Some thoughts on the fly

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. A lot has happened, is happening, and I keep trying to find time to write about it. There’s no substantial time right now, with journals to read, schools to visit and lessons to plan and follow up. But I don’t want too much to slip by without at least a mention. So here are some thoughts on the fly.

Heloise and Abelard

My Year 11 Extension class are studying the connections between text, culture and value and are currently working on a text of their own choosing. I especially enjoy this part of the course, especially when a student discovers a text that opens up worlds. For Will, strange and compelling worlds have been opened up in his reading of the letters of Heloise and Abelard, and his study of two appropriations, Pope’s poem and the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

If you’re interested in what a 21st century 16-year-old might see and feel as a result of reading this story, I warmly recommend taking the time to browse through some of Will’s blogs on our class Ning. His writing describes his struggles to understand how such a tragedy could take place. Will is drawn deeply into the story of the two lovers, he’s appalled by the punishment dealt out to Abelard and the tragedy of their enforced separation, and he is profoundly curious and puzzled by the question of whether a commitment to the church and God can ever wipe clean the memory of a passionate love.

In the last week or so, Will has written a series of letters, in the form of poems, between Heloise and Abelard. All of them are published on the Ning. Here is the second one:

To Abelard, my lord,

My love I write to you at last,
Although I thought these passions passed.
Like a phoenix from the cinder,
Love returns again to hinder
This process of forgetfulness,
And draws me from my dark recess.

This letter comes from painful tears,
Forgotten in these silent years.
Unsettled by your words and woes,
That stirred me from my sweet repose.
Sadness flows and blots the page
As I write from holy cage.

I cannot rest within these walls,
These rugged rocks and hallowed halls.
Pensive in my own bastille,
Locked away with holy seal.
My mind does stray to thoughts of old
As passions come and then unfold.

They told us love should come through trust,
But what is love if without lust?
Infatuation takes command,
With trepidation hand in hand.
Look past these consecrated vows
And find the place where passion grows.

You have proven me your affection,
And love has seen its resurrection.
Now memory takes authority,
When emotions claim priority.
We can hope to fight desire,
But we will never quench Love’s fire.


Involving university students in research

For the past fortnight I’ve been mulling over a dilemma.

My university students are currently out on a five week stint in schools, so our ‘Literacy across the curriculum‘ unit is on hold. We’ve had what I think is a highly stimulating first month, looking in particular at the question ‘I’m not an English teacher: is literacy really my business?‘.

But what do do when the students return for our last four weeks together?

I’ve suggested to my students that we vary the original plan and have them doing some research on a literacy-related topic of interest to each of them; but they have let me know that they’re worried about workloads and they’d prefer it if we stuck with the original plan which had me sharing with them some of my ideas about writing. I’m worried that the final four weeks will be too passive (teacher presenting, students absorbing); they’re worried that the final four weeks (if we follow my later suggestion) will be too over-loaded given the workload they’re expecting.

So what to do? How to find a way through this dilemma?

A discussion with my colleague Anita Collins and some mulling over the example set by the wonderful Michael Wesch has given me the beginnings of a glimpse of a way through the fog.

Michael Wesch organises his Digital Ethnography course so that he and his students are involved together in some authentic research. As he writes on his wiki:.

Our goal in this course is to work together to complete the best research project possible. Therefore, given the dynamic nature of ethnographic research, there is no fixed schedule. Even the points below are not fixed. We can redistribute point values at any time. We are simply using points to motivate us all to stay on track and work as well together as we can. Ultimately, our success will not be measured in A’s and B’s but the quality of our work and its impact on the world.

Could I set things up for the final four weeks so that the students and I are involved in a piece of authentic research together, with me as the co-ordinating spirit (setting the question, suggesting resources, setting up the structure for student inputs), but with the students exploring the question in diverse yet connected ways? I would draw things together, write up our final report, broadcast it to relevant places in the world; the students would contribute their own thinking coming from their diverse disciplines and perspectives. This would give a focus to their journal writing and so wouldn’t vary expectations or add to the volume of their workload (and so would meet some of their concerns about my most recent suggestion); yet it would inject into our final four weeks the necessary element of students actively using what they coming to understand (and so would meet the concerns that I had about the possible passive nature of our original plan).

I think this could work. I’ll mull some more.

I’ll need to think, for example, about what our central research question might be. In a sense, I think that’s the easy part. We’re studying literacy across the curriculum, we looked at reading (defined broadly) in the first four weeks, and we’re planning to look at writing (again defined broadly) in our final month. So our research question would be something like this:

How does each of the disciplines write? That is, how do the disciplines communicate their knowledge, within the discipline and to outsiders? And can the disciplines learn from the writing modes of each other?

This probably needs work (thoughts or suggestions anyone?), but it’s a start.


Why Shakespeare? A student perspective

Recently folk at the English Companion Ning discussed the question ‘Why teach Shakespeare?’ from the teachers’ perspective. A week or so ago, my two Year 10 classes (in Canberra) joined with Jenny Luca‘s Year 9 class (in Melbourne) to discuss the same question from a the students’ point-of-view.

The full discussion can be found on our Ning. Here is a summary.

… because of its relevance to modern life (Charlotte)

I can’t think of any good reason (quite a few students!)

… because the English Department is either lazy or unimaginative (Adrian, being provocative but stimulating too)

… to develop and broaden our interest in literature (Angus)

… because I love Shakespeare (Linda)

… to further consolidate themes and ideas taught in English classes (Josh)

… because it speaks to our age group [we’re currently studying Romeo and Juliet] (Christian)

… to learn about love (Mayank)

… to find out where our language came from (James)

… to prepare us for Years 11 & 12 (Max, Kurt)

… to separate the students planning to do Advanced and Standard English in Year 11 (Angus)

… because it has a timeless quality (Nick, Christian)

… because it is magic, it makes me smile and it captivates my mind (Sam)

… to understand and appreciate why there’s so much respect for Shakespeare (Amber)

… to understand the links between our culture and the play  (Amber)

… so you can get better at analysing symbolism and studying techniques (Jack)

… because you can learn about life from studying classics like this  (Laura)

… to become competent at extracting meaning from texts  (Gurtej)

… because we are now old enough to be able to handle a challenging text (Eliot)

… because it is so famous, and there are so many references to it in modern culture  (Rachael)

… to broaden our knowledge of the English language (Alex, Nick)

… to learn about other times and other lives (Taylia)

… because the twists and turns fo events that lead to pure tragedy is great (Elsa)

… because it’s a challenge (Will)

… because the play has everything: drama, comedy, action, suspense (Jo)

Soon after these thoughts were posted on our Ning, I made cards out of the summaries, and in one of my Year 10 classes I got each of the students to ‘adopt a card’, which they then used as a starting point to explain their point of view. We had a terrific discussion, with those saying that studying Shakespeare was a waste of our precious time more prominent than the above summaries would suggest. Then, after I’d listened to all the very eloquent arguments on both sides, I announced to the class:

Well, I’ve listened carefully to what you’ve all been saying, and frankly those arguing that there are better ways we should be spending our time have been surprisingly convincing. Therefore, starting from next lesson, we’re going to abandon Romeo and Juliet and do other types of English work. That’s it. That’s the end of our time with Shakespeare.

There was a shocked silence in the room. Some of the boys looked genuinely upset, others disbelieving. Of course I then told them that I’d been joking and that they might each reflect on their gut reaction when they heard the ‘news’.
bill shakespeare

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8 Responses to Some thoughts on the fly

  1. Clix says:

    I wonder how much of the shock comes from a gut-level feeling that Shakespeare is important, and how much comes from a gut-level feeling that a mere teacher would never EVER be allowed to remove Shakespeare from a high school English course.

    I think I’d like to try this… but I may also have my department head sit in on it for one of my observations 😉

  2. tsheko says:

    Great trick. Lucky you got the reaction you’d hoped for. I’d like to have the same conversation with English teachers and see what they say.

    • steveshann says:

      Wasn’t lucky … I knew there were enough of them engaged in a deep (though maybe unconscious) way. And I think that many students deeply want to understand how our culture works, and they sense that the classics offer some kind of clues. What do you think?

      • tsheko says:

        Having switched from English and LOTE teaching to Teacher Librarian recently, I only collaboratively teach one year 7 class, so I’m not in the position to comment. I would like to say the same, but I suspect it has everything to do with the relationship between the teacher and the students, and the passion of the teacher and love for the subject matter as well as the students. Having said that, I wish I could sit in your class one day, Steve.

  3. Steve,

    I’m fascinated by your idea of mutual research a la Wesch. A couple of quick comments:
    -Perhaps, instead of ‘writing’, you could use the term ‘composing’. This might leave room for a couple of new dimensions, such as, do we express ourselves only to reflect what is already known (which we have recently digested), or are we creating new knowledge in and via our composition?
    -Does the act of composing have to be language-oriented to be valid? (“Valid” =to whom? in what contexts? Oooh, lots of room for discussion there.)

    Don’t let them off the hook on this. They may say they’re overwhelmed, but they need to know how to question, how to investigate, how to examine their assumptions, etc.

  4. steveshann says:

    Your two questions open windows to lots of fresh air. I’ll pursue them. I’ll also dig out (later today) a favourite quote along the lines of writing being a way of knowing.

  5. Pingback: A fertile research question « Birds fly, fish swim

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