Tag Archives: Atwood

Catching up with Atwood

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Anyone who teaches HSC in NSW knows how busy the end of Term 3 is, so you will understand why my blog got shifted down the priority list for a few weeks. While we finished up Year 12 and got them off the premises, Year 11 were finishing Atwood and doing their end of course exams.

We moved on from imagery to reading critical commentary on Atwood. Since kids will need to read some critical commentary in Year 12 and in general this is not done well, I wanted to do some work on how to read these kinds of texts and we put together a short book of ‘readings’ on Atwood. I appropriated this idea for teaching the skill of reading ‘academic articles’ from my daughter Zoe (thanks Zoe!). Zoe has read many academic articles in her time and worked out a ‘system’ that she taught her Year 11 and 12 this year.

We talked about the purpose of reading these kinds of texts first, identifying the need to test ideas against our personal response to the poems as well as getting to know the territory, as we did when we began preparing to teach the poetry unit. Kids were told they would ‘read’ the text three times and each time there was an explicit goal.

Step 1: First reading – read the first and last sentence of every paragraph to get some idea of the thesis and scope of the article. While reading identify key words and terms that you are unsure about. Look these up and annotate the reading with meanings before you go on to step 2. Make a note of three things you think the article will focus on.

Step 2: Second reading – while reading the text through make a summary note next to paragraphs you understand. Don’t worry about the paragraphs you don’t understand, build on what you do understand.  Also highlight interesting quotes and language that drives the argument. Look for connecting ideas and draw lines to connect them. (Some examples/modelling required here)

Step 3: Third reading – During the this reading look for lines/phrases ideas that provide fresh insights into the text you are studying (quotable quotes!) and annotate these, commenting/questioning/summarizing.

Step 4: Finally, make a short summary of key ideas, supporting details and useful quotes.

This approach supported students into both reading a dense academic text, developing confidence in their selections, note-making skills and added to their skills base for writing about Atwood. We followed up the class work with a second reading for Homework.  We noticed that kids used quotes from these readings in the exam essay.

We are coming to the end of the unit now and the final sequence of lessons was about ‘big ideas’ that linked together poems we were studying.

At the centre, there is an image.

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Imagery was the focus of our explorations of Atwood’s poems this week. My colleague began with a guided relaxation exercise drawing students into considering the way imagery works in our minds and hearts. This was an innovative way to engage students in thinking about how imagery works and to shift them from the “picture in the mind” concept to considering the other elements of emotional association and response. This was followed with a discussion of seven types of imagery and a ‘scavenger hunt’ for the different types in the poems. A closer study of the nature of imagery – hard for any of us to define in the staffroom immediately preceding the lesson – was followed by some writing exercises where students began with an image and added something that moved the description from image to imagery. This was quite a challenging task but we both believe the path to understanding how a writer uses a device or technique is to make it yourself.  We finished the week with teams creating drawings (not necessarily realistic) of the images they felt were central to the poems. Their justifications were as always entertaining and hilarious at times.

The real treasures from this week’s study of the poems were their assessment tasks and some creative writing we set last week. The writing task required kids to write back to the poems in some way. They could write their own poems, modelled on one of our set poems, write the back story, write the story from some other perspective, perhaps a voice that isn’t heard in the poems (like the voice of the sister in “Mourning in the Burned House”), write a response to the persona – no limits really. Their work was incredible. Many chose to write their own poems and we are both inspired by the work kids did. Their poems showed amazing insight and their use of the poetic form reveals some extraordinary talent – may be they are channeling Atwood? Those that chose recounts and story also showed amazing insights with one student researching the “Siren” and writing a story from the Siren’s point of view, weaving Atwood’s poem through her narrative with a deft hand. I am always struck by the way creative response tasks generate such depth in student’s thinking about texts.

The best is yet to come. The illuminated texts are magnificent. I have permission from one of my students to share his work with you: Enjoy!BrendanMorningintheburnedhouse

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.

Who was that man in the mask? (or persona in Atwood’s poetry!)

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We are having so much fun exploring Atwood’s poetry in class. The poems we set for study are: This is a photograph of me, Siren Song, Helen of Troy Does Counter-top Dancing, Morning in the Burned House, In the Secular Night and Journey to the Interior. The poems span decades of Atwood’s poetry, which is useful, but more importantly they have some similar themes and some very different ideas. The use of persona is one of the features of Atwood’s work that I find most intriguing. Moving on from last week’s explorations of  the “You” and the “Me” in “You fit into me”, we focused on the speaker and the ‘spoken to’ in this group of poems.

After a lesson on the assessment task, (kids have to create an illuminated text, using slideshow, of one of the poems, with analysis notes) we spent some deep thinking time on one poem each, beginning with ‘first impression’ questions:

  • What is the poem about? ie subject matter
  • How does the poet feel about the subject?
  • What social/cultural/historical/personal issues is the poet commenting on?
  • How do you know how the poet feels about the subject?
  • How does the poem make you feel?
  • What does the poet do in the poem to make you feel this way?

I like these questions as a starting point for students own explorations because they usually lead students to the ‘heart’ of the poem, so that everything we do after leads back to this. Kids are encouraged to annotate as they undertake this first personal reading of the poem.

I should probably explain that I have shifted my practice a bit and instead of treating one poem at a time, we start with a focusing idea or feature and in pairs and teams students are assigned one of the poems to work on. I have a system set up to make sure they get in class activity time on each of the poems at least twice.

After their deep and meaningful encounter on first impressions (could have heard a pin drop) we followed up with the first stage of the Thinking Routine Connect, Extend, Challenge , where students were asked: How does Atwood’s poetry connect to your previous experience of poetry? These responses were shared in teams and then a member of each group explained the differences between his or her connections and others in the team to the class. HW was to do the first impressions on the five poems they didn’t do in this class task, spending only 15 minutes on each of the other five.

In the next lesson we considered the question: Who is speaking? Kids were encouraged to look for things that weren’t said, ambiguities, circular ideas, ‘who is this person, really?’ as well as the details about the speaker that were stated or made clear. They began with time alone with the poem (another satisfying engrossed silence from 16 year olds) and then moved into pairs and threes with the same poem.

In the team task student chose one line that ‘summed up’ the essence of the speaker and then wrote 10 lines together justifying their choice. Of course, they could refer to other lines in their justification, and they did. We shared these explanations aloud. Great task for building and modelling analysis essay writing skills.

The final lesson of the week focused on: Who is the speaker addressing?

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.