Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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3.2 Teachers continue to learn

1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate

In what ways does the teacher provide all students with opportunities to participate in literacy learning that is personally and culturally meaningful to them?

How does the teacher demonstrate, and inspire in students, a passion for texts that have personal and cultural significance for them?

  Coping with change or when your emus come home to roost
Year 10
Ruth Graham

There we all were at the end of 1998, scoffing cheese, dip and bikkies, TimTams and REAL coffee, relaxing after the mad rush of getting the reports signed ready to be sent home. Our HOD, Ann, had provided us with a feast to thank us for all our help and hard work during the year - she said. Little did I know a bombshell was about to be dropped.

'Well,' said she, 'now that all the reporting is over, we need to think about next year. It seems we'll have enough takers for the English Communication course next year and Ruth has agreed to run it.' After Ruth had stopped choking on her dip and bikkies, spluttering on the too-hot coffee gulped to help out the situation and being helpfully banged on the back by a 'friendly' male colleague, order was restored.

Dear Ann smiled at us all with a seraphic smile that hid the mind of an ash-blonde black widow spider and announced that during the year I had agreed that I would be interested in it if there were enough to make it viable. I had only said that I liked the idea of the course, not necessarily that I would take it. But it seemed that now I was stuck with it.

So, with fear and trembling, I gritted my teeth and went ahead with it. These were the ten students who were not aiming to go on to tertiary studies and couldn't make head or tail of Shakespeare on a good day, but who expected I would have something better for them. The first few days were a learning period as we both had lots to learn about each other. They weren't the usual students to have in class as most of them had definite ideas about what they wanted to do in the workforce after leaving school, and were already well on the way to getting there. They wanted 'practical stuff', they told me, not school stuff that wasn't going to do them any good.

This began to have a huge bearing on the way I fronted up to these students. They were over 15 and therefore didn't have to be there, but they wanted to finish Year 12. I found they were willing to work, and work hard, if the things we did had relevance to them. I also had to find most of the work for them while running the classes as there didn't seem to be much of a syllabus to help me out. There were units to cover and suggested ways of assessing them, but not much more else.

At the beginning I stood, or sat on a desk near the front of the room and occasionally walked around the room as I do with my other classes, but started to get the idea that not being treated as adults in charge of their own learning was really making them resistant. So I started the practice of sitting down in a desk at their level, but facing them, and letting them get on with the units they had. If they were finished with the work, they could either get it marked, hang on to it until the due date, or do other work, as long as it didn't annoy anyone else.

We also used to digress quite a bit from the set units sometimes, as we jumped from topic to topic as the students felt the need to get things done. For example, early in Term 2, Paul O. wanted to try for a job but didn't have a resumé. That wasn't planned until term 4 but who cared? They decided they needed it so we did it. And that's been the way of it, more or less.

They also had to give an oral report on the Workplace Health and Safety Report, done within the school and taught and assessed with the WH&S Officer at the school, and Mark was the last speaker, just after Iain. The order of presentation for the next oral they decided to give was decided by Mark who said, 'Since I was last last time, I'll be first this time and Iain will be second and we'll go that way this time.' That was fine by me, as it meant they all did it with the minimum of fuss about when they would do it, and virtually without input by me other than the starting date.

Because of the types of units that appear in the English Communication course, I tried to get into the class outside experts whose fields were those being studied. For example, the school WH&S Officer was thrilled to teach the students and they really responded to him. He also set them real tasks to report on, and their report sheets with their comments and files are now in his files to be acted upon. I don't think the students realised the significance of this until he did a recap on the unit with them.

We also invited the Industrial Officer in from DEETIR when the new industrial relations reforms were announced. This was really good for the students, and in the unit on customer relations, we were able to ask in the people from Myer to work with the students. If all these people weren't the real thing, then this class was even dimmer than they used to make out they were! At the end of the year the students prepared for a mock job interview. This was assessed by the local Rotary club who were delighted to be asked to help out. They gave as much feedback as possible to the students so they have the best opportunity to do the best they can in a real interview. The students were also videotaped so each of them could watch themselves at home to see what they did well and didn't do during the interview.

I had the feeling that the students finally accepted that they had their own future in their hands and that I was only trying to help them get it. By the end of the year there were only nine students as one had gone full-time to TAFE. We continued to get on reasonably well, but only when I remembered to be as relaxed with them as they would let me be. As soon as I started the 'teacher thing' and went back out to the front of the class, they let me know that this class wasn't like that, and I knew I would lose them if I tried it. It's been a steep learning curve to get me to this level of comfort with these students, but I feel that we mostly rub along pretty well now. Looking back now I see so many of my teaching practices have changed with these students, hopefully for the better.

I also treasured the first Parent/Teacher interview I had with parents from this class. Mum was almost in tears as she greeted me and Dad had to blow his nose hard as he wrung my hand. I started frantically to search my conscience to find out what I had done to cause this effect in parents I had not met before, but soon all was explained. It seems that Tim, their son, was in this class, and for the first time in his school career had had a good report in English, wanted to come back to school and had changed his whole attitude to other subjects because of this course. We all ended up in tears (how sentimental can a crusty old teacher get?), happy in the knowledge that Tim was well on his way at last.

So, where do I stand now after most of the year to get this subject going? Well, I deal with this class in ways I wouldn't usually in mainstream classes at present. This class almost forces a complete rethink of classroom practices, but then I have found they are very forgiving when they see you are trying not to be a 'real teacher' but a guide along the way. Most of the units are designed to be worked on together, so it's not me and them, it's us. I think that's what I've got mostly from them. I find they are a lot friendlier since we started off together, and that can only be good. It would probably be very interesting to see what could happen if it was a two-year course, but don't tell dear Ann I said that - she'd latch on to it with the speed of a striking viper and the strength of a boa constrictor.

I know that some of these practices would not work in a mainstream English class, but I have noticed that already there are some practices creeping into some of my classes. It can only be for the better that these changes are being made. I can only hope that as I become more in tune with the requirements of the English Communication units, that I get better at doing just that! Wish me luck!

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Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia