Ann-Marie: That's an interesting question and one which I get asked a lot, especially by students who are complaining about a book we are reading. In year 11 we tend to teach units which are modelled on what we plan to teach in year 12 and so we have to select texts which complement this. These may be texts which have been taught in previous year 12 groups or be by authors with similar writing styles or cover similar content. In junior years we tend to have more freedom and are influenced by a number of factors, including:
- input from students (recommendations of favourite authors etc)
- teachers who read widely and have recommendations
- academic exchanges of teaching resources/ideas such as the English Teacher's Association and my own wide reading
I should also add, that we often ask students for feedback on novels we have read to decide if we should keep teaching them or ditch them!
GR: How much of a role does finances play in the decision to keep teaching, or start teaching a book? i.e. how often are you able to purchase class sets?
AM: Finances definitely play a big part in our decision making! We obviously get a budget each year and while this might be topped up when there are changes to the syllabus etc, there is never enough money (sigh)! We have to really think about what we are buying and why, and this usually involves lots of people on staff reading the books, researching them etc On average, we would buy about 2 new texts for each year group and because money can be very tight we often feel we have to stick with texts when we have purchased them, even if they aren't as engaging for students as we anticipated. However, I am a firm believer that if it isn't working we need to change things up, so I might make a novel part of a wide reading unit etc rather than the whole class having to study it, and I will 'retire' books if necessary. I want students to love reading and this is hard if they really dislike the novel we select.
GR: Absolutely! Although you're not going to be able to please everyone in a class of 25+, with different tastes.
AM: It certainly can be tricky but it is about getting the balance right, if too many students (and at times, the teachers) dislike a novel it means we need to rethink it.
GR: Do you find there's a difference between a book (especially a YA book) that's good to recommend to students, and a book that's good to teach? Do the books you select for study need to fit a stricter criteria than say, the books you might suggest to the school librarian?
AM: Yes there often is a difference between novels I teach and those I will recommend to students and/or the librarian. This is because I have to select novels to complement units we are teaching based on syllabus and curriculum requirements etc. This means I often have to teach texts which have a specific focus such as novels which explore Asian cultures/are by Asian authors to comply with the Australian curriculum. Whereas, novels I recommend to students tend to be based broader factors including: a student's personal interests; things I have read and enjoyed and want to share with others; texts I have read good reviews of or have had recommended to me and texts which I think might extend students like classic novels they might not usually consider selecting for themselves.
GR: That makes sense. What about censorship? Does the school (or Department) put restrictions around novel content, either by saying you're not allowed to teach it or need parent/principal approval first?
AM: Censorship is definitely a factor at times. I know that when the Department devises new Prescriptions for year 12 (a list of texts set for study) they take into careful consideration factors which may make a novel unsuitable. This includes things such as novels which may be considered offensive on the grounds of religion or subject matter which may be considered confrontational to young people etc. In junior years, where there is less direct input at a Department level, there may still be restrictions put in place by the Principal and/or a student's parents or if you teach at a private school, by the parent body. If I believe that a novel is important for students to study but there may be something which students/parents find objectionable, I will issue a letter first outlining what I think they might find concerning and then why I think it is worthy of studying.... then it is up to the parents and students to decide.
GR: You mentioned sharing resources with other teachers earlier - a lot of publishers produce teaching notes for download, do you find this is something you use a lot?
AM: Yes, especially if I am teaching a novel for the first time. While I love my job, there is always so much to do and so little time to do it in so anything which gives me a starting point is greatly appreciated! I also find it really interesting to see an author's take on their own novel and to get insight into things like what what key ideas they think their novel highlights.
GR: What happens if you and another teacher in your faculty disagree on the value of a book?
AM: English teachers often disagree on novels we teach or are thinking about teaching etc and this can lead to some pretty feisty debates in the staff room! The more lively the debate is however, often helps us to decide that we should teach it as this can be a sign that there is a lot to get out of the book. If we totally disagree then it often comes down to teacher choice - we usually set up our units so that there is teacher input anyway so that they select novels they are familiar/comfortable teaching so they would teach a different novel. But some of the best discussions I have had with students about novels has been started with a comment like: "Miss X said you really like this book but she hates it, why do you like it so much?"
GR: Haha, so if you're choosing between a few books to buy, the one that provokes a negative response from one person might win out by prompting someone else to be its advocate! You said the Australian curriculum requires you to include texts with Asian voices, and I know there's also a requirement to cover some Australian and/or Indigenous texts. In your own reading, do you particularly seek out Australian authors, or is it more of a happy bonus?
AM: I read broadly and select novels by authors from diverse backgrounds but I must say that I do keep a lookout for good Australian authors. This is because I am keen to see what they can do with settings and/or content I am familiar with and have a connection to. I also feel that it is important to acknowledge and support home grown talent and if I can do this in my own small way by recommending Australian authors for my students or buying a class set of a particular Australian novel to study, I will!
GR: Good to know! And if I can sneak in a recommendation, if you haven't already read the #LoveOzYA anthology it's worth a look for some recent, relatable, well-written short stories. Thanks so much for taking the time!