This unit of work was created in partnership with The Garret and accompanies their interview with Don Watson. Please click here to access the Interview, Bibliography, Show notes and Transcript, and Author profile.
The following activities and tasks have been designed to be studied and used in full or in part, depending on teacher and student contexts. The activities have been formulated for use with a whole class or small groups; particular groupings being left up to the teacher’s discretion. All activities can be adapted to suit smaller groups or individual students. Activities are linked to particular sections of Don Watson’s interview, with the relevant portion of the podcast noted at the beginning of the activity. Other activities build upon and engage with the issues raised in the interview itself.
Getting to know the author, including:
- cultural background
- family, family history and relationships
- personal experiences
Activity one: The boy from the Bush
This activity relates to 1.08 mins–4.02 mins of the interview.
Don Watson grew up on a dairy farm in rural Victoria. He says that apart from the Bible the only book that he read in childhood was Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection which coincidentally is about a family on a farm on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland. On Our Selection takes a comic look at life on a farm and students should read at least one of the stories from the book to appreciate what Don Watson found appealing in it. A short video clip, featuring songs from a film based on the book would also provide an amusing insight into rural life on a selection (meaning a small farm or a block of land acquired under the Australian system of free selection).
It would also be informative for students to research something of the history of the selections which was an attempt by governments from the 1860s onwards to break up some of the large pastoral holdings to create smaller family-owned farms.
- Don Watson references the Coen brothers, American film makers, who say that all stories must be minutely local. (Their film Fargo is set in a very specific locale in the American state of Minnesota.) Ask students if they think that the stories in On Our Selection are identifiably local.
- On Our Selection could be seen as part of the ‘myth’ of the bush. (Here ‘myth’ means those stories that we tell ourselves about our past, present and future. They contain some element of fact but have been embellished over time to achieve ideological purposes.) Ask students to recall and discuss such classics of the bush as Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife or Banjo Paterson’s poem The Man from Snowy River. (Note that a unit based on an anthology of Lawson’s work, While the Billy Boils, is in the secondary section of the Reading Australia website.) Given that the subtitle of Don Watson’s The Bush is ‘travels in the heart of Australia’, presumably he subscribes to the ‘myth’ of the bush.
The Bush myth is a celebratory one, acknowledging the achievements of the white pioneers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, there is another side to the myth, the treatment of the Aboriginal people who were already living on the land, and this part of the myth is usually silenced.
Read and annotate Judith Wright’s poem ‘At Cooloola’ (go to page 3 of the paper to see the full text) in which she reflects on her alienation, as a descendant of white pioneers, from the land, its creatures and its deep history. Use the annotations to write a short response to the poem.
(ACELR037) (ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR040) (ACELR041) (ACELR042) (ACELR045) (ACELR046)
The writer’s journey, including:
- development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
- themes, issues and motivations.
Activity two: Writing history
This activity relates to 5.10 mins–10.50 mins of the interview.
The interviewer makes a distinction between fiction and writing non-fiction. However, this distinction does not hold for long. Don Watson tells anecdotes of how library assistants would bring him the wrong documents for his research and Nic Brasch (the interviewer) then raises the issue of how Watson filled in the gaps in his research. Watson admits that his approach to writing history, which he describes as ‘discursive’ and not entirely focused or factual, would not suit academic historians. Rather he says that he allows his material to lead him where it will. He uses metaphors drawn from music (‘the right key’) and driving a car (‘driving with wheels off the bitumen’) to explain how he knows when his writing is successful. Brasch also acknowledges the creative aspect of Watson’s writing of history by saying that a good storyteller like Watson will always earn the trust of his readers.
- Writers of non-fiction sometimes use language devices to embellish their versions of reality. These devices can include:
- inventing dialogue for actual historical characters,
- using figurative language to create a more vivid atmosphere,
- describing settings in detail to create a sense of realism,
- telling events from the point of view of one of the characters,
- using the structure of a narrative built around a conflict to create suspense.
Ask students to browse through history books in the library to see if they can identify the use of any of these devices in historical accounts. Modern texts based on history by popular writers such as David Hill, Peter Fitzsimons and Rob Mundle will provide plenty of relevant examples here.
The Bush (Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 2014) is a recent major text by Don Watson. He says that it has no overall plan, that it goes all over the place ‘like a swagman’, but that as an organising device, each chapter deals with two themes.
- Students are to explore The Bush for its themes and style. They can decide whether Don Watson has achieved his twin goals of both providing ‘a good read’ and giving readers some information.
Students are to research some aspect of their local city or town and then write a short history of this place (about 600 words). Often special buildings, historical inscriptions and statues are useful clues to the past and an interesting tension can be created by contrasting their history with their present meanings.
The writer’s craft, including:
- Point of View
- Language and style
- Meaning in context
Activity three: The art of rhetoric
This activity relates to 21.15 mins–27.05 mins of the interview.
Rhetoric refers to the techniques of persuasive public speaking. It has a very long history, dating back to Greece in the fifth century BCE. It is especially linked to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. (Don Watson says that he thinks that all political speech writers should read Aristotle’s Rhetoric.) Rhetoric has changed over the centuries but it is still designed to convince listeners to agree to a particular point of view or to take a particular course of action.
Don Watson is well known as a political speech writer, especially for Paul Keating, who was the Australian Treasurer (1983–1991) and then Prime Minister (1991–1996). He raises the interesting question of who ultimately ‘owns’ this sort of speech, the writer or the speaker. One of the most famous speeches on which he collaborated with Keating was the Redfern speech in which the Prime Minister acknowledged the historical and on-going depredations committed by whites against the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Speech writing is a mix of hortatory and analytical exposition, designed to appeal to both the ‘heart and soul’ and the ‘mind’ of the listener. Ask students to read and listen to several famous speeches to experience the power of this sort of public speaking.
- One example is Winston Churchill’s ‘Dunkirk’ speech to the British House of Commons on 4 June, 1940;
- Another is Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech delivered in Washington DC in 1963.
As students read or listen to each speech ask them to decide which sections are mainly hortatory (persuading the audience to do something) or mainly analytical (persuading the audience that a situation as outlined is actually the case).
Discuss with students the typical structure of this sort of speech:
- Get the audience’s attention.
- State a theme.
- Suggest a solution.
- Visualise the results.
- Issue a call to action.
Also, identify the language features of these persuasive speeches. Look for some of the following techniques:
- emotive language (an appeal to the emotions);
- figurative language (metaphor, simile, metonymy);
- devices of sound (alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia);
- a tone of confidence or certainty.
Now ask students to read and listen to the Redfern speech and, individually or in small groups, analyse the speech in terms of its text structure and language features.
As an exercise in persuasive public speaking, students should use the findings from their research above (text structure, language features, etc.) to prepare the transcript of a persuasive speech which they can then deliver to the class.
They should choose a contemporary issue about which they feel strongly. Possible topics could include:
- Why Australia should bring refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to live in Australia.
- Why supermarkets must stop using plastic packaging immediately.
- The case for renewable energy.
Students are to write an analytical exposition (argument) on a contemporary issue, using the typical text structure and language features of this text type.
They could use the notes on the example topic of euthanasia (PDF, 126KB) to help them with this task.
Activity four: Positioning an audience
With his interest in the art of rhetoric, Don Watson would undoubtedly be pleased to know that the grammatical resources for persuading audiences are now being taught explicitly in schools.
Knowing how to position an audience to adopt a particular attitude towards, say, an issue, a public figure, an idea, a character in a novel and so on requires writers/speakers to have knowledge of the Appraisal System which is associated with the interpersonal metafunction of Systemic Functional Grammar.
Students can use an Appraisal System framework (PDF, 147KB) for unpacking representations in texts to reveal how readers/listeners have been positioned to adopt a particular attitude to the subject.
This summary of a newspaper article titled ‘Hellcat, 12, locked away’ (PDF, 109KB) and a letter to the editor (PDF, 103KB) responding to the article show how a reader can unpack a text and then respond to the representations made in it.
Students can then also use the grammatical resources of the Appraisal System (PDF, 147KB) to persuade their own readers/listeners.
(ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR042) (ACELR043) (ACELR048) (ACELR050) (ACELR052)
Comparison with other writers and texts:
Activity five: A defence of the English language
This activity relates to 27.10 mins–34.10 mins of the interview.
Don Watson says that he has an abhorrence for what he calls ‘management speak’ or ‘business English’, the sort of English that is used in the mission statements of both public and private organisations. He says that management speak actually has no meaning, that it is language that has no reference or significance in the real world. He gives the examples of words such as ‘access’, ‘equity’, ‘outcomes-based’, ‘going forward’ and so on which are widely used today in business and political discourse.
The interviewer, Nic Brasch, references one of the great political writers of the twentieth century, George Orwell, who also railed against the abuse of the English language.
- Students can read Orwell’s essay on ‘Politics and the English Language’ and then work in pairs or small groups to read and summarise allocated sections of the essay and then report back their findings to the whole class.
- They should also note, at the end of the essay, Orwell’s rules for writing plain English.
- The teacher should inform students that in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell invented a language called ‘Newspeak’, a vastly abbreviated version of English that allowed transaction between characters but did not facilitate abstract thought.
Get a copy of a mission statement from a large corporation or public service department (or even from your own school!).
Analyse it to decide whether it actually conveys a meaning or whether it is just an example of high-flown language meant to impress readers but signifying nothing. Annotate the statement with your observations, noting especially any of Orwell’s own criticisms.
Collect from newspapers, radio and television programs examples of ‘pollie speak’ that politicians use to simplify political debate or simply to obfuscate about what they are planning to do.
Examples would include:
- Clichés: ‘We must live within our means’.
- Three-word slogans: ‘Stop the Boats’; ‘Axe the Tax’; ‘Jobs and Growth’.
Culminating rich assessment task
Students are to use the transcript for a speech that they prepared as a synthesising task in Activity three and develop it into a speech to be delivered to an actual audience.
Download Rich Assessment Task (PDF, 82KB).