Julie Bain teaches English at O’Connor Catholic College. She recently travelled to New Zealand to attend a teaching conference that tackled the complex issue of literacy development in education today.
Describe your teaching career to date?
I came to teaching quite late – well into my late 30s. I had several jobs before I trained as a secondary teacher, including working as a jillaroo, artificial insemination technician, science assistant, receptionist for a law firm in Sydney and as a personnel officer for a large Australian company.
Around 1993 I started studying with the University of Newcastle. I finished my undergraduate degree with the Newcastle University, then in 1995 I moved closer to family, in Armidale, and completed my Graduate Diploma in Education and my Masters of Education with the University of New England.
Where does your passion for teaching come from?
My passion for teaching is a reaction against my own schooling. I attended a very conservative school in Sydney. I suffered through school, as a student, with little interest or engagement. I was one of those kids who sat in the back row drawing or zoning out. I have memories of my teachers droning on about stuff that had nothing to do with my life. I didn’t want to be that type of teacher.
Then in Year 12, there was a change … my English teacher, Miss Ball, a delightfully tiny, round woman. Her name really suited her! She was so in love with language and literature, that her passion was infectious. I realised, then, that the possibilities for teaching abides in the love of the subject.
What do you like most about teaching at O’Connor?
I worked with several schools, casually, then secured work with O’Connor Catholic College. I worked as an English teacher and then English Co-ordinator. I felt like I belonged at O’Connor. It was small enough to get to know the students well, and members of staff are friendly. For a while I tried to be like teachers who are all fire and brimstone, like Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but after a term or two I began to realise the type of teacher I wanted to be was like Miss Ball, the teacher who inspired me to love the subject – English.
What is your involvement in literacy control?
I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, but I’m also a visual learner who loves art and film. When I began teaching, I realised that the old chalk and talk, from my schooling, actually didn’t suit my learning or teaching style. While at university, I studied drama, and the physical and performative nature of that course gave me many opportunities to explore ideas and plays.
For my Masters of Education, my project focused on using technologies in teaching and learning. Then technology began to change – and change rapidly. I discovered I’m a bit of a techno-geek. So during my Masters course, I seriously contemplated how to use technologies, image and sound in the English and Drama curriculum.
Due to new technologies, the ways people communicate is changing. Now it is important for students to be able to analyse how meaning is made through a range of different means, including visual, aural, gestural and spatial forms of language, as well as through the grammar that has been traditionally associated with literature and language. So rather than a single literacy, my interest is in multi-literacies.
The rules for analysing and understanding how meaning is made in books, films, even on the internet, have to address more than punctuation, spelling and adjectival clauses. Literacy development is a complex issue in education today. While there is an emphasis on teaching traditional grammar, which has been propelled by national tests like National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), the idea of a single grammar to address the way language works today is limited.
Tell us about the paper you presented to the International Federation of the Teachers of English (IFTE) in Auckland?
In April, at the International Federation of the Teachers of English (IFTE) in Auckland, I presented a paper on the topic of multi-literacies, as well as a workshop on multi-platform storytelling. The conference focused on global issues facing the English curriculum. Delegates from the USA, UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand attended. It seems the tension between literacy, language and literature is a global concern for English teachers.
Describe the workshop you presented in Auckland?
The workshop I presented on multiplatform storytelling was shared between my colleagues, Karen Farrow from Merrimac State High School on the Gold Coast, Queensland and Louise Cullen from Canberra Junior Girl’s Grammar.
For a few years we’ve worked collaboratively on how best to inspire writing in school English. At IFTE, the workshop was based on teaching experiences using a range of approaches for developing writing programs in school. However, the paper was a solo venture exploring the ways students learn about texts through connections between images, sound and language and how then to teach English in a rapidly change school environment.
What direction do you hope to see English education taking in the future?
Currently English is being pulled in different directions. This is causing tension for schools. The emphasis on standardised testing in NAPLAN focuses on literacy and grammar. While NAPLAN looks at the broader school curriculum, there seems to be a public perception and expectation that literacy development is fundamentally the domain of English. But the study of English is so much more than that. It has become a subject that teaches literature, media and a range of literacies that far exceeds the focus of grammatical correctness.
The future is full of wonderful possibilities for the subject, because it encourages students to look at their world and the worlds portrayed in texts of all kinds, including ubiquitous social media, books and film. I hope the subject English grows with technological advances, so that students who study it realise the power of language and how they can use what they learn critically, analytically and creatively.