Introductory activities

Develop a journey mind map:

  • Brainstorm different kinds of journeys, e.g. physical, intellectual, imaginative and spiritual.
  • For each type of journey, cite examples from history, literature, the news and students’ own lives.

Students choose one example of a personal journey that changed the way they thought or felt about something and write as a story. The following scaffold could be used to structure and sequence the story:

  • What was the context for the journey? What was the motivation for the journey?
  • What were the expectations at the start of the journey? Describe the ‘setting out’.
  • What happened along the journey? How did you think and feel at the time?
  • How did the journey end? Were expectations confirmed or confounded? Was a ‘destination’ reached?
  • What were the consequences of the journey? Was life different because of the discovery? Did others view the journey differently?

Have students write the story in first person, then rewrite in third person. Ask them to reflect on which of the two approaches:

  • was easiest for them
  • gave them more control as a writer
  • enabled them to capture the experience of the journey better.

Notice that Swallow the Air is written in first person. Students should explain why Winch might have chosen this narrative technique, as opposed to third person? Direct students to experiment with other ways of writing their story by doing one or more of the following:

  • disrupting the chronological sequence
  • writing in a humorous tone, as opposed to a serious tone
  • writing in the present tense, as opposed to past tense.

Students might like to consider how Winch employs these narrative techniques at different stages in the novel. Reflect on the impact of varying the story in these ways.

Explore the idea of a journey semantically and graphically:

  • Write a definition of journey that encompasses the different kinds of journeys noted in the brainstorming activity above. Check definitions of journey in dictionaries and compare.
  • What are the essential elements of any journey? Students should develop their own graphic representation of a journey and label with these elements.
  • Consider synonyms of journey, using a thesaurus after students have exhausted their own ideas. Ask them to write definitions and use in sentences to show how meanings vary.


Personal response on reading the text


Ask students to read the first paragraph in the novel and predict the type of story this will be. What kinds of family relations are suggested? Now read the last paragraph. Does this alter students’ predictions? Work in groups to make up a story that links this beginning and ending. Fill in the details but do not try to include too many incidents or characters.

Remember that:

  • stories usually start with a complication (a problem that needs sorting) and they move through a series of events that eventually solve the problem
  • on the way we learn about the main character but often the character also learns about her/himself.

Each group relates its story to the class. Discuss the way each group interpreted the story.

During their reading of the novel

Students maintain a reading log in which they record two journeys:

  • the journey of the main character, May, and
  • their own journeys as readers through the course of the novel.

Use page references to refer to particular incidents or passages. One way of organising the reading log is as follows:

Stage of journey  Journey of May  Journey of the reader
Before the journey begins
Setting out on the journey
Significant moments along the journey
Turning point on the journey
Reaching the destination
After the journey ends

Once the reading and the log are complete, consider this question: In what ways is the experience of reading a novel like a journey?

The following six-step guide can be used to investigate any text dealing with journeys. Use this guide to help students analyse the concept of the journey in Swallow the Air. Later students can use this same process to analyse their own text(s) about journeys.

1. Recount the main journey represented in the text, referring to the different stages:

  • Before the journey begins
  • Setting out on the journey
  • Significant moments along the journey
  • Turning point on the journey
  • Reaching the destination
  • After the journey ends

2. What is the significance or value of the journey?

  • For the journeyer
  • For others in the text
  • For you as the reader

3. Has the text deepened your understanding of the concept of a journey?

  • Have assumptions been confirmed?
  • Have assumptions been challenged?
  • How does this text add something new to other texts about journeys?

4. How is the concept of journey represented in the text?

  • structure
  • language
  • other textual features.

Focus in particular on how the creator of the text has exploited the particular features of the medium or type of text. For each language technique that is noted students should:

  • identify example(s)
  • explain the effect
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the technique as used by the creator.

5. Describe your own journey through your engagement with this text.

  • What did you learn through this journey?
  • How did the creator shape your experience of the journey?
  • To what extent was your experience of the journey shaped by your own personal context?

6. Earlier you considered the context of the character/person within the text and in the previous question you considered your own context as audience. Now consider the context of the text itself.

  • When and where was the text created? What were the social/political circumstances of this context? What do you know about the creator’s personal context?
  • How does an understanding of context help us to understand the ideas about the journey and the ways these ideas are presented in the text?

Outline of key elements of the text


Make a chapter-by-chapter list of the main events in the novel as they are told in the story. Next, rearrange these events in chronological order, i.e. as they occur in May’s life. Note, for example, that the experience recorded in the third chapter, ‘Cloud busting’, occurs before the death of May’s mother reported in the first chapter, ‘ Swallow the Air’.

Direct students to draw a graph – such as the one below – representing the highs and lows of May’s experiences along her journey as they occur chronologically, with the X-axis representing the order of events and the Y-axis representing the range of highs and lows. On the graph, mark significant moments along the journey for May and annotate briefly.

Image of May's Barometer Graph

Now rework the graph so that it represents the highs and lows as they are reported in the course of the novel. Can students explain why Winch disrupts the chronological order of events in her narrative? In particular, why does she begin the novel with the news of May’s mother’s death and then narrate earlier events? Why does she suddenly jump back in time in the chapter called Cocoon?

Ask students: In your opinion, which moments along her journey were pivotal for May? Justify your view.


Develop a mind map representing May’s character as she is presented in the first part of the novel – up until she leaves Paradise Parade (p. 60). Start with general aspects of her character, e.g. physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual. To each of these general aspects of character, direct students to add details they have identified in the novel. Next, add evidence to support those details. The embryonic mind map below shows you how this might work. Label the mind map ‘Starting out’. 

Image of May's Mind Map

Then develop another mind map profiling May’s character in the last part of the novel – her return ‘home’ (from p. 182 ‘The highway breeze is thick and hot . . . ‘ to the end). Use the same diagram (above) as the starting point for the mind map. Again, record details about May’s character and provide evidence from the novel to support those details. Label this mind map, ‘Coming Home’. Compare the two mind maps. In what ways has May stayed the same? In what ways has she changed? Ask students to explain these changes?

Consider the ways in which Winch portrays the character of May:

  • action
  • dialogue
  • identification with landscape
  • voice evoked through first person narration
  • in parallel or in contrast with other characters.

Are other techniques used? Find examples of each technique at different stages in the novel. Evaluate the effectiveness of these techniques.

Other characters

Having discussed the character of May in some detail, now consider other characters in the novel. Divide class into groups and allocate one of the following characters to each group:

  • Mother
  • Aunty
  • Billy
  • Joyce
  • Charlie
  • Johnny

The task of each group is to prime a member of the group to become that character. This role preparation will require a close study of the novel and what it has to say about the character. Each group presents its character to the class. Other groups ask questions to elicit more information about the character. Each student uses this activity to write notes about any two other characters of interest. Compare each with the character of May. Develop each set of notes into a profile of the character, organised into paragraphs. Read and share some of these profiles with the class. Discuss the importance of characterisation as a way for Winch to present different ideas in her novel.


The Australian Curriculum defines theme as, ‘The main idea or message of a text’. To find the theme we need to ask:

  • What is this novel saying about life through the way the characters act?
  • What can I learn about our society by exploring the characters, their actions and reactions of those around them?
  • What is the author’s attitude to the people and issues s/he introduces to us?
  • How can I apply the story of the text to real life and uncover a message?
  • What values is the book promoting through its characters and plot?

We also need to consider that:

  • Theme is the meaning or message that a text may convey about the way we live our lives and what we value.
  • Texts may have more than one theme.
  • Themes often offer a generalisation, which can be supported by evidence in the text.

A theme, therefore, is a generalisation about life that we draw from the text. A novel about a girl struggling to find her identity is not just the story of one person but transmits a message about all people and how they search for meaning. In the book Swallow the Airthe main character is May, whose mother is of Aboriginal descent, so the theme would possibly include a message about Aboriginality but it is also a story about family and identity – themes which apply to everyone.


  • There will be a number of themes emerging from any one text, some major, others minor.
  • Each theme has to be expressed in a sentence. To state merely that the theme of the novel is ‘identity’ does not reveal what the message is. ‘Identity’ is, in fact, a topic. You need to state clearly what is being said about identity (e.g. ‘That the search for identity is difficult but necessary’).
  • Each theme must be supported by evidence from the text. That means you use the events and characters to explain the theme.


Working in groups, discuss one of the following topics, relevant to Swallow the Air.Express the topic in a sentence which makes clear the attitude/message being conveyed by the novel. Direct students to find evidence to support their group’s point of view., and be prepared to share their findings with the whole class. Which of these topics are developed into major themes and which are developed into minor themes?

  • Discovery
  • Belonging
  • Journey or quest
  • Aboriginality
  • Identity
  • Change

Note: While this unit focuses on the text as a journey or quest, teachers could adjust the content to address any one of these ideas, although it is recommended that the appropriate emphasis for an English unit should be on how the idea is represented in Swallow the Air (and possibly other texts), not the idea itself.


Synthesising task/activity

In their study of Swallow the Air, students have investigated a particular theme in the novel and how it is represented. Working in a group, ask students to choose an alternative theme in the novel, investigate that theme and how it is represented, and report back to the whole class on their findings, using a Powerpoint presentation to highlight key points.

The writer’s craft


Like many novels based on the journey or quest, Swallow the Air has a cyclic structure. It begins and ends in the Illawarra community where May grows up. It starts with saltwater, journeys via the hard water of the Wiradjuri river country, then returns to saltwater. It begins with the idealised family of May, Billy and her mother; it ends in compromise with the ‘family’ of May, Billy and Aunty, an ironic counterpoint to the start. The death of May’s mother is a pivotal event at the start of the novel, as it sets in motion the chain of events that lead to May undertaking her journey, but it is also a focus of May’s thoughts at the end of the novel as she comes to terms with this loss and bravely faces an uncertain future.

Yet in another sense the novel also has a linear structure, particularly when the theme of personal growth is considered. May is a different person by the end of the novel: she has grown from childhood to adulthood; she has lost innocence, but through experiences along the journey, she has gained wisdom, a deep insight into herself and the world. Even Paradise Parade is changing, as old houses are knocked down to make way for a new development. Nothing stays the same.

Re-read the last chapter of the novel. Find sentences that emphasise the changes that have occurred since the start of the novel. Then find sentences that link to the first part of the novel, suggesting that some things have not changed. What point is Winch making? Direct students to draw their own graphic representation of the structure of the novel. Label this diagram with important elements of the structure.


Setting is an important element in the composition of any novel and even more so in this novel. The setting provides a context for the character and usually reflects aspects of the character. Sometimes setting is at odds with the character and leads to more searching. In this book, the quest to find identity should also be seen from an Aboriginal perspective with the land offering a spiritual connection that goes beyond an ordinary setting.

Setting is an important element in the composition of any novel and even more so in this novel. The setting provides a context for the character and usually reflects aspects of the character. Sometimes setting is at odds with the character and leads to more searching. In this book, the quest to find identity should also be seen from an Aboriginal perspective with the land offering a spiritual connection that goes beyond an ordinary setting.

The setting changes from beach to urban to rural and in each place May learns something different about herself and where she belongs.

Find a description of the following settings and complete the table below: the beach (p. 4); Paradise Parade p. 33; Bellambi beach p. 34; the escarpment (‘Bushfire’ chapter); the Gong p. 71; the Block; Wantock; the lake p. 146-7; the river p. 157; the Gibson House p. 177; ‘And it makes sense to me now’ p. 184; ‘Jacaranda Tree’ p. 187; ‘Home’ p. 193.

Settings  Copy an interesting line about this setting  Positive or negative? How does this setting make May feel? Find a line that captures her emotion.

Close reading
Read this passage and complete the tasks that follow.

‘The river sleeps, nascent of limpid green, tree bones of the spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming. And at their fingertips claws of blue bonnets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the erratic dips and weaves of wild galahs, grapefruit pink and ghost grey splash the sky. And as the salt subsides, the green trickles over the riverbank from tree limbs, spilling colour into day’s light, upside down. The water moves in tiptoes, and you could almost mistake it for a painting, staining only the top edge of the bank with its stirring: red orange ochre to cherry blood. This dust, this bleeding ash, is everywhere.’ (Winch, p. 157)

  • Draw an outline of the ‘painting’ that you see in this scene – use colours (work in groups).
  • One of the features of Winch’s prose is the use of cinematographic scenes. Imagine you are a filmmaker – work in groups to map out a film sequence of camera shots to capture this scene. Students may use wide shots and close ups, zoom in zoom out, perhaps out of focus shots or maybe an interesting editing device fade in or dissolve as they move between the different elements of the scene. The first scene has been chosen for you but you may want to change it.


The river surrounded by thin gums on the bank.
Scene: Scene: Scene: Scene:
Picture: Picture: Picture: Picture: Picture:












Now look at the language.

  • List all the colours in the scene and what they describe. Note how the colour moves from specific natural objects and moves through the scene. What is the effect of these many references to colour?
  • List all the instances of personification. Why is the scene presented as a person? What does it suggest about Aboriginal history in that area? (You might want to look at the poem At Cooloolah by Judith Wright as a comparison).
  • Trace the movement of ideas by listing the verbs, beginning with ‘sleep’.  Comment on the impact of these verbs.
  • What is the significance of the last line?
  • How does this setting develop the ideas of the novel?

Direct students to think of a setting that they know and describe it in ways that evoke an emotional response.

Point of view

The Australian Curriculum glossary definition of ‘point of view’ is: ‘The viewpoint of an author, audience or characters in a text. Narrative point of view refers to the ways a narrator may be related to the story. The narrator, for example, might take the role of first or third person, omniscient or restricted in knowledge of events, reliable or unreliable in interpretation of what happens.’

The author may want to convey a particular message and uses the characters to assist in doing this but we can’t always assume that the character’s point of view is that of the author.

Complete the following

This novel is written in ___________ person, with events seen through the eyes of the character, ___________. Dialogue introduces alternative  __________ , as do the memories of what her ___________  told her. Interestingly when May is traumatised she doesn’t tell us the whole story, avoiding the distress, but we can tell from her emotions that something terrible has happened, for example when ____________________________  


Because the novel is written in the first person, the voice most strongly represented is that of May. Do you think the novel could have been written in the third person? What advantages has Winch gained by using the first person? How does Winch use language to create a distinctive voice for May?

If the novel is written in the first person, how does Winch allow other voices to be heard? Ask students which, for them, were the most compelling and memorable voices? Again, how does Winch use language to create these voices?


Download and read this annotated passage (PDF, 139KB) and look at the annotations before answering the questions that follow.

Language questions:

  • What is the effect of the repetition of the word all in the first line?
  • Notice the nouns in the first lines: family, blacks, places, mob, place. These nouns move from collective to singular. What is the effect of this?
  • List all the present participles (ending in –ing) and the verbs in the description: e.g. colliding edging, clogging (note that the passage moves from the participles to the present tense verb forms).
  • Which of these words are positive and which are negative? Change the negative to positive – what is the effect? (Note that verbs and verb forms such as participles carry as much description as adjectives).
  • What is the effect of the two sentences starting with the conjunction And at the end of the description?
  • Does May feel as if she fits in here?
  • How does the language show her feelings?
  • Evaluation: What makes this a powerful piece of writing?
  • Follow up: The ABC TV series Redfern Now directed by Rachel Perkins is set at The Block. Watch an episode and compare the two different ways of seeing The Block. Why would May feel so critical of the place.


Transforming the text to poetry: This setting is bleak but also sounds poetic – rewrite the lines as if they are poetry. Task for students: you need to break the lines at the best place and think about the punctuation. Maybe you want to add or remove some lines or even reorganise the lines. You may want to indent and create a shape in the line length. Share your poem with a partner and explain your choices. Read the passage aloud with two people (two voices) to capture the rhythm.

Water as a motif

Working in small groups, gather references to water in the novel. Consider the ocean, bila(the river snake) and the lake of the Wiradjuri country. (See this map outlining Wiradjuri country). What is the significance of this recurring motif (or pattern)? Then consider all the references to drowning. What do you make of these? If the earlier references to water are positive, what is Winch suggesting by the recurring notion of drowning? Finally, what is the significance of the novel’s title? Give groups five minutes to thrash out this problem and then each takes turns to present its views.

For each activity, take time to write notes recording what has been learned.


Synthesising task

Two chapters that demonstrate the range of Winch’s skills as a writer are ‘Cloud Busting’ and ‘To Run’. Re-read these chapters and answer the following question in essay format: How does Winch use the resources of language for different effects in these two chapters?

Comparison with other texts

The Aboriginal/Indigenous experience

Swallow the Air, first published in 2006, represents a contemporary Australian Indigenous experience. Ask each student to identify and read or view a text written by another Aboriginal writer from/about some earlier time period. They could also consider a different form: poetry, drama, autobiography, films (e.g. by Rachel Perkins). It may also be an idea to compare representations of Indigenous people by people who are not Indigenous to see how that differs.

AustLit’s website Black Words is a good place to locate texts by Indigenous writers. The list of award winners for the David Unaipon prize is another good source of information.

Some possibilities are:

Direct students to compare the chosen text with Swallow the Air.

  • What similarities and differences can you find in the themes developed in each text and how these ideas are represented?
  • How important is context in shaping these aspects of the texts?

Each student presents an informal ‘show and tell’ on the text to the class.

  • Give a brief introduction to the text and its context.
  • Compare with Swallow the Air in terms of key themes related to the Aboriginal experience and how these themes are represented.
  • Discuss the importance of context in shaping these aspects of the text.

For a larger class, this activity might work better in smaller groups, and then groups can each report on one particularly interesting text.

Comparing texts by Aboriginal writers or filmmakers from/about different times allows students to see the importance of temporal context in shaping ideas about belonging and how these ideas are presented in texts. Comparisons with texts by Indigenous writers or filmmakers from different places might also reveal some interesting similarities and differences – greater similarities would indicate that the struggle of Indigenous people around the world for a sense of belonging is a universal phenomenon, while differences would indicate that local conditions influence the experience of belonging and therefore the texts which composers produce.

Alternative texts

Reading another text about identity which is not founded in Aboriginality is another way of gaining insight into the Aboriginal experience. It makes students aware of the similarities and also of those aspects that may be more specifically founded in the Aboriginal experience. Read Melissa Lucashenko’s critical essay associated with this unit, ‘Identity and Exile in Swallow the Air’  in relation to this idea.

Exploring the concept of journey through other texts

Students identify and read, listen to or view two other texts of own their choosing about journeys. Try to include texts that represent different types of journeys: physical, intellectual, imaginative or spiritual. Students might choose from any of the following: film, television drama or documentary, website, radio program, play, poem, short story or speech.

There may be some value in brainstorming some possibilities of texts of their own choosing with students. Because the journey has been studied as a theme or concept in different jurisdictions over recent years, there are several sites that provide examples of texts about journeys. Search for ‘journeys related texts’. Always take the time to vet and update these lists to ensure that students choose texts which are accessible but challenging, relevant and engaging.

Analyse each text using the six-step guide provided in the Initial Response section of unit, under the heading ‘Personal response on reading the text’. Students present one of their texts to the class using the same approach outlined above.


Evaluation of the text

Read a range of reviews of Swallow the Air (see the ‘More digital resources’ section at bottom of the unit for examples). Note how the reviews are structured and the kinds of language they typically use. This can be done by dividing the class into groups and assigning one review to each group to work on and then share with the class to build up a pattern. As a class complete the table below.

Review 1 Review 2
Where is the review located?
Who is the audience for the review?
What is said about the author?
What does the review value in the novel?
What does the review criticise?
Find a comment on plot
Find a comment on character
Find a comment on writing style
Find a comment on setting
Find a comment on theme
Anything else the review says that is
interesting or strikes a cord with you?
How is the review structured paragraph
by paragraph e.g. author; plot; character etc

Synthesising task

Students then write their own review of Swallow the Air, focusing not just on the ideas presented through the text, but also the degree to which Winch is successful in communicating those ideas. Students should organise their ideas to be effective.

Synthesising core ideas


Topic: Is this an Australian story or is it universal?

Take sides in the class and mount an argument for each case using evidence from the novel and the learning throughout this unit.

Concept map and essay

Ask students to write down in five or six points what they have learned about journeys in this unit. Read aloud and discuss, perhaps in groups, then give students the opportunity to refine their points. Use these points as the start of a personal concept map. Students may want to incorporate ideas from their earlier concept maps, but it is likely that some of these earlier points would be further developed and some new points added.

Around these points add notes showing how these ideas are reflected in any texts that have been studied. Particularly useful are texts that demonstrate different perspectives in relation to these ideas. Ensure that Swallow the Air relates to a few of the points, if not all. Other texts can also relate to more than one point.

Then add a further ring of notes identifying the main techniques used by the composers of these texts to represent their ideas about journeys. Ensure that for each technique, there is an example and a brief note about the effect of the technique. This embryonic concept map may help to get you started.

Students could use an A3 sheet for their concept maps. Alternatively, they could use mind-mapping software, such as the freely available FreeMind software or the Inspiration 9 software which is available for a free 30 day trial.

Students use personal concept maps to help write an extended response to an essay question: How do creators show us the power of journeys in transforming lives? In their answer, students should refer to Swallow the Air and one other text of their own choosing.

Students should plan and draft their responses, receiving feedback from their teacher or other students before proceeding to writing final copies. After students submit responses for formal evaluation, there should be opportunities to examine model annotated responses, written by the teacher or students, and to use feedback to make further improvements to their own essays.


Rich assessment task

Imaginative writing and representing task: Journey – the power to transform a person’s life

So far in this unit students have explored the concept of the journey in Swallow the Airand other texts, including the ways in which composers represent this concept in their texts. Students have written an essay about the power of journeys to transform lives, with reference to Swallow the Air and another text. They have also practised imaginative writing based on a personal experience of a journey, experimenting with different ways of telling the story.

These activities have prepared students for the following assessment task. Students, your task is to:

1.  Plan, draft, edit and publish your own original piece of writing in which you explore the power of a journey to transform a person’s life.

You may choose to write in one of the following forms:

  • a feature article
  • a short story
  • a play script
  • a film script.

Imagine a particular context in which you are writing. What is your purpose as a writer? For what audience are you writing? Write about 1,000 words (no less than 800, no more than 1,200 words). Give your writing an appropriate title.

2.  Present an appropriate graphic with your writing.

Some suggestions:

  • a page from a storyboard for the film script
  • some photographs from the ‘play’ in performance
  • an illustration for the short story
  • a conceptual graphic for the feature article.

The graphic may be a manipulation of computer-generated images or may be an entirely original creation in any appropriate medium.

3.  Write a reflection statement discussing and explaining your choices in your writing and visual representation.

Discuss and explain the ways in which you have chosen to show the power of a journey to transform a person’s life in your writing and graphic. In your discussion and explanation, refer to the context in which your text was created, as well as your purpose and intended audience. Write no more than 250 words.