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Friday, April 1, 2011

64. A Teacher's Reflective Journal 4: a week is in long time in teaching

Love letters

It's Saturday afternoon. I've just woken from a short nap. It's been a tiring week. So far today I have read and commented on around six Year 12 SACs. Each SAC takes around 30 - 45 minutes to 'process'. I remember how impatient I used to be with correction, how I would put it off for as long as I could. Teaching writing in the TAFE Professional Writing course cured me of that.

I think that I'm clearer now about what to do, how to respond, the kinds of things to comment on. Many English teachers resent the hours and hours spent in reading and responding to what the students write. It is THE perennial topic for the English teacher's complaint. We compare the assessment load in English with - say - Maths and can see - well, there's no real comparison. Correcting a page of sums is not unlike correcting a spelling test.

We need to do what they do with diving - designate a difficulty level [DL] for the various types of correction - on a 5 point scale.

Jump into the pool from the edge and make a splash DL 0.1 [That's marking a 50 word Spelling test]

Do a swallow dive, with a twisting triple somersualt, plus pike DL 4.95. [That's the Year 12 SAC: an 800 - 1500 word essay, with six marking criteria]

Yes, it's not fair that we spend so many of our weekends reading our students' work and writing our notes to them. Yes, there ought to be some recognition of the DL - and the size -of the English teacher's assesssment load. But the other side of it is this: what an opportunity! My year 12 have done pretty well on their Reading their SACs. The shortest is around 700 words; some are as many as 1500.

We've been studying David Malouf's novel Ransom. It's hard work - a retelling of a single scene from Homer's The Iliad: Priam's ransom of Hector's body. We started the year looking at the opening 20 minute from Dead Poets' Society: the start of the new school year, the pomp and ceremony, the arrival of John Keating, the charismatic teacher pl;ayed by charismatic actor Robin Williams. The scene in which Keating takes his boys to the glass cabinets in the school foyer, where the honour boards and old photos are housed. Pitt reads:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

For summer is aflying

And that sweet rose that blooms today

Tomorrow ill be dying

Keating points to the photos: "A hundred years ago they were like you are today ... but they are now food for worms... It's hard to believe it, but one day we too will stop breathing, become cold and die... Carpe Deim - Seize the day, boys - make your lives extraordinary."

Ransom took us into similar territory ... death and meaning in life... being yourself ... or constantly wearing a mask ... becoming human ... being a father, a son ... being a mother ... being a grandfather ... what matters in this life ... Ransom is hard work. But I can see, in their responses to the SAC, that many of my students have been thinking about Priam and Achilles and Hecuba and Somax - the central characters of the novel. And they have been thinking about themselves. Literature touches on the personal in ways that Quadradic equations and theorems in geometry and scientific experiments and Legal Studies generally do not.

My friend Misha, in a comment on one of my earlier reflections on teaching reminded me of how carefully we need to move, as teachers, when in this minefield of the personal: Personalised writing was something I remember from your writing class and even I found it to be quite confronting.... Sometimes the class felt more like a group therapy session than a writing class - no offence. It is difficult, especially for teenagers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to their peers or to anyone for that matter - especially teenage boys. I did grow to love the personal element of your class, but only as I grew older and became more confident and self assured. Her comment - 'No Offence' - is unnecessary. I'm not offended; but it raises the moral dilemma of where the line is drawn. Literature provides the safe ground, I think. [Though, of course, no ground is really safe...] All of which is something that might be worth pursuing in a later blog. I don't have time for it right now; I still have five SACs to complete.

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