Mother to Mother

5 Feb

I recently read Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother.  Using a real-life act of violence as catalyst for her writing, Magona imagines the letter the mother of a boy accused of murder would write to the mother of the girl who was killed.  The result is a moving, and at times uncomfortable, contextualisation of a young man’s actions.

This would be an interesting text to study in Year 10.  Not only would it be an accessible way of helping students to understand the relationship between context  (here, Apartheid South Africa) and text, but it would broaden students’ literary horizons in preparation for the Texts and Human Experiences module in senior school.

The text, or extracts from it, also provide an interesting stimulus for a range of writing activities – perhaps as part of the Craft of Writing module.  Students could be challenged to: (a) continue an extract, (b) write a portion of the other mother’s response, (c) to write an informative piece about life in the townships, or during apartheid more generally, (d) write reflectively about how the lessons from that text can be applied to other situations/events.

The text would also make an interesting companion to The Crucible in the Texts and Human Experiences module, in that it engages with notions of desire, expectation, fear, love, loss, resistance and paranoia, albeit through very different contextual and literary lenses.

Texts and Human Experiences – Stimulus Text 4

12 Dec

One of the essays from Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl that I cannot get out of my head is Mahogany L. Browne’s ‘Complex Citizen.’  In her essay, she discusses the impact that Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel The Bluest Eye had on her:

“Morrison’s The Bluest Eye talked about the young girls I went to school with.  Some pregnant with the trauma induced by their fathers’, uncles’, and cousins’ hands; others afflicted with effects of the cognitive dissonance of growing up black and woman in America.  Morrison introduced me to Alice Walker and Pearl Cleage and Sapphire and Bernice McFadden and this catalog of women writers readied me in the art of the black woman’s clap-back.  I learned to unwrap the body of its articulation and speak the language plain.  There are moments, even now, where the actions and circumstances equate simply: read or get read.”

While the essay as a whole offers significant insight into the intersection of texts and human experiences, I think there is particular value in exploring the text (or at least extracts of it) alongside Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Are the women in The Crucible also afflicted with a sense of cognitive dissonance?  Is there a tension between how they are treated compared to the men in the play?  In what ways are bodies articulated?  Who ‘reads’ women’s bodies in The Crucible? How does the ‘reader’ shape the perception/representation/understanding of the human experiences?

Reading to Write and Craft of Writing

10 Dec

I recently read Well-Read Black Girl, a collection of essays about writing and reading edited by Glory Edim.  All the essays were accessible for high school students, and extracts from this collection would constitute powerful inclusions in the Year 11 Reading to Write or HSC Craft of Writing modules.  In this post, I’d like to identify two extracts from the collection and suggest a series of related reading and writing activities.


Extract from N. K. Jemisin’s ‘Dreaming Awake’

“I am African American – by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact.  My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language.  Past a certain point, my family’s history just… stops.  As if there was nothing there.”

Although short, this extract offers students the opportunity to understand the power of first person in a discursive piece of writing.  Students rewrite this piece in third person, discussing the challenges of doing so and the role the shift has in engaging the reader and communicating meaning.

Students could also use this piece to understand how poetic techniques can be appropriated in non-poetic forms.  Of particular interest here is the repetition or “torn.”  Ask students to rewrite this section avoiding the word “torn.”  You may need to brainstorm a list of synonyms first.  As an extension activity, students could even use paragraphing and punctuation features to communicate the experience of being “unintact.”


Extract from Lynn Nottage’s ‘Putting Women Center Stage’

For colored girls shifted my notion of how Black women could be represented on the stage.  I saw, for the first time, a diverse group of women at the centre of the story-telling, and there were no men present.  They were telling their own stories in a really expressive, sometimes provocative way, and I thought it was just beautiful.”

In this extract, Nottage discusses her initial encounter with the staged version of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.  Use this extract as stimulus to discuss narrative perspective and characterisation.  What is the effect of centring (or marginalising) characters of certain genders or cultural or ethnic backgrounds?  Have students test their hypothesises by either altering a sample piece of writing or creating a series of short narrative extracts in which the same event/experience is viewed through different eyes.

“Hello Mum”

7 Sep

I recently read Hello Mum by Bernardine Evaristo.  It is a super short read and, as an added bonus, has  language that is accessible for lower ability readers and subject matter that may resonate with some reluctant students.

The story is formulated as a letter written by a murdered son to his mother.  In it, he offers his mother insights into his world, his choices and the events leading up to his death.

Aside from analysis, perhaps in ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ for a Standard class, I think the story lends itself to some interesting learning activities:

(1) This text is written as a confession/reflection of a boy after his death.  How would the text be changed if events were narrated in a more contemporaneous fashion?  Ask students to select a pivotal moment/event and rewrite it in present tense.  Discuss other impacts on language choices, emotions likely experienced by the character and the impact on the reader.

(2) This text is narrated by a young boy, Jerome.  What impact(s) does his age, background and experiences have on his communication and perception of events?  Ask students to select a moment/event which is experienced by more than one character.  Rewrite the moment/event from the other character’s perspective.  Are they worried/excited/anxious/angry about the same things?  Does this other character ‘read’ the situation differently, if so why and how is it reflected in their voice and language choices?

(3) Hello Mum only offers one side of the story.  Ask students to write Hello Jerome, a reflection from Jerome’s mother’s perspective.  Half the class should write as if the mother had not read Jerome’s account as captured in Hello Mum, and the other half should write as if she had read it.  Students to then think, pair, share to discuss the impacts this knowledge had on content, tone, language choices and objectives.

Texts and Human Experiences – Stimulus Text 3

3 Aug

Another texts that could function as the springboard for engagement with human experiences is ‘Zimmer Land‘ (or extracts thereof).  This dystopian text invites responders to see notions or race, identity, agency and privilege through a different lens.  The text also encourages students to consider the role of storytelling, particularly stories depicting dystopian worlds, in representing the lives and cultures of various groups in American society.

Texts and Human Experiences – Stimulus Text 2

1 Aug

I am clearly on a picture book bender…

Another text that could work well as a stimulus for writing about human experiences is The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers.  This picture book explores grief, shifts in identity and the experience of redefining connections in the face of death.  Students could, with this text, explore how the individual experience of the protagonist is universalised through metaphor to resonate with a broader audience. It could also be used as a springboard to discuss inconsistencies in human behaviour, primarily the decision by the protagonist to isolate herself and her heart despite previously thriving in an environment where connection and interaction were key.

Texts and Human Experiences – Stimulus Text 1

31 Jul

It is trials time, and I have been thinking about the types of texts that could be given to students as stimulus for their writing.

I was recently re-reading Madeline, a childhood favourite, and it occurred to me that extracts from those books could make interesting stimuli for students seeking to engage with human experiences.  The stories engage with notions of identity, morality, friendship, and tensions between conformity and individuality as well as expectation and reality.  The stories also challenge some core assumptions about human interactions.  We often assume, for example, that children are moulded by the adults in their lives.  Yet, in Madeline, Papa is absent and Ms Clavel functions as a safety net (“something is not right”) rather than an active influence on Madeline’s sense of self.

Dystopian Fiction

30 Jul

Dystopian fiction is a standard inclusion in Years 10 or 11 in most high schools.  As part of this unit, students often study works by Orwell or Bradbury, engaging with the role played by social and political landscapes pre-dating their existence in shaping the dystopias and associated warnings in the texts.  While I am a fan or Orwell and Bradbury, I have also long been on the look out for contemporary texts that could engage students and re-energerise the unit.  I recently read Friday Black, a collection of short stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and I think I have FINALLY found the texts that I want to teach.

I would begin the unit with ‘Zimmer Land’, a short story about a theme park in which caucasian people give voice and action to their racial prejudice under the guise of achieving justice and engaging in problem solving.  Students would be tasked with researching the treatment of people of colour in contemporary America, drawing connections between the relevant context and the dystopian world represented.  To map these connections, students would be asked to create a visual representation of the issues that have been magnified/extended/hyperbolised to create the dystopian world.  Students may, for example, simply write the relevant context and values in different sized fonts to represent the varied levels of influence and significance.  A similar activity could be used with ‘The Finklestein 5’ if one wanted to start with the story instead.

It might also be interesting to have students keep a diary/log of their responses to the various dystopian texts studied.  Students could, perhaps, be invited to compare their reactions/responses to an older text (for example an extract from 1984) and a more recent one (for example, ‘Zimmer Land’).  Paving the way for a comparative essay, students could take note of which elements of the texts render them impactful.  Is it, for example, the language features?  Or, is it about immediacy?  Or is it it about narrative structure?  Students could also use a master list of features of dystopian texts to better understand and evaluate the effectiveness of a composer’s engagement with the conventions of this type of writing.

Engaging with Literary Worlds #3

5 Jun

Below is another activity that might be helpful in developing students’ writing in Literary Worlds is to provide students with the start of a short story, asking them to write the next section (so, the climax, ending or both depending on how much writing you want them to do).  Then, provide students with the remainder of the short story, asking them to critically evaluate the two endings (theirs and that of the composer) to persuade the marker as to which offered a more engaging/evocative/impactful/resonant representation of a literary world.

Engaging with Literary Worlds #2

3 Jun

Another activity that could be helpful in developing Extension students’ writing skills for Literary Worlds is to provide them with the title of a TED Talk, and then ask then to write the TED Talk that accompanies the title.  Here, students would be given opportunities to engage critically and reflectively, while also drawing on the knowledge they have gleaned over the course of their English studies at school.