each with the title of an article or a book chapter, sat next to my computer. There were six of them.
I opened the first article on my computer. Understanding it was a struggle, and after a while I could feel my eyelids getting heavy. I had a nap, then went for a walk wondering what the point of the article had been. When I got back to the house, I wrote an email to a colleague about the struggle, and then scrunched up the corresponding post-it. I didn’t think it was an article for me, but then saw in my inbox a response from my colleague about how stimulated she had been by it. I went back to the beach and, as I walked, I found myself thinking more about the article’s central idea.
Suddenly, a number of untethered drifty thoughts began to move into relationship. I read some more of Maxine Green’s Releasing the imagination and typed up passages. I picked up William Pinar’s What is Curriculum Theory and discovered new thoughts and connections. I remembered an image that had come to me last week, an image that seemed in some enticing way to be unconsciously making links between different research projects.
The five remaining orange post-it notes sit next to the computer, the articles unread; my thoughts have led elsewhere. This afternoon I’m going to re-read the article that gave me such trouble yesterday.
This kind of work is so pleasurable, and so necessary. It doesn’t happen except when I give myself lots of time just to think.