Inspiration for Meaningful Education

With all the talk about NAPLAN and performance based pay for teachers that has been circling around lately I felt the need to seek out some inspirational material to restore my faith in the purpose and possibilities of education.

My first port of call was to return to one of my old favourties, Sir Ken Robinson.  I have always found solace, but also excitement, in his ideas about what makes meaningful education and in this clip I like how he disputes the very foundation of our education system.

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History and Literacy – A Grammar Lesson with Ned Kelly

When I worked at the State Library of Victoria I was often reading and discussing Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter with students. It is such a colourful and fascinating insight into the man who still elicits such powerful, yet opposing, feelings. The language is a hoot and the explanations he offers for his actions are an eclectic combination of passionate justifications and childish excuses. Students loved it, and I loved using it.

One of the letter’s amusing features is its poor grammar. While it is remarkable that Ned was literate at all, the letter’s distinct lack of punctuation makes it somewhat difficult to read. Generally believed to be dictated by Ned and written by his friend Joe Byrne, the letter definitely reads like spoken rather than written language. Because of this, I had always thought that it would make a fun literacy activity to try and correct his grammar. Today, I gave it a bash…

I was teaching in a Year 5/6 classroom in Darwin and had limited time to think of some activities, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to call on Ned to help me out. We started the lesson with a bit of a revision of sentence features and structures. The students had some prior knowledge in this area, but hadn’t done much grammar-specific editing. They knew next to nothing about Ned Kelly (a shocking realisation to a Victorian!), so we also did a little introduction to his life.

Then I let them have a go at editing the first 5 pages of the Jerilderie letter – the transcript, not the original! – which I took from the SLV website. They started off well and gave it a good go, but as the language became increasingly more difficult and his story more confusing, they started losing motivation and concentration. At that point I started reading through it with them. As we had limited time, I had them edit it direct on the page, but with more time it would definitely be worth actually re-writing it.

When we went through it together they enjoyed it more, which I think was mainly because I was able to add a bit of emotion into reading it. I also translated some of the language into modern slang, which they enjoyed. For example, I explained to them “when he says:

my fist came in collision with McCormack’s nose and caused him to loose his equillibrium and fall postrate

What he means is:

I accidentally punched him in the nose and he fell flat on his face.”

Once we finished editing it we re-read sections of it and the students were able to get a bit more of a picture of what he was trying to say.

Overall the lesson went well, and with a few adjustments I think it would be a very worthwhile activity for teachers to run. The main improvement I would make would be to integrate it into the historical study of Ned Kelly or bushrangers. This would have given some context for the students and greater motivation for them to interpret the letter – most students I have come across thoroughly enjoy learning about Ned Kelly. The second change would be to provide more scaffolding in editing and grammar. As this was a one off, it was quite a challenging task for the students. If the students had more background skills it would have been much easier for them.

Also, I would think it would be a quicker (and possibly more fun) activity for secondary students.

Not all students like learning or practising their grammar, but with a bit of Ned’s charm and charisma, they might even find it fun! If anyone gives it a go, or has in the past, please let me know how it went.

(Picture from the State Library of Victoria – Manuscripts Collection).

Thoughts from the classroom – Part 2


Early on in my stint casual teaching here in Darwin I started thinking about how students perceive discipline from, and respect for, adults. At the same time I was thinking about the experience of adults when they face undisciplined and disrespectful children. As a CRT, this is something that is a daily consideration. As an Education Officer, sometimes one creating mock 1850’s learning environments, it is a very different experience.

Throughout my education degree I thought: I’m not going to be one of those teachers that just demands respect from their students, I believe I have to earn it. I still believe this. The problem is that the students don’t necessarily agree with what TYPE of efforts should earn respect. I figured that as a hardworking teacher who wanted the best for them and created the best learning programs I could, I was worthy of respect. But there are many students who will not show respect for their teachers. This may be because they dislike them or because they aren’t aware of their behaviours or fully understand the ramifications. Or, perhaps it’s because they put teachers in a completely different category to other adults?

The reason I have been musing on this is that since returning to the classroom I have been struck by the contrast between students’ interactions with me here, and those when I meet them as an Education Officer. In this discussion I am mainly referring to older students, after they have passed the phase of general love for their teacher and desire to please. From about Year 4 up.

Working with students I barely know, I receive markedly more respect in the role of Education Officer rather than Casual Teacher. Why does my official name badge or costume, as symbols of my position, accord me more respect from children than as a casual teacher? I am exactly the same person, with the same level of knowledge and the same qualification.

Is my manner different? Not really, at least not until I encounter and try to manage the behaviour management issues that come hand-in-hand with the lack of respect. The one exception of this is when I am role-playing as an 1850’s lady. However, even then, I don’t so much change my manner but rather just let the students draw their own assumptions!

When I talk about students showing a lack of respect, I see that embodied in particular behaviour: general indifference and ambivalence, speaking over the top of the adult-in-charge, inappropriate and rude comments directed at the adult, and a lack of empathy to the efforts of the adult. As a relief teacher I face these behaviours on a daily basis and trying to manage or alter them is challenging. In contrast, as a Education Officer I faced much less, and when it did occur, it was usually very easy to manage (a quiet look or a ‘may I please have your attention’ would normally suffice).

I noticed this difference particularly when I was with a class of Year 5 students for 3 days. For the first day and a half the whole class, while reasonably cooperative, were rather indifferent to me. It seemed as though they saw me as merely a teacher. They didn’t really want to share things with me. Then, when we were doing a lesson on Australian History, I introduced them to my permanent job. Most of the class were very interested and their behaviour towards me changed. From a number of students I received something very close to admiration. From most though, I received a higher degree of respect, shown to me by their willingness to listen, slightly improved behaviour, and interesting thoughtful questions. Sure I was enthusiastic and had good knowledge about the topic, but their behaviour changed seemed to stem more from their thoughts that I had a job worthy of respect. I was no longer merely their teacher.

Do students see teaching as something other than a profession? Do they see their teachers in a completely different mould to other adults? I think back to my days as a school student and there were definitely a few key teachers that I respected and admired. But I didn’t aspire to be them.

Is it familiarity? Do students see their teacher a bit like their parents – they might appreciate them deep down, but still have a battle and negative behaviours as they push the boundaries set by these familiar adults? Whereas other adults that students come in contact with may be seen as a novelty.

When children (and adults) respect and admire you, discipline and behaviour management becomes much easier. I know that, even as an adult, when I have met someone I admire, I go out of my way to be on my best behaviour and I listen to them very attentively and respectfully. Do those people we respect and admire, cause us to behave more like we did when we were young children? Is it our desire to please that moderates our behaviour?

Then what about the in between, neither admiration nor disinterest? I’m sure that it is only a minority of students I have taught in the role of Education Officer have actually admired my role, or me. But many have accorded me a nice level of respect. So why does the average student, without a great interest in history or museums, accord me more respect as an Education Officer than they give me as a teacher?

This post is riddled with questions, for which I don’t have an answer, but I think they are worth pondering. I know teaching is a tough gig. And while there are many joyful moments as you connect with and inspire children, it can also be challenging and draining. I wonder how teachers currently in the classroom feel… do they feel respected by their students? Do they feel they have earned or are due respect? Does greater respect come as your become a more skilled and competent teacher?

And what do we all, as past students, recollect as our feelings towards our teachers compared to other adults?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.