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Friday, November 24, 2017

Film Craft: Teaching Film as a Skill


Extract: 21st century learning practice in Australia has led to an increasing shift away from summative assessment of learning to the more authentic, project-based approach of assessment as learning. In regards to the study of film, this workshop demonstrates the ways in which frontloading of information and project-based learning can facilitate greater student efficacy in building skills for critical thinking, collaborative learning, and innovative problem-solving. Students move away from the identification and analysis of film techniques towards authentic application of cinematic skills in order to become active meaning-makers in regards to the grammar of film. The benefit of this multimodal approach to literacy demonstrates the continuing development of Project-Based Learning as the greatest tool at the disposal of teachers in striking an effective balance between the demands of the syllabus, enculturated practices dictated by policy, and the need to provide opportunities for students to cultivate competencies required in increasingly complex work spaces.

In other words, students learn to write film rather than write about it. This becomes evident through their application of learned skills in a collaborative project with their peers.

Here's my presentation on this from the ETA NSW 2017 Conference:

Resource: Film Craft PPT
Resource: Close-Up Instructions Activity Sheet  

Cross-Cutting resources:


Print on coloured paper. Students then edit the images together to create a storyboard sequence that incorporates too concurrent narratives. Thus, cross-cutting. See the PPT for more information.
More on specific film skills:
For more detail, see the article 'Uncovering the Paradigm' in the academic journal English in Australia, Volume 52, No. 3.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Write Right: Authentic Engagement and Creative Writing


It's November 2017 and the English Teachers Association NSW Conference is underway once again, bringing hundreds of English teachers together to talk crafty writing, Stage 6, new continuums, and all things multimodal.

My colleague, Kira Bryant, and I are presenting today on using mini-lessons to build engagement with students in relation to creative writing.

Here are our resources:

Resource: Write Right PPT (our presentation)
Resource: Activity booklet (this accompanied our presentation)

*Please note that the activity booklet omits the short story 'Grandpa's Place' as this piece appears in Volume 2 of the ETA's Creative Writing textbook

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Differentiation: Using Assessment for Learning

Batman: definitely a fan of education
I often find myself coming back to the concept of Day One.

Day One can be the point where you first meet a class, or the point where you decide to start again with a class you already know. Day One is a beautiful thing because it allows you to essentially reboot; you can reboot your expectations, reboot your teaching methods, reboot the resources you use, and even reboot your opinion of the students. Day One can be therapeutic, for both the teacher and the students. Don't we all deserve a new Day One sometimes?

Day One is a time for trying new things. It doesn't matter if it all goes horribly exercise-book-ripped-in-half wrong because when you get to the end of Day One you get to make a decision: is tomorrow Day Two or will you forget and try again with another Day One?

Day Twos are good when they build on something that's worked, and it's important to remember that even the lessons we perceive as 'failures' are still useful lessons in what does and doesn't work, but if a Day One doesn't completely pan out then it's inevitably best to give everyone (yourself included) a second chance. An potentially essential part of an effective Day One is collecting data on your students to assist with their instruction in the days to come and I guess this post, in essence, is about allowing ourselves as teachers to evaluate students from scratch at multiple points throughout the year.

If, like me, you're teaching in a context where the majority of the classes are mixed ability, you'll find yourself tasked with a need to differentiate your curriculum. The idea of targeting your resources to match the strengths and needs of your students isn't a new one. It should be noted, however, that if you're starting out in teaching or just looking to stretch yourself, it won't always be clear how exactly one should identify the differing needs of a class of 20-30 students. You can lean on your Learning and Support Teacher if you have one, and they should be able to give you some helpful pointers, but at the end of the day it's up to each individual teacher to evaluate and judge the abilities of their students accordingly.

This brings us to the three modes of assessment in our current syllabuses: assessment as, of, and for learning. The qualification of assessment into this particular taxonomy is designed to make explicit the need for a teaching-and-learning cycle; that process where we teach, and then we learn, and then we use that learning to teach again (only better). Assessment for Learning is perhaps the most important factor in a healthy and innovative teaching-and-learning cycle. By assessing students at the beginning of a unit of work we can figure out the general level of the class's knowledge about the subject and, more pertinently, ascertain the full spectrum of ability amongst the students. 

In the course of programming a Year 8-aimed Heroes and Villains unit built around visual literacy I wanted to have a diagnostic activity that would allow me to create ability streams in the mixed classroom.

The idea is that students would start out by designing their own superhero. They would be given a period or so to write details about an original character and drawing said character. The 'test' can be found just below.


After this the teacher takes the product the student has created and marks it in four different ways, using the analytical criteria below:


Through the use of this criteria, the student is being evaluated four separate times before starting the unit of work. These criteria are:
  • Visual Representation: The teacher assesses the student's ability to use visual literacy to represent ideas. This will be seen in the image created by the student to represent their hero, and the use of symbolism and other visual techniques to show ideas related to their character.
  • Textual Representation: How closely do the image and student-written content link together? Has the student taken their written ideas into account when designing the visual part? This is also where skills in creative writing can be assessed.
  • Literacy: Starting out with a class always gives the teacher a chance to check on each student's ability to form sentences, write at a whole-sentence and whole-text level, use correct spelling and punctuation, and draw upon a wide vocabulary.
  • Topic Knowledge: You're about to teach a unit on heroes and villains so finding the students who already have a strong background knowledge on comic book characters and the generic conventions associated with them will be invaluable in the days ahead. This means that it's incredibly useful to check this work to see which students know their stuff.
After you've used the analytical criteria to mark the students you can then began to see where their strengths are, and what areas need working on most. Students can subsequently be sorted into separate 'streams' of ability so that activities throughout the unit can be targeted towards different ability levels (IE. Differentiation). 

A thing to remember with differentiation is that you won't need to do it all the time - the separation of marks into five separate streams (see below) doesn't mean that you have your class split into five groups with five different kinds of work every lesson. That would be impossible to organise. The idea is that, sometimes, you can do some group work (with three different streams - core, adjusted, and extension) and other times you can individually target students who may be extremely talented in one particular area (visual literacy) with some homework.

The analytical criteria and the stream guide is included in the activity sheet linked further up. Obviously not everyone teaches heroes and villains to their Stage 4 students but feel feel to backward map anything and adapt it accordingly to suit other units of work.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Standard Module C: The Craft of Writing


This blog post offers an overview of the Prescribed Texts for Standard English Module C, 'The Craft of Writing'. In the study of this module, teachers are required to teach TWO of the Prescribed Texts. It should be noted that there are no prescribed editions for these texts, which means that they don't have to be sourced from particular anthologies or websites (NOTE: This is interesting as some of these texts [such as Crouch End] exist as different versions in different places).

I would like to offer my eternal gratitude to my colleague and mentor Kira Bryant, who supplied me with these texts. Check out her great blog: Tales from an Edugeek.

Prose Fiction Options
There are five fiction short story options to pick from, three of which are by Australian authors; Peter Carey, Catherine Cole, and Melissa Lucashenko. The last of these, Lucashenko, is also Murri Aboriginal.


'The Pedestrian' by Ray Bradbury
What is it: Leonard is a writer in the mid-21st century who has taken to walking the streets at night - the only one of the city's 3 million residents to do so. Careful not to disturb all the people safely ensconced in their houses, Leonard finds himself targeted by the city's lone police car as he walks aimlessly through this future world.  

Scope for Study / Verdict: Bradbury explores the theme of conformity in this 1950s satire of increased home comforts, imagining a future where people no longer have any reason for going outside. The protagonist subverts the conventions of his society by daring to walk for no reason other than just walking, something that confuses and alarms the authorities - represented here by the police (who no longer have much to do due to people staying inside with their TVs and air conditioning). Students will be able to draw parallels between this imagined future and their own 21st century world of increased home entertainment, with room for comment on the isolationism prompted by new technologies.

Page Count: 2 pages.

Source: First published in a magazine in 1951, 'The Pedestrian' can currently be found in the Ray Bradbury anthology The Golden Apples of the Sun.

Peter Carey doing his best "Oh hi, I'm an author" face.

'Report on Shadow Industry' by Peter Carey
What is it: An unnamed protagonist reflects on the nature of the 'shadow industry' that has emerged in America - the springing up of 'shadow factories', the way they are changing the environment, the increasing popularity of manufactured shadows, and the connection of this new product to misery, suicide, envy, embarrassment, etc. 

Scope for Study / Verdict: In this fictional 'report' Carey satirises the nature of materialism by taking an abstract and obviously useless product and showing its impact on society. Carey explores the various dimensions that come with a society obsessed with material possessions, drawing upon his own background as an advertiser to make evident the power that consumerism holds over the customer. Students will be able to engage fairly easily with the story due to its brevity, unusual concept, and the fact that it's broken into 5 separate short parts that deal with different aspects of the topic.

Page Count: 3 pages.

Source: Written in 1974, 'Report on the Shadow Industry' can be found in Peter Carey's anthology Collected Stories.

'Home' by Catherine Cole
What is it: Ahmed is a refugee who, after spending 4 years in the Villawood Detention Centre, moves into a small Sydney house next to a cemetery. He finds his new home strange and alienating, and the profound losses he has endured make it difficult for him to even find solace in his religious faith. 

Scope for Study / Verdict: Cole plays with past and present tense to manipulate the reader's distance from the story at various points, and tells Ahmed's tale in a third person limited perspective that allows for the reader to get a deeper understanding of what the character is going through. This narrative also allows for the reader to view the way that Australian culture appears when seen through the prism of a newly-released asylum seeker's eyes. Unlike the more high concept, abstract narratives of the previously examined short stories, 'Home' is very much a character piece that allows for students (and teachers) to look at perspective and characterisation in a fairly traditional sense. 

Page Count: 8 pages.

Source: 'Home' can be found in The Best Australian Stories 2011 anthology (ISBN: 9781863955485).


'Crouch End' by Stephen King
What is it: Two police officers in the London suburb of Crouch End field a case from a hysterical American woman who has lost her husband. Crouch End is known for mysterious disappearances and odd goings-on, and the husband, Lonnie, has become the latest victim of the Lovecraftian monsters that live beneath the Earth in this area.

Scope for Study / Verdict:  Originally written as a contribution to an anthology that sought to 'shake up' H. P. Lovecraft's long-familiar Cthulhu Mythos, 'Crouch End' sees King combine the British 'bobby' police procedural genre with his well-known penchant for horror. Watch out for the challenging structure (it risks getting lost in flashbacks within flashbacks), as well as the UK-specific vernacular that King rather unsuccessfully tries his hand at (EG. "Maybe you ought to give me a kiss... I always fancy a kiss when I'm getting my doodle pulled").

Page Count: 17 pages.

Source: Originally published in 1980 as part of Ramsay Cambpell's anthology New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. The source listed in the syllabus document, though, is a slightly different edition of the story published in Stephen King's 1993 short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

Lucashenko has written six novels, including the award-winning teen mystery, Killing Darcy.
'Dreamers' by Melissa Lucashenko
What is it: Jean, a young Aboriginal woman, comes to a farm in rural 1940s NSW to seek work, and develops a friendship with a farmer's wife, May. Together they raise May's son, Eric, a toddler so prone to wandering off that they decide to attach a bell to him.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Lucashenko's story spreads across a two decade backdrop of post-war Australia and incorporates contextual points related to our mid-20th Century history - including the 1967 Referendum, the Aboriginal missions, and the impact of the war on rural Australia. The writing itself mostly sticks to a third person limited perspective that's both understandable enough for Stage 6 Standard students and inclusive of enough context-specific vernacular to maintain an engaging sense of setting and character. In terms of teaching students, 'Dreamers' is also a good example of a circular narrative structure.

Page Count: 11 pages.

Source: 'Dreamers' can be found in the 2016 anthology The Near and the Far: new stories from the Asia-Pacific Region.

Nonfiction Options
There are four non-fiction options to pick from. Two of these writers are American, one is British, and the other is Australian. All are Anglo-Saxon/Western.


'Dear Mrs Dunkley' by Helen Garner
What is it: Garner reminisces about her formidable childhood teacher, Mrs Dunkley, and describes the dread of her teaching methods. The story pieces together Garner's memory, her impressions now, a dream she once had and wrote about, and a letter from a stranger that illuminated the real Mrs Dunkley and forever changed Garner's remembrance of the woman.

Scope for Study / Verdict: A fantastic piece that expertly dances between childhood memory and adult experience to draw a complex portrait of a terrifying but influential figure in the author's life. Garner brings Mrs Dunkley to life before the reader's eyes through the use of carefully-observed imagery and hindsight, and the final part of the overall piece packs a resounding punch that will shift the audience's entire view of the story. A perfect example of a well-written memoir.

Page Count: 3 pages.

Source: This piece appears in the 2012 collection Sincerely: Further Adventures in the Art of Correspondence from Women of Letters, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela Maguire. It can also be found online as a Sydney Morning Herald article, and in Helen Garner's own non-fiction anthology Everywhere I Look, published in 2016.



'The Sporting Spirit' by George Orwell
What is it: Orwell comments on a 1945 visit from the Dynamo Moscow football team to play some historic matches against the British, and in particular on the way that sport can be viewed as an extension of aggressive nationalism. The writer deconstructs the motivations and impacts of international-level sport, drawing on the 20th century re-emergence of sport as a contributing factor to the destructive nature of nationalism.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Once you get past the 1940s context there's a lot in this piece that should prompt Standard English students into discussion. With Australia's sporting culture so prevalent at a school-level in so many different contexts (urban, rural, suburban, private schools, public schools, whatever), it shouldn't be an issue getting students to engage with the contentious idea that sport can be ultimately damaging when examined on a national scale. Orwell's relatively straight-forward and conversational style also makes this piece perfect for a Standard English cohort, and there's ample scope for analysing his use of figurative language, rhetoric, logos, and ethos in an attempt to persuade the audience. It's also worth noting that, if you have a high-performing Standard class, the gender and race-related prejudices of Orwell and his time can be critically evaluated as well.

Page Count: 2 pages.

Source: Originally published in the leftist newspaper The Tribune on the 14th of December, 1945. The essay be easily found online with a quick Google search, and has also been published in Penguin's 'Modern Classics' series as part of the Orwell non-fiction anthology Essays (ISBN: 9780141183060).


'A Comparison' by Sylvia Plath
What is it: This short piece delves into the differences between writing a poem and a novel, with Plath using the full brunt of her descriptive and figurative powers to characterise the two literary forms in a complicated and interconnected manner.

Scope for Study / Verdict: A wonderfully creative piece of artistry. Plath playfully manipulates language and uses imagery, metaphor, personification, and candor to control the relationship between subject and audience. The density of the piece is preserved by it's brevity, which means that Standard students should be able to deconstruct it in close-up without fear of losing their way too much.

Page Count: 2 pages.

Source: This piece can be found in the Plath collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a volume released in 2000 that focused on her non-poetry pieces.

Vowell is a journalist and social commentator best known for her work on radio in examining American culture.
'What He Said There' by Sarah Vowell
What is it: The author describes a visit to the historical town of Gettysburg, where Abraham Lincoln once delivered his famous Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War. As she tours the town, Vowell flits across themes on the commodification of history, the dumbing down of culture, and what it is that ensures certain parts of history live on in the collective memories of the wider public.

Scope for Study / Verdict: In a piece rich in literary invention, Vowell meditates on the nature of history within the context of modern America. In examining the author's writing, students might consider why Abraham Lincoln is seen as an 'American Jesus', or why the Gettysburg Address is like a 'soy-bean', or why the author switches to present tense when describing Lincoln's thought processes 137 years ago. There's also this great quote, "The best the slaughtered can usually hope for is a cameo in some kind of art", which is basically the thesis of the article.

Page Count: 8 pages

Source: Vowell's essay can be found in her book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, published in 2002.

Speech Options
Of the four speeches, two are Australian, one is American, and one is British (delivered at an American institution). Both of the Australian ones are delivered by politicians, one of whom is Wiradjuri Aboriginal.

Linda Burney delivering her historic speech.
'First Speech to the House of Representatives as Member for Barton' by Linda Burney
What is it: In this speech, Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, gives her inaugural speech to Parliament in 2016. She explains what it is she stands for, who the people of her electorate are, and the background she has come from. Burney uses this opportunity to describe the role of politics as she sees it, with particular attention given to the themes of equality, welfare, and the remedying of past wrongs to pave the way for a more inclusive nation.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Burney is an entertaining speaker, utilising humour and pathos to construct a deeply affecting picture of Australia's marginalised minority groups and what it means for them to have people like herself in parliament. Teachers will need to examine the speech within the context of 2016 and the history that has led to this point, with Burney referencing the Wiradjuri Wars of the 19th century, the 1967 Referendum, the differences between the Liberal and Labor Parties, Edmund Barton, the 2008 Apology, the incumbent government's defense of 'hate speech' in 2016, and a few other relevant events. Students can examine the rhetoric used by Burney to strengthen her position and draw connections between the content of her speech and their own lives and beliefs.

Page Count: 8 pages.

Source: A transcription and video of the 2016 speech can both be found on the Parliament of Australia website.


'How to Live Before You Die' by Steve Jobs
What is it: In a speech delivered at Stanford University, Apple Mac creator Steve Jobs describes the purpose of things, and the art of using your experiences to carve your own unique path. Through the use of hindsight and the telling of three key stories, Jobs explains the cause and effect chain that led to his own innovations, and what motivates him to live his life in the way that he does.

Scope for Study / Verdict: This is a very accessible speech, and one made somewhat poignant by Jobs' death by cancer (he references having been cured of pancreatic cancer). I think it would work quite well with a Standard English class as the language is conversational and straightforward whilst dealing with some hard truths pitched at an audience of young adults.

Page Count: 3 pages.

Source: Delivered as the 2005 Stanford University Commencement speech, 'How to Live Before You Die' can be found on Stanford's website here.

Paul Keating lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
'Funeral Service of The Unknown Australian Soldier' by Paul Keating
What is it: Prime Minister Paul Keating delivers a eulogy on Remembrance Day for all Australian soldiers who have died in war, examining what it means to die for one's country, and the reasons why we honour the fallen.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Keating's mastery of the speech genre is well-renowned, and his memorial speech for the 'Unknown Soldier' provides ample fodder for the study of rhetoric, and the way politicians like Keating use this art form to control language and persuade audiences. Examples for analysis include anaphora, logos, the use of semi-colons as 'super commas', symbolism, carefully selected paragraph breaks, parataxis, embedded clauses, and polysyndeton - all persuasive and structural devices that demonstrate Keatin's expertise as a renowned orator.

Page Count: 2 pages.

Source: A transcript of the speech can be found on Paul Keating's website.



'The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination' by JK Rowling
What is it: Harry Potter author JK Rowling delivers a speech to Harvard University upon receiving an honorary doctorate, choosing to focus on the concept of failure as a force that can galvanize people into assessing their own purpose in life, seeking out the things that truly matter to them, and using this as a foundation to build their own dreams. Rowling recounts her own experiences of failure and how this led to her work at Amnesty International, and the impact this had on her.

Scope for Study / Verdict: An uplifting speech that's perfectly pitched for Year 12 students who will be evaluating their own life journeys in the days to come. There's a great quote from Rowling, "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents on steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you", which should have some relevance to the young adults we teach. Her speech encompasses themes of achievement, failure, speaking up, and the (implied) meaning of life itself. There's also just enough challenging terms smattered throughout that will allow for expanding student vocabulary, IE. 'quixotic', 'paradoxical', 'parenthesis', 'ennobling', 'vicissitudes', 'temerity', etc. 

Page Count: 5 pages.

Source:  The full text of the speech, which was delivered in 2008, can be found on one of Harvard University's websites here. A 20 minute recording of the speech can also be found on the Ted Talk website and on Youtube.
 
Poetry / Performance Poetry Options
Of the five poets featured here there are three Australians. The international entrants are the American Robert Frost and Singaporean poet Carol Chan.


'Popcorn' by Carol Chan
What is it: Chan ruminates on the international origins of her 7/11-bought popcorn while remembering a conversation with a barista from China, and considers the fine line between authentic culinary experience and phony, consumer-driven materialism. The piece is framed by a comparison between the poet's craving for popcorn and the feeling of disappointment she experiences when she eats it.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Standard English students may at first be confused by the presentation of this blank verse poem in couplets that break up an otherwise straightforward piece of writing. Chan folds an illuminating conversation inside of the story of the persona's popcorn-consumption, adding irony and political commentary to an otherwise innocuous occurrence. I think this would be a fun poem to teach, especially if you have creative students who might appreciate composing their own pieces in a similar manner.

Page Count: 14 pairs of lines (about 1 page).

Source: 'Popcorn' features in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (ISBN 9781921450655). This 2013 anthology is also a Prescribed Text for Standard English Module A: Language, Identity and Culture.

Frost's demeanour and fashion suggest a certain oneness with nature
'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' by Robert Frost
What is it: Frost describes a sense of rapture experienced by the poem's persona. The short and economically-composed portrait of the woods-in-season represents a communion with nature that links to concepts of place and emotion.

Scope for Study / Verdict: I guess this could be seen as the token international 'classic' entry in the poetry section of Module C, with Frost's exploration of nature conveyed through traditional use of imagery, sensory description, and elegant word choices. The poetry is more than accessible enough for a Standard English class, and its mileage will probably depend on the level of enthusiasm held by the teacher for Frost's poetry.

Length: 4 short stanzas.

Source: Originally published in 1923, this poem can be found most recently in The Collected Poems of Robert Frost, released in 2012.



'An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow' by Les Murray
What is it: A man stops and begins to cry in the middle of Sydney at Martin Place. The poem describes the way surrounding people react to the weeping man, with multiple points of view building a sense of depth and mystery.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Murray arranges free verse into several five-line stanzas, eschewing a more formalised structure in order to force the focus onto the content of the poem. Students can be scaffolded in examining each viewpoint presented, and there is a lot of scope for discussion in terms of creatively exploring the enigmatic weeping man at the centre of the piece and the strange impact he has on those around him. I think this would be a fantastic piece to study with a class both in terms of analysing the text and using it as a basis for creative writing activities.

Length: 9 stanzas presented across two pages.

Source: 'An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow' can be found in the 2012 book The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray, published by Black Inc.

I'm just gonna say it: Judith Wright looks like such a badass in this photo. I love it.
'The Surfer' by Judith Wright
What is it: This 1945 piece by the Australian poet Judith Wright describes a body surfer's mastery of the waves, the synergy between the human swimmer and the personified ocean, and the dangers that lurk in attempting to subjugate such a powerful force of nature.

Scope for Study / Verdict: Wright's language is powerful and visceral in its description of action, drawing parallels and tensions between the ocean and the swimmer who attempts to ride it, and remains a great piece of verse. The poem is relatively short and features little in the way of obscure or archaic language, allowing instead for the Standard English student to observe the writer's creative use of structure when arranging clauses and word combinations. There is also scope for students to explore connections to the poetry in terms of what it has to say about the underlying conflict or relationship between humanity and the elements.

Length: 3 stanzas (1 page)

Source: The poem can be found in the anthology Judith Wright: Collected Poems 1942-1985 published in 2016.

'May Your Pen Grace the Page', performance by Luka Lesson
What is it: A plea for potential writers to express themselves creatively, Lesson's slam poetry examines the nature of writing itself as an entity to be wooed and flirted with, and gives way to enthusiastic and romantic reflection.

Scope for Study / Verdict: The inclusion of this piece as a performance rather than a text-poem brings into focus the potential for analysing multimodality, with Lesson using pace and volume to build tension and emphasis. In 'May Your Pen Grace the Page', the process of writing is personified as a lover, calling to mind similarities with other Module C texts such as Sylvia Plath's 'A Comparison', and Lesson mixes the genres of poetry and hip-hop, which may assist with engaging some Standard English students with nominally challenging content.

Length: 3 and a half minutes.

Source: An audio recording can be found on Luka Lesson's 2012 CD Please Resist Me, and on Youtube. A transcript can also be found here.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Brief History of Wake in Fright


It's been interesting watching the promotional material for the new mini-series adaptation of Wake in Fright on Channel 10, which has made some rather bold claims that the TV series is based on a 'classic' Australian novel. What's interesting about this is that whilst the 1961 novel was well-received at the time of its publication (and has remained in print), it's the 1971 film that had the bigger reputation on the international stage.

The film was known as Outback overseas - no doubt a clever marketing ploy to get Americans and Europeans to see the film as an exotic vision of the Australian desert. It was nominated for a major award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and was applauded by critics the world over. But, you may have noticed, it isn't really the sort of film that pops up on Australian TV, nor is it as spoken about as much as other popular Australian films like Crocodile Dundee, The Castle, or at least Picnic at Hanging Rock.

There's a reason for this.

The 1971 film Wake in Fright went missing. For over 30 years the film was out of circulation due to the negative disappearing. An Australian producer searched for it for over a decade before finding a copy in a container in Pittsburgh; a container that was marked 'for destruction'. Close call! The film was subsequently restored and released in the 21st century for many eager cinephiles (such as myself) to finally enjoy.

It's quite possibly the greatest film ever made about Australia, and a film that might not sit well with the average Aussie viewer. In fact, despite it's popularity overseas, Wake in Fright was shunned by sectors of the Australian film-consuming community upon its release - perhaps due to the fact that it cuts a little close to the bone in terms of analyising the stereotypical Australian character. It would be a great text for the English Studies mandatory unit 'We Are Australian', in terms of what it says about the Australian character and what our reaction to it says about the Australian character. In fact, any English unit focusing on Australian iconography or identity would work well with this text.

Wake in Fright was more or less the first film to put modern Australia on the silver screen as it truly was; prior to this the Australian film industry was basically non-existent. Up until the 1940s it had acted as a satellite film industry to England, depicting Australians who were for all intents and purposes displaced British citizens. There were a sprinkling of Hollywood productions made on Australian soil in the late '50s (two notable examples are the apocalyptic On the Beach and the colourful epic The Sundowners) but it wasn't until the British-financed Wake in Fright that it suddenly seemed possible for Australia to have a self-sufficient industry of its own. Wake in Fright's importance and impact was so big that it spawned two parallel lines of cinema in the 1970s and beyond: the artistically-inclined Australian New Wave (spearheaded by the directors Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, and Bruce Beresford) and the crowd-pleasingly low brow films that have come to be known as the Ozploitation genre (see Mad Max, Razorback, Stone). Wake in Fright has elements of both these waves of filmmaking, and is just a great film to boot.

John (Gary Bond) is an upper-middle class schoolteacher serving his time in the isolated outback town of Tiboonda. He resents being stationed so far from what he deems to be civilisation, and when the school holidays come around he aims to return to Sydney for a reprieve. In the course of this journey he comes to the mining town of Bundanyabba (AKA "the Yabba"), an outback town where he stops to rest and have a quiet drink. Some locals at the Yabba introduce him to an underground two-up ring, where he gets a taste for gambling. John sees a chance to make enough money to free him from his outback teaching post, but he ends up losing everything instead. As a result he's stranded in the Yabba, without a dollar to his name, and unable to even get to the next town. He falls in with some 'friendly' locals, and they initiate him into their way of life - a kind of hell from which there seems to be no escape.

Wake in Fright's biggest weapon is its subtle use of irony to examine the widening gap between intellectualism and the working class in Australia, perhaps most immediately evident in the contrast between the gentle music that plays throughout the opening credits and the first line of dialogue; an abrupt "Shut up!" that foreshadows the barely restrained tension that bubbles under the affable manner of the average Australian country character. As John travels out of Tiboonda he finds himself invited to drink with a group of drunken locals on the train, which he politely declines in favour of sitting by himself. It's this aloofness that is only real defence, and dropping it will be his undoing - a reflection of the anxieties of the suburban psyche. An interesting side note of this early train-set scene full of of 'friendly' Aussies is that there's also an Aboriginal man sitting by himself - a keen visual reminded of the separatist reality of Australian culture. This simple truth gets blown up to magnificent proportions throughout the course of the film, almost to a point where it's literally too hard to look at.

In a film full of contrasts - such as the juxtaposition of the jovial nature of the Australian character with the desolate, sand-blasted environment - it's perhaps the contrast between the intellectual teacher and the working class rural Australians that is most affecting. The Yabba townsfolk don't take too kindly to John's resentment of their habitat and culture. His arrogance leads him to unashamedly label two-up as a "simple-minded game". Nearly everything he says and does makes it obvious that he looks down on the Yabba, he even casts the 'fair go' temperament of the locals as the "arrogance of stupid people". The flipside of this is what comes to be termed as the "aggressive hospitality" of the rural Australian, a subtle and cunning strategy the Yabba folk employ to entrap their prey. It's never made explicit or said outright, all this stuff happens just under the surface through the narrowing of eyes and some ironically 'friendly' phrases. John may be an unsympathetic protagonist when the film begins, but by the end the balance of power is tipped well out of his favour and the audience can't help but feel sorry for him despite his flaws. The Yabba men toy with him and, for all his big city cleverness, they're always in control of his life. They take his money, destroy his concept of time, and degrade him completely. To them he's uneducated because he has no understanding of their lifestyle. When they take him shooting he wants to claim his kill, but they tell him there's no point because all the foxes are mangy in the outback, and it's at this point that he realises the pointlessness of his assimilation. However, it's also too late for any epiphany, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome has taken hold of him - leading to a disturbingly barbaric roo-shooting sequence. At the end of his transformation John even throws his beloved books away, all the civilisation is washed out of him and escape becomes nothing more than a dim fantasy.

Of all the actors it's probably Australian film legend Chips Rafferty and British actor Donald Pleasance who stand out the most. Rafferty, in his last film, has an important supporting role as the local representative of the law, and Pleasance (with a perfect Australian accent) plays an alcoholic doctor. The 'good' doctor admits that his disease (alcoholism) prevents him from practising in Sydney but that in the Yabba this affliction is barely noticeable. It's a sadly acute observation that all but labels Australia's propensity for drinking as an outright blight on our national character. Along with a talent for beerswilling, the Australian character is further represented in Wake in Fright through several other tropes - a reverence for the ANZACs, two-up, mateship, and poker-machines as a 'healthy' tradition. Add to this the friendliness that only really exists as long as you fit the unspoken rules of the friendly atmosphere, and the aforementioned 'aggressive hospitality', and you have an image of the Australian that fits a little too uncomfortably. There's also the suggestion that an Australian man must be masculine in order to be a 'true Australian'; an idea that feeds into the theme of a divide between intellectualism and the working class. John finds that he actually has more in common with the reserved daughter of one of his 'friends' than he does with any of the males he meets, further highlighting the way his intellect makes him un-Australian in comparison to the Yabba blokes.

In short, the film Wake in Fright could be viewed as a serious piece of anthropology hidden underneath a whole lot of mindless drinking, punching, and humiliation. It's like the dark flipside to films like Dimboola and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie - 1970s comedies that lampooned Australian's yobbo drinking culture with a much lighter touch. I'll admit that I haven't seen the TV remake of the novel/film at this point in time, however, you would do very well to check out this early '70s classic. It's a great piece of cinema.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Common Module (English Prescriptions 2019-23)


Prose Fiction Options
In total there are four prose fiction titles to pick from.
  • Three of these are novels and one is a novella (Vertigo). 
  • Two of the texts are new to the English Prescriptions list (All the Light We Cannot See and Past the Shallows). 
  • Two of the texts are written by Australians (Vertigo and Past the Shallows).
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

What is it: Anthony Doerr's Pullitzer Prize-winning novel is a 500+ page opus that tracks the experiences of two children on opposite sides of World War II. The chapters are short and episodic (they average 3 pages each) and mostly take place from the perspectives of a French vision-impaired girl and a German orphan boy drafted into the Hitler Youth. It's very well-written; each sentence is a little work of poetry, and the scope of events and themes covered by the narrative is ambitious, to say the least.

Scope for Study: Students with an interest in Modern History, or World War II fiction, will find a lot to like in this novel, as will those who have a real interest in reading literature. The chapter-lengths and style allow for a surprisingly brisk read provided that the students are interested. In relation to the Common Module's rubric, the book is perfect for examining the paradoxical nature of humanity in the face of war. The author's unique but accessible style also allows for involved study of figurative language, grammatical structure, and literary value.

NESA Annotations: The 2019-23 Annotations point out the impressive array of awards that American author Doerr has picked up for All the Light We Cannot See, and the historical significance of the events covered within the novel's narrative. The document also points out the challenging nature of dichotomising people into categories of 'good' or 'evil', and the way that the text provokes discussion around this and the motif of 'light' as a symbol of hope. The non-linear plotting, the use of science and intertextuality, and the perspective of the character of Marie-Laure, are also pointed out as fodder for provocative teaching and learning.

Verdict: Alas, this is a novel of terrifying length and it would be a very brave teacher that dares to teach it in the space of a term to 17 year-olds. I could only see it working with an Advanced English class but even with students of this ability I think it would be a big ask for them to read something of this length and read it deep enough for purposes of study. The text itself is also, from the viewpoints of some, quite problematic (if it wasn't for the length, I would say these issues provide great scope for discussion with higher ability classes, but not all teachers may feel this way if they take personal offence).   

Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey
What is it: Luke and Anna are a young couple who decide to move to a coastal country town as an escape from the pollution and pace of life in Sydney. Lohrey's novella is compact but thematically dense and lyrical, gradually bringing the alarming danger of bushfire closer whilst teasing the audience with the presence of an unnamed boy who continues to haunt and flit about the edges of the narrative.

Scope for Study: The novella provides scope for discussion of the way a narrative is constructed, with particular attention potentially paid to the use of foreshadowing and (if you read the blurb, which gives things away a bit) dramatic irony. The coastal/rural setting is somewhat personified throughout the text, with its salience rendering it as equally important as the characters. Lohrey writes in a deceptively accessible way, seeming to 'skate' over the top of her characters and their journey as they deal with rather weighty and complex issues.

NESA Annotations: The 2015-2020 Annotations highlight the evocative imagery of Lohrey's descriptive and largely dialogue-free writing, and the motif of 'the boy' is similarly identified as a force that drives the reader's curiosity in relation to the narrative. The annotations also imply that the text could be considered multimodal (there are several photographs interspersed throughout the book), and students are encouraged to engage with this aspect during their study.

Verdict: Whilst the length of Vertigo is a lot less daunting than All the Light We Cannot See, there are certain thematic considerations that could prove very challenging when teaching this text to teenagers. Vertigo is quite typical as far as Australian literature goes: set in the bush, concerned with a thirty-something couple who have experienced a late term miscarriage, and largely free of dialogue or memorable secondary characters. To be frank, I'm not sure how well teenagers would be able to connect with a text that is far more likely to appeal to the upwardly mobile, middle-aged, book-buying crowd. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
What is it: Orwell's dystopian classic needs no real introduction. The story of Winston Smith's struggle for individuality and privacy under the oppressive eye of Big Brother has become the stuff of pop culture legend. It's also the only science fiction text in the Common Module, and one of the few science fiction texts across the entire English Prescriptions list.

Scope for Study: Students will (and do) find quite a few alarming points of similarity between Orwell's nightmare vision of the future and our own current state of affairs. The appointment of Donald Trump as American President and his rhetoric of 'alternative facts' and 'fake news' hits a little too closely to the way the Party manipulates information and history in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell's use of rhetoric, careful sentence construction, and disturbing imagery also allows students to attack the text at a micro-level whilst simultaneously examining the big questions it raises.

NESA Annotations: Notes for Nineteen Eighty-Four can be found in the 2015-2020 Annotations, albeit as part of the 'Intertextual Perspectives' module. Orwell's hugely influential novel is deemed significant due to its impact on the English language (and Western culture in general). It's legitimacy as a 'canon' text for classroom study is supported by the role that context plays in its construction, with students able to draw upon Orwell's political, social, cultural and historical background to deepen their understanding of the novel.

Verdict: Orwell is intellectually challenging but also very relevant, and I've found that many students respond quite passionately to the concepts portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. I will note, however, that it's perfectly pitched for an Advanced English class and, as such, I'm not sure it would be a successful teaching-and-learning experience in a Standard English context.

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett
What is it: Past the Shallows tells the story of two brothers, Miles and Harry, who live on the south-east coast of Tasmania with their difficult father. Much like Vertigo, this is a text heavily informed by the environment - an arresting story that's as enigmatic and bracing as the great Southern Ocean that hugs the Tasmanian coast and looms so large as a threat to Harry. Past the Shallows is the first award-winning novel from Australian author Favel Parrett, who previously wrote zines.

Scope for Study: Past the Shallows is wonderfully evocative of place and features memorable, finely-sketched characters that will stay with the reader long after they've finished with the novel. Students won't find it difficult to read, and Parrett's background as a zine-writer means that she is able to craft poetic yet accessible imagery that will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. The use of the southern-most parts of Australia as a setting also gives the text an edge over the many similar pieces of literature that focus on the country or outback.

NESA Annotations: The annotations describe the text as 'powerful', 'poignant', and 'traumatic', and it's hard to disagree. Note is also made of the 'distinctive voices' of the two protagonists, Miles and Harry - essentially highlighting the strength of characterisation in Parrett's writing. Suggestion is also made in regards to exploring the genre of bildungsroman and the way the novel touches on elements of this storytelling tradition, and the way Parrett mimics the 'rhythms of the ocean' through her use of grammar and figurative language.

Verdict: I love this book and would absolutely love the chance to teach it. The text is beautifully written, the characters are engaging and raise lots of questions, and there are some big themes around family, loss, neglect, etc. Most of all, the perspective of the two adolescent brothers provides the perfect way-in for teenage readers!

Poetry / Drama / Shakespearean Drama Options
There are five options to choose from here, with a few notes:
  • The Merchant of Venice gets counted as a Drama option if chosen for Standard English, but a Shakespearean Drama option if chosen for Advanced English.
  • None of the options here are entirely new to the prescriptions list, although I think it's been a while since The Merchant of Venice was a prescribed text.
  • Both poets are Australian, as is the playwright Jane Harrison (who is also Muruwari).

Collected Poems by Rosemary Dobson
  • Young Girl at a Window
  • Over the Hill
  • Summer's End
  • The Conversation
  • Cock Crow
  • Amy Caroline
  • Canberra Morning
What is it: Whilst Dobson has been on the prescriptions list before, it's worth noting that the suite of poetry chosen by NESA is not exactly the same as the selection in previous years - only two of the above poems ('Young Girl at a Window', 'Cock Crow') were in the prior prescriptions. Dobson's poetry spans a full lifetime, she wrote as a child and was first published at the age of 17 in the 1930s, and released her last collection of poetry in 2008 just four years before her death. The poetry itself shies away from the political and the personal, instead offering artistic observations of what Dobson called 'the fugitively glimpsed'.

Scope for Study: Dobson's poetry was previously placed as a prescribed text for Discovery, and it's easy to see her observations of the enigmatic as a window into the role of the artist as an explorer. As a text in the Common Module, the suite of selected poetry allows for students explore the role of perspective in creating a relationship between the subject and observer, and the figurative language used to express this. Dobson eschews the use of difficult language in much of her poetry, which is welcome considering the obscurity that permeates the subjects she describes.

NESA Annotations: This text is covered in the 2015-2020 document but not in the most recent annotations, which means that the notation provided is about the text's use in regards to Discovery and therefore concerns the previous selection of poetry. That said, the annotations aren't really that specific, so it's still relevant in terms of providing some information on the author's value in terms of study. The annotations do tend to highlight the intertextual dimensions of Dobson's work in relation to art, literature and mythology though, with an emphasis on imagery and allusion. The techniques will still be there in the new collection listed above but in their selection of these poems NESA have somewhat de-emphasised the intertextuality of Dobson's oeuvre, so this element is not as applicable. 

Verdict: I'll just say it straight up - Dobson is about as Anglo-Australian as you can get. Her work is described by NESA as 'interrogating connections between Australian and European traditions in art and culture'. I would keep that in mind when looking at the socio-economic nature of my cohort, as there are a lot of students in NSW's metropolitan and outer suburban areas who won't appreciate where she's coming from as much as some teachers will. The poetry is fairly accessible nonetheless, and the poet's attempts to capture mood, memory, and place will hold some interest for more creatively-minded students.

Selected Poems by Kenneth Slessor
  • Wild Grapes
  • Gulliver
  • Out of Time
  • Vesper-Song of the Reverend Samuel Marsden
  • William Street
  • Beach Burial
What is it: Kenneth Slessor was a journalist, editor, and war correspondent who left his mark as one of Australia's most significant 'modern' poets. The bulk of his poetry was written in the 1920s and 1930s, and helped inaugurate Australia's shift away from the balladry of 19th century poetry to sharp, intense and contradictory explorations of emotion, death, place, and time. Slessor is also noted for his flexibility in style and content, from the tragedy of 'Beach Burial' to the jokey tone of 'Wild Grapes'.

Scope for Study: Students will be able to drill down not just into individual poems but also into single lines and specific word choices as the poet's expertise in crafting dense imagery is perfectly suited for Stage 6 study. Slessor's mastery of language is both cajoling and disruptive to the reader, and forces attention rather than asks for it. Students will able to examine the overall themes of his work, as well as the way that verse can be employed to these ends.

NESA Annotations: There are currently no available NESA annotations for this text.

Verdict: With only 6 poems, and none more than a single page in length, this is possibly the shortest of the poetry options on offer in the English Prescriptions 2019-2023. I think Slessor's poetry would work best with an inquisitive Standard English class, and the brevity of the text on offer here will offer breathing space for teachers wanting to provide lots of scaffolding and room for curiosity. It also helps that the poems are excellent.

Rainbow's End by Jane Harrison
What is it: Jane Harrison's play about three generations of Aboriginal women living in 1950s rural Victoria has been a popular teaching option since its introduction as part of the 2009-2014 prescriptions. Drawing upon an Australian context of acute disparity between Aboriginal people and their European-descended neighbours, Rainbow's End is essentially a character study that mixes comedy with tragedy to capture the voices of marginalised generations in our recent past.

Scope for Study: Harrison has become a much-loved writer in the past decade or so, and her inclusion on this list makes her the only Indigenous Australian author in the Common Module. Rainbow's End is the most 'obvious' option in this section of the list, and it explores the vernacular of a class system in a rapidly disappearing era with an engaging sense of energy and pace that's achieved, in large part, through sharply memorable characterisation.

NESA Annotations: Both the 2015-2020 and 2009-2014 Annotations contain (differing) notes on the text, with some attention paid to the valuable social and historical contexts provided by its study. Irony, 'gentle humour', and characterisation are highlighted as key dramatic techniques used by Harrison to deal with complex themes in a deceptively simple way. 

Verdict: I like this play a lot, and I think it works well as a Standard English text due to the fact that it builds on mandatory content that NSW students will have covered in the Rights and Freedom topic from Year 10 History. Sequencing this easily-appreciated drama as a follow-up to study of the Stolen Generations, generational inequity via the missions, and pre-1967 Referendum society in Australia, allows for students to construct a truly valuable understanding of Rainbow's End that should contribute to life-long learning. 


The Crucible by Arthur Miller
What is it: Miller's intense dramatisation of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century follows the story of Abigail Williams, a young girl who uses accusations of witchcraft to wield power over an ignorant and puritanical society. The object of her scorn is John Proctor, a local farmer whose affair with the young Abigail will spell certain doom. 

Scope for Study: The Crucible stands tall as a damning allegory for McCarthyism in the 1950s, reflecting Arthur Miller's thinly-shrouded criticism of the House of Un-American Activities at that time. Miller himself would go on to face the wrath of Senator Joe McCarthy, who targeted the playwright as a potential communist sympathiser. The Crucible is a complex, dark, and ultimately rage-inducing indictment of mob mentality and the misuse of power. 

NESA Annotations: Notes for the play can be found in the 2015-2020 Annotations, extensively referencing the importance of the text as a window into context. The duality of themes such as 'good and evil, love and malice, respect and respectability' are also mentioned but the focal point remains largely contextually-driven, with commentary highlighting the play's role as a political instrument for its past, present, and future.

Verdict: The historical cadence of the language and the significance of context make The Crucible undoubtedly suited to an Advanced English class. As such, teachers would be crazy not to team it up with Good Night and Good Luck, a Module B text for Advanced English that deals more directly with McCarthyism. The marrying of these two texts together across multiple modules will only serve to strengthen the field of knowledge that Advanced students can draw upon for in-depth contextual understanding. 


The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
What is it: The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one of Shakespeare's more famous comedies and also one of the more controversial when viewed from a modern context. The play remains somewhat challenging due to its depiction of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who becomes consumed with the need to collect a 'pound of flesh' from the Venetian merchant Antonio when a debt isn't paid on time. There's also a bunch of stuff about various foreign suitors having to solve a puzzle so they can win the hand of a much-desired Venetian noblewoman, and the usual gender-bending that often shows up in Shakespearean comedy, but no one tends to remember that stuff due to Shylock's unreasonable compulsion to extract actual flesh from Antonio.

Scope for Study: Like the other older texts on this list, The Merchant of Venice provides ample scope for the study of historical context - particularly the values of the Elizabethan era in regards to race, commerce, and gender (Shakespeare pretty much conflates these three big themes into one interwoven depiction of Venice as a potential future for his English audience). Eagle-eared students will also do well in picking up the differences in dialogue-styles employed by characters from very different backgrounds, with Shylock sounding quite unlike any other character in Shakespeare's body of work. 

NESA Annotations: There are currently no available annotations for this text, possibly because it was added late to the 2019-2023 Prescriptions list.

Verdict: I've had difficulty teaching Shakespearean comedies in the past, however, I think there's quite a bit in The Merchant of Venice that lends itself to contemporary discussion. Sure, there's the obvious stuff like the antisemitism of the character of Shylock and his apparent greed, but there's also a lot of to talk about in regards to the themes of commerce and commodities. And whilst everyone is very aware of Shylock as a Jewish stereotype, there's perhaps even more racism in the depiction of the Moorish Prince who seeks Portia's hand in marriage.

Non-Fiction / Film / Media Options
There are five options in this section; two non-fiction novels, a fictional film, and two documentaries (1 film, 1 TV series).
  • There are three new texts - The Boy Behind the Curtain, I Am Malala, and Waste Land.
  • Of the texts, two are Australian - The Boy Behind the Curtain and Go Back to Where You Came From.
  • Both Go Back to Where You Came From and Waste Land make partial use of subtitles.

The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton
  • Havoc: A Life of Accidents
  • Betsy
  • Twice on Sundays
  • The Wait and the Flow
  • In the Shadow of the Hospital
  • The Demon Shark
  • Barefoot in the Temple of Art
What is it: Tim Winton, Australia's contemporary 'golden child' of home-grown literature, turns his sharp lyricism onto himself in this highly personal memoir of growing up in Albany, Western Australia. Each chapter is a non-fiction essay, covering topics such the motor vehicle accidents that shaped Winton into an adult, the impact of being part of a strict sect of the Christian Church, and a plea for the conservation of sharks.

Scope for Study: Whilst certainly economical at times, Winton's writing could never really be accused of being dry. Each sentence reads as carefully crafted, and students will be able to examine the role of synonyms, wide vocabulary use, and connotation in controlling the relationship between reader and writer. Winton's use of both non-linear plotting and the essay form to explore his own past will also allow students to gain an understanding of the way the truth can be bent to fit a narrative.

NESA Annotations: As a fairly recent release, Winton's memoir is addressed in the new annotations for 2019-2023. In terms of the 'needs and interests of the students', the focus is described as being on Winton's representation of human experiences and the ways that these have informed his art and life. Winton's masterful control of language and a wide variety of literary techniques are also mentioned as grist for the student mill. 

Verdict: Look, I love Winton, but some of the pieces selected from his memoir would be incredibly difficult for certain Stage 6 students to fully comprehend (I'm primarily thinking of the religion essay, 'Twice on Sundays'). Winton's use of obscure language whilst also simultaneously playing with grammatical and literary forms of expression may stretch some students beyond patience. As such, I could only really see this text working with a high-performing Advanced English class. The full resonance of The Boy Behind the Curtain may also be lost on students who A) Don't have a working knowledge of who Winton is, and/or B) Aren't old enough to fully appreciate the meditative nature of a middle-aged artist reflecting on his own life.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
What is it: Malala Yousafzai recounts the story of her life as a teenager growing up on the Pakistani / Afghanistan border in the years following 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan. Although politically enclosed within the comparatively moderate nation of Pakistan, the remote community that Malala grew up in was heavily-influenced and partially-controlled by Taliban theocrats from Afghanistan, meaning that Malala's education in her father's school came under direct ideological and physical attack from terrorists. This memoir follows her tumultuous journey from student to passionate campaigner for female rights to education across the entire world.

Scope for Study: Placed from within a prism of current affairs that will be familiar to students, I Am Malala builds off ideas that many Stage 4 and Stage 5 English classes will have already explored; namely advocacy, agency, gender stereotypes, protest, and non-Anglo cultural perspectives. Malala's memoir reflects her youthful optimism and resilience, and the smattering of localised language throughout helps to extend students in their understanding of Afghan/Pakistani region.

NESA Annotations: The 2019-2023 Annotations emphasise the text's credibility in order to convince the teacher of its worthiness, highlighting Malala's status as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the impressive credentials of her co-author, the British foreign correspondent Christina Lamb. The way that memoirs construct and re-structure narrative will give students room for analysis but the main point made by the annotations is that I Am Malala provides a welcome insight into the experiences of women and girls in the Muslim world.

Verdict: The danger and survival of Malala's story will be impressive to just about anyone. I could see this text working really well (with supporting material from the teen edition of the book) for a lower/mixed ability Standard English class or an English Studies group, and the ongoing nature of Malala Yousafzai's story (she recently just signed up to Twitter) means that there is considerable scope for students to draw connections between the text and the significant themes that it discusses.


Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry
What is it: Set against the backdrop of the UK miners' strike of 1984, Billy Elliot depicts the coming-of-age of a working class boy who swaps his boxing gloves for a pair of ballet shoes. The film arrived as part of the wave of working class British comedy/drama films that came into popularity with The Full Monty in 1997, and remains a finely-acted and well-scripted piece of cinema that successfully blends context and characterisation to build a meaningful connection with its audience.

Scope for Study: The 1980s coal miners' strike may seem like an obscure context for 21st century Australian students but there is a lot of common ground that can be forged in regards to themes of class and labour. Stephen Daldry's relatively straight-forward construction of a dramatic narrative also allows for a lot of discussion around themes, characterisation, and setting.

NESA Annotations: Billy Elliot is covered by the 2015-2020 Annotations with a particular focus on its inclusion as a Discovery text. Even with the demise of the Area of Study the arcs of growth for Billy, his family, and the wider community all remain relevant as highly teachable elements of the text. The annotations highlight the thematic core of the film, being the fact that the narrative is largely driven by Billy's subversion of gender norms. 

Verdict: This film works well as a Standard English text, with a lot of scope for challenging stereotypes and gender roles in relation to generic conventions. The juxtaposition of Billy's tough background and his burgeoning love of dance may also invite students to challenge their own understanding of cultural and socio-economic pressures.

Go Back to Where You Came From (Season 1), directed by Ivan O'Mahoney
What is it: Six participants representing a cross-section of contemporary Australian society embark on a reverse-journey that traces the footsteps of refugees. Part reality TV, part social experiment, Go Back to Where You Came From is a unique television event that explores the Australian metanarrative and challenges viewers to examine their own views on refugees, detention centres, and the context that has created this ongoing 'hot topic'.

Scope for Study: Go Back to Where You Came From is perhaps the ultimate Discovery text, examining six individuals as they confront political issues head-on and undergo transformations to varying degrees. The Area of Study is now a moot point but the text itself is still incredibly relevant in terms of encouraging students to build their own personal response to both the text and the political dimensions that birthed it. Combining a variety of persuasive techniques and documentary tropes, Go Back to Where You Came From is fertile ground for in-depth analysis, and definitely a thought-provoking stimulus.

NESA Annotations: Notes can be found in the 2015-2020 Annotations, although these predominantly concern the text's relevance to the Discovery Area of Study. That aside, there is mention of the usefulness of the final post-series episode, The Response, as a way for students to measure their own evaluations against those offered by the participants. The role of the media in shaping public opinion is also highlighted as a key area for challenging students.

Verdict: Go Back to Where You Came From is a rare beast - a very easily understood and accessible text that's also quite cerebral in its treatment of contentious themes. Students from both the Standard and Advanced courses will quite easily form personal opinions in response to the diversity of perspectives offered by the participants, which range from the refugee-sympathetic far left (Gleny Rae) to the nationalistic and conservative (Darren Hassan, Raye Colby). The use of modern generic conventions associated with the reality TV and documentaries genres are also identifiable to students, and provide ample fodder for student analysis.

Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker
What is it: In this documentary, director Lucy Walker follows artist Vik Muniz as he embarks upon a new project centering around Jardim Gramacho, one of the world's largest garbage dumps (located in Brazil). Muniz creates huge, room-sized portraits of some of the individuals who make their living from collecting the rubbish; a project that that makes uses of recycled materials and sees Muniz become increasingly involved in seeking agency for these marginalised people.

Scope for Study: The project that Muniz embarks on provides scope for students to investigate the socio-economic issues surrounding the catadores (garbage pickers) and the ingrained poverty of the Rio de Janeiro favelas (slums). In addition to this, there is a twofold opportunity for students to explore the social commentary imbued in Muniz's art, and the documentary techniques used by Walker to affect the viewer's impressions of her constructed narrative of this subject.

NESA Annotations: The 2019-2023 Annotations identify Waste Land as "an engrossing and uplifting documentary that celebrates the dignity of the human spirit" whist also highlighting the sheer wealth of awards that it attracted in 2011. The motif of garbage is mentioned as a prompt for discussion of the paradoxical nature of Muniz's art, which is simultaneously beautiful and depressing. The annotations are also careful to establish the constructed nature of Walker's documentary as a piece that deliberately focuses on individuals rather than the wider political issues of Brazil.

Verdict: A 'big' documentary with significance, Waste Land encompasses themes of shame, pride, making a living, the cycle of 'rubbish', and advocacy. The fact that Muniz makes the pickers partners in his artistic process (whereby he transforms their images into huge portraits constructed from garbage and recyclable materials) goes a long way towards engaging the viewer in a narrative that moves beyond the idiosyncrasies of the art. This text would most likely work well with either Advanced or Standard classes, with fantastic (in the original sense of the word) imagery of pickers scaling mountains of moving trash as it pours from the back of trucks, and Walker and Muniz working together to draw out stories and pathos from these individuals - the woman who fell in love with a married truck driver, the man who found Machiavelli's The Prince in the trash and began reading it, the uneducated ageing picker who is proud to represent 2500 other pickers, and the young man who becomes a inspirational mouthpiece for his fellow catadores.