3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment
2.2 Teachers create and maintain a challenging learning environment
Day one, Term 1, 1998. Eleven Year 10 boys sat along the back row of desks, books closed, pens clipped to their shirt pockets, shirts hanging out of grey slacks and emitting a collective odour of sweat, dust and unhealthy runners. The twelfth boy sat in the front row. He was neat in every way mentionable. His workbook was already dated and a bold red line was ruled carefully the length of the left hand side of the page. I took a deep breath in (though conscious not to draw in the unpleasant odours) and smiled. This was my Year 10 Special English class.
Running a separate 'special' English class was a brand new concept for my school. This year level was earmarked as having quite a few students who had literacy problems and it was decided to trial a 'special' class for the year. We never called the class 'special' but of course it was inevitable that such a class would be labelled. The boys were all at very different ability levels. A couple were extremely lazy and had fallen behind because of this. One was dyslexic and had refused all assistance in previous years and the others had a vast array of 'learning difficulties'. They were a lively bunch in and out of class, loved to chat about anything (other than work), five were in the firsts football team, three were amazing musicians, one carried around a thick black journal of his own dark, gothic drawings (absolutely amazing), another was a national BMX champion, one was very proud of his casanova-style reputation with women and my friend in the front row was a national kayaker. My class was 'special' because they all, as individuals, had different and outstanding talents. The initial problem was that only a couple of them realised that their difficulties with English couldn't be covered up forever. For the majority it was clear to them that, 'Hey, it doesn't matter cos I'm gunna be an AFL player/muso/artist.'
'We're the vegie class aren't we Ms E.?'
I knew this would be on the forefront of their minds and they would play on it for a long time to come. It was Kevin in the front row who looked at me with determination and announced to the class that this class was like an 'extra-assistance' class and Ms Ellum will be able to give us all one-on-one attention and prepare us for next year. Well Kevin, I couldn't have said it clearer myself! From that introduction I knew Kevin's parents had spent a lot of time explaining the benefits of this class to him. He was a born worrier and had little confidence in his academic abilities.
'Yeh, but it's still a vegie class. We get to do easier work and that...'
I knew my work was going to be cut out for me. Kevin rolled his eyes. A couple of the boys made 'retarded-stereotyped' gestures and the others laughed. More comments were thrown around the room, more laughter and jokes. I watched the antics for a minute or so and found the atmosphere turned from cold to being quite warm and relaxed. (I did make the point of opening the windows to allow the 'smells' to escape.) I sat on the desk at the front of the room and smiled at them. I took in their faces, their group confidence, their humour and their freshness. I knew then that they were going to achieve a lot throughout the year and I was going to learn a lot as well. Finally I made my response to their play.
'Okay. If you are all vegies, what type are you then?'
Kevin gasped. How could a teacher say such a thing? I had them all thinking though. I admit that they were probably thinking that the teacher at the front of the class was definitely from another planet, but they were thinking. 'You mean actual vegetables don't you?' said Rob. I smiled and nodded my head. They all looked at each other, puzzled at first and then eager to continue this 'game'. Rob, my overly-confident casanova began. 'Well I know I'm like a cucumber.'
All the boys burst out laughing. Penis size and penis use was a very popular topic for these boys. I looked at Rob with a puzzled, innocent look and commented, 'So you are like a cucumber - a tough, tasteless exterior, quite rough and bitter and hiding a mushie, watery and tasteless interior?'
Of course he didn't want to admit that he actually meant his penis size, so he sat motionless and thought about it. He thought quite hard and long too. Everyone waited in anticipation. Finally a grin spread across his face. 'No, maybe I'm not a cucumber. I am more like a tomato. I began my life green and innocent to things around me. As I exposed myself to life and people (like the sun) I started to grow and become richer in taste and learnt more and more. It means that I'm a very tasty and juicy person.'
The back-row boys clapped Rob generously. He was definitely their leader. I didn't have the heart to tell him a tomato was a fruit.
'Tomatoes are fruits Rob, not vegetables.'
We spent the rest of the lesson discussing why we often unnecessarily label other people and how such names as 'vegies' came about. We talked openly about the purpose of such a class and the benefits of being in a class with small numbers. I explained that the work was not going to be easier, it might be modified, but they were going to have to work steadily and be focussed. They were going to sit exactly the same exam at the end of the year as everyone else. From that first lesson I felt we had struck a strong collective bond. From that first day onwards they shrugged off peers who joked about them being in a 'vegie' class. They didn't feel like outsiders; they felt lucky to be given a chance to learn skills that they'd had trouble with and been embarrassed about throughout their education. I was proud of them and they quickly became my 'favourite' class.
Final day, Term 4, 1998. Twelve boys sat in the first two rows of the classroom. All books were open and all pens were on the desks. Only some of the pages were ruled and dated, but to me that didn't matter. All twelve boys were still sitting in my class. They were relaxed, eager and happy. They had achieved a lot.