Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Professional Learning Team. Not.

Once a fortnight, in that precious time between 3.30 and 4.30 in the afternoon, when everyone's worn out, after the day's teaching, prep and marking, we teachers assemble for another mandatory inevitable meeting. This one's called, oddly, Professional Learning Teams. I say oddly, because I'm yet to do any professional learning through this forum.

This year, I'm on the Information and Communication Technology team. Sounds good, but it's not. It reminds me of my own Form Six Politics class back in the early 70s, in that I didn't learn much in that class either. The teacher was disengaged and so were we. My loss, I know. Suppose it's the same with this PLT.

This afternoon it is even more hysterical than usual. Outside, winds of unprecedented strength for Melbourne, whip up anything that isn't lashed down. I wonder how I'm going to cope on my cycle home; whether I'll beat the storm. (I didn't, but it was fun anyway.)

And what's more, we rely on the internet in this PLT. But the internet at school hasn't functioned for three days due to storm damage, or some such. Needless to say, we are all led into the ICT room anyway. (No way could we be allowed to spend that hour preparing for classes. No, we must 'meet', dammit, and tick the box for 'professional learning', even if few are learning. Thus the school can report to the region that we have a 'culture of professional learning' and that all staff members are on PLTs.)

Our convenor, hands us reams of printed notes - the photocopier still works, apparently - interpreting VELS for ICT for the assembled group of teachers - about ten of us. Naturally, I began to read the document as soon as I got it. Bad move. Should have waited for our convenor to read it aloud to us. Should have seen that one coming. And wasn't that rivetting.

Our convenor, BTW, is sitting in a zen-like cross legged configuration on his desk top. He's earnestly trying to engage us, with his breathy, cultivated tones, but nobody's listening. I'm trying to be good, but I can't. The whole process just seems like sketch comedy.

One of my colleagues, is leaning back in his chair, eyes serenely closed, balancing his wrist watch along the line of his nose. The rogue art teacher is being deliberately provocative, as is his wont. He's an eccentric man-boy with the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old in his lanky fifty-something frame. He talks over the convenor and contradicts everything. Another colleague is reading an Artemis Fowl book. Others talk amongst themselves.

A colleague gets a call on his mobile. Unapologetically, he drifts out of the room for a couple of minutes and returns to interrupt the proceedings. Can I make an announcement? he says, taking the floor. His wife has called to tell him that the city of Melbourne has been evacuated. It's the end of the world, it seems. There's a brief pause while we process the information. No one seems particularly perturbed. I think it's probably an overreaction, given my husband works in town and I haven't heard of any drama from him. I consider that knowing my old man, he'll probably evacuate from his city office to the local pub. (He does.)

The time ticks slowly towards 4.30 and my cycle home in the 'cyclone'. If I could have skipped the meeting I'd have beaten the storm.

The ICT team again learns nothing. Whose fault? Mine? Yeah, I suppose. I'm an oldie and I should know better. Funnily enough though, I've always pursued my own professional learning without anyone telling me to, even during the eleven years when I was only teaching one evening class for three hours a week. It's what I do. But this school based 'professional learning team' that's been imposed on me, and my colleagues, just doesn't seem to work. Except for a bit of ironic entertainment value.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My space.

I spend fourteen seventy-five minute periods each week in one battered portable classroom, that's happily not going anywhere. I say that because last year, every other movable classroom was actually rounded up and moved down to one of the 'playing fields'. These relocated rooms are too far from toilets and running water for my preferences. The whole set up is often referred to as Siberia, as in, shit I've got an extra in Siberia. One has to allow a good five minutes to get down to Siberia if one is teaching down there. And in our sequestered days, counted out in minutes, that can really add to one's load.

I wanted to write about my work space: what's good about it; what stinks, literally.

My portable classroom is actually half of a double set, with offices and poky storerooms in the middle. As I said, it's battered. I've been teaching exclusively in this room for about six years now. The walls of my room are dirty off white. The room was painted in 2004 because some thoughtful maintenance person found some tins of paint somewhere and my room was next in line for a spruce up. But that paint has flaked off where students rock back against the walls on their green plastic chairs. They also kick them occasionally, as one does I suppose. I've also stopped one student idly picking the paint off the wall with her long finger-nails.

The carpet in my home away from home is putrid grey-brown and pocked with ground-in Blu Tak and chewing gum. There's an unsettling whiff of urine about the room; human not cat. It's concerning. The carpet is allegedly cleaned annually, yet the stench remains. Hope it's not me.

The desks, which I've arranged in an educationally unsound - according to the zeitgeist at our school - horseshoe shape, have brown hacked and scraped wood-grain laminex tops. They're gouged and scrawled upon, despite my regular efforts with methylated spirit and elbow grease. The problem is that other teachers use this space for the six periods that I'm not in there, and they have less of an anal retention problem than I. The desks are also of two different heights, so the whole effect is higgledy-piggledy crap.

My office adjoins my classroom. The office is little more than an overstuffed small rectangular box. All my office furniture is mismatched throw out stuff, appropriated during renovations of other areas of the school. There's a hole in the ceiling that allows access to the occasional wasp. Bit of fun on a hot day. The windows also admit the afternoon sun. No blinds. No air-con. If it's over 25, the office becomes stifling; unuseable.

Even so, I like it.

It's handy having one's office attached to one's classroom. None of that lugging of materials to various locations. I've also got a lockable storeroom for my bike. Very convenient.

I'm working towards the positives - and they far outweigh the negatives - of this space.

Lots of other rooms in the school have been modernised to be open spaces, not unlike fishbowls. In these fresh rooms, the new colourful tables must be grouped in 'islands' to facilitate better teaching and learning. ('Prin class', as they like to be known, get shirty when you move the desks to fit a lecture style of teaching.) In these rooms, the teacher doesn't have his or her own desk because today's teacher should be moving amongst the students, engaging them. Fair enough, but sometimes one needs to allow the students quiet time to actually get on with their own work, without the teacher bothering them, especially in a creative writing or senior English class. (I don't like people watching over my shoulder when I'm trying to write.)

So my room, with its broken mismatched blinds, and politically incorrect desk arrangement, has escaped the desk police. Apart from students and a couple of teachers, no one comes near my learning space. This means I'm missing out on the refurbishments that seem to have happened elsewhere in the school, but at the same time, I'm left alone to do my own teaching thing. Which is good because I know what I'm doing and I do it well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Sir With Love Revisited.

It was probably Christmas Day, 1968. I’d just finished my first year of secondary school. At Maribyrnong High School, actually, in case anyone’s interested. My family had joined with another family for Christmas lunch, which we’d already eaten. I was in a group in the suburban back yard, excitedly discussing the film, To Sir With Love, which one of the neighbours, a girl my age, had just seen. Lucky her. She was allowed to see it. I wasn’t. (Nor was I allowed to see The Graduate. Unsuitable for teenagers, according to my parents. It didn’t stop me reading through the racy paperbacks amongst the classics on my parents’ bookshelf.)

Back to the hushed discussion in the back garden. Vicky, the friend who’d seen the film, was telling us about this shocking scene in the film. Mr Thackeray, the Sidney Poitier character, walks into the classroom and finds that one of the female students has put something unmentionable into the fire.
I remember being somewhat incredulous and awestruck at the horror of it all. Periods were strictly women’s business back then.

Fast-forward forty-one years. A few weeks ago, To Sir With Love was on television and I idly watched the last half of the film, as you do sometimes on a weekend. I’d shown the film to students in the early 1980s, but hadn’t thought about it for years, apart from when Tina Arena released a cover of the title song.

Subsequently, I thought it might be interesting to show the film to my current year 8s. I’m always telling them ‘back in the day’ stories, and I thought it might interest them. I’ve shown them two ‘instalments’ of the film so far. (It’s a bit of a bribe that’s working well. If they work well for the first forty-five minutes of the afternoon session, they can spend the last half hour watching this film.)
It’s been fascinating watching these kids watching the film. It’s also been most interesting contextualizing certain scenes for the students. The pause button is handy here.

“Oh my god! Did you hear what he said?” says one of my students. “That is so racist!” Mr Thackeray, meeting his teaching colleagues for the first time, is calmly bearing the brunt of racist jibes from a jaded old teaching colleague. This led to a discussion on racism, and whether anything has changed, and what it was like back then.

Back to the film. To me, it seems almost silly; so dated. The clothes, the dancing, the accents, the attitudes, all seem so twee now. Yet my own students have watched it with considerable engagement. I had to press the pause button to explain the scene where the female ‘unmentionable’ is being inappropriately incinerated. In the film, Thackeray quickly exits the boys so he can talk frankly to the female members of his class, who should be learning that women should have more dignity. I explained all this to my mixed class, who were struggling to understand what was going on in the scene, given that those times are happily well and truly over. Took me right back to the days of the incinerator in the girls’ toilets, back in the day – not a place one wants to go.

The times have changed considerably since those grotty sexist times. Hurrah.

I didn’t expect that the film would generate so much interest. I honestly expected the kids to reject it, and demand something more contemporary. Initially, having a half hour of ‘film study’ Wednesday, last period, really was just a way of trying to engage the students at a time when they are usually totally disengaged. But showing this oldie has been surprisingly ‘educational’.