Go back to your roots,
Go right back.
When you have found yourself
you cannot fail to reap a bountiful harvest
Once upon a time, long long ago, in a place far away, in one of my numerous lifetimes, I was a traditionally trained English teacher.
I was trained during a draconian period when teachers were cautioned about befriending students. It was drummed into us that students were to be feared, like wild animals. They needed to know, from the moment you walked in the door, who was in charge. It was suggested that they sit in rows facing the blackboard and it was expected that, if the Co-coordinator or Principal passed by, everyone would be looking at the teacher who would be formally instructing the class. Alternatively they would be ‘busy’ doing work from sheets printed out from the roneo machine or completing activities on the page of a textbook that had been written in line with current pedagogy.
One of the early schools that I worked in was revered for its academic excellence and I was applauded when I had a 99% pass rate. But the Principal still wanted to know what had happened to the one student who had not passed and reminded everyone to stay focused and make every session a winner.
My approach did not really change until I returned to teaching after taking some sustained family leave. I was working at a less academic inner Melbourne High School with students with large personalities. It was harder to restrain them and expect that they would sit working through dreary sheets that never excited me. It was during this time that I broke free from the constraints of traditional curriculum, concluded that all this stuff about students being the enemy was a load of old cobblers, that pedagogy was another form of enslavement, that the VCE (final year of school in Victoria, Australia) did not actually determine the rest of one’s life and that the text books in the book room were tired and dull and I would no longer use them.
I went out and bought a pile of 128 page notebooks. I found an old science trolley and filled it with these books, old glossy magazines, scissors, glue, a roll of the clear contact used to cover library books and my ghetto blaster. The kids were stunned as I walked down the corridor and more than a little amazed when I plugged in the ghetto blaster and loaded a tape. That first day I played some Mozart and said that could listen to this while we worked. Intrigued they were no longer like the ‘wild things’ staff talked about in hushed whispers and they all spent the first session decorating their new books with images that made them feel good. Needless to say one bright spark wanted to find pictures of naked girls but I wagged my finger saying that if they wanted to cover a book like this at home that was their business but that while they were in my class they would have to be satisfied with more general exhibition material.
Of course I covered a book as well. “Why should you guys have all the fun” was my comment at the time.
By the end of the session we were surrounded by bits of paper and the room was in quite a state but everyone was happy and I had not had to discipline anyone. I gathered up the books, packed my trolley and said that we would be using them every day.
The lads in my class were all crazy about AFL football so at the beginning of our next session I asked them all about just what was required to master this sport. It goes without saying that I heard all about the endless hours of coaching, the time spent practicing and the techniques that had to be learned. Too easy! They had provided me with the line I needed.
“Well! It is the same with writing! Authors have practiced and learned and trained themselves. They have written the miles! And this is what we are going to do. We are going to fill these notebooks and I am going to give prizes to the people who fill them up first.”
That was when our daily writing sprints began and when I began to dispense mini Mars Bars to the students who got the most words down in ten minutes.
I knew that if I told them to write about anything they would look at me like I was out of some freak show or spend the next ten minutes sitting with a blank expression on their face. So I always provided prompts to get them started. I did say, however, that if the prompt did not appeal to them they could write about whatever they liked and that the prompt was just that, something to kick start their writing. I made it clear that the main thing was that they had words on the page and that I would not be correcting their work. They still looked at me like I was a freak but the looks were one of interest rather than contempt.
Our first entry came after my reading ‘The Wild Things’ and I said they could write about wild things. I wrote as well, wrote about a tyrannical coordinator who had the look of a wizened old eagle, who often peered through our window to see what was going on. When the timer sounded we all stopped and shared some of what we had written. Students were always allowed to pass on reading out their work and I always took a turn. My story about Jack had everyone in stitches and that led to more writing. Poor Jack happened to wander past just as they were laughing and when this caused havoc and more laughter he was not amused. It was unheard of for students to be having a really good time in class.
At this point in time I ceased being a traditional teacher of English and became a Purveyor of Stimuli. The challenge for me was to find things that would interest a bunch of pimple faced teenagers with testosterone pumping through every vein.
Soul Food came later. But that is another story for another day.
November 15th 2009
101 Nights at SFC