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A five-finger exercise

While my coachee slaved away on a Trial HSC English Advanced paper this morning I undertook to answer the creative writing question from our previous session: “Select one of the following quotations. Use this quotation as a catalyst for your own piece of writing on belonging.” I think I rather overdid the thematic side, but I was hoping to demonstrate how this rather artificial task may be done. It isn’t fiction, but that’s in the parameters given.

c) “My fondest childhood memories”

When you think about it there is a lot of truth in the old Catholic saying “Give me a child to the age of seven and I will show you the man.” By that age our sense of identity, which is so much shaped by our sense of belonging to family, home, town and country, are basically set – if not in stone, at least firmly enough that escape if needed is quite difficult.

In my case my grandfather rather than my father was the key influence. My father, you see, was rarely home, being overseas with the RAAF, so my family were living with my grandparents, and the one who had time for me most was my grandfather.

My grandfather was a retired teacher. I don’t know how he did it, can’t remember, but before I went to school I could already read and tell the time. This led to early alienation in Kindergarten. Invited in week one to “write” on the blackboard I wrote “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date. I gather the teacher was not amused and rang my mother to complain – strange as that may seem.

He was a mine of information, my grandfather, and I was a hyper-inquisitive child. Once he was gardening and I asked him: “What are snails for?” He stood up and took me round the garden, showing me snails, describing their life-cycle, their means of locomotion and their feeding habits and why, if we wanted our lettuces, he had to get rid of them. “Yes,” I replied with precocious analytical skills, “but what are they FOR?” Since the metaphysics of the snail was not something that had occurred to him he became uncharacteristically short with me and called out to my mother, “Get this bloody kid out of here!”

I never have found out what snails are for, but I guess they fit into the web of life. Even snails belong, don’t they?

Another thing about my grandfather was that he talked to just about everybody. He was genuinely interested in their lives and what they did. I would accompany him on his walks and get impatient as he stopped at this fence or that gate to chat to someone for what seemed like hours to me. I was not displeased though when he would climb over the railway fence to chat to the driver of the milk train when it was waiting at the siding for the express train to go through. There were steam engines in those days and I was enthralled standing on the tracks with my grandfather as the fireman and driver leaned down from the cab to share finer points of their trade.

On the other hand, so I am told, when my father at last returned from overseas my first words to him were “Get that man out of here!” (Perhaps I learned the expression from my grandfather.) To me my father was the picture on the dressing table, not this large imposter who had suddenly disrupted my life, just when I had my mother pretty much in control. What this may have done to our relationship, indeed to my father’s recovery of his belonging, I can now only guess – but it did rather colour our later lives.

You can see what a network one close relative can set up for you in those formative years. With my grandfather I explored so many aspects of my environment and he was, you could say, my map-maker. Through him were developing all those templates of background, culture and place which shape so much where “I” fits in – belongs, indeed.

There are many other stories I could tell of my grandfather. Did I mention he only had one eye? No? But that is another story.

I was 21 when my grandfather died. He had mentored me in so many ways, easing the pain of high school maths, answering my incessant questions about other countries as we browsed the atlas together, showing by example tolerance of people from other cultures, leading me (without pressure) to emulate him in my choice of career. If he were removed from my life story I wonder if I would today have the network of belongings that I now possess, modified as they may have been by other experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, if I look for the rock on which it all has been built I need look no further than those childhood experiences with Roy C. – my grandfather.

 

Ken Boston outsources, falls on sword…

I will give Ken Boston some marks for integrity, to judge from Australian steps down as Britain’s exams chief after marking debacle. Ken Boston is a familiar name to any of us who were teaching here in NSW in the 80s and 90s. As the article explains: “Dr Boston, 65, was instrumental in delivering many reforms to the NSW education system during the early 1990s under Dr Terry Metherell. He has headed the British authority since 2002.” Here is what happened, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

ONE of Britain’s most highly paid and powerful public servants, the former NSW education chief Ken Boston, has resigned his £328,000 ($873,000)-a-year post after a chaotic round of national curriculum tests.

Dr Boston, who began his career as a teacher in Victoria and was in his sixth year at the helm of the British schools testing watchdog, announced that he believed in public officials "taking responsibility when things go wrong".

Thousands of British children aged 11 and 14 received late – or incorrect – Standard Assessment Test results this year after the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority outsourced their administration to an American company, ETS, which signed a £156 million contract for the job. The British Government sacked the company in August.

Known as SATs, the tests are given at the end of years 2, 6 and 9 and are designed to measure children’s progress in comparison with peers born in the same month. The mess led the Government to drop the tests for 14-year-olds and there has been debate about scrapping the tests for 11-year-olds.

An inquiry by Lord Sutherland was launched into the disastrous round of SATs three months ago and is widely predicted to contain serious criticisms of the authority. The report is due to be handed down in London tomorrow…

He said at the weekend that the performance of ETS had been "quite unacceptable" and repeated an apology issued to the 1.2 million students who took the tests and their teachers at the end of the summer term in Britain.

Criticism of Dr Boston has been tough since the disastrous results and he has come under pressure about his salary package, which includes the use of a £1 million apartment in London’s fashionable Chelsea district as well as six business-class flights a year back to Australia. London newspapers have also made an issue of his ownership of a yacht in Sydney…

Our measurement fetish – and theirs in the UK, and ditto in the USA — really needs to be looked at in the light of these events, not to mention the perils of outsourcing to private concerns. The same mob did our Adult Literacy Survey under Howard in 2006: Australian Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2 (with comments by Jim Belshaw).

I wrote more on the Educational Testing Service a year ago on English/ESL: Email about the Educational Testing Service.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2008 in Australia, awful warnings, Brendan Nelson, curriculum, education, exams and assessment, future schooling, Jim Belshaw, John Howard, literacy, London

 

A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

Yes, I had trouble with thinking up a name for what is floating in my head at the moment! Some blogs, as we know, have become books — Riverbend, Stuff White People Like, Salam Pax — but the truth is blogging is evanescent, personal, and in miniature compared with proper books. So important topics tend to be aired in the spirit of good pub conversation, with the proviso that quite a few blogs also closely resemble bad pub conversation. We all know about opinionated drunks…

Not that this blog or any of the blogs I regularly read are in that last category, of course.

Speaking of conversations

My coaching session with J last Monday was the last of the year and became a good conversation — well, I confess to picking his brain rather, but it was still good, and he seemed to enjoy it. Being fifty years younger than I am, and of Mainland Chinese background, though educated entirely in Australia, his perspectives are in many ways quite different from my own. I tutor him in English, but on the other hand he has, he tells me, actually read and understood Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time — a year or two ago! — while I confessed to having read the first few pages and put it back on the shelf, like most people I know. Now there are all kinds of things in this anecdote about our assumptions about reading…

J is interested then in Astrophysics. He doesn’t propose to study History, Geography or even Economics in his senior years. I will probably be on hand to help him survive English, though he isn’t doing too badly. I picked his brain on the subject of dark energy, and how our cosmology has altered so much since 1998. To him this is unremarkable…

He is interested in philosophy, but hasn’t encountered much at school to feed that, he says. This of course is my selling point for senior English! He is also a good musician.

His rejection of the social sciences/history is of course partly personal, but I probed a bit about what if anything had turned him off. Now you mustn’t generalise when you read this, but he may have been killed by good intentions. Answer: too much Australian content! Indeed too much Indigenous Australian content, presented in too repetitious a manner ever since primary school, and focussing too much on the Stolen Generation.* He didn’t deny there were interesting stories there, but it does seem, from his experience, to have entered the world of background mantras rather than being a topic of living interest.

Repeat: don’t generalise too much from this.

When I found myself dealing with the topic in a senior English class in 1997-8 it was all a revelation, and all fresh, and worked because we connected it to a number of living people as well as literary and film texts. I also made a point of accepting opinions from students that were far from PC, but not without making sure I offered stories that challenged the stereotypes behind those opinions. The result was a sharing among us that really did change some attitudes. It hadn’t hardened into a course quite, as we were all finding out new things… (A ghost of that class still lives.)

Jim and Galarrwuy

Jim Belshaw recently gave advance notice of some conversations that may soon appear on his blog. I am looking forward to the outcome. You will note the title though: "Advance Notice – failures in Aboriginal policy." Well, we would have to agree there have been failures. And successes, which (reading between the lines) may also feature in those future posts.

When I browsed the December 2008 – January 2009 Monthly Magazine — where there are many excellent articles — I was drawn to Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.

My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.

My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu…

It’s a wonderful reflection, this piece.

Two Australians so close in age, Jim and Galarrwuy. Much binds them, and us, together in community, yet much also speaks of many Australias. We have each our own. And yet…

Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.

And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things?…

I offer this with respect, both for Jim and for Galarrwuy.

And leave you to your own thoughts…

* Here is what J did in Year 9 (PDF).

 

Who are the ones with an agenda?

Of course in any situation people tend to accuse the “other side” of having an agenda, and when you think about it I suppose you really hope there is an agenda, given that the alternative is probably ad-hoc muddle through policy… But we know what people mean when they make the comment.

Today we have an education issue running up against a serious finance issue. Rightly or wrongly, the Rudd government is trying to throw large amounts of money at non-government schools. Well, “throw” may be a bit much, I suppose, as all that’s happening is the implementation of arrangements already agreed to – or so it seemed before Senator Fielding (Family First) and certain of the like-minded members of the Opposition (thanks for that post and its prequel and promised sequels, Thomas) started throwing their weight around.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Opposition and Family First Senator Steve Fielding are refusing to pass the bill and therefore release the funding because it’s tied to a national curriculum which is yet to be written. To press home the message to them, Julia Gillard held a media conference flanked by two Bills, Bill Daniels from the Independent Schools Council and Bill Graham from the National Catholic Education Commission.
BILL DANIELS: This is legislation that was flagged pre-election. This is the Government doing exactly what it said it would do. We regard it as absolutely essential that this legislation is passed to give schools and parents the certainty and funding stability that they need from the 1st January next year.
BILL GRAHAM: The National Catholic Education Commission is comfortable with the process underway to develop the national curriculum and we would ask that the bill be agreed to and passed, the legislation passed before the end of the year.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: Ms Gillard’s not stopping there, thanking them for helping her send a letter to every non-government school in the country this afternoon.
JULIA GILLARD: And I quote, "the Independent Schools Council of Australia and the National Catholic Education Commission have supported the bill. Unfortunately the Senate has not passed the bill."

   — PM yesterday.

Now we have the delicious irony of funding perhaps being held back from the non-government school sector because the Senate has baulked at four words Fielding and company want inserted into the deal — “or other accredited course.” Now despite all the denials, we know that this  1) is a move emanating from the more recent Christian schools (I almost wrote “more feral” there) and 2) has something to do with Intelligent Design as “science”.

Fielding and company are also making life easy for any extremist madrassa that would like to set up in Australia, but they don’t see that. (And yes, I know that most of us have a rather jaundiced view of “madrassa” before you retort, if you are a Muslim reader; there are contexts where Muslim schools for the poor do a mighty job in both Pakistan and Indonesia — but of course it depends what they teach.)

There are strings to the Rudd government’s deal you see. One is that those getting the funds sign on to the new and developing national curriculum. That concept of course was brought forward by the Howard government, and has been pursued, but in my view in a somewhat more enlightened manner, by the current government. It is also the status quo in this country, in that all schools now have to implement the curricula of the state they happen to be in. In NSW they can also offer non-Board courses. So, for example, in the Jewish college where I once worked you had the NSW syllabus in English, Maths, Science etc, exactly as in any state school, though of course, and this is fair enough, taught from the perspective the college brought to them. You also had non-Board accredited courses like Jewish Studies. I am sure much the same applies in Catholic or Islamic schools.

Not good enough for Senator Fielding. They want more. And you don’t have to be Einstein, or indeed Charles Darwin, or Harry Potter, to work out what that “more” is. See the recent case of Pacific Hills Christian School in Dural, where it appears the hen-house was delivered to the fox in the end.

I of course was nasty enough to write here the other day, in reference to the USA situation:

The other thing I took from this program is how glad I am that we do not so far have the US-style tradition of local school boards here in NSW. With all the possible disadvantages we may experience in a centralised system, relying on boards and teams of experts to devise curriculum (even if implementation depends much on the local school), we gain far more, if this series is any indication. There are some things democracy is just not good at, and devising curriculum, in my opinion, is often one of them. By the way, one problem I always felt working in private schools was the sense that the “clients” owned me. That could have a plus side, but was also sometimes an unpleasant constraint. I am sure Aluminium knows exactly what I mean.

I stand by those views.

Then there is another issue getting up some noses. Should private schools publicly reveal the sources of their funding? I would definitely say yes. Here we have some of the wealthier schools saying the agenda here is to deprive them of at least some government funding.  At the moment the government denies this, but to be quite honest I really hope that is the agenda! There are much better things to do with the education dollar than enabling ermine lining in the swimming pool, if you see what I mean…

Update

Sanity seems to have prevailed, and Opposition Education spokesman Christopher Pyne is putting the best spin he can on the backflip.

Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has denied the Coalition has backflipped on its opposition to the Schools Assistance bill, after agreeing to pass it without further amendments.

But Education Minister Julia Gillard has described the move, which will now allow $28 billion of funding to reach independent schools, as a "humiliating backdown".

This morning the Opposition said it would move an amendment to allow schools such as Steiner and Montessori schools to teach an accredited equivalent of the national curriculum.

But Ms Gillard insisted the amendment was not needed…

There are 133 lively comments on that ABC News story too. For example:

keep in mind, that these same independent school councils are involved in the development of the new national curriculum. So they probably have a much better idea about the direction it is heading. Compare that to the automatically opposing opposition, who obviously hadn’t done the homework that was set out for them by the voting public of Australia and have been embarrassingly caught out.

The progress of the National Curriculum Board is easy to track. It is indeed drawing on a range of talent at all levels in education, government and non-government. I hold out much more hope on this than I did on earlier exercises.

 

Memo to Julie Gillard and Kevin Rudd

Having pumped up an ‘education revolution’ be very careful about visiting sales reps…

CAUTION049

You will be very tempted by anyone claiming to have invented an Education Thermometer which, when stuck up the patient’s fundament, will magically tell you just what’s wrong and how to fix it. The more amazing numbers on that thermometer and the more it flashes and whirs the more politicians, bureaucrats and parents believe in its powers…

It’s never so simple.

1. Go to Fair Test if you must look to the USA, and admittedly there is much there to be noted…

2. Don’t pay too much mind to Rupert Murdoch.

3. Read this comment in the US magazine Nation:

As a retired administrative analyst, who worked for the New York City public schools for 33 years–mainly in the area of testing, I call attention to the manner in which Chancellor Klein has used the annual testing program to present an exaggerated politically-motivated picture of the system’s "progress" under his (and Mayor Bloomberg’s) administration. An educational leader should be concerned with the implementation of meaningful testing procedures and the truthful presentation of data to evaluate the status of student achievement. Chancellor Klein has failed to pass both of these tests.

The misleading reporting of the 2005 reading (English Language Arts) test scores is a case in point. This was the year in which the mayor was seeking reelection. Having obtained control of the school system (which prior to the advent of Mr. Bloomberg was a non-mayoral agency governed by a board of education), he appointed Mr. Klein to run the system and pledged that test results would improve. In 2005, at the outset of the election campaign, they jointly and conspicuously announced that 4th grade student achievement had increased by 10%–an astonishing accomplishment.

After I FOILed for data pertinent to these results (and waited nine months to receive the data–long after the mayor had won his second term), I was able to analyze two unacknowledged factors that went into the increase: Over 5,000 students had been excluded from the test population. They consisted of 3rd graders who were held back in 2005 and didn’t take the 4th grade test, as well as a larger than usual number of students classified as Limited English Proficiency.

The net effect was to remove thousands of low-scoring students who, in prior years (such as, 2004) would have been included.

Posted by Fred_Smith at 11/13/2008 @ 08:16am

… and others there.

4. Read this letter from an English teacher here in Oz:

Jennifer Buckingham argues that New York’s system of school performance reporting is a success because "schools given F and D grades improved performance substantially the next year" ("Every good parent deserves truth", November 20).

This is the phenomenon known as regression to the mean. Schools that have unusually low or high rankings are more likely to move towards the middle the following year.

This pattern indicates that the system is not measuring the actual worth of a school but just natural random fluctuations in the performance of students.

You would get the same effect if you measured students’ average height. Schools with unusually short students would tend to have taller students the next year. But it seems unlikely that measuring children makes them grow.

Schools occasionally have high or low end-of-year results. As teachers, we cannot control all the factors that lead to these results. Nor should we try. Time we spend chasing a single year’s result on a particular assessment is time we do not spend planning for long-term change and improvement.

There are all kinds of factors that can affect a single year’s result. Was there a big party the night before the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) testing? Did a family of five hard-working siblings arrive at the school? Did a talented learning support assistant get her Diploma of Education and move to another school? Did the school decide to have a spelling bee this year?

It is also important to look closely at what is being tested. The NAPLAN testing, which began this year, has a heavy emphasis on spelling. You might say this is because spelling is important and valued. But I would say it’s because spelling is easy to test.

As an English teacher, if I wanted to make my life easy all I would teach would be spelling and grammar. All my assessments would be in exam format. My marking would be done in minutes. But I know that if I do that I will never be able to assess students on certain essential skills. These include the ability to speak publicly, to research ideas in depth and to plan and redraft a piece of writing to publication standard.

These skills will never be on national testing because they are not practical to test. Any league table will move emphasis away from skills that are useful in the real world towards memorisation and skills that are useful in the exam hall.

Brendan Sullivan Page (ACT)

5. Read Sharon Beder in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Joel Klein is in Australia to "spruik" his business-friendly school reforms courtesy of the giant Swiss bank UBS, the recipient of a multibillion-dollar bail-out from Swiss taxpayers, and dubbed the "world’s biggest subprime loser" by The Age.

The federal Education Minister, Julia Gillard, "welcomes the active involvement of UBS" in education reform. Since her recent US visit, she has been championing the "remarkable outcomes" she claims Klein has achieved in New York, where he is the chancellor of the city’s education department.

Klein, who was previously chief executive of the international media company Bertelsmann (and who had an article on this page on Monday), believes schools should be run more like businesses, and is an enthusiastic promoter of "charter" schools, some of which are operated for profit. He told Fortune magazine, "We’re converting the role of the principal into a CEO role."…

Beware of Corporate Speak masquerading as education policy.

6. Take note of my late Aunt Beth. She was an Infants teacher of many years standing, and in her time a pioneer of such literacy initiatives as the Hallidayan “Breakthrough to Literacy”. In the last conversation I had with her on the subject – and in fact The Rabbit was present and may recall this – she said, in relation to the way her grandchild was being taught, that it would be a good idea if we stopped all this testing and measuring and got back to teaching… There may well be a clue there for your education revolution.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, curriculum, education, Kevin Rudd, literacy

 

New to read – local and national

Beginning local, the new South Sydney Herald is now available.

This month’s issue contains stories about a local activist helping a refugee family to reunite; the worrying state of public housing  (we’ll maintain a focus on this issue); Deborah Mailman’s directorial debut (in Redfern); an interview with new Minister for Redfern-Waterloo, Kristina Keneally; new councillors’ first impressions of life on Council; Mental Health Week events; the Pemulwuy Project … and more. There’s also details about the Big Bike Love and International Bicycle Film Festivals, as well as the Newtown Festival; reviews of Burn After Reading and Body of Lies; Eve Gibson talks with members of Dead Letter Chorus about their new album; Anna Christie offers advice on growing vegies in the city; Amanda Robb meets local author, Kathy Golski; and Miriam Pepper (Project Green Church at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church) reflects on the life of St Clare of Assisi in the context of climate change and the financial crisis.

Nationally, The Monthly is out. A couple of highlights:

"Before he became the Labor leader, I held in my mind three wildly contradictory images of Kevin Rudd. In the first – derived from the scurrilous portrait in The Latham Diaries – Rudd was a media-obsessed, vaultingly ambitious, duplicitous opportunist. In the second – based mainly on my observation of his near-successful attempt to prove that the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was lying when he claimed he knew nothing about the bribes paid by the Australian Wheat Board to Saddam Hussein – Rudd was an outstanding parliamentary performer: focused, diligent, courteous but remorseless, quick-witted and intelligent. In the third – which was based on his Dietrich Bonhoeffer article – Rudd was a true believer in Christian social justice, a politician who identified not with power but with the powerless, who believed that the impending catastrophe of climate change was the overwhelming challenge of our age, who had given his life to politics to try to make the world a better place."

In "What is Rudd’s Agenda?", Robert Manne takes a close look at the Rudd government as it approaches its first anniversary. What, he asks, is its relation to the "philosophic and policy disposition of its predecessor"? Has Australia "begun significantly to change" since Labor took office? What did Rudd promise, and what has he failed to deliver?

"Rudd is committed in the international sphere to … what he invariably calls, in language borrowed from the standard Australian foreign-policy textbooks, ‘creative middle-power diplomacy’. Here Rudd is at his most ambitious or, as some might think, grandiose. It was no accident that Rudd was very keen to address the UN General Assembly; that he is keen to make Australia a player in the diplomacy leading up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change; that he has signalled for the first time an Australian interest in the international struggle to combat extreme poverty within a generation; and that he has tried to inject Australia into the current international negotiations over the financial markets’ meltdown. Rudd aspires to be the architect of a new Asia-Pacific Community – a somewhat amorphous regional entity comprising all the major Asia-Pacific powers, from the US through China to Russia, where the habits of peaceful co-operation, conversation and good-neighbourliness will somehow be learnt."

*

"The United States seems even more divided than it did two years ago: divided by race, religion, class and ideology; by ‘issues’ only partly real and partly media confection. It is as if one large slice of the population does not recognise the other slice, or sees in the other, not the faces of their fellow Americans, but their most terrible enemies. That Friday night in the hotel bar, as the stock market plunged into the unknown and John McCain felt the abyss opening beneath his feet, fear and hatred were palpable and you could have been forgiven for thinking that Doris Kearns Goodwin was right to compare the recent Republican rallies to Germany in the ’30s. "

In the Monthly Comment, Don Watson reports from New Orleans on the American election. In an area still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he finds the concerns of the locals do not necessarily accord with those of either presidential candidate, or the mainstream media.

"People looking for another reason why so many Americans have more use for religion than for politics might begin by listening to a good preacher, and then to the average modern politician. While they’re at it, they might ask where the bullshit is deepest and truth hardest to recognise – in religion or a presidential election. And then there’s the more practical reason: to quote one taxi driver, representative of the millions without health insurance, ‘As if I could afford it! God is my health insurance.’"

*

In "The Conflict Business", Peter Hartcher offers an astute examination of the history and role of Australian political books, from Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy to Latham’s dirt-dishing and the recent Costello Memoirs, and beyond. 

"Costello’s version will not go uncontested. Howard plans to write his account next year. Tony Abbott is writing not a memoir but a manifesto, under the working title ‘Conservatism After Howard’ … Abbott’s publication promises to make the manifesto-style book as important for conservative politics as it is for the progressive side. This would be no big deal in the US, where John McCain has five books to his name and Barack Obama two. But in Australia, it would be a serious intensification of the intellectual effort that goes into political campaigning. This is a happy development. For the key figures on both sides of politics to canvass ideas for our political future, rather than just settle scores from their political pasts, offers the prospect of a leadership class that is better prepared and a voting public that is better informed."

I’ll give you The South Sydney Herald; The Monthly you will have to buy, though there are quite a few free articles in the archive there.

* November 2008 South Sydney Herald (PDF 2.5 MB)

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, curriculum, Kevin Rudd, local, magazines, media watch, reading, South Sydney Uniting Church, Surry Hills

 

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Literacy s—teracy – I get so frustrated…

…but aside from my little bit of tutoring, it’s not my problem any more. What is frustrating is that during forty years (round figure) of teaching, mainly English at secondary level, I read statements like the following just about every year, beginning at least in 1965!

Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a behavioural scientist to know that literacy standards have declined. The problem is self-evident in the generation of twenty and thirty-somethings, with whom most of us work and play, who struggle to write anything more than a simple sentence and to read and comprehend anything more complicated than sports or gossip magazines.

That 2008 variant of this boring anecdotal meme is from David Long on ABC Unleashed today. You may note that in my essay on literacy (1998) I allude to the same allegation, as I could have in 1988, 1978 and so on…   Go and read the essay as I am tired of arguing. I should add, I suppose, that I am not complacent on the subject, that anyone I taught in that forty years left me knowing what a subject and verb are and how sentences are constructed, how paragraphs are constructed, and so on. Nothing in any English syllabus in that forty years forbade imparting that knowledge, though how it was explained and how it was tested have varied. I know this is the case in NSW not just because I was there, but because I also know the person who framed the 1972 “New English” Syllabus, and during the 70s I knew just about everyone at the top of the NSW English Teachers Association, being on the State Council myself in the late 70s. I also knew Leonie Kramer, Rob Eagleson, Bob Walshe, and (less well) Michael Halliday… People who have been around English teaching for long enough will know who they are. Not that this proves anything, except that a healthy discussion has been going on among English teachers for decades and I have been part of it, and teachers have been in all that time, as was my grandfather from 1906, totally committed to fostering reading, writing and thinking among our students, not all of whom are willing participants in the process, which is and always has been one of our challenges — that and the great variety of abilities and circumstances one must deal with. Teachers are constantly seeking ways to meet these challenges, partly as a matter of survival as well as to better serve (or “better to serve” if you follow that fetish) the community. I still regard as possibly my greatest success as a teacher getting a 14-year-old (in 1970) to be able at last to write his own name despite his having an IQ too low to assess. 

In more recent years English Studies has added to what we were taught and (maybe) learned. We think rather more than I did in the 1959 Leaving Certificate about how, where and why texts are uttered/written or (as we say these days) composed, and we pay more attention to the variety of texts, linguistics having shown us a lot more about that than we knew fifty years ago. That is a plus, and very important.

Why are people so irredeemably illiterate (or anecdotal, or dogmatic) when it comes to talking about literacy? Why too don’t a few more people point to the place where language learning begins, and where its development is most fostered: the home?

FOOTNOTE

I had to come back and fix a subject-verb agreement problem in this post! At least I could spot it and knew what to do about it, though it was one of those cases where most readers, probably including Mr Long, would not have noticed if I had left it uncorrected! But I am a bit of a pedant… My coachees of 2008, even the one in Year 8, also know about subject-verb agreement, even if getting it right can be a bit harder when, as is that Year 8 student’s  case, one’s first language is Chinese. (Chinese languages survive without marking subject-verb agreement grammatically.)

Oh go and read English/ESL if you are interested in such things. I’m out of here!

FOOTNOTE 2

There is another possible subject-verb agreement problem in this post, but I am not going to correct it, as arguably it is notionally correct. Can you find it?

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2008 in curriculum, education, English language, English studies, linguistics and language, literacy

 

Now, what did I learn half a century ago?

mix 001 I happened to browse one of my older books last night, one that is special in its way…

… as you may see on the right. Mind you, I did crash and burn a bit the following year. I was a great guesser of what would be in exam papers, tailoring my revision accordingly, and got lucky in 1958. Unfortunately I was off in my predictions for 1959.

Europe in the XIX Century was first published in 1940, then revised in 1952. That revision is the one you see on the left. I chose it as part of my prize because it covered the then Leaving Certificate course rather well with lots of neat summaries, maps and diagrams, and is written in a style that is refreshingly lacking in pomposity. It still has its uses.

mix 002There are some things about it that bring a grin or a cringe when read today, however. Take the following:

The second great field for European expansion in the nineteenth century was the Far East. The countries in the Pacific were far more wealthy and attractive than the savage no man’s land of Africa, but they were also for that reason more difficult to penetrate, and quite impossible to retain as colonies. For a time guns and machines gave the Europeans their own way, and China and Japan had to  do what they were told. European supremacy, however, was only temporary because the people of the east were quite as intelligent as their conquerors, and soon learned to turn the new mechanical inventions against their inventors. In central and south Africa, on the other hand, Europeans have never lost control because the black races are too backward to combine against them…

Oh the things people took for granted! I would not call Ayerst out for egregious racism, though it might appear that way; rather he was reflecting what was then “common sense” — that is, beliefs very widely shared and rarely questioned. His sang-froid about Africans was shortly to be tested, wasn’t it?

There is a handy glossary of political terms in the back. Here are some choice examples:

  • COMMUNISM, COMMUNIST: Originally the same as socialism (q.v.). Thus Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 might equally have been called ‘The Socialist Manifesto’. Since the war it has been applied to those extreme socialist parties which are in agreement with Russia.
  • SOCIALISM, SOCIALIST: A society in which the means of production (e.g. mines, farms, factories), distribution (e.g. railways) and exchange (e.g. shops, banks) are owned by the whole community and not by private individuals. It is usually said that in a socialist state everybody would do the work for which they were best fitted and everybody would receive whatever they needed, as far as the resources of the community went.
  • CAPITAL, CAPITALIST: A capitalist is one who owns capital, i.e. the means of production such as factories, machines or money with which he employs people to work for him.
  • FASCISM: Fascism has two meanings: 1) the present Italian system of government [That escaped the 1952 revision!]; 2) any roughly similar system of government, e.g. the National Socialist system in Germany. Fascism differs from (a) Conservatism (q.v.) because it endeavours by government interference to improve the position of the wage earner at the expense of the private capitalist; (b) Socialism (q.v.), because it is strongly nationalist (q.v.) and allows private property; (c) Democracy (q.v.) because it replaces parliamentary or responsible government (q.v.) by unquestioning obedience to a dictator.
  • DEMOCRACY, DEMOCRAT: That form of society in which everybody has an equal share through their votes in the choice of a government and in which all men are treated equally by the government irrespective of their race, religion or wealth.
  • REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT, RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT: Representative Government exists where the citizens are consulted through a parliament which makes the laws. Responsible government exists only where the citizen through parliament can get rid of a government or minister of whom tey disapprove. It is possible to have representative government without responsible government, e.g. in Germany before the war, but not vice-versa.
  • SEPARATION OF POWERS: The system by which the executive, legislative and judiciary are each independent of the other and of equal status, as in the U.S.A. In England and most other countries either the executive or the legislative is usually supreme.
  • CONSERVATISM, CONSERVATIVE: A person, political party or belief aiming at keeping things as they are or restoring them to their former condition. The objects of conservatism, therefore, differ from country to country and from generation to generation, e.g. European conservatives in 1820 were opposed to nationalism (q.v.); today they encourage it. [He may also have noted that in the 19th century conservatives were opposed to democracy; it may also be noted, by this definition, that Chinese adhering today to the position of the Communist Party and the memory of Mao are conservatives — which indeed they are, in that context.]
  • LIBERALISM, LIBERAL: When spelled with a small ‘l’ liberal means one who believes in the greatest possible freedom for the individual — particularly freedom (a) to carry out his business as he likes; (b) to express in speech and writing what views he likes; (c) to have a share by his vote in the government of his country. When spelled with a capital ‘L’ Liberal is the name of a political party, usually a middle-class party, which tries to secure these privileges.
  • INTELLIGENTSIA: The highly educated part of a nation. Often used as a term of abuse.

Fascinating stuff, I think. And yes, I spotted all those generic third person singular masculine gender pronouns… Another of those unquestioned assumptions of the period.

I note here that Ayerst went on to write in 1971 a history of The [Manchester] Guardian newspaper, and that he lived from 1904 to 1992. On reflection, that means that he was 55 when I was trawling his book for the Leaving, ten years younger than I am now…

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2008 in curriculum, historiography, History, nostalgia, personal, Political, politics

 

One and a half cheers for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard

PM aims to teach unions a lesson – National – smh.com.au reports, among other matters on which I have no competence to comment:

KEVIN RUDD and Julia Gillard turned up the heat on the education unions yesterday with the Prime Minister telling them it was time to move into the 21st century.

But as Mr Rudd and his deputy began the hard sell of tough new measures to improve school standards, the trade unions continued to flex their muscles behind the scenes over a number of policy measures.

The Australian Education Union organised a briefing for about 40 members of caucus and staff over the school announcement in which future commonwealth funding for the states would depend on them adopting greater transparency and accountability measures for the schools system.

There is, however, more concern among the backbench over the earlier announcement this week of a trial program in which parents of truant children would have their welfare docked for up to three months…

The AEU has been hostile to Mr Rudd’s new funding conditions for schools. From next year, public and private schools would have to publicly disclose performance information.

Schools which continued to underperform after receiving additional funding of up to $500,000 a year would be expected to sack the principal or teachers, and even close or merge with another school.

Mr Rudd urged the unions and states to embrace the measures. There would be a significant boost to funding in return for agreement but the Government no longer intended to write “blank cheques”.

The Opposition leader Brendan Nelson introduced similar laws in 2004 as a condition of the last four-year funding agreement he introduced as education minister but was largely ignored by the states and unions.

“Mr Rudd has the power now to withhold money from states that have not complied with this and and the challenge for him is will he do so?” he said.

One and a half cheers for at least being serious about education, and no cheers at all for Brendan Nelson whose chest merkin (a pubic wig, for those who don’t know) ill becomes him.

But I believe Kevin and Julia should actually listen to the education unions because they just might be right this time. I have no faith at all in the bureaucratic thrust of the K&J scheme, just as a very short time ago I railed about Looking to America, but not like Julie Bishop. I suspect that K&J will create a situation where schools will be issuing report cards that bear a strong resemblance to steel production figures in China during The Great Leap Forward or in the USSR under Stalin — inventive rather than strictly factual. Why? Because money will be at stake. Even if that fear is absurd — and it may well be — I can’t help thinking that the whole scenario will subtract even more from the time that is given to actual teaching.

I am of course a back number, but I am writing from the heart — I will let you judge if it is also from the head — as one who after all recently discovered that I have been, on occasions, an actual “teacher who changes lives.” Furthermore, my approach to such issues as literacy seems to have been endorsed recently when my English/ESL blog was peer-reviewed and placed in the top 100 language blogs on the Net. That does not make me infallible, but it does make me feel my instincts about what K&J are up to may have some substance. And I am not alone. I am writing also primarily as a secondary (and occasionally tertiary) English teacher who began the game forty-two years ago. I have seen a few Education Revolutions in my time.

I endorse Don Brown of Narrabeen in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As a former “recalcitrant” (“Rudd’s school revolution”, August 28) member of what Peter Hartcher has called a “huddling collectivist mediocrity” (“Pugilistic PM has picked a classy fight”) I wish to make a few things clear to the Prime Minister, whose election I, and many other similar recalcitrants, worked hard to bring about.

Years ago, the State Government introduced the principle that parents could elect to send their children to any public school they wished if space was available after the enrolment of local students. There was some relatively insignificant movement at the primary level. At the secondary level the most common reasons for parents not to choose the local high school were the availability of a specific subject in another high school or a decision to enrol in a private school.

Schools began a vigorous campaign to publicise their offerings, campaigns in which the media showed little interest despite some impressive performances, particularly during the participation and equity program of the federal Labor government in the 1980s.

The print media, and particularly the broadsheet media, continued to contrast the “elite” private schools with the public schools supposedly being run on Soviet lines by the above mentioned collective. The main story was the continuing drift to private schools because the public schools were “values free”. What nonsense.

Research by the Greens MP John Kaye showed that the greatest factor behind the drift was the allocation of public funding to private schools.

I would love the space to document all the flaws in Kevin Rudd’s proposal but two points will suffice. On the demand that schools provide more information, the fact is that schools have information on hand and communicate it to parents in various ways, including newsletters, parent-teacher nights and open days. Those parents who are interested can always seek an appointment with the principal or a specific teacher. In most cases this request would be welcomed.

Secondly, having taught in schools that were difficult to staff because of socio-economic disadvantage, I am very proud of their record in raising the aspirations of many students. I can cite dozens of students who were the first in their family to gain a qualification such as the School Certificate, HSC or a university degree.

These teachers are paid no more than teachers in privileged areas and frequently must travel great distances from their homes. Students owe a great debt to those teachers whose dedication and concern for their welfare made such a difference.

I also endorse Alan Young, even if while I agree in principle with his first point I think a lot of thought has to go into how it works.

Kevin Rudd’s proposal to link teacher pay to performance is long overdue, opposed only by those who would argue that what teachers do is in some way incapable of description, unlike the work of dentists, doctors, lawyers, plumbers and the rest of the workforce.

He is on more contestable grounds, however, when he proposes to link funding to results as though disadvantaged and advantaged schools operate on similar planets. Dire consequences are implied for those who don’t measure up.Some school environments have a clientele who will do well regardless of the dunces that teach them. Others will struggle despite the Messianic proclivities of staff.

Allan Young Retired principal, Strathfield

I even more strongly endorse this letter:

Never in 32 years as a professional educator have I felt so abandoned. If there is a problem in a school, Kevin Rudd says sack the principal and the teachers. He does not say give them adequate resources and smaller class sizes. He does not say provide support to deal with a broad range of challenging students. He does not say that if teachers need more skills, he will provide the funds.

Why won’t he and the rest of the politicians forget the populist claptrap and provide appropriate funding? Why won’t he work with us and not against us? If he and the others don’t, the standard of education must, as a result of their policies, decline.

Patrick FitzGerald Deputy principal, Young High School

Listen up, Kevin and Julia, lest your Education Revolution morphs into Education Reaction.

I am a back number, as I said, but I know there are those out there still — or about to be out there — who have the capacity and will to deliver the best to our present and future students. No matter what I may have said about or to The Rabbit at times, I am confident he is a fine English teacher with a great future; his love for the subject is unquestioned, and the progress he is making professionally is very pleasing to this old stager. Similarly, I am sure Thomas will deliver in spades in the future. And that’s just two I know about… Aluminium, too, in another sphere — and sometimes battling in a rather strange environment — knows what good English teaching is and what students need. My visit to The Mine the day before yesterday — I ran M’s pics by the Head of Art and Photography there — revealed a first-rate band of English teachers hard at work.

You may note this entry — and some other recent ones on this subject — are tagged “right wing politics.” Sadly, it is not inappropriate…

NOTE

…in a classic Freudian typo I posted this first as “One and a half cheers for Kevin Rudd and Julia Bishop”! What was I thinking?

 

Wikipedia is evil! or is it?

Worth looking out for… « English/ESL “…in your newsagent or library if you are planning to teach the Wikipedia module in the 2009 NSW Higher School Certificate.” That referred my readers to an issue of PC Authority which had a good article on the subject. The study of Wikipedia — what it is, how it is made, what it does, what its advantages and disadvantages are — is an option in that HSC course. I think at some stage it should be mandatory, perhaps extended to the use of the internet generally.

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Recycling old arguments…

First, let me pay tribute to a wonderful site which I have neglected lately but have just now restored as my home page in Firefox.

artsletters

It’s a rare day when there isn’t some item of interest there, and it does cast a wide net across a range of views in many disciplines. Given that too many of us tend to read sites we agree with and ignore (or mock) those of a different view, making our web experience something of an echo chamber, that wide net is a bonus.

Indirectly, as you will see in a moment, AL Daily recently sent me to Professing Literature in 2008 in The Nation, that wonderful and venerable American leftish magazine. William Deresiewicz is responding to the reissue, after 20 years, of Professing Literature, Gerald Graff’s history of American English departments.

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Posted by on May 13, 2008 in America, culture wars, curriculum, English studies, future schooling, generational change, literary theory/criticism, web stuff, writers, writing

 

This just about nails it, I think. More on "Is Australia a Christian Country?"

At the beginning of Chapter 10 of Corrupting the Youth: a history of philosophy in Australia, James Franklin quotes Lord Castlereagh’s instructions to William Bligh (1805):

In a Settlement, where the irregular and immoral habits of the Parents are likely to leave their Children in a state peculiarly exposed to suffer from similar vices, you will feel the peculiar necessity that the Government should interfere in behalf of the rising generation and by the exertion of authority as well as encouragement, endeavour to educate them in religious as well as industrious habits.

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Recycle 5: from January 20, 2004 — Values in NSW schools

This one is deep in my archives! In its original context it is very political too, being an angry response to Prime Minister John Howard’s unjustified attack on public education. You may see a leading non-government educator’s reply here.

I posted the “Values We Teach” document, since superseded but essentially the same. See Core Values on the NSW Department of Education site — unless they move it again! Terrible, that way, the NSW government. Always fiddling… However, here is the version I posted back in 2004.

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Posted by on November 14, 2007 in curriculum, inspiration, replays, teaching

 

This Oz think tank is worth visiting

Eidos “is a consortium of six universities and three state government agencies committed to improving education and social research, policy and practice. It’s work is conducted through a network of participating research centres and partners, through which Eidos draws the intellectual strength of the research community into an active dialogue with policy makers and practitioners. Within its universities and government agencies, there are more than 55 research and policy centres, and over 300 active senior and early career researchers. Eidos harnesses these resources to maximize their contribution to state, national and global education and social research, policy and practice.”

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Posted by on October 28, 2007 in curriculum, future schooling, teaching