English curriculum: Contested territory

Each day this week I will be adding posts on this blog that share sections of my PhD thesis. They will be drawn from a section in Chapter 2 titled ‘Contested territory’.

The motivation to do this comes from speaking with a lot of English teachers this week, following the release of the new Stage 6 English syllabus in NSW. Many were eager to learn more about the background to some of the issues coming up in professional discussion.

Contested territory

In her ‘Unofficial Guide’, Bethan Marshall describes English as “a subject which is apparently so amorphous that it elides definition and yet it is sufficiently hard edged to provoke bitter controversy” (2000, p.2).  A decade before this Peter Medway, in writing about the history and politics of English as a school subject, argued that the reason why “English is special [is because] certain characteristics generally attributable to academic subjects are notably lacking.  The most obvious example is that English does not comprise a body of facts and concepts to be communicated” (Medway, 1990, p.1).  This lack of a “body of facts and concepts” and the resultant “amorphous” nature of English as a school subject has indeed ensured that both the purpose and context of the subject continue to be hotly debated.  This section will provide an overview of the ‘sticking points’ that have shaped contemporary debates and which endure in current debates about English, and the various (at times competing) demands that are placed on English as a subject area in contemporary NSW schools.

(McGraw, 2010, pp.27-28)

Stay tuned this week for the following elaborations on contested territory in English:

References:

Marshall, B. (2000). English teachers – the unofficial guide: Researching the philosophies of English teachers. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

McGraw, K. (2010). Innovation and change in the 1999 NSW HSC English syllabus: Challenges and problems (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Sydney: Sydney.

Medway, P. (1990). Into the sixties: English and English society at a time of change. In I. Goodson & P. Medway (Eds.), Bringing English to order: The history and politics of a school subject (pp. 1-46). London: Falmer Press.

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Damn lies and misinformation: Daily Tele and the new Stage 6 English

New Stage 6 (senior secondary) syllabuses were released today in NSW, and the media circus was on point.

The worst offender for misinformation was probably the Daily Telegraph, with Bruce McDougall’s piece ‘NSW Education: School syllabus shake-up promotes the classics, Shakespeare and Austen back for the HSC’ riddled with unnamed sources and incorrect claims.

Author image created using Trove map resource and Bard portrait

Among the claims are:

  • That “Shakespeare is back” (he never left – he remains mandatory study in Advanced English)
  • That “Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad will become mandatory for Year 11 and Year 12” (impossible to know until the text prescriptions are released later this year, and unlikely to be true for all courses)
  • That the Area of Study is “criticised by students, parents and teachers” as being tied to “woolly concepts” (name your sources or go home).

Disappointingly, NESA president Tom Alegounarias seemed to add fuel to the fire with this misleading statement:

  • “In English, for example, Shakespeare or the equivalent other aspects of great literature will be mandatory.” (Shakespeare is ONLY mandatory in Advanced English, and always has been, and ‘great literature’ i.e. texts from the Western literary canon have always been studied in other courses)

Once again we heard this old chestnut:

  • “Education chiefs said they had listened to sustained criticism from employers and businesses that many school leavers applying for jobs lacked basic skills in literacy and numeracy.” (does this reference to ‘sustained criticism’ mean complaints about this dating back to the early 1900s, which perennially persist despite amazing growth in youth literacy rates?)

It was a frustrating read.

Especially given that NESA had fed the media machine with statements before making the syllabuses available on their website for teachers to see first hand. PDF versions of the material didn’t come online until lunchtime, leaving busy teachers with sense of panic about navigating disparate web-only resources.

One can only hope that these spurious claims work to galvanize the profession in the coming months, as we create new resources and share fresh perspectives on the syllabus change. If conversations I had online with colleagues today are anything to go by, there is still hope for this. We are already interrogating more important aspects of the changes to consider implications, including:

  1. The inclusion of a ‘multimodal presentation’ assessment (will this be more than a speech-aka-essay-read-aloud with a dose of death by Powerpoint to boot?)
  2. The categorisation of English Studies as an ATAR eligible course (what will the impact be on Standard enrolments?)
  3. The increased ability to forgo completed any study of digital or multimodal texts in Advanced English (congratulations NSW, you just got a ‘Literature’ syllabus in disguise!)

Stay tuned for more analysis in weeks to come.

(Author image created using Trove map resource, Bard portrait, and news quote.)

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Tips and info for teachers new to Twitter

Came across this video today that I made with colleague Jill Willis, back in 2015. I’d still give all of this advice…though I might add a caution about not engaging in Twitter arguments, as there are too many of those going around these days.

If you are a teacher who is about to try some tweeting, here are some tips:

…and here is an older blog post that also features some practical ideas for new users.

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How to raise NAPLAN and PISA scores in 6 easy steps

Raising student performance is really this easy!

Raising student performance is really this easy!

Jk. Hope you took the click bait.

Here is a wrap up of my favourite posts this week in response to the usual sky-is-falling in education, ‘where’s-the-bandaid solution’ sh*tshow that has followed release of the latest PISA results.

If you want some intelligent, grounded-in-reality reading about improving ‘student performance’, I highly recommend:

  1. Misty Adoniou’s piece in The ConversationAustralia’s students are failing. I blame the politicians (PS. So do I)
  2. Charlotte Pezaro’s blog post about a phonics debate that got way out of hand: The unforgivable
  3. Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard’s piece in The GuardianPisa results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic
  4. The joint statement by ALEA and PETAA: on phonics instruction in early reading development

Also a few older posts here:

  1. Eileen Honan’s March 2015 piece on the AARE blog EduResearch MattersThis is how Australian teachers are taught how to teach children to read: not just phonics
  2. Darcy Moore’s October 2016 blog post about test data and measuring outcomes: The KFC fix

Please share any or all of the posts above with your friends.

And a reminder, as always, NOT TO FEED THE TROLLS.

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How many hours in a work week?

I have been wondering what advice I should give to my pre-service teachers (PSTs) next semester before their first prac., about how many hours a week a new teacher actually works, generally speaking.

Here is my working so far:

  • Each school day (Mon-Fri) you work your teaching timetable from about 8am-3pm. Or 8.30am-3.30pm. Whatever. A roughly 8 hour day, including roll call, teaching, prep periods, playground duty, and yes a recess and lunch break when we are probably meeting with students or colleagues or…ugh, so many things eat up the lunch breaks, don’t even try to suggest that teachers enjoy many lunch breaks.
  • Let’s say you do leave straight after school, maybe you pick up your own kids and/or grab some groceries, make some dinner, eat and wait until the house is settled. Or maybe you crash into an epic nap to recover from the work day. You can probably start working again if you need to around 8pm.
  • Experienced teachers perhaps don’t do as much work at this time of night as others (unless they are also in a leadership role or have taken up extra duties/further studies – thoughts?) but beginning teachers will generally do another 2-4 hours every night to keep on top of the workload. For new English teachers this work includes reading new texts they are planning to teach, marking assessment tasks and draft work, finding and preparing resources for upcoming lessons such as AV materials and student support strategies. Let’s say an average extra 3 hours per night. But perhaps this is conservative – I know I did more, and rarely saw bedtime before 1am.
  • When teachers are new it takes them a long time to mark each piece of student work. This results in long weekend marking sessions. I’d estimate I did around an extra 4 hours each weekend day in my first couple of years of teaching. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Rarely none. Teaching has peak periods and slower patches, but truthfully there’s always something big on – half yearly or yearly exams, half yearly or yearly reports, year 11 and 12 assessment task marking sometimes double marked, year 10 and 12 formal, camp, debating finals, school musical…

That’s a 59 hour work week for new/graduate teachers.

I’d love to hear in comments below if you think I’m on or off the mark on this. 

teacher

NB. The holiday clause:

Yes teachers get about 10 weeks of non-teaching time a year. Only a few weeks over summer break of this are truly ‘on holiday’.

In the three 2-week school ‘holiday’ breaks, new teachers invariably are sick for the first of the two weeks. Ask anyone, it’s true. Also true for many experienced teachers, but new teachers are still literally building up their immune system to cope with the range of nasty illnesses around a school, so are highly susceptible. The the second week is spent doing increasing amounts each day, until a final panicked frenzy of non-stop work in the weekend before school goes back.

Am I right?

So also don’t give teachers any grief about having ‘more holidays’ because although yes having respite from face-to-face teaching for a couple of weeks is essential and so so so welcome, it is rarely a relaxing or nourishing time. You may not rack up 59 hours of work in these weeks, but you probably would rather do that than be in holiday sick bay.

You really have to have some experience under your belt and work hard and be super organised to use your holiday time wisely.

I just think it would be best if PSTs prepared themselves for this. And realised that their prac placements are likely going to be just as intense. You know?

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A nest of posts

Not sure what the collective noun for posts is (?)

Here is a nest of posts this week that have stayed with me. Not keen to post them on social media so much because argh the noise everywhere this week is deafening…

Post 1: You can’t fix education. By Hank Green on Medium.

why-hasnt-education-innovated-in-150-years-1-it-has-2-it-works

Post 2: Cultural Marxism: A uniting theory for rightwingers who love to play the victim. By Jason Wilson in The Guardian.

Post 3: The truth will set you free. By Graham Brown-Martin on Medium.

What posts have had impact for you this week?

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Assignment marking: Do the math

Something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while is the unseen labour that goes into marking student work.

It’s semester 2 marking time in Australian universities, and I’ve just finished a stack of mine. ‘Stack’ in the figurative sense, because these were a combination of learning logs and and video blogging, all submitted and marked digitally, so there were no actual stacks of anything.

Being the audience and assessor for these students’ work was a privilege, and I don’t think any teacher should forget that having the authority to do this work is always a privilege. Sometimes it is also a joy. And it is always something that we do, knowing the important positive impact that quality feedback has on student learning.

It is a labour of love, but it is a labour to be sure.

Generally a student assignment takes 30 minutes to mark. So they say. Once I get my hand in, I can usually get through an exam response in 20 minutes (they don’t tend to require any feedback), and an essay in 30 minutes, but a set of professional plans (e.g. annotated lesson plans, units of work) takes about 45 minutes and you just can’t rush it.

A typical formula for university marking in my field is that formal assessment feedback and grading for each student should get an hour of your time each semester. That’s 30 minutes for each assignment if you only set two assignments. If you want to set more assignments, it’s on you to mark them quicker. If you’re in the edu-biz, you’ll know that this is where group presentations and short response exam papers start looking attractive.

In a typical semester I have 120 students. That’s maybe 90 students in one big unit, and 30 students in a smaller unit. As a high school teacher this was also roughly the number of students I had – roughly five classes of 25 (some with 30 students, some with closer to 20, e.g. senior classes).

Using me as an example: I set two assignments each semester. And we know that on average I plan to spend 30 minutes on each.

My semester runs for 9 weeks (because it’s followed by prac.), but they can also run for 13 weeks. You can’t really set an assignment in weeks 1 or 2. If the assignment is big, worth 40% or more, you can’t really set it in weeks 3 or 4 either.

Let’s say assignment 1 is submitted in week 5. We’re expected to get work back to students in 2-3 weeks. So they say. Which puts me giving their results back to them in week 8 (a very important deadline if the next assignment is due in week 9).

120 students

x

30 mins each

=

60 hours extra work

/over 3 weeks

=

20 hours of extra work each week.

Add about 3 hours for each of the following:

  • getting your head around the task and long times spent on first few tasks marked
  • moderation with a colleague
  • administration of grades, uploading feedback to LMS etc.

Rinse and repeat just one week later if you have set assignment 2 to be due in week 9.

So if you’ve got about 120 students on average, and managed to keep yourself limited to your 30 minutes per assignment in all units in both semesters, then you will have worked about 23 hours of overtime for 12 weeks out of the year.

I say overtime, because the whole time you’ve been doing this, life, and other work, goes on…

Classes still need teaching. Emails still need answering. You still have to front up to important meetings. Research papers still need writing, grant proposals still need submitting, you may be collecting research data and attending conferences too. If you’re a school teacher, it’s classes, emails, meetings, lesson prep, school dance supervision, year 8 camp, sport coaching, bus duty…the list goes on.

As depressing as this exercise is, I think we should all do the math on this for our own teaching context.

People need to know the reality of what teachers mean when someone asks them how they’re going and the only response they can muster is a stoney-eyed “I’ve been marking”.

Spouses and family members need to be acknowledged for how they support the teachers in their lives during marking seasons.

Teachers need to grasp the reality of their workloads so they aren’t taken by surprise each time the overtime cycle hits, and help each other learn how to manage the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes (or collectively rise up and change this system maybe, hey?).

And beginning teachers need to be aware of what they’re in for.

I am so grateful to my boss for giving me lighter teaching load this semester (just 35 students!) so I can focus on my research publications, but next semester I’ll have 120 students again. I can’t wait to meet them, but I sure do wish their assignments would mark themselves!

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