Saturday, May 28, 2011

No, there isn't a film of Year of Wonders!

When I check my 'hit' stats, as one does from time to time on the Blogger Dashboard, well, frequently for some narcissistic reason, I feel a little sorry for all those students and teachers out there who are searching for insight on Encountering Conflict, the VCE English Context and The Secret River. All they'll find is a fairly slapdash mental doodling from my inner monologue; a mere reflection as I grappled with the ideas in the text.

Would that my current year 12s would grapple with some ideas. Or even read a book. I struggle to overcome their apathy.

At our school we provide compulsory end of year VCE orientation classes. Obviously, the teachers' brief is to prepare students for the enormous transition into their next year. They're ordered to read the set texts during the summer vacation; to mark up their texts with sticky notes; to underline significant sections; to write chapter summaries. And this is just for their first reading. Many students respond enthusiastically at the time. They earnestly make notes; hang around at the end of the session for more information.

Come the new year, a few keen students arrive with their texts fluttering with fluoro sticky notes. Indeed every student will usually submit the first work requirement for assessment. I usually set a reasonably challenging analysis of the use of language in argument. They'll type their work and often will position me to reward their efforts by telling me how hard they've worked on this particular piece. Conversely, they'll start blaming their previous English teacher for their lack of skill in this particular area.

That's the first work requirement, anyway. For most students, the apathy now sets in. This reluctance to complete work and submit it for assessment seems endemic at my school. This has a cumulative effect, of course. By the time some students reach Year 12, they have few resources to draw on. The truth is that students are usually promoted each year, whether or not they've really learned the skills to cope with the rigour of the increasingly complex English course. There are heaps of valid reasons for this. We can't bank them all up at the end of year 8 until they make the grade. Teachers generally do the best they can to impart the requisite skills. And not everyone loves, or is good at English. It seems to me that if it weren't compulsory, there'd probably only be one class, rather than six, at year 12.

We started our year teaching Outcome 2, Creating and Presenting. It was abundantly clear that most students hadn't read The Crucible. Students' writing contained lots of inadvertent references to incidents in the Daniel Day Lewis film.

This term, about three weeks into my teaching of Year of Wonders - "Is there a film, Miss?" - it was becoming bleedingly obvious that perhaps two thirds of my students hadn't read the text. During the term one break they'd had a series of general questions to answer. Well, that was the idea.

One question required students to list and define some of the archaic words in the text.

"I didn't do that one, miss." Giggles nervously; tilts head to one side; winds a strand of blond hair around an index finger. "I didn't know what 'archaic' meant so I left it out."

"Nobody told me we had to do the questions."

"I couldn't do them because I was busy. It's supposed to be a holiday. Du-uuh!" Rolls eyes. As if.

"Why are you looking at me? I'm not the only one who hasn't done them!" This girl's clenched her jaw, her dark eyes glaring at me.

There's a 'redemption' system at the school. If a student fails to complete a work requirement, the teacher may allow said student to redeem him or herself. It's almost biblical. Perhaps we could call it Atonement. Students are permitted one redemption per subject per semester.

About a week ago, when two work requirements were due, I faced the prospect of issuing redemptions to about twenty six students. Redemption notices must be issued to students, which must then be signed by parents, the teacher, the student and the coordinator before being filed. In other words, it's an administrative nightmare. Rather than face it, I gave up.

"I'm not doing this for my own pleasure, or to hurt you," I tell them, in one of my regular pep talks. "I want you to get the best marks you're capable of. I've done year 12. It's not about me. It's easier for me if you don't do the work because I have less marking. But I'm prepared to die under a pile of marking if you'll only do the work!"

"Miss, chillax!" Why do I care? They don't.

It's not all bad, though. I really like these kids and I feel their pain. I'd hate to do VCE. Some students work exceptionally hard. And there's the occasional gem.

"Yeah, Miss, I read Year of Wonders over the holidays but it was a bit boring. It's just about a chick who gets stronger." Wish he'd enjoyed it more, but you've got to admit, he summed it up. Sort of.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fraudster muses about Ebay

Just in case anyone's interested, new post at my other non-teaching blog. There's a link in the side bar.


Fraudster, the part-time Fraudulent Teacher. And loving it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Playing the wild card

Feeling pretty darn smug.

Worked my last full-time week, hopefully forever. School found a great replacement teacher who’s going to do an excellent job; can just feel it. Finished up well with my year 8s and 10s. Sad to let them go, but glad to have some semblance of my own life back. I’ve been sporting a big smile since I worked my last ‘four-on’ day on Wednesday. It hit me then. No more weekend marking. No more crashing at 8.45 every evening, just to have it start all over again at 6. 30 next morning. No more relentlessly working six days a week to keep up with my two year 12 English classes. But this takes the cake. This is the end to all my stress.

No. More. Meetings. (Anyone who’s read my previous posts will know how much I loathe them.) My new timetable works so that I don’t have to attend meetings!

Feel like I’ve won the lottery. Well, I have, really. Work was insanely oppressive. It’s not good to be constantly fantasizing about how one is going to get out of it. Too old by too many years to pull another pregnancy. That got me out of it back in the eighties, when I hated just about everything about the school I was teaching at at the time. Still not sure that I had my now twenty-four year old son back then except as a way out of gaol, because that’s what it felt like.

They don’t give part-time lightly at our school. New mums get it, but only on a year by year basis. Part-timers are hell on a time-table, and that’s how schools operate. A few years back a colleague – an excellent teacher by everyone’s reckoning – wanted to ease into retirement by going part-time; three days a week. She offered to attend school five days a week to accommodate this. They wouldn’t do it. She retired and what a waste of an experienced teacher that was.

So how have I achieved this miracle? In an ironic way, really. I have Type 1 diabetes that’s a bit hard to manage. Stress affects it. But I’ve managed it for all but two years of my teaching career. That’s the two years I taught before I was diagnosed, BTW.

One of the Assistant Principals caught up with me in the school reception area on Thursday. He’d heard the reason for my reduction in hours and wanted to offer his sympathy. This guy is a bit deaf and consequently has a foghorn voice.

“How’re you travelling?” he bellows. Students stop their conversations. The women behind the glass wall in the office pause at their computers and look quizzically in the direction of The Voice.
“Yeah, not too bad,” I smile. “Glad to be going part-time, of course. Pity I have to have an uncontrollable chronic illness to get it.”
“Yeah. Now you look after yourself, won’t you. An old mate of mine’s a diabetic and every time I see him he’s had another bit chopped off.” He throws his head back and laughs. I titter awkwardly, aware of the audience at reception.

You might see why I keep the Diabetic Card close to my chest. Comments like his are not uncommon. I could write a book about it.

Anyway, I’ve played that Diabetic wild card now, and it feels sublime.

To celebrate, thought I’d pop in and visit Dan on the way home. That’s Dan Murphy, my mate. (It’s the liquor superstore, for any readers who may live beyond Australia.)

Swanned down the chardonnay aisle with a beatific smile on my face, feeling wonderful, despite the bleak leaden sky and pelting rain. Pulled up at the curb outside my house. Waved, queen-like, at my thirty-something neighbours and pitied them with their screaming baby and a whole lot of people arriving. Strode confidently around my car and opened the passenger door. Head held high, relishing the gale force wind in my hair, positively beaming, I scooped up my bag in my left hand. The six pack of chardy – well, it’s cheaper by the half-dozen – was one of those with ‘carriers’ cut into its sides. I grasped it with my right hand and yanked it out of the car, still in an attitude of Uma Thurman on the red carpet, so thrilled was I, on a Friday afternoon, with my part-time status.

Rrriippp. That’s the sound of cardboard tearing. I dropped the case of wine on the grass verge, luckily avoiding any breakage.

Felt a tad less smug as I put the other bag down and hoisted the carton, by its base, onto my left thigh and into my arms. When I put it down at my front door, before fumbling with my keys to get inside, I discovered, when I tried to brush the mustard looking stuff off my thigh, that I was pasted liberally with foetid dog turd.

Pride goeth before a fall. I’m even less smug now.

Nah. I’m lying. It cleaned up and I still feel amazing. Sometimes all the cards, even the diabetic ones, fall into place.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Me and Sisyphus.

Eight-fifteen, Sunday morning. In bed. First cup of Earl Grey and let the marking begin. A colleague said that his wife forbids him to do any school work in bed - as if he should be at his age! Fair call. It's a bit of a violation of the marital boundaries, I suppose. But for me, it's the best place to do it. The marking. Get it done quickly enough and I can trick myself into believing that I'm not really working. (Gotta feel for my old man, eh.)

By ten fifteen I'd completed it. This is the thing. Marking that pile of year 8 work was a light-bulb moment - well, 120 minutes. I had an insight, and it wasn't how shit it was to be working for the second day of my weekend. No, it dawned on me that I was actually enjoying what I was reading, albeit some of it laden with technical errors. My year 8s, despite the vagaries of their thirteen year old selves, had engaged with the task. They were having fun writing an alternative ending to Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo. They were playing with similes and metaphors and writing entertaining, plausible scenarios. Well, mostly. One student had turned Sarge, Lockie's dad, into a pathological practical jokester, setting up Lockie to believe that (a) his whole family had perished in a car accident on the way to church, and (b) that Lockie had terminal cancer. Even got a doctor to play along. Gotcha! This was Sarge's strategy to get Lockie to stop moping over the demise of his relationship with Vicki Streeton. Made for interesting, entertaining reading.

Just about every kid in the class completed the assignment. Some of their stories contained writing in my own hand, a sentence or two to give them direction or inspiration when they claimed they were stuck. Love doing that. Love the responses when the kids grab an idea and run with it. Lots of the kids had redrafted their writing. The finished pieces showed genuine pride in their work.

So this morning, I was pleasantly rewarded to be able to see where I'd been as a teacher. I'd facilitated the learning, and here was some evidence in the finished work.

However, I'm not seeing this much from the Year 12s, and it's not for the want of trying. I do most of my teaching at year 12 and for a lot of the time I feel like Sisyphus, if he's the guy who had to keep rolling the boulder up the hill just to have it roll down again. Spent about four hours yesterday marking SACs on Encountering Conflict. Mostly they were turgid. Some students are genuinely engaged in the task; developing as writers. Others try, but with limited success. And then there are the students who write unmitigated pretentious rubbish; page filler. Sadly, their literacy skills suggest that if they just made an effort they'd be quite capable of writing well. There's my dilemma and there's that massive rock again. How to motivate the disengaged.

Think I need a sabbatical from teaching VCE. It's not fun. It's constant pressure to get through an enormous workload: wall-to-wall SACs leading up to the final be-all-and-end-all exam followed by the judgment in December when the results come out.

A couple of years ago I suggested to my former principal that I have time off from teaching the year 12s. She told me I'd miss it and wouldn't cope! When I assured her I would, she told me that in that case she'd have to give me a directive to teach it. The trouble is that few English teachers at my school want to teach year 12 because they know how demanding it is. Meanwhile, I keep working six days a week pushing that rock up the hill. Perhaps, like Sisyphus, I'm being punished?

Auspicious start to Term Two.

Quite weird returning to school on Wednesday after a longer break than usual. Nonetheless, four on. That is, a full day of teaching awaited me. No biggie. This is my teaching lot on Mondays and Wednesdays; for the entire year. The timetable has remained unchanged for me for three years. I'm used to the pace.

However, I was feeling the pain on Wednesday. Dragging my feet. Should have been energetic, instead I was enervated, for a variety of reasons. But as teachers know, we can't let our moods affect us. Take that mood into the classroom and you can guarantee a lesson of kids acting out.

Had year 12s last period. Last term, I'd planned that this lesson would be low impact, on me anyway. The students had a task to complete during class. That was it.

As I approached the classroom the students milled around the door, enjoying the warmth of the autumn sunshine. I could feel it on my back as I approached. Bit of a breeze too. Pity we all had to go into the classroom.

"Hi, Miss, how was your holiday?"
"Too short! You?"
"Yeah, good." The usual post holiday banter. I was amongst them now, smiling, feeling not too bad.

In front of me was Rodney. He's a big fellow; stocky and about six four. He's one of the brightest students in my class, but I'm hard pressed to get his best work out of him. Something in him renders him reluctant to give too much. His year 11 teacher admitted to seriously loathing this kid. He's sarcastic; too ready with the smart-arsed remarks. Kids aren't born like this, and at the end of last term, I felt I was beginning to get around his self-defeating behaviour. As if.

"Marked our SACs yet?" Rodney asked. All our year 12 SACs are cross-marked. We do first and second round marking, and third marking should it be necessary if the first two rounds throw up discrepant marks. I learned this during the years I marked exams for VCAA. As it happened, all the teachers had completed the first round marking. Of course, it being our first day back, we hadn't had a chance to do the second round. I started to explain this to the assembled students. We still weren't in the door. But before I could get it out Rodney let me have it.
"What's wrong with you?" he barked. "You've had three fuckin' weeks!"

This prompted an explosive verbal reaction from me, not to mention a near coronary, by the feel of my heart banging in my chest. Yeah, I shouldn't have sworn. Teachers should be above this, and generally I am. My arm was thrust out, indicating the direction he should go to get out of my sight. He spluttered something but retreated. At that stage I became conscious of the silence in the yard. About forty kids had witnessed a woman of a certain age going off.

After that I could barely function, despite the support of the students who felt that he had it coming. For me, it was my loss of control that was so shattering, as was the flagrant disrespect of a senior student who also should have known better. Within about ten minutes, Rodney had apprised another student, via text message, that he'd phoned his mother, who'd phoned the principal. Naturally, he had played down his own part in the drama. Apparently he'd asked an innocent question at which I'd abused him and unfairly banished him from the class.

So there I was, at 3.15, seeing the principal. Fortunately, he understood.

In conclusion, what? So glad my own kids have pursued careers other than teaching? Teaching can really suck? Is it worth it? Why am I still dwelling on it even after the principal told me not to lose sleep over it? Back for more of the same tomorrow? And why have I spent six hours this weekend marking?