Champagne, lunch and horror… writing a learning element

Last year while at the Australian Literacy Educator’s conference in Hobart the idea for a new learning element was born. Inspired by the work that we had presented at the conference and a few glasses of wine, we decided to write a learning element focussing on the genre of Horror Fiction.   So armed with books, movies, ideas and plenty of champagne Rita, Prue, Jess, Jen, Christina,  Anne and I met for lunch at my house.

Our ideas overflowed, you can imagine the noise of six excited women all talking at once about their favourite horror stories, movies and tv shows.   It was Rita,  our mentor and source of wisdom who kept us on track, and we soon started recording our plans on a Learning by Design placemat.  Using this tool helped us to move from unstructured brainstorming into designing the learning.   It helped us to keep  a balance between experiential, conceptual, analytical and applied learning activities.    We decided to use Edgar Alan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell Tale Heart’, the Dr Who episode ‘Blink‘ and Nick Shyamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense” as examples of texts that made use of horror techniques.  We had planned to analyse each text, building towards the students application of their learning in their own design of a horror scene in storyboard format.   At the end of our luncheon,  we felt that we had designed a pretty good learning element.   That night I documented our unit using the CG Learner website.

During term 4, the team taught the learning element for the first time.   Although I wasn’t teaching Year 9, I watched them with interest as they tried the different activities we had planned.  Team meetings and staff room conversations involved ongoing reflections about the unit and how the learning activities were working.   Some activities were added and some adjusted to enhance student understanding.  The students were really engaged in looking at the genre and at the end of the unit they produced some quality work, which reflected their deep understanding of the the genre techniques which had been studied.   In fact, the unit was so successful that we decided to move our Year 9 curriculum around, to place it at the beginning of the year, as a way of getting kids “hooked” into English.

This year I am on the Year 9 team, so I have  finally taught the horror fiction learning element.   Working with two teachers who were teaching it for the second time, we met to revise and improve the learning element.   We decided to change “Blink” to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho“, the horror elements were more obvious to the students, and it helped students to see cultural shifts in what makes people feel fearful over time.   We also included lessons on the historical context of the film, so that students could explore and discuss the social subtexts presented.  Finally, we used the functional grammar of mode, field and tenor to analyse the famous shower scene.   By getting students to think about the mode (or film techniques used), its interplay with the field (the action) they could see how the tenor (influences on the audience) was constructed.   Students were asked to annotate screen shots from the scene, analysing the function of each of these elements.   This strategy deliberately modelled their final assignment, which was to demonstrate their understanding of film techniques by designing a horror scene in a storyboard  format.

As we reach the end of this learning element, even with the students yet to complete their final assignments, I can see how we can improve the unit.   More explicit instruction on the meta language of film techniques would better provide the students with language that supported their analysis of the films and construction of their own scene.   I would also like to analyse the social construct of fear more closely.   Why do certain images and scenarios make us fearful?  How have these changed (or stayed the same) through the ages?     This points to the fact that teaching is a constantly evolving science, one which needs ongoing reflection and adjustment in response to the needs of the students.  We will review this learning element, add to it and adjust it, and next year, when it is taught again, perhaps there will be new changes.

To look at the latest version of our learning element go to the CG Learner website or click here.