Posts Tagged Auslit

Actually liking poetry


Something I have been sharing with my students over the past few years is the story of how I became confident enough to read and teach poetry.

You see, the truth about English teachers is that not all of them like poetry. Not all of them feel like they ‘get’ poetry, either. In fact, just like there are English teachers that hate Shakespeare, or storytelling, or debating, or essay writing, there are some English teachers that HATE poetry, and avoid teaching it wherever possible.

I was never a teacher that hated poetry. But I was a teacher that saw poetry as ‘beyond’ my understanding for many years. I knew I was supposed to ‘get it’, but I had to study what I was going to teach quite intently before tackling it in class, every time.

Oh the revision I had to do when I was a beginning teacher!

Oh how useless my university units including study of poetry seemed (and still seem)!

Luckily, I did have enough positive experiences of poetry from my youth to stay engaged – as a little kid I had some illustrated poetry books that I loved to read, and as a teenager I lived up to the classic stereotype of hormonal girl by writing maaany lines of free verse about my horrible melancholic life etc. into notebooks covered with skulls and flowery tattoo sketches.

Ahh, those were the days!

In high school English I enjoyed studying poetry, and felt very clever at it. But our study was always heavily guided by a teacher – when left to my own devices to interpret an unseen poem, I always felt lost and frustrated.

As for writing poetry, well … aside from a few haikus in junior English, I don’t recall writing any.

So what changed?

My attitude changed very quickly in my first year of teaching. Tell me if you’ve ever heard this advice:

A teacher should try completing activities themselves first, before setting them for students.

I know I’ve heard that advice a few times, and of course it’s good advice though impossible to follow all the time. However, as a beginning teacher it was clear to me that my colleagues and I were setting work for students that we didn’t do ourselves about, oh … half of the time? At least??

You see, no-one in the staff room was writing poetry, or short stories, or letters to the editor, or pretty much anything in their spare time. Two teachers in postgraduate studies would have been writing essays, but the rest of the teachers sure as shoot weren’t. Yet we were teaching a curriculum that required students to spend half of their time composing texts of various kinds.

When I realised this, what changed for me was that I decided to be more of a role model for my students by attempting more personal writing.

And that included poetry.

How does writing poetry help you like poetry?

The short answer: by providing a source of intrinsic motivation.

The longer answer: I found that trying to write poetry forced me to look at other people’s poetry in a whole new light. Just try writing a poem… if you aren’t already in the habit of it, you’ll probably find it challenging! Sometimes when I try to write a poem, the limits of my own writing ability are so in-my-face that I feel driven to go and read more examples of other people’s poetry to try to get ideas about different writing styles and tricks. There are still plenty of poems that I don’t understand, but these days there aren’t really any that I’m afraid of anymore!

Maybe I’m not completely right about this – after all, if you feel too frustrated with poetry writing, maybe you won’t appreciate other people’s attempts or even want to read any. (A message for teachers might therefore be to make sure that writing at school stays fun, so that students stay motivated and encouraged to independently learn more.)

Reading contemporary Australian poetry

Now that I actually like poetry, I’ve found out that I also actually like Australian poetry!

In a workshop by the Red Room Company with Johanna Featherstone last year, my students and I were asked to name as many Australian poets as we could. The list was woefully short and mostly full of bush poets… we agreed that day had been a wake up call for us all!

Since then I have been reading some volumes of poetry and I am very happy to recommend the following, for anyone who is keen to pursue contemporary Australian poets:

Lachlan Brown - 'Limited Cities' (2012)

  Lachlan Brown – ‘Limited Cities’ (2012) 

Ross Clark (2007); Michelle Dicinoski (2011)

Ross Clark (2007); Michelle Dicinoski (2011)

Ross and Michelle are poets that I’ve met since working at QUT, and I got to know Lachlan when he visited my class as a Red Room Company poet. Knowing a little bit about these poets has helped me to engage with their work, but honestly, they are all just bloody good! Have your library order them 🙂

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An Introduction to the CLDR Project

Children’s Literature Digital Resources.

Australian schools can now access the full texts in this online resource.

Others can access the Auslit resource through university and other library databases.

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Miranda Devine is a Hack

Miranda Devine writes in the SMH today that English teachers have lost the plot, and criticises the English Teachers’ Association for hating books, plays and poems, and language in general really.

Hmmm.  I wonder, what is more likely…

  • That English teachers hate books, OR that they think students need to know how to understand and create spoken and visual language as well?
  • That English teachers hate books, OR that they LOVE books, as well as films, poems, webpages, plays and TV shows?
  • That English teachers hate Australian books, OR that they LOVE Australian books…AND films, poems, webpages, plays and TV shows!?
  • That English teachers don’t want students to read books anymore, OR that they LOVE it when students read books, but don’t want politicians and journalists dictating when and where books are used in their teaching program?

Devine quotes author Sophie Masson, who believes that English teachers have a “subconscious hate and envy of writers” – this is of course why we all hate books, and are hell-bent on destroying LIT-RIT-YOOR for students today.

Masson is also quoted (as speaking on behalf of all English teachers), because some teachers have told her at writing workshops that the HSC is too hard.  Devine describes with horror that “there is a huge burden on [teachers] to comply with curriculum rules and what has to be accomplished in a year.”  Well, yes.  I agree – but this has less to do with having to teach ‘theory’, and more to do with what we are forced to cram into the HSC year because politicians insist on setting the bar so high to protect the reputation of NSW’s ‘world class curriculum’!  If parents want an easier HSC, they need to tell the politicians…they will get my support, but Devine is likely to slam them in the SMH for want to ‘dumb down’ they syllabus…

Speaking of dumbing down, Devine also quotes her mate Big Kev Donnolly, who along with Devine perhaps has a subconscious hate and envy of good English teachers who sees any attempt to teach spoken or visual language as “social activism”.  At what point will the Sydney Morning Herald stop giving air to journos that are so out of touch??

If the English curriculum only covered written language – books, poems and plays – it would be a very disengaging subject indeed, not to mention totally irrelevant in our contemporary world.  Miranda Devine is of the opinion that ‘words are words’ whether in a book or on a screen.  How utterly ignorant. If Miranda Devine is serious about encouraging a love of language (as I truly believe she is, in her own misguided way) she would be better off getting behind English teachers who want to teach MORE language forms, not LESS.

The ETA’s response to the Board of Studies’ proposal to ‘Strengthen Australian Literature’ actually argues the following:

  • ETA members do not believe that there is any need to impose further restrictions on professional choice and judgement than those that are already in English syllabuses.
  • ETA members believe that any definition of ‘Australian’ needs to see Australia in a global context , and to take account of Indigenous and multicultural perspectives.
  • ETA members feel strongly that a definition of literature with a restriction to the print medium is imprudent, reductive, short-sighted and, most importantly, undermines the integrity of current English syllabuses.
  • ETA members believe that the amendments to the K-6 English syllabus do not provide the richness of direction required for non-specialist English teachers particularly in the areas of what could constitute literature and the kinds of creative responses it may inspire. They also think that teacher professionalism needs to be acknowledged by specifying their involvement in the development of recommended text lists.
  • Members are particularly concerned at the narrowing of the definition of literature in the syllabus [to mean only print texts – books, poems and plays] and believe that strengthening the inclusions in the syllabus restricts the capacity of teachers to effectively support weaker students.

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