This unit is built around one of Cate Kennedy’s short story collections, Dark Roots (2009), though readers are encouraged to explore the range of Kennedy’s works. These include her early non-fiction, as well as her award-winning poetry, The Taste of River Water (2011), and novel, The World Beneath (2009). Please note that it would be possible to adapt this unit for use with Kennedy’s more recent short story collection, Like a House on Fire (2012).

Kennedy was born in England, moved around Australia as a child, lived for a time in Central America, and finally settled in regional Victoria. Despite those international influences and experiences, there is a distinctly Australian flavour in her work.

In an interview with Helen Garner (Readings, 2012), Kennedy explained how the role of everyday events and people influences her work:

Everything’s ordinary in my work…I don’t want characters who are larger than life. I live in a very ordinary place, a farm on a river. I listen to other people and I hear what they’re saying. The gift is the ordinariness – things that are well-used, unexpressed, taken for granted. I love to look at those things in a fresh way.

Introductory activities

Representations of self and connections the physical and natural world

Activity 1

After whole class or group discussion and viewing images of significant physical and natural environments in their lives, individuals note/sketch/diagram/create word clouds. These may include illustrations or words associated with their individual connections to the physical and natural worlds that have had an impact on them as they have grown up.

This strategy is often labelled ‘sketch to stretch’ and supports students to respond creatively to use the modes most appropriate to their connection. The connections might be represented on one screen or page in any of these ways:

  • a list or map of significant places
  • onomatopoeia (on paper) or recording of sounds (on screen)
  • features that make the student feel most grounded or safe in the place
  • features that are most variable or might feel threatening
  • metaphors or similes
  • drawn illustrations or landscapes
  • abstract symbols
  • photographic images from their own collections or sourced in line with copyright provisions from the internet.

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Exploring the abstract

Activity 2

Move onto these more abstract concepts that are significant in Kennedy’s stories (and any of these may be substituted depending on your reading and choice of stories for close study):

  • vulnerability
  • vengeance
  • human fallibility
  • identity
  • social isolation
  • self-understanding – big and small moments
  • insight into others.

Students work in groups of three and consider each of the terms above, and undertake, within a time limit, to teach each other:

  • the pronunciation and spelling of each of the terms
  • the morphology and etymology of the terms to arrive at an agreed definition ( is recommended)
  • list alternative word forms (e.g. vulnerable, vulnerably) for each
  • list synonyms or draw a symbol or prompt to support understanding and recall.

The groups should work to a time limit with quick tests of each other to ensure that each group has supported all members to learn all of the above.

To support their conceptual understanding, each group will discuss the following, ensuring that they repeat, and correctly use the key terms. Such oral repetition and correct usage will increase student confidence and likelihood of using the terms in print.

  1. What might be the telltale body language of someone who feels vulnerable within a setting? How is this different from someone who is not vulnerable?
  2. Consider a film or novel where someone has sought vengeance? Why was this the case and how was vengeance planned, challenged or executed?
  3. How is human fallibility evident in the world at large that you see in the media? Which characters in popular media exhibit their human fallibility? What causes human fallibility and is it inherent in human nature? How can one compensate for, or be redeemed, when their human fallibility creates pain or difficulty for others? Are human frailty and human fallibility the same or different in meaning?
  4. Consider the reality of social isolation you have experienced or witnessed in real life or via media for one or more of the following:
  • race
  • class
  • language
  • gender
  • geography
  • or values or faith.What does social isolation feel like, and how can it be addressed in classrooms, schools and the wider world?
  1. As a child grows from infancy to adulthood, what are some of the ‘big moments’ that led you to greater self-understanding? Consider some that are generally experienced by most people as they grow up, and some that are unique to individuals or cultures.
  2. As you have grown from infancy to adulthood, what are some of the ‘small moments’ you have experienced that have led to greater self-understandings or independence? These might be fleeting and unnoticed by anyone else but have stayed in your memory as somehow significant.

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Identifying and discussing abstract literary concepts using film trailers

Activity 3

Students can now be directed to consider the concepts not only in the Cate Kennedy short stories to come, but in any texts with which they are engaged (video games, news reports, TV, novels, mini-series). This activity is designed as a foreshadowing activity to support the literary analysis they will undertake with Cate Kennedy’s short stories.

Consider the concepts of Activity 2 (see below) and consider which of these are evident in each of the film trailers provided.

  • vulnerability
  • vengeance
  • human fallibility
  • identity
  • social isolation
  • self-understanding (big and small moments)
  • insight into others.

Students should be directed to consider how themes are made evident through dialogue, music, setting, camera angles, costuming, casting, editing and so on as they will have done previously in film studies. Some clips that range from simple to challenging include:

It may be productive at this point to provide students with 10–20 minutes of writing time to question, clarify and extend their responses to the above activities and discussions, focusing on the concepts discussed.
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The writer’s craft

The short story

When asked in an interview with Michelle Johnson about the significance of the short story as an art form, Cate Kennedy was strong in her response and created a metaphor that may help students better understand the distinction between a novel and a short story.

I’ve heard many novelists say they think a short story is harder to write than a novel, not easier. I had the experience once of a critic saying to me, after I’d finished my first novel, that I must be feeling good to be moving from ‘the baby pool’ into ‘the big pool.’ I made sure he understood how very differently I felt! The short story is not the baby pool, it’s the diving pool. You have to execute something small and focused and precise. You go in deep on one breath, put out your hand to touch some deep, invisible spot, flex and push yourself back up to break the surface again. You’re not there to splash around or do lap after lap. You’re there to dive in, as beautifully and stylishly as you can. It’s immediately evident to others whether you’ve got form or not. So it takes a particular kind of daring.

World Literature Today, June 18, 2014

Novels may vary in length; for example, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is nearly 600,000 words, but other books have as few as 50,000 words. Novellas are generally around 20,000 to 30,000 words and exist between the short story and the novel form. The short story form is often between 1,000 and 20,000 words, but publishers and competitions will often provide word limits. In 2018, Ian McEwan’s My Purple Scented Novel (Penguin) was published as a mini paperback, with a total of only 48 pages with just 4,300 words.

This trend for short, quick reads was also evident in the release of a series of literary essays, packed as mini paperbacks of around 60 pages. The short story and short literary essays are in demand, as is flash fiction, which may contain as few as 100 words, and even further by micro fiction, which may contain fewer words again. What is clear, is that the shorter the fiction, the more each and every word matters. As Kennedy makes clear (above), there is no time to introduce or flesh out characters who are not pivotal, or subplots, descriptions or images that do not contribute to the impact of the short story.

While numerous publications take individual stories, there are some short story writers, with a substantial body of work, who can secure the publication of a collection of short stories. Cate Kennedy’s bargaining power with publishers was enhanced when her short story ‘Cold Snap’ was published in the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

Kennedy illustrates the power of the oft-quoted, but not always really understood, ‘show don’t tell’, and the study of her short stories can illuminate for students the power of revelation through character:

When we use that old adage of showing not telling, what we’re showing is insight into character that the character doesn’t have about themselves, the stuff they’re trying to keep hidden without realising that they are. That creates a beautiful, vivid and evocative space for the reader to immerse themselves in. Lack of self-insight can be used for great comic effect or dramatic effect, or create poignancy or great suspense.

from Overland, Number 192, August 2008 

Kennedy is less concerned with structuring a plot as she is in developing a character and voice, and says that she sees the ‘plot as just the vehicle the character is travelling in. If you create a character with enough dimension, just one thing has to happen to them. Pick the right thing, and you’re there’ (ibid). Encourage students to read these short stories with this question in mind:

  • What has Kennedy made happen to her characters, and how do they deal with the situation?

In an interview with Helen Garner for Readings bookstore Kennedy remarked that ordinary people at times of powerlessness are endlessly fascinating to me. I think they deserve more of our attention.’ The sense of powerlessness in the lives of ordinary people may make the stories more familiar and accessible for young readers, and connections made to those moments in their own lives through childhood, adolescence and growing maturity and independence.

Dark Root’s epigraph and short story titles

Activity 1: Predictions and first impressions

Some authors begin their work with an epigraph, and this can indicate the direction, inspiration or mood of the writing to come. Consider the epigraph to Dark Roots and what hints it may give you for what lies ahead in the collection. Look at some other collections or novels you have read in the past, and discover if there are epigraphs and how these resonate with or provide further meaning to your experience and understanding of those texts.

You will find the epigraph immediately after the contents, and on the page facing the first story. Work in groups to consider this epigraph and the titles of the short stories in Dark Roots, or allocate six or so titles to each group, ensuring every short story in the collection is covered across the class.

For each title make some predictions according to what you already know about the author and the cover detail. After working through the allocated (or all) titles, read the first paragraph of each and elaborate on, or correct your initial predictions. If the story begins with only one or two sentences, go on and read up to ten lines. Make note of those short stories that have the greatest appeal to you for close reading later.

The table below is provided as a downloadable template (PDF, 191KB) for student use.

Title Where might it be set? What might it be about? What kinds of characters might you expect? After reading the first paragraph or ten lines, it seems the story might be about… (You may choose to use the literary concepts highlighted in Activities 2 and 3 of the Introductory section of this unit).
What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved
A Pitch too High for the Human Ear
Cold Snap
The Testosterone Club
Dark Roots
The Light of Coincidence
Direct Action
The Correct Names of Things
Wheelbarrow Thief
Sea Burial
Kill or Cure   

Follow up:

  • After groups have had time to discuss an appropriate range of stories, select five key stories and collate the data from each group in the class to examine the range of responses.
  • Consider the impact of earlier stories, novels, everyday experience and films that influence our expectations, and discuss the significance of intertextuality and our reading choices.
  • Discuss the stories highlighted by the students as the ones they believe will be most engaging.

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Understanding Kennedy’s short stories

Activity 2: ‘Kill or Cure’  

This activity is centred on the final short story in the collection, ‘Kill or Cure’ (page 170, Scribe edition). It is brief and can be read aloud to the class as they listen and begin to annotate. It might be undertaken in groups or individually and will support students to develop the skills and understandings they will be using in the two summative assessment tasks.

  • After reading the first page of the story, what do you expect to happen when Helen moves to the farm? What do you consider to be the most significant or telling sentence on this page, and why?
People and things associated with Helen’s past life  in the city People and things associated with Helen’s current life in the country Words and images Kennedy uses to reveal John’s character Words and images Kennedy uses to reveal Helen and John’s relationship




Draw up a table with three columns and add words or draw images under each heading as you listen to the first reading, and then as you return and skim read the story. 

  • What crisis, or crises, does Kennedy create to test out Helen’s and John’s characters? Consider their reactions and the insights we get into their emotional and physical existence. 
  • Imagine you are a friend or family member, approached by either Helen or John (you choose) seeking advice about how to improve their life and relationship on the farm. Begin by identifying positive traits of the character who is seeking your advice, and then provide three actions they might perform to assure their partner and strengthen their relationship. (You might involve the school counsellor to support students through the activity, and then share insights.)
  • Consider your responses to Activity 1 in the Initial Response section of this unit and the connections made to the natural and physical world, and comment on how you would feel living in the landscape and small town in this story. Use two quotes from the story to illustrate your emotional and physical fit or disconnect.
  • Select one or two of the following concepts from earlier activities, and provide an analysis and evaluation of how the concept is developed in this story. You must provide at least five brief quotations to support your analysis. For your reference, they are:
    • vulnerability
    • vengeance,
    • human fallibility
    • identity
    • social isolation
    • self-understanding (big and small moments)
    • insight into others.
  • How does the title, ‘Kill or Cure’ relate to the characters and events in this story? Consider the ambiguity of the title and the double meaning or application of ‘Kill or Cure’ to the characters and situation.

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Introduction to Kennedy’s short story, ‘Cold Snap’

(page 46, Scribe edition) or ‘Black Ice’ as it is entitled in the United States

One of Cate Kennedy’s career breakthroughs was having her story ‘Cold Snap’ accepted by the prestigious New Yorker magazine. The term ‘cold snap’ might be described as an idiom (localised expressions that do not make literal sense), and so the story was published as ‘Black Ice’, which in the US refers to a thin layer of ice on a road surface. 

The US version of the story, published in the New Yorker (2006) is available here though there are only minor differences with ‘Cold Snap’. 

feature article on Kennedy published in Noted explains that the genesis of ‘Cold Snap’ was seeing a tree sabotaged in a small town an hour from Melbourne. It was the anger she felt upon witnessing this act that inspired her to write the story with a female character ‘so singularly unsympathetic’.

Activity 3: ‘Cold Snap’ – tracking the characters and narrative

Students can read the story in groups, or listen as the story is read aloud by the teacher, keeping in mind Kennedy’s belief that in a short story, ‘You have to execute something small and focused and precise.’

With this quote in mind, ask students to annotate along the way where they think they can see any of the following, assuring them that these initial impressions are valuable even if their perspective changes after discussion with their peers:

  • incidents or observations that are small and focused and precise but may carry significant meaning in the development of the story
  • the points where Kennedy goes in deep to push the story forward and show characters at breaking point
  • metaphors and motifs that strengthen the story and provide coherence
  • the deep invisible spots of characters Kennedy prods to propel them to action
  • the moment when Kennedy breaks the surface of the tension she has created.

Stop three times during the story, allowing students time to confer and clarify understandings with each other. This can be more engaging and productive for students, rather than the teacher providing input along the way. It provides students with scaffolded support to exercise their independent skills of analysis. The three suggested pause points are:

  • The paragraph ending, ‘Don’t tell your friends’ on page 50
  • The paragraph ending, ‘You’ve done it again, Billy’ on page 54
  • The paragraph ending, ‘I felt my Mum’s gloves’ on page 57.

At the conclusion of the story, which may not be initially satisfactory for all students, have them map out the actions and consequences for the three main characters to gain greater clarity:

Three key actions Consequences and significance
The  woman

After students have completed this, ask them to clarify their understanding of the conclusion of the story. They may need some prompts to understand that Billy had created the conditions for the woman’s crash.

Remind students to go back to the two titles of this story: ‘Cold Snap’ and ‘Black Ice’. What meaning do these titles have after reading the story?

Following this discussion, ask students to address each of the following tasks/questions, either in writing or in groups and reporting back to the class:

  1. Find three pieces of dialogue that show the different dispositions and cultures between country and city, and provide a brief commentary on each.
  2. How is it apparent that the woman (along with her husband) is patronising and underestimates the local and environmental knowledge of the locals?
  3. How is it apparent that the locals resent or ridicule the ‘tree changers’?
  4. What do you believe is Kennedy’s stance on the use or protection of native vegetation, and how does this story lead you to that conclusion?
  5. Discuss how any one of the key literary concepts is most fully developed in this story? For your reference these were: vulnerability, vengeance, human fallibility, identity, social isolation, self-understanding (big and small moments), insight into others.

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Activity 4: ‘Cold Snap’ transformed from short story to film

In 2013, ‘Cold Snap’ was adapted for the screen by New Zealanders, Leo Woodhead (director and writer) and Paul Stanley Ward (writer). The film runs for just under 11 minutes

The short film won numerous awards, and credits Cate Kennedy for the original story on which the film is based.

  • 2014 Hong Kong Film Festival (Jury Prize – Short Film Section)
  • 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival (selected for New Zealand’s Best) 
  • 2013 Venice Film Festival (selected in the Orizzonti [Horizons] section).

Festivals include the 2014 Show Me Shorts (New Zealand).

View the film as a class, without introduction, but asking students to consider these questions as they view it:

  • What remains of Kennedy’s original?
  • What is adapted for a New Zealand context?
  • What small and radical departures are evident?
  • Has the integrity and intention of Cate Kennedy’s story been compromised?
  • What is your experience of, and reaction to, other film adaptions from short stories, non-fiction or novels you have read?

Following discussion of their observations, ask students to vote on their preference and justify their choices.
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Synthesising tasks

Class reading across the anthology

At this stage, the remaining stories can be distributed according to the preferences students were asked to express in Activity 1 of this Close Study section of the unit. However, whether organised as group or individual readings, try to ensure that each remaining story in the collection is covered.

As students read the story, ask them to annotate or use sticky notes to enable them to contribute to discussion, covering each of the following three parts:

Part A

Create one sentence capturing the setting, the key characters and one of the key concepts explored in and through the story, for example:

  • ‘Cold snap’ is set in a rural community where a woman from the city comes and disrupts the local landscape, leading to vengeance from the young trapper who lives next door.
  • In ‘Kill or Cure’ the reader meets Helen, who believes that married life on the farm with John and his sheepdogs will be different from city life, but she has no idea just how far country life will test her identify and their relationship.

Part B

Identify two key quotes from the story that support/illustrate your sentence summary above.

Part C

Recording your observations and evaluations of how the abstract concepts and the language of this story connect with what you have learnt about Cate Kennedy as a writer, and the style you studied in either ‘Kill or Cure’ or ‘Cold Snap’.
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Scope of the stories

While Kennedy feels most comfortable and effective while writing about what she sees around her, the concepts she explores are universal in scope.

The short story, ‘Habit’, focuses on the humour inherent in mistaken identity in the midst of drug trafficking; ‘Angel’ explores the impact and devastation of post-traumatic stress in a young refugee; while ‘Dark Roots’, the title story, focuses on the identity of an older woman and her younger male lover. The identity crisis, and sense of misplacement in ‘Kill or Cure’, is common across ages and cultures, even if the details may differ. And the destruction of the landscape in ‘Cold Snap’ is repeated around the world by individuals, governments and corporations to improve their circumstances and financial gain. All over the world, there are those who fight back like Billy, either carrying out vengeance or sabotaging such destruction.

This relevance to the wider world is apparent in the first publication of ‘Cold Snap’ (retitled ‘Black Ice’) in the New Yorker magazine, and a later subsequent adaptation as a short film in New Zealand.

Kennedy’s setting may be Australian, but her observations and interests know no boundaries, as she explained in an interview with Helen Garner:

I’m interested in the way people behave when power has been stripped from them. The way they put themselves back together again. Not so much what they’re feeling or thinking, but what they do. We’re revealed by our actions. I want people in my stories to act, even if what they’re doing seems distorted or deformed by the damage that’s been done to them. That’s what keeps me watching them… Ordinary people at times of powerlessness are endlessly fascinating to me. I think they deserve more of our attention. 

Readings, 3 October 2012 

Australian setting – universal context 


In this next activity, attention shifts to the poetry of Cate Kennedy and the poem selected is taken from Kennedy’s The Taste of River Water, winner of a Victorian Premier’s Literacy Award 2011.

The poem is entitled: ‘8 x 10 colour enlargements $16.50’.

Before beginning, it may be important to remind students that this poem is an example of free verse, and is not restricted to formal metre or rhythm or rhyme patterns. This freedom allows the poet to prioritise words, images, sentences and structures to meet their intentions and purpose. It may also be useful to guide students to follow the narrative form of the poem.

An audio version, with Kennedy reading her poem is accessible via IndieFeed Performance Poetry

The print version was originally published in the Bendigo Weekly.

Transforming texts

As students read and listen to the poem, ask them to underline the most significant lines trying to keep to less than 50% of the poem. These selections will be useful after a class discussion of these two points.

  • Ask students to consider how this poem illustrates one of Kennedy’s concerns: ‘Ordinary people at times of powerlessness are endlessly fascinating to me. I think they deserve more of our attention’.
  • Identify aspects of the poem that emphasise the injustice at the ceremony.

After students have explored the narrative and poetic techniques, ask them to work in groups to create a much shorter poem of exactly 225 words. This is 50% of the total 450-word count of Kennedy’s original. The purpose of using precise numbers is to have students consider every word they want to remove and those they need to add. They should also consider:

  • keeping or changing the original title
  • the images and descriptions they believe have greatest impact
  • the cohesive links or words that build a narrative across the event
  • the use of stanzas to support narrative or emphasis
  • the importance of reading aloud and listening to the poem to examine rhythm, pace and meaning
  • the background they consider most necessary
  • how this poem is both uniquely Australian but also universally relevant
  • the significance of one or more of the concepts explored throughout this unit:
    • vulnerability
    • vengeance
    • human fallibility
    • identity
    • social isolation
    • self-understanding – big and small moments
    • insight into others.

Students can then compare their versions with other individuals and groups, particularly focusing on differences and explaining or justifying their own choices. With sufficient time, it may be possible to cast votes for the poem considered most effective by the class.
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The various activities detailed and undertaken in Section 1, Initial Response, Section 2, Close Study and in this section, Significance (in the wider world) should support students to achieve their best in the first Rich assessment task which follows. 

Rich assessment task 1 (responding and creating)

Transforming a Cate Kennedy short story into other modes

Choose one story from Dark Roots that you have already read, or one that you learnt about through earlier class discussions.  

Using the key concepts and your understanding of your chosen story, translate it to another mode, while retaining the attitude and mood of the original. You may choose one of the following: 

  • long-form poetry
  • the opening scene from a film
  • a combination of prose and photography as fiction or non-fiction
  • script, stage directions, costume and set design for a scene of a theatre performance
  • another negotiated mode.  

In addition, you may negotiate to work alone, in pairs or groups. Whatever option you choose, at least one of the literary concepts (from Activities 2 and 3 undertaken in the Initial Response section) should be evident in your response.

Download the assessment rubric to distribute to students (PDF, 135KB).

Please note that there are not distinguishing descriptions for each of the A to E ratings. Rather than create descriptions, the teacher can show models or showcase particular elements at the beginning of the assessment tasks to illustrate each criterion. This simplifies the rubric, and provides students with a more powerful illustration of what is expected, or how to develop and improve assessment responses in progress. This may also allow students more insight into their own self-assessment.

Further, note that the language is a simplification of the professional language of the ACARA content descriptions. This is done to make the rubric more accessible to Year 11 readers. A readability formula has been used to bring the text back to Year 12 readability from the post-graduate readability level of the original ACARA language.
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Rich assessment task 2 (creating)

Create a short story opening 

Write the opening 500–800 words of a short story to be considered for the next edition of short story magazine entitled ‘The Everyday Matters’.

You must focus on the stylistic features and take special care with language ensuring that every word matters. Use the approach behind Kennedy’s diving analogy from the quote from World Literature Today in Section 2, Close Study to establish the setting, characters, mood and crisis (or foreshadowing of crisis) within your submission.

Present a carefully edited and drafted opening to your story. Include a 300-word self-reflective statement on what you have learned about the craft of writing during this unit, and your study of Cate Kennedy’s short stories, and how these have informed the opening of your short story.

  • If students have difficulty coming up with ideas for a short story, they could use one of Kennedy’s views of what happens after we lose our power? How do we cope under extreme pressure? Brainstorm ideas, or provide prompts from newspapers, real life or images. Students may like to take something they have observed and found intriguing at school, or within their family, sporting or friendship groups. 
  • While there is no expectation that every student writes a fully developed short story in this assessment plan, the task could be modified to include this.

Download the assessment rubric to distribute to students (PDF, 135KB).

Please note that there are not distinguishing descriptions for each of the A to E ratings. Rather than create descriptions, the teacher can show models or showcase particular elements at the beginning of the assessment tasks to illustrate each criterion. This simplifies the rubric, and provides students with a more powerful illustration of what is expected, or how to develop and improve assessment responses in progress. This may also allow students more insight into their own self-assessment.

Further, note that the language is a simplification of the professional language of the ACARA content descriptions. This is done to make the rubric more accessible to Year 11 readers. A readability formula has been used to bring the text back to Year 12 readability from the post-graduate readability level of the original ACARA language.
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