Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Salad days: Some high school memories

I’m attending my high school reunion, the 60th birthday of Queen's High School, and 27 years since my completion of what was then "7th form". This has prompted me to reflect upon my time at school, particularly my five years of secondary education. I bring to this reflection a range of new and more mature understandings as an educator, and it is possible that I recall the ‘good old days’ through a rose-tint to some extent, but nevertheless I’m compelled to share some of the magic of my high school years.

I remember my school as a place where I thrived and was encouraged to succeed and to do so on my own terms with a great deal of freedom and choice. Here are a few memories, many from my final year, and a two key principles I have distilled from these:

1.     Relationships: We had some amazing teachers at high school – dedicated, talented, inspiring. Our teachers cared for us as people and conveyed respect for us, and these ways of treating each other permeated the whole school culture. I recall our 7th form common room, where we gathered in mufti (no uniform for us in our final year!). We had a room all to ourselves, with an outside deck (not often used in Dunedin); a TV and state of the art VCR (it was 1988!); couches, beanbags and a kitchenette – with jug and toaster. It was our space and a special place to hang out between classes. We also had special library privileges. When we had to leave the school for any reason, we were permitted to sign ourselves out. We were trusted and we did our best to live up to the expectations of those who entrusted us. I now work with one of the teachers who was on staff during this time, and he recently told me that each teacher in the school was required to keep a note of students who were acting out or who seemed troubled or otherwise preoccupied. Each teacher would submit the notes to the Principal at the end of each week, and she would read through each and every one in order to identify patterns and concerns. The principal would then take proactive steps to address the issues and intervene to ensure the student was cared for. 

2.     Relevance: I took a range of classes during my secondary schooling, and tried my hand at pretty much anything. In doing so, I discovered that I wasn’t a Scientist or a Mathematician, I didn’t have any particular aptitude for languages other than English, and I had very little physical coordination or sporting prowess. However, I learned to research, to critique literature, to debate well and to type. I am very often thankful for my mastery of the Pitmans and Trade Certification Board typing exams. Who knew that nearly 30 years later I’d be spending hours on a computer keyboard every day, teaching online, writing for publication, and communicating with colleagues. Touch typing with speed and accuracy is one of the most valuable skills I possess.

I recall that some of our lessons in English involved us sitting around a boardroom table with classmates and teacher, discussing a text and sharing our opinions. I felt very well prepared for university tutorials the following year, where academic discussion was already familiar and ready for extension. I remember watching Franco Zefferelli productions of Shakespeare, and I recall our English teacher dressing in period costume to convene class as Jane Austen, inviting us to interview her while she remained in character for the whole lesson.

NZ studies lessons took place in the library, in the conversation pit, where we would sit on the steps and talk with our teacher. The school was visionary in anticipation of modern learning environments, and flexible use of space. Another creative aspect of this particular class was the opportunity to research and write a narrative from the point of view of an early settler in New Zealand. I wrote a diary, recreating the daily life of a pioneering woman, and ‘authenticated it’ by soaking the paper in tea, singeing the page edges with a stick of incense, and binding it with ribbon in a felt covered volume. Alongside the encouragement to be creative, we were also inspired to involve ourselves actively in community events and in social activism more broadly.

I remember taking time away from the classroom to go down the peninsula to assist with catering at Otakou Marae during the Waitangi Tribunal hearings for Kai Tahu.

As I was dabbling in Economics at the time, I was a Managing Director of a student-led company, which involved us setting up a business in small groups, and working to make a profit under the tuition of local business people. The Young Enterprise Scheme was very much in action back in those days, and it was a superb way to learn a little about the intricacies of commerce, accounting and management.

It is lucky for me that my days at high school were so full of opportunity, with strong and supportive relationships, freedom to learn, and creative possibilities. Sometimes I listen to and read about young people who do not experience school as I did.  Times have changed, but I wonder if there is sometimes less trust, less privilege, less opportunity and less relevance.

When I hear of schools who prioritise military-like dress codes, who ban cellphones, and emphasise curriculum coverage, I wonder.

Admittedly, when I hear of educators who champion relationships and relevance as something new and modern (21st century learning?), I also wonder…

Was my school visionary and exceptional?

Were your experiences of schooling positive and inspiring?

Do students today have relevant educational opportunities, and caring and respectful relationships at school?

 P.S. For an explanation of title, 'Salad days' is the name of the musical we performed when I was about 16 and is a youthful idiom, stemming from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:

Cleopatra -  My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

P.P.S. At the time of posting, I've been to the reunion and am home. The most special moment was hearing our principal of the day - Dame Patricia Harrison address the reunion assembly. As in the article linked, Dame Harrison talked about school as a liberating force, helping students to overcome poverty, deprivation and abuse. She and I compared ideas about respect for students and faith in the judgement of youth. 
As part of her address, Dame Harrison talked about trust and told us about empowering students to employ their own teachers, in partnership with adult decision-makers. When the school needed a music teacher, Mrs Harrison called together several of the keen and talented musicians among the student population and set them the task of shortlisting applicants by working through the CVs. The girls knew who they wanted and after interview, they nagged Mrs Harrison about whether their preferred applicant had accepted the position. It was a pleasure to watch that music teacher receive a 'living treasure award' on behalf of the school and students at our reunion, after more than 20 years of teaching at Queen's High School.

It was a pleasure to tell my typing teacher what a big difference she makes to my day, everyday!

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