2.3 Teachers assess and review student learning and plan for future learning
3.3 Teachers are active members of the professional and wider community
English teachers understand that context is everything. I teach in a high school in Sydney's outer western suburbs that gained a certain degree of notoriety as a result of the front-page publicity that the local tabloid gave to the school's HSC results in 1996. I took up a position as Head of Department at the start of 1997, in the midst of a Departmental review of the school, which subsequently extended into a restructure of secondary education in the local district and led to the formation of a senior college and the 'rebadging' of our school and a number of others as feeder junior campuses.
Understandably throughout this whole ordeal morale was low, with staff, students, and parents feeling besieged. There was a good deal of residual anger at the inaccuracies present in the newspaper report and its cruel representation of the students; anger which was only partly assuaged some years later by a successful class action undertaken by a number of the students against the newspaper.
Not long afterwards the process of a Stage 6 (Yr 11 and 12) syllabus review began in NSW. This represented a dramatic shift in how English was conceptualised in this state. So it was, in the midst of a more general, school wide examination of the curriculum we were offering our students, the expectations we had of them and the standards we were setting, as well as the teaching methodologies we were employing as we began to plan for life as a junior high, that my faculty and I were faced with the question of how best to prepare our students for the demands of senior schooling (at another school, mind you) given the direction of the new Stage 6 Syllabus.
If I, as HT, was going to lead my colleagues through a process of program revision and rewriting, given the new Stage 6 Syllabus and an impending review of the 7 - 10 Syllabus, as well as to support them in their developing understanding of the 'new' English, then I had to look first to my own practice and my own professional learning.
Rather fortuitously it was also around this time that I entered into a close, working relationship with a teacher educator from the University of Western Sydney. As the chair of the school's literacy committee, I had sought Brian's assistance on the advice of a colleague, who was an ex-student of his, in assisting the committee to set future directions in the planning of our literacy program and to develop the training and development program we needed as a group to effectively maintain our credibility with the staff and our leadership role within the school.
I happened to mention to Brian in passing that I was keen to come to grips with critical literacy and post-structuralist reading techniques through writing a unit of work which involved students in a critical examination of constructions of gender in two recent purchases for the faculty: a novel (Boyz R Us) and a play (What's Wrong With Mary Jane?). Brian was quick to offer to collaborate on this as he had developed a model unit of work with a gender focus, which he was using with preservice teacher education students in his Literacies for Learning course to develop their understanding of critical literacy. So it was, in term 4 of 1998 that Brian and I began to meet every Tuesday, a day when I had no timetabled classes, to collaboratively plan and write a unit of work centred around the award winning Australian wildlife documentary Kangaroos - Faces In the Mob, which we were to teach to Year 9 in term 1 of the following year.
My initial, rather sketchy thoughts went out the window pretty quickly as Brian was very keen to give his material a run with my students and never really stopped to ask whether I was still committed to the original direction I had set for myself. Not that I had a problem with this. I was moving into new ground, both in terms of my personal conceptualisation of English as a subject and in the negotiation of my working relationship with Brian. Besides, I couldn't see any pressing reason to put the brakes on his enthusiasm.
The unit was going to really challenge my students' preconceptions about English as well as being, I was confident, a stimulating intellectual challenge for them. For my part, I suddenly had a Cultural Studies orientated teaching program when I had not been looking for one, with the notion of using a wildlife documentary as a text in English having a certain novelty value but also the very sound justification that it was in keeping with the expanded notion of text expounded in the new Stage 6 Syllabus.
Brian's background in Systemic Functional Linguistics guided the unit into the area of the nexus between critical reading and critical writing. We set ourselves the challenge of attempting to teach the students how to write a formal, critical challenge text, identified in the work of Joan Rothery as a response text in which both a dominant reading and a resistant reading are delineated through a particular staging of the text, in response to the documentary. This involved the students being able to develop the reading strategies needed to firstly identify and articulate the 'preferred' or 'naturalised' reading of the text, and to then go on to construct the 'resistant' reading that challenged this 'preferred' reading.
For my part, the notion of the critical challenge text as a 'text type' appropriate to the junior secondary English classroom proved to be a coalescing factor in my committing to the unit of work we began to develop from Brian's existing ideas and resources. It provided a unifying framework, drawing together my desire to see my students shift into a more 'academic' register in writing extended responses to texts, with considerations about the sorts of questions we needed to have the students ask of the documentary and the type of reading strategies we needed to teach them if they were to be able to interrogate and challenge the text.
At the same time, it became clear to me that the grammatical structures Brian wished to introduce in the teaching of the type of writing we wanted the students to begin to master provided the metalanguage that would enable us to explicitly describe and explain to them some defining qualities of 'academic' writing. This would prove to give the students concrete, realisable structures to work towards in the 'crafting' of their own texts.
An outline of the unit illustrates this movement through approaches: from personal growth type activities, to post - structuralist and critical literacy approaches, to 'genre' based teaching. (Activities are delineated rather than lessons as a sequence of lessons was required in particular instances)
Introduction: Student Outcomes and Assessment Outline.
Such was the success of the unit with the Year 9 students, and our shared feeling of the enormous and important professional benefit of the whole collaborative experience, that we rewrote the unit for a streamed, 'top' Year 10 class, and taught it in Term 4 with a more sustained focus on the grammatical structures to which we had introduced Yr 9. We did not need to do the sort of 'field building' work with regards to gender and ways of reading we had done with Year 9 with these students, as I had been incorporating my developing understanding of post-structuralist reading strategies and critical literacy into my teaching with the Year 10 students throughout the year.
My own developing understanding of texts as cultural constructs, drawn from the fields of post - structuralism, critical literacy and Systemic Functional Linguistics, and the professional relationship I established with an academic mentor had a marked, even dramatic, influence on my ability to improve the learning outcomes of my students. Along the way a potentially fruitful model of the possibilities for genuine partnerships between teachers and academics developed, with the biggest 'pay off' being most importantly for the students. Above all else this experience confirmed for me that any notion of what is possible with students is inextricably and inevitably a projection of the teacher's sense of 'self': in short, the students may well be 'at' where the teacher is 'at'.
I will leave it to the Year 10 students to attest to the power of what occurred in the classroom and the decisive influence it had on their developing sense of self, including their self-conception as learners. Further, the work the students, if mapped against outcomes taken from the Stage 6 Syllabus, indicated that the most successful of them left Stage 5 already well on the way to achieving success in their HSC studies.
We deconstructed the camera angles and the representations of the narrator to show that was all there to induce emotion instead of just presenting the facts. (Nicole)
(Before) we would have just stated what happened, like the kangaroos were living and then one died. I guess at the end we saw the hierarchical society, the patriarchy. (Manal)
(The unit) taught us language skills like nominalization and to join things in time conjunctions. You can use it in any essay. After that I was really confident about my writing. (Nicole)
Every time we do an essay we use the same skills. I use it in visual arts. You have to analyse paintings and you have to pick up on the meanings. (Narelle)
These methods of teaching were beneficial to our developing education and we continue to effectively apply these skills in all aspects of our daily lives. (Alana)