Category Archives: Teaching

Saving Francesca

Saving FrancescaSaving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like Saving Francesca more than I did. After all, it’s about a topic close to my heart: depression. In particular, it’s about the effects on a family when a parent is incapacitated by depression.

It’s not really fair for me to measure this depiction in view of my own experience of a parent with depression. Every family will experience it differently; indeed, every person within a family will experience it differently. So, while Francesca’s experience didn’t always ring true for me, I could appreciate what an important topic it is for writers of YA Literature to address. After reading so many YA books wherein parents die, the far more common reality of clinical depression is due more attention.

The strength of this novel is the characterisation of Francesca’s friend and family groups. As with Looking for Alibrandi, I found myself enjoying the lead character’s interactions with her school friends more than with the love interest. I guess Prince Charming is doomed to be a boring character type. Marchetta also writes developed teachers and school administrators; for the most part, they genuinely care about and respect the young people in their care. (Of course, there’s always one bad apple who really shouldn’t be teaching.)

Overall, I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of Francesca’s friends and extended family, and being moved to tears by her love for her brother. But I screamed internally at some of Francesca’s overwrought monologues and raised my eyebrow sceptically at a group of Year 11’s knowledgeable discussions of multiple Shakespeare plays.

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Twelve Angry Men

Twelve Angry MenTwelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I’m finding quite frustrating, looking through the texts that are studied in Australian high schools, is that so many of them are American–classic American, yes, and there are easy connections to be made with issues that affect Australia, given, like the US, it’s a former British colony and now an advanced capitalist, post-industrial society, but still, not Australian; and so it seems to me that injustice is always elsewhere and we don’t really have the courage to guide young people through the inequities in our own society–past and present–for fear of upsetting parents and politicians.

The recent withdrawal of Indigenous and multicultural issues from some parts of the Australian curriculum in favour of the ethnic majority’s ‘Christian heritage’ is an explicit version of the retreat that’s evident in this long-time focus on American and British texts. When I was in school, for example, I studied The Crucible by Arthur Miller; To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee; a range of Black American and British WWI poets; and Shakespeare’s King Lear. We did look at Camus’s The Stranger for a North African-French twist. I loved all of these works. And I had the very best English teacher, who was the first person I knew who called herself a feminist. I still remember some of the conversations we had about the issues that each of these poems, plays, and novels raised. I think I’m basically an existentialist because of The Stranger; it probably helped that there was a soundtrack in the form of a Cure song at the time, too. But, for someone who grew up mostly in far north Queensland, I didn’t learn anything about the Indigenous history of this country. I could rail against the injustices meted out to African Americans, but couldn’t even see those on my very doorstep.

Part of this ongoing focus may well be that there’s a lot of supporting material for these classic American and British texts; it’s quite time consuming to create whole units from scratch, and then there’s the suspicion that the Australian text won’t stand the test of time–it’s issues won’t be universal as those in the established texts apparently are. It makes me wonder about Americans studying American texts. Are the issues too confronting for their students? Or do these texts raise issues that are considered part of a distant past, despite all evidence to the contrary?

***

Twelve Angry Men was first written for television and it bears the hallmarks of early television plays: a single setting; it’s character and dialogue driven; and at seventy or so pages, succinct in its exploration of social issues in just over an hour, perhaps up to an hour and a half to allow for advertisements in the American broadcast system. These features also make it an ideal text for students in their middle high school years to examine.

Despite my reservations about its study over other texts in the Australian context, Twelve Angry Men is the very best example of what was possible in the early years of television, even if the film version is more well known now. The characters are so tightly drawn; every utterance conveys nuances of their distinct dispositions, while managing to embody a range of social groups that made up the US in the 1950s–at least as represented by white men. This latter point is one that needs to be discussed, but the play does examine this privilege afforded the jurors, if in a broader discussion about the death penalty and the ideals of the American judicial system.

Even as I write this, as much as I find to admire about the play–the arc of Juror No. 5 is just perfect–I can’t get away from my initial reservations about its use in the Australian context, and there are more concerns that have arisen during this reflection on it. I hope these implicit dynamics of the play are brought up in discussions in Australian classrooms.

(As an aside, I noted that the LA Theatre Works adaptation I listened to, before I read the play, reveals the final verdict of the jury by allowing Juror No.3 some redemption that isn’t available to him in Rose’s script. On the one hand, this can be accounted for in the shift from the affordances of the close-up in television–in a direction to see it written–to the aural emphasis of live performance–Juror No.3 blurts it out as he finally recognises his own motivations; on the other hand, this alteration clearly arises out changing ideas about the motivations of the kind of behaviour exhibited by men like Juror No. 3)

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Teaching Sheila

One of the necessities of trying to complete a PhD in a post-scholarship state is the need to find work to support my research habit. Like many in my position, I rely upon a series of teaching contracts for university level courses taught in my field–media, communication, and cultural studies–but the business of being a researcher and writer has equipped me with another whole set of skills, which I have also  drawn upon to find employment.

Most recently, I accepted an offer of a marking contract for a distance education course that prepares students for university-level education.  Specifically, the course seeks to equip students with the necessary skills for academic essay writing.

Whenever I’m first involved in a course, whether in a teaching or marking capacity, as part of my preparation, I try to do all the work that the students do on a weekly basis. I don’t do the official assignments, but I complete all the reading and any tutorial or other preparation activities. My strategy here is to familiarise myself with the course, but it’s also a way of attempting to cultivate some empathy on my part, for what the students have to do each week.  I’ll never be able to entirely experience what they do, since I’m used to reading the jargon-laden material of my field, for example, or, in the instance of this course, I have advanced writing skills by comparison.  Nevertheless, I enjoy immersing myself in the learning required for effective teaching (or marking).

It’s the first week of the essay writing course and the students had to use the clustering technique, proposed by Gabriele Nico, to write a poem about any topic.  Here’s what I came up with:

Hannah
 
She is love,
Quivering with excitement
When she sees me approach.
 
‘Aunty Kirsty!’ she cries,
Breaking into a wide-
Open run
 
Closing her arms around
My waist and squeezing
As hard as she can.
 
We hold on to
Love and joy and fun,
Life after heartbreak:
 
‘I wanted to die’, she’d said.

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