Learning from learning

Try as we might, none of us will ever be perfect teachers. The most we can hope for, in our quest to be God, is merely to improve a little as the years go by.

How might we do this? By going to conferences, listening to and observing other teachers, writing reflective journals, chatting on the Internet, scanning academic articles, watching videos, taking courses and reading books. We can also learn from learning itself. When we ourselves are taught, we can reflect on that experience to improve and change our own practice.

I’ve recently learnt about learning and teaching from learning how to do several things which are unrelated to each other and unrelated to literacy: how to keep fit, how to garden, and how to sing; but from each one learnt how to improve the teaching of literacy, surprising though that may seem.

I’ve been learning how to keep fit for several years, twice a week. The classes I go to are designed specifically for the middle-aged unfit. The Thursday class, run by Brenda, is aerobics-orientated. I am, to put it mildly and politically correctly, ‘rhythmically challenged.’ When I’ve finally grasped a new movement with my feet I’m so ecstatic I drift off into a sort of trance and continue doing it long after the others have changed to an enthusiastic movement of their arms. Brenda grins and points at me and everyone laughs: yes, they stop and they laugh! And I stamp my foot, and pretend to pout, and laugh with them and then get on with it. But I haven’t given up. I’m fit now, and I keep going to class in spite of being laughed at every week. Why?

There’s a camaraderie in the group, developed by the instructors and built on by the class, which makes us very comfortable with each other. . We come from all walks of life but we’re like a large happy family. We know each other well because on our walks we talk to each other, catch up on personal news, the dramas in our lives, the highs and lows. This closeness, this support, engenders a trusting atmosphere in which we can make mistakes without fear, learn without embarrassment, and get fit.

Now I know it’s possible for us as teachers to appear to be efficient and effective even when there is no trusting atmosphere in our classes, even when the relationships are so tense and unhappy that our students learn less than they might. For instance, we can arrive at school early and leave late—that always leaves a good impression. We can decorate our classroom with bright pictures, mobiles and wall charts relating to the work being undertaken by the children. That always looks good to outsiders. We can prepare well and mark work quickly. We can keep up-to-date with the latest curriculum documents, attend conferences and workshops and read professional articles. We can organise an efficient timetable and run such a tight ship that there are never any behaviour problems in our classes. As the years pass we might even be promoted, become consultants, and organise workshops for other teachers.

But what’s the point of all this if we truly dislike children? If we are sarcastic and put kids down; if we aren’t interested in children as individuals; if we know nothing about them and care even less; if we prevent our students from getting to know each other in a family-like setting; if we discourage group activity of any kind; if there’s so little trust that personal triumphs and worrying problems can’t be aired in class; and if our autocratic style engenders misery and fear? What’s the point? There is no point.

I had believed for many years, before I started my exercise classes, that the foundation of learning was a trusting, family-like atmosphere in which people could make mistakes without fear and learn without embarrassment. From that zone of comfort flows tolerance, forbearance, patience, understanding and the courage to strive and keep on striving but how do we get to that point, as teachers? What’s the journey? Clearly we have to ‘waste time’ getting to know one another. Bulldozing ahead without investing in group cohesion is a false economy.

So I would ‘waste’ part of my course making sure that we knew one another. In Week Two of the first semester my students and I would read aloud a piece of original writing to the whole class. Our aim was to reveal facts about ourselves or to reveal our character or both, in four minutes or less. One of the choices was to start a piece arising out of a reading of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. I’ll read the book itself and then the piece that a student wrote, arising from it.

My student, using Wilfrid as a starting point, wrote this:

Like Wilfrid, I too have a memory…

I was a cheeky kid. Sometimes that got me into trouble. At Primary School I was petrified of Miss Thomas. I did everything possible to avoid getting into trouble with her.

She was an experienced teacher whose retirement was near. Her skin was dry, her hair was thin and the lines on her face read like an obituary. Through my ten year old eyes she was a real life witch.

One day she caught me running around a corner. She pulled me over, looked over her glasses and gave me a stern warning. Her tone was assertive but not overly harsh and her criticisms were nothing but expressions of concern for my safety. I began to think that she was soft. My cheeky side decided to make light of the situation. As she walked away I imitated her unique walking style. My friends found this most amusing. I felt I’d had the last laugh.

How wrong I was! Miss Thomas must have looked over her shoulder because there she was, steam-training in my direction. Her eyes bulged. Her hair parted in the wind. Her furious footsteps grew louder. All of the scary stories I’d heard about her began to mean something. Horrible fears thudded in my brain.

She stood over me so closely I could see anger in the whites of her eyes. Sweat cushioned the palms of my hands. She looked over her glasses and prodded me in the chest. I stiffened to attention. She drew in a deep breath and appeared strangely calm. ‘I eat little children like you!’ she said, then displayed a coy smile and walked away.

It took no time for the imitations and the ‘I’m gonna eat you’ lines to start. However, I was having no part of it. My cheeky lip was exhausted, fearful that another confrontation might land me in even hotter water. Possibly in a witch’s stew!

© Jason Williams

As we listened to the pieces we’d laugh and cry and the in-jokes for the rest of the semester would begin to develop. We’d discover that Nhu Trinh, who has an Australian accent, is Chinese and but was born in Vietnam. We’d find out that James, aged twenty two, already owns a supermarket and that Susie, aged forty, is pregnant and in shock. All at once the class was full of humans, rather than students: humans with lives we cared about, instead of anonymous students sitting side by side without any connecting threads. A family-like situation developed in that session, and with it the relaxed atmosphere that enabled learning to take place.

I have also learnt how to garden, although in truth I will be learning about gardening for the rest of my life, being such a late starter. I have for most of my life loathed gardening and avoided it in much the same way as most people loathe writing. The gardens in our various houses have not been gardens at all; they’ve been clever combinations of timber decking, brick paving and native trees requiring no weeding, no watering, and no planting, and providing frankly no excitement, no pride, and no beauty. I used to be bemused by friends who said they’d be in mental institutions if they couldn’t relax in the garden once a day, communing with Mother Earth. Blaggh.

But I did know what a beautiful garden looked like. I had been brought up in Africa in a vast tropical garden shouting with colour and magnificence, lovingly tended by my mother, my father and Phiri our fulltime gardener. My two closest colleagues, my two best friends and most of my neighbours have gorgeous gardens. It isn’t as if I didn’t know what an elegant garden could look like. I did. I had fine examples all around me.

When we moved into our current house by the sea I noticed with horror that the back garden was almost part of the house itself… You can’t miss it. The design makes it impossible to brick pave, and native shrubs and trees would look out of place. For several months after we first moved in it looked all right, thanks to the efforts of the previous owners. Then our dogs started to dig it up, the summer flowers died off, the weeds grew and I kept the blinds drawn when visitors called.

The crunch came when my then new book Wombat Divinewas about to be published. The launch was set for early November 1995.

Who would launch the book? I wanted a grand launch and decided to ask the best selling writer Paul Jennings to do the honours. I love Paul. Now Paul lives in Melbourne. I live in Adelaide. He said yes to my invitation, asked if he could he bring his wife, Claire, and could they stay the whole weekend since it seemed a pity to come all that way for one night? Claire happens to be a brilliant gardener. The Jennings house is set in surroundings resembling the original Garden of Eden. I knew I couldn’t keep the blinds pulled all weekend.

My colleague and dear friend and saviour, Lyn Wilkinson, a superb gardener, came to the rescue. She took me to a nursery and eventually, for whole days at the weekends we dug and fertilised and planted and watered. Lyn was by my side all the time, demonstrating, watching, criticising and advising. She’s been gardening successfully for as long as she can remember so she knew the answers to all my questions. She was staggered by my ignorance but because I have an even better relationship with her than I have with the wonderful Brenda I felt comfortable about admitting my incompetence. I was eager to find out all I could.

I began to learn the names of flowers and ground covers and bushes. I learnt how to cut potted plants into four without damaging the roots. I learnt which plants needed sun and which preferred shade. I discovered that pea-straw helps to retain water and nourish the earth and as I live almost literally on a sand dune it was important information. The garden bloomed and blossomed. My poor husband was forced to observe and applaud the arrival of every little bud, every new leaf, every day.

The Jennings arrived and I kept the blinds open all the time. Even at night. Then summer came and I ate breakfast on the deck every morning, beaming at the garden through my Weet bix. ‘I did that,’ I’d say to myself in disbelieving pride. ‘Me! I can garden. Wow!’

From this gardening experience much of my literacy teaching methodology has been reinforced. We all need to be exposed to literature before we learn to read and write and while we are learning to read and write, no matter how young or geriatric we are when we begin and continue that learning. As a non-gardener, fortunately, I had in the storehouse of my mind marvellous examples of gardens. I knew how they could look. I knew there would be some point in bothering because the results would be pleasing and I would be rewarded for my efforts.

But what happens to the children in our classes? Are they exposed to the gloriousness of literature before they themselves attempt to learn to read? Can they see clearly that there is some point in learning to read; some point in bothering because the results will be pleasing; some point in struggling because they will clearly be rewarded for their efforts? If children come to school without having been exposed to literature do we wipe our hands of them and shake our heads and say: ‘Well, of course these children have no background, so what can you expect?’

All children have ‘background’. It’s just that some backgrounds count in school and some, unfairly, don’t. The children we teach are the children we teach. It was never intended that we should teach only the children with ‘background.’ Our role is to get in there with gusto and teach all the children who come our way.

We need to allow children, and even adult illiterates, to wander through gorgeous gardens of literature, as it were, before they start reading and writing, to expose them to the beautiful possibilities and riotous excitement that literature can provide. Without that exposure we are wasting as much time trying to develop their literacy as I would if I tried to grow tulips in sand.

If I had a class of children whose first languages were many and varied, whose homes were such that they had never held a book, turned pages, or listened to a story being read, I would read aloud to them with exaggerated expression (in English, of course) for at least two hours a day, in short and long bursts, every day, for the whole of the first term: weeks and weeks of exposure to the point of learning to read: all that fun! All those rewards! Why garden if you don’t know what a lovely garden looks like? Why read if you don’t know what successful reading might feel like? Why try to write if you haven’t metaphorically smelled the roses?

Even with my own literate, grown up, university students or with groups of teachers in in-service courses I read aloud a minimum of three examples of literature in every class: a picture book or two, poems and excerpts from novels, to reiterate again and again the point of being literate and to expose them to fresh ideas, structures, words, surprises, themes, and new ways of saying things in their own writing. Which reminds me: I must practice what I preach. I haven’t read aloud for a while so here’s a lulling little interlude: my latest book: Sleepy Bears…

The days were growing darker and colder.
Mother Bear shivered and called to her children.

‘Come in, come in, my beautiful bears!
Winter is here and in winter we sleep.’

‘Bedtime already?’ cried the bears as they tumbled inside.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Mother Bear.
‘But there’s plenty of time
For your own special rhyme,
If you climb into bed and snuggle in tight,
Without any fuss and without any fight.’

So the little bears jumped into the soft feather bed and pulled up the covers as fast as they could.

Baxter Bear was the sleepiest. He yawned a BIG yawn.
Mother Bear kissed his sleepy head and said,

‘Sleep, my darling pirate,
Let your dreams come true.
Battle other pirate ships
With your fearsome crew.
Raise the skull and crossbones,
Breathe the salty air.
Find your treasure, count your gold,
And sleep without a care!’

And Baxter Bear fell faaaast asleep.

Then Mother Bear said, ‘Now who’s the sleepiest? Who will be next?’
Bella Bear yawned a BIG yawn.
Mother Bear kissed her sleepy head and said,

‘Close your eyes tightly.
The circus is here!
You swing up and down, and the crowd gives a cheer!
You glide through the air with incredible ease,
For you are the star of the flying trapeze.
Sawdust is swirling, and lanterns are bright!
Sleep, little dreamer. Be happy tonight.’

And Bella Bear fell faaaast asleep.

Then Mother Bear said, ‘Now who’s the sleepiest? Who will be next?’
Winifred Bear yawned a BIG yawn.
Mother Bear kissed her sleepy head and said,

‘Dare, dare, double dare!
Where is the tiger asleep in his lair?
You creep through the jungle
While old chimpanzees
Chatter and roar from the tops of the trees.
A tiger, a tiger! You’re onto his trail!
A tiger, a tiger! Grab hold of his tail!
Dream of adventure, dream without care,
And sleep very soundly, my brave little bear.’

And Winifred Bear fell faaaast asleep.

Then Mother Bear said, ‘Now who’s the sleepiest? Who will be next?’
Tosca Bear yawned a BIG yawn.
Mother Bear kissed her sleepy head and said,

‘Sleepyhead, sleepyhead, eyes so green,
Travel to kingdoms where you are the queen.
A crown of diamonds for your head,
And gorgeous gowns of silken thread,
A splendid throne and castles grand,
And you adored throughout the land.’

And Tosca Bear fell faaaast asleep.

Then Mother Bear said, ‘Now who’s the sleepiest? Who will be next?’
Ali Bear yawned a BIG yawn.
Mother Bear kissed his sleepy head and said,

‘Ali Bear, Ali Bear,
Tummy all tight,
Dreaming of scrumptiousness
All through the night:
Chocolates and candy,
Sugar and spice,
Ices and syrups
And everything nice!’

And Ali Bear fell faaaast asleep.

Then Baby Bear yawned a BIG yawn.
Mother Bear smiled and said, ‘I know who’s sleepiest! I know who’s next!’
She kissed his sleepy head and said,

‘Sleep, my sweetheart, sleep, my bear,
Your cradle swings in the evening air.
Moonbeams touch your precious face
And stars float by with gentle grace.
Sleep my sweetheart, have no fear.
Sleep my darling, I am here.’

Then guess what happened?
Baby Bear and Mother Bear fell faaaast asleep in the soft feather bed.

And all of them slept until spring.

Back to the gardening metaphor: no matter by what method or means I learnt to garden I never would have wanted to make the effort if I’d lived in a desert all my life without any inkling that such a thing as a garden existed and could be the provider of such pleasure.

For this reason not only am I advocating reading aloud to every class at every single level of schooling I am also advocating caution in the use of the unrewarding little books designed with specific vocabulary and written with a peculiar deadness that are supposed to make reading easy for children. They don’t, because they’re not intrinsically rewarding. I mean, why would you bother? I might leave a couple of dozen in my class library so that the children could read them if they chose to (since they are easy to read and breed a feeling of independent success) but I’d never use them to teach reading. They’re like dusty gardens with dry grass and shoulder high weeds, providing no inspiration, no example, and little or no encouragement to have a go oneself.

I like to see a Big Book being read without a pointer under each word until the children have first heard it ‘normally’ several times. We don’t have to labour the point of linguistic structures or sound/symbol relationships to the same exhausting extent if we read the same books day after day, over, and over, and over again, with passion and wildness and abandoned expression. Repetition alone does wonders for learning, for comprehension, inspiration and enjoyment. Of course, on my fifth and sixth and seventh readings I’d have a lot of fun creating what I call ‘a climate of curiosity’ about words and parts of words and individual letters and I’d focus on sounds and spellings and punctuation marks with huge enthusiasm, as if it were the best game in the whole world.

Although we may read aloud and expose students to the inspiring possibilities of the written word many of them, and perhaps many of us, grow up with a real distaste for writing and a lack of confidence about our ability to write effectively and correctly. We fear it more than we love it. Why is that? Could it be that we weren’t taught by experts? Lyn Wilkinson, who taught me—and is still teaching me—how to garden is an expert gardener who can be trusted absolutely to know what she’s talking about. She can show me in grand ways and small details how to garden successfully: how not to water too much, how to cut potted plants into four without damaging the roots and all the other things I’ve already mentioned.

Could it be that our own literacy teachers were not as expert in their field as Lyn is in hers? Could it be that they were either expert enough as readers or as writers to be trusted to teach us, in the grand ways and in the small details, all that we needed to know? From the thousands of letters I receive each year I know that people of all ages and from all walks of life write less well than I would expect them to, and that includes teachers too, sadly.

In the bundles of mail that come into our house, there is at least one example every day from a teacher of some basic element of writing expressed incorrectly. It’s disheartening. For example, I have had letters from teachers who have committed the following sins: one put a semi-colon after Dear Mem Fox; another used Yours faithfully instead of Yours sincerely; another had a capital S instead of a small s onsincerely; another couldn’t punctuate direct speech; one couldn’t even address an envelope correctly—she had putAustralia at the top of the address first instead of at the bottom of the envelope; another couldn’t spell excerpt; and yet another one had the apostrophe in the wrong place in the word children’s (it should of course be placed between the n and the s). And outside the realm of literacy I can’t tell you how many stamped addressed letters I receive with American stamps on them, sent to me in Australia, to use from Australia as if American stamps would work in any country in the world! The ignorance is mind-boggling. Who taught these teachers at primary school? Not experts, that’s for sure.

I suspect that these teachers had a somewhat under-privileged literacy education in that most of the writing they did in school was probably irrelevant to them. Nothing real ever hung on the outcome of their finished writing. How could they learn to write, really learn to write? No real reader was ever going to provide a real and longed for response so they never had to concentrate on getting the basics right. Unlike me, they didn’t have a metaphorical Paul Jennings coming to stay: someone who would scare them to death with a real purpose for getting down to serious work. I do not garden and I do not write unless something hangs on the outcome. Who would? Why should we?

I have learnt even more about purpose and reality from yet another learning experience: A few years ago I began taking singing lessons. Now I happen to know what singing well feels like. My family was, as it were, a singing family, in the house, around the piano, in the car. At school I was in large choirs and small, select choirs. In my teens I even sang on television. But now, in my fifties already and a chronic asthmatic, my breathing has gone to pot, I have little control and I talk so much in public I often lose my voice. So it’s clear that I have a purpose in learning to sing again. I need to preserve my voice and to improve the way I use it. And it’s clear that I have for years been exposed to the rewards inherent in singing so I’m well aware of its delights and possibilities.

Imagine how much I looked forward to my first lesson! Singing the old familiar songs and spirituals, breathing brilliantly from my diaphragm, holding notes for so long my stomach flattened, hitting high notes that would lift my feet off the ground, swinging low with sweet chariots, and knowing it was summertime and the livin’ was easy. Alas, none of this happened. For an hour I did a series of weird and I’m sure exercises in which I whooped up with my voice and whooped down, moving around the room, throwing my arms outwards in gestures designed to bring my voice forward as well. I did not sing, not once. I contained my disappointment, believing that I would be singing real songs in the subsequent weeks.

The second week was the same, if not slightly worse. My teacher said I was tense and that I should relax my shoulders. My shoulders tightened further because I could think of nothing else. An hour of dull and stressful exercises followed with no reward and no hope of a reward. The possibility of real songs seemed to have flown out of the window. In the third week the pattern repeated itself. Because I didn’t sing I couldn’t see if I was making any progress. Because I didn’t sing and didn’t seem to be making any progress I began to lose interest. When the fourth week came and I handed over yet another $35 for yet another hour of disconnected exercises I decided I would not return. I gave the real excuse that my asthma specialist had told me to rest my voice completely and I never went back.

Unlike me, children don’t have the option to leave boring classes nor can they refuse to return, yet how many of them, even among bright children, have to sit through boring sets of exercises over and over again, exercises that are disconnected, tedious, under-stimulating, demeaning and without meaning? Exercises that never amount to anything worthwhile such as reading a fabulously bouncy and rewarding book or writing a terrifically important message for someone else to respond to. Exercises which kill interest in literacy or at least dull its enticement. It’s my singing lessons all over again: a set of mindless activities that is supposed to teach but which cannot teach since it is removed from all real meaning-making.

My singing lessons taught reinforced in me the massively important lesson that if kids can’t see the point of what they are doing in their literacy classes, if they’re bored out of their brains, if they’re under-stimulated and patronised, they won’t learn; and even if they do appear to learn in the short term, it’s likely to be a transitory learning that won’t necessarily transfer into any needed reality.

When we think of the millions of writing tasks we did in a lifetime of schooling we come to the depressing realisation that most were without purpose, at least without a purpose that mattered to us beyond passing, failing or getting good marks or grades. For the majority of children the promise of high marks does not provide a sufficiently uplifting purpose to make the effort to write superbly or to the best of their ability. Certainly there is no real purpose in filling in the blanks of pointless worksheets, and similar activities like merely crossing and ticking squares in multiple choice activities (sometimes right through to Masters level in the USA, shock, horror.) If that’s the way we want to end up as an ignorant and illiterate nation then that’s how we should go about teaching literacy: by preventing children from writing extended prose and forcing them to mess about with disconnected snippets of language which have no purpose, no reality, no audience, and which receive no response.

Even with my new-found enthusiasm for gardening I still need constant and important purposes to keep working at it. Fortunately, whenever it starts to look ragged, a new reason pops up to keep me at it: my sister (the gardener) coming for Christmas, a 50th birthday party, my American editor coming to stay, being interviewed at home for a women’s magazine, wanting colour in the garden in the bleak winter months and so on. Purpose is the key to bothering and bothering is the key to learning.

How much do we bother as literacy teachers? Are we repeating the sins that were visited upon us as school children? Are we the kinds of teachers who do not read or write and therefore lack the inside expertise to provide detailed assistance to those of our students who want to write effectively and correctly and to those who’d like to learn read with ease for pleasure and information? If we don’t write how can we know what writers need to learn? How can we know how writers feel about their responses or worse still, about having no response at all? About the drag of having to draft? About needing to hook the reader in with a good lead? bout how to indent direct speech?

If it’s important for teachers to write, might it not be an idea to have an occasional staff meeting simply to share what we have written specifically for the occasion? So we know how scary it is to write for real? So we understand what difference a real audience makes to the care we take? So we know from the inside out how it feels to have something hanging on the outcome: the reaction of our peers, in a public response?

If we don’t read how we will we discover from the inside out that we don’t have to know every word to understand the book? That we can be brave enough not to finish a boring book? That reading fast makes it much easier to remember what has happened and means we find out the scrumptious ending more quickly? We only know these things if we’re right in there, doing the reading, thereby becoming the kind of experts whom children can trust.

If it’s important for us to read in order to teach reading more effectively, might it not be an idea to have an occasional staff meeting merely to share books that we have enjoyed? Meetings in which we rave about what we’ve read or are currently reading? It needn’t be fiction; it needn’t be adult. It might be a self-help book for coping with stress, or an article that’s set someone alight, or teenage fiction, or a something that’s created a storm. If it’s important for us to read, can we run silent sustained reading programs in our classrooms, and actually make that time sacrosanct for reading ourselves, so our students see us laughing, crying or even yawning over a book?

To sum up briefly: if we have a gossipy ambience in our classrooms; if we expose children to great literature read aloud; if we remember the influence of reality of purpose and the power of an important outcome on the behaviour of writers; if we are readers and writers ourselves; if we toss out all the bits and pieces of disconnected language that we own in the form of worksheets and multiple-choice assignments; if we have the courage of our convictions and hang on to common sense; and if we remember that the ones who make the mistakes are the ones who do the learning, whether it’s us or our students, well, who knows? In a perfect world we could be God, as teachers of literacy. It’s an imperfect world of course, but hey, we can try, can’t we?