English teachers: a change is gonna come?

Last Thursday I was among 120 or so teachers who attended a Conference on English in the new Junior Cycle programme for Irish schools.
Held in Dublin Castle, a grand setting, in the grand equals historic and impressive sense not grand equals alright in the Irish sense, the NCCA hosted event was set up in the Printworks building. We were told this was appropriate because of it’s former life turning out documents like postal orders and stamps, the importance of language then and for us now. It occurred to me that those long gone printing presses served the purpose of colonising Ireland with the English language that every Irish writer since Joyce seems to lament. Joyce asks, after meeting the Dean of Studies in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other! I stopped myself from making the leap to the teachers in the room being the colonised and asking who were the colonisers!?

The morning session opened with a moving tribute to Seamus Heaney capped by a reading of the final very fitting verse of Clearances (even if it did have many of us googling the word coeval! Gag © @Kevincahil5)

The job of setting the tone went to Finian O’Shea of Church of Ireland College, a job he took to with gusto and had his fellow educators in the palm of his hand by the time he had to cut his slides short to fit the time allowed. Daniel Pennac’s Rights of a Reader particularly struck me as both a teacher and a parent of a voracious reader.

Down to business then.
Several workshops were set up around First Year English, Poetry in English class, Assessment and Moderation, Oral English and English in the Digital Age, we each had to attend one in the morning and one after lunch. I chose assessment first and digital later.
The assessment and moderation module was heavily over subscribed as one might expect, though if the rumours were true it wasn’t part of the original plan to even have a workshop on this contentious aspect of the Junior Cycle. It was a great disappointment, seeking to replicate a marking conference among each of four groups by giving us one written answer to mark after moderation. It quickly became obvious that moderating a single paper from a single student for quality purposes wasn’t easy or desirable for most of the teachers in my group. This evolved into a discussion on the mechanics of replicating this assessment model in school itself and how the lack of any external moderation will mean the expected work done in a given school will probably differ widely between schools. When we were asked to draw up a list of positives and problems (or opportunities and challenges as we were asked to call them) it became obvious that all the groups had the same problems. Check out the pics I took of our notes.

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In these days when teachers are voting on an offer that will change their working conditions for ever by squeezing approximately four weeks unpaid work out of them, it is difficult to see when meetings to moderate will take place, or if they do how teachers will strike a standard without reference to other schools.
As an aside the piece we were asked to mark was about a recruitment officer trying to press young men into the British army. As we sat in Dublin Castle, the former HQ of the British government in Ireland, being asked to something we had grave doubts about, the air was thick with irony.

After lunch things improved.
I signed up for the English in the digital world workshop and it was much more successful.

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The ideas, possibilities and enthusiasm that followed Kevin Cahill’s thought-provoking rapid-fire introduction were beyond interesting. Given the resources we’d all love in every school and taking down barriers to the use of digital resources and social media in some places, there are huge possibilities here, if technology is not just grafted on to whateverelse is being taught and is properly embedded in the classroom work. Using Showyou, twitter, Facebook mock ups, film, YouTube, google docs and many others teachers are heading out to where the kids are, and I can’t say I’m against that; it’s not for everyone, but the positives were heartening.

The plenary session that followed was too long, with (guess what?) the digital stuff tagged on at the end. With that, it seems, the consultation on the new English Specification was over. Two weeks into the new school year. We can only hope the NCCA takes on board the worries expressed about resources, time, workload, external moderation and changing relationships with students and parents. There is no doubt that some of the reform is welcome and needed, but how the timeframe for introduction will be met if all teachers of English are to get the CPD they deserve in exchange for the trust they have to invest to ‘make it so’ I don’t know.

The best thing about the day was the teachers. It struck me on the train home how rare it is to get 100+ teachers in a room talking about relevant stuff like this, and, to be fair to the NCCA, where they’re allowed to be as positive or negative as they wish. I liked the set up, I liked the setting, the people were great, but some of the aspirations send shivers down my spine!

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ps As a bonus I met some old and new friends, some on them on twitter are worth a follow Evelyn O’Connor, Fred Boss, Kevin Cahill and Eoghan Evesson

pps I’m a member of the NCCA English Development Group so if you want to contact me about any of this you can use twitter or email me. The next meeting is on Tuesday September 17.

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8 thoughts on “English teachers: a change is gonna come?

  1. Interested to know exactly what you do on that group. What ‘power’ it wields. I’m feeling very pessimistic about the lack of clarity here. What are the tangible expectations from the students? What exactly do they want them to be able to do? Enough of the bullshit terms like ‘opportunities’ and ‘concerns’. Also a bit of honesty as to where this is all coming from, ie to save money. The course needs changing but not at the expense of the students education. As for the whole digital question I am again sceptical. I hear a lot of ‘this is where the kids are’ stuff. So what? If helps their education, good. But if it’s just another way of ‘getting down with the kids’ or entertaining them or simplifying language and themes down to the lowest common denominator them I’m not sure I agree with it. I want my students, and my children, to know that they have to think. That things are difficult. That’s not to say that I don’t use digital ‘stuff’ it he classroom, I do, it’s just that I want to ensure that the fundamentals are to the fore. I suppose a lot of my concern is down to ignorance and this is the real reason why it’s being pushed to the side. To bring the likes of me up to speed on digital literacy etc would require them to invest in my re-education but also an investment in my classroom.
    I don’t even know how to type this properly!how do I correct all those mistakes without deleting whole sections?
    In the end I’m just feeling depressed and powerless in the face of, what appears to me to be, a destruction of our students, and my children’s, education. Please tell me I’m wrong about all of the above. Tell me that I just need a good computer geek English teacher to cheer me up. Tell me that the NCCA know exactly what they are doing, and that they are doing it for the right reasons. Tell me that when my children go to school they will be challenged again and again. That they will be educated for themselves and not for the economy.That in twenty years time people will still be creating with intelligence and emotion. Tell me I’m wrong about everything.

    1. The ‘Group’, like the NCCA all over, has ‘an advisory role’, whatever that means.
      There were many voices that spoke of the money saving this will allow, although I don’t think it’s the stuff of press releases, closing up SEC etc.
      I’m not as skeptical about the digital because it depends, as you say, on the teacher, the resources and the technology available in the school. It won’t happen if there isn’t the training or the money. Which essentially means those are will continue to do, those who aren’t will never get started.
      I’ve said it over and over that talk of Ireland as an economy rather than a society will be the death of many an education.
      And you’re unfortunately not wrong about this stuff and we haven’t been listened to thus far, we may have start shouting.

      1. Well, in the end my in-class reaction to this will be the same as my in-class reaction to any outside group, I will continue to get my students to read, discuss, write and rewrite. I will listen to my colleagues and be polite to ‘visitors’. Other than that?

  2. Having read the draft specifications (comments on them here http://stepstowardsthemountain.blogspot.com/ ) I really hope they take on board what actual teachers, rather than theoriocrats, have to say. The old JC English was a bit of a monster, but I fear this’ll be its mutant child rather than a move towards regenerating English in schools.
    One thing that struck me as completely out of touch was the idea of doing 10 poems, 2 novels, a number of short stories and play extracts and loads of other stuff in first year. I know we’re getting a fifth period; but it’s only forty minutes; not four hours.

  3. At last I am getting in on this act – having only this year become a real English teacher it feels like – I have taught mostly music until now – thank you for all the inspiring and informative conversation – I suddenly feel informed! I have no answers but at least am beginning to understand the questions!!!

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