There is nothing dearer to an English teacher’s heart than starting a new text study in class! We felt it was time for something fresh and new for our Year 11 Advanced classes this year and were after a poet and a study that would develop some important skills to lead students into their first HSC module. We start HSC with wherever we are doing the poetry. This overcomes the problem we have with textbooks, since our leaving groups of Year 12 don’t usually bring texts back until their exams are finished. This year our incoming HSC group will begin with Module B: Critical Study of Text – Gwen Harwood.
Atwood was a perfect choice. She has a considerable body of work, there is a considerable body of work about her work and well, her poetry is just wonderful. Added to this are the distinctive similarities and differences between Harwood and Atwood. Like Atwood, Harwood disliked attempts to “label” her a feminist. Atwood’s exploration of power relationships, her use of persona, allusions to other works and the distinctive style of the poems are also useful in preparing students to explore Harwood’s poetry.
I’m working with a young teacher who is teaching Advanced for the first time and he brings to our study a freshness I sadly lack, his own experience as a poet and an understanding of the Y generation that I struggle to acquire. It has been an exciting week. Eli began with a lesson on ‘what is poetry?’ which he approached with a cryptic clue, encouraging students to think deeply about the type of close reading, critical and analytical thinking they would undertake in this unit. From this he led the students to consider a metaphor for ‘what is poetry’ – narrative = milk : poetry = condensed milk. Students creatively developed their own metaphors for poetry. The lesson ended with Atwood’s poem “You fit into me”. Students readings of the poem quickly brought to their attention aspects of Atwood’s style and concerns.
We continued with the exploration of “You fit into me” in the next lesson after Eli took students through some very creative thinking around perspective and context and then ‘words on the page’. My task after that was to begin with an exploration of ‘truth’, given the previous lessons thinking around perspectives and contexts. As a class we analysed the poem, considering the “You” and the “me” in the first line and moving on to the distinctive qualities of the imagery. This lesson generated the most animated discussion I have seen from this group. The different perspectives they brought to the poem crystallized very quickly into a debate about ‘who’ was speaking and how she/he felt, what she/he was trying to express, what the relationship between the two was ,or had been and on it went!
I finished the week with a ‘matching’ task, where teams matched the title to the poems selected and then had to explain how the title ‘fitted’ the poem in more ways than ‘obvious’ key words (which there are in all of the poems). We concluded with a list of what we had individually, and as a class, discovered about the poet. My week really ended on a high and I can’t wait to get back into class with the next installment.