Trial HSC 2019
I have often considered resitting my HSC; I’ve thought about what subjects I would choose, how to best study, how to extend myself and basically how to improve on my shabby attempt the first time around. At high school I followed my creative passions without a shred of good advice on achieving a decent TER (today the ATAR). I did drama, biology, struggled through maths, English Standard, a defunct subject called General Studies and three whole units of Art; I still have my twisted, oversized clay chess set. I was also one of those rare kids who achieved a band six in English Standard. The Advanced class were so pretentious I didn’t feel worthy to breathe their air, so I ‘dropped’. To this day I can’t remember all the texts I studied for the HSC except for Chinua Achibe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ and the poetry of Wilfred Owen. The only quote I remember of his is… ‘warmed once the clays of a cold star’ and I’m pretty sure the cold star is Earth, but the earth isn’t a star so…
In my eight-year teaching career, I’ve always reflected on what works. Teachers get so annoyed with inattentive behaviour and lack of attendance for good reason. If the students aren’t there, we can’t teach them. I read an article a few years back where a teacher spent two weeks as a Year 11 student and discovered- among other things- that it is not comfortable to sit all day long and that many students feel as if they are a source of mild to moderate irritation for most teachers. Putting yourself in the shoes of your students is a good thing. When a fellow teacher sat the trial HSC in Modern History last year, I became fixated on doing the same thing myself. This year I organised my timetable so I could do Standard Paper 1 ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ and Paper 2 ‘Modules’. I made sure to let the students know before so they wouldn’t be thrown off on the day. I implemented a revision schedule in class, and did the same revision exercises myself. At home I studied by reviewing my notes and wrote a couple of essays under timed conditions. Of course you’re probably judging my experience as a non-authentic one, so I’ll address that first. I set the paper, so I knew what the exam questions were. When I sent it off for printing, I deliberately put it out of my mind. The practice questions we’d been using in class were not too different from the trial questions. The real advantage I had was in Mod C ‘The Craft of Writing’ which I knew was in two parts: a twelve mark discursive response followed by an eight mark reflection. What really made the difference in my preparation was my excellent attendance to class and the fact that I had taught the content. If you can design lessons where students teach the content to their classmates, everyone wins.
Back to my exam experience.
I had lots of things in common with the students. The night before my exam I read over my practice essay for ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ and went to bed early. I was looking forward to the short answer questions and my essay about ‘Past the Shallows’- a contemporary Australian prose fiction novel by Favel Parrett . In the ten minutes reading time I only just finished reading all the ‘unseen’ texts. Standard students are required to do much more reading than in the past, and the restructuring of the exam means that they have some common content with Studies, some only for Standard and some in common with Advanced. This is huge challenge for slow readers. The questions got harder as the section progressed, but I genuinely enjoyed doing the short answers. You don’t have to remember quotes for this section, and get to apply your understanding of language features- which for me is pretty extensive. I have an arts major in writing but honestly, I’ve learnt more about textual analysis from teaching high school than I did at university. True story.
In the exam I managed my time and reveled in the silence of exam conditions. I could hear every clack of a teacher’s heel on the floorboards and the muted din of the schoolyard at lesson changeover. I am adept at writing fast, so my hand flew across the page. I also felt like a fraud at times because I couldn’t remember my quotes word for word, and had to take my own advice to try to get them down as best I could. I tell students that if they have time left, to go back and add another paragraph because there may be more marks in there somewhere…but I didn’t follow my own advice. I finished ten minutes early and one of my colleagues, supervising the exam, joked that I should go back and check over my work. The new English Paper 1 is shorter than it was last year and at 1.5 hours it was over pretty quick. I had to get back to teaching so I didn’t get to go home and lay on the couch like the kids did.
Getting up and doing it all again the next day was the real kicker. Paper 2 is longer at two hours, is divided into three sections, and it’s up to the students to manage their time. I looked at the clock from my desk at the back of the hall and worked out my timing. I tell my students they need to finish all sections for decent marks, so I had this in my mind. I felt positive about my essay for Mod A ‘Language, Identity and Culture’. Our Standard cohort did a 2016 documentary called Reindeer in My Saami Heart directed by Australian Janet Merewether. It sympathetically explores the Indigenous Saami culture of Northern Europe, whose experience was very similar that of our stolen generation. The feedback from the students was that it was their favourite module. There’s no way I’d do Henry Lawson here, or The Castle, but each to their own. My Module B essay was about Oodgeroo’s suite of poems written during her visit to China as part of a delegation in 1984. I started an introduction and ended up crossing it out and starting again, to better address the question. I felt I rambled and it was a hard question because it asked ‘to what extent’; the kind of question that used to be reserved for Advanced or Extension students. But I got my quotes out and wrote about five of the seven poems, remembering to include my thoughtful analysis at the end of each body paragraph. Tick. It’s Mod C that seems one of the biggest changes in this latest incarnation of the Stage 6 English syllabus, and it requires a study of some short prescribed texts in a range of textual forms. The focus is on using those texts to build writing skills, and it is those skills- not textual analysis- that are tested in the final exam in this section. The forms of writing have expanded on the old HSC requirements to include persuasive, creative, reflective and discursive writing. Discursive you ask? It’s an essay of sorts, but it can be written with an informal or even humorous tone, and be more of a discussion without having to persuade anyone of a particular viewpoint. Discursive essays can mix information and facts with personal opinions and emotions, and still use a range of language features found in creative writing. A discursive essay may even be similar to what you are reading right now. There have also been a lot of questions on teacher forums about good examples, and some teachers are still uncertain about what is expected. We chose the prescribed text ‘Dear Mrs Dunkley’ by Helen Garner who is one of my favourite non-fiction writers, as an example of a discursive text. I’m not going to disclose how well my students did in this section when I did the marking, but I will say that my students still need to ‘get their heads around’ Mod C. I’m sure ours isn’t the only school in that metaphorical boat. I’m going to share my Mod C discursive and reflection at a local English teacher’s meeting to see how well it meets the marking criteria. I’m a little nervous about that. I also did something in the second paper that I warn my students not to do- I finished early. I was done and did not want to go back or check my work or add more detail. Some of my students left half an hour early too. I frowned to myself, but I was okay with it. There’ll be some filling in of blanks as we move towards the final exam, but that’s part of the process.
The most fulfilling part of the experience was a sense of camaraderie with my students. Afterwards I chatted with a few about how they managed time, how hard it was to remember quotes and how they tackled the trickier questions. These chats will also help me plan a revision schedule. When students asked me why I was sitting the exam, I told them it was so I could be a better teacher who understands the pressures of the exam. I’ve also generated some sample responses we can use for future reference.
On even deeper reflection, I’m not sure why we would ever need to memorise literature in the real world…
The Fantasy Story Project
Below is an adaptation of a foreword I’ve just written for a self-published book which began as the result of a foray into project-based learning (PBL). This was my first proper go at PBL and the skills that come from this kind of learning include group-work, collaboration, higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. Teaching a Year 9 creative writing elective class this year allowed me to find some time- and willing participants- outside of the mainstream English classroom. I adapted a project from a textbook called ‘Project Based Learning for the Australian Curriculum: Are Human’s Wild at Heart?’ by Bianca and Jim Hewes (2016) which I recommend highly and has many ‘ready to go’ project ideas. They also have one for Stage 4 called ‘Why do We Tell Stories?’.
The basic idea was for the class to research fantasy stories that interest eight year olds, to work in groups to write and edit the stories, and to find a Year 2 class to provide the illustrations. I approached a few local primary schools and got a swift response from two teachers at one of our biggest ‘feeder’ schools. My class were excited because many of them had attended that school. Once they knew they had primary school collaborators, they set to work, initially researching what was popular in the fantasy genre and brushing up on what they remembered about being eight. I was working alongside an English teacher whose son was in one of the classes and she accepted our invitation to be interviewed as an ‘expert mum’. This interview was important as it helped my class of fifteen year-olds establish some boundaries around content- especially what might be too scary- and reminded us that silliness, cuddles, toilet jokes and happy endings were important. The class made use of ICT to communicate directly with the illustrators and set up a google classroom to say hello and give feedback and used a google form to collect information about preferred fantasy creatures, setting, protagonists, sidekicks, animals and villains.
Once we had this information the five groups worked on characters and setting and devised plots that could be achieved successfully in stories between 1500 and 2000 words. We ended up with some clever stories about misunderstood dragons, a puppy with a curious secret, missing and found parents, evil witches, vampire unicorns and a boy who is turned into a werewolf when he does badly in a test!
Once we completed the fantasy stories we sent them over to the primary school with a few tips on illustrations. A term later, the illustrations that were delivered to my desk at work were a riot of detail, colour and joy. Below are just a few examples of the amazing work and large volume of images I’ve been working with- the first set are werewolf puppies that can put out fires by barking and vampire unicorns who are eventually thwarted by a pack of brave dogs. I think the writers and the illustrators worked so well on the project because they wanted to impress each other.
What really blew me away was the quality of the art created by the Yr 2 students, and this was definitely due to the artistic direction of their teachers. Each set of illustrations for the different stories are done in a different art form, giving each story a unique aesthetic. In the book there are pencil drawings….
In fact, the volume of illustrations presented me with the biggest challenge in regards to editing and self-publishing the project. I wanted to make sure every child had an image included, and it was impossible to choose between them, so I ended up including double-page spreads, collages and image galleries so readers can see the full range of creative works. The dragon portrait gallery alone has thirty images. Towards the end of the year our project was recognised and supported by a local law firm whose grant for ‘innovation and collaboration’ will cover the initial costs of producing the hard cover art book and will provide both schools with their own copies for the school libraries.
A highlight of the project was when the writers got to meet the illustrators. It was great to hear them discussing the writing process, especially the editing and polishing phases, as well as the importance of balance in regards to the gender of protagonists. We hope to meet up again when the book is published. I use a website called Blurb. I’ve made an ebook version and a magazine version so there are range of price options for parents and the community who may want to purchase their own copies. If you would like information on how to buy a copy, please use the contact form and I’ll get back to you.