Resurgam: why we should value re-reading texts

“Books help to constitute our identity” – Patricia Meyer Spacks

On Rereading

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks

My tenth birthday party should have involved cake, streamers, party friends, dress-ups and games. Yet, to my guests’ dismay, I spent much of the party ensconced in re-acquainting myself with – and pressing upon my friends – the short stories in several editions of the British schoolgirl comic Mandy Girls Own Annuals. Never mind that I had read them many times before; here was an opportunity to re-read something that gave me pleasure, and a possibility of conferring that small pleasure on others.

The anecdote probably says more about my social obtuseness than it does my reading habits, yet it surprises me to learn that the practice of re-reading fiction – specifically novels -is not something everyone enjoys. I have friends who acquire fresh reading material on a regular basis yet aren’t interested in re-visiting a book two, three or several times. One friend – a professional journalist turned fiction writer – is amazed that I routinely re-read a collection of novels,  some of which are on an almost yearly rotational system.

My habits are not without their dangers: I long ago lost the front cover of Richard Llewllyn’s How Green Was My Valley when I rolled on it in my sleep, and the entire bottom half of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is warped and crinkled like a tide-marked shore from an unfortunate bathtub incident.  Jane Eyre has cryptic little hieroglyphics in its margins in two differently coloured inks, and I realise they are chronographic, made (black pen) during my undergraduate degree in Victorian ‘literature over 20 years ago, and (blue pen),  making notes before a ‘bring your favourite novel’ book party about 15 years ago. I have of course read it several times more since then, and can’t imagine not reading it again sometime this year.

I recently thrilled to read something of the same sentiment in Patricia Meyer Spacks’ ‘On Rereading’ ; this eminent professor of literature chattily expounds on her re-readings and varied personal interpretations of favourite books she’d read at different stages of her life, for study or pleasure purposes (eg Alice in Wonderland, The Catcher in the Rye, Middlemarch etc). Her enthusiasm and acceptance of the place for re-reading made me consider how and why I approach my own reconnaissance with certain books.

The very act of re-reading books might seem like a restrictive practice to those who prefer to consume seasonal menus of new works.   Does reading repeatedly mean reading narrowly? (This is unproven in my case, as my Frequent Flyers feature a bizarre lineup from Cormac McCarthy to  Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton to Arundhati Roy, William Thackeray to Jane Smiley). Or is it a sign of dissociative reading, the literary equivalent of mindless comfort eating? I remember how discouraged I was as a University literature student in literary theory, warned piously of the dangers of a naïve and uncritical reading, lest we fall into complicity with the text’s agenda and therefore unwittingly perpetuate some neo-colonialist perspective, some patriarchal system. Who dares to read Jane Eyre as anything other than a feminist manifesto?

While it’s possible the physical act of re-reading a text may originally spring from the comfort of an acquired taste or the vicarious memory of a certain moment, it promotes engaged and deep reading, fostering the sort of time and attention that can lead to various interpretative stances: re-iterative, creative, alternative, reflective, and yes, even resistant. This is the sort of thinking we applaud in the contemporary study of English literature.  So if the hallmark of this thinking is a person’s immersion in a text, then it may logically raise the question of how learners and teachers can value and make space for ‘deep reading’ in the English curriculum. It’s the very place where we’d expect engaged reading to be encouraged or modelled (with the exception of library programs), yet reading programs and dedicated time on texts of both student choice and teacher selection are no longer guaranteed a privileged place in the schedule.  And even more depressingly (if one is a voracious reader), the place for  ‘pleasure reading’ – students selecting, reading, discussing and re-reading – is slim in the time-poor classroom, driven as we are by ”purposeful” reading.  As if purpose and pleasure are doomed to be mutually exclusive.

Lamenting time lost for ”slow reading” in a literary diet that privileges purpose and utility doesn’t make me a ‘cultural heritage dinosaur’. I simply wish more time were devoted to learning how to have meaningful discussion about our reading loves and hates, what reactions are evoked and how, and to what purpose.  Just as I hold important my own reactions to certain books, I am interested in knowing what students feel about books, and even more importantly, what they understand about their interpretative stance.   While the idea of literature as ‘cultural artifacts’  (ref Brian Moon) attracts me, it’s not the historical, inquiry-driven archeological dig involved – dusting off layers of accumulated dirt, examining  it at arm’s length – that excites me as a reader.  I can’t say I ever set out to read a novel to become a ‘critically aware and powerful consumer and producer of texts’. Maybe this is why reader-response approaches, combined with such critical awareness and an attention to form, seems to me to answer the ‘why?’  question of  literary learning.     The challenge is becoming a critical consumer without dulling the experience that comes from reading about human experiences, the very stuff of literature and – at some level – surely the spark for conversations about those human experiences that are shared or made to be exclusive.

Even learned literature professors like Spack recognises this and devote time to reclaim reading as a pleasure/visceral experience, made sensible through critical thinking.  She reminds us that – regardless of how we read -we ultimately read to feel alive, and we learn to pay attention to what we feel, and why we feel it. Then we can ask ourselves what we are going to do with this knowledge.

In my case, re-reading is less a ritual of the converted than it is the shifting mystery of the pilgrimage.  I offer in abashed proof the many books on my library shelf – more than I would care to admit – that now seem destined to be frozen in Reading Space and Time. They are the ones I completed, found profoundly moving, would like to claim I love, but towards which I have developed a deep and often inexplicable ambivalence – or even dread. They are the ones I open with determination to again experience, only to find myself stalled by some deep reluctance. Despite four attempts, I can no longer finish Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  I suspect the story’s irony seems clearer and more painful now. Similarly, Sonya Hartnett’s A Boy’s Life is more disturbingly insightful than I can bear, those dark and deft touches spring from such deceptively gentle writing.

When I understand the why of this, then perhaps I might dare enter the cave – ominously like Jane’s Red Room – more easily.


1936: A more noble Olympic narrative

CHALLENGED with a school project of choosing an Olympian who ‘inspires them’, my 10-year-old son Tween asked me if I would suggest someone from the Australian 2012 Olympic team.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think I would.”

I am not averse to gold medals per se. I have nothing against winners, or champions, or heroes or any of the other Olympic terms we use so liberally every four years. But when these form the basis of a storyline that is couched in entitlement and superiority and a massive self-centeredness – garnished with that sticky and uniquely Aussie dollop of twee nationalism (sports poetry, gallant for some, is the curse in the verse for me), I’ve disengaged.

There is nothing for me in the story that Australia has put together this Olympics, the product of an uninspired conspiracy of entertainment media, sports economic realities, and the covetous values projected by some of the athletes. For someone who is piteously uncoordinated, to hear such apologetic tones from a talented Australian athelete (who’s just run a nano-second slower than their rival) as they reluctantly accept silver – or actually lament not winning – is incredible.

Back to the conundrum – the school show-and-tell Inspirational Olympian. The Tween is keen on long-jump, so we Googled back in time to Berlin 1936, and found a suitably inspiring figure in the African American athlete Jesse Owens. We also found a second character I hadn’t heard of before, and a storyline that is pure narrative gold and offers a simple, authentic and very enduring message about what the Oympics should stand for. Dictated from his own words, this is pretty much how Tween’s class talk goes:

pic of Luz Long and Jesse Owens

Olympic friends, Luz Long (Germany) and Jesse Owens (USA)

“Jesse Owens was the grandson of African-American slaves, and a unique Olympic athlete representing the USA. When he went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, there was lots of discrimination against coloured people in America and in other Western countires, like Germany. Also, in Germany, Adolf Hitler was leader, and he wanted to show the world that Germans and other ‘high cultures’ were superior to some races and countries. For Nazis, coloured people like Jesse Owens were seen as ‘subhuman’, or second-class citizens. 

Jesse Owens won four gold medals – three racing, one long-jump – in Berlin. Just winning so many medals would normally make Jesse Owens a big hero for America, and for other African-American people.  But there was another hero with Jesse too, and it’s both of them that I choose as my inspiring Olympians.

Luz Long was a German long-jumper, and he had just set a World record in his qualifying long-jump.  When Jesse was doing his qualifying jumps, Jesse fouled on his first two jumps. Luz Long knew that if Jesse fouled again, Jesse wouldn’t be able to complete.  Luz laid his towel down on a spot near the jump mark, and told Jesse to jump from that, he’d be safe from disqualifying.  Jesse followed Luz’s advice, qualified fine, and then actually broke Luz’s World record in long-jump with 8.06m. Jesse won the Gold Medal and Luz the Silver. Luz was the first person to congratulate Jesse, and they became strong friends for life, until Luz was later killed in war, as a German soldier.  A few years ago, at a World Championship athletic meeting in Germany, Luz Long’s son and Jesse Owen’s grand-daughter competed together in a celebration of Olympic friendship. 

Jesse Owens and Luz Long are inspiring Olympians for me because they showed that race and religion don’t have to matter in the Olympics, and that coming first isn’t the most important thing. Real Olympians respect and treat each other like they already are winners. “

That, to me, is a noble Olympic narrative.  I’m glad my son gets to retell it to 25 other Australian tweens tomorrow.

If you want to see a mini clip of the Owens/Long tale, go to and search ‘Jesse Owens’

18 May,1980: Joy dies in the kitchen

A DEAD POET’S CONTENDER, courtesy of my music shelf.  Ian Curtis, singer

Today’s the anniversary of  JOY DIVISION’s singer and lyricist Ian Curtis’ death by suicide. I’m trying to figure out a genre for their music, and on advice from my German, Kraftwerk-loving partner, decide that JD should be labelled ‘early New Wave’.  Wikipedia calls them ‘post-punk’, and I guess technically anything can be ‘neo’  when it follows something else, but that doesn’t capture the synthi style that infused JD.  

I should point out I was only 7 when Joy Division morphed into New Order after Curtis’ death, so no music made any sense to me until I was a teenager with enough pocket money to buy LPs. I definitely don’t remember seeing much of New Order, The Smiths and other bands of the time on ‘Countdown’ . By that time there were waves of synthi pop music washing through- Boy George, Wham, Howard Jones, Nic Kershaw ( if there are elevators in hell, the latter two will feature in them ceaselessly). The Cure had already crossed to the dark side. Darkness spread for a decade across my musical landscape until….Grunge!!!

Even Hermann (my German) agrees that there were flickers of post-punk and New Wave stylings in some grunge music, and definitely the nihilistic lyrics and delivery of Joy Division is echoed in Nirvana. As well as his baritone singing voice, Ian Curtis was known for his ‘quiet and awkward demeanor’ and unusual dancing on stage, which were inspired by (and in some cases a result of) his epilepsy. He (and Cobain) easily gets a shout-out in the Dead Poet’s Society annals for his simple, bare and poignant writing, which lay open his own sense of isolation and despair.  You can see it faintly in the lyrics of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart Again’ (1980), written just before Curtis’ death to huge chart-success internationally.  It’s probably their most enduring song, has been covered endlessly by big names like UK and Bjork, and has inspired many musicians in turn. 

May 19, 1536: let the good heads roll

book cover A Man For All Seasons19 May: EXECUTION DATE of some of the big names in the Tudor sideshow – Anne Boleyn, her brother George, and four courtiers, charged variously with treason, infidelity, incest, and witchcraft.  Having exhausted all possible re-viewing of the BBC’s The Tudors series, I went scratching around my bookshelf for more, and stumbled across what it possibly my favourite play, fittingly concerned with the earlier execution of another big-name Tudor player.  Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’ tracks the demise of Sir Thomas More, Chancellor and beloved mentor of Henry VIII, as he is pressured to bow to the King (and Anne’s) insistence on his recognition of their marriage as legal, thereby acknowledging Henry’s absolute authority to rule as Head of the Church.

There are scads of marvellous reviews on Goodreads, so go there if you’re looking for a plot run-down (which given the historical events, seems a bit superfluous), or a dramatic criticism.  Starting to think through teacher-brain, I simply felt this play should be required reading in High School History, English and Ethics classes – it would make a corker of a stimulus for a cross-curricular project as an enquiry into politics, ethics, religion, drama etc.  Bolt’s interpretation of the political and religious tsunamis of the time is finely tuned, but most importantly, you get a sense of the self as a concept and how self-hood was constructed in an age where ‘one did not own oneself’, but was bound by duty and love to (often undeserving) rulers, creed, ambition etc. No wonder so many people who read this in high school come to re-read it and love it. It could be studied parallel to, or following Macbeth for some added moral impact.  

It’s so tightly written (I noticed one Goodreads reviewer lamented it as one long exposition, start to end), aptly mirroring the way More’s urbane wit an, adroit politicking and dry fatherly affections gradually must shed themselves, to get to the essential man. This refining action contrasts again the expansive, grotesque and brutal forces of political manipulation, injustice, religion and duty. At a certain point in the play, you imagine what would have happened if More chose the path St Peter did, and denied his own truth to save his skin.  Of course, he doesn’t, to spectacular effect. Read it, and re-read it. Then read it again.

A letter to my future class

Student teachers area encouraged to give their new class an introduction letter. It’s pretty authentic, apart from the high moral tone sneaking into the final paras. Lindsay Williams’ English Teaching Survival Manual, (2009),Wordsmart Consulting, provided the inspiration

” Dear Mary Sue

Welcome to Year 9 and my English class. As we’ll be spending several hours together every week this year, I thought you’d like to know a few things about me.

I’m married with two children. My husband is an antique coin valuer, so he spends a lot of time examining old paper money and coins from centuries past. My sons are 11 and eight years old.

I am a keen reader (anything from The Phantom comic books, to Shakespeare’s plays, to Hunger Games).  I have even read all the Twilight books, pretty much because I am attracted to anything with vampires in it. Sparkly Volvo-driving vampires aside, I prefer classic gothic suspense: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Washington Irving’s legend of Sleepy Hollow, and folk myths.  I love film and theatre, especially black comedies; not just the story on the screen or the stage, but how films and plays are produced, how teams work together to make –and promote- their products.   I listen to many different types of music, from indie folk like The Swell Season and Sarah Blasko, to classical composers Bach and Beethoven. I also love blues and early rock. It all depends if I feel like ‘chilling out’ or am feeling energetic.

‘Energetic’  for me is usually going for a walk (with ipod), a drive and a picnic out at Samford, and recently, re-discovering roller blading and scooter with my sons. They say I look odd, but I don’t care much about that! I have zero dance styling ability, but I have a good sense of rhythm from singing in blues and pop covers bands and now an accapella choir.  Anyone who sings knows it’s almost a sport on its own, because it’s so physical and requires concentration to get ‘in the zone’. We are also big fans of football [soccer] in my family, because my husband is German and his former hometown has a fairly good team in Stuttgart VfB.  When World Cup year rolls around, there’s loud cheering and some late nights at my house.

As you can see, while there’s some things I particularly like doing, I have a diverse range of interests. I think being different is more than ‘OK’; it’s what makes fair societies work best.  Our classroom should be a fair society too, so qualities that are important to me are self-respect and respect for others,  hard work, ability to listen to other points of views, being willing to take risks, getting up again if it doesn’t work out and learning from it, and thinking outside the square.  A good sense of humour is a great quality too!

There’ll be many opportunities to get to know each other in the months to come.   I look forward to being your English teacher, hearing about some of your own interests and goals, and supporting you to achieve them.  If you need help outside class, look for me in the English staff office. You can also send me an email via the school    Sending me rough drafts to look over, or questions to clarify is OK through this email.  I also expect that you will use my email address appropriately.

All the best for our year together, and for the rest of your school journey.

Ms Wiedemann (pronounced Vee de Mann) [yes, it’s German]


Good Readings

Here are six great articles and books I’ve read recently, by subject area. 


1.    Skelton, Sheri. (2006).  Finding a place for poetry in the classroom every day. The English Journal 96,(1). 25-29.

English teacher Skelton highlights how she and her students in a remote and impoverished Eskimo village school in Alaska brought the poetry of their unique and beautiful natural landscape into the classroom in a variety of poetic forms, kindling student-teacher connections and a dynamic and deeply creative learning environment.

This highly descriptive article voices Skelton’s own personal observations of the transformational nature of poetry in the classroom, and outlines the many, varied and very accessible poetry teaching approaches and activities in which Skelton and her class engaged.  The resultant poetry is highlighted and esteemed throughout this article, underlining Skelton’s philosophy and practice of embracing the poetic of the everyday.

This thoughtful piece encourages teachers to find the poetry in even the most seemingly inhospitable settings, and offers practical examples of activities that encourage young people to explore and experiment with newfound poetic forms. It also promotes poetry teaching as a way for teachers to build shared experiences with students, especially when teachers may not share the same cultural heritage as their student cohort.

Classroom spaces as a multimodal text

 1. Thornburg, D. (2007) Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century.

 2. Mills, K. (2011). ‘New Social Spaces’ in The multiliteracies classroom, Multilingual matters: Tornonto,15-31.

 Thornburg’s article, an edited update on his original paper, proposes that contemporary classroom design/spatial negotiations – even with the growth and incorporation of learning technologies – recall ancient archetypes (universally accepted representations) of community, ie the cave, the watering hole, the campfire, and their relation to practice in life.

Mills’s chapter echoes Thornburg’s assertion of the classroom as a social product (and social constructor), showcasing how re-designing and redesignating spaces within a classroom signify not only new purposes but new relationships (students with students, students with teachers, and students with objects).

Thornburg’s work draws upon eclectic schema, from the folkloric to the philosophical, and offers a rich symbology of classroom physical space and classroom virtual spaces. Examples of mythology in action are very relevant in the second part of the paper, which specifically examines cyberspace and its role in replacing the campfire of old. Thornburg refreshingly challenges the myth of interactivity, in which old typical interactions are simply ‘digitised’ in new media, rather than transformed and reinterpreted through the affordances of that media.

Mills cites key sources to explore the concept of the class as a social space, and a multimodal text in its own right. These references are used through to support Mills’ categories of dialogic, bodily, embodied, and architectonic and screen spaces.

Both the Thornburg and Mills’ readings are thought provoking, although Thornburg’s paper is a more colourfully descriptive article. Thornburg’s analogies of ICTs to mythic primitive spaces like watering holes are vivid, however, even with editing, his study of ICTs in this space appear a little dated.  Thornburg’s paper’s strengths are in its challenge of the blind replication of traditional learning and teaching arrangements through ICT, thereby promoting teachers to deliberately select how they will use and bring ICTs into the learning environment to enhance the mythic spaces.

Project Based Learning

1. Hallerman, S.  (2012, February 10). PBL and Authentic Literacy [Video file]. Video posted to

National faculty Member of Buckmaster Institute of Education (BIE), Hallerman presents this webinar on PBL (Project Based Learning) as a vehicle for authentic literacy experiences, heightening comprehension and writing, and offering students a structured approach to inquiry that is wanted and needed by real-life audiences. The webinar focuses on six key steps to make the existing eight-stepped PBL relevant to literacy experiences and activities.

The six-sided framework for an Authentic Literacy project aligns with, and even streamlines the PBL eight facets to focus on the literacy arena.  The examples in the webinar are illustrative of the key points, and are drawn from the real-life project at King Middle School, US.

Illustrated with diagrammatical slides, key thoughts and photographs throughout, this webinar is highly practical and structured and written in an instruction/discussion manner. This resource in itself offers a sound framework for teachers to start introducing PBL in their English class projects, although a basic understanding of the principles of PBL, and prior familiarity with some of the PBL methodology are required to derive the most from this webinar.

The 6 steps are: 1: Students must produce a Written product (real world products). 2. The Product must meet a real need. 3. Students must generate authentic inquiry questions, not only respond to the driving question.  4.  Students use authentic sources. 5.  Student products must be critiqued by an expert or the product recipient. 6.  Students must have an opportunity to present their work to the actual intended recipient.

 English Teacher Identity and Pedagogical Ideology

 1. Cole, D. (2009). The power of emotional factors in English teaching. Power and Education. 1(1), 57-70.

This 2009 article outlines the results of a research conducted using pre-service teachers as researchers to interview inservice English teachers to examine the latter’s perceptions and reactions to recent curriculum changes (Essential Learnings) in Tasmania, through discourse analysis of various teacher ‘types’.  Teacher identity types are arranged as polarities in respect to their reaction to: a) the Essential Learning introduced in Tasmanian English school studies b)their reaction to the increasing interdisciplinary situation of English studies c)their view on critical literacy as a now-dominant pedagogy. The teacher typology is further examined in relation to the emotional and affective elements of teacher’s daily work.

The paper’s abstract and overt organising theme on ‘power and emotions’ in English teaching seems at first read somewhat disjointed from the emerging thesis of English teacher identity construction. However, the paper offers a fascinating insight of polarities in English teacher identity, and how this defines their pedagogy and their reception (or rejection) of the new, critical literacy-focused curriculum. The paper cites student-led research with their inservice peers, and therefore acknowledges that the frame of the typology may be attributable (at least in part) to the way the latter represent themselves to junior peers.  Teacher types are arranged around teachers’ level of embracing or resistance to the critical literacy pedagogy framework of the Essential Learnings introduced across Tasmanian schools. For example, Essential Learners, embracing the curricula change at one end of the scale and ‘Defenders of the Canon’ are at the other. Polarities and oscillations of English teacher identity and pedagogical slant are represented diagrammatically.

This article is a fascinating and considered piece of research, and though a reflection on the curriculum change in Tasmania at the time, is immediately relevant to all pre-service and inservice teachers in their self-reflective professional practice. Teaching students may find this article assists them to identify positions, perspectives that align – or challenge -their own.

Niche Interest – Fan Fiction

1. Jenkins, H. (2008). How fan fiction can teach us a new way to read Moby Dick (part one). Retrieved 24 April 2012, from

This blog post by self-described ‘aca-fan’ Henry Jenkins, the Provost Professor of Communications, Journalism and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California, proposes the key arguments of a work-in-progress chapter from a resource Teacher’s Strategy Guide on ‘Reading in a Participatory Culture’, a guide to explain to teachers what Fan Fiction is, and how it might inform their classroom reading activities. The article provides examples of how Fan Fiction used in various educational settings have enhanced student motivation to read, and prompted deeper readings of set texts.

The article outlines how teachers can apply an adaptation of the Five Core Concepts of critical media literacy studies to the teaching of Fan Fiction in their class, emphasising the key area of ‘omissions’ (gaps and silences) from the original or source text as a framing point to discussions about Fan Fiction. Jenkins highlights that Fan Fiction and other collaborative media provides students and critical readers of texts with agency to respond (change or extend) to their dissatisfaction with the text, an affordance that could not previously be granted by other forms of texts.  Jenkins advances the case for recreating participatory cultures in classrooms, thereby melding students world of pleasure media interactions and the classroom culture.

The article is written in clear, engaging and accessible language, well structured, and provides a strong case for the use of Fan Fiction in a classroom. The article is a thoughtful introduction to Fan Fiction as a genre, but more importantly, its role in enhancing reading for pleasure for students who may be reluctant readers and writers.

Brown Skin Blue – a review

‘BROWN SKIN BLUE ‘– Belinda Jeffrey 2009, UQP.

brown skin blue book cover

“ When McNabm Blue did the bad thing to me, I was eight. I told Mum and she said there was so much to be sad about in life she should cry the Adelaide River twice over.”

I READ THE FIRST LINES of Belinda Jeffrey’s Brown Skin Blue while sitting in a Meet the Author evening organised by the Qld Writers Centre in 2010.  It was almost impossible to focus on the author, agent and editor panelists for the power of the unaffected pathos jumping off the novel’s first few pages. Its simplicity of language cannot conceal its immediately dramatic storyline, unmistakeable sense of place, and vividly real characters, most notably the protagonist and narrator, teenager Barry Mundy.

If Barry’s name is twee, it’s only for a second, as Jeffrey has created a character as believable, as sympathetic and as lost as a Holden Caulfield or a Ponyboy Curtis. Jeffrey’s editor from UQP had remarked that when she read the first chapter of Blue Skin, she just ‘wanted to hug Barry and rescue him’. Undeniably, it is Barry who carries this novel, an authentic mix of angst and the heroic,  a figure that will appeal to many secondary school readers (Grades11-12).

Born to a mother of  dubious character, Dolly, Barry‘s angst in part centres around his strange blue birthmark and brown skin, the latter making him a misfit in his outback community.  There is a certain racial ambiguity in the novel; at first, one  might assume Barry is an indigenous Australian, living in an Indigenous community.  However, neither Barry nor his mother ever identifies as Aboriginal, and a number of references to Barry as a non-Indigenous youth are used to exploit the mystery of Barry’s dark skin.   In fact, Barry is a singular figure in many ways, alienated,  preyed upon because of his lack of a safe home and protective family, and not belonging anywhere.

This lack of belonging is made more poignant by the fact Barry has never known his father’s identity.  The story takes life from Barry’s heroic quest to find his father, and solve the puzzle of his birthright, his birthmark, and his own male identity. It’s this quest to find himself that propels Barry’s journey, finding work as a crocodile handler’s assistant on a boat as part of a Top End river tourism outfit. Barry finds a new set of friends, a mish-mash of characters such as Boof and Cassie, his bosses; Sally, his co-worker; and crocodiles Mavis, Elvis and Scoop.  As he works amongst the predators, and forms attachments to his new friends, the memories of his sexual trauma at the hands of McNamb Blue, intertwine with his search for his father, to an inexorable, devastating yet cathartic end.

The novel deals with such serious issues as sexual abuse and racial identity as sublimate to the core theme of Barry searching for his place and his people.  Nevertheless, the sexuality of this novel – including Barry’s own burgeoning sexuality identity- is like a dark powerful river.  Though the language is unsentimental and almost dissociated, the concepts are still confronting and would require sensitive handling in a classroom.

Even so, this is a book that maturing older students will want to read and would be powerfully enjoyable and stimulating.  The structure and pace are perfect, the dialogue true to life, and the characters are authentic, if extraordinary. The fascinator – the ancient, predatory crocodiles – provides a vivid backdrop to this boy’s journey to find himself through uncovering one secret, and learning to deal with the other.

The second published story by Brisbane author (and former schoolteacher) Jeffrey, Brown Skin was declared to be a book ‘that all teenagers should read’ (The Australian). It is deftly handled, with the sure-footedness that make you feel it was a book that was waiting to be written, and begging to be read by young adults.

reviewed by @katew26 – wikkid words

Poetry Project – The Stars and the Sieve

I wrote the following poem in response to a challenge from a QUT assessment project for our Poetry Forum.  The poem’s first line ‘ if you force the stars through a sieve’ was posed by the facilitator from the Brisbane-based poetry workshop Red Room.

Read on following the poem for my Reflection on writing this.



If you force the stars through a sieve

the thumbnails in your straining shove

will score your hands, tattoo your palms

While the ricochets   laugh,

comets dancing up your arms.


If you prise the prisms from the sky

to crack their shells in your blunt vice

just their skins will shatter – the coarser facts of stars –

will splinter off,

impolitely slice your squinting eyes.


If you smothered stars to stop their glow,

ink them out in shamed dark throws

they’ll scorch your cloth to carbon threads. 

They’ll combust,

 sear your ears and singe your head.


But scratch their selves with their selves

(Gaze long, silent; stand still, far; and delve

past your fear),they multiply, each new point clear.



you find their distance near.


A stretching crystal populace,

Thriving, driving far beyond us.

Winking at our small wonderings,

And high above the sieve we’re in.



I wrote this about my young son, who was diagnosed with Autism when he was 4 years old.  I was intrigued by the idea of ‘force’ in the challenge ( ie the physical consequences of trying to break the unbreakable),  and the way we inquire and reduce things we don’t understand, including the unknown within ourselves.   A star hanging above my son’s bed, and the universally known lullaby ‘ Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ also stimulated the poem.

This is the first poem I have assembled and completed on paper for many years.   A lover of reading poetry, I’m ambivalent about writing it.  This activity stung me freshly as I considered the theme,  and it asked me to examine my reasons for not writing poetry.  I wrote daily in my early-mid 20s, when I had time to think about words, test them, compose, and review. I had a few little things published, but found my sort of poetry is a time-hungry beast. I also remember poetry writing as an intense, involved and usually confronting experience, and so have probably directed my energies away from this. My temptation for this assignment was to write a poem that meant little to me (Poetry cardinal sin #1).  I’m glad I resisted; the process and the result felt genuine and, in the end, optimistic (or stoic, depending on your worldview).

Two things about teaching poetry struck home while I was writing this.  Firstly: much as I enjoy and recognise the value of critical appreciation and analysis of poetry, you can be GUARANTEED I will be emphasising the elements of personal power and expression poetry offers distinct to most other media.  Secondly: I will be looking to make poetry part of the everyday in my classes, inspired by ‘ordinary teachers’ like Sheri Skelton when posted to a remote Esmiko village (click here to read my annotation and reference to her 2006 article). The poetry she and her students created together from their observations of their natural world was so beautiful and raw, it blew my mind.

Artefacts of an English Lover – challenge 2

artefacts of an English lover

Challenge 2 of my QUT English Curriculum Class asked me to assemble five artefacts that represent me.

Pack of Penguins –  As a child, I would read everything (ok, not Penguins). Small wonder English was my favourite subject throughout school.  During my Bachelor of Arts (English lit), I worked in a bookshop, and would love the feel, sight and smell of those new, neat orange stacks. But I’m not possessive or sentimental about objects; I lend heaps of books to friends and don’t care less if they aren’t returned.  I keep in my memory everything those books meant to me. I read aloud with my kids almost every night.

Birds Nest – This (empty) nest fell out of the tuckeroo tree in our front garden. I live in a deep, ferny suburb, and realise how important green, natural things and a sense of space and privacy is to me and my family. The whorls and pattern of the twigs in the nest, so brittle but so integrally strong, are fascinating. To me, the patterns sing ‘family’ and ‘mind’ .

Bon Iver CD –  It is entirely possible to live without music. But why bother? This CD  happened to be on my ipod at the time of this challenge, but I’d also just finished listening to Glenn Gould’s version of the Bach Goldberg Variations.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve sung (in bands, in choirs, in musicals). I play the guitar very poorly, which reinforces my theory that my instrument is my vocal chords and my ears. If I could be someone else for a day, it would be Joan Baez or Sarah Blasko.

My Pen Mug –  I love this colour, but what I really like is that even in a utilitarian object such as this, I see difference.  I think the predominant pattern is a Morrocan trellis design, whereas my partner sees the inverse pattern of naïve  blue blossoms. My children steal pens form this all the time for their comic book designs and drawings.

Candle – When I come home, I light candles, day or night. I have the best encyclopedia  on perfumes co-authored by the  famous Luca Turin, who’s aesthete, chemist  and philosopher rolled into one. It’s like reading an engrossing, fragrant phone book.  My family laugh at my candle and perfume collection, but I have an perfume that -I swear – actually transports me to 1930s Paris.

Draw Yourself 1 – collage of an English teacher @katew26

Draw Yourself 1 - collage of an English teacher @katew26
(see art attributions on
The QUT English Curriculum Studies #CLB_018 class challenged me to depict my English teacher identity.
I’m strongly drawn to gothic expression in literature, theatre, art, and design. I love the tension involved in exploring the unknown, and want to encourage my students to ‘draw themselves’ through their encounters in these text worlds. I want their self-portraits – and mine – to negotiate ideas of false and true.
On the elements:
I chose to frame this collage a reference to the space on the polyvore page, space in the classroom, spaces where we typically engage in visual objects we call ‘art’, but also the spaces in our everyday theatrics (how we stage our homes, our workplaces and our social spaces). The ‘false frame’ of this exercise also allows me to exercise deliberate choices about the way I represent myself to others. Were I given this challenge in another forum, my collage would shift.
Oscar Wilde’s quote echoes this sense of the false and the true.  I think many playwrights have taken this contradiction and used it extraordinarily, from Shakespeare (hence Macbeth, and particularly the Polanski) to my all-time favourite play: A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt. I would like students to explore contradictions in their own identities as learners and as individuals.
19th Century writing across Europe and America fascinates me because I love the clash of earnestness and detachment, individualism and civic responsibility, compassion and self-service, order and chaos, and unbelief versus fervour. They are universal themes and as relevant today as ever. In fact, they offer great problems for 21st Century learning approaches to work with. The quill pen and the digital environment are just the mediums.
The Egon Schiele picture and the ink drawing (by  – favourite artists of mine – put together are about how we ‘draw ourselves’ and then look at ourselves. I hope to be as confronted and delighted by student’s ways of drawing themselves, whether through music, street art, verse, performance (theatre, dance or street choreography like skateboarding), writing, or activism.
In composing this set, I was aware of several considerations, including: technical skill factors such as my lack of expertise in using this polyvore program; the level of my representational skills; and the different audiences of my lecturer and friendly colleague critic who will grade me on this collage and reflection, and a wider, unknown audience who have access through this blog or through


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.