Category Archives: Module B

Advanced Course NSW

Pay it forward: Last thoughts on Harwood

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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

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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.

Harwood highlights

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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!

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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.

To rhyme or not to rhyme: ‘vers libre’ in Atwood’s poetry.

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We are rolling along at a merry pace with Atwood this week. Our final lesson last week was an exploration of the “spoken to” in the poems. This generated some fascinating discussions about both the persona and the person/persons/cyberspace(?) addressed by the speakers in the poems. These kids are awesome. They recognised the idea of the ‘mask’ of the persona and the task drew them deeper into considering the way some of the poems we are studying seem to be ‘dead’ voices (This is a photograph of me and Morning in the Burned House) and wondering why Atwood would choose a ‘dead’ speaker and who would this speaker be addressing? At some point students began to discuss the possibility that the poems weren’t really about someone who had died but might be about the self and identity!

We began this week with some theory on the use of persona and masks and students were asked to write 5-6 questions they could ask the persona of an allocated poem in an interview. In teams they reduced their combined questions to 3. They were encouraged to use questions that would deepen their understanding of the persona and avoid questions that anyone could answer directly from the lines in the poem. Pairs then conducted their interviews in front of the class, with one partner speaking in role and the other interviewing. The role plays were fascinating and their insights and engagement with the poems continues to grow. We followed up with some short writing in class where students explained how Atwood used persona in one of the poems.

A homework task drew on this work around personae. Students were asked to ‘write back’ to the poem in some way. They could write their own poem using one of the set poems as a model; find a ‘gap’ in a poem and tell the story of the gap; tell the ‘backstory’ of a persona or select a character other than the persona in the poem and tell his or her story.

We then moved on to an exploration of Atwood’s use of free verse. After some theory on the use of free verse and noting some features of the structure of poems that recur, such as the two part structures of Journey to the Interior, This is a Photograph of me and In the Secular night, students worked in small teams to prepare a performance of an allocated poem. They had to choose 6-10 lines, all members of the team had to speak some lines and could add movement as they wished. While this was fun and generated some very funny performances as well as insightful selections of lines, I’m not sure it generated the deeper thinking around “other more subtle effects” created when the poet chooses not to use “the regular rhythmic power, emphasis and song” of traditional versification”. Next time I would get the kids to prepare a choral reading of the poem, without the ‘performance’ element and focus more on the sounds and patterns of lines.

Now I am working out how to revisit free verse in a way that will engage students in that deep thinking.

Joyfully teaching Margaret Atwood’s poetry.

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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.