Maxine McKew and Larissa McLean Davies: On teaching Australian literature

Posted on Posted in Industry, Interview, Larissa McLean Davies, Maxine McKew

This is a special episode of The Garret. It is an exploration of how we are passing Australian literature - including contemporary literature written by writers who appear on The Garret - on to the next generation.

Maxine McKew and Larissa McLean Davies discuss the importance of teaching Australian literature in schools, and what this mean for our students, our teachers, and of course, our writers.

Maxine’s work in government led to the National Agreement on Quality Standards in Early Childhood, and she published Class Act: An analysis of some of the key challenges in Australian schooling in 2014. For the past five years she has worked at MGSE in a variety of roles. In 2018 she launched the podcast Talking Teaching.

Larissa is an Associate Professor in Language and Literacy and the Deputy Director - Learning and Teaching in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. Australian literature and the teaching of English are her specialities.

You can check out two of the current research projects at Melbourne Graduate School of Education - Investigating Literary Knowledge in the Making of English Teachers and Teacher-Researchers: Promoting Literature in English Education.

Maxine McKew and Larissa McLean Davies: On teaching Australian literature

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: We are breaking with our normal format on The Garret today. I am at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education with Maxine McKew and Larissa McLean Davies to talk about the importance of literature in schools, representation in our national curriculum, and what these mean for our students, our teachers, and of course, our writers.

Maxine and Larissa, welcome to The Garret.

LARISSA: Thank you.

MAXINE: Hi Astrid. Nice to be with you.

ASTRID: What is the importance of exposing students of all ages - in primary school and secondary school - to Australian literature in schools?

LARISSA: Well that's a great question, Astrid, and there are many reasons for doing that. But one of the... one of the most simple ways of expressing it is that the stories we tell ourselves - and this is said by a colleague of ours here at the Graduate School, Ray Misson - the stories we tell ourselves are the stories we imagine for ourselves. So if we are not exposing our students and our young people to a range of Australian literature, then the way that they can imagine themselves as Australians is going to be limited by that. So we want both the rich heritage of Australian literature, we want to expose students to the ways in which Indigenous texts and migrant texts all impact on every single person's individual story.

ASTRID: At a high level, are we doing this well yet?

MAXINE: Well, you know, I think there's a a paradox here, Astrid. I look at the external scene in Australia, and I see, number one, a very lively local publishing scene. We now have, whether it's if you like mid-level to to high level publishing houses, or many smaller players coming in, that's far far more diverse than it ever has been. And increasingly they're looking at local writers.

Number two, I think we've got you know a terrific range of independent bookstores. I mean, if you look over the last sort of ten or twelve years we went through that period where we were hitting a crisis, people were saying, you know, the death of the local independent bookstore. In fact, the best of them have come through that. They've done it through a variety of things they've had the coffees, they've had you know interesting literary events. But in fact we've now got I think across Australia and even in regional towns you know a very good group of independent bookstores that again push local writers.

Number three, I'd say we've got a lively public celebration of Australian writing. Now whether that's through literary festivals, again the most prominent of them in our cities, but again, you go to the regions you know many many smaller towns now have literary festivals. I'm doing one in Queenscliff in Victoria in May. So you've got that. You've also got terrific awards, whether it's The Stella Prize or all of the states now having Premier's literary prizes.

So that's all, if you like, the external environment which I think is incredibly healthy, much healthier than it ever has been or certainly I remember from my days at school, if you like. But you know the missing fourth pillar here is the fact that, as Larissa says, when we look at our schools in fact we see quite an impoverishment in this area for a range of reasons that Larissa has explored in great detail.

Our students are not locking on to Australian stories. They leave school in many cases - and I can't tell you how much this pains me as a lover of reading generally, and of our own Indigenous literature - t hey are leaving school without being exposed to the best of our writers, whether it's you know from the 19th century or the first part of the 20th century, let alone the wonderful richness that's coming from our contemporary writers. So we've got a lot of work to do as I see on this important fourth pillar.

ASTRID: We do indeed. Now if I can ask Larissa, can you give us a high level of how a book makes it from the national curriculum to you know a state based reading list to what actually happens with teachers and students in the classroom?

LARISSA: Astrid it depends on what level of schooling we're talking about. So really across the nation, teachers have autonomy to select texts within their own local environments really from Year 7, if we're talking about secondary school, right up until Year 12. So it's really only in some states that texts are actually set. So, that's an authority will sit down with a group of experts and they'll select a range of texts and they'll put out that list, and that's particularly in in states like New South Wales and Victoria, now in Queensland which is something new - haven't had that in Queensland for about 30 or so years - and certainly in Western Australia as well. So that's for Year 12, but... and that then is is really based on a whole range of things. At that Year 12 level, what we'll see is that group of experts thinking 'what will be engaging for students?' and 'what will meet the requirements of being able to write, particularly on an exam?'

And this is where this is really interesting for us to think about, because even though you'll read a whole lot of text selection frameworks that indicate in fact we should be looking at diverse texts with diverse identities, diverse protagonists, diverse settings, it seems that often we return to the texts that had been tried and true at that Year 12 level for a long time. And work we've done here at the Graduate School has suggested that part of that is really bound up in what we see as valid in a high stakes assessment system. And unfortunately, Australian literature doesn't feature well in that high stakes assessment system. So there's a lot of data that you can look at that says in fact if a student writes on Australian texts they are less likely to do as well as if they write on more traditional texts such as Shakespeare, such as a 19th century novel. So there's... even though there's nothing to stop a student writing on that, there's perceived to be in the field some dangers in actually taking up Australian literature.

ASTRID: That is very confronting to hear you say that as a lover of Australian literature, and of course, on The Garret all we do is interview Australian writers. So can you unpack this for me? Let's just focus on Year 12 at the moment, so you know a student's final year at that level. Why do they not perform as well - according to the system that has been put in place and they must operate in - if they veer off from the tried and true?

LARISSA: So what we should say here is that there's it's important to say that of course the student could do as well selecting an Australian text. There's nothing inherent in the Australian text that would stop a student achieving the kind of assessment outcomes. But there is a perception, I think - and there's a range of reasons for this - that it's risky. Part of the risk is there's not as many resources on Australian literature for teachers to take up.

ASTRID: So is this risky for the student or the teacher who is then responsible for teaching the student well?

LARISSA: Both. So that the risk is if you are taking up a contemporary work of Australian fiction, there may not be the resources that have been developed for a text that has had a very great longevity within the curriculum and so therefore resources. Also, there's a lot of understanding about a kind of reading that's going to be popular, or reading that's going to be robust and rigorous. And so if you're looking for your student to achieve the best possible outcome - and we are in a high stakes system where a number that you get at the end of Year 12 is still perceived to have a lot of impact on futures - then English which is... And the other thing that's really important here to consider is English in most states and territories is compulsory. One must pass English and so therefore it contributes significantly to that score. So again, this is perceived to be, you know, making sure that whatever's undertaken for English is going to be as safe as possible.

ASTRID: So what you've just said applies across the country. English is not just one subject, there are different streams and levels that a student can study. Is it the same throughout all of the options?

LARISSA: What we still do don't see, the great or sort of parity with Australian texts across all of those. We certainly have much more data on what we might call the mainstream English, but I think it's fair to say that we're not seeing a much greater representation of Australian literature across any of those subjects.

ASTRID: So is it true, or am I - I'm not meaning to put words in your mouth, I'm just trying to clarify here - to say, for example, there's the most common English taught, and then there's an advanced stream of English, regardless of what state you're in. Is it true that Australian literature is less well represented in the advanced stream?

LARISSA: Well it's equally not well.

ASTRID: OK, good to clarify.

LARISSA: Equally not well represented! And there's... look there's various things to... If you know, if writers listening to The Garret are interested in pursuing this, colleagues here at the University of Melbourne, Lauren Bliss and Alex Bacalja have recently done a report for the Victorian State Association looking at particularly the texts that have been set for Year 12 and have noticed a decline in Australian literature over the last recent ten years. So you know, there's there's significant evidence to kind of point to that.

MAXINE: I was just wondering if I could give you Astrid a historic perspective?

ASTRID: Yes please.

MAXINE: Because Larissa and I have discussed this in the past. Regrettably, we've gone backwards in this area. I mean, I was at school in the dinosaur age actually in Queensland which was - I can't tell you how provincial it was in the in the 1960s, it's exactly what David Malouf has written about for instance in Johnno, that was Brisbane in which I grew up. However I was at a school, and certainly a privileged school, but it was a school where I had a fantastic English teacher in my secondary years and a wonderful library and and a terrific librarian.

And if I go through - and I didn't have to say I didn't read all of these authors in depth, but I left school having been exposed to these. I just made this little list this morning having been exposed or certainly been taken into the world of these writers: Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Ray Lawler and George Johnston. In fact George Johnston's My Brother Jack was one of the books that was set for, I think, Year 11 and 12 in those days. That's now, that is an overwhelmingly white list, but look at the prominent women there. I mean Judith Wright would have been taught. I think Larissa, am I right, in that era, in pretty much you know ever every secondary school, so they wouldn't have been too many students throughout the 1960s and perhaps into the 1970s who would have been unfamiliar with one of Australia's greatest poets. Would that be right?

LARISSA: That's right Maxine. And in fact Judith Wright continues to be taught, although our own research, which has looked at 700 English teachers surveyed across the nation, has indicated that poetry is the least taught of Australian texts.

ASTRID: That is sad.

MAXINE: But here's the pity. Larissa's certainly looked at this. As I say, at a time when you had, you know, a renaissance in Australian writing and in fact if I think of that period, so many of our wonderful Australian writers such as Malouf and many others came out of that period, which was very politically repressed, very socially repressed one could argue, but in fact what was happening under the radar was the fermenting of some extraordinary writing about what it means to be Australian, and in particular locales. And what a pity it has been, that in fact, you know, our teachers and our students are not I guess getting what they can from this richness. That brings us, I guess, to the point where we can you know talk about this analyse it and bemoan it. But what do we do?

ASTRID: Yes, what do we do? So before we get to that question, I just have... I just need to clarify in my own mind, Larissa, explain for me how a work listed or suggested on the national curriculum. Is it possible for something that is listed there to never ever be taught in an actual school?

LARISSA: Yes.

ASTRID: And has that happened?

LARISSA: Yes I'm sure, I'm sure it has happened. But I'll tell you how it might happen. So for a start, the national curriculum... And it's important to know that the national curriculum for the senior years, and also for the seven to ten years, has some suggested text lists, but because of the way in which we organise education in this country it will depend on the states and territories how they are actually working with the national curriculum. So for instance, in Victoria there's a curriculum for Victoria, for New South Wales. So it's important to think, well those texts on that list are only suggestions, and it will come down to how the states and territories actually decide. So there's one moment of choice.

Then within any kind of Year 12 list there'll be many more texts than the teachers can select. And so, for instance, in Victoria there's an expectation that one Australian texts will be taught on that for that year going forward. But it does mean because there's a range of Australian texts on that, or a range of whole other texts, that they might not be taken up at all. So there's no obligation to take up the range of texts that... whilst teachers can have obviously have or or authority and autonomy to select from the list, there's no expectation that, for instance, one would take up an Aboriginal Australian text within that broader suite of what it is to take up an Australian text. Sso here are some issues there for us.

ASTRID: And if - just for me again summarising - there's not necessarily a problem with diversity or representation on what are the suggested lists. It's more how there are certain gateways or points of choice where it might mean that the same old text are still being chosen or very rarely a new text kind of makes its way to the top.

LARISSA: That's right. So in most cases, although you know that research I was citing earlier around the VCE in Victoria was suggesting a kind of decline in actual setting of texts. what we see from our research is that the text lists are often indicating a range of diverse experiences of being in Australia and being in the world. That changes over time. So if you look, there's a wonderful database that looks at all the texts that have been set from the 1940s in Australia and we can see that you know during the 1960s and 1970s there were very few Asian text set. So we can see that text list broadly follows political interests and understandings of identity and understandings of nation. However, certainly that expands and increases, but teachers' own practice and schools' own practice will actually make the determination as to what will be appropriate.

ASTRID: What is our database called and is it public?

LARISSA: Yeah. So it's called the ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools) database, and it's currently at the Australian National University and it's being revitalised at the moment. It is my understanding it came out of some research from Tim Dolan.

ASTRID: Fantastic. So we know that representation matters, but how can we make teachers - and facilitate and support teachers and schools - to actually bring that into the classroom?

LARISA: So there's a range of great things that are happening at the moment. So we have work through Reading Australia. We have work through The Stella Prize, which is really advocating for contemporary Australian writing, obviously with stellar contemporary Australian women's writing. And each of those groups - and also other wonderful resources like AusLit coming out of University of Queensland - that are supporting teachers with a range of resources.

In our work, in my work with Professor Sue Martin who is at La Trobe University, the work that we've done with teachers actually through workshops and through surveys on particularly the issue of Australian literature, has indicated that even though there are resources, teachers sometimes lack the confidence to take those up. Or there are these other imperatives who've been talking about. You know, how do I choose a new text when it's going to be perhaps more engaging or I perceive it might be more engaging to choose a text that I've already been doing for a while. How do I actually change that mindset? So that that's a different kind of question, because one is a resourcing answer and that's important, but one is also giving teachers I think the opportunity to really experience Australian literature as they may not have done in their own growing up high school experience.

So Maxine was talking about her really rich experience of Australian literature and being at high school in the 1980s. I had that. But what we're having now, what we have now, is a group of students who are not necessarily having that. So then they're not coming into universities necessarily having that same experience of Australian literature or perceiving that to be something of value that they need to take up. And we know that universities also have very mixed ways in which they're dealing with Australian literature here. So all of that needs to be considered. So I think a coherent aim is really important, but also supporting teachers to gain confidence and expertise in the teaching of Australian literature is important. And we have some plans for that.

ASTRID: I would like to hear those plans. Before you launch into them I just have one self-interested question. Do teachers ever - or have you ever heard of a teacher or a school - giving the choice to their students? I mean, does anyone ever say to the students you know, 'Here's three, which one do you think you'll be most engaged in? What do you want to study?'

LARISSA: For Year 12? No, because one must plan our curriculum well in advance. There may be... Well actually that's not entirely correct. It may be that a school will determine which ones are going to be prepared for examination, and then have a looseness around other requirements. And this will change very much depending on the state or territory that you're in. Greater choice will be in the earlier years of secondary school. And important for us for us to also say, our research around teachers and their choices of Australian texts, we see many more taught in Year 7 and 8, but it is declining you know as you move towards the senior years.

MAXINE: I would just add to that. I would say that was a conversation I had with a Melbourne teacher only last year, and she did this with her Year 10s, in fact. But that I'd have to say it was a select group of her Year 10s who were very conscientious readers. And in fact, she guided them to do their own research projects around a group of Australian writers so they could choose. And of course the work, they were highly motivated, and they came back with some very rich and interesting work. But I think that the challenge is...

Can I just mentioned two things here. I think there are two challenges and one is really a foundational issue, and that is we are tackling this at a time when I know many teachers are struggling to get their students to read full stop, to read anything. And I've even had university lecturers say the same thing, that they will be pushing and challenging their students to read widely, and students will say, 'I'm too busy, I've got this this and this'. And one friend of mine said recently, 'Well actually, look at the time you're spending on social media, these things are choices'. Now that's hard at the university level, but if you think you know perhaps, a semi-engaged Year 9, Year 10 student. How do you get those students to say that reading is a worthwhile recreational activity?

And the more you do this and the more you learn to love this as a way to stop, to reflect, to learn something, and to be taken into worlds with which you're not familiar your world will broaden.

ASTRID: Yes.

MAXINE: You are not going to get every student like that, but of course what does every writer say when, you know, the writers I love have all made that journey. They have been at an early age taken into worlds way beyond perhaps their impoverished backgrounds or, you know, a very tight privileged set of circumstances, and their you know their worlds have opened up.

ASTRID: They're set free.

MAXINE: Yeah that's right. Exactly. So I think number one... one of the things I look at when we look at the international PISA tests and the survey material and the countries with which we compare ourselves, if you look at Canada - not all that different from us - Canadian students tend to list reading as a favoured recreational activity. Australian teenagers do not. I'd love to be able to flip that.

LARISSA: There's something in that around the selection of texts as well that comes in so often. And the work that we've been doing with teachers indicates that the real need - from 7 to 10 particularly - to be engaging students. So whatever text we're selecting is going to be engaging because we have not necessarily got a cohort of students who are favouring sustained reading. But within that, we do have to question how we are understanding engagement, you know, what is it going to be to engage? And engagement isn't entertainment. And how do we think about that differently? And also I guess there's still perhaps when we're talking about Australian literature some of that cultural cringe that indicates that one will be engaged by things that are not part of your local environment or your national environment, even though that's extremely diverse.

ASTRID: So what are some of the solutions for teachers?

LARISSA: I do think that when we're talking about teaching, teachers need time to develop work themselves. So that as we said, there's a lot of resources but to actually engage with those resources, to recognise that we're still sitting here in 2019 talking about the issues with teaching Australian literature. So this has been a long problem, and if we want to make some substantive changes to this... We now have the richest literature around. Just look at the writers festivals around the country to know what's on offer, nd we need teachers to have time to engage with that. So I think that's a start.

We have a project that we're starting here in partnership with The Stella Prize which is actually supporting teachers to be released from teaching for a week and come and work with university staff here at the University of Melbourne and the archive. We have the [Germaine] Greer Archive and a whole range of amazing resources here to actually support teachers to stop, take the time and connect contemporary Australian writing with other kinds of resources and artefacts and texts to support their writing.

ASTRID: That is a beautiful. They will be very happy.

MAXINE: Teachers as primary researchers.

LARISSA: Absolutely.

MAXINE: And I think this is this is a marvellous project that has... that Larissa has conceived and nursed all the way through. And I think it absolutely addresses one of the things that we know about schools, which are we know they are very very busy, often stressed places. So if you think of teachers certainly preparing students for whether it's the HSC the VCE these very high pressure years, what they need is, if you like I think, help from professionals at places like University of Melbourne to sort of guide them to great resource material, and say, 'Hey, we're going to give you time'. And again, the beauty of Larissa's work - she's accessed a small amount of funding so that, you know, we can provide relief time for those teachers to come out of school for a week, do the work, develop those tools that can then be applied and hopefully used by others.

ASTRID: And hopefully engage students in a way that some may not be engaged yet with any form of reading let alone Australian literature.

LARISSA: I think it's it is important to emphasise that - and I often say this we're talking about teaching - no English teacher wants to do a poor job or an insufficient job. And so we do have to recognise the system and the material conditions where... And we also need to recognise that there will be schools and teachers doing fantastic things with Australian literature.

But if we want to make comprehensive and sustained change in this area then we need to think differently about the ways that we are going about this. And so this is one way of providing time, one way of really honouring the work that teachers can do and recognising them as researchers and actually as... You know, what we need now I'm going to argue is not is not developing resources necessarily outside of teacher's work but with teachers, because it's all about taking ownership of that as well, which is you know is really significant for us. So we hope to be able to scale this up but we're starting this year with the pilot.

ASTRID: That's brilliant news. Now we've been talking broadly about Australian literature, but that is no longer just Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. It is vibrant and diverse. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there is on the national curriculum a requirement to study Asian Australian literature and also a requirement to study literature by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And if I have missed something, there is no requirement to study different genders is there?

LARISSA: No.

ASTRID: Tell me about this.

LARISSA: So the issue of gender and text selection is one that I think is still something that communities are trying to come to terms with. So while many of us who are reading would see that gender diversity is something of contemporary writing and in fact not just contemporary writing gender diversity has been with us in texts for extremely long time. If we want to talk about Shakespeare as well, but there's...

And this is where this is the I guess the thorny issue of the intersection of the selection of texts with what is perceived to be community standards, which are often very conservative community standards. So if you look around the text selection guidelines in many states in this nation you'll see something like 'texts are selected according to representation of Aboriginal Australians, of diverse peoples'. You know, there might be a nineteenth century, there might - if in New South Wales - be Shakespeare on the list. But we don't have that sense really, we'll talk about women and men, there will be a sense of women and men, but beyond that there's not some restrictions or even guidance around that. And that is because of this other clause which is around community standards which are often conservative. So there's a conversation that we need to have about what is actually the role of literature in the world.

ASTRID: Going back to what you've first said in this episode, Larissa, that the stories that we read are the stories that we tell ourselves and that we go on to live. If our students are not reading many, if any, work by non male writers. What does that mean for their view of the world?

LARISSA: Well it is extraordinary. What it means is because you believe that the most important stories are not told by women or people who have multiple sexualities or a whole range in the great spectrum of what is diverse sexuality. The story then, in a very - what we've known since the 1970s and 1960s is an entirely kind of patriarchal way of understanding the world - is being reproduced in that way. And I guess that's the other thing that we need to make really clear, perhaps the hidden curriculum, when we select texts that we've selected for a very long time, we are often selecting texts by white male writers. So we are endorsing that as important, valued and valuable literature. Right now and right here.

ASTRID: So I did a bit of poking around and please correct me if I've missed something. Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin in 2012 and her work is listed on the New South Wales curriculum as a potential text that could be studied. There are quite a few other male, white male, Miles Franklin winners around, they were all listed in more advanced English than Anna's text, and I couldn't see any Stella Prize winners anywhere on the curriculum.

LARISSA: Well, I'd say they're probably not there, Astrid. And that's going to be a range of reasons. It may be that The Stella Prize - what what a wonderful list it is - but what we're dealing with, and again this is this this notion of community standards, so there's often a reluctance to talk about violence, there's often a reluctance to talk about some of the more real aspects of life that literature does represent and setting it for students. So you'll be aware that there's a whole range of discourse around trigger warnings for literature, which we could talk about another whole discussion about. But it may be that The Stella isn't there because it's contemporary, or it's it's going to take a long time to get on the list. It may not be there simply because you have a list that you've got a long way out and it takes it takes time, or it may be because some of the texts that have been shortlisted are dealing with issues that are considered to be dangerous fictions for young people

MAXINE: Yes if I could suggest this, that is that at a time when if you like we could argue we're becoming more tribal, when our public language is often or public rhetoric from the political class is often dominated by questions of fear and security, insecurity, all this kind of thing, it's interesting to see the crossover. And again I talk to those in teaching universities quite a lot, they worry that the feedback from students is that they are often unsettled by stories that don't immediately conform to their own experience. It's almost as if they are fearful of something that challenges their own familial norms or whatever. Now again I find this a bit sad because we only learn when we stretch ourselves and all the rest of it. So when I look at the of The Stella lists for instance, you know people like Melissa Lukashenko, and Maria Tumarkin and Enza Gandolfo, writers who are taking you into a different time, different context and all of that, but I.. it struck me... I find it interesting and curious and as I say, something we've really got to tackle to encourage our students to be less fearful and to say, 'Be exploratory and take a risk here'. And to take a risk in the literary world - not the real world - but to actually learn something about your own parameters by going into a story like this.

ASTRID: I would agree completely. Literature is the safest way to learn about experiences that you don't have and you don't have to have or you will never have.

And if literature confronts you that's a beautiful thing because maybe it is beyond your experience, but that doesn't mean you should remain ignorant of it.

MAXINE: It's interesting, I interviewed Tegan Bennett Daylight recently, who teaches at or has taught at various universities, and she said that she was teaching Helen Garner's books from the 1960s with first, second year university students, and they felt a bit uncomfortable by those sort of, the loose hippie arrangements of the 1960s, this kind of thing, and she found that a bit perplexing. But it is, you know, I can't imagine that but that's what you're getting from contemporary students.

LARISSA: And their parents, we should say.

ASTRID: And their parents. Can you please explain to me, I guess... In my final year of school, final two years of school, I studied Shakespeare's Othello and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Now there is murder, there is suicide, there is marital rape, there is domestic violence, there is war. We can't... you know, if you really unpack it, there are significant and traumatising subjects in there. And I don't remember being traumatised from it, but maybe it was okay because it was Shakespeare and it wasn't contemporary Australia.

MAXINE: I do remember being terrified by Banquo's ghost at a school production, that's good it

ASTRID: But in terms of what, you know, what our parents want, what our communities accept, why is it okay to bring up those subjects in Shakespeare and not in contemporary Australian liter

LARISSA: Well I think it's... There's a range of answers here, but one is probably that we have accepted as canon certain kinds of texts, and the notion of those canonical texts as valid forms of literature, important forms of literature, trumps our concerns about some of the aspects that are in there. I have a colleague working in the UK who tells the wonderful story of having set a contemporary young adolescent text when he was a teacher, and and parents being very concerned about some of the content of this text and said they really didn't want their young person to be reading this because it did have some forms of violence and in fact a suicide and he said, 'Well, that's absolutely your right of course, you know, we could find other things. But do be aware that we are doing Romeo and Juliet next term. Now how do you feel about that?' And they looked at him in surprise you know, 'Why wouldn't we be? Why wouldn't we be?'

So, there is something about the contemporaneous nature of a text that gives us greater concern, or gives us as a community greater concern, and obviously we do have - and and we shouldn't and are certainly not meaning to - trivialise wellbeing issues. We know that wellbeing issues are significant in schools and that we have many more students than we've certainly registered in the past facing a whole range of issues. and

ASTRID: And universities.

LARISSA: That's right. So literature is a kind of interface, you know, this notion of what is the danger and the risk for the student is really being explored. And so some of those issues, you know, while certainly I think well why don't we have trigger warnings for you know the history of the revolutions or, you know, other forms of of disciplines that we have in schools. But there is something about story and narrative that obviously concerns people in terms of the way in which you might take it into your life. Now as people who are invested in reading and literature we understand literature is not your own life but that's the issue, I think.

MAXINE: But you make an interesting point. I mean it's as if you know there's one rule for something that was written 500 years ago or even 2000 years ago. If we look at the Greek classics and goodness knows every theme and every frailty and flaw in human nature has been explored. What I find interesting is so many in our contemporary writers if you like are going back to Homer and all of the other you know if you like the classic stories and drawing inferences. Why? Because human nature does not change.

ASTRID: Marcus Zusak's Bridge of Clay, published just a few months ago, went straight back to Homer. It's all about the Odyssey.

LARISSA: And it's interesting because it does seem that those selecting texts for curricula are also emboldened and encouraged by those kinds of links. So Malouf's Ransom has had a very good outing across the curriculum. So it is something about those links with earlier texts that also perhaps when we're looking at Australian literature gives us reassurance. We could unpack that further too.

ASTRID: We could. Now most of the listeners of The Garret are writers, Australian writers. Can we just talk through a little bit about what this means for Australian writers, what it means for an Australian writer to get on the national curriculum but also studied in schools, and how over time we can improve this.

LARISSA: So certainly accessing the groups and institutions that are creating resources, it seems to be really important to both get... to be able to speak to your to your text and to show how that text could be used within a school curriculum and where it might fit in is really fantastic, and as we've said, there's great people doing that. But I think also how it might be able to be used for assessment purposes, which is another aspect, and when we're talking about what do we need to change, well we could also make a fundamental change if we had assessment actually asking students what have they learnt about Australian literature? Or what have they learnt about being Australian through a reading of Australian literature? That simple question would radically change...

ASTRID: It seems revolutionary.

LARISSA: Would radically change that. And if we think it's important then we also need to be lobbying or working with curriculum authorities to present the argument as to why contemporary fiction is very important.

ASTRID: So who is doing that now? You mentioned Reading Australia before. Who else should Australian writers consider engaging with?

LARSSA: So we have the Aus Lit database which is the University of Queensland. We have Reading Australia. The Stella is also obviously working through their remit. And each state actually has a professional association who is working to provide professional learning for their teachers, so it's really important to connect with those and the Australian Association for the teaching of English, obviously the national group. So being able to connect with those professional associations who are advocating Australian literature is is another important step. State conferences, being able to take the opportunity to speak at those places as well. So often we have writers speaking at festivals, which is fantastic and we have a lot of school students coming in and teachers coming in, but it's making that link to say, 'This is inspiring and very engaging. Now how? Where is the resource and how would I develop that?' That's that next step that we need to make.

MAXINE: I'd also mentioned as well that The Stella plays an important role here with their schools program. And they have had various programs in schools around the country. It would be very interesting to look at the evaluation of that over time and what the feedback is and what I guess the progress that leads to in various schools.

The other important link here I think is the role of libraries in schools. I mean, regrettably in many state schools now you do not have a library or if you have a library you don't have a dedicated librarian. Now, many state governments are trying to redress this. I mean most of the independent schools would be well served in this area. But it's so important again particularly in regions where you may not have well stocked community libraries to have school libraries and a librarian who is very conscious of all these issues that we're talking about and has got a well stocked you know a group of shelves devoted to Australian literature. And the link there with writers I think is obvious. If I were, if I were teaching English across schools I would be drawing on a range of contemporary writers, inviting them in, having mini mini writers festivals. I drive the principal mad about that. a lot

LARISSA: And a lot of schools are certainly doing that and we know...

MAXINE: That's right.

LARISSA: ... a range of schools in metropolitan Melbourne in New South Wales are doing that, but it is making sure that these resources are available right across the nation.

The other thing that I think is really important and where research I think needs to be done is that very little has taken into account of the student voice in this debate and argument. So the value of, you know we heard from Maxine what is the value of having read Australian literature for your own development your own thinking your own sense of imagination and the stories you do want to tell of your life? So that I think is another aspect of actually having students to respond to some of these contemporary works so that teachers and curriculum writers can see the value of that is really important.

ASTRID: My final question. What can parents do?

LARISSA: Be readers.

ASTRID: That is wonderful advice.

LARISSA: One of the things that I just wanted to contribute here is thinking about auditing your own reading. So this comes from Alfred Tatum, the University of Illinois, this notion that we all have a book print. And he has encouraged people to list the five or six texts that they think have been really significant for them. Now when you do that and you look at what what's being represented here in terms of gender, in terms of genre, in terms of nation and world it can reflect your own reading experience. And so I guess I would encourage parents to think about that, to think about what are the texts and whether they be magazine texts or whatever it might be, and then think about well how do we actually feed into the education of our children and our students so that they might have a different book print to me, and I might enhance my own book print as I go through this process. So it is about understanding the great breadth of opportunity that is there, but also recognising that in a settler society, in a colonised society certain things have been... messages have been given to us as truths, and that it's going to continue to take work for us to unpack and unravel and rethink. And that's the job that we face now.

MAXINE: We've all got a common interest here. So I must say to to all of The Garret writers who are part of that wonderful network out there, if you'd like to support our project please get in touch with either Larissa or myself at the University of Melbourne, because we don't just want this to be a pilot. And as Larissa always says, we don't want to go on admiring the problem. We want this to be a program that can be sustained. So if you'd love to support us in any way we'd love to hear from you.

I am so looking forward to it. Larissa and Maxine thank you so much for helping us do something a little different on The Garret.

LARISSA: Thank you.

MAXINE: Lovely to have joined you.