Category Archives: HSC

All posts and resources related to the NSW HSC

Pay it forward: Last thoughts on Harwood


Why is it that I only feel I have come to grips with a text when it is about to be removed from the Prescriptions list? Happens all the time. Finally feel I am teaching Belonging well and its gone. Now it is time to say goodbye to Harwood. My lovely Harwood. She was with me through the death of my Dad, giving me comfort. She reminded me that daughters have their own agendas, not mine and each year as I began the next Year 12 class, she helped me get to know them as people as well as students. I shall miss her. For what its worth, I’ve put a bit of a unit together from my notes. If you can use it, great! As I approach retirement I feel this need to pay it forward.

2014 Module B Advanced Harwood

Approaching Harwood


This is for Polly.

So, I’m away from home and for the first holiday in forever I’ve brought nothing with me except my iPhone and iPad. Any the ipad is only getting a run today because I wanted to share some stuff with Polly. I was a bit amazed that I had a bit of stuff on Harwood with me, which I have duly shared with Polly through the wonders of modern technology. Hope the sharing actually worked! I plan to send some more to Polly when I get home, but i know I might get sidetracked between now and then so I’m writing a post on something I do with Harwood that I think actually works rather well ( and can be applied to other modules). I have blogged about this when I posted on teaching Atwood. The principle is the same.

I noticed a few years ago that I kept running out of time when teaching poetry in the ‘new’ HSC. The problem, on reflection, was teaching a 21st century syllabus using 20th century methodology. Two years ago I tried something different. Instead of ‘teaching’ each poem, I taught Harwood. Yes I know Duh!  The first thing I do now is divide the class into 7 teams (because there are 7 poems). The class will work in these teams during the unit. The teams are numbered and I rotate the teams through the poems. I aim for every team to work with every poem twice. This has worked amazingly well, in terms of kids knowing all the poems. I have to keep a running table in my notes, to make sure they do get every poem.

An example of how it works:

Harwood’s use of imagery around water. Poems are allocated to teams and students work through a set of close reading tasks on ‘their’ poem. I start with the basic ‘find the words and lines’, move on to connotations, links within the poem, explore the techniques used, describe the main images, connect the imagery to the meaning, consider theoretical perspectives (romanticism with water imagery), connect students previous poem experiences. At each point we stop and talk. The conversations are always lively and interesting. Usually I send them off to write reflectively about what they learned about Harwood’s use of water imagery in both the poem they worked on and other poems. The kids get a new poem every lesson, so an exploration on water imagery might take a few lessons, but kids will look at water imagery in several poems.

The technique works equally well with themes, or applying critical commentary. One thing I should have mentioned earlier, i do start the module with tasks where kids have to read every poem and I usually finish with tasks where kids have to re read every poem. I’ve really enjoyed teaching this way, although I frequently have to hold myself back from going through a poem! It may sound fragmented but the outcomes so far is that kids have much more of a sense of the poems as a body of work and it has lifted their own critical commentary on her work. And I get to the end of the Module without feeling that I’ve left things undone and a feeling that I have to come back to it later, when I know the thinking about Harwood will have moved into revision, not discovery mode.

Why do we need related Material in Module C?


The syllabus says:

“Students are also required to supplement this study with texts of their own choosing which provide a variety of representations of that event, personality or situation.” 

“Students explore the ways in which different media present information and ideas to understand how various textual forms and their media of production offer different versions and perspectives for a range of audiences and purposes.”

“students consider their prescribed text and other texts which explore the relationships between individual memory and documented events”

The ‘ big idea’ in Module C is understanding the ‘constructed-ness’ of ‘reality’, recognizing that meaning is shaped not only by the content and what we understand of that, but also by how we receive the content. In the History and Memory elective we look for related material that tells us something else about the idea of history and the idea of memory and compare this to the ideas offered by the set text. This comparison enables us to make generalizations about the relationship between individual memory and documented events.

I’m going to try to explain history and memory as different kinds of stories. My explanations are not definitive, of course, just my response to the questions What is history? and What is memory? at this moment in time. I want to frame what I say next rather than get bogged down in a debate about my definitions.

History is a particular kind of collective story that we tell ourselves to help us understand the past and to navigate the future. Memories are a different kind of story. These stories are personal, fragmented, revised through time, told to ourselves and others  so that we don’t forget who we are.

In class we viewed a Youtube clip by a spoken word poet  Phil Kaye: Why we tell stories. (Thanks Eli! Great choice)

Phil Kaye begins his TED talk with a poem “Repetition”. I thought it was really apt  as a way into our discussions of history and memory. The poem explores the influence of repetition on removing the power of language and I thought about how I had avoided the Holocaust for most of my adult life. After ‘The Diary of Ann Frank” and Modern History in Year 12, I could not bear to revisit such sorrow and suffering, or be reminded of man’s inhumanity to man. There was enough around in the intervening years anyway. I think Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate avoids the problem of repetition. He doesn’t repeat what we already know. In fact, the book expects us to know what the Holocaust is and for that reason many study guides provide masses of information about the holocaust, perhaps recognizing that school students are less well informed about these documented events. Baker reminds us that simply repeating documented events does not make them ‘real’, nor does it engage us in remembering with empathy or allow us to make sense of what was, in a world that has moved on from that time.

Phil Kaye’s thesis on ‘why we tell stories’ is that we are all trying to make sense of what it means to be alive and how he has struggled to understand why we tell stories. He concludes that “In the face of this great unknowingness of our future, I think we tell stories to make a context for our past”. He uses the analogy of a map and that our stories are our landmarks on the maps of our lives.

Phil Kaye is an American. A Japanese – Jewish American. He ends his talk with a poem about his grandfather. He eloquently expresses the impact of the events of WWII on both his grandfathers and ultimately on himself, as the heir to both these histories.

In my next post, I will consider the poem using Mrs Langford’s questions as a possible piece of related material.

Advanced Module C Related texts


I get a little break from prep for a while while my colleague leads the class in  Module C: Representation and Text, so I thought I might use this time to really get inside the use of related texts in this Module and plan to write a series of posts on related material. This is the first post.

I looked up my two favourite sources, just to check how what I think fits with what other reliable sources are saying. First I checked in to Mrs Langford’s Weblog. Her advice, as always, is succinct. Four questions that go to the heart of the matter:

  1. What is the text’s message about history and memory?
  2. Identify and explain at least two language (or aural or visual) features that explore this aspect of history and memory.
  3. What is the tone?
  4. identify and explain at least one language (or visual or aural) feature that reinforces this tone.

She also explains how the elective concept is related to representation in her post Approaching Module C: Representation and Text.  I especially like her comment that:

“There is a difference between what a text is about and its message. The Smithsonian’s September 11 website is about history but its message (intentionally or not) is that history is selective and constructed. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes portrays some conflicting perspectives but one of its messages is that perspective is shaped through and by language. Similarly, The Justice Game portrays conflict within the formal setting of the court; however, one message is that the dominant perspective tends to be the one that is most effectively represented in the “game”.”

If we apply this rationale to Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, then I would say that while the text is a journey through the writer’s family history surviving the holocaust, one message is that documented events are limited in their ability to develop empathy in the reader without the nuances that personal experience and survivor memories bring to the event, or without the capacity to enter into the experience through our imagination. To do this Baker employs a range of devices we would not normally expect in a fictional text. The imaginative reconstructions of his grandmother Hilda’s last moments is an example. The structure of Baker’s text, the fifty gates that lead us from the metaphorical blackness of forgetfulness in the first line to the illumination of insight in the final gate, forces us, as readers, to engage with the fragments of both history and memory to make sense of the ‘story’.

My second favourite source for confirmation of the essence of this Module comes from Mel Dixon and Deborah Simpson in their Cambridge Checkpoints Study Guides on HSC Advanced English. Their explanation of representation and the construction of ‘reality’ is better than any explanation I could give:

“The ‘reality’ you see in the documentary is a mediated version of reality. For example, because you do not know what has been omitted and what has been changed in the sequence of events, you cannot know how close to actual reality the documentary is. The documentary has been constructed to lead you to a particular view of the ‘facts’. it is a representation of what was originally filmed.”

I have used Shaun Tan’s picture book, Memorial as an example of a related text in the past. If I apply Ms Langford’s four questions, this is what is might look like:

1. What is the text’s message about history and memory?

Memorial is about the chopping down of a fig tree in a rural town, originally planted to commemorate those lost in WWI. A message of the text is that remembering the friends and family who lived through or died in war is more important than the memorials themselves. The memorials commemorate the events, of ‘facts’ but the memories of family and life that individuals associate with the memorials are ‘ever-livin’ things’.

2. Identify and explain at least two language (or aural or visual) features that explore this aspect of history and memory.

Each character is a vignette, a brief description that captures the essence of the person, through a combination of the memory and the language each uses. Old Pa, remembers the tree being planted on the day he returned from WWI and the memories obviously still haunt him, “and he shrugs, and he sniffs and he wipes his watery eyes and his grizzled cheeks.” His son remembers climbing the tree and associates it with pleasant memories as well of his wife, Audrey. ‘There’s a lot of special memories under that tree, Audrey. Like coming home from the pictures, eh?” he says. The boy’s father also links the tree with memories of the boy’s mother and a tree house as well as the memorial service when he returned from Vietnam, ‘some things you don’t want to remember, son”. Each of the women associates the tree with memories of their men coming home.

Shaun Tan’s illustrations try to capture the fragmented nature of memory. Tan says the book ended up “being not about war, memorials or remembrance as ‘grand’ subjects, but about the small, quiet memories that make up ordinary day-to-day lives – really about the nature of memory itself.”  His images have a metaphorical quality and he doesn’t represent any of the characters in a literal way. Each page is an artwork in itself, with layers of fragments of materials capturing the texture of memory as something that consist of snippets and pieces, not a linear, resolved image as that found in a film. He also acknowledges that this can reflect the dreamlike nature of memory. He uses other techniques that represent the way memory sometimes has hazy bits, like faded line drawings and other more vivid elements, such as the colours inside the tree house. Each double page, except for a central image of the tree, also consists of only part of an image, never a whole scene, like conversations and memories wandering off at a tangent. The images have a quietness about them implying the things that are left unsaid when memories are recalled.

3. What is the tone?

The tone is reflective and gently questions our ideas and beliefs about war memorials.

4. Identify and explain at least one language (or visual or aural) feature that reinforces this tone.

The dialogue between the members of the family is often fragmented and leaves things unsaid and the reader is invited to ‘fill the gap’ of these silences with our own personal connections to memorials, family who were part of these wars and to empathise with the survivors. Like Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, Tan recognises that history is more than documented events, it is the stories of human existence and that we understand history not by knowing what happened and when but by understanding something of the people who lived through these events. As Tan says, “Perhaps the point of this picture book is to open a passage for its readers to think about the way symbols really work in relation to collective memory, as a container that needs to be continually topped up to have any currency.”





Resistance is futile.


I think I’ve cracked the homework problem. I don’t want to get into a debate about whether kids should get homework at all. That isn’t why I’m blogging about homework.  Over the last few years it has been increasingly difficult to get our kids do do any homework. This becomes a problem when we get to the senior years and they need to do some work out of class time to get the results they want at the HSC. Last years HSC class were the absolute worst. Apart from a stalwart 4 or 5 kids who did everything they were asked, the rest resisted any attempt to get them to do any work outside class time, and whinged about it, became resentful and just didn’t seem to make the connection between a bit of work and better results. And it did show in their results.

After some feedback from last year’s year 12, it was clear some changes needed to happen. Their main concern was that homework often felt like more pressure when they clearly needed less. As one kid put it , “it’s homework miss, not an assignment”. Quite by accident I set some simple HW for year 11 on the first day. We ran out of time to complete their interest surveys and I asked them to have it done for the next day. There was an amazing 90% return rate, and the other 10% had it done by the end of that day. Then I set 1/2 page of writing on “One Word” that would be their academic motto for the year. Another amazing 90% return rate. The light bulb went on.

Since then I’ve experimented with my current year 12 and year 9 and 10. The results have been consistent. Each group has had about 85-90% return rate, no whining and a lot more effort. Half a page of writing is all it takes. I’ve increased the frequency to 2-3 times a week. At first I was hesitant to set more than on piece a week, mainly because I was worried about the time I needed to read and return it. At the same time I recognised less and more often might reinforce the habit I wanted to develop. I have been able to keep up with reading and returning. Half a page doesn’t take long to read and I’m not setting things that need “correction”. I’ve confined myself to underlining inaccurate spelling because I’ve been more interested in what they have to say. At the same time, the standard has been high, with few errors, maybe because half a page is easy to rewrite and correct. And that’s another spin off. Kids are frequently rewriting and not handing in first drafts.

This has been really useful with Year 12. The things they have been asked to write give them practice at succinctly linking concepts in class to texts they are studying, preparing the groundwork for essays in exams. This also came from feedback from last years HSC cohort. During the year they had a writing task at the beginning of most lessons. This was usually a quote from the current text that they explained in a well structured paragraph. We collected this work and the feedback focused on the micro skills of essay writing, like how to integrate a quote or embed the technical language. Past students had told the new group to keep all these bits, because they had found them useful when preparing to write essays.

There are of course a few kids still resisting and if I really want to push the point, ten minutes at lunchtime solves the problem easily enough!

Harwood highlights


Great 2012 Harwood question! I felt very comfortable with the question and confident that the kids were well prepared to answer. As one said: ” At Mornington” wasn’t one I had prepared but I knew enough to link it to my other two, so I was OK. We can only hope.

With the new Year 12 we have introduced their assessment task and got started on the weekly workshops that will build to their performances. In this module our task is a team performance and an individual reflection on their own performance and that of others. We have used this task for the last two years and it always generates close reading of the poem the team selected, as well as lifting their critical thinking about the way different poems can be ‘read’.

I introduce the task by showing kids some past performances and getting the class to analyse some features of the performances. This includes the main idea of the poem performed, devices used by teams to convey these ideas and the strengths and weaknesses of the performances. Modelling the task usually allays their fears. We follow this with workshops every week throughout the module where students develop their own performances. Since part of the task is to learn the ‘lines’, kids always end up with one poem they know really well (and never forget) and a really good understanding of the others.

While viewing other performances students complete a table recording their responses to the performances. These notes are used in their reflection on the performances, which they do at the end of ‘performance day’. I am hoping this year that I can upload some videos of the kids performances to the blog.

While, at first, the task can seem daunting, at the end of the year in the evaluations the outgoing year 12 all commented on the value of this task. Kids could recite from the poem easily and frequently did when we were revising for trials and post trials. And it was fun!

HSC: here we go again!


While this year’s Year 12 get ready to do their final exams, their teachers wake in a cold sweat wondering if they did enough and if the kids are writing practice essays. Meanwhile Year 11 are transitioning to Year 12 and we start all over again, promising we will be more organised, give more feedback,  do more to ensure our kids get the best results they can, not just the results they deserve.

I began with a motivational lesson, congratulating kids on sticking with it and making clear some expectations about the course requirements. (yes, you have to read all three books, watch the film and collect related material!) The shock always comes about now, when they realise it is not just their results that matter, but everyone else as well. They will get better results if everyone does their best.

We studied Margaret Atwood to develop students skills in critical study and reading poetry, in preparation for Module B Critical Study of Texts with Gwen Harwood. A few must have missed that lesson early in the Atwood unit: what, we’re doing poetry again?

Despite their dismay we press on and begin with a ‘cut and paste’ task. Kids were given a random selection of lines from the set poems, all mixed up. Their task was to cut them out and working in pairs, create a poem by pasting the lines, with a title, on to another sheet. This was a lot of fun, engaged kids in a close reading of individual lines and making connections between lines and ideas. During this task I wander around and listen to the conversations in the guise of the teacher/monitor who hands out scissors, paste and cleans up the scraps of paper, occasionally answering questions about word meanings, punctuation, what they can change etc. I always find these conversations illuminating and am frequently re amazed by their perceptiveness and skill.

Once finished, kids circulate around the room, reading other poems. The we discuss ‘what are the poems about?’ Naturally the kids pick up on the main themes and techniques Harwood uses. It will also lead us into a discussion of ‘textual integrity’. As one student noted, the lines from seven poems were easily shuffled around to create new poems that had similar themes, suggesting some coherence and unity in Harwood’s work. How cool was that! Good way to get started on a new poet.