Last year I began teaching a bunch of misfit year 11s who were really only still at school because they didn’t want to get a job and didn’t want to face the real world yet, school was much easier. I began the year with 27 students, there’s one term to go for them and I’m down to 15. These 15 have come a long way, let me tell you. Not only have they become some of my favourite people, but they’ve become excellent English students. We’re talking students who originally D and E students who are now C and B students. They’ve gone from Bands 1 and 2, to 3, 4 and 5. They are amazing people and they have put in the work to not only become better people, but better students.
The choices for teaching HSC Standard English are slim to say the least. There are a lot of old texts on that list, ones which 17 and 18 year olds could not care less about, and I mean, some that even I couldn’t care less about. I believe choosing HSC texts for students is as important as how you teach them. So knowing my students, I chose very very carefully.
We began year 12 with our Area of Study, like every student across the state does, Belonging. The text I chose for this particular topic was The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick. It’s poetry prose. The kids just see it as a cool story that isn’t very long. This automatically appeals to them and believe me they loved this story.
The Simple Gift is written in a series of poems from the perspective of three main characters, Billy, Caitlin and Old Bill. Billy is a runaway who has been forced to leave home because of his abusive father. He finds a home in an old train yard in a country town where he meets Old Bill. This whole story is set in Victoria, Australia. He goes to the local McDonalds to scavenge for scraps only to meet Caitlin, the girl who becomes the love of his life.
The Simple Gift is a story about growing up, about finding where you belong, even if it’s somewhere you never thought you would, it’s about acceptance, and moving on with your life when it doesn’t go the way you planned. It’s a great story for 16-17 year olds, the main characters are around the same age, relevance is always extremely important. Herrick has done a great job making it accessible, interesting and a breeze to read.
My year 12s recently had their trial exams and when doing revision, we had to go all the way back to last term of last year in order for the students to remember The Simple Gift, but I tell you, they remembered it, and not just characters names etc, they remembered techniques, the examples, and the effect of these techniques. I truly believe this is because they really did love the book. Imagine getting to year 12 and having never finished a novel before? That was most of my students, now they have one term left of school and they have finished not one, but two novels in the past year, and loved both of them. I firmly believe that with the right texts, every student can be engaged, as long as you don’t treat them like an idiot, they’ll be on board.
The students got to reflect on how they belong, what it’s like not to belong, even to your own family. They were able to write poems about their belonging and their needs, they could understand and feel compassion for Billy and Old Bill who no longer had a family to belong too. It helped that many of these students, the closest thing they have to a supportive family is their friends, their school. It was a great way to get them to not only analyse the novel, but also their own feelings and situations. It brought us closer together as a class, and I know, when they leave at the end of this term, my school life won’t be the same. They’re amazing people and I am so proud of them.