Investigate the context of the author and the students:
- What experiences of travel within Australia have the students or their families already had? Source a full-sized map of Australia e.g. from Google maps, which has interactive capacity to chart where the students have already been. Discuss reasons for travel e.g. ‘grey nomads’, backpackers, gap-year experiences.
- Read and discuss the Doris Lessing epigraph to the book. Ask the students: What literary and symbolic associations are there with the desert? There are very long literary associations with the desert/the wilderness dating right back to the Bible and other religious texts. Read the account of John the Baptist and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:4–12) and discuss the symbolism of this account. What other connections can the students make with this kind of purging?
- Many schools offer Outdoor Education experiences of camping/hiking in wilderness areas. If students have had such experience, discussion of this could be enriching to build insight into Davidson’s motivations.
- Discuss the difference between a traveller and a tourist (p. 126).
Investigate the context of the text:
- Davidson’s book was first published in 1980; her trek took place in 1977 after two years based in Alice Springs in preparation for the journey. She was only in her mid-twenties when she embarked on her journey. Outback Australia in the mid-1970s was (and still is) a very different world to modern, urban Australian life. Students need to research the period and context in order to understand some of the obstacles that she faced, including prejudice both against women and against Indigenous Australians (about which she writes in the book). In groups, assign students topics such as politics, significant events, attitudes to women, Aboriginal Australia, Outback Australia and set them to find images from 1970s advertising, fashion and historical websites to create context collages. In groups, students use their images to present a visual representation of their research, which they explain to the class. If they have already read the text once, this can be enriched with key quotations to link the context with their reading.
Explore the title of the text:
- Before reading the memoir, students are to brainstorm possible meanings of the title. Are ‘tracks’ what we leave behind or what we follow? What happens when you ‘leave the (beaten) track’?
- Among the possible meanings, consider the idea of making tracks, both literally and metaphorically. Ask students to write about and share a personal experience of making their own tracks, capturing thoughts and feelings before, during and after the experience. As a class, discuss why people value such experiences.
- Examine the photographs reproduced in the middle of the text and discuss students’ expectations of what the memoir will be about.
Personal response on reading the text
Activity 1: First person narration and writer’s ‘voice’
Davidson’s memoir beginning: ‘I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes,’ is written in the first person, in a lively and engaging voice that appears to be telling us the truth. It has a similar effect as movies that begin with: ‘Based on a real story,’ e.g. The Imitation Game (2014). However, even in a book like this marketed as ‘Non-fiction’, we should be wary as readers that we may not be hearing the whole truth. This becomes even more complicated when a film is later made of the book, as is the case with Tracks. Both are perhaps versions of the truth but there will remain some elements of doubt and there are acts of interpretation involved in any act of creation.
Students read and annotate the opening chapter of Tracks. Using different colours, they should highlight:
- Personal pronouns
- Simple sentences
- Compound sentences
- Metaphors, similes and figurative language
- Australian turns of phrase/slang
Using at least three of the above stylistic choices, ask students to write two paragraphs about how Davidson’s voice affects them as readers and characterises her for them.
(ACELA1567) (ACELA1569) (EN5-3B)
Activity 2: Autobiography/Memoir
There is a fine line between these two definitions. Strictly speaking, an autobiography is the account of a full life, while a memoir is a collection of memories from a more limited period of time, from the French mémoire – this is how the term is usually used for the literary non-fiction genre into which Tracks fits. While this style of writing is usually highly engaging and very personal, we need to be careful as readers to understand and think about how we read memoirs.
Students write an account based on a childhood memory. This should be written out of class so that they have time to talk about the incident with others who were there, especially any adults who were around at the time. They should choose a memory that they are willing to share in class, but they should write about it in such a way as to be engaging – funny, moving or dramatic – and can be enjoyed and understood even by those who weren’t present. They should aim to write a short piece; no more than 300–400 words.
Students share their stories in pairs. Then they provide feedback to their partner to explain the effect of the story – was it humorous? Heartbreaking? Dramatic? Who was the hero of the story? This should lead to a full class discussion about the concerns of memoir-writing around the following questions:
- What is memory?
- What is truth?
- What are facts?
- How does the language a writer chooses to use influence how the writer presents truth, fact and reality?
(ACELA1567) (ACELA1569) (ACELA1571) (EN5-3B)
Outline of key elements of the text
- Ask students to annotate the map at the beginning of the book with page numbers of key events described throughout the book. Alternatively, a large version of this map could be on the classroom wall, with each student contributing to the annotations to make a collective map of Davidson’s story.
- Create a class wiki where students can share insights, respond to prompts and ask questions.
- Davidson is quite deliberately vague about exact dates but it is possible to make educated guesses about when her story took place, based on close reading. In the Postscript, she says the book was written two years after the events and it was first published in 1980. Ask students to construct a timeline of events, perhaps in pairs.
- The main character is obviously Robyn herself, but one critic of the movie described the camels as the real stars! How are the camels characterised? Ask students to write profiles of each camel, perhaps to imagine them as human – what might they look like? What might they say? Students could write a conversation between the camels about one of the events described in the book – what might the camels say about Robyn if they could speak? Would each camel have a different opinion?
- Ask students to construct a social media page for Robyn. Include photographs, favourite music, lines of poetry and daily updates of her journey through the desert. Students could use quotations from the book to deepen and enrich their presentation. This is a great way to demonstrate their understanding of the spiritual and emotional journey she completes, as well as her maturation – they should try to demonstrate the ways in which she changes through the course of the story.
- Who is/are the antagonist(s) of Davidson’s story? This is a complex question: she encounters a number of obstacles, not all of which are human. Students could consider the role and characterisation of Kurt, Rick, Bub, and even the desert itself at times.
At its simplest, Tracks is a story about travel, but it also raises ideas about Australia and a particular time and place in the Australian psyche as well. Other key ideas that emerge from Tracks include the following:
- Identity and self-knowledge
- Women’s rights
- Aboriginal identity
This is far from an exhaustive list – teachers should feel free to add to this. Ask students to identify five or six key ideas and trace their development through the memoir, making statements about the theme and collecting quotations that relate to each theme from each of the four sections, with analysis of how each example develops and deepens their ideas about the theme. Below is a table that students might use to develop their ideas about each theme:
|Initial statement about a theme||When was the first moment you realised this?||Specific examples from the text to support this||What is your reaction to the idea the text is communicating?||Do you accept it or challenge it?||What do you think is the final position of the text on this idea?|
There may be students who have already seen the film; if so, please direct them to the second activity.
Task One: Imagine that you are making a film of Tracks. Choose a key episode to storyboard in no fewer than ten images. Use your knowledge of camera angles, editing and sound effects to inform your interpretation. You may also cast your film and provide a script for your scene, if you wish.
Task Two: Look up the original National Geographic images and article by Rick Smolans. Write a review of Tracks with a focus on the question ‘What is true?’, comparing Davidson’s 1980 account with Smolans’ more recent recollections.
(ACELA1565) (ACELT1644) (ACELT1815) (EN5-7D) (EN5-6C) (EN5-3B)
The writer’s craft
The shape and structure of the story
The book is divided into four sections. A postscript has been added as a fifth section to the recent edition, published as a tie-in to the release of the movie (2013). Using a jigsaw approach, divide the students into four groups. Each group assumes responsibility for one section of the memoir (not including the Postscript). They prepare the following material outside class time, about which they become the experts, which they then teach to the others in four new groups.
- A brief (no more than two sentences) summary of the events of this section.
- Structure. What is the significance of this section? Why are these events confined to this section?
- Approach to characterisation. How is Robyn characterised in this section? What does she learn? How does she change/develop from earlier parts of the book? What other characters are introduced and how do they develop? Who is the antagonist of this section? Explain why you think this.
- Setting. How are time and place described and how does the time and place of this section help to shape the story?
- Use of parallels and contrasts. What links can you draw with other parts of the book? What juxtapositions do you notice?
- Point of view. Since this is a first person narrative, there is only Robyn’s point of view. How and where does the narrative point of view of the character (Robyn) differ from the point of view of the writer (Davidson)?
- Voice and tone. Identify moments where the narrative tone shifts and discuss the significance of this.
- Language and style. Identify two or three language features (e.g. figurative language, Australianisms, use of dialogue) and discuss the effect of their use.
Each section should be fully supported with detailed reference to the text i.e. at least three quotations per bullet point. Quotations should be no longer than one sentence. The purpose of this is to provide and model close reading for the whole class, so that when they come to write an essay, they are well prepared with textual details. Note: Done well, this activity should take at least two to three hours of class time.
Alternatively, if class size makes numbers unwieldy for a jigsaw activity, similar preparation can be used for a Socratic Seminar. Ask the students to prepare their section using the above questions for homework. Divide the class into four and allocate the four sections accordingly, then allow the students to pair up within the section. Each pair must prepare one higher order thinking question to ask the circle. Set up the classroom furniture into two concentric circles, with three-quarters of the class around the outside circle and one quarter sitting on the inside. Each group of students takes it in turn to sit in the centre circle and ask their questions. Ideally, they should interact for 15–20 minutes, while the outer circle listens and takes notes of the discussion. Allow ten minutes at the end for questions from the outer circle and further discussion. See here for a Socratic Seminar in practice if you are unfamiliar with this critical thinking technique.
(ACELA1566) (ACELT1639) (ACELT1642) (ACELT1643) (EN5-7D) (EN5-8D) (EN5-2A) (EN5-3B)
Text and meaning
Reading the book in the light of its ending: The Postscript.
The Postscript is a later addition, written for the 2012 edition of the memoir. On page 255 Davidson writes, ‘The past caves away and dissolves behind us, leaving a few clues with which we try to reconstruct it. Hopeless task. History lives in the present.’
Ask students to re-read this short section (pp. 255–261) and annotate five key quotations that illuminate themes they identified previously (using the table provided in Section 2: Personal Response). Use a Pair-Share activity for a quick discussion, then invite each pair to contribute to a wider class discussion. Questions to ask could include:
- What does Davidson mean when she says that Robyn ‘isn’t me’?
- How does this Postscript illuminate your understanding of the question, ‘What is memory’?
- Does it matter why Davidson made her trek across the desert? Do we need to understand her motives in order to understand her journey?
- How does ‘history [live] in the present’?
- Davidson thinks that her journey ‘absolutely’ could not be taken now. Do you agree with her? Why/Why not?
(ACELA1565) (ACELT1643) (ACELY1754) (EN5-7D) (EN5-3B) (EN5-2A)
Creative text response – prompt suggestions
Students respond to the prompt by writing an imaginative, persuasive or expository piece that explores the ideas in the prompt and the text studied.
Ways of reading the text
Tracks as a feminist text
Davidson’s journey across the desert as a young woman in 1977 can easily be read as a story of women’s rights, although Davidson herself appears to be uncomfortable with this reading when it is suggested to her in interviews. There are a number of digital resources available, some of which are more academic than others. The first, Exploring Tracks: Writing and Living Desert Space, is for teachers’ use only. For students see also: Making Tracks: Robyn Davidson’s Australian camel trip on the big screen and ABC TV – Talkingheads with Robyn Davidson 2008. The Additional Resources section of this unit also lists a broad range of useful interviews and reviews.
Questions to consider:
- What examples of sexism does Robyn encounter in Tracks?
- How does she overcome or deal with this issue? Are there times when she doesn’t?
- How does her language, in particular about Kurt and Rick, shape readers’ responses to the men’s behaviour? What might be the men’s perspective of these incidents?
- How does Tracks challenge stereotypes about women and their capabilities?
- How much do you think times have changed? Do you agree/disagree with her? Explain why.
(ACELA1565) (ACELT1639) (ACELT1642) (EN5-7D) (EN5-8D) (EN5-2A)
Comparison with other texts
There are several interviews with Davidson about the making of the film, both in print and in video format. One that is recommended is with Stefan Pape from HeyUGuys.
Show the clip to the class and ask students to do a RIQ: Recall 3 Facts; formulate 2 Insights and ask 1 Question. In pairs, students interview their partners and then share with the class as a whole. Questions to consider include:
- Why might the film be different from the book?
- What could be difficult for a writer to see a film of her work?
- Why does Davidson say this was not difficult for her? What does she seem to understand?
Ask students to complete the following table to record their initial impressions. It may be worthwhile to review the language of film and to provide students with any new definitions of terms that are not familiar.
|Identify the scene e.g. The Opening; Alice Springs, etc.||What has been added to the story?||What has been omitted?||What changes do you notice?||How does the mise en scène work to tell the story?||How do music and sound effects work to tell the story?|
Questions to consider:
- How successful is the casting of Mia Wasikowska as Robyn? Explain your answer.
- What are the most significant changes to the original text in the film? Why do you think these changes were made?
- Closely examine three key scenes of your choice to compare with the same episodes in the book. How does the meaning change when the form changes?
- How was the film received? Read at least three reviews of the film online, then write your own response. Suggested reviews include:
What’s the deal with the desert?
Davidson is not the only writer who has tried to ‘shed burdens’ by disappearing into the wilderness. There is a long tradition of seeking solitude and enlightenment in the desert/the wild, including writers such as Thomas Merton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot, and more recently Chris McCandless, who went into the Alaskan wilderness in 1990, having renounced modern life, where he sadly perished in 1992.
Suggested companion texts for studying Tracks include:
- Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’
- T. S. Eliot’s poetry ‘The Hollow Men’ and sections of The Waste Land
- Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (1996); the film Into the Wild (2007) – the story of Chris McCandless.
Of course, there is also a rich tradition of writing about the Australian Outback – see for example Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson and much Aboriginal writing, including Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (1996).
Students who are interested in this aspect of the story could read and research one of these writers and present their conclusions to the class in the form of a website or a PowerPoint presentation. These wider reading suggestions would also be useful for extension.
Rich assessment tasks
Activity 1: Conduct a debate
See Teacher’s Guide to Introducing Debate in the Classroom if you are unfamiliar with this process.
Divide the class into teams of four or six. The most enriching aspect is for the students to formulate their topics, which should be closely related to the text and be arguable, i.e. there should be an element of opinion in the topic. If they need guidance, some suggestions are given below. Within the larger group, they then form smaller teams of two or three, who are either arguing For (the Affirmative) or Against (the Negative) the topic. They will need some time to prepare their ideas, and it takes between 15 and 30 minutes to run each debate, depending on how well prepared the students are and how familiar they are with this exercise. Assessing each student on their own individual performance is generally more motivating and fairer than providing an overall assessment.
Suggested topics include:
- It is necessary to travel in order to broaden the mind and develop character.
- Robyn Davidson would encounter much the same sexism and racism in Outback Australia if she attempted to make the same journey today as she did in 1977.
- Tracks is only a travel book and does not warrant the label ‘literary nonfiction’.
- The film Tracks made in 2012 was a wasted opportunity.
- Deserts are boring.
(ACELA1571) (ACELT1815) (ACELY1750) (ACELY1751) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1813) (EN5-3B) (EN5-1A) (EN5-2A)
Activity 2: Conduct an interview
In pairs, students imagine that they have the opportunity to interview either Robyn Davidson or the director of the film, John Curran. They prepare and write a script, which they can then perform to the class if an oral assessment is required. Alternatively, the written script can be assessed.
(ACELT1815) (ACELY1750) (ACELY1751) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1757) (EN5-3B) (EN5-1A) (EN5-2A)
Synthesise core ideas
Many schools value and sign up for service projects, such at the Oaktree Foundation’s Live Below the Line campaign or World Vision’s Forty Hour Famine. The idea of ‘shedding burdens’ and finding freedom with less is one that could be experienced by students if they are interested in supporting such a project and if it fits with the ethos of your school.
In preparation for the assessment task, students should revisit their reading journal/wiki prepared in the Initial response section of this unit. They are encouraged to re-read the text again, possibly for the third time, with the central themes in mind that have been discussed through the course of the unit. Many schools prefer ‘unseen’ essay questions; it is up to the individual teacher in terms of how much guidance is given regarding the essay topic, but it may be useful to direct students to the general theme. Of course, teachers are free to word their own essay questions in light of the direction that class discussion has taken.
Below are some suggested questions that cover character, theme and form.
Rich assessment task
Students write a well-constructed essay using TEEL paragraphs and detailed quotations from the text to argue in response to one of the following questions/statements on the text studied.
Text response essay suggestions:
- ‘Davidson’s account of her trek across the Australian desert is as much about her inner journey as it is about her physical adventure’. Discuss.
- ‘If Tracks has a message at all, it is that one can be awake to the demand for obedience that seems natural simply because it is familiar’ (p. 256). What does Davidson mean by this and how does her memoir explore this idea?
- ‘The memoir as a form presents an unreliable truth’. To what extent does this statement apply to Tracks?
(ACELA1567) (ACELA1568) (ACELA1571) (ACELT1642) (ACELT1644) (ACELT1815) (ACELY1749) (ACELY1752) (ACELY1756) (EN5-3B) (EN5-2A) (EN5-6C) (EN5-8D) (EN5-1A)