Posted in Portraits, Teaching

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I haven’t taught pre-service teachers for what seems like a long time … and out of the blue, a former colleague rings and asks if I want to teach a unit on engagement! Yay. The next week I start teaching. One student writes in his introduction: ‘Sharon, you were the most respected and most feared lecturer we had. It is poetically fitting that you are teaching me in my final year, as you also taught me in my first year.’

I had recognised this student’s name as soon as I saw it. As all teachers know, some students make an immediate impression on you. When the students are young, it’s often the students who challenge you the most that make the most impression – those students who don’t sit still, who don’t comply quickly, who ask lots of (what appear to be irrelevant) questions … the students school isn’t designed for. They remain with you for many years, and even ten years later you talk about them fondly (or with residual despair).

When the students are older the ones who make an impression are those who ask lots of questions, who bring a different perspective to class discussions, who don’t sit still in their thinking; the ones who develop tremendous resilience and now call themselves ‘teacher’ effortlessly, when initially that word reached their lips with great reluctance and unease.

A little over ten years ago I walked into the Week 1 tutorial and asked the students why they chose to study teaching. One student, a slightly chubby redhead, said that she’d wanted to be a paramedic. ‘Why didn’t you do that then?’ I asked, somewhat bluntly. Some weeks later I noticed she wasn’t in the lecture. The next week I ‘marched’ (according to her) her to my office to talk to her about the importance of regular attendance. (When you have potential, it’s a shame to waste it.)  I taught her again in 3rd year, and then again in 4th year where her response to a literacy paper I had asked students to write was outstanding.

But even though students make an impression on you, at the time you’re teaching them, you don’t expect to end up lying on the grass under an umbrella listening to Ben Abraham and Archie Roach (as warm-up acts for Missy Higgins) on a hot summer’s afternoon in late January with them. Unless they’re Alison, the former slightly chubby redhead, who had come to stay for the weekend.

And then the next day, Alison asks me if I can take her photo.

Wouldn’t that be a great project … to return to all the memorable students I’ve taught and do a photography shoot with them! Who’s up for it?

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #6

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My challenge for today is to set a timer for ten minutes. I have to open a new post. Start the timer, and start writing. When the timer goes off, publish.

It rained today. Just about all day. A constant trickle of water ran from the sky and pooled in inconvenient places, causing great splashes to leap up to my knees when I dared to go outside.

The drip drip drip drip outside our lounge room door continued metronomically into the afternoon, then all of a sudden stopped.

The silence ran to four minutes, then extended to five. We were on the edge of our seats, hushed, breathless, ears akimbo, waiting for the next verse of the drip

drip

drip …

Silence.

Bliss.

***

I can’t do this. I’ve started five different posts and deleted four of them. I can’t write under this pressure when I have nothing to write about. I should have been more prepared. Thought of something, a topic, an issue, a situation, something, anything to write about before I started the timer.

But I didn’t.

I don’t know what I expected when I pushed ‘start’ – that inspiration would hit me and something would leap into my mind and out through my fingers as if by magic?

I seriously don’t think I was thinking that far ahead, to be quite honest.

And so, a blank page.

This is what some teachers do to children.

‘Alright children, it’s story-writing time. You have ten minutes. Go.’

It’s not right. Writers need more than a time limit. They need ideas. They need thinking time. They need time to craft and organise and structure and develop.

One of my grandsons is in Year 3 this year. That means that late in May he did the NAPLAN test for the first time. In their preparation lessons, they practiced writing persuasive texts. He wrote about burning the school down.

I don’t know how persuasive it was, but it certainly caught the teacher’s attention.

He has more imagination than me though!

Time’s up.

Posted in Learning, Life, Teaching, Writing

I got back on the horse …

Metaphorically speaking, that is; there was no harm to a literal horse in my ‘getting back on’.

Okay, I’ll be clear. I know some of you don’t work well with metaphors, so I’ll be like, ‘literally’ all over this blog.

I haven’t taught on-campus (as in students in the same room as me) since semester 1, 2014.

Yes, that was two years ago. And yesterday I did it again.

And you know what? It felt good.

I was prepared, planned, organised, ready … I had even practiced smiling (although when I practiced in front of the mirror I scared myself, so I determined to only smile when absolutely necessary).

The students were lovely; responsive and mature in their attitude, willing to share their ideas and discuss meaty concepts.

After 18 months in the professional wilderness, of trying to determine who I am professionally, it felt good to be able to think of myself as a teacher again. To act as a teacher again; to be a teacher.

And the best thing? I get to do it all again next week.

Oh, and one other thing … by the end of class my face hurt.

I think I overdid the smiling.

 

 

 

Posted in Learning, Schools, Studying, Teaching

What future for education

A week or so ago I decided to sign up to do a course called ‘What future for education’.

It was the title of the course that caught my eye as I am working through a period of deep ambivalence about education and thought this might provide me with some answers, or at the very least give me something else to think about. You know how I like to think!

It is an online course like many others: there are lectures (and in this instance, they are brave enough to call them lectures – I like that), there are readings, there are discussions to be had, activities to complete (an entry on a Padlet wall – some of you may remember adding to a Wall Wisher Wall in your own studies … it’s now called Padlet), and a tweet or two.

And a blog post. Hence my presence here today.

I could have started another blog and used that just for the course, but decided against that. Mostly for pragmatic reasons; I have a collection of applications that I’ve signed up for because of various studies I’ve undertaken and many of them I don’t use once the study is finished. Or once I decide to stop studying. And so I thought I’d write my blog posts here and you can be be amazed that I still haven’t learnt to read the unit outline and take any notice of deadlines. This blog post was supposed to be in yesterday, for instance.

But I’m supposed to write a 200-word blog post on: Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education? So here goes.

What I will get out of this course … that’s an interesting way to phrase this question. Does that mean the same thing as ‘what will I learn from this course’? I’m going to say yes, and so will reword the question and write about what I expect to learn by completing this course.

I expect to learn about a range of perspectives on education – what education might look like in the future; how we might shape education; what education is for; why we educate. I want to learn what others have to say about education, others who aren’t politicians, others who know something about education and have ideas about it. I expect to learn how education can move away from the abyss of commodification and towards a focus on learning.

What ideas do I already have about education? I’m going to imagine that the term ‘education’ here is used to mean ‘formal education’ whether that’s in a school or university.

  • I see a distinct shift towards education being a commodity that is bought and sold, with as little effort made by the ‘consumer’ as that required to buy a lipstick.
  • Education has less to do with learning and more to do with a qualification or a result that allows the student access into other areas of education (from Year 6 to secondary school; from Year 12 to university), and then into the ‘real’ world.
  • Education has become enfeebled by a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of developing learners (people) who can engage in creative, critical, and ethical thought (and action).
  • Teachers (including university academics who teach) are increasingly stymied in their efforts to encourage learning, instead being forced to focus on assessing (there’s much more weighing than there is nourishing).
  • School teachers are little more than automatons – delivering a curriculum that is divorced from their students and developed by outsiders who have political points to make; being handed scripted lessons to deliver; having very little say in what is taught and how it’s taught.
  • The future of education is bleak.

 


 

So, for what it’s worth, that’s my less than cheery summation of the future of education.

Posted in Teaching

Words and ideas

I string words together on the clothesline of this blog. Some mean something to some readers; some mean something different. Words are slippery with meaning and imagery and contexts and memory and ideas and moments shared and rediscovered.

I’m forever exhorting my students to choose their words carefully. To use the words “I dug around in there until I found it” brings to mind a particular image when the context is of searching for a piece of clothing at the back of the cupboard. Those are not the words I’d use when the context is searching for a mole you half remembered was nestled amongst your pubic hair (overheard train conversation). For that particular context I would use different words – I would choose different words.

‘Choose’ implies a deliberateness that ‘use’ doesn’t. That’s one of the things with words. We can use them (choose them) to convey particular meanings/messages and the reader happily remains unaware of our choices. The writing seems natural, as if there’s no other way to say it, to write it … to think it. No other way to think. We can manipulate the reader, cause him or her to imagine things he or she hadn’t thought to imagine before, to connect two distinct ideas that they hadn’t connected before, to even come up with the notion that two plus two equals five if we use/choose just the right words.

Precision in language is not to be underestimated. It’s a hallmark of critical thinking – of knowing what you mean and writing/speaking what you mean so that your reader/listener/audience doesn’t have to guess at your meaning. There is no ambiguity in your meaning, unless you choose it to be so. Disturbingly, for people like me, precision is often underestimated. In fact, some people don’t think about it at all. They use words as though one is as good as another and we all know, when we stop to think about it, that one is not the same as another.

But strings of words can also cause us to think in particular ways. My attention was caught by a newspaper headline yesterday about student teachers getting an ‘F’. It turns out that in a study conducted by an Australian university, many (in some cases most) pre-service teachers – that is, university students studying to be teachers – are very poor spellers. My own experience teaching pre-service teachers means that this finding was not news to me.

It may be shocking to you, or you may be quite unsurprised by this news … that those preparing to be your children’s and grandchildren’s teachers have poor spelling skills. The report then did something interesting. It connected two unrelated ideas: 1. poor spelling and 2. becoming a teacher.

It suggested that stricter spelling tests are needed prior to admission to university to ensure that those who cannot spell cannot become teachers. In our society, spelling and intelligence are linked. If you can spell well, then you are obviously intelligent. If you can’t, then you obviously lack intelligence. This is a truth for many people. Clearly, if teachers cannot spell well, they are not intelligent and therefore should not be teaching our children.

The connection between the two unrelated ideas was made ‘naturally’, despite the lack of any evidence indicating a link between ability to spell and ability to teach. The article, and perhaps the press release the story came from, took an uncritical look at the issue; it failed to raise serious questions, and left little room for thinking differently about the issue. It did this through strings of words that presented taken-for-granted assumptions about the audience – that they would immediately agree with the outcome suggested (more testing) and then turn the page to read about what the Kardashians are up to now.

Well, why don’t we (yes, dear reader, that means you and I) ask some critical questions before we turn the page and get up-to-date on the latest Kardashian capers? Why don’t we engage in some critical thinking? What questions do you have?

Here are just some of mine … please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Questions about the nature of intelligence and the link (if there is one) between intelligence and spelling ability.

Questions about what we value in teachers. I note that the article didn’t call for an empathy test, or a test of a person’s capacity to form positive and supportive relationships with students and parents. Nobody seems to be calling for a test of a teacher’s capacity to deal with the often unrelenting demands of parents (leading, in one case I heard of recently, to a principal’s suicide), or of violent children.

Is spelling the thin edge of the wedge? If a teacher can’t spell, then maybe they can’t teach either; maybe they can’t see a hurting child and speak a kind word; maybe they can’t motivate and engage children or foster a child’s creativity and resilience, or nurture a child’s spirit …

The taken-for-granted assumption that a capacity to spell is what determines a person’s capacity to teach effectively speaks to a lack of critical thought … and in my view, for what it’s worth, that speaks to lazy thinking, which in my book is worse than poor spelling.

Words and ideas matter. Being able to communicate those ideas clearly and effectively, with the best/most appropriate words, matters. Yes, spelling matters, particularly for teachers, but to not allow someone in to teaching on the basis of poor spelling means we may miss out on developing some wonderful teachers. Teachers with heart and soul and passion.

Those things matter too.

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I’d really like to hear from you. Please feel free to post a polite and respectful comment below in response to the news story, or to my post in general. What qualities are important in the teachers of your children/grandchildren/great grandchildren? Should spelling ability be the sole determinant of admission into a teaching degree?

What matters to you?

Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!

Posted in Uncategorized

Manners and public discourse

While I have had a Twitter account for just over a year now, I have not, until recently, given it much attention. Nor have I given much attention to my LinkedIn account. Over the past two weeks, for a reason I have yet to understand, I have taken to checking my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts on a very regular basis. I read through the tweets and articles that arrive during the night while eating rhubarb and ricotta for breakfast, and then I check again at lunch time and regularly throughout the evening. My daughters would call “nerd alert” if they could see who I follow (ABC News 24; The Guardian; BBC World News; Oxford University Press, etc) but that’s okay. Nerds are usually quite harmless and I don’t mind being counted amongst their number.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The point isn’t to tell you that I’ve become somewhat addicted to Twitter and LinkedIn, and to the information, ideas, perspectives, thinking, opinions, moments of humour and sometimes outrage to which I am now exposed.

The point is to try to make sense, for myself as much as anyone, of some of the things I’ve read in recent times.

One of the tweets that came through on Friday was news of a message to members of the Australian Army by Lt. General David Morrison, AO who was responding to reports of unacceptable behaviour.

I also read tweets about the questions put to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, by (former) Perth radio presenter, Howard Sattler.

The two things became linked in my mind, and also called to mind the list of things others have said about and to Prime Minister Gillard over the last two and a half years.

One of the things that Lt. General Morrison said in his message to members of the Australian Army (and let’s face it, to the rest of us given that it’s on YouTube for all to see) is that “every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army”. What if we were to replace Army with “school” or “workplace, houses of Parliament, radio station or home”? Would what he said still apply? Are we responsible for the culture and reputation of where we work and live?

As an aside, he also said: “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. One thing I find interesting is that this hasn’t already been said loudly and clearly by an editor of a newspaper, a news director in a radio station, a senior executive of a TV station, a leader in the community … 

But I digress.

I stumbled across Angry is a Habit while reading articles on LinkedIn. It is a short blog post about habits. We have habits of behaviour, but Godin (the author of the post) suggests that our emotions can become habitual too.

I thought about this in relation to the words used by some in the media and wondered if the emotions behind their words are habitual ways of being. Why the need to pour hate and loathing and anger into the world? Is it just a habit? Do we, the consumers of these words, buy the emotion as well? Is it a package deal? When we read/hear/watch the angry, hate-filled words that we wouldn’t say to our boss, principal, Dean of the Faculty, chair of the Parents and Friends committee, head of the local arts organisation, do we buy the emotion too so that we get just as angry and hate-filled at whichever politician is being scorned, ridiculed, put down? Do the words cause us to feel particular things? Does hate and anger therefore spread through our communities in the same way that videos go viral on the internet?

From LinkedIn I also read Three words that will transform your career. In this article author Bruce Kasanoff claims that to improve our quality of life we just need to think “help this person” every time we encounter another person: “When you walk into Starbucks for coffee, think help this person about the barista who serves you. Instead of being frustrated that he isn’t moving fast enough, see if you can make him smile. Better yet, tell him to keep the change.” Kasanoff claims that this will “change your demeanour, your thought process, and the entire interaction.”

It is a similar sentiment to one put forward by David Foster Wallace in his now-famous speech to a group of university graduates in the US in 2005. While Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho amongst other works) considers Foster Wallace “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation“, others have been taken with Wallace’s notion of choice … we can choose to behave in certain ways, we can choose to see the world in particular ways, we can choose to look beyond the surface and (although he didn’t use these words) we can choose empathy. We can choose to live beyond our “default setting” (of being annoyed and frustrated by, for instance, the slowness of airplane passengers when putting their bags in the overhead lockers; of being annoyed and frustrated that even when someone is eighth in the queue for the ATM they still don’t have their purse out of their handbag when they “suddenly” find themselves first in the queue, which has now grown to 23 tongue-clicking, foot-tapping withdrawers of money). We can choose to think/live/behave/feel differently.

So what have I learnt from all this reading? What sense am I making from these seemingly unrelated tweets, articles, speeches, thoughts? It has something to do with manners and respectful behaviour … but it also goes beyond that.

For me, one thing is clear: We can change our habitual ways of thinking and acting. To do this, we first need to become aware of how our thoughts impact our behaviour, speech, interactions, emotions. We need to consider our habits of thought and emotion and then to do something about them if we find ourselves thinking/feeling/acting negatively/rudely/in an ill-mannered way on a regular basis.

Through a change in thinking we can transform others’ lives and in the process transform our own as well.

We can stop walking past what we know (deep down) we don’t accept. We can speak up for respect, care, kindness, professionalism and manners. We don’t have to accept the hate and anger of radio shock-jocks and political commentators (of whatever persuasion). We don’t have to accept their hate-filled, angry, vitriolic rantings, and their disrespectful questioning, and their words which claim that we are all somehow implicated in their tawdry games (we continue to listen, to watch, to read, to buy, to comment and thus give them credibility or at the very least our time).

We can choose to think for ourselves, read critically, and ask questions of the texts produced and served to us on a regular basis. We can live by habit, or we can choose to live consciously, being explicitly aware of the world around us and how we are being shaped by the views/words/actions of others (yes, even of me in this blog post), and the ways our views/words/actions shape others.

If we are teachers, then we need to be even more aware of that influence.

None of this is new of course. Educator Wayne Sawyer, in an editorial he wrote in English in Australia in 2005, noted that “our current students face a relentless barrage of shockjocks, media barons, advertising and corporate greed masquerading as common sense” (p. 4). Sawyer called on teachers to ensure that critical literacy was an integral component of their teaching. But in order to do that, teachers too must be aware of how their views are being shaped by the same shock-jocks and media barons that shape our students’ thoughts. And more than that, we need to know how to deconstruct the messages they (and we) consume and know how to teach students to unpack them.

We can choose … that’s what I’ve learnt. We can choose.

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

Being …

This year I took on a new identity … not, I hasten to add, in a witness protection kind of way. Nothing that dramatic! … but a new identity nonetheless.

I could say that I took on a new role … but with new roles comes new identities. We can choose to define ourselves by our new roles/identities, and thus think about ourselves differently. Being an academic means particular things. Being an under-graduate student means almost the polar opposite. We may choose to act in ways that are consistent with our new role and that might lead to inconsistencies in how we portray ourselves to the world. Will I be student today, or teacher? What does it mean to be a student in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my teacher or my peers; when I don’t get to hear their voices or even see what they look like? It’s a disconcerting experience. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a teacher in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my students, when I don’t get to hear their voices or see what they look like? Experiencing that as an online student heightens my awareness of that ‘disconcerting experience’ as a teacher of online students. 

In addition to thinking about myself in a different way and considering if I will act differently to signify this new role/identity, others see me in that new role and make different kinds of connections with me, or think about me in particular ways and so have their own view of who I am (which might not bear any relation to who I am when inhabiting a different identity/role).

My university tutors do not see me as a colleague; as someone who, like them, teaches in an online environment. They see me as a student – a distant one, it has to be said: one who doesn’t appear to be very engaged, who forgets to read her unit outline, who leaves assignments till the last minute, who doesn’t follow the requirements of the task as closely as she should, who doesn’t engage in conversations online, who hasn’t made connections with other students in the online environment.

For those of you in the know, why didn’t you tell me it would be like this? 🙂 If only you’d told me to read the unit outline carefully and repeatedly, or that I’d need at least 10 hours per week per unit to do full justice to the work I needed to do, or that learning to use new software is time-consuming and requires a great deal of independent learning and commitment and energy, or that coming home from work and having to study till late is exhausting, or that trying to find information when it’s in ten different places in the online environment is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole experience (it really isn’t all that difficult to put all the information required for weekly activities in the one place), or that reading all the other students’ posts can be mind-numbing and take up all the time I’d set aside for study (and seriously, do 18 year olds really like talk in that like annoying way where they like say a lot without like saying anything at all, you know, sort of, I guess, do you get me? Despite my student status I am still a teacher and despair over the abominable use of language on public discussion boards).

Not that it’s all bad of course. In one subject (Writing Professionally – actually I don’t know if that’s the name of the subject because for some reason I haven’t looked at the unit outline properly to even know what the unit is called), the tutor gives general feedback on our ‘writing watches’ (which are assessed) and on two occasions has encouraged other students to read my work for its ‘quality and depth’ (you have no idea how embarrassed I feel writing that). We had to do three ‘writing watches’ across the course of the semester – responding in a systemically functionally linguistic way to something we’d read. I chose to respond to:

1. an article in a photography magazine

2. an essay by Richard Flanagan which appeared in The Monthly (the article was on David Walsh and MONA which I’d just been to, so it seemed fitting)

3. a blog post titled The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y” from the Oxford University Press’s blog. It was interesting. Seriously!

These writing watches were practice for our exam. Yes, you heard that right – exam. I had to sit an exam.

Why didn’t someone tell me how stressful that is?! That you spend days and nights thinking about what the questions might be, what the text choices might be, what you know (or rather, don’t know) about systemic functional linguistics and how you’re going to write “pages” on it in two hours?

But I did it and wrote (typed) five pages of blather about an advertisement for Income Protection titled Confessions of a financial adviser. An interesting way to spend a day, particularly when you’re at home and the phone keeps ringing just as you think you have the modality worked out!

We also had to do weekly ‘word watches’ (which were assessed). We had to find two unfamiliar words each week and write about them: what they mean, where we’d read/heard them, their derivation, and we had to use the words in a sentence.

At first I found this difficult. I don’t want to sound like a pompous git (unlike some people I know), but in the everyday, normal, regular reading I do I don’t come across too many words which I don’t know. So I determined to try harder.

Here are my words (you, clever reader, are quite possibly aware of their meanings and already sprinkle them through your everyday conversations. I, on the other hand, did not).

  • Eupraxis (thank you David M)
  • Conation (actually, I did know what that meant because I’d written about it in a journal article published last year, but until I wrote about it I didn’t know what it meant)
  • Heuristic
  • Prevaricate (actually I wavered on this quite a bit)
  • Mendicant (it had been in the news – Tasmania is a mendicant state apparently)
  • Noetic (nothing to do with Christmas)
  • Rendering (a word from my Graphic Design unit)
  • Misandry (its opposite had been much in the news)
  • Chirographic
  • Contumacious (if my mother had known this word when I was a child I’m sure I would have heard it a lot!)
  • Whovian (my sister is a mad one of these)
  • Gonzo (I’d been to MONA and learnt this word while wandering the subterranean halls. Tim already knew it. He’d read Hunter S. Thompson apparently)
  • Metaredound (don’t ask me)
  • Analogous (I actually had heard this word, but I wanted to use it in a way I hadn’t used it before and that was in relation to colour: analogous harmony)
  • Indigent (thanks Germaine)
  • Calumniated (and again)
  • Emic
  • Etic (yes, they are related)
  • Eschatology
  • Ratiocination (I had to listen to this a number of times to get the pronunciation right. Thanks YouTube!)
  • Contingent (used in a way I didn’t understand – of all people, by my husband, in a journal article we wrote some time ago. I hadn’t told him I didn’t understand the way he used it as I didn’t want to look stupid!)
  • Hegemony (with a soft ‘j’ sound for the ‘g’)
  • Picayune
  • Ludology (nothing to do with Ludo as it turns out … although …)

So there you have it. New words to pepper through my dinner-time conversations. Feel free to use any of them, particularly in ways that are inventive and thus deeply satisfying.

I am a student and I am learning things. That’s what students do isn’t it? Isn’t that the purpose of being a student? It’s why I decided to be a student: to learn something/s. And even though I’ve said ‘the message’ countless times, it’s always different when you’re on the receiving end of it. The message is: learning can be hard. And it isn’t always fun.

But it is satisfying.

Being a student not only challenges my own identity (I have to flip between student and teacher on a regular basis and I am very conscious of not being a teacher in my student role – which is partly why I don’t engage on the discussion boards: I don’t yet have the student language down pat. I’m too caught up using teacher language and saying teacher things and I don’t want to do that as a student).

Being a student also challenges how others see me.

Some people, on first hearing that I am a university student again, thought (and said) “are you mad?” and other equally dis/en/couraging words. My new role was something they wanted to reject – it was ludicrous, or unnecessary (especially at your age), or just plain silly. I have a PhD, why would I want to be an under-grad again? That’s something young people do. I should do some serious study, not a bachelor degree in an area I potentially know a little bit about. Why, for instance, am I doing Professional Writing (that’s its official title – I thought I’d better check) when I have had a number of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers published?

I guess I feel that I can always learn more – and I did. Heaps in fact, and that’ll help my writing when next I write something for publication. 

On hearing that I am a student again, other people saw me differently. They made a different kind of connection with me. Some, because of their own identity as ‘student’ (or perhaps, student-in-the-not-too-distant past) applauded my decision – I was now one of them, a member of a community of adults who are (or were) university students. For those whom I’ve taught – who have been my own students – the connection is even closer. Their teacher/lecturer/colleague is now in the same position they recall so clearly and thus our connection is strengthened. There’s a shared understanding … and as I give advice quite freely about being a student, I also imagine there’s a little bit of mirth around my stumbling attempts at student-hood.

But I have finished the semester, completed teaching and learning surveys (and been very honest – in a professional way – as all students should be), and am eagerly awaiting my final results.

I have also determined to be a better student next semester. I have already created folders for my two new subjects (one is Production Planning; the other is Visual Storytelling), downloaded the information from the course and unit handbook, looked up information about textbooks (I don’t have to buy any), and worked out what I do when I procrastinate (I work … yes, on my study days!).

Being a student: challenging, stressful, but ultimately satisfying.

What’s your experience?

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

The envelope

My online students, in the days before we went online, used to talk about waiting for ‘the envelope’. Ours were yellow and students would camp at their letter boxes waiting for the big yellow envelope to arrive. Some would leave it sitting on the kitchen bench till they felt strong enough to open it; others would rip it open, eager to see their result.

My first envelope arrived in the post earlier this week and I have to say it was an odd feeling. Partly, I think because of the ways my students (now graduates) used to talk about the arrival of the envelope, and the importance it held for them. It was a validation of them as students, scholars, learners, and sometimes it was even more. It was a validation of themselves. Were they worth anything? Could they do it? Were they cut out for this thing called university? Did they have what it takes? Was university really for people like them?

Many of those students had not been on to the university campus at that stage, or had not been on to the campus often. Many of them didn’t live in the same state as the university; many hadn’t physically met their lecturers, tutors, peers. University was a disembodied experience. An experience that involved sitting at home, on their computer, by themselves, struggling to work out what the task required, having little access to anyone to seek clarification, advice, ideas. Not knowing if they were on the right track.

They did their best, not knowing if they measured up; their whole being invested in this. What if I’m not on the right track? What if I fail? Will that mean I’m a failure?

It’s high stakes.

A few days before my own envelope arrived, I had returned my own students’ assignments – though not in envelopes – and was aware of the emotions involved in receiving feedback and a grade. But I was aware of the emotions as an objective observer: as someone who knew that the students would have an emotional reaction, but not as someone who felt the emotion directly. Some of my students had not met the pass standard, and the emotions varied: some were angry, others were disappointed. Many of them spent the weekend crying. Other students had met the pass standard but had expected the same success as they’d had at college. Their emotions were similar – to them their pass (or credit) felt like a fail.

I had warned students that they might feel this range of emotions and that they might react in particular ways; I had wanted to prepare them and to let them know it is normal to feel a range of emotions … and to be quite honest, to let them know that they weren’t to email me at the height of their emotional response. The “post-assignment-blues” email is not a good one to look back on when the emotion has subsided!

All of this was raging through my head when my own envelope arrived. What if I failed … or just as bad … what if  I only passed?

So when my envelope arrived I felt part of a community – a community of those who knew the importance attached to the envelope – and for the first time I was an insider in this experience. I felt the weight of expectation and the weight of former students’ associations. It was exciting and daunting in equal measure. The assignment was to write a non-fiction piece of around 500-800 words on a topic of our choice. We had to state the purpose and the audience of our piece, and we had to submit two drafts of our writing plus the final copy. We also had to write a statement about the editing process. Suggestions for our writing included CD liner notes (I didn’t know they still existed), a review (of a book, an art work, an exhibition), a newspaper feature article.

I didn’t know how to write any of those things so I wrote a blog entry. And while I wrote about a real-life experience I wrote it a bit story-like (I used elements of narrative writing) and so was uncertain whether the tutor would accept it as non-fiction.

She did.

I enjoyed your blog immensely. It’s rare to receive an error-free assignment; you’ve obviously invested time and effort for this submission. Thank you.

A validation …

… of my capacity to correct errors.

That won’t surprise any of my own students!

I won’t be so scared when the next envelope arrives. Except I can’t remember when the next assignment is due. I really will need to read the unit outline soon!!