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How do we enter literary worlds?

9 Nov

The new Extension English HSC course requires students to engage with a common module entitled ‘Literary Worlds’.   One of the questions that I think students should consider is: How do we enter literary worlds?

In order to answer this question, I think it is important for students to engage with a range of texts, exploring how their introductions in particular constitute an invitation to responders to step outside their known universe and immerse themselves in someone else’s fictional creation.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, begins with the following lines:

“124 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s venom.  The women in the house knew it and so did the children.  For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”

Here, the invitation is made through the information missing and the questions which, like the occupying presence, demand to be heard and answered.

Isabel Allende’s ‘And of Clay Are We Created‘, in contrast, demands our involvement through the emotive and evocative imagery:

“They discovered the girl’s head protruding from the mudpit, eyes wide open, calling soundlessly.”

I think it could be helpful to students to engage with a range of literature, unpacking how these appeals are made (in the opening lines) and strengthened as the texts continue.

I also think students could find it interesting to explore how composers transition from one world to another within a text, changing setting or emotional state.  A text that would be interesting to look at in this regard is Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.  In this text, doorways are literalised as pathways into new worlds, and metaphors of birth are leveraged to communicate the significance of these transitions.

Best Books

4 Jul

I was reading Laura Randazzo‘s post entitled ‘The Best Book Ever?‘ in which she discusses America’s best-loved novels.  After reading the list included in her post, I couldn’t help but feel that there were some books which I would not have included, and others that appear to be missing.   This got me thinking: do others feel the same way?

I would like to ask this question of students in the school’s Book Club, asking them to work collaboratively to come up with a list of their top 50 books.  Perhaps, we could then work towards reviewing each of these books for the blog they are working on.  Additionally, we could use this as a way of gauging students’ interests, perhaps better tailoring our recommendations for reluctant readers.

A number of the students in Book Club are genre readers.  A spin off project could involve them compiling a list of the top 20 fantasy books, for example.  We could then combine this list with an illustration and make a collection of book marks that could be distributed to students with the next books they read in English class, thus encouraging wide reading.  In fact, students could even work on subject specific lists (sci-fi for science, books about the environment for geography etc), thus allowing other faculties to build students’ love of literature.

Textual Interventions

24 Jun

I am looking to introduce the concept of textual interventions to my senior students.  In essence, a textual intervention is a form of tweaking or re-imagining of an element of a narrative and then critically reflecting on the choices made.  It may, for example, involve identifying a gap, silence or absence, or shifting context, genre or perspective.

As a way in, I thought I would show students this article entitled ‘Classic Horror Films Remade as Rom-Coms.’  I think this might be useful and fun way to show how a text’s core ideas can be re-imagined in new context to reveal new understandings of the world.


20 Jun

I have been reading a lot of book reviews recently.  It struck me that the point of a review is to offer enough information to entice one to read the text, but not so much information that the entire plot is explained.  This got me thinking, could I use this as a tool to trigger students’ creativity?  Could they re-view or re-imagine the original text by exploiting the gaps in the plot left when a text is reviewed? For example, could I use extracts from this review of Colm Toibin’s ‘Sleep’ to as stimulus for students’ gothic compositions?

I am excited to give this a go!

Representing Tasks

9 Jun

One of the modes typically assessed in the English classroom is representing.  Recent discussions regarding assessments at school have started me thinking about creative, engaging and meaningful ways to have students represent their understanding of texts and concepts set for study.  Some ideas are below:

  • Students select four small props or symbols representative of the key ideas in a text.  These are used as the focal point of a speech/tutorial presentation.  One prop selected by a student studying Othello, for example, might be a pair of reading glasses.  This could be used to flag discussion of Othello’s desire for “ocular proof” of his wife’s alleged infidelity, a punning allusion to Othello’s inability to ‘see’ Iago for who he truly is, and/or a link to how the omniscient audience ‘sees’ and understands Othello’s downfall.
  • Students create a poster advocating for the social change desired by the poets/authors whose texts have been studied during the unit.  Students then present their poster, explaining how the poster (a) responds to the texts and issues set for study, and (b) demonstrates their own commitment to the focus issue.
  • Students invent and pitch a product to represent their knowledge of persuasive devices and advertising techniques.
  • Students craft a metaphor or simile to explain and represent a concept set for study.  Then, they create a presentation explaining how that metaphor or simile can be used to explore their set text(s).

Language and Gender related material

3 Oct

I cannot stop thinking about the different types of texts I would introduce students to as part of the ‘Language and Gender’ elective in Extension 1 English.  As such, I have started to compile a list (see below).  I plan to keep revisiting and updating this list as new ideas come to me.

  1. The Bluest Eye (novel)
  2. Beloved (novel)
  3. Americanah (novel)
  4. ‘Girl’ (short story)
  5. The visual album accompanying Beyonce’s Lemonade
  6.  Girl Rising (film)
  7. Poetry of Maya Angelou
  8. Poetry of Warsan Shire
  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography)
  10. Bad Feminist (collection of essays)
  11. The Twyborn Affair (novel)
  12. Annie John (novel)
  13. Quiet‘ (spoken word poem)
  14. Anzac Girls (television series)
  15. Call the Midwife (television series)
  16. The Help (film and novel)
  17. Love Child (television series)
  18. House Husbands (television series)
  19. Black Eye‘ (spoken word poem)
  20. Spear‘ (spoken word poem)
  21. I think she was a she‘ (spoken word poem)
  22. Real Men‘ (spoken word poem)
  23. She Said‘ (spoken word poem)
  24. Macbeth (play)
  25. ‘One Word’ (short story)
  26. The Color Purple (novel)
  27. Mr Selfridge (television series)
  28. Scandal (television series)
  29. Bush Mechanics (television series).

Language and Gender

2 Oct

As you have no doubt gathered as a result of reading this blog, I have a particular interest in the relationship between language, representation and gender.  For this reason, were I offered an opportunity to teach Extension 1, I would be keen to select the elective entitled ‘Language and Gender’ in the ‘Languages and Values’ module.

While the set texts have some appeal, what particularly interests me is the potential for diverse and exciting related material.  I would love, for example, to introduce my students to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in which a woman grapples with her identity personally and through the prisms of culture and country.  I would also love to introduce students to the novels of Toni Morrison, particularly Beloved and The Bluest Eye.  In the former text a conflict in terms of the construction of gender identity is conveyed: is it written by the individual, society or by one’s master?  In The Bluest Eye, we see an exploration of beauty and the way in which gender expectation intersect with race.

Pinpointing the power of language

13 Feb

I am always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to get my senior students to engage creatively with language.  I am also always on the lookout for ways to help them formulate engaging short stories.

I recently discovered ‘Safety Pin Review‘, a blog chronicling the adventures of super short stories pinned to the clothing of ‘operatives’.  Although the blog has effectively ceased publication, there are numerous back issues of the review available for free online.

Below are three of the many super short stories that captured my attention and I hope will intrigue my students.

Hostage Situation‘ by Berit Ellingsen offers an unexpected insight into a family, and could be used by students as a catalyst for imagining the journey leading to this point, or the journey that begins after it.  Alternatively, students could write about what the narrator discovers, or how the narrator’s reality is discovered by someone else.

A Present From A Small Distant World‘ by Krystin Gollihue causes students to reflect upon the “small distant world,” the circumstances in which a present might be proffered by one world to another, and the nature of the present (both as in gift and here and now).

Sister‘ by Roch Strouse also triggers a number of questions;  Whose sister is she?  Why did she hit the plaster?  Who is at fault?  How old is she?  Is she dead?  Where is she now?

What is in the box?

12 Sep

I am on the lookout for ways to engage my new Year 12 students in meaningful and detailed discussion about Discovery as a concept.

One suggestion made recently was to place a collection of significant items in a box and have students to select one at random and use the item as stimulus for exploring moments of discovery.

As one can learn a lot about an individual from the things s/he owns, I also think this has potential as a way of helping students to explore characterisation (in their creative writing) without reverting to a laboured description of hair and eye colour.

Encouraging wide reading

14 Jul

The kids that I teach are awesome.  They are also, however, with a handful of exceptions,  non or occasional readers.

On a human level, this concerns me because students who do not read regularly miss out on opportunities to explore new worlds, to develop their ability to empathise with others and to see the world from different perspectives.  Indeed, there are worlds and experiences that my students are unable to access due to geography, time, or personal circumstances.  Reading would enable students to transcend time and space and engage with that which is currently out of reach.

As a teacher, my non or occasional readers cause concern because these students are disadvantaged when it comes to understanding how sentences should be structured, how images are built, how ideas are connected to create a coherent whole, and  how meaning is constructed.  They are also disadvantaged as they have less access to popular and quality literature (and yes, these are often different categories).  As such, these students have greater difficulty in evaluating the quality of their own work and that of their peers.  They also have greater difficulty in analysing texts set for study.

In light of all this, the question then becomes: How do I get my students to read?

As it turns out, my students are not overly receptive to novels.  Perhaps this is because, for many of these students, it takes ages to read a novel and, during that time, they lose track of the story line.

With this in mind, I think I am going to focus on getting students to engage with short stories.  My more motivated and competent students can read a short story in one sitting, while weaker students can read one over the course of the week.

The hitch, it seems, is figuring out how to sell this approach to my students! Any ideas?