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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

37. This Teaching Life (7) : Something happened - revisited again

The dialogue over the 'Something Happened' lesson continues. Dean commented on my most recent posting, and I responded to him in the form of a letter.

In your comment on my blog entry, Dean, you wrote:

As I sit here and finish marking work and get stuck into writing reports. I take a moment to step back and read the comments and feedback that I received from year nine.

I smile at some of their comments they are innocent and truthful. Obviously they are also being nice... I can't help but think how much more I need to do. Yes I may be cool, but that wears off. When it wears off that leaves me cold and naked. Hopefully they see more than novelty they see me for who I am and what I offer.

I know I have to be more firm, but how do I achieve that without being a dictator?

Dear Dean,

It's 7.15 pm on Tuesday. Today you asked me to reflect on his teaching over the past 5 weeks. At that stage I hadn't read your comment on the blog. One phrase stood out for me in particular:

I know I have to be more firm, but how do I achieve that without being a dictator?

There's a few observations I'd like to make:

1. On being 'cool' or 'cold and naked'

My son's girlfriend, Michelle had a dream on Sunday night. Like us, she's an English teacher. Her dream went like this:

'I was teaching a cross-curriculum unit, and it had a Science component. The Science aide had brought a box into the classroom where I was teaching. In the box were 25 young kittens. I checked the kittens out - they were important to the next part of the lesson. They were all there, all cute and cuddly. I put the lid on the box and went on with the first part of the lesson.
When finished that section, I went over to the box and lifted the lid. And all the kittens were dead! I'd assumed that the Science Aide would have punched holes in the lid of the box - but she hadn't, and all of the kittens had died.
I felt terrible. I thought, 'Nobody will ever let me teach in this school again.'

Dreams like this are very common among teachers. In our dreams, we teachers often dream of being 'exposed'. Some teachers dream of literally being naked in front of a class. In this dream, Michelle is 'exposed' as being incompetent: 25 tiny, helpless creatures whose very lives depended on her being competent, and they end up dead! As she observes at the end, she fears that 'Nobody will ever let me teach in this school again.'

Your self image - of being 'cold and naked' is an expression of the same fear: you feel as though you don't have what it takes, that ehind the mask of the 'cool' guy, there is a cold, naked, vulnerable person who has nothing to offer.

2. On being a dictator

You observe:
I know I have to be more firm, but how do I achieve that without being a dictator?

Who said you have to be firm?
I want to go back to "the lesson"; there are a few conclusions/hypotheses to draw from what happened.

Observation 1: You used the 'duster' as a symbol of shifting control. 'Whoever is holding the duster is the only one allowed to speak.' That was the rule, and the class accepted that. One interpretation is that you 'devolved' authority - you passed it over to them, symbolically.

Hypothesis 1: Maybe we need to find more ways of 'devolving authority' - ways of 'escaping' from the dictator role that seems so much part and parcel of being a teacher.

Observation 2: You deliberately became 'cold and naked'. You took a risk, and exposed a vulnerable part of yourself.

Hypothesis 2: Maybe the 'good teacher' is NOT the dictator; maybe the 'good teacher' is the teacher who takes the risk of self exposure - of speaking about vulnerability in an honest and straight forward way.

Observation 3: After you spoke openly about something that had affected you deeply, the students were also willing to speak openly/honestly/personally.

I think holistic education is about being 'authentic' in the classroom. This implies, however, that we can know who we are. Or maybe, that we can know the who[s] that we are.

My guiding principles/ key ideas on this are as follows:

(1) We live our lives in moments, in tiny crevices in time.
(2) Much of the time, we are not 'wholly present' - we are wherever we are, but our mind is elsewhere. We are day dreaming, or re-playing a scene, or trotting out a script. Charles Tart argues that we are sleeping much of the time, we are 'on autommatic pilot'.
(3) Each of us is a 'multiple'. William James described humans as 'tenements of clay', inhabited by any number of persons. One formulation of this multiplicity is Berne's notion of the child-parent-adult in each of us. Jung proposed the persona (the ME I want others to see), and a multiplicity of archetypes - clusters of personalities. Pearson, borrowing from Jung, suggested 6 key archetypes:

The Innocent

The Victim / Orphan / Wounded Child

The Warrior / Achiever / Dominator / Controller

The Care Giver / Martyr

The Wanderer

The Wise One / Trickster

In another formulation, she adds other archetypes: the Watcher/Observer; the Lover; the Creator; The Destroyer; the Male; the Female... and so on.

(4) The 'authentic' self / 'selves'

Maybe there is no authentic self - just a number of more or less dominant 'clusters' [archetypes] living within the tenement of clay, and each demanding to be heard from time to time.

(5) 'Authenticity' in this way of seeing things is 'knowing who is speaking, who is wanting to call the shots'.

3. Hopefully they see more than novelty they see me for who I am and what I offer.

This comment takes on a more layered meaning. What they saw that Wednesday was a different aspect of you. You had been, at times, the warrior - taking control, exercising authority, being the teacher-warrior. What they saw were two, maybe five other you(s):

Wounded Child - you told the story of the threat of a death of someone close to you, and you were exposed for what you really are - a vulnerable human being. You - like every one of them, like every one of us - had suffered what Billy caled life pain. [What a great expression that is.]

Caregiver - the feminine opposite of the warrior. The warrior takes control, the caregiver gives love. Did you notice how Tom continually said the word love in a scornful way? Would-be warriors don't like the idea of loving and caring; they are embarrassed by it, and so must riducule and demean it. And yet, the warrior archetype emerges out of the anger of the wounded child - being a warrior is a way of demanding love.

Wise One - you spoke of pain, of coming to terms with death and loss, of the impact of your cousin's confrontation with death. These are all matters of soul, they have to do with deep wisdom.

Wanderer - you showed, too, that you are not uni-dimensional. You, like all of us, share the wanderer's uncertainty, the wanderer's hankering after 'truth' and 'authenticity'.

Innocent - finally, you displayed graet trust. You entrusted them with something that was clearly of great significance to you.

So - in that Wednesday moment, they met a multi-dimensional person. They met the innocent/victim/warrior/caregiver/wanderer/wise Dean. An authentic bunch of tenants from a 'tenement of clay' named Mr D. And for that brief moment, THAT encounter allowed them to examine and 'expose' some of their own innocence, and victim-hood, some of their deep caring for each other, some of their wanderer's doubts, and - yes - much wisdom.

Look at Billy's wisdom - life pain. And Lauren's. And Cam's declaration of what pain his father's death had caused. And Jess's surprise: 'I've never seen our class so serious about something before'.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

36. From the Archives 2. Of Jokes, and insults and evangelists

First, a word about From the Archives.

Over the many years that I've been writing I've churned out millions of words: stories, poems, songs, feature articles, sketches, parodies ...

I've decided to add some them to my blog from time to time, so that
crevices in time will include not only contemporary stuff, but also stuff produced over the past 40 or so year. Of Jokes, and Insults and Evangelists was first published on Triond in February, 2008. It has had almost 800 hits, and so is one of the most read of my articles.

Of Jokes, and insults and evangelists

Breakfast is a great occasion for mind wan/wonderings. Take this morning …
Just this morning I was drinking coffee at a local restaurant and reading a column written by Catherine Deveny, an Australian journalist who works for The Age newspaper in Melbourne. And it got me reminiscing. About old jokes and insults. Pretty soon, I was 14 again. That would have been in the late 1950s. Two jokes from that era have survived the ravages of brain cell deterioration.
The first joke:
A fellow sees a sign at the zoo, outside the llamas cage. It reads: “Beware the llama spits.”
And he was.
And it did.
The second jokes is built on the same joke-pattern as the first:
Two sailors are scrubbing the deck of a ship.
One says, “Where’s the soap?”
And the other replies, “Yes, it does.”
[I know I'll be accused of some kind of chauvinism, but I'm going to explain those jokes. Why? you ask. Because the other day, I told the following joke to a friend, and it took over twelve hours for her to get it. That joke goes like this:
So here are the explanations.
1. Joke #1 Beware (Be where) the llama spits, and he was (where the llama spits) and it did (spit)
2. Joke #2 Where's the soap (wears the soap). ]
Most people know that the “llama spits” joke is based on the actual behaviour of llamas. And if, like me, you watch “Funniest Home Videos”, you will in all likelihood have seen a caged llama spit into the face of a zoo visitor.
How insulting! To be spat upon by a llama.
‘Now wait a minute!’ I can hear you saying. “Yes, the llama may be spitting, but aren’t you indulging in anthropomorphism by claiming that the llama’s intention is to insult the spectator.’
Maybe, maybe. But there is evidence that animals ARE capable of intentional insult. You’ve no doubt heard about the monkeys and chimpanzees who have been taught to use sign language to communicate with their human guardians. Some of them develop vocabularies of 200 words or more – it’s the monkeys I’m referring to!
They even seem able to create new words of their own. One – called Washoe – stunned her tutors with the following piece of creative language-making. Washoe had already learned the signs for three key idea: ‘fruit’, “sweet” (for lollies and such) and “water”. One day they gave Washoe a piece of watermelon, the first watermelon Washoe had ever eaten. She clearly enjoyed the experience, and wanted more. And then she blew them away: she held up the piece of watermelon and made a new combination of signs – sweet water fruit. Watermelon – sweet-water-fruit. (I’m guessing Washoe had some German ancestry; that’s how words are created in German: you just keep adding bits. We purchased a new household machine recently; it was of German design and manufacture. The cardboard box announced that it was a bordenstaupsaugar: floor+dust+sucker – a vacuum cleaner, in other words – English words).
On another occasion, Washoe made the sign that indicated that she wanted a lolly – “sweet”. Her keeper, John, signed, “No”. Washoe signed “SWEET!” with greater vigour. Again, her keeper signed, “NO!” When Washoe was refused a third time, Washoe signed, “JOHN + DUNG” (or faeces or SHIT). Now THAT is an insult! It’s a common insult among humans. Angry children will sometimes call another person a “Poo Poo” – same intent, just slightly less offensive language.
The literary and media worlds are a well known breeding ground for insulting behaviour and comment. Truman Capote, asked to write a review of Jack Kerouak’s masterpiece On The Road left no one with any doubt as to what he thought of Kerouak’s work:
‘This isn’t writing – it’s typing.’

That must be one of the most succinct demolitions in the world of English letters.
Mind you, I’ve come across a couple that were nearly as good. I was teaching short story writing to a group of adults in Mildura, a rural city in Victoria, Australia. One of my students was a 60 year old woman who wrote pretty good short stories, albeit in a fairly traditional way. She was a fan of the great Australian writer, Henry Lawson, who was a great exponent of the literary short story (if you don’t know his work, look up The Drover’s Wife and have a read). I was keen, though, to broaden her tastes, so I urged her to read some experimental fiction, some of the post modernists – Barthelme and the like. I asked her to write a review of their stories. Her review was, in my view, on a par with Capote’s in terms of its clarity, succinctness and venom:

She wrote: If I could write like this, I wouldn’t.

All of which brings me back to Catherine Deveny, and her column. She was having a rave about televangelists, and got onto one of my favourite topics: Benny Hinn and his Signs and Wonders School of Ministry. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I watch the tele-Pentecostals pouring out their evangelical messages, and performing their squeaky-clean gospel music, and telling people that God will give them wealth if they believe hard enough.
(I watch this stuff for the same reason I pay attention to Right wing politicians purveying their pro-war, pro-business, anti-Green message: it’s important to know what the enemy is up to.)

And near the top of my “not to be trusted” list is Benny Hinn. Why am I disturbed by Mr Hinn. Deveny quotes him as saying that Heaven is “a real city made of actual jewels that will descend to earth and cover the whole of America.” I wonder how he knows this? Could it be that … God spoke to him? That’s certainly what he wants us to believe. Life has taught me to be wary of any wealthy salesmen who are selling religion. The Bible said something about it being impossible to serve two masters: God and Mammon. So I don’t trust Benny.
Well, Deveny has come up with a great line that describes Benny Baby to a tee. It may not be original; it may even be a little adolescent. But that’s okay by me, because I reckon for clarity and succinctness and simple truth, it wins the jackpot.
She writes:
Benny Hinn has the magnetism of a bag of sick.
Thanks, Catherine. You made my morning.

35. From the Archives 1. Whoops! The just plain stupid things we write and say

First, a word about From the Archives.

Over the many years that I've been writing I've churned out millions of words: stories, poems, songs, feature articles, sketches, parodies ...

I've decided to add them to my blog from time to time, so that crevices in time includes not only contemporary stuff, but also includes stuff produced over the past 40 or so year. I wrote this first article sometime in the late 1990s. I can still picture the beginnings of the article: I was travelling on a train at 7 in the morning on my way from Eltham, where I lived (and live) to Frankston, where I was teaching Professional Writing. This first item - Whoops! - was published on
Triond in February, 2008.

The just plain stupid things we write and say

We’re all guilty of it at some time or other – we open our mouth and put our foot in it. These small human failings go by various names: howlers, bloopers, idiotisms. But whatever name we give them, these not -so bon mots give rise to two reactions: embarrassment for the speaker (or writer) and riotous laughter for the listener or reader.

Radio and TV programs devoted to “bloopers” – the name such errors have been given in those industries – chronicle the frailty of the human tongue – the capacity of news presenters, interviewers, actors and the like to get things wrong.

For many years, it was quite common for newspapers to print what were termed “schoolboy howlers”. Such articles often appeared in January newspapers, and were gleaned from the examination scripts of students who, in the heat of a two or three hour exam, managed to get the pen into motion before properly engaging the brain. Gems like:

The rhythem of the Bible is usually unrhyming Diameters.
A metaphor is a thing you shout through.
And he said, “What shall I do to inherit interal life?”
Poetry is when every line starts with a capital letter.
William the Conqueror was thrown from his horse, and wounded in the feudal system, and died from it.

There is sometimes a certain joy in seeing people make fools of themselves publicly. In Australia there is a well known TV Sports commentator named Sandy Roberts. He managed to produce one of the all time greats of the blooper genre. The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s most prestigious horse race, and one of its most lucrative. In Australia, it is known as “the race that stops the nation”, and that’s a pretty apt description; in the mid afternoon of the first Tuesday in November each year, Australia comes to a virtual standstill as people tune in their radios to listen to the broadcast of the race, or sit down to watch this spectacular event on the television.

In 1980, Sandy Roberts stood up in front of the nearly 100,000 people at the race track, and an audience of millions of television viewers and radio listeners, to introduce the 1980 Miss Australia, a young women with the unfortunate name of Susan Dick. Sandy Robert’s managed to stun the nation, however, when he began:
‘May I introduce the winner of the 1980 Miss Australia contest, Miss Australia herself: Susan Cock.’

Politicians, perhaps because they are in the public gaze so often, and are so prone to giving speeches, inevitably blunder from time to time. But Dan Quayle, vice president of America during early 1990s, managed to produce idiotisms on almost every occasion that he spoke publicly. Such was his outstanding achievement in this regard that whole websites have been established that are devoted to recording for posterity Dan Quayle’s unrivalled capacity to produce inanities. Here are a couple to whet your appetite:

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.
One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is `to be prepared’.

As Quayle once observed:
When you make as many speeches and you talk as much as I do and you get away from the text, it’s always a possibility to get a few words tangled here and there.

Of course, Quayle is not alone in this. Indeed, some would argue that the current (soon to be immediate past) president of the US, George W Bush has surpassed Quayle’s extraordinary capacity for garbled nonsense. Pontificating on the state of literacy – or rather, illiteracy – GWB inadvertently proved the very point he was making with the following:

The illiteracy level of our children are appalling. Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?

Peter Sellars once satirized poli-speak in a sketch which lampoons the pompous, ponderous pointlessness of much Party political propaganda:
“Let me begin by saying that I do not consider existing conditions likely. On the contrary, I regard them as matters of the gravest significance…”

The English language, in the hands – or rather, on the tongues – of non-native English speakers can give rise to some extraordinary word pictures. A few years back, a list appeared on the Net composed of signs from around the world – the world on non-English speaking countries.

A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest:

It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site that people of
different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless
they are married with each other for that purpose.
In a Vienna hotel:
In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.

Whoops! is an irregular column, devoted to exploring the mangulation of the language – unearthing the mistakes, the bloopers, the howlers, the grammatical ineptitudes in the hope that such errors will be avoided in the times to come. Whoops! is devoted to creating a better, brighter linguistic future. As George W B once said: I think we agree, the past is over.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

34. My teaching life 6: What exactly happened?

I woke early this morning with memories of that amazing lesson still in my mind. But perhaps seeing more than was actually there. Perhaps I was creating a fantasy, something to make me feel good and keep my spirits up as winter approached.
And yet I had been sure that something of great significance had occured between 2.40and 3.20 yesterday. I decided to check out my perceptions, and ask the students who had been there to write their responses. That way, I'd have 20 or so views to go on, and not just my own.

I visited 9.2 in their HUmanities class, and the teacher agreed to allow me 10 or so minutes with them....
In all, 21 students who were in that Wednesday 9.2 class are in class today. I explain that I want them to write honestly about the session; I give them ten minutes. They settle reasonably quickly, and soon there is silence.

The first piece I read comes from one of the girls. It is very short. Jessica writes:

Yesterday in English Mr D conducted a litle Deep and Meaningful session about Stand by Me. It started off (we were) talking about the movie but then we bagan to talk about coming of age. I've never really seen the class so serious about something.

Her words reinforce my sense that something important, perhaps extraordinary, happened:

I've never really seen the class so serious about something.

As they finish, they hand in their sheets to me. I quickly skim the contents ... and know that I was right; what I thought happened had indeed happened.

Of course, this positive response is not universal. Two of the students were untouched by what occurred.

L. is one of the youngest in the class. My expectation - that the conversation will not have engaged him, either intellectually or emotionally - is borne out. He writes:

It was very very very very boring. All I did was laugh at people and get bored ... Some bits were funny though, like when Mike hit James with the rubber thing (he means the duster) and when Glyn said he tried to burn his parents room when he was five.
By Lachlan
PS It was very very very very very boring.

Clearly, Lachlan is not ready for this kind of conversation. His immaturity shows through in the flippancy of his writing.

Dylan mentions that Yesterday in English class we did something different but concludes:
I thought is was boring to tell you the truth.

I thought is was boring to tell you the truth.

These two students, for whatever reason, were not engaged.

Emerson, who is class captain, wrote about the way the discussion on the topic of 'coming of age' went:

... My response was that I had become more mature in a way that I could only describe as miraculous. I used to be a real pain by annoying people ...

Most of his year 7 and 8 teachers would agreem as would many of his friends.... but he goes on:

... but ever since one of my friend's mums died of cancer I am more aware of my surroundings and people's feelings. I believe this session helped our grade come closer friends and get to know each other better.

Robert wrote of how
people opened up about their experiences. It took all lesson and people confessed their feelings. I didn't say a single thing. I liked the session because we didn't do any work and we weren't forced to contribute.

Dominic has done a lot of growing up since the February fires of 2009, when his home burned to the ground, family friends died, and close family members - especially his grandparents - were lucky to get out alive. He wrote:

When we first started the conversation I thought it was going to be really boring, but as we kept talking it started to mean something to me. I started to think about how I came of age.... after my house burned down I started to learn the value of things and how to be strong for the family. After the fires I started to think that part of me became a man, and that I knew I had to be responsible from now on. ... Overall it was a great lesson.

Tracey describes how
The discussion turned into away for us to tell the others in our class how we'd grown up in the last couple of years ... I remember Mike saying something about when you get older you take on more rights and have more responsibilities... I said that school days are the best days of our lives and everyone was like, No Way! but after I explained it, they all understood what I was saying.
Everyone in the session matured a bit and I definitely learned something about myself and the rest of the class.

Glyn liked the duster idea. It was
good because when you had it you were the only one that could talk so you felt respected by others in the class.

Glyn movingly describes what he felt:
Some people really opened up and told us how they matured. At the end of thye lesson I have never done this wit a teacher but I went up to Mr D and thanked hoim for the lesson.

Like Tracey, Niki observed:
I actually quite liked yesterday's lesson and it was interesting to see how some members of our class matured over the period of the lesson.

People reading this might say of this piece: How can that be? How is it possible for people to 'mature over the period of a lesson'?

I'm taken back to that notion of moments: that we live our lives in moments, and that our lives turn on a moment. It is a rare thing for us, as humans, to be fully, intensely present in 'the moment'. As I write, I'm listening to the sounds outside my office, I'm aware of my tummy grumbling and the discomfort in my gut, I'm wondering about my Karin, my partner, and about what's for tea tonight. I'm partially focussed on this moment of writing, but I'm partially fractured too.

It's even rarer for two or three people to be intensely present in 'the moment'. Much of the time, the classroom is the last place you expect to find real intensity of focus. Such moments are so rare, and that is what makes them so special.
Cam's response is significant:

... we were going to have a good class discussion about the film Stand by Me. It became into a sort of sad discussion when I got asked how I have grown up in the past few years. I said that when my dad died I didn't understand it at first, because I was only little, but as the years wnet on I understood that I had no dad. So it was sad for me. Although I said I grew up because I got on with life and put it behind me and thougt of all the good in life. I know my dad would be proud of me. Overall, that day in English I thought it was a really good session for everyone.

An unidentified student wrote:
Everyone added to the talk ... Some people said some great things ... we discoverred more and more .... as we talked and talked.

Laura wrote:
Everyone satred to share persoanl stories from when 'coming of age' occured for them. It was a really good lesson and eveyone got a lot out of it.

Keeley's response was particularly insightful:
Aftre Mr D opened up about one of his stories the whole class, including me, I think were touched. Overall I enjoyed this conversation. Now I have a lot more respect towrads my classmates and new sub teacher.

Billy hit the nail on the head:
We all took it seriously after a while and some of us really opened up. I know I did when I said I have learned to cope and endure horrible things in life. Another good one to me was when Cam said that he had trouble growing up as a boy without a father. People don't realise (until they actually open up) how hard it is to admit something personal, or talk about something that has affected your life in a big way. The only sad thing is that people who haven't suffered from a life pain are oblivious to how much it can affect someone each day...

Jess' response was, as usual, thoughful:

The talk turned into away for us to tell the class about how about the way we have personally matured. I saw that what some people had said was very hard for them, like Cam telling the class about how his dad doied when he was only one, and (someone else) saying that her mum got very sick sometimes. I felt like I could have said something more powerful that had just happened inmy life, but I chose not to.

Lauren summed the lesson up as follows:

Yesterday we had an extraordinary English lesson. The class were seated in a circle and we had a very deep and insightful conversation o 'coming of age'. In the lesson the whole class was completely engaged throughout the 50 minutes and were interested and everybody listened to each other make valuable points and took turns holding the whiteboard eraser as they spoke....

I felt the class really connected with each other and think that some of the most valuable lessons are not ones dictated, written on paper, or wtached on TV - yet persoanl life experience, which is something they should teach in schools ...

We have spoken at length, at our school, about the need to engage our students. In this lesson, conducted by a young graduate teacher in his first year of teaching, engaged the students.

Lauren's version of what happened is not exactly true, of course. As these accounts show, not everyone was engaged, and not everyone was engaged for the full 50 minutes.

The gravity came upon us almost without warning. I think Keeley pinned it when she says that it was Mr D's story that was the turning point - at about the 20 miute mark or so. The film, Stand by Me, had become a focus for the class's attention for a week or more - it also 'engaged' the class, and Mr D had done a great deal of the groundwork that made this lesson, this miraculous moment, possible.

33. This Teaching Life (5): Something happened

Something happened.

It was the last session of the day. Period 6 on a Wednesday, with 9.2. Dean had let the class in, and when I arrived, they were rearranging the tables. I was out of sorts after a tough day, and facing a Learning & Teaching meeting after school. [Eliot always comes in handy:
Just the worst time ... for such a journey.]

Dean and I hadn't spoken much during the day. We'd been with the Year 8s in the ALP in the Library for 2 session, then in the DLC. And he spent most of lunch time reading the DNA of Relationships.

9.2 are restless, tired. Mid week disenchantment. Last session, I-want-to-go-home weariness. For the kids, for me. Lauren had met me in the yard at the start of period 5. She was planning to wag, told me a lie about going to see a counsellor, wanted me to cover for her. Or maybe wanted me to tell her she couldn't go. I took her to her Italian class.
'I hate Italian.'
'I don't care,' I said.
'What'll happen if I don't come to English'
'I'll tell Mrs Fotia and she'll ring your Mum and Dad, and you'll get an internal suspension for a couple of days.'

When I leave her in Italian I am not confident that she'll come to English.
'See you period 6,' I tell her.

So I arrive to find the kids rearranging the tables to form a circle, and I'm thinking, 'What are you doing, Dean? This is looking like a recipe for ... well, maybe not disaster, but for disorder.' Jess- the integration aide - is sitting on a table near the front of the room. Michael and James start wrestling over a chair, dangerously, the kind of stupid horse pay hat sets my nerves on edge. There's chaos floating around the room, and I'm aware of a strong impulse to intervene.

Mr D finally gets them organised and in their chairs, and something like a misshapen oval has formed, and he's holding a whiteboard duster and explaining that people can only speak while they're holding the duster.

He starts a conversation with them - about Stand by me, the film he's been doing with them. And they settle a little, but Tom and Emerson are ready to muck up, and Michael is still being silly. And then I remember: bugger. I've got to mark the roll, get the names of last session non attenders down to the office. So I do that while Dean is speaking to the class about the movie being a 'coming of Age' movie, and asking what that might mean and they start answering. It's going okay, but ... I'm still aware of a high level of apprehension.

I leave the room and take the roll to the office. When I return I immediately sense that something has gone on. As I enter the room eyes turn to me ... but I can't read them very well. They are saying 'Something happened while you were gone .... ' Or maybe it's one of those, 'What's Mr Carozzi going to say?' looks. Dean looks at me too, but I can't read what his eyes might be saying.

He continues talking to the class. I whisper to Jess, the aide: 'What happened?' She whispers, and of course I can hear nothing. Eventually I make out something of what she is saying.
Turns out there was something went on between Lauren and Cam - some shouting, some altercation.
'Oh god,' I'm thinking. 'That's all we need - a slanging match between Lauren and Cam.'

Dean is speaking again, refocussing them after the unpleasantness.
'Has there been a time in your lives when you suddenly became aware of something that really changes you - makes you grow up... a coming of age experience?'

And he tells the class about something from his life, about his cousin who was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph system. And there is a turn in the tide. Dean speaks with simple honesty, and deep feeling, about his sense of powerlessness in the face of his friends life-threatening illness, and of how hard it was to even see his friend or talk to his friend at that time. How angry and moody his friend was, how terrible the treatment was.

And my year 9s are engaged. They ask questions: 'Did he die?'
'No - he's in remission,' Dean tells them. 'He survived.'
'What's remission?' they want to know.

'But that experience made me think a lot - about what's important in my life... I did a lot of growing up at that time ... I learned a lot from that experience - about myself, about what's important ... '

He invites them to share the things that they've learned, and the duster starts doing the rounds. Tracey, Jess, Lauren, Glyn ... they speak with simple honesty, struggling to find the words sometimes to express what they want to say.

Cam speaks. ' I think most of you know that my Dad died when I was one, and I've taken a long time to learn how to keep on going and be happy ...'

And there is no sniggering when anyone speaks. Instead, there is deep respect as, one by one, they make their statements about what they've had to learn. Tracey talks about how lucky she feels, about how these are the best days of our lives, because she looks at her dad, how he's working all the time and earning money, and her mum's always busy, and how lucky she feels to be able to spend 6 hours a day with her friends at school, and how when you get older you can't do that because there's so much responsibility, so much you have to do. And how we [and she's speaking to her class mates here] how we should be so grateful to have this time - these 'best years of our lives' ...

I can't recall everything that was said. Lauren is there, all the time, as the conversation grows serious, and she is serious, and Dean praises her for it. And Michael is suddenly speaking with gravitas and intensity, speaking with wisdom about his life, their lives... and I just wish that I could remember clearly his every word... but I can't. All I know is, the silly, infantile child that he is so often is not there, replaced by a serious, deep thinking person - one I see now and then.

Now and then a small round of applause follows what somebody says. They are celebrating their honesty, they are sharing each other with compassion, and - dare I use this word? - with love. And the session is drawing to a close. Forty minutes have raced by, and a class that looked like being a disaster turns out to be a celebration, a triumph, and I can feel the tears welling behind my eyes, because I'm almost 67 and I've had a hard day, and love this class and I love this moment and this - happening - that they have made happen. The bell is not far off, and I've played no part yet in the lesson. I've been a witness. And now I want them to be aware of what has happened, so that it's significance doesn't simply slide away.

I take my turn with the duster.

'In the film you've been studying, Stand and Deliver ...' and they are laughing at me, good naturedly I think, laughing at their old and forgetful teacher who has blundered ...
But I am determined to say what my heart is crying out at me to say:
'In Stand by Me, you've watched a group of kids get passed all the stuff that kids go on with - mucking around and stirring each other - all the crap stuff - and by the end of the film they are 'coming of age', they have learned a lot about themeselves, and they understand what's important about their friendship with each other ...'

I pause, because I desperately want them to realise that something has happened, something of the greatest importance, in this drab Wednesday-period-6 classroom:

' And what you've done today - the way you have talked about your lives and what's important, and the way you have listened to each other with such respect - is exactly like the kids in the film...'

A pause. The bell could go any second.

'And I think we should thank Mr. D ...'

And there is applause. Immediate, honest, sincere applause.

We put the chairs on the tables, and they leave.

Lauren is there beside me.
'I bet you're glad you came to English today,' I say.
She looks me straight in the eye: 'Yes ... I am.' And I believe her.

And I want to hug Dean - but instead, I shake his hand, a long and strong handshake, and hold back my tears, and tell him how amazing that session was, and how he has just enacted holistic education in a classroom.

He leaves for the day. I won't see him till next Monday - five days off. My mind is full of words remembered from the class; but my heart is fuller. My body is electrified. I am excited, drained. And my soul is enlivened.

And I think again, as always, of my 'mantra'. That teaching is about moments. It's not about lesson preparation. It's not about the hard slog through the dreary months of winter, the politics of the staff room, the meetings, the endless meetings, the petty jealousies and the even pettier selfish-nesses, the self centered whingeing that bedevils some staff members.

Teaching is about moments when body and heart and mind and soul are moved deeply. And this has been one of those moments.

And now I'm alone, wandering out of the room, out into the open. And there's Cam, leaving for the day, walking toward me. I raise my hand, inviting a high 5, and when I look into his face I see a radiance. His eyes are twinkling. He responds, and smiles a deep, honest smile.

'See you tomorrow,' I say.
'Yeah - see you tomorrow.'

It is 10.30. I've been writing for an hour. Tomorrow I will seek them out. I want 9.2 to write as they've seldom written before. I want them to write about the miracle in C56, about that miraculous moment we shared. They are few and far between, such moments, but when we experience them, we need to savour them.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

32. Interesting Stuff 1

I've decided to add a new 'segment' to my blog. I'm calling it: Interesting Stuff.

I came across the following item in a newsfeed I've subscribed to.

That’s not the afterlife – it’s a brainstorm
To find out more, go to: Times Online

"DOCTORS believe they may have found the cause of the powerful spiritual experiences reported by people “brought back from the dead”. A study of the brainwaves of dying patients showed a surge of electrical activity in the moments before their lives ended. The researchers suggest this surge may be the cause of near-death experiences, the mysterious medical phenomena in which patients who have been revived when close to death report sensations such as walking towards a bright light or a feeling that they are floating above their body. Many people experience the sensation as a religious vision and treat it as confirmation of an afterlife. However, the scientists behind the new research believe that is wrong. “We think the near-death experiences could be caused by a surge of electrical energy released as the brain runs out of oxygen,” said Lakhmir C hawla, an intensive care doctor at George Washington University medical centre in Washington. “As blood flow slows down and oxygen levels fall, the brain cells fire one last electrical impulse. It starts in one part of the brain and spreads in a cascade and this may give people vivid mental sensations.”"
- Eivind