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.

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 body without organs


Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

This morning I started reading Chapter 2 of A Thousand Plateaus. It’s called ‘1914: One or several wolves?’

I read the first few pages and had no fricking idea what was being said.

This was frustrating, given that I’d been reading Chapter 1 and thinking that I was beginning to get some of this. But it the fog descended again. It was as if D&G were making sure no reader reached a premature and superficial conclusion about what was being said, so started to mess with minds again.

(It’s been so reassuring to listen to some podcasts by very intelligent and well-read philosophers and to hear them saying, in the middle of an otherwise animated conversation: ‘… but this bit makes absolutely no sense to me’. Do we teachers do enough of this in the classroom?)

D&G were getting in a lather about Freud, and his Wolfman case. Freud was, they were saying (I could tell this much) completely missing the point.

They seemed to be particularly upset that Freud felt the need to continually reduce the richness of the Wolfman’s unconscious to a single Oedipal cause. Freud kept asking the question ‘What does the wolf represent?’, ignoring the fact that the Wolfman himself described a dream with many wolves in it, a pack of them. Freud wanted to identify a singularity when it was multiplicities that were present.

This was helping to regain some sense of connection to what they were saying. I understand multiplicities and the shallowness of explanations that imagine a singularity. A classroom for example. I cringe when I hear someone (and sometimes that someone is me) talking about a ‘receptive’ or an ‘unmotivated’ class, as if it were a single organism. Even talking about a student as ‘switched on’ or ‘unengaged’ doesn’t sit well, especially when I remember the number of times I’ve sat in an audience and been switched on by one speaker and utterly unengaged by the next. These seem properties to do with some other entity, something composed of multiplicities.

And all of that is helping me make more sense of D&G’s concept of ‘the body without organs’. A classroom is a body without organs, made up of multiplicities with their different flows and intensities, and being plugged into (or disconnected from) other bodies without organs (the students), similarly made up of multiplicities.

This seems to be what they’re saying in the following two passages:

A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena … Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organisation of the organs insofar as it composes an organism. The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organisation. Lice hopping on the beach. Skin colonies. The full body without organs is a body populated by multiplicities. (34)

The metrical principle of these multiplicities is not to be found in a homogenous milieu but resides elsewhere, in forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido, which constitutes them from within, and in constituting them necessarily divides into distinct qualitative and variable flows. (35)

I’m trying to push myself to see what follows from all this. What is it that this way of thinking is helping me to do (rather than explain – see last post)? What is the affect?

I think it’s helping me see that the importance of lesson planning (the subject of one of the units I’m teaching) is less to do with creating a structure for a singularity (the class) and more to do with unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (the teacher-planner) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (the students) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways, into ‘forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido’.

It’s helping me to see the ways in which a group of us working together on e-Portfolios which tell our academic stories is less to do with finding a way to tick the boxes when it comes to our annual performance review and more to do with … ‘unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (each of us as individual academics) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, and also colleagues and structures with whom we share our work) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

It’s helping me to see that student motivation is much more than a function of the fixed attributes  (the socio-economic background, the intelligence, the existence of ambitions and fears) of singularities (the individual students) and more to do with … ”unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (me as teacher, the class, each of the students) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, the curriculum, the school, the community) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

The ‘helping to see’ in itself is an unblocking and stimulating. So the seeing is more than just an interpretation, a way of understanding or theorising. It’s a way of acting.

[The source of the image of Deleuze is here.)


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.



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).

Hitting the ground running: first responses to this semester’s literacy unit

Yesterday we began our new unit for preservice secondary teachers, on literacy across the disciplines. In our Grad Dip tutorial, small groups discussed their initial impressions and recorded their thoughts under four headings.

Clarify: On what would students like more clarity?

Value: What are students liking about what they’re hearing and reading about this unit?

Concern: What are students feeling some level of concern about, given what they’ve read and heard about the unit?

Suggest: What suggestions do students have which might address some of their concerns?

I promised to report and respond by the end of the week, so here I go:





Q: Can we have more details about the Literacy Project? When is it due? What does it involve? How is it to be presented?

A: I’m working on an online lecture about the Literacy Project which will address all these questions. I plan to have it posted by the end of the week. If you have any questions once you’ve watched/read the online lecture, or if you’d just like to chat about your ideas for your project, please send me an email so we can make an appointment on Monday during the Drop In time (3-6), or on Thursday afternoon.

Q: What definition of literacy are we working with in this unit? Is it just reading and writing?

A: I began the lecture with a story, rather than with a definition. Josh was struggling with the text in front of him. In his case, it was Macbeth, but there are students in every KLA classroom who struggle to find meaning from the texts in their subject. Some of these texts are word-based; some involve images, plans, maps, tables, recipes and so on. Many involve a mixture of these, and can be paper-based or electronic. Our unit is about helping students find meaning from all the texts relevant to a particular KLA. I’m wanting you to identify the types of texts and literacy (the ability to read and write texts) which your KLA values, and to learn strategies for teaching these relevant literacies to those students who struggle.
One of our Grad Dip students has already begun this exploration, in her KLA of Science, in a post called Return to the Grad Dip: Teaching Literacy.

 Q: Will we learn specific teaching strategies and approaches?

A: The textbook is full of them. We’ll model and practise others in our tutorials. The e-Reserve has articles on others.

Q: Why are the tutorials not organised along KLA lines?

A: We have a lot to learn from our colleagues in different KLAs. Why does a student who creates havoc in one subject behave like an angel in another? Could it be that the student finds one set of literacies inaccessible and acts out in order to divert attention from feelings of inadequacy? If this at least part of the explanation, perhaps we can learn ways to adapt some of the strategies and literacies of our colleagues from other KLAs? You might find the following video – Teaching spreadsheets though street dance –  interesting.

Q: Are we going to learn about things that hinder literacy (eg dyslexia)?

A: RINE is going to open some doors here, as will SCPE and CPP3. But if you’d like to learn more about a specific issue like dyslexia, then construct your Literacy Project and your weekly reading around the issue. Previous students have done wonderful work along these lines.

Q: How much reading and writing should we be doing each week?

A: The unit (like all university units) is based on the assumption that you’ll spend around 10 hours per week, including lectures, tutorials, workshops and so on. Every week on Moodle I’ll post guidelines and suggestions for your reading and writing, but I want you to be making the decisions about what reading and what writing will be most useful to you. Delve deeply into the aspects of the unit which most engage you, and/or will be most useful to you become the kind of teacher you want to become.

Q: Where will online lectures and the weekly program be posted?

A: On Moodle, in the ELPC G2/LAD section, under the relevant week. (Let Valerie Barker know if it’s at all difficult to find; we want to make these things easily accessible to you.)

Q: Where can we find more details about Assignments 3 and 4?

A: There is information about these in the Unit Outlines and on Moodle (in the Assessment box). After you’ve read these, I’m more than happy for you to make an appointment with me (Monday or Thursday afternoons) to discuss possibilities and idea (email me or Rachel to make a time).
My office, by the way, has posters (Assignment 4) from last year all around the walls.

Q: The Grad Dip Unit Outline mentions a Student Led Mini-Conference. What’s this about?

A: Last year a group of Grad Dip students planned a mini-conference where the Assignment 4 posters were displayed, past students were invited to share their experiences of their first year out, and various other celebrations took place. Later in the semester we’ll be calling for volunteers from this year’s cohort to organise this year’s mini-conference.



2.    VALUE




The things students mentioned as being of value to them included

  • emphasis on literacy in general and KLA specific literacies in particular
  • opportunity to learn new skills and strategies to help struggling students
  • the modelling of the staff, the clarity of the communications (online, in tutorials and in the Unit Outline)
  • the structure of the tutorials, time to work with others and establish a sense of smaller communities of learners
  • the link made between behaviour management and literacy
  • the support structures for students, and the role Valerie is taking as triage person
  • the way e-Reserve is structured, and the flexibility of choosing what to read
  • the integration between the units and the integrated assessment
  • Steve’s example of Josh in the lecture
  • moving the Drop In to Mondays, and the later time slot
  • having online materials posted on time




The things students mentioned as being of concern to them included

  • literacy is a primary school, not a secondary school, issue
  • expensive text books, and the late notice given about this
  • 70% weighting for Assignment 3
  • part-timers having to do Assignment 3 for a second time
  • unrealistically heavy workload expectations, and the pressure of fitting it all into 9 weeks
  • the lack of fast, direct communication with students
  • the lack of notice about Week 1 required reading and preparation
  • the possibility that working in the same tutorial groups for 9 weeks would become monotonous
  • Ning and Moodle being difficult to navigate
  • the lack of usesful KLA information in the lectures/tutorials
  • little or no guidance as to what was the essential part of the unit
  • the lack of clarity about TQI registration process
  • lack of specific help for LOTE teachers who will have students whose English is poor
  • too few live lectures (online not as effective)
  • the Boiler Room as a lecture space





The things students suggested arising out of some of the concerns included

  • consistency across unit outlines
  • Moodle and Ning demonstrations on where to find the relevant information
  • sharing past Literacy Projects and posters
  • online readings rather than textbooks
  • more support from Academic Mentors during prac
  • clearer outline of expectations and outcomes
  • return to the wiki
  • fewer discussions in tutorials
  • a whole course discussion forum on the Ning [ed: there is one]
  • more information on the Literacy Project
  • looking at multiple literacies
  • more feedback on assignments
  • spread the lectures and tutes over multiple days (exhausted by Tuesday program)
  • establish clear method of communication when we’re on prac
  • more LOTE articles on e-Reserve
  • information about literacy programs going on outside uni (eg Tactical Teaching)
  • podcast responding to questions about assignments
  • better communication between workshop tutors and lecturers
  • KLA specific literacies
  • more formative assessment to gauge learning
  • demonstration from lecturers of strategies explored in the unit
  • more application in a practical classroom environment
  • how to craft inquiry  questions to guide reading
  • more colours, pictures, graphs to make texts more accessible
  • have weekly readings and tasks posted earlier

Some thoughts on the concerns and suggestions

I hope that what I’ve written in the Clarify section has helped with some of these.

If you’re feeling that one of your concerns or suggestions has not been responded to adequately, please make a time to come and see me. Talking through an issue almost always works better than just writing about it. To make an appointment (during either Monday or Thursday afternoons), email me and we’ll set up a time.

There is no passion without the other’s passion

Two co-authors and I have recently had a submitted article (called Doubt and disillusion as a stage in becoming a teacher) sent back to us for ‘extensive rewriting’ because ‘the implications for teacher education are not drawn out strongly enough’. Though it was hard to take when I first read the feedback, it has, as usual, been a good challenge.

To help me think about these implications, I’ve just read a difficult and provocative article by Britzman (Teacher education as uneven development: toward a psychology of uncertainty.” International Journal of Leadership in Education, 2007, 10 (1): 1-12) and want to get some thoughts down before they disappear.

Teacher education, Britzman says, is a process full of uncertainty, an experience which is necessarily distressing and usually resisted.

… teacher education is a hated field; no teacher really loves her or his own teacher education. They may soften this rage without a thought by saying, ‘They didn’t prepare me for the uncertainty’. (8)

Drawing on the work of Maxine Greene, Donald Winnicott, William James, Hannah Arendt and Wilfred Bion, Britzman suggests that the reasons for this are psychological, social and sociological.

From Donald Winnicott, she borrows the notion that from the moment of birth until we die, we are never complete, that we’re always dependent on others, and that this inevitably creates vulnerability, uncertainty and anxiety.

Winnicott (1960/1996) proposed ‘there is no such thing as an infant’ (p. 39). He did so to remind his colleagues the infant comes with caregivers, then toys and the objects that make an infant. Our infancy is made as a relation to others. … There is no such thing as development unless we can begin thinking with, what Winnicott (1970) called in another context, ‘the fact of dependence’ (2).

From William James she cites his ‘big idea’ that it is not in the nature of the mind to be either empty (ready to be filled with knowledge) or stable (developing steadily according to predictable developmental patterns). Instead,

The mind works through the stream of consciousness, through association, and so it is always in motion. The mind will not hold still. This complexity, he said, will be an obstacle to education. For if attention is always fleeting attention, awareness of this psychology makes the teacher’s work difficult. (5)

The experienced teacher, then, plays a vital role in drawing the reluctant and distracted student into the business of learning.

He was not afraid to suggest the need for the teacher’s authority…. The mind that knows, he warns, resists being known…. The mind, after all, is an inter-subjective relation, not an ideal or a thing to fill with knowledge. Good night Descartes: even as we need our own mind to know this, there is no mind without the other’s mind. There is no passion without the other’s passion. (6 )

From Maxine Greene, Britzman uses the idea of the preservice teacher is always in an uncertain state of becoming, having to think him or herself into the unfinished work of attempting to be.

She proposed the teacher as an incomplete project, as unfinished, as in the process of becoming a teacher with others. If the teacher chooses to become a critical subject, she supposed, what is critical only emerges when the teacher understands herself or himself as subject to uncertainty. Uncertainty resides within the acts of a self-committed to becoming. (3)

Britzman uses Hannah Arendt to shift the focus from the nature of the mind or the self to the nature of the world. The teacher, says, Arendt, knows the world, knows that the world is flawed and transient, but also takes responsibility for inducting the student into this imperfect and uncertain world.

Arendt turns to literature and quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet complained about existence as such when he said: ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’ (p. 192). Arendt’s conclusion still stuns: ‘Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home. Because the world is made by mortals it wears out and because it continually changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. (7)

And finally Deborah Britzman turns to Wilfed Bion, the psychoanalyst and philosopher, who suggested that life brings us face to face with our painful emotional experience of helplessness, dependency and frustration (9), from which we instinctively recoil. We then either resist learning by denying feelings of being undermined  …

The insecurity is expelled and returns in the form of bad students, bad grades, bad theory, bad university, and bad methods.(9)

… or we accept that

thinking is a way to render valuable one’s emotional experience. (9)

She quotes Bion’s words as follows:

Learning depends on the capacity for the container [by which he means the capacity to hold doubt and not knowing without evacuating the bad feelings this involves] to remain integrated and yet lose rigidity. This is the foundation of the state of mind of the individual who can retain his knowledge and experience and yet be prepared to reconstrue past experiences in a manner that enables him to be receptive of a new idea. (quoted p9)


Learning is tough, then, and necessarily involves coming to terms with uncertainty and doubt. Not learning is often the preferred option. Britzman finishes the article with a brief summary of the postmodern university, the place where ‘the idea of knowledge as capable of training minds and as bringing up of culture (bildung) is now obsolete’ and where ‘meta-narratives have worn out’ (10).

With this new instrumentalism comes a new definition of the high speed student. Learners must become adept, flexible, and able to judge knowledge in terms of its use value, its applicability to real life concerns, and its prestige. But this means that skills supplant ideas, technique is confused with authority and responsibility, and know-how short circuits the existential question of indeterminacy.

The expansions of multinational and now global corporations into every corner of our lives have terrific force in the university. Students, too, are consumers; they judge the competency of their education rather than their own efforts. (10)

It’s a bleak picture she paints. How can we think our way into some accomodations with the facts of uncertainty and doubt in such a climate?

I’m left with a supplementary question. If, as Britzman and her cluster of quoted thinkers have suggested, students need teachers to help them cross difficult thresholds (an idea closely connected to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, around which so much of our present understanding of good pedagogy revolves), where is the movement in teacher education to increase the quality time teacher educators have with their students, both during their courses as doubts and uncertainties surface, and in their first years in the classroom? Or is the trend in the other direction, with an increase in distance and online education, and a growing list of roles and responsibilities for teacher educators if they’re to meet their Professional Development Review outcomes?

There is no passion without the other’s passion. But it seems that present realities mean that the other’s passion is not fully available.

Uncanny and creepy detours

Britzman’s ‘Practice Makes Practice’

I can only read Britzman in little chunks. Her phrases and sentences are so dense with meaning, so evocative of things experienced and thought, that I find myself wanting to copy out whole paragraphs or memorize phrases. This is how I’ve read a number of the ‘big’ thinkers: Nietzsche, Charles Taylor, Jung, James Hillman; their pithily expressed thoughts seem to release something inside me that’s felt constrained and only partly accessible. It’s hard work, but quite exciting.

This morning I’ve read four pages from Practice Makes Practice. In this short section (called ‘From socialization to subjectivity’), it’s as though Britzman has been listening to conversations I’ve had with Rachel about identity, or with Phil and Rachel about the metaphors/narratives that guide our thinking and experience, or with Simon about negotiating a path between neoliberal dictates and good pedagogy, or with Hannah and Libby about the painful business of creating a teacher-self. It’s as though Britzman has been listening to these conversations, has seen connections between them, and is wanting to say something that helps me see these connections.

She talks, first of all, about four chronologies in the process of becoming a teacher: the first being our school and undergraduate experiences; the second our teacher education; the third our professional experience as a preservice teacher; and the fourth our entering the profession as a new teacher. These four experiences are not simply times where our identities are being shaped; there’s a dialogic process happening, where the narratives we construct around what we experience create the meanings we then experience. Britzman, as usual, puts it so much more pithily.

Each of the above chronologies represents different and competing relations to power, knowledge, dependency, and negotiation, and authorizes frames of reference that effectuate discursive practices in teaching. The sense we make of each chronology depends upon the discourses we take up. (p70)

So, for Britzman, culture is not this static force that ‘enculturates’ the passive and powerless individual. It’s not something that happens to people.

Deborah Britzman

Culture is where identities, desires, and investments are mobilized, constructed, and reworked. It is the site where antagonistic meanings push and pull at our sensibilities, deep investments, and relationships with others. And consequently there is not one monolithic culture that communicates unitary meanings. Circulating within and persuading any culture are an array of contesting and contradictory discourses that vie for our attention.

To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible. Within any given culture, there exists a multiplicity of realities – both given and possible – that form competing ideologies, discourses, and the discursive practices that are made available because of them. It is within our subjectivities that we can make sense of these competing conditions even as these competing conditions ‘condition’ our subjectivity in contradictory ways. (71)

[‘To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible.’ This reminds me of Rachel’s response to my thought about a unifying metaphor to explain some of our students’ resistance to our teaching. I doubt that everyone is labouring under exactly the same conscious/semi-conscious metaphor.  To be honest, that sounds like a hideous idea.  Even on an unimaginative day I would come across hundreds.’]

I want to think a lot more about Britzman’s words: The sense we make of each chronology depends upon the discourses we take up.

What influences the decisions preservice teachers make about which discourses to take up or inhabit?

Obviously there are lots of them, but I wonder if we underestimate, and consequently undervalue, the role of teacher educators in influencing our students. I wonder this partly because of the move towards reducing face-to-face time with students and increasing online teaching. As I was typing this sentence, an email came through about moves by universities to explore more actively the possibilities of distance and blended education. I’m not against the move to work out how to work well online; I’m strongly in favour, actually. But I sense that we’re making this move while at the same time letting what we know about Vygotsky’s ZPD become what we preach rather than what we practise. Our students need to have space and time to ‘make sense of the chronologies’, but they need to do this within zones of proximal development, which means having close contact with others (teachers and other students) who can help them examine assumptions and add complexity and nuance to current unmediated discourses. This happens when there is time and space for face-to-face conversation and the forming of real relationships.  As I’ve been reading our recent assignments, I see evidence of this happening for some, but not enough, and I suspect that part of the reason is a lack of sufficient face-to-face time.


Britzman goes on to talk about how, especially in the third and fourth chronologies, the young teachers have to negotiate three kinds of narratives: the official, the pragmatic and the cultural. It’s in the cultural  where young teachers are most actively creating their own guiding discourse, as they negotiate the challenges of the first two.

…the official story is often deconstructed by the practical story and it is this rupture that permits the construction of cultural stories. Cultural stories may concern how the student teacher ‘got over’, how her or his pedagogy or classroom routines resisted official perspectives, and moved beyond practical constraints to create a ‘free zone’ of democratic learning. Such stories need not be victorious. They can narrate as well the more painful and private moments when student teachers fall back on useless routines, become confused and anxious when things do not go as planned, or become undone by how their classroom students understand them. To study the cultural stories of student teaching, then, is to study the uncanny, the creepy detours, the uneasy alliances, and the obvious clashes between authoritative and internally persuasive discourses. (73)

I’m wanting to think more about ways in which we teacher educators can play a more effective role both during the time they’re with us on our teacher education courses and in our graduates’ first years in the classroom. I think we need to rethink ways we can be  helping them to negotiate ‘the uncanny, the creepy detours, the uneasy alliances, and the obvious clashes between authoritative and internally persuasive discourses’.

Bobby McFerrin: master teacher and model

It seemed like such a good lesson plan as I sat at my desk in the quiet hours late last night. But within minutes of the class starting, the inadequacies of the plan had been exposed. Over the course of that hour (which felt as though it would never end), I discovered that two of the girls were in the middle of a feud, several students found it constitutionally impossible to sit still, some resisted when I tried (unsuccessfully) to organize some group work, a boy spent the entire lesson asking those around him for something to eat (it turned out he hadn’t eaten all day), a sizeable group ignored or complained about anything that involved reading or writing, one girl looked deeply sad or even depressed, some students down the front kept complaining that they couldn’t work because of all the noise, and an obviously popular boy kept diverting the attention of half the class away from me and onto him. I spent my time suppressing my anger at their ingratitude and rudeness (I’d spent hours on the lesson plan), and the other half thinking that I just wasn’t cut out for this job.

This was the scenario I presented to our Grad Dip students last Tuesday afternoon, and I asked them to reconsider lesson plans they’d created in the light of the likelihood, indeed the inevitability, that they’d teach classes with this kind of mix of students. How could they modify their lesson plans to avoid such an outcome? Or were some classes just impossible to teach, no matter how resourceful the teacher?

It’s this question that is keeping some of our pre-service teachers awake at nights: can good preparation help us avoid this kind of hellish lesson?

So, last Tuesday, the Grad Dip students worked (on their own, or in pairs, or in small groups), discussing the question and modifying their lesson plans.

Some tried to take explicit account of each of the individuals or sub-groups I’d described: the feuding girls, the hungry student, the attention-seeker, the restless ones, and so on. A few discovered that this approach meant that their lesson plans soon became bogged down in contingency plans to take care of every conceivable possibility.

What’s the way out of this thicket? How can we plan a lesson, knowing that there are so many different (and often unpredictable) student needs and dispositions?

Take some time to enjoy the following video of the musician, Bobby McFerrin, working with a group of amateur singers.


Have close look at the the people in this group. They’re a very ordinary looking crowd. A typical, every day group. It’s not inconceivable that there is someone in that group who is depressed, another who is hungry, a couple who hate each other, some who normally can’t sit still, a few who usually need silence in order to concentrate, some who think they can’t sing or have no sense of rhythm, and so on. But Bobby Ferrin has managed to transcend these possible barriers to learning.

Bobby McFerrin

How has he done it?

Well, first of all he is a genius. That has to be acknowledged!

But there’s also a great deal in common between what Bobby McFerrin has done here and what good teachers (like Courtney) do all the time.

First of all, he knows his stuff. He’s in charge of his material. He’s highly skilled. If you’re teaching something, being a specialist in your subject is important.

But there’s more to it than just that. Bobby McFerrin’s ‘lessons’ work because he follows some basic pedagogical principles, all of which can be worked into a lesson plan.

He makes sure that his ‘students’ are active. He doesn’t just talk to them. He doesn’t just demonstrate and get his students to discuss his demonstration. He doesn’t just signal out the ones who can do it. He gets everyone actively involved in the experience.

Secondly, he gets his students working together in groups, supporting each other. There’s collaboration. Singers are bunched up close together, so that the less confident can feed off the more confident. One singer might be particularly good at keeping the beat, another the melody. They rely on each other.

Thirdly, there is a balance between helpful repetition and momentum. He tries not to move on before everyone has had a chance to get the parts. And yet, at the same time, there’s a real sense of momentum. The group is working together to produce something that is growing, deepening, becoming more and more musical. There’s a sense of the group becoming more adept as musicians as the ‘lesson’ progresses.

Fourthly, the work is challenging. It’s not easy. The ‘students’ have to work hard. (Research and our own experience both tell us that we like to be challenged, that we misbehave when we’re bored.)

Fifthly, the experience is tightly structured. For all its wonderful creativity, you can see the way Bobby Ferrin has broken the complex task down into manageable and achievable chunks. Yet the relationship between the chunks and the big picture is always visible (or at least felt) by the students.

And finally, the activity is obviously connected to these people’s interests. In a way, this is easier for Bobby McFerrin than it is for us. They chose to come to his concert! But it’s a reminder of the importance of establishing a connection for our students between what genuinely matters to them and what we are going to teach them. Students behave well when they perceive that the lesson is worthwhile. And it’s connected in another sense, too; every new skill or melody he teaches is connected to what they can already do. There are no insurmountable gaps.

The learning is active, collaborative and is moving somewhere.

The teaching is challenging, structured and connected.

If we can build these qualities into our lesson plans, we’re less likely to have lessons that go pear-shaped.

Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

Alfie Kohn

One of my own major (albeit belated) revelations as a teacher was that behavior problems in my classroom were not due to students’ unnatural need for attention or power. The students were acting up mostly to make the time pass faster. And given the skills-based, decontextualized tasks I was assigning, who could blame them? Back then, I was thinking about a new approach to discipline. What I really needed was a new curriculum. (Alfie Kohn Beyond Discipline: from compliance to community, Virginia, 1996, p19)

Or, perhaps, a new way of teaching it. Bobby McFerrin is not a bad model to learn from.

The painful path from aspiration to potency

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind–then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused–and I am so powerless to do anything about it that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult art–harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well!

Palmer, P. J. (1997). The heart of a teacher: identity and integrity in teaching.

I thought of Parker Palmer yesterday as I watched our Grad Dip students teaching each other skills and concepts. For some it was an exhilarating experience, leading a group of their peers along the pathway out of a thicket. For others, it was puzzling and unsettling that the concept or skill that seemed so transparent and transferable was somehow getting bogged down, or diverted, or was becoming frustratingly elusive.

I remember these moments – both the good ones and the ones when I felt clumsy, impotent and defeated – from my early years in the classroom. Neither has ever competely disappeared, which is good news for those who worry that teachers are doomed to become cynical and defeated, and bad news for those who look forward to the day when teaching is an uncomplicated doddle in the park.

There’s lots to be learned from the bad moments. Here I want to write about just one.

Almost all of us come into teaching with the right mindframe. We want to make a difference. We want to set up classrooms where students feel seen, accepted and encouraged. We want our subject to be alive, relevant and stimulating. We want to see our students progress, and for their future lives to be affected by our teaching. These are common and necessary aspirations; if they wither, our teaching becomes lifeless and the path to cynicism opens up before us.

Our bad moments in the classroom teach us that aspirations are not enough. Wanting certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of learning, is only a starting point.

As well as aspirations, we need specific skills and specific knowledge. We need to learn how to identify mandated outcomes and then adapt them into engaging lessons. We need to understand how to best respond to students with very different motivations and needs. We need to know how to break a lesson into segments that open up learning possibilities for different kinds of learners. We need to modify, and sometimes to shrug off, assumptions about learning and learners that have become ingrained in us through many years of being a student (the chief of which, in my view, is that teaching is telling and that learning is to passively absorb). We need to be able to adapt on the spot in the light of changing circumstances.

And these skills and this knowledge are not easily gained. Our teacher education courses never completely prepare us for what we will experience. I imagine (and, being a man, can only imagine) that this is not unlike prenatal birthing classes: those who attend diligently to the midwife and who conscientiously do all the exercises are better prepared, but once labour starts there’s more to learn.

Teacher education courses never completely prepare us, but sessions like yesterdays, especially for those students who had bad moments as they were teaching their peers, have the potential to be very useful. They reveal gaps in our skills and knowledge. They throw up all the right questions which, if worked on, can reduce some of the struggle of the first days in an actual classroom.

  • What was I trying to achieve in that session? Was this worth teaching? Was it, for my students, worth learning?
  • Was I paying more attention to my teaching than to my students’ learning?
  • How conscious, responsive and resourceful was I of a student’s lack of understanding?
  • Did I forget what I was trying to achieve once the lesson got under way? Did it become just a matter of getting to the end?
  • Do I know whether my students learned what I set out for them to learn?
  • How might I modify things next time so that the learning was more universally effective?
  • What gaps in my skills and/or knowledge did this experience reveal? How might I attend to those gaps?

These are hard questions. The answers to them are not easily or effortlessly found. We need both guts, and the help of others, to find them.