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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
We have our trials early and the available Trial papers for purchase come out too late. That means we usually prepare our own. I’m really pleased with this paper and have included marking guides.