flash fiction, teaching

Teaching in 2019

When I look back at my year, I have the most profound adoration and sympathy for my colleagues in the teaching profession. Not many people get to truly understand the depths of poverty and disadvantage as public school teachers do, but we also fill our lives with the good news- the truly inspirational stories and achievements of our young people. People who don’t teach may not fathom it, but a big comprehensive public high school is a workplace brimming with optimism.

But this year has been a challenge. For me, to walk into my Year 9 class that is as diverse as any you could possibly imagine, on the day after the Christchurch massacre, and talk about it- really talk about it- and to answer and discuss the questions of why? That was a tough day. In November, when a state of emergency was called in NSW, our school stayed open with a skeleton crew, and those of us who kept going in the yellow-grey smoke became spontaneous counselors when child after child learnt about evacuations, cried for animals and livestock at home on properties, and got messages that their homes had burnt down. And amongst it all we heard news stories that the Morrison Government was providing  emergency drought funding to private schools but not public ones . I raged at that one.

This was a year where public school teachers, again and again, worked to remind the community that students with disabilities, who missed out on the early roll out of needs based funding, still didn’t have the support they needed. But there were positives too. I have one boy, who I’ll call C, who spent a lot of his childhood as an orphan in a refugee camp. He was ‘collected’ along the way by two sisters who came to Australia, where C attended his first school. At fifteen, when many boys seem to plateau academically, he went from being a student who got D’s in English, to one who ended the year at the top of my class. When I told the whole class this, they literally clapped and cheered for him, and his friend told me that this was the case in three other subjects as well. The amount of effort and growth and the determination to rise above disadvantage is real, and it’s inspirational and it happens in every single public school; these are the real rewards of teaching.

This year has also been distressing because a changed climate IS HERE. My beautiful state is burning. The rain-forests of my childhood, with all their tree-dwelling mammals and birds, were on fire for two months and I spent a large part of this year in a state of heightened distress and reactionary depression. I’m glad that the students go on strike for climate, and I wish this problem had been solved when we had the time to actually do something about it. As a teacher I had to find a creative outlet, and this year I focused on giving a creative voice to the concerns of youth. I run my annual Jetty Flash Fiction writing competition and for the final round challenge I set the genre as Cli-Fi. This writing competition, and in particular the quality of the finalists’ writing, has been a highlight of my year, not least because I got my Extension English students to co-judge with me. The winning story was set in a Venice submerged under a rising sea, and explored by a protagonist who marvels at the art and statues of human civilisation so valuable, but so lost nonetheless. Other stories included tales about genetic mutations to replace bleached coral, machines that could bring rain to the desert and post-apocalyptic visions where the world is dust, but where dogs still bring companionship. I publish the finalists’ stories each year in a book- I spend a week of my holidays being an amateur book publisher- and I love it. If I ever looked for a different career it would be in publishing. This year I held a photography competition for the front cover image. The winning photo is below, and it encapsulates the final round parameters.

Mirror

For the second year I facilitated a writing competition for teachers at my school. I did this in conjunction with my creative writing elective class and the students got to give constructive feedback and be the judges of the teachers’ writing. I have a Principal who has entered the competition two years in a row, and made the finals both years. This gave the students an extra level of stress and excitement. The final writing challenge genre was Science-Fiction. The winning entry was written by a new colleague and friend, who worked as an English teacher at our school for a year. She’s off to a new school next year. The fact that people come and go, and move around in education is bittersweet, because I will miss her. Her story is a sorrowful, speculative tale that links memory loss to rising C02 levels in the atmosphere. A mother worries that her daughter will forget her. Sob. I had a student illustrate a scene from the winning story, and secretly purchased the original as a going away gift. It is below…and will be published in our class magazine early next year.

In the Wind

This has been a big year. I’ve grown out my grey hair in front of teenagers. I’ve been a relieving Head Teacher in a big faculty. Two years in a row I have failed at Christmas because my job is so demanding right up until the last second; this year we were literally packing up the staffroom on the last day so it could be painted over the holidays. My family have suffered on the days when I’ve come home stressed, depressed or manically elated. I have daydreamed about different careers, but when I weigh up the good against the bad, I think I’ll stick with it. I hope 2020 is a year when public school teachers get the recognition they deserve, and that we get the resources we genuinely need to address disadvantage. Hopefully in 2020 the image in the mirror is an improvement on 2019.

 

 

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Trial HSC 2019…

I have often considered resitting my HSC; I’ve thought about what subjects I would choose, how to best study, how to extend myself and basically how to improve on my shabby attempt the first time around. At high school I followed my creative passions without a shred of good advice on achieving a decent TER (today the ATAR). I did drama, biology, struggled through maths, English Standard, a defunct subject called General Studies and three whole units of Art; I still have my twisted, oversized clay chess set. I was also one of those rare kids who achieved a band six in English Standard. The Advanced class were so pretentious I didn’t feel worthy to breathe their air, so I ‘dropped’. To this day I can’t remember all the texts I studied for the HSC except for Chinua Achibe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ and the poetry of Wilfred Owen. The only quote I remember of his is… ‘warmed once the clays of a cold star’ and I’m pretty sure the cold star is Earth, but the earth isn’t a star so…

In my eight-year teaching career, I’ve always reflected on what works. Teachers get so annoyed with inattentive behaviour and lack of attendance for good reason. If the students aren’t there, we can’t teach them. I read an article a few years back where a teacher spent two weeks as a Year 11 student and discovered- among other things- that it is not comfortable to sit all day long and that many students feel as if they are a source of mild to moderate irritation for most teachers. Putting yourself in the shoes of your students is a good thing. When a fellow teacher sat the trial HSC in Modern History last year, I became fixated on doing the same thing myself. This year I organised my timetable so I could do Standard Paper 1 ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ and Paper 2 ‘Modules’. I made sure to let the students know before so they wouldn’t be thrown off on the day. I implemented a revision schedule in class, and did the same revision exercises myself. At home I studied by reviewing my notes and wrote a couple of essays under timed conditions. Of course you’re probably judging my experience as a non-authentic one, so I’ll address that first. I set the paper, so I knew what the exam questions were. When I sent it off for printing, I deliberately put it out of my mind. The practice questions we’d been using in class were not too different from the trial questions. The real advantage I had was in Mod C ‘The Craft of Writing’ which I knew was in two parts: a twelve mark discursive response followed by an eight mark reflection. What really made the difference in my preparation was my excellent attendance to class and the fact that I had taught the content. If you can design lessons where students teach the content to their classmates, everyone wins.

Back to my exam experience.

I had lots of things in common with the students. The night before my exam I read over my practice essay for ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ and went to bed early. I was looking forward to the short answer questions and my essay about ‘Past the Shallows’- a contemporary Australian prose fiction novel by Favel Parrett . In the ten minutes reading time I only just finished reading all the ‘unseen’ texts. Standard students are required to do much more reading than in the past, and the restructuring of the exam means that they have some common content with Studies, some only for Standard and some in common with Advanced. This is huge challenge for slow readers. The questions got harder as the section progressed, but I genuinely enjoyed doing the short answers. You don’t have to remember quotes for this section, and get to apply your understanding of language features- which for me is pretty extensive. I have an arts major in writing but honestly, I’ve learnt more about textual analysis from teaching high school than I did at university. True story.

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In the exam I managed my time and reveled in the silence of exam conditions. I could hear every clack of a teacher’s heel on the floorboards and the muted din of the schoolyard at lesson changeover. I am adept at writing fast, so my hand flew across the page. I also felt like a fraud at times because I couldn’t remember my quotes word for word, and had to take my own advice to try to get them down as best I could. I tell students that if they have time left, to go back and add another paragraph because there may be more marks in there somewhere…but I didn’t follow my own advice. I finished ten minutes early and one of my colleagues, supervising the exam, joked that I should go back and check over my work. The new English Paper 1 is shorter than it was last year and at 1.5 hours it was over pretty quick. I had to get back to teaching so I didn’t get to go home and lay on the couch like the kids did.

Getting up and doing it all again the next day was the real kicker. Paper 2 is longer at two hours, is divided into three sections, and it’s up to the students to manage their time. I looked at the clock from my desk at the back of the hall and worked out my timing. I tell my students they need to finish all sections for decent marks, so I had this in my mind. I felt positive about my essay for Mod A ‘Language, Identity and Culture’. Our Standard cohort did a 2016 documentary called Reindeer in My Saami Heart  directed by Australian Janet Merewether. It sympathetically explores the Indigenous Saami culture of Northern Europe, whose experience was very similar that of our stolen generation. The feedback from the students was that it was their favourite module. There’s no way I’d do Henry Lawson here, or The Castle, but each to their own. My Module B essay was about Oodgeroo’s suite of poems written during her visit to China as part of a delegation in 1984. I started an introduction and ended up crossing it out and starting again, to better address the question. I felt I rambled and it was a hard question because it asked ‘to what extent’; the kind of question that used to be reserved for Advanced or Extension students. But I got my quotes out and wrote about five of the seven poems, remembering to include my thoughtful analysis at the end of each body paragraph. Tick. It’s Mod C that seems one of the biggest changes in this latest incarnation of the Stage 6 English syllabus, and it requires a study of some short prescribed texts in a range of textual forms. The focus is on using those texts to build writing skills, and it is those skills- not textual analysis- that are tested in the final exam in this section. The forms of writing have expanded on the old HSC requirements to include persuasive, creative, reflective and discursive writing. Discursive you ask? It’s an essay of sorts, but it can be written with an informal or even humorous tone, and be more of a discussion without having to persuade anyone of a particular viewpoint. Discursive essays can mix information and facts with personal opinions and emotions, and still use a range of language features found in creative writing. A discursive essay may even be similar to what you are reading right now. There have also been a lot of questions on teacher forums about good examples, and some teachers are still uncertain about what is expected. We chose the prescribed text  ‘Dear Mrs Dunkley’ by Helen Garner who is one of my favourite non-fiction writers, as an example of a discursive text. I’m not going to disclose how well my students did in this section when I did the marking, but I will say that my students still need to ‘get their heads around’ Mod C. I’m sure ours isn’t the only school in that metaphorical boat. I’m going to share my Mod C discursive and reflection at a local English teacher’s meeting to see how well it meets the marking criteria. I’m a little nervous about that. I also did something in the second paper that I warn my students not to do- I finished early. I was done and did not want to go back or check my work or add more detail. Some of my students left half an hour early too. I frowned to myself, but I was okay with it. There’ll be some filling in of blanks as we move towards the final exam, but that’s part of the process.

The most fulfilling part of the experience was a sense of camaraderie with my students. Afterwards I chatted with a few about how they managed time, how hard it was to remember quotes and how they tackled the trickier questions. These chats will also help me plan a revision schedule. When students asked me why I was sitting the exam, I told them it was so I could be a better teacher who understands the pressures of the exam. I’ve also generated some sample responses we can use for future reference.

On even deeper reflection, I’m not sure why we would ever need to memorise literature in the real world…

If anyone would like a copy of my sample essays, I’m more than willing to share once I type them up. Please email me for copies. Peace. Ms V.

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The Fantasy Story Project

Below is an adaptation of a foreword I’ve just written for a self-published book which began as the result of a foray into project-based learning (PBL). This was my first proper go at PBL and the skills that come from this kind of learning include group-work, collaboration, higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. Teaching a Year 9 creative writing elective class this year allowed me to find some time- and willing participants- outside of the mainstream English classroom. I adapted a project from a textbook called  ‘Project Based Learning for the Australian Curriculum: Are Human’s Wild at Heart?’ by Bianca and Jim Hewes (2016) which I recommend highly and has many ‘ready to go’ project ideas. They also have one for Stage 4 called ‘Why do We Tell Stories?’.

The basic idea was for the class to research fantasy stories that interest eight year olds, to work in groups to write and edit the stories, and to find a Year 2 class to provide the illustrations. I approached a few local primary schools and got a swift response from two teachers at one of our biggest ‘feeder’ schools. My class were excited because many of them had attended that school. Once they knew they had primary school collaborators, they set to work, initially researching what was popular in the fantasy genre and brushing up on what they remembered about being eight. I was working alongside an English teacher whose son was in one of the classes and she accepted our invitation to be interviewed as an ‘expert mum’. This interview was important as it helped my class of fifteen year-olds establish some boundaries around content- especially what might be too scary- and reminded us that silliness, cuddles, toilet jokes and happy endings were important. The class made use of ICT to communicate directly with the illustrators and set up a google classroom to say hello and give feedback and used a google form to collect information about preferred fantasy creatures, setting, protagonists, sidekicks, animals and villains.

Once we had this information the five groups worked on characters and setting and devised plots that could be achieved successfully in stories between 1500 and 2000 words. We ended up with some clever stories about misunderstood dragons, a puppy with a curious secret, missing and found parents, evil witches, vampire unicorns and a boy who is turned into a werewolf when he does badly in a test!

Once we completed the fantasy stories we sent them over to the primary school with a few tips on illustrations. A term later, the illustrations that were delivered to my desk at work were a riot of detail, colour and joy. Below are just a few examples of the amazing work and large volume of images I’ve been working with- the first set are werewolf puppies that can put out fires by barking and vampire unicorns who are eventually thwarted by a pack of brave dogs. I think the writers and the illustrators worked so well on the project because they wanted to impress each other.

 

What really blew me away was the quality of the art created by the Yr 2 students, and this was definitely due to the artistic direction of their teachers. Each set of illustrations for the different stories are done in a different art form, giving each story a unique aesthetic. In the book there are pencil drawings….

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painting…

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collage…

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digital art…

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and watercolours…

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In fact, the volume of illustrations presented me with the biggest challenge in regards to editing and self-publishing the project. I wanted to make sure every child had an image included, and it was impossible to choose between them, so I ended up including double-page spreads, collages and image galleries so readers can see the full range of creative works. The dragon portrait gallery alone has thirty images. Towards the end of the year our project was recognised and supported by a local law firm whose grant for ‘innovation and collaboration’ will cover the initial costs of producing the hard cover art book and will provide both schools with their own copies for the school libraries.

A highlight of the project was when the writers got to meet the illustrators. It was great to hear them discussing the writing process, especially the editing and polishing phases, as well as the importance of balance in regards to the gender of protagonists. We hope to meet up again when the book is published. I use a website called Blurb. I’ve made an ebook version and a magazine version so there are range of price options for parents and the community who may want to purchase their own copies. If you would like information on how to buy a copy, please use the contact form and I’ll get back to you.

 

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