Monthly Archives: August 2014

Book 23 – Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah: soft revolution

“Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah: soft revolution” by Alana Valentine (2010)

I was lucky enough today to be part of a group discussing and offering feedback to the DEC on the BOSTES Senior Secondary Review and Evaluation of English. As part of the discussion we were considering ideas around the flexibility of text choices in the Prescriptions and the reasonably widespread attitude that the list lacks a certain breadth of cultural alternatives. I’m not sure I agree, personally, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard it said.

A new text on the Prescriptions from 2015 that certainly offers an alternative to the ‘anglo-celtic canon’ (not my words) on the list is the play, “Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah: soft revolution” which I first heard about at last year’s ETA conference. The opening pitch in the presentation was, “Standard students will love this, it’s only 44 pages long.” And what a deceptively simple and speedy read those 44 pages are! But I’ll come back to my comment on its length.

This play is prescribed for Standard, Module C – Texts and Society, Elective 2: Exploring Transitions. It is an obvious choice. The play is set in 2002, and is an exploration of university student, Shafana’s, decision to start wearing the headscarf, as one of her university assignments has presented her with a reconnection or awakening to her faith. Her Aunt, to whom she is devoted, can make no sense of her decision. The play is a non-chronological collection of conversations between the two women. In it, we learn a lot about both of them and their contextual differences. Aunt Sarrinah came from Afghanistan to Australia as a qualified engineer, but had to work hard to re-accredit herself in the Australian context. Shafana, the first-born grandchild in the family, a role model to her 26 siblings and cousins, and the poster-child of the family for freedom and education, has never even heard her Aunt’s story about her journey to Australia before making her decision. In this context, Sarrinah is horrified that Shafana would choose to invite the “…endless, unexpected, irrational incidents”, the “tiny, tiny sneers, and full-throated abuse” that will follow if she wears the headscarf in a post 9/11 world. Their discussions are filled with emotion and conviction. In the end, their differences of opinion can not be resolved.

In recommending this play to the right school with the right cohort, I promote it as a play with a deep complexity that will inspire a real connection and engagement with the concept of the elective and the ideas it presents. And I recommend, strongly, the investment in a book called “The Rugmaker of Mazer-e-Sharif” by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman as a really appropriate related text.

On the flip side, I can’t recommend this play as a good choice for plenty of schools. The ‘politics’ of the headscarf and the concept of ‘choice’ will be far too complicated for a lot of teachers to consider in the context of their cohort. And I worry that it’s length gives it an unhealthy appeal as an ‘easy’ text for struggling or unmotivated students when it is going to be so far from easy to teach well.

In the end, it’s going to take a teacher about 30 minutes to read the play, at most, so the decision doesn’t need to be based on my, or anyone else’s, review. But I hope it is a decision made for the right reasons, and a well-considered one at that.

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Book 22 – Humans of New York

“Humans of New York” (2013)

Last year I discovered the Humans of New York blog and started following Brandon Stanton’s page on Facebook. I asked hubby to buy me Stanton’s book last Christmas but as soon as a print run hit the shops and online suppliers it sold out, so it wasn’t to be. On and off since then I have asked whenever I was in a book shop but they had always ‘just sold the last copy’ or were ‘getting more in next week.’ I had actually given up and forgotten about trying to get the book when, last week, my gorgeous son presented a copy to me for my birthday. Thanks, Julian. xxx

Humans of New York, the blog, is an internet sensation, with millions of people following either by Tumblr, Facebook or Twitter. The premise is astonishingly simple. Stanton walks the streets of New York, stopping random strangers, asking them a few questions, and taking their photo. Every day, he posts a few of his favourite shots and writes a little piece about the photo’s subject. It is powerful stuff that shows us that every single person on Earth has an engaging story to tell.

The book “Humans of New York” represents 400 of Stanton’s most popular images and accompanying stories. It was a disappointingly quick read – I didn’t want it to end. I will probably read it again many times in the future, and I can see it as a highly effective teaching tool – I have already imagined about ten different units that it would work in across all years.

Right now, Stanton is on a world tour. Last week he posted images and stories from Iraq. This week it is Jordan. If you don’t already follow Humans of New York, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The current world tour has seen me in tears several times. It is an electrifying medium that may well be having a more profound effect on humanity than any media outlet, NGO or government ever could. And what is even more wonderful is that, with a few disappointing exceptions, the comments are a delight to read as well. Generally, I avoid internet comment sections like the plague, but it is really beautiful to read the positive, supportive, enlightened comments that usually accompany Stanton’s posts.

Humans of New York. Get on it, peeps.

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Book 21 – Clay

“Clay” by Melissa Harrison (2013)

The second in a series of reviews I will write regarding books on the new HSC Prescriptions list, this is a book that I am very pleased, personally, to have read, one that I might never have known existed if it was not a new school text, but one that I am hesitant to recommend as a teaching text. “Clay” is on the list for Advanced, Module C, Elective 2 – Representing People and Landscapes. It is as if the elective title was written first and the book written second, it is so perfect for the elective. The beautiful, captivating way in which language has been presented in this novel was extremely engaging for me and precisely ‘on task’ for an exploration of people and landscapes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every page… except the last two… but I’ll get to that.

I have a big concern, though, which is that throughout my reading of this book, I worried at its lack of interest to a young reader. It is a slow, meandering, suburban story, about a collection of strangers who have a piece of the world in common and nothing else. It is a very beautifully written book that explores people and landscapes from the perspective of neglect, familial relationships, displacement, identity, belonging, nature… I could go on and on… and the opportunities to draw from it for the module are obvious… but I have a terrible feeling that students will describe it as boring… because it sort of is. At least, I can see how it will be to 16 and 17 year olds.

For the schools who have or will decide to set this as their Module C text, my advice is to spend even more time than you normally would establishing the texts relevance to the module before handing it out. Make sure students know what to look for and it will be straightforward for them to find it… but an unexplained reading for any teenager could spell disaster. And, if you do teach it, find some really dynamic related texts to explore. Although, contradicting my own advice, the film Jindabyne or the novel The Secret River would both be excellent related texts, but they both represent texts that I think students will not necessarily find engaging.

So, am I saying don’t teach the text? Not really. But make sure you know your students well. I know mine well, and I wouldn’t teach it. The reasons I wouldn’t teach it are twofold. First, for all the reasons above. Second, because I work very hard to encourage students to maintain textual integrity in their own writing, and in my opinion, the last two pages of this novel completely contradict the tone in the first 257. But that is all I will say on that matter, because I have no intention of writing a spoiler.

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Book 20 – Quick Strength for Runners

“Quick Strength for Runners” by Jeff Horowitz (2013)

It’s been just over a year now, since hubby and I made the commitment to a healthier and fitter future, and running is now a regular part of my life. Taking up running at 47 (now 48) was a decision that I made carefully, and my approach has been a very slow and steady one. My great mate, Damian, who has been my fitness mentor throughout this new phase, read a review of this book and recommended it to me.

“Quick Strength for Runners” is an 8 week program that promises me “faster running, fewer injuries” if I complete two 30 minute strength workouts per week. The book starts by explaining in some detail how targeting and working out individual muscles in a gym is not the best approach for runners. Rather, the particular act of running requires strength in specific muscle groups because running is unique in the fact that it involves repeated forward movement, as opposed to most other activities, such as playing sport. In essence, the idea is to build strength by working the push muscles, pull muscles, bending and twisting muscles, and running muscles of the legs.

So, I’ve read the book and I’m ready to go. The exercises are all straightforward, and easily completed in the comfort of the lounge room. Starting tomorrow, there will be two new 30 minute workouts added to my weekly routine. And now that I’m a regular user of the Strava app, I should be able to monitor whether or not my speed picks up. That would be lovely, but avoiding injury is definitely my higher priority.

Now, time for a good novel on this wet and chilly weekend…

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