“Social justice” is a term that has become commonplace in our public discourse. But what does it mean? To me – a mother of four - social justice in an aspiration for a fairer, more decent and empathetic society, where the fortunate use their privilege, opportunities and resources for the greater good.
We’ve tried to promote these values to our son and three daughters and I know I’m supported by schools like SCEGGS, which embrace the values of fairness, kindness and humility. We’re confident they will continue these values throughout their lives.
I think the School’s understanding of social justice partly stems from its unique location in a diverse part of Sydney. Our daughters have been exposed to a cross-section of Australian life. At one end of the spectrum, you’ll find Sydney’s powerful institutions in politics, business, medicine, law and the Arts, surrounded by gentrified terrace homes, fancy cafes and boutique fashion stores.
Alongside this privilege however, are communities experiencing acute disadvantage – the working poor, the homeless community and of course the LGBTQI+ community, who have toiled for decades in these streets just to gain the most basic tenet of social justice – acceptance.
It’s hard for SCEGGS girls to ignore these contrasts and histories. They underline an important lesson – that our society is not equal, life can be truly unfair and that it doesn’t take much for a person to fall through the cracks: a bad relationship, a trauma, a lost job, addiction, family breakdown, bad health or discrimination based on race and sexuality.
Understanding one’s privilege and considering these life experiences of others is the first step to achieving a more just society.
We’ve encouraged our children to become involved in social justice initiatives through school. Our daughters have been fortunate enough to go on school trips to Uganda, Cape York and soon, to Cambodia. They’ve also been involved with Community Service at Wayside Chapel, Rough Edges, Our Big Kitchen and delivering meals in surrounding streets. They’ve learnt that simple acts of kindness and modest donations of time can make a substantial difference.
Once school is done, I’d encourage parents to talk with their children about considering taking time to become involved in a social justice initiative. After the HSC, our three eldest travelled and volunteered in far flung places from Cusco in Peru to Kathmandu in Nepal. They taught English, provided manual labour in rural schools and assisted in health clinics. The experience exposed them to new cultures and languages and helped to broaden their understanding of the world.
Back in Sydney, we’ve encouraged our children to use their skills and passions in their local volunteering efforts. Our son’s strength is writing, so he volunteered once a week through “Sydney Story Factory”, working with marginalised students at Plunkett St Public School in Woolloomooloo. It taught him patience, compassion and the value of elevating those children’s voices.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that our children have pursued public service in their studies and careers. Our son works for a public broadcaster in Regional WA, providing a critical service during emergencies; our oldest daughter is a Registered Nurse providing compassionate care to patients in ICU at their most vulnerable times. Our middle daughter is a passionate advocate for the rights of women and the protection of the environment. She’s pursuing post-graduate studies in public policy, volunteering at a domestic violence refuge in Sydney and is very involved in grassroots work for action on climate change – the greatest social justice challenge of our time.
My own parents are still very generous in supporting causes they are passionate about including medical research, overseas aid, the Guide Dogs and educational scholarships (including SCEGGS). This has influenced how our family understands society and what we can do to help make a difference.
Most recently my daughter, Georgi in Year 11 and I fulfilled one of my dreams to visit Kenya and see first hand the work of “So They Can”, a charity which was established 10 years ago by two mothers in our local suburb. Our family have followed the growth of the school they created in collaboration with the Kenyan Government. The primary school now has 1080 students. We have been exchanging letters with the students we support at the school for some time, so to finally visit them was amazing! To learn first hand how our sponsorship contribution has made a difference to a group of “Internally Displaced People” will stay with us forever. These families fled for their lives due to political unrest and were left with nothing. Many children ate food from the local tip. They had became refugees in their own country. Now the children are educated and given two nutritious meals a day at school. We gained a better understanding of how education is the best route for sustainable change for children. It has a ripple effect that is felt by women, their children and whole communities. The school is now well run by the local Kenyans, so the charity is branching out to other areas in Kenya and Tanzania.
We learnt first hand that empowering and educating women has a wonderful cascade effect for families and communities. In addition to its school operations, the charity trains women in business skills and provides a small loan to enable their enterprises to get off the ground. We met four resilient, optimistic women whose lives had been transformed with this micro-finance. One woman, who had HIV, used her loan to buy a goat, some chickens and a rainwater tank. She was so positive about her future. Another has set up a successful little shop in the local village and now employs three people. Her entrepreneurial ideas were inspirational. Our group had 14 teenagers who will never forget their experience.
Getting involved in social justice pursuits is a win-win for all. Participants develop a fuller undertsanding of the world in which they live and marginalised people are afforded the basic dignity, respect and love they deserve. There are so many ways we can make a difference and it can all start at our doorstep.
Our three sponser kids at Abardare Ranges Primary School - Nakuru, Kenya.
We bought kids much needed new uniform items! A local Kenyan man makes the shoes by hand, so the money is kept in the community.
Geogi doing a maths lesson at a Kenyan high school.
Old Girl and current parent
A Teacher’s Perspective
Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they are unanimous: They all love what they do. It is not the hope of achieving fame or making money that drives them; rather, it is the opportunity to do work that they enjoy doing.
Two personal experiences
In 2001 I had to prepare for a recital performance. The brief: present a 45–50min programme on my chosen instrument, the saxophone. To put this into some perspective, it is worth noting that up until this point I used to get extremely nervous about performing. Every time I did so my legs would shake, I would overly sweat and generally the experience was not an enjoyable one - yet I loved playing the saxophone. In preparation for this recital I was putting in approximately six hours of practice a day, which involved a range of activities from technical preparation through to learning the music in detail, as well as working with my chosen accompanist. Throughout this preparation I was honing my skills through the repertoire in order to be as fluent as possible. One day, I was speaking with my accompanist, and it was interesting when he said how enjoyable playing the repertoire that I had chosen was and that for him, that the music was so challenging also made the experience a rewarding one. And, as we continued working together, he actually said, “you might actually come first you know!”. I scoffed at this but carried on regardless. In my mind, it was impossible that I would come first and indeed it wasn’t even something I was aiming for.
The time came for the performance and I distinctly remember waiting in the green room to go onstage. After my performance, I came out smiling. In my mind I had done what I had set out to do - and then I suddenly realised that, for the first time, I hadn’t had any nerves throughout the performance whatsoever and – while I didn’t come first - I was really happy!
What had just happened?
Engineers and chemists, writers and musicians, businesspersons and social reformers, historians and architects, sociologists and physicians – and they all agree that they do what they do primarily because it’s fun.
Ordinary man, extraordinary event
This year I took part in what is widely known as the World’s Toughest Footrace. What I realise now is that the experience had many similarities to that of my recital many years earlier. The preparation was different but no less arduous. The time I invested in preparing every detail, from physical training to understanding how my body reacts to strain and stress; preparing and understanding nutrition, putting together my kit, as well as the mental preparation and balancing all of this with a busy role as a teacher was all part of the challenge.
Each day in the Sahara Desert brought new challenges, whether traversing the many kilometres over sand dunes (as many as 21kms at one point), climbing a mountain, dealing with an injury, food deprivation, heat exhaustion, foot preparation, sand storms, sleeping conditions (the desert floor is like a sea bed and within your assigned bivouac it feels as though you’re packed in like sardines - compromising all personal space) – it all combines to make an incredibly tough experience.
What impressed me most, however, were other people in the race with far more difficult challenges ahead than me: the lady with a prosthetic leg; the elderly man with scoliosis. These people were an inspiration. And they were, daily, proving that anything is possible.
On reflection, I realise that in both scenarios – recital and ultramarathon - I had learnt to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. To exist and even thrive outside of my comfort zone. And that this is something we can all learn from. That rewarding experiences, achievement and success are not easy, and that good and personally satisfying experiences come only from careful preparation of both body and mind. Failure at both of these events didn’t even register in my mind; it was not an option because I had prepared.
In order to achieve, a person must take control of, to "own", the goal. Learning to normalise difficult and intense situations, whether this be examinations, presentations or performances is integral to achievement. By taking oneself to an extreme situation we can begin to learn to normalise difficult situations. For example, in order to complete the ultramarathon, I first had to be comfortable achieving a marathon and it is worth noting that in Googling "top 10 life goals", you will more than likely come across articles that tell you to complete a marathon – and I was ticking this off purely as part of a bigger goal!
If one does these things a certain way, they become intrinsically rewarding, worth doing for their own sake.
The best things in life do not come easily. Achievement in any activity or subject requires dedication, practice, endeavour, resilience, concentration, self-belief and above all enjoyment. We live in a society where we have become obsessed with assessment. Assessment is just a means to end. If I had thought for a moment that my recital was worth 25% of my entire university degree, you would’ve had to drag me into the recital hall kicking and screaming and the experience would have been dreadful. If I thought about where I would place in the ultramarathon, I would have lost sight of the achievement of just doing the event. If you aim for your best with careful and thorough preparation, results will follow.
To quote Mark Strand, the flow state can be considered as "[when] you lose sense of your time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you are doing."
But, interestingly, you often don’t realise that you have been in the flow state until you come out of it and evaluate the situation.
I wouldn’t consider myself to be a "spiritual" person per se, but the "flow state" I achieved on both the fourth day of my race and throughout my recital have since taken on an almost spiritual significance. I went through the check points, up and down the mountain, and I didn’t even notice there was pain in my knee. When the finish line was in sight, I began to feel almost overwhelmingly emotional – followed by the elation of knowing I had completed it.
It is more important than ever that we teach students to enjoy doing things that are challenging, whether it be problem solving, maths, poetry, music or science – or any subject. It is far too simple to find pleasure in things that we find we can do with ease.
And, while I cannot tell anyone which co-curricular activities to join, I can say this: whatever you do choose you must do so for the right reasons, and undertake it with commitment, passion and determination.
10 Things We Can Do Right Now To Be A Better Indigenous Ally
On Thursday July 18, more than half a million people stopped to watch the film The Final Quarter (available to watch on 10 play,) which documents the final three years of Adam Goodes’ playing career. Hosted on Channel 10 by Waleed Aly, he invited the viewer to reflect where, as a nation we go from here; “the question now really is whether it can become a productive national conversation. And the answer to that question rests with each of us.”
In the wake of the film’s release I read the voice of many prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers to try and deepen my understanding of the “conversation” that needs to happen. This reading strengthened my already held position that it is not up to Indigenous people alone to continue to carry the weight of our nation’s last 250 years – it is vital that non-Indigenous people listen and act on what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been saying for so many years in so many ways. In her article How to be a Good Indigenous Ally Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman, academic and writer, urges all non-Indigenous people to be a useful ally to Aboriginal people: “We need good allies. We are only three per cent of the Australian population. We can’t raise the profile of issues affecting us without our allies.”
But what does a good ally look like? What can we do in our roles as teachers, friends, daughters, parents, mentors and community members to be a better ally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Inspired by Summer May Finlay’s article as well as a recent article by Shannan Dodson 8 Things you Can Do Right Now to be a Better Indigenous Ally, I’ve created a list for the SCEGGS Community, outlining some actions we can take to stand with and be an ally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
1. Read the Uluru Statement from the Heart
Read the statement aloud at a meeting, or show this short video by Blackfella Films to better understand its history and meaning. Talk about it to your friends, parents, children and students.
2. Say something when you hear inappropriate speech about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Summer May Finlay says;
“If you hear someone say something racist, reinforcing stereotypes or being dismissive about Aboriginal people and culture — say something. Not saying something means condoning their attitudes, making you as bad as them.”
3. Request a cultural tour in our local area as part of your professional learning
Then make the effort to remember at least one interesting fact to share with your friends, family and students. As an example, on a recent tour of Centennial Park, I was taken to a special site and told that the fresh groundwater made it a safe and clean place for Gadigal women to give birth. I later shared this fact in an Acknowledgment of Country.
4. Regularly Acknowledge Country
Traditionally, Acknowledgement of Country protocols have been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as part of a process of ensuring safe passage while on Country. It is an honour for non-Indigenous people to continue this ritual and is a clear and obvious way to show respect and reconciliation.
5. Listen to Indigenous voices
Watch, read and learn from the Koori Mail, IndigenousX and NITV to better understand and represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives.
6. Support Indigenous business and local Indigenous creators
Economic participation is a significant indicator of self-determination and engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned businesses is a simple way to be a better ally. From graphic designers to small and large catering businesses, Supply Nation is Australia’s database of verified Indigenous businesses.
7. Attend Indigenous events in our community
Search out at least two Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events in our community and invite your friends and family to them. Some ideas are Bangarra, Blak Markets, Aboriginal Arts Market at Carriage Works, Stan Grant and Adam Goodes in conversation at the Art Gallery of NSW.
8. Volunteer or donate to local Indigenous organisations or causes
Mudgin-Gal (which means “Women’s Place) is an organisation I connect with and support. Located in Redfern, it offers support for women, girls and their young families through drop in, in-home family support, legal, medical and accommodation referral and educational and vocational support programs. Other organisations include The Tribal Warrior Association, Redfern Foundation and WEAVE Community Centre.
9. Share the voice/perspective of Indigenous people with solidarity and respect rather than with a saviour mentality
This point speaks for itself.
10. When teaching about Aboriginal perspectives, wherever possible teach with an Aboriginal person
In Kindergarten I feel honoured to teach about the Stolen Generations with Renee Cawthorne, a Wiradjuri woman and educator. We write the lesson together, teach it together and reflect on it together.
There are many more actions we can take as individuals to be more effective Indigenous allies, but these few points are a start. If you can add to this list, don’t hesitate to let me know. Let’s work together.
The SCEGGS Reconciliation Action Plan is committed to listening to and teaching Indigenous perspectives, celebrating Indigenous culture and developing relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. I look forward to sharing its vision with the SCEGGS Community in future articles.
Sarah Kearney teaches Kindergarten at SCEGGS. She leads the SCEGGS Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) which aims to make Aboriginal histories, perspectives and culture more visible across the School.
I’ve always loved the stories of the past. From a young age I absorbed family stories from a great storyteller, my great aunt, who crafted vibrant and poignant tales that moved from small Sicilian villages to the cane fields of country Queensland, whilst weaving in references to New York and South America as well. The tales were exciting and vivid, sometimes sad, and sometimes filled with joy. They were also, at times, contested, as my grandfather would interject when he believed that family history had strayed into family story, challenging a point when he felt that an imaginative or creative element had been added for dramatic purposes! These stories, and the debates, discussions, questions and challenges that accompanied them, were my introduction to historical empathy, perspective and contestability, key concepts that underpin a study of History.
Television was another childhood hook that drew me to the stories of the past. Watching with my family in the 1980s “must-see” period or historical mini-series piqued my curiosity and left me wanting to find out more about the past and people being portrayed. In a pre-Google era, this would involve me reaching for a trusted encyclopaedia to see if what I had just watched really happened in the way that it was depicted. And encyclopaedias aside, there was nothing I loved more than finding historical fiction when perusing Library bookshelves ... and the “history” I read on the pages would often have me reaching for the encyclopaedias again to find out more! Whether on the page or on the small screen, these narratives about the past led me to ask historical questions and introduced me to key research and inquiry skills!
Film is another powerful way that we can engage with the stories of the past. It is often noted that history has been vital source material for cinema from its very beginnings; for instance, one of the world’s very first feature films was the 1906 Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang. Indeed, it would be a rare film viewer who had not seen a film featuring an historical person, society, event or era at some point in their own history as a film viewer. Historical films are often our first introductions to historical people and events and can shed light on little known or previously hidden histories - the aptly named Hidden Figures (2016) comes to mind. As another medium that delves into the stories of the past, film can spark our historical thinking and curiosity and can encourage us to ask historical questions, leading to new or renewed interest in a topic area. And the digitisation of history makes it so much easier to engage with the process of historical inquiry today ... online access to historical sources and databases allows us to follow-up screen history from home more comprehensively than my encyclopaedia searches ever could!
Historical films can encourage us to think about aspects of the past in a way that can complement our understanding of written history by incorporating elements not immediately obvious on the page. Through use of historical sites, scenery, music and dress, camera angles and lighting, films can provide insights into the look and feel of the past, its colour and its sound. A film like Marie Antoinette (2006) can transport us to the historical site of Versailles, where much of it was filmed, while the WWI film Beneath Hill 60 (2010) invites historical empathy by its audio-visual focus on the experiences of the miners who tunnelled under the trenches of the Western Front.
In addition to its ability to connect us with the look of the past and engage us with empathetic understanding in relation to its people and societies, film can extend and challenge our thinking of what history is. Thinking about film as a representation of history, as we are currently doing in a Year 11 Modern History unit of work "The Representation of the Past through Film", provides an opportunity not only to think about the history being represented in our selected films, but also to introduce us to key historiographical issues in relation to how history is represented and constructed, a way of thinking that is at the heart of our Year 12 History Extension course. It allows us to think about key ideas in relation to “Academic History”, “Popular History”, and “Public History”; to debate the purpose of different forms of history; to evaluate how the producers of different forms of historical communication grapple with issues in relation to selecting, synthesising, and sequencing information about the past; and to consider where film history fits in relation to oral history and written history.
During our Year 11 unit, we have considered differing interpretations of the question “Has Hollywood Stolen our History?” (BBC History Magazine, August 2004) and have thought about this in relation to key ideas like “who owns the past?”. Drawing on the works of historians like Robert Rosenstone, Natalie Zemon Davis and Marnie Hughes-Warrington, we have explored film’s powerful ability to shape our understanding of the past, its role in the democratisation of history by making history accessible to a wider audience, and its increasing significance in a post-literate age, where we can read but often gain our meaning from sources other than written texts. We have debated issues in relation to the ‘Disneyfication’ of history and the implications of presenting a simplified and sanitised version of the past to a young audience, and we have pondered the impact that the choice of actor can have on how we think about the historical personality being portrayed. We have also thought about film as a cultural artefact, and its potential to provide historians with rich insights into the values and attitudes of the society that made it and viewed it. Thus, the study of historical films can allow us to consider broader issues in relation to the study of history and its meaning and place in our world today.
Thinking about film as a source of history can also help us to engage with questions like “can a filmmaker be an historian?”, “what role does invention and creativity play in film history?” and “what obligations do filmmakers have in presenting an “accurate” vision of the past?”. Through this process of questioning we are able to engage with scholarly interpretations about the construction of history; for example, Hayden White’s concept of “historiophoty” or “the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse” (“Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, 1988), and Robert Rosenstone’s challenge to assess film history with different criteria to that which we use to assess written history. (“Inventing Historical Truth on the Silver Screen”, Cineaste, 2004). By engaging with these ideas, we can have valuable discussions about changing approaches to history and different forms of historical representation.
So just as my Aunty Ev’s stories (a form of oral history) captured my attention and created an early interest and emotional and empathetic connection to the people and events of our family’s past, and my early viewing of mini-series like Kennedy Miller’s Bodyline (1984) and reading of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) led me to encyclopaedias to find out more about Donald Bradman and Richard III, historical films can awaken an interest in the history that they represent. But beyond that, they can help us to think deeply about how history is represented, providing an entry point to engage us with big historiographical, and indeed historiophotical, questions, like the key questions of the History Extension Course:
o Who are historians?
o What are the purposes of history?
o How has history been constructed, recorded and presented over time?
o Why have approaches to history changed over time?
Head of History
At SCEGGS we recognise the benefits of exchange and immersion experiences not just for students but for teachers too! One such experience was undertaken by Drama teacher Vivienne Rodda to the Nightingale Bamford School in New York. In this issue of Behind the Green Gate, Ms Rodda writes about the community behind the "Blue Door".
I had the tremendous good fortune late last year of being selected to visit The Nightingale Bamford School in New York. This was a wonderful opportunity to engage with the teaching and learning in a like environment, in an international city, and be a fly on the wall to the similarities and differences in pedagogy and our 21st Century learners.
The Nightingale Bamford School is located on the Upper East side on the corner of Madison Ave and East 92nd street, adjacent to Central Park, and right around the corner from The Guggenheim. While being slightly smaller, enrolling approximately 650 students between its Lower School and the Upper Schools, it is remarkably similar to SCEGGS; just as we have the Green Gate, through which our girls enter, the Nightingale students all come through their "Blue Doors", an entry way on 92nd Street. The Blue Doors is also coincidentally the name of the regular publication Nightingale produces just as we have our own Behind the Green Gate!
The building in which the school operates is, like SCEGGS, a combination of the old and the new, with a beautiful, expansive, Edith Wharton-like window that provides picturesque views from their library. It is very old New York, and part of the original 1920 school building. In more recent years, several modern buildings and additions have been integrated with the original block, and the school now occupies approximately seven floors of its building, with each year group or stage occupying a floor.
In my two weeks at the school, I was fortunate to have a wide variety of experiences, attending an excursion to a glass blowing factory in Brooklyn with Year 8, serving lunch in a soup kitchen on a visit with the lower school, attending a PE class in Central Park, and seeing the school production of Noises Off among many other things, all of which were routine when you are as well located as Nightingale.
It was fascinating to learn of the differences in subject and course selection and how a school creates a program of study in an Independent New York School. The school follows no approved or endorsed program or curriculum and are permitted to create their own. This provides a great deal of freedom in the devising of courses and the programs set for study. Some subjects such as English are mandatory until Senior Year. Staff and Heads of Department (Chairs) write course proposals, which are submitted and approved, before they are offered to students. An elective English course in a Senior Year of study may include an intensive analysis of a poet or playwright or be more thematic covering a topic such as New York City Literature or Shakespeare’s Tragedies.
Nightingale was very proud of its strong focus on student-centred learning, and its belief that the school’s role was to prepare students for a largely unknown future. Everyday Nightingale timetables a half-hour for the entire school community, called "Enrichment time", simply designed to allow the students the freedom and independence to pursue whatever they best felt fit. This was used variably, covering everything from meeting with teachers, completing homework or study, playing in the playground, or spending time in one of the student lounges with friends.
Many of my observations and experiences at Nightingale came from informal discussions with staff during lunch, as well as sitting in formal meetings and discussions where people were very generous and willing to share their thoughts about their school community. A topic among some long-standing staff was their disgruntlement at the direction in which the school was heading, particularly around things such as the allocated half an hour for enrichment, which they felt lacked efficacy. Accompanying this pursuit of student freedom also was the reduction of formal assessment tasks and formal reporting. Staff were both thrilled and baffled to learn that we held formal assessment blocks, where students were assessed, graded and reported upon formally twice a year.
Additional to the organisation of their secondary school, I further developed an understanding of tertiary entrance requirements, which were, again, vastly different to our own. As we have seen in the recent College Admissions Scandal, university entrance in the U.S.A. can be skewed towards those from more advantageous backgrounds, and as such, the system lacks the equality available in our own university entrance schemes. Without a prescribed syllabus to follow, courses taught at a high school level have a depth and breadth available to them in terms of choice, but also seem to have the pressure of making decisions as to what and how to prioritise the courses that students must include for the various requirements needed for entrance to their preferred university.
Accordingly, to prepare for college there is no standardised test like our HSC that significantly determines admission. American students do sit for their HSC equivalent, the SATs, but primarily there is a deeper, more complex process of essays, references, community involvement and submission of academic reports and GPA scores that are submitted for consideration. I was privy to numerous discussions amongst staff about the system of college entrance and the drive of students to appear to have achieved a well-rounded educational experience through numerous participation in extra-curricular activities, clubs, volunteering for a school newspaper, or being involved in community outreach programs, and the careful preparation and writing of the all-important college essays which were being taught in the junior year class I sat in on for a few days.
When I wasn’t at Nightingale I was absorbing all that New York has to offer and of course spending plenty of time on Broadway. The opportunity to see (and meet!) Bryan Cranston in Network, Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact, Jeff Daniels in To Kill A Mockingbird and the exceptionally fabulous production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was all wonderfully inspiring and enriching.
My learning and observations can only be touched upon in this article, but it was a tremendous opportunity and I look forward to supporting further collaborations between SCEGGS and the Nightingale Bamford School ahead. Their Head of School Paul Burke and Director of Global Operations Damaris Maclean were wonderful hosts and supported an experience that was enriching and impossible to forget.
Thoughts on the new Stage 6 English Syllabus by Dr Nina Cook
In our second instalment of "Thinking Allowed", English teacher Dr Cook takes us on a journey to New York and back as she explores the philosophy behind the new Stage 6 English Syllabus and demonstrates the new, discursive style of writing students may be asked to employ.
The advent of a new syllabus is always an opportunity for reflection and reinvention. The introduction of the new Stage 6 English syllabus has come at a particularly opportune moment, as it has coincided with our ongoing departmental conversations about student wellbeing and technology, a concern about the difficulty of sustained and concentrated reading, and a renewed understanding of just how foundational good reading is in developing emotional intelligence and empathy.
These discussions prompted me to reconsider some of the key readings that have influenced my practice and approach to teaching English over the past decade. The first is a very dry sounding study I read in 2010: “Changes in Disproportional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis”, from the Personality and Social Psychology Review. This University of Michigan study shows that college students demonstrated 40 percent less empathy than they had 40 years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (The study’s authors see the decline in empathy as related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and hyper-competitiveness). I was reminded of this study when I heard Neil Gaiman’s 2013 lecture at the Barbican Centre, London about the importance of libraries as foundations for good reading. Gaiman stated explicitly that “the thing fiction does is to build empathy”. For Gaiman:
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You're also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it's this:
THE WORLD DOESN'T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.
If we are losing this vital capacity to be compassionate and insightful won’t we lose what it is that makes us most human?
In David Denby’s 2016, book, Lit Up: One reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books that Changed Lives, Denby argues that:
Everyone agrees that establishing reading pleasure early in a child’s life is a monumental achievement (and you do it, the paediatricians say, with books not with screens); and everyone also agrees that the gap between those children who grow up loving books and active conversation and those who don’t – with troubled school performance and restricted career opportunities likely for those who don’t is a gap that sets in early and may be hard to close.
Denby then goes on to ask a crucial question that I felt the new syllabus needed to address: But what about high school? How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers – and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work?
This question seemed particularly apposite when I encountered an article by Jean M. Twenge in The Atlantic, September 2017 issue, sent to parents by Jenny Allum, called, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge persuasively argues that “there is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy. You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not”.
She references “The Monitoring the Future” survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which found that “teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy”. The question thus becomes, how can we use the new syllabus to address some of these issues?
What we are particularly excited by, as a department, is the Reading to Write and Craft of Writing common modules. The rubric for Reading to Write, the transition module to Senior English, states:
Central to this module is developing student capacity to respond perceptively to texts through their own considered and thoughtful writing and judicious reflection on their skills and knowledge as writers.
Both this module, and its companion module in Year 12, The Craft of Writing, offer the opportunity for students to reflect deeply on what they have read and to respond to texts in their own voice in a discursive form. This emphasis on reflection and, on texts helping students to develop insights into the world around them, deepen their understanding of themselves and the lives of others, and enhance their enjoyment of reading, seems directly linked to the challenges my readings posed.
All this was on my mind when on a coldish day in January I found myself standing outside the Lego store on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 23rd Street in New York. I was waiting for a guide from the Art Society to take me on a walk of Edith Wharton’s New York. My vision of Mrs Wharton’s Gilded Age had always been of whispered conversations behind fans, plundered rich Rococo furniture and deep velvets, the click of horses’ hooves and their steaming nostrils, the redolent whiff of a coachman’s blanket. There are always shadows in Wharton’s world, conversations are opaque, shimmering, unable to survive the glare of the electrical globe. Standing outside the garishly primary-coloured Lego Emporium, looking across at a Starbucks and a nearby Pret a Manger, nothing could have seemed further from the assertive and seriously subjugating brownstones of Wharton’s youth.
The guide walked us all of five paces and stopped opposite the ubiquitous green sign. He pointed to a tiny red plaque just beside the entry door:
Edith Wharton 1862-1937. This was the childhood home of Edith Jones Wharton, one of America’s most important authors, at a time when 23rd Street marked the northern boundary of fashionable New York.
I looked up.
There was the drawing room window where the narrator of Wharton’s short story, “New Year’s Day” stood watching the married Lizzie Hazeldean and her lover Henry Prest trying to sneak out of the Fifth Avenue Hotel after it most inconveniently caught fire. I remembered the opening line: “She was BAD ... always”. The outrage and glee of that assertively capitalised BAD! I loved it. The way it jumped with the force of Wharton’s condemnation at the small-minded cruelty of her society. The ultimate insider wielding the pen as sword against her oppressors.
The lovely theme driving the new Reading to Write module that the departmental working group had come up with was ”Beneath the Surface”. I had been thinking about the word “palimpsest” (a manuscript upon which earlier writing has been later overwritten), which I had just been relishing while re-reading Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale", the core text for the unit, and here it was in front of me, the visible traces of an earlier form. The present overriding the past, but the past waving its hand vigorously, signalling its presence. Taxis honked and pedestrians bustled, taking the short cut through Madison Square to the East side.
Both Edith Wharton and Henry James had spent their childhoods with that square at its centre. Although James was older, I imagined them passing each other as they were hustled by their nannies to Grace Church. Wharton wrote in her autobiography A Backward Glance that she had spent “a childhood and youth of complete intellectual isolation”. I wish she and Henry had been able to stop and speak then. She recalled that when she first actually spoke to James, she was “still struck dumb in the presence of greatness” But it wasn’t long before it was as if they had always been friends, and were to go on being, as Henry wrote to Edith in February 1910, “more and more and never apart”. I was reminded of a recent survey: “About the Mental Health of Children and Young People" by the NHS, released in November 2018. This study reveals that “about one in six (16.9%) of 17 to 19 year olds in the UK experienced a mental disorder in 2017. Girls were over twice as likely to have a mental disorder than boys at this age (23.9% and 10.3% respectively). Emotional disorders were the most common type of disorder reported, experienced by 14.9% of 17 to 19 year olds. Nearly one in four (22.4%) girls experienced an emotional disorder”. Edith’s intellectual solitariness and sense of otherness was relieved in part by reading. It sustained her until she found her tribe, Henry James and the other writers and artists, who made her feel less lonely and strange. What we could offer our students was a way to bear loneliness and vulnerability by helping them to be good readers and to find the solace that Edith found.
There was another highlight from Wharton’s adolescence that stuck in my mind from that tour. The French had sent the Statue of Liberty piecemeal to America. They had delivered the arm with the torch first. The City of New York had placed it in Madison Square to raise money for the pedestal it would need when it was finally assembled. The New York Times had written in 1876:
Finally, our eyes were gladdened by the actual receipt of a section of ‘Liberty’. Consisting of one arm, with its accompanying hand of such enormous proportions that the thumb nail afforded an easy seat for the largest fat woman now in existence.
Standing at the apex of Madison Square I could see Edith delightedly joining the happy throng outside her doorstep, paying her penny and sitting in that thumbnail surveying all that was familiar to her with the bird’s eye of the born novelist. She viewed the world through books. They were the building blocks of her identity.
Having been deposited back at the Lego store I walked uptown to meet friends for dinner. I paused opposite 597 Fifth Avenue as the pedestrian light turned red. Glancing across at a Sephora, I looked up and there was the insignia Charles Scribner’s and Sons, Wharton’s first publishers. They had moved uptown from 24th Street in the 1940s and it was from here that Max Perkins had had a visit from F Scott Fitzgerald with a manuscript called The Great Gatsby and Earnest Hemingway had popped in with The Sun Also Rises. As I crossed and walked on I imagined that elegant store with its beautiful carved staircase, mahogany bookshelves filled with titles and occasional tables with The Beautiful and the Damned piled high.
I thought of Neil Gaiman arguing so persuasively that:
When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed.
Dr Nina Cook
We are proud to introduce our new "Thinking Allowed" section to Behind the Green Gate. Here, staff will share their thoughts and ideas about contemporary educational issues. We are pleased to present our first article by our Head of Visual Arts, Katrina Collins.
What can a study of Visual Arts offer young people in this rapidly changing world of the 21st Century?
All the skills that are needed to be adept critical thinkers, imaginative, empathetic, flexible and resilient are learnt in the art classroom.
In 2016, the World Economic Forum listed the 10 skills for people to thrive in the 21st century. The 10 skills are: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, co-ordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility. These skills are the foundation stones of an art education, exercised daily as students explore their creativity, work collaboratively and take risks to create artworks and to express and communicate ideas.
A study of art teaches students to harness their imagination, to think laterally, to take risks and to solve problems. It also enables them to explore and examine history, culture and aesthetics. It is a place where students learn the skills to express their unique selves both visually and through writing and stimulating discussion. In an art classroom, students learn to listen and to appreciate other points of view, to develop empathy and to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them and their place in it.
Visual Arts develops skills necessary to think and work in adaptable, flexible, imaginative ways.
Students observe and interpret their world and to communicate their ideas to an audience. Making art is a great and rewarding challenge. Art students explore materials and techniques, harnessing these to make artworks that can express their unique selves - their feelings, responses and ideas. Designing and constructing an artwork involves critical thinking, planning, collaboration, dexterity and patience! It is risky and students learn from their mistakes to be resilient, picking themselves up, starting again, learning to persevere, to concentrate, to refine and resolve.
Creativity is a vital part of human existence e.g. we can draw before we learn to talk.
One of our strengths as a species is our ability to perceive the visual world in clarity, depth, motion and colour. Much of our brain’s processing ability is specifically concerned with making sense of this world. Visual Arts engages and exercises these very sophisticated skills, sharpening our instincts. It helps us to develop skills in observation and the reading of visual clues, essential in all walks of life and indeed in understanding the actions and feelings of others.
There are infinitely more visuals in the world than there are words in the English language.
Art is a subject where students learn about the visual world and an ability to communicate visually and to understand what is being communicated is empowering. A study of art enables students to decode, decipher and interpret the multitude of imagery that they encounter every day on the internet, social media, advertising etc. An art student can see what is really being communicated - to understand how an image is constructed, to look beyond what they can see for the deeper meaning and the hidden truths.
Most importantly, art encourages young people to notice and to see the beauty in the world - an open sky, the sounds of the city or bush landscape, the smell of rain approaching. It teaches us all to slow down, to look and to appreciate what is around us. Making art can offer quiet contemplation, silencing the outside world as we focus in on our thoughts and vision.
An engagement in the world of art develops young people to be creative, critical thinkers, empathetic and capable of dissecting and interpreting the complexity that surrounds them. It rewards young people with the enviable ability to see the beauty and to find the quiet in a noisy, chaotic world.
Head of Visual Arts