Kid whispering

whisper-small1

Horse whisperer (noun)
A person who tames and trains horses by gentle methods and speech.

Recently, I was described by a respected educator as a ‘kid whisperer’, a person who, as the originating definition above suggests, is gentle and fairly attuned with students in my care. Now, those of who have worked with me know I can bellow a mighty shout and a stern look when needed too, let’s not pretend … But overall, the gentle and patient has been my forte. To be called a kid whisperer is, to me, a badge of honour.

I have been asked the ‘what do you do?” type questions. A quick, from-the-hip reply goes like the following.  And please do read the disclaimer too:

Tip #1 Watch what is going on. Listen, watch the child’s body language and your own, know the context, ask, create then keep a SAFE space for expression, whatever the form. If a kid looks hungry, upset, sleepy, sad … don’t ignore it for the sake of ‘efficiency’ but acknowledge and work with what you have in front of you, not what you would like to have in front of you.

Tip #2 Respond in unusual ways if need be. Disrupt the standard responses (raising voice, punishment, showing disappointment, overly praising, coldly quoting the rules, just slower and louder … you get it, surely). Say something the student is not expecting to hear but would perhaps like to hear, then go from there.

Tip #3 Find out something personal about each student. Does not have to be big, just big enough to strike a conversation, quick occasional “how is the BMX racing going? Got your new bike yet?” Yard, informal a great place for it.

‘Pablo’ (not his real name) is ‘trouble’ – in trouble, labelled as trouble, causing trouble. I could throw half a dozen edu-acronyms and phrases at you to describe him. He had called me a f*****g c**t only a few weeks ago, to which he was suspended for a day. Rightly so, boundaries do and must exist.

Yesterday, Pablo flatly refused to work on the environmental assignment like the rest of the class. Five minutes later, I asked him (gently, one-to-one): “OK, look, I get that writing about the Murray river probably isn’t the most important thing to you right now. What IS important to you right now?” Not the usual response …

Pablo paused and said: “I need to work on my CV [resume].” An interesting thing for a ‘trouble’ 13-year old to say. “Would you like me to help you with it?” Nothing to do with rivers here but let’s see where this leads …”

Where it has lead to is an amazing insight into his life, aspirations and family circumstances. He felt safe to tell me. He felt listened to. Tomorrow, we are finishing our collaboratively written CV and cover letter so he can letter-drop local businesses for a small part-time job. I, the guy whom he insulted a week ago, will be honoured to be his referee. And what do you think are the chances of him at least trying to write about the Murray river after that? Yeah, that.

The story I tell is real. The ‘tips’ I offer are real. But then, they are mere tips and they remind me of another story:

Ratko Rudic, the world’s most successful water polo coach (and my former coach) was invited by our national federation to work with coaches. He was bemused by the number of people who wanted ‘quick tips’ on all sorts of things:

“These Aussies are funny. Like the Americans, they want … what do they call them … ‘tips’ on legwork. Sure I can give them that in good will but I can’t give them the ten years of time and effort it took me to work it out myself. And I am still learning it!”

If you think that any of this can help your work with kids in your care – please use, spread, change, quote, make yours at will. No problem. But just like my old coach, I am telling you that all this is hard work in progress for ends I can never be certain of.

Just like listening itself. I for one still don’t do enough of it, especially of the youth in my care. And every teacher worth their title will probably tell you that.

Which students should I care about less?

I read and resonate with Dr Linda Graham’s post ‘Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies’ and I can see how it can be a red rag to thousands of my teaching colleagues, parents and pundits. Naughty corners, time outs, behaviour peg ladders, smiley faces/sad faces for behaviour, various points systems etc ‘in breach on International Convention on the Rights of Children’? “Come on, you are joking, right?” I read and hear the calls: “Where are the rights of the teachers? Kids who do the right thing?”

No, I really do hear them. In every class of teens I teach, there are those whose presence is a persistent disruption. Unlike violence and aggression in some other places I had taught, this is mostly low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour, identified in another, related piece of research as ‘the main problem in our classrooms‘. But what should I do? What do I do?

‘Engage all students with well-designed learning activities’ goes the de rigeur, ‘teaching standards’ answer. Sounds nice doesn’t it. It IS nice and it happens sometimes, expectedly and unexpectedly. But in a microcosm of personalities, experiences, abilities, learning preferences, teaching preferences, curriculum demands that exists in every lesson, this is a rare educational nirvana I aim for and strike sometimes. For most of the time, it simply ain’t that way. Some students will and do resist, disengage, disrupt, sabotage and more. The question remains: What should I do?

The ‘standard’ responses, wrapped in nice sounding pseudo-Skinnerian speak (‘Positive Behaviour Support’ anyone?), Dr Graham points out are as standard as they are useless beyond perhaps the immediate triage. And triage is what you do when you have limited resources, need an immediate response under less then ideal circumstances. You treat the immediate symptoms, hardly ever the underlying cause. We devote considerable resources to build entire systems of tracking and improving these triage efforts (apparently our school needs a better, expensive computer tracking system to reduce the rate of kids wagging [Australian term for 'skipping school', absenteeism]). These systems generate terrific amounts of data that admin get to analyse and devise solutions for the busy teachers. Results? Well, the rates of disruptive behaviour and disengagement haven’t exactly dropped have they. So, ‘better triage’ doesn’t seem to be a great answer to my question: What should I do?

Here is a little of what I do …

In a particularly challenging Year 8 class, there is chasm between ‘achievers’ and ‘strugglers’ (I hate labels…). I try to use activities that involve all and include as much as possible. However, a chair flying across the class, two kids disrupting class next door (let alone ours!) by shouting and kicking, an erupting argument over a stolen phone, withdrawn kid or two who refuse to do anything etc all at the SAME TIME calls for a wiser moves than simply the triage send off or two. The send offs might preserve a bit of peace and sanity and allow at least ten other kids who, at the SAME TIME, want to get on with the lesson and engage in the learning activity I had planned, spent my time creating too.

Very soon after realising what sort of group this is, I said to all of them: “Amongst you there are students who want to get on with it and those who don’t. I understand that. The question I ask you: Which students should I care less about, spend less time and effort with?”

Let’s just say we had an interesting conversation. Now, we are slowly building an understanding that I or rather we simply won’t ignore or exclude people in here but the price of that may be that sometimes the achievers, sometimes the strugglers will not have all their needs met. Like many teachers I try to listen, find a little bit about the kid, provide alternatives, conduct one-to-one, eye-to-eye meetings followed by hands shakes (very powerful with boys!) and making ‘deals’ rooted in trust and not breaking promises. Some of these strategies push the boundaries of the school behaviour code, some colleagues may feel undermined as I am ‘the soft that allows them to have what they don’t allow’ (we’re talking minor stuff here). Many of these strategies don’t work straight away, many never do. It is bloody frustrating, exhausting, emotionally draining work.

Yet…many colleagues are coming up to me saying ‘you are doing great work with these kids, what do you do?’ Well, I give them time, ear and trust. That’s all. Again, don’t get rosy eyed – this is hard graft. I get let down, disappointed many times by teens, get unkind looks by my colleagues. Burnout material and a way to an earl(ier) ‘teaching grave’. I know it. But if my underlying message is one of trust, responsibility and care I am happy to absorb the blows until the student(s) realise it. There is no database to store that one either.

Now, we, teachers, do triage not because we don’t give a damn about the kid. However, the systemic memories and barriers of the past and present are simply too great sometimes for us do each students’ needs justice or at least give them a hearing: “Sorry kiddo, I gotta run, get through this, attend to that, need help with…here is detention!” Hearing, understanding even the needs of a particular student but being unable to cater for them with the limited resources is THE frustrating part. It is also part of the ire teachers so often direct at researchers or anyone else not directly immersed (bruised, battered, frustrated by…) in the daily realities of classroom teaching. ‘Walk in our shoes’ teachers say ‘then judge!’ Or as Dr Sullivan ends:

So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.

Sure, but a similar question begs: What did the teacher began as? Non-caring, ego tripping control freak who loves the behaviour charts or someone who wants to awaken, inspire, challenge, create, ‘make a difference’? My work with hundreds of preservice teachers strongly suggests the latter. Why this massive dis-connect between the wishes and lived realities?

‘Sparing a thought about students’ earlier experiences’ is surely better than no thought or insight. However, it is incredibly corrosive where there is little you can do about to hear those out fully, resources to adjust things to allow the kid to blossom. It is this sense of powerlessness that teachers so often complain about that ultimately boils over in the staffrooms, comment sections, kitchen tables and elsewhere.

“If I can’t care for all equally, which students should I care about less?” The answer to that lies in the answer to the broader question: “What is education for?” And it is this seemingly naive but powerful question we don’t ask nowhere near enough.

Looking for work

job-hunt

Due to lack of funding, my short-term teaching contract at a local high school runs out in early April 2014 and I am looking for work.

Below is the required self-promotion in an abbreviated resume format. I hope you get a sense of the person behind these words. 

Formal education

Bachelor of Education (Secondary – Society & Environment major/English minor), Master of Education (Research – Thesis on cultural identity of refugee students and social equity), PhD candidature (Parental views of NAPLAN).

Work history

Secondary school teacher (10 years) – Humanities (S&E, English, Geography, History, Philosophy & Ethics, Economics, Career & Enterprise), specialty – work with disengaged youth.

ICT integrator, e-learning designer, presenter, trainer, administrator in school, university, corporate and government sector.

Tertiary sector educator, publisher, researcher – work with pre-service teachers, active research, journal publishing at Murdoch University School of Education.

Professional sports – played and coached water polo, male and female, junior to international level, over 100 caps for Australia, Sydney 2000 Olympic squad member.

Experience

Beneath and beyond my work history lie years of experience in a number of fields.

I have had a significant online presence as a commentator, blogger, tweeter, participant in a number of communities since 2004 (well before Twitter and Facebook). In these spaces I mostly discuss creative use of technology in education,  educational equity and sociology of schooling.

Years of reading, writing, research and participation in education in a number of settings have given me deep understanding of education, learning theories, and edu-policy initiatives. SAMR, BYOD, AITSL, PISA, ACARA, NAPLAN, ERG … throw an edu-acronym at me and there is a very good chance I will know what it means and does.

I have travelled extensively, particularly in my elite sports playing and coaching years, and speak several languages. I value family as a husband, a father of two primary school boys. I espouse healthy, active lifestyle and community participation as a long standing member of a local primary P&C council.

Passion

Working WITH people and building relationships. As frustrating as it may be at times, I am at my very best with people – colleagues, clients, students, juniors to adults, beginners to elite. I uphold high ethical standards whoever I work with. Unless being insincere, many who have worked with me say that I am ‘creative’, ‘innovative’, that I ‘inspire’ and ‘lead’ well.

From early April 2014, possibly earlier if needed, someone can have this person on their staff.

I would greatly appreciate if you could consider, pass on, link to or otherwise let people know about my availability.

But wait … there’s more. If you would care to contribute to my profile, please write something appropriate about me in either the comments below or add a recommendation on my profile at LinkedIn. Every little bit helps, all truly appreciated!

Thank you. Genuinely.

Tomaz

Image credit: http://blogs-images.forbes.com/work-in-progress/files/2011/05/job-hunt.jpg

No Dr Lasic

escape key

For a long time I hoped not to publicly write this. But here it is – I am quitting my PhD. Twenty months into a clear and interesting project I have collected my data, drafted the Methodology chapter and outlined another, sharpened a theoretical lens, held many great meetings with my two helpful supervisors … but I am out. I am divorcing myself from a dream, an ambition I have had since realising, as a mature-age undergrad, that I may not be as academically dumb as I once thought. I will spare you the reasons but they could probably be bunked under ‘personal’. If interested, email or tweet me.

Doing a PhD is unlike anything. I found that I didn’t really know what I was in for until doing it, for all the wonderful, helpful advice around. It has been a deeply personal thing,  brutal at times to the body, mind, relationships alike. I have admired people who have done it before, now I understand them better as well. And if you are contemplating doing one – best wishes, go for it.

I am wiser for the experience and the things I learned along the way. Here are some of the key ones. Firstly, I recognise, now even more, the skill and importance of methodologically and theoretically sound research. Put crudely, academic research is one of those few remaining domains where bullshit doesn’t cut it. The expected critical eye, even if always seeing through a particular and arguable lens, is such an antidote to the uncritical, cliche-recycling discourse of most of the media of mainstream and social varieties. What sometimes gets brushed off in these media as academic, theoretical nitpicking is (mostly) a product of incredible, painstaking effort and writing that is carefully crafted, justified and open to, expected, scrutiny. How refreshing but how hard to do!

Secondly, by doing a PhD and working at university (tutor, casual lecturer), I got a first-hand insight into the world of academia. And largely – it isn’t pretty. For all the exalted perks many imagine and covet, the pressures people at universities are under are as increasing as they are common. Efficiency drives, publishing pressures, performativity regimes and re-writing of what it means to be a professional in that field are no different to so many public workplaces.

Thirdly, I have realised that PhD is not for me. Bit tautological there but I am not a ‘lone writer’. I need people to work with and for, interact and engage my senses, raise my heartbeat, raise my voice, laugh aloud and shed a tear if need be in doing so.

Those of you who know me can see where this is heading now … yes, I am back in a classroom. But it is a shaky deal, for all my (supposed) experience in the edu-landscape. After a recent pile of confidence-shaking rejection letters and interviews, I’ve got a short, one term teaching gig at a public metro high-school. Pays better than teaching at uni, I get to work with kids and staff where I believe I do my best work,  I do look forward to it but … it ends in three months. So, if you know a school or other educational organisation in Perth looking for a teacher or similar role that roughly fits my description (updated LinkedIn profile here) – please do let me know. Really, please do so.

Lastly, I have thanked my awesome supervisors Dr Lisa Cary and particularly the tireless Dr Greg Thompson (@effectsofNAPLAN) in person but it won’t hurt if I do so publicly too.  Thank you Lisa, thank you Greg.

There. I am out.

PS Oh, and as you may have noticed, I have revived the original Human and I am back in the Edublogs fold, happily so and with all posts restored, nothing lost. Please adjust any links if you need to.

Tears

Wild boys to men
Wild boys to men

I just got back from the most emotional Year 12 high school graduation ceremony I have ever attended (and I have attended a fair few over the years). In this case, only seven students graduated. It was a small, very modest affair but it felt like family. It happened at the school I left last year to start my studies and in which I have described a number of times.

The three young people (pictured above) of the class of about a dozen I started with back in Year 10 finished today too. Against massive odds, they persisted with it and they leave not only with a leaving certificate but on the verge of pre-apprenticeship at local businesses. The angry, lashing, shy, often off the rails boys put on their best tonight and with a bit of  swagger (compulsory in this part of town) and a touch of unintended blush accepted their certificates plus a couple of special awards.

During the speeches, the staff, the parents and many of the kids were in tears. They, no … we, broke down at times in acknowledging just how hard these kids and with them the entire school community have had it. Drugs, break ups, alcohol, pregnancies, abuse, suicides, low expectations, miscarriages, school upheavals, disappointments, homelessness, hopelessness (and that’s on top of just being a teenager) – they, we saw it all. Well, we had some great times too.

Before the ceremony we talked about the importance of relationships.  One of the colleagues remarked: “I had an epiphany – I realised why the kid who was the most painful, giving me the most grief, kept coming day in day out, more than the ‘good kids’. He needed and got a relationship.” During her speech, another colleague broke down describing her relationship with a young girl, whom she nurtured and stuck with for three years through some truly awful times no person, young or old, should go through. In the students’ farewell speech, this very colleague was addressed with the following words: “She started as a teacher, she ended as a friend.” And more … Without relationships, schools are empty shells. Neat but empty.

Dear reader, I am not making this up. These were genuine thanks after years of genuine listening, caring, swimming together in good and bad, not some nice, well-intended and ultimately so ugly middle-class salvationism.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that I work with pre-service teachers at uni these days. Many of them included the phrase “want to make a difference” in their answers to the question: why do you want to become a teacher? And I always, always invite them to really examine what that means and what is the cost they are prepared to pay for their idea of difference.

There’s a big difference between a student saying ‘thanks for helping me to get better grades’ and a student thanking a teacher, both in tears, for helping them first to survive and then to become a better person. If you want the latter, I invite anyone to go and work in a school that is perhaps called ‘hard to staff’ or where the ‘no good’ kids go.

Because I tell you – you will remember it. Forever.

- Dedicated to the wonderful colleagues, educators at SMYL Community College -

Why do teachers grumble

 

 

workshop tally
A clear contract

I run workshops for pre-service teachers as part of the Understanding Teachers Work unit here at Murdoch University.

During one of many great conversations in our workshop yesterday, a student remarked:

“Teachers are always complaining about something. They talk about how wonderful teaching can be but then they spend hours going on about how terrible things really are.”

So, we are a profession of compulsory whingers, right? This was too good an opportunity not to scratch the surface of the statement.

Just this week, we were looking at the (lack of) systemic changes in education over the years. How things were, how they are and … how they are likely to be. As a stimulus to the conversation about the future, we used a useful and well publicised OECD study on six possible scenarios of Schooling for Tomorrow. Although a little dated (2004), the study offers some excellent food for thought.

In short (if you can’t be bothered going to the link), the report identifies six main scenarios that may (continue to) play out with regards to mainstream schooling.

1. Schools in ‘back to the future’

This scenario shows schools in powerful, bureaucratic, systems that are resistant to change. Schools continue mostly with ‘business as usual’, defined by isolated units – schools, classes, teachers – in top-down administrations. The system reacts little to the wider environment, and operates to its own conventions and regulations.

2. Schools as focused learning organisations

In this scenario, schools function as focal learning organisations, revitalised around a knowledge agenda in cultures of experimentation, diversity, and innovation. The system enjoys substantial investment, especially to benefit disadvantaged communities and maintain high teacher working conditions.

3. Schools as core social centres

In this scenario, the walls around schools come down but they remain strong, sharing responsibilities with other community bodies. Non-formal learning, collective tasks and intergenerational activities are strongly emphasised. High public support ensures quality environments, and teachers enjoy high esteem.

4. The extended market model

This scenario depicts a wide extension of market approaches in who provides education, how it is delivered, how choices are made, and resources distributed. Governments withdraw from running schools, pushed by dissatisfaction of “consumers.” This future might bring innovation and dynamism, and it might foster exclusion and inequality.

5. Learning networks replacing schools

This scenario imagines the disappearance of schools per se, replaced by learning networks operating within a highly developed “network society.” Networks based on diverse cultural, religious and community interests lead to a multitude of diverse formal, non-formal, and informal learning settings, with intensive use of ICTs.

6. Teacher exodus and crisis

This scenario depicts a meltdown of the school system. It results mainly from a major shortage of teachers triggered by retirement, unsatisfactory working conditions, more attractive job opportunities elsewhere.

Students then got to choose the one or max two scenarios which they think our broad schooling system in this country is at now and one or two scenarios they wish were in place in the future, especially as they head out in a couple of years as qualified teachers.

The picture above shows the voting results from the two groups (Monday & Tuesday):

The difference is striking. They mostly identified (and rightly so) we are at  scenarios 1 (‘Back to the future’), 4 (Extended market model) and 6 (Exodus and crisis). What they wish for are largely 2 (Focused learning organisations), 3 (Core social centres) and some 5 (Learning networks replacing schools).

“And you want to become a teacher? Look at it! Oh you dummies … why?” I said, in jest.

I continued: “There lies the heart of some of the deepest teacher grumbles. They may be expressed in references to day-to-day and seemingly petty things but the disconnect between what most educators came into the game for and what happens so often is telling. What is more, brochures, websites, press releases, mission statements, policies and similar texts are full of rhetoric couched in terms of scenarios 2, 3 and even 5. Teachers recognise, connect with the aspirational voice in them but realise they mostly pay lip service to the ‘real world’ of scenarios 1, 4 and 6.”

Why am I telling this to future teachers? Am I not just about condemning our profession and discouraging them to continue their study, do something else other teaching?

Perhaps – yes. But I know I am also helping to send out resilient practitioners who are not going to crumble under the first demand that pierces their bubble of ideal education nor will they fall for the shiny promises of the ‘new’, much of it mostly recycled (<- love this post, more goodness there from The Pedagogista). They may better ‘read’, understand the staffroom whinge, grasp the beers celebrating the end of term or the ‘hump’ week, and resist the temptation to become a superhero but instead be ‘good enough’ for the kids and colleagues they work with.

Because let’s face it – no matter what the future of schooling will look like, it is those good enough educators that will make it work. But there remains something about the examined life worth living…

Governed by freedom

I can pinpoint the moment that made it clear to me what I want to do as the topic of my PhD.

Last July, while visiting  the NetSpot offices in Adelaide, Mark Drechsler, a dear friend, colleague, a maths whiz, tertiary-educated, edu and tech-savvy, prudent and very ‘with it’ (please, this is a ramble, not a piece of sharp academic writing…) parent of an 8 year old told me a story. He wanted to check how his son would go against the NAPLAN literacy tests. The nub of Mark’s story, told in the clip below is this – after about 30 minutes of checking out laid out samples, graphs, bars, averages and bands provided by ACARA, he was frustrated with no clearer to his goal of finding out how his son would go, particularly when compared to his peers.

Here is Mark. A great, raw, un-edited, straight story from a parent-of-a-NAPLAN-kid! (and the insight of his son is … priceless!)

 

Right there and then I thought – what do parents make of NAPLAN? What about MySchool? For the next three years, this will remain my throw-away, BBQ line when someone asks me “what are you doing for your PhD?”…

Of course, these broad questions branch out and just invite more questions. One such tangent: If a parent like Mark can’t make sense of the info to parents provided in the name of transparency, what hopes do the parents of most of the kids I have worked with as a teacher have in interpreting it, using it, and for what purpose(s)? If used, how do they make sense of the samples, the bars, the charts, the bubbles, graphs, lines with a smattering of edu-lingo?

Soon after coming back to Perth, I did a quick readability test (text) of documents provided by ACARA to parents. If the stats provided by the Australian Bureaus of Statistics and a few online readability engines are to be believed, about half of the population would not actually understand the text on offer! Not to mention the graphs, charts and bands representing some pretty advanced algorithms.

What does that mean? Well, selfishly, there’s probably a conference paper on it. Something along the lines of a working title “MySchool – transparent but complex; implications for parents making ‘the right choice’ as governed self”

There is a body of literature on readability of documents with implications for people with poor(er) literacy, numeracy and graphicacy skills. Much of it comes from the medical contexts, where not understanding the information could carry serious health effects.

I will try to test the text presented with a few standard readability engines and measures. I am still looking for some sort of measurement tool for the degree of difficulty of understanding mathematical concepts in charts and graphs (if you know one, please do let me know! Thousand thanks!).

I could leave it there but the budding educational theorist in me needs to connect this to the field. As the second part of the working title suggests, I’m keen to see this through the lens on Foucault’s notion of governmentality as used and developed by Nikolas Rose in his classic ‘Governing The Soul’. The main idea of it is that we are governed not by oppression and top-down coercion but through our freedoms and choices that we make. Or rather – we are not governed, we govern ourselves instead. We are regulated ‘from inside’, knowing what ‘right’ choices we need to make in the ‘market’ as the dominant, pervasive way to imagine human relations in the late capitalist/advanced liberal democracies. We not only choose, we are expected to construe the course of our lives as the outcome of such choices, and to account for our lives in terms of the reasons for those choices. What I mention here is but a sketch, I do invite you to read more on it.

NAPLAN, MySchool materials are there for parents to make choices. Nowhere does it say what those choices may be but the weight, or rather the web, of societal, economic, political, educational expectations make the ‘right’ choices for us neoliberal subjects implicit – and very powerfully so.

And if we can’t choose, particularly where we are ‘meant to’? If we don’t understand the information upon which our choices depend on? These and more questions, asked by Mark and parents like Mark alike will keep yours truly dig, write, think and elaborate further. Just so I can publish a conference paper and be more marketable post-PhD …

Oh, the irony.

I write the tutes that make girls cry

You’ll have to blame Tony Loughland and Barry Manilow for that awfully punsy, a touch sexist and inappropriate title. But there is a little bit in it. The crying part.

As a PhD student scraping for every dollar I am one of the tutors in a unit called Understanding Teachers’ Work here at my alma mater Murdoch University. I run workshops for the first year pre-service teachers. Intro-to-teaching 101. The range of topic is great, understandably, and the idea of the unit is for students to recognise the complexity of this great profession of ours. Today, the topic was, roughly, understanding the diversity, dealing with parents/communities and issues of equity and social justice. Much to pack into two hours huh? To top it all off – I was running late on my prep so I demonstrated the time-honoured skill of winging it a bit.

The mantra in this unit has been: Ask questions! Of yourself, peers and beyond. And boy oh boy – we had a cracker!

I don’t want to bore you with the finer mechanics of activities but a few key links and rough outline will help.

First, we came up with a massive cloud of diversity and challenges students, teachers, parents and entire communities operate with daily. We listened to a story of the newly opened Jarjum College for Indigenous kids in Redfern (I heard it on the way to uni, half an hour before workshop kickoff … teachable moment :-) )

 

Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern
Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern

One student asked: But how is that fair to have a school JUST for Aboriginal kids? I’m sure they want to be integrated not separated from the society?

There goes 10 minutes of heated and quite thoughtful discussion, suggesting a bunch of work in unpacking the context and histories of the area and the Australian Indigenous cultures.

We sailed into ‘safe, white waters’ and I thought I’d flash this oft shown picture and quote.

We all chuckle in approval but ...
We all chuckle in approval but …

“OK, we all chuckle and nod in approval but … why? And just what are the alternatives? What would a different exam for everyone look like? Feasible? Practical? Desirable? Are we just used to our idea of ‘an exam’? …” and so on. Gold!

It was time to pull appart equality and equity. The two are often stuck together with such massive implications. So we did ‘the shoes‘, as described here by Lara David so well.

It's a beauty!

Short and sweet. Pennies dropped. I sensed many.

“And we want all to participate, right. Is that enough? What do you make of this?”

Participation

“OK, folks. You and me go into this thing called education to make a difference. I overheard it your discussions and we talked a bit about what that means and the differences in understanding among people last week. That’s great! We are here to make a difference. But do we? At what level? Consider this…” (flashed a few key quotes from Trevor Gale’s speech)

trevor gale

“So does the school system reproduce or re-construct society?” Another curvy one there. Much to talk about, think about, reflect on in students (graded, yes) journals for the unit.

Conversations, debates, voices, gestures as I walk around the room and eavesdrop and poke here and there.

“OK, so we want justice and equity. How do we do that? How do we get them? How do we get people to understand say … prejudice in the first place? Really understand it?”

Here is one possible way. Please do not do exactly this at home…

Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes – Intro by P. Zimbardo

5 minutes left … “There’s another video that shows Jane Elliot more in depth with the kids. Goes for about 15 minutes. Show it?” Nods, nods, nods

And the tears? There were a few during and at the end of the workshop. I was honoured to see them, without pointing them out.

Yeah sure, we packed an ENORMOUS amount of stuff in here and covered a huge amount of ground very lightly. It borders irresponsible. But I do look forward to reading the students’ reflection journals. Today, the conversations, the questions (and the tears…) made me happy that we are about to send out another group of keen, thoughtful educators out there where stuff that matters hugely – happens.

What is it I do?

 

intersection
What happens there?

A number of people have asked me ‘what are you doing your PhD in?’  Sometimes, ‘education’ is enough but many who know me better or are a little more interested in what I do deserve a more thorough answer but without giving out  my 12,000 word proposal to read – that may be unkind. You can skip straight to the slideshow but the outline below will give a lot better idea.

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is the annual high-stakes standardised testing of children aged between 8 and 14 in every Australian school in literacy, numeracy and grammar conventions. NAPLAN is a major part of the Federal Government’s education reform (no wait, ‘revolution’). Publishing of NAPLAN results and detailed school data on the MySchool website aims to encourage parents to hold schools accountable for student performance. MySchool is there to empower parents with data (NAPLAN, school profile, finances, staffing, socieoconomic indicators to name a few) about the school their children attend. Our current PM has publicly and repeatedly hoped that NAPLAN and MySchool website ‘encourage robust discussions between the parents and the schools’. Her predecessor (equally) famously claimed that ‘if parents vote with their feet [if schools aren't performing] that is exactly what the system is designed to do’. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Makes sense? I mean, schools have to be accountable, everyone is these days… And while the policy unproblematically attempts to empower parents, there is a serious lack of research on how they respond to the challenges and opportunities created by NAPLAN and MySchool.

This push for accountability and business-like application of neoliberal market principles in education (‘GERM’; Sahlberg) runs hand in hand with another powerful manufacturer of ‘common sense’ – performativity. While performativity is nothing new, it has intensified over the past two decades in its influence on both educational policy development and parental responses to it. This intensification has been fuelled by the ascendancy of the mentioned neoliberal market-based ideology and proliferation of technological tools of measurement and surveillance.

Central to the functioning of performativity is “translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures and categories of judgement ” (Ball,  2003, p. 217). This transforms the view of education and its complexities into a set of indicators we can use to name, differentiate and, importantly, compare individuals, organisations, even entire educational systems in a seemingly hyper-rational, objective, unproblematic way. Constructed metrics encapsulate and represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or a school. Their reified and strategic use normalises and regulates what is valued and desirable as ‘quality’ and directs human effort towards what seems, in economic sense, a perfectly desirable, logical goal – a series of calculated performances to achieve the targeted outputs efficiently and with minimum of inputs. Schools, students, teachers have been getting in on the act and/or avoiding it in a myriad of ways. Much has been written about it. But we don’t know much about how this plays out with the parents, the increasingly important ‘educational consumers’.

Which brings me to the third ‘force’ in play here – parenting. Just how does NAPLAN feature, play out in parents’ lives? What do they (not) do about it? Anything differently? How well do the lofty goals of parent power envisaged and spruiked by our leaders really play out on the ground? And just how does NAPLAN and associated MySchool play out with parents coming from different socioeconomic, cultural backgrounds and experiences, rewards of schooling? How much or do the parents fear NAPLAN or do they see it as an opportunity? You see, the questions are … endless.

So, for the next three years I will be deeply interested in what happens at the intersection of policy, performativity and parenting in the context of NAPLAN by the parents of kids in three public primary schools.

In the early 2013, I will be visiting parents of kids in three very different primary schools – one comfortable middle/upper class pushing for and publishing NAPLAN results prominently, one middle-of-the-road with great focus on arts (area that, with sport, usually suffers first in the rush to prepare for NAPLAN), and one … what label shall we use: working class? lower class? struggling? disadvantaged? The kinda school I had worked in most of my career (if you’ve read any of my posts tagged ‘teaching’ you’ll get the idea). I will go there to talk to parents and learn, collect and interpret stories.

No, I am not trying to work out “what Australian parents think of NAPLAN”.  The aim of my study is to optimise understanding of the case rather than generalise beyond it. My study (a case study of parents in three very different primary schools) will not seek to represent all responses to NAPLAN by Australian parents. It will seek to capture, interpret and compare the cases of parents at each of the three proposed research sites and gain valuable local, regional, contextual knowledge Foucault speaks of.

At the same time, this may help us advance understanding the broader issue of NAPLAN, high stakes testing, performativity, and parenting and serve as a stimulus for other work in the area. A case study like this can be usefully seen as a small step toward grand generalisations or perhaps signal limitations to the existing grand generalisations.

I am fascinated by parents (well, I am one) and pressures, expectations, stresses they are put under as well as their ingenuity, commitment, understanding and sometimes plain rudeness and cold ruthlessness. While I have necessarily narrowed and deepened my PhD project, I think it is important to keep an eye on the broader trends, events and incidents that affect parents of school kids here in Australia and beyond. If you see any useful posts, tweets, sites, projects etc that have something to do with parents and education please do ping me on Twitter, here or otherwise. Many thanks.

Here are the slides … (link if the slides don’t show for some reason)


Enough to keep me busy for three years at least ;-) !

Ball, S. (2003b). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.

Letting go – again

The Man Behind the Hand

This post has no expletives, unlike the much liked and first ‘Letting go‘. Maybe this is just a poor sequel, like in the movies. But just like the orginal, I write this with some emotion.

I write after a message from a friend in the USA. She is grieving over a tragic loss of two teens at her school. Violent loss of horrible kind, by the hand of someone they should never fear (sadly, only a few days ago, I too found out that a dear friend from former Yugoslavia died a gruesome, self-inflicted death a few months ago).

I write remembering my first ever lesson as a teacher 12 years ago. As part of ‘get to know’ you, I asked kids to write significant good and bad events in their lives. ‘My mum died and dad went to jail’ one 13 year old wrote and asked me not to read it aloud. Later, I found out that the father went to jail for murdering his wife in front of the kids.

I write remembering crashing the school toilet cubicle where a 15 year old girl lay drunk and unconscious in a pool of blood running from her slit wrists (she was saved).

I write remembering restraining a 13 year old schoolkid from suddenly jumping off the first floor balcony after being teased and bullied.

I write remembering the day when a young, 14 year old Indigenous student ran out of my class, only for me to physically try to stop him hanging himself a few minutes later. As we calmed down and walked towards the sick bay, his classmate hugged him and said: “It sucks when it doesn’t come off doesn’t it?”

I write after asking a class of a dozen teens to put their hand up if they know someone close and young who got killed or killed themselves – and a dozen hands went up.

I write knowing I could keep writing, sadly so.

I am not making this stuff up or embellishing it to extract some kind of sympathy or pity. None of these people wanted that either. All they probably wanted was empathy, someone to listen to them, understand them and maybe help them if needed.

We swim in anxieties and fears, seduced and accelerated by various ‘races to the top’. We are made increasingly anxious in accelerated societies obsessed with control, measurement, achievement, performance and ‘continuous improvement’. We blame the youth as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘immoral’ (what’s new…) but fail to acknowledge the surrounding rise in our collective seeing of relationships as calculations of their utility: what good is or could this person be to me?

In such environments, occasionally letting go of the fathomless striving, norms and expectations, just slowing down a little, listening and considering is a hard thing to do (and no, it can’t be measured). Before you think I’m romanticising, ‘letting go’ has its discomforts and pressures. From not being ‘part of the team’, potential material and symbolic losses to the extremes of ‘letting go’ in destructive ways mentioned above. These were people who had been ignored, pushed, brought to the edge by themselves or others. But safely letting go and seeing what is really, really important is vital. Literally.

Please, listen to the kids in your care. Laugh with them, challenge them, pull them by the bootstraps when needed, cut them some slack other times. Find the vents in them and yourself to ‘let go’ in a safe, but neither in a fakely sterile nor utterly destructive way.

Please – do not ignore them, no matter how rich or poor or dark or fat or young or blind or white or deaf or smart or troubled they are.

PS This one is for you Pam, the school community and the families of the kids lost. Thoughts with you all.

If you or any people you care about experience crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia). Other countries have a similar service too, please find out and share the number to call.