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If you’re in Year 11, you can probably see the pre- and post-Trial HSC chaos around your school. If you’re in Year 11 and you’re smart, you might be thinking, “that’s going to be me in a year’s time.” If you’re in Year 11 and you’re really smart, you might be thinking, “what can I do to prepare and ensure that I’m less freaked out than the Year 12s are now?”

The answer to that last question is two-fold:

  1. READ
  2. WRITE

What you should read depends on the English course(s) you’re currently taking and what you intend to take in Year 12. Obviously the reading list for someone taking Extension 1 and 2 is going to be different from the one for someone taking Standard. Keeping this in mind, I will post separate suggestions for each course with particular ideas for different module/elective/text combinations.

The writing, though, is pretty much the same for everyone and it goes like this:

  1. Write notes in class
  2. Practise expanding and summarising your notes
  3. Write paragraphs whenever possible
  4. Write personal and analytical responses

One caveat:

IF YOU ARE INTENDING TO UNDERTAKE EXTENSION 2, START KEEPING A READING JOURNAL NOW!

I’ll say more about the value of a reading journal in a later post (or, as I often do, I’ll forget then someone will post a question, then I’ll write a post).

1. Write notes in class. Practise note taking from what you hear in class; not just what the teacher says, but interesting points that come up in discussion. Chances are you’ll have to do a listening task as part of the HSC and, in that type of assessment, to the successful note-taker go the spoils. Note taking is a skill that can be improved easily and quickly with practice. You also never know when an offhand comment by a classmate might become a kick-ass thesis for an essay.

2. Practise expanding and summarising your notes. Our Year 11s are gearing up (or should be gearing up) for their exams. One of the best ways to prepare is to make summaries of your notes. Of course, in order to make summaries, you need to have notes to begin with (see dot point 1). Before you hit the summarising stage, it is useful to go back through your notes and add to them. You can do this through annotating or rewriting. You can also work with a study buddy, filling in the gaps in each other’s notes. Summarising should pare your notes down to what you will actually use in an exam-style essay: themes/ideas, quotes, techniques, explanations. Check out earlier posts on how to summarise for specific modules to see what I mean.

3. Practise paragraphs whenever possible. A fairly typical English class may consist of a discussion followed by writing some short responses on a text. Rather than writing dot points or unconnected sentences, try writing short paragraphs. For example:

Question: What is the purpose of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet?

Answer 1:

  • outline the story
  • introduce the characters

Answer 2:

The prologue in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet acts as a Greek chorus. This dramatic technique would have been familiar to an Elizabethan audience. In the prologue the characters are introduced and their fate as “star cross’d lovers” is foreshadowed. The prologue also tells the audience the play’s message about the tragic consequences of continuing and “ancient feud.”

The second student has spent a few more minutes thinking about the question and may not have had time to check her text messages under the table when she was done. But she has also, with just a little time and effort, improved her essay writing skills. In fact, she has produced a short, but well structured, paragraph that would not be out of place in an essay on Romeo and Juliet. Every time you write a paragraph when everyone else is writing dot points, you get better at essay writing and they…well, you’re smart, you’re reading this, you work it out.

4. Write personal and analytical responses. I’ve gone over this in earlier post but writing personal responses is a really good way to start clarifying your ideas about a text. The analytical responses come next. My senior students are required to submit one extended response every two weeks, we start with personal responses and then ramp up to analytical. The students who do this consistently get feedback and get better at articulating their ideas as well as structuring their writing.

If your teacher doesn’t have a regular routine for writing and submitting extended responses, make one for yourself and ask your teacher for feedback. If your teacher can’t look at them regularly, ask a parent, a sibling, a tutor, or a study buddy for feedback, even if it’s just, “does this make sense?” Make sure you put the date on each response and file it away so when you’re freaking out this time next year you can look back and think, “yes, I am improving.”

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This is a reading/personal post rather than a teaching one. I am taking part in the MS Read-a-thon this year. I have a friend with MS and I’ve always been a keen reader; I’m also super competitive and have just fallen off the leader board on the Read-a-thon site so I’m trolling for donors. A $2 donation will get you a tax deduction. You can donate to me here and see what I’ve been reading. There’s also a link under “donate” in the links section.

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The Preface is key to understanding the context of Frankenstein and Module A has a really strong focus on context. Unfortunately, the ugly edition chosen by the Board of Studies does not deign to include Mary Shelley’s Preface so it might be worthwhile finding another edition. I recommend the one from Vintage and have included a link to its Amazon page below.

When you read the Preface, consider Mary Shelley’s purpose in writing the novel. Remember that context can be historical (the Romantic movement and the French Revolution are both relevant here); social (questions surrounding the rights of men and women were important at this time); cultural (consider the importance of poetry and art as well as religion and the questioning of religion). Context can also be personal or biographical. Read and think about the story of the specific circumstances that inspired the writing of Frankenstein.

Here are some questions to help you get started with your study of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, if you’re well into Module A, you could use them for revision.

VOLUME ONE

Letter I

  • What is the effect of the epistolary novel?
  • Walton writes like a Romantic poet. Find at least three quotes where he describes sublime landscapes.

Letter II

  • How is the theme of isolation introduced here?
  • Walton only knows the sea through poetry and books. What is the significance of this for his character?

Extension: Read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. How does the language compare with Walton?

Letter III

  • How does Shelley introduce the theme of men as divine beings here?

Letter IV

  • This is our first glimpse of the creature. How is he described? How is the creature contrasted with Victor? Write a list of the adjectives/adverbs used by Walton to describe the two characters.

Chapter I

  • Personal response: compare Victor’s childhood with your own. Would you describe his as happy or tragic?

Chapter II

  • How is Victor’s dangerous ambition foreshadowed here? (Think about the confrontational/antagonistic relationship between Victor and Nature and compared with the Romantic view).
  • How is the contrast drawn between Victor and his friend Henry Clerval?(Draw a table or venn diagram to show their similarities and differences).

Chapter III

  • What is the effect of the death of Victor’s mother on
    • Victor’s ambition?
    • Elizabeth?
    • The tone of the novel?

Chapter IV

  • Explain Victor’s ambition. How might it be seen, in a Romantic or Christian sense, as “unnatural”?

Chapter V

  • Compare Victor’s reaction to his creature with Walton’s earlier description.
  • How are the themes of isolation and sickness developed here?

Extension: look up William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. List parallels with your reading of Frankenstein so far.

Chapter VI

  • What is the significance of Victor’s reconnection with Nature in this chapter?

Chapter VII & VIII

  • What responsibility does Victor bear for the deaths of William and Justine?

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What does it mean to be human? This is the central question of the comparative study of Frankenstein and Blade Runner in the HSC. Other questions result. How far can we extend our concept of humanity? How inclusive can we be? Will artificial life ever be accepted into the human family?

Take a step back. We do not yet have the artificial life pictured by Mary Shelley and Ridley Scott but robotic modifications to the human body are not unknown. Watch this:

Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs

The phrase that strikes me most in this video is not the child suggesting that Aimee Mullins should fly (although that is pretty cool) but the friend who cries of Aimee’s variable height “that’s not fair!” Aimee Mullins, suffering a serious, in most societies debilitating and ostracizing, disability is the envy of her school friends. Far from being someone to be pitied, she is someone to be admired.

How far can it go? I am not in any way suggesting that Aimee Mullins is less than or more than or something other than human. She is beautiful and strong and a great role model for girls and boys alike.

Yet the question remains: how many body parts can be replaced before we no longer regard someone as fully human? A thumb-drive for a thumb? A video camera for an eye? A hydraulic arm? A clock-work knee joint?

Consider the “Ousters” of Dan Simmons’ epic sci-fi romances Hyperion and Endymion*. Humans, living for centuries in the dark spaces between the stars before the advent of faster than light travel, they modify themselves to fit their environment. The second wave of humans who preserve tradition among the stars are unable to see the Ousters as kin and so fail to accord them human rights.

How do your own ideas about creation and re-creation, about modification and evolution, affect your reading of the two core texts for Module A? Take some time to reflect in a personal response.

* I plan to write more about these wonderful novels in the context of the Extension 1 electives: Science Fiction, Romanticism and Crime Writing.

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Students of HSC 2011. You’ve already tackled one of the modules and probably completed at least one internal assessment. Not really happy with your result? I’m here with good news: don’t panic, it’s not too late to start transforming yourself into a top band English student.

How did you spend the Summer break? Did you read voraciously? Did you compose fifteen practice “belonging” essays under exam conditions using Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a related text? No? Not to worry, as I said, it’s not too late.

So what can you do now?

Step One: Read

Does that mean rush out, buy Wolf Hall and spend a week immersed in Tudor England? No. Wolf Hall is a great book but it’s over 600 pages long. Put it on the list to read after your exams are over. At this stage reading for English needs to fall into one of four categories:

a. Core text. Before you complete any assessment task you should have read/viewed your core text at least three times.

b. Additional readings. Your English teacher will probably give you a booklet or a brick of additional or suggested readings for each Module. Or, he or she may take the History teacher approach and throw sheafs of paper at you each lesson. Don’t let those hours at the photocopier go to waste, take the time to read the articles. Many of them will not only give you new perspectives and helpful contextual information but also show you good essay structure.

c. Related material (familiar). One good approach, when choosing related material for the Area of Study and Module C is to choose a text you already know well. Try to avoid texts you’ve studied in previous years, too many schools do the same texts and many set English novels from the junior years of high school are too simplistic for the HSC. However, if you have a favourite novel or film that you’ve read or viewed multiple times, try approaching it with new eyes. If you can make a list of techniques and how they convey a sense of belonging (or not belonging, or history and memory, or conflicting perspectives) then chances are it will work for you. Writing about a text you already like can also lead into exploring Belonging through textual engagement. I’m going to write about that more in a later post.

d. Related material (new). Any new related material–and by new I mean a text you have never read or viewed before–needs to be short. Good choices include: newspaper articles, speeches or monologues from plays (especially Shakespeare – great for techniques), short stories, essays (magazines The BRW and The Monthly are good places to look), graphic novels, advertisements (check out the ones that air during the Superbowl each year, they usually have a solid narrative, clear message and easy to spot film techniques) and websites. This list is not exhaustive, it’s just a little inspiration for students who don’t know where to start.

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Module C: The Smithsonian September 11 Website

The subtitle, “Bearing Witness to History” is interesting. It suggests, to me, that History is like a trial, where the facts need to be presented in evidence. It also suggests that History is something to be argued over and fought for; perhaps that historians are adversarial.This site certainly presents a particular view of one day in history, a view that is comfortable for us in the Western World. This day, according to the site, had its bad guys and its heroes and, in spite of the immensity of the losses, the ultimate victor is the American Spirit.

History is a story we tell ourselves about who we are.

CLICK: a black slip on sandal. I chose this image to the right of the screen because my mother wears shoes like those in summer.

The screen now presents me with four objects: a uniform, a missing person poster, a police helmet, some melted coins. All personal objects, all symbols. These tell me that people who died were from different backgrounds and that they had family and friends, just like me. Here, history is personalised.

CLICK: a portrait of a police officer.

Isaac Ho’oopi’i, a police officer at the pentagon. The picture was taken by a fashion photographer after the attacks to be included in a Heroes series in USA Today. It was donated to the Smithsonian by the photographer. This picture seems to be less personal than the objects on the previous page. It is posed and formal, different from the images of police officers and fireman heroically doing their jobs on the day. The story that goes with it is about the object, not the person.

The objects in this site are set out very much like a multidimensional museum: each object–clearly labeled with its provenance–placed carefully within the collection. This reminds me of a mneumonic device called the Roman Room, where individual memories are stored in objects in imagined but familiar rooms. This museum exhibit is a storeroom for collective as well as individual memories.

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All three of my texts end with a relationship being firmly established. In P&P and B&P, this relationship is a marriage and this has been the goal, if not of the female leads then at least of their mothers, all along. Bridget ends up with her Darcy but, in the modern western tradition (begun, I think in Four Weddings and a Funeral), they are not married. In fact, they have not yet reached the committed stage of “moving in”. The values portrayed by this are clear: women need men, preferably men of high social status and great intelligence and it is up to the women to somehow catch these men regardless of the obvious initial indifference of both parties.

What if we changed the ending of on of the texts? The cultural pressure in both P&P and B&P towards marriage is perhaps too great to be disregarded but I think we can work with Bridget.

‘Come on,’ said Mark Darcy.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Don’t say “what”, Bridget, say “pardon”,’ hissed Mum.

‘Mrs Jones,’ said Mark firmly, ‘I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.’

I took a big breath and grasped Mark Darcy’s proffered hand. Then I shook it firmly. ‘Thank you for all your help Mr Darcy but I’m afraid I have other plans.’ I smiled as both Mark and Mum gaped at me in astonishment.

Outside in the snow Jude, (no-longer-Vile) Richard, Shazza and Tom were waiting by the mini. ‘Come the fuck on,’ called Tom as I squeezed into the back of the tiny car.

Tuesday December 26

9st something, alcohol units lost count at twelve, cigarettes 0 (but one fat cigar), calories outnumbered by warm festive thoughts.

10am Woke in a hotel room in Paris. Little bit hungover but secure in the knowledge that Daniel, Mark, Julio and well-meaning but interfering parents are an ocean (well, a channel) away.

11am At itty bitty bistro on Left Bank with best friends. Have finally realised the secret to happiness, and it is with deep regret, rage and an overwhelming sense of defeat that I have to put it into the most cliche words in the English language: Be yourself and surround yourself with people who love you.

Next post: how does Bridget represent all five Bennet sisters?

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