Archive | January, 2016

Poetry about resilience

31 Jan

I have blogged on many previous occasions about using poetry to explore representations and constructions of gender (here and here, for example).  I have also previously blogged about using poetry as a means of introducing students to a diversity of Australian voices including those of refugees.  It dawned on me that there is often a thematic overlap between poetry that explores gender and poetry that explores the experiences of migrants and refugees.  What is this thematic overlap?  An emphasis on resilience, of course.

To illustrate this to my students, I am keen to have them compare Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise‘, Hani Abdile’s ‘I Will Rise‘ and one of the stories featured in Girl Rising.  I think I would begin by providing students with the titles of these texts only.  Using these titles, they will examine the subtle differences in language, hypothesising about the impact of these differences on meaning.  They will also discuss the connotations of the word ‘rise’.  Then, we would go through the texts one by one, starting with the oldest and working forward in time.  In each text, we would explore how resilience and gender are intertwined and represented.   After exploring these three texts, students would be given an opportunity to write their own ‘rise’ poem.

Friday Fictioneers: ‘Dust to Dust’

27 Jan

I thought I would get in early this week with my contribution to Friday Fictioneers.  The prompt, as usual, can be found on Rochelle’s website, and my story can be found below.

Dust to dust

In his teens, my father laboured to extract stone from the earth.  His shoulders browned beneath the unforgiving sun, sweat streamed down his spine, and dust swirled in his nostrils.

In his twenties, he shaped stone, birthing archways and entire buildings.

Barely middle-aged, he became sick; old and weak before his time.

A field of gravestones stretch before me.  These sculptural testaments to lives lived and lost rise proudly from the grass.  Each promises that memories will not fade.

“Earth to earth… dust to dust.”

Without his guidance, how will I be able to carve a stone that memorialises him?

Friday Fictioneers: ‘A sombre note’

25 Jan

I have been absent from Friday Fictioneers for a while now, but thought it was time to get back in the game!  As per usual, the prompt can be found on Rochelle’s blog, and my 100 word story can be found below.

A sombre note.

People who play the piano ‘tickle the ivories.’

Yet, when Grandpa’s fingers waltzed across the keys the music did not laugh.  Instead of a smile splitting a face, the sound was sorrowful, like a soul torn – in turmoil, trampled.

As he played, he spoke softly to himself of a chord, a note, impatience and second chances.

We admired his quiet determination to perfect the piece.

Only later, when Alzheimer’s collapsed and confused time did we learn of the confession that was buried – buried before the body of a girl, a noose around her neck, had been cut from the tree.

Urban warming

21 Jan

We devote time during English class to engage with environment and discuss sustainability.  Sometimes we do this through poetry, and at others times it is through non-fiction sources such as documentaries.  However, we don’t seem to give a lot of critical attention to how the urban environment is metaphorically heating up and setting a course towards destruction.

One text that does raise this issue is ‘Urban Warming‘ by Truth Thomas.  This text explores how the way we live in urban areas is impacting our health and environment.  While this poem may not be acceptable at all school settings, merely positing the notion that global warming might have an urban equivalent could provoke some interesting discussion in classes.  Perhaps students could even work towards creating their own poems or short stories about urban warming.

Room for Debate

20 Jan

A colleague pointed me to the ‘Room for Debate‘ columns in the New York Times and I am completely taken by the concept.  I love the idea of picking a topical issue, having source material from different perspectives, and then inviting students to weigh in with their own views.  Not only would this be a valuable activity when I take on my new debating team later this year, but it will be an interesting way of building the field for concept and issues studies in the English classroom.

Voices of pain and trauma

19 Jan

As discussed in yesterday’s post about gender and violence, I think it is important to use texts to introduce students to worlds with which they otherwise would not be familiar.  While some of our students have pain and trauma in their personal lives, I am finding that an increasing number of students have it in their family histories.  For some students, members of their families fled or survived genocidal regimes, while others fled war torn countries, dictatorial regimes, and nations which suppressed the rights of certain groups.  I think this is something worth talking about.  While the intricacies of the conflicts are perhaps better discussed in a History class, the way narratives of suffering are constructed is definitely within the parameters of English!

I have used spoken word poetry and songs to great success in a range of classes, and have found it to be particularly enjoyed by lower ability students.  Why?  Probably because these students can hear the shifts in tone and pace that are missed when they merely read a text.  With that in mind, I am on a mission to beef up my collection of spoken word poetry and hope to focus particularly on the ways poets use spoken word to personalise and powerfully communicate horrors.

JJ Bola’s ‘Tell them (they have names)‘ is a wonderful example of a poem which engages meaningfully with traumatic events.  The poem begins with reference to “bodies” and “eyes,” language that denies that humanity of those who died.  The metonymic reference to “eyes,” in particular, is interesting, as eyes tend to be construed as the window to people’s souls.  Yet, here, the eyes are closed, suggesting an inability of those who are counting the dead to connect with them.  This inability to connect is affirmed when a number is offered to represented the dead.   However, the dead are not just numbers to everyone.  They are names, and people, and experiences and memories.  This point is powerfully made by Bola as he weaves intensely personal portraits between the seemingly unceasing stream of numbers.

Gender and violence

18 Jan

The 7 – 10 English syllabus offers opportunities for teachers to select texts that encourage students to better understand upon their world and discuss issues that matter. Indeed, literature enables us to walk in the shoes of others without having to actually experience that trauma ourselves.

With this in mind, I think it is important that we do build discussion of these big issues into our lessons.  After all, without this exposure and discussion, how are students meant to develop their knowledge and calibrate their morals and ethics?

One issue that I think is hugely important to discuss is domestic and sexual violence.  Abe Nouk’s poem entitled ‘Black Eye‘ offers a way to kick-start this discussion.  Particularly, the poem touches upon the role of bystanders, physical violence, the psychological hold an abuser can have over his victim, the victim’s belief that the abuser will change and the victim’s belief that the actions are somehow her fault.

Another interesting text is Elizabeth Acevedo’s poem entitled ‘Spear‘.  In this text, Acevedo posits the existence of a hypothetical daughter and discusses how she will have to raise that daughter in order to withstand the realities of a world in which “we women must practise how to lose our daughters” to violence and exploitation.

Unaware of these two poems (and realistic about my students’ abilities to appreciate the second), I have broached gender and gendered violence through the study of Craig Silvey’s The Amber Amulet with a junior class.   In that text, domestic violence is implied rather than explicitly discussed.  Nonetheless, I took the opportunity to have a discussion with my students about how experiences were represented and how people could respond.

Yet another option for exploring issues of social significance is through the examination of public service announcements.  One example of this is CARE Norway’s ‘Not All Men Are Men‘ campaign.  Here, the message is that men who hit women are not really men.  This is cleverly captured by re-labelling each man as the item of furniture which the abused women have lied about bumping into.

Review: ‘The Dressmaker’

17 Jan

I read Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker on the recommendation of a friend, who said that it was a gripping tale of revenge and a great example of Australian fiction.  Unfortunately, with the exception of this being a tale of revenge, I did not feel that any of the other promises were upheld!

I found Ham’s writing to often be confusing.  For example, she dwelt on moments of seeming insignificance, slowing the story using detail and description. She also assembled a great cast of characters, each of whom was introduced in great detail even though some of them were not essential to the narrative.

That said, I was marginally intrigued by the notion that The Dressmaker might be an interesting companion text to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Both texts, for example, feature powerful women and both texts have at their core a preoccupation with revenge.   Both texts are also interested with the tension between appearance and reality.  In The Dressmaker, this plays out through the outfits created by Tilly which transform appearance and are leveraged to warp perceptions of reality.


The Macbeth connections aside, I cannot say that I enjoyed this novel.

Rising voices

12 Jan

As noted in yesterday’s blog post, I recently viewed Girl Rising.  It occurred to me that the film has value beyond the 7 – 10 English curriculum.  In particular, I think it would be a really interesting choice as related material for the Standard English ‘Distinctive Voices’ module.

When students write about ‘Distinctive Voices’, they write about why voices are distinctive, how distinctiveness is constructed, and the power or purpose of distinctive voices.  In Girl Rising, the voices are positioned as distinctive in that they represent the personal experiences of girls in nine different countries. In many instances, the voices are distinctive as they are of those who are marginalised; marginalised by gender and socio-economic status.  Furthermore, as the girls are representative of nations whose narratives are often excluded from the classroom, the voices are particularly distinctive.

The construction of these voices is interesting too.  The girls’ stories are written by renowned authors from each of the countries from which the girls originate.  The voices are thus representative of girls’ experiences as filtered through literary lenses and the personal experiences of the authors.

I think this film would be particularly interesting to study alongside a set text in which the voices are distinctive because they espouse ideals, values and aspirations.  Indeed, each of the girls in the film share their values, ideals and aspirations while also serving as activists for the overriding wish to see all girls educate.

‘Girl Rising’

11 Jan

I recently watched Girl Rising, a wonderful film which tells the story of nine girls from nine different countries.  The film offers insight into life for girls in these countries and, through partnership with renowned authors from each of these nations, offers girls opportunities to voice and share their stories.

This film would be a fantastic text to use as part of a unit on documentaries.  After learning about the characteristics of documentaries, students could then explore how Girl Rising engages with and challenges these conventions when it uses storytelling to teach viewers about the importance of educating girls.

Snippets of this film would also have value in junior classes as a means of understanding how social and cultural realities and expectations shape identity.  I think this could be particularly effective if one girl’s story were used in a manner akin to a short film.

Equally, the film (in whole or in part) could be used to stimulate discussion about issues that matter to communities and how these issues can be meaningfully communicated to the world at large.