Literature shines light of hope for disadvantaged students

Published: Thursday 7th January 2016

Associate Professor Michael Griffith was faced with a class of 20 adult students, all at various stages of remission from alcohol, drug or other forms of addiction, and eager to break into a study of Literature.

These students were part of the Clemente program, which gives disadvantaged Australians access to a university education, and of which ACU is a proud supporter. It is also an example of ACU's commitment to community engagement.

Michael said, “This was brand new territory for most of them. We started discussing poems by Judith Wright, stories by Hemingway, short drama passages from Shakespeare and Louis Nowra.”

“This liberated them into questions about their own experience, it suggested new pathways to them and also gave them a platform to start writing about their own journeys, their hopes and their moments of despair.”

Michael said the Clemente program has broadened his own experience of teaching and has given him a real sense of serving the community.

He has found that students who enroll in Clemente literature, through their strong need to make sense of their lives, bring a depth of insight and understanding to their engagement with texts and ideas.

Michael said this created a powerful learning situation which draws a great deal from the teacher as well as the student:

“When a graduated Clemente student appears in my on-campus literature class a huge expansion of insight takes place for all,” he said.

“Other students respond with awe and amazement at what those with disadvantage have to offer.

“It is not only experience, but dedication, wisdom and a real passion for learning that they bring. This has a powerful effect on the class a whole.”

Michael said Clemente has taught him to reach for levels of understanding that reach out more widely to people’s feelings, emotions and sensitivities.

“It has taught me to ensure that what I have to say is understood and felt; it has taught me to be to be much more open to the voices, the contributions, of those on the margins,” he said.

One student (identity withheld) wrote the following poem:

"Black"

Restored  righteousness

supposedly regenerated,

Oblivious  reality

emotive destruction

rage awakened

Mastering maturity

unashamedly manic

Childish obsession

obtuse distraction

Hunting hurt

past histories

Decadence learned

Insanity beckons

Analytical abuse

completely abstract

Roaring violently

Blackened soul

Tortured tormented

obsequious turmoil

Shattering life

Renewed ambivalance

Dreams shattered

Awakening life

Beginning again

Sanity possible

Two weeks later he wrote the following after a fishing expedition with his father:

"Dancing Dolphins"

Three miles out to sea

Been wettin the lines

Trying to catch what is free

On the shore the distant pines

Sing a story like Clementine's

Sparkling bright  the great blue wonder

A glorious day,  the fish on the bite

This gives me a beautiful time to ponder

There is peace to be had, on the ocean's light

Hoping the big feller will put up a fight

Not much happening as we bob up and down

As I peer intensely into shimmering haze

They came towards us with never a frown

Dancing through the wandering waves

A joyous sight in an awestruck gaze

Together they frolicked around the boat

An intricate tango, innocence and tease

Flying, prancing, dancing too happy to float

He looked me in the eye, I felt a release

With  Dancing Dolphins I had found inner peace!

At the end of the unit this same student wrote:

“The last 12 weeks has been one of the best experiences of my life. Through this introduction to literature I have been exposed to poetry, prose and drama for the first time in my life. It has opened my mind and more importantly my spirit to an art form that I thought I would never understand, let alone be able to do.

“The ability to write, particularly in the form of poetry, has opened a whole new world to me. I have been influenced by all the poetry that I have read and I have learned that not only is poetry an art form but that more importantly it is an educational tool.

“Jack Davis in Urban Aboriginal had a deeply profound affect on my emotional state, causing me to feel guilt and shame at what my ancestors had done to his people, as well as telling the story of what the Aboriginal people went through.

“A beautifully written piece of art and very educational at the same time, this shows me that literature has profoundly affected my life not just educationally and emotionally but also spiritually.”

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