English Teaching

I do not read books in order to dispassionately observe, dissect, describe and analyse. They are not objects like that. Instead they are minds with which I strive to have some kind of relationship; they are voices I listen to in order to know more about the world that I’m in.

1. 

Why do we ask our students to read and respond to texts? Why do we ask them to create them?

If you look at the English section of the Australian Curriculum, these questions are answered as follows: 

It is through the study of English that individuals learn to analyse, understand, communicate with and build relationships with others and with the world around them.

It's a broad statement, and it includes many different aspects, both analytic and creative. In some ways, the Australian Curriculum can be seen to be trying to do many different (and sometimes incompatible) things simultaneously, and this is not a surprise when we look back at the roots of secondary English teaching. Scholars who have studied these roots conclude that secondary English is not a discipline with a single purpose but more a hybrid subject (Cormack 2008, Green and Cormack 2008; Dixon 2012), whose focus shifts over time (Misson 2012) and whose nature is determined by practitioners in their eclectic programming rather than being determined by any shared disciplinary understanding (Howe 2008).

Unfortunately, the pressures of our times and its valuing of measurable outcomes mean that some strands - in particular the analytic and the descriptive - shape our practice more than others. Syllabus documents and assessment rubrics are less likely to talk about the ways in which stories and poems help us understand more about our worlds - external and internal - and are more likely to be couched in the following kind of pseudo-scientific or technocratic language. 

Students develop and justify their own interpretations of texts. They evaluate other interpretations, analysing the evidence used to support them. They listen for ways features within texts can be manipulated to achieve particular effects.

Treating texts as though they're objects to be dissected, classified and analysed leads to a kind of narrowing of focus. Fiction exists to help us see more of the world, not to provide objects for clever analysis.

 

2.

Not long ago, I read Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.

There’s so much in that book that made me think, both about my own life and about the world in which I live. That’s the thing about great books, isn’t it; they make you think, they help you to see more, they give you words for feelings or intuitions that until that moment had remained below the surface. They help nudge us towards a greater connection with the world: the world out there or the world inside. 

 Tyger, William Blake. Image in the public domain, sourced from wikicommons

Tyger, William Blake. Image in the public domain, sourced from wikicommons

At one point Winterson has one of her characters say:

I have set off and found that there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind. I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves. I choose one, no sooner begin, than a hundred more appear. Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it, and yet those straits and canals still lead me to the open sea, and then I realize how vast it all is, this matter of the mind. I am confounded by the shining water and the size of the world.

This reminds me of Digger in David Malouf’s The Great World who was 'dizzied by the world. He never, he felt, see it steady enough or at a sufficient distance to comprehend what it was, let alone act on it.' 

And this, in turn, reminds me of Spinoza, who said that our limited faculties mean that we are only able to comprehend a minuscule portion of what is, a tiny bit of the vastness that only ‘the eye of eternity’ can take in.

Reading these things doesn’t just help me make sense of my own confusions. They connect my experience to that of others. I am consoled that it’s not just me that finds things so complex, so dizzying, so endless. Reading these things tells me something about the nature of the world. Ironically, I end up knowing more, being less dizzied, more able to join in.

I do not read these books in order to dispassionately observe, dissect, describe and analyse. They are not objects like that. Instead they are minds with which I strive to have some kind of relationship; they are voices I listen to in order to know more about the world that I’m in. The focus here is not on the text-as-object, as specimen to be peered at under a microscope or dissecting on a laboratory benchtop. The focus instead is on what happens when I, as reader, open myself up to a conversation which involves trying to see the world as the writer, or one of the writer’s characters, might have seen it, or to understand something more about a character’s – and therefore a human – experience . I’m not outside, looking down at the text. The text and I are standing shoulder to shoulder, looking together at the world and sharing thoughts about it.

3.

 In the year which saw the passing of Maxine Greene,  it’s good to be reminded by her that  literature exists ‘to awaken, to disclose the ordinarily unseen, unheard and unexpected’. (Releasing the Imagination, p28). 

Here’s how she expressed it in 2005: 

Maxine Greene Image source http://bit.ly/1Fqs0iz

To experience [a story, a poem] is to come in touch with a “reality” deeper and richer than the everyday but underlying it, feeding the ongoing becoming of a self. To enter into a poem may be to come in touch with a lost landscape, a landscape of color and smell and sound brought into a kind of rebirth by an act of imagination. And so, in distinctive ways, is an aesthetic experience achieved. It may be dark and fearful like an encounter with Medea; it may be ripe and various and startling like Toni Morrison’s Jazz; it may arouse rhythms in our hearts and mind as may the improvisations of jazz. ... The new educator must be awake, critical, open to the world.

‘Teaching in a Moment of Crisis: the Spaces of Imagination’, New Educator, 1:2 2005