Where is my tribe?

My book, Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities, is written and published.

There is a part of me that wants to leave that project behind and get involved something new. But the unpalatable reality is that I need to be involved in the publicity and marketing for the book. My colleague Anita Collins has designed a webpage for me, at steveshann.com,  and I know I need to get out there and let people know about the book.

My website

My website

But who? And how?

A couple of nights ago, some neighbours came to dinner. One of them told us how a gardening project she was involved in at a local primary school was helping to turn around some disaffected kids. I asked her if she’d ever thought of becoming a qualified teacher; she’d be very good.

‘I’m way too cynical about schools,’ she said. ‘There’s so much pressure to teach the syllabus, to conform, and there are so many demands and rules and procedures that have nothing to do with good learning.’

Afterwards, I realised that she, and the many teachers who struggle to reconcile their ideals and visions with the everyday realities of the classroom, are the people I’m writing for. It’s the struggle I’ve been involved in all my teaching life. If it’s true that we write the book that we wanted to read, I’ve written a book of non-cynical stories, of stories that suggest that no matter how oppressive or pervasive ‘the system’ seems to be, teachers can keep their vision alive, their ideals in tact. The classrooms of these teachers are vibrant places.

On the long drive back from Melbourne last week, I listened to an interview with Seth Godwin  where he talked about marketing and finding an audience. He suggested that the first step in any successful marketing is finding your tribe, the people who are interested in the same problems as you are, and who want to know your solutions.

My tribe is made up of those teachers, many of them new to the profession, who are scared that the system will snuff out their ideals and their visions, and want to hear a more encouraging story.

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

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.

The Queen’s Journey: Meditation 1

In my last post, I wrote a version of the story ‘The Queens Journey’. It’s probably the story that has had the biggest impact on me in my life, and the one I’ve told the most often. I thought I might use this post (and perhaps the next couple of blog posts) to wonder aloud why this might be so.

I remember at school (now over 50 years ago) never being able to feel that scientific explanations of the world were satisfying. When we studied light, or energy, or momentum, or the periodical table, there were always questions unanswered. At the time, I couldn’t work out what the questions were, except they had something to do with, ‘So what is it that causes all of this to happen?’ When we were studying photosynthesis, for example, or life cycles, it seemed that the scientific explanations always stopped short of explaining what it might be that lay the heart of all these processes, what it was that animated them, gave them life, set them going, made them happen.

I went to a religious boarding school (prayers every day, chapel at least once and often twice on Sundays), and perhaps I might have believed that the answer lay in the Bible or in the stories the chaplains told us. But I wasn’t convinced of this either. Both explanations – the scientific and the Christian – seemed to stop short of venturing into the territory that seemed most interesting to me, territory which seemed connected to uncertainty, complexity and mystery. Nor did either of these two explanations talk to each other. There was lots of talk about complexity in science and mystery in chapel, but neither was quite what I think I was sensing was missing (though I had no words for it, no real way of articulating this to myself or anyone else).

Much later in life, I was introduced to Jung’s thinking, and then, through him, to the world of Western philosophy and discussions about ‘the thing-in-itself’. All that seemed much more interesting. What animates the world?  ‘Nature naturing’ (Spinoza)? Will (Schopenhauer)?  ‘The will to overcome’ (Nietzsche)? These seemed attempts to name what seemed to be left out of the scientific and Christian explanations. These seemed to be attempts to enter into a kind of grappling with mystery, complexity and uncertainty.

Then I remember seeing an interview with Joseph Campbell where he talked about the masks of god, and how we humans are not capable to looking directly at the source of all being, but can only get glimpses through contemplating masks and signs. At around about this time I began to realize that this is what certain kinds of stories did for me. They gave me glimpses. I remember writing in my Masters thesis the undoubtedly unoriginal (but new to me) insight that it made sense to think of our DNA as being animated by the same energy, and being structured by the same patterns, that we find in the big stories. Or at least that in telling and hearing these big stories, we were somehow ‘in the presence of the life force’. And that this was about as close as we would ever to get to being able to think about this ‘thing-in-itself. Or at least as close as I would ever get.

For me, the story of the Queen’s Journey is a story about what’s in our DNA.

I imagine DNA as being characterised by all these little electrical charges, full of attractions and repulsions, operating according to patterns that we experience all the time and yet which feel mysterious. We sense our lives being shaped by unknown forces, and at the same time we operate as if it’s we ourselves who are calling the shots. Active and passive. Potent and impotent. Attractions and repulsions. Impulses and resistances. Possibilities and limits. Lots of opposites, lots of tensions. Jung’s writing is full of them.

So is the Queen’s Journey.

On meandering: the Queen’s Journey

IMG_0543

There’s a wonderful old story that was told to me by my PhD supervisor, and which I’ve now told to many different groups of students. I’ve found myself thinking about this story over the past couple of days.

It’s called The Queen’s Journey.

It’s a story about a king and queen who rule over a good and prosperous land, and who hear one day of the coming to power, in the neighbouring country, of a wicked, evil heathen lord. Full of indignation, the good king raises an army and marches along a straight road leading directly to the borders of the neighbouring country. But the wicked, evil heathen lord has got wind of his loud approach, and his armies are waiting in hiding in a mountain pass near the border; they attack the armies of the good king, capture him, and take him back to their castle, where the good king is thrown into the deepest, dankest, darkest dungeon, and is left there to rot.

The queen, of course, is distraught. Day after day and long into every night, she sits by the window in her chamber, fretting about her missing husband and wondering if there’s anything she should do. But what is there to do? She already knows that a rescuing army would have march through the narrow mountain pass, making an ambush likely. Yet she can think of no better plan. And her fretting increases tenfold when a smuggled note from the king arrives. ‘My plight is desperate,’ it says. ‘Time is short! The time for action is now!’

The queen sits by her window, day after day, racking her brains, trying to think of some plan. Her advisers make suggestions, but none of them seem feasible; in her bones, she knows that there must be a way, but she hasn’t heard it yet. Day after day she sits there, trying to still the rising panic, and eventually she is able to look out her window, to see and hear the river that rushes down below, to see and hear the leaves rustling in the breeze, to see and hear the birds in the branches and in the sky. Day after day she sits by the window, until, one day, she knows what she must do.

The queen gets up from her place by the window, and she goes over to an old chest which has sat unopened in a corner for many years. She takes out a lute, which she hasn’t touched for years, and an old troubadour’s costume, which hasn’t worn since before her marriage to the king, when she used to secretly disguise herself as a troubadour and sneak out of her father’s castle, to sing unrecognised at local market days. She had once been a gifted musician; it feels good to hold the lute once more.

The queen leaves the palace, disguised, by a back entrance, and makes her way down a meandering track to a village nearby. This route takes her no closer to the lands of the wicked, evil, heathen lord, but this does not matter. She has a plan. She sets herself up in a town square, sings a few songs (not so well), and soon a small crowd has gathered. She invites others to sing when she has finished. She is offered food and board for the night.

The next morning, she continues along the dusty track to the next village. This time, she sings a little more confidently, and her fingers move with more familiarity along the frets and strings of her lute. Again she invites others to join in, and she learns some new songs. Someone tells a story. Another talks with her about lute playing. Again she is offered a meal and a roof over her head for the night.

And so she continues, traversing the country, along all the winding village roads, until eventually she reaches the mountain pass between the two countries. By this time her repertoire has grown and her old skills have returned. News of this extraordinary musician and storyteller now precedes her, and she finds that there are crowds waiting for her in the villages and towns that she passes through.

And news reaches the wicked, evil, heathen lord, sitting alone in his castle, bored and despondent, needing a distraction. He sends soldiers to bring this travelling troubadour to his palace. He orders the troubadour to entertain him. The queen gives the performance of her life, and even the cold hard heart of the wicked, evil, heathen lord is touched. There are tears in his eyes. He pleads with the troubadour to join his court. He offers the troubadour gifts and incentives.

But the queen refuses. ‘I must keep travelling,’ she says. Again the wicked, evil, heathen lord offers her gifts. ‘All I wish for,’ she says, ‘is that I may have a companion, a prisoner from your prisons, to accompany me on the road.’

The wish is granted. The queen is taken down into the dungeons, and there, in the deepest, dankest, darkest cell, she sees the king, body emaciated and covered in sores, lying on a bed of filthy rags and straw. The smell is appalling. ‘I’ll take that man,’ she says.

The king is brought back into the fresh air. Physicians tend his wounds, attendants nurse him back to life. After a couple of weeks, he is able to walk again. After a month, he is ready for the road. Still, he does not know the identity of his rescuer.

The two set off, visiting again all the villages and towns, along the same meandering paths and byways. This time, of course, the queen is welcomed and feted. The performances are breathtaking, but always the queen invites others to join in on her songs and to teach her new ones. Always there are stories told.

Almost exactly a year after the queen first set off on her journey, they reach their castle. The queen is still disguised; the king still ignorant.

At the castle gate, the king offers his rescuer gifts and titles. ‘You have saved my life,’ he says. ‘Whatever you wish for that I can grant, will be yours.’ Again queen refuses. ‘Just saving your life and bringing you back here to your castle is reward enough.’ They part.

The queen hurries to the back entrance of the castle. She takes off her disguise and is recognised by the guards at the back gate. She hurries up the back stairs, back to her room, and she throws troubadour guise and lute into the chest and resumes her seat by the window. And she soon hears the king’s footsteps approaching her room.

The door is flung open and the king stands there, his face red with rage. ‘How dare you!’ he bellows. ‘How dare you sit there, idly, while I languished near to death in a dark and dreadful place! How dare you sit there, doing nothing!’

The queen stands. She goes to the chest and produces the costume and the lute. The king sees. The king understands.

King and queen embrace. The king and queen embrace for a long, long time.

Indeed, if the truth be told, the king and the queen are still locked in that embrace.

Story as agitator

 The issue of impact has been troubling me. My kind of writing is unlikely to have the kind of impact that shows up on citation indexes. Perhaps I can strategically place my articles in high-ranking journals but that’s not the kind of impact my kind of writing is really after.

What am I after?

I want to agitate, complicate, induct and animate. When I write those words, who am I thinking of as the audience? Who am I wanting to agitate, unsettle, induct and animate?

It’s teachers and education students, people in the field, rather than the readers of journals (though, that’s not entirely true; I do want to find and involve myself in an academic community discussing the kind of methodology I’ve been exploring here). But essentially the audience I’m wanting to reach are the teachers who come to my workshops, my students here at UC, my past students.

A former student responded, last month, to one of my stories in a way that has become familiar to me.

Oh my god, Steve [she wrote in an email]. Your story. Just finished it. I am left feeling… feelings. …  I read the first half of the story, then I had a break for a few days, came back and started again from the beginning and [scribbled] comments as I read … questions and thoughts and connections. It started to feel like a conversation between the margin and the story because everything I commented on somehow came up later in the story, and a couple of times I just had to write “yes!” … [It] is so heartbreaking and raw… raw like a nerve.

I said this response was familiar to me. It reminds me of the teacher who threw my book, School Portrait, across the room after reading the opening chapter, then finished it and needed to get in touch with me. Or the person who moved house to live in Canberra after reading it, because she wanted her children to attend the school I’d been writing about.

Impact. I know my stories, my scholarship, my writing, can have impact; it’s a very different kind of impact from the one valued by universities.

But is it?

One of the things I’ve come to know about myself is that people value the way I sit quietly in a conversation until something emerges. This is connected to Somerville’s ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’, and what I’m calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’m imagining myself in a bigger research team, investigating (to use the example I’ve been using in these last posts) the tension between professional learning, higher standards and greater accountability, and making a contribution to the team’s understanding of the issues by drawing attention, in a number of ways, to the lived lives of actual teachers. One of the main ways I’d do this would be to write fiction, to tell stories concocted in my imagination but sourced from my (and other teachers’) experience, and told in such a way that certain issues or factors sitting partly in the background, factors rendered invisible by the garish bright light of the rational intellect, might come into view.