The Teacher-Researchers recently had a day on University of Melbourne campus where they focused on writing articles about their experience on the project and challenges and successes of classroom implementation.
Read below about their experiences/reflections below:
My plans to “write up” the literature review were hopelessly optimistic; instead, I’ve been trawling through the thirty-four pages of notes and rereading, copying, pasting and rearranging. A new document is forming now, which looks like the skeleton of an autoethnographic account of my attempts to design and implement a rigorous and responsible First Nations curriculum. At the moment, it is tentatively titled ‘Heat, Light and Anxiety: Unsettling English with First Nations Texts’. ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ refers to the title of Ellen Van Neerven’s brilliant novelistic short story collection, as well as connoting the potential for blushing shame and enlightenment that comes from being a pākehā woman trying to teach an Indigenous text well. Why is it so anxiety-provoking? Sandra Phillips and Clare Archer-Lean capture part of the problem in their recent article, ‘Decolonising the reading of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing: reflection as transformative practice’: “First Nations writing within English literary studies risks contemporary colonisation if encountered as a literary object for close reading without context or reflection on the role of the reader” (Phillips & Archer-Lean, 2019: 24). I want to teach “decolonially” and in doing so have realised that contextual priming goes way beyond the English classroom. It has been rejuvenating to have today to return to the written element of this project – to talk with the other teacher-researchers about the challenges of what we’re doing and feeling part of a supportive community.
I spent today reframing my work entirely. Over the past few months, my intention with this unit of work has shifted dramatically.
It’s no secret that ‘elite’ boys schools are currently very much in the public eye. The context in which I work is facing unprecedented, and needed, scrutiny.
While this is turbulent and challenging – to say the least – this media exposure means that schools like mine have also been presented with an undeniable opportunity to make tangible change, both culturally and academically.
It seems like a no-brainer that English, as a subject, is ideally placed to help students investigate the world around them and their place in it. Although English can and should help us to look back and appreciate our past (canonical or not), it can and should also help us in looking forward.
My attention now is on exploring how texts could contribute to mending and strengthening a school culture. Specifically, my resources are focused on building empathetic connections between my students’ lives and experiences with those of a multitude of diverse voices. My aim is to trial these in my own school, to then pass on to other teachers in similar contexts to – hopefully – look back with clarity and forward with openness.
Returning to my archival ‘teacher-researcher’ work today has allowed me to continue to build on my project. It has been refreshing to return to it with some fresh eyes after a short hiatus. During my time in the archives in 2019 I was intrigued by Scripsi Magazine and ‘Scripsi of the Air’, a weekly radio show run by Michael Heyward and Peter Craven, presented on 3RRR in the 1980s. I returned to these cultural artefacts today and have further considered how I can draw on these in a classroom setting.
I have unpacked elements of my unit plan surrounding Cate Kennedy’s short story anthology ‘Like a House on Fire’ and ways I can include real life and authentic learning opportunities for students to promote student voice. Embedding and including the archival material has allowed an avenue for this. Curating class activities that encourage learners to engage with the radio files and listen to the various authors discuss their authorial intent will allow ‘students as writers’ to reflect on their own writing practices during creative writing opportunities. Through this project I aim to build on the literacy practices of my learners, especially developing skills that are relevant to the lives of students. Drawing on multimodal texts is one way I believe I can achieve this. Developing formative and summative assessments surrounding the archival materials and Kennedy’s text, such as podcasting and creative writing for ‘publication’ in a class journal/ magazine, are two approaches that promote skill development and place student voice at the forefront of this project.
I started the day sorting out my data. I am investigating the book lists of public schools in Victoria from Years 7-10 to see what texts are being chosen by schools. The research process has been arduous and time consuming but I was able to find 107 schools at Year 7, 109 at Year 8, 122 at Year 9 and 131 at Year 10 from all across Victoria.
After getting the raw data of the texts that were studied in schools and the amount they were studied across year levels, I begun to look deeper into where the texts were created. I am interested in how prevalent Australian texts are in schools and when they’re at their most popular. It is also interesting that text lists seem to be very western which I found very interesting. In a country as diverse as Australia is, I would have thought that our English classrooms would reflect this a lot more. I would not think that we have a lot of American students (or have American heritage) in our schools, yet they are the second-most popular country where our texts are sourced from (behind Australia). Whilst there is a relatively low amount of British books (compared to Australia and America), those texts occur really frequently across the state. I also found it interesting that New Zealand our closest neighbour and in Victoria especially where a number of students have a link, does not feature a lot in our English classrooms. Frankly, beyond America and Britain, most countries do not get a mention in the English classroom. Also, the average books bought by a student in the schools analysed does increase from 1.39 in Year 7 to 2.19 in Year 10. I do think this makes the point of teaching Australian literature even more clear as there a limited amount of chances to hand students text written by Australians. What are we telling students in our class if we are not showing them texts written by Australians? Surely this is a core responsibility of an English teacher in an Australian classroom? I used to teach in England and it would not have occurred to English teachers there to even consider a non-British text. Why does it seem that we are so reluctant? Have we asked our students if they want a Shakespeare a year? Do they want to read an Australian text? Have we even asked them what they want to read?
Probably the most interesting information of the day was that whilst there was a great number of Australian texts across the state being taught in English, as students get older Australian texts seem to be pushed out of the curriculum in favour of British and American texts. I really do wonder why.
I see a lot of lists in school libraries that list ‘like’ books. I think it is really important that we get the word out there that there are Australian alternatives to Shakespeare, to Steinbeck, to Lee, to Collins.