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Posts Tagged ‘belonging’

Some very smart teachers I know (much smarter than me) think that this year’s HSC English Paper could possibly focus on the concept of identity as an aspect of belonging. Earlier this week I came across a series of images, Untitled Film Stills by Cindy Sherman, that encapsulate this theme brilliantly. Not only that, but thanks to the wonderful educators at MoMA Learning, there’s some pretty substantial study resources to go with them. Consider this image, Untitled Film Still #3:

cindy-sherman-untitled-film-still-3

 

What might you imagine about the subject’s sense of identity? How might this affect her sense of belonging? Are the objects around her significant? Do they symbolise anything about her life? She is looking away, what might be occurring off-camera? This photograph is a self-portrait of the artist. How might this knowledge affect your relationship with the image?

For a deeper discussion of this image in terms of the theme of identity, see this recording of a MoMA Google Hangout.

I also think this series of images could work well with another potential essay question: Barriers to belonging. Consider ideas of gender roles and social expectations, particularly if your core text is the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the film Strictly Ballroom.

 

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It’s your life – but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt raises the key issues of individuality and conformity as aspects of belonging. Her book, You Learn by Living, would make a great related text for Area of Study.

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Essay planning in an exam situation can be tricky. You need to ensure that your essay answers the whole question; however, you’re also pretty pressed for time. In the HSC, taking five minutes to plan is worth it and the first part of your planning time should be spent breaking down the question. Here are some examples of how breaking down the question can give you an essay plan.

2009 Area of Study: Belonging, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

“Understanding nourishes belonging … a lack of understanding prevents it.”

Demonstrate how your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing represent this interpretation of belonging.

Break down

  • Understanding nourishes belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I died for beauty’ finds belonging through a shared understanding of art (shown through the metalepsis of truth and beauty).
    • The bilbies in The Rabbits understand and therefore belong within their landscape (shown through their shape, which echoes the natural swirls of the setting).
  • A lack of understanding prevents belonging
    • The persona in ‘What Mystery Pervades a Well!’ is alienated from her surroundings through a lack of understanding (alternative: gender distance due to mutual lack of understanding).
    • The bilbies and the rabbits are unable to co-exist harmoniously due to language and cultural differences that prevent understanding.
  • A lack of understanding can lead to a different type of belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I had been hungry all the years’ fails to grasp the attraction of belonging to a community but finds a different type of belonging with nature.
    • Rather than learning to belong in a landscape they don’t understand, the Rabbits reshape the landscape and commodify it to belong to them.

2010 Module A: Texts in Time, Frankenstein and Blade Runner

Analyse how Frankenstein and Blade Runner imaginatively portray individuals who challenge the established values of their time.

Break down:

  • What are the “established values” of the times?
    • Industrialisation (progress and ownership) and Enlightenment (rationality) versus Romanticism (spirituality and Nature) and Morality (compassion and kindness).
    •  Capitalism (commodification and profit) and Technological advancement (pushing boundaries) versus Environmentalism (nature and conservation) and Ethics (humaneness).
  • Which “individuals” are “challenging” them? How and why?
    • Victor Frankenstein challenges traditional morality by usurping the role of god as creator, he does this because of hubris.
    • Eldon Tyrell challenges ideas of conservation and ethics by creating disposable genetically engineered “replicant” slaves, he does this for profit.
  • What are the consequences of these challenges?
    • For Victor the consequences are personal, the death of his family, friends, and himself.
    • For Tyrell the consequences are global, the destruction of the natural world, as well as personal.

2010 Module B: Critical Study of Texts, Hamlet

‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to engage audiences through its dramatic treatment of struggle and disillusionment.’

In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Hamlet?

Break down

  • Who struggles? What with?
    • Hamlet struggles with the task of revenge laid on him by the ghost because of the conflict between his duty and his personal ethics.
    • Ophelia also struggles with the conflict between her role as a daughter and a sister (and the contextual expectations of woman) and her feelings for Hamlet.
    • Modern audiences continue to relate to this struggle because the conflict between family obligation and personal beliefs is a universal human concern.
  • Who is disillusioned? What with?
    • Hamlet is disillusioned with what he sees as a corrupt world; the corrupt court of Denmark is a microcosm of this.
    • Political and moral corruption are ongoing concerns that resonate with a modern audience.
  • What is the ultimate consequence of this struggle and disillusionment?
    • Tragedy.

Asking a few brief questions to draw out the key ideas in the question is a worthwhile use of your precious exam time if it means answering the whole question with a sustained, structured response.

 

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A reading journal is a useful tool for all students and an essential one for student undertaking Extension 1 and Extension 2. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Read Widely this includes reading fiction and non-fiction, newspaper and journal articles, blogs, short stories, novels, and poetry. It also includes viewing films and television, looking at paintings and photographs, and listening to music. Let each text lead you to the next one. For example, reading a Neil Gaiman novel might lead you to reading his graphic novels and picture books, you might also find the music of Amanda Palmer, his wife and, through their Twitter feeds, the novels, music, and films they admire. If you’re stuck, Amazon Lists and GoodReads might help.
Explore Form and Genre one of the complaints that I’ve heard repeatedly from the Extension 2 co-ordinators at school is that students are intending to write a short story but all they read is novels. Acknowledge that textual forms differ in their structure, not just their length. Here’s a list of short story writers I recommend: Archie Weller, Roald Dahl, Isaac Asimov, O. Henry, Saki, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Joanne Harris, Philip K. Dick, Brian Caswell, Tim Winton, Nam Le, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Angela Carter, Chinua Achebe, Graham Greene, Henry Lawson, and Susannah Clarke. Similarly, if you’re writing free form poetry or putting together a short film, make sure the form and genre within which you’re working is a focus of your reading and viewing.
Make Predictions Don’t read passively; be active. If you think you’ve worked out whodunnit, write your idea in your reading journal; if you think you know what will (or should) happen next, write it down. This is particularly important if you’re doing a genre study. Make predictions based on your knowledge of the genre and highlight texts that subvert the conventions.
Make Connections Connections between texts are at the heart of HSC English, whether they be thematic (Belonging, History and Memory, Conflicting Perspectives), chronological (Texts in Time, Exploring Connections, Romanticism, After the Bomb, Navigating the Global) or generic (Crime Fiction, Science Fiction, Life Writing). While reading, look out for connections between what you’re reading and other texts you have read or studied. Don’t limit yourself to what you’re reading for – an article about Life Writing could become a related text for History and Memory. Look out for connections between what you’re reading and your own experiences as well. Note these down.
Respond Creatively Your reading journal shouldn’t just be a series of “I read this and this is what I thought about it.” Rewrite endings, use interesting quotes as stimulus for poems, short stories, and other short pieces, draw diagrams and pictures, find images to illustrate ideas; argue with your texts, put their characters (or authors) on trial – interrogate them. Write what you feel as well as what you think. Try this exercise to get you started: choose a text then, using each of the five senses, describe it: what does it look, smell, taste, sound, feel like?
Respond Analytically Your reading journal is another opportunity to practise your structure response writing. Using the key ideas in the syllabus for your course/module/elective, compose structured integrated paragraphs using the texts you’re currently reading. Writing explications (linear explanations of techniques and meanings) is another good strategy for engaging analytically with texts.

Avoid Recounting This list was originally going to be divided into dos and don’ts but there’s really only one don’t: don’t recount the plot of what you’re reading. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it’s boring. Plot recounts are boring to write and even more boring to read. The second reason is that it’s a bad habit. If you practise recounting the plot in your journal, chances are you’ll replicate that practice in your responses and exams.

 

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My last post on this topic generated more real world discussion than the rest of my posts put together. I want to clarify a few things and add one more point.

There are layers to the way a game can be analysed. Like a novel, a game has character, setting, plot, theme, and style. Analysing what these convey about the idea of belonging is the first layer. Like a film, a game has visual and aural elements: colour, depth, music, camera angle, shot length, and dialogue. Analysing these is the second layer. Unlike a novel or a film, the audience is more than a reader or a viewer, she is a PLAYER. Analysing the experiences of the player is the third layer.

User Generated Content

Some games, most notably Little Big Planet, the Sims games and the all consuming Minecraft, offer players the opportunity to do more than interact with the world of the game, they offer the opportunity to build it. These games aren’t really my area (I prefer novels and films where the composer has done most of the work for me) but if they’re yours, it is worth considering the level of engagement you have within a game where the sense of achievement comes not only from conquering the world but also adding to it.

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The Area of Study in the HSC requires students to choose related texts. It’s generally a good idea to choose at least two texts that are different text types from your core text and from each other. For example, if your core text is Immigrant Chronicle, choose a novel and a film, or a short story and a website. But what about video games? Video games are probably the most engaging text type for a large proportion of HSC students. The problem is that most students (and most teachers) don’t know how to analyse them effectively. Here are some tips with examples.

In a video game belonging can result from character or mechanics. The very best games use both strong characterisation for the player-character and of other characters in the world and game mechanics that draw you into the game. For a game to work for the AoS, the story needs to be about belonging or offer an element of belonging through the player-character.

Character

Games often have a player-character who doesn’t belong. They are a loner because only they can save mankind, turn back the tide etc (otherwise, why are they doing it?) There is to be something special about the character and therefore marginalising and alienating. What is this attribute and how is it shown within the game?

Adam Jensen, the protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, undegoes a series of augmentations that enhance his physical attributes but also make him an outsider in a world suffering moral panic over the ethics of transhumanism. One way his uniqueness is expressed in the game is through his name: Adam is a biblical allusion to the first human, suggesting that augmentation is the way forward for the human race but also that it may result in moral degradation. It is also relevant to note that Adam, although portrayed as the father of humanity in the Bible, begins life alone.

Other aspects of belonging/not belonging to look for in the protagonist and other characters include:

  • shared purpose (World of Warcraft)
  • belonging in a personal relationship (Mass Effect 2)
  • estrangement from family (Red Dead Redemption)
  • feeling out of place/time (Assassin’s Creed)
  • cultural marginalisation (Dragonage)
  • individual enriching a community (Fable II)
  • alienation from a community (Fallout 3)

The above list is just a starting place for you to see some possibilities. Although novels and films also engage viewers through the experiences of characters; it is games that draw the player in and give them some control of the story.

Mechanics

Game play draws players into the world of the game and, more than other text types, offers a sense of belonging through textual engagement because the player is an active participant rather than a passive observer. There are a number of ways games offer a sense of belonging within the text to players.

Character Customisation: many games, mostly RPGs, allow you to make choices about your character. These range from basic (playing Commander Shepard as a male or female character in Mass Effect) to complex (the thousands of combinations available in World of Warcraft). Customisation allows players to have a character that they feel reflects themself, or an ideal or otherwise repressed version of themself. Many games also allow further customisation of the character–learning new skills, or buying new clothing and equipment–as the player levels up. This continual reward enhances a player’s feeling of connection to and belonging within the game.

Discoverable Items: older games only allow players to interact with a limited number of objects. Newer games tend to offer more discoverable items, allowing the player wider choices as to what may be important and also enhancing the modality of the player’s experience of the world. Compare an old platformer like Commander Keen, where the player-character could only move in two dimensions and only interact with enemies and bonuses, with the more recent Little Big Planet, where many of the levels have a limited third dimension (fore, mid, and background), allowing the player greater interactivity and connection.

Point of View: video games may offer first person or third person viewpoints. In first person (most often seen in first person shooters or FPSs) the player is the character, or rather, the camera is the character. This view limits the player to what the character sees. This can be very effective in games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where the player can experience that character’s disorientation first hand. That is not to say that games in third person cannot also offer the player a strong sense of connection; however, the perspective of the game is worth commenting on in you responses.

Emergent Game Play: this is a fairly recent innovation in games and what it means is that the choices you, the player, make within the world of the game have meaningful consequences within that world. This is, in my opinion, one of the most engaging aspects of modern games. Emergent game play ranges from a non-player character noticing your new hat in Fable, to your entire experience of Mass Effect 2 being shaped by the decisions you made at the end of Mass Effect.

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The ingredients of a strong essay are:

An Establishing Statement. This allows you to demonstrate your personal understanding of the module, and because it focuses on the module rather than on the question (we’re getting to that) you can prepare it in advance. This gives you something to write so that you’re not staring at a blank exam booklet or computer screen for too long. This should be the very first sentence in your essay and it should include key words from the rubric but also have a personal twist to show that you’ve thought about the key ideas in the rubric and gone further with them. A pithy quote can often make a good establishing statement. For example,

“Part of the beauty of literature,” argued F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

I like this one because it’s about belonging through textual engagement, which, as an English teacher, is my favourite way to belong.

Thesis statement. This is your one-sentence answer to the question. A lot of essay questions will give you a thesis statement, others will give you more space to argue your specific interpretation. It should include key words from the question and appear early in your introduction. The thesis should be something arguable but it should be stated as if it is fact.

This question gives you a thesis statement:

‘An individual’s interaction with others and the world around them can enrich or limit their experience of belonging’

This one gives you space to write your own:

Explore how perceptions of belonging and not belonging can be influenced by connections to places.

Topic sentences. A topic sentence is a mini-thesis statement. It should support your thesis the same way that a beautiful corinthian column supports the pediment of a Greek temple: with elegance. It should be concept based rather than focused on a specific text or composer; this will allow you to write integrated paragraphs. Taking the above thesis here are some topic sentences:

1. An individual’s interaction with others can enrich their experience of belonging.

2. An individual’s interaction with the world around them may also enrich their experience of belonging.

3. However, negative interactions with the world and others can limit an individual’s experience of belonging.

These are obvious (and, to be honest, a little dull) however, they support the thesis, leave room for integration, and remind the marker that you’re answering the question. You may also notice that topic sentences 2 and 3 have linking words in them (also, however); this gives the essay flow and helps the argument to hang together. Without them, responses can sometimes read like three or four separate essays rather than a single sustained argument.

Concluding statements. Conclusions are the most difficult part of essay writing and, to make it even harder, they don’t just come at the end of a response. Each paragraph needs a concluding statement that explains how the evidence proffered supports the thesis. A popular way to begin is, “Thus it can be seen that…” however, I prefer something simpler such as a restatement, in different words, of the topic sentence. An example of a concluding statement for the first topic sentence above could be:

Through relationships, individuals find and nurture an enriched sense of identity.

Strong sentences make strong paragraphs, which make strong essays.

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