Once upon a time, in VATEland in Carringbush, there was a dedicated and knowledgeable committee which was excitedly planning the 2019 AATE National Conference, to be held in Melbourne, on Wurundjeri land, in John Batman’s ‘village’, home of the iconic MCG, of rooftop bars, of labyrinthine laneways, of an upside-down river –
No, that’s enough. The endorphins have kicked in, the pavlovian response to ‘once upon a time’ has us settled expectantly; we are transported to a fairytale magical world of narrative, our strategy for apprehending and coming to terms with the basic elements of our lives. As English educators, we know that there is not just one story to be told, that as novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns, if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Margaret Atwood takes this idea further when she claims, ‘A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used. Powerlessness and silence go together.’
The stories we tell and those we hear create for us and our students a multiplicity of possibilities, knowledges, opportunities and identities. Storytelling – communication – brings empowerment; it is ‘an expression of all learning and human knowledge’. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live ... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience’, writes Joan Didion.
Concomitant with seemingly limitless potential as change charges on, veering according to the results of elections, is the overwhelming babel of voices clamouring, seeking to dominate and manage the discourse both in the classroom and beyond. As educators, we must not only find, but use, our voice, refusing to be ventriloquised by others, reclaiming our story from opportunistic or even well-meaning politicians, unwieldy and bureaucratised educational systems and stultifying testing which undermines real education, forcing students into someone else’s story. As we and those we teach navigate the challenges brought by time, process and change, the language we use to tell our stories evolves too. From ‘once upon a time’ we need to slide confidently into a different type of storytelling, such as at a recent writers’ event, including interactive digital narratives, fully-immersive VR, robots writing novels, geolocated narratives, and more.
Our overtested, regimented, results-based, evidence-based education system more and more resembles Mr. Gradgrind’s soul-destroying worship of ‘Facts, facts, facts’; with powerful voices in the community baying for the teaching of (their own) dubious ethics, and urging a return to ‘basics’, a country none of us has ever visited. It is impossible for English teaching not to be political. One reason for Finland’s successful education system lies in the fact that many of that country’s heads of state and government have been university professors – the educators have had a voice.
Literally and metaphorically, we and our students search for our place, for those spaces which represent our ‘tribal grounds’. ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,’ said Wittgenstein. We look to the past, we seek to decipher and reform the present, and we plan and hope for the future. Garth Boomer exhorted English teachers, ‘… don’t lose the energy, the new thoughts, the emerging imaginings that have been aroused. With nous and with support, with clear heads and cunning strategy, much is possible.’