Tag Archives: poetry

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.

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.

Catching up with Atwood


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.


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.


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.