Stormbreaker and Point Blanc: the graphic novels

July 31, 2008

Stormbreaker: the graphic novel (ISBN 1-84428-111-6) and Point Blanc: the graphic novel (ISBN 978-1-84428-112-1) by Anthony Horowitz, Antony Johnston, Kanako and Yuzuru (Walker Books, ISBN)

Who are they for? Middle school students

What are they about? These two graphic novels are based on Horowitz’s very popular Alex Rider series. Stormbreaker tells the story of how 14 year old orphan, Alex, is recruited into M16 after his Uncle is killed in a car crash. In Point Blanc, Alex is reluctantly brought into M16 again to investigate strange goings-on in a school in Switzerland – a school that costs ten thousand pounds a term and takes boys who have been expelled from other schools. More titles in the Alex Rider series are on their way.

How can they be used? Besides the obvious use as a substitute for reading the full prose versions, these graphic novels can be used even more effectively to study:

  • adaptation
  • translating a story from one medium into another
  • the use of visual and gestural resources.

For students new to visual design elements, graphic novels are an engaging and accessible resource. They also form a nice intermediary between studying still and moving images – many of the features distinctive to films (e.g. camera movement, performance, editing etc) are evident – with the advantage that the graphic novel doesn’t have to be stopped and rewound. Finally, graphic novels such as these provide the opportunity to discuss one of the significant differences between graphic novels and films – the representation of time. In films, movement through time is suggested by the projection of a quick succession of still images onto the same space. As a result, the viewer can (normally) only see the present (in terms of what’s happening on the screen). In graphic novels, the reader can see the present, past and future at one glance. Very good audiobooks of each volume in the Alex Rider series are also available – useful for comparing the way language adapts for yet another medium.

Futurama and March of the Penguins in the classroom

July 30, 2008

Who are they for? Middle School English teachers of SOSE, Science and English

What are they about? Futurama is the comic creation of Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame. This classic ‘fish out of water’ story is about a twentieth century delivery boy, Fry, who wakes up in the year 3000AD after an unfortunate accident in which he is cryogenically frozen. The particular episode of interest here is the black comedy satire of ‘The birdbot of Ice-catraz’ from Disc 1 of the Third Season. Fry (with other characters) visits a distant planet which has been established as a sanctuary for the last, living penguins. The sanctuary is magical and the penguins cute – until, through a mistake by one of the humans, the penguins obtain guns and turn them on each other…

March of the penguins is the spectacular, Academy Award winning documentary about the lives of the Emperor penguin in Antarctica. This ‘serious’ and ‘scientific’ documentary follows the penguins from arrival at their nests through to the birth and raising of the chicks. Through the narration spoken by Morgan Freeman, the viewer is told what penguins can teach us about family values, love and monogamy (more on that later).

How can they be used? Along with George Miller’s Happy Feet which is reportedly based on research and science, these two films are engaging and fun resources for introducing students to the way language choices shape and are shaped by the social world. Furthermore, there is the opportunity to explore a range of important issues, including the effects of anthropomorphism and the use of the penguins’ stories as vehicles for promoting particular moral and political points of view. Michael Adams in his Empire magazine (April 2006) review of March of the penguins stated: ‘God forbid-literally-that the film should talk about the birds’ extraordinary evolution or the immediate threat to their environment from rising sea levels caused by fossil-fuel based economies. No wonder this is a hit in family-values, pro-Life, Creation-centric, wilderness drilling, SUV-driving America. What’s most galling is that the French filmmakers…have conceded that they believe in evolution and global warming but wanted the broadest audience possible for their movie…’. So, have some fun with your students while at the same time exploring issues with implications for the portrayal of the world in every subject area.

Much ado about grammar

July 15, 2008

Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is the latest evil to be inflicted upon the long-suffering students of Australia – at least according to some well publicized commentators.

As someone who came to SFG in the early nineties, has used it extensively and successfully with students and in teacher professional development, I strongly disagree with the recent media reporting. While various newspapers and commentators no doubt want the best for students, their negative reactions to SFG are invariably based on limited understanding of the grammar and even less actual experience with using it in the classroom. In at least one case, I suspect that professional jealousy also plays a part: “Boo, hoo! Functional Grammar is so much more popular than the grammar that I have come up with”.

So, let’s bust a couple of myths.

1. SFG replaces traditional grammar.

Wrong – SFG builds on traditional grammar. In fact, familiar terms (e.g. noun, verb, adverb, pronoun, subject, clause) can be found in Functional Grammar. The difference is that SFG places an emphasis on not only identifying and labeling grammatical categories, but also on describing how that grammatical element is functioning within a sentence and whole text. Consider these three examples.

  • The cat sat on the mat.
  • The cat woman left her entire fortune to the local animal refuge.
  • The cat sat on the mat. It licked its paws.

Being able to identify that ‘cat’ is a noun (a typical traditional grammar-type activity) might is a useful first step, but is actually of limited value. However, SFG provides a framework for discussing how that noun is functioning in each sentence. In the first instance, it is a participant in the action of sitting; in fact ‘cat’ is the actor in this sentence (as opposed to the mat – another noun -which indicates where the cat is sitting). In the second sentence, the noun is acting adjectivally, describing the woman. Moreover, it is acting in a special way to classify the type of woman – the cat woman (in contrast, for example, to ‘the dog woman’). In the example three, we could describe the way that the noun ‘cat’ is acting as part of a lexical chain to establish links between the two sentences. That is, cat is picked up by the pronoun ‘it’ in the second sentence and is also linked through the use of whole-part relationships (i.e. a paw is a part of a cat).

A disappointing aspect of the recent National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing was its dumbed down approach to language. Unfortunately, the nature of the questions have the potential to encourage teachers to undertake simple category and error identification training with students, rather than rich and engaging explorations the possibilities of language and how it can function effectively in a variety of contexts.

2. SFG is too complicated for teachers and students.

Look, the English language is huge – it’s complex and cannot be fully described in any succinct manner. However, just as science teachers are trained to communicate complex scientific concepts in age (and ability) appropriate ways to students, so English teachers are capable of extracting core concepts from the grammar and applying them in the classroom to a close study of language. Anyone willing to put in a bit of intellectual effort can learn the basics of the grammar in a fairly short period of time. The idea is not to turn teachers or students into full blown linguists; it’s to give them an informed, working knowledge about how language operates in order to improve reading and writing texts of various kinds.

In a future blog, I’ll explore some more myths about Functional Grammar and demonstrate its worth with further, practical examples.

Helping students use literary language

July 6, 2008

Girl reading close up

Teachers often comment that students write the way they speak. In imaginative or literary writing, this often manifests itself in pieces that are action oriented and are dominated by the following features:

  • First person
  • Simple and compound sentences (‘and/but’ as conjunction)
  • Short noun groups
  • Everyday, colloquial language, including for evaluations (e.g. ‘The ride was really awesome’)

In order to make their works appealing and accessible for older children and adolescents, much professional young adult literature displays these same characteristics.

However, recent research into ‘demand’ writing tasks (standardized writing tests) is suggesting that the features most valued by markers include:

  • Third person
  • Complex sentences (independent & subordinate clause/s)
  • Choice of nouns and verbs for implicit, evaluative purposes (e.g. ‘The snow was lofted onto the window sill.’)
  • Long noun groups
  • Figurative and symbolic language, especially for evaluations.

In my own work with schools, I am starting to notice a disconnect between the type of texts that students are reading and writing in the upper primary and middle schools, and the expectations of the senior school. Put simply, in addition to the highly accessible and popular books available, students also need exposure to and immersion in more sophisticated (age appropriate) writing from quite early in their schooling. For at least some of these texts, they need to study the language use closely so that they can develop an explicit understanding of how particular literary effects are achieved.

Provided below is a first attempt at providing some recommendations for stories that use various elements of a more literary style of language, should be appealing to students, and could be read independently or read aloud by the teacher – extracts will work best in some circumstances. They are arranged in rough groupings according to age suitability, the list includes a number of titles published in Australia, and there is a mix of classics and more contemporary stories (including some well written popular fiction). The editions listed may not be the most recent and some books may be out of print; where this is the case, try your local library or second hand book store. Finally, this list will be updated over time and your comments on the selection are most welcome.

Note: Please make sure you preview titles before using them in your classroom to ensure that they are appropriate for your school and community context.

Younger children

Start with: Muntean, M and Lemaitre (illus.) (2006). Do not open this book! New York: Scholastic Press. [No literary masterpiece, but a fun book to introduce the notion of word play and the power of language.]

Early, M. (1991). William Tell. Montville, Qld: Walter McVitty Books.

Issa and Karas, G. B. (2007). today and today. New York: Scholastic Press. [A beautiful book of haiku for children – based on the seasons of the year.]

Lester, A. (1994). Isabella’s bed. Rydalmere, NSW: Hodder Headline Australia Pty Ltd.

Lester, A. (1990). Magic Beach. North Sydney, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Mahy, M. and Chamberlain, M (illus.) (1985). The man whose mother was a pirate. London, England: Puffin Books.

Older children/Young adolescents

Adornetto, A. (2007). The shadow thief. Australia: Angus and Robertson.

Babbit, N. (1975). Tuck Everlasting. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Barrie, J. M. (1998). Peter Pan and Wendy. Bath, UK: Robert Frederick Ltd.

Bear, G. (1998). Dinosaur summer. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

DiTerlizzi, T. and Black, H. (2003). The Spiderwick chronicles: the field guide. Sydney: Simon and Schuster.

Gurney, J. (1992). Dinotopia: a land apart from time. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House Press Pty Ltd.

Hartnett, S. (2007). The ghost’s child. Camberwell, Victoria: Viking (Penguin).

Lewis, C. S. (1950). The chronicles of Narnia: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Great Britain: Geoffrey Bles.

Lynch, J. (2008). The highest tide. London: Bloomsbury. (See Review of The highest tide)

Sutcliff, R. (1992). Beowulf: dragonslayer. London, UK: Red Fox (Random House Children’s Books).

Tan, S. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The Lord of the Rings: the fellowship of the ring. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Wild, M. and Spudvilas, A (illus.) (2006). Woolvs in the sitee. Camberwell, Victoria: Viking (Penguin).

Older adolescents

Bear, G. (2003). Darwin‘s children. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Betts, A. J. (2008). Shutterspeed. Western Australia: Freemantle Press.

Blixen, K. (1954). Out of Africa and Shadows on the grass. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Greene, G. (2001). Twenty-one stories. Sydney: Vinatge. (see ‘The destructors’ in particular)

Guterson, D. (1995). Snow falling on cedars. Great Britain: Bloomsbury.

Proulx, E. Annie (1993). The shipping news. London: Fourth Estate Ltd.

Scott Fitzgerald, F. (1950). The great Gatsby. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Suskind, P. (1985). Perfume: the story of a murderer. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Temple, P. (2005). The broken shore. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing.

Deogratis: a tale of Rwanda – review

July 6, 2008

Deogratis: a tale of Rwanda by Jean-Phillipe Stassen (First second, ISBN 9 781596 431034)

Who is it for? Senior students and adults

What is it about? This moving graphic novel tells the story of the Rwandan massacre through the eyes of a teenage boy, Deogratis. Told in flashback, the reader gains a devastating insight to this appalling time in African and world history. A preface provides useful background for the reader and certainly positions the western reader to see the Rwandan genocide as much the fault of inaction by Western governments and the United Nations as internal, racial and ethnic conflict.

How can it be used? The subject matter and some of the language means that it should be restricted to the Senior school. Evocative and sophisticated graphics do most of the storytelling work in this text creating the opportunity to undertake quite complex work on the interaction of visual and written language resources. In addition, it would be highly effective used in conjunction with texts dealing with inhumanity, violence and racism, e.g. Lord of the Flies, 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird.

The abuse of ‘both’

July 5, 2008

Is it difficult to understand that this word is used when referring to two items only, for example ‘Both the cheese and the chocolate look inviting’? Apparently it is difficult for the organizers of a recent conference on thinking skills. According to the information brochure, one of the presenters has turned ‘his research into award-winning practice in both education, business and industry’. Oh, deary me – and these are supposed to be the best thinkers in the world?

Audacity website – review

July 4, 2008

Who is it for? Teachers and students

What is it about? This site exists mainly to provide web users with a portal to download some excellent and absolutely free software, ‘Audacity’. This is a sound recording and editing program. Easy to download and use, it allows users to lay down and mix various audio tracks – sound recording, music, sound effects etc. For a complete list of features, see: The only extra equipment (besides a computer) that you need is a microphone – but many computers have these built in these days and mobile phones and some MP3 players, of course, can be used to record voice digitally.

How can it be used? This is the twenty-first century solution for teachers wanting students to ‘record an oral’. These type of mediated tasks have always been popular in English, but have required specialist equipment for a professional sounding result. This program will allow students to produce their own sound files and experiment with the blending of various tracks to produce desired results. For instance, a student could record a the vocal for a poetry reading on their mobile phone while sitting in their bedroom, upload it (with ease!) to ‘Audacity’ and locate and add sound effects and music in order to position listeners in particular ways. This is an excellent piece of software highly recommended for use in schools.

Watership Down by Richard Adams – review

July 3, 2008

Watership Down by Richard Adams (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-003958-9)

Who is it for? Lovers of fantasy, animal tales and Donnie Darko; anyone with an interest in intertexuality

What is it about? Sitting in a field that, unknown to them, is about to be developed as a housing estate, Fiver says to his companion: ‘Oh, Hazel! This is where it comes from! I know now – something very bad! Some terrible thing – coming closer and closer…There isn’t any danger here, at this moment. But it’s coming – it’s coming. Oh, Hazel, look! The field! It’s covered with blood!’. Perturbed by his friend’s vision, Hazel takes Fiver to the Chief Rabbit of their warren to warn him. Of course, as is common in these sorts of tales, authority does not take the warning seriously and Hazel, Fiver and a few other rabbits set out on a perilous journey to establish a new warren far from danger.

How can it be used? First published in 1972, this book is worth reviving for classroom use, especially as many of its concerns (e.g. environmental destruction, survival in a hostile world) are extremely current. However, even more interestingly perhaps, Richard E. Kelly cites the book (and Fiver’s vision in particular) as one of the major influences on his cult classic, Donnie Darko. Beyond the superficial level that both feature rabbits prominently, the book provided the sensibility for the film. In fact, attentive viewers will notice that scenes from the animated version of Watership Down appear in background in the movie. If that’s not intertextuality enough, an English class in Donnie Darko is studying the Graham Greene short story, ‘The Destructors’ (1954), another source that Kelly acknowledges as an influence on his movie. So, if you want to do something a bit different in Senior English, here are three texts worth considering – including a story by a bonafide master. [‘The Destructors’ can be found in Graham Greene (1954) Twenty-One Stories, Vintage, ISBN 0 09 928616 5.]

Botchan by Natsume Soseki – review

July 1, 2008

Botchan by Natsume Soseki (Japanese Literature Publishing Project, ISBN 9 784770 030481)

Who is it for? Senior students

What is it about? Written by an iconic Japanese author, Botchan is the story of a young man who, fresh out of college and with no other immediate prospects, leaves the Tokyo and moves to a small fishing village in the ‘deep south’ of Japan. Here, he takes up a teaching position in an all-boys boarding school. Only a few years older than his students, Botchan (a nickname which can mean inexperienced or naïve) comes into almost immediate conflict his charges who play practical jokes on him. In addition, his brash, city attitude brings him into conflict with the other teachers-he shows little respect for their seniority and is soon caught up unwittingly in their intrigues.

Is it any good? Botchan has a reputation as being the most widely read novel in modern Japan and was recommended to the reviewer by the Japanese girlfriend of a colleague. Being a translation, there is no doubt a lot of subtlety lost, but it is a brisk, light very readable story. Having said that, it also gives a fascinating insight into pre-World War 1 Japan-a very different Japan than many Western readers would expect. An appreciation of the novel, and the significance of the rebellious main character, would certainly be deepened with a knowledge of Japanese society and culture; in fact, it’s one of those novels that will probably be appreciated better through study and exploration as part of a unit of work. It has the added advantage of being free of swearing or overt sexual references.

How can it be used? This would be worth trying if you’re interested in doing something a bit different with your students-from about Years 10 onwards. It’s easy and quick to read, and opens lots of opportunities to discuss the role of cultural knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and values on reading and writing practices. Botchan could also be used as a very useful companion study to Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, a novel that still works well with students (see further information in the box below). It would, of course, also be useful if you are interested in exploring the concept of literature in translation. The edition reviewed is a modern translation which could be compared to earlier English translations. One such translation forms part of Project Gutenberg and can be downloaded free from Alternatively, try the edition available at; this was produced by a fan of the book who did not like the existing translations and decided to have a go himself. Some reliable, albeit basic, background on the novel can be found at