9 March 2008

westword and the HSC

Filed under: HSC,western sydney,writing,young writers — westword @ 10:02 pm

An area I’ve a personal interest in, as an ex-English teacher, is the HSC English Extension 2 module, which requires advanced students to submit a major work. I’ve never taught the “new” HSC, introduced in 2001, but it’s always interested me in its approach to comparative study of texts and the rather belated introduction of the personal project (in the form of a creative writing portfolio) option.

(South Australia, for example, has had a major work as part of its senior English curriculum for a long time, and back in the early 80s, when I was a senior high school student in the ACT, I was able to choose an English class looking at the form of the short story that also required us to submit a creative writing portfolio. I’ve a great admiration for the schooling system in the ACT, which, like several other states, does not have a final external examination like the NSW HSC. It makes me wonder what might battles may be fought (and lost?) if a national curriculum, which will almost certainly involve a version of the HSC, is enforced. But I digress…)

I always enjoyed teaching creative writing when I was in the classroom (even though at the time I didn’t have particular skills or experience in the area), but I was also aware that many of my colleagues did not feel particularly confident in this area. I don’t know that this has changed all that much—English teachers are very well-trained in teaching formal essay writing and in guiding their students’ responses to literature, but creative writing is an area where many feel less confident. I don’t recall it being much a part of my teacher-training, and let’s face it—responding to students’ creative/imaginative work is harder than assessing an essay.

Add to the mix the commonly-held opinion (or so my anecdotal experience of chatting to teachers would suggest) that students often tend to lose a bit of the creative spark when they get to high school. I think that’s partly a product of adolescent self-consciousness as well as the very content-heavy secondary curriculum. (Also the content of the NSW K-6 English syllabus, which some time ago shifted its emphasis from authentic literature and creative writing to non-fiction “text types”.)

I have no doubt that children and teenagers continue to scribble (or these days, type and upload to blogs and MySpace etc) poetry and prose in the privacy of their bedrooms, as they have ever done, but as formal education has become increasingly about academic and vocational outcomes, it’s been harder and harder for teachers and students to carve out a creative niche in the English classroom.

I feel a bit of a fraud writing this—it’s so long since I’ve been a full-time classroom teacher—so I have felt the need to test my own thoughts on the subject against the real experience of current practitioners. Which brings me to the relevance of this rather long-winded and overly-opinionated post to the real purpose of this blog: the documentation of the western Sydney young people’s literature project (which I am coming to think of, in a much needed shorthand, as the westword project!).

From 2009, the HSC English Prescriptions List will change. Some new books have been added—I’m told this is about 15% of the reading list—and texts that have been on the HSC list for many years have been moved to a different focus of study. Last week, I attended a workshop offered by the English unit of the Curriculum Support Directorate of DET, which looked at the new Prescriptions list and offered resources and support to develop new units of work. I really enjoyed the workshop—it was good to familiarise myself with the HSC English curriculum, but it was also a great opportunity to talk to teachers from western Sydney about how the westword project might develop programs to best support them in their teaching.

All of the teachers I spoke to confirmed that support for the teaching of creative writing would be very welcome. Even standard students have to write a creative piece in their HSC—it’s worth a third of marks for the first paper, itself 40% of their final mark, many students have difficulty preparing, and it seems many teachers don’t feel they can give it adequate time in the classroom. And there’s the afore-mentioned Extension 2, which it seems not all schools can even timetable on a regular basis.

(Compare this to the time allocated to major works in visual arts and design, drama and music. We wouldn’t think of letting HSC students complete these more or less under their own steam. I can’t help but wonder if this comes back to a widely-held assumption that you can’t teach people to write creative pieces—that you’ve either got the talent or you don’t. But as Libby Gleeson pointed out when she was interviewed by Andrew Daddo on 702 ABC Sydney a couple of weeks ago, we teach people how to paint, sing, play a musical instrument, play a sport—why not writing?)

And it’s not just the HSC. We obviously need to lay the groundwork for skills in creative writing in the junior school.

Let me circle back again to another meeting I had recently, with Susanne Gannon from the University of Western Sydney. Susanne teaches Secondary English Method students—those folk who are going to be English teachers, many of them in western Sydney schools. She has a special interest in teaching her students to become good teachers of writing, and her resource booklet for the course is full of fabulous examples of literature across genres. Susanne agreed with my own concerns about teachers’ confidence in teaching creative writing, and we are looking to work together to develop research and practical programs to address this. (Susanne also has some great ideas about nurturing western Sydney writers as an adjunct to her work in pre-service teacher education, but it’s a bit premature to say more about that as yet.)

So, it’s clear that a priority for the westword project will be supporting young writers by supporting their teachers. There are many ways we can approach this, but I do hope that in the long run, we can produce a module/program that we can deliver in such a way (no doubt involving the creative use of technology) to help teachers (ultimately across the state?) to be better teachers of creative writing. And yes, I’ll be looking to involve professional writers in the project.

I’d really like people’s thoughts on this. Please note that I’m aware that there are many teachers out there who are confident and successful teachers of creative writing, but there are many more that, it seems, would really appreciate more resources and direction in this area. So, any comments and ideas will be gratefully received—consultation must be at the core of everything the westword project undertakes.

This has been a long post—thanks for staying with me. But wait—there’s more! (I’ll be brief.)

On a slightly different tack, many of the HSC English modules require students to select their own text to supplement the Prescriptions list for the various modules. I gather that finding appropriate texts outside of the texts commonly studied in schools can be a challenge for the students, their teachers and the librarians that students go to to find a book about X, Y or Z.

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel—I know that HSC English resource lists are being developed by various groups and organisations. What I am wondering is if people think it would be useful if I were to apply my knowledge/extensive reading of contemporary YA fiction to develop reading lists of suitable supplementary texts for various modules, especially the new common area of study, “Belonging”, which seems to lend itself so well to the theme of so many YA novels. (And would such a resource list would be of particular help to Standard students?)

Thanks again, and please leave comments and suggestions.



  1. On behalf of Secondary Method English students at the University of Western Sydney, I would like to thank you, Judith, for joining our tutorial last week. We all found your contribution both interesting and insightful and the additional resources you provided us with are proving invaluable sources of current inforamtion as well as interesting debate. We can see that you have a very full calendar, so thank you, once again, for taking the time to provide us with some ‘value added’ learning about Children’s and Young Adult literature.

    Comment by Michelle — 20 March 2008 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  2. It was a total pleasure, Michelle. Thanks for taking the time to visit the blog and leave a comment.

    Comment by westword — 2 April 2008 @ 12:19 am | Reply

  3. thanks so much. all your posts are very helpful. i’m tutoring a few kids heading into year 12 now and all the changes are hard to keep up with. so thank u!

    Comment by Colin — 4 July 2008 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

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