Tag Archives: Teaching English

Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

Back in Toronto, I was friends with an Australian man. While he was a supportive and emotionally expressive friend, much of our daily banter consisted of ribbing each other, and much of that ribbing was of a sexual nature. If I went on a good date, he’d mock my “game.” If I got dressed up and put makeup on, he’d tease me about my looks. At the time, I thought this was strange – it reminded me of middle school gender dynamics, where the boys and girls who are crushing on one another tease each other relentlessly.

While I’ve only been in Sydney for a little over a month, I’m now able to put that relationship into a cultural context. It wasn’t about us – it’s the culture here. Australia suffers en masse from Tall Poppy Syndrome, a compulsion – possibly stemming from jealousy or from a desire to promote equality or camaraderie between different social strata – to put down successful or distinguished people.

We haven’t quite reached a Harry Bergeron dystopia, but I feel that this culture of put-downs and teasing limits all Australians – the mockers and the mockees. In fact, as I write this post, I can hear the critiques, “Don’t be so Canadian, mate…” and see the empathetic but resigned shrugs, “Get used to it, Aussie guys are assholes.” It limits discourse and makes authentic emotional connections difficult to achieve. It also promotes a culture of sexism and negativity. A weaker blogger might scrap the post in the face of this projected criticism but hey, if they want to call me a prudish or overly PC Canadian, so be it. I was raised to be proud of my cultural sensitivity and able to speak out when offended. And here, I am offended on an almost daily basis. I don’t want to be an average poppy or a wallflower. I want to be a bird of paradise!

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I arrived, but today a friend’s facebook page featured a reaction to Sunday’s NY Times op-ed by Katie Roiphe, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks.” Down under, the whole Herman Cain story was not on my radar, so I had some catching up to do. The American feminist blogosphere is outraged by Roiphe’s claim that a “smart, competent young professional woman” should laugh and shrug off unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments about her appearance, and that a workplace free of the risk of sexual harassment would be drab and quiet (because of course, there’s nothing else to laugh or chat about but your cubicle buddy’s boobs).

Roiphe criticizes the “weakness or blurriness” of the language that defines sexual harassment (uncomfortable, hostile, inappropriate) and prefers to euphemize sexual harassment by calling it “colourful.” As a high school English teacher, the issue of semantics was interesting, and indeed, addressing the “slippery” definition could be a productive exercise in a high school English or Law class. But this quote also piqued my interest:

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)

So the problem is the overly broad definition of “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically,” not the prevalence of sexual harassment among teenage girls? Roiphe suspects that by this definition, the percentage should be much higher but immediately moves on, failing to address that even though every girl in the class might have been called flat, easy, or doable, the ubiquity of these comments does not make them excusable. Imagine telling my grade nine student whose friend jokingly called her a slut in the middle of English class, “What’s the problem? Just laugh it off. Now back to Merchant of Venice…hey, maybe you should read for Portia – that shallow ho-bag. Lol.”

I wonder what kind of language and behaviour Australian high school teachers allow. Does the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude apply in the classroom? The relentless sexual jokes in professional settings, and the general acceptance of them, seems to indicate that this is something Aussies have tolerated all their lives.

Frankly, I have been shocked by the way male and female colleagues treat one another here. It’s not just the comments about men being “distracted” by short skirts and cleavage. It’s not just the HR woman telling my senior manager friend that his Canadian accent is sexy.  It’s not just the office party binge drinking that often results in messy inter-office hook ups, sometimes with married bosses. It’s not just the female employees playing ‘who would you rather do?’ about their male colleagues over happy hour cocktails.

It’s the fact that, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade primer on the status of women, despite a relatively equal rate of education and 58% labour force participation, women hold only 12% of private sector management jobs and a mere 9% of board directorships. The Australian Human Rights Commission breaks it down:

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations[2].

For my part, I will not “get used to it.” I will continue to let people know that I am uncomfortable with inappropriate comments. Last week I filed a complaint against a course facilitator who made derogatory remarks about women, Asians and Eskimos (sic). I will continue to tell my female Aussie friends that they don’t have to laugh, get drunk, or get liposuction to impress their male colleagues. And if I end up in a high school classroom here, I will do my best to encourage my female students to be birds of paradise and to grow tall and bright in a safe – and yes, a colourful – environment.

a bunch of kings and queens: spoken word for the last day of grade 9 english

I discovered something about teaching: the last day of school is heartbreakingly anti-climactic. The kids are busting out of their seats. They chuck all the graphic organizers and short stories and assignments that you poured your heart and soul into in the recycling bin, and barely turn back to shout, “Have a good summer!” as they tear out the classroom door and down a paper-strewn hallway.

I wanted to do something special on the last day, beyond playing music and feeding them chips and freezies. I won’t be returning to my school next year, and I wanted my Grade 9 students to know that I care about their futures, even though I won’t be there to shepherd them through the senior grades.

After Gil Scott Heron died last week, I was thinking about the power of poetry – a topic I blogged about last year. On the second last day of school, I showed one of my classes some of his videos, tying them into our unit on Raisin in the Sun and the Civil Rights movement. I came home and sat down and banged out a spoken word-style poem, which I then performed for my classes. It wasn’t memorized, and I stumbled a few times, but my students seemed to appreciate it.

It was affirming to see them pick up on the references scattered throughout the lyrics – references  to essay writing and to the texts that we studied throughout the year. Performing this in my classes and getting high fives from kids in the hallways after school made the last day of school a bit less depressing.

A Bunch of Kings and Queens

No more pencils no more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks!
But if the looks are dirty
You must not be in my classroom,
Because the kinds of looks I give are squeaky clean
Know what I mean?

If only you could have seen what I’ve seen:
A bunch of teens
A bunch of dreams
A bunch of kings and queens

On the first day of school I asked you to write a personal credo,
“I believe this teacher chick
is a total freaking weirdo”
(Never fear, Batman’s here, though
Our very own personal classroom superhero)
No matter what you wrote on that page,
There’s no chance you’d get a zero.

You think you don’t have any beliefs.
Well, I believe you do
When I look at every one of you
Read your writing
Hear you speaking
Learn your point of view
I believe one of the most radical things you can do
Is to give yourself permission to be YOU
And then, I believe we can do this learning voodoo
I believe it’s as simple as tying a shoe

In-line citations
Gave you heart palpitations
But you can argue, prove and explain
All hundred and one Dalmatians

Or just keep it to five paragraphs
This kind of proof don’t need a graph
Be like Moses use your words
So you never have to use your staff

Don’t be shallow like Bassanio
Don’t wait for three red cars to go
Don’t let the world defer your dream
Define your themes
Or foreshadow a life lived without extremes

You think your life’s ‘maktub’?
Wanna have more hits than You Tube?
Don’t just glance at the grade on your paper
Read the comments if you want to improve.

Have integrity,
Stop begging me for marks.
Ignite the sparks
That set off a learning bomb
Of brilliant knowledge destroying the dark

Think critically
You’re killin’ me!
Don’t be afraid of riddling me
With more questions than there’s gelato in Italy

I never sent you to the principal
This bond we’ve got’s invincible
I still respect your right to learn
Even if your pink sheet’s full
I won’t cut off a pound of flesh
As long as you don’t feed me bull…

Shifting topics in the middle of an essay
Making up excuses because you waited til the day
Before to do the chore of sitting down and thinking,
…And then thinking some more
…And then editing and proofreading
‘Til your pencil is sore

Mutual respect keeps us all out of trouble
Don’t burst this bubble
Look at every written word
Like you’re peering through the Hubble
Telescope
Have high hopes
Try to cope
With the deadlines and the pressure
That make you feel like you’re at the end of your rope

Dope! That was a simile
My rhymes are packed with imagery
I see the moonlight reflected in shards of glass
Inspiration’s what you’ve given me
And I hope I gave it back
Hope I helped you stay on track
Hope I showed you that it’s not about what you lack
Nor is it about what you own
You are not defined by your jeans
Or your laptop
Or your phone
Or by the times when you’re walking through a crowded hallway feeling all alone

Lots of cool people were nerdy in grade nine
Lots of smart people got bad grades in grade nine
Lots of loved people were left out in grade nine
Lots of kind people were bullies in grade nine
Lots of smooth people were awkward in grade nine
Lots of worried people are doing just fine
Keep learning your lessons,
I’ll keep learning mine.

This is my credo
It’s got me this far
Believe in yourself, whoever you are
You’d believe in yourselves if you’d seen what I’ve seen:
A bunch of teens
A bunch of dreams
A bunch of kings and queens

We all have special needs: teaching autism in english class

As a high school English teacher, the importance of using clear, precise, and respectful language is something I remind my students of all the time.  Before my grade 9s (ENG1D) begin their book club unit on the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I took the time in class to pause and think about the language we use when discussing the book’s protagonist, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome named Christopher Boone. This was one specific goal, but in general, I wanted to raise some awareness in my class about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The previous class, I had given the students a handout with background information about ASD and Asperger’s from Autism Canada, with a few questions to answer for homework. My random fact of the day, written on the board, was:

The WHO estimates that the rate of autism is growing at 14% around the world

We discussed why this statistic may be on the rise, and my students arrived on their own at the debate around the extent to which there is a higher incidence of autism or a higher diagnosis rate because of increased awareness of the disease.

Before the students came in, I had stuck one cue card on each of their desks with one of the following words written on each card:

Spazzer, Retard, Stupid, Mentally disabled, Autistic, Person with autism, Person with an ASD, Person with Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger’s kid, Different, Special needs, Crip, Mong, Idiot savant, Slow, Different, Special , Sped, Handicapped , Weird, Idiot , Person with special needs

Some of these words were from the novel; some were from the schoolyard. I then drew a line on the board and asked the kids to quietly come up and stick their cue card somewhere along the line.

Offensive _________________________ Respectful

This led to a wonderfully productive discussion about the disorder, and about our use of language. As we discussed the words, I asked the students if they wanted to change the placement of any of the cue cards. I asked them questions like:

  • Which would be the most appropriate words to use when talking about Christopher?
  • Why is the language  we use so important when discussing these issues?
  • Why do some words that were OK at one time now offend people? Are there any words that used to be offensive but are now OK? (This led us to a discussion of words like “queer” and “the N word”)
  • Can a word be neutral in some contexts and offensive in others?

Students were eager to share their perspectives, including several stories about their own “special needs” and about friends or relatives who have autism.

I read a passage from the Chapter 71 of the novel:

All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs… (Haddon 54).

We discussed the idea that everyone has special needs even if they don’t have Special Needs – and discussed the phrase “Normal is a dryer setting” – (also the title of a wonderful blog by Amy Wink Krebs,  a writer whose son has autism).

We ended up with all of the words beginning with “person” on one end of the line and drove home the point that a person with any sort of disability is a person first, and that they should not be labeled or defined by their disability. One student even suggested that I write “Christopher” beside “Respectful” because, indeed, the most respectful way to address a person with autism is by his or her name.

After quickly taking up the homework questions, the next activity delved into the language of the book, but still with an eye to empathizing with the challenges that everyday life poses to people with autism. I asked them how they would describe the author’s writing style (detailed, straightforward, simple words etc.).  I read an amusing passage from chapter 29 about why Christopher does not like metaphors:

The word “metaphor” means carrying something from one place to another . . . and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word “metaphor” is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining and apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about (Haddon 18-19).

We reviewed what similes and metaphors are, and I then gave them a handout about figurative speech:

An idiom is a word or phrase that is used figuratively in common speech to mean something other than its literal definition. Christopher has a hard time understanding idioms. Picture the idiom in its literal translation – this mental image might seem funny, but it could confuse and overwhelm a person with autism.

I began with the example, “I saw the school play last night. It was sick!”  I grossed them out by explaining that this could mean that everyone was sneezing all over each other and that the actors threw up on the audience. This led to a really cute impromptu comedy routine between me and the students, as they shouted out clarifications like, “No, I mean it was the bomb!” “The roof was on fire!” etc. For the rest of the period, they worked on creating straightforward, literal and direct statements out of commonly used idioms (here is the “Curious Idioms” handout).

It was a very successful lesson and I hope that today, as I observe my students’ book club discussions, I’ll see them thinking about their language and paying closer attention to the language of the text.

good illustration of irony

Note to self: next time a kid doesn’t get what irony is, show this clip from Portlandia:

Perez Shakespeare

On the first day of my Merchant of Venice unit, I asked had my Grade 9s to do a graffiti wall and answer a bunch of questions. One of them was, “What scares you about Shakespeare?” I got the classic answers, mostly having to do with unfamiliar language, challenging new vocabulary and boredom. One student wrote, “dudes in tights,” and yet another admitted being afraid of Shakespeare’s moustache.

While I can’t do anything about the Bard’s ‘stache, my overall objective over the next month is to make Shakespeare a bit less scary for my students. We started with a round of Shakespearean balderdash, a game introduced to me by my English prof at OISE last year. Now we’re on I.ii, the scene where Portia and Nerissa gossip about the suitors. I created a little activity to help the students see the humour in the scene: Shakespeare meets Perez Hilton. It gets them to apply their own language to the text, and it will be a good opportunity for formative assessment, as our unit summative is a teen magazine.

William Shakespeare meets Perez Hilton

Lady Gaga wears a dress made of Q-Tips!

Brangelina adopt quintuplets from East Timor!

Miley Cyrus spotted binging on pickled eggs!

Celebrity gossip is everywhere these days, but it’s nothing new. In Act I, scene ii of Merchant of Venice the wealthy heiress Portia and her lady in waiting, Nerissa, are discussing the potential suitors who are competing for Portia’s hand in marriage. The two women gossip about the suitors – their clothes, their manners, their habits, and their personalities.

Your task is to be an Elizabethan celebrity gossip blogger. Write a creative blog post about any of the suitors in this scene, or about one of the other characters we have met in Merchant of Venice.

  • Your post must contain accurate and specific references to the character
  • Use your imagination – fill in the details as though the character is a contemporary celebrity
  • Include a creative headline
  • Write in a playful, casual tone but use correct spelling and grammar

Example:

Portia Dishes the Dirt on Oprah

It girl Portia sat in Queen O’s chair yesterday and dished the dirt about the stable of international suitors who have been knocking themselves out trying to woo her. Oprah’s audience was treated to some juicy gossip about the Neapolitan prince’s – ahem – “horse.” Apparently Miss P.  would rather gallop through the countryside with the Venetian scenester Bassanio. TMZ spotted the blonde beauty checking out Bassanio’s assets at a recent masquerade. Yesterday, @Bassan_YO tweeted, “Move over Jake Gyllenhaal! B dog’s going to Belmont 2 find the golden fleece!” Is it true love, or true lust?

Learning our Air Conditioner-Bus-Constructions

This month, I am learning the ABC’s of ESL. I started my summer job today, teaching a group of high school students who just arrived in Toronto yesterday from Tianjin, China. I’ll be teaching intensive English classes – that’s 8:45-5:15, five days a week for the next few weeks. That’s a lot of hours to fill up.

I taught some ESL as a student teacher, but this is the first time I’m responsible for planning an entire month of classes and activities. I’ve been brainstorming ideas, searching online, and asking friends and colleagues for help. The objective is simple: get them to speak as much English as possible, teach them a thing or two about Canada, and keep them active.

The school is housed in a huge building in Scarborough that until recently was a chocolate factory. It’s currently undergoing a total renovation, and by September will be a state of the art facility. Now, however, it’s bordering on chaotic, as construction workers push wheelbarrows of debris through the dusty half-tiled hallways and stacks of lockers form makeshift classroom walls. I asked for a binder today and was led to “the cage” where the office supplies are being stored in piles of boxes and crates. Yet somehow everything seems to be running smoothly and nobody appears to mind the physical setting. The students, jet lagged and dazed in their neon yellow skinny jeans and crystal appliqued nails, didn’t seem phased at all. They obediently tiptoed around the gaping trenches dug out for future plumbing, shuffled their feet waiting for the coffee truck in the parking lot among the sweaty men and their loud machines. I guess they’re in such a state of culture shock that we could pass just about anything off as totally normal in Canada.

I utilized the chaos to my advantage today, sending the kids on an English alphabet scavenger hunt. They had to look around the school and the yard and find one word for each letter of the alphabet. I thought it would be a good opportunity for them to go outside, move around the building a bit, but they all stayed in one foyer, hesitant to stray from the group. I tried to make it a contest but they all wanted to work together and help each other out. It was a good introductory activity – it got them thinking about everyday English vocabulary. We complied all the words on the board and paused to define or talk about a few of them afterward.

It was a start. The kids are sweet and I think I’m going to have lots of fun with them. I need to look at the lack of structure as an opportunity rather than as a threat – the hours, I’m sure, will fly by.

Ideas and suggestions are welcome…

thoughts on global education

Features of an effective Global Education program

Our educational endeavours should be culturally responsive, embedded in real world events, and mobilized to enable students to act in and upon their worlds. My former boss at PANIM, a non-profit educational organization had a 5-pillar approach to getting teens involved in public issues: inform, empower, inspire, motivate, contextualize. I believe that these can be applied to an effective Global Education program for secondary schools.

First, inform students about world issues. While today’s youth have unprecedented access to information, it is the job of educators to help students see the forest for the trees. By providing them with reliable, age-appropriate information about global issues like climate change, AIDS, child labour, and foreign aid, we can help them understand the big picture and begin to break down the details and make the information relevant to their lives.

Second, empower them to act by pointing out examples of individuals who have brought about change and by giving them the tools to act. This could mean starting a service project in class, giving students access to resources outside of school, or connecting them to organizations already doing the kind of work that students want to get involved in. It also means nurturing the habits of mind that make a good global citizen, including open-mindedness, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness.

Third, inspire them by being an active global citizen and modeling the sort of attitudes and behaviours that students can incorporate into their developing sense of identity.

Fourth, motivate students by making global issues real. For adolescents seeking meaning, this means putting a human face on injustice and promoting empathy and moral outrage. I believe that the intrinsic motivation for global action can best be achieved through experiential education, for example, cleaning up a local riverbank or meeting a Sudanese former child soldier.

Finally, contextualize Global Education within not only curriculum expectations but within the students’ personal value systems, showing them that learning about the world is not about getting good marks but about making a commitment to real change.

Thinking deep global thoughts in Algonquin Park

In practice, the most effective forms of Global Education are cross-curricular and multidimensional. This entails both looking closely at possibilities for global education within curricular objectives and going beyond them to incorporate Global Education wherever possible. Global Education is multidimensional in that it both opens students’ eyes to the realities of the world and opens their minds to the potential inherent in each of us to change the world for the better. A cross-curricular approach to Global Education teaches students about the world they live in and helps them to articulate their views on world issues. It also educates them about their rights and responsibilities as citizens of our globalized world.

In terms of content areas, the goal is to teach students about the Earth and its inhabitants, including education about international development, the promotion of peace and global human rights, intercultural education, and environmental education. As a History and English teacher, it is easy for me to incorporate Global Education into my teaching, for example, through studying texts written by foreign authors or by studying non-western historical events. However, if students come to see Global Education as limited to History or English class, I have not succeeded.

In a classroom that lacks diversity, the Global Education curriculum gives students the opportunity to appreciate the diversity that they will encounter outside of the school. In a multicultural classroom like those I encountered during my practicum placements, Global Education heightens students’ appreciation and understanding of each others’ backgrounds. In Global Education builds character by teaching students that we are all connected and mutually responsible for the well-being of both planet and people. On a micro level, this can translate into greater degrees of mutual respect within the classroom – it helps students understand the ways that they can help or hinder their classmates’ learning. On a broader level, it helps students to articulate their views on their responsibilities to the world around them. Ideally Global Education takes goes this sense of responsibility beyond the “should” and makes it a “must.”

To me, the defining features of an effective Global Education program involve:

· Promotion of an awareness of world events as they unfolde.g. On a rotating basis, each student is responsible for reporting on a newspaper story of the day in every class.

· Reflexivity and situatedness e.g. Students ground their study of global issues by looking at their own origins and the role our society plays in global events.

· Use of technology to create real global connections e.g. Online collaborative learning with a class in another country

· Whole-school initiativese.g. cross curricular Earth Week projects

· Local, national, global connections made across the curriculum e.g. In a History class, studying discriminatory measures perpetrated against Japanese Canadians alongside the study of Japan’s role in WWII

· A school culture that reflects and values global perspectives – e.g. Signage in a variety of languages, celebration of different cultures and recognition of days of significance, staff made up of people from different ethnic and national origins

· An awareness of the importance of ecological sustainability embedded in school culture – e.g. Limit paper use, students work together to retrofit school or plant a community garden