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Seventy six year old Helen O'Neill/Sister Leonie graduates PhD from the University of Canterbury

Dorothy - 10/08/07


Helen O'Neill/Sister Leonie at her graduation
Helen O'Neill/Sister Leonie at her graduation
Photo credit: Simon Petersen, University of Canterbury
Click here to view a larger version

Helen O'Neill's impressive achievement of graduating PhD when a senior citizen has been featured on the six o'clock news on TV1 and CTV and in various print publications.
Since then a number of people have been asking three questions.

  1. Why did she want to return to serious study?
  2. What did she have to do to qualify for the PhD?
  3. How did she overcome the difficulties resulting from her limited mobility?

The short answers

  1. Helen (also known as Sister Leonie) had never stopped putting her keen mind to work on a series of intellectual challenges presented by teaching and examining people interested in speech and drama, and she was passionate about sharing poetry with her students. The return to university study happened in stages as a result of these interests.
  2. The work involved in gaining a PhD filled a great part of her life for over three years, but she was fired to carry on because of her passionate interest in poetry and her sadness that so many young people were leaving school without being introduced to the life-enriching experience of studying poetry. The title of her thesis is
    Once preferred, now peripheral:
    the Place of Poetry in the Teaching of English
    in the New Zealand Curriculum for
    year 9, 10 and 11 students
  3. Her enthusiasm for the topic and the courage with which she has faced all the difficulties of her impaired mobility over many years enabled her to endure walking problems and to ride her battery-powered chair (affectionately called Genni-Roe) to the limits of its travel to get the evidence needed to support her case for educational change.

Helen in her battery-powered chair
Helen in her battery-powered chair
Photo source: Peter Hunt
Click here to view a larger version

For the fuller answers read on.

Helen told me about two children who had seen her graduation on television and were discussing what it meant.

One said, “She's so old! What is she back at school for? Surely you would know enough not to have to do that at her age.”

Her sister replied, “You can never know enough. There is always more you can learn – if someone gives you a push.”

Helen's comment on this conversation was that the second sister summed up the situation wisely, as it had required persuasion from the English Department staff who believed in her ability, and the support of the Sisters of Mercy (her religious congregation) to keep her studying for seven years!

How did it begin?
Helen was booked to go to Australia as a speech examiner for Trinity College London. In part of the syllabus candidates were to read from chosen novels and be able to discuss them. Being a person who believes in thorough preparation she wanted to brush up her knowledge of Australian literature. She discovered that a paper on Young Adult Fiction was being offered by the English Department of Canterbury University for the BA Honours course and would include material on Australian literature. She had graduated with a BA in English at Canterbury University thirty eight years earlier so she was qualified to enrol.

After an interview with Dr Dennis Walker, Head of the English Department, she was finally persuaded to do a full BA Honours course. As a Sister of Mercy she needed the approval of the Order and Sister Mary Catherwood, the leader, strongly encouraged her to go ahead. She enrolled for papers on the early and late plays of Shakespeare, Young Adult Fiction and Literary Theory requiring weekly lectures and assignments, and an extended essay on the poetry of Seamus Heaney – one of her favourite poets – with monthly supervision.

The one paper that she found extremely difficult was Literary Theory as she was in a class of six and the other students had studied the topic in their third year. However she passed all her papers and graduated BA Honours, First Class, in English.

What next?
Her objective had been reached and she could cease to be a university student. At each stage of her study she did not look beyond her present course. She was involved in the process of her study and not concerned about outcomes. She believed that she would go no further. However, Professor David Gunby, of the English Department, urged her to enrol for a PhD. When she firmly refused he suggested that instead she enrol for a Masters course doing a 40,000 word thesis spread over two years.

She finally agreed and embarked on a thesis on the poetry of Michael Harlow, a Christchurch poet – now living in Alexandra. She was already familiar with his poetry through creative writing courses and was attracted by the Jungian influence in his work.

The study involved in this exercise became an exciting voyage of discovery as Harlow gave her original material, discussed the origin of his poems, and gave her Landfall articles about how a poet builds a poem. She learnt more about the writing of poetry as well as reading it. She was then able to discuss her material with her supervisor, the poet, Rob Jackaman, in an interview each month.

At the end of two years her thesis was complete.
“Making the Unconscious Conscious through Language
The Jungian Influence in the Writing of Michael Harlow.”

Helen passed her MA with distinction.

Persuasion again changes Helen's intentions
Helen once again told Professor Gunby that she had done enough study, but he countered this with a question. “What do you want to do before you die?”

Helen's reply:
“I want to restore poetry to its rightful place in the English curriculum.”

Being told that presenting the case for her wish to come true could be the subject of a PhD thesis settled her indecision. With the support once again of the Sisters of Mercy she embarked on the required three to four years full-time study of intensive research.

Because her topic covered English and Education she was given two supervisors – Professor Gunby from the English Department and Dr Elody Rathgen from the Education Department, both from the University of Canterbury.

Helen felt sympathy with the teachers who were carrying a heavy teaching load and were scheduled a short time to teach English and poetry, but she also felt concern for the students who were missing out on poetry. She had to gather the information, build a defence of her proposal, present all the material in the academic form required for a PhD thesis, submit copies to three assessors, and finally conduct an oral defence in the presence of one of the external assessors. This was such an involved process that it actually took three years and three months of concentrated effort.

Why does Helen believe teaching poetry is so important?
In her thesis she writes:
“Poetry has undoubted value in the English programme as a literary text and plays a major role in the imaginative development of students …. and in stimulating in them the ability to interpret layers of meaning in a brief text. Having taught poetry for nearly sixty years, I am convinced that depriving students of this essential aspect of the English programme condemns them to a narrow range of skills in speaking, writing and reading English.”

Research into the requirements of the curriculum
Her first task was to investigate what was said about poetry in the curriculum. From 1945 to 1980 teaching poetry was mentioned as an element of English, encouraged by some teachers, ignored by others. In the 1980s unit standards were introduced for all subjects, followed by the achievement standards for NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement). Here the emphasis was on language and literacy rather than literature.

Questionnaire to schools
Helen sent a questionnaire to the heads of English in 36 secondary schools. Fifty eight copies were returned from Heads of Department (HODs) and other teachers who personally requested a chance to respond. The findings from these surveys related to teachers' qualifications, attitudes to poetry among teachers and students, poets whose works had been taught and the use of poetry within subjects other than English, such as Social Studies.

Interviews with individual teachers
This was followed by interviews in several schools of different types – high and low decile, co-educational and single-sex – chosen, mainly, because they were all within the range of travel possible by Genni-Roe. Interviews were collated, edited and recorded involving many hours' work.

Questionnaires to Canterbury University students taking English 102
These were answered in only five minutes at the start of the lecture period, giving further insight into young people's attitude to poetry and the teaching of poetry in their school years. Of the 150 students who took part 105 had left school since 2000. Most replied that they do not read, enjoy or study poetry, 40% indicated that they wrote poetry in their own time. Few said they used to answer questions on poetry in examinations.

Attendance at lectures at the Christchurch College of Education (CCE)
To gain an insight into what help is given to teacher-trainees to teach English at all levels, Helen was given permission to attend classes taught by Ronnie Davey to students at college. This meant three journeys a week for five weeks to the CCE, a distance just possible on Genni-Roe, frequently with a 7am start. It confirmed for Helen that these teacher-trainees went into the schools with a range of strategies for arousing students' interest in English by way of poetry.

Survey of teachers who had been teaching English since 2000
CCE-trained teachers who had been teaching English since 2000 reported that using poetry as a way in to teaching English had been successful with classes in years 9 and 10, but less successful in year 11. A few taught poetry in years 12 and 13, but changes of teacher made continuity difficult.

Questionnaire on memories of poetry in the school years and the impact of that study
Helen sent questionnaires to some of her former students whom she had taught in school classes or as private speech and drama students since 1954. All 72 respondents were enthusiastic about studying poetry. They said that they had benefited in later life and in their various occupations from their improved understanding of the impact of language, the training in memorising poetry or the confidence gained from speaking poetry in front of an audience.

Research into poetry in the current English curriculum and NCEA 1
Investigation of the place of poetry in the curriculum and the effect of examinations upon teaching poetry gave further insights. Teachers regretted that poetry is often omitted because of an “over-stuffed” English programme which included short and extended fiction, print media, hyper-fiction, speeches, presentation material, drama and creative writing. Students looked for the easier options.

After detailed work on the appendices and the bibliography and many revisions and polishing of the final draft Helen submitted her thesis and some months later was successful in the oral defence.

She was delighted to have achieved her objective and expressed great appreciation of the unfailing support of Professor Gunby and Dr Rathgen, and of the Sisters of Mercy.

Their support at each stage of the journey, she believes, shows the presence of God in her life and that her work will ultimately enrich the lives of all young students. This is in keeping with her vocation as a Sister of Mercy whose mission is to help others.

Editor's comment
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