Q Station, formerly known as the Quarantine Station at North Head, was the perfect setting for the NSW English Teachers’ Association inaugural Writing Teachers Retreat. Formerly a place of infection and despair, the revitalised Former Men’s Smoking Room was our primary writing space for two days at the beginning of these April school holidays. As event manager and facilitator, I lost some sleep in the lead-up, yet knew we had a wonderful team comprising Susanne Gannon, Associate Professor in Education at Western Sydney University, and Sharyn Stafford, Head of English at Edmund Rice College Wollongong.
We toured the site with Julie Regalado, Education Program Manager, beginning with Acknowledgement to Country in the form of a ‘popcorn’ reading. This is where each participant shares their voice when feeling most moved. Together, we read a poem by Jonathon Hill:
We contemplated the lives of those who had been forced to spend time here, many who left a mark in the sandstone cliffs directly behind the wharf. In contrast to the typical ship crests, flags and simple scratching of names and dates, one Chinese inscription reveals an emotional depth that has been translated as:
sky … or heaven
Fearful of contagion …
Hand-tied, doctors powerless to find a magic remedy
A burst of grief so unbearable that it is inexpressible
I had no leisure for ‘hygiene’
To study the consequences is like looking at the horizon
My friends, this is not a place of pleasure
Be healthy and I bid friends a long life.
Xie Ping De, an ordinary citizen of Min country Early summer of the year of Ding Si (1917)
A brief glimpse into hospital life for both patients and staff was followed by an opportunity to closely examine artefacts cleverly presented in suitcases of former detainees.
Back in the Smoking Room, we spent time creating a character by working with postcard images and writing a category poem. We considered the role of place as character, and after lunch Susanne lead us through different strategies for bringing place to life.
An important component of the retreat was the collaborative approach to writing: reading aloud, sharing inspiration, peer feedback and editing, relating anecdotes from our classroom practice and suggesting practical
Our second day began with a morning walk to the Third Cemetery which is located outside Q Station and within the North Head National Park. Grey skies added to the sombre mood as we contemplated the quiet lives of those memorialised in sandstone, some still visited by family.
Gathering our final thoughts and reflections, we returned to edit our writing using the POWER RAID process developed by Sharyn. We spent the final session discussing classroom possibilities, including action research on understanding the impact our writing identity may have on our students.
The overwhelming positive evaluations point to future possibilities, including the writing retreat as a regular event. Let the planning begin …