Workshop 3, 2013: In the wake of …

In the wake of our new Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne telling us that *Gonski was “gone”, the third stella 2.0 workshop convened on Wednesday night once again at VATE’s rooms in Collingwood. This session was planned to home in on storytelling or narrative, as particular forms of writing and professional dialogue. We would explore how writing and talk can key into and ‘use’ storytelling as a generative medium for professional learning and critical engagement in our work, while still being mindful of the ways in which standards-based reforms influence or impair this ‘keying in’.

For a variety of reasons, we had a slightly delayed start, which allowed a little more time for delegates to tuck into newly delivered pizza and a glass of wine, and to renew professional acquaintances.

At 5.45pm, Scott welcomed a slightly smaller but still highly committed group of English educators, reminding us of the territory covered in the two previous workshops and the kinds of questions and issues that had arisen mostly strongly. He signalled that the focus in this workshop would indeed be on storytelling and narrative. Graham then shared the well known quote from Roland Barthes about narratives of the world being “without number”:

The narratives of the world are without number. In the first place, the word ‘narrative’ covers an enormous variety of genres which are themselves divided up between different subjects…. Under the almost infinite number of forms, the narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of the narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives.

Graham explained that we would be considering how the writing that educators (and learners) produce might utilise these narrative forms, and also how it might usefully connect with the “history of narrative” that partially defines us as human beings.

In the section of the workshop called ‘Dialogue with colleagues near and afar’, John Yandell, from the Institute of Education (IOE) in London, beamed in via pre-recorded video. In his typically lucid and eloquent manner, John related his “uncomfortable” experience the previous week when his institution was visited by inspectors from Ofsted. In that visit, it quickly became apparent that the views about teacher education held by these inspectors (and Ofsted) were informed by a narrative very different from the narratives by which John and his colleagues live and practise. The narrative writing of the pre-service students that John offered to these inspectors as evidence of rich engagement was disdained as of little consequence. It did not, in the eyes of the inspectors, provide measurable evidence of the students’ learning outcomes or the quality of the educational programs offered by the IOE.

Prompted by John’s video and the pre-readings by Brenton Doecke (‘Storytelling and professional learning ’) and John himself (‘The social construction of meaning: Reading Animal Farm in the classroom‘), we then wrote briefly in response to one of two questions:

• How is storytelling or narrative part of your professional / research work or life?
• Whose stories/narratives have a strong influence over this work? How?

Best of times worst of times

After some initial discussion about the writing we had produced, we then settled down to generate more extended pieces, which we proceeded to share in small groups toward the end of the session.

In wrapping up, Scott and Graham invited all present to provide feedback on the three workshops in this first iteration of the stella 2.0 project, and to reflect on the kinds of writing we had all been generating and reading on the stella 2.0 website Forum. It was observed with some enthusiasm that the texts posted on the website had been read by many hundreds of readers across the world.

At about 8.15pm – a little later than planned – the session concluded, amid calls for a new round of stella 2.0 sessions in 2014. The most likely focus for these sessions will be an exploration of narrative in schooling, teacher education and research. Stay tuned for more details.

Scott and I would like to take this opportunity to say a big ‘thank you’ to all those who participated in the stella 2.0 workshops these past months. It has been a wonderful experience to explore the kinds of professional learning conversations that are possible when English educators from all backgrounds, sectors and levels of experience come together with a commitment to professional dialogue and dialogic writing. It has been exciting to appreciate what is possible – and salutary to recognise what is needed – when professional learning is not tightly constrained by the standards-based reforms that now intrude into so much of our practices, our institutions and our sense of ourselves.

*Gonski is the colloquial term for the previously proposed ‘new’ model of funding for schools in Australia, intended to address significant and deeply embedded inequities in the system.

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