Monthly Archives: September 2007

Seeing potential in students

The second principle Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game derive from their corpus of interviews is:

Good teaching recognises the unique potential of each student. This is not the same as an expectation or a prediction; it is seeing students in their wholeness, as they are now. The teacher’s responsibility is to nurture students and draw out their potential by opening them to new worlds. Thus teaching is inherently ethical, allowing students to find their place in and to contribute to the world.

I would like to name Mister O’Neil, my Year 6 teacher at Sutherland Public School (or Sutherland Boys Primary as it was then, now a “special” school) in 1954, the year of the Royal Visit. I still vividly remember (among other things) going with my maternal grandfather — another inspiring teacher — through the fence and beside the track to wait for the (then) sheer magic of seeing the Royal Train go through, and Mister O’Neil rehearsed us over and over to perform appropriate songs, including a late Vera Lynn called “She’s the Queen of Everyone’s Hearts”, at the Sutherland School of Arts, where my mother won an electric jug in a raffle.

World War II was after all less than ten years before; indeed I was enrolled at Sutherland in 1949. My father had been in the RAAF.

The thing about Mister O’Neil is that he had a class of fifty or so students, all in a portable class room that baked in summer. Hardly any of the boys had shoes. Cast-off bits of military uniform were fashionable; no such thing as a school uniform, or (I may add indelicately) underpants. There were a few quite talented kids in 6A; I was a bit up myself, I’m afraid, because even though I took every August off to have bronchitis, and also that year had mumps followed by orchitis (nasty) and pancreatitis, I still managed to top the class, despite my rather alarming (and continuing) innumeracy. He let us have our heads, really. We produced school newspapers, in which I wrote and illustrated serials that were rather like Biggles, and also devised crossword puzzles. Every Friday we “broadcast” our plays over the school’s PA system.

When I was selected to go to Sydney Boys High my parents were against it, mainly because of the travelling which, combined with my absent-mindedness that led to my once almost being run over at a pedestrian crossing, they felt would not suit me. I guess they were also worried about my health. My mother at that time, I might add, was invalided with a clot in the leg, so I was also cooking dinner every night, following instructions emanating from my mother’s bedroom. She used to say what I cooked for the dogs smelt more appetising than what I made for the family — chops and three veg usually. Can’t go too wrong with that. Well, Mister O’Neil I found one afternoon when I came in from playing with the Dawson boys down the road sitting by my Mum’s bed in earnest conversation. Result: I went to Sydney Boys High. Apparently I had the highest IQ ever recorded at Sutherland Primary to that point… That may not be saying too much, of course, and I certainly found myself a small fish in a big pond at SBHS the following year.

But hats off to Mr O’Neil. Not only was he just a fascinating teacher, but so dedicated. By his complexion I suspect he may have enjoyed the odd bevvie too… At a time when many schools, especially boys schools, were “houses of swinging bamboo”, I can’t recall seeing him actually cane anyone either. I remember him with gratitude. Mind you, I don’t think I ever have quite fulfilled that potential, and at going on 65 it may be a bit late…

I said a bit more about Sutherland today on WordPress: Salmagundi.


Tripod site nuked

Yes is no more, having served for six years under various names: Sydney Boys High School English & ESL, Neil Whitfield’s English & ESL… Just about everything has come over here anyway, and nothing over there has been edited or updated since December 2006. There may be a stray link to it here, but no great matter. I will check that in due course and eliminate them.

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Posted by on September 29, 2007 in site news



I wrote this one in November 2005, but it somehow fits as both a sequel and a contrast to the previous post. 😉

English Teacher moments

The link above takes you back to August, when I mentioned Scott Poynting, an ex-student from Wollongong who is now at the University of Western Sydney. Imagine how pleased I was to receive this email the other day.

I had heard from a 1972 classmate about your blog site, but only came across it googling to see whether anyone was mentioning our books (the sort of thing one does when there’s marking to be done). Thank you for the nice things you said about them.

Teaching is far too thankless a pursuit (in comparison to its value). With your extensive networks now, however, you must hear from more ex-students than most. This one wants to thank you for reading aloud to us from ‘The Sound and the Fury’ in 1972, and the love of literature to which that contributed. I went on (after a false start – a floating life, if you like) to study English at UNSW, and studied this novel in first year. I later read all the Faulkner I could get my hands on. Later still, I studied American Literature at Macquarie. Another false start, but a floating I don’t regret.

Thank you, also, for reading to us in 1972 from ‘The Outcasts of Foolgarah’. I later went on to read all the Frank Hardy novels I could get my hands on (and most were better than ‘Outcasts’, though the politics attracted me). By that time I was teaching mathematics – another false start. I read a bit of ‘Outcasts’ to my students last year, in a subject on ‘Social Inequalities’, during a week in which we contrast Woollahra and Bankstown.

Yes, you taught me English. Thank you.

Then after coaching today Ben returned a few books and gave me enough free yum chas to sustain an army; I will be sharing with M, but there is enough in the pot to cover one of the Sunday lunches with Sirdan and Lord Malcolm as well! I also had an email from another coachee, Erwin, who is reading “Paradise Lost”. Indeed, indeed.

Another ex-student from some time ago, I note from his site that he has been working his butt off, has just started, finding teaching having its highs and lows as it does. I really can relate to what he says about it.

I recommended D H Lawrence “Afternoon in School — The Last Lesson” as therapy. I know I often read it with recognition, and I suspect “Marcel Proust” and “Aluminium” may know it too. In fact I seem to recall in certain moods actually teaching the poem deliberately last period Friday to certain English classes:

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart
My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start
Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,
I can haul them and urge them no more.
No more can I endure to bear the brunt
Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score
Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? – I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them –
– I will sit and wait for the bell.

In these last days before retirement I make a point, seeing the timetable is mine to devise, of just not doing anything last period, if I can avoid it — and I usually can.

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Posted by on September 28, 2007 in reminiscences, replays, teaching


Teaching in tandem

These videos document the co-planning and teaching process of an ESOL teacher and a high school history teacher.

Thanks to Jonathan Chambers and Shanghai American School for these.


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Changing lives without aiming to

The first principle Andrew Metcalfe and Anne Game derive from their corpus of interviews is:

Inspiring teachers always challenge their students, but they do not set out to shape them and do not know how or when to measure the success of their classes. Through the strange chemistry of classroom relations, students change and yet become more themselves.

That is a terrifying thought for the bureaucratic mind, yet paradoxically the most successful teaching I ever did was most often very poorly documented. Often it took place in environments where I really did not plan every step of a lesson or unit of work, where I kept limited lesson  registers, if any, and where I was never entirely sure where the next lesson was going to take us. In such circumstances the contingent was foregrounded over the planned, and the result seems to have been deeper learning — learning in which I participated as much as those I was allegedly teaching! To quote the late Donald M Murray:

We also have an understandable tendency to over-organize our courses. Perhaps we want to impress our superiors, our colleagues, our students, or just to give ourselves a sense of security. We plan to teach diction in the third week in September, iambic pentameter in October, parallel construction in November, the essay in December, description in January, footnotes in February — everything neatly organized into some pattern which seems rational to the teacher in advance on the beginning of school.

I am not saying, of course, that one goes into a class totally freewheeling, though this has been known to work very well. One does have outcomes one wants to achieve, and material one wants to get through. One of the more sensible pieces of record-keeping is in fact a list of outcomes with check boxes so that one can see what has been achieved and what needs more work.

But the most “inspiring” poetry unit I ever taught was to a Year 9 class that informed me on Day One how much they hated poetry. My response was to challenge them to prove it! I brought in a large box of poetry books and set them all to find something they either didn’t hate or actually liked. This went on for a whole week. I interspersed the activity with the occasional reading. They were a bright group, so I even read them a poem of my own. That led to dead silence. I asked, “What have I done? Talk to me!” One student put his hand up: “I’ll tell you what you have done. For the first time ever a teacher has said something in class that really means something. That’s what you have done.” From that point on the students started finding poem after poem that they actually liked. After that the “formal” part of the course flowed easily. A couple of the poetry books went missing and were never seen again, I might add…

Some seven years later I met that same student in a coffee shop. He introduced me to his girlfriend thus: “This is Mr W. He’s the one who got me interested in poetry.”

OK, that is a peak example, and a rare example — but I treasure it. Wouldn’t you?


On the enduring power of good teachers

Such is the title of a post written by fellow blogger Jim Belshaw in a welcome reference to this blog.

I see that Neil has started a new blog! This one focuses on teachers and teaching…

I think that teaching is a wonderful but badly underrated profession. The power of my best teachers has followed me down through my life. Many are now dead, but they endure in my memory.

Now that I am older and more reflective, I have started to record some of them to try to carry their memory on. I know that this will have limited effect, but it is my personal tribute…

I suppose that throughout my working life I have been a frustrated teacher. Certainly I believe that I have an obligation to pass my skills on, to encourage my people to think and question. In doing so, I would like to think that I am carrying on the influence of my key teachers.

Do read what Jim has to say. Jim’s career has principally been in public service.

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Posted by on September 26, 2007 in inspiration, Teachers Who Change Lives, teaching


Interlude: the exam paradox

I have no problem in general with criterion-referenced marking; indeed I welcome it as being more transparent than the mysterious processes that we used to employ. (If you want argument about this visit my other sites.) But nothing is perfect, and criterion-referenced marking — indeed almost any kind of quantifying — falls down in the area we conventionally think of as “creative writing” — as if any writing is actually “uncreative” but I guess we roughly know what we mean by the term.

I have just had a good example of this. One of the students I have been tutoring is in Year 12 where they now must do “creative writing” — good and long overdue — but the “skill” (ugh!) is “examined” in Question 2 of Paper 1 where the glib are invited to construct a confection in forty minutes which must reflect, somehow, the “concept of The Journey” and which is then marked by criterion reference. OK, some criteria are not too problematic. Those of course are the ones that in reality may be least important.

My student has been speaking English for just six years, having been born in China. His English is well in advance of what research tells us to expect. In his “creative writing” question he took his own life as a journey and wrote a remarkably honest, beautifully expressed (some minor second language issues aside and some major punctuation issues aside) reflection on that journey. For example:

I am not like a typical child. In fact my parents are not the ones who gave me birth. Nope, I wasn’t adopted, well you could say that I was. My mother sent me to live with my grandparents after giving birth to me, well most of us have the benefit of mum and dad bringing us up, except me. I’m not saying I dislike my grandparents, but I would have likened the company of my mum and dad in my childhood.

…I was raised by loving grandparents who I love even today most dearly… My journey through my childhood is filled with straight A’s and praises. Even the director of the local medical school called me a genius. I lived in a bubble of love and happiness.

That was until a phone call came from a land thousands of miles away from my bubble, a phone call from the nation I now call home. It was from my father…

The markers did give it the most generous mark the criteria allowed, but the student was disappointed. I explained to him how the criteria worked and pointed out that while he could certainly draw on his own experience in such an exercise, straight autobiography was probably unwise. I said I hoped he didn’t think the mark was a judgement on him or the worth of what he had said. He obviously had…

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Posted by on September 25, 2007 in creativity, ESL, exams and assessment, writing