Reading and Exploring: How to write the OC1 Personal Response

I just got back from the VATE conference after two days with some of the best English teachers and presenters in the state. We also heard directly from the VCAA and a handful of the examination panel about the new Study Design. It’s clear that the new SD is looming large for English teachers and faculty leaders around Victoria, and that there are still a few questions around key aspects of the Study Design.

Most schools will be launching straight into the Personal Response outcome, if they haven’t begun already with a Head Start program. I’ve already written several posts on the first Area of Study, but in this one I’m going to demonstrate how I think students could approach the Outcome. Note that this is far from the only way to address the requirements of Reading and Exploring Texts.

Before diving in to the assessment, here are a few of the earlier posts on this new AoS:

Writing the Personal Response

There are many ways students can fulfil this outcome. Ultimately, AoS1 is a tentative way in to the analytical skills required later in the Study Design – hence Reading and Exploring texts. That means that students must balance the analytical requirements of the response with the personal connections. The VCAA has provided examples of possible approaches, and I’m going to use two of those here to demonstrate the style of writing I’d expect. For both, I’m using The Dressmaker as the text.

The first example is a mid to upper range response to the following task:

Task: Identify two key ideas from the text, explore how they are represented in the text and then connect those ideas and representations to your own lived experience.

Tilly Dunnage’s return to Dungatar in The Dressmaker leads to revenge on an epic scale. Although she seemingly returns with the best of intentions, the actions of the other townspeople and the ghosts of her past force her down a path of revenge. While I have never suffered like Tilly, I have had thoughts of revenge which almost led me down a dark path. When Tilly first arrives back in Dungatar, it appears that she is coming only to look after her mother. ‘Mad Molly’ lives alone and is ostracised by the townspeople. Soon enough, this attitude towards Molly spills over to Tilly and she is similarly pushed aside and degraded by the people of Dungatar. When I first moved to a new town, in Year 8, it felt very similar. I had lived in Melbourne and moved to Southeast rural Victoria for my mother’s job. I felt like we were the odd ones out all of the time and that we would never be accepted. For Tilly, the tipping point in her revenge story comes when Molly reveals the truth about her father Evan Pettyman, and that Evan hid Tilly’s whereabouts from her. Molly dies of a stroke shortly afterwards, and the spiral of Tilly’s revenge begins. My story is less dramatic. A month or so after we arrived in the new town a group of students decided to play a prank on me in front of the whole school. The experience left me embarrassed and ashamed. I spent days dreaming up ways to get my own back. Some of my fantasies were more extreme than others (though I never thought about burning down the whole town!). Eventually I decided that the best action would be to ignore the students who had pranked me and focus on building my own network of friends. Unlike Tilly Dunnage, I was able to settle in and a group who accepted me. Maybe if someone had accepted Tilly things in The Dressmaker would have ended differently.

Notes: There are some analytical features in this response, though the student has not used direct quotes – this is definitely where to head next. The weaving back and forth between the text and personal anecdotes works well, as does the first person voice (see the discussion of the personal voice at the end of the post). This response demonstrates an understanding of Tilly’s character arc and some of her motivations. It falls short on identifying the author’s views and values.

I’ve placed several examples like this with complete annotations into the VCE Hub, alongside videos for this Area of Study and the rest of the Study Design. If you’d like downloadable copies of these responses and the notes, plus all the other resources, then click here to go to the Hub.

The second is a short example (of a higher range than the first) about a character from The Dressmaker. These could both form part of a writing journal/folio that could be completed over the course of study. The Outcome could be met through a collection of such pieces.

Task: Identify two key characters from the text, explore their story arc and consider the ways the text resolves their story then connect those arcs and resolutions to your own understanding of the way individuals experience the society around them.

Student reflection after reading the climax of the novel:

Sergeant Farrat is a complex character in Rosalie Ham’s novel The Dressmaker. The author has constructed the police officer to represent several ideas in the story from friendship and support through to betrayal and loneliness. Farrat is one of the only townspeople who sides with Tilly. Ham portrays him as a caring and concerned man who both looks out for and supports Tilly in her move back to town. He is also complex as he has a secret hobby of dressing in fine women’s clothing. He hides this hobby because of the nature of the 1950s rural society he lives in. Like Tilly, who hides elements of her past from those around her, Farrat hides part of his identity to protect himself. Of all the characters in the text, Farrat is one of the more rounded and interesting. Rosalie Ham demonstrates that in reality people are not just two-dimensional villains or heroes, and that people have hidden depths. Although Farrat cares for Tilly values her “tolerance and generosity, her patience and skills”, it does not stop her from including him in her revenge towards the end of the novel. Farrat is wracked with guilt over letting Evan Pettyman send Tilly away as a child and not doing more to intervene. The character demonstrates that even well-meaning people get things wrong, and suffer consequences. Tilly could forgive Farrat, but instead she burns down his home and steals his money before leaving town. Farrat’s character of Banquo in the Shakespeare play Macbeth is similarly betrayed, showing that these ideas about human nature extend back throughout history.

Notes: This response does include an inline direct quote from the text as evidence, which is more like we would expect from a typical analytical essay. It does not have the personal voice of the first, but the student has clearly made connections with the text and is able to discuss how Ham’s characters reflect people in the real world. The discussion of Ham’s authorial intent and especially the comparison of Banquo/Farrat at the end lift this into the upper ranges for this Outcome.

Me, myself, and I. The Personal Voice in the Personal Response

Probably the most contentious aspect of this Area of Study is that students might respond using the personal, first-person voice. I think it’s a great outcome. I assess work at many levels, including undergraduate and Masters level assignments. At a tertiary level, most writing includes aspects of the personal voice – for example in reflections on practice, on research, or on projects carried out during the course.

In fact, it’s actually quite difficult to find examples of analytical writing at a post-secondary level that isn’t written in a personal voice. That’s why I’ve been a little disheartened to hear of some schools who are planning to veto the first-person in this Area of Study because “they can’t use it in the exam.”

Firstly: they can. Section B of the exam – which will be Creating Texts – will certainly permit the use of first-person. I’d argue (though unsuccessfully, I imagine), that even Sections A and C don’t forbid the use. It certainly isn’t written into the Study Design or the examination criteria. The third-person analytical voice of the Reading and Responding essay is simply a convention of the form, and rather specifically of the form of this essay in this examination. I’d love to see students being encouraged to use the first person to reflect on texts in all three sections of the exam, though I can’t imagine that will happen any time soon.

But still, students can certainly transfer the use of the personal voice into Units 1 and 3 OC2, and Section B of the exam, so it is by no means a wasted skill. Add to that comments from Annelise Balsamo and Kellie Heintz, who expressed their opinions on the personal voice in their presentation on Thursday at the VATE conference. They said that it is “perfectly legitimate for students to use personal voice in the response” and encouraged both personal anecdotes and connections to the media and the world around students.

Like the first example above, students are well within their rights to write in the first person. If you’re worried that it will muddy the waters for later outcomes or the exam, I’d suggest that you need to rethink your approach. Make it very explicit to students that this personal response is a form of writing quite different to the formal analytical essay required in Section A, or the language analysis essay for Section C. Discuss the transferrable skills – analysis, inference, using evidence, textual knowledge – as well as what they shouldn’t do in the examination. This is no different to teaching students the difference between a sonnet and a haiku: they’re both poems, but they have obviously diverse conventions.

Hopefully these two short examples will get you started on the expectations for students in Outcome 1. There are a couple more (and more notes) in the Hub, and you’re welcome to get in touch directly if you’d like to talk further about the requirements of the new Study Design.

3 responses to “Reading and Exploring: How to write the OC1 Personal Response”

  1. […] 1 Reading and Exploring Texts outcome, the Personal Response. I’ve written elsewhere about teaching and assessing the Personal Response – I think it’s a great area of study which will open up some opportunities to students […]

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  2. […] If we try to get students to write essays they are unprepared for, then we inevitably have to fall back on supports and scaffolds like TEEL. My thoughts on such formulaic structures are pretty well known, but suffice it to say that I think there are plenty of better options out there. For this response, I recommend short written tasks which form a writing journal over the course of s… […]

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