Saturday, December 31, 2005

Gunther Kress and 2006

Just lately I have been thinking of what we need to teach in subject English and whether, and why, English should be a discrete subject (notwithstanding Leigh Blackall’s question via Wara of whether there need to be subjects at all; this reminds me of the discussion over at David Warlick about what schools of the future will be like, as the result of an interesting experiment he did, asking teachers what their classrooms will be like in 2015)
Reading Don Watson’s Weasel Words about public discourse in Australia, and a recent find by my sister about the PowerPoint form of the Gettysburg address (part of the PowerPoint makes you stupid meme, I think) has made thinking about what students need all the more relevant. Similarly, the experience of reading Gunther Kress has been absorbing for me as an English teacher. The concept of the ‘affordances’ of the modes of writing and image is very interesting. The uniqueness of each mode give them particular capacities to communicate in different ways; as he says "the world told is a different world to the world shown”. I found chapters 6, 7 and 8 really compelling. He theorises about literacy and the genre debates in his social theory of text; and looks at punctuation as framing. One quote in particular was “…punctuation can give one kind of insight into a writer’s sense of their place in the world, whether as a child or as an adult.” (p. 124)
Kress’ take on genre is affecting how I read all the texts I’m exposed to – it adds another layer of interest. When you think about genre “who acts in relation to whom” as “a social practice” taking place in “fields of power” (p. 85) you can see I have a lot to think about. His discussion on punctuation will definitely affect me next year when I’m responding to students’ writing. He gives lots of examples to illustrate and back up his points and, while I don’t understand it all, it seems to have enough in it to reimagine my teaching in 2006.
The subject that we in Australia call English is called different names in other English speaking countries: Language Arts in the US and Tim Frederick’s blog is called the ELA teaching blog (the ELA stands for either English Language Arts or English Language Acquisition, I think – maybe you’ll leave a comment, Tim, putting me straight). In a recent post Tim posits a divide between English teachers between those who see themselves as primarily Literature teachers and those who see themselves as Language teachers. That has been a great aspect of teaching English as I know it – that there hasn’t been a divide like that. In Year 12, the revised Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) English study design, to be implemented in 2007, does sit midway between the two other related subjects, English Language and Literature. Students wanting to pass VCE can now do four units of any one of these three subjects and combinations in of these in year 11 (thus English Language 1 and Literature 2 and English 3 and 4 or English 1 and Literature 2 and English Language 3 and 4.) One of the Englishes is still compulsory to pass VCE. Our challenge is make the subjects for our diverse cohort doing one of these three subject combinations as interesting as possible. Gunther Kress’ Literacy in a New Media Age looks at these issues in a way that makes me interested and thus I hope I can design classroom experiences that engage and energise the students.
The debate on what constitutes appropriate texts for study that has been simmering in the Australian media gets another little run in The Age today in Helen Razer’s article. Interestingly, Kress looks at the texts we should study in our English classrooms in three categories 1. literary texts, 2. socially significant texts that are not literary, and 3. banal, everyday texts. His analysis of a simple card that came with the purchase of a leather wallet was fascinating about what it communicates and the design and creation decisions that had to be made by someone (including background colour, size shape and weight of the paper that made up the card, font and so on) argues that being aware of these factors, making them visible, is a necessary precondition to being considered literate in this century.
It all leads me to think about what kind of teacher I want to be in 2006 and reading these two posts from Aaron Nelson and Graycie are just spot on. I love the title of Aaron’s post “Creating addictive classrooms” and similarly Graycie’s post “Passion” and the comments made me think about these issues. I’m sure there’s another post for me in there somewhere, when I’ve finished all the essential holiday tasks such as buying new bookshelves and getting my books and papers and so on into some kind of order.


  1. Why, thank you, Jo. Now that I've found your blog, I'll be reading reghularly. You will be good for me -- teaching is something I do, I'm not very good at reading about it. Your reflections there will help me.


  2. Thanks Graycie. Actually I find that writing reflectively helps me in so many ways and if it helps you as well that's even better. I love making these sorts of connections with fellow edubloggers and I think we all benefit from it, students included.

  3. KRESS, KRESS, KRESS!!! The call goes up and sounds across the oceans! I'd be interested in more of your thoughts to this end Jo. Keep an eye out for the new AATE book due out about March, "'Only connect ... ' English teaching, schooling and community" (AATE/Wakefield) Should be a beauty - and Gunther has written the forward.

  4. ELA stands for English Language Arts here in the U.S. I'm in favor of your way of structuring the English classes - one for literature, more like a content class, and another for language, the skills.

    Great stuff on your blog. I don't get to comment like I wish I could!