Introductory activities

Pre-reading activity: connecting with the world of teenagers

Provide students with the following provocations:

  • Good habits formed at youth make all the difference. (Aristotle)
  • Young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because youth is sweet and they are growing. (Aristotle)
  • In the time it takes you to understand a 14-year-old, he turns 15. (Robert Brault)
  • Live your life like you are 80 years old looking back on your teenage years. (Taylor Swift)
  • The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another. (Quentin Crisp)
  • I want people to know that it’s OK to have feelings; it’s OK to be vulnerable. That no matter where they live around the world, teenagers all go through the same things. (Khalid)

Ask students to select a statement that best aligns with their views of being a teenager. They should provide an explanation of their position, using examples from their own world as part of their response.

Analysing assumptions

Ask students to swap their responses with one of their peers. Provide the following questions to guide each student’s written analysis of the underlying assumptions evident in the provocation and their peer’s response:

  • What beliefs about being a teenager are evident in the quote, and in the student response to the quotation?
  • What assumptions are there about being young (and old)?
  • In what ways might an adult interpret the quote and student response differently? Account for the similarities and differences in these views.

Once these written analyses are completed, ask students to discuss their response with their partner before returning their work. This provides each student with an opportunity to challenge and/or build on their original thinking.

Alternative perspectives

The above quotations and student responses demonstrate how personal experiences and values shape positions about what it is like to be a teenager. As personal responses, they may be characterised as emotive and biased.

The next activity asks students to compare these responses to a nonfiction text that presents what might be considered an objective, fact-based perspective of teenager life.

Since 2010, the Australian Government has provided a report regarding the status of children and young people in Australia. The report covers key issues and challenges facing children and young people and provides statistical information on the physical, emotional, educational and financial aspects of their lives. Provide students with a copy of the key findings (or a section of the key findings) from the latest Australian government annual report of The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Students should locate the following textual features in the text and write the page number on which they are found:

  • lists
  • tabular information
  • images
  • use of references
  • use of graphs
  • infographics
  • numerical information

Use the following tasks to check for understanding:

  • What is the proportion of text to graphics? How do the text and graphics interact with each other?
  • Provide evidence of how the text demonstrates the following:
    • an authoritative voice (consider the use of statistics, use of technical language)
    • an objective point of view (consider the absence of personal pronouns or a clear subject)
    • an accessible text (consider the bullet points, headings, images to support key messages)
  • In what ways does the text challenge and/or confirm their experience of being a teenager?

Ask students to return to their response from the previous activity. Amend the response to reflect their expanded view of the teenage experience as generated by the nonfiction report from the Australian Government.

Summing up

  • If you were using this report as research for writing a novel about a teenager, what issues do you think you would focus on?
  • What other ideas do you get from this report on what to write about?

(ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACELT1639)

Comparing book covers

There is a range of book covers that have been used for The Simple Gift. Divide the students into four groups and assign each group a particular cover. Students will work together in their group to analyse their book cover using the analysis matrix in the book cover table (PDF, 285KB).

The teacher then creates new groups made up of representatives from each of the previous groups, and the representatives share their analysis. As students listen to the different analyses, they take notes in their table so that once each person has presented their interpretations, everyone has a detailed analysis of each of the covers.

Individually, students then respond to the following questions:

  • In determining the similarities across all the book covers, what can be predicted about the contents of the text?
  • Based on the prediction above, what might the ‘simple gift’ be?
  • What issues about teenagers might the book centre on? You might consider other reports you have read or heard.
  • Which cover is most likely to make you want to read the text? Explain your choice by comparing and contrasting your preferred text with the alternatives.

(ACEEN021)   (ACELA1572) 

Personal response on reading the text

Introduce The Simple Gift by reading the first poem ‘Champagne’ aloud to the students. Before completing a second reading, ask students the following questions:

  • What can you infer about the relationship between Billy and his father?
  • In what ways does Billy’s relationship with his father seem typical or different to that of most teenagers?
  • What title would you give this poem?
  • What can you predict about the future of Billy’s journey from this moment?

Synthesising task

Reflecting on Billy’s experience in the opening poem, the quotations used in the provocations, the key findings from The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children report, their own experiences and those of their friends, students compose a blog post exploring the question:

  • What are the challenges facing teenagers in Australia today?

Provide opportunities to post this blog on a class website or other learning platform accompanied by relevant images and/or multimedia elements.
(ACEEN029)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN040)   (ACELY1756)

Understanding the text in depth

Verse novels

The aim of this section is to show students how important the decision of dividing a line can be. They need to be aware that:

  • Prose is the use of complete sentences to form a continuous text that may be broken into paragraphs.
  • Poetry is a compressed form, characterised by short lines made up of incomplete sentences, fragments, images, often single-word lines that are concise and convey a strong mood.
  • The verse novel sits in between the two, dividing prose into poetry.

The following (using the last sentence in the verse novel) shows how Herrick has divided his prose into poetry.

Prose Poetry
I watched until he was out of sight and I looked up into the sky, the deep blue sky that Bill and I shared. I watched until he
was out of sight
and I looked up
into the sky,
the deep blue sky
that Bill and I shared.

The sentence could have been divided elsewhere – perhaps:

watched until
was out of sight.

Each decision to divide a line emphasises a different idea. In the last example, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘he’ are emphasised and contrasted: one character watches till the other is ‘out of sight’. At the end of this novel the characters separate and take different pathways in their lives, so this line division confirms the story, but Herrick’s divided lines above suggest a greater closeness between the characters rather than a loss of contact.

What students realise from this is that verse novel lines are not arbitrarily determined: every decision makes an impact.

Line break activity

Give students a prose version of some poetry (either a few lines or a whole poem) from the book. They can work in pairs or separately to divide the prose into poetry. They need to justify their decisions on line breaks. They can then go back to the book to see what Herrick decided and to determine why he did this.
(ACEEN024)   (ACELT1641)

Reading and engaging with the text

Select an appropriate method for students to engage with the poems. This may include taking turns to read each poem, reading the poems to themselves, or listening to the poems being read to them.

After each chapter, ask students to respond to the questions about reading and engaging with the text (PDF, 149KB). The questions are organised into two categories: questions that focus on understanding the ideas in the text, and questions/activities that focus on understanding the language choices in the text. Provide feedback on the responses through peer sharing, group discussion and/or teacher marking.

Chapter debate

Each of the chapters in the text has a name and features a quote from one of the poems in the chapter. The quotes draw attention to a key idea or moment within the chapter. Using the images and quotes worksheet (PDF, 116KB), ask students to assess whether the quote for each chapter is the most appropriate choice. If they disagree, they must provide an alternative quote and justify their choice.

For each chapter, pair students with someone who made the opposite assessment to them. Have the students present their opposing positions in front of the class. Based on the justifications put forward, the rest of the class votes whether the chapter quote changes or stays the same.
(ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN038)   (ACELA1566)   (ACELA1569)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1642)

Dramatic poetry readings

Reading poems aloud involves close reading and interpretation of both the written language and the structural elements of each poem. This act of translating written texts to spoken language for the purpose of performance provides a rich environment for the exploration of language forms and features.

Model annotating one of the poems from the text using this example from the poem ‘Please’ (PDF, 98KB), focusing on elements in the language and structure that will influence the way the poem could be read aloud. Through discussion during the annotation process, ask students to explain the reasons why particular ways of speaking might be used to reflect the written words. Refer to the additional notes on the worksheet as a further extension of the modelling example.

Randomly allocate, or have students select, a poem or series of poems from the text. Encourage them to annotate their poem(s) based on the modelling described above. Depending on the size of the class, students could present their dramatic readings to either small groups or the whole class.

Ask students to select one of the poems presented by another student. Provide students with the following questions to support them in evaluating the dramatic reading of the chosen poem(s):

  • Did the dramatic reading of the poem match your interpretation of the poem? Identify and account for similarities and differences.
  • What techniques did the student use to create a particular tone and mood?
  • How successfully were they able to capture the voice of the character?

(ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN034)   (ACELA1569)   (ACELT1643)   (ACELY1751)

Understanding character 

In this section students will look at how the text reveals character through language. Students need to know that we learn about characters from what they look like, their possessions, what they say, what they do and how they interact with others.

You can divide the class into groups to go through different chapters and select the quotations that show elements of Billy’s character, using the model below. The second column refers to whether we are learning about the character from what they say, their actions or their interactions with others.

Students complete the sheet and use these notes on character to answer the question in a paragraph:

  • What kind of person is Billy? What motivates him?
  • Is the view he has of himself the same or different to the ways others see him? Consider how Ernie (in ‘Keep Warm’), Old Bill and Caitlin talk about him.
Statement What it reveals about the character 
I’m not proud. / I’m sixteen and soon / to be homeless. Billy perceives homelessness as a humble way of being
I’ll miss you dog. Billy loves the dog
Mrs Johnston’s mailbox on the ground / after I took to it with a cricket bat. Billy can be violent
I love this place.
I love the flow of cold clear water.
Billy appreciates the quiet space of nature
I failed every Year 10 subject
except English.

I learnt all I need to know in books on the banks of Westfield Creek, my favourite classroom.

Complete the same activity for Caitlin and Old Bill.

  •  What kind of person is Caitlin? What motivates her? What is Billy’s view of her?
  •  What kind of person is Old Bill? What motivates him? What is Billy’s view of him?

(ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN039)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1642)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)

Point of view and narrators 

An important feature of this verse novel is the use of different voices/narrators who offer different points of view. Explain to students that texts written in first person will offer a clear and specific point of view.

The main narrator is Billy, with Caitlin entering the text in Chapter 3 (entitled ‘Caitlin’), and Old Bill entering in Chapter 4 (‘The hobo hour’). The poem called ‘Keep warm’ is from the point of view of Ernie, the train driver, who speaks with concern to Billy. Given that there is more than one voice, we can test the idea of the narrator’s reliability. Is Billy an unreliable narrator or can we trust his assessment of others?

Students can discuss:

  • What is an unreliable narrator?
  • What statements or attitudes does Billy express that suggest we question his reliability? Is he always correct in his judgements about people? For example: is his father that bad?
  • How does a text allow us to test the narrator’s reliability?

A close reading of Chapter 3, which starts with Caitlin witnessing Billy stealing food, can be compared to Billy’s memory of the incident using the poem called ‘Billy’. The same exploration of point of view through narration can be applied to Chapter 4, which reveals Old Bill’s sensitivity to Billy’s generosity.

These close comparative readings of interactions and thought processes give students more information on the characters and what motivates them.
(ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1642)


In The Simple Gift the physical environment functions in a variety of ways that contributes to how we interpret the characters and their experiences.

  • Libraries are safe havens and a place of learning for Billy
  • McDonalds is a fast-food outlet that is the setting for a blossoming romance
  • The river provides Billy with solace and catharsis
  • The abandoned train carriages symbolise the irony of something abandoned providing a sense of home
  • School is a place of conformity and restriction for both Billy and Caitlin
  • the contrast between Wentworthville and Bendarat symbolises the stark change in Billy’s life circumstances

Students can compile evidence from the text on the impact of different settings on different characters.
(ACEEN035)   (ACEEN039)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)

More on textual form and its features

Divide students into four groups. Allocate each group a focus area in relation to the text’s form and features. Provide students with some guiding information and a question that they must respond to through the development and delivery of a presentation to the class.

As each group presents, the rest of the class prepares notes based on the content. Students are also able to ask clarifying questions to each of the presenting groups.

Free verse

The poems that comprise The Simple Gift are written in free verse, meaning that the text has no strict metre or rhyme scheme. How does this contribute to the way in which we engage with the personas and their experiences?

The verse novel/narrative poetry

The poems in The Simple Gift are organised in a sequence that reads like a fictional novel with chapters. How does this choice influence the reader’s experience of the text? Consider the value of the individual poems as opposed to reading the poems in a chapter as a whole.

The motif of food

Food and meals are frequently featured in this text. Map the references to food and meals against the development of relationships in the text. What patterns and/or observations can be derived from this mapping? How does the motif of food contribute to the thematic concerns of the text?


The language in The Simple Gift is simple and the content unfolds in easy-to-follow sentence structures divided across a few lines of poetry; however, the text communicates complex aspects of the human condition. Draw on some examples from the text that demonstrate the complexity that can be achieved through simplicity of language.

Poetic features

When engaging with poetry, most students would expect to look for similes, metaphors, personification and onomatopoeia. Whilst some of these language devices are evident in the poems, there are also some more unexpected features such as direct quotes and notes. Explore the ways in which Herrick uses various poetic devices to contribute to the unique voices of the three main personas.
(ACEEN022)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN040)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1774)

Synthesising task

An imaginative recreation

Provide students with a list of the poems that capture significant moments in Billy, Caitlin and Old Bill’s journeys. Ask students to imagine one of those moments being recounted from another character’s point of view. Using Herrick’s poetic style, compose the poem, capturing the character’s persona and projecting how they would react to the situation.

Examples include:

  • Billy’s experience of leaving the freight train in ‘Another crossing’ from Ernie’s perspective.
  • Caitlin’s experience of connecting with Billy at McDonald’s in ‘Manners’ and ‘Business’ from Billy’s perspective.
  • Caitlin’s experience of dinner in ‘Stories’ from Old Bill’s perspective.

(ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN033)   (ACEEN034)   (ACELA1569)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELT1643)   (ACELT1644)

Ways of reading the text

The Simple Gift is a pastiche of literary archetypes and narrative structures. There is evidence of elements of:

Have students assess The Simple Gift by examining the ways in which the text adheres to and diverges from these character archetypes and narrative structures.
(ACEEN022)   (ACEEN038)   (ACELT1639)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1774)

Thematic concerns

By entering the world of texts, we are provided with opportunities to empathise with characters and their struggles. It is often the universal relevance of the characters’ experiences that have resonance with us as readers, and provide insight into the human experience.

As a class, brainstorm some of the key ideas dealt with in the text such as:

  • relationships
  • sharing
  • identity
  • security
  • place and belonging

Ask students to select three of the ideas that they feel most strongly about to construct a theme related to their chosen ideas.

Discuss the following terms to clarify their meaning:


A broad, big picture concept that can be easily recognised from reading the text. These are typically expressed as one or two words.


Provides more detail in relation to the idea by expressing a specific thought about it or by highlighting a particular aspect. These are typically expressed as fragments and generally do not include any textual detail.

Message (thematic statement):

A statement that expresses the text’s perspective about the theme. This can often be understood by asking: ‘What do I learn about the theme from reading the text?’

Model the process of moving from an idea to a theme to a thematic statement using the examples in the table below as a guide.

Idea Theme Message/thematic statement
Relationships the transformative nature of relationships Close relationships with others can transform our outlook on life.
Sharing the significance of sharing The act of sharing is important in building relationships of trust and mutual respect.
Place/environment the role of place in one’s sense of identity and security Connection to place provides an individual with a sense of safety and security.
Belonging the desire to belong Human beings have a strong desire to seek out connections with others.
Personal growth overcoming adversity to personal growth The ability to achieve personal growth is directly related to an individual’s ability to overcome adversity.

Of the three statements developed, ask students to select the message that they believe is the most powerful. Have them write this on a slip of paper and put it in a box. Each student selects a slip from the box and uses its message as the starting point for a paragraph unpacking the statement in relation to their reading of The Simple Gift, drawing on evidence from the text to support their claims.
(ACEEN035)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN040)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELT1774)

Synthesising task

Comparisons with other works of literature

Comparing two verse novels

A very different verse novel, written from the perspective of a young Aboriginal girl (and a member of the Stolen Generations), is Sister Heart by Sally Morgan. Students can explore the way the two verse novels present the experiences of young people.

Comparing two texts about teenagers

Another text that can be used for a comparison is The Incredible Here and Now by Felicity Castagna. Set in Western Sydney, this book tells the story of a teenager who is trying to cope with the death of his brother. Students can read the novel and then, working in pairs, compose a visual representation comparing Castagna’s representation of a teenager with that of Herrick in The Simple Gift, focusing on:

  • teenagers
  • typical teenage experiences
  • the relationship between teenagers, family and authority figures

Using the visual representations as a stimulus, students discuss the following question:

  • What conclusions can you draw from your comparisons? Consider:
    • the stereotypes that may be prevalent in the texts
    • the limitations of the composers in their representation of the teenage experience
    • the ways in which the form positions the reader.
Comparing texts about homelessness

Homelessness is an important issue in our society and this verse novel could be part of an independent study on homelessness.

Woolvs in the Sittee, a picture book written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, captures a very bleak picture of a homeless boy and can be compared to the verse novel.

The Oasis is a feature documentary about homelessness and has an accompanying teacher resource: Youth Homelessness Matters.
(ACEEN021)   (ACEEN022)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN029)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN038)   (ACELT1639)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELT1643)   (ACELT1774)   (ACELT1644)   (ACELY1752)

Reflecting on initial responses 

Having read and engaged with the entire text, have students return to their chosen quote/provocation and their responses from the Initial Response section of this resource. Place students into groups according to their chosen quote. Ask each group to discuss the following question:

  • How does your reading of The Simple Gift challenge, transform or build on your understanding of the teenage experience as captured in your chosen quote?

Rich assessment task (receptive mode):

Steven Herrick’s notes on The Simple Gift contain answers to questions the author typically receives in relation to his text. Show students his answer to the first question on the webpage (‘Why did you write The Simple Gift?‘).

Then, pose the following question to students: Do you believe that Herrick effectively achieves his purpose in writing The Simple Gift as outlined in his response?

Have students compose an extended critical response in which they:

  • establish and maintain a clear position in relation to the question
  • provide examples from the text that support their position
  • draw on their understanding of language forms and features to explain their chosen examples

As a class, determine a rubric for evaluating the effectiveness of the composition based on the three dot points above. Students swap their work with a peer who provides feedback using the rubric.

Students use this feedback to improve the quality of their first draft.
(ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN029)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)   (ACELA1569)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELT1642)   (ACELT1643)   (ACELT1774)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)   (ACELY1756)

Rich assessment task (productive mode):

Provide students with the following scenario: Imagine that The Simple Gift is going to be made into a telemovie. You have been asked to pitch your team’s vision for the telemovie. Prepare for the pitch by completing the following activities:

  • Provide a rationale for why the text should be made into a telemovie.
  • The target audience includes both teenagers and adults. Indicate the intended outcomes of each audience’s engagement with this telemovie. Highlight the values and attitudes you wish to promote in the audience.
  • Propose a soundtrack for the telemovie. Make sure to include a song for the opening sequence, the closing credits and two key scenes of your choosing. Justify the selections.
  • Determine a cast for the telemovie, providing reasons why certain actors have been chosen to fulfil the roles.

(ACEEN022)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)  (ACELA1566)   (ACELA1572)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELT1642)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1751)   (ACELY1756)