2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
1.1 Teachers know their students
It was late October and for most of the term my Year 10 English class had been slogging away on the set text, After the First Death, by Robert Cormier. As a whole, this group of 30 lively, enthusiastic and inquiring students had been fairly critical of the book. They felt it showed no redeeming or positive aspects of humanity and that even the 'good' guys had lots of negative aspects to their characters.
Every lesson had become hard work trying to get them to work through tasks and discussion, because as soon as I entered the room and said what we would be working on, a wall would go up between us. After nearly a year of working well with these students, this was a rude shock! I loved this class - although noisy, they were full of energy for both life and their work. There were very few students in the class who were apathetic towards their work. Even those who struggled were usually eager to try and do their best. Facing the prospect of spending the rest of my term with a class who were unresponsive and quickly becoming apathetic towards English in general, I decided a change was needed.
I didn't want to drop the novel entirely from their course as I felt compelled to see it through. If I dropped it I feared a backlash from parents, fellow members of staff and even the students themselves. If I gave in on this one, what else would I give in to? So I came up with a plan to keep doing the novel, but with a reduced focus, while implementing a unit on film as text. When I first proposed this in class, the change in the students was amazing. Here was the class I had loved who were eager to face a new challenge. Even though they were still required to do some work on the novel, they were a lot happier knowing they could get a break from it.
It quickly became apparent that the film unit was turning out to be one of the most successful things we had covered in Year 10. One of the films we spent our time looking at was the 80's cult film The Breakfast Club. At first the students cringed at the big hair, tragic clothes and the antics of Bender. They claimed I had chosen the film because it was from my era, as I was often heard to exclaim 'I was in my prime in the 80's'. Admittedly I loved the film when I was teenager but that was not the reason I had included it for study.
When choosing the film I wanted something that would enable me to get good discussions going with the students, especially as they would soon be moving into VCE and would be dealing more heavily with a film text in the coming year. In the beginning I had some misgivings about using the film for study in a Catholic school in a country town. I had heard tales of parents complaining about books with swearing and sex in them, and knew that the film was punctuated by use of the word 'fuck', along with drug use and discussions about being a virgin. I envisaged the volume being turned up to a million when my back was turned, with the language in the film echoing down the school corridors. After discussions with colleagues I decided that the merits of watching the film outweighed concerns about the strong language. All these teenagers could go see an M rated film, and all were more than capable of discussing the issues involved.
After watching the film we began discussions on stereotypes - the criminal, rebel Bender, the princess, the jock, the nerd and the weirdo. The students were also interested in looking at the principal, the man worn out and cynical from too many years of teaching. They related his over the top antics to teachers they felt no longer liked interacting with students and who came to work as if it were the same as working in a supermarket, processing students through their register.
While quickly agreeing that stereotypes of teenagers were well and truly alive in their own year level, the group argued that only in America would the classifications be as strong. These students believed that the boundaries in their small rural school were blurred enough to allow them to move between them, without being trapped in an identity.
By far the most successful piece of work on the film was a writing task that the students completed. In the film the motley assortment of children are asked to write an essay outlining 'who they think they are' while on detention. The final product handed in by the group starts, 'You see us as you want to see us....' My class agreed that the teacher in the film didn't really care who the children were; it was just a time wasting exercise. One of the written responses they could choose to complete was identical to that in the film, 'Who do you think you are?' I'm not sure that when including it I actually expected anyone to write on this topic. The other belief I had was that I knew this class anyway; they were my favourites after all (are teachers like parents not meant to have a favourite?)
A surprisingly large number of the students chose the topic and in their responses demonstrated both maturity and raw honesty when addressing ideas pertaining to themselves and their friends :
I'm the same as Erin
I was surprised by the boys who wrote on this topic as their responses were not full of macho sentiments but reflected their capacity to write openly about what's important to them. Cam, a boy who was extremely quiet in class, completing his work but not really offering much of himself, reduced me to tears when reading his essay which had a picture of his dead father scanned over the print:
I woke up the next morning only to find out that dad had died during the night. I guess I still blame my sisters a little for dad's death. After that I went around and broke most of the models he had made over the years because I guess I was a little bit pissed off at him because he would never come to any of my sporting meets and because I had no-one to look up to. Now to the question who do I think I am? Well I think I'm a quiet young adult who loves to play the guitar and just loves electronics, but when I look in the mirror I feel lost because I have not had the old joker around to talk to.
Boys who are surrounded by media images telling them to be strong, to be athletic, to be brash, to be cool, were taking the opportunity to write about how they feel as teenagers. I was overjoyed to read the boys writing and at their ability to examine themselves:
I have inherited my best aspects from my mother and my father's worst aspect - a furious, violent temper.
Over and over again the students wrote of their eagerness to experience all that life has to offer, their dreams of travelling, of finding a job, a house, a husband. They wrote of their fears, their hates, their relationship to school:
I'm not a very intellectually advantaged person, I hate school and have no motivation whatsoever, so I couldn't try hard and study even if I wanted to. Actually, I do have motivation and I'm proud to admit that I use it for important things such as Music and other things I'm actually interested in.
The last few weeks of our term were spent discussing what it was these students wanted to do with their lives, 'I am potential, I know I can be what I want to be and get the things I desire so much it makes my head spin'.
The students had made my head spin with their enthusiasm for what had been to me a quick alternative to try and get their interest back. Instead this alternative became one of the high points of our year together, enabling the students to explore who they are and produce fantastic pieces of writing. One thing I was sure of when I left Year 10 for the last time was that these students had learnt a lot about writing and themselves.