Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Thursday 13/8/20

Everyone who reads this blog knows my commitment to Australian literature, so it will come as no surprise that I was keen to attend ‘Navigating our Future’ at the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival).  It was part of the schools’ program and this is the blurb for the session:

Australian literature provides a means through which we might better understand ourselves, and our relationships with our region and the world. Larissa McLean Davies, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is joined by Professor Ken Gelder from the Faculty of Arts to explore the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools.  With an introduction from Alexis Wright, Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature.

It was a bit dispiriting to learn that research shows that there is not much Australian Literature happening in Year 12, and that not much is actually known about what goes on in year levels below it.  The old chestnut about teachers not having enough time came up again: if they didn’t have much exposure to Australian Lit themselves, then of course in order to teach it they need professional development to redress the situation — but they are already overloaded with administrative tasks.   Every reform I ever heard about at school was accompanied by teachers saying they didn’t have enough time to implement it.  This argument was used to stop the discussion and stymie change for my entire career.  The problem is that it is true, it has been for a long time, and it will continue until administrators learn that if you add a responsibility you must take one away if you want to achieve whatever your intentions are.

Yet at the same time, McLean Davies seemed to think that teachers should develop curriculum materials themselves… to be content creators.

When I was teaching I used to love doing this.  I created all kinds of learning materials and units of work, and I had my own LisaHillSchoolStuff wiki full of kid-friendly pages of content for their projects.  I did it all in my own time, because I liked doing it and it made my teaching better and easier.  But a system cannot replicate what the occasional nerd does across an entire workforce.  What is needed is for the system to fund the development of high quality teacher-friendly materials for teaching OzLit.

Readers of a certain age will remember the Victorian Readers: a graded series of books for the primary years.  These days it’s fashionable to decry these readers as jingoistic, sexist, racist and Anglo-centric, but the concept was a good one.  Teachers, whether they knew or liked or cared about literature, worked their way through these books throughout the year and the children were exposed to poetry, folk and fairy tales, short stories, excerpts and non-fiction texts.  Our familiarity with those stories and poems has been a point of connection for many of us over the years.  What would it cost to develop a similar series for use Australia-wide in the primary and lower secondary years, with due attention to Indigenous story, and to literature that celebrates our multicultural society in poetry and prose? Not much, and the economies of scale would keep the price low.

I was still gathering my untidy thoughts about this session when Sue’s post popped into my inbox.  Click here to see what she made of it.




  1. Thanks for the link Lisa. I love your idea of updated Victorian Readers. It would be expensive but the cost-benefit ratio you would expect world be highly favourable.

    I felt Davies tried to cover both sides of the coin re teacher-developed techniques and resources and professionally developed one.I must say I’m distressed by the lack of curriculum focussed PD my son gets even though his PDP is signed off, including desire to develop in certain areas

    BTW I love this point too: if you add a responsibility you must take one away if you want to achieve whatever your intentions are.


    • The problem of professional development is a vexed one. I can’t speak for secondary schools, but I spent many years developing the ‘Whole School PD Plan’ which dealt with matters that all teachers had to contend with, and teachers would incorporate this in their own “Professional Development Plan’ which included PD specific to their needs (e.g. to teaching a LOTE, or PD, or art or whatever.) The problem in the latter years was that we were inundated with compulsory annual online PD modules about medical needs e.g. asthma management, anaphylaxis, and work safety regulations. The work safety modules took ages, and there were more of them the higher you were in seniority. We used to set aside part of our staff meetings to give teachers time to do this because we had to ensure it was done. We had five pupil-free days per year, and we used four of these for planning the term curriculum in teams. I was released to work with all the teams to ensure that they covered intended outcomes, for example, they were expected to include Indigenous perspectives in their themes; they had to plan for special needs, their curriculum had to implement our strategic plan and so on. We never got this work finished on the day, not ever.
      That left us with one day for whole school PD if we wanted to focus on teaching reading or maths or whatever, to make sure that everyone was teaching in a consistent way. And when, for instance, that day was used to introduce a new Student Wellbeing Program (i.e. discipline) where it was essential that everyone committed to implementing it, that left no time for PD in our core business, which in our school was always literacy and numeracy. We were lucky at our school that we had very dedicated teachers who were willing to do more and would come to extra PD once or twice a term after school, staying until 6:00PM. But they would have been well within their rights if they had refused to commit to it because they were already committed to other meetings as well, of course, planning the concert, the camp and their weekly lessons which they did in teams.
      And of course all our plans for PD related to actual teaching fell in a heap in a year when we were developing a new strategic plan (every four years) because we had to have teams analysing our data, reporting on issues to staff, and then collaborating on designing the new plan.
      Something has to give, but the problem is treated like deckchairs on the Titanic. There is always a flurry of activity when Australia does badly on the international league tables, but really the department is more worried about litigation and coroners and auditors blithely recommending more training for teachers when things go wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, interestingly LOTE was an early PD need for our son. But what you say is exactly what happens. Nearly all the PD time is taken up with those departmnt mandated things and team or school planning. It’s awful really… For him and for the students.


  2. Well, it sounds like teachers the world over are faced with the same ridiculous expectations and your comment that a task added means one should be taken away struck a chord. Here there is constant admin and constant pressure to do even more, with no extra resources – ridiculous. And most of the teachers I work with put in hours way above and beyond what they’re supposed to. I think the idea about curating their own comment is misguided – many do anyway, but without support and with a rigid curriculum, how and when are they meant to? Make my blood boil a bit…


    • I don’t think anything will change until *parents* realise that their children are being short-changed and start demanding reform instead of blaming individual teachers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. And also, you would hope there would be a big focus on indigenous lit, but of course teachers need CPD and support and if that isn’t put into place, then the initiative will falter.


  4. Well said Lisa. I couldn’t agree more with all you said. I get so angry too about our federal government’s view on the humanities too in uni.


    • Yes, but this all started with the Dawkins’ “reforms’. It’s not really one party versus another, it’s a widespread preoccupation with the wrong agenda.


  5. I remember that set of books, not because I read them but because my dad was a teacher and we had a set at home. When I did Year 12 (in 1987!) our set English texts were My Brother Jack, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, do that’s an Aussie Classic, an English lit 19th century classic, and a contemporary (at the time) American novel. (Interestingly, 30+ years later these books, and the authors, remain firm favourites of mine.) What do they teach now? Is it mainly mainstream American novels?


    • I’ve had a quick look at see what’s on the list in Victoria: this is from Lilydale Books, and I’ve asterisked the ones that are Australian. I reckon it’s short-on for Indigenous voices, but there’s plenty of OzLit to suggest that the situation is not as dire as McLean Davies suggests:

      LIST 1
      Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart (New in 2020)
      Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (New in 2020)
      Doerr, Anthony, All the Light We Cannot See
      *Grenville, Kate, The Lieutenant
      *Jordan, Toni, Nine Days
      *London, Joan, The Golden Age
      *Piper, Christine, After Darkness
      St John Mandel, Emily, Station Eleven
      *Kennedy, Cate, Like a House on Fire
      Munro, Alice, Runaway (New in 2020)
      Euripides, The Women of Troy
      *Rayson, Hannie, Extinction
      Shakespeare, William, Much Ado About Nothing (New in 2020)

      You can see other categories in the list here:

      LIST 2
      PAIR 1
      *Davidson, Robyn, Tracks
      de Heer, Rolf, Charlie’s Country
      PAIR 2
      Frears, Stephen, The Queen (New in 2020)
      *Malouf, David, Ransom
      PAIR 3
      *Funder, Anna, Stasiland
      Ishiguro, Kazuo, Never Let Me Go
      PAIR 4
      *Szubanski, Magda, Reckoning
      Lahiri, Jhumpa, The Namesake
      PAIR 5
      Miller, Arthur, The Crucible
      *Ham, Rosalie, The Dressmaker (New in 2020)
      PAIR 6
      Ziegler, Anna, Photograph 51
      Atwood, Margaret, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
      PAIR 7
      *Mailman, Debra and Enoch, Wesley, The 7 Stages of Grieving (New in 2020)
      D’Aguiar, Fred, The Longest Memory
      PAIR 8
      Yousafzai, Malala, with Lamb, Christina, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
      Warchus, Matthew (director), Pride (New in 2020)

      (I have no idea what the significance of the two different lists is.)


  6. Now for the English Lit list here in Victoria, in this list texts marked (A) meet the ‘Australian requirement’ which must mean that Australian content is compulsory to some extent. The numbers refer to how many years a text has been on the list. NB Students doing EngLit also have to do English so they’re exposed to more OzLit there too.

    Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey (2)
    Cadwallader, Robyn, The Anchoress (A) (3)
    Calvino, Italo, ‘The Baron in the Trees’, in Our Ancestors, Archibald Colquhoun (trans.) (4)
    Gaskell, Elizabeth, North and South (4)
    Lindsay, Joan, Picnic at Hanging Rock (A) (1)
    Vásquez, Juan Gabriel, The Sound of Things Falling, Anne McLean (trans.) (4)
    Winterson, Jeanette, The Passion (3)
    Wright, Alexis, Carpentaria (A) (2)
    Zola, Emile, The Ladies’ Paradise, Brian Nelson (trans.) (1)

    Bovell, Andrew, Speaking in Tongues (A) (2)
    Delaney, Shelagh, A Taste of Honey (3)
    Euripides, Hippolytus (2)
    Morrison, Toni, and Traoré, Rokia, Desdemona (2)
    Reza, Yasmina, Art (3)
    Shakespeare, William, Othello (2)
    Shakespeare, William, Twelfth Night (4)
    Shepard, Sam, Buried Child (4)
    Williams, Tennessee, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (4)

    Short stories
    Beneba Clarke, Maxine, Foreign Soil (A) (3)
    Stories for study: ‘David’; ‘Hope’, ‘Shu Yi’, ‘Railton Road’, ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, ‘Big Islan’, ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’, ‘The Suki Yaki Book Club’.
    Dovey, Ceridwen, Only the Animals (A) (3)
    Stories for study: ‘Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat and I’, ‘Hundstage’ ‘Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me’, ‘Plautus, a Memoir of my Years on Earth and Last days in Space’, ‘I, the Elephant, Wrote This’, ‘A Letter to Sylvia Plath’, ‘Psittacophile’.
    Munro, Alice, Dance of the Happy Shades (1)
    Stories for study: all.
    Other literature
    Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism, Theo Cuffe (ed. and trans.) (4)
    Winton, Tim, The Boy Behind the Curtain (A) (1)
    Selections for study: ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’, ‘A Space Odyssey at Eight’, ‘Havoc: A Life in Accidents’, ‘A Walk at Low Tide’, ‘Repatriation’, ‘Betsy’, ‘Twice on Sundays’, ‘The Wait and the Flow’, ‘In the Shadow of the Hospital’, ‘The Battle for Ningaloo Reef’, ‘The Demon Shark’, ‘Using the C-word’, ‘Stones for Bread’, ‘Sea Change’, ‘Barefoot in the Temple of Art’.
    Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own (3)


    • I think her comment, Lisa, was to do with how many of these are actually taught rather than how many are on the lists? She also said we need to know how many are chosen to be written on in exams, because these are the books that students spend the most time on.

      I think there is probably still more research to be done before we can be sure?


      • You might be right, but the fact that she didn’t reference *any* of these Australian books suggest to me that her conclusions are amiss. if you look at the first list, and imagine yourself teaching Y12 in a government school to a class of very mixed abilities, and you wanted them all to pass, you’d teach Pride & Prejudice knowing that your brighter students would read it and the rest would just watch the film but you could really engage the students with the Australian texts. OTOH if you were teaching in a private school where the less able students are gently encouraged to take a different pathway so as not to mess up the school’s results, of course you’d do Shakespeare and Euripides with the remaining students. Your students would even be able to afford to see theatre productions of the plays. Unless the research controls for the fact that private schools tend to offer a more conservative and less inclusive curriculum, I wouldn’t be convinced.
        (I once taught in a middle class Bayside primary school along with a new principal and AP and we three could not believe how fuddy-duddy their programs were. But as we soon found out, any attempts to change it resulted in bullying from parents who wanted their children taught the way they’d been taught. I was so glad to escape from there!)


        • A lot of what you say makes perfect sense Lisa, and I can’t disagree with much of it. She did talk about novel setting panels, and indicated Australian books were included – they have to be included in fact. That list was simply the top ten books, as in most mentioned, by teachers in the survey. Her conclusions, from what I heard, and I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear, were that this was disconcerting, but we need to know more. I don’t think she felt she had enough information yet to say more, but she had enough information to feel that more needed to be done. If that makes better sense! We’ve certainly teased out a lot over this!

          I see you’ve written up today – but I’m off to bed to read Astley! I will read your report tomorrow, probably not until the evening.

          Liked by 1 person

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