On dressage and teaching.

During my adolescence I was a horse enthusiast. I read, thought, daydreamed, imagined and played at being with horses and learning about horses. Naturally, I wanted to ride horses, and, eventually, have a horse of my own. Both of these wishes came true, thanks to my parents, who first sent me to riding lessons provided by Miss Tunbridge, and then stumped up the cash for a near-retirement galloway (14 – 15 hands) that an American friend who was moving back overseas had to sell. Before she returned to the U.S. this friend also introduced me to the world of riding that extended beyond the offerings of Miss Tunbridge’s classes. My friend competed in gymkhanas and one day events and her bedroom was festooned with ribbons and sashes from her victories. Sometimes I would go with her to these all-day affairs that began the day before with washing and preparing the horse, and went from pre-dawn dark to dusk the following day. Through her I was introduced to dressage.

Dressage has a certain beauty to it. The horse and rider work together to perform a routine in which increasingly difficult moves are completed with the maximum elegance and finesse. I learnt that the routine was set out beforehand and judges assessed each horse and rider on how closely they approximated a ‘perfect’ rendering of this sequence of moves. Many of the manoeuvres originated from warfare in which horses were required to act with dexterity and grace and sometimes with deadly precision on the battlefield. But in the dressage ring, these moves had become abstracted from these muddy and bloody origins to become a performed dictionary of all the movements a horse and rider can do in a ring. It is perhaps as close as horse riding gets to ballet.

I liked dressage – to a point. I would practice the moves on my friend’s horse in her home’s training area. I learnt a lot about riding by submitting to the discipline of dressage. She would teach me the moves and then I would do them over and over and over again. For hours. It was like practising a difficult bar in music.

Sometimes I would join my friend at her pony club (I did not belong). On these days, my friend would kindly loan me her horse so that I could compete in some events and have the experience of being part of that world.

But there was something about dressage that, over the years since, has come to emblematise for me a certain approach to other endeavours quite unrelated to equestrian sports. It is a world that proposes perfection as something to strive for and something that is pre-determined and defined in advance, existing in the abstract. The job of the horse and rider is to match this glinting and distant vision of a perfect performance with their own iteration of the routine. I never rode long or seriously enough to go beyond my initial experiences, (university and a move to more urban climes intervened). On the whole, I preferred cross-country and trail riding. But during those gymkhanas and one day events, I would linger, propped against the wood or steel of a fence or gate, and watch with curiosity as the senior riders competed in their elaborate routines. That there was skill and discipline and grace was unarguable. And yet I also saw something else. It was the idea of perfection, the pre-determined moves and routines, the judges with their score sheets, the stylised moves of the horse, the way in which actions once integrated into a purpose and context had been recontextualised in the show ring, performed for the sake of being judged. And so, when I watched the senior riders I saw what it takes to formalise a field into a discipline that can be worked up into a high degree of skill, taught, and passed on; but I also saw the potential tyranny of such an approach.

This double sidedness of dressage in my youth I have seen again in recent debates about teaching, particularly ‘quality teaching’. Dressage is fine — as dressage. But there are other ways to ride, situations in which to apply the criteria and judgements of the scoring sheet would be wrong and beside the point.

Similarly, when we talk, as we seem to be doing so much nowadays, about ‘quality teaching’, there is a sense that some of us have a score card, and a bunch of routines they would like to see performed. Such a vision of teaching breaks it up into a series of discrete, highly specialised ‘moves’ that can be abstracted from their origins or any messy situation in which they might be used for any real purpose. Hence we have efforts to mandate the same basic lesson plan, with the same opening moves, development moves, and concluding moves across entire schools. Hence, we have this idea that teaching is ‘perfectible’ and that if teachers only learned to finesse their routines enough, student learning would suddenly take a great leap forward. And hence, we have the logical extension of this outlook, in scripted lessons, and ‘teacher-proof’ curriculum that positions teachers as ciphers for knowledge and pedagogy developed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, actual classrooms full of actual kids present a densely textured, constantly emerging situation to which a teacher must respond with empathy, flexibility, imagination, inventiveness, tact and will. Nothing conjures the phrase, ‘heaving with humanity’ quite like a Year 8 class on a Friday afternoon.

My feeling is that these actualities are not amenable to the logic of ‘perfection’ that holds (or, to my inexperienced eyes, seemed to hold) in a white sandy equestrian arena. Teaching is riding in rugged terrain, with unpredictable weather, tight rations, and, for many, antique equipment. Doing dressage may help you learn the moves, it may help you develop skills and some insight into techniques you might deploy in certain situations. Dressage can be good. It has its beauty and its art. But knowing how to use which move when in authentic situations? Putting it all together? Doing what the moment demands? That is where professional judgement kicks in – where the accrued knowledge and insight of past teaching and learning experiences becomes a repertoire, a deepened practice. And, alas, sometimes professional judgement commits an error. But would an off-the-rack lesson plan be any better?

How else, beyond the language of performance and standards, might we talk about the development of teachers’ expertise? Where is the role of reflection and reflexive inquiry into practice? What part do imagination and creativity play? Is teaching just doing a standardised series of things defined by the role – or does specialised knowledge contribute something crucial? How do we mediate between routines and standards on the one hand, and the need for teachers to have enough professional autonomy to be inventive and responsive to the needs of their particular students on the other?

These are some of the questions I have been prompted to ask and explore in my initial foray into teacher education. My mentors have done a good job of prompting and prodding me, but like all really rich questions, things now seem even more complicated than they did before. Teachers work in a policy environment that, increasingly, seems to be using the logic of the dressage score sheet. But, as any of us knows, the irreducible complexity and realness of classrooms, students, teachers, and schools, offer a ready resistance to reductive scripts for teaching practice. They exceed all boundaries laid down in neat little routines. For this very reason they also, potentially, offer fertile ground for other accounts of teaching, other ways of shaping the role and our imagination of it.

Yagelski, Writing, and the Lego Movie

One of the highlights of the Term 1-2/Easter Break for me was participating in a reading and discussion group at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. (Thanks to Madeleine Coloumbe for inviting me along, and to Drs Graham Parr and Scott Bulfin for welcoming teachers from outside academe.) It was a rare chance for me to engage in discussion with other writer-educators about the theories and questioning that drive our practice in the classroom.

The set reading for the discussion was “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being” by Robert Yagelski. This was my first encounter with Yagelski’s work. Some of the ideas that caught my attention in the article were:

–          That writing can be a process or way of being, rather than only an effort towards producing a standard-English product.

–          That writing is a way of reflecting and also reflecting on the process of writing.

–          That this reflection and process is a powerful tool in helping students and teachers see themselves in more authentic (less alienated) ways and;

–          Writing that connects directly with personal experiences and our situatedness in the world taps into a less product-driven model of thinking.

–          That this (in some way) links to efforts to construct a more ecologically and socially sustainable future.

Yagelski’s vision is that, against the standards-based, “No-Child-Left-Behind” context of education in the United States, teachers can help students see writing as a way of constructing a sense of their own being. Yagelski’s hope is that writing becomes something in which there is a personal stake in literacy and the act of putting pen to page, rather than as an activity entirely mediated by standards and expectations set by policy. There was an element of phenomenology (via Merleau-Ponty) in the argument, in that the experience of writing as a process and practice, rather than the production of a standards-based written product, was put to the fore. Yagelski states, “writing as an activity matters, separate from any text that is produced” (7) and “Writing in the moment … has the capacity to change us” (7). An awareness of the writing as experience is offered as a way of off-setting the narrow focus on producing ‘correct’ texts.

These are challenging ideas for those of us working within the limitations and practicalities of the English classroom in Australia. The political discourse about English education has become almost exclusively framed in terms of ‘standards’ and achievement as benchmarked by such things as NAPLAN results and ATAR scores. If you teach in the VCE, there is also the added dimension of having to explicitly scaffold and teach forms such as the text response essay or the persuasive text.

On the one hand, as an English teacher, I do believe that helping students master certain ‘rules’ about standard English composition and expression does help them go on to occupy a more-empowered place in their life. Times when I have taught this concept I have used the scene from the Australian film The Castle where the characters first put their case to the courts in terms of the “vibe” of Mabo and the Constitution. It is only when they get a QC lawyer who can argue within the discourse of law that the heroes can hope to gain traction for their case.

On the other hand, my own writing and literacy journey is one in which the process of writing and the experience of writing – -seeing myself as someone who writes — has been utterly central. For me, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard are an essential facet of learning, because that is often how I formalise the learning in my own mind. I write about it and compose some ideas on the page outside the flurry of my own thoughts, where reflections on Yagelski, for example, sit alongside plans for a year 11 lesson and wondering what my six year old son is up to. Writing (and reading) are activities that have long felt like they ‘belong’ to me. Since childhood I have felt an immense sense of personal ownership of reading and writing – they matter. One of the reasons they matter is that they make a third space between the utterly shared world of sociality and the private world of thought. In this third space I can interpret ideas, critically evaluate the ideas that have been passed down to me, and, most importantly, come up with a personal synthesis that I can then share with others. Writing, for me, even when it has occurred in an academic context, has been about an experience of being, it is about composing myself on the page.

It is this idea that writing and reading matter at a personal level that I hope to foster and encourage in my students. I know that they cannot have this personal investment in their own literacy if they see it as only an exercise in compliance.

Nonetheless, I think it is inaccurate to say the ‘rules’ or standards are entirely or straightforwardly oppressive. As the first person in my family to gain a degree I have observed the ways in which people with uncertain skills in standard text production spend a lot of time simply avoiding situations in which they might have to use them. My husband has part of a law degree. Some years ago he wrote a letter for a member of my family who was negotiating with a technical education institute and felt themselves without the necessary words and literacy skills to self-advocate in a discourse the institution would recognise. I have seen first-hand how weak skills in standardised text production can harm and limit power. To be able to text and Tweet and update Facebook, but to not be able to write anything longer than that, is inadequate and damaging. Explicit scaffolding into the forms and styles of ‘standard’ texts is for me a democratising exercise.

So where is the line crossed? Where does cultural capital – in the form of certain forms of academic literacy – become oppressive? How do standards situate the student writer as merely a producer of pre-determined texts and how do they actually enable a more fluent production of a self-in-the-world?

For me the crux of the matter is Yagelski’s observation that “writing [is] an act of meaning making” (9). His vision of writing, however, seems to oppose the authentic process of making meaning through writing to the business of producing academic, standard texts. He argues that students are fed a line that drives a wedge between the aim of producing texts in ‘standard’ academic forms, and a personally meaningful experience of writing:

“Writing, they are being told, isn’t about making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living; rather, it is about following rules and creating ‘good’ texts, about conforming to conventions and demonstrating a narrow kind of literate proficiency” (19).

But does this opposition always hold? Ultimately, what I want for my students is a technology and fluency in written and spoken discourse so that they can work out what they think and engage the world with their ideas. They need to be able to interpret and form their own reading of the texts and narratives that circulate in our culture, and they need to be able to formulate personally significant yet intelligible meanings of their own. Is this always opposed to growing fluency in academic literacy?

This is where I started to think about the Lego Movie. At the risk of sounding undertheorised, Yagelski’s article made me think of the film I took my son to see earlier in the break. Yagelski seems to pose division between ‘standard’ literacy and writing for “making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living”. Emett, the protagonist of the Lego Movie, is a totally standardised being. He follows the instruction manuals for every moment of his day, following each guide to the letter. He strives to avoid deviation and eccentricity in a world where taste, thought and creativity have been outsourced. The villain of this world, President Business, aims to eliminate all personal creativity and reflection. The heroes of this dystopian Lego-verse are “master builders”, characters who have passed through the manual-following stage and have come out the other side able to cobble together any structure they desire from the bits available to them. In one scene of the film, the thoughts and imagination of the master builders appear as serial numbers and visual memories of the various Lego bits at their disposal. They run through them like an internal catalogue, out of which they assemble a prodigious variety of machines.

Now this is a version of creative production that suggests several things:

–          That fluency and creativity in a certain medium comes via increasing mastery of the basics;

–          That knowing the language or grammar of your medium allows you to negotiate new meanings and forms.

–          That any medium is plastic, with an inherent tension between pattern and surprise.

–          That the creative process is open-ended and that while there are forms, they are unfinished.

–          All meaning-making is dialogic, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word. That is, we absorb the forms and utterances of others, but we rather than simply recite them, we can add our own interpretations and variations to the language.

To come back to the teaching of writing, I feel that our current political atmosphere does seem to promulgate a view of writing that is like following an instruction manual. As in a lot of areas of life, there seems to be a concerted effort to eliminate the need for a person to have expertise and the powers of observation and interpretation. However, despite the attractiveness of Yagelski’s focus on writing as an experience, in practice I am not sure I can divorce the teaching of writing from the written product students are being asked to produce. What I would prefer is an approach that seeks to draw students through the process of writing that, while giving them the tools to write in academic forms, also helps them develop a personal stake in writing as meaning making. After all, the most tantalising writing assignment is, perhaps, one mentioned by Yagelski: “What matters to you?”


Yagelski, Robert P. (2009). “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being”. English Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (October 2009), pp. 6 – 28.

You and me and ASD: On the Question of Labels

One of the things I have taken time to reflect on over the summer period is the six months that have elapsed since our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/High Functioning Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder (take your pick). Last year proved to be a big one in many unexpected ways for us, but the ASD diagnosis was definitely the biggest change we saw.

Twelve months ago we sought help from health professionals thinking our son had an anxiety disorder. Six months after that, in June, we were told that the consensus among a psychologist, speech pathologist and a paediatrician was that the best explanation for his difficulties was ASD. I remember my concern about ‘labels’ during the initial phase of diagnosis. However, this concern very quickly melted into the background once it became apparent that a diagnosis could set a whole lot of things moving that would ultimately help everyone.

The questions are:

Are we better off since the diagnosis? Are we parenting our son with more clues? Is he happier? Are we?

Yes to all of the above.

Do we think of him as only his diagnosis?

No, of course not.

So what has changed, and how is it for the better?

Firstly, we are parenting him differently and the changes in our son are very evident. He is happier, more relaxed and more able to make sense of each day. He still has trouble with some things but we have much more of an insight into why that is and what we can do about it. The specialists we have been working with – psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and a paediatrician – have provided us with lots of useful strategies to support our son and make our family life run more smoothly. It is not perfect, but no family is. We use visual schedules and social stories to help our son plan his time and organise himself. We use prompts and questions to help him learn the reciprocity that underlies conversation, and we have done lots of work on his motor organisation and skills for pre-writing to prepare him for school. What’s more, the school he is going to knows of his particular needs and will take extra care of him because of this.

In short, we do things slightly differently and it works. He is happier because he feels better understood and we are no longer trying to parent him as if he is someone else. Instead, we have got a better idea about the ‘operating system’ or ‘frequency’ his brain runs on and so we no longer experience the mutual frustration that comes from behaving as if the more common rules apply.

Which brings me to the main insight that this experience has given me. This concerns the issue of ‘labels’ and the reservations we and others have had about the whole issue of ‘labelling’ a child.  Six months into this new version of normal life I have come to the conclusion that concerns about ‘labelling’ might actually be a bit of a furphy.

I have learnt that the decision to go for a diagnosis in and of itself does not necessarily mean you are ‘labelling’ your child. People tend to use this idea of labelling to signal a concern that a diagnosis means that you are stigmatising your child, or putting an arbitrary limit on who they are, or reducing their human liveliness and complexity to a blurb in a diagnostic manual. These concerns would be valid – if they were true.

In our experience, a diagnosis has had the opposite effect – it has opened up our child to us as we can now understand him better and, in his case, his flourishing and growth has only increased since we decided to have him formally assessed for ASD.

To be sure, medical labels have been used to disempower and limit people. They can be terribly reductive when misused or used to replace actual engagement with the person and life’s irreducible complexity.

I see this mirrored in my life as an English teacher. My heart always sinks when students decide to diagnose a character, as if that explains them. As if a diagnosis, once made, means there is nothing more that needs to be said and no further thinking is required.

Yeah, Hamlet, he was like, a depressive, right? He just needed to get over it? Or Emma Bovary? You know, she was like a shopping addict? What she needed was a divorce and a good SSRI. Imagine if all of literature treated human experience in this way. Macbeth? Neurotic pride in achievement and power. Anti-social personality. Emily Dickinson? Agoraphobic. Social anxiety disorder. And don’t even get us started on those Brontë sisters.

The image purveyed by the popular media is of gung-ho psychologists busily diagnosing every socially awkward and brainy kid as ‘on the spectrum’ and press-ganging parents into pursuing expensive treatment. From the waiting times for each appointment it was clear to us that the last thing some of these clinics need is more patients.

Our experience contrasted this popular image. At every stage in the diagnostic process the professionals we were dealing with left it entirely up to us whether or not we proceeded with a formal assessment. At several junctures we were given explicit feedback that we did not have to proceed. The entire process was very respectful and we were assured repeatedly that we should continue to value our son in all his complexity and brilliance and quirks and that he is still an individual. Yes. Of course.

Years ago, I was one of the ‘don’t label him’ people. Back when our son was 2 going on 3, the staff at the early learning centre he was enrolled in expressed ‘concerns’ about his development. I had many meetings and conversations with them about his ‘progress’ and it was clear to me that they were dissatisfied.

At the time, and at the request of the early learning centre, we took our son to a paediatrician. This guy said he saw nothing amiss and it was probably ‘just temperament’. We, of course, were delighted to hear this and the whole episode was buried in my consciousness; that is, until we were part-way through the diagnostic process this second time around. During the diagnostic process those memories surfaced again – and this time I had a different take on my then-resistance to what I saw as normative standards being used to construe my son as a ‘concern’. He only wants to play with one type of toy? So what? Focus is good. He doesn’t draw representations of people? Well, neither do a whole bunch of adult artists. He has not moved beyond parallel play? Well, he comes from a family of people who like solitude. And that hand-flapping gesture he does? It’s just excitement.

I did not understand what the childhood educators were getting at. But I knew that I was always going to bristle at any hint of people trying to funnel him into a narrow, normative box.

I feel the same now about norms that are cultural rather than medical as I did then. But I feel differently about worrying about ‘labelling’.

The litmus test is this – he and we were having a hard time. Now, we are having a better time. What have we told him? That he had a lot of worries and that we are helping him with that. He seems satisfied with this explanation and it has the added benefit of being true.

Japanese ASD expert Yuko Yoshida in her delightful book Raising Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome: Championing the Individual, says it all in her title. Her argument about the ‘don’t label’ view is that to not diagnose and recognise your child’s distinct reality and difficulties is also, in a way, a failure to respect them as individuals. To simply avoid dealing with a child’s difference, to not engage with their specific needs and learn what best supports them is to abandon them. The ‘don’t label’ stance can inadvertently throw a child back on their own limited resources for trying to make their way in what is for them a confusing world. Done right, diagnosis is actually recognising difference.

For us, undergoing the quite arduous process of a formal diagnosis engaged our minds and focus. We were prompted to learn about ASD and our son’s particular ‘presentation’ and his particular needs. And it is the particularity that counts. A diagnosis is not a person, any more than a map is a place. But, if you want to know a place, in all is glorious particularity, you are going to need a map to get there.

Yuko Yoshida ASD book

What that PD about Asperger’s and ASD did not tell you.

For the past five months, my husband and I have been on a life-changing journey. That journey has been to a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in our five year old son. One of the upshots of that journey has been the cold realisation that the professional development about Autism Spectrum Disorders — especially the high-functioning kind — that I have received as a high school teacher, was completely inadequate. So inadequate was this PD, in fact, that it had the effect of making me THINK that I knew something about ASDs and what Asperger’s Syndrome looked like, when in actuality it had the effect of blinding me to the symptoms of ASD in my own son.

I took my son, (let’s call him Nick), to our GP towards the end of Summer. It would have been January. Our problem was that Nick, who had only rarely slept through the night since he was born five years before, was now waking about three times every night and would call for us. This was rugged and the sleep the family was getting was more intermittent and interrupted than what we got when he was nine months old.

What’s more, he was becoming more and more anxious and inflexible in his thinking. Any transition at all from one activity or location to another seemed to trigger a tantrum. The breaking point was when, during an argument with me, he threatened to kill himself. He even said how he would do it – by running in front of a car at a nearby main road. That floored me. This was not okay in any child, but not at all acceptable in a child who had just turned five.

So off to the GP we went.

With referral in hand, we attended a child psychologist and a paediatrician. They asked me lots of questions. They observed Nick in formal and informal ways. My husband and I filled in lots of questionnaires on Nick’s development and behaviour.

And then, the thunderbolt — the psychologist offered her opinion that Nick may be suffering from anxiety and a sleep disorder because life was getting too much for him and felt chaotic in his experience. Why? Because he may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

When we saw the paediatrician she also thought there may be something there worth investigating. So we went to a Speech Pathologist who specialises in ASD. I thought at this stage that it would be realised that it was a mistake – my son was quirky, maybe a little intense in his interests, and very uneven in his development, to be sure, but his language development? It was fine, I thought. Surely a child who can explain the difference between a Stegosaurus and a Kentrosaurus by the time he is three cannot be said to have problems communicating.

Wrong. A child can have a vast vocabulary, but not know the ‘rules’ of conversation and communal play.

A visit to an Occupational Therapist also exposed a host of problems in sensory processing, motor organisation and perception. Issues in vestibular and proprioceptive processing are apparently very common in children with ASD – but did we know, even though one of us is an educator? No, we did not. (Find a resource on sensory-motor issues in ASD here.)

To make matters worse, as we were working through the hours and hours of appointments and screening and testing and filling in questionnaires, it came back to me that this was not the first time professionals had raised concerns about my son’s development. When he was about 2 and a half, the room leader in the childcare centre he attended asked for several meetings with me during which she showed me footage of him playing alone in a remote corner of the outdoor play area and flapping his hands as he muttered to himself. ‘So what?’ I said, ‘That’s what he does when he is excited.’ Concerns were raised again and again and eventually we were asked to see a paediatrician. The first paediatrician we saw said there was nothing to worry about and that his not engaging in cooperative play was still not to be expected in every child his age and that it was probably temperament.

When some of the same concerns, and some different ones, were raised by a different room leader when he was 3, we thought we already had an answer for her: we had seen a paediatrician who had said nothing was amiss. We wanted our son to be allowed to be his own person, even if that was quirky and odd, and we were leery of mere human variation being turned into pathology.

But it turns out that life is more complicated than slogans about not ‘labelling’ children; we will have to learn to walk the line between acknowledging and treating our son’s Autism, while communicating to him that we love him for being his own person. It just that he runs on a slightly different wave length or frequency to most of us and it is up to us to learn how to tune in.

The thing is – I felt an enormous disappointment in myself. I was an educator. Surely, I should have picked up the signs of ASD.

The unfortunate conclusion I came to, however, was that the PD I had received several years ago about ASDs had had the effect of ‘inoculating’ me against any real understanding of what ASD means and how it can affect a child’s experience of school and learning on so many levels. I thought I ‘knew what I was looking for’ – yet the information I was given applies only to those who are closer to ‘classic autism’ than the high-functioning individuals we are likely to come across in mainstream schools. Even if some of what was said applies to kids with Asperger’s Syndrome, we were really only told about one version or type of presentation.

So – here are some of the messages I received from Professional Development for teachers that ended up making it less likely that I would pick up on my son’s ASD. I share them here in the hope that other educators will see them and become willing to listen if a parent says their child has ASD, but they don’t seem to match the description we have been given in PD.

  1. WHAT WE WERE TOLD: You can pick the Asperger’s/High Functioning ASD kid in the class: they are the ones who have no friends and no interest in interacting with others.

This one would have to be the most profoundly inaccurate piece of information I have been given in PD about ASD. SOME children on the spectrum fit this description, but a whole lot of others do not. Children with High Functioning Autism can blend in with typical children and not seem to stand out – their language acquisition may be normal or even superior to their neurotypical peers. They may have friends and they may initiate conversations. The smarter ones (and, it seems, the girls) learn to imitate the behaviour of their neurotypical peers, even if they don’t understand the social ‘rules’ that underwrite it.

It’s only when you look closer — and know what you are looking for — that the problems in social communication become apparent. There is ‘communication’ but there is also the ‘social’ aspect of communication. This includes little things like taking turns in conversation, inquiring after and showing interest in the concerns and point of view of others, and sharing ‘air time’ with others. It means following the topic of a group conversation – and not just interrupting with an observation or question that is off-topic and only of interest to you. It means being able to negotiate conversation with others – and being able to do it with more than one person at a time and not only with adults, who shape their attention to accommodate a kid.

Among children, the social use of language includes the joint creation of imaginary play and being able to negotiate imagined scenarios with others – not just insist on one’s own world and one’s own way. It also means being able to sense when the conversation has gone awry or there has been a misunderstanding – and ‘repairing’ the conversation with a variety of strategies that become more sophisticated as a person matures. In other words – joint attention and ‘give and take’ or reciprocity are the hallmarks of social communication. Kids do this most commonly in shared narrative scenarios that comprise their imaginative, communal play.

Asperger’s kids, like my son, can be quite capable of striking up a conversation with an adult or another child. But they may run aground when it comes to answering questions from the other, or negotiating the many interactions that occur in group play amongst a few or several peers. Nick has a tendency to ‘tune out’ during mat time at kindergarten, and will prefer to play his games with one or two others, electing to go off on his own once the other children decide to go onto another game not of his choosing.

This stuff can be subtle, but I know I fell into the mistake common to educators – I thought that because my son has friends and chooses to interact, he could not possibly be ‘on the spectrum

2. WHAT WE WERE TOLD: Children on the Autism Spectrum have no understanding of the emotions of others and hence, no empathy.

Again, this is one that educators are told to look out for. It has the negative effect of making ASD kids sound a bit sociopathic and is a crude over-simplification to boot. Of course, some children will present with these symptoms – and they may in fact be on the Autism Spectrum. It’s quite possible, however, that they have another, different problem. By the same token, some ASD kids can be capable of recognising some emotions in others and can show quite a strong desire to be kind once they do grasp another’s difficulty.

It’s all a matter of degree. While neurotypical people are attuned to recognise hundreds of subtle signs of another’s thoughts and emotions, ASD people may have the ‘inner dictionary’ of only a few of the most obvious signs of others’ cognitive or emotional state. My son, for example, told me recently that he knew I was not cross because I was not ‘wearing’ my ‘cross face’. On the other hand, he can be quite exasperating when he seems not to recognise increasing levels of annoyance at some behaviour of his and only seems to register anger when my voice is raised. He then shows complete surprise. He does not register the earlier, more subtle signs that whatever he is doing is not okay. Now that we have a diagnosis, I am hoping to get some parenting training on how to work around this!

Some ASD children need to be taught how to ‘read’ faces explicitly, while others are already able to ‘read’ say, the six most obvious signs (happiness = laughing; sadness = crying etc.), but are clueless with the more subtle cues of another’s feelings. Also, once an emotion has been explained and understood, many ASD kids are capable of responding appropriately – it just takes them a while to get there and they have to think about it, rather than coming to the insight spontaneously.

3. WHAT WE WERE TOLD: ASD kids have no ‘theory of mind’.

This is another one about degree – it is not as absolute as NO theory of mind. Some Autism sufferers really do have very little insight into the separate subjectivities of others. But some high-functioning individuals have some insight – just not the usual quotient. It may turn up in not realising that not everyone else is as enraptured about dinosaurs/Lego/Star-Wars/trains as they. ASD sufferers can talk and talk and talk about their special topics of interest and have little idea that their interlocutor is bored rigid. However, read kindly, this IS an attempt to connect, it is just based on some faulty reasoning that everyone’s mind is like theirs – – equally enthused about Dinosaurs/Lego/Star-Wars/Trains etc.

This also goes back to # 2 about emotions – it is impaired understanding, but, in many individuals, an understanding that can be reached through another route, through explicit teaching and conversation strategies. In the same way that I can learn about another culture’s food and habits, even if I never visit that culture, a person with ASD can learn about some of the habits of others’ minds, like another culture, even if they themselves do not ‘live there’.


This is why it is called an ‘Autism Spectrum’ – there are as many variations along the gradient of being affected as there are kids who are diagnosed. Autism is a pattern of difficulties that psychologists, paediatricians, and speech pathologists, have worked out form a cluster of behaviours or symptoms to form a syndrome. It is caused by a variation in the neurology or ‘wiring’ of the brain. However, each child (or adult) diagnosed will present with their own ‘riff’ on the recognised symptoms – some will have no language, some are chatterboxes; some are academically gifted, some struggle with literacy and numeracy; some are aloof and disconnected, others want to connect but merely struggle with the ‘how’.

Professional Development about ASD for teachers needs to be pitched in such a way that we do not come away with a schematic, ‘cookie-cutter’ idea of ASD in our minds, or a false confidence that we ‘know what we are looking for’. Presenting these simplified views of the symptoms of ASD as the whole story does everyone a disservice. One of the side-effects of this, too, has been the attitude I have encountered from some educators as I prepare Nick for Primary School – that Asperger’s is ‘really, just a quirk’ and that it presents no real challenges to a child’s learning. The lesser-known effects on cognition, coordination and sensory processing are, in fact, significant barriers to effective learning for many an ASD kid.

But more on that another day …

Why be an English teacher in the digital age?

This is a question that has been with me for some time now. Really – why be a High School English teacher in a culture where even ‘educated’ adults rarely read in any linear, sustained way and technology increasingly takes the labour out of literacy?

In ever more strident tones, I am being exhorted to ‘go digital’ in my teaching and texts and be ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’ to my digital native students. Time after time I go to professional development where the argument is more or less, “The kids are digital, so should you be.”

A colleague recently returned from some professional development to tell me that the latest research suggests that the average number of hours teenagers are spending online is 85 per week and that their favourite search engine is no longer Google, but YouTube. In other words, information that cannot be rendered in a visual format is becoming invisible to this generation. Again, the message to educators was, ‘Adapt or die – you must digitise your teaching.”

But I think there has to be more to it than that. It is more than simply a question of being where they are – online, skipping and clicking amongst the info-bits. Sure, I use a computer all day long in my work. I manage a class wiki for curriculum content for each of my classes and get students to use video and graphics in their work. I use a variety of media in my teaching and include visual literacy in activities and assessment. I have even learned how to podcast. Since embarking on a Master’s degree in Teacher Librarianship I have begun teaching how to research using online sources – how to get good results with carefully framed search terms and how to use subscription-only services that deliver quality content.

But there is a sensation of standing on a cliff-edge while the tide of change slowly erodes the ground beneath my feet. It feels as if, sooner or later, the very foundations of the discipline I teach will crumble into the sea: careful deep reading; devoting attention to a single text and allowing oneself to be absorbed in it; working to construe meaning beyond the surface information given; grappling with the complexities of human existence as explored in complex texts; a focus on craft and art in language to convey subtle and multi-layered ideas; coming up with your own ‘take’ on the information, and developing an individuated, inquiring and well-rounded mind fed from great literature both from the past and contemporary writers. Already, these ideals sound quaint, particularly to my students, for many of whom the only question is, “How can I get this task done quickly?”

I recognise the need to incorporate new, digital literacies into the English (and other) curriculums. We cannot tell ourselves, as educators, that we are preparing students well if we ignore the fundamental shifts in the way we read, communicate and manage our work in an interconnected, online world.

And yet there seems to be an assumption in much of the discussion about technology in the classroom that this is an ‘add-on’ – that we are simply finding more relevant, engaging ways of delivering the same content and conveying the same habits of mind that have been inherent in our discipline. I think this is fundamentally untrue. I think the challenges go deeper than this – they go to the very heart of what it is, wrapped up inside our subject’s content, that we are trying to teach.

Reading Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (2010) clarified for me the source of my unease, my sense that most of the discussion around technology in the classroom was avoiding confronting some of the main issues. It’s not enough to say, “The kids are digital, so should you be.” We need to discuss what lies at the heart of our academic disciplines as their ‘intellectual ethic’, “a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work” (Carr, 45). Academic and technical disciplines have evolved to codify and organise existing human knowledge as well as the maintenance and growth of that knowledge. They put a premium on certain ways of knowing – reasoning, evidence, language, problem solving, creativity, practical ‘know how’ – and they institute teaching practices that convey, often implicitly, this valuing of certain ways of thinking.

We need discuss our subject’s ‘intellectual ethic’ because in changing the media we use in the classroom, we are not just switching to a newer, more relevant, more engaging way of teaching the same stuff. As Carr points out, from Marshall McLuhan onwards, media theorists have been emphasising that when you change the medium, you change the content. What’s more, you change the very parameters of what it’s possible to focus on, what kinds of thought are encouraged, what kinds of messages and information can be conveyed, and what kinds of subjectivity and identity are produced.

Studies in brain plasticity have found that the technologies we use inevitably have an impact on our own ‘intellectual ethic’. What Carr found, and what both scientific research and anecdotal evidence suggests, is that by engaging with new communications and information technologies, we are not just handling the same content as we did when we just read books or studied rhetoric. We train our brains to adopt a style of thinking that mimics the technologies we use, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better” (Carr, 10).

When I teach English Literature using new communications technologies, or when I train to be a twenty-first century librarian, what intellectual ethic am I embodying – and is this ethic compatible with the aims and objectives of what we think of as an educated mind? Or do our definitions of literacy and being educated need to be revised to address current conditions?

Two anecdotes:


Earlier this year I took a middle years class to the school library reading room. This has been a core feature of being an English teacher since year dot – you take your class to the library and provide opportunities for free voluntary reading and choice in text selection. You do this because one of the greatest predictors of a child’s success at acquiring higher level literacy is whether or not they engage in free voluntary reading in a regular, sustained way and this is linked to their exposure to books. Just exposure to books makes a difference. So it’s part of your job – you take them, you set them loose among the shelves to browse, they find books to borrow and meanwhile you supervise and model silent, sustained reading yourself by having taken a book you are reading with you.

For the ten years I have been teaching High School English most students take a long while to settle to the library environment, to commit to browsing and find a book that interests them. About a quarter bring a book with them and settle to reading fairly quickly, and a small minority dodge the reading thing altogether, at best sitting with a magazine and pretending to read. However, the last ten or fifteen minutes were, in the past, characterised by a quiet hush as, finally, a critical mass of students in the class commit their attention to the text in front of them and let the spell be cast.

This happens less and less. There is still the ‘hardcore’ minority of readers who come armed with the novel they have on the go, or who browse purposefully and find something that interests them. But a gulf now lies between them and everyone else. And everyone else, as far as I can see, cannot read in the linear, literary sense of that word.

I watched my class – any thought of having time to model silent reading abandoned – as all but the half dozen ‘hardcore’ readers cast their eyes cursorily over some pages, started a conversation, fiddled with the furnishings, wandered aimlessly among the shelves, went to the toilet, came back, picked up a magazine, turned a few pages, tossed it aside, sighed, and then asked to use their computer. They never make it to the point where they can read for fifteen minutes.

And here is my dilemma – there is enough research to suggest that their constant use of computers and smart phones is precisely what is eroding their ability to commit their attention to a single page of text. The hyper-linked environment of the online world with its endless stream of text-snippets excites our love of novelty and is very convenient; but, used as much as it is by many young people, it eats into the ability to sustain attention, work through a line of thought to its end, to enjoy and savour complexity in language and ideas. But in asking them to leave their computers behind when we go to the reading room, am I condemning the reading program to irrelevancy?

Books such as that by Nicholas Carr and Maggie Jackson’s Distracted (2009) have given us a comprehensive survey of the neuropsychological research into how our brains and attention are being rewired by the cognitive hyperactivity of new media. While watching these kids there is the distinct feeling that this is a change that it is futile to resist. And yet, in an educational environment where being digital has become a pedagogical imperative – including in the library — where is the space and time to counter-balance these distracted tendencies? Even if we ‘go digital’ in our teaching and learning, from where have students developed the methods of focus, attentiveness, and top-down executive cognitive control to develop their own interpretation and synthesis of information, digital or otherwise? From where do these ultimate aims of information literacy come from, if not from these more traditional literacy forms?

As far as I could tell, my students were, on the whole, not avoiding reading simply out of resistance to the institutional practices they associate it with (although there are always a few for whom reading is uncool). They simply could not settle their minds to the page and the quiet required to read deeply. They could not do it then, and, if their writing and vocabulary are any indication of their exposure to more than the text-snippets of the online world, they do not do it ever.

The question is – does it matter?

Another anecdote:

I also teach a Year 12 International Baccalaureate class in English. Some weeks ago we were closely analysing the ‘Banquet Scene’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears to an appalled Macbeth, who has ordered his best friend’s murder. We had an amazing discussion – -students posed ideas such as that Banquo was representative of Macbeth’s conscience and that the tragic hero has tried to ‘murder’ his conscience, his friendship, and hence his older, better self in order to pursue power. We talked about how this sets up Macbeth as a tragic hero, despite his being a monster, and how this scene linked to the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy near the play’s close as Macbeth realises the futility of his actions and how, in the pursuit of power, he has lost everything actually worth having in life, such as true friendship.

Towards the end of the class, one of the students looked up at me and said, “I feel so lucky, that we get to study this. I feel so sad for the students who don’t get to do this.” We talked about the ‘information’ we get from studying Macbeth and other works of literature. ‘Not everything is in books,’ quipped one student, to which I could not but agree. She is right. But there is something, some knowledge that is developed in the students as they grapple with such a dark and resonant text.

This knowledge, and the ‘intellectual ethic’ built into its slow, arduous acquisition, is something very nourishing; I even believe that it helps us live a better, more meaningful life. I think this was what my student was getting at when she said she felt ‘lucky’ to be studying it. Was this student a bookish recluse? Hardly. She, and her peers in the class, all use smartphones and the internet a great deal – including in class. But they use it somewhat differently to many of their easily distractible peers. They use ICTs purposefully, combined with stretches of committing their attention to a single text or task. Are students like these the key to showing us how to retain the heritage of the linear, print-culture mind while adopting new technologies and new ways of thinking? And yet, why are they so in the minority, and will even students like them disappear? And again, will that even matter?

I think it does – something is lost if we lose the capacities and knowledge built by the study of texts like Macbeth. The tragedy and significance that burnishes human life in Shakespeare conveys to students that individuals matter, but that life is irresolvably complicated. It also states that we are not free of our human predicaments, but we are compelled to try to solve them nonetheless, sometimes erring in our efforts, and therein lies the meaning of existence.

I have to ask if it is possible to infuse this old ‘intellectual ethic’ of deep reading and an individually constructed interpretation of the text in a classroom increasingly shaped by a digital ethic of speed, interconnectivity, multitasking, and shallow, bricolage learning. If I repackage the text in new ways to compensate for the fact that many students can no longer read it, what of its original content remains, and what is utterly changed by the shift in medium? One can be an English teacher in the digital age, but what does this mean now? What intellectual ethic are we really able to impart?


Carr, Nicholas. (2010). The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic Books.

Jackson, Maggie. (2009). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

The Noritake Haul

Every now and then in the life of a collector there comes a special purchase – one that gives a particular buzz.


I am not a serious china and dinnerware collector, but I do have a few pieces in excess of strictly practical requirements. I have some stuff reserved for ‘occasions’ or which barely get used at all, but are a cherished part of my belongings.


Being a devoted tea-drinker, I have a particular fondness for vintage tea-ware.


Noritake ware — especially that produced in the post WWII period — is a favourite of mine. I love the high gloss glaze, the delicate handles, and the patterns and colours that bespeak a culture blending its old world aesthetic with the new world of American-influenced modernity. It’s what Japanese manufacture became famous for – high quality materials and finishes that incorporate new and old technologies and art.


I was on my lunch break from a study day in the local library when I decided, on a whim, to stop by the Opportunity Shop. I had had my head down for hours, reading about the roles and professional standards for teacher librarians, in the slow process of inching towards a Masters drmegree. It was time for a walk in the sunshine and a brain-break.


The Opp-Shop had the usual display case at the front near the cashier where they put some of the nicer pieces – platters, vintage tea-cups and the like. I gave them a glance, but something pulled me on past this to the back of the store. In amongst the heavy mugs, the tired toys and the dog-eared paperbacks was a setting for four – tea-cups and saucers, two sugar bowls, side plates, plates, bowls. I felt myself growing still as I studied it, “I think that’s a Noritake. Surely not …” I paused for a moment, wanting to put off the moment of disappointment. I lifted one of the tea-cups gingerly and turned it over. There it was, the unmistakable seal of the Noritake Company.


The setting is Balboa (production c. 1961 – 1970). The stamp on this set indicates it was produced circa 1963. It is in very good condition – some pieces have seen some use and some, I think, have not seen any service at all. The lady at the front counter was rather taken aback when I bought the lot. But, as is always the case in these surprise, “I -don’t- think-they-realise-what-they’ve-got” purchases, I was keen to hustle the stuff out of there before someone came out of the back room saying , “Wait, we’ve mis-priced those things! It’s actually $200!”


I lowered my Noritake haul into the car and went back to my afternoon’s swatting with the warm glow of the satisfied collector.

When they graduate – a teacher’s reflection

Last Thursday my Year 12 class sat their exam. Each year I see a bunch of nervous-looking students into a large hall in which they will sit their final English paper. They clutch dictionaries and pens;  their facial expressions vary from expectant to a fervent wish that this was over already. By the time we get to this stage, I have been instructing them and chivvying them and posing them questions, marking their papers and more or less marching them through the set curriculum for nigh on ten months.  Some have enjoyed it. Some have merely endured it: English is the only subject one must do in the matriculation year — every other subject is a choice. So any Year 12 classroom has got conscripts. Fortunately, English is a subject in which there are pleasures and beauties if one looks and works for them. And some did look and work, and they found them.

The teachers up to this point have been sharing resources, groaning under the weight of piles of assessments and practice essays, and guessing what will be on that decisive final paper. In staff rooms they have been creating that ongoing conversation that is a mixture of professional discourse and (at times grim) camaraderie.

But what happens after the exam?

At my workplace, we actually had a meeting to begin planning the next year’s Year 12 course a mere forty minutes after the students had finished.  And perhaps this is the right thing to do – because a curious, unspoken mood can descend on a Year 12 teacher at this time of year. We speak of it only obliquely, because there seems something excessive, even foolish about it. It manifests itself in various ways: thinking of that one last, crucial thing you needed to tell the class, and which you didn’t. And it was not really crucial. It’s just that teaching a class becomes a habit: you know the students; you think about their intellectual habits, you think about what they need to do to get to the next level. But the exam has intervened and now the year with them is over. Or you find yourself worrying over the choices some students might have made in the exam: “I hope Sophie chose the first question for On the Waterfront, because she will not do well if she chooses the other.” And so on.

What we come up against is endings. We were doing something at a frenzied rate and now, abruptly, we are done. We had a job to do – to teach, advise, encourage. But the questions the students choose and what they write is up to them.

We all recognise that finishing school is a rite-of-passage in our culture. We are familiar with its images and rituals – graduation night, awards ceremonies, the written-on uniforms. For some, this marks a hiatus while they plan a ‘gap year’, while for others work and study beckon. But the characteristic mood is future-oriented.

Most adults have quite strong memories of this period in their life. For myself I have a collection of mental photographs: reading To Kill a Mockingbird under a green plum tree out in the garden, because I was finally free to read books that I did not have to study. The ‘final day’ party our Year 12 class held on an oval at dawn. We drank champagne and ate chicken salad as the sun rose over the plain, squat buildings of the adjacent school. The school had issued a ban on our celebrating on campus, so we worked around it. I took a photo of two boys, friends, glasses raised, “Here’s to rock and roll!” The future was uncertain, and it felt big and nebulous. But I remember feeling packed with energy, hope, and willingness, if necessary, to brazen things out.


Teaching, therefore, contains this complicated gift: each year, as I watch those students walk away from their final exam, I come up against the relentless movement of time. There is no getting away from getting older when you are a teacher. No hiding in the perpetual adolescence that seems to steal over some people in their thirties. No, in teaching, your clientele will not let you go on thinking that you have lots and lots of time to become what you wanted to be. Because their time for that kind of thinking is now.

Which is not to say that I come over all maudlin and decide that my life is over. Quite the opposite. Rather, it is worth revisiting what you promised yourself as you left school behind. As the exams grind on and more and more students walk out of those school gates for the final time, I am guessing that a good number of them are making promises. They will have plans – to travel, to pursue a creative life, to see what lies beyond the life they have lived thus far. Some of those plans will be unrealistic or even futile. From the standpoint of my late thirties, I look back on my seventeen-year-old self and smile at what I thought constituted adult life. I know now that it takes years and years to learn and hone complicated skills and that the vagaries of circumstance and relationships can do much to disrupt or even derail the best-laid plans. Which is to say that it takes a lifetime to build a life.

Nonetheless, there are some things, some of those promises, that have endured. They are still around, demanding attention, wanting to know when I am going to put in the time and effort to make them materialise.

Once I talked with my sister about this dilemma. She said that what you set out to do may not end up like you thought it would, but that the kernel would still be there. When I was sixteen I wanted to be a writer. I am thirty-eight and I still want to be a writer. Except now I am caught in the thicket of complicated, adult life with motherhood, marriage, household, mortgage and career. I am an English teacher and I like doing that: the ‘kernel’ is still there. But it is not quite all that I set out to do. Writing has been a constant in my life – since I could write there has never been a time when I was not engaged in some kind ‘literary’ project. At present it is this blog. During childhood it was making ‘magazines’ with articles and stories. It is an ingrained.

Most of the kinds of writing I have done since entering adulthood have been highly disciplined, academic modes, and they have a relationship to non-academic writing a bit like what dressage has to riding horseback through an open field with the wind in your hair. You may benefit from the stylised discipline of dressage. You may even learn to love it and its ritualised beauty. But it is unlikely to be the reason you first wanted to climb onto the back of a horse.

Similarly, while I am intensely grateful for the training postgraduate study gave me, its rigor and intellectual complexity put me at odds, in some obscure way, with some of my initial motivations for studying literature. I loved literary theory and the sense it gave me of having the language and tools for discussing the patterns of meaning I saw in texts. But it misses something.  Adam Philips writes something like, “‘Literature’ is what is left after interpretation.” Twenty-one years after leaving school I am still on the trail of that ‘something’ that interpretation misses, the trace of which we can nonetheless only glimpse through interpretation.

 At thirty-eight, have I finally developed the presumption to do something about that promise I made to myself when I was seventeen?