3.2 Teachers continue to learn
3.3 Teachers are active members of the professional and wider community
I work in a primary school, team teaching in a 2-to-6 multi-age classroom with 54 students. Our school policy is to structure the curriculum, as much as possible, around integrated units of work.
Our current unit of work is investigating the notion of 'Utopia'. As part of our 'acquaintance activity' we asked children to write in their personal journals about a place that was special to them. To set this session up we both, (Robyn Perkins and I), mentioned incidents from our childhood that were significant to us and which were located in our own 'special places'.
Children then went off to write, in silence. After about 20 minutes we allowed children to conference their writing, if they wished. We also made this piece of writing a work requirement for the week. Although not all children brought their work to us - because 'personal journals' are personal and we agree to not read entries unless invited - we were absolutely blown away by the content and feeling of what we read that day.
Many children wrote of very personal things, events and places. Tree houses, shed roofs, garden hiding spots and the like featured. One boy wrote of shadowing his brother to his secret place and discovering money his brother had been stealing from mum. Some of the older children - that is, the more mature members of the class - clearly saw this idea of 'place' in a metaphorical way and wrote moving descriptions of important childhood episodes. They wrote of where they belonged in the deeper sense. Most of the class wanted us to read their entries, but very few wanted to share their work publicly.
It so happened that we attended a STELLA teachers' meeting that evening. When the meeting got to the point of discussing, in small groups, examples of teaching that we thought we might like to write about, I mentioned this 'personal journal' session. A secondary teacher in our group started to question me on the 'Utopia' unit of work. He basically ignored my enthusiasm for the personal journals.
At first I thought he was challenging the wisdom of getting young children to investigate such ideas, but it turned out he wanted to clarify what we were on about before making a suggestion to us. This was that we show the video of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, since it features the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks and casts a critical gaze on the notion of Utopia.
Although I'd read the novel as a teenager, I'd basically forgotten it. So we got the video and watched it and discovered that it picked up many of the themes that we wanted the children in our class to be talking about - power, gender, memory, intention, 'voice' and position, and so on. It actually has proved to be a great vehicle for looking at Utopia and much, much more.
About two weeks later, having watched, discussed and deconstructed the movie - as well as taking extensive notes and acting out (simulating) scenes from the story - we decided to get the students to write an 'essay' discussing four themes: Where does George (the main character) belong? Could he have found happiness in his own time? What does he bring to the future? and Can the power relationships in the future be changed?
Some of the youngest children have of course discussed these questions in short and simple ways. But many - most - students have written sophisticated essays (not 'essays'!), often of three or four hundred words. That's an extended piece of work for a primary school child - and one they have to proof read and then publish. Quite a few type their own work on the computer, saving, changing fonts and so on.
The point of this narrative is not to list the impressive things children can do. It's to point to the way our unit of work has taken shape - during a discussion on 'teacher standards' we were offered a suggestion by a stranger who picked up just one point of what we were saying. We followed his suggestion and found it opened a door into a whole new area of investigation, including the use of different media and educational tools.
We had started by describing some marvellous personal writing our children had done, and eventually came to even more wonderful, but public, pieces. Our unit of work had grown and been enriched. It had been 're- mediated' by a VCE teacher's seemingly idiosyncratic suggestion.