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Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Playing with ideas strand

October 28th, 2009

In this Day 2 strand of the Shifting Thinking Conference we will be drawing on both the published ideas of some key educationalists and each others’ ideas as we attempt to think differently about what school could be like.

Session 1: What’s the point of school?

Facilitator: Ally Bull

This session will involve taking some of the key ideas from Guy Claxton’s latest book, “What’s the point of school?” and thinking and talking about what the implications of these ideas are. What are the implications if we see education as building our learning muscles, rather than filling our minds with important stuff?

Session 2: Keeping it complex

Facilitator: Rose Hipkins

This session will make space to think critically about the deep ideas that underpin the familiar structures and practices of school. We’ll explore different metaphors for organising schools and learning, including those introduced in Disciplining and Drafting or 21 Century Learning? (Bolstad and Gilbert, 2008).

UPDATE: Read Rose Hipkins’ post-conference blog about this session

Session 3: Shifting thinking through literary engagement

Facilitators: Sue McDowall and Juliet Twist

Acts of reading deeply, like the acts of cultivating, nurturing, and tending that are part of gardening, generate knowledge that transcends the acts themselves (Sumara, 2002, xiii).

Come prepared to talk about a book (fiction or non-fiction) that has shifted your thinking and to hear about one that has shifted ours: Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight (Sumara, 2002) – a book that explores the transformative potential of literary engagement.

Sumara, D. (2002). Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Manwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Session 4: The book club with a difference

Facilitator: Rose Hipkins

Come to this session ready to talk to a partner about a book that’s shifted your thinking. (Bring the book with you if you can). Let’s think and talk about how the ideas in these books connect with each other.

Conference: November 2009 , , ,

Shakespeare or LOST?

April 2nd, 2009

An interesting question, Rachel! I’ve haven’t yet watched LOST so I’ll have to deal in generalisations here until I do watch it.

Perhaps I could compare and contrast The Tempest to a series of LOST (both feature shipwrecks on a magical island, romance, nastiness)? At first glance it seems like comparing apples and oranges, though.

We can apply criticism to anything, of course, and the act of criticism has to be good for your mind in that it entails complicated mental processes including the articulation of ideas not consciously realised. But is studying LOST as rewarding for you as studying Shakespeare? It all depends on the quality of LOST, I think. Is it worthy of close examination? Is it complicated, nuanced, intelligent, dramatic (and so on) enough? To be brief, is LOST of very high quality?

Looking at the link you provided, Rachel, http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/This_Place_is_Death I have some doubts. I’ve quoted from the site below.

Recurring Themes

Ben drives a van with the name ‘Canton-Rainier.’ This is an anagram for ‘reincarnation.’ (Life and Death) (Rebirth)

Ben previously told Jack the last time he saw Locke was three years ago on the Island; he has however seen him since then. (Deceptions and cons)

Danielle tells Jin that her team departed for their expedition on 15 November 1988. (The Numbers)

Montand’s arm is ripped off. Later, Jin sees it somewhat decayed after a flash. (Missing body parts)

And my favourite theme (yes, it’s time to throw out the classics!) :

Sawyer refers to Charlotte as ‘Red.’ (Nicknames)

A couple of these might be motifs, at best. Anyway, at first glance I’m worried about the nature of the analysis going on here.

I think the best answer to your question is that we study both Shakespeare and LOST (or any high quality contemporary TV series). We’d be missing something if we studied only one at the expense of the other. Maybe start with LOST then graduate to Shakespeare? Or vice versa?!  I’ll watch the next episode!

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On Reading Trash

February 26th, 2009

It all depends on how you define “trash”, of course. On a bad day I’d probably define it as anything I don’t read. But on a better day, when I’m trying on my post-structuralist hat (I’ve got a lot of hats but I’m not actually convinced I suit any of them), I’d tell you there was no such thing. I’d say that literature and trash may often be set against one another but that there’s no real reason why they should be.

It’s what you do with a text that matters. Readers can engage with a complexly crafted text as well as a much simpler one on the same sort of intellectual level: I can make use of Mills and Boon to think about aspiration; I can make use of Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife to do the same thing. From this perspective we are less likely to see “literature” and “trash” as opposites, and instead of spending time distinguishing between two extremes, we are more likely to spend it critically exploring the themes a text represents: what is important is the level of thinking generated. I should have used this argument when I was asked, “Wouldn’t you be far more intellectually stimulated if you taught secondary?” I wish I’d had the wit to point out that, for the teacher, intellectual stimulation is not derived from the complexity of student thinking. It comes from the process of working out what to do in response to student thinking – complex and simple.

I can easily convince myself of this “there is no such thing as trash” argument as long as I’ve got the right hat on. But something always makes me take it off.

Hatless, it occurs to me that I’ve just implied Mills and Boon is on a par with Emily Perkins, that no novel is of more worth to us culturally or aesthetically than any other. The trouble is nothing will convince me this is true. So I’m stuck in an argument with myself where trash does, and does not, exist; stuck spinning around in an argument neither of my two selves can win. Sticking the hat back on helps.

Now I can remind myself of my main point: Mills and Boon and Novel About My Wife can be read at the same intellectual level. Yes, got that. But in saying this I haven’t said they are equally well written and that they have equal cultural or aesthetic significance. Just because a novel can be put to intellectual use doesn’t mean it will necessarily be one of those texts that live inside all of us (whether we are conscious of them or not). Sometimes written hundreds of years ago, these are the texts our current conversations and actions can be traced back to; the ones that show us the historical weight of narrative on present events – they show us the agency of texts. Who knows, Novel about My Wife might one day have this kind of place in our culture. I doubt anything from Mills and Boon will.

But I’m left asking myself if I think Mills and Boon could be a useful part of secondary English classes even though its usefulness will be transitory. And the hat comes off again.

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Shakespeare for my birthday

February 25th, 2009

I’ve just been given the Complete Works of Shakespeare for my 40th birthday (along with a bottle of whiskey, a magnificent stainless steel coffee plunger, a second-hand TV and DVD player, and I won’t go on…) which has got me thinking (again, in the light of recent media headlines) about the Bard of Avon, this long dead bourgeois Englishman whose oeuvre has become a secular bible in the West (and to a certain extent an instrument of oppression and cultural demolition – though that’s not his fault!). And I’ve begun thinking about my twenty-five year relationship to his plays and poems.

Where did this relationship begin? If you believe the (popularly) critically acclaimed study by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the inventor of the human, Shakespeare’s texts had a key role in constructing my personality before I was born. I was born into the world Shakespeare had a large part in creating. Bloom claims that Shakespeare constructed through his characters, most notably Falstaff and Hamlet, the blueprint for the human personality, that Shakespeare expanded and defined the possibilities of personality and character, and drew attention to all the facets and shades of personality we value as a society. In other words, he showed us how to be – whether or not each one us has experienced one of the plays directly. It’s a bold claim and theoretically unfashionable in its claims of universals which include the placement of Shakespeare at the top of a canon – and not only of Western literature but of world literature.

Perhaps a good place to start (though still problematic) is with the question: what’s so good about Shakespeare? Bloom, like others before him, points to the ‘unparalleled range’ of Shakespeare’s characters and the ‘incomparable vitality’ of his writing. People have objections to making comparisons and some people object to Shakespeare (Tolstoy being a famous example), but if you’re prepared to address the question of who has the greatest range of characterisation in literature, there aren’t many convincing arguments against him. Is characterisation important, or the most important aspect of literature? Again, it’s hard to argue (if you’re prepared to) against such an assertion (in the ‘realist’ tradition). It seems to be fairly widely accepted these days in creative writing classes, for example, that character is the engine of literature. Another aspect of Shakespeare that seems unsurpassable is the variety of interpretations that can be brought to his plays. When I first studied English Lit at Victoria University, The Taming of the Shrew was banned for being offensive to women; however, Bloom reads the play as proof of the superiority of women over men in the ‘battle of the sexes’. He insists that Katherina genuinely loves Petruchio; she learns how to control him by simply pretending to agree with him, and her famous submissive speech at the end of the play is obviously ironical and comical. Bloom says (paraphrasing Auden) that our interpretations show how Shakespeare reads us.

Where do I, a contemporary reader, come into this? (other than being born into it…) I first held a play by Shakespeare in my hand at Newlands College, in English class in year 10 or 11. I had seen or heard only fragments of his plays at that time, enough to know that the language was hard to follow. However, in English class, with the text in my hand, I knew I could go slowly and concentrate and engage with this mythical figure.

This introduction to Shakespeare is one of three lonely memories of class work from school which I still carry with me to this day. I remember the room and where I was sitting with unusual clarity (at the back left). Our teacher, a black woman from Guyana, had a cardboard box from which she produced small, light blue books, hard covered, durable and old.  I took the tough little book and opened it with a rare feeling of significance. It was almost momentous: my first one-on-one meeting with the greatest writer ever (which seemed to spill into ‘greatest human’, somehow) – which was how everyone had described him on TV and radio and in books and in conversation for as long as I could remember. People and the media talked about other people as well, of course, but Shakespeare was unique in the unanimous reverence he attracted. He occupied a special place in the culture. So, I opened the blue book Mrs Williams gave me and found… people talking – oddly. They spoke gracefully, powerfully, intelligently, incomprehensibly. No light illuminated my mind. The class didn’t stir from its usual apathy. Memory over.

You may be wondering if I was I happy to get The Complete Works for my birthday, whether I threw it out the window with a cry of rage; whether I immediately put it on a prominent place in the bookshelf, next to the bible, where it will remain unopened but noticed; or if I opened the book at random, found someone talking in Romeo and Juliet  – and my jaw dropped open in surprise.

A person begins engaging with the world Shakespeare helped create long before they get into year 11 or 12 – on a day when a certain tension creeps into their teacher’s voice… Whether or not ‘axing’ Shakespeare is only a media beat-up, I find myself worried about the creation of special schools which are selectively excluded from looking at such a pervasive and unique cultural figure. The students will know they’ve been marginalised. They’ll know they’ve been picked out, identified as being unable or unwilling to engage with the highest (or thereabouts) level of Western art. To paraphrase Bloom, they’ll be told they’re not worthy of being read by Shakespeare.

Is Bloom overstating Shakespeare’s influence here? (Plato comes to mind as another secular figure to whom similar seminal cultural influence is attributed.) I’d love to hear about young peoples’ attitudes to this cultural behemoth we call Shakespeare – before and after they study him.

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It’s a tragedy – or is it?

February 25th, 2009

The traditional academic curriculum – powerful knowledge for all in the 21st century?

Recently I had to give a talk to a group of secondary principals. I was supposed to be talking about personalizing learning – what it is, why is/could it be good, and what, if anything, it has to do with 21st century learning.

When I was thinking about what I should say, I came up against a problem that has worried me for a long time now. It’s a problem I thought about a lot in the past and left it for a while, but now, in the context of all this talk about 21st century learning, I want to come back to it, to think more—and write—about it again. This problem is a very hard problem (and I don’t know the answer to it – yet), but I think it’s a problem that, because it leads us into some very unproductive (from an educational point of view) blind alleys, is really worth trying to think our way through..

What is this problem? It’s the problem of the traditional academic curriculum. In particular, how and why is it—or should it be—important in schooling? What role does it play in producing (or not producing) equal opportunity? What—if anything—does it have to do with 21st century learning? Does this kind of knowledge still matter, and if so/not, why?

Two stories about the school curriculum debate occur to me as a way of beginning this discussion. The first story is the source of the title of this piece.

The front page headline of a recent[1] Saturday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper read “It’s a tragedy. Teachers fight to save Shakespeare“. According to the text, school principals are “alarmed” that the new curriculum will “axe” Shakespeare and other “basic content” in a drive to make school subjects “achievable” by more students. This, they say, will “dumb down” school children, and we will see schools offering “lightweight courses” that “deprive pupils of key knowledge”.

The second story is about something that happened more than fifty years ago. In his book The biography of an idea, Dr C. E. Beeby (Director-General of Education in New Zealand for more than twenty years) tells the story of a trip he made to Te Araroa in the 1940s to attempt to persuade local Mäori of the merits of a new District High School for their area. This new school would add a ‘top end’ to the existing Native School. It would offer a curriculum emphasizing practical/technical subjects designed to prepare students for agricultural and/or domestic work. This, Beeby argued, would help to keep young people in the local area when they left school. At one hui Beeby was challenged by a kaumätua who asked him if he had learned Latin at school. On hearing the reply—that Beeby had in fact learned it – for six years, the kaumätua simply replied “and look where it got you”. Beeby comments in the book, published in 1992, that fifty years later he still hadn’t thought of a suitable reply.

Putting these two stories alongside each other allows us to see some key tensions in the secondary school curriculum, tensions that have been around for a very long time, and that we seem to have no idea how to resolve. Why are they there, and what could we do about them? Why does it matter that they are there? It is these questions that I want to raise—and invite discussion of—here.

I’ll start with two ways of looking at these competing sets of ideas (but there are many more).

Focusing on ideas about what schooling is for, this tension might look like this:

Idea 1: Schooling provides the conditions for equal opportunity by allowing everyone access to powerful forms of knowledge and powerful ways of thinking. These forms of knowledge and ways of thinking are powerful in themselves, and mastery of them gives access to powerful positions in society…

versus

Idea 2: Schooling is an important way of sorting and selecting people for the roles they will occupy in their lives beyond school.

Or: from another angle:

Idea 1: The knowledge that underpins the traditional academic curriculum has been chosen because it is powerful knowledge. It is powerful knowledge because it is universal, timeless, and objective knowledge: that is, it is powerful for—and applies to—all people in all times…

versus

Idea 2: The knowledge that is the basis of the school curriculum is a selection from all available knowledge. It is a selection that reflects and maintains the values and interests of particular social groups and, because of this, it marginalizes—oppresses even—individuals from other social groups.

Thinking about all this again raises some questions for me: for example…

1. Is the traditional academic curriculum, still powerful knowledge? Is this kind of knowledge still linked with powerful ways of thinking? Does mastery of it still provide access to power? Or has the power shifted in the 21st century?

2. If we think ‘rigor’, ‘standards’ and ‘’quality’ are important, does this have to preclude equality and/or inclusiveness? Why does this issue polarise people?

3. What, in the 21st century, does an ‘educated person’ look like? What sort of person should our education system be attempting to produce? Why? Does this person have the same features as one educated in the 20th century? Do we just need to add some more new things – or do we need new, qualitatively different things? What issues does this raise for the curriculum of the future?

What do you think?

If the number of letters to the editor in the Dominion Post in the days following the appearance of the Shakespeare story is any indication, lots of people really care about these issues.

Do you? If so/not why? Where do your ideas come from? Have you thought about them lately?


[1]  15th November 2008.

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Shifting literacies

February 10th, 2009

What reading is meant to be

Two steps inside the door and I either had to veer to the left or stop at the “here’s the new stuff we expect will sell pretty well” table. I opened the first page of the first book I saw whose title was in bigger font than the author’s name. It’s worked in the past, but not this time. What I read was held together by poetic references I just didn’t get.

When you’re drowning in text, it’s probably natural to think you’re the problem – if only I knew a bit more stuff, I’d recognise the references. I suppose you could try to fix your inadequate self by enrolling in some kind of course but there might be ways around the problem that rely less on deficit thinking:

1. Ignore all obscure references

Simply read right over the top of them and go hunting for bits you do get. This is all very well but doesn’t quite fit if you think reading is about taking risks, about facing and experiencing the unfamiliar.

2. Make sense of them in your way, even if you think it may not be the author’s way.

This kind of behaviour will get you into trouble with some literary theorists, though – the ones who insist that any allusion understood in a way not intended by the author is a misreading (but you’re probably safe to practise this kind of subversion in the privacy of your own head). And besides, there are plenty of theorists who say texts can be read at various levels, so missing a few of the author’s intended meanings doesn’t result in the text being unintelligible to the reader.

3. Think of Anton.

Chekhov, that is: cherry orchards … “Is that it?” endings. He knew what reading was all about: “When I write I rely fully on the reader, on the assumption that he himself will add the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Here was a man who actually thought something was missing until a reader comes along with all their subjectivity, their fabulous “baggage” (a middle child with a fear of rats, an inclination towards sugar, an aversion to obsequious shop assistants …) and uses it to help make sense of the text.

Remind yourself of Chekhov, then, whenever you get to a really dense bit – a bit that makes you suspect you’re not quite smart enough. He’ll reassure you that the writer’s job is to put the text out there in the world so readers will add themselves to the mix and make some kind of sense of the whole thing. This is what reading is meant to be.

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