Secondary English and our students’ lifeworlds
What follows is the text of my keynote at the 2015 AATE (Australian Association of the Teachers of English) conference.
I read the part of the Narrator. The part of Sylvia was read by Catherine Jean-Krista. The part of Minh was read by Neil Millar.
There was once a young woman who sat waiting one day on a bench in the winter sun.
As soon as we hear words like that, we are taken - if we allow ourselves to be taken - into another space. We switch our phones off, we block out the distractions of traffic noise or the shuffling of the people around us, and we allow ourselves to be open to a story.
A story, if it’s any good, is likely to unsettle us. There will be gaps revealed, puzzles posed, riddles to be solved. We’ll find ourselves, from the very beginning, asking questions. Who is this young woman? Why is she waiting? Who or what is she waiting for? The story will conjure up, perhaps only unconsciously, times in our own lives when we’ve been waiting: for news, for a lover or friend, for a confrontation, for instructions or for advice. We will, in other words, bring our own lives - our own preoccupations, memories, fears or yearnings - into our listening. It will feel as though the story somehow matters to us. And if that’s true, it’s likely that we’ll be unsettled.
A story like this hints at complexities and mystery. We have a sense that it will reveal something beneath the surface. If Jung was right and the kind of story I’m talking about speaks about archetypes present in our unconscious, then we’re going to be challenged by the story to see a bit more of the world. The new knowledge or perspective could well complicate matters: the monster may turn out to be an ally, or the friend’s kiss the kiss of Judas. The world the story is going to take us into is our world, but with some hidden complexities revealed.
A story like this can also energise. It will imply that the complexities and perspectives it brings will lead to what Joseph Campbell once grandly called ‘a bolder, cleaner, more spacious and fully human’ picture. This sense that life holds more in it than appears on the surface – that there are hidden currents or structures adding colour and life - is energising, animating.
In other words, certain kinds of stories – mythopoetic stories – create affects. Perhaps no-one knows this better than secondary English teachers.
We three are going to tell you a story, one that begins with a young woman waiting on a bench in the winter sun. She is a secondary English teacher. Her name is Sylvia and her part is going to be read by Catherine. The part of her friend and colleague, Minh, will be read by Neil. I will be the narrator.
And from time to time, in not too intrusive a way I hope, I’ll extract myself from the story to make some observations from the side.
There was once a young woman who sat waiting one day on a bench in the winter sun.
NARRATOR: Sylvia is sitting on a playground bench in the winter sun, waiting for her colleague Minh Tran. They meet most lunchtimes when they can get away from marking or meetings in the faculty staffroom, and, as usual, Sylvia is looking forward to it.
As she waits, she is thinking about her Year 11 Extension class. They’re doing the unit: ‘Text, culture and value’, and it’s the class she enjoys the most. It’s her favourite, Minh teases, only because of her innate elitism and love of the literature of dead white males. It’s not true, of course: Virginia Wolff, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood; these are amongst her favourite writers.
But it is true, Homer is one of the dead white males she loves. She thinks back to February and that first lesson on ‘The Odyssey’. Mimicking, perhaps, Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society (though she’d rather die than admit this to Minh!), she’d stood on a chair in front of these unfamiliar faces and recited Homer’s first stirring words:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
The hallowed heights of Troy.
They’d then spent most of the first week discussing the questions that those three lines had thrown up.
· What had happened at Troy?
· Why ‘twists and turns’; what was Homer saying here about the hero of this story?
· Why was the poet calling on a Muse? What’s a Muse? Who or what our our muses?
· Driven time and again off course? By whom? By what?
There had been writing and lots of talking. And an air of expectation, almost of impatience. ‘When are we going to get on with the story?’ they’d complained, though they were clearly enjoying this beginning.
They were clearly enjoying it, weren’t they? When she’d told Minh about that first week, he’d teased that she was so caught up in her own love of ‘grand literature’ that what she was attributing to the students was just her own enthusiasm projected onto her class.
She enjoyed Minh’s teasing. It kept her feet on the ground. But, in this case, she was sure he was wrong.
For the best part of a term they’d immersed themselves in the story. They’d acted out various scenes - the stabbing of the Cyclops’s eye was a favourite. She’d got them reciting passages by heart. There’d been writing done, lots of it. Different students picked up on different themes. Odysseus’s absence from home and hearth had been particularly important for Enrico, living now so far away from the land of his birth and the community that was his extended family.
Ah, but here’s Minh. As usual, there’s a coffee in each hand. He hands one to Sylvia.
SYLVIA Are you sure this is mine?
NARRATOR Minh had once handed her the wrong coffee and she couldn’t believe how sweet it was. ‘It’s the way we Vietnamese like it,’ he’d told her.
Now he pretends to be confused, looking from one coffee to the other as if he’s not sure.
SYLVIA (Smiling) Give!
NARRATOR Sylvia is soon telling him about a story Enrico has written, a story prompted by Odysseus’s own journeys. Enrico has written about his family’s circuitous and at times dangerous trip from Chile to Australia.
MINH All very well Sylvia. It sounds like fun. You’re not forgetting the assessments though, are you?
SYLVIA I don’t think so Minh. I’m sure what we’re doing is relevant. We’re reading and discussing the text, we’re continually talking about values and culture - ours and the ancient Greeks. They’re learning more about the world and I think they’re learning more about themselves.
MINH What you’re doing sounds great, Sylv, don’t get me wrong. But don’t forget that most of them want to get into university, they want to get good marks, and that means doing well on the assessments. They’re not going to thank you if they end up being unprepared.
SYLVIA What do you mean?
MINH Maybe sometimes you lose sight of what it is we’re meant to be teaching them.
SYLVIA Which is what, exactly?
NARRATOR Minh’s slightly challenging tone is new, or so it seems to Sylvia. He’s teased before, but there’s a serious edge to it this time. She’s feeling particularly vulnerable since her students hadn’t done as well as she’d hoped on a previous assignment.
MINH Look at the unit outline. (He whips out his iPhone and then quotes directly from the Unit Outline.) ‘Students need to have mastery of their texts …’
SYLVIA For god’s sake Minh. Mastery of their texts! Do you have mastery of these texts? Does anyone? Listen to the language! These are 16-year-old kids we’re talking about. Mastery of the texts. Give me a break!
MINH You can get on your high horse all you like Sylv, but if you really want to be given a Year 12 class …’
SYLVIA If I what??’
MINH You’ve told me you’d like to have a Year 12 class, but I know for a fact that you won’t be given one until you’ve learnt to teach to the Unit Outline.
SYLVIA You know that for a fact?
NARRATOR SYLVIA is struggling to contain her indignation. MINH is deputy head of the faculty and is no doubt privy to the faculty head’s staffing plans.
MINH Your students have to learn how to use the required language. Listen. ‘Students need to have a thorough understanding of the structures, features and conventions used by writers to construct meaning.’
SYLVIA My kids are being moved, or they’re being made more thoughtful, or they’re seeing more of the world, or they’re finding words to describe feelings and insights that they’ve never been able to describe before.
MINH All very wonderful. But you’re not helping them to play the game.
NARRATOR To play the game. It is, as we will soon hear, the second time in as many days that Sylvia has heard someone use this phrase.
Minh is prodding away at a sore point and Sylvia’s mind is full of doubt. Is her love of literature an escape from the harsh realities of a confusing and threatened world, as Minh seems to be implying? Or is she drawn to big books, to poetry, to certain kinds of philosophy, because she thinks they can stretch our understanding of life, or because they ask us to take notice of things that are partly hidden, or because they speak about aspects of what it is to be human that other disciplines are not so interested in?
Sylvia’s struggle has been my struggle too, and perhaps it has been yours. Many of us have come into English teaching because we love reading, or because when we write we find with pleasure that new ideas or insights emerge. We find certain ways of saying something beautiful, or arresting, or moving, or challenging. We come to conferences like this partly to hear the authors we love, and partly because this is a gathering of readers and writers, of book lovers - our tribe. We love language, and we want to set up our classrooms as places where we can share our love and our knowledge with our students. These days the words ‘reading and writing’ have an expanded meaning, and include many different kinds of texts. We welcome this. Deep down, we want our students to love language in all its different forms; we want them to experience the same sort of pleasures that we experience.
But some of us find that the kind of English teaching we’re required to practice is not quite the version that brought us into the profession. And this can be confronting.
SYLVIA Did you say ‘play the game’?
MINH I did. You need to help your students to play the game.
SYLVIA One of my students said exactly the same thing the other day. Exactly.
MINH Tell me.
SYLVIA Well, you know Vikram?
MINH I do. A good student.
SYLVIA Well, not so good in my class. For much of the year, he’s been somewhat withdrawn and sullen; his work has been competent but unimaginative. I remember you telling me that he was one of your best students, really sharp, very motivated. So I’ve been wondering what was going on.
MINH He was a good student in my class.
SYLVIA So you said Minh. Anyway, last week I asked him what was up and he told me that he just didn’t get my teaching, that it didn’t seem like normal English. I asked him what he meant by ‘normal English’, and he said it was all that stuff about the author’s purpose and how the structure and language supported the meaning. Vikram told me he struggled with it all to begin with, but that he soon got the hang of it and found he was getting great marks.
MINH ‘A’s for just about everything he did with me.
SYLVIA I’ve taken that in, Minh. I’ve got the message.
MINH So he said something about ‘playing the game’?
SYLVIA No, not then, but I asked him to write down his thoughts for homework …
MINH Which he did?
SYLVIA Which he did. The next morning he sauntered in, looking very pleased with himself, and handed me his writing. I’ve got a copy of it here; I was going to show it to you. I asked him to read what he’d written to the class, which he seemed keen to do.
MINH He loves a performance, does our Vikram.
SYLVIA Well, he was clearly enjoying this one!
(Sylvia takes out piece of paper.)
This is what he wrote:
Playing the game
School is all about how you play the game. It’s all about doing what you can to get an A, regardless of what you’re learning. Honestly, I don’t care about what I learn. In most cases, I do well in class. I don’t care that I’m not learning anything, because I can see the big picture. I’ll go to uni (and probably do a degree in law, which funnily enough, actually has NOTHING TO DO with my high school subjects for the most part). But I digress. The point is, I’m cool with not learning anything significant, because if I learn how to ace the subjects, that’s enough of an education for me.
In this class, our reflections aren’t marked, so I don’t do them. Our projects require creativity as opposed to just knowing stuff, and suddenly I’m confused; our teacher asks for dedication to the course but she can’t put a date or a number on it, so we just don’t try.
MINH (laughs) Sounds like Vikram. What was the reaction?
SYLVIA Some of the kids were smiling, others were looking at me to see how I was taking all this. He’d opened something up, so I asked the class what they thought. There was an interesting silence for a while, and then the students began to speak. Some agreed with Vikram, some were non-committal. Some, like Enrico, were angry and talked about how this was the first English class where they’ve felt they could say and write what they really thought.
MINH So, how did you feel?
SYLVIA I don’t know. I think the class is going well, but I keep hearing your question about whether I’m allowing myself to see what I want to see. Do you think I’m letting these kids down, Minh? Do you think I should be helping Vikram to play the game? Do you think he’s right?
MINH I think you’re both wrong. You’re both falling into the same trap.
SYLVIA You what?
MINH I think you’re both taking the easy road - well, two different roads actually, but neither is the right one.
SYLVIA What do you mean?
MINH You’re having a lovely time with the Odyssey, and it’s fun for the students. But it’s avoiding the real work, the right road. You’re letting your students play with the texts rather than study them.
SYLVIA [Dryly] So that’s me sorted. What’s Vikram’s mistake?
MINH Vikram wants you to tell him what to do, to lay out all the steps, to make it all predictable. He wants to be lazy. Neither of you wants to go down the right path.
SYLVIA (Shakily, trying not to sound defensive) And what is this right path exactly?
MINH I've already told you. To learn how to intelligently analyse texts.
SYLVIA Like a scientist.
MINH I guess so. It’s quite a good analogy, actually, because both require hard disciplined work.
SYLVIA I don’t think English is all about analysing texts.
MINH I know you don’t. That’s because you don’t understand the way texts work in our world.
MINH Texts are chunks of knowledge, ways of looking at the world. Every text has built into it values, perspectives. Every text is the result of some kind of conscious or unconscious selection process, guided by what the creator of the text values. That’s true of The Odyssey and it’s true of the advertisements on the telly or the political speeches we hear at election time. Texts are cultural artefacts which are shaped by values, or shaped by self-interest. Texts give versions of the world, and the versions of the world they present are always serving the interests of the creator of the texts. The whole point of our ‘Texts, Culture and Value’ unit is to explore the ways in which this is true, the ways in which The Odyssey (for example) has embedded in it a particular way of looking at the world, something that is context-specific and is driven by the culture’s dominant values.
SYLVIA You make English sound political.
MINH It is political. Our view of the world is conditioned by the texts that surround us. If we don’t adopt a critical attitude towards these texts, if we don’t become skilled at metacognition and at analysis, then we’re doomed to be limited, and to some extent we’re doomed to be exploited, by those whose interests and power the texts serve.
SYLVIA I understand what you are saying about kids needing to understand the biases and cultural values of texts. I do. I understand they need to be media savvy. But they also need to feel things. They also need to understand the emotions, the feelings, to be inspired. They need to imagine things Minh. Not do things by rote, like Vikram. Don’t you think that some texts are written to stimulate, to give pleasure, to help us understand? You’ve got this view that texts are traps, and that we need to free ourselves from the traps.
MINH Texts are traps to the ignorant. In English we’re fighting the fight against ignorance. It’s hard work. It’s what neither you nor Vikram wants to do.
SYLVIA That sounds so sad Minh. It’s taking all the pleasure out of English.
MINH No it’s not. It’s just hard. Things that matter usually are.
Minh would say that Sylvia’s mythopoetic definition of story is far too limiting. Sylvia, he reckons, just thinks with her heart. The mythopoetic is just one of the many types of story that the English teacher ought to be concerned with. And it’s certainly not the most important.
There are, for example, those stories that use language and metaphor to serve the interests of a particular group. Our leaders’ stories about turning the boats back, the whole rhetoric around Operation Sovereign Borders, is one of particular interest to Minh, given that his father travelled to Australia in a refugee boat. Minh has read a bit of Foucault about discourse, knowledge and power. Every day, in his country, his city and even his school, he sees examples of the way dominant discourses get enshrined in documents and cultural practices. He’s seen first hand how these discourses tend to determine what can be said and therefore what can be thought, and whose words and perspectives are listened to.
Minh, in other words, is someone motivated by a strong sense of social justice. He is the first member of his extended family to get a university education. He has learned to use the language of the educated middle class in Australia; and he knows how this learning has liberated him and has the potential to liberate others in similar situations.
For the same reasons, he is strongly in favour of rigorous and explicit outcomes which, because they’re explicit and measurable, provide a level playing field for students like he once was.
SYLVIA So why is it always my class we talk about?
MINH Your stories are better than mine. You wouldn’t enjoy hearing about my kids slogging away on stuff you think is drudgery.
SYLVIA O come on Minh. Your students love your classes. But you don’t tell me about what you’re doing; you keep getting me to talk.
MINH You like talking.
SYLVIA I like talking to you. I like talking to you because you challenge me; you make me notice things.
MINH So what have you got for me today?
SYLVIA Are you sure?
MINH I’m sure.
SYLVIA Well, you know what you were saying about me wanting to avoid hard work. I thought a lot about that. I don’t think you’re right.
MINH I didn’t mean you don’t work hard. I meant that you need to make demands on your students, you need to get them to see beyond the pleasure and into some hard textual analysis.
SYLVIA But I do make demands. I do encourage hard textual analysis. I want to talk to you about Brad.
MINH Talk away. Your stories are the highlight of my days. No, I’m serious. I look forward to these lunchtime sessions. Tell me about Brad.
SYLVIA Well, as you know we’re now into the the post-Odyssey part of the unit, where each student gets to choose a pre-twentieth century ‘classic’
MINH So how are you defining ‘classic’? One of the dead white males I’m guessing.
SYLVIA Bugger off! No, we’ve had lots of fun arguing about the meaning of the word ‘classic’. Anyway, each student chooses a text that we agree is a ‘classic’, and they also read an appropriation, some text that had taken their chosen classic as its starting point or inspiration.
MINH And the appropriation has to be from a different era or culture.
SYLVIA Yes, it has to have been created from a different culture with possibly quite different values.
MINH ‘Texts, Culture and Value’
SYLVIA Exactly. Well, Brad chose to read the 12th Century letters of Heloise and Abelard.
MINH As his classic? Not easy reading I’m told.
SYLVIA Isn’t it? Well Brad’s been telling me the story of these two medieval lovers. Do you know the story? They get separated, don’t see each other for years, and then suddenly start to write to each other again.
MINH She’s an abbess when she starts writing, isn’t she?
SYLVIA And he’s in a monastery, and they haven’t seen each other for years.
MINH Didn’t he get castrated?
SYLVIA Yes, by Heloise’s uncle! Abelard was Heloise’s tutor and they had an affair, she had a baby, and when Heloise’s uncle found out, he had Abelard castrated. Then they went off on their separate ways, into their cloistered religious lives. But it seems Heloise kept thinking about Abelard and she started writing these passionate letters to him from her convent.
MINH So what’s Brad chosen for his appropriation then?
SYLVIA It’s a film ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’.
MINH I loved that film! I never knew that was an appropriation of the story of Heloise and Abelard.
SYLVIA It really was. It was inspired by the attempt by Heloise’s uncle to suppress their love, to get them to forget each other. It’s about the attempt to suppress memory.
MINH Which they do in the film by some kind of surgical procedure.
SYLVIA That’s it. So Brad has been deeply drawn to these stories about the power and importance of memories. He hasn’t said why, but it’s clearly important to him for some reason. He’s been fuelled by a kind of full-hearted indignation that anyone would try to destroy a love, and he can’t believe that anything would succeed in suppressing someone’s memory. For most of this term he’s been living between the worlds of Heloise and Abelard, the world created by the film, and his own twenty-first century experience. Last week he came to see me about the unit’s culminating performance.
MINH This is where each student creates an original piece, inspired by the chosen texts.
MINH And where they have to write a rationale.
SYLVIA (slight pause, as if Sylvia had not remembered that aspect) Yes, that too. Yes, a rationale. Anyway, Brad had read Alexander Pope’s poem ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, which imagines Heloise opening one of these letters from Abelard. He read me the beginning of Pope’s poem:
Soon as thy letters trembling I unclose,
That well-known name awakens all my woes.
Oh name for ever sad! for ever dear!
Still breath'd in sighs, still usher'd with a tear.
MINH A real tear-jerker!
SYLVIA Shut up and just listen, you!
MINH I’m listening.
SYLVIA Brad told me he wanted to write a poem, like Pope’s but original. He’d written a first stanza, but it wasn’t working; he felt there was something wrong with it but he didn’t know what it was. So he asked for my help.
MINH What was wrong with it?
SYLVIA Well, here’s his first go.
To Abelard, my lord
I write, Abelard, to you at last,
Although I thought our passions were passed.
Like a phoenix from the cinder,
Our former love comes again, once more to hinder
This process of forgetfulness,
And drags me from my present recess.
MINH Not bad. What didn’t he like?
SYLVIA He said it sounded too sing-song; that was the phrase he used. So we worked together for a couple of days after school, mainly on the rhythm, to see if he could make it less sing-song. I got him to notice where the stresses fell, how many beats there were in each line, what would happen if he shifted the words round a bit. We talked about scanning and half-rhymes and rhythm and meter, and he worked some more on it on his own. It’s been hard work Minh; you would have approved!
MINH And has he finished.
SYLVIA He has. Ready?’
SYLVIA To Abelard, my lord
My love I write to you at last,
Although I thought these passions passed.
Like a phoenix from the cinder,
Love returns again to hinder
This process of forgetfulness,
And draws me from my dark recess.
This letter comes from painful tears,
Forgotten in these silent years.
Unsettled by your words and woes,
That stirred me from my sweet repose.
Sadness flows and blots the page
As I write from holy cage.
I cannot rest within these walls,
These rugged rocks and hallowed halls.
Pensive in my own bastille,
Locked away with holy seal.
My mind does stray to thoughts of old
As passions come and then unfold.
They told us love should come through trust,
But what is love if without lust?
Infatuation takes command,
With trepidation hand in hand.
Look past these consecrated vows
And find the place where passion grows.
You have proven your affection,
And love has seen its resurrection.
Now memory takes authority,
When emotions claim priority.
We can hope to fight desire,
But we will never quench Love’s fire.
MINH (After pause.) Nice.
SYVLIA What do you mean ‘nice’! It’s wonderful. Aren’t you moved? He’s so captured the feeling, it’s so … sophisticated. God I love being an English teacher!
MINH Very impressive.
Minh has no trouble finding the language that describes his English teaching. His approach – which I’m going to call here ‘critical emancipatory’ for reasons that are possibly already obvious but which will become even clearer later on - is enshrined in much of the language of both the NSW English HSC and our national curriculum. Typical are the following: “Interpret, analyse and evaluate how different perspectives of issue, event, situation, individuals or groups are constructed to serve specific purposes in texts … Analyse how language features of these texts position listeners to respond in particular ways.”
Sylvia’s mythopoetics, on the other hand, while it’s mentioned in national and state curriculum documents, is rarely described in language that resonates with her in the same way that the curriculum’s words describe and give authority to Minh’s teaching. This is particularly true with the language that makes it through to the unit plans and outcomes in her departmental documents. There the verbs that predominate are: understand, compare, analyse, evaluate, explain, identify – and Sylvia wonders where her teaching fits.
Instead Sylvia turns to writers like Maxine Greene who once wrote that literature’s purpose is to ‘disclose the ordinarily unseen, unheard and unexpected’. Or she draws inspiration from the novelist Saul Bellow when he says that art has something to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. Or she reads with relish Rilke’s description of poets as the bees of the Invisible (with a capital I). ‘Works of art,’ Rilke once wrote to a young poet, ‘are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just towards them.‘
This is the language that speaks to Sylvia’s version of English teaching.
Above her desk at home, Sylvia has pinned up a passage from one of Douglas Barnes’s books on English teaching. It’s a passage that gives her heart.
When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ [writes Barnes] they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers, all of whom have their private lives outside school. By ‘enact’ I mean come together in a meaningful communication – talk, write, read books, collaborate, become angry with one another, learn what to say and do, and how to interpret what others say and do. A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution, the talk and gestures by which pupils and teachers exchange meanings even when they quarrel or cannot agree. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (Barnes  1992, 14)
NARRATOR Sylvia and Minh are now meeting with Gillian, the head of their English department, to moderate the work of the Extension English students. Brad’s work is the next on the list. The three of them have read Brad’s poem, and now Gillian asks Sylvia to read out Brad’s rationale.
SYLVIA Sure. Here it is.
We are studying texts, culture and value, and the work this year in Extension English has made me think a lot about the values of our society, and my own values as well. I don’t think my values sit very comfortably with the society I’m a part of, and my reading of the two texts - the letters of Heloise and Abelard, and the film ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ - have helped me clarify this for myself.
We are part of a world bombarded by fast imagery. We’re constantly searching for the next hot new thing so we can watch its fifteen minutes of fame. We constantly move from one thing to another, never really stopping to evaluate what is around us. We live in the present all the time. I don’t like this about our world.
The letters of Heloise and Abelard, and the film ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, are both about the futility of trying to suppress memory in order to live a carefree life in the present.
Our society is addicted to change, to moving on, and to forgetting the past. I think that’s wrong.
This has been the best long term assignment I have ever done. The independence of the work allowed me to do something that was fundamentally my own and representative of my own growth and thinking, not of a syllabus. The connections to others’ work and even the critical analyses taught me something fundamental about the nature of the English discipline, which still remains elusive. Whilst this assignment has finished for now it has by no means halted my thinking.
The most important thing I’ve learned from doing this class is that I need to go to university at some point so that I can REALLY sink my teeth into this stuff. Throughout the last term, I have been constantly feeling the pull of our English class. I wanted to plunge into the great, placid lake of stories and knowledge and dive as far down as I could go, just to see where it took me. But then I had to rise. Other subjects dragged me from the depths and forced me to focus on the mundane, the ordinary, the practical. All the time, I wanted nothing more than to return to the waters and dive.
NARRATOR Gillian is not impressed. ‘Oh dear,’ she says, looking at Sylvia.
SYLVIA What do you mean?
NARRATOR Gillian doesn’t like the language and suggests Brad is laying it on a bit thick with his placid lakes and desire to return to the waters and dive.
SYLVIA (trying to sound calm) Don’t you believe him?
NARRATOR Gillian ignores the question and instead asks Minh what grade he would give Brad’s work.
MINH I’m not sure. What does the rubric say?
NARRATOR The three consult the rubric. Gillian suggests that Brad has provided little evidence that he understands or has mastery of the texts he has read.
Again Sylvia looks to Minh for support, but still he keeps his eyes fixed on the sheets of paper in front of him.
SYLVIA But he’s shown that he understands the two texts at a really deep emotional level!
NARRATOR Gillian asks Sylvia if she has read the letters of Heloise and Abelard.
SYLVIA: Just the bits that Brad’s shown me.
NARRATOR Gillian has read them and she tells Sylvia that they’re much more complicated than Brad has made out. Abelard denies in one letter that he ever really loved Heloise and tells her that he’s not interested in renewing the friendship. The letters end, so Gillian says, with a kind of embarrassing exchange about theology.
SYLVIA But he’s shown that he understands the bigger themes that connect the letters with the film, surely you can see that?
NARRATOR Sylvia knows her voice carries little conviction. She feels as though she’s being sucked into a way of seeing Brad’s work that is all wrong. She feels trapped by the language of the rubric.
Gillian wants to move on and presses Minh to agree with her that in Brad’s work there are only vague and general assertions about the way the two texts reflect values and culture. She points out that there are no quotes.
SYLVIA But what about the quality of the poem itself? You can’t possibly deny that this is really really good.’
MINH It’s impressive. Maybe not entirely his own work? But it’s certainly impressive.
SYLVIA What do you mean ‘not entirely his own work’? Are you saying he’s plagiarised?
MINH No, I’m not saying he plagiarised. I was just referring to all the help you gave him. Just wondering if that’s entirely fair.
NARRATOR Sylvia feels defeated, silenced and now betrayed. Gillian suggests a high C, Minh nods, and they move onto the next student’s work.
Poor Minh is caught on the horns of a number of dilemmas.
As we’ve already seen, he has a strong and grounded belief in social justice, and in particular in teaching students how to play a game which gives everyone an equal opportunity. He also sees the ability to critically analyse a text as fundamental. He is therefore suspicious of language which he sees as over-emotional, and suspects that students like Brad are tailoring their responses to appeal to Sylvia’s generous nature.
But Sylvia is also his friend. He’s relatively new to this city, and he’d been feeling a little isolated until he met Sylvia. He’s enjoyed their lunchtime discussions, and for all his teasing, he genuinely admires her commitments and enthusiasms. However he’s also recently become something of Gillian’s confidante. Gillian is going to retire soon, and she is grooming Minh to take her place. It’s something he’d like to do.
There are other unspoken invisibles at play here. Sylvia has always loved books and writing, but at school she rarely got high grades. Her teachers seemed oblivious to how much she cared, how hard she worked, how much she wanted to be a part of the English tribe. So she is now drawn to students like Brad, so like her younger self. And she has an unconscious antipathy to students like Vikram who get high marks with so little effort.
And that’s where we will leave this story of the intersecting conscious and unconscious lives of Sylvia, Minh, Brad and Gillian.
In telling this story, I’m not of course implying that all English Faculties are like Gillian’s, or that all moderation meetings are characterized by the same differences and underlying tensions. Stories are not disguised essays or polemics. They are, on the contrary, attempts to describe a convincing particular in all its ambiguity and complexity. That, I think, is one of the ways in which stories have the capacity to add to our understanding of the highly complex world of the classroom and of the staffroom.
There is though a general observation that I want to make, or perhaps it’s an idiosyncratic opinion that I want to air. And to help me do this, I want to refer to a paper published in 1981 by a curriculum theorist named James Macdonald.
Macdonald suggested that there are three main ways in which we humans attempt to understand the worlds in which we live – the worlds out there and the worlds within.
The first way is the technical-rational or the scientific. This is the approach or methodology which deals in statistics and correlations, evidence and classifications. School subjects like maths and science are perhaps the most obvious examples of this way of attempting to understand the world.
Then there is the critical-emancipatory which is primarily concerned with the relationship between language and power, and which attempts to free us from being trapped by limiting or oppressive ways of using and abusing language in the world – this is Minh’s approach.
And finally there’s the mythopoetic, that drawing on the intuition, the imagination, and sometimes the unconscious, using the language of story, myth and poetry, in order to come to some understanding and relationship with complexity and mystery, with the elusive, and with the big puzzles of life. This is what Sylvia is wanting her English teaching to do.
Some (like Gillian, perhaps) would argue that English teaching has no part to play in Macdonald’s picture, that secondary English is less about a particular way of knowing the world and more about teaching our students the fundamental literacy and language skills. Or perhaps, on second thoughts, Gillian would argue that English is essentially a technical rational subject, and certainly many of our outcomes and rubrics are couched in technical-rational terms. This is, in my view, an inadequate and often emasculated form of English teaching, and a reason why some of our students are bored and untouched by it.
Minh’s critical emancipatory approach is clearly represented in Macdonald’s schema. I doubt that any of us would argue against this. The critical emancipatory is an essential part of English teaching.
But the mythopoetic is marginalized. So many of the best texts we study in secondary English, the ones that provoke, challenge, inspire and unmask, are mythopoetic texts that, in Sylvia’s and my view at least, are killed stone dead unless they are taught and studied with a mythopoetic sensibility. And, too often, they are in danger of being killed stone dead, largely because we have allowed a pseudo-scientific language and a technical-rational approach to dictate what we do, to determine what we see, and to shape what can and can’t be said about English teaching. One of the principal reasons why Sylvia struggled to articulate her point of view was because her faculty’s thinking and its documents were expressed in pseudo-scientific language.
This appropriation of the language of English teaching is dangerous and needs to be resisted. It operates rather like the Borg in Star Trek, that alien collection of species functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective. You don’t get killed by the Borg, you get assimilated. You become sucked into the collective mind. Resistance, the Borg keeps saying, is futile.
Well, I think English teaching is in danger of being borged by a bodgy version of the technical-rational, and that resistance is vital.
And there are signs that the mythopoetic is fighting back. We keep it alive – most of us – in our classrooms, despite the obstacles, despite the appropriation of the natural language of story. It’s present in professional journals like English in Australia, and Changing English. It’s a theme in books like Robert Scholes The Rise and Fall of English or in Viv Ellis’s 2007 book Rethinking English in Schools which bemoans the ‘marginalization of the aesthetic as a uniquely important way of knowing’ (p.4), and argues for ‘a fundamental reconsideration of the purposes of English in schools’.
Apparently in Star Trek the Borg were never confronted and defeated in any final battle. They just disappeared from the script.
I think that’s a nice thought.