Country Secondary College
Country Victoria, a pastoral journey East from Melbourne.
Rolling hills, the mist rising off the trees in the early morning, small townships surrounded by paddocks and outcrops of bush.
An old high school, a series of rectangular boxes stained with the passing of seasons tucked awkwardly into this bucolic scene, the once-white facades calling out for a fresh coat of paint. Long, grey hallways connect the rectangles as they fill to brimming with tough looking Anglo kids. Year 10 boys with blonde dreadlocks and exaggerated mullets saunter to class, bouncing each other off lockers along the way. Girls with shimmery nose rings and sparkly nails chat to each other and adjust their stacks of spiral bound books and pencil cases, forming a misshapen queue outside their home group room. Teachers brush by, hurrying to unlock doors and let students in, beginning another day at Country Secondary College. Each classroom fills, and voices can be heard carrying into the corridors as the dialogues within manifest and transform, individuals morphing in and out of collectives, sharing, creating, coalescing, disrupting, dividing, redirecting, and uniting.
One classroom, our classroom, “…an open, contingent, fluid and chaotic site containing not a single narrative but many. Instead of given identities, it imagines identities shifting and being shaped by context, discourse and circumstance. It imagines multiple intersecting life-trajectories coming in and out of connection, affecting and being affected by common worlds with complex and fluid interactions and relationships.” – Steve Shann, 2015, p.4
It is from these intersecting life-trajectories that my story at Country Secondary College emerges. The narratives and worlds of my students guided our classroom during my three weeks with 7D. This is a narrative about how their worlds shaped mine, and how their stories are becoming my story. A story about the teaching of writing in a rural high school, about how the context in which I was teaching necessitated a semantic shift, a slight relocation of my identity, an altering of my methods to meet the culture of my students within our particular space. The issues I am grappling with…wondering how I will embody the STELLA standards of ‘Accomplished Teacher’ while simultaneously using them as a compass. Asking, what does it mean to teach and know young people acutely impacted by complex social and economic factors within this particular setting? This is a narrative about maintaining high expectations for my students and not letting them down, though their families are considered to be in the ‘bottom quarter’ of this country, though their assessment scores are substantially below the national average, though I may not know or understand what’s happening at home, we are in this together, we have entered this space to tell our stories.
In my first week at Country Secondary College, my mentor teacher, Emma*, asked me to begin lead teaching her Year 7 English class. This class, 7D, the class she referred to as the “lowest in the year level,” had begun drafting memoirs the week before requiring that they write a story from an important memory, due at the end of term three. On day one, Emma offloaded a stack of frayed writer’s notebooks to me, and thusly I began the task of reading, editing, and commenting on the first draft of each student’s memoir.
What struck me initially was the simplicity of their language, some wrote as though they were composing an information report (‘and then I did this, and then I did that’). There was also the prevalence of a common vernacular, one generally attributed to an uneducated, rural population rather than the Standard Australian English. Surrounded by small rural communities, this should be somewhat expected and is likely the language spoken in many of these students’ homes. I wondered as I edited and commented, correcting each ‘brang,’ ‘youse’ and ‘kinda’, was I altering the meaning-making aspect of their language? How much should I mark up their drafts? How could I influence them without diminishing their desire to write?
I didn’t want my students to feel that the culture that they came from was not indeed valuable, and yet I also wanted to give them the appropriate language tools to successfully navigate worlds beyond their community. Lisa Breen (2014 ) discusses this issue of how “language is bound up and constructed by schooling,” playing “a powerful role in marginalising the experiences and values of those who do not belong to the dominant culture” (p.174). Rather than marginalise these young people, I wanted to accept their language as a construction of their identity, however, I found myself unable to encourage this particular vernacular within their narratives. It was potentially a dialect synonymous with poverty and a lack of opportunity. Was it not my job to help them achieve the language of the dominant culture so that they could thrive within it? More importantly, I thought, I should strive to teach my students “school English, its structure and its vocabulary, to ensure that everyone gets equal access to the learning that happens at school” (Adoniou, 2013)…right? I briefly “interrogat[ed] my own ideas about language” (Breen, 2014, p.174), and entered a momentary resolve: my students need to know the basics of the standard tongue if they are ever to rival their higher achieving peers closer to Melbourne, so that’s what I will teach them. This choice sits inelegantly within my practice and remains a site for deeper enquiry.
As most of 7D was performing substantially below their year level, I shifted the precedent for their work to be at year level. Still, I did not lessen my expectations. Focusing on the personal expression of their memoirs, I applauded content and provided edits that would aid them in discovering more descriptive language while also alerting them to grammatical errors and syntax issues.
When [Accomplished Teachers] assess their students’ writing, they give them specific feedback that allows them to revise their writing in appropriate ways and to develop as writers. (Stella, 2000)
As I marked up their stories, taking in each one, I carefully, thoughtfully asked questions that wouldn’t crush their confidence as writers like “What did that feel like? Taste like? How did it sound? Why did you do that? Could you think of another word for ‘really’?” I made gentle little suggestions, tiptoeing around their autonomy: “Incorporate your senses, describe this, explain this, add in that little detail here.” I praised what was working and helped rebuild the rest. I gave specific feedback, and thought about each of my students as a developing writer, finding their voice through the experience of writing about a memory that they genuinely valued.
[Accomplished teachers] are alert to opportunities to extend their students’ range of written skills, building on their accomplishments to open up new dimensions of language. (Stella, 2000)
The first lesson I led (a success, one which had the usual refusers highly engaged) was an activity on making a ‘boring’ story into an interesting one through the addition of detail and descriptive language. We worked together, 7D an enthusiastic collective, on how to ‘paint the picture on the page,’ illustrating the scenes for our readers, opening up “new dimensions of language” (Stella, 2000) in our fluid, open, complex space.
Most students were inspired to write in the space we created, regardless of ability, and their efforts to add detail to their memoirs and become better writers seemed wholehearted. One student in particular presented some challenges.
She was walking in late. Again.
“Karlee, you’re late, take your seat, please.”
“Awwww, MISS, I forgot my NOTEBOOK.” She slouched emphatically.
“The one with your memoir in it?” I was beginning to feel frustrated. I had done a considerable amount of work editing her piece, and if she didn’t have her memoir, today would be a wasted lesson for her.
“Yeah,” she shrugged and looked toward a friend slyly, flicking her blonde ponytail.
“Have you checked your locker?”
“Yeah, Miss, I left it at hoooooome.” What Karlee lacked in confidence and literacy skills, she made up for in brazenness. She didn’t want to work today, and she was showing off for her classmates to detract from the obvious.
“Then you’ll have to type up what you can remember and finish it on the weekend.” We had to get something done.
“Awwwww, Miss, you’re so mean.”
“I’ll help you.” I knew that she was daunted by this task. Ashamed of her writing, she had refused to show her draft to her best friend in the previous lesson. Though Karlee was reticent to put effort into her writing because of a lack of literacy skills, I vowed not to let her slide.
[Accomplished teachers] are especially sensitive to the needs of students who are experiencing literacy difficulties, for whom writing may be a strange and alienating task (Stella, 2000).
Consecutive mini-lessons dealt with developing sentence structure and vocabulary, and students responded actively by altering their word choices to reflect more sophisticated options. I invited students to meet me at lunchtime if they needed extra assistance, and much to my initial surprise, a handful of them showed up two days in a row. Students who I identified as having the lowest literacy levels in the class, Mick and Karlee, both came to see me at different times outside of class, and together we meticulously reviewed their memoirs. We talked through events to draw out detail, and I encouraged them along while they typed, line by line, until their good copies were finished. They could see I was committed to them, and equally, they were fulfilling their commitments to me.
By the end of week two, I was feeling truly at home in my role as English teacher. All my students, including Karlee, seemed excited about writing, and as the days progressed, we were evolving the stories together, doing something we all came to believe in: the act of writing for fun about something that was intrinsically important to each of us. Their stories mattered, and telling them was a way to reconnect with their past.
I think stories matter to us for two reasons. Firstly, they can speak about (or allude to) complex aspects of our lives that intuitively we know are important but for which the language of rational discourse is inadequate. Secondly, because of the way they are structured and languaged, stories have the capacity to penetrate, to move, to have an impact, in deep and significant ways. They acknowledge and speak to life’s complexity; and they have the potential to penetrate (Shann, 2015, p.3).
In my final week, 7D continued to work on their memoirs while I faced the challenges of keeping them on task, constantly managing behaviour, and committing more time to the students who encountered difficulty working independently. With so many students at low literacy levels, I learned to shift the criteria to meet the diverse abilities of my students without lowering my expectations.
Punctuation was one of the areas that had to give for a student like Mick. For him especially, punctuation was an exercise in errors. I gave up trying to fix every comma and full stop and concentrated on the narrative, however, regardless of ability, every student was required to finish, to take my edits on board in some way, and to turn in a good copy on the final Friday. If I saw that a student wasn’t following through, I would push them to deepen their descriptions, ask them to illuminate the scene, the interior of the restaurant, how the dress made them feel, the smell of the horse, their mother’s smile. I told them I needed to see the picture that they envisioned in their mind, and most students beamed at the opportunity to share their memories with me.
By the third week, I was beginning to know all twenty-three of my students. Karlee and Mick required additional time and encouragement because their literacy levels were far below those of their peers. Even though Tara and Davina were bright, their confidence was easily shaken. Laura, Bree, and Abby sat together quietly and did their work, flying under the radar, and I had to be careful not to overlook them as Brodie, Jay and Dave shouted, interrupted, and caused general commotion during each and every lesson. Jasper and Hayden were thrilled to receive validation, they greatly appreciated the edits I gave them, and they worked hard to write exciting stories they could be proud of. I told them they were all good writers, and I meant it, with the knowledge that if they continued to apply themselves, they could be remarkable.
I conferenced with each of them individually as they finished their memoirs, watching them shrink and expand as they reacted to my feedback and encouragement. I began to understand them, I began to see how each one of my students was unique, each one of them requiring a different approach.
Accomplished English/Literacy teachers recognise each student’s uniqueness. They are aware of their students’ diverse sociocultural, language and ethnic heritage and have specific knowledge of the community to which each student belongs, including the literacy practices of that community. They know each student’s preferred learning style and linguistic and cognitive capabilities. They recognise and affirm each student’s potential and achievements; they know their histories as learners and members of the school community. (Stella, 2000)
Like J.D. Wilhelm, as relationships with my students developed, I became “concerned with the sort of lives they are leading and how what we experienced together in a language arts classroom contributes to that” (Wilhelm, 2008, p.42). Through their memoirs and our interactions, identities crystallised, and my respect and belief in these kids magnified.
Interview with Jasper and Hayden
Teacher: What did you like about writing your memoir?
Jasper: I got to write about something that I really enjoyed.
Hayden: Because it was a really good memory of when me and my family had lots of fun at a water park.
Teacher: Did you feel you were able to improve your writing through drafting?
Hayden and Jasper: Yeah, definitely.
Jasper: I liked that I had so many things to do. I had like 15 things to do. And it made my writing more interesting. (in reference to my suggested edits)
Hayden: I noticed when I went through that I had a whole lot of parts that I left out, and you also showed me some parts where I could have explained. Say, the water slide, what colour it was, and like, I added all that in.
Teacher: And how do you feel about your final draft?
Hayden: I really like mine.
Jasper: Yeah, mine sounded really good.
I interviewed several students and the responses were similar. Many of them said that writing their memoir was “fun,” and that they became better writers through the process. They all agreed that writing from their lives outside of school was more enriching than any other form of writing. They also agreed that the process of writing seemed lengthy and laborious, which they didn’t like, but in the end, they were all proud of the work they had done, and so was I. Extremely proud.
7D Memoir Interviews:
Reflecting back on my time with 7D, I am changed, both personally and professionally. I consider the people of that community with greater respect, I have cultivated a passion for working in a school like Country Secondary, and exposure to the complexity of this particular learning environment has begun to equip me with the dynamics I will need to continue successfully in my profession. Not only have I evolved through my relationship with 7D, I have begun to feel devoted to them and students like them, accountable for their futures, dedicated to helping them continue writing, to carry on telling their stories. This is how I imagine it, the stories of my students integrating with my story.
The reality, according to recent statistics for Country Secondary College (retrieved from www.myschool.edu.au), is that more than 50% of the Year 7s will not continue in school after the 10th grade. Of the remaining 50%, only 15% will go to university, 38% will study at a vocational or community college, and 26% will go on to work after high school. And where does the other 21% end up? We can only assume.
For these students, mine in 7D and every young person at Country Secondary College, access to resources is not equitable when compared to larger government schools with closer proximity to Melbourne, there are questions of marginalisation that need addressing, and there may be significant socioeconomic issues at home that require support. Yet teachers maintain expectations, creating connections and open learning spaces, urging kids to read, to write, to show up, and to value the opportunities that an education might be able to provide them. As teachers, we can act as innovative creators of the learning environment, but students must bring their worlds into the space and enact with them for the site to become relevant.
Paulo Freire wrote that “the teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves” (Horton & Freire, 1990, p.181). One way that can be done is through writing, through narrative. If writing for young people can begin as a place of identity construction where they can become confident with their language, perhaps it will have a greater bearing on their later literacy practices and help them maintain the confidence to continue with their education. The reality is that many will not.
Karlee didn’t show up for school on Friday, and her memoir that we painstakingly put together, that we drafted three times, that she was so proud of, was never turned in. The reality is that not every moment will be a win, but we can hope for three out of five (Wilhelm, 2008), and those odds are good enough to keep me in the game.
*All names mentioned in this narrative have been changed.
Adonieu, M. (2013). Lost for Words, why the best literacy approaches are not reaching the classroom. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/lost-for-words-why-the-best-literacy-approaches-are-not-reaching-the-classroom-19561
Breen, L. (2014). ‘Creatively Stuggling with Standard Australian English: Moving Beyond Deficit Constructions of My Students.’ In. Doecke, B., Parr G. & Sawyer, W. (Eds.), Language and Creativity: in contemporary English classrooms (pp.89-102). Putney, NSW: Phoenix Education.
Horton, M. & Freire, P. (1990). We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Shann, S. (2015) Imagined worlds and classroom realities : mythopoetic provocations for teachers and teacher educators. Canberra: Sense Publishers.
STELLA- Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia (2000), Retrieved from: http://www.stella.org.au
Wilhelm, J. D. (2008). You gotta BE the book: Teaching engaged and reflective reading with adolescents (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press and NCTE.