Tag Archives: teaching

Pastoral care

My role is care. To make care happen – as often as possible, and as well. With other adults I care for young people, giving them an experience of care that engages them in a positive way. We call this care “pastoral,” which is a literary genre featuring nymphs and shepherds. This seems too bucolic for school, although some parts of our school do feel Arcadian.

shepherd

Perhaps there is some spatial propaganda at work, here. Like playing bad classical music at train stations as an anti-vandalism trick. Students move between home and school like English people take long walks in the countryside, sensing something spiritual about the change.

This metaphor of the shepherd is at the heart of my father’s work as a pastor. My mother the school principal accounts for the rest of my genetic predisposition to be a year level coordinator at an Anglican school. It came quickly, inevitably, like home. I felt something like this when descending over London for the first time.

Today I want to give form to my shepherding, a shape more defined than resting beside green fields. Unless resting beside green fields is at the heart of this myth for a reason? A clue to what pastoral care must start from – restful knowledge of the self, an inner peace subject to the beauty of the natural world. Taking what is around us as beautiful, and a source of deep satisfaction in our work.

I wish this for my students, except they’re sheep. Their role is not pastoral care but growing up before they’re eaten by wolves, so that they can be eaten by people. (I guess that years of docile service to the capitalist workforce is the wool in this story, but I will only know them as lambs, hoping to see some dark spots emerge.)

Enough. Because I’ve seen the surreal heart of it. If I’m a shepherd then I’m something that a sheep can’t be, of an opposite species. When surely teachers and students have something in common, namely humanity. So do pastors, artists, parents, principals. And a feature of our species is care.

Still, I don’t expect care from my students. There is something absurd about adults appealing to children to look after them. It happens in class sometimes. I’ll reach some limit and ask students to see things from my point of view. The silence is deafening. It’s not the worst thing I could do, but feels like it. I’m interested in this feeling. Of course we want students to learn things, but the fact that I’m tired and grumpy can go without saying, let alone being brought to the sudden attention of twenty kids.

Better to stress shared humanity by actually sharing it. What thoughts and feelings are in the room? Who is in a good frame of mind to help us learn together, and who just needs help? Without this question I risk imposing something trivial on something profound.

I once attended a conference about sex run by Lutherans. I was eighteen or nineteen years old, still closeted. A few years earlier I had scrawled the word “homosexuality” onto a piece of paper and burned it – not alone, but as a rite of confession at another Lutheran youth camp about sex. A speaker addressed us at this later event about something that everyone has forgotten. All I remember is her opening disclaimer, which felt like an embrace. “I’ll be talking about women and men,” she said, “but I acknowledge that we are not all attracted to the opposite sex. Hopefully what I say will make sense to everyone, including people who aren’t straight.” I’d pay good money for a photo of my facial expression.

So being acknowledged is an experience of care. Using someone’s name. Welcoming someone to school. Accepting that someone may be late for a reason beyond their control. Always allowing for complexity, diversity, distraction, emotion. And only then, starting to teach.

If I can give care to a whole year level of students then I am doing my job. A more feasible proposition: if the year level experiences care from the school I am satisfied; if not, I meddle. I make (sure that) care (is) happen(ning). And if I can do this while playing a flute? Pastoral care achievement unlocked!

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4 tips for new teachers

Yesterday, bewilderingly, I addressed prospective teachers about professional practice. Exactly a year ago I’d been in exactly their position, partway through the English learning area at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education – unslept, uncertain, and unemployed. The one tip I recall from last year’s session was a person who confessed to sobbing at the end of each day of her first term teaching. That helped, but not yesterday. What could I say that was both useful and true?

I’ve had a good year. I’ve learnt intensely but not impossibly. My school’s been a good fit for me and I’ve joined its full-time staff. I’ve sobbed, sure, but less so each month. With this in mind, I thought back over my time as a professional, pinpointing practices that have kept me buoyant in my first year, decisions and opportunities that I’d recommend to all new teachers if they get a chance. It’s a work in progress, but the teacher candidates liked it; so here are my four tips for those about to teach.

me on bike

Tip 1: ride your bike to school. Or, more specifically, ride your bike home from school, especially if it’s downhill. Commuting outdoors by the water has given my first year oxygen. My friends and I are so used to the benefits of a daily ride that I seemed grumpy for the few days my bike was getting fixed. Many of my best ideas happen while riding; without a bike I’d teach worse.

Tip 2: host end-of-term drinks. Our apartment has an everyone-welcome policy and is the more-or-less regular site of book clubs, after-parties, sleepovers, emergency showers and meeting people we don’t know. Inviting new colleagues over at the end of first term felt automatic, but had a radical effect on the rest of my year. Rapport with other staff-members  is essential to working happily anywhere, so risk an invite.

Tip 3: play dodge ball. Year twelve students hosted a fundraiser for charity that consisted of charging younger students to witness a no-holds-barred match of dodge ball between themselves and teachers who said yes. We dressed badly but played quite well, cheered on by all our students and the Principal. Accepting this uncouth invitation was a great move, shifting the dynamic between me and students in an odd but positive direction.

Tip 4: rap. Odder again was the request to take part in a “duel” between staff and students which would feature a rap battle. Seriously, schools are some of the least predictable workplaces around. This seemed like somewhat safe ground for an English teacher, at least until one minute before the event when I realised that a rap battle was improvised, not meticulously written, memorised and rehearsed. Suddenly I was being insulted in rhyme by a teenager and I had to spontaneously answer back. This was worth it for sheer unlikeliness, like a newly-devised adventure sport. New teachers, if you get the opportunity, you’ve gotta give this a try.

Teachers, feel free to leave your own hot tips in the comments. Best wishes to all graduating teachers – and thanks to my old School for having me back!

Aliens

Students know more than they think they do. Last week I started a new unit about War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, not with a set of facts about the text but with a question designed to tap pre-existing knowledge about its genre. What alien invasion texts do we know (the list was impressive) and, based on these, what are the genre’s typical settings, characters and complications? This activity, adapted from a resource by Ticking Minds, generated a coherent set of ideas about what we expect from Martian-related novels, and increased our desire to start reading. It also gave us material to create our own invasion scenarios, some eerily prescient of the book we hadn’t opened yet. [FYI, characters likely to appear in alien invasion texts according to my year 9 students are wimp, villain, hero, non-beliver, saviour, concerned relatives, farmer, stupid cops, lead good guy, lead bad guy, scientist, secret government organisation people, reassuring people, damsel in distress, President, love interest and innocent victims.]

Genres can be remarkably stable. Many students expressed surprise (and pleasure) that a book from 1898 could include elements still recurring in their own reading and viewing. But the joy of genre fiction is also found in points of difference. Sure, it’s a crash-landed alien, but what does it look like? I invited students to describe their own typical alien to a partner, who doodled accordingly. No two Martians were the same.

Alien 14

 

 

English exotic

I opened the year with my year nine English class by showing them a picture. “This is how I feel about this year,” I explained, gesturing toward the monkeys and lush jungle of Henri Rousseau’s Exotic Landscape, 1910. “It’s inviting but mysterious, tantalising yet difficult to explain. For example, what is the monkey doing with that orange circle? And what even is that orange circle – an orange?” They gave me twenty perfect blank looks.

exotic landscape

Then I asked them to source and share images that express their own feelings about our year in English. When I asked for volunteers to share their images the feedback was dreamy: a tropical beach for relaxation, multi-coloured beads for diversity, a smiley face. Based on these examples, English for this group was the academic equivalent of drinking lemonade.

But not everyone was sharing. When I collected all the images at the school’s online learning system the cumulative picture was more complex. What was this twice-appearing clown, and were those planets colliding? While students completed a writing task, I projected their images on rotation, reflecting to the class its emotional palette as the year commenced. Then I asked for questions – were there pictures that people wanted to know more about?

“That one,” they agreed in unison, when the words “YES” and “NO” appeared on the screen, interrogated by cartoon figures. Like me, the students showed most interest in their peers’ most surprising choices, the symbolic opposite of a beach.

“I chose that one,” a small voice said, “because, well, I feel different things about English. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.” The brave words were spoken so nervously that I left only the shortest silence before replying. “Me too,” I said, “and I think your picture comes closest to the jungle scene I showed everyone before. Remember, with the monkeys?” The student nodded. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

Enion’s lament

What is the price of Experience?” asks Enion in Blake’s unfinished and never-published epic The Four Zoas. (Or does she? According to Harold Bloom, “in the lament of Enion we hear for the first time in The Four Zoas the true voice of Blake himself.”) Retrospectively, her question was apt for my first ever year twelve class: how much would I pay, metaphorically, for the experience of teaching senior English? The prospect scared me. “Have you done much Blake?” asked my mentor teacher. “Yes” I replied, pinching myself.

zoas

It was a revision class, so after decoding an illustration and two contrasting readings of the lines (this one in character as Enion; this one by someone who’s read Bloom) I turned the learning over to the class, asking students to work in pairs to annotate the passage according to a pre-arranged set of topics: repetition; animal imagery; rhetorical questions; when/then; poetic structure; the five senses; punctuation; powerful adjectives; Biblical language; the use of “&.” We used sticky notes on A3 sheets – a pre-digital method that nonetheless translated beautifully into a Word document in which the notes were collected and saved for further revision. The students seemed pleased with their work, and the possibility of sharing it. During the group work and short presentations I saw heaps of evidence to support Vygotsky’s claim that “learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in her/his environment and in cooperation with her/his peers.”

Here’s where the hour went:

Teacher

Students

Time

Using Powerpoint presentation, present Bloom’s quotation about the lament of Enion. Apply this to Blake’s ambiguous use of the first-person voice. Who’s lamenting? Take part in whole-class discussion. Do we agree with Bloom? 10
Listening: play recordings of Enion’s lament Hear two contrasting readings of Enion’s lament 5
Responding: oversee discussion about the two readings. How are these recordings different and what do they reveal about alternative interpretations of the passage. How would we read it? 5
Annotation activity: distribute topics and oversee activity.[repetition; animal imagery; rhetorical questions; when/then; poetic structure; the five senses; punctuation; powerful adjectives; Biblical language; use of &] Working in pairs, practice using one technique of close-reading. What poetic effects are revealed when you apply your technique to these lines, and which particular lines respond most powerfully to your technique? Mark the lines on poem using sticky notes, and be ready to (literally) share your choice with the class. 20
Annotations: observe sheets and dialogue with students about their techniques, commenting on a way that’s helpful to the whole class. On request, explain why you positioned your annotations at particular lines. Take notes on other students’ techniques and comments from the teacher. 15

Ekphrasis II

Last week I co-presented a Thursday Talk on ekphrasis at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. Hagan and I were just finalising our collaboration when someone said “Tim Jones”; and, sure enough, there he was, the artist of the piece we’d written poems about, ready to fold out a gallery chair.

photo(6)It was heartening to see others interested in the possibilities that art shows to students of English. The group responded warmly to our poems, but took the discussion much further, asking about how we encourage different types of students (boys and girls; extroverts and introverts) to develop and express their love of poetry.

I’ve described ekphrasis itself over here. At the event, I wondered about the technique’s success, proposing that poetry might help overcome the awkwardness of talking about art. Even when I’m with close friends I find it difficult to verbalise any response to an artwork. When I’m deeply moved, language falls short until it’s a poem. Exercises like this also make potential real. Instead of projecting words into our future (the things we’ll say; the books we’ll write) we kneel down on the floor with sticky notes, arranging words that are already written, further completing an artwork.

“Can you send me your poem?” asked the artist, afterwards. This was already heaven; but then he said “I’m really glad you’re a teacher.”

Rights and Freedoms

civil rights movement

During my first-semester placement I was given the opportunity to plan and deliver a unit to year ten history students on the topic of rights and freedoms. Magic, right? This theme has it all, including an in-built means of connecting history to students’ own preoccupations and passions. I mean, one question on the test was: “design your own protest banner on a topic of your choice.”

See below for a detailed overview of the unit, submitted as part of my history teaching studies. Teachers, get in touch if you’d like any further info or individual lesson plans.

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