Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What should English teachers teach?

What do students need? What makes a good teacher or a good classroom or a good school? These are some thoughts that engaged me today when the wider curriculum committee got together (in the holidays) to discuss VATE’s response to the draft VCE English Study design that is now up for consultation and has been the source of quite a bit of angst in some sections of the media. Commentators are fond of saying the world is different now. And in many ways I am glad that it is. But students need something different from teachers now too. And what we teach our students must recognise this as well. The draft study design is an attempt to cater for this realisation. The two main areas of concern are the reduced number of literary texts, and the inclusion of a new area of study called Creating and Responding. In this space there is the opportunity to make better connections with our students. As Chris Wheat’s article offers: the draft study design “engag(es) them more closely with the language” and that it does so “by moving the course onto their own turf.” It is the connections we make with the students and the connections we facilitate in them to their learning that are so important.

As Konrad Glogowski from the Blog of Proximal Development says: “This (the idea of teaching students to make connections) reminds me … students need to learn about great minds and the ideas they produced, and not just what’s online (or in books). They also need good teachers, people who are experienced “connectors” - people who will help students…(to be, as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English states, “individuals with skills for critical reflection and questioning. Such skills will equip students to be informed participants in our democratic society, allowing them to thoughtfully consider issues, and effectively articulate their own point view in keeping with their developing moral and ethical frameworks.”)” Konrad goes on, “They need to realize that this kind of content (”great minds” or “great books”) is not a set collection of facts.” And so we want them to read critically and to learn how texts are constructed. “Finally, they need the freedom to explore and connect, to co-construct, to learn through discovery. They need to know that the journey takes precedence over the final result.”

It is compulsory for VCE students to complete studies in one of the English subjects to achieve their certificate. Why should English be compulsory in this way? What should this English subject achieve? The reasons given above by AATE is clear. However, any study design for English should recognise and cater for the diversity of students who will take the subject, and the wide variety of knowledge and experience that the students bring to the study, to offer choices for students and teachers in the way the course is developed. So, while we want students to read literature and gain from it wisdom and pleasure, the idea that that this can only be done by reading “classic” literature is too narrow. It’s good that the course is offering choice while encouraging students to still read deeply and respond. To quote from Chris’s article again: “All students have a place at the table despite their reluctance to embrace King Lear.”

And what’s going on in the world of Ed Tech? The Worldbridges Webcast, a live discussion about what’s going on in educational technology, is informative and interesting. Recently they have discussed the use of blogs, and podcasting, connecting students worldwide, students publishing content, ideas for involving students in posting their own finished edited content to a wiki and more. At the same time the hosts are connected to a chatroom so the listeners can intersperse their own comments, which are then incorporated into the podcast, not to mention talkback (a teacher from Brazil called into share her work with students, inviting participation from the hosts).

When I reflect on this sort of potential I say bring on changes, engage the students with technology, embrace student creations and presentations. The literature we love is not going away, but we need to build on it. We need to broaden the range of literacies we foreground in our English classrooms.

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