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Not for ourselves alone

Mount Barker High School

Before I die

Bloggees (Is that a word?) might remember reading an earlier contribution to the blog by Robyn, an English teacher in our school. She wrote about using art and poetry to help her students develop a greater sense of optimism. She’s back with another piece about work she did with her class as an end of year activity.

One of the things I like about teaching English is that you can take your students on a bit of a sideways leap and, provided it involves speaking, listening, reading or writing, no one asks any questions. The beauty of this is that once you have a class ‘on side’ they’ll accept all sorts of wacky ideas and go with the flow. Positive Psychology has helped me see the value in giving students opportunities to think about their place in the world and to make some conscious decisions about what they can do to make it a place they want to be. Sometimes, we’re so busy asking students to analyse Novel A’s stylistic features, author B’s language techniques and Character C’s internal motivation, that we forget to ask students about themselves. And I look at some of them with their desperate insecurities, pathetic bravado and paper-thin self-esteem, then multiply that tenfold, to factor in the crippling effect of social media… and reflect on how pleased I am not to be fourteen.

A brief item on the radio one morning prompted me to research an American artist named Candy Chung whose close friend had died, far too young and far too suddenly. Haunted by thoughts of all the great things in life her friend would miss out on, Chung dealt with her grief by deciding to challenge people about their priorities in life. Bizarrely, she chose to paint the entire wall of a derelict building in her neighbourhood, covering it in blackboard paint, stencilling on the words, ‘Before I die I want to…’ and leaving a container of chalk. Expecting it to be ignored or painted over, Chung was amazed two days later to find ‘her’ wall covered in people’s responses. Her idea has taken off and there are now many ‘Before I die’ walls around the world… even a ‘Before I die’ telegraph pole in Unley apparently. Not surprisingly, there is also a ‘Before I die’ website.

Before I Die

It was just the kind of thing I like to do with students occasionally and decided it might be an entertaining last-week-of-term activity with my Year 8s and 9s before school finished last year. However, I knew at least two students in these classes had been dealing with the sudden, shocking death of a close family member and so I initially hesitated, thinking that ‘Before I die’ might be too confronting. But sometimes you need to take a risk, and having taught these students all year, I felt I knew them pretty well and it was a risk worth taking. So we had a look at some of the ‘Before I die’ sites, had a bit of fun yelling out some of the strange things people had written, wrote down a few of our own, then shared the ones we were prepared to share.

One of the really interesting things was the diversity of wishes – some very silly, some deadly serious, and plenty somewhere in between. And some of the most unlikely students came up with the most imaginative ideas. In just forty minutes, we all learned a whole lot about each other that we hadn’t known before. More importantly, amidst the laughter and silliness, everyone realised that there were many, many things they wanted to do before they died, and we ended the lesson deciding that there’s no time like the present…

Before I die…
…I want to eat my own weight in potato chips. (Victoria)
…I want to learn more about my family’s history. (Nathan)
…I want to save a life. (Adele)
…I want to learn to be a blacksmith. (Rianne)
…I want to perform in a world-famous ballet. (Catherine)
…I want to walk gracefully in heels. (Jamie)
…I want to register as an organ donor. (Leah)
…I want to skinny dip with dolphins. (Lachie)
…I want to see me how everyone else sees me. (Alex)
…I want to live life, laugh lots and love forever. (Louise)
…I want to wrestle a crocodile, then eat it. (Billy)
…I want to feel pretty. (Courtney)
…I want to meet Kofi Annan. (Matt)
…I want to kiss a random person in a Lolly Shop, whilst wearing a pirate costume. (Bri)
…I want to write a best-selling novel. (André Gerard)
…I want to meet someone with the exact same name as me. (Chloe)
…I want to audition for ‘The X-Factor’. (Ashley)
…I want to live an extraordinary life. (Rachel)

And finally, Joseph (who is going to be very busy indeed!) …I want to fight a lion, swim in honey, meet the Jamaican relay team, ski naked, moto-cross wearing a tu-tu, find a cure for cancer and live in a cave with penguins.

Robyn, English teacher