Anatomy of a Poem

There are two types of writers, planners and pantsers. I’m a pantser normally, writing semi-stream of consciousness seat-of-the-pants stuff that’s spews onto the page. Even within this space there is a form of planning and editing that occurs as I play with words inside my head as I’m putting pen to paper.

 

On other, rarer, occasions I’m a planner. In these instances I will brainstorm, research, draft, redraft, share and rewrite. These poems are painful, rarely recreating the quality I’d imagined. I am critical, cynical. A humble, pessimist at heart, I rarely place much value on what I write… which is why being a pantser suits me; I can claim any perceived lack of quality is a symptom of the lack of effort.

 

The poem below is the product of planning AND its recently been published – so it can’t be terrible.

 

Themis and her fortune

 

Themis and her daughter

splash and swim

in the crisp, clear water at Bondi

while the white sand

blows over their scales,

partially burying them.

Australia, the lucky country:

provided your particulars

reflect party policy.

Uncle Sam

might have declared

that all men are created equal

but the Little Boy from Manly

has borrowed Fortuna’s blindfold,

not in an effort to remain impartial

but to blind himself

from our misdeeds.

Our boundless plains

are ours alone –

turn back the boats,

incarcerate the indigenous –

while a UN investigation

reveals how un-Australian

we really are.

 

So, the poem was created to submit to a themed anthology on social justice. I like when opportunities like this arise because they promote creativity. Don’t win the competition/don’t get published; it doesn’t matter, you still come out of it with a new poem and that’s more than you had before (or, at least, that’s how I’ve been told to see it in the past).

 

Anyway… here’s a few bits and pieces that went into the creation of this piece.

 

Allusions

For those not familiar with the term, an allusion is a reference to a person/place/thing – it’s not when you pull a rabbit out of your hat, that’s an illusion. If you get the two mixed up, Run DMC would tell you ‘you be illin’ (that’s an allusion and a deplorable attempt at humour).

 

Many of the allusions stemmed from my research into social justice and weren’t part of my existing knowledge.

 

Themis – a Titan from Greek mythology. She is the personification of divine order, law and custom. Her daughter is Natura (nature).

Uncle Sam – the personification of America, Uncle Sam share his initials with the country he represents (U.S. – United States).

Little Boy from Manly – the national personification of New South Wales and later Australia, the Little Boy represents Australia as a young country.

Fortuna – was the goddess of fortune and personification of luck in Roman mythology. She is often represented as veiled and blind (Fortuna and Themis are often linked to the Roman goddess, Justitia, who is more widely known in modern circles as Lady Justice and is depicted in statue form holding a sword in one hand and scales in another).

 

Aside from these characters, there are also the following allusions:

The ‘lucky country’ – The Lucky Country is a 1964 book by Donald Horne. The title has become a nickname for Australia.

“all men are created equal” – is from the United States Declaration of Independence.

“Our boundless plains” – is from the Australian national anthem.

There’s also historical references to Australian policy and events.

 

Alliteration

This is the repetition of consonant sounds at the start of words close together; think tongue twisters, these rely on heavy alliteration.

 

In my poem, the opening sentence uses alliteration to enhance the aesthetic beauty of the setting. This is juxtaposed with the repeated ‘p’ sound of the following sentence which would come across as unappealing if someone read it aloud, making a sort of spitting sound.

 

There are other examples of alliteration in the piece, most of which are just designed to highlight the aural qualities of those lines and encourage the reader to focus more on them.

 

Other

The only other ‘technique’ worth mentioning is the quasi-repetition of ‘un’ as the poem ends. Whereas the alliteration enhanced the aural aspects of the poem, this was a deliberate decision to link themes visually.

 

The first use of ‘un’ was in reference to the United Nations and their unfortunate investigation into Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. The second usage was as a prefix as part of a despised cultural label. By connecting them visually, I was trying to highlight their literal connection – that Australia’s historical treatment of its indigenous population and those who seek asylum on our shores contrasts with the ideals referenced in our national anthem and the notion of ‘a fair go for all’.

 

Anyway, there’s some of the thought processes behind the piece. If you’d like to read the poems published alongside it, check out First Refuge by Ginninderra Press.

I’m sorry – an open letter to people who are good at what they do

Being good at your job sucks. It shouldn’t. Being good at what you do should lead to increased job satisfaction; it should make your days easier but it doesn’t.

 

And here comes the first apology. Bits of this blog are going to sound like showboating. I will, at times, talk about myself in a manner that could be perceived to be arrogant. I will lump myself under the category of ‘people who do their job well’ and for that I’m sorry. I hate talking myself up for two reasons – 1. when I’m honest with myself about my work ethic and when I compare myself to other teachers, I don’t rate myself highly. I truly don’t think I’ve been the best educator I could be.   2. teaching isn’t about me. Whatever success my students have is success they have earned. I might be there facilitating and encouraging but they’re the ones doing the work.

Okay… insert awkward pause here.

 

So, the absolute worst part about being good at your job is that you continually get asked to do more and more because of it. I mean, it makes sense. If Ed Sheeran was hanging out at my place I would be asking my four year old to bang out a tune on his mandolin. It makes sense but it’s not fair.

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A number of times throughout my twelve years of teaching I’ve been asked to take another teacher’s challenging class (generally in a trade that sees me lose my best and brightest students) or be on some committee. My colleague has it even worse. He’s always being asked to oversee or lead any tech based initiative at the school. It’s ok for us, we’ve been around the block a few times, but it’s happening more and more to our younger, greener workmates. The pressures of this are ninja-like because you never see them coming. One day your responsibilities don’t stretch beyond the walls of your classroom and the next day you’re swamped. It’s tricky because, in isolation, many of these initiatives and programs have minimal impact on your workload. The problem is that you don’t notice how much you’re being asked to do until all the little increments come to a head.

 

I don’t feel like I’m explaining this well. Let me try to elaborate…

I’m one of two Associate Deans of English at my school (that’s just a fancy way of saying second in charge of the department). We’re a large school too so there’s 20 people teaching English. I’m not responsible for them as line manager or anything like that (although I do lead two of them through the Performance and Development process) but I’m expected to support them and lead them through curriculum changes. With this role I teach one less class than other teachers but two of my four classes are high performing, high profile classes with heavy marking loads. Beyond that, I’m involved in a new program at the school designed to increase student engagement through better content delivery. I’m supporting a year 11 student who has started a poetry group, mentoring ATAR students, tutoring students after school hours and writing exams for an external provider. BUT, I also want a life of my own so I’m playing football and I’m a member of four writing groups. Or at least I was. I’ve dropped one of my writing groups recently because I felt like I was spread too thin and wasn’t able to do the group justice. Likewise, in the past few years, I’ve abandoned some of the projects I was involved in at work and have stopped engaging in opportunities to write for or present to professional bodies.

* it feels like a lot when you put it down on paper (or online) – somewhere in there I hope my wife and kids feel like I give them the attention they deserve.

 

Please, if you haven’t fallen into this trap yet, learn to say no. Know your limits, choose when to engage and when to walk away.

quotes-from-networking-naked-unafraid-22-638

This leads into the next point. Remember that ninja comment from before? Stress is often invisible until it has almost broken you. You need to speak up.

 

Another downfall of being good at what you do (or even just appearing that way) is that people assume you’re free of problems. That massive department I said I work in has seven people in their second year of teaching and a handful of others whose experience doesn’t stretch far beyond that. Without describing them in any more detail you would assume our office is a madhouse. It’s not. I am blessed to work with a group of educators whose confidence and abilities are more akin to people who have been in the role for many years. Anyone on the outside looking in would struggle to identify our beginning teachers. It is a credit to them and to the people and institutions that helped shape them.

 

But, because they are so good, no one asks them how they’re going. No one checks in to see if they’re okay. I’m complaining about it here but I’m not exempt from this. I don’t ask about their classes or their work load or their job satisfaction. I look at them and all I see are ducks. What I mean is, when I look at them all I see is what’s above the surface – they are calm, cool and collected. Who knows what’s going on under the water where the eyes can’t see? I don’t and I can’t use the fact that we’re a busy school (big too, with roughly 1800 students) as an excuse.

 

So, here it is. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all those people out there who find that their expertise has become a burden. I’m sorry for all those people who keep on keeping on without assistance. More importantly, I apologise to the people in my office who (hopefully) get the support they need but aren’t getting the support they deserve. I apologise for not being proactive in asking about your mental health. And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry that the system doesn’t reward you for being awesome, that it won’t always allow you to be your best.

 

 

 

 

 

NB – while on the topic of apologies… I suck at compliments. I’m sorry to everyone who deserved positive feedback from me and got diddly-squat. My bad.

What the movies don’t tell you about teaching

I want you to get this straight! Most of the teachers here are here because they care! About those children out there! This school, this fight, they are in it with you! They take it home at night, the same as you! They are a part of those children’s lives!

– Ms. Levias, Lean on Me.

 

I love movies about teachers, especially ones where a hard-as-nails group of good-for-nothing reprobates realise their potential under an educator whose tough love shows them the value of discipline, hard work and camaraderie. Admittedly, once you’ve seen one film in this genre you don’t need to see the rest as they are overly formulaic to the point of being the film equivalent of a paint-by-numbers colouring in book. That said, I am always touched by the dramatic moment when the most troubled teen makes a public declaration of support and love to the teacher.

 

I’m watching Coach Carter with my year 12s at the moment and this scene comes when the player who has struggled the most (on and off the court) stands and recites an abridged version of Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear”.

our-deepest-fear

 

It’s tear jerking stuff.

 

 

I’ve been teaching for 12 years; I’ve had my “O Captain! My Captain!” moment (literally) and, while my unorthodox teaching methods are more likely to draw comparisons with Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, I was inspired by the Dangerous Minds and To Sir With Love idea of improving the lives of those who really need it.

 

Female Student: “Why do you care anyway? You just here for the money.”

LouAnne: “Because I make a choice to care. And honey, the money ain’t that good.”

– Dangerous Minds.

 

I can’t be the teacher I thought I would be.

 

This isn’t “I can’t” in the sense that I lack the professional knowledge or nous to teach a class of ‘dropkicks’ nor is it “I can’t” as a cop-out meaning “I won’t”. I can’t be that teacher because it is physically and emotionally impossible to maintain.

 

I care for my students. I care for many of the individuals I have had the pleasure to teach. But, I can’t care for every individual student who enters my classroom. I know this because I have tried. Tried and failed. I have driven myself to the point of physical exhaustion, to the point that I would have crippling stomach pains and overly emotional reactions to minor issues. Despite the exhaustion I wouldn’t sleep because I was constantly planning for and reflecting on every minute of each day. I have taught THAT class, where the only person the students had in their lives that cared for them was me. I taught them, fought the system and faced the criticism of my colleagues while doing so. And then I drew a line.

 

One of the sayings I’ve latched on to, and I don’t know where I picked it up from, is that you have to treat things as though you are on a plane about to crash. When you listen to the safety spiel at the start of each flight you are always told to affix your oxygen mask before assisting anyone else with theirs, even if that someone else is your child or partner. Why? Because you are no good to anyone when you’re dead. Parenting manuals advocate for this approach too. To a lesser extent, so too do Snickers’ commercials. When you are tired/sick/emotional/hungry (and so on) you do not perform at optimal levels. So, if you want to be effective in the classroom you have to look after yourself first. And, one of the ways you can do this is to re-evaluate how you measure success.

 

The problem isn’t the kids. It’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve.

– Ron Clark, The Ron Clark Story.

 

I can’t care for every student. I can dangle a carrot and/or wave a big stick but I don’t have the time nor inclination to sit with each student and ensure they are doing their work. This isn’t written with a secret agenda to lower class sizes, that would help in some instances but academic success for all is not achievable through any one simple act. Lower class sizes can’t improve attendance, decrease drug and alcohol use or change social/cultural attitudes towards education. I only have limited impact in that sphere too. I have data that shows I’ve had a positive influence on my students but I see them four hours a week – that’s 4 lessons out of the 25 they have on their timetable.

 

I can’t care for every student, mostly because it’s not fair. I don’t know, maybe I’m using the word care incorrectly. What I’m saying sounds pretty harsh but I’ll try and unpack it further. In one of my current classes I have half of the students achieving B grades or better, some students on C grades and a handful of them not passing. Of the students currently failing I CAN help some of them turn their fortunes around but there are three who probably won’t pass even with my intervention. Two of these are because their attendance is so poor I simply won’t have enough opportunities to assist them. I can’t let this get to me, their failure is not a reflection of my abilities or efforts in the classroom. The other student is a regular attendee but he is in class in body only. This student will only work under close supervision and in order for him to pass I would have to sacrifice time spent improving the educational outcomes of the other students in the class. Is that student more important than his peers? Is his potential C worth more than other students’ potential B and A grades? No. One student cannot be seen to be of more value than any other – imagine asking a parent to devote their attention to one child at the expense of their other children. So, if that student chooses not to make an effort to improve on his academic standing during the times he doesn’t have my undivided attention, I can’t let bring me down either.

 

Then there are the classes where next to no one is passing. I had one last year, a class of the lowest achieving students deliberately put together through a streaming process. If the class is ‘destined’ to fail when I am given them, why should I have an emotional reaction if that eventuates? So much of the education system appears designed to limit student success. Curriculum overhauls pitch assessments (including externally set exams and common assessment tasks) at a higher level than many of the students appear capable of understanding – and a science colleague recently said their yearly curriculum has 18 months of content in it. Furthermore, in WA we have an online test where failure prevents students from graduating. Tragically, the students who need to experience success (those who speak English as a second language, have some form of disability and/or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds) are the most disadvantaged. While I might be saddened by their situation, I can’t let their lack of academic success impact on my job satisfaction.

 

“I took this job because I wanted to effect change in a special group of young men, and this is the only way I know how to do that.”

– Ken Carter, Coach Carter.

 

I can’t care for every student. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing my best in the classroom. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value each student as human beings with great potential. It just means that I won’t let their academic progress be my only measuring stick. I don’t (and won’t) care what grade they get, I judge my effectiveness across a variety of criteria and few of those are found on standardised tests. A person’s attitude towards school and education is influenced by a number of factors. It takes a village to raise a child and I’m just one of the idiots.

 

Besides:

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

– John Keating, Dead Poets Society.