1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate
1.1 Teachers know their students
Here is an account of a lesson which changed my way of thinking about my teaching. It concerns an indigenous student with whom I had tried numerous behaviour management strategies and several modifications to my pedagogy. It was as if the 'old' chipping away at the sandstone was not working any more. I had to find a 'new' way if I was going to make a difference.
Teaching at a band 5 two-teacher school is difficult in the remote bush. Isolated from mainstream schools and more or less operating with minimum supervision and direction, my pedagogy has to be student-centred while encompassing traditional literacy and functional literacy in tandem. In this way, I try to provide the students with a bridge or scaffolding between the real world of life in the bush and a greater world-view necessary for active citizenship.
I was teaching in a Year 4 - 7 classroom, and I had found one indigenous student who was always interjecting and testing me out. By this I mean he was highly motivated to find out if I was consistent in my logical consequences for disruptive work. He could do excellent work when he was inclined to work. However, he seemed to try and find out different ways of evoking responses from me and not doing his literacy work. He would start something and lose interest very quickly. It was as if he was trying to hurt me in some way. He would constantly say, 'I am not doing this rubbish. Shay! [part of the Aboriginal culture, which suggests something of the equivalent 'Oh gee whizz, do I have to?'] ...' Nevertheless I persisted with my teaching strategies and adhered to what I thought was authentic or productive pedagogy. I believed that I was right and I would find a way to get him interested as a willing and active participant in literacy sessions. In particular, his writing was a focus for me as he had shown promise. Indeed, he enjoyed writing but lacked the patience to persist up to the final copy.
One day the window of opportunity opened for me. He was writing down the rudimentary outline required for an adventure narrative. The rough draft was laden with insightful anecdotes. Though the grammar was clearly deficient, the writing was good for the working level of the classroom and he had kept to the task of writing a 500-word short story. Eventually, he wrote approximately 700 words of beginning narrative genre. I noticed his work and gave him the usual positive comments but these fell on deaf ears. He looked at me and gave non-verbals congruent with tearing up his work. At the same time his eyes were focused on me throughout. Clearly, he was playing one of his games again. I decided through sheer serendipity to inform the class that they would get extra help to finish their work if they left their work on my desk at the end of the lesson for me to read later.
Things happened quickly, he told me that whenever he took work home his carer would tear it up in front of him. This was the first statement he had ever uttered to me, other than verbal abuse. I think it was because his previous teachers had always chastised him for making sculptures out of Blu-Tack, and he had lumped me in with them. I decided to make a point of giving him positive statements for making sculptures as long as he had finished his set work. I took it upon myself to say to him personally that I would look at his work if he left it on my desk. I made sure that other students could not hear me as this might lose him face.
After reviewing his work, I noticed that there was the beginning of an adventure narrative in his work. However, his work required editing, and he and I needed to enter into a student-teacher conference. He readily accepted my help and started working on fixing up his work. He made several minor improvements but refused to rework his rough draft. But, given my interest and offer of one-to-one assistance, he relented, and the both of us started work on the final piece of work, ie a 500 word adventure story for a literacy competition.
We finished the work together and it was submitted for the competition. As yet I do not know of the outcome of his submission but he and I have started a productive working relationship. He even gave me an example of his sculpture work to display in the office.
At the start of the wet season, in the town of Croydon, a man went out fishing. His name was Fred O'Flanagan. He went out on a boat. It was one that could go through the weeds and it could speed along. It went by a big windmill. He came to open space and stopped there so he threw his fishing rod line out. Later, I came along and I went with Fred fishing. Fred and I went up the river a little bit. I said, 'Fred, I am going down the river a little bit more. I bet you $1,000 you can't catch a barramundi bigger than me'. Turning around, Fred said, 'All right. I bet I can before sunset'. Later on I went back and Fred had about five barramundi and I had only two. The next day I gave him the one thousand dollars. I said, ' Fred, do you want to help me catch Brahman bulls at my station?' 'Yes, Ok! But first I will finish off my coffee'. Fred had finished his coffee in no time flat. Jumping on the motor bike was OK until I tried to go faster. I fell off. Fred was driving my jeep. Then we went and found the bulls, Brahman bulls in lean condition. They had broken the fence. They looked really mean. We chased them all the way back to the station. We got all the bulls into the yard for branding. We had to do some of them the next day. It was hard work because the bulls wouldn't stand still. Fred said, 'Yes. We shall have a BBQ'. It was great meat. It tasted delicious. After dinner we went back inside. Fred drank some wine and I had some soft drink. Lighting my fireworks was a good idea. But they went off accidentally as we walked out the back. We decided to go camping the next night. It was a dark, windy night and we ate marshmallows. Then a bull appeared out of nowhere. It looked savage. Being brown, big, strong and striking at the ground. I sprung up from the ground and jumped into a tree. My shirt was torn. All of a sudden I fell out of the tree. The bull ran towards me. I quickly got up and ran to the same tree Fred was hiding in. I looked at Fred and noticed that he was wearing a red shirt. I said, 'Fred, get that shirt off, NOW!' He said, 'Why?' 'Because bulls chase people with red clothes'. He took his shirt off and threw it away. With that the bull went away. Climbing down out of the tree, we were both glad the bull had gone.
I learnt that fishing and mustering was exciting for Fred and me.