2.2 Teachers create and maintain a challenging learning environment
3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment
I teach in a semi rural high school of approximately 1300 students, am currently acting HOD and directly responsible for one Year 12 English class, plus a Year 12 and a Year 11 Communication English class. A variety of theories/pedagogies have "informed" my teaching over the years with a critical literacy perspective being the most powerful/relevant at this point in time.
The focus of the 'event' I am analysing for this snapshot was a unit of work spanning five weeks in which Year 12 students of mixed ability studied a particular poet and poetic movement. Lessons were 50 minutes long and students had approximately 22 lessons in total. This unit culminated in an assignment, a one thousand word 'broadsheet' directed at a student audience and suitable for publication in a newspaper. Students selected one poet from several they had studied and discussed in detail, and wrote a critical analysis of the poet's work, referring to several poems in detail and demonstrating an understanding of the way in which the poet's life circumstances, philosophy, personality impacted on inspiration and style.
The students understood this was a challenging piece of work, given that they would have to read and research extensively and then write an assignment of considerable length and sophistication. This sort of unit usually encounters some resistance (especially from male students) in terms of not being relevant, poetry being inaccessible, difficulties with poetic terminology, and I have spent a lot of time over the past few years considering how to counter this resistance and how to 'engage' students to a greater extent - to try and make this an enjoyable exercise and one which opens their minds to the personal pleasure of poetry.
When considering what 'event' to reflect on for the purposes of this STELLA narrative, it was this notion of engagement which I kept coming back to. Why was it that sometimes I connected and sometimes I didn't? What circumstances and conditions fostered really meaningful discussion where I inherently knew students were engaged, responsive and interested?
The critical moments I have chosen to comment on were small group tutorials I held after a series of introductory lessons, and after students had selected a poet for detailed study. Preparation prior to the tutorials was extremely important. Students had been given a couple of introductory lessons designed to stimulate and intrigue rather than revisiting poetic terminology or receiving a lesson on how to 'analyse' a poem. I wanted to 'grab' their attention and hold it (if possible!).
We were focusing on modern American poets, so I fleshed out the concept of modernism, gave a broad overview of American history (saga style) and spent a lot of time just reading aloud the most provocative and stimulating poems of the poets to be studied. I related personal details about the poets (gossip style) - anything to keep their attention and make it seem like 'Days of Our , constantly telling them that poetry was a very personal and subjective experience: what one student would relate to would bore another. They should not be discouraged if it didn't make 'sense': a closer reading might start to unlock the mystery. Given that we were looking at Sylvia Plath, E.E. Cummings and Robert Frost, it was easy to find material which would produce some sort of reaction.
In these sessions I also challenged their notion of 'meaning', emphasising that the way we 'read' these poems at this point in time, in our society and from our differing perspectives could be quite different from the original impact on American audiences of the early/ to mid 1900s.
The tutorials themselves were forty-five minute lessons in which approximately eight to ten students sat around my desk, with photocopies of various poems written by their 'chosen' poet. I would read a poem and then 'talk' them through it, encouraging them to identify poetic devices, take notes, write all over the sheets so that when they had to begin the writing process they had something to refer to and ideas already formulated. I constantly asked their opinion and stressed that what I was suggesting was one possible interpretation. What did they think? Did they agree? Could they see the power of repetition in a particular poem? Did the harsh images created by Plath's words disturb them? Could they suggest where Plath's anger was coming from? Did they think her frustration had something to do with her role as a wife/mother/author in the early 1950s? Did they think Cummings was deliberately shocking his early Twentieth Century audience? Is Cumming's poetry shocking or unconventional by today's standards?
I tried to make my readings as dramatic and sensitive as possible, allowing quite a bit of emotion to creep in and validating it at the same time, but I also quite deliberately kept the atmosphere light. I was as inclusive as possible without frightening the more reluctant. I was constantly looking for rapport through eye contact, facial expression, gesture and discussion.
In analysing these moments for this narrative I can see that I was putting a lot of personal energy into these 'connections' and that the students were responding because they could 'feel' the interest and commitment - they didn't want to 'let me down' - we were having fun and 'working' at the same time and the group was small enough that they didn't feel embarrassed about making a comment or asking a question. They laughed at my 'over the top enthusiasm' and love of poetry and I made them feel comfortable because I laughed at myself as well. Their comments were positive (I asked was this sort of lesson helpful in terms of what they had to do and for their better understanding of the poems) and the discussions were sometimes really stimulating and meaningful. The general feedback, reactions, enthusiasm for the task were very positive compared to previous lessons on the same topic. Quite a few students said they really enjoyed what we had done 'together' and that they felt really comfortable with the task and they appreciated the support I gave them.
Telling this narrative and analysing the events has forced me to reflect on the importance of connecting with students and how I sometimes make that connection - establishing clearly for them that I have knowledge to share, that I am very interested in sharing it, that I want to facilitate their learning and support them, and that I am prepared to put a lot of energy into that process. I don't see myself as the distant 'expert' with all the answers. It has also made me realise how much value I place on a relaxed, warm learning environment where a sense of humour is all-important.