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.