teaching

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.

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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…

If anyone would like a copy of my sample essays, I’m more than willing to share once I type them up. Please email me for copies. Peace. Ms V.

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teaching

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….

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painting…

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collage…

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digital art…

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and watercolours…

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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.

 

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reviews

20 books of 2018

I challenged myself to read twenty books last year and got to sixteen. This year I made the twenty- albeit with a few poetry collections, short story collections and a graphic novel. Some were read for personal pleasure, others for work. Here’s the verdict…

 

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. I had been meaning to read this for a few years. I didn’t like how it started- the choice the boys made- and from there I struggled to enjoy this book. I loved the cricket games, but I found the title character of Jasper one-dimensional. It was overly long.

The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman. I read this when I was mentoring some HSC drama students. A powerful play constructed using first person interviews after the gay hate murder of a young man in Laramie USA. I’ve never seen it performed but the words flew off the page.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. This time and this place and the impact that the division of Germany had on those who lived there, captured by a young Australian journalist. She manages to write as if she is an insider. If you are a history buff, this is a must read.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. I was recommended this book a few years ago and finally got to read it. Temple’s prose is disjointed and fragmented but once I learnt how to read it, I was fully immersed in this Australian crime thriller.

Guitar Highway Rose by Brigid Lowry. I read this with the intention to teach it. The class was shared with a teacher who wanted to teach this novel, but I struggled to enjoy it. It seemed a little bit too cool for school, and as we were doing a unit called ‘texts in time’ about context, I suggested a different text might work better. And this leads me to the next book….

Animal Farm by George Orwell. And what a great choice it was. I am embarrassed that I am quite new to Orwell, but imagine my delight to read this criticism of the post-Russian revolution time period. And when Boxer got taken to the glue factory, and a girl in the class yelled out f*** this book, I knew we were ‘in the zone’. What a diligent and clever writer Orwell is.

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The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover. This is the fictionlised autobiography of Orwell as he wrote 1984. He knew he was dying, he knew that his disease was impacting on the way he perceived the world, and he gave us a bleak dystopian vision of the world too real not to terrify. I love the return to the happy moments in ‘the golden country’ as it shows how a simple memory can nourish a lifetime of inspiration. This was a true homage to Orwell and one of my favourite reads of 2018.

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read this for work, to see if it was a good choice for English Advanced. I did not always enjoy this book, but it left me with questions and a greater understanding of WWII Japan, and Japanese cultural aesthetics, and that’s a valuable thing.

By the River by Steven Herrick. I had to know if I would like this more than The Simple Gift, which is one of my favourite texts to teach. I didn’t, but I still devoured this verse novel. Herrick has got to have a place in the canon of Australian literature.

Parang by Omar Musa. A book of poetry that hooked me initially. I felt for the young wild man, confidently running through his village with a machete. It made me nostalgic for my own simple, wild and barefoot childhood. Musa’s cultural memories are powerful and you can sense the sadness at the loss of culture when people are dispossessed.

Zenobia by Morten Durr. A contemporary graphic novel about the destruction of Syria. Sob.

Tales from the Inner city by Shaun Tan. Every story in this book made me cry. Every story. I read the short story ‘horses’ to a year 9 class and the impact was profound. In one of the longer stories, bears hire lawyers to take the human race to court for crimes against animals. In another story a teacher has a pet sheep and urges the students to touch the wool and to respect the sheep, while the stench of a live export ship permeates the neighbourhood. He’ll win awards for this, no doubt. Wow.

The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent offers PD in writing historical fiction, and I intend to enrol! This captured the Irish superstition about fairies and changeling children, and examined the clash of cultures in the late 1800s- from the old healing ways to the way of god and rational explanations for maladies.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. I learnt a lot about magical realism this year and taught it as a genre to my elective class. We used ‘like no other country’ as a model and I got some really good pieces of writing from the students. Shaun Tan can’t really be explained, he’s a phenomenon.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This novel was recommended to me by a student. He said the ways it used multiple narrators worked well and I totally agree. This is a great text for upper primary school and will build empathy and interpersonal understanding in young people, in only 100 pages.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Husseini. An illustrated poem- a prayer from a father to a son- it shows life in Homs before the war and after its transformation into a war zone. Another powerful text for the classroom complete with watercolour drawings.

Angel: Through my Eyes by Zoe Daniel. Daniel is an Australian journalist who covered the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines (2013). This story is told as a fictionalised first person account of the event, through the eyes of a teenage girl during the storm surge and aftermath. There’s definitely a place for these kind of stories to build empathy and an understanding of real events and disasters caused by climate change, and I plan to buy a class set for those reasons.

The Drover’s Wives by Ryan O’Neill. Someone give this man a medal for innovation. This book contains 99 reinventions of the classic Lawson short story in a range of forms from a self-help book, to internet comments, to a sports commentary, to an epic poem and 94 other ways. Hilarious and clever. It would be a great text for English Extension 2 students to look at. I want to make my own version with a different story.

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. This was my favourite read of 2018. Why did I not know about this book earlier? The descriptions are stunning, the narrator is genuine and the eight year old female protagonist is someone very special. I loved the parts from the perspective of the whales, and the depictions of the changing waters, the dangers of nuclear testing and the whales’ changing relationships with man over time. I enjoyed learning about mythology and some Maori language too. This was a fresh examination of the heroes journey from a unique part of this green planet. This is a very special novel- only a few hours to read- but so many avenues to explore in the classroom.

 

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