ACU program gives new meaning to street theatre

Sydney actors who have graduated from the streets and even from prison will next week perform a Michael Gow play in the conclusion to an innovative program co-organised by Australian Catholic University.

The Australian reports actors including one who has been in prison for assault, another who suffered from "self-imposed imprisonment" resulting from depression and a former heroin addict are among those preparing to perform Michael Gow's play Away at the Aquinas Academy in Sydney's Rocks next week.

The Clemente program organised by ACU in collaboration with Mission Australia and St Vincent de Paul was set up to teach the humanities to people who have graduated from the university of the streets.

If they complete four courses, people who are homeless or otherwise dispossessed can get into a real university, says associate professor Michael Griffith, who teaches the course in Australian literature.

His students pored over poems by Judith Wright and analysed David Malouf's novel Remembering Babylon before they started talking about Away, a work set in Australia in the 1960s, which begins with a play within a play: a performance of a fragment of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Former heroin addict John van Gulick was in his first year of recovery, living in the Wesley Mission residence in the Sydney suburb of Liverpool, when he heard about the Clemente program.

Van Gulick says the courses he has taken since have helped get him through the tedious part of recovery and have given him more confidence. Van Gulick has completed courses in Australian history, art history and an introduction to literature.

Anissa Chatt was homeless at the time she was sitting for the Higher School Certificate, and "bloody lucky to finish it," she says. A fine-featured 24-year-old, Chatt was fired from her job at IBM last year because of chronic illness and her life took a downward spiral from there.

Four years ago Peter Howard, an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University, created the program in his spare time. It began in Sydney, spread to Brisbane and will go to Melbourne and Canberra next year.

"A university has responsibility for all people in the community," Howard says.

The template for his course came from the US. It was a humanities program for low-income people on New York's Lower East Side organised by author Earl Shorris.

When Shorris was researching New American Blues, a book about poverty, he happened to speak to Viniece Walker, a woman in prison in upstate New York who he credits with giving him the germ of the idea that grew into a program now taught in two dozen universities in the US.

If people were to be given some hope of avoiding poverty, Walker told him, "You've got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures."

In this country, the Clemente program has just won the Federal Government's Carrick Award for "exceptional teaching and learning initiatives".

ACU National awarded for quality teaching and learning

ACU National's achievements in undergraduate teaching have also been recognised with $500,000 in Federal Government funding, according to a statement released by the university.

It marks the second year in a row ACU National has been recognised by the Government�s Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, the latest round of which was announced this week by Minister for Education, Science and Training, the Hon Julie Bishop MP.

The 2007 fund recognises performance by 30 Australian universities with a total funding pool of $83 million.

ACU National Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) Professor Gabrielle McMullen said the University was extremely pleased to be recognised for its commitment to quality teaching and learning.

"ACU National is delighted to gain this support through the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund for the second year running," Professor McMullen said.

"This excellent outcome reflects ACU National's status among Australian universities, with an academic tradition of quality teaching and learning dating back to the mid-1800s.

"It also affirms the University's Mission, which seeks to provide excellent higher education for its diverse and dispersed student population.

A move away from the school of hard knocks (The Australian, 14/12/06)
ACU National awarded for quality teaching and learning (ACU National Media Release, 13/12/06)

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