Oxford is English Conference 2014: a re-cap

Amanda Louey, our Secondary Editorial Assistant, provides a re-cap of our ‘Oxford is English Conference’ which was held on Friday 22 August 2014  in Melbourne.

Teachers travelled from all over Victoria to attend our ‘Oxford is English Conference 2014’ and we even had the opportunity to welcome some South Australian and Tasmanian teachers! As well as participating in a range of workshops that included the practicalities of grammar skills, assessment in English, publishing apps for children and how the dictionary can be used as a classroom resource, teachers also heard from an impressive line-up of keynote speakers comprising VCAA English curriculum manager, Sean Box; director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, Dr Amanda Laugesen; and the incomparable author Thomas Keneally. Read on for some of the highlights from these keynote speakers.

‘Literacy is everyone’s business; English is a discipline’
Sean Box kicked off the day with the first keynote, ‘The Future of Australian English Education – a VCAA update’. A key point Sean made was that while it is true aspects of English underpin education in a general sense –language, grammar and the craft of writing are basic skills required in everyday life – English is itself a distinguished discipline with its own unique demands. He went on to make the bold statement that ‘Research by Nutall showed that half (and perhaps more) of all material taught in any class is already known by students.’ Responses from teachers in the audience both agreed and disagreed, but one pointed out that while students may have encountered the material to some degree before, it does not necessarily mean this knowledge of the material has been applied. Sean agreed, adding that diversity in classrooms is an ever-present challenge. Sean finished his keynote with an energetic Q&A session with the audience, the extent of the questions highlighted the fact that for many teachers, the current curriculum landscape is confusing. Sean’s parting words were that teachers will shape the future of English ­and for them, these are exciting times.

‘Dictionaries emphasise the local within the global’
After a short break for morning tea (the banana bread was a winner), Amanda Laugesen gave the second keynote, ‘Why Australian English Matters’. The first Australian dictionary was published by Oxford University Press in 1976 and addressed the post-war scholarly interest in Australian English and locally developed words that aligned with a growing sense of Australian nationalism. Today, there have been whispers that Australian slang is dying out, attributed to, perhaps, the ‘maturing’ of our nation and a growing trend towards adopting American slang. Amanda refutes this, citing that it is the nuances in our everyday English – ‘facewasher’, ‘light globe’ and ‘seachange’ – and its reflection of the diversity of languages in Australia, including indigenous languages, that proves the necessity of  an Australian English. Amanda ended her keynote with the explanation that dictionaries have multiple functions, an important one being that they record the changes in a language and can emphasise the local within the global.

NB. The Australian National Dictionary Centre is currently working on a new edition of the Oxford Australian National Dictionary and will be including many more examples of Australian slang, so watch this space! In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Australian English have a look at our online edition of the current Australian National Dictionary, which is free to access. And if you want to know more about Australian slang, follow our blog to read our Oxford Word of the Month or check out Stunned Mullets & Two-Pot Screamers on our website.

‘Educators are like writers, words are our tools. That is why books matter’
Our final keynote on ‘Why Australian Books Matter’ was delivered by none other than Thomas Keneally! Keneally held the audience enthralled with his poignant anecdotes and engaging wit. Keneally’s cheeky pearls of wisdom had the entire audience laughing; I include some of them here for your entertainment!

‘No one says, “My life was changed by a maths teacher”’
‘Sometimes a book is written to pay the alimony’
‘The only way to learn to write a novel is by writing one, even a bad one!’
‘There were no writers’ festivals back then, where writers could go to talk about their problems’

However, there was a serious note to Keneally’s address. He emphasised the influence that English teachers can have on budding writers and spoke from personal experience; as a student in the 50s, writing was not encouraged or supported as a valued career path, ‘Growing fine wool, fighting in wars, playing cricket – not writing!’ he quipped. But Keneally’s English teacher could see something in his work and encouraged him to keep at it, to simply keep writing. We should all thank that English teacher!

Keneally’s final and most emphatic point to his audience of English teachers was that ‘it is you who are lifelong influencers of your students. You might not ever know it, but they will. And they will remember you their entire lives’.

It just leaves me to say a big ‘thank you’ to all the attending teachers who, with their engagement and energy, helped make the day such a success, and to all of our speakers and those running workshops for providing such a great learning experience.

Thomas Keneally, Oxford conference

Thomas Keneally with some of the Oxford staff

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