Engaging with the text: The Natural Way of Things
The activities presented in this resource are suggestions to generate imaginative responses to The Natural Way of Things. The learning activities also develop students’ understanding of the novel’s central ideas. All activities can be adapted to suit whole class groups, smaller groups or individuals, and all have been designed to be adapted according to a teacher’s preferred style and their teaching context. In a variety of ways students are developing their understanding of the relationship between language, culture and identity as well as creating oral, written and multimodal texts that experiment with literary style.
All activities are based on the presumption that students have read the novel. The interview is almost one hour and twenty minutes long so students are directed to listen to it individually as homework prior to beginning the tasks. The teacher can also replay short sections, relevant to the activities. Time stamps have been provided.
Getting to know the author including:
- personal experiences
This interview focuses in depth on Wood’s prize-winning novel The Natural Way of Things.Wood has given a number of other interviews with The Garret in which she has spoken about her writing process and the significance of being awarded various literary awards. These other interviews and resources for teaching can be found on both The Garret and the Reading Australia websites.
Activity one: Influences, tone and genre
This activity relates to the 1:13:26 mark of the interview.
This introductory activity allows for discussion of the genre, style and tone of The Natural Way of Things as well as an exploration of Wood’s influences. Towards the end of the discussion, Wood identifies the influence of Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go and the unsettling situation depicted in this text. She also discusses the significance of setting in this text.
The teacher is to select sections of Never Let Me Go to distribute to students, being careful to observe all relevant educational copyright rules in respect to the reproduction of third party material. The teacher may also choose to read these sections aloud. The purpose is to make comparisons with other writers and texts as well as emphasise the generic features of speculative fiction.
The teacher may select sections from other writers using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas, including Elizabeth Harrower’s novel The Watch Tower and Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, as these are works which are discussed in the interview.
Students are to use different coloured highlighters to identify:
- narrative voice
- aspects which are recognisable
- aspects which are unsettling or strange.
Once students have completed their individual analyses, they share their observations, which the teacher records on the whiteboard or in a projected word document.
By comparing the opening paragraphs of these texts, students can be introduced to Tom Moylan’s concept of estrangement, which is where the world established in the fiction is both recognisable and strange. In comparing Wood’s work with the work of others, students can be asked to reflect upon the identifiably Australian aspects of the opening paragraphs of The Natural Way of Things. These observations are recorded on the whiteboard or in a projected word document. The benefits of using a word document is that this can be shared with the students, while using the whiteboard relies on students taking their own notes.
Early in the interview (0:05:00) Wood discusses her deliberate attempt to destabilise the reader, in shifts in narrative perspective and tense. (Refer to Activity two below.)
The teacher might choose to formalise this discussion, by presenting students with a PowerPoint on the generic features of speculative fiction, with particular focus on a sense of estrangement, established in the setting (world-building) and narrative perspective.
Unit 2: (ACELR019) (ACELR020) (ACELR022) (ACELR023)
The writer’s craft:
Activity two: Narrative perspective
This activity relates to the 0:2:38 mark of the interview.
The teacher should play a short section of the interview, from 0:2:38 onwards. Once students have listened to Wood’s reflections on narrative perspective, the teacher is to review students’ understanding of the different narrative perspectives open to writers. Students are asked to provide definitions as well as what the strengths and weaknesses of the different voices may be. Examples of different narrative perspectives should be shown and demonstrated by students.
Using the situation established in the opening pages of Wood’s novel, of a character waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, possibly imprisoned, students are asked to write three paragraphs:
- one in first person (I)
- one in second person (you) and
- one in collective first person (we).
Once students have written these three paragraphs, they are asked to share the paragraph they believe to be their most successful with another member of the class.
After this session, students are asked to reflect on the differences in voice. Which of the narrative perspectives do they find to be the most unsettling? What do they think about Wood’s observations of the usefulness of third person as well as the importance of third person in establishing tone?
Note: Students are directed to keep all drafts and beginnings of pieces of writing.
Activity three: Characters (Option one)
This activity relates to the 0:032:36 mark of the interview.
There is a long discussion about the construction of not only the central characters but also as to how Wood developed the minor or secondary characters. Wood has developed her central characters to represent the focal ideas of misogyny, the female body and ‘Otherness’.
Having listened to the relevant section of the podcast, students are asked to imagine moments of happiness for one of the minor characters (a character who is not Verla or Yolanda).
To develop these characters as realistic ones, Wood had to consider the back stories for all of them, not only the traumatic transgression, but also the happy memories and moments.
Students are given pieces of brightly coloured (yellow, orange, red) paper to write down things that make them happy or hopeful. The instruction is given that these will be displayed, anonymously, around the classroom. Students are then able to attribute, develop and write real moments of happiness, attributed to one of the secondary characters.
The teacher can decide whether they will provide further instructions, for example whether the happy memory is written in the past or present tense (refer to Wood’s discussion of tense) or whether it is written from the third-person perspective.
Unit 2: (ACELR023) (ACELR031) (ACELR032) (ACELR033)
Activity three: Characters (Option two)
This activity relates to the 0:038:32 mark of the interview.
Instead of a written imaginative response, students may choose to assemble a photo essay of a character’s possessions juxtaposed with images from contemporary media, particularly fashion and cosmetic advertising. Wood’s characters represent and explore the ways in which young women in particular are defined by and in many ways imprisoned by their possessions. Using open source or Creative Commons’ images, or photos/video that students take themselves, students craft a series of images that explore gender expectations, consumerism and the environmental impact of this consumerism. The video narrated by Cynthia Nixon ‘Be A Lady They Said’ might be shown as an example or a point of discussion.
Note: teachers need to decide whether they would use this video in their class contexts, given the mature content. However, such content is a significant aspect of Wood’s novel and her characters have been formed in response to these cultural attitudes towards gender, particularly misogyny and internalised misogyny. It is possible that teachers might assign the statement: ‘[b]eing alone and being free are better than being part of a toxic culture’ as the focus for the photo/video essay.
Unit 2: (ACELR023) (ACELR031) (ACELR032) (ACELR033)
Activity four: Exploring the central themes
This activity relates to 00:07:56–00:13:53 of the interview.
- parallels and contrasts
- language and style
- meaning in context.
In exploring the novel’s central themes, students are given opportunities to make connections between texts as well as understanding this particular text in a wider context. There are both ancient and contemporary examples of women who are punished for speaking out about what has happened to them.
This learning activity comprises a group research task and an individual piece of writing.
The first part is a quick research activity for students to compare mythological and contemporary examples of women who are punished for speaking out. There are a number of contemporary examples cited in the interview, including the case of the David Jones CEO David Thomas, the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Hay Girls Institution. The examples from mythology might include Artemis, Pandora, Hera and Echo, Aphrodite and Helen of Troy.
Depending on class size, students can work in groups, with these eight focus topics assigned. Students are directed to research with open, inquiry-based questions. What are the key events? How might this example of women being punished for speaking out be connected to Wood’s novel? What other connections can you make with your story, real or mythological, and the characters or events of the novel?
Once each group has acquired an understanding of the myth or contemporary example assigned, these are shared, with notes and observations made about the similarities. Students are directed that this research will inform their imaginative responses.
Wood identifies the ways in which Yolanda becomes more like Artemis, (or the Roman goddess, Diana) the goddess of the wilderness, the hunt, wild animals and fertility. In some ways, Yolanda turns herself into an animal. She becomes a rabbit, a species introduced to Australia and famed for its fertility.
The second part of this activity is a discussion of archetypes and symbols. Wood refers to the warrior, voodoo, goddess, corpse as well as commenting on the significance of hair in women’s identity and sexuality. This is both an idea from the Old Testament (‘Her hair, her crowning glory.’) as well as a feature of fairy tales, such as Rapunzel. (0:035:30) The teacher might decide to extend the comparisons made between contemporary and mythological expectations of gender by introducing fairy tales into the discussion.
- Consider the agency of female characters in fairy tales.
- How is behaviour controlled both in these stories and in the telling/re-telling of these stories?
Wood identifies how she drew on imagery from fairy tales (0:025:38) such as the white horse ridden by a knight in shining armour, and the ways in which these archetypes are absorbed from childhood.
The final part of this activity is writing a piece of flash or micro-fiction. (Teachers may wish to refer to Creating Micro Stories: Small fiction with big impact written by Erika Boas and Emma Jenkins, published by AATE in 2019, for further ideas around teaching micro-stories/flash fiction.)
Students are given a word limit (perhaps 200 words) and the criteria for this piece. The teacher might select:
- the central character is female
- the story must have elements of a fairy tale
- the story must contain:
- a horse
- a doll
- a hunter
- a reflection
- a magic box
- a fence
Activity five: Exploring binaries in the novel
This activity relates to 0:057:19 and onwards of the interview.
In the discussion of various binaries, one that the interview deals with and continues to return to is the distinction between the individual and the collective. Wood refers to the private ownership of detention centres and the nature of their control, while posing the question, ‘Why don’t the women band together to react?’ and by also asking, ‘Why don’t women do that in the real world?’ She makes a number of assertions about the characters in her novel, their central values of individualism and the attempts to view the young women as a group, when what really unifies them is the cultural expectations of their gender.
This activity explores personal values and beliefs as well as the ways in which these beliefs might be shared by others.
Students should listen to ‘Charlie’s Manifesto’ by The Finks and are asked to write their own personal manifesto, using the repeated phrases: ‘I believe…’ and ‘I don’t believe…’
Once students have done this, they should select a statement; a belief that they are prepared to reveal to other members of the class. For example, in the personal manifesto they may have written: ‘I believe that old friends make the best friends.’ They are asked to find someone else who shares this value. Do they have to modify or make this line of their personal manifesto more general? Perhaps they have to agree that they value friendships that have endured? These pairs are then instructed to find another pair, and try to form a group of four who are unified by a shared value or belief. Again, the original statement can be modified. Perhaps the four of them value friendship?
Activity six: Structure and the ending
This activity relates to 0:5:16–0.7:23 of the interview.
Having listened to the section of the interview in which Wood discusses the ending, saying ‘there is no Spring for the girls on the bus’, the teacher guides students through a brainstorm of the four seasons, in particular the ideas and images associated with these seasons. Wood’s novel is structured around three seasons, without Spring. Students are asked to reflect on the question posed in the interview. Which characters in the novel have a Spring? They are also asked about the open-ended nature of the novel’s resolution and whether this ending suggests hope.
While listening to the Spring movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, students are to write about this season. Teachers are to decide whether this piece of writing is dependent authorship (with students writing an alternate ending or a ‘Spring’ for the characters of the novel) or whether it is a less directed piece, which explores the ideas discussed in earlier whole class discussion.
Rich assessment task
While completing the activities, students have begun a number of pieces of imaginative writing, some connected to the novel thematically and some which have a greater reliance on the novel (using the characters or situation created by Wood.)
Students are to select one of these initial drafts, the one that they feel has the most potential. They are reminded of Wood’s claim that writers ‘follow the live material’ (0:011:26). They are then to develop an extended and refined piece of writing for assessment that has two parts:
- an imaginative response, and
- a reflective statement, in which students identify and justify the connections they have made between Wood’s writing and their own.