Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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1.2 Teachers know their subject

3.2 Teachers continue to learn

What ideas and values inform English/Literacy teaching?

To what extent does the teacher contribute to and learn from current debates about teaching and learning? How open is the teacher in questioning and evaluating classroom, school and wider literacy practices?

  We are teaching kids, not subjects
Year 8
Peter Pidduck

Hamlet: Do you see nothing there?
The Queen: Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.
Year 8 Special English class: See what, where? This is shit.
Hamlet: Act III Scene IV

Playing Beatie Bow may be a very good book for adolescents, and has much to bulge the brain and bestow a ventripotent vocabulary on the student keen on improving and being improved. It does not particularly float my boat, but I have no particular animosity towards it. I feel no pressing urge to preach a pedagogy based on the premise that all books with the inclusion of female adolescents who recall, from the old Herbal in the bookcase, that Parnassus was a peat bog plant that blossomed with little hairy flowers of green and faded yellow, and who is associatively led to muse that Parnassus was where the goddesses of poetry and dance and art all lived, be banned from the classroom anon and eftsoons. I will live and let live - if that is what it is. Anyway, I happen to agree with Abigail that the word Parnassus is indeed beautiful. I also agree that this is a nice book; but I can't help it if my students think that nice is nasty.

I must reiterate that I do not have a problem with the book itself because I obviously do have one - or at least I seem to have developed one. There are many classrooms I could envisage where such a text would work wonderfully. There I go again: 'wonderfully'. A touch of sarcasm in my tone as I type this. Why have I developed such an antipathy towards a book that on a first reading I personally reasonably enjoyed? I went into the classroom with my good teacherly script and acted my part as always and I have sold them the book as best as I can. But they hate it. They think it is utter shit. And the main reason for this is because they cannot understand a bloody word of it. To them it is grandiloquent fustian woven with many a purple patch. Their term for this is 'Gay'.

I know a good salesman never allows his customer to win with the negatives, but despite my head nodding whilst the students' heads were shaking, I have finally succumbed to their way of thinking. I shake my head as I type. Playing Beatie Bow is GAY.

We all know good teaching is good acting, at least in part; but maybe I hammed my lines. Perhaps they picked up on my insincere enthusiasm for the book. But how could they have when my initial enthusiasm was genuine, at least in part? What a thing to get hung up on. I should have turfed the book and found something else. Yet, if I did that, it would set a precedent, and there would be ignited a raging subversive fire of refusing to read set texts: or so I was told. Where would it all end? If we weren't careful we might be in a position where we would not be able to teach Of Mice and Men at Year 10.

This is all beginning to sound ridiculous. I feel that I have had to inflict, rather than teach this book to a Year 8 group that is made up of 17 boys and 5 girls, where the CSF level 5 has only (unofficially) been attained by three of the students. At least three students are phonetically poring over every single letter, so that words are not yet written as words but as a series of signs with indeterminate sounds. Never mind sentences and overall meanings. Never mind Beatie Bow and 'Ye ken verra weel I'm no use at all'.

I have it on good authority that this text nicely prepares the developing student for the delights of a Year 9 Mandragora, and failure to do Playing Beatie Bow at Year 8 would make Mandragora at Year 9 very testing indeed. So we bore the students to death by thoroughly alienating them from their own language (which includes providing them with a worsening self-esteem whilst reinforcing their defeatist attitude and ever developing 'Idiot Pride'), persevering with this text until we achieve an even worse effect. We, as educated adults, have the wherewithal to realise that we could not possibly enjoy everything that we might have to read: we are in a position to be discerning. We can dismiss one text for another, and if we do not like one text we do not say 'we hate reading' in the same way that a challenged Year 8 boy might. For my Year 8 class, Playing Beatie Bow is associated with reading. They do not like, or cannot read this book; therefore they do not like, or cannot read.

The students were totally disengaged, and it was getting to the stage where even the merest suggestion of Beatie Bow was received with open hostility. Whatever my real opinion on the appropriateness of this text for this class, I was extremely careful not to appear too pessimistic in front of the students. Not that they would publicly assent to this, but they undoubtedly looked at me to lead them (at least in their lessons), and I was highly aware that if I allowed myself to become too dismissive and disillusioned with the material, the students could become irrevocably demoralised. This would mean they would feel justified in relaxing into complete disengagement and resort to their carefully constructed philosophy of ebullient destructivism, the greatest tenet of which is to make as much noise as possible whilst trying to relieve the neighbouring pupil of his nearest appendage. These students certainly did not need encouragement to do this.

To prevent my English class from becoming the Slough of Despond or the true vision of the multitudinous seas incardinine, I had to encourage enthusiasm and serve as an antidote to apathy. For this I required the usual liberal dose of censored honesty and duplicity: I was used to tricking them into learning (that is, making them work by allowing them to think they were not working), so now I had to trick them into 'doing' Beatie Bow. I focused my lessons on activities and exploration of the major themes dealt with in Beatie Bow, without insisting upon explicit referrals back to the text of Beatie Bow. This was a course that relied heavily on alternative textual readings, and if it wasn't an obvious case of making the best of a bad situation, I could argue that it was a post-structuralist approach to the novel in the classroom. That is, a post-neo-post-structuralist approach where the text becomes a backgrounded background on which I could loosely tie some ideas to pay lip service to the reality that we were 'doing' Beatie Bow.

I had the good will of the class - but it was all I could do to prevent this good will lessening with each Beatie lesson. This was certainly not the most effective way to teach texts to Year 8s, especially if a love of reading and critical literacy were the pedagogical goals. However, I stand by the fact that this was probably the most effective way of teaching this text to these students.

It would be easy to read from what I have written here that my own textual prejudices are to blame. That engagement with the text would have happened if I had persevered. That with more experience I would have realised that students often express boredom and negativity about the set text or give grudging approval at best. That it was my job as a teacher to take the class over the initial rejection phase in order to elicit enthusiasm and meaningful reflections & yeah, well maybe. I must admit that I was more afraid of losing the good will of the class than an experienced teacher might have been. This meant that rather than immediately taking confident and direct action, I initially became 'a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas'. But I do have another story that supports what I have written about Playing Beatie Bow and the unsuitability of foisting a text like this on this boisterous Year 8 group.

I take most of these students for another class that is sensitively labelled 'Special English'. This is a class made up of all the Year 8 students who do not 'do' German. The activities that take place in this class are meant to enthuse these students, making them realise that there is more to reading than decoding what to them is the Shibboleth of Playing Beatie Bow. Such, at least, is my aim.

My Year 8 Special English proves to me that Playing Beatie Bow as a text is just wrong for these students. It is also the reason why I do not finally blame myself for the relative student inertia in the mainstream Year 8 English lessons. What was it that meant I could engage students in one period, whereas in the next period they would resort to being zoo animals, with me as their not too distrusted zoo keeper? Simple. I am flexible with my material in the Special English class. I ask the students what they want to do, and they respond accordingly. I also ensure that the material is accessible to the students, and is in no danger of alienating them from their literacy development.

I entered each class with the largest selection of short stories I could find. They had to be short stories rather than novels because I had found that these students (mainly boys) were easily and understandably disconcerted when confronted with 200 pages of text. For one lesson each week, the class arranged itself into groups of four, and they took it in turns to read to each other while the others in the group followed the text. I was pleased, if not a little surprised at how sublimely co-operative and attentive these attentively challenged students had become.

The other lesson of the week was spent with me reading to them while they followed the text. Apart from a few who preferred to listen rather than follow (something I was in no way to become dogmatic over), the class were enjoying themselves. A couple of times I sensed the fidgeted murmur of disengagement whilst I was reading aloud to the class, but instead of getting irritated, I asked the class what they thought of the story so far. The murmured fidgeting had prepared me for the answer, and I received the inevitable, if not obligatory 'Crap... Gay, etc.' with equanimity. On asking why, I received a few barely articulate reasons which, suffice to say, reiterated their dislike of the text. I asked them whether they would be willing to give the story another chance by allowing me to read a further page, with the understanding that if they still did not like it, we would stop reading it. They agreed. At the end of the page I received the same answer, so I histrionically abandoned the story with the lines: 'There is so much to read out there, that it is pointless reading things that you think are no good. You don't watch a movie to the end if you think it's crap, so why read a story? We'll get another one.' At this I began to read them another story. They listened to it with avid interest. I had responded to what they wanted. Though not in charge, they definitely had a say in this class.

In one lesson out of every four they had to write a brief review of the stories they had read, in the format of: 'I think ... [name of story] ... was ... [crap, excellent, boring, funny] ... because...', and give it a mark out of ten. They had often temporarily forgotten the stories, and this proved a great opportunity for them to remind each other by retelling the stories. This was so much less contrived than the teacherly request 'who wants to tell the rest of the class what the story we have just read is about?'

Showing the class the list of all they had read surprised them and definitely boosted their confidence. They could not believe they had read so much. In fact, they read more in two lessons a week of Special English for five weeks than they had read in ten weeks of Mainstream English at five lessons a week.

There was never a situation where the students mutinied en masse by declaring all the stories crap, and it was fully evident that they were genuinely gratified at having the responsibility to decide what they could read in class. I had told them many times that I could not flip open their heads and pour in the ability to read, that they had the basics and it was up to them. I often reiterated various analogies that featured 'exercise and physical fitness' or other forms of 'practising to make perfect' type platitudes that they could relate to. They knew why they were there. They knew it was up to them - and they were not only willing, but also keen to see what I had to offer them in terms of stories. The class was fully engaged and enthused. They were giving serious consideration to what made a good and bad story.

I knew the lessons had been a success when three students asked if I could lend them a story to take home.

These boys are difficult to engage at the best of times, and pretty much anything they have to do at school is a tiresome chore rendered utterly 'gay'. The difference is that some texts are crappier than others are, and I have learnt that I am not teaching texts or the subject of English. I am teaching kids. My duty is to them and not to the text or some preconceived notion of worthwhile reading. While I would never advocate students being given the power to dismiss anything a teacher brings in to the class at whim, I do believe it is a teacher's duty to listen to his/her students. There is no point in flogging a dead horse, and while I'm on the subject of horses and clichés, there are horses for courses.

I may come back to Playing Beatie Bow in the future if I thought my class would appreciate it. What I will not do is alienate students who are hardly predisposed to read books in the first place, reducing them to a position where they won't read any book at all.

Teachers must be comfortable with what they are teaching, and students must be comfortable with what they are being asked to learn. We should show the flexibility to teach kids, and not hang on blindly to old fashioned notions of what it means to 'do' English.

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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