How educators can boost children’s interest in reading – Transcript

0:00 Maxine McKew
I’m Maxine McKew and this is Talking Teaching.

0:10 Tegan Bennet Daylight
What happens is that low level literacy is up because everyone’s got a phone now, so everybody can send a text or read a text or look at Facebook. High level literacy is declining because a phone gives students the illusion that they’re busy. p;It’s one of the things that I say to them early on... they’re always saying I’m too busy, and it’s like you’re not, you are no busier than we were in 1985.

0:36 Maxine McKew
Hi there and good to have your company again. How many times do we hear the phrase we need to attract the best and the brightest into teaching? Well we’re going to hear it a lot more with the Federal election to be held soon. Ahead of that, yet another Federal Parliamentary enquiry into teaching is being told that Australia is still failing to hit the desired benchmark that those admitted to teaching courses be in the top 30% in terms of academic achievement. The Labor opposition has already flagged that if elected ATARs will be lifted for admission into teaching degrees and that poorly students won’t make the cut. Now New South Wales and Victoria are already heading in this direction. Capping the number of education degree entrants and forcing students to compete for places is another approach. Any of these moves will produce big challenges for our universities, particularly for our rural campuses. But as you’ll hear from this month’s guest on Talking Teaching, some kind of major circuit breaker is urgently needed. Tegan Bennet Daylight is a writer and for some years has been a part-time lecturer at a number of different universities. She’s written extensively about the price we’re paying for loose admission standards into teaching degrees. I recorded this interview at the start of the academic year. Tegan Bennet Daylight welcome to Talking Teaching.

1:58 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Thanks so much Maxine

2:01 Maxine McKew
You wrote an arresting article that appeared in The Guardian some time back that described your experience in teaching English to university students who were enrolled in teaching degrees, and you know I still remember both the shock and delight about how candid you were being, and I’ll just mention a couple of things. You talked about a spoon-fed generation that never gets to test their limits; students who don’t read for pleasure; and you said that your own goal is to try and push them towards something else. Now you didn’t pull any punches in that article did you?

2:34 Tegan Bennet Daylight
No. You know it wasn’t even that apparent to me at the time that I wasn’t pulling punches, but the enormous response that article got made me realise that I was saying something that a lot of people wanted said but couldn’t quite say. It was really, really interesting to see what happened afterwards.

2:51 Maxine McKew
Tegan, what reaction did you get from your university colleagues?

2:54 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Well I guess Maxine first I should explain that I’m not an academic, I’m a casual academic. So I’ve been teaching at universities for nearly 22 years, but I have never held a permanent position as an academic, so reactions from colleagues vary according to your status. In fact, I was really amazed and surprised by the response that the article got from academics all over the world. So I received emails from Cambridge, I received emails from universities in Wellington and Auckland, emails from New York, emails from Bagdad...

3:31 Maxine McKew
Which suggests that in fact other people in similar circumstances are concerned about what you’re concerned about, and that is declining standards and particularly poor levels of writing

3:43 Tegan Bennet Daylight

3:44 Maxine McKew
and a lack of interest in reading

3:46 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yeah, yeah and I had been seeing declining standards for some time; I was seeing students finding it harder to read anything long form; I was seeing literacy levels meaning just sentences becoming worse and worse...

4:03 Maxine McKew
So writing that was not clear, not coherent...

4:05 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Writing that was not clear, and I mean when you teach creative writing, you actually expect a really, really high level of literacy, a much higher level than you expect out of ordinary literacy. But I was already seeing that going down, and you know any kind of conversation that you have with any academic anywhere in any discipline, you’ll hear them say things like that, it’s just a common thing. People who actually are embedded in universities whose entire living depends on universities, it’s very difficult for them to be critical of the way the university might be running things or indeed of the cohort of students, because as we know, and I said this in the article, universities have been forced into a position where they’ve become businesses, they didn’t used to be. They now have to be run as businesses, students are customers – if you offend the customer you have a problem, you have few customers. So the main thing that a university wants to do is to somehow please its customers. So it’s very difficult for academics to be openly critical, particularly of their own institution but of academic life in general.

5:07 Maxine McKew
Now you were teaching education students, students who will be going out into primary schools and in some cases secondary schools. You were teaching at a rural university. Did you conclude from that that if you have students who struggle to read themselves... how on earth are they going to instil a love of reading in young children... or teenagers?

5:27 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Absolutely, absolutely. So the students I was teaching range across early childhood, primary and high school. They were all students who had to reach a certain level of literacy in order to pass their degree, so they were not the natural readers. They were not the English teachers, but they were intending to be primary school teachers or early childhood teachers or some of them wanted to be PE teachers or science teachers. But I encountered plenty of students who I thought could not capably write a report for instance. So they need to write reports on students, and I didn’t think that their sentences were properly formed, or that they were capable of the kind of coherent thought that you need in order to write a report on a high school student, primary school student. It made me outraged at the beginning, and a few years have passed and I’ve begun to think that the system itself, well we know those students who genuinely aren’t capable out, because if you can’t write a report you also can’t write a job application. So I was very keen to be able to bring them up to a higher standard and also introduce them to a love of literature.

6:35 Maxine McKew
Well your starting point I think was the knowledge that in fact education degrees are no longer conferred unless students pass a literacy test

6:44 Tegan Bennet Daylight That’s right.

6:45 Maxine McKew
and that has to be to, if you like, the top 30% of achievers.

6:48 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yes that’s right

6:49 Maxine McKew
So that was your starting point. How did you set about if you like getting students to make sure that they passed that test with integrity?

6:56 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yeah well the subjects that I was teaching were designed by two English academics who were teaching into the education degree, and their idea was that we would teach within what was called the Reading Resilience framework, so that basically we would try to immerse students in reading, and certainly for the first subject which focused mostly on reading, it was decided that we would teach only Australian texts. And the students weren’t asked to read any secondary texts, all they were asked to do was to read five to ten pages of the text, for instance Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip was one of the texts that we set...

7:35 Maxine McKew
Not the whole book?

7:35 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Not the whole book

7:37 Maxine McKew
Why not?

7:37 Tegan Bennet Daylight
That is a thing of the past, a thing of the past. Honestly, getting students to read five to ten pages of a text every week is hard enough. In English degrees they’re still asked to read, well we’d have to read a book or two a week, but they’re still asked to read a book every few weeks, but definitely no chance in this degree of getting them to read a whole book. At the end of this first subject they had to choose one book and they had to be able to write about that for the exam. So there was one whole book set, and the books that we had were Jack Davis’ play The Dreamers, Helen’s book The Feel of Steel, Tim Winton’s book The Turning, Judith Wright’s Birds and Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded, I think those were the books.

8:25 Maxine McKew
So how did the year go? Tell us about that.

8:27 Tegan Bennet Daylight
One of the things that came about in the response to that article is I got a lot of really positive support. But inevitably because the world is as it is, there are a fair few people who said you know you shouldn’t be teaching, this is a disgrace, and so on and so forth. Quite a few people said to me, you clearly hate your students. Just could not be further from the truth. These kids are something different. I grew up in the city in Sydney, I’m used to white kids like me, these are mostly white rural kids or Aboriginal kids, that was what made up most of the cohort. They had entirely different lives to the kind of life I’ve lived. A lot of them were getting up at 5 in the morning to do things with cows you know that I knew nothing about and then coming in. They were...

9:14 Maxine McKew
But that would’ve meant that they brought a wide range of life experiences (??9:20)

9:20 Tegan Bennet Daylight
They really did, they really did, and a lot of them had... to me it seemed to me that they had suffered in the sense that they didn’t have literature in the house and they didn’t seem to have read much at school, but they brought a whole new experience to the place and it was so much fun bringing Australian literature to them that they’d never seen or heard of. You know they might... might have heard of Tim Winton, but no way would they have heard of any of the other writers that we set. And kind of introducing them to their own culture I found fabulously exciting. I got on really well with them, we had a fabulous time, I was sometimes appalled at the standard of their writing in particular. I think it’s probably best exemplified by something that I mentioned in the article. We have a poem that we  taught called The Cows on Killing Day by Les Murray, and that poem, basically from the point of view of the herd of cows talks about the day in which the old cows in the dairy herd are killed. And it’s a very odd poem, it’s written in the collective first person, and it’s very sort of straightforward and brutal about the killing. Now I have a few mountains kids and a few city kids every year in those classes, and they tend to be vegetarians and they don’t like the thought of meat and things like that, and they thought that the poem was about supporting the cow and vegetarianism. The country kids are used to killing, and a couple of them said to me in a very upset way, this should not be written about, I don’t want to see this written down, it’s awful we all hate that day, nobody likes it, don’t write about it. And of course I said, my feeling is everything should and can be written about. But it was just such an interesting kind of explosion in the kids’ minds to sort of have this wonderful contrast between the country and the city kids. I also say in the article that I had a beautiful experience with a young woman who had been a dairy maid, as she described herself. She’d come to uni late, she was in her late twenties, she thought she was stupid, she sat through the first classes not saying anything, got a pass for her first subject... just a pass, and then when we read The Cows on Killing Day she shouted from the back of the classroom, but this is exactly what it’s like! She said I’m in this poem, oh my God, because the poem talks about the heifer human. She said, I am the heifer human, and she went on to get high distinctions and changed her degree into an English degree.

11:53 Maxine McKew
Wow, what a wonderful story.

11:54 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Still makes me prickle when I talk about it, it was gorgeous just gorgeous.

12:00 Maxine McKew
Tegan, you’ve mentioned Les Murray, Judith Wright, Tim Winton, but yet as you’re saying, you’re describing a generation that’s coming to university with no knowledge of our own Australian stories and you’re teaching rural kids. This is true of city kids across Australia actually. Australian literature is barely taught. So what’s going on?

12:23 Tegan Bennet Daylight
I would draw all listeners’ attention to Geordie Williamson’s book that came out four or five years ago, The Burning Library, which is a book, a wonderful sort of polemic about the loss of Australian literature in Australian education both secondary and tertiary. Beautiful book. When you talk to the students about Australian films or Australian literature, they’re always embarrassed by it. They say, oh you wouldn’t see an Australian film, they’re always terrible. I don’t know where they get this idea because they haven’t actually seen any Australian films a lot of the time....

12:58 McKew
Is this a brand new cultural cringe or what?

13:00 Tegan Bennet Daylight
I think it’s something that we’ve had a little bit for a while, but I think that most Western English speaking countries are in a process of colonisation by the US. I mean my students speak in American accents, having never been to American, a lot of them do. They think in an American way. I once said to a class, you speak Australian but you dream American, and they all said yes, that’s exactly what it is!

13:30 Maxine McKew
So that’s what inhabits their space?

13:32 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yeah that’s what inhabits.

13:32 Maxine McKew

13:32 Tegan Bennet Daylight
So you know all those sort of... the kind of thing that Aussies like us think oh, I’m not up for that... those sort of narratives about you know if you dream something it can come true, and anybody can be the President of the United States and all of that sort of stuff, that kind of narrative has really started to colonise...

13:51 Maxine McKew
They find that credible?

13:51 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yeah they find that credible, and in fact often when you gave them a piece of Australian literature to critique, they would often say... even though this was clearly not the message, they would say – this piece of Australian literature teaches me that I can overcome all odds. And as I said I think in the article, I felt like saying tell that to Anne Frank, you know you just can’t. But one of my colleagues does a thing with his students at the beginning of every semester where he says to them, if you were going to make a film, what would it be about? And they all write down a line or two on a page and he writes them up on the whiteboard, and then he points to the whiteboard and he says, see that, Australian literature. He reminds them that they themselves are Australian and they themselves might be the source of Australian literature or culture in some way. It’s as though they’ve forgotten that that stuff belongs. Having said that, they do know one text that we teach really well, and that is The Man from Snowy River. They all know that, they’ve all been read that, particularly country kids. But when I later taught an English subject with a really, really, really diverse group of kids from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, all Australians obviously but whose parents or grandparents were from all over the place, and we read some poems about Australia and I thought I know what I’ll do, I’ll get them to write an Australian poem. So I asked them all to write me a line and I said I’ll make up a collection poem of all of your ideas about Australia. And about 95% were things like the green and gold and barbeques and it was not what I expected from city dwelling Sydneysiders with very diverse backgrounds, but they did have that idea of Australia. They hadn’t read much Australian literature but they did have that kind of green and gold, barbeque, mateship kind of thing.

15:52 Maxine McKew
So that brings me to other things you identified. One is the lack of cultural capital among students, and I hear this from other academics as well. The other thing is discomfort among your students at being unsettled about being taken out of their own emotional range.

16:09 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yeah there are two texts that unsettled our students most of all. One was Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded. So a lot of them choose to write about Loaded for their final thing because Loaded is quite easy to read, it’s very colloquial and reads very easily. But they were upset that the main character Ari is too furious, he’s really shitty with the world. To me that seems that’s how you should feel at sixteen or seventeen, just what is this crap you know? They didn’t like that, and all of them said why does he complain so much? He’s got it good, what’s wrong with him? Why is he so upset? They didn’t like that. In Monkey Grip the opening section that we give gives you the sense of the little girl Grace being brought up in a house with a lot of different parents and a lot of other kids. She goes out late at night, she’s put to bed in a little pile of cushions on a dance-floor while adults drop acid. They were very unsettled and upset by that as well. They had more to say about Nora, the main character’s parenting than they had to say about almost anything else.

17:15 Maxine McKew
How interesting. What about key events in the 20th Century? If you’ve got a writer who’s talking about... I don’t know... well World War 2 or Vietnam War, any of the major social movements of the 20th Century, are there key reference points there that your students get or do they struggle?

17:31 Tegan Bennet Daylight
I do think they struggle, and I’ve put in a later essay in a class once, I said to the group what happened in 1939? And there was dead silence, and I sort of looked at them and I said, if you can’t tell me what happened in 1939 I’m leaving, and then there was total silence, and then a student shouted World War 3! And I looked at them, and I looked at her and she said World War 2! So I probably frightened them a bit by doing that, so they probably knew but it took them a while. So there are lots and lots of cultural references that I grew up knowing. I knew the dates of the two major wars at least and I had some idea about when the Vietnam War was and those sorts of things. These kids are different, they don’t retain that stuff. They must be taught it, but they don’t seem to know it.

18:23 Maxine McKew
In terms of the course that you were teaching, when you got your students to read texts and to go over them, how did that affect their writing? Were you also trying to get them to read to improve their writing?

18:36 Tegan Bennet Daylight   The very first thing that they had to do was write about their reading, so they had to describe their reading to you, and our policy in marking even that it was really, really simple questions – when do you read; what do you read; how often? Those sorts of things. We would hand that back very heavily marked up, so it wouldn’t be you know twelve out of twenty tick, we would correct their grammar, their spelling, their punctuation all that kind of thing, so the idea being that every single thing that they wrote was properly noticed by a teacher. So instead of what I’ve noticed in high school English where it seems to be you’d sort of chuck a few ideas at the wall, it doesn’t really matter how you express them... if you’ve kind of covered the content you’re okay. We were very fussy about their sentences. We did find that their writing was often poor in a way I think most literate Australians would find very surprising... very surprising... often staggeringly poor.

19:40 Maxine McKew
Give me some examples. No capital letters? No full stops? Run on sentences? What are we talking about?

19:45 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Okay. Run on sentences; not quite knowing what the subject of the sentence was at all; not understanding that a sentence’s job is to say something about the world or saying seventeen different things about the world in different tenses; misuse of words. So those sorts of things where you think you mustn’t be thinking very clearly. Interestingly though, we noticed that all of the students could speak... all of them, even if they hadn’t read before, they all of them had really interesting, thoughtful things to say about every single text right there in class, good sentences.

20:22 Maxine McKew
So their oral language was okay?

20:23 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Really good yeah

20:24 Maxine McKew
Yeah, and yet they didn’t have the tools to translate that into the written...?

20:30 Tegan Bennet Daylight
That was exactly right. It was as though one language was English and the other was Russian and they didn’t speak Russian. They literally could not translate their thoughts onto the page. I would say 50% of every class was struggling in that sense.

20:45 Maxine McKew
Listening to this, what I’m struggling with is why these students feel they will be equipped to teach other children.

20:53 Tegan Bennet Daylight
I didn’t really bring that to them because it’s very tempting, particularly when you’re faced with this day after day in teaching to sort of berate students for that kind of failing, to say what are you thinking? What are you imagining is going to happen when you go to a school? But that doesn’t help them it only hurts them. So I think quite a few of them had come to university and got a fright. Universities are much easier to get into than they were and they’d been encouraged to do it, also because there are fewer jobs in different areas, or there are jobs that seem to require university degrees, or university marketing is really good, I’m not really sure what it’s all about it. But I think quite a few of them had turned up and thought I’m not really sure what I’m doing here at all. Some of them had turned up hoping to get better and intending to get better. You do see a fairly high attrition rate in those first years and in those subjects because the thing that I had not really encountered before because I’d been in this cocoon of teaching creative writing, even though that cocoon was being infiltrated, but... was students who had sat through English classes in high school in misery just hating it. Now I used to feel that way about other classes, never about English, but I understood what that felt like, I’d just never encountered those people. All of my friends are big readers if not writers, all very literate people. But these were kids who’d sat through English, they had to do it, they hated it, and they were miserable about being in the class, but the great joy of teaching them was that the class was compulsory... and the attendance was compulsory, so they had to turn up... it was fantastic.

22:39 Maxine McKew
How did they all finish the year? Give us a range?

22:42 Tegan Bennet Daylight
They had the chance to take the subject twice. They needed to pass both subjects in order to get their degree. A few of them every year in a class of say twenty, maybe two to three would fail both times and would never come back. A few would drop out or change degrees having discovered that they were in the wrong degree and that it didn’t suit them, and a few would just scrape by with passes. Those who scraped by with passes were the ones who took the time to come and see us and get some help, but I would say a good proportion of them were able to pass their literacy test at the end of their degree.

23:18 Maxine McKew
Now I’ve got to ask this, and we don't want to sound like luddites about this, but what role is technology playing in all of this? Is there simply too much screen time, and is it reducing this generation’s capacity to absorb long form material... and appreciate it?

23:32 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Yeah, and it’s not a popular thing to say, but I think it’s absolutely true and the colleagues I’ve worked with would say that as we have taught over these last twenty years, we’ve seen the ability to absorb long form texts declining, and to me only a fool would think that sort of electronic life doesn’t have something to do with it. So what happens is that low level literacy is up because everybody’s got a phone now, so everybody can send a text or read a text or look at Facebook. High level literacy is declining because a phone gives students the illusion that they’re busy. It’s one of the things that I say to them early on... they’re always saying I’m too busy, and it’s like you’re not, you are no busier than we were in 1985, you just think you’re busy because your phone keeps calling to you. There’s no question that it’s affected their ability to concentrate; it’s affected their ability to memorise. One of the things I do in the writing subject in this degree is I make the entire class memorise The Owl and the Pussycat. They find that really hard, really hard, so we do chanting and we run around the room shouting it and we remember line after line. They’ve never really had to memorise.

24:48 Maxine McKew
Overall Tegan, what are the big lessons you’ve drawn from this because I mean we don’t want to end up in a depressive hole about this. Here we are in an election year, we’re going to get all sorts of rhetoric about you know our schools should do this and that and teachers should be this and that, and it’ll drive the profession crazy and it’s often not well informed. What have you concluded would help young students and students in education degrees?

25:15 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Well first I would undertake a reform of universities, which feels impossible to me at the moment. So one of the things that I think is really important to note here is that as a way of saving money, which is what universities have to do these days, the first thing to go, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the first thing to go is teaching hours. So classes are shorter than they used to be; a lot of the material is put online; semesters are shorter; there’s a huge casualisation of the workforce; academics are under attack from management, there is no other way to describe it. So that would be the first thing that I would reverse, I would go back to longer classes. Students can get a degree without coming to university even if they are enrolled in a live course not an online course because there’s no compulsory attendance anymore. I’ve had to pass students in other universities, not in this one because they have compulsory attendance, in other universities who’ve never come to class, and I can’t improve their writing by just sending every assignment back when it comes back. I can only improve their writing by being in a class with them. Second, I would say, my close colleagues would agree with me about, which is that you can only become a better reader by reading and you can only become a better writer by writing...

26:44 Maxine McKew
And turning off the internet.

26:45 Tegan Bennet Daylight
And turning off the internet. So I’m a mother of teenagers, so I’m at the coalface of this kind of stuff, and my son is thirteen years old so he is right at that point, he is right of the generation.

26:59 Maxine McKew
Is he on Fortnight?

27:00 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Of course he’s on Fortnight, and I can’t tell you... I just do not like that game...

27:08 Maxine McKew
Not many mums do

27:08 Tegan Bennet Daylight   Not many mums do. But for instance, for my son if he was allowed to he would automatically be on his phone or on Fortnight all of the time because it’s really amusing to him, he’s got the kind of brain that works with that stuff, he loves it, and it lifts him out of the ordinary boringness of living. He loves that suspension of self, and of course inevitably when that suspension of self is over he has a bit of a crash, and I know parents across Australia and across the world are experiencing this... rages from kids who come off Fortnight. The other thing is though he’s not allowed his phone in his bedroom at night, and he doesn’t like that and I respect that he doesn’t like that and I understand why he doesn’t like that because a lot of other kids are allowed, but he needs his sleep and he needs time to read, and that’s the time when he winds down with a book.

27:58 Maxine McKew
So you set limits?

28:00 Tegan Bennet Daylight
So I set limits yeah and so does my husband obviously. The thing that does sometimes get lost in this conversation is the thing that I said earlier on – I’ve never taught a class of young people in which I haven’t felt as though I’ve learned something; as though my ideas about what is the right way to do things or the right way to learn has been challenged; they’ve always brought me to new literature that I haven’t read, and they’ve always woken me up to ways of thinking that I hadn’t thought about before. So I don’t at all wish to condemn millennials. They are who they are, their situation is not made by themselves. I find them to be in general a group of really empathetic, generous, lively, awake young people.

28:48 Maxine McKew
Tegan thanks so much.

28:49 Tegan Bennet Daylight
Thank you Maxine.

28:51 Maxine McKew
And the full transcript of that interview is on our Talking Teaching website. If you’ve got comments you’d like to make about this or any other episode, we’d like to hear from you. This episode has been recorded by Chris Hatzis at the 757 Studio and edited by our sound engineer, Gavin Nebauer at the Hallworth Studios. Gavin has also composed our theme music. Bye for now.

- music -