Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate

2.2 Teachers create and maintain a challenging learning environment

How does the teacher ensure that students from all social and cultural groups are guaranteed equal access to, and opportunities for success in, the full range of language and literacy outcomes?

How does the teacher enable students to engage with and make connections between school and community-based literacies?

  Play on words
Year 10
Neil Fleming

Five years ago, as Faculty Head, I agreed (actually made the suggestion) to teach a group of disaffected Year 10 boys in their final semester of high school. They were required to complete the compulsory Year 10 unit called 'Workwise Healthwise'. All 16 arrived with a record of behaviour and attitude problems. I expected that I would attempt to teach 'relevant and practical' material related to self-esteem, careers, employment and further job training. I would not have believed that one of the enduring memories of this class would have been the response to an unfamiliar piece of vocabulary.

One month into the course, following valiant attempts to maintain interest in Year 11 and 12 options and TAFE courses, study focussed on the ingredients of actual jobs and types of work. The boys had a list of jobs found in the Hotel and Resort industry. They were expected to complete a description of each job to demonstrate that they understood the nature of the work, eg. 'receptionist', 'activities co-ordinator', 'valet', 'room service', 'house maid', etc. This was a task planned to occupy a short part of the lesson before proceeding to the Job Guide handbook.

At this point it is necessary to introduce one of the boys - I'll call him Jack. Jack was a member of this class because of his insistence on disruption of others' learning, not because of lack of intelligence. Completion of set tasks and assessable items was not a priority in Jack's life, however. What could not be expressed verbally, even eruditely, did not count in Jack's quality world.

But, back to the list of jobs! Some job words were well known or anticipated; others, as expected, needed to be explained and noted. The class proceeded to the word 'courier'. I was surprised that no one knew what it meant. I pronounced it carefully. No - nobody knew the word. Just as I was about to launch into another explanation, Jack's hand went up.

'Courier, sir? That'd be the aboriginal worker at the resort!'

The ensuing three seconds of bemused silence was one of the rare spasms of quiet during that semester. The glint of mischief in Jack's eye caught mine, such that it was obvious that we were the only ones to appreciate the pun. Not that we got to revel in that moment of intellectual insight because the three aboriginal lads took exception to what they suspected was a smart alec impugning their cultural heritage! Deft classroom management skills quelled a potential riot. What had upset the lads?

'What's Jack goin' on about us kooris workin' in a resort?' At least, that was the gist of what they said. For once, Jack was very docile as I wrote the two words on the board to illustrate the pun. Another boy asked why aboriginals were called kooris. I had to admit that I didn't know. I wasn't concerned because I expected that the aboriginal boys would be able to explain. They couldn't! This lesson had moved along at quite a pace. The boys were promised a visit from the Aboriginal Education Liaison Officer, to talk about the word 'koori', and they had to consult a dictionary to elicit what a courier was.

The AELO woman was impressive. She wasn't daunted by the lads. She rose to the challenge and not only explained the origins of 'koori' but used the employment context to lead into the issues of Equal Employment Opportunity. Once she'd addressed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander component, she launched into the female component with equal passion. To my bunch of macho, red-necked students, this was quite a revelation. Some of them had even come to an understanding of what a courier was by this time.

Further opportunities arose to demonstrate the confusion of homophones/homonyms. The initial attempts at job application writing were not impressive. 'Pears of scissors', 'threw my time at school', 'bright red hare' abounded! Coupled with the liberal sprinkling of apostrophes anywhere in the vicinity of words including the letter 's', the writing made for a pedant's nightmare. Except that one boy, after the lesson on the proper use of apostrophes, informed the class that one of the shops in the newly built mall had an advertising sign spelt incorrectly. He readily agreed to photograph what he thought was the offending sign so the class could confer.


What to do? The boys determined that the shop owner needed to be saved from the embarrassment of this error. They took several attempts on the word processor to produce a correct version of their missionary letter. I was impressed to see that most boys understood that it would be ironic in the extreme to send a letter of this type that contained errors itself. So, eventually, a simple, polite, helpful, one-paragraph letter, complete with photograph was mailed to the unsuspecting retailer. When a letter of thanks arrived soon after, you'd think the boys were conquering heroes. A few of the boys insisted on attending on the occasion of the sign-writer returning to the shop to make the correction to the use of the apostrophe.

It has to be said that not all boys found such literary ventures worthy of their attention. The episodes following the EEO lessons, dealing with Sex and Sexuality Education prompted a majority of homophobic responses. My challenges to incorporate newly found grammatical and spelling skills into reactions to the film 'Philadelphia' proved beyond most of the boys. But not Jack! He, alone, identified the irony of the Denzel Washington character, as a black person, being one of the intolerant people.

It was an exhausting semester!


One week after I was approached to prepare this narrative, I met Jack again. He's running his own courier business these days. Doing all right, too. He's about to buy his third truck and a motor bike. I was tempted to ask if he has contracts with any resorts, but I was wary of confronting that mischievous glint in his eye again.

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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