Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment

3.3 Teachers are active members of the professional and wider community

How does the teacher model and promote language as a source of curiosity and pleasure?

How does the teacher work with colleagues, parents and community members to develop the quality of teaching and learning in the school?

  Slightly 'Offside'
Year 9
Jim Murphy

When the idea of writing about a moment of 'good' English teaching was first suggested to me, it brought several scenarios to my mind, and all of them were lessons which I did 'outside' the 'normal' curriculum. I often feel that some of the best teaching resides there, within the day to day curriculum but also slightly 'offside' too. So much of daily teaching can become very 'samey', and so I'm always pleased when I can do something a little bit out of the ordinary, unrehearsed, almost by accident.

I recall a terrific session in the theatrette one day when Clive and I zoomed into a really quite fabulous 'double act' (Clive is a colleague of mine with whom I share many beliefs about teaching). We were teaching the movie, 'Stand By Me', when we found ourselves bouncing ideas off each other, with the result that the boys from our two classes become thoroughly engrossed in our conversation. We were obviously having lots of fun and the boys knew we were great friends, so it became a bit of a show. Many of the kids joined in too, both engaging in a serious interpretative discussion and sharing some jokes. You see, Clive and I feel that not enough teachers give students insights into how they actually get into things, what excites their interest and enthusiasm. Anyway, in this lesson, ideas were bouncing around everywhere, and we soon found ourselves discussing other movies, similar and different genres, how some 'stars' were made and how others disappeared, how movies had changed, and how they hadn't changed!

Boys know the teachers who are not afraid to let their guard down and have fun. Seems silly to have to say this, but Clive and I felt that we could have a 'free ranging' lesson. Both of us have been teaching for a few years, and we were prepared to take some risks and experiment a bit. We were in tune with each other and had taught the film for a year or two, and so we were ready to do something different. I'm not sure whether you could call any of this 'planning', but we were ready to engage in a bit of mutual learning, on the spot, right there in front of the boys, in an open way that involved them in the conversation, too.

Another occasion when I found that being slightly offside could be generative was when I got a bit cheesed off with the school policy of 'doing' debates at Year 9 level. Year in year out we were expected to 'do' debates, and I was peeved that it had become merely another exercise for a grade. I decided to do my own thing and devised a radio program, setting the parameters for the exercise quite explicitly, then giving the boys lots of time for talk and preparation. The great thing was the buzz that started, that and the ideas that flew around different groups. They were having fun and pushing the bounds of possibilities that I'd set them, coming up with ideas of their own. I was also pleased to see quiet students getting involved and not being afraid to have a go. You could almost say it was a good party atmosphere, but occasionally I stopped them and asked them to reflect on how and why something had worked so well. We eventually altered the original score sheets that I'd devised to assess their presentations, and so the kids had a strong sense of owning the task. Some of their stuff had to be gently censored, but that in itself was a valuable lesson for them, an exercise in how to clarify their sense of audience and purpose. I eventually scored them according to criteria that were congruent with assessing debating, and I felt that I was justified in saying that they had satisfied this particular work requirement.

I could think of many other occasions when it was easy to tell that the students were really involved in their own learning, moments when things just flowed. Perhaps what we need is some wise curriculum person to realise that there ought to be an occasion at least once a month (once a week? perhaps every single day?) when students' minds should be allowed to roam freely. School too often tends to get up its own stern momentum (it's almost as if we don't trust students or their own manner of relating or their sense of control), then tedium sets in and before you know what's happened people wonder why some students are beginning to misbehave ... then the dreary old cycle of discipline sets in, etc., etc., etc.

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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