Saturday, October 18, 2008


Recently, in Melbourne newspapers, we’ve been reading all sorts of stuff about how schools have been wasting too much time doing all that fancy-schmancy stuff and it’s time to get back to the basics! Or, rather, the Basics! You know, the three Rs that we’ve supposedly been neglecting all these years (perhaps in response to all those letters to the editor that begin “They oughta be teaching - fill in the blank- in the schools!” Not to mention editorials that think we “oughta” be teaching swimming, values, health, drug education, sex education, the list goes on and on, in the schools! The kind of stuff parents used to teach, but think their taxes ought to be paying for, these days). I’ve been working in the school system most of my adult life and can’t remember when nobody was teaching the basics (sorry, the Basics). The grammar books are a lot easier to follow and less forbidding than they used to be, but they’re still there and nowadays you can also go on-line and get other people’s ideas. I’ve had to. Suddenly, I have had to be responsible for 8B, in an area I haven’t covered in a long, long time. So I know. The simple fact is, most people can’t spell. I remember, in my second year out, having a student who was bright and articulate but couldn’t spell to save his life. Probably, these days, he’s using a spellchecker in his highly-paid job. Maybe there’s a spelling gene. I think I have one. Most people don’t. You can only do your best to compete with the advertising and the TV shows and the shop signs and the text messaging, all of which tell people that it's okay to use apostrophes other than to join two words or indicate possession - or not to use them at all, that it's fine to abbreviate words to "txt", even when it isn't costing you money.

But hey, the government knows best. At the Federal level, they’ve got the bright idea that they can grab kids who got high scores in uni, give them a five-week crash course and send them out to the schools to teach experienced teachers how to do it properly.

Then there are all these warm and fuzzy articles in the newspapers about this or that primary school where they’re teaching – wow! – local history. Or robotics. Well, duh. Guess what? We had local history at Flemington Secondary College back in the 1980s, when I was getting a full day’s time allowance to handle it. People from outside the school system were coming in to use our historical newspaper microfilms. And at Sunshine College, where I now work, we have local history units at Year 9. Sunshine is a very important place in the history of industrial relations. Some of our students are descended from the original Sunshine Harvester workers. We like them to know that they have plenty of which they can be proud. And yes, thanks to a very good teacher willing to give up his own time, we have robotics too, and students who wouldn’t normally hang around after school hours are going along. It’s going to expand.

So what’s new?

Victorian schools these days make a lot of fuss about literacy, but get rid of their teacher-librarians. Thing is, when Jeff Kennett came to power, apart from closing a lot of schools to save money (and make money in the case of Flemington SC, which he sold to the Victoria Racing Club next door), gave principals powers they’d always wanted. Among them was control of the purse strings. The trouble with that, which these principals probably never considered, was that controlling the budget means you have to make decisions you mightn't like. You need to fiddle with the funds to make them fit. You have to hope that the more expensive experienced teachers will leave so that you can replace them with kids fresh out of university who don’t have to be paid as much. Of course,you can always, as so many principals do, declare that you want "young and dynamic!" as if you have to be one to be the other. You have to decide that the first place to make cuts is the library which, let’s face it, is just a book room. Give everyone a key and get rid of those people who, after all, just stamp books! They don’t, of course, help design curriculum or teach research skills or fit kids to books or help instill a love of reading. Come on, now! We don’t need them. Not if it means paying out more money.

Or, if you MUST have someone in the library, get someone without library qualifications or teaching qualifications. Much cheaper! And you can make them work longer hours than teachers, even if nobody makes use of them.

We used to be able to apply for jobs at other schools, but with the global budget, once you reach a certain level, you can’t do that any more. Schools aren’t advertising for experienced teachers unless they need someone in a leadership position and then only grudgingly. So if you want to move, you have to take a pay cut and then, when you finally retire, your superannuation pension is lower because the calculations are done on your last two years, no matter how many years you’ve been paying your super contribution before that.

When the budget was centralised, people could be chosen or promoted on merit, not on how much they were going to cost. Schools were still making cuts in the library, but the minimum you had was one full-time teacher-librarian. Those were the days when you could concentrate on the basics instead of our current, overcrowded curriculum when we somehow still fit in the important stuff among all the things that parents don’t want to do any more.

So go on – teach us to suck eggs!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflective Journals, Circle Time and 8B

Recently, the VIT (Victorian Institute of Teaching) decided to show they were doing something other than taking our compulsorily paid money every year and providing us with glossy, self-congratulatory newsletters, so now we have to start, effectively, keeping records for tax and we have to prove that we're doing PD, keeping log books and noting how much time we spend on each PD activity. The fact that we just do it without thinking about it, read stuff for our work, in my case review lots of YA books, read papers for use in class, check out useful web sites, attend conferences and Booktalkers at the State Library and generally exchange information counts for nothing unless we have it written down. We have to prove all these things at our annual reviews anyway, but without all the record-keeping.

It's likely to lead to people counting their hours, saying, "Well, that's VIT satisfied" and not bothering with more, but there you are.

One of the things they suggested is to keep a "reflective journal". Until now, we've had that as an option for our annual reviews, but been assured we don't have to show it to anybody. Which, by the way, doesn't stop meeting leaders from inviting us all to "share" ("Hallelujah, brother! Today I did Circle Time with 8B and one of the students who's normally a pain really enjoyed it!")

At the last meeting we had, I told people I keep a reflective blog and they're welcome to go on-line and look any time they like. My diary I don't share with anyone. I more or less do what "reflective journals" do orally, as does every teacher I know. But now they want it in writing.

So here it is. I did try Circle Time with 8B. They had seemed to enjoy the previous one, which was done with the school nurse, so I decided to have a go at it myself. The theme was "self-esteem", which is this term's Pathways unit (Pathways being a fancy name for "homeroom")and I began by saying something nice about every student in the class.We passed around a "speaker's tool". After that, we had a ball that was thrown around and you had to say something nice about the person who threw it to you. I'd like to say it was a huge success, but while some of them did what they were asked, many couldn't think of anything (this was mostly the more peaceful students, who will write anything you want and do you fabulous posters, but are just too shy to speak up in class) and others simply didn't get the rules about one person speaking at a time and banishing from the Circle anyone who interrupted or put down anyone else. I finished up the period but told them that we wouldn't be doing it again until I was happy with them. Since then, they have asked me, "Can we do Circle Time?" and I've said, firmly.

I think I might try it again, for the last few minutes of a period when they've been good and see if it works better. Meanwhile, I know that at least one student was made happy by my compliments, because she positively beamed when I said how hard she worked and that she did terrific posters. That has to count for something.

And self-esteem is very important. This is not a school with kids who have everything in life. A lot of them have very low self-esteem, especially the worst-behanved, who feel they have something to prove. They need to understand that everyone does something well, even if it's just making other people happy, or being honest about having done the wrong thing. Hey, I discovered that one student, who was having a struggle in class, does tae kwondo! I made sure to let him know how impressed I was.

Circle Time #2 - perhaps even today? Or maybe next week...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Marta Sisay saves the world

This is an entry that I originally put on my classroom blog. For some reason, it hasn't registered on Google yet and Marta is a wonderful student. She wrote this piece about the day her class went tree-planting in Science Week. I've done minimal editing so you can get her voice. Enjoy!

Save our planet by planting trees

On Thursday 14th of August 2008 we went on excursion to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by planting a tree with students and some teachers. We went by bus with Mr. Smythe and Mrs. King. When we got there we saw two women standing with the equipment that we were going to use, some of the equipment included water, gloves, shovel and a hammer. We started the day by the two women telling us why we were planting trees and what difference it will make, and then we were partnered and I had Madit as my partner. After that we started digging a hole to put the plant in and when we finished digging a hole we put the plant in the hole and we water it. At the end me and Madit we planted about 8 trees and then it was back to school and into work.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Boys and non-fiction

I wrote this letter to the Age newspaper in response to an article by that wonderful children's writer Paul Jennings, which was published in the education section one Monday. My letter was published, although the next time I saw the article it had the same list of suggested books. And don't get me wrong, they were great books, but there seems to be some idea that if it isn't fiction, it isn't reading. Or, at best, they say with a rolling of eyes, "Oh, well, at LEAST it's reading..."

But non-fiction is still story-telling, as I've found out over the years as a writer of non-fiction for children. It's just telling a story that is true.

I've found that my students will usually shut up when I'm reading to them - but it has to be true. The weirder the better - it has to be so weird it could almost BE fiction ... but it's not. And they read the newspapers or watch the news on TV. Quite often, they'll say, "Oh, yeah, I heard about that on the news ... on Sixty Minutes... "

So, off to find something else "stranger than fiction, perhaps in MX or in the Age Odd Spot which I will follow up in Google News, to present to my class.

Meanwhile, here's the letter:

"I enjoyed Paul Jennings' article on encouraging boys to read. Mr Jennings is one of Australia's best writers for girls and boys alike. What he says is absolutely right, as far as it goes. Teachers can't do all the work. Parents need to be involved. And yet... your recommended reads for boys included not one non-fiction book.

Boys love non-fiction. As a librarian I have watched English teachers yell at boys to put down that book on soccer or cars which would have engaged them and get a novel - right now! As a teacher myself, I've seen a noisy, almost-all-boys class hush and listen when I read them some bizarre news story, followed up by, "Miss... is that true? Really?" I've been at children's literature panels where participants grumbled, "Oh, well, at least they're reading..." implying that they SHOULD have been reading fiction.

All right, I admit it: I write non-fiction. Two-thirds of the sales on my latest book have been through Book Club, where children can choose what they want. What does this suggest?

If you want boys to read, you have to offer them what they want to read."

Saturday, August 02, 2008

St Kilda on Sunday

This morning I had to get an MRI scan to work out why my left leg is still hurting a couple of months after some idiot in Hobart knocked me over while daydreaming as I crossed at a green light. After I'd had the snapshots of my knee taken (listening to soothing Rimsky-Korsakov and Chopin), I decided it was too late to go to the Continuum meeting in Carlton, so I took the 16 tram down to the beach.

I'd earned a break, after spending all of yesterday on my computer, fixing up and editing my manuscript for my new book, which I'm doing for Ford Street Publishing. No title so far, because neither of us really knows what to call it. Paul likes: Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly. I still have eight chapters and the "Did You Know...?" file to finish, plus some more "Did You Know...?" entries because Paul Collins, my publisher, keeps worrying we might have left someone out on the list of Australia's famous criminals and I keep finding amusing snippets, such as the story of the forger who was Australia's first artist and forged cash on the way to Australia to get extras for himself and his friends in chains,and the fact that our Prime Minister has convict ancestors. But it should mostly be over by the end of this week, because the typesetters are on holidays for a month and Paul wants to get it all out of the way before September (though I'll still have to do my index).

The Sunday craft market was in full swing. I saw the Dutch Blue Delft stall and asked the lady there - the artist - if she could bring me a full-sized teapot, which I can buy as part of my wedding gift to my sister's best friend's daughter. They're very beautiful and I have had one for many years, still used for Saturday morning breakfast cuppas.

The gentleman who makes Australian animal stuffed toys was next on my stop list - I have a wombat of his, plus I have bought other toys for children. One of his wombats went to England, for the daughter of my penpal, Joyce Cluett. Tricia is grown now - perhaps she has kept it for her own kids. I hope so. I have also had a recent e-mail from my American "honorary cousin", Walter Bursztynski, who has a second grandchild. I could perhaps send a wombat for the new child, Paige, and a possum puppet for young Chase, her brother - it's great, you put it on your hand and drape it over your arm and it looks as if you're cuddling a possum. He'd love it!

I did consider some painted glassware for Maia, the young woman who is marrying, but the man only had two of everything on the stall, his partner makes them as the mood hits her and two wine glasses are useless for the Shabat table. Pity.

Next were the wonderful wooden chopping boards, but Maia has one - I gave it to her for her engagement.

For myself I bought several pieces of handmade soap and two CDs of soothing harp music, from the lady who recorded it and gave me two for $10. A win-win situation - it would have cost her about $1.00 to burn and most folk selling their music charge a lot more. I look forward to playing them. I do like to support local artists.

Then down to the beach for a walk. Unfortunately, the newly-built walk has taken up a large chunk of what was beach. They have knocked down the small round shelter that has been at the start of the pier for years and had a Mirka Mora mosaic in it - I hope they at least preserved that somewhere! There is nowhere to sit along most of the walk and for the moment, at least, no designated bike path, so cyclists just zoom along wherever they please and walkers have to leap out of their way. I know we're supposed to be all for bikes because they're more environmentally friendly than cars, but I just CAN'T like the things when they're on the footpath. Elderly people have been known to get killed by some idiot cyclist who thinks they own the path.

I shouted myself lunch at the Stoke House restaurant on the beach - barramundi, quite nice, but not as good value for money as the barramundi at the Presse cafe near my home, which comes in a bigger piece and lots of salad/potatoes/whatever, and four dollars dearer.

I remember when the Stoke House was just a pleasant place for afternoon tea instead of a rather upmarket restaurant. You could get huge scones fresh from the oven, lots of cream and jam and a massive pot of tea or coffee. Or Sachertorte or bienenstich... Yum! No more, alas! But it is a nice, if expensive, restaurant.

I am writing this in a local Internet cafe on Sunday afternoon, before going home to clean the house and do some more editing ... Work never ends!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Another family photo

Here's my grandmother, Zelda Altbaum, after whom I was named. She was the mother of my own Mum, Mila Bursztynski. Mum doesn't know when this photo was taken, though she says it was certainly before Zelda was married. I'm guessing it was about 1920, judging by the style of her coat and hat. She was, like most of my family, a victim of Herr Hitler, so I never met her. Mum says she was the firm parent you have to have while Grandad Altbaum was the one who undermined any punishment by taking her out for afternoon tea. :-) She also says that her mother got her into reading by asking her to read aloud from such books as War and Peace (Mum was in prinary school at the time.)

I would have liked to know her. This is the only picture we have of Zelda.