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Category Archives: English studies

Sunday Floating Life photo 33 AND Friday poem 18

Is that confusing enough for you?

Peter Skrzynecki’s “Immigrants at Central Station, 1951” was the subject of my tuition session yesterday. The coachee is doing the ESL course in English. On my way I took some pictures of Central from the perspective of the speaker in the poem – as I read it anyway. (We read the poem carefully so he could see why I had chosen my angles.) Of course it isn’t 1951 any more, but I do vividly remember migrant camps, and Central Station in the 1950s. What follows the poem is a sketch commentary around that HSC topic de jour — “Belonging”.

CIMG3512

Immigrants at Central Station, 1951

It was sad to hear
The train’s whistle this morning
At the railway station.
All night it had rained.
The air was crowded
With a dampness that slowly
Sank into our thoughts –
But we ate it all:
The silence, the cold, the benevolence
Of empty streets.

Time waited anxiously with us
Behind upturned collars
And space hemmed us
Against each other
Like cattle bought for slaughter.

Families stood
With blankets and packed cases –
Keeping children by their sides,
Watching pigeons
That watched them.

But it was sad to hear
The train’s whistle so suddenly –
To the right of our shoulders
Like a word of command.
The signal at the platform’s end
Turned red and dropped
Like a guillotine –
Cutting us off from the space of eyesight

While time ran ahead
Along glistening tracks of steel.

Peter Skrzynecki’s “Immigrants at Central Station” describes a family who with other families has just arrived in Sydney from a migrant camp in western NSW. The poem is about the poet’s own family. As well as describing the scene, the poet tells us a lot about their feeling of not belonging in this new place and their fears about the future.

Their journey to Sydney had been through a night of rain, cutting them off from the landscape they were passing through, making them feel uncomfortable, and echoing their feelings

The air was crowded

With a dampness that slowly

Sank into our thoughts –

The families each huddle together not just for warmth but also because the only sense of belonging they have left is to the family and their few possessions represented by their luggage. In this city whose cold “benevolence” has controlled their lives for years now they feel anxious and lonely. They do not know anyone in those “empty streets”. They don’t even really know where they are going next, or what it will be like when they get there. They feel like “cattle bought for slaughter” or people about to face the guillotine. They have had very little choice in life up to now. But there is nothing they can do except to accept what they are given.

But we ate it all:

The silence, the cold, the benevolence

Of empty streets.

The whistle of the departing train which had left them at Central is a “sad” sound – the poet uses the word twice. The tracks back to where they came from are also tracks into their future. Like the steel of a guillotine blade the tracks are “glistening tracks of steel”. It could be though that the last image offers a little hope, as “glistening” does suggest light.

CIMG3514a

— Photos – Neil Whitfield 1 November 2009

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Reading Jasper Fforde

A couple of years back my former Sydney University boss Ken Watson recommended Jasper Fforde to me.

fforde

Now at last I have read one of his amazing books, The Well of Lost Plots.

Imagine Little Britain meets the Cambridge Companion to English Literature + literary theory. Hilarious. The Wuthering Heights anger management day is just one gem of many.

 

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.

 

Notelets

1. Dr C has gone to Fiji for a week’s holiday. That could be interesting as a coup seems to be in progress.

2. A couple of (reconstructed) bits of conversation with coachees this week.

Coachee 1 (14): Yes, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 4.

Me: Really? That’s a bit much for a four year old… Did you read it in Chinese or English?

Coachee 1: In Chinese. (He was in Shanghai then.)

Me: Have you read it since in English?

Coachee 1: Yes.

Me: Do you still read a lot?

Coachee: One book a week.

Me: English or Chinese?

Coachee: Mostly in English.

********

Coachee 2 (17): I’m having some problems with Keating’s Speech on the Unknown Soldier. (One of seven set for the HSC unit on speeches.)

Me: What problems?

Coachee 2: What is mateship?

That led to an interesting discussion.

 

The nitty gritty of English

I have one coachee in Year 12 doing Advanced English for the HSC who presents with a considerable problem. It isn’t lack of intelligence or insight, but rather a level of English that makes it hard for him to demonstrate what he knows effectively. He arrived in Australia from Hong Kong in May 2007. While he had some English language instruction in Hong Kong, he is very much a Cantonese native speaker.

Here is a small example.

In the movie Australian, Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea that an outsider Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidmen), is trying to fit in to a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding the aboriginal’s thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in to them. With the introduction of the rough cow’s drover (Hugh Jackman) as an assistance of Sarah Ashley, the drover help her to save her remote cow station. In this case, Sarah not only fit in to the aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also affect by the drover, she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society. Her we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and in Australian, both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of the lack of understanding to the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understand and accept the Aboriginal culture then finally she is truly belong to the continent which is different to all the white people who live in the continent, they just physically belong to that place but not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie, that Sarah Ashley release and let the Aboriginal kid goes back to his grandpa his root this is a acceptance to a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

Here is the work in progress; I have left a section untouched* because I need to discuss it further with the student. Anything in square brackets is to be deleted.

In the movie Australia Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea: that an outsider, Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), is trying to fit into a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding [the] Aboriginal[’s] thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in with them. [With the introduction of] The rough cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) assists Sarah Ashley, [the drover] helping her to save her remote cattle station. *In this case, Sarah not only fits in to the Aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also is affected by the drover. she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society.*

“Cow” is feminine, “bull” is masculine; “cattle” is the generic or collective noun.

Here we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and Sarah Ashley in Australia. Both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of a lack of understanding of the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understood and accepted the Aboriginal culture so that finally she is truly able to belong to the continent, which is different from most of the white people who live in the continent, who just physically belong to this place but do not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie when Sarah Ashley [release and] lets the Aboriginal boy go back to his grandfather and his roots. This is an acceptance of a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

In the previous paragraph I have replaced a few examples of colloquial language with more neutral or formal language.

He is, by the way, improving quite rapidly, but still has a long way to go and not much time to get there.

 

Recession solving teacher shortage?

Ironic, isn’t it?

See When going gets tough, get teaching in today’s Australian.

IF Australia slides into recession, Connie and Peter Watson will be among the last to feel it.

As teachers in the public school system for decades, the couple not only love their profession, they know it provides a safe haven from what Kevin Rudd described this week as the financial "cyclone" about to hit our shores.

And they are not alone.

As the world descends into financial crisis, increasing numbers of school-leavers and early victims of the job crunch in other industries are cramming into education courses to seek a new, safer career.

This is no more apparent than in the former boom state of Western Australia, where anecdotal evidence suggests a significant rise in the number of applicants to teaching courses since the global slump in demand for resources brought the mining super-cycle to an abrupt halt.

"As a teacher, you not only ride out bad times, you don’t even notice them," Ms Watson told The Weekend Australian.

"You trade off a higher wage in the short term but you have solid employment and a predictable income."

The teacher of 40 years, who is now principal of Fitzroy North Primary School in Melbourne’s inner north, said she had recently hired several mature-aged graduate teachers who had come from the private sector.

"They have decided they would really like to teach and the security of teaching appeals to them after the ups and downs of the private sector," she said. "I am sure one of the strong appeals is the security of the job and the fact that people will always be needed." …

How to lift quality education outcomes? Test less…

I have mentioned this before, because it runs counter to conservative opinion – in which I include the various Labor governments in Australia! It also runs counter to most bureaucratic thinking in the Western world, wedded as that is to models derived from the corporate world and obsessed with measuring everything, even things which probably can’t be validly measured.

I mention it again because my English/ESL blog has recently had several visits from Reflections on TESOL,  a blog run by a Muslim English teacher at a university in the UK. That in itself is culturally interesting.

A recent post there is To test or not to test or teach?

…I recently came across an article about education in Finland as well as a podcast on the BBC. It was fascinating stuff!

In Finland, for most of a student’s life, there are no exams, and everyone passes. There are no failures. Finland’s philosophy on education is education for education’s sake it seems. Everyone must have the opportunity to be educated.

Teaching is the most popular profession. Hard to believe! Respect? For teachers? Is this the paradise we are all looking for? What’s more, for every teaching vacancy there are ten applicants.

In a UN survey, Finland came top.

Why are we not reading up on Finish educational techniques? They’re obviously doing something right.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2009 in Australia, education, English studies, ESL, exams and assessment

 

Irony (noun) – the Murdoch press thundering about purity in English Studies (see also “hypocrisy”)

Funnily enough I was talking about such things last Saturday at my Glebe breakfast – and we didn’t have latte or chardonnay, nor were we weaving baskets. I was asked what I thought of the current (“new”) HSC course. The questioner, a writer and academic, had also been singing the praises of Flaubert’s sentences, savouring them in French as well as in English translation. How much more a literary tragic can you be? (And I say that with respect.) He went on to say he was rather impressed with the “new” HSC English, watered down as it is in terms of theory, because he was finding students much more open to thought and better prepared than they used to be. Depends who you ask, doesn’t it?

The worst thing you can do in my opinion to English studies is to pickle it in brine or turn it into a nostalgia museum.

So I find the discussions going on between the National Curriculum people and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English appropriate, well-informed, and intelligent. They are in that respect opposite to today’s editorial in The Australian which I find plain dumb and very badly informed.

Like most Australians, we thought the point of English classes at school was to teach children to read and write properly and to understand literature. Alas, we stand corrected. As Justine Ferrari reports today, the organisation representing Australia’s English teachers’ association, in responding to the national English curriculum, recommends that "meaning making in and through language, across a range of forms, media and expressions, should be the core organiser of the curriculum."

Quite. Read it again – it gets muddier every time.

In our view, and undoubtedly that of most parents and students, the national curriculum did a good job defining literature clearly as "plays, novels and poems … cinema, television and multimedia … poetry, picture books, multimodal texts, short stories and drama, and a variety of nonfiction forms such as biography."

The English Teachers Association of NSW, alas, sneered at the definitions as "nebulous". Instead, they suggested "the term culturally valued texts as a definition of literature."

Culturally valued by whom? Teenagers at the lower end of the class who prefer Big Brother to Oscar Wilde? Or, more likely, progressive teachers who find it easier to play films than take students through the themes and characters of Pride and Prejudice?

The NSW teachers want the national curriculum to be about "other models of English such as personal growth, cultural studies and critical literacy as that is how teachers understand and have operated within the subject". The best English teachers are happy to focus on their subject, but those who want to be social engineers and cultural warriors dominate these teachers’ associations, which are becoming irrelevant.

Teaching grammar, which promises to be a vital improvement in the national curriculum, was dismissed by the NSW teachers as having "no influence on either the accuracy or quality of written language development for 5 to 16-year-olds". As grammar has not been taught widely to Australian students in a generation, that claim is dubious in the extreme.

The papers also push hard for assessment that is "inclusive of the full range of students" and for teachers to be given wide scope to select materials to be studied in the interests of "equity".

However worthy the teachers believe this approach to be, it is precisely students from disadvantaged and non-English-speaking homes who have most to lose from such a defeatist system. Many disadvantaged students, and some from affluent homes, do not have access to good books and are not encouraged to read by parents.

English teachers who truly value their professionalism would encourage a rigorous curriculum, taught with expertise, that provides all students with the best possible written and verbal communication skills and an appreciation of literature. This is the best way to set disadvantaged students up for life.

The Rudd Government must ignore the push to impose the worst of current state-based systems on to the national curriculum.

Where can one start? Perhaps by pointing out that the words singled out for praise in paragraph three in fact paraphrase (and mean much the same as) the words roundly condemned in paragraph one. Nor do I find anything arcane in "meaning making in and through language, across a range of forms, media and expressions, should be the core organiser of the curriculum."

But then I wrote twenty-six years ago:

I am concerned here with theory at a fairly low level of generality; or, putting it another way, I am in search of models and procedures which might make my practice more effective, more critical, or more broadly based… In all of this I am making the following assumptions about English teaching:

1. Language creates and orders meanings, personal and social, outward and inward. Language is the primary means of creating, expressing and interpreting the self, in the context of society and history. Language is also a means of ordering and interpreting reality. While there are many difficult theoretical questions raised by the idea that language constructs the self and reality, we cannot give up the idea that in doing so language is more than merely self-reflexive.

2. Central to English teaching is the learner as meaning-maker, a participant in the network of meanings that constitute our culture.

3. In using and studying language or other means of meaning-making in a variety of contexts and realizations, the learner grows more competent, more aware, and less helpless.

Glossing that eleven years ago I said:

My own position (and that of many I suspect) has been an evolving one. Rather than earlier approaches being absolutely displaced by later ones, I have tended to keep what works from many perspectives. So when I embraced aspects of the process or whole language approaches, it was because these opened up the range of things students could do; but I continued to look at sentence grammar, paragraphing, spelling and so on. Teaching of grammar and style was enhanced by reading in the areas of stylistics and language variation in the later 1970s and 1980s, and these were in turn strengthened by the genre pedagogy of the early 1990s. An abiding concern of most English teachers has been critical reading; the meaning and scope of that has been enriched by insights from Freebody and Luke, Kress and Hasan, to name a few.

I am all in favour of teaching the classics, keeping in mind that the idea there were “classics” in English is surprisingly recent. There were no English departments in universities anywhere until the late 19th century, and very few until well into the 20th century. I am also in favour of enabling students to negotiate all the forms and media we/they confront in the real world. I think that is called “literacy”. It has also been called (by Hemingway) “crap detection.”  Very handy when reading the Murdoch press.

And that will do for now. Just as the Oz is simply regurgitating today, so I have responded to their past eructations. Check the appropriate tags and categories in the side bar. Here is just one example: Here we go again 2 (December 2007).

I get so tired of their threadbare bitching.

Read the AATE submission for yourself: national-english-curriculum-framing-paper-aate-response.

 
Comments Off on Irony (noun) – the Murdoch press thundering about purity in English Studies (see also “hypocrisy”)

Posted by on February 28, 2009 in Australia, education, English studies, literacy